Talking turkey

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

I always wish my readers joyous holiday gatherings with just a touch of trepidation, I must admit. Why, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: in descending order of probability, a fellow writer, a writing blogger, and an editor provide the three most likely shoulders writers will dampen with their frustrated tears immediately after the festivities cease.

“Why?” they inevitably wail, and who could blame them? “Why is it that my kith/kin/the kith and kin of some acquaintance kind enough to feed me don’t seem to have the faintest idea of what it means to be a working writer? I swear that I heard, ‘So when is your book coming out?’ twice as often as ‘Pass the gravy, please.’ Why is publication — and wildly successful publication at that — so frequently held as the only measure of writing talent?”

Although I’m relatively certain that the question-asking gravy-eschewers who drove these writers to wail did not intend to be cruel, the short answer to the wail’s content is an unfortunately cruel one: because that’s how society at large judges writing. Not only does popular misconception holed that the only good book a published book — a proposition that would make anyone who actually handles manuscripts for a living positively choke with mirth — but also that if a writer were truly talented, publication would be both swift and inevitable.

That means, on a practical level, that there are only two possible reasons that a manuscript could possibly not already be published: it’s not yet completed (in which case the writer is lazy, right?) or it simply isn’t any good (and thus does not deserve to be published). While it is of course conceivable that one of these could be true of any particular manuscript to which a hopeful writer might refer after a relative she sees only once a year claps her heartily on the back and bellows, “How’s the writing coming, Gladys?” again, the very notion that writing success should be measured — or even could be measured — solely by whether the mythical Publication Fairy has yet whacked it with her Bind-It-Now wand would, again, cause the pros to choke with mirth.

Yet I sense that some of you are not in fact choking with mirth. “But Anne,” frustrated writers who have internalized these pernicious assumptions point out, “although naturally, I know from reading this blog (particularly the informative posts under the HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS — AND DOESN’T category on the archive list at right), listening carefully to what agents say they want, and observation of the career trajectories of both my writer friends and established authors alike that many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up, part of me wants to believe that’s not really the case. Or at least that it will not be the case in my case. If the literary universe is fair, a good manuscript should always find a home, right? And if that’s true, perhaps my kith and kin are right that if I were really talented, the only thing I would ever have to say at the Thanksgiving table is that my book is already out and where I would like them to buy it.”

“Wait just a book-signing minute!” another group of not-yet-completely frustrated writers roar. “What do you mean, many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up? How is that possible? Isn’t it the publishing industry’s job — and its sole job — to identify and promote writing talent? And doesn’t that mean that any truly talented writer will be so identified and promoted, if only he is brave enough to send out his work persistently, until he find the right agent for it?”

“Whoa!” still a third sector shouts. “Send out work persistently? I thought that if a writer was genuinely talented, any good agent would snatch up her manuscript. So why would any talented writer need to query more than one or two times?”

Do you hear yourselves, people? You’re invoking the Publishing Fairy. That’s a dangerous practice for a writer, for her long, long shadow can render seeing one’s own publication chances rather difficult. Following her spectre can lead a writer to believe that the goal of querying is to land just any agent, for instance, rather than one who already has the connections to sell the book. Or simply sending out a barrage of queries to the fifty agents a search engine spit out, or even every agent in the country, without checking to see if any of them represent a particular kind of book. Or — you might want to put down your fork, the better to digest this one — give up after just a few queries or submissions.

Because if that writer were actually talented, how he went about approaching agents wouldn’t matter, right? The Publishing Fairy would see to it that nothing but the writing quality would count — and thus it follows like drowsiness after consuming vast quantities of turkey that if that writer gets rejected, ever, the manuscript must not be well-written.

Heck, by this logic, it’s hardly necessary for the writer to make any effort at all, beyond writing a first draft of the book, is it? Those whom the Publishing Fairy bops in the noggin need merely toss off a first draft — because the honestly gifted writer never needs to revise anything, right? — then wait patiently until an agent is magically wafted to her doorstep. (Possibly accompanied by Mary Poppins, if the wind is right.) The agent reads the entire book at a sitting — or, better still, extrapolates the entire book from a swift glance at a query — and shouts in ecstasy, “This is the book for which I have been waiting for my entire career!” A book contract follows instantly, promising publication with in a few weeks. By the end of a couple of months at the latest, the really talented writer will be happily ensconced on a well-lit couch in a television studio, chatting with a talk show host about her book.

