Queryfest, part V: things are not always as they appear to be

No, this is not a composite shot, nor has it been Photoshopped: this is an undoctored snapshot of fish in a hotel lobby. Note how well they coordinate with the wallpaper.

So did I somehow manage to capture flying fish in an unguarded moment? Of course not: as the coral in the bottom right-hand corner might have tipped you off, I took this picture through a large fish tank that had been impeccably cleaned that morning.

The fish are, as one might expect, swimming, and through a more familiar medium than air. Yet while you and I both know that those fish are not actually paddling madly through the lobby, bumping into those hastily checking out, someone unfamiliar with the habits of fish or the ambient conditions of hotel lobbies might assume otherwise, based on what is visible here.

Bear our fishy friends in mind, please, as we wend our way through today’s exploration of all things query-related. This photo illustrates some basic facts of querying: since the writer is so familiar with her own manuscript, she sometimes forgets that the query-reader — the agent of her dreams, or more often, the Millicent employed to screen queries for the agent of her dreams — can judge a queried book’s content only by what actually makes it into the letter. All too often, a vague descriptive paragraph, one that talks about the book rather than telling its story, leaves poor Millie guessing.

Not buying that analogy? Okay, try this one on for size: the chances of landing an agent by addressing a query to just any agent — or, sacre bleu, to Dear Agent at just any agency — without first ascertaining that the intended recipient does in fact represent your type of book are about as high as strolling into a hotel lobby to snag the morning paper and being greeted by fish lazily meandering through the air. It could appear to be the way things work, but if you’ll look a little closer, those seemingly free-ranging fish are confined.

Not crazy about that analogy, either? Here’s an even more fundamental querying truth, a corollary of the first: regardless of what a writer intends to say in a query letter, Millicent must rely upon what it actually says. No matter how beautifully the manuscript in question may be written, if the query is awkward — as, let’s face it, hastily thrown-together missives tend to be — you really can’t blame her for leaping to the conclusion that the manuscript’s writing suffers from the same malady.

Okay, so maybe you are capable of blaming her, in the dark of night and the privacy of your studio. But it isn’t really her fault: a single-page query letter does not provide a heck of a lot of information upon which to make a determination about whether to request manuscript pages. If that information is conveyed poorly — or, even more common, if some of that information doesn’t make it into the query letter for the simple reason that the writer doesn’t know it should be there — the query is often self-rejecting.

What does that have to do with our friends the fish, you ask? No matter how pretty they may look soaring through the air in front of the lobby’s dubious artwork, the sight of them is inherently jarring. The onlooker expects fish to appear only within certain contexts. While a fish out of water will always catch the eye, the connoisseur of fins will be looking to the briny deep to find the best specimens.

Yes, that was rather a stretch, now that you mention it, but I wanted to use the photo. Just present your query as Millicent expects to see it, okay?

Since quite a few of the elements of a professionally-presented query are a bit counterintuitive, especially to those writing one for the first time, it’s important not to rush the process. Yes, it’s tedious, not nearly as much fun as writing the book itself. However, I’d much, much rather see my readers spend an extra week or two on drafting a really good query letter than to have any of you kicking yourselves a month from now, wishing you’d queried differently.

Especially if the difference between popping it in the mail on Monday morning and three Mondays from now means being able to have someone whose literary (and grammatical) opinion you trust read your query draft. Even if a writer’s been at it a while, it can be pretty hard to see the flaws in one’s own query letters — and for some reason I have never been able to fathom, even aspiring writers professional enough to be routinely soliciting feedback on their manuscripts often guard their queries jealously from any human eyes other than Millicent’s.

Whose peepers, as those of you who have been visiting this blog for a good long time are already aware, are not generally charitably-oriented. Is she really the first sentient being you want seeing your query?

All too often, the answer is yes, occasionally with disastrous consequences. The dangers of sending off a first draft should be self-evident — and if they are not, allow me to refer you to those earlier fish analogies. (Oh, you thought I had time to run these posts through multiple drafts?) It can take even a very gifted writer a few tries to get it right.

Not that over-tinkering doesn’t carry its own perils. Certain gaffes are as likely to turn up in queries penned by writers accustomed to the querying process as for those new to it.

How is that possible, you scream in horror? The nature of on-screen revision, for one thing. Since most experienced queriers will tweak their basic query letters to personalize them for each (don’t worry; I’ll be getting to that soon), there tends to be a lot of cutting, pasting, and general rewriting going on between mailings and/or strikings of the SEND button.

Here’s a pop quiz for those of you who were hanging around Author! Author! last spring: what extremely common outcome is likely to plague any piece of writing whose specifics have been constantly being revised over time without its author sitting down and re-reading the whole thing between revisions? Shout it out: it can turn into a Frankenstein manuscript, an unholy mish-mash of half-completed revisions.

The single most common type of Frankenstein query, as we saw last time, is the mismatched salutation and address. Nothing screams out I’m doing a mass mailing of queries, and you, sir, are palpably on the bottom of my wish list! like a letter that runs like the following. (As always, if you’re having trouble reading this example, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing the + key to enlarge the image.)

wrong names query

See the problem? In the stress of sending out multiple queries — a smart strategy in its own right, by the way; with sometimes months-long turn-around times at some agencies and no-reply policies at others, waiting to hear back from Agent A before querying Agent B is a sure-fire strategy for wasting years of your life — Mssr. Flaubert copied the address of one agent onto a letter personalized for another.

What he intended to send (and probably didn’t ever notice he didn’t send) was this:

Clearly, our Gustave fell victim to query fatigue. Quite understandable, of course, but how do you think Ms. Marketer is likely to respond not only to being addressed by the wrong name and with the honorific for the wrong sex, but being congratulated for her speech at a conference she never attended?

That’s right, campers: “Next!”

So please, proofread every single query every single time . Yes, even e-queries. Many a Millicent has been left shaking her head regretfully over a dropped word or misspelling in an otherwise admirable query.

Better yet, have a first reader you trust go over it. This is an excellent contribution to your writing career for any significant others, family members, or friends whom you, in your great wisdom, have deemed too fond of you to be trusted to provide critical feedback on your manuscript. (Trust me, “But my mom loved it!” is not an argument that flies well in the publishing industry.) Often, these kind souls are only too glad to help, even with a task as inherently unglamorous as sitting down with your query in one hand and a checklist of the information it needs to contain in the other.

Another great employment for aid-eager friends: have ‘em read your query twice, then set it aside. Talk about something entirely different for five minutes — and then have ‘em tell you the premise of the book and why it will appeal to your target market. (It helps if you tell them up front that “Because Johnny wrote it!” is not an argument Millicent is likely to find convincing.) If you’re feeling really ambitious, hand the letter back to them and ask them to tell you why you’re targeting that particular agent with this particular manuscript.

Seem like a tall order? Actually, it isn’t: if you’ve described the book memorably, even a non-professional should be able to recall its premise. And if you’ve been direct in your first paragraph about why, out of all the proverbial fish in the sea, you’re angling for this one, a lay reader should be able to catch the reference.

A good first reader should also be able to tell you when it’s time to weed out puns like that last one. You wouldn’t want to receive that kind of painful feedback from a total stranger, would you?

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the oh-so-common trap of getting complacent about your basic query. Just because a letter has garnered chapter requests in the past does not mean that it couldn’t use a bit of punching up. Even if you are a querying veteran, at least cast your eye over this list of garden-variety query turn-offs.

That’s right, campers: it’s another of my famous faux pas check-lists.

Why should a writer who has been querying a while take the time to go through a do-not list? For most aspiring writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their query letters themselves might be problematic, rather than the book being queried. Out comes the broken record:

broken-recordUnfortunately, writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a style-hampered querying letter or a limp synopsis.

But how is this possible, without a level of mental telepathy on the screener’s part that would positively stun the Amazing Kreskin? Remember, all the information Millicent has about your book is on the query page.

Are the rejecting agents seeing past the initial letter to the manuscript itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing? Do they have some sort of direct cosmic link to the Muses that allows them to glance at the first three lines of a query and say, “Nope, this one was last in line when the talent was handed out. Sorry,” before they toss it into the rejection pile?

Of course not. Only editors have that kind of direct telephonic connection to the demi-gods.

Yet this particular fear leaps like a ravenous shark onto many fledgling writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many writers, leading to despair, the notion that if one is really talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It never –- well, almost never — turns out like that. Out comes the broken record again:

broken-recordBeing a professional writer is work, and what gets the vast majority of queries rejected is a lack of adherence to professional standards. Which can, my friends, be learned.

As, indeed, we’ve already seen over the course of Queryfest. But what if you already have a query letter that meets all the technical criteria, and it’s still not garnering the responses you want?

Pull up your chairs close, boys and girls: it’s time for the master class on querying. Today, we’re going to concentrate on the delicate art of query diagnosis.

Why? I feel another broken record coming on:

broken-recordThe querying market is even tighter than it was the last time I visited this issue — and that’s really saying something. It’s as competitive now as it has ever been in my lifetime.

Seriously, there are a heck of a lot of fishies clamoring for just a couple of spots in Millicent’s boss’ aquarium. But before you begin to feel for your submission’s pulse, please (wait for it):

broken-recordRe-read everything in your query packet IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD: your query letter, synopsis, author bio, and ANY pages the agency’s website or agency guide listing has asked queriers to include in a querying packet.

Better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. For any attached pages, the best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine.

My, we’re covering a lot of different types of physical environment today, are we not? Let’s slap another broken record on the turntable:

broken-recordAs much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing.

Look to these fine folks for support, encouragement, and the occasional spot-check for salutation-matching, not for technical feedback on your writing. Find someone whose LITERARY opinion you trust — such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference, or the person in your writing group who keeps being asked to send sample chapters — and blandish her into giving your query packet materials a solid reading.

Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of some major science fiction writers; fifty years later, she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary feedback source. Naturally, that doesn’t stop her from line-editing while she reads my work, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity of a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was not there when I took my first toddling steps.

As excellent as this advice is, I sense that some of you are already merrily making plans to disregard it. If you are planning to be the only pre-Millicent peruser of your query packet, then I implore you…

broken-recordMake sure that you read all of the constituent parts of your submissions in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier –- and more likely to be accurate — in hard copy.

I’m quite serious about treating this a final flight-check: don’t leave rooting out the proofreading and logic problems until the last minute. As Gustave knows to his sorrow, it’s just too easy to skip them when you’re in a hurry.

Once you have cleared out any grammatical or spelling problems and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask yourself the following questions.

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?
I know it’s hard to cram everything you want to say to promote your work into a single page, but it’s just not worth it to go longer: it’s a standard instant-rejection trigger. Yes, even if you are e-querying: I covered this earlier in this series, speaking of broken records, but even e-mailed queries longer than a page are seldom read in their entirety.

And please, for your own sake, don’t take the common escape route of shrinking the margins or the typeface; trust me, any screener, agent, editor, or contest judge with even a few weeks’ worth of experience can tell. (For a quick, visual-aid-assisted run-down on why their being able to tell that is bad news for the querier who does it, please see my last post.)

Remember, if you are sending a paper query or any pages at all (even if the agency’s guidelines ask you to imbed them in an e-mail),

broken-recordYou must indent your paragraphs in a mailed query letter — or, indeed, in any writing sample of any length intended for agent-dwelling eyes. Business format is not acceptable in this context.

For those of you unclear on the difference between correspondence format and business format (or, to put it another way, those who are coming upon this checklist in my archives, rather than reading it as today’s post), please see my earlier post on the subject.

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter than a page, am I trying to achieve too much in it? Specifically, is my query trying to do more than get the agent to ask to see the manuscript?
Is it perhaps trying to convince the agent (or her Millicent) that this is a terrific book by assertion, rather than presenting the premise compellingly? It maybe attempting to summarize the entire plot, rather than the premise? Is it reviewing the book, rather than describing it? Is it begging for attention, rather than presenting the book professionally? Is it trying to suit the tastes of every agent to whom you might conceivably send it, rather than the one to whom it is currently addressed?

Query letters over-reach in these ways all the time. Like pitches, queries often turn into litanies of summary, rather than convincing, professional presentations of a book’s category, premise, and selling points. As I have advised before,

broken-recordDon’t try to cram a half an hour’s worth of conversation about your book into a scant page. Just present the information necessary to interest an agent in your manuscript, then STOP.

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I devoting too many lines of text to describing the plot?
The attempt to force the query to serve the purpose of the synopsis or book proposal is, of course, the most common letter-extender of them all. Too often, the plot or argument description overflows its allotted single paragraph so dramatically that other necessary features of the query letter — why the querier has selected this agent and no other, the intended readership, the book category — get tossed overboard in a desperate attempt to keep the whole to a single page.

The simplest fix for this, in most instances, is to reduce the length of the descriptive paragraph.

broken-recordRemember, your job in the query is not to summarize the book (that’s what the synopsis is for), but to pique enough interest to generate a request for pages. Keep it brief.

How brief? Well, let’s just say that if you can’t say the first two paragraphs of your query letter — the ones where you say why you are approaching that particular agent, the book category, and the premise — in under 20 seconds of normal speech, you might want to take a gander at the ELEVATOR SPEECH category at right.

(4) Is my query letter polite? Does it make me sound like a professional writer it might be a hoot to get to know — or a pushy jerk who would be a pain to represent?
Oh, you may laugh, but you’d be amazed at how often aspiring writers sound annoyed, fed up, or just plain unpleasant in their queries. A prime means of creating any of these effects: using the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for prevailing conditions in the publishing industry, up to and including how difficult it is to land an agent.

broken-recordMillicent and her ilk did not create the ambient conditions for writers; treating them as though they did merely betrays a lack of familiarity with how the industry actually works.

Even if they had plotted in dark, smoke-filled rooms about how best to make writers’ lives more difficult, pointing it out either explicitly or implicitly would not be the best way to win friends and influence people. In my experience, lecturing a virtual stranger on how mean agents are is not the best tack to take when trying to make a new friend who happens to be an agent, any more than cracking out your best set of lawyer jokes would be at a bar association meeting.

I’ve seen some real lulus turn up in query letters. My personal favorite began Since you agents have set yourselves up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first…

A close second: I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…

And third: Before you dismiss this query without reading it, just let me point out…

Be honest now: would you rush out and sign these people, or would you shudder slightly and move on to the next query? If you are even tempted to say the former, I ask you: if you were an agent, would you be willing to introduce a client that sounded like this to an editor? Or would you assume that if you did sign any of these people, you’d have to invest hours on end lecturing them about how to present themselves professionally?

Remember, even if you met an agent at a conference (or via a recommendation from a client) and got along with him as though you’d known each other since nursery school, a query is a business letter. Be cordial, but do not presume that it is okay to be overly familiar.

Oh, you think I’m joking about that last one? In the current informal environment, addressing total strangers by their first names, making assumptions about what they’re like, and even presuming similarities are far from uncommon, alas. But publishing is a formal business; manners still count.

I see that’s having little effect on you; you want to see just how disastrous a too-familiar approach could possibly be. Okay, let’s toss it in the water and see how it swims:

“Why is this writer leaping to all of these conclusions about my boss?” Millicent mutters. “Even if this Gustave person had any basis for them, this would still be kind of creepy. And what’s the deal with the less-than-standard-length page?”

Oh, Millie, you should be grateful that this message wasn’t scrawled in a greeting card. Possibly with kittens on the front. This Gustave guy sounds positively desperate.

Trust me on this one: a cold query to an agent you’ve never clapped eyes upon before is not the place to demonstrate how friendly you are. Nor is it the proper moment to draw conclusions about that agent’s personality, preferences, or motivations. Even if you should happen to guess right, you’re not applying for the job of this person’s best friend, after all: you’re a writer seeking this agent’s professional services.

Show that you can maintain appropriate boundaries. A great rule of thumb: let the agent set the level of familiarity. Don’t address an agent (or, indeed, anyone in the publishing industry) in familiar terms — like, say, by first name alone — until she addresses you that way first.

Which is to say: keep that salutation formal. And keep the begging to a minimum, will ya?

Instead, demonstrate that you are a serious writer who understands that the buying and selling of books is not a charitable activity aimed at the betterment of the human condition. It’s often that, too, but at base, publishing is a business. After hours staring at query letters filled with typos and blame, professional presentation comes as a positive relief to Millicent.

Oh, yes, there are more points to the checklist, but frankly, I can’t keep up the fish analogies. Keep swimming forward, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: an increasingly common criticism that simply makes no sense in literate circles

I’m a trifle miffed today, campers — but probably not at you. If you are one of the many of Author! Author! readers who leave substantive, interesting questions in the comments (thank you!), or one of the overwhelming majority that do not comment at all (I hope you’re finding the posts helpful!), please accept my gratitude, but you might want to avert your eyes from this one. As I have noted many times, readers’ questions have improved this blog remarkably over the years — and certainly plumped up the archives. Indeed, having question-specific archive categories at all was a reader’s idea. (Thanks, Dave!)

I intend to post a new Queryfest entry later this evening for all of you. For the moment, however, I’m going to address those who post non-substantive comments here. Particularly those who have evidently picked up on the latest trend in spam commenting: criticizing bloggers who post more than a couple of paragraphs at a time.

It’s perhaps not surprising that commenters bring this up from time to time. My posts do tend to be unusually long, even for a business that assumes anyone seriously interested in pursuing it professionally would have the requisite attention span to read not only in-depth magazine articles (which are often about the length of my average post), but actual books. People looking for quick answers to simple questions might well find extensive, thoughtful discussions off-putting, but as I explained at some length in a recent post, both the writing life and the publishing world are complex. If they weren’t, why would they be interesting enough for an editor to continue blogging about them for six years?

Perhaps more to the point, my blog is known as a place to find out how to do the things that pretty much any U.S.-based agent or editor will expect a talented new writer to know how to do. How to query, for instance. How to write a synopsis. How to create a verbal pitch. How to format a manuscript professionally.

None of these are matters that can be explained adequately in just a few paragraphs. If they were, all that an aspiring writer would need to do to learn the ropes of publishing would be to plug a term like query into a search engine, spend 15 minutes reading, and walk away fully informed.

I assume that some of you, at least, have tried just that. How did it work out for you?

I’ve said it before, and apparently I need to keep saying it: I write this blog because, in my experience, it’s quite difficult for even the most talented new writer to find out what agents and editors expect to see. I write about matters at length because, unlike most of the rule-barkers out there, I don’t believe a reasonable, intelligent writer should follow a rule just because a self-styled expert says so. As I point out early and often, I don’t expect my readers to take my word for any of this: I presume that the members of the Author! Author! community are intelligent enough to want to know why they should be following my advice.

So if you just want to be told what to do in bullet points, this probably isn’t the blog for you. While it’s kind of you to want to take the time to post comments like, “My, what a long post this is,” I assure you, I’m already aware of it. I do it on purpose. Other readers seem to find it helpful, but if you prefer super-short posts, I can only encourage you to seek them elsewhere.

Instead of, say, ordering me to make my posts shorter. That’s not advice I’m likely to take until getting published magically becomes easy for first-time writers.

I’m especially unlikely to take it now, since so many serious writers on writing have been receiving scads of comments to this effect within the last couple of months, seldom couched in terms that indicate the objection is a response to the specific post’s content. All of a sudden, writers of helpful, practical blogs are being inundated with admonitions to be less wordy.

Why the rush to judgment on this point? Usually, when the same critique pops up on a wide array of blogs simultaneously, it’s either because a single person (known in blogging circles as a troll) has posted essentially the same comment everywhere under an array of different names, in an attempt to start arguments, or a new illegitimate link-creator has figured out that many spam filters will not weed out comments that appear to be critical. (You’d be surprised at how many web presence-boosting services accomplish it by posting links in fake comments on blogs.) Or — and this is the most common — some ostensibly authoritative online source has begun leveling that criticism at its competitors, and people are simply parroting it.

Which is why, in case some of you who have been passing along this type of comment have been wondering, many blog programs now automatically weed out comments that seem repetitive or prefabricated. Especially likely to trigger the filter: comments that neither address the subject matter of the post in question or do so under an obviously fake name. (For reasons that surpass understanding, a hefty percentage of spam-for-pay services simply use the product’s name as the commenter’s moniker.)

While my spam filter prevents most such comments from bugging my readers — a spam-clogged comments section discourages discussion, I find — not all of the recent iterations of the it’s too long! plaint have been as easy to categorize as spam vs. legitimate comment. I have in fact saved a few from the spam filter’s maw, because there seemed to be an actual human being behind the repetitive comment. The accompanying arguments in these have ranged from the commenter’s not having time to read a complex argument of any sort (on a post in the middle of a series that took up most of the summer; apparently, it took until Part XIII for the commenter to notice that my posts tend to run on the long side) to a claim that an entire post could have been summed up in a single rule (evidently, he had missed that the entire post was an explanation of that particular rule).

Heck, a recent commenter excoriated me for having taken the time to answer questions he had the comments. He said that my reply was too long.

I swear I am not making that up: a blog reader came to me for specific advice, then berated me for having written a complex reply to his complex questions. How awful of me to have taken his concerns seriously enough to invest some time in answering them.

Now, I don’t really mind answering questions on back blog posts: there’s a lot of practical advice here, and it’s completely understandable that writers new to the game might have follow-up questions. Indeed, past readers’ questions tend to contribute mightily to the length of my posts; as those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! are aware, I often incorporate readers’ questions into discussions of particular topics. Heck, it’s not uncommon for me to write a post, or even a series, in response to a particularly good question.

Like most bloggers conscientious about responding to comments, I don’t expect to receive credit for answering questions on sometimes years-old back posts. It’s an activity invisible to the majority of Author! Author! habitués who read the top posts regularly, archive-diving only when they have a specific question.

I do mind, however, having my time wasted. So, it turns out, do many other bloggers who write substantively on writing. In order to reserve our blogging time for those who actually enjoy our blogs, some bloggers have decided simply to mark all repetitive comments as spam, rather than responding to them as individual criticisms — as, indeed, they may not be.

I’m not going to do that, on the off chance that at least some of these comments genuinely are cris de coeur from serious aspiring writers in a hurry to glean as much bottom-line information as hastily as possible. Instead, I am simply going to refer any future commenters with this objection — at least, those whose comments have no other subject matter — to this post.

See why I warned away those who use the comments to ask questions — and are happy to receive thoughtful answers?

Because I suspect that this particular objection is just a fad, possibly picked up from ambient political discourse, I’m also going to take the time to explain to those who feel it is a legitimate complaint why exclaiming it’s too long! about writing as short as my average post is an objection highly unlikely to strike anyone even vaguely affiliated with publishing as a valid or even memorable critique. (FYI, the reason members of Congress have been complaining about the length of bills lately is not that bills have gotten longer — hundreds of pages has been standard for decades — but because the Speaker cut the budget for administrative staff in half at the beginning of this year. Fewer on-staff readers equals more disgruntlement at document length.)

Here’s the reason the objection will fall flat: anyone who works with books for a living hears this not as a plea for a more concise argument for its own sake; we all know that while brevity is desirable in some formats — poetry, for instance — a 400-word essay is not inherently better than a 4,000-word essay. It all depends on the content and the and the target audience. Heck, agents and editors of books seldom bring up length at all unless a manuscript is longer than 400 pages.

So what those of us who deal in the printed word hear when readers complain that a piece is too long is not gee, I feel that this argument didn’t require so many examples or wow, I’m interested in this topic, but I have only a two-minute coffee break in which to read it, but — brace yourselves, brevity-huggers — I have a really, really short attention span. As a result, I not only think the average newspaper article is way too long; I eschew magazines as well. And I would not even consider buying a book. Cater to my preferences, please!

I have news for you, short-is-always-better advocates: the Internet is largely set up for people like you. Go find 200-word discussions of topics that have perplexed scholars for centuries, if that’s what makes you happy; there’s certainly no shortage of them. If that’s how you prefer to acquire information, this is a great time for you to be doing it.

Go seek out those super-brief sources, with my blessing. All I ask, all any of us who blog in depth ask, is that you not demand that 100% of the information on the Internet take precisely the same form.

To each his own. Because I honestly do like to help aspiring writers, I would also add: please don’t assume that stating a preference for brevity is going to win you Brownie points with those who create or sell books for a living.

Why? Well, for those of you who have not had your ear to the ground in publishing circles lately, book sales have declined remarkably in recent years. So have magazine and newspaper circulations. It’s not altogether astonishing, then, that the people who make their livings by producing publications might harbor just a tinge of resentment toward folks who feel that any multi-page argument is inherently too long, regardless of subject matter.

At minimum, those who work in long form are unlikely to regard such complainers as their target audience. Why, after all, would purveyors of book-length writing pay much attention to the criticism of someone who makes it quite plain that he seldom reads books? Especially when such comments appear on blogs that agents and editors have been known to read, the backlash can be considerable.

So please bear in mind the probable impact of demands to shorten information that’s being provided to you for free online. Even if you’ve seen that critique leveled elsewhere often enough in recent weeks for it to seem valid, it’s just not likely to strike either those who write, those who represent writers, those who publish, or even those who like to read as a reasonable criticism.

Best of luck finding that 150-word summary of how to write a successful query letter elsewhere, though. Regardless of where you choose to glean the requisite information, keep up the good work.

Queryfest, part IV: wait, you mean it matters how it looks on the page?

So far in the course of Queryfest posts, I have been talking about how to present your book project so that it sounds like a professional writer’s argument that a manuscript is worth a peek, rather than a carnival hawker’s introducing the Greatest (fill in the blank here) in the World. Take a peep behind the curtain for only 10 cents!

Both are intended to prompt the onlooker to want to look, of course, but as we discussed last time, hard sells (You’ll be sorry if you let this book slip through your fingers, Mr. Agent!), self-assessments (This book contains the most exciting chariot race since Ben Hur!), and the ever-popular claim of universal appeal (every woman who has ever had a best friend will want to read this novel!) tend to fall flat in queries. Agents like to make up their own minds about the quality of writing. A much savvier way of piquing their interest: a straightforward, professionally-worded description of what your book is about, who its specific intended readership is, and why you think the agent you’re addressing would be a good fit for it.

What’s that you say, campers? You would like to see some concrete examples of queries done well and others that miss the mark?

What an excellent idea; the rest of Querypalooza shall be stuffed to the gills with plenty of both. Rather than leap right into questions of content, however, let’s get ourselves accustomed to how a query should — and should not — look on the printed page.

Gird your loins, campers: today, we’re going to be tackling the purely cosmetic issues.

I hear some of you grumbling already, do I not? “But Anne!” a few voices protest out there in the ether. “I can understand why I need to make my manuscript appear professional by adhering to the rules of standard format, considerately gathered for my benefit under the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list conveniently located on the lower right-hand side of this page, but a query letter rises or falls purely on its content, doesn’t it? As long as I do not scrawl it in crayon on tissue paper, why should I worry about what it looks like?”

Good question: why is it in your interest to pay attention to the superficial side of querying? Because in a mailed query, formatting and presentation are the first things Millicent the agency screener notices. It’s the first indication she has of just how familiar a writer has made herself with how the publishing industry actually works.

Okay, I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch all of the implications of that gale-force collective gasp. Did it indicate (a) a certain level of surprise that Millicent will be judging anything but the content of the query, (b) a shocked realization that the denizens of agencies might perhaps harbor some expectations about how the information in a query should be presented, rather than simply regarding it as a free-form expression of creativity, and/or (c) a clawing, pathological fear that the seventeen queries you sent out last week for your memoir about living in the wilderness for five years might lose some credibility because they were written on bark with blackberry juice?

In the interest of rendering the comparisons to follow as useful to as broad a range of queriers as possible, I’m going to assume it was all of the above. And rather than tell you why our Millie’s view of a query might be colored by how it is presented, I’m going to show you.

Because first impressions can be indelible, before I demonstrate just how a poorly presented query looks wrong, let’s take a gander at what a really good query letter looks like. Not so you can copy it verbatim — lest we forget, rote reproductions abound in rejection piles — but so you may see what the theory looks like in practice.

And please, those of you who only e-query: don’t assume that none of what I’m about to say about traditional paper queries is inapplicable to you. Even agents who accept only e-mailed queries were weaned on mailed ones; the paper version is still the industry standard, dictating what does and does not look professional to folks in the biz. Even if there is no paper whatsoever involved in your querying process, you should still be aware of how query letters should appear on a page.

For ease of comprehension, I’ve decided to construct a query for a book whose story you might know: MADAME BOVARY. (At least, I hope that those of you who write novels about the human condition will be familiar with it. If not, and you are at all interested in learning anything about how a few vivid details can light up a page, I would highly recommend your picking up a copy.) If you’re having trouble reading this example at its current size, try holding down the COMMAND key and pushing the + key a couple of times to enlarge the image.

Makes the book sound pretty compelling, doesn’t it? If you were Millicent, wouldn’t you ask to see the first 50 pages?

After the last few posts, I hope it’s clear to you why this is an awfully good query letter: in addition to containing all of the required elements, it presents the book well, in businesslike terms, without coming across as too pushy or arrogant. Even more pleasing to Millicent’s eye, it makes the book sound genuinely interesting and describes it in terms that imply a certain familiarity with how the publishing industry works. (The date on the letter is when the first installment of MADAME BOVARY was published, incidentally; I couldn’t resist.)

Well done, Gustave! It’s perfectly obvious that, in addition to having written a whale of a good book, you were professional enough to learn how the agent of your dreams would expect to see that book’s many excellencies presented in a query.

For the sake of comparison, let’s take a gander at what the query might have looked like had Mssr. Flaubert not done his homework.

You see what’s wrong with this version, right? Obviously, the contractions are far too casual for a professional missive.

No, but seriously, I hope that you spotted the unsupported boasting, the bullying, disrespectful tone, and the fact that this query doesn’t really describe the book. Also, to Millicent’s eye, its being addressed to Dear Agent and undated would indicate that ol’ Gustave is simply plastering the entire agent community with queries, regardless of individual agents’ representation preferences.

That alone would almost certainly lead her to reject MADAME BOVARY out of hand, without reading the body of the letter at all. And those ten pages the agency’s website or listing in a standard agents’ guide said to send? Returned unread to our pal Gus.

The Dear Agent letter has a first cousin that also tends to engender automatic rejection. It’s a gaffe to which even very experienced queriers routinely fall prey. See if you can spot it in its natural habitat:

bad-flaubert-query-letter-2

If you reared back in horror, exclaiming, “Oh, no! Our Gustave has sent the query to agent Clarissa Richardson, but left the salutation from what was probably his last query to agent Tom Jones!” congratulations: you win a gold star with walnut clusters. Since the advent of the home computer, aspiring writers have been falling into this trap constantly; cutting and pasting only works if all of the personalized elements get changed each and every time.

The cure? Pull out your hymnals, long-time readers, and sing along: read EVERY SYLLABLE of each query letter IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you send it, every single time you send it.

Yes, even if you are e-querying or pasting a letter into a form on an agency’s website. Do not hit SEND until you have made absolutely sure that the salutation matches the recipient.

Did you catch the two other major problems with both versions of this letter? Go ahead; go back and look again.

First, how exactly is the agent to contact Gustave to request him to send the manuscript? She can’t, of course, because Mssr. Flaubert has made the mistake of leaving out that information, as an astonishingly high percentage of queriers do.

Why? I suspect it’s because they assume that if they include a SASE (that’s Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, for those of you new to the trade, and it should be included with every mailed query and submission unless the agency’s website specifically says otherwise), the agent already has their contact information. But if, heaven forfend, the SASE and the query get separated — hey, Millicent’s desk has been known to hold reams and reams of paper at any given moment — or, as is increasingly common, the agency prefers to respond to queries via e-mail, Gus is out of luck.

And no, in response to what half of you just thought: no matter how great the query makes the book appear to be, Millie is not going to take the time to track down Gustave’s address. “I don’t care if it is the next A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION,” she sniffs, moving on to the next query. “I have 500 queries to get through before I can go home tonight.”

Aspiring writers are even less likely to include their contact information in e-mailed queries. “Why bother?” the e-query thinks, blithely hitting SEND. “All the agent needs to do to get in touch with me is hit REPLY, right?”

Not necessarily: e-mailed queries get forwarded from agent to assistant and back again all the time. Millicent’s hitting REPLY might just send the joyous news that she wants to read your first 50 pages to someone in the next cubicle.

I hesitate to bring this up, but it’s also not unheard-of for e-mails to be sent to the wrong querier, or for SASEs to get mixed up. I once received a kind rejection for someone else’s book stuffed into my SASE. I returned the manuscript with a polite note informing the agency of the mistake, along with the suggestion that perhaps they had lost my submission.

True story. To add a happy ending: the agency assistant who wrote the extremely apologetic response to my having handled it professionally grew up to be my current agent, now a senior agent at the same agency.

The moral: don’t depend on the SASE or return button alone. Include your contact information either below your signature or in the header.

This is especially important if you happen to be querying a US-based agent from outside the US. English-speaking foreign writers often presume, wrongly, that US agents have a strong preference for working with the locals, that not being able to fly a few thousand miles for frequent face-to-face meetings would be a deal-breaker, or that an expatriate would be better off using her mom’s home address in Indiana so as to appear to be living in North America. As a result, they tend not to mention in their (almost invariably e-) queries that they and their manuscripts are not currently stateside.

However, the US is a mighty big country, and e-mailing is inexpensive; distance is not a deal-breaker, typically. NYC-based agents have been representing clients without meeting them in person since the early 20th century. Some agencies might deduct the cost of international phone calls from the advance, just as they might choose to charge the writer for photocopying, but in the era of e-mail and Skype, that’s increasingly rare.

Go ahead and include your contact information, wherever you are. Being far-flung might even be a selling point, if the agent happens to like to travel. (Oh, you don’t think the agent of your dreams would like to crash for a few days on your couch in London?)

But I digress. Back to the diagnosis already in progress.

Gustave’s second problem is a bit more subtle, not so much a major gaffe as a small signal to Millicent that the manuscript to which the letter refers might not be professionally polished. Any guesses?

If you said that it was in business format rather than correspondence format, congratulations: you’ve been paying attention. In a mailed submission, this format would strike most Millicents as less literate than precisely the same letter properly formatted. (It would be fine in an e-mailed submission, where indented paragraphs are harder to format.)

Any other diagnoses? No? Okay, let me infect the good query with the same virus, to help make the problem a bit more visible to the naked eye:

See it now? This otherwise estimable letter is written in Helvetica, not Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, the preferred typefaces for manuscripts.

Was that huge huff of indignation that just billowed toward space an indication that favoring one font over another in queries strikes some of you as a trifle unfair? Especially since very few agencies openly express font preferences for queries (although a few do; check their websites and/or agency guide listings).

To set your minds at ease, I’ve never seen font choice alone be a rejection trigger. I can tell you from very, very long experience working with aspiring writers that queries in the standard typefaces do seem to be treated with a touch more respect.

I know; odd. But worth knowing, don’t you think?

Font size, however, often does prompt knee-jerk rejection; stick to 12 point.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here’s a modified version of the good query, accidentally mailed out in 14-point type:

Yes, yes, I know: you probably wouldn’t even dream of having sent it out this way on purpose — but are you absolutely positive that your default font is 12 point, not 14? Are you sure that when you copied your letter from Word and pasted it into an e-mail, your e-mail program didn’t alter the query into the 14-point type you prefer for composing e-mails?

The moral: even if you have sent out essentially the same query letter dozens of times (oh, don’t pretend that you’ve never just pasted in new contact information to an already-used letter), it’s very much in your interest to read it over each time. You’d be surprised how often simple slips of the mouse result in some rather odd outcomes on the query page. Or how frequently e-mails arrive looking substantially different than their authors intended.

While we’re on the subject of cosmetic problems, let’s take a look at another common yet purely structural way that well-written query letters can send off an unprofessional vibe:

Not all that subtle, this: a query letter needs to be limited to a SINGLE page. This restriction is taken so seriously that very, very few Millicents would even start to read this letter.

Why are agencies so rigid about length when dealing with people who are, after all, writers promoting book-length works? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: TIME. Can you imagine how lengthy the average query letter would be if agencies didn’t limit how long writers could ramble on about their books?

Stop smiling. It would be awful, at least for Millicent.

Fortunately, the one-page limit seems to be the most widely-known of querying rules, if one of the most often fudged in e-queries. “What’s Millicent going to do?” the fudger mutters. “Print it out in order to catch me at my little ruse? She doesn’t have that kind of time.”

Which is rather unfair to screeners, since e-queries can, since they omit the date and address salutation at the top of the message, be several lines longer and still fit within the one-page ideal. I just mention. If you’re fearful of running long, compose your query in Word, ascertain that it could be printed onto a single page, then copy and paste it into an e-mail.

The one-page limit is so widely known, in fact, that aspiring writers frequently tempt Millicent’s wrath through conjuring tricks that force all of the information the writer wishes to provide onto a single page. Popular choices include minimizing the margins:

or shrinking the font size:

or, most effective at all, using the scale function under Page Setup in Word to shrink the entire document:

Let me burst this bubble before any of you even try to blow it up to its full extent: this sort of document-altering magic will not help an over-long query sneak past Millicent’s scrutiny, for the exceedingly simple reason that she will not be fooled by it.

Not even for a nanosecond. The only message such a query letter sends is this writer cannot follow directions.

An experienced contest judge would not be fooled, either, incidentally, should you be thinking of using any of these tricks to crush a too-lengthy chapter down to the maximum acceptable page length. Ditto for pages requested for submissions to agencies or publishing houses: if you shrink it, they will know. And they won’t appreciate your attempt to trick them,

Why am I so certain that any professional reader will catch strategic shrinkage? For precisely the same reason that deviations from standard format in manuscripts are so obvious to professional readers: the fact that they read correctly-formatted pages ALL THE TIME.

