Synopsis-writing 101, part VI: la la la la TO ME

All right, I’ll admit it: this isn’t actually a picture of me at a former birthday. Unlike so many dark-eyed adult brunettes, I never was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed mite with pigtails. Also, like other children with autumn birthdays growing up in wine country, my family was usually harvesting a few tons of something on or about my birthday, so my cake tended to be consumed at school, as cupcakes. Oh, and I have always looked terrible in pastels; even as a very small child, I wouldn’t be caught dead in ‘em.

Otherwise, I assure you, this picture is an uncannily accurate reproduction of an annual event in my past.

Yesterday (known to literature-lovers everywhere as Pre-Anne Eve, natch), I gave a few genteel indications of how a 5-page synopsis — still, whatever some writing-advice websites claim, the most common requested length for a novel synopsis — might conceivably differ from a 1-page synopsis.

To be specific, I alleged that the extended synopsis should give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Rather than attempting to cram an in-depth summary of every twist and turn of the book into just a few pages, I suggested that a savvy writer might content herself with showing who the major characters are, what the major conflicts between them are, and illustrating how they played out by describing a few scenes with a wealth of sensual detail.

Or, to cast it in step-by-step terms:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes. (For NF that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point), and

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Let’s talk for a moment about #4, writing the synopsis in roughly the same voice and in the same tone as the novel it summarizes. As I’ve mentioned, a comic novel’s synopsis should contain a few chuckles; an ultra-serious one shouldn’t. A steamy romance’s synopsis should be at least a little bit sexy, a thriller’s a trifle scary, and so forth.

No need to get obsessed with making sure the tone is identical, of course — in the same ballpark will do. You just want to show that you are familiar with the type of writing expected in the type of novel you’ve written and can produce it consistently, even in a relatively dry document.

Why might an agent or editor want you to demonstrate the latter skill? Well, increasingly, authors are expected to promote their own books; it’s not at all uncommon these days for a publishing house to ask the author of a soon-to-be-released book to write a magazine or online article in the book’s voice, for promotional purposes, for instance.

Yes, I know; you want to concentrate on your writing, not its promotion. The muses love you for that impulse. But would you rather that I lied to you about the realities of being a working author?

I thought not.

What you should also not do — but, alas, all too many aspiring writers do — is attempt to replicate the voice of the book by lifting actual sentences from the novel itself. I know that you want to show off your best writing, but trust me, you’re going to want to make up some new verbiage here.

Why, you ask? Hint: people who go into the manuscript-reading business tend to have pretty good memories.

They recall what they’ve read.

See the problem, especially if — as not infrequently happens, especially with contest entries — the chapters containing the lifted verbiage and the synopsis are read back-to-back? A good 30% of contest synopses make this mistake, reproducing entire sentences or even entire paragraphs from the chapters included in the entry, invariably costing the entry originality points.

Do I see some raised hands from those of you who habitually recall what you’ve read? “But Anne,” I hear some of you pointing out, and who could blame you? “Didn’t you tell us just a couple of days ago that it was a grave error to assume that Millicent (the agency screener), Maury (her cousin who works as an editorial assistant), and/or Mehitabel (their aunt, the contest judge) will necessarily read both our synopses and the rest of our submissions?”

Excellent point, sharp-eyed readers. While it’s never safe to assume that EVERYONE who reads your synopsis will also read your opening chapter, it’s also not a very good idea to assume that NO ONE will. Shooting for a happy medium — including enough overlap that someone who read only one of them could follow the plot without indulging in phrase redundancy — tends to work best here.

Should you be tempted to repeat yourself, I implore you to ask this question with all possible speed: “Is there a vibrantly interesting detail that I could insert here instead?”

To over-writers (like, I must admit, myself), it may seem a trifle odd to suggest adding detail to a piece of writing as short as 5 pages, but actually, most synopses suffer from overgrowths of generalization and an insufficiency of specifics.

So once you have a solid draft, read it over and ask yourself: is what I have here honestly a reader-friendly telling of my story or a convincing presentation of my argument (don’t worry, NF writers: I’ll deal with your concerns at length next time), or is it merely a presentation of the premise of the book and a cursory overview of its major themes?

For most synopses, it is the latter.

Do I hear some questions over and above the wailing and gnashing of teeth out there? “But Anne,” a couple of voices crying from the wilderness, “How can I tell the difference between a necessary summary statement and a generalization?”

Again, excellent question. The short answer: it’s hard.

Here’s a useful trick: print up a hard copy of the synopsis, find yourself a highlighting pen, and mark every summary statement about character, 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.

Go back through and take a careful look at these highlighted lines. Then ask yourself for each: would a briefly-described scene SHOW the conclusion stated there better than just TELLING the reader about it? Is there a telling character detail or an interesting plot nuance that might supplement these general statements, making them more interesting to read?

I heard that gasp of recognition out there — yes, campers, the all-pervasive directive to SHOW, DON’T TELL should be applied to synopses as well. Generally speaking, the fewer generalities you can use in a fiction synopsis, the better.

I’ll let those of you into brevity for brevity’s sake in on a little secret: given a choice, specifics are almost always more interesting to a reader than vague 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? And if that unique grabber appeared on page 1 of the synopsis, or even in the first couple of paragraphs, wouldn’t you pay more attention to the rest of the summary?


It’s very easy to forget in the heat of pulling together a synopsis that agency screeners are readers, too, not just decision-makers. They like to be entertained, so the more entertaining you can make your synopsis, the more likely Millicent is to be wowed by it. So are Maury and Mehitabel.

Isn’t it fortunate that you’re a writer with the skills to pull that off?

If your synopsis has the opposite problem and runs long, 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 or argument 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 so — take a deep breath here, please; some writers will find the rest of this paragraph upsetting — do the marked sentences really need to be there at all?

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; the vast majority of synopses spend to long on it. Here’s a startling statistic: in the average novel synopsis, over a quarter of the text deals with premise and character introduction.

Try trimming this down to just a few sentences and moving on to the rest of the plot.

If this seems to you like a dangerous strategy to embrace in what is, after all, a marketing document, think about it: if the agent or editor asked to see Chapter 1 or the first 50 pages, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your submission packet, the reader will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book.

So why be repetitious?

Let me show you how this might play out in practice. Let’s continue this series’ tradition of pretending that you are Jane Austen, pitching SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to an agent at a conference. (Which I suspect would be a pretty tough sell in the current market, actually.)

Let’s further assume that you gave a solid, professional pitch, and the agent is charmed by the story. (Because, no doubt, you were very clever indeed, and did enough solid research before you signed up for your agent appointment to have a pretty fair certainty that this particular agent is habitually charmed by this sort of story.) The agent asks to see a synopsis and the first 50 pages.

See? Advance research really does pay off.

Naturally, you dance home in a terrible rush to get those pages in the mail. As luck would have it, you already have a partially-written synopsis on your computer. In it, the first 50 pages’ worth of action look something like this:

Now, all of this does in fact occur in the first 50 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, at least in my well-worn little paperback addition. However, all of the plot shown above would be in the materials the agent requested, right? Do you really need to spend 2 of your allotted 5 pages on this small a section of the plot, even if it is the set-up for what happens later on?

Of course not. Being a wise Aunt Jane, you would streamline this portion of your submission synopsis so it looked a bit more like this:

And then go on with the rest of the story, of course.

See what space-saving wonders may be wrought by cutting down on the premise-establishing facts? The second synopsis is less than half the length of the first, yet still shows enough detail to show the agent how the submitted 50 pp. feeds into the rest of the book. Well done, Jane!

While all of you novelists are hard at work, trying to perform a similar miracle upon your synopses, next time, I shall be tackling the specialized problems of the nonfiction synopsis. Yes, that’s right: we’re going to have our cake and eat it, too.

Oh, you didn’t honestly believe you’d make it through my birthday without being subjected to another bad cake pun, did you? Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part V: stretching your limbs…well, a little

So far in this series, I’ve been going over prepping a synopsis for tucking inside a query envelope, adding to the partial an agent has requested that you send, plopping into a contest entry, or having at the ready in anticipation for such a request at a pitch meeting. For the last few posts, I’ve been concentrating upon that bane of writers everywhere, the 1-page synopsis, which is essentially a written-down verbal pitch.

The summary part of a pitch, anyway. A 1-page synopsis needs to be a quick, pithy introduction to the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflict of the book.

Piece o’ proverbial cake to do all that within a single page in standard format, right?

By contrast, the 5-page novel synopsis — which, until fairly recently, was far and away the most common requested length, as it still is for those already signed with agents and/or working with editors at publishing houses — should tell the STORY of your book (or state its argument) in as much vivid, eye-catching detail as you may reasonably cram into so few pages.

Why? To make the agent, editor, or contest judge reading it exclaim spontaneously, “Wow — this sounds like one terrific book; this writer is a magnificent storyteller.”

Again, piece of cake, right?

Don’t shrug, please, if you are not yet at the querying stage — as with the author bio, I strongly recommend getting your synopsis ready WELL before you anticipate needing it. Especially if you are intending to query or pitch at a conference anytime soon. As I MAY have mentioned before, you will be SUBSTANTIALLY happier if you walk into any marketing situation with your synopsis already polished, all ready to send out to the first agent or editor who asks for it, rather than running around in a fearful dither after the request, trying to pull your submission packet together.

(Wait — I have nagged you some time in the recent past about prepping an author bio, haven’t I? Off to check the archives…oh, dear; it’s been quite some time. Perhaps, after I polish off this series and take that long-anticipated plunge back into craft for at least a few weeks, I shall take another run at it.)

Even if you think that both of the reasons I have just given are, to put it politely, intended to help lesser mortals not anywhere near as talented than your good self, whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for the very last moments before you stuff a submission or entry into an envelope. That route virtually guarantees uncaught mistakes, even for the most gifted of writers and savviest of self-promoters.

If you take nothing else away from this series, please remember this: writing a synopsis well is hard, even for the most seasoned of pros; be sure to budget adequate time for it.

If the task feels overwhelming — which would certainly be understandable, faced with the daunting task of summarizing a 400-page book in just a few well-written pages — remind yourself that even though it may feel as though you effectively need to reproduce the entire book in condensed format, you actually don’t.

Yes, you read that correctly: even a comparatively long synopsis shouldn’t depict every twist and turn of the plot — just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

Or, to return to our list of goals from a few days back:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes. (For NF that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point), and

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

I sense some squirming from the summary-resistant out there. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “what you’re suggesting sounds a heck of a lot like sitting down and summarizing the book!”

Not really — not if you winnow the story down to its most essential elements, rather than trying to list everything that happens. If you’re having trouble doing that — and at the risk of sounding like your last English literature teacher — set the actual happenings of the novel aside for a moment and think about its themes.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes; most authors are delighted to analyze their own books. Pretend that your book has just been assigned in a college English class — what would you expect the students to be able to say about it on the final?

I’m quite serious about this. Asking yourself the scant handful of questions that would turn up on an exam will help you identify the essentials. A few quiz questions, to get you started:

(a) Who is the protagonist, and why is s/he interesting? (You’d be astonished at how few novel synopses give any clear indication of the latter.) To put it another way, what about this character in this situation is fresh?

(b) What does s/he want more than anything else? What or who is standing in the way of getting it?

(c) Why is getting it so important to her/him? What will happen if s/he doesn’t get it?

(d) How does the protagonist grow and change throughout pursuing this goal? What are the most important turning points in her/his development?

(e) How does the protagonist achieve this goal?

See? Piece of proverbial…wait just a minute! Why, those questions sound a mite familiar, don’t they?

They should: they’re the underlying issues of goals 1-3 and 5-6, above. If you answer them in roughly the same voice as the book, you will have met goal #4, as well — and, almost without noticing it, you will have the basic material for a dandy synopsis.

Piece o’ cake, right?

Don’t, I implore you, make the extremely common mistake of leaving out point #6 — the one that specifies that you should include the ending. Too many aspiring writers do this in a misguided endeavor to goad Millicent the agency screener and her ilk into a frenzy of wonder about what is going to happen next.

“But I want to make them want to read the book!” such strategists invariably claim. “I don’t want to give away the ending. Leaving the synopsis on a cliffhanger will make them ask to see it right away.”

To professional eyes, this is a rookie mistake, at least in a synopsis longer than a page or two.

Why? Well, from their point of view, part of the goal of an extended synopsis, after all, is to demonstrate to someone who presumably hasn’t sat down and read your entire book that you can in fact plot out an entire novel plausibly. Agents and editors regard it as the writer’s job to demonstrate this in an extended synopsis, not theirs to guess how the plot might conceivably come to a halt.

I hate to be the one to break it to you (at least before I’ve helped you all to a slice of cake), but a talented sentence-writer’s possessing the skills, finesse, and tenacity to follow a story to its logical conclusions is not a foregone conclusion. In fact, in practice, the assumption tends to run in the opposite direction: if the synopsis leaves out the how the plot resolves, Millicent and her cousin Maury (the editorial assistant at a major publishing house) will tend to leap to one of four conclusions, none of which are good for a submitter. Either, they surmise:

a) the synopsis’ author isn’t aware of the purpose of an extended synopsis, and thus is a fish that should be thrown back into the sea until it grows up a little. In other words, next!

b) the synopsis’ author is a tireless self-promoter and/or inveterate tease, determined not to cough up the goods until there is actual money on the table. Since this is not how the publishing industry works, the fish analogy above may reasonably be applied. Next!

c) the synopsis’ author is probably one of the many, many writers exceptionally talented at coming up with stupendous premises, but less adept at fleshing them out. S/he evidently hopes to conceal this weakness from Millicent and Maury until after they have already fallen in love with the beauty of her/his prose and plotting in the early part of the book, in an attempt to cajole their respective bosses into editing the heck out of the novel before it could possibly be ready to market. The wily fiend!

d) or, less charitably, the synopsis’ author hasn’t yet written the ending, and thus is wasting their respective boss’ time by submitting an incomplete novel. Again, next!

Include some indication of how the plot resolves. Millicent, Maury, and their Aunt Mehitabel (the veteran contest judge) will thank you for it.

They might even give you a piece of that delicious cake I keep mentioning.

And yes, I do seem to have cake on my mind today, but for very good reason: tomorrow is my birthday. (And Truman Capote’s, as it happens.) I’m going to sign off for now, so I have time to pen a little treat for you all to have tomorrow while I am blowing out my candles.

How many? That’s for my memoir’s publishers to know, and you to find out if the legal issues around it are ever resolved. Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part IV: the technicalities, or, what, you think I’m MADE of mushrooms?

Okay, so the joke in the title would have been funnier if I had in fact been posting on consecutive days, as I had originally planned. But as the illustrious comic Stephen Wright is fond of pointing out — you can’t have everything; where would you put it?

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been showing you examples of good and not-so-good 1-page synopses, so we could talk about (read: so I could conduct a monologue about) the overarching strategies that rendered them more or less effective. Since I haven’t exactly been overwhelmed with howls of protest on the subject — really? The prospect of constructing a 1-page synopsis for a 400-page novel of a complexity that would make Tolstoy weep annoys nobody? — I’m going to assume that we’re all pretty comfortable with the strategic part.

Before I move on to the ins and outs of writing the longer synopsis, I feel I should respond to some of the whimpers of confusion from the more structurally-minded of my readers. “But Anne,” I have heard some of you pointing out, “you’ve shown us a couple of visual examples of properly-formatted synopses — a sort of SYNOPSES ILLUSTRATED, if you will. Any chance that you might go over the various rather odd-looking formatting choices you’ve used in them before, say, we need to send out our own?”

Oh, certainly. Let’s take another example at the good 1-page synopsis for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:

For veterans of any of my extended forays into the joys and terrors of standard format for manuscripts, nothing here should be too surprising. By and large, standard format for a synopsis is the same as for a page of manuscript: double-spaced, 1-inch margins all around, indented paragraphs, Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, the works. (If you’re unfamiliar with the rules of standard format, you will find them conveniently summarized in the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.

Please notice that, as with the first page of a manuscript, the author’s contact information does not appear on the first page of the synopsis. Unlike the first page of a manuscript, however, the title of the book should appear on the first page of a synopsis, along with the information that it IS a synopsis.

Why the latter? Because the synopsis and the manuscript it accompanies — to say nothing of the synopsis and query that often arrive in the same envelope — often become separated during the reading and evaluation process. It never pays to assume, then, that the reader of one will automatically know things about the other.

The title, for instance.

A second (or third, or fifth; extrapolate) page should also look very similar to any other page of standard-formatted manuscript, with one vital exception: the slug line for a synopsis should, as I mentioned in the previous sentence, SAY that the page it decorates is from a synopsis, not a manuscript, in addition to displaying the author’s last name, the title of the book, and the page number. (If you don’t know what a slug line is, why anyone would use it, or, indeed, why anyone would name something on a pretty page of text after a slimy creature, please see the SLUG LINE category on the list at right.)

Why include a slug line here? Because pages do occasionally go astray, and because synopses, like manuscripts, should never be bound in any way — unless a contest’s rules specifically state otherwise, of course.

Do I hear some nervous shifting in chairs out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you cry out, “aren’t you ignoring the elephant in the room — or, in this case, on the page? You seem to have given some of the character names in all capital letters. Why?”

I’m glad you asked. It’s not absolutely necessary, technically speaking, but most professional fiction synopses CAPITALIZE THE ENTIRE NAME of each major character the first time it appears. Not every time, mind you; just the first.

Why only the first? To alert a skimming agent or editor to the fact that — wait for it — a new character has just walked into the story.

Because Millicent might, you know, miss ’em otherwise.

It is also considered pretty darned nifty (and word-count thrifty) to include the character’s age in parentheses immediately after the first time the name appears, resulting in synopses that look something like this:

ST. THERESA OF AVILA (26) has a problem. Ever since she started dating multi-millionaire GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER (82), all of her friends have unaccountably decided that she is mercenary and hates Native Americans. Apart from JEANNE D’ARC (30), her wacky landlady-cum-bowling-partner, who uses every opportunity to pump Theresa for man-landing tips, none of the residents of Theresa’s swanky Upper East Side co-op are even speaking to her — at least until they start desperately vying for invitations to her exclusive wedding extravaganza, a lavish event to be held onstage at the Oscars, with THE REVEREND DOCTOR OWEN WILSON (44 if he’s a day, I would guess; Author! Author! hopes he feels better soon) officiating. How will Theresa find a maid of honor — and if she does, what will her jealous old boyfriend GOD (∞) do?

Should any of you out there think you’re up to rounding out the plot above into some measure of coherence and submitting it, please, be my guest. Really. I’d love to read it.

For the rest of you, please note what I have done here: in preparing a synopsis for a comedy, I have produced a — wait for it! — humorous treatment of the material.

And if I were creating a synopsis for a steamy romance novel with the same premise (although I tremble to think what a sex romp with that particular cast of characters would entail), you can bet your last wooden nickel [that] I would take some writerly steps to make my reader’s mouth go dry and his breath become short while perusing it.

Would I do this because I’m wacky? No, because — those of you who have been following this series, chant it with me now — the synopsis, like the first 50 pages, is a writing sample.

Oh, had I mentioned that before? Well, it cannot be said too often, in my opinion. The sensible writer’s primary goal in producing it is to demonstrate not only that it is a good (or at least marketable) story, an attention-grabbing yarn peopled with fascinating characters, but that the writer is a terrific storyteller.

Don’t worry — in the days to come, I shall be talking about ways in which you can tweak your synopsis in order to convey that lovely impression.

For the nonce, let’s take a quick field trip back to yesterday’s examples of a not-so-hot 1-page synopsis. Do you notice any formatting problems here?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, screaming, “It doesn’t have a slug line! It doesn’t have a slug line!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Further points if you bellowed that it doesn’t say anywhere on the page that it is a synopsis.

Extra credit if you noticed that the pages are not numbered — a major no-no in any submission, ever, yet one of the more common ones. And yes, you should number it, even for a one-page synopsis — and no, you should not number it consecutively with the manuscript, unless a contest rule’s SPECIFICALLY tell you to do so. The first page of a synopsis is always page 1.

Top yourself with a halo if you also discovered that Aunt Jane made the rookie mistake of adding her name to the synopsis anywhere but in the slug line. For book-length works, the first page of text — regardless of whether it is in the manuscript, the synopsis, or any other requested materials — is not a title page.

Don’t treat it as if it were one; it looks unprofessional to the pros.

Everyone happy with his or her score on that quiz? Let’s take on the other negative example:

Where do we even begin? Millicent the screener would almost certainly not even read this one — in fact, she might burst into laughter from several paces away.

Let’s go over why. It stars too far down on the page, for one thing, falling into the same title-page error as the previous example. It’s the over-the-top typeface, though, and the fact that the page uses more than one of them, that would set Millicent giggling and showing it to her coworkers.

Oh, and it doesn’t contain a slug line or numbering. But I doubt Millicent would even notice that over her guffaws.

It makes one other error for a fiction synopsis, a subtler one — any guesses what?

This one may surprise some of you: it mentions the title of the book IN the text of the synopsis. Why is this a problem? Well, it’s considered stylistically weak, a sign that the synopsis is talking ABOUT the book instead of getting the reader involved in the story. Or, to put it another way, and a bit more bluntly: a fiction synopsis is supposed to tell the story of the book; one that pulls the reader out of the story by talking about it at a distance tends not to do that well.

And anyway, the title is already both at the top of the page (and SHOULD be in the slug line): why, Millicent wonders impatiently, cradling her too-hot latte until it cools — she’s learning, she’s learning — would the writer WANT to waste the space and her time by repeating the information?

“Wait just a minute, Anne,” I hear some of my former questioners call from the rear of the auditorium. “You’re talking about the cosmetic aspects of the synopsis as though it were going to be judged as pitilessly as the manuscript I submit. Surely, that’s not the case? The synopsis is just a technical requirement, right?”

Um, no — as I said, it’s considered a WRITING SAMPLE. So yes, it does tend to be judged — and dismissed — just as readily as problematic text anywhere else in the submission packet.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But isn’t it better that you hear it from me than surmise it from a form-letter rejection? Or, as is more often the case, NOT surmise if from a form-letter rejection and keep submitting problematic synopses?

Something worth mulling over, I think.

Next time, we’ll leave technicalities behind and delve into the wonderful world of storytelling on the fly. Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part III, or, when brevity isn’t the soul of wit

The universe is full of unanswered questions lately, I notice. What is the origin of evil, for instance? Why didn’t I follow up on Tuesday’s rather exciting (I thought) post on 1-page synopsis-writing with an equally thrilling one yesterday — or indeed, post yesterday at all? And why oh why do I seem to associate synopses with mushrooms?

Some doors man was not meant to open.

Last time, I let the cat out of the bag, all right: I divulged the secret that just because many different people — agents, editors, contest rule-writers, fellowship committees, etc. — use the term synopsis, it does not mean that they are necessarily all talking about an identical document. Different individuals, agencies, and institutions want different lengths, so it always behooves an aspiring writer to double-check the requirements.

Being an intrepid soul, I jumped right in and tackled the most feared of such requests, the single-page synopsis. Unlike a longer synopsis, where the writer actually is expected to provide an overview of the book in question’s plot or argument, a 1-page synopsis is essentially a teaser for the book, intended only to perform a limited number of functions.

What functions, you ask? Well may you ask, because now that I cast my eye back over Tuesday’s post, I notice that I might have presented them in a slightly clearer fashion. As in, for example, list format:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

This goal should sound very, very familiar to those of you who made the hard trek through my recent series on verbal pitches. In both cases, the purpose is not to tell everything there is to tell about the book — these formats are simply too short to permit that — but to give the reader/hearer enough of a taste to whet his or her appetite.

In case I’m being too subtle here, you’re trying to get the agent reading it to ask to see the manuscript, not provide so much information that reading it would be redundant. Everybody clear on that?

Actually, this isn’t a bad list of goals for any length synopsis — certainly, it’s more than most that cross our pal Millicent’s desk actually achieve. However, for a longer synopsis — say, the 5-page version most frequently requested by agents, or a slightly shorter one intended for contest submission — I would add to the list:

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes. (For NF that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point), and

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Does that sound like an overwhelming set of tasks to pull off in a few short pages? I can see how it might feel that way, but to continue my newfound tradition of bluntness, the vast majority of synopsis-writers attempt to do far, far more.

How so? Well, the first time you tried to write a synopsis, didn’t you try to tell the entire story of the book?

I shall take that giant-sized sigh of disgusted recognition as a yes — and if I had to guess (do I? Do I? Apparently, I do), I would wager that those of you who DIDN’T answer that question in the affirmative have not yet tried to write a synopsis.

At least, not since you learned what they were for; I’m not talking about those oh-so-common soi-disant synopses that don’t summarize the book so much as promote it. (This is the best novel since MIDDLEMARCH, only less depressing!) But of that pitfall, more follows anon.

If you find the necessity for brevity intimidating, you are hardly alone; I am perpetually meeting aspiring writers agonizing over it. Case in point: about five years ago, I met a marvelous writer at a conference; naturally, as conference etiquette demands, I asked her over crawfish etouffée what her first novel was about.

Forty-three minutes and two excellently-becreamed courses later, she came to the last scene.

“That sounds like a great novel,” I said, waving away a waiter bent upon stuffing me until I burst. “And I really like that it’s an easy one to pitch: two women, misfits by personality and disability within their own families and communities, use their unlikely friendship to forge new bonds of identity in a lonely world.”

The author stared at me, as round-eyed as if I had just sprouted a second head. “How did you do that? I’ve been trying to come up with a one-sentence summary for two years!”

Of course, it was easier for me than for her: I have years of experience crafting pitches; it’s a learned skill. Still more importantly, because I had not yet read the book, I did not know the subtle character nuances that filled her pages. I could have no knowledge of how she had woven perspective with perspective in order to tease the reader into coming to know the situation fully. I was not yet aware of the complex ways in which she made language dance. All I knew was the premise and the plot – which put me in an ideal position to come up with a pithy, ready-for-the-conference-floor pitch.

Or — and I can feel that some of you have already jumped ahead to the next logical step here — a synopsis.

This is why, I explained to her, I always write the pitch before I write the piece. Less distracting that way. You can always tweak it down the road, but why not get the basic constituent parts on paper first, while the plot elements are still painted in broad strokes in your head?

Ditto for synopses. Naturally, they will evolve as the book develops and the plot thickens in writing, but I’ve never known a writer who could not easily give a one-page synopsis of her book when she was two weeks into writing it — and have seldom known the same author to be able to do so without agony a year later.

Those of you locked in mid-novel can feel what I’m about to suggest coming, can’t you?