Oh, you may laugh (please tell me you are laughing), but you would be astonished at how pervasive this narrative of authorial success actually is amongst aspiring writers. They may not all believe it intellectually — they may have come to understand, for example, that since no agent in the world represents every conceivable type of book, it’s a waste of time to query an agent who does not habitually represent books in one’s chosen book category — but at a gut level, every rejection feels like just more evidence of being ignored by the Publication Fairy.

Which must mean that your manuscript isn’t nearly as good as you thought, right? Why else would an agent — any agent — who has not seen so much as a word of it not respond to a query? The Publication Fairy must have tipped her off that something wasn’t quite right.

Come on, admit it — you’ve thought this at least once, haven’t you? Practically every aspiring writer who does not happen to be a celebrity (who enjoy a completely different path to publication, typically) entertains such doubts in the dead of night. If the road to publication is hard, long, and winding, it must mean something, mustn’t it?

Why, yes: it could mean that the book category in which one happens to be writing is not selling very well right now, for one thing. Good agents are frequently reluctant to pick up even superlative manuscripts they don’t believe they could sell. It could also mean that the agents one has been approaching do not have a solid track record of selling similar books, or that one has assigned one’s book to an inappropriate category. Either can often result in knee-jerk rejection. Or, even if the manuscript is a perfect fit and everyone at the agency adores the writing, the literary marketplace has contracted to such an extent that the agent cannot afford to take on as many talented new clients as she would like.

But those are not the justifications that occur to one in the dead of night, are they? Which is interesting, as offhand, I can think of approximately no well-established authors for whom the Publishing Fairy fantasy above represented the actual career trajectory.

If you have fallen prey to these feelings, especially after having spent even a few minutes having to defend one’s writing habit to non-writers with whom one is sharing a gravy boat, try not to be too hard on yourself. The popular conception of how publishing works is, not to put too fine a point on it, composed largely of magical thinking. There’s a reason for that, I suspect: all of us would like to believe that if a manuscript is a masterpiece, there’s no chance that it would go unpublished.

We believe, in short, in the Publication Fairy. That’s understandable in a writer: those of us in cahoots with the Muses would prefer not to think that they were in the habit of tricking us. (Although, let’s face it, even a passing acquaintance with literary history would lead one to suspect that they do occasionally get a kick out of snatching recognition from someone they have blessed with talent. Edgar Allan Poe didn’t exactly die a happy man, campers.)

In non-writers, though, this attitude can come as a bit more of a surprise. What, after all, does an otherwise upstanding citizen whose idea of Hell consists of a demon’s forcing him into an uncomfortable desk chair in front of a seriously outdated computer and howling, “You must write a book!” possibly gain by believing that, unlike in literally every other human endeavor, excellence in writing is invariably rewarded?

Yet even those who strenuously avoid bookstores often seem to cling to the myth of the Publication Fairy. Don’t believe me? Try talking about your writing over a holiday dinner to a group of non-writers.

“So when is your book coming out?” Uncle Ambrose will ask. “And would you mind passing the gravy?”

“What do you mean, you haven’t finished writing that book yet?” Great-Aunt Mavis chimes in, helping herself to sweet potatoes. “You’ve been working on it for years.”

“Are you still doing that?” Grandpa George demands incredulously. “I thought you’d given up when you couldn’t sell your first book.

Cousin Elaine might try to be a bit more tactful. “Oh, querying sounds just awful. Have you considered self-publishing?”

Because, of course, that would never have occurred to you. You’ve never had a dark midnight in which you dreamt of being wealthy enough to thumb your nose at traditional publishing — at least long enough to bypass the querying and submission processes, rush the first draft of your Great American Novel onto bookshelves, and then sit back, waiting for the royalties to roll in, the reviewers to rave, and publishers the world over to materialize on your doorstep, begging to publish your next book.

Never mind that the average self-published book sells fewer than five hundred copies, or that most publications that still review books employ policies forbidding the review of self-published books. Ignore the fact that all of the effort of promoting such a book falls on the author. And don’t even give a passing thought to the reality that in order for a self-published book to impress the traditional publishing world even vaguely, it typically needs to sell at least 10,000 copies.

