As the screen goes wavy again, or, what had already begun to bore Millicent by the time talkies rolled around

Orphans_of_the_Storm_(1921)_2

No time for a long-winded missive today, campers, but I could not let the occasion pass without posting a few words. What occasion rises to the mandatory observation level, you may well ask, eyeing both the lapse between this and my last post and the undeniable fact that Author! Author!’s older posts are still, alas, unhappily plagued with extraneous symbols? Participating in a species of conversation all too common behind the scenes in publishing circles.

It tends to run something like this: someone whose job it is to read submissions, all day, every day (except, of course, on those days she invests in skimming a few hundred queries at a sitting) quietly goes nuts while reading the 531rst submission of the month. Grounding her no doubt expensively straightened teeth to an extent that her former orthodontist would deplore, our Millicent — for yes, it is she, everybody’s favorite agency screener — she vents her frustration upon a sympathetic friend while she is waiting in line for her latté.

“It’s happened again,” she murmurs into her phone. “Three submissions in a row in which the text asserted that what was going on was…wait for it…just like something in a movie!”

Having been savvy enough to call a fellow professional reader, she’s sure to meet with sympathy. Calling me, however, might not have been the best choice. “I know, I know: it’s maddening to see writers rush to use the same metaphor, over and over again. But you must admit, it isn’t those three writers’ fault that you happened to read their submissions back to back.”

“Not their fault!” Predictably, Millicent burns her lip on her too-hot latt?. “Everybody knows that saying something happening on the page was just like a movie is bad writing.”

I can’t resist teasing her; we’ve had this discussion too many times. “It depends upon how the sentence using that tired old concept is constructed, doesn’t it? I could imagine it being expressed very prettily.”

“Fine. I’ll send the next fifteen manuscripts that use it to you, so you can compare their delightful sentence structure.”

She’s laughing by the time we hang up, but I must admit, she has a point. As anyone who reads for a living could tell you — particularly agents, editors, and the screeners they employ, all of whom by necessity must read manuscripts one after another, due to sheer volume — nothing quite makes the mind scream like spotting the same phrase, concept, or metaphor crop up repeatedly, page after page. When those pages happen to belong to different manuscripts, the frustration can be even greater: after the fourth or fifth time in a week, even the most literature-loving Millicent can start to wonder if half of the writers in the English-speaking world gathered someplace secret five months ago, to agree upon what the clich? of the season will be.

Hey, there are fashions in writing, just as in anything else that requires taste to appreciate. And, just as in runway fashion, once an innovative author hits the big time with a unique offering, the pros are used to seeing dozens — nay, hundreds — of copycat submissions flooding their inboxes shortly thereafter.

At first, that can be exciting: it’s no secret that publishers often attempt to capitalize upon the success of a bestseller by bringing out similar books in short order. Which makes sense, right? A certain group of readers have already demonstrated that they like that kind of book; why not offer them similar titles?

Actually, there’s a pretty good answer to that: after what can be an astonishingly short time, however, the readership for a particular type of story can, well, get tired of it. Perhaps more to the point for those trying to break into print, the Millicents tasked with screening all of those remarkably similar stories can begin to find them a bit predictable.

And those Millies are not the only ones. “Another Twilight knock-off?” their bosses exclaim. “This one had better have an awfully different spin.”

The rapid rise and fall of bestsellers and their followers is too well known in literary circles to raise many aspiring writers’ eyebrows these days. Come closer, though, and I’ll let you in on a little professional secret: that’s not the kind of repetition that causes Millicent to fling aside a submission, rend her garments, and rush out the door for a coffee refill. It’s seeing how many otherwise original, well-written manuscripts utilize precisely the same standard comparisons and hackneyed phrases as those that are neither prettily constructed nor particularly unique.

Seriously, it’s kind of startling to spot on the page. A pro will be reading along, enjoying a good story well told, when she’s abruptly confronted with a paragraph like this:

Ambrose staggered, stunned by the force of the blow. The world wavered before his eyes, as if he were watching an old movie and a flashback was just about to begin.

Nothing wrong with the writing there — so why might that last clause send Millicent’s hand automatically reaching for a form letter beginning Thank you so much for your submission, but I’m afraid it does not meet our needs at this time? Could it have anything to do with the fact that an hour ago, she had just rejected a manuscript containing this gem?

Mignonette clutched her head, trying to make sense of it all. It was surreal. She felt as if she was in a movie.

Leaving aside the relatively rare editorial pet peeve regarding how often narratives describe perfectly comprehensible scenes as surreal — not nearly so often as they label a situation utterly devoid of irony as ironic, admittedly, but still, frequently enough to become annoying — is it really so hard to understand why the lingering memory of Mignonette’s affection for film might color Millicent’s perception of the freshness of Ambrose’s reaction to the blow?

And a thousand writers’ hands shoot into the air. Yes? “This is ridiculous, Anne,” film aficionados everywhere grumble. “Why shouldn’t two writers embrace the same comparison, if they write about it differently? Feeling like you’re in a movie is a fairly common experience, after all; eschewing writing about it would be akin to declaring that depicting a character drinking milk an instant-rejection offense.”

An excellent argument, grumblers, but part of the problem is that so many manuscripts don’t write about it differently. Even in conversation, it was just like a movie is a clich? for a reason, after all: in everyday life, people tend to describe what you rightly point out is a common feeling in the modern world in a common way.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t one of the primary goals of developing an individual authorial voice not to express things precisely like everybody else does? And don’t we writers pride ourselves upon presenting our readers not merely with a mirror held up to their own lives, accompanied by a transcript of what they already hear, but our own personal take on reality, phrased in a way that is like no one else’s prose?

Do I sense writers of third-person fiction leaping to their collective feet, shouting, “Yes, by gum! Down with hackneyed phrases and concepts!” while those of you who spend your time crafting first-person narratives sat on your hands? I’m not entirely astonished: writers of first-person fiction and memoir frequently work under the principle that if good first-person narration reads as though an actual human being might conceivably have said it out loud, and if most people incorporate clich?s into their everyday speech, then loading a first-person narrative with clich?s is only being true to life, right?

Well, arguably. It can — and all too often does — result in a narrative voice that sounds not like a specific individual, but just anybody. Millicent is also confronted with this kind of opening many times a day:

Oh, my God, I can’t believe it. I’m sick of this. The gall of some people! I’m so over it. I’m out of here.

Believable verbal expression? Oh, yes. But I ask you: what do those stock phrases actually tell you about this narrator? Or about the situation, for that matter?

Hackneyed phrases and concepts are, after all, generic. That’s why polite exchanges so often bore readers: by definition, those phrases that everybody says in particular situations convey no individualized meaning.

Did I just hear some eyebrows hitting the ceiling? I kid you not: as delightful as courtesy is to encounter in real life, it can be stultifying on the page. Take a gander:

Kendrick held out his right hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Pleased to meet you, too,” Ghislaine said. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“Yes, the weather is nice. Oh, here’s Maurice. How are you, Maurice?”

They shook hands like old friends, as indeed they were. “Fine,” Maurice said. “How are you?”

“Oh, fine. Ghislaine, this is Maurice.”

Maurice shook her hand. “How are you?”

“Fine. How are you?”

Longing yet for death’s sweet embrace? What if you had read similar personality-free conversations eight or nine times today?

Does that prospect appall you? Or have you caught up pitchforks and torches for some other reason?

“Oh, come on, Anne,” polite people everywhere scoff, genteelly brandishing weaponry. “Everyone understands that these are stock phrases — but that’s the point, isn’t it? By having the characters spout courteous clich?s, the narrative is letting the reader know that these are nice people.”

Perhaps, but surely, that’s not the only way to demonstrate their many sterling qualities. If Kendrick complimented Ghislaine on her fetching frock, would he not come across as a pretty nice guy? If she were rushing back from her volunteer work with homeless children, pausing only briefly to exchange pleasantries before her shift at the leper colony began, might the reader not gain an inkling of her other-orientation? If Maurice had just experienced the loss of his beloved pet ocelot, would you consider her rude if he mentioned it?

Actually, that last one’s not the best example, as Millicent would hasten to tell you. She could not even begin to estimate how many times in any given week of screening her tired peepers fall on a scene like this:

“How are you?” Kendrick asked.

“Fine.” Maurice drew his sleeve across his eyes. “Except my beloved pet ocelot, Coriolanus, has just passed away.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Kendrick said. “Oh, here comes Ghislaine. Ghislaine, Coriolanus died!”

“Oh, Maurice!” she exclaimed. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

I could go on and show what the policeman on the corner, all seventeen of Maurice’s coworkers, and his great-aunt said upon hearing the news, but you’re sensing a pattern, right? I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: just because people say something in real life doesn’t mean that it will make good reading on the page.

Or, to put it another way: strong dialogue doesn’t need to sound like everyday speech to work in print. It’s needs to be more interesting than everyday speech.

If it’s to impress Millicent with its originality and beauty, that is. After hours of too-polite dialogue, imagine what a relief it could be to read an exchange like this:

Ghislaine realized that she knew the man tugging on her arm. “Why, Kendrick, you look just awful!”

“I feel as if my guts have been ripped out.” He managed a brave smile. “Haven’t you heard about Maurice’s ocelot?”

Her intestines squirmed with anticipated horror. “What’s happened to Coriolanus?”

“Killed in a freak basketball accident. He was prowling along the top of the backboard, and a rogue shot knocked him to the ground.”

“Oh, my God!” Ghislaine cried. “It’s just like something in a movie!”

Oh, so close! Millicent was just settling in for a nice, interesting read, and the manuscript had to throw up a red flag. It might not be the final red flag for this submission — you would want to find out why there’s an ocelot in this story, right? — but in most professional readers, Ghislaine’s cri de coeur would at least elicit a roll of the eyes.

Were there other problems on the page, though, it might well prompt a cry of “Next!” Remember, it’s Millicent’s job to thin the submission pile. Her boss, the agent of your dreams, can only take on a few new clients per year; naturally, there’s a heck of a lot of competition for those spots.

That being the case, is it truly sensible submission strategy to decorate your manuscript with that observation about how the ongoing situation resembles what one might expect to encounter on the big screen?

Do I hear some cries of despair out there in the ether? “There you go again,” frustrated writers complain, and who could blame you? “You’re just accepting Millicent’s claim that everybody knows that the movie comparison is bad writing. At the risk of repeating the grumble from earlier in this post, doesn’t it all depend upon the writing?”

Yes, of course — and no. You see, good writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum; readers of every stripe tend to read more than one author in their lifetimes. They have come to expect the work of one author to differ from every other’s.

And they’re right to expect that: imagine how boring life would be if all well-written books sounded as though they had all been written by the same person!

In an agency, publishing house, or even within the context of a writing competition, good writing doesn’t magically rise to the top of the submission or entry pile. To get to it, Millicent and her ilk read through everything else. Since a submitter cannot control the order in which his work is read, it really doesn’t make strategic sense to rely upon the hope that his use of the movie trope — or any other commonly-employed comparison or phrase — will not pass under a screener’s eyes immediately after somebody else’s attempt to do the same thing.

Even the best of literary devices can start to seem overused with repetition after all. Think about Millie’s screening day for a moment. What kind of pretty prose do you suppose greeted her over the morning’s first latté?

She ran through the bleak forest, her long, red hair streaming behind her. Were those dogs she heard in the distance? Why had Fidelio placed her in this horrible position?

No time to wonder — those villagers with torches would catch up with her any minute now. If she’d been the monster in a Frankenstein movie, she couldn’t have been in more danger.

Come on, admit it — you’re starting to tire of the film references. And although I’m certain it doesn’t feel that way, so far, only four of the examples in this post have contained it.

Yes, really. This comparison gets old fast.

Picture, then, how Millicent’s weary eye must twitch upon catching sight of yet another iteration of the same concept. Especially if the next manuscript in the pile read like this:

Silvia couldn’t believe it — this was all so surreal. She didn’t even feel like herself: it was like she was watching herself on television.

In response to what fully a quarter of you just thought: no, Virginia, referring to television instead of a movie wouldn’t lessen the negativity of Millicent’s reaction. She would merely think that the writer of that last one didn’t get out as often as the writer of the one before it.

She would have a hard time justifying sliding either page under her boss’ nose, and not just because, like any experienced professional reader, the agent for whom Millie works may safely be assumed to have seen the movie/television/music video comparison thousands of times already. Like many publishing professionals, that agent may also feel a certain resentment towards movies, television, music videos, and new media for taking up time that right-minded people used to devote to reading.

But it didn’t occur to our submitter to say that Silvia’s surreal experience was like something in a novel, did it?

Still not convinced? Okay, I’m dropping all pretense: there’s one other reason that Millicent might hesitate to overlook this particular red flag on the page. This next example is infected with a mild case of the phenomenon; see if you can spot it.

Ricardo ducked behind the nearest desk, gasping as if he were about to have a heart attack. What a great movie this chase would make! Except that no one would believe it.

Yes, this passage contains the dreaded movie comparison, but did you catch the secondary problem? Essentially, what a great movie this chase would make! is a review of the scene currently in progress: not only is the narrator telling the reader that this chase would be exciting on the big screen — the text goes so far as to say that the result would be great.

If Millicent and her kind cringe when they spot a hackneyed phrase or concept in a submission, they see red when they think a manuscript is indulging in self-review. “It’s not your job to tell me how great you are,” she’s likely to snap at the manuscript. “It’s your job to show me. And it’s my job to decide whether you’re great, good, or so-so.”

The moral here, should you care to know it: it’s a heck of a lot easier to impress a professional reader with good writing that’s original than good writing that strays into overused territory, either in terms of wording or concept. Stock phrases and comparisons might sound right in the privacy of your writing studio — as well they should: people actually do talk in clich?s. But by definition, clich?s are not fresh; clichés are not original.

And trust me on this one: that clich? about how the current scene is like a movie ceased causing agents and editors to exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that on the page before!” approximately two and a half years into the silent era.

Maybe it’s time to give it a rest. Instead, why not startle and delight Millicent with an insight and phrasing only you could have produced?

It’s worth a try, anyway. Keep up the good work!

Do you mind if we talk about something else? Like, say, the times that try editors’ souls?

redundant sign 2

Or, to put it in more practical terms, if I promise to show you more properly-formatted pages while I’m at it, will you forgive my devoting tonight’s post to a foray into a notorious editorial pet peeve? What about if I talk about several?

It’s not as though there aren’t dozens from which to choose: as I may have horrified you with depressed you into a stupor by bringing up mentioned in passing last time, those of us fortunate enough to read for a living are expected — and often rigorously trained — to notice patterns in writing. How often a manuscript uses the word blanched, for instance, or describes anything as being mauve.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with either word choice, mind you, when used sparingly. Surely I will astonish no one, however, if I suggest that your garden-variety reader might prefer not to see characters blanching at the sight of mauve objects on every other page. Adult readers, if you must know, tend to become bored by word and phrase repetition every bit as quickly as they lose interest in a slow-moving plot, dull explanation, or unsympathetic protagonist’s plight. In order to spare the reading public that pain, editors strive to catch not only larger narrative issues, but also redundancies, whether they be of concept, image, or phrase.

And, bless our hearts, we are seldom shy about pointing them out, sometimes as early as the second or third time an author uses a pet word or action. “For heaven’s sake, Mavis,” we have been known to scrawl in manuscript margins, “Jeremy has blanched, went pale, and felt the blood drain from his face already in a 4-page scene — need he also waste the reader’s time noticing his ashen face in the nearest mirror? What’s a mirror doing in the middle of a forest, anyway? And while we’re talking plausibility,” Mavis would be expected to turn the page over here, to read the editorial scribblings on the back of the page, “are you planning at some point to provide the reader with some explanation for all of the mauve leaves on the purple trees? Is the water supply in this forest somehow tainted? Are the trees subject to some sort of lavender mite infestation? Or have you perhaps forgotten that the trees on the other side of the world you’re describing were also on the mauve side?”

Given so much provocation on the page, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that one of the great long-term liabilities of reading for a living — or one of the great advantages, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — is that over time, the dedicated pro becomes decreasingly able to read anything without scrawling corrections in the margins. I’m not merely talking about manuscripts, synopses, and queries here, mind you, but all typed words on a page. The New York Times, for instance, once the standard of American prose, now seldom passes under my long-lashed eyes without picking up some entirely justified marginalia. Nor do magazines go unscathed: I’m looking at you, Radcliffe Quarterly.

Heck, I routinely take a corrective pen to menus, fliers, and wedding programs. One recent November, I had to be restrained bodily from correcting a grievous misprint on my ballot for a county election; the proper spelling would have confused the counting machine, I’m told.

But would that not have been preferable to asking the citizenry to select a superior court joge? Possibly to serve in mauve robes?

While in some walks of life, this level of habitual scrutiny might prove somewhat problematic, for professional readers like agents, editors, and contest judges (or, in this county, joges), it’s a positive boon. So what if in some benighted professions, it is neither expected nor considered particularly sane to look one’s coworker in the eye and say, “I like the content of you’re saying, Ziggy, but the fact that you uttered the word exciting fourteen times over the course of a six-minute speech, insisted upon using impact as a verb, and failed to define a good third of your basic terms detracted from your presentation’s effectiveness,” without finding oneself cordially disinvited from all future meetings? Someone has to defend the language. And by gum, if that means rending our garments and wailing to the heavens, “You’ve used this metaphor twice in 137 pages! And phrased it almost identically each time, you…you?torturer,” well, we’re up to the task.

I see some of you blanching, doubtless at the thought of that manuscript you recently sent out to the agent of your dreams. Well might you turn pale, ashen-faced ones. If the same metaphor graced page 1 and page 241, a good editor would catch it. So is it really so much of a surprise that an even ordinarily conscientious agent — or, for that matter, Millicent, the agency screener — felt all of the blood draining from her face when that metaphor cropped up on pp. 1 and 5? Or — sacre bleu! — twice on page 1?

Half the good professional readers I know would not only have become impatient at any of these levels of metaphor repetition — they would have leapt to the conclusion that the writer was repeating himself so much on purpose. Clearly, this is an authorial plot to get away with lazy writing. As opposed to, say, an authorial failure to recognize that his pet phrase of today was also the pet phrase of three months, eight days, and sixteen hours ago.

How could you? You know how much such things upset Millicent.

Actually, you probably didn’t, at least when you first began to write. Until a writer has enjoyed the incomparable pleasure of having her work dissected disemboweled subjected to professional critique, she tends not to have any idea of how closely an agent or editor is likely to read, much less a Millicent. As we discussed yesterday, the overwhelming majority of first-time queriers and submitters fully expect their pages to be read with, if not a completely charitable eye, than at least a willingness to look past little things like conceptual redundancy and an over-reliance upon a select group of particularly nice words. It’s the overall writing that counts, right?

Can you hear Millicent giggling? From a professional reader’s perspective, the very notion that repetitious word choice, recycled notions, or even frequent typos would not be considered part of the authorial voice being offered in a submission is pretty funny. A screener can judge writing only by what’s on the manuscript page, after all. And is Millicent really so wrong to believe that a manuscript in which every inanimate object is apparently mauve-tinted might be indicative of a slight compositional problem?

Then, too, most writers radically underestimate how good a well-trained professional reader’s memory for text will be. Remember, Millicent is usually in training to become either an agent, who would be expected to read a client’s fourth revision and be able to tell how it had changed from the three previous drafts, or an editor, who might conceivably find himself telling a bestselling author, “By jingo, Maurice, I’m not going to let you do it! You used precisely that simile in Book I of this five-part series; you can’t reuse it in Book V!”

Oh, you think I’m exaggerating, do you? Earlier today, I found my text-addled mind drifting back to a novel-cum-memoir I had read, I kid you not, in junior high school. And not merely because Memorial Day is a natural time to consider the noble calling of memoir-writing. A pivotal scene in that book, I felt, would provide such a glorious illustration of a common narrative mistake — both in manuscripts and in queries, as it happens — that I just had to drop our series-in-progress and track down the book.

Yes, yes, I know: sometimes, even other editors are surprised at how well I remember text. A few years ago, when my own memoir was lumbering its way through the publication process, my acquiring editor scrawled in my margins, “Oh, yeah, right — you remember a biography of the Wright Brothers that you read in the third grade? Prove it!” I was able not only to give him a chapter breakdown of the book, but tell him the publisher and correctly identify the typeface.

That’s how little girls with braids grow up to be editors, in case you had been wondering. If anyone wants to talk about the estimable Katharine Wright Haskell, apparently the only member of the Wright family bright enough to realize that heaving the first airplane off the ground might be of more significance if somebody bothered to alert the media, I’m still prepared and raring to go.

So I had good reason to believe that my recollection of a fictionalized memoir ostensibly written by a childhood friend of Joan of Arc was reasonably accurate. A lighthearted burrow through the roughly two thousand volumes I carted up from California after my mother moved from my childhood home, so she would have to tote only the remaining eight thousand with her (long story), and voil?! The very pages I had in mind.

Care to guess whether I’d remembered the font correctly?

I’m delighted that I did, as this excerpt provides excellent examples of the kind of narrative missteps that Millicent thinks so many of you do on purpose, just to annoy her. For starters, it exhibits the all-too-common narrative trick of echoing the verbal habit of using and as a substitute for a period in first-person narration, in a misguided attempt to make the narrative voice sound more like everyday speech. It can work, but let’s face it, quite a bit of everyday speech is so repetitious that it would be stultifying if transcribed directly to the printed page.

It also, you will be pleased to hear, beautifully demonstrates another classic memoir bugbear: telling an anecdote on the page as one might do out loud at a cocktail party, with practically every sentence a summary statement. (Hey, there’s a reason that show, don’t tell is such a pervasive piece of editorial feedback.) And, most common of all in both memoir and fictional first-person narratives, the pages in question much character development for anyone but the protagonist.

All sounds pretty terrible, doesn’t it? Actually, the scene isn’t badly written; the aforementioned garden-variety reader might not even have noticed some of these problems. Nor, unfortunately, would most aspiring writers prior to submission, for the exceedingly simple reason that far too few of them ever actually sit down and read their work beginning to end, as any other reader would. The writer already knows what’s on the page, right?

Or does he? My guess is that in this instance, the writer had very little idea that what he was slapping on the page was even vaguely problematic.

But you shall judge for yourself. To render the parallels to what Millicent sees on a daily basis more obvious, as well as to continue our exercises in learning to know properly-formatted manuscript pages when we see ‘em, I’m presenting that memorable scene here in standard format. As always, my blogging program is for some reasons best known to itself a trifle hostile to page shots, so if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the images.

Twain page 1

Twain page 2

Twain page 3

Come on, admit it — while you might have excused all of those ands if you had heard this tale told out loud, they’re a trifle eye-distracting on the page, are they not? Ditto with the word repetition — could this author possibly have crammed any more uses of to be, to get, or to see into these three pages? And don’t even get me started on concept repetition.

I sense those of you committed to the noble path of writing memoir — or writing reality-based fiction — shifting uncomfortably in your chairs. “But Anne,” you protest, averting your eyes, “this isn’t the powerful negative example you led us to expect. I get what you mean about the sheer volume of ands, but other than that, there’s nothing wrong with the narrative voice here, given that this is a memoir. Isn’t part of the point of any memoir that the voice does sound like someone might speak? Is that not, in fact, one of the charms of first-person narration in general?”

Well, yes, but just as an event’s having actually occurred in real life (and it’s true, too!) does not necessarily mean that it will inevitably strike the reader as plausible on the page, first-person narration’s reading like everyday speech does not guarantee readability. In print, narrative chattiness may work against the reader’s enjoyment, because chatty people, like the rest of us, reuse words and phrases so darned much. Even talented verbal anecdotalists seldom embellish their tales with the level of detail that the most threadbare of written accounts would require. And funny out loud, let’s face it, does not always equal funny on the page.

Which is to say: as delightful as our example above might have been tumbling out of the mouth of a gifted storyteller, as a story on a page, it’s lacking quite a few elements. A sense of place, for one — is there a reason, the reader must wonder, not to give us some sense of what either the woods or the village were like? If both are left so completely to the reader’s imagination, is there not some danger that a Millicent fresh from polishing off the manuscript before this one might automatically assume that those trees were mauve, and those villages occupied by the wan?

Oh, you thought I’d dropped that running joke? In a blog, I can get away with going back to that same well this often. How many times, though, do you think I could revisit the joke in a book before the reader got bored? Or Millicent became irritated?

While you’re pondering those troubling questions, let’s return to our example. How else does it fall short?

Well, as so often happens in memoir, we’re just told that the action is happening here or there, rather than shown what those places were like. And lest anyone be tempted to shout out that old writing truism, “But it’s stylish to leave something to the reader’s imagination!, let me ask you: based upon the pages above, could you tell me where these people are with enough specificity that a reader would be able to feel like she’s there?

“But that’s not fair!” I would not blame you for shouting indignantly. “It’s the writer’s job to establish a sense of place, not the reader’s job to guess.”

Precisely what Millicent would say. She would object, and rightly, to this scene’s providing her with too little description to enable her to picture Joan and her young friends operating within an environment. Nor are those friends fleshed out much, either in character or physical trait.

Heck, poor Millie doesn’t even get to see the frightening Benoist: instead, the memoirist merely asserts repeatedly that he and Joan were getting closer, without showing us what that have looked like to a bystander. Like, say, the narrator of the scene.

Speaking of the narrator, were you able to glean much of a sense of who he is as a person? How about what his relationship is to Joan? Are you even sure of their respective ages? Any idea what year it is? Heck, if you did not already know that the girl would grow up to be the patron saint of France — actually, one of four, but Joan of Arc is certainly the best known in this country — would anything but the children’s names tip you off about what part of the world these characters inhabit?

While I’m asking so many rhetorical questions in a row — another occupational hazard, I’m afraid; margins absorb them like a sponge does water — let me ask a more fundamental one: did you notice that although this excerpt is apparently about how the village’s children reacted to Joan, there’s practically no character development for her at all?

That’s at least marginally problematic, in a book entitled — wait for it — PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC. What, we are left to wonder, does she look like? Why doesn’t she stand up to her playmates (beyond, of course, the justification of being “so girlish and shrinking in all ways”) or, failing that, why doesn’t she simply walk away from the nasty little beasts?

And don’t stand there telling me that the narrator had no choice in the matter, because that’s how it really happened. Yes, a memoir or fact-based fictional story should be true, but it also has to be both interesting in the page and plausible. Reality, unfortunately, is not always plausible; it’s the writer’s job to make it so on the page.

Which begs another editorial question: why can’t a kid brave enough to face down the village madman’s axe (or ax, depending upon where it falls in this passage; the error is in the book in front of me), a rather interesting thing for a person to do, come up with more revealing answers to questions than a simple yes? This is another notorious editorial pet peeve: almost without exception, the least character-revealing way for anyone to answer a yes-or-no question is with — again, wait for it — a simple yes or no.

Are some of you writers of the real blanching now? “But Anne,” you gasp, clutching your ashen cheeks so heavily drained of blood, “people actually do answer questions that way! And isn’t the point of written dialogue to reproduce the feel of actual speech?”

Well, that’s one of the points of dialogue. Another is not to bore the reader to death, isn’t it? And, if at all possible, it should be entertaining.

Just holding a tape recorder up to nature tends not to be the surest means of hitting any of those excellent goals. Why? Chant it with me now: most everyday speech is repetitious.

I can stand here and keep saying that as long as necessary, people. Again and again and again.

As we may see in the scene above, a character that keeps saying nothing but “Yes” isn’t exactly thrilling the reader with deep insight into her thought processes. Or even into the scene itself: little Joan is not, after all, a hostile witness in a murder trial, but a child talking with her playmates. Wouldn’t it ultimately be more realistic, then, if she sounded like the latter?

Speaking of realism, would it be too much to ask the narrator to explain why the villagers left an axe lying anywhere near the madman’s cage in the first place? Might not the locals’ efforts have been more productively expended making sure he can’t get out than chopping off his fingers?

And yes, in response to what half of you just thought: this is precisely the kind of thing an editor would have gripped her pen angrily and inked into the margins of a manuscript. Not because she’s mean, but because she’s trying to help the writer give the reader a more enjoyable reader experience.

That’s a noble calling, too, you know. But in the unlikely event that some writer out there might care less about the moral beauty of Millicent and her ilk’s devotion to textual excellence than how to worm his way past it in order improve his submission’s chances of getting picked up by an agency, let me hasten to add that the sooner a writer learns to read his own manuscript the way a professional reader would, the easier he will find self-editing. Not to mention being able to catch the Millicent-irritants that can prompt a screener or contest judge to stop reading.

In the interest of helping you fine people develop that ability, let me ask you another question about today’s example: if you had previously known absolutely nothing about what the what the real-life Jeanne d’Arc achieved, wouldn’t you find it at least a trifle too pat that her playmates choose to picture her doing more or less what she grew up to do — and to laugh at her about it? If the girl had suggested this role herself, it might merely have been not-particularly-subtle foreshadowing, but honestly, can you think of any reason to include this at all except to make the reader feel cleverer than St. Joan’s playmates?

Millicent wouldn’t be able to think of one. Neither would most professional readers; it’s our job to deplore this sort of narrative ham-handedness.

“Just how ill-informed would a reader have to be not to find that first bit clumsy?” we mutter into our much-beloved coffee mugs. “Isn’t it safe to assume that anyone who would pick up a book about Joan of Arc would know that she lead an army and was burned at the stake, even if that reader knew nothing else about her? And if your garden-variety reader knows that much, isn’t it an insult to his intelligence to drop a giant sign reading Hey, dummy, this is foreshadowing?”

Was that mighty gust of wind that just whipped the cosmos the sound of half of the memoirists out there huffing with annoyance, or was it merely the first-person novelists sighing gustily? “But Anne,” both groups think loudly in unison, rather like the remarkably collective-minded children in the anecdote above, “this is how I was taught to write first-person narration. It’s supposed to sound exactly like a real person’s speech. So why shouldn’t St. Joan’s unnamed childhood buddy sound like anybody else telling anecdotes out loud?”