That lump in the pit of your stomach is not lying to you: I am seriously suggesting that you sit down and write at least a concise summary of the major themes of the book — if not actually a provisional 1-page synopsis (and, to be on the safe side, a 5-page one as well) — BEFORE you finish writing it.

At least a rough draft: you’ll have more time to tweak later on, and in the long run, if you multi-task throughout the creation process, your work will hit the agent market faster.

How so? Well, think how much happier you will be on the blessed day that an agent asks you for one. Wouldn’t you rather be able to say, “Sure; I’ll get that out to you right away,” instead of piping through mounting terror, “Wow, um, I guess I could pull one together and send it with the chapter you requested…”

Synopses, like pitches, are often easier to write for a book that has not yet come to life. At the beginning of the writing process, it is easy to be succinct: there are not yet myriad plot details and marvelous twists to get in the way of talking about the premise.

Everyone who has ever sighed in response to the ubiquitous question, “Gee, what is your book about?” knows this to be true, right?

As I mentioned earlier in this series, too many aspiring writers seem to forget that the synopsis is a writing sample, too — and will be judged accordingly. A panicked state is not, I have noticed, the most conducive to smooth summarization.

One common mistake is to overload the synopsis with detail, instead of sticking to the major plot points. The result, in case you were wondering, tends to look a little something like this:

Contrast that, if you please, with the solid 1-page synopsis for the same book we discussed yesterday:

The difference is pretty stark, isn’t it? At the rate that the first example is crawling, it would almost be quicker to read the manuscript itself.

I heard you think that: no, Millicent will NOT immediately turn to a manuscript if she finds a synopsis unsatisfying. In the rather unlikely circumstance that she reads the synopsis first (screeners tend to pounce upon the first page of text right away, to see if they like the writing, then move on to a requested synopsis later), all a poorly-constructed synopsis is likely to impel her to do is reach for her already-prepared stack of form-letter rejections.


The other common panic response to the demand for brevity, particularly in a 1-page synopsis, is to turn it into a projected back jacket blurb for the book. Contest judges see this all the time: the requested synopsis is, after all, not all that much longer than a standard back jacket blurb, many contest entrants apparently think, so why not use it as an opportunity for promotional copy?

The result, alas, tends to be a series of vague generalities and unsupported boasts, looking a little something like this:

Yes, I know that there’s a typo in the last paragraph, smarty pants — and I sincerely hope that you caught some of the many standard format violations as well. For the moment, though, let’s set cosmetic matters on the back burner and look at the content. Setting aside the most important writing distinction between these three examples — the third TELLS that the book is good, whereas the the second and third SHOW that why it might be appealing through specifics — let’s stick to basics here.

So let me ask you: how well does each fulfill the criteria for 1-page synopsis success that we established above? To recap:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Obviously, the last example fails in almost every respect. It does (1) introduce a few of the main characters and part of the premise, but dumbs it down: Lizzy seems to be the passive pawn of Mr. Wickham, and not too bright to boot. It mentions (2) one of the conflicts, but neither the most important nor the first of the book, but it entirely misses the book’s assessment of (3) what’s at stake for Lizzy (other than the implied possibility of falling in love with the wrong man).

Most seriously, (4) this blurb pretty actively misrepresents the tone and voice of the book, presenting it as a torrid romance rather than a comedy of manners. Why is this a mistake? Well, think about it: would an agent who represents steamy romances be a good fit for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? Would s/he be likely to have the editorial connections to place it under the right eyes quickly?

And when you come right down to it, isn’t an agent who gets excited about the book described here likely to be disappointed by the opening pages of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

Example #1 — what I like to call the run-on synopsis — performs better, doesn’t it? It presents both (1) the characters and premise fairly well, but in getting sidetracked by a minor conflict, its writer rapidly runs out of room to present the (2) primary conflict of the book. By focusing so exclusively on what happens, rather than upon establishing, say, the protagonist’s motivations and desires, it underplays (3) what’s at stake for her.

Isn’t it interesting, though, how little actual quotation from the book (as I’ve done several times throughout) helps demonstrate the tone and voice of the book? It’s one of the great comedies of the English language — shouldn’t this synopsis be FUNNY?

The middle example — the one that, if you will recall, is little more than a reformatted and slightly expanded version of the summary portion of a 2-minute pitch — succeeds in fulfilling each of our goals. Or perhaps it would be more productive if I asked that as a question: DOES it? Can you think of ways to improve upon it without extending it beyond a single page?

Quick, now: Aunt Jane needs to know immediately, because the agent of her dreams asked her today to send the first 50 pages and a synopsis, and she’s just about to finish printing up the former. Can you pick up the pace of revision, please?

See how much harder it is when you’re trying to do it in a hurry? Wouldn’t it be nice if Aunt Jane already had a synopsis on hand to send?

I know, I know: it’s exceedingly tempting to procrastinate for as long as you possibly can about embarking upon a task as difficult and as potentially annoying as this, but working on the synopsis well before anyone in the industry might reasonably ask to see it guarantees that yours will have a significant advantage over the vast majority that cross Millicent’s desk: it won’t have been tossed together at the last possible nanosecond before sealing the submission packet.

The results, as Millie herself would be the first to tell you, are not always pretty. Your manuscript deserves better treatment than that, doesn’t it?

I’ll leave you chewing on all of these big issues for the nonce. Next time, we’re going to be returning to these same examples with a more technical eye, to see how the smaller structural and presentation issues play into a synopsis’ success.

Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part II: the dreaded single-page synopsis, or, what to do when you can’t allow those mushrooms to multiply

We begin today on a note of triumph: long-time reader and fab lady Auburn McCanta has had a political essay selected (amid some SERIOUS competition, I’m guessing, at this point in the election cycle) for publication on the Huffington Post. Congratulations, Auburn!

Please, everyone, keep sending in word of your writerly triumphs, large and small. One of the great benefits of community is being able to share good news!

Good news comes in many forms for writers — as does, lest we forget ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy). Many aspiring writers become so focused on imagining a single track to literary success — which typically runs thus: write book, land agent, sell book to Random House, book signings, Oprah, wash, rinse, and repeat — that they forget that other writerly achievements can look awfully good in a query letter and in an author bio. Publications — paid or not, in print or on the Internet — definitely count, as do degree programs, certificate programs, contest placing, and so forth.

So please join me, everyone, in applauding Auburn for doing some smart long-term career promotion — and set aside some time in your no doubt busy schedule to brainstorm what ECQLC you might add to your query letter candy bowl to render it more attractive to Millicent.

Who, for those of you joining us late, is Author! Author!’s pet agency screener, the one who is so very efficient at zipping through stacks and stacks of query letters with a latte in one hand and a pile of form-letter rejections in the other. She’s also often the gal who weeds out submissions before they reach the desk of the agent of one’s dreams — who, if s/he happens to work at one of the larger agencies, might even have two or three Millicents pre-reading submissions.

We here at A! A! try not to annoy Millicent. It’s not good marketing strategy.

In further pursuit of that laudable goal, I launched yesterday into a discussion one of the more frustration-generating tasks a writer faces on a routine basis: compressing a deliciously complex, breathtakingly nuanced 400-page book into a 5- (or 1)-page summary in standard format.

Or whatever length the agent of your dreams or contest of your desires has seen fit to request.

It’s well worth double-checking who is requesting what these days, especially if you’re planning on including a synopsis with your query letters. This information that’s usually easily available in the agency’s listing in one of the standard agency guides, on its website (if it has one; a surprisingly hefty percentage still don’t), or even, in the case of a REQUESTED synopsis to be included with a submission, in the communication containing the request for materials.

Yes, I AM saying what you think I’m saying: you wouldn’t believe how often queriers seem to forget to consult either of the former (or both, since sometimes they contain different information) or, in the heat of post-request excitement, simply disregard the instructions about what they’re supposed to send.

A good trick to help avoid the first mistake: do your homework; if the agency has made the information publicly available, Millicent will expect any querier or submitter to be familiar with it.

A couple of good tricks to avoid the second: when you receive a request for materials, immediately sit down and make a checklist of what should be in the submission packet. Then have a non-writer go over the request for materials, the agency in question’s guidelines, AND its website, making a separate list of all the agency’s requirements and requests. (Why a non-writer, you ask? S/he’s less likely to get swept up in the excitement of the moment.) Afterward, compare and consolidate the two lists.

Before you seal the submission packet, dig out the final version of that to-do list and triple-check that you did everything on it.

Pay extra-close attention to length restrictions for synopses — Millicents are known for rejecting a too-long or too-short synopsis on sight. Why? Well, one that is much shorter will make you look as if your story is unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard.

Either way, the results can be fatal to your submission.

So what DOES work in a synopsis? It’s not going to sound sexy, I’m afraid, but here is the secret:

For fiction, stick to the plot of the novel, including enough vivid detail to make the synopsis interesting to read. Oh, and make sure the writing is impeccable.

For nonfiction, begin with a single paragraph about (a) why there is a solid market already available for this book and (b) why your background/research/approach renders you the perfect person to fill that market niche. Then present the book’s argument in a straightforward manner, showing how each chapter will build upon the one before to prove your case as a whole. Give some indication of what evidence you will use to back up your points.

For either, make sure to allot sufficient time to craft a competent, professional synopsis — as well as sufficient buffing time to render it gorgeous. Let’s face it, unlike some of the more — let’s see, how shall I describe them? — fulfilling parts of writing and promoting a book (see above; wash, rinse, repeat), a synopsis is unlikely to spring into your head fully-formed, like Athene; most writers have to flog the muses quite a bit to produce a synopsis they like.

To quote the late, great Billie Holiday: the difficult/I’ll do right now./ The impossible/will take a little while.

Too few aspiring writers do, apparently preferring instead to toss together something at the last minute before sending out a submission or contest entry. (Especially a contest entry. I’ve been a judge; I know.)

I have my own theories about why otherwise sane and reasonable people might tumble into this particular strategic error. Not being aware that a synopsis would be required seems to be a common reason, as does resentment at having to produce it at all. Or just not being familiar with the rigors of writing oe.

Regardless, it’s just basic common sense to recognize that synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write.

Yes, no matter how good your book may happen to be. 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.

On the bright side, since almost everyone just throws a synopsis together, impressing an agent with one actually isn’t as hard as it seems at first blush. 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, far too savvy to make that mistake, right?

Even if you are not planning to send out queries or submissions anytime soon (much to those sore-backed muses’ relief), I STRONGLY recommend investing the time in generating and polishing a synopsis BEFORE you are at all likely to need to use it. That way, you will never you find yourself in a position of saying in a pitch meeting, “A 5-page synopsis? Tomorrow? Um, absolutely.”

Hey, there was a reason that I introduced you to that Billie Holiday song; it’s the mantra of the working writer. Or so my agent tells me.

Actually, if you can bear it — you might want to make sure your heart medication is handy before you finish this sentence –it’s a great idea to pull together a couple of different lengths of synopsis to have on hand, so you are prepared when you reach the querying and submission stages to provide whatever the agent in question likes to see.

What lengths might you want to have in stock? Well, a 5-page, certainly, as that is the most common request, and perhaps a 3 as well, if you are planning on entering any literary contests anytime soon. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s getting more common for agents to request a 1-page synopsis, so you might want to hammer out one of those as well.

I can tell from here that you’ve just tensed up. Take a deep breath. No, I mean a really deep one. This is not as overwhelming a set of tasks as it sounds.

In fact, if you have been reading this blog all summer or have worked through some of the exercised in the archives, you probably already have a 1-page synopsis floating around in your mind.

You may know it by its other name: the 2-minute pitch. (For tips on how to construct one of these babies, please see the aptly-named 2-MINUTE PITCH category at right.)

Don’t believe me, oh ye of little faith? Okay, here’s a pitch I used as an example just a couple of months back:

Nineteenth-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, right? As I vaguely recall having mentioned at the time, this would be a trifle long as an elevator speech — which, by definition, needs to be coughed out in a hurry — but it would work fine in, say, a ten-minute meeting with an agent or editor.

It also, when formatted correctly, works beautifully as a one-page synopsis with only a few minor additions. Lookee:

Okay, so if I were Jane (Austen, that is, not Bennet), I MIGHT want to break up some of the sentences a little, particularly that last one that’s a paragraph long, but see how simple that was? The trick to the 1-page synopsis lies in realizing that it’s not intended to summarize the entire plot, merely to introduce the characters and the premise.

Yes, seriously. Like the descriptive paragraph in a query letter or the summary in a verbal pitch, no sane person seriously expects to see the entire plot of a book summarized in a single page. It’s a teaser, and should be treated as such.

Doesn’t that make more sense than driving yourself insane, trying to cram your entire storyline or argument into 22 lines? Or trying to shrink that 5-page synopsis you have already written down to 1?

Bears pondering, doesn’t it?

Yes, yes, I know: even with reduced expectations, it’s still a tall order. That’s why you’re going to want to set aside some serious time to write it — and don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. (Where have I heard that before?) Because, really, don’t you want YOURS to be the one that justified Millicent’s heavily-tried faith that SOMEBODY out there can tell a good story in 3 – 5 pages?

Or — gulp! — 1?

Don’t worry; you can do this. There are more rabbits in that hat, and the muses are used to working overtime on good writers’ behalves. Keep up the good work!

At long last, the synopsis!

Our yard seems to have broken out in mushrooms over the weekend — the result of both the Pacific Northwest’s abrupt conversion from summer to winter weather and the landscape fairies (great big men, really, but as those of you who have been following my renovation saga have probably gathered over the last six months, a tad unpredictable in the timing of their visits) having spread around a great deal of mulch of forest origin. The beauty above is about twice the width of my foot.

Back to business. Does it seem as though I’ve been procrastinating about going over how to construct a synopsis this time around? I’m perfectly willing to admit it: I have; I dislike writing them, too. As those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while MAY have noticed, brevity isn’t really my strong point.

People become novelists for a lot of reasons — now you know mine.

The fact is, though, synopsis-writing is a task that dogs a professional writer at pretty much every step of her career. An aspiring writer almost always has to produce one in order to land an agent; a NF writer penning a proposal needs to synopsize the book she’s trying to sell; an agented writer will be asked to produce a synopsis for her agent to hand to an editor. Even in the happy event that an author has a successful book or two under her belt, she’s still going to need to summarize her next project for her agent and editor.

I know: it’s depressing, from a writerly point of view.

How do I know that? Because you can’t throw a piece of bread at any good-sized writers’ conference in the English-speaking world without hitting at least one writer complaining vociferously about it. I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer at any stage of the game who actually LIKES to write them, but those of us farther along tend to regard them as a necessary evil, a professional obligation to be met quickly and with a minimum of fuss, to get it out of the way.

Judging by conference talk (and, if I’m honest, by the reaction of some of my students when I teach synopsis-writing classes), aspiring writers are more likely to respond with frustration, often to the point of feeling downright insulted by the necessity of synopses for their books at all.

Most often, the complaints center on the synopsis’ torturous brevity. Why, your garden-variety querier wonders, need it be so cruelly short? What on earth could be the practical difference between reading a 5-page synopsis and a 6-page one, if not to make a higher hurdle for those trying to break into a notoriously hard-to-break-into business?

As we’ve seen with so many aspects of the querying and submission process, confusion about what is required and why often adds considerably to synopsis-writers’ stress. While the tiny teasers required for pitches and query letters are short for practical, easily-understood reasons — time and the necessity for the letter’s being a single page, which also boils down to a time issue, since the single-page restriction exists to speed up Millicent the agency screener’s progress — it’s less clear why, say, an agent would ask to see a synopsis of a manuscript he is ostensibly planning to read.

I sympathize with the confusion, but I must say, I always cringe a little when I hear writers express such resentments, because I want to take them aside and say, “Honey, you really need to be careful that attitude doesn’t show up on the page — because, honestly, that happens more than you’d think, and it’s never helpful to the writer.”

Not to say that these feelings is are not completely legitimate in and of themselves, or even a healthy, natural response to a task perceived to be enormous. Let’s face it, the first time most of us sit down to do it, it feels as though we’ve been asked to rewrite our entire books from scratch, but in miniature. From a writerly point of view, if a story takes an entire book-length manuscript to tell well, boiling it down to 5 or 3 or even — sacre bleu!1 page seems completely unreasonable, if not actually impossible.

Which it would be, if that were what a synopsis was universally expected to achieve. However, as I’m going to illustrate over the next week or so, an aspiring writer’s impression of what a synopsis is supposed to be is often quite different from what the pros have become resigned to producing, just as producing a master’s thesis seems like a much, much larger task to those who haven’t written one than those of us who have.

And don’t even get me started on dissertations.

My point is, once a writer comes to understand the actual purpose and uses of the synopsis — some of which are far from self-evident — s/he usually finds it considerably easier to write. So, explanation maven that I am, I’m going to devote this series to clarifying just what it is you are and aren’t being asked to do in a synopsis, why, and how to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Relax; you can do this. Since I haven’t talked about synopses in depth for a good, long while, let’s start with the absolute basics.

For those of you new to the term, a synopsis is a brief overview IN THE PRESENT TENSE of the entire plot of a novel or the whole argument of a book. Unlike an outline, which presents a story arc in a series of bullet points (essentially), a synopsis is fully fleshed-out prose. Ideally, it should be written in a similar voice and tone to the book it summarizes, but even for a first-person novel, it should be written in the third person.

The lone exception: a memoir’s synopsis can be written in both the past tense and should be written in the first person. Go figure. (Don’t worry — I’ll be showing you concrete examples of both in the days to come.)

Typically, professional synopses are 5 pages in standard manuscript format (and thus double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces; see my parenthetical comment about the examples to come), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent, editor, or contest. Increasingly, however, agents are beginning to request shorter synopses, which can be as little as a single page. (Don’t worry; we will be discussing how to write both types.) Sometimes, an agent will ask for 3, or a contest for 2. It varies.

Yes, Virginia, you read that correctly: not everyone wants the same length synopsis; there isn’t an absolute industry standard length for a querying, submission, or contest synopsis. The requested variations multiply like, well, mushrooms.

That resentment I mentioned earlier is starting to rise like steam, isn’t it? Yes, in response to that great unspoken shout that just rose from my readership, it would indeed be INFINITELY easier on aspiring writers everywhere if we could simply produce a single submission packet that would fly at any agency in the land.

Feel free to find that maddening — it’s far, far healthier not to deny the emotion. While you’re grumbling, however, let’s take a look at why an agency or contest might want a shorter synopsis.

Like so much else in the industry, time is the decisive factor: synopses are shorthand reference guides that enable overworked agency staffs (yes, Millicent really is 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.

Ah, Virginia has her hand raised. “I understand that, Anne,” she says, clearly piqued to be everyone’s constant exemplar of naïveté for so many years. “I also understand the time-saving imperative; you’ve certainly hammered on it often enough. What I don’t understand is, if the goal is to save time in screening submissions, why would anyone ever ask for a synopsis that was longer than a page? Why not just go off the descriptive paragraph in the query letter or pitch?”

Fabulous question, Virginia. You’ve come a long way since that question about the existence of Santa Claus.

It’s not as though the average agency or small publishing house reads the query letter and submission side-by-side: they’re often read by different people, under different circumstances. Synopses are often read by people (the marketing department in a publishing house, for instance) who have direct access to neither the initial query nor the manuscript. Frequently, if an agent has asked to see the first 50 pages of a manuscript and likes it, she’ll scan the synopsis to see what happens in the rest of the book. Ditto with contest judges, who have only the synopsis and a few pages of a book in front of them.

And, of course, some agents will use a synopsis promotionally, to cajole an agent into reading a manuscript — but 5-page synopses are usual for this purpose. As nearly as I can tell, the shorter synopses that have recently become so popular typically aren’t used for marketing outside the agency at all.

Why not? Well, realistically, a 1-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 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. Trust me on this one.)

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 don’t all agents just forward it to editors who might be interested, rather than the entire manuscript of my novel?”

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; much of the time, tradition does.

Thus, the argument against trying to sell a first novel on synopsis alone: fiction is just not sold that way, my dear. Publishing houses buy on the manuscript itself, not the summary. Nonfiction, by contrast, is seldom sold on a finished manuscript.

So for a novel, the synopsis is primarily 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.)

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 from a novelist — indications of target market, author bio, etc. (For nonfiction, of course, all of these would be included within the book proposal.)

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 — you guessed it — 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? For now, let’s stick to the current requirements.

Why is the 5-page synopsis more popular than, say, 3 pages? Well, 5 pages in standard format is roughly 1250 words, enough space to give some fairly intense detail. By contrast, a jacket blurb is usually between 100 and 250 words, only enough to give a general impression or set up a premise.

I point this out, because far too many writers new to the biz submit jacket blurbs to agents, editors, and contests, rather than synopses: marketing puff pieces, rather than plot descriptions or argument outlines. This is a mistake. Publishing houses have marketing departments for producing advertising copy. In a synopsis from a heretofore-unpublished writer, what industry professionals want to see is not self-praise, or a claim that every left-handed teenage boy in North America will be drawn to this book (even it it’s true), but a summary of what the book is ABOUT.

In other words, like the query, the synopsis is a poor place to boast. Since the jacket blurb synopsis is so common, many agencies use it as — wait for it — an easy excuse to reject a submission unread.

Yes, it’s unfair to those new to the biz, but the industry logic runs thus: a writer who doesn’t know the difference between a blurb and a synopsis is probably also unfamiliar with other industry norms, such as standard format and turn-around times. Thus (they reason), it’s more efficient to throw that fish back, to wait until it grows, before they invest serious amounts of time in frying it.

With such good bait, they really don’t stay up nights worrying about the fish that got away.

“In heaven’s name,” Virginia cries, “WHY? They must let a huge number of really talented writers who don’t happen to know the ropes slip through their nets!”

To answer that trenchant little question, let us turn once again to the wit and wisdom of the late, great Fats Waller. If you happen to have access to some old 78s (or the soundtrack for Ain’t Misbehavin’), it’s worth giving the entire lyrics of Find Out What They Like a close listen: I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as straightforward romantic advice, of course, but it’s not a bad explanation of the underlying logic of easy dismissal.

On the off chance that one or two of you don’t have Mssr. Waller’s opus at your fingertips at the moment, here is a representative excerpt from the song. To clarify its applicability, substitute agent’s interest for man, agent for daddy, and aspiring writer for gal:


I used to wonder right along why I couldn’t hold a man.
Every love affair went wrong, until I changed my plan.
I’m having no more trouble now, my daddy’s nice as he can be
Ladies, I will tell you how — that’s if you’ll take a tip from me.


Find out what they like and how they like it, and let ‘em have it just that way.
Give ‘em what they want and when they want it, without a single word to say.

You’ve got to cater to a man and if you don’t,
He’ll find some other gal to do the things you won’t.


Crude, undeniably, and admittedly, awfully darned sexist as love advice (if you’re too young to see why at first glance, ask your mother. On second thought, don’t), but it does get right to the heart of the usual writerly objections to having to write a synopsis at all.

For instance: why reject a blurb-like synopsis on sight? Quoth the late Mssr. Waller:

Just use more sugar if he says your jam ain’t sweet
Or he will sneak for his dessert across the street.

To put it slightly less colorfully, there are a whole lot of fish in the submission sea; as I MAY have pointed out once or twice before in this forum, agencies (and contests) typically receive so many well-written submissions that their screeners are actively looking for reasons to reject them, not to accept them. An unprofessional synopsis is an easy excuse to thin the ranks of the contenders.

As always, I’m pointing out the intensity of the competition not to depress or intimidate you, but to help you understand just how often good writers get rejected for, well, reasons other than the one we all tend to assume. That fact alone strikes me as excellent incentive to learn what an agency, contest, or small publisher wants to see in a synopsis — and let them have it just that way.

Thank you, Fats.

To take another of the common questions, why does it need to be so brief? Every agent will probably give you a slightly different answer to that one, but the hard fact is, they receive so many queries in any given week that they can afford to be as selective as they like about synopses — and ask for any length they want.

You CAN say no, of course, and send them the same 1-, 3-, or 5-page you have constructed to send But, to refer again to our text du jour:

Now you will lose him if you give him lollipops
When you know he’s crazy just to have some chops.

Every agent, just like every editor and contest judge, is an individual, not an identical cog in a mammoth machine. An aspiring writer CAN choose ignore their personal preferences and give them all the same thing — submitting a 5-page synopsis to one but do you really want to begin the relationship by demonstrating an inability to follow directions?

I know: it’s awful to think of one’s own work being treated that way, or indeed, that of any dedicated writer. If I ran the universe, synopses would not be treated this way. Instead, each agency would present soon-to-query writers with a clear, concise how-to for its preferred synopsis style — and if a writer submitted a back jacket blurb, Millicent the agency screener would chuckle indulgently, hand-write a nice little note advising the writer to revise and resubmit, then tuck it into an envelope along with that clear, concise list.

Or, better yet, every agency in the biz would send a representative to a vast agenting conference, a sort of UN of author representation, where delegates would hammer out a set of universal standards for judging synopses, to take the guesswork out of it once and for all. Once codified, bands of laughing nymphs would distribute these helpful standards to every writer currently producing English prose, and bands of freelance editors would set up stalls in the foyers of libraries across the world, to assist aspiring writers in conforming to the new standards.

Unfortunately, as you may perhaps have noticed, I do not run the universe, so we writers have to deal with the prevailing lack of clear norms. 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.

The result is — and I do hate to be the one to break this to you, Virginia — no single synopsis you write is going to please everybody in the industry.

Sounds a bit familiar?

It should — the same principle applies to query letters. As convenient as it would be for aspiring writers everywhere if you could just write the darned things once and make copies as needed, it’s seldom in your interest to do so. Literally the only pressure for 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.

You could make the argument that there should be an industry standard until you’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that, in the long run, you will be far, far better off if you give each what s/he asks to see. Just that way.

Well, so much for synopses. Tomorrow…

Just kidding; the synopsis is a tall order, and I’m going to walk you through both its construction and past its most common pitfalls. In a couple of weeks, you’ll be teaching other writers how to do it — and you’ll have yet another formidable tool in your marketing kit.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

What happens AFTER you grant an exclusive, and other problems that most aspiring writers would really, really like to have

All right, I’m resigned to it: there is evidently a vast cosmic conspiracy to delay, if not actually prevent, my tackling the thorny issue of how to write a synopsis to accompany a query or submission. This time, as often happens, I got sidetracked by a really good question from a reader. Quoth obviously great query-writer Susan:

My question today, though not directly related to referrals, does have to do with industry etiquette. I’ve read your posts about exclusives, but can’t quite ferret out the answer to my current situation.

Last week, I granted a 3-week exclusive for a partial to Agent A, and yesterday I got an e-mail from Agent B requesting a (nonexclusive) full and another one from Agent C requesting a (nonexclusive) partial.