The Publishing Fairy can merely wave her wand and change all of that, right?

Contrary to what some intrepid readers might be beginning to suspect, I’m not bringing all of this up in order to depress everyone into a stupor about just how difficult it is for a first-time author to bring a book to publication, but to provide a bit of ego salve for the many, many aspiring writers whose otherwise charming Thanksgiving table partners might not have been as supportive of their writing aspirations as they might have liked. Try not to hold it against your father-in-law: chances are, he just doesn’t have any idea how publishing actually works.

But you do. Don’t let anybody, not even the insidious hobgoblins of midnight reflection, tell you that the reason you don’t already have a book out is — and must necessarily be — that you just aren’t talented enough. That’s magical thinking, and you’re smarter than to buy into it.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that those of you who have yet to dine today deliberately pick a fight with your third cousin twice removed or any other delightful soul considerate enough to ask about your writing. In fact, I’ve been deliberately delaying my own foray into the kitchen in order to help you avoid that particular argument — or, more likely because writers tend to be awfully nice people, avoid the hurt feelings that those unwilling to fight often find hard to digest.

How might one side-step that especially indigestible discussion? Had you thought about abruptly asking how everyone at the table voted in the last election?

Just kidding. Just as it is always dangerous to presume that everyone at an agency or publishing house will share the worldview or life experiences of the submitter, it’s risky to assume that everyone gathered around even the most Norman Rockwell-pleasing holiday table shares identical political beliefs.

So how might a writer besieged by the Publication Fairy’s adherents do to protect his digestion? How about limiting to the discussion to, “The writing’s going very well. How’s your handball game these days?”

Seem evasive? Well, it is. But would you rather allow the discourse to proceed to the point that you might have to say to a relative that has just referred to your writing as Alison’s time-gobbling little hobby, “Good one, brother. Seriously, though, I don’t want to bore you with an explanation of how books actually get published.”

If you do feel compelled to try to talk your loved ones into a more supportive attitude while they are gnawing upon drumsticks, dinner might be an excellent time to disabuse them of the also quite ubiquitous notion that author’s kith and kin routinely receive free copies of books. Yes, publishers do generally give their authors an extremely limited stock of their books, but it’s with the expectation those will be used for promotion, not to grace one’s mother’s bookshelves, if you catch my drift.

That means, in practice, that if you recklessly promise free copies, you will almost certainly be buying them yourself. And to answer your mother’s next question: yes, Mom, authors do often receive a discount upon their own books, but the books the author buys do not count toward sales totals.

Translation: the best thing Aunt Hattie could do to support your writing career would be to commit to buying your book(s) herself. Promise to sign it for her when she does.

Or just bookmark this page and forward the link to your kith and kin a few months before your first book comes out. I’ve spent a lifetime explaining to everyone’s relatives that since the Publication Fairy so often falls down on the job, it’s up to the rest of us to support the writers in our lives. I see no reason to stop now.

Keep your chins high, campers: your writing deserves that support. Happy digestion, and keep up the good work!

8 Replies to “Talking turkey”

  1. Thank you for the your great words to buoy the spirits, Anne! If we can write, we have a lot to be thankful for this holiday.

    I have a question for you about the Publishing Fairy’s view of querying a trilogy series. My first book is complete and spit-polished; the other two are in development. My gut tells me to pitch only the book that is ready for submission and hold back on the mention of a series. Is Millicent turned off by a query pitching a series when only the first book is ready to fly? Or, is she intrigued by the potential assembly line of future books? Thanks!

    1. You’re entirely welcome, Courtney! Sorry about the rather slow response; I had a bit of a health setback over the weekend.

      The usual rule for fiction is to query only finished manuscripts, period. However, if your trilogy would fall naturally within a book category that regularly features series (like, say, SF or fantasy), it’s customary to mention very briefly in the query that it is the first book of a series. The book description in the letter and the synopsis should deal only with the first book, though.

      I rather hope that you are writing in one of these genres, as your speculative logic was spot-on. Yes, it would intrigue Millicent — but only if being part of a series is a legitimate selling point for the book. In many fiction categories, it wouldn’t be.

