Submission packet mystery theatre, continued: the race is not always to the swift

monk writing at desk

Before I launch back into my ongoing spate of darkly illustrative tales of Submitters Gone Wrong (hey, it’s Halloween — what could possibly be scarier to a writer than a submission gone horribly awry?) I have a bit of procedural business: I’m going to be taking a brief hiatus from posting here at Author! Author!, probably about a week, to lock myself in a suitably arty and consumption-inducing attic somewhere to perform a bit of intensive writing. In the interim, please feel free to post questions and comments; I shall be checking in every couple of days. Do talk amongst yourselves.

To provide you with some mental chewing gum to munch while I’m off doing an intensive rewrite, 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 with a bit more discussion of the submission process — specifically, more cautionary tales where completely well-meaning aspiring writers go wrong in pulling together and sending off requested materials.

Or at the very least, cause themselves some unnecessary chagrin.

Case in point: 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. Or a bottle of aspirin for the stress headache induced by waiting for the response.

With an eye to helping submitting writers figure out what is and isn’t a necessary expense, I have spent the last few 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 next step, mailing off requested materials, taxing my scant savings.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but better to shatter your illusions than your piggy bank: the submission process itself can be quite expensive. Especially if you decide, as many a savvy writer does, to submit to several agents simultaneously.

Why might it add up? Well, let’s take a gander at what’s involved. At minimum, the costs of producing a professional-looking submission packet include:

shipping (both there and back),
boxes,
paper,
ink cartridges or photocopying expenses,
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, if you’re printing out five different packets, the cumulative cost can be significant.

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 in general and writers’ returns specifically: ones who are not will almost invariably say that a writer must actually sell some writing in a given year to claim associated expenses. That’s not necessarily true.

Or so I’m told. Had I mentioned that I’m not a professional tax advisor, and that you absolutely shouldn’t take my word on any of this?

Last time, 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 and springing for swifter-than-normal shipping: clawing, pathological fear and nail-gnawing eagerness.

To let one of the most poorly-hidden cats out of one of the most hole-ridden bags in the business, few 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 — by calling in sick to work, evading kith and kin, pretending to have emigrated to Morocco, that sort of thing — to throw together the requested materials and get them out the door as close to instantly as possible.

One of two rationales may prompt this super-speedy response. In the first, the writer cries, “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 hyper-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 that a few hours invested in proofreading (IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and read OUT LOUD, preferably), 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 hence.

As I MAY have hinted gently above, the writer’s speed in getting the submission to the agent typically does 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 much 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 between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the NYC-based part of the biz more or less shuts down. Or in January, when half the aspiring writers in North America are trying to live up to their New Year’s resolution to get those queries and submissions out the door, pronto.

The other, more common rationale for too-swift submission is eagerness. “Whew!” the writer who has just received a request to submit exclaims. “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 the delivery time for that brilliantly fabulous 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 usually under 5%, even in a brisk economy), even fewer submissions pass the initial read test.

Or, to put it the terms we typically use here at Author! Author!, it generally takes even less provocation to cause Millicent shout “Next!” over the first page of a manuscript than over a query. (If that’s news to you and you’re in the mood for a good, old-fashioned Halloween scare, I would strongly urge you to set aside a few hours to run through the posts in the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the archive list at right. It’s sent many a strong writer running screaming from the room.)

There’s a reason that I grill you on the details, you know: I want your queries and submissions 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.

Over the vehement objections of every previous winner of this particular contest (and, incidentally, yours truly), Gilberto says yes. When his local post office opens the next day, he’s already waiting in line, all set to overnight the submission packet he stayed up all night preparing..

However, being a savvy submitter, he submits simultaneously to the other five via regular mail right away. Yet 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, the super-eager Maxine is the very last to respond. And when she finally does, six weeks after he overnighted her the manuscript, it’s with a 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 all of the agents concerned up front 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 Gil’s 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 abundantly demonstrated, 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.

So 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. Lest we forget, 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. (Also true of many editors, incidentally.) The give-me-first-peek request is one way it manifests.

Yet another reason that — chant it with me now, long-time readers — it is always in an aspiring 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 Gilberto’s not telling all of the agents concerned that they were in potential competition over his work was a mistake: had they known that, they would probably have been a bit more interested. Or at any rate aware that they might miss out if they put off reading his submission for too long. Thus, not using his manuscript’s being in demand as a selling point may actually have harmed Gilberto’s chances of landing an agent.

That out-of-the-blue pop quiz worked so well, I’m going to spring another one upon you: why do you think Maxine didn’t 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 the most sought-after new writer at the conference 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 two months ago hasn’t gotten back to you, 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 ramp up the agent’s sense of urgency. 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, I don’t know her personally, so this is merely an educated guess, but I strongly suspect that 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 necessary level of 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 contest 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, of his submitting to other agents. And to increase the chances of being able to see it at all.

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 hurry, from her perspective? (Hey, I promised you a serious Halloween scare, didn’t I?)

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 completely 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, Maxine.)

Sound daring? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: 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; after you’ve signed with an agent, you’ll probably be asked to e-mail anything s/he needs right away, because it’s cheaper for everyone concerned.

You need some time to wrap your brain around that last point, don’t you? Perfect — I shall slip away into my studio while nobody’s looking. Just keep looking in the other direction…

That didn’t work, did it? Well, boo! And keep up the good work!

“So many manuscripts, so little time.” — Millicent

voici les temps

I’m feeling a bit cryptic today, my friends. I’m writing something in a teenage voice, and I can’t say that I particularly like what it’s done to my emotions. Blame my Method acting training; I’ve even broken out. Here’s hoping that the result is worth my rolling my eyes at the slightest provocation.

But enough about me: back to our ongoing concerns. 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? I mean (roll eyes), who DOES that?

Again, I’m not talking about queries sent to agencies whose guidelines specify that you should tuck the first 50 pages into the packet — I mean the unwise practice of just sending along a manuscript before an agent or editor is even aware that it exists. 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.

Normally, I would have dug up a marvelous picture to illustrate that. Unfortunately, I can’t see well enough through my clouds of angst to do that. Or my bangs. (Sigh.)

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 might even have played a role in their rejection. 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.

“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, almost invariably with a form letter — 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.

Even taking all of that into consideration, given the choice, I would always opt for submitting in hard copy, rather than electronically. Fortunately, with many agencies, a submitter does in fact have that choice to make.

Why are paper submissions are worth all the additional effort and expense? Well, for starters, it’s more likely to get there — even if your mail system is reliable, not everybody’s is — and less likely to be deleted accidentally. (Also true of e-queries, incidentally: many agencies that accept pages with initial queries specifically ask in their guidelines that queriers not follow up to find out if the e-mail actually arrived.)

Then, too, hard copy manuscripts 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 the agency screener’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.

I can feel some of you getting restive under the onslaught of so much cynicism (bleak is my outlook, people. Bleak!), 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 over the past few weeks 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 entire 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.

Specifically, the slightly dented box her mail carrier dumped on her doorstep on a recent rainy afternoon. (Our Antoinette is pinching pennies, you see.)

I already feel some of you blushing. 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.

Back to our fair Antoinette. 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 to discuss the book.

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 — sacre bleu! — 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 very, very common type of madness, unfortunately: it never occurred to her that Clara would not simply drop everything else she’s doing to pay attention to her submission the instant it arrived in the office.

A couple of weeks later, another agent, Bertrand, 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, other than use a recycled box? (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; I don’t know about your printer, but mine occasionally blithely decides to slip a blank piece of paper into a manuscript when I’m not looking.

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. Shouted at the top of her lungs.

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 sometimes 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. But do double-check each agency’s website and/or agency guide listing, just to be sure; policies do vary.

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.

I’m off to cultivate my attitude problem by engaging in a few hours of brooding about why my hair isn’t curly and other burning existential issues, but rest assured, I have more submission exemplars up my capacious sleeve. Keep up the good work!

Wrapping up on wrapping up: what precisely should go in that box?

brain in shipping box

Are you excited to have reached the end of this extended megaseries on everything and anything that should go in a query or submission packet — other than the manuscript, that is? Did that collective “Nyeah” I just heard mean that you’re thrilled to have all of this knowledge under your belt, in preparation for that supercharged, tense day when you’re asked to bundle your pages together and send ‘em off, or that the long-term readers amongst you are just pleased to have this info in consecutive posts, for easy future reference? Or is it merely that you will be awfully glad when I stop yammering on about these less-than-thrilling practicalities and wend my way back to craft?

However it may be, last time, I launched into an extensive discussion of the kind of boxes a writer should (sturdy, clean, size-appropriate) and should not use (grease-stained, mangled, clearly last used to ship books from Amazon) to send a manuscript to an agent, editor, or contest. Today, I’m going to round off our discussion of submission packets with some examination of what a writer might conceivably want to stuff into that box.

Let’s pretend for a moment that you have just been asked to submit materials to the agent of your dreams. To be absolutely clear, I’m talking about REQUESTED materials here, not just 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 crammed into a query packet.

I know, I know: it’s a bit counter-intuitive that a blanket statement on a website, in an agency guide, or from a conference dais that a particular agent would like to receive these materials from all queriers doesn’t constitute solicitation, but it doesn’t. The logic runs thus: guidelines that recommend submitting extra material with a query are generic, aimed at any aspiring writer who might conceivably be considering sending a query.

By contrast, a solicited submission, a.k.a. requested materials, is one that an agent is WAITING to see because she has asked a particular writer to send it following a successful pitch or query. Because the agent expressed positive interest in seeing those pages, the lucky requestee is fully justified in scrawling REQUESTED MATERIALS in letters two inches high in the lower right-hand corner of the envelope or shipping box, just to the left of the address, to assure that the submission lands on the right desk instead of the slush pile made up of, you guessed it, unsolicited manuscripts.

Everyone clear on the difference between solicited and unsolicited materials? Because if you don’t by this point in this megaseries, I can only fling my hands into the air and tearfully inquire of any deities who might happen to be listening just where I went wrong in bringing you up.

Just as generic requests vary in what agents ask queriers to send, so do requests for solicited material. Out comes my favorite broken record again: while every agency and small publishing house seems to have a slightly different idea of what constitutes a standard submission packet (word to the wise: read those requests CAREFULLY), here are the most commonly-requested constituent parts, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in the packet:

1. Cover letter
You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? As I mentioned a few days ago, just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude, as well as strategically unwise.

“Oh, please, Anne,” I hear the submission-weary complain. “Rude? What do you call making a successful querier or pitcher write ANOTHER letter to an agent who has already agreed to read my work?”

I sympathize with the submission fatigue, oh weary ones, but don’t get your hackles up. In the first place, there’s no need for a long-winded missive — a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do. It’s hardly onerous.

In the second place, the submitter is the one who benefits from including a cover letter — all the more so because so few submitters remember to tuck one into their packets. 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 submitting 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’m not going to depress you by telling you just how unlikely this is to be the case.

Suffice it to say that it’s in your best interest to assume that the person who heard your pitch or read your query won’t be the first person to screen your submission, for the very simple reason that it is, in fact, often a different person. Thus, it doesn’t really make sense to presume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with who you are and what you write.

And it’s not problematic purely because a Millicent new to your project might get offended by not being addressed politely from the moment she opens the manuscript box. Does anyone out there want to take a guess at the PRACTICAL reason omitting both a cover letter and a title page might render a submitter less likely to get picked up?

If you instantly cried, “Because it renders the agency’s contacting the submitter substantially more difficult!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Like a query letter and a title page, a good cover letter should include all of the sender’s contact information — because the last response you want your submission to generate is a heart-felt, “Oh, it’s too bad we have no idea who sent us this or how to contact him or her; all we have is the author’s last name in the slug line. This saddens me, because I really liked this manuscript!”

Okay, so that little piece of dialogue is pretty lousy, now that you mention it. But you get my point, right?

“Okay, Anne,” the former head-scratchers concede, “I get why I should include a cover letter. What does it need to say?”

Glad you asked. Under most circumstances, all it needs to say is the following. (If you’re having trouble reading this, try either double-clicking on the image or saving it to your hard disk as a PDF.)

Seriously, that’s all there is to it. Like any other thank-you letter, the courtesy lies more in the fact that the sender took the time to write it, rather than in what it actually says.

A couple of caveats:

(a) 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 for 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.

While you’re at it, it’s not a bad idea to write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, along with REQUESTED MATERIALS. Heck, it’s a very good idea to write the conference’s name on the outside of a query to an agent one has heard speak at a conference, too, or to include the conference’s name in the subject line of a query e-mail. The point here is to render it pellucidly clear to the agent why you’re contacting her.

(b) If another agent is already reading all or part of the manuscript you’re sending — or has asked to see it — be sure to 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.

(c) Make sure ALL of your contact information is on the letter, either in the header (letterhead-style, as I have shown above) or under your signature. Again, you want to make sure that the agent of your dreams can call you up and rave about how much she loved your submission, right?

(d) Make 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 happens. Don’t ask; just be prepared for this horrifying contingency.)

Everyone comfortable with the cover letter? For more tips on how to construct one with aplomb, please see COVER LETTERS FOR SUBMISSIONS (where do I come up with these obscure category titles?) on the list at right.

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 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, unbound in any way.

The operative word here is requested. If an agent or editor asked you for a partial, send PRECISELY the requested number of pages. Don’t fudge here — even if your novel features a tremendous cliffhanger on p. 51, if the agent of your dreams asked for the first 50 pages, send only the first 50 pages, period.

Actually, in this instance, you should send only the first 50 pages even if they do not end in a period. Even if the designated last page ends mid-sentence, stop there.

As to sending pages in standard manuscript format, please, don’t get me started again the desirability of sending professionally-formatted submissions. For a month after I run a series on standard format , the rules keep running through my head like a nagging tune.

If you’re brand-new to reading this blog and thus successfully avoided my recent series on the subject, or have somehow avoided my repeated and vehement posts on standard format for manuscripts over the last three years, please see the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 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; I can hear your shallow, panicked breathing — allow me to add something you might not have picked up 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 the annotated table of contents appropriate for nonfiction. 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. (Again, how do I come up with these category titles?)

5. Author bio, if one was requested.
Which you already have in your hot little hand, right? Aren’t you pleased with yourself?

For those of you joining us late in this series, 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 bio is tucked immediately at the end of the manuscript or sample chapter.

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.

I’m really running through that stack of old records today, but to reiterate: send a SASE large enough for the return of your materials 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 or Priority Mail envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission package.

How does one handle this when using a box as a SASE? Well, since it would be impracticable to fold up another Priority Mail box inside, 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.

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.

You can also nab one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-address it, add postage, and stick 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?

“But Anne,” I hear the ecology-minded writers out there murmur, “surely it would be easier, cheaper, and environmentally friendlier to ask the agent or editor to recycle the submission pages if s/he rejects it?”

Yes, it would be all three, but I would strenuously advise against making this request of any agency or publishing house that doesn’t state directly on its website or in its agency guide listing that it will recycle rejected manuscripts. Most won’t, but many, many agencies will instruct their Millicents to reject any submission that arrives without a SASE.

Do you really want to chance it?

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.)

Since the vast majority of agencies are congenitally allergic to submitters calling, e-mailing, or even writing to find out if a manuscript actually arrived — check the agency’s website or guide listing to be sure — it’s also a fair-to-middling idea to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. To generate a chuckle in a hard-worked Millicent, I always liked to send a SASP that looked like this — although with a stamp attached, of course:

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.

Why, this suggestion seems strangely familiar, somehow…oh, yes, we spent all of yesterday’s post talking about it.

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.

In other words, make it all pretty and hope for the best. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Wrapping it all up and tying it with a bow

tying a bow tie

My, I’ve been getting a lot of great questions in the comments lately! Mostly on long-ago posts, admittedly, but I hope it’s a sign that many of you are getting your work out there, sliding it under agents’, editors’, and contest judges’ noses. Yes, the news from the publishing world, like the news from other sectors of the economy, is rather grim, but that does not mean landing an agent or selling a book is impossible.

As I am undoubtedly not the first person in the writers’ cosmos to say, the only manuscript that has absolutely NO chance of getting published is the one that’s never sent out. Keep plugging away.

As those of you gifted at adding 2 and 2 together without getting 8 might already have figured out, I’ve been rounding out my meandering series on query/ submission packets and the things that go into them by sifting through my archives to find readers’ questions and answering them now. That way, all of the pack it up and ship it out posts are right on top of each other, rather than lying scattered about whenever some bright reader happened to bring it up.

Hey, I know that not everybody is fond of archive-diving. Those who are not should be grateful, then, that insightful long-time reader Jen wrote in to ask:

I can’t help but think that the rules sink into my brain a little deeper with each reading. Still, sending off all those pages with nothing to protect them but the slim embrace of a USPS envelope seems to leave them too exposed. Where does one purchase a manuscript box?

This is an excellent question, Jen: many, many aspiring writers worry that a simple Manila envelope, or even the heavier-duty Priority Mail envelope favored by the US Postal Service, will not preserve their precious pages in pristine condition. Especially, as is all too common, if those pages are crammed into an envelope or container too small to hold them comfortably, or that smashes the SASE into them so hard that it leaves an indelible imprint in the paper.

Do I sense some readers scratching their heads? “But Anne,” some of you ask, “once a submission is tucked into an envelope and mailed, it is completely out of the writer’s control. Aren’t the Millicents who inhabit agencies, as well as the Maurys who screen submissions at publishing houses and their Aunt Mehitabels who judge contest entries, fully aware that pages that arrive bent were probably mangled in transit, not by the writer who sent them?”

Well, yes and no, head-scratchers. Yes, pretty much everyone who has ever received a mauled letter is cognizant of the fact that envelopes do occasionally get caught in sorting machines. Also, mail gets tossed around a fair amount in transit — you think all of those packages in Santa’s sleigh have a smooth ride? — so yes, Virginia, even a beautifully put-together submission packet may arrive a tad crumpled.

Do most professional readers cut the submitter slack for this? Sometimes; if Millicent’s just burned her lip on that latté that she never seems to remember to let cool, it’s not going to take much for the next submission she opens to annoy her. And in the case of contest entries, I don’t know Aunt Mehitabel personally, but I have heard contest judges over the years complain vociferously to one another about the state in which entries have arrived on their reading desks.

All of which is to say: appearances count. You should make an effort to get your submission to its intended recipient in as neat a state as possible. It is, after all, showing up at an agency or publishing house for a job interview.

How does one go about insuring that it arrives looking good? The most straightforward way, as Jen suggests, is to ship it in a box designed for the purpose. Something, perhaps, along the lines of this:

Just kidding; we’re not looking for a medieval Bible box here. What most writers like to use looks a little something like this:

This, my friends, is the very model of a modern manuscript box: sturdy white or brown corrugated cardboard with a lid that is attached along one long side. Usually, a manuscript box designed for the purpose will hold from 250 to 750 pages of text comfortably, without sliding from side to side.

While manuscript boxes are indeed very nice for cradling your precious pages, they aren’t necessary for submission; the attached lid, while undoubtedly aesthetically pleasing, is not required, or even much appreciated at the agency end. Manuscripts are taken out of the boxes for perusal, anyway, so why fret about how the boxes that send them open? In practice, any clean, previously-unused box large enough to hold all of the requested materials (more on that subject in my next post) without crumpling them will work to send a submission.

Emphasis on previously unused. More on that below.

Some of you are resisting the notion of using just any old box, aren’t you, rather than one specially constructed for the purpose? I’m not entirely surprised. I hear all the time from writers stressing out about what kind of box to use — over and above clean, sturdy, and appropriately-sized, that is — 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.

Since I couldn’t even find a photograph of one of these gems online, I’m guessing that they’d be pretty hard to dig up to house your submission. At least not outside an unusually literary antique store. (“A first edition of Tropic of Capricorn, sonny? Try that shelf over there, next to the manuscript boxes and Edith Wharton’s secretary’s typewriter ribbons.”)

Happily, when sending a manuscript today, there’s no need to pack it in anything extravagant: no agent is going to look down upon your submission because it arrives in an inexpensive box. 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 without much wrinkling — 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.

Out comes our old friend the broken record again: it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish to use cheap paper for submissions; a savvy submitter uses 20 lb or heavier paper. This is part of the reason why.

Look for a box with the right footprint to ship a manuscript without too much internal shifting. 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 or handfuls of peanuts around it, not wadded-up paper. Yes, the latter is more environmentally-friendly, but we’re talking about presentation here.

Avoid the temptation to use newspaper, too; newsprint tends to stain.

Most office supply stores carry perfectly serviceable white boxes — Office Depot, for instance, stocks a recycled cardboard variety — 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. My agent gets a kick out of ‘em, reportedly, and while you’re picking one up, you can also snag a bobble-head Edgar Allan Poe doll that bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to Robert Goulet:

If that’s not one-stop shopping, I should like to know what is.

Your local post office may stock manuscript-sized boxes as well, as does USPS online. Post offices often conceal some surprisingly inexpensive options behind those capacious counters, so it is worth inquiring if you don’t see what you need on display.

Far and away the most economical box source for US-based writers are those free all-you-can-stuff-in-it Priority Mail boxes that the post office provides:

Quite the ravishing photo, isn’t it, considering that the model is an object made of cardboard? If you don’t happen to mind all of the postal service propaganda printed all over it, these 12″ x 12″ x 5 1/2″ boxes work beautifully, with a little padding, as will the 11 7/8″ x 13 5/8″ x 3 3/8″.

Say away from those wadded-up newspapers, I tell you. Can I interest you in some bubble wrap, inflatable packing material, or bio-degradable peanuts?

Why press the 12″ by 12″ boxes into service, you ask, when the USPS is considerate enough to offer a 8 1/2” x 11” all-you-can-cram-for-a-flat-rate box? Because those tempting little numbers 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?

Just what do they expect anyone to put in an 8 1/2” x 11” box OTHER than a stack of paper? A beach ball? A pony? A small automobile?

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. As desirable as it might be for your pocketbook, your schedule, and the planet, never 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 is now covered with thick black marker, crossing out the original emporium’s name. My mother takes this process even farther, turning the lines intended to obfuscating that Amazon logo into little drawings of small creatures cavorting on a cardboard-and-ink 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 3 inches high. It just cries out, ‘Stuff your manuscript into me and send me to an agent!’”

A word of advice: don’t take advice from cardboard boxes; they are not noted for their brilliance. Spring for something new.

Oh, and before I forget: 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 — don’t even try to find a box that opens like a book: just use a standard shipping box. Insert a piece of colored paper between each copy, to render the copies easy to separate. Just make sure it’s not construction paper, or the color will rub off on your lovely manuscripts.

And you do know that EVERY time you send requested materials, either before or after signing an agency contract, you should write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters in the lower left-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 recycling bin.

Next time, I shall talk a little more about what goes INSIDE that manuscript box and in what order. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Beautifully stamping your SASE, and other agent-pleasing habits of the mythical sanitary author

sanitary-author

I’m not much given to re-running photographs, if I can help it, but today, I couldn’t resist. Especially as it ties in so well with our ongoing topic, pulling together a query or submission packet. In this post, I’m going to be addressing that most burning of writerly issues, how to affix stamps to one’s self-addressed, stamped envelope.

What’s that I hear the disgruntled masses muttering under its collective breath? Stamping doesn’t seem like a potential problem? And what the heck does any of this have to do with the photograph above?

Reasonable questions, both. Yet as is my wont, I’m going to take my own sweet time addressing them.

First: the photo, which those of sharp memory may recall I originally ran last April. I’m not much given to double-takes, but I must admit, I did a lulu when I spotted this sign standing by the side of a two-lane highway in unincorporated Neskowin, Oregon. To the casual observer, Neskowin is a blink-and-you-miss-it collection of buildings, but to the observant tourist, it is fraught with enigma: its population is 170, according to its ostensibly unofficially municipal website — a human density which renders the two golf courses located there, well, surprising. Who is playing golf in such high numbers that a lone course wasn’t deemed sufficient for local needs? Bears? Sea lions? Migratory Scots with a yen for Pacific Rim cuisine?