Don’t believe the tricks above wouldn’t be instantaneously spottable? Okay, glance at them, then take another peek at our first example of the day:

Viewed side-by-side, the formatting differences are pretty obvious, aren’t they? Even in the extremely unlikely event that Millicent isn’t really sure that the query in front of her contains some trickery, all she has to do is move her fingertips a few inches to the right or the left of it, open the next query letter, and perform an enlightening little compare-and-contrast exercise.

Don’t tempt her to do it. It will not end well for you.

The benefits of eschewing formatting skullduggery is not the only thing I would like you to learn from today’s examples, however. I would also like you to take away this: with one egregious exception, these examples were more or less the same query letter in terms of content, all pitching the same book. Yet only one of these is at all likely to engender a request to read the manuscript.

What does that mean, in practical terms? Even a great book will be rejected at the querying stage if it is queried or pitched poorly.

Yes, many agents would snap up Mssr. Flaubert in a heartbeat after reading his wonderful prose on the manuscript page — but with a query letter like the second, or with some of the sneaky formatting tricks exhibited here, the probability of any agent’s asking to read it is close to zero. Millicent receives too many well-written queries from writers who follow the rules to waste even a moment regretting those who do not.

The moral, should you care to know it: how a writer presents his work — in the query or on the manuscript page — matters.

That means, by extension, that even a long list of rejections based upon an improperly-formatted query might well be unreflective of how Millicent would respond to the same manuscript as presented in an impeccable query. So keep refining that query, campers: even a book as genuinely gorgeous as MADAME BOVARY would not see the inside of a bookstore today unless Flaubert kept sending out query letters, rather than curling up in a ball after the first rejection.

Oh, don’t pretend that you haven’t considered giving up. Deep down, pretty much every aspiring writer believes that if she were really talented, her work would get picked up without her having to market it at all. It’s an incredibly common writerly fantasy: there’s a knock on your door, and when you open it, there’s the perfect agent standing there, contract in hand.

“I heard that your work is wonderful,” the agent says. “Here, sign this, so I may sell the manuscript I have not yet read to that editor who is waiting at the car parked at your curb.”

Or perhaps in your preferred version, you go to a conference and pitch your work for the first time. The agent of your dreams, naturally, falls over backwards in his chair; after sal volitale has been administered to revive him from his faint, he cries, “That’s it! The book I’ve been looking for my whole professional life! I can die contented now!”

Or, still more common, you send your first query letter to an agent, and you receive a phone call two days later, asking to see the entire manuscript. Three days after you overnight it to New York, the agent calls to say that she stayed up all night reading it, and is dying to represent you. Could you fly to New York immediately, so she could introduce you to the people who are going to pay a million dollars for the film rights, as well as the publisher that wants to release your book two weeks hence?

I have nothing against a good fantasy (especially of the SF/Fantasy genre), but while you are trying to find an agent, please do not be swayed by daydreams. Don’t send out only one query at a time; it’s truly a waste of your efforts. Try to keep 7 or 8 out at any given moment.

This advice often comes as a shock to writers. “What do you mean, 7 or 8 at a time? I’ve been rejected ten times, and I thought that meant I should lock myself away and revise the book completely before I sent it out again!”

Feel free to lock yourself up and revise to your heart’s content, but if you have a completed manuscript in your desk drawer, you should try to keep a constant flow of query letters heading out your door. As they say in the biz, the only manuscript that can never be sold is the one that is never submitted.

There are two reasons keeping a constant flow is a good idea, professionally speaking. First, it’s never a good idea to allow a query letter to molder on your desktop: after awhile, that form letter can start to seem very personally damning, and a single rejection from a single agent can start to feel like an entire industry’s indictment of your work.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: one of the most self-destructive of conference-circuit rumors is the notion that if a book is good, it will automatically be picked up by the first agent that sees it. Or the fiftieth, for that matter.

This is simply untrue. It is not uncommon for wonderful books to go through dozens of queries, and even many rounds of query-revision-query-revision before being picked up. There are hundreds of reasons that agents and their screeners reject manuscripts, the most common being that they do not like to represent a particular kind of book.

So how precisely is such a rejection a reflection on the quality of the writing?

Keep on sending out those queries several hundred times, if necessary. Until you can blandish the right agent into reading your book, you’re just not going to know for sure whether it is marketable or not. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part III: eschewing the classic annoyance triggers, or, leaving that leaf unturned may cost you

Still hanging in there, campers? By this point in my annual examination of all things query-related, I’m accustomed to hearing howls of anguish out there in the ether. I’ve caught the occasional whimper, but still, I’m worried that I may already have stunned you into mute horror with my accounts of just how competitive the agent-finding market is these days.

Because that particular Medusa has turned many a talented would-be author’s dreams to stone, I’m going to start slowly today. Let’s ease into a hardcore discussion of query letters in a casual manner, with a nice, calming, verdure-based anecdote about interpersonal vitriol.

Until a couple of years ago, I lived next door to people who simply couldn’t abide trees, or indeed, greenery in any form. I’m not talking about a minor antipathy to the odd magnolia or a reasonable fear that a nearby swaying cedars might drop a branch on the house during a nasty windstorm, either — the mere sight of any leaf-bearing living thing irritated the adults in this family into a frenzy of resentment.

Their especial aversion: if the leaf in question happened to detach itself from its parent plant and respond to gravity. The very thought of a pile of autumn leaves rendered them apoplectic; to suggest, however gently, that the season might have been nicknamed fall for a reason was to invite an 18-minute tirade on the troublesomeness of plant matter. Not so much as a stray blade of grass ever seemed to evade their notice; their yard could not have had more impervious surfaces had it been an industrial kitchen.

At least twice a year, the Smiths (not their real name, but a clever pseudonym designed to hide their true identities) would demand that we chop down our magnificent 60-foot willow tree, on the grounds that occasionally, one of its leaves would be wafted onto their porch. They also had it in for another neighbor’s apple tree, our pear, and a few innocent pines across the street. After the city declined to remove an 80-foot fir, the Smiths very pointedly ripped out their (uncovered, with five children in residence) swimming pool because, they told us huffily, OTHER PEOPLE’S leaves kept blowing into it.

Just between us, we like trees on our side of the fence. So did the people who owned the house before us, as well as all of our neighbors except the dreaded Smiths. We live in Seattle, for heaven’s sake, where a proposal to rip out a single 100-year-old cedar on private property typically attracts fifty citizens to a public meeting to protest. I’ve seen picket lines surrounding city-condemned trees. In fact, prior to a recent city council election, I received more than one circular explaining where all the candidates stood on trees (sometimes literally, judging by the photographs) and their possible removal.

If I were a tree forced to live in an urban environment, in short, I’d definitely move here.

So in the Smith’s view, we were far from their only inconsiderate neighbors — we are merely the geographically closest in a municipality gone greenery-mad. We were, however, the only locals who kept bringing them holiday cookies, freshly-grown pears, and offers of babysitting in the hope of smoothing things over. We were also, perhaps unwisely, the only ones to tell them to go ahead and cut off branches at the property line, as is their right.

This neighborly behavior did not win us any Brownie points with the Smiths, alas, and with good reason: long after the cookies disappeared down their gullets, our willow tree still greeted them every morning when they applied their magnifying glasses to their driveway. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in close proximity to one of these gracefully-swaying giants, but they have two habits that drive people like the Smiths nuts: they love dropping leaves that are, alas, susceptible to both gravity and wind, and they just adore snaking their branches into places where there aren’t other trees.

Like, say, the parking lot that was the Smiths’ yard.

Thus, I cannot truthfully say I was surprised to walk into our yard to discover Mr. Smith ten feet up in the willow, hacksaw in hand and murder in his eye. (I talked him down before any branches fell.) Nor was I stunned when the Smiths tore down the fence between our yards, propping the old fence on our lilac and laurel for a few weeks, apparently in the hope that the trees wouldn’t like it much. (They didn’t, but they survived.) Or when the two trees closest to the new fence shriveled up and died (dropping masses of leaves in the process, mostly on the Smith’s concrete) because someone had apparently dumped a couple of gallons of weed killer on them.

The arborist said he sees that a lot.

In the interest of maintaining good relationships on the block, we let all it all go, apart from telling Mr. Smith that our insurance wouldn’t cover neighbors plummeting from our tree. We laughed as though his repeated requests that we remove the willow taller than our house were a tremendously funny joke that just keeps getting more humorous with each telling. We stopped planting anything close to the fence and heroically resisted the urge to shake our trees just before one of the Smiths’ immensely noisy yard parties.

From the Smiths’ point of view, of course, this response was unsatisfactory in the extreme: from their perspective, we held all the power, as we were the stewards of the tallest trees in the neighborhood. (Which shade a stream that runs off to a salmon breeding ground; we are the ones who explain to new neighbors not to use anything toxic on their yards, lest it run into the stream.) We were the harborers of raccoons, the protectors of possums, the defenders of that unsightly hawks’ next.

To them, we had a monopoly on the ability to change the situation. That, to put it mildly, irked them so much that each spring, I trembled for the baby hawks. Seen from our side of the fence, though, the Smiths possessed a far from insignificant power: all of the neighborhood-annoying ability that molesting wildlife, intimidating our cat, poisoning our trees, and encouraging each of their five children to take up a musical instrument could convey.

On sunny days, the tots practiced scales in their spotless yard. We were on board with it until the youngest brought home a tuba.

Yet we, the Smiths, the wildlife, and the rest of the neighborhood lived in a state of uneasy détente, at least until the day last year that we decided to remove a couple of poisoned trees from our yard, efforts speeded by audible cheering from the Smiths’ house. I could have sworn that we had cleared the ground. Yet a couple of days later, branches littered our side of the fence again. We carted those away, only to discover the following week piles of leaves that had apparently fallen from trees that were no longer there.

The Smiths had evidently decided to start dumping fallen leaves over the fence. That showed us, didn’t it?

Why am I sharing this lengthy tale of woe and uproar, other than to demonstrate my confidence that no one on the Smiths’ side of the fence reads blogs? Because our situation with the neighbors so closely paralleled the relationship between agents and many of the aspiring writers who query them.

Think about it: by everyone’s admission, the agents own the trees — but that doesn’t mean that aspiring writers don’t resent clearing up the leaves. Or that they don’t in their own small ways have the ability to annoy agents quite a bit.

I sense some of you settling in to enjoy my account of this. “Pop some popcorn, Martha,” long-time query-resenters cry. “We’re going to have us some entertainment!”

Don’t get your hopes up — most of these annoyance tactics are only visible from the agents’ side of the fence. Completely generic Dear Agent letters, for instance, or queries clearly mass-emailed to every agent in the country. Sneaking a few extra lines above the prescribed page into an e-mailed query letter because, after all, what agency screener is going to have time to check that whether it ran longer? Shrinking the margins and/or the typeface on a paper query so that while it is technically a single page, it contains a page and a half’s worth of words. Deciding that the agency website didn’t really mean it about sending only the first five pages with the query, since something really great happens on page 6. Continuing to e-mail repeatedly after a rejection, trying to plead the book’s case. Telephoning at all, ever.

Oh, and those nit-picky little manuscript problems we have been discussing all year. Including any or all of those can be a trifle irritating, too.

Consider that, I implore you, the next time you are tempted to bend an agency or contest’s submission rules. While dumping the leaves over the fence might well have made the Smiths feel better, it certainly didn’t render them any more likely to convince us to rip out all of our trees; if anything, it made us more protective of them.

Aspiring writers’ attempts to force agents to change the way they do business by ignoring stated guidelines and industry-wide expectations doesn’t achieve the desired effect, either. It merely prompts agencies to adopt more and more draconian means of weeding out submissions.

Nobody wins, in short.

While you’re thoughtfully crunching popcorn and turning that little parable over in your mind, I’m going to switch gears and talk about that great annoyer of the fine folks on the writer’s side of the querying-and-submission fence, querying fatigue. Those of you who have been seeking agents for a while are familiar with the phenomenon, right? It’s that dragging, soul-sucking feeling that every querier — and submitter, and contest entrant — feels if and when that SASE comes back stuffed with a rejection.

“Oh, God,” every writer thinks in that moment, “I have to do this again?”

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. If an aspiring writer wants to land an agent, get a book published by press large or small instead of self-publishing, or win a literary contest, s/he does indeed need to pick that ego off the ground and keep moving forward.

Stop glaring at me — that’s just a fact.

Querying is a tough row to hoe, both technically and psychologically. But here’s a comforting thought to bear in mind: someone who reads only your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing. Logically speaking, to pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your manuscript.

Too often, aspiring writers beat themselves up unduly over query rejections, and it just doesn’t make sense. Unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly common ones that asks querants to include a brief writing sample, what is rejected in a query letter is either the letter itself (for unprofessionalism, lack of clarity, or simply not being a kind of book that particular agent represents), the premise of the book, or the book category.

Those are the only possibilities, if all you sent was a query. So, if you think about it, there is no way that even a stack of rejection letters reaching to the moon could be a rejection of your talents as a writer, provided those rejections came entirely from cold querying.

Makes you feel just the tiniest bit better to think of rejections that way, doesn’t it?

“But Anne,” some of you protest through a mouthful of popcorn, “I make a special point of querying only agencies whose websites ask me to imbed a few pages in my e-query or on its submission form. So when those folks reject me — or just don’t respond — I should take that as a rejection of my writing talent and/or book, right, and not just of my query?”

Not necessarily. You have no way of knowing whether the rejection happened before Millicent finished reading the query (the most frequent choice), after she finished reading it, on page 1 of the writing sample, or at the end of it. All you know for sure is that something in your query packet triggered rejection.

The query is the most sensible first choice for reexamination, since it’s the part of the query packet that any Millicent would read first — or at all. After all, if the query didn’t grab her attention (or if it dumped any of those pesky leaves over her fence), it’s unlikely to the point of laughability that she read the attached pages.

In response to all of those jaws I just heard hitting the floor, allow me to repeat that: typically, professional readers stop reading the instant they hit a red flag, regardless of how many pages of material they may have requested to see. True of Millicents, true of contest judges, even frequently true of editors. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

The vast majority of queriers and pitchers do not understand this. They think, and not without some justification, that if an agent’s website asks for ten pages of text, that someone at the agency is going to be standing over Millicent with a whip and a chair, forcing her to read that last syllable on p. 10 before making up her mind whether to reject the query.

Just doesn’t happen. Nor would it be fair to our Millie if it did. In practice, she simply does not have the time to scan every syllable of every query packet.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes. Even at a mere 30 seconds per query — far less than writers would like, but still, about average — screening 800-1500 queries per week would equal one full work day each week doing absolutely nothing else…like, say, reading all of those submissions from aspiring writers whose pages she actually requested.

Besides, from her point of view, why should she take the time to read the entirety of a query letter whose first paragraph or two is covered with those annoying leaves? Why wouldn’t she assume that if the query is filled with typos, the five pages the agency’s submission guidelines said you could send would be similarly unpolished, too?

“Someone ought to take a rake to this letter,” she grumbles, slurping down her latte. “Next!”

A pop quiz, to see if you’ve been paying attention: is the best strategic response to this kind of rejection to

(a) decide that the rejection constitutes the entire publishing world’s condemnation of the entire book and/or your talent as a writer, and never query again?

(b) conclude that the manuscript itself was at fault, and frantically revise it for a year before querying again?

(c) e-mail the agency repeatedly, pointing out all of your manuscript’s finer points in an effort to get them to change their minds about rejecting your query?

(d) decide that Millicent was a fool and send out exactly the same query packet to the next agency?

(e) scrutinize both the query and the pages for possible red flags, then send out fresh queries as soon as possible thereafter?

If you said (a), you’re like half the unpublished writers in North America: not bad company, but also engaging in behavior that renders getting picked up by an agent (or winning a contest, for that matter) utterly impossible. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: even a thoughtful rejection is only one reader’s opinion; no single rejection of a query or submission could possibly equal the condemnation of the entire publishing industry.

If you said (b), you’re like many, many conscientious aspiring writers: willing, even eager to believe that your writing must be faulty; if not, any agency in the world would have snapped it up, right? (See the previous paragraph on the probability of a single Millicent’s reaction being an infallible indicator of that.)

If you said (c), I hope you find throwing those leaves over the fence satisfying. Just be aware that it’s not going to convince Millicent or her boss to chop down the willow.

If you said (d), well, at least you have no illusions that need to be shattered. You are tenacious and believe in your work. Best of luck to you — but after the tenth or fifteenth rejection, you might want to consider the possibility that there are a few leaves marring the beauty of your query letter or opening pages.

If you said (e), congratulations: you have found a healthy balance between pride and practicality. Keep pushing forward.

While we’re considering the possibility of organic debris obscuring the efficacy of your query, let me bring up the most common fallen leaf of all: boasting about the writing quality, originality of the book concept, or future literary importance of the writer in the query. If your query contains even a hint of this, take it out immediately.

Yes, I know — I’ve talked about this one already in this series, but it’s such a common Millicents’ pet peeve that it can’t be repeated enough. Agents and editors tend to be wary of aspiring writers who praise their own work, and rightly so. To use a rather crude analogy, boasts in queries come across like a drunk’s insistence that he can beat up everybody else in the bar, or (to get even cruder) like a personal ad whose author claims that he’s a wizard in bed.

He’s MAKING the bed, naturally, children. Go practice your tuba in the yard.

My point, should you care to know it: if the guy were really all that great at either, wouldn’t other people be singing his praises? Isn’t the proof of the pudding, as they say, in the eating?

Even if you are feeling fairly confident that your query does not stray into the realm of self-review, you might want to ask someone whose reading eye you trust to take a gander at your query, to double-check that you’ve removed every last scintilla of subjective evaluation of your own work. Why? Well, aspiring writers are not always aware that they’ve crossed the line from confident presentation to boasting.

To be fair, the line can be a mite blurry. As thoughtful reader Jake asked some time back, in the midst of one of my rhapsodies on pitching:

I’ve been applying this series to query writing, and I think I’ve written a pretty good elevator speech to use as a second paragraph, but there’s something that bothers me.

We’ve been told countless times not to write teasers or book-jacket blurbs when trying to pick up an agent. (”Those damned writer tricks,” I think was the term that was used.)

I’m wondering exactly where the line between blurbs and elevator speeches are, and how can I know when I’ve crossed it. Any tips there?

Jake, this is a great question, one that I wish more queriers would ask themselves. The short answer:

A good elevator speech/descriptive paragraph in a query letter describes the content of a book in a clear, concise manner, relying upon intriguing specifics to entice a professional reader into wanting to see actual pages of the book in question.

whereas

A back jacket blurb is a micro-review of a book, commenting upon its strengths, usually in general terms. Usually, these are written by someone other than the author, as with the blurbs that appear on book jackets.

The former is a (brief, admittedly) sample of the author’s storytelling skill; the latter is promotional copy. The first’s appearance in a query letter is professional, while the second is a shovelful of fallen leaves.

Many, if not most, queriers make the mistake of regarding query letters — and surprisingly often synopses, especially those submitted for contest entry, as well — as occasions for the good old American hard sell, boasting when they should instead be demonstrating. Or, to put it in more writerly language, telling how great the book in question is rather than showing it.

From Millicent’s perspective — as well as her Aunt Mehitabel’s when she is judging a contest entry — the difference is glaring. So how, as Jake so asks insightfully, is a querier to know when he’s crossed the line between them?

As agents like to say, it all depends on the writing, and as my long-term readers are already aware, I’m no fan of hard-and-fast rules. However, here are a couple of simple follow-up questions to consider while examining a query that’s already been rejected a few times:

(1) Does my descriptive paragraph actually describe what the book is about, or does it pass a value judgment on it?
Remember, if Millicent can’t tell her boss what your book is about, she’s going to have a hard time recommending that the agency pick you up as a client. So go ahead and tell her the story; resist the temptation to shoehorn your dream back-jacket blurb into your query.

The typical back-jacket blurb isn’t intended to describe the book’s content — it’s to praise it, in the hope of attracting readers. And as counter-intuitive as most queriers seem to find it, the goal of a query letter is not to praise the book, but to pique interest in it.

See the difference? Millicent does. So do her Aunt Mehitabel and her cousin Maury, who screens manuscripts for an editor at a major publishing house.

(2) Does my query present the book as a reviewer might, in terms of the reader’s potential enjoyment, assessment of writing quality, speculation about sales potential, and assertions that it might make a good movie? Or does my query talk about the book in the terms an agent might actually use to try to sell it to an editor at a publishing house?
An effective query describes a book in the vocabulary of the publishing industry, not in terms of general praise. (If you’re not certain how to do that, don’t worry — we’ll be getting to the nuts and bolts in a few days.)

(3) Are the sentences that strike me as possibly blurb-like actually vital to the query letter, or are they extraneous?
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the average query letter is crammed to the gills with unnecessary verbiage. Just as your garden-variety unprepared pitcher tends to ramble on about how difficult it has been to find an agent for her book, what subplots it contains, and what inspired her to write the darned thing in the first place, queriers often veer off-track to discuss everything from their hopes and dreams about how well the book could sell (hence our old friend, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) to mentioning what their kith, kin, and writing teachers thought of it (“Uncle Thaddeus says it’s a natural for Oprah!”) to thoughtfully listing all of the reasons that the agent being queried SHOULDN’T pick it up (“You probably won’t be interested, because this isn’t the kind of book that ends up on Oprah.”)

To Millicent and her fellow screeners, none of these observations are relevant. You don’t have very much space in a query letter; use it to provide only the information that will help an agent see just how marketable your book actually is.

(4) Does my query make all of the points I need it to make?
Oh, you may laugh, but humor me for a moment while we go over the basics. A successful query letter has at minimum ALL of the following traits:

* it is clear,

* it is less than 1 page (single-spaced, with 1-inch margins),

* it describes the book’s premise (not the entire story; that’s the job of the synopsis) in an engaging manner,

* it is politely worded,

* it states unequivocally what kind of book is being pitched, using a book category that already exists in the publishing industry, rather than one the writer has simply made up,

* it makes it clear whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction,

* if it is nonfiction, it includes some description of the writer’s platform (credentials for writing the book, including expertise and/or celebrity status),

* it includes a SASE (if it is being sent via regular mail) or full contact information for the querier, and

* it is addressed to a specific agent with a successful track record in representing the type of book it describes.

You would not believe how few query letters that agencies receive actually exhibit all of these traits. Even the fiction/nonfiction bit is often omitted. And to be brutally blunt about it, agents rather like that, because gaffes like these make it oh-so-easy to reject 85% of what they receive within seconds.

No fuss, no muss, no reading beyond, say, line 5. Again, sound familiar?

A particularly common feature to omit: the book category. Many writers just don’t know that the industry runs on book categories, not vague descriptions like well, it’s sort of based on something that really happened to me or it’s a combination Western/romance novel/science fiction epic, with elements of humor thrown in. What’s an agent to do with a description like that? Where would such a book reside in a bookstore? How would a reader looking for such a book describe it to a bookstore employee, or find it on Amazon?

More to the point at querying time, how would the agent know which imprints would consider publishing such a book? It would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label, for the exceedingly simple reason that book categories are how the industry keeps track of which readers are buying which books. If a query says a book is a Highland romance, the agent knows right away who the target reader is, what that reader expects to see on the page (roughly, anyway), and how well books in that category tend to sell. If, on the other hand, the query describes that same book as a well-written examination of two passionate lovers — one in a kilt, one in a dress — as they face terrifying conflicts and moving emotional wrenches, the agent would actually have to read the book before even beginning to think about which editors might be interested in it.

I see that glint in your eye, but no, that’s not a good thing, from the querier’s perspective. Millicents seldom request manuscript pages because they’re curious about what kind of a book is being queried. Most often, if they can’t categorize the book at a glance, they will just reject the query.

Most of the time, omitting the book category is simply the result of ignorance: the overwhelming majority of queriers simply don’t know that it’s necessary to include. They know what kinds of books they’ve written, after all; it doesn’t occur to them that the category wouldn’t be self-evident. Other queriers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, fail to mention their book’s category for strategic reasons, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of writer reasons, “so I just won’t tell them what kind of book I’ve written until after they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napolèon: publishing simply doesn’t work that way. If Millicent cannot tell from your query where your book will eventually rest on a shelf, she’s not going to read it at all.

Yes, for most books, particularly novels, there can be legitimate debate about which shelf would most happily house it, and agents recategorize their clients’ work all the time. (It’s happened to me, and recently.) As long as people in the industry speak and even think of books by category, though, you’re not going to win any Brownie points with them by making them guess what kind of book you’re trying to get them to read.

(5) Does my query make my book sound appealing — not just to any agent, but to the kind of agent who would be the best fit for my writing?
You wouldn’t believe how many blank stares I get when I ask this one in my classes, but as I’ve pointed out before, you don’t want just any agent to represent your work; you want one with the right connections to sell it to an editor, right?

That’s not a match-up that’s likely to occur through blind dating, if you catch my drift. You need to look for someone who shares your interests.

I find that it often helps aspiring writers to think of their query letters as personal ads for their books. (Don’t pretend you’re unfamiliar with the style: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing your book to someone with whom you are hoping it will have a long-term relationship — which, ideally, it will be; I have siblings with whom I have less frequent contact than with my agent — and as such, you are trying to make a good impression.

So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself? Or, to put it another way, are you using the blurb or demonstration style?

Do you, as so many personal ads and queries do, describe yourself in only the vaguest terms, hoping that Mr. or Ms. Right will read your mind correctly and pick yours out of the crowd of ads? Or do you figure out precisely what it is you want from a potential partner, as well as what you have to give in return, and spell it out?

To the eye of an agent or screener who sees hundreds of these appeals per week, writers who do not specify book categories are like personal ad placers who forget to list minor points like their genders or the state in which they reside. It really is that basic, in their world. And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in it’s a cross between a political thriller and a gentle romance, with helpful gardening tips thrown in, are to professional eyes the equivalent of personal ad placers so insecure about their own appeal that they say they are into long walks on the beach, javelin throwing, or whatever.

Trust me, to the pros, this kind of complexity doesn’t make you look interesting, or your book like a genre-crosser. To them, it looks at best like an attempt to curry favor by indicating that the writer in question is willing to manhandle his book in order to make it anything the agent wants.

At worst, it comes across as the writer’s being so solipsistic that he assumes that it’s the query-reader’s job to guess what whatever means in this context. And we all know by now how agents feel about writers who waste their time, don’t we?

Don’t give Millicent’s psychic skills a workout; be specific, and describe your work in the language she and her boss understand. Otherwise, they’re just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind — at least, anyone who has a substantial and successful track record in selling your category of book — should ask to read all or part of it with all possible dispatch.

I know you’re up to this challenge; I can feel it. Don’t worry, though — you don’t need to pull it off within the next thirty seconds, regardless of what that rush of adrenaline just told you.

But don’t, whatever you do, vent your completely understandable frustration in self-defeating leaf-dumping. It’s a waste of energy, and it will not result in the outcome you want. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part II: the infamous self-rejecting query, or, when is a letter addressed to a business not a business letter?

Querying, I think we all can agree, is a necessary evil: no one likes it. It generates a whole lot of inconvenience for writer and agency alike, and to engage in sending one out is to put one’s ego on the line in a very fundamental way. Rejection hurts, and you can’t be rejected if you never send out your work, right? So you can either try to lie low, keeping your dreams to yourself, or you can attempt to approach those high-and-mighty gatekeepers of the industry, asking to be let inside the Emerald City.

Sounds a lot like high school social dynamics, doesn’t it?

Just as many people stay away from their high school reunions because they fear exposing themselves to the judgment of people whom past experience has led them to believe to be shallow and hurtful, many, many writers avoid querying, or give up after just a handful of queries, because they fear to be rejected by folks they have heard are — wait for it — kind of shallow and prone to be hurtful.

There are a variety of ways to deal with such fears. One could, for instance, not query at all, and resign oneself to that great novel or brilliant nonfiction book’s never being published. Alternatively, one could query just a couple of times, then give up.

Or — and if you haven’t guessed by now, this would be my preferred option — you could recognize that while some of the people at the reunion may in fact turn out to be kind of unpleasant, you really only need to find the one delightful person who finds you truly fascinating to make the entire enterprise worthwhile.

You’ll be pleased to hear, though, that unlike a hapless ex-school kid gearing up to attend a reunion, there are certain things an aspiring writer can do before querying to increase the probability of a positive reception. Certain elements mark a query letter as coming from someone who has taken the time to learn how the publishing industry works.

Agents like writers who bother to do that, you know, and with good reason. Such new clients are much less time-consuming than those whose ideas of how books are sold bear only scant relation to reality. Aspiring writers harboring unrealistic expectations tend not only to express resentment when their work encounters stumbling-blocks — they often end up feeling disappointed when things are going well.

This isn’t at all uncommon, by the way; even very talented fledgling writers often harbor unrealistic ideas about how books find representation. Let’s face it, we all know at least one writer who has blithely sent off a query, expecting to receive in reply an immediate offer of representation, only to be astonished to learn that the agent to whom he sent it actually wants to read his manuscript before making a commitment. Chances are that you’re also acquainted with a writer, perhaps the same one, laboring under the illusion that a really good book will move from the query stage to publication, or at least an offer of publication, within a matter of weeks. Then there’s the writer flabbergasted when her query does not receive an instantaneous response, and the one stunned to realize that it often takes 3-6 months or even longer for an agent to get back to a writer about a submitted manuscript.

And hands up, anybody who also knows a writer who, after his first query was rejected (or, as has become increasingly common, did not generate a response at all), decides that there’s no need to query anyone else. If one agent rejected it, they all will, right?

Wrong on every point, I’m afraid. Chant it with me now, veterans of Queryfest, Part I: agents are individuals, with individual tastes; they represent specific book categories, not books in general; therefore, there is no such thing as a single manuscript — or a perfect query letter — that will please every agent, everywhere, every time.

The query letter structure I proposed last time — not the only one possible by any means, or even the only one that works; it’s just what has worked best in my experience — also frees the writer from the well-nigh impossible task of trying to cram everything good about a book into a single page.

Which is, I have noticed over the years, precisely what most aspiring writers try to do.

No wonder they get intimidated and frustrated long before they query the 50 or 100 agents (yes, you read that correctly) it often takes these days for a good book to find the right fit. To put this in perspective, a truly talented writer might well end up querying the equivalent of my entire high school graduating class before being signed.

Hey, I went to a small school. My class wasn’t even big enough to sustain exclusive cliques.

Believe it or not, a book project that generates masses of rejected queries is not necessarily a bad book concept, poorly written, or even unmarketable. Rejection is often a function of heavy competition, agent specialization, and aspiring writers not being aware of what information a query letter is supposed to contain.

Apart from doing the necessary homework to get a query that does contain the right information onto the desk of an agent who does habitually represent that type of book, the only way that I know to speed up that process is to make the query letter itself businesslike, but personable.

I sense some of you clutching your chests, all set to launch into a full-blown panic attack, but you can relax. I’m not talking about spilling your soul onto a single sheet of paper.

I’m talking about making your query letter unique. And not in the all-too-common misdefinition of the word as a synonym for special. I mean unique in its proper sense of one of a kind.

A tall order, you say? Well, keep in mind that the sole purpose of the query is to engender enough excitement in an agent (or, more commonly, in Millicent the agency screener: it is rare for agents at the larger agencies to read query letters themselves; Millicent’s the one getting the paper cuts) that she will ask to see a representative chunk of the book itself, not to reproduce what you would like to see on the book’s back jacket or to complain about having to work through an agent at all.

If either of the last two options made you chuckle in disbelief, good. Believe it or not, I’ve seen both turn up many, many times in unsuccessful query letters. Boasting and petulance both abound on the query page, and both tend to discourage positive response.

Now, I know that my readers are too savvy to do either of those things deliberately, but isn’t it worth sitting down with your query letter and asking yourself: could an exhausted Millicent — in a bad mood, with a cold, having just broken up with her boyfriend AND burned her lip on that over-hot latte yet again — possibly construe that letter as either?

Yes, querying is a chore, and an intimidating one at that. Yes, ultimately, it will be the agent’s job, not yours, to market your work to publishers. And yes, an agent or editor probably would have a far better idea of how to spin your book than you would.

Agents and their screeners are in fact aware of all of these things. You don’t need to tell them.

Your query letter needs to market your book impeccably anyway, in a tone that makes you sound like an author who loves his work and is eager to give agent and editor alike huge amounts of his time to promote it. Not a walk in the park, definitely, but certainly doable by a smart, talented writer who approaches it in the right spirit.

Sound like anyone you know?

So start thinking, please, about how to make your query the one that waltzes into the reunion with a positive attitude, not the one who storms in with a chip on its little shoulder. Or, heaven forefend, the one that doesn’t stick its nose through the door at all.

The gates of the Emerald City are not going to open unless you knock, people. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of getting published is the one that is never queried or pitched.

Yet even as I typed that, I could sense some ardor-deflation out there. “”My God,” the little voice in the back of my head which I choose to attribute to my readership shouts, “how on earth could anyone sound unique within the context of a single-page missive? How can I cram all I need to say to grab their attention in that little space, much less seem unique while doing it?”

Um, are you sitting down? You don’t actually have the entire page to catch their attention. To be on the safe side, figure you have only about five lines to convince them to keep reading.

Yes, you read that correctly. While you already have the heart medication and/or asthma inhaler at the ready, it seems like a good time to add: Millicent and her ilk do not read the vast majority of query letters to their ends.

Are you rending your garments and shouting, “Why, Lord, why?” Because the vast majority of query letters disqualify themselves from serious consideration before the end of the opening paragraph. They are, in fact, self-rejecting.

Hey, I told you to sit down first.

At the risk of repeating myself, this is largely attributable to aspiring writers’ not being aware of what information a query letter should contain. And should not: unfortunately, Americans are so heavily exposed to hard-sell techniques that many aspiring writers make the mistake of using their query letters to batter the agent with predictions of future greatness so over-inflated (and, from the agent’s point of view, so apparently groundless, coming from a previously unpublished writer) that they may be dismissed out of hand.

Like what, you ask? Here are some perennial favorites:

This is the next (fill in name of bestseller here)!

You’ll be sorry if you let this one pass by!

Everyone in the country will want to read this book!

Women everywhere will want to buy this book!

This book is like nothing else on the market!

There’s never been a novel/memoir/nonfiction book on this subject before!

And, of course, the all-time most common:

It’s a natural for Oprah!

Admittedly, Millicent sees this one less often since Oprah’s network show went off the air, but you’d be surprised at how little the demise of Oprah’s book club caused the frequency of this claim’s appearing in query letters to diminish. Five years ago, it wasn’t at all uncommon for Millicent to see this assertion ten or fifteen times per day.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble (yet I do seem to be doing it quite a bit lately, don’t I?), but even back when Oprah’s book club was in full swing and concentrating on living authors, this claim was seldom credible to professional eyes, unless the author could legitimately include in the query the date upon which she was already booked to appear on the show. Ditto with all of the boasts above, actually: to Millicent, these are all absurd statements to discover in a query letter.

Yes, even if the book in question actually is the next DA VINCI CODE.

Why? Because these aren’t descriptions of the book; they’re back-jacket blurbs, marketing copy, equally applicable to (and equally likely to be true about) any manuscript that crosses their desks. After one has heard the same claim 1500 times, it starts to lose a little vim.

“Why do these queriers keep telling me that their books are unique?” Millicent grumbles, reaching for her fourth latte of the afternoon. “Why aren’t they SHOWING me?”

Ah, there’s the rub: assertions like these simply are not as effective at establishing a writer’s ability or a story’s appeal as demonstrating both practically, through well-written sentences and a summary containing lively and unusual details. At base, all of these hard-sell statements are reviews — and not, let’s face it, from the most credible source. Authors tend, after all, to be slightly partial to their own work.

Or so the pros surmise from the scads and scads of queries telling them point-blank that this book or that is terrific.
Even in the rare instances that these statements aren’t just empty boasts based upon wishful thinking, consider: whose literary opinion would you be more likely to believe in Millicent’s shoes, the author’s vague claim of excellence about his own book or another reader’s recommendation?

To put it another way, if someone you’d never met before came up to you on the street and said, “Hey, I bake the world’s best mincemeat pies, the kind that can change your life in a single bite,” would you believe him? Enough to stop in your tracks, giving up all hope of getting your errands done that morning, and ask him for information about his pie-making process? Based upon only his self-assessment, would you trustingly place that total stranger’s good-looking (or not) slice of God-knows-what into your mouth?

Or would you want some assurances that, say, this hard-selling yahoo knows something about cooking, had produced the pie in a vermin-free kitchen, and/or hadn’t constructed the mincemeat out of ground-up domestic pets?

Oh, you may laugh, but honestly, expecting an agent to ask to read a manuscript purely because you think it might sell well to a non-specific audience is the literary equivalent of that pie-pusher’s telling a passerby to open wide and swallow. Requesting manuscript pages means setting aside time (usually Millicent’s first, then, if she approves it, the agent’s) out of very busy schedules to engage in intensive reading. Why would agents and editors’ desire to hear about a new writer’s past publication history in a query — or educational background, or even platform — if not to try to figure out if that pie is made of reasonable materials and in a manner up to professional standards of production before agreeing to invest the time in ingesting it?

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, a good query letter includes what I like to call ECQLC, Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, platform information and/or selling points that will make Millicent sit up and say either, “Wow, this writer has interesting credentials,” “Wow, this writer is uniquely qualified to tell this story,” and/or “Wow, this book has greater market appeal/a larger target audience/is significantly more important to human existence than I would have guessed.”

