First pages that grab: Bark at the Moon by Great First Pages Made Even Better third-place winner, David Fuller

100819 David Fuller 0001
Photo: Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press

Didn’t think I would post twice today, did you? Well, I was up late, preparing some handouts for my querying class this Saturday afternoon at the Words & Music conference in New Orleans. Do consider snatching up your latest query draft and meeting me there; the per-class rate is exceptionally reasonable.

Back to long-delayed business. Back in September, if you will recall, I devoted an array of posts to the Grand Prize, first place, and second-place winners in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest. Since there were so many third-place winners in the YA category and the YA author originally scheduled to provide the feedback to those winners dropped out at the last possible second, I had hoped to rustle up a bona fide YA author to comment instead. A couple of months and a plethora of polite regrets later, and I seem still to be going it alone.

I would have liked to have some YA-attuned eyes on today’s Great First Pages Made Even Better prizewinner, David Jéan Fuller. His entry, page 1 of a paranormal entitled Bark at the Moon, was entered in the contest’s Category II: Adult Fiction and Memoir. The judges felt, however, that not only was the subject matter better suited to YA fantasy, but the voice was as well.

See if you can tell why. Here’s the brief book description. Extra credit if you spot the formatting gaffe.

Fuller synopsis

Could go either way on the subject matter, right? The dashes, however, cannot: in a synopsis, as in a manuscript, dashes should be doubled, with a space on either end (my blog program won’t permit me to show you a doubled dash in action, but here’s how to do it: wordspacedashdashspace). What we see here is an emdash, the super-long version the autoformat function in Word likes to use as a substitute for the doubled dash. Don’t let it — change it back.

But I digress from the book category issue. From the book description, this could be a book about 20-somethings — or 200-somethings, given the paranormal element — but remember, Millicent the agency screener tends to read a synopsis after a query (if it’s in a query packet) or the opening pages (if it’s in a submission packet). In a submission especially, the voice on page 1 is probably going to be the determining factor in whether she says, “Oh, this is a good voice and story for the specified book category — which is fortunate, because my boss, the agent, insists that I reject even very good submissions in categories she does not represent,” and “Oh, that’s too bad: this voice is clearly YA, and my boss represents adult fiction. Next!”

So, perversely, the strength of David’s voice here — and it is quite a strong, believable teenage voice — might actually end up being its rejection trigger. See for yourself — and as usual, if you’re having trouble reading the text, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to increase the image size.

Fuller page 1

Did you form an opinion, or did the formatting problems distract you? Here it is again, correctly formatted; see if you can spot all of the revisions.

Fuller revised

Let’s start at the top, literally. In the original version, the slug line — the author/title/page # bit at the top of the page — appears at the bottom of the header, 1″ down, rather than in the middle of the header, .5″ from the top. The first title should be on the top line of the page, and there should have been two spaces after the colon.

Did you notice that I was able to get an extra line onto the bottom of the page, too? That’s because in my version, I turned off the Widow/Orphan control; if it is on (the default in most word processing programs), the bottom margin is not the same on every page? Why? Well, this function prevents a paragraph’s breaking so only its first line gets left behind on the previous page (the widow) or its last line gets stranded all by itself on the next page (the orphan). In a manuscript, however, you should allow those widows and orphans to fend for themselves; a submission isn’t a PowerPoint presentation, after all.

There was another spacing problem, but someone would probably have to have read manuscripts professionally for a while to have caught it in hard copy: some periods have a single space after them; some have two. A submitter may pick either format, based upon the stated preferences of the agents to whom one is submitting — although purists would prefer two spaces, they are less likely to be vocal about their desires than the fans of the newfangled one-space-only convention — but once that choice is made, the manuscript must be absolutely consistent in implementing it.

Speaking of consistency, while the second song title is rendered correctly, in italics, the first is not: it’s in quotes. Actually, if all of the song titles were in quotes, that probably would not be a deal-breaker for Millicent; she would just make a note for later on, after her boss signs this writer, to remind him to change the song titles to italics.

While these consistency issues might seem like very small things, hardly worth bothering about, to a professional reader’s eye, a couple of oversights appearing on the opening page of a manuscript says something more than the writer’s simply changing his mind about presentation. It says that the writer is not proofreading his work very carefully, which means in turn that he might be a more time-consuming client than someone who does.

Hey, nobody ever said that getting a first page past Millicent was easy.

Do I spot some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” magnifying glass-wielding Millicents-in-training everywhere point out, there’s a Canadian spelling in line 7. While we’re talking about consistency, shouldn’t we be discussing the imperative to change metres to meters — or even changing them to good old American yards?”

Well spotted, nitpickers of tomorrow, but actually, I would leave the spelling as is, provided that David is planning to submit this manuscript only north of the border. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. More to the point, when in Winnipeg, write as the Winnipegians write. It lends a certain air of verisimilitude to the page.

Does that mean that no NYC-based Millicent will sigh over the spelling? Oh, she probably will. It’s just a risk that every non-U.S.-based writer querying and submitting to U.S. agencies has to weigh for herself.

Technicalities aside, what do you think? YA or adult paranormal?

To my eye — and the judges’ — the language alone would lead us to steer this toward YA. Perversely, for the older teen market, limited profanity is fairly routine. Especially as it is used here, where it’s apparently for its own sake, rather than…how to put this delicately…describing an act. That’s far more often a function of teenage speech than of adult narrative.

Also, the tone here is most definitely teenagery — quite authentically so — as is the subject matter. Since it’s hard to picture an adult protagonist caring, at least deeply, about what the protagonist finds engrossing on this page 1, Millicent’s automatic assumption would tend to be that the presumed reader is a teen, too. Although naturally, there is adult fiction where the protagonist starts out as a teenager and moves into adulthood throughout the course of the book, generally speaking, the voice and perspective is geared toward an adult audience.

There’s are a couple of other reasons that this first page just cries out YA, though — and not just because, rather charmingly, the narrator simply assumes that any conceivable reader will be familiar enough with the album he cites that he describes neither the song nor the band; the reader is simply supposed to see the song’s name and instantly picture the album cover.

I see three marketing problems with that. First, ask your parents what albums were, children. Second, if David decides to market this as YA, younger readers won’t catch the reference — and neither will Millicent, who is usually under 26. (Heck, I’m roughly the right age to have known the songs, and I had to look them up.)

Third, if he pitches the book as adult fiction — as, from the category of his entry, I believe he intends — readers old enough to catch the reference may become impatient with the teenage narrator. I tremble to mention it, but they may have teenage children. In any case, 40-somethings do not typically make up the target market for paranormals.

Have you figured out yet what the other YA giveaways might be? No? Okay, let’s take a peek at how Millicent might respond to this page.

David Fuller's edit

Did you catch them this time? First, the occasional slips into the second person, either addressing the reader directly or using it in the colloquial sense, as a substitute for one, as in everyone knows everyone else and riding your bike into the bush is the only was to get out. That’s far more typical of YA narration than narratives aimed at adults — in most adult fiction categories, that your would be considered breaking the fourth wall, as theatre types day: it shatters the illusion that the reader is not, well, reading about this, but actually there.

The other narrative structure here much more common in YA than adult fiction is the frequent use of the passive voice: It was June; there was tall grass. In adult fiction, the passive voice is actively eschewed; many a literary fiction-screening Millicent is trained to regard it as inherently weak writing, more conducive to telling, not showing. The norms of YA, however, permit the occasional lapse into the passive voice, to echo more accurately teenage speech.

There’s one other misstep here that dogs both YA and adult fiction submissions. Again, it’s a subtle point, so I’m going to focus a giant magnifying glass on it myself:

“What?” I said.


See the logic problem? Technically, of course, said could be applied to anything spoken out loud, but practically any editor would change the sentence above without a second thought to this:

“What?” I asked.


Kudos, though, David, on an extremely believable teenage narrative voice — there are few things that annoy YA-reading Millicents more than a young person’s voice that does not sound legitimately young. (You’d be amazed at how many YA narrators come across as 42 — and a preachy 42 at that.) Congratulations, too, on a great author photo for a paranormal; I wouldn’t want to meet those blazing eyes in a dark alley, even under a full moon.

Perhaps especially under a full moon.

Just in case I’ve been too subtle here, were the I — or the judges — to sneak up behind David as he was preparing his query list, I might well murmur in his ear, “Add a few YA agents — and pitch it to them as YA. Oh, and while you’re at it, consider at least a handful of agents who represent both YA and adult authors, to give yourself a shot at the broadest possible market.”

And while I was murmuring, I would tell him — and all of you — to keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XII: give that horn a rest, Bozo. Or at least save it for the moment when it will have the most effect.

Every spring, I like to go on a media fast for a few days, just to reset my perspective: I eschew newspapers, television, radio, and yes, even my own blog. Instead of these shiny, frenetic distractions, I walk outside, breathe the fresh air, and bask in light that isn’t reflected from a screen. Then, refreshed, I can return to my work.

Normally, I wait until Seattle is warm enough for me to take those aforementioned walks without being bundled up to my nose in sweaters, jackets, and mufflers. This year, however, the muses were kind enough to provide me with tap on the shoulder and a murmured, “It’s time to go, sweetie.”

Actually, if I’m honest about it, their hint was more of a gigantic shove and a bellow of “Get a move on, doll!” that would have made the late and loud Ethel Merman wheel around in alarm, exclaiming, “What the heck was that?” But omen-watchers can’t be choosers, so out the door I went.

What happened, you ask? Well, at the end of last week, I logged into Facebook (where I have recently erected a fanpage, incidentally) to check in with some friends in Tokyo, as one does when natural and manmade disasters occur simultaneously. When I tried to post a comment, a brusque message informed me that the system had experienced a technical error. The dialogue box invited me to click on an ostensibly helpful link entitled Try Again.

That seemed like sensible advice: I clicked it once. The system then proceeded to post my comment 94 times, of its own accord. And frankly, what I’d had to say would have been interesting to even the most avid reader three or four times, at most.

But in the best tradition of false suspense, Facebook did not show me those 94 comments. Instead, it simply sent me back to my own homepage, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. So how did I find out about the infamous 94 at all? Because when I tried commenting on another friend’s page, up popped a genuinely nasty message saying that I was blocked from posting for some indefinite period of time, ranging (it said) anywhere from a few hours to a few days, because of my ongoing patter of (unnamed) malicious behavior annoying or abusive to other users.

What that behavior was, I was left to guess; the message merely referred me to a FAQ page. In the manner of badly-designed FAQ pages everywhere, it simply repeated verbatim what the message that had sent me there said. Grumbling, I went back to my friend’s page and did something that the harsh rebuke had not advised, but should have: I manually deleted 93 of those messages, one at a time. Because the system isn’t set up do mass deletions, this took almost 20 minutes.

Now, I could have taken this blatantly unfair series of events in any number of ways. I could have shaken my head over just how much time advancing technology manages to waste in all of our lives — as any aspiring writer trying to blandish a recalcitrant PC into printing a document in standard format (it’s easier on a Mac), unless the program’s designers happened to envision the problem one wants to solve, even the simplest change can eat up hours. I could also have wondered whether Facebook had invented this glitch on purpose, as an excuse to get rid of subscribers. I could even have thrown up my hands and concluded that the computers have become sentient — if not particularly intelligent — and are now turning on their masters.

But I’m an editor by trade. The very first words I uttered when I finally tracked down what the problem was: “94 posts that all say the same thing! That’s almost as repetitious as dialogue in the average submission.”

Hey, my assistant laughed when I said it. Shortly before I told her to take a long weekend and walked out the door myself, seeking a soothing walk in the rain, early spring flowers, and some peace from computer systems that have apparently decided the next step toward world domination is to create a class of unjustly accused computer outcasts.

Early in my walk, I had intended to use that anecdote as a springboard for a well-justified lecture about the dangers of replicating the extreme redundancy of everyday speech on the manuscript page, but by the time I returned home, rivulets streaming from my hair, the muses had talked me into a sneakier way to make a literary point. Ahem: did you catch the rather fundamental storytelling error I deliberately inserted into that story?

Hint: it happens in comic manuscripts so often that our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, automatically twitches a little at the very sight of it.

If you flung your hand in the air and yelled, “I know, Anne! The narrative had another character, your assistant, laugh as a means of demonstrating that a joke was funny,” you already have an A for the day. If you added, “And the assistant character didn’t appear in the story until she was needed to provide the laugh track,” make that an A+.

What about this narrative trick sets Millie a-twitching, you ask? To a professional reader, it’s a telltale sign of authorial insecurity: if the writer were positive that the joke were really funny, Millicent reasons, why would he think the reader needed a prompt to laugh?

Comedic insecurity’s shows up in a few other twitch-inducing manifestations on the manuscript page. I’ve included specimens of four kinds in the following sterling piece of prose — and, just for kicks, another common non-humor pet peeve. See if you can spot them all.

Melvyn glanced stealthily over his shoulder. No one had ever caught him hacking into someone else’s account to post endlessly redundant messages; he wasn’t even sure what dire punishment would await a brave soul caught doing such a thing. Trembling, he reached a hairy forefinger toward the ENTER key.

“Hey, geek.” Clarice came bouncing into the room, a stack of invoices wedged under her arm. “You hiding from the boss? She’s on a fourteen-apple rampage.”

Melvyn chuckled. Arnette was always on some kind of rampage, so he and the other staffers had come up with a rating scale like the one used for diamonds: the weightier her mood, the bigger the number of carats. Bill had just gotten engaged at the time, so solitaire classifications were much discussed around the office. Then some office wag decided that carats weren’t funny enough and changed them to apples. A fourteen-apple rampage must have been impressive to behold.

If you guessed that one of the problems was that the explanation in the last paragraph was boring enough to send Millicent’s weary eyes wandering morosely toward the window to contemplating the sweet spring day outside, well, you have a point. Like so many inside jokes ripped from real-life situations and reproduced faithfully on the page, this bit of office humor falls a bit flat.

A word to the wise: jokes like this should be test-driven verbally before you even consider typing them into your manuscript — and driven by people who do not know anything about the original context of the joke. If total strangers do not respond with mirth, chances are that, as the saying goes, you had to be there in order to find it funny.

Millicent was most assuredly not there. Need I say more?

What else is wrong with this bit of failed office humor? Did you notice that the text laid no foundation for the joke? Had an earlier scene featured some reference to the carat rating system, Clarice’s changing it to apples might have been spontaneously funny. Heck, there could be a running joke where each staffer substitutes his or her own favored fruit, vegetable, or legume.

Okay, so maybe you still would have had to be there. But there’s no denying that the last paragraph was funnier because it contained the word legume.

Unexpected words can often liven up an otherwise so-so bit of humor. As we saw in the example above, the opposite is also true: uninspired word choices can flatten even a funny situation on the page. And when the situation isn’t all that funny in the first place…

Well, I don’t think any of us want to be there, do we?

I spot a few clowns with their oversized gloves in the air. Yes, Bozo? “But Anne,” the red-nosed one points out, and who am I to deny the request of someone in a rainbow-hued fright wig? “How do we know that the author of that example hadn’t set up the joke earlier in the book? This is just an isolated excerpt; we really don’t know anything about context.”

Good point, but would you mind not honking that ooga horn in my face? Thank you so much. Something in the passage itself told me as clearly as if the author had hoisted a ten-foot banner reading FIRST WE’VE HEARD OF THIS over the page that the text had been a trifle light on set up. Any guesses what it was?

If you immediately started jumping up and down, shouting, “If a foundation had been laid for that joke, the turgid paragraph-long explanation would have been unnecessary,” your cup runneth over with editorial virtue. Properly set-up humor does not require further explanation — in fact, telling someone who didn’t laugh why a joke was funny is one of the surest ways to kill any residual humor that might have been lingering in the atmosphere.

Is that plain, or shall I re-explain it? Over and over again, until you wish I had never brought it up in the first place?

On the manuscript page, explanation after the fact is one of the surest signs that the writer has doubts about the joke. “If she thought that it could stand alone,” Millicent mutters, “why would she have slowed the scene down with a paragraph of explanation. Next!”

In response to what half of you just thought: yes, failed humor is often an instant-rejection violation, at least within the first few pages of a submission — and not merely because it’s a high dive that ended in a belly flop. It’s a voice issue, and a marketing one. While the genuinely funny is quite refreshing to find in the middle of a stack of manuscripts, if only because of its rarity, jokes that don’t work tell professional readers that the writer is not yet closely in tune with his audience.

His intended reading audience, that is, not just first readers he may have plucked from his doubtless wide and admiring acquaintance to serve as first readers. It’s an unavoidable reality of comedy writing that people who know and love the author are far more likely to laugh at his jokes than total strangers.

Trust me, Millicent has heard, “But it made my mom/husband/wife/sibling/coworker howl with laughter!” many, many times; to the pros, it’s simply irrelevant. No matter how much a joke or situation may have ‘em rolling in the aisles of your favorite dispenser of alcoholic beverages, if it doesn’t make a stranger laugh as it is written on the page, it’s likely to be a liability at submission time.

Okay, writers without comedic aspirations, your time has come: what was the other common Millicents’ pet peeve? Hint: it appeared in the following sentence.

Then some office wag decided that carats weren’t funny enough and changed them to apples.

Give up? It’s that pesky then, used in a manner that is actually rare not to find in a novel or memoir submission. (Again, don’t underestimate how much sheer repetition can contribute to a professional reader’s negative reaction to a manuscript gaffe. You try seeing the same narrative device in 75 different submissions in a week, and you might well start twitching, too.)

Okay, so that’s a tiny pet peeve — but as we have seen throughout this series, a series of small missteps can add up to rejection fairly quickly. Especially if several of them have chosen to congregate on page 1.

But why might this innocent-seeming word have begun annoying the pros in the first place? An editorial antipathy toward redundancy, mostly: when used in the way we see it above, to indicate that what came next occurred after what’s just been described, then — and its even more popular sibling, and then — are technically unnecessary. In English prose, unless the reader is specifically told that time is not running in a linear manner, events described are assumed to have occurred in the order they appear on the page.

That being the case, why is it necessary to tell the reader that the office wag’s decision came after the carat joke had spread throughout the office? Does the reader have any reason to think that it didn’t happen next?

Instead, why not reserve then to introduce turns of event that might genuinely startle the reader? Millicent is far less likely to object to it as the clarion call of an unexpected sudden plot twist than as a simple and unnecessary notation of the passage of time. Take a gander:

Bill had just gotten engaged at the time, so solitaire classifications were much discussed around the office. Then in the middle of the fifth straight day of coffee-break chat on the subject, Arnette swept into the employee lounge, wielding a roll of duct tape. She slapped a piece across every kisser that so much as uttered the word carat. Thereafter, we were careful to use euphemisms.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? That’s a surprise more than worthy of being introduced to Millicent by then.

Yes, Bozo? You honked your horn? “I wouldn’t really mind Millicent’s objecting to my use of then, or even not finding my jokes funny; I get that my humor might not be everyone’s proverbial cup of tea. I also get that agency screeners read a lot of submissions in a day. What I object to is not being told what specifically triggered the rejection. How hard would it be to scrawl a single sentence fragment in the margins at the point where they stopped reading, so the submitting writer would know why the manuscript was rejected? Or even just make a mark on the page, so the writer would know where the screener stopped reading?”

I have to say, I’m with you on this one, campers: a simple checklist of the most common rejection reasons would take Millicent very little time to fill out. It would be even speedier to print up a few hundred thousand stickers reading, “Show, don’t tell!” or “Where’s the conflict?” so she could slap ‘em on the manuscript page at the precise point where her pet peeve got to her. At least then, the writer could learn enough from the submission experience to improve the manuscript before trying again.

But that, alas, is not the reality of submission in the current hyper-competitive literary environment. We could expend a great deal of energy resenting that the process is set up not to help aspiring writers learn how to get better at submission, but for Millicent to be able to reject as high a proportion of requested materials as possible, to narrow the masses down to the happy few her boss has time to read and consider.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather invest my energies in teaching you to rid your submissions of the most frequent red flags. For the rest of today’s post, I shall concentrate on the rejection reasons that would make the most sense for agency screeners to rubber-stamp upon submissions: ubiquitous problems that are relatively easy for the writer to fix.

If she knows to fix them, that is.

One of my favorite easily-fixed common problems: a manuscript aimed at an adult audience that has a teenage protagonist in the opening scene. If the teenager is the focus of page 1, Millicent is prone to say, “Oh, this is YA — the writer must think that we represent it. Next!”

Remember, there is no easier rejection than a book category that an agency does not handle. (That’s one reason that most agencies prefer query letters to contain the book category in the first paragraph, FYI: it enables agency screeners to reject queries about types of books they do not represent without reading the rest of the letter.) In an agency that represents both, the submission would be read with a different target market in mind, and thus judged by the wrong rules.

“Wait just a cotton-picking minute!” I here some of you out there murmuring. “This isn’t my fault; it’s the screener’s. All anyone at an agency would have to do to tell the difference is to take a look at the synopsis they asked me to include, and…”

Stop right there, oh murmurers, because you’re about to go down a logical wrong path. As we discussed earlier in this series, you can’t legitimately assume that Millicent is going to read your synopsis prior to reading your submission — or indeed at all. Nor is she even remotely likely to have your query letter at her elbow when she begins your manuscript, so she may refresh her recollection of what the book is about. As an unfortunate but direct result, it’s never safe to assume that the screener deciding whether your first page works or not is already familiar with your premise.

Why? Limited time. Millicent needs to figure out whether the submission in front of her is a compelling story, true, but she also needs to be able to determine whether the writing is good AND the style appropriate to the subject matter. An adult style and vocabulary in a book pitched at 13-year-olds, obviously, would send up some red flags in her mind.

Or even in a book she assumes is aimed at 13-year-olds. For those of you who write about teenagers for the adult market, I have a bold suggestion: make sure that your title and style in the opening pages reflect a sensibility that is unquestionably adult, so your work is judged by the right rules. This can be genuinely difficult if your narrator is a teenager.

Which brings me to another easily-fixed rejection reason: narration in a kid’s voice that does not come across as age-appropriate. This issue crops up all the time not just in YA, but in books about children aimed at adult readers — as a general rule of thumb, if your protagonist is a pre-Civil War teenaged farmhand, he should not speak as if he graduated from Dartmouth in 2002. Nor should a narrator who is a 6-year-old girl wield the vocabulary of an English Literature professor.

Oh, you may laugh. Care to guess how many novels like that the average Millicent sees in a year?

Usually, though, the misfit between narrator and voice is not quite so obvious. Often, teenage protagonists are portrayed from an adult’s, or even a parent’s, point of view, creating narrators who are hyper-aware that hormones are causing their mood swings or character behavior apparently motivated (from the reader’s point of view, anyway) solely by age, not individual personality or the ambient conditions. But teenagers, by and large, do not think of themselves as moody, impossible, or even resentful; most of them, when asked, will report that they are just trying to get along in situations where they have responsibilities but few rights and little say over what they do with their time and energy.

Yet screeners are constantly seeing openings where teenage girls practice bulimia simply because they want to fit in, teenage boys act like James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, teenage characters flounce off to their rooms to sulk — and everyone between the ages of 10 and 19 habitually says, “Whatever,” and rolls his or her eyes on the slightest provocation. Yes, some teenagers do these things, undoubtedly, but in novels, these behaviors have been documented so often that they come across as clichés. Compounding the problem: teenage characters and narrators who diagnose these activities as an adult would are accordingly rife.

That might not bug a 45-year-old professional reader very much, but agency screeners and editorial assistants tend to be really young: many weren’t teenagers all that long ago. Sometimes, they are still young enough to resent having been pigeonholed in their recent youths, and if your manuscript is sitting in front of them, what better opportunity to express that resentment than rejecting it is likely to present itself?

So do be careful, and make sure you are showing Millicent something she doesn’t see twenty times per week. When in doubt, take a long, hard look at your teenage characters and ask yourself, “Is this kid continually emitting martyred signs because of what’s going on, or because of who he is as an individual? Or — and I need to be honest here — is he doing this simply because this is how I think teenagers in general act?”

Those questions are worth acting with any character who happens to be a member of a commonly-stereotyped group (“Are all of the pretty characters in my book dumb, and the homely ones smart?”), but perhaps because so many first-time novelists of books about teens are the parents of same, Millicent tends to be especially sensitive to stereotyping of the young. And I have to say, I’m with her on this one: the best opening with a teenage protagonist I ever saw specifically had the girl snap out of an agony of self-doubt (which could easily have degenerated into cliché) into responsible behavior in the face of a crisis on page 1. To submission-wearied professional eyes, reading a manuscript where the teenaged protagonist had that kind of emotional range was like jumping into a swimming pool on a hot day: most refreshing.

One of the most common ways to tactics up a teenage scene in the past is an opening including quotes from song lyrics. Yes, this can be an effective way to establish a timeframe without coming out and saying, hey, reader, it’s 1982, but it is also very, very overused. I blame this tactic’s use in movies and TV: in the old days, soundtracks used to contain emotionally evocative incidental music, but in recent years, the soundtrack for any movie set in the 20th-century past is a virtual replica of the K-Tel greatest hits of (fill in timeframe), as if no one in any historical period ever listed to anything but top 40.

I’m fairly confident, for instance, that there was no period in American history where dance bands played only the Charleston, where every radio played nothing but American Pie, or every television was tuned to THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. Yes, even when Elvis or the Beatles appeared on it. Writers are creative people — don’t we owe it to ourselves as a group to mix it up a bit more?

Other than ubiquity, there are other reasons that agents and their screeners tend to frown upon the inclusion of song lyrics in the opening pages of a book. Unless the song is within the public domain — and the last time I checked, Happy Birthday still wasn’t, so we are talking about a long lead time here — the publisher will need to get permission from whoever owns the rights to the song in order to reproduce it.

Translation: song lyrics on page one automatically mean more work for the editor. And possibly expense. Think that will make the book harder or easier for Millicent’s boss to sell?

Also, one of the benefits of setting a sentiment to music is that it is easier to sound profound in song than on the printed page. No disrespect to song stylists, but if you or I penned some of those lines, we would be laughed out of our writers’ groups. For this reason, song lyrics taken out of context and plopped onto the page often fall utterly flat — especially if the screener is too young to have any personal associations with that song.

Yes, that makes me feel rather old sometimes, too.

It is unclear whether the narrator is alive or dead started cropping up on a lot of agents’ pet peeve lists immediately after THE LOVELY BONES came out. Ghostly narrators began wandering into agencies with a frequency unseen since the old TWILIGHT ZONE series was influencing how fantasy was written in North America on a weekly basis. And wouldn’t you know it, the twist in many of these submissions turns out to be that the reader doesn’t learn that the narrator is an unusually chatty corpse until late in the book, or at any rate after the first paragraph of the first page.

Remember what I was saying the other day about Millicent’s not liking to feel tricked by the early pages of a submission in to thinking the story is about something that it isn’t? Well…

I’ll leave you to ponder the possibilities. I’m off to have dinner with a sulky teenager who prattles on about peer pressure, a child who speaks as though she is about to start collecting Social Security any day now, and a fellow who may or may not have kicked the bucket half a decade ago. Honestly, if agents and editors would only recognize that we writers are merely holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, all of our lives would be infinitely easier.

Insert eye roll here. Followed by a nice, long blast on Bozo’s horn, just in case anyone didn’t get that the last suggestion was a joke. Keep up the good work!

What’s so funny about comedy writing? A conversation between novelist Jonathan Selwood and SEX author Mike Sacks


I’m taking a quick break from Synopsispalooza to bring you a treat, campers: a conversation on comedy writing between two of the best out there: Jonathan Selwood, author of one of my all-time favorite comic novels, The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse, and Mike Sacks’, one of the authors of Random House’s recently-released SEX: OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK. Since FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Jonathan has already regaled us with a couple of funny and insightful guest posts on the art of writing dark comedy (links: post 1 and post 2), I asked him to sit down with Mike to talk about being funny in general and being funny about sex in particular.

The result was absolutely hilarious, in a very explicit way, as one might expect from two authors who write about sex. I wish I could share that interview with you, but if I did, every parental Internet blocking program and every public library’s web screener would light up like a Christmas tree.

Which is, in a way, very much to Jonathan and Mike’s credit: they know their respective audiences. But if I shared that particular interview with mine, my teen readers might not be able to read it; I am very committed to keeping this site accessible to them. So I asked the gentlemen concerned to do a nuts-and-bolts interview on comedy writing instead, something in the style of Mike’s guest post last year, a fabulous discussion of the art of being funny with legendary comedy writer Merrill Markoe, and they graciously assented.

As some of you may recall from my announcement of Mike’s book release in August, this was not the first time I had run into this problem. If I so much as posted the publisher’s blurb for SEX verbatim, as is my wont with new releases, most Internet filters of the type employed by parents and public libraries would have blocked the post. At the time, we all tittered together at a screening program’s not being bright enough to tell the difference between comedy and {WORD EXPUNGED}, but such is the world in which we live.

So how did I end up handling it? I did in fact post the publisher’s blurb in my publication announcement, but to ascertain that the post would be accessible to as many of my regular readers as possible, though, I placed a few discreet visual barriers in front of the words and concepts that might prove problematic. Here is the result.

Mike Sacks sex cover


The Association for the Betterment of Sex (A.B.S.) presents Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk, a radical and invaluable resource for improving your sexual communication—whether you have been in a committed relationship for years, or have just moments ago removed the shrinkwrap from your new {EXPUNGED}.

Here are just a few sensual revelations you’ll find within these pages:

– The precise location of the female {EXPUNGED} (latitude and longitude)

– “Going on tour with Midnight Oil” and more outmoded {EXPUNGED}slang

– Forced perspective and other techniques for visually enhancing the size of {EXPUNGED}

– The Top Five pastry-related euphemisms for {EXPUNGED}

– How to score big at your next {EXPUNGED} party, with our crowd-pleasing ambrosia-salad recipe

– Listings of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” dry-cleaning services, for freshening up your vinyl {EXPUNGED} or adult-sized {EXPUNGED}costume

– Your first {EXPUNGED}, and how the ancient Mayans predicted it wouldn’t go over so hot

Exhaustively researched and fully illustrated, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk is a must-read for you, your sexual partner(s), and anyone who wishes there was more to sex than {EXPUNGED} for a few seconds and begging for forgiveness.

Nor is Jonathan, our interviewer du jour, to be outdone on the subversive comedy on sexuality front. His novel’s frank, hilarious presentations of {EXPUNGED} reconstructive surgery and {EXPUNGED}{EXPUNGED}{EXPUNGED} during an earthquake set the LA ethos on its proverbial ear. Here’s the relatively clean publisher’s blurb for THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE:

pinball theory cover selwood

For years, painter Isabel Raven has made an almost-living forging Impressionist masterpieces to decorate the McMansions of the not-quite-Sotheby’s-auction rich. But when she serendipitously hits on an idea that turns her into the It Girl of the L.A. art scene, her career takes off just as the rest of her life heads south. Her personal-chef boyfriend is having a wild sexual dalliance with the teenage self-styled Latina Britney Spears. If Isabel refuses to participate in an excruciatingly humiliating ad campaign, her sociopathic art dealer is threatening to gut her like an emu. And her reclusive physicist father has conclusively proven that the end of the world is just around the corner. 

Now, with the Apocalypse looming — and with only a disaffected Dutch-Eskimo billionaire philanthropist and his dissolute thirteen-year-old adopted daughter to guide her — there’s barely enough time remaining for Isabel to reexamine her fragile delusional existence…and the delusional reality of her schizophrenic native city.

As I said, these two authors had a lot to talk about, and I genuinely regret that I cannot bring you their original, unexpurgated conversation. But what would have been the fun of your trying to decipher what they had to say between all of those {EXPUNGED} barriers? Here instead, for the benefit of all of you aspiring comedy writers out there, is their second conversation. Enjoy!

Oh, and Synopsispalooza will be starting up again on Saturday evening — I’m taking a couple of days off to celebrate my birthday. Back to the grindstone soon!

pinball theory cover selwoodMike Sacks sex coverpinball theory cover selwoodMike Sacks sex coverpinball theory cover selwoodMike Sacks sex coverpinball theory cover selwood

Jonathan Selwood: First, could you please give a brief (ahem, PG-13) description of your new book, SEX: OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK for any of our blog readers who have yet to pick up a copy?

Mike Sacks: Sure. It’s a parody of a sex manual, the type you might have found
next to your parents’ bed when you were growing up. You know the kind:
illustrations of aging hippies, strange words, even stranger
descriptions. The premise of our book is that it was written by an
association in Washington DC called The Association for the Betterment
of Sex. It’s run by five guys (us), all of whom know very little about
sex. We find women very mysterious and sex sort of puzzling. In short,
we’re idiots, not to be trusted.

How did you get into comedy writing? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do?

I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was growing up, but I read a
lot of books and I always loved comedy. For a time I wanted to be a
pilot and then a surgeon. Alas, my grades were really mediocre, so I
began to write, just for fun. After college I worked in a record store
for a few years until I figured that writing was a more interesting
way to make a living than retail, which is the worst. I began to sell
articles to Cracked magazine, as well as MAD and National Lampoon. And
there began my rise to the middle.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Many “serious” writers (and readers) fail to recognize how hard it is to be truly funny on the page. Are you ever frustrated by the fact that so many people believe funny = easy?

Not really, no. It’s not necessarily a reader’s job to know how
difficult it is to write comedy for the page, but I can tell you that
they quickly learn if they try it for themselves. It does take a
specific set of chops. So even if you’re a good writer, you’re not
necessarily going to be good at writing something that’s funny. And
the page is a whole different beast than writing for TV or the movies
or the stage. But it’s not impossible, of course. It’s like learning
any sort of skill set: playing the piano, cooking a soufflé, or
learning how to sing. The difference with writing, I suppose, is that
you have to teach yourself. People may disagree with this, but I think
you really do have to sit down, day after day, and just write. And
learn from your mistakes.

You worked with four other top tier comedy writers in writing SEX: OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK. Do you find that this type of collaboration leads more towards supportive teamwork or cutthroat competition? In other words, are you helping each other along the way, or always trying to one-up each other with your jokes?

No, at a certain level, a writer knows that a group project shouldn’t
be looked at as a competition. If a joke doesn’t work, it doesn’t
work. And if that bothers you, you should probably not write with
others. The end product is what matters. If another writer’s joke is
better than yours, you should go with that. You can always use your
joke in another piece, down the road. I loved working with these guys.
In a sense, it was a lot easier than writing alone. I’m now associated
with jokes that I didn’t write and never could have thought of for
myself. It was a pleasure. But you do have to be willing to be a
little flexible and put aside your ego for the common good.

I often find that once I can nail down the appropriate “tone” in a comedic work, things start to fall into place. How important is finding the right tone in your own work, and how on earth did you manage to keep a consistent tone with so many different writers on SEX: OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK?