  2. Help me to play more nicely on writers’ message boards.
    I think it’s safe to say there is absolutely no consensus for the format and content of queries and synopses.
    I think it’s also safe to say that there are numerous people that have websites professing that their format is the only one that is appropriate and that if you use anything else, agents and publishers will consider you to be a rube that can be immediately dismissed.
    Readers of said websites become acolytes who agree with a religious fervor.
    Sense my source of frustration?
    While I know to look for specific requests from an agent or publisher, most are not particularly specific. I guess it’s a nice way to handle a rejection–they rejected me because my first line of my query was a sentence indicating why I was contacting that particular agent (and buttering him up a little), rather than starting with a one-sentence hook for my novel, like: suggested.
    I suspect screeners have some latitude, but it would be nice to know I didn’t have a dealbreaker in my query letter or synopsis.
    best wishes,

    1. I understand your frustration, Jeff — it’s quite a common one for writers new to the game, particularly the increasingly large percentage who try to glean all necessary practical advice on how to present their work professionally from sources online. Am I correct in assuming that some of the frustration, as well as some of the impulse not to play nicely, stems from having encountered writers outraged because there isn’t a single source that will tell them in no uncertain terms what to do — and because the publishing industry has not removed all other sources from the Internet?

      I don’t say that flippantly — since the rise of the web, the expectation that a quick search, or at most a series of a few searches, should turn up the right answer to even a question as complex as how do I present my book professionally to an agent? has become, if not the norm, then at least quite widespread. Because most new writers believe, unfortunately, that all that should be necessary to get published is to write a good book, and thus that landing an agent should be easy and straightforward, they often presume, wrongly, that any authoritative-sounding voice on the subject must be correct. They couldn’t say so online if it were not true, right?

      This, too, is a symptom of believing in the Publishing Fairy: quite a lot of the online advice on querying and synopsis-writing is, at best, not helpful. Most of it comes from sources outside the publishing industry, for starters, or is an outsider’s interpretation of what goes on inside; you’d be surprised at how often something an agent said at a conference gets misheard, then reported online as the latest word from the mountaintop. Then, too, agents’ individual preferences often turn up online as if every single agent currently selling books in North America shared them.

      And, as you say, it’s very, very common for aspiring writers to assume that sites that express those preferences are speaking for every agent, everywhere, every time. Most of the agents I know who are generous enough to blog about querying and synopses are fairly clear about what is an industry-wide explanation and what is not, however, but then, as I say early and often here, if an agent is kind enough to take the time to post his or her preferences online, then it’s only courteous to approach him in the manner s/he says s/he prefers.

      Again, though, is that it’s really, really common for those expressed preferences to be re-reported online as inviolable laws. Which I must admit is a bit amusing, from a professional point of view: why, for instance, would a business devoted to rewarding unique individual expression automatically reject every query that did not read identically? And why, as we have discussed before, would the book publishing industry expect every query to open with a Hollywood hook-style single sentence, when the three-beat hook is typical of the movie industry, not publishing?

      All that being said, I would be astonished if a reputable agency rejected a good query for a book category-appropriate project simply because it didn’t follow the guidelines on a particular website. That’s just not how it works. Yes, there are some agencies that do prefer queriers to jump right into the meat of the story being offered, but that’s by no means a universal preference. One must admit, though, that if all a screener wants to read is the first sentence of a query before deciding whether to reject it, it’s an awfully convenient format.

      There are legitimate red flags, but honestly, adhering to a template won’t necessarily allow a writer to avoid them. Writing a good, solid query that contains all of the information a screener would need to have on hand in order to recommend your manuscript to her boss is usually a better tactic. As I’ve explained here many times, once a query template becomes too common, that alone can become a trifle irritating to those who read 10,000 similar missives this week — and every week until the fad fades. Again, this is a business that tends to reward original expression, provided that it is presented professionally.

      That often seems to come as a surprise to those who expect templates to work, though — because there must be one right way to do it, mustn’t there? If a site that threatens instant rejection to queriers who do not follow that advice says so, it must be true, right?

      Of course not — but that doesn’t mean that what aspiring writers often perceive as a lack of consensus is an accurate reflection of what does and doesn’t work in a query, either. The online lack of consensus is almost exclusively among aspiring writers. There are in fact long-standing expectations for what information should be in a query, how it should be presented, etc., just as there are standards for what does and does not belong in a synopsis, how a book manuscript should look on the page, etc.