A couple of reasons, actually. Yes, good first-person narration takes into account the narrator’s individual speech patterns; no dialogue should sound like just anybody. Which is precisely the problem with all of those yeses, right? All by themselves, yes and no are generally presumed to mean the same thing, regardless of who is saying them. So, like polite spoken clich?s of the “Excuse me” and “I’m so sorry for your loss” ilk, they are too generic to convey personalized content.

Strong dialogue also typically reflects the narrator’s social status and education, personal prejudices, and what s/he could conceivably know in the situation at hand. And then there are those pesky individual quirks and, yes, the century in which s/he lived.

So I ask you, first-person writers: just how does the narrative voice in this passage indicate that this particular anecdote took place not too long after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415? As opposed to, say, the 1890s, when this account was first published?

And if you were tempted even for a nanosecond to mutter in response, “Well, if the 1980s is when readers would have been seeing this dialogue, sounding like that just would have seemed normal,” let me ask a follow-up question: if this scene were narrated in the voice of a pre-teen texting this to a friend today, would that make this scene ring truer to today’s readers? Or would it merely read as though the writer either hadn’t thought much about how Joan and her friends might have communicated with one another — or was presuming that today’s readers were not capable of following any type of dialogue than their own?

Those of us who read for a living have a term for that kind of assumption: insulting the reader’s intelligence. We often find ourselves scrawling it in margins.

How often, you ask, your faces a mask of pallid horror? Well, operating on the assumption that internal monologues have both always sounded pretty much like modern speech and don’t vary much from individual to individual is as common a mistake in first-person narratives as having all teenage characters sigh and roll their eyes is in YA submissions. Yes, some people do think and talk that way, but must everybody? Should Helen of Troy formulate her innermost thoughts in the same way as, say, Eleanor Roosevelt, Louisa May Alcott, or Confucius?

There’s a dinner party, eh? I’ll bring the stuffed grape leaves.

Doesn’t it make for more interesting narration if your narrator’s speech bears at least some marks of time? And if she has some individual quirks of thought and expression?

Besides, if we are going to be true to the rules of first-person narration, shouldn’t we be objecting to how often our narrator here professes to read the other children’s minds — although, notably, not Joan’s? I don’t know about you, but I find that most of the time, my thoughts are located in my own head, not floating somewhere in the middle of a group of bystanders. Millicent, too, tends to regard her own thoughts as separate from other people’s. The inevitable consequence: characters who think together tend to annoy her, unless their shared brains crop up within science fiction or fantasy context, where they can be plausible.

That cast a different light upon the narrative choice here, doesn’t it? As an editor might well scrawl in the margin, are we supposed to believe that our narrator in this instance is a mind-reader, or that the local children were too simple-minded to be able to form individual opinions about what is going on in front of them? Is the narrator just not familiar enough with the individual characters to be able to guess how their thoughts might have differed, or, (turn page over here) since he’s of a different social class than they are — not abundantly apparent in this scene, is it? — does his reporting that they all thought the same way a function of his views of their training in rational thinking? Or does it indicate the opposite, that he feels so close to them that he presumes that his beloved friends and he could only have thought and felt identically?

“Or, Mark,” the editor might conclude, “did you originally write this scene in the third person, with an omniscient narrator that could plausibly read everyone’s thoughts? If so, you can’t legitimately endow your first-person narrator with that ability. Pick a narrative perspective and stick to it!”

In fairness to Mark, as well as all of the blanching first-person narrative writers out there, plenty of writers actually were taught to write first-person narration this way — in short stories in their high school English classes. And with good faith, too: in short bursts, run-on sentences do indeed come across as ordinary speech-like. In the published examples of this type of narration that tend to turn up in class, it’s not all that unusual for the author’s voice and the first-person narrator’s voice to merge into colloquial harmony.

Or, to put it another way, Mark Twain tends to sound like Mark Twain, for instance, no matter whose perspective is dominating a particular story. That’s part of his branding as an author, right, his distinctive narrative voice and humorous worldview?

Admittedly, adopting a chatty voice makes quite a bit of sense for narrative voice in memoir. The reader is going to have to like how the narrator/protagonist talks about her life well enough to want to follow the story for a few hundred pages, after all; we might as well get friendly. Yet in practice, the primary danger of relying on the repetitive phrasing, clich?s, and percussive and use to achieve realistic-sounding narrative cadence is precisely that it will put off the reader because as the pages pass, it can become, at the risk of repeating myself, rather boring.

Think about it: even if a memoir were being told as a collection of verbal anecdotes, wouldn’t you rather listen to a storyteller with some individual flair for phrasing, instead of someone who just sounded like everyone else? No matter how inherently exciting a personal story is, a great telling can make it better reading. So can a narrative voice reflective of the time, place, and society in which that tale takes place.

But just try telling that to Mark Twain — who, as the sharper-eyed among you may already have noticed, wrote the scene above, in what he considered his best book. Although that retrospective assessment is a trifle hard to take seriously, in light of the fact that he published the book both under a pen name and in serial form. Actually, he took it to even one more remove: he wrote a preface under a nom de plume, presenting himself as the translator of a memoir written by one of young Joan’s contemporaries.

Why go to all that trouble? Because by all accounts, he felt that the poor sales of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER were largely attributable to his established audience’s expecting anything published under the name of Mark Twain to be a comedy. Good branding has its drawbacks for a creative artist.

Take that, purists who would like to believe that writing with an eye toward market concerns is a product of an increasingly cynical publishing industry over the last twenty or thirty years. Twain and his publisher worked out that tactic in the 1890s.

But I digress. As a reader, how well do you think his narrative choices worked here, either as fiction narration or as the memoir narration it originally professed to be? In your opinion as a writer, how do you feel about those slips into the first person plural — is the reader carried along with the we perspective as a narrative choice, as we were in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, or does it read like a perspective slip?

In today’s example, do you feel that the mostly distinctly modern narrative voice, coupled with the almost entirely uncritical view of Joan, was the best way to tell this tale? Reviewers in Twain’s time did not think so — they believed (and I must say I agreed with them back in junior high school) that a protagonist who never does anything wrong is a trifle on the dull side, as far as the reader is concerned. Twain’s Joan never sets a wee foot wrong; even in her earliest youth, he tells us, she raised her voice in anger only once, and even then it was to voice a patriotic thought.

A taciturnity unusual in a rabble-rouser, you must admit. Also an unusual characteristic for someone who challenged social norms enough for anyone to want to burn her at the stake: Twain’s narrator presents her as a quiet, universally beloved little girl. Butter, as folks used to say, would not melt in her mouth.

But is that how little girls with braids grow up to lead armies?

Twain evidently thought so. No matter how outside-the-box her observations or actions are shown to be (or, as we saw above, summarized to be), in this narrative, nothing she did or said from birth to the age of fourteen so much as ruffled the composure of the inhabitants of a querulous small village in wartime. Surprising, to say the least, in a young lady who by her own account had been engaging in frequent heart-to-heart chats with a couple of your more illustrious virgin martyrs since the age of twelve.

Perhaps the querulous small village where I spent my formative years was atypical, but I’m inclined to think that had I gone around snatching murder weapons from the clutches of local lunatics or holding confabs with deceased ancient Roman maidens, the locals might have had a thing or two to say about it. I’m also inclined to think that their observations would not have been entirely favorable, regardless of how winsome and girlish I might have been while disarming the maniac in question. It doesn’t strike me as the type of endeavor best undertaken in a party dress.

I’m not saying that Twain is necessarily factually incorrect about any of this; naturally, his best guess is as good as ours on a lot of these points. The little lady lived rather a long time ago, so the issue here is less historical accuracy than dramatic plausibility. Still, just because something really happened does not mean it will necessarily come across as plausible on the page; as agents like to say, it all depends on the writing.

As an editor, though, I think it was Uncle Mark’s job as a writer’s to make me believe his take on this. Presuming you agree with me — speak now or forever hold your peace — I ask you: was this narrative choice the best fit for the story he wanted to tell? And if not, should Millicent accept this manuscript?

Does the fact that a good third of you just began hyperventilating mean that it had not occurred to you that whether a story is not only well-written, but attacked from an appropriate narrative angle is a potential rejection trigger? It is, inevitably. Wouldn’t it have been nice if your last rejection letter had told you that, if Millicent or her boss thought that your first-person story would have worked better as a third-person narrative, or vice-versa?

Literary taste is, of course, to a very great extent individual, so only you can answer my question about Uncle Mark’s narrative choices to your own satisfaction. Am I correct in presuming, though, that you are at least a tiny bit curious about how an editor currently holding down the literary fort in the U.S. publishing world might respond to the choices he did make? Glad you asked. Let the scrawling begin!



What am I hoping you will take from this, you ask, eyes wide with horror and previously rosy cheeks drained of blood? Not merely that being a brilliant writer does not necessarily preclude turning out a clunker of a first draft from time to time — although that’s not a bad thing for aspiring writers to bear in mind. The popular conception of true literary talent’s consisting of letter-perfect creative phrasing dripping from one’s fingertips directly onto the page, with no further polishing necessary, each and every time, does not match up particularly well with reality. As any experienced editor could tell you, most of the books people regard as semi-miraculous productions of pure inspiration have actually been worked, reworked, and run past half a dozen critical readers.

And I mean critical readers. The kind who will remember what the author did in the same scene in each previous draft.

Remember that, please, the next time you’re struggling with a scene that just doesn’t seem to want to hit the page gracefully — or with much specificity. In moments like that, it can be very tempting to embrace the tack Twain did above, writing up the scene in summary form, with few vivid details, just to get the darned thing committed to paper as rapidly as humanly possible.

What makes me think that this was written quickly? Editorial instinct, mostly: I find it hard to believe that a humorist as gifted at reading out loud as I know Twain to have been would have killed the comedy — or bored the reader — with this much word repetition unless he was writing on a pretty tight deadline. Serialization tended to be submitted that way back then, you know, as Dickens would have been only too glad to tell you. Had Uncle Mark taken the time to revisit this scene and iron out its wrinkles, I don’t think there would have been quite so many references to eyes — and, frankly, I don’t think that he would have had his narrator faint at the climax of the scene. He was too good a storyteller.

But that choice certainly saved the author the trouble of having to figure out how the girl convinced the wild man to give up the axe, though, didn’t it? Trust me on this one: experienced editors — and Millicents — see this type of narrative shortcut often enough to recognize it for what it is.

So what should a savvy writer do when faced with this sort of first-draft dilemma? Go ahead, give in to temptation; there is value in getting a full scene on paper. Just make sure to set aside time later in the writing process to return to that scene and flesh it out.

Unless you would prefer to have your future editor bark at you, “This is lazy writing, Ambrose. Didn’t anybody ever tell you to show, don’t tell?”

Just in case nobody has yet snarled that in the general direction of your manuscript: show, don’t tell. Immerse your reader in sufficient details for her to be able to feel as though she is part of the scene, rather than leaving her to fill in the specifics for herself.

Oh, you don’t think that’s what Twain is doing here? Okay, rise from your chair, grab the nearest willing partner, and try to act out this interaction between young Joan and Benoist, based solely upon the choreography the narrator above chose to provide us:

She stood up and faced the man, and remained so. As we reached the wood that borders the grassy clearing and jumped into its shelter, two or three of us glanced back to see if Benoist was gaining on us, and this is what we saw — Joan standing, and the maniac gliding stealthily toward her with his axe lifted. The sight was sickening. We stood where we were, trembling and not able to move. I did not want to see murder done, and yet I could not take my eyes away. Now I saw Joan step forward to meet the man, though I believed my eyes must be deceiving me. Then I saw him stop. He threatened her with his ax, as if to warn her not to come further, but went steadily on, until she was right in front of him — right under his axe. Then she stopped, and seemed to begin to talk with him. It made me sick, yes, giddy, and everything swam around me, and I could not see anything for a time — whether long or brief I do not know. When this passed and I looked again, Joan was walking by the man’s side toward the village, holding him by his hand. The axe was in her other hand.

Not much practical guidance for the actors there, eh? Other than all of that seeing (a word most writers tend to overuse in early drafts, incidentally), the actual movements mentioned here are pretty routine: one party standing still, the other moving toward her. The mover threatens, but we are not told how. Admittedly, a lifted axe doesn’t have to move much to seem threatening, but did you notice how pretty much all of the sense of danger is conveyed via the narrator’s dread, rather than through showing the reader vivid, terrifying specifics? And how virtually all of that dread is summarized, rather than shown in any detail?

From an editorial perspective, that lack of specificity distances the reader from what should have been a thrilling scene: by leaving us to fill in the details, the narrator abdicates his proper role here. It’s his job to make us feel that we were there, or at least to show us the scene engagingly enough that we have that illusion.

Yes, he grounds us in his experience by telling us repeatedly that he is seeing this or that, and that these sights made him feel sick (and ultimately pass out). But great heavens, man, if you’re going to narrate a story like this, isn’t it your job to at least ask a bystander what happened, so you could share that information with the reader?

Don’t tell me that once you’ve seen one axe-wielding madman, you’ve seen ‘em all. As both a reader and an editor, I want to know what this particular madman looked, sounded, moved, smelled, and felt like. I want to know precisely what our heroine did that gave Benoist pause; I want to be shown how he crept up on her stealthily while apparently walking straight into her line of vision. And gosh darn it, I want to know how an axe of 1415 differed from one I might buy at the corner hardware store today.

Without those details, and phrased in fairly ordinary terms, this excerpt is indeed like everyday speech, in the negative sense, despite the inherently exciting subject matter. Substitute a memo-wielding boss for the axe-bearing madman, and this could have been an anecdote overheard in a coffee house after work, couldn’t it?

Please don’t limit your answer to a simple yes or no. I was hoping to learn something about you.

Distancing the reader from the action in this manner is an unfortunately common tactic in memoirs and first-person fictional narratives alike. Instead of showing the reader what happened through a fully realized scene, the narrator simply summarizes; rather than demonstrating relationship dynamics through dialogue or action, the narrator just sums up what was said. And by describing subsequent actions in the same words or in hackneyed terms (I believed my eyes must be deceiving me? Really, Mark?), the action may move forward, but the reader’s understanding of what’s going on does not.

Joan stood; Benoist glided. Then Joan stood while Benoist glided. Then she stopped — odd as the narrative had not shown her going forward. Then the narrator conveniently blacks out so we cannot see what is going on. Then the problem is solved. The end.

A bit mauve, isn’t it? Well might you turn pale.

Seldom is this the most interesting way to convey a story, in my experience. Like having characters answer yes-or-no questions with yes or no, as opposed to more detailed (and thus more character-revealing) responses, the summary route closes off story possibilities. And by definition, repeated phrasing adds nothing new to the scene.

Neither, incidentally, do all of those thens: logically, they are unnecessary. Why? Well, in a story in which events are being presented in chronological order, the occurrences in Sentence 1 are presumed to have happened before those in Sentence 2, which in turn came before what’s described in Sentence 3.

Thens, then, as we have seen them used in that last example, are logically redundant; most editors would advise you to reserve them for moments when what happens next is genuinely unexpected. Take a gander:

Joan stood; Benoist glided toward her with an axe. Then the Wright Brothers and their sister, Katherine, swooped through an opening in the forest canopy in a motorized glider to snatch the weapon away.

Admit it — you didn’t see that last twist coming, did you? As a reader, didn’t you get a kick out of that?

Remember, there’s more to telling a story than simply listing its events in the order they occurred. Racing from its beginning to its end may not be the best way to engage the reader. You want the journey to be both memorable and enjoyable, right? And if the narrative can manage either to surprise the reader with an unanticipated turn of events, delight her with astonishing imagery, or intrigue her with beautiful phrasing — ideally, all three — all the better.

Before I release you to ponder the challenges of expanding a first-person narrative from the anecdotal level into a completely inhabited scene, I want to talk about another common faux pas: the further distancing effect of the narrative’s reminding us repeatedly that the narrator is seeing, hearing, or observing this or that. Obviously — at least from a professional reader’s perspective — if an action or object is depicted in a first-person narrative, the narrator perceived it; otherwise, she could not legitimately bring it up, right?

So when Twain’s narrator tells us repeatedly that he saw Joan do this or Benoist do that, it’s logically redundant. Of course, he saw it: he was standing right there. Why bother to remind the reader of that self-evident fact? Or, to put it as a garment-rending professional reader might, does the author think the reader is too brain-dead to remember who the narrator is and that he is present?

Oh, you don’t want the pros to take every word you commit to the page that seriously? But it’s how they show their respect for your eventual readers!

And for your literary gifts. Again: if it’s on the page and the writer appears to possess even the slightest vestige of talent, Millicent is going to assume that you put it there on purpose. She’s also going to believe, with good reason, that if a writer has set up rules for how the story is to be told — in this case, from the point of view of a childhood friend of Joan’s, and only from his perspective — the narrative will follow those rules consistently.

This, too, trips up quite a lot of memoirists and other first-person narrator-wranglers. Once a narrative is committed to a single perspective, it cannot report anything outside of it without shattering the illusion of a limited point of view. Thus, when the narrator slips into the first person plural, informing us that we saw this or thought that, it’s jarring to the reader’s sensibilities.

And when, like Twain’s narrator, he professes to know what we all are thinking…well, let’s just say that maybe Joan isn’t the only one who needs to be worrying about going on trial for dabbling in the supernatural. Unless the narrative establishes some means by which a first-person narrator could possibly have reliable insight into other characters’ thoughts and feelings, he should really stick to his own.

If his thoughts and feelings are somehow different from every Tom, Dick, and Benoist who might be hanging around in the same place at the same time, great. If he can manage to express them in language evocative, memorable, and tailored to his individual worldview, though, even better. And if he can work in a little character development, perhaps through revealing dialogue, terrific.

Which is not a bad definition of memoir voice, if you think about it: a narrator with a strong personality and specific worldview recounting situations of significance to an overall dramatic story arc in language and from a perspective unique to the teller. If every sentence of your memoir — and, to bring this back to our series-in-progress, every sentence of your query’s book description — does not rise to that level, you might want to think about revising it.

Millicent will thank you. So will your readers.

So Mark, darling, as much as I admire your writing in general and short stories in particular, if I were your editor — oh, you thought that editors don’t live in the hope that this type of activity would be the first, best use of a time machine? — I would insist that you sat down and revised these three pages. Actually, I would do it because I admire your writing: your narrative voice, even in this rather serious book, is better than what we’re seeing here.

And that axe you keep telling us you’re seeing, narrator? Try to think of it as your editor, chopping away all of that phrasing and conceptual redundancy. Trust your reader’s intelligence a bit more, please.

Do bear in mind, too, that while reality itself can be convoluted and devoid of point, readers have a right to expect a book based upon real events to be a good story possessed of an identifiable story arc. It should be dramatically satisfying. And if the real-life version is not, believe me, Millicent isn’t going to be inclined to take that as an excuse.

No need to go pale about this. You can do it. But in order to pull it off successfully, you’re going to have to be able to read your work not only like a writer, but also like a reader.

Oh, it feels good to be delving back into craft. Would anyone mind if I continued to keep standard format illustration on the back burner for a bit and made narrative voice my topic of the week?

Actually, that’s a rhetorical question, come to think of it. Keep up the good work!

It may be possible to see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour, but that doesn’t mean a submitter should play fast and loose with the space-time continuum

green anemone

Happy Memorial Day weekend, U.S.-based readers! Since one of the many, many sacrifices those of us devoted to the difficult task of self-expression routinely make is to trade what other folks might do with their long weekends for gloriously uninterrupted hours of writing — or, better yet, revising! — I thought you might appreciate a glimpse of the world outside your writing studios. Now get back to work!

Actually, I have an ulterior motive for opening with that photo: as I’m certainly not going to be the first to point out, those of us who read manuscripts for a living are noted for looking not just at the big picture — is this an interesting story? Does it grab the reader from the get-go? And the question dear to writers everywhere, is it well-written? — but also at the granular level. It also probably won’t stop the presses to point out that the notoriously close reading any given manuscript has to survive in order to be seriously considered for publication tends to come as a great, big, or even nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters. And don’t even get me started on how many literary contest entrants seem to operate on the assumption that contest judges are specifically selected for their propensity to read with a charitable eye.

Does that giant gasp I just heard indicate that some of you fine people have been laboring under one or both of those impressions, or is somebody about to go for a nice, leisurely swim? If it’s the former, you’re definitely not alone: all too often, talented writers new to the game rush their manuscripts out the door the instant after they’ve typed the last page, presumably in the fond hope that all agents, editors, and contest judges are such lovers of literature that they will judge the book by nothing but how well it’s written. And possibly, to a lesser extent, by the inherent interest of the story.

Or so Millicent the agency screener must surmise from how many of those submissions apparently have not been spell-checked. Or grammar-checked. Or even read through since the last revision, because how else could the writer not have noticed that several words seem to have dropped out of that sentence on page 33?

Oh, stop groaning. Don’t you want your future agent and acquiring editor to fall so in love with your writing that they examine it from every angle, down to the last grain of sand?

Before I take that resounding, “Heavens, no!” for an unqualified yes, let me hasten to remind you that in the long run, it truly is better for your book if the agent of your dreams (and Millicent, the stalwart soul s/he has entrusted to narrowing the thousands of queries and hundreds of submissions a good agent receives to the handful that s/he would actually have time to read without sacrificing the book-selling side of the job entirely) pays attention to the little stuff. Why? Well, let me put it this way: if Millicent’s eye may legitimately be called nit-picky, a good acquiring editor’s peepers should be regarded as microscopic.

Oh, you thought it was easy to read closely enough to catch that the narrative has used the same image on page 12 and page 315? Or that the writer fell so in love with the word verdant that it appears every time that anything vaguely green flashes by the reader’s consciousness? In a book about lawn care?

So if this series’ focus upon the little visual details has occasionally seemed a trifle, well, obsessive, congratulations — you’re gaining real insight into what professional readers are trained to do. And think about it: if Millicent and her ilk must pay such close attention to the text, how likely are they to catch any formatting glitches?

Uh-huh. Hard to miss that sea anemone lying on the sand, isn’t it?

In order to give you a Millicent’s-eye view of your manuscript, for the past few posts in this series, we’ve been comparing manuscripts in standard format with improperly-formatted ones. Yes, it’s been a lengthy slog, but hands up, those of you who have never had the opportunity to see a manuscript that actually got picked up by an agent and published by a traditional house up close and personal.

See, I told you that you were not alone. Quite the forest of hands, isn’t it?

In my experience, most rookie submitter mistakes arise not merely from simple ignorance of the strictures of standard format, but from the low-level panic that comes from having to guess whether one is performing the secret handshake correctly. The better an aspiring writer understands the rules, the less guesswork is involved. It may not eliminate the stress of submission entirely, but it does at least remove one of the most common stressors from the mix.

Okay, so it’s not what the average would think of as a little light weekend recreational stress release. Were you under the impression that being a brilliantly incisive observer and chronicler of the human condition was ordinary?

Which is why I’m completely confident that you’re up to the challenge of thinking of your writing on several levels simultaneously. Particularly when, like the savvy submitter that you are, you are reading your ENTIRE manuscript IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before sending it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with a literary contest or the publishing industry. Lest we forget, it’s much, much easier to catch formatting issues, typos, and logic problems that way.

Do I sense that simmering resentment at how hard it is for a new writer to break into print beginning to bubble up to the surface? “But Anne!” I hear aspiring writers everywhere shout, and who could blame you? “I don’t have a problem with making my manuscript ship-shape on a writing level before passing it under Millicent’s critical spectacles. Granted, revision can be a trifle irritating, but what really irks me is that after I’ve done it, that lovingly worked and reworked prose could be knocked out of consideration because of some arbitrary expectations about how professional book manuscripts should look on the page. Isn’t that just an annoying additional hoop through which I’m expected to leap, and don’t I have every right to resent it?”

Well, not exactly, bubblers-up. As we’ve been discussing, the rules of standard format actually are not arbitrary; most of them have a strong practical basis that might not be readily apparent from the writer’s side of the submission desk. Let’s take, for instance, the relatively straightforward requirements that manuscripts should be entirely typed, double-spaced, and have 1-inch margins all the way around.

I hear some of you snickering, but Millicent regularly reads submissions that do not conform to standard format in one or even all of these respects. It’s not unheard-of for diagrams to be hand-drawn, pages hand-numbered, or for late-caught typos to be corrected in pen. Or for an e-mailed query to an agency that asks to see the first few pages to be single-spaced — because that’s the norm for an e-mail, right?

Let’s take a peek at why all of those rules necessary, from a professional point of view. For continuity’s sake, let’s once again call upon our old friend Charles Dickens again to see what a page of a manuscript should look like — actually, since we’ve been looking at so many first pages lately, let’s live dangerously, shall we? Here are pages 1 and two.

2 cities good
2 CIties right page 2

Relatively easy to read, isn’t it? (Assuming that you find it so, of course. If it’s too small to read easily on your browser, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + until the type is large enough to read comfortably.)

To give you some idea of just how difficult it would be to screen, much less hand-edit, a manuscript that was not double-spaced or had smaller margins, take a gander at this little monstrosity. To render it an even better example of what makes Millicent’s optician rend his garments in despair, I’ve gone ahead and submitted a fuzzy photocopy, rather than a freshly-printed original.

I believe the proper term for this is reader-hostile. Even an unusually patient and literature-loving Millicent would reject a submission like this immediately, without reading so much as a word. As would, more often than not, Mehitabel.

And honestly, can you blame them?

Did I hear a few spit-takes after that last set of assertions from those of you joining us in mid-argument? “My goodness, Anne,” sputter those of you wiping coffee, tea, or other beverage of your choice off your incredulous faces, “why would any sane person consider presentation violations that serious an offense? It is, after all, precisely the same writing. Sure, it’s a little harder to read, but if it’s an e-mailed submission, Millicent could just expand the image. And it’s not as though Millicent’s boss, the agent of Charles’ dreams, couldn’t just ask him to reformat it.”

Yes on both counts, but surely you can appreciate why the Charles who submitted that last page would strike anyone accustomed to handling manuscripts as a much, much more difficult writer to work with than the Charles behind our first set of examples. The latter displays a fairly significant disregard for not only the norms of standard format, but also the optical comfort of the reader. Not to mention just shouting, “Hey, I don’t expect any feedback on this, ever!”

Oh, you didn’t spot that? Anyone who handles manuscripts for a living would. Even with nice, empty page backs upon which to scrawl copy edits, trying to cram spelling or grammatical changes between those lines would be well-nigh impossible. Knowing that, Millicent would never dream of passing such a manuscript along to the agent who employs her; to do so would be to invite a stern and probably lengthy lecture on the vicissitudes of the life editorial — and that fact that, despite impressive innovations in technology, intensive line editing a single-spaced document in either hard or soft copy is well-nigh impossible.

Too hard on the eyes — and where on earth would the comments go on the hard copy?

Don’t tempt her to reject your submission unread — and don’t even consider, I beg of you, providing a similar temptation to a contest judge. Given the sheer volume of submissions Millicent reads, she’s not all that likely to resist. The contest judge, on the other hand, will be specifically instructed not to resist at all.

Yes, really. Even if the sum total of the provocation consists of a manuscript that’s shrunk to, say, 95% of the usual size, Mehitabel is likely to knock it out of the running on sight.

Are some of you are blushing? Perhaps some past contest entrants and submitters who wanted to squeeze in a particularly exciting scene before the end of those requested 50 pages?

No? Let me fill you in on a much-deplored practice, then: faced with a hard-and-fast page limit, some wily writers will shrink the font or the margins, to shoehorn a few more words onto each page. After all, the logic runs, who is going to notice a tenth of an inch sliced off a left or right margin, or notice that the typeface is a trifle smaller than usual?

Millicent will, that’s who, and practically instantly. As will any reasonably experienced contest judge; after hours on end of reading 12-point type within 1-inch margins, a reader develops a visceral sense of roughly how many characters fit on a properly-formatted page.

Don’t believe me? Go back and study the correctly formatted page 2 in our first example. Then take a gander at this wee gem of tricky intent:

2 Cities cheating page 2

Admit it: you can tell it’s different, can’t you, even without whipping out a ruler? Yet I shaved only one-tenth of an inch off each margin and shrunk the text by 5% — far, far less of a reduction than most fudgers attempt when, say, they’re trying to fit 26 pages of manuscript into a contest entry with a 25-page limit. So how likely is this little gambit to pay off for the submitter?

Exactly. Amazingly enough, people who read for a living very seldom appreciate attempts to trick them into extraneous reading. No matter how much Charles felt that last example added life to his opening — or how right he was about that — Millicent will simply notice that he tried to cheat in order to get more of his words in front of her eyeballs than writers conscientious enough to follow the rules. Next!

The same principle applies, incidentally, to query letters: Alarmingly often, aspiring writers, despairing of fitting a coherent summary of their books within the standard single page, will shrink the margins or typeface on a query. “What’s two tenths of an inch?” they reassure themselves. “And honestly, who is going to be able to tell the difference between 12-point type at 99%, rather than 100%?”

Help yourself to a gold star for the day if you immediately answered: “Someone who reads queries all day, every day. And two-tenths of an inch all around can, as Uncle Charles has just demonstrated, add up to a great deal more text on a page.”

Another common means of fudging spacing: incomplete adherence to the rules bout skipping spaces after periods and colons. Specifically, skipping two spaces (as tradition requires) in most instances, but omitting the second space when doing so would make the difference between a paragraph’s ending with a single word on the last line and being able to use that line to begin a new paragraph.

Shame on you, those who just bellowed, “Wow, that’s a great idea — over the course of an entire chapter, that might free up a page of text for my nefarious purposes!” Don’t you think inconsistent spacing is the kind of thing a reader trained to spot textual oddities might conceivably notice?

And for good reason: waffling about how often to hit the space bar can be a tell-tale sign that a writer isn’t altogether comfortable with writing in standard format. Such a writer’s work would, presumably, need to be proofread for formatting more closely than other agency clients’ work, would it not? And that in turn would mean that signing such a writer would inevitably means devoting either unanticipated staff time to double-checking his manuscripts or training in the delights of consistent rule application, right?