Well, that is extremely important, especially when you work with
others. We started the project with a general idea of what we wanted
to do, and through trial and error, finally came up with a tone that
we were all happy with. It was pretty easy sticking with that tone
throughout the process of writing the book. We all just sort of fell
into it. And if one of us strayed from it, we would just tweak that
joke to make it more consistent. But, yes, finding that right tone is
a vital part of the process in writing any humor piece.

As a follow-up, do you ever sacrifice a joke to keep the appropriate tone (no matter how funny it is), or does a great joke trump consistency of tone?

There are definitely cases where a joke is not “pitch perfect” with
the rest of the jokes, but as long as they hold true to the
characters, then we kept it in. There was some margin for error–as
it’s not a serious sex book. Also, all of the characters are sort of
moronic and capable of saying anything. So that worked in our favor.
When you have stupid characters, you’re allowed more freedom.

Do you have any pre-writing rituals to put yourself in a comedic mindset? Say, putting on a pair of fuzzy bunny slippers, or chugging a half-gallon of cheap scotch?

No. Just booting up the computer, putting on headphones and wearing my
“DO NOT DISTURB” baseball cap.

And last, now that book is done and bestsellerdom is merely a technicality, what’s next for Mike Sacks? More work with the SEX: OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK team? Or do you have solo projects in mind?

I have a third book coming out in March 2011 from Tin House Books.
It’s a collection of 55 published short humor pieces from The New
Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, McSweeney’s and other publications. It’s
called “Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reality.” After that, I’m free.
Free for what I don’t know yet, but I’ll be free. In the meantime,
write to me at mikebsacks(at)gmail(dot)com Or just send me a new “DO NOT

selwood-1Jonathan Selwood is the author of the dark comedy THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE. Like all native Oregonians, Selwood was born in California. He enjoys talking very loudly when intoxicated, composting kitchen scraps, excessively rolling his Rs when ordering burrrrrritos… using ellipses…

mikesackslogoMike Sacks has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker, Time, McSweeney’s, Radar, MAD, New York Observer, Premiere, Believer, Vice, Maxim, Women’s Health, and Salon. He has worked at The Washington Post, and is currently on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair.

His first book, And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Humor Writers About Their Craft, was released in Summer 2009. Some of those interviewed include: George Meyer, Harold Ramis, Al Jaffee, Buck Henry, Bob Odenkirk, Stephen Merchant, David Sedaris, Jack Handey, Robert Smigel, and Daniel Clowes.

Querypalooza, part XXIII: when the going gets tough, the tough get…wait — what do you mean, they wanted 50 CONSECUTIVE pages?


My apologies for breaking up that interesting submission practicalities in the morning/query composition in the evening rhythm we’d had going here for the last few days of Querypalooza. I had fully intended to sit down and write another example-stuffed post on the subtle differences that frequently separate a successful query from one less likely to generate a request for pages, saving the partials-related information below for tomorrow morning.

A few hours ago, however, I received some very bad news about a blog-related situation I absolutely had to drop everything and correct right away. It ate up much of today’s writing time. Fortunately, I already had this post written: I had intended to deal with partials at the end of last week, before I got carried away by excitement over generating full query examples.

So I decided that it would make more sense to post it now, rather than writing frantically into the wee hours on a content-related post. That way, we all get to bed earlier, and the post quality will almost certainly reflect my bad day less. (Case in point: when I did try to generate examples this evening — surprise, surprise — the storylines all seemed to relate to this afternoon’s crisis. Not really fair to you, that.)

Last time, I wrapped up my advice on the assembly and packaging of a requested partial with some advice long-time readers of this blog MAY have heard before:

broken-record No matter how many pages or extra materials you were asked to send, do remember to read your submission packet IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you seal that envelope. Lest we forget, everything you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing, please.

Sometimes, one’s own weary peepers are not up to the job — and with good reason. If you’ve been up half the night printing out those pages the agent of your dreams requested yesterday, so you may pop them in the mail first thing tomorrow, chances are that you’re going to be more than a little stressed out and tired by the time you get around to proofreading.

Heck, you may even be so longing for your pillow’s sweet, sweet embrace that you find yourself sorely tempted — dare I say it? Apparently, I do — to blow off this necessary step and seal the envelope. Or hit the SEND key.

That would be a bad idea, and not only because even a cursory once-over might have caught that missed word in the middle of the second paragraph of your first page. You know, the one left over from your third revision, when you decided your opening needed more action. (You haven’t read it in hard copy since you made that change, have you? Too bad; Millicent the agency screener was kind of liking that scene — but she knows from experience that a revision-hangover typo on page 1 is probably indicative of a Frankenstein manuscript full of similar half-made changes.)

It would be an equally bad idea to send out a query packet without last-minute proofreading, and not only because then, you might have noticed that you eliminated some grammatically-necessary punctuation when you cut out a sentence because it made your letter longer than a single page. (See parenthetical logic in previous paragraph for the probable conclusion. Hey, I don’t call them Frankenstein queries for nothing: this easily-identifiable type of revision residua might as well be waving a white flag at Millicent, shouting, “Hey, lady! This writer doesn’t go back and re-read his own work between revisions! Doesn’t that render it quite likely that the manuscript, should you request it, will exhibit Frankenstein tendencies?)

May I make a simple suggestion to counteract the editorial deficiencies brought on by trying to rush a query or submission packet out the door? Before you rush those requested materials off to the post office or hit SEND, it’s an excellent idea to have another set of eyes scan those pages first.

Ditto with contest entries and residency applications, by the way; it’s just too easy to miss a crucial typo yourself. Particularly if you’re really in a hurry to meet a deadline — and what entrant or applicant isn’t? — and neglect to read your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Why do I feel compelled to slip this golden piece of editorial advice into this post more than once, you ask — or, indeed, repeat it so often? Because I can already feel some of you gearing up to blow it off, that’s why.

Specifically, those of you who have been huffing impatiently throughout the last few paragraphs. “But Anne,” those of you who pride yourself on your attention to detail point out, “I must have read the pages the agent asked to see in my partial 75 times while I was revising them. I’ve read them so many times that two-thirds of my brain cells think they’re already published. What could I possibly learn by reading them again, much less IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Quite a lot, actually. Like, for instance, if when you changed your protagonist’s sister’s name from Mona to Maura, you altered every reference. Or if every line of the requested synopsis printed out legibly. Or — brace yourselves; this may be a hard one for some of you — if the minor changes you made in the course of the 71rst read are consistent with the ones from read 72.

Shall I rephrase that, to drive home the point a little harder? Okay, how’s this: had you re-read every syllable of your partial, contest entry, or writing sample tucked into a residency application between the time you made those final few changes and when you popped your last submission into the mail?

Or since you popped your last submission into the mail? What about your query letter — or, indeed, any page you have ever sent out in a query packet?

Wow, the crowd’s gone so quiet all of a sudden. Was it something I said?

For those of you who were not suddenly flung into retrospective panic about what kind of typo or printing snafu you might have inadvertently passed under Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s over-tired eyes, you needn’t take my word for how often writers realize only after something’s out the door that it wasn’t quite right. Many members of the Author! Author! community have already shared their horror stories on the subject; it makes for some enlightening reading.

Feel free to add stories of your own on that list; sharing them honestly will help other aspiring writers. But do not, I beg you, set yourself up for a spectacularly instructive anecdote by failing to read the very latest version of your partial, contest entry, or query packet writing sample IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Yes, even if you plan on submitting those pages via e-mail or by entering copying and pasting them into a form on an agency’s website. On average, people read 70% faster on a backlit screen; unless you share Superman’s optometrist, you’re infinitely more likely to catch typos, logic problems, and omissions in hard copy than soft copy.

(The lenses in Clark Kent’s glasses aren’t prescription, you see, but clear, and thus his vision is…oh, never mind.)

While I’m already hovering over you like a mother hen, here’s a post-submission regret I hope I can wipe from the face of the earth forever: including a business-size (#10) envelope as the SASE for a partial or a contest that returns materials, rather than an envelope (and appropriate postage) large enough to send back everything in the submission or entry packet.

“But Anne!” half of those with submissions currently languishing at agencies across the U.S. cry. “I thought the point of the SASE — that stands for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, right? — was so the agent who requested the partial could mail me a letter, asking me to send the rest of the manuscript. Or, heaven forfend, a rejection letter! If he didn’t like my pages, wouldn’t he just, you know, toss ‘em in the trash or recycling bin?”

Well, the agent (or, more likely, the agent’s Millicent-in-residence) usually does include at least a form-letter rejection in a homeward-bound SASE, but that’s not the SASE’s primary purpose, from the agency’s point of view. As we have discussed at some length over the past few days, its primary use is to get all of those pages out of its office and back to the aspiring writers who sent them.

That’s not just because if they didn’t, the average agency’s halls would be so filled with rejected pages by the end of the first month that Millicent wouldn’t be able to fight her way to the coffeemaker through the chest-high stacks of pages. (She would have had to give up her traditional lattes by the end of the first week; she wouldn’t be able to find the front door during her lunch break.) They also return the pages because it’s in the writer’s copyright interest to know precisely where his pages are at any given time — and should any of that seem paranoid to you, you might want to take a gander at the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the archive list at right.

If, on the other hand, the idea of a submission’s tumbling into unscrupulous hands doesn’t strike you as particularly outrageous, but the logic behind the writer’s providing the postage to convey her own rejection to her does, I would recommend a quick read through the posts under the SASE GUIDELINES category.

And for those of you reading this post in a tearing hurry because you’re frantically trying to get a partial out the door and into the mail, or whose fingers are itching to hit the SEND key for electronic submissions, let me just go ahead and state it as a boldfaced aphorism: with any submission, always include a SASE sufficiently large for the agent to send the entire submission back to you, with enough stamps attached to get it there safely.

Again, emphasis on stamps. Attaching metered postage to a SASE is another fairly common mistake in submitting a partial. So is neglecting to add any postage at all. Out comes the broken record player again:

broken-record The vast majority of agencies will simply not use a stamp-free SASE. Instead, the entire query or submission packet will be unceremoniously dumped in the trash.

Or recycling. Although you’d be astonished at how many agencies — how to put this gracefully? — don’t take full advantage of all of that space in their recycling bins.

A third common mistake submitters of partials often make comes not when they are packing up the partial, but later, after the agent has approved the partial and asked to see the full manuscript. That’s the agency parlance for the request, anyway; in writer-speak, it’s usually called asking to see the rest of the book.

Therein lies the root of the mistake: the semantic difference is crucial here. All too often, successful partial submitters think that a request for the entire manuscript equals a request for only the part of the manuscript the agent has not yet seen.

The agent asked to see the rest of the book, right?

Actually, she didn’t — what asking to see the rest of the book means in agent-speak is that the agent is expecting the ENTIRE manuscript to show up in her office, neatly boxed and accompanied by a return mailing label and enough postage to get the whole shebang back to the sender, if it’s rejected.

Starting to see a pattern here?

I do — and have for years: when aspiring writers just assume that they know what a request for materials entails, submissions often go awry; ditto with query packets. When they take the time to find out what is actually being requested (or is called for in an individual agency’s guidelines), irritating Millicent by such mistakes is 99.999% avoidable. (Hey, there’s no accounting for how moody she might get when she burns her lip on that too-hot latte for the fiftieth time this year.)

Sadly, much of the time, the difference isn’t even the result of conscious step-skipping. Many first-time submitters — and virtually all first-time queriers – frequently don’t even know that there are rules to be followed.

Want to know what half the Millicents currently screening would say in response to that last sentence? It’s illuminating about the calm harshness of professional evaluation: “So I’m supposed to make allowances because these writers didn’t do their homework, effectively penalizing all of those conscientious writers out there who take the time to learn the ropes? I’ll bet that most of these mistaken submitters didn’t even bother to check whether my agency’s website has submission guidelines.”

To which Mehitabel would add: “And virtually every contest on earth includes very specific submission guidelines in its rules, yet I’m continually astonished by how few entrants seem to read them. I’ll seldom actually disqualify an entry because it violates a presentation rule, but how can I justify penalizing all of those nice entrants who did follow the rules by allowing a violator to proceed to the finalist round of judging?”

Okay, so maybe they wouldn’t be quite that forthcoming. Or prolix. If I’m going to be completely honest, I would have to admit that this is what either of them is most likely to say when such a submission crossed their line of vision: “Next!”

broken-record Please, do your homework about the recipient’s stated preferences before you submit any requested materials. Not every agency is kind enough to writers to post specific guidelines, but if you happen to be dealing with one that has, you absolutely must follow them, or risk the wrath of Millicent.

The results of that wrath are not pretty: summary rejection seldom is. Neither is Mehitabel’s wrath, or the as-yet-to-be-named individual screening applications for that writers’ retreat you would give your eyeteeth to attend.

I’m taking christening suggestions for the application screener, by the way. I’d originally dubbed her Petunia, but that doesn’t exactly inspire awe and fear, does it? (In case any of you had been wondering over the years, everybody’s favorite agency screener is called Millicent here at Author! Author! because it means she who works hard. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: screening is incredibly hard work, and as much as aspiring writers may resent having to learn what Millicent is under orders to resent, the US-based agency system simply would not work without our Millie taking the time to look through all of those submissions and queries. So when the agent of your dreams discovers you, you might want to send her a thank-you note: in all probability, she was the first person in the publishing industry to notice your book’s potential.)

Another major mistake that dogs query packets, submission packets, and contest entries involves confusing a partial with a writing sample. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, chant it with me now, followers of this series:

A partial is the first X number of pages of a manuscript assumed already to be complete, numbered consecutively and stopping at the bottom of the exact page the requester specified as the maximum. A writing sample is a selection of a book’s best writing, regardless of where it falls in the book.

When an agency’s guidelines request five or ten pages to be included with the query, however, they are talking about the first five or ten pages of the manuscript. So even though query packet pages are indeed a writing sample, they should be treated like a submission.

That strikes many aspiring writers as counter-intuitive, and with some reason. I suspect the source of this confusion most often stems from second-hand conference anecdotes. In a pitching situation — the place an agent-seeking writer is most likely to be asked to produce an actual writing sample — 5 pages is usually the maximum length. However, a lengthy writing sample might include more than one scene, and those scenes might not run consecutively.

So when the neophyte querier who’s heard a few conference horror stories sees that an agency says he can send five pages, he may well say, “Great, I’ll send my best five pages: let’s see, that would be pp. 342-347,” where a more experienced querier would cry, “Well, obviously, the five pages they mean are pp. 1-5 of my manuscript.”

The same misunderstanding trips up a simply phenomenal number of contest entrants every year: when the rules state that an entrant should send 25 pages of the book she wants to enter, what Mehitabel is expecting to see are the first 25 pages, not a chapter from the middle that the writer happens to like. Or — and yes, I’ve seen this with my own weary eyes — 7 pages from the opening, 6 from Chapter 5, 4 from Chapter 13, and 8 from Chapter 23.

Yes, you read that correctly: sadly, they misinterpret the rules’ call for X number of pages from, say, a novel, as permission to send X number of pages from anywhere in the book, so they submit a bouquet of writing samples. Faced with such an array, most contest judges will simply stop reading.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you, contest entrants and mid-book-loving queriers. But isn’t it better that you hear the hard truth from me than rack up even one unnecessary rejection?

And yet it’s an understandable mistake, right? And extremely common, particularly in entries for contests that simply ask entrants to send a specified number of pages of a novel, without mentioning that those pages should be consecutive — oh, and if the entrant might by some odd chance want to win the contest, those pages had better begin on page 1 of Chapter 1 of the book.

Shall I take that gigantic collective gasp of indignation as an indication that some of you past contest entrants wish you had heard one or more of those tidbits before you entered?

Again, let’s state it as an aphorism, for the benefit of last-minute skimmers: unless a literary contest’s rules specifically state otherwise, assume that the entry should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. Part of what entrants in any prose contest are being judged upon is the ability to construct a strong narrative and story arc.

In answer to the question that most of you are probably screaming mentally, I have no idea why so few contests’ rules don’t just state this point-blank. It’s not as though it’s a rare problem — every contest judge I’ve ever met tells a sad story about the well-written entry that knocked itself out of finalist consideration via this error. And I’ve judged in a heck of a lot of literary contests, so I’ve met a whole lot of judges over the years.

I could spend a few more minutes of my life shaking my head over this, but over the years, my neck has gotten sore. I’m going to take the warning as heard — it was, wasn’t it? — and move on.

Before I do, though, let me call on those of you whose hands have been patiently raised for a while now. Yes? “But Anne, how does any of this relate to my query or submission packet? Are you perhaps implying that the last aphorism could be applied to sending partials or writing samples to agencies?”

Nicely caught, oh hand-raisers. Put another quarter in the jukebox:

broken-record Unless an agent’s request for a pages or an agency’s submission guidelines specifically state otherwise, assume that any manuscript pages should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. In other words, treat it like any other submission.

Writers asked to submit partials occasionally fall into the writing sample trap as well, but frankly, it’s less common. Perhaps writers marketing books harbor an inherent desire to have their stories read from beginning to end, just as a reader would encounter their work in a published book. Perhaps, too, agents’ requests for materials tend to be for much heftier portions of a manuscript than many contest entries would tolerate: 50 or 100 pages for a partial is fairly normal, but many contests for even book-length works call for as few as 10, 20, or 30 pages, sometimes including a synopsis.

But just to head any problems off at the pass, as well as to illustrate why a nonconsecutive partial made up of even superlative writing would not be a good marketing packet for any manuscript, from an agency perspective, let’s close out this short series by going over the expectations for a partial one more time.

Come on; it’ll be fun.

When an agent or editor requests a partial, she’s not asking for a writing sample consisting of 50 or 100 pages of the writer’s favorite parts of the book, a sort of greatest hits compilation — if that’s what she wants, she (or her submission guidelines; check) will tell you so point-blank. She is unlikely to prefer a writing sample as a submission, in any case, because part of what her Millicent is looking for in submissions is storytelling acumen.

Think about it: in an unconnected series of scenes gleaned from across your manuscript, how good a case could you make for your talent at arranging plot believably? How well could you possibly show off your book’s structure, or character development, or even ability to hold a reader’s interest, compared to the same story as you present it in your manuscript, beginning on page 1?

If you have any doubt whatsoever about the answer to that last question, run, don’t walk, to an objective first reader to help you figure out whether the current running order of events tells your story effectively. (Didn’t think I’d be able to work in another plug for someone else’s casting her eyes over your pages before you submit them, did you?)

What an agent or editor does expect to see in a partial, then, is the opening of the manuscript as you plan to market it to, well, agents and editors: it’s precisely the same as the full manuscript, except it doesn’t include the pages after, say, page 50.

And if Millicent loves that partial and asks for the rest of the book, what will you do? Send the entire manuscript, right? Right?

I couldn’t resist tossing in the pop quiz, to see if you’d been paying attention. I wouldn’t want any of you to end the post still confused about any of this. (And if you are: please, I implore you, leave a question in the comments.)

And remember, read any submission guidelines very thoroughly before you invest your heart, hopes, energy, and/or precious time in preparing a partial packet or contest entry. This is no time to be skimming; make a list and check it twice, like Santa Claus.

Yes, even if the request consisted of a grand total of three lines of text in an e-mail. Why? It’s very, very common for aspiring writers to become so excited by a request for pages that they forget to include something the agent specifically asked them to send.

Oh, how I wish I were making that one up…but it happens enough to show up on most Millicents’ lists of pet peeves.

So what’s the best way to avoid this terrible fate? I always advise my editing clients to pursue a multi-part strategy for an agent’s request for pages, agency guidelines, or contest rules:

1. Read the list of what’s required once, then set it aside for at least five minute.

2. Read it again, this time more carefully. Make a checklist of everything it is asking you to do. (No, a mental list will not do. Put it in writing.)

3. Wait a day before going back to triple-check that the list is accurate. Then, and only then, put together the packet or entry,

4. As you place each item in the envelope or box (or attach it to an e-mail), check off each item.


5. Re-read the original guidelines or letter, comparing what it requests to your list.

5a. If the list is an accurate reflection of the expectations, check once more that what is in your packet matches what is on the list.

5b. If it does not, remove everything from the envelope. Go back to Step 1.

5c. If you are not sure, if you’re not much of a detail person, hand your list to at least one person who happens to love you, ask him/her/that ungainly mob to check it against the guidelines or contest rules, then to verify that what’s in your envelope is in fact what you have been asked to send.

6. Seal envelope or press SEND.

You didn’t think I was going to leave the kith and kin I’d disqualified from giving you objective feedback from helping you altogether, did you? Everyone has a task here at Author! Author!

That’s what how a supportive community works, isn’t it?

In that spirit, I shall make a valiant effort to come up with a truly impressive array of enlightening query letters for tomorrow’s posts. I should be in a better mood by 10 am PST, right? Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part VII: that pesky eye of the beholder again

Get Loser sign

I must confess, I had to laugh when I first spotted this billboard, campers. Even as a freelance editor, one of that happy breed that spend 12-hour days staring at backlit screens and poring over manuscripts, pouncing on redundancies, seldom do I see such a glorious demonstration of the occasionally vast difference between what a writer intends to say in print and the message the reader actually receives.

Spot the gaffe? Hint: the writer almost certainly did not intend this outcome.

Basically, the problem here is in the eye of the beholder: specifically, that the writer evidently didn’t consider that the beholder’s perspective might be any different from his own.

What makes me think that, you ask? Call me zany, but I find it hard to believe that this ad’s copywriter genuinely wished to shout at passing drivers, “Get 16X, Loser.”

Gratuitous insult of potential customers is not, after all, a recognized marketing tool, Having passed this sign from another side, I know that the ad copy is supposed to read, “Get 16X Closer.” But from the angle above — the perspective, incidentally, enjoyed by virtually every passing motorist — it doesn’t scan that way, does it?

There’s a moral in this, and not merely for placers of billboards: the author’s intended meaning does not always convey itself to the reader in its entirety. Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, just because you think you’ve said something on the page doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what the page will actually say to others.

Partially, the probability of that discrepancy is due to factors beyond any writer’s control — one cannot, after all, anticipate the life experiences or prejudices of every possible reader of one’s work, any more than a submitter could take steps to guarantee that Millicent the agency screener will not be in the throes of a very bad mood when she opens the envelope or e-mail containing his manuscript. As I’ve so often pointed out in this very forum, if she’s just burned her lip by taking a sip on a too-hot latte immediately prior to reading your query or submission, there’s really not a lot you can do about it.

She’s not a submission-processing machine, you know; she has a life. She also has a phone that rings occasionally to announce bad news, a boss prone to urging her to be on the look-out for certain types of manuscripts and not others, and chatty coworkers in an industry notoriously fond of declaring this or that kind of book hot this month, but not the next. Assuming that the only thing on her mind when she opens your envelope or e-mail is, therefore, not a practice likely to yield an accurate view of the consideration process, at least insofar as any insights derived from that view might allow you to improve your manuscript’s marketability.

What is within every writer’s control, and should therefore be uppermost in your thoughts when reading over your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, AND OUT LOUD, is the possibility that a swiftly-skimming reader might not see your pages as you do.

Why should that possibility haunt your thoughts? Well, Millicent, like most agents, editors, and contest judges, is an inveterate skimmer. She has a lot of queries and submissions to get through in any given day, after all: she reads the printed page fast, and if you should happen to submit to her via e-mail, her eyes race across the screen even faster. (As virtually everyone does, by the way; don’t blame her.)

So while you probably don’t have to worry about a stray branch occluding her vision while she’s considering your opening pages, you should be open to the possibility that she might not catch every single word. Like, for instance, the one that would tell her that Unnamed Speaker A is speaking simultaneously with Unnamed Speaker B (as), the two that would let her in on the time period in which the story in front of her is set (in 1802), or even the half-sentence in the middle of page three that might have alerted her to the fact that you were 8 years old in the anecdote you’d been relating since the beginning of Chapter 1.

Don’t tell me that she’ll pick it up from context. Picking things up from context isn’t Millicent’s job. In her opinion, it’s the writer’s job to construct a narrative so clearly that she could not possibly become confused about anything remotely important in your story, even in mid-skim.

I bring this up not merely because the sign above amused me — although it did, enough so that I cajoled my SO into driving this road the three times necessary for me to catch this particular shot — but because writers are often extremely defensive upon being informed that anything in their narratives is unclear. “But I explain that on page 37,” they’ll inform well-meaning feedback-givers snappishly. “Any reasonably attentive reader would have caught that.”

Not necessarily. Especially if the reader’s eye has already been tired by percussive repetition. Few writing phenomena urge the eye to start skipping words and even lines like too-similar phrasing in sentence after sentence.

Why, that sounds familiar, does it not? It should: last time, I introduced up the issue of structural redundancy, the phenomenon of a writer’s falling in love with a certain kind of sentence and consequently over-using it throughout a manuscript.

Like any other kind word and phrase repetition, professional readers find this distracting from the narrative voice and story, and tend to dock manuscripts points for it. If you’re planning to slide your pages under the nose of Millicent, who tends to reject submissions after deducting the second (or even the first) point, or beneath the spectacles of a contest judge, who knows that two or three points often make the difference between an entry that reaches the finals and one that doesn’t, you might want to bear this in mind.

In case you forgot throughout the course of that long last sentence precisely what you were supposed to be bearing in mind, here it is again: like any other kind of repetition, you might want to think twice about incorporating too much structural repetition into your preferred authorial voice.

After I made a similar suggestion yesterday, I could have sworn I sensed eyes rolling heavenward in writers’ garrets all across the globe. “Okay,” I heard repetition-huggers worldwide admitting reluctantly, “I can see why, for strategic reasons, I might want to minimize the use of repetitive structures in the first few pages of my manuscript, to get past Millicent or to improve my contest entry’s chances. As you said in your last post, though, an invocatory rhythm can be really cool at the end of a book, as well as to mark moments of emotional climax. If I minimize its use at the beginning of my manuscript, may I keep it elsewhere, or will Millicent fly into a tizzy if she spots it on page 102?”

The answer is, as it is so often in this business: it depends. If Millicent has already fallen in love with your voice, platform, and/or story, probably not. (Isn’t it fascinating just how many of the industry’s euphemisms for dealing with a book are amorous? I didn’t fall in love with this character; I adore this writer’s voice; the editor’s flirting with the idea of acquiring it, the critics are having a love affair with this author: it all sounds so torrid.)

To a professional reader, an abrupt descent into the not-so-wonderful world of redundancy automatically suggests that perhaps that manuscript had been incompletely revised — in other words, that it is a Frankenstein manuscript. If the rest of the book is going to be first draft, she thinks, or some unholy conglomeration of revisions one through seventeen, how can I possibly tell which of these narrative voices is going to dominate the book?

Or she might indulge in an even more serious concern: is one of these voices eventually going to dominate this book?

Would that suspicion just be the cynicism of a professional reader who has felt let down by too many promising beginnings in too many submissions? Not really — patchily-revised manuscripts are the norm for submissions, not the exception. A text that carefully varied its rhythms for 101 pages, but was redundant for the next 50, tells a professional reader that the writer either ran out of steam mid-edit or changed his mind about what he wanted his voice to sound like in the middle of writing the book. And, often, towards the end as well.

Already, a positive forest of inquiring hands has shot into the air. “Does that mean,” I hear some of you piping up hopefully, ” that Millicent would give that writer the benefit of the doubt? After all, the first 101 pages demonstrated that he could polish up his work; Millicent must have liked the original voice, to have kept reading that far. Wouldn’t it be worth taking a chance on a writer like that?”

Well, it depends, hopeful pipers-up. While she’s making that determination, does Millicent have a repetition-induced migraine coming on?

That’s not an entirely flippant answer: the pros have a legitimate point about redundancy, you know. Even when the word choices vary enough to keep things interesting (and they often don’t), it’s simply more tiring to read the same kind of sentence over and over than to read text where the form varies more. To see why this is true, we need look no farther than the early reader books of our youth.

You know the type, right? See Spot run. See Spot bite Dick. See Dick shiv Jane. Stab, Dick, stab.

Dull from an adult perspective, weren’t they? But dull with a purpose: part of their point was to encourage new readers to recognize letter patterns as particular words. Varying the sentence structure enough to render the insipid story interesting to more advanced readers would merely have distracted from the task at hand.

So we were treated to the same sentence structure for what seemed like the entire book. I have a distinct memory of taking my kindergarten copy of FROG FUN home from school (Hop, frog, hop. Hop, hop, hop: hardly Thackeray), derisively reading a two pages of it out loud to my father, and both of us deciding simultaneously that no reasonable human being would keep slogging through that much narrative repetition. He wrote a very amusing little note to my teacher about it.

I’ll spare you his choice comments about this particular authorial choice. Suffice it to say that my teacher quickly learned to send me to the library for alternate reading material.

See Anne pick a better-written book. Pick, Anne, pick.

Millicent’s teachers, unfortunately, probably kept her nose to the simple sentence grindstone for quite a bit longer — and that’s bad for submitters. Why? Well, when a professional reader sees a manuscript that uses the same sentence structure or the same few verbs use over and over, the specters of Dick, Jane, and Spot seem to rise from the page, moaning, “This is not very sophisticated writing!”

See Millie yawn over the fourth repetition of go in a single paragraph. Reject, Millie, reject.

Word and phrase repetition tends to engender this knee-jerk reaction, surprisingly, even if the chosen structure is quite complex. When one’s eye is trained to zero in on detail, it’s doesn’t take much redundancy to trigger a negative response.

In fact, a good professional reader will often catch a repetition the FIRST time it recurs — as in the second time something is mentioned in the text. It’s not unheard-of for an editorial memo to contain a angry paragraph about “your inordinate fondness for phrase X” when phrase X shows up only three or four times in the entire manuscript.

As in over the course of 400 pages. We professional readers are trained to be extremely sensitive to redundancy. Imagine, then, how much more annoying Millicent finds it when every third sentence in a manuscript begins with, It was cold when… or Breathlessly, George was… or the ever-popular, As she was doing X… .

Not a vivid enough horror picture for you? Okay, cast your mind back to yesterday’s post, and picture Millicent’s reaction to It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…

Reject, Millie, reject.

To repetition-sensitive eyes, the effect is like badly-done CGI in movies, where battle scenes between thousands of characters are created by filming 50 extras flailing at one another, copying that image, and plastering it seventeen times across the scene, perhaps alternated with two or three other images of the same actors in different positions.

Honestly, to those of us who count patterns for a living, repetition can be downright migraine-inducing. And I hate to be the one to break it to you, but repetitive phraseology can render even the most exciting, conflict-ridden scene quite a bit less nail-biting than its activity level should dictate.

“Wait just a nit-picking minute, Anne!” I hear you self-editors out there exclaiming. “English grammar only permits so many ways of arranging sentences properly. Isn’t any manuscript going to exhibit a certain amount of pattern repetition?”

Yes, of course — but that does not give writers carte blanche to use the same structures back-to-back, or to utilize a favorite complex sentence form twice per paragraph. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s not as though your garden-variety writer is repeating herself on purpose: as we have discussed earlier in this series, many a writer simply likes a kind of sentence or a particular verb enough to use it often.

I see that you’re not going to believe me until I give you a concrete example — nor should you, really. Since yesterday’s example from A TALE OF TWO CITIES was so obvious, here’s a subtle one. See if you can catch the problem:

Rubbing his sides for warmth, Stephen glanced unhappily at his fellow cheerleaders. Waving his pom-poms in a wan impression of good sportsmanship, he reminded himself never to be stupid enough to accept one of his sister’s bets again. Pulling up his flesh-colored tights — oh, why hadn’t he listened to Brian, who had told him to wear nylons under them on this near-freezing night? — he wondered if Tammy would be vicious enough to demand the performance of the promised splits before the game ended. Sighing, he figured she would. Realizing that running away now would only delay the inevitable ripping of his hamstrings, he furtively flexed his feet, trying to warm up his thigh muscles.

Quite the gerund-fest, isn’t it? Individually, there is nothing wrong with any given sentence in this paragraph. Yet taken communally — as sentences in submissions invariably are, right? — the repetition of the same kind of opening each time starts to ring like a drumbeat in Millicent’s head, distracting her from the actual subject matter, the quality of the writing…and, alas, even the blistering pace the writer worked so hard to achieve on the page.

That’s not just a voice problem, you know. It’s a marketing problem, because agents and editors generally cannot afford to work with specialists in a single type of sentence. (The lengthy and glorious career of Ernest Hemingway to the contrary.)

The sad thing is, most of the time, writers don’t even realize that they’re repeating patterns, because unless the repetition bug has really bitten them, the redundancy isn’t in every sentence. (Although I’ve seen a few that…oh, never mind; I don’t want to give you nightmares.) Or if the repetition is constant, it often lies in words or phrases that are similar, but not technically identical. Take a gander:

Arnold began sweating, sweating as though his sweat glands were going on strike tomorrow. Should he go to the window and throw it open, beginning the cooling-down process? Or should he go downstairs, into the basement, to the cool of the pickle cellar, to begin to cool his fevered brow?

That’s a lot of word repetition, is it not? To the skimming eye, it matters not at all that a rule-hugging writer could conceivably make the case that it’s not actually the same three words used over and over — it’s similar words and the same words used to mean different things.

See Millie yawn. Yawn, Millie, yawn.

Another popular form of redundancy can occur when the structures a writer favors may be common enough in themselves that she would actually need to read his pages IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD (hint, hint) to catch the problem. As in:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted, “because I had no reason.” 

“But you did take it,” Edward shot back, “because you needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Claire’s eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it, since you don’t know her.”


These three lines of dialogue feature different words, of course, but they sport identical structures. That may not seem like a serious problem on any given page, but once a professional reader notices a manuscript exhibiting this kind of repetition a couple of times, a/he will simply assume (almost always rightly, as it happens) that the pattern will recur throughout the manuscript.

How does s/he know, you ask? Experience, my dears, experience. Let me put it this way: how many horror films did you have to see before you realized that the monster/killer/Creature from the Black Lagoon wasn’t really dead the first time it appeared to be?

Did you catch the other scanning problem in that last example? No? Okay, go back and re-read it out loud: did you notice how similar those three paragraphs sound in the mouth — almost as though they were not actually the words of two different speakers?

The repetitive structure here makes Claire and Edward speak in essentially the same rhythm, as though they were echoes of the same voice. (Which, from an authorial point of view, they are, I suppose.) This is a classic instance of writerly intent and reader’s perception being at odds: when two characters speak in the same rhythm, it mutes the conflict between them a little, from the reader’s point of view.

Don’t believe me? Check out how varying the sentence structure ramps up the tension between them, even in an excerpt this short:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted, “because I had no reason.”

“You lie,” Edward shot back. “You needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Claire’s eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it. You don’t know her.”

Nifty trick, eh? That, in case you were wondering, is the kind of benefit a writer is likely to derive from reading her work OUT LOUD. (Had I mentioned that was a good idea?)

But a writer need not only pay attention to how many times he’s using the same words or similar sentence structures in back-to-back sentences, but also on any given page, or even over the course of a scene. Let’s take a look at how non-consecutive repetition might play out on the page:

As the car door opened, Bernice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Harold’s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Harold, back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary, until this nightmare of a prom night was over.