The crucial exclamation to elicit, obviously, is “Wow!” Not merely because Millicent honestly does enjoy discovering exciting new writing projects (yes, even though it’s her job to reject 98% of the ones that cross her desk), but because a query letter that mentions either the writer’s credentials or the book’s selling points is genuinely rare. It’s very much in your book’s interest, then, to include yours.

I sense some disgruntled muttering out there, do I not? “Here we go again, Anne,” some mutterers, well, mutter. “I can’t stand it when the pros start rattling on about platform. Isn’t that just code for we’re not interested in taking a chance on previously unpublished authors?”

Actually, it isn’t. Agents and their Millicents don’t ask to see platform information in queries in order to seem exclusionary toward previously unpublished writers (okay, not merely to seem exclusionary). They want it to be there because specific references to specific past literary achievements are signals to a quick-scanning screener that this is a query letter to take seriously.

As will an opening paragraph that states clearly and concisely why the writer decided to query this agent, as opposed to any other; a well-crafted single-paragraph elevator speech for the book; some indication of the target market, and a polite, respectful tone. The same basic elements, in short, as an effective verbal pitch.

Did some light bulbs just flicker on over some heads out there?

That’s right, campers — the difference between a vague boast and solid information about your book and why THIS agent is the best fit for it is actually a show, don’t tell problem, at base. Part of your goal in the query letter is to demonstrate through your professional presentation of your project that this is a great book by an exciting new author, not just to say it.

So you might want to eschew such statements as, “My friends say this is the greatest novel since THE GRAPES OF WRATH. It will move you to tears and rock you with laughter. It’s also a natural for Oprah.” You can make better arguments for your manuscript’s relevance.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “my book really is the best novel since THE GRAPES OF WRATH; several of my first readers/my writing teacher/my mother said so. Even if I did happen to be clutching the hems of their respective garments at the time, begging piteously for some positive feedback on my writing, isn’t it relevant in a query that I’m not the only human being that thinks I can write?”

Well, yes and no, garment-clutchers. Yes, you should mention in your query letter if someone of whom Millicent is likely to have heard and whose opinion she is likely to respect has said, preferably in writing, that your manuscript will revolutionize literature as we know it. At least if s/he meant it in a positive sense.

No, you should not bring up that someone of whom the literary world at large has never heard has compared you to Leo Tolstoy. Trust me on this one: it’s just going to sound like yet another boast

Think about it: why would someone who reads for a living just take a total stranger’s assurance that a manuscript is the most hilarious novel since TOM JONES? Professional readers tend to like to make up their own minds about how good a book is. Besides, how could Millicent possibly verify a review from a random person? For all she knows, your sainted and exceptionally literate mother has no taste in books at all, or any familiarity with the current book market. For all she knows, you just made up that writing teacher’s comment.

Oh, pick your jaws off the floor, quoters-of-others: of course, you weren’t intending to do such a thing, but you’d be astonished at how often queriers seem to pluck positive reviews from the ether. Unless you can legitimately cite a well-established author in your chosen book category — and believe me, Millicent will double-check the quote — or a household name other than Mom, your glowing review is all too likely to get dismissed as just another of the thousands of similar plugs our Millie sees every month.

Unless “Who is this person, and why should I care what he thinks?” is the response you were hoping to engender?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but usually, Millicent will simply stop reading if a query letter opens with an empty boast like that, because to her, including such statements is like a writer’s scrawling on the query in great big red letters, “I have absolutely no idea how the publishing industry works.” Which, while an interesting tactic, is unlikely to get an agent or her screener to invest an additional ten seconds in reading on to your next paragraph.

That’s right, I said ten seconds: as much as writers like to picture agents and their screeners agonizing over their missives, trying to decide if such a book is marketable or not, the average query remains under a decision-maker’s eyes for less than 30 seconds. That doesn’t seem like a lot of time to make up one’s mind, does it?

Actually, it is ample for a query letter rife with typos and unsubstantiated claims about how great the book is to turn a professional reader off. Or one that fails to mention whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction — another mind-bogglingly frequent omission. Or one that wastes too much valuable page space telling Millicent that the book will inevitably sell well, rather than providing her with enough information about the story for her to see why it will. Or one that asks her to read a kind of book her boss simply does not represent.

It’s more than enough time, in short, to reject a self-rejecting query.

Try not to blame Millicent for speeding through those missives, automatically ruling out the ones that contain common mistakes and omissions. I can’t stress enough that agency screeners do not reject quickly merely to be mean. It’s their job, and to a certain extent, developing pet peeves and shortcuts is a necessary psychological defense for someone handling hundreds of people’s hopes and dreams in any given day’s work.

Even the best-intentioned Millicent might conceivably, after as short a time as a few weeks of screening queries, start relying pretty heavily upon her first impressions. Consider, for instance, the pervasive misconception that business format is proper for either query letters or manuscripts. It isn’t: business format for letters is, as the name implies, appropriate for business letters; query letters should be in correspondence format, with indented paragraphs, and there’s a completely different standard format for manuscripts.

That may be counter-intuitive to some writers — writing is writing, isn’t it? — but to those who handle professional manuscripts for a living, it seems self-evident. “Why would a query and a manuscript be formatted identically?” Millicent asks, genuinely astonished at the very idea. “They have utterly different functions. And since the publishing industry prides itself on maintaining standards of literacy, why would we jettison indentation just because people in other types of business that have nothing to do with books decided some years ago that indenting paragraphs was optional? Shouldn’t it be obvious to anyone who has ever picked up a traditionally published book that indentation is far from obsolete?”

Indented paragraphs are, to put it bluntly, not only the industry standard, but proper in English prose. They are an idea whose time has not only come, but remains.

It’s also darned handy at screening time: improper formatting is the single quickest flaw to spot in either a query or manuscript. So why wouldn’t Millicent free up an extra few seconds in her day by rejecting paper query letters devoid of indentation on sight? Especially when empirical experience has shown her that aspiring writers who don’t use grammatically-necessary indentation in their query letters often eschew it in their manuscripts as well?

“But Anne,” some of you demand indignantly, and who could blame you? “What does indentation have to do with the actual writing in a manuscript? Or a query, for that matter?”

Potentially plenty, from Millicent’s point of view. Remember, the competition for both client spots at agencies and publication contracts is fierce enough that any established agent fill her typically scant new client quota hundreds of times over with technically perfect submissions: formatted correctly, spell- and grammar-checked to within an inch of their lives, beautifully written, AND the kind of book the agent has an already-established track record of representing. So there’s just not a lot of incentive for her to give a query with formatting, spelling, or grammatical problems the benefit of the doubt.

Some of you still don’t believe me about the dangers of using business formatting, do you? Okay, let’s take a gander at what Millicent expects to see, a letter formatted observing standard English rules of paragraph-formation:

mars query indented

Now let’s take a look at exactly the same letter in business format:

biz style mars query

Interesting how different it is, isn’t it, considering that the words are identical? And isn’t it astonishing how many paces away a reader can be for the difference to be obvious?

Admittedly, to someone who has never seen a professionally-formatted query (or manuscript, for that matter) in person, it might not be so obvious. It also might not be obvious to those unfamiliar with correspondence format. Why, the very last time I used these examples at Author! Author! detail-oriented reader Kathy pointed out,

In your first example, you put a space between the indented paragraphs. But in our manuscripts, we don’t add that extra space.
So are we to add that extra space between indented paragraphs? And do we indent the paragraphs in an email query? I’m so confused!

I feel your pain, Kathy, but frankly, Millicent wouldn’t: the rules governing manuscript format are simply different from those governing correspondence. That’s always been true (at least since the advent of typewriters in the mid-19th century), yet many queriers seem to find it confusing. That generally comes as a surprise to folks in the publishing industry, because it would simply never occur to them that anyone would confuse a manuscript with a letter, or indeed, that anyone would believe that all writing on paper should be formatted identically. Thus the relative intolerance of business format I mentioned above.

To clear up the confusion, queries CAN have a skipped line between indented paragraphs, but it’s optional. They should be single-spaced (and limited to a single page), printed on only one side of the page (not all that difficult for a single-page letter), and have one-inch margins. Queries also have left-justified salutations and addresses, as well as middle-justified closing compliments and signatures.

Book manuscripts, on the other hand, are double-spaced, with no skipped line between paragraphs except to indicate breaks between different sections of text. Their paragraphs must always be indented — the practice of not indenting the first paragraph of a chapter is found only in published books, not properly-formatted manuscripts. They have slug lines (and if any of this is news to you, run, don’t walk to the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.)

So manuscripts really don’t look anything like letters, when you come right down to it. Nor do they look like e-mails.

A writer could get away with non-indented paragraphs in an e-mailed query these days, but it’s certainly not mandatory. As I mentioned, the Internet and most e-mail programs are set up for business format (i.e., no indentation, single-spaced). Thus, most e-mails are single-spaced with a skipped line between paragraphs, non-indented paragraphs, and left-justified closing and signature. Because that is the norm for e-mailed communications, that format is perfectly acceptable for an e-mailed query.

In a paper query, though, non-indented queries tend to be self-rejecting. Ditto with requested materials, even if you are sending them via e-mail. (Unless her agency specifies otherwise, Millicent will expect you to send any requested pages as Word attachments, not as inserts in the body of an e-mail; thus, all pages should include indented text. FYI, agencies that tell queriers to include sample pages or chapters with their queries are not technically requesting material: they simply like for Millie to have more information at her fingertips before she makes a decision. For an in-depth discussion of the differences between query packets and submission packets, please see the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A QUERY PACKET and HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET on the archive list at right.)

“Wait just a paper-wasting minute!” indentation-avoiders everywhere cry. “Let’s go back to that bit about non-indented queries being self-rejecting. Standards have changed; e-mail has eliminated the need for observing traditional paragraph standards in any context. Besides, at the risk of repeating ourselves, it’s the writing that counts, not the formatting.”

I understand the logic, of course, but it simply doesn’t apply at the query stage: Millicent cannot possibly judge the manuscript’s writing until she has requested and read the manuscript, right? A query is judged on different criteria (and yes, Virginia, I shall be going over those criteria in detail later in the series.)

Even if it were not, the agent for whom she works couldn’t possibly submit a manuscript devoid of indented paragraphs to a publisher, period; no amount of argument is going to convince Millicent otherwise. Demonstrating a familiarity with the location and function of the TAB key, then, is a pretty good idea.

Besides, not all businesses work in the same way. As anyone who works in an agency or publishing house would no doubt be delighted to tell you, there are many, many ways in which publishing doesn’t work like any other kind of business. One does not, for instance, require an agent in order to become a success at selling shoes or to become a well-respected doctor.

If you’re looking for evidence of the biz’ exceptionalism, all you have to do is walk into a bookstore with a good literary fiction section. Find a book by a great up-and-coming author that’s sold only 500 copies since it came out last year, and ask yourself, “Would another kind of business have taken a chance like this, or would it concentrate on producing only what sells well? Would it continue to produce products like this year after year, decade after decade, out of a sense of devotion to the betterment of the human race?”

Okay, so some businesses would, but it’s certainly not the norm.

Yet almost invariably, when I try to tell them that publishing is an old-fashioned industry fond of its traditions, that agents and their screeners tend to be people with great affection for the English language and its rules, and that a savvy querier should therefore be only too delighted to curry favor with these fine people by means as simple as hitting the TAB key from time to time, I receive the same huffy reply from writers who dislike indenting: some version of, “Well, I heard/read/was told that a query/marketing plan had to be businesslike. Therefore, it must be in business format. QED, tradition-hugger.”

I’m always glad when they bring this up — because I strongly suspect that this particular notion is at the root of the surprisingly pervasive rumor that agents actually prefer business format. Agents do occasionally state point-blank at conferences, in interviews, and even in their submission guidelines that they want to receive businesslike query letters. But businesslike and business format are not the same thing. Businesslike means professional, market-savvy, not overly-familiar — in short, the kind of query letter we talked about last time.

Business format, on the other hand, doesn’t dictate any kind of content at all; it’s purely about how the page is put together. There’s absolutely nothing about it, after all, that precludes opening a query with the threat, “You’ll regret it for the rest of your natural life if you let this book pass you by!”

All of these negative examples are lifted from actual query letters, by the way. My spies are everywhere.

All that being said, there’s another reason that I would strenuously advise against using business format in your query letters. A comparative glance at the two letters above will demonstrate why.

Take another look, then put yourself in Millicent’s shoes for a moment and ask yourself: based upon this particular writing sample, would you assume that Aspiring Q. Author was familiar with standard format? Would you expect Aspiring’s paragraphs to be indented, or for him/her (I have no idea which, I now realize) NOT to skip lines between paragraphs?

Okay, would your answer to those questions change if you had a hundred query letters to read before you could get out of the office for the day, and you’d just burned your lip on a too-hot latte? (Millicent never seems to learn, does she?)

No? Well, what if it also contained a typo within the first line or two, had odd margins, or began with, “This is the best book you’ll read this year!” or some similar statement? Wouldn’t you be at least a LITTLE tempted to draw some negative conclusions from the format?

Even if you wouldn’t, Millicent would — and perhaps even should. Why? Because although most aspiring writers seem not to be aware of it, every sentence a writer submits to an agency is a writing sample. And every page is proof that a writer not only has taken the time to learn the norms of the industry — like, say, that queries and manuscripts should be formatted differently — but is conscientious enough to be able to follow them consistently without coaching.

Why, yes, that is quite a lot to read into something as simple as how a writer chooses to format a query, or whether he knows not to open it with his best friend’s immortal assertion that the novel being queried is fated to sell better than JAWS, PEYTON PLACE, and the entire TWILIGHT series combined. But when a stranger comes up to sell you a meat pie, you’re going to be looking for whatever clues you can to figure out if he’s on the up-and-up before you take a bite out of it.

I can feel some of you getting depressed over this, but actually, I find it empowering that the high rejection rate is not arbitrary. Quick rejections are not about being mean or hating writers — they’re about plowing through the mountains of submissions that arrive not only daily, but since the advent of e-mail, hourly. Lest we forget, the average agency receives 800-1500 queries per week, and that’s not counting the post-Labor Day backlog or New Year’s Resolution Rush, folks. Agents and screeners have a very strong incentive to weed out as many of them as possible as rapidly as possible.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, that agents will happily tell you that any query that begins “Dear Agent” (rather than addressing a specific agent by name) automatically goes into the rejection pile. So does any query that addresses the agent by the wrong gender in the salutation. If you’re unsure about a Chris or an Alex, double-check the agency’s website; they often list bios with pronouns in them. If that fails, call the agency and ask whether the proper salutation is Ms. or Mr.; no need to identify yourself as anything but a potential querier.

And, of course, the most obvious self-rejecter of all, any query that is pitching a book in a category the agent is not looking to represent. Yes, even if the very latest agents’ guide AND the agency’s website says otherwise. Queriers don’t get to play rules lawyer; you’re just going to have to accept that these people know what their own connections are.

You are sitting down, are you not? Good, because what I have to say next may come as something of a shock: each of these self-rejecting queries will, in all probability, generate exactly the same form rejection letter as queries that were carefully considered, but ultimately passed upon.

So how precisely is an aspiring writer to learn what does and doesn’t work in a query? By finding out what Millicent has been trained to spot — and learning what appeals to her.

A great place to start: go to writers’ conferences and ask individual agents about what kind of queries they like to see, so you may compare their answers. Attend book readings and ask authors about how they landed their agents. Take writers who have successfully landed agents out to lunch and ask them how they did it.

Sound like a lot of trouble? You’re not alone in thinking so, I assure you. There’s a reason I revisit this topic so thoroughly once a year; I’m just trying to save you a little legwork.

However you decide to go about learning the ropes, do not, whatever you do, just assume that what works in other kinds of marketing will necessarily fly in approaching an agent. Almost universally, agency guidelines specifically ask aspiring writers not to use the hard-sell techniques used in other types of business: writers seeking representation are expected not to telephone to pitch, send unrequested materials, or engage in extracurricular lobbying like sending cookies along with a query letter.

Instead, be businesslike, as befits a career writer: approach them in a manner that indicates that you are aware of the traditions of their industry. We shall be talking about how to go about that next time, naturally. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest 2011 is open for business — and the masses rejoice!

At long last, I am proud to cut the ribbon on Queryfest, this year’s intensive foray into the ins and outs of all things query-related. I had intended to kick off the festivities on Monday, but as I may have mentioned last weekend, this walking on two legs thing is a whole heck of a lot more tiring than it looks. No wonder toddlers take so many naps.

That image seems appropriate, given how many aspiring writers spend any given day scratching their heads over that most basic of submission guideline requests: query with SASE. While that phrase might not seem particularly remarkable to those of us who deal with manuscripts for a living — or, indeed, to those of you who have been agent-hunting for long — to a writer brand-new to the quest, it can be downright mystifying.

“What is a query, other than a question?” these brave souls wonder. “What does that acronym stand for, and what about a SASE is too horrible to describe in fully fleshed-out English words?”

Perfectly reasonable questions, all — and surprisingly difficult to answer conclusively with even a rather thorough Internet search. As clever and incisive reader Elizabeth commented in our discussion last fall,

My queries are getting better as I go, but each expert I follow has different advice. How to choose which will work best for me and my book? It’s a quandary.

An excellent question, Elizabeth, and one I’m quite positive that many of your fellow queriers share. There’s certainly no shortage of how-to guides for would-be queriers out there; there are almost as many formulae out there for sure-fire query letters as there are professional givers of writing advice. Heck, substantial numbers of amateurs seem to post their notions, too, mostly phrased as though the advice in question were, if not actually something that any truly talented writer should have been born knowing, at least a precept to which any sane person seeking publication should adhere or risk being laughed out of literate society. Not to mention so self-evidently true and easy to follow that no explanation is required: simply stating the rule seems to be sufficient.

But they tend to be one-size-fits-all propositions, don’t they? Often, these doubtless well-meant query guides are simple lists of rules, light on explanation but heavy on dire warnings about what will happen to the unwary writer who does not follow them down to the last period.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but better that you hear it from me than learn it from agonizing experience: the perfect query applicable to every set of agents’ eyes is as mythical as a unicorn and a centaur hitched to Apollo’s chariot. Frankly, generic queries don’t work, and even a relatively good boilerplate is going to start looking like a carbon copy to agents and their screeners within just a few months of its becoming popular with queriers.

I know, I know: that’s not what you’ve been hearing elsewhere. It’s true, nevertheless: no one, but no one can give you a fill-in-the-blanks query template that will work every time. Nor will following any given set of rules — yes, even mine — produce a query that will wow every single agent in the country.

How do I know that? Well, experience: the publishing world just doesn’t work like that. It values originality and individual writing style — why on earth would it even want to see identical (or close to identical) verbiage in every query letter?

But that’s not the only reason following a template is not a good idea. Because every book — and every category of book — is different, there is no such thing as a foolproof query formula into which any aspiring writer could simply plug her own information and hit SEND. And even if a query blueprint appropriate to any book, fiction or nonfiction, actually did exist, it wouldn’t necessarily be in your best interest to use it: literary agents are, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, not automatons programmed to respond identically to everyone else in the publishing industry, but individual people with individual tastes.

Each of ‘em likes what they like, in short. That may seem like it makes your task harder, but actually, it can be empowering: you will be a much, much happier querier if you don’t fall into the exceedingly common querier’s trap of believing that any single agent’s response to your query is necessarily (a) the response any agent would have to it, (b) proof that the publishing industry’s rejecting your book’s concept, rather than the query letter that presents it, and therefore (c) just a handful of rejections means you should give up on the book.

Because the agenting world is diverse — and needs to be, in order to get the job done — (b) and (c) cannot be true. Even if agents did not harbor personal tastes (but they do), no one agent speaks for the entire industry. Furthermore, no agent in the world represents every kind of book, so the widespread belief that sending even the best-crafted query letter to any ten randomly-selected agents will engender ten identical responses is misguided. If nine of those agents don’t have solid track records representing books in your category, that never-fail boilerplate will, I can tell you now, fail with all nine.

And it may well fail with the tenth as well, if she’s just broken her heart by investing a year or two in fruitlessly trying to sell a book like yours. Or if she did sell that book three years ago, but the market has shifted. Or if she happened to have had a terrible honeymoon in the island paradise in which your story is set.

See earlier comment about individuals’ having individual tastes. Which is why (a) is unlikely to be true as well — but I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I?

That doesn’t mean, though, that those diverse-minded potential agents for your work don’t share certain expectations for what a query should be — or that there are not queries that would in fact be rejected by most of the agencies currently operating in this country. A professional query looks a certain way, contains specific information, and is, above all, a compelling argument for paying attention to both the book being queried and its author.

Which is why, as those of you who have been surfing the net in search of definitive answers may well have been wondering, agents, editors, and even freelance editors like me tend to be a trifle impatient with the oft-heard (but completely understandable, from a new writer’s perspective) complaint that it’s impossible for aspiring writer to tell what to do because there isn’t a single standard how-to list out there to which every authoritative source subscribes. From a professional point of view, the expectation underlying this complaint doesn’t even make sense: queries should be individuated for the book they are pitching, period.

So how could there possibly be a one-size-fits-all boilerplate? Or even a single list of rules? Every book — and every book category — is different; every agency has its own guidelines, and every agent has his own personal likes and dislikes. That being the case, why would it even be in agents’ best interest to subscribe to a single set of querying rules?

And where would they do it, the National Agency-Oppression Convention? The Society for the Simplification of the Deliberately Complex Field of Publishing? The Association for the Destruction of Opinion-Expression on the Internet?

Another commonly-held belief amongst aspiring writers that the pros tend to find mystifying: the notion that it’s the publishing industry’s job to track down every query advice-giving entity out there and bully it into conformity. It’s not as though the Internet Fairy is out there enforcing advice standardization across the Internet on any subject, or even fact-checking, for the most part.

Like everything else you find online, querying advice should be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, even mine.

Which is why, as those of you used to barked orders on what to do may well find surprising throughout Queryfest, I shall make a point to explain not only what your querying options are, but the pros and cons of each. With concrete examples, whenever possible. (And in case any of you missed last weekend’s announcement: if you would like to have your query letter used as an example in this series, here is how to go about submitting it. Who doesn’t like free professional query critique?)

So fair warning: what I’m going to be offering in Queryfest is not a one-size-fits-all boilerplate for querying success. That would be a waste of your time. Instead of just telling you what to say and how to format it, I’ve designed this series to help you create your own individualized query letter, perfect for your book and no one else’s.

How is this possible? For the same reason that agents and editors tend to be dismissive of the notion that it’s hard for a first-time querier to figure out what to do. From a professional point of view, it’s kind of surprising that even someone who believes every piece of advice he reads, from any source, wouldn’t pick up eventually that any query needs to contain the same basic elements: title, book category, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, brief description, credentials/platform for writing that particular book, polite sign-off, SASE if querying by mail.

Don’t worry, acronym-fearers; we’ll be defining that. I shall also be going over all of these requisite elements in enough detail that you can juggle them the manner best suited to present your book.

That’s going to require learning how agents think about books — and learning to talk about your manuscript in the terms that will make sense to them. Not to mention learning how to address your new and improved query to the right people. No query gets rejected faster than one pitching a book that the agent to whom it is addressed doesn’t handle.

If more than one statement in that last paragraph came as a surprise to you, you’re not alone. The overwhelming majority of queriers don’t learn nearly that much about how the publishing industry actually works before trying to capture its interest — and that’s a pity. In today’s hyper-competitive literary market, intelligent agents are not merely looking for good manuscripts by talented writers; they are seeking good manuscripts by talented writers who have rendered themselves easy to work with by having taken the time to learn how the publishing industry — wait for it — actually works.

In my experience, the most effective query letters are the alchemical effect of a combination of a well-written, professional letter, a writer who has taken the time to learn to talk about her manuscript in terms meaningful to the publishing industry, a book concept that happens to be appealing to the current literary market, and an open-minded agent with the already-existing connections to sell it successfully. Such a confluence doesn’t occur all that often — and it virtually never happens by accident.

“Heavens, Anne,” some prospective query-writers scoff, “if that’s your standard of good querying, I’m not surprised that you believe it doesn’t happen very often. As Elizabeth Bennet told Mr. Darcy after he listed his criteria for a genuinely educated woman, I do not wonder at your not knowing many; I wonder at your knowing any at all.”

Touché, skeptics, but not entirely true. As a matter of fact, I know scads of writers who produced such query letters by dint of persistent and intelligent effort.

How did they manage to pull off that difficult high dive? By coming to terms with the fact that there is no such thing as a single query letter ideal for every conceivable agent. There is, however, such a thing as a perfectly wonderful query letter specialized to appeal to a specific agent, as well as a slightly modified version personalized for another.

For the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be talking about cobbling together such a letter. Once you have the tools in your writer’s toolkit, you can use them to construct a whole flock of such letters, each tailored to an individual agent’s likes and dislikes and the expectations of your chosen book category.

Already, I hear martyred sighs rising across the English-speaking world. “But Anne,” easy-fix advocates protest, “that sounds like a whole heck of a lot of work, and I already resent taking time away from my writing to query agents. Couldn’t I, you know, just recycle the same letter over and over again?”

Well, you could, protesters. You could, I assure you, stop reading this right now, invest less than 20 seconds in a Google search of writing the perfect query letter, and come up with literally hundreds of one-size-fits-all templates that would make your life easier in the short run.

But I don’t think you should. Candidly, I think that the literally thousands of sources out there telling writers to follow this or that fool-proof formula are doing a serious disservice to those they advise, even when the actual elements of the advice they are giving is pretty good.

Why? Writers’ notorious aptitude for unwarranted self-blame, mostly; it’s driven literally millions of talented people into giving up on their books prematurely. The cycle usually runs a little something like this:

(a) Aspiring writer (let’s call him Ambrose, for the sake of storytelling convenience) finds an allegedly sure-fire query boilerplate online, in a book, in a class, and/or on the street somewhere.

(b) Rejoicing at the apparent ease of querying, Ambrose hurriedly copies and pastes his own information in to the template and sends it off to 1/5/127 agents.

(c) Since Ambrose’s query gives an accurate picture of neither his book nor his writing — how could it, when it consists almost entirely of one-size-fits all phrasing? — it gets rejected 1/5/127 times, usually via a form-letter rejection. (Hey, agents use templates, too; they’re real time savers.)

(d) Since Ambrose believes that the template he is using cannot possibly be the problem (it’s utterly foolproof, right?), he concludes that the only possible reasons he could have been rejected are:

(1) The book was lousy; somehow, the agent managed to sense that the writing was poor without reading any of it, or,

(2) The book was lousy, because the agent read the materials her website or agency guide listing said he could include with his query, or,

(3) The book’s concept was lousy, because that’s all the agent could possibly have judged from the query itself, but regardless,

(4) Rejection can only mean that he shouldn’t have queried with the book in the first place.

(e) Ambrose gets depressed for hours/weeks/months, far too much so to risk rejection again by sending out more queries, at least not anytime soon.

Recognize the pattern? Not from your own querying history, I hope, but from one or more of your writer friends?

What renders it sad is not solely the fact that Ambrose was rejected, but that his logic has a hole in it. He has not seriously considered the many, many other reasons an agency might have chosen to reject his query.

Such as, you ask? Well, the individual taste issues I mentioned above, of course. The culprit could also be having made the right case to the wrong agent, for instance, or having made the wrong case to the right agent. Or even having made the right case to the right agent at the wrong time; market demands — and thus agents’ needs — change all the time.

Rejection at the query stage can also be the result of the writer’s having formatted the letter oddly, or having failed to follow the directions on the agent’s website, agency guide listing, or Publishers’ Marketplace page. It could even have been a matter of having adhered to the standards set forth on one of these sources after the agency has changed its rules, or because the targeted agent no longer represents one or more of the types of book one of those sources says she does.

Rejection may, in short, come flying at an aspiring writer from any number of sources. As I think would be quite apparent if querying writers talked amongst themselves more about both rejection and the nuts and bolts of querying, rejection is not always the querier’s fault.

Nor, necessarily, is it the fault of the manuscript being queried. Most queries fail on a few very basic levels that don’t have much to do with the writing quality of the manuscript.

Yes, really: the vast majority of queries are rejected on the query letter alone. There’s a good reason for that: most of the query letters currently floating through the US Mail or flying via e-mail actually do deserve to be rejected by professional standards, but not because the books they are pushing are poorly written, poor concepts, or any of the million other reasons a manuscript might not be up to publication standard.

The most popular: unprofessional presentation, non-standard spelling and/or grammar, omitting to mention necessary information, hostile tone (again: yes, really), being sent to an agent who does not represent the kind of book presented, and, most notorious of all, the query’s obviously being a generic letter designed to be sent out indiscriminately to every agent currently operating in North America.

Agents have a pet name for the latter: they’re called Dear Agent letters, because some of them are so generic that they are not even addressed to a particular agent. Virtually without exception, US-based agents simply reject Dear Agent letters unread.

Also destined for the reject pile: queries sporting overused tricks to attract an agent’s attention — strategies, it may not astonish you to learn, often borrowed from one of the zillion guides out there, each giving ostensibly foolproof guidelines for how to construct a positively infallible query letter. Perhaps it is unfair, but nothing says generic query like the hip new lead-in that some hugely popular marketing guru was advising two years ago.

In my experience, simple works better than gimmicky — and certainly better than a boastful hard sell. Quite possibly because it is significantly rarer.

Although I am confident that my readers are too savvy to fall into the pitfalls that plague the average querier, the overwhelming majority of query letters agents receive are either uncommunicative, petulant in tone, just poor marketing — or (and I suspect you will have seen this coming. obviously copied from a standard one-size-fits-all pattern. We can do better than that, I think.

So let’s start at the basement and work our way up, shall we?

For those of you absolutely new to the art of approaching publishing professionals, a query letter is a 1-page (single-spaced, with 1-inch margins) polite, formal inquiry sent out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest in the manuscript it describes. It is also, contrary to what most aspiring writers believe, a writing sample, so if it is poorly written, it’s toast, regardless of the strength of the book being offered.

It’s equally important to talk about what a query is not. A strong query should not be, contrary to popular practice, an occasion for either begging or boasting; you will want to come across as a friendly, professional writer who has done her homework. Nor is its goal to make the agent fall down on the floor, foaming at the mouth and crying, “I will die if I do not sign this author immediately!”

So what is its goal, you ask? To prompt the agent or editor to request pages. Period.

Let’s face it: no agent worth his 15% is going to sign a writer without reading any of her work. The sooner an aspiring writer accepts that, the sooner she can stop setting herself up for Ambrose-level disappointment. Going into the querying process with realistic expectations makes the process much, much easier on the ego.

So how does one go about eliciting the admittedly less dramatic but ultimately more respectful of your writing result, a direct request to read your manuscript? Without bells and whistles: an effective query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

It is, in essence, the manuscript’s personal ad, intended to attract a compatible agent or editor to ask for a first date. To put it in terms more familiar to those of you followed my recent Pitchingpalooza series, the query is a written pitch, intended not to prompt an instantaneous offer to represent the book, but a request to read some or all of the manuscript or book proposal.

Ah, I just scared some of you with that comparison to pitching, didn’t I? “That’s all very easy to say, Anne,” point out those of you who find the prospect of sitting down face-to-face with a real, live agent about as appealing as hand-feeding a hungry wolf marshmallows by balancing them on your nose, “but you just got finished telling us that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all formula. So how does a writer trying to break into the biz pull it off without a prescriptive plan that tells him precisely what to do at every step?”

Well, for starters, don’t feed wild animals that way. Are you trying to get mauled?

Once you toss aside the twin preconceptions that there is only one kind of perfect query letter and you are being expected to guess what it contains, constructing a good query letter introduction for your manuscript or query letter becomes quite a bit easier. It just requires a bit of advance preparation.

I felt you tense up again, but trust me, this is prep that you — yes, YOU — are uniquely qualified to do: figuring out what your book is about, who might want to read it, and why. Once you have figured out those elements, writing the query letter is a matter of constructing a document with elements you already have on-hand.

And that’s a comparative breeze, because instead of trying to chase an elusive wraith of an ideal or copying what worked for somebody else, you’re talking about a book you love. What’s more natural to a writer than that?

I hasten to add: being natural does not mean presentation doesn’t count. Your query needs to be businesslike without using business format (long-time readers, chant it with me now: documents without indented paragraphs appear illiterate to folks in the publishing industry), discussing your book project in terms that an agent might use to describe it to an editor.

Keep taking those nice, deep breaths; you are already well prepared to do this.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at the information you would need to include, so you may see for yourself just how much of it you probably already have at your fingertips. Typically, a query letter consists of five basic elements:

1. The opening paragraph, which includes the following information:

* A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent
Hint: be specific. “I enjoyed hearing you speak at Conference X,” “Since you so ably represent Author Q,” and “Since you are interested in (book category), I hope you will be intrigued by my book” all work better than not mentioning how you picked the agent in the first place — or putting it as bluntly as, “I did a web search under Literary Agents, and your name popped up.”

*The book’s title
Self-explanatory, I should hope, but you would be surprised how often queriers leave it out.

*The book’s category
Where your book would sit in a bookstore? Most queries omit any mention of book category, but as in a pitch, it’s essential; no agent represents every type of book on the planet.

*Word count (optional)
Actually, I never advise including this, unless the agency states specifically in its guidelines that it wants to see word count in queries. If they don’t ask, don’t include it.

Why not? Because including the word count makes it easier to reject so many queries off the bat. If your work falls within the normal word count for your genre — for most works of fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words (estimated)– it won’t do you any harm include it, usually, but if it is longer, it’s not worth your while. (If you don’t know how to estimate word count — most of the industry does not operate on actual word count — please see the WORD COUNT category on the archive list at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book.
This is the part that stymies most queriers. Relax — we’re getting to it. For now, just bear in mind that this section should not be a paraphrase of your dedication page or a preview of the blurb you’d like to see on the jacket. Don’t praise your book; describe it.

3a. A BRIEF paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book
What an agent will have in mind is an already-established target market of readers with a demonstrated interest in books like yours. Keep it realistic. Speculation that every woman/man/fly fisher in America will want to read your book will fall flat, for the exceedingly simple reason that any agent will already have seen this claim literally thousands of times.

3b. and why your book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does.
If the demographic is not especially well-known (or even if it is; agents tend to underestimate the size of potential groups of readers), go ahead and include numbers. If you can compare your book to another within the same genre that has sold well within the last five years, this is the place to do it, but make sure to make clear how your book serves the target market differently and better.

Don’t make the very common mistake, though, of having your book sound like a carbon copy of a current bestseller. You want your work to come across as unique.

4. An optional paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book
Or, indeed, absolutely the only sentient being in the universe who could have pulled off this daunting task well. Here is where you present your platform — or, to put it in a less intimidating manner, where you explain why the agent should take you seriously as the author of this book.

Actually, this paragraph is not optional for nonfiction, and it’s a good idea for everyone. Include any past publications (paid or unpaid) in descending order of impressiveness, as well as any contest wins, places, shows, semi-finalist listings, etc., and academic degrees. (Don’t worry: we shall be talking in depth about what degrees will and will not strike an agent as relevant for a fiction writer.)

If you have no credentials that may legitimately be listed here, don’t panic: just omit this paragraph. However, give the matter some serious, creative thought first. If you have real-life experience that gives you a unique insight into your book’s topic, include it. (It need not have been paid work.) Or any public speaking experience — that’s actually a selling point for a writer, since so few ever read in public before their first books have come out. Or even ongoing membership in an established writers’ group.

Anything can count, as long as it makes you look like a writer who is approaching the publication like a professional. Or like a person who would be interesting to know, read, and represent.

5. An EXTREMELY brief, polite closing paragraph
Here is where you thank the agent for her time, mentioning any enclosed materials (synopsis, first five pages, or whatever the agent lists as desired elements), calling the agent’s attention to the fact that you’ve enclosed a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope), if you are querying via regular mail, and giving your contact information, if it is not already listed at the top of the letter. (If you can’t afford to have letterhead printed up, just include your contact information, centered, in the header.) Say you look forward to hearing from her soon, and sign off.

There, that’s not impossible to pull off in a single page, is it?

Oh, dear, you’re tensing up again at the prospect of sitting down and writing it, aren’t you? Don’t panic: again, you may already have constructed — mentally, anyway — some or all of the constituent parts of a professional-looking query letter. You merely have to pull them together into a polite missive personalized for each agent you plan to approach.

A good way to start is to work on each element of the query individually, then snapping the pieces together. Trying to write the entire thing from beginning to end in one sitting, as most aspiring writers do, is not only more stressful than doing it piecemeal; it also tends to end in a rushed, panicked note tossed off quickly, just to have it done.

Don’t look at me that way; I know you’re in a hurry to pop that letter in the mail, but in the long run, taking the query piece by piece can save you time. Take a gander at how easily the building blocks snap together to make a log cabin — and if you’re having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image:

You can pull that off without breaking a sweat, right?

I see quite a few lit-up eyes out there. “Um, Anne?” some wily sorts murmur, jotting down hasty notes. “What you’ve just shown looks suspiciously like a template. Mind if I borrow it wholesale and use it as such?”

Actually, I do, but not because I’m especially proud of having penned a sentence as immortal I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. You should eschew copying anybody else’s query letter for the very simple reason that it is important that your query letter sounds like your book.

Not my book, or the creation of any of the small army of writing gurus out there, but yours. After all, you’re not seeking representation for a generic volume; you’re looking for the best agent for your particular manuscript.