      But to someone who has never seen a professional manuscript, or the kind of synopses agented writers are routinely expected to produce, or a query that garnered a positive response from an agency, that’s far from self-evident. That’s why I go over the ins and outs of each of these learned skills in such detail here: as I believe I said about fifty times over the course of the posts in the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER and HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS categories, I never expect my readers to do anything simply because I say so. I like to show why what I’m recommending works — and why what might seem to a writer brand-new to constructing all of these documents like arbitrary hoops through which agents expect writers to leap are often necessary for practical reasons.

      I suspect it will come as no surprise to anyone who reads the comments here that not everyone appreciates that approach. I’m constantly amazed at how often commenters suggest, apparently with straight faces, that everything we discuss here could be adequately explained in 500-word posts. Heck, I’m often asked to provide numbered lists of single-sentence demands.

      That’s an extension, I suspect, of the expectation that everything a new writer needs to know should turn up in a single web search. Which, as I said, is rather astonishing to those who have spent years learning how publishing actually works.

      And that may well be the short answer to how to play nicely with those who do feel that way. Many aspiring writers’ frustration seems to stem, at least in part, from not making a sufficiently sharp distinction between writing advice from people who have actual experience working with agents and editors and those who do not. That makes their lives harder, because if every rumor about how to get published is true, and so many of them are mutually contradictory, how on earth could a rational-minded person decide what, for instance, his query letter should look like?

      It can drive a good writer nuts. It really is to a writer’s advantage, then, to consider the source, rather than assuming — as about half of to Author! Author!’s commenters who have expressed this particular frustration seems to have at least started out doing — that every source is equally credible. That’s simply not the case. As I say here early and often, there are a tremendous number of inaccurate rumors out there — but often, they are not presented as rumors, but as barked assertions about what one must or must not do. That can be legitimately confusing to someone new to the game, especially if one buys into the astonishingly pervasive belief that what the publishing industry expects to see from new writers has changed radically in recent years.

      Because those who insist otherwise seem so sure about it, right? They couldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.

      In practice, agencies’ expectations actually haven’t changed all that much: there is standard information that should appear in a query; there is a general understanding of what a synopsis is. Individual agents and agencies may prefer different styles, but honestly, the fact that some agents prefer 1-page synopses and some 5-page does not constitute a fundamental lack of agreement about what a synopsis is. And while popular querying styles have varied over time, the actual informational demands have remained essentially the same. So from the point of view of someone who handles these documents for a living — like, say, an agent, editor, or screener — the popular misconception that there’s some secret magic code to be cracked just doesn’t make any sense. But then, since any industry’s internal standards would be at least a trifle counterintuitive to outsiders, the notion that the best place to find out about such standards would be to listen to rumor does not make a heck of a lot of sense, either.

      Oh, was I not playing nicely? Sorry; you wouldn’t believe how often bloggers like me find themselves on the receiving end of diatribes about how much conflicting information there is out there. Apparently, it’s our responsibility to police the web — because they shouldn’t say it if it isn’t true, right?

      So part of the problem here, I think, is that some aspiring writers expect to be provided with hard-and-fast rules in situations that call for individual writing — and sufficient understanding of the goals of the query and synopsis from the agency’s point of view to be able to adapt general expectations about content and presentation to a specific book’s marketing materials. Is it really so unreasonable for the pros to expect someone who could write a good book to produce original writing in a query, rather than boilerplate terms like complete at 85,000 words lifted from a template?

      To put it another way, there is general consensus within agencies and publishing houses about queries and synopses; there is merely not absolute agreement on a formula for writing either. Nor is there likely to be, because contrary to popular opinion, not every agent shares the same tastes or preferences. So the debate about what queries and synopses should look like takes place almost entirely elsewhere.

      No wonder you are frustrated, Jeff: it sounds as though you’ve been buffeted about on the rough seas of those debates. There’s a reason the pros tend not to get involved in them; they can be brutal. Simply being aware of that can help reduce one’s frustration. Since it’s not as though people who work in publishing hang out on writers’ fora, correcting misconceptions, or police the web for sites that give out inaccurate information, a savvy writer must read selectively. Or simply ignore the noise, find a credible source, and work from there.