All of these legitimate wonders pale, obviously, next to the undying enigma of the Sanitary Author. What makes him or her so darned clean, the passing motorist is left pondering, and why is the population of Neskowin so proud of that particular resident’s hygiene habits that the non-city fathers saw fit to erect a sign to commemorate the SA’s immaculate practices? Did s/he win some sort of international award for cleanliness akin to the Nobel prize?

Does the SA reside in remote forest because such cleanly writing practices would not have been feasible within the confines of a large city like New York, Los Angeles, or even charming and nearby Portland? More importantly from the point of view of fellow authors, how does being so sanitary affect the quality of the SA’s writing — and if it has a net positive effect, should we all be beating a path to Oregon, demanding to follow in the SA’s spotless footsteps?

And should we be worried about all of the unsanitary authors running around out there?

Oh, I know what prosaic types out there are likely to tell me: since the period after AUTHOR would tend to indicate an abbreviation, this sign probably only refers to the local sanitary authority, the fine municipal employees who look after water quality and maintaining the local sewer system. So much for impenetrable ambiguity, the literal would doubtless conclude. Just ignore that sasquatch strolling by; there’s nothing to see here.

But look closely at that sign: there’s a period after SANITARY, too. Complete words are seldom abbreviations, I find. So the mystery continues.

On to the business of the day. Time to stop thinking about the great unwashed mass of unsanitary authors currently roaming the face of the earth. No good could come of pondering their filthy ways.

Hey, remember how I was saying just last month that quite a number of my ideas for blog posts have resulted from readers’ good questions? Or rather from my inability to answer them briefly enough to prevent the fact that the comments section of this blog is not searchable (from your side, anyway) from annoying the heck out of me?

Case in point: busily submitting reader Rachel asked a question about stamps on the required self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Now, I’ve written on this topic quite a bit over the years — so much so that there’s an entire SASE GUIDELINES category on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page — so my first instinct was to send her there, or to advise her to do a site search under stamp, and continue on my merry way, confident that yet another writerly problem had been successfully solved.

Then I did a site search under stamp.

Suffice it to say that quite a few posts came up — more, I suspect, than any writer in the first throes of excitement about receiving a request to send materials to an agent would be likely to scan for an answer to this specific question. Also, the absolutely dead-on-target explanation I had in mind turned out to be located in the comments of a post from a couple of years ago…and thus not searchable from a reader’s perspective.

Not precisely user-friendly, in other words.

So while my second instinct was to mutter, “Yes, but all of the basics a submitter would absolutely need to know could be found under the aptly-named HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category” (which is in fact true), I realized that this wasn’t the world’s most satisfactory answer. Part of my goal in setting up the category list is to render it as easy as possible for my readers to find precisely the information they are seeking. (Another part, admittedly, is so I can say, “Look, I’ve already written about that — there’s a category on the list at right that addresses your concerns precisely,” and proceed on my aforementioned merry way.)

My solution was — and is — threefold. First, I’ve created a MAILING REQUESTED MATERIALS category on the list at right, so the next time a question like this comes up, I can smugly point the question-asker there. (Hey, I’ve got to make up for lost time on the merry way, don’t I?)

Second, I’m going to address Rachel’s (quite good) question right now as its own post, rather than merely in the comments, so anybody else who happens to wonder about it in the months and years to come will have an easier time tracking down the answer. It just goes to show you: asking thoughtful questions not only helps the individual who brings them up, but the entire Author! Author! community.

And third, I’m NOT going to waste any brain space wondering if the Sanitary Author used to refuse to lick his own stamps. Or envelopes. (But how did s/he survive before self-adhesion became the norm?)

Let’s take a gander at what Rachel wanted to know:

I have a question about the SASE that you put in with your materials. I understand it was always better to use stamps so that the agent can just toss it in the outgoing mail bin at the agency. But I was talking to the postal clerks yesterday and they said that post-911 rules are now in effect: any stamped package over 13 ounces has to be brought to the post. I asked to get metered mail instead, and they said it wouldn’t work because it would have that date (yesterday) on it. A dilemma!

I explained my situation to them and the clerks suggested just using a priority stamp, because if a SASE were expected, then stamps are really the only way to go.

Is that how they’re doing it now?

Rachel asks excellent questions, as you may see. Before I launch into lengthy explanation, however, let’s define our terms.

As those of you who successfully made it through my last couple of posts are already aware, all queries and requested materials sent to US-based agents via mail should be accompanied by a SASE. No exceptions, I’m afraid. Forgetting to include a SASE is an instant-rejection offense at most agencies, and with good reason: if the agent decides to pick up the manuscript, the writer’s having included the expected SASE demonstrates a pleasing ability to follow directions, and if the agent decides to pass, s/he may return rejected pages at the writer’s expense. Yes, I know: it’s annoying to be underwriting one’s own rejection, but there actually are some benefits for the writer in this arrangement. To name but one: finding out that your submission has in fact been rejected, rather than gnawing your fingernails in perpetual worry for a year or two.

Contrary to popular opinion, a SASE shouldn’t always take the form of a business-size envelope; it varies according to what was sent in the first place. Because the point of the SASE is to ensure the safe return of whatever a writer sends to an agency, you should always include enough postage on your SASE that everything you submitted may be popped into it and mailed.

What might that look like in practice, you ask? Well, when sending a query, including a SASE is pretty straightforward: the writer takes a second envelope, writes his own address on it, adds appropriate postage, folds it, and stuffs it — neatly, please, as becomes a Sanitary Author — into the query envelope.

With a submission packet, the process is similar, but the packaging is different. If the agent only asks to see 50 pages or a chapter or two, few enough that they could be comfortably placed in a Manila envelope without wrinkling them (the Sanitary Author deplores crumpled pages; so do many agents), all you need to do is take a second Manila envelope, self-address it, affix the same amount of postage you’re going to use to send the whole packet to the agency, fold it, and place it neatly within the submission envelope.

SASE-wrangling becomes a bit trickier if you’ve been asked to send the entire manuscript, because that generally entails using a box. (For a detailed explanation of what types of box should and shouldn’t be used, complete with glamorous photographs of cardboard in its various manifestations, please see my earlier post on the subject.) Obviously, it’s going to be unwieldy to stuff a second box inside the first, so it’s completely acceptable just to include a self-addressed mailing label and postage. (Be sure to mention both in your cover letter, so they won’t get lost on the agency end; I’ll be talking about how to pull off including such necessary-but-prosaic details gracefully later this week.)

Equally obviously (but I’m going to mention it anyway, just in case), the stamps on the SASE need to be US stamps, if the agency is US-based. That requirement means that SASEing is invariably a great deal more challenging — and expensive — for writers in foreign climes querying or submitting to US agencies; the far-flung are not exempt from the SASE expectation, I’m afraid, which can make e-mailed querying a more attractive option.

The good news is that the US Postal Service’s website sells stamps at face value, rather than at the exorbitant mark-up one frequently finds for them abroad . The USPS more than happy to ship ‘em to your doorstep in exotic climes so you may stick ‘em onto your SASE before popping your submission into the mail.

Is everyone clear on the care and feeding of the SASE? Good.

Okay, now that we’re all on the same page, so to speak, let’s get back to the crux of Rachel’s question: has the post-9/11 alteration in post office policy altered what agencies expect to see on a SASE?

The last few years have indeed seen some changes in how agencies handle packages, but actually, most of them date from before 9/11, back to the anthrax scare. Before that, virtually no agency accepted electronic submissions, for instance; they may not pay their Millicents much, but the average agency certainly didn’t want theirs to get sick from opening a poisoned query envelope.

E-mailed queries and submissions don’t carry the risk of that sort of infection (and I think we can all guess how the Sanitary Author would feel about that). They do, however, occasionally contain computer viruses, so few agents will open an attachment unless they have already specifically requested an electronic submission from a writer.

Rachel’s clerk was quite right about heavier packages having to be physically carried into the post office by human being, rather than blithely dropped into a mailbox or dumped in a mailroom — a policy shift that would affect virtually any submitted full manuscript, since they tend to be heavy little critters. However, that most emphatically does not mean is that the agent is going to be taking a rejected manuscript to the post office herself. Some luckless agency intern will be toting a whole mess of them there every few days.

Or not; since the USPS changed its regulations in this respect, many agencies have side-stepped the return mail problem by just ceasing to return submitted manuscripts to their writers at all. Interestingly, agencies that operate this way usually still expect submitters to include SASEs.

The moral: unless you are querying or submitting electronically OR an agency specifically says it doesn’t use SASEs, you should always include one.

And always use actually stamps on it, rather than metered postage. Despite the changes I mentioned above, the imperative to use stamps on a SASE has never wavered: the goal here is not convenience in mailing, but the submitter’s paying for the manuscript’s return. Regardless of whether that means tossing it into the nearest mailbox (which would still be possible for most partial manuscripts) or assigning Millicent to do it, stamps have always served the purpose best.

That being said, I must confess that I don’t quite understand the clerk’s recommendation to Rachel to affix Priority Mail postage to the SASE, unless he was either lobbying her to use a Priority Mail envelope as a SASE (not a bad idea, especially if the submission is just a few chapters; they fold nicely into a submission envelope) or simply trying to hawk a more expensive stamp. The distinction between Priority Mail and regular mail is the speed with which it arrives; the ease of mailing is identical.

Which means that buying a more expensive stamp or a cheaper one to affix to the SASE is entirely up to the writer. Like overnighting requested materials vs. sending them regular mail, whether a submitter elects to pay a shipper extra money to convey a manuscript from point A to point B is generally a matter of complete indifference to the agent receiving it, as long as it gets there in one piece.

(“And looking pretty,” adds the Sanitary Author. “None of those pesky wrinkles. And print your manuscript on nice paper while you’re at it.”)

To be blunt about it, the agent has absolutely no reason to care how quickly a rejected manuscript reaches its submitter. All she’s going to care about is whether you’ve included the means to mail it back to you at your expense, not hers.

And that, my friends, is the information that most agencies’ listings in the standard agency guides and websites compress into the terse advice Include SASE. Apparently, somewhere on earth, there lurks a tribe of natural-born queriers who realize from infancy precisely what that means, so it requires no further explanation.

I’ll bet the Sanitary Author is one of that happy breed. For the rest of us, learning how agencies work requires a bit of homework — and the asking of good questions.

So thank you, Rachel, for flagging the issue — and everybody, keep up the good work!

The mysteries of the human memory — and a few more words of wisdom about the SASE

life of brian crosses

I’ve had Monty Python on the brain quite a bit lately, I notice — and not just because my neighbor was playing an apparently all-parrot-sketch-all-the-time station while I was planting bulbs this afternoon. I’m working on revising a novel with a 17-year-old narrator, set roughly at the time when — surprise, surprise — yours truly was 17, and since it’s a comedy, I’ve been having to recreate what I would have thought funny at the time. Since, as any memoirist could tell you, hunting internally for one type of memory often pulls up another entirely, I found myself procrastinating today by writing about the time in junior high school when my family and I actually had to cross a picket line in San Francisco — San Francisco! — to see The Life of Brian.

Strange much how the public perception of what’s upsetting changes, isn’t it?

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 few years ago is still tied up in legal knots; thanks for asking), but as a novelist. To be specific: I’m on a tight deadline with this revision, 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 the scene in front of me to a high gloss, it’s probably not going to happen.

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 within the next couple of weeks 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 coincidental 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 any of you fine souls out there have 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 agent and a book matters deeply. Ditto between a book and an editor. So in addition to everything else we writers are trying to create, our writing also need to inspire love.

The interminable and annoying querying/submission process sounds substantially 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 (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope), and I seem to have gotten sidetracked.

I can only plead that I was absorbed in a revision. Excuse me a moment while I feel my languishing cats.

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? “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 help us all understand this cosmic mystery, I explained the history behind the SASE last time: 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 quibble at 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 seventeen or eighteen hundred times 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 probably going to get pretty tired before you find even 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 may well be perceived as 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 few moments 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. 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 few technicalities: 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. 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 particular 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. Omit it only if the agency specifically asks in its guidelines that you not include it. (I know of only one agency that currently makes this request; need I remind you to read EACH agency’s submission guidelines, in case they differ?)

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? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude.

Relax, those of you who just clutched your chests: I’ll be talking about how to put together a cover letter for a submission packet as soon as I polish off this series on SASEs.

Who knew there were so many different things that needed to go into a submission packet, eh?

Speaking of tactics I hope each and every one of you was using long before you met me: 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. 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.

That 17-year-old voice wants me to pay attention to her now; so do my cats. I think all of us novelists already know which side is going to win that little tug-of-war, don’t we? Keep up the good work!

Why you need to tuck a SASE into your query or submission packet, 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 — and those of you who restrict your querying to e-mail and filling out forms online just stopped paying attention, didn’t you?

That’s a mistake, you know. In case you don’t know, publishing is still largely a paper-based industry; until just a few years ago, e-mailed queries were widely considered as unprofessional as a phone call to an agent who has never heard of you. (All of my readers know better than to cold-call with a pitch, right?) Since the anthrax scare, more agencies are accepting electronic queries and submissions; some even prefer them. However, hard-copy submissions are still the preference of even many agents who accept electronic queries, so you might as well learn to cope with a request to mail ‘em.

And if that doesn’t convince the electronically-minded among you to stick around for the rest of this post, here’s another good reason: there are still plenty of great agents who do not accept e-queries or submissions at all. Do you really want to limit your querying list to only those who prefer to read on a computer screen or Kindle?

Ah, that got your attention, didn’t it? Excellent. Let’s move on.

The expectation that an aspiring writer will ALWAYS include a SASE with a mailed query or submission is universal, at least among U.S. agencies and publishers, so much so 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 annual attempt 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.)

And let’s face it — when you’re in a dither of excitement, trying to get your requested manuscript out the door, it can seem like an unnecessary hoop through which to leap. Or so I surmise from the fact that every time I make my annual visit to this topic, I get 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, or even of a query: 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.

I’m sorry to report that the longer answer is hardly more comforting. Amongst hard copy enthusiasts, 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 it works, that’s why.

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 too depressing, I hasten to add: 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 the stress. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

How to write a really good author bio, part VII: tying up those pesky loose ends

Since this is my last post in this series — presuming that no one posts a magnificently insightful follow-up question as a comment over the next few days, hint, hint — I’m going to seize the opportunity to say this just one more time, for the benefit of all you procrastinators out there: please, I implore you, do NOT put off writing at least a viable first draft of your bio until the day after an agent or editor has actually asked you to provide one.

Why? Because unless an agency’s submission guidelines ask for a bio up front, chances are, the request to provide one is going to come swooping down at you out of a pellucidly blue sky. Tossed out as an afterthought just after you’ve given the best pitch in the history of Western civilization, for instance, or when the agent who fell in love with your first 50 pages asks to see the rest. It will seem like good news — until you realize that you need to come up with a bio within the next forty-eight hours.

On that happy day, you will be a much, much happier human being in every way if you already have at least the beginnings of a great bio sitting on your hard drive. Trust me on this one.

To that end, may I suggest that those of you involved in writers’ groups — critique-based or support; in either case, good for you — devote part of a meeting to brainstorming about and giving feedback on one another’s bios? Or query letters, for that matter? And what about synopses?

Why would a success-oriented group want to invest time in mutual critique of marketing materials? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: every single sentence on every single page in a query or submission packet is a writing sample. It all needs to be polished.

It also, at the risk of repeating myself, all needs to be interesting — and here’s where a little outside perspective can be very helpful. Yet even very market-oriented groups seldom set aside time for mutual bio critique. A trifle mystifying to me, as a session devoted to it can be a whole lot of fun, as well as very useful indeed.

Besides, how much do you really know about that sharp-eyed person who keeps telling you to show, not tell?

Speaking of great questions (yes, I know; I was speaking of it several paragraphs ago, but humor me here), readers past and present have posted requests for clarification on a couple of bio-related points. Since not everyone reads the comment strings — especially, I notice, whilst perusing the archives — I want to devote the rest of today’s blog to dealing with some of those pesky loose ends that I may have left dangling from my previous post on the subject.

Let’s begin with a thought-provoking question from long-time reader Gordon:

I’m not sure how to word this, but I’ll try – should an author bio written by an unpublished (in any media) writer include what you call ‘promotional parts’? Meaning life connections with the novel’s subject matter. As a youngster in his seventies there have been many twists and turns in my life. Should one’s bio chronologically hit the high points or mainly focus on the ones pertinent to the novel being submitted?

You did fine on the self-expression front, Gordon. The short answer is yes, on both counts.

Well, glad to have cleared THAT up. Moving along…

I didn’t really fool you there, did I? Especially since those of you who have been following the comments on this series closely undoubtedly immediately cried, “Wait, Gordon asked this toward the beginning of the series, and Anne sort of dealt with this later on. Perhaps she is trying, albeit clumsily, to drive home the point that good questions from readers help to expand the range of her posts.”

Well, I like to think so. However, looking back on the ways in which I wove the spirit of this question into this series, I’m not entirely positive that I ever answered its letter, so to speak. Now, I’m going to tackle it directly.

The direct answer: it depends.

To be specific, which way one should fall on the choice between devoting one’s bio to a chronological account of the highlights of one’s life as, say, an obituary might tell it (sorry, but it’s the obvious analogy) vs. creating the impression that every significant event in one’s life was leading inevitably to the writing of this book and no other depends largely upon several factors, including:

a) whether there are events in one’s life that are legitimately related to the subject matter of the book in question — and if they are easy for the reader to follow without too many logical leaps.
If mentioning a particular life experience would tend to make you a more credible source, it’s usually to your advantage to include it in your bio, to differentiate yourself from any other yahoo who might just have been guessing what that particular experience was like. “Writerly Q. Author visited the Statue of Liberty once,” when his protagonist passes through Ellis Island briefly in Chapter Two is a stretch; “Writerly Q. Author spent twenty years as a merchant marine,” when his entire plotline takes place on a pirate ship is not.

b) whether one has genuinely lead a life that would produce a couple of entertaining paragraphs, regardless of connection to the book.
It never hurts to sound darned interesting in your bio. However — and in practice, this is a big however — writers of purely chronological bios often…how shall I put this delicately…overestimate the detail in which a rushed industry type might want to hear the life story of someone s/he has never met.

Remember, Millicent the agency screener reads a LOT of bios; keep yours snappy.

If you’re in doubt whether yours is leaning toward overkill, hand your bio to someone who doesn’t know you particularly well (having asked politely for his assistance first, of course; don’t just accost a stranger) and have him read it through twice. Buy the cooperative soul a cup of coffee, and around the time that your cup begins to seem light in your hand, ask your guinea pig to tell your life story back to you uninterrupted.

The points that he can’t reproduce without prompting are probably less memorable than the others. Are they honestly helping you look interesting and/or credible?

c) in the lucky instance where both (a) and (b) are genuinely true, whether the wealth of interesting biographical detail threatens to render the connections to the book less memorable.
When in doubt, lean toward the directly applicable; it’s more important information for the marketing department.

Remember, the point of an author bio is not to tell your life story — that’s what post-publication interviews and memoirs are for, right? — nor to include all of the things that you would like total strangers who pick up volumes in a future bookstore to know about you.

The goal in a query or submission bio is to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question. Or, in the case of nonfiction, to write the book being proposed.

Everyone clear on the relevant distinctions? Good. Let’s move on to another question. Another long-term reader, Cerredwyn, wrote in to ask,

Does an author photo need to be a head shot?

No, it doesn’t — as long as you are identifiable (“That’s she, officer. That’s the author of the book!“) and the background isn’t too busy, you can certainly use a broader shot.

In fact, as our friend Elinor Glyn’s author photo for IT above demonstrates, a head-and-torso shot is perfectly acceptable, and actually a bit more common on jacket flaps than the pure headshot. However, 1/2, 3/4, and even full standing shots are not unheard-of. John Irving’s early works tended to have particularly hunky-looking shots from the waist up, for instance.

Not that I noticed as a teenager or anything. I was reading his books for the writing and the stories, I tell you.

If you’re having trouble deciding between different ranges of shot, spend some time in a well-stocked bookstore, taking a gander at the author photos published in books in your chosen book category within the last few years. If you notice an overall trend in styles, you’re not going to offend anyone by submitting something similar.

Oh, and speaking of styles, unless you have written something ultra-hip or happen to be a magazine writer (whose material by definition changes constantly), it’s usually not a great idea to dress in the latest fashion for your author photo — and it’s DEFINITELY not the time to sport a hairstyle that’s not likely to be around a decade hence.

Don’t believe me? Ask any 80s author who embraced a mohawk. Or Elinor Glyn, a decade after the photo above was taken.

Remember, if your book is successful, it will be gracing shelves in private homes, libraries, and book exchanges for even longer than it will be hanging out in Barnes & Noble. A too-trendy style will date the photo. So as a general rule, adorning yourself for your photo with the expectation that the resulting photo will dog you for the rest of your natural life is a good plan.

You also might want to give some thought to how certain colors and patterns photograph — and how a checkered jacket that works beautifully in an 8 x 10 glossy might just look dusty in a 3 x 5 or 2 x 3 (both fairly common sizes for jacket photos). Generally speaking, solids work better than prints, and strong, dark colors on the body are distract less from the face. Bear in mind, too, that black, white, and red sometimes look quite different in photos than in real life, and that the eye tends to zoom in on the red and the shiny.

If that’s your lip gloss, great; if it’s your belt, less great. Unless you are trying to find an agent or publisher for a book about belts, that is.

The answer to the next reader question, posed by Jaepu last year, could be extrapolated from the last paragraph but one, I notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a trenchant question. Let’s revisit it, just in case anyone out there was wondering:

Must the author photo be in color?

No, it may be in black and white — in fact, until fairly recently, that was the norm. However, as with passports, with the rise of digital photography, color author photos have become more common. Do be aware, though, that a black-and-white photo won’t tell an agent whether you might look good in a television interview as well as a color picture would.

A reader too shy to be comfortable with self-identification asked:

I’m all excited about my next book, but I’m marketing my first. Would it be completely tacky to mention what I’m working on now in my bio? What if the books are in different genres?

It’s far from being tacky, Anonymous One; in fact, it’s downright common for a submission bio to end with a brief paragraph along the lines of:

Lincoln lives in Springfield, Illinois with his wife, eight sons, and golden retriever, Manifest Destiny. He is currently working on his second book, Hey! Where Are You Taking Half of My Country?, a comic memoir covering the Civil War years.

“Yeah, right, Anne,” I hear some of you scoff. “Stop pulling our collective legs. I’ve never seen an author bio on a book jacket that covers future work, or even unpublished work. Bios are always backward-looking, aren’t they?”

Actually, jacket bios that mentioned future projects used to be fairly standard; in the mid-70s, the last line of most bios was some flavor of Smith lives in Connecticut, where he is working on his next novel. Gradually, this has been falling out of fashion, perhaps because it implies some faith on the publisher’s part that Smith’s current release will sell well enough that they will WANT him to bring out another. (It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that this particular last sentence fell out of fashion at approximately the same time as multi-book contracts for first-time novelists.)

However, the author bio that an aspiring writer tucks into a query or submission packet and the one that ends up on a dust jacket are not the same thing — as we discussed earlier in this series, they are intended for the eyes of two different audiences, to create two different impressions. The dust jacket bio is promotional copy aimed at the reader, designed to pique interest and answer basic questions like why should I believe this guy’s NF account of life on the moon? The query or submission bio, by contrast, is designed to impress agents, editors, and their respective Millicents with the author’s claim to be an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Is there an echo in here? I could have sworn that I’ve heard that last bit somewhere before.