Those rhetorical questions would be equally applicable whether the agency in question happened to favor either the two-space or one-space convention, incidentally. Consistency is the key to proper manuscript formatting, after all, and all the more likely to be valued if an agency’s guidelines ask for something specific in a submission.

Why? Well, think about it: when you first thought about querying and submitting, would it have occurred to you to check each and every agency’s website (if it has one; not all do, even at this late date) for submission guidelines? So if you were the Millicent screening manuscripts for an agent with a desperate aversion to that second space after the comma (she had a nasty run-in with a journalist on a cross-country flight , perhaps; he may have menaced her with a copy of the AP’s formatting guidelines), and your boss had been considerate enough to post a reference to that aversion on the agency’s website, on her blog, and in 47 online interviews, wouldn’t that be one of the first things you looked for in a submission?

Let’s all chant it together, shall we? If an agency or publishing house’s submission guidelines ask for something specific, for heaven’s sake, give it to them. But don’t generalize that individual preferences to the entire industry, okay? And if they don’t express a preference, stick to standard format.

Yes, regardless of what you may have heard online about how nobody is using double-spacing after periods and colons in book manuscripts anymore. It’s simply not true that it’s generally an instant-rejection offense, on the grounds that manuscripts including the second space look hopelessly old-fashioned to agents and editors.

Well, guess what, cookie — standard manuscript format is old-fashioned, by definition. That doesn’t seem to stop most of the currently-published authors of the English-speaking world from using it. In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen an already agented manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon. Possibly because those that feel strongly about the single-space convention tend to be up front about not being likely to fall in love with submissions featuring what they perceive to be extra spaces.

I have, however, heard endless complaint from professional readers about those second spaces being omitted. Care to guess why?

If you said that cutting those spaces throws off word count estimation, clap yourself heartily on the back: standard estimates assume those doubled spaces. (If you don’t know how and why word count is tallied, please see the HOW TO ESTIMATE WORD COUNT — AND WHY category on the archive list at right.) Give yourself a nice, warm hug if you also suggested that omitting them renders a manuscript harder to hand-edit. Because we all know about the lecture Millicent is likely to get if she forgets about that, right?

I can sense blood pressure rising over this issue, but honestly, inconsistent application of either rule is far more likely to raise red flags with Millicent than clinging like an unusually tenacious leech to either the one- or two-space convention. Particularly if that inconsistency — or slightly off sizing — seems to allow more words per page than is usual.

My point, should you care to know it, is that a pro isn’t going to have to look very hard at a space-deprived page to catch on that there’s something fishy going on, so let’s work a bit more to increase your visceral sense that something is wrong. Since Dickens was so fond of half-page sentences, the examples I’ve been using above won’t illustrate my next common gaffe very well.

Reaching blindly into the depths of the bookshelf next to my computer, I seem to have grabbed Elizabeth Von Arnim’s wonderful take on the Bluebeard myth, VERA. Taking a page at random, let’s take a look at it properly formatted in manuscript form.

Vera correctly

There are 310 words on this page; I wasn’t kidding the other day about how far off the standard word count estimations could be. Now cast your eye over the same text with a couple of very minor formatting alterations.

Doesn’t look significantly different to the naked eye, does it? Yet the word count is slightly lower on this version of this page — 295 words. That may not seem like a big difference, but it’s enough to make quite a difference over the course of an entire manuscript.

“But Anne,” I hear some sharp-eyed readers exclaim, “wasn’t the word count lower because there was an entire line missing from the second version?”?

Well spotted, criers-out: the natural tendency of omitting the second spaces would indeed be to allow more words per page, not less. But the scanter space between sentences was not the only deviation from standard format here; Millicent, I assure you, would have caught two others.

I tossed a curve ball in here, to make sure you were reading as closely as she was. Wild guesses? Anyone? Anyone?

The error that chopped the word count was a pretty innocent one, almost always done unconsciously: the writer apparently did not turn off the widow/orphan control, found in Word under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. As we were discussing only the other day, this insidious little function, the default unless one changes it, prevents single lines of multi-line paragraphs from getting stranded on either the bottom of one page of the top of the next.

As you may see, keeping this function operational results in an uneven number of lines per page. Which, over the course of an entire manuscript, is going to do some serious damage to the word count.

As would tinkering with the bottom margin to allow an extra line on the page. Here it is with only a minor change, a .9 inch bottom margin instead of 1 inch, a modification so minute that a non-professional reader would probably not notice that it was non-standard. To compress a bit more, let’s have only one space after each period.

Vera with extra line

A bit claustrophobic, is it not? If you don’t find it so, consider it as Millicent would: not as an individual page, isolated in space and time, but as one of the several thousand she has read that week. Lest we forget, most of the ones she will have been taking seriously will have looked like this:

Vera correctly

See it now? While Millicent is highly unlikely to have either the time or the inclination to whip out a ruler to check whether that bottom margin is really a full inch (although Mehitabel might), she will be able to tell that this page has more words on the page than the others she has seen that day. She might not be able to tell instantly precisely how this page has been modified, but she will be able to tell that something’s off.

“But Anne,” clever rule-manipulators all over North America shout, “I’ve been modifying my submissions this way for years, and nobody has ever called me out on it. Therefore, I do not believe it’s ever been a factor in my work being rejected — and it does allow me to stay under that all-important 400-page limit.”

Perhaps, rules-lawyers, but let me ask you a question: have you ever had such a manuscript accepted?

Well might some jaws drop. It’s an extremely common submitter’s misconception, especially amongst those brand-new to the game or who have only submitted pages as part of a query packet, rather than as requested materials, that if they were really doing something wrong, the rejecter would tell them so. And tell them what it is, naturally, so they could do better next time.

In these days of form-letter rejections — and even no-reply rejections — this is simply an unrealistic expectation. Unless an agent or editor is asking for the writer to revise and resubmit the manuscript (in itself something of a rarity these days), why would they take the time?

Well, yes, to be nice would be a perfectly acceptable response, from a writer’s perspective. If a well-established agent received only a hundred queries per month and asked for one manuscript — not all that uncommon a ratio thirty years ago — writing personalized rejections would be both kind and not unduly time-consuming. Presuming, of course, that the rejected writer of the month did not consider a detailed rejection an invitation to argue about the manuscripts merits.

Consider for a moment, though, the agent that receives hundreds of queries per day. See why kindly advice-giving rejection letters might have become something of a rarity?

Especially if the rejection reason had to do with a formatting error. Honestly, it would eat up half of Millicent’s screening day. Why? Well, most submissions contain at least one — formatting problems, like typos, grammar gaffes, and wolves, tend to travel in packs. Even with the best of wills, it would be prohibitively time-consuming for Millicent to scrawl try learning how to format a manuscript, honey.

No, regardless of whether the ultimate rejection trigger for VERA was that extra line per page, the second misspelling in paragraph 2, or a premise that Millicent has seen seventeen times that week, the reasons given for sending back the submission would probably run like this: I’m sorry, but this manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. I just didn’t fall in love with this story, and I don’t feel that I can sell this in the current tough market. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

The moral of this sad, sad story: it seldom pays to assume that you’re doing it right just because you haven’t been told you are doing it wrong. It pays even less often to conclude from the generalities of a boilerplate rejection that there can’t have been any specific technical problem that caused Millicent, if not to reject it outright, then at least to take the submission less seriously.

Besides, another notorious agents’ pet peeve was lurking in the background — although in all probability, it would have irritated a contest judge far more than Millicent. Here’s the page again; see if you can spot it this time. Hint: it was not in the properly-formatted version.

Crown yourself with a laurel wreath if, while running your eyes thoughtfully over that last example, your peepers became riveted to the next-to-last line of the page: an emdash (–, one long line) instead of a doubled dash with spaces on either end. Here again, we see that the standards that apply to printed books are not applicable to manuscripts.

Which brings me to yet another moral for the day: just because a particular piece of formatting looks right to those of us who have been reading books since we were three doesn’t mean that it is correct in a manuscript. Or book proposal. Or contest entry.

Or a professional reader wouldn’t instantly spot a trifle imported from the wonderful world of published books. Remember, Millicent scans manuscripts all day; contest judges read entries for hours at a time. After a surprisingly short while, a formatting issue that might well not even catch a lay reader’s attention can begin to seem gargantuan.

Please don’t dismiss this as unimportant to your success as a writer. If writing is solid, it deserves to be free of distracting formatting choices. You want agents, editors, and contest judges to be muttering, “Wow, this is good,” over your manuscript, not “Oh, God, he doesn’t know the rules about dashes,” do you not?

Spare Millie the chagrin, please; both you and she will be the happier for it. Believe me, she could use a brilliantly-written, impeccably-formatted submission to brighten her possibly Dickensian day. Be compassionate toward her plight — and your submission’s, proposal’s, and/or contest entry’s. Pay close enough attention to the technical details that yours the submission that makes her say, “Oh, here is good writing, well presented.”

My, all of those individual grains of sand are attractive, aren’t they? Keep up the good work!

Handwritten manuscripts, profanity in queries, and other phenomena that give Millicent pause

I had meant to devote my next post to showing you fine people more examples of title pages done right — and done wrong, so we could discuss the difference. Why invest the time and energy in generating both, you ask? Clearer understanding, mostly. Oh, I know that I could just slap up a single properly-formatted title page and walk away, pleased with myself for having provided guidance to writers submitting to agencies and small publishing houses; I could also, as some other blogs devoted to helping aspiring writers do, post readers’ own pages and critique them. In my long experience working with writers, established and aspiring both, however, I’ve found that talking through an array of positive and negative examples yields better results.

In no area of advice is this more strongly the case than in manuscript formatting. Since very few aspiring writers have had the opportunity to see a manuscript in circulation by a major agency close up, it can be quite difficult to tell whether one is following the rules — if, indeed, the submitter is aware that there are rules. Many are not. By presenting my readers with a plethora of practical examples and ample discussion, I hope to help writers new to the game avoid falling into pitfalls they might not otherwise know exist. It also enables those who have never enjoyed the inestimable advantage of having read manuscripts or contest entries on a daily basis to see first-hand just how much submission quality varies, even amongst the best-written specimens.

I sense some finely-tuned authorial antennae waving out there. Yes, novelists and other aficionados of character development?

“Is there a reason that you’re explaining this to us, Anne? Surely, by the middle of a series devoted to explaining the requirements of standard format for book manuscripts, any reader paying even the vaguest attention could be safely relied upon to have picked up on your fondness for compare-and-contrast exercises aimed at helping us develop our collective sense of what will and will not strike our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, as professional means of presenting good writing. Heck, that would be obvious to anyone taking a casual scroll through your blog. So am I correct in picking up a subtext here?”

Well spotted, close observers of human nature: I am in fact leading up to something. And while anyone who works with manuscripts for a living could tell you that what I shall be spending the rest of this post discussing is a pitfall into which eager aspiring writers stumble all the time, sometimes at serious cost to themselves, I’m afraid that explaining what that common trap is and how to negotiate one’s way around it will require sharing an example or two that are far from pretty.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written an industry etiquette post. I normally would not interrupt a series in progress in order to introduce one, but for the last six months or so, I, others who write online advice for writers, and even the excellent individuals toiling away in agencies have been seeing an uptick in a particular type of approach from aspiring writers. Admittedly, it’s always been common enough to drive the burn-out rate for writing gurus sky-high — in this line of endeavor, 7 1/2 years makes me a great-grandmother — yet anytime those of us still cranking out the posts start complaining about the same thing at the same time, it’s worth noting.

What’s the phenomenon? you ask with bated breath. Ah, I could tell you, but it would be easier to get why those of us behind the book scenes have been buzzing about it if I showed you. Fortunately — for discussion purposes, if not for me personally — yesterday, I received a sterling example of the breed of missives those of us in the profession often receive from total strangers, demanding attention and assistance for their writing endeavors.

Before I reveal yesterday’s communiqué in all of its glory, let’s take a moment to talk about how a savvy writer might want to go about alerting a publishing professional to the existence and many strong points of his or her book. It’s not an especially well-kept secret that, in this business, there are not all that many polite ways to go about it. If one is seeking to get a book published with a traditional large or mid-sized publishing house, one can only do so through an agency. If one is seeking an agent for that purpose, one either writes a 1-page query letter containing a specific set of information about the book or registers for a writers’ conference featuring formal pitching sessions to give at most a 2-minute description. If one wishes to work with a small publisher, one takes the time to find out what that particular publisher’s submission requirements are, then adheres to them through storm and tempest.

That’s it. Any other form of approach virtually always results in rejection. on general principle.

Why? Well, think about it: if you were an agent or editor, with which kind of writer would you prefer to work — one who has made the effort to learn the rules and follow them courteously, or one whose blustering demand for attention informs you right off the bat that, at minimum, you’re going to have to sit this writer down and explain that this is a business in which politeness counts?

Aspiring writers, especially those faced with the daunting task of contacting one of us for the first time, often find these simple strictures monumentally frustrating, if not downright perplexing. Many more regard industry etiquette as counterintuitive — or so we much surmise from the fact that the pros constantly find themselves on the receiving end of telephone calls from writers of whom they have never heard. Both agencies and publishing houses with well-advertised no unsolicited manuscripts, please policies get thousands every year. Although all of the major U.S. publishing houses have only accepted agented manuscripts for quite some time, the virtually complete disappearance of the slush pile seems not to have made the national news, if you catch my drift.

Some of you are shifting uncomfortably in your chairs, I notice. “But Anne,” a few of you on the cusp of approaching the pros for the first time murmur, “I understand that the rules of querying and submission might make life easier for agents and editors, but I’m excited about my book! I’ve worked really hard on it, and I’m impatient to see it in print. If it’s the next bestseller, I would think they would want to snap it up as quickly as possible. If it’s well-written, why would anyone in a position to publish it care how I manage to get the manuscript under their noses?”

Several reasons, actually, and very practical ones. First — and the one that most astonishes the pros that anxious aspiring writers so often don’t seem to take into consideration — literally millions of people write books every year. Many, if not most, are pretty excited when they finish them. So from the publishing world’s perspective, while it’s completely understandable, charming, and even potentially a marketing plus that a particular writer is full of vim about placing his book in front of an admiring public, it’s not a rare enough recommendation to justify tossing the rules out the window.

Second, while it pains me to say this, a writer is not always the best judge of her own book’s market-readiness; even if she were, as the industry truism goes, an author’s always the least credible reviewer of her own book. You would never know that, though, from how frequently Millicent hears from writers absolutely convinced that their efforts are uniquely qualified to grace the bestseller lists. Although the once-ubiquitous it’s a natural for Oprah! has mostly fallen out of currency, this kind of hard sell remains a not-uncommon opening for a query:

My novel, Premise Lifted from a Recent Movie, is sure to be as popular as The Da Vinci Code. Beautifully written and gripping, it will bowl readers over. You’ll be sorry if you miss this one!

While it’s not completely beyond belief that this writer’s self-assessment is correct, agents and editors tend to prefer to judge manuscripts themselves. Why? Well, since so many aspiring writers begin approaching agents and publishing houses practically the instant they polish off a first draft, it’s actually pretty common for even quite well-written manuscripts with terrific premises to arrive still needing quite a bit of revision. Millicent remains perpetually astonished, for instance, at how few submitters seem to take the time to spell- and/or grammar-check their work, much less to proofread it for flow and clarity.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes: any reputable agency, much less good small publishing house or well-known literary competition, will receive enough well-written, perfectly clean manuscripts — the industry’s term for pages free of typos, dropped words, protagonists’ sisters named Audrey for three the first three chapters and Andrea thereafter, etc. — not to have to worry about rejecting those that are not quite up to that level of sheen. From an aspiring writer’s perspective, it’s an unfortunate fact of recent literary history that the rise of the personal computer has caused the sheer number of queries and submissions to increase astronomically, rendering it impossible for even the most sleep-sacrificing professional reader to read more than a small fraction of the manuscripts eagerly thrust in his general direction.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, any pro with more than a few months’ worth of screening experience or writing contest judging will be aware that a super-confident writer does not necessarily come bearing a manuscript that will take the literary world by storm. Indeed, one of the reasons that the query above would be rejected on sight is that supreme confidence can be an indicator that the writer in question simply isn’t all that familiar with the current book market or how books are sold. That reference to The Da Vinci Code all by itself would automatically raise Millicent’s delicate eyebrows: in publishing circles, only books released within the past five years are considered part of the current market.

Then, too, since the kind of hard sell we saw above has been a notorious agents’ pet peeve for a couple of decades now, the very fact that an aspiring writer would use it could be construed — and generally is — as evidence that she’s not done much homework on how books actually get published. The popular notion that a good book will automatically and more or less instantly attract agents’ and editors’ attention is not an accurate reflection of current publishing realities, after all. (If that comes as a surprise to you, you might want to invest a little time in reading through the posts under the aptly-named START WITH THESE POSTS IF YOU ARE BRAND-NEW TO PUBLISHING category at the top of the archive list at right.)

Why might giving the impression that one isn’t overly familiar with the proverbial ropes prove a disadvantage in a first approach to a pro? Those of you who have been following my recent series on manuscript formatting already know the answer, right? It’s less time-consuming to work with a writer to whom the ropes are already a friendly medium. And honestly, it’s not that unreasonable for Millicent to presume that if our querier above does not know that boasting about a book is not what a query is for, she might also be unaware that, say, a book manuscript should be formatted in a particular way. Or that it’s now routinely expected that since submissions must arrive at publishing houses completely clean, savvy writers will submit them to agencies already scanned for errors.

It’s not as though a busy agent would have time to reformat or proofread a new client’s work before submitting it to an editor, right? Right? Do those glazed eyes mean some of you are in shock?

I can’t say as I blame you — when the first few agencies began recommending in their submission guidelines the now rather common advice that potential clients not only proofread their manuscripts carefully, but run them by a freelance editor before even considering approaching an agent, the collective moan that rose from the admirable, hard-working aspiring writers who routinely check each and every agency’s website before submitting positively rent the cosmos in twain. It can be a big shock to a writer new to querying and submission just how fierce the competition is to land one of the very scarce new client spots on a well-established agent’s client list.

“But I wrote a good book!” they wail, and with reason. “Why does landing an agent and getting published have to be so hard?”

The aforementioned competition, mostly: it gives agencies, publishing houses, literary contests, and even good freelance editors quite a bit of incentive to read as critically as possible. Lest we forget, most queries and requested materials are not read in their entirety — as we’ve discussed, most submissions get rejected on page 1, and most queries get slipped into the no, thank you pile before the end of their opening paragraphs.

Which makes sense, right? If the opening lines contain typos, clich?s, or any of the other unfortunately common first-approach faux pas, Millicent generally just stops reading. She assumes, rightly or wrongly, that what hits her eyes initially is an accurate representation of what is to follow. That’s the norm for agents, editors, and contest judges, too: if the third paragraph of page 1 is grammatically shaky, or if the writing is unclear, it’s taken for granted that Paragraph #3 will not be the only one that could use some additional work.

That tends to come as a surprise to many, if not most, aspiring writers. The rather endearing expectation that good writing will be read with a charitable eye often crashes straight into the reality of how many queries, submissions, and/or contest entries a pro has to read in a day. Millicent can only judge writing by what’s in front of her, after all. No matter how lovely the prose may be on page 56, or how stunning the imagery on page 312, if page 1 isn’t sufficiently polished, she’s going to make up her mind before she has a chance to admire what may come later in the book.

The same logic applies to the tone and consideration of the initial approach. If a writer observes the prevailing norms of publishing world etiquette — by, say, e-mailing a query rather than cold-calling the agent or adhering to a small publisher’s posted requirements to send a query containing specific pieces of information about the book instead of just popping an unsolicited book proposal into the mail and hoping for the best — then it’s reasonable to project that level of consideration onto any subsequent relationship, right? If, on the other hand, a writer first contacts the pro by non-standard means or, sacre bleu!, impolitely, it wouldn’t really make sense to expect rigorous rule-adherence or courtesy down the road, would it?

Oh, should I have warned you to sit down before I sprung that one?

Like most people, I suspect, agents, editors, and the people who work with them tend to prefer to devote their efforts to those who will be treat them with respect. This is a business positively stuffed to the gills with nice people. Although it may be difficult to discern from the perspective of a writer trying to break into print, most professional readers are quite aware that they are dealing with writers’ dreams — and do their best to handle them gently.

That’s why, incidentally, so many agencies and publishing houses employ kindly-worded form-letter rejections. More often than not, those sets of vague platitudes like I’m sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with this, we regret to say that this book doesn’t meet our needs at this time, or I don’t think I can sell this in the current market are less attempts at explanation than efforts to spare feelings.

I know, I know: that’s not what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such a communication. It can be maddening not to know for sure why a query didn’t wow Millicent, or whether a submission stumbled on page 1 or page 221; being given a specific rejection reason could help one improve one’s efforts next time.

What the pros know from long, hard experience, though, and what aspiring writers may not consider, is that some rejection recipients will regard any explicitly-cited reason to turn down the book as an invitation to argue the matter further. This is an especially common reaction for conference pitchers, alas: first-time successful pitchers sometimes mistake polite professional friendliness and enthusiasm for a promising book concept for the beginning of a friendship. Or confuse “Gee, I’d like to read that — why don’t you send me the first 50 pages?” with an implicit promise of representation and/or publication.

From an agent or editor’s point of view, issuing a rejection, however regretfully, is intended to end the conversation about the book, not to prolong it. If they want you to revise and resubmit, trust me, they won’t be shy about telling you.

You may also take my word for it that no matter how excellent your case may be that s/he is in fact the perfect person to handle your book, how completely viable your plan may be to tweak the manuscript so s/he will fall in love with your protagonist, or how otherwise estimable your argument that this is indeed the next The Da Vinci Code may be, trying to talk your book into acceptance will strike the rejecter as rude. It’s just not done.

And in all probability, it won’t even be read. The agency may even have established a policy against it.

Don’t want to believe that? Completely understandable, from a writer’s point of view. An agent or editor wouldn’t have to engage in many correspondences like the following, however, to embrace such a policy with vim.

Dear Tyrone,
Thanks so much for letting me read your book proposal for a Western how-to, Log Cabin Beautiful: Arranging a Home on the Range. I’m afraid, however, that as intriguing as this book concept is, I would have a hard time convincing editors that there’s a large audience waiting for it. At best, this book would likely appeal only to a niche market.

Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

Hawkeye McBestsellerspotter
Picky and Pickier Literary Management

Dear Hawkeye,
I’ve received your rejection for Log Cabin Beautiful, and I must say, I’m astonished. Perhaps living in New York has blunted your sense of just how many log cabin dwellers there actually are? It’s hardly an urban phenomenon.

Please find enclosed 27 pages of statistics on the new log cabin movement. I’m returning my proposal to you, so you may have it handy if you reconsider.

Please do. I really did pour my heart into this book.

Sincerely,
Tyrone T. Umbleweeds

Tyrone —

I’m returning both your proposal and the accompanying startling array of supporting documentation with this letter. I’m sorry, but your book just doesn’t meet our needs at this time.

Hawkeye McBestsellerspotter
Picky and Pickier Literary Management

Dear Hawkeye,
Perhaps you didn’t really get my book’s concept. You see…
{Five pages of impassioned explanation and pleading.}
Won’t you give it a chance? Please?

Sincerely,
Tyrone T. Umbleweeds

{No response}

Dear Hawkeye,
Sorry for contacting you via e-mail, but my last letter to you seems to have gone astray. To continue our discussion of my book…

Time-consuming, isn’t it? Not to mention frustrating for poor Hawkeye. And in all probability, this is one of the nicer post-rejection arguments she’s had this month.

Just don’t do it. Quibbling won’t change a no into a yes, and believe me, the last thing any querier wants to be is the hero of the cautionary tale Hawkeye tells at writers’ conferences.

Should I be alarmed by how pleased some of you look? “But this is wonderful, Anne,” a tenacious few murmur. “Hawkeye answered. That must mean that she read Tyrone’s pleas, doesn’t it? And if she read them, there must have been some chance that she could have been convinced by them, right?”

Not necessarily, on that first point — and no on the second. Before any of you who happen to be particularly gifted at debate get your hopes up, it’s exceedingly rare that an agent would even glance at a follow-up letter or e-mail. They wouldn’t want to be confronted by the much more usual post-rejection response, which tends to open something like this:

Dear Idiot —
What the {profanity deleted} do you mean, you just didn’t fall in love with my book? Did you even bother to read it, you {profanity deleted} literature-hater? I’ll bet you wouldn’t know a good book if it bit you on the {profanity deleted}

I’ll spare you the rest, but you get the picture, right? For every 1, 100, or 10,000 writers that take rejection in respectful silence, there are at least a couple who feel the need to vent their spleen. And, amazingly enough, they almost always sign their flame-mails.

Yes, really. I guess it doesn’t occur to them that people move around a lot in publishing circles. Today’s rejecting Millicent might well be tomorrow’s agent — or sitting in an editorial meeting next to an editor who wants to acquire their books the year after that.

The sad thing is, the very notion that manners might count doesn’t seem to occur to quite a few people. Perhaps that’s not entirely astonishing, given how firmly many aspiring writers reject the notion that, as I like to point out early and often, every single syllable a writer sends to anyone even vaguely affiliated with publishing will be considered a writing sample. Those who express their desires and requests in polite, conventional terms tend to get much better responses than those who do, well, anything else.

Even sadder: as anyone in the habit of receiving requests from aspiring writers could tell you, the senders sometimes don’t seem to understand that just because a certain type of phrasing or vocabulary is acceptable in social circles or on television doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be appropriate when trying to interest a publishing professional in one’s book. You wouldn’t believe how often the Millicent working for Hawkeye opens queries like this:

Hey, Hawkeye —

Since you claim on your website to be looking for literary-voiced women’s fiction focusing on strong protagonists facing offbeat challenges, why don’t you do yourself a favor and read my book, A Forceful Female Confronts Wackiness? It’s really cool, and I know you and your buddies at the agency will like it.

Millicent stopped reading just after that startlingly informal salutation, by the way. You can see that the tone is also askew thereafter, though, right? It’s the way someone might address a longtime friend, not a total stranger. And not a friend one particularly liked, apparently: what’s up with that snide since you claim… part? What could the querier possibly hope to gain by implying that Ms. McBestsellerspotter is being insincere in expressing her literary preferences?

Why, yes, it’s possible that the querier didn’t mean to imply any such thing, now that you mention it. Had I mentioned that Millicent can only judge a writer by what’s actually on the page in front of her, and that every single syllable a writer passes under a professional reader’s nose will be read as a writing sample?

What do I need to do, embroider it on a pillow?

I sense a certain amount of bemused disbelief out there. “Oh, come on, Anne,” those that pride themselves on the graceful phrasing of even their most hastily tossed-off e-mails observe. “Surely, addressing someone in a position to help get one’s book published this informally is practically unheard-of. I could see it — maybe — if the book in question was written in the same chatty voice as that query, but even then, I would assume that most writers would be too fearful of offending an agent like Hawkeye to approach her like this.”

Oh, you’d be surprised. Agents and editors who are habitually nice to writers at conferences routinely receive e-mails just like this. So do most of us who offer online advice, as it happens, particularly if we blog in a friendly, writer-sympathetic, and/or funny voices.

It is precisely because I am friendly and sympathetic to the struggles of aspiring writers that I am reproducing yesterday’s e-mail: I could give you made-up examples until the proverbial cows came home, but until one has actually seen a real, live specimen of this exceedingly common type of ill-considered approach, it can be rather hard to understand why someone who receives a lot of them might stop reading them after just a couple of lines. Or — I told you this wasn’t going to be pretty — why so many literature-loving, writer-empathizing folks in the biz eventually just give up on being nice about sharing their professional insights at all.

Naturally, I’ve changed name, title, and everything else that might allow anyone who might conceivably help the sender of this astonishing letter get published, but otherwise, our correspondence remains exactly as I first saw it. To maximize its usefulness as an example, though, I shall stop periodically to comment on where the sender’s message seems to have gone awry and how the same information could have been presented in a more publishing world-appropriate manner.

Heya Anne;

Okay, let’s stop here, and not merely because a semicolon is an odd choice in a salutation (the usual options are a comma, colon, or dash). It would have given most professional readers pause, too, not to see the necessary direct address comma: were heya actually a word, Heya, Anne would have been the correct punctuation.

Can you imagine Hawkeye or Millicent’s facial expressions, though, upon catching sight of a query opening this informally? True, I write a chatty blog, and the disembodied voices I choose to attribute to my readers do routinely address me in posts as Anne, but honestly, I’ve never met the sender before. A more conventional — and polite — salutation would have been nice.

This early in the e-mail, though, I’m willing to assume what Hawkeye or Millicent would not: “Frank” is trying to be funny. I read on.

I’ve drafted a 30,000 word treatise on {currently highly controversial political topic}. I call it Main Title-Reference to Similarly Themed Bestseller from the Late 1980s.

I’m going to stop us again. Treatise is an strange word in this context, but that’s not what would give a professional reader pause here. 30,000 words is quite a bit shorter than most political books; it’s really closer to a pamphlet. It’s also about a quarter of the length of the bestseller referenced here — which was written by a former professor of mine, as it happens, just before I took a couple of seminars with him in graduate school. So, unfortunately for Frank, he’s making this argument to someone who heard over a year’s worth of complaints by the author of the other work about how often his title got recycled.

Surprised at the coincidence? Don’t be. For decades, going into publishing has been a well-trodden path for those with graduate degrees (or partially-completed graduate degrees) who decide not to become professors. Or when professor jobs become scarce. Or when universities decide that it’s cheaper to replace retiring faculty with poorly-paid lecturers, rather than with, say, faculty.

But I digress. More to our current point, this section contains a formatting problem: the hyphen used as a dash in the title would be incorrect in standard format for manuscripts, would it not? What was I saying about Millicent’s tendency to extrapolate an entire manuscript’s formatting faux pas from a slight stumble like this?