      So I guess my practical advice for navigating those rough waters, should you care to hear it, would be fourfold. First, consider whether acolyte response is really the best measure of the credibility of writing advice. Unless those acolytes happen to have followed that advice and gotten published through traditional means, are they in a position to give an informed opinion? Second, before listening to any such advice, it’s a good idea to consider the source — and if the source is vague about how it came to know that what it is recommending is the right approach, I think you’ll find there’s often a reason for that. I am continually flabbergasted by the rumors my readers report they have seen asserted elsewhere as live-or-die rules.

      Third, I’d recommend being suspicious of absolute rules, period. There are legitimate guidelines for queries and synopses; there are genuine expectations; there are even common red flags. It is very much in your interest to learn about all three. But if a source tells you that you must do X in your synopsis without explaining why, or that your query will be subject to instant rejection if you don’t do Y, ask — and the more the source’s tone implies that only an idiot would doubt the assertion, the more imperative it is to ask. As anyone experienced in the fine arts of query- and synopsis-writing could tell you, it’s much, much harder to apply a rule that’s not explained well than one that, well, isn’t.

      Fourth — and you might have seen this coming — at the risk of sounding like an online writing guru, I would strenuously recommend going through the posts under the HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD QUERY LETTER and HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD SYNOPSIS on the category list located on the lower right-hand side of this page. In them, I go over the underlying logic and expectations, as well as debunking some common myths and pointing out some pervasive red flags. I’m known for going over debated points pretty exhaustively, so you might find some concerns laid to rest there.

      Admittedly, reading through those posts will take quite a bit longer than running through the advice on other sites, but I never ask my readers to do something because I say so. You deserve to know why queriers and submitters are expected to do X — or not do Y.

      And if I haven’t covered one of your concerns, please let me know; queries and synopses look different enough to those of us who handle them routinely that it might not occur to a pro to address a point that would strike fresh eyes. Some of my best posts have emerged from questions that made me exclaim, “Really? An agent just wouldn’t think of it that way.” I’m always glad to add to my blog’s supply of good querying and synopsis-writing advice.

      1. Good Lord! That was 2297 words. You might want to post it directly into your blog, as I don’t suspect casual readers will open the comments. I did stumble across a site that had examples of successful queries, and they did vary considerably. That was calming. I guess my issue really is that when I’m on a site where someone solicits help, and someone offers it, they get testy when I suggest they aren’t entirely correct. For example, someone said that the query and synopsis should contain that “complete at xxxK Words” boilerplate, and I responded that they definitely don’t need that in the synopsis and probably don’t in the query, and there might be times when an author didn’t want to mention length right off the bat (such as if they had a 200k first novel). another poster responded that anyone would appear clueless to every self-respecting agent if they didn’t include word count. I suggested an author might appear clueless if he felt he had to tell the agent that his fiction offering was completed. A nasty personal message to me followed. There have even been arguments over font style. About the only thing that hasn’t been a point of argument is font size.
        It doesn’t help that people on the publishing end like to give authoritative proclamations. One I received at the writer’s workshop I am at was that you should NEVER use dialog tags. I consider that to be impossible in English. Then the speaker relented to the very sparse use of “said,” but of course without any adverbs. When I said I could say, “No,” very many ways, and then proceeded to do so (I frequently act, so I can derive lots of different meanings from the same word), When he said it should always be obvious from the context, I suggested I don’t know anyone brilliant enough to affect that, and he suggested I should read more (basically).
        Where was I? Oh yeah, Dogma. It’s pitched a lot because more nuanced consideration of the craft of writing is hard.

        1. I probably will eventually base a blog post around it, Jeff, but as I mentioned in the comment itself, these are not issues that can be addressed adequately in 500 words. You asked a big question, so I gave you a big answer.

          I’m always a bit surprised, though, when askers of big questions in the comments imply that I should not have answered at such length; if you’ll pardon my saying so, anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis should be aware that I am noted for logically extensive answers. I don’t habitually answer questions upon which I have already blogged extensively with fresh posts, however, especially if the comment to which I’m replying contains an implication (as yours did) that anything I say is likely to be used as a link in an ongoing discussion on another site. If you consult the rules for posting comments, you’ll find that I have asked my readers not to attempt to drag me into disputes occurring on other sites. It’s not fair to expect an informational blogger to make the extra hours to read what you do, and obviously, there’s no other way to respond to what’s posted elsewhere. Since what usually happens when a blogger is unwise enough to write a response addressed to the specifics is that the original questioner immediately posts a link to it, often prompting those who disagreed on Site #1 to shift the argument to the unwise blogger’s site, it can cause a lot of unnecessary turmoil without necessarily enlightening my readers at all.