Because the submission bio is geared for industry-savvy eyes, mentioning completed book projects in categories other than the one to which the currently-submitted manuscript belongs (try saying THAT three times fast), as the Anonymous Questioner suggested, is a perfectly legitimate use of space. No need to hawk the other projects; simply mention the book category within the course of a single-sentence description that describes the project as still in progress. As in:

Now nicely recovered from his contretemps with an assassin, Garfield lives in retirement, working on his next book projects, a YA baseball romance and a historical retrospective of his own brief presidency.

Why would Pres. Garfield speak of his completed YA book as a work-in-progress? Strategy, my dears, strategy: it neatly sidesteps the question why isn’t it published?

Finally, reader Rose inquired:

I’m at a whole single-spaced page, no photo. I have a pro photo, recently taken, that looks great. Would it be better to reduce the bio and add the photo?

I’m querying for a novel, btw — and I’d been under the impression that you shouldn’t submit an author photo when trying to pitch one.

Contrary to the impression Rose has, by her own admission, picked up she knows not where, there is no hard-and-fast rule about whether a fiction writer’s submission bio should to include a photo. No Millicent who has found a submission engaging enough to read all the way to the last page, where the author bio lurks, is going to cast her latte aside in a petulant fit at the sight of a photo, screaming, “Oh, darn — now I have to reject it. I liked that manuscript, too.”

Not going to happen.

The reason photos are often not included in novelists’ bios is not because they’re unwelcome, but because the burden for gathering marketing materials prior to selling a novel has historically been significantly lower than for a nonfiction book. (If any of you novelists doubt this, take a gander at a NF book proposal sometime; its many, many pages of marketing material will make you feel much, much better about writing only a query letter and a synopsis.)

If your photo is pretty ravishing, Rose, I say go ahead and include it. A nice photo does make the bio look a touch more professional, after all, and it’s never a BAD thing for an agent or editor to think, “Hey, this author is photogenic!”

Even without the picture, though, it sounds as though Rose’s bio is a bit long for professional purposes: the norm is one DOUBLE-spaced page, or 1/2 – 2/3 page single-spaced under a photo. Yes, one does occasionally hear agents mentioning that they’ve been seeing more single-spaced full-page bios lately — but as I’ve virtually always heard this pronounced with a gnashing of teeth, I’m inclined to regard such statements as complaints.

Call me zany, but I tend to interpret moaning as an indication that the moaned-about activity is unwelcome. I’d stick to a more standard length. As with a query letter, when in doubt, err on the side of brevity. Believe me, if your bio is too short, the agent of your dreams will be only to happy to tell you so –after she signs you.

(Don’t cringe: she’s going to want you to change a lot of things after she signs you, no matter how much she initially loved your book or book proposal. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

One last thought on the subject before I sign off for the day: If, over the years I’ve been a book doctor and particularly over the 4+ years I’ve been answering questions online, someone had given me a nickel for every time an aspiring writer asked me whether the spacing or length of the bio — or query, or synopsis — REALLY mattered, I would have been able to build my own publishing house.

I don’t mean that I would have been able to buy one; I mean that I would have been able to construct the necessary buildings and offices entirely out of coins. Would it surprise you to hear, then, that even after that many repetitions of the same question, my answer has never changed, no matter how much aspiring writers might have wished them to do so? Or that if I could wave my magic wand and remove all formatting requirements, I probably wouldn’t do it?

Why, I hear you gasp? Because when an author bio — or query letter, or synopsis, or manuscript — is properly formatted, the only bases for judging it have to do with the quality of the writing, the premise’s marketability, whether the professional reader likes it, and so forth.

You know, the bases upon which aspiring writers WANT to be judged.

So yes, agents really tend to hold aspiring writers to the standards of the industry, just as they hold their clients to them. (See earlier comment about one’s dream agent making demands upon one.) They don’t do this to be mean; it’s just that when someone — like, say, Millicent the agency screener — spends hour after hour, day after day, month after month staring at manuscripts, she’s unlikely NOT to notice if one is formatted differently than the norm.

As in, for instance, an author bio that doesn’t look like the ones I showed you yesterday. Even if a single-spaced bio sans photograph DOES indeed fit onto the requisite single page, thus meeting the bare minimum standard for professionalism, it’s not going to resemble the bios Millicent’s boss is sending out with her clients’ submissions.

Or at least, it probably will not. Naturally, as with any group of human beings, some agents have individual preferences that deviate from the industry standard — the source, I suspect, of Rose’s impression of unspecified origin — and if you can find out what these quirky desires are, you should definitely adhere to them in your submissions to that particular agent. It seldom pays, however, to assume that any one such preference is universal to the industry.

My point is, as annoying as it may be to bring your bios — and queries, synopses, and manuscripts — into line with the most common professional standards is so that Millicent may ignore the formatting and concentrate on what you are SAYING. Because, after all, your aim in your submission bio is not to cram as many facts as you can onto a single page, but to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Yes, you have heard that somewhere before. See, I don’t recommend sticking to the general standards just to be mean, either.

Next time, we’re going to chat about SASEs — and then, thank goodness, we shall have covered all of the standard elements of the query and submission packet. So hang in there just a little bit longer, folks; I’ll be tackling my mile-long backlog of craft questions very soon. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good author bio, part VI: a picture is allegedly worth a thousand words, but in a bio, you seldom get to use that many

All throughout the weekend (hey, even bloggers occasionally like a day off), I could have sworn I heard the muffled cries of my readers from afar, small as the mews of freshly-born kittens. “But Anne,” these wee voices called after me, “you didn’t tell us how to format an author bio…and you ALWAYS tell us how to format things…”

At least, I think that’s what they were saying; it’s also possible that they were merely reading a particularly bad translation of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince very, very slowly. Wafting ghostly voices are notoriously inarticulate.

Assuming that my first interpretation was indeed correct, let’s talk format.

In a novel submission, the author bio should be placed at the end of the pages you’re submitting, regardless of whether you have been asked to send a full or a partial manuscript. It should always be in the same typeface and font as the rest of the manuscript or book proposal — no exceptions. (And if you’re unfamiliar with the typefaces the publishing industry tends to prefer, or even that such preferences exist, you might want to consider consulting the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right with all deliberate speed.)

The bio is always the last page in a submission or query packet, coming at the bottom of the stack; it should neither be numbered nor include a slug line. It’s also typically the last page of a book proposal (although clippings sometimes follow it), but in that context, it should have a slug line and be numbered.

Everyone clear on that? No? Well, you’ll find some concrete examples below.

Beyond those limitations, there are two standard formats for an author bio. The first is very straightforward: a single page, double-spaced, in standard manuscript format. (If that last term was a mystery to you, I can only reiterate my suggestion that you visit the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right. Improperly-formatted manuscripts are far, far more likely to be rejected than ones that look professional.)

The author’s name should be centered on the top of the page, resulting in a document that looks little something like this:

Some would argue (including me, if memory serves, in a post from several years ago) that the text should be additionally decorated by either the first line of the page or the first line under the author’s name reading, “Author bio.” Not a startlingly original title, it’s true, but you must admit that it’s descriptive.

I no longer advise embracing this tactic, for the simple reason that a significant and apparently growing segment of the agent population now seems to prefer that their clients dispense with this little piece of self-evident labeling. Or so I surmise, from all of the agented writers I keep meeting whose agents have asked them to skip it. Most bio-writers are only too glad to omit it, as it permits an extra line of text in what is, let’s face it, a rather brief space into which to cram one’s charms.

Personally, I use the other type of bio format, the kind that includes a photo: half a page, single-spaced, with a 4×6 photograph (or a roughly similar size; perfection doesn’t matter here) centered 1 inch from the top of the page, above the text. In between the photo and the text, the author’s name appears, also centered.

The end result looks a little something like this:

Admittedly, the LP’s picture is a trifle larger in this example than I would advise using — ideally, the photo should take up only the top third of the page, and here, LP has opted to allow the visuals to extend considerably lower, as some less animated authors also choose to do. It’s a legitimate choice, certainly, but anybody out there notice the down side?

If you said, “By gum, that looks a whole lot like 157 words, rather than the 250 or so I was hoping to include on my bio,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Heck, give yourself two; they’re small.

Want to see one that’s roughly the same length as Aunt Jane’s example above? While we’re at it, let’s assume that it’s the last page of a book proposal, so you may see the requisite slug line in action:

Ste. Cecile author bio

A pretty great photo for establishing Cecile’s credibility to tell her particular story, isn’t it? Not a whole lot of doubt that we’ve got a virgin martyr here. Yet this picture suffers from a rather serious problem that the Little Prince’s didn’t — any guesses?

If you said that you couldn’t make out Cecile’s face well enough to pick her out of a crowd — or, more to the point, up at the airport to get her to her book signing on time — award yourself a medal. The author is easily recognizable in a good author photo, so avoid shots from thirty feet away. Cecile would be much better off with this bio, even at the expense of a little textual rearrangement to make it fit;

Ste. Cecile author bio2

The different photo shape is fine here — what’s important in this context is that the picture is recognizably Cecile. Why? Not only will this help her future agent pick her out of a police line-up recognize her when they meet at writers’ conferences, but Cecile’s future publishers are going to want to see what she looks like; photogenic authors are only slightly more common than telegenic ones.

So how do you slap that image onto your bio? The same way I did to produce these examples — and the only way, if you intend to e-mail your bio without first running the hard copy through a scanner. Get a friend with a digital camera take a picture that you like, save it to your hard disk, then use copy and paste the image into your author bio document.

If this sounds like far, far too close an intimacy with technology for you, take the photo to a copy center and ask the nice folks behind the counter to arrange a color copy so that the picture and the text are on the same page, so you may pop it into your query or submission packet. For a small fee, they will probably be delighted to produce a stack of snail mail-able hard copies for you.

I can tell you from experience, though: do NOT wait until you need an author photo to have your picture taken. Many, many aspiring writers hold off, assuming (usually wrongly) that their future publishing houses will take care of — and pay for — this detail for them.

These well-meaning souls almost invariably end up unhappy with the author photos on their respective dust jackets. Or with snapshots taken from thirty feet away. In any case, the results seldom make anyone concerned, even the author, squeal with delight.

Why, the camera-shy gasp? Well, it often takes many tries to obtain a photograph that you like enough to want to see mass-produced — or one that will look good in the school photo-size viable for most book jackets. It’s a bit easier now than it was prior to digital photography, of course; now, even an amateur can afford to take 500 snapshots in an endeavor to find the perfect pose.

Yet when dear self is making the decision — and when a poor choice is going to haunt one for the rest of one’s literary life, smirking back at one from jackets, websites, the publishers’ catalogue, and, if you’re lucky, next to you at a packed signing in a major bookstore — believe me, dear self is going to want some time to equivocate.

Seriously, published authors wrestle with this one all the time.

That’s one reason that you don’t always recognize your favorite authors at book signings, incidentally; established authors’ photos are often a decade or more out of date. It’s not merely out of vanity, in order to appear more youthful to their readers (although I could name some names here), but because the photo-selecting process can be tedious and expensive.

Another excellent reason not to leave the construction of your author bio to the last minute, eh?

I’ve been sensing some tentative hand-raising for several paragraphs now. “Um, Anne,” some of you pipe up, “could you explain a bit more about why the reasoning about the publisher’s taking care of the photo is wrong? I always thought they just kept a bunch of professional photographers on staff to handle this sort of thing.”

Um, no. Posed, professional studio-taken photographs used to be more common on book jackets than they are today, but those photos were not in-house. At best, a publisher in the bad old days might cough up the dosh to have a pro snap some pictures, which made perfect sense: since this photo is usually also reproduced in the publisher’s catalogue, too, they were the clear beneficiaries.

But in recent years, that practice has become rare, especially for first-time authors. So guess who usually ends up paying for the professional photos you DO see?

Uh-huh.

I speak with aspiring writers all the time who are shocked — shocked! — to learn that the author is responsible for obtaining the photograph that graces the dust jacket. Now, the author’s photo is often posted on his website as well, but chances are that that the publisher is still not going to pay anyone to take a picture of you until you are very well established indeed.

Yes, you’re right: this is yet another expense that the publishing world has shifted onto writers. Sorry. But if you get your talented friends snapping now, you might just end up with a stellar photo you love at a fraction of the cost of a professional shoot by the time you need it.

I just mention.

All of this, of course, begs the question: even that it can be expensive in terms of both time and money to come up with a photo to accompany your author bio, is it really worth your while to use format #2?

As is so often the case with strategic decisions, be they literary, military, or just plain office politics, the answer is: it depends.

If you happen to be outstandingly attractive, yes, it is pretty much always going to be worth your while, and not just because Millicent is shallow. (She isn’t, typically.) These days, the marketing departments at publishing houses actually do want to know if an author is photogenic — and telegenic — if a book is expected to be a big seller.

If you tend to find potential agents and editors by accosting them at conferences and/or classes, it is worth your while to shell out for the small additional expense of producing an author bio with a photo of you on it to stuff into your post-conference submission packets. The reason for this is simple: it makes it easier for agents and editors to remember having spoken to you.

Not in a “My, but that’s an attractive writer!” sort of way, but in a “Hey, I have a distinct recollection of having had a rather pleasant conversation a month ago with that person” manner.

PLEASE do not take the fact that a nudge to the memory is sometimes necessary as a reflection upon either your book’s market chances, the quality of your writing, or your inherent memorability as a human being. As I mentioned earlier in this series, the average agent speaks to somewhere between 50 and 200 eager writers at a conference. The chances of his remembering your name in retrospect are rather low, even if you and your book are genuinely scintillating.

This can be true, perversely, even if the agent in question appeared to be foaming at the mouth with greed when you pitched your project. Post-pitch enthusiasm has a nasty habit of fading on the way back to NYC; it must have something to do with the coffee served on the flight back.

Again, sorry. Let’s get back to practicalities.

It is less important to look pretty in your author photo than to look interesting, generally speaking — and here, the standard posed, gently-smiling-under-indirect-light professional shot may actually work against you. So unless your book’s subject matter is very serious indeed, try not to make your bio picture look like a standard, posed publicity shot.

Why? For the same reason that when you flip back through your yearbook, half of the senior pictures seem more or less interchangeable: just looking nice tends not to be memorable.

You may laugh, but it is amazing how many author photos look like senior class pictures, devoid of personality. Try to not to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Write a Book.

But unless you are writing something pretty sizzling, you might not want to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Grace a Street Corner, either, if you catch my drift. Glamour shots became kind of popular in the mid-1990s, especially for female authors, but at this point, lenses that seem to have been bedewed with Vaseline make a picture seem dated.

And yes, Virginia, you SHOULD worry about what your author photo says about you — and not just because you don’t want your dear old white-headed mother to pick up your novel years from now in Barnes & Noble, clutch her chest, and keel over, crying over your boudoir shot, “I can’t believe my baby let someone PHOTOGRAPH her like that!”

The author photo is another opportunity to express your personality — which, lest we forget, is part of what you are selling when you pitch a book, like it or not, especially if you are marketing a memoir.

Here’s a radical idea, evidently endorsed by Saint Cecile: why not strive to make the tone of the picture match the tone of the book, or have the environment echo the subject matter? You might want to surround yourself with objects associated with your book’s topic for the photo, but avoid making the picture too busy. You want the viewer to focus on your charming face, after all.

One of the best author photos I ever saw was of an arson investigator. Far from being airbrushed and neat, his face was barely visible: he was covered in soot, crouched in front of the ashes of a burned-down building out of which he had apparently recently crawled. Did it make him look attractive? No, unless the observer happened to be turned on by smoke stains. Did I believe instantly and absolutely that he knew his subject upside-down and backwards? You bet.

I know that pulling this all together seems daunting, but trust me, the more successful you become, the more you will bless my name for urging you to put together a killer bio, with or without photo, in advance. Once you start getting published, even articles in relatively small venues or on websites, people in the industry will start asking for your author bio and photo.

At that point, when editors are clamoring to hear your — yes, YOUR — magical words, I can absolutely guarantee that the last thing you will want to be doing is sitting hunched over your keyboard, trying to summarize your entire life in 250 words.

Okay, not the very last thing: the very last thing you will want to be doing is scrambling through your bottom desk drawer, searching for a picture of yourself that would not make you cringe ten years hence.

Now that I’ve thoroughly terrified you, I shall sign off for the day. Next time, I shall tie up a few last loose ends regarding author bios, author photos, and their production. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

How to write a really good author bio, part V: all of the things you are — and some great news about a good author!

Deborah Heiligman cover

Before I launch into today’s course of our ongoing banquet on author bios, let’s give a great big Author! Author! cheer for Deborah Heiligman. Why is applause in order, you ask? Her excellent Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt) has just been nominated for the National Book Award in the notoriously competitive Young People’s Literature category.

Well done, Deborah!

I love it when an author who has been doing good work for a long time gets nominated for this type of award — and not only this one, either. CHARLES AND EMMA also made it onto a lot of 2008 best lists: it’s a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Book Links Top Ten Biographies for Youth, a Booklist Top 10 Romances for Youth, and received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Horn Book, and Booklist, among others. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary tract on evolution and the fundamental ideas involved, in 1859. Nearly 150 years later, the theory of evolution continues to create tension between the scientific and religious communities. Challenges about teaching the theory of evolution in schools occur annually all over the country. This same debate raged within Darwin himself, and played an important part in his marriage: his wife, Emma, was quite religious, and her faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on a theory that continues to spark intense debates.

Deborah Heiligman’s new biography of Charles Darwin is a thought-provoking account of the man behind evolutionary theory: how his personal life affected his work and vice versa. The end result is an engaging exploration of history, science, and religion for young readers.

In addition, I now notice, she has a terrific, eye-catching author bio and one of the best author photos I’ve ever seen, or at any rate, one of the most content-appropriate. I don’t want to spoil the picture’s surprise, but here’s her bio:

Deborah Heiligman has published nearly thirty books to date on subjects ranging from bees to babies, chromosomes to Christmas, Darwin to Diwali, metamorphosis to mathematics, including From Caterpillar to Butterfly, the Celebrate Holidays Around the World series and Cool Dog, School Dog. In addition, she’s written for numerous publications including The Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Ladies’ Home Journal, Sesame Street Parents Guide, Parents Magazine, and Los Angeles Times among many others. She is married to Jonathan Weiner, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for The Beak of the Finch, lives in New York City, and shares her thoughts on writing, the environment, and more on her blog.

Makes her sound quite interesting, doesn’t it? Packed with professional credentials, but not dry at all. What a remarkable coincidence — we were just talking about the difference between professional and stuffy yesterday, weren’t we?

So redoubled kudos to Deborah for providing us with a good example. Before I move on with today’s business, I would also like to add: her website has some really good research tips for kids writing term papers, as well as advice for aspiring YA writers. CHARLES AND EMMA is available on Amazon, or, for those of you who prefer to deal with an indie bookseller, Powell’s.

Back to the business at hand: making yourself sound fascinating. Over the course of this series, I have, I hope, impressed upon my readers the importance of making your author bio as entertaining as possible. In case I have by some chance been too subtle, allow me to reiterate:

Regardless of how many or few bona fide publishing credentials may grace your résumé, aim for constructing an author bio for yourself that is MEMORABLE, rather than simply following the pseudo-professional norm of turning it into a (YAWN!) list of cold, starkly-mentioned business and educational facts.

Yes, I said pseudo-professional; because droning lists are so very common, unless one’s life achievements happen to include very high-profile events (earning a Ph.D., winning an Academy Award, being elected President of the United States, that sort of thing) or previous book publications (don’t have a joke for that one; sorry), the professional reader’s eye tends to glaze over whilst perusing them.

So what should you do instead, you whimper?

Precisely what the admirable Ms. Heiligman did in the example above: have your bio reflect your personality, and the book’s personality as well. It needs to show two things: that you are an authority with a background that makes you the perfect person to write this book, and that you are an interesting, engaging person with whom publishers might like to work — and whom readers would like to know.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right? Well, no, but certainly doable, if you realize that the goal here is not just to hand Millicent the agency screener your CV, but to cause her to rush into her boss’ office, exclaiming, “You’re not going to BELIEVE this writer’s background!”

Yes, yes, in answer to what all of you query-weary cynics out there just thought so loudly, it is indeed entirely likely that her boss’ response will be some rendition of, “Gee, Millie, is it anything out of which we could conceivably cobble a platform for a nonfiction book?” — not necessarily the ideal reaction if one happens to be, say, a novelist, admittedly. Before you get all huffy at the idea of being pigeonholed before your time, let me ask you this: isn’t any reason someone who works at the agency of your dreams becomes excited about you good for your book’s prospects?

(Just to shatter the cherished illusions of any of you who still harbor any about the way agencies work, a successful submitter IS going to get pigeonholed, whether s/he likes it or not. Absolutely no point in trying to avoid it. The publishing industry thinks in book categories, which inevitably means shuffling even the most complex and genre-busting writers’ work into a conceptual box. This is a sad reality with which all of us pros who like to category-surf have to contend eventually, so you might want to beat the Christmas rush and get started on it now.

And if anything I said in that last paragraph caused you to think indignantly, “Well, they’ve obviously never seen anything like my historical multicultural Western romantica fantasy classic before — but by gum, they’re not going to make me pick just one!”, I implore you from the bottom of my heart to scroll down the category list at the right of this page, find the BOOK CATEGORY section, and read every post in it at least twice before you even THINK of querying your masterwork. Trust me on this one.)

Fingers have been drumming next to keyboards for quite some time now, I fear. “I GET it, Anne,” those of you just busting to get on with writing your bios already mutter. “I don’t fear being interesting, and primal screaming has done wonders to reduce my inherent hostility to describing my book in just one or two words. And believe me, I’m not in a position to bore Millicent with lists of my publishing credentials. Where on earth should I begin?

Glad you asked, finger-drummers. Here are a few likely sources for author bio tidbits. Not all are necessary to include, of course, but they are likely candidates for ways that you might be interesting to Millicent.

1. Your work history, paid or unpaid
Nonfiction writers, long used to building their own platforms, tend already to be aware of this, but any consistent effort on an author’s part that enables him to say legitimately, “I have a background in the subject matter of my book,” is worth considering including in a bio. Whether you actually got PAID for that experience isn’t particularly relevant; the fact that your agent will be able to say, “Bill didn’t just guess at what la vie de lumberjack is like for his romance novel, LOOK OUT FOR THAT TREE! He spent his youth as a cook in a lumber camp.”

That is not, as they say, a credential at which Bill’s prospective publishers are likely to be sneezing.

If your job titles have not been particularly impressive or you have not remained in any one industry for very long, you’re in good literary company — Joseph Campbell used to say that one of the best predictors of who was going to turn out to be an artist was the number of different jobs he had had before he was 30.

Try not to get hung up on job titles; think about what you actually DID and the environment in which you did it. An administrative assistant at Boeing has every bit as much right as a vice president to say, “Eileen has spent the last fifteen years in the aviation industry,” if her book happens to touch on that topic, right?

Don’t forget to consider any volunteer experience you may have; for bio purposes, it is neither relevant nor necessary to mention that you were not paid for your position as volunteer coordinator of your local cat rescue. There are plenty of political books out there by people who got their starts stuffing envelopes for a city council candidate, after all.

2. Any performing you may have done, paid or unpaid.
If you have any teaching, public speaking, or just plain experience talking in front of large groups of people, consider including at least some passing reference to it. Even if you were famed county-wide for your tap-dancing prowess at the age of 10, trust me, Millicent will want to know.

Why? It demonstrates that you may be relied upon not to disintegrate into a trembling mess if asked to step onto a stage. Or onto a conference dais. Or into a bookstore to sign your latest release.

Authors who can speak well in public are astonishingly rare, as anyone who has ever heard some pour soul mumble his way through a page of his own recently-published prose at a book signing can attest. Comfort in front of crowds is a genuine selling point for a writer. So is the ability to read out loud well — which might render that college summer you spent getting stabbed onstage in as Julius Caesar interesting to Millicent.