To most self-editors, this paragraph would not seem especially problematic. However, to a professional reader, it contains two of the most commonly-repeated structures, the While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was Z…, both big favorites with the aspiring writing set.

You kids today are into some crazy things, aren’t you?

Standing alone as sentences, either form is perfectly valid, of course; the problem arises when either appears too frequently on the page. Let’s take a look at how the paragraph above would scan to Millicent:

As the car door opened, Bernice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Harold’s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Harold back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary, until this nightmare of a prom night was over.

See how even spread-out repetition jumps off the page at you, once you’re attuned to it? Millicent — like her boss, and the editors at the publishing house across the street, and even the average contest judge after reading the first handful of entries — is so sensitive to it that she might not even have made it as far as the end of the paragraph.

Stop reading, Millie, stop reading.

Of course, you may strike lucky: your submission may be read by a screener who hasn’t been at it very long, a contest judge brand-new to the game, or an agent whose tolerance for pattern repetition is unusually high. Heck, your work may even land on the desk of that rara avis, the saint who is willing to overlook some minor problems in a manuscript if the writer seems to have promising flair. In any of these cases, you may be able to put off winnowing out pattern repetition until after the book is sold to an editor — who is VERY unlikely to be so forgiving.

I sincerely hope that you shall be so lucky; truly, I do. But do you honestly want to risk it at the submission stage, when the ability to remove the possibility of repetition-based rejection is in fact something you can control?

Because editorial response to this kind of repetition tends to be so strong — I wasn’t kidding about those migraines, alas — you would be well advised to check your first chapter, especially your opening page, for inadvertent pattern repetitions. Actually, since quick-skimming pros tend to concentrate upon the openings of sentences, you can get away with just checking the first few words after every period, in a pinch.

How might a time-pressed aspiring writer go about doing this? Glad you asked.

(1) Sit down with five or ten pages of your manuscript and a number of different colored pens. (Highlighters are dandy for this). Mark each kind of sentence in its own color; reserve a special color for nouns and verbs that turn up more than once per page.

(2) You probably already know what your favorite kinds of sentence are, but it would be an excellent idea to pre-designate colors for not only the ever-popular While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was… sentences, but also for the X happened and then Y happenedProtagonist did X, Y, and Z. Protagonist went to X, Y, and Z. (repeat as often as necessary), and Gerund Adverb Comma (as in Sitting silently, Hortense felt like a spy.) forms as well, just on general principle.

(3) After you have finished coloring your pages, arrange all of the marked-up pages along some bare surface — against the back of a couch, along a kitchen counter, diagonally across your bed — and take three steps backward. (Sorry, kitty; I didn’t mean to step on your tail. Run, cat, run.)

(4) Scan back through, asking yourself: does one color predominate? If you notice one color turning up many times per page — or two or three times per paragraph — you might want to think about reworking your structures a little. Or perhaps learning a few more.

If this all seems terribly nit-picky to you, well, it is. But the more you can vary the structure and rhythm of your writing, the more interesting it will be for the reader — and, from a professional perspective, the more it will appeal to educated readers. Think about it: good literary fiction very seldom relies heavily upon a single sentence structure throughout an entire text, does it?

You know what kinds of books use the same types of sentences over and over? The ones marketed to consumers with less-developed reading skills. If that is your target readership, great — run with the repetitive structure. (Run, Jane, run! Don’t let Dick stab, stab, stab you.) But for most adult markets, the industry assumes at least a 10th-grade reading level.

Then, too, agency screeners and editorial assistants typically hold liberal arts degrees from pretty good colleges. That’s a long, long way from the reading level that was delighted to watch Dick and Jane running all over the place with Spot, isn’t it?

Let your structural choices be as exciting as the writing contained within them — and let your voice emerge as more than a repetitive collection of your favorite words and sentences. Let your beloved monsters appear rarely enough that their every groan and roar feels like a revelation. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Improving those opening pages, part III: and then there are Millicent’s page 1 pet peeves

woman tied to a train tracklion and tamertommygun1

How have you been enjoying this week’s series on editing page 1 of your manuscript, campers…or is enjoying too strong a word? I’ve been getting such a varied response (ranging, understandably, from thrilled to horrified) from such a wide spectrum of writers (straight nonfiction, memoir, every stripe of fiction) that I’m already toying with making this a regular feature — the first page of the month, perhaps — to give us time and a great excuse to dig deep into the peculiarities and joys of various book categories.

All too often, those of us who teach writing to writers speak as though good writing were good writing, independent of genre, but that’s not always the case. Every book category has its own conventions, after all; what is expected in one may seem downright poky in another. A passive female protagonist might well be a drawback in a mainstream fiction manuscript, for instance, but for a rather wide segment of the WIP (Women in Peril) romance market, a certain amount of passivity is a positive boon.

Doubt that? Okay, to a peril-seeking reader, which would be the more exciting rescue object: the lady tied to a train track while menaced by a lion wielding a Tommy gun, or the bulletproof lady too quick to be lashed down who always carries large steaks in her capacious pockets in case of lion attack?

I’ll leave you to ponder that cosmic mystery on your own. Let’s get back to analyzing our sample first page.

So far, we’ve talked about how Millicent the agency screener might respond to the way this page appears on the page (formatting issues, punctuation, grammar), what clues about the rest of the manuscript she might derive from certain authorial choices (italics usage, word choice, repetition), and book category appropriateness. Today, I want to concentrate on matters of style — which, on the first page of a submission, requires some consideration of the more notorious of Millicent’s pet peeves.

Already, I see some hands raised in the air, clamoring for my attention. “But Anne,” rules lawyers everywhere cry with one voice, “since Millicent is a composite character, the fanciful Author! Author! personification of professional readers’ attitudes toward submissions, how meaningful could it possibly be to talk about her pet peeves? Are they not by definition personal, and thus variable from reader to reader?”

Yes and no, rules lawyers. Yes, pretty much everyone who reads manuscripts for a living harbors at least a couple of individual dislikes — it drives me nuts, for instance, to see She graduated college on the page, as opposed to the more grammatically correct She graduated from college. Have you noticed how common it’s become to ignore the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs? Not to mention the vicious, civilization-dissolving practice of transmuting perfectly innocent nouns into verbs, presumably to save a couple of characters per sentence — why, just the other day, my weary eyes were insulted by The institute tributed director X in a fairly respectable local newspaper. Would it have killed the article’s writer or his editor to adhere to the longstanding norms of the English language by coughing up the extra character for the less nonsensical The institute paid tribute to director X? And whose bright idea was substituting tonite for tonight, anyway? What great contribution to Western literature do abbreviators believe they are going to be able to achieve with those two saved characters?

Those of us who read for a living tend to cherish our personal pet peeves, as you may see, but there’s not very much an aspiring writer can do to protect herself from running afoul of any given Millicent’s. Or, indeed, from annoying her with your subject matter.

“Oh, God,” Millie mutters, “another romance set in Paris? That’s the third one I’ve seen this week!”

You’re scowling, aren’t you? I’m not at all surprised. Of all of the many aspects of the submission process over which the writer has no control whatsoever, the role of who happens to be screening on the day a particular manuscript arrives in an agency is one of the least understood and most resented by writers. Perhaps with good reason: we’d all like to believe that our manuscripts will receive a fair, impartial reading, regardless of the pet peeves or mood of the screener.

However, there’s just no denying that if you have written a semicolon-heavy literary fiction piece about the many loves of an airline pilot, and the agent of your dreams has just hired a Millicent who simply loathes semicolons, is a dedicated monogamist, and was jilted yesterday by a pilot, the best writing in the world probably is not going to prevent her from rejecting your submission.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you — but an aspiring writer who is aware of the role that personal preference and chance inevitably play in whether a manuscript gets rejected or accepted is, in the long run, going to be significantly happier than one who believes that all Millicents read identically. Ditto with contest entrants; every contest judge brings a few personal preferences to the table. Assuming, as virtually every aspiring writer does when first submitting, querying, and/or entering, that any individual professional reader’s reaction to his work is representative of what EVERY professional reader’s opinion would be is just, well, wrong.

It’s also a strategy notoriously likely to depress aspiring writers into not querying, submitting, or entering widely enough to get their work into publication. If every professional reader’s opinion is identical, fledgling writers are all too apt to reason, why shouldn’t a single rejection — or two, three, or forty-seven — be taken as if it were the entire publishing industry’s reaction to the book in question?

There’s a very good reason, as it happens: screeners are individuals, with personal opinions. So are agents, editors, and contest judges. Keep sending out your work until you find the one predisposed to love it.

But that didn’t answer the rule-mongers’ question, did it? “That’s all very pretty and inspiring,” they concede. “Does that mean I don’t need to worry at all about Millicent’s pet peeves?”

Well, no — certain pet peeves are shared by most professional readers, simply because they turn up so often in manuscript submissions and contest entries. Spotting even one non-doubled dash on a manuscript page leaves many a Millicent gasping with indignation, for instance; a submission without indented paragraphs renders many positively apoplectic. And if you really want to ruin a pro’s day, try submitting something with unnumbered pages.

Hey, standard format is standard for a reason.

Most of the ire-inducing gaffes above are relatively well-known (but if any of them came as a surprise, run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right, if only for the sake of Millicent’s blood pressure). I was delighted to see, however, that our sample page 1 included several of the lesser-known ones. Discussion gold!

Okay, so perhaps delighted isn’t a particularly normal response. Had I mentioned that reading manuscripts for a living radically alters how one reads?

Here is our example again; don your Millicent mask and try to ferret out three common screeners’ pet peeves we have not yet discussed. If you want a hint: two of them are dialogue-related.

page 1 example wrong

How did you do? The third in particular might be a tad hard to spot if you didn’t happen to have spent the last six hours reading first pages; certainly, it would be significantly harder to get excited about it. To give you a sense of how exorcized Millicent might have gotten about all three, allow me to stick a Sharpie in her hand and let her have at it:

page 1 edit 4

Thanks, Millie; why don’t you go score yourself a latte and try to calm down a little? I can take it from here.

Now that we’re alone again, be honest: in your quick scan of the page, had you noticed all of the issues that so annoyed Millicent? Any of them?

If it’s the latter, don’t be embarrassed — very few readers would have, at least consciously, and self-editors. If you’re caught up in the characters’ lifeworld (as Millicent hopes you will convince her to be by the bottom of page 1), none of these questions is likely to occur to you. Let’s take her concerns one at a time, so we may understand why each bugged her.

1. Opening with an unidentified speaker.
I’m really glad that our generous example-provider chose to open the manuscript this way, because it’s a very, very popular choice: depending upon the fiction categories Millicent’s boss represents, she might see anywhere from a handful to dozens of submissions with dialogue as their first lines on any given day. A good third of those will probably not identify the speaker right off the bat.

Why would the vast majority of Millicents frown upon that choice, other than the sheer fact that they see it so very often? A very practical reason: before they can possibly make the case to their respective boss agents that this manuscript is about an interesting protagonist faced with an interesting conflict, they will have to (a) identify the protagonist, (b) identify the primary conflict s/he faces, and (c) determine whether (a) and (b) are interesting enough to captivate a reader for three or four hundred pages. So when they pick up page 1, they’re looking for some pretty specific information.

Given that mission, it’s bound to miff them if they can’t tell if the first line of the book is spoken by the protagonist — or, indeed, anyone else. In this case, the reader isn’t let in on the secret of the speaker’s identity for another 6 lines. That’s an eternity, in screeners’ terms — especially when, as here, the first character named turns out not to be the speaker. And even on line 7, the reader is left to assume that Emma was the initial speaker, even though logically, any one of the everyone mentioned in line 7 could have said it.

So let me ask the question that Millicent would almost certainly be asking herself by the middle of the third question: since presumably both of the characters introduced here knew who spoke that first line, what precisely did the narrative gain by NOT identifying the speaker for the reader’s benefit on line 1?

99% of the time, the honest answer will be, “Not much.” So why force Millicent to play a guessing game, if it’s not necessary to the scene?

Trust me on this one: a Millicent in a hurry tends to dislike guessing games, especially on page 1. Go ahead and tell her who is speaking, what’s going on, who the players are, and what that unnamed thing that jumps out of the closet and terrifies the protagonist looks like. If you want to create suspense, withholding information from the reader is not Millicent’s favorite means of generating it.

That’s not to say, however, that your garden-variety Millicent has a fetish for identifying every speaker every time. In fact, she regards the old-fashioned practice of including some version of he said with every speech as, well, old-fashioned. Not to mention unnecessary. Which leads me to…

2. Including unnecessary tag lines.
Unless there is some genuine doubt about who is saying what when (as in the first line of text here), most tag lines — he said, she asked, they averred — aren’t actually necessary for clarity. Let’s face it, quotation marks around sentences are pretty effective at alerting readers to the fact that those sentences were spoken aloud. And frankly, unless tag lines carry an adverb or indicates tone, they usually don’t add much to a scene other than clarity about who is saying what when.

So why include them, in instances where any reasonably intelligent reader would already be able to figure out who the speaker is?

That’s a serious question, you know. Most editors will axe them on sight — although again, the pervasiveness of tag lines in published books does vary from category to category. Since most adult fiction minimizes their use, novelists who have worked with an editor on a past book project will usually omit them in subsequent manuscripts.

So common is this self-editing trick amongst the previously published that to a well-trained Millicent or experienced contest judge, limiting tag line use is usually taken as a sign of professionalism. Which means, in practice, that the opposite is true as well: a manuscript peppered with unnecessary tag lines tends to strike the pros as under-edited.

Paragraph 2 of our example illustrates why beautifully. Take another gander at it then ask yourself: at the end of a five-line paragraph largely concerned with how Casey is feeling, wouldn’t it have been pretty astonishing if the speaker in the last line had been anybody but Casey?

The same principle applies to paragraph 4. Since the paragraph opens with Casey swallowing, it’s obvious that she is both the speaker and the thinker later in the paragraph — and the next one. (Although since a rather hefty percentage of Millicents frown upon the too-frequent use of single-line non-dialogue paragraphs — as I mentioned earlier in this series, it takes at least two sentences to form a legitimate narrative paragraph in English, technically — I would advise reserving them for instances when the single sentence is startling enough to warrant breaking the rule for dramatic impact. In this instance, I don’t think the thought line is astonishing enough to rise to that standard.)

Starting to see how Millicent considers a broad array of little things in coming up with her very quick assessment of page 1 and the submission? Although she may not spend very much time on a submission before she rejects it, what she does read, she reads very closely.

Sort of changes your mental picture of how and why the average submission gets rejected on page 1, doesn’t it? Professional reading doesn’t miss much. Remember, agents, editors, and their screeners tend not to read like other people: instead of reading a page or even a paragraph before making up their minds, they consider each sentence individually; if they like it, they move on to the next.

All of this is imperative to keep in mind when revising your opening pages. Page 1 not only needs to hook Millicent’s interest and be free of technical errors; every line, every sentence needs to encourage her to keep reading.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea to think of page 1′s primary purpose (at the submission stage, anyway) as convincing a professional reader to turn the first page and read on. In pursuit of that laudable goal, let’s consider Millicent’s scrawl at the bottom of the page.

3. Having enough happen on page 1 that a reader can tell what the book is about.
This is a really, really common problem for first pages — and first chapters of both novels and memoirs, if I’m being honest about it. A lot of writers like to take some time to warm up…so much so that it’s not all that rare to discover a perfectly marvelous first line for the book in the middle of page 4.

Then, too, opening pages often get bogged down in backstory or character development, rather than jumping right into some relevant conflict. US-based agents and editors tend to get a trifle impatient with stories that are slow to start. (UK and Canadian agents and editors seem quite a bit friendlier to the gradual lead-in.) Their preference for a page 1 that hooks the reader into conflict right off the bat has clashed, as one might have predicted, with the rise of the Jungian Heroic Journey as a narrative structure.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Since the release of the first Star Wars movie, it’s been one of the standard screenplay structures: the story starts in the everyday world; the protagonist is issued a challenge that calls him into an unusual conflict that tests his character and forces him to confront his deepest fears; he meets allies and enemies along the way; he must grow and change in order to attain his goal — and in doing so, he changes the world. At least the small part of it to which he returns at the end of the story.

It’s a lovely structure for a storyline, actually, flexible enough to fit an incredibly broad swathe of tales. But can anyone spot a SLIGHT drawback for applying this structure to a novel or memoir?

Hint: you might want to take another peek at today’s example before answering that question.

Very frequently, this structure encourages writers to present the ordinary world at the beginning of the story as, well, ordinary. The extraordinary circumstances to come, they figure, will seem more extraordinary by contrast. Over the course of an entire novel, that’s pretty sound reasoning (although one of the great tests of a writer is to write about the mundane in a fascinating way, I think), but it can inadvertently create an opening scene that is less of a grabber than it could be.

Or, as I suspect is happening in this case, a page 1 that might not be sufficiently reflective of the pacing or excitement level of the rest of the book. And that’s a real shame, since I happen to know that something happens on page 2 that would make Millicent’s eyebrows shoot skyward so hard that they would knock her bangs out of place.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? We’re not going to get into the next scene until next time.

So let’s stick to our moral for the day: since submissions and contest entries are evaluated one line at a time, holding back on page 1 might not make the best strategic sense. Remember, Millicent is looking for an interesting protagonist facing an interesting conflict — appearing as soon as possible in the manuscript. You might want to invest some revision time in making sure your first page gives all that to her.

Just a suggestion. Or three. Keep up the good work!

A brief and unfortunate hiatus

Hello campers,

I seem to have contracted a silly back injury, so I am coming to you now via dictation. I leave it to your fertile imaginations just how long it would take to polish off one of my patented super-long posts in this manner. (Even now, every fiber of my injured being longs to wrench myself up, drag myself across the room, and check the punctuation.) Until I figure out how to defy doctors orders to stay away from my desk and/or figure out how to type while lying flat on my back, my posts will be reduced to the briefest of updates.

I don’t even have the wherewithal to include a link to our fabulous ongoing contest; in order to find out how to win a critique of your first page of manuscript, I am afraid that you will have to scroll down a couple of posts. An activity, I am pained to report, that is currently beyond my physical capacities, so flaunt your healthy backs by checking it out.

I will be getting back to you and our ongoing series just as soon as I am able — or, knowing my constitutional incapacity for extended idleness, just a bit sooner. Sit up straight, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Nobody expects the…oh, heck, we all expect the Point-of-View Nazis by now, don’t we?

spanish_inquisition python 2

Remember how I mentioned last week that reality is sometimes a genuinely lousy storyteller, one that often deviates from a nice, dramatic story arc to devolve into low-end comedy or abrupt tragedy? Well, yesterday provided abundant evidence that it can have as heavy a hand with coincidences as any aspiring writer desperately afraid that otherwise, his readers will be too gosh-darned dim-witted to figure out that all of those clues littered liberally throughout the plot might ADD UP TO SOMETHING.

How heavy a hand did reality apply, you ask? How’s this for overkill: an otherwise completely unconnected agent, long-time reader, and my mother all suggested to me within a six-hour period that perhaps my blog posts were a touch on the long side. Not that they didn’t contain good, useful advice, they all hastened to add; the first and third were concerned about the rather significant drain upon my writing time to compose them, the second about the rather significant drain upon his writing time to read them.

Both sides had a point, I must admit. I’ve always been of the school of thought that holds that blogs can’t really be over-fed: since any given post remains here permanently, there’s nothing stopping a time-pressed reader from stopping in the middle of one and coming back later. Yet even I occasionally experience qualms about just how much time a new reader might end up investing in perusing the archives, especially now that we’re heading into conference (and therefore pitching) season.

And let’s face it, as volunteer activities go, blogging is one of the more time-consuming ones. Most freelance editors who want to give back to the writing community volunteer a few hours a year at their local writers’ conference and call it good.

So far, so good: I took a day off (mid-week, even!) and today’s post is going to be a comparatively short one. In the days to come, I’ll try to dial it back a little.

Historically, I haven’t been all that good at giving the time-strapped bite-sized pieces of analysis, rather than a full meal — in my experience, a fuller explanation tends to be more helpful for writers — but hey, I’ll give it the old college try. Although truth compels me to add that my alma mater has never been noted for the brevity of its graduates’ — or professors’ — observations. That’s the problem with complex analysis; it doesn’t really lend itself to bullet-pointed how-to lists.

Word to the wise: a time-strapped individual might want to be cautious about getting any of us started on explaining the quark or deconstructing MOBY DICK unless she has a few hours to kill. I just mention.

But was that perennially insecure storyteller, reality, satisfied with making this suggestion THREE TIMES in a single day? Apparently not: the moment I logged in this evening, my incoming link alert informed me that two readers had also blogged on the subject within the last couple of days. And not precisely in a “Gee, I’m glad she’s explaining it this thoroughly, but where does she find the time?” vein.

If I’d encountered this level of conceptual redundancy in a manuscript, I’d have excised the third through fifth commentaries upon my wordiness. Possibly the second as well, if the writer intended the manuscript for submission.

Why be so draconian, those of you who write anything longer than super-short stories ask with horror? Well, what would you call a protagonist who needs to be given the same piece of advice five times before acting upon it?

Oh, you may laugh, but making the same point made five times is hardly unheard-of in a manuscript. Nor, alas, is ten or twelve. You’d be astonished at just how many writers seem to assume that their readers won’t be paying very close attention to their plotlines.

Not that Millicent the agency screener would know just how common this level of plot redundancy is, mind you; she tends to stop reading at the first paragraph that prompts her to exclaim, “Hey, didn’t this happen a few lines/pages/chapters ago?” She’s less likely to chalk the redundancy up to narrative insecurity, however, than to a simple lack of proofreading prior to submission.

Why would she leap to the latter conclusion? Well, let me ask you: have you ever made a revision in one scene, didn’t have time to go through the entirety of the manuscript, altering each and every scene affected by that change, and forgot to write yourself a note to remind you to do it right away? Or changed your mind about the plot’s running order without immediately sitting down and reading the revised version IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD in order to make absolutely certain that you deleted in Chapter Two what you added to Chapter Six?

Hey, we’re all strapped for time. Things slip through the cracks. Millicent hates when that happens.

Actually, I was thinking about all of you on my day off, contrary to agent’s, reader’s, bloggers’, and mother’s orders. I couldn’t help it: I was watching Absolute Zero, a documentary about a man who froze to death in what he believed to be a refrigerated railway car. (It wasn’t: the chiller wasn’t working properly.) Trapped, with no prospect of escape, he documented his sensations while yielding to apparently psychosomatic hypothermia by writing on the car’s walls at periodic intervals. After it finished, I leaned over to the arty film-loving friend who had dragged me to the flick and whispered, “Now THAT’s an active protagonist!”

See? It can be done.

I had planned to launch into the burning issue of juggling multiple protagonists today, but all of the control issues of that film must have seeped into my consciousness: I had written only a few paragraphs before I noticed that I had already used the term Point-of-View Nazi twice in passing. Rather than making those of you new to this site guess what this means, I thought I might go the wacky route of spending today’s post defining it, and THEN use it in later discussion.

Just in case any of you missed my earlier point about not putting off those follow-up writing tasks until some dim future point when one will magically have more time to devote to them: it’s a really, really good idea to deal with ‘em right way, before one forgets. Because one often does forget, and for the best of reasons: most of the writers I know are perennially swamped, struggling to carve out writing time in already busy lives.

So let’s cut right to the chase: who is the Point-of-View Nazi, and how can he harm those of you who favor, say, the use of multiple protagonists?

A Point-of-View Nazi (POVN) is a reader — frequently a teacher, critic, agent, editor, or other person with authority over writers — who believes firmly that the only legitimate way to write third-person-narrated fiction is to pick a single character in the book or scene (generally the protagonist) and report ONLY his or her thoughts and sensations throughout the piece. Like first-person narration, this approach conveys only the internal experience of a single character, rather than several or all of the characters in the scene or book.

To put it bluntly, the POVN is the Millicent who automatically throws up her hands over multiple protagonist narration REGARDLESS OF HOW WELL IT IS DONE. And while this ilk of screener has been less prominent in recent years than formerly, those of you who play interesting experiments with narrative voice definitely need to know of her existence.

Now, of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with tight third person narration focused upon a single character, inherently: it combines the advantages of a dispassionate narrator with the plotting and pacing plusses of a single perspective. It permits the author to sink deeply (or not) into the consciousness of a chosen character without losing the emotional distance of an omniscient narrator. Also, since no one else’s point of view is depicted, it can render the later actions of other characters more surprising to the reader, which can in turn help build suspense and conflict on the page.

It is not, however, the only third-person narrative possibility — a fact that drives your garden-variety POVN positively mad with rage. Maybe not I’m-gonna-cause-some-mayhem mad, but certainly I’m-gonna-reject-this-manuscript mad. A little something like this:

spanish-inquisition python

All of us have our own particular favorite narrative styles, naturally, and many of us have been known to lobby for their use. What distinguishes a POVN from a mere enthusiast for a particular narrative style is his active campaign to dissuade all other writers from ever considering the inclusion of more than one perspective in a third-person narrative.

Just ask one — trust me, he would be more than glad to tell you what voice is best for your book. He would like multiple-consciousness narratives to be wiped from the face of the earth with all possible speed, please. He has been known to tell his students — or members of his writing group, or his clients, or the writers whom he edits or represents — that multiple POV narration in the third person is, to put it politely, terrible writing.

It should be stamped out, he feels — by statute, if necessary. And definitely by rejection letter.

So much for the majority of fiction currently being published in the English-speaking world, I guess. And so much for Jane Austen and most of the illustrious third-person narrative-writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who used multiple perspectives to great effect.

I bring up our forebears advisedly, because one of the reasons that POVNs were so common was that in the post-World War II era, the prose stylings of the 18th and 19th centuries tended to be rejected as old-fashioned (and therefore bad) by writing teachers. “Downright Dickensian,” many a POVN has cried, covering her students’ first forays into fiction with gallons of red ink. “How can we possibly follow the story, with so many characters’ perspectives?”

I should stop here and make a distinction between the POVN and a good professional reader who objects to what’s called in the trade head-hopping: when a narrative that has been sticking to a single point of view for pages or chapters on end suddenly wanders into another character’s perspective for a paragraph or two. That can be genuinely confusing to any reader, regardless of preexisting belief systems.

Think about it: if a book has been looking out of the protagonist’s eyes for 147 pages, it is a little jarring for the reader to be abruptly introduced to another character’s thoughts. The implication is that the protagonist has magically become psychic, and should be benefiting, along with the reader, from hearing the thoughts of others. If it’s an extreme enough perspective shift, the reader can get knocked out of the story to wonder, “Hey, how could Jemima possibly have seen that?”

Sometimes, this is a deliberative narrative choice, naturally, but more often, it’s the remnant of an earlier draft with an omniscient narrator — or one where another character was the protagonist. (I don’t need to reiterate the advice about going through the manuscript to make sure such changes of perspective are implemented universally, do I? I thought not.)

Another popular justification for head-hopping — although I’m sure all of you are far too conscientious to pull a fast one like this on Millicent — is that the strictures of a close third-person became inconvenient for describing what’s going on in a particular scene. “Hmm,” the wily writer thinks, “in this busy scene, I need to show a piece of action that my protagonist couldn’t possibly see, yet for the past 57 pages, the narration has presumed that the reader is seeing through Jemima’s eyes, and Jemima’s alone. Maybe no one will notice if I just switch the close-third person perspective into nearby Osbert’s head for a paragraph or two, to show the angle I want on events.”

Those of you who have encountered Millicent’s — or indeed, any professional reader’s — super-close scrutiny before: how likely is she not to notice that narrative trick? Here’s a hint:

spanish inquisition python 3

Uh-huh; it’s not worth the risk. In fact, no matter what perspective you have chosen for your book, it would behoove you to give it a once-over (preferably IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD), checking for head-hopping. It drives those of us who read manuscripts for a living batty.

But simple (or even complex) head-hopping is not what’s likely to get you in trouble with your garden-variety POVN. Oh, he hates head-hopping, like most professional readers, but he tends not to be the kind of well-meaning soul who will point out this type of slip to aspiring writers. Nor, indeed, is he the sort at all likely to make a charitable distinction between accidental head-hopping and a misguided narrative choice.

No, a really rabid POVN will jump upon ANY instance of multiple-perspective narration, castigating it as inherently unacceptable, even unpublishable writing — and will rather smugly inform the author that she has broken an ironclad writing rule by doing it. To an aspiring writer expecting to engage in a straightforward, friendly discussion about whether his voice and perspective choices are the most effective way to tell a particular story, this can come as something as a shock.

To be fair, the POVN tends to believe she’s doing aspiring writers a big favor by being inflexible on this point. Remember, many of today’s more adamant POVNs are merely transmitting the lessons they were taught in their first good writing classes: for years, many English professors set it down as a general rule that multiple points of view were inherently distracting in a third-person narrative.

Take that, CATCH-22!

Personally, I think the focus of the narrative voice is a stylistic choice, up to the writer, rather than something that can be imposed like the Code of Hammurabi on every novel wavering on human fingertips, waiting to be written. My primary criterion for judging voice is whether a writer’s individual writing choices serve her story well, rather than rejecting a manuscript outright because of a preconceived notion of what is and isn’t possible.

Call me zany, but I like to think that there’s more than one way to tell a story.

To be fair, though, as an inveterate reader of literary fiction, I have a special affection for authors whose talent is so vast that they can pull off breaking a major writing commandment from time to time. Alice Walker’s use of punctuation alone in THE COLOR PURPLE would have caused many rigid rule-huggers to dismiss her writing on page 1, but the result is, I think, brilliant. (Fortunately, and probably not entirely coincidentally, though, she already had an agent when she wrote it, so she did not have to subject that stylistic choice to the vagaries of Millicent and her ilk.)

I love to discover a writer so skilled at her craft that she can afford to bend a rule or two. Heaven forefend that every writer’s voice should start to sound alike — or that writing should all start to sound as though it dropped from a single pen.

Which is precisely what hard-and-fast rules of narrative style tend to produce, across a writing population. It’s not accidental that a particular perspective choice often dominates a book category for years at a time — agents and editors tend to assume that the narrative choices of the best-selling authors in that category are those that readers prefer. Then some brave soul will hit the big time with a book written from the non-dominant point of view, and all of a sudden, that choice is the new normal.

Like so many other matters of subjective aesthetic judgment, close third-person narration (also known as tight third-person) goes in and out of fashion. But just try pointing that out to a POVN.

One effect of the reign of the POVNs — whose views go through periods of being very popular indeed, then fall into disuse, only to rise anew — has been the production of vast quantities of stories and novels where the protagonist’s point of view and the narrator’s are astonishingly similar. And, wouldn’t you know it, those POVs are overwhelmingly upper-middle class, college-educated, and grateful to teachers who kept barking, “Write what you know!”

The POVNs have also given us a whole slew of books where the other characters are exactly as they appear to the protagonist: no more, no less. No subtext here. The rise of television and movies, where the camera is usually an impersonal narrator of the visibly obvious, has also contributed to this kind of what you see is what you get characterization (if you’ll forgive my quoting the late great Flip Wilson in this context).

The result is a whole lot of submissions that just beg the question, “Why wasn’t this book just written in the first person, if we’re not going to gain any significant insight into the other characters?”

I suspect that I am not the only reader who addresses such questions to an unhearing universe in the dead of night, but for a POVN, the answer is abundantly obvious. The piece in question focused upon a single POV because there is simply no other way to write a third-person scene.

Oh, you disagree with that? Cue the Spanish Inquisition!

As a matter of fact, I disagree with that, but I’m going to sign off now, before the blog-length hard-liners come after me for the sixth time. Should the POVNs come after you before my next set of (comparatively brief) thoughts on the subject, fling some Jane Austen at ‘em; while they’re ripping it apart, you can slip out the back way.

I hate to leave you in the lurch, but…wait, who is that pounding on my door? Pardon me if I run, and keep up the good work!

Purging the plague of passivity, part VIII: you’re not going out wearing that, are you?

I’m not normally given to talking about current events much here at Author! Author! — that’s for my scant leisure time — but something about a news story a friend forwarded me today so reminded me of a concept we have discussed many a time here that I cannot resist bringing it up. See if you can guess why.

To avoid embarrassing any of the students involved, and in our week-long tradition of transforming anecdotes into plot examples, I shall present the story as if it were a work of fiction. (You may join me in wishing it were, by its end.) Keep your eye out for protagonist passivity here.

As is the custom all over the United States this time of year, the junior and seniors at Oxford High were eagerly preparing for their prom: renting tuxedoes, dress-shopping, reserving corsages. Gowns are expensive, so Deanna and her younger sister were thrilled to find a reasonable-but-pretty dress they liked on a prom-oriented website: Deanna chose green, Margaret blue. Mom only turned a trifle pale at the price.

Deanna was dancing with her date, white carnation corsage lightly scraping his right earlobe, when the principal tapped her on the back so formally that a girl of her grandmother’s generation would have thought he was cutting in. His face was stern.

Brusquely, he looked her up and down. “Your dress is inappropriate. Come to my office on Monday.”

Deanna and her date were startled. Who died and made him the fashion police? They giggled uncomfortably onto each other’s shoulders as Mr. St. George circled the room, pouncing on scantily-clad teenage girls.

Twenty-five of them squeezed themselves into his office two days later, now normally clothed. You can’t wear a ball gown every day, more’s the pity.

Mr. St. George seared them all with a how-did-I-end-up-teaching-Jezebels? glance. “You’ve violated the school’s dress code,” he informed them tersely. “I’ll give each of you a choice: corporeal punishment or a three-days’ suspension.”

The girls glanced at one another: was this some kind of sick joke? The daytime dress code applied to the prom? With midterms coming up, who could afford to be out of class for three days straight? One by one, the girls started lining up to be whacked with Mr. St. George’s riding crop.

I told you might prefer the story to be fictional. For the moment, though, let’s set aside the fact that these girls are about to be punished for wearing clothing that their parents presumably approved in violation of a dress code they didn’t know extended to off-campus school events, and concentrate on the kind of protagonist Deanna has been so far. There’s been a fair amount going on, but has she been active or passive?

Hint: when in doubt, look over the protagonist’s role in each paragraph and ask yourself, “Does anything she does or says here change what’s going on?”

In the story so far, the overall answer is no. Other than finding the banned dress in the first place (the same one, lest we forget, that her younger sister wore in a different color; Mr. St. George didn’t tap her back), Deanna has been primarily reactive. That sterling administrator, Mr. St. George, has been the primary actor here.

Boo! Hiss! Go tie somebody your own size to a train track!

We’re all familiar with the pattern, right? This kind of scene, appalling as it is, is actually not all that uncommon in novels about school life — and it’s downright usual in memoirs covering the narrator’s educational experiences. Ditto with novels and books covering military training. The authority figure applies rules unfairly; the protagonist (and, in this case, 24 other girls) is the hapless victim of a system designed to keep them from resisting effectively.