          As I noted in my last, though, you’ll find a wealth of posts on the archive list that deal with the issues you raise. I realize that many readers do concentrate only upon recent posts, and that it’s quicker to ask than to search, but I have addressed these particular issues so often on the blog that there’s a risk that long-time readers will become bored if I revisit them. So if you like, in future, I can simply refer you to the appropriate category titles on the archive list, rather than answering your questions at length.

          I’m willing to assume, though, that your critique reflected merely disappointment that I did not take your battle to a linkable post, not that you have something against full answers. So rather than referring you to the rather well-marked DIALOGUE ISSUES section of the archives, I shall address your second issue at length as well.

          I’m not surprised to hear about the response to your comment on the query: it’s the nature of discussion amongst non-professionals for the debate to be based upon varying opinion, isn’t it? It makes perfect sense that some people would become passionate over what they believe to be inviolable law. It would also make sense that habitual readers of a site devoted to a particular philosophy of querying would not necessarily be inclined to embrace an alternate theory. And I know from experience how widely-believed the myth about complete at X words is. I’ve met many, many aspiring writer absolutely convinced that there is no other professionally-accepted way to mention word count.

          What doesn’t make sense to me, or to most of those of us who do this for a living, is that such debates are so often taken taken as seriously as they are by aspiring writers. To me, I must confess, arguing about it seems like a waste of energy that could be devoted to either writing or querying. Yet the online debates rage on.

          You’re quite right that some pros are given to one-size-fits-all pronouncements, but you’d be surprised at how seldom workshop participants or conference attendees speak up to ask the logical follow-up questions. Often, if someone does, a more nuanced answer follows. More frequently, though, some well-meaning audience member will hear (or perhaps mishear) a statement a pro utters related to a particular book category’s norms — and immediately dash off to inform everyone on a writers’ forum that the pro said that the statement holds true for all writing, all the time. Thus is an online rule born.

          It doesn’t sound, though, as though the workshop leader was being particularly dogmatic — what he says is empirically true. Alternating dialogue often does not contain tag lines (the he said part), for instance. There are also quite a few ways to indicate how something is said other than attaching an adverb to a speaking verb.

          In fact, style lies in not adhering to the same rigid formulae throughout the text, doesn’t it? It would become awfully boring awfully fast if every speech included he said softly, wouldn’t it? That’s why the axiom you mention about tag lines is a fairly common thing for pros to say at conferences. It’s based on an actual industry preference, but how that preference is applied varies across book categories. As a direct result of this preference, there are literally thousands of novels published every year that minimize tag lines. I discuss dialogue preferences at length in the TAG LINES AND HOW TO MINIMIZE THEM posts under the Editing Your Own Manuscript section of the archive list, but here’s the thumbnail: in fiction, the more literate (and older) the presumed audience, the more frowned-upon tag lines are.

          Traditionally, YA has been far more open to tag line (he said, she asked) use than adult fiction; that’s partially because it’s more likely to be read out loud than adult fiction, rendering identifying each speaker each time more desirable. Even then, though, it’s rare that a YA book contains no dialogue without tag lines — which is what your workshop leader probably thought you were suggesting, incidentally. And I gather that you thought he was telling you that it’s never appropriate to describe how something is said.

          Those are quite different issues, so I’m not astonished that he remained unconvinced by your demonstration of different modes of saying things. He heard your “That’s impossible in English!” as “It’s not possible in English to produce comprehensible dialogue without identifying the speaker with a tag line in every speech.” Yet it’s usually quite easy to indicate who is speaking without actually saying he said. For instance:

          Mary wrung her hands. “Oh, whatever shall I do?”

          Absolutely no question that Mary’s the one speaking those words, is there? That’s what your workshop leader almost certainly meant: not that good dialogue does not identify speakers, but that it’s stylistically preferable not to use a tag line every time. What the advice is intended to guard against is runs of dialogue like this:

          “Oh, whatever shall I do?” Mary cried distressedly.