What’s the polite thing to do? Sit tight until the three weeks is up before responding to Agents B and C? Tell Agents B and C I’ll be happy to send these when the period of exclusivity with Agent A has expired?

Although truth compels me to say that I actually have written one general and two specific posts this year on this very subject (here is one on juggling exclusive and non-exclusive requests simultaneously, and here is one on dealing with mutually exclusive requests), I am glad that Susan asked (I’m even happier to hear that she set a time limit on Agent A’s exclusive, but that’s something I’ll explain later in this post.)

Why am I so pleased to deal with the topic again? Well. since writer friends ask me this very question — what should a writer who already has submissions out to agents do if a newly-responding agent asks for an exclusive? — privately a dozen or so times per year, in addition to the many, many times I am asked in the comments here, I’m inclined to believe that when aspiring writers agree to an exclusive, they don’t necessarily understand what it actually entails.

An exclusive, for those of you new to the concept, is when a writer agrees to allow an agent a specific amount of time to consider representing a particular manuscript, during which no other agent will be reviewing it. In practice, both the agent and the writer agree to abide by certain rules during the specified period:

– ONLY that agent will have an opportunity to read the materials;
– no other agent is already looking at it;
– the writer will not submit it anywhere else;
– in return for this significant advantage (which, after all, pulls the manuscript out of competition with other agents), the agent will make a legitimate effort to read and decide whether or not to offer representation within the specified time period.

Doesn’t seem all that complicated an arrangement, does it? Yet hardly a month goes by when some well-meaning but confused exclusive granter doesn’t tap me on the shoulder (physically or electronically) to ask, “Um, Anne, do you remember that request for an exclusive I was so excited about a week and a half ago?” (Or a month and a half, or six months.) “I’ve heard from another agent. What should I do?”

If the writer specified a time limit on the exclusive, the answer is very simple: if less than that amount of time has passed, don’t send the manuscript to anyone else until it has; if more time has passed, what’s stopping you? When the writer HASN’T set such a limit, the ethics are more nebulous.

See why I was so pleased to hear that Susan had specified that Agent A had an exclusive for only three weeks?

To figure out where exclusive-granting writers run into ethical dilemmas, let’s look at the phenomenon from the other side of the agreement. Generally speaking, agents will request exclusives for one of three reasons: either they fear that there will be significant competition over who will represent the project, they don’t like to be rushed while reading, or it is simply the agency’s policy not to compete with outside agencies, ever.

Do I feel some of you out there getting tense, doing the math on just how many years (if not decades) it could take to make it through your list of dream agents if you had to submit to them one at a time? Relax, campers: requests for exclusives are actually fairly rare.

Why rare? Well, the first kind of exclusive request, the one Agent D (to continue through Susan’s alphabet of competitive agents) might use to prevent Agents E-R from poaching your talents before D has had a chance to read your manuscript (hey, D’s desk is already chin-deep in paper), tends to be reserved for writers with more than just a good book to offer. Celebrity, for instance, or a major contest win.

Basically, the agent is hoping to snap up the hot new writer before anybody else does. Or before the HNW realizes that s/he might prefer to be able to choose amongst several offers of representation. Since pretty much every respectable agency offers the same service, such choices are often made on the basis of connections, how well-established the agency is, or even how well the writer and the agent happen to hit it off.

If you suddenly find yourself the winner of a well-respected literary contest or on the cover of People, remember this: just because an agent asks for an exclusive does not mean you are under any obligation to grant it.

Oh, pick your chin up off the floor. If your work is in demand, it’s not necessarily in your best interest to sign with the first agent who makes an offer — you will want the one with the best track record of selling books like yours, right?

Chant it with me now, long-time readers: you do not want to land just any agent; you want the best agent for YOUR work.

As exciting as a request for an exclusive may be, it does tie the writer’s hands, for precisely the reason Susan mentions: throughout the duration of the exclusive, the writer agrees not to show the manuscript to any other agent. If, as in Susan’s case, other agents are also interested, this can mean a substantial delay in getting the manuscript onto their desks — and if Agent A offers to represent it, B and C may not see it at all.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? For the moment, what I would like for you to take from this situation as discussed so far are two things — no, make that three:

1) As flattering as a request for an exclusive is to an aspiring writer, granting it is optional;

2) Since by definition, a writer cannot submit to other agents during the exclusive period — yes, even if the writer queried the others first — it’s ALWAYS a good idea to set a time limit;

3) Since granting it limits the writer’s options, it’s best reserved for situations where one’s top-choice agents are interested in the book.

Why limit it to your favorite picks? Try to think of granting an exclusive as if you were applying for early admission to an Ivy League school: if the school of your dreams lets you in, you’re not going to want to apply to other universities, right? By applying early, you are saying that you will accept their offer of admission, and the school can add you to its roster of new students without having to worry that you’re going to go to another school instead.

It’s a win/win, in other words.

So if the best agent in the known universe for your type of writing asks for an exclusive, you might want to say yes. But if you have any doubt in your mind about whether Harvard really is a better school for your intended studies than Yale, Columbia, or Berkeley — to mix my metaphors again — you might want to apply to all of them at the same time, so you may decide between those that admit you.

My point is, if you are asked for an exclusive because your work is sought-after, it is up to you whether you would prefer to go steady right off the bat or date around a little. Got it? (If not, I can keep coming up with parallel cases all day, I assure you. Don’t make me start sending you to past posts.)

That doesn’t mean you should necessarily say no to this type of exclusivity request, but if you say yes, set a reasonable time limit on it, so you don’t keep your book off the dating market too long. This prudent step will save you from the unfortunately common dilemma of the writer who granted an exclusive six months ago and still hasn’t heard back.

Yes, in response to that gigantic collective gasp I just heard out there: one does hear rumors of agents who ask for exclusives, then hold onto the manuscript for months on end. Within the past couple of years, such rumors have escalated astronomically.

Set a time limit.

Susan’s choice of three weeks was a perfectly legitimate length. No need to turn the time limit into an experiment in negotiation: simply include a sentence in your submission’s cover letter along the lines of I am delighted to give you an exclusive look at my manuscript, as you requested, for the next three weeks. Simple, direct — and trust me, if the agent has a problem with the time you’ve specified, s/he’ll contact you to ask for more.

Negotiation is not possible with the other type of exclusive request, the kind that emerges from an agency that only reviews manuscripts that no one else is; the writer is not offered a choice in the matter. Consequently, a request for an exclusive from these folks is not so much a compliment to one’s work (over and above the sheer desire to read some of it, that is) as a way of doing business.

In essence, these agencies are saying to writers, “Look, since you chose to query us, you must have already done your homework about what we represent — and believe us, we would not ask to see your manuscript if we didn’t represent that kind of writing. So we expect you to say yes right away if we make you an offer.”

Why might such a stance be advantageous for an agency to embrace? Well, it prevents them from ever having to experience the fear associated with the first type of exclusive request: if you send them pages, they may safely assume that you won’t be calling them in a week to say, “Um, Agent Q has just made me an offer, slowpoke. I still would like to consider your agency, so could you hurry up and finish reading my manuscript so you can give me an answer? As in by the end of the week?”

Okay, so you wouldn’t really be that rude. (PLEASE tell me you wouldn’t be that rude.) But let’s face it, agents who don’t require exclusive submissions do receive these types of calls a fair amount. And nobody, but nobody, reads faster than an agent who has just heard that the author of the manuscript that’s been propping up his wobbly coffee table is fielding multiple offers.

Agencies who demand exclusivity are, by definition, unlikely to find themselves in a similar Oh, my God, I have to read this 400-page novel by tomorrow! situation. You have to admit, after even the third or fourth panicked all-nighter, exclusives might start to look like a pretty good policy.

What does the writer get in return for agreeing not to submit to others for the time being? Well, not a heck of a lot, unless the agency in question is in fact the best place for his work. But if one wants to submit to such an agency, one needs to follow its rules.

Fortunately, agencies that maintain this requirement tend to be far from quiet about it. Their agents will trumpet the fact from the conference dais. Requires exclusive submissions or even will accept only exclusive queries will appear upon their websites, in their listings in standard agency guides, and on their form replies requesting your first 50 pages.

(Yes, Virginia, positive responses are often form-letters, too, even when they arrive in e-mail form. I sympathize with your shock.)

If they had company T-shirts, in short, there would probably be an asterisk after the agency’s name and a footnote on the back about not accepting simultaneous submissions. If they’re serious about the policy, they’re serious about it, and trying to shimmy around such a policy will only get a writer into trouble.

Do I feel some of you tensing up again? Relax — agencies with this requirement are not very common.

Why? Well, because they require their potential clients to bring their often protracted agent search to a screeching halt while the submission is under consideration, such agencies are, in the long run, more time-consuming for a writer to deal with than others. As a result, many ambitious aspiring writers, cautious about committing their time, will avoid querying agencies with this policy.

Which, again, is a matter of personal choice. Or it is if you happened to notice before you queried that the agency in question had this policy.

Hey, check their T-shirts — and even with such agencies, be up front about how long you will be willing to wait.

So where does this leave Susan and the many other writers out there who have granted exclusives to the first agent who asks, only to find themselves chafing under the agreement down the line, when other agents asked to see the manuscript?

Well, it depends upon two factors: why the agent asked for the exclusive in the first place, and how long it has been since the writer granted it.

If the agent asked for it because her agency will only consider exclusive submissions, then the writer is indeed obligated to hold off on further submissions. If the agreed-upon period has elapsed, you can always contact the agent and ask point-blank if s/he needs more time.

What the writer should NOT do when dealing with an exclusives-only agency is contact the agent, explain that others want to read the work, and ask if it’s okay to submit simultaneously — which, incidentally, is very frequently the writer’s first impulse, if those who contact me on the sly to ask my advice are any indication. Bless their optimistic little hearts, they seem to believe that of only the agent in question understood how eagerly they want to find representation, the agent’s heart would melt.

“Of course, you may indulge in multiple submissions,” s/he would say, tossing candy to the world’s children from Santa’s sleigh. “We were just kidding about that whole exclusives-only thing.”

Not going to happen.

This desire to throw oneself upon the agent’s mercy seems even stronger, if that’s possible, in writers who already have submissions out with other agents, and THEN receive a request for an exclusive from an agent. For many such submitters (who, let’s face it, have a problem most aspiring writers would LOVE to have), the fact of previous submission seems to obviate the agent’s request, or even an exclusives-only agency’s policy.

They couldn’t really mean it in MY case, these writers think.

I hate to burst your bubble, Sparky, but I can assure you that they could — and do. Trying to negotiate one’s way out of this situation only tends to change the representation question from whether the agent likes the writer to whether he really wants to deal with someone who has difficulty following directions.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at the probable e-mail exchange between agent Clinton and Mehitabel, a writer who already has a submission out to another agent:


Dear Mehitabel:
Thank you for querying me with your novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS. Please send the first fifty pages.


As you may already know, our agency will accept only exclusive submissions. Please enclose a SASE.

Clinton McPicky


Dear Clint:
Thank you for your interest in my novel. I would be happy to give you an exclusive, but the fact is, two other agents already have partial manuscripts, and I don’t know when I shall be hearing back from them. I’m really impressed with your agency, though, and I certainly don’t want to knock it out of consideration.

Since it would obviously be impossible for me to give you an exclusive on material that’s already elsewhere, is it okay if I just go ahead and send you what I’ve sent the others?

Dear Mehitabel:
As I mentioned, my agency only accepts submissions on an exclusive basis.

Notice what happened here? Mehitabel tried to shift responsibility for solving her dilemma onto Clinton’s shoulders. (Also, she addressed him by a familiar nickname, rather than the name with which he signed his letter; a small thing, but rather rude.) From her point of view, this made perfect sense: his request had caused a problem, so she asked him to modify his request.

From Clinton’s POV, however, she was asking him to change agency policy for the sake of a single writer who, for all he knows, simply did not bother to check what those policies were before querying. What possible incentive could he have for saying yes?

Got the impulse to quibble out of your system, Mehitabel? Good. Next time, abide by your agreement: allow Clinton an exclusive until the agreed-upon time has elapsed, then inform him that unless he would like an extension upon his exclusive (which you are under no obligation to grant, Hitty), you will be submitting it to the other agents who have requested it.

What’s that you say, Mehitabel? Isn’t Clinton likely to say no at that point? Perhaps, but not necessarily — and you will have done your level best to conduct your submission process honorably.

Everyone out there comfortable with all this? Okay, let’s return to Susan’s situation.

In a case like Susan’s (if I am reading her question correctly), where the writer has an agreed-upon time limit with an agent whose agency does NOT insist upon solo submissions, the resolution again depends upon how much time has elapsed. If the exclusive period is still ongoing, the writer cannot in good conscience send out requested materials to any other agent regardless of whether others requested exclusives in the meantime.

Don’t even consider it. Otherwise, the exclusive would be meaningless, no?

For some reason, the writers who creep into my atelier in the dead of night to ask my advice on the subject almost always seem surprised, or even hurt, by this response. But the situation honestly is pretty straightforward, ethically speaking: the writer agreed to the exclusive, so pretty much everyone in the industry would expect her abide by it.

And as we saw above, contacting everyone concerned to explain the dilemma will not eliminate it; all that will do is tell all of the agents involved that the writer is trying to change the rules. Either trying to renegotiate with A at this point or telling the others they will need to wait, will not win the writer points with anybody; it will merely look as though you didn’t understand what an exclusive was.

Here’s how I would advise handling Susan’s dilemma: if she hears back from Agent A within the three weeks and he wants to represent you, she has only two options — saying yes without sending out further submissions or saying no and sending out to the others.

If A does make an offer she wishes to accept, she should send a polite note to the other two, saying precisely what happened: another agent made an offer before she could send out the materials they requested. They’ll understand; this happens all the time.

If A doesn’t make an offer within those three weeks, on day 22 (three weeks + 1 day), she should send the requested materials to Agents B and C, along with cover letters explaining that others are looking at it simultaneously. No need to specify who is doing the looking, just that they are.

To deal courteously with A at this point, she should send a letter — paper or e-mail, depending upon how Susan previously had contact with him/her — saying that while A is still her first choice (the implication of an exclusive, always), since the exclusive has now expired, she is now sending out requested materials to other agents.

Again, this happens all the time. If Susan were really nervous about alienating A, she could contact him first, offering to extend the exclusive BEFORE sending out the others, but it’s imperative that A is aware before he makes a timing decision that others are indeed interested.

As long as a writer does what she said she was going to do, she’s unlikely to run into much trouble with an exclusive — but remember, this is an industry where reputations count; in the long run, it’s in your interest every bit as much as the agent’s that you honor the exclusivity agreement, if you grant it.

Frankly, I think most submitters in this situation overreact to the prospect of a comparatively short wait. Because, really, holding off for a few days or weeks is not going to harm the writer’s chances with the other requesting agents. Chances are that they’re reasonable people; after all, it’s not as though they requested the materials, then cleared their schedules for the foreseeable future in order to hold their respective breaths until the submission arrived.

Or, to couch it in today’s example: if Susan hadn’t had the good sense to ask for a time limit, an extended delay might have required explanation, but realistically, agents B and C almost wouldn’t have dropped everything to read the submission before A’s exclusive expired, anyway. She can afford to sit tight.

All this being said, a writer is under no obligation whatsoever to stop submitting or querying other agents while one is reading requested materials. Unless an agent ASKS for an exclusive — and believe me, if an agency requires exclusivity, the member agent interested in your work will tell you so directly — it is NOT expected. In fact, now that the agent-finding market is so fierce, the vast majority of agents simply assume that good writers are querying and submitting widely.

While not continuing to pursue other leads while an agent is perusing your work may seem like a well-deserved break, a reward for successful querying, it’s effectively like applying to only one college per year: you might get in eventually, but it’s a far more efficient use of your time to apply to many simultaneously.

Unless, of course, the school you’re absolutely sure that you want to attend offers you early admission.

So submit widely — and keep those queries and submissions circulating until you land an agent. Just make sure that when you have requested materials out to more than one agent, you tell each that others are looking at it.

Trust me, they’ll want to know, even if they aren’t exclusive-minded. Gives ‘em just a touch of incentive to read faster.

Glancing over the length of this, I am tempted to conclude that while it was an interesting experiment to try to tackle such a huge question in a single post — the easier for readers to find it in the archive, my dears — I probably shan’t do it again. The double-take I just did at the clock informs me not only that it is time to end for today, but that I should probably take tomorrow off to rest my wrists.

Next time, whenever that shall be and universal interference permitting, we’ll move on to synopses, but I make no promises. Blog life has just been too unpredictable of late. Keep up the good work!

Referral-seeking, part IV: asking for pull without pushing

My, but everyone’s been quiet while I’ve been going over the dos and don’ts of approaching authors for referrals to their agents — an unusual state that I choose to attribute to the fact that all of my readers are gentle, polite, super-talented souls who would never dream of imposing unduly upon new acquaintance in order to advance their careers.

Deliberately, anyway. One of the reasons that I like to post from time to time on industry etiquette is that I’m convinced that most of this species of writerly faux pas are more the result of being unfamiliar with the rules of the game than any inherent tendency toward overreaching.

Truth compels me to say, however, that as a group, aspiring writers do have a reputation for being immensely pushy when interacting with agents and editors — if you doubt this, just drop by that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America and listen to the pros complain to one another. Everyone seems to cherish a personal horror story or two.

Since at every conference I have ever attended — and they have been legion — the vast majority of attending writers have tripped over backwards in their eagerness NOT to offend the visiting agents and editors, I have always suspected that the pushy label is the result of the actions of a relatively small percentage of writers. Hey, any large group of people is going to contain an array of personalities, right?

Today’s post is specifically aimed at the more aggressive end of the spectrum.

Which is a nice way of saying: I have been trying to keep this series on approaching the established and the industry insider for recommendations upbeat, I feel it would be remiss not to address some of the faux pas that are less inadvertent. Before I conclude this series, I want to spend a day dealing with…

Well, one hates to use a term as ugly as dishonesty. Let’s just say that these examples are frowned upon in the industry, and leave it at that.

For those of you joining us late, for that past few days, we’ve been discussing the possibility of using an introduction from an established client as a stepping-stone to getting an agent’s attention. Generally speaking, there are two ways in which established writers make such an introduction without excessive trouble to themselves: either they can grant you permission to use their names in your query letter (as in the sterling beginning, Your client Rufus Rudyard recommended that I contact you about my book…), or they can forward your work to their agents themselves, with suitable commentary about how terrific you are.

Either way, the results are potentially very good for you. Such a recommendation usually means that the agent will actually see the query letter, rather than just a screener. At minimum, the query will be taken more seriously; there is considerable anecdotal evidence to indicate that referred manuscripts tend to be read with a slightly kinder eye.

As Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull informed us in the brilliant and hilarious sociological classic, THE PETER PRINCIPLE — which, if I ruled the universe, would be issued gratis to every new employee in every bureaucracy on her first day of work — it is always better to pull than to push.

Nice work if you can get it, in other words — but what such referral typically does NOT mean, as we have seen over the last couple of days, is that the recommender will effectively become the book’s unpaid agent and cheerleader.

Authors tend to have reservations about forwarding other writers’ work themselves, for very good reasons: it’s a lot of responsibility, assuring an agent that the forwarded writer is the next great find; if the agent is slow or hostile in response, the referring author feels he’s let the writer down; if the writer turns out to be hard to work with, unprofessional, or just not very talented, the author’s credibility with his agent may be compromised. Oh, and by introducing his agent to another writer, the author is bringing into the agency someone with whom he will have to compete for the agent’s usually already stretched-thin time.

Given all of those disincentives, it’s not a great surprise that most authors are more than a little reluctant to go this route, is it?

The other, infinitely more common approach is to say, “Sure — this is my agent’s name; go ahead and say that that I recommended you to him.” While this may not at first blush seem like much of a favor, bear in mind that all of the disincentives above still apply – this route is merely less work for the author – so it is still a piece of assistance well worth your gratitude.

Because such recommendations are so valuable, over-eager aspiring writers occasionally fudge just a little in their use, implying more of a recommendation than the author in question was actually offering. The most famous form of this, of course, is the query that begins, “Saul Bellow said my work is the best thing he’s read for the last ten years.”

A recommendation that would be considerably more impressive if Mssr. Bellow had been alive for more of those ten years than he actually was, no?

Sometimes, though, recommendation blurring of reality is unintentional — the aspiring writer merely misunderstood how much of a leg up the author was actually offering:

Referral-farming scenario 10: at a book signing, Rachel meets Rapunzel, a writer she has admired for years. Rachel, being a polite writer, approaches Rapunzel with respect: she arrives at the reading well-versed in Rapunzel’s work, including her latest novel, LIFE AFTER HAIR; she asks intelligent questions during the reading; she brings a book to have Rapunzel sign, and buys another for her mother, and she gushes at Rapunzel long enough after the signing that the author spontaneously asks her what she writes.

So far, so good, right?

In fact, they hit it off so well that Rapunzel gives Rachel her e-mail address. After a reasonable exchange of not-very-time-consuming questions and answers, the author tells Rachel that she may use the valuable Rapunzel name as a reference in approaching her agent, Rafaela.

Rachel is thrilled — and promptly sends her entire manuscript off to Rafaela, saying that Rapunzel had told her to send it. She is astonished to see her manuscript returned within a week with a form- letter rejection.

This may seem like an odd question, under the circumstances, but what did Rachel do wrong?

She misunderstood, quite innocently, what Rapunzel was offering her: the opportunity to use her as a reference in a query letter, period. If she had pursued this less aggressive route, Rafaela probably would have asked to see the manuscript. By sending her manuscript before Rafaela asked for it, however, Rachel just sent an unsolicited submission. As such, Rafaela may not even have read any of it.

Yes, even with a valid recommendation from her favorite client, Rapunzel.

Here again, we see that asking follow-up questions could have saved the writer a lot of grief. But to be fair, it’s hard to hold Rachel very responsible for the outcome: she simply did not know enough about how agencies worked to realize how much unsolicited submissions are despised.

Not all referral mistakes are this innocent, however.

Referral-farming scenario 11: Samuel met agented writer Samantha at a writers’ conference a few years ago. They have been cordial ever since whenever they met, and occasionally e-mail about their respective publishing progress. Having heard so much about Samantha’s agent, Sydney, Samuel feels as though he knows her.

One rainy Monday morning, Samantha is startled to see an e-mail from Sydney in her in-box. (At work: since she has only sold a couple of mid-list books, Samantha still can’t afford to quit her secretarial job; starting to notice a pattern here?)

“Can you tell me something about this writer you recommended?” Sydney writes. “I’ve been thinking about getting into representing this kind of book, but his bio was really sketchy. Can you fill me in about why you thought he might be a good fit for my list?”

Huh? Samantha thinks.

A few days later, Samuel receives his manuscript and a form-letter rejection with an angry scrawl in the margins. “Our client didn’t recommend you,” it reads, “and we do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.”

What did Samuel do wrong? Without seeing his query, it’s a trifle hard to tell, precisely, but we can certainly make some educated guesses.

At best, Samuel seems to have fudged his initial query, turning an acquaintance into a recommendation. Perhaps, if asked, he would respond that since Samantha had spoken so often and so glowingly of Sydney, he thought she was making a recommendation.

But regardless of why he did it, or if he intended to misleading, he’s blown his chance with Sydney — and his friendship with Samantha — forever: evidently, it didn’t occur to him that the agent might check.

Word to the wise: they do. Habitually.

If you harbor even the slightest doubt about whether an agented author is offering a recommendation — and you should, unless the author has actually produced the words, “Tell my agent I sent you” — for heaven’s sake, ASK.

Rather than wasting our energies upon trying to figure out what Samuel could have been thinking, let’s look at another version of the misused recommendation. This one is hard to read as anything but manipulative, but at least the exemplar in this instance is clever enough to be cautious about the possibility of the agent’s checking up on her:

Referral-farming scenario 12: Tanya met agented author Tremaine through networking; he’s the friend of a friend. Because she seemed to be a pleasant, well-read person and was complimentary about his work, Tremaine was happy to answer a few of Tanya’s questions via e-mail. Lately, however, he’s been deliberately slowing his responses.

Why? Well, she’s started to e-mail him every day.

Clearly, he thinks, Tanya is thinking of this as a friendship, rather than what it actually is, an author being nice to a reader. So instead of answering right away, he waits three days, then a week, mentioning in each response just how busy he is. When she still doesn’t take the hint, he begins responding to only every third or fourth message — and then only very tersely.

One sunny Tuesday, Tremaine sees yet another e-mail from Tanya in his inbox. Sighing, he leaves it to answer another day.

On Friday, he opens it, and is startled to find a cheerful missive from Tanya, informing him she has already sent a query to his agent, Trevor — using Tremaine’s name as a reference. Would Tremaine mind following up with Trevor, to confirm the recommendation and try to speed up the process? Thanks so much!

Tanya’s put Tremaine in a tough situation here, hasn’t she? On one level, she has used his name without his permission, and he would be well within his rights to pick up the phone and tell Trevor that she used his name without his permission, killing her submission’s chances.

On the other hand, doing so would make him look bad in the eyes of his agent: if he confesses to having been used, the next time Tremaine actually does want to recommend an aspiring writer, he will have to pass the manuscript along to Trevor personally, to avoid the possibility of another misappropriation of his name.

Which, as we have seen, will be a whole lot of work for him.

Of course, it was Tanya’s responsibility to ASK Tremaine for permission to use his name, not merely to impose upon his good nature and tell him about it afterward. And while it is possible that she DID ask, but Tremaine overlooked her question because of the sheer volume of her e-mails, it is never legitimate to assume that silence equals consent.

A good rule of thumb in any context, actually.

What happened to Tremaine happens to famous writers ALL the time: unfortunately, there are plenty of aspiring writers out there who have mistaken professional kindness to a fan for the beginning of a lifetime friendship. And friends help one another, right?

Before you use a recommender’s name, make ABSOLUTELY sure that you have the recommender’s permission to do so; you may make an honest mistake, but because some unscrupulous folks have used this leg-up technique on purpose, the knee-jerk assumption on the agent’s end is almost certainly going to be that there was no misunderstanding at all. Just misappropriation.

It’s not worth the risk.

A graceful way to confirm: if you are meeting in person, ask the recommender to write the agent’s name on a handy piece of paper for you. Then ask, “And it’s really okay for me to say that you sent me?” If said in a pleased, wondering tone, this will be perceived as a compliment — Wow, YOU’re willing to recommend little old me? — rather than doubting the author’s word.

Via e-mail, it’s even easier: if the language of the offer has been at all ambiguous, e-mail the recommender, saying that you are going to contact the agent. But make sure, unlike Tanya, you do it BEFORE you contact the agent in question.