Which happens all the time in real life, as anyone who has ever been a child can attest — or an aspiring writer querying or pitching for the first time, for that matter. If you don’t know the rules, it’s pretty difficult to follow them. But as we were discussing earlier in this series, even when faced with an unbeatable unfairness, most the reader will hope that the protagonist will at least try to fight back against it. “Conflict!” they cry, licking their lips in anticipation.

And it definitely doesn’t mean that Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge is going to react to it favorably. “Oh, no — another passive protagonist!” they murmur, their fingers itching to reach toward the pile of form-letter rejections ever at their elbows. “Not to mention a cliché. I’m positive that this was quite horrible to live through in real life, but how often aspiring writers forget that one of the major goals of a novel or memoir is to entertain!”

Okay, so maybe their thoughts don’t go into that much detail; those rejection-itchy fingers aren’t all that prone to resisting temptation. Given the danger of this protagonist seeming passive or even trite to M & M, what’s a writer to do about it?

Make the protagonist active, of course, and pronto. Ideally, in a manner that will defy a professional reader’s expectations.

Bless her feisty heart, that’s precisely what the real-life protagonist did here. Here, let me fictionalize the twist for you:

Deanna couldn’t believe how sheep-like her classmates were being, but how could she get out of this without ratting out Margaret? She raised her hand. “Does my suspension start today, or tomorrow?”

For just a second, Mr. St. George’s face was a mask of disappointment, as if he’d been looking forward to hitting her. Quickly, he reverted to his usual condescending sneer. “You haven’t thought this through, Deanna. Shall we call your mother and get her opinion on the subject?”

The rest of the girls looked away. Deanna didn’t drop her eyes.

“I’m sure my mother would agree that this isn’t appropriate.” Although she’d thought the dress was appropriate. “Can I go get my assignments from my teachers?”

This response is more dramatically satisfying than passive victimhood, isn’t it? Admittedly, Deanna’s choice may have had some disastrous effects upon her midterms (the newspaper account of the real incident didn’t mention midterms, I must admit; that was me raising the stakes for the protagonist), but on the page, that would mean only more juicy conflict, wouldn’t it?

Not entirely coincidentally, I want to devote today’s post not exclusively to protagonist passivity, but another, often related issue that traditionally causes editorial eyes to roll and Millicent to mutter, “Oh, God, not another one.”

The time has come, my friends, to speak about the kind of plot — and plot twist! — that the publishing industry likes to call fresh.

Although aspiring writers often mistakenly assume that freshness is a synonym for originality, they can mean quite different things to Millicent and her ilk. Originality is not alway a positive trait in a manuscript submission — many a completely unworkable premise featuring off-the-wall characters is original, after all.

Freshness, on the other hand, is the industry term for projects that are exciting because no one has written something like it before — or hasn’t made a success with something like it recently — yet isn’t so out there that those whose ideas of normalcy are predicated upon the current literary market will reject it as weird.

Confused yet? Most aspiring writers are, and with good reason: freshness is one of those concepts that agents and editors throw around a lot at writers’ conferences without ever defining with any precision.

A fresh manuscript is one that makes Millicent’s weary eyes light up. “Hey, I haven’t seen this before!” she cries, scurrying off to inform her boss that a submission miracle has occurred.

Yes, genuine freshness is that rare. Thanks for asking.

Yet the term is not synonymous with cutting-edge — although cutting-edge concepts are indeed often marketed as fresh. And it doesn’t, contrary to popular opinion amongst late middle-aged writers complaining to one another at conferences, just mean a book concept aimed at the youth market. In fact, right now, some of the least fresh ideas out there are those being pitched toward the hipper end of the YA market.

Don’t believe me? Do you have any idea how many YA paranormals about vampires Millicent sees queried in an average week? Or YAs featuring teenage protagonists undergoing internal turmoil as they submit with outward passivity to the unjust (and possibly personal fantasy-fulfilling) whims of their high school principals, for that matter?

“Wait just a vampire-staking second,” perplexed writers everywhere cry out, rending their (possibly scanty) garments. “So freshness does refer to originality?”

Not precisely. Originality, in the eyes of the industry, often translates into the kind of strange topics that don’t make sense within either a Manhattan or LA context: cow tipping, for instance, or rural tractor-racing. Although, of course, in some cases, all of these things are true of fresh manuscripts.

Okay, are you confused now? You’re not alone. But that’s not much of a consolation, is it?

As a basic rule of thumb, a fresh story is either one that has never been told before, never been told from that particular point of view before, or contains elements that make the reader say, “Wow — I didn’t expect THAT.”

Assuming, of course, that the reader in question scans as many manuscripts in a given week as Millicent. Think of it as a jaded reader.

Yet, as I pointed out above, original stories are not automatically fresh ones. In the eyes of the industry, a fresh story that makes it is generally not an absolutely unique one, but a new twist on an old theme.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, for instance, was certainly not the first tragedy ever written about socially frowned-upon love, or even the first one involving either cowboys or two men. It was the combination of all of these elements — and, I suspect, the fact that it was written by a woman, not a man, which rendered it a bit less socially threatening at the time it came out — that made for a fresh story. Had it been more explicitly sexual, or overtly political, or had a happy ending, or even been written by an author less well-established than Annie Proulx, I suspect that publishing types would have dismissed it as either weird or appealing to only a niche market.

But since she’d already won a Pulitzer, they cheered, having faith that the story would appeal to a wider audience than, say, sheep-herding cowboys with commitment problems. As I perhaps have mentioned before, what an established author can get away with in a manuscript is often substantially different from what an aspiring writer can hope to get Millicent to accept in a first book.

Weird, incidentally, is defined even more nebulously than fresh in the industry lexicon: it is anything too original, off-the-wall, or seldom written-about to appeal to the agent or editor’s conception of who buys books in the already-established publishing categories. Genre-crossing manuscripts, or even genre-expanding ones, are frequently dismissed as weird.

Graphic novels, for instance, were considered until about 15 years ago not to have broad enough market appeal to be comfortably sold in mainstream bookstores, and thus were weird. Practically overnight, though, a few successful graphic novels (Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning MAUS or THE DARK KNIGHT, anyone?) sold really well, and BOOM! Editors started searching eagerly for fresh concepts in the graphic format.

THE DARK KNIGHT is a useful example, I think, of how a creative author can turn a well-worn story into a fresh concept, and since we’re about to be inundated with so much promotion for the movie version that soon it will no longer seem fresh, I should probably talk about it now. For those of you not familiar with it, THE DARK KNIGHT was a retelling of the story of Batman — who, before the graphic novel was published, had a sort of friendly, light-hearted reputation from both decades of comic books and a tongue-in-cheek TV show. Batty was, by the 1980s, considered pretty old hat (or old mask-with-pointed-ears, if you prefer.)

But in THE DARK KNIGHT, the focus switched from Batty’s do-gooding to his many, many deep-seated psychological problems — after all, the guy gets his jollies by hanging out in a damp cave encased in latex, right? That can’t be healthy. He is not saving Gotham time and time again because he happens to like prancing around in tights; it serves to ease his pain, and he very frequently resents it.

And that, my friends, was a fresh take on a well-traveled old bat.

It is endlessly fascinating to me that when people in the industry talk about literary freshness, they almost invariably resort to other art forms for examples. WEST SIDE STORY was a fresh take on ROMEO AND JULIET; RENT was a fresh retelling of LA BOHÈME, which was in itself a retelling of an earlier book, Henri Murger’s Scènes del la Vie de Bohème; almost any episode of any sitcom originally aired in December is a fresh take on A CHRISTMAS CAROL. (Or maybe not so fresh.) And can we even count how many Horatio Alger-type stories are made into movies — like, say, ERIN BROCKOVICH?

Hey, just because a story is true doesn’t mean its contours do not conform to standing rules of drama. Memoir manuscripts sport clichés more often than you’d think, not to mention passive protagonists.

Like it or not, folks in the publishing industry just love the incorporation of contemporary elements into classic stories. There is just no other way to explain the industry now-embarrassing enthusiasm for BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY (well, okay, the sales might have had something to do with it), which reproduced the plot of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE so completely that many of the characters’ names remained the same. (Trust me, Darcy has never been all that common a first name for Englishmen.)

Speaking of a fresh twist on an enduring classic, how about PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES? Before the current wave of popularity of undead stories, how do you think Millicent would have reacted to a story that took the Austen classic (often verbatim), added zombies, and stirred?

Which points us to an important feature of freshness: it changes over time. Perversely, it’s tied to market trends. (Hey, I warned you that it didn’t necessarily have much to do with originality.)

In the mid-1980s, for instance, modern takes on time-worn fairy tales were often considered quite fresh. Heck, publishing professionals regularly described THE COLOR PURPLE as “THE UGLY DUCKLING with racial issues” — a description dismissive of the great artistry of the writing, I have always thought, and the fact that THE UGLY DUCKLING in its original Hans Christian Anderson form is absolutely about race.

That sad little signet was on the receiving end of a whole lot of nasty ethnic stereotyping, you must admit.

Do I hear the unmistakable sounds of disgruntlement out there? “Gee, Anne,” some of you seem to be muttering, “this would be very helpful indeed if I were starting a book from scratch. But at the moment, I am packaging an already-existing manuscript for submission to an agent or editor — in fact, I’m gearing up to send out a query/pitch it at a conference imminently. How does the freshness issue affect ME?”

Actually, it is almost more important to consider your story’s freshness at the point that you are about to send it out the door than when you first start the process. Why? Once the manuscript is complete, it is far easier to see where the storyline (or argument; the freshness test applies to memoir, recall) falls into too-familiar grooves.

Because absolutely the last thing you want an agent to think when reading your submission is, “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” right?

Since a big selling point of a fresh manuscript is its surprise, you will want to play up — both in your marketing materials and your editing — how your manuscript is unique. And quickly, as in within the first few pages of the book.

Think about it: if you begin it like just another Batman story, the reader is going to have a hard time catching on where your work is fresh and different from what is already on the market.

So in response to that fearful question that you’re too horrified to verbalize: yes, you DO need to make the freshness apparent from page 1. Remember, Millicents tend to have knee-jerk reactions, deciding whether they like a writer’s voice or story within a very few pages. It’s not a good idea, generally speaking, to make them wait 50 pages, or even 5, to find out why your submission is special — and so very, very marketable.

Oh, dear, I’m afraid I’ve made the average agency screener sound a bit shallow, a trifle ill-tempered, a smidge impatient. Oh, I would hate it if you got that impression.

How might a writer start the process of revising for freshness? Read over the manuscript, and ask yourself a few questions — or, better yet, have a reader you trust peruse it, and then start grilling:

How is this book unlike anything else currently in print within its book category?

Is that difference readily apparent within the first chapter? Within the first couple of pages? In the first paragraph?

Are the unusual elements carried consistently throughout the book, or does it relapse into conventional devices for this kind of story?

Would, in short, a well-read reader be tempted to say, “Oh, I’ve seen this a dozen times this month,” or “Wow, I’ve never seen this before!” upon glancing over your submission?

If the story is a familiar one, is it being told in a new voice?

If the story is surprising and new, are there enough familiar stylistic elements that the reader feels grounded and trusts that the plot will unfold in a dramatically satisfying manner? (And yes, you should be able to answer this last question in the affirmative, even if your book takes place on Planet Targ.)

It’s better to ask these questions before you send out your work, of course, rather than after. As that tired old aphorism goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression. Make sure those early pages cry out, “I’m so fresh you could eat me!”

Yes, I know: I sound like your mother before you went on your first date — or the roaming principal at the prom. You’re not going to wear THAT, are you?

I also know that getting hooked up with an agent with whom you plan to have a lifetime relationship via a level of scrutiny that seems suspiciously like speed-dating (oh, come on: that analogy has never occurred to you when you were pitching at a conference?) may strike you as a bad idea…well, I have to say I agree. All of our work deserves more careful reading than the average agency gives it. We are all, after all, human beings, timorous souls who are putting the fruits of our stolen hours on the line for scrutiny. Our work should be treated with respect.

And oh, how I wish I could assure you that it always will be. But don’t you think it is prudent to prepare it for the dates where it won’t be? Button up that top button, axe the nail polish, and for heaven’s sake, wear a skirt that’s at least within waving distance of your knees.

You never know when the principal is going to whip out that ruler and start checking skirt lengths, after all. There may be less subjective standards in the world, but in matters of dressmaking and manuscript construction alike, beauty is in the eye of the beholder with the power.

Kudos to the girl who said no to unreasonable power in real life, though — she’s an fresh inspiration to passive protagonists everywhere. Keep up the good work!

Purging the plague of passivity, part VII: raising the stakes for your protagonist, or, wait — wasn’t the baby supposed to STAY in that bath water?


Before I launch into the topic at hand, I have a bit of good news to announce about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community (and sometime guest blogger here): Arleen Williams has been named a quarterfinalist in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition! Congratulations, Arleen — our fingers are crossed for you!

(If anyone reading this is thinking, “Hey, I made the cut, too — why isn’t Anne congratulating me?” about this or any other literary contest, please leave a comment and let me know. I love announcing my readers’ triumphs, but I cannot do it unless I know about them.)

Should any of you want to take a gander at Arleen’s entry — or, indeed, any of the quarterfinalists’ — Amazon has conveniently provided free downloadable excerpts. (And no, I have no idea how the contests’ organizers decided what or how much to excerpt.) Do a little browsing, perhaps leave a few comments — and, more importantly, get a sense of what kind of prose contest organizers are handing Mehitabel the veteran contest judge these days.

As I have said before, and shall no doubt keep saying until my terminal breath, one of the best crash-courses a writer can have is an opportunity to be a literary contest judge, at least in the early rounds of competition — it’s the closest an aspiring writer can get to replicating Millicent the agency screener’s daily experience. See the same types of manuscript megaproblems turning up in seventeen or eighteen consecutive entries, and you’ll start to gain a pretty concrete sense of why our Millie has developed such a hair-trigger for rejection.

Another means of extracting this kind of practical information: have a nice, long chat with anybody who reviews books for a living. Even long before these dissolute days when newspapers and magazines have been dropping book reviews from their pages like the proverbial hot potatoes, reviewers rejected hundreds of potential review-objects, often using strikingly similar criteria to Millicent’s.

Don’t believe me? Take a peek at the recent confessions of a literature-loving book reviewer — he’s already thinking of tossing that review copy aside by the end of the second sentence.

Yes, of the book. Sound at all familiar?

Which brings me back — and it was a rather circuitous road, wasn’t it? — to the burning question of my last post, just how long a protagonist may safely remain passive (or feeling sorry for himself) before Millicent’s hand begins drifting toward the form-letter rejection pile. Last time, I suggested that since that hand can start drifting after just a few lines, and since that drift is equally likely to occur on page 273 as on page 1, a prudent writer edits with an eye toward keeping that protagonist pretty darned active.

If, as the pros say, there should be conflict on every page, the protagonist should be involved in it as often as possible. Ideally, of course, the bulk of that conflict won’t be merely random — there’s a limit to the number of times a protagonist can stumble down the wrong alley and onto a knife fight, after all — but integrally connected to the ongoing struggle in which Our Hero is engaged.

Was that giant crash I just heard the sound of a thousand eyebrows hitting a thousand hairlines? “But Anne,” writers of comparatively peaceful plotlines protest quaveringly, “what on earth do you mean by ongoing struggle? I don’t think of my protagonist as engaged in a constant struggle. Sure, there are things he wants, but I want to keep this book realistic — he struggles sometimes, but in other scenes, he’s resting, playing softball, tending his rock garden, and other real-world activities. I think this makes him easier for the reader to identify with, dag nab it.”

Easy there, slice-of-lifers — no need to devolve into the aggressive idiom of Yosemite Sam. If I may take the liberty of verbalizing the unspoken question that tends to linger in Millicent and Mehitabel’s minds while perusing, say, the third similar rock-gardening scene in a book, if a scene doesn’t either move the protagonist toward his goal or present a new obstacle, enemy, or ally, does it really belong in the book? Or is it merely marking time until the next action scene?

Hey, they asked it, I didn’t. But I must admit, in most manuscripts — especially overly-long or rather slow ones — they have a point. While off-plot scenes, like pages on end of unbroken interior monologue or clever summaries of what has just occurred, are often abundantly justifiable from the writer’s viewpoint as subtle character development (hey, a protagonist who thinks about things must be smart, right?), from a reader’s point of view, they can start to seem like detours, distractions from what’s going on in the book. As a result, many sagging-in-the-middle manuscript could be firmed up by the simple expedient of trimming the scenes that are not integral to the plot.

I know, I know: cutting a scene outright seems like too blunt an editing tool to apply to finely-constructed literary fiction, or indeed, to any nice piece of writing, but remember, in order for an agent to be able to pitch even the most beautifully-written book to an editor, that agent is going to have to be able to say what that book is about. Typically, books are about their plots, not the sentences that are the medium for presenting those plots.

Or, to put it as an agent intending to pitch it might, a good book, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is about an interesting person (the protagonist or protagonists) in an interesting situation (the premise) who wants something (the goal), but faces obstacles before she/he/them can obtain it. In confronting and overcoming those obstacles (that struggle I mentioned earlier), the protagonist(s) creates, strengthens, and/or breaks relationships, as well as grows personally/collectively.

Oh, your plot isn’t like that? What are you writing about, a completely antisocial wallaby?

I’ll bet that if you thought about it hard, you’d find that even that wallaby wants something, though, and faces obstacles in getting it. From Millicent’s perspective, that’s the essential story of WALTER THE LONELY WALLABY — and no matter how much she might happen to love wallabies, scenes that are extraneous to that storyline, or seem to slow it down, or appear to be recovering the same territory as a previous scene, are going to have a harder time keeping her interest than those in which Walter is actively engaged in confronting those obstacles.

In other words, the scenes with plot-relevant conflict in them.

Some of you aren’t all that comfortable with the implications, are you? “Wait a minute, Anne,” a few pale wallaby-distracters ask. “What did you mean about scenes that cover the same ground as a previous scene. You couldn’t possibly be referring to — gasp! — scenes where my protagonist tells some other character what’s just happened to her, could you? I’d been thinking of those scenes as active alternatives to internal monologue — dialogue is action, right?”

Well, not necessarily — and dialogue in which all of the parties basically agree with one another and share the same goals tends not to contain much conflict. There’s no denying that such scenes usually recap plot that the reader has already seen first-hand; to Millicent and Mehitabel, they are merely redundant.

Again, they have a point — and not merely because repeating the same information makes some readers feel that their intelligence is being insulted. (“What? This author thinks I’m incapable of remembering what happened ten pages ago?”) Review scenes, whether they take place mentally or via the ever-popular (and plot-stopping) I’ll talk it all over with my best friend/mother/spouse/coworker/fellow foxhole denizen dialogue, seldom add much forward momentum to a plot.

They may appear to do so, by showing how the protagonist comes to a decision about what action to take next, but by definition, such scenes force the reader to travel the same road twice. Like scenes where the protagonist mulls over his options for a few pages, even fairly lengthy let’s talk it over scenes can usually be replaced by a quick Sheila talked it over with George, then they headed out to the abandoned mine to check for ghosts. The reader doesn’t really need to see the recap; most of the time, it may safely be assumed to have occurred offstage.

What’s the inherent risk of keeping such scenes front and center? Pop quiz, to see if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series: is a scene where the protagonist thinks over what has already occurred (perhaps while tending that pesky rock garden) more likely to depict him as active or passive? What about the scene where Sheila and George nurse a few beers while speculating about whether those noises she heard in the abandoned mine were really the restless dead?

Uh-huh. Still want to take your chances that Millicent or Mehitabel will be engaged enough in the plot to plow through ‘em?

If your answer to that last question was a resounding, “Yes, by Jove!” that’s certainly your authorial prerogative, but I would strenuously advise taking some writerly action to increase the reader’s investment in the outcome of the plot — or at least in the protagonist’s overcoming the barriers between herself and her heart’s desire.

How do I know that your protagonist does in fact face barriers to attaining her heart’s desire, you ask? Simple: if she didn’t, you wouldn’t have much of a plot going there, would you?

That does not mean, obviously, that all struggles for all goals are equally engaging for the reader. Generally speaking, the less sympathetic the protagonist, the less worthy her heart’s desire, and the less challenging the obstacles, the harder the narrative must work to keep the reader interested in the outcome. Ditto with clichés and predictable plot twists.

So take a good, hard look at your central conflict: are the stakes for which the protagonist is fighting high enough for the reader to keep rooting for him to win? Are the obstacles he faces serious enough to require some genuine ingenuity, persistence, and/or other character trait you want the protagonist to develop over the course of the book to overcome?

If not, could you ramp up the stakes? Make the obstacles more varied? Have an ally suddenly transform into an enemy — or vice-versa?

And yes, it is possible to pull off all of these feats within any storyline, even the most mundane. Realism need not be the enemy of either complexity or conflict; the writer of the real is merely limited by what’s plausible.

Okay, so that’s a pretty big merely. As an aspiring slice-of-life writer wrote in to point out, it can be difficult to ramp up the stakes for

…a protagonist whose problems are — well, trivial is such a harsh word…shall we say not of life-bending importance? This seems to be the problem I’m having with my work-in-progress. While my readers like it, they’re not thrilled by it. Which makes me wonder if I will ever see it published.

Today, it seems you can’t write about an ordinary person and her troubles, but have to throw earth-shattering obstacles at her. As if life isn’t hard enough already.

I hope you’ll discuss this situation and offer some pearls of wisdom to remedy it, without throwing everything out and starting over. Yikes!

Funnily enough, just a few days before the reader posted this suggestion, I had been discussing this very problem with a literary agent at a book launch. Naturally, when he brought up the issue, he described it from the other side of the submission envelope: “I keep getting manuscripts with good characters and good writing, but there’s just not enough at stake.”

Did that collective harrumph I just heard indicate some disbelief that my commenter and the agent were talking about the same phenomenon? Trust me: I’m fluent in both writer- and industry-speak.

Both parties were referring, you see, to a very common manuscript megaproblem, a little something I like to call the Cinema Verita Dilemma: how does one write truthfully and movingly about ordinary life — which is, at least most of the time, stubbornly resistant to the basic rules of drama — without producing a text that’s too ordinary to excite reader interest?

Would it surprise you to hear that the agent probably wouldn’t agree with the writer’s suggested solution of throwing earth-shattering problems into the protagonist’s path in order to make the piece more marketable? Nor would I, as it happens.

Most of the time, it’s just not necessary. More than that, it’s not always plausible.

But I’m overjoyed that the writer brought up the possibility, because many revisers do go a bit overboard in response to the suggestion that they raise the stakes of their protagonists’ conflicts a little, give them a more complex array of problems, and generally make the journey from Plot Point A to Plot Point Z a bit more circuitous.

How far overboard, you ask? Well, let’s just say that giving the protagonist’s best friend/husband/child a fatal disease, lingering addiction, or propensity to wander out into traffic is all too frequently the FIRST step. From there, the changes can get truly dramatic.

Finding ways to make the ride more interesting is a more useful way to think of adding conflict, perhaps, than simply throwing more obstacles into your protagonist’s way. Most writers are pretty fond of their protagonists — so the notion of making that nice character’s life HARDER can be pretty distasteful.

Especially if, as is often the case with a first novel (and pretty much always the case with a memoir), the protagonist’s original situation was based all or in part upon some aspect of the writer’s life. “Make her life more difficult?” these writers exclaim. “But millions of people struggle with the problems she had in my first draft every day! Surely, that’s important enough to carry a whole book, isn’t it?”

Well, as that agent would have been likely to tell you, it all depends upon the writing. But the fact is, ordinary life tends not to be all that interesting, dramatically speaking.

So whose job is it to make it so on the page? That’s right: the writer’s.

I suspect that pretty much all of us who write about the real are already aware of this on some level. I mean, the fact that we writers tend to describe such stories as ordinary is kind of a tip-off, isn’t it? If the characters are just surviving, rather than engaged in an active story arc, it’s difficult for the reader to feel pulled along with the story.

Let’s face it: the Fates, while unquestionably gifted at producing real-life irony, are not always the best at dramatic timing. So, again, whose job do you think it is to correct for that on the page?

This is equally true of fiction and nonfiction, by the way. Even memoir is seldom just the straightforward reproduction of life as it is actually lived — or, to be more precise, memoirs that sell are seldom just that. In order to make readable stories, memoirists tell their stories through their own individual lenses, selectively, and in a manner that makes a particular point.

Which, if we’re honest about it, is more than whatever deity is in charge of the running order of quotidian life tends to do.

In fiction, simply reproducing one’s diary (or real-life scenes verbatim) doesn’t very often work on the page, either — and, as I mentioned a few days ago, I suspect the fact that most of us were first taught to write short stories, not novels, tends to disguise that marketing reality.

Possibly because good slice-of-life short pieces of the type that most of us were weaned upon in Comp class are usually DESIGNED to disguise that marketing reality.

I’m not joking about that: the essence of slice-of-life literature is conveying the illusion that it is ripped from real life and displayed more or less as is, in much the way that found art is. But actually, considerable craft is required to produce that effect.

What, did you think that David Sedaris just stood in his childhood living room with a tape recorder, writing down transcripts of his family’s hilarity? (Can you believe the ridiculousness of that so-called exposé of Sedaris’ writing, by the way? Some humorlessly anal-retentive researcher went over his books with a fine-toothed comb to try to figure out how much of it was literally true. Apparently, no one involved had noticed that Mr. Sedaris is a COMEDY WRITER — or had heard of poetic license. But I digress, and that’s bad for plot development.)

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there — and not with the writer of that exposé. “But Anne,” I hear some of you slice-of-lifers protest, “hasn’t there been a lot of great literature that reveals truths about everyday life through closely-examined, beautifully elucidated moments of life as it is actually lived?”

Of course there has been — and still is, amongst each and every year’s crop of literary fiction, memoir, and fiction in every genre. No need to fear that such writing isn’t getting published anymore, because it undoubtedly is. However — and this is one whopper of a however — the reception such a book tends to receive depends almost entirely upon the quality of the writing.

Wait — where have I heard that before?

I’m not going to lie to you: a book that aspires to consist of nothing but such moments and isn’t billed as literary fiction or memoir would probably experience some resistance from Millicent. And before any of you dismiss her taste as philistine-ish, remember that it’s her job to sift through her boss’ submissions, looking for work that has market potential, not just what’s well-written.

Suffice it to say that few agencies are charitable organizations; they exist to sell their clients’ writing, not just to serve the interests of High Art. (Just a quick comprehension check before I move on: everyone out there IS already aware that literary fiction and good writing are not synonyms, right? The former is a marketing category; the latter is a descriptor of work in every book category. If you’re unclear on how to define the former, well, you’re in good company: ask any two agents who represent it for a definition, and you’ll probably get at least two different responses. For more on the ongoing debate, please see the LITERARY FICTION category on the list at right.)

Which brings me back to my little chat with that agent at the book launch: what he was saying, I think, is not that he would like to see writers of books about ordinary people toss them aside in favor of writing something completely different, but rather that he would like to see those ordinary people be a bit more interesting on the page.

As, indeed, my slice-of-life-loving commenter asked me to explain how to do. So I suppose I’d better get around to it.

Unfortunately, like so many good questions about craft, there isn’t a simple answer, or even any single technique to apply. Most of the techniques we’ve discussed in this series would help, to tell you the truth.

But as I am apparently incapable of walking away from a half-answered question (I really do need to work developing that skill, if only so I can get a bit more sleep), here are a few other tricks o’ the trade for pepping up the reality-based — as well as narratives that aspire to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.

Fair warning, writers of the real: you’re probably not going to like #1.

(1) Give your protagonist a few more problems. Frankly, most novels and memoirs feature characters that are a little too straightforward — and so are their problems. In real life, most people are dealing with a whole rash of issues simultaneously. So why should a novel’s protagonist be luckier?

They don’t need to be big problems to be effective, either. You needn’t cut off her leg, for instance, but how would it complicate the plot to have her sprain her ankle at a crucial juncture? Would it give more scope for character development?

(2) Make solving those problems — and smaller problems along the way — more urgent for your protagonist. Or, to rephrase this in industry-speak, if the protagonist isn’t vitally interested in the outcome, why should the reader be?

A lack of urgency is an unbelievably common problem in slice-of-life submissions. Even if the conflict at hand is quite small, the protagonist’s (and other characters’) involvement in it can make it seem immensely important to the reader.

Again, it’s the writer’s job to make sure that alchemy occurs, not the reader’s job to remain interested in whatever happens to be going on.

(3) Make your protagonist a bit more off-beat. Often, self-described ordinary characters are relatively devoid of quirks — which, again, is not particularly realistic, as anyone who has lived in an ordinary small town can tell you. Almost everybody has at least one or two genuine character oddities; why not let ‘em out for some air?

A very tangible fringe benefit: quirky protagonists tend to be a bit more likeable than salt-of-the-earth nice ones. The former are less predictable. Which brings me to…

(4) Allow your protagonist to act out of character every once in a while. Most aspiring novelists think that keeping a character absolutely true to type 100% of the time is a mark of narrative sophistication — but to tell you the truth, consistency is overrated. (Except, of course, consistent plausibility.)

Why, you ask? If a character isn’t very complex to begin with (see tips 1 and 2), the result can be utter predictability. Especially in a piece that aspires to feel very true-to-life, too much character consistency can sap considerable tension from even a very exciting storyline.

In a flatter story arc, it can take it away entirely.

Think about it: if the reader already has a pretty good idea of how the protagonist is going to react to any given stimulus, and if the storyline self-consciously avoids major twists and turns, what precisely is going to keep that reader turning pages?

(5) Add occasional humor in a serious narrative — and serious moments to a comedy. One-note narration can render even an exciting series of events flatter, yet variation in tone is surprisingly often missing from slice-of-life stories and memoir. Since humor astonishingly seldom plays a major role in memoirs, it can be even more effective to enliven a slow scene.

(6) Allow the external environment to reflect the protagonist’s state of mind. This is an old literary fiction author’s trick: from time to time, instead of showing the protagonist’s mental state through the on-the-nose method of typing her thoughts, why not have a nearby dog growl when she’s angry? Or a sunny day seem made for her alone?

(7) Play to your narrative strengths. Normally, I’m reluctant to give this particular bit of advice, as most writers have particular phrases, sentence structures, types of images, etc., that they would just LOVE to add 400 more times to their current manuscripts. But for quiet books, it honestly is a good idea to figure out what makes the best scenes so good — and to try to replicate that magic in a couple of other instances throughout the book.

Just a couple, mind you. If any of you 400-times-per-manuscipt types claim down the road, “Well, Anne Mini said it was okay to play to my strengths,” I shall deny it vociferously.

(8) Accentuate contrasts. Even in the most prosaic storyline, there are ups and downs, right? Try heightening the joys and deepening the despair.

At first, this may seem as though you’ve made your protagonist bipolar, but a too-even keel tends to reduce a reader’s sense of the importance of that’s going on in a scene. Which leads me to..
(9) Raise the stakes of the conflict that’s already there. This need not mean making every conflict a matter of life or death — but if a conflict seems vitally important to the protagonist, it generally will to the reader as well.

It’s harder to make the day-to-day seem vitally important (see comment above about highs and lows), but that’s just another challenge for a talented writer, isn’t it?

Finally — and this is advice that it would do most aspiring writers good to embrace — try to avoid the temptation to blame the publishing industry’s market-oriented tastes for what is very often a narrative problem. Once a writer’s gone there, it’s just a short step to the slippery slopes that lead to deciding that it’s not worth querying (“Agents only want books with non-stop action.”) — or revising (“They’re not publishing books like mine anymore, so I might as well trash this manuscript and start on a potboiler.”).

A warning flare that one might be getting close to that slippery slope: catching yourself speaking about the process in superlative terms. Watch out for words such as neveralwaysonly, and impossible tumbling out of your mouth when you discuss your book’s prospects.

Or, like today’s commenter, thinking that maybe it would be easier just to throw out the current manuscript and start fresh with a new story. Admittedly, sometimes that actually is a good idea — but as writers are rather more likely to produce this sentiment at the beginning of the revision process, rather than at the middle or the end, I tend to regard it as a more reliable symptom of a lack of confidence than a lack of potential in the book.

And when the thought is attached to a manuscript that has yet to be submitted, it sounds as though the author is trying to talk himself out of sending it out at all. Yes, the current literary market is exceptionally tough, but the only book that will certainly never get published is the one upon which the writer has given up.

Or, to translate it so everyone on both sides of the industry can understand: no one really knows for sure whether a book is marketable until its author has tried to market it extensively. So there.

Sure, the obstacles to publication are lofty, but the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher. Like so many factors in the life of the successfully compelling protagonist, these facts may be annoying to struggle against, but you can’t deny that they make the writer’s life interesting. Keep up the good work!

Purging the plague of passivity, part V: the subtle difference between a passive protagonist and wallpaper

bird in a tree

You’re expecting me to open today’s post with a bait-and-switch, are you not? It’s a conditioned response around this time of year — a good 80% of daily and weekly columnists, regardless of their habitual subject matter, may reasonably be expected to open their April 1 posts with an apparently straight-faced telling of an improbable tale, only — surprise! — it turns out not to be true. Har de har har — April fool!

Is anyone over the age of 10 still caught off-guard by this strategy at this point of the calendar? I find it hard to believe, yet much like young men whistling and catcalling after women in the street in order to attract them, I guess we have to assume that it must have worked at least once in human history. Otherwise, it would just be silly to keep doing the same obvious thing over and over again, wouldn’t it?

Why, yes, that does relate to our topic du jour, now that you mention it. How clever of you to notice.

Last time, I began telling you the story of Passive Paul, inert protagonist extraordinaire. Doubtless a charming fellow in real life, Paul is problematic as the center of a book’s interest because his devotion to constant courtesy, never taking even the slightest risk, however trivial, avoiding confrontation of every sort, and extensive internal monologuing render his entrance into virtually any scene of his own book a signal to the reader to start yawning now.

Or, to put it a touch more generously, a reader — particularly a professional one like Millicent the agency screener — might like him to do a bit more and ponder a bit less.

What tends to end up on the page, in short, is a great deal of what we here on the West Coast call processing: lengthy examination of self, loved ones, and/or a situation in order to wring every last drop of psychological import from Paul’s life.

So I repeat my rather disturbing question from last time: why does a character like Paul deserve to have an entire book devoted to him?

This question is infinitely harder to answer in the case of a passive protagonist than an active one. After all, the Pauls of this world almost never cause the central problems of a plot — far from it. He’s usually the guy who tries to get everyone to calm down. Passive Paul has taken to heart Ben Franklin’s much-beloved maxim, “He in quarrels interpose/must often wipe a bloody nose.”

Paul just doesn’t want to get involved, you know?

Oh, he says he does, and certainly thinks he does, often in pages upon pages of unsaid response to what’s going on around him. But deep down, he’s a voyeur — a very specific kind of voyeur who likes to watch the world through a magnifying glass at a safe distance.