If you’ve been murmuring, “My, that’s a lot of reaction to just a few lines of an e-mail,” congratulations. You’re gaining a sense of just how closely professional readers observe every single syllable of every single piece of writing you send them. Speaking of which, let’s move on with our missive-in-progress.

It is not a rant or a historical narrative but a polemic attempt to change the rhetoric.

Sorry to have to stop us again so soon, but just so everyone knows, telling a professional reader that a manuscript is not a rant will automatically raise the suspicion that it is a rant. That’s pretty much the reaction that non-professional readers have to statements like this, too, come to think of it. Just human nature, I’m afraid.

Also, note the non-standard use of polemic. Usually, it means an aggressive attack upon somebody else’s theories. It would have been helpful if Frank had mentioned whose. Pressing on…

Scholarly in tone and temper is how it is presented but metaphors, similes, enthymemes, as well as personal observation and experiences are liberally used.

I’m rather glad that Frank decided to tell, rather than show, the “tone and temper” of his book, because talking about the language in which a manuscript is written is an exceedingly common querying mistake. A book description should aim at informing the professional reader what the book is about, not the kind of linguistic tricks the author has used to tell the tale. Think about it: why should Millicent (or I, for that matter) care that Frank is fond of metaphors, similes, or aphorisms, except insofar as they work in the manuscript itself? Wouldn’t the best — indeed, only — way to demonstrate that they do work be to show them in the writing?

Speaking of demonstrating authorial intentions, as a group, professional readers tend to be suspicious when a book description says the manuscript is written in a style not reflected in the writing of the description itself. Since this letter has not so far been written in scholarly language, the assertion that the book is carries less weight than it otherwise would.

And now that we’re at the end of Frank’s first paragraph, should we not know why he decided to contact me at all? So far, it reads like a query, but why on earth send a blogger a query? He doesn’t seem to have a blog-related question (which should have been posted as a comment on the blog, anyway, right?), nor does he appear to be seeking editorial services. Has he perhaps made the rather ubiquitous mistake of believing that anyone called an editor works at a publishing house?

No, seriously, I hear from aspiring writers laboring under this misconception all the time. Let’s read on to see if that’s what’s on Frank’s mind.

Anyway, I’ve two publishers who want me to send them my manuscript. {He names them here.} They’ve sent me forms to fill out.

Okay, so he’s sent queries to publishers, but I recognize that both of the publishers he names are self-publishing houses. Curious about whether either has recently opened a traditional publishing imprint, I checked both websites. Both offer downloadable forms, asking writers to fill them out and send them along with a manuscript or proposal.

Now I’m even more confused. Both of these printers offer editing services for self-publishing writers. So again, how would he like me to help him? Reading on…

One of the things they want is an annotated table of contents. I googled {sic} it and saw your blog.

Not entirely surprising news, as that’s a standard part of a nonfiction book proposal. As I hope every nonfiction writer reading this is aware, the archive list conveniently located at the lower right-hand corner of this page includes categories specifically aimed at assisting you in pulling together a book proposal. (You’re welcome.)

If he’s having trouble with his annotated ToC, however — which, to be fair, isn’t always easy to write — why not tell me how? Or, better still, ask a question in the comments on the relevant posts?

Or is he seeking my assistance with something else? The next couple of sentences raise a possibility that rather astonished me.

Man you write up a storm-must be one hellava typer. I can’t type worth a {profanity deleted} -my manuscript was hand written-then hunted and pecked.

More hyphens employed as dashes and other offbeat punctuation — and excuse me, but is he asking me to type his manuscript for him? Because I’m such a good little typer?

Jaw firmly dropped, I read on. The rest of the e-mail will have greater impact, I suspect, if I show it in its entirety. Or as much as I can legitimately reproduce on a family-friendly blog.

Anyway, for {profanity deleted} and giggles I just thought you might give me something to work with and/or recommend. Although they haven’t given a deadline I’ve set mine for early next month-this things {sic} been three years in the making and its {sic} time to fish or cut bait.
Thanks for your time and attention-good luck to you.
Sincerely,
Frank Lee Wantstogetpublished

I’m at a loss for words. I also still don’t know for certain why Frank contacted me in the first place — to what, I wondered, could I just thought you might give me something to work with and/or recommend possibly refer? Advice doesn’t make sense — presumably, he turned up what I had to say about annotated ToCs when he Googled the term. Or at any rate would have, had he checked out the posts under the cryptically-named ANNOTATED TABLE OF CONTENTS category on the archive list.

Here, though, is where I part company with most other professional readers. Millicent, for instance, probably would not have taken the time to ask follow-up questions if a query was unclear — or if it swore at her, for that matter. I did consider not answering it for that reason. Still, if Frank was harboring some question that he was too shy to post on the blog, I was reluctant to leave him hanging. Ditto if he just didn’t understand the difference between a freelance editor and the services for which he would be paying at either of the presses he cited.

While I was at it, I thought it might be a good idea to nudge him back toward a professional tone. As I said, it’s surprising how often writers contacting the pros don’t seem to regard it as an occasion for formal courtesy.

Hello, Mr. Wantstogetpublished —

Congratulations upon completing your book, but I’m afraid that your e-mail was a trifle unclear. Are you asking me to recommend a book on how to write a book proposal? Are you asking to book some consultation time with me on the telephone to go over the forms and how to write the annotated table of contents? Or are you looking for someone to hire to computerize your manuscript for you, since no publishing house would accept a handwritten manuscript?

If you are looking for a word processing professional, I have to say, paying a editor with a Ph.D. to do it is probably not the best use of your resources. To find someone in your area with the skills and expertise to present your manuscript professionally, you might want to call the English department at your local community college; students often are eager for this sort of work. Anyone you hire could find both the rules of manuscript formatting and visual examples on my blog.

If, on the other hand, you were asking for a book recommendation, would you mind posting that request on the blog itself? That way, my answer could be of benefit to other writers. I understand the impulse for personal behind-the-scenes contact, but part of the point of blogging is that it permits me not to have to address thousands of readers’ individual concerns one at a time.

Just so you know, though, many, many writers have used my blog’s directions on how to write a book proposal to write a successful annotated table of contents. Check the Nonfiction heading on my archive list. Should you have questions on what I recommend in those posts, please feel free to ask questions in the comments section.

That seemed to cover the bases — but see why Hawkeye and her ilk have fallen out of the habit of responding to vague e-mails like this? If the writer isn’t clear about what he wants, it takes quite a bit of time and effort to spin out a guessing-game’s worth of logical possibilities.

Another reason the pros tend to burn out on following up on these types of missives: about half the time, a thoughtful response like this will go unanswered. Then the writing guru ends up feeling a bit silly for having been nice enough to try to answer a question that was both asked in the wrong place (if the guru happens to blog, that is) and in an indistinct manner.

While I had Frank’s attention, though, there was no reason I shouldn’t try to help him become a better member of the online writing community. After politely expressing the hope that he would find the guidance he was seeking on my blog, I added:

To assist you in your publication efforts, do you mind a little free advice? People in publishing tend to judge writing quality by every single thing a writer sends them. Your e-mail contained two clich?s, something to which editors are specifically trained to respond negatively, regardless of context. You might want to choose your words with a bit more care.

Also, publishing is a formal business; manners count. It would never be appropriate to use even minor profanity in a communication with a publishing professional a writer had never met — and even if we had, it would not be advisable in an initial approach. A word to the wise.

Best of luck with your book!

Not out of line with the advice he might already have seen on the blog, right? Now, if Frank was like most aspiring writers, he would be glad of some feedback from a professional. He would also, I hoped, be pleased that I had told him where to look on my blog for writing tips. As Hawkeye and Millicent would be only too eager to tell you, however, not all aspiring writers who ask for help are particularly overjoyed to receive it.

You can see it coming, can’t you? Very well: here is Frank’s reply in its entirety. Please be kind enough to read it all the way to the end before shouting, “I told you so,” Millie.

Anne-
Your blog is-well a BLOG-its {sic} really hard to navigate and way to {sic} pedantic-as are you. Anyway my proposal letter worked! My manuscript is processed-it was drafted by hand. Oh fyi-Tolstoy re-wrote War and Peace 10 times before he submitted to the printer. Bye, Bye Ms. PHD
Well isn’t that special!
Frank Lee Wantstogetpublished

One hardly knows where to begin, does one? Leaving aside the obvious questions about why somebody who hates blogs would turn to one for advice and why one would go to the trouble of tracking down a blogger whose advice one found pedantic, I can only assume that my subtle hints about formality of tone were lost on poor Frank. And while clearly, he continues to operate under the assumption that a print-for-pay press is the same thing as a traditional publisher, he’s certainly not the only aspiring writer confused by ambiguous wording on a self-publishing site. The best of luck to him, I say.

But if typing was not what he was seeking, why did he contact me in the first place?

We shall never know. I shall limit myself, then, to observations that might help other writers. First, even if Frank found my response unhelpful, a reply that merely vented spleen served no purpose other than to burn a bridge. That made me feel sorry for him, but that would not be most pros’ reaction.

Second, if one feels compelled to cite pop culture references, do try to keep them within the current decade. Better still, avoid them entirely; by definition, quotes are not original writing, and thus not the best way to show off your unique literary voice or analytical acumen.

Third, as hard as I laughed at his evidently not having been able to come up with a stronger zinger than a reference to my degree (“You…you…educated person, you!”), it bears contemplation that the professor he admired enough to cite in his own book’s title graded me in graduate school. As I mentioned above, publishing is stuffed to bursting with former academics; an aspiring writer can never be sure on a first approach if, where, or with whom the publishing professional he’s asking to help him went to grad school. So if one’s tastes run to credential-bashing, a letter to someone in a position to help get a book published might not be the best venue for it.

Oh, and to address an amazingly common misconception about formal salutations: femaleness is not a universal solvent of credentials. If one wishes to address any holder of an earned doctorate formally, the letter should open Dear Dr. X, regardless of whether the recipient is a man or a woman.

Above all, though, if you decide to make direct contact with anyone who works in publishing, do be polite — and do be clear about what kind of favor you’re asking, if you’re writing anything but what Millicent would expect to see in a garden-variety query. Remember, answering aspiring writers’ questions is not part of most professional readers’ job descriptions: agents make their living representing their already-signed writers, just as editors make theirs handling manuscripts and guiding them to publication. Most of the time, it’s entirely up to the recipient whether to respond to such non-standard approaches or not.

Your mother was right, you know. People really will like you better if you use your manners.

Next time, we shall be delving back into the wonderful world of title page examples. Why? Because we like you. Keep up the good work!

Yet another typo prone to distracting the professional reader’s eye just a trifle

Okay, I’ll confess it: I find writing for an audience as diverse as the Author! Author! community more gratifying than I would addressing a readership more uniformly familiar with the ins and outs of the writing world. I particularly like how differently all of you respond to my discussions of fundamentals; it keeps me coming back to the basics with fresh eyes.

I constantly hear from those new to querying and synopsis-writing, for instance, that the challenge of summarizing a 400-page manuscript in a paragraph — or a page, or five — strikes them as almost as difficult as writing the book they’re describing; from the other direction, those of us who read for a living frequently wonder aloud why someone aiming to become a professional writer would complain about being expected to write something. A post on proofreading might as easily draw a behind-the-scenes peek at a published author’s frustration because the changes she made in her galleys did not make it into her book’s first edition as a straightforward request from a writer new to the challenges of dialogue that I devote a few days to explaining how to punctuate it.

And then there are days like today, when my inbox is crammed to overflowing with suggestions from all across the writing spectrum that I blog about a topic I’ve just covered — and approach it in a completely different way, please. All told, within the last week, I’ve been urged to re-tackle the topic in about thirty mutually-exclusive different ways. In response to this barrage of missives, this evening’s post will be devoted to the imperative task of repairing a rent in the fabric of the writing universe that some of you felt I left flapping in the breeze.

In my appropriately peevish post earlier this week about the importance of proofreading your queries — and, indeed, everything in your query packet — down to the last syllable in order to head off, you guessed it, Millicent the agency screener’s pet peeves in the typo department, my list of examples apparently omitted a doozy or two. Fortunately, my acquaintance amongst Millicents, the Mehitabels who judge writing contests, the Maurys that provide such able assistance to editors, and the fine folks employing all three is sufficiently vast that approximately a dozen literature-loving souls introduced my ribcage to their pointy elbows in the interim, gently reminding me to let you know about another common faux pas that routinely makes them stop reading, clutch their respective pearls, and wonder about the literacy of the writer in question.

And if a small army of publishing types and literature aficionados blackened-and-blued my tender sides with additional suggestions for spelling and grammar problems they would like to see me to address in the very near future, well, that’s a matter between me, them, and my chiropractor, is it not? This evening, I shall be concentrating upon a gaffe that confronts Millicent and her cohorts so often in queries, synopses, book proposals, manuscripts, and contest entries that as a group, they have begun to suspect that English teachers just aren’t covering it in class anymore.

Which, I gather, makes it my problem. Since the mantle of analysis is also evidently mine, let me state up front that I think it’s too easy to blame the English department for the popularity of the more pervasive faux pas. Yes, many writers do miss learning many of the rules governing our beloved language, but that’s been the norm for most of my lifetime. Students have often been expected to pick up their grammar at home. Strange to relate, though, houses like the Mini abode, in which children and adults alike were expected to be able to diagram sentences at the dinner table, have evidently never been as common as this teaching philosophy would imply.

Or so I surmise from my friends’ reactions when I would bring them home to Thanksgiving dinner. Imagine my surprise upon learning that households existed in which it was possible for a diner without a working knowledge of the its/it’s distinction to pour gravy over mashed potatoes, or for someone who couldn’t tell a subject from a predicate to ask for — and, I’m incredulous to hear, receive — a second piece of pumpkin pie. Garnished with whipped cream, even.

So where, one might reasonably wonder, were aspiring writers not taught to climb the grammatical ropes either at home or at school supposed to pick them up? In the street? Ah, the argument used to go, that’s easy: they could simply turn to a book to see the language correctly wielded. Or a newspaper. Or the type of magazine known to print the occasional short story.

An aspiring writer could do that, of course — but now that AP standards have changed so newspaper and magazine articles do not resemble what’s considered acceptable writing within the book publishing world (the former, I tremble to report, capitalizes the first letter after a colon, for instance; the latter typically does not), even the most conscientious reader might be hard-pressed to derive the rules by osmosis. Add in the regrettable reality that newspapers, magazines, and even published books now routinely contain typos, toss in a dash of hastily-constructed e-mails and the wildly inconsistent styles of writing floating about the Internet, and stir.

Voil? ! The aspiring writer seeking patterns to emulate finds herself confronted with a welter of options. The only trouble: while we all see the rules applied inconsistently all the time, the rules themselves have not changed very much.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that, though, if your literary intake weren’t fairly selective. Take, for instance, the radically under-discussed societal decision to throw subject-object agreement in everyday conversation out with both the baby and the bathwater — contrary to popular practice, it should be everyone threw his baby out with the bathwater, not everyone threw their baby out with the bathwater, unless everyone shared collective responsibility for a single baby and hoisted it from its moist settee with a joint effort. This has left many otherwise talented writers with the vague sense that neither the correct usage nor the incorrect look right on the page.

It’s also worth noting that as compound sentences the length of this one have become more common in professional writing, particularly in conversational-voiced first person pieces, the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sees paragraph- or even page-long sentences strung together with seemingly endless series of ands, buts, and/or ors , has skyrocketed, no doubt due to an understandable cognitive dissonance causing some of the aforementioned gifted many to believe, falsely, that the prohibitions against run-on sentences no longer apply — or even, scare bleu, that it’s actually more stylish to cram an entire thought into a single overstuffed sentence than to break it up into a series of shorter sentences that a human gullet might conceivably be able to croak out within a single breath.

May I consider that last point made and move on? Or would you prefer that I continue to ransack my conjunctions closet so I can tack on more clauses? My neighborhood watch group has its shared baby to bathe, people.

It’s my considered opinion that the ubiquity of grammatical errors in queries and submissions to agencies may be attributable to not one cause, but two. Yes, some writers may never have learned the relevant rules, but others’ conceptions of what those rules are may have become blunted by continually seeing them misapplied.

Wait — you’re just going to take my word for that? Really? Have you lovely people become too jaded by the pervasiveness or sweeping generalizations regarding the decline of grammar in English to find damning analysis presented without a shred of corroborative evidence eye-popping? Or to consider lack of adequate explanation of what I’m talking about even a trifle eyebrow-raising?

Welcome to Millicent’s world, my friends. You wouldn’t believe how queries, synopses, and opening pages of manuscripts seem to have been written with the express intention of hiding more information from a screener than they divulge. They also, unfortunately, often contain enough spelling, grammar, and even clarity problems that poor Millie’s left perplexed.

Doubt that? Okay, let’s examine a not-uncommon take on the book description paragraph from a query letter:

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty eight year old out of work pop diva turned hash slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself. Fiercely pursuing her dreams despite a dizzying array of obstacles, she struggles to have it all in a world seemingly determined to take it all away. Can she find her way through her maze of options while still being true to herself?

Excuse me, but if no one minds my asking, what is this book about? You must admit, other than that long string of descriptors in the first sentence, it’s all pretty vague. Where is this story set? What is its central conflict? What is Pandora running from — or towards — and why? And what about this story is better conveyed through hackneyed phrasing — running from her past, true to herself — than could be expressed through original writing?

On the bright side, Millicent might not stick with this query long through enough to identify the clich? use and maddening vagueness as red flags. Chances are, the level of hyphen abuse in that first sentence would cause her to turn pale, draw unflattering conclusions about the punctuation in the manuscript being offered, and murmur, “Next!”

I sense some of you turning pale at the notion that she might read so little of an otherwise well-crafted query, but be honest, please. Are you wondering uneasily how she could possibly make up her mind so fast — or wondering what about that first sentence would strike a professional reader as that off-putting?

If it’s the latter, here’s a hint: she might well have lasted to be irritated by the later ambiguity if the first sentence had been punctuated like this.

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty-eight-year-old out-of-work pop-diva-turned-hash-slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself.

Better, isn’t it? While we’re nit-picking, the TITLE is the story of… is now widely regarded as a rather ungraceful introduction to a query’s descriptive paragraph. Or as an opening for a synopsis, for that matter. Since Millicent and her boss already know that the purpose of both is — wait for it — to describe the book, why waste valuable page space telling them that what is about to appear in the place they expect to see a book description is in fact a book description?

There’s a larger descriptive problem here, though. If the querier had not attempted to shove all of those multi-part descriptive clauses out of the main body of the sentence, the question of whether to add hyphens or not would have been less pressing. Simply moving the title to the query’s opening paragraph, too, would help relieve the opening sentence of its heavy conceptual load. While we’re at it, why not give a stronger indication of the book’s subject matter?

As a great admirer of your client, A. New Author, I am writing in the hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction manuscript, OPAQUE. Like Author’s wonderful debut, ABSTRUSE, my novel follows a powerful, resourceful woman from the public spotlight to obscurity and back again.

By the tender age of twenty-eight, pop sensation Pandora has already become a has-been. Unable to book a single gig, she drives around the back roads of Pennsylvania in disguise until she finds refuge slinging hash in a roadside diner.

Hooray — Millicent’s no longer left to speculate what the book’s about! Now that the generalities and stock phrases have been replaced with specifics and original wording, she can concentrate upon the story being told. Equally important, she can read on without having to wonder uneasily if the manuscript will be stuffed to the proverbial gills with typos, and thus would not be ready for her boss, the agent of your dreams, to circulate to publishing houses.

While I appreciate the refreshing breeze coming from so many heads being shaken simultaneously, I suspect it indicates that not everyone instantly spotted why a professional reader would so vastly prefer the revised versions to the original. “I do like how you’ve unpacked that overburdened first sentence, Anne,” some brave souls volunteer, “but I have to say, the way you have been moving hyphens around puzzles me. Sometimes, I’ve seen similar phrases hyphenated, but sometimes, they’re not. I thought we were striving for consistency here!”

Ah, a common source of confusion: we’re aiming for consistency in applying the rules, not trying, as so many aspiring writers apparently do, to force the same set of words to appear identically on the page every time it is used. The first involves learning the theory so you can use it appropriately across a wide variety of sentences; the second entails an attempt to memorize how certain phrases appear in print, in an attempt to avoid having to learn the theory.

Trust me, learning the rules will be substantially less time-consuming in the long run than guessing. Not to mention more likely to yield consistent results. Oh, and in the case of hyphens, just trying to reproduce how you saw a phrase used elsewhere will often steer you wrong.

Why? Stop me if this sounds familiar: anyone who reads much these days, especially online, routinely sees more than his share of hyphen abuse. Hyphens crop up where they don’t belong; even more frequently, they are omitted where their inclusion would clarify compound phrasing. No wonder writers — who, after all, tend to read quite a bit more than most people, and certainly read with a closer eye for picking up style tips — sometimes become confused.

And frankly, queries, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts reflect that confusion. You’d be amazed at how often aspiring writers will, on a single page, hyphenate a phrase correctly on line 5, yet neglect to add a hyphen to a similar phrase on line 18. Or even, believe it or not, present the same phrase used in precisely the same manner in two different ways.

Which raises an intriguing question, doesn’t it? Based on that page, how could Millicent tell whether a sentence was improperly punctuated because the writer was in a hurry and just didn’t notice a one-time typo in line 18 — or if the writer didn’t know the rule in the first place, but guessed correctly on line 5? The fact is, she can’t.

That’s a shame, really, as this type of typo/rule wobbling/dizzying confusion can distract the reader from the substance and style of the writing. To see how and why, take a gander at a sterling little passage in which this inadvertent eye-attractor abounds.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. ”

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Okay, okay, so Millicent seldom sees so many birds of a feather flocking together (While I’m at it, you look mahvalous, you wild and crazy guy, and that’s hot. And had I mentioned that Millie, like virtually every professional reader, has come to hate clich?s with a passion most people reserve for rattlesnake bites, waiting in line at the D.M.V., and any form of criticism of their writing skills?) In queries and synopses, our gaffe du jour is be spotted traveling solo, often in summary statements like this:

At eight-years-old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Or as its evil twin:

Alphonse was an eight year old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Am I correct in assuming that if either of these sentences appeared before your bloodshot eyes in the course of an ordinary day’s reading, a hefty majority of you would simply shrug and read on? May I further presume that if at least a few of you noticed one or both of these sentences whilst reading your own query IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, as one does, you might either shrug again or not be certain how to revise it?

Do I hear you laughing, or is Tyrone at it again? “I know what the problem is, Anne!” experienced query- and synopsis-writers everywhere shout, chuckling. “Savvy writers everywhere know that in a query’s book description, it’s perfectly acceptable to introduce a character like this:

Alphonse (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk.

“As you will notice, it’s also in the present tense, as the norms of query book descriptions dictate. By the same token, the proper way to alert Millicent that a new character has just cropped up in a synopsis involves presenting his or her name in all capital letters the first time it appears, followed by his or her age in parentheses. While I’m sure you’d like to linger to admire our impeccable subject-object agreement in that last sentence, I’m sure readers new to synopsis-writing would like to see what the technique described in the first sentence of this paragraph would look like in print, so here it is:

ALPHONSE (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk — and now that a tragic Tonka Toy accident has left him temporarily unable to walk or swim, what is he going to do with his time?

I’m impressed at how clearly you’ve managed to indicate what is and is not an example in your verbal statements, experienced ones, but we’re straying from the point a little, are we not? Not using parentheses to show a character’s age in a book description is hardly an instant-rejection offense, and eschewing the ALL CAPS (age) convention is unlikely to derail a well-constructed synopsis at submission time. (Sorry, lovers of absolute pronouncements: both of these are matters of style.)

Those are sophisticated critiques, however; I was hoping you would spot the basic errors here. Basically, the writer immortalizing Alphonse’s triumphs and tribulations has gotten the rule backwards. Those first two examples should have read like this:

At eight years old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Alphonse was an eight-year-old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Does that look right to you? If so, can you tell me why it looks right to you?

And no, Virginia, neither “Because you said it was right, Anne!” nor “I just know correct punctuation when I see it!” would constitute useful responses here. To hyphenate or not to hyphenate, that is the question.

The answer, I hope you will not be astonished to hear, depends upon the role the logically-connected words are playing in an individual sentence. The non-hyphenated version is a simple statement of fact: Alphonse is, we are told, eight years old. Or, to put it another way, in neither that last sentence or our first example does eight years old modify a noun.

In our second example, though, eight-year-old is acting as a compound adjective, modifying boy, right? The hyphens tell the reader that the entire phrase should be taken as a conceptual whole, then applied to the noun. If the writer wanted three distinct and unrelated adjectives to be applied to the noun, he should have separated them with commas.

The small, freckle-faced, and tenacious boy flung himself into the pool, eager to join the fray.

Are you wondering why I hyphenated freckle-faced? Glad you asked. The intended meaning arises from the combination of these two words: freckle-faced is describing the boy here. If I had wanted the reader to apply the two words independently to the noun, I could have separated them by commas, but it would be nonsensical to say the freckle, faced boy, right?

Applying the same set of principles to our old friend Pandora, then, we could legitimately say:

Pandora is an out-of-work diva.

The diva is a has-been; she is out of work.

Out-of-work has-been seeks singing opportunity.

Let’s talk about why. In the first sentence, the hyphens tell the reader that Pandora isn’t an out diva and an of diva and a work diva — she’s an out-of-work diva. In the second sentence, though, out of work does not modify diva; it stands alone. Has-been, however, stands together in Sentence #2: the hyphen transforms the two verbs into a single noun. In the third sentence, that same noun is modified by out-of-work.

Getting the hang of it? Okay, let’s gather our proofreading tools and revisit Tyrone, Hortense, and Ghislaine, a couple of paragraphs at a time.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

Some of that punctuation looked pretty strange to you, I hope. Let’s try applying the rules.

“All of this build-up we’ve talked about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the tabletop build-up of wax at the drive-in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed in on the sign-in sheet. “I know she’s stepped in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick up my backpack and run away through my back door to my back yard. ”

Hortense revved her pick-up truck’s engine, the better to drive through and thence to drive into the parking space. “That’s because Anne built up your hopes in a much-talked-about runaway attempt to back up her argument.”

All of those changes made sense, I hope. Since drive-in is used as a noun — twice, even — it takes a hyphen, but when the same words are operating as a verb plus a preposition (Hortense is driving into a parking space), a hyphen would just be confusing. Similarly, when Tyrone signed in, he’s performing the act of signing upon the sign-in sheet. He and his friends talked about the build-up, but Hortense uses much-talked-about to describe my runaway attempt. Here, back is modifying the nouns door and yard, but if we were talking about a backdoor argument or a backyard fence, the words would combine to form an adjective.

And a forest of hands sprouts out there in the ether. “But Anne, I notice that some of the compound adjectives are hyphenated, but some become single words. Why runaway, backpack, and backyard, but pick-up truck and sign-in sheet?”

Because English is a language of exceptions, that’s why. It’s all part of our rich and wonderful linguistic heritage.

Which is why, speaking of matters people standing on either side of the publishing wall often regard differently, it so often comes as a genuine shock to agents and editors when they meet an aspiring writer who says he doesn’t have time to read. To a writer, this may seem like a simple matter of time management — those of us in favor with the Muses don’t magically gain extra hours in the day, alas — but from the editorial side of the conversation, it sounds like a serious drawback to being a working writer. How on earth, the pros wonder, can a writer hope to become conversant with not only the stylistic norms and storytelling conventions of his chosen book category, but the ins and outs of our wildly diverse language, unless he reads a great deal?

While you’re weighing both sides of that potent issue, I’m going to slip the next set of uncorrected text in front of you. Where would you make changes?

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

Have your edits firmly in mind? Compare them to this:

At her lived-in post at the drive-through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick-up sticks. “Hey, lay off. You mean build-up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head into this head-in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned-out coworker could tune out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the backdoor logic — it’s the runaway pace.”

How did you do? Admittedly, the result is still a bit awkward — and wasn’t it interesting how much more obvious the style shortcomings are now that the punctuation has been cleaned up? That’s the way it is with revision: lift off one layer of the onion, and another waits underneath.

In response to what half of you just thought: yes, polishing all of the relevant layers often does require repeated revision. Contrary to popular myth, most professional writing goes through multiple drafts before it hits print — and professional readers tend to be specifically trained to read for several different types of problem at the same time. So as tempting as it might be to conclude that if Millicent is distracted by offbeat punctuation, she might overlook, say, a characterization issue, it’s unlikely to work out that way in practice.

With that sobering reality in mind, let’s move on to the next section.

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. “

I broke the excerpt there for a reason: did you happen to catch the unwarranted space between the final period and the quotation marks? A trifle hard to spot on a backlit screen, was it not? See why I’m always urging you to read your work IN HARD COPY and IN ITS ENTIRETY before you slip it under Millicent’s notoriously sharp-but-overworked eyes?

And see what I did there? Believe me, once you get into the compound adjectival phrase habit, it’s addictive.

I sense some of you continue to shake off the idea that proofing in hard copy (and preferably by reading your work OUT LOUD) is more productive than scanning it on a computer screen. Okay, doubters: did you notice the partially deleted word in that last excerpt’s second sentence? Did you spot it the first time you went through this scene, when I presented it as an unbroken run of dialogue?

The nit-picky stuff counts, folks. Here’s that passage again, with the small matters resolved. This time, I’m going to tighten the text a bit as well.

“Oh, pick up your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick-up’s back door behind her — a good trick, as she had previously been sitting in the driver’s seat. “We’re due to do over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back-up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste to the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed up! “Just give me time to back out of the room. I have lived in too many places where people walk into built-in walk-in closets, and wham! They’re trapped. “

Still not precisely Shakespeare, but at least the punctuation is no longer screaming at Millicent, “Run away! Run away!” (And in case the three times this advice has already floated through the post today didn’t sink in, when was the last time you backed up your writing files? Do you have a recent back-up stored somewhere other than your home?)

The text is also no longer pointing out — and pretty vehemently, too — that if her boss did take on this manuscript, someone at the agency would have to be assigned to proofread every draft of it. That’s time-consuming, and to be blunt about it, not really the agent’s job. And while it is indeed the copyeditor’s job to catch typos before the book goes to press, generally speaking, agents and editors both routinely expect manuscripts to be thoroughly proofread before they first.

Which once again leads us to different expectations prevailing in each of the concentric circles surrounding publishing. To many, if not most, aspiring writers, the notion that they would be responsible for freeing their manuscripts of typos, checking the spelling, and making sure the grammar is impeccable seems, well, just a trifle crazy. Isn’t that what editors do?

From the professional reader’s side of the equation, though, it’s practically incomprehensible that any good writer would be willing to send out pages — or a query — before ascertaining that it was free of typos. Everyone makes ‘em, so why not set aside time to weed ‘em out? You want your writing to appear to its best advantage, right?

Hey, I’m walking you through this long exercise for a reason. Let’s take another stab at developing those proofreading skills.

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Did you catch the extra space in the last sentence, after the comma? Wouldn’t that have been easier to spot in hard copy?

Admit it: now that you’re concentrating upon it, the hyphen abuse is beginning to annoy you a bit, isn’t it? Congratulations: that means you are starting to read like a professional. You’ll pardon me, then, if I not only correct the punctuation this time around, but clear out some of the conceptual redundancy as well. While I’m at it, I’ll throw a logical follow-up question into the dialogue.

“Can we have a do-over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in line for in-line skates.”

“What do skates have to do with anything?” Tyrone snapped.

“To escape if we run into overtime. At this rate, our boss will walk in with that pasted-on grin, take one look at our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay-off list.”

Hey, just because we’re concentrating on the punctuation layer of the textual onion doesn’t mean we can’t also give a good scrub to some of the lower layers. Let’s keep peeling, shall we?

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Quite a bit to trim there, eh? Notice, please, how my initial desire to be cute by maximizing phrase repetition drags down the pace on subsequent readings. It’s quite common for a writer’s goals for a scene to change from draft to draft; to avoid ending up with a Frankenstein manuscript, inconsistently voiced due to multiple partial revisions, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of rereading every scene — chant it with me now, folks — IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and, ideally, OUT LOUD after each revision.

Here’s how it might read after a switch in authorial agenda — and an increase of faith in the reader’s intelligence. If Hortense is able to walk into the closet and stay there for paragraphs on end, mightn’t the reader be trusted to pick up that it’s a walk-in closet?

Hortense vanished into the closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut-rate social analyst, is the lounge where we lounge in our loungewear? I’d hate to cut through the rules and regulations.”

“Has she gone nuts?” Tyrone whispered.

“That’s what you get,” Ghislaine muttered under her breath, “for complaining about Anne’s advice. She’s only trying to help writers like us identify patterns in our work, you know.”

A button-down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “I don’t think the build-up for Anne’s larger point is our greatest problem at the moment. Right now, I’m worried that she’s trapped us in a scene with a maniac.”

“Don’t forget to button your shirt to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grab you a jacket.”

“Tremendous,” she called back. Scooting close to Tyrone, she added in an undertone, “If Anne doesn’t end the scene soon, we can always lock Hortense in the closet. That would force an abrupt end to the scene.”

“I vote for a more dramatic resolution.” He caught her in his arms. “Run away with me to Timbuktu.”

She kissed him enthusiastically. “Well, I didn’t see that coming in previous drafts”.

The moral, should you care to know it, is that a writer needn’t think of proofreading, much less revision, as a sterile, boring process in revisiting what’s already completely conceived. Every time you reread your own writing, be it in a manuscript draft or query, contest entry or synopsis, provides you with another opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. Rather than clinging stubbornly to your initial vision for the scene, why not let the scene evolve, if it likes?

That’s hard for any part of a manuscript to do, though, if its writer tosses off an initial draft without going back to it from time to time. Particularly in a first book, storylines tend to alter as the writing progresses; narrative voices grow and change. Getting into the habit of proofreading can provide not only protection against the ravages of Millicent’s gimlet eye, but also make it easier to notice if one part of the manuscript to reflect different authorial goals and voice choices than other parts.

How’s the writer to know that if he hasn’t read his own book lately? Or, for that matter, his own query?

This is not, I suspect, the conclusion any of the fine people who suggested I examine hyphen abuse presumed my post would have. But that’s what keeps the conversation interesting: continually revisiting the same topics of common interest from fresh angles. Keep up the good work!

Before you send out that query, will you do something for me? Please? Or do I need to call out the kraken?

As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while are, I hope, already aware, I’m no fan of one-size-fits all querying advice. Or generic writing rules allegedly applicable to all writing everywhere, for that matter. While there are indeed some standard expectations hovering above the querying process — keep it to a single page; be polite; include your contact information; tell the nice agent what kind of book it is, and so forth — I have for seven years now been a tireless advocate of the notion that there’s no such thing as a query that will appeal to every agent, every time.

Certainly not one that will withstand mass mass-mailing to every agent in Christendom with no more fine-tuning between strikings of the SEND key than a change in the salutation from Dear Mr. Representativeson to Dear Ms. Choosemenow. Yet as someone who regularly blogs about querying, teaches classes on it, and offers one-on-one consultation to writers trying to improve their querying chances, I regularly encounter would-be queriers absolutely outraged at the mere suggestion that learning enough about an agent’s sales record and client list to be able to personalize the missive might conceivably be more effective than simply sending the same thing to everyone.

The personalized route is demonstrably more effective, incidentally, but try telling that to an eager would-be author determined to send out 200 queries within the next week and a half. There’s no one so sure of what he is doing than someone that’s learned only the bare minimum requirements for a query and thinks that any old agent will do.

Also not true, by the way: agents specialize by fiction vs. nonfiction, book category, and often by writing style or narrative worldview as well. Narrowing their sales focus enables them to pitch their existing clients’ work more effectively to their already-established network of editorial connections.

But try explaining that to a determined writer who’s promised herself, her kith and kin, and the New Year’s Resolution Fairy that she’s going to land an agent for her novel, darn it, before Easter or perish of exhaustion in the attempt. No matter how gently those of us who handle manuscripts for a living break the news that in practice, there’s no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for even the best-written book in a category her boss simply does not represent, she’ll cling to the belief that while there’s a stone left unturned, she hasn’t yet given it her best shot.

I have also not been particular quiet about my belief that, contrary to online popular opinion, it does not make either creative or strategic sense to approach people looking for original writing and innovative ideas by lifting a prefab query template, plugging your book’s information into it as if it were a Mad Lib, and merrily send the result to the agent of your dreams. Usually, all that achieves is causing Millicent the agency screener’s eyes to glaze over, because, let’s face it, the 712th reading of a stock phrase like my novel is complete at XX,XXX words is no more likely to strike anyone as startlingly beautiful writing than the 12,453rd.

But try explaining that to someone cranking out Query No. 84 out of a projected 217. “But I saw it in an example online!” these well-intentioned souls will shout, wiping the sweat from their eyes as they lick the next envelope — or, even more often, pound the SEND key yet again. “If it didn’t work, why would it be posted to help people like me?”

Oh, where do I even start with that one? Perhaps by keeping it simple: despite the apparently astonishingly pervasive belief that all of the writing/querying/submission advice online is equally credible, it isn’t. Furthermore, there’s no Ambrosia, the Good Agent or Euphemia, the Good Editor floating over the ether, whacking incorrect or, even more common, insufficiently explained online guidance with their magic wands, transforming misguided self-described words of wisdom into something actually useful.

Believe it or not, the ideas put forth in that last paragraph reliably generate controversy in querying classes, in the comment section of post on querying, and, indeed, in pretty much any writers’ conference in North America. Which is funny, because often, the very aspiring writers most vehement about a particular theory on querying success tend to be those most irritated by the diversity of opinion they’ve turned up online. It’s hard to blame them, really: if you want to hear fifteen different views on querying, each presenting itself as the authoritative last word, all you have to do is traipse into a class, conference, or online forum and ask to be told what to do.

I accept all that, after all these years. That’s why I always provide such extensive explanations for any querying — or submission, or writing, or editing — strategy I urge you to embrace: as an established blogger, I’ve learned from experience that savvy writers new to the game are often juggling conflicting advice from multiple sources. I would never dream of asking smart people to take my advice just because I say so.

It may come as a surprise, then, that today, I’m going to give you some querying advice that I do in fact expect everyone within the sound of my fingertips tapping on my keyboard to take as much to heart as if Ambrosia, Euphemia, and the New Year’s Resolution Fairy all appeared above your writing desk, chanting it in three-part harmony: never, under any circumstances, send out a query letter without having both spell-checked and proofread it.

I hear some of you chuckling, thinking it would never occur to you to hit SEND or pop a query in the mail without double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking that it was free of typos and grammatical errors. Would you still think it was safe to shrug off this rule if I added and you should do this every time, even if you’re sending out essentially the same query letter ?

Ah, you’ve stopped laughing now, haven’t you? At some point in his checkered career, virtually every aspiring writer has just churned out two or more query letters that closely resembled each other. With the entirely predictable result that the Millicent working for agent Sharpeye McNitpicker at Literary Giants Literary Management has frequently opened an envelope to find an opening like this:

Selectivity Exclusiveberg
Seldompicksupanewclient & Jones Literary Agency
1234 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10000

Dear Mr. Exclusiveberg:

Well might you gasp, but honestly, when you’re mailing off a lot of queries all at once, it’s pretty easy to shove one into the wrong envelope. And, lest those of you planning to query via e-mail be feeling smug, it’s even easier to copy an earlier query and forget to change the salutation. Imagine Sharpeye’s Millicent’s facial expression upon finding this in her inbox:

Dear Mr. Exclusiveberg,

Since you so ably represented Rookie T. Neophyte’s MY FIRST NOVEL, I am hoping you will be interested in my mainstream novel…

It wouldn’t take the proverbial rocket scientist to figure out what happened here — clearly, our querier had just sent off a query to the excellent Mr. Exclusiveberg. Millicent would realize that, of course. Think about it, though: if you were Sharpeye’s loyal screener, wouldn’t you be just a trifle annoyed at this querier’s lack of attention to detail? Wouldn’t you be inclined to leap to the conclusion that a writer this overwhelmed by the querying process, however understandably, would also feel flummoxed by the often-intimidating submission process? Or the sales process, or the publication process? Wouldn’t you be likely to suspect that this querier might be just a trifle more time-consuming for your boss to represent than someone who took the time to make sure the right query went to the right agent?

And while I’m asking rhetorical questions about your feelings about a job you don’t currently have, wouldn’t you also feel the urge to hit DELETE the 926th time you saw a query addressed to your nice female boss like this:

Dear Mr. McNitpicker:

Congratulations on your continued success in representing Bigwig Z. Bestseller’s thrillers. My thriller, DERIVATIVE? YOU BET! is very much in the same tradition.

Here, our querier has correctly identified one of Sharpeye’s clients, but has obviously not bothered to read her bio — which, as any true admirer of Ms. McNitpicker would happily tell you, repeatedly and correctly refers to her agenting triumphs via the feminine pronoun. Because her name might conceivably refer to someone either male or female, her Millicent has also rolled her eyes over many an otherwise well-crafted query that has tried to hedge by using both names:

Dear Sharpeye McNitpicker,

Or by embracing a too-familiar tone in the query overall, presumably to justify dispensing with the honorific altogether in favor of the first name:

Dear Sharpeye,

I love your blog! And while we’re talking about great writing, why not take a look at my memoir, REMINISCENCES OF A NARCISSIST? It’s so fantastic, it’ll blow your mind.

Now that you’ve been toddling along in Millicent’s moccasins for a few examples, it may not completely astonish you to learn that all of these are usually instant-rejection offenses. If a screener saw any of them only once in the proverbial blue moon, she might be amused enough to let it pass, but if she toils at a large agency or screens for an agent that represents a bestselling author, she might well see each of these several faux pas crop up several times per week.

If not per day. But try telling that to a querier who thinks he’s cleverly avoided the Scylla of gender misidentification by steering straight for the Charybdis of unprofessionalism.

Oh, you thought I chose today’s opening illustration at random? Would that be in keeping with my notoriously close attention to detail?

The strong likelihood of misaddressing the agent of your dreams, or at any rate, his hardworking Millicent. is not the only reason that I would urge you to read your queries — feel free to sing along with me here, long-time readers — EACH TIME IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD, however, even though we all know that’s the best way to catch any mistakes. Beautifully-addressed queries frequently run afoul of yet another beastie haunting agency waterways.

Instead of just warning you of the monster’s existence, let’s see if you can spot it in its natural habitat. To give it a sporting chance of escaping, I’ve allowed it to swim freely around a hard-copy query. If you’re experiencing trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Not the world’s easiest missive to read, is it? But just try explaining that to the lover of fonts who is absolutely convinced that choosing an off-the-wall typeface will make her query stand out from the crowd. And she’s right: it will — for the font and nothing else.

Remember, part of what a writer demonstrates in a query is a reasonable willingness to conform to the expectations of the publishing industry. In that spirit, here’s that query again in 12-point Times New Roman, the industry standard. Notice how much more room Wacky has to make her case with a smaller font.

How gratifying to see so many hands flung skyward. Yes, eagle-eyed readers? “But Anne,” those of you conversant with my HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER FROM SCRATCH series bellow triumphantly, “there are quite a few things wrong with this letter! It doesn’t contain a date, for one thing, and Wacky’s e-mail address appears in blue, a Word AutoFormat correction that’s notoriously annoying to screeners. Nor does it include Wacky’s phone number. Shouldn’t a savvy querier be making it easier, not harder, for an agent to contact him? Her? What kind of a name is Wacky, anyway?”

You’re quite right, bellowers: I had asked you a trick question — this query does contain several red flags, even with the more legible font. Any of you bright people want to tell me why not including a date on a regular mail query might trigger rejection?

Help yourself to a gold star from petty cash if you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Because an undated letter might have been sent anytime! That makes it seem as though — sacre bleu! — Wacky has been reusing the same query for every agent she’s approached, changing only the address, salutation, and work to be praised!” This is a notorious agents’ pet peeve, dating from the pre-personal computer days when aspiring writers would write what were known as Dear Agent letters, photocopy a hundred of them, and mail them to every agency in New York.

Today, the personal computer renders the same tactic much easier to disguise, but still, why advertise it? While writing a basic query letter and personalizing parts of it for each agent is in fact quite a clever strategy, it defeats the purpose if the letter’s lack of a date indicates that it’s a multi-purpose document. Maintain the illusion; even though Millicent knows perfectly well that with the current practice of not answering queries if an agent does not want to request a manuscript, she’ll appreciate the courtesy.

Did you happen to notice, though, the dead giveaway that Wacky had not proofread this query — and thus, Millicent might be within her rights to extrapolate, might not have proofread his manuscript, either? If you didn’t catch the repeated problem, try going back and reading the query out loud.

Did you spot the multiple dropped words that time? Whenever text is composed quickly, there’s a danger of the head’s moving faster than the fingers, resulting in skipped words, punctuation, and even sentences. And perhaps I’ve been misinformed, but when writers are composing something they don’t really want to write — like, say, a query letter or synopsis — they do tend to rush the job.

That’s not the only reason this problem has become ubiquitous in queries in the home computer age, however. As you may perhaps have heard, savvy queriers often compose a basic query letter, then personalize it for each recipient. With every cut, paste, and added word, the chances of cutting a necessary element without noticing it rise.

I sense a few more raised hands out there in the ether. “But Anne, even with the missing elements, it’s perfectly clear what Wacky wanted to say here. His story sounds like an interesting one, although like many readers, I may well be thinking of it rather differently now that I know it to have been written by a man than a woman. That’s a topic for another day, however. At the moment, what I really want to know is if Millicent is reading Wacky’s query very quickly, anyway, isn’t it possible that she might, you know, overlook the missing words?”

It’s possible, I suppose, remotely so. It’s also remotely possible that by the time we wake up tomorrow, the literary world will have decided that sentence fragments are much, much cooler to read than complete sentences.

And then. We’ll all. Be writing. Like this.

Even if the world changes so much that cats develop opposable thumbs and begin turning up as dealers at poker tables, though, the possibility that dropped words, repeated phrases, misspelled words, clich? use, and other line-level red flags will fall off Millicent’s to-scan-for list within our lifetimes remains so remote that we should probably stop speculating about it and start worrying about those kitties.

The publishing world appreciates good writing, and that means preferring clean, polished prose to, well, the other kind. But just try explaining that to a writer that believes, as so many aspiring writers apparently do, that agency denizens will be willing to look past problematic writing in a query. It’s only fair to judge a writer on the writing in the manuscript, right?

I can see why a writer might feel that way: a query, like a synopsis or a book proposal, calls for a different kind of writing than a novel or nonfiction manuscript. But just try explaining that to Millicent, whose job is predicated, at least in part upon the assumption that it is not only possible but probable that someone who can write a book well can also produce a graceful letter. Or synopsis. Or book proposal.

Oh, dear — should I have told you to sit down before I mentioned that?

Writers trying to break into the biz seldom think about it this way, but at the querying stage, the only basis Millicent has to judge writing quality and talent is, you guessed it, the query letter. If that doesn’t strike her as well-written — or if, as we saw in that last example, it doesn’t seem to have been either proofread or put together with the level of care her agency expects from its writing clients — she will reject it.

And no, in response to what many of you just thought very loudly, she’s not allowed to treat a query like our last example as her own Mad Lib, filling in the spaces with words of her own. That would be judging her writing, not yours.

To be fair, though, she might not have noticed all of the dropped words here, for the exceedingly simple reason that she might not have kept reading after the first or second gap. Once she’s noticed a red flag or two, she’ll generally stop reading and move on to the next query. That’s often the case, incidentally, even if the agency in question’s submission requirements allow queriers to include a synopsis, book proposal, or the first few pages of the book in the query packet. Since the query will be the first thing Millicent reads in it– remember how easy it is for her to reject a type of book her boss does not habitually represent? — if its not well-written, she’s unlikely to peruse anything else. Next!

Which comes as almost as great a surprise to most first-time queriers as the majority of manuscripts’ being rejected on page 1 comes to most first-time submitters, I’ve noticed. Why ask for pages, both parties wonder, unless someone’s going to read them?

Good question, and one with a good answer: so they will be handy. If the screener likes the query, why, she can turn immediately to those opening pages; if she finds the first few pages of the manuscript gripping, she doesn’t have to e-mail the writer to get to read the rest of the book.

While that’s sinking in, let me call on the disgruntled souls that have had their hands in the air since I first broached the subject of Millicent’s eye for sentence-level detail. “But Anne,” they mutter, and can we really blame them? “I get why Millie might have taken umbrage at that last example — she would have had to fill in the missing words herself, and that’s not really her job. As you say, she can only judge the writing by what’s in front of her. But you mentioned typos. Surely, we all see enough of those even in published writing these days that she’s going to see them for what they are, slips of fingers in a hurry, not as deliberate mistakes.”

I’d urge you to try to make that case to someone who reads hundreds of queries per day, but frankly, I don’t think you’d have a chance of convincing a professional reader. Agents, editors, contest judges, and Millicents are specifically charged with noticing the small stuff, after all; it’s part of their job not to look past textual errors. And realistically, given only a page of writing, how on earth could a screener tell whether the writer used the wrong form of there, their, and they’re because he was in a hurry, or because hadn’t learned the rules governing their use?

Or, almost as serious from a publishing perspective, if simply thought it didn’t matter, because someone else would be proofreading his work down the line? Wouldn’t that mean that if the agency signed that writer, they could not ever send out so much as a page of his writing without reading it first? Wouldn’t that prove problematic if an editor asked for a quick revision?

Then, too, it doesn’t pay to underestimate how distracting those of us that read for a living find small gaffes. How distracting, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: since I’m fond of you fine people, I’m not willing to run the risk that even a single one of you might not be aware of how to decide when to use some of the more commonly mixed-up words. Just for the record, then:

There = in that place
Their = belonging to them
They’re = they are

It’s = it is
Its = belonging to it

Mom = the name one might conceivably call one’s mother
her mom = the lady in question’s mother
her Mom = an improper use of capitalization. Generally speaking, only proper names should be capitalized — and if you mention a city, country, or named institution in your query, make sure it is spelled correctly.

Speaking of institutions, person graduates from a school, not graduates college.

Whew, I feel better for having gotten all of that off my chest. Oh, what a relief it is. Today is the first day of the rest of my life, and all’s well that end’s well. While we’re at it, where’s the beef?

Sick of it yet? Millicent is — and to be completely honest, she’s puzzled. Why, she finds herself wondering over query after query, would a talented writer waste perfectly good page space by including even a single stock phrase, rather than original phrasing? Isn’t the point of any writing sample — and make no mistake, every syllable a writer sends to an agency is indeed a writing sample — to show how you would phrase things, not how any random person on the street might?

I’m sensing some nervous shifting in chairs, am I not? “Gee, Anne,” those of you gearing up to send out a few queries murmur under your respective breaths, “all of this is making me self-conscious. I feel as though my query is going to be examined under a microscope.”

Not the most original of concepts, murmurers, but I understand the feeling. I have to say, I’m rather pleased to hear that you’re getting antsy — it means you have an accurate understanding of just how important the writing in your query letter is to your chances of interesting an agent in your work.

Had I mentioned that you might want to invest a little time in proofreading?

To give you some practice, and to help convince the few of you out there who I can feel trying to shrug off this advice, here is Wacky’s query again, with the problems we have been discussing cleaned up.

Not a bad little query, is it? Now here it is again, after having come down with a severe case of the typos. Do you find the addition of the gaffes distracting? If you were Millicent, would you read it all the way to the end? (My apologies about the spacing at the bottom; there actually is a margin there, but my pesky finger slipped while I was capturing the image. And yes, I know that excuse wouldn’t fly with a screener.)

Ooh, that was painful to produce. I could have sworn that my fingertips were about to burst into flame when I typed their instead of there. I had meant to use — ow! — an apostrophe + s form a — it burns! It burns! — plural, but my weak frame wasn’t up to it.

Be honest, though: you had only seen that last version, wouldn’t you have assumed that Wacky wasn’t the world’s best writer? And if you’d been sitting in Millicent’s chair, wouldn’t you have been tempted to call, “Next!” even though the book sounded like it might be fun to read?

Or didn’t you notice that the story seemed like a hoot, because your eye kept flying to those typos? And if so, would you like to try explaining that to Wacky, or shall I?

Proofread, people. In your query’s entirety, preferably in hard copy and out loud. And, as always, keep up the good work!

“Thanks for the cookies Millicent,” “What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” and other easily-averted holiday faux pas

This time of year, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver sees it all the time: a reason to move otherwise good girls and boys from the Nice to the Naughty list. Yet often, as both he and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, know only too well, the difference between a properly-punctuated sentence and one that is, well, not, lies in a simple slip of the writer’s finger — or lack of one. Take a gander at the type of hastily-scrawled note that often greets our St. Nick.

Hello Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy. Wow do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

No wonder the otherwise jolly elf weeps at the sight: clearly, the Punctuation Vacuum has beaten him to this household. Either that, or Janie has really, really lazy fingers. The note he had expected to see nestled next to a plate of cookies would have read like this:

Hello, Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy. Wow, do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

Let me guess: to many, if not most of you, these two notes are essentially identical: the words are the same, right, so the meaning must be? That’s an understandable interpretation, given how often we all now see direct address and exclamation commas omitted all the time. Indeed, some modes of electronic expression, such as news program bottom-of-the-screen crawls and Twitter, seem actively to discourage proper punctuation.

But that doesn’t make it right. Santa’s a stickler for rules.

As it happens, so are Millicent and those of us who edit for a living. Punctuation matters to us — and, frankly, folks in publishing tend to laugh when aspiring writers express the astonishingly pervasive opinion that it doesn’t.

Why the ho, ho, ho? Well, leaving aside the perfectly reasonable proposition that one of the basic requirements of a professional writer is the consistent production of clearly expressed, grammatically correct prose, in some cases, improper punctuation can alter a sentence’s meaning.

And that, boys and girls, can only harm self-expression. Take, for instance, the two faux pas in the title of this post.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Most readers would assume, as those of you who didn’t notice that commas had been purloined from Janie’s original note probably did, that what she actually meant to say was this:

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof? Reindeer?

That’s not what the first versions actually said, though, was it? Basically, Janie operated on a presumption evidently shared by an amazingly high percentage of queriers, literary contest entrants, and manuscript submitters: that it’s the reader’s job to figure out what the author probably meant, not the writer’s job to express it so clearly that there would be no question.

In practice, most of us are perfectly willing to translate casual communications into more comprehensible prose, at least mentally. People often tap out or scrawl notes in a hurry, or, since the advent of mobile electronic devices, under less-than-ideal conditions. It’s relatively safe, then, to presume that your third-best friend will understand if that text message you sent while hanging upside down from the monkey bars omitted a comma or two.

Writing intended for publication is expected to adhere to a higher standard, however: even an editor wowed by the sentiments expressed in that last set of examples would not seriously consider publishing them without revision. Although the rise of on-screen editing has increased the number of punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors that slip through editorial fingers and onto the printed page — nit-picks are significantly harder to catch on a backlit screen than in hard copy — no one who reads for a living would believe for a second that clarity and proper punctuation don’t matter. A manuscript that seems to imply that the writer believes they are unimportant not only is unlikely to impress a pro — to an experienced agent or editor, it simply screams that this is a writer who will require extra time, effort, and, yes, proofreading.

Why might that harm your submission’s chances? Think about it: if the agent of your dreams already has 127 clients, who is his Millicent more likely to regard as a viable candidate for #128, the writer who expects her to guess whether What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer? means what it literally says, or the writer whose prose is so clear that she’s not left in any doubt?

Remember, too, that your garden-variety agency screener or contest judge has very little of a writer’s prose upon which to judge talent and facility with language. How on earth could Millicent possibly know for certain whether the speaker of that first sentence was simply sliding back up the chimney while he was writing, and thus was too busy to devote the necessary thought to the beauty and rigors of proper punctuation, or simply was not aware of the relevant rules? She’s not allowed to base her reading upon what she guesses a writer meant, after all; she can only evaluate what’s actually on the page.

All of which is a nice way of saying: don’t expect her to cut you any slack. A writer familiar with the rules of punctuation and conscientious about applying them is simply less time-consuming for an agent to represent than one who believes that the fine points of how a sentence looks on the page doesn’t really matter. Someone at the manuscript’s future publishing house will take care of the copyediting, right?

Well, no. Not if Millicent or her boss, the agent of your dreams, stops reading after the second missing direct address comma on page 1.

Yes, really. Since this particular rule is pretty straightforward, it’s fairly common for screeners and contest judges to regard non-adherence — or, equally pervasive in submissions, uneven adherence — as an indicator of, if not necessarily poor grammar in the manuscript as a whole, then at least an authorial lack of attention to detail. Any guesses as to why detail-orientation would be a desirable trait in an agency’s client?

Slap a great, big gold star on your tree if you leapt to your feet, shouting, “By gum, a detail-oriented writer could be trusted to produce clean manuscripts!” You’re quite right, shouters: since few agencies employ in-house editors (although some agents do like to edit their clients’ pages), signing a writer who had already demonstrated that he regards the world as his proofreader would inevitably be a more time-consuming choice than snapping up one that could be relied upon to spell- and grammar-check his own manuscripts. On a revise-and-resubmit deadline too short for anyone at the agency to proof pages, that could be the difference between selling a book to a publisher and rejection.

Comma placement is starting to seem a trifle more relevant to your life, isn’t it? Fortunately, the rules governing direct address and exclamations are quite easy.

Hey, wake up. Were you aware that you were snoring, Janie?

There — that wasn’t so difficult, was it? Hey is an exclamation, so it is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. And because that second sentence was directly addressed to Janie, a comma appears between the rest of the sentence and her name.

Armed with those valuable precepts, let’s revisit the punctuation choices that made the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver choke on his milk and cookies — or cognac and truffles, as he always insisted on being left for him in the Mini household throughout my childhood. (My parents said that he deserved the upgrade for shinnying down our unusually small flue.) How do they look to you now?

Hello Santa.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy.

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Now that you’re looking for those commas, the paucity of them — and, I hope, the extra one in that last sentence — is distracting, is it not? Let’s talk about why. Sentences 1 and 4 are aimed at Santa and Millicent, respectively, right? The names are a tip-off that each requires a direct address comma.

Hello, Santa.

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

Sentence #2 is a bit trickier, since what Janie is calling the reader (old boy) is not a proper noun. If we don’t apply the direct address rule here, though, the most logical interpretation is actually this:

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave for the old boy.

Yet Janie’s household does not contain any old boy, or indeed any boys at all — and if Santa knows when they are sleeping and knows when they are awake, he must logically be aware of where said boys are sleeping, must he not? He might be forgiven, then, for finding this sentence perplexing. Fortunately, all it would take is a single stroke of the pen to render Janie’s intended meaning crystal clear.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy.

No question that the reader — Santa, presumably, if Janie’s been a good girl this year — is the old boy being addressed, right? Now that we’ve cleared up that cosmic mystery, what should we note-proofers do with this?

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Wow is an exclamation — and we have a rule for that, do we not? Let’s try applying it. While we’re at it, why not allow Janie’s punctuation to reflect the intensity of her gratitude?

Wow, do I ever appreciate it!

If you’re ever in doubt about whether an expression is sufficiently exclamatory to require separation from the rest of the sentence, here’s a nifty test: vehement exclamations can stand alone. As in:

Wow! Do I ever appreciate it!

Oh, my! What a beautifully-wrapped present!

Heavens! What an enormous cake! You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge!

What a difference a punctuation choice can make to a sentence’s meaning, eh? (See what I just did there? Eh is an exclamation, albeit not a particularly intense one.) A detail-oriented punctuator could become even more creative, depending upon context. Let’s have some fun.

Wow — do I ever appreciate it? I would have thought my reaction to your having given me a rabid wolverine last Christmas and the Christmas before would have told you that.

Oh, my, what a beautifully-wrapped present…if you happen to believe that bacon is an appropriate wrapping medium for a desk lamp.

Heavens, what an enormous cake. You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge: as much as we all enjoyed seeing your immediate family leap out of that enormous pie at Thanksgiving, that’s really the kind of surprise entrance that works only once, don’t you think?

Speaking of how punctuation can alter meaning, our remaining example presents some difficulties, doesn’t it? Let’s take another peek at it.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

At first glance, this may appear to be a proper use of direct address: the narrator was simply speaking to a reindeer that happened to be lingering nearby. In today’s incredibly rich fantasy novel market, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a context in which that comma use would make sense.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie shouted. “Your ears are better than mine.”

Blitzen shook his antlers in annoyance. “Ceilings are opaque, you know. I can only fly; I don’t have X-ray vision.”

However, being an intimate friend of the writer’s — we could hardly be closer — I know that the original sentence was tucked within a thriller. I ask you: does a direct address interpretation make sense here?

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie whispered.

The Easter Bunny did not bother to stop stuffing presents into his basket. “Oh, stop jumping at every sound. Santa’s not due for an hour.”

“I still say that we should have hidden in a closet,” the Tooth Fairy hissed, “and waited until after ol’ Kris dropped off the swag.”

“And let Fat Boy snag all the cookies?” The rabbit snapped off a small branch from the tree to use as a toothpick. “I’m in it for the sugar, baby.”

“Then we should have gone to the Minis,” the fairy grumbled. “They have truffles.”

Blitzen’s hoof poked into the small of Janie’s back. “Move, sister, and you’ll find yourself with a face full of tinsel.”

Since the reindeer doesn’t enter the scene until five paragraphs after Janie’s speech, it seems unlikely that she’s addressing him. What the writer intended to convey by that comma was not direct address, but something closer to my original suggestion:

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Reindeer?”

In fairness, though, you can see why even a meticulous self-proofreader might not have caught this one. If Janie had speculated that the sounds were caused by an inanimate object, that comma might have passed muster.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Unless this is a book about a madwoman or a psychic whose ability to cajole roofing substances into telling her Santa’s whereabouts, direct address doesn’t make sense here, does it? Even a skimmer is unlikely to fall into that interpretive trap. Several alternate constructions would obviate the possibility entirely, though. The first option should look slightly familiar.

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Falling shingles?”

“What’s that I hear on the roof — falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Am I sensing some growing excitement about the possibilities? “Hey, Anne,” some of you exclaim, beautifully demonstrating your grasp of how a comma should offset an exclamation, “something has just occurred to me, you sneaky person.” (Direct address!) “Since the natural habitat of both direct address and exclamations is conversation, wouldn’t it make sense to zero in on dialogue while proofreading for these particular faux pas? If I were in a hurry, I mean, and didn’t have time to read my submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Not a bad timesaving strategy, exclaimers — they do tend to congregate in text written in the second person. (Hey, I’m talking to you, buddy!) You might be surprised, though, at how often direct address and exclamations show up in first-person narratives, or even chattier-voiced third-person narratives. For instance:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly, searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove, I was in a pickle.

Before anyone suggests otherwise, may I hastily add that the rookie strategy of attempting to make first-person narration sound more like common speech (as opposed to what it’s intended to represent, thought) by eliminating necessary punctuation and grammar has become awfully hard to pull off in a submission, at least for adult fiction or memoir. You wouldn’t believe how often Millicent sees text like our last example submitted like this:

Oh God I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Or even — sacre bleu! — like this:

OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Yes, yes, we all understand that both versions could arguably be regarded as conveying breathlessness. So could this:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. I felt every last oxygen molecule being sucked out of my lungs.

While style choices vary, naturally, from book category to book category — there honestly is no adequate substitute for reading recent releases of books similar to yours, particularly those written by first-time authors, to gain a sense of what is considered stylish these days — generally speaking, relating what’s going on via actual words tends to be considered better writing than offbeat presentation choices. All the more so if those words show what’s going on, as we saw in that last version, instead of telling it — or requiring Millicent to perform a dramatic reading of the text in order to grasp the fully intended meaning.

Oh, you thought that OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat didn’t convey an expectation that the reader would try saying it out loud? Isn’t the sound of this sentence spoken as a single word the point here?

Style is not the only reason that you might want to give careful thought to whether non-standard presentation choices would be more effective than other means of narration, however. While they may seem like a shortcut, they can actually mean more work for you. Not only must any such punctuation and grammar voice choices be implemented with absolute consistency throughout an entire first-person narrative– quite a bit harder than it sounds, if one happens to know the rules or wants to be able to use Word’s grammar-checking function — but honestly, it’s really only clever the first few times a reader sees it done.

Trust me, any experienced Millicent or contest judge will have seen this tactic crop up too often to find it original at this late date in literary history. And how could either of them tell on page 1 whether the omissions were the result of a manuscript-wide authorial choice or the writer’s not being conversant with proper comma use? Heck, are they even sure that the writer of that last version even knows where the comma key is located?

Judgmental? You bet. If Millicent, a literary contest judge, and Santa’s job descriptions have anything in common, it’s that they are tasked with separating those who make an effort to follow their respective spheres’ recognized standards of niceness from those who do not. Rejection is the literary world’s lump of coal, available year-round.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, unlike so much of the manuscript submission process, proper comma use lies entirely within the writer’s control. Personally, I find that rather empowering — unlike style judgment calls, which must necessarily rely in part upon Millicent’s personal reading tastes, punctuation is governed by rules. And rules can be learned.

Does that huge thunk of jaws hitting the floor reverberating throughout the ether indicate that some of you had been thinking about acceptance vs. rejection purely in terms of writing style? If so, you’re hardly alone: why do you think so many submissions and even queries turn up on Millicent’s desk apparently unproofread? Or spell-checked? Obviously, there are a heck of a lot of aspiring writers out there who think punctuation, spelling, and grammar just don’t matter — or that it’s an agent’s job to see past rule violations to story and talent.

Had I mentioned that to the pros, these things matter very much? Or that in publishing circles, providing error-free manuscript pages containing only sentences whose meanings are clear on a first reading is considered the minimum requirement of professional writing, not an optional extra?

Frankly, every writer who has taken the time to learn her craft should be rejoicing at this. Imagine how hard would it be to get on Santa’s Nice list if you had no idea what he considered nice.

While I’ve got you pondering the hard questions, here’s another: is resting your book’s future on a manuscript draft that does not consistently apply the rules you already know people in publishing expect to see respected really any less of a stab in the dark? Wouldn’t it be a better long-term strategy, as well as a better use of your scant writing time, to invest in making sure that the factors you can control are tweaked in a manner more likely to land you on Millicent’s Nice Job list?

Ah, that suggestion got under some skins, didn’t it? “But Anne!” bellow those who find thinking about rules a barrier to the creative process — and you are legion. “I understand that it’s the writer’s job to make a story come to life on the page, not the reader’s job to decipher convoluted text, but to be absolutely truthful, I don’t feel completely comfortable wielding all of the various rules of grammar and punctuation. I had kinda hoped that once I landed an agent and sold a book, the kind folks who handle books for a living would walk me through all of that.”

I’m glad you brought this up, wobbly rule-appliers — this is one of the greatest divides between how the publishing world thinks of what constitutes a well-written manuscript and how most aspiring writers tend to envision it. To a pro, the technical side of writing is not separable from the overall writing quality; to a new writer, though, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and even clarity are primarily sentence-level issues, easily fixed down the line.

No wonder, then, that it comes as such a shock to most first-time queriers and submitters to learn that the overwhelming majority of manuscripts get rejected on page 1. While the pros see a book’s opening as a representative writing sample, writers regard it as a minuscule fraction of a larger work, each page of which is entitled to its own assessment.

“What do you mean, a couple of punctuation, spelling, or clarity problems on page 1 could have triggered rejection?” they wail, and who could blame them? “Shouldn’t a book be judged by — wait for it — the writing in the whole thing?”

Perhaps, in principle, but very, very few readers wait until the end to come to conclusions about a book, even outside the publishing industry. A Millicent at a well-established agency will read literally thousands of submissions every year. If she read each in its entirety, she would have time to make it through only hundreds.

Believe it or not, this way actually provides a writer with a fresh idea and original voice with a better shot of impressing her. It means fewer book concepts are weeded out at the querying stage than would be necessary if agencies routinely assigned Millicents to read every single syllable of every single submission.

And, lest we forget, to a professional reader, a hallmark of a fabulous new literary voice is its consistency. The Great American Novel should read as lyrically on page 1 as on page 147, right? And shouldn’t it all sound like the same author’s voice?

See why I always encourage writers to read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting them? All too often, aspiring writers new to the game will start sending out their work practically the moment after they type THE END on a first draft, without double-checking that the voice, style, and — as an editor, I must ethically add this — story are 100% consistent throughout the manuscript. It’s completely normal, however, for a first-time novelist’s voice and sense of the story to develop throughout the writing process; going through, figuring out what you like best about your own writing, and revising the whole so it sounds like that (to use the technical term) before you submit can increase your story’s chance of winning friends at an agency by leaps and bounds.

Or, to put it another way, are you the same writer you were the first day you sat down to work on your book? Aren’t you better at conveying your intended meaning now? And, if you take a long, hard look at your objection to Millie’s rejecting manuscripts on page 1, isn’t part of your chagrin that she might not read long enough to get to your best writing?

Heavy thoughts for a holiday, perhaps, but the Literature Fairy’s annual gift to those of us who work with writers is an awareness of just how many of you lovely people spend the last few weeks of December kicking yourselves for not having landed an agent or gotten published in the previous year. If the past is prologue, a phenomenally high percentage of you will translate those feelings into a New Year’s resolution to be a more active aspiring writer next year — to send out a barrage of queries, for instance, or to come up with a really solid list of agents to query. Perhaps you’re going to finish that manuscript, or get the one an agent requested eight months ago out the door. Or maybe, finally, you are going to rearrange your schedule so you can write a specified number of hours per week, rather than the more popular method of trying to squeeze it in whenever you can find the time.

All of these are laudable goals — don’t get me wrong. I would like to suggest, though, that while you are shuffling through the resolution possibilities, you consider adding one more: promising yourself that this will be the year that you spend January sitting down and reading your manuscript from beginning to end, in hard copy, as a reader would, to gain a sense of what is best about your own writing.

Because, really, wouldn’t you have an easier time presenting your work professionally if you didn’t just know that it’s good, but also why? And wouldn’t you be happier if Millicent judged your page 1 if it actually did represent a consistent voice and style throughout the book?

Just a thought. While you’re reading, of course, you could always humor me by keeping an eye out for omitted commas.

Hey, nobody ever said that making it onto Millicent’s Nice Job list was going to be easy. Who did you think she was, Santa?

Enjoy the holiday, everybody; try not to run afoul of any reindeer. I hear that you wouldn’t want to run into Blitzen in a dark alley. Keep up the good work!

These are the times that try editors’ souls

No time for a lengthy missive today, I’m afraid, but I could not resist sharing a bit of tangible evidence in support of a theory long lurking in the minds of editors across the English-writing world: in recent years, many people’s eye-brain connections seem to have ceased working reliably. At least insofar as signage is concerned, citizens of this great land have evidently decided that if a piece of prose sounds vaguely like what its writer had in mind, well, that’s close enough to print.

To an editor, that logic represents the first step down the slippery slope that leads to, well, a heck of a lot of work. If nailing down a precise meaning in writing has ceased to have social value, what’s next? Widespread confusion of colons with semicolons? Ravening packs of the untutored roaming the streets, doubling or even tripling prepositions? Or even — avert your eyes, children — eschewing proofreading altogether?

Whom the gods would destroy, Euripides informed us, they first drive mad. Clearly, this was the kind of thing he had in mind.

I’m not merely talking about grocery store signage that adds an extraneous -e to potato or tomato, the misguided belief that pointless abbreviations such as tonite, thru, and alright have ever actually saved anybody any time, or even the bizarre gender blindness that struck otherwise perfectly reasonable people in the media to toss subject-object agreement to the winds in the mid-1980s, causing everyone and their monkey to crowd everyone and her monkey practically out of the language as she is spoke — although, naturally, the literate find such slips inexplicable. Many of my fellow editors insist that we should expect no better from people incapable of understanding why a female member of Congress might conceivably be known on paper as a Congresswoman, rather than a Congressman. Once it became necessary to begin explaining to even fairly well-educated people why paragraphs should be indented, handlers of manuscripts everywhere began hearing the resounding thumps of barbarian weaponry upon the gates of civilization.

I do not take such a dismal view of the matter, but I must confess, bungled logic in print drives me precisely as nuts as our pal Euripides predicted. Take, for instance, the undoubtedly generous offer that appeared in a local paper recently:

Did that second paragraph make you beard the heavens with your bootless cries? Or, like vast majority of the comparatively carefree denizens of the greater Seattle metropolitan area, did your eye simply gloss over it?

Unfortunately for editorial sanity, but fortunately for literature, those of us that read for a living do not enjoy the luxury of believing that close enough is fine for print. English is a language that permits, nay, positively encourages precision: just look at the stunning array of adjectives you have at your disposal. The benighted composer of the free pizza offer above had every bit as many tools at his disposal (nice subject-object agreement, eh?) as the next fella, yet fell down on the descriptive job.

To his credit, he does appear to have realized that his prose might be just a tad confusing to those who believe that words carry specific meanings. To an editorial eye, a phrase like to be clear can indicate only one of two authorial fears: either the writing immediately before it lacks communicative oomph, or the writer isn’t too sure of the comprehension capacities of the reader.

In this case, both terrors probably governed word choice. Let’s take a closer look. Because I love you people, I shall spare you the — sacre bleu! — all-caps presentation of the original.

After the costume parade, head up to Pagliacci for a free slice for your little monster! And to be clear, only kids in costume accompanied by a parent will be served.

Did you catch it, now that the eye-distracting formatting is gone? No? Would it help to know that what the writer almost certainly meant was this?

After the community-sponsored costume parade has run its course, we at this fine pizza emporium would be pleased to serve a free slice to any child in costume who shows up clutching the hand of either a biological or adoptive parent.

But that’s not what the original actually said, was it? Read literally, these were the preconditions for scarfing down some pie gratis:

(1) The potential scarfer must be a minor.

(2) The potential scarfer cannot show up before the parade has ended.

(3) The potential scarfer must be in costume.

(4) The potential scarfer’s costume must also be occupied by a parent — and, the use of the plural kids implies, possibly one or more other children.

Now, I can certainly picture a few charming two-wearer costumes — if the child in question were open to being strapped to a guardian’s chest at a 45-degree angle, the pair could form a wonderful spider. However, long practical experience with both advertising and careless writing leads me to conclude that the pizza-hawkers almost certainly did not intend to limit their offer to only literal readers with creative multi-party costumes on hand.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me. It’s my job to nit-pick. “But Anne,” eye-rollers everywhere protest, “I was not confused at all by the original version. It was clear enough what the pizza-mongers meant. I can see why prose imprecision might be unacceptable in a high literary manuscript, but why get so exorcised about a small slip?”

However did you manage to slip through that gate, barbarian? We in the editorial keep already have boiling pitch prepared to fling onto the noggins of all comers.

Seriously, those of us that read for a living are perpetually flabbergasted by how many writers seem to cling to a close-enough-is-good-enough philosophy. Clarity constitutes the minimum requirement for professional writing, not an optional extra. As a reader, I’m sure you would agree: on the printed page, you don’t believe it’s your responsibility to guess what the author probably meant, do you? It’s the author’s job to convey precisely what she had in mind.

Contrary to astonishingly pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, it’s not an agent, editor, or contest judge’s job to speculate, either. No matter how often any of us are treated to the sight of unclear, poorly written, or logically convoluted prose, the trick to catching a sharp editorial eye in a positive way lies in choosing your words with care.

Oh, and not stubbornly retaining topical jokes after their expiration date just because you happen to like them. ( I had intended to use that last paragraph a couple of weeks ago, you see.)

Yet another reason to read your submissions and contest entries IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course. Since the human eye, editorial or otherwise, tends to read about 70% faster on a backlit screen, even the most dedicated self-editor will be substantially more likely to catch subtle gaffes on a printed page. You wouldn’t want to leave Millicent the agency screener wondering just how many family members your text wanted her to envision stuffed into a single costume, would you?

Actually, the barbarians currently howling at the gate might actually prove helpful in this endeavor. Bless their unrepentant hearts, their lack of precision in wielding the language provides would-be self-editors with abundant opportunities to sharpen their editorial eyes. The photo at the top of this post, for instance: scroll up and give it your best nit-pick.

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “By Jove, that restaurant appears to be ordering lunch customers to bring their own egg roll and rice!” award yourself a gold star for the day. Come w(ith) egg roll in any other context would in fact mean that the speaker would expect the hearer either to show up with an egg roll — not the kind of thing most of us tote around habitually — or to accompany an egg roll on some unspecified journey. Neither, you must admit, seems like a particularly inviting prospect for restaurant patronage.

Snag a second gold star from petty cash if you also bellowed, “Nor is that the only labor the poor potential customer is evidently expected to perform. Why should the diner steam her own rice?” As steam is a verb, it must logically be a command to the reader; steamed, on the other hand, is an adjective that might conceivably be applied to rice.

Whom the gods would not see published, first they burden with an inability to spot the differences between parts of speech. While I’d like to think that they have also provided a special spot in Hades for sign-printers too callous to point out such problems, perhaps we should all be grateful for the proofreading practice advertising provides us all on a daily basis.

Excuse me — some charming visitors bearing pitchforks and torches appear to be banging on the gate, just in time for lunch. Perhaps they were courteous enough to bring their own egg rolls. Keep up the good work!

So you’ve pitched or queried successfully — now what? Part X: oh, my itchy fingers!

I had intended to devote Labor Day weekend entirely to posts on craft, campers, on the theory that since simply scads of you will be spending the next few days sending out flotillas of fresh queries and/or submissions, you might enjoy a creativity break. I find, however, that I have a few more things to say about submission that you might want to know before Tuesday rolls around.

How did I know you were gearing up to hit the SEND key? Well, the New York-based publishing world’s annual holiday has traditionally run from the end of the second week of August through, you guessed it, Labor Day. The presses no longer halt with quite the completeness with which they did in days of yore, but still, it’s a hard time to pull together an editorial committee.

Why should that affect the mailing and e-mailing habits of writers trying to break into the biz? Simple: when the editors are not in town, agents have an awfully hard time selling books to them, so agency denizens tend to take those same weeks off.

Again, that’s less true than it used to be, but if the Submission Fairy had whacked you with her magic red pencil last week, teleporting you into the average agency, you would have been chased out of the building by a smaller mob than would have caught up pitchforks and torches in, say, October.

In case I hadn’t mentioned it lately: don’t show up at an agency unless invited to do so, aspiring writers. And hold off on the calls until one of the member agents offers to represent you, please.

Admittedly, even in the bad old days, agencies were often not universally deserted in late August: the luckless soul left to guard the fort often got quite a lot of reading done. Still, it wasn’t then and isn’t now not the worst idea for a writer eager to hear back on a query or submission to hold off until after everyone returned to work with a suntan.

Thou shalt not query or submit between July and Labor Day has featured prominently in the annals of credible advice to writers for decades, and rightly so. Which may render what I am about to say next something of a surprise: if you are planning to query or submit to a US-based agency via e-mail, I would implore you to hold off until at least the middle of next week.

And the masses collapse onto the nearest chaises longues, overcome by astonishment. “But Anne,” they shout, and who could blame them? “I’ve been holding off! For the latter half of the summer, I have been twiddling my thumbs, biting my nails, and playing endless games of cat’s cradle, all to keep my itchy keying finger from hitting the SEND key while the agent of my dreams was likely to be vacating. Since I have every reason to expect that the AOMD will be flinging herself into her desk chair bright and early Tuesday morning, clutching that latté her eager assistant Millicent got her and scowling at the stacks of manuscripts awaiting her august attention — or, rather, her post-August attention — why shouldn’t I hammer on that SEND key like Hephaestus forging armor for the Olympian gods? I have a three-day weekend in which to ignore my kith and kin while I pursue my dream!”

You just answered your own question, itchy-fingered many: because any established agent — and thus any Millicent employed in an established agency — will be greeted upon her return to the office by the small mountain of submissions send over the last month. Her inbox overfloweth. And since millions of aspiring writers will also have been actively avoiding the warm embrace of kith and kin in order to crank out e-mailed queries and submissions this weekend, a hefty percentage of that overflow will be from writers just like you.

Why might that be a problem, if she and Millicent down those lattés, roll up their sleeves, and work through those queries and submissions in the order received? Well, let me ask you: if you had 1,572 messages from total strangers gracing your inbox Tuesday morning, how would you feel about it? Delighted to see that literature was alive and well in North America — or just a trifle grumpy at the prospect of working through them all?

Still not seeing the wisdom of not adding your query or submission to that queue? Okay, think of it this way: would you rather that Millicent first cast eyes upon your query as #1376 of Tuesday, or as #12 of Friday? Would you rather that she read your submission with fresh eyes — or with eyes bleary from the imperative of reading her way down to the point where her desk is visible from above?

Just something to think about. Naturally, a querier or submitter exercises very little control over the conditions under which Millicent reads his work, but if a savvy writer can minimize the chances that she will be assessing it at a point when she will predictably be swamped, why not rein in those itchy fingers for another few days?

Speaking of the trouble into which over-eager fingers can land their owners, as well as our ongoing focus on some of the unanticipated side effects of successful querying and submission, I’d like to devote today’s post to a couple of excellent questions from long-time members of the Author! Author! community. First, let’s learn of the travails faced by witty gun-jumper Robert:

I must have smoked something funny during Querypalooza, because I prematurely sent an agent my query. Only fifty pages in, with no end in sight, I was asked for my completed MS! How would one tiptoe out of this situation, keeping the agency interested?

I love the blog and appreciate every moment you put into it. There is nothing out there that comes close in style, entertainment, or value. Thanks for the tools to push my writing career forward.

Why, thank you, Robert; how kind of you to say so. Also: what on earth were you thinking?

Ah, how loyal you all are; I can feel half of you rushing to Robert’s defense. Lower those pitchforks a trifle, please, so I may hear you better. “Whoa there, lady — what’s with the indignant italics? It can take months to hear back from an agent these days; why couldn’t he have sent out that query the nanosecond he whipped it into shape?”

Well, obviously, he could, because he did, but I get what you’re saying: querying turn-around times can indeed be quite lengthy. One can also, as I know some of you can attest, hear back within an hour of hitting SEND, if someone at the agency of your dreams happens to be sitting in front of a computer at the time.

To quote the late, great Fats Waller, one never knows, does one?

What one does know — and what I suspect has sent our Robert into a belated fit of qualm — is that for fiction, agents expect that any manuscript a writer queries or pitches to them will be at the completed draft stage. Oh, they’re aware that occasionally, an overeager writer will begin setting up prospects a little early, but Robert is quite right to assume that if he ‘fessed up, the agent of his dreams would not be amused.

So how would a savvy writer, in Robert’s words, tiptoe out of this situation, keeping the agency interested? Simple: he wouldn’t.

Was that behemoth thunk a sign that half of you just introduced your lower jaws to the floor? I’m not entirely surprised: as we have been discussing throughout this series, the apparently immortal myth that an agent requesting pages will only accept them if the writer breaks all extant land speed records in getting the manuscript under her peepers has encouraged a whole lot of successful queriers and pitchers to do a whole lot of silly things. Or if not silly, than at least unstrategic — not bothering to spell- or grammar-check before hitting SEND, for instance. Neglecting to proofread, to make sure that the coworker called Monica in Chapter 1 is not Monique in Chapter 5. Fudging the typeface or the margins, so that a particularly strong scene or line will fall within the requested 50 pages, not thereafter. Sending 52 pages, when the agent asked for 50, for the sake of the aforementioned bit. Or simply printing the darned thing out the instant the request for materials arrives and dashing to the post office, only to realize halfway home that the packet did not include a SASE.

Oh, you may laugh, but I know good writers — gifted ones, intelligent ones, ones whose prose a literature lover could have sung out loud — that have made each and every one of these mistakes. Sometimes more than one at a time.

They, like Robert, have jumped the gun, and it did not pay off for them. It seldom does, because — feel free to chant it with me, those of you who have been following this series — since a submitter gets only one chance to place a particular manuscript under a particular agent’s eyes, it simply does not make sense to hit SEND until that manuscript is polished enough to represent her best work.

If you don’t mind my pointing it out, Robert, that level of polish is rarely a characteristic of a first draft. Even if you had hit SEND when you were only a chapter away from finishing the novel, you might have been better off taking the time to read and possibly revise it before querying. But in thinking otherwise, you certainly were not alone: the overwhelming majority of first novels are queried, pitched, and submitted while still in the first-draft stage.

“Okay, I get it,” jaw-rubbers everywhere say sullenly. “My pages should fairly shine before they wing their way to Millicent. But what is my buddy Robert to do? He meant no harm; he had merely assumed that the most he would be asked to send was 50 pages, tops. I hate to see him punished for that piece of misapprehension.”

And he needn’t be, if only he bears in mind the principle that his gun-jumping pretty clearly shows he did not embrace in the first place: when an agent requests a full or partial manuscript, she is not expecting to receive it right away.

So if Robert could conceivably complete that manuscript within the next year to year and a half, he may eschew tiptoeing altogether: he could simply apply his nose diligently to the proverbial grindstone until he finished — and spell-checked, resolved the burning Monica/Monique debate, etc. — and then send it off as requested. No need to apologize in his cover letter, either: since he had no reason to believe that the AOHD had cleared her schedule in anticipation of its arrival, he should simply thank her for asking to see it.

Some of you jaw-rubbers are eying me dubiously. “But Anne, isn’t that a trifle rude? I mean, doesn’t he owe it to the agent of his dreams — that’s what that acronym means, right? — to e-mail her right off the bat to tell her that as much as he would love to comply with her request for pages right away, he won’t be able to do it for months?”

The short answer to that is no. The long answer is NOOOOOOOOOOO.

Seriously, why would he have an obligation to send her an update? It’s not as though Robert’s was the only query her office received, or the only one to which the AOHD said yes. And while most successful queriers and pitchers do crank their submissions out the door rather quickly, there’s always a sizable contingent that never elects to send the requested pages at all. Perhaps because, like Robert, they queried in haste and repented at leisure.

The AOHD is unlikely, in short, to be sitting around four months hence, filing her nails over a desk completely devoid of manuscripts, idly wondering why that nice Robert never sent her that nifty book. But he doesn’t write…he doesn’t call…

Trust me, she has better things to do. Like reading through the pile of manuscripts that did make it to her desk.

Does that giant, gusty collective sigh that just blew my cat sideways indicate that more than a few of you wish you were aware of that before you hit the SEND key on at least one occasion. Again, I’m not surprised, but trust me, Roberts of the literary world, no one will even blink if you don’t get requested materials to them within six or even nine months, much less change their minds about wanting to see it. Plenty of writers, and good ones, take that long to revise existing manuscripts.)

Should Robert’s itchy fingers prove incapable of not tapping out an e-mail, however, he could legitimately drop the AOHD a note in five or six months, thanking her for her continued interest and saying that the manuscript will be on its way soon. Which may well be true: in current agency reading terms, another three months would be soon. I wouldn’t advise hitting SEND sooner, though, because there’s always a danger that the agency’s needs will have changed in the meantime — you definitely don’t want your polite update to be construed as a request for a second permission to send it, lest they say no, right, Robert?

No need to rap our Robert on the knuckles for his infraction, then, you’ll be glad to hear. I wouldn’t want to affect his ability to type the rest of his manuscript quickly.

I’m always astonished, though, at how often good, well-meaning writers rap themselves on the knuckles when they realize that like practically every first-time successful querier or pitcher, they have sent out their manuscripts before their precious pages were truly ready. Take, for instance, intrepid reader Anni:

I have a question that has nothing to do with this topic (sorry) but I just couldn’t keep worrying about it in silence any longer.

A couple months ago, I made it as far as sending out 5 queries with samples as requested for my manuscript and received 4 form rejections and 1 non-reply. I took this as a sign that something was amiss, and discussed it with my feedback readers. The conclusion: the first third of the manuscript wasn’t on par with the rest. It needed to be rewritten into something more fast-paced and exciting.

To pull me through the tedious rewriting, I compiled a list of agents for when the manuscript is once again ready, and I realized something: There aren’t that many agencies for that want YA fantasy novels.

As I understand it, agents do NOT like re-submissions, even if I’ve rewritten half the manuscript from scratch. I’ve already lost 5 agents from my potential agencies list! What happens if I run out of agents to query without signing with one of them? Is there an acceptable period of time after which I can query a second time?

I may be jumping the gun with these worries, but I’m afraid to send out my next batch of queries and possibly waste another 5 agents because the query/manuscript isn’t absolutely perfect. On the other hand, I don’t want to spend the next year striving for that impossible perfection. Instead of facing just the potential for rejection, I get to watch my list of potential agents dwindle to an eventual zero.

I don’t know what I should do! Do you have any suggestions for me? Thanks very much.

Nor should you have suffered in silence for even an instant, Anni — this is far too common a problem. As I like to remind my readers early and often, if you’ve been wondering about something, chances are that another 3,274 regular Author! Author! readers have as well. So for both your own sake and theirs: please ask.

I’m especially glad that Anni spoke up on this issue, as this is a problem under which masses of good writers suffer in silence, assuming (often wrongly) that if they talk about it, they will be labeling their work as unmarketable. Then, as she did, they wake up one morning and realize that they’ve exhausted their entire agent list.

And all too often, like Anni, they leap to the conclusion that if they’ve been rejected, it has been because of the scant few pages some agencies allow queriers to include in their query packets. Yet of a Millicent is turned off by a query, she’s unlikely to bother to read the samples.

Yes, even if her agency specifically requests them — and especially if the query was online. Online submissions typically get a bit less scrutiny than e-mailed queries, which in turn usually receive less of Millicent’s time than paper letters. (There’s not much a querier can do about that if the agency vastly prefers online submissions, of course, but the trend is worth knowing.) Since she’s scanning literally hundreds of the things per week — and thousands, if it’s immediately after Labor Day — it generally doesn’t take much to generate a knee-jerk negative reaction. The sad fact is that just as the vast majority of submissions get rejected on page 1, most queries are rejected within the first paragraph.

So while I must applaud Anni on being brave and savvy enough to check with her first readers to figure out what was going wrong at the submission stage — very few writers would have had that pragmatic a response — I think she is jumping the gun. If she hasn’t run her query letter under objective eyes, she might want to do that before she sends it out again. (And if she hadn’t already run through the HOW NOT TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER and HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE categories on the list at right, she and those like her might want to invest some time in it, just in case they’ve inadvertently run afoul of a common agents’ pet peeve. You wouldn’t believe how often queries get rejected simply because the writer inadvertently omitted a word, or misspelled something, and just didn’t notice.)

Truth compels me to say that I also think she’s jumping the gun in the fear department. In the first place, the TWILIGHT and HUNGER GAMES revolutions have assured that there are plenty of agents willing — nay, eager — to find the next great YA fantasy talent. With a sample as small as five queries (yes, yes, I know: it doesn’t feel small, but it’s not at all unusual these days for talented writers to send out a couple of hundred before landing an agent, alas), Anni might also want to consider the possibility that her specific subsection of her chosen book category isn’t selling particularly well right now — or that the agencies in question already have a number of similar books in circulation.

Neither of those things would be a reflection upon the quality of Anni’s writing, but either could easily result in rejection. And, let’s face it, in a book category as trendy as YA fantasy and in a literary market whose trends change with the rapidity that would make your garden-variety fruit fly say, “Really?” both are fairly probable.

That does not mean, however, that any Millicent that screened one of Anni’s five packets would have mentioned either reason in the rejection. Form-letter rejections leave no way for the writer to learn from the experience.

Anni is quite right, though, that agents dislike re-submissions — unless, of course, re-submitting was their idea. In fact, industry etiquette dictates that unless an agent specifically asks a submitter to revise and re-submit a particular manuscript, the writer must take the book and go someplace else.

What she probably has in mind here, though, is not re-submission, but re-querying. As I understand Anni’s story, she never submitted anything per se: she was querying agencies that asked to see the first few pages. Technically, that’s not submission; it’s querying with extras.

But again, Anni is correct in the larger sense: the norm is to query any given agency — not only any given agent — only once with any given book project. Almost any agency will balk at a writer who keeps querying over and over again with the same project, especially if those queries arrive very close together and nothing about the project seems to have changed. While Millicent tenure is often short, Anni could not legitimately assume that the same screener would not open her next query and huff, “Wait — I’ve seen this before, haven’t I? Next!”

That outcome is especially likely if the repeat querier, as some charmingly straightforward but misguided aspiring writers do, guilelessly tells Millicent in the query that she’s querying for a second time. Those attached sample pages are much better now, honest!

This delightful level of honestly is, alas, the equivalent of stamping the query with YOU’VE ALREADY REJECTED THIS. “Next!”

All that being said, if Anni simply punched up her query, ran through the rest of her querying list, and tried the first five a year or two later, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would take umbrage. At that juncture, in order for re-querying to generate hostility, someone at the agency would (a) have to recognize the query as a repeat, which would require both (b) the same Millicent having seen both versions (unlikely, given screener turnover) and (c) remembering a query which she’d spent a couple of minutes pondering a year before.

It’s just not all that likely, in short. Especially if Anni were strategic enough to re-query at a time of year at which millions of itchy fingers would predictably be simultaneously reaching for the SEND key, if you catch my drift.

You were expecting me to rap some knuckles here, weren’t you? I might have seven or eight years ago, but the well-known truism about agents disliking resubmissions is actually a rather old complaint, dating back to the days before e-mailed submissions were considered acceptable or online submissions even possible. Way back when agents started making this complaint at writers’ conferences and in interviews (which is how it became so pervasive on the writers’ rumor circuit, in case you had been wondering, Anni), many of them used to open each and every query themselves.

Now, due to the overwhelming volume of queries, an agent just wouldn’t have time to sell her current clients’ books if she opened all of the mail herself. (And that’s not even taking into account how radically the anthrax scare affected how mail was handled at agencies and publishing houses.) Even at relatively small agencies, that job is generally assigned to a Millicent or two.

Nowadays, an agent who complains about repetitive querying is usually talking about folks so persistent that they’ve become legendary at the agency, not your garden-variety aspiring writer who hits the SEND key twice within a year and a half. At my agency, everyone has stories about the writer who has not only queried every agent there individually five times, but recently launched into another round under a different name (but the same title).

Yet as so often happens when agents make conference complaints about specific instances, most of the aspiring writers who hear the story automatically assume that the agency obsessively maintains some kind of master list of every query it has ever received, so it may automatically reject any repeaters on sight. But practically, that would be prohibitively time-consuming: it would quadruple the amount of time its Millicents would have to spend on any individual query.

You were aware that the average query receives less than 30 seconds of agency attention, right?

That’s not a lot of time to have memorized Anni’s no doubt delightful premise, at least not well enough to recall it two years later based on the query’s descriptive paragraph alone. On the off chance that Anni might have been clever enough to change the title of the book the second time she queried that agency, the chances are even lower.

My, that jaw is coming in for quite a floor-battering this evening, isn’t it? I hate to break it to you, but only aspiring writers think of titles as set in stone. In practice, however, there’s no earthly reason that a manuscript has to be queried or submitted under the same title every time. Few first-time authors get to keep their original titles all the way to publication, anyway.

I guess I should stop before the bruise on anyone’s chin grows any bigger. For the nonce, suffice it to say that once again, we see an instance where a finger itching for contact with the SEND key has turned out not to be a reliable guide to its owner’s self-interest. In Anni’s case, I would far prefer to see that digit engaged in some serious online research in how many agents actually do regularly represent and sell YA fantasy.

And remember, folks, just because one has an itch doesn’t mean one has to scratch it. At least not immediately. Yes, the rise of e-querying and e-submission has increased the probability of swift turn-arounds — and the concomitant expectation of rapid acceptance — but it has also increased the volume of queries most agencies with websites receive exponentially.

Care to guess how many of those queriers also have itchy fingers? Or a three day weekend beginning tomorrow?

Not entirely coincidentally, tomorrow, we turn our attention to craft. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

At the risk of repeating myself, part V: I’ve got three favorite cars that get most of my job done — no, wait, make that four

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZqI5b5wGA4

Sorry about the slower-than-expected follow-up post, campers: I honestly did intend to devote this week to structural repetition — because, as we all know, there’s nothing like a sexy topic for drawing in the readers. Our cat began acting strangely, however, so I have been spending an extraordinary amount of time at the vet’s office. Fortunately, I had a good book on me, my buddy Nicole Galland’s new release, I, IAGO, and lordy, is it a great read. I’m seriously tempted to leave my copy in the vet’s waiting room after I’ve finished, to provide a lush mental escape for the worried.

Seriously, how often has a book made you laugh out loud while waiting for blood test results? From the publisher’s blurb:

From earliest childhood, the precocious boy called Iago had inconvenient tendencies toward honesty — a “failing” that made him an embarrassment to his family and an outcast in the corrupted culture of glittering, Renaissance Venice. Embracing military life as an antidote to the frippery of Venetian society, he won the glowing love of the beautiful Emilia, and the regard of Venice’s revered General Othello. After years of abuse and rejection, Iago was poised to win everything he ever fought for — until a cascade of unexpected betrayals propel him on a catastrophic quest for righteous vengeance, contorting his moral compass until he has betrayed his closest friends and family and sealed his own fate as one of the most notorious villains of all time.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for any blurb containing the word frippery. One of my failings as a human being, I suppose.

One of my other failings as a human being, but a positive boon for my life as an editor, is a reading eye that leaps instantly to the anomaly on the page. Perhaps that’s not altogether surprising, as a have a doctorate in pattern recognition, but honestly, it does render casual reading a bit of a challenge. A slug line in the wrong place, for instance, will drive me mad, regardless of the quality of the writing lurking beneath it. So will adverbs beginning three out of five sentences in a paragraph: Clearly, there was something wrong here. Obviously, though, your garden-variety reader would not catch it. Bizarrely, any professional reader would.

Fortunately (God, there’s a fourth one!), however, in the publishing world, this sort of eye is not only an advantage — it’s pretty much a requirement for a good editor. Apart from accountancy and computer programming, you’d be hard-pressed to find a job better suited to the obsessive-compulsive. Thus, it follows as night the day, spring winter, and baby ducks their mother that those who cater to the tastes of editors would develop a similar seventh sense for patterns on a page.

Oh, you thought this wasn’t going to lead back to you and your manuscript? You and your manuscript keep me up nights. I worry so that your good writing might not get the fair reading it deserves at the hands of Millicent, the agency screener, if it exhibits too much word, phrase, and/or structural repetition.

Speaking of hands, a third of my audience’s just shot skyward. “Um, Anne?” the more eagle-eyed among you quaver. “I hate to pick nits here, but how precisely do Millicent’s hands read anything? Wouldn’t it be her eyes?”

That question brings a tear to my weary eye, campers. If you caught that logical gaffe, you’re starting to read like a professional. And if you also noticed that in the video above, we never actually get to see our hero’s eyeballs — a trifle disturbing, I think, in a cartoon devoted to developing reading and writing skills — you may be on your way to becoming a Millicent.

Although, admittedly some of us are born that way. I distinctly recall that the first time Conjunction Junction popped onto our small black-and-white TV screen, I tossed my wee braids and shouted, “Mother! How can he read with no eyes?” Fortunately, my mother had been editing for years, so she had been taken aback, too.

In case I’m being too subtle here: those of us that read for a living notice everything in a submission or contest entry. It’s our job, and if nature was kind enough to outfit us with specialized eyes and brains in order to be good at it, well, that has some ramifications for writers.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I cannot in good conscience round off my lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts without discussing those most perennially popular transients passing through Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

This time, encouraged by positive reinforcement, legions of hands shoot into the air. Yes, newly-minted grammar mavens? “But Anne,” you point out, and rightly so, “then isn’t a conjunction! Why, then, would you include it in your discussion of conjunctions, when there are so many legitimate conjunctions — yet, for instance, or or — deserving of your august scrutiny?”

Quite right, hand-raisers: when used properly, then isn’t a conjunction, strictly speaking. We live, however, in a world overrun by scofflaws. Metaphors are mixed; semicolons are routinely misused. Jaywalkers abound — unwisely, given how many drivers do not come to a full stop at stop signs. Owners of outdoor-ranging cats discover that their pets have discarded their collars, complete with city-issued license, and do not replace the tags immediately, while owners of dogs occasionally take them off-leash even outside the parks designated for such activity.

We may deplore all of this, but we ignore it at our peril. At least, that hefty majority of aspiring writers whose submissions and literary contest entries positively scream, “The leash laws do not apply to my dog!” do so at their own risks — but does that mean that your Auntie Anne, friend of the struggling scribbler, should refuse on general principle to talk about those mutts?

No, I haven’t the heart. Call me a softie, but enough writers are using it these days as if it were a synonym for and in a list of actions (as in The Little Red Hen kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children.) that I feel justified in — nay, compelled to — treat it as such for the purposes of our ongoing discussion of repetitive sentence structures and their predictably negative effect on Millicent’s bloodshot peepers.

Language does grow and change, of course. Back in the bad old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth Roosevelts were presidents Dorothy Parker was still speaking to Ernest Hemingway editors like Maxwell Perkins called the shots in the publishing world, it was considered hugely improper to begin any sentence with and, but, or then. Amongst the literate, these words were purely intra-sentence phenomena. As my Uncle Alex (a well-known SF short story writer in the 1950s, an editor at the LA Free Press, and a folklorist of great repute) used to scrawl in the margins of letters I wrote him in elementary school, a conjunction, by definition, connects one part of a sentence to another.

“Therefore,” he would ink in large letters, “a conjunction may not begin a sentence, and a crayon is not an appropriate writing implement for correspondence. How’s your mother?”

There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors. I thought until I hit puberty that writing in the first person was a narrative cop-out, embraced by only those authors who could not handle suspense in any other way. (A fairly common editorial opinion well into the early 1980s, incidentally.) Toward the end of his long, colorful, and occasionally scurrilous life, Uncle Alex was even known to shout grammatical advice at the TV screen when newscasters –sacre bleu! — began their sentences with conjunctions.

And really, who could blame him?

Hey, I couldn’t resist. But why shouldn’t we slavishly adhere to his precepts? Well, time and the language have been marching merrily onward, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. I do it here all the time. So do most bloggers, journalists, and columnists: it’s a recognized technique for establishing an informal, chatty narrative voice.

That thunder you just heard was Uncle Alex stomping his feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get all of us to cut it out, already, but there can be perfectly legitimate stylistic reasons to open a sentence with a conjunction. They can, for instance, be very valuable for maintaining an ongoing rhythm in a paragraph. Like so:

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station. But would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be. And if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second Arbogast stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

As Uncle Alex would undoubtedly have been the first (and last, and middle) to tell you, classic English grammar has an elegant means of preventing those conjunctions from hanging out at the beginnings of those sentences: by eliminating the periods and replacing them with commas. The result would look a little something like this:

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why — or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

To old-fashioned eyes, this paragraph’s meaning is identical to the first; it is merely cleaner, grammatically and visually. However, I suspect that most current readers of English prose would recognize a substantial difference in the rhythm.

Why? A period is, as the English like to call it, a full stop; a comma, on the other hand, indicates a pause. A dash indicates a slightly longer and more pointed pause. To this millennium’s sensibilities, the first example has a choppiness, a breathless quality that conveys the subtle impression that Ghislaine’s breathing is shallow, her pulse racing.

The periods my uncle would have forbidden, then, could legitimately be regarded as subtle narrative indicators of protagonist stress — a bit of authorial frippery, rather than a mistake. At least to those in the habit of breaking paragraphs down into their constituent parts to see what their functions are.

Like, say, most of us who read manuscripts for a living. We diagram sentences in our sleep.

Before we leave that last set of examples, did you happen to notice any other editorial pet peeves in that first? No? Okay, let me whip out my machete pen and remove a couple of classic Millicent-irritants. Rather than merely noticing that this third version reads better, I shall challenge your revision skills by asking you to try to figure out why it reads better.

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Right now, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

How did you do? Lift a nice, shiny gold star from the reward cabinet if you immediately cried, “Why, word repetition is word repetition, Anne — which is why you removed the second Arbogast in the paragraph.” Stack another star on top of the first if you added, “Anyway is often how speakers inform hearers that they’ve digressed from their point. Is there a reason the narrative should go out of its way to inform readers that it has digressed?” And award yourself three more stars if you have gotten in touch with your inner Millicent sufficiently to have mused, “You know, to find out why — or not is conceptually unnecessary. Would the paragraph lose any actual meaning if I cut or not?”

I hear those of you who did not shout any of those observations muttering under your collective breath, and you’re quite right: this is incredibly nit -picky stuff. Both good writing and professional presentation are made up of lots and lots of nit-picky stuff. Your point?

While you’re trying to come up with a sufficiently scathing comeback for that one, let’s tie the anyway revelation — perhaps best summed up as that what’s considered acceptable in everyday speech may not work so well in a narrative voice on paper, even if it happens to be in the first person — back to our ongoing discussion of and and but. Since conjunction-opened sentences can sometimes mirror actual speech better than more strictly grammatical ones, the former can be a boon to dialogue. Or to first-person narration, as it creates the illusion of echoing actual speech. That does not mean, however, that peppering third-person narrative prose with it will necessarily produce a flowing effect. Generally speaking, this structure works best in dialogue.

Not sure why? Okay, contrast this sterling exchange:

“And I tell you, Spencer, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. And that’s final.”

“But Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger. And particularly when running (generally while identified only as she through wooded glens at the openings of novels. Yet you are astonishingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingenue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. And, naturally, you are entirely unarmed at all times. Lest some particularly timid reader find you even remotely threatening for even an instant. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Or what? Or you’re going to turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

“Or else, that’s all.”

“Fine. Then give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist. But don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

with the same dialogue after the conjunctions have been tucked into the middle of the sentences:

“I tell you, Spencer, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. That’s final.”

“Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger, particularly when running (generally while identified only as she through wooded glens at the openings of novels, yet surprisingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingenue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. Naturally, you are entirely unarmed, lest some particularly timid reader find you even remotely threatening for even an instant. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Is there some penalty attached to my refusal? Are you going to turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

“You must, that’s all.”

“Fine. Give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist, but don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

The difference is subtle, I’ll admit but to a professional reader, it would be quite evident: the second version sounds more formal. Partially, this is a function of the verbal gymnastics required to avoid the colloquial Or what? Or else.

And, let’s face it, Spencer’s lengthy speech as presented in the second version would be darned hard to say within the space of one breath. Go ahead and try it; I’ll wait.

But these are not the only ways aspiring writers utilize sentence-beginning conjunctions in narrative prose, are they? As anyone who has ever been trapped in a conversation with a non-stop talker can tell you, beginning sentences with conjunctions gives an impression of consecutiveness of logic or storyline. (As was the case with the first sentence of this paragraph, as it happens.) Even when no such link actually exists, the conjunctions give the hearer the impression that there is no polite place to interrupt, to turn the soliloquy-in-progress into a dialogue.

We all encounter this phenomenon so often in everyday life that giving a concrete example seems a tad, well, repetitive. If you feel that your life lacks such monologues, though, try this experiment the next time you’re at a boring cocktail party. (They’re coming back, I hear.)

(1) Walk up to another guest, preferably a stranger or someone you do not like very much. (It will soon become apparent why that last trait is desirable.)

(2) Launch into a lengthy anecdote, preferably one devoid of point, beginning every sentence with either and, but or then. Take as few breaths as possible throughout your speech.

(3) Time how long it takes a reasonably courteous person to get a word in edgewise.

Personally, I’ve kept this game going for over 15 minutes at a stretch. The imminent threat of fainting due to shortness of breath alone stopped me. But then, I’m a professional; you might not want to attempt that high dive your first time out.

The difficulty inherent to interrupting a non-stop speaker, in case you happen to be writing a book about such things, why university professors, panhandlers, and telemarketers so often speak for minutes at a time in what seems to the hearer to be one long sentence. Run-on sentences discourage reply.

Almost invariably, this phenomenon is brought to you by the heavy lifting skills of and, but and then. Perhaps for this reason, aspiring writers just love to tuck conjunctions in all over the place: it can create the impression of swift forward movement in the narrative.

“But I can’t pay the rent!”

“But you must pay the rent!”

Those buts don’t leave much doubt about the source of the disagreement, do they? Those capital Bs are like a beacon to Millicent’ eye. While that can work just fine in dialogue, it’s visually distracting in narration.

But I couldn’t pay the rent, not today, not tomorrow, not even next week. But I must pay the rent! I knew that, both ethically and practically. But that did not mean I had the means to do it. I mean, where was I going to get the rent? I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that a handsome stranger would appear on my dastardly landlord’s doorstep and announce, “I’ll pay the rent.” But that seemed more likely than my coming up with the dosh myself.

Pop quiz: did the word repetition bug you as much as all of those capital Bs? I should hope so, by this late point in the series.

I know, I know: the writer may well have repeated those words deliberately, to make a point. (Indeed, I have it on fairly good authority that the writer in this instance believed it would have some comic value.) Do be aware, though, that this is a strategy is not a particularly unusual one. Virtually any Millicent will see it in at least one submission per day.

Why? Well, as we have discussed, many aspiring writers just like that repetitive rhythm — but it’s also one of the most popular means of establishing that chatty-sounding first-person narrative voice I mentioned above. Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top. A fairly common way to open a manuscript:

And I thought it could never happen to me. I had always thought it was just a cartoon cliché. But here it was, happening: me pinned to the ground, struggling. While a mustache-twirling villain tied me to the railroad tracks. The railroad tracks, no less, as if anyone took trains anymore. And with my luck, I’d end up lying here for days before a locomotive happened by.

“That will teach you,” my captor gloated, “not to pay the rent.”

And had I mentioned that aspiring writers just love to overload their manuscripts with conjunctions? And that they use the device a lot? Or that by the time Millicent picks up your submission, she’s probably already read hundreds of conjunctions that day?

Since false consecutiveness is stylistically ubiquitous, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency. Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being marketing-minded here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

Why especially there? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: agents, editors, and contest judges tend to assume that the writing on pages 1-5 is an accurate representation of the style throughout the entire manuscript. That presumption enables them to stop reading the instant they decide that the writing is weak.

Was that sudden blinding flash an indication that light bulbs just went off over a thousand heads? That’s right: this often-unwarranted assumption, renders rejection on page 1 not only logically possible, but reasonable. It certainly underlies the average Millicent’s practice of not reading past any problems that might turn up on page 1 of a submission: once you’ve seen a modicum of this author’s writing, she reasons, you’ve seen enough.

Feel free to pause here to punch the nearest pillow, sofa cushion, or other relatively soft object seventeen or eighteen times. Again, I’m happy to wait.

Got all of that frustration out of your system? Excellent. Let’s shift our energies to what a writer can control in this situation. Narrative structure and voice are not merely matters of style; to a market-savvy writer — they are also matters of strategy.

And, frankly, the oh-so-common practice of conjunction overuse is not particularly good strategy at any point in a submission or contest entry. If you lean too hard on any single narrative tool in your writer’s kit in those early pages, Millicent and her ilk are not going to stick around to see whether you’ve mended your ways by page 25, alas. They’re going to stop reading, so they may move on to the next submission.

Do I hear some moaning out there that’s not attributable to any of my late relatives’ editorial rantings? “But Anne!” these disembodied voices moan, bravely beginning their protest with a conjunction, thereby risking a thunderbolt flung by Uncle Alex and whatever minor deities he may have managed to befriend in his time in the choir eternal; he always did throw great parties. “Not every book’s best writing falls on its first page, or even within its first chapter. Many, many writers take a chapter or two to warm up to their topics. So doesn’t this practice give an unfair advantage to those writers who do front-load their work?”

In a word, yes. Next question?

In fact, I would highly recommend front-loading your submission or contest entry with your best writing, because I want your work to succeed. Again, we could waste a lot of energy complaining about the necessity for this (which I’m sure all of us could, at great length), but I would rather we concentrate instead upon heading the problem off at the proverbial pass.

Ready to exercise some authorial autonomy? Excellent. Whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

(1) Print out at least the first 5 pages of your submission. If you want to be very thorough, print the entire first chapter, as well a random page from each subsequent chapter.

And before anybody asks: no, reading through those pages on your computer’s screen is not an adequate substitute, for our purposes. Nor is simply doing a Word search for conjunctions. The goal here is not to come up with a simple accounting of how often you are using these words, but to spot patterns in how and where you are habitually including them.

(2) Pick a pen color for and, another for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets as well), and a third for then. If you are prone to equivocation, you might want to designate a fourth for or.

Why these words and no others? Well, these particular ones tend to get a real workout in the average manuscript: when writers are trying to cover material rapidly, for instance, and, but, and then often appear many times per page. Or per paragraph.

Or even per sentence. Yes, really.

(3) Mark every single time each of those words appears on your pages.

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but every instance. Don’t fudge — the experiment will not be nearly so useful.

(4) After you have finished inking, go back and re-examine every use of then, asking yourself: could I revise that sentence to cut the word entirely? If it begins a sentence, is that the most effective opening?

(5) If you were even tempted to skip Step 4, does then appear more than once within those first 5 pages? More than once on page 1?

At the risk of seeming draconian, you should seriously consider excising every single use of then in those opening pages — and at least toy with getting rid of most thereafter. Sound drastic? Believe me, I have an excellent reason for suggesting it: some professional readers’ visceral negative reaction to repetitive use of then borders on the physically painful.

Why? Well, it’s one of the first words any professional editor would cut from a text — and with good reason. In written English, pretty much any event that is described after any other event is assumed to have happened later than the first described, unless the text specifies otherwise. For instance:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, then slid them onto the plate, and then served them.

Ostensibly, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence, right? Perhaps not, but given the average reader’s belief that time is linear, it is logically identical to:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, and served them.

Technically, then is entirely unnecessary here. In not entirely unrelated news, then is almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker.

“Pardon my asking,” Millicent says, wondering why I have a latté at my elbow and she doesn’t, “but why is do submissions so often include it repeatedly, as if it were stylish? Or, if appears frequently enough, as a characteristic of authorial voice? It’s seldom necessary, and it’s hardly original.”

That would be hard for anyone who has read more than a handful of manuscripts or contest entries to dispute, Millie. To professional eyes, the percussive use of then is logically redundant, at best. At worst, it’s a sign that the writer is getting a bit tired of writing interestingly about a series of events and so crammed them all into a list.

Is this really the reaction you want to elicit to your narrative voice within the first few pages of your book?

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to omit temporal thens altogether in your writing unless the event described after them is a genuine surprise or occurred so abruptly that it would have been so to onlookers. Here’s an instance where the use is undoubtedly justified:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate — then flung their steaming runniness into Anselmo’s astonished face, scarring him for life.

Now that’s a then that signals a change in sentence direction, isn’t it? Reserving the device for this use will render your thens substantially more powerful.

(6) Turn your attention now to the buts, howevers, and yets on your marked-up pages. Each time they appear, ask yourself: is the clause that immediately follows the word ACTUALLY a shift in meaning from what has come immediately before it? If not, consider excising the words altogether.

I hear more squawking from the non-celestial peanut gallery. “But Anne,” they cry, bravely persisting in their long-term habit of opening every protest hurled my way with a conjunction, “you can’t seriously mean that! Don’t you mean that I should carefully rewrite the sentence, substituting another word that means precisely the same as but, however, or yet? The whole point of my introducing however and yet was to give my but a periodic rest!”

Good question, but-resters, but I did mean what I said. But, however and yet logically imply contradiction to what has already been stated. Yet many aspiring writers use these words simply as transitions, a way to make the sentence before seem to flow naturally — that is, in a way that sounds like conversation — into the next.

What I’m suggesting here is not that you remove every legitimate negation, but rather that you should remove the negative conjunctions that are misused. Let’s take a gander at what a savvy reviser might spare.

Bartholomew wanted to answer, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Josette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, his epi pen, bottle of antihistamines, and seventeen homeopathic remedies were in the pocket of his fetching dressing gown, so he need not panic. Yet now that he began to search for it, his personal first-aid kit seemed to have vanished from its usual resting-place.

“Cat got your tongue?” Josette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

I would vote for keeping all of buts, howevers, and yets in this passage. Each is serving its proper function: they are introducing new facts that are genuinely opposed to those that came just before the conjunction.

That is not always the case, alas. Take a look at a version of the same scene where none of these words is ushering in a twist related to the last information before it:

Bartholomew settled his fetching dressing gown around him irritably, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Josette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, he could not breathe. Yet his asthma seemed to be kicking in full force.

“Cat got your tongue?” Josette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

See the difference? By including conjunctions that imply an opposition is to follow, but not delivering upon it, the transitional buts, howevers, and yets ring false.

Yes, this level of textual analysis is a heck of a lot of work, now that you mention it. Strategically, it’s worth it, though: this device is so popular amongst aspiring writers that the transitional but has become, you guessed it, a common screeners’ pet peeve.

Harrumphs all round from my interlocutors, earth-bound and otherwise. “No big surprise there,” they huff. “To hear you tell it, it doesn’t take much for a writerly preference to graduate to industry pet peeve.”

Actually, it does take much — much repetition. It just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover that out of any 100 submissions, a good 92 will all share this narrative device. Trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked conjunctions.

Or if you don’t overuse favorite words in general. Honestly, those of us that write for the American market have no excuse. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

“So why on earth,” Millicent wonders, rejoining us after a coffee run, “do these submissions keep leaning so heavily on to be, to have, to think, to walk, to see, to say, and to take? If it happened in, say, one submission out of fifty, I could cope with it, but every other one?”

Good question, Millie. Varying word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics.

I wish more first-time submitters knew that, but usually, US writers have been taught just the opposite: throughout their school years, teachers kept quoting either Mark Twain or Somerset Maugham’s (depending upon how old the teachers were, and what examples their teachers had used) overworked axioms about never using a complex word when a simple word would do.

The reason that your teachers told you this is not that simple, straightforward words are inherently better than polysyllabic ones, but because they were trying to prevent you from making the opposite mistake: a narrative that sounds as if it has swallowed a thesaurus whole, dragging in pretentious or obsolete words inappropriate to the book category or target market.

For most manuscripts, this is still pretty good advice. To see why, we have only to glance at a genre- and character-inappropriate vocabulary shoved into the mouth of a protagonist — particularly common in memoir and autobiographical fiction, incidentally, in which the writer wishes to indicate, however subtly, that Our Hero is much, much smarter than everybody else in the story. To pile the pet peeves even higher, let’s make it a child that talks like an adult.

“Hey,” Mom shouted. “Did someone take the pie?”

“In the entirety of my five and a half years’ subsistence, situated upon this terrestrial sphere,” Babette murmured, “I have seldom been so incensed. Nay, apoplectic. That you, Mater, would indict me of having pilfered, purloined, and/or absconded with your irreplaceable peach pie, in lieu of interrogating my shifty-eyed sibling, flabbergasts me. I mandate an instantaneous act of contrition.”

“Yeah, you and what army?” Benjy sneered, kicking his high chair.

“Now, now,” Mom said. “Stop squabbling, children.”

Even if young Babette’s speaking like an 18th-century clergyman were somehow in character, it’s distracting that the text suddenly breaks out in SAT words. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for Millie, but there are few book categories in which the vocabulary level displayed above would be audience-appropriate.

Remember, the standard vocabulary expectation for adult fiction is a 10th-grade reading level; in many genres, it’s even lower. Doing a bit of reading in your chosen category can help you figure out where to pitch your word choices — and how broad a vocabulary Millicent is likely to expect in your manuscript.

Why is this a good idea? Not only is the gratuitous induction of polysyllabic terminology into a tome formulated for a less erudite audience not liable to galvanize a professional reader into spontaneous cries of “Huzzah!” (see how silly it looks on the page?) — it can also stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, knocking the reader out of the story.

The much-hyped 2007 movie JUNO contained such an excellent example of this that you might want to consider renting it just to see this phenomenon in action. After spending fully two-thirds of the film establishing the protagonist’s father as a Working Man with a Heart of Gold, living in a house that apparently contains no books, repeatedly telling better-heeled folk that he’s just a plain man, and who never once mentions to his pregnant 16-year-old daughter that her condition might conceivably (so to speak) affect any future college plans she might have, he says to his daughter, “You look morose.”

At which, naturally, half of my fellow theatergoers laughed, believing this line to be a joke. Morose didn’t seem to be a word that this particular character would ever use — or that his otherwise estimable daughter could spell. Yet from context, it wasn’t intended humorously: evidently, the screenwriter simply liked the word.

Nothing wrong with that, of course — but as I may have mentioned earlier in this series, authorial affection is not always sufficient justification to include a pet word or phrase. If a word is not book-category appropriate, think seriously about finding a substitute. That’s not compromising your artistic vision; that’s gearing your voice to your audience.

It’s also a necessary step towards individualizing your authorial voice. Just as a matter of practicality, if Millicent has already seen several conjunction-heavy narratives within the last hour, it’s going to be significantly more difficult to impress her with the originality of a manuscript that’s embraced a similar narrative strategy.

Speaking of developing a sensitivity to repetition across manuscripts, as well as within them, did anyone happen to catch the too-close similarity of Yvette, Josette, and Babette in today’s examples? “What’s going on?” Millicent shouts immediately after burning her lip on her too-hot latte. “A plague of -ettes? Did a bestseller from a year ago feature a heroine with an -ette name, and are the writers of these passages copying that?”

Well caught, Millicent: writers often harbor affection for similar names. But just as a skimming reader is likely to mix up those whose names begin with the same first letter — a real pity, as Joan, Jane, Joanne have virtually nothing in common otherwise — names with similar characteristics, or even ones that sound similar, may cause unnecessary confusion. Or don’t you believe that, Jon, Von, Van, and Alan?

Wow, we’ve covered a lot of ground today, have we not? But don’t toss out those marked-up pages, please: we shall be talking more about overused conjunctions in the days to come. Next time, it’s on to the ands.

Keep up the good work!

At the risk of repeating myself, part IV: evading the tentacles of the dreaded Millicent-irritating squid

Happy St. George’s Day, everybody! Traditionally, the streets of Barcelona are filled with rose sellers and bookstalls on this day: the custom has long been to give one’s love a rose and a book to mark the occasion.

Why the book? It’s Miguel de Cervantes’ birthday. DON QUIXOTE was one of the first large-scale bestsellers.

In the spirit of celebration, I’d like to share few bits of happy news before I launch into today’s peroration on all things repetitive. First, in recognition of William Shakespeare’s birthday (you still have an hour or so to run out and buy him a present, West Coasters, if you forgot to pick one up when you bought Cervantes’), magnificent historical novelist, lyrical actress, and all-around Bard maven Nicole Galland has written a lovely article on the Huffington Post about why his work remains well worth every English-reading person’s while. Nicely done, Nicki!

(And just between ourselves, Amazon is running an amazing deal right now on her soon-to-be-released novel, I, IAGO: today, they’re offering a whopping 32% off the cover price. Just in case you happened to be looking for a birthday present for anyone.)

As if that weren’t enough to set the Author! Author! masses rejoicing, brilliant fiction stylist and cook extraordinaire (isn’t it fascinating how often the two go hand-in-hand?) Bharti Kirchner’s fifth novel and eighth book, TULIP SEASON has just come out as an e-book, with trade paper to follow soon. This one’s a mystery, and thus a bit of a departure for this well-established literary novelist. Having read a couple of incarnations of this story — oh, you thought that once a writer became a professional, she dropped out of her critique group? — I have to say, I love her voice in the new genre. And that’s saying something, as I consider the ending of her novel Pastries one of my favorite of the last decade of literary fiction releases.

Why? Well, Bharti’s extraordinary eye for nuanced detail and subtle character analysis really shines here. I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s the publisher’s blurb:

A missing domestic-violence counselor. A wealthy and callous husband. A dangerous romance.

Kareena Sinha, an Indian-American domestic-violence counselor, disappears from her Seattle home. When the police dismiss suspicions that she herself was a victim of spousal abuse, her best friend, Mitra Basu, a young landscape designer, resolves to find her. Mitra’s search reveals glimpses of a secret life involving her friend and a Bollywood actor of ill repute. Following the trail, Mitra is lured back to India where she uncovers the actor’s ties to the Mumbai underworld and his financial difficulties –- leading her into a web of life-threatening intrigue where Mitra can’t be sure of Kareena’s safety or her own.

She had you at Bollywood actor of ill repute, didn’t she? It really is quite a ride.

Third, I decided this very morning that I am going to give in to the collective pleas of no fewer than seven apparently otherwise unrelated readers and run a series on the ins and outs of entering literary contests. Beginning later in this week (oh, you thought I had only one more post’s worth of things to say about structural and conceptual repetition?), I shall be talking at length and in my patented obsessive detail about how to select the contest most likely to recognize your particular writing gifts, how to read contest rules, how to follow them (not always the same thing), and most important of all to your entry’s success, what kinds of things judges seek and deplore in entries.

Having both won a major national writing competition and served often as a judge, I’m here to tell you: this stuff isn’t self-evident. Reading contest rules is an acquired skill.

Or so I surmise from the many, many questions I regularly receive on the subject; I have written about it at length before. As is so often the case, I had responded to the first two such requests this year with a cheerful suggestion that the question-askers check out my earlier posts on the subject, conveniently collected under the CONTESTS AND HOW TO ENTER THEM SUCCESSFULLY category heading on the archive list at right. By the fifth such question, I started to wonder if it wasn’t time to run an entire series about it again, rather then answering questions piecemeal. Then this very morning, when the seventh request rolled in, it occurred to me to check just how long it had been since I had tackled that Herculean task.

Let me put it this way: the last time I set aside a couple of months to blog about it, the economy was humming along just fine. So was the publishing industry: people were still buying new books in droves. . (One of the seldom-discussed aspects of the book world’s contraction: used book sales never declined; according to all of the data I have seen, they actually went up.) They were just the teensiest bit concerned about the rumored e-publishing phenomenon, but like every other fad, they were pretty confident that it would pass quickly.

It’s time, in short.

To make the timing seem even more apt, I’m going to resurrect my 2008 strategy of picking a specific contest to discuss. Why? Well, it’s always helpful to have a concrete example when talking theory — and, let’s face it, it’s more fun if we’re all working on a project together. This time around, I shall be taking a hard, close look at the entry guidelines for the Words and Music, November 28 to December 2. Dare I hope that I will see some of you accepting top honors there?

Okay, back to our business already in progress: craft. Specifically, that most pervasive of submission bugbears, word and phrase repetition?

Surprised that I have so much to say on the subject? Unfortunately, that’s a reflection of submission reality: just as every spring brings a fresh crop of tulips, similar to last years yet not the same, poor Millicent the agency screener’s inbox is continually refilled with manuscript that repeat themselves. And repeat themselves. And did I mention that they repeat themselves?

Not always as obviously as I just did, naturally — although you would be surprised how often even page 1 of a submission contains the same word or phrase three or four times. Why might that be the case? Quite a few, many, and/or a proportion of the writing public, the pushers of the pen, the haunters of the keyboard seem predisposed, have a tendency to, or just plain enjoy saying the same thing, speaking a similar concept, and stepping into the same river twice. Or thrice, three times, a trilogy. Or just plain throwing caution to the winds, grabbing their destinies with both hands, and jumping in that stream with both feet.

Are you thanking the Muses that most human characters possess only two feet, so the narration could not keep revisiting them until there seemed to be seventeen? I assure you, Millicent would be. She sees enough conceptual redundancy in one day of screening to compile her own dictionary of euphemisms.

And enough repetitive information to drive her to distraction. So does her aunt, our old friend Mehitabel the veteran contest judge. “Why are you telling me this again?” they wail in unison, rending their respective garments. “Are you afraid that I didn’t catch this particular plot point when it first appeared three pages ago? Or do you think I did read it, but I’m just a…”

Because my readership possesses such tender sensibilities, I shall spare you the word those of us who read for a living almost universally apply in these instances. Suffice it to say that it rhymes with squidiot.

As in, “What does this writer think I am, a squidiot?”

Alas for many an otherwise admirably-written manuscript or contest entry, the presumption of squidiocy is a common bugbear for new writers. It’s the squid that whispers in their ears, “Tell, don’t show,” and not just because squids are notorious shortcut-takers. Yes, it’s usually quite a bit quicker and easier to summarize action, dialogue, or emotional response with flat statements — Ambrose was sad. The pair discussed their marital difficulties. Melissa ran up fifteen flights of stairs, turned right, and sent the haunted portrait hurtling to the marble floor below. — rather than showing them through a series of specifics. But convenience is not the squid’s best lure for a rookie writer.

What is? Taunting her with the horrifying possibility that the reader might not draw the correct conclusion.

Has the squid just released a small battalion of you from its capacious arms, or are many of you shouting because you’ve had an insight? “But Anne!” the liberated masses shout. “That’s not what the classic writing advice show, don’t tell means, is it? I’ve always assumed that it referred to the proportion of action to contemplation in the text. Rather than having my protagonist sit around and analyze what’s going on, I’m supposed to stuff my scenes with conflict, right?”

That’s certainly good writing advice, former squid victims, but that’s about avoiding an equally common Millicent-irritant, the passive protagonist. By all means, consider excising scenes in which your protagonist ponders over coffee/tea/a beer/a meal/his cat/the steering wheel of his car what the reader has just seen happen. Ditto with the dialogue in which he explains it all to his best friend/partner on the police force/mother/George, the fellow that lives in his head, because, let’s face it, that’s recapping.

And, frankly, too much recapping can slow a novel’s pace to a crawl. Not to mention endangering Millicent and Mehitabel’s garments. “We just saw this happen!” they moan, shredding their hems. “What kind of a squidiot would I have to be to require a reminder that Hortense fell off a cliff in the previous chapter? In what kind of novel would that not be memorable?”

That’s a different problem than telling the reader what to think about it all, however. Show, don’t tell is what the pros bark at text that consists mostly of summary statements about relationships, activities, emotional states, etc. Instead of setting out a series of actions, revealing gestures, subtly suggestive dialogue, and so forth to demonstrate what is going on, trusting the reader to be intelligent and sensitive enough to draw the correct conclusions from that array of clues, the narrative simply states those conclusions. Or, as is astonishingly common in submissions, both shows the clues and tells the conclusions.

Not quite sure what each option would look like in practice? Okay, here’s a told interaction.

Blue to the bone, Miss M. walked across the room and sat on a tuffet. She was starving. “Where are my curds and whey?” she called crossly.

She was startled by the spider that dropped down beside her. He was polite, but he frightened her away.

Not devoid of interest, stylistically speaking, but hardly a subtle demonstration of human-arachnid relations. Here’s that same series events, shown rather than told.

Miss M. dragged her feet, listless, toward the kitchen, nearly deafened by the rumbling of her stomach. Halfway across the dusty floor, her legs crumbled beneath her. Thank goodness, a tuffet was handy.

“Where are my curds and whey?” she called. “Dag nab it, Goldilocks, you were supposed to have dinner ready an hour ago.”

A cold and slimy leg tapped her on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” a spider as big as a Volkswagen said, “but I believe that’s my seat.”

Palpating, she watched the venom form on its fang, threatening to drop into her eye. She wrenched herself off the tuffet and fled the room.

Makes for more engaging reading, does it not? That’s because the storyline is presented through specifics, not generalities. Yet the intended meaning comes across just the same; the reader is simply presumed to be free enough of pernicious squidiotic influences to be able to follow what’s going on without being told outright.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s allow the dreaded assumption of squidiocy to pervade the narrative. Here’s what might happen if the squid persuaded our example-writer that Millicent could not be relied upon to conclude that two plus two might render something in the neighborhood of four.

Miss M. dragged her feet because she was listless. She was headed toward the kitchen, nearly deafened by the rumbling of her stomach; she was hungry. That trip took her halfway across the dusty floor, where her legs gave out beneath her, as she was tired. Thank goodness, a tuffet was handy, so she sat on it.

“Where are my curds and whey?” she called crossly into the kitchen, where her fellow fable inhabitant was cooking. That’s what kitchens are for, in case you didn’t know. “Dag nab it, Goldilocks, you were supposed to have dinner ready an hour ago. I am hungry, so I would like to have it sooner.”

A cold and slimy leg tapped her on the shoulder. It belonged to a spider as big as a Volkswagen hanging over her, attached by a thin strand of web from the chandelier. “Excuse me,” it said, “but I believe that’s my seat.”

She reacted with horror. Palpating, her heart beating fast, she watched the venom form on its fang, threatening to drop into her eye, where it might poison and even kill her. Fearing for her life, she wrenched herself off the tuffet and fled the room to the kitchen, where her friend was. Goldy might save her; she had bear-fighting experience.

A trifle over-explained, isn’t it? Cue the garment-rending: “What does the writer of CHARACTERS FROM THE NURSERY IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR think I am? A — wait for it — squidiot?

No, Millicent and Mehitabel, the writer of that last example or any of the hundreds of thousands like it you have seen does not think you are a squidiot (although s/he may harbor that suspicion about the end reader). In all probability, s/he merely thought s/he was being thorough.

Or that the phrasing was so nice that it bore inclusion. Or because another part of the scene/chapter/book was running long, and the writer thought that s/he should bulk this part up for balance. Or — and this motivates writers more often than any of us care to admit — s/he just liked the way it sounded and/or looked on the page.

Unfortunately, writers often like the look of certain phrases a little too much — and not necessarily, as most professional readers presume, because they simply love the sight of their own words on the page so much that they cannot bear to cut a single one of them, or because they are so arrogant about their talent that they believe no one will care if they reuse text or concepts, as many contest judges reluctantly come to believe.

I think there is something else going on here, benign in intent but inadvertently harmful to the texts in question. I illustrate the phenomenon with a parable.

Around this time last year — the tulips had just begun blooming, as I recall, in slightly inaccurate salute to St. George — I was puzzled into wakefulness by my significant other’s waving a soy latté and a freshly-baked pretzel under my nose. A new German bakery had opened in our neighborhood, and he’s terrified that it will go out of business without our daily support. A reliable source for Black Forest cake and hot dogs baked into the middle of pretzel dough is not to be taken for granted, after all.

Now, I’m as fond of a good pretzel as the next person, but at 8 a.m., I must confess, my tastes run much more to sleep. If I must be awake, a cup of tea is more my cup of tea. Even if it were not, obtaining mustard-laden foodstuffs would not be my first order of business before, say, five p.m. Nor is rock salt my favorite pillow covering, given my druthers.

Rick, however, subscribes to the surprisingly pervasive school of thought that holds what a person has said she liked once, ever, will come as a pleasant surprise to receive at any randomly-selected moment for the rest of her life. He’s the type of person that will give an 87-year-old a teddy bear for her birthday, because she collected them when she was 50, still liked them at 69, and smiled wanly when he presented her with one while she was blowing out 86 candles. Never mind that every surface in her apartment is covered with the darned things: she liked getting one once, therefore she must enjoy the replication of the experience in perpetuity.

He’s presuming, in short, that she’s the kind of squidiot who enjoys books that explain basic concepts over and over to her. “Show me that generic dialogue one more time,” he must imagine her begging. “The part where everyone is so polite that the characters are indistinguishable from any other people on the planet.”

That being his view of humanity, I suppose I should not have been surprised that his response to my expressing surprise at the advent of a warm pretzel in my mouth was that I had apparently enjoyed a remarkably similar pretzel only two afternoons before. Which, of course, would render it even less likely that I would want another one now, but just try explaining that to a kindly soul in the clutches of a manipulative squid.

The pretzel was turning out to be pretty tasty, though, so rather than take the time to explain at length that piling on more of a good thing does not necessarily improve, well, anything, I decided it would be the better part of valor to thank him graciously and bear my unusual breakfast into a more appropriate environment for consuming something warm and squishy. As I fled, I marveled at how, once again, the muses had tumbled all over themselves to provide me with a delightfully apt metaphor for a craft issue you and I were already discussing.

Oh, wasn’t the parallel instantly self-evident? Allow me to recast it as a self-editing aphorism for the ages, then: what might read beautifully as a stand-alone sentence may not work as well within the context of a page of text. Varying word choice and sentence structure will usually provide the reader with a more pleasurable reading experience than a narrative’s insisting that if something looked good on the page once, it will necessarily look great if it’s repeated.

Resist all sea creatures that tell you otherwise. Millicent and Mehitabel will thank you for it.

Again, I’m sensing that for some reason best known to yourselves, a hefty proportion of my audience would like to see a concrete example of the phenomenon — nay, perhaps several — so you may recognize it in its natural habitat. It comes in a variety of stripes. There’s the version in which favorite phrasing and/or sentence structure is repeated close together, often for rhythmic effect:

What did she want? Mostly, she knew what she didn’t want. Snow White had had it with dwarves. She had had it with princes. Heck, she had even had it with being a princess.

All she wanted, all she ever had wanted, was to be wanted. What was wrong with wanting that?

Or, as Millicent and Mehitabel would see it:

What did she want? Mostly, she knew what she didn’t want. Snow White had had it with dwarves. She had had it with princes. Heck, she had even had it with being a princess.

All she wanted, all she ever had wanted, was to be wanted. What was wrong with wanting that?

Just a touch term-repetitious, is it not? Ditto with the sentence structure. Either can induce garment-rippage, I’m sorry to report.

“I get that the writer wanted to establish a rhythm here,” Millicent mutters, “but what kind of a squidiot would have a vocabulary this small? I certainly don’t, and I doubt the readers of a book like this will, either.”

Don’t believe that an isolated and obviously purposeful repetitive pattern would rise to the level of clothing endangerment? Okay, what if the manuscript in question also exhibited another ubiquitous stripe of repetition, tactic reuse? 37 pages after our last example, this gem accosted our Millie’s weary peepers.

Rapine was so tired of indecision, tired of equivocation, tired of not being able to make up her mind. She didn’t really know what she wanted out of life, but she had reached some conclusions about what she didn’t want. She wanted to be free of the tower. She wanted to be free of her Guardian Witch. But mostly, she wanted to be free of the crushing weight of all that hair.

All she wanted, all she had wanted since she was sixteen, was a sharp pair of scissors. What was wrong with a girl’s wanting a new hairstyle? It’s not as though her future depended upon sporting two-story locks.

Starting to get to you a little, or is the squid still murmuring in your ear that this is just an example of a unique voice demonstrating its uniqueness at two different points in the text? Sorry, Squidbo, but repeating the same words and structures over either the course of a paragraph or the course of a book is the opposite of original: it’s a style choice Millicent and Mehitabel see every day. Imagine, then, the state of their clothing after encountering this gem 153 pages later.

“How dare you accost me?” the first little pig said quavering under the remains of his straw house. “What you want of me that could not have been equally well accomplished by knocking politely?”

The rather large and certainly evil wolf scratched his furry head. “Oh, what do any of us want? To be wanted, I suppose.” He flopped down on the scattered straw. “Man, I’m depressed.”

Piggie rooted his way through the debris to sit by the wolf’s side. “I hear you, Wolfie, but had it ever occurred to you that we might all feel that way? That it might be the fairy tale condition? That it might even be perfectly normal not to know what you want?”

“Ah,” the wolf said, thoughtfully buttering the top of the pig’s head, “but we all know what we don’t want. We don’t want hate. We don’t want war. And as God as my witness, I don’t ever want to be hungry again.”

Is that pretzel starting to taste a little stale? Or would you like another one? No? How about now?

What’s that huffing and puffing I hear out there? Is someone trying to get into my house, or do a few of you want to make a collective observation? “Oh, come on, Anne,” those of you who have not reread your manuscripts recently object, gnawing your fingernails, “this last one isn’t very similar to the first two. Certainly not garment-rendingly similar. I’ll give you that the level of word, phrase, and sentence structure repetition is a bit extreme in the first two examples, but presumably, they didn’t bug M & M too much to read on. Aren’t you picking nits here?”

It’s my job to pick nits, rereading-avoiders. The same might be said of Millicent and Mehitabel. Which is why I can assert with confidence: in a submission, that last passage might as well have been stamped in bright red ink: DITTO. Not only is the trope about knowing and not knowing one’s own desires conceptually redundant (and, let’s face it, not all that original in the first place), but the galloping three-part sentence structure gets a trifle dull to read. At minimum, it encourages the eye to skim.

Admittedly, though, that might not strike writers less eagle-eyed than your good selves. Let’s take a peek at another common species of structural repetition, to see what too-similar sentence structure too close together on a page can do to even a conscientious eye. (Yes, yes, I know: body parts seldom have their own independent motivations. The squid made me do it.)

This time, try our trick of backing up from the computer, then walking slowly toward the screen. As soon as the words come into focus, try reading the following as fast as you can.

“Oh, go away,” Beauty moaned, pulling a silken pillow over her head, “and take your pruning shears with you. Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep?”

“But I fought my way through the briars for you, and I climbed over a fence,” the prince protested. “A stone wall blocked my path, and a pit of snakes slowed me down. Brickbats the size of baseballs beat upon my head, and a dragon singed my toes. Can’t you even make the effort to roll over and look at me?”

Angrily, she complied. “Look, buddy, I don’t know what manners are like where you come from, but in these parts, it’s considered rude to barge into someone’s chamber and start slobbering all over them. Can’t you make any allowance for local mores?”

“But I swam the moat and scaled the castle wall! I toted that barge and lifted that bale. I got a little drunk and I landed in jail.” He clutched at his head. “No, that’s not right. Can’t you see I’m exhausted here?”

Beauty tossed a pillow at him. “Try taking a nap. That’s what I’m going to do.

Notice any visual patterns? All of those rhetorical questions beginning with can’t you, for instance — did your eye try to skip directly from one capital C to the next, without reading what came between? And what about the fact that almost every sentence the prince uttered (as opposed to his stab at rhetorical question-asking) was structured identically: I did X and I did Y? Didn’t all of those ands distract you?

Okay, maybe they didn’t; the squid may have been living with you a bit too long. (You know what Ben Franklin said about fish and houseguests, right? They both begin to stink after three days. And if you think that was a long way to go to make an analogy, well, you have a point, but you wouldn’t believe how often Millicent and Mehitabel encounter this kind of failed humor attempt. The squid is almost as fond of telling writers they are funny as it is of urging writers to explain the obvious.) You must admit, though, that so much structural repetition quickly became pretty boring to read.

And that goes double for concept repetition, even over the course of a fairly lengthy run of text. Or are you saying that you don’t wish I would stop harping on the squid?

The same holds true, believe it or not, with repetitive characterization, recycling the same descriptors or actions every time a particular character sets foot in a scene. Our squiddy friend often tries to convince aspiring writer’s that’s a good idea. Many’s the manuscript in which the hero’s sidekick utters something like, “Well, beats me!” every time the pair meets a challenge, or in which the heroine’s sister sneezes every time a window opens. That makes the character in question memorable, right?

Perhaps, but not necessarily in the way you might hope. As a tactic, this stripe of conceptual repetition seldom works on the page. Trust me, by this late date in literary history, any reasonably experienced Millie or Mehitabel will already have seen thousands of characters announce themselves through personal stock phrases and/or activity tics that this characterization will strike her as neither effective nor amusing.

So how will it strike them? As redundant. And, if the dialogue keeps throwing around a stock phrase, repetitive as well.

At the risk of seeming to beat a dead horse, cross the same river twice, and not learn anything from experience, may I add that the same principle applies to retreads of descriptions, reused metaphors and too-similar similes? I’m not just talking about rhapsodizing about every flower in a garden-centered romance as fragrant as a breath of spring or consistently referring to the protagonist’s nefarious boss’ face as frog-like. Although that is indeed annoying for the reader: if you’d like Millicent and Mehitabel to remain fully clothed, varying your descriptions is a good place to start.

No, I’m warning you against waxing poetic about the wolfish fierceness of Brent’s eye on page 147 if you have already treated the reader to observations on the almost lupine ferocity in his eyes on page 83 and its angry canine expressiveness on page 52. Especially when the reader was assured on page 10 that his eyes held an ferocious, almost feral expression reminiscent of a wolf, and the book opened with a lengthy description of an eye in close-up. A distinctly wolfy eye.

“Yes, yes,” Mehitabel sighs, glancing sorrowfully at her shredded blouse. What make those claw marks, some sort of werewolf? “We all get that you’re making a point here: the eye in question is darned wolf-like. I got that the first time you mentioned it. How much of a squidiot would I have to be still not to get it by the fifth time that parallel appears on the page?”

Good question, Hitty. Perhaps squidiocy knows no bounds.

Something else that knows no bounds: professional readers’ astonishment at how many submitters and contest entrants apparently don’t read their own writing closely enough to notice that the same points, phrasing, and metaphors crop up again and again. People who read for a living tend to have quite retentive memories, especially for text. It’s flatly flabbergasting to us that a good writer would not remember having come up with a spectacular phrase, description, or parallel.

But many good writers suffer from phrase amnesia, apparently. Or so the squid would lead us to believe.

If we can convince the big guy to squiggle out of the room for a moment, I’d like to talk to you seriously about the usual result of listening to his blandishments: rejection. Just as using the same (or very similar) phrasing in three paragraphs on page 1 will generally discourage Millicent from turning to page 2, repeating phrases, dialogue, sentence structures, or even imagery too often over a long stretch of text can also lead a manuscript to the same grisly fate.

And although I hate to be the one to break it to you, it sometimes does not take a great deal or very flagrant redundancy to send a submission skittering into the rejection pile. Remember, screeners have to cover a lot of manuscripts in a workday. Once a text has established a repetitive pattern, can you really blame Millie for deciding pretty quickly that the rest of the book will continue it?

Or, to drag one of our running analogies back into the narrative: if Millicent didn’t like the second pretzel of the day, she is likely to take it as given that she’s not going to like the 145th. She will seldom feel the need to gobble up pretzels 3-144 to confirm it.

Why? Because she’s not a squidiot. She can learn from experience — and remember what she has already read.

More on structural repetition follows on the morrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

“Wait, haven’t I read that someplace before?” — Millicent

old-fashioned writing desk in Victoria

Please join me in a moment of silence, campers. Today, I received one of the saddest pieces of news a person can hear from a writer friend: an extremely talented author of my acquaintance reported that her hard disk had crashed, doubtless from overwork. Not a syllable could be salvaged.

In response to those of you who just gasped audibly: yes, she was almost finished writing her next novel. She had circulated only the first four chapters to her critique group, so physical copies of that much still exist. Beyond that, however…

On a not entirely unrelated note, when was the last time you backed up your writing files? Is it recently enough that you could reconstitute your most recent revisions or new text from your unassisted memory?

If the answer to that second question is no, feel free to stop reading right now and make a back-up. At minimum, e-mail them to yourself, for heaven’s sake. I’m perfectly happy to wait, if it means that we can all sleep better tonight, confident that hours, days, weeks, and/or months of your writing time won’t just vanish in the proverbial puff of smoke.

Or ozone, as the case may be. As undoubtedly conducive to creative expression as computers are, the permanence of the results can be illusory. At times like this, I occasionally find myself longing for my father’s good old Olivetti typewriter, or even a simple Edwardian writing desk, like the one above. (Note, please, the requisite photo of a loved one and apparently equally requisite liquor tray.)

True, one had to hit the Olivetti’s keys so hard that when my parents first plopped me down in front of it at age ten to compose the term paper that everyone else in my class was writing by hand, I couldn’t actually force the q, z, p, or ? keys to hit the ribbon with sufficient force to create any impression upon paper. It took me so many hours to write the definitive history paper on the Bonus March that my mother seized the opportunity first to sketch my profile — she had never managed to convince me to sit still long enough before — then to sculpt my head in clay. Considering that my parents insisted that I write it in standard format for book manuscripts, I should probably count myself lucky that she didn’t also have time to cast the sculpture in bronze.

Yes, it was a touch on the tedious side to be forced to retype an entire page in order to rework a single sentence. On the bright side, though, to lose a year’s worth of one’s writing, an author actually had to misplace it physically.

(Were you distracted from the pithiness of that last bon mot by a mental image of a 5th grader using two hands to wrestle the z key into submission? That memory haunts me, too. My mother, however, asks me to inform you that she had faithfully typed my newspaper articles prior to that term paper, and that a little pro of my caliber shouldn’t have graduated from elementary school without learning to touch-type, anyway. And to be fair, she didn’t actually make me try it blindfolded until after I’d turned in the paper.)

Writing on a computer boasts at least one monumental advantage over the all hard copy, all the time method, however: it’s possible, and indeed easy, to check whether that wry observation that just occurred to you also struck you as the last word in style back when you were composing Chapter 3. And Chapter 7. And possibly Chapter 16.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that you had repeated yourself? Trust me, Millicent the agency screener will.

Since aspiring writers so seldom catch their own phrasing reuse, I’m going to spend the next couple of days talking about that ever-popular birthmark of Frankenstein manuscripts everywhere, the sentence — or paragraph, or footnote, or scene — that turns up more than once in a manuscript. Or more than once in a chapter. Or — are you sitting down? — more than once in a page.

Already, I sense some of you rolling your eyes. “Yeah, right, Anne,” writers of 384-page texts huff, “I’m so uncreative, so myopic, so prone to writing only one paragraph per session that I would repeat entire sentences within just a few pages, yet Millicent remembers phrasing so well that she will catch me if I recycle a description from page 