The overarching moral of all of the examples across the last few days: it is ALWAYS better to ask a follow-up question or two than to assume that someone intends to help you more than his words have stated specifically. If the recommender is indeed offering to help, the question is merely considerate; if not, it’s far better you know about it before you act, right?

And regardless of the outcome: remember to express gratitude for the help you did get. As well as, of course, keeping up the good work!

Referral-seeking, part III: avoiding the wrath of the feathered serpent, or, how to win friends and influence people

My, but yesterday’s little homily was unsettling, wasn’t it? For those of you tuning in late, I was waxing poetic over the weekend about how appallingly easy it is for a perfectly innocent writer, unburdened with much knowledge of industry norms of conduct, to alienate a pro who was previously all ready to help him.

Not to mention the person who hasn’t yet said no, or whom one has yet to meet. Because, let’s face it, the publishing industry is a world where writers do need people they barely know — or don’t know at all yet — to do them favors.

In case anyone out there is confused on the subject: anytime an aspiring writer asks someone affiliated with the industry to assist him or her in skipping or speeding up the standard steps involved in querying, pitching, finding an agent, and/or getting published, s/he is asking a favor. While it is indeed agents’ and editors’ jobs to discover new talent, it’s not typically their only job, and helping out the aspiring isn’t even mentioned in a published author’s job description.

So if someone is willing to extend a helping hand, it’s generally because they’re nice. This is not a business where being pushy, or even being a good salesman, is necessarily going to work.

That’s why I refer to the finesse that allows savvy writers to avoid such faux pas as industry etiquette: like the old tried-and-true Emily Post guidelines, following these rules may not allow you to relax much around agents, editors, and published authors, but at least you know you won’t come across as a (fill in the clumsiness metaphor of your choice here).

As the British used to tell their children, manners cost nothing — but, as we saw in poor Pablo’s case yesterday, sometimes not having manners can be very costly indeed.

Yesterday, I ran through some of the common permutations Pablo’s ilk of misapprehension tends to take, but I assure you, there are others: topping the hit parade, for instance, are handing a manuscript to an agented friend and just assuming he will pass it along to his agent, but so is bot giving any sort of writing sample to an agented writer at all, but asking her to recommend you to her agent anyway and e-mailing an unrequested manuscript to an agented writer with a request that it be passed along.

Really, these are all fruit of the same tree – the initial assumption that someone else is going to do the writer’s legwork for him.

Everyone clear on that? Good. Now that you all know not to sling your manuscript in the general direction of anyone who might conceivably be able to introduce you to an agent, I’m going to concentrate today and tomorrow on more creative ways to mess up a relationship with a potential helper.

While you’re reading through, keep asking yourself this question: what single, simple thing could each of these exemplars has done to prevent falling into the proverbial soup?

Referral-farming scenario 9: Quincy and Quetzalcoatl (hey, there aren’t a whole lot of Q names) have known each other for years, having met at a writer’s conference a long time ago. Although they live on different sides of the country, thanks to e-mail, they have kept in touch as well as they would have had they lived in the same major metropolitan area.

Perhaps more so: writers, as we all know, make far and away the best e-mail correspondents.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but when ordinary citizens e-mail one another, they exchange only a couple of lines. Gospel. Some — oh, I tremble to tell you this — don’t even put that much of themselves into correspondence with their friends, but instead merely forward jokes written by other people and photographs of their infants drooling!

I know; shocking.

So, being writers, Quincy and Quetzalcoatl have shared the highs and the lows of their quest for publication in great, multi-page detail. Last year, Quetzalcoatl successfully self-published a slim volume on how to use commas to maximum effect, and has been going around to conferences ever since, speaking and promoting his book. Sensibly, he made a point of chatting with all of the agents at these conferences, with an eye to ending up on one of their representation lists.

After one such conference, Quetzalcoatl e-mails Quincy, all excited. “You’re not going to believe it,” our serpent king writes, “but agent Quibble jabbered for ten minutes about the kind of book he’s looking to represent, and it sounded just like yours!”

Quincy is astounded and grateful, of course — he has been shopping his epic, QUO VADIS, around since the last millennium, raking in stacks and stacks of rave rejections, but no offers.

So he immediately e-mails Quetzalcoatl back: “Tell Quibble about me!” To make it easier for his friend, he attaches a complete e-mail version of QUO VADIS for Quetzalcoatl to forward to Quibble.

Quetzalcoatl is nonplused: yes, he met Quibble at the conference, but they certainly don’t know each other well enough to be exchanging unsolicited manuscripts. Uncomfortable with the position into which Quincy has placed him, he suggests gently that his friend should approach Quibble in the standard manner, via a query, perhaps mentioning that Quetzalcoatl had recommended him as a potential good fit.

“It would have a better chance,” Quincy writes back immediately, “coming from you.”

Although Quincy waits for months to hear that his big break has arrived, he never hears from Quibble at all. Suspecting that Quetzalcoatl never bothered to follow through, Quincy stops returning his e-mails, and the friendship fades.

Finish wiping your eyes over this sad tale of loss and betrayal, put away your handkerchiefs, and consider: what did Quincy do wrong, other than jump to unwarranted conclusions about his long-term friend? (Fie! Fie!)

At one level, Quincy made Pablo’s mistake: he assumed that because he was being offered help, the helper would be doing all the requisite legwork from here on out. However, his follow-up misconception was a subtler oneL he thought, mistakenly, that he was being offered a personal introduction to Quibble, and before he took advantage of it, he wanted to make sure that Quetzalcoatl had already pitched his book in glowing terms.

Essentially, he wasn’t willing to put effort into pursuing the opportunity Quetzalcoatl had turned up for him until he was already assured a warm reception.

But he did not tell his friend that, so Quetzalcoatl in his turn assumed, naturally enough, that a querier as experienced as Quincy would automatically have leapt upon the tip and run with it. He would have been flatly astonished to learn that Quincy did not follow up on it, but since Quincy was too busy fuming to say anything at all, Quetzalcoatl has never heard one way or the other. All he knows is that for some unexplained reason, Quincy has disappeared.

Could be a lof of reasons for that, right?

It’s vital to remember that it’s not the helper’s job to second-guess what the helpee thinks is going on; it’s precisely the other way around. In point of fact, Quetzalcoatl was offering something quite different than Quincy assumed: a lead to an agent who had stated publicly that he was already interested in Quincy’s kind of work.

As those of us who have been through the querying mill a few dozen times know, such a tip is not to be sneezed at, upon, or even near. It’s valuable information, and Quetzalcoatl had every reason to expect Quincy to be at least a little bit grateful for it.

So what should Quincy have done instead? Sent out a query to Quibble that very day, of course, including in the first paragraph the sentiment, “Since you announced at Conference X that you were interested in Roman epics, I hope you will be open to reading my novel, QUO VADIS…” Basically, he should have taken the precious information Quetzalcoatl had given him, run with it, and blessed his friend eternally for providing it.

Instead, he just waited for the person who had just helped him to help him still more — essentially expecting Quetzalcoatl to act as his agent (as if he didn’t have his hands full fighting off Cortez, the conquistadors, and smallpox AND marketing his own book). Then, still less excusably, instead of talking to his old buddy Q about what should happen next, he kept quiet until he began to resent that Quetzalcoatl hadn’t done MORE for him.

Pretty meagre payback for Quetzalcoatl’s having done his friend a favor, isn’t it?

In essence, Quincy let a long-term friendship deteriorate because it did not occur to him that his own conception of what he was being offered was inaccurate. From an outside perspective, this seems rather silly, because a few simple questions would have elicited the fact that Quetzalcoatl was not in fact in a position to offer Quincy anything more than a little inside information.

Truth be known, Quetzalcoatl is not on terms of close personal friendship with Quibble: in reality, they sat at the same table for lunch on one day of a three-day conference, chatting about their favorite science fiction books. While waiting for his own lecture to start, Quetzalcoatl sat in on a class Quibble taught — and that was where he learned of Quibble’s love for QUO VADIS-like literature.

Now, this information could not help him personally – Quetzalcoatl’s next book is a NF tome on the historical importance of the ampersand. Yet, like the sterling member of the aspiring writer community that he is, he immediately bethought himself of his friend’s book, and passed the info along.

Thus was a good deed punished. And, should Quetzalcoatl ever find out why Quincy stopped speaking to him, how likely is he ever to do a similar favor for another aspiring writer again?

The moral of this story is not, as a cynic might tell you, never to stick your neck out for a friend. No, I think we can all agree that the world — or at any rate our little corner of it — would be a far, far better place if more of us acted like Quetzalcoatl. No, not by being friendly to the plague-carrying conquistadores; by using what we learn at conferences, classes, online, etc., to help our writing friends whenever and wherever we can.

The actual moral is that it’s ALWAYS a good idea to ask follow-up questions of people offering to help you get ahead in the industry. Make sure you know precisely what kind of assistance is on the table — and what you will need to do to take advantage of it without stepping on anyone’s toes.

Oh – and remember to thank your benefactors, for heaven’s sake, regardless of the ultimate outcome of their assistance. Regardless of his original misapprehension, it wouldn’t have killed Quincy to scrawl “Thanks for the tip” in a holiday card. By doing so, he might have saved the friendship – and restored Quetzalcoatl’s faith in humanity.

A scant handful more examples, and then I’m through. Visualize synopses beginning Wednesday. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Referral-seeking, part II: et tu, Brute? You want me to recommend you to my agent, too? But I referred Cassius last week!

Yes, yes, I know: I had implied — okay, said that I was going to start running through the rigors of constructing a professional-reading synopsis this weekend. Honestly, I have been thinking about it endlessly, trying to rack my already-taxed brain to come up with something new, scintillating, and enlightening to say on what is arguably most writers’, established and aspiring both, least favorite task ever.

How have I been coming along, you ask? Well, does the fact that I’m running a second post on the dos and don’ts of seeking out referrals from authors to their agents give you a clue?

Actually, I have been wanting to revisit the pitfalls associated with approaching established writers to ask for their assistance in landing an agent for quite some time now, because as the literary market tightens, such referrals skyrocket in value. Not because, as many writers seeking such a recommendation apparently believe, it is an automatic entrée into representation — as the agents themselves like to say, it all depends up on the writing – but because being able to say so-and-so sent me is necessary to get your submission read at all at some agencies.

Basically, garnering recommendations from authors can open some doors that are otherwise hermetically sealed to the average querier — and even at agencies where the doors are relatively easy to open, a good word from an established client can often increase the probability of the agent’s requesting pages.

Obviously, this would be beneficial at any time, but the harder it is for agents to sell books to editors at any given moment — as, for instance, when the big publishers are worried about a recession — the more selective your garden-variety agent will probably be in taking on new clients.

Translation: some doors that usually swing pretty freely have been known to stick a bit of late. Thus, introductions are more in demand.

And trust me, aspiring writers have been demanding them, both directly and indirectly. The results tend to look a little something like this.

Referral-farming scenario 3: after years of polishing her craft, seeking out the Larry, the right agent for her work, and producing several books for Larry to market, Laurentina has just signed a publication contract for her first novel. Thrilled, she lets everyone on her Christmas card list know about her success. Before Valentine’s Day, she’s received half a dozen requests from writer friends to be connected with Larry, since HE’s been so successful.

“If you want to read my manuscript first,” the seventh of these requesters generously offers, “I’d be happy to give you a copy.”

Staring at the six manuscripts already piled on her desk, Laurentina is seriously tempted just to say, “Sure — just say in the first line of your query letter that I sent you.” A second later, she reconsiders: obviously, she’s not going to jeopardize Larry’s good opinion of her by sending him a potential client without finding out first whether that person can write. But in the face of the mountain of revisions her new editor has requested, how is she ever going to find time to read a seventh novel?

“I feel like Millicent,” she grumbles, trying to figure out how to tell #7 that if he wants her help, he’s going to need to wait six months to a year. “Who died and made me Larry’s manuscript screener?”

In a way, Laurentina is lucky: at least the referral-seekers who approached her were already her friends. It’s not at all uncommon for a published (or even just agented) writer to receive similar requests from people she’s never even met. A couple of common examples:

Referral-farming scenario 4: Dario’s second novel has just come out; by dint of tireless travel to every bookstore within driving distance and working word of mouth, he managed to sell almost 4.000 copies his first, a sensitive literary fiction depiction of the relationship between a coal miner’s daughter and the crow who loves her. His publisher hopes that the second, a sensitive literary fiction depiction of the relationship between a salmon fisherman’s daughter and the seagull who loves her, will do at least as well.

Suffice it to say that Dario is pretty eager to charm potential book-buyers.

So when he receives a comment on his blog, THE GIRL-FISH ROMANTIC, asking him for a recommendation to his agent, Darlene, Dario doesn’t hesitate to fire back a long e-mail in her praise.

Within an hour, he hears from the requester again: “No, stupid,” it reads. “I wasn’t asking you to recommend Darlene to ME; I was asking you to recommend ME to HER.”

Don’t like that one much? Understandable. Here’s an even more pervasive one:

Referral-farming scenario 5: established writer Tammy has earned the right to some free time: after years of struggle to find an agent and find a publisher for her hyper-realistic novel, YEARS OF STRUGGLE FINDING AN AGENT, and the subsequent success of her follow-up titles, WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, and WHAT DO YOU MEAN, I HAVE A THREE-BOOK CONTRACT?, she is now finally making enough in royalties that by teaching half-time, she can quit her day job. Well done, Tammy!

One day, taking a break from working on her fourth novel, MY AGENT SAYS I HAVE IT IN ME, Tammy opens her e-mail and finds a message from Tina, the girlfriend of a former coworker. “Tom said you wouldn’t mind,” the e-mail gushes. “I’ve written a mystery novel, and I want to know how to get it published. Can you help me?”

Tammy glances at the shelf full of books, articles, conference brochures, and weekend workshops she had to plow through in order to figure out how to break into the business. Where, she wonders, could she even start to answer Tina’s overly-broad question? How can she even inquire how much homework Tina has already done on the subject? And what on earth does Tom think that she writes, to have sent her a mystery novelist.

I’ll get you for this, Tom, she thinks, searching her schedule for a day when she can have lunch with Tina.

Yet when she tries to explain the process over lunch, Tina looks at her with the eyes of the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. “Oh, that sounds like a whole lot of work,” she cries, dismayed. “Isn’t there another way? Maybe you could just ask your agent about it?”

What would I say? Tina thinks, reaching for the check. Hey, Teresa, here’s someone who thinks being a professional writer isn’t hard work?

Didn’t like that one any better? Okay, try this on for size:

Referral-farming scenario 6: Editor Pablo’s old college friend Pierre doesn’t keep in touch very much, but when he does, Pablo always enjoys chatting with him. After all, Pierre’s a funny guy: on an ordinary day, Pablo likes to save his e-mails for last, as a treat; on a bad day, he reads them first, as a boost.

Today, however, Pierre’s message proves to be neither: “Hey, Pablo — I’ve just met this guy, Peter, who wants to be a writer. I think he’s been working on a memoir. He wants to find an agent — can you help him?”

Naturally, this places Pablo in a quandary: he spends the next half an hour trying to come up with a funny way to say that he cannot possibly assess his ability to assist someone about whose talent he knows nothing in placing a book about which he knows nothing.

In the end, he gives up. “Gee, I’d love to help out,” he writes hurriedly, “but I’m afraid I’m just swamped.”

Have you flung your hands over your eyes in horror yet? No? Okay, let me reward you for your bravery by showing you an example of how someone who HAS done his homework about the biz might unwittingly push the boundaries of request-reasonableness:

Referral-farming scenario 7: Barry has been querying his memoir, 47 THINGS I DID TO HERONS, for a couple of years now. He’s gotten a couple of nibbles from agents who have asked to see his book proposal (and, in one case, the first 50 pages), but for some reason, the quotidian plight of a boy raised by waterfowl doesn’t seem to strike any of them as particularly marketable.

Worried that he lacks the necessary perspective to revise his work for the 151rst time, Barry joins an already-established writers’ group, one where the participants take the responsibilities of critique very seriously indeed. A few sessions in, a fellow memoir-writer, Barbara, mentions something her agent had said about building the dramatic arc in a memoir. “Just because it actually happened,” she quotes, “doesn’t mean it will necessarily work on the page. Cull, cull, cull.”

Barry feels as though he has been hit by the proverbial stroke of lightning: could he have been providing too many details in his memoir? He’s reluctant to believe that his story could be told in under 1,015 pages, but hey, if that’s what the pros want, it’s worth a try.

Two months and 600 pages of cuts later, Barry appears at critique group, beaming. “I took your agent’s advice,” he announces to a startled Barbara. “When can you get him my manuscript?”

See the problem here? Barbara never actually offered to put Barry in touch with her agent; because his request is so abrupt, he has placed her in the awkward position of having to decide on the spot (a) whether she likes Barry’s writing enough to recommend him, (b) whether she thinks Barry will handle himself professionally enough after such a recommendation not to embarrass her, (c) whether, based upon what she knows of her agent’s tastes, he’s at all likely to be interested in Barry’s work, (d) whether Barry is going to hold her responsible if he doesn’t, and thus (e) whether doing this favor may result in her having to find another writers’ group.

Do I hear some huffing out there from those who identify with Barry more than Barbara? “Oh, come on, Anne,” some of you point out, “isn’t Barbara being a little paranoid here? All Barry is asking her to do is put in a good word for him with her agent — after all, it’s up to the agent whether to accept or reject Barry. She may have qualms, but she’s just being a dog in the manger if she says no.”

Actually, Barry gave Barbara a pretty good reason to hesitate: instead of asking for a referral, he assumed that not only would she be willing to help him, but that she would be happy to take on the responsibility of conveying the manuscript as well.

Essentially, he’s making the case that because she was kind enough to give him advice before — actually, in this case, to pass along second-hand advice from her agent — that she should continue to help him. Like many a referral-seeker before him, Barry hasn’t paused to consider the gravity of the favor he’s asking; apparently, he’s only thought about Barbara’s assistance in terms of what it could mean to HIM.

Does this assumption strike you as a wee bit familiar? It should: all of today’s examplars have suffered from it.

This is an oversight to which frustrated agent-seekers are especially prone: the notion that people in the publishing industry OWE assistance to up-and-coming writers — or, if not to all of them equally, at least to oneself.

It’s an understandable feeling, of course. When marketing one’s first book to agents and editors, it is all too easy to forget that EVERY writer with whom they have contact loves his or her book, too, longing for its success with all of the fierce passion that each of us devotes to ours.

In the face of literally millions of similarly passionate hopers, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that agents and editors tend to get a bit jaded by the sight of writerly excitement.

This is why, to pull out one of my favorite broken records again, the tactic of querying or pitching by saying, “This is the best book you’ll ever read!” literally never works. This kind of hyperbolic praise rings in the industry’s ears as hollow, as if they had just asked a group of doting parents watching their third-graders in an aesthetically God-awful elementary school production of THE WIZARD OF OZ which kid currently mangling the choreography is destined for stardom.

The invariable answer: “Why, my child, of course.”

The problem of the overenthusiastic writer who assumes that everyone who stands between himself and publication can (and what’s more, should) drop whatever they’re doing in order to help him (and, one assumes, only him) is not discussed much on the conference circuit — or rather, it’s not discussed much in front of contest attendees. It IS discussed by agents, editors, and authors backstage at conferences all the time, I assure you, and in outraged tones.

Why? Because while the majority of aspiring writers are polite in their approaches, a predictably large minority, bless their warm and impetuous hearts, overstep the bounds of common courtesy pretty regularly. Ss I can tell you from direct personal experience, it’s not easy being the first personal contact a writer has with the industry: one tends to be treated less as a person than as a door or a ladder.

And no one, however famous or powerful, likes that. Case in point — and this time, I warn you, there is going to be a quiz at the end, so do pay attention:

Referral-farming scenario 8: at a writers’ conference, Karl meets Krishnan, a writer who has recently acquired an agent. The two men genuinely have a great deal in common: they live in the same greater metropolitan area, write for the same target market, and they share a love of the plays of Edward Albee. (Don’t ask me why; they just do.) So after hanging out together in the bar that is never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference venue, it seems perfectly natural for Karl to e-mail Krishnan and ask him to have coffee the following week.

When Krishnan arrives at the coffee shop, however, he is dismayed when Karl pulls a hefty manuscript box out of his backpack. “Here,” Karl says. “I want to know what you think before I send it to the agents who requested it at the conference. And after you read it, you can send it on to your agent.”

Krishnan just sits there, open-mouthed. As soon as his cell phone rings, he feigns a forgotten appointment and flees.

Okay, what did Karl do wrong here?

Partially, he succumbed a more advanced case of the plague of galloping assumption that afflicted our friends above: he just assumed that by merely being friendly, Krishnan was volunteering to help him land an agent.

However, there are a LOT of reasons that industry professionals are nice to aspiring writers at conferences, including the following, listed in descending order of probability:

*Krishnan might have just been being polite — which will no doubt thrill his mother.

*Krishnan might have regarded Karl as a potential buyer of his books, and as such, did not want to alienate a future fan — which will no doubt thrill his future editor.

*Krishnan might have been teaching a class at the conference, or hoping to do so in future, and wanted to make a good impression — which will no doubt thrill…well, probably nobody, but it was intended to thrill Karl.

*Krishnan is lonely — writing is a lonely craft, by definition, right? — and is looking for other writers with whom to commune, which could potentially cause them to thrill one another.

*Krishnan is looking for local writers with whom to form a critique group — which, again, might cause them to thrill one another, but probably will be less than thrilling to everyone concerned’s SOs.

*Krishnan’s agent might have asked him to be on the lookout for new writers at the conference (rare, but it does happen occasionally), which would have been precisely the thrill Karl was seeking, had he played his cards right.

Of these possibilities, only the last two would dictate ANY willingness on Krishnan’s part to read Karl’s work — and the next to last one definitely implies that reading would be exchanged, not one-way. However, if either of the last two had been Krishnan’s intent, it would have been polite for Karl to wait to be ASKED.

Ditto with Karl’s request that Krishnan pass the manuscript on to his agent. Even with a super-open agent, an agented author cannot recommend others indiscriminately. If Krishnan recommends Karl, and Karl turns out to be a bad writer, a constant nuisance, or just plain nuts, that recommendation will seriously compromise his ability to recommend writers in future.

Unpleasant but true: writers like Karl, while usually well-meaning in and of themselves, collectively make it harder for everyone else to get this kind of recommendation.

There’s another reason Krishnan would be inclined to run from such an approach: underlying resentment. Not of Karl’s rather inconsiderate assumptions that he would automatically be willing to help someone he’s just met, but of Karl’s attempt to cut into a line in which Krishnan stood for quite some time.

Just as it is relatively safe to presume that the more recently a writer landed an agent, the more difficult and time-consuming the agent-finding process was — because, by everyone’s admission, in this market, it’s harder than it was ten or even five years ago to wow an agent — it is a fair bet that an agent who has been signed but has not yet sold a book will be lugging around quite a bit of residual resentment about the process, or even about his agent.

If an agented writer’s hauling a monumental chip on his shoulder about his agent seems a little strange to you, I can only conclude that your experience listening to those whose first or second books are currently being marketed by their agents is not vast. Almost universally, a writer’s life gets harder, not easier, in the initial months after being signed: as exemplar Laurentina would be happy to tell you, practically any agent on earth will ask for manuscript revisions of even a manuscript she loves, in order to make it more marketable, and no one, but no one, on the writer’s end of the game is ever happy about the speed of submission.

Even if Krishnan’s agent is a saint and habitually works at a speed that would make John Henry gasp, Karl was unwise to assume that Krishnan would be eager to speed up the agent-finding process for anyone else. For all Karl knows, Krishnan struggled for YEARS to land his agent — and, unhappily, human nature does not always wish to shorten the road for those who come after.

Just ask anyone who has been through a medical residency. Or a Ph.D. program.

Note, please, that all of the above applies EVEN IF Krishnan actually has time to read the manuscript in question. Which, as the vast majority of agented-but-not-published writers hold full-time jobs and have to struggle to carve out writing time — as do many of the published writers I know; not a lot of people make a living solely from writing novels — is NOT a foregone conclusion.

The best rule of thumb: establish an honest-to-goodness friendship before you ask for favors.

It may well have turned out that Karl had a skill — computer repair, eagle-eyed proofreading, compassionate dog-walking — that Krishnan would be pleased to receive in exchange for feedback on Karl’s book. Krishnan might even have asked Karl to join his critique group, where such feedback would have been routine. But Karl will never know, because he jumped the gun, assuming that because Krishnan had an agent, the normal rules of favor-asking did not apply to him.

The same rule applies, by the way, to any acquaintance whose professional acumen you would like to tap unofficially. If I want to get medical information from my doctor about a condition that is plaguing a character in my novel, I expect to pay for her time.

Nor, outside of a formal conference context, would I expect a professional editor to read my work, an agent to give me feedback on my pitch, or an editor to explain the current behind-the-scenes at Random House to me unless we either already had a close friendship or I was paying for their time, either monetarily or by exchange.

Be very aware that you are asking a favor, and a big one, when you ask an author to help you reach his agent. Not only are you asking the author to invest time and energy in helping a relative stranger – you are also expecting him or her to put credibility on the line. And that, dear readers, is something that most authors – and most human beings – do not do very often for relative strangers.

No, not even if Tom or Pierre ask it on someone else’s behalf. Go figure.

Tread lightly — and keep up the good work!

“Tell me again — who sent you?”

Autumn’s in the air, which means two things in my line of work: the release this year’s crop of literary fiction likely to be nominated for major awards and Millicent the agency screener, her boss, and the editors to whom the latter likes to pitch getting back to work, digging their respective ways through the piles upon piles of submissions lingering after the annual summer hiatus, not to mention the new, post-conference submissions..

It is, in short, a great time to be querying and submitting.

Since I know that many of you are spending your weekends/spare time/whenever your boss isn’t looking over your shoulder at work pulling together lists of agents to query, this seemed like an especially good moment to answer a question sharp-eyed reader Jake asked a few months back:

Just to be sure, if an agency does say it only accepts clients through recommendations, am I to assume they’re listing off these guidelines, but expecting to see the recommendation in the query? (I don’t actually know anyone who can refer me, but I’m wondering if querying these agents anyway is worth the hassle or a waste of time and money)

Before I answer Jake’s question, let’s define our terms, shall we? In some agency guides, agencies will list themselves as accepting clients by referral . In plain English, this means that a querier who has not either been invited by one of their agents to submit or had the way smoothed by a third party might as well not query at all.

Don’t call us, in other words; we’ll — well, actually, we won’t call you.

A more common notation is accepts clients mostly through recommendations — and here, the unconnected writer need not despair as thoroughly. It’s a simple statement of fact, information a would-be querier needs to know: this agency is more likely to pick up a new client through a referral than via a cold query.

So to whom do such agencies look for these recommendations, referrals, and general good word of mouth — and how does an aspiring writer go about procuring same?

Most of the time, agents receive referrals from their already-signed clients — and not necessarily those who already have books out, by the way — editors who have met writers at conferences, journalists, their college roommates…in short, from the people they know.

Which is why, in case those of you living outside the greater New York City metropolitan area have been wondering, you’re far more likely to hear authors from that part of the country say at book readings, “How did I meet my agent? Oh, networking,” than those domiciled anywhere else.

That is not to say that writers residing elsewhere need write off this means of entrée into an agency. It’s merely a little more work.

Okay, so it’s a lot more work, but often worth it: even at an agency that obtains new clients mostly through querying and conference-trolling, a recommendation from a standing client, particularly one they like, does tend to increase the likelihood of being asked to send pages.

Why? Well, good writers who have been kicking around in the field for a while tend to know other good writers — or, at any rate, know ones who have done their homework about what being a professional writer means, over and above being talented: presenting a manuscript in standard format, the desirability of meeting deadlines without undue whining, and the learned skill of taking intensive feedback without regarding it as a personal attack, to name but three desirata.

How might a professional writer spot these traits in others? By being in a critique group with them, for one thing, or by exchanging manuscripts. A perceptive observer can learn a lot about a writer by how s/he responds to feedback.

Kind of changes how you might think of joining a writers’ group, doesn’t it, or staying in one? One of those people might well hit the big time someday and be in a position to say either, “Clarice? Oh, she’s a great writer, really even-tempered,” or “Well, Clarice is talented enough, but if you suggest changing so much as a comma in her work, she bursts into noisy tears and accuses you of trying to poison her.”

If that last comment seemed like an exaggeration to you, you either haven’t been in many critique groups or have been fortunate enough to be in really good ones.

Most of the time, though, aspiring writers pick up referrals to agents in the most straightforward manner imaginable: by walking up to an established writer IN THEIR BOOK CATEGORY (important; an author in another genre may reasonably be expected to be able to provide a referral to an agent with a track record of selling books in his own book category, but not necessarily in others) at a book reading, conference, or other literary occasion, striking up a conversation, and eventually, asking for a referral to the author’s agent.

It’s the eventually part that tends to be problematic. Too many aspiring writers just blurt out the request right away, with little or no preamble.

To understand why this might land the requester in hot water, let’s take the case of Isabelle.

Referral-farming scenario 1: Isabelle notices in her local paper that Ignatz, a writer whose work is similar to hers and is aimed at the same target market will be giving a reading at a local bookstore. She makes a point of attending the reading, and during question time, asks who represents him – and asks permission to use him as a query reference.

Ignatz laughs uncomfortably, tells an agent-related anecdote, and when she presses for a name, tells her to see him afterward.

Isabelle waits patiently until all those who have bought books have presented them to Ignatz for signing, then repeats her question. “I haven’t read your book,” she tells him, “but from the reviews, our work has a lot in common.”

Ignatz, professional to the toes of his well-polished boots, casts only a fleeting glance at her empty hands before replying. “I’m sorry,” he says, “my agent has asked me not to refer any new writers to him.”

What did Isabelle do wrong? (And, for extra credit, what about Ignatz’s response marks it as a brush-off?)

Isabelle committed two cardinal sins of author approach. First, she did not evince ANY interest in Ignatz’s work before asking him for a favor — and a fairly hefty favor, at that. She did not even bother to buy his book, which is, after all, how Ignatz pays his rent. But since he is quite aware, as any successful writer must be, that being rude to potential readers may mean lost business down the line, he can hardly tell her so directly.

So he did the next best thing: he lied about his agent’s openness to referrals.

How do I know he lied? Experience, my dears, experience: had his agent actually not been accepting new clients, his easiest way out would have been simply to say so, but he did not. And, realistically, most agents rather like it when their clients recommend new writers; it saves the agent trouble, to use the client as a screener.

Hey, who doesn’t like to have someone to blame if a blind date goes horribly, horribly wrong?

So, generally speaking, if an agented writer says, “Oh, my agent doesn’t like me to recommend,” he really means, “I don’t like being placed in this position, and I wish you would go away.”

How has Isabelle placed Ignatz in a tough position? Because she has committed another approach faux pas: she asked for a reference from someone who has never read her work.

From Ignatz’s point of view, this is a no-win situation. He has absolutely no idea if Isabelle can write – and to ask to see her work would be to donate his time gratis to someone who has just been quite rude to him. Yet if he says yes without reading her work, and Isabelle turns out to be a terrible writer (or a terrible pest), his agent is going to be annoyed with him. And if he just says, “No, I don’t read the work of every yahoo who accosts me at a reading,” he will alienate a potential book buyer.

So lying about his agent’s availability is Ignatz’s least self-destructive way out. Who can blame him for taking it?

Let’s hope and pray that Isabelle has learned something from this encounter. Manuscript in hand, let’s send her to another reading.

Referral-farming scenario 2: Isabelle spots another reading announcement in her local newspaper. This time, it’s an author whose work she’s read, Juanita; wisely, she digs up her dog-eared copy of Juanita’s first novel and brings it along to be signed, to demonstrate her ongoing willingness to support Juanita’s career.

She also, less promisingly, brings along a copy of her own manuscript.

After the reading, Isabelle stands in line to have her book signed. While Juanita is graciously chatting with her about the inscription, Isabelle slaps her 500-page manuscript onto the signing table. “Would you read this?” she asks. “And then recommend me to your agent?”

Juanita casts a panicked glance around the room, clearly seeking an escape route. “I’m afraid I don’t have time to read anything new right now,” she says, shrinking away from the pile of papers. “Oh, my phone is vibrating — will you excuse me, please?”

This, believe it or not, happens even more that the first scenario – and with even greater frequency at writers’ conferences. Just as some writers have a hard time remembering that agents have ongoing projects, lives, other clients, etc. whose interests may preclude dropping everything to pay attention to a new writer, so too do established writers – many, if not most, of whom teach writing classes and give lectures in order to supplement their incomes.

So basically, Isabelle has just asked a professional author to give a private critique of her manuscript for free. Not the best means of winning friends and influencing people, generally speaking.

Yes, the process of finding an agent is frustrating, but do try to bear in mind what you are asking when you request help from another writer. Just as querying and pitching necessarily cuts into your precious writing time, so do requests of this nature cut into established writers’ writing time. Other than your admiration and gratitude, tell me, what does the author who helps you get out of it?

This not to say that some established writers aren’t willing to offer this kind of help; many do, and some of them like it. (Others charge a pretty penny for it, but that’s another story.) But even the most generous person tends to be nonplused when total strangers demand immense favors.

Establishing some sort of a relationship first – even if that relationship consists of nothing more than the five-minute conversation about the author’s work that precedes the question, “So, what do you write?” – is considered a polite first step.

In other words: whatever happened to foreplay, baby?

Don’t jump the gun, my friends. Remember, established writers are climbing up the publishing ladder, too, and respect their time accordingly. Make the effort to read, or at least buy, an author’s work before you approach her – and producing a little well-phrased, well-informed flattery never hurts, either.

I want to run through a few other examples illustrating the dos and don’ts of approaching an author for a recommendation, but that’s a project for another day. Right now, for the sake of confining the answer to Jake’s question to a single post (the easier to find it in the archives, my dear), let’s address the question of how an aspiring writer lucky enough to garner such a recommendation should USE it.

Jake’s assumption is correct: whatever else an agency says in its listing or on its website still applies when you have a referral. A referred writer should not, for instance, send an unsolicited manuscript or telephone and say, “Your client, Penny Scribbler, told me to contact you.”

A much, much better — not to say more courteous — approach would be to send a query letter beginning, “Your client, Penny Scribbler, suggested that I contact you about my thriller, BODY PARTS…” and proceeding like any other query letter targeting that particular agent.

That way, the agent or her Millicent knows from line 1 precisely why you are contacting her — and that she might want to pay a bit more attention to this query.

Naturally, you should ONLY open a query in this manner if Penny Scribbler actually did refer you — and if Penny’s agency makes it clear in its agency guide listings or on its website that it’s not very open to queries unaccompanied by a referral, think very carefully about whether it is worth your while to approach her agent without one. I have known a couple of writers who have landed agents by cold-querying agents who list themselves as requiring referrals, but it’s extremely rare that someone gets picked up that way, for all of the obvious reasons.

Personally, I would hold off.

However, if an agent that’s listed in a guide as only accepting referred queries seems like a particularly good fit for your book, it’s worth checking its website to see if that policy is still in effect, if every agent within the agency operates that way, etc. Sometimes, guide listings are out of date; unless there’s been a big personnel shift, many agencies will simply use the same listing for years. A new agent at such an agency may well be looking for new clients.

But, generally speaking, when agents set the referral limitation, they mean it.

Another reason to check out their websites, latest listings, etc., is to find out who their clients are and see if THEY have websites, give readings, etc. Many a writer who has written a fan letter has ended up with a recommendation to the author’s agent down the line.

Which brings us right back to Isabelle’s situation, doesn’t it? As I said, that’s a topic for another day. Next time, I shall run through a few more of the common gaffes eager referral-seekers tend to commit — because, after all, it’s far, far better that my fictional exemplars stumble into those gopher holes than my readers, right?

Keep up the good work!

The submission packet, part III: making yours the Easter egg that everyone wants to find, or, the race is not always to the swiftest

The age of miracles has not yet vanished, my friends. Remember that yard renovation we started way back in, oh, March? Or was it in April, or 2003, or the era of the Visigoths? Today, after what felt like an entire Bronze Age of delays, the landscapers showed up (in itself something of a miracle), cleared away the debris that they had left artistically dotting our neighborhood, waved their hands over the heaping piles of sod that have housed a mole-and-squirrel theme park for months now — and violà, we abruptly have a very lush lawn.

I’m not talking just healthy, mind you — this is downright bourgeois. I haven’t seen greenery this decadent since I was a student at Harvard, when the grand old school would banish the students from the trampled lawns a few weeks before graduation and roll out new ones, so the Yard would look nice for the soon-to-be-visiting alumni.

Oh, as if Harvard’s the only university that does it.

Our new, croquet-worthy lawn seems like an apt metaphor for today, when I shall be wrapping up this week’s micro-series on SASEs and other things an aspiring writer might conceivably ship to an agent or editor. You could always go the Rolls Royce route, overnighting every scrap of requested paper or even having a bike messenger deliver it, but why shell out the dosh?

In the end, whether the yard boasts a pelt-thick lawn or the most modest rock garden, you will want to impress the recipient with the house, if you catch my drift.

On the off chance that anyone out there didn’t, allow me to make it plainer: too many aspiring writers waste scads of money speeding up the delivery time between their houses and a requesting agency. Overnighting a submission is utterly unnecessary; it won’t win you any Brownie points whatsoever with Millicent the agency screener, and it most assuredly will not get her boss to read your manuscript any faster.

Save your money for something else — nice paper upon which to print the submission, for instance.

With an eye to helping submitting writers figure out what is and isn’t a necessary expense, I have spent the last couple of posts talking (in part) about ways to save money when shipping requested materials to an agent or editor. We writers don’t talk about this very much amongst ourselves, but the fact is, the process of finding an agent can be pretty expensive.

Did a few of you new to the process just choke on your cornflakes? “Wait just a minute, Anne,” a sputtering few still working up to the marketing stage cry. “Surely, you’re talking about the entire agent-finding process being expensive, right, not just the shipping-off part? I mean, really, I’ve just shelled out hundreds of dollars to attend a writers’ conference so I could meet agents to query — I hadn’t thought at all about the the next step, mailing off requested materials, taxing my piggie bank.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it might.

At minimum, the costs of producing a professional-looking submission packet include shipping (both there and back), boxes, paper, ink cartridges, wear and tear on your computer, and a ton of your time that could be used for, well, anything else. While individually these may not seem as potentially scarifying to your checking account as the even greater optional costs of attending conferences, entering contests, and hiring freelance editors like me to help pull your submission into tip-top shape, it all adds up.

So much so that if you’re a US citizen and marketing a book, it’s worth looking into the possibility of filing a Schedule C for your writing as a business, so you can deduct these expenses. Talk to a tax professional about it (I am not a tax professional, so I cannot legally give you advice on the subject), but do try to find one who is familiar with artists’ returns: ones who are not will almost invariably say that a writer must sell work in a given year to claim associated expenses, but that’s not necessarily true.

Yesterday, as part of my ongoing quest to save you a few sous, I brought up the case of Antoinette, the writer who rushed out and overnighted her manuscript, then waited seemingly endlessly by the phone for the agent of her dreams to respond. I went into her possible reasons for doing this — rather than sending the book regular mail or the more affordable 2-3 day Priority Mail rate.

Today, I want to talk a bit about the other two primary motivators for jumping the proverbial gun: fear and eagerness.

To let one of the most poorly-hidden cats out of one of the most hole-ridden bags in the business, new souls walking the planet are in a greater hurry than a writer who has just received a request for materials. Especially if that request comes at the end of a long period of querying or after a particularly intense conference, it’s far from uncommon for the lucky writer to decide, wrongly, that the only possible response is to drop everything else in her life — calling in sick to work, if necessary — to throw together the requested materials and get them out the door as close to instantly as possible.

One of two rationales typically underlies this approach. In the first, the writer says, “Oh, my God, this request to see all or part of my manuscript must be a fluke. I’d better get these materials under the agent or editor’s nose within the next few hours, before either (a) s/he changes her/his mind, (b) the malignant forces that rule the universe cause the wall of indifference to art to rise again, this temporary fissure mended, or (c) both.

Whichever thunderbolt the hostile gods of publishing are planning to send his way, the fearful writer wants to make absolutely sure that his submission is out of his hands well before it strikes.

Who cares that he hasn’t had time to double-check his submission for easily-overlooked gaffes, or that overnighting that package will cost four times as much as sending it via regular mail? He’s trying to submit before the agent of his dreams comes to his/her senses.

In reality, of course, it just doesn’t work like that: a request to submit materials will be every bit as good two weeks from the day it was made as it was in the moment. Or two months.

Also, as I MAY have hinted gently above, the writer’s speed in getting the submission to the agent will not make one scintilla of difference in how quickly a manuscript is read — or even the probability of its moldering on an agent’s desk for months. Certainly, whether the agent’s receiving the manuscript the next day or in the 2-3 days offered by the more reasonably priced Priority Mail will make no appreciable difference to response time.

Especially during summer conference season, since most of the industry goes on vacation from early August through Labor Day. Or around Christmastime, when the biz more or less shuts down.

The other, more common rationale for too-swift submission is eagerness. “Whew!” the writer who has just received a request to submit says. “The hard part is over now: my premise has been recognized as a good one by an agent who handles this sort of material. From this point on, naturally, everything is going to happen in a minute: reading, acceptance, book sale, chatting on Oprah.”

You know, the average trajectory for any garden-variety blockbuster. Who wouldn’t want to cut a week, or even a few days, out of tackling that bright future?

I sincerely hope that yours is the one in eight million submissions that experiences this second trajectory — and that’s the probability in a good year for publishing — but writerly hopes to the contrary, a request for submission is the beginning of the game, not the end. The fact is, as small a percentage of queries receive a positive response (and it’s unusually under 5%), even fewer submissions pass the initial read test.

Or, to put it the terms we typically use on this blog, it takes even less provocation to cause Millicent shout “Next!” over the first page of a manuscript than over a query.

There’s a reason that I grill you on the details, you know: I want yours to be in that top few percentiles. Which is why I would rather see your resources and energy going toward perfecting the submission itself, rather than getting it there with a rapidity that would make Superman do a double-take.

This is true, incidentally, even when the agent has ASKED a writer to overnight a project. Consider the plight of poor Gilberto:

Submission scenario 2: Gilberto has just won a major category in a writing contest with his thriller, DON’T PAY ANY ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN; HE’S NOT REALLY CARRYING AN AXE. During the very full pitching day that follows his win, five agents ask him to send submissions. Seeing that he was garnering a lot of interest, Maxine, the most enthusiastic of the agents, requests that he overnight the manuscript to her, so she can respond to it right away.

Gilberto says yes. He actually does overnight the packet.

However, being a savvy submitter, he submits simultaneously to the other five via regular mail right away. He does not tell Maxine — or any of the others — that he is letting many agents read his manuscript at the same time. He writes REQUESTED MATERIALS — FIRST PLACE, CONTEST NAME on the outside of every submission and mentions the request in the first line of his cover letter, to minimize the possibility of his work being lost in amongst the many submissions these agencies receive.

Within three weeks, he’s heard back from all but one of them; puzzlingly, Maxine is the last to respond. And when she finally does, six weeks after he overnighted her the manuscript, it’s with form letter. This most enthusiastic of agents has rejected him without even telling him why.

What did Gilberto do wrong? Not much, really, except for saying yes to an unreasonable request — and not telling the agents that they were competing over his work. That not made his submission process more expensive than it needed to be, but also more or less eliminated any benefit he might have derived from the contest-generated buzz about his book.

Let’s take his missteps one at a time. Why was Maxine’s request that he overnight the manuscript unreasonable?

In essence, the situation was no different than if Maxine had asked him to leave the conference, jump in his car, drive three hours home to print up a copy of his manuscript for her, drive three hours back, and hand it to her. In both cases, the agent would have been asking the writer to go to unnecessary effort and expense for no reason other than her convenience.

Yet as Maxine’s subsequent behavior showed, she had no more intention of reading Gilberto’s manuscript within the next couple of days than she did of reading it on the airplane home.

Okay, here is a pop quiz to see how much those of you who followed this summer’s series on conference pitching have learned: why did she ask him to overnight it at all?

Give yourself full marks if you said it was to get a jump on other interested agents. As I mentioned in the pitching series, agents tend to be competitive people — to many of them, a book project’s value will increase in direct proportion to how many other agents are interested in it.

The give-me-first-peek request is one way it manifests — yet another reason that it is ALWAYS in a writer’s best interest to make simultaneous submissions and queries, rather than approaching them one at a time.

Not clear why? For the same reason not telling all of the agents concerned that they were in potential competition over his work was a mistake: because they would probably have been a bit more interested had they known that.

What makes me suspect that not using his manuscript’s being in demand as a selling point harmed Gilberto’s chances of landing an agent. Okay, let’s think about it for a minute: why didn’t Maxine get back to him sooner?

In practice, of course, she could have had a lot of reasons — a death in the family, a problem with an existing client’s relationship with her editor, a particularly exciting negotiation, rehab…the list goes on and on. But any other possible factors aside, Maxine knew that if any of those other agents at the conference had made an offer, Gilberto would have contacted her — and when he didn’t, she could treat his might-have-been-hot property just like any other submitted manuscript.

In other words, jumping in and asking for a first peek cost Maxine nothing — it obviously affected her subsequent treatment of Gilberto’s work not at all — but guaranteed that she would be first to know about how his other submissions fared. And once she could safely assume that he had not been picked up by anyone else, the shiny gleam of being sought-after faded from his manuscript.

Now pause and consider the ramifications of Maxine’s attitude toward other agents’ interest levels for a moment. Picture them spread thickly across the industry. Let the possible effects ripple across your mind, like the concentric circles moving gently outward after you throw a stone into a limpid pool, rolling outward until…OH, MY GOD, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE AVERAGE QUERY-GENERATED SUBMISSION?

Uh-huh. Not high on the average Maxine’s to-do list.

Explains quite a bit about why the agent who requested your first 50 pages doesn’t get back to you for two months, doesn’t it? While an agent expects that the writer querying her will be simultaneously querying elsewhere, the converse is also true: she will assume, unless you tell her otherwise, that the packet you send her is the only submission currently under any agent’s eyes.

This is why it is ALWAYS a good idea to mention in your submission cover letter that other agents are reading it, if they are. No need to name names: just say that other agents have requested it, and are reading it even as she holds your pages in her hot little hand.

I heard that thought go through some of your minds: I would have to scold you if you lied about this, just to speed up the agent’s sense of urgency. Ooh, that would be too strategic, clever, and unscrupulous. Sneaky writer; no cookie.

Okay, here’s the extra credit question: in the scenario above, Maxine already knows that other agents are interested in Gilberto’s work; she is hoping to snap him up first. So why didn’t she read it right away?

Give up? Well, Maxine’s goal was to get the manuscript before the other agents made offers to Gilberto, not necessarily to make an offer before they did.

Is that a vast cloud of confusion I feel wafting from my readers’ general direction? Was that loud, guttural sound a collective “Wha–?”

It honestly does make sense, when you consider the competition amongst agents. Maxine is aware that she has not sufficiently charmed Gilberto to induce him to submit to her exclusively; since he won the contest, she also has a pretty good reason to believe he can write up a storm. So she definitely wants to read his pages, but she will not know whether she wants to sign him until she reads his writing.

Because, as agents like to say, it all depends upon the writing.

Maxine’s met enough writers to be aware that it is distinctly possible that Gilberto’s response to his big win will be to spend the next eight months going over his manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, perfecting it before showing it to anyone at all. She would like to see it before he does that, if at all possible.

To beat the Christmas rush, as it were.

Even if she doesn’t get an advance peek, Maxine is setting up a situation where Gilberto will automatically tell her if any other agent makes an offer: he’s probably going to call or e-mail her to see if she’s still interested before he signs with anyone else. By asking him to go to the extraordinary effort and expense of overnighting the manuscript to her, she has, she hoped, conveyed her enthusiasm about the book sufficiently that he will regard her as a top prospect.

If she gets such a call, Maxine’s path will be clear: if she hasn’t yet read his pages, she will ask for a few days to do so before he commits to the other agent. If she doesn’t, she will assume that there hasn’t been another offer. She can take her time and read the pages when she gets around to it.

What’s the rush, from her perspective?

From the agent’s POV, asking a writer to overnight a manuscript is a compliment, not a directive: it’s the agent’s way of saying she’s really, really interested, not that she is going to clear her schedule tomorrow night in order to read it. And even if so, the tantalization will only be greater if she has to live through another couple of days before cloistering herself to read it.

So what should Gilberto have done instead? The polite way to handle such a request is to say, “Wow, I’m flattered, but I’m booked up for the next few days, and several other agents have already asked to see it. I can get a copy to you by the end of the week, though, when I send out the others.”

And then he should have sat down, read it IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch any glaring mistakes, and Priority Mailed it a few days later, accompanied by a cover letter reiterating that other agents are also reading it.

Tick, tick.

Sound daring? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: in the industry, the party who wants a manuscript overnighted is generally the one who pays for it. After a publisher acquires your book, the house will generally be paying for you to ship your pages overnight if they need them that quickly, not you. So by asking the writer to pay the costs, the agent is actually stepping outside the norms of the biz.

You need some time to wrap your brain around that last point, don’t you? Fine; I shall sign off for the day to go and run barefoot across that decadent lawn. Whee!

Keep up the good work!

The submission packet, part II: “So many manuscripts, so little time.” — Millicent

Well, when I digress, no one can say that I don’t do it thoroughly: having begun thinking about the problems that typically assail a first-time submitter, I realized that I have at least a few days’ worth of ostensibly wise, potentially helpful, and possibly witty things to say on the subject. As is true of so many of the hills dotting the long and curvy road to publication, knowing what the way ahead holds can help the aspiring writer avoid taking any of the multitude of wrong turns.

Since I doubt I can milk that metaphor any further, let’s move on to pastures new — or at any rate nearby.

To put it another way: isn’t it amazing just how much there is to know about the ostensibly straightforward task of printing out requested materials, placing them in an appropriate mailing container, and sending them off to an agent or editor?

Underscore presents itself: you all know NEVER to submit unrequested pages, right?

Why? Because almost universally, unsolicited manuscripts are rejected unread. Even at the rare agency or publishing house that accepts unrequested manuscripts, it’s going to end up in what’s known as the slush pile, the stack of submissions that stretches, Dr. Seuss-style, skyward, awaiting the day when someone will have the time to review them.

It can take a LONG time just to go through the manuscripts they asked to see. Care to guess how tempting that fact renders tossing aside those they didn’t request?

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

Yet despite the ubiquity of the reject-the-unsolicited-on-sight policy, amazingly few of the writers rejected for doing so are even aware that jumping the gun caused it. Like aspiring writers who submit without a SASE, with too much material, or without following the strictures of standard format, gun-jumpers usually receive exactly the same form-letter rejection as writers whose work was rejected for writing-related reasons.

So they keep submitting incorrectly time after time, never understanding that a few relatively simple changes could get the pros to take their manuscripts more seriously. It saddens me.

Do I see a raised hand or two out here? “Um, Anne?” I hear a few quick-reasoning readers pipe up. “Since submitting via e-mail would obviate the lack-of-SASE problem entirely, and since if I send my materials as an attachment to an e-mail, Millicent the screener won’t know how many pages I’ve submitted unless she reads through them all, wouldn’t I pretty much always be better off submitting my work electronically?”

Well, you could make a good argument for that, computer-huggers. While an unsolicited e-submission will, admittedly, tend to meet the same fate as an unsolicited paper submission — a quick and quiet rejection — e-submission does undoubtedly have many perqs. It’s substantially cheaper than printing up and mailing a submission, for one thing, especially so for writers submitting to US agents from outside the country, not to mention less wasteful of paper. Agencies often respond to e-queries more rapidly than paper queries, and an electronic submission may easily be e-mailed around the office.

So if I were in the market for an agent (which, thank the gods, I’m not), would I be querying and submitting electronically? No, I can’t say I would.

Why are paper submissions are worth all the effort and expense? Well, for starters, they are typically read more closely then e-mailed submissions, for the extremely simple reason that people read faster on a screen. Electronic rejection is as easy as Millicent’s hitting a button a nanosecond after a sentence displeases her — far, far less energy- and time-consuming than having to dig out the SASE, reach for the form rejection letter to stuff inside it, insert the rejected manuscript, and eventually carry the whole shebang to the mail room.

Yes, you read that correctly: Millicent;s begrudging, mercurial attention to your first printed page is the BETTER option. The world is a strange place.

Also, a writer can control more factors in hard copy. As much as a pain as pulling a physical submission packet together may be, at least you know that the formatting will show up on the other end as you want it.

“Wha–?” I hear the more computer-reliant of you out there exclaiming.

I hate to be the one to break it to you (although that’s never stopped me yet, I notice), but if you e-mail a submission, you have absolutely no way of knowing that all of your precious formatting arrived intact. Copying and pasting a writing sample into the body of an e-mail (or one of those little comment boxes on agencies’ websites) will, naturally, eliminate most of the formatting, but even if you have included the pages as a Word attachment, different operating systems and versions of Word can play havoc with the cosmetic attributes of a page.

Given the choice, I would advise opting for paper submission.

While I’m on the subject of stuffing your submission into a box, let me bring up a rather important piece of advice I forgot to mention yesterday: as desirable as it might be for your pocketbook, your schedule, and the planet, do NOT send your manuscript in a box that has already been used for another purpose.

You know what I mean, don’t you? We’ve all received (or sent) that box that began life as an mail-order shipping container, but now is covered with thick black ink, crossing out the original emporium’s name. My mother takes this process even farther, turning the obfuscating lines into little drawings of small creatures cavorting on a cardboard landscape.

As dandy as this recycling is for birthday presents and the like, it’s considered a bit tacky in shipping a submission. Which is unfortunate, as the ones from Amazon tend to be a perfect footprint for manuscripts. Don’t yield to the temptation, though.

“But wait!” I hear the box-savvy cry, “those Amazon boxes are about 4 inches high, and my manuscript is about 2 inches high. Wouldn’t a box that size be too big?”

In a word, no.

In general, it’s better to get a box that is a little too big than one that’s a little too small. To keep the manuscript from sliding around and getting crumpled, insert wads of bubble wrap around it. (This technique will also make a larger-sized Priority Mail box work.)

If you’ve been asked to send more than one copy of a manuscript — not all that uncommon after you’ve been picked up by an agent — insert a piece of brightly-colored paper between each copy. Just make sure it’s not construction paper, or the color will rub off on your lovely manuscripts.

I can feel some of you getting restive under the onslaught of so many dos and don’ts, so instead of throwing any more at you today, I’m going to give you the opportunity to put some of what we’ve learned into practice.

That’s right; it’s example time again. Hold your applause, please, until we’re done.

Submission scenario 1: After months on end querying her short story collection, WHAT I DID FOR LOVE AND OTHER DRY-CLEANING ANECDOTES, Antoinette receives an e-mail from Clara, the agent of her dreams, asking to see the whole manuscript. Alternately overjoyed and petrified (a very common twin mental state at this juncture, incidentally, although even amongst ourselves, we writers tend to talk only about the joy), she prints up her manuscript that very day and rushes it into the nearest cardboard container.

She makes it to the post office five minutes before it closes. When she plunks down the hefty box and asks to overnight it, she turns pale at the price, but pays it anyway. Exhausted but happy, she rushes home to plan what she’s going to wear for her appearance on Oprah.

Afraid to miss Clara’s response — which, naturally, she begins to expect within a day of learning that Clara has received it through the magic of delivery confirmation — Antoinette cancels her gym membership, turns down Eugene’s seven requests to have dinner with him, and gives up reading my blog in order to pursue the more rewarding activities of staring at her e-mail inbox and repeatedly checking to see that her phone is working.

Clearly, madness has taken hold of her.

A couple of weeks later, another agent asks to see the first 50 pages. Before Clara’s request, this prospect would have thrilled Antoinette beyond words, but now, she does not even respond. “I’ve already committed to Clara,” she tells kith, kin, and the neighbor who comes over to complain about Antoinette’s having turned her phone’s ringer up to glass-shattering levels, so she won’t miss calls when she’s in the shower. Or a coma.

An anxious three months pass before Clara returns the manuscript to her, its rejection explained only by a boilerplate: we regret that your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time.

Okay, what did Antoinette do wrong here? (Hint: what she did wrong here probably didn’t have any impact whatsoever on whether the manuscript got rejected or not. But it was still a faux pas.)

Antoinette’s first error was to overnight the manuscript. It was hugely expensive — and completely unnecessary. It would have gotten exactly the same read had she sent it via the much cheaper Priority Mail, or even regular mail. (Book rate is very, very slow, so I wouldn’t recommend it.)

Also, one suspects, in her rush to get it out the door and into an agent’s hands, she neglected to sit down and give it a final once-over, reading it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. It’s also not a bad idea to flip through the manuscript as it prints out to make sure that no pages are smudged or missing.

Since we are talking about Antoinette here, I’ll spare you the story about the time I forgot to check, and page 47 of my master’s thesis was nowhere to be found. My defense turned a mite ugly as a result.

The more interesting question here is why would Antoinette, or any other aspiring writer, spend money unnecessarily on postage? One of two reasons, typically.

First, many writers assume — wrongly — that an overnighted package is taken more seriously in an agency’s mailroom. In their minds, the mail sorter says takes one look at that FedEx package and cries, “My God! This must be urgent!” and runs it directly into the agent’s office, where it is ripped open immediately and perused that very day.

Just doesn’t happen anymore, although it may have 20 years ago, at the dawn of overnight cross-country shipping. At this point in human history, though, writers have done this too often for an overnighted package to generate any enthusiasm at all at the average agency. Now, overnight packaging is just another box.

Save yourself some dosh.

Antoinette’s other mistake was to put the rest of her submissions on hold, effectively granting the agent of her dreams an unrequested and totally unnecessary exclusive look at the manuscript.

Oh, you can see her reasoning easily enough: if her top pick offered representation, she wouldn’t need to query or submit anymore. But since Clara didn’t — and took her own sweet time saying so — Antoinette just took 8 weeks of potential submission (and querying) time and threw it out the window.

Sometime later in her writing career, she may wish she had that time back. The most probable first expression of that wish: about 35 seconds after she reads Clara’s form-letter rejection.

I can think of couple of reasons — and good ones — to keep submitting and querying right up to the moment an agent makes you an offer. First, finding and landing the right agent for your work can take some serious time — if your book is genuinely ready to send out, why wait a month (or more) to hear back from each?

Second, few agents assume that a good writer will be submitting to only one agency at a time; if there isn’t competition over you, they tend to conclude that no one else is interested.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: unless an agency SPECIFICALLY says that it will accept only exclusive submissions, it does not expect them. The writers’ conference rumors that say otherwise are just not true.

Third — and I’m sorry to have to say this, Antoinette, but it’s true — for the sake of your long-term happiness, it’s never a good idea to hang all of your hopes on a single submission. This is a tough business; being realistic about that can help take some of the sting out of rejection. Keep plowing forward.

Signing off for today, but a few more submission tips follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

While I’m at it, let’s go ahead and talk about how to put together a submission packet

After I signed off yesterday, I began to experience a qualm or two: yes, I had gone over how to use a SASE (that pesky self-addressed, stamped envelope queriers and submitters are expected to tuck into their queries and submissions), but had I really said enough about what should and should not go into a submission packet? Had I, in fact, explained it all clearly enough that a reader wrapped up in the dizzying excitement of receiving her first request to submit pages could skim it (when trying to get a manuscript out the door, who has time for deep reading?), comprehend it, and slap together a bang-up submission packet on the spot, without digging into the archives?

And the ghostly voices in the ether I choose to attribute to my readers moaned, “No…”

In short, I think it’s worth delaying my promised series on synopsis-writing a day or so in order to round out our discussion of all things mailed, don’t you?

I’m choosing to take all of the silence out there as a yes. Let’s pretend for a moment that like my fantasy reader above, you have just been asked to submit materials to the agent of your dreams.

To be absolutely clear, I’m not talking about sending pages to an agency that asks queriers to include the first chapter, a few pages, or a synopsis with a query — all of these would, in the industry’s eyes, be unsolicited pages. I know; it’s a bit counter-intuitive that a blanket statement that the agent would like to see these materials from all queriers doesn’t constitute solicitation, but it doesn’t.

A solicited submission is one that an agent is WAITING to see, usually following a successful pitch or query.

Let’s further assume that your manuscript (or whatever portion of it an agent or editor has requested that you send to be perused by Millicent, the Platonic agency screener) is already in tip-top formatting shape, all typos and logic problems removed, and thus what the industry calls clean — and if you’re not absolutely positive that your pages meet ALL of those conditions, stop right here and make a plan for tidying up your pages.

Trust me, this is a situation where spelling counts. As does grammar.

But once your work is in apple-pie order, as Louisa May Alcott used to say, what next? What should your submission packet include, and in what order?

In part, this is a trick question, because — long-time readers, chant it with me now — the packet should include precisely what the agent asked you to include, no more, no less. In the words of the immortal Fats Waller, find out what they like and how they like it, and let ‘em have it just that way.

Okay, so he wasn’t talking about literature when he sang that. Roll with me here.

Agents are usually quite specific about what they want in a submission. If you doubt this, check out an agency’s website or one of the standard agency guides, then attend a conference where agents are scheduled to speak. Raise your hand and ask whether it’s okay to send, say, the 55 pages it would take to round out a chapter when an agent has asked to see the first 50. You will be astonished at how people who say their preferences in clients are as vague as writers who produce “good writing in any genre” will suddenly transform into rule-hugging lovers of draconian efficiency.

To save you the trouble of asking, let me tell you what they will say: never, ever, EVER send what you THINK they want to see instead of what they have asked to see. Of course, you may offer in your cover letter to send more, but that is all.

Which means, in practice, that if you’ve been asked for the first 50, and the chapter ends in a blow-your-socks-off cliffhanger on p. 51, you should still only send the first 50. Of course, if you wanted to be Machiavellian about it, you could always perform a little strategic snipping prior to that, so said cliffhanger topples just on the bottom of p. 50. No one would fault you for that.

However — and this should sound familiar on the secret handshake front — any agent is going to assume that a writer of your caliber is already aware that certain requests imply certain inclusions. Here they are, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in the packet:

1. Cover letter
An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries or pitches well enough to render page one of chapter one instantly recognizable?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but it’s not going to be — in fact, in many agencies, the person who heard the pitch or read the query won’t even be the first person to screen the submission. So it doesn’t really make sense to assume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with your work.

Besides, including a cover letter is polite. No need for a long-winded missive — a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do.

If you met the agent at a conference, mention that in the first paragraph of the letter, to help place your submission in context. (As crushing as it may be to the writerly ego to contemplate, an agent who spent days on end listening to hundreds of pitches probably is not going to remember each one. No need to re-pitch, but a gentle reminder never hurts.

If another agent is already reading all or part of the manuscript you’re sending — or has asked to see it — mention this in your cover letter. No need to say who it is or how long s/he has had it; just tell the recipient that s/he’s not the only one considering representing this book. Unless the agency has a policy forbidding simultaneous submissions, withholding this information will only generate resentment down the line if more than one agent wants to represent your book.

Yes, even if that agent to whom you submitted 9 months ago has just never responded. Actually, it’s in your strategic interest to contact that non-responder to let her know that another agent is interested.

Most importantly, make sure ALL of your contact information is on the letter, either in the header (letterhead-style) or under your signature, and do be absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks.

Yes, it does happen. You want them to be able to get ahold of you to tell you how much they love your writing, don’t you?

2. Title page
ALWAYS include this, if ANY manuscript pages have been requested – yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book. (If you have never formatted a professional manuscript before, please see the YOUR TITLE PAGE category at right.)

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way.

Also, like the cover letter, the title page renders it easy for an agent to track you down. Believe me, if the agent of your dreams falls in love with your manuscript, you’re going to want to hear about it right away.

3. The requested pages in standard format.
Oh, please, don’t get me started again on the necessity of sending ONLY the pages the agents asked to see…or about the desirability of sending professionally-formatted manuscript pages. This time of year, when I have a lot of clients calling me up all excited because they’ve pitched successfully at a conference, the rules keep running through my head like a nagging tune.

If you’re new to reading this blog, or have somehow avoided my repeated and vehement posts on standard format for manuscripts, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.

For the benefit of those of you who are going to blow off that last piece of advice because you’re in a hurry — oh, I know that you’re out there — allow me to add something you would have learned from those posts on formatting: a manuscript intended for submission should not be bound in any way.

Oh, and do use at least 20-lb, bright white paper. Cheaper paper can begin to wilt after the first screener has rifled through it. Yes, it does increase the already quite substantial cost of submission, but this is one situation where being penny-wise can cost you serious presentation points.

4. Synopsis, if one was requested, clearly labeled AS a synopsis.
With fiction, when an outline is requested, they usually mean a synopsis, not an annotated table of contents. For nonfiction, an outline means an annotated table of contents.

Most of the time, though, what an agent will ask to see for either is a synopsis.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I haven’t done a synopsis how-to in a while, so I shall be revisiting it beginning this coming weekend. For those of you in a greater hurry, please check out the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS category at right. (How do I come up with these category titles?)

5. Author bio, if one was requested.
An author bio is a one-page (double-spaced) or half-page (single-spaced) plus photo account of the submitting writer’s professional credentials. Typically, when an agent submits a manuscript or book proposal to editors, the author Since these are far from easy to write, I always recommend that aspiring writers construct them well in advance, so they have a great one on hand to tuck into the submission packet.

I suspect that I’m going to yield to those nagging voices in the ether and revisit how to write an author bio soon — but dag nab it, I really want to get back to craft. For those of you who need to toss one together while this internal debate rages, you can find a step-by-step guide to writing one under the AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right.

6. A SASE big enough to fit the entire manuscript.
This should be automatic by now, but to recap for those of you who will read this weeks or months from now in the archives: that’s a self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the game. Always use stamps, not metered postage, for the SASE.

Why? Because since 9/11, someone who wants to mail a pre-metered package that weighs over two pounds via USPS has to tote it to a post office. Due to the paper-consumptive rigors of standard format, one rarely, if ever, meets a full-length manuscript that weighs less than two pounds.

If you’ve been asked to submit an entire manuscript, rather than a partial, it is, as I mentioned yesterday, completely acceptable to ask the agency to reuse the original shipping box as the SASE. Include a return mailing label, already made out to you, the proper stamps for postage (metered strips will not work here), and add a paragraph to your cover letter explaining that you want them to reuse the box. To be on the safe side, explain HOW you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal.

You didn’t hear it from me, of course, but sometimes, they evidently have trouble figuring it out.

7. Optional extras.
If you want to send a second, business-size envelope SASE as well, to make it easy for them to request the rest of the manuscript, place it at the bottom of the packet (and mention it in your cover letter.)

It’s also a good idea to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. Don’t worry about this causing trouble; it doesn’t, and you will have proof that they received it. This is important, because manuscripts do go astray from time to time.

8. Pack it all in a durable container that will keep your submission from getting damaged en route.
I hear all the time from writers stressing out about what kind of box to use, and not without good reason. In the old days — say, 30+ years ago — the author was expected to provide a box, and a rather nice one, then wrap it in plain brown paper for shipping. These old boxes are beautiful, if you can still find one: dignified black cardboard, held together by shining brass brads.

However, now, if you can get the requested materials there in one piece box-free (say, if it is an excerpt short enough to fit into a Manila folder or Priority Mail cardboard envelope), go ahead. Do bear in mind, though, that you want to have your pages arrive looking fresh and unbent, so make sure that your manuscript fits comfortably in its holder in such a way that the pages are unlikely to wrinkle.

Remember my comment above about its being penny-wise and pound-foolish to use cheap paper for submissions? This is part of the reason why.

Or, to put it another way: if your submission is the next one opened immediately after Millicent has burned her lip on that latté that she never seems to remember to let cool, do you think you’ll be better off if the pages are slightly mangled, or if they are smooth?

Yeah. Appearances count.

For an entire manuscript, find an inexpensive box. You’re going to want a box with the right footprint to ship a manuscript without too much internal shifting. Going a little big and adding peanuts or bubble wrap is usually your best bet. (Avoid the temptation to use newspaper; newsprint stains.)

Most office supply stores carry perfectly serviceable white boxes, but if you live in the greater Seattle area, funky plastic junk store Archie McPhee’s, of all places, routinely carries fabulous red and blue boxes exactly the right size for a 450-page manuscript WITH adorable little black plastic handles for about a buck each. AND you can get a bobble-head Edgar Allan Poe doll that bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to Robert Goulet — and if that’s not one-stop shopping, I should like to know what is.

Your local post office will probably stock manuscript-sized boxes as well. Do be warned, though, that the USPS’ 8 1/2” x 11” boxes only LOOK as though they will fit a manuscript comfortably without bunching the pages. the actual footprint of the bottom of the box is the size of a piece of paper, so there is no wiggle room to, say, insert a stack of paper without wrinkling it.

Trust me, that’s NOT something you want to find out after you’ve already printed out your submission.

Yes, yes, I know: the USPS is purportedly the best postal service in the world, a boon to humanity, and one of the least expensive to boot. Their gallant carriers have been known to push forward through the proverbial sleet, hail, dark of night, and mean dogs. But when faced with an only apparently manuscript-ready box on a last-minute deadline, the thought must occur to even the most flag-proud: do the postal services of other countries confound their citizens in this way? What do they expect us to put in an 8 1/2” x 11” box OTHER than a manuscript?

Okay, that’s out of my system now. But whatever difficulties you may have finding an appropriately-sized box, DO NOT, under any circumstances, reuse a box clearly marked for some other purpose, such as holding dishwashing soap.

Yes, it’s been known to happen.

The most economical box source for US-based writers are those free Priority Mail boxes that the post office provides, the ones that are about 2 inches deep. They’ll actually hold two 400-page manuscripts side-by-side quite comfortably, so add padding to keep the unbound manuscripts from bouncing around too much. I want it to look good when it gets there, after all.

Since it would be impracticable to fold up another Priority Mail box inside, I advise enclosing the label and postage, as I described above, or just nabbing one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-addressing it, adding postage, and sticking it into the box.

If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage. It’s bad enough that we writers are expected to underwrite the costs of agencies rejecting our work (which is, effectively, what the SASE accomplishes, right?). If you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because they’ve rejected it. Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?

Unless, of course, you intend to iron those pages and submit them somewhere else.

And that, my friends, is the low-down on the submission packet. Don’t forget that EVERYTHING you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing please. No smudges or bent corners, either. Make it all pretty.

Questions? Comments? Anyone up for a nice, long walk where we talk about something else entirely?

Keep up the good work!

The romance of querying and submission — and a few more words of wisdom about the SASE

A psychologist friend of mine told me recently that recent research demonstrates that the brain can respond as dramatically to recalled memories as to present life; sometimes, she says, the mind will experience flashbacks AS current events. I’m fascinated by this, not only as a memoirist (and yes, the memoir that was supposed to come out a couple of years ago is still tied up in legal knots; thanks for asking), but as a novelist. To be specific: I’ve been working very hard on my next novel lately, and if my cats didn’t remind me occasionally that they do not possess opposable thumbs or the ability to open cabinets (well, okay, MOST cabinets), they would probably be forced to start nibbling on my toes under my desk to stave off imminent starvation.

I’m inclined to blame this on the way that the creative process colonizes the writer’s brain. The cats seem inclined to blame it on me, which I suppose amounts to more or less the same thing: if it can’t wait until I polish off the end of the chapter, it’s probably not going to happen.

If any of you writers out there don’t know what I’m talking about, ask your kith and kin what you’re like during periods of intensive writing. You may be unusually good at jumping back and forth between the creative and observational parts of your brain, but if you’re writing on a regular basis, I’m betting that those who have the good fortune to live and work with you have built up a stockpile of anecdotes about how you space out on the minutiae of quotidian life when you’re writing hard.

Oh, you thought you were the only one? Far from it. Little things like laundry, taking vitamins, watering plants, and checking e-mail seem to slip unnoticed out of the working writers’ consciousness in the middle of a writing jag — and don’t even get me started on how the amnesia about practicalities can intensify in the face of an imminent deadline.

I suspect that this is a necessary side effect of the alchemy of creation. Because, really, in order to render our characters’ lifeworlds gripping on the page, we writers have to create them in our minds every bit as vividly and in all of the detail of a vitally important memory. That’s a pretty absorbing task, isn’t it? With a pretty gratifying payoff, potentially: if we do our job very well indeed, we might create a story, a situation, a character that seems to the reader to have stepped straight out of real life.

Only better.

Is it that same is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex trick of the brain, I wonder, that would allow a reader to fall in love with a character in a novel? As Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in THE PERPETUAL ORGY:

A handful of fictional characters have marked my life more profoundly than a great number of the flesh-and-blood beings I have known.

He’s talking about a literary orgy, incidentally, not a physical one: quite a lot of the book is about his passionate decades-long love affair with the entirely fictional Emma Bovary. And who can blame for falling in love with her, really? She’s a pretty absorbing character.

Do I sense those of you who are trying to get queries and/or submissions out the door becoming a bit restless in the face of these musings? “I’m as fond of the creative haze as anyone else,” I hear some of you stalwart souls say, “but right now, most of my writing time is getting eaten up by the process of trying to sell my work. So if you don’t mind my asking, what does any of this have to do with the very practical concerns we’ve been discussing for the last few weeks?”

A couple of things, actually. First, in the throes of agent-seeking, it can be pretty easy to forget that Millicent and others like her who screen queries and submissions actually are looking to fall in love with some writer’s work.

Yes, you read that correctly: even the most virulent rejection-generator is usually eager to discover a novel that pulls him immediately into its lifeworld, or a memoir that wrings his heart, or the next Emma Bovary. I don’t think it’s at all accidental that agents and editors so often describe their first responses to submissions in the language of attraction: you’re going to love this book, it’s a sexy topic, it didn’t grab me, I can’t get this book off my mind, I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist.

Set those to music, and you’ve got a pop song. As hard as it may be to believe, Millicent is waiting to be swept off her feet.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, I tend to discuss querying and submission in romantic terms: the query letter is a personal ad for your book; you want attract not just any agent, but the one that’s the best match for you and your work; the first page needs to seduce Millicent into wanting to read on; the chemistry between an editor and a book matters deeply. In addition to everything else we writers are trying to create, we also need to inspire love.

Querying sounds a bit more noble put that way, doesn’t it? Feel free to use this argument the next time some non-writer gapes at the amount of time you’ve invested in trying to land an agent; generating love can take some time.

My second reason for bringing up this high-falutin’ topic is, I’m afraid, disappointingly prosaic. Yesterday, I started to answer a very practical question about SASEs, and I seem to have gotten sidetracked. I can only plead that I was absorbed in a manuscript.

Hey, now that I come to notice it, my laundry seems to have piled up, too. And what on earth could the cats want?

To remedy at least the first of these situations, let’s recap: why, in these days of growing environmental awareness, is the writer expected to send a SASE (that’s stamped, self-addressed envelope to the rest of the population) in anticipation of a rejected manuscript’s return?

As a writer, freelance editor, and writing teacher, I hear permutations of this question all the time. “I understand why I need to include a SASE for a query,” aspiring authors tell me, “but do I really need it for the submission? It’s not as though I’m going to be able to reuse the manuscript after it’s passed through the mail twice, anyway. Can’t I just ask them to recycle it instead?”

In a word, no. In several words, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!

To explain why, I explained the history behind the SASE yesterday: part of its original purpose was not just to save agencies the cost of postage, but also to render submissions cheaper for the writer. It was also intended to preserve copyright by allowing the author ostensible control about whose grimy paws were on the manuscript when.

Writers tend to forget this in the cyber age, when huge chunks of writing can be transferred from one end of the planet to the other with the simple push of a button (yes, of course I know that the world is not as flat as that image implies. Don’t stop me now; I’m on a roll), but technically, in order to retain copyright over your own writing, you need to control where and when it is read by others. Writing I post on this blog, for instance, is under my control, since I dictate where people can view it; I could disable RSS feeds, if I wanted. (Oh, the power! The power!) If I sent the same posts out via e-mail, they could end up anywhere, forwarded far beyond my knowledge.

When you send uncopyrighted material off to an agency or publishing house — to a credible one, anyway — you and your readers there are both operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission. You are not, in effect, authorizing them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so.

When you send a SASE, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys an expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

I hear the one in which Harry fights a dragon actually isn’t bad.

As I believe I have mentioned before, this is a tradition-bound industry; it has historically been slow to change. No matter how good the logic against some of its long-held norms, this one did not change at all until there were some very tangible benefits on the agents’ end to altering it.

For example, the anthrax scare convinced some agencies to accept e-mailed queries and submissions. And the post 9/11 requirement to tote heavy packages to the post office prompted some agencies to start recycling rejected manuscripts, rather than having the lowest intern on the totem pole — the one who aspires to Millicent’s job someday — wheel a paper-loaded dolly up out of the building.

But practice, most agencies still adhere to the old norms. Don’t believe me? Thumb through any of the standard agency guides, and count how many agencies mention that they recycle.

Spoiler alert: your thumb is going to get pretty tired before you find one.

Like so many other aspects of the querying and submission process, at one time, the use of the SASE carried greater benefits to the writer than it does now, but time has hardened courtesies into demands, and habits into traditions. Today, if you do not include a SASE with your submission, you are perceived to be thumbing your nose at the traditions of people you are trying to impress.

As satisfying as that may be, allow me to suggest that it might not be the best way to convince an agent of your Socratic intellect and lamb-like willingness to take direction.

So while my long-standing affection for writers, trees, and the printed pages both work to produce would LOVE to be able to say dispense with the SASE for the manuscript’s return in favor of a simple #10 envelope, it would not be in your best interest to fling away the old norms.

The only alternative that I have seen work in practice — and that only rarely — is to include a line in the cover letter, POLITELY asking the agency to recycle the manuscript if they decide not to offer representation and mentioning the business-sized SASE enclosed for their reply. Do be aware, however, that this strategy sometimes backfires with screeners trained to check first for a manuscript-sized SASE: as I mentioned yesterday, it’s not unheard-of for the Millicents of the world to toss aside such a manuscript to be tossed aside without reading the cover letter.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules of submission; I only try to render them comprehensible. Let’s all pray that when Millicent does engage in the summary rejection of the SASEless, she flings that precious ream of paper into a recycling bin.

Knowing the likelihood of that happening, I feel as though I should go off and plant a tree now. Or perhaps reread MADAME BOVARY.

Instead, I’m going to be intensely practical for a moment and tell you PRECISELY how to play the SASE game correctly. The basic rule of thumb is to include a container and enough postage for the recipient to be able to ship any materials you may have submitted back to you. Thus:

When you send a paper query (as opposed to the e-mail variety), include a stamped envelope addressed to yourself; if you want to get fancy (and remove some of the suspense down the line), go ahead and use the agency’s address as the return address. If you are sending more than 4 pages of text along with your query — if the agent asked for an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis, make sure that the postage on your query’s SASE is sufficient to get all of those pages back to you.

Do this EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency you’re querying actually asks for a SASE on its website or in its blurb in the standard agency guides.

A #10 (business-size) envelope is the norm to accompany queries, and stamps are universally preferred over metered postage. Since the agency will be popping the returned materials into the nearest mailbox, the stamps you use should be those currently in use in the AGENCY’s country of residence, not yours.

This means that if you are submitting to a US-based agency or publishing house from outside the country, you will need to dig up some US stamps. Since foreign post offices often sell these at a considerable mark-up, you can save a lot of money if you buy the stamps directly from the US Postal Service online.

When you send requested materials via mail (again, as opposed to e-mail submissions), include in your submission packet an envelope or box addressed to yourself, along with sufficient postage for the safe return of EVERYTHING you have submitted. If you want to be really considerate, you may also include a #10 SASE, so the agent may contact you to ask for more pages, but in the age of e-mail and relatively inexpensive long-distance calling, that request is unlikely to come via regular mail.

Again, do this EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency (or publishing house) to whom you are submitting has actually asked for a SASE.

If the requested pages fit in a Manila envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission package. If you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection.

You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? If not, please see the aptly-named COVER LETTERS FOR SUBMISSIONS category on the list at right — just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude.

And you do know that every time you send requested materials, you should write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters in the lower right-hand corner of the submission envelope, don’t you? If you have been asked to submit electronically, include the words REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line of the e-mail.

This will help your submission to land on the right desk, instead of in the slush pile. (Or the non-existent recycling bin.)

Okay, I feel that I’ve been both philosophical and practical enough for one day’s post; time to get back to that novel. Keep up the good work!

The logic — and illogic — behind the SASE, or, how to be prepared if something falls on you from a zeppelin

A few days back, I promised to run through the care and feeding of the infamous and ubiquitously-requested SASE, industry-speak for the Stamped, Self-Addressed Envelope that should accompany EVERY query letter and/or submission packet. The expectation that an aspiring writer will ALWAYS include a SASE is universal, at least among U.S. agencies and publishers, so much so that I’ve noticed that many agencies don’t even explain what it means on their websites or listings in the standard guides anymore.

Call me zany, but as those of you have been reading this blog for a while are already aware, I’m not a big fan of unspoken assumptions; they place the writer new to the game at a serious strategic disadvantage. So I hope those of you who have been at this for some time will forgive my taking a day or two to explain to those new to querying what a SASE is and why, to put it bluntly, the writer is expected to pay the postage for a rejection letter or returned manuscript.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of the SASE in those terms? Or was that giant whoosh I just heard not a collective gasp but a whole bunch of eyebrows out there hitting the ceiling?

Probably the latter, I’m guessing, because I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who are unaware that a SASE should also accompany a manuscript. And I’m not just talking about the stamped, self-addressed #10 envelope one would send with a mailed query letter: I’m talking about a package with enough postage to get all of those requested pages back to the writer in one piece.

It can get cumbersome. Not to say expensive, especially for writer submitting to NYC-based agencies from outside the country, who not only have to figure out what the return postage would be in dollars instead of their local currency, but have to get their eager fingertips around some US stamps.

Don’t worry, foreign readers; there’s a trick to it. Before I get into the nitty-gritty, though, let’s talk through the logic behind providing a SASE at all.

I think such a discussion is necessary. The last time I covered this topic, during the notorious four-month Book Marketing 101 series in the summer of 2007 (conveniently gathered, for those of you who are interested, under a category of the same name in the list at right), I was barraged with very good questions from readers about why, in the age of fairly universal paper recycling and cheap, high-quality printers, a writer shouldn’t just ask an agent to recycle a rejected manuscript. Quoth, for instance, clever reader Melospiza:

Why on earth would you want your manuscript back (after it has been rejected)? It won’t be pristine enough to send out again. Why spend the money? And any parcel over one pound can’t be dropped in a mailbox, but must be taken to the post office, not something an agent will appreciate. Let the agent recycle the paper and enclose a (business-size) SASE only.

I’m SO glad Melospiza brought this up, because this is one of those secret handshake things — you know, a practices that the industry just assumes that any writer who is serious about getting published will magically know all about without being told.

There’s a rather basic, practical reason to include the SASE for safe return of the manuscript: NOT including one leads to automatic rejection at most agencies.

Yes, you read that correctly: leaving a SASE out of the packet can, and often does, result in a submission’s being rejected unread; ask about it sometime at a writers’ conference. The vast majority of agents will be perfectly up front about the fact that they train their screeners accordingly.

The owners of all of those eyebrows are clutching their heads now, aren’t they, thinking of all of those SASEless submissions — or, more likely, submissions accompanied by a #10 SASE, rather than one with sufficient postage for the manuscript’s return — they sent out in the dark days of yore. “In heaven’s name,” these head-clutchers cry, “why would an agent who asked to see pages reject them unread?”

Good question, oh retrospective panickers. The short answer: because it’s obvious to Millicent that a writer who submits without a manuscript-size SASE doesn’t know the secret handshake.

The longer answer is hardly more comforting. In the publishing industry, it’s considered downright rude for a writer not to include a SASE both large enough and loaded down with enough pre-paid postage to send EVERYTHING enclosed back to the sender. Which means, in practical terms, that if the agency is going to keep its side of the tacit agreement allowing it to read a writer’s unpublished work, IT is going to have to shell out the dosh to mail the rejected manuscript back.

Ditto with a query letter that arrives unaccompanied by a SASE. An envelope and a stamp to respond to a forgetful writer may seem like a negligible expense — but multiply it by the 800 or 1000 queries the average agency receives every week, and we’re talking about a considerable investment in writers whose work they’ve already decided not to represent.

The result in both cases is generally a form-letter rejection.

I implore you, no matter how little you want to see that manuscript again, do NOT omit the SASE for the return of the manuscript — UNLESS the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says specifically that they will recycle rejected manuscripts. (Practically none of them do.)

Okay, before the disgruntled muttering out there gets too deafening, let’s voice it: “You must be pulling our collective leg,” I hear some of you saying. “Okay, maybe SASEless queries do tend to get rejected unread, but I can’t believe that it happens to submitted manuscripts or book proposals. By the time an agency or publishing house is sufficiently interested in you to want to see actual chapters of your book, your foot is too firmly in the door for your submission to be tossed aside unread for a reason as unrelated to the quality of the writing as not including a SASE. I mean, really, what purpose would being that touchy serve?”

A fairly tangible one, actually: it would be one less manuscript for Millicent to read.

Admittedly, from the submitter’s point of view, a good argument could be made that this practice would tend to lead to, as Melospiza rightly points out, a big ol’ waste of money, not to mention trees, without really providing much benefit to the people who actually pay for the return postage. After all, a SASE included with a submission is only going to be used if the news is bad. If the agency likes the MS, they’re going to ask to see the rest of the manuscript — which means your initial submission will get filed, you will send another packet (with another SASE), and your first SASE may well end up in the trash.

Or, if you’re really lucky, you’ll never see it again, because it will end up in a file drawer in your new agent’s office.

If they don’t like it, all you are doing by providing the postage is paying to get the news that they’re turning you down in a way that will make your postal carrier’s back ache, rather than via a nice, light #10 envelope. So why not just send the manuscript along with a business-size SASE, and be done with it?

Because that’s not how the industry works, that’s why. (See commentary above about secret handshakes.)

Yet originally, believe it or not, it was set up this way in order to PROTECT writers. The sad thing is, though, the logic behind this one is so pre-computer — heck, it’s pre-recycling — that it’s likely to be counterintuitive to many people new to the biz.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), you could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz; equally obviously, no sane human being would send out his only copy.

So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses simultaneously? They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page, every single time.

Think those hardy souls wanted to get their rejected manuscripts back? Darned tootin’. It might save them weeks of retyping time.

My long-term readers will have heard my favorite concrete example of how these returned manuscripts helped writers before, but it’s a terrific illustration of just how much the SASE helped the average aspiring writer way back when. Back in the far-away 1950s, my mother, Kleo, was married to Philip, a struggling science fiction writer. While she toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories.

Dozens of them. Type, type, type, week in, week out.

As writers did in the days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into a gray Manila envelope with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy. (Kleo was also taking both his writing and her own to be critiqued by other writers and editors at the time, which is actually how Philip got his first story published. But I digress.)

Each time a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it in the mail.

Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But Philip kept typing away, and kept as many stories in circulation at once as possible.

How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore — since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost.

(Which reminds me to nag those of you sending out manuscripts in the computer age: when was the last time you made a back-up of your manuscript? If, heaven forfend, a gigantic anvil fell from one of those anvil-toting zeppelins we’re always seeing overhead these days onto your main writing space, would it crush both your computer and your back-ups? Bears some consideration, doesn’t it?)

One day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their miniscule front porch. Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

So what did the aspiring writer of yesteryear do when faced with 17 rejections on the same day? Did he toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did he rend his garments and give up writing forever? Did he poison his mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once? All of the above?

No, he did what professional writers did back then: had his wife iron the pages so they could be sent out again and resubmitted.

Lest you find the story depressing, the science fiction writer was Philip K. Dick, and I have it on good authority that one of those stories was THE MINORITY REPORT. Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.

Which only goes to show you: contrary to the common writerly fantasy/daydream/self-flagellation-after-rejection theme, even the best writers generally have to brazen through quite a bit of rejection before hitting the big time. As my mother likes to say, the only manuscript that stands NO chance of getting published is the one that sits in the bottom drawer, unseen by human eyes.

She knows whereat she speaks — and it’s as true today as it was 55 years ago, when there were no photocopying machines, no computers, and no guarantee that the copy you sent would ever be retrievable if it went astray in some publisher’s office.

For our purposes today, the important thing to take away from this story is not the warm glow from the implied pep talk (although that’s nice, too), but the understanding that agencies don’t ask for SASEs in order to inconvenience, annoy, or impoverish aspiring writers. They do it today for precisely the same reason that they did it in the 1950s: to get your work back to you as expeditiously as possible, so you may try its fortunes elsewhere.

So yes, Virginia, as hard as it to believe, in the beginning, the SASE was intended to save the submitting writer money and time, not to drain both.

Also, it was intended to protect the writer’s copyright: just as an e-mailed attachment could conceivably end up, through the magic of multiple forwarding, anywhere on the planet, a loose manuscript that isn’t either in an agent or editor’s office, safely tucked away in that proverbial bottom desk drawer, or being conveyed through sleet, snow, and/or dark of night between one and the other could in fact be stolen.

I know; creepy even to consider. But think about it: is it more or less likely than something falling on your house from a zeppelin?

I’ll answer that one for you: it does happen from time to time, so a savvy writer keeps very, very good track of who precisely has his manuscript when. (If this prospect tends to keep you up at night, as it does many writers, please see the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the list at right for tips on how to protect your work.)

More on SASE tradition and practice follows tomorrow, if you can stomach it, and then we’ll move on to the gentle art of synopsis-crafting. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: waiting by the telephone — or the mailbox, or the e-mail…

Hello, campers –

In keeping with my periodic semi-lazy Sunday break tradition (translation: I’m only working a 8-hour day today, and I’d like to keep it that way), I’ve decided to take advantage of a switch in topics to re-run a post from last year. Actually, now that I’ve finished running through it, it’s not so much a re-run as a rewrite, but the fact remains that it seemed like an apt time to dust off this example — US agents and editors are back from their long summer hiatuses (hiati?), and I know a lot of you are anxiously waiting to hear back from agents met at summer conferences.

So here it is, for the benefit of all of those writers out there who have had one eye on your e-mail in-box and the other on your telephone, not to mention checking the mailbox three times per day, waiting for a response to a submission. Enjoy!

A faithful reader who, for reasons best known to himself, has requested anonymity, wrote in recently with a couple of questions that I think would be of interest to everybody. So I have changed the identifiable information to preserve the secret identities of both author and agent, and am reproducing the essential questions here:

Agent Abraham Lincoln (note: not his real name, but a clever pseudonym) requested the full manuscript and I sent it three weeks ago. How long should I wait for him to make contact? Is it all right for me to call? I don’t want to pressure him, but I am desperate to move forward with the project. Oh, the anxiousness. Ah, the sleepless nights. I have never wanted anything more than to be a published author…

I know there are no set timelines for responses and such, but roughly how long should I wait before moving on?

Mystery Reader (another cunning substitution), there are short answers and long answers to these questions. The short: don’t even think about following up for 6-8 weeks, and when you do, DON’T CALL; e-mail or write.

In the meantime, Mysterious One, YOU should most definitely be moving on: get back to your writing projects. You might even consider sending out a few more queries, just in case.

On to the long answer. Since badgering an agent interested in your work will definitely NOT get him or her to read faster — in fact, it sometimes produces the opposite effect — so it is not a good course to pursue. In fact, most agents will regard follow-up calls or too-soon e-mails as a sign that the prospective client does not understand how the business works.

Which, as we have been discussing at length recently, is not an impression you want to give an agent you would like to sign you.

Why? Well, it tends to translate, in their minds, into a client who is going to require more attention at every step of the process. While such clients are often rewarding on many levels, they are undoubtedly more expensive for the agency to handle, at least at first.

Think about it: the agent makes his living by selling books to publishing houses. This means a whole lot of phone calls, meetings, and general blandishment, all of which takes a lot of time, in order to make sales.

So which is the more lucrative way to spend his time, hard-selling a current client’s terrific novel to a wavering editor or taking anxious phone calls from a writer he has not yet signed?

Uh-huh. Trust me, agent Abraham Lincoln already knows that you want to be published more than anything else in the world; unfortunately, telling him so will not impress him more.

How does he know? Because he deals with authors all the time — and this is such a tough business to break into that the vast majority of those who make it to the full-manuscript request are writers who want to be published more than anything else in the world.

Mystery Reader, you will be a much, much happier human being if you remember this. I can assure you that an agent who receives 800 or 1000 queries per week from glorious dreamers does not have the luxury of forgetting it.

You’re certainly not alone in thinking of your query or submission as if it emits a glow in the agency’s mail room, however. The average aspiring writer, bless his or her heart, tends to forget that the dream of publication is a fairly common one — thus that huge volume of queries through which Millicent sifts five days per week, each of which is presumably from someone who yearns for publication.

Because, really, querying is FAR too hard on the heart (not to mention the wrists) to keep doing if you don’t want success that much, isn’t it?

The very intensity of the longing can sometimes blur an aspiring writer’s view of the agent-finding process — or indeed, the period when one’s agent is shopping one’s book around to editors. Even the most successful author’s career is stuffed to the gills with periods when s/he can do nothing but wait.

This is precisely Mystery Reader’s dilemma, I’m afraid. All you can do is wait — at least for 6 weeks or so, or (to trot out my favorite rule of thumb) for twice the turn-around time the agency has listed in an agency guide blurb or on its website.

Which is another way of saying that there is no hard-and-fast rule that may be applied to every agent at every agency. Sorry.

The reason that there are no set timelines, except for ones that the agents may tell you themselves, is that a TREMENDOUS amount of paper passes through the average agency’s portals, and yours is almost certainly not the only full manuscript requested by Mr. Lincoln within the last couple of months. Yours goes into the reading pile after the others that are already there — and if that feels a little unfair now, think about it again in a month, when a dozen more have come in after yours.

Most agents read entire manuscripts not at work, but in their off hours. In all probability, yours will not be the only MS sitting next to his couch. Also, in a big agency like Lincoln’s, it’s entirely possible that before it gets to the couch stage, it will need to be read by one or even two preliminary readers. That takes time. Furthermore, the vast majority of the publishing industry goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day, so there is always a big crunch around this time of year, while the agency is working through the summer’s backlog.

He may well read it on vacation, but actually, with an entire manuscript, I would be extremely surprised if you heard back in under a month. But if he didn’t give you a timeframe, 6-8 weeks is generally considered a professional length of time to wait.

In the meantime, though, you are under no obligation not to query or follow up with any other agent. (See earlier comment about the advisability of sending out a few queries now.)

That, too, is SO easy for an excited writer to forget: until you sign an agency contract, you are free to date other people, literarily speaking.

Really. No matter how many magical sparks there were between the two of you at your pitch meeting, even if Mr. Lincoln venerable eyes were sparkling with book lust, it honestly is in your best interest to keep querying other agents until Mr. Lincoln antes up a firm offer.

Until that ring is on your finger, keep playing the field.

And where does that leave you? Waiting by the phone or mooning by the mailbox, of course.

For those of you who have never been a heterosexual teenage girl, this may be a new problem, but for those who have, this probably feels very, very familiar. It’s hard to act cool when you want so much to make a connection. Yes, he SAID he would call after he’s read my manuscript, but will he? If it’s been a week, should I call him at the agency, or assume that he’s lost interest in my book? Has he met another book he likes better? Will I look like a publication-hungry slut if I send an e-mail after three weeks of terrifying silence?

Auntie Anne is here to tell you: honey, don’t just sit by the phone; you are not completely helpless here. Get out there and date other agents, so that when that slow-reading Mr. Lincoln DOES call, you’ll have to check your dance card.

Of course, if another agent asks to see the manuscript, it is perfectly acceptable, even laudable, to drop Mr. Lincoln an e-mail or letter, letting him know that there are now other agents checking out your work. For the average agent, this news is only going to make your work seem all the more attractive.

See? I told you it was just like dating in high school.

Even after 6 weeks, you might want to e-mail, instead of calling. The last thing you want is to give the impression that you would be a client who would be calling three times per week. Calling is considered a bit pushy, and it almost certainly won’t get your work read any faster — unlike, say, an e-mail that mentions politely that there is now another agent reading it.

And yes, Agent #1 WILL want you to tell him that immediately. Over and above that, though, all you can do is (chant it with me now) WAIT.

Another great reason to keep querying and submitting while Agent #1 is taking his own sweet time getting back to you is the increasingly common phenomenon of agents not responding to queries or even submissions at all. Within the last year or so, literally dozens of very talented writers of my acquaintance have had manuscripts out to agents for four, five, or even six months without any response.

Heck, it’s now far from uncommon for agencies that accept e-mailed submissions simply to state on their websites, Please consider not hearing back as an indicator that we’re not interested.

This places the writer in a quandary, of course, because from the other side of the country (or the world), how on earth is it possible to tell the difference between a delay caused by a submission’s sitting on an agent’s coffee table, holding up take-out cartons until she has time to read it, one that springs from an unannounced rejection, and one triggered by the manuscript’s having gotten lost in the mail?

For this reason, I always advise my clients and students to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard with every submission, along with a request in the cover letter (you HAVE been including cover letters with your submissions, haven’t you?) that Millicent would write the date it arrived upon it and pop it in the mail upon opening the packet of requested materials. I find that this works far, far better than asking for e-mail confirmation, since complying requires far less effort on the part of agency personnel.

Hey, they’re busy.

What you SHOULDN’T do whilst waiting for a reply is waste your energy constructing a vivid justification for why the agent of your dreams has not yet gotten back to you — an exercise in creative fantasy in which I’ve seen aspiring writers starting mere hours after dropping the submission into the mail. It won’t help your chances; it will only enervate you.

Let me preemptively take the wind out of the sails of the most common of these middle-of-the-night musings: if you haven’t heard back, it’s not because the agent thinking about it or wants to talk with every other employee in the agency before talking it on; it’s because he hasn’t read it yet.

See why most agents get a bit defensive if a writer calls, demanding to know why it’s taking so long? Much like, if memory serves, teenage boys.

Oh, how I wish we had all outgrown that awkward stage.

Try to think of a slow response in positive terms. At many agencies, a submission has to make it past more than one level of Millicent before making it onto the agent’s desk at all — and yes, Mystery Reader, that’s usually still true even if one has met the agent at a conference. If Millie #1, Millie#2, or the agent had taken a dislike to your manuscript, it would have been stuffed into the SASE right away. (See why it’s fairly safe to assume that if you haven’t yet heard back, it hasn’t been read?) Rejections tend to be quicker than acceptances.

I know that this isn’t exactly the answer you wanted, Mystery Reader, but please, try to chill out for the next few weeks. Get working on your next book, because if this goes through, you will want to have it well in motion. Keep approaching other agents, because it can only be good for you if several are clamoring to represent you.

And be very, very proud of yourself for getting to the point in your writing that an agent as prestigious as Mr. Lincoln WANTS to read the whole manuscript. He doesn’t ask just anybody on a date, you know.

Try to be patient, and keep up the good work!

Dealing with that notorious writer’s wrist ache, by guest blogger Janiece Hopper

Happy day, campers –

As a well-deserved reward for all of the hard work you’ve all been doing on your query letters for the last couple of weeks, I’ve got a treat for you today: novelist , blogger, and FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Janiece Hopper has very kindly agreed to share her experience and wisdom on that topic of perennial interest to writers, repetitive strain injuries.

Often misdiagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injuries (RSI) are the bane of many a keyboard-loving writer’s existence. As a group, we are particularly prone to it, as we tend to couple long hours working on our passion with long hours on a computer at work. It can be a very dangerous combination.

Janiece has further tips on dealing with RSI on her website, , but for now, rest those wrists and learn from her experience. Enjoy!

Hello again! I am happy to be guest-blogging for Anne and sharing what I’ve learned along my path as a writer, in the hopes that you can be spared a similar story.

Several years ago, I purchased life insurance and had to answer a series of questions so the company could determine my risk factors. After I adamantly replied “No!” to skydiving as a hobby or profession, the agent asked how I spent my free time. “Writing,” I said.

We both chuckled. What could be safer than sitting at a desk in the comfort of one’s own home, sipping coffee, and typing streams of consciousness across a computer screen? A lot! Being a writer can be hazardous to one’s health. Despite the warning stickers on our keyboards, I’m not sure authors are fully aware of the physical costs associated with our intellectual and creative endeavors.

So I am glad Anne asked me to discuss Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) with you. Joseph Hunton, a Hellerwork Practitioner and owner of the Seattle-based company Repetitive Strain Injury Solutions, says, “RSI is an umbrella term for a variety of soft tissue injuries occurring in the hands, arms, neck, and shoulders. These conditions can be extremely painful and even debilitating. RSIs are common among computer users and other occupations involving repetitive use of arms and hands.”

If you have sore wrists or hands that hurt, tingle, or don’t work well, take note, dear friends. If you have chronic neck and shoulder pain or any combination of these symptoms, you are on the road to Repetitive Strain Injury. Please don’t brush it off until you finish that next chapter, no matter how enchanting your storyline is.

Hunton says, “The nasty thing about RSI is that once it actually shows up in your body, a cycle of tension, strain, pain, more strain, more pain spirals your body downward. Because we use our arms and hands in just about every activity, this cycle is extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to break.” Just like your muse, pain becomes a part of your life that you have to learn to manage.

Of course I didn’t know any of this. I just kept on keyboarding away and invested in lots of heating pads and ice packs. When these became ineffective in quelling the pain in my arms, neck, shoulders, and back, I tried traditional physical therapy, massage, chiropractic, medicinal, and acupuncture treatments. For me, Hellerwork is what finally helped get my RSI “under control.”

Hunton says, “The keys to preventing Repetitive Strain Injuries are self awareness, self care, and an ergonomic writing station. Stress, physical or emotional, contributes greatly to muscle tension. When muscles work under tension they have to strain. This strain reverberates through the body forcing compensations, imbalances, eventual breakdown and chronic pain.”

As writers, we are immersed in our imaginations, playing our hearts out with language. Just like little kids forget to go to the bathroom until it is too late, it is easy for us to lose track of time and ignore our body’s signals.

Once my RSI hit full force, it was obvious how sitting at my computer for hours on end led to it. As my treatment progressed, I learned to stretch, to take breaks. One break was about six months. When I started writing again, preparing my manuscript for submission, I became tense again, but I was doing everything right!

It never occurred to me how the stress generated by the desire to get published in today’s market contributed to my RSI. I stumbled across this by accident.

Choosing to publish Cracked Bat myself suddenly freed me from trying to craft the “perfect” pitch and produce the stand-out query letter. I noticed how much lighter I felt, proofing my own galleys from the printer. It was incredible to just stop worrying about how an agent or editor would receive my work.

By getting to bypass “them,” my focus became the readers I had actually written the book for.

Sure, I felt some positive tension around making my book the way I wanted it to be, but that energy was very different from the stress generated by writing to appeal to an unknown, very distant critic who would probably take my work from the middle of a six-foot pile and judge it in seconds. Once I knew my book would be published, I was able to drop the barely conscious niggling fear that my years of labor were for nothing. Freeing myself from the desire to get published has given me a whole new level of relaxation around writing.

This newfound relaxation is so delicious, I want to maximize it. I’ve become more attuned to how I am feeling about writing while doing it. Before I decided to self-publish, I really only paid attention to the emotions I was writing about or the emotions my writing elicited. Now I acknowledge and honor how the act of devoting time and energy to writing affects my body and emotions. Am I tired, forcing myself to write because I won’t have another chance until a week from Wednesday? Or am I frantic and frustrated because I don’t want to lose the words or images that came to me in a dream and I have to leave for work in twenty minutes…and I’m still in my pajamas? I used to grieve these lost opportunities. Grief causes stress!

Do I feel guilty about writing? Shouldn’t I be doing my part to preserve property values in the neighborhood by pulling those weeds in the front yard? And, I have to do the laundry or go to the market, so that my kids and I are well-prepared for school Monday morning. I used to push myself too hard. I still do, but I pay attention to all these conflicts and make more balanced choices.

Surprisingly, self-publishing has shifted the stress factor in my RSI equation and I’m very grateful. If you are feeling tension in your body from writing, please check out the blog on my website for more tips for writers.

To get you started from here, Hunton recommends warming-up before you spend any time keyboarding. Here are two of the stretches he shared with me.

The Torso Twist:
(This one releases deep tension in the shoulder joints and muscles in the back)
Let your arms hang loosely at your sides. Let them be very, very heavy. Twist your torso fully to the right and then to the left. Let the centrifugal force carry your arms around your body. Do this for 10 seconds and then stand still, letting your arms hang at your sides for 10 seconds. Repeat and then sit down and rest with your hands in your lap until all sensations have disappeared.

I find this one helps me “twist” away from daily life and slip into my writing space. When I’m done writing, it helps me leave my story in the room and return to my family with a clearer head.

The Head Turn:
(This one is for your upper chest and back and neck, so they don’t all get stuck together)
This stretch can be done sitting or standing. Keep your chin level. Slowly turn your head to the right as far as you comfortably can. I’m serious about the comfortably part. If you hurt your body, it won’t trust you to know how to take care of it and will lock down. Hold that position for 5 seconds and slowly return to starting position. Rest for 5 seconds and then slowly rotate your head to the left. Hold for 5 seconds and return to center to rest for 5 seconds. Do this a total of 3 times to the left and 3 times to the right.

End facing forward, resting until all the sensations from the movement disappear.
Keeping your neck relaxed, keeps your voice box open. Since writers are all about having a voice, this stretch can be an affirmation for you as you begin a writing session. But, it is very important not to overdo this one, 3 times a day, max. When it comes to the neck (or the throat chakra, if you’ll go there), the spirit may be strong, but the flesh likes it subtle.

Anne and I would love to hear from you about all this. Please post comments and take really good care of yourself!!

PS: I will be at the Monroe Psychic and Healing Arts Fair on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008 at the Best Western Hotel in Monroe, WA. (19233 Highway 2, Monroe, WA, behind Burger King). I will be doing readings from my newly created Cracked Bat Oracle. Don’t miss it your chance to interact with Intuit-Lit! May the good fortune of Ten Pentacles sparkle through your very next reading!

Janiece Hopper lives in Snohomish, Washington. She met her first garden dwarf on an island in the Pacific Northwest when she was four years old. Thirty years later she met a witch in the same place. As an elementary school teacher, librarian, and book reviewer with an M.Ed. from the University of Washington and a B.A. from California State University, she always struggled with calling fairy tales fiction. Intuit-Lit has resolved her conflict nicely. If Janiece ever goes to another baseball game, she’ll be the woman in the stands, trying to drink a mocha while wearing full catcher’s gear.

Query letter troubleshooting, part IV, in which you will repeat after me until you believe it: there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every single agent; there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every single agent; there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every single agent…

Today will be the next-to-last installment in my series on polishing your query letter to a high gloss. Next, I will be taking a quick jaunt through the proper uses of the SASE (which those new to the querying and submission game misuse with surprising frequency), before moving on to the ins and outs of crafting a Millicent-intriguing synopsis, completing my guided tour of the query packet.

I know, I know: not scintillating, perhaps, but definitely practical.

I honestly do want to move us back to discussing craft as soon as possible, but I’ve been toying with walking us all through the under-studied arts of constructing an author bio and marketing plan before we delve back into our texts. Neither a bio nor a marketing plan benefits from being thrown together at the last minute, and I’ve been hearing from both writers and agents that requests for both have been on the rise lately. The marketing plan for fiction is enjoying a renaissance, due no doubt to the current exceptional tightness of the fiction market.

I’ve written about both in the past here at Author! Author!, of course, but if you’d like to see me take another run at ‘em, please drop me a note in the comments section of this post. If you had some specific questions on these subjects you would like to see me answer, that would be a dandy place to mention it.

Okay, let’s turn our attention back to query letter diagnostics.

A quick reminder: the goal here is not to help you construct a generic letter that will work for every agent to whom you might conceivably decide to send it, but to assist you in ferreting out problems with the personalized missives you’re constructing for each one. Yes, you may well reuse sentences and even entire paragraphs from letter to letter, but as anyone who has had much contact with agents can tell you, these are not generalists.

Which means, to put it bluntly, that while their Millicents share common pet peeves, they are all looking for different things in a query letter.

For the record, I don’t believe that there IS such a thing as a universally perfect query letter, one that will wow every agent currently hawking books on the planet. It is logically impossible: agents represent different kinds of books, for one thing, so the moment you mention that your book is a Gothic romance, it is going to be rejected by any agent who does not represent Gothic romances.

It’s as simple as that.

More fundamentally, though, I do not accept the idea of a magical formula that works in every case. Yes, the format I have been going over here tends to work well; it has a proven track record across many book categories.

However — and I hate to tell you this, because the arbitrary forces of chance are hard to combat — even if it is precisely what your targeted agency’s screener has been told to seek amongst the haystack of queries flooding the mailroom, it might still end up in the reject pile if the screener or agent is having a bad day.

What factors might produce that outcome, you ask? A million and one that are utterly outside the querier’s control.

If the agent has just broken up with her husband of 15 years that morning, for instance, it’s probably not the best time to query her with a heartwarming romance. If she slipped on the stairs yesterday and broke both her wrists, she’s probably not going to be all that receptive to even the best knitting book today. And if he has just sprained his ankle in tripping over that stack of manuscripts he meant to read two months ago, it’s highly unlikely that any query is going to wow him within the next ten minutes, even if it were penned by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare in an unprecedented show of time-traveling collaboration.

No writer, however gifted, can win in such a situation.

My point is, there will always be aspects of querying success that you cannot control, and you will be a significantly happier writer in the long run if you accept that there is inevitably an element of luck involved.

Frankly, this took me quite a long time to accept myself. I once received a rejection from an agent who had hand-written, “This is literally the best query letter I have ever read — but I’ll have to pass” in the margins of my missive — as if that was going to make me feel any better about being rejected.

To tell you the truth, this compliment annoyed me far more than it pleased me, and like many writers, my mind flooded with resentful questions. Had the agent just completed a conference call with every editor in the business, wherein they held a referendum about the marketability of my type of novel, voting it down by an overwhelming margin? Had she suddenly decided not to represent the kind of book I was presenting due to a mystical revelation from the god of her choice? Or had the agent just gotten her foot run over by a backhoe, or just learned that she was pregnant, or decided to lay off half her staff due to budget problems?

Beats me; I’ll never know.

But the fact is, whatever was going on at that agency, it was beyond my control. Until I am promoted to minor deity, complete with smiting powers, love potions, and telepathic control of the mails, I just have to accept that I have no way of affecting when my query — or my manuscript, or my published book — is going to hit an agent, editor, reviewer, or reader’s desk.

My advice: concentrate on the aspects of the interaction you CAN control. Speaking of which, let’s recap our checklist so far.

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

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

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

(14) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I actually said what the book is ABOUT?

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?

(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?

(17) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the SPECIFIC points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

(18) Does my summary paragraph read like a back jacket blurb, full of marketing-talk and generalization, or like a great elevator speech, grounded in details that will appeal to my ideal reader?

(19) Does my summary paragraph echo the tone of the book?

(20) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?

Everyone happy with those? Taking that stunned silence for a no, I shall press forward.

(21) Have I mentioned the book category within the first paragraph of my letter?
I bring this up all the time, but it bears repeating: like it or not, you do need to use some of your precious querying space to state outright what KIND of a book you are shopping around.

The fact is, any agent will have to tell any editor what genre your book falls into in order to sell it: it is really, really helpful if you are clear about it up front. (If you’re unclear on why, please see my recent post on the importance of identifying the book category in a verbal pitch.)

As I mentioned a couple of days back, you’d be surprised at how few query letters even mention whether the work being pitched is fiction or nonfiction — and how many describe the book in only the most nebulous of terms.

This is a business run on categories, people: pick one. Tell the nice agent where your book will be sitting in a bookstore, and do it in the language that people in the publishing industry use.

Since I posted on this fairly recently (see BOOK CATEGORIES, right), I shall not run through the categories again. If you’re in serious doubt about the proper term, dash to your nearest major bookstore, start pulling books similar to yours off the shelf in your chosen section, and look on the back cover: most publishers will list the book’s category either in the upper left-hand corner or in the box with the bar code.

Then replace the books tidily on the shelf, of course. (Had I mentioned that I’m a librarian’s daughter? I can prove it, too: Shhh!)

(22) When I mentioned the book category, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?
Queriers new to the game often believe, mistakenly, that claiming that their books are so completely original, so unlike anything else currently for sale to the English-reading public, that even trying to squeeze them into one of the conceptual boxes provided by the industry would undersell their originality. Instead, these well-meaning souls just make up their own categories with names like Hilarious Western Romance Travelogue or Time-Travel Thriller.

They think — again, mistakenly — that such names are helpful to agents. How could being more specific than the average bookseller be bad?

I hate to break this to you, but in quite a number of ways. To name but two, mythical book categories are unprofessional, and using them betrays a misunderstanding of why agents want to see them in query letters: to figure out whether the book presented is the kind that they currently want to sell. Also, an aspiring writer who clearly knows that he’s supposed to name a book category but tries to wiggle around it is playing rules lawyer, not a strategy likely to convince Millicent and her boss that he’s the type who just loves following directions without a fight.

Do it because they say so.

What could happen otherwise? Picture this: Millicent’s subway train from her tiny apartment in Brooklyn that she shares with four other underpaid office workers broke down, so she has arrived at work half an hour late. There’s an agency-wide meeting in an hour, and she needs to clear her desk of the 200 query letters that came yesterday, in order to be ready for the 14 manuscripts her boss is likely to hand her at the meeting. After she has speed-read her way through 65 of the queries, a kind co-worker makes a Starbucks run. Just before Millicent slits open your query (#126), she takes a big gulp of much-needed caffeine — and scalds her tongue badly.

Your query with its fanciful pseudo book category is now in her hand. Which is she more likely to do, to humor your reluctance to place your book in the traditional conceptual box, as her boss will require her to do if she recommends picking you up as a client, or to shrug, say, “Here’s another one who doesn’t understand how the business works,” and move on to the next envelope?

Blistered tongue or not, do you really want to bait her?

If you’re absolutely, positively convinced that it would be an outrage upon the very name of truth to commit your novel to any one category, PLEASE don’t make up a hyphenate like Western-Fantasy-How-to, in order to try to nail it with scientific precision. In a pinch, if it doesn’t fall clearly into at least a general category, just label it FICTION and let the agent decide.

Provided, of course, that you are querying an agent who routinely represents fiction that does not fit neatly into any of the major established categories. I definitely wouldn’t advise this with, say, an agent who represents only romantica or hard-boiled mysteries.

But whatever you do, avoid cluttering up your query letter, synopsis — or indeed, any communication you may have with an agent or editor prior to clutching a signed contract with them in your hot little hand — with explanations about how your book transcends genre, shatters boundaries, or boldly goes where no novel has gone before.

Even if it’s true. Perhaps especially if it’s true.

Yes, such a speech makes a statement, but probably not the one the writer intends. Here’s how such statements translate into agent-speak: “This writer doesn’t know how books are marketed.”

(23) Have I listed my credentials well? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, 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 camp trophy for woodworking can be a selling point, in the proper context. Ditto with any publication, anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether you were paid for writing it.

But truthfully, 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 did, and any awards you have won, if you have.

To professional eyes, these too are what I like to call ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy).

If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, mention that, too: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include. But if you don’t have anything you feel you can legitimately report here, don’t stretch the truth: just leave out this paragraph.

Unless, of course, you happen to be trying to find an agent or editor for a nonfiction work. Which brings me to…

(24) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a reader in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?
A platform, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the background that renders a NF author qualified to write a particular book — for tips on what does and doesn’t count as qualification, please see the PLATFORM category on the list at right. Consequently, “What’s the author’s platform?” is pretty much always the first question either an agent or an editor will ask about any nonfiction book.

Which means — and I do seem to being blunt quite a bit today, don’t I? — that a NF query letter that does not make its writer’s platform absolutely clear and appealing will practically always be rejected.

And yes, you do need to satisfy this criterion if your NF field happens to be memoir. I know, I know: it’s self-evident that a memoirist is the world’s leading authority on his own life, but as I’ve mentioned before, a memoir is almost invariably about something other than the author’s sitting in a room alone. If your memoir deals with other subject matter — the platform paragraph of your query letter is the ideal place to make the case that you are an expert on that.

(25) Have I made any of the standard mistakes, the ones about which agents often complain?
I like to think of this as a primary reason to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are one of the best places on earth to collect massive lists of the most recent additions to agents and editors’ pet peeves. I’ve been going through most of the major ones throughout this series, but some of them can be quite itty-bitty.

Referring to your book as a fiction novel is invariably on the top of every agent’s list, for instance; in point of fact, all novels are fiction, by definition. A nonfiction memoir, a real-life memoir, a true memoirand nonfiction based on a true story, as well as permutations on these themes, are all similarly redundant.

Just don’t do it.

Waffling about the book category is also a popular choice, as are queries longer than a single page, including promotional blurbs from people of whom the agent has never heard (“Chester Smith says this is the most moving book about trout fishing he’s ever read!”), or ANY mention of the book’s potential for landing the author on Oprah. Any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread.

Especially the last; the average screener at a major NYC agency could easily wallpaper her third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn seven times over with query letters that make this claim — and I’m talking about ones received within a single month.

I shall be wrapping up the query checklist tomorrow, my friends. Keep up the good work!

Query letter troubleshooting, part II: more toiling in the literary vineyard

Happy Labor Day, all! I was tickled to find this image from the Book of Hours to gladden our hearts today, because it is such an accurate depiction of how so many aspiring writers view the work of querying these days: a long, toilsome effort aimed toward impressing the powerful folks in the white castle on the hill — who may or may not be paying attention — under a sky that (we hope) conceals at least a few minor deities rooting for the underdog’s eventual success.

Oh, right — I was the only writer who felt that way while I was trying to find the right agent. Thanks for clearing up that little misconception.

But on the off chance that I wasn’t the lone writer who ever shivered in the face of seemingly unalterable industry coldness, I feel an obligation to point out from the other side of the Rubicon that even those newest to querying are not as entirely helpless in the face of it as we writers tend to tell ourselves we are. Although much of a writer’s progress along the road to publication is dependent upon factors outside her control — fads in style, fashions in content, and what kind of memoir has garnered the most scandals recently, to name but three — how she presents her work to the industry is in fact entirely under her own control.

Which is a really, really nice way of saying that from a professional reader’s point of view, scads of query letters traject themselves like lemmings straight from the envelope into the rejection pile with scarcely a pause in between. Sadly, the vast majority are rejected for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the potential personality fit between the author and agent, the agent’s ability to sell the book in question, or even the quality of the writing.

Why, you cry? Because agents and their screeners read hundreds of the darned things per week: even if only 20 of them share the same basic mistake — and trust me, more of them will — the 21rst query that carries even a shade of similarity is likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction so strong that even Dr. Pavlov would shake his head and say, “No kidding? Just because the letter was addressed to Dear Agent, instead of an individual?”

Oh, yes, Dr. Pavlov, there are few epistolary errors that engender a stronger — or quicker — negative response than a Dear Agent letter. But that’s merely the best-known of the notorious query-reader pet peeves…and I’m getting ahead of myself.

Call me zany, but if a query elicits a rejection for any reason other than that the storyline or argument in the proposed book didn’t grab Millicent or her boss, my first question is not, “Oh, how could the screener have made such a mistake?” but “May I have a look at that letter, so see how the writer may improve it?”

Why do I tend to leap straight to that conclusion, you ask? Experience, mostly. If there is a single rule of thumb that may be applied at every stage of any successful author’s career, it’s that it ALWAYS behooves us to look critically at our own writing before assuming that the only possible explanation for frowned-upon writing lies in the eye of the predisposition of the reader to frown.

My, that was a convoluted sentence, wasn’t it? Let me put it more simply: Millicent may indeed be a bit rejection-happy at times, but any writer can learn how to avoid provoking her. As with a manuscript, the writer of a query will virtually always be better off taking steps to improve what she can control than blaming the rejection upon other factors.

It is possible, in other words, to learn from one’s own mistakes, even in the current agency environment, where the vast majority of queriers are never told precisely what made Millicent slide their letters directly into their SASEs with a copy of the agency’s prefab one-size-fits-all rejection note.

In the spirit of trying to avoid that dismal fate, I began running through a checklist of some of the most common query letter mistakes yesterday. Let’s recap, shall we?

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

Please do take the time to re-read your query before you answer these questions or the ones to come. Yes, even if some of these points sound a trifle redundant to those of you who have been reading my blog for a while: you would be well within your rights to think, honestly, don’t all of us know by now to avoid sounding bitter in a query letter? Or to be polite while doing it?

Well, probably so — but humor me here, because queriers often do not change anything but the first paragraph, address, and salutation between each time they sent out their letters, more or less insuring that a mistake made once will be replicated a dozen times. It’s quite easy to fall into the habit of pumping out those queries without really pondering their content — or whether this particular letter is the best means of marketing to that particular agent.

In short, it’s worth reviewing what’s going out every once in a while. Which, coincidentally, brings me to the next question on the checklist:

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

Many aspiring writers approach quite a few agents simultaneously — and with good reason. At this point in publishing history, when many agencies don’t even respond to e-mailed queries if the answer is no, waiting to hear back from one agent before approaching the next is poor strategy. One-by-one queries can add years to the agent-finding process.

Do I hear some restless murmuring out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you conference veterans protest, “I heard that some agents will become furious if they find out that a writer is sending out many queries simultaneously. I don’t want to scare them away from my book by breaking their rules right off the bat!”

I’m not sure why this rumor remains so pervasive, because exclusivity requests almost invariably refer to submissions, not queries — and without exception, agencies that prefer to have exclusive looks at either make that fact PERFECTLY OBVIOUS in their listings in the standard agency guides, on their websites, and at conferences. So if you have checked to ascertain that the agent of your dreams — or at least the next on your list — does not have an exclusivity policy, you should assume that s/he doesn’t.

Trust me, if an agent who does prefer an exclusive peek doesn’t want other agents seeing it, s/he will let you know. Until then, it’s a waste of your valuable time to grant a de facto exclusive to someone who hasn’t asked for it. (For some tips on dealing with an actual request for an exclusive, if and when it comes up, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the list at right.)

I suspect that the astonishing persistence of the rumor that most agents secretly crave exclusives (and thus penalize queriers who don’t read their minds and act accordingly) is a direct result of agents’ standing up at writers’ conferences and saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t send out mass queries — if I see a query that’s clearly been sent to every agent in the book, I send straight it into the rejection pile.”

Since everyone in the room will nod sagely in response, the agent will not unnaturally assume that the entire audience knows that s/he is referring not to the practice of querying several agents simultaneously, but to the astonishing common feat of sending (often via e-mail) an IDENTICAL query letter to, say, a hundred agents all at once. (And if you don’t know why that’s a bad idea, you might want to check out this archived post before you launch a flotilla of your own.)

As we have discussed, a letter designed to please all is unlikely to be geared to the specific quirks and literary tastes of any particular agent — one of the many reasons that this shotgun approach seldom works. The other, believe it or not, is that mass submitters often render the fact that they don’t know one agent on their lists from another by sending out what is known in the biz as a Dear Agent letter. As in one that begins:

Dear Agent,

I haven’t the vaguest idea who you are or what you represent, but since the big publishing houses don’t accept submissions from unagented authors, I come to you, hat in hand, to beg you to represent my fiction novel…

Why, when there is so much to resent in this (probably quite honest) little missive, would the salutation alone be enough to get this query rejected without reading farther? Well, to folks who work in agencies, such an opening means only one thing: the writer who sent it is sending an identical letter to every agent listed on the Internet or in one of the standard agency guides.

Willy-nilly, with no regard to who represents what and consequently who is likely to be interested in the book at hand.

Which means, they reason, that it is unlikely to the point of laughability that the book being proposed is going to fit the specific requirements and tastes of any of the agents currently domiciled at the agency. And, most will additionally conclude, the writer hasn’t bothered to learn much about how the publishing industry works.

Since virtually any Millicent will simply pitch a Dear Agent letter into the reject pile, if not actually the trash (Dear Agent letter-writers seldom know to include SASEs), it’s in your best interest to make it quite, quite obvious to whom you are addressing your missive. In fact, the query most likely to succeed is one that is specialized not only in the salutation, but in the first paragraph as well.

How, you ask? Good question.

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

This is a corollary of the last, of course — to put it another way, writers aren’t the the only ones screaming at the heavens, “Why me? Why me?” Agents scream it, too, albeit with a slightly different meaning.

No, but seriously, agents (and their screeners) wonder about this. Given half a chance and a martini or two, many agents will complain vociferously 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.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while may find this question SLIGHTLY familiar, and for good reason: this is a NOTORIOUS agents’ pet peeve.

So it’s worth taking a look at your query letter and asking yourself if it answers the question: there are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents in the United States alone — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query? What specifically about this agent’s track record, literary tastes, and/or bio led you to say, By gum, I would like this person to represent my work?

And no, in this context, because she is an agent and I desperately want to sell my book, is not a reason likely to impress Millicent. She hears it too often.

Remember, agents — like most other people — tend to be proud of their best work: if you want to get on their good side, showing a little appreciation for what they have done in the past is just good strategy. Especially if you can honestly compliment them on a project they really loved, or one that was unusually difficult to sell.

See why I kept urging you earlier this summer to ask those panels of agents at conferences some pointed questions about their favorite projects? I was just looking to help you glean some useful information.

I picked this little trick up not at writers’ conferences, but in academia. When a professor is applying for a job, she is subjected to a form of medieval torture known as a job talk. Not only is she expected to give a lecture in front of the entire faculty that is thinking of hiring here, all of whom are instructed in advance to jump on everything she says with abandon, but she is also expected to have brief private meetings with everyone on the faculty first.

It’s every bit as horrible as it sounds, like going through a series of 20 or 30 interviews with authors who think simply everyone in the universe has read their work. (Everyone smart, anyway.) If you’re the job candidate, you’d better have at least one pithy comment prepared about each and every faculty member’s most recent article, or you’re toast.

Gee, I can’t imagine why I didn’t want to remain in academia. But it did teach me something very valuable indeed: pretty much every human being affiliated with every book ever published likes to be recognized for the fact.

And it’s so very easy to work a compliment into a query letter without sounding cheesy or obsequious! If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, you have a natural beginning: “Since you so ably represented X’s book, I believe you may be interested in my novel…”

I had lunch a while back with a writer who used this method in a pitch with triumphant success. The agent was blown away that the writer had taken the time to find out whom she represented and do a little advance reading.

There are many ways to find out what an agent has represented. Check the acknowledgments of books you like (authors often thank their agents), or check the agency’s website to see whom the agent represents. If all else fails, call the book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was; legally, it’s a matter of public record, so they have to tell you.

Actually, with small publishers, this isn’t a bad method for finding out what they are looking to publish. 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.

Moral: sometimes opportunities are hiding in some unexpected places. As, for instance…

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

I am surprised at how often writers seem reluctant to mention this, but since such a low percentage of the aspiring writers out there attend conferences (under 4%, according to the last estimate I saw), attending a good one that the agent you’re querying also attended is in fact a minor selling point for your book: the prevailing wisdom goes that writers who make the investment in learning how to market their work professionally tend to have more professional work to present.

A kind of old-fashioned notion, true, but if you’re a conference-goer, one you should be riding for all it is worth.

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

I would suggest being even more upfront than this, if the conference in question was a reputable one and you did in fact attend it. Why not write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, in approximately the same place where you would have written REQUESTED MATERIALS had you pitched to the agent successfully there? And if you are an e-querying type, why not mention it in the subject line of the e-mail?

Oh, and lest I forget to mention it later in this series:

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

Stop laughing, hard-core web fiends. The publishing world runs on paper — it’s far from unusual for a prestigious agency not to accept e-submissions at all. Even agencies with websites (which not all of them maintain, even today) that accept submissions directly through the website often employ agents who prefer paper queries, even from writers residing in foreign countries for whom getting the right stamps for the SASE is problematic. (Don’t worry, those of you reading this abroad: I’m going to be talking next week about how to deal with the stamp problem.)

Double-check the agency’s policy before you e-query. This information will be in any of the standard agency guides, and usually on the website as well.

If you’re in any doubt, query via regular mail — strategically, it’s a better idea, anyway.

Yes, you read that correctly. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of querying via e-mail, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s far, far less work to reject someone by the press of a single button than by stuffing a response into a SASE. A truly swift-fingered Millicent can reject 50 writers online in the time that it would take her to reject 10 on paper.

Not to mention the fact that the average reader scans words on a screen 70% faster than the same words on paper. (Or at least she did the last time I checked the statistics.) I can’t conceive of any writer who has thought about it actively longing to have Millicent spend less time reading his letter than she already does, can you?

The relative speed of scanning e-queries is why, in case you’re wondering, quite a few of the agencies that actively solicit online queries tend to respond more quickly than those that don’t. Or not at all — which means that it’s also worth your while to check an agency’s policy on responding to e-queries before you approach them; many have policies that preclude responding to a querier if the answer is no.

I sense an unspoken question hanging in the air right now. Go ahead; ask.

“But Anne,” I hear many of you shout, “what happens if I accidentally send an e-query to an agent who doesn’t like them, or a paper query to one who prefers to be approached electronically? That won’t result in an automatic rejection, will it?”

Not necessarily, no. But let me ask you this: who would you prefer to read your letter, an agent calmly going through a stack (or list) of queries, or an agent whose first thought upon seeing your epistle is, “Oh, God, not another one! Can’t any of these writers READ? I’ve said in the last ten years’ worth of Herman’s Guides that I don’t want to be queried via e-mail!”

I don’t know about you, but given my druthers, I would select the former.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that just as it’s polite to address a person the way he prefers to be addressed, rather than by a hated nickname, a courteous writer should approach an agent in the manner she prefers to be approached. Those with strong preferences either way seldom make a secret of it; double-check before you send.

And before anyone out there asks: yes, most agents will assume that a writer worth having as a client will have gone to the trouble of learning something about their personal preferences. If they have expressed a pet peeve in one of the standard agency guides, they will assume that you are aware of it.

While we’re on the subject of double-checking, allow me to sneak in one more quick question before I sign off for the evening:

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

I hear some titters out there, but you wouldn’t BELIEVE how common all of these gaffes are. The last is usually just the result of a writer’s being in a hurry to get the next set of queries in the mail, and tend to be treated accordingly, but the first two constitute major breaches of etiquette.

And yes, an agent with a first name that leaves gender a tad ambiguous is every bit as likely to resent an incorrect salutation as a Rebecca or Stephen would. Often more, because a Cricket, Chris, or Leslie would constantly be receiving queries apparently addressed to someone of the opposite sex.

If you’re in serious doubt, call the agency and ask point-blank whether the agent is a Mr. or Ms. (Quick note for those querying US agents from other parts of the world: currently, Mr. or Ms. are the only two options; unless a woman makes a point of identifying herself as a Miss or Mrs., Ms. is the proper salutation.)

I know, I know: you’ve heard 4500 times that a writer should NEVER call an agency until after he has a signed representation contract in hand or the agent has left a message asking him to call back, whichever comes first. While it is quite true that allowing the agent to set the level of familiarity in the early stages of exchange is good strategy, most offices are set up to allow a caller to ask a quick, anonymous question, if he’s polite about it. As long as you don’t ask to speak to the agent personally and/or use the occasion to pitch your book, you should be fine.

Have you noticed how many of these tips boil down to some flavor of be clear, do your homework, and be courteous? That’s not entirely accidental: as odd as it may seem in an industry that rejects so many so brusquely, manners honestly do count in this business.

As my grandmother was fond of saying, manners cost nothing. But as I am prone to tell my clients and students, not exhibiting courtesy can cost an aspiring writer quite a lot.

So sit up straight, brush your teeth, and help little old ladies across the street; it will be great practice for working with an agent or editor.

More of the checklist follows tomorrow, of course. In the meantime, keep up the good work!