Like a bird perched on a tree, peering down at the accident on the street below him, Paul’s basically an observer of the plot, at best. At worst, he’s part of the scenery.

Even when the plot thickens enough to make his life exciting, all he really wants is for the bad things happening to him to be happening to somebody else four feet away. As a result, he watches conflict between other characters without intervening, as if they were on TV. Oh, he may comment vociferously upon what’s going on, especially if he happens to be the narrator, but he seldom takes on the responsibility of making something new happen.

Yes, plenty of people feel that way in real life. We all have our moments of adolescent yearning when we long to have the entire universe rearrange itself around us, in order to get us what we want. But as appealing and universal as that fantasy may be, it is very, very hard to turn into an exciting plot.

But oh, do aspiring writers ever try! Thus the perennial popularity of Ordinary Joes who are unwittingly drawn into Conspiracies Beyond their Ken as protagonists. Yet if Joe simply wanders from scene to scene, observing what’s going on, he runs the risk of becoming set decoration, rather than the primary mover and shaker of the plot.

Do I spot some active hand-waving out there? “But Anne,” creators of sedentary protagonists everywhere exclaim, “surely it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, either a strong and silent John Wayne type muscling his way from conflict to conflict or a Marcel Proust character lingering in bed for several hundred pages at a time, mentally reviewing his life. If I don’t show my protagonist thinking through his options, I’m afraid he’ll come across as, well, a trifle dim-witted. And my book’s conflicts are too complicated to be resolved without fairly involved thought.”

I’m not sure that there was actually a question in there — passive protagonists are noted for their ability to avoid direct questions, which might be considered confrontational; it’s not called passive-aggressive questioning for nothing — but you’re quite right that protagonists are seldom all active or entirely passive.

What I’m really talking about here is a habitual tendency to slow down a plot and/or minimize conflict by stopping the action cold while the protagonist processes. The danger, from the reader’s perspective, is if he remains still enough for too long at a stretch, the book no longer seems to be about him; it’s about his environment. He might as well be wallpaper on the walls of his life.

Worse than wallpaper, in some cases: while wallpaper is usually pretty innocuous (although admittedly, the 1960s and 70s did produce some aggressively eye-searing patterns), seldom actually interfering with what humans are doing in the room it decorates, Passive Paul does have an effect upon the plot. It’s a negative one: he’s the guy standing in the way of the reader finding out what happens next.

Yes, really. Unlike your average strip of wallpaper, the fact that Passive Paul could make a move to affect the world around him, but apparently chooses not to act to do so, renders him merely obstructive to the reader. However, if he obstructs her view of an interesting plot or characters long enough — or, still more common, if his primary contributions to conflict-ridden scenes are to try to avoid or end the conflict — she may eventually find him downright annoying.

Annoy her enough, and she may find herself pulled entirely out of the story — and once that’s happened, it’s hard for most readers to get back into it. The average Millicent, of course, doesn’t even try: “Next!”

Having trouble picturing how nice, friendly Passive Paul provoked such extreme reactions? Okay, let’s place him in a — sacre bleu! — conflictual situation, to see how he tends to respond to it.

Say, for the sake of argument, that Paul encounters a thorny problem, one that would require him to

(a) make a decision,

(b) take some action that will disrupt the status quo of his life, and frequently

(c) learn an important lesson about himself/love/commitment/life with a capital L in the process.

How does he handle it? Simple: he dons his proverbial thinking cap…

(Insert Musak or other appropriate hold music here. Writers LOVE working through logical possibilities in their heads, so their protagonists seldom lack for mulling material.)

…and two pages later, he’s still running through the possibilities, which are often very interesting.

Interesting enough, in fact, that they would have made perfectly dandy scenes, had the author chosen to present them as live-action scenes that actually occurred within the context of the plot. Instead, they tend to be summarized in a few lines, told, rather than shown, but analyzed to the last drop.

Did that set off warning bells for anyone but me? On about 45 levels, most of which would involve Millicent the agency screener muttering, “Show, don’t tell,” under her breath while perusing a manuscript submission?

“But Anne,” lovers of sedentary protagonists point out, “you’re presenting me with a narrative difficulty. Real-life people are acted upon by forces beyond their control all the time; we don’t need to be in the middle of an economic downturn to notice the difference between being laid off because your company is downsizing and quitting a job the employee never liked very much in the first place. (Possibly because it interfered with his writing time.) Heck, you’re constantly telling us that the best path to writerly happiness is to learn what parts of the querying and submission process are and are not within the writer’s control. So how am I supposed to reflect reality in my writing without depicting my protagonist as caught in the throes of forces beyond her control — or by showing her mulling through what’s going on until she figures out what those forces are?”

Excellent compound question, processing aficionados. Allow me to respond by telling you the story of my all-time least-favorite April fool’s joke, with a passive protagonist in a first-person narrative. Take it away, Paul!

Because the economy wasn’t exactly clamoring for those of us with liberal arts degrees in the mid-1980s — although when has it ever? — half the people with whom I went to college were forced to take up temping after graduation. It was just placeholder employment, we told ourselves, until something better came along. Or until we got admitted to graduate school, whichever came first.

After seven or eight months of only occasional temp assignments and practically no job interviews, I was beginning to doubt that I was employable at all. My girlfriend hadn’t graduated yet, so I was camping out in her dorm room, much to her roommate’s chagrin. So when the lady from Sudden Help called to offer me a one-day job at the aquarium, I snapped it up immediately.

“The regular receptionist refuses to work on April first,” the manager told me, leading me to the telephone bank I was supposed to man until five p.m. “I think you’ll figure out why.”

Scarcely had I seated myself when the phone rang. “New England Aquarium,” I sang out, determined to be chipper at all costs.

“Mr. Fish, please. I’m returning his call.”

I searched through the directory. “I’m sorry, but there’s no Mr. Fish here. Could you tell me which department…”

“Oh, God,” my caller interrupted, beginning to chortle. “Did you say this is the aquarium? I’m going to get Mandy back for this.”

She hung up before I caught onto the joke: Mandy, whoever that was, had left her a message to call not a person, but a fish. And where do you call if you you want to reach a fish? Not bad. I’d have to file that one away for future April Fooling.

I was still giggling when I answered the next call. “New England Aquarium. How may I direct your call?”

“A. Shark, please.”

Oh, dear — was this going to go on all day? It hadn’t occurred to me that it might not be a one-time affair. If I every other call was going to be the same joke, I’d better come up with a way to break it to people gently. “I’m afraid you’ve been the victim of a prank, sir. I’m sure we have sharks, but I can’t connect you to them.”

“Why not? I’ve got a message here to call A. Shark.”

Clearly, the guy wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box. I waited for him to get the joke. “This is the New England Aquarium. Get it?”

“Now, look, Buster…”

“Please lower your voice. I’m just trying to explain…”

“Put my call through, or I’m gonna complain to your manager!”

By the time I had calmed him down, I not only understood how wise the receptionist had been to take the day off annually, but was no longer certain I was coming back after lunch. 725 calls later, I could barely make it to the subway stop at the end of the day.

Okay, how did Paul slow this story down with his passivity? Let me count the ways.

If you said that he spent too many lines explaining what was going on to the reader, give yourself a gold star for the day. First-person narration — and really, tight third-person that lingers to much in the protagonist’s head — is notorious for over-explanation. It tends to slow down the narrative.

Here, it also watered down what could have been quite a funny running bit, had Paul gotten out of its way. The dialogue alone could have made the joke abundantly clear.

Also, Paul was not the character to figure out the joke — the first caller did, right? — that, too, might be construed as being an obstacle to the conflict at hand. Chock up another star if you caught that one. Third, as is so often the case with passive protagonists, his response was redundant, repeating information the reader already knew.

“Yes, yes, we get it,” Millicent mutters. “Fish at an aquarium. Move on with it!”

What’s the problem with conceptual repetition, long-term readers? It’s predictable — as are most passive protagonists, when you come to think about it. (And believe me, Millicent does think about it. All the time.) An unfailingly polite character may be relied upon to be courteous, right? A habitual conflict-avoider will constantly eschew conflict. Someone who never talks back to his boss in pages 1-175 will probably continue to be reticent until the last chapter of the book — and perhaps will keep his trap shut even then.

And so forth. Wouldn’t a more changeable character’s responses surprise readers more?

Award yourself three extra stars if you caught the slightly subtler way that Paul slowed down the narrative here: he’s presented himself as the victim of every external force within this scene. His employment problems are shared by millions, but does he try a different solution than the undifferentiated masses? He even lumps himself in with them, referring to everyone concerned in the first person plural. Outside forces even drove him to say yes to the job in the anecdote — and rather than asking intelligent follow-up questions once he gets there, he plays straight man until the first caller clues him in on what’s happening. And even though he’s not the butt of the joke the second time around, Paul thinks only of how the misunderstanding might affect himself.

That self-centerness isn’t precisely a surprise in a passive protagonist, is it? Characters who feel sorry for themselves are particularly prone to thought-ridden passivity. Life happens to Paul, and he reacts to it.

Does he ever! Oh, how lucidly he resents the forces that act upon him, as he sits around and waits for those forces to strike at him again! How little does the external pressure affect his basic niceness as he mulls over the problems of his life! How redolent of feeling do the juices in which he is stewing become!

This is fine for a scene or two, but remember, professional readers measure their time waiting for conflict in lines of text, not pages. To say that they bore easily is like saying that you might get a touch chilly if you visited the North Pole without a coat: true, yes, but something of an understatement, and one that might get you pretty badly hurt if you relied upon it too literally.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that Paul could not be written about well, or even that a novel or memoir in which he was the protagonist would necessarily be unmarketable, even in the current super-tight, oh-my-God-when-will-this-recession-end? literary market.

What I am saying is that Paul’s creator would have to work awfully hard to make his story exciting. Just as a reader may guess a passive protagonist’s probable responses half a page away, a pure observer’s storyline tends to be, among other things, predictable.

Yes, yes, there are plenty of good books where the protagonists sit around and think about things for entire chapters at a time. But before you start quoting 19th-century novelists (or memoirists, for that matter) who habitually had their leads agonize for a hundred pages or so before doing anything whatsoever, ask yourself this: how many books of this ilk can you name that were published within the last five years?

Come up with many? Okay, how many of the ones you have in mind were written by first-time novelists or memoirists?

Okay, how about ones not first published in the British Isles or ghostwritten for celebrities?

Think up even one? If you did, could you pass their agents’ names along to the rest of us with all possible speed?

Paul’s creator has a book that might interest ‘em. In the current very tight literary market, there aren’t many North American agents who harbor this preference — and still fewer who act upon it in establishing their client lists.

And no, beautiful writing alone usually isn’t enough to get Millicent to pass a submission featuring a passive protagonist on to her boss. Professional readers see beautiful writing about inert characters more than you might think. Especially if they represent literary fiction or memoir.

Why? Well, unfortunately, there seems to be a sizable and actively writing portion of the aspiring author community that proceeds on the assumption that literary fiction shouldn’t be about anything in particular — except characterization, of course. A plot distracts from the glory of those stellar sentences, I guess. Or if it is about something, it should be about the kinds of moments that work so well in short stories: exquisitely rendered instants fraught with significance.

You know, the type of hyper-examined human interaction that is really, really hard to sustain for longer than 20 pages or so. Partially — and see if this sounds at all familiar — because all of that observation and reaction tends to keep the narrative, if not mostly within the protagonist’s head, then at least within his body, for most of the piece.

Just in case anyone doesn’t already know this, literary fiction refers to the writing style, experimental use of language, and/or the expectation of a college-educated readership, not the plotline. Cormac McCarthy’s hyper-literary recent hit THE ROAD is a reworking of a premise long familiar to any SF/fantasy reader, after all; it’s the writing that makes it literary fiction.

So yes, Virginia, literary fiction can have a plot. It can even move the reader through that plot swiftly.

Memoir submissions often suffer from a similar reluctance to step outside the protagonist’s head into a full and complex world. But while literary fiction submissions tend to hold the magnifying glass up to nature (mostly the nature inside the protagonist’s head, admittedly, but still, nature), memoir manuscripts are frequently collections of loosely-drawn anecdotes.

Why is this problematic, you ask? Well, by definition, most anecdotes are told, rather than shown. Many, many memoir submissions rely so heavily upon the anecdotal style (which seems chattier than a more robust narrative) that they don’t include any fully-realized scenes or fleshed-out characters other than the protagonist.

Which can present a considerable storytelling problem: by definition, anecdotes are one remove away from the reader than a directly-observed scene, right?

Many, if not most, first-time memoirists forget that. In fact, the protagonist’s thoughts tend to be so central to the author’s conception of a memoir that memoirists often act rather puzzled when someone asks them the perfectly reasonable question, “So, what’s your book about?”

“It’s about ME,” they’ll say, astonished that anyone would feel the need to verify anything so obvious. “What else would my memoir be about?”

In a way, they’re right, but in another way, they’re wrong: a good memoir is always about something other than the narrator’s life, at least in part. People don’t grow up in a vacuum, typically, and even anecdotally, most of us will tell the story of our own lives within a context. Which means, in practice, that the memoir can either present the narrator as a mover and shaker within that context, or as a passive (but likeable!) observer of it.

Guess which most memoir submitters pick?

“But wait!” I hear some of you shouting. “Now I’m so paranoid about Passive Paul and his lethargic brethren and sistern that I’m terrified that my book will be rejected every time my protagonist pauses for breath! I’m no longer sure what’s being nice and what’s being passive!”

Never fear, my friends. When you are in doubt about a scene, ask yourself the following series of questions about it, to reveal whether your protagonist is taking an active enough role in, well, his own life. If you can honestly answer yes to all of them, chances are good that you don’t have a passivity problem on your hands. If you find yourself answering no to one or more…well, we’ll talk.

These questions work equally well, incidentally, whether the manuscript in question is a novel or a memoir. (You’re welcome.)

(1) Is it clear why the events being described here are happening to my protagonist, rather than to someone else? (Hint: “Because the book’s about Paul!” is not an insufficient answer, professionally speaking.)

(2) Does the scene reveal significant aspects of my protagonist’s character that have not yet been seen in the book? If it doesn’t, could it? Would having Paul act a little out of character here make the scene more revealing — or more surprising for the reader?

(3) Is there conflict on every page of this scene? If yes, is my protagonist causing some of the conflict? A golden oldie from previous self-editing question lists, admittedly, but always worth asking.

(4) Does the conflict arise organically? In other words, does it seem to be a natural outcropping of a person with my protagonist’s passions, skills, and background walking into this particular situation?

(5) Does this scene change the protagonist’s situation with respect to the plot? Is either the plot or an important interrelationship between the characters somehow different after the scene than before it? If not, is this scene absolutely necessary to keep?

(6) Is my protagonist doing or saying something to try to affect the outcome or change the relationships here? Is the protagonist integrally involved in that change, or merely an observer of it? (Another oldie but goodie.)

(7) If the scene contains dialogue, is my protagonist an active conversational partner? (Hint: if Paul’s linguistic contributions consist of “What?” “What do you mean?” “How is that possible?” and/or “Really?” you should consider tossing out his lines and writing him some new ones.)

(8) If my protagonist is not saying much (or anything), does he honestly care about what’s going on? If he doesn’t feel that the situation warrants intervention yet, are the stakes high enough for the reader to worry about the outcome of this conflict? If not, is this scene necessary to keep?

#8 may seem like a harsh assessment, but make no mistake about it: to the eye of someone who reads hundreds of submissions, a protagonist who observes conflict, rather than getting actively involved in it, seems as though he doesn’t care very much about what’s going on.

Or, to translate this into the language of the industry: if the protagonist isn’t passionate about what’s going on here, why should the reader be?

To be fair, when Millicent asks herself this question, it may not have as much to do with your manuscript as with the last fifty manuscripts the screener read, half of which opened with slice-of-life vignettes that demonstrated conclusively that the protagonist was a really nice person who did everything she could to avoid conflict. After a couple of dozen of these, a rude and pushy Paul can start to seem rather refreshing.

Yes, these are a lot of questions to ask yourself about every questionably-paced scene in the book — but if you don’t plan to implement them right away, there are always those sweltering, sleepless summer nights ahead.

It’s a great alternative to counting sheep, after all, or even birds lingering in the treetops: Passive Paul would never consider using his pondering time to such useful effect. Keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part III: pretty is as pretty does

yard with petals

Another pretty picture for you today, campers, to soothe the fractured soul and as a refresher for those you trapped in that magnificent East Coast blizzard. As Shelley wrote, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?

It’s also a reward for virtue, both for those brave enough to be learning the contours of standard format for the first time and those dedicated many who stick with it every time I revisit the topic. Believe me, feedback and questions from both categories of intrepid reader have made Author! Author! an infinitely better, more useful, and friendlier place for writers. You all deserve far more than a nice photo of my back yard, of course, but I am, as always, most grateful.

So here’s another gift, a little trifle that I was going to save for the end of this series: working your way first through this series, then through your manuscript, while undoubtedly time-consuming, will in the long term save you a whole heck of a lot of time.

Was that massive sound wave that just washed over my studio two-thirds of you suddenly crying, “Huh?”

It’s true, honest. While the applying these rules to a manuscript already in progress may seem like a pain, practice makes habit. After a while, the impulse to conform to the rules of standard format becomes second nature for working writers. Trust me, it’s a learned instinct that can save a writer oodles of time and misery come deadline time.

How, you ask? Well, to a writer for whom proper formatting has become automatic, there is no last-minute scramble to change the text. It came into the world correct — which, in turn, saves a writer revision time. Sometimes, those conserved minutes and hours can save the writer’s proverbial backside as well.

Scoff not: even a psychic with a very, very poor track record for predictions could tell you that there will be times in your writing career when you don’t have the time to proofread as closely as you would like, much less check every page to make absolutely certain it looks right. Sometimes, the half an hour it would take to reformat a inconsistent manuscript can make the difference between making and missing a contest deadline.

Or between delighting or disappointing the agent or editor of your dreams currently drumming her fingers on her desk, waiting for you to deliver those minor requested changes to Chapter 7. (You know, that lighthearted little revision changing the protagonist’s sister Wendy to her brother Ted; s/he is no longer a corporate lawyer, but a longshoreman, and Uncle George dies not of a heart attack, but of 12,000 pounds of under-ripe bananas falling on him from a great height when he goes to the docks to tell Ted that Great-Aunt Mandy is now Great-Uncle Armand. If only Ted had kept a better eye on that load-bearing winch!)

Or, for nonfiction writers, delivering the finished book you proposed by the date specified in your publishing contract. Trust me, at any of these junctures, the last thing you’ll want to have to worry about are consistent margins.

Perversely, this is a kind of stress that makes writers happy — perhaps not in the moment we are experiencing it, but on a career-long basis. The more successful you are as a writer — ANY kind of writer — the more often you will be in a hurry, predictably. No one has more last-minute deadlines than a writer with a book contract.

Just ask any author whose agent is breathing down her neck after a deadline has passed. Especially if the writer didn’t know about the deadline until it had already come and gone. (Oh, how I wish I were kidding about that.) And don’t even get me started on the phenomenon of one’s agent calling the day after Thanksgiving to announce, “I told the editor that you could have the last third of the book completely reworked by Christmas — that’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

Think you’re going to want to be worrying about your formatting then? Believe me, you’re going to be kissing yourself in retrospect for learning how to handle the rote matters right the first time, so you can concentrate on the hard stuff. (What would many tons of bananas dropped from that height look like, anyway?)

That’s the good news about how easily standard format sinks into one’s very bones. The down side, is that once people — like, say, the average agent, editor, or Millicent — have spent enough time staring at professionally-formatted manuscripts, anything else starts to look, well, unprofessional.

The implications of this mindset are vast. First, as I mentioned yesterday, if an agent or editor requested pages, it would behoove you to send them in standard format, unless s/he SPECIFICALLY tells you otherwise. Ditto with contest entries: it’s just what those who read manuscripts professionally expect to see. It’s so much assumed that s/he probably won’t even mention it, because most agents and editors believe that these rules are already part of every serious book-writer’s MO.

So much so, in fact, that agents who’ve read my blog sometimes ask me why I go over these rules so often. Doesn’t everyone already know them? Isn’t this information already widely available? Aren’t there, you know, books on how to put a manuscript together?

I’ll leave those of you reading this post to answer those for yourselves. Suffice it to say that our old pal Millicent the agency screener believes the answers to be: because I like it, yes, yes, and yes.

Second, this mindset means that seemingly little choices like font and whether to use a doubled dash or an emdash — of which more below — can make a rather hefty difference to how Millicent perceives a manuscript. (Yes, I know: I point this out with some frequency. However, as it still seems to come as a great surprise to the vast majority aspiring writers; I can only assume that my voice hasn’t been carrying very far the last 700 times I’ve said it.)

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but professional-level critique is HARSH; it’s like having your unmade-up face examined under a very, very bright light by someone who isn’t afraid to hurt your feelings by pointing out flaws. In the industry, this level of scrutiny is not considered even remotely mean.

Actually, if your work generates tell-it-like-it-is feedback from a pro, you should be a bit flattered — it’s how they habitually treat professional authors. Yet the aforementioned vast majority of submitting writers seem to assume, at least implicitly, that agents and their staffs will be hugely sympathetic readers of their submissions, willing to overlook technical problems because of the quality of the writing or the strength of the story.

I’m not going to lie to you, though — every once in a very, very long while, the odd exception that justifies this belief does in fact occur. If the writing is absolutely beautiful, or the story is drool-worthy, but the formatting is all akimbo and the spelling is lousy, there’s an outside chance that someone at an agency might be in a saintly enough mood to overlook the problems and take a chance on the writer.

You could also have a Horatio Alger moment where you find a billionaire’s wallet, return it to him still stuffed with thousand-dollar bills, and he adopts you as his new-found son or daughter. Anything is possible, of course.

But it’s probably prudent to assume, when your writing’s at stake, that yours is not going to be the one in 10,000,000 exception.

Virtually all of the time, an agent, editor, contest judge, or screener’s first reaction to an improperly-formatted manuscript is the same as to one that is dull but technically perfect: speedy rejection. From a writerly point of view, this is indeed trying. Yet as I believe I may have mentioned once or twice before, I do not run the universe, and thus do not make the rules.

Sorry. No matter how much I would like to absolve you from some of them, it is outside my power. Take it up with the fairy godmother who neglected to endow me with that gift at birth, okay?

Until you have successfully made your case with her, I’m going to stick to using the skills that she did grant me, a childhood surrounded by professional writers and editors who made me learn to do it the right way the first time. As in my fifth-grade history paper was in standard format; I can still hear my mother blithely dismissing my poor, befuddled teacher’s protests that none of the other kids in the class were typing their papers with, “Well, honestly, if Annie doesn’t get into the habit of including slug lines now, where will she be in twenty years?”

Where, indeed? The strictures of standard format are hardly something that she would have wanted me to pick up on the street, after all.

So let’s start inculcating some lifetime habits, shall we? To recap from earlier posts:

(1) All manuscripts should be printed or typed in black ink and double-spaced, with one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should NOT resemble published books in this respect.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

(5) The ENTIRE manuscript should be in the same font and size. Industry standard is 12-point.

(6) Do NOT use boldface anywhere in the manuscript BUT on the title page — and not even there, necessarily.

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered EXCEPT the title page.

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.

(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page, with the chapter title appearing on the FIRST line of the page, NOT on the line immediately above where the text begins.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, NOT on page 1.

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

Everyone clear on all that? If not, this would be a dandy time to pipe up with questions. While you’re formulating ‘em, let’s move on.

(12) The beginning of EVERY paragraph of text should be indented .5 inch. No exceptions, ever.
The usual way this rule is expressed — and, indeed, the way I expressed it as recently as the last time I went over standard format — is indent every paragraph 5 spaces. MS Word, however, the standard word processing program of the publishing industry, automatically sets its default first tab at .5 inch.. Yet unless you happen to be using an unusually large typeface like Courier, you’ve probably noticed that hitting the space bar five times will not take you to .5 inches away from the left margin; in Times New Roman, it’s more like 8 spaces.

This discrepancy leaves some aspiring writers perplexed, understandably. Clearly, a choice needed to be made here — so why is standard indentation at .5 inch now, rather than at five characters?

History, my dears, history: the five spaces rule is from the days of typewriters. Back in the days when return bars roamed the earth, there were only two typefaces commonly found on typewriters, Pica and Elite. They yielded different sizes of type (Pica roughly the equivalent of Courier, Elite more or less the size of Times New Roman), but as long as writers set a tab five spaces in, and just kept hitting the tab key, manuscripts were at least consistent.

After the advent of the home computer, however, computer-generated manuscripts have become the norm. The array of possible typefaces exploded. Rather than simply accepting that every font would have slightly different indentations, the publishing industry (and the manufacturers of Word) simply came to expect that writers everywhere would keep hitting the tab key, rather than hand-spacing five times at the beginning of each paragraph. The result: the amount of space from the left margin became standardized, so that every manuscript, regardless of font, would be indented the same amount.

So why pick .5 inch as the standard indentation? Well, Elite was roughly the size of Times New Roman, 12 characters per inch. Pica was about the size of Courier, 10 characters per inch. The automatic tab at .5 inch, therefore, is pretty much exactly five spaces from the left margin in Pica.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that in this instance, at least, Word’s default settings are the writer’s friend. Keep on hitting that tab key.

Which brings me back to the no exceptions, ever, part: NOTHING you send to anyone in the industry should EVER be in block-style business format. And for a pretty good reason: despite the fact that everyone from CEOs to the proverbial little old lady from Pasadena has been known to use block format from time to time (blogs are set up to use nothing else, right?), technically, non-indented paragraphs are not proper for English prose.

Period. That being the case, what do you think Millicent’s first reaction to a non-indented page 1 is likely to be?

That loud clicking sound that some of you may have found distracting was the sound of light bulbs going on over the heads of all of those readers who have been submitting their manuscripts (and probably their queries as well) in block paragraphs. Yes, what all of you newly well-lit souls are thinking right now is quite true: those submissions may well have been rejected at first glance by a Millicent in a bad mood. (And when, really, is she not?)

Yes, even if the writer submitted those manuscripts via e-mail. (See why I’m always harping on how submitting in hard copy, or at the very worst as a Word attachment, is inherently better for a submitter?) And that’s a kinder response than Mehitabel the veteran contest judge would have had: she would have looked at a block-formatted first page and sighed, “Well, that’s one that can’t make the finals.”

Why the knee-jerk response? Well, although literacy has become decreasingly valued in the world at large, the people who have devoted themselves to bringing good writing to publications still tend to take it awfully darned seriously. To publishing types, any document with no indentations, skipping a line between paragraphs, and the whole shebang left-justified carries the stigma of (ugh) business correspondence — and that’s definitely not good.

Why, you ask? Well, do you really want the person you’re trying to impress with your literary genius to wonder about your literacy?

I thought not. And which do you think is going to strike format-minded industry professionals as more literate, a query letter in business format or one in correspondence format (indented paragraphs, date and signature halfway across the page, no skipped line between paragraphs)?

Uh-huh. And don’t you wish that someone had told you THAT before you sent out your first query letter?

Trust me on this one: indent your paragraphs in any document that’s ever going to pass under the nose of anyone even remotely affiliated with the publishing industry.

Including the first paragraph of every chapter, incidentally. Yes, published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. But again, that lack of indentation was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying it in a submission, no matter to whom it is intended as an homage, might get your work knocked out of consideration.

(13) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.

I’m serious about that being the ONLY exception: skip an extra line to indicate a section break in the text, and for no other reason.

Really, this guideline is just common sense — so it’s a continual surprise to professional readers how often we see manuscripts that are single-spaced with a line skipped between paragraphs (much like blog format, seen here in all of its glory).

Why surprising? Well, since the entire manuscript should be double-spaced with indented paragraphs, there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break. (Which is, in case you were not aware of it, what a skipped line between paragraph means in a single-spaced or non-indented document.) In a double-spaced document, a skipped line means a section break, period.

Also — and this is far from insignificant, from a professional reader’s point of view — it’s practically impossible to edit a single-spaced document, either in hard copy or on screen. The eye skips between lines too easily, and in hard copy, there’s nowhere to scrawl comments like Mr. Dickens, was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could hardly have been both!

So why do aspiring writers so often blithely send off manuscripts with skipped lines, single-spaced or otherwise? My guess would be for one of two reasons: either they think business format is proper English formatting (which it isn’t) or they’re used to seeing skipped lines in print. Magazine articles, mostly.

But — feel free to shout it along with me now; you know the words — a professional book manuscript or proposal is not, nor should it be, formatted like any published piece of writing.

A few hands have been waving urgently in the air since I started this section. “But Anne!” those of you who have seen conflicting advice point out, “I’ve always heard that there are specific markers for section breaks! Shouldn’t I, you know, use them?”

I wouldn’t advise including these throwbacks to the age of typewriters — the * * * section break is no longer necessary in a submission to an agency or publishing house, nor is the #. So unless you’re entering a contest that specifically calls for them, or the agency to which you’re planning to submit mentions a preference for them in its submission requirements, it’s safe to assume that professional readers won’t expect to see them in a book manuscript or proposal.

Why were these symbols ever used at all? To alert the typesetter that the missing line of text was intentional.

That being said, although most Millicents will roll their eyes upon seeing one of these old-fashioned symbols, they tend not to take too much umbrage at it, because the # is in fact proper for short story format. A writer can usually get away with including them. However, since every agent I know makes old-fashioned writers take these markers out of book manuscripts prior to submission, it’s going to save you time in the long run to get into the habit of trusting the reader to understand what a skipped line means.

(Actually, I do know a grand total of one agent who allows his clients to use short-story formatting in book manuscripts. But only if they write literary fiction and have a long resume of short story publications. He is more than capable of conveying this preference to his clients, however.)

One caveat to contest-entrants: do check contest rules carefully, because some competitions still require * or #. You’d be amazed at how seldom many long-running literary contests update their rules.

(14) NOTHING in a manuscript should be underlined. Titles of songs and publications, as well as words in foreign languages and those you wish to emphasize, should be italicized.

Fair warning: if you consult an old style manual (or a website that is relying upon an old style manual), you may be urged to underline the words and phrases mentioned above. And just so you know, anyone who follows AP style will tell you to underline these. As will anyone who learned how to format a manuscript before the home computer became common, for the exceedingly simple reason that the average typewriter doesn’t feature italic keys as well as regular type; underlining used to be the only option.

DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE TEMPTERS: AP style is for journalism, not book publishing. They are different fields, and have different standards. And although I remain fond of typewriters — growing up in a house filled with writers, the sound used to lull me to sleep as a child — the fact is, the publishing industry now assumes that all manuscripts are produced on computers. In Word, even.

So DO NOT BE TEMPTED. In a submission for the book industry, NOTHING should be underlined. Ever.

Professional readers are AMAZED at how often otherwise perfectly-formatted manuscripts get this rule backwards — seriously, it’s a common topic of conversation at the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. (You already knew that the conference center’s bar is the single best place to meet most of the agents, editors, and authors presenting at the average writers’ conference, didn’t you?) According to this informal and often not entirely sober polling data, an aspiring writer would have to be consulting a very, very outdated list of formatting restrictions to believe that underlining is ever acceptable.

Again, since your future agent is going to make you change all of that underlining to italics anyway, you might as well get out of the habit of underlining now. Like, say, before submitting your manuscript — because if Millicent happens to be having a bad day (again, what’s the probability?) when she happens upon underlining in a submission, she is very, very likely to roll her eyes and think, “Oh, God, not another one.”

Italics are one of the few concessions manuscript format has made to the computer age — again, for practical reasons: underlining uses more ink than italics in the book production process. Thus, italics are cheaper. So when should you use them and why?

(a) The logic behind italicizing foreign words is very straightforward: you don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

(b) The logic behind using italics for emphasis, as we’ve all seen a million times in print, is even more straightforward: writers used to use underlining for this. So did hand-writers.

(c) Some authors like to use italics to indicate thought, but there is no hard-and-fast rule on this. Before you make the choice, do be aware that many agents and editors actively dislike this practice. Their logic, as I understand it: a good writer should be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type.

I have to confess, as a reader, I’m with them on that last one, but that’s just my personal preference. There are, however, many other agents and editors who think it is perfectly fine — but you are unlikely to learn which is which until after you have sent in your manuscript, alas.

Which means — again, alas — there is no fail-safe for this choice. Sorry. You submit your work, you take your chances.

I have a few more rules to cover, but this seems like a dandy place to break for the day. Don’t worry if you’re having trouble picturing what all of this might look like on the page: next week, I’m going to be showing you so many images of actual manuscript pages that you’re going to feel as if you’d gotten locked inside Millicent’s mailbag.

You want to be able to recognize a pretty manuscript when you see one, right? Keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: when an agent asks for pages, but you’ve already granted an exclusive to somebody else, and other soap opera-worthy dilemmas


I’m taking a break from my ongoing series on how getting published does and doesn’t work — as those of you following the series may have noticed with alarm, an awful lot of the common wisdom on the subject just isn’t true, or at any rate, just isn’t true anymore — to address a question that I get about once per month from aspiring writers. The latest iteration, courtesy of a comment from intrepid reader Virginia a few days back:

Here’s my question: I submitted only two queries to two agents. One got back to me quickly and did ask for exclusive right to review. A few days after I agreed to this, the second agent replied and asked for pages. I don’t want to violate my agreement, but how do I tell the second agent I’m really happy she wants to see more but she has to wait?

Queriers end up in this kind of dilemma all the time, often without understanding how they got there. An exclusive is always a good thing, right, a sign that an agent was unusually eager to see a queried or pitched book, and thus decided to bypass her usual method of requesting manuscripts?

Not always, no. Sometimes, a request for an exclusive genuinely is the result of an agent’s being so excited by a query or pitch (especially if that book has just won a contest) that she’s afraid that another agent will snap it up first. But far more often, it is the natural and should-have-been-expected outcome when a writer queries an agency that has an exclusives-only policy that the querier simply didn’t do enough research on the agency to know about, and so is surprised by the request.

Especially gobsmacked by this (usually predictable) outcome: queriers who do what virtually every aspiring writer asked to submit materials does (and what I suspect occurred here), sending out requested pages immediately upon receipt of the request. Overjoyed at what they assume (in this case, wrongly) will be the only interest their queries will generate, many multiply-querying writers don’t pause to consider that multiple requests for manuscripts are always a possible outcome while sending out simultaneous queries. So is a situation where one of those agents requests an exclusive.

This is why, in case any of you inveterate conference-goers have been curious, agents, editors, and those of us who teach classes on marketing writing invariably sigh when an aspiring writer raises his hand to ask some form of this particular question — and it’s not for the reason that other aspiring writers will sigh. (The latter will sigh because they wish they had this problem.) They will sigh because they’re thinking, “Okay, did this writer just not do his homework on the agents he approached? Or is he asking me to tell him that he can blithely break the commitment he’s made to Agent #1?”