So why on earth would you waste your time — and your manuscript’s potential — on a generic query letter? By the time we’re finished, the very suggestion that your book’s chances would be improved by utilizing boring, one-size-fits-all query copy is going to make you laugh out loud.

At least, I hope it will. Tune in tomorrow, campers, and keep up the good work!

Premises, premises

I honestly hadn’t intended to take the last few days off from blogging, but I assure you, I have a dandy excuse. To give you a hint, I invite you to contemplate the riddle of the Sphinx: what animal walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three at night?

On to the day’s business — or rather, the business of last week. Scouring my to-blog-about list for amusing and thought-provoking topics to while away the time before the advent of Queryfest, my annual foray into all things query-related, I came across a terrific question from reader Kelly:

I have a question about plot clichés, if you have the chance to address it. Obviously, the ‘it was all a dream’ won’t fly. What other common plot twists do those of you who see so many manuscripts just groan about? Thanks and feel better soon.

That bit at the end will tell you just how long even very good questions sometimes linger in my hey, that would make a great post pile: kind Kelly was wafting me positive energies immediately after my car crash last year. There’s been some recent progress in that area, by the way: after 14 months, I’m finally walking without a cane.

Can tap-dancing be far behind?

So if I’m honest about it, responding to Kelly’s question is really the business of last year. That seems oddly appropriate, given one of the publishing world’s most common complaints about writers: a fondness for procrastination.

Oh, don’t grimace; everyone procrastinates a little. It’s healthy not to be too rigid. Besides, one of the most important lessons any writer of book-length work has to learn is that a full-length manuscript is not the kind of thing that even the most gifted crafter of prose can polish off in a day, a week, or a month.

Oh, some writers (including yours truly) can indeed draft new text very quickly, but that’s not the issue. Writing a book requires consistent, patient application, not merely short, intense bursts of endeavor. So does revising a manuscript. Yet since most of us do our best work if we can devote some unbroken time to it, it can be very tempting to put off diving in — or diving back in — until we can devote a whole day, week, or month to it, isn’t it?

And that temptation, boys and girls, is why most serious writers have woken up on at least one fine spring morning, sat bolt upright in bed, and shouted, “Wait — how much time has passed since I swore that I was going to finish that revision? Or start it?”

Or exclaimed, “Hey, wasn’t my New Year’s resolution to send out ten queries per week? Have I sent out even one this month?”

Or moaned, “Oh, my God — the agent of my dreams requested pages six months ago, and I’m still revising. Should I take another run at Chapter 152, or should I pop the whole shebang in the mail as is? What if she doesn’t want it anymore?”

I’m not bringing this up to depress all of you who swore that Labor Day (or the Fourth of July, or Valentine’s day, or St. Swithin’s day) was going to be the moment you sprung into action, honest. Nor am I passing judgment on the many, many aspiring writers whose lives swamped their good intentions. I’m not even changing the subject so that I may put off answering Kelly’s excellent question for a few more minutes.

I’m bringing it up, if you must know, because writers who procrastinate so often create characters that procrastinate. Seriously, it’s one of Millicent the agency screener’s most frequent complaints about how novelists and memoirists plot books: characters irk her by sitting around and thinking too much.

Or, to mix things up a little, by sitting around and talking through the problems with their best friends, coworkers, mothers, fathers, or, depending upon book category, the people they are about to try to murder. Especially, as is often the case in novel submissions, when these little chats over coffee, in bars, over lunch, over a telephone, or in hastily-improvised torture chambers consist largely of the protagonist recapping conflict that reader has already seen.

How, from an editorial standpoint, could that not seem redundant? “Criminy, move on,” Millicent scolds the text in front of her. “The point of novel narration is not to convey every single thing that happened in the book’s world, but to tell a story in a lively and entertaining manner!”

Because I love you people, I shall spare you what she hisses at memoir submissions in which the narrator agonizes for fifty or sixty pages on end about whether to confront someone who clearly needs some confrontation — only to decide not to do it after all. In fiction and nonfiction alike, her preference nearly always leans toward the active protagonist given to making things happen, rather than a passive one to whom things happen.

Half of you clutched your chests at some point over the last four paragraphs, didn’t you? Relax; I’m not about to suggest the all-too-often-heard advice on this point: telling writers never to show their protagonists thinking is akin to asserting that no character, however devoted to the color pink, may ever be depicted wearing it. Intelligent characters frequently think, and one-size-fits-all writing rules are almost invariably wrong a great deal of the time.

What I am suggesting, heart-clutchers, is merely that Millicent, like most professional readers, has from long experience developed a finely-tuned sense of how much rumination is too much, as well as when it starts to feel repetitious. To eyes trained to spot textual and conceptual redundancy, even a single repeated thought pattern can jump off the page. Small wonder, then, that showing the complexity of a problem by depicting the protagonist revisiting the same set of doubts over and over again is a notorious professional readers’ pet peeve.

Frequently, their impatience is justified: while deeply-felt internal conflict can be quite interesting on the page, most protagonists in first-person and tight third-person narratives don’t think about problems differently each time. Instead, the writer seeks to have the page mirror the way people mull over problems in real life: with redundant logic, facing the same fears and rehashing the same options on Monday as on Friday.

Or the following Friday. Or two years from Friday.

“God, I wish that this writer had never seen a production of Hamlet,” Millicent has been known to murmur over the fourth slow-moving protagonist of the day. “Would it be too much to ask the narrative to get out of this character’s head long enough for her to do something? It wouldn’t even have to advance the plot — I’d settle for her taking up lion-taming or developing a sudden passion for spelunking. Anything, so she gets out of her chair and moves around the world!”

“But Anne!” I hear some of you chest-clutchers point out, and with good reason, “people honestly do fall into thought loops when they’re worried about something, especially if they lean toward the compulsive in general. I’m sorry if it bores Millicent, but I’m trying to represent reality here: the human psyche is not always bent upon producing entertainingly diverse thought patterns.”

Perhaps it isn’t, but you should be. It’s a writer’s job not just to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, but to create a result that will be a pleasure to read. Redundant thoughts, like redundant action, have a nasty habit of discouraging readers from continuing to turn pages. Obsessive characters can be very interesting, but as the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing: it’s very, very easy for realistic depictions of recurrent thought or even feeling to become positively soporific on the printed page.

Not as easily spotted a cliché as it was a dark and stormy night or you may be wondering why I called you all here, admittedly, but the rumination-obsessed protagonist is actually more common in submissions these days than either of these well-worn tropes. None of these are as ubiquitous as teenagers who roll their eyes, of course, or people under 50 who say whatever and like, but all are equal-opportunity Millicent-annoyers.

Now the rest of you are clutching your chests, but at this late date, most adult readers, even non-professional ones, have seen enough compulsive thought patterns on the page to recognize it within a line or two. At most, it will take them a couple of paragraphs to catch on. How, then, is the writer to maintain interest and tension throughout pages and pages of it?

Honestly, a little obsessive-compulsion goes a long way on the page. Millicent’s seeing less of it these days than when the TV show MONK rendered OCD such a popular character quirk; if a hit TV show or movie contains a noteworthy character trait or plot twist, it’s a safe bet that agencies will be receiving hundreds of iterations of it over the next 2-5 years. The Millies of the early 1980s could have wallpapered both North and South Korea entirely in manuscripts that resembled M*A*S*H, for instance; for the last decade, it’s been rare that a police procedural submission does not include a scene reminiscent of LAW AND ORDER or CSI. And frankly, our time on earth is too precious to waste time toting up how many SF and fantasy submissions fairly reeked of the influence of STAR WARS and STAR TREK.

It’s not that some of the borrowed characters and quirks are not inherently entertaining; in a good writer’s hands, they certainly can be. There’s also something to be said for adhering to the conventions of one’s chosen book category: in a Western, readers expect a confrontation between the fellows in the white hats and the black, just as readers of women’s fiction expect their protagonists to grow and change over the course of the story.

By definition, though, what none of these elements can ever be is fresh.

Which goes right to the heart of Kelly’s question, does it not? While the list of premises, plot twists, and character traits that might set Millicent’s teeth on edge changes perpetually — what might have riled her Aunt Mehitabel when she was just starting out as a reader in the mid-1970s is substantially different from what might occur often enough to get on Millie’s nerves today, or her younger sister Margie five years from now — the basic principle remains the same: even if the writing is good, if she’s seen it before, it’s not going to seem fresh or surprising on the page.

Remember, Millicent is not only charged with the task of sifting through submissions to find great writing and original voices; she’s also looking for unique takes on reality and plots that she hasn’t seen before. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery (which I sincerely doubt), at submission time, not seeming like a rehash of the most recent bestseller or blockbuster film is a significant asset.

I know, I know: it’s not all that uncommon for agency submission guidelines to sound as though their Millicents are eagerly awaiting a carbon-copy of whatever is hitting the top of the bestseller lists today. Indeed, sometimes they are looking for copycats. Even with monumental bestsellers like the TWILIGHT series or BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, though, it usually doesn’t take too long before Millie and her boss are saying, “Oh, no, another knock-off? I want the next great bestseller, not what was hot two years ago.”

Don’t believe me? How hard do you think it would be to sell BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY as a fresh manuscript today? It would simply seem derivative.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, those oft-repeated experiments in which some bright soul submits the first 50 pages of some classic like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813) to an array of present-day agents and/or publishing houses, in an attempt to test whether their Millicents would know great literature if it fell in their laps, invariably fall flat. Of course, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE would get rejected today; as a new manuscript, it would seem completely lifted from Jane Austen. To a reader familiar with English novels of the period, even the title would seem unoriginal: the phrase PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (in all caps, no less) is repeated no fewer than three times in Fanny Burney’s novel of a generation before, CECELIA, OR, MEMOIRS OF AN HEIRESS (1782).

Besides, have you seen how much time Austen’s protagonists spend thinking?

I know that this might come as a shock to the many, many writers raised on 19th-century literature, but what seemed fresh on the page in 1813 is unlikely to strike Millicent as original or even market-appropriate today. Ditto for 1913, 1943, 1983, or 2003. In fact, what would have wowed ‘em at the agency in any of those years is likely to seem positively dated now, even if the cultural references did not.

Remember, too, that Millie lives in the same media-heavy culture you do: while she might not watch enough T.V. to know what a Snooki is, to catch an Arrested Development reference, or to be able to pick any of the current crop of presidential contenders out of a police line-up, it’s unlikely that she would be lucky enough to have missed any public discussion of these phenomena. If you loved the Saw movies enough to borrow some elements of them for your horror manuscript, chances are that a Millicent working in a horror-representing agency will be harboring some affection for those movies, too.

Which is not to say that a plot similar to the Saw movies might not have done very well, had it hit Millicent’s desk right after the first film in the series came out. Many a writer who has been toiling away quietly for years on a manuscript has suddenly seen it become sought-after as soon as a similar book, movie, or TV show hits the big time. Agents and editors do often clamor for something similar to what’s hot at the moment. Since it takes so long to write a book, however, it’s generally the writers that were already working on a book, not because it was cool, but because they liked the subject matter, who are in the best position to take advantage of such a trend. Or writers who can produce a manuscript with similar appeal within a year or two. After that, imitation is likely to make the book seem dated.

Not sure what a dated manuscript is, or why it might be hard to sell? Okay, let me ask you: if you picked up a book stuffed to the gills with references to Ross Perot, would you (a) embrace it as a book about contemporary politics, (b) assume that it had been published sometime in the mid-1990s, and turn to another book for insights on the current political scene or (c) wonder who in the heck Ross Perot was?

If you said (b), you’re beginning to think like Millicent: the 1992 election was a long time ago. If you said (a), I’m guessing you do not follow politics very closely. And if you said (c), well, ask your parents, but don’t be surprised if they remember his ears more than his politics.

Even if a manuscript avoids the specific pop references that tend to age so poorly on the page — nothing seems more tired than yesterday’s catchphrases, right? — borrowing the plot twists and premises of yesteryear can make a book seem dated. One of the surprisingly immortal premises: neighborhoods where none of the mothers work outside the home, or even consider it. While it’s not beyond belief that such communities still exist, it’s far enough from the mainstream American experience these days that it would require fairly extensive textual explanation.

Embracing writing fads of years past also tends to make a manuscript seem dated. When STAR WARS embraced the Jungian heroic journey structure, it generated a lot of buzz — and for the next two decades, the viewing public was inundated with movies with that same structure. Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, advocating that structure for novels became extremely popular, resulting in manuscript after manuscript with essentially the same story arc falling on Millicent’s desk with clockwork regularity. Because Millicent’s boss was screening manuscripts back then, Millie’s been trained to regard that structure as old-fashioned.

Not to mention predictable. And speaking of repetitive premises, does it bother anyone but me that the mortality rate for mothers in the STAR WARS movies is close to 100%?

Seriously, it doesn’t pay to underestimate just how predictable adhering to a well-worn plot device can render a manuscript, especially to someone who reads as much as Millicent. People drawn to work in publishing tend to be both plot-retentive and detail-oriented: I was surely not the only future editor who walked out of the original STAR WARS saying to her big brother, “You know what would make more sense than that ending? If Leah was Luke’s sister? I mean, honestly — why begin their names with the same first letter, something screenwriters usually take wincing pains to avoid, unless we’re supposed to guess that there’s a familial relationship?”

Okay, so this was probably not how most elementary schoolers reacted to the film, but I read a great deal. Not only science fiction, but fables — and the heroic journey story arc was supposed to surprise me? Nice try, Mr. Lucas.

An original plot twist or premise should surprise the reader — and that’s legitimately hard to do. It’s also often difficult for an isolated writer to spot just how much his plot, premise, or characters might resemble what Millicent is receiving from other writers. Even if the writer can successfully weed out conceptions of dramatic fitness culled from stories floating around the zeitgeist — from movies, television, books, even major news stories — that might be turning up in other submissions, rooting out or even noticing stereotypes (what? The guy with tape on his glasses is a computer expert? Who saw that coming?), stock plot twists (the murderer isn’t the first person the police arrest? Alert the media!), overused premises (the police partners who made the arrest are experiencing some romantic tension? The school bully targeting the gay teen is himself fighting urges in that direction? The guy bent on revenge is actuated by the trauma of having seen his wife and small child murdered out of the reader’s sight and before the story began?) and hackneyed phrasing (“I’m sorry for your loss,” anyone?) can often require an outside eye.

Why? Often, such well-worn story elements are so familiar to the writer, as well as to her nearest and dearest, that they don’t seem like clichés. They just seem like the constituent parts of a story. Therein lies the essential paradox of trafficking in the already-done: that plot twist that feels dramatically right may well come across that way because you’ve seen it before.

And so has Millicent. Remember, clichés don’t irritate agents, editors, and contest judges the first time these fine folks spot them on the manuscript page, typically, or even because the pesky things are repeated over the course of a particular submission or contest entry. What chafes their sensibilities is seeing the same phrases, characters, plot twists, and even premises over and over across hundreds of manuscripts.

Hey, if you’ve seen one completely selfless mother, a lady completely devoid of any personal preferences unrelated to her children, you might not actually have seen ‘em all. After screening the forty-seventh synopsis featuring a selfless mother within a week, however, it might well start to feel that way.

That’s a pretty good test of whether a manuscript might have strayed into over-nibbled pastures, by the way: if the synopsis — or, sacre bleu, the descriptive paragraph in the query letter — makes reference to a well-established stereotype, it’s well worth looking into how to make the characters less, well, predictable.

And now two-thirds of you chest-clutchers are mopping your weary brows. Honestly, this is beginning to read like a word problem on the math section of the S.A.T.

By definition, stereotypes and clichés are predictable: they are the shorthand a culture uses for archetypes. The mean tenth-grade girl, for instance, or the dumb jock. The absent-minded professor who can’t find the glasses perched on top of his head. The sociopathic lawyer who cares only about winning cases, not justice. The tough drill sergeant/teacher/physical therapist who seems like a bully at first, but turns out to be concealing a heart of gold.

Hey, what happened to all the floozies harboring hearts of gold? When did they fall out of the collective mind? Sometime during the Reagan administration? Or was it a decade earlier, when librarians and schoolteachers lost the right to yank the pencils from their collective hair, remove the eyeglasses that they apparently don’t require in order to see, and have the nearest male exclaim, “Why, Miss Jones — you’re beautiful!”

Now, poor Miss Jones would to be an expert in particle physics, save the world in the third act of the story, and look as though she had never eaten a cookie in order to engender that reaction. It’s enough to make an educated woman bob her hair.

Naturally, what constitutes a cliché evolves over time, just as what seems dated in a plot does, but as far as characterization goes, one factor remains the same: a stereotype telegraphs to the reader what kind of behavior, motivations, and actions to expect from a character. A pop quiz for long-time readers of this blog: why might that present a problem in a manuscript submission?

For precisely the same reason that a savvy submitter should avoid every other form of predictability, especially in the opening pages of a manuscript or contest entry:: because being able to see what’s going to happen in advance tends to bore Millicent. If a professional reader can tell instantly from a story’s first description of a character precisely how he is going to act and how he is likely to speak, where’s the suspense?

The same holds true for too-common premises, by the way. Those two coworkers of opposite sexes squabbling? They’ll be in love within fifty pages. That child the woman who swore she never wanted children inadvertently acquires, by accident, theft, or some inconsiderate relative’s leaving him on her doorstep. It will completely transform her life. The completely irresponsible man who discovers he’s had an unknown child for decades? He’s going to be integral to that kid’s life, and vice versa. That wish the protagonist makes on page 2, even though the text explicitly tells us that she never wishes on passing stars? It’s going to come true.

In spades. It’s written on the sand.

Oh, you thought that Millie wouldn’t catch on that teenage Billy was going to wreck his new motorcycle by the second time his parents are shown to be worried about it? I hate to burst anyone’s plotting bubble, but at this juncture in literary history, most professional readers would have said, “Oh, he’s doing to crash it,” halfway through the scene where he bought the bike.

She’s also going to foresee that the character a bystander identifies as having had a hard childhood is going to be the mysterious murderer decimating the summer camp/isolated hotel/submarine’s crew, the grandmother/grandfather/elderly neighbor giving the youthful protagonist with nowhere else to turn sterling (if predictable) advice is going to have some sort of a health scare by three-quarters of the way through the book, and that the otherwise clear-thinking lady who wisely retreated to someplace her violent ex-husband/evil boss/corrupt Congressman isn’t will be startled when he shows up.

Quite possibly standing behind her while she is gazing soulfully into a mirror. A cat will have startled her first, however. That fellow also not going to be dead the first time she, her knight in shining armor, or the few remaining members of that light-hearted weekend canoeing party think they have dispatched him.

Hey, the monster always returns is a cliché for a reason.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but reading manuscripts for a living often results in a serious decrease in the ability to be astonished by plot twist at all. Avert your eyes if you have never seen The Sixth Sense, but I had twice suggested to my date that the psychologist was a ghost before the end of the first therapy scene. I kept asking, “But if he’s alive, why isn’t he talking to the kid’s mother? And why doesn’t she have any interests or concerns unrelated to her child?”

To anyone who has been reading manuscripts for a living for more than a week or two, there’s another problem with stock characters. Millicent tends to associate them with rather lazy writing — and certainly with lax research. I’m not just talking about the astonishingly common phenomenon of novels saddling their protagonists with professions with which their writers are clearly unfamiliar (if I had a nickel for every tax specialist character who takes an annual month-long holiday on April 16th because the writer who created her isn’t aware of how many people file their taxes late, I would be able to afford a month-long holiday right now) or the equally common fish-out-of-water stories in which the writer seems as out of his depth in the new environment as his protagonist (my personal pet peeve: protagonists who inherit wineries, then proceed to run them with a whole lot of heart — and learning valuable life lessons — while clearly learning virtually nothing about the actual practicalities of making wine).

I’m talking about characters, usually secondary ones, that are different in some fundamental way from the protagonist. You wouldn’t believe how often subtly-drawn primary characters share page space with downright cartoonish villains or minor characters.

When writers just guess at the probable life details and reactions of characters unlike themselves, they tend to end up writing in generalities, not plausible, reality-based specifics. A common result: characters whose beauty and brains are inversely proportional, whose behavior and/or speech can be predicted as soon as the narrative drops a hint about their race/gender/sexual orientation/national origin/job/whatever, and/or who act exactly as though some great celestial casting director called up the nearest muse and said, “Hello, Euterpe? Got anything in a bimbo cheerleader? Great — send me twelve.”

Seen once on the page, one-note characters are kind of annoying. When those cheerleaders come cartwheeling across a good 40% of YA set in high schools, even a hint of waved pom-pom can get downright annoying.

Even amongst agents, editors, and judges who are not easily affronted, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions. What tends to get caught by the broom of a sweeping generalization is not Millicent’s imagination, but the submission. If it seems too stereotypical, it’s often swept all the way into the rejection pile.

Why, you ask? Because by definition, a characterization that we’ve all seen a hundred times before, if not a thousand, is not fresh. Nor do stereotypes tend to be all that subtle. And that’s a problem in Millicent’s eyes, because in a new writer, what she’s looking to see — feel free to chant it with me now — originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent.

When a writer speaks in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult to see where her authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s. It’s just not all that impressive — or, frankly, all that memorable.

“But Anne,” writers of reality-based fiction and nonfiction alike protest, “sometimes, stereotypes have a kernel of truth to them, just as clichéd truisms are frequently, well, true. Isn’t it possible that Millicent sees certain character types over and over again because they pop up in real life so often, and writers are simply reflecting that? Should she not, in short, get over it?”

Ah, editors hear that one all the time from those writing the real, either in memoir form or in the ever-popular reality-thinly-disguised-as-fiction manuscript. In fact, it’s an argument heard in general conversation with some fair frequency: many, many people, including writers, genuinely believe various stereotypes to be true; therein lies the power of a cliché. The very pervasiveness of certain hackneyed icons in the cultural lexicon — the policeman enraged at the system, the intellectually brilliant woman with no social skills, the father-to-be who faints in the delivery room, that same father helpless if he is left alone with the child in question, to name but four — render them very tempting to incorporate in a manuscript as shortcuts, especially when trying to tell a story in an expeditious manner.

Oh, you don’t regard stereotypes as shortcuts? Okay, which would require more narrative description and character development, the high school cheerleader without a brain in her head, or the one who burns to become a nuclear physicist? At this point in dramatic history, all a pressed-for-time writer really has to do is use the word cheerleader to evoke the former for a reader, right?

Unless, of course, a submission that uses this shortcut happens to fall upon the desk of a Millicent who not only was a high school cheerleader, but also was the captain of the chess team. At Dartmouth. To her, a manuscript that relies upon the usual stereotype isn’t going to look as though it’s appealing to universal understandings of human interaction; it’s going to come across as a sweeping generalization.

Can you really blame her fingers for itching to reach for the broom?

“But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “Isn’t this all going a little far afield from Kelly’s original question? Wasn’t she really asking for a list of overused plot twists and premises a savvy aspiring writer should avoid?”

Possibly, but that’s precisely the conundrum of freshness. What would have struck Millicent as fresh a year ago, when Kelly first brought this up, is not what would seem so to her now. Freshness is an ever-moving target, difficult for an aspiring writer — who, after all, usually takes at least a year or two to fashion a premise into a full manuscript — to hit predictably. Since nobody can legitimately claim to know what will be selling well a couple of years from now, committing to a premise is always going to be something of a risky proposition.

All a writer can do is strive to make her plot and characterization as original as her voice — and, ideally, as surprising. The best means of figuring out what will come as a pleasant surprise to her is to read widely in your chosen book category. What kinds of plot twists are used, and which overused? What’s been done to death, and what’s new and exciting? What’s considered characteristic and expected in your type of book these days, and what’s considered out of bounds?

Once you have come up with provisional answers to those questions, ask yourself another: how can I make my book’s premise, characterization, and plot even better than what’s already on the literary market?

Speaking of conundrums, have you solved the riddle of the Sphinx yet? It’s the humble human being: as babies, we crawl; in our prime, we walk on two legs; in old age, we use canes.

Actually, people tend to use walkers now, but who are we to question the wisdom of the Sphinx? All I know — and this is so far from a standard premise that I can’t recall a bestselling novel of the last twenty years that has dealt with this subject in any significant depth — is that after one has been hobbling around on three legs, it’s astonishingly tiring to wander around on just two. And that, my friends, is the explanation for my recent blogging silence: I’ve been taking a long change-of-season nap.

All the better to launch into Queryfest next time, my dears. Keep up the good work!

An update on the Author! Author! Perfect Pitch Competition of 2011 — and would anyone out there like to be a guinea pig for Queryfest?

I’ve got three bits of business to cover this evening, campers. For the scrolling ease of future browsers of this site, I’m going to be concentrating on the news in this post, and the discussion of craft in my next.

For starters, something I think is going to please a whole lot of you: in response to literally hundreds of readers’ requests over the years, I am planning to include readers’ queries as examples in Queryfest. Scads of ‘em. And given how enthusiastically readers have lobbied in the past for me to take a pen to their queries, I suspect the slots are going to fill up fast.

Which is to say: if you have ever daydreamed, fantasized, or outright demanded that I turn my notoriously critical eye on your query letter, the time to act is now, as I shall only be accepting queries for the next two weeks. I shall be selecting most exemplars randomly, but in the interests of kicking off Queryfest with a bang, I’m going to use each and every one of the first two dozen queries my readers submit.

Perhaps not in their entirety or all at once — as some of you may recall from last year’s insanely quick Querypalooza, I tend to spend several days on each constituent part of the query. I reserve the right to use excerpts, or to concentrate upon one part of a query while talking relatively little about the rest of it. If I concentrate on only one bit, however, I shall contact the writer privately about the rest.

How does one jump into line for this, you ask? By following a few simple rules. If you would like me to consider treating your letter to my patented close scrutiny here at Author! Author!:

(1) Please send your query via e-mail as a Word attachment to anneminicontest@gmail(dot)com by midnight your time on Sunday, October 2, 2011.

(2) Include the words QUERYFEST SAMPLE in the subject line.

(3) At the top of the e-mail, please include a cheery greeting (hey, I work a long day), a statement that you are granting me permission to reproduce your query on Author! Author! for discussion purposes, and whether you would prefer me to post your query for critique anonymously or under your real name. You may feel free to suggest a pseudonym for me to use, as long as it is G-rated.

(4) Speaking of G-rated, please remember that Author! Author! is deeply committed to keeping this site accessible for young readers and those whose primary Internet access is at a public library. No profanity, period.

(5) Please format your query PRECISELY as you would submit it to an agent; it will make a better example that way. If I select your query as an example, I shall naturally change your contact information.

For the purposes of structure, please address your query to:

Ms. Hawkeye McAgentson
Picky and Pickier Literary Management
111111 First Street
Imaginary, NY 11111

(6) Submitted queries must not be longer than a single page, single-spaced, in 12-point Times New Roman or Courier. The page must have one-inch margins — and trust me, I will notice if they are smaller.

(7) The first 24 entries that adhere to all of these rules will appear as examples in Author! Author’s Queryfest. I shall be drawing further examples at random from the pool of entries that arrive thereafter.

(8) No entries will be accepted after October 2, 2011 at midnight in your time zone.

I’m looking forward to seeing how you are presenting yourselves, campers — and I’m most excited about using readers’ actual query letters as examples this year. Many thanks to the dozens upon dozens of you who suggested it.

On to our second bit of business. Due to an incomprehensible server glitch, about a third of the entries in the Author! Author! Perfect Pitch Competition of 2011 — deadline September 30th! — seem to have been eaten by the Technology Goblin. While I’m fairly confident that Author! Author!’s crack techie team will successfully do battle with the goblin on your behalf, early contest entrants, it probably would be prudent to send your entries again.

Hey, the Technology Goblin is hungry. And we haven’t quite figured out if there’s a pattern to what he likes to eat for breakfast.

Missed the contest rules — and, equally important, the description of the prizes — the first time around? Let’s take another quick gander at ‘em, shall we?

Author! Author! Perfect Pitch Competition of 2011

In order to celebrate the end of Pitchingpalooza and encourage the practical application of the skills learned and polished there, Author! Author! is calling upon its talented readers to enter pitches for their books into healthy competition. Winners will not only receive fabulous prizes (see below), but will have their pitches, the first page of their manuscripts, and an author photo featured in a post here at Author! Author! for all the world to see and admire.

Sound good? Wait, it gets better. To make the experience more interesting for onlookers, pitchers may present their fabulous premises in three distinct categories:

Category I: The keynote or Hollywood hook, a one-sentence teaser for your book

Category II: The elevator speech, a 100-word or less presentation of your book’s premise and central conflict

Category III: The formal 2-minute pitch, a 250-word introduction of your protagonist, the central conflict, and what’s at stake in your story OR the problem that your nonfiction book addresses

All entries must be submitted via e-mail to anneminicontest@gmail(dot)com by Friday, September 30, at midnight in your time zone. Late entries will not be considered.

Entrants may enter more than one category. Please submit each entry in a separate e-mail, in accordance with the rules below.

The grand prize winner in each category will receive a half-hour Mini Consult on his or her query, synopsis, and first 10 pages, as well as having the winning entry, the first page, and an author photo posted on Author! Author! Runners-up will see their entries, first pages, and photos posted and critiqued as well, as vivid examples of how good a pitch can be when it is done right.

Because winners will also be awarded life-long bragging rights and coveted ECQLC , the judges reserve the right to award as many (or as few) prizes as the quality of the entry pool warrants. Awards are purely up to the discretion of the judging panel.

Those are the general rules. Here are the specific steps required to win. Do read them all carefully, as I am anticipating vigorous competition.

1. Polish your pitch to a high gloss and save it as a Word document.
Only .doc entries in Word will be accepted — not TextEdit, PDF, or any other formats, please. Please title the Word file with either your name or the title of your book, not just as contest entry. (The last time I ran a contest like this, I received 37 with that file name.)

2. Make sure that the entry is properly formatted.
All entries must be in standard format for book manuscripts. No exceptions, I’m afraid. If it is not double-spaced, in 12-point type, and featuring a slug line with your name and the book’s title at the top of the page, the judges will not consider it.

3. On a separate page of the same Word document, write the book’s title, the book category, and a BRIEF (

In other words, what is fresh about your book? (Hint: this question will be significantly easier to answer if you mention what your book category of choice is.) Please be as specific as you can about what is new and different about your book. Vague claims of being the best novel since WAR AND PEACE probably won’t impress the judges.

4. On the same page, include your contact information.
Name, address, and e-mail address will suffice. You want us to be able to let you know if you have won, don’t you?

5. Make sure to mention which category you are entering.
Again, the three possibilities are: the keynote or Hollywood hook, the elevator speech, and the formal 2-minute pitch.

6. Attach the Word document you’ve created to an e-mail.
Please include PERFECT PITCH ENTRY in the subject line, and mention the category you’re entering in the body of the e-mail. (It makes it easier to process the entries.) Make sure to say who you are, too, so we don’t get entries mixed up.

It’s also a nice touch to say something pleasantly chatty by way of introduction (along the lines of “Keep up the good work, Anne!”) in the e-mail itself. I just mention.

7. E-mail the whole shebang to anneminicontest@gmail(dot)com by Friday, September 30, at midnight in your time zone.
Do I need to explain that the (dot) should be rendered as a period when you are typing the address? Nah, probably not.

Even if you are not planning to pitch anytime soon, I would strongly encourage you to enter this contest — as I mentioned early and often throughout Pitchingpalooza, writers frequently find themselves having to pitch at a moment’s notice. A hour’s worth of preparation today can save you an eternity of “Um…” down the line. Besides, an elevator speech makes a terrific descriptive paragraph for a query letter.

Wait — weren’t we just talking about that? Or won’t we be in the weeks to come?

How detailed our discussion will be depends largely upon you, campers. Do consider participating, and keep up the good work!

PS: the cute guinea pig photos appear courtesy of copyrightfreepictures.org.uk.

Phrases a savvy writer should not touch with a hundred-foot pole

Hello, campers —

I’m planning on posting a lovely, long post this evening, an in-depth answer to a reader’s intelligent question about writing clichés, but until the dark and no doubt stormy night allows me to suggest that perhaps you have all been wondering why I asked you all here, let me state here and now that the murder is — BANG!

Just kidding. Seriously, I’ve been swamped the last couple of days (speaking of editorial clichés), and I want to devote some serious time to this important and under-discussed topic. Rather than leave you pining for a fresh post another twelve or fifteen hours (or longer, should I decide to do something radical like take a nap before blogging next), I’m rerunning a post from last February. Not only does it strike me as a perfect lead-in to any discussion of hackneyed phrases and concepts, but it addresses an extremely common professional readers’ pet peeve: manuscripts that misappropriate or misuse the aforementioned well-worn tropes.

Oh, and I’m going to nag you a little on submission strategy first. So fasten your seatbelts, everybody — it’s going to be a bumpy night day. Enjoy!

Can we talk?

Actually, I’ve been meaning to bring this up for quite some time now, but the moment never seemed quite right. You were gearing up to send out a flotilla of queries, perhaps, or were intent upon getting a submission out the door. Maybe we were all focused upon how to prep a writing contest entry, a verbal pitch, or a synopsis.

In short, there always seemed to be something more pressing than having this painful discussion. But as your writing advisor and, I’d like to think, your friend, I just can’t stand around and watch you hurting yourself any longer without saying something. I say this with love, but you’ve been engaging in self-destructive behavior, behavior that is making it harder for you to land an agent, get published, and get your good writing in front of the readership it deserves.

Oh, I see you roll your eyes. It’s easy, isn’t it, to blame a system stacked against the new writer? But this is something you are doing to yourself, I’m afraid, something as lethal to your manuscript’s marketability as taking a match and setting it on fire instead of mailing it to the agent who requested it.

I refer, of course, to the average aspiring writer’s addiction to sending out requested materials without taking the time to proofread them — or having someone else proofread them.

I’m not even talking about the to-my-mind deplorable practice of submitting those pages before reading them IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD — although as I may have mentioned several hundred times before in this very forum, that’s the single best way to catch typos, dropped words, logic problems, half-revised sentences, and the fact that your protagonist’s hated coworker was called Tisha for the first 57 pages, Patricia in Chapters 4, 8, 17, and parts of 24, and Trish for the rest of the book. I’m talking about just assuming that a quick computerized spell-check will be sufficient because, hey, you’ve got a busy life.

Or, as is common with contest entries that need to be postmarked by a certain date and time, performing it when one is so tired that one inadvertently hits the REPLACE ALL button instead of IGNORE ALL. The result: 300 pages in which political coalitions are invariably described as political cotillions, leaving the poor judge in that historical fiction contest to wonder why nobody ever seems to be dancing.

Or, even more common, dispensing with even the computerized spell-check in your eagerness to get the pages a real, live agent has requested sent off before another sunset has passed. Never mind that Millicent the agency screener is unlikely to have any sympathy whatsoever for your unfortunate habit of consistently mistyping receive with the e and the i inverted, or the fact that somehow, you missed the day of English class when the difference between there, their, and they’re was clarified beyond any risk of future confusion. You had been working on that manuscript for years — you simply couldn’t bear to wait the additional few hours it would take to proof those requested pages.

Oh, it’s all quite understandable. Speaking as someone who reads manuscripts for a living and has served as a writing contest judge, however, it’s also completely understandable that a professional reader might reject those pages on the basis of all of those typos alone.

Yes, you read that correctly: it’s not at all uncommon for a professional reader to stop reading at the second or third typo, skipped word, or grammatical problem. So if you are not routinely proofreading your work before you submit it or enter it in a contest — or having some sharp-eyed soul do it — you may well be dooming your manuscript to rejection.

So I ask you: what are you actually gaining by not taking the time to make sure that your pages are clean?

A clean manuscript, for the benefit of those of you new to the term, is industry-speak for a manuscript completely devoid of misspelled words, grammatical gaffes, dropped words, incorrect punctuation, logic problems, formatting errors, clichés, or any of the many, many other small errors that make those of us trained to read for a living grit our teeth because we see them so very often. Indeed, Millicents and contest judges are often specifically instructed to consider seriously only clean manuscripts.

What happens to the rest, you ask with fear and trembling? They are subjected to the most common word in our Millie’s vocabulary: “Next!”

Why? Well, several reasons — and far better ones than you might expect.

The first and most straightforward: if a manuscript is riddled with errors, some luckless soul is going to have to fix them all before an agent could possibly submit it to an editor with any hope of placing it successfully. The same holds true for a submission to a publishing house: copyediting is very time-consuming and costs real money. And few literary contests will want their good names sullied by awarding top honors to an entry that looks as though the entrant conceived of it 24 hours before the contest deadline, typed it with fingers blurring across the keyboard, and ran panting to the post office three minutes before it closed.

Nobody, but nobody, likes to read a first draft. And I say that as a writer who once actually did pull together a literary contest entry — the first chapter of a book, synopsis, and entry form — in 23 hours and 32 minutes.

I won, too, despite the never-sufficiently-to-be-deplored typo on page 17. Do as I say, not as I did.

Why? Well, to a professional reader — like, say, Millicent, her boss the agent, the editor to whom the agent might conceivably sell your book, or a contest judge — all of these seemingly little writing problems are not merely the hallmark of a writer in a hurry or easily-fixed trivialities that merely mar the surface of the deep, deep pool that is a brilliantly-written story, annoying but not particularly important. They are a sign that the writer is not professional enough to realize that this is an industry in which spelling does in fact count.

Or that presentation in general counts. One of the hallmarks of an aspiring writer who has yet to learn much about how publishing works is an apparent belief that agents and editors sit around all day, casually reading through submissions and acquiring any that happen to catch their fancy.

“Oh, this writer has promise,” these fantasy pros murmur over their snifters of warm cognac as they leisurely turn pages, perched on intricately tufted chaise longues. “He can’t spell, but that’s easily fixed at the editorial stage. I’m so fascinated by this story and the voice in which it is written that I’m just going to ignore the fact that the writer clearly didn’t bother to read his own book. I’m going to read it until the very last word of the very last page before I make up my mind about it, but I have a strong feeling that the answer is going to be yes.”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but that’s simply not how professional readers operate: they just don’t have time to read every submission in its entirety. Nor could they possibly take on every writing project that tickled their fancy. An agent or editor who routinely embraced projects without thinking about her ability to sell them would soon be out of a job, after all.

As a direct result, the fine folks who work in agencies and publishing houses look first for reasons to reject manuscripts, scouring each line for problems. Only those submissions that pass this scrutiny for hundreds of pages stand a chance of getting picked up. Even setting the bar this high, a well-respected agency or contest will still receive so many perfectly clean (or nearly so), nicely-written submissions that they can afford to reject everything else.

I sense some trembling hands tentatively raised out there. “What do you mean by scouring each line?” some of you quaver, thinking perhaps of that writing sample you entered into that online submission form without proofreading. “It would be impossibly time-consuming to read an entire manuscript that closely, especially with the high volume of submissions the average agency receives. Why, the only way they could possibly pull it off would be to stop reading when they encounter a problem, and move on to the next one.”

That’s precisely what they do. Oh, not necessarily at the first problem, but certainly before the fourth or fifth.

Was that great whooshing sound that just deafened us all the result of half of you gasping as you frantically tried to open your manuscript files to begin revising them? A clean manuscript suddenly sounds like a very, very desirable thing, doesn’t it?

That’s a smart orientation. The competition for those very few client openings at agencies — and even fewer new author openings at publishing houses — is unbelievably fierce, far too fierce to expect a charitable reading.

Millicent forms the first line of defense — I feel you cringing, but that’s how agents and editors think of her — against the blizzard of submissions battering against their mailroom doors. Even an agent unusually hungry for clients usually can take on only three or four a year. That means, in practical terms, that for every submission she approves, there are hundreds she or her Millicent must reject.

The same holds true for queries, of course. Except that for hundreds, substitute tens of thousands.

Fortunately for Millicent (but unfortunately for writers), most submissions honestly are self-rejecting. How so? Well, one of the most popular methods is by combining improper formatting with a few typos on page 1.

You know, the sort of thing that the combination of a little research into how the publishing industry works and a few minutes of proofreading would easily have caught. To Millicent, a writer who hasn’t put in the time to do either isn’t ready for the publishing world. The hypercritical way that professional readers scrutinize manuscripts might kill him.

Which is to say: a savvy writer expects her future agent and editor to expect a completely clean manuscript every time. Yes, even when the writer has only three weeks to revise the last quarter of the book because a new editor has just taken over the project from the acquiring editor, and the newbie has some exciting new ideas about plot resolution.

Oh, it happens. To an agent, a good client is a flexible client.

Which brings me to another excellent reason Millicent is specifically trained to regard a clean manuscript as the minimum requirement for serious consideration: a client who does not proofread (or possess the skills to do it well) is inherently more time-consuming for an agency to represent than one who habitually produces clean manuscripts. While an established author can get away with being high-maintenance, one trying to break into the biz for the first time cannot.

Oh, an agent expects to hold a new client’s hand a little; submitting to publishing houses can be a long, drawn-out, and extremely stressful process. But if that client cannot be relied upon to provide the agent with clean pages, who is going to end up proofing them?

The agent, that’s who. See why she might instruct her Millicent to select clients likely to spare her the trouble? Or why if the writer hasn’t bothered to read this manuscript, why should I? is such a common mantra amongst professional readers?

Or, to be blunt about it, why I saw fit to stage an intervention for those of you who aren’t already scrutinizing your submissions to prevent them from falling into this most common of self-rejection pitfalls?

To be fair, though, not all rejection-triggers would necessarily turn up in a quick proofreading — or even when reading a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. Often, for instance, writers new to the game will miss another of Millicent’s pet peeves, the use of clichés.

Or, an even surer professional reader-annoyer, the misuse of clichés.

That caused some of you to do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” you cry, rubbing your sore necks, “isn’t a misused cliché not a cliché, by definition? Doesn’t it at least have the charm of surprise?”

Yes and no, in that order — to professional readers, at least. Allow me to explain.

Since so many aspiring writers are under the mistaken impressions that (a) dialogue in a book should read precisely like conversations in real life, despite the fact that most real-world conversations are so repetitious that they would plunge readers into profound slumber, (b) a narrative voice should sound like the way someone might actually talk, regardless of whether the narration is in the first person or not, and/or (c) an essential tactic for achieving either (a) or (b) is to incorporate those pat little catchphrases most speakers use into one’s writing, discovering clichés on the submission page is the norm, not the exception.

Because writers who embrace (a), (b), or (c) believe — and with some reason — that there is inherent virtue in echoing everyday speech, they usually don’t think of these common phrases as clichés. Let’s take a gander at a few dozen of them in action.

Jeremy strode through the door, bold as brass. “Hey, Mom. It’s raining cats and dogs out there.” He mussed little Tad’s hair as he passed; the boy was glued to the family’s pride and joy, the new black-and-white TV. “Hey, shrimp. Where’s the beef?”

“Blow it out your ear,” Tad snarled without taking his eyes off the nine-inch screen. His Davy Crockett cap had slid off his head onto his cowboy suit. His discarded hula-hoop rested on top of the crumpled Twister set and a signed photo of Marilyn Monroe. “And sit on it. It’s almost Howdy Doody time.”

Betsy rolled her eyes, gritted her teeth, and shrugged her shoulders. Playing host family to a time-traveling teen from 1984 wasn’t as easy as pie, despite what the brochure had promised. But then, you couldn’t believe everything you read. Let the buyer beware. “Does that mean it’s time to put on the feedbag? I’ve been slaving over a hot stove all day, waiting for you to traipse through that door.”

Jeremy had already tuned her out: his Walkman, whatever that was, was turned up too high. One day, she was going to smack him upside the head and give him a piece of her mind.

“You’ll go deaf from all that noise,” she shouted at him. “And don’t sit so close to the TV, Tad; you’ll ruin your eyes. My goodness, if I had a dime for every time I’ve told you…”

Jeremy rolled his eyes like James Dean, as all the kids seemed to be doing these days. He seemed to expect the world — or at least his supper — to be handed to him on a silver platter. When she was a girl, walking to school through three feet of snow, year in, year out, rain or shine, come hell or high water, without fail, her mother would have given her what for if she had flounced into the house like a movie star. Just who did he think he was?

“Just wait ’til your father gets home,” she muttered under her breath.

Granddad shuffled into the kitchen, shoving his false teeth into his mouth, clutching his low-hanging pants, and longing for the return of the Taft Administration. “Is dinner ready yet? I’m starved.”

She sighed, mopping her weary brow. “There’s only so much I can do. I only have two hands. I do and do and do for you people, and this is the thanks I get. A woman’s work is never done.”

The old man caught sight of Jeremy. “Looking sharp, kiddo.” When the boy did not respond, Granddad lifted a speaker from his ear. “Think you’re the cat’s meow, don’t you, you young whippersnapper?”

“Hey, chill.” Jeremy took off his headphones before the old man messed up his ‘do. “You look mahvelous.”

“Marvelous,” Betsy corrected under her breath. “I have such a headache, Dad. The kids have been running me ragged.”

“You think you have a headache? Back in my day, we had headaches.” Granddad peered through the window. “‘Bout time we had some rain. Sure do need it.”

“We sure do,” she agreed, mopping her brow, nodding her head, and nervously playing with her apron while the clouds rolled by. It looked like stormy weather. Still, she could look for the silver lining and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Every time it rained, it rained pennies from heaven. “I’ve been worried sick about Jeremy. Could you find out where he has been while I set the table, since I don’t have a daughter to do it for me, and I can’t ask either of the boys to do it in this time period?”

“Boys will be boys.” Granddad shuffled back to Jeremy. “Where have you been, son? Jitterbugging at the malt shop to that newfangled jazz? Doing the Charleston with some flibbertigibbet with rouged knees and a beaded dress?”

“You should come clubbing with me sometime, Granddad. We are two wild and crazy guys.”

Tad’s curly head popped up behind the couch. “Isn’t that misplaced cultural reference from the 1970s?”

“Mind your own business,” Jeremy growled. “Sometimes, you just gotta say…”

Had enough? Millicent has — and did, by the middle of the second paragraph.

Stock phrases are problematic on the page for much the same reasons that standard polite exchanges are. They’re predictable, and because everyone does say them, a character’s uttering them does not reveal anything about his emotional state, mental gymnastics, or even the situation at hand. (Sorry — once one starts generating hackneyed phrases, it’s hard to stop.)

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that polite chitchat is also a common type of cliché? Because literally anyone might say these phrases, they are the opposite of character-revealing. Take a gander:

“Why, hello there, Gladys,” Ambrose said. “How are you today?”

“Fine. How are you?”

“Fine. How is your husband, Terrence, and your four children, Maude, Eleanor, Franklin Delano, and Frances? All well, I trust.”

“Yes, fine. How’s your cocker spaniel, Macguffin?”

“Oh, fine, fine. Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”

“Very. We could use some rain, though.”

“Sure could use it.”

“Sure could. Ah-choo!”

“Bless you.”

“Thank you.”

“Still have those nasal allergies, eh? They must be quite annoying.”

“Oh, they’re not so bad. At least I don’t have toe fungus.”

“Thank goodness for that. May I hold the door for you? Ladies first.”

“Thanks. Watch out for that puddle.”

“I appreciate your telling me. I wonder how it got here, considering that we haven’t had any rain. O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

“And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Ambrose, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come, here, as before, never, so help you mercy, how strange or odd soe’er I bear myself, as I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on, that you, at such times seeing me, never shall, with arms encumber’d thus, or this headshake, or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase, as ‘Well, well, we know,’ or ‘We could, an if we would,’ or ‘If we list to speak,’ or ‘There be, an if they might,’ or such ambiguous giving out, to note
that you know aught of me: this not to do, so grace and mercy at your most need help you, swear.”

“Whatever you say, Gladys.” Ambrose tipped his hat politely. “Have a good day.”

“You, too, Ambrose.”

Okay, so I got bored enough to throw a slight twist in there. But see how stultifying all of that politeness is on the page?

Once again, I spot some timid hands in the air. “But Anne, isn’t this just what nice people say? And if I want the reader to like my protagonist, don’t I need to show that he’s polite, rather than telling it by some such statement as Nate was a polite guy?”

If you really want to induce Millicent to take a shine to ol’ Nate, I would strongly suggest that you do neither. Most readers will come to dislike a protagonist who bores them, not matter how nice his words or actions are. Since Millicent is paid to get bored a whole lot faster than the ordinary reader (see earlier comments about weeding out as many submissions as possible), her threshold of impatience with nondescript polite conversation is exceedingly low.

I wouldn’t push it. Instead, why not have Nate win her heart by doing and saying unexpected kind things?

“Okay, Anne,” those of you prone to flinging your hands skyward concede reluctantly. “I can see why I might need to trim both the stock phrases and purely polite exchanges. But weren’t you going to tell us about misused clichés?”

Ah, yes, I was, campers; thank you so much for reminding me. And how’s your mother doing?

No, but seriously, folks, while stock phrases bore professional readers, misstatements of these same phrases tend to drive Millicent into apoplexy. While such clichés as it’s a dog-eat-dog world, take another tack, and I couldn’t care less often — and incorrectly — turn up in conversation as it’s a doggie-dog world, take another tact, and the irritatingly immortal I could care less, the only reason to use the incorrect versions on the page would be to make the character saying them seem ignorant, right?

Right? Anyone out there?

Even ironic use is dangerous, though: because Millicent sees these misstatements so often, she’s likely to have a knee-jerk reaction to their appearance. And it’s hard to blame her, isn’t it? Not only do these phrases imply that the writer has a rather poor ear for dialogue, but even had these tropes been rendered correctly, they would still be hackneyed phrases, and thus unoriginal.

Call me zany, but don’t you want Millicent to judge you on your writing, rather than someone else’s?

Then, too, misstated clichés often reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of the original. What would a doggie-dog world look like, anyway? Why bother to mention that someone could care less than he currently does? And while taking a different tack while sailing makes some sense as a metaphor, what would taking a different tact involve? Diplomacy in another language?

My favorite example comes by way of a roommate of mine in graduate school, a young lady who had grown up without a television in the house. She loved stock phrases, but she was perpetually getting them wrong.

“What do you mean, you wouldn’t touch it with a 100-foot pole?” I would cackle. “The standard length is ten. How would you even lift a hundred-foot pole?”

She was also prone to misapplying such metaphors. “I can’t find my keys,” she would say. “They’re like a needle in a haystack.”

“I wish you would tell me how,” I would say, lifting the sofa cushion under which her personal items so often worked themselves. “Not everything that’s lost is like a needle in a haystack, you know.”

She would look as startled as a deer in the head lice. “It isn’t?”

Okay, so perhaps there were some undiagnosed mental health issues involved. And now that I see it in print, as startled as a deer in the head lice may well be my new favorite faux cliché. It’s actually quite evocative of panic, is it not?

But you see the overall point, right? A misused familiar term may well produce a laugh, but even if you are writing comedy, you might want to use it sparingly. In submissions, misappropriated clichés often result in bad laughter, a chuckle at the expense of the story, a giggle that the author did not intend.

Now that you know what such misstatements look like individually, let’s revisit our first example, so you may see how and why they might annoy Millicent on the page.

Jeremy scrod through the door, bold as copper. “Hey, Mom. It’s raining cats and ducks out there.” He missed little Tad’s hair as he passed; the boy was taped to the family’s pride and happiness, the new black-and-white TV. “Hey, petunia. Where’s the mutton?”

“Blow it out your nose,” Tad snarled without taking his gaze off the nine-inch screen. His Daniel Webster cap had slid off his head onto his sailor suit. His discarded Pet Rock rested on top of the Pong remote and a signed photo of Theda Bara. “Sit on something. It’s almost time for the Miniskiteers.”

Betsy rolled her mouth, gritted her ribs, and shrugged her arms. Playing host family to a time-traveling teen from 1984 wasn’t as easy as cake, despite what the brochure had promised. But then, you couldn’t believe everything. Let the biller beware. “Does that mean it’s time to don the fedbag? I’ve been praying over a hot stove all day, waiting for you to lapse through that door.”

Jeremy had already turned her out: his Walkmen, whoever they were, were turned up too high. One day, she was going to smack him beside the head and give him a place of her mind.

“You’ll go deaf from all that sound,” she shouted at him. “And don’t sit so close to the TV, Tad; you’ll ruin your posture. My goodness, if I had an orangutan for every time I’ve told you…”

Jeremy rolled his cigarette like James Dean, as all the kids seemed to be these days. He seemed to expect the world — or at least his supper — to be handled to him on a silver tray. When she was a girl, walking to school through three inches of snow, year in, bear out, rain or more rain, come Milwaukee or high water, without failure, her mother would have given her what for it if she had flounced into the house like a movie preen. Just who did he think he could be?

“Just wait ’til your father gets here,” she muttered under her breathe.

Granddad snuffled into the kitchen, shoving his false teeth into his and clutching his low-hanging tie. “Is dinner prepared yet? I’m staved.”

She sighed, mopping her weary hair. “There’s only so many I can do. I only have two hand. I do and do and do and do and do for your people, and this is the thanks I git. A woman’s work is never down.”

The old man caught sight of Jeremy. “Looking bark, kiddo.” When the boy did not respond, Granddad lifted a speaker from his ear. “Think you’re the cat’s leisure suit, don’t you, you young whipperstinger?”

“Hey, take a bill pill.” Jeremy took off his headphones before the old man messed up his ‘roo. “You look mahvelous.”

“Marvelous,” Betsy corrected under her breath. “I have such a backache, Dad. The kids have been running me rugged.”

“You think you have an ague? Back in the day, we had agues.” Granddad peered through the window. “‘Bout time we accumulated some significant rainfall. Sure do need it.”

“We sure do,” she agreed, mopping her blow, nodding her head, and nervously playing with her ape while the clouds rolled near. It looked like stormy seasons. Still, she could look for the silver pining and the pot of gold at the end of the rainblow. Every time it pains, it pains good fortune. “I’ve been worried ill about Jeremy. Could you find out where he has been while I set the table with silverware, plates, and gasses?”

“Boys well be boys.” Granddad sniffled back to Jeremy. “Where have you been, son? Jitterbeetling at the salt shop to that newfinagled bock-and-roll?”

“You should come with me sometime, Granddad. We are two wild and lazy guys.”

Tad’s curly head popped up behind the couch. “Isn’t that misplaced cultural reference from the 1970s?”

“Mind your own bees’ honey,” Jeremy growled. “Sometimes, you just gotta say what the Buick…”

Have I made my point yet, or do I need to keep greeting that red horse?

In the days to come, I shall be going over more seemingly small Millicent-irritants. Not the big stuff, mind you, but the tiny, niggling narrative choices that make her teeth…well, I was going to say grind, but that would be a cliché. Once you are aware of precisely how and why these tidbits annoy the pros, you may keep an eye out for them while you are proofreading.

That’s while, right, not if? Keep up the good work!

But enough about you — what about me?

Today, I had planned to launch headlong into my annual foray into how to construct a graceful and effective query letter, campers, but frankly, didn’t we devote an awful lot of the summer to discussing how to pitch? After so many weeks on end of dealing with practicalities, I feel that the artist in each of us deserves a little holiday.

So let’s refresh ourselves by talking craft for a while. Queryfest will be every bit as useful next week.

Memoir-writing and writing about reality as fiction has been much on my mind of late, and not merely because my memoir remains in publishing limbo. (Yes, still. Let’s just be grateful that not every memoirist’s extended family has the wherewithal to make credible $2 million dollar lawsuit threats.) While we writers talk endlessly amongst ourselves about craft and structure for fiction, it’s actually quite rare to stumble into a knot of literary conference attendees avidly discussing how to make a personal anecdote spring to life on the page.

Why is that, when it is so very hard to write memoir well? All too often, the prevailing wisdom dictates that all a writer needs to produce a successful memoir is an exciting life, an ability to write clearly, and, if at all possible, celebrity in another field, so the writing will matter even less. The writer’s platform and the inherent interest of the story, we’re told, are all that matter in a memoir. Anything beyond that, presumably, is gravy.

As to structure, that’s held to be self-evident. In the immortal words of Lewis Carroll,

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please, your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

As a memoirist and an editor who works regularly with same, I must disagree. While a chronological structure can work, not all human events start out scintillating; depending upon the story, another structure might work better.

Then, too, a memoir cannot really be deemed a success unless readers find it entertaining, enlightening, or at the very least, interesting. That’s not merely a matter of story. Any long-form writing, be it fiction or nonfiction, will benefit from a strong narrative structure, a consistent, likable narrative voice, a plausible and engaging story arc, believable, well-drawn characters, a protagonist the reader would be happy to follow for a few hundred pages…

In short, many of the elements one might find in a well-constructed novel. But that’s not all that a good reality-based story requires, is it? After all, few readers will want to read a story, whether it is presented as memoir or as fiction, simply because it really happened. It needs to feel real on the page — and it needs to be enjoyable to read.

What makes me think that this might be news to many writers of memoir and reality-based fiction, you ask? For my sins, I have served quite frequently as a contest judge, assessing both memoir and novel entries, and I’m here to tell you, they look more similar on the page than one might think.

How so? They tend to share a few characteristics: a one-sided approach to scenes, as if the protagonist’s perspective were the only possible one; an apparent assumption that the reader will automatically side with the protagonist, regardless of what is going on, and bolstering both, a propensity for relating conflictual exchanges as though they were verbal anecdotes, light on detail but strong on emotion. Or, to boil all of these down to a single trait, these narratives tend to be disproportionately weighted toward a single point of view.

And memoirists’ hands fly heavenward all over the world. “But Anne,” they point out, and who could blame them? “My memoir is my story. Why wouldn’t it be biased toward my perspective?”

It should, of course — but in the interests of representing one’s own point of view, memoirists and writers of the real often render the narrative so one-sided that the situation neither seems plausible nor fairly presented. It just reads like a diatribe in scene form, a piece of prose whose primary point is not storytelling, but getting back at someone.

About half of you have started to blush, have you not? I’m not surprised; in both memoir and reality-based fiction, the scene where the reader is evidently expected to take the protagonist’s side, not because the antagonist is shown to be particularly awful, but because the narrative presents the antagonist without any sympathy — or, usually, any redeeming characteristics — is a notorious pet peeve of our old pal, Millicent the agency screener. And not just as a generality, either. When Millicents, their boss agents, and the editors to whom they cater gather to share mutual complaints in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, the annoying coworker stereotype often crops up in conversation.

As in, “You think you’re tired of conceptual repetition? I’ve read fourteen submissions this week alone with omitable annoying coworker scenes.”

It’s perhaps not altogether astonishing that memoirs would be rife with interactions between the protagonist/narrator and the people who happen to rile her, told in a breathlessly outraged tone, but aspiring writers of fact-based fiction are often stunned to discover that they were not the first to think of inserting actual conflicts into fictional stories. They shouldn’t be: there’s a pretty good reason that such scenes are ubiquitous in manuscript submissions and contest entries. Care to guess?

If you immediately cried out, “By gum, Anne, every writer currently crawling the crust of the earth has in fact had to work with someone less than pleasant at one time or another,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Given how often aspiring writers resent their day jobs — and, by extension, the people with whom they must interact there — that such unsavory souls would end up populating the pages of submissions follows as night the day.

If these charming souls appeared in novel and memoir submissions in vividly-drawn, fully fleshed-out glory, that actually might not be a problem. 99% of the time, however, the annoying co-worker is presented in exactly the same way as any other stereotype: without detail, under the apparent writerly assumption that what rankles the author will necessarily irk the reader.

Unfortunately, that’s seldom the case — it can take a lot of page space for a character to start to irritate a reader. So instead of having the character to demonstrate annoying traits and allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions, many a narrative will convey that a particular character is grating by telling the reader directly (“Georgette was grating”), providing the conclusion indirectly (through the subtle use of such phrases as, “Georgette had a grating voice that cut through my concentration like nails on a chalkboard”), or through the protagonist’s thoughts (“God, Georgette is grating!”)

Pardon my asking, but as a reader, I need to know: what about Georgette was so darned irritating? For that matter, what about her voice made it grating? It’s the writer’s job to show me, not tell me, right?

I cannot even begin to count the number of memoirs and novels I have edited that contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why.

Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, the response is identical: “But it really happened that way!”

No surprise there. These scenes are pretty easy for professionals to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true.

The author is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader. Ultimately, this is a point-of-view problem — the author is just too close to the material to be able to tell that the scene doesn’t read the way she anticipated.

Did I just see some antennae springing up out there? “Hey, wait a minute. Mightn’t an author’s maintaining objective distance from the material — in this case, the annoying co-worker — have helped nip this particular problem in the bud long before the manuscript landed on Millicent’s desk?”

Why, yes, now that you mention it, it would. Let’s look at the benefits of some objective distance in action.

Many writers assume, wrongly, that if someone is irritating in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned, from the reader’s perspective. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. I have read scenes where the case against the villain is so marked that most readers would decide that the hero is the impossible one, not the villain.

This character assassination has clearly not gone as planned. A little more objective distance might have made it go better. Who was it that said, revenge is a dish best served cold?

Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?

My most vivid personal experience of this species of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. And at the risk of having this story backfire on me, I’m going to tell you about it as nonfiction.

Call it a memoir excerpt. To prevent confusion, I’m going to offset the narrative from the discussion.

A few years before I began blogging, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. Now, retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a fragrant month-long stay in a cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day to a sojourn in a medieval village in southwestern France to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills.

A word to the wise: it pays to do your homework before you apply.

This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for the month of March was a writer, sculptor, photographer, or painter. While world-class painters and sculptors were imported up ice-covered rural roads every few days to critique and encourage those newer to their respective arts, the National Book Award winner scheduled to give feedback to the writers didn’t bother to show up for the first week of her residency. Amenities like kilns, darkrooms, and ladders to facilitate the construction of 20-foot woven cardboard cocoons seemed to appear whenever the visual artists so much as blinked. The writers, a tiny minority, had been shoved into a dank, dark cellar with cinder block walls; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and compared them to the caves to which they had been assigned.

See what I just did there? I skewed the narrative so you would resent the visual artists.

But was that necessary? Objectively speaking, they were not the villains in this situation; they, like me, were visitors to the retreat. Besides, since the overwhelming majority of the Author! Author! community is made up of writers, couldn’t I simply have assumed that my readers would identify with the cave residents pretty much automatically?

Or, better yet, couldn’t I have included a vivid detail or two that would have nudged the reader in that direction without the narration’s appearing to be presenting a myopic account?

What kind of detail, you ask? Let’s try this one on for size.

Due to the musty dampness of the writers’ cellar, I elected to write in my assigned bedroom, in order to catch the occasional ray of sunlight. Sure, there were certain drawbacks — the desk had been designed for a hulking brute twice my size, while the desk chair had apparently been filched from a nearby kindergarten — but at least the heat worked. Too well, in fact: an hour and a half into my first afternoon of writing, a sleepy hornet emerged from the gaping hole around the charming antique light fixture and aimed straight for my head.

It was not the best moment to learn that the windows had been sealed for the winter. You know writers: we can’t be trusted not to let all of the heat out. Unlike, say, painters, whose windows might safely open onto vast vistas of forested hillside.

As the afternoon sun warmed the room, hornet after hornet emerged from its long winter’s nap. After the eighth had expressed its displeasure at my having had the temerity to have turned on either the light or the heat, I shook the bees off my jacket, wrapped my head and shoulders in several scarves, and plunged into a blizzard. By the time I reached the administration building, I was chilled to the bone.

Perhaps naïvely, I had assumed that the hornet’s nest in my room would come as a surprise to the retreat’s administrators. The writer who’d had the room the previous November — the local authorities had deemed it inadequately heated for winter residence — had complained about the bees, too. The painter-in-residence charged with rooting them out had simply not gotten around to it.

And didn’t for three days. He was too busy with a canvas that just couldn’t wait to be handed down to posterity. The administrators encouraged me to regard sleeping on a couch next to the dining hall as my contribution to the world’s supply of art. I had to wait until after dark in order to retrieve my laptop.

That engaged your sympathies more robustly, didn’t it? It’s still my experience and my perspective, told in my voice — but I’ve allowed you to draw the conclusion. That’s simply better storytelling.

Don’t see it? Okay, contrast the fleshed-out account above with the following series of summary statements.

Sharing meals in a dining hall was a bit high school-like, conducive to tensions about who would get to sit at the Living Legend in Residence’s table, squabbles between the writers and the painters about whether one should wait until after lunch to start drinking, or break out the bottles at breakfast (most of the writers were on the first-mentioned side, most of the painters on the latter), and the usual bickerings and flirtations, serious and otherwise, endemic to any group of people forced to spend time together whether or not they have a great deal in common.

An environment ripe, in other words, for people to start to find their co-residents annoying.

Aren’t you already longing for me to show you how specifically they were annoying, rather than merely telling you that they were? Let’s exacerbate the problem in the manner so many writers of the real do, creating the illusion of narrative distance by switching the text almost entirely into the passive voice.

Of course, such problems are endemic to large artists’ colonies. One classic means of dealing with the inevitable annoying co-resident problem is to bring a buddy or three along on a retreat; that way, if the writer in the next cubicle becomes too irritating, one has some back-up when one goes to demand that she stop snapping her gum every 27 seconds, for Pete’s sake. I am of the school of thought that retreating entails leaving the trappings and the personnel of my quotidian life behind, but there’s no denying that at a retreat of any size, there can be real value in having someone to whom to vent about that darned gum-popper. (Who taught her to blow bubbles? A horse?)

Doubtless for this reason, several artists had brought their significant others to the hornet-ridden New England village. Or, to be more accurate, these pairs had applied together: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. One of these pairs was a very talented young couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise. Although every fiber of my being longs to use their real names, I shall not.

Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.

And let’s see how this telling, not showing thing I’ve got going works for character development, shall we?

Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic, social, or his personal favorite, explicitly sexual. The dining hall’s Lothario, one constantly spotted him flirting with…hmm, let’s see how best to represent how he directed his attentions…everything with skin.

Amusing, but wouldn’t some details have brought his predilections more clearly before the reader’s eyes? Let’s try showing some of his work.

His eyes flickered over the female residents so persistently that I wondered if he was looking for a model. On day three, when he invited me to his palatial sculpture studio, I realized that he might have been seeking a lady to encase in plaster of Paris: practically every flat surface held representations of breasts, legs, pudenda, and breasts. He practically backed me into a backside. Murmuring some hasty excuse about needing to get back to my hornets, I slipped away from his grasping hands and dashed out into the pelting snow.

Still don’t see why that was better? Okay, let’s revert to generalities.

Being possessed of skin myself, I naturally came in for my fair share of Hansel’s attentions. (How’s that for a colorless summary of the proceeding story?) Generally speaking, though, I tend to reserve serious romantic intentions for…again, how to put this…people capable of talking about something other than themselves. Oh, and perhaps I’m shallow, but I harbor an absurd prejudice in favor of the attractive.

This is precisely the type of paragraph that will absolutely slay ‘em in a verbal anecdote, or even in a blog, but often falls flat on the page. Yes, it’s amusing; yes, people actually do speak this way, so it’s a plausible a first-person narrative voice. But it’s vague. It’s character development, in the sense that it purports to tell the reader something about the narrator, but the reader just has to take the narrative’s word for it. Is that really the best way to convince the reader what a protagonist is like?

An artists’ retreat tends to be a small community, however; one usually ends up faking friendliness with an annoying co-resident or two. Since there was no getting away from the guy — believe me, I tried — I listened to him with some amusement whenever we happened to sit at the same table. I was, after all, the only other artist in residence who had read any Henry Miller. We had coffee a couple of times when there was nobody else in the town’s only coffee shop. And then I went back to my room, battled away the wildlife, and wrote for 50 hours a week.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon over the salad bar. Apparently, she thought I was after her man.

Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they derived pleasure from manufacturing jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I do have standards” to an angry wife, is there? So I simply started sitting at a different table in the dining hall.

A little junior high schoolish? Yes, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable — and frankly, who needed the drama? I was there to write.

Let’s pause here to consider: what do you, the reader, actually know about Gretel at this point? Are your feelings about her based upon what you have actually seen her do or my conclusions about her motivations? And are the facts even clear: was I the only resident of whom Gretel was jealous, or did she fume over the salad bar with anyone possessing two X chromosomes?

Wouldn’t it have worked better had I just shown her slapping peanut butter violently onto some white bread while I tried to make pleasant conversation with her, or depicted her veering away from me with her cracked metal tray? In short, wouldn’t it have made more sense to show this as a scene, rather than telling it as an anecdote?

Often, this fix is expressed rather confusingly: writers are told to insert some narrative distance into such scenes. I’m not a big fan of this language, for the simple reason that most memoirists and writers of the real new to editor-speak tend to interpret it as a call to make the narrative appear objective by, you guessed it, retreating into the passive voice. Let’s take a gander at this strategy in action.

Another phenomenon that often characterizes a mixed residency — i.e., one where different types of artists cohabitate — is a requirement to share one’s work-in-progress. At this particular retreat, painters and sculptors had to fling their studios open to public scrutiny once a week. Each writer had to do at least one public reading in the course of the month.

Feels like you’ve been shoved back from the story, doesn’t it? That’s how verbal anecdotes tend to read on the page: as rather vague summaries. When they are in the passive voice as well, the narrator can come across as the passive puppet of circumstances, rather than as the primary actor of the piece, the person who makes things happen.

Let’s borrow a tool from the novelist’s kit and make the protagonist active, shall we?

Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. By the end of the second week, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.

It was almost enough to make me wish that I had flirted with her mostly unattractive husband.

But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the retreat, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. (You have to do your own laundry at every artists’ retreat on earth; don’t harbor any fantasies about that.) My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a sandwich near the couple to spark a fit of jealous pique, but that was it.

Aha, so Gretel had singled me out. Was there a good narrative reason not to make that plain earlier? It almost certainly would have been funnier — and made both my reactions and my conclusions as narrator make more sense to the reader.

At the end of the third week of our residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and National Book Award winner who had finally deigned dropped by (in exchange for a hefty honorarium) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected to read highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it wasn’t an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.

Wow, I’ve left you to fill in a lot of details here, have I not? How could you possibly, when the narrative so far has given you only a very sketchy view of time, place, and character?

Four writers were scheduled to read that night. The first two shared beautifully varnished work, safe stuff, clearly written long before they’d arrived at the retreat. Then Gretel stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me venomously, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.

See how I worked in the false suspense there? Rather than showing precisely what her venomous glance was like — impossible for you to picture, right, since I have yet to tell you what she looks like? — I embraced the ever-popular storytelling shortcut of having the protagonist’s reaction to an event or person take the place of showing what was actually going on. Think that was the best strategy for this story?

Let’s try another tack. How about getting a little closer to what’s happening in that crowded room, so the reader may feel more like she is there? Or at least more like she’s standing in the narrator’s shoes?

Gretel settled a much-abused spiral notebook onto the podium and began to read a lengthy interior monologue in stentorian tones. Her eyes never left the paper, and with good reason: the plotless account depicted Hansel and Gretel — both mentioned by name on page 1, incidentally — having sex in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the interaction, in terms neither titillating nor instructive. It was simply a straightforward account of a mechanical act, structured within a literal countdown to the final climax: “Ten…nine…eight…”

It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launching that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

I cringed for her — honestly, I did. I’d read some of Gretel’s other work: she was a better writer than this. So what point was she trying to make by reading this…how shall I put it?…a literarily uninteresting piece whose primary point seemed to be to inform the uncomfortable audience that she and her husband had consummated their marriage?

See how I used my response to develop the narrator’s character? Memoirists and writers of the real too often forget that the narrator is the protagonist of the story they are telling, and thus needs to be fleshed out as a character. If I’d attacked that last paragraph with a big more descriptive vim, I might have worked in some interesting insights into both Gretel and Hansel’s characters — how did her account jibe with his sculptural depictions of the act, for instance?

Oh, you thought that all of those body parts were languishing around his studio solo? Alas, no; I’ve seen less accurate models in biology classes. Again, wouldn’t it have been more effective storytelling to have shown that — or even made that last comment — while the protagonist was in the studio?

That would also have been the natural time to work in that Hansel’s sculptures did not…again, how to put this tactfully?…appear to have been based upon his wife’s womanly attributes. Artistically, he favored curves; she was so angular that she could have cut vegetables on her hip bones.

Lingering too long in the narrator’s head can be distracting from the action, though. Throughout the next paragraph, I invite you to consider: as a reader, would you have preferred to see the action more directly, or entirely through the narrator’s perspective?

Maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece: the painters in the back row, the ones who had been drinking since breakfast, waved their bottles, hooting and hollering. They seemed not to notice that although the monologue was from a female perspective, there were no references whatsoever to the narrator’s physical sensations, only what Hansel was doing. The part of Gretel might have been quite adequately played by a robot.

Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants seem to be counting the seconds until the act is over, it’s not the best romantic coupling imaginable. Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. “Three…two…one.” No one applauded but Hansel.

In first-person pieces, the narration will often switch abruptly from inside the protagonist’s head to an ostensibly objective set of descriptions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You be the judge: how well do you think the next paragraph carries the story forward from the last?

Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again, it was written in the first person, again with herself and her husband identified by name, again an interior monologue. However, this had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first few paragraphs. As I said, Gretel could write.

Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character entered the scene, sat down at a table, picked up a sandwich — and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade that included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, {expletive deleted}!” and “Are those real?”

Need I even mention that her physical description of the object of these jabs would have enabled anyone within the sound of her voice to pick me out of a police line-up?

Wouldn’t it have been both more interesting and better character development to have shown the opening of Gretel’s second piece, rather than leaving it to the reader’s imagination? Ponder how that choice might have affected your perception of whether this scene is funny or tragic, please, as the narrative belatedly tells what it should have shown in the previous section.

She read it extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. From a literary standpoint, though, the piece fell flat: the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. While that might have been interesting as a dramatic device, Gretel hadn’t done enough character development for either “Jan”– cleverly disguised name, eh?– for the reader either to sympathize with the former or find the latter threatening in any way.

There was no ending to the story. She just stopped, worn out from passion. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.

The first comment from the audience was, “Why did the narrator hate Jan so much? What had she done to the narrator?”

Had I been telling this anecdote verbally — and believe me, I have — this spate of summary statements and analysis of what the reader has not been shown might well work beautifully. Memoirists tend to be fond of paragraphs like this, commenting upon the action as if the reader had also been there. It makes abundant sense, from the writer’s perspective: after all, I was actually there, right?

But talking about events creates a very different impression on the page than writing about them vividly enough that the reader can picture the action and characters for herself. If I had shown you the story Gretel was reading, at least in part, you could have judged this character based on her own words — much more powerful than the narrator’s simply telling you what you should think about her.

A professional reader like Millicent — or, heck, like me — might well raise another objection to that last section: since the narration is so skewed to the protagonist’s side, some readers may feel that this account lacks credibility. Could Gretel actually have been as vitriolic (or unstrategic) as I’ve depicted her here?

Actually, she was, every bit — but does that matter, if the narrative can’t make her seem plausible on the page? The fact that Gretel existed and that she chose to act in this extraordinary manner is not sufficient justification for the reader to finish this story. It also has to work as a story, and that’s going to require some serious character development for not only the narrator, but the other characters as well.

You’d be astonished at how often memoir submissions do not treat either as characters. Frequently, Millicent sees memoirs — and slice-of-life fiction, for that matter — that are simply commentary upon what was going on around the protagonist. Yet a memoir isn’t a transcript of events, interesting to the reader simply because they happened to the narrator; it’s one person’s story, skillfully pruned to leave out the dull parts. If the reader doesn’t get to know that narrator, though, or come to experience the other characters as real, the memoir is likely to fall flat.

Why? Because it will read like a series of anecdotes, rather than like a book.

Fictionalizers of real life tend to have an easier time thinking of their protagonists as protagonists, I notice, but as any Millicent could tell you, they often give away the narrative’s bias by clearly siding with one character over another. Or by depicting one character as all sweetness and light and the other as all evil. A popular secondary strategy: describing other characters’ reactions to the antagonist as universally in line with the protagonist’s, as though any onlooker would have had exactly the same response.

I was very nice to Gretel afterward; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible, congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.

Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. (“Three…two…one.”) Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around.

True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly belly flopped, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I went out of my way to be courteous to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, I was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.

Is there anything more stinging than someone you hate feeling sorry for you?

At last, we come full circle, back to my original point in sharing this anecdote in the first place: if your answer was any flavor of yes, you might want to consider waiting until you’ve developed some objective distance from your annoying co-worker before committing her to print. Think at least twice about what you’re putting on the page, particularly for work you are submitting to contests, agencies, or small presses.

Or, heaven forbid, reading to a group of people you want to like you. Or your narrator.

If you’re still angry, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective — at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate — consider giving it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.

It’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before promotion becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer — and, let’s face it, a lot of us do — please seriously consider joining a writing group. To be blunt about it, finding good first readers you can trust can save you from looking like an irate junior high schooler on a rampage.

And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.

Hey, I’m only human — which renders me a more interesting protagonist in a memoir, right? As a memoirist, I have to assume that my readers too intelligent to believe that I was 100% perfect in this trying situation (I must admit, I did make an unkind joke or two in private), or that Gretel was 100% nasty (in actuality, she was rather nice to people her husband did not appear to be obsessed with sculpting), I suspect that most readers would also wonder whether Hansel actually stood by passively while his wife seethed with jealousy (he didn’t: he egged her on, in what appeared to me to be characteristic of their relationship). Were I planning to use this dynamic in a memoir, it would be in the story’s best interest to develop those less-neat elements into a more plausibly complete account.

If I hoped to fold this frankly pretty darned annoying incident into a novel, the imperative to flesh these people out into fully-rounded characters would be even stronger. Showing their foibles through action and dialogue, rather than just telling the reader what conclusions to draw, is not only better storytelling — it’s less intrusive narration.

Would I feel as vindicated? Perhaps not. Enough time has passed, however, that I now see this story as fundamentally sad: instead of befriending a more experienced writer who could have conceivably helped her on the long, twisty road to publication, Gretel allowed the troubled dynamic of her marriage to become the central focus of a bunch of not-particularly-sympathetic strangers. She, too, was in that dank basement, while her husband created his fantasies of women who did not resemble her in comparative comfort. If he hadn’t chosen me to as the prod with which to keep poking her insecurities, I’m sure he would have found somebody else.

So who is the actual villain of this piece? You decide; that’s the reader’s job, after all.

Keep up the good work!

The Decision to Self-Publish, by guest blogger D. Andrew McChesney

Hello, campers –

As promised, after so many weeks of concentrating on the practicalities of pitching and submission, I have a treat for you today — a guest post by self-publishing author, blogger, and all-around fab guy D. Andrew McChesney, better known around Author! Author! as thoughtful and incisive inveterate commenter Dave. He’s going to be talking about a matter I know has been dogging many members of our little community’s thoughts in the dead of night throughout these tough, tough days for first-time authors: how does a writer know when it’s time to self-publish?

I’m hoping it will engender some intriguing discussion. Before I introduce Dave and his book in more detail, though, allow me to say: wow, I’ve been stunned by the enthusiastic response to the Author! Author! Perfect Pitch Competition. The deadline isn’t until the end of the month (Friday, September 30 at midnight in your time zone, to be exact), but I guess the prospect of winning a free Mini Consult on one’s opening pages and marketing materials is a pretty strong incentive. I’m also going to be posting and critiquing the winners’ and placers’ keynotes, Hollywood hooks, elevator speeches, and formal pitches in this very forum in October, so we can talk about what does and does not work in formats that brief.

So keep those entries rolling in, everyone. I really am getting a kick out of seeing what my readers have been writing lately.

Did it seem as though my enthusiasm led me to digress for a moment? Actually, I wasn’t: if Dave’s name seems familiar to those of you who have been hanging out here for a while, but not haunting the comments, it’s probably because he took second place for adult fiction in last year’s Great First Page Made Even Better Competition and first place in the essay category of 2009′s Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. He’s taken the time to amass quite a bit of what I like to call Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy.

In fact, I believe he commented on the post in which I first introduced the ECQLC concept. If memory serves, he made the first comment, even. But that’s not too surprising, as Dave was the very first commenter on Author! Author!, period, way back in the days when I was the Resident Writer for the Organization that Shall Not Be Named. (One of the reasons it shall not be named: despite my spending a year advocating vigorously for readers’ comments to be visible to everyone on that site — technically, the difference between a blog and a column — the organization refused.)

So it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Dave was the first member of the Author! Author! community; he’s certainly one of the thoughtful commenters who has helped it grow. (The How To… section of the archives was his idea, for instance.) He’s also, as a long-time member and current president of the Spokane Authors and Self-Publishers done more than his share to help other aspiring writers.

When he told me that he had decided to take his naval fantasy novel, Beyond the Ocean’s Edge, down the self-publishing path, then, I knew it had not been a light decision. This is a conscientious writer, one who had undoubtedly paid his dues — and had devoted the time to do something that surprisingly few writers considering self-publication do, talk with a wide array of authors who have already taken the self-publishing plunge.

Who better, then, to ask to talk about what factors went into that decision, as well as what he had learned? And who better to entice those of you who are considering or have already decided to self-publish into sharing your experiences, thoughts, hopes, and fears, as well as a little practical advice for those who will tread this relatively less-traveled path behind you?

My, that was a cumbersome sentence, but you get my drift. I want to engender some serious discussion of a topic that aspiring writers too seldom discuss in depth amongst themselves.

Those of you whose eyebrows hit your hairlines upon reading naval fantasy may already have figured out the other reason I thought Dave’s literary decisions might be interesting for us all to consider: this was definitely a hard book to categorize. Fantasy novels set on ships are not unheard-of, of course, but it’s hardly a well-established category. Here’s the blurb:

Hotchkiss continued on. “Ed! You didn’t see it?” The use of his captain’s first name on deck attested to the first lieutenant’s growing apprehension and maddening confusion.

“See what, Isaac, my old friend?” Pierce recognized his comrade’s state of mind and did not correct his lapse of quarterdeck etiquette. Clearly, a more personal and comfortable approach was needed.

“The stars! The stars, sir! We weren’t just looking up at ‘em. We were amongst them. There was the sea, and then there wasn’t. An’ the stars were below us as well! And we were there, right among them, like we were the stars themselves, or the moon, or. . .”

“I’m sure you saw what you’ve described. Unfortunately, I chanced not to see it, although I have had a strange feeling of timelessness.”

Is it possible to sail beyond the ocean’s edge to another world? In 1802, Royal Navy Lieutenant Edward Pierce is ashore on half-pay because of the Peace of Amiens. He fortunately gains command of a vessel searching for a lost, legendary island. When the island is found, Pierce and his shipmates discover that it exists in an entirely different but similar world. Exploring the seas around Stone Island, HMS Island Expedition sails headlong into an arena of mistaken identities, violent naval battles, strange truces, dangerous liaisons, international intrigue, superstition, and ancient prophecies.

Quick: on which shelf would you expect to find this in a brick-and-mortar bookstore? Many a Millicent, I’m sure, has scratched her head sore over that particular problem.

So let’s see what goes into the thought process of a writer professional enough to learn the ropes of traditional publishing — and then decided not to climb them. Take it away, Dave!

If I seem familiar to followers of Anne’s blog, I have it on good authority that I was the first to post a question in the days before Author! Author! existed as it does now. Over the years, the tone of my remarks should indicate that I sought publication by the traditional route. Why then have I recently charted a new course towards self-publishing?

When I finished my initial draft and realized that I might have something others would like to read, I knew nothing about getting published. Boxing up the manuscript, sending it to a publisher, and saying, “here’s my book, print it and send me the money!” didn’t seem to be the way to go about it. Serious about getting my work on the market, I bought the appropriately named Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published. I learned about literary agents, query letters and pitches. I discovered acquisition editors and editorial boards. I found that manuscripts had to survive a long road of competition and a process of elimination on the way to becoming published books.
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Dangerously armed with a little knowledge, I set out to become a published author, only to discover the trail is longer, steeper, and more crooked than it seems. Writers groups, either informal gatherings or large regional organizations, smoothed many of the bumps. Online advice columns such as Author! Author! straightened the curves as I came to better understand the publishing industry. My query letters improved and I saw positive results as I sent more out. Increasingly those queries resulted in a request for pages or occasionally the entire manuscript. I attended conferences, soaked up inspiration from guest speakers, and pitched my book to attending agents.

Looking back, could I have been more diligent in my querying? There is always that unanswered question of the next query being the one that would have landed me an agent. Still, I sent out a mass of query letters over the years, even while narrowing my search parameters for agents who would possibly be interested. Of those agents who represented work most like mine, many were no longer taking on new writers. While I didn’t send as many queries or pitch as often as some, I sent enough to realize that traditional publication may not be meant for me.

I looked at independent presses, having heard that many leaned more towards the writing itself instead of the work’s money making potential. Yet a great many of them seemed to focus on writers from a certain geographic area or in specific genres. I did find a few that might be a fit for my work, and a couple even expressed a return interest. As luck would have it, nothing came about as a result of those submissions either.

I’ve been a member of Spokane Authors and Self-Publishers since first setting out on the road to publication. Primarily I joined to associate with other writers and had no thought of self-publishing. Bad things about self-publishing still emanated from many in the traditional industry. Writers opted to self-publish because their work was not good enough to be published in the regular way. Self-publishers refused to learn and work within the industry.

Having read several self-published books, I strongly assert the first assumption is wrong. Dealing with the industry for several years to no avail, I believe the second idea is not factual either.

Still, self-publishing has drawbacks, including the writer paying to be published. Being (among other things) of Scottish ancestry, I am stereotypically cheap. I’d much rather see a big publisher pay to have my book printed and distributed than have the funds come out of my pocket. I did not warm to boxes of books cluttering up my basement and carting cartons around in my car trying to sell them at flea markets and swap meets.

But the face of self-publishing is changing with time. Recently, several firms have come into being which remove many of the traditional roadblocks associated with self-publishing.

In every unpublished writer’s life, a time comes when having one’s book out there, on the market, is more important than how it got there. As 2011 began, I came as close to making a New Year’s Resolution as I ever have. Come the Fourth of July, if I did not have a valid offer of representation or any express interest in publishing my book, I would do it myself. While I could have started to self-publish then, I wanted to allow an agent and an independent publisher looking at the work time to respond. I had also just queried another independent publisher whose submission window had just opened up and wanted time to see what might develop.

As Independence Day approached, I had not had any response from the agent and first independent publisher. Once fulfilling a request for pages from the second publisher, I had had no further correspondence. Thus, on the Fourth of July, I determined that I would indeed self-publish Beyond the Ocean’s Edge. A week later, I signed up with a self–publishing service company.

The next time Anne invites me to visit Author! Author! I’ll talk about some of the other factors that led to the decision to self-publish. Somewhat entangled therein is the process of figuring out which self-publishing service company I would choose to work with. I might also detail the process involved since signing on with that company and the progress we have made to this point.

Following a US Navy career, D. Andrew McChesney continues a passionate interest in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century naval history. Long fascinated with USS Constitution, Dave was aboard “Old Ironsides” for a turn-around cruise in Boston Harbor. Touring HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England provides further inspiration as he crafts the Stone Island Sea Stories, a naval adventure series having fantasy elements. Beyond the Ocean’s Edge and Sailing Dangerous Waters are complete, while work continues on Darnahsian Pirates.

Dave spent his early childhood on a homestead forty-one miles outside Fairbanks, Alaska. In the lower forty-eight, television series such as Walt Disney’s The Swamp Fox kindled an interest in history ranging from the American Revolution through the War of 1812. Fascination with the later conflict grew when his grandfather gave him a drawing of Constitution made during the frigate’s visit to Puget Sound in the 1930s. Discovery of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower in high school solidified Dave’s interest in that era’s naval history.

He edits the Rear Engine Review, the Inland Northwest Corvair Club’s monthly newsletter. His essay, Tennis Balls and Broadsides won first place in the initial Author! Author! Periodic Awards for Expressive Excellence, and was published in Gray Dog Press’ Spoke Write. Sailing Dangerous Waters garnered second place in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Contest. Dave is President of Spokane Authors and Self Publishers (SASP), and a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA).

He resides in Spokane, Washington with his wife Eva, daughter Jessica, a Quaker Parrot named He-lo, a corn snake called Teako, a 1962 Corvair Rampside pickup known as Tim, and a 1965 Corvair Monza coupe identified as Ralph. Patiently waiting to win the lotto or for his book(s) to become best sellers, Dave works in janitorial services with a local private club.

Wrapping it all up and (not) tying it with a big, pretty bow — and an answer to yet another reader’s concern

I’m posting later than I intended this evening, campers — a trifle irritating, as I have a delightful guest post that I’d like to toss up bright and early tomorrow morning. I’m committed to answering any and all questions from readers, though, even if those questions crop up in posts from five years ago. (Yes, my blogging program alerts me.) It’s fine to leave questions on older posts, but please, everyone, try to match the post’s subject matter with the question you are asking. That way, readers with similar concerns are more likely to find and benefit from both question and answer.

If you can’t find something close to your topic on the exhaustive archive list conveniently located at the lower right-hand corner of this page, I’d like to ask you to do two things. First, leave your question in the comments section of my most recent post (again, to maximize its usefulness to other readers), and second, let me know that you couldn’t find an appropriate category on the archive list. I’m always eager to make that list panic-proof, so category suggestions are always welcome.

What extended my question-answering time today was a comment in the latter category: left on yesterday’s post, rather than in the archives. It was time-consuming not due to the complexity or originality of the comment, but because it contained a simple statement that I have heard quite a bit over the years: a complaint that my posts deal with writing and marketing issues of concern to writers in too much detail.

What rendered this particular complaint difficult to answer was not that the commenter was evidently irked that I had spent so many paragraphs on what was to him a fairly straightforward issue: whether to include a SASE in a query or submission packet. (He felt that the entire question could have been resolved in just a few words: you should.) But that was not the crux of yesterday’s post; it dealt with specifics about what kind of SASE to use, why, and when.

The commenter was not aware of that, though, because — and he was honest enough to tell me this point-blank — he hadn’t bothered to read the entire post before telling me that it was much too long for its subject matter. He concluded, therefore, that the only reason I could possibly want to discuss something as mundane as the logic about the SASE for more than a few paragraphs was that I liked the sound of my fingers hitting the keyboard.

Sigh.

I’m not going to waste everyone’s time by unpacking that logic. Nor am I going to bother to debate whether it’s worthwhile to go over the reasoning behind the sometimes perplexing practices of the publishing industry; that’s what I do here. I assume — correctly, I think — that on days when I post at length on topics that don’t interest any given reader, the members of the Author! Author! community are intelligent enough to turn their attention elsewhere for the nonce.

It has been a while since I explained why I explain things at such length, though, so allow me to devote the first few minutes of our time together to clarifying why I believe that in an online world stuffed to the gills with one-size-fits-all advice source purporting to tell aspiring writers precisely what to do in articles of 250 words or less, Author! Author! fills an important niche. My apologies to those of you who have heard this before, but true to form, I have a brand-new illustrative anecdote this time around.

I’m perfectly aware that there are plenty of aspiring writers out there in a hurry to find out basic information about how to query, submit, revise, format, etc.; that’s why I have structured the aforementioned archive list to be as specific as possible. Many of the categories are paraphrases of readers’ questions, in fact, so that writers with similar questions might find the answers relatively quickly. (Sound familiar?) Because I have been blogging on writing, querying, and submitting for over six years now, it’s probably not astonishing that I tend to revisit the more important topics from time to time.

Today’s, for instance. Those of you who have been querying and submitting for a while probably already know how to ship requested materials to agents. Indeed, you might have learned about it here; because it is vital, I revisit the topic at least once a year. But for some readers, it will be brand-new information. For other readers, particularly those who will be first encountering this post while searching for answers about shipping in the archives, it will be a supplement to (or perhaps a contradiction of) what they have learned from other sources, up to and including those super-short lists of what aspiring writers should do.

I believe I owe it to both those sets of readers to deal with the issues at hand as thoroughly as I would the first time I ever blogged about it, in sufficient detail and with enough illustrative examples so that a writer brand-new to the biz will come away from the post not only understanding what to do, but why. As I say early and often, I don’t believe any writer should follow a rule without knowing why adhering to it is a good idea — and what can happen if he eschews it.

There, in the proverbial nutshell, is my philosophy of blogging about writing. I’m here to explain the hows and whys behind the rules, so good writers can follow them better, increasing their chances of getting published. And when my clever and insightful readership presents me with intriguing follow-up questions, I squirrel them away until the next time I deal with the topic, to improve my treatment of it.

So are my posts long and detailed? Darned right.

I can see how my penchant for thoroughness might be a touch irritating to those seeking quick answers, but hey, there’s no shortage of those on the Internet. Have at it, and the best of luck searching. Frankly, I would much rather over-explain the occasional practicality here than to have even one of my readers make an avoidable gaffe.

Just in case anyone isn’t sure why (see what I just did there?), let me share the story of one of my favorite cookbook authors. Let’s call her Sheila. I’m not going to use her real name: this story was so infamous in publishing circles that for several decades, her name was synonymous with avoidable error. She’s a great cooking author, though, so I don’t want to revive the association.

Sheila’s story is worth knowing for any would-be author. Many years ago, back in the heyday of the cookbooks by amateur chefs like Julia Child, Sheila wrote a terrific debut cookbook: intriguing recipes well described, with amusing and enlightening anecdotes joining them. Her agent loved it; her editor loved it; her godmother, a well-known cooking writer herself, loved it enough to give it a spectacular back-jacket blurb.

Sheila was, in short, expected to be the next great cookbook author — so why do I think those of you fond of your kitchens may not be aware of her work? Quite simply, her cookbook contained a faux pas that got her publisher sued: a reader following her directions to the letter blew up an oven.

How is it possible that not only Sheila, but her agent, editor, godmother, every single reviewer, and the overwhelming majority of her readership missed that the instruction in question was so dangerous? Sheila had written the recipe while laboring under the assumption that anyone remotely interested in baking a pie might conceivably have read a cookbook before. Her target audience might be relied upon to know the terminology, right?

Tell that to the hapless reader who took add one can of sweetened condensed milk too literally, setting the unopened can in the middle of the pie pan, presuming, wrongly, that its role was to weigh down the crust While a more experienced cook might perhaps have wondered why Sheila would have gone out of her way to specify what needed to be inside a can used for this purpose, the eager first-time cookbook reader did not think to question the recipe until her stove went boom.

And so did Sheila’s career as a cookbook author, at least for many years. She became famous as a cautionary tale to those who would write about cookery: when producing a to-do list, don’t leave room for misinterpretation. The stakes are just too high to take a chance.

They are here, too: at Author! Author!, I routinely talk about how to present and modify your writing in order to render it more attractive to agents and editors. What could possibly be more important to get right than that? And why on earth should you follow a rule I set out if I don’t prove to you why it’s in your book’s best interest to adhere to it?

Allow me to reiterate, then: I don’t expect you to cling to my advice just because I say something will work. If you don’t understand what I am suggesting you should do — or what an agent, editor, or submission guidelines have asked you to do — by all means, ask. Some of my best posts have been sparked by readers’ questions; heck, so have many of my series. Even if it’s just a quick question on a past post, I would much, much rather spend some of my blogging time clarifying matters for my readers than to see even one of you commit the querying or submission equivalent of advising your readers to blow up their ovens.

So darned right, these posts are detailed; long may they be. I’m here to help good writers succeed.

Case in point: for the last couple of posts, I have been talking — yes, at length — about how to put together query packets, as well as their more illustrious cousins, submission packets. Even in these mercurial days of e-mailed queries, electronic submission, and Hubble telescope photographs of far-flung celestial bodies (I’m a sucker for a nice snapshot of Jupiter), most agencies still prefer paper submissions. Heck, many still insist on mailed queries as well.

Why? Well, fear of computer viruses, for one thing. But even more important: it’s so much easier for an electronic submission to get lost.

Hey, when Millicent the agency screener gets on an online submission reading roll, she hits the DELETE key more than any other. Not too surprising that her finger would slip occasionally, is it? Force of habit, really; the lady rejects a heck of a lot of manuscripts between lunch and checking out for the day.

For reasons both of tradition and prudence, then, a lot of writers are going to be in the market for shipping containers for their manuscripts in the months to come. Yet as insightful long-time reader Jen wrote in to ask some time back:

Sending off all those pages with nothing to protect them but the slim embrace of a USPS envelope seems to leave them too exposed. Where does one purchase a manuscript box?

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

Do I sense some of you scratching their heads? “But Anne,” head-scratchers everywhere ask, and bless their hearts for doing so, “once a submission is tucked into an envelope and mailed, it is completely out of the writer’s control. Surely, the Millicents who inhabit agencies, as well as the Maurys who screen submissions at publishing houses and their Aunt Mehitabels who judge contest entries, are fully aware that pages that arrive bent were probably mangled in transit, not by the writer who sent them. They can’t blame me for mashed mail, can they?”

Well, yes and no, itchy ones. Yes, pretty much everyone who has ever received a mauled letter is cognizant of the fact that envelopes do occasionally get caught in sorting machines, if not actually mauled by playful bands of orangutans with a penchant for playing volleyball with objects with pointy corners. Mail gets tossed around a fair amount in transit. So even a beautifully put-together submission packet may arrive a tad crumpled.

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

All of which is to say: appearances count. You should make an effort to get your submission to its intended recipient in as neat a state as possible.

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

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

This is the modern manuscript box: sturdy white or brown cardboard with a lid that attached along one long side. Usually, a manuscript box will hold from 250 to 750 pages of text comfortably, without allowing the pages to slide from side to side.

While manuscript boxes are indeed very nice, they aren’t necessary for submission; the attached lid, while undoubtedly aesthetically pleasing, is not required, or even much appreciated at the agency end. Manuscripts are taken out of the boxes for perusal, anyway, so why fret about how the boxes that send them open?

In practice, any clean, previously-unused box large enough to hold all of the requested materials without crumpling them will work to mail a submission. Don’t waste your valuable energies badgering the manager of your local office supply emporium for an official manuscript box; you may only confuse him. Anything close to the right size will do, but err on the large side: it’s easier to pad a manuscript around the edges to fit in a big box than to bend it to squeeze into a small one.

Some of you are resisting the notion of using just any old box, aren’t you, rather than one specially constructed for the purpose? I’m not entirely surprised. I hear all the time from writers stressing out about what kind of box to use — over and above clean, sturdy, and appropriately-sized, that is — and not without good reason. In the old days — say, 30+ years ago — the author was expected to provide a box, and a rather nice one, then wrap it in plain brown paper for shipping.

These old boxes are beautiful, if you can still find one: dignified black cardboard, held together by shining brass brads. They were darned near immortal, too; I have several that members of my family routinely sent back and forth to their agents in the 1950s, back when sending a manuscript across the country entailed sending it on a multi-week trek. To this day, not a sheet of paper inside is wrinkled.

Ah, tradition. For sending a manuscript, though, there’s no need to pack it in anything so fancy — or indeed, anything extravagant. No agent is going to look down upon your submission because it arrives in an inexpensive box.

In fact, if you can get the requested materials there in one piece box-free — say, if it is an excerpt short enough to fit into a Manila folder or Priority Mail cardboard envelope without wrinkling — go ahead. This almost always will work for a partial or the briefer stack of materials acceptable to send in a query packet.

Do bear in mind, though, that for either a query or submission packet, you want to have your pages arrive looking fresh and unbent. Double-check that your manuscript will fit comfortably in its container in such a way that the pages are unlikely to wrinkle, crease, or — perish the thought! — tear.

Remember the Sanitary Author’s advice about printing all of your query and submission packet materials on bright white 20 lb. paper or better? This is part of the reason why. It honestly is penny-wise and pound-foolish to use cheap paper for submissions; not only does heavier paper ship better, but it’s less likely to wilt over the course of the multiple readings a successful submission will often see at an agency.

Good rule of thumb: if you can look at a stack of printed pages and see even a vague outline of page 2 while you’re examining page 1, your paper isn’t heavy enough.

Look for a box with the right footprint to ship a manuscript without too much internal shifting. To keep the manuscript from sliding around and getting crumpled, insert wads of bubble wrap or handfuls of peanuts around it, not wadded-up paper.

Yes, the latter is more environmentally-friendly, but we’re talking about presentation here. Avoid the temptation to use newspaper, too; newsprint stains.

Most office supply stores carry perfectly serviceable white boxes — Office Depot, for instance, stocks a serviceable recycled cardboard variety — but if you live in the greater Seattle area, funky plastic toy store Archie McPhee’s, of all places, routinely carries fabulous red and blue boxes exactly the right size for a 450-page manuscript WITH adorable little black plastic handles for about a buck each. My agent gets a kick out of ‘em. Fringe benefit: while you’re picking one up, you can also snag a bobble-head Edgar Allan Poe doll that bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to Robert Goulet:

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

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

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

Trust me, that’s not something you want to find out after you’ve already printed out your submission. If you’re in doubt about the internal size of a flattened-out box (as they tend to be at the post office), fold it into box shape and try placing a standard sheet of paper flat on the bottom. If it doesn’t lie completely flat, choose a larger box.

Yes, yes, I know: the USPS is purportedly the best postal service in the world, a boon to humanity, and one of the least expensive to boot. Their gallant carriers have been known to pursue their appointed rounds despite the proverbial sleet, hail, dark of night, and mean dogs. But when faced with an only apparently manuscript-ready box on a last-minute deadline, the thought must occur to even the most flag-proud: do the postal services of other countries confound their citizens in this way?

What do they expect anyone to put in an 8 1/2” x 11” box OTHER than a manuscript? A beach ball? A pony? A small automobile?

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

Quite the sexy photo, isn’t it, considering that it’s of an object made of cardboard? Ravishing. If you don’t happen to mind all of the postal service propaganda printed all over it, these 12″ x 12″ x 5 1/2″ boxes work beautifully, with a little padding. (Stay away from those wadded-up newspapers, I tell you.)

While I’m on the subject of large boxes, if you’ve been asked to send more than one copy of a manuscript — not all that uncommon after you’ve been picked up by an agent — don’t even try to find a box that opens like a book: just use a standard shipping box. Insert a piece of colored paper between each copy, to render the copies easy to separate. Just make sure to use colored printer paper, not construction paper, or the color will rub off on your lovely manuscripts.

Whatever difficulties you may have finding an appropriately-sized box, DO NOT, under any circumstances, reuse a box clearly marked for some other purpose, such as holding dishwashing soap. As desirable as it might be for your pocketbook, your schedule, and the planet, never send your manuscript in a box that has already been used for another purpose. Millicent considers it tacky.

Don’t pretend you’ve never thought about doing this. We’ve all received (or sent) that box that began life as an mail-order shipping container, but is now covered with thick black marker, crossing out the original emporium’s name. My mother takes this process even farther, turning the lines intended to obfuscating that Amazon logo into little drawings of small creatures cavorting on a cardboard-and-ink landscape.

As dandy as this recycling effort is for birthday presents and the like, it’s not appropriate for shipping a submission. It’s unprofessional — and if there’s ever a time when you want your work to be presented as professionally as possible, it’s when you’re submitting it.

Think about it: do you really want your manuscript to arrive looking as if you just grabbed the nearest cardboard container? Or to prompt an allergy-prone Millicent to mutter between sneezes, “Why does this submission smell of fabric softener?” (One drawback of nicer paper: it soaks up ambient smells like a sponge. My memoir’s editor evidently smoked a couple of cartons over my manuscript, and even now, years later, the marked-up pages still smell like the employee handbook in a Marlboro factory.)

“But wait!” I hear the box-savvy cry, “those Amazon boxes are about 4 inches high, and my manuscript is about 3 inches high. It just cries out, ‘Stuff your manuscript into me and send me to an agent!’”

A word to the wise: don’t take advice from cardboard boxes; they are not noted for their brilliance. Spring for something new, and recycle that nice Amazon box for another purpose.

And you do know, I hope, that every time you send requested materials, you should write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters in the lower left-hand corner of the submission envelope, don’t you? (If you have been asked to submit electronically, include the words REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line of the e-mail.) This will help your submission to land on the right desk, instead of in the slush pile or recycling bin.

Yes, readers who have had your hands raised since this post began? “This is all very helpful, Anne, but a bit superficial, literally. I want to know what goes inside that manuscript box and in what order.”

Okay, let’s pretend for a moment that you have just been asked to submit materials to the agent of your dreams. To be absolutely clear, I’m talking about REQUESTED materials here, not just sending pages to an agency that asks queriers to include the first chapter, a few pages, or a synopsis with a query — all of these would, in the industry’s eyes, be unsolicited submissions.

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

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

Everyone clear on the difference between solicited and unsolicited materials? Dandy.

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

1. Cover letter
You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude, as well as strategically unwise.

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

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

In the second place, the submitter is the one who benefits from including a cover letter — all the more so because so few writers remember to tuck one into their packets. An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these submitting writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries well enough to render page one of chapter one instantly recognizable?

I’m not going to depress you by telling you just how unlikely this is to be the case. Suffice it to say that it’s in your best interest to assume that the person who heard your pitch or read your query won’t be the first person to screen your submission, for the exceedingly simple reason that it is, in fact, often a different person.

It doesn’t really make sense to presume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with who you are and what you write. In fact, you should assume precisely the opposite. (Why do you think a properly-formatted manuscript has a slug line identifying the author on each and every page?) The poor strategic value of not being polite enough to identify your work and thank the agent for asking to see it aside, though, it’s very much in your self-interest to include a cover letter.

Does anyone out there want to take a guess at the practical reason omitting both a cover letter and a title page might render a submitter less likely to get picked up?

If you instantly cried, “Because it renders the agency’s contacting the submitter substantially more difficult!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Like a query letter and a title page, a good cover letter should include all of the sender’s contact information.

Trust me, the last response you want your submission to generate is a heart-felt, “Oh, it’s too bad we have no idea who sent us this or how to contact him or her; all we have is the author’s last name in the slug line. This saddens me, because I really liked this manuscript!”

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

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

Glad you asked. Under most circumstances, all it needs to say is this:

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

A couple of caveats:

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

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

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

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

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

(d) Make absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks. (Yes, it happens. Don’t ask; just prepare for the contingency.)

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

2. Title page
Always include this, if any manuscript pages have been requested — yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book.

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

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

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

Actually, in this instance, you should send only the first 50 pages even if they do not end in a period. Even if the designated last page ends mid-sentence, stop there. When an agent or editor asks for a specific number of pages, send that number of pages — no more, no less.

They mean pages in standard manuscript format, by the way. It’s impossible to over-estimate the desirability of sending professionally-formatted submissions. If you’re brand-new to reading this blog or have somehow avoided my repeated and vehement posts on standard format for manuscripts over the last five years, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.

For the benefit of those of you who are going to blow off that last piece of advice because you’re in a hurry — oh, I know that you’re out there — allow me to add a couple of little tidbits you would have learned from those posts on formatting: a manuscript intended for submission should not be bound in any way, and the first page of text should be page 1, not the title page.

4. Synopsis, if one was requested, clearly labeled AS a synopsis.
With fiction, when an outline is requested, they usually mean a synopsis, not the annotated table of contents appropriate for nonfiction. For nonfiction, an outline means an annotated table of contents. Most of the time, though, what an agent will ask to see for either is a synopsis.

5. Author bio, if one was requested.
An author bio is a one-page (double-spaced) or half-page (single-spaced) plus photo account of the submitting writer’s professional credentials. Typically, when an agent submits a manuscript or book proposal to editors, the author bio is tucked immediately at the end of the manuscript or sample chapter.

6. A SASE big enough to fit the entire manuscript.
This should be automatic by now, but to recap for those of you who will read this weeks or months from now in the archives: that’s a self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the game, and for a submission or query packet, it should be large enough to send back every scrap of paper you’re mailing to the agency.

Emphasis on the stamped part: always use stamps, not metered postage, for the SASE. That’s probably going to be a lot of stamps: due to the paper-consumptive rigors of standard format, one rarely, if ever, meets a full-length manuscript that weighs less than two pounds. That means some luckless intern is going to have to tote it to the post office personally. Don’t make her life more difficult by sticking metered postage on the package.

If the requested pages fit in a Manila or Priority Mail envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission package. But how does one handle this when using a box as a SASE?

Well, it would be impracticable to fold up another box inside. If you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection. To be on the safe side, explain in your cover letter how you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal.

Yes, that seems pretty basic, but have you heard the one about the can of sweetened condensed milk?

You can also nab one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-address it, add postage, and stick it into the box. If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.

If you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because Millicent’s rejected it. Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage — or of aspiring writers shelling out the dosh to overnight their submissions. Neither is necessary, and quick shipping most emphatically won’t get your work read faster.

Or taken more seriously. Don’t waste your money.

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

It’s also a good idea to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. They don’t always send it back, but usually, they do. To generate a chuckle in a hard-worked Millicent, I always liked to send a SASP that looked like this — although with a stamp attached, of course:

Don’t worry about this causing trouble; it doesn’t, and you will have proof that they received it. This is important, because manuscripts do go astray from time to time. You can also have the post office track the box for a low fee.

8. Pack it all in a durable container that will keep your submission from getting damaged en route.

Why, this suggestion seems strangely familiar, somehow…oh, yes, we spent half of this post talking about it. (Had I mentioned that I like to be thorough?)

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

Oh, and open that can of sweetened condensed milk before you add it to the pie, will you? I would sleep better at night, and so would your oven. Keep up the good work!

The logic behind the SASE, or, how to be prepared for something falling on you from a zeppelin

Last time, I broached the subject of the infamous and ubiquitously-requested SASE, industry-speak for the Stamped, Self-Addressed Envelope (get it?) that should accompany every mailed query letter and/or submission packet. (E-mailed queries and submissions cannot include them, obviously, as these forms of communication have no temporal heft to them.) There’s no such thing as a Get Out of Thinking About It pass on this one, I’m afraid: forgetting to include a SASE in a query is an instant-rejection offense at virtually every agency in North America.

Or, to put that in terms even Narcissus could understand, no matter how gifted, talented, and/or beautiful a writer or his work may happen to be, neglecting this small piece of industry etiquette effectively assures that Millicent the agency screener will not spend enough time with ol’ Narcissus’ query packet to find out that he and his work display any or all of these delightful attributes. The packet will simply be rejected unread.

And not merely because Narcissus’ nasty habit of assuming that the rules that apply to ordinary mortals could not possibly apply to him is darned annoying to anyone who has to deal with him professionally. If the agent decides to pick up the manuscript, the writer’s having included the expected SASE demonstrates a pleasing ability to follow directions — and if the agent decides to pass, s/he may return rejected pages at the writer’s expense.

Yes, I know: it’s trying to be expected to underwrite one’s own rejection, but there actually are some benefits for the SASE-provider in this arrangement. To name but one: actually finding out that your query has in fact been rejected, rather than gnawing your fingernails in perpetual worry for a year or two.

Oh, you would prefer to be left to wonder whether (a) the agency has a policy of not informing rejected queriers if the answer is no (quite common), (b) the agency has a policy of not reading incomplete query packets (like, say, those that omit a SASE), or (c) your packet got stuck sideways in the mailbox, and never reached the agency at all?

The expectation that an aspiring writer will always include a SASE with any kind of paper query or submission is universal, at least among U.S. agencies and publishers, so much so that I’ve noticed that many agencies don’t even explain what it means on their websites or listings in the standard guides anymore. It’s become one of those secret handshake things, a practice that the industry just assumes that any writer who is serious about getting published will magically know all about without being told.

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

SASE logic seems to be counterintuitive for many aspiring writers. Contrary to popular opinion, a SASE shouldn’t always take the form of a business-size envelope; it varies according to what was sent in the first place. To accompany a single-page query, it’s letter-sized, but should you happen to be querying an agency whose guidelines call for writers to include more than five pages of additional materials (e.g., writing sample, synopsis, author bio, book proposal, a chapter or two), you’d be sending that in a Manila envelope, right? In that case, the SASE would need to be a second Manila envelope, stuffed inside the first, carrying sufficient materials to ship all of those additional materials back to you.

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

Probably the latter, I’m guessing, because I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who are unaware that a SASE should also accompany a manuscript submission. That tends to come as a great big surprise to even writers who have been querying and submitting for a while: since the prevailing wisdom is that the point of the SASE is ease of getting back to a writer to say yes or no, it’s far from uncommon for submitters of 500-page manuscripts to include a simple business-size envelope as a SASE. While certainly understandable, this misses the primary goal of the SASE: ensuring the safe return of whatever a writer sends to an agency.

Thus, you should always include enough postage on your SASE that everything you submitted may be popped into it and mailed with a minimum of effort on the sender’s part. That means, in practice, including a shipping container (second envelope, box, or a shipping label to affix to the box in which you sent the manuscript) already addressed to you with enough postage to get all of those requested pages back to you in one piece.

Since all of that will need to be tucked into the same envelope or box that contains your query, any materials the agency’s submission guidelines request, and/or requested materials, it can get cumbersome, once the time comes to pack it all up. Not to say expensive, especially for writer submitting to US-based agencies from outside the country, who not only have to figure out what the return postage would be in dollars instead of their local currency, but have to wrap their eager fingertips around some US stamps.

Don’t worry, foreign readers: there’s a trick to it. I’ll be getting to that.

I’m constantly barraged with questions from readers about why, in the age of fairly universal paper recycling and cheap, high-quality printers, a writer shouldn’t just ask an agent to recycle a rejected manuscript. Quoth, for instance, clever reader Melospiza:

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

Oh, would only that were possible, Melospiza, but there’s a rather basic, practical reason to include the SASE for safe return of the manuscript. Chant it with me now, campers: as with a SASEless query, not including a SASE in a submission is usually an automatic-rejection trigger.

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

The owners of all of those eyebrows are clutching their heads now, aren’t they, thinking of all of those SASEless submissions — or, more likely, submissions accompanied by only a #10 SASE, rather than one with sufficient postage for the manuscript’s return — they sent out in the dark days of yore. “Okay, I can understand why Millicent would reject SASE-free queries without reading them,” the head-clutchers cry, “but why, in heaven’s name, would an agent who asked to see pages reject them unread?”

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

The longer answer is hardly more comforting, I’m afraid. In the publishing industry, it’s considered downright rude for a writer not to include a SASE both large enough and loaded down with enough pre-paid postage to send — wait for it — EVERYTHING enclosed back to the sender. If the SASE isn’t tucked into the packet, or if the postage is not sufficient, and if the agency is going to keep its side of the tacit agreement allowing it to read a writer’s unpublished work, it is going to have to shell out the dosh to mail the rejected manuscript back. Ditto with a query letter that arrives unaccompanied by a SASE.

The result in both cases is generally a form-letter rejection — which costs the agency not only the price of the return postage, but also an envelope and Millicent’s time to address it — or, as is increasingly popular, no response at all. Yes, even for a submission. Pages often go bye-bye, because it would be expensive for the agency to ship back the whole shebang.

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

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

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

Remember, it’s her job to reject 98% of what crosses her desk; even a very successful agent at a giant agency seldom picks up more then 5 or 6 new clients per year, even including ones poached from other agencies. (Which happens all the time, by the way. It would astonish most aspiring writers to know just how many of us agented writers are unhappy with our current representation. As I say early and often, you don’t want just any agent to represent you — you want a well-connected, fully engaged agent who loves your writing and will defend it to the death.) Every submission that disqualifies itself on technical grounds is another step toward that ongoing goal of thinning the pack of contenders.

Do you really want to volunteer your precious manuscript for that particular kamikaze mission?

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

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

If, on the other hand, the agent of your dreams does not like it, all you are doing by providing the postage is paying to get the news that they’re turning you down in a way that will make your postal carrier’s back ache, rather than via a nice, light #10 envelope. So why not just send the manuscript along with a business-size SASE, and be done with it?

Because that’s not how the industry works, that’s why. (See commentary above re: secret handshakes.)

If you’re willing to risk it, you could always include a line in the cover letter, politely asking the agency to recycle the manuscript if they decide not to offer representation and mentioning the business-sized SASE enclosed for their reply. Do be aware, however, that this strategy sometimes backfires with screeners trained to check first for a manuscript-sized SASE: it’s not unheard-of for the Millicents of the world to toss aside such a manuscript without reading the cover letter.

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

Originally, the whole paper-wasting arrangement was set up this way in order to protect writers. The logic behind this one is so pre-computer — heck, it’s pre-recycling, if you don’t count Abe Lincoln’s scrawling the Gettysburg Address on the back of a used envelope — that it’s likely to be counterintuitive to anyone querying or submitting for the first time today.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents because publishing houses still read through their slush piles, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to the advent of personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might conceivably be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), you could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz, obviously. Nor could you attach a Word document to an e-mail and send it off via Pony Express. Or even pop down to the corner copy store to run off half a dozen copies.

Equally obviously, no sane human being would entrust her only copy of a manuscript to the vagaries of the mails. So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses or agencies simultaneously?

They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page, every single syllable, every single time.

Think those hardy souls wanted to get their rejected manuscripts back? Darned tootin’. It might save them weeks of retyping time.

My long-term readers will have heard my favorite concrete example of how these returned manuscripts helped writers before, but it’s such a terrific illustration of just how much the SASE used to assist the average aspiring writer that I have no qualms about trotting it out again. Back in the far-away 1950s, my mother, Kleo, was married to Philip, a struggling science fiction writer. While she toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories.

Dozens of them. Type, type, type, week in, week out. She would come home and edit them; he would type a revised version. One or the other of them would get a good idea, and they would collaborate in writing the result: one dictating, one typing. She would take them to writing classes and the magazine editors who were already publishing her brother’s SF short stories, returning with still more feedback. Off he went to type another draft.

From scratch. Every single time either of them wanted to change a word. Hard for those of us who write on computers even to imagine, isn’t it?

As writers did in those dark days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into gray Manila envelopes with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy. (Except for the ones that Kleo hand-sold by taking to a magazine editor, which is actually how Philip got his first story published. She was, in effect, his original agent. But I digress.)

Each time a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it into the mail.

Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But Philip kept typing away, and kept as many stories in circulation at once as possible.

How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore — since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost.

(Which reminds me to nag those of you sending out manuscripts in the computer age: when was the last time you made a back-up of your manuscript? If, heaven forfend, a gigantic anvil fell from one of those anvil-toting zeppelins we’re always seeing overhead these days onto your main writing space, would it crush both your computer and your back-ups? Do you really want to be crawling about in the ashes, frantically trying to find the remnants of your hard disk?)

One day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their minuscule front porch. Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

So what did the aspiring writers of yesteryear do when faced with that many rejections on the same day? Did they toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did they rend their garments and give up writing forever? Did they poison their perfectly nice mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once?

No, they did what professional writers did back then: Philip had his wife iron the pages so they could be sent out again and resubmitted.

Lest you find the story depressing, the science fiction writer was Philip K. Dick, and one of those stories was THE MINORITY REPORT. Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.

Which only goes to show you: contrary to the common writerly fantasy/daydream/self-flagellation-after-rejection theme, even the best writers generally have to brazen through quite a bit of rejection before hitting the big time. As my mother likes to say, the only manuscript that stands NO chance of getting published is the one that sits in the bottom drawer, unseen by human eyes.

Admittedly, it was not the most comforting lullaby to have sung above one’s cradle, but she knew whereat she spoke. It’s as true today as it was six decades ago, when there were no photocopying machines, no computers, and no guarantee that the copy you sent would ever be retrievable if it went astray in some publisher’s office.

For our purposes today, the important thing to take away from this story is not the warm glow from the implied pep talk (although that’s nice, too), but the understanding that agencies don’t ask for SASEs in order to inconvenience, annoy, or impoverish aspiring writers. They do it today for precisely the same reason that they did it in the 1950s: to get your work back to you as expeditiously as possible, so you may try its fortunes elsewhere.

You’re welcome.

Also, as I mentioned last time, the practice was intended to protect the writer’s copyright. Just as an e-mailed attachment could conceivably end up, through the magic of multiple forwarding, anywhere on the planet, a loose manuscript that isn’t either in an agent or editor’s office, safely tucked away in that proverbial bottom desk drawer, or being conveyed through sleet, snow, and/or dark of night between one and the other could in fact be stolen.

I know; creepy even to consider. But think about it: is it more or less likely than something pointy falling on your house from a zeppelin?

I’ll answer that one for you: it does happen from time to time, so a savvy writer keeps very, very good track of who precisely has his manuscript when. (If this prospect tends to keep you up at night, please see the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the list at right for tips on how to protect your work.)

Three other things of which a savvy writer keeps very good track: which agents she has already queried (and with what unsolicited-but-permitted extra materials), which already-queried agents have requested materials (and what they requested; every agency asks for the submission packet to contain different components), and which agents are still waiting for her to send them those materials. If an aspiring writer is querying and/or submitting to multiple agents at once — and she should, unless the agent of her dreams has a no simultaneous submissions policy — she had better maintain excellent records; otherwise, it’s just too easy to mix things up.

Or not to know where to send Query #18 when the first 17 SASEs turn up in her mailbox. Or her inbox.

Speaking of minding the details, a savvy writer also takes care when applies postage to her SASE. Let’s take a gander at what postage-related fears were keeping intrepid reader Rachel up at night:

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

I explained my situation to them and the clerks suggested just using a priority stamp (and the same shipping box), because if a SASE were expected, then stamps are really the only way to go. Is that how they’re doing it now?

Good question, Rachel. Before I answer it, let’s clarify the situation by reiterating the difference between a query packet’s SASE (a missive containing the query letter + any unsolicited materials an agency’s website said were permissible to send with it) and one tucked into a submission (requested materials).

When sending a query, SASE use is pretty straightforward: the writer takes a second envelope, writes his own address on it, adds appropriate postage, folds it, and stuffs it — neatly, please, as becomes a Sanitary Author — into the query envelope. (Oh, like you’ve been able to get the SA out of your mind since yesterday’s post.)

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

Don’t worry; I shall be devoting some of our collective time in the week to come to explaining how to handle a request for a partial. I wouldn’t leave you hanging.

SASE-wrangling becomes a bit trickier if you’ve been asked to send the entire manuscript, because that generally entails using a box. (For a detailed explanation of what types of box should and shouldn’t be used, complete with glamorous photographs of cardboard in its various manifestations, again, tune in tomorrow.)

Obviously, it’s going to be unwieldy to stuff a second box inside the first, so it’s completely acceptable just to include a self-addressed mailing label and postage. Be sure to mention both in your cover letter, so they won’t get lost on the agency end. (Again, don’t panic: I’ll be talking about how to pull off including such necessary-but-prosaic details gracefully early next week.

If you have already submitted a partial, and then the agent asks for the whole manuscript, don’t just send the rest of the pages: by the time they arrive, Millicent probably will not have a clear enough recollection of the partial just to pick up the story where your initial submission left off. (Heck, by then, Millicent may already have moved on to pastures new; the turnover amongst screeners can be pretty remarkable.) Send the entire manuscript, in the aforementioned box.

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

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

But let’s get back to the crux of Rachel’s question: has the post-9/11 alteration in post office policy altered what agencies expect to see on a SASE?

The last decade has indeed seen some changes in how agencies handle packages, but actually, most of them date from before 9/11, back to the anthrax scare. Before that, virtually no agency accepted electronic submissions. A few scary mailings later, and suddenly, agencies all over New York were opening e-mail accounts. Hey, they may not pay their Millicents much, but the average agency certainly doesn’t want its screeners to get sick from opening a poisoned query envelope.

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

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, most agencies have policies forbidding e-queriers from sending unsolicited materials as attachments. Too much risk of computer contamination. Instead, they will usually ask queriers to copy any permissible additional materials and paste them into the body of an e-mail.

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

Or not; since the USPS changed its regulations in this respect, many agencies have side-stepped the return mail problem by ceasing to return submitted manuscripts to their writers at all. (Sensing a pattern here?) Check policies before you submit.

Interestingly, agencies that operate this way virtually always still expect submitters to include SASEs with their submissions. Go figure. The moral: unless you are querying or submitting electronically OR an agency specifically says it doesn’t use SASEs, you should always include one.

And always use actual stamps, rather than metered postage. It’s called a STAMPED, self-addressed envelope for a reason, you know. The goal here is not merely convenience in mailing, but the submitter’s paying for his own manuscript’s return. Regardless of whether that means tossing it into the nearest mailbox (which would still be possible for most partial manuscripts) or assigning Millicent to do it, stamps have always served the purpose best.

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

Buying a more expensive stamp or a cheaper one to affix to the SASE is entirely up to the writer; coughing up the dosh for speedier return is not going to impress Millicent. Like overnighting requested materials vs. sending them regular mail, whether a submitter elects to pay a shipper extra money to convey a manuscript from point A to point B is generally a matter of complete indifference to the agent receiving it, as long as it gets there in one piece.

(“And looking pretty,” adds the Sanitary Author. “None of those pesky wrinkles. Print your manuscript on nice, bright-white, 20-pound paper while you’re at it, please. It’s aesthetically more pleasing than the cheap stuff.”)

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

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

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

Nicely stamping your SASE and other Millicent-pleasing habits of the Sanitary Author

sanitary-author

Why, yes, now that you mention it, long-time Author! Author! habitués, I have used this photograph before. Several times, in fact: it’s one of my favorites, for reasons I shall discuss below. Although, really, does cultivating and maintaining an affection for the mythical Sanitary Author require much defense?

Before I launch into that very defense, however, I have some good news to announce about a member of our little community: Austin Gary’s novel, Miss Madeira has just come out in paperback and as an e-book. Congratulations, Austin!

If Austin’s name sounds familiar, it should: he was one of the literary fiction winners in the Author! Author! Rings True Competition earlier this year, albeit for another work. Nor his he a stranger to award winning: under the name Gary Heyde, he is also a BMI award-winning songwriter, with recordings by Tammy Wynette, John Berry, and Jeff Carson.

Miss Madeira was semi-finalist in the 2009 Faulkner-Wisdom fiction competition. Here’s the blurb:

Brilliant teacher Amelia Madeira is torn between her love for the woman who will eventually become her sister-in-law and a gifted male student. Despite producing several generations of students forever known as Madeira’s Kids, gossip begins to grow like apples on a poison tree. As anyone with an intimate knowledge of the workings of small-town America knows, episodic memory is the bailiwick of barbershops, beauty shops, and pool halls.

Keep that good news rolling in, folks. Celebrating our fellow writers’ triumphs substantially eases the long and curvy road to publication.

Back to business. Since I’m aware that many of you are rushing about madly, pulling together flotillas of post-Labor Day queries and submissions, I thought it would be a good time to devote a few days to how query and submission packets should be put together.

Yes, yes, I know: not the sexiest of topics, but lest we forget, Millicent the agency screener is charged not only with assessing the aptness of a queried or submitted manuscript for her agency’s representation list; she’s also going to be drawing some conclusions from the packets about the querier or submitter’s professionalism. Why is that relevant, you ask? Because a writer who has taken the time to learn how the publishing industry expects to see writing presented is going to be less energy-consuming to represent.

Before anyone bristles at the idea that an agency — not a non-profit entity, usually — might consider non-literary factors such as the ability to present writing professionally when weighing the pros and cons of picking up a particular writer, let me recommend that those of you who feel strongly on the subject have a spirited discussion about it in the comments. My goal here is not to judge how agencies operate, but to help good writers navigate the often opaque and counterintuitive querying and submission process.

For the next few days, then, I am going to be talking in minute detail about how to put together professional-looking query and submission packets. To lead gently into that noble endeavor, let us pause and consider the mystery of the Sanitary Author.

I’m not much given to double-takes, campers, but I must admit, I did a lulu when I spotted this sign standing by the side of a two-lane highway in unincorporated Neskowin, Oregon. To the casual observer, Neskowin is a blink-and-you-miss-it collection of buildings, but to the observant passerby, it is fraught with enigma. Among its mysteries: according to its ostensibly unofficial municipal website (last updated, apparently, in 2008) Neskowin’s population is a sparse 170, a human density that renders the two golf courses located there, well, surprising.

Who is playing golf in such high numbers that a lone course wasn’t deemed sufficient for local needs? Bears? Sea lions? Migratory Scots with an affection for Pacific Rim cuisine?

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

Not, obviously, as high as videos, coffee, or ice cream, but let’s face it, it’s more recognition than most authors get.

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

And I don’t want to alarm anybody, but should we be worried about all of the unsanitary authors running around out there? The mind positively reels at the vast array of germs Millicent could conceivably pick up from their query and submission packets.

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

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

So the mystery continues. I shall make a valiant effort to wrest my mind away from the Sanitary Author and concentrate on the matter at hand: queries and the things that accompany them.

Oh, it’s no use: the image is burned into my brainpan. A psychologist friend of mine once told me that recent research demonstrates that the brain can respond as dramatically to recalled memories as to present life; sometimes, she says, the mind will experience flashbacks as current events. I’m fascinated by this, not only as a memoirist (and yes, the memoir that was supposed to come out a few years ago is still tied up in legal knots; thanks for asking), but as a novelist.

The writer’s descent into a creative trance is one of the least-understood of human phenomena, isn’t it? Don’t know what I’m talking about? Ask your kith and kin what you’re like during periods of intensive writing.

Personally, when I’m in mid-chapter, I have been known to lose my sense of the passage of time. If my cats didn’t remind me occasionally that they do not possess opposable thumbs or the ability to open cabinets (well, okay, most cabinets), they would probably be forced to start nibbling on my toes under my desk to stave off imminent starvation.

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

You may be unusually good at jumping back and forth between the creative and observational parts of your brain, but if you’re writing on a regular basis, I’m betting that those who have the good fortune to live and work with you have built up a stockpile of anecdotes about how you space out on the minutiae of quotidian life when you’re writing hard. Or — and I honestly am getting around to the point of today’s post again — when you are embroiled in sending out the aforementioned flotilla of queries.

Oh, you thought you were the only one who spaced out? Far from it. Little things like laundry, taking vitamins, watering plants, and checking e-mail seem to slip unnoticed out of the working writers’ consciousness in the middle of a querying binge or writing jag — and don’t even get me started on how the amnesia about practicalities can intensify in the face of an imminent deadline or, heaven help us, immediately after an agent asks to see a partial or full manuscript.

I suspect that this checking out from the everyday world is a necessary side effect of the alchemy of creation. Because, really, in order to render our characters’ lifeworlds gripping on the page, we writers have to create them in our minds every bit as vividly and in all of the detail of a vitally important memory. That’s a pretty absorbing task, isn’t it?

With a pretty gratifying payoff, potentially: if we do our job very well indeed, we might create a story, a situation, a character that seems to the reader to have stepped straight out of real life. Only better.

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

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

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

Do I sense those of you who intended to get queries and/or submissions out the door now that the annual post-Labor Day return of the publishing world to New York has arrived becoming a bit restless in the face of these musings? “I’m as fond of the creative haze as anyone else,” I hear some of you stalwart souls say, “but right now, most of my writing time is getting eaten up by the process of trying to find an agent. So if you don’t mind my asking, what does any of this have to do with the very practical marketing concerns we’ve spent much of the summer discussing?”

A couple of things, actually. First, in the throes of agent-seeking, it can be pretty easy to forget that query-screeners like Millicent actually are looking to fall in love with some writer’s work.

The querying hurdle is, at least in principle, set in place to maximize the probability of discovering the next Great American Novel — or memoir, or nonfiction book — by freeing agency staff from the necessity of reading pages from every ambitious soul currently writing in English. That way, the theory goes, Millicent can concentrate on deciding amongst the crème de la crème.

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

Set those to music, and you’ve got a pop song. (Perhaps Austin could do something with it.) As hard as it may be to believe, Millicent is waiting to be swept off her feet.

Which is why, in case any of you have been wondering, I tend to discuss querying and submission in romantic terms: the query letter is a personal ad for your book; you want attract not just any agent, but the one that’s the best match for you and your work; the first page needs to seduce Millicent into wanting to read on; the chemistry between an agent and a book matters deeply. Ditto between a book and an editor.

So in addition to everything else we writers are trying to create, our writing also need to inspire love.

The interminable and annoying querying/submission process sounds substantially nobler put that way, doesn’t it? Feel free to use this argument the next time some non-writer gapes at the amount of time you’ve invested in trying to land an agent; generating love can take some time.

My second reason for bringing up this high-falutin’ topic is, I’m afraid, disappointingly prosaic. I meant to begin this post by talking about SASEs (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelopes), and I seem to have gotten sidetracked.

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

Or perhaps I zoned out because, let’s face it, SASEs are not the most thrilling of topics. But they are absolutely vital to discuss, because a mailed query or submission unaccompanied by a SASE will get rejected automatically at virtually every U.S. agency. Almost invariably without being read.

Pause to ponder the implications, please: if Millicent doesn’t read your query, it’s literally impossible for her to decide to request your manuscript, and therefore impossible for her to fall in love with your writing. Which, in turn, renders it impossible for her boss, the agent, to fall in love with your writing, for the agent to convince an editor to fall in love with your writing, for the editor to convince an editorial committee to fall in love with your writing, and for the publishing house’s marketing department to convince readers to fall in love with your writing.

So omitting the SASE isn’t just a technical gaffe; it’s the catalyst in a tragic tale of lost love.

That’s the writer’s opportunity cost of neglecting to include a SASE in a query packet, but there are costs on the agency end as well. Think about it: having the SASE arrive in the same envelope with the query means that Millicent can grab either a form-letter rejection or please-send-us-pages note (oh, didn’t you realize that both were boilerplates?) the very instant after she makes up her mind which is appropriate.

It takes very little time, and the writers themselves are providing the resources for their own rejection. What’s not for the agency to like?

In fact, they like it so much that that most agencies have standing policies against accepting SASE-free queries at all. Providing an envelope and a stamp to reject a single forgetful writer may seem like a negligible expense — but multiply it by the 800-1500 queries the average agency receives every week, and we’re talking about a considerable investment in writers whose work they have already decided not to represent.

So if you didn’t hear back on that last raft of queries — you know, the ones where you glibly told Millicent to contact you via e-mail if she wanted to see pages — that’s probably why.

Yes, in answer to what half of you just thought so loudly, answering your mailed query via e-mail would have been costly for the agency, too, although obviously, not as costly as hauling an envelope from the supply cabinet and donating a stamp to your ongoing quest to be published. The Millicent charged with opening all of those envelopes and scanning the paper queries would have to stop what she was doing, carry your query — and only yours — to a computer, open the agency’s e-mail server, type a rejection (which would probably be identical to the form letter she’s been stuffing in SASEs all day), hit SEND, then head back to that waist-high pile of queries that came in last week.

Multiply that effort by every querier who thinks he’s being clever, considerate, and/or paper-saving by making a cavalier suggestion to contact him by e-mail, and it would add up to a lot of unnecessarily expended energy over the course of a year. Far, far cheaper for the agency just to tell its Millicents to toss any query unaccompanied by a SASE into the recycling bin.

Although if she does decide to ask for pages, she will probably let you know via e-mail, rather than by sending a reply in the SASE you so thoughtfully provided. I like to think of this as the SASE Utility Paradox: the rejected writer must pay for the postage and envelope that carry the bad news; the accepted writer must offer the stamp and envelope as a sacrifice to the gods of querying.

Either way, you’re going to be buying some envelopes and stamps. (Don’t forget to keep receipts; if you file a Schedule C for your writing business, you may be able to deduct these costs as promotional expenses. Talk to a tax expert with experience handling writers’ returns — which I am not –before you deduct anything, however, because the IRS rules governing writers are, I am told, both strange and different than those applicable to other kinds of artist.)

Believe it or not, part of the SASE’s original purpose was not just to save agencies the cost of postage, but to render the querying and submission processes cheaper for the writer: it was substantially less expensive than if the agencies sent back manuscripts with postage due. (Which used to be the alternative, by the way.) It was also intended to preserve copyright by allowing the writer ostensible control about whose grimy paws were on the manuscript when.

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

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, writing posted online is technically published. It makes it easier for writers to prove that they were the original authors of their online work.

The control-who-reads-it doctrine still governs how agencies operate. When you send previously unpublished material off to an agency — to a credible one, anyway — you are operating on the tacit assumption that no one on the other end will reproduce your writing without your permission. You are not, in effect, authorizing them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so.

(Which means, by the way, that you should be very wary of an agent who implies, as some have been known to do in order to edge out the competition, that she has already shown submitted materials to an editor as an inducement for you to sign with her. Technically, she cannot market your writing to anyone until you give her explicit permission to do so — but a writer who has just won a literary contest and is juggling manuscript requests from several agents might not be aware of that.)

When you send a SASE with a submission, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys an expectation that if the agency rejects it, they will mail the pages back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 18th, 19th, and 20th installments in the Harry Potter series.

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

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

For example, the anthrax scare convinced some agencies to accept e-mailed queries and submissions; prior to that, virtually none of them did. (Some still don’t; double-check before you press SEND.) And the post 9/11 requirement to tote heavy packages to the post office prompted some agencies to start recycling rejected manuscripts, rather than having the lowest intern on the totem pole wheel a paper-loaded dolly up out of the building.

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

As satisfying as that may be to contemplate, allow me to suggest that it might not be the best way to convince Millicent of your Socratic intellect, encyclopedic knowledge of how publishing works, and lamb-like willingness to take direction. So while my long-standing affection for writers, trees, and the printed pages both work to produce would love to be able to say dispense with the SASE, it would not be in your best interest to fling away the old norms.

I feel as though I should go off and plant a tree now. Or perhaps reread MADAME BOVARY. Instead, I’m going to be intensely practical for a few moments and tell you precisely how to play the SASE game correctly.

When you send a paper query (as opposed to the e-mail variety), tuck a stamped (not metered) envelope addressed to yourself into the envelope. Do this every time, regardless of whether the agency you’re querying actually asks for a SASE on its website or in its blurb in the standard agency guides. It’s expected, whether they say so or not.

If you are sending more than 4 pages of text along with your query — if the agent asked for an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis — make sure that the postage on your query’s SASE is sufficient to get all of those pages back to you. A #10 (business-size) envelope is the norm to accompany queries, and stamps are universally preferred over metered postage.

Since the agency will be popping the returned materials into the nearest mailbox, the stamps you use should be those currently in use in the AGENCY’s country of residence, not yours. This means that if you are submitting to a US-based agency or publishing house from outside the country, you will need to dig up some US stamps. Since foreign post offices often sell these at a considerable mark-up, you can save a lot of money if you buy the stamps directly from the US Postal Service online.

When you send requested materials via mail (again, as opposed to e-mail submissions), include in your submission packet an envelope or box addressed to yourself, along with sufficient postage for the safe return of EVERYTHING you have submitted. (If you want to be really considerate, you may also include a #10 SASE, so the agent may contact you to ask for more pages. This isn’t really necessary, though: in the age of e-mail and relatively inexpensive long-distance calling, that particular request is unlikely to come via regular mail.)

Again, do this every time, regardless of whether the agency (or publishing house) to whom you are submitting has actually asked for a SASE. Omit it only if the agency specifically asks in its guidelines that you not include it. (I know of only one agency that currently makes this request; need I remind you to read each and every agency’s submission guidelines, in case they differ?)

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

You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude.

Relax, those of you who just clutched your chests: I’ll be talking about how to put together a cover letter for a submission packet as soon as I polish off this series on SASEs. Who knew there were so many different things that needed to go into a submission packet, eh?

Next time, we’ll delve a bit deeper into the practicalities of the e-mailed query, as well as the ins and outs of submission. You wouldn’t want to be caught unprepared if your query is successful, would you?

In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the Sanitary Author. You wouldn’t want to miss him/her/it, would you? Keep up the good work!

Raising Your Voice in Your Memoir, by guest blogger Bob Tarte

Had you noticed that I had abruptly stopped giving you homework, campers? That’s not entirely coincidental: I figure that you already have distractions enough. I’m quite certain that many, if not most, of the Author! Author! community is spending this long holiday weekend (a) prepping queries to send out after Labor Day, (b) prepping requested materials to send out after Labor Day, (c) writing something fabulous and fresh, (d) revising an existing manuscript so it becomes fabulous and fresh, and/or (e) thinking, “Gee, I really ought to be doing (a) (b), (c), and/or (d) today, but the barbecue is already fired up.”

In order to amuse, enlighten, and inform those of you who are tuning in this weekend, I have blandished some very fine authors into sharing a little just-amongst-us literary advice. Yesterday, we talked about fiction. Today, we’re going to concentrate up memoir.

And not just the oft-discussed conundrum how to work up the nerve to be completely transparent on the page — no mean feat in itself — but a burning topic that I do not believe is discussed nearly enough amongst writers: narrative voice in memoir.

To succeed in grabbing the reader, a memoir’s narrative voice must also be a likable and lyrical — wait for it — narrative voice.

Was that loud BOING that just reverberated around the cosmos the sound of memoirists’ jaws bouncing off the floor? I’m not entirely astonished: in the throes of the hugely challenging task of writing one’s own life, the emotional strain of reliving events vividly enough to write about them well can easily trump the imperative to craft lovely sentences. Or even to depict yourself and your environs juicily enough for a reader to long to follow you through 300+ pages.

Let’s face it, there’s more to composing compelling memoir than having had an interesting life and being able to make it sound interesting on the page. There’s even more to it than sounding like yourself.

In order to tackle this recalcitrant problem, I tracked down one of my all-time favorite memoirists, the inimitable and hilarious Bob Tarte, author of the brilliant pet memoirs ENSLAVED BY DUCKS and FOWL WEATHER, and lobbied shamelessly for him to share his insights with the Author! Author! community. Page for page, Bob has one of the strongest memoir voices I’ve ever seen: humorous, honest, and absolutely original.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: anyone seriously interested in writing humorous memoir should take a gander (so to speak) at his seemingly effortless wit. In case those of you who are not comedy writers are wondering why: there’s nothing more difficult than appearing to be spontaneously funny; it takes careful, meticulous craft.

A great comic premise isn’t a bad idea, either. Here’s the publisher’s blurb for ENSLAVED BY DUCKS:

enslavedbyducksjacketEnslaved By Ducks
How One Man Went from Head of the Household to Bottom of the Pecking Order

When Bob Tarte left the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan for the country, he was thinking peace and quiet. He’d write his music reviews in the solitude of his rural home on the outskirts of everything.

Then he married Linda. She wanted a rabbit. How much trouble, he thought, could a bunny be?

Well, after the bunny chewed his way through the electrical wires and then hid inside the wall, Bob realized that he had been outwitted. But that was just the beginning. There were parrots, more rabbits, then ducks and African geese. The orphaned turkeys stranded on a nearby road. The abandoned starlings. The sad duck for sale for 25 cents.

Bob suddenly found himself constructing pens, cages, barriers, buying feed, clearing duck waste, spoonfeeding at mealtime. One day he realized that he no longer had a life of quiet serenity, but that he’d become a servant to a relentlessly demanding family: Stanley Sue, a gender-switching African grey parrot; Hector, a cantankerous shoulder-sitting Muscovy duck; Howard, an amorous ring-neck dove; and a motley crew of others. Somehow, against every instinct in him, Bob had unwittingly become their slave.

He read all the classic animal books — The Parrot Who Owns Me, The Dog who Rescues Cats, Arnie the Darling Starling, That Quail Robert, The Cat Who Came for Christmas — about the joys of animals, the touching moments. But none revealed what it was really like to live with an unruly menagerie.

Bob Tarte’s witty account reveals the truth of animal ownership: who really owns who, the complicated logistics of accommodating many species under one roof, the intricate routines that evolve, and ultimately, the distinct and insistent personalities of every animal in the house – and on its perimeter. Writing as someone who’s been ambushed by the way in which animals — even cranky ones — can wend their way into one’s heart, Bob Tarte is James Herriott by way of Bill Bryson.

Nor does Bob’s comic genius stop there. FOWL WEATHER was one of NPR’s Nancy Pearl’s Under-the-Radar Books for January 2008. Quoth Dame Nancy: “If you’re longing for a book that will make you laugh out loud, then run, don’t walk, to the nearest library or bookstore and pick up a copy of Bob Tarte’s Fowl Weather.”

Before you lose yourself in daydreaming about receiving a review like that, cast your eyes over the blurb:

fowlweatherjacketFowl Weather
How Thirty-Nine Animals and a Sock Monkey Took Over My Life

Bob Tarte’s second book, Fowl Weather, returns us to the Michigan house where pandemonium is the governing principle, and where 39 animals rule the roost. But as things seem to spiral out of control, as his parents age and his mother’s grasp on reality loosens as she battles Alzheimer’s disease, Bob unexpectedly finds support from the gaggle of animals around him. They provide, in their irrational fashion, models for how to live.

It is their alien presences, their sense of humor, and their unpredictable behaviors that both drive Bob crazy and paradoxically return him to sanity. Whether it’s the knot-tying African grey parrot, the overweight cat who’s trained Bob to hold her water bowl just above the floor, or the duck who bests Bob in a shoving match, this is the menagerie, along with his endlessly optimistic wife Linda, that teaches him about the chaos that’s a necessary part of life.

No less demanding than the animals are the people who torment Bob and Linda. There’s the master gardener who steps on plants, the pet sitter applicant who never met an animal he didn’t want to butcher, and a woman Bob hasn’t seen since elementary school who suddenly butts into his life.

With the same biting humor and ability to capture the soul of the animal world that made Enslaved by Ducks such a rousing success, Bob Tarte shows us that life with animals gives us a way out of our small human perspectives to glimpse something larger, more enduring, and more wholly grounded in the simplicities of love — even across species lines.

So the man knows whereat he speaks, memoir-wise. Those of you even considering setting pen to paper to write about the real should pull up a chair and take good notes.

Join me, please, in a big round of applause for today’s guest blogger, Bob Tarte. Take it away, Bob!

You’re probably itching to get started writing your memoir, to sit down with your notes and let the story flow. But before you flow too far, you might want to tighten the tap as you think about refining one of the most important aspects of your writing. And that’s your narrative voice. Check with agents and publishers, and you’ll discover that a unique voice is at the top of their must-have list when they’re looking for new authors.

Voice can be a slippery, elusive element to grab hold of. But if you’ve got good material for your memoir and a strong point of view, you’re probably most of the way there. It’s tempting to use the same voice in your memoir that you’ve been using in your emails, blog, or journal. But don’t just automatically do that. Although your first-person narrator stands at the center of your story, it’s really just another character that needs to be developed. And you need to develop it to a knife’s edge.

The “I” who tells your story is supposed to be you. But it isn’t you exactly. It’s both more and less than that.

In my three pet memoirs, Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather, and Kitty Cornered (which I promise to only mention a dozen more times), my voice isn’t like the real Bob Tarte at all. The voice in my books is whiny, complaining, self-effacing, and funny. And the real Bob isn’t particularly funny. I’m mostly just droopy.

But if I put that droopiness into a book, it wouldn’t even sell to other droopy people. So I’ve gone with the humor angle instead, and it seems to do the trick. I’m never quite sure if I’m a greater or lesser fool than the “I” who inhabits my memoirs, though I suspect the truth.

The important thing is to sculpt a voice that is indisputably in charge of your narrative. And why shouldn’t it be? If you’re not an authority about your own life, nobody is. You just need to pick a personality that convinces your readers of this fact.

Which “I” Are You, Anyway?
There’s another problem with using a voice that supposedly reflects who you really are. Who are you? Are you just one “I”? Or are you a bunch of little “Is” that weave in and out of dominance throughout the day?

I often start my morning with a good case of the jitters due to existential angst. Later I might get crabby. Neither of these is the basis for an appealing voice. But if I refuse to write until an ecstatic mood seizes me, I’m going to have to wait until fall or spring when the warblers migrate through our woods. And that leaves a lot of dead space in between.

What’s a memoirist to do? You need to do what I did, which is to create an artificial intelligence that stands in for you, an I, Robot narrative contraption that will do your bidding and tell your story better than a swarm of little “Is” ever could. Harness those elements of your personality that can tell your story in the strongest and most engaging manner, and leave the other bits and pieces on the floor.

Did I mention that the voice needs to be engaging? Early this year, a woman sent me the manuscript for a memoir about her collie. She had a definite flair for writing and she had entertaining anecdotes about her dog. But her voice rarely shifted out of hysteria as it wrenched her narrative from one crisis to another with never an intervening moment of quiet. And on nearly every page, the voice shouted something IN ALL CAPS.

When I suggested that her approach was too exhausting and too repetitive, she told me, “But that’s exactly how it all happened.”

I didn’t believe it. But I didn’t blame her. I blamed her voice instead.

Voice Determines Content, Too
If she had chosen a different voice, she would have told her story differently. In her e-mails, she told me how much she loved her collie now that the dog was older and calmer. But in her manuscript she used a voice that was continually caught up in each fresh moment of disaster rather than the voice of experience that reflected who she was now. That more mature voice could have supplied the balance that her story needed not only by changing the tone in which it described events, but also by choosing which events to include and which ones to leave out.

Our elderly cat Moobie passed away while I was writing Kitty Cornered. The voice that I had used in Enslaved by Ducks or Fowl Weather might have worked Moobie’s loss into my book. But the voice of Kitty Cornereddidn’t want anything to do with death. It wanted to keep the story light and funny. So instead of seeing Moobie through her inevitable decline in the book, I ended the tale while she still lolled upon the bed with flashes of kitten-like behavior.

Nobody will notice what I left out, because that’s the coolest thing of all about narrative voice. It’s both transparent and opaque at the same time. It’s a guy who stands holding a pane of glass. Most of the time, you look straight through the glass at the action and get caught up in it without even noticing that the guy is there. From time to time he shifts his body. A cuff or a finger get in the way as he points at something happening through the glass, but you don’t mind the intrusion, because he’s showing you something interesting. He’s kind of a magician. And he’s a lot like you.

The ideal voice might not come to you immediately. It always takes me a while to find it. Sometimes I have to write 50 pages while my voice and material dance with one other before they finally make a connection. It’s frustrating because I don’t know how to tell my story until I discover my “I,” but I can’t discover my “I” without writing. So I just have to wait it out.

And speaking of waiting, I thank you for your patience as I flounder around trying to get these simple ideas across. Part of the problem is that I don’t think I’ve ever quite found my voice here. And I wouldn’t, because I’m writing about writing instead of writing about my life with cats, ducks, parrots, or geese.

Bob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell. When not fending off mosquitoes during temperate months and chipping ice out of plastic wading pools in the depths of winter, Bob writes books about his pets, namely Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather. In April 2012, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill will publish Bob’s new book, Kitty Cornered How Frannie and Five Other Incorrigible Cats Seized Control of Our House and Made It Their Home.

Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton has taken on an option on the dramatic rights to Enslaved by Ducks. and Fowl Weather was selected as an “Under The Radar” book for 2008 by Nancy Pearl on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Bob wrote the Technobeat world music review column for The Beat magazine from 1989 to 2009. He has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Miami New Times newspapers.

Bob also hosts a podcast for PetLifeRadio.com called What Were You Thinking? that’s supposedly about “exotic pets” as a general topic, but the show just as often turns into a chronicle of life with his own troublesome critters.

Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, a rabbit, doves, cats, and hens. They also raise and release orphan songbirds (including woodpeckers) for the Wildlife Rehab Center, Ltd. in Grand Rapids and have the scars to prove it.

Bob Tarte’s website includes photos of Bob, Linda, and the animals, information about Bob’s books, links to Bob’s music review website and pet podcast, Bob’s email address, and several videos of Bob and his animals.

fowlweatherjacket-4enslavedbyducksjacket-4fowlweatherjacket-4enslavedbyducksjacket-4fowlweatherjacket-4enslavedbyducksjacket-4

Fear of revision, by guest blogger Julie Wu — and a contest!

After spending so many weeks talking about the ins and outs of book pitching, as wells as devoting a significant portion of yesterday’s post on the soul-satisfying and practical virtues of making friends with other writers, I’ve decided to put my proverbial money where my metaphorical mouth is. The world needs more good examples of conference pitches, and let’s face it, what aspiring writer could not use more Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (or ECQLC, as we like to call it around here)?

For the first time ever, Author! Author! will be holding a pitching contest. The rules follow below.

As if that weren’t sufficient reason for the masses to rejoice — heck, take a long weekend out of petty cash — I have treat for us all, as a reward for having had the moxie and perseverance to work so diligently through the Pitchingpalooza series. Today, I have the great pleasure of bringing you the kind of guest post I love to share, one that I think will be a true inspiration to writers everywhere.

I am delighted to introduce Author! Author! to Julie Wu, a literary fiction author whose lyrical first book, THE THIRD SON, will be coming out from Algonquin Books in the autumn of 2012, a triumph she talks about in this interesting interview on Book Architecture. If her name sounds familiar to those of you who have been hanging around here at Author! Author! for a while, there’s a good reason: back in April, I rhapsodized about a wonderful essay on rejection and literary success that she had just published. It’s rare that published authors are as forthcoming — or as honest — about the difficulties of getting into print. I highly recommend its perusal.

She’s also, in the interests of full disclosure, the college roommate I mentioned yesterday, the one whose initial book sale made my month. I’ve known Julie since I was 17, when this California girl dragged a 60-pound suitcase up three flights of stairs in Harvard Yard to meet the three East Coasters to whom I had (I assumed) been randomly assigned as a roommate. I had never been to New England before; she was kind enough to fill me in on Massachusetts ways. (The leaves change? Really? Why?) She introduced me to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, a phenomenon my upbringing had previously neglected to reveal to me; we used to make it in the dead of night before midterms in the electric wok my mother had for some reason decided was absolutely indispensible to dorm life. She also probably saved my life by instructing me on the delicate art of crossing Massachusetts Avenue on foot without being flattened like a pancake.

The local joke at the time was that Cambridge traffic tended to separate Harvard students into two categories: the quick and the dead.

In fact, she was the person who calmed me down when it first occurred to me that brick buildings covered in ivy would not be a particularly safe place to be if the region were hit by the earthquakes my West Coast-trained body had come to expect. (That line was funnier a month ago, when I originally wrote it, by the way. It just goes to show you: a writer can never predict what’s going to seem dated by the time it hits print.)

It became apparent pretty quickly, in short, that it hadn’t been a random assignment; it couldn’t have been. Otherwise, what would be the chances that two of the four residents of Wigglesworth B-32 would both grow up to be authors? Or that a third roommate would have spent the summer before college working as a Millicent at a publishing house then, as now, renowned for literary fiction?

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. At the time, Harvard’s freshman housing questionnaire was significantly longer than the application to get in, and certainly more detailed.

So I had plenty of reasons to rejoice when I learned that Julie had sold her first novel — and frankly, I think readers of interesting literary fiction will be pretty pleased next fall, too. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

The Third Son, set in the oppressive political and social climate of World War II Taiwan, is about a Taiwanese boy whose only happy childhood memory is of meeting and saving a kind girl in an air raid. When he finds this girl, grown up and at his oldest brother’s side, he fights to claim her, and to prove that he is worthy of her. His journey takes him to 1950′s America and the Space Race, but even across the world he struggles against the bonds of oppression that have followed him.

Sounds fascinating, eh? Sounds, in fact, like precisely the kind of substantive, serious novel aspiring writers are constantly being told at conferences has gone the way of the dodo. I’m really looking forward to Julie’s proving that never-particularly-true truism wrong.

She also, like me, is a great believer in writers helping one another down the long and curvy path to publication. So psst, Boston-area novelists: Julie will be teaching a class on scene structure and revision at Grub Street on September 14. It looks really yummy:

Raising the Titanic: Giving Power to Weak Novel Scenes

Wednesday, September 14th, 6:30-9:30pm, at Grub Street headquarters.

Drafts of many novels contain scenes that sink the book. They are flat, meandering, tangential, or just plain boring. Attempts to spruce up the prose or dialogue may not fix such scenes because they lack crucial structural elements. Don’t waste time rearranging deck chairs! In this seminar you will bring a troublesome scene from your novel and we will discuss not only how to give your scene internal propulsion, but also how to nail your scene to the novel’s central story arc and drive it forward. Land, ho!

I’m a huge fan of seminars where writer work on their own early drafts, rather than composing fresh material in class. Oh, the latter can be very useful, especially when a writer is first starting out, but few of us were actually born knowing the internal mechanics of a scene, anymore than we toddled into kindergarten already familiar with the strictures of standard format.

Okay, so I did,. Perhaps that’s why the Harvard Housing Office saw fit to make me Julie’s freshman roommate.

My point, should you care to know it, is that out of the literally thousands of classes out there aimed at aspiring writers, relatively few seem to be focused upon the all-important art of revision. I find that strange, not only as an editor, but as a writer: no one’s first drafts are perfect. There’s a monumental difference between writing that matches the image in the writer’s head and writing that successfully transmits that image to the reader.

Wow, that would be a fabulous segue into Julie’s guest blog; I should have planned it that way. (See what I mean about how first drafts are not necessarily perfect the moment they fall off one’s fingertips?) But I promised you a contest, and a contest you shall have.

In the fine tradition of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence (and as part of my ongoing quest to provide good writers with much-needed ECQLC), I am proud to announce:

Author! Author! Perfect Pitch Competition of 2011

In order to celebrate the end of Pitchingpalooza and encourage the practical application of the skills learned and polished there, Author! Author! is calling upon its talented readers to enter pitches for their books into healthy competition. Winners will not only receive fabulous prizes (see below), but will have their pitches, the first page of their manuscripts, and an author photo featured in a post here at Author! Author! for all the world to see and admire.

Sound good? Wait, it gets better. To make the experience more interesting for onlookers, pitchers may present their fabulous premises in three distinct categories:

Category I: The keynote or Hollywood hook, a one-sentence teaser for your book

Category II: The elevator speech, a 100-word or less presentation of your book’s premise and central conflict

Category III: The formal 2-minute pitch, a 250-word introduction of your protagonist, the central conflict, and what’s at stake in your story OR the problem that your nonfiction book addresses

All entries must be submitted via e-mail to contest@annemini(dot)com by Friday, September 30, at midnight in your time zone. Late entries will not be considered.

Entrants may enter more than one category. Please submit each entry in a separate e-mail, in accordance with the rules below.

The grand prize winner in each category will receive a half-hour Mini Consult on his or her query, synopsis, and first 10 pages, as well as having the winning entry, the first page, and an author photo posted on Author! Author! Runners-up will see their entries, first pages, and photos posted and critiqued as well, as vivid examples of how good a pitch can be when it is done right.

Because winners will also be awarded life-long bragging rights and coveted ECQLC , the judges reserve the right to award as many (or as few) prizes as the quality of the entry pool warrants. Awards are purely up to the discretion of the judging panel.

Those are the general rules. Here are the specific steps required to win. Do read them all carefully, as I am anticipating vigorous competition.

1. Polish your pitch to a high gloss and save it as a Word document.
Only .doc entries in Word will be accepted — not TextEdit, PDF, or any other formats, please. Please title the Word file with either your name or the title of your book, not just as contest entry. (The last time I ran a contest like this, I received 37 with that file name.)

2. Make sure that the entry is properly formatted.
All entries must be in standard format for book manuscripts. No exceptions, I’m afraid. If it is not double-spaced, in 12-point type, and featuring a slug line with your name and the book’s title at the top of the page, the judges will not consider it.

3. On a separate page of the same Word document, write the book’s title, the book category, and a BRIEF (
In other words, what is fresh about your book? (Hint: this question will be significantly easier to answer if you mention what your book category of choice is.) Please be as specific as you can about what is new and different about your book. Vague claims of being the best novel since WAR AND PEACE probably won’t impress the judges.

4. On the same page, include your contact information.
Name, address, and e-mail address will suffice. You want us to be able to let you know if you have won, don’t you?

5. Make sure to mention which category you are entering.
Again, the three possibilities are: the keynote or Hollywood hook, the elevator speech, and the formal 2-minute pitch.

6. Attach the Word document you’ve created to an e-mail.
Please include PERFECT PITCH ENTRY in the subject line, and mention the category you’re entering in the body of the e-mail. (It makes it easier to process the entries.) Make sure to say who you are, too, so we don’t get entries mixed up.

It’s also a nice touch to say something pleasant (like “Happy Labor Day, Anne!”) in the e-mail itself. I just mention.

7. E-mail the whole shebang to anneminicontest@gmail(dot)com by Friday, September 30, at midnight in your time zone.
Do I need to explain that the (dot) should be rendered as a period when you are typing the address? Nah, probably not.

Those are the rules! I am hoping to see a broad array of wonderful stories — and some great examples from which those brand-new to pitching can learn.

Of course, to benefit fully from winning this contest — or from giving a good pitch at a conference, for that matter — you will need to whip your manuscript into fabulous shape. Many a great premise has been lost to posterity for lack of necessary revision.

It’s easy to lose faith in mid-revision, though — and even easier to reject the notion of revision at all. Because we’ve all felt the insidious pull of both, I am delighted to present Julie Wu’s words of inspiration to revisers everywhere.

You might want to bookmark this post, for re-reading when your revision energies start to ebb. Just so you know, though, I’m not the roommate mentioned in the piece; I couldn’t throw a pot to save my life. Which, too, probably came up on the housing application.

Take it away, Julie!

My roommate once made a clay pot in art school. Threw it on the wheel, drew up its walls between the tips of her fingers, fired it, glazed it. When she and her classmates held up their finished pots, gleaming and beautiful, the instructor led the students to a pit and ordered them to throw down their pots. The point was, he said, not to become attached to a particular piece of work. You can always make more.

Some students cried. My roommate was traumatized, still bitter about the experience years later when she told me about it.

Hearing her story made my stomach twist. I had written a few short stories, and they were my precious babies, conjured up as I sat cross-legged in the dark in an apartment overlooking the Hudson River. My stories were praised in student workshops, but their strengths were no more robust or reproducible than the street lights’ glinting on the water’s surface. Even after the literary magazine rejections came in, I revised only a sentence here or there, hoping that would be enough.

Because I was afraid that if I revised more, I would ruin what was good and never get it back again. I was one of those art students, crying and clutching my pot at the edge of the pit.

Here’s the thing: that instructor was right. It has taken me ten years to understand that. Make one beautiful pot–maybe you were lucky. Make another from the ground up, and another, still more beautiful, and you are an artist. It takes practice, study, the making and smashing of many pots beautiful, average, and ugly, to really know that clay, to know exactly how to push your hands into it to get what you want.

It took me ten years to understand, because it took me ten years to write my first novel. I revised it countless times—a little when it first didn’t sell, then more and more. Eventually, I changed its structure, its point of view, its tone, its style. With each revision I received comments and started over, page one. Each time, I learned more, until I could revise without fear. And it was then that I sold the book.

In writing we have a safety net: the computer. Open a new file and you have smashed your pot and kept a picture of it at the same time. How to proceed at that point is a study in humility, in open-mindedness, in self examination. It’s remembering all the advice you read about in the craft books—that you must have an interesting protagonist, a need, lots of conflict—and admitting you need to take that advice yourself. It’s hearing all the feedback from your readers—that the protagonist is unsympathetic, that nothing happens, that what happens is implausible—and admitting that they are true. It’s realizing that there’s power in depth, and that depth is a function of your narrative arc. It’s an equation of equal parts emotion and mechanics, and it’s fueled by that elusive beast, imagination.

After so many years, book one is done. I’m thinking about book two. I’ve got clay in my hands again, but I feel different now. Because I’m not afraid. Because I know now I can make a pretty good pot. And because if it doesn’t turn out well, I don’t have to cry. I can throw it into the pit, and make something better.

Julie Wu‘s novel, The Third Son, won a short-listing in the 2009 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress Competition and will be published by Algonquin Books in Fall, 2012. Her short fiction has won honorable mention in the 2010 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Contest and has been published in Columbia Magazine. Also a physician, she has published a personal essay in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). She earned a B.A. in Literature from Harvard and spent a year studying opera performance at Indiana University in Bloomington, many lifetimes ago.

Pitchingpalooza, part XXVI: surviving a conference with your dreams, sanity, and energy in one piece, or, if a stone can muster a smile, so can you

That’s an actual stone in my yard, believe it or not, one that apparently went out of its way to anthropomorphize itself for my illustrative pleasure. If rocks can be that helpful and friendly, it gives me great hope for human beings.

Which is my subtle way of leading into asking: after these last few weeks of posts, have you started to have dreams about pitching? If they’re not nightmares, and you’re scheduled to pitch at a conference anytime soon, you’re either a paragon of mental health, a born salesperson, or simply haven’t been paying very close attention. Either that, or I’ve seriously underemphasized the potential pitfalls.

For this, our last Pitchingpalooza post, I’m going to assume that you either are waking up in the night screaming or that I haven’t yet explained the conference environment adequately. So fasten your seatbelts — I’m going to be taking you on a guided tour of false expectations, avoidable missteps, and just plain disasters.

Hey, forewarned is forearmed. Or at least less stupefied in the moment.

First-time pitchers often harbor fears of inadvertently making a poor impression upon an agent or editor in a social situation, thereby nullifying their chances of being able to wow ‘em with a pitch in a formal meeting. I wish I could say that this is an unfounded fear, but actually, it’s pretty reasonable: one doesn’t have to spend much time hanging around that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America to hear a few horror stories about jaw-droppingly rude writers.

And I don’t know about you, but one of my more dubious gifts as a human being is an uncanny ability to find the most institutionally powerful person in the room and catch him in a misstatement or crack a joke that skewers his ego, generally before I know who he is. (It’s one of the reasons I elected to leave academia, as a matter of fact, as several past presidents of the American Political Science Association know to their sorrow. Fortunately for me, the step from spotting the incorrectly-placed comma in a constitution that would result in half the population’s losing a right to editing manuscripts was a relatively small one.)

Hard to imagine how this particular trait would have provided my ancestors with enough of a survival advantage to justify its being passed down the evolutionary line, but I do seem to have been born with it. Many are the family stories about the toddler critiquing the pediatrician’s sartorial choices.

Honestly, does anybody look good in those tacky white polyester coats?

Before any of my fellow compulsive truth-tellers begin to panic, let me hasten to add that agents’ and editors’ anecdotes are almost invariably about genuinely outrageous approach attempts, not minor faux pas. And that’s not just because “You’re not going to believe this, but a pitcher just forgot to tell me whether is book is fiction or nonfiction” isn’t nearly as likely to garner sympathy from fellow bar denizens as “This insane writer just grabbed my arm as I was rushing into the bathroom and refused to stop talking for 20 minutes.”

For one thing, the former is too common a phenomenon to excite much of a response from other agents. Unfortunately, though, the latter happens often enough that some agents turn against hallway pitching for life. As, indeed, many a product of the post-conference rumor mill can attest.

However — and this is a big however — in my experience, the aspiring writers who sit around and fret about being the objects of such anecdotes are virtually never the folks who ought to be worrying about it. These are not the kind of gaffes that your garden-variety well-mannered person is likely to commit.

The result: polite people end up tiptoeing around conferences, terrified of doing the wrong thing, while the rude stomp around like Godzilla with P.M.S. And then, once an agent who has been smashed into by one Godzilla too many complains on a blog or in an interview about how impolite writers are, the naturally courteous cringe, while the rude remain unfazed. Thus are the polite rendered more and more fearful of running afoul of an unspoken rule or two.

Case in point: technologically-savvy reader wrote in last year to ask if it was considered appropriate to take notes on a laptop or Blackberry during conference seminars. It’s still not very common (surprising, given how computer-bound most of us are these days) but yes, it is acceptable, under two conditions.

First, if you do not sit in a very prominent space in the audience — and not solely because of the tap-tap-tap sound you’ll be making. Believe it or not, it’s actually rather demoralizing for a lecturer to look out at a sea of faces that are all staring at their laps.. Are these people bored out of their minds, the worried speaker wonders, or merely taking notes very intensely?

Don’t believe me? The next time you attend a lecture of any sort, keep your eyes on the teacher’s face, rather than on your notes, your Blackberry, or that Octavia Butler novel you’ve hidden in your lap because you can’t believe that your boss is making you sit through a talk on the importance of conserving paper clips for the third time this year.

I guarantee that within two minutes, the teacher will be addressing half of her comments directly to you; consistent, animated-faced attention is THAT unusual in a lecture environment. The bigger the class, the more quickly she will focus upon the one audience member who is visibly interested in what she is saying.

Heck, in the university where I used to teach, active listening was so rare that occasionally, one or another of my colleagues would get so carried away with appreciation that he would marry a particularly attentive student. One trembles to think what these men would have done had they been gripping enough lecturers to animate an entire room.

Back to the Blackberry issue. It’s also considered, well, considerate to ask the speaker before the class if it is all right to use any electronic device during the seminar, be it computer, iPhone, or tape recorder.

Why? Think about it: if your head happens to be apparently focused upon your screen, how is the speaker to know that you’re not just checking your e-mail? Also, in these decadent days, when the antics of unwary pets and clumsy humans often go viral, how may a speaker be sure that you are not recording him with an eye to posting his speech beneath unflattering lighting on YouTube?

Enough about the presenters’ problems; let’s move on to yours. Do be aware that attending a conference, particularly your first, can be a bit overwhelming. You’re going to want to pace yourself.

“But Anne!” conference brochure-clutching writers everywhere pipe up. “The schedule is jam-packed with offerings, many of which overlap temporally! I don’t want to miss a thing!”

Yes, it’s tempting to take every single class and listen to every speaker, but frankly, you’re going to be a better pitcher if you allow yourself to take occasional breaks. Cut yourself some slack; don’t book yourself for the entire time.

Why? Well, let me ask you this: would you rather be babbling incoherently during the last seminar of the weekend, or raising your hand to ask a coherent question?

Before you answer that, allow me to add: since most attendees’ brains are mush by the end of the conference, it’s generally easier to get close to an agent or editor who teaches a class on the final day. Fewer lines, less competition.

Do make a point of doing something other than lingering in the conference center for three or four days straight. Go walk around the block. Sit in the sun. Grab a cup of coffee with that fabulous literary fiction writer you just met. Hang out in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference; that tends to be where the already-agented and already-published hang out, anyway.

And don’t you dare feel guilty about doing any of these things. Skipping the occasional seminar does not constitute being lax about pursuing professional opportunities: it is smart strategy, to make sure you’re fresh for your pitches. If you can’t tear yourself away, take a few moments to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, to reset your internal pace from PANIC! to I’m-Doing-Fine.

I know that I sound like an over-eager Lamaze coach on this point, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of reminding yourself to keep breathing throughout the conference. A particularly good time for a nice lung-filling is immediately after you sit down in front of an agent or editor.

Trust me: your brain could use the oxygen right around then. It will help you calm down so you can make your most effective pitch.

And at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, please, please, PLEASE don’t expect a conference miracle. Writing almost never sells on pitches alone, no matter how many times you have heard that apocryphal story about THE HORSE WHISPERER. You are not going to really know what an agent thinks about your work until she has read some of it.

Translation: it’s almost unheard-of for an agent to sign up a client during a conference. (And no, I have no idea why so many conference-organizers blithely hand out feedback forms asking if you found an agent at the event. Even the most successful conference pitchers generally don’t receive an offer for weeks, if not months.)

Remember, your goal here is not to be discovered on the spot, but to get the industry pro in front of you to ask to read your writing. Period.

Yes, I know: I’ve said this before. Repeatedly, throughout this very series. And I’m going to keep saying it as long as there are aspiring writers out there who walk into pitch meetings expecting to hear the agent cry, “My God, that’s the best premise since OLIVER TWIST. Here’s a representation contract — and look, here’s my favorite editor now. Let’s see if he’s interested. I want this book sold by midnight!”

Then, of course, the editor falls equally in love with it, offers an advance large enough to cover New Hampshire in $20 bills, and the book is out by Christmas. As an Oprah’s Book Club selection, naturally, even though neither the Oprah show nor her book club exist anymore.

Long-time readers, chant along with me now: this is not how the publishing industry works. This is not how the publishing industry works. This is not how the publishing industry works…

Did I say that you could stop repeating it?

The key to being a happy conference-goer is not only to realize that the popular conception of how books move from manuscript to publication is dead wrong, but to believe it. Having to make a significant effort in order to get an agent to read your manuscript is normal.

Thus the appeal of conference pitching: done well, it will allow you to skip the querying stage and pass directly to the submission stage. So being asked to send pages is a terrific outcome for this situation, not a distant second place to an imaginary reality.

Admittedly, though, that is easy to forget in the throes of a pitch meeting. Almost as easy as forgetting that a request to submit is not a promise to represent or publish. Out comes the broken record again:

Whatever an agent or editor says to you in a conference situation is just a conversation at a conference, not the Sermon on the Mount or testimony in front of a Congressional committee. There is no such thing as an implied offer of representation or publication; there are only concrete offers and preliminary conversations. Everything is provisional until some paper has changed hands.

This is equally true, incidentally, whether your conference experience includes an agent who actually starts drooling visibly with greed while you were pitching or an editor in a terrible mood who raves for 15 minutes about how the public isn’t buying books anymore. Until you sign a mutually-binding contract, no promises — or condemnation, for that matter — should be inferred or believed absolutely.

Try to maintain perspective. If you can’t, stop and take a few deep breaths.

Admittedly, perspective is genuinely hard to achieve when a real, live agent says, “Sure, send me the first chapter,” especially if you’ve been shopping the book around for eons. But it is vital to keep in the back of your mind that eliciting this statement is not the end of your job as a marketer. Oh, look, here’s another golden oldie from the broken record collection:

Regardless of how much any given agent or editor says she loves your pitch, she’s not going to make an actual decision until she’s read at least part of it. And she’s not going to clear her schedule for the rest of the month to read it, either.

So even if you are over the moon about positive response from the agent of your dreams, please, I beg you, DO NOT STOP PITCHING IN THE HALLWAYS. Try to generate as many requests to see your work as you can.

Why, yes, you’re right: that is going to be a heck of a lot of work. What’s your point?

No matter who says yes to you first, you will be much, much happier two months from now if you have a longer requested submissions list. Ultimately, going to a conference to pitch only twice, when there are 20 agents in the building, is just not efficient.

Far too many aspiring writers will just give up after one successful pitch, assuming, often wrongly, that a friendly pitch meeting means a predisposition to like a submission or an implied promise to read it quickly. It doesn’t, and it isn’t. So it is VERY much in your interest to send out submissions to several agents at once, rather than one at a time.

I heard that gasp, but no, there is absolutely nothing unethical about this, unless (a) one of the agencies has a policy precluding multiple submissions (rare) or (b) you actively promised one agent an exclusive. (I would EMPHATICALLY discourage you from granting (b), by the way — and if you don’t know why, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category at right before you even CONSIDER pitching at a conference.)

Some of you look concerned, but trust me, this is what the agents will be expecting you to do. If an agent wants an exclusive peek, she will ask for one point-blank; again, there’s no such thing as a tacit request for a solo submission. By all means, tell each of the agents in the cover letter that others are looking at it, but don’t make the hugely pervasive mistake of granting an effective exclusive that the agent does not expect, simply because she was the one you liked best.

I see some of you blushing: you’ve made this mistake, haven’t you? And you ended up waiting six months to hear back — or did not hear back at all, right?

“Wow, Anne!” those of you who have lived through this highly unpleasant experience gasp. “What kind of a crystal ball are you wielding these days? That’s precisely what happened to me!”

No crystal ball needed on this one: it happens to pitchers all the time. They misunderstand the level of connection they made with agents at conferences, committing themselves in principle before the agents in question have even seen their work. “Well, we just clicked,” these writers say.

What they tend not to say is that let’s face it, it’s a heck of a lot less work — not to mention less wearing on the nerves — to send out one submission than, say, seven or eight. It’s also less work not to keep querying while that nice agent from the conference considers your submission.

And then one sad day, months after the conference, they receive the rejection, often as a form letter. “What happened?” one-at-a-timers cry. “I thought we clicked. And now I feel like it’s too late to send out those other requested materials.”

Actually, if less than a year has passed since the conference, it isn’t. But just think how much happier a writer who could say, “Well, I’m sad that the agent I liked best decided against representing my book, but at least those six other agents are still considering it,” would be in that moment. Or even one in a position to sigh with relief and murmur, “Wow, am I ever glad that I kept querying throughout these last six months. Now, I have other requests for materials.”

Besides, your time is valuable: sending out those post-conference submissions one at a time, waiting for a response from each before moving on to the next, could eat up years. Just mention in your cover letter to each that other agents are also reading it, and keep moving forward.

Trust me, hearing that it’s a multiple submission not going to annoy anyone. That old saw about agents’ getting insulted if you don’t submit one at a time is absolutely untrue. Let’s toss another broken record onto the turntable:

Unless an agent asks for an exclusive look at your work, it’s neither expected nor in your interest to act as if s/he has. In fact, hearing that others are interested may even make your book seem more attractive.

Yet another reason you should keep on pitching in those hallways: it tends to be a trifle easier to get to yes than in a formal pitch. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Yet in many ways, casual pitches are more persuasive.

Why? For one simple reason: time. In a hallway pitch, agents will often automatically tell a writer to submit the first chapter, simply in order to be able to keep on walking down the hall, finish loading salad onto their plates, or be able to move on to the next person in line after the agents’ forum.

Seriously, it’s true. If the agent handles your type of work, the premise is interesting, and you are polite, they will usually hand you their business cards and say, “Send me the first 50 pages.”

Okay, pop quiz to see who has been paying attention to this series so far: after the agent says this, do you:

(a) regard it as an invitation to talk about your work at greater length?

(b) regard it as an invitation to a lifetime of friendship?

(c) regard it as a promise to make you the next bestselling author?

(d) say, “Gee, you’re a much nicer human being than {insert name of other agent here}. He turned me down flat,” and go on to give details about how mean he was?

(e) launch into a ten-minute diatribe about the two years you’ve spent querying this particular project?

(f) thank her profusely and vanish in a puff of smoke, so you may pitch to another agent? And before you send out the requested pages IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?

If you said anything but (Ff, I can only advise you go back and reread the Pitchingpalooza series — and as well as the entirety of the INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE category at right as well. You need to learn what’s considered polite and reasonable in the industry, pronto.

In a face-to-face pitch in a formal meeting, agents tend to be more selective than in a hallway pitch. Again, the reason is time: they’ve got more of it. In a ten-minute meeting, there is actual leisure to consider what you are saying, to weigh the book’s merits.

In short, enough time to save themselves some down the line by rejecting your book now.

Why might this seem desirable to them? Well, think about it: if you send it to them at their request, someone in their office is ethically required to spend time reading it, right? By rejecting it on the pitch alone, they’ve just saved Millicent the screener 5 or 10 minutes.

In a perverse way, a formal pitch can be significantly harder to give successfully than a hallway one. Sitting down in front of an agent or editor, looking her in the eye, and beginning to talk about your book can be quite a bit more intimidating than giving a hallway pitch.

Think of it this way: every time you buttonhole an agent and say those magic first hundred words is one less query letter you’re going to need to send out.

Still breathing at least once an hour? Good; I’ll move on.

As a veteran of many, many writers’ conferences all over the country, I can tell you from experience that they can be very, very tiring. Especially if it’s your first conference. Just sitting under fluorescent lights in an air-conditioned room for that many hours would tend to leech the life force out of you all by itself, but here, you will be surrounded by a whole lot of very stressed people while you are trying to learn as much as you possibly can.

As you may have noticed, most of my advice on how to cope with all of this ambient stress gracefully is pretty much what your mother said to you before you went to your first party: be polite; be nice to yourself and others; watch your caffeine and alcohol intake, and make sure to drink enough water throughout the day. Eat occasionally.

And you’re not wearing THAT, are you?

Actually, on the only occasion when my mother actually made that comment upon something I was wearing, she had made the frock in question. For my senior prom, she cranked out a backless little number in midnight-blue Chinese silk that she liked to call my “Carole Lombard dress,” for an occasion where practically every other girl was going to be wearing something demure and flouncy by Laura Ashley. It was, to put it mildly, not what anyone expected the valedictorian to wear.

She hastened to alter it. Even with the addition of quite a bit of additional fabric, most of the male teachers followed me around all night long. The last time I bumped into my old chorus teacher, he spontaneously recalled the dress. “A shame that you didn’t dress like that all the time,” he said wistfully.

Oh, what a great dress that was. Oh, how inappropriate it would have been for a writers’ conference — or really, for any occasion that did not involve going out for a big night on the town in 1939. But then, so would those prissy Laura Ashley frocks.

Which brings me back to my point (thank goodness).

I wrote on what you should and shouldn’t wear to a conference at some length in an earlier post, but if you find yourself in perplexity when you are standing in front of your closet, remember this solid rule that will help you wherever you go within the publishing industry: unless you will be attending a black-tie affair, you are almost always safe with what would be appropriate to wear to your first big public reading of your book.

And don’t those of you who have been hanging around the industry for a while wish someone had shared THAT little tidbit with you sooner?

To repeat a bit more motherly advice: do remember to eat something within an hour or two of your pitch meeting. I know that you may feel too nervous to be hungry but believe me, if you were going to pick an hour of your life for feeling light-headed, your first encounter with your future agent is not a wise choice. If you are giving a hallway pitch, or standing waiting to go into a meeting, make sure not to lock your knees, so you do not faint.

And practice, practice, practice before you go into your meetings. This is the single best thing you can do in advance to preserve yourself from being overwhelmed.

Fortunately, conferences are peculiarly rich in opportunities to practice talking about your book. As I pointed out yesterday, you will be surrounded by hundreds of other writers. Introduce yourself, and practice pitching to them. Better still, find people who share your interests and get to know them. Share a cookie; talk about your work with someone who will understand.

Because, really, is your life, is any writer’s life, already filled with too many people who get what we do? You will be an infinitely happier camper in the long run if you have friends who can understand your successes and sympathize with your setbacks as only another writer can.

I know this from experience, naturally. The first thing I said to many of my dearest friends in the world was, “So what do you write?”

To which the savvy conference-goer replies — chant it with me now, everyone — the magic first hundred words.

In fact, the first people I told about my first book deal — after my SO and my mother, of course — were people I had met in precisely this manner. Why call them before, say, my college roommate? Because ordinary people, the kind who don’t spend all of their spare time creating new realities out of whole cloth, honestly, truly, sincerely, often have difficulty understanding the pressures and timelines that rule writers’ lives.

I was lucky: I already knew a lot of writers, including my college roommate, who recently sold her first novel to Algonquin. (Well done, Julie!) But the very first words my erstwhile SO’s mother uttered after hearing that my memoir had sold were, “What do you mean, it’s not coming out for another couple of years? Can’t you write any faster than that?”

This kind of response is, unfortunately, common, and frankly, most people’s eyes glaze over about 42 seconds into an explanation of how a print queue works. I don’t think any writer ever gets used to seeing her non-writer friends’ faces fall upon being told that the book won’t be coming out for a year or two, at least, after the sale that’s just happened, or that signing with an agent does not automatically equal a publication contract, or that not every book is headed for the bestseller list.

Thought I got off track from the question of how to keep from getting stressed out, didn’t you? Actually, I didn’t: finding buddies to go through the conference process with you can help you feel grounded throughout both the weekend and your writing life.

Not only are these new buddies great potential first readers for your manuscripts, future writing group members, and people to invite to book readings, they’re also folks to pass notes to during talks. (Minor disobedience is a terrific way to blow off steam, I find.) You can hear about the high points of classes you don’t attend from them afterward.

And who wouldn’t rather walk into a room with 300 strangers and one keynote speaker with a newfound chum than alone?

Making friends within the hectic conference environment will help you retain a sense of being a valuable, interesting individual far better than keeping to yourself, and the long-term benefits are endless. To paraphrase Goethe, it is not the formal structures that make the world fell warm and friendly; friends make the earth feel like an inhabited garden.

So please, for your own sake: make some friends at the conference, so you will have someone to pick up the phone and call when the agent of your dreams falls in love with your first chapter and asks to see the entire book. And get to enjoy the vicarious thrill when your writing friends leap their hurdles, too.

You think it didn’t make my day when Julie’s book sold? It made my month. It showed that being serious, talented, and smart can indeed pay off in the long run.

This can be a very lonely business. Nothing brightens the long, slow slog like opening your e-mail when you’re really discouraged to find a message from a friend who’s just sold a book or landed an agent.

Well, okay, I’ll admit it: getting a call from your agent telling you that YOU have just sold a book is rather more of a day-brightener. As is the call saying, “I love your work, and I want to represent you.”

But the other is still awfully darned good. Start laying the groundwork for it now.

One more little thing that will help keep you from stressing out too much: while it’s always nice if you can be so comfortable with your pitch that you can give it from memory, it’s probably fair to assume that you’re going to be a LITTLE bit nervous during your meetings. So do yourself a favor — write it all down; give yourself permission to read it when the time comes, if you feel that will help you.

Really, it’s considered perfectly acceptable, and it will keep you from forgetting key points. Please humor me by writing on the top of the paper, in great big letters: BREATHE!

Do remember to pat yourself on the back occasionally, too, for being brave enough to put your ego on the line for your work. As with querying and submitting, it requires genuine guts to submit your ideas to the pros; I don’t think writers get enough credit for that.

In that spirit, I’m going to confess: I have one other conference-going ritual, something I do just before I walk into any convention center, anywhere, anytime, either to teach or to pitch. It’s not as courteous or as public-spirited as the other techniques I have described, but I find it is terrific for the mental health. I go away by myself somewhere and play at top volume Joe Jackson’s song Hit Single and Jill Sobule’s (I Don’t Want to Get) Bitter.

The former, a charming story about dumbing down a song so it will stand a better chance of making it big on the pop charts, includes the perfect lyric to hum while walking into a pitch meeting:

And when I think of all the years of finding out
What I already knew
Now I spread myself around
And you can have 3 minutes, too.

If that doesn’t summarize the difference between pitching your work verbally and being judged on the quality of the writing itself, I should like to know what does. (Sorry, Joe: I would have preferred to link above to your site, but your site mysteriously doesn’t include lyrics.)

The latter, a song about complaining, concludes with a pretty good mantra for any conference-goer:

So I’ll smile with the rest, wishing everyone the best.
And know the one who made it made it because she was actually pretty good.
‘Cause I don’t want to get bitter.
I don’t want to turn cruel.
I don’t want to get old before I have to.
I don’t want to get jaded.
Petrified and weighted.
I don’t want to get bitter like you.

I hum that one a lot during conferences, I’ll admit — and not because you can’t throw a piece of bread at a major writers’ conference without hitting someone just delighted to moan about how hard it is to get published these days. Cynicism often masquerades as knowledge. I tend to start humming when a bestselling author who landed his agent 25 years ago, when the task was significantly easier, or a more recent success whose agent is her cousin’s next-door neighbor’s husband tells a roomful of people who have been querying for the past five years that good writing will inevitably find a home.

Perhaps, but certainly not easily. The Agency Fairy just receives too many requests for help these days. Anyone who tells you that the only possible barrier to landing an agent is the quality of your writing simply isn’t familiar with the current reality of the representation market.

What you’re trying to do is not easy or fun, but you can do it. You are your book’s best advocate; act like it. And remember, all you’re trying to do is to get these nice people to take a look at your writing.

No more, no less. It’s a perfectly reasonable request for an aspiring writer to make to an agent, and you’re going to be terrific at making it. How do I know? Because you’ve been sensible and brave enough to face your fears and prepare like a professional.

Kudos to you for taking your writing that seriously. Keep breathing, everyone, and keep up the good work!