Whatever you do, do not even consider omitting teaching experience from your bio — in terms of practical experience at keeping listeners’ attention, teachers get the gold star. There’s even an industry anecdote on the subject: when a reporter asked the late historian (and reputed plagiarist) Stephen Ambrose, author of best-selling presidential bios, how he learned to make history interesting, Ambrose allegedly replied, “I used to teach an 8 AM class.”

Speaking as someone whose lectures were unfortunately scheduled at 10 AM Fridays at an enormous football university whose fraternities hosted regular Thursday night parties, I can only concur. Think that experience hasn’t come in handy promoting books?

3. What you are doing now to pay the bills.
Regardless of whether you decide that any of your work experience is relevant, interesting, or public-speaking-related enough to include, you should mention in your bio what you are doing now for a living, for the exceedingly simple reason that it is going to be one of the things that an agent or editor will want to know about you up front.

The sole exception — and as soon as I tell you the standard euphemism used by authors who fall under its rubric, you’re going to start noticing just how common it is in bios and people in bookstores will stare at you as you chuckle — is if you feel that your current employment is not, shall we say, reflective of who you are. Stating that you are temping in order to be able to quit your job the second a publisher snaps up your book proposal, for instance, while perhaps not a bad long-term strategy, is not going to make you look particularly professional to Millicent.

Nor is I’m working in a job that has nothing to do with my interests because the unemployment rate is pushing 10%, alas. While either or both may well be true, neither is likely to be particularly memorable.

Do I hear a bit more whimpering out there? “But Anne,” some of you point out timidly, “I’m perplexed. My current job does reflect something about me as a human being — how many gas lamp lighters can there still be on the planet, after all — but it’s not by any stretch of the imagination literary. Shouldn’t I omit mention of it on that basis alone?”

In a word, no. In several words: Millicent doesn’t really expect queriers or submitters already to be making their living as writers.

The fact is, it is extremely difficult to make a living as a writer, particularly of books. (You were all aware of that, right?) It often takes years and years — and books and books — before even a great writer can afford to quit her day job. So you may safely assume that Millicent and her ilk are already aware that many excellent writers out there are supporting their art by delivering pizzas, driving cabs, and all of those desk jobs under fluorescent lights upon which bureaucracies the world over depend.

Heck, it’s not entirely beyond belief that Millicent took her desk job under fluorescent lights to feed her own writing habit. Sort of messes with your mental picture of her scowling over your query letter, doesn’t it?

So what’s the standard euphemism for under-employed literary geniuses? You’re going to laugh: it’s freelance writers.

You’ve seen that in many a dust jacket author bio, haven’t you? Perfectly legitimate: as long as you write and no one is employing you write full-time, you are indeed freelancing. You’re just a volunteer freelance writer.

4. ANY life experience that would tend to bolster your implicit claim to be an expert in the subject matter of your book.
Consider showcasing any background you have that makes you an expert in the area of your book. Again, you need not have been paid for the relevant experience in order to include it in your bio, or have a academic or journalistic background to render your 15 years of reading on a topic research.

Definitely mention any long-term interests connected to your book, even if they are merely hobbies. As in, for a book about symphonies, “George Clooney has been an avid student of the oboe since the age of three.” (Don’t quote me on that one, please; I have no idea what Mssr. Clooney’s feelings or experience with woodwinds may be.)

5. Writing credentials, no matter how minor.
List any contests you have won or placed in. If you like, you may also include any venues where you have published, paid or not. Even unpaid book reviews in your company’s newsletter are legitimate credentials, if you wrote them.

6. Recognition of your wonderfulness from the outside world, regardless of its relevance to your writing project.
I’m not just talking about the Nobel Prize here — do you have any idea how exotic winning a pie-baking contest at a county fair would seem to someone who has lived her entire life in New York City?

Don’t laugh; Millicent might genuinely be intrigued. If you were the hog-calling champion of your tri-county area, believe me, it’s going to strike her as memorable.

7. Educational background.
This is one of the few constituent parts of the standard, dull tombstone bio that might conceivably hurt you if you do not include. Because pretty much any North American agent or editor will be college-educated, Millicent will be looking for a writer’s educational credentials.

That’s putting it mildly, actually: Millicent probably has BA in English from a great school like Wellesley. (With honors. Not to intimidate you.) Her sister went to Brown; her brother went to Dartmouth. Higher education, even without degrees, will be meaningful to her.

Perhaps to the point of snobbery. You wouldn’t believe how much mileage I’ve gotten out of my doctorate when conversing with snobs.

So if you are older than standard college age and a high school graduate, go ahead and include any post-high school education in your bio, no matter how long ago it was or what you studied. Don’t mention your major, unless it is relevant to your book.

If you are currently in school, mention it. But don’t mention your high school by name — unless, of course, your story is about how you regularly fought your way through gunfire to make it to class or you went to a well-known elite school (see earlier reference to snobbery). If you’re still in college, though, you should definitely mention where you go.

Don’t look at me that way. Both young writers and returning students tend to be a bit shy, at least in their bios, about being pre-degree, but I think this attitude tends to underestimate just how wistfully most graduates recall their college careers. Especially if one happens to be huddled under fluorescent lights reading manuscripts until one’s Great American Novel is completed, if you catch my drift.

Anyway, if you’re REALLY young and have the stick-to-itiveness to write an entire BOOK, that’s going to be quite interesting to the adults who inhabit the publishing world. Especially if you worked on a school paper or magazine, as that will demonstrate that you have proven you understand and can meet deadlines. That’s a story you can tell excitingly in a couple of lines of text, isn’t it?

If you’re a non-traditional student, returning to the classroom after years of doing other no doubt very interesting things, you probably have an intriguing story to tell, too. When I was teaching at the university level, I was continually wowed by the trajectory many of my older students had taken to get there. YOU may not think of your sacrifices to go back to school at an untraditional age as extraordinary, but there’s a good chance that others will.

Consider mentioning any certificate programs, continuing education, or substantial training you may have, regardless of the subject matter. Prestigious and oddball programs tend to be the most memorable — in fact, a certificate from a hypnosis for horses class may well stick in our Millicent’s mind longer and more vividly than a BA in literature from Kenyon. So would an apprenticeship as a beekeeper.

I see some hands tentatively raised out there. “But Anne, I’ve never had the opportunity to go to college, the time to attend massage school, or the funds to receive training as a reiki practitioner. What do you do if you don’t have any educational credentials to wave at Millicent?”

No need to panic — you’ve got several excellent options at your disposal. You could simply not mention your educational background; fill up the page instead with your rich life experience (see above). Or, better still, turn your bio into an opportunity to show how you have schooled yourself through non-traditional means.

Millicent may be an educational snob, but she knows a good author interview story when she sees one.

Alternatively — and I’m continually surprised at how seldom this seems to occur to aspiring writers — you could sign up to take a night course in a subject that interests you. It needn’t be academic (although a few history courses related to your book’s subject matter wouldn’t kill you, would they?), or even long-term: I’ve seen a writer turn a weekend seminar on candle-dipping into some quite eye-catching author bio material.

Remember, great author bios don’t just happen by themselves, any more than interesting lives do. They are built.

8. Personal quirks.
You need not limit yourself to your professional achievements in your quest to sound interesting. Including a reference to a quirky hobby often works well, as long as it is true; actually, it’s a good idea to include one, because it tells agents and editors that you have broad enough interests to be a good interview subject down the line.

Don’t have a quirky hobby? Do what PR agents have historically told would-be celebrities to do just prior to launching interview tours: acquire an off-beat hobby or interest now, so you may talk about it.

Then write your bio a week later. A tad rule-lawyerish, perhaps, but essentially truthful — and certainly a recognized trick of the trade.

9. Past travel and residence.
If you’ve traveled extensively — or even not so extensively — or lived in the part of the world where your novel is set, that will actually add to your credibility as a storyteller. Yes, even if that part of the world happens to be rural Oregon, because — come closer, and I’ll let you in on a little secret — Millicent and her ilk are often not all that familiar with the geography outside the fabled isle of Manhattan. Even if she is from somewhere else originally — and she often isn’t; my agent likes to boast that he’s never lived more than ten miles from the NYC hospital where he was born, and apparently I was the first person he’d ever encountered whose response was, “Oh, you should get out more.” — she’s likely to be working some awfully long days for very little pay.

Travel can be quite expensive, you know. Give her a micro-vacation at her desk by mentioning your familiarity with exotic climes.

If you were a great traveler — say, after a career in the Navy — consider mentioning your sojourns in your bio even if they’re not relevant to the book you’re promoting. Give Millicent a vicarious thrill.

10. Family background.
This is always legitimate if it’s relevant to the subject matter of the book — if, say, our pal Bill spent his childhood watching his dear old white-headed mother cook for those lumberjacks, instead of doing it himself — but even if it’s not, if your family tree harbors an interesting wood owl or two, why not mention it?

For instance, my great-grandmother was an infamous Swiss-Italian opera diva. Was the fact that a relative who died three decades before I was born could wow ’em with a spectacular rendition of Libiamo Ne’ Lieti Calici actually relevant to what I write? Seldom.

But incredibly memorable? Definitely. And have I been known to include it in a bio, along with the highly dubious distinction that I made my television debut singing Adeste Fideles on a 1978 Christmas special? Wearing a blaring yellow leotard and equally subtle peasant skirt my mother drew swearingly from our antiquated sewing machine the night before, no less? You bet.

Consider, too, mentioning your ethnic background, if it’s remotely relevant to the book. Many, many aspiring writers chafe at this suggestion, but think about it: didn’t your family’s history have SOME effect upon constructing your worldview? Might not your background in fact render your take on a story fresh? Has it affected your voice?

See where I’m going with this? Bringing up relevant background is not asking for your writing to be judged by a different standard; it’s just one of many means of explaining in the very few lines allowed in an author bio how precisely you are different from any other writer who might happen to have written this particular book.

I have to admit, I’m always surprised when a writer who has, say, just polished off a stunning first novel set in colonial India fails to mention that she was born in Darjeeling, but all too often, writers new to the biz will leave out pertinent life facts like this. “Why should I include it?” the writer will say defensively. “It’s not as though I was alive during the time period of my book, and anyway, I don’t want to get pigeonholed as an ethnic writer.”

In the first place, in the English-speaking publishing world as we currently know it, a non-Caucasian author is inevitably going to be regarded as an ethnic writer, rather than a mainstream (read: white and Christian) one, just as anyone who writes a book while possessing ovaries is going to be labeled a woman writer unless she’s had some pretty extensive plastic surgery and/or has written a memoir under the name of Jim.

Unfair to the vast majority of writers who would like to be judged by the quality of their writing, rather than the content of their DNA? You bet. Something your are going to be able to fight successfully at the query and submission stages of your career? Not a chance.

See my earlier comment about pigeonholing.

Take heart: we may not like it, but it can occasionally work for us rather than against us. The author bio is one of the few places where the tendency to regard any writer who isn’t a white, male, straight, college-educated, middle- or upper-middle class English-speaking North American as outside the norm can actually help those of us who, well, aren’t any or all of the above. Especially if your book would be the kind that Millicent might expect only a white, male…etc. to write.

I leave it to your fertile imaginations what she is likely to say when she carries the bio of what the industry might regard as a non-traditional author into her boss’ office.

Noticing a theme here? Anything about yourself that might make a good story is potential material for an author bio, really. It’s up to you to select and present it intriguingly. If only you already had some experience with an endeavor like that.

Oh, wait, you’re a WRITER. You have devoted your life to telling interesting stories.

Not used to thinking of an author bio that way, are you? Give it a good ponder, have a nice weekend, and keep up the good work!

How to write a really good author bio, part IV: resisting the temptation to be terse, or, yet another reason to admire Amy Tan. Oh, and you might want to steer clear of those carnivorous toads.

scary toads

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been encouraging you — yes, YOU, you fabulous writer — to mine your background for intrigue-producing tidbits for your author bio. Not for its own sake, mind you: the creation of a lengthy list of everything about you that either:

1. Renders you the best possible candidate currently wandering the earth’s surface for writing your particular book (and no, novelists and memoirists, you may NOT skip this step), or

2. Renders you fascinating in any way perceptible to a person of at least average intelligence.

is merely the first step in the creation of a stellar author bio to tuck into your query or submission packets.

Why bother? Because an author bio that doesn’t make the author sound interesting is an author bio that’s not going to be all that helpful to Millicent the agency screener when trying to decide whether to recommend that her boss, the agent of your dreams, invest serious time in reading your manuscript or book proposal or to reject your query or submission. While it is necessary to be terse — 1 page double-spaced or 1/2 – 2/3 page single-spaced if you plan to include a photo — it’s also necessary to present yourself as fascinating.

In other words: if the agency had wanted a résumé, it would have asked you for one. Instead, it asked for bio.

Contrary to popular opinion, when an agency’s guidelines or an agent who has already received a query asks for an author bio, they’re not asking to be bored to death. Nor are they asking for a tombstone-like deadpan list of a writer’s achievements — just the facts, ma’am, and make sure not to mention anything that might conceivably surprise the reader the least little bit.

I can certainly understand where so many aspiring writers picked up the idea that they should just be producing résumés in paragraph form, however — and so should you, if you have been taking my advice and wending your way down to your local bookstore to take a gander at what’s turning up on book jackets these days. To grab a random work from the shelf nearest my desk — no, not entirely random. To render the test more interesting, I’m going to limit all of today’s examples to literary fiction authors:

The author of nine works of fiction, Andre Dubus received the PEN/Malamud Award, the Rea Award for Excellence in short fiction, the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Boston Globe’s first annual Lawrence L. WInship Award, and fellowships from both the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations. Until his death in 1999, he lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Now, all of the listed facts are undoubtedly true, but this biographical blurb doesn’t exactly make you want to leap out of your nice, comfy office chair and rush out to buy a copy of We Don’t Live Here Anymore, does it? And that’s genuinely a pity, because if you’re even vaguely interested in the art of the novella, that would be a pretty grand book for you to pick up. (After you read it, consider seeking out the movie version one of the better adaptations of contemporary literary fictions I’ve seen in my lifetime.)

It’s also kind of surprising, as Mssr. Dubus was by all accounts a pretty interesting guy. So, I’m told, is Paul Auster, but you’d never know it from this jacket bio:

Paul Auster was born in New Jersey in 1947. After attending Columbia University {sic} he lived in France for four years. Since 1974 {sic} he has published poems, essays, novels and translations. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Tell me honestly: would it even have occurred to you from that bio that the gentleman would have penned a novel opening as grabbing as the first paragraph of The Music of Chance:

For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and forth across America as he waited for the money to run out. He hadn’t expected it to go on that long, but one thing kept leading to another, and by the time Nashe understood what was happening to him, he was past the point of wanting it to end. Three days into the thirteenth month, he met up with the kid who called himself Jackpot. It was one of those random, accidental encounters that seem to materialize out of thin air — a twig that breaks off in the wind and suddenly lands at your feet. Had it occurred at any other moment, it is doubtful that Nashe would have opened his mouth. But because he had already given up, because he figured there was nothing to lose anymore, he saw the stranger as a reprieve, as a last chance to do something for himself before it was too late. And just like that, he went ahead and did it. Without the slightest tremor of fear, Nashe closed his eyes and jumped.

Now, we could quibble about whether a writer who wasn’t already established could have gotten away with including a cliché like materialize out of thin air in the first paragraph of a submission, or induced Millicent to overlook the slips into the passive voice — remember, what an author with a long-term readership can get into print and what an aspiring writer can hope will make it past Millicent are often two very different things — but I don’t think that’s why some of you have been shifting uncomfortably in your seats. Let me guess why: when you looked at those two bios, all you saw was the mention of publications and awards, right?

No wonder writing your own bio seems intimidating. With expectations like that, it must feel as though an aspiring writer would have to be published already in order to produce a bio at all.

So you should be both delighted and relieved to hear that listing professional credentials is not the point of a query or submission author bio. What is the point? To depict the writer as an interesting person well qualified to write the book s/he is marketing.

How does one pull that off, short of beginning one’s bio Penster McWriterly is a fascinating person? By showing, not telling, of course, and the use of creative detail.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at a book jacket bio (hey, I’m trying to play fair by choosing examples you might actually discover in a bookstore) that does include details over and above the professional basics. Here’s the jacket bio from The Bonesetter’s Daughter:

Amy Tan is the author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, and two children’s books, The Moon Lady and The Chinese Siamese Cats, which will adapted as a PBS series for children. Tan was a co-producer and co-screenwriter of the film version of The Joy Luck Club, and her essays and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Her work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages. Tan, who has a master’s degree in linguistics from San Jose State University, has worked as a language specialist to programs serving children with developmental disabilities. She lives with her husband in San Francisco and New York.

That third sentence is the one that jumps out at you, isn’t it? Could that be because it’s both interesting and unexpected?

The bio on her website is even more eye-catching. I shan’t reproduce it in its entirety — although I do encourage you to take a peek at it, as a good example of a longer author bio than you’re likely to find on the dust jacket of a living author — but I can’t resist sharing its final paragraph:

She created the libretto for The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Ms. Tan’s other musical work for the stage is limited to serving as lead rhythm dominatrix, backup singer, and second tambourine with the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members include Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Scott Turow. In spite of their dubious talent, their yearly gigs have managed to raise over a million dollars for literacy programs.

Let’s face it: of the facts mentioned in this paragraph, only writing the opera libretto is actually a literary credential, strictly speaking. But don’t you like Ms. Tan better after having read the rest of it. And aren’t you just a tiny bit more likely to pick up The Bonesetter’s Daughter if you happen upon it in a bookstore?

Brava, Ms. Tan!

Including quirky, memorable details is very smart marketing in an author bio, even at the query or submission stage: memorable is good, and likable even better. Who wants to fall in love with an author without a face? Yet most aspiring writers are afraid to take the risk, calculating — not entirely without reason that dull and businesslike is more likely to strike Millicent as professional than memorable and unexpected.

Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: any agent worth her proverbial salt thinks about whether a prospective client might make a good interview subject. Based upon the bio blurbs shown above, which of the three authors would you expect to give the most intriguing interview?

Which is to say: professional and interesting are not mutually exclusive. Just as a well-written, interesting query letter packed with unusual specifics is more likely to captivate Millicent than a dull, just-the-facts presentation of the same literary qualifications and book project, an author bio that shows the writer to be a complex individual with whom someone might conceivably want to have a conversation tends to go over better than the typical list of publications.

Some of you are still shaking your heads. I see that I shall have to pull out the big guns and revert to my all-time favorite example of a fascinating author presented as dull.

What follows is perhaps the Platonic bad author bio, the one that most effectively discourages the prospective reader from perusing what is within. And to render it an even better example for my purposes here, this peerless bio belongs to one of my all-time favorite authors, Rachel Ingalls. Her work is brilliant, magical, genuinely one-of-a-kind.

And as I have read every syllable she has ever published, I can state with confidence: never have I seen an author bio less indicative of the quality of the actual writing in a book. (Yes, dear readers, that is what writing this blog for the last four+ years has done to my psyche: discovering a specimen that might do you good, even if it disappoints me personally, now makes me cackle with glee.)

I don’t feel bad about using her bio as an example here, because I shall preface it with some awfully high praise: I think everyone on earth should rush right out and read Ingalls’ Binstead’s Safari before s/he gets a minute older. (In fact, if you want to open a new window, search for some nice independent bookstore’s website, and order it before you finish reading this, I won’t be offended at all. Feel free. I don’t mind waiting.)

But my God, her bios make her sound…well, I’ll let you see for yourself. This bio is lifted from the back of her most recent book, Times Like These:

Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965 and is the author of several works of fiction — most notably MRS. CALIBAN — published both in the United States and United Kingdom.

Just this, accompanied by a very frightening author photo, one that looks as though she might take a bite out of the photographer:

I have no problem with the photo — actually, I REALLY like it, because after all, this is a writer who gave the world a very beautiful story in which more than one protagonists was consumed by carnivorous toads, so a sense of menace seems downright appropriate. But have you ever seen a piece of prose less revealing of personality?

Admittedly, U.K. author bios do tend to be on the terse side, compared to their American brethren (as H.G. Wells wrote, “the aim of all British biography is to conceal”), but even so, why bother to have a bio at all, if it is not going to reveal something interesting about the author?

I have particular issues with this bio, too, because of the offhand way in which it mentions Mrs. Caliban (1983), which was named one of America’s best postwar novels by the British Book Marketing Council. Don’t you think that little tidbit was worth at least a PASSING mention in her bio?

I take this inexplicable omission rather personally, because I learned about Rachel Ingalls’ work in the first place because of the BBMC award. We’re both alumnae of the same college (which is to say: we both applied to Harvard because we had good grades, and both were admitted to Radcliffe, because we were girls, a bit of routine slight-of-hand no longer performed on applications penned by those sporting ovaries), and during my junior and senior years, I worked in the Alumnae Records office. Part of my job involved filing news clippings about alumnae. Boxes of ‘em. In the mid-1980s, the TIMES of London ran an article about the best American novels published since WWII, using the BBMC’s list as a guide.

Rachel Ingalls’ MRS. CALIBAN was on it, and the American mainstream press reaction was universal: Who?

Really, a novel about a housewife who has a torrid affair with a six-foot salamander is not VERY likely to slip your mind, is it? The fact is, at the time, her work was almost entirely unknown — and undeservedly so — on this side of the pond.

Naturally, I rushed right out and bought MRS. CALIBAN, rapidly followed by everything else I could find by this remarkable author. Stunned, I made all of my friends read her; my mother and I started vying for who could grab each new publication first. She became my standard for how to handle day-to-day life in a magical manner.

The Times story was picked up all over North America, so I ended up filing literally hundreds of clippings about it. And, I have to confess: being a novelist at heart in a position of unbearable temptation, I did read her alumnae file cover to cover. So I have it on pretty good authority that she had more than enough material for a truly stellar author bio — if not a memoir — and that was almost 20 years ago.

And yet I see, as I go through the shelf in my library devoted to housing her literary output, that she has ALWAYS had very minimal author bios. Check out the doozy on 1992’s Be My Guest:

Rachel Ingalls was brought up and educated in Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965.

I’ve seen passports with more information on them. But quick: can you tell me what Amy Tan does in her spare time?

You remembered, didn’t you? So which bio do you think Millicent would be more likely to recall five minutes after she read it?

But Ms. Ingalls’ value as an exemplar does not stop there. Occasionally, the travelogue motif has varied a little. Here’s a gem from a 1988 paperback edition of The Pearlkillers:

Rachel Ingalls, also the author of I SEE A LONG JOURNEY and BINSTEAD’S SAFARI, has been cited by the British Book Marketing Council as one of America’s best postwar novelists.

Better, right? But would it prepare you even vaguely for the series of four scintillating novellas within that book jacket, one about an apparently cursed Vietnam widow, one about a long-secret dorm murder, one about a failed Latin American exploratory journey turned sexual spree, and one about a recent divorcée discovering that she is the ultimate heiress of a plantation full of lobotomized near-slaves?

No: from the bio alone, anyone would expect her to write pretty mainstream stuff.

Once, some determined soul in her publisher’s marketing department seems to have wrested from her some modicum of biographical detail, for the 1990 Penguin edition of Something to Write Home About:

Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the age of seventeen, she dropped out of high school and subsequently spent two years in Germany: one living with a family, the second auditing classes at the universities of Göttingen, Munich, Erlangen, and Cologne. After her return to the United States, she entered Radcliffe College, where she earned a degree in English. She has had six books published, including BINSTEAD’S SAFARI and THE PEARL KILLERS {sic}. In 1964 {sic} she moved to England, where she has been living ever since.

Now, typos aside, that’s a pretty engaging personal story, isn’t it? Doesn’t it, in fact, illustrate how a much more interesting author bio could be constructed from the same material as the information-begrudging others were?

(And doesn’t it just haunt you, after having read the other bios: why does this one say she moved to London a year earlier than the others? What is she hiding? WHAT HAPPENED DURING THAT MYSTERIOUS YEAR, RACHEL? Were you eaten by wolves — or carnivorous toads?)