That’s why everyone else will sigh. I, however, sigh whenever I hear this question because I think, “Okay, I have to assume that the questioner is someone who hasn’t read any of my blog posts on querying or submission, as much as that possibility pains me to consider. But since I have no fewer than four explicitly-named categories on my archive list — conveniently located at the bottom right-hand side of my website’s main page: EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION, EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS, SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS, and WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? — directly aimed at answering this question, and eight more that deal with it within the larger context of submission (AFTER YOU RECEIVE A REQUEST FOR PAGES, AFTER YOU SUBMIT, HOW LONG BEFORE THE REQUEST FOR PAGES EXPIRES? HOW SOON MUST I SEND REQUESTED MATERIALS? INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE, IS IT OKAY TO SUBMIT TO SEVERAL AGENTS AT ONCE? and REQUESTED MATERIALS), as well as a dramatically-reenacted scenario in the Industry Etiquette series, I also have to assume that the questioner is in a situation that I have managed to overlook addressing in any of these posts. So I shall eschew the temptation just to send the questioner to any or all of those categories, try to understand how and why this situation is unique, and answer the darned question for the 475th time.”

Yes, I can think with that much specificity in mid-sigh, thank you very much. It’s just one of my many talents.

All that being said — or at any rate thought loudly — it actually isn’t fair to leap to the conclusion that if aspiring writers read agents’ websites and agency guide listings more thoroughly, they would never end up in this situation. Sometimes, this request does come out of a genuinely blue sky, whacking a conscientious multiple querier or submitter right in the noggin.

In fact, it seems to be happening to aspiring writers more and more these days, and for good reason: as a group, you’re querying more widely. That’s a good thing.

Now that many agencies routinely just don’t respond to queries at all if the answer is no, it would be equally silly for a savvy writer to query them one at time and to wait to hear back from all of those simultaneous query recipients before submitting to the first agent who asks to see pages.

Often, the writer simply will not know that exclusivity is a possibility until an agent asks for it, and the request is seldom formulated in a manner that informs a writer not already aware of the fact that she can say no. Or put a time restriction on the exclusive, if she grants it at all.

All of these things are true, incidentally. Unless an agency informs would-be queriers in advance that it has an exclusives-only submission policy, a submitting writer is under no obligation to grant a request for an exclusive to an individual agent. And, as with any other favor, the writer has the right to place conditions on it if she grants it.

But widespread misunderstanding of how exclusives work is not the primary reason it isn’t fair for the pros to be dismissive of writers in this situation. We should all have sympathy, because 99.999% of the time, what an aspiring writer asked for an exclusive hears is not, “Okay, this sounds interesting and marketable, but I don’t want to have to rush to beat competing agents in reading the manuscript. Please remove the necessity of my having to hurry by agreeing not to show it to anyone else until I’ve gotten back to you.”

Which is, by the way, what a request for exclusivity means, at base. Deflating to think of it that way, isn’t it?

What 99.999% of aspiring writers in this situation hear is “Oh, my God — this is the most exciting book premise/pitch/query I’ve ever heard. I’m almost positive that I want to represent it, even though I have not yet read a word of the manuscript or book proposal. If you grant my request, I’m going to clear my schedule so I may delve into this submission the nanosecond it arrives in my office.”

And then the giddy aspiring writer is astonished when weeks or months pass before the agent makes a decision, precisely as if there had been no exclusive involved. The only difference, from the writer’s point of view, is that she was honor-bound not to approach other agents until she heard back.

Pardon my asking, but what precisely did the writer gain by granting that exclusive? And does anybody out there have a good suggestion for a new category title that would more quickly catch the eye of (a) submitters who find themselves in this situation, (b) queriers or pitchers who MIGHT find themselves in this situation soon, and (c) readers not patient enough to scroll through a couple of hundred categories to find what they want?

Okay, so the last is a tall order for a 40-character max category title. Believe it or not, the main reason there are so many categories is because I keep hearing from panicked writers who did not instantly find what they were seeking.

I think that a couple of factors contribute the confusion so many agent-seeking writers seem to feel on this subject. First, many writers confuse initial interest with a commitment — why would an agent ask to see a manuscript exclusively, they reason, unless they already thought they might want to sign the author?

The short answer: typically, an agent won’t ask for an exclusive (or for pages, for that matter) unless he thinks representing it as a possibility; since, however, agents who ask for exclusives seldom make the request of only one writer, a writer should not assume that his is the only exclusive on the agent’s desk.

If that last bit made your stomach drop to somewhere around your knees, don’t feel blue, or even slightly mauve: the vast majority of writers who have ever been asked for an exclusive peek at their work were under the same misconception. The temptation to believe the request means more than it actually does is vast.

Compounding this misconception is the cold, hard fact that when aspiring writers agree to an exclusive, they don’t necessarily understand what it actually entails. So let’s invest some blog space into going over the basics.

Hey, maybe this post does belong in my Getting a Book Published Basics! Who’d have thought it?

An exclusive, for those of you new to the concept, is when a writer agrees to allow an agent a specific amount of time to consider representing a particular manuscript, during which no other agent will be reviewing it. In practice, both the agent and the writer agree to abide by certain rules during the specified period:

– ONLY that agent will have an opportunity to read the materials;

– no other agent is already looking at it;

– the writer will not submit it anywhere else;

– in return for this significant advantage (which, after all, pulls the manuscript out of competition with other agents), the agent will make a legitimate effort to read and decide whether or not to offer representation within the specified time period.


Is everyone clear on the rules? If not, please leave a comment with a question — just the second I come up with a brand-new category name covering this particular dilemma, today’s post is going to be popping into it. So if you ask now, future writers-in-a-bind will enjoy the full benefit of your having asked.

Okay, now that we know what Virginia agreed to do, let’s take a gander at her options. If she wants to play by the rules — and she should, always — her choices are three.

If she specified a time limit on the exclusive — which the agent will very seldom propose spontaneously; it’s not in her interest — the answer is very simple: if less than that amount of time has passed, don’t send the manuscript to anyone else until it has.

What is she to tell the other agent? Nothing, if the agreed-upon length of the exclusive is reasonable — say, between three and eight weeks. Agents are perfectly used to writers taking some time to revise before submitting requested materials. Virginia’s second agent probably wouldn’t blink twice if she didn’t get back to him before then; remember, it’s not as though an agent who requests materials sit there, twiddling his thumbs, until he receives it.

And what would she gain by telling him she’d already promised an exclusive to another agent, other than informing him that she had already decided that if the other Agent #1 offered representation, she would take it? How exactly would that win her Brownie points with #2 — or, indeed, help her at all?

In practice, all waiting on fulfilling the second request means is that Virginia will have an attractive alternative if Agent #1 decides to pass on the manuscript. That’s bad because…?

Oh, wait: it isn’t. Actually, it’s an ideal situation for a just-rejected submitter to find herself occupying. Way to go, Virginia!

Worrying about what might happen to Virginia if Agent #1 doesn’t get back to her within the specified time frame? Relax; she still has three pretty good options, one completely above-board, one right on the board, and the last slightly under it.

First, the high road: about a week after the agreed-upon exclusive expires, Virginia could send Agent #1 an e-mail (not a call), reminding her that the exclusive has elapsed. Would A1 like more time to consider the manuscript solo, or should Virginia send the manuscript out to the other agents who have requested it?

I can already tell you the answer will be the former. The writer doesn’t achieve much by taking the high road, usually, other than a bit of comfort from the fact that the agent hasn’t forgotten her altogether.

The level road is cosmetically similar, but frees the writer more. Virginia could write an e-mail to the agent, informing her politely that since the agreed-upon period of exclusivity has elapsed, she’s going to start sending out requested materials to other agents. Then she should actually do it, informing Agent #2 in her cover letter that another agent is also considering the work.

That way, she gets what she wants — the ability to continue to market her work — while not violating her agreement with Agent #1. All she is doing is being up front about abiding by the terms of the exclusive.

The slightly subterranean but nevertheless justifiable third option would be not to send an e-mail at all, but merely wait until the exclusive has lapsed to send out the manuscript to Agent #2, informing him that there’s also another agent reading it. I don’t favor this option, personally, because despite the fact that Virginia would be perfectly within her rights to pursue it — the agent is the one who breached the agreement here, not the writer — if Agent #1 does eventually decide to make an offer, Virginia will be left in a rather awkward position.

Enviable, of course, but still a bit uncomfortable.

When an exclusive does not carry an agreed-upon time limit — and most don’t — the ethics are more nebulous, the costs to the writer significantly higher. Sometimes enough so that being asked to grant an exclusive turns out to be a liability.

As exciting as a request for an exclusive may be, it does tie the writer’s hands, for precisely the reason Virginia feels conflicted: throughout the duration of the exclusive, the writer agrees not to show the manuscript to any other agent. If, as in Virginia’s case, other agents are also interested, this can mean a substantial delay in getting the manuscript onto their desks — not to mention the fact that if Agent A offers to represent it, B and C may not see it at all.

In an environment where it often takes 3-6 months to hear back on a submission, it’s not all that hard to envision a situation where a writer might actually want to say no to an exclusive, is it?

While you’re pondering the implications, I’ll be changing the subject slightly, to underscore a few points. But never fear: I’m going to talk about the perils and escape hatches of the unlimited exclusive tomorrow; it’s too complex to toss off in just a few paragraphs.

For now, let’s concentrate on the kind of exclusives a savvy writer should be delighted to grant. To that end, I want to make absolutely certain that each and every querier and submitter out there understands two things — no, make that three:

1) As flattering as a request for an exclusive is to an aspiring writer, granting it is optional; 

2) Since by definition, a writer cannot submit to other agents during the exclusive period — yes, even if the writer queried the others first — it’s ALWAYS a good idea to set a time limit;

3) Since granting it limits the writer’s options, it’s best reserved for situations where one’s top-choice agents are interested in the book.


Why limit it to your favorite picks? Try to think of granting an exclusive as if you were applying for early admission to an Ivy League school: if the school of your dreams lets you in, you’re not going to want to apply to other universities, right?

By applying early, you are saying that you will accept their offer of admission, and the school can add you to its roster of new students without having to worry that you’re going to go to another school instead. It’s a win/win, in other words.

So if the best agent in the known universe for your type of writing asks for an exclusive, you might genuinely want to say yes. But if you have any doubt in your mind about whether Harvard really is a better school for your intended studies than Yale, Columbia, or Berkeley — to mix my metaphors again — you might want to apply to all of them at the same time, so you may decide between those that do admit you.

To put it another way, if you are asked for an exclusive because your work is sought-after, it is up to you whether you would prefer to go steady right off the bat or date around a little. Got it?

If not, I can keep coming up with parallel cases all day, I assure you. Don’t make me start sending you to past posts.

That doesn’t mean you should necessarily say no to this type of exclusivity request, but if you say yes, set a reasonable time limit on it, so you don’t keep your book off the dating market too long. This prudent step will save you from the unfortunately common dilemma of the writer who granted an exclusive seven months ago and still hasn’t heard back.

Yes, in response to that gigantic collective gasp I just heard out there: one does hear rumors of agents who ask for exclusives, then hold onto the manuscript for months on end. Within the past couple of years, such rumors have escalated astronomically.

Set a time limit. Four to six weeks is ample.

No need to turn asking for the time limit into an experiment in negotiation, either: simply include a sentence in your submission’s cover letter along the lines of I am delighted to give you an exclusive look at my manuscript, as you requested, for the next month.

Simple, direct — and trust me, if the agent has a problem with the time you’ve specified, s/he’ll contact you to ask for more.

Of course, protecting your ability to market your work isn’t always that simple: negotiation is not possible with the other type of exclusive request, the kind that emerges from an agency that only reviews manuscripts that no one else is; the writer is not offered a choice in the matter. Consequently, a request for an exclusive from these folks is not so much a compliment to one’s work (over and above the sheer desire to read some of it, that is) as a way of doing business.

In essence, exclusive-only agencies are saying to writers, “Look, since you chose to query us, you must have already done your homework about what we represent — and believe us, we would not ask to see your manuscript if we didn’t represent that kind of writing. So we expect you to say yes right away if we make you an offer.”

Noticing a homework theme in all of these unspoken assumptions? Good. Let me pull out the bullhorn to reiterate: because agents tend to assume that any serious writer would take the time to learn how the publishing industry does and doesn’t work — oh, if only some reputable blogger would run a series on THAT, eh? — querying and submitting writers who don’t do their homework are much more likely to get rejected than those who do.

Okay, bullhorns down; back to the issue at hand. Why might an exclusive submissions policy be advantageous for an agency to embrace?

Well, for one thing, it prevents them from ever having to experience the fear associated with the first type of exclusive request. If you send them pages, they may safely assume that you won’t be e-mailing them in a week to say, “Um, Agent Q has just made me an offer, slowpoke. I still would like to consider your agency, so could you hurry up and finish reading my manuscript so you can give me an answer? As in by the end of the week?”

Okay, so you wouldn’t really be that rude. (PLEASE tell me you wouldn’t be that rude.) But let’s face it, agents who don’t require exclusive submissions do receive these types of e-mails fairly often. And nobody, but nobody, reads faster than an agent who has just heard that the author of the manuscript that’s been propping up his wobbly coffee table is fielding multiple offers.

Agencies who demand exclusivity are, by definition, unlikely to find themselves in a similar Oh, my God, I have to read this 400-page novel by tomorrow! situation. After even the third or fourth panicked all-nighter, exclusives might start to look like a pretty good policy.

What does the writer get in return for agreeing not to submit to others for the time being? Not a heck of a lot, usually, unless the agency in question is in fact the best place for his work. But if one wants to submit to such an agency, one needs to follow its rules.

Fortunately, agencies that maintain this requirement tend to be far from quiet about it. Their agents will trumpet the fact from the conference dais. Requires exclusive submissions or even will accept only exclusive queries will appear upon their websites, in their listings in standard agency guides, and on their form replies requesting your first 50 pages.

(Yes, in response to that shocked wail your psyche just sent flying in my general direction: positive responses are often form-letters, too, even when they arrive in e-mail form. I sympathize with your dismay.)

If exclusives-only agencies had company T-shirts, in short, there would probably be an asterisk after the company’s name and a footnote on the back about not accepting simultaneous submissions. If they’re serious about the policy, they’re serious about it, and trying to shimmy around such a policy will only get a writer into trouble.

Do I feel some of you tensing up again? Relax — agencies with this requirement are not very common.

Why? It limits their querying pool. Because they require their potential clients to bring their often protracted agent search to a screeching halt while the submission is under consideration, such agencies are, in the long run, more time-consuming for a writer to deal with than others. As a result, many ambitious aspiring writers, cautious about committing their time, will avoid querying agencies with this policy.

Which, again, is a matter of personal choice. Or it is if you happened to notice before you queried that the agency in question had this policy.

Hey, check their T-shirts. Because I assure you, no one concerned is going to have any sympathy for a writer complaining about feeling trapped in an exclusive. They’ll just assume that he didn’t do his homework.

So check submission policies before you query, everyone; it can save you a world of chagrin later.

Thanks for asking the question, Virginia; I’ll discuss other aspects of your dilemma next time. To you and all of your fellow conscientious writers, keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part VII: unwritten rules, turn-around times, and other things that make writers want to run crying to their mothers

giant kites in Oregon

Before I launch into today’s wit and wisdom, a bit of shameless promotion on behalf of a long-time FAAB (Friend of Author! Author!): the ever-fascinating Mary Hutchings Reed, author of COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN is the featured interview on Women’s Radio’s Your Book is Your Hook. In this radio interview, Mary talks about an issue dear to all of our hearts, successfully marketing one’s own novel. She and other authors also write on the subject at the YBIYH blog.

Okay, back to the business at hand. We begin today’s foray into the realities of publishing with a parable.

I was in a jam-packed coffee shop mid-morning, chatting with a photographer friend of mine. It’s a local mommies’ haunt, so the air was shrill with childish exclamations of joy, outrage, and pay-attention-to-me-now. My much-belated Christmas present to the photographer, a fragile bobble, was wrapped, bubble-wrapped, and in my purse; since the shiny red bow was peeking out, I prudently tucked the purse under the hem of my long skirt whenever children were playing with the contents of the nearby toy box.

You can feel the crisis coming, can’t you? That’s what we in the biz call suspense.

Several three- to five-year-olds were marauding the box when I felt my skirt move beneath me. Before I could shield my purse, a wee pickpocket had nabbed the present and was running away with it, screaming, “Mommy! Christmas!”

Being longer of arm than he was of leg, I was able to snatch the box back before it went smashing to the floor. “No,” I told the miniscule would-be pirate in gentle-but-firm tones, “please don’t take that.”

Naturally, he darted off to tell his mother all about it — probably not flatteringly, as she began glaring at me from the coffee line, twenty feet away. Continuing my interrupted conversation, I gradually noticed a small, terrified figure frozen in my peripheral vision. Another toy box marauder covered his mouth guiltily, as if he expected me to scold him.

Taking in the situation at a glance, as the omniscient narrator of many a late 19th-century novel would say, I hastened to comfort him. “It’s okay — I wasn’t talking to you. You didn’t do anything wrong. Go ahead and play.”

After several soothing iterations, he seemed to calm down. Either that, or the Transformer teetering on the top of the toy pile was more attractive and interesting than I was. Rejection happens to the best of us.

A full two minutes of apparently absorbed play later, Moppet #2′s mother showed up with coffee, stroller, and baby sister. Promptly, the little boy burst into tears, clambered into her lap, and began wailing that he was too scared to play. Amidst the rising hysteria, I could discern only two repeated words: “mean lady!”

Now I had two mothers glaring at me. As the child sobbed, the mother murmured, “I won’t let her hurt you,” and the photographer laughed, I tried to explain what had happened. Without a word to me, Mommy scooped up the increasingly incoherent child and stomped off to a table on the other side of the coffee shop, presumably to distance herself and her brood from my negative aura. The first mother made a point of walking over and introducing herself. For the next hour, nasty glances and reiterations of “I won’t let her hurt you, honey.” passed from their table — yes, the moms joined forces — to ours.

Why am I bringing this up, other than as an explanation of why I don’t tote my laptop to nearby coffee shops as often as I otherwise might? Because even as this story played out, I said to myself, “Wow, this is how a good third of the aspiring writers I know initially reacted to learning how the publishing industry works.”

Yes, seriously. Bear with me here.

Kid #1 is the writer who leaps into approaching agents — or, sacre bleu, editors at publishing houses — without doing his homework: he sees something he wants, so he grabs for it. He doesn’t know better: he calls the agency to pitch directly; he e-mails 45 identical boilerplate queries; he sends an unsolicited manuscript.

And when any of those 45 agents or editors says no, he concludes not that there might be rules he doesn’t know about, but that she’s just mean and withholding.

Kid #2, by contrast, is the writer so terrified by everything he’s heard — on the Internet, at writers’ conferences, from fellow writers — about the perils of rejection that he simply worries himself to a standstill. He wants to play with the toys (which are, after all, there in the box for his enjoyment), but he’s scared of someone yelling at him if he makes the effort. He might do something wrong, and thus blow his chance. Just look at what happened to that other kid!

So he waits for someone in authority to tell him that what he wants to do is okay. And then, like so many aspiring writers who have worked up the courage to query or pitch and have received requests for pages, he loses his nerve.

Far, far less risky to complain vociferously about how genuinely scary the situation is than to stick out his neck solo. Some Millicent might scold him if he tried.

I can’t work the two moms into the metaphor; sorry.

My point is, for both kids, the mere fact that someone they didn’t know was enforcing a rule was intimidating, even if the adult laying down the law was someone as soft-spoken as yours truly. I’m not precisely the type whose approach makes dogs and small children whimper, if you catch my drift, but limits are startling, especially when you’re new to the game.

If you didn’t know that a fence was there until you ran right into it, the shock is substantial. It hurts almost as much as the bump the fence post gave your head.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the fence was out to get you, any more than the lady who doesn’t want you to steal from her purse is mean. Every type of human interaction has its own set of rules, and the sooner a person learns them, the sooner he can learn not to react to impersonal barriers as though they were personal attacks.

On a not entirely unrelated note, last time, I broached the burning question at the front of the mind of every writer who has ever submitted a manuscript to an agency: how soon will the agent make a decision about whether to represent my book?

The answer, pretty much invariably, runs a little something like this: not as quickly as the writer would like.

And that reality, like the excellent life axiom Do Not Lift Things From Other People’s Purses, is applicable to everyone, not just oneself. Try not to take slow turn-around times personally — or as any reflection whatsoever upon the quality or marketability of your writing.

It’s just the way the system works. And no, that present in my bag is not for you, kid.

Don’t believe me? Or, more likely: believe me rationally, but can’t accept it emotionally? Let’s analyze the situation.

Tell me again why the submission process seems to take so long?
As we discussed in the previous post, agents don’t draw out the submission process just to torture writers — the delays in turn-around are often due to logistical considerations, such as the number of screening levels though which a manuscript must pass prior to the agent, how backlogged the agent’s reading schedule is (remember, she doesn’t just need to peruse new clients’ books; her existing client list keeps producing manuscripts, too), and the sheer volume of submissions an agency receives.

Oh, and people who work in agencies have lives too; no one, however dedicated to literature, reads 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year plus one in leap year.

As much as impatient writers might like them to do so. Or to believe that any delay in hearing back, however minute, could only be explained by the agent’s reaction to the manuscript.

But that’s almost never true. Despite the fact that aspiring writers tend to be very, very gifted at manufacturing creative reasons that they haven’t yet received a response after submitting requested materials, the usual reason is quite prosaic: if you haven’t heard back about a submission, chances are that the people at the agency who need to read the manuscript just haven’t had time to get to it yet.

Or at least, as is often the case, haven’t read beyond the first few pages. But believe it or not, when an agent skims the opening of a manuscript and sets is aside to read more closely later, that’s actually good news, from the writer’s perspective. Even if the submission subsequently gathers dust and coffee stains on the corner of his desk, its author has reason to rejoice.

Why? Well, contrary to popular belief, agents and editors will seldom read an entire manuscript before deciding to reject it. Once they come to a page (or paragraph, or even sentence) that raises a red flag, they generally stop reading altogether.

In fact — and you might want to sit down for this, if you’re new to this blog — it’s very, very common for submissions to get rejected before the bottom of page 1. One frequent flag-raiser: wildly unprofessional presentation; in case you’re not aware of it, there is a standard format for book manuscripts (explained in great detail in the posts under the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right).

I can sense some resistance to the concept of quick rejection floating out there in the ether. “But Anne,” dewy-eyed idealists everywhere exclaim, “that can’t possibly be right. No one seriously interested in writing would dismiss a book without reading it. They’ve got to give it a fair chance. If an agent asks to see my manuscript, of course he’s going to take the time to read it!”

Oh, my dears. The explanation is going to be even harder for you to accept than what has already raised your hackles, I’m afraid.

The front-loaded submission screening process
Rejected manuscripts rarely read in their entirety, for the exceedingly simple reason that if a manuscript has problems throughout — anything from clichèd dialogue to grammatical errors to lack of excitement on the page — it tends to show up within the first few pages. Or at least within the first fifty.

Which is why, in case anyone was wondering, agents so often ask for fifty pages. Or the first chapter. Millicent the agency screener assumes — and so does her boss, and so will an editor — that if the writing has problems or the story is weak early on, it will remain so for the rest of the book.

Are you thinking that aspiring writers who take a while to warm up are out of luck? Good; you’re beginning to understand how the system works. And that, my friends, is a significant advantage.

How? Being aware of how front-loaded the submission process is enables a writer intending to submit to edit those opening pages so that at least some of the book’s best writing appears first, as well as prompting a special care to avoid rejection triggers there.

Again, not entirely coincidentally, here at Author! Author!, we tend to spend quite a bit of our energy on how to identify and excise these manuscript red flags. For an intensive analysis of dozens of the most common rejection reasons and tips on avoiding them in your submissions, please see the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the list at right.

Back to that good news I mentioned above: if an agent reads the first few pages of a submission and sets it aside to peruse later, that means he hasn’t rejected it; unlike the overwhelming majority of submissions, its opening passed muster. Hooray!

Insofar as a submission’s sitting on an agent’s bedside table for three months can be a hooray-inducing situation.

I’m sensing more disturbance in the ether. “Okay,” the idealists concede reluctantly, “I can see how rejection might be a speedier process than acceptance. But if the agent (and his Millicent who screens things for him) makes up his mind that quickly about most rejections, does his setting my manuscript aside to read later mean that he’s already basically decided to accept it?”

Oh, would that it were that simple. Once a manuscript has cleared the instant rejection hurdle, many other criteria come into play.

What makes an agent decide to take on one manuscript, rather than another, when both have been sitting on the edge of his desk for the past three months?
One reason, and one reason only: she believes that she can sell the first book in the current literary marketplace. Period.

In other words, in her professional opinion, not only is the book is well-written and might interest people who buy and read books, but she also has the connections to editors at major or mid-sized publishing houses who will be interested in bringing this particular manuscript to publication. Furthermore, she believes that the book concept and presentation are polished enough that she can begin sending it out to editors without having first to invest tremendous amounts of her time in re-editing the work. Also, based upon how the writer has presented the manuscript and handled the querying/pitching and submission process, she believes that the writer is sufficiently professional and well enough versed in how publishing works that she will not need to hold his hand throughout every step of the process.

Makes you want to run crying to your mother, doesn’t it?

Idealists’ hands just shot up all over the English-speaking world. “But Anne, this extremely complicated set of conclusions is, you must admit, hardly likely to be something an agent is likely to reach on a purely spontaneous basis three lines into the manuscript! So how can Millicent possibly reject any manuscript on page 1?”

Rather easily, as it happens — you wouldn’t believe how many submissions contain major grammatical or logic errors on page 1. But you do have a point, idealists: even for the minority (and it is a minority, alas) with impeccable opening pages, Millicent needs to see more than just a technically correct, clearly-written, genre-appropriate manuscript: she is looking for something that will grab her boss.

In other words, most agents require far, far more reasons to accept a manuscript than to reject it. Just good, or even good and marketable, is seldom good enough to land an agent.

Quash the impulse to throw a toy at the mean lady who is telling you the rules, please. She didn’t make them.

In order to come up with that array of pluses, the agent will need to spend some time getting to know the book. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she will be reading it with a charitable eye. Remember, reputable agents only make money if they can sell their clients’ books: she can only afford to take on what she’s confident she can sell.

So since even an extremely successful agent can take on only a few new clients per year — especially in this economy — in practice, agents considering a new client typically read with an eye peeled for reasons not to take on the book.

Yes, even for that tiny percentage of submissions that make it past Millicent. As an agent of my acquaintance likes to say, he scours the first 185 pages of a submission from a would-be client eager to find reasons to reject it. After he’s invested the time to read up through page 185, then he starts looking for reasons to accept it.

Those reasons will not necessarily be purely literary, or even aesthetic, mind you. Agenting is, after all, not a non-profit enterprise devoted to the cause of art for art’s sake, but a business.

The choice to sign a client, then, is very seldom purely the result of the agent’s just falling in love with the book at first sight — although rejection often does come that quickly. She may well fall in love with it eventually, but it’s a more mature, reasoned sort of love, the result of a considered decision, not a gut impulse.

I’m bringing this up because often, the underlying assumption behind the “But what’s taking so long?” cri de coeur is not just the mistaken belief that an agent who requested materials will drop everything in order to read them the moment they arrive, but also the misguided theory that if a book is compelling, the reader won’t be able to put it down until she finishes reading it.

Trust me, people who read manuscripts for a living manage it. All the time. If they couldn’t, they’d never be able to leave work at the end of the day or go to sleep at night.

And you know how Millicent needs her beauty sleep.

Another frequent submitter’s assumption is that good writing is inherently so arresting that any professional reader worth her salt should be able to identify an exciting new voice instantly, practically from the top of page 1. While it is often the case that good writing will make professional readers think, “Wow, I’m looking forward to reading on!” that does not mean the initial tingle of hope should be confused with the ultimate decision to represent the book.

The former merely means that the latter outcome is possible, not that it is guaranteed. That possibility is what keeps Millicent — and her boss, if a submitter is lucky — turning pages.

Thus, the secret writerly fantasy about a literary agent’s taking one look at a query letter or hearing a pitch and crying, “STOP! I don’t need to know anything else! I must sign this writer immediately!” just doesn’t happen in real life. (Well, okay, so it does happen to the occasional celebrity, but I’m guessing that if any of you were already famous and/or internationally disreputable, my blog wouldn’t be the first place you would look to find out how to seek representation.) A reputable agent is going to want to read the manuscript in its entirety before making up her mind — or, for nonfiction, the entire book proposal.

Yes, no matter how stellar the book’s premise may be or how good the writer’s credentials may be for writing it. Many a marvelous idea has been scuttled by poor presentation. As they like to say in the industry, it all depends on the writing.

Yet that truism is a trifle misleading, because — and this would be a good time to reach for your inhaler, if you’re prone to stress-induced asthma — writing quality alone is not necessarily enough going to be enough to charm an agent into agreeing to represent a book.

Yes, the agent generally has to like the writing, find the premise appealing, regard the characters as well-rounded and believable, and so forth, but since she will have to make a substantive argument to an editor about how this manuscript is different and better than both similar books already on the market and the other manuscripts the editor is likely to see anytime soon, she does need to pay close attention to the book’s selling points over and above the beauty of the writing.

Including, incidentally, whether the manuscript is the kind of book that’s selling right now. Not what is currently featured in bookstores at the moment, but what editors are buying now.

Trends: sometimes the writer’s enemy, sometimes friend
As we discussed earlier in this series, there’s generally at least a year between when a publisher acquires a book and when it’s released, so what consumers may buy today is actually a reflection of what editors were buying 12 or 15 months ago, possibly more.

This fact is crucial for aspiring writers to understand, as it has a huge effect on the marketability of their manuscripts, from an agent’s perspective. Since the book market is notoriously susceptible to trends — ask anyone who happened to be trying to sell a vampire romance immediately after the TWILIGHT series hit the bestseller lists, or anyone attempting to market a memoir just after the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal broke — agents’ self-protective attention to what is selling now, as opposed to 5, 15, or 100 years ago, often means that a manuscript that would have experienced little difficulty finding representation in another year might seem like too big a risk to for an agent to take on now, and vice versa.

Yes, you are understanding me correctly: from an agent’s point of view, a good book is not necessarily a marketable book — and a book that is marketable today is not necessarily what will be considered especially marketable six months or two years from now.

Which is why, in case those of you who have attended writers’ conferences recently have been wondering, some agents are prone to telling rooms full of gaping aspiring writers, “Oh, no one is buying that kind of book anymore.” They don’t mean that the specified type is never going to sell again — they mean that there isn’t a particularly strong demand for it amongst editors at the major houses right now.

But as an honest agent will be the first to tell you, no one can possibly say for sure what will be selling well next year. Especially given current market conditions.

So when aspiring writers complain about how books like theirs are not finding agents these days, it’s unlikely to strike anyone affiliated with the publishing industry as a searing indictment of their collective aesthetic judgment, but rather as a simple statement of fact about the current literary market. That some types of writing will fall out of fashion from time to time is inevitable; that ones that were not hot in the past will become so is equally inevitable.

And if that fact makes you want to tattle on agencies, rather than sending out another flotilla of queries next month, or renders you immobile with horror at the prospect of mailing the book you’ve spent the last three years writing to an agent who routinely dismisses excellent manuscripts because he cannot expect to sell them, well, you’re like most aspiring writers.

Specifically, like the ones who become convinced that a handful of rejections can only mean that their manuscripts are no good. Or the ones that never work up the nerve to query or submit at all.

If, on the other hand, your first response was, “Wow, it sounds like Anne’s spouting that old truism about the weather, if you don’t like it, wait a minute,” then congratulations: you’re catching on to how publishing works.

See why it’s so vital to a writer’s continued happiness not to take the vagaries of the literary market personally? Don’t let the rules of the coffeehouse frighten you away from that toy box; it’s there for creative people like you.

Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part VI: responding sensibly to that much-anticipated request for pages

seagull in Spain

No, I’m not devoting today’s post to the resting habits of seagulls. I just thought that after all of the horrifying imagery we’ve all been seeing over the last 24 hours, a nice, soothing image wouldn’t be amiss today. (But if you’re itching to help out: both the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders can put donations to work helping earthquake victims right away.)

For those of you joining us mid-series, I’ve been spending the last few posts on an overview of how books currently get published in the United States. Not the astonishing pervasive fantasy that all a good writer has to do to get published is to write a book, but the actual logistics of what happens. The view from the trenches, as it were. So far, we’ve gone over how US-based publishing has changed over time; how fiction and nonfiction are marketed differently; why a writer needs an agent; the various methods of seeking representation, along with their pros and cons, and last time, what kinds of reactions an aspiring writer may reasonably expect following an attempt to approach an agent.

Is everyone fairly clear on all of those? If not, please feel free to post questions in via the comments functions — or, better yet, to seek out more detailed answers amongst the many and varied categories on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Yes, yes, I know: I have been harping on the archives quite a bit over the last few posts, but I assure you, I have my reasons. The current series is intended to give those new to trying to get their work published — and anyone else who feels like reading it — a general view of how the process works, as opposed to my usually favored approach, the let’s-concentrate-on-this-one-small-aspect-for-a-week method of analysis. Both have their benefits, of course, but if you are looking for elucidation on any of the individual points I’m discussing here, chances are that you will find far more discussion than you ever dreamed in the archived posts.

So if delving into the archive list starts to feel like trying to catalogue the contents of Pandora’s box, well, don’t say that I didn’t warn you. Back we go to the general overview.

What a writer should do if an agent requests materials: paper or ether?
If a query or pitch is successful, an agent will typically ask the writer to send either the entire manuscript (rare), a specified number of pages from the beginning of the book (substantially more common), or, for nonfiction, the book proposal. Most of the time, this means that the agent is expecting to receive it as hard copy, sent by regular mail, so if the requesting agent does not specify, start printing.

Yes, even if you queried electronically; reading submissions in soft copy is still far from universal. If an agent prefers e-mailed submissions, he will tell you so when he requests the pages; that information is often included on the agency’s website’s submissions requirements list as well.

If an agent does prefer electronic submissions (and tells you so), send the requested pages as an attachment to an e-mail. Under no circumstances should you ever send a computer disk or CD-R with your book on it — it will be returned without being opened.

If you are planning to submit electronically, please be aware that unless a US-based agent specifically states otherwise, the attachment he has in mind is a document in MS Word. If you work on a Mac, make sure to send it as a Windows-friendly document and as .doc file; many agencies do not run recent enough versions of Word to read .docx files.

Why Word, as opposed to any of the many software programs out there professing to create professional-looking book pages? Word is what the major publishing houses use, that’s why. If the agent of your dreams is going to submit electronically to an editor, that’s how the editor would expect to receive it.