          “Why, whatever is the matter?” George asked abruptly.

          “I can’t stand you,” Mary whimpered sadly. “Also, there’s a bear dragging me off to its lair.”

          Adult readers do tend to find it at least a little annoying to see this much tag line repetition — and, let’s face it, the adverbs here are telling what the narrative text or the dialogue could be showing. Agents and editors that handle adult fiction do tend to regard writing that uses textual clues rather than he said abruptly as inherently better writing for adult mainstream audiences than writing that presumes — and I’m sorry to have to put it so bluntly, but it’s how the pros think of it — writing that operates on the assumption that the reader will not be able to follow alternating dialogue without such clues, or understand that sentences within quotation marks are spoken aloud.

          For all of these reasons, then, most editors would regard this version as a more graceful:

          Mary wrung her hands. “Oh, whatever shall I do?”

          George dropped his clarinet. “Why, whatever is the matter?”

          “I can’t stand you.” Her sad whimper was practically inaudible. “Also, there’s a bear dragging me off to its lair.”

          See? Quite possible, and without sacrificing the implications of the original adverbs.

          Admittedly, though, genre fiction has traditionally been more accepting of tag lines than mainstream or literary fiction. Many writing workshops are aimed at what the industry would consider more literary writing — as I suspect was the case here. It might legitimately have come as a surprise to the workshop leader, then, that you were not aiming for that market. (Of course, he could have asked everyone up front what they were writing, to avoid this sort of contretemps, but I gather there was an ongoing communication problem here.)

          So I would consider the possibility that he didn’t hear your objection as a challenge to a style rule so much as a practical observation — and in that sense, he was quite right to suggest that a trip to the nearest well-stocked bookstore might provide you with some useful examples. It was not outrageous for him to leap to the conclusion that you had not read much fiction that eschewed the use in tag lines– in other words, most recent high-end fiction. He also might have presumed, with some justification, that you read and wrote books for younger readers.

          My guess is that he actually meant to suggest that you simply did not read very extensively outside your chosen genre — and that your chosen genre was not mainstream or literary fiction. So I think the actual issue here is that the instructor did not make it clear within the context of this discussion that what constitutes good writing varies from book category to book category. That’s not an infrequent omission in such classes: unless a workshop is specifically billed as being for writers in a particular genre, it’s quite common to find writers of many genres gathered around the table. That can prove problematic in terms of example-finding. Not reading outside one’s book category is quite common amongst aspiring writers, actually, and the resulting lack of common examples for discussion routinely limit how much those writers can benefit from general discussions of fiction-writing, which tend to be aimed at mainstream or literary fiction.

          It almost certainly would have been more productive for one or the other of you to turn the discussion to some piece of fiction that you had both read, rather than arguing it in the abstract — which, I agree, can be maddening. You might have talked past each other less. It also might have provided you with a better learning experience. If you walked out of that workshop still under the impression that it’s not possible to write effective dialogue without tag lines, I’m guessing that a practical example or two would be helpful. You’ll find quite a few in the posts I mentioned above (and in today’s post, actually), but I’m sorry to hear that you had a negative workshop experience.

          I don’t think, though, that the answer is to dismiss such precepts as unjustified dogma-hugging. My suggestion for dealing with this kind of situation, should it come up again: ask to see a specific example of text. Don’t expect the workshop leader to be able to whip one out of his pocket on the spot, of course; merely tell the teacher that you are anxious to see how what he is suggesting would play out on the page.

          And do allow for the possibility that there might be a good argument underlying a hard-and-fast rule; it honestly might not occur to a pro that it would require explanation. (Yes, really.) When in doubt, ask follow-up questions — but try to keep them practically-oriented, and make certain that you understand how what any writing instructor tells you would work on the page. The resultant answers will probably prove more helpful.

          1. thanks. I’ll not ask a followup question because I’m feeling a little guilty about the amount of time you’ve already spent. I will mention that when I was at the post office I saw some gift boxes that I thought would be great for mailing manuscripts. Who doesn’t love Woodstock and Snoopy? But, I figured simplicity would be more professional.

          2. That image made me chuckle, Jeff: Millicent would indeed be nonplused to open a submission to find Snoopy staring back up at her. I’m inclined to think that she would simply shut the box again and move on to the next submission.

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