I was intrigued by why this bio was so much more self-revealing than the others, so I started checking on the publication history of this book. Guess what? The original 1988 edition of this book had been released by the Harvard Common Press (located not, as the name implies, within easy walking distance of Radcliffe Alumnae records, but a couple of bus transfers away). Could it be that I was not the only fan of her writing who had gone file-diving in a desperate attempt to round out that super-terse bio?

”Talent is a kind of intelligence,” Jeffrey Eugenides tells us in Middlesex, but all too often, writers’ faith in their talent’s ability to sell itself is overblown. Good writing does not sell itself anymore; when marketing even the best writing, talent, alas, is usually not enough. Especially not in the eyes of North American agents and editors, who expect to see some evidence of personality in prospective writers’ bios.

I can only repeat: if they didn’t want the information, they wouldn’t ask for it.

Think of the bio as another marketing tool for your work. They want to know not just if you can write, but also if you would make a good interview. And, not entirely selflessly, whether you are a person they could stand to spend much time around. Because, honestly, throughout the publication process, it’s you they are going to have to keep phoning and e-mailing, not your book.

Meet ‘em halfway. Produce an interesting author bio to accompany your submissions. Because, honestly, readers like me can only push your work on everyone within shouting distance AFTER your books get published.

Speaking of which, if I have not already made myself clear: if you are even remotely interested in prose in the English language, you really should get ahold of some of Rachel Ingalls’ work immediately.

You don’t want to be the last on your block to learn how to avoid the carnivorous toads, do you?

Practical advice on how to sound fascinating follows next time, I promise. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good author bio, part III: a revisit to the land of the giant moles

Hello, campers –

I seldom re-run a long-ago post wholesale, at any rate without significant modification, but today, I’m bringing you a post from last November virtually untouched. (The hardcore editorial mind is incapable of leaving any piece of text entirely untouched, of course.) While I can’t help but notice that I come across in it not as my usual sunshiny self, but as a curmudgeon upset by trifles, I think it works in this context: not only is the picture really, really pretty (if the photographer does say so herself), but even on a cold, blustery October day, the running analogy here made me smile.

Oh, and I think the advice is still pretty apt, too. Enjoy!

Yes, I’ll admit it: I’ve been a bad mood for the last couple of weeks. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, seems to be going as planned. Noses continue to sniffle, well-meaning distracters keep appearing on my doorstep during my writing time, people who I had thought I was paying to serve my interests have been falling down on the job in fairly remarkable ways, and my mother-in-law called yesterday to report that she’d accidentally invited five more people to Thanksgiving dinner. At my house.

Presumably, the new guests will be sitting on the piano. Or perhaps stuffed inside it, pressed against the harp. It might render the playing of Auld Lang Syne a trifle tricky.

My SO is scheduled to have a Little Talk with his mum on the subject tomorrow.

I seem to have spent the last few weeks traveling from one Little Talk to another. Case in point: remember that yard renovation that we started eons ago, the intended repair after the inadvertent destruction of my garden last March? Would it surprise those of you whose hair has gone grey in the course of similar projects to learn that it’s still not completed, three growing seasons later?

My SO is having a Little Talk with the landscaper as I write this.

Apparently, it’s a source of astonishment to the latter that anyone WOULDN’T want a gigantic hole in the middle of her patio, or that some unreasonable souls might conceivably expect the drip irrigation hoses to be hooked up to something, or that sun-loving plants moved to murky spots under drooping pine trees to get them out of the way of gigantic, soil-gouging machinery couldn’t walk by themselves back to their original plots. In our last Little Talk, he suggested with an absolutely straight face — and some asperity — that if we wanted him to do these things, we should have made sure that they were spelled out explicitly in our original agreement.

Oh, how I wish I was making that last part up. There’s a reason that I’m no longer present for these Little Talks.

Even in the midst of 8 months of my dashing outside continually, screaming, “DON’T DRIVE THE BACKHOE OVER THAT ROSE BED!” at people who, for some reason that I have not been able to fathom, can’t see an established plant without wanting to mash, mangle, yank, behead, or prune it to the point that my great-grandchildren will be wondering what army took a tank to that majestic Douglas fir and why, I can recognize that there’s quite a bit of beauty here, despite and often because of the ambient carnage. I took the picture above yesterday, in fact, standing on my dangerously unstable back porch.

(“You mean you DIDN’T want your back door to open onto a yawning chasm into which your kith and kin may tumble, never to be seen again? Lady, if you’d only TOLD me…”)

I have to admit, this photo stunned me after I took it. It wasn’t that I hadn’t noticed that there were pretty things in the yard — why, I spent an hour only last week trying to convince the landscaper that I did not now nor had I ever wanted him to cover those lovely leaves with beauty bark, an abomination upon the earth — but I had, I admit, become a bit myopic. I had been so focused upon what had been going wrong in the yard for so long that I had stopped looking at the big picture.

How myopic, you ask? Well, if I’m honest about it, when I looked at the area above, most of what I saw was this:

A potentially pretty space that had apparently been attacked by giant moles, in short, and ones who were rather careless in the placement of their irrigation lines at that. Had I known that the landscaper’s most consistent preference was for replicating the mole-infestation experience on a mammoth scale as often as possible, I might have placed a stipulation in the original contract that he, well, refrain from burrowing gratuitously.

I also, I suppose, could have had the foresight to mention that I also did not wish him to dive-bomb, set fire to, or spray-paint the Douglas fir in our front yard. The things one realizes in retrospect, eh?

Did I hear some of my long-time readers chuckle in the course of these ruminations on my conceptual near-sightedness? “Gee, Anne,” these sharp-witted aspiring writers observe, “it sounds as though you’ve been looking at your yard with your editorial eyes. What you’ve just described sounds virtually identical to how you’ve depicted Millicent the Agency Screener reading through queries and submissions, zeroing in on the flaws rather than searching for loveliness on the page.”

Well observed, oh chucklers. It’s also how good writers who have been revising and revising their manuscripts start to look at their own work after a while — and how virtually everyone approaching writing his own author bio for the first time views his own credentials.

Oh, you thought that I was just complaining about my yard renovation?

Au contraire, mon frère. (Actually, since there are quite a few of you reading this, that should have been mes frères, but don’t stop me; I’m on a roll.) Even aspiring writers with pretty darned good credentials — an MFA, for instance, or being a finalist in a well-respected contest — tend to shake their heads at the prospect of bio-construction, sighing, “But I’ve never been published!”

I’ve got good news for you: that’s not necessarily a barrier to pulling together a killer bio for yourself. No, seriously.

Yesterday, I advised all of you to run right out to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and take a gander at a bunch of author bios on the dust jackets of books recently released in your chosen category — not on jackets in general, but on those gracing books akin to the one that you have written or are writing.

The most helpful ones will probably be those produced by first-time authors in your book category, but ideally, I would like you to spend an hour or so looking at every bio in every book on the relevant shelf at Barnes & Noble or some similar immense bookstore. Not only will this help you get a sense of the tone and extent of successful author bios in the section of the publishing world in which you hope to publish, but it will give you a feel for what does and doesn’t work in a bio.

A sense of where the irrigation hoses tend to be left hanging in mid-air, so to speak. Reading each one, ask yourself, “Does this description of the author make me more or less likely to want to buy this book?”

If your local B&N is stocked like mine, you may be surprised at how often the answer is no.

Actually, I probably should have warned you about this yesterday: there are a LOT of lousy author bios out there, littering up the covers of otherwise perfectly fine books. Clearly, a boring or hastily-written bio is not a significant barrier to publication — which is interesting, because a really great bio can be such a valuable marketing tool for a manuscript.

Reading the duds may seem like a waste of your time, but actually, you can learn a lot from the bad ones, which typically share some common traits. You can learn what to avoid.

After you’ve read a couple of dozen, what makes the bad ones bad becomes apparent: they are too similar in their genericism, which renders them inherently dull. At their worst, they are merely lists of where the author went to school, if anywhere, what the author did (or does) for a living before (or besides) writing, where they live now, and their marital status.

For those of you who have not yet scoured your local bookstore, scores of them end up sounding something like this:

Turgid McGee was born in upstate New York. After attending the Albany Boys’ Reformatory, he served a term in the U.S. Air Force. After graduating from Princeton University, McGee attended law school at the University of Oklahoma. Now retired, McGee now lives in Bermuda with his wife, Appalled, and his three children, Sleepy, Dopey, and Sneezy. He is currently working on his second book.

Yes, it lists a bunch of fairly impressive facts about the author, but it doesn’t exactly make you want to run right out and pick up McGee’s book, doesn’t it? That’s precisely the reaction that Millicent, her boss the agent, and any editor to whom they might happen to mention this book will probably have: YAWN.

But inducing boredom is not ol’ Turgid’s worst offense here. The biggest problem with this blurb is that it’s poor marketing material.

Unsure of the difference? Okay, here’s an easy test that will make the marketing shortcomings rise to the top. Quick, based solely on that bio, answer these essential questions:

What is Turgid’s book about?

Why is he uniquely qualified to write it?

Does he have any background in writing at all?

Does he exhibit any sense of humor, derring-do, or other desirable human characteristic?

What the heck did he do to get sent to reform school?

If you picked up this book in a used bookstore years from now, would you have any interest in checking the shelves to see what his second book was?

Turgid’s bio fails as marketing because it does not even begin to address any of these crucial issues — all matters in which the denizens of any potential publisher’s marketing department would be vitally interested, I assure you.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, this set of questions can — and should, if you happen to be the author writing it — be applied to any author bio. if the answer to any of these questions is murky, it’s not put together very well.

Okay, so maybe the fourth question is not all that helpful on a marketing level. But wouldn’t this bio be both more interesting and more of a grabber if it did address that question, treating Turgid’s life as a story, rather than as an array of unrelated events?

Turgid also made a subtle mistake here, one that perhaps only those who have read a whole lot of author bios — such as, say, an agent, an editor, or a me — would catch. Any thoughts?

Give yourself three gold stars for the day if you said that Turgid mentions he attended the University of Oklahoma, not that he graduated from it. This means something very specific in bio-speak, something that Turgid probably did not intend.

Attended is the standard industry euphemism for not having finished a degree program — when a publishing professional reads Daffy Duck attended Yale University in an author bio, she is automatically going to assume that poor Daffy dropped out after a year.

And this is problematic in the current case, since (and knowing dear old Turgid so well, I can say this with authority) he actually did obtain his law degree. With honors, no less.

Moral: if you graduated from a school, say so.

And as a personal favor to me, never, ever make the astonishingly common grammatical error of saying that you graduated a school, a misstatement that would put virtually any language-loving Millicent’s teeth on edge; retain the necessary preposition and say that you graduated from it.

Trust me, that’s not a mole hole you want to leave exposed.

To his credit, Turgid pulled off this part correctly: he introduced his law school experience of indeterminate length and success with After graduating from Princeton University…. Had he utilized the unfortunately common structure After graduating Princeton… that would have meant, literally, that he handed the school the diploma, not the other way around.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been introduced as the speaker who “graduated Harvard.” It makes my molars grind together.

Speaking of my own credentials, looking at my own bio on this website, I’m not sure that I’ve avoided all of Turgid’s mistakes, but as I mentioned yesterday, as far as the industry is concerned, the 50-word bio (i.e., what’s likely to be on Amazon or most blogs, for instance) and the 250-word bio (for submission and a book jacket) are entirely different animals. What I’ve posted on this site is a specimen of the latter. The former does tend to be a list, but the latter is the author’s big chance to prove to the publishing industry that she is not only a talented writer, but a person who might actually be interesting to know.

But if you can possibly make that 50-word bio intriguing, rather than a rote recitation of biographical facts, I, for one, would love to see it. (And before any of you shrug off the possibility of ever needing one, let me ask you: how’s the bio paragraph of your query letter looking these days? Are you planning to query online? Many of the agency websites that ask potential clients to fill out forms ask point-blank for this short a bio. And so forth.)

If you are in doubt about whether a certain tidbit is appropriate to include in any length author bio, use this three-part test:

(1) Would you be comfortable having that fact displayed on the dust jacket of this particular book for all eternity?

(2) Even if your sainted mother were to pick up a copy? What about your sainted grandmother and her entire bridge club?

(3) More importantly, is it a detail that would help build the reader’s confidence that the author of this book is has credibly mastered its subject matter?

Note that I specified THIS book. It is perfectly legitimate to have different bios for different projects; in fact, it’s sometimes advisable, if your various projects have very different emphases or target markets, to highlight the relevant parts of your character in each.

I used to do quite a bit of food and wine writing (under an alter ego, now gratefully defunct). That bio emphasized the fact that I grew up on the second floor of a winery in the Napa Valley — which is true, incidentally. For the nonfiction book I sold a year ago, a serious examination of political and environmental subjects, however, the winery connection is less relevant, and my credibility more, so the bio I used for it gave greater prominence to the fact that I hold degrees from some pretty prominent and snotty schools.

I graduated from them, thank you very much.

It is perfectly acceptable to make your bio funny, especially if your book is funny. My comic novel, currently cooling its heels in my agent’s office for what seems like an awfully long time, relies heavily on my quirky sense of humor, so I was able to pull out all the stops and gear the accompanying author bio for maximum comic value. It mentions, among other things, that I learned to run a still when I was in elementary school and that when I was a delegate to a national political convention which shall remain nameless, an over-eager cameraman chasing a minor candidate knocked me over, spraining both my ankles. The next day of the convention, I covered my bandaged limbs with political stickers and propped them up on a rail; the AP spread photographs of this, billed as evidence of the dangers of political activism, all over the globe.

As impressive as some of my other credentials? No. But do you think the editors who read that bio are going to remember me?

As you may see, I think it is of paramount importance for an author’s bio not to be boring, provided that everything said there is true. (Yes, my father really did teach me to make brandy when I was in elementary school. Yours didn’t?)

If you honestly can’t think of anything memorable about yourself, try asking a couple of friends to describe you as they might to someone they wanted to impress. Chances are, they will mention the top few things that should be in your bio.

If that doesn’t work, try asking a couple of people who can’t stand you. The traits they dislike most may well enchant Millicent. (I’m only half-kidding about this; warm personal enemies can be very insightful.)

Remember, this is the document your agent will be using in order to describe you to editors, and editors to other editors at editorial meetings while arguing in favor of buying your book. If your full-fledged author bio doesn’t give the impression that if the reader were trapped in a snowstorm for three days with you, you would be capable of keeping the reader entertained with anecdotes the whole time, your bio isn’t interesting enough.

And, perhaps, if you’re lucky, something in your bio will stick in your agent’s mind enough down the road that it will occur to her to pitch your offhand reference to it to a sniffly editor in an elevator, or to poke you in the ribs at a party and urge you to pitch an on-hold project.

That’s the kind of thing that happens to interesting people.

Whatever you do, though, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have the credentials that people typically think of as résumé-fodder for an author: prior publications, awards, the blessings of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a hug from a grateful president or prime minister after s/he has hung a medal around your neck and declared you a national treasure. The fact is, the vast majority of the authors who have sold first books within recent memory did not have those credentials when they first began querying.

Yes, really. Unless they happened to be blessed with a self-confidence that would make your average messiah blush for shame, you can bet your next-to-bottom dollar that at some point early in their writing careers, they all spent at least a few bad hours staring ruefully at their lifetime of achievements, seeing only the mole holes and missing the beauty of the landscape.

Don’t worry; I’m far from finished with my suggestions about where you might want to start looking in your yard. But don’t ask me to recommend a landscaper in Seattle; clearly, I’m not qualified.

Present-day Anne again here with an update. The comic novel remains unsold, for the simple reason that (as I did not know at the time) my agent had simply stopped sending it out some months before I wrote this post; somehow, it slipped his mind to tell me for nine or ten months. That’s actually not all that unusual in agent-client relations, unfortunately, especially when the agent is excited about the client’s next project. Let’s just say Millicent is not the only person at the average agency shouting “Next!”

Her boss agent is just barking it at different people.

I have a different novel circulating now. Had I mentioned lately that two of the most important personal characteristics a career writer can cultivate are flexibility and a sense of humor? And that it’s really, really important to keep moving forward on new projects after one lands an agent?

All three are also excellent goals for anyone trying to renovate anything with the assistance of professionals to pursue: my yard is still a work-in-progress. Little Talks continue. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t looking pretty good these days, largely because I lost my temper. I just started planting things and erecting statuary myself:

yard renovated

The landscaper, of course, claims it all as his own work. There are even pictures of my yard in his latest brochure. And no, it isn’t your imagination — the lawn in the picture from eleven months ago has in fact vanished. If only we’d TOLD the landscaper that we’d expected it to live…

What was I saying about the advantages of having a sense of humor — and of not taking professional hype too seriously? Keep mulling over what makes you fascinating, everybody — and keep up the good work!

How to write a really good author bio, part II: the impossible will take a little while

billie-holiday bluebillie-holiday blue

As will this series of series on < a href=”http://www.annemini.com/?p=6634″>what goes into a query or submission packet, apparently. As those of you who read your way through yesterday’s long-but-I-hope-entertainingly-persuasive post already know, the necessity of writing an author bio is often sprung upon an aspiring writer. Not in a delightful, hands-over-the-eyes way, but in brusque, business-like manner: “You’ll have it to me in the morning, right?” requesting agents and editors are prone to say. “Or you can just e-mail it to me right now, if you like.”

Some writers never get the resulting lump out of their throats again.

Those of us who have been at the writing game for a while have learned not to voice dismay at this kind of request. Surviving in the ultra-competitive literary environment is just easier for be an upbeat, can-do kind of writer, the sort who says, “Rewrite WAR AND PEACE by Saturday? No problem!” than the kind who moans and groans over each unreasonable deadline. Or reasonable one, for that matter.

Hey, the energy that you expend in complaining about an outrageous request could be put to good use in trying to meet that deadline. As the late great Billie Holiday so often sang – and all of you blues lovers out there should feel free to join in:

The difficult
I’ll do right now.
The impossible
will take a little while.

Will it vitiate my moral too much if I add that the name of the song was “Crazy, He Calls Me”? (Clearly, Billie must have spent a lot of time hanging out with my agent.) Which reminds me: if memory serves, I also spent yesterday encouraging you to put together an author bio for yourself as soon as possible, against the day that you might need to produce one, immediately and apparently effortlessly, in response to a request from an agent or editor.

And a good two-thirds of you groaned audibly.

I know, I know: we writers are expected to produce a LOT on spec; it would be nice, especially for a fiction writer, to be able to wait to write SOMETHING affiliated with one’s first book after an advance was already cooling its little green heels in one’s bank account.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but when that happy day comes, you may not have the time. At that point, you’ll be asked to write more for your publisher’s marketing department, a whole lot more –heck, if you’re a nonfiction writer, you’ll be asked write the rest of the book you proposed — so you’ll be ecstatic to have even one task already checked off the list.

In other words: get the bio out of the way now.

Even if juggling the demands of your publishers’ many departments seems impossibly far away to you, think of bio-writing as another tool added to your writer’s toolkit. Not only the bio itself, although it’s certainly delightful to have one on hand when the time comes, but the highly specialized skills involved in writing one.

I’m deadly serious about this — just knowing in your heart that you already have the skills to write this kind of professional document can be marvelously comforting. Every time I have a tight deadline, I am deeply, passionately grateful that I have enough experience with the trade to be able crank out the requisite marketing materials with the speed of a high school junior BSing on her English Literature midterm. It’s definitely a learned skill, acquired through having produced a whole lot of promotional materials for my work (and my clients’, but SHHH about that) over the last decade or so.

Frankly, at this point, I can make it sound as if all of human history had been leading exclusively and inevitably to my acquiring the knowledge, background, and research materials for me to write the project in question. ANY project. The Code of Hammurabi, you will be pleased to know, was written partially with my book in mind.

Which book, you ask, since I have several in progress? Which one would you like to acquire for your publishing house, Mr. or Ms. Editor?

Another reason to start penning the thing well in advance of when you need it (and you WILL need it, if your writing career is at all successful) is that it will give you time to experiment with how you would like to present yourself to the literary world — and to your future fans. And I’m not merely talking about the many, many tries it takes most of us to come up with an author photo we like enough to want to see on a dust jacket.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while are probably not be astonished to hear that your author bio, like any other promotional material for a book, is a writing sample. The bio is also a creative writing opportunity. Not an invitation to lie, of course, but a chance to show what a fine storyteller you are.

This is true in spades for nonfiction book proposals, by the way, where the proposer is expected to use her writing skills to paint a picture of what does not yet exist, in order to call it into being. Contrary to popular opinion (including, I was surprised to learn recently, my agent’s — I seem to be talking about him a lot today, don’t I? — but I may have misunderstood him), the formula for a NF proposal is not

good idea + platform = marketable proposal

regardless of the quality of the writing, or even the ever-popular recipe

Take one (1) good idea and combine with platform; stir until well blended. Add one talented writer (interchangeable; you can pick ‘em up cheaply anywhere) and stir.

Just as which justice authors a Supreme Court decision affects how a ruling is passed down to posterity, the authorship of a good book proposal matters. Or should, because unlike novels, which are marketed only when already written (unless it’s part of a multi-book deal), NF books exist only in the mind of the author until they are written. That’s why it’s called a proposal, and that’s why it includes an annotated table of contents: it is giving a picture of the book that already exists in the author’s mind.

For those of you who don’t already know, book proposals — the good ones, anyway — are written as if the book being proposed were already written; synopses, even for novels, are written in the present tense. It is your time to depict the book you want to write as you envision it in your fondest dreams.

Since what the senior President Bush used to call “the vision thing” is thus awfully important to any book, particularly a NF one, the author bio that introduces the writer to the agents and editors who might buy the book is equally important. It’s the stand-in for the face-to-face interview for the job you would like a publisher to hire you to do: write a book for them.

The less of your writing they have in front of them when they are making that hiring decision — which, again, is usually an entire book in the case of a novel, but only a proposal and a sample chapter for nonfiction, even for memoir — the more they have to rely upon each and every sentence that’s there, obviously. Do you really want the words that describe your background to be ones that you wrote in 45 minutes in the dead of night so you could get your submission into the mail before you had to be at work in the morning?

Let me answer that one for you: no, you don’t.

Are you chomping at the bit to get at your own author bio yet? Good. Then you are in the perfect mindset for your homework assignment: start thinking about all of the reasons you — yes, you — are far more interesting than anyone else on the planet.

I’m not talking about boasting, mind you; I’m talking about uniqueness. What makes you different from anyone else who might have written the book you are trying to sell?

Don’t worry for the moment about how, or even whether, these things have any direct connection to the subject matter of the book you’re writing or don’t sound like very impressive credentials. Just get ready to tell me — and the world! — how precisely you are different from everybody else currently scurrying across the face of the planet.

Don’t tell me that you’re not. I shan’t believe it.

Why? Because I know, as surely as if I could stand next to God and take an in-depth reading of each and every one of your psyches, that there is no one out there more truly interesting than someone who has devoted her or his life to the pursuit of self-expression. I’ve met writers I didn’t like, certainly, but I’ve never met a genuinely boring one.

Okay, so maybe I need to get out more. I spend an awful lot of time at my keyboard, expressing myself.

But I digress. And I’m about to do it some more, so bear with me here. Feel free to keep brainstorming about your qualifications as I continue. I have a couple of thoughts I’d like to share with you before any of you tell me that you don’t have any writing credentials worth including in your author bio.

How did I know that some of you were thinking that already? Read on, MacDuff.

As long-time Author! Author! devotées are no doubt already aware, I have mixed feelings about the utility of much of the traditional old chestnuts. I often advise all of you dear folks to take the usual old writing truisms with a massive grain of salt? Write what you know, for instance, has been radically over-used, and not always to good effect. All too often, it’s been used as a battering ram to deprecate the genuinely original and exciting work of science fiction and fantasy writers, for instance. “Stop being all imaginative,” WWYK-mongers have historically snarled at those who have eschewed slice-of-life storylines. “Stick to what actually happened; it won’t be plausible otherwise.”

Don’t you just hate it when someone uses imaginative as an insult? In some genres, it’s one of the highest compliments a writer can get on her work.

As a freelance editor, I see a heck of a lot of manuscripts in any given year, and I hate to tell you this, WWYK-huggers, but being lifted from real life most emphatically does NOT render something plausible on the page. Or even enjoyable. And who said that holding the mirror, as ’twere, up to nature was the only way to produce good writing, anyway?

Well, perhaps most famously, the renowned editor Maxwell Perkins, for one. I imagine that many of you who have spent much time in writing classes have already been bored by the oft-repeated story of how Perkins browbeat poor Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings into abandoning her first love — historical romance, if memory serves — to delve deep into real life and produce THE YEARLING, so I’ll spare you.

And yes, I’ll grant you, THE YEARLING is a very good book; it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and I’m quite fond of it. Rawlings was an exceptionally talented writer, by virtually everyone’s admission.

So why is it that one NEVER hears this particular write-what-you-know story told as though Rawlings were a talented enough writer to genre-jump, or as evidence that even the greatest editors harbor personal tastes that may or may not have anything to do with the actual demands of the marketplace? Literally every time I have ever heard a writing teacher share this anecdote, it’s always been told with sense a smug satisfaction that Rawlings hadn’t managed to gain literary recognition until she stopped fighting her editor.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to rewrite history so THE YEARLING was never written. But aren’t you just a bit curious about what might have happened if Rawlings had bumped into a publisher who actually liked historical romance?

Instead of one who rolled his eyes over her manuscripts and sighed, “”Stop being so imaginative, Marjorie.”

Why do I bring this up today, other than because the overuse of write what you know is, as you may perhaps have noticed, a pet peeve of mine? Because the author bio is one instance where Perkins’ advice to Rawlings is indeed quite applicable: in an author bio, you should absolutely write what you know — and only what you know — rather than trying to inflate your background into something it is not.

Didn’t see that conclusion coming after all that build-up, did you?

Before I get too carried away on the vital importance of sticking to the truth in your bio, let’s define what we’re talking about for those of you joining us in mid-series: an author bio is an entertaining overview of the author’s background, an approximately 200-250 word description of your writing credentials, relevant experience, and educational attainments, designed to make you sound like a person whose work would be fascinating to read.

Go back and re-read that last bit, because it will prevent your making the single biggest mistake to which first time bio-writers fall prey. If your bio does not make you sound interesting, it is not a success. Period.

Aren’t you glad that I asked you to come up with a list of all the ways that you are fascinating before I mentioned that last little tidbit? I thought it might make you feel better at this juncture.

While you are going to want to hit many of the points you brainstormed earlier in this series (if you don’t have a list of your book’s selling points handy, please see the category at right that I have named, with startling originality, YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS), you will also want to include some of your quirks and background oddities, especially if they are relevant to the book.

I can hear the wheels of your brains turning, reeling at the possibilities. While they do, let me get the logistics out of the way:

(1) Use the third person, not the first.

(2) Start with whatever fact on your fascination list is most relevant to the book at hand, not with “The author was born…”

(3) Mention any past publications (in general terms), columns, lecturing experience, readings, as well as what you were doing for a living at the time that you wrote the book.

(4) Also toss in any and all educational background (relevant to the book’s subject matter or not), as well as any awards you may have won (ditto). But naturally, if your last book won the Pulitzer Prize, for instance, this would be the place to mention it. (I’m looking at you, Marjorie.)

(5) If the most interesting thing about you is not even remotely relevant to the book, consider mentioning it anyway. You want to be memorable, don’t you?

(6) Bios are virtually always single-page documents. Don’t make it longer unless an agent, editor, or contest guidelines ask you to do so.

#6, at least, should sound bit familiar. In case it doesn’t (and so I don’t get an avalanche of comments from readers worried that their bios are 15 words too long), what we’re talking about here is 2-3 paragraphs, a 1/3 — 1/2 page (single-spaced) or 2/3 — 1 full page (double-spaced) in 12-pt. type, Times, Times New Roman or Courier, with 1-inch margins.

(If that last sentence read like Urdu to you or just seemed like micro-managing, PLEASE hie you hence to the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right with all possible speed. Trust me, your work will be much, much better received if it conforms to the norms of the biz.)

I sense some restlessness out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some conscientious rule-followers murmur, “haven’t you misspoken here? I could have sworn that you just said that the bio could be single-spaced — but that’s absurd, because you’re always telling us that everything that passes under professional eyes MUST be double-spaced with standard margins.”

Well-caught, rule-followers: this is indeed an exception to the general rule. Stand back, and I’ll shout it: unlike positively everything else you will ever produce for passing under an agent or editor’s beady eyes, it is sometimes acceptable to single-space an author bio.

Generally speaking, though, bios are only single-spaced when the author bio page contains a photograph of the author, and…wait, did I just feel the photo-shy amongst you just seize up? Don’t worry; it’s optional at this stage, and I shall talk about this contingency later in this series.

Like pretty much everything else in a query or submission packet, the tone and parameters of what is and isn’t acceptable content vary by book category. So before you launch into writing your own bio, you might want to slouch your way into a bookstore on your day off and start pulling books of the shelves in the area where you hope one day to see your book sitting. Many of my clients find this helpful, as it assists them in remembering that the author bio is, like a jacket blurb, a sales tool, not just a straightforward list of facts.

Don’t just look at books in general; be category-specific. Find books like yours. If you write tragic romances, read a few dozen bio blurbs in tragic novels already on the market. If you write cyberpunk, see what those authors are saying about themselves, and so forth. Is there a pattern?

In good bios, there tends to be: the tone of the author bio echoes the tone of the book. This is a clever move, as it helps the potential book buyer (and, in the author bio, the potential agent and/or editor) assess whether this is a writer in whose company she wants to spend hours of her life.

For two FABULOUS examples of such matching, check out ENSLAVED BY DUCKS and FOWL WEATHER author Bob Tarte’s bio, as well as Author! Author! guest blogger and comic genius Jonathan Selwood’s. Both of these writers do an AMAZING job of not only giving a genuine taste of the (wildly different) senses of humor inherent to their books, but making themselves sound like no one else on the face of the earth.

Yet if you read their bios closely, apparently, the Code of Hammurabi itself was written as a precursor to their bringing their respective works to the reading world. Now that’s a great author bio.

Why? Because it’s a terrific way to establish a credible platform without hitting the reader over the head with one’s credentials — yet, true to the bio-writing author’s brief, it presents the author as he actually is: interesting.

REALLY interesting.

Don’t believe me? Think a stodgy list of credentials might have done it better? Take another gander at Bob Tarte’s. His animal-related background is genuinely impressive and might well look good just listed, but doesn’t this:

Bob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell…Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, rabbits, doves, cats, hens, and one turkey.

make you more likely to pick up his books than a simple, straightforward list of credentials?

Clever authors often tailor their bios to the book being promoted — because, let’s face it, the personality traits and background that might help a writer push a dead-serious political book would probably not be all that useful if the same writer was trying to sell chick lit. Fortunately, most of us creative types are pretty darned complex people; few writers have so few quirks in their backgrounds that they cannot afford to pick and choose the bits most appropriate to the book being promoted.

Are you not believing me AGAIN? Okay, you asked for it — here’s the opening to the bio Jonathan Selwood posted on his website to promote his serious comic novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE, a story of pop art, dinosaur bone theft, and partying with billionaires punctuated by a massive earthquake, LA style:

I was born in Hollywood, California. In other words, the first time I played doctor as a kid was on a neighbor’s circular fur-covered waterbed with a mirror on the ceiling. The girl’s parents and two younger siblings were busy out by the pool hosting a nude cocaine party.

Not a traditional author bio, admittedly — but do you believe that Mssr. Selwood might have just a bit of insight into the partying habits of that part of the world? Absolutely.

And that’s one of the reasons that I really like these two authors’ bios: they have not — and this is unusual for an author bio — leaned on their formal credentials too heavily. In fact, I happen to know (my spies are everywhere, after all) that one of these gentlemen holds an MFA from a rather prestigious writing program, but you’d never know it from his bio.

And no, I’m not going to tell you which it is.

Why might he have left it off? Well, this is just a hunch on my part — my spies may be everywhere, but they’re not mind-readers — but I would imagine it’s because he’s a savvy marketer: mentions of Ivy League MFAs generally conjure heavily introspective books of exquisitely-crafted literary short stories about tiny, tiny slices of life in the suburban world. (Such exquisite little gems are known in the biz as “MFA stories,” a term that is often spoken with a slight, Elvis-like curl of the lip. Since they tend not to sell very well, they have as many detractors in the industry as enthusiasts.)

In short, I would imagine that he left off that genuinely impressive credential so he wouldn’t send the wrong single about the book he is trying to sell NOW. Because an author bio is, ultimately, not a cold, impersonal Who’s Who blurb, designed merely to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, but a piece of marketing material. If it doesn’t help sell the book, it’s just book flap decoration.

Happy bio hunting, folks: ferret out some good ones. If you find any that strike you as especially effective/unusual/genre-appropriate, drop a line in the comments about them — examples are always helpful, and I’m never averse to helping good authors attract a little attention to their books. (Fair warning, though: I will be double-checking all of them to make sure they’re legit.)

Next time, I shall talk a bit about what makes a less-effective bio less effective, and then delve further into the mechanics of constructing your own. Because like so many other things worth doing, writing a good author bio isn’t something that should be done at the very last minute — or the very last hour.

Like the impossible, it will take a little while. Keep up the good work!

The art of self-portriature

Anne Mini multiplied

Yes, that’s yours truly, apparently wielding a wee supernova. I prefer to think the repeated iterations of the image are not a mirror effect, but glimpses of future images of me on the covers of literary magazines. (Oh, as if you wouldn’t frame them for your mother.)

But enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Specifically, let’s talk about how you’re going to portray yourself in your author bio.

Saw that one coming, didn’t you? I expect so: for the last — yow, has it been a month already? — I’ve been concentrating upon query packets, submission packets, and the things that go in them. Not that I’m recommending that any of you just go cramming any of the items we’ve been discussing into the envelope, of course; as always, the guiding principle of querying and submission remains give them precisely what they ask to see.

No more, no less — and this applies equally well to query packets as submissions, by the way. If an agency’s submission guidelines say to query with a synopsis, the first five pages, and an author bio, that’s precisely what the savvy querier’s envelope should contain, along with a SASE. (If you don’t know what any of these things are, please consult the archive list at right.) By the same token, if an agent responds to a query with a request for the first 50 pages, the submission packet should contain a cover letter (don’t worry; we’re getting to that), the title page, 50 pages of text, and a SASE large and stamp-heavy enough to get the whole shebang back to you.

That’s it. No home-baked cookies, even if you’re marketing a cookbook; no synopses for the other five manuscripts in your desk drawer, and certainly no page 51. Remember, part of what you’re demonstrating in a query or submission packet is that you’re both capable of and willing to follow directions to the letter.

Which is why what I’m about to say may surprise you: I always advise aspiring writers to include an author bio with requested pages. I’m not talking about that 5-page writing sample some agents ask to see, naturally, but even if it’s as little as 50 pages or a chapter, consider tucking your bio at the bottom of the stack.

Why? Well, when an agent circulates a novel to editors, it’s generally with an author bio as the bottom page in the stack; it’s also commonly the last page of a book proposal. So including it in a full manuscript submission tends to come across as professional, rather than trying to slip additional information in under the wire.

But if some additional information might slip under the wire this way, is that such a bad thing?

Before those of you who currently have requested materials floating around agencies or small publishing houses begin to panic, I hasten to add: including an author bio is not required. Unless, of course, the agent or editor in question has asked to see one.

Increasingly, they are asking, even at the querying stage — which is why, in case you’ve been wondering for the duration of the last few paragraphs, why I am writing about it now, within the context of our ongoing examination of query packets and the things that go in them. Unlike just a few years ago, agents now frequently request author bios with submissions, especially for nonfiction, agents will often want to know up front who this writer is, what s/he does for a living, and what else s/he’s writing.

Stop hyperventilating — you can do this.

Soothingly, author bios are one of the few marketing materials in the writer’s promotional kit that tends not change much throughout the agent-finding-through-publication process. Nor, even more comforting, have the basics of writing one changed much in the last 30 years.

Refreshing, huh?

Don’t go sinking into that lavender-scented bath too quickly, though, because one thing about the author bio HAS changed in recent years: the author is now expected to write it, and increasingly early in the publication process.

How early, you ask? Um, do you have time to start work on yours right now?

Don’t look so shocked — although agents and editors are asking for author bios earlier in the process than in days of yore, it’s hardly a surprise that you’d have to come up with one, is it? Any of you who has ever read a hardcover book with a dust jacket must have at least suspected that your bio was somehow relevant to the process, right?

I sense some glancing at the clock out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” those of you on your way out the door to mail requested materials whimper, “I’m aware that I’m going to need to construct one sometime, but need it be NOW? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until someone actually asks to see it?”

Well, to be quite honest with you, you could. But as I mentioned last time, writing an eye-catching author bio isn’t easy; just as it’s much less stress-inducing for an aspiring writer to cobble together a synopsis almost anytime other than immediately after an agent or editor has asked her to produce one, tossing together an author bio when you’re frantically trying to proofread your novel at 3 AM and figure out how much postage to slap on your SASE for its safe return is quite a bit more challenging than, say, devoting a free afternoon to the task three months before you’re planning to query at all.

I just mention. The results also tend to be — if not better, than at least of a quality that would not make the writer cringe should a shortened version ever turn up on a dust jacket.

Seventeen dozen hands just shot up in the air. “Shortened version?” the confused shout in unison. “Wait, isn’t the author bio identical to that 50-word paragraph I’ve been seeing for years inside the back flap of book covers, a belief apparently corroborated by your crack above about how we all should have expected to have to write one eventually?”

Touché on that last point, and it’s a good question in general: many, if not most, aspiring writers simply assume that what they see in print is precisely what the publishing industry expects to receive. But just as a professionally-formatted manuscript does not resemble a published book in many respects — and if that’s news to you, PLEASE take a gander at the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right before you even consider querying or submitting your work — the kind of author bio the pros have in mind differs fairly significantly from the kind found on dust jackets.

For one thing, it’s longer. Usually in the neighborhood of 250 words — or, to put it in visual terms, a single double-spaced page or just over half a single-spaced page with an author photo at the top. (Don’t worry: I’ll be going over your formatting choices in exhaustive detail soon, I promise.)

Think of it as the 1-page synopsis of your writing life.

“Um, Anne?” the time-pressed pipe up again. “That sounds as though you’re about to ask me to rattle off my selling points as an author, and as we discussed at some length not so long ago, I don’t feel that my writing credentials are all that impressive. Besides, it’s awfully difficult many of us to carve out time in our schedules to write, much less to market our work to agents. I’m in the middle of my tenth revision of Chapter 3, and I’m trying to get a dozen queries in the mail before Thanksgiving. I also have a life. May I be excused, please, from dropping all that in order to sit down and compose something I only MIGHT need if one of those agents asks to see the book?”

Well, first off, clock-watchers, congratulations for having the foresight to send off a flotilla of queries well before the onset of the holiday season. As long-term readers of this blog are already aware (I hope, given how frequently I mention it), the publishing industry is notorious for slowing W-A-Y down between Thanksgiving and the end of the year.

Best to get your query letters in before the proverbial Christmas rush, I always say. Because, really, if you don’t, you’re probably going to want to hold off on sending the next batch until after the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday.

Yes, in response to all of those shouted mental questions from those of you who do not happen to be U.S. citizens: I do mean after January 20th. 2009.

Why wait so long, you howl? Several reasons. First, as we discussed before, during, and after the traditional mid-August-through-Labor-Day publishing vacation period, Millicent’s desk is going to be piled pretty high with envelopes when she returns after her winter holidays. Place yourself in her snow boots for a moment: if you were the one going through all of that backlog of unopened queries, would you be more eager to reject any given one, or less?

I’m going to leave the answer to that between you and your conscience.

Second, in the US, agencies are required by law to produce tax documents for their clients by the end of January, documenting the royalties of the previous year. Yes, everyone knows it’s coming, but common sense will tell you that the vast majority of the inmates of agencies were English majors. Have you ever watched an English major try to pull together his tax information?

‘Nuff said, I think.

Third — and to my mind, the best reason by far — do you REALLY want your query (or submission) to get lost amongst similar documents from every unpublished writer in North America who made the not-uncommon New Year’s resolution, “By gum, I’m going to send out 20 queries a month, beginning January 1!”

Fortunately for Millicent’s sanity, the average New Year’s resolution lasts a grand total of three weeks — which, this coming January, lands quite nicely near Inauguration Day.

All that being said (and I had a surprising amount to say on the subject, didn’t I, considering that it could have been summarized quite adequately as, “Start getting those queries out now!”), I would encourage all of you who are at the querying stage of your careers to set aside anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days to sit down and hammer out a great author bio for yourself.

Ideally, sometime really, really soon. Again, how does now sound?

Why I am I pressing you on this? For very, very practical reasons: often, the request for a bio comes when your mind is on other things, like doing a lightning-fast revision on your book proposal so you can send it to that nice editor who listened so attentively to your pitch at a conference or just before you start dancing around your living room in your underwear because your before-bed e-mail check revealed a response to a query.

Agents and editors tend to toss it out casually, as if it’s an afterthought: “Oh, and send me a bio.” The informality of the request can be a bit misleading, however: your one-page author bio is actually a very important tool in your marketing kit.

Yeah, I know: over the years (and definitely over this last summer, when I devoted a whole lot of our time together to querying, pitching, and submission issues), I have told you that many, many things were important tools in your marketing kit. Your synopsis, for instance. Your query letter. Your pitch. Your first 50 pages. Your first page.

And you know something? I wasn’t lying to you any of those times. They’re all important.

So just how important is the author bio, you ask? Well, it’s not unheard-of for editors, in particular, to decide to pass on the book they’re being offered, but ask the agent to see other work by the author, if the bio is intriguing enough.

Yes, really: it’s happened more than once. Heck, it’s happened to me more than once.

Admittedly, I come from a pretty wacky background (detailed in my bio, if you’re interested), but I think a general axiom may be derived from the fact that attracting interest in this manner has happened to any writer, ever: it is not a tremendously good idea just to throw a few autobiographical paragraphs together in the last few minutes before a requested manuscript, proposal, or synopsis heads out the door.

Which is, as I hinted gently, precisely what most aspiring writers do. In the extra minute and a half they have left between dashing off a 20-minute synopsis and when the post office door locks for the night.

Big, big mistake: if the bio reads as dull, disorganized, or unprofessional, agents and editors may leap to the unwarranted conclusion that the writer is also dull, disorganized, and/or unprofessional. After all, they are likely to reason, the author’s life is the material that he should know best; if he can’t write about that well, how can he write well about anything else?

I know; wacky. But remember, these folks usually don’t know the writers who submit: Millicent and her ilk have to draw conclusions based upon the evidence on paper in front of them.

A good bio is especially important if you write any flavor of nonfiction, because the bio is where you establish your platform in its most tightly-summarized form. All of you nonfiction writers out there know what a platform is, don’t you? You should: it is practically the first thing any agent or editor will ask you when you pitch a NF book. Your platform is the background that renders you — yes, YOU — the best person on earth to write the book you are pitching. This background can include, but is not limited to, educational credentials, relevant work experience, awards, and significant research time.

You know, the stuff we discussed at length both when you were crafting your pitch back in the summer and again in September, when you were thinking about the biographical paragraph of your query letter. For a NF writer, the author bio is a compressed résumé, with a twist: unlike the cold, linear presentation of the résumé format, the author bio must also demonstrate that the author can put together an array of facts in a readable, compelling fashion.

Actually, the same holds true for a novelist’s author bio — and lest any of you fiction writers out there be tempted to cling to the old-fashioned notion that you’re exempt from this daunting challenge, think again. “A bio?” novelists say nervously when agents and editors toss out the seemingly casual request. “You mean that thing on the back cover? Won’t my publisher’s marketing department write that for me?”

In a word, no. They might punch it up a little down the line, but in the manuscript-marketing stages, you’re on your own.

That tendency to assume that someone else will take care of the bio is practically universal amongst writers — until they have been through the book publication process. Unfortunately, despite the ubiquity of this misconception, hemming and/or hawing about the production of one’s bio is NOT the way to win friends and influence people in an agency.

Or a publishing house, for that matter. You think the marketing department isn’t eager to get to work reorganizing your bio?

So if you take nothing else from today’s post, absorb this enduring truth and clutch it to your respective bosoms forevermore: whenever you are asked to provide extra material whilst marketing your work, train yourself not to equivocate.

Instead, learn to chirp happily, like the can-do sort of person you are: “A bio? You bet!”

Yes, even if the agent or editor in question has just asked you to produce some marketing data that strikes you as irrelevant or downright stupid. Even if what you’re being asked for will require you to take a week off work to deliver. Even in you have to dash to the nearest dictionary the second your meeting with an agent or editor is over to find out what you’ve just promised to send within a week IS.

Or, perhaps more sensibly, drop me an e-mail and inquire. That’s what Author! Author! is here for, you know: to help writers get their work successfully out the door.

Why is appearing eager to comply and competent so important, I hear you ask? Because professionalism is one of the few selling points a writer CAN’T list in an author bio — and to most people in positions to bring your work to publication, it’s regarded as a sure indicator of how much extra time they will have to spend holding a new author’s hand on the way to publication, explaining how the industry works.

How much extra time will they want to spend on you and your book, I hear you ask, over and above the time required to sell it? (My readers are so smart; I can always rely on them to ask the perfect questions at the perfect times.) It varies from agent to agent, of course, but I believe I can give you a general ballpark estimate without going too far out on a limb: none.

Yes, I know — all the agency guides will tell the previously unpublished writer to seek out agencies with track records of taking on inexperienced writers. It’s good advice, but not because such agencies are habitually eager to expend their resources teaching newbies the ropes.

It’s good advice because such agencies have demonstrated that they are braver than many others: they are willing to take a chance on a new writer from time to time, provided that writer’s professionalism positively oozes off the page and from her manner.

I’ll bet you a nickel that the writers these agencies have signed did not respond evasively when asked for their bios.

Professionalism, as I believe I have pointed out several hundred times before in this forum, is demonstrated in many ways. Via manuscripts that conform to standard format, for instance, or knowing not to call an agency unless there’s some question of requested materials actually having been lost. It is also, unfortunately for those new to the game, demonstrated through familiarity with the basic terms and expectations of the industry.

This is what is known colloquially as a Catch-22: you get into the biz by showing that you know how people in the biz act — which you learn by being in the biz.

So, as you have probably already figured out by now, “Bio? What’s that?” is not the most advisable response to an agent or editor’s request for one. Nor is hesitating, or saying that you’ll need some time to write one. (You’re perfectly free to take time to write one, of course; just don’t say so up front.)

Why is even hesitation problematic, I hear you ask? (Another terrific question; you really are on the ball today.)

Well, let me put it this way: have you ever walked into a deli on the isle of Manhattan unsure of what kind of sandwich you want to get? When you took the requisite few seconds to collect your thoughts on the crucial subjects of onions and mayo, did the guy behind the counter wait politely for you to state your well-considered preferences?

Or did he roll his eyes and move on to the next customer? And did that next customer ruminate at length on the competing joys of ham on rye and pastrami on pumpernickel, soliciting the opinions of other customers with the open-mindedness of Socrates conducting a symposium, or did he just shout over your shoulder, “Reuben with a dill pickle!” with the ultra-imperative diction of an emergency room surgeon calling for a scalpel to perform a tracheotomy with seconds to spare before the patient sustains permanent brain damage from lack of oxygen?

If you frequent the same delis I do when I’m in town, the answers in both cases are emphatically the latter. Perhaps with some profanity thrown in for local color.

NYC-based agents and editors eat in those delis, my friends. They go there to RELAX.

This regional tendency to mistake thoughtful consideration or momentary hesitation, for malingering or even slow-wittedness often comes as an unpleasant shock to those of us who are West Coast bred and born, I must admit. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like to encourage meditation in daily life; there are retail emporia in the greater Seattle metropolitan area where the Buddha himself could happily hold a full-time job with no significant loss of contemplative time.

Even in retail. “I’m here if you need anything,” the Buddha would say, melting into the background to think. “Just let me know if you have questions about those socks. There’s no rush.”

This is why, in case you have been wondering, NYC-based agents and editors sometimes treat those of us out here like flakes. In certain minds, we’re all wandering around stoned in bellbottoms, offering flowers to strangers at airports, reusing and recycling paper, and spreading pinko propaganda like, “Have a nice day.”

That is, when we’re not writing our books in moss-covered lean-tos, surrounded by yeti in Birkenstocks. (Oh, you laugh, but I’m not entirely sure that my agent understands that I’m not composing my current novel in a yurt by light provided by a squirrel-run generator.)

My point is, it would behoove you to have an author bio already written by the time you are asked for it, so you will not hesitate for even one Buddha-like, yeti-consulting moment when the crucial request comes. And make mine tempeh, avocado, and sprouts on sourdough, please, with a side of smoked salmon for my yeti friend here.

We’ve got some author bios to write. Abundant practicalities to come, of course, and as always, keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XVI: what’s black and white and read all over?

skunk on a rampageglasses on newspaperold-fashioned police car

Answer: not a synopsis, necessarily. It’s only read sometimes.

That double-take you just did was well-justified. “You drive me to distraction, Anne,” many synopsizers cry, rending their garments. “Here we have been spending weeks on perfecting the darned thing, and now you’re raising the possibility that no one will read it? Just what kind of sick torture-fest are you running here?”

Now, now, I didn’t suggest that synopses are never read. Once you’re signed with an agent, s/he will undoubtedly read your synopsis of your next book.

Before that point, however, it’s a bit hit-and-miss. Although agents routinely ask submitters to send along a synopsis with requested manuscript pages, and agency guidelines frequently call for one to be tucked into a query packet, it’s seldom the first thing read. And if Millicent the agency screener has already decided yea or nay on a book project, why should she invest another minute or two in reading the attached synopsis?

You were doing further damage to your garments by the end of that last paragraph, weren’t you? “But Anne,” some of you protest through gritted teeth, “you just said yourself that they ask us to send the wretched things; it’s not as though any sane person would sit around tossing off synopses for pleasure. Why would they request a synopsis if they don’t intend to read it?”

Ah, but they do — at least, they intend to read some of them.

Allow me to explain before you rip that nice shirt any further. Let’s take the synopsis tucked into the query packet first. As most of us in the Author! Author! community know to our sorrow, it’s Millicent’s job to make up her mind pretty quickly about queries. As in under 30 seconds a piece.

Before you get your hackles up about all of your hard work on your query receiving that little scrutiny, do the math. If the average agency receives somewhere between 800 and 1500 queries per week — or more, if it has a compelling website featuring an easy-to-fill-out submission form that allows a querier to bypass the tedium of writing a query letter — and each takes 30 seconds to open and read, that’s between 6.5 and 12.5 hours of agency time just to read them. And that’s not counting all of the additional hours to read requested materials.

If that doesn’t seem like a huge time investment to you, consider this: agencies do not make any money off reading queries at all; they make money by selling the work of their already-signed clients. Oh, they might see some cash from taking on any writer in today’s query pile, but that’s going to take time.

And that, in case any of you have been wondering, is why many agencies do not accept queries at all. Instead of investing in at least a half-time employee to screen queries, they obtain new clients through recommendations from current clients, or by blandishing authors unhappy with their agents into switching.

Back to Millicent’s comparatively writer-friendly agency. Let’s say that the agency in question calls for a 1-page synopsis to be included in every query packet. If she read all of them in their entirety, even assuming that each took her only an additional minute, that would raise the agency’s investment in query processing to 20 to 37.5 hours per week.

Or, to put it another way, a half- or full-time employee. Given the additional cost, what do you think the probability is that a newly-trained Millicent will be directed to give every query synopsis submitted a thorough once-over?

Uh-huh. Depressing, but logistically necessary, I’m afraid.

So how will she decide which to read and which to skip? The ones that are not professionally formatted would be the obvious ones to pass by, as would those whose query letters prompted a rejection. If Millie’s already decided to give the project a pass, she doesn’t need to spend any more time on the query packet, right?

By the same token, she doesn’t have a tremendous amount of incentive to take the time to peruse the synopses accompanying queries that immediately caught her interest. If she already knows that she wants to see the manuscript, why spend the extra minute on the synopsis?

So which ones virtually always get read? The ones where she’s on the fence about requesting pages — which means that the synopsis is a very, very important writing sample.

Not clear on why? Okay, here are two different 1-page synopses — and continuing my trend of summarizing works in the public domain, I’ve tackled ROMEO AND JULIET. Again, if you are having trouble reading any of these examples, try double-clicking on the image and either enlarging it in a new window or downloading it to your desktop. (Also again: if I find out that anyone is lifting any part of what follows and turning it in to a freshman English teacher, noggins will be rapped mercilessly.)

Wiggle your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins, and tell me which is more likely to induce her to tumble down on the by gum, I’d like to see this manuscript side of the fence, and which would send her reaching for the stack of form-letter rejections:

Romeo and Juliet synopsis

Or:

Bad R + J synopsis

Both summarize the plot in a single page, but there’s really no contest here, is there? (If there was any hesitation at all about your shout of “YES!” or if you’re perplexed about why the bad example does not have indented paragraphs and the good example does, please rush with all possible dispatch to the SYNOPSIS ILLUSTRATED and HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT categories on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page. Millicent probably would not read even a line of this one.)

I’m going to level with you here: on any given day, a Millicent working at an agency that expects synopses to be included in a query packet would see many, many more of the second type than the first. It makes her job significantly easier and speedier, of course, because she barely would have to glance at the second in order to decide to reject it. Yet setting aside the obvious formatting and presentation problems — everyone caught the lack of slug line, block-justified paragraphs, and insane typeface choice, right?— what else would strike Millicent as less professional about the second example if she did go ahead and read it?

How about the fact that it’s terribly vague? Compared with the first example, it’s stuffed to the gills with generalities — and that makes this story downright hard to follow. The first example contains summary statements, but because they are grounded in specifics, Millicent will be able to follow what is going on with ease,

Also, who are the characters here? This guy is not an adequate character-identifying phrase. Where does this story take place? What century is it? Why are these people using poison and daggers instead of guns?

And so forth. My point is, Millicent’s assumption that the unprofessional formatting was representative of the polish of the synopsis in general would have been accurate in this instance. Just something to ponder the next time you find yourself resenting how quickly the average query packet gets screened.

Another factor that Millie is going to work into her yea-or-nay decision on the query packet is whether the manuscript in question seems to be a good fit for her agency. The descriptive paragraph in the query letter may not have given her a clear enough sense of what the book is about. And frankly, if the query letter did not include the book category — and a good 90% do not, despite my years of griping here on the subject — she may need to read the synopsis to figure out what kind of book it is.

Which provides me with a perfectly glorious segue into demonstrating a couple of matters I touched upon briefly earlier in this series. As I devoutly hope those of you who have been paying close attention recall,

(a) regardless of the tense of the manuscript, the synopsis should be in the present tense, and

(b) even if the manuscript is written in the first person, the synopsis should be written in the third person, UNLESS

(c) the manuscript being synopsized is a memoir, in which case the synopsis should be written in the past tense and the first person.

Everyone clear on that? I see most of you nodding, but so that the notion that one or two of you might find this somewhat convoluted rule a trifle confusing won’t keep me up fretting in the dead of night, I’ve come up with a couple of concrete examples. First, let’s take a gander at a synopsis for one of the best-selling memoirs of the 20th century:

Kon-Tiki synopsis

It only makes sense for the author (well, not the author — me, but play along with my conceit here) to synopsize his work in these terms, right? He’s describing something that happened to him, a story that only he could tell. In fact, a large part of his platform is that only he and five other people could possibly give a first-person account of this remarkable voyage.

As an interesting contrast, let’s now look at the synopsis for a novel that’s written as though it were a memoir: in the first person and as if the author were actually the titular woman’s nephew.

Auntie Mame synopsis

See how the use of the proper tense and voice for a fiction synopsis renders it instantly plain that this book is a novel, not a memoir? If the query letter fell into the oh-so-common traps of not mentioning whether the book is fiction or nonfiction (you’d be astonished at how common that is) or mentioning up front that it’s based on real events, Millicent could know right away from the synopsis into which book category it should fall.

Everyone with me so far? This is counter-intuitive stuff.

Oh, and in answer to what a panicked few observant souls out there just thought very loudly: yes, the slug line in that last example was entirely in capital letters; some writers prefer to do it that way. Use either that looks best to you, but be consistent between the synopsis and the manuscript.

Speaking of manuscripts, while the query synopsis is intended to prompt Millicent to ask to see the manuscript, a synopsis tucked into a submission packet of requested materials serves a slightly different purpose — or rather, a couple of different purposes, potentially. Which of those purposes is operative determines how likely the synopsis is to get read.

Again, the crucial factor here is saving time. If a synopsis accompanies a partial manuscript, Millicent will seldom read it before scanning the requested pages of the book. Why? Well, if the opening pages don’t grab her, she’s going to reject the submission, right? So why would she invest several minutes in perusing a synopsis for a manuscript she’s already decided to reject?

By the same token, it’s not necessarily in her interest to read it if she likes the partial manuscript. Oh, she might be curious about what happens next, but isn’t far and away the best way to find out to request the rest of the manuscript?

Generally speaking, the shorter the number of requested pages — and this applies equally well to query packets for agencies that ask for a writing sample up front, by the way — the more likely Millicent is to read the submission synopsis.

Do I sense some head-scratching out there? “But Anne, a lot of agents ask for a synopsis even when they request the entire manuscript. But by the logic above, why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis when she has the whole shebang in front of her?”

Good question, head-scratchers: often, she won’t. But her boss might want to take a gander at it before reading the manuscript herself, and she certainly would want to have that synopsis on hand when she picks up the phone or sits down and writes an e-mail to an editor about your work.

Who’d have thought that something so annoying could be so beneficial down the line? Polishing your synopsis is not only good short-term marketing strategy, but an excellent long-term investment in your writing career.

You are in this for the long haul, aren’t you? This isn’t the only book you’re ever planning to write, is it?

Kudos to you for knuckling down and learning this challenging-but-essential writerly skill. When you’re effortlessly tossing off the synopsis for your eighth book while your agent eagerly waits for it, you’ll be awfully glad you took the time now.

Speaking of things you might want to get a head start upon, next week, I shall be guiding all of you through the mysteries of the author bio. Increasingly, agencies are requesting these in submission packets, and even in query packets — and even if the agent of your dreams doesn’t ask you for yours until your manuscript is ready to head out the door to editors, you’ll be much, much happier if you don’t try to crank it out at the last minute. Like a well-crafted synopsis, it benefits from advance thought.

My, I have high expectations for you, don’t I? The agent you deserve will as well. Take it as a compliment to your talent — and the seriousness with which you have chosen to develop it.

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XV: I’m okay, you’re okay, and so is a little definitional ambiguity, or, all right, already — I’ll do a post on synopsis length

medic waving white flag

I thought that I’d tied up the last few dangling loose ends of this extended (not to mention new and improved!) series on synopsis-writing, honest I did. I fully expected to be moving on to that last common query and submission packet ingredient, the author bio.

The muses had other ideas about how I should spend my day, apparently.

How do I know what the Old Girls are up to these days? Oh, I interpret omens, like everybody else involved in publishing: for some reason mortals are powerless to explain, for instance, Dan Brown’s prose continues to be super-popular while the work of many a fine author wielding subtle plot devices and interesting sentence structures languishes on the remainder table. While many a book-watcher would conclude that this is a sure sign that the Muses are either in a collective coma or on a very, very long vacation, I choose to take it as an indication that the Ladies on High would simply like all of us to pay a trifle less attention to the bestseller lists.

Sometimes, though, the messages from the muses are a trifle more direct. Take, for instance, the three nearly identical questions posted by three apparently unrelated readers within the last few weeks:

But what if the directions don’t give a specific length? Are you expected to include a 5-pg or the 1-pg version? (I’m assuming the 1-pg is this mysteriously vague “brief synopsis.”)

Could you mention again what each {length of} synopsis is used for? So many agents on my list ask for a “brief synopsis” and I have no idea how many pages “brief” is supposed to be.

I do have a question, though, which you may have already addressed: If submission guidelines don’t state the length of the synopsis, what should I assume? Five pages, or one? I’ve also seen the term, “two-page treatment.”

Strikingly similar, aren’t they? Is there some sort of epidemic of vagueness suddenly striking agencies’ websites this month, or are aspiring writers not reading as well as they were a month ago? Or is that rumor going around again, the one that maintains that agents have started deliberately adding misleading guidelines in the hope of confusing aspiring writers into being afraid to query?

Oh, yes, one does hear that little gem from time to time. It’s one of the great writerly urban legends, second only to the whopper about every agency in the country’s subscribing to a secret service that tells them at a click of a button whether any other agency has already rejected the query in front of them. Another popular myth: agencies keep such meticulous records of queries that if an aspiring writer queries, spends five years completely revising the manuscript, then queries again, the agency screener will instantly recognize it as a book they’ve been offered before and reject it accordingly.

Those of us whose job it is to translate between writers and those on the other side of the submission desk spend a lot of time quelling those sorts of fears. No matter how many times you hit them with the stick of truth, they rise again to trouble the sleep of aspiring writers.

Even if these questions were in response to a new set of urban myths or a fad in submission guideline-writing, it would have been tempting to assume that they weren’t: since none of the askers showed the ambiguity in context (by including more than a couple of words they found confusing in quotes, for instance), I’m basically having to guess what they find objectionable about the phrase brief synopsis.

Is it the fact that the term is redundant by definition? Or are they just miffed because not every set of agency guidelines gives specific length restrictions for synopses?

Experience tells me that it’s almost certainly the latter. How do I know? Because not only am I constantly hearing from writers panicked because they’re not certain that they are following rules correctly — sometimes because the guidelines are ambiguous, sometimes because they’re simply uncomfortable with not having their work checked for accuracy before they submit it, both completely legitimate reasons to consult a freelance editor — but I am constantly hearing from agents and editors who complain that writers can’t seem to follow directions.

Why, there’s a perfectly clear set of guidelines posted on the agency’s website, isn’t there? Isn’t there?

In short, while the popularity of this particular question may be new, the essential tension isn’t. Generally speaking, aspiring writers want far more guidance about what agents and editors expect than they’re getting, and those on the business side of the business believe that anyone seriously interested in writing professionally either knows the ropes already or can easily find out what to do.

Having recently done a virtual tour of a few dozen agency websites, checking out submission requirements, my sense is that they haven’t changed much recently; there are simply more agencies with websites than five years ago. The fact that they display less uniformity of expectations between sites than aspiring writers might like isn’t new — it’s just better-advertised.

Nor was there a particularly strong trend toward using either the dreaded term brief synopsis or asking for treatments of any length. (The latter is a movie industry term, not a publishing one, though, so it may well pop up in the guidelines of those relatively rare agencies that represent both screenplays and books.) Oh, plenty of agencies did not specify a particular length for the synopsis, but since the 5-page synopsis is so commonly used in agencies and publishing houses, and since agency guide listings have been asking for 3-5 page synopses for decades, everyone would just know to be in that ballpark.

Which is the short answer to the question, incidentally: if the guidelines don’t give a firm length, the agency does not have a firm expectation on the subject. As long as it’s in the general ballpark of what’s expected, you’ll be fine. Next question?

I heard that vast collective moan. Just then, I sounded like an agent or editor who was asked at a conference how long a synopsis should be, didn’t I?

Well, not completely, bit not merely because I didn’t automatically roll my eyes at the question — which, to save all of you conference-enthusiasts the trouble of trial and error, half the folks on the agents’ and editors’ forum dais would automatically do at this particular question. What they would actually say is, “Read the agency’s submission guidelines,” then call on the next would-be questioner, pleased at having evaded helping out someone who just hadn’t bothered to learn how the game is played.

Which would, of course, miss the point of the question entirely.

Let me run through the underlying logic here, because being able to place oneself in an agent or editor’s shoes is a really, really useful professional skill for a writer at any stage of her career. As I mentioned above, it’s rare that you’ll meet one who doesn’t believe that a writer’s not knowing how agencies work is a pretty good indicator of professionalism; that’s the basic justification for automatically rejecting Dear Agent letters and queries that run longer than a page, right? A writer who sends a three-page query is not only unlikely to be able to follow directions, they reason — her writing probably isn’t very polished, either.

Unfair to the talented individual who doesn’t happen to know the ropes yet? Undoubtedly. But statistically provable, based upon ALL of the queries and submissions the average agency receives over the course of a year? Absolutely.

So to them, the ability to follow an agency’s stated submission guidelines is not only a prerequisite for a writer’s getting her work read by an agent — it’s an indicator of professionalism. Thus, when a writer stands up at a conference and asks to be told how to write a synopsis, what they tend to hear is, “I haven’t bothered to learn anything about how the industry works. Because I’m lazy, I’m coming to you for a quick answer.”

Is that assumption disrespectful to the questioner? Of course. But doesn’t the habitual terseness and even sometimes downright anger many agents and editors display at being asked such questions make more sense now? They’re not responding to the question so much as the perceived tell-me-a-secret-so-I-don’t-have-to-do-my-homework attitude.

I hear all of you gnashing your teeth. “But Anne,” frustrated queriers and submitters across the English-speaking world wail, “don’t they realize that every agency’s guidelines seem to call for something different? Or that many of them are vague? How am I supposed to know whether what they have in mind by a brief synopsis is 1 page, 3 pages, 5 pages, or 117? What’s next — are they going to ask me to guess what color they’re thinking?’

Before I answer that, take a nice, deep breath. Not that wimpy shallow one you just took: a real one.

Feeling calmer now? Good, because it’s going to make what I’m about to tell you much, much easier to accept: If they don’t ask for a specific length for the synopsis, it’s because they don’t care how long it is — unless it is wildly out of keeping with professional standards.

See why I wanted your brain nice and oxygenated for that one? Given how easily it is for aspiring writers to fall into the trap of believing (inaccurately, as it happens) that guidelines are just a bunch of arbitrary tests designed to trick writers, I’m betting that the last paragraph came as a great, big surprise to quite a few of you.

Especially to those of you who have stared at an agency’s website until your eyes blurred with tears, muttering, “What length do they want me to guess?”

Seriously, they’re not trying to trick you, and they’re not expecting you to read their minds. These are people who spend their lives nitpicking over commas; believe me, if seeing a 4-page synopsis rather than a 3-page synopsis would ruin their days, they’d specify. So here’s a rule of thumb in which you may absolutely place your trust:

If the agency’s guidelines ask for a particular length of synopsis, send one of that length; if they don’t specify, then it’s up to the submitter how long it should be. Just don’t go over 5 pages — or less than 1 full page.

Oh, dear — that last bit sent your arbitrariness-sensors blaring, didn’t it? Actually, this is a matter of aesthetics: as I mentioned last time, in a synopsis, fuller pages tend to look more intentional to the pros than those less than half-full of text, probably because professional authors are used to having page limits. A synopsis that just sort of peters out 3 lines into page 4 is likely to strike Millicent as a first draft, rather than something tightly edited.

That was catnip to the paranoids out there, wasn’t it? “Aha, Anne — we’ve caught you. If that’s a secret handshake sort of thing, how do I know that the term a brief synopsis isn’t some sort of code? How do you know that every agent who uses it doesn’t have a specific length in mind?”

Um, experience? Not to mention a strong understanding of probability: what precisely would be the benefit to these folks in coming up with a secret definition of a term that is on its face deliberately ambiguous? And why on earth would people who spend their lives in cutthroat competition with one another waste their all-too-precious time getting together to conspire on something that couldn’t possibly benefit them?

Look deeply into my eyes and repeat after me: there is no secret definition here, and 100% of the demand for standardization of submission guidelines comes from aspiring writers, not agents. No matter how much aspiring writers might like for there to be absolute standards, agencies have different expectations for a lot of parts of the query packet — that’s why they post guidelines.

Think about it: if there were one set of expectations governing the entire industry, why would individual agencies bother to post guidelines?

In short, everyone has something different in mind by the term brief synopsis. They each want what they want, period; if they care about a specific length, they will say so up front. If they just want a synopsis to try to find out what the book is about, and they don’t want to get sent a 20-page diatribe, they may well employ the adjective brief.

It isn’t any more complicated than that, honest.

I realize that the explanation above may seem a bit out of character for me — usually, I’m encouraging in-depth analysis, not bottom-lining things. But in my experience, aspiring writers usually ask this sort of question because they believe (sometimes rightly) that their queries and submissions will be rejected on sight if they guess wrong, essentially, in gray areas. They want all of the grayness removed.

That’s understandable, of course. But remember how I showed above how differently folks in the biz sometimes hear writers’ questions? That perfectly legitimate longing to be told precisely what to do tends to be interpreted on the other side of the querying desk as either a lack of confidence or — brace yourselves; this one’s nasty — as a lapse in creativity.

Seem odd? Think about it from an agent’s perspective: writers are constantly going out on interpretive limbs in their manuscripts, right? So why should it be scary to apply their own judgment to something that could be seen as a creative decision, the length of the book summary?

So when she omits mention of how long the synopsis should be from her guidelines, she doesn’t merely misunderstand the writerly terror of doing something wrong; she doesn’t get why you don’t consider the freedom from length restrictions a gift.

It might even strike her as a trifle arrogant: is this writer really so sure that everything in his query or submission packet is so marvelous that the ONLY reason she might reject it is the length of the synopsis?

The fact is, it’s really quite rare that a submission, or even a query, has only one red flag. There’s a bright flip side to that: if a writer follows all of the actually posted guidelines and adheres to standard format, sending in a four-page brief synopsis rather than the 5-page one the agent might have had in mind is not going to make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

95% of the time, the writing and the content determine that.

What are we to conclude from all of this? Well, for starters, that an aspiring writer’s energy would be better invested in the actual writing, rather than obsessing over whether there’s a secret handshake imbedded in the submission guidelines. Follow what directions are there, use standard manuscript format as your guide where an individual agency’s rules are silent, and accept that agents tend to assume that writers are intelligent people, not psychic ones.

Do your best to follow the guidelines you’re given, then move on.

Believe it or not, becoming comfortable with ambiguity is great training for working with an agent or an editor: it’s not at all uncommon for an editor to expect an author to revise an entire book based upon just a couple of sentences of commentary, or for an agent to expect a client to structure a submission one way for submission to editor A and another for editor B without having to hold the client’s hand every step of the way.

Try to think about navigating every agency’s slightly different expectations as a dry run for those more glamorous challenges.

Is everyone clear on the length issue? Or is someone planning to e-mail me the dreaded question again six hours from now? No, but seriously, folks, I guess I should have devoted a post entirely to this question years ago; how lucky that the muses poked three readers in a row to ask the relevant question.

Many thanks to whichever muse coordinated that effort. But if you found this post at all helpful, may I ask you to do me a favor right now?

Please leave a comment with your suggestion for the category name under which this post should repose on the archive list at right. It shouldn’t be more than about 30 characters (slug line length!), but it should catch the eye of someone running down the list, looking for an answer to the question, “If guidelines don’t specify a length, how long should a synopsis be?”

If you were about to suggest HOW LONG SHOULD A SYNOPSIS BE? as the heading, I’m way ahead of you: in my experience, people scanning the S section of the list tend to miss categories that begin with Hs.

Why am I asking for your help in this? Because I happen to know from past questions that all three of the readers who brought this up are quite good at finding answers online. My guess — and my own brief research on what else is out there for aspiring writers bears this out — is that while this question comes up in writers’ forums, pros in the field seldom take it on.

See earlier comment about thinking like an agent or editor. It’s just not a question that someone who has been at it a while would think to ask.

I was also kind of disturbed by the responses I got when I asked a few fellow writers-on-writing if they’d been getting this particular question more lately. (Hey, when I do research, I do research.) Literally all of them advised me to ignore the questions BECAUSE they were repeated, perhaps with the addition of telling question-repeaters that on a blog where readers ask really good questions all the time, reading the earlier comments on an ongoing series might make some sense. They also pointed out, with some justification, that I’ve provided so many categories on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page that readers don’t always take the time to do a site search using the easy-to-use search engine located at the upper right-hand side of this page. Those bloggers over 35 concluded their feedback with diatribes about how much it annoys them that so many people now believe that if the answer to a question doesn’t pop up in the first three pages of a Google search, that’s the extent of research possible on the subject.

As you may have noticed, I chose to eschew this collective advice. Oh, I’m not saying that I don’t occasionally want to follow their lead and bellow at readers to check the archives, or that I might from time to time think about not revisiting topics for which there are already several hundred well-identified posts clearly labeled on the right-hand side of this page. I’m aware that most readers don’t archive-dive on a regular basis; that’s why I come back to pitching once per year and standard format at least twice. Some readers peruse only the latest issue; others read intensely for a short period, then stop; still others come tearing up, breathlessly wanting one very specific question answered. To make it accessible for everyone without boring the daily readers into a stupor, I try to keep things lively.

And I’m not going to claim that it isn’t kinda annoying to receive several e-mails three times per week accusing me of never having covered subjects that have their own categories on the archive list. Which makes this a good time to reiterate my question policy for the benefit of those of you who missed my last request on the matter: if you have a question or suggestion, PLEASE post it as a comment; it’s infinitely more time-consuming for me to answer one question a hundred times via e-mail than to answer it once as a comment. Trust me, it’s highly unlikely that you’re the only person who has your question; if you ask it in public, then everyone else who is curious can benefit from the answer.

But frankly, I worry about the reader who stumbles upon my blog at 3 AM when the query or submission packet is going into the mail at 9 AM. There’s a LOT of material here — don’t take my word for it; read any of the 15 e-mails I receive per week telling me that it’s intimidating and I really should a narrow it down to four or five pages that tell every aspiring writer everything he needs to know about the publishing process and leave it at that.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a while already know, I find the notion of barking unexplained orders at confused aspiring writers really distasteful. I spend a lot of time here trying to make a genuinely opaque process more comprehensible, so I’m certainly not going to dumb down my approach. (And the 30 e-mail admirers I hear from every week cheer! Thanks for the support, but my agent’s going to be a lot more impressed if you post your kind thoughts here.)

But I do want the panicked to be able to find the answers to their questions. So I ask again: how should I title it in order to catch that bleary 3 AM eye?

A final wrap-up on synopses follows next time — and I mean that, muses. Keep me abreast of those new writerly legends, everybody (via the comments, please). And keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XIV: alas, poor synopsis; I knew him, Horatio

alas poor yorick
No, I haven’t been avoiding posting because I regretted my promise to construct 1-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for the same story in my next post. Oh, I may have had a few moments when I wondered why on earth I was doing such a thing to myself — and voluntarily, too — or when I was struck with the difficulty of coming up with a story sufficiently well-known to render such examples useful, yet not a recent bestseller, but the delay was for quite another reason, I assure you. I’ve been ill.

Actually, I still am, but I wanted to chase my recent series on synopsis-construction as quickly as possible with these examples. So contrary to my usual practice, I’m not going to dissect them immediately after they appear. Instead, I’m going to leave them to you to analyze — in the comments, if you like, or in the privacy of your own head.

You see, my purpose in posting these examples is not so much to show you what does and doesn’t work well in the dreaded synopsis format — we’ve just spent 13 posts going over that, right? — but to give you a sense of the scope of storytelling appropriate to each. Because deny it as some of you might, I still harbor the sneaking suspicion that there are a whole lot of aspiring writers out there who are mistakenly trying to cram the level of detail appropriate to a 5-page synopsis into a 3- or 1-page synopsis.

That way lies madness. Just don’t do it.

As I’ve pointed out repeatedly throughout this series, the goal of a 1-page synopsis is not the same as a longer one. No one who requests a single-page synopsis seriously expects to see the entire plot summarized in it, as is routinely expected in a 5-page synopsis.

What’s the difference? Glad you asked; read on.

A couple of things to know before you do: again, these are not intended to be the final synopses on this particular story; they’re quick-and-dirty stabs at it in a couple of hours on a sickbed. (Literally; I’m reclining on pillows as I write this. And yes, after you’ve been at it a while, tossing off three synopses in a couple of hours is not all that intimidating a task.)

So kindly spare me quibbles about how I could have improved these or made them conform more closely to the text. I already know that once or twice, I presented some of the events out of chronological order, for ease of storytelling.

But guess what? If Millicent asks to read your entire manuscript based upon your synopsis, she is not going to call you up to yell at you because they did not match up precisely. What’s important here is the story arc and that it comes across as a good story.

I am anticipating that many of you will know the story well enough to catch the rearrangement, by the way; this is a far more useful exercise if it’s a story with which you’re familiar. Besides, I wanted to stick with something in the public domain.

So you’re about to read three synopses of HAMLET.

Why HAMLET, and not, say, ROMEO AND JULIET, which is a bit better-known in this country? Partially, I chose it because in many ways, it’s the ultimate literary fiction storyline: it’s about a passive guy who sits around thinking about all of the negative things going on in his life and planning that someday he’ll do something about them.

Okay, so that’s a stereotype about literary fiction, but it’s a cliché for a reason. As any Millicent working in an agency that represents LF could tell you, far too many would-be LF writers mistakenly believe that the less that happens, the more literary the manuscript is. (To clear up some of the confusion on the subject: what differentiates LF from other fiction is usually the vocabulary and sentence structure choices; LF assumes a college-educated readership.)

The other reason to choose HAMLET is that while most of you have probably seen it at least once, I’m betting that very few of you have ever seen it performed live in its entirety. Even the most text-hugging of theatre companies usually cuts an hour or so out of the play. (The major exception, and the reason I used the photo above: Kenneth Branaugh’s film version does in fact contain every word.)

So I’m synopsizing a story that pretty much everybody has seen or heard synopsized, at least a little.

To head off whining at the pass: yes, the lettering here is rather small; that’s the nature of the format. If you’re having difficulty reading the typeface, double-click on the image so that it pops up in its own window. From there, you can enlarge it. Or you can download it to your hard drive.

But before anybody out there gets the bright idea to steal any of this and turn it in as a term paper, this is copyrighted material. So you wouldn’t just be cheating; you’d be breaking the law.

So there. I didn’t go to all of this trouble so some con artist could avoid reading a classic. (Hey, I said that writing synopses was easy for a pro, not that it was even remotely enjoyable.)

Here goes, then. Welcome to the 5-page version:

Hamlet 5 page 1

Hamlet 5 page 2

Hamlet 5 page 3

Hamlet 5 page 4

Hamlet 5 page 5

Okay, pop quiz: I’ve deliberately made a really, really common mistake here, to show you all just how easy it is not to notice. Anyone catch it?

If you immediately raised your hand and shouted, “You misspelled Yorick’s name!” give yourself a gold star. You wouldn’t BELIEVE how often writers misspell the names of their own characters in synopses.

And what’s the cure for that, everyone? Sing out loudly, please: read your synopsis IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD.

The 5-page version has been, as I mentioned, the industry standard for many years. However, one is occasionally asked (by guidelines, by contest rules) to produce something shorter.

As I believe I have mentioned about 1700 times on the blog at this point, READ THE GUIDELINES BEFORE YOU SUBMIT. If the requester doesn’t specify, then the length is up to you.

Just keep it under 5 pages. Longer than that, and you’ll just look as though you don’t have any idea how long it should be. If you go less than 5, fill the pages in their entirety (or close to it), so the length will seem intentional.

Tell the entire story in a 3- or 4-page synopsis. If you already have a 5-page version handy, you can often get there by simply lightening the level of detail:

Hamlet 3 page 1

Hamlet 3 page 2

Hamlet 3 page 3

For a 1- or 2-page synopsis, the brief is different — if you don’t know how, go back and re-read the earlier posts in this series. Don’t even try to cut down a 5-page synopsis into a 1-page; it will only irritate you to the hair-yanking stage.

Instead, start fresh:

1-page Hamlet

As you may see, I actually have covered the entire plot here, if a bit lightly. I’ve introduced the major characters and conflict — and no more. I didn’t waste a paragraph describing the castle; I didn’t feel compelled to show what the characters looked like; I avoided clichés about motivation. Yet I’ve demonstrated that this story is interesting and holds together.

In other words, I did my job, which was to write a 1-page overview of the plot.

If you’re still having trouble either seeing the difference between these three levels of detail and/or are having trouble translating from theory into practice, don’t start out trying to synopsize your own book. Pick a story you know very well and try writing these three versions of it.

If you’re not close to the story, it’s often easier to catch the essence. Repeat as often as necessary until you get the hang of it, then go back to your own opus.

Hey, it’s a learned skill. What makes you think you’ll be good at it without some practice?

Food for thought, anyway. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XIII: building your synopsis from solid wood, or, do you think it’s EASY to come up with a thematically-appropriate photo every day?

window corner

Did you enjoy your day off, everyone? I like to think of it as step one in declaring my birthday (and Truman Capote’s, and Euripedes’. as it happens) an international holiday. Rested and refreshed, let’s meander back to our ongoing list of questions designed to ferret out the most pervasive of synopsis problems. The hit parade so far:

(1) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

(2) If the reader had no information about my book other than the synopsis, would the story or argument make sense? Or is more specific information necessary to render the synopsis able to stand alone?

(3) Does the synopsis make the book sound compelling? Does it make me eager to read it?

(4) Does the synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Is it clear where the climax is and what is at stake for the protagonist? Or does it merely list all of the events in the book in the order they appear?

(5) Have I mentioned too many characters in the synopsis? Does each that I mention come across as individually memorable?

(6) In a novel synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is?

(7) Does my protagonist/do my protagonists come across as an interesting, unusual person(s) involved in an interesting, unusual situation?

(8) In a memoir synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is? (Other than I.) Does s/he come across as an interesting, unusual person involved in an interesting, unusual situation?

(9) In either a novel or a memoir synopsis, is it clear what the protagonist wants and what obstacles are standing in the way of her getting it? Is it apparent what is at stake for the protagonist if s/he attains this goal — and if s/he doesn’t?

(10) In a nonfiction synopsis that isn’t for a memoir, is it clear what the book is about? Does the subject matter come across as interesting, and does the synopsis convey why this topic might be important enough to the reader to make him/her long to read an entire book about it?

(11) Does my synopsis make the book sound just like other books currently on the market, or does it come across as original?

(12) If I’m marketing fiction, does my synopsis make the story I’m telling seem plausible?

(13) If my book is nonfiction, does it come across as both plausible and as though I’m a credible source?

Is everyone happy with all of those? More importantly, is everyone’s synopsis happy with all of those?

For the sake of getting on with it, I’m going to assume that the answer is a resounding, “By gum, Anne, YES!” But if you have any questions about what I’ve covered so far, please feel free to bring ‘em up in the comments. (And for those of you new to how blogs work: to leave a comment, go to the very bottom of the post, after the category listings, and click on the green word COMMENTS. That will take you to a form where you can leave, well, comments.)

Moving on — and all of these apply equally well to a synopsis intended to rest within a query packet, a submission packet, and a contest entry, by the way:

(14) Does the first couple of paragraphs of my synopsis contain an indelible image that the reader can take away?

Since part of the goal in a synopsis is to convince Millicent the agency screener that the manuscript is fresh, unique, and well-written, wowing her with the first paragraph is essential. So wiggle your way into Millicent’s moccasins and ask yourself: does the opening of the synopsis contain something both unique and memorable? A vivid sensual image, for instance? A surprising juxtaposition of words? A fresh emotional dilemma?

In short, something that she hasn’t already seen — preferably never, but at least not within the hour?

Don’t tell me, please, that there’s something terrific at the bottom of the page, or that if Millie will only have the patience to make it to the middle of page 3, she’ll be hooked. All of that may well be true, but remember, you can’t be sure that Millicent will make it to page 3, or even the bottom of the page.

Why, you exclaim in horror? Long-time readers of this blog, pull out your hymnals and sing along: screeners stop reading as soon as they’ve reached a conclusion about a submission.

Again, this isn’t a matter of laziness, meanness, or a hatred of literature — Millicent has to get through a lot of these in any given workday. So as with a contest entry, screeners tend to pass judgment upon synopses pretty fast. Also, in order to approve a query or submission for continuing on to the next step of the screening process, screeners often need to be able to describe the book in just a sentence or two. Giving Millicent (or a contest judge) a fantastic detail will make that part of her job significantly easier.

Trust me, you want to make her job easier.

Still want to believe that she’ll read on if the writing is good enough? Okay, let’s assume for a moment that she will. (Although 9 times out of 10, she won’t.) Let’s further assume that she likes what she sees when she does read on. Which would you rather be, the synopsizer whose pages prompt Millie to run into her boss’ office and cry, “Wow, I’ve just seen an image I’ve never seen before!” or the one whose synopsis requires two minutes of explanation about why it caught her interest?

Believe me, Millicent isn’t the only one who keeps glancing at her watch. Her boss’ timepiece is set even faster than hers.

What you DON’T want to do — oh, you may think you do, but it’s not in your best interest — is to make your job as a synopsizer easier by reusing text from the first chapter of the book. Especially, as synopsis-writers for contests so often do, by recycling the opening paragraph of the book.

Which leads me to…

(15) Does the opening of the synopsis read too like the opening of the book?

This may make some of you giggle — this list has been a real laugh riot, hasn’t it? — but you wouldn’t believe how often the first paragraph or two of manuscript are actually identical to the first paragraph or two of its synopsis.

Yes, even in contest entries, where the synopsis and chapter are almost always read within the same sitting. Strategically, that’s just not very bright, in a context where a writer is trying to prove within a scant allotment of pages that it’s worthwhile to read his entire book.

Millicent and her ilk tend to regard this as a symptom of authorial laziness, but I suspect that there is usually more to it than that: I think that aspiring writers, having slaved to create a memorable opening for their books, often regard those opening paragraphs as some of their best writing. If it really is so, they reason, why not feature it in a document where it’s likely to do them some good?

If you believe nothing else I tell you today, please believe this: it won’t do you any good. People in the publishing industry remember what they’ve read; make sure every sentence you submit within a packet is different.

(16) Is my synopsis in the present tense and the third person, regardless of the tense and voice of the book itself? For a memoir, is it in the first person and past tense?

This is one of those secret-handshake things that render a rookie’s submission so apparently different from an experienced writer’s, from Millicent’s perspective: a professional synopsis is ALWAYS in the present tense and third person, unless the book in question is a memoir.

Yes, even if the book being synopsized is written in the first person. Don’t bother to try to fight this one; it’s just a convention of the trade.

(17) If the synopsis is longer than one page, are its pages numbered?

Even after years of reading both synopses intended for submission and contest entries, I remain perennially shocked at how few of them identify either themselves or the author, due no doubt to a faith in the filing systems of literary agencies that borders on the childlike.

Why do I attribute this to faith? Well, like everything else in a manuscript or book proposal, the synopsis should not be bound in any way; like pretty much everything else on earth, paper responds to gravity.

Translation: things fall; pages get separated, and some luckless soul (generally, the person under Millicent the screener on the agency’s totem pole, if you can picture that) is charged with the task of reordering the tumbled pages.

Place yourself in that unhappy intern’s Doc Martens for a moment: given the choice between laboriously guessing which page follows which by perusing content, and pitching the whole thing (into what we devoutly hope is the recycling bin, but is probably merely the overloaded wastepaper basket) and moving on to the next task, which would YOU choose?

Okay, so maybe you’re ultra-virtuous. Allow me to rephrase: what if you were Millicent, had 20 other submissions to screen before lunch, and had just scalded your tender tongue on a too-hot latte?

Even if you cried, “Of course I would take the time!” in each instance, Pollyanna Karenina, don’t rely upon the kindness of strangers. Especially busy ones who have been trained to believe that unnumbered pages are unprofessional in a submission. Make it easy to put the pages back in the proper order.

(18) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book, or does it just begin abruptly? And does every page of the synopsis contain the slug line AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

Standard format for a synopsis dictates that the title (either all in caps or bolded) is centered at the top of the first page of the synopsis, with “Synopsis” on the line below it. Then skip one double-spaced line, and begin the text of the synopsis.

Having trouble picturing that? Here’s a crib for the visually-minded:

Looking familiar, I hope? Everyone clear on why those paragraphs need to be indented?

And if it seems a bit silly to tell the nice people who asked you to send a synopsis that what they’ve got in their trembling hands is in fact a synopsis, remember that in a largish agency, the person who requests a submission is often not the person who subsequently reads it. Not the first person, anyway.

Even if it were, from the envelope-opener’s perspective, being expected to recall one request for further materials from — how long? Perhaps a month? — before is tantamount to being asked to guess how many fingers the author is holding up.

In Nebraska, when the guesser is standing in midtown Manhattan. Don’t make ‘em guess.

(19) Is the synopsis absolutely free of errors of any kind? Not just what your word processing software tells you is an error, but an actual error?

Naturally, like every other piece of paper you intend to send anywhere near an agency, you should both spell-check and read the ENTIRETY of your synopsis IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere.

Period. No excuses. I’m not listening.

Why double-up on the proofing? 95% of writers — and 99.98% of non-writers — fall into the trap of thinking that if a document passes muster with their computers’ spelling and grammar checkers, it must therefore be spelled correctly and grammatically sound. That is, alas, generally not true.

Word processing programs’ dictionaries are NOTORIOUSLY inaccurate — and often surprisingly outdated. I am fascinated by the fact that mine evidently does not contain any words that relate to the Internet or computer operations.

Don’t believe me? At this point in human history, should I really have had to introduce “blogger” into my spell-checker’s vocabulary?

And don’t even get a professional editor started on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers. Mine disapproves of gerunds and semicolons, apparently on general principle, strips necessary accent marks off French words, leaving them obscenely naked, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg you, drop me a comment, and I shall make everything clear.) Once, when I was not looking, it incorrectly changed a word in this very blog from “here” to “hear.”

Editors like to fantasize about the special circle of hell reserved for those amoral souls who teach our children that the differences between these don’t matter. I’ll spare you the details, but they include the constant din of fingernails on chalkboards, a cozy relationship with angry skunks, and the liberal application of boiling oil to tender parts.

Grammar checkers also typically butcher dialogue, especially if it contains necessary slang. Suffice it to say, most standard word processing spelling and grammar checkers would condemn the entirety of Mark Twain’s opus outright.

My point is, like a therapist who doesn’t listen well enough to give good advice, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded. Even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do.

Read the manuscript for yourself.

And if you’re in doubt on a particular point, look it up. In a well-regarded dictionary, not on the Internet: contrary to popular opinion, most search engines will list both the proper spelling of a word and the most common misspellings. There is no gigantic cosmic English teacher monitoring proper spelling and grammar on the web.

So get up, walk across the room, and pick up a physical dictionary, for heaven’s sake. After so much time spent sitting in front of a monitor, the walk will do you good.

(20) Are all of the proper nouns spelled correctly?

This is a perennial agents’ pet peeve, and with good reason: believe it or not, misplaced cities, states, and even character names are rife in synopses.

Why? Because these are words that are generally omitted from standard spell-checkers — or are entered with a number of possible variations. So unless you have inserted all of the proper nouns in your work into your spell-checker’s memory, it will often overlook the difference between your elegant heroine, Sandy, and that trollop who wandered into your synopsis unbidden, Sandie.

Triple-check all character and place names. Seriously.

(21) Does the synopsis read as though I am genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, or does it read as though I am deeply and justifiably angry that I had to write a synopsis at all?

Yes, I’ve talked about this one before, and recently, but this is a subtlety, a matter of tone rather than of content, so it bears repeating. It’s often not as visible to the author as it is to a third party.

So once more, with feeling: writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis, even ones that do not breathe an overt word about marketing. The VAST majority of synopses (particularly for novels) simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents, a hoop through which they enjoy seeing all of the doggies jump.

If you have even the vaguest suspicion that your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your marketing materials — may give off a even a whiff of that attitude, hand it to someone you trust for a second opinion.

Made it through all of the questions above? After you have tinkered with the synopsis until you are happy with all of your answers, set your synopsis aside. Stop fooling with it.

Seriously — there is such a thing as too much editing. Then, just before you send it out, read it again (IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, of course), and ask yourself a final question:

(22) Does my synopsis support the image of the book I want the requesting agent or editor to see? Would it be worth my while to modify it slightly in order to match more closely to what I told this sterling individual my book was about?

”Wait!” I hear some sharp readers out there cry. “Is Anne saying that it’s sometimes a good idea to tailor the synopsis to the particular agent or editor? Catch me — I’m about to faint with surprise!”

Well caught, oh ironic fainters. Yes, I am the queen of specialized submission packets. Down with genericism, I say!

It’s just common sense, really. If you heard an agent or editor expresses a strong personal preference for a particular theme or style in her speech at an agents’ and editors’ forum or during a pitch meeting, isn’t it just common sense to tweak your already-existing synopsis so it will appeal to those specific likes? If your dream agent let slip in your meeting that she was really intrigued by a particular aspect of your story, doesn’t it make sense to play that part up a little in the synopsis?

Doesn’t it? Huh?

A word of warning about pursuing this route: do NOT attempt it UNLESS you have already written a general synopsis with which you are pleased AND have saved it as a separate document. Save your modified synopsis as its own document, and think very carefully before you send it out to anyone BUT the agent or editor who expressed the opinions in question.

Why? Well, contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers and as I have been pointing out for several years now in this very forum, agents and editors are not a monolithic entity with a single collective opinion on what is good and what is bad writing. They are individuals, with individual tastes that vary wildly, sometimes even moment to moment — and certainly over the course of a career.

Think about it: was your favorite book when you were 13 also your favorite book when you were 30? Neither was any given agent’s.

And isn’t your literary opinion rather different on the day you learned that you were being promoted at work and the day that your cat died? Or even the moment after someone complimented your shirt (that color brings out your eyes, you know, and have you lost a little weight?), as opposed to the moment after you spilled half a cup of scalding coffee on it?

Again, what’s true for you is true for any given agent, editor, or screener: a LOT of factors can play into whether they like the pages sitting in front of them — or the pitch they are hearing — right now. As the old international relations truism goes, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Bear this in mind when you are incorporating feedback into your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your work. Just because one agent (or an editor, or a contest feedback form, or every last member of your writers’ group, or the Wizard of Oz) has advised you to tweak your story this way or that, it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone in the industry will greet that tweak rapturously.

Use your judgment: it’s your book, after all. But by all means, if you can modify your synopsis for the SPECIFIC eyes of the individual who expressed the particular opinion in question, do it with my blessings.

Okay, that’s enough poking at your synopsis for now. Next time, by popular request, I am going to make a jump from a fairly high dive: I’m going to show you a 5-page, 3-page, and 1-page synopsis for the same book, to help give those of you new to the game a clearer idea of the scope of each. Yes, that’s right: I’m VOLUNTARILY sitting down and writing three separate synopses of the same story.

Never say I didn’t do anything for you, people. Keep up the good work!