Occasionally, an agent will ask for attachments as rtf (rich text format), a version without the formatting bells and whistles that render documents hard to translate across word processing systems; if you don’t habitually work in Word, but send your document in rtf, a Word user should be able to open it. Some agents accept submissions in PDF format — especially those who choose to read submissions on a Kindle, rather than on a computer screen, as is becoming increasingly common — but it’s seldom preferred, as it’s hard to edit.

Because the human eye reads much more quickly on a backlit screen than on a printed page, it’s usually to the writer’s advantage to submit in hard copy, rather than electronically. It’s also more work for an agent to reject a paper copy, as opposed to the single action of hitting the DELETE key required to remove an e-submission from his life forever; that’s also true of mailed vs. e-mailed queries, incidentally. (For more on the pros and cons of paper vs. electronic submissions, please see the E-MAILED SUBMISSIONS and E-MAILING QUERIES categories on the list at right.)

However an agent has asked you to submit, though, do as he asks. In fact, if there is one inviolable rule to bear in mind while preparing a submission packet, it is surely send the agent precisely what he has asked you to send.

What a writer should do if an agent requests materials: demonstrating you can follow directions
Being hyper-literal often doesn’t serve an aspiring very well along the frequently perilous road to publication, but this is one time where it’s positively a boon. All too often, aspiring writers get so excited over an agent’s request that they forget the quality of the writing is not necessarily the only factor an agent weighs in deciding whether to represent a client. She’s also going to being paying attention to whether the submitter is good at doing what he’s asked to do.

So I reiterate: submit precisely what the agent asks you to send — and only what she asks you to submit.

What might that mean in practice, you ask? Well, if the agent asked to see the first 50 pages, send the first 50 pages — not the first 49, if a chapter happens to end there, or 55 if there’s a really exciting scene after page 50. If page 50 ends mid-sentence, so be it.

Getting the picture?

Why is it so very important to follow submission instructions exactly? The ability to follow directions to the letter tends to be a quality that agents LOVE to see in potential clients, since it implies the writers in question possess two skills absolutely essential to working well with an editor — no, make that three: an ability to listen or read well, a capacity for setting goals and meeting them, and a professional attitude.

So getting the contents of the submission packet right is monumentally important. So if you receive the request in the course of a pitch meeting, take the time to write down a list of what the agent is asking you to send. Read it back to him to make sure you caught everything. (Trust me, if you’re face-to-face with an agent who has just said yes to you, you won’t be thinking with your usual clarity.)

If the agent makes the request in writing, read the missive through several times, then sit down and make a list of what he’s asked you to send. Wait at least 24 hours before re-reading the communication to double-check that every requested item made it onto the list. THEN assemble your submission packet, checking off each element as you place it into the envelope or box.

Clever reader Tad came up with a brilliant extra level of security: after you have assembled the submission packet, hand it, your list, and a copy of the letter from the agent to someone you trust — a parent, a significant other, a best friend, or any other friendly, detail-oriented person you’re relatively certain isn’t harboring a secret desire to see you miserable — and ask that person to check that (a) the letter and the list correspond exactly and (b) you’ve included every necessary element in the packet.

Yes, it’s THAT vital to get it right.

Throughout the last few paragraphs, I’ve been sensing some confusion out there. “But Anne,” a few timid souls pipe up, “am I missing something here? How difficult could it possibly be to print up the number of pages the agent requests, place them in an envelope, and pop it in the mail? Are you saying that he might ask to see something other than the manuscript?”

Often, yes. There are also a couple of elements that any US-based agent will expect to see, whether or not he asks you to include them.

What might an agent ask you to submit — and what should you always send whether she asks for it or not
Since there is no industry-wide standardization of what precisely belongs in a submission packet, any given agent may ask for a different array — and you already know to send precisely what each asks you to send, right? However, the most commonly-requested elements are:

The requested pages in standard manuscript format, unbound.
The most popular lengths to ask for are the first chapter, the first three chapters, the first 50 pages, the first 100 pages, and the entire manuscript. If you’re unfamiliar with the way a professional manuscript should look (hint: not like a published book, nor is it identical to a short story submission), please see the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right.

A few cautionary notes, just in case any of you are too eager to get that packet out the door to check the formatting posts: manuscripts absolutely must be double-spaced, in 12-point type (preferably Times, Times New Roman, or Courier), printed on only one side of the page with one-inch margins, and feature indented paragraphs. (No, business format is not proper here — for a full explanation why, please see the BUSINESS FORMAT VS INDENTED PARAGRAPHS category at right.)

A synopsis.
For fiction, this is a description of the major twists and turns of the plot, told as vividly as possible. Remember what I said last time about every syllable you submit to an agent being a writing sample? Holds true for the synopsis, too. (For tips on how to pull this off in what is often an intimidatingly small number of pages, please see the HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD SYNOPSIS category at right.)

For nonfiction, it’s a summary of the central question the book will address, why the question is important to answer, and a brief indication of what evidence you will use to bolster your arguments. (For an in-depth look at how to pull one of these together, please see HOW TO WRITE A NONFICTION SYNOPSIS category at right.)

An author bio.
This is an extended version of the 1-paragraph description of your life, with emphasis upon your writing credentials, your education, and any experience that would lead an observer to regard you as an expert on the subject matter of your book. For a crash course on how to write one, please see the HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category. (Hey, I wasn’t kidding about there being a whole lot of elucidation on this site. If an agent asks you for something, chances are that I’ve written a two-week series on how to produce it.)

The book proposal.
As I mentioned earlier in this series, book proposals are marketing packets used to sell nonfiction. For an explanation of what should go into it and how to put it together, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category. (This is starting to read like the back of a greatest hits album, isn’t it?

A marketing plan.
This request was unheard-of for novels until just a couple of years ago, but recently, the marketing plan has been enjoying a vogue. For fiction, it’s the same document as the similar section in the book proposal (and thus a description of how to write one may be found under the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category): a description the target audience for the book and how to reach them.

Bear in mind that what anyone who asks to see a marketing plan has in mind is what the AUTHOR will be doing to promote the book, not the publishing house’s efforts, so just saying, “I will make myself available to go on a book tour,” probably isn’t going to impress anybody. Think creatively: who is your target reader, and where do folks like that congregate?

Those are what an agent will probably ask to see. For tips on how to present these professionally, how to box them up, in what order they should be stacked, etc., please to see the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category at right.

While I’m at it, here is a list of what she will almost certainly not mention in her request, but your submission will appear substantially more professional if you include:

A cover letter thanking the agent for asking to see the requested materials and repeating the writer’s contact information.
I’m always astonished at how many aspiring writers just throw a manuscript into an envelope without even attempting any polite preliminaries. It’s rude — and, given how many queries an agency processes in any given week, it’s not a grand idea to assume that the person who opens your submission envelope (almost certainly the screener, Millicent, whom we met yesterday, not the agent herself), will instantly recall who you are. (For guidelines on how to construct this important missive, please see, you guessed it, the COVER LETTERS FOR SUBMISSIONS category at right.)

A title page for your manuscript.
Again, most submitters omit this, but an already-established writer would never dream of submitting a manuscript anywhere without a title page, since a professional title page includes information absolutely vital to marketing the book: the book category, the word count, the title (of course), the author’s contact information. (For an explanation of all of these elements, how to put them together on a page, and illustrations of what a professionally-formatted title page looks like, please see the TITLE PAGES category on the list at right.)

A stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE).
As with queries, not including a SASE with a submission is generally considered an instant-rejection offense. While it’s classy to include a letter-sized SASE in case the agent wants to respond in writing, the SASE in a submission is an envelope or box labeled with your address and enough postage (stamps, not metered) to mail it back to you. (If that sounds complicated, don’t fret: you’ll find a complete explanation of how to handle the many permutations of SASE use under the SASE GUIDELINES category at right.)

Why do you need to include a SASE for your manuscript’s return? Well, unless the agent decides to sign you to a representation contract, she’s not going to hang onto your manuscript — and since not all agencies have recycling programs (yes, I know; it’s discouraging), those rejected pages are just going to land in the trash.

Confused? It wouldn’t be altogether surprising if you were: the logistics of submission are much more complex than the vast majority of aspiring writers realize. For a much fuller explanation of how to juggle all of these elements into a professional-looking submission package, check out the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category at right.

Packaging the submission so it ends up in the right place
Since agencies receive many, many submissions, both requested and not, with every single mail delivery, it’s an excellent idea to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great, big letters on the top of the envelope or box containing your submission packet. This will help ensure that your package ends up in the right pile on the right desk. As unsolicited manuscripts are almost universally rejected unread, the last thing in the world you want is for your requested materials to be mistaken for them, right?

For the same reason, if an agent has asked you to submit pages via e-mail, it’s prudent to include the words REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line of the e-mail. It’s very, very easy to delete an e-mail accidentally, after all. Better safe than sorry, I always say.

Oh, and before I forget, let me reiterate that grand old piece of traditional writerly advice from the first post in this series: never, ever send an agent — or anybody else, for that matter — your only copy of anything. To that, let me add Anne’s Axiom of Submission: never spend the money to ship anything to an agent overnight unless they specifically ask you to do so.

Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, overnight shipping will not get your packet read any quicker than sending it by regular mail, so it’s just a waste of money. Within the US, the significantly less expensive Priority Mail will get it there within 2-3 business days, which is quite fast enough.

Assuming that at least some of you are still with me, I shall now move on to the single most-asked question amongst submitters everywhere:

Okay, now I’ve sent my submission packet. How soon will I hear back?
Well, let me put it this way: I wouldn’t advise holding your breath. Even if you are asked to submit a partial and an agent decides that she’d like to see the rest of the book, you’re probably not going to hear about it right away.

And right away in this context means within the next six weeks. You’ll save yourself a lot of heartache if you understand this: no matter how enthusiastically an agent solicited a manuscript, trust me, she will neither have cleared her schedule in anticipation of receiving your materials nor will drop everything to read it the instant it arrives.

Yes, really. Unless she knows that there are other agents competing to represent you (should you find yourself in that enviable position anytime soon, congratulations, and please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category at right), she — or, more likely, her assistant — will place it in a pile along with all of the other submissions awaiting review.

As with query letters, the length of time an agency takes to make a decision on a manuscript varies wildly, but most of the time — are you sitting down? — it’s measured in months, not days or even weeks. Most agencies list their average turn-around times on their websites or in their agency guide listings, to alert aspiring writers to what can be an extended wait, but those estimates tend to be quite optimistic.

Why does it take so long, you wail? Well, as I said, quite a few manuscripts will have arrived before yours. If waiting in a queue seems unfair now, think about it again after an agent has had a manuscript for a month: how would you feel if one that arrived today were read before yours?

Another reason that turn-around times tend to be slow is — again, you might want to brace yourself — the agent who requested the materials is not usually the only, or even the first, person to read a submission.

Remember our pal Millicent from yesterday? Guess what her job entails after she finishes screening all of those query letters? That’s right: she’s usually the one deciding whether a submission makes the first cut; at some agencies, two Millicents have to agree that a manuscript is of publishable quality AND a good fit for the agency before the agent sees it.

I told you to brace yourself. Unfortunately, as long-time readers of this blog are already glumly aware, Millicents are trained to find reasons to reject manuscripts first and foremost, rather than reasons to accept them.

And no, in answer to what half of you just thought, she doesn’t do it just to be mean or because she hates literature. Since her job is to thin the number of submissions her boss will have to read (often in the agent’s spare time, rather than at work, incidentally: yet another reason that turn-around times tend to be slow), a good Millicent may reject as many as 90% of submissions before they get anywhere near the agent. (For a truly frightening look at some of the most common criteria she uses to thin the herd, you might want to check out the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE or AGENCY SCREENERS’ PET PEEVES OF THE NOTORIOUS VARIETY categories at right. I warn you, however, these posts are not for the faint of heart.)

Even more unfortunately, submitters are seldom given concrete reasons for rejection any more. (For a thoroughly depressing explanation why, please see the FORM-LETTER REJECTIONS category at right.) This means, in practice, that an aspiring writer may not gain any useable revision information from the submission process at all.

I know; it’s awful. If I ran the universe, or even just the publishing industry, it would not be this way. Queriers and submitters alike would receive kindly-worded explanations of why Millicent decided to reject them. Public libraries would also be open 24 hours per day, staffed by magnificently well-read and well-paid staff more than willing to stock good self-published and print-on-demand books (as most US libraries currently will not, as a matter of policy), and hand out ice cream to every child departing with a checked-out book, in order to instill in wee ones the idea that the library is the best place ever.

Under my benevolent régime, schoolteachers would also be paid exceptionally well, every citizen could afford to buy a few books by promising new authors every week, and municipal fountains would flow freely with chocolate milk for all to enjoy. Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, and Madame de Staël’s birthdays would be international holidays. And earthquakes would be permanently banned.

In case you may not have noticed, none of these delightful things is yet true, so I think it’s safe to assume that I don’t yet run the universe. Sorry about that.

Despite deviating sharply from what I personally would like to see happen at agencies, the submission process is far from impossible to navigate: remember, every year, hundreds of first-time authors impress agents enough to land representation contracts. But there is a reason that acquiring an agent is so often described in fishing terms: she landed a great agent, his agent is a great catch.

Sometimes they’re biting; sometimes they aren’t. Being aware of that going into the process can help a writer keep pushing forward.

Which is precisely what you need to keep doing while an agency is pondering your manuscript: keep your chin up, keep querying and submitting to other agents — and keep writing on your next book.

That’s the sane and sensible way for a savvy writer to make her way through this often intimidating and mysterious process — don’t put all of your proverbial eggs into a single basket, especially not one being toted by someone as professionally touchy as Millicent.

That way lies despair. Trust me on this one.

But it’s been weeks. Can’t I, you know, speed up the process a little?
In a word, no. In more words: whatever you do during what can be an extended wait to hear back about your manuscript, DO NOT pick up the phone and call the agent to demand what on earth could possibly be taking so long.

It will not get your submission read faster, and since it’s considered quite rude in the industry for a writer to try to rush a decision (interesting, considering that writers often have only a week or two to decide whether to accept an agency or publishing offer), it’s unlikely to make you any friends at the agency.

If it’s been more than twice the length of time the agent told you to expect (or twice the average time listed on the agency’s website or guide listing), you may send a POLITE e-mail or letter, asking for confirmation that the agency has received your submission packet and offering to send another — they do occasionally go astray — but that’s it. (For a fuller analysis of this situation and other slow turn-arounds, please see the WHY HAVEN’T I HEARD BACK YET? category at right.)

Wow, that ended on a down note, didn’t it? Aren’t you glad that included that nice, cheery picture up top, to perk us all up?

Next time, I shall delve into an inherently happier topic: what happens after an agent decides to represent a book. Keep pressing forward, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

The barbarians at the gate, the elephant in the room, and other reasons not to set at naught the rules of standard format and punctuation

Hannibal on an elephant

Here’s one more piece of evidence, if you needed it, for the Literary Times, They Are A-changin’ file: THE NEW YORKER has announced that it will not be running its second fiction issue of the year in favor of a “World Changers” special edition. Because it’s not as though any other magazine covers people who affect the world stage.

The magazine will continue to publish individual short fiction pieces weekly, of course. But I doubt that’s going to warm the foreboding chill in the hearts of short story writers everywhere at this policy change at one of the few magazines where their work was still received with open arms.

While I’ve already got you depressed into a stupor, allow me to make a quick foray back into my recent discussion of writerly tricks that send agency screeners’ hackles sky-high: hands up if you noticed the Millicent-baiting submission faux pas I made in the first paragraph. It’s a notorious professional readers’ pet peeve; I’ve seldom met a contest judge who did not complain about how common it is in entries.

Not seeing it? Well, here’s a hint: the second time it occurs within the first sentence of this post, it’s arguably justifiable.

If you immediately shouted, “Hey, Anne, there are a bunch of non-proper nouns that are nonetheless capitalized,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Capitalization for emphasis, much like quotation marks around words no one actually said, tends to rankle professional readers, and for good reason: technically, it’s not correct.

This may seem like a nit-picky concern, since headlines and advertising have dulled all of our senses of the oddity of a word’s being capitalized when it shouldn’t be — not to mention giving us a false sense that a capitalized word is more important than one whose first letter is in lowercase. But since that’s not actually true in English, gratuitous capitalization is simply distracting.

How distracting, you ask? Here’s how Millicent would read that first sentence:

Here’s one more piece of evidence for the Literary Times, They Are A-changin’ file: THE NEW YORKER has announced that it will not be running its second fiction issue of the year in favor of a “World Changers” special edition.

Not a pretty picture, is it? To be fair, all deviations from standard punctuation, grammar, and format tend to leap out at professional readers with this kind of intensity, but as this particular one is literally never necessary, it is more likely to be judged harshly, even to the point of being regarded as a symptom of creeping illiteracy.

It’s just not worth the risk of rejection– particularly in this case, where the joke doesn’t need the capitalization to work. Besides, with all of those words shouting for her attention, which is a Millicent intent upon making it through the stack of manuscripts and/or query letters on her desk more likely to concentrate upon, the underlying meaning of the sentence, or the fact that instead of using clever writing to make the point, the author (in this case, yours truly) simply chose to pretend that the important parts were a title?

I’m sensing some uncomfortable squirming in chairs amongst the capitalization- and quotation mark-lovers out there. “But Anne,” these dramatic souls cry, “I just love emphasis. Are you telling me that Millicent is going to look down her nose at my submission if I emphasize anything on the page?”

No, of course not — although I would be lying to you if I didn’t concede that there are plenty of professional readers out there who do feel pretty strongly that the writing itself, and not the punctuation, should let the reader know what is of paramount importance in a sentence. If a writer can’t convey importance in words, this stripe of Millicent believes, what is he doing writing books? Perhaps interpretive dance would be a more appropriate means of communication.

For every other professional reader, though, there is a recognized means of picking out emphasized words. In standard manuscript format (if you don’t know what that is, or if it’s news to you that such a thing exists, hie ye hence to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page), the method of choice is italics:

“Hands off.” Artemis’ voice was quiet, yet the undercurrent of menace was clear. “That trout is mine.”

Makes the point, doesn’t it? And while we’re talking about making points, did anyone catch the correct use of another piece of punctuation we often see done wrong in print these days? No? Well, here’s that paragraph again, this time with Millicent’s pet peeve intact:

“Hands off.” Artemis’s voice was quiet, yet the undercurrent of menace was clear. “That trout is mine.”

Notice it that time? So would Millicent, and I assure you, it would set her teeth a-grinding. In English, a possessive apostrophe on a noun that ends in an s does not take a second s afterword.

And no, I have absolutely no idea why so many newspaper editors have decided otherwise in recent years; the strictures of proper grammar have not changed, after all. What has changed, I suspect, is the rise of the use of computerized spellcheckers that cannot tell the difference between Bob Harris’ coat and the Harrises’ family car. Or maybe we’ve all just seen the grammatically bizarre use of apostrophes to create plurals — as far as I know, the only noun in North America for which this is correct is the Oakland A’s, and that only because the mistake is in the actual proper name — that it no longer shocks us.

But trust me on this one: incorrectly used apostrophes, like gratuitously capitalized words, still shock Millicent the agency screener. And Maury the editorial assistant. And Mehitabel the contest judge. So much so that it’s not entirely unheard-of for the shock to kill off a submission or entry’s chances entirely.

Yes, proper grammar can matter that much in a submission. See why I keep urging all of you to read your manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before send them in?

A few hands have been patiently waving in the air for quite some time now. “But Anne,” these polite questioners ask, rubbing circulation back into their numb arms, “I’ve seen other sources state that italicization is wrong in manuscript submissions. Instead, they recommend underlining. Where do you get off, confusing me by implying that they are wrong?”

Wrong is perhaps too harsh a word for this advice. Seriously outdated and/or not applicable to book manuscripts or proposals would be closer to the mark, because underlining has not been the norm for the book-length submissions since the rise of the personal computer. (Since italics required a special kind of typewriter, underlining was the next-best substitute back when everyone was working with carbon paper.)

Or, in some cases, blithely unaware that magazine publishers and book publishers have different expectations, as short stories are in fact formatted differently from book manuscripts. Yet mysteriously few lists of formatting tips mention that salient fact, tumbling two (or more) sets of rules together indiscriminately.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: before applying any set of rules to a manuscript, check very carefully whether those rules are actually appropriate to your type of manuscript at this point in literary history.

Trust me on this one: if you are submitting material to those involved in book publishing in North America, italicize for emphasis (and to indicate non-English words, so Millicent won’t mistake them for misspellings). Underlining will merely make Millicent mutter, “Well, here’s another one who’s stuck in 1950.”

A different set of hands just shot into the air, didn’t they? “But Anne,” these protestors-come-lately point out, “those aren’t the only legitimate uses for italics, are they? I thought that thought was always italicized in manuscripts.”

In a word, no. Thought is sometimes italicized in manuscripts — although, again, it would be remiss of me not to point out that many a Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel out there feels that a writer gifted enough to deserve assistance into print or a blue ribbon should have the technical skills to be able to let the reader know that thought is occurring without resorting to formatting tricks. As in:

A likely story, Henrietta thought. How dare Frederick treat her like an idiot? For only an idiot would actually believe his absurd claim that he was late for dinner because a band of marauding third-century Huns had slipped loose from the space-time continuum and sacked his homecoming El train.

Still, what was the point of fighting about it? “Well, don’t let it happen again. Wash your hands; your dinner’s getting cold.”

That’s a section of text unlikely to disturb the sensibilities of even the most rejection-happy Millicent. Let’s take a gander at the same excerpt, formatted according to the thought-is-better-italicized school:

A likely story. How dare Frederick treat me like an idiot? For only an idiot would actually believe his absurd claim that he was late for dinner because a band of marauding third-century Huns had slipped loose from the space-time continuum and sacked his homecoming El train. Still, what was the point of fighting about it?

“Well, don’t let it happen again. Wash your hands; your dinner’s getting cold.”

Doesn’t really add much to the scene, does it? En masse, the italics are just kind of distracting — which is precisely why a Millicent who dislikes italicized thought (see tirade about what a talented writer should be able to do with wordplay, above) would automatically judge this passage more harshly.

But if your submission or contest entry happened to land on the desk of a Millicent who thought italicized thought was fine (or who worked for an agent who habitually represented books in genres where italicized thought was common), chances are that the funky type wouldn’t affect her perception of the paragraph at all, as long as the device were applied consistently throughout the submission.

How can an aspiring writer know in advance which kind of Millicent will be screening his submission? Good question; 99% of the time, the writer will have no idea.

Personally, I always advise my clients to err on the safe side, reserving italics for emphasis and foreign words, but a good rule of thumb is to follow the norms for one’s chosen book category — with which, lest we forget, any agent worth his commission is going to expect a marketable client to be intimately familiar. There’s just no substitute for reading up.

Generally speaking, though, the more literary the book category (i.e., the more highly educated its presumed readership), the less likely authors are to italicize thought automatically. Also, context matters: if a shift into italics is likely to jar the reader out of the ongoing action or argument, you might want to think about eschewing it.

Whichever italics route you select, make sure to apply it absolutely consistently — and logically — so it appears to be a deliberate authorial choice. Here’s the same paragraph in a format that would send even the most italics-tolerant Millicent reaching for the form-letter rejection pile:

A likely story, Henrietta thought. How dare Frederick treat me like an idiot? For only an idiot would actually believe his absurd claim that he was late for dinner because a band of marauding third-century Huns had slipped loose from the space-time continuum and sacked his homecoming El train. Still, what was the point of fighting about it? “Well, don’t let it happen again. Wash your hands; your dinner’s getting cold.”

See the problem — or rather the problems? First, if italics = thought in this manuscript,

A likely story, Henrietta thought.

is redundant, isn’t it? Why tell the reader twice that Henrietta is thinking?

Second, since all of the text in this section is presumably going on within Henrietta’s head, why is some of it italicized, and some not? Is the non-italicized sentence an explanatory footnote on what she is thinking?

Or — and this is more likely to be Millicent’s conclusion, I’m afraid — does the author merely not understand the difference between thought, which is often amorphous, and thinking words? If so, does the selectively italicizing writer believe that italicized thought is the same thing as a quote, just not spoken out loud, and different in some way from paraphrased thought? Is all of this fancy formatting extraneous to the story, or some kind of subtle code that the reader is expected to crack? If it’s the latter, is this storyline or argument really worth the effort of cracking it?

See how many question marks a submission or contest entry avoids if it doesn’t embrace the convention of italicizing thought? Wouldn’t you rather that Millicent got swept up into your compelling premise, your engaging plotline, and/or your magnificent writing, instead of worrying her pretty little head with extra-textual issues like this?

No, that isn’t a trick question. It’s a trick situation, of the what-color-am-I-thinking variety. All Millicent wants is for submitters to give her precisely what she wants to see.

If only she, the other Millicents, all of their collective bosses, every single Maury and all of their bosses, and all of the Mehitabels could agree upon what that is. Until they do — and I wouldn’t advise any aspiring writer to hold his breath — the best tactic is to polish one’s manuscript as much as humanly possible and keep submitting until one finds a Millicent who shares one’s idea of what a well-written manuscript is.

Not very inspirational, I know. But much, much more helpful a strategy in the long run than wasting one’s energies trying desperately to discover that mythical single writing formula that everyone currently working in the biz will instantly recognize as brilliant. Or driving oneself crazy, trying to reconcile all of the wildly contradictory writing and submission advice out there.

I can only repeat: learn the norms of your book category, do your homework about standard format, find what makes sense to you, and apply it consistently.

Wow, I really went to town there, didn’t I? I had planned for my point about italics to be merely the opening act for today’s installment on self-editing for pace, but as I see there’s still a great big elephant waiting in the wings, I might as well devote the rest of this post to putting it through its paces.

And what’s the elephant in the room, you ask? Let’s ask the surging masses who have had their hands up since I first mentioned italics: “But Anne,” they shout as one, “I constantly see entire sections of books in italics. I think that looks cool. But if I reproduce that style in my manuscript, will it send Millicent’s internal question-generator into overdrive?”

In a word, yes. In several words, yes, but not in the manner you might think.

Before I explain how and why, let’s make it clear what the surging masses are talking about, shall we? Here’s an example of what lovers of extensive italicized sections typically send across Millicent’s desk:

italicized opening

We’ve all seen this type of opening in published books, right? So what problem could Millicent possibly have with a first page that looked like this?

Problems, actually. In the first place, such an opening is likely to strike her as unprofessional — Millicent knows enough about how publishing works to be aware that few those published books that open with hunks of italicized text would have looked like that at the manuscript stage. The editor, not the author, decides how a book’s text will appear on the printed page.

But that’s not the reason 9 out of 10 Millicents encountering a submission like this will simply skip the italicized part and start reading on line 1 of the normal text. They’ll not read the italics because they know from experience that the story’s not starting there — the bit in italics is probably from another part of the plotline, or in a different voice than the rest of the opening chapter. It might even be a quote from another writer, and thus not particularly likely to give her any help in deciding whether the manuscript in front of her is worth passing on to her boss.

In short, the italicized part might as well not be there. Sorry to be the one to break it to all of you italics-huggers, but presented as it might be in a published book, it’s a waste of page space.

While your hearts are already broken, is this a good time to mention that Mehitabel the contest judge’s reaction to this type of page is likely to be even worse? I once saw an excellent entry actually disqualified because its two different voices were presented on the page differently — one in italics, one in plain text.

Was this outcome the knee-jerk reaction of the kind of italics-hating Mehitabel I mentioned above? No, because I happened to be the judge in question, and I don’t particularly mind italics, as long as they are used correctly. I had no choice, you see: the contest’s rules forbade boldfacing or italics.

That’s not all that unusual, you know. Most serious literary contests have very strict formatting rules; quadruple-check typeface requirements before entering.

So how would a savvy submitter present an opening like this in a manuscript or contest entry? By assuming that any professional reader would be intelligent enough to figure out the two different timeframes without the visual cue of italicization. Happily, standard format has a perfectly good tool for alerting a professional reader to a section break, the skipped line:

italicized opening 2

Not all that confusing, is it? The skipped double-spaced line makes it perfectly clear that the second paragraph is not a continuation of the first, but the beginning of a new section.

The moral of the story: italics tend to be radically overused in submissions. Try giving ‘em a rest, and relying instead upon your good writing and the simple tools provided by standard format to save the reader from confusion.

Next time, I’ll harder to stick to our ongoing topic, I promise. Keep up the good work!

Let’s hear it for varied word choices!

Mortarboard TossMortarboard Toss

That ripple of titters you hear out there in the cosmos, dear readers, is the sound of every soul for whom I have ever critiqued a manuscript guffawing: the title of today’s post is something that I have been scrawling in the margins of manuscripts authored by writers living and dead since I first started proofing galleys in my early adolescence. (Long story, but here’s the short version: the thrill of proofing one’s seventeenth published book tends not to be as great as proofing one’s first. Cue one’s favorite writing student.)

For the last week or so, I’ve been talking about various aspects of the gentle art of self-editing, my sneaky way to build up to a number of backlogged readers’ questions about craft. Rather than just jumping into the thick of, say, narrative voice or memoir structure whilst we’re all battened down against the recent wild weather (ice? In MY back yard? For days?), I’ve been nudging you toward starting to read your work like a professional reader. Tricky, eh?

Today’s piece of self-editing advice comes deep from the lair of my most fire-breathing editorial pet peeve: repetition.

Nor am I the only pro whose hackles fly skyward at the site of it; it’s not an uncommon source of annoyance amongst professional readers. As any good line editor can tell you, a tendency to become a trifle miffed in the face of writing that could be better is, while perhaps a handicap in polite society, a positive boon in his line of work.

I was, of course, trained to react to it from my cradle; see earlier comment about junior high school galley-reading. Amongst my kith and kin, developing a strong editorial eye was considered only slightly less important than learning to walk; it was simply assumed that the children would grow up to be writers. My parents would not so much as commit my name to a birth certificate without first figuring out how it would look in print.

It’s true. Ask the nurse who kept trying to get them to fill out the paperwork.

I come by my pet peeves honestly, in other words, but believe me, this one gets some exercise, especially now that computer use is practically universal amongst writers. Especially in recent years.

Why? Well, word and phrase repetition is substantially harder to catch on a computer screen than in hard copy, even on the great big editor’s model currently gracing my desk. I’ve seen 25-pound Thanksgiving turkeys carried to banquet tables on smaller surfaces than my monitor, but even so, I prefer to edit on paper. And even then, I still read the final version out loud, to check for flow and repetition problems.

Again, why? Long-time readers of this blog, chant my perennial answer with me now: NEVER let a submission tumble into a mailbox (or, for e-mailed submissions, an agent or editor’s inbox) until after you have read it in its ENTIRETY, in HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

There are manuscript problems that simply cannot be reliably diagnosed any other way. Among them: poor flow, evenness of narrative tone, speeches that a character could not conceivably say within a single breath (a bugbear of many a novelist) — and the kind of percussive repetition that drives those of us who read manuscripts for a living around the bend.

I had a hard lesson in this truth myself a few years ago, after I had spent a couple of months writing a book proposal for a memoir. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of trying to market a nonfiction book, a proposal is as nit-picky a document as they come. Rather than demonstrating that the proposed book is interesting and well-written by, say, handing the finished book to editors, the book proposal limits the actual chapters seen to only one or two — and even those come at the end.

In other words, a professional book proposal does not bear much resemblance to the book being proposed.

So what does it look like? First, it includes a lengthy description of what the book is about, why the author is the best current inhabitant of the earth’s surface to write it, and how it is going to blow every other similar book on the market out of the water. The author is expected to name the volumes to be thus trajected into the air specifically, critiquing them with the full knowledge that the editors who worked on them might well be reading the proposal imminently. Next follows a raft of marketing information, identifying the target readership, naming every mortal organization that might conceivably welcome a speaker on the topic, and so forth. After this exercise in tact, the hapless author is expected to come up with entertaining, well-written synopses of chapters that have not yet seen the light of day.

THEN comes the sample chapter. Basically, the nonfiction writer has to prove, over the course of 50 or so pages of discussion of matters inherently less interesting than the subject matter of the book itself, that she can write.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right?

Well, no. It is a format in which a typo is both more important and harder to catch — because, let’s face it, the less fascinating a document is, the more the brain wants to skim through it. Lingering lovingly on every word is for when you’re reading for pleasure, not business. As any agency Millicent screening manuscripts all day, every day (except when she’s screening queries) could tell you.

So although I was most definitely interested in the topic of the book I was proposing, it was something of a chore to read, re-read, revise, and screen-proof the proposal. By the time I began printing out the 15 copies for submission my agent had asked me to send, I was relatively certain that the proposal was typo-free. Because I was in a hurry (and so was my agent), I thought, silly me, that I need not invest the time in proofing it in hard copy.

You can see this coming, can’t you?

So there I was, printing up copy 12. (I like to print all the physical copies of my work that my agents will be circulating, rather than printing a single copy and photocopying it, so I can check each page individually. If a photocopier mangles pg. 173, it’s hard to catch.) Out of habit, I read the latest page out of the printer – and realized with horror that for some reason, three lines on page 47 were in 11-point Times New Roman, not 12-point.

If that startling revelation did not make each and every one of you who plans to submit pages to an agent, editor, and/or contest anytime within the next two years clutch your fast-beating hearts and cry, “Oh, no!”, then I can only think it’s getting to be time for me to review standard format for manuscripts again. (If it’s news to you that there is such a thing as a standard for submissions, run, don’t walk, to the mysteriously-named HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand portion of this page. You’ll thank me later in your career, I promise.)

Those of you thinking, “Oh, come on — what sensible creature would consider a few words in a slightly smaller font a big deal?” have a point: it’s a difference so subtle that probably only a professional reader would have caught it — and then only in hard copy. After all, neither my agent, my collaborator, or I had noticed in the electronic versions, and I have no idea at what point the switch could have occurred, but that typeface change did subconsciously make those lines seem less important. Since it was a page in the middle of the proposal, though, I realized that fixing it would require reprinting ten pages of every single copy I had already printed.

Oh, please – was there even a second of viable suspense here? Of course, I reprinted it. I could always use the discarded pages for scratch paper, then recycle them. Heck, I could even use them to print up a hard copy draft of the next manuscript I was planning to send to my agent, so I could check for this kind of mistake properly on the next submission.

My point is, no matter how sharp-eyed you are, or how smart — that draft of my proposal had been read on-screen numerous times by two people with Ph.D.s AND an agent, recall — you’re better off proofing in hard copy. A fringe benefit: on paper, it is far more apparent when you’re overusing certain words and phrases.

Which brings me back to my pet peeve. Editors hate repetition for a very practical reason: text that repeats a particular word, phrase, or even sentence structure close together is more tiring for the eye to read than writing that mixes it up more.

