First Pages That Grab: Janine Southard’s Which Star My Destination

Janine Southard author photo

Have you been enjoying these last few winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, campers? I have — they’ve been providing us with a great deal of material for discussion, especially about the joys and challenges of writing YA. I’m toying with running a similar contest in January specifically for literary fiction and memoir, so we could have a nice, jolly time delving into the peculiarities of those highly specialized book categories.

Hands up, readers who would be interested in that.

While you’re giving that some thought, let’s turn to another winner in the YA category, Janine Southard’s WHICH STAR MY DESTINATION. I’ve got to say, by the time I finished reading Janine’s book description, I had already thought of four YA readers for whom I would buy this book for Christmas were it already out. It’s a real grabber of a premise. Take a gander:

When high school is over, Zheng still doesn’t know what to do with his life. Worse, his friends are all moving on, following their dreams, and getting off the planet Hartwell. As one last adventure together, Zheng packs up his interstellar automobile — which he modified in his parents’ garage — for a road trip, taking his university-bound friend to college.

When he and his best friends reach Luna City, Zheng stumbles across what looks like a scholarship scam, but his investigative mind uncovers the truth…revealing an alien organization quietly preparing the human race for galactic culture. Now Zheng knows what he wants to do: he intends to culturally prepare the aliens for humanity.

Yet from the first page of text, it is not entirely clear whether this is a YA book. Why not? See for yourself — and, as always, if you are having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing the + key to enlarge the image.

Southard page 1

Actually, let’s pause a moment before we consider the content in order to examine this page cosmetically. While this page is very close, it isn’t entirely in standard format for manuscripts: there’s a double-spaced line of empty space missing between the chapter heading and the first line of text, and while the dashes are properly doubled, there should be spaces between each end and the words immediately preceding and following them.

Let’s look it again without those distractions, shall we?

Southard revision1

And already, hands have sprouted up all across the galaxy. “But Anne,” the sharper-eyed residents of the universe point out, “you added more space at the top. How on earth did you manage to cram all of the sentences in the original onto the revised page?”

Oh, that was easy, galactic nitpickers: I merely eliminated one of the two single-sentence paragraphs. As we have discussed before, in English prose — at least of the non-journalistic variety — it takes at least two sentences to make up a narrative paragraph. So while single-sentence paragraphs are fine in dialogue, Millicent tends to frown at them anywhere else, at least in fiction submissions. (Due to the phenomenon’s ever-increasing prevalence in journalism, she’s less likely to react negatively to them in nonfiction submissions.) The higher the education level of the intended audience, the more negative her reaction will be.

So if you like how a single-sentence narrative paragraphs look on the page, and you happen to be writing mainstream, literary, or high-end women’s fiction, you might want to reserve the convention for only those moments when what is revealed in that single sentence is genuinely startling enough to be able to carry its own paragraph. That way, the very rarity of its occurrence will add to its impact.

Behind you — aliens!

See? Standing all by itself, that statement is much more startling than if it were merely tacked onto the end of the preceding paragraph — or, sacre bleu! buried in the middle of it. A skimming eye (like, say, a weary Millicent’s when screening her 57th page 1 of the day) may well skip lines mid-paragraph, so if an action is important, a piece of characterization essential, or a sentence particularly lovely, you might want to make sure it appears in either the first or the last line of the paragraph.

Or, if the information is once-in-a-manuscript important, in its own one-line paragraph. There’s a reason that journalists tend to present the most important planks of their arguments in single-sentence paragraphs: the eye jumps right to ‘em.

Speaking of things to which the reader’s eye jumps, did you find all of the capitalization distracting? Most Millicents would have. Obviously, some of it is unavoidable — place and people names do need to sport capital first letters, after all — but some is by choice. Compounding the problem: many of these choices appear quite close to each other in the text.

Not sure why that might be distracting for our Millie? Okay, let’s look at the page again, a capitalization-sensitive reader might see it. While I’m at it, I’m going to highlight the word and phrase repetition as well. See if anything in particular jumps out at you:

Janine repetition sheet

There’s a fair amount of word and phrase repetition here — more acceptable in YA than in adult fiction, of course, but still a pet peeve for many Millicents — but I’d like you to focus on the underlined bits in particular. Do you notice anything about them?

If you squinted at those little lines and immediately cried, “Wow, that’s quite a few instances of the verb to be,” you get a gold star for the day. That particular verb appears in various forms no fewer than 14 times on this page. 4 of those times are in the first paragraph — and in a type of sentence structure that is an even more common submission red flag. Any guesses?

If you pointed to the first few sentences of the story and said, “Hey, those are in the passive voice,” pat yourself on the back sixty-seven times. All of those it was constructions are indeed in the passive voice: instead of actors doing things, the sentences presents things as occurring all by themselves.

Again, this is rather more accepted in YA than in adult fiction, and the younger the target reader, the more acceptable the passive voice is deemed to be. (And yes, both of those last two sentences were in the passive voice. Take another gold star out of petty cash.) Unfortunately for lovers of to be and it was, most Millicents — indeed, most professional fiction readers — are explicitly taught that the passive voice is the least creative way of saying, well, almost anything. So opening a book with several instances of it in a row might well raise some professional eyebrows.

It is worth noting, however, that the only judges who were not bothered by this were the YA authors. But then, they didn’t mind the single-sentence paragraphs, either.

Again: norms vary by book category. If you want to find out what is and is not considered good writing in yours at the moment, there’s just no substitute for going to a well-stocked bookstore on a regular basis, seeking out the shelves devoted to the type of book you write, and plopping yourself down to read the opening pages of some recent releases.

Even better, you could buy new releases in your chosen category. Or ask Santa to do it for you, because what’s a better gift than professional development in the career you want most in your heart of hearts to pursue?

Did you spot any other potential distractions from the story here? Let’s take a gander at what Millicent might have scrawled in the margins.

Janine's edit1

Ah, at last we are starting to talk about plot and characterization. The story definitely drops the reader into an exciting conflict right away — good move, Janine! — but by YA standards, the description of the environment is rather scanty. YA is known for its vivid, sensual descriptions, but other than that very vivid purple imagery in the first paragraph — again, nice choice, Janine — the reader doesn’t gain a very strong sense of what it feels like to be on Luna.

Including just a few more physical details would make all the difference here — and for YA, a great way to do that is through the protagonist’s bodily sensations. Is the gravity heavier on Luna than on Hartwell, for instance, or lighter? Is Does the sunshade affect how plants grow? Are there any plants — and if so, could Zheng be allergic to one of them, because he’s not used to it?

Another prime target for descriptive expansion is the crowd. Are the people in the room all humanoid? Are any of them humanoid? Who is the group, and how can Zheng tell that they are the ones in authority — over and above the death threats, that is? Are the con artists restrained in any way? Is he? Are they close enough together to create a distinctive smell, or to increase the heat in the room?

And so forth. The possibilities here are practically endless; just remember that unless the narrative gives the reader hints of what the environment and characters looks, sound, smell, taste, etc., the author cannot be certain that every reader will envision the same thing. For some details, it’s fine to let the reader’s imagination run free; for others, it can throw off understanding of the plot.

Not sure what the latter might look like in practice? Well, if Zheng’s captors had three arms, when would you want to learn about it, when they first appear in the book, or just after one of them grabs our hero and two other captives as they try to escape?

I want to talk about two more pieces of marginalia, then I shall move to the punch line. In the next-to-last paragraph, the narrative between the dialogue indulges in a few devices quite common for a submission, but rare in published books. Here’s the relevant piece of dialogue, ripped out of context for your tag line-considering pleasure:

“You know far more than you should, and we must keep you from speaking,” the group’s Speaker proclaimed stiltedly to fidgeting from other swindlers around the room. “We should simply kill you, but we’re peaceful people. I’m not going to start killing now.” She paused, then qualified, “Unless you give me no choice.”

Did you spot all three? No? Okay, let’s take them in the order they appear. First, the adverb in the initial tag line, stiltedly, is a trifle awkward — and all the more likely to be noticed as such, because there was an entire generation of English students taught to avoid using adverbs in tag lines at all. Some of you must remember that old writing truism, right? The dialogue itself should demonstrate to the reader just how things were said; lose the -ly words, already.

This writing advice is far less common now, and its adherents certainly less vitriolic, than way back in the day, but it was so influential that millions of Baby Boomers ran terrified out of their English classes, absolutely convinced that they should never use adverbs, ever.

Why should a writer of today worry about that misconception? Millicent may be the child of one of those students. Or the grandchild. Or — brace yourself — the employee.

Just use adverbs with discrimination, okay?

Let’s move on to the second issue: what’s going on just after that adverb isn’t completely clear, is it? The causative to construction is fairly common in submissions, used to indicate that what happens after the to was in response to what came before it.

Unfortunately, a skimming eye often misses the implication. In a manuscript, then, it’s usually safer to spell out causation. Heck, we can even toss in one of those much-maligned adjectives:

“You know far more than you should, and we must keep you from speaking,” the group’s Speaker proclaimed. The swindlers around the room fidgeted uncomfortably.

The third issue is a subtle one, but a surprisingly pervasive professional readers’ pet peeve. “Why, in heaven’s name,” Millicent mutters under her breath, “do aspiring writers insist upon telling me every time a speaker hesitates for so much as an instant? In and of itself, it’s seldom either character- or situation-revealing.”

It’s pretty clear why Janine chose to insert a pause here — to increase the menace of the threat — but you must admit, Millie has a point. The mere fact of pausing doesn’t add all that much to the speech. If the speaker did something more specifically threatening, the menace in could be heightened considerably. Perhaps even by employing an adverb!

“We should simply kill you, but we’re peaceful people. I’m not going to start killing now.” Her ice-gray eyes swept the room contemptuously. “Unless you give me no choice.”

Now that your eyes are sharpened to the particulars, I’m going to ask you to step back, consider the overall picture again — and revisit that burning issue from the beginning of the post. Re-read that first page: does this voice and worldview strike you as inherently and necessarily YA?

If you’re unsure, ask yourself this question: based upon this page alone, just how old do you think the protagonist is?

To the judges’ collective eye, there was no indication here that Zheng was not a full-fledged adult — not the usual choice for the protagonist of a YA book. (Adults drop students off at college all the time, right?) Admittedly, there’s also nothing here that indicates he couldn’t be a teenager, but that might not be enough to stop an impatient Millicent looking to screen out the overwhelming majority of the submissions on her desk that day from huffing, “Oh, this isn’t YA. Next!”

Since we liked the voice, the premise, and the leap right into conflict — well done, Janine! — we wanted to flag this problem. It’s one that dogs many a YA submission, particularly now that so many writers of adult fiction have been tempted by the category’s popularity into switching teams, as it were. Out comes the broken record player again:

broken-record8YA has its own distinctive conventions, particularly with respect to voice and subject matter. If it is not apparent from the first paragraph of page 1 that a manuscript is YA, even the best-written YA manuscript runs the risk of rejection on that ground alone.

Not sure in this case? Take another peek at that first page, then ask yourself: is the central conflict of this scene one to which a teenager could relate?

The judges felt — and I concur heartily — that being lectured by an authority figure because one has found out a truth one shouldn’t have might strike teen readers as somewhat familiar. Particularly the part about not speaking up about it. The black-and-white nature of the authority figures’ logic (I’m not going to start killing now… Unless you give me no choice.) would also be more likely to appeal to teenage sensibilities than those of adult readers; in adult fiction, superlatives and extremes tend not to play as well.

A different definitional ambiguity troubled the judges in the book category description. In answer to the question how will this manuscript add something new and exciting to its book category? Janine provided the judges with a rather interesting response:

Which Star My Destination takes the themes of exploration and road trips to grand scale by involving the entire universe. It also reminds us that, different personalities aside, teenagers are faced with the same situations and feelings, even in the far-flung future. Plus, spaceships!

Plus, spaceships! saved this description at judging time, frankly; blanket assertions often raise more questions than they answer in book descriptions. While the notion of a universe-wide road trip was amusing (if rather reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the fantasy writer on the panel was nonplused by the assertion that an exploration story was unusual simply because its extent was intergalactic — that has been a staple of science fiction since its inception, has it not? Other, more historically-minded judges wondered how we could be certain that teenagers in the far future would face the same situations as those today, as it would be difficult to argue that the teenagers of two hundred years ago did, or even the teens of thirty years ago, when feelings-based YA really hit its stride as a book category.

Unsure if that’s true? Try reading Paul Zindel’s classic, Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on My Eyeball; the protagonist’s frequent emotional and even physical abuse of his love interest barely raised eyebrows in 1978, but it would have to be handled as the central problem of the story today. Or E.L. Konigburg’s 1967 Newberry Award-winning From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, where two children run away from an apparently perfect home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; if it were written now, there would be some serious problems in that household, and at least one responsible adult would experience some qualms about sending those kids back.

Fortunately, the first page was enough of a grabber to cause even the skeptical judges to want to read more — and the book description’s nod to Jerome Beatty, Jr.’s much-loved Matthew Looney series brought a smile to many a child of the 1970s’ face. All agreed that the combination was a potentially powerful one.

There’s a moral to all of this library-oriented reminiscence, should you care to know it. Any given manuscript will not be the first book in an agent’s chosen book category that she or her staff will have read; if they like those kinds of books enough to devote their lives to representing them, it’s a good bet that everyone concerned has read a wide array of them.

Why is that important for a submitter to know? Because in order to wow Millicent the agency screener, a manuscript is not merely competing with the other submissions of recent months; it’s also competing with all the similar books she has ever read. It had better compare favorably.

While competing with the classics in one’s genre is a tall order, the writers of today enjoy a considerable advantage: you are aware of today’s cultural expectations (“Wait — the female protagonist is supposed to DO something, not just wait around to be rescued? “YA writers of the 60s and 70s marvel), demographic trends (“Hey, when did living with one’s still-married birth parents stop being the norm?”), and, yes, recent bestsellers. (“Tell me why precisely we’re supposed to find vampirism sexy?”)

Current YA writers also reap the benefits of writing during an exciting burgeoning of the category. Boundaries are being pushed; experiments are being wrought, and a diverse array of individual voices of unprecedented complexity is being welcomed. (And yes, all of that was in the passive voice; good eye.)

Janine is poised to take advantage of this expansion with a story that seems interesting, exciting — and a whole lot of fun. Just what a road trip should be.

Keep pressing those boundaries, everyone — and, as always, keep up the good work!

First Pages that Grab: Carolin Walz’ Gothic Wars, or, reading on a jet plane

Carolin Walz author photo

Yes, yes, I know: I have not been in the habit of giving subtitles to the prize posts in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, but frankly, I felt that my feedback on today’s winning entry, GOTHIC WARS by Carolin Walz, warranted it. Turbulence fought penmanship, and I fear that for the most part, turbulence won. Since this has historically been the fate of many a manuscript whose marginalia was penned on the way to or from a writers’ conference — oh, you can think of a better use of flying time than reading submissions? — I felt that it was only fair to present all of you with the results, so you may recognize travel-skewed comments when the agent of your dreams presents them to you.

With the advent of electronic submissions — still not universally accepted, but climbing steadily in popularity — you’d be astonished at how many agents reading submissions on airplanes around this time of year. Specifically, on their electronic readers.

Surprised? Or even alarmed at the prospect of your meticulously-formatted pages being read on that small a screen? Well, think about it in practical terms: if you were an agent traveling over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, which would be more efficient to tote as reading material, a couple of heavy manuscripts — or 30 electronic submissions on your Kindle?

Of course, this is only likely to be the case at agencies that accept electronic submissions. And even then, typically, those Grandmother’s house-bound submissions (or, at this point in the weekend, those returning from Grandmother’s) will have had to make it past Millicent the agency screener’s strict scrutiny before making it onto the boss’ Kindle.

Which just goes to show you: electronic submissions can be pretty well traveled. Yet all too often, aspiring writers assume, wrongly, that the simple fact that they’ve sent their manuscripts as Word attachments to an e-mail automatically means that everyone who might conceivably read their submission will have access to their contact information.

“After all,” these submitters reason, “all Millicent or her boss has to do to say yes to me is to hit the REPLY key. What could be easier than that?”

What, indeed? Unless, of course, your electronic submission has been downloaded to an electronic reader. Then, it actually isn’t inconceivable that an agent could fall in love with a manuscript — and yet have no idea how to get in touch with the person who wrote it. Or even be sure who did write it.

Scary prospect, is it not? Breathing into a paper bag should reverse that hyperventilation within a couple of minutes.

“But Anne,” some of you wheeze, “couldn’t the agent just ask his Millicent to comb through the agency’s e-mail inbox? Surely, my original e-mail would be in there, right?”

Possibly, but do you have any idea how many e-mails an agency that accepts electronic submissions receives in any given week? Or even on any given day? Forget about finding a needle in a haystack — Millicent would be looking for a needle in a hay field.

Fortunately, this dire extremity is easy to avoid with a little advance preparation on the submitter’s end. First, it’s always a good idea to include one’s full contact information with any submission, electronic or otherwise; don’t you want the agent of your dreams to be able to call you with any follow-up questions she might have? Second, it’s an even better idea to include precisely the same title page a savvy submitter sends along with a paper submission in an electronic submission.

How is that possible? It’s not particularly difficult in a Word file: just copy and paste your title page at the top of your manuscript document as its first page. To avoid the title ending up with the slug line that every other page in the manuscript should feature in its top margin, select DOCUMENT from the FORMAT menu in Word, then choose LAYOUT. Click “Different first page.” Then you can just clear the header for the title page, while leaving the rest of the document as is.

Ah, I hear some of you murmuring, but doesn’t that mean that the first page of Chapter 1 would be numbered as page 2 in the slug line? (For those of you who are not in fact murmuring that, but instead are wondering what the heck a slug line is, it’s the AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/PAGE # that appears in the upper-left corner of a professionally-formatted manuscript. For some visual examples and explanation of how to include this important information correctly on your pages, take a gander at the SLUG LINES ILLUSTRATED category on the archive list at right.)

There’s a way around that, too: under the INSERT menu, choose PAGE NUMBERS…, then FORMAT. Under PAGE NUMBERING, simply set the “Start at…” number to 0. Voilà! The second page of the document is now page 1!

“Aha!” those of you still breathing crossly into your paper bags gasp. “I’ve got you now, Anne. Why wouldn’t the agent of my dreams simply look at the top of any page of my manuscript to see what my name was? If Millicent misplaced my original e-mail, she could just do a search of her inbox under my last name. Problem solved!”

Quite true, oh gaspers — provided that you included a slug line. You would be positively amazed at how many electronic submitters (or, heck, paper submitters) do not.

How much difference could the omission possibly make to a submission that did not go astray, you ask? Well, since the fine folks who read manuscripts for a living expect every page of every manuscript to include a slug line, quite a bit.

See for yourself. Here is today’s winning entry in the format that the judges first encountered it:

Carolin Walz page 1

A bit bare on the top end, isn’t it? Here it is again, properly formatted:

Carolin revised

Makes more of a difference than you would have expected, doesn’t it? As does another small formatting change: two spaces after the colon in the Part I designation, rather than the original one. Again, it’s a seemingly small thing, but to eyes sharpened to the norms of professional manuscripts, it would jump out.

Some of you former wheezers have your hands in the air now, I see. “But Anne, didn’t you do something else to the formatting? There are more words in the second version, are there not? The last sentence on each page is different.”

Well spotted, ex-hyperventilators. The difference between the first page and the second is that the first is in TextEdit, the second Word.

About 10% of the entries in this contest arrived in TextEdit, although the rules had specified sending the first page as a Word attachment to an e-mail. The judges decided not to disqualify entrants for this, primarily because it would afford me such an excellent opportunity to talk about why this would not be a good way to submit electronically to an agency or publishing house.

Word is, quite simply, the U.S. industry standard — when an agency asks submitters to send pages as attachments to e-mails, they mean a Word attachment. Specifically, a .doc document, not a .docx document, since many agencies are running older versions of Word. (If they are running a really old version of Word, you may have to send your pages as a .rtf document, so they will be able to open it.)

You should honor this expectation; send any requested materials in Word, not TextEdit or any other word processing program you happen to favor. The fact that it is possible for a Word user to do as I did, convert a TextEdit document into Word, does not mean that Millicent will necessarily be willing to do it; after all, her boss would not be able to submit your book electronically to an editor at a publishing house that way. A U.S.-based agent would certainly expect any writer it signed to convert all manuscript documents to Word, anyway, so in the long run, it will actually save time to just write your documents in Word in the first place. (If you are unsure how to format a manuscript page in Word, please see the obscurely-titled HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right. Or just stick around here at Author! Author! for December, when I shall be going over the rigors of standard format again. So dig out your long-harbored formatting questions, people!)

Besides, as we saw above, the formatting is not always identical. In a submission where length is an issue — if, say, the manuscript goes over 400 pages, Millicent’s usual oh, dear, that’s a bit on the long side limit in most fiction categories — even those few extra words per page may make an overall difference. Sometimes, standard format is the writer’s best friend.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let me ask you: how much time have we spent so far talking about technical and presentation issues in Carolin’s fine first page, and how much about either the writing or the content? THAT’s how distracting these issues are to professional readers.

It’s genuinely a pity here, because Carolin has a terrific book concept. Here’s the way she described it to the judges:

The historical novel Gothic Wars tells the story of Emperor Justinian’s reconquest of Gothic Italy in the sixth century CE from the point of view of the last Goth king, Teja. It provides a fresh look at a war that is usually seen through the victors’ eyes (like Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius).

Interesting, eh? Here’s her 1-page book description.

Gothic Wars description

Again, fascinating — but once again, we’re distracted by formatting, aren’t we? The slug line contains a first name, sixteen-year-old is not hyphenated (a mistake that I have been seeing more and more over the last couple of years; is this rule not being taught anymore?), and there is odd, additional spacing between the lines. Here’s that page again, with just simple double-spacing:

Walz description revised

Once again, we see what a big difference seemingly small formatting issues can make. Actually, tinkered-with spacing between paragraphs is fairly common in submissions. It puzzles the pros: since just selecting double-spacing under the FORMAT menu (it’s one of the choices under PARAGRAPH) is actually far easier for the writer than manually changing the spacing between the lines, why does anyone go to the extra trouble? It’s not necessary; Word will do it for you.

And once again, we’ve been distracted from the engaging story and the writing by technical issues. Let’s see what Millicent would have to say about something other than presentation, shall we?

Carolin's edit1

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about that turbulence. (Don’t worry; the copy I shall send Carolin will be legible.) But as you may see, Millicent’s first instinct was to point out the formatting issues. She also raises an interesting point that affects the marketability of many realistic novels.

Carolin has done a beautiful job here of giving the gritty feel of Teja and Gertruda’s quotidian life, hasn’t she? And she does it primarily through showing, not telling: the level of practical detail here is excellent. It’s also quite clear — and this is rarer in historical fiction submissions than any of us might like to hear — that she’s done her homework: as a reader, I believe that these specifics are historically accurate.

That’s all going to be great for readers after GOTHIC WARS is published, of course, but it could present a problem at the submission stage. Teja comes across here as an ordinary person, not an extraordinary one. From the synopsis, of course, we know that’s not the case in his life overall. However, as we have seen throughout our discussions of all of our Great First Page Made Even Better winning entries, Millicent tends to make up her mind about whether she wants to follow a protagonist onto page 2 based exclusively on page 1, not the synopsis or brief description in the query letter, a too-ordinary-seeming protagonist may not provide the temptation to read on she wants.

Fortunately, this is a very easy fix: Teja merely has to exhibit some extraordinary quality on page 1. If Carolin likes the dramatic arc of having a young boy develop extraordinary qualities over time — as most historical novelists tend to prefer — she can always resort to the tactic I suggested for yesterday’s winning post: open with a prologue set later in the book, then revert to this scene after.

In historical novels, this strategy often works beautifully. I would be especially pleased to see Carolin try it here, because it’s fairly likely that Millicent will not know much about the wars in question. A well-crafted, informative prologue could go a long way toward convincing her that readers will consider this historical event inherently interesting and important.

Hey, it’s not always a foregone conclusion. And Millicent is far more likely to have been an English major than an ancient history concentrator, if you catch my drift.

Did you catch the nit-pick in the first line, or did turbulence prevent your being able to read the handwriting? Any guesses why Millicent might ask is it actually necessary to have these two things happen at precisely the same moment?

If you immediately shouted, “By Jove, it’s in response to the use of as in that sentence,” take a gold star out of petty cash. X happened as Y happened is an immensely popular sentence structure in novel submissions; one sees it less in published fiction. And that’s a bit surprising to many aspiring writers, because, let’s face it, quite a few things do happen simultaneously in the real world.

Why the differential? Because editors have been scrawling in the margins for decades is it actually necessary to have these two things happen at precisely the same moment?

Most of the time, it isn’t. Nor is it here: it doesn’t actually add either plot or character development to Carolin’s page 1 that Teja’s rubbing his eyes as Aunt Gertruda gives him the water. If the actions came one after the other, or even if they were reversed, it would not affect the reader’s understanding of what’s going on here, right?

The simultaneity implied by as is often not necessary to the reader’s understanding of what is going on; it’s simply the writer’s attempt to be factually accurate about a series of events. But by using this structure when the simultaneous nature of two different happenings is not relevant to the scene, a narrative can both (a) mislead the reader about what actually is important for the reader to notice in the scene and (b) over time, cause the reader to tune out as as an indicator of timing.

That last one is problematic, potentially, in a story with a lot of action in it. At some point in the story, it’s going to be vital that the reader understand that X happened as Y happened. So it’s an excellent idea to reserve as, like profanity, for only those moments when it will have the most effect.

Let’s see, what else did our Millie flag? How about the Hollywood narration in the second paragraph?

We’re all familiar with Hollywood narration, right? It’s a staple of television and movies: one character tells another something they already both know, simply so that the audience may learn it, too. As in:

Joyce: Oh, Kent, my husband of twelve years, how glad I am to see you safely home! You know how your job as a test pilot of experimental aircraft frightens me.

Kent (chuckling ruefully): Honey, you have been worrying about me since that long-ago day in college when you first saw me slip on the ice-covered library steps and slide head-first onto the quad. You should know by now that my head’s as hard as a rock!

Joyce: Well, you’re not the one who is going to have to explain your sudden, fiery demise to our three children — Lara, eight; Timothy, twelve, and little Ghislaine, six — are you?

Kent: I suppose not. Nor would I have to face your father, the senator from our fair state, should you become widowed. As you yourself heard me tell not only him, but a crowd of two hundred of our nearest and dearest at our fifth anniversary party — which, as you may in fact recall, was held at Chez Georges, the fanciest French restaurant in town — your well-being and happiness is my highest priority.

Joyce: Except, of course, for our children’s. Why, just six months ago, when Lara rode her bike into the side of that truck and you had to rush her to see old Doc Courtland — he who delivered both all of our children and myself — you were magnificent.

Kent: So, too, were you that time that our youngest, not yet out of diapers, went wandering off into that cornfield and got kidnapped by aliens. I was so impressed when you…

Well, I won’t bore you with what happened after Joyce followed Ghislaine into that field; suffice it to say that the next ten minutes of dialogue concern her many lacerations and burn scars. But why should Joyce and Kent be reminding each other of these major life events at all, when it’s completely beyond the realm of possibility that either party should have forgotten about any of them?

Evidently, just so you, dear readers, will know about them, too. Trust me, Millicent will not find this presentation subtle.

Which is a shame in this case, where the Hollywood narration is rather subtle: Gertruda might actually have asked this question. However, since this information would also have been perfectly easy to introduce in a couple of narrative sentences — unlike TV and movies, novels do not rely exclusively upon dialogue and visual cues to convey information to their audiences — it’s probably best to err on the side of giving even the implication of Hollywood narration a wide berth.

Especially if, as here, it comes with a signpost. Generally speaking, any time a character says, “You know…” there’s an excellent chance that what she is about to say next is Hollywood narration, and thus could be cut.

We wouldn’t want to distract Millicent from that nice description in the first paragraph, would we? Or from those evocative details in the last one?

So nicely done, Carolin — you’re a set of quite minor revisions away from a genuinely stellar first page. Which is, I hope, precisely why members of the Author! Author! community will find this and our other winning entries both helpful and inspiring: the difference between a manuscript that wows Millicent and one she rejects is often based upon not her overall perception of a manuscript’s writing quality or marketability, but the cumulative effect of a series of small, rather subtle problems that could, with patient revision, be polished away.

Keep plugging ahead, Carolin — and everybody, keep up the good work!

First Pages That Grab: Linda McCabe’s The Legend of the Warrior Maid and the Saracen Knight

Linda McCabe author photo

Before I launch into what I anticipate will be a juicy discussion of today’s winning entry in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, I have some good news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community. Remember memoirist and blogger Shaun Attwood, whose guest blog on the difficulties of bringing horrific jail conditions to light moved in last year’s censorship series? If you don’t recall his first guest post here, perhaps you will recall his second post last summer, which I introduced by both celebrating the U.K. release of his memoir, HARD TIME: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail (Mainstream Press), and bemoaning the fact that although he was writing about his experience in a U.S. jail, his memoir was not available in this country.

I am delighted to announce that is about to change: an American edition of HARD TIME will be coming out from Skyhorse Publishing this coming spring. In fact, it is already available for preorder on Amazon, but so you may recognize it later in brick-and-mortar bookstores, it will look a little something like this:

Attwood Hard Time US cover

And that’s not all: somewhat to my surprise, I am writing the introduction for it. Perhaps it is not entirely surprising to all of you, for I have been a tireless booster of Shaun’s writing since I first clapped eyes upon it, shortly after he left his first comment here.

Quite apart from the extraordinary subject matter, Shaun’s is a writing success story. As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for the last couple of years may recall, Shaun first joined us as a memoirist struggling to write his first book proposal — and as one of the most fascinating bloggers out there on the web. Shortly after he shared his extraordinary story with us here he landed an agent and a U.K. book deal. And soon, his story will be available in the land that gave rise to it.

Which just goes to show you, campers: it can be done. Congratulations, Shaun!

While we’re in a celebratory mood, let’s turn to another long-time member of the Author! Author! community, Linda McCabe. With genre-appropriate fanfare, even.

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The co-third place winner in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, the first page of THE LEGEND OF THE WARRIOR MAID AND THE SARACEN KNIGHT struck the judges as a delightfully traditional addition to the epic fantasy market. At a time when so many fantasy submissions are stuffed to their proverbial gills with trendy paranormal elements — fine in themselves, naturally, but in the fifteenth similar work Millicent the agency screener sees on any given day, bound to seem a trifle on the common side — Linda has made the very interesting choice of grounding her tale’s opening in solid realism.

What renders it even more interesting is that the book itself contains a fairly untraditional twist. As Linda’s entry explained to the judges:

The Legend of the Warrior Maid and the Saracen Knight is an epic historical fantasy in the time of Charlemagne with a tale of impossible love between sworn enemies. It deviates from traditional quest stories by having the heroine, and not the hero, receive the call to adventure.

Piques your interest, doesn’t it? Given that laudable ambition, one would expect the heroine to appear on page 1, right?

That actually doesn’t happen here — leading the judges to wonder whether a rushed Millicent would read far enough to realize just how untraditional this traditionally-voiced tale actually is at its core. While the opening page was interesting, evocative, and promised excitement to come, it is very solidly in the tradition (there’s that word again) of male-centered battle epics.

Take a gander and judge for yourself. As always, if you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the image.

McCabe page 1

Engaging, certainly, but it doesn’t exactly display its most exotic wares up front, does it? Equally important, if you were the Millicent who requested this manuscript based upon the descriptive paragraph above, would you feel that the page fulfilled the description’s promise? Or even that this book was about the expected protagonist?

Pick your jaws off the floor, multiple character-jugglers. Sad but true, 99% of Millicents will simply assume that the first-named character in the manuscript — or at any rate, the primary actor in the opening scene — is the protagonist.

So what about this page 1 would alert her that this is a story that stretches the well-established boundaries of battle epics? Unfortunately, nothing. And that’s genuinely a problem, since Linda’s telling quite a story here.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take a peek at her synopsis, then glance again at that first page.

A love foretold between sworn enemies will determine the fate of Christendom.

Bradamante, the niece of Charlemagne, and Ruggiero, a Saracen knight descended from Hector of Troy, are renowned warriors who meet and fall in love on a battlefield before being separated.

Bradamante is later sent on a mission to rescue Ruggiero who is being held captive by the wizard Atallah. She learns of dueling magical forces trying to influence which of two prophecies regarding Ruggiero will come to pass. He is either destined to convert to Christianity, marry her, and sire a line of heroes before dying tragically or he will remain a Saracen and bring about the destruction of the Frankish Empire devastating Christendom. Atallah is aware of these divergent prophecies and is determined to protect Ruggiero from harm; he views Bradamante’s love as a threat to Ruggiero’s life.

The tale of impossible love between Bradamante and Ruggiero is set against the backdrop of a holy war between Islamic and Christian armies shown in bloody sieges in Marseille and Paris. Other legendary heroes such as Orlando and Renaud de Montauban are featured in this retelling of a classic tale of chivalry, betrayal, revenge and magic.

Sounds exciting, eh? But try to wiggle yourself into Millicent’s snow boots for a moment: does it seem as though there’s a slight disconnect between the story as told in the synopsis and the one that appears to be starting on page 1? To put it in another, more positive way, is this page 1 an effective salesperson for the unusual twist on a chivalric romance promised by the synopsis?

The judges reluctantly answered these questions no and yes — despite the fact that the writing here is clear (less common in submissions than one might think), the voice category-appropriate, and the opening a good hook into what is to come. Yet with the quirky logic that often dictates which entries end up as finalists and which place in literary contests, the judges decided to include this first page in the winners’ circle precisely because of this inherent marketing tension.

The fact is, well-written manuscripts fall into this trap all the time, and it places their work at a significant competitive disadvantage at submission time. By assuming that Millicent will not base her decision on whether to read, say, the truly genre-busting material in Chapter 5 upon her impression of page 1, a submitter runs the risk of having his fascinating premises, characters, and plot elements simply overlooked.

Well might you gnash your teeth. “But it’s clear by page 15 how different my story is from what’s currently available in my book category! Heck, by page 31, it’s completely apparent how it is better!”

I can well believe it, teeth-gnashers. You wouldn’t believe how many otherwise excellent submissions don’t really get going — or have a terrific opening line — until page 4. Or 14, or 44. But by then, alas, Millicent has probably already made up her mind about what kind of book it is and whether it adds something new to the market.

I can feel the laser-like heat of your glares through my computer screen, but it’s far, far better that you hear this from me than have your manuscript rejected on page 1, is it not?

So let’s go ahead and coin an axiom on the subject: unless it is pellucidly clear on page 1 what kind of book this is and who will want to read it, even a well-written, book category-appropriate story may get rejected. It’s savvier submission strategy, then, to open the book with the element that you feel is the most marketable, rather than hiding it later in the manuscript.

Yes, this may well run afoul of the way you originally envisioned telling the story, but pull it off, and trust me, you’ll bless Linda to your dying day for bringing this subtle submission problem to your attention.

Oh, and unless you happen to be writing in a book category where it is not the norm to open the book with a scene centered on the protagonist — which is to say, if you are not writing science fiction, fantasy, thriller, or literary fiction — you might want to structure your book so the first name Millicent sees is your hero/ine’s. Even in those categories, you might consider at least a prologue featuring your protagonist front and center.

Hey, Millicent reads a lot of submissions in your chosen book category in any given week. In that vast sea of characters, can you really blame her for wanting to latch onto a protagonist as soon as she possibly can.

I heard that. But the proper answer is: no, I can’t. She has a hard job, and honestly, it’s not her fault that she doesn’t have time to read all the way to page 15, let alone 30, to find out how genuinely innovative your premise is. Or how beautifully written that line that would have made a great opening is if it’s hidden on page 6.

She’s essentially a treasure-hunter, you know. Make her discovering you a trifle less challenging.

The classic means of correcting this problem — and I’m sure you’ve seen this in published novels — is to lift an exciting scene featuring the protagonist from later in the story and open the book with it. Such scenes are often presented as a very brief prologue, sometimes just a couple of pages long. The idea here is to toss the reader directly into the center of a conflict, bring it to the boiling point — then end it abruptly. Appetite whetted, the reader then will proceed to Chapter 1 more or less in its original form.

Another means of making your pot of gold shine better: impeccable formatting. There’s actually only a single formatting problem here — did you catch it?

No? Okay, let’s see how Millicent would have responded to this page:

Linda's edit

What can we learn from this, other than that our Millie’s handwriting can get a trifle wobbly when she’s editing on a plane that’s just hit turbulence? (Don’t worry; I’ll mail Linda a more legible copy.) First, that single-spacing is not appropriate for a subtitle: if Linda simply double-spaced the first line on the page, it would be perfect.

Not certain what that would look like on the page? Here you go.

Linda revised

Millie’s turbulence-influenced scrawls also point up a couple fairly standard professional readers’ pet peeves. She’s noted the single-sentence paragraphs at the top and near the bottom of the page, for instance: a narrative paragraph in English prose is made up of at least two sentences, so many a Millicent would have flagged this one. (A single-sentence paragraph is perfectly acceptable in dialogue, of course.)

Yes, I know Joan Didion uses single-sentence paragraphs all the time. So do journalists. That doesn’t mean a novelist trying to land an agent for a first book should take the risk.

Let’s see, what else? In line 3, she’s crossed out and realized, which actually could have stayed. Any guesses why she recommended cutting this little bit of verbiage?

This is a subtle one: in a tight third-person narrative, what is described is generally assumed to be from the protagonist’s perspective — and thus conclusions drawn in the text are assumed to be his. But that’s not the only reason this cut might be a good idea: using short, choppy sentences at moments of stress echoes the breathlessness of surprise.

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about it being subtle.

There’s another element that might annoy some Millicents, although it clearly did not trouble ours: showing Ruggiero’s thoughts in italics. Some professional readers positively hate this; they feel, and with some justification, that a talented writer should be able to differentiate between thought, speech, and narrative without resorting to funky type.

“What’s wrong with he thought?” such Millicents fume — and their boss agents may even have instructed them to fume so. “Or just showing someone calling the guy’s name?”

As our Millicent’s leniency on this point demonstrates, however, such fuming is not universal amongst professional readers. There is no one-size-fits-all solution here; tolerance of italicized thought varies from book category to book category, and even agency to agency. Generally speaking, though, the more educated the intended readership, the lower the tolerance for this device.

What’s a good test for whether thought italicization acceptable in your chosen book category? Hie yourself to a brick-and-mortar bookstore well stocked in that category and start pulling volumes off the shelves. Not just any books in your category, mind you: stick to ones published within the last three years. If none of the first ten you select feature italicized thought within the first ten pages, I would avoid it.

Does this seem like a lot of possible pet peeves for just a first page of text? Actually, in practice, it’s remarkably few: the average submission tends to be rife with potential for Millicent-annoyance.

Admittedly, this particularly page 1 promises enough adventurous delights to come that Millie might turn down her annoyance meter a little — and turn to page 2. You know, just to see what happens.

And that, my friends, is how you know when a first page is a grabber: when a professional reader can’t wait to get to page 2. The writer won’t be there to see it, of course, but given how many submissions get rejected on page 1, it’s definitely a triumph.

Well done, Linda! Best of luck to your warrior princess and her knight.

Be sure to tune in tomorrow, when we shall be examining another grabber of a first page. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

P.S.: the nifty animation appears courtesy of the fine folks at Feebleminds. Let’s take another look at it before I sign off for the evening, shall we?

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Home for the holiday!

outdoor stockpot

No, this is not my stockpot, gearing up to produce gravy; since a sudden snowfall has rendered Seattle all but immobilized, cooking outside would be counterproductive, at best. I snapped this a couple of days ago, in the shirtsleeves-are-fine balminess of New Orleans; I believe the happy floating veggies were destined for gumbo. The temperature transition has been quite a shock to my delicate sensibilities, let me tell you.

For me, that is, not the vegetables. Although I would imagine being brought to a slow simmer is rather disorienting, too.

I had meant to blog more from the Words & Music conference, or at any rate since, but between travel, teaching, and networking (a word I hate, but how else to describe hobnobbing in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America?), mixed with such perennial joys of the book doctoring life as a client whose publisher moved her revision deadline by a month (and not in the direction any sane person would prefer) and another who changed her mind about her intended book category in mid-edit…well, let’s just say that this week has gotten away from me a little. But yes, Virginia, I shall be blogging about the conference itself soon, because it was fascinating: teaching the fine art of querying, listening to people who knew Faulkner reminisce, and, of course, chatting with folks in the industry about the radical changes the biz has been undergoing.

The best reason to go to a writers’ conference, though, is to meet other writers, established, aspiring, and everything in between. I was especially thrilled to chat with Heidi Durrow, whose The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is for my money the most exciting literary fiction debut of the last few years. She does more interesting things with commas in dialogue than most authors do in entire scenes.

I just mention that to any of you literary fiction writers whose Secret Santas might appreciate gift suggestions. Seriously, Santa, an aspiring writer with ambitions in that direction might really benefit from seeing of what remarkable characterization the English language is capable of producing — and having one’s faith restored in the possibility of genuinely experimental, intensely personal, and actually unusual novels getting published these days.

One last word on my conference weekend, then on to the business du jour: would you help me brainstorm for a moment, campers? Every time I teach a practical class on querying — or synopsis-writing, manuscript formatting, or any of the other unpleasant-but-necessary task of the life writerly — at a conference, I find myself wishing that I could take a broader view. Aspiring writers seem so hungry for information that an hour-long class seems insufficient. I’m beginning to think that perhaps I should be teaching a broader array of classes.

So I put it to you: if you could attend a fantasy conference day stuffed to the brim with classes addressing your day-to-day concerns, what classes would you want to see offered? I don’t just mean basic how-tos on querying and submission, but specific stuff, the kind of niggling little practical matter that keeps you up the night before you send something off to an agent — or for several nights after.

Hey, I believe in asking Santa for what I want, too. So have at it, Virginia.

On to talking turkey. With Thanksgiving once again upon us, I figure that if you’re tapping away at your computer today, you’re most likely not either (a) the primary cook in your extended family or (b) one of the 40 million U.S. citizens traveling more than 50 miles to eat turkey. No, I’m guessing that those of you reading this today is quite likely to be either on the way to meet relatives, friends, or total strangers likely to ask about your writing, have just returned from interacting with relatives, friends, or total strangers who asked about your writing, or are actively avoiding relatives, friends, or total strangers who might ask about your writing.

Don’t bother to tell me whether I’m right. Conserve your energy. Instead, let’s spend the rest of today’s post taking about how to deal with those well-meaning questions aspiring writers so frequently face whenever they are reveling in the warm embrace of their nearest and dearest:

“So when will your book be coming out?”

“Why is it taking so long for your book to get published?”

“Aren’t you, you know, working hard enough?”

“Isn’t the book any good?”

“Don’t you have enough talent?”

“Shouldn’t you have given up this ridiculous quest long ago, concentrating instead on some more easily-achieved dream, like making the Olympic curling team or ascending Mount Everest?”

Okay, so that’s not usually what they say verbatim — but it’s often what we writers hear, isn’t it, when we’re asked about an as-yet-unpublished book’s progress? Even the most innocuous inquiry, if it comes at the wrong time, can sound like a challenge for us to produce instantly a full and complete explanation of exactly why this book does deserve to be picked up, and pronto.

And then, before we realize what’s happened, we’ve been talking about the horrors of searching for an agent, or revising a manuscript, or finishing that last chapter in a manner that simultaneously ties up all of the plot’s loose ends and leaves room for a sequel, for 20 minutes as our original questioner looks at us with deer-the-headlights eyes and the gravy gets cold.

Such inquirers know not what they’re getting into, obviously.

Be gentle with them. Amazingly — from our perspective, at least — non-writers often do not have the vaguest conception that implications that the process is taking too long can be to writers fighting words, akin to calling someone’s mother…

Well, I wasn’t brought up to call people’s mothers that sort of thing. It’s not nice.

I tremble to be the one to tell you this, but better that I inoculate you before your Great-Aunt Rhoda’s new husband mentions it while passing you a third helping of turkey, but most working artists’ kith and kin frequently seem to be laboring under the to-writers-bizarre delusion that you will be HURT if they do not ask you how the book is going, whether you’ve managed to land an agent yet, aren’t you just being lazy if you’ve been working on the same project for three years and haven’t yet completed it, and so forth.

They don’t want to be remiss or insensitive about your little hobby, after all. In their minds, these pointed questions constitute support.

Positively aglow with sweet intentions, they fling their arms around you practically the instant you cross the threshold into their homes, bearing platters of cookies that you took hours out of your writing schedule to bake, bellowing at the top of their lungs, “Darling? Haven’t you finished that novel yet?”

Or, “Sweetheart, what a lovely color on you. When will I be able to order your book on Amazon?”

Or, “I won’t even ask if you’ve managed to sell that book of yours, so spare me the speech about how hard it is to catch an agent’s eye. And is it safe to assume that you burned the pies again this year?” (Some relatives are more supportive than others.)

If this doesn’t happen to you like clockwork every holiday season, feel free to breathe a great big sigh of relief — and bask in the envy of the rest of us. In North America, at least, it is not considered permissible, or even legal, for a writer to respond to such ripostes by taking a swing at such people, or poisoning their holiday punch, or even making fun of that completely unattractive pumpkin-orange sweater with the dancing turkey on it that the bellower is wearing.

Even though it is unequivocally hideous. Whose bright idea was it to have the gobbler’s eyes light up?

No, we’re expected to smile, hug back, and say, “Oh, it’s coming along.” Rather than, say, telling them anything that remotely resembles the truth, especially if the truth entails something along the lines of three or four years of extremely stressful querying book #1 while trying to write book #2, or a year and a half of revising a manuscript seven times before one’s agent is willing to send it out to editors, or eight months of nail-biting anxiety while s/he does send it out to editors.

Just don’t go there. Because, let’s face it, unless your relatives happen to be writers themselves, they’re probably not going to understand that clapping you on the back and telling you, “You know, the only true obstacle to publishing success is that you haven’t been visualizing your book’s selling magnificently hard enough,” is going to make you want to scream, if not fling cranberries at somebody.

Take a nice, deep breath if this impulse begins to overwhelm you: most non-writers have absolutely no idea of the difficulties that writers face getting into print. Heck, even for writers, discovering just how challenging it is to land an agent and/or sell a book often comes as a gigantic, ugly surprise.

Admit it: you probably remember precisely where you were and what you were wearing when you first realized that there was more to winning this game than mere talent, do you not? Or that, contrary to popular belief, not every great manuscript gets picked up by an agent, especially those that don’t happen to be in book categories popular in recent years. Or that even the most brilliant authors don’t produce Pulitzer-worthy material in first drafts, but routinely revise until their fingers are sore.

Catching your mother playing Tooth Fairy probably didn’t even come close in the disillusionment department. Fortunately for me (I guess), I come from a family of writers, so I already knew what agents and publishing houses long before my big brother broke the bad news about the Easter Bunny.

Hey, a kid can only take so much bubble-bursting at one time. So if you have anything negative to say about Santa Claus, kindly keep it to yourself until after the holidays.

Fortunately for overall human happiness, most members of the general public are permanently spared the disorienting shock of learning that not all good books necessarily get published, that agents don’t just pick up every piece of good writing that they read, or that speed of composition usually isn’t a particularly good indicator of writing quality, or that only a teeny, tiny proportion of authors have even a prayer of a spot on Oprah.

So when Alphonse, your next-door neighbor, waltzes into your kitchen and booms, “When are you going to be finished with that damned book of yours, Harriet?” he almost certainly doesn’t mean to be nasty. Or even passive-aggressive.

No, Alphonse just isn’t that kind of guy. He almost certainly believes, bless his heart, that by remembering to tease you light-heartedly about the book you have been slaving over for the past fifteen years, he is offering non-judgmental good fellowship. Because in his world, if you HAD finished the book in question, you would already be burbling with excitement about its imminent release — if not planning what to wear on Oprah.

Try not to judge him too harshly; you believed in the Tooth Fairy once, too.

Bizarrely enough, these unintentionally pointed questions from well-meaning non-writers most emphatically do not cease after one lands an agent. Quite the contrary: they increase, often exponentially.

Why? Well, the average citizen of this fine republic has only a vaguest sense of what a literary agent actually does with a book. So complete is the veil of ignorance, in fact, that it is not all that uncommon for one’s kith and kin to conflate an agent with an editor.

Or even — brace yourselves, the happy few of you who have signed with agents within the last year — landing an agent with landing a book contract.

Think I’m kidding, or that this level of conflation dissipates once an author lands an agent? Then how do you explain the fact that I’ve been publishing my writing since I was ten years old, and yet just last week, one of my best friends from elementary school blithely asked me how soon she could buy the book I’m currently revising for my agent?

Facebook is both a blessing and a curse, isn’t it?

As any agented-but-not-yet-published writer can tell you, these are extremely common sources of confusion. Although your Aunt Gerda may not say it outright, she, like most people, will simply assume that because a writer is so excited to have landed an agent, the agent must therefore have bought the book.

Why else would you be singing over the cranberry sauce?

“So,” these kind-hearted souls chortle at holiday time, sidling up to a writer who has been sitting on the proverbial pins and needles for five interminable months, waiting to hear back on a round of submissions to editors, “when will you be giving me a copy of your book?”

They mean to be supportive, honest. Which is why they will not understand at all when you burst into tears and empty your glass of eggnog all over their sparkly holiday sweaters. They will think, believe it or not, that you are the one who is overreacting.

And in the non-artistic universe, they’ll sort of be right. Because they genuinely mean so well, you must not, under any circumstances, throw a drumstick at such well-meaning souls for asking what are, from a writer’s perspective, phenomenally stupid questions.

No, not even if the implication of such questions is that these would-be supporters apparently haven’t listened to anything you have ever told them about the trials of writing a book, finding an agent, working with an agent after landing one, meeting editorial deadlines, or any of the other myriad trying phenomena associated with authorship, aspiring or otherwise. Nor is it considered polite to scream at them, or even glare in a manner that might frighten any small children who might happen to be gnawing on a wing nearby.

Nice person that you are, you are going to honor these social limits. Even if you’re not all that nice, you will want to retain George on your mailing list for the happy day when you do have a book out for Cousin Marvin’s roommate? boyfriend? to purchase.

So what’s a writer to do, especially when the holidays fall during unusually stressful times, such as when that agent you met at a conference has had your first fifty pages for three months and counting, or when you’ve just received three requests for material (because you were so good about sending out those query letters earlier in November, right?) and have spent the last week frantically trying to get those packets out the door before, well, yesterday?

(My, that was a long sentence, wasn’t it? You might want to avoid paragraph-long questions in those submissions. Yes, I know that Henry James was a great advocate of page-long sentences. I’m fond of his work, but I suspect that he would have rather a hard time getting a manuscript past Millicent the agency screener today — and you should hear what her Aunt Jessica has to say about the novel she has been writing for six years.)

Well, you could regard, “So how is the book coming?” as a serious inquiry, and talk for the next fifteen minutes about characterization, the desirability of semicolon usage vis-à-vis Millicent’s literary tastes in high-end women’s fiction, and just how much you hate form rejection letters. You could also launch into a spirited compare-and-contrast exercise, illustrating vividly how the publishing industry has changed from, say, fifty years ago — which is probably the period your questioner has in mind, but isn’t aware of it. You might even draw helpful charts on the tablecloth, the better to demonstrate how precipitously book sales have dropped over the past couple of years.

If you are gifted at disregarding your interlocutor’s eyes glazing over for minutes at a time, this actually isn’t a bad long-term strategy, at least as far as holiday gatherings are concerned: once you have established a firm reputation for waxing long, humorless, and/or angry on the subject, the non-writers in your social circle may well learn not to inquire how your writing is coming alone. Depending upon how sensitive one happens to be to such questions, that might be a reasonable goal.

If, however, your kith and kin’s avoiding the topic of your writing like the proverbial plague is not your idea of a comfortable Thanksgiving, I would save this tack for when you are speaking with other writers. Like any shop talk, it’s far more interesting to those who deal with it regularly than to anyone else.

I’m looking at you, Dr. Cousin. No one wants to hear the details of your last bypass operation over the pumpkin pie.

So what’s the alternative? You could, most politely, take your favorite cousin by the arm and say confidentially, “You know, Celine, I spend so much time obsessing over my novel that I’m likely to bore you to extinction if I start to talk about it. Do you mind if we give my brain a rest and talk about something completely different?”

I hate to break it to you, but Celine may actually be relieved to hear this.

Why? Because poor Celine may well have been traumatized by how testy you got the last time she asked about it, that’s why. Do you honestly think she isn’t still telling her friends the horror story about the time you began weeping copiously into the cranberry sauce when your Uncle Art said incredulously, “37 rejection letters, baby? You must be one of those artists destined to become famous only after he’s dead”? Or when you tried to choke yourself with your napkin after the ninth time your second cousin twice removed reminded you that the Mary Kay sales training that has served her so well insists that if you don’t hear no all the time, you aren’t asking often enough? Or when you threatened Cousin Germaine with the electric carving knife when all she did was suggest that if the agent you spent half a decade trying to land hadn’t sold your book to a publisher within six weeks of your signing the agency contract, you should dump him and move on?

Strange to say, in the non-writerly world, “Honey, find yourself a new agent!” are not fighting words.

There’s a good reason for that: the publishing world really, really likes to maintain the illusion that talented writers just appear out of the ether to become overnight successes. Possibly because the Book Genie plants a neon sign over their roofs, announcing HOT NEW TALENT HERE, so agents know upon whose doorsteps to appear immediately upon the placement of the final period in the first — and only, naturally — draft.

Hey, it makes for great interview copy, as long as we’re all willing to disregard the decade or more these authors often spend slogging at their craft before becoming overnight successes.

It’s not really fair to blame non-writers for buying this storyline. Yet due to the naïve-but-pervasive belief in the inevitability of publication for talented writers — what, do they think that our fairy godmothers go around whacking editors at publishing houses over the head with their wands on our books’ behalf? Don’t be silly; that’s the agent’s job — non-writers (and writers who have not yet worked up the nerve to submit) are often puzzled by the intensity of writerly reactions to casual inquiries about their work.

Especially if they only asked in the first place to be polite, just as they would have asked you about fly-fishing, had that been your passion. (It is for some people, you know.) Again, those who are going to be the most fascinated in your book’s ups and downs at every stage are going to be other writers.

Actually, after you’re agented, other writers may be your most persistent questioners, especially if they have not yet had a book subjected to the microscopic analysis that is editorial scrutiny. It can be a very lengthy process, the timing of which is utterly outside the author’s control, but even most writers don’t know that until they have been through the submission wringer themselves.

But if they haven’t, they think they’re just supporting a fellow writer when they ask, “Has your agent managed to sell that book of yours yet? What’s the hold-up?”

Or “Is your book out yet? I’d love to read it.”

Or even — not that I have any first-hand experience with this or anything — “What’s new with that memoir of yours that publisher bought a few years ago? Are they still frozen by the lawsuit threats? I can’t believe how long it’s been. Why don’t you self-publish it?”

As if you would have sold — or finished, released, or freed from lawsuit threats — your book, but neglected to shout the news from the rooftops. Or at least to your Christmas card list.

I like to think that they ask out of love — as in they would LOVE to be able to celebrate the triumphs of a writer that they know personally. Admittedly, it sometimes takes some determination on my part to cling to this inspiring little belief (when one’s memoir has been on hold at a publishing house for years, people do tend to express sympathy by venting frustration about the delay at the author, not the publisher), but ultimately, I’m quite sure I’m happier than I would be if I took every iteration of the question as a demand that I instantly drop everything I’m doing and rush off to rectify the situation.

Because that’s not really what they mean by these inquiries, is it? No matter how much such well-meant indignation might sound like criticism to the writer at whom it is aimed, badgering was probably the last thing on the commenter’s mind.

I know, I know; it doesn’t feel that way in the moment. And it may be kind of hard to believe that your Grandpa Theodore, the guy who has relentlessly picked to pieces everyone you have ever even considered dating, is trying to be non-judgmental about your publishing success.

Just hear me out on this one: this is a translation problem. Most of the time, neither writers nor non-writers mean their enthusiastic cries of, “Is it done/sold/out yet?” as criticism about not being the latest Oprah book club pick. Not even if they walk right up to you and say, as if it had never occurred to you or as if every writer in the world didn’t aspire to it, “You know, your book’s a natural for Oprah.”

What they mean is, “I like you. I want you to succeed. And even though I don’t really understand what you’re going through, I want to acknowledge that you’re trying.”

A trifle Pollyannaish of me to translate it that way? Perhaps. But permit me to suggest a little stocking-stuffer that writers can give their kith and kin this holiday season: just for this one dinner party or get-together, assume that that is precisely what they do mean, even if they express it poorly. And respond to the underlying sentiment, not the words.

Just my little suggestion for keeping the peace on that typically not-the-most-silent of nights.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that it’s healthy for you to keep biting your tongue indefinitely. So here is a constructive use for any underlying hostility these questions may raise in you: treat these questions as the perfect opportunity to cure your kith and kin of the pie-in-the-sky notion that they’re going to be on the receiving end of every book you ever publish just because they knew you when you were in diapers.

To put it bluntly, your mother has a right to expect a free copy. Everyone else should expect to help you become a success by buying his own.

Would somebody pick up Great-Aunt Ada’s chair for her? She just fell over backward in surprise.

And well might she, as this is something else the general public does not know about publishing: these days, the author herself is often the one who pays for those allegedly free copies. Even if the publishing contract is generous with advance copies, authors are generally expected to use them for promotional purposes, not as give-aways to their relatives. And while the author is generally able to purchase additional copies at a substantial discount, those books do not count toward sales totals.

Yes, you read that correctly: promising your kith and kin free copies may actually harm your overall sales statistics. Ready to stare down Great-Aunt Ada’s disappointment now, or would you rather wait until your book is about to come out?

The sooner you can get your relatives to accept that the best thing they can do to support your writing career is to plan to buy your books early and often, the happier you will be in the long run — and thus the more pleasant you will be at future holiday gatherings, hint, hint. Tell them you’ll be overjoyed to sign any copies they buy, and leave it at that.

In that same spirit of blowing off some steam, let me throw the question open to you, readers: how do you cope with this avocation-specific form of holiday stress? Have you come up with clever comebacks, succinct explanations, cunning evasions, or other brilliant coping mechanisms that you would like to share with the Author! Author! community?

Or, alternatively, a funny story about the time that you couldn’t stand it anymore and tossed a candied yam at an over-persistent relative who kept asking why you haven’t given up by now? (I probably shouldn’t encourage such behavior, but I have to admit, I would probably get some vicarious pleasure from hearing about it. Am I the only one?)

I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say. And in the spirit of sharing views, I shall be devoting this weekend to posting the award posts for the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better contest, so we may start December with forward-looking eyes.

I’ve got to hustle into the kitchen now: I’ve some ginger-pear compote to cook up for the people who will be buying my books in years to come. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

A bulletin from the front

tabasco sign

It’s early morning here at the Words & Music conference in New Orleans, and I’m taking a quick break between a last-minute materials check for the crash course on querying I’m teaching this afternoon (3:30 p.m. at the Hotel Monteleone, should you be in the area). The handouts are always the hardest part: not producing them, but getting them photocopied. For some reason that years of writers’ conferences have left me powerless to explain, all of the copy machines within easy walking distance are either hideously expensive or bizarrely incapable of producing legible copies.

Like all writers’ conferences in North America, this one has a bar located less than 100 yards from the center of conference action. This one’s a lulu: it revolves slowly, like a carousel. People keep falling sideways at the peak of literary discussions.

That’s not the blow to the ego that worries me, however. Like pretty much every writers’ conference that flies in agents and editors, this one had an agents’ and editors’ forum yesterday. Should you ever have the opportunity to attend one, go: it’s a rare chance to hear individual agents and editors talk about their personal literary preferences, pet peeves, and market trends.

And why might that be important information, campers? Chant it with me now: because literary preferences are subjective, there is no such thing as a book, book proposal, synopsis, and/or query that will please every agent or editor out there. These fine people specialize.

So where does the ego deflation come in, you ask? I’ve never seen a A&E forum where it didn’t happen: instead of aspiring writers raising their hands boldly and asking practical questions like, “What’s the best query you have ever received and why?” or “What kinds of books do you not want to see right now?” writers were piping up with very abstract, intellectualizing questions like, “Where do you see POD publishing in five years?” or “What’s the average advance these days, and how does that translate into movie rights figures?”

I can understand not wanting to seem pushy. Certainly, an agents’ forum is not the right place to stand up and give a verbal pitch for one’s book. (Oh, I’ve seen it happen.) However, to a pro who has been going to conferences for a while, these seemingly generic questions actually are personal, and sometimes even pushy: the first is usually an expression of the fear I don’t think I can land an agent — should I self-publish?, the second, what can you people do for me financially?

Other aspiring writers — the vast majority, in fact — simply sit silent, hunger and trepidation blazing from their eyes. Clearly, they want to ask questions, but they are afraid of looking foolish or alienating a potential helper by appearing pushy. Or even just of having to answer questions about their own books before they are ready to speak about it in public.

Should you ever find yourself in this situation — and I hope you will; writers’ conferences can be exceedingly useful — relax. These are just human beings, not demigods, and it’s the single best opportunity most pre-agented writers will ever get to ask burning questions like, “Is there anything I could possibly do in a query letter that would automatically turn you off? I’m terrified of doing that, you see.”

Oh, wait: assuaging that fear is my department. Off to photocopy some handouts now. Keep up the good work!

Identifying agents to query, part X: how much does size matter, really?

giant scissors, pencil

Well, that was an unexpected blogging hiatus, wasn’t it? I plead ambitiousness: in addition to prepping for this coming Saturday’s at the master class on querying at Words & Music conference in New Orleans, I have also been gearing up for the close textual analysis component of the third-place prizes in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest. Since giving feedback on the winning entries is so rightfully time-consuming — and something that I was not originally going to do alone — I’ve kept telling myself, “Oh, you need a few solid hours to devote to this — you can fit that in tomorrow.”

Then tomorrow came…and the day after…and before I knew it, a few days had gone by between posts. Sorry about that. I should have a few hours this evening to leap into that much-anticipated close textual analysis.

Just in case I get distracted again (what’s the probability?), I wanted to post again this morning on our ongoing topic, how to find agents for your query list. Because, let’s face it, even if you weren’t planning to drop by the Hotel Monteleone Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. for a crash course in querying, there’s nothing like talking about what kind of agent is right for your book to get one’s momentum going for that end-of-the-year querying push.

You were planning an end-of-the-year querying push, were you not? Or a beginning-of-next-year one? If not, why not?

Last time, I mentioned that, contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, a great big agency is not necessarily the best choice for any particular book project, any more than signing with just any agent is a sure path to publication. While queriers, understandably, tend to focus on how picky agents are about what projects they take on, it’s worth giving some serious thought at the query list-generating stage to what kind of agency — and agent — is most likely to have the connections not only to sell your book well, but to walk you through the often difficult and perplexing publication process.

So while admittedly every agency — and indeed, every agent — is different, let’s spend this morning pondering some sweeping generalities about size, shall we?

I am certainly not the first to write on this topic, nor, I suspect, the last. Writers’ periodicals seem to have an especial fondness for the issue — so much so that I sometimes wonder if a visiting alien picking up a writers’ magazine would not automatically assume that every writer in America chooses representation based upon size alone.

It’s a big country, the alien might reason. They like everything big.

There are, of course, some reasons for this preference — and not just because it’s kind of cool when you mention your agency at writers’ conferences or industry parties and people say, “Oh!” as if they’ve just learned that you won the silver medal in pole-vaulting two Olympics ago. (Although admittedly, that’s gratifying.)

As the client of a large agency, a writer does enjoy many benefits: the prestige of signing with a recognized name, more support staff to answer your questions (or not, depending upon prevailing attitudes), and often more collective experience upon which you can draw. Just as with a well-known agent, in going with a major agency of good repute, you are working with a known quantity, with verifiable connections.

Emphasis on connections. Read Publishers Weekly or Publishers Marketplace for even a couple of months — not a bad idea, by the way, if you intend to stick with this writing gig for the long haul — and you’re likely to notice the same agency names turning up again and again, coupled with particular publishing houses. Agencies do specialize, and obviously, it’s in a writer’s interest to be affiliated with one of the top agencies for her book category.

Even when an agency does not focus on a particular category to the exclusion of others, the agents within it often will — and that, too, sets a discernable pattern. It’s not at all uncommon for an editor who concurs an agent’s literary tastes to buy books from several of his or her clients.

Which makes a certain amount of empirical sense, right? There isn’t universal agreement across the industry about what constitutes good writing, even within a single book category. Individual tastes differ, and what one editor at Random House likes to see in a mainstream novel will not necessarily be what an editor at HarperCollins is seeking. If Editor Sam already knows from past acquisitions that she likes the kind of books that Agent Maureen enjoys, Sam is probably going to be more open to a pitch from Maureen than one from Agent Joe, who hasn’t sold her a book before.

Remind yourself of this dynamic, please, the next time you hear an agent say at a conference that a particular kind of book just can’t be sold anymore. What this usually means is that he would have trouble selling it to his already-established editorial connections.

How is a savvy querier to find out what connections any given agent has? Chant it with me now, long-time readers: research.

And I’m not just talking about plugging a book category into a search engine or Googling literary agency, either: I mean going through the standard agency guides, reading carefully through agency websites, checking the acknowledgements pages of first and second books by authors in your category. In order to track down who might be able to sell a book like yours right now, you will — wait for it — need to find out who has been selling books like yours recently.

At a big, well-established agency, this information is usually pretty easy to track down: my great big agency, for instance, simply lists its clients on its website (although the list is not always current). With a new agency, it can be harder to assess connection claims until a track record of sales has been established.

Don’t write off an agency just because it is new or small, however. As I mentioned last time, it’s not uncommon for a successful agent to break off and form her own agency, taking her connections — and often her clients as well — with her.

At the moment, there seem to be many more new agencies than usual; since the economic downturn, quite a few agents have been branching off on their own. (This is one reason why, in case you were wondering, I like the Publishers Marketplace database so much — you can look up agents by name, not just by agency, so you can see how their representation preferences change as they move around. An agent with a passion for SF might not be able to give free rein to it as the junior agent at an agency that specializes in mysteries, but might well have leapt into SF after a promotion or move elsewhere.)

That can be a good thing for a querying writer: often, new agencies are actively seeking out new clients. As are, typically, junior agents even at large agencies, so don’t overlook the young and the hungry.

The hungry can be excellent gambles — they are often more energetic in pursuing sales. Even if a relatively new agent does not appear to have a long solo track record, check her bio: a lot of junior agents were formerly assistants at large agencies. (Or even Millicents. Hey, everyone has to begin somewhere.)

An former assistant may well walk into her first solo gig with some pretty good connections already established. She may well be more open to first-time authors than her better-known counterparts. In fact, she may be counting on discovering the next Great American Novel in her inbox — and with good reason: lest we forget (because it’s not mentioned much at writers’ conferences, for some reason), how many of the big agents initially established themselves in the industry was by taking a chance on an unknown client who turned out to be a major author.

So f your book sells quickly and/or well, you can be the favorite steed in the shiny, new stable. Which probably means you and your work will get more attention than with a similar achievement at a larger agency, where you would be just one of their in-house stars.

Even before that (and frequently after as well), a hungry agent often offers services that a bigger agency or a busier agent might not provide. Intensive coaching through rewrites, for instance. Bolstering the always-tenuous authorial ego. Extensive free editing. (If you missed my earlier discussions of fee-charging agencies, or you are unfamiliar with how much freelance editing can cost, you might want to check out the relevant categories on the archive list at right before you discount the value of such an offer.)

This is more a matter of math than a matter of nice: an agent with 10 clients is going to have a lot more time to devote to these helpful services than an agent with 80. If you are a writer who wants a lot of personal attention from an agent, the less busy agent might well be the way to go.

Does it seem presumptuous to think about what an agent can offer you, rather than what you can offer an agent? To the kind of thoughtful querier who knows better than to send out rude letters that say things like, “This is the next bestseller!” it often does. (Begging for attention for a good long while can do that to you.)

But think about it: if you are a writer lucky enough to garner multiple representation offers — and let’s all keep our fingers crossed for that — do you really want to realize with a shock that you do not have any criteria for picking an agent other than the willingness to say yes to you?

Stop laughing; established authors don’t admit this much, but this is not an uncommon dilemma for good writers to face. It certainly happened to me. Some years back, I received simultaneous offers from three agents, each of whom was apparently a nice person AND I had researched enough to know that each had a dandy track record selling the kind of book I had been pitching them — and I was stunned to recognize that I was utterly unprepared to judge them on any other basis.

Fortunately, I had many agented friends eager to offer me advice. Mountains of it, in fact. But that’s a luxury not every writer has.

So believe me when I tell you: giving some advance thought to what you want from your future agent, over and above the willingness and ability to sell your book, is not a symptom of creeping megalomania. It’s a means of coming to understand the value of your work and how it might conceivably fit into the already-existing literary world.

It can also, to descend from the heady heights of hope for a moment, give you some solid clues about how to prioritize a lengthy potential query list. It would be prudent, for instance, to consider very, very carefully how important personal contact is to you, because if this relationship works out, you will be living with your decision for a very long time.

Will you, for instance, go nuts with speculation if an editor has your manuscript — and you haven’t heard from your agent in a month? Many writers would, you know; I’ve heard justifications by authors of manuscripts that have been sitting on an agent’s desk for 4 or 5 months that positively rival the tales of the Brothers Grimm for invention.

The actual reason a writer hasn’t heard back tends not to be all that interesting, by comparison: typically, if you haven’t been told yea or nay, the submission has yet to be read. The paperweight was invented for a reason, you know: to keep bits of unread manuscripts from migrating all over agents’ and editors’ desks.

Once you have established where you fall on the update-need continuum, there are other questions to ask yourself. Do you want to hear the feedback of editors who have rejected your work, so you can revise accordingly, or would you rather get through as many submissions as quickly as possible? Would you prefer an agent who wants to micro-manage your book proposal, guiding you through its steps, or would you be happier with one who leaves more of the writing decisions to you?

How prone are you to ask questions or take concerns to your agent? When you do, would you be happy with the occasional e-mail to answer your questions, or would you prefer telephone calls? (If you live outside the United States, this last question is even more essential: the farther away you reside, the less likely it is that you will ever meet your agent face-to-face, right? Many small agencies would not be able to afford unlimited international phone calls.)

The answers to all of these are very much dependent upon how busy the agent is, and what kind of demands the agency places upon her time. Generally speaking, the bigger the agency, the busier the agent.

Seems a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Big agencies have greater resources for support staff (or did before the economic downturn), whereas in a small agency (or with a stand-alone agent) the agents may be doing support work as well; it would make sense if the small agency agents were busier.

However, nowhere is the old adage tasks expand in direct proportion to the time available to perform them more evident than in the publishing industry: as an agent becomes more important, he takes on more clients. Big equals powerful here.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. A few boutique agencies deliberately keep themselves small in order to occupy a very specific niche, but it is rare.

There’s no mistaking these agencies — they ALWAYS identify themselves as boutique in their blurbs, lest anyone mistakenly think that they were small because they were unsuccessful. Often, they sharply limit the proportion of unpublished writers that they will represent, or do not represent the unpublished at all. They do, however, tend to lavish attention upon the few they select.

As do, admittedly, some agents at major agencies, but do bear in mind that no matter who represents you, no matter how much your agent loves your work, you will be only one of the authors on the agent’s list. Time is not infinitely flexible, despite anyone’s best intentions.

So before you set your heart upon a big agency or a major agent, it’s a good idea to ask yourself: do I really want to be someone’s 101rst client?

This sounds like a flippant question, but actually, it is a very practical one, and one that speaks very directly to your personal level of security about your work. Big agencies and important agents have made their names, generally speaking, on high-ticket clients; often, that high-recognition client is why aspiring writers covet their representation skills.

However, it takes time to cater to a bigwig client. I once had a lovely chat with a past president of AAR who handled one of the biggest mystery writers in the biz; apart from handling her book negotiations, he told me, he also spent a week a year with her in a mountain retreat — not skiing, but micro-editing her next work to make its market appeal as broad as possible.

Nice perq of fame, isn’t it? Beulah, peel me a grape.

Before you float off into fantasies about being successful enough to command your own personal slave copyeditor and/or mountain lodge, stop and think about the implications of being one of this agent’s other clients. That’s a week a year when he is not available to pay even the most fleeting attention to the needs of Clients 2 – 143.

So who do you think ended up handling those other clients’ concerns? That’s right: not the bigwig agent at all, but his I’m-working-my-way-up-the-ladder assistant. Who was, to put it mildly, somewhat overworked — and ended up moving on to become a full agent at another agency within the next year or two. She’s so successful now that she is no longer accepting new clients.

Which raises an interesting question: if a writer is actually dealing most of the time with the agent’s assistant, rather than the agent, with whom is the long-term, mutually beneficial interaction occurring?

Still, you cannot deny the appeal of the contacts and oomph of a big agency, even if you are not represented by the most important agent in it. Ultimately, it’s going to take more than enthusiasm about your project for an agent to sell your first book.

It’s going to take connections — the right connections for your project. You don’t have to attend very many conferences before you meet your first hungry new agent, willing to promise the moon, nor to meet your first 100-client bigwig. It’s in your interests to look beyond the generalities.

Again, chant it with me now, campers: there’s no such thing as an agency that’s perfect for every single conceivable book. This process is — or should be — about finding not just acceptance, but forming the best possible alliance with someone who is going to help you build a career as a writer.

Give some hard thought to how you want to be supported on that path, and make your querying choices accordingly. Keep up the good work!

Querylistpalooza, part IX: the face one presents to the world, or, whose proverbial mug of oolong is your book?

gold mask 2

A quick scheduling note before we launch into today’s festivities, campers: I shall be giving in-person feedback on aspiring writers’ query letters at the upcoming and always-scintillating Words & Music conference, November 17-21 in New Orleans. Do consider snatching up your latest query draft and meeting me there.

For those of you who don’t already have a draft already burning a hole in your desk drawer, I shall also be teaching a master class on how to write a query letter on Saturday, November 20th at 3:30 p.m. — and yes, you may drop in for the class, even if you can’t make (or afford) the entire conference. Or even several classes, at a very reasonable à la carte fee.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, the Words & Music conference is one of my favorites — and believe me, I go to a lot of writers’ conferences. Run by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, the conference is more ambitious than your usual craft-and-marketing fest. Yes, there is always abundant discussion of writing style and the ins and outs of publishing, along with opportunities to meet agents and editors, but there are also wonderfully arty discussions of literature, art, and music. To sweeten this writer-friendly experience even more, the conference is set the French Quarter, Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré, home to some of the best food and jazz in the world.

In other words: I’ll be your excuse to go if you will be mine. It’ll be a hoot.

Speaking of querying and its many challenges, as I mentioned back in the heady days of Querypalooza, queries tend to work best when they are sent to specific agents who habitually sell similar books. Not just because recent sales are the single best indication of what the agent in question likes to read — although that’s definitely useful to ascertain before you query, if the information is publicly available — but also because it’s a dandy indication that the agent has some pretty good connections with editors who happen to like to acquire that type of book.

For that excellent reason, I have so far been approaching our discussion of agency guide listings and websites on the assumption that you will want to narrow down your first-round query list to just a handful of near-perfect matches. To that end, I’ve been encouraging you to track down as much specific sales information as possible on the agents you’re considering.

That strategy, I suspect, will not be everyone’s proverbial mug of oolong. “Wait just a minute,” I have heard some of among you murmuring, and who could blame you? “What you’ve been suggesting is a heck of a lot of work. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the industry yet for a list of sales to make me cry, ‘Yes! This is the agent for me!’”

Oh, how I wish there were a quick and easy way to avoid the sometimes-lengthy research process! Honestly, if I knew of one, I would share it with you toute suite. (I would also bottle it and make a million dollars, but that’s another story.)

My sympathetic regret didn’t really satisfy you murmurers, did it? “I’m willing to do some legwork, but for heaven’s sake, querying eats into my writing time, and the agency guide before me lists a hundred agencies that accept books in my category! Since these agents have said point-blank that they want to see books like mine, why shouldn’t I simply take their word for it, querying them all without researching the last few years of sales for each and every agent at all hundred of those agencies, a Herculean endeavor that would take me until next March at the earliest?”

Whoa, take a deep breath there, Sparky. You’re going to need that extra oxygen for the long, difficult road ahead — and the often puzzling task of rank-ordering your query list so you know whom to query first.

You weren’t planning on approaching all hundred of those agents simultaneously, were you — or doing it alphabetically? The record-keeping alone would be prohibitively time-consuming. You’re going to want to figure out which among those many, many possibilities are most likely to be interested in a book like yours.

And I don’t just mean figuring out whether any given agent on your list represents authors in your chosen book category — although, as we have discussed before, knowing into which category your book falls is a necessary first step to searching for appropriate agents. (If that comes as a hideous surprise to you, or if you aren’t sure which of the preexisting professional categories is the best fit for your book, you might want to take a gander at the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY posts on the archive list at right.) I mean finding out enough about individual agents to make an accurate guess about whether they tend to enjoy books like yours within the book category.

Think about it: if you write cozy mysteries, and Agent #12 on your alphabetical list has a track record primarily in police procedurals, he might not be the agent you should approach first. If Agent #37 sells nothing but cozy mysteries, she would be a better choice for a top slot on your list.

That’s the good news. Here’s the less-good part: simply generating a who-represents-this-book-category list on a search site or taking a peek at the index of one of the standard agency guides probably is not going to provide sufficient information to make this decision. Their listings just don’t provide enough information, typically.

Hold onto your hats, because I’m about to say something all of you list-generators are going to like even less: that information may also not be up-to-date, or even accurate.

Yes, even down to which book categories any given agency habitually represents. It’s just a hard fact of agency-list generation that it does pay in the long run to double-check what one finds in the guides against another source — the agency’s website, for instance, or an agent’s Publishers’ Marketplace page.

Why? Well — are you still clutching those chapeaux? — not every agency that lists itself as representing (or even actively seeking) a particular book category will be equally receptive to queries for that kind of book. Or, as we saw last time, will would-be queriers perceive them to be open to first-time authors in that category.

How might an agent-seeking writer become confused by what at first glance may appear to be a perfectly straightforward list of desired book categories? One of the most common: being drawn to those agencies that appear to be open to virtually any kind of book — or at least to so many categories that it’s extremely difficult to tell without substantial further research what any given member agent’s actual specialties are.

Or so some might surmise from the oft-seen guide entry this agency prefers not to share information on specific sales. Or rather vague assertions like we’re open to any good writing, we accept all genres except YA, or literary value considered first. One even occasionally hears such statements emerging — usually quite sincerely and with the genuine intention of helping aspiring writers — from the mouths of agents and editors at conferences. A pretty good case could be made that to a writer seeking to figure out who might conceivably represent say, a Western romance, such statements are at best marginally useful and at worst bewildering.

What we have here is a vicious circle, right? The vast majority of queriers rely solely upon book category-only search results to generate their query lists, resulting in a high volume of queries that simply end up on the wrong desks. If an agency’s guide listing or website is not very specific about what it is seeking — or what it is seeking right now — that would tend to increase the percentage of queries it receives for books outside their areas of specialty in any given day’s mail drop. The inevitable result of both: queries rejected summarily and Millicents wringing their overworked hands, troubling the ceiling with their bootless cries about why oh why are these people sending queries for books that the agency doesn’t even represent. Because of the incredibly high volume of queries, though, they send out form rejection letters, so queriers who have misdirected their missives never find out that was the problem — which in turn results in our Millie gnashing her teeth over still more queries for book categories her agency doesn’t want.

Excuse me, driver, but I’d like to get off; this merry-go-round is making me dizzy. I’m guessing that it’s made those of you given to staring helplessly at vague guide listings dizzy, too.

I freely admit it: I have never understood why the difficulty of deciphering such statements is not a perpetual topic of impassioned discussion at writers’ conferences. (Unless I happen to be teaching at the one in question — had I mentioned that New Orleans is very nice at this time of year?) Oh, there are often classes on querying, but seldom on how to generate a query list. Indeed, if a conference attendee is bold enough to ask a panel of pros about it, she is far more likely to be told — with a certain impatience of tone — that the only reason that a query might end up in the wrong hands is if its writer did not do his or her homework, rather than given any practical guidance. The information, the implication runs, is all easily available to anyone who looks for it.

Has this been your invariable experience, campers? I’m guessing not, if you have been at it a while: as we saw earlier in this series, there is a wide range in the level of information that agencies make available to potential queriers. Compounding the problem: a great deal of it is in industry-speak, the meaning of which may not be immediately apparent to those new to the biz.

The look that tends to cross experienced queriers’ faces when talking about this phenomenon always reminds me of a line from ULYSSES: “Stephen, patently crosstempered, repeated and shoved aside his mug of coffee, or whatever you like to call it, none too politely, adding: we can’t change the country. Let us change the subject.”

Let’s not, for once: we writers can’t control how agencies choose to present their preferences; we can, however, learn to be better interpreters of those preferences by recognizing that there are some informational gaps out there. We can teach ourselves the norms of querying, what tends to work, what tends not to work, and thereby save ourselves a whole lot of chagrin.

So there. I never said it wasn’t going to be a lot of work. And if I’m wrong, and every listing out there conveys with pellucid clarity precisely what every agent currently representing books in the English language would and would not like to see arrive in their offices on Monday morning, well, as Jane Austen would say, at least the credit of a wild imagination will be all my own.

What is a savvy query list-generator to do, though, when faced with guide listings (and sometimes even agency websites) that seem to portray the agency in question represent books virtually every major book category? You’ve seen such listings, haven’t you? They tend to look a little something like this:

Represents: nonfiction books, novels, short story collections, novellas. No picture books or poetry.
Considers these fiction areas: action/adventure, contemporary issues, detective/police/crime, erotica, ethnic, experimental, family saga, fantasy, feminist, gay/lesbian, glitz, graphic novels, historical, horror, humor, literary, mainstream, military, multicultural, mystery, regional, religious/inspirational, romance, romantica, science fiction, spiritual, sports, supernatural, suspense, thriller, westerns, women’s fiction, YA.

Considers these nonfiction areas: agriculture, Americana, animals, anthropology/archeology, art/architecture/design, autobiography…

And that’s just the As. Such voluminous lists are potentially problematic. To pick a quandary out of that hat I told you to cling to, their breadth often tempts queriers into thinking that they do not need to specify a book category when they query. After all, the logic runs, if the agency says it represents all three of the closest marketing categories, why take the trouble to figure out into which the book fits?

A good question, certainly. Querypalooza veterans, chant the answer with me now: because book categories are how the industry thinks of writing, that’s why. Agents and their Millicents tend to reject queries that do not specify a book category out of hand.

Quoth Joyce: “The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” (Hey, I had to double-check the earlier quote, anyway; I did a little quote-shopping.)

Even though it is honestly is in their own best interest to be specific, there are a number of perfectly legitimate reasons an agency might say it is actively seeking a list of categories that looks less like an agent’s specialties than the entire stock of your local Borders. For example, they might have the editorial connections to place all of those different types of books successfully. This kind of reach is certainly not out of the question for a large, well-established agency, but a great big agency is not necessarily the best choice for every writer and/or every book. (Don’t worry; I’m going to talk how and why next time.)

Fortunately, the standard agency guides routinely print how many clients any listed agency represents, so you need not necessarily track down their entire client list. If it is good-sized — 300 clients, for instance, handled by six or seven agents with different specialties — your task is clear: do a bit of further research to figure out which of those probably well-connected agents has been selling books in your category lately.

Do I hear more murmuring out there? “But Anne, the agents’ guide sitting on my desk at this very moment frequently lists a single agent as the contact person for the entire agency. Isn’t that the person to whom I should address my query, regardless of which agent at the place actually represents my kind of book?”

In a word: no. In several words: not without checking the agency’s website (if it has one) to see if they actually want you to do it that way. These days, most agencies don’t — and they frequently will say so in their submission guidelines. It’s generally in the best interest of the writer to write directly to the member agent who represents a specific kind of book, rather than the listed contact.

There’s no substitute for double-checking, though: if the guide listing is the only source available, then by all means, do as it says.

Okay, so that was quite a few words, but this is important. While some agencies are still set up with a single contact directing incoming queries into the right inbox, the rise of agency websites — and thus the comparative ease of conveying agency-specific querying preferences — has rendered that rare. So why do so many guide listings still list only a single contact? Well, I’m not positive, of course, but my guess would be that it’s simply that the form agencies are asked to fill out includes a space for it.

Oh, you laugh, but the last time you filled out a form, did you spontaneously offer more information than it asked you to provide? Or did you just work your way through, writing in answers every time there was a line?

Be glad of some of those lines, because they allow the guide to collect some very useful information. If the agency in question is small, check to see how long it’s been around — this is routinely listed in agency guides, and with good reason. Selling books to publishers is hard work; agencies go in and out of business all the time. Before they have established a reputation and connections within particular book categories, new agencies — and new agents — sometimes spread a pretty wide net for new clients. In such cases, the list of categories they are seeking can turn into a wish list, rather than a true reflection of what they have sold in the past.

Let me repeat that, because it too is important: a list of categories is not necessarily proof positive that an agency has actually sold books in each of them within the last couple of years — or even within living memory. It can also be a list of what the agency wants to sell over the next couple of years. That’s a definitional haziness not limited to small agencies, certainly, but common to them.

Which means, in practice, if a particular book category is hot right now, or industry buzz says it will be the next big thing, it’s going to turn up on the lists of quite a few agencies that have not yet sold that type of book — and thus in the index of this year’s agency guide.

See the problem? Ideally, you would like to be represented by an agent with a solid track record selling your type of book — and as I have mentioned, oh, 70 or 80 times in this autumn of ‘Paloozas, agents specialize. So do editors. If you write women’s fiction, even a brilliant agent whose sole previous focus are in self-help will probably have a harder time selling your book than someone who sells women’s fiction day in, day out.

An agent who has managed to sell a particular category of book in the past is not only going to have a better idea of who is buying that type of book these days — she’s infinitely more likely to be able to call up the right editor and say, “Listen, you know that fantasy I sold you six months ago? I have one you’re going to like even better.” Or if she’s not more likely to say it, she’s more likely to be believed when she does.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? But when editors start saying things like, “You know what I’m really looking for right now? A book from Hot Category X,” it’s not unheard-of for an agent without a track record in Hot Category X to think, “Hmm, I wish I had one of those handy right now.” Completely understandable, right?

It’s also completely understandable that industry trends often move faster than yearly guide release schedules. Perhaps a category that was hip seven months ago, when the agency filled out the guide questionnaire, but has since fallen out of fashion. Just be aware that if an agency was seeking a particular kind of book only because of its marketing potential at a particular moment, and not because they love that kind of book, and it stops selling — or selling easily — they’re going to tell their Millicents to look askance at queries for it.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of a Hot Category X writer new to the business, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between an enthusiastic neophyte and a seasoned veteran of Hot Category X sales. Every professional writer I know seems to have a story about an author who got caught in this trap. Many are the horror stories about a great chick lit, historical romance, and/or memoir writer who was hotly pursued by an agent who later turned out to have few (or even no) editorial connections in that direction — and who, having unsuccessfully shopped the book around to 4 of the wrong editors, dropped it like a searing stone. Yet another reason that it’s an excellent idea to double-check actual sales before you commit to a representation contract.

Or indeed, before you query. Perhaps even before you place an agent on your querying list.

None of this is to say, of course, that agencies that represent a dizzying array of book categories don’t exist. Many large agencies do. Also, if the lead agent of a smaller concern (whose name, as often as not, will also be the name of the agency) peeled off recently from a great big agency, taking her clients with her, she may well have a track record of selling across many, many book categories. Connections definitely carry over — and since the agent will probably want to advertise that fact, check the listing, website, or conference blurb for a mention of where she worked last.

Then check out THAT agency, to see what they sell early and often.

In short, do your homework, but try not to get paranoid about it. Yes, it’s a whole lot of work, but as our old pal Joyce wrote about something entirely different, “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.”

He was talking mechanics, of course, but I doubt you’d find a querier who has been at it for a while who wouldn’t wholeheartedly agree to add trying to sell to the front of the statement. Keep up the good work!

Assessing who should be on your query list-palooza, part VIII: learning to recognize a gift when it’s offered

torn bird of paradise

Wow, this has been a sad, strange week, campers. Prime evidence: I gave two — count ‘em, two — friends editorial feedback on their respective fathers’ obituaries, to run in local newspapers in different states. I suppose I am the person even I would call for trustworthy proofreading at a time like that, but still, I can’t help but feel that this has been no ordinary week.

I don’t know if you have ever written an obituary or eulogy, but it’s a strange, sad, marvelous process. Like the bird of paradise above, the result should be beautiful, but it will always appear to fall short of perfection. It requires real art to pull off well: few lives have a single coherent narrative, and most are so complex that the eulogizer must be extremely selective about what to include. Like any other synopsis, it can be written entirely in generalities, naturally, but the best are full of the telling details that could have come from no one else’s life but the dear departed.

I’m not bringing this up purely to depress everyone, I assure you. The necessity to summarize complex realities into a few pithy statements is actually quite germane to a matter we have been discussing at some length of late: how to glean information from agency guide listings and websites, to make sure that your query list includes only those agents genuinely and demonstrably interested in representing your type of book.

And half my readership does a double-take. “But Anne,” logic-huggers everywhere cry, “I don’t see the connection — and by the way, the flaws in that bird of paradise appear to have been externally-inflicted, not intrinsic to the flower itself. How is having to summarize an entire lifetime in a few short paragraphs remotely similar to agents having to boil down the possibly quite wide array of books they have represented, are currently representing, and hope to represent in future to just a few short sentences? Or have I just answered my own question?”

Why, yes, you have, logic-lovers — and good point about the flower. The difference lies in the perspective of the beholder. While no one expects an obituary or eulogy to give a complete picture of every nuance of the living person, aspiring writers frantically scanning agency guides and websites are often disappointed, or even frustrated, to find agents’ preferences expressed in only the most general of terms.

That’s unfortunate, because as I mentioned last time, agencies that give clear indications about what they do and do not want to see in a query or a submission are a boon to the savvy query list-generator: by being up front about what kinds of book projects stand a chance of success in the hands of their screener (our old pal Millicent, to be sure), these agencies save writers of other kinds of manuscripts buckets of time.

How, you ask? Conscientious followers of this series, chant it with me now: querying agents who do not habitually represent books in one’s chosen book category is a waste of an agent-seeking writer’s time and energy.

It’s also, not entirely coincidentally, a waste of Millicent’s time and energy to screen a query for a manuscript her boss would not even consider. That’s why, in case any of you fine folks had been wondering, agencies that are not in the market for first-time authors are usually quite blunt in their guide listings about not being particularly open to submissions from new writers. This is actually kind of them: like the agent who stands up at a conference and says, “By the way, although my agency does represent romances, I don’t, so please don’t pitch them to me,” an outright statement of reluctance in an agency guide can save a writer the time, energy, and disappointment of a fruitless approach.

But that’s not how the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers read such statements in guides and on agency websites, is it? Instead, they hear: you’re not important enough for us to consider or ha! We’ve just slammed a door in your face, newbie. Or even: if you were truly talented, oh previously unpublished one, we would already know who you were. Therefore, since we do not, you must not be a very good writer.

Okay, so that last interpretation is a trifle on the paranoid side. But after several straight hours surfing websites or flipping through guide pages, searching for agents who might conceivably be open to representing one’s groundbreaking SF/Western/Highland romance/cookbook, every indicator of lack of interest in one’s own type of book can start to feel like a personal micro-rejection, right?

Don’t believe that search fatigue affects overall querying patterns? Think again. Just as the alphabetically first-listed businesses under a category in the Yellow Pages tend to get called marginally more often, aspiring writers tend to query the agencies at the beginning of the alphabetical listings more frequently than those whose names begin with, say, L: in the face of so many similar-sounding listings, many queriers simply lose steam midway through the Cs. Because some begin at the end and work backwards through guides, the agencies at the end of the alphabet tend to see slightly more query traffic than those between M and T.

Seriously, it’s true, especially just after the first of the year: a hefty percentage of all of those New Year’s resolution-keepers (“This year, I’m going to start sending out a query each day until I land an agent!”) will pick up a standard agency guide, turn to the As, and work forward, or turn to the Zs and work backward. ?So you might want to avoid the A and B agencies, as well as the W-Zs, until well after the first of the year, to avoid being caught in the January rush.

Don’t worry: the average New Year’s resolution lasts less than three weeks. After Martin Luther King, Jr., day, you can feel free to approach those As and Zs; their Millicents will have worked their way through the piles of mail sufficiently to catch a glimpse of their desks again.

But I am digressing, amn’t I? “But Anne,” admirers of linear thought point out, “we were talking about how to read those listings, weren’t we? As fascinating as those last couple of paragraphs on alphabetical order were, shouldn’t we be getting back to the point?”

So we should, consecutive reasoners. Sometimes, the statements in the guides a trifle ambiguous, as if the agency wants to leave itself a bit of definitional wiggle room. Check out this slightly murky piece of guidance, either culled from the agency guide at my elbow or a figment of my extremely vivid imagination:

In approaching with a query, the most important things to me are your credits and your biographical background to the extent it’s relevant to your work. I (and most agents) will ignore the adjectives you may choose to describe your own work.

Now, many aspiring writers would instantly interpret this as don’t bother to query if you don’t already have a book out, but is that in fact what’s being said here? Let’s approach this like one of those nasty reading comprehension problems from the SATs. Is the agent in question actually expressing a preference for

(a) receiving queries from only the previously published (because of that reference to credits),

(b) receiving queries for nonfiction books only (because that first sentence seems to be talking about platform),

(c) receiving queries that are very terse and business-like, containing only minimal mention of the actual content of the book (because the agent who wrote it harbors an inexplicable animosity toward adjectives), or

(d) not trying to limit the scope of queries at all, but only meaning to give some well-intentioned general advice about the desirability of mentioning one’s credentials in a query letter.

How can a savvy querier tell which is the correct interpretation? Actually, she can’t — at least based upon the original quote alone. The fact is, it just isn’t possible to tell what’s meant without reading the rest of the listing — and even then, I would still recommend rushing right over to the agency’s website to double-check its submission guidelines.

Why go to the extra trouble? Well, going over a list of recent sales, the agent in question emerges as someone with a track record of representing science fiction and mystery extremely well. Would you have gleaned that from the statement above?

I’m guessing not. Leaving the thoughtful guide-peruser to wonder: what biographical background would be especially relevant to, say, a SF story set on Pluto? Need one actually have committed a murder to interest this agent in a mystery, or would it just be a nifty selling point?

Even just a basic web search can often turn up clarifying extras. If I told you that the agent responsible for our example also wrote an article recently for a SF fanzine, would your sense of how open he is to new writers increase? Might you even conclude that while this agent is primarily interested in science fiction, his agency is just beginning to expand its nonfiction list? And if so, mightn’t the comment about platform be aimed at nonfiction book proposers, rather than novelists?

A quick search of the last couple of years of this agency’s sales showed this to be precisely the case. (Sorry to disappoint all of you axe murderers out there who had gotten your hopes up.)

See why I think it’s a good idea to do some double-checking — and not to take every statement made in a blurb or listing at face value? Sometimes, industry-speak requires translation.

While we’re on the subject of nonfiction (and industry-speak), let’s take a look at another fairly common type of guide listing statement:

Nonfiction author and/or collaborator must be an authority in subject area and have a platform. Send a SASE if you want a response.

I must admit, I love the if you want a response part: if there is a querier out there who sends out missives WITHOUT wanting a response, I’ve never met him.

But is don’t bother to query if you’re too lazy to include a SASE the only message this agency is trying to send? Definitely not. The first sentence gives some indication of probable rejection criteria (hooray); the second sentence is most likely just giving general advice. Actually, it was probably intended as a bit more than kindly advice: from the phraseology, it’s probably safe to conclude that they simply toss out queries that arrive without a SASE, as many agencies do.

Which does, I suppose, boil down to don’t bother to query if you’re too lazy to include a SASE, now that you mention it. But if you had simply gone with your first knee-jerk reaction to that part, you would have missed the implication that this agency would welcome queries from legitimate experts on nonfiction subjects, wouldn’t you?

That’s not all an experienced eye could glean from this only apparently off-putting statement, however. I find the first sentence interesting as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does: while it would not be wildly inappropriate to conclude that, like our first exemplar, this agency’s Millicents have been trained to reject any NF query that does not include a clear statement of relevant credentials, it is not saying that the agency is only interested in the previously published — not an uncommon restriction for NF agencies. It also, by specifically mentioning a collaborator, is indicating that it is open to queries from ghosts.

So if I were considering querying this agency, I would run, not walk, to my list of selling points. Why? To cull bullet points to cram into my query letter about why I (and/or my collaborator) is the best person in the known universe to write this particular book, and why my target audience will be fascinated to read it.

On the off chance that I’m being too subtle here: There is no substitute for reading agency guide listings and websites IN THEIR ENTIRETY. All too often, would-be queriers mistakenly cross great potential agents off their query lists based upon impressions derived at a first glance — or even based on a perceived tone.

What kind of tone might engender this reaction, you ask? Perhaps an ambiguous beauty like the following:

We prefer that writers be previously published. However, we would take on an unpublished writer of outstanding talent.

That one made you a trifle hot under the collar, didn’t it? Go back and read it again, slowly. I put it to you, dear readers: is this agency open to queries from the previously unpublished or not?

To my eye, the answer is both. They probably would not reject a query outright for not including the credentials paragraph so strongly urged by the agent in our previous example — but a query from a previously unpublished writer would really, really have to wow ‘em to be considered. Or, to put it more crudely, they probably don’t want to rule out the possibility of the author of the next DA VINCI CODE’s not querying them because they said in their listing that they only represented previously published writers.

Remember, a listing, website, or conference blurb is not necessarily the obituary for an agency, depicting with impeccable accuracy its sales achievements to date, but unable to give any hint about the future. Usually, it also reflects what they hope to represent as well. Sometimes, as here, the actual content of that hope is left ambiguous.

And you thought I’d abandoned my obituary analogy. I’m more tenacious than that.

So is it worth a previously unpublished writer’s time to query an agency that seems to be hedging its bets like this? Possibly — provided that the agency has a solidly impressive track record in selling book’s in the writer’s chosen category and that it has sold a first book within the last couple of years.

Why that last caveat? As I have mentioned before, sometimes agency listings are rerun unchanged year after year. Websites are not always up-to-date reflectors of recent sales, either, and many, many agencies will list only their best-known clients. The expressed openness to writers of extraordinary talent expressed in a guide listing, then, might not be a current enthusiasm. Or even a recent one.

How can a savvy writer tell? Fly straight to its sales record. This need not be time-consuming: instead of concentrating on its client list in its entirety, focus on debut novel sales. (Most of the industry databases will include this information.) Or if you write nonfiction, first books in general.

If you don’t see any, you might want to rely more heavily on their assertion that they prefer the previously published and save yourself a stamp. Again, they have done you a favor.

Starting to get the hang of this? Let’s take a look at one more listing statement — or, better yet, let’s compare these three:

We care about writers and books, not just money, but we care about the industry as well. We will not represent anyone who might hurt our clients or our reputation. We expect our writers to work hard and to be patient. Do not send a rude query; it will get you nowhere. If we ask to see your book, don’t wait around to send it or ask a bunch of irrelevant questions about movie writes and so forth…If you can’t write a synopsis, don’t bother to query us. The industry is based upon the synopsis; sometimes it is all the editor ever sees. Be professional and follow our guidelines when submitting. And don’t believe everything you hear on the Internet about editors and publishers — it isn’t always true.

Present your book or project effectively in your query. Don’t include links to a webpage rather than use a traditional query, but take the time to prepare a thorough but brief synopsis of the material. Make the effort to prepare a thoughtful analysis of comparison titles. Why is your work different, yet would appeal to the same readers?

We are not interested in receiving poorly written submissions from authors with grandiose attitudes; don’t compare yourself to Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. Blackmail never works — don’t tell us that you’ll only send your manuscript to us if we can guarantee you will be published. Please always send a SASE or else we won’t be able to contact you. Write stories that make sense; research everything down to the bone. Most importantly, be proud of your work; no self-deprecation.

Okay, what’s wrong with these three excerpts from guide listings?

From an aspiring writer’s point of view, absolutely nothing; they’re stuffed to the brim with thoughtful, practical advice about how to avoid these agents’ respective pet peeves. Well done, blurb writers, who may or may not exist outside my head!

To more cynical eyes, these responses might perhaps indicate questionnaire-answerers with a fair amount of time on their hands — the first lines of the first do carry a mission-statement aura about them. If I had to guess, though, I would say that pretty much all of these admonitions refer to individual queries they have received recently, rather than to general trends.

Faced with this sort of broad-reaching statement, a cynical querier might verify the size and longevity of the agency. Very small agencies — say, under 25 clients — will frequently have more specific blurbs, and for a very good reason: they can accept fewer clients per year than an agency that represents a couple of hundred clients. So probabilistically, they tend to be slightly worse bets than the larger concerns.

But it is awfully nice of them to tell writers up front what will trigger an automatic rejection, no? Make no mistake, that is what they are doing here — and indeed, what any agent who chooses to give specific querying advice almost certainly intends.

Trust me, no one likes to see her advice neglected. It’s in your interest to follow it to the letter, if not in all your queries, than at least in queries aimed toward the advice-giver’s agency.

In short, it is very much in a writer’s interest to read blurbs and listings very, very carefully — and in their entirety. Weigh all of the information you are being offered, even if it seems ambiguous or downright opaque: if an agent took the time to write more than the bare minimum, he’s probably trying to tell you something.

That’s also often true of obituaries and eulogies, come to think of it: a rushed, careless, or simply overwhelmed eulogizer might well fall back on generalizations and platitudes. It’s the telling details, though, that give the reader or hearer a sense of the actual person being described.

When individual preferences pop up in agency guide listings or in submission guidelines, cherish them. Appreciate them for the useful signposts that they are, and be glad that someone at that agency was kind enough to give aspiring writers some guidance. Because, really, is it in anybody’s interest for a query to end up on the wrong agent’s desk?

Oh, yes, I have more to say on the subject. Tune in next time, and keep up the good work!

Query lists and the fine folks who appear on them-palooza, part VII: perhaps not what you were expecting, but…

attacked-by-squid II

Okay, okay, so that’s not a particularly snappy title, but since we are nearing the end of this ‘Palooza on how to find agents to query (nope, already used that one), we should probably be expecting my title inventiveness to be wilting a trifle. Frankly, I’m eager to get back to some issues of craft…although, of course, given my very practical focus, I shall probably discuss them within the context of common manuscript failings that make agency screeners’ hair stand on end.

Which wouldn’t have been a bad image to use on Halloween, come to think of it: our old pal Millicent in a fright wig, permanently scarred by the haunting memory of submissions past. Have sympathy for her, campers; yes, she’s responsible for a heck of a lot of rejections, but hers is a very difficult job.

Unless, of course, aspiring writers are kind enough to make her life easy by sending her queries for books in categories nobody at her agency represents — or no longer represents. Then, her job’s a piece of proverbial cake.

Not entirely coincidentally, I waxed long, if not eloquent, in my last post on the desirability of bolstering the information one might find in a standard agents’ guide, a conference blurb, or even an agency’s website with a little further research. Today, I’m going to talk about where to seek out that additional info.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a savvy querier like you has been conscientiously haunting the library for the past month, shaking the Dewey Decimal System vigorously until a dandy list of authors of books like yours dropped out of it. Because you are market-aware, you have naturally limited your search to books that have come out within the last five years; because you are hip to booth just how tight the literary market is right now and how much more difficult it can be for an agent to sell a first-time author’s work than an established one’s, you have been focusing your efforts on first and second books, on the very sensible theory that the agents who represented them might be more likely to take a chance on a fresh new voice than others. You’ve already tracked down the agents thanked in these books’ acknowledgments.

Now, savvy querier, you’re all set to track down who represented the books ungraced by acknowledgement pages. Having embarked upon that laudable endeavor, one question is ringing in your mind like the Liberty Bell: why on earth is this most basic information so difficult to come by?

I wish I could tell you that there is some esoteric reason for that, having perhaps to do with national security or fear of offending the muses by breaking a millennium-old code of silence. In principle, since all publishing deals in the U.S. are matters of public record — not the financial specifics, perhaps, but definitely the players — gathering this data should be the proverbial walk in the park.

But it undoubtedly isn’t, at least without paying for access to a publishing industry database. While there are a few websites that offer searches by author represented, they are often also for-pay sites, and if the complaints one hears ringing through the bars that are never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America are accurate, the data on them is not always up-to-date; authors switch agencies almost as often as agents do.

Is that giant collective gasp of indignation that just rocked the ether an indication that neither of those last couple of revelations was what a writer seeking an agent wants to hear?

I hate to be the one to break it to you gentle souls, but landing an agent is not like tag: a writer doesn’t necessarily get to connect with It once, then drop out of the game. There are plenty of reasons an already-agented writer might find herself treading the wearisome querying road for a second time. An author might decide to write a book outside her agent’s interests, for instance, or the agent’s may decide he no longer wants to represent the kind of book a client writes. When an agent moves from one agency to another, his clients may or may not go with him. A mammoth, literature-deploring squid might attack Manhattan, reaching through the windows of major agencies and wrapping its grasping tentacles around any unlucky soul wandering the hallways.

Okay, so that last bit was to see if you were paying attention. Squid attacks on agencies are exceedingly rare.

My point is — you hadn’t thought I’d forgotten it, had you? — just as it would be foolish for an author looking to change agencies to revert to her query list from five or six years earlier, when she had last been in the market for representation, it would be counterproductive for an aspiring writer looking for a first agent to work off information that’s, well, a trifle on the elderly side. Or to assume that what was true a year and a half ago, when he first put together his querying list, is necessarily still true now.

Conditions change, even without the intervention of super-sized marine cephalopods.

So how might one update a query list — or add to it? The web is an invaluable tool: sometimes, you can learn who represents an author quite quickly, via a simple web search. However, as I’m sure some of you know from frustrating experience, this method can be very time-consuming, and it won’t always yield the results you want.

Why? Well, a standard search under the author’s name will generally pull up every review ever published about her work. As well as every article in which she is mentioned, prompts to buy her book at Amazon and B & N — not in that order — as well as the author’s own website. (Which, before you get your hopes up, may or may not tell you who represents her. Surprisingly often, established authors’ websites don’t.) Wading through all of that information can be a long slog, and does not always lead to what you need.

That doesn’t mean, however, that none of what turns up will help you. If you are searching for the agent who represented a specific book, it is worthwhile to check out the industry reviews excerpted on the booksellers’ sites. Or just go directly to one of the standard advance review sites: Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. Occasionally, the agent’s name is listed at the end of these reviews.

(Why would these reviews list such an arcane detail? Well, the industry reviews are written primarily for the benefit of retailers who are considering stocking the book, not readers who might conceivably buy it from retailers. They appear considerably before the release date; long enough, in fact, that it is not unheard-of for editors to pull a book from the print queue that has received a less-positive-than-anticipated advance reviews, so that the book may be revised prior to release. (Or, more commonly, re-re-re-revised.) Print reviews, by contrast, tend to coincide with the book’s release, and are aimed at the general reading public. Thus, they seldom contain information of interest only to people in the industry.)

Actually, Amazon, B&N, and Powell’s all routinely post industry reviews, too, and it’s always worth checking to see if Publishers Weekly did an article on the deal. If you really wanted to take a month to get a feel for who was who in your genre, you could sit down and read the last year’s worth of advance reviews. (If you do, and you write SF/fantasy, stick with Kirkus. Trust me on this one.)

But honestly, who has the time to read all of that and write?

You were thinking that already, weren’t you? I can hear chairs shifting out there; skepticism is in the air. “Anne, Anne, Anne,” I hear some of you restless-but-observant types muttering, “you’ve been telling me for over five years that agents and editors are massively busy people who may well become impatient during the course of a two-minute pitch. Do you seriously expect me to believe that if they wanted to find out who represented a particular book, they would go shuffling though 50 websites?”

Okay, you’ve got me there: they wouldn’t. They would consult one of the standard industry databases. The catch: those databases are by subscription.

Translation: it’s gonna cost you something over and above your time.

Usually, you ostensibly join a sort of club, and one of the perqs of membership is database access. Almost invariably, you buy membership in specified time increments (often a month), rather than per-use, so if you are up for gorging yourself on agent info, you could conceivably lock yourself in a room with your computer for a week or two and generate a list of a couple of hundred names, along with the specifics of who has sold what lately, then cancel your membership.

You might be a little sick to your stomach afterward, having learned so much about what is and isn’t selling at the moment, but at least you would have a very up-to-date list.

Personally, I prefer the Publishers Marketplace database; it’s not terrifically expensive, and agents often use it themselves. It has a very straightforward function called WHO REPRESENTS, very easy to use. Feed in your favorite authors’ names, and presto! you have instant access to who sold their most recent projects. This, as those of you who have been trying to ferret out such information already know, can save you literally months of research time.

You can also track individual agents, to see whom they represent and what they have sold in the last few years. If you sign up for the for-pay Publishers Lunch e-mailings (which isn’t a bad idea, as such a high percentage of US-based publishing folks read it and/or Publishers Weekly; it’s a great way to gain a basic idea of how the biz works and how swiftly publishing fads change), you will gain access to this database.

PM charges month-to-month, so if you are strapped for cash, you could easily generate a list of authors, join for a month, search to your little heart’s content, then cancel. (But you didn’t hear it from me.) Or you could corral a few of your writer friends to go in on an ongoing subscription with you, with the understanding that you’ll share the data.

Even then, you might find it a little spendy, so I hasten to add: as savvy reader Nadine pointed out, PM’s website does allow non-members to search at least part of its database; if you’re looking for who represented a book sold within the last few years, this is a good quick option. I notice, however, that such searches do not yield specific deal information — which renders it considerably more difficult to check what, for instance, an agent has sold in the last 6 months.

Personally, I kind of like being able to look up everything that’s sold in my genre within the last month, but as we all know, my tastes a trifle odd. But why might access to such a database make a difference to the usefulness of your querying list?

Several reasons, actually. First, if you want to query every agent who has sold a book like yours in the last year, obviously, a search engine that would enable you to pull up the sales in your chosen book category over that period of time would save you quite a bit of time. Second — and this one should sound a trifle familiar to those of you who have been ‘Paloozaing of late — it’s always a nice touch to be able to mention an agent’s most recent sale of a book like yours in a query letter: Congratulations on your recent sale of Author McWriterly’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. As my writing is similar, I hope you will be interested in my novel… Third — and this one should ring a few bells, too — because both the market and agency personnel are changing so fast these day, information about who is selling books in your category right now, as opposed to a year or two ago, when the books hitting the shelves now were being acquired by editors, might enable you to fine-tune your querying list.

Please pick your jaws off the floor, writers brand-new to the publishing process. Especially if you are writing fiction, it’s imperative to be aware that from an agent’s perspective, what is selling in bookstores right now is not necessarily an accurate reflection of what she can sell to a publishing house right now. Since there is typically at least a year between a publisher’s acquiring a book and its release, trolling the New Releases shelf will tell you what interested editors a while ago — not today, or even yesterday.

See why a query list-generator might want to garner up-to-the-minute sales information?

Before you dismiss the idea of spending money on professional database access, do sit down and figure out how much your time is worth. Why? Well, the practically-free method of acquiring the same information that I am about to suggest is so time-consuming that shelling out for a subscription service may start to look downright reasonable.

If you do have the time to invest, there is a free way to find out who represented any book, if it was published within the United States. As I mentioned above, the sale of a book is a matter of public record, and as such, publishers must provide information about who represented the author to anyone who asks.

So how do you get ‘em to cough up the information? Pick a book, call the publisher (there is often a phone number listed on the copyright page, to facilitate further book sales; if not, try the publisher’s website), and ask to speak to the publicity department. When you reach a human being (have a magazine handy; it can take awhile), ask who the agent of record was for the book.

You may encounter a certain amount of incredulity at your old-fashioned approach, but do not let that deter you. They are obligated to give you the information, and often, they’re rather charmed to hear that someone liked one of their books so much that he was willing to go to such significant effort to find out who represented it.

See why I thought you might find it a tad on the time-consuming side? Don’t worry; I still have a few time-saving tricks up my sleeve.

I sense a bit of disgruntlement out there. “Yeah, right, Anne: people at publishing houses are going to be happy to hear from readers. Pull the other one. I’ve always heard that under no circumstances should an aspiring writer ever call a publishing house or an agency. And why would they be nice to an aspiring writer, anyway?”

Well, for starters, that advice about never calling? It’s intended to prevent this conversation, and this conversation alone: “Hello, agency/publishing house? I have a book that’s a natural for Oprah, and…hello? Hello?”

A writer familiar enough with the ropes to be querying is probably not going to make that mistake. A dedication to playing by the rules is why, I suspect, that a weary What do you mean, you’re going to treat me like a human being? cynicism tends to pop from the mouths of aspiring writers who have been querying for a good long time.

It’s completely understandable, of course. After a couple of dozen form-letter rejections — which entail, basically, being told by a faceless entity that one’s writing is not good enough, but not being told how or why — it’s very, very easy to start to believe that agencies and publishing houses are staffed by writer-hating ogres, leering loreleis who cajole writers into sending in their hopes and dreams, purely for the pleasure of smashing them into the ground.

No wonder the giant squid has it in for them, if so. But happily for writers everywhere, this just isn’t the case.

There are a few mean people, of course, as in any profession, and I suppose it’s not out of the question that some perversely masochistic hater of the written word might choose to torture herself by becoming an agency screener. For the most part, though, if you have the opportunity to talk to an agent, editor, or one of their overworked Millicents, you will discover someone who genuinely adores good writing and is sincerely eager to promote the interests of those who produce it.

Stop laughing, jaded queriers. It’s true.

Not everyone agrees on what constitutes good writing, of course — one doesn’t have to hang around the industry very long to realize that plenty of pros apparently don’t make too strong a distinction between what is marketable and what is well-written — but contrary to the gloomy rumors perennially circulating on the writers’ conference circuit, it’s rare to find an agent or editor who genuinely regards writers as merely the necessary evil behind a successful book.

So why do so many of their form-letter rejections, conference speeches, websites, and even statements in agency guides convey, to put it politely, the opposite impression? An array of reasons — absolutely none of which have anything to do with you or your writing. Please, for your own sake, do not fall into the trap of taking it personally.

In the first place, form-letter rejections are now the industry norm. Period. Even for submissions — yes, even when an agent or editor has asked to see the entire book. In fact, sending out rejections at all is one of the more polite responses; as I am sure many of you are already aware, many agencies have a stated policy that they will not respond at all if the answer is no.

It’s annoying as heck for the writer who receives them, of course, but non-responses, like boilerplate rejections, are the industry’s reaction to the incredible rise in queries since the advent of the home computer. Like so many other puzzling aspects of the submission process, these phenomena can be explained by the agents’ desire to save time.

Which, as long-time readers of this blog know, can be darned hard in an agency that receives 1500 queries per week. While reason tells us that it would take only a few seconds per query for the agent or screener to scrawl a couple of words of explanation in the margin of a pre-printed rejection (which does happen occasionally, if a screener has mixed feelings about the rejection), the sheer volume of envelopes on Millicent’s desk tends to discourage it.

See why I don’t think you should take it personally? Or even necessarily as an indication of the quality of your writing?

Do I hear still more disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” a few hoarse voices cry, “this isn’t what I’ve heard. I’ve always been told — sometimes by agents speaking at writers’ conferences — that if I have been querying for a while and receiving only form rejections, I must be doing something terribly wrong.”

I’ve heard that one, too — and interestingly, I’ve sometimes heard agents who use form-letter rejections heavily say it at conferences, so aspiring writers come by this impression legitimately. However, it is an outdated notion. Gone are the days when only those illiterate queries and submissions without a prayer of being salvaged were brushed off in this manner.

Although, to tell you the truth, since the invention of the photocopier, there have always been more agencies and publishing houses using boilerplate rejections than was generally recognized. Stuffing form-letter rejections into SASEs is just too good a way to plow through the day’s mail.

To understand why, place yourself in Millicent’s moccasins for a moment: she’s been screening submissions all day, and she wants to go home on time in order to crank out those grad school applications. (Oh, she dreams big, our Millicent!) Standing between her and the door are the 350 query letters that arrived in the morning’s mail and/or e-mail — probably more, if it’s a Monday — and she knows that another 350 or so will be dumped on her desk tomorrow. Isn’t it in her interest to get through each of those queries as quickly as humanly possible?

This is precisely what she does, of course. Dear Agent letters and queries for book categories her agency doesn’t represent are rejected barely read, of course, as are letters that fail to conform to the norms of submission. (For a crash course on just what those norms are, please see the QUERYPALOOZA! category at right.) For each, she stuffs the agency’s boilerplate rejection into the accompanying SASE and moves on to the next query.

And that, too, is partially a function of time. Think about it: since an acceptance requires a personalized letter or e-mail, it takes longer to accept a query than to reject it, right? If Millicent has already decided to reject a query, which is she more likely to do when she’s trying to get out of the office, give a detailed explanation why, or just reach for that pile of rejection letters?

Would it affect your answer to know that take the easy route might save her a full two minutes? Not a lot of time in the life of the writer who has poured years into writing the book being queried, I’ll allow, but the sheer volume she faces precludes lingering. Don’t believe me? Do the math: 350 queries x 2 minutes/query = 700 minutes.

11.6 hours. In other words, longer than a standard work day.

If she works at an agency that accepts e-mailed queries — still not universal, but becoming more common all the time — her rejection rate is probably even faster. One of the reasons that some agencies prefer e-queries is, after all, the greater ease of rejection. She is probably using pretty much the same boilerplate: all she has to do is copy-and-paste it into a return e-mail. Unless she simply hits DELETE.

The fact that e-mailed rejections are usually phrased identically to paper form-letter rejections often comes as a surprise to many habitual e-queriers: after all, how long could it possibly take to give a sentence or two of actual feedback?

We writers tend to forget this, but to most of the earth’s population, the transposition of thought into written sentences is a time-consuming and sometimes even painful process. A good reader is not always a good, or even adequate, writer. Which is a nice way of saying that Millicent is unlikely to reinvent the wheel each time she taps out an e-rejection. It’s much more time-efficient to paste the same only-apparently-kind language her agency has been cramming into SASEs for years.

To experienced eyes, the same stock phrases — and often even the same sentences — are evident in pretty much every boilerplate rejection, be it electronic or paper-based. I’m sure you recognize them: Your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time. We are only accepting clients selectively. I just didn’t fall in love with it. There’s some strong writing here, but I just don’t think I can sell this in the current competitive market.

Okay, I’ll admit it: all of this may not be the best way to make my point that most agents and editors are really rather fond of writers and their work. I would argue, though, that precisely because such practices — form-letter rejections, non-response rejections — are impersonal by definition, it doesn’t make sense, logically, to read them as a reflection upon your work.

Seriously, there is nothing to read into a statement like I’m sorry, but this does not meet our needs at this time, other than a simple, unnuanced No, is there?

Which, admittedly, is lousy enough to hear — but it certainly is not the same as hearing, You know, I really liked your premise, but I felt your execution was weak, feedback that might actually help a writer improve the next query or submission. And it’s definitely better than hearing what so many writers read into such statements, hostility that amounts to Take it away — everything about this book concept is loathsome!

At minimum, it should NEVER be read as, since I’m saying no, no one else will ever say yes. Just note the response — and send out the next query immediately.

I sense some lightening of writerly hearts out there, but still, some strategic-minded spirits are troubled. “But Anne,” a few quiet voices point out, “this is all very well as encouragement, but why in Sam Hill are you telling us this in the midst of a series of posts on how to build a querying list?”

Because, sharp-minded questioners, in preparing these blog posts, I have been reading through quite a few listings, websites, and conference blurbs. In short, I have been sifting through what a writer trying to glean some sense of a particular agent’s preferences might find. Over the years, I haven’t been able to help but notice that just as many aspiring writers read a certain hostility into form rejections, they sometimes read a coldness into the listings and blurbs themselves.

I don’t think this tendency to leap to the most cynical conclusion is in an aspiring writer’s best interest, as far as pulling together a querying list goes. While some agencies seem to go out of their way to be encouraging, others come across as off-puttingly intimidating. Most of the time, though, what they are actually saying is just businesslike advice: Query first by mail. Include SASE. Query before submitting. No e-mail queries.

A bit terse, perhaps, but nothing to cause undue dismay. Sometimes, though, these statements — which are, the shy writer assumes, how the agency is choosing to promote itself to potential clients — can come across as positive discouragement to query at all.

Chief among these, naturally, are the ones that actually ARE intended to discourage queriers: We do not accept submissions from previously unpublished writers. New clients considered by recommendation only. Does not consider science fiction, fantasy, or mysteries. Or my personal favorite from the first page of the guide currently at my elbow: Although we remain absolutely dedicated to finding new talent, we must announce that until further notice we can no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. We also cannot accept queries or submissions via e-mail.

While a thoughtful peruser might be left wondering, how precisely the agency in question acts upon the absolute dedication it mentions, having so emphatically cut off the most logical manners of exercising it, it is usually best to take such statements at face value. To my eye, what that last admonition was actually saying was not do not approach us, but please send queries by mail only, and if you send unrequested pages with it, we won’t read them.

Not particularly hostile to new talent, is it?

Read such statements very, very carefully — believe it or not, agencies post them to help you. If an agency isn’t considering books like yours, or if it relies upon its existing client list to recruit new writers for them (not all that unusual), querying them isn’t going to be a very efficient use of your time, right? Similarly, when a listing or blurb includes a simple statement of preference, along the lines of No phone calls or Include first five pages with query, this information can help the savvy querier avoid annoying Millicent.

Hey, I’m all for anything that keeps Millicent’s itchy finger away from that delete button. Why wouldn’t a reasonable writer want to know practical information like We never download attachments to e-mail queries for security reasons, so please copy and paste material into your e-mail?

I consider specificity a very good sign in an agency guide listing or website’s submission guidelines; as anyone who has flipped through one of the standard guides can tell you, it’s fairly rare. Whenever I see a website whose organizers have taken the time to give the logic behind their preferences, I shout, “Wow, this agency has given the process some creative thought. Vive la difference!

But listings, websites, blurbs, and even conference speeches that bark advice at the writer — and, once notice, it tends to be the same advice, over and over again — can be harder to decipher. Does the assertion that I do not take on books described as bestsellers or potential bestsellers, for instance, mean that the agent is specifically looking for less commercial work, that he doesn’t like to see target market demographics in an e-mail, or just that he’s tired of receiving boasts? Does This agency prefers not to share information on specific sales mean that they don’t have many big names on their client list, that they tend to sell to smaller presses, that they are too new an agency to have many clients’ books on the shelves yet — or just that the guy whose job it was to fill out the questionnaire was in a hurry?

Here, too, the impulse to read character into the responses can easily run amok — but what a temptation some of agencies do provide! For example, does the order Be professional! mean that the agency stating it is interested in working with a writer new to the business, or doesn’t it? And why, the nervous would-be querier wonders, does this agency immediately leap to the conclusion that I intend to be unprofessional in my approach?

Actually, there’s a pretty good reason for that: expressing such preferences is usually an attempt to save themselves some time. An agent doesn’t have to receive very many phone calls from aspiring writers before she notices that each takes up quite a bit more time than reading a query letter, after all, or be buried under an avalanche of unrequested manuscripts before establishing a policy that she will read only what she has asked to see.

So yes, a lot of queriers do approach unprofessionally, but let’s face it, those are probably not the ones who are likely to take the time to read the agency’s guidelines, anyway. In my experience, the habitual readers of the standard agency guides — at least the ones who are predisposed to follow directions — are not the ones who need to be told always to include a SASE, or never to send an unsolicited manuscript; these are the wholly admirable souls who have done their homework, bless ‘em.

But the overwhelming majority of generic queries — and pretty much all of the much-deplored “Dear Agent” variety — come from aspiring writers who have not taken the time to learn the rules of the game. (Unlike, say, you.) This is way the terser listings and blurbs tend to focus upon what NOT to do or send, implying a focus upon the avalanche of queries an agency receives, not on the plight of the sender of this week’s 657th letter.

So when a listing strikes you as off-putting, ask yourself, “Is this snappish list of don’ts aimed at me — or at the nameless person who sent a query without knowing to include a SASE? If it’s the latter, I’m just going to glean this listing or website for what applies to me.”

That may sound like denial, but actually, it is a sane and rational response to what is being said in most agency listings and submission guidelines. Keep reminding yourself: this is generic advice, not intended for your eyes, but the last querier who annoyed the agent in question. Nor is it a personality evaluation for the agent who wrote it — again, probably not a professional writer.

“I can understand why an agent might want to give generic querying advice at a conference or on a website,” some of you argue, and cogently, “but the standard agency guides have entire articles about how to query, for goodness’ sake! Do we really need 74 agents also reminding us to query before sending a manuscript?”

Good point, oh skeptical one. But it brings me back to my earlier point: most agents are not writers. Thus, few of them have ever queried a book of their own.

That means, among other things, that the average agent may not be aware of just how hard it is for even the best manuscript to attract representation these days. (Tell the truth now: if someone had told you how hard it was before you tried it yourself, would you have believed it?) They may not realize that it is now quite common for a very good writer with a truly fabulous book to need to query 50 or 100 agents before finding the right fit.

Which makes it entirely safe to conclude that they are not given to thumbing through the nearest agency guide in their odd leisure moments. I seriously doubt most of them are aware just how much repetition there is in the listings.

Again, that’s useful information for the writer who is predisposed to reading character into trifles (and what novelist isn’t?) If you approach those pithy little bursts of advice recognizing that their producers could conceivably believe that this listing might well be the first time anyone has ever heard of a SASE, they make considerably more sense.

Whew, this is a long post, isn’t it? And yet, amazingly, I still have a bit more to say on the subject of how to read agency listings, believe it or not. Steer clear of literature-loathing squid, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Cobbling together a query list-palooza, part VI: eureka! Oh, wait, maybe I haven’t found it

old miner panning for gold

Still no suggestions for a fun-yet-appropriate name for this series, campers? Really? I’m on the verge of giving up entirely and just christening the darned thing Herbert. That would be a pity, not only because it’s not a particularly evocative name (unless, of course, one is writing about the Great Depression), but because this series has a lot of character.

Or characters, potentially: for those of you tuning in late, I have devoted the last week to going over the standard advice about how to find out who represents whom, so that you can query the agents of authors whose work resembles yours. As those of you paying close attention have probably noticed, most of the methods I have covered so far involve a heck of a lot of legwork for the writer: spending hours in bookstores, searching for acknowledgment pages that may or may not exist, going to author readings, making use of connections made at conferences and through writing groups, the works.

In essence, this advice is predicated on the assumption that the information is indeed out there to find; it’s simply the would-be querier’s responsibility to search for it. Admittedly, in a world where even reputable journalists’ primary research methodology is the Internet search, this seems agonizingly slow.

But as anyone who has ever typed the words literary agency into a standard search engine, trolling for agents online is not necessarily any faster. Indeed, it is sometimes even slower, as the results of a generalized search can be pretty indiscriminate. Even when one finds an agency’s website via a generic search, it often takes significant further research to figure out if it is reputable, has a good track record, and represents what you write.

A writer does need to be careful, after all: an attractive website does not necessarily credibility prove, and there are, unfortunately, scammers out there who pose as legitimate agents. For someone new to the game, it can occasionally be hard to tell the gold from, well, the other stuff in the pan.

Why might a scammer lick his unscrupulous chops at the prospect of taking advantage of eager-but-underinformed writers seeking agents? Catering to those treading the early steps on the path to publication is big business. The aspiring writer market is immense: just look at how many conferences, seminars, books, and magazines are aimed at it. Because success is elusive and the process genuinely confusing even to many who have been at it for a while, a business that offers what appears to be a means to bypass all or part of the usual long, hard slog can sound awfully appealing to many.

Like it or not, though, there just isn’t a shortcut around the hyper-competitive querying and submission process. You can certainly learn how to go about it more professionally — thus the autumn of ‘Paloozas — but as far as I know, no one has yet bottled sure-fire literary success and offered it online to any comer.

So let the writer beware. At the risk of perpetuating a cliché, if a publishing-oriented website offers aspiring writers a break that seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Many of the businesses that profess to give aspiring writers a leg up are clever about it, though, so do proceed with caution. Sometimes, websites aimed at appealing to the desperation of the querying writer give judicious small tweaks to their sites to give the impression that they are offering legitimate representation, whereas they are actually offering something quite different.

Usually, it’s an editing service — at a price far, far higher than a reputable freelance editor would charge.

A good rule of thumb for weeding out the questionable: if an agency requests money from potential clients up front — usually called a reading fee — it should set off warning bells in your pretty little head. (If you’re in doubt about what fees are and are not reasonable, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.) Ditto if the agency demands that potential clients pay for a professional evaluation, either performed in-house or via a specific editing service, before it will consider you as a client. Or even implies that paying for a specific set of editing services will increase your chances of their taking you on as a client.

Why should an agency that charges to read your work render you suspicious? Because reputable agencies earn their money through commissions on their clients’ writing — and that requires selling books. If an agency’s website tells you otherwise, it would behoove you to double-check its credentials.

How can you check? First, if the agency is located within the U.S., find out if it is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives. The AAR takes the ethics of its members very seriously, bless ‘em, and it flatly forbids them to charge their clients extraneous fees. A fee-charging agent — including one who accepts kickbacks from an editing service — cannot be a member of the AAR.

So you see, I’m not the only one who considers agents’ charging reading fees highly questionable.

The United States is not the only country in the English-speaking world whose reputable agents have banded together, I am delighted to report. In the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Authors’ Agents. In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association. As far as I am aware, Canada does not have an agents’ association (if anyone north of the border knows otherwise, please let me know, and I’ll be delighted to update this), but the Association of Canadian Publishers’ website does include information about literary agents.

Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. They are there to help writers make crucial decisions about who should represent their work, so don’t be shy about availing yourself of their resources..

Please don’t dismiss the notion doing some minimal checking to assure the agents reading your work are on the up-and-up as writerly paranoia — who represents your work is too important to your writing career to leave to chance. Remember, not everyone who slaps up an official-looking website is actually an agent, and good writers too nice to want to seem confrontational get burned all the time.

Another good place to check is the Preditors and Editors website, which allows you to look up both individual agents and agencies. P&E acts as a clearinghouse for complaints; if they learn that an agency has been charging fees, they will say so. Also — and this is useful — they code their listings by whether they have been able to verify if an agent or agency has actually sold any books.

Well might that implication make you gulp. The mere fact that they have seen fit to note that should give you some indication of just how many good aspiring writers have been burned by fake agencies.

You also might want to stop by the Absolute Write Water Cooler, where aspiring writers’ comments on individual agents and agencies are indexed (and thus searchable) for your perusing pleasure. They also garner information on publishers and share advice about avoiding scams. Writer Beware, a website sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, provides a wealth of resources for those who want to learn about scams aimed at writers.

If the mere idea of having to do a background check on the agent who has just asked to see your first 50 pages makes you feel like fainting, there is an easier way to limit your query list to the reputable. Both of the most reliable agency guides are in book form, the Herman Guide and that perennial bestseller, Guide to Literary Agents limit their listings to the legit. Both come out every year — and since agents move around so much, it is a good idea to rely upon the current guide, rather than one from a couple of years ago.

Yes, buying them every year can be a mite spendy — but there’s no law saying that you and twelve of your writer friends can’t all chip in on a single copy, is there?

While it may seem Luddite-like to suggest buying a — gasp! — book in order to conduct research, these guides are both excellent places to find contact information for agents. Which is to say: most of the queriers I know find them more useful to get the nitty-gritty on agents already identified as appropriate for a particular book than as a first stop for agent-searching.

It certainly would be possible to use them as a first stop, however. Both list agents by specialty — a boon for anyone seeking basic information about whom to solicit — and both routinely ask agents to specify which book categories they are seeking, and which they would reject on sight. Personally, I prefer the Herman Guide — it is chattier and tends to ask more interesting questions — but usually, it covers a smaller range of agencies.

So why shouldn’t you just flip to the index, make a list of every agent who represents your kind of book, and send the same category-specific query to each without further research?

Well, frankly, you could; truth compels me to say that I do know many authors who landed their agents that way. However, this kind of broad, one-size-fits-all solicitation tends not to be as successful: it is geared for a generic audience, rather than the desires of a particular human being. (For some impassioned disquisition on why vague querying is unstrategic, please see the WHY GENERIC QUERIES DON’T WORK category at right.)

As you may be gathering, I’m a fan of gathering information from a number of sources — which the guide listings’ seeming completeness often discourages. Since the amount of information offered varies quite a bit from agency to agency (I’ll explain why later), most aspiring writers simply assume that where there is little presented, there just isn’t much to tell.

However, that’s often not true. Most guide listings are pretty terse by design, focusing upon the agency’s preferences as a whole rather than those of the member agents. Although admittedly, there are exceptions, it can be very difficult to glean enough information to personalize a query well. The usual problem: when they list what authors an agency currently represents, they tend to stick to the best-known clients.

Or, to put it in terms that might affect you more directly: generally not those who have sold a first book within the last year or two. Yes, it’s nice to see names that you recognize, but an agency’s big sellers are often neither their most recent sales nor a particularly good indicator of that they are looking for now in a new client.

Why is getting up-to-date info so important? Well, agents’ preferences change all the time; so does the book market. What a particular agent was hot to represent three or four years ago isn’t necessarily what s/he is seeking today. What the agent has sold within the last year is the most reliable indicator of what s/he would like to see in a query next week.

And even in the rare instances where the blurbs do provide up-to-date titles, few of the guides include the authors’ names in the index, so the aspiring writer is reduced to skimming the entire book, looking for familiar writers. Not terribly efficient, is it?

Oh, I can feel some of you preparing to throw up your hands in despair. You’re contemplating reverting to non-personalized queries, aren’t you, in order to save yourself some research time? On the off chance that I have not yet talked each and every one of you out of simply conducting a generalized search of every agent in the country who represents your book category and sending the same query to all of ‘em, I beg you now to consider: we all know how annoying it is to be solicited by a telemarketer or spammer who hasn’t the faintest idea of our personal likes and dislikes, right? That kind of mass marketing operates on the assumption that if it sprays widely enough, it will eventually hit someone who is actually interested it what its purveyor is selling.

As applied to queries, that strategy is every bit as annoying to agents — and still more to our old friend Millicent the screener, who reads queries all day, every day. Targeting makes more sense. Yes, it is time-consuming to do the legwork to find out about individual agents’ literary preferences, but ultimately, it’s more likely to be successful.

I know that it seems practically Victorian to say this in the age of instant web searching, but often, tracking down those preferences requires looking in more than one place. It requires, in fact, a bit of cross-checking, not only because preferences change and agents change agencies but — as I’m sure those of you who have been at it a while have are already aware — frequently, the information one finds about a particular agency will vary, depending upon where you happen to be looking.

Yes, you read that last part correctly: often, the information published or posted about an agency in one source does not match what is available elsewhere. It’s not all that unusual for, say, an agent’s preferences on the agency’s website to differ from what is listed in the 2011 guide you just bought, or for the blurb in a conference brochure to contradict what has been printed in the guide’s last eight editions.

Was that massive gust of wind I just heard a sigh of relief from everyone who thought this perverse variability was just his imagination?

Heavens, no. Heck, it’s not particularly unheard-of for an agent speaking at a conference to say she absolutely does not want to be pitched a genre of book that her agency’s listing — or even website — says it is actively seeking to represent.

Faced with such discrepancies, the frustrated aspiring writer can only shake a fist at the heavens and cry, “What gives?”

Actually, there are some pretty good reasons that this happens — and no, Virginia, none of them have to do with loathing literature and taking active steps to trip up the nice folks who produce it. Perfectly nice agents at perfectly wonderful agencies sometimes have outdated blurbs. But most writers only find out about what is outdated after they’ve been rejected — and sometimes, not even then.

When the average aspiring writer reads information about an agency or a particular agent in printed form — in an agents’ guide, in a conference brochure, on a website — s/he tends to expect, not unreasonably, that what is there is 100% accurate. Certainly, it would not be impossible to derive that impression from all of those marketing experts who shoo writers toward those guides, agents who give speeches at conferences urging writers to do their homework before querying, or even the guides themselves.

But the sad fact is, not all of the information out there is either reliable or up-to-date. Or even consistent across sources.

Which, to be fair, is true of pretty much anything one might desire to seek out via the Internet: we are all aware, I sincerely hope, that not everything posted online is true. Part of the charm of the web is that it is not refereed; its very accessibility encourages disagreement. As reasonable, logical people, we expect to need to use our wits to weigh relative credibility.

To coin a phrase, consider the source — and read carefully. If the pancake recipe you have just found calls for you to add four rats’ tails, seven jellybeans, and fourteen agate marbles, you’re probably not going to want to follow it.

For most web searches, the mere application of common sense is sufficient, because the stakes aren’t very high. But if you send a query to an agent who is no longer with a particular agency — and some of ‘em move around quite a bit — that is going to harm you. Ditto if you send the first 5 pages of your chick lit masterpiece to an agent who no longer represents chick lit and has decided that screening writing samples is an inefficient use of her Millicent’s time.

Oh, you can insist until you’re blue in the fact that the guide in your hand insists that chick lit is that agent’s primary focus. You can jab your finger at the guide page that says every query should be accompanied by a 5-page writing sample. But you’re going to be wasting your time. Standards change — and if the agent in question has updated her website to reflect them, she will expect you to be aware of that change even if the most recent agents’ guidebook says otherwise.

In the virtual classroom, I just saw 37 hands shoot up into the air. “But Anne,” I hear some of you pleading with trembling lips, “the standard agency guides are updated every year, presumably for this very reason. Can’t I rely upon them?”

Good point, disembodied voices. Yes, this year’s guide should technically be up-to-the-minute, but one does occasionally find discrepancies between, say, an agency’s guide listing and its Publishers’ Marketplace page. For one very simple reason: guide listings and blurbs tend not to be updated very often.

Certainly not as often as minds and the writing market change. And before you yield to the temptation of resenting the guides for not coming out more often, let me hasten to add: it isn’t really their fault. Much as a website is only as current as its last update, the standard guides rely upon the participating agencies’ willingness to answer questionnaires every year.

Think about that for a moment. Agents tend to be busy, busy people. (Just ask ‘em.) And responding to those questionnaires is generally a volunteer activity.

So would it be surprising if they were often done in an extreme rush? Or if, to save a little time, many just submitted the same replies, year after year?

Uh-huh. Ditto with conference blurbs. And how often do any of us update our bios on our business websites?

Much of the time, admittedly, little is lost by recycling the old blurb. When the information that’s changed since the last questionnaire or website overhaul is not market-related, like an update of recent sales or the news that a member agent has just completed her MFA, I don’t think even the most detail-oriented researching writer would quibble.

But when agents move or change specialties, it’s a different story. That has real consequences for queriers, who honestly do need to find an accurate reflection of what a particular agent is looking to pick up now, not two years ago.

Hands up, everyone who has ever queried an agency listed as seeking a particular category, only to receive a form rejection letter stating categorically that they will not even consider that type of book. Or if you have shown up at a writers’ conference, all excited to pitch to that agent whose blurb sounded just perfect for your book, only to be crushed when he announces from the podium that if he hears another query for a book in your category, he’ll begin screaming uncontrollably. Or if — and this is surprisingly common — you took the time to check both an agency guide, the agency’s website, and the agent’s latest interview, and the submission guidelines you gleaned from the three were not only contradictory, but mutually hostile.

A lesser aspiring writer might take umbrage, of course — but you’re too savvy for that, aren’t you? You’re fully aware that fretting about the many, many parts of the querying and submission process outside the writer’s control is a waste of your valuable energies. Philosophical soul that you are, you merely murmur to yourself, “Someone has not been updating his or her agency guide listing,” and proceed on your merry way.

If it makes you feel any better, I can assure you that lack of accurate information leads to frustration on both ends of the querying exchange. For every writer left scratching his head over a seemingly inexplicable categorical rejection, there’s a Millicent out there muttering, “Why on earth do people keep sending us queries for a genre we haven’t represented for the last five years?”

Because, Millie, there’s an apparently credible source somewhere out there saying otherwise. Had I mentioned that there was not a Consistency Fairy policing the web?

“Okay,” I hear some of you saying wearily, “being too busy to update from year to year or conference to conference makes sense for the guide listings and agent blurbs that are stuffed to the brim with useful, specific information about precisely what they would like to see. But flipping through the guide in front of me, I notice that most of these listings are really, really minimal, just basic data like mailing address and what percentage of their clients are previously unpublished authors, but others include extensive discussion of what they look for in submissions, or even little essays on how they deal with clients. Why are the listings so uneven?”

My, you’re asking great questions today, disembodied voices. You’re absolutely right, of course: the level of detail listings varies wildly, ranging from generic advice about querying (No unsolicited manuscripts, Query first, Query with SASE, etc.) to expressions of preferences for particular types of books. This inconsistency of information carries over to websites, too, I notice: some are chock-full of genuinely useful information about individual agents’ preferences — and some are, well, not. Partially, I think, the variation comes from a certain amount of disagreement about the purpose of a listing or blurb — or so I surmise from the fact that they differ in style, tone, and content as much as individual agents’ platform speeches at conferences.

You’ve seen this for yourself, right? Some listings appear to be trying to narrow down what is being sent to them by giving bread-and-butter accounts of what they do and don’t want to represent; others try to recommend their services by mentioning well-known authors on their client lists. Still others, bless ‘em, attempt to bolster the hopes of struggling writers by giving general advice. Sometimes, though, these laudable attempts to be encouraging result a certain well-meaning vagueness.

Come on, admit it: not all of it is of immediate practical use. We love good writing, while a charming sentiment, actually does not tell a writer much about what kind of book an agent might conceivably like to read, does it? There is good writing in every genre.

“Okay,” I hear you say. “I understand that, but is there a way I can use these differences to my advantage? Since, obviously, it would take far less time to scrawl that those few lines on a questionnaire than to write a lengthy description of one’s every pet peeve and preference, should I assume that the writers of the just-the-facts blurbs are not as interested in attracting new clients? In other words, is a longer blurb an invariable sign of a hungry agent?”

I would caution against reading too much into which route an agency has chosen for its listings. There are plenty of excellent agents out there who routinely submit terse blurbs, as well as ones who rhapsodize about adoring writers while habitually dropping books after submitting them to only a small handful of editors.

As I mentioned above, these are busy, busy people — and busy people have been known occasionally to fill out forms rather quickly. Especially those who are not, after all, writers by avocation, given to expressing themselves with ravishing sensibility on the printed page at the drop of the proverbial hat. An ability to write lyrically isn’t necessary to be a first-rate agent.

An ability to sell books, however, is. Specifically, for your purposes, books like yours. What you can — and should — take away from how they have chosen to present themselves in print is a list of questions for further research.

Stop groaning — I’m talking about legitimately important stuff here.

If an agency says it represents books in your category, what similar books have they sold lately? Which agent sold them, so you know to whom to address your query letter? How tightly does this agency define categories — do they, for instance, have a good track record of selling the occasional book that stretches its genre? If they list sales from five or ten years ago (not unusual, even on agency websites), have they sold similar books recently? If they list recent sales, which were by first-time authors? If you have an idea for a future book in another book category, does the agency have a solid track record in representing that kind of book, too?

Further information on any of these points would help you write a better query letter, right? Yet a lot of the standard sources, as you may have noticed, are light on this kind of detail.

By all means, check the guides and the websites: the information found there can be very useful to figuring out which agents would make the most sense to approach. Besides, you absolutely must follow any submission guidelines an agency has gone to the trouble to post. But I would seriously advise widening your research to more than one source before you fire off that query to someone who said — last year? Eight years ago? — that he was eager to represent your kind of book.

I know, I know: after a few rounds of queries, it can start to get mighty tempting to regard any agent willing to say yes to your book as equally desirable, but you honestly will be better off with an agent who already has the connections to place your manuscript under the right eyes. The more you know about an agent’s sales record and preferences, the more specifically you can personalize the query letter.

Next time, I shall talk about other means of tracking down that information. Keep panning for gold, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Query list-buildingpalooza, part V: say, have you heard the one about…

chatting couple at Lourdes 2

I open today’s post my favorite way: with an announcement of good news about a member of the Author! Author! community. Congratulations to Jay Kristoff, who has just signed a representation contract with Matt Bialer of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. Kudos, Jay!

And another heaping helping of kudos to Jay for having not only thoughtfully documented his frankly pretty exciting querying and submission process on his blog, but also being generous enough to have posted his query letter there. It’s always helpful, I think, for aspiring writers to see what is working right now.

It can be done, folks: keep pressing forward. Keep that good news rolling in!

Speaking of writers being generous to those treading the early steps on the long and winding road to publication — how’s that for a graceful segue, eh? — in my last post, I suggested a surprisingly underused method for figuring out which ones might be open to your work: the straightforward expedient of going to author readings in your book category and asking the speaker who represents her. Later in the same posts, however, I may have dashed some hopes out there by pointing out several ways in which aspiring writers frequently bungle such approaches, in the hope of helping you avoid them.

How do I know about these faux pas? Because agents, editors, and established authors just love to trade stories about outrageous approaches, that’s how. Trust me, you don’t want to become famous that way.

Unfortunately, open-handed friendliness to aspiring writers is rare; in approaching most agencies, as well as most presses and even literary competitions, it helps to be aware that, to put it mildly, an overwhelming desire to smooth the path of the aspiring is most emphatically not the norm. There are just too many aspiring writers for too few representation, publication, and winner spots for each new aspirant to be greeted with open arms, personalized responses, and a big box of chocolates.

It’s nothing personal: Millicent the agency screener merely sees thousands of queries and dozens of submissions every month. It’s her job to narrow down the competitive field as quickly as possible. For the same reason, contest judges look for reasons to knock entries out of the running for top honors, and editors want to be wowed by the end of line 2.

It is in the aspiring writer’s best interest, then, to assume that any professional reader will be uncharitably nit-picky. I would assume that those of you who have been querying, submitting, and/or entering contests for a while — and certainly those who have been following the ‘Paloozas this autumn — are already aware of that. You may not, however, have embraced the course of action dictated by these harsh conditions.

Do consider embracing it, and hard, if you have any intention of approaching the agented — or, indeed, anyone affiliated with the publishing industry — for assistance: if you are a writer asking for individual attention and assistance, it behooves you to make it as easy as humanly possible for people to help you — and to make that relative ease apparent from your very first interaction with them.

Does that seem self-evident? In theory, perhaps, but it’s not often put into practice. As we saw in our recent spate of negative examples, from the established authors’ perspectives, the writers requesting help often seem to be working overtime to make it difficult to help them — and to demand as a right what is actually a gigantic favor. There’s a reason that every pro has three or four horror stories about rude aspiring writers: there’s never any shortage of ambitious souls who take one look at the patient, consistent, well-informed effort required to land an agent, assume that route is for suckers, and try to bypass the usual methods of approaching agents.

“But you have to help me!” these uncourteous souls insist after they have cornered established authors, agency employees, and/or editorial assistants at cocktail parties. “Agent X would be great for me, and I want to get published more than anything else in the world!”

That, my friends, is not the best way to get someone to help you. Minimizing the effort required to do you a good turn is.

There’s another reason that the hyper-pushy approach seldom works: every aspiring writer worth his salt wants to get published more than anything else in the world. The situation is hardly unique.

So why should someone in a position to provide an introduction to an agent pick one particular aspiring writer to assist, rather than any of the tens of thousands of others who would just love to jump the queue? Three reasons, typically, and simple ones: because that writer asked, because she did it politely — and because she had taken solid, practical steps render it as simple as possible for her designated helper to give her a leg up.

You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would — at how seldom hello, stranger, would you help me get my work in front of your agent’s eyes? requests meet even one of those criteria, much less all three. Here are a couple of ways that writers often fumble the approach without realizing it.

Misguided approach 1: Pablo covets established author Pauline’s agent, Percy, so her has gone about seeking a referral in a sensible, respectful manner: he read her work first, was able to give her a charming, well thought-out compliment on her latest book, and established a cordial relationship before asking for any favors at all. Eventually, Pauline asks to read some of Pablo’s work. It’s very good, so enthused, she sends him an e-mail saying that she is willing to recommend him to Percy.

Success, right? Not so fast.

“That’s marvelous,” Pablo writes back immediately. “Send Percy the manuscript I gave you, and let me know what he says.”

He is astonished never to hear from Pauline again. Nor, to his shock, does he ever hear from Percy at all. “How rude,” he mutters. “If Percy didn’t like the manuscript, he could at least have made the effort to tell me so.

Did you catch Pablo’s tactical error — and his misinterpretation of subsequent events? No? Okay, let’s consider: does Pablo have any legitimate reason to believe Percy even saw his manuscript, much less rejected it? If the answer is no on both counts, Pauline is the one who did not follow through here, not Percy. That’s an important distinction, since Pablo could conceivably still query Percy independently if he has not already rejected the manuscript, right?

So it is in Pablo’s best interest not to waste his energy resenting Percy. Instead, he should ask himself: did I do anything that might have made Pauline change her mind about helping me?

Glad you asked, Pablo: you certainly did. You violated the golden rule of assistance-seeking: you made it apparent that it would be difficult to help you.

How so? Pablo assumed that because Pauline was willing to help him at all, she would automatically be eager to put in a great deal of leg work on his behalf, too. Suddenly finding herself expected to perform a massive favor when she had merely offered to do a smallish one, Pauline froze and backed off.

This kind of authorial freeze happens all the time — a pity, since it is easily preventable with a bit of forethought. And just a bit of expectation-modification.

What scared Pauline off was Pablo’s sudden revelation that he expected more assistance than she was in fact willing to give — and far more than she had actually offered. That must have seemed strange to her, because what she was willing to do was potentially so helpful: give him a personal recommendation to her agent, something few previously unpublished writers ever garner. So In her mind, her contribution to his querying success would consist of allowing Pablo’s to open his query letter to Percy with Your client Pauline has read my manuscript and recommended that I contact you about it…

That’s it. It may not sound like an immense favor, but as it would place Pablo’s work in a different pile than every other query that came into Percy’s agency, it could potentially have made an enormous difference to Pablo’s querying success. In fact, until fairly recently, such a query would have resulted in what is known as a courtesy read, regardless of whether the work in question was likely to interest Percy or not. Since the economy tightened, however, agents are not granting courtesy reads to their clients’ friends as often as in days of yore — yet another reason, if you still require one, to be as polite as possible in approaching an author for a recommendation. An author whose agent habitually refuses courtesy reads is placed in quite a pickle by such requests.

Pablo didn’t think about any of that: all he heard was that she was willing to help him. In his mind, she had just volunteered to take all of the effort and chagrin of submission off his shoulders.

That was a completely unrealistic expectation. If she felt very enthusiastic indeed, she might conceivably have called or e-mailed Percy, to let him know that Pablo’s work was coming, but that would be the absolute limit to what an established writer like Pauline would do for a new acquaintance. She could potentially offer to do more down the line, but realistically, Pablo should have accepted this much with gratitude and, taking the initiative to promote his own work, followed through himself.

Instead — and herein lay his biggest mistake — he not only appalled her by ratcheting up his expectations, but insulted her by telling her so. In brushing aside her actual offer in a way that inadvertently came across as dismissive, he pushed 100% of the follow-up responsibility onto Pauline, essentially expecting her to be his unpaid agent, pitching his work to her agent.

Think about it from Pauline’s point of view: why on earth would she do this? Even if Pablo is a brilliant writer, the utmost personal benefit she could possibly derive from the transaction is the glow of having done a good deed and Pablo’s gratitude. Perhaps she could look forward to a line on a future acknowledgement page. But if Pablo begins the process by appearing ungrateful, why should she lift single well-manicured finger to help him at all, much less put her own credibility with her agent on the line to promote his work?

Yet we can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Pablo, can we? He botched an opportunity for which many another aspiring writer would gladly have given his pinkie toes. From am aspiring writer’s point of view, he really made only one small slip, and that inadvertent.

So what should he have done instead? His response to Pauline’s offer should have been all about her, not him: “That’s fabulous, Pauline; thank you so much. How would you like me to proceed?”

While we could debate from now until Doomsday whether the punishment fit the crime here, the overall message is clear: when you want someone to do you a favor, your best strategy is to minimize, not maximize, the amount of effort your patron will need to invest to assist you. Don’t simply assume it’s understood — ask questions about how you can make it less trouble to help you.

I’m not talking about tossing off a 5-page demand that the pro explain the entire process to you; I’m merely suggesting that you ask a question or two to clarify precisely what your potential helper is willing to do — and what you would need to do in order to support her efforts. When in doubt, you can always fall back on the most basic, most welcome question of all: “What can I do to make helping me easier for you?”

That’s a bit counter-intuitive, I know: ostensibly, this process is about others helping you, not you helping others. But trust me on this one: the simpler you make it to assist you, the more likely you are to receive assistance.

Adopting that attitude toward helping hands will, I promise you, make you more welcome in virtually any industry gathering, both now and in years to come. Why? Because it will make you a better addition to the professional writers’ community.

I can feel some of you timid souls trembling from here. “But Anne,” you wail, searching the area around your feet frantically for any toes upon which you might have accidentally tread, “I’m terrified that I’ll do something wrong, since I’m going to be walking into a situation where I don’t know anybody concerned very well. Is it to much to ask that my friend in high places would tell me what to do? I mean, seriously, isn’t this all Pauline’s fault for not being clearer with Pablo up front?”

Those are loaded questions, timid tremblers: from the aspiring writer’s side of the equation, it’s understandable that you might want guidance. But yes, it is too much to ask that a busy relative stranger — or even an actual friend who has already landed an agent — would drop whatever she typically does with her time (like, say, writing) in order to devote energy to promoting your career. You would be flabbergasted if the bigwig said, “Okay, I’ll help you, but only if you agree to spend five hours this week standing in a bookstore, hawking my latest release,” wouldn’t you?

So if Pauline neglected to send Pablo a bullet-pointed list of directions, it’s understandable, is it not? Ditto if she was unwilling to instigate an argument by e-mailing someone who has already imposed upon her to explain that he should impose upon her a little less.

She might also have heard a horror story or two from a fellow author about the dangers of being nice enough to cater to the sometimes quite unreasonable expectations of those looking to break into the biz. Take, for instance, the difficulties her friend Tremaine ran into when he was trying to help a friend of Pauline’s — a debacle for which Pauline most likely still apologizing, years later.

Misguided approach 2: Tanya met agented author Tremaine through networking: her college roommate Pauline, an aspiring writer who had not yet found an agent, had taken a seminar with him at a writers’ conference. Pauline raved about his trenchant insights so much that when Tanya had her first novel ready to query, soliciting his advice seemed only natural.

She shot off a polite e-mail to him, explaining that she was a friend of Pauline’s. Would he have some time to give her the benefit of his years of experience, please?

Because Tanya seemed to be nice and was complimentary about his books, Tremaine was happy to answer a few of her questions via e-mail; it amused him to think that someone who had taken a half-day seminar with him five years ago would remember what he’d said enough to recommend him to a friend. After the first couple of exchanges, however, he began deliberately slowing his responses to Tanya’s questions, because she started to e-mail him every day. Each time, her messages got longer — and more personal.

Tremaine recognized the pattern: this has happened before. Clearly, Tanya had begun thinking of their exchanges as a burgeoning friendship, rather than what it actually was, an author being nice to a reader.

One sunny Tuesday, Tremaine spotted yet another e-mail from Tanya in his inbox. Sighing, he left it to answer another day. On Friday, he opened it, and was startled to find a cheerful note from Tanya, telling him she has already sent a query to his agent, Trevor, using Tremaine’s name as a reference. Would Tremaine mind following up with Trevor as soon as possible, to confirm the recommendation and try to speed up the process?

Cursing, he vows never to be nice to a fan again. But what on earth is he going to tell Trevor?

I want to discuss this sorry tale of mismatched expectations on two levels: first, by figuring out what Tanya did wrong, and second, by examining just how much trouble her acting upon her misconceptions has created for her mentor. Not to mention the poor friend whose name she used to get to the mentor in the first place.

I would hope that her central faux pas is apparent to all of you, but just in case, let me be absolutely clear: it is always the aspiring writer’s responsibility to ask the more established one for permission to use his name in advance, not tell him about it afterward. And while it is possible that Tanya did ask, but Tremaine overlooked her question due to the sheer volume of her e-mails, it is never legitimate to assume that silence equals consent.

A good rule of thumb in any context, actually.

Compared to that egregious boundary-busting, Tanya’s other sins pale in comparison. She rushed Tremaine into a friendship, interpreting his being nice enough to answer a few questions as an invitation to increased intimacy — and did it in such a way that he probably will cringe the next time he hears Pauline’s name. People seldom talk about this, but the flip side of networking is that being the connection between a polite person and a rude one makes the connector look bad, invariably. Since Tanya knew that Pauline was also an aspiring writer, she owed it to her friend to be on her best possible behavior when approaching Tremaine.

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

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

It’s just not worth the risk.

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

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

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

Regardless of the outcome, remember to express gratitude for the help you did get. And don’t treat the granting of one favor as permission to ask for more — or, as Tanya did, to escalate the imposition.

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

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

Which, as we have seen in Pauline’s struggles with Pablo will be a whole lot of work. Enough so that both Tanya and Pablo may reasonably expect to be the subjects of Tremaine and Pauline’s cocktail party horror stories for years to come.

Yet another very good strategic reason that you will want to bend over backwards to be easy to help: the publishing world is, as some of you may have already noticed, an arena where a poor reputation gets one talked about far more than a good one. You really, really do not want to be the subject of the hilarious story an established writer — or, still worse, an agent — is telling as a cautionary take at writers’ conferences this season.

But that does not mean you should be shaking in your boots, terrified that you will inadvertently say the wrong thing. The truly good stories tend not to be about aspiring writers who breach minor points of etiquette without knowing it, but those who come up with real whoppers.

Like the person who told a certain male agent of my acquaintance during a pitch meeting that he couldn’t possibly understand women’s fiction well enough to represent it. When he tried to tell her that he does, in fact, sell women’s fiction all the time, she implied that he was lying. She gave every evidence of being astonished when he said, “Then maybe you should not be pitching to me.”

Now that’s a good cocktail party story.

Seriously, when an author recommends a writer to her agent, she isn’t merely recommending the writing, but the person as well. As with any recommendation, the recommendee’s poor behavior tends to reflect poorly upon the recommender. And even if it didn’t, no one wants to be the client of whom the agent says at parties, “Oh, you would not believe what the writer she sent me did!”

Building a reputation for being easy to work with — the standard euphemism for being cooperative, following directions well, not prone to gratuitous temper tantrums, and knowing a bit about how the industry works going into a relationship with an agent or editor — carries legitimate value in agencies and publishing houses. Cultivate it. You really do want your agent to be able to say with a clear conscience, “Oh, she’s a peach. You’ll love working with her.”

I look forward to hearing that about you at a cocktail party, in fact. Keep up the good work!

Trolling for agent leads-palooza, part IV: a little assistance in angling for the big fish

puffer fish and friend

No, your bugged-out eyes are not deceiving you: I did in fact manage to work two — count ‘em, two — puns on the ubiquitous landing an agent trope into that capacious title, thank you very much. I can keep coming up with new names for this series until the proverbial cows come home, people, but until I hear some suggestions from my audience, the puns are just going to keep getting worse.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. (And yes, I did take the disturbing photo of the floating fish myself.)

All week, we have been talking about how to generate a nice, substantial, and — dare I say it? Apparently, I do — appropriate list of agents to query. Because it’s a waste of your valuable time to write (not to mention Millicent the agency screener’s to read) letters to agents who do not regularly represent books in your category, the unfortunately common would-be querier’s strategy of simply opening one of the standard agency guides, casting a quick glance that the index, and sending essentially the same letter to every agent who seems remotely feasible is not in your best interest. While it can take some serious effort to come up with an intelligently targeted list, containing only agents with a proven track record of recent sales of books like yours (ideally, first books like yours), in the long run, selective querying is far more likely to yield requests to see manuscript pages than a scattershot approach.

And why is that, campers? Pull out your hymnals and sing out: agents specialize. So does a savvy querier.

To that end, we concentrated last time upon the sometimes difficult task of tracking down who represents whom, so that you may query agents who represent books similar to yours. I recognize, though, that to the more impatient among you — an aspiring writer impatient to see his work in print? Alert the media! — the level of background research I suggested yesterday might well have seemed a bit arduous. So today, I thought I would make a slight detour to a cut-to-the-chase agent-finding strategy long favored by the bold: walking up to a published writer (or a pre-published but agented one) and simply blurting out, “Excuse me, writer-whom-I-envy, but do you mind if I ask who represents you?”

You’d be surprised how often the answer is something along the lines of, “Why, no, not at all. My agent is Dealmaker McWheelerdealerson at Rainmaker Literary.” Writers tend to be nice people; they’re often very happy to give a spot of advice and encouragement to someone new to the game.

Given how very useful responses to this question can be for aspiring writers, it’s kind of astonishing how infrequently one hears it at author readings. Perhaps aspiring writers are shy; perhaps, too, they don’t go to as many book readings — especially by first-time authors — as they should.

Oh, you know a better place to run into a kind soul who demonstrably already has an agent? Or one more eager to talk to a potential reader? At an under-attended reading, a respectful aspiring writer might end up chatting with that new author for hours.

Yet even when aspiring writers are clever, resourceful, and community-supportive enough to find out when authors of books in their chosen categories are going to be signing and committed enough to show up, they are often afraid to come right out and ask the crucial question. They don’t want to bore other reading attendees. If you should happen to be laboring under this belief, allow this veteran of thousands of author readings to set your mind at rest: these days, “Who represents you, and how did you land your agent?” almost always elicits a response that’s interesting enough to entertain the non-writers in the audience, too.

Especially if you ask anyone who has landed an agent within the last seven or eight years, when the trolling has been quite a bit more difficult than in days of yore. I’ve seldom met a new author who isn’t positively relieved to launch into a diatribe about the 147 agents she approached before she heard those happy words every aspiring writer longs to hear: why, yes, I’d be delighted to represent your writing.

While you have your hymnals out, let’s sing another ditty: contrary to popular belief, good manuscripts do not always get snapped up right away. In the current ultra-competitive literary market, a savvy writer should expect to send out many, many queries before finding the right agent for her work.

So trot on out there and start asking some questions of the recently-published. If you live in or near a big city with some good bookstores, chances are very good that there are readings going on somewhere in town practically every day of the week. Again, don’t be afraid to ask some questions at your local bookstore or library: trust me, if you walk into the best bookstore in town, saunter up to the register or information desk, and ask for a calendar of readings, the staff will be OVERJOYED to direct you to one. Or put you on a mailing list.

Here in Seattle, we’re pretty lucky: not only do we have several very good independent bookstores that regularly host readings and signings, but we also have The Stranger, a free newspaper that routinely lists all of the author readings for any given week, along with brief summaries of their books. Heck, it’s even the rare newspaper that still — gasp! — reviews books. (Possibly because the editorial director, Dan Savage, won the PEN West award for a memoir a few years back.)

When you’re agent-hunting, it’s usually more worth you while to go to readings by first-time authors than people whose names have graced the bestseller lists for quite some time. Often, new authors are downright grateful to anyone who shows up, and doubly so to anyone who asks an interesting question. And if they are not grateful enough to their agents just after their first books come out to want to talk about them, they probably never will be.

As a fringe benefit, new authors will often blandish their local writer friends — publishers’ publicity departments generally ask authors for lists of cities where they have lots of friends, and set up readings accordingly — into attending their readings, just so someone shows up. Sometimes, these helpful friends are willing to tell you who their agents are, and what they represent.

Seriously, it’s always worth inquiring, especially if the reading author is new to the publishing biz. To be blunt about it, you’re far more likely to garner an actual referral from a first- or second-time author than a better-established one, especially if you listen politely, laugh at the jokes in the reading, and hang out to talk afterward.

Why do the established tend to be more stand-offish about it, you ask? Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not usually because they’re snooty. Just experienced.

Let’s face it, the etiquette in this situation can be a little murky from both sides of the podium — after all, authors at public readings need to regard anyone who approaches them at a reading as a potential book buyer, and thus may come across as friendlier than they intend. And because the road to recognition is so very long and winding, many aspiring writers seek to speed things up a trifle by enlisting the help of the already established on their behalf by not only asking for information about who represents them, but by requesting (or, in some unfortunate cases, demanding) to be allowed to open their query letters with the eye-catching statement, Your client, Madeitaftertwentyyears Paidherdues, recommended that I contact you about my book…

Half of you just started salivating, didn’t you? Before you get too slobbery, I hasten to add: experienced authors tend to make this sort of recommendation fairly rarely.

To illustrate just why an author might become rather jaded to this species of request over time, allow me to introduce you to who a few hypothetical souls who gamely walked up to published authors and asked for their help — badly. Like everything else, there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way.

The right way to ask an author for information about his agent, should you care to know it, involves treating him with precisely the same respect you would enjoy were you in his shoes. Approach politely, say something nice about his writing before you ask anything, and don’t be pushy. When you do come out with the big question, phrase it as the greatest of favors — which, incidentally, a referral to one’s agent undoubtedly is.

No need to be craven — anything beginning, “I’m sure you get this question all the time, Your Wonderfulness, but would you mind terribly if I asked…” is probably a bit over the top — but do indicate that you are aware that the author might not want to grant this request to a total stranger. Then, too, asking for advice usually works better than a direct request: something along the lines of, “My novel is rather similar to yours, and I was thinking of querying your agent. May I ask for some suggestions about the best way to approach her?” is often more successful than, “Hey, can I tell your agent that you sent me?”

That’s the right way. Journey with me now to the land of hypotheticals, to explore the wrong way. Or, more accurately, several wrong ways.

Author-approaching scenario 1: Isabelle notices in her local paper that Ignatz, a writer whose work is similar to hers and is aimed at the same target market, will be giving a reading at a local bookstore. She makes a point of attending the reading, installs herself in the front row, and bides her time, awaiting her moment. During question time, she stands up and asks point-blank who represents him, couching the question within a request for permission to use him as a query reference.

Ignatz laughs uncomfortably, tells an agent-related anecdote, and when she presses for a name, tells her to see him after his talk is over. Any other questions?

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

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

What happened here, and how did Isabelle harm her own chances of success? For extra credit, what about Ignatz’s response marks it as a brush-off, rather than a simple statement of his agent’s feelings on the subject?

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

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

How do I know he lied? Experience, my dears, experience: had his agent actually not been accepting new clients, his easiest way out of this awkward situation would have been simply to say so. He did not, however: what he said was that his agent asked him — personally — not to recommend any new writers.

A subtle difference, but a crucial one, as far as tactfully refusing requests like Isabelle’s is concerned. Most agents rather like it when their clients recommend new writers: it saves the agent trouble to use the client as a screener. So if an agented writer says, “Oh, my agent doesn’t like me to recommend,” he generally really means, “I don’t like being placed in this position, and I wish you would go away. Please buy my book anyway.”

How has Isabelle placed Ignatz in a tough position? Because she has committed another approach faux pas: she asked for a reference from someone who has never read her work — and indeed, didn’t know she existed prior to the day of the request.

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

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

Because I’m a great believer in the try, try again approach to agent-seeking, let’s next assume that Isabelle has learned something from this encounter. Manuscript in hand, she decides to try her luck at another author reading.

Author-approaching scenario 2: this time, Isabelle makes a smarter choice, going to hear an author with whose work she has already read. Wisely, she digs up her dog-eared copy of Juanita’s first novel and brings it along to be signed, to demonstrate her ongoing willingness to support Juanita’s career. She also brings along a copy of her own manuscript.

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

Juanita casts a panicked glance around the room, seeking an escape route. “I’m afraid I don’t have time to read anything new right now,” she says, shrinking away from the pile of papers.

Oh, you may laugh, but #2 happens even more that the first scenario –- and with even greater frequency at writers’ conferences than book signings. Just as some aspiring writers have a hard time remembering that agents have ongoing projects, lives, other clients, etc. whose interests may preclude dropping everything to pay attention to the total stranger who has just pitched or queried them, the pushy often forget (or never knew in the first place) that many, if not most, working authors who show up at conferences are there to promote their books, teach writing classes, and give lectures in order to supplement their incomes, not merely to win karma points by helping out the aspiring.

That’s an important distinction in this instance — basically, Isabelle has just asked a writing teacher she has never met before to give a private critique of her manuscript for free. Just as querying and pitching necessarily cuts into your precious writing time, so do requests of this nature cut into established writers’ writing time. And for very little benefit.

Oh, you hadn’t thought of it that way? Okay, tell me: other than Isabelle’s admiration and gratitude, what would Juanita get out of saying yes? A single book sale, at most?

This not to say that some established writers don’t like to offer this kind of help; surprisingly many will routinely read at least a few pages of politely-offered aspiring writers’ work. But even the most generous person tends to be nonplused when completely strangers demand immense favors. Establishing some sort of a relationship first –- even if that relationship consists of nothing more than the five-minute conversation about the author’s work that will prompt her to ask you, “So, what do you write?” — is considered a courteous first step.

This particular set of problems is not discussed much on the conference circuit – or, to be precise, they are not discussed much in front of contest attendees; they are discussed by agents, editors, and authors backstage at conferences all the time, I assure you, and in outraged tones.

Why? Because, alas, for every hundred perfectly polite aspiring writers, there are a handful of overeager souls who routinely overstep the bounds of common courtesy –- and, as I can tell you from direct personal experience, it’s not always easy being the first personal contact a writer has with the industry: one tends to be treated less as a person than as a door or a ladder.

No one, however famous or powerful, likes being climbed. Case in point:

Author-approaching scenario 3: at a large writers’ conference, Karl meets Krishnan, a writer who has recently acquired an agent. The two men genuinely have a great deal in common: they live in the same greater metropolitan area, write for the same target market, and share a love of the plays of Edward Albee. (Don’t ask me why; they just do. Suspend your disbelief a little, for goodness’ sake.) After hanging out together in the bar that is never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference venue, it seems perfectly natural for Karl to e-mail Krishnan and ask him to have coffee the following week.

Within minutes of Krishnan’s arrival at the coffee shop, however, he is plunged into embarrassed confusion: Karl pulls a hefty manuscript box out of his backpack. “Here,” Karl says. “I want to know what you think before I send it to the agents who requested it at the conference. And after you read it, you can send it on to your agent.”

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

Okay, what did Karl do to make Krishnan feel like he was being used? Partially, he echoed Isabelle’s mistake: Karl just assumed that by being friendly at the conference, Krishnan was volunteering to help him land an agent. Because he was so focused on his own career, he didn’t pause to consider Krishnan, either as a writer or as a person.

In Karl’s mind, the only reason Krishnan could conceivably have agreed to have coffee with him was to discuss how he could help Karl land an agent. However, there are a LOT of reasons that industry professionals are nice to aspiring writers at conferences. A small sampling, in descending order of probability:

(1) Krishnan might have just been polite because his mother brought him up to be nice to strangers.

(2) Krishnan might have regarded Karl as a potential buyer of his books, and as such, did not want to alienate a future fan.

(3) Krishnan might have been teaching a class at the conference, or hoping to do so in future, and wanted to make a good impression.

(4) Krishnan is lonely — writing is an isolating craft, right? — and is looking for other writers with whom to have coffee every now and again between chapters. (Was it too much to expect a nice conversation about Zoo Story?)

(5) Krishnan is looking for local writers with whom to form a critique group and wanted to test-drive Karl as a conversational partner.

(6) Karl is a heck of a lot more attractive than he thinks he is.

(7) Krishnan has long been desperate to get some feedback on Chapter 3 of his doctoral dissertation, Edward Albee, A Study of Every Line of Every Play in Exhaustive Detail. His backpack contains a draft for Karl’s perusal.

(8) Krishnan is actually a serial killer who lurks at writers’ conferences, trolling for victims because he likes to bury body parts and manuscript pages together, or,

(9) Krishnan’s agent might have asked him to be on the lookout for new writers at the conference (rare, but it does happen occasionally).

Of these possibilities, only #5 would dictate ANY willingness on Krishnan’s part to read Karl’s work — and only if feedback would be exchanged, not a one-way arrangement. Even if #9 were true, it would be highly unusual for Krishnan to volunteer himself as a first reader; it’s a time-consuming task, and potentially awkward if Karl’s work does not turn out to be something that might conceivably interest Krishnan’s agent. Again, what would be in it for the agented writer?

Regardless, if either #5 or #9 had actually been Krishnan’s intent, it would have been polite for Karl to wait to be ASKED to share his work. As any Millicent would be only too happy to tell you, even a cursory scan of a manuscript can take quite a bit of time.

But what of Karl’s request that Krishnan pass the manuscript on to his agent? This, too, placed Krishnan in an awkward position. Even with a super-open agent, an agented author cannot recommend others indiscriminately. Think about it: if Krishnan recommends Karl, and Karl turns out to be a bad writer, a constant nuisance, or just plain nuts, that recommendation will seriously compromise his ability to recommend writers in future.

That’s right: writers like Karl, while usually well-meaning in and of themselves, collectively make it harder for everyone else to garner recommendations to agents.

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

See earlier comment about just how long it can take even the most gifted writers to land an agent these days. Karl was unwise to assume that Krishnan would be eager to speed up the agent-finding process for anyone else. For all Karl knows, Krishnan invested a decade in finding absolutely the right agent for his work — and, unhappily, human nature does not always wish to shorten the road for those who come after.

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

Err on the side of caution: presume that the more recently a writer landed an agent, the more difficult and time-consuming the agent-finding process was. And if he is in the throes of submission to editors, assume that he may be stressed out about that, too.

If an agented writer’s fretting about submissions seems a little strange to you, I can only conclude that your experience listening to those whose first or second books are currently being marketed by their agents is not vast — and thus that you have probably not been hanging out after very many new authors’ readings lately. Almost universally, a writer’s life gets harder, not easier, in the initial months after of being signed: practically any agent on earth will ask for manuscript revisions of even a manuscript she loves, in order to make it more marketable, and no one, but no one, on the writer’s end of the game is ever happy about his agent’s turn-around time.

Don’t see how that relates to Karl’s request? Well, think about it: even if Krishnan’s agent is a saint and habitually works at a speed that would make John Henry gasp, every second she spends reading new work is one second less devoted to reading Krishnan’s latest revision — or marketing it. Some authors are a mite touchy about that, so tread carefully.

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

The best rule of thumb: establish an honest friendship before you ask for big favors. Until you know an author well, keep your requests non-intrusive.

And be polite, always. Krishnan probably would not have minded at all if Karl had simply asked for his agent’s name after half an hour of pleasant chat. Heck, Krishnan might have offered the information unsolicited in that time — or even permission to use his name in the first line of a query letter.

I can picture it now: since you so ably represent Krishnan Jones, I hope you will be interested in my novel… Too bad Karl blew such an opportunity by being hasty, eh?

Another good reason to get to know your intended helper a bit first: it may well have turned out that Karl had a skill – computer repair, eagle-eyed proofreading, compassionate dog-walking — that Krishnan would be pleased to receive in exchange for feedback on Karl’s book. Krishnan might even have asked Karl to join his critique group, where such feedback would have been routine.

But Karl will never know, because he jumped the gun, assuming that because Krishnan had an agent, the normal rules of favor-asking did not apply to him.

The same rule applies, by the way, to any acquaintance whose professional acumen you would like to tap unofficially. If I want to get medical information from my doctor about a condition that is plaguing a character in my novel, I expect to pay for her time. (And have actually done so, by the way.) Nor, outside of a formal conference context, would I expect a professional editor to read my work, an agent to give me feedback on my pitch, or an editor to explain the current behind-the-scenes at Random House to me unless we either already had established a friendship or I was paying for her time, either monetarily or by exchange.

That does not mean, of course, that you should be shy about asking an agented writer who represents him. Just tread lightly, and be very aware that you are asking a favor, and a big one, when you ask an author to help you reach his agent. Not only are you asking the author to invest time and energy in helping you — you are also implicitly imploring him or her to put credibility on the line.

And that, my friends, is something that most authors — and most human beings — do not do very often for relative strangers.

Next time, I shall examine a few more pitfalls that commonly open up under the unwary feet of aspiring writers seeking assistance in generating their query lists. Not exactly cheerful, I know, but I would far, far rather that you hear some of these unpleasant truths from me than for even a single member of the Author! Author! community accidentally tumbled into one of them. Keep up the good work!

Agentfindingpalooza, part III: ta da! Thank you, thank you; really, you’re too kind.

Annex - Curtis, Tony (Houdini)_02

Well, had you noticed yet, campers? Author! Author! has undergone a bit of cosmetic surgery. Go on, take a look around and see if you can spot the difference.

Hint: if you’ve been archive-trolling, you probably will. Based upon many, many readers’ complaints that my ever-burgeoning archive category list was just a trifle on the intimidating side, I bit the proverbial bullet yesterday and broke it down into sections. Overall, it’s still in alphabetical order, but if an intrepid reader were, say, to be on the look-out for posts on craft, s/he could simply peruse the categories gathered under the CRAFT AND PLENTY OF IT heading, rather than scrolling through the entire archive list, sniffing out categories that might conceivably be craft-related. The same goes for querying, synopsis-writing, formatting, and many of the other topics we like to cover early and often in this forum.

Do let me know if you find it easier to use, archive-spelunkers. I suspect you will, but you are honestly the best judges. I can already tell that it’s going to be a trifle more cumbersome from my side of the blog, but I’m not going to be the one searching frantically at 4 a.m. for a post on how to put together the contest entry that has to go into the mail at 9 a.m., am I? (For the benefit of those whose blood pressure shot skyward at the very thought: you’ll find the information you need under the CONTESTS AND HOW TO ENTER THEM SUCCESSFULLY heading. See, wasn’t that easier?)

Speaking of trolling for information, over the last couple of days, we’ve been chatting about means of coming up with a list of agents to query — other than simply opening the Herman Guide at random, hammering your finger down on a page, and sending a letter to the one grazed by your fingernail, that is. Easy as such a method might be — and surprisingly common prior to the advent of agent-search websites — it’s not particularly likely to yield the result you want: the name, contact information, and

Yesterday, I was discussing querying the agents who represent writers you like to read. Perhaps it goes without saying — I hope so, as I do not seem to recall having said it — but skip querying the agents of your favorite authors who work in genres other than your own. Chant it with me now, ‘Palooza-followers: a query to an agent who does not represent your kind of work is not worth the investment in postage, much less your energy.

By sticking to favorite authors within your own book category, you will minimize the chances of generating a self-rejecting query. Let’s face it, Millicent the agency screener would lose her job if she routinely went to her boss with letters in her hand, whining piteously, “I know that you don’t actually represent this type of book, but I liked this query so much that I thought just this once, we could make an exception…”

Not going to happen. Yet you would not believe how many queries she sees that seem to expect her to do just that — or so we must surmise from the sheer volume of letters sent every year to agents whose websites and/or agency guide listings clearly state that they do not represent books in the categories the queries are pushing.

The I am writing you because you so ably represent Author X… technique works best, naturally, when the querying writer’s work bears some striking resemblance to that of the cited author. I wouldn’t advise hitting up cyberpunk author William Gibson’s agent (who was, the last time I checked, Martha Millard) with hard-core literary fiction, any more than I would tell you to send Michael Moore’s agent (Mort Janklow) a book of hard-right political analysis or a rollicking comedy to Annie Proulx’s (Liz Darhansoff).

Unless, that is, I had it on rock-solid authority that right now, these fine agents were actively looking to represent any of these kinds of books.

However, if your well-read friends and trusted first readers say, “Hey, has anyone ever told you that you write like Francine Prose?” it’s worth checking to see if Francine Prose’s agent (Denise Shannon) is accepting new clients, right? And mentioning, if at all possible, specific ways in which your work resembles, say, Ms. Prose’s well-respected HUNTERS AND GATHERERS, rather than falling back on that dreaded query letter bugbear, Hey, someone of whom you have never heard says I write just like your client, Francine Prose, so I was hoping you would be interested in my novel…

Please tell me that I don’t have to tell you Querypalooza veterans what’s wrong with that. Or that by contrast, Since you so successfully represent Francine Prose… doesn’t sound like a brilliant way to open a query letter should your work in fact be demonstrably akin to the illustrious Ms. Prose’s.

Need I repeat here that there are significant perils attached to drawing parallels to books that you have not read? Never, ever, EVER succumb to the temptation of comparing your manuscript to a book with which you are unfamiliar — especially to the unknown book’s agent, who may well have been the person who purged the book of typos and semicolons. The chances of such an analogy backfiring are simply too high.

How high, you ask? Well, ask a writer I know who, while querying a novel filled with scenes of people ripping into rare steaks, succulent veal, etc., happened to spot a copy of Ruth L. Ozeki’s MY YEAR OF MEATS in a bookstore. Without reading anything but the acknowledgments page, the querier shot off a letter full of meat-loving details to Ms. Ozeki’s agent, Molly Friedrich of the Friedrich Agency.

Unfortunately, MY YEAR OF MEATS is an exposé of abuses in the meat-production industry so vivid that it is considered in some circles an excellent argument for vegetarianism. But those of you who write novels steeped in dramatic irony probably saw that one coming, didn’t you?

Just don’t do it. If you’re not interested enough in an agent to read at least one book by one of her clients…well, since this is a teen-friendly site, I’m not going to reproduce the language folks in the industry use to talk about aspiring writers like that. I’ve never met an agent yet who wasn’t pleased to meet someone who admired his clients’ writing.

If you are legitimately familiar with the work in question, it’s not at all a bad idea to devote some query space to pointing out specific ways in which your book is similar to the one you cite. Do be aware, though, that from most agents’ points of view, the mere fact of sharing narrative choices alone (such as multiple first-person narrators or present-tense narration, to name two of the most popular) does not necessarily constitute enough of a similarity to inspire automatic professional interest.

But if a particular agent has represented a whole lot of books about horses, for instance, and your book is fairly bursting with ‘em, I see no reason to make his screener guess that’s why you picked him to query. Far be it from me to say neigh.

If you are going to be specific, stick to comparisons of important plot, character, or narrative worldview similarities between your book and another. Hedging your bets by vague statements like, It’s been said that my book reads just like THE DA VINCI CODE! will not win you friends and influence agents.

Why not? Well, in this instance, it begs the question, said by whom? And just because a book happened to be a bestseller doesn’t necessarily mean that every agent in the world will think it was the bee’s knees — although if you happen to be querying the agent who sold that bestseller, it’s probably a pretty safe bet to assume that she, at least, thought it had some literary merit.

In general, though, such statements are far more likely to annoy than impress. Take, for instance, the oft-used assertion this book is a natural for Oprah! Once Millicent has seen a claim like this more than thrice in a single week — and I assure you, if she’s a screener at a major agency, she’s been seeing it at least three times a day since she landed the gig — it loses its efficacy on her.

If, indeed, it ever would have worked. Our Millie is a pretty sharp cookie.

Why? Well, think about it: just how many times per day do you suppose the average chick lit agent was seeing My book is the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY! in the first paragraphs of query letters when it was a bestseller? Do you really want your query letter to sound like a quarter of the ones already in the rejection pile?

Of course not. You need to make your work sound unique, not merely marketable.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “the similarities I have in mind lie in the writing, not the subject matter. Shouldn’t I point that out, in case Millicent by some strange mischance fails to notice how much my query sounds like the voice of the agency’s most famous client?”

Well, yes and no; it depends upon how you go about it. Generally speaking, opening a query with something like Everyone says I write just like David Guterson will not play as well as Since you represented SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, you may be interested in my novel…

This is true, incidentally, even if one of the people who told you that you wrote just like David Guterson was David Guterson’s mother. (A lovely woman, incidentally; on one memorable occasion, she held me captive in the frozen food section of our local Trader Joe’s until I promised to rush out and buy a copy of OUR LADY OF THE FOREST that very day. That’s the kind of mother every writer should have.)

It pains me to say it, but the vast majority of agents will simply cast aside a query that quotes someone they have never heard of praising the book being offered. And aspiring writers, unfortunately, quote non-famous opinions of their work all the time — which, over time, comes to have precisely the same effect on Millicent as the Oprah assertion.

So you really should avoid saying, My writing teacher says this is the best book since BLEAK HOUSE or A friend told me that I write just like Audrey Niffenegger. (Represented by Joe Regal of Regal Literary, I’m told.)

Both of these are quotes from actual query letters, incidentally, presented to me for feedback on why they were not garnering enthusiastic responses. Both of the queriers subsequently revised their letter to omit these phrases, and are now happily represented, I am delighted to report.

Of course, if you can legitimately say, Colin Powell says my memoir, LUST FOR WAR, is the best war story since ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, by all means, say it. But as always, make sure that the person you are quoting is well-known (or at least well-known to the agent you are querying) AND that the quote is truthful.

Yes, you heard me correctly: unfortunately, one really does need to say that last part. You’d be amazed — at least I hope you would — at how many queriers gratuitously quote the famous without their permission, on the theory that the agent will never check. (Fie! Fie!)

But, hey, if you can justifiably say that the late great Kurt Vonnegut wept over your text, place that information in the first line of your query letter — whether you are querying his former agent (Knox Burger of Harold Ober Associates) or not. It’s too valuable a commendation not to use. In the first paragraph of your query, ideally.

Do not give in to the temptation of quoting out of context, however. Years ago, when I was in grad school, I took a seminar with Saul Bellow. I still have the term paper on which he wrote, “You are a very engaging writer.” Oh, how easy it would have been to present that quote as though he had said it about my first novel, especially as by that time, Professor Bellow was no longer among the living! But obviously, I couldn’t legitimately that luscious little blurb out of context.

I know, I know. Sometimes honesty looks an awful lot like stupidity. But at least I am 100% certain that I will never be caught in a self-promoting exaggeration at an industry meeting, where it could cost me serious credibility points. Leave the puffing up of your work to your publisher’s marketing department; at the querying stage, let the quality of your writing speak for itself.

Remember, the reference to the agent’s already-established client is intended not so much as a name-dropping power play, meant to stun with importance, than as a bow to the agent’s past professional successes and a preliminary answer to the obvious question in any query-reader’s mind: “Why is THIS author targeting THIS agency with THIS book?”

Chant it with me now, Querypalooza veterans: if any reasonably intelligent English-conversant reader could read more than half of your query letter without knowing the answer to that question, the query is almost certainly going to be rejected. Kind of surprising that most querying classes and guidebooks don’t point it out more often, isn’t it?

Wait — have some of you had your hands in the air since yesterday? By all means, go ahead. “But Anne,” some of you point out, rubbing your numb arms vigorously, “I want to get back to that time-worn suggestion that we should all be scouring acknowledgment pages, looking for agents to query. So much of the advice I’ve ever seen about how to do this is vague, predicated on the false assumption that every book will HAVE an acknowledgements page — and that a good writer should only need a short list of querying prospects. Well, I’ve been querying for several years now, and frankly, most new releases (at least those by first-time novelists) don’t contain acknowledgement pages. At the risk of seeming pitiful, HELP!”

You’re quite right, arm-rubbers: as anyone who has queried within the last five years knows, these assumptions are somewhat outdated. It’s harder now than it used to be for even a great book to find its best agent, and many a publisher cuts a few pennies out of the cost of printing a book by removing such niceties as half a page devoted to thanking one’s agent, one’s mother, and the members of one’s critique group.

Which, frankly, is a trifle irksome to those of us who rather enjoy the communal aspect of literary success. Yet I gather from my agent’s perpetual astonishment at my enthusiasm for other writers’ work (I’m notorious for pitching my friends’ books at conferences — particularly at conferences where the friend in question is a couple of time zones away), not everyone regards publication as a team sport.

But hey, we writers can use all the mutual support we can get, right?

To paraphrase everyone’s favorite writing auntie, Jane Austen (I grew up surrounded by writers and artists, but not everyone did. If you don’t have literary relatives, adopt ‘em, I say), we writers are an oppressed class: we need to stick together.

Heck, I’ll just go ahead and quote that wonderful passage from NORTHANGER ABBEY — a novel, by the way, that Aunt Jane’s publisher bought and sat upon for years and years without publishing, just like a certain memoir of my own authorship — so it’s safe to say that she knew a little something about writerly frustration. The quaint punctuation, for those of you new to Aunt Jane’s style, is hers:

Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.

Amazing how modern Aunt Jane remains, isn’t it? If you substituted “the 900th interpreter of the Middle East conflict” for the bit about the History of England, and changed the anthologizer mentioned into a reference to CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL (or indeed, to most of the textbooks currently used in English and American literature classes), the critique is still valid now.

Heck, throw in a hostile word or two about James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES or Kaavya Viswanathan’s HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD, AND GOT A LIFE, this passage could have appeared in a trade journal within the last five years.

I bring up the question of mutual aid advisedly, as no discussion about how to track down agents to query would be complete with out some reference to a way in which published writers are not always very nice to their less-recognized brethren and sistren: helping them land agents. And not just by saying no when a fellow writer asks, very nicely, for an introduction to one’s agent.

As my sore-armed questioners pointed out above , writers-conference wisdom dictates that the best means of finding out who represents an author is to check the book itself for acknowledgments. Often, authors will thank their agents — and if not, the common cant goes, maybe you should think twice about that agent, anyway. (The notion that perhaps the author might merely be rude does not come up much in conference discussions, I notice.)

In fact, I cannot even count the number of times that I’ve heard conference speakers advise aspiring writers to walk into a major bookstore, plop down in front of the genre-appropriate shelves, and start making a list of every agent thanked in every well-packaged book. That way, these speakers assure us, you know that you will be dealing with agents who have made sales recently, and thus must have fairly up-to-date connections amongst editors, who are notorious for moving from one publishing house to another at the drop of the proverbial chapeau.

Remember how, in earlier ‘Paloozas, I was bemoaning how a lot of the standard marketing advice writers get is quite out of date? Well…

It’s definitely worth checking a few books, but don’t be surprised if a couple of hours at Borders yields only a few names of queriable agents. The fact is, acknowledgements are simply a lot less common than they used to be — and as nearly as I can tell, it’s not because writers have become less grateful as a group.

With the rise of trade paper as a first-printing medium for novels (as opposed to hardback, paperback, and pulp), fewer and fewer first-time authors are being allowed to include acknowledgments at all. For one very simple reason: one less page per book saves publishers money.

As the fine folks who work on the business end of the business are so fond of saying, paper and ink are expensive.

And that, in case you’ve been wondering, is why so few books have dedications anymore — or have stuck them someplace the average reader would not know to look for them, such as the copyright page.

Obviously, this means that it’s harder now than in days of yore to pick up agent recommendations from acknowledgment pages: it’s pretty difficult to search what isn’t there. Even more unfortunately for searching purposes, first book authors, whose agents have demonstrated, and recently, their openness to new talent, are the least likely to be granted the ability to thank the people we would like for them to thank.

Yet for some reason I am unable to fathom, relative few authors include acknowledgment pages on their websites — although it’s definitely worth doing a quick web search to check. Occasionally, a well-disposed author, kindly thinking of the aspiring, will just say who represents her. Heck, sometimes they will even include a link.

Like the one in the upper right-hand corner of this page, say.

Changes in paper usage and website problems aside, though, I think that most advisors of acknowledgment-trawling overlook one salient fact: just because an author thanks an agent does not necessarily mean that the agent has been overwhelmingly helpful — or, more to the point from an aspiring writer’s point of view, especially open to new manuscript ideas.

That tepid mention in the back of the book, then, may not actually constitute a recommendation, per se. It’s simply expected. Think about it: while the author is thanking everyone else, it would look a little funny not to thank even the least helpful agent, wouldn’t it? Most of the professional acknowledgements you do see are fairly compulsory — this is not a business where it pays to burn bridges, after all.

Nor is this expectation of blanket thanks limited to mainstream publishing, by the way. Back in my bad old university days, I was STUNNED to discover that in academic work, acknowledgments are absolutely mandatory. I actually could not have gotten my dissertation accepted without the requisite page of thanks to the professors in my department who kept telling me throughout the writing process that they thought I should concentrate on a different topic entirely. Go figure.

So why do we occasionally see acknowledgments that apparently bear no mention of the author’s agent? Request, often. Some agents who aren’t particularly interested in attracting new clients will actually ask their authors not to mention their names on acknowledgement pages. Or to mention only their first names. Or at least not to identify them as agents.

This species of request is why, in case any of you had been wondering, you so often see a list of a dozen names loosely identified as helpers in the publishing process, rather than that standby of former days, I’d like to thank my wonderful agent, Jan White…

This practice, naturally, makes it significantly harder to track down who represented what. Let’s try to put that unpleasant fact in perspective: as I keep telling you, the vast majority of hurtful things agents do in the course of rejecting writers aren’t actually aimed at hurting writers or making our lives more difficult. Usually, our annoyance is merely a side effect, not the explicit goal: sending out form rejection letter, for instance, saves agencies boatloads of time; the fact that such rejections convey no actual feedback to writers is, from their point of view, incidental.

Refusing to allow one’s clients to thank one, however, is undoubtedly intended to make aspiring writers’ lives more difficult. But don’t blame the agents — or at any rate, don’t blame ONLY the agents. Blame the unscrupulous aspiring writers I mentioned yesterday, because such actions are generally adopted in self-defense.

Seriously. Stop laughing. Agents do it, my friends, because they have heard the same advice at conferences as we all have. They are increasingly hip to the fact that people who are neither buying nor reading their clients’ work (i.e., those lingerers in front of shelves at B&N) are still sending them letters beginning, Since you so ably represented Author X, I am sure you will be interested in my book…

See why it’s so helpful to be able to drop in a specific compliment about Author X’s book? It’s the calling-card of legitimacy.

There’s another reason to be a bit wary of relying too exclusively upon acknowledgment-searching — at least enough so to query an agent found that way without also checking out the agency’s website (if it has one; even in this day and age, surprisingly many don’t) AND one of the standard agency guides to make sure that the agent in question is, indeed, still open to representing books similar to the one you found in a bookstore. A very simple reason: many published writers are represented by agents who do not accept queries from previously unpublished writers.

And that’s not something the acknowledgments page is at all likely to tell you. “See here — my favorite author thanks her agent profusely,” query list-generators tell me tearfully. “But I can’t seem to figure out how to contact that agent!”

I hate to be the one to break it to these eager souls, but if an agent is not listed in one of the standard agency guides or on Preditors and Editors, it’s usually because

(a) she has stopped being an agent, due to retirement, promotion, death, becoming an editor, or intraoffice politics (the turnover at some agencies is pretty rapid),

(b) she’s between agencies (see a),

(c) she’s not yet back from (or is just about to depart for) maternity leave, rehab, and/or a retreat to write that novel she’s felt for 20 years she has rattling around inside her, and other agents within the agency are handling her client list, or

(d) she’s no longer looking for new clients, and thus did not bother to send the questionnaire back to the guide’s editors.

To put it bluntly, if an agent is impossible for an aspiring writer to find, it may well be because she is not looking to be found by aspiring writers. Check one of the standard guides, ask around at the Absolute Write water cooler, or check with the Association of Authors’ Representatives, but if you hit a blank wall, assume that the agent is not looking for new clients and move on.

(A) is particularly likely, by the way, if the author who thanked the agent so profusely was originally published more than ten years ago or works at a boutique agency, the kind that caters to a very few, very successful group of clients, often in a particular niche market. While such agents do occasionally have openings on their client lists, small agencies by definition take on few writers, rendering the probability of getting past their screeners rather low.

Call me wacky, but if you’re going to be expending time that you could be devoting writing on expanding your query list, I would rather see you concentrate first on agents who are actively looking for new writers.

All of which is to say: the acknowledgments route is not a bad way to come up with a few names to add to your query list, but like so much else in the agent-attracting process, it’s considerably harder to do successfully than it was even seven or eight years ago. So, realistically, since you will probably only be able to glean enough for one round of simultaneous queries, you should try to minimize how much time you invest in this method.

Fortunately for us all, there are other sources for finding out who represents whom — and rest assured, I shall move on to them over the next few days. In the meantime, enjoy the new archive list, read a good book every now and again, and keep up the good work!

Generating a query list-palooza, part 2: is honesty the best policy, or merely a very, very good idea?

passionflower vine

What do you think, campers? Was yesterday’s How to Find Agents to Query-palooza a better title for this series, or do you prefer Generating a Query List-palooza? I’m not thrilled with either, frankly, but I like FindingAgentstoQuerypalooza even less. I suppose I could always turn it into an acronym (FAQpalooza has a certain visual appeal, I must admit), yet in my experience, if the title doesn’t instantly tell the reader what the post is about, they tend to click onward.

All of which is to say: I’m open to suggestions. And don’t be surprised if every day of this series has a different moniker up front.

So much for the superficial; on to the substance. Last time, I extolled the virtues of figuring out one’s book category before embarking upon the arduous task of seeking out agents to query.

Why? Well, an array of reasons, the most pertinent to your list-generating success being (a) agents think of manuscripts as inherently belonging to marketing categories, thus (b) they tend to express their preferences for what they do and don’t want to represent in those terms. Since (c) it is a complete waste of your time to query an agent who does not represent books in your category — or no longer represents them — having narrowed down your book’s category to, if not a single choice, then at least the nearest two or three, will not only help you avoid rejection {because (d) no query is easier to reject than one for a kind of book the agency does not handle}, but will also make it significantly easier to figure out which agents are even possibilities for inclusion on your querying list.

Whew. Try saying that last sentence three times fast.

It will even help you if you are planning to pitch at a writers’ conference. As any of you who have found yourselves on a conference-throwing association’s mailing list are probably already aware, attending a conference — particularly one that features face-to-face pitching appointments — is one of the best ways for an aspiring writer to connect with an agent. Although not necessarily in the way that conference brochures often imply: contrary to both popular opinion amongst aspiring writers and the marketing materials aimed at them, it’s extremely rare that an agent will hear a conference pitch and fall so in love with a book’s concept that she shrieks at the pitcher, “I adore this book! I’m going to sign you this very minute!”

Why not? Think about it: why would she presume that a person who can describe a book well verbally must necessarily also be able to write well? She describes books well for a living, yet she has probably never written one. She is going to want to see the actual manuscript before she commits to anything.

So much for the myth of instant signing. What conference pitching can do for you — and don’t sneeze at this; it’s not an inconsiderable advantage — is allow you to skip the querying phase altogether. If the agent to whom you are assigned to pitch (or whose attention you manage to engage politely between conference sessions) thinks your book sounds marketable, he will ask you to send either a partial or a full manuscript.

In other words, the best-case scenario is that he will respond precisely the way his screener, Millicent, would respond to a written query.

He will only ask for pages under certain conditions, of course. And what are those conditions, you ask with bated breath?

In order to pique an agent’s interest, a pitch must demonstrate that the book in question

(1) is on a subject that the agent finds fascinating (a matter of individual taste, always),

(2) is something the agent might be able to sell with his current connections in the literary market conditions of today (which change constantly, AND

(3) falls into one of the book categories he (or someone at his agency) already represents.

These should sound at least vaguely familiar to those of you who have been following this autumn’s ‘Palooza series: they are precisely the same conditions a query must fulfill in order to prompt Millicent to request materials. Obviously, whether one is pitching or querying, though, one’s chances of fulfilling Condition #3 are considerably higher if (a) one has already taken the time to figure out one’s book category (perhaps with the assistance of the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY posts on the archive list at right) and (b) one has done sufficient research on the agents one is approaching to know whether they represent that category.

And why would investing that time in research save you chagrin in the long run, campers? Shout it with me now: because it’s a complete waste of time to query or pitch to an agent who doesn’t represent your book category.

I cannot sufficiently stress the importance of doing your homework before signing up — or signing a check — to pitch at a conference. The overwhelming majority of first-time pitchers assume, wrongly, that conference organizers will automatically assign them to the right agent. Or — sacre bleu! — that it doesn’t matter which agent hears their pitches. All agents are identical, right? If a book is really marketable, any agent currently inhabiting this side of the earth’s crust will immediately snap it up. If not, well, the writing must not be very good.

If reading those last four sentences made you feel slightly sick to your stomach, you’re not alone: they represent a very, very common writerly misconception about agent-landing. If, on the other hand, those sentences made you laugh heartily, congratulations: you’ve been doing your homework about how agencies actually operate.

In the U.S. literary market, there is no such thing as an agent who represents every kind of book, any more than there is a publishing house that publishes indiscriminately, regardless of book category. These people and institutions are specialists.

So if you are trolling the Internet for pitching opportunities, it might not actually be in your best interest to assume that the one geographically closest to you will provide the best value for your conference-going buck. Again, think about it: if a conference does not feature agents who represent your book category, what good could it possibly do for you to make a pitching appointment there?

Instead, stick to conferences that either specialize in your book category — many genres host their own regional or national gatherings — or whose scheduled attending agents do so. Most conference brochures and websites will include brief bios for invited agents; since those short blurbs are often rather vague, you might also want to look up the agents in one of the standard agents’ guides or online before you register.

That’s one way to meet agents — one of the most expensive, unfortunately. Typically, conferences that offer pitch sessions are costlier to attend than those that do not; some even charge an extra fee per pitching appointment. (Yet another reason to do one’s homework before registering, eh?) Even if you opt for a conference that does not offer formal appointments, however, you may still be able to make an informal hallway pitch or have a conversation with an agent who happens to be giving a lecture.

Which brings me back to a suggestion from last time: even if you did not get an opportunity to pitch to an agent at a conference, you may still want to send her a query. Perhaps one beginning: I enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent Conference X. I hope you will be interested in my novel… I also, if you will recall, suggested tracking down who represents your favorite authors.

I have a more words of advice about the latter method yet to dispense, but before we move on, I feel ethically obliged to revisit the former briefly, to address a questionable querying practice I have seen in my travels. It pains me to report that some wily aspiring writers out there who do not actually attend conferences, but send out queries implying that they have.

How do they pull that off? These unscrupulous souls habitually surf the web, finding out which agents are scheduled to speak at which conferences and when, wait a week or two, then send the attending agents I so enjoyed your talk at Conference X, and I hope you will be interested in my work… queries. These unscrupulous have even been known to write Conference X attendee in big red letters on the outside of their query packets or type it in the subject lines of their e-mails.

And why do these clever-but-underhand writers do this? Because they have been hanging around the industry long enough to know that

(a) by a couple of weeks after a large conference, the average agent might not remember be able to pick everyone who pitched to her out of a police line-up, much less remember who was or was not in the audience during her how-to-wow-me speech,

(b) even at a small conference, many writers are too shy to approach an agent directly, so chances are, the agent will not have met everyone there, and

(c) at a big agency, a reasonably well-established agent will have a Millicent going through her queries for her, anyway.

Therefore (these cads reason) the chances of being caught in the lie about attending are next to nil, and since the benefits of being able to claim conference attendance can be fairly significant — as I mentioned last time, conference-going queriers’ letters usually end up in the closer scrutiny pile — they have no scruples, apparently, about dressing themselves in borrowed clothes. Why not, these abandoned types reason: at worst, being caught means the query and/or eventual submission’s being rejected, that’s all.

Fie, fie.

Actually, there are a couple of ways in which such bold souls do tend to get caught, and since I am here to preach practicality, rather than morality, I feel honor-bound to point them out. First, agent rosters for conferences are NOTORIOUSLY malleable; many a Millicent loves to tell tales of the query letters they’ve received that extolled the pleasures of meeting an agent who was not even in the time zone of the mentioned conference on the date mentioned.

Second, since agents routinely talk at conferences about their specific book needs of the moment, it’s quite common for Millicents to find their inboxes inundated with queries for their bosses’ latest yen a week or two after a conference. Agents are equally likely to announce at conferences what no longer represent — which means, in practice, that what they say there is often substantially different than what’s in the blurb they gave the fine folks who put together the conference brochure several months ago. It’s not even all that unusual for a conference brochure to re-use a blurb from the last time that agent attended, even if his preferences have changed in the meantime.

You can see the pretend attendee’s mistake coming, I hope? If a querier says, I was so pleased to hear you say at Conference Y that you are looking for paranormal romance, and I hope you will be interested in mine, and Millicent knows that her boss marched into Conference Y and declared, “I’m so sick of paranormal romances that I wish never to see a query for one again,” that’s obviously an automatic rejection offense. True, since changing preferences are often not expressed in the latest edition of an agency guide, the unprincipled conference-claiming writer will probably only be making the same mistake as aspiring writers working from an outdated guidebook, but still, fie.

Brace yourself for #3, campers, because it represents some pretty hardened criminality. If you are easily shocked, you might want to avert your eyes.

Some dodgy writers are not satisfied with merely imposing upon Millicent with an untrue statement in a query letter. Sometimes, they will send the first 50 pages of their manuscripts to an agent who attended a conference, along with a disingenuous letter thanking the agent profusely for requesting the materials at a conference so jam-packed with writers that the agent might well have been the recipient of dozens of hallway pitches.

Fie, fie, FIE!!! I find this one particularly offensive — although truth compels me to say (off the record, of course) that I do know several successfully published authors who got their agents this way.

But that doesn’t make it right, my friends; it only makes it common. You’re better than that. I know you are.

Now that we’re all sadder but wiser about the ways in which this wicked, wicked world works, let’s talk about how to track down and solicit established writers’ agents without resorting to sordid trickery. Just where does a writer go to find out who represents what, in order to target her queries effectively?

Last time, I talked about the most common advice agents give to aspiring writers: find out who represents your favorite authors, usually through trolling acknowledgments pages, and querying their agents. (Actually, the most common advice agents give to writers is to go away and query someone else — the previous axiom is merely the most frequently-given advice about how to FIND an agent. But I digress.) This can be a dandy way to find a good agent with a proven track record in representing a particular kind of book.

Do be aware, however, that if the authors whose agents you approach are well-known, have published more than a couple of books, and/or are award winners, their agents may not be altogether keen on picking up the unpublished. This is especially likely to be the if the books you are checking happen to have come out more than a year or two ago — or if the authors in question were overnight successes tend to linger at the top of the NYT bestseller lists.

Check agency websites and standard agents’ guides before you invest a stamp on a query: the agent willing to fall in love with a previously-unpublished writer a decade ago may well not have done so again anytime within the last couple of years. Not all agencies are open to first-time authors. Another reason to double-check those acknowledgements: it’s entirely possible that the agent representing a major author now is not the same one who first took a wild chance on him as an unknown back in the 80s.

Why? Well-established authors often move up to more important agents as they gain prestige, so by the time that a Pulitzer Prize-winner like Alice Walker ends up at the Wendy Weil agency, she may have traded up two or three times. The exceptionally gifted memoirist Barbara Robinette Moss, for instance, traded up to Ms. Weil; I don’t know if that’s how essayist Sarah Vowell ended up there. But see my point?

Authors change agents all the time, and client-poaching, for lack of a nicer term for it, goes on more than most aspiring writers expect. And for good reason: as I believe I MAY have mentioned before in this very post, both market and individual tastes change, and not all agents enjoy an equal ability to sell a particular book.

Some have better connections for an author’s next book than others: some habitually lunch and cocktail party with editors at larger publishing houses, for instance; some went to college with more fine folks who ended up at imprints devoted to literary fiction than others. It may even be as simple as a particular agent’s having sat next to a particular editor at a writing conference’s rubber chicken dinner, but the fact is, different agents enjoy different levels of access to the people who would need to approve the acquisition of any given book.

So after an author has a major success, or even a modest one, with his original agent — that hard-working soul who was willing to take a chance on an unknown, bless her — it’s not all that unusual for him to start looking toward a better-established agency. Or for a more prominent agent to begin courting him.

Which sometimes leads to some rather amusing odd head jerkings in restaurants and bars adjacent to writers’ conferences: “What’s Author X doing having brunch with Agent R?” Agent B will hiss, pretending to drop his napkin as a cover for turning around to look. “I nursed X through three novels!”

The moral, should you care to know it: it’s not in your interest to assume that the agent whom the author thanks in the acknowledgments in his most recent book is necessarily the one who got him his first break. If the book in question is very successful, or is the follow-up to a success, that name could as easily be Agent R as the guy who dropped his napkin surreptitiously to stare at their clandestine meal.

Checking an established author’s FIRST book’s acknowledgements is often a better bet, especially if that author only broke into the big time within the last few years. Be aware, though, that a laudable willingness to take a chance on a hot new talent is not always how agents end up representing a particular author. Like John Irving, an author may have married his agent, Janet Turnbull Irving of the Turnbull Agency, a feat you could hardly hope to reproduce between now and Christmas.

Although let me know if you do, and I’ll send along a wedding present.

It’s also not unheard-of for an agent to make her reputation on a single well-known client, and to concentrate most of her efforts on that client, rather than on new ones. Often, these bestselling authors’ prestige was probably the key that opened the door to the top-flight agencies, rather than their beginning-of-the-career raw talent.

Generally speaking, you will be better off if you place the agents of writers on the bestseller lists lower on your priority roster, and concentrate on midlist or first-time authors. If you do decide to go hunting for the big game, bear in mind that that a Millicent Writers House, for instance, will inevitably open a LOT of queries that begin, As you handle Ken Follett…, Since you sold Nora Roberts’ last book…, and Since you so ably represent Neil Gaiman…

Such queries will not get any points for novelty, if you catch my drift.

Recall, too, that an agent who represents a bigwig author will often spend the bulk of his time catering to the bigwig’s business — and thus may well have little time to lavish on a new-but-brilliant client. (If you should ever find yourself within shouting distance of the delightful Don Maass of the Donald Maass Agency, ask him about how many days per year he devotes to a client like Anne Perry, as opposed to a client he’s just signed. Go ahead, he won’t be offended: he talks about it at conferences.)

In short, setting your heart on your favorite bestseller’s agent may not be the best use of your time and energy. Where the Since you so ably represent Author Q, I believe you will be interested in my work… gambit will serve you best is with lesser-known writers, particularly those who are just starting out.

Seriously, many agents nurturing a pet author or two, someone whose books currently sell only a few thousand copies, but the agency hopes be breaking into mainstream success any day now. Where recognition is scant, any praise is trebly welcome, so the clever writer who is the first (or tenth) to identify the up-and-coming writer as THE reason for picking the agent is conveying a subtle compliment to eyes hungry to see it. The agent (or her Millicent) often thinks, “My, here is a discerning person. Perhaps I should give her writing a chance.”

Good reason to go to first-time authors’ public readings, eh? The less famous the writer, the less well-attended the reading usually is. Maybe, if you are very nice (and one of the three people who showed up for the book signing), the brand-new author might even agree to let you begin your query letter, Your client, Brand-New Author, recommended that I contact you…

Again, do you think such a letter will get more or less attention than the average query?

A couple of words of warning about using this strategy, however. First, if you value your credibility (and you should), do not state, even as an indirect implication, that the author recommended you contact the agent unless it is true.

Oh, you may laugh, but aspiring writers do this all the time; it’s a well enough known dodge that agents routinely ask their clients, “Hey, what can you tell me about this writer?” If the response is, “Who?” using the recommendation might actually carry a negative value.

If you do indeed have a recommendation, great. If you do not, however, it’s just not wise to tempt fate.

But in response to what half of you just thought very loudly indeed, in terms of pure ethics, I think that a famous writer’s telling you at a conference, “Gee, you should talk to my agent,” constitutes a recommendation, and you are entitled to use it accordingly. A word to the wise, however: since it is not unheard-of for a touring writer not to recall the names and/or book titles of every soul with whom she had a conversation on a 9-state tour or at a 450-attendee conference — I tremble to tell you this, but it’s true — you might want to play it safe by sending off a brief, polite thank-you note to the recommender before you query her agent. (Most publishing houses will forward readers’ correspondence to their authors.)

Yes, it’s a bit time-consuming, but yet again, I would encourage you to think about it: wouldn’t you rather that famous author’s response to her agent’s inquiry about you were, “Oh, yes, that charming young writer; he just sent me a note,” than “Who are you talking about, Maisie?”

Also, it’s dangerous to use the names of writers whose work you do not like as calling card with their agents– and downright perilous to use the names of writers whose work you have not read. It’s only prudent to assume that, at some point, you will be having a conversation with the agent about the author whose work you praised.

The more obscure the author, in my experience, the more likely this conversation is to happen. If you hate the prose stylings of Alan Hollinghurst (whose work I love, personally; the last I checked, he was represented by Fletcher & Co.), or if you have never read any Dorothy Allison (Frances Goldin Agency), it’s probably not the best idea to present yourself as an enthusiast to their respective agents, or indeed to anyone who knows their work very well.

Your mother was right, you know: honesty is the best policy. Go give her a call, and keep up the good work!

How to find agents to query-palooza, or, hunting and gathering the smart way

hunter cave painting

I had planned to move away from practical marketing issues today, campers, and back to the nitty-gritty craft issues that we all so love. After a quick barefoot run through some of your comments in the earlier ‘Palooza series, I realized with the proverbial shock that I had entirely forgotten that I had promised another: a how-to on how to come up with a list of agents to query.

That would render all of those beautifully-written queries quite a bit more useful, wouldn’t it? I was stunned to discover that I hadn’t done an in-depth series on generating a query list since 2007. (How time flies when we’re talking craft, eh?) And there’s no time to lose if I’m going to ‘Palooza on the subject this fall, because savvy queriers aiming for the New York-based agency market will, naturally, be aiming to get the rest of the season’s queries out before Thanksgiving week.

That’s the fourth Thursday in November, for those of you reading this in foreign climes. Try to crank those queries out before then. It’s even a good time to send out a few additional queries for those of you already on the query-a-week plan.

Why treat this as a general querying deadline for the year, you ask? Well, not a lot goes on in the U.S. publishing industry between Thanksgiving and Christmas; I know many, many agents who, as in August, simply do not bother to send submissions to editors between mid-November and the New Year.

It’s a time for merrymaking — and for catching up on all of that reading that’s been piling up over the preceding 10 1/2 months. Given that the average agent’s office is well enough insulated with as yet unread piles of paper to allow him to survive the next ice age in toasty comfort, the comparatively great time to read is universally regarded as a boon.

What does that mean from the aspiring writer’s perspective? Chances are good that a query or a manuscript sent during these yearly doldrums would languish unopened for a month — or more.

Why more? A couple of reasons. By law, US-based agencies have to produce tax information for the previous year’s earnings by the end of January: paperwork central. And since agenting tends to attract former English majors, rather than accounting majors, this deadline can result in a few weeks of rather frayed tempers.

Which tend to be exacerbated by the positive avalanche of queries they receive within the first couple of weeks of the new year. It’s not uncommon for Millicent to greet a gray January morning by seeing 4 or 5 times the usual volume of mail dumped upon her desk.

That’s enough to make anyone burn her lip with a too-hasty sip on her latte.

Does Santa Claus bank down the reindeer engines from his Yuletide travels by bringing good little agency screeners buckets of additional queries? No, it’s a phenomenon of group think: virtually all of the aspiring writers of North America make it their New Year’s resolution to query the heck out of their books.

The result: the first few weeks of January finds Millicent the agency screener overwhelmed, her bosses stressed, and everyone concerned in an even more rejection-happy mood than usual.

I know; hard to picture. But true. I always advise my clients to avoid querying, or even submitting requested material, before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — or, to translate that into European terms, before Federico Fellini’s birthday on January 21.

Hey, if we’re taking nominations for a patron saint of aspiring writers, Fellini isn’t a bad choice. An enhanced appreciation of the surreal, the advent of the miraculous in modern life, and the value of sitting around in cafés, brooding and looking fabulous, is actually very helpful for those of us trudging the long path to publication.

So let’s talk hunting and gathering. Specifically, hunting down names of agents who might be interested in your work and gathering that information into a list that will carry even the most intrepid querier through the end of the year. Or at least until Thanksgiving.

But where, as writers everywhere routinely cry to the heavens, does one FIND agents to query? Opening the Manhattan Yellow Pages and sticking a pin randomly on the page? Tracking down the four biggest agencies and querying every agent in them? Just querying every name listed in the Herman Guide?

The short answer, of course, is no. (The long answer is NOOOOOOOO.)

Bear with me, long-time readers, while I repeat an underappreciated truth of the industry: not every agent represents every kind of book, or even every stripe of book within a particular genre.

Instead, agents specialize; they nurture connections primarily in their areas of interest. And they uniformly tell their screeners — our old friend Millicent and her ilk — to reject outright any query that falls outside those parameters.

Yes, you read that correctly: agencies typically reject ANY query about a book category they do not represent, regardless of quality. Even if it’s the most marketable idea for a book since Helen Fielding said, “You know, I think I’m gonna rewrite Pride and Prejudice in a modern setting, with more sex.” This is the primary reason that agents prefer queries to state the book category in the first paragraph, if not the first line: so they may weed out the kinds of books they have no experience representing.

Ready for another hard, oft-overlooked truth? It is simply a waste of an aspiring writer’s time, energy, and resources to send a query to an agent who does not specialize in that writer’s type of book. No matter how well-written a query may be or how inherently marketable a book concept is, it is futile to query an agent who has devoted her life to promoting bodice-ripper romances with a futuristic fantasy where bosoms remain unheaved, and vice versa.

Oh, the misery that would be averted if more aspiring writers were aware of this salient fact! Every year, hundreds of thousands of hours are wasted in both writing misdirected query letters and summarily rejecting them, causing needless depression on one end and habitual chagrin on the other. Although, really, Millicent should be grateful that so many aspiring writers make this mistake: queries sent to the wrong agent are self-rejecting, after all.

To heighten the wails of woe even further, it isn’t even enough for a writer to target an agency that represents his kind of book: he needs to target the right agent within it. One of the classic agency screener pet peeves is to see the same query letter sent simultaneously to every agent on staff at a particular agency a query in the hope of hitting the right one.

To all too many queriers, the necessity to do some homework on who represents what comes as a gargantuan surprise — and an annoying inconvenience. After all, it just seems efficient to write to every member agent listed under an agency’s listing. “Who’s going to know there’s overlap?” these busy souls mutter to themselves, industriously stuffing envelopes. “The average agency receives 800-1500 queries per week!”

Actually, it’s fairly likely that someone will notice: Millicent is often opening the mail for more than one agent. And although I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the vast majority multi-member agencies have a policy that they will reject such blanket queries outright.

Not that an agency will usually tell writers that they’re being rejected for this reason, mind you; blanket queriers almost invariably get the same form-letter rejection as everyone else. Which is why, in case you were wondering, there are invariably so many blankly dismayed faces in the audience after an agent casually mentions from a conference podium that he and his colleagues won’t even consider a project proposed to everyone in the agency simultaneously.

Before anyone jumps to any conclusions: this pervasive practice of rejecting multiple queries to the same agency is often mistakenly confused with the writers’ conference circuit myth that agents uniformly become incensed if they learn that a particular writer is sending out queries to agents at different agencies simultaneously. The former is a common pet peeve; the latter is most emphatically not. To drag out my broken record player yet again:

broken-recordUnless an agency states SPECIFICALLY in its agency guide listing or on its website that it insists upon an exclusive for any submission it considers, these days, it is assumed that a market-savvy writer will be sending out simultaneous queries.

Why would they presume any such thing? For one very simple, very practical reason: querying agents one at a time, waiting weeks (or even months) to hear back from one before sending out the next, can add YEARS to the agent-finding process.

Trust me, agents understand this. They tend to be impatient people by nature.

So why would they find a writer’s querying every agent in a particular agency simultaneously annoying? To insider eyes, it’s a sign of inexperience, an indicator that the querier has not sufficiently researched who represents books in a given category sufficiently — and is thus unlikely to be a very industry-savvy client.

Why? Chant it with me now, ‘Palooza followers: writers who don’t do their homework are likely to need more of the process explained to them, and are thus significantly more time-consuming to represent than those who already know how the process works. (Than, say, aspiring writers who had invested the time in reading through the posts in the HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS — AND DOESN’T category on the archive list at right. Conveniently placed, is it not?)

Realistically, there is another, more practical reason for the one-agent-per-agency policy: if 5 of the 150 envelopes Millicent slits open tomorrow morning have the same name on the letterhead, or sport the same title in the first paragraph, she can save many valuable minutes by rejecting #2-#5 as soon as she spots the repetition.

And she may not even get as far as the first paragraph of an e-mailed query that lists half a dozen agents on its recipient list.

Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you cry, “that isn’t fair! How on earth is a writer new to the industry to learn who represents what?”

Glad you asked, disgruntled mutterers. My project for the rest of the week shall be to answer this question.

Yes, readers who have had your hands in the air since the beginning of this post? “I know how to solve this one, Anne!” you announce proudly. “I would go to one of the many online agent search engines, plug in my book’s category, and query everyone whose name comes up!”

Well, yes, you could do that, proud hand-raisers. You could also pick up one of the standard agency guides, turn to the index, and see who is listed as representing your book category. Either would be a terrific first step toward generating a query list.

Yes, I did say first step, now that you mention it. Neither method is likely to give you the information you need in order to prioritize which agents you should query first. That’s problematic, as it tends to prompt writers brand-new to the querying process to produce a single generic query letter to send to all 50 — or 70, or 212, depending upon the popularity of one’s chosen book category — who are listed as being interested in their type of book.

Three months later, they find themselves saddled with 21 rejections, 29 non-responses, and a query list with no more names on it. Since one of the unspoken-but-universal expectations of agency life is that a writer may query a particular agent only once with the same project, where is the disappointed mass-querier to turn next?

Hold that horrifying thought, please. I have another few species of query-list nightmares with which to frighten you.

Some aspiring writers query only one agent at a time — so by the time they hear back (or not) from the first ten, the information upon which they based their initial agent-ranking preferences may have become obsolete. This can happen for a lot of reasons: the market for in a particular book category may have changed; individual agents may have changed what they are looking to represent; editors who had bought reliably an agency in the past may have been laid off. Then, too, agents move from agency to agency all the time, not to mention taking maternity leave, getting fed up with a difficult literary market, or even dying.

Oh, you may laugh, but do you really want to be the writer who queries the agent who died six months ago? To be useful over years of querying, a query list should be updated and its facts rechecked about twice a year.

Is all of that groaning I hear coming from those of you who had been querying one or two agents at a time? “But Anne,” you protest, and who could blame you? “I’ve been querying slowly because I didn’t have the time to do extensive research on many agents at once! I have a general list, of course, but I only look up the person I am planning to query next. Are you saying that I also need to check that general list that I gleaned from the index of Guide to Literary Agents three years ago, to check that the agents on it represent what they did back then?”

In a word, yes. (In several words: yes yes yes yes yes.) Agencies are very fluid places these days.

But let’s pause a moment to consider this practice of querying one agent and waiting to hear back before moving on to the next. If you’re intending to approach agencies with a we-will-only-respond-if-we-are-interested policy (sometimes stated openly on agency websites and in guide listings, but not always), it’s just not realistic. Unless you have your heart set on an agency that demands an exclusive look at queries — extremely rare, by the way — it’s disrespectful to your own time not to continue to send queries out on a regular basis while you’re waiting to hear back from your first choice.

I suspect that is an argument that will resonate with some of you one-at-a-timers, not necessarily because you believe the old saw about agents’ expecting querying exclusivity (although many who embrace this practice do), but because, let’s face it, it takes a heck of a lot of work and emotional energy to send out even one query, let alone keeping six or ten out at any one time. It will probably make less sense to the ilk of one-at-a-timers who have such high expectations for their books’ prospects that they just assume that the first agent they query will snap the manuscript up immediately.

For each of these rather disparate initial rationales, the subsequent reasoning is surprisingly similar: why should I bother to send out more queries? If the first agent on my list says yes, it will just be wasted effort. And once a writer starts thinking that way, the reasoning seems just as valid for one’s 85th query as one’s second.

I understand exhaustion, hubris, or just plain lack of time, but in these days of months-long turnaround times and not hearing back at all if the answer is no, what usually ends up happening to queriers who reason this way is that they wake up one day a year into the querying process to discover that they have barely made a dent in their querying lists — and thus have to research them all over again. Or, even more common, they simply have given up by a year into the agent search.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll send it again: because the object here is not to land just any agent, but the right one for a specific book, even the most talented writers often have to send out dozens or even hundreds of queries before finding the right one. It honestly is in your manuscript’s best interest, then, to keep pressing forward. The only book that has NO chance of getting published is the one that no agent or editor ever sees.

You’re going to want to keep sending out those queries. Yes, even if the best agent in the known universe has the full manuscript of your novel sitting on her desk even as I write this.

Was that loud crash a multitude of jaws hitting floors across the English-speaking world? Believe me, you will be a much, much happier camper if you already have queries, or even submissions, in other agents’ hands if — heaven forfend — the one who asked to see a partial or full turns you down.

Think of keeping the query flow going as insurance: if something goes wrong with your top prospect, you will have possible alternates waiting in the wings. Or at the very least will be spared the effort of having to come up with a new prospect from scratch. Besides, contrary to pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, being sought-after by more than one agent is a GOOD thing — after all, nothing speeds up reading turn-around like the news that another agent has already made an offer.

I know it’s tempting to rest on your laurels while waiting to hear back on a partial or a full, but The law of inertia tells us that a process already in motion tends to remain in motion; as anyone who has done serious time in the querying trenches can tell you, it takes quite a bit more energy to restart your querying engines again after they have gone cold than to keep plowing forward.

I know you’re tired of querying; it’s a whole lot of work. You have my sympathy, really. Now go out and send a couple of fresh queries this week. And next, and the week after that. Repeat until you’re picked up — although if you wanted to take a break between Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King, Jr., day, that might save you some effort.

As my long-time readers are well aware, I’m of the keep-querying-until-the ink-is-actually-dry-on-the-contract school of thought. But to keep that flow going, you’re going to need to generate a hefty list of prospects of agents who represent writing like yours.

And by writing like yours, I don’t mean books along vaguely similar lines — I’m talking about books in the same marketing category. Those of you who worked your way through Querypalooza should already have a fairly clear idea of which categories come closest to your work — and if you do not, please run, not walk, toward the posts under the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY listing at right.

Why is nailing down your marketing category so important? Because it is the language agents and editors use to describe books. Until you know in which category (or categories; many overlap) your baby falls, you will have great difficulty not only understanding agents express their professional preferences at conferences, but also deciphering their wants as stated in agency guides and on their websites.

As you may perhaps have gathered from how often I have said it in this post, I cannot overstress the importance of targeting only agents appropriate to your work, rather than taking a scattershot approach. (See? I even put it in boldface that time.) There’s a reason I’m hitting the point so hard: if you’ve ever heard a successful agent talk about the business for five consecutive minutes, chances are you’ve already heard four times that one of the biggest mistakes the average aspiring writer makes is to regard all agents as equally desirable, and thus equally smart to approach.

As a rule, they don’t like being treated as generic representatives of their line of work, rather than highly-focused professionals who deal in particular types of books. This is true, incidentally, even of those agents who list every type of book known to man in the agency guides, because they are loath to miss out on the next bestseller, regardless of whether they typically represent that type of book or not. Go figure.

So as those of you Querypalooza survivors may recall, the single best thing you can do to increase your chances of acceptance is to write to a specific person — and for a specific reason, which you should state in the letter. Agents all have specialties; they expect writers to be aware of them.

Later in this series, I will go into why this isn’t a particularly fair expectation, but for now, suffice it to say that it’s expected. Respecting the agents’ preferences in this respect marks the difference between the kind of writer that they take seriously and the vast majority that they don’t.

This is probably old news to most of you, right? If you’re taking the time to do research on the industry online, you have probably encountered this advice before. Although perhaps not its corollary: it’s not an efficient use of your querying energies to approach agents — at conferences, via e-mail, or through queries — unless they have a proven track record of representing your type of writing successfully.

Limiting your queries by past sales records is for your protection, as much as to increase your probability of querying success. Think about it: do you really want to be your new agent’s FIRST client in a particular genre?

Of course not; it will be twice as hard to sell your book. Just expressing interest in your type of book may not be sufficient; you want an agent who already has connections with editors who buy your type of work on a daily basis.

Which brings me to the most logical first step for seeking out agents to query.

1. Agents who attended the same conference(s) you did
If you attended a conference within the last year, now is the time to send letters to the agents to whom you were not able to pitch. However, be smart about it: don’t bother to query those who client lists do not include books like yours.

I’m serious about this. No matter how much you may have liked the agent personally at the conference: the second easiest ground of rejection — after a generic “Dear Agent” salutation — is when the query is for a kind of book that the agent does not represent. Like “Dear Agent,” an agency screener does not need to read more than a couple of lines of this type of query in order to plop it into the rejection pile.

Allow me to repeat: this is true, no matter how much you may have liked the agent when you met her, or how well you thought the two of you clicked, or that the second agent from the left on the panel bears a startling resemblance to your beloved long-ago junior high school French teacher. Deciding whom to represent is a business decision, not a sentimental one, after all — and it will save you a tremendous amount of time and chagrin if you approach selecting your querying list on the same basis.

So do a little homework first. If you didn’t take good notes at the conference about who was looking for what kind of book (and didn’t keep in touch with the person sitting next to you, scribbling like a fiend), check out the standard agents’ guides, where such information abounds. Or the agency’s website.

Then, when you find the right fits, go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of your query envelopes, and mention having heard the agent speak at the conference in the first line of your letter; at most agencies, this will automatically put your query into a different pile, because conference attendees are generally assumed to be more industry-savvy, and thus more likely to be querying with market-ready work, than other writers.

If you went to a big conference, this strategy might yield half a dozen more agents to query. Where do you go after that?

This is a serious question, one that I have argued long and hard should be addressed explicitly in seminars at writing conferences. Far too many aspiring writers abandon their querying quests too soon after their first conferences, assuming — wrongly — that once they have exhausted the array of attending agents, they have plumbed the depth and breadth of the industry.

This is simply not true. The agents who show up at any given conference are just that — the agents who happened to show up for that particular conference, people with individual tastes and professional preferences. If you didn’t strike lucky with that group, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you would have the same luck with another.

But obviously, conferences are expensive; few writers can afford to attend an unlimited number of them. So how else can you find out who is eager to represent what?

2. Agents who represent authors you respect within your chosen book category
The common wisdom on the subject, according to most writing guides and classes, is that you should start with the agents of writers whose work you like, advice predicated on the often untrue assumption that all of us are so myopic that we will only read writers whose work resembles ours.

Me, I’m not so egocentric: I read books by a whole lot of living writers, most of whose styles are nothing at all like mine; if I want a style like my own, I read my own work.

However, especially if you write in a genre or nonfiction, querying your favorite authors’ agents is not a bad idea. Certainly, the books already on your shelves are the easiest to check the acknowledgments page for thank-yous.

Actually, you should get into the habit of checking these pages anyway, if you are planning on a career in this business: one of the best conversation-starters you can possibly whip out is, “Oh, you worked on Author X’s work, didn’t you? I remember that she said wonderful things about you.”

Trust me, there is not an agent or editor in the business who will not be flattered by such a statement. You would be amazed at how few of the writers who approach them are even remotely familiar with the average agent’s track record. But who doesn’t like to be recognized and complimented on his work?

So, knowing this about human nature, make an educated guess: would an agent would be more or less likely to ask to see pages from a writer whose well-targeted query began, “Since you so ably represented Author X’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, I believe you will be interested in my work…”

You bet your boots, baby.

So I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you call out, “I already knew about querying agents I saw at conferences and checking acknowledgement pages. (Which, due to the rising costs of paper and binding, aren’t nearly so common in newly-published books as they used to be in the past.) Aren’t there more creative ways to expand my query list?”

As a matter of fact, there are — but that’s a topic for next time. Hang in there, campers, and keep up the good work!

Authorbiopalooza VII: framing Jack O. Lantern’s smiling authorial face

grinning pumpkin 2

I’m smiling myself this morning, campers, although not quite as widely as Jack. Congratulate me, for I am officially the Nicest Lady in the Neighborhood, a title I hope to hold until next Halloween rolls around. How did I score this enviable title? Well, I am usually in the running: ours is the only house within a multi-block radius that gives out full-size candy bars. (You should see the look on the little ones’ faces when they first clap eyes on our candy tray.)

This year, however, we also had the dubious distinction of being one of the only houses in the neighborhood giving out candy at all. Blame the economy, not the neighbors, I say, but naturally, it was hard for the kids to understand. So I told them that if they went away for half an hour and came up with a story about the characters they were impersonating for the night, they could each have another three candy bars. One especially creative ninja reappeared three times, each with a different tale to tell.

I heard some great stories. Score one for the future writers of America, and a big loss for dental hygiene.

Back to business. I’m going to be wrapping up author bios and photos today, tying up a few loose ends and answering a few perennial first-time autobiographers’ lingering questions. Since this is my last Authorbiopalooza post — 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 something vital just one more time, for the benefit of all you procrastinators out there.

broken-recordPlease, 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. Set aside some time to do it soon.

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 of the book. 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?

Don’t look at me so blankly. Why wouldn’t a success-oriented group of writers 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 starting up that broken record player, all needs to be interesting — and that’s where a little outside perspective can be very helpful. Yet even very market-focused critique 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 barking at you to show, not tell?

Speaking of great questions (yes, I know; I was speaking of it several paragraphs ago, but humor me here), let’s get right to the promised answers to past reader questions on bio-related points. Yes, shorter versions of these answers are already available elsewhere on this site, but since the comments are not searchable from your side of the site and not everyone reads the comment strings — especially, I notice, whilst perusing the archives — I wanted to have all of this information gathered in one place, all ready to pop up in a site search using that nifty search engine located in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

I love readers’ questions, because, frankly, you clever souls often come up with angles it would not otherwise have occurred to me to pursue. Those of us who have been staring at bios, queries, synopses, and professionally-formatted manuscripts for years may be able to tell in an instant how the page in front of us is not right, but since we have such a strong mental image of what the right format, for instance, is, we seldom invest time in considering how someone who had never seen a successful author bio formatted for submission, for example, might picture it.

That’s why, in case anybody had been wondering, I so often encourage my readers to ask challenging questions of agents and editors at conferences: the question that’s been bugging you for months might not be one a speaker would know to include in her talk. So for heaven’s sake, ask; it’s good for everybody concerned.

To illustrate, here is a question from intrepid reader Doug about how a writer using a pen name might approach the bio. Specifically,

Is the author’s name one’s pseudonym (when applicable)? Both in the heading and in the text?

This is a great question, Doug, one that I’m positive perplexes many a pseudonymous writer. To make sure that we’re all on the same page, so to speak, what Doug is inquiring about is the boldfaced author name at the top of the bio, as well as how to refer to the author within the bio itself. To borrow an example from last time, so we may see how the author’s name dots the page:

Ste. Cecile author bio2

In the bio, the author’s name should be the same as it is on the title page and in the slug line; it’s confusing if they’re different. So if you’ve decided to use a pseudonym under the By… part of the title page (as opposed to the contact info, which should use the name to which you’d prefer to have your royalty checks made out), be consistent throughout your query or submission packet.

You want to see that in action, don’t you? Fair enough.

pen name title page

If Arthur Worrieswhathisrelativeswillthink were to write an author bio — and he would definitely need to do so, even for a memoir, despite the fact that the entire manuscript could be construed as a bio — he has a choice: he can either show his real name on the bio, or he can list his pen name, Unabashed R. Pseudonym, as long as it is the name he uses (a) appears on the title page, as we’ve seen above, and (b) is the name in the slug line at the top of every manuscript page. In a first book, it’s usually more prudent to use one’s real name, so that contracts — like, say, the representation agreement Arthur wants the agent of his dreams to offer him — are made out properly.

One’s agent does, after all, have to know one’s real identity. So unless you are an international man of mystery fleeing justice (which would look terrific in a bio), it doesn’t really make sense to use a pseudonym at all at the querying or submission stage.

Think about it: a writer using a pen name doesn’t actually have to commit to it until after a publisher has already acquired the book. Both the representation contract and the publication contract are under the author’s legal name (although the publication contract may well stipulate the use of a pseudonym), so unless you feel that

(a) using your real name might somehow harm the book’s chances with the agent of your dreams (Begrunga Nevercleansherkitchen would be a lousy name for a cookbook writer, for instance),

(b) you already have something published in a different book category under your real name and want to avoid confusion, or

(c) you don’t want to tip Interpol off to your whereabouts,

you don’t really need to stress about the pseudonym issues until later on. Give your pretty little head a rest; you wouldn’t want your eyes to look tired in your author photo.

Everybody clear on that? Excellent. Here’s 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 Authorbiopalooza closely undoubtedly immediately cried, “Wait, Anne dealt with this in an earlier post. 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; I am, after all, the Nicest Lady in the Neighborhood, and this is an extremely common writerly conundrum. Let’s 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. Expressive Q. Author visited the Statue of Liberty once, when Expressive’s protagonist passes through Ellis Island briefly in Chapter Two, is a stretch; Expressive 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 she 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 inherently less memorable than the ones he can recount in glowing detail. Ask yourself about the ones left out or garbled: 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 Elinor Glyn’s author photo for IT clearly 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. Not in every new release, mind you, but in books like yours. 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 print 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, 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, 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.

The more important issue is photo clarity. You’d be surprised at how many author photos are actually out of focus, presumably because the writer prefers the blurry shot to other, clearer ones. (Either that, or he moves around too quickly to be caught easily on film.)

Nor is this a time to make a funny face, even if you write humor; this is, after all, a photo intended to present you as a professional to be taken seriously. Let’s face it, even if a less-sharp image is genuinely cool, this image of trick-or-treating expert Jack O. Lantern

jekll hyde pumpkin

is simply not as effective a marketing tool as this comparatively mundane smile.

Rick's pumpkin

My apologies to those with low self-esteem, but the author bio photo actually does have to look like you. Not some idealized, air-brushed ideal version of what someone who spends hours on end frantically tapping her thoughts on a keyboard, but you.

Pop quiz: what is good about both of these photos of Jack? (Hint: it has to do with his area of expertise.)

If you immediately cried, “By jingo, he’s depicted in a context that is relevant to the subject matter of his book!” take a candy bar out of the jar. Since Jack is writing about trick-or-treating, what would be a more natural background than his Halloween locale?

In fact, he could even take it a step farther, sacrificing a bit of facial close-up range for a photo that unquestionably establishes him as someone who knows his Halloween doorsteps. As long as his face is clearly visible, a slightly farther-away shot is fine.

cat and pumpkin

Speaking of low self-esteem, a reader apparently 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 bio to end with a mention of the author’s next writing project. Try to keep it to a single sentence, however, so it does not overpower the rest of the bio.

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, like tombstone epitaphs, 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 dust jacket 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 Authorbiopalooza, 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 page 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? Clever, eh?

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.”

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 book proposal sometime; its many, many pages of marketing material will make you feel much, much better about having to write 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, not cries of rapture.

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: stick to a single page, unless you are specifically asked for something much longer or shorter. (Requests for 1- or 2-paragraph bios aren’t that uncommon.) Beyond that, try not to obsess too much about length. Concentrate instead on sounding fascinating.

Seriously, if, over the years I’ve been a book doctor and particularly over the 5+ 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 it 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 — 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 last time. 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.

Congratulations, campers: I don’t know whether you have noticed it, but since Labor Day, you have completed a crash course in all of the standard elements of the query and submission packet. Which, in case you are the kind who likes to track such things, makes you more knowledgeable about how to market your writing to agents than roughly 97% of the aspiring writer population.

You should be very, very proud of yourself for taking the time — let’s face it, many of these posts have been hefty — to learn how to present yourself professionally. Keep up the good work!