As those of you who have been hanging around this blog for a while already know, I always like announcing the triumphs of our own — in a business as tough as ours, getting into the habit of celebrating other authors’ successes means getting to enjoy many, many more good days in any given year — but I’m especially pleased to gloat over the success of a good book by good writers in the current publishing hard times.
We could all use some good news right about now, eh?
So I am absolutely delighted to open today with not only a single piece of good news about a member of our little community, but a whole raft of it: FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Stan Trollip dropped me a line to say that his first novel with co-author Michael Sears, a little gem entitled A CARRION DEATH, has been recognized by the Los Angeles Times as one of the top 10 crime novels of 2008.
As if that and a boatload of glowing reviews weren’t enough, has just been named one of 4 finalists in genre fiction by the 2008 Minnesota Book Awards.
In addition to the juried awards, the good folks at the Minnesota Book Awards have also nominated A CARRION DEATH for a Readers’ Award, given to the book that garners the most votes online. So should any of you feel inclined to pitch in and help a debut author by voting, the deadline is April 10.
Congratulations, Stan and Michael!
Or, more properly, congratulations are due to Michael Stanley, their collective nom de plume. For those of you who missed Stan’s informative guest post on the delicate art of collaboration last spring, here’s the blurb:
Smashed skull, snapped ribs, and a cloying smell of carrion. Leave the body for the hyenas to devour—no body, no case. But when Kalahari game rangers stumble on a human corpse mid-meal, it turns out the murder wasn’t perfect after all. Enough evidence is left to suggest foul play. Detective David “Kubu” Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department is assigned to the case. From the sun-baked riverbeds of the Kalahari to the highest offices of an international conglomerate, he follows a blood-soaked trail in search of answers. Beneath a mountain of lies and superstitions, he uncovers a chain of crimes leading to the most powerful figures in the country—influential enemies who will kill anyone in their way.
Incidentally, should any of you be planning to write query letters in the foreseeable future, THAT’s what a terrific summary paragraph looks like. Crammed to the gills with vivid, attention-grabbing details, isn’t it? Makes you want to read the book, doesn’t it?
Those of you who succumbed to the temptation of doings so will no doubt be pleased to hear that Michael Stanley’s second book, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU, will be released on June 2 in North America. (I’m told that it will be released in the rest of the world in April as A DEADLY TRADE.) For US-based pre-order buffs, Amazon is already offering it for sale.
Back to our ongoing series on the successful selection and wielding of character names. In Part III (Part I was Askhari Hodari’s expert turn as a guest poster, in case any of you were confused by my rather spotty enumeration, and Part IV was the interesting group discussion this weekend, in which I encourage everyone to continue to participate), I waxed long on the Cast of Thousands phenomenon: manuscripts that name every character, no matter how minor, down to the dogs and the goat tethered in the back yard in Chapter 3.
Manuscripts afflicted with COT can get overwhelming, not to say confusing, pretty fast. Professional readers like our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, tend to become impatient when characters pile up — as, indeed, do other readers.
“How,” the hapless peruser of a COT-riddled book wonders, “am I supposed to keep all of these characters straight? Who is Alexei? Have I seen him before?”
I sense that there were some hands still raised after my last discussion of the phenomenon. (Never mind how I know that. Blogging imbues one with super-sharp sensory perceptions.) “Wait just a minute,” I heard some of you murmuring in the ether. “An ordinary reader may not have options if s/he forgets who is who, but our old pal Millicent the agency screener does. If she finds she’s forgotten who a character is, she has a perfectly easy way to find out — her boss asked that I send a synopsis along with my submission. All she has to do is flip to the back of the packet. Or are you saying that if I have a lot of characters in my opening scenes, I should place my synopsis FIRST in the packet?”
To take the last question first, no — at least, not unless an agency specifies in its submission guidelines that it prefers that order. Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: a submitter should always send a requesting agent PRECISELY what s/he asked to see.
No more, no less. Yes, even if she asked for the first 50 pages and your chapter ends a paragraph into page 51. No fudging. And trust a frequent literary contest judge when she tells you that rule applies to stated length restrictions in contest rules, too.
Part of what you are demonstrating by your submission or entry is that you can follow directions, after all. Agents and editors tend to have affection for writers who pay attention to the details of requests; it’s so rare. Writers who start printing out pages after reading only the first line of a request for materials seem to be the norm, unfortunately, not the exception.
That giant tsunami-like rush of air you just heard was every agent, editor, and denizen of a publisher’s marketing department sighing in unison. They honestly do have a reason to be cranky on this point.
But enough of their pain — I’m sensing more conceptually-based disturbances of the ether out there, especially from those of you just on the cusp of stuffing synopses into submission envelopes. “But Anne,” the more literal-minded ether-rockers cry en masse, “I just read a blog by an anonymous agent/heard an agent say at a conference/happened to be eavesdropping in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from the dais at any writers’ conference, and this guy said he didn’t care about exact page count; he just wanted the first three chapters. So aren’t you, you know, wrong about the importance of sticking to 50 pages?”
Actually, literal rockers, you’ve provided evidence in support of my point, not against it. Remember, no matter how much aspiring writers would like for there to be an absolutely uniform set of expectations for submissions — and a well-publicized one, at that — individual differences do exist. So once again, long-time readers, please take out your hymnals and sing along: if your submission-requester says he wants to see something specific in your submission packet, for heaven’s sake, give it to him. Ditto with contest rules.
General submission guidelines only kick in when the requester doesn’t ask for something different — which is to say, the vast majority of the time. (As always, if you’re unfamiliar with how professional manuscripts differ from printed books or other commonly-scene formats, I implore you to check out the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right. Actually, I would strongly recommend any reader new to this blog to take a gander at those categories first.) But if the agent you overheard wants four chapters, you should send four chapters; if he asks you to give your pitch in mime while juggling seventeen oranges, you should consider doing that, too, because he’s the one who is going to be deciding whether he wants to represent you or not.
That being the case, is your first professional contact with him truly the best time to say (at least implicitly), “Look, I know what you asked to see, and that request was based upon your far greater knowledge of both how the publishing industry works and how you like to read, but I’m just going to assume that I’m right and you’re wrong. Got a problem with that?”
I can tell you now: he will.
That being said, don’t revere such requests so highly that you fall into the extremely common trap of generalizing any such quirky individual preferences into industry-wide expectations. Just because one agent, small publisher, and/or contest has a wacky preference doesn’t mean that any other agent, small publisher, and/or contest will share it.
Or, to express it in mathematical terms, agent’s preference ? every agents’ preference.
Aspiring writers often forget that, especially when confronted with the latest panicky iterations of “Oh, my God, I heard an agent speak last week, and submission standards have completely changed!” that trouble the literary world in the wake of every conference season.
Whenever you encounter any hyper-specific submission guidelines that deviate sharply from the rules of standard manuscript format that an agency might post on its website or an agent might specify at a conference — like, say, specifying that submissions may only be in Helvetica or that they should be bound, both usually no-nos — should be treated as applicable to THAT REQUESTER ALONE, rather than to every authors’ representative currently walking the earth.
Everyone clear on that? Good.
Back to the original question, and thence to my argument already in progress. To recap for those of you who have forgotten what the question was during the course of my rather extended digression: why wouldn’t a professional reader who got a large character list mixed up simply fish out the synopsis for reference? And if helping a busy Millicent keep the characters straight is a legitimate purpose for a synopsis, shouldn’t it come first in the packet?
In a word, no. If you put the synopsis at the front of your packet, Millicent is just going to toss it aside and go straight to the first page of your manuscript. If dear Millie reads all the way through your submission and likes what she sees, THEN she will read the synopsis.
You’re hoping that I’m kidding, aren’t you? Bizarre but true, typically, not every employee at an agency will take the time to read the synopsis they asked a writer to send prior to sitting down with those first few pages to see whether s/he can write.
Seriously — ask at the next writers’ conference you attend.
There’s a certain logic to this, at least for fiction. After all, if a book made it to the submission stage; presumably, the novel’s premise was deemed acceptable by the query screener or the agent to whom the writer pitched it; the only reason to read the synopsis at the submission stage, then, would be to find out what happens AFTER the last submission page.
And anyway, if Alexei’s appearance in Ch. 2 was brief enough, chances are that he won’t have made an appearance in the synopsis, anyway.
While I’m apparently free-associating about any and all topics related to character names, and since this contest entry season, this seems like a dandy time to talk about character name choice that could get a writer into a whole lot of trouble. Yes, Virginia, I’m talking about that pesky but oh-so-common literary contest rule that forbids entrants from mentioning their own names anywhere in a submission.
Kind of inconvenient for memoirists and other writers of the real, isn’t it? In practice, it means that entrants in memoir and personal essay categories, not to mention those many fiction writers who like to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction by making themselves characters in their own narratives, have to select new monikers for themselves.
Stop laughing, oh writers of thinly-veiled autobiographies passing as fiction. For a writer who has embraced the unique difficulties of thinking of herself as a character in a book, renaming oneself can be a genuine problem.
Which is not to say that the no-name rule itself is objectionable. However annoying rechristening may be to contest-entering writers of the real, it exists for a very good reason: for a contest to be worth its salt, it must be able to claim that its judging procedures are not biased; the first step to assuring lack of personal bias is to institute blind judging, where no judge knows the name of any given author. Admittedly, some competitions are only apparently unbiased, but for the most part, contest organizers take authorial anonymity very seriously indeed.
So no, finding a clever way to get around the rules is not going to endear you to them. Not at all.
Which is why I am about to turn very hard-line: if you are submitting a memoir entry, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this rule applies to not only your entire name, but EITHER your first or your last appearing alone.
Actually, every contest entrant everywhere should follow all the rules in the contests they enter, but this is the single most common way for memoir entries to get themselves disqualified — and the reason that for a memoir entry, you should NEVER just print up the opening chapter of your book and send it in.
You could, of course, sidestep the issue entirely by not entering a piece of writing in which dear self is a character — which is, again, a trifle difficult for memoirists and other habitual writers of the real. The second-best way that I’ve found is to christen oneself anew with the name that you wish your parents had had the wit and wisdom to give you in the first place.
Come on — none of us had the name we wanted in junior high school. Pick the one that would have made your life lovely and do a search-and-replace.
Obviously, you’re going to want to make a duplicate document of the chapter or essay you’re planning on entering in the contest before you perform this bit of minor surgery — as I said, it’s never a good idea just to print up the requisite number of pages from your already-existing manuscript and send off to a contest. (Your slug line in your submitting-to-agents version will have your name in it, for one thing.) Perhaps less obviously, you’re going to need to perform the search-and-replace function for both the first and last name, as well as any nicknames you might have incorporated into the manuscript.
Even when you’ve gone to all the trouble of using a pseudonym. Even then, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying that since the contest forbids the author to mention his own name, you will be using “Bobby” (not your real name) throughout.
Why, you ask? Because it’s practically impossible NOT refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life. Since judges are aware of that, and become accordingly eagle-eyed.
And don’t think being coy about it will help you evade their scrutiny, either. Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story.
I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who eagerly contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. (As those who happened to be hanging around Harvard at the time would no doubt be quick to point out, I use the term humor loosely in this instance: the magazine was seldom actually funny to those who were not in the writers’ clique, but bear with me here.) Danny had every reason to try to get his articles published: the magazine had long ago spawned an extremely profitable off-campus humor magazine, so a successful Lampoon piece could be a stepping-stone to a career as a comedy writer.
Despite or perhaps because of these articles’ worth as resume-candy, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club. But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on. So Danny did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song.
His favorite way of doing this was to insert an imaginary conversation with himself into the text, so an alter ego could address him by name, as in, “Danny boy, you’re really in trouble now!” Occasionally, he would vary it by having an authority figure yell at his narrator: “Wilson, you’re out of line!” (Because Danny is now a fairly prominent magazine writer, I should say straight away: to protect his identity, Wilson is not Danny’s actual last name.)
Now, as my parenthetical aside just told you indirectly, Danny’s little stratagem actually did help him generate the clippings he coveted, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.
I bring this up not because there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-breakers out there, but because I have seen so many contest entries that have apparently done inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time, à la Hamlet: “Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.” And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified.
Yes, Virginia (if that’s your real name), even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.
So a word to the wise: innocent naming mistakes can knock your entry out of competition. So it would behoove to prepare your entry, like your queries, under the assumption that the judge who is going to read it is the nastiest, most curmudgeonly nit-picker since, well, me.
“But Anne,” I hear you cry, pale at the prospect of encountering yours truly as a contest judge, “if this mistake is usually made inadvertently, how can I hope to avoid it?”
Well asked, oh fearful trembler. Experience sharpens the editing eye. Rest yourself upon the judge’s reading couch for a moment, and take a look at where these slips most commonly occur.
Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Even if Biddy has had the foresight to rename herself Libby McPherson-Seine and do a search-and-replace accordingly, she should double-check her entry especially carefully in the following places:
(1) When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Biddy, have you seen the our pet tiger, Max?”
(2) When another character is talking about the narrator behind her back: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver. He’s paying too much attention to that Biddy next door.”
(3) When another character refers to the narrator by an abbreviation that a search-and-replace might not catch: “I’m talking to you, Bid,” is substantially less likely to get changed automatically than, “I’m talking to you, Biddy.”
(4) And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult shouts some version of: “Elizabeth Deirdre MacAlister-Thames, you come in this house this instant!”
Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character OTHER than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you. So keep our Biddy should keep her eye out for these kinds of situations, too:
(5) When a third party addresses a family member: “Mrs. MacAlister-Thames, your daughter is under arrest.”
(6) When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: The Easter Bunny had been unusually generous to the MacAlister-Thames family that year.
And, as I mentioned above, self-references to EITHER your first or last name, not just to both together, count as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH your first AND last names in your entry before you print it up.
Yes, it’s a tedious thing to have to do, Biddy (or whatever you’re calling yourself now), and yes, you have my sympathies for having to do it. But frankly, I would rather see you annoyed and on the finalist list than not proofread and disqualified.
I’m funny that way.
Now that I’ve cleaned up some of the name-related loose ends, I’m going to launch into another big topic next time: that special scourge of humanity that is too-frequent name repetition. Keep up the good work!