Let me give you an illustration, as well as I can on a computer screen. Read through the coming paragraph as quickly as you can:

Without turning in her seat, Mandy suddenly backed the car into the garage. The garage door closed, sealing her and the car inside. The car was warm, cozy, a great place to die. No one would come into the garage for a week, possibly more, and the children never came in here at all. Thinking of the children, Mandy sank back into her seat, the car’s solidity as comforting as a sturdy umbrella in the midst of a sudden downpour. Without thinking, Mandy pushed in the car’s lighter, heating its coils for the benefit of some future cigarette that might never be smoked.

Notice anything about how your eye moved down the lines? If you’re like most quick readers, your eye tried to jump from the first use of Mandy’s name directly to the next; it’s a very efficient way to skim. If you’re a more sensitive reader, the repetition of the garage twice within four words and the car twice within five might have led you to skip the next line entirely.

Apart from encouraging skimming — the last thing you want an agency screener to start doing to your work, right? — word and phrase repetition gives a professional reader the impression that the target market for the book in question is not as well-educated than more diverse set of word choices would indicate. (This is true, incidentally, even if a repeated word is polysyllabic, although to a lesser extent.) The more literary your writing, the more problematic such a perception can be.

What kind of vocabulary is appropriate varies from book category to book category, of course. The average adult novel is aimed at roughly a tenth-grade reading level; literary fiction tends to assume a college-educated reader, and uses vocabulary accordingly. So whenever you see those ubiquitous Mark Twain and Somerset Maugham quotes about never using a complex word when a simple word will do, realize that both wrote for audiences that had not, by and large, shifted the tassel on a mortarboard cap very often.

There is yet another reason to avoid word and phrase repetition whenever possible: it tends to slow down the pace of a scene. Yes, really.

Let’s take another look at poor Mandy’s final moments with all of those redundant words removed and replaced with specific details — note how much snappier her trip to meet her Maker is in this version:

Without turning in her seat, Mandy suddenly backed into the garage. The door closed, sealing her inside. The car was warm, cozy, a great place to die. No one would come to this end of the mansion for a week, possibly more, and the children never ventured in here at all. She sank back into the rich leather upholstery, the Mercedes’ solidity as comforting as a sturdy umbrella in the midst of an unexpected downpour. Without thinking, she pushed in the lighter, heating its coils for the benefit of some future cigarette that might never be smoked.

It’s definitely a smoother read, isn’t it, without all of that eye-distracting repetition? It feels like a quicker read. Added bonus: look how many more character-revealing specifics I was able to incorporate in the space freed up by removing the repeated words — why, Mandy moved up several tax brackets in the second-to-last sentence alone.

Yet if you examine the two versions closely, it’s not the length differential that makes it read quicker. Although the reads more quickly and comfortably, it’s actually not substantially shorter: the original was 103 words, the revised version 97. The action merely seems faster.

Bears some pondering, doesn’t it?

If weeding out repetition in just one paragraph can yield this kind of dramatic result, imagine all of the room you could clear for telling little details if you eliminated similar redundancies throughout an entire manuscript. You might want to print out a copy of your book — perhaps on the back of all that paper I had to discard from my proposal — and try it sometime.

There are, of course, many flavors of redundancy to torment editorial souls. Next time, I shall dive into another very common species that, in its most virulent form, has broken the tension of many an otherwise worthy scene. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

At the risk of stating the obvious: well, duh


Is everybody enjoying our ongoing self-editing series? Or, if enjoy doesn’t precisely capture the emotion current swelling your breast at the prospect of another installment of it, may I at least assume that everyone’s been learning a little something each time?

As I mentioned in passing last time, the art of self-revision is so difficult to teach that many writing gurus eschew it altogether –- and not merely because there is no magical formula dictating, say, how often it’s okay to repeat a word on the page or how many summary statements a chapter can contain before Millicent the agency screener rends her garments and cries, “Enough with the generalizations, already! Show, don’t tell!”

Although experience leads me to believe that the answer is not all that many.

Also, there’s just no getting around the fact that professional readers — i.e., agents, editors, contest judges, agency screeners, editorial assistants, writing teachers — tend to read manuscript pages not individually, like most readers do, but in clumps. One after another. All the livelong day.

Why might that affect how someone reads over time? Well, let me put it this way: if you saw the same easily-fixable error 25 times a day (or an hour), yet were powerless to prevent the author of submission #26 from making precisely the same rejection-worthy mistake, wouldn’t it make you just a mite testy?

Welcome to Millicent’s world.

If you’re at all serious about landing an agent, you should want to get a peek into her world, because she’s typically the first line of defense at an agency, the hurdle any submission must clear before a manuscript can get anywhere near the agent who requested it.
In that world, the submission that falls prey to the same pitfall as the one before it is far, far more likely to get rejected on page 1 than the submission that makes a more original mistake.

Why, you cry out in horror – or, depending upon how innovative your gaffes happen to be, relief? Because, from a professional reader’s point of view, common writing problems are not merely barriers to reading enjoyment; they are boring as well.

Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. Blame the sheer repetition.

In not entirely unrelated news, today, I shall be acquainting you with a manuscript problem frequently invisible to the writer who produced it, yet glaringly visible to a professional reader, for precisely the same reason that formatting problems are instantly recognizable to a contest judge: after you’ve see the same phenomenon crop up in 75 of the last 200 manuscripts you’ve read, your eye gets sensitized to it.

I’m talking, of course, about those most cut-able of sentences in any manuscript, statements of the obvious. You know, the kind that draws a conclusion or states a fact that any reader of average intelligence might have been safely relied upon to have figured out for him or herself.

I heard some of you out there chuckle ––you caught me in the act, didn’t you? Yes, the second sentence of the previous paragraph IS an example of what I’m talking about; I was trying to test your editing eye.

Why do I want you to develop a sensitivity to this kind of statement? Well, let me put it this way: any sentence in a submission that prompts Millicent to mutter, “Well, duh is a likely rejection-trigger.

Yes, all by itself, even if the rest of the submission is pretty darned clean, perfectly formatted, and well-written to boot. Read on to find out why.

I mention that, obviously, because I fear that some of you might not have understood that in a written argument, discussion of a premise often follows hard upon it. Or maybe I just thought that not all of you would recognize the difference between a paragraph break and the end of a blog.

Rather insulting to the intelligence, isn’t it? That’s how Millicent feels when a sentence in a submission assumes she won’t catch on to something self-evident.

“Jeez,” she murmurs indignantly, “just how dim-witted does this writer think I am? Next!”

Lest that seem like an over-reaction to what in fact was an innocent line of text, allow me to remind you: when you’re reading in order to catch mistakes – as every agency screener, agent, editor, and contest judge is forced to do, faced with mountains of submissions – you’re inclined to get a mite testy. Liability of the trade.

In fact, to maintain the level of focus necessary edit a manuscript really well, it is often desirable to keep oneself in a constant state of irritable reactivity. Keeps the old editing eye sharp.

To a professional reader in such a state, the appearance of a self-evident proposition on a page is like the proverbial red flag to a bull; the reaction is often disproportionate to the offense. Even – and I tremble to inform you of this, but it’s true — if the self-evidence infraction is very, very minor.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here is a small sampling of some of the things professional readers have been known to howl at the pages in front of them, regardless of the eardrums belonging to the inhabitants of adjacent cubicles:

In response to the seemingly innocuous line, He shrugged his shoulders: “What else could he possibly have shrugged? His kneecaps?” (Insert violent scratching sounds here, leaving only the words, He shrugged still standing in the text.)

In response to the innocent statement, She blinked her eyes: “The last time I checked, eyes are the only part of the body that CAN blink!” (Scratch, scratch, scratch.)

In response to The queen waved her hand at the crowd: “Waving ASSUMES hand movement! Why is God punishing me like this?” (Scratch, maul, stab pen through paper repeatedly.)

And that’s just how the poor souls react to all of those logically self-evident statements on a sentence level. The assertions of the obvious on a larger scale send them screaming into their therapists’ offices, moaning that all of the writers of the world have leagued together in a conspiracy to bore them to death.

As is so often the case, the world of film provides some gorgeous examples of this larger-scale writing problem. Take, for instance, the phenomenon film critic Roger Ebert has dubbed the Seeing-Eye Man: after the crisis in an action film has ended, the male lead embraces the female lead and says, “It’s over,” as though the female might not have noticed something as minor as Godzilla’s disappearance or the cessation of gunfire or the bad guys dead at their feet. In response to this helpful statement, she nods gratefully.

Or the cringing actor who glances at the sky immediately after the best rendition of a thunderclap ever heard on film: “Is there a storm coming?”

Taken one at a time, such statements of the obvious are not necessarily teeth-grinding events – but if they happen too often over the course of the introductory pages of a submission or contest entry, they can be genuine deal-breakers.

So here’s a little self-editing tip: you’re better off cutting ALL of them — and yes, it’s worth an extra read-through to search out every last one.

That’s true, incidentally, even if your manuscript does not fall into this trap very often. Remember, you have absolutely no control over whose submission a screener will read immediately prior to yours. Even if your submission contains only one self-evident proposition over the course of the first 50 pages, if it appears on page 2 and Millicent has just finished wrestling with a manuscript where the obvious is pointed out four times a page, how likely do you think it is that she will kindly overlook your single instance amongst the multifarious wonders of your pages?

You’re already picturing her astonishing passersby with her wrathful comments, aren’t you? Good; you’re getting the hang of just how closely professional readers read.

The trouble is, virtually all the time, self-evident statements appear to the writer to be simple explanation. Innocuous, or even necessary. But provide too much information about a common experience or everyday object, and the line between the practical conveyance of data and explaining the self-evident can become dangerously thin.

I’ve been using only very bald examples so far, but let’s take a look at how subtle self-evidence might appear on a page:

The hand of the round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second, marking passing time as it moved. Jake ate his pie with a folk, alternating bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry with swigs of coffee from his mug. As he ate, farmers came into the diner to eat lunch, exhausted from riding the plows that tore up the earth in neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. The waitress gave bills to each of them when they had finished eating, but still, Jake’s wait went on and on.


Now, to an ordinary reader, rather than a detail-oriented professional one, there isn’t much wrong with this paragraph, is there? It conveys a rather nice sense of place and mood. But see how much of it could actually be cut by removing embroideries upon the obvious:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry pie with swigs of coffee. As he ate, farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. Even after they had finished eating and left, Jake’s wait went on and on.


The reduction of an 91-word paragraph to an equally effective 59-word one may not seem like a major achievement, but in a manuscript that’s running long, every cut counts. And the shorter version will make the Millicents of the world, if not happy, at least pleased to see a submission that assumes that she is intelligent enough to know that, generally speaking, people eat pie with cutlery and drink fluids from receptacles.

Heck, a brave self-editor might even go out on a limb and trust Millicent to know the purpose of plowing and to understand the concept of an ongoing action, trimming the paragraph even further:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry pie with swigs of coffee. Farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows. Even after they had left, Jake’s wait went on and on.


That’s a cool 47 words. Miss any of the ones I excised, other than perhaps that nice bit about the seedlings?

Fair warning: self-evidence is one of those areas where it honestly is far easier for a reader other than the writer to catch the problem, though, so if you can line up other eyes to scan your submission before it ends up on our friend Millicent’s desk, it’s in your interest to do so.

In fact, given how much obviousness tends to bug Millicent, it will behoove you to make a point of ASKING your first readers to look specifically for instances of self-evidence. Hand ‘em the biggest, thickest marking pen in your drawer, and ask ‘em to make a great big X in the margin every time the narrative takes the time to explain that rain is wet, of all things, that a character’s watch was strapped to his wrist, of all places, or that another character applied lipstick to — wait for it — her lips.

I am now going to post this blog on my website on my computer, which is sitting on my desk. To do so, I might conceivably press buttons on my keyboard or even use my mouse for scrolling. If the room is too dark, I might pull the cord on my lamp to turn it on. After I am done, I might repeat the process to turn it off.

You never can tell; I’m wacky that way. Keep up the good work!

A Challenge To The Mini Nation by guest blogger Mary Hutchings Reed

CKH_Cover Final
Hello, campers –

I’ve got an interesting guest post for you today, by FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Mary Hutchings Reed, as well as a challenge that I hope you’ll find intriguing.

First, the fascinating part: you know how I have been devoting recent posts to my embarrassingly high stack of as-yet-unanswered readers’ questions? Well, some of the questions that turn up most frequently are about the ins and outs of self-publishing, print-on-demand, how to promote a self-published book — and, perhaps most trenchant of all, whether having self-published a book will help a writer land an agent or get published down the line.

There is absolutely nobody currently treading the earth’s crust more qualified to address these questions, as a self-published author who is also represented by one of the best agencies on the West Coast. And she’s been most generous with her mighty storehouse of knowledge, too: as those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! may recall, not only did she weigh in to last spring’s Subtle Censorship series, guest-blogging on how to market an unusual story, but she also loaded aspiring self-publishers with info in our successfully self-publishing fiction, something the common wisdom in the publishing industry generally declares to be impossible, was especially eye-opening.

So I’m absolutely thrilled that she has given in to my blandishments and written this guest post. (Her timing’s great, too: I’m spending most of my time these days by my mother’s hospital bedside; not having to worry about this weekend’s post has been quite helpful. Mother’s on the mend, thanks.)

On to the challenge. I’m going to let Mary fill you in on this worthy cause, but to kick things off, I am hereby pledging to buy the first six copies in this special drive myself — one to give as a holiday gift (I already have a copy of my own), and five to donate to the hospital that’s been so kind to Mother (hospitals are always hurting for reading material for bed-bound patients, and gifts of books are usually tax-deductible in the US! Check with your tax advisor.)

And for the benefit of those not fortunate enough already to be familiar with Mary’s work, here’s the blurb for the book:

CKH_Cover FinalCourting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

Oh, and it’s a great read, too. And did I mention that a couple of pretty great causes near and dear to my heart are going to benefit directly from sales of this book, which is easily available both at Amazon and Mary’s website, as well as in Kindle version?

But I said I was going to let Mary tell you about it, didn’t I? Here’s to good karma for all, creating a publishing environment with a broader notion of a salable story, and, of course, keeping up the good work!

Take it away, Mary!

Reed_Mary Hutchings_Color_5x7

Thanks, Anne, for the opportunity to share with your readers. My agent (and how I love saying that!) just got back a first round of very positive rejections on a novel she submitted to them (my fifth), and two editors are willing to reread if I make a rather small technical change bringing the two key characters together earlier in the book. She plans to resubmit to some of the editors who “loved” my writing in January one of my other unpublished novels (probably #6.) (Yes, there are 7 novels in all, 1 memoir, and a couple stage plays.) To that end, she suggested that it would be “helpful” if I were to sell 8000 of my self-published novel, Courting Kathleen Hannigan.


That’s what she said! So far, I’ve sold about 1500, mostly by hand and on, and while Anne tells me that’s about three times your normal self-published novel, it’s short of 8000 by 13 times the average sale.

In other words, I need to sell 6500 more copies, to try to prove that my fiction (for and about intelligent, working women) has traction.

Just a couple days after getting this friendly suggestion, I saw these stats for the National Book Award nominees, as reported by Publisher’s Deluxe on November 16, from outlets reporting to Nielsen BookScan (hardbound copies):

LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, by Colum McCann 17,200 copies

LARK AND TERMITE, by Jayne Anne Phillips 15,250 copies

IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS, by Daniyal Mueenuddin 8,750 copies

FAR NORTH, by Marcel Theroux 1,275 copies

AMERICAN SALVAGE, by Bonnie Jo Campbell 1,100 copies

Wow. It doesn’t seem like very many for such acclaimed authors, does it? Those numbers with the help of major publishers!

I’m just a semi-retired lawyer and writer in Chicago whose first novel tells a story which encompasses the social history of women in large institutional law firms, covering the time when Hilary Clinton got out of law school to the time that Michelle Obama joined the law firm where I was practicing as my associate. My favorite review says:

“With its intelligent writing, fast pace, and brilliant humorous observations, Courting Kathleen Hannigan is as delightful as reading your favorite episode of Sex and the City. Honestly, I started this book and couldn’t (or more accurately wouldn’t) put it down until I was finished.”

I’ve only seen episodes of Sex and the City when I’ve been getting a pedicure, but if this sells books, more power to Wendy Thomas of (and thank you!). I know dozens of lawyers, paralegals and accountants who also told me they “couldn’t put it down.”

I know the Internet provides all kinds of ways to get the word out about a book but there is still so much out there, working it is time-consuming, and still to me it still feels like somewhat of a crapshoot as to whether you break through all the noise — the offers to lose weight, refinance, win a new car, earn extra thousands from home — to create a bigger, louder, more incessant buzz. But it happens, and there is no more worthy recommendation for a book than word of mouth.

So, here, thanks to Anne Mini’s diligence in creating this site, and her kindness in letting me guest, I’m going to try the direct approach to selling my book. With added benefits for Anne and for charity at the end.

The other day, Stephen Colbert took on sponsorship of U.S. Speedskating, hoping to raise (and, raising, I believe,) at least $300,000 in small on-line donations from the Colbert Nation. Gosh, I thought, could the MINI NATION do the same? You care about writing and reading, or you wouldn’t be reading Anne’s blog. Can we use our collective power to send a message to publishers about the kinds of books we want to read?

Could you buy Courting Kathleen Hannigan for a lawyer or professional woman on your Christmas list? As a stocking stuffer? Could your book club read it for Women’s History Month and discuss how far you think women have come (or not) in the professional world? We don’t need to raise $300,000, we only need to sell 6500 books (at less than $20 each on Amazon).

Why? Why should we do this?

To prove we can! To prove that women writers and readers support women writers, that there is a viable market for this kind of writing about real women in real situations. You can sample the book atAmazon or my website (where you can also download a book group guide under the “news” section.)

And to show that self-publishing, in today’s world, is a viable option for quality writing.

Plus, I’ll give $1.00 for every book sold between now and December 31, 2009 to Lawyers for the Creative Arts, a volunteer organization here in Chicago providing pro bono legal services to emerging artists, including authors:

Lawyers for the Creative Arts assists emerging artists in all media and arts organizations by providing pro bono legal assistance through its network of volunteer lawyers who specialize in intellectual property, entertainment and arts law, and through educational efforts. In September, LCA offered PEN TO PRESS, a full day of educational seminars and exhibits on the legalities of self-publishing, including sessions on contracts, copyright and privacy. On the individual level, LCA attorneys have advised documentary film makers on defamation and other issues with respect to films about accused criminals, orphanages, school systems and the like. LCA has helped artists recover their paintings from galleries, negotiate loft leases, take options on literary properties for film and/or stage development. LCA attorneys also help recording artists sign with their first manager, their first label, and their first production company. Hundreds of arts organizations have gotten their start through LCA, and many, like Hubbard Street Dance, have grown to be the gems of Chicago’s vibrant cultural scene.

Plus, in honor of Anne Mini and her leadership of and support for women writers, $.50 to the Seattle YWCA for its GirlsFirst project:

The mission of GirlsFirst project YWCA GirlsFirstSM is to encourage leadership, instill confidence, develop skills, and provide opportunities to
girls of color. Our program includes a three-week Summer Leadership Academy, weekend overnight retreat at Seattle University, weekly afterschool sessions, and monthly Leadership in Action Days. Alumnae opportunities include mentoring, tutoring, and paid summer internships. YWCA GirlsFirst is open to all freshman girls in 9 high schools: Franklin, Garfield, Cleveland, Chief Sealth, West Seattle, Rainier Beach, Evergreen, Renton, and Hazen.


Tell your friends. Send a link to Anne Mini’s blog to your writing friends; post a link on your Facebook page. (Anne is a wealth of information, a wonderful teacher, and a superbly entertaining writer—every writer should be reading her!)

Let’s sell 6500 more copies of CKH! And then, let’s do the same for YOUR work!

PS: In case you’re wondering how I can afford to print more copies of Courting Kathleen Hannigan when I have 500 left, I don’t necessarily have to. CKH is now available on Kindle, and it’s also available to bookstores through Lightning Source. I saw a POD copy from Lightning Source the other day and couldn’t tell the difference between it and the original offset edition. The key, in my view, to a good-looking POD book is quality design work (interior as well as cover) in the first instance, and I was very grateful to my publisher, Ampersand, Inc., for its attention to the tell-tale details that distinguish a fully professional publication.

Anne here: I’m going to sweeten the incentive to pitch in a bit more. If this post manages to raise enough money for these good causes, I will happily consider helping authors — self-published and traditional published alike — by running this sort of multiple-beneficiary promotion on a regular basis. I just mention.

CKH_Cover FinalCKH_Cover FinalCKH_Cover FinalCKH_Cover FinalCKH_Cover Final

Mary Hutchings Reed is a Chicago attorney and the author of seven novels, a memoir and a musical about golf, Fairways. Her work has won praise from the William Wisdom/William Faulkner Novel Writing Competition and others. Her most recent publication was a short story appearing in ARS Medica.

SOIA, part VI: the answer is, as it so often is in talking about submissions, it depends

Had you noticed, dear readers, that for the last few posts, I had begun merging my SIOA (Send It Out, Already) series with my ongoing quest to clear out my ever-burgeoning readers’-questions-to-blog-about list? We like to multitask here at Author! Author!

Especially when there are just a few days left before much of the NYC-based publishing industry (and, by extension, a hefty percentage of US-based agencies) shift into end-of-the-year slow-down mode. So if you’ve been holding on to manuscript pages requested weeks or months ago, or have been gearing up for an autumn querying blitz, this week would be the time to hit those SEND buttons and/or pop things in the mail.

That being said, when aspiring writers speak of turn-around times, they usually are not talking about how long it takes them to get requested materials out the door, but how long it takes agents they have queried or to whom they have submitted to respond. Over the last five years, I’ve heard so many questions/complaints/laments on the subject that when I first started this blog, I used to deal with the subject every other month, just to set readers’ minds at ease.

The questions tend to run along the lines of this:

My question has to do with agent contacts. At Conference X in 2007, I met Maura M. McLiterate,
pitched her, and she asked me to contact her when I had a finished manuscript…So finally, after finishing
the manuscript this summer, I sent her a cover letter reminding her of our conversation with the stuff she asked for.

That was last October 10. Haven’t heard anything back. Given that she requested the follow-up, does the 4-6 weeks “wait time” still make sense? I have a handful of other agents and editors who asked to be contacted, trying
to figure out how to manage this. Advice welcome.

Some of these issues sound a trifle familiar? Good; that means you’ve been paying attention to this series, so feel free to play along at home as I run over this case study.

The Composite Submitter raises several intriguing issues here, all relating to the burning question of how long is too long in the publishing biz:

*How long after a successful pitch may one take up an agent’s offer to submit materials and still continue them requested? (For an explanation of the vital difference between requested and unrequested materials, see this earlier post.)

*How long is a normal turn-around time at an agency for requested materials?

*Does a long gap between pitch or query and submission necessarily extend that turn-around time?

*Does a submission based upon a face-to-face pitch typically receive swifter attention from agents than one based upon an impersonal query letter?

The short answers to these questions are, in the order asked: it depends, it depends, it depends, and it depends.

I imagine, clever writers that you are, that you would like to know upon what it depends in each instance, but that’s not really a question that may be answered accurately on a theoretical basis — because (wait for it) it all depends.

I know that sounds like a flippant response to a serious question (or, more accurately, to four serious questions), but honestly, I don’t mean it to be. How long an agent is going to be willing to wait to see requested materials depends upon a lot of factors, potentially ranging from how the book market has changed in the interim to whether the agent is still representing that type of book to what authors an agent may have lost lately (agented writers move around more than one might think, sometimes from project to project) to whether the agent has just had a baby.

If that seems like too many unknown factors for a rational person to take into strategic consideration, you’re absolutely right: second-guessing is frequently impossible. Given that realization, would it frighten you too terribly to learn that the list of factors above represents just a tiny fraction of the possible influences over how long an agent may take to respond to a submission?

So my initial answer was quite accurate: in all of these cases, the answer depends on a lot of factors, virtually none of which a writer on the other side of the country (or other side of the world) may anticipate.

Each individual submission is thus to a certain extent the plaything of outside forces. Before that notion depresses anyone too much, let’s return to Composite Submitter’s specific case, to see if it sheds any light upon what an aspiring writer can and cannot control in a submission situation.

First, to place this in as empowering a light as possible, CS did something very, very right in his submission to Maura. Actually, he did something else pretty smart, too. Anyone care to guess what these bright moves were?

If you said that he sent a cover letter along with his submission, reminding her where they had met, what he had pitched to her, and that she had asked him to send the enclosed materials, give yourself a gold star for the day. And make it three gold star and a firecracker if you immediately added that he was right to tell her when he pitched that he had not yet completed the manuscript, so she would not expect it to arrive right away.

Your mother was right, you know — honesty, contrary to popular opinion, often genuinely is the best policy.

Why was reminding Maura how much time had elapsed strategically smart? It prevented her from thinking, “Who?” when she saw the submission marked REQUESTED MATERIALS. More importantly, it minimized the possibility of her thinking, “I don’t remember telling this guy to send anything.”

All of which begs the question: was over two years too long for CS to wait before submitting the materials Maura requested?

You all know the refrain by now, don’t you? Chant it with me: it all depends.

Normally, I would advise trying to get requested materials out the door within six months, if it is humanly possible. Longer than that, and an aspiring writer runs the risk not only of his query or pitch not being remembered (which is probably going to happen far sooner than that, but hey, agents keep records of this sort of thing) but also of the agent’s individual tastes and market trends changing. At minimum, a much longer delay will send a pretty unequivocal message to the agent in question to the effect that the submitter is slow at responding to requests, always a bit frustrating to someone in the business of mediating between authors and publishing houses.

Of course, you could always take your chances and send a much-delayed submission anyway; technically, requests for material don’t expire. But after a year has passed, the risk of any or all of the conditions above’s having changed becomes so high that I would advise sending a follow-up letter, confirming that the request is still operative.

CS, however, was savvy enough to protect himself against the liabilities of a long delay between request and submission: he told Maura up front that he was not yet finished with the manuscript. This gave her the clear option of saying either, “Well, then you should wait and query me when it is finished,” (a popular choice, particularly for novels) or what she actually did say, “That sounds interesting — when you’re finished, send me this and this and this.”

For insight into why this worked, see my earlier comment about honesty.

Assuming that Composite Submitter need not worry about Maura’s having lost interest in his book while he was finishing writing it — again, a fairly hefty assumption, but certainly worth his testing practically — is he right to worry that he did not hear back from her right away?

I’m exceedingly glad that he brought this up, because in the weeks and months following the annual onslaught of writers’ conferences, a LOT of aspiring writers wonder about this. Naturally, everyone wants to hear back right away, but how likely is that desire to be fulfilled?

Or, to put in terms common to fantasy, is it possible to pitch to an agent on Saturday, overnight the requested materials on Monday, and be signed by Friday — and then for one’s new agent to sell one’s book by the following Thursday for publication three weeks from the next Tuesday, so the author may appear triumphantly beaming on Oprah by the end of the month?

The short answer is no. The long answer, as the Vicar of Dibley used to delight in saying, is NOOOOOOOOOOO.

Just doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid. These days, it’s not at all uncommon for submitting writer not to hear back from an agent for months or — you should make sure that you’re sitting down for this, because it’s a lulu — even not at all.

Don’t let that depress you into a stupor just yet — I’ll talk a bit more about the logic behind extensive turn-around times in an upcoming post. For the purposes of today’s discussion, my point is that no, a few weeks’ worth of silence after sending off requested materials isn’t at all unusual.

Let’s get back to the specifics of CS’ situation, though, to see what else we can learn, because the long lapse between pitch and submission honestly do render his position unique — or do they? Let’s see: he pitched to Maura in 2007, then submitted (as per her request) in mid-October, 2009, either by e-mail or by regular mail. Since so much time had passed between the request and the submission, she couldn’t possibly have anticipated when he would send her the materials, and thus could not conceivably have budgeted time to read them.

Which begs the question: why did CS expect her to respond with unusual quickness after she had received them?

Because, honestly, just a few weeks would have been positively lightning speed, according to current norms. So what about this particular submission would have called for Maura to move it to the top of her reading pile — or, more probably, to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa that is the desk of Millicent, her agency’s in-house manuscript screener?

My guess is that from Maura’s perspective, there wasn’t any reason — but that from CS’ point of view, there undoubtedly was.

This particular differential in urgency perception between agents and the writers who submit to them is such a common one that one might almost call it classic: what probably happened here is that CS had been thinking of Maura’s request to submit whenever he happened to complete the manuscript he had pitched as inherently unusual — or at any rate as something different than the kind of request to submit materials that an agent might have made to an aspiring writer who had been pitching a completed manuscript.

As such, CS did indeed, at least implicitly, expected it to be moved up in the submission pile when it arrived, as a special situation. In his version of events, Maura would not have been patient enough to wait until he completed the book before seeing it if she hadn’t been genuinely interested, so why wouldn’t she jump on it immediately?

But from Maura’s point of view, asking him to contact her with pages after he finished writing them was not a special request — it was precisely the same request as she would have made in response to other intriguing pitches she heard at that conference.

The only difference is that she didn’t expect to receive it within a month or two of the request. As such, it would have been reasonable to expect that when CS did submit it, his submission would be treated precisely like every other packet of requested materials the agency received in mid-October.

Translation: Maura’s not having gotten back to CS within 4-6 weeks probably had far more to do with how many manuscripts were stacked up at her agency than with how long CS took to pop those requested materials into the mail.

In a way, aspiring writers should find this encouraging, or at the very least democratic: queue-jumping is actually pretty hard to do during the pitching/querying and submission process. Even if writers everywhere aren’t particularly grateful for this, I suspect that those who had submitted requested materials to Maura in July or August might find it comforting to know that she — or her Millicent — didn’t just drop whatever manuscript they happened to be reading when a new envelope arrived in the office.

So how should CS have handled it? Should he, as his question implied, assume that his previous face time with Maura meant that he should follow up with her earlier than any other submitter? And what about all of those other submitters whose work has been sliding around on Millicent’s desk for weeks and months on end — what should they do?

In the first place, take a nice, deep breath. Delays are a completely normal part of the submission process, so it doesn’t make sense to read too much into them. If CS hasn’t heard back — chant it with me now, readers — it’s likely because no one at the agency has read his submission yet.

I know: disappointingly prosaic, compared to the much more common dead-of-night submitter’s fantasy that the agent is reading and re-reading the submission in frantic indecision about whether to represent it or not. But my version is much, much more likely to be true.

In the second place, CS — and all of those other anxious submitters I mentioned a few paragraphs ago — should check Maura’s agency’s website, listing in the standard agency guides, and/or any written materials she might have sent (like, say, a letter requesting materials), to see if the agency had the foresight to post average turn-around times.

Try looking under the submission guidelines; they will often contain some mention of how long they typically take to get back to writers about requested materials. Not to toot my own team’s horn, but my agency has a simply dandy page on its website that explains not only what turn-around times submitters to expect, but the logic behind it and what a submitter who has been twiddling his thumbs for months on end should do.

Getting back to CS’ situation: before I gave him any advice whatsoever, I spent a couple of minutes checking out Maura’s website. Turns out that her agency lists an 8-week response time; not unusually long. So at minimum, CS should wait two months before sending Maura a follow-up e-mail, letter, or second copy of his materials.

I would advise holding off for a couple of weeks after that, just in case Maura and Millicent are totally swamped and touchy about it, but not for too much longer after that. If the agency has lost the manuscript — yes, it does happen occasionally, one of the many reasons that I disapprove of the increasingly pervasive practice of agents’ simply not responding at all to submitters if the answer is no — they’re going to want to know about it.

Or, to recast that from a writerly perspective, after 2 1/2 or three months, CS has every right to give Maura a gentle nudge, to double-check that his book is languishing in a stack on the northeast corner of Millicent’s desk, rather than having vanished into that mysterious other dimension where lost socks, extinct animals, and the child stars of yesteryear dwell. But it’s probably not going to be in his interest to contact her before that.

Why? Long-time readers, or at any rate those who were reading this blog as long ago as last Saturday, open your hymnals and sing it with me now: since an agented writers’ life is made up primarily of delays, CS’ exhibiting completely justified impatience at this junction might make him come across as a time-consuming potential client. Some agents like to be checked up upon, but he vast majority fall into the leave me alone and let me do my work category. And it often doesn’t take much pushiness for a writer to get labeled as difficult.

So what should CS be doing in the meantime? Submitting to everyone else who requested materials, of course — and continuing to query up a storm to generate new requests for materials.

Did I just hear yet another chorus of, “Why?” Well, unless you have actually promised an agent an exclusive look at your work, it’s poor submission strategy to submit one at a time. (For an extensive explanation of the logic behind this, you might want to check out the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the archive list at right.) Your time is too valuable, and at this point in publishing history, agents simply don’t expect exclusivity unless they ask for it.

And if you doubt that, perhaps you should scroll back up to that earlier bit about how some agents now don’t bother to get back to writers whose submissions they have rejected.

I’m constantly meeting submitting writers who believe that the agent of their dreams will be hugely insulted if they don’t grant him an unrequested exclusive, but think about it in practical terms for a moment: if Maura’s agency habitually takes two months to get back to the Composite Submitters of this world and her agency is not unusually slow, CS could find himself waiting two, three, or even six months (it happens, alas) to hear back from every agent to whom he submits. If he does not engage in multiple submissions, he is limiting himself to just a few submissions a year.

Does that seem fair or reasonable to you? Believe me, when agents genuinely want exclusives or if their agencies require them, they’ll let you know about it.

The other thing that CS might want to do while he’s waiting is to do a bit of research on what to expect after a submission. We discuss it quite often here at Author! Author! (for those of you who are new to the blog, the WHY HAVEN’T I HEARD BACK YET? category might be a good place to start), but frankly, this is a perennial topic of discussion on almost every good writers’ discussion board.

Why invest valuable time in finding out what is happening to your fellow submitters? Well, on a purely selfish level, it would probably reduce your submission-period stress levels. Since writers are so isolated, it’s very easy to start to think that what is happening to oneself is exceptional, whereas usually, it’s just a matter of business as usual in an industry that receives literally millions of pages of submissions every year.

Comparing notes can be very empowering. Honest. So can starting to work on one’s next book.

What a submitter gnawing his nails, anticipating a response from the agent of his dreams, should most emphatically NOT do is allow the delays inherent to the submission process to bring his life to a screeching halt while he waits to hear back. Yes, it’s stressful to know that someone with the power to help you sell your work has her hands all over your work, but obsessing over what might be happening won’t help.

Trust me on this one. I know whereat I speak.

Did everyone make it through that case study feeling warm, snug, and in-the-know? Excellent. Next time, we’re going to take on a significantly more complex real-world variation on this theme.

In the meantime, keep taking those nice, deep breaths, submitters, and everybody, keep up the good work!

PS: No submitters, composite or otherwise were harmed in the research and writing of this blog post. And to set the minds of those of you who have spoken with me privately about your fears and hopes at ease, he gave his permission for me to use his story as an example. Keep taking those deep breaths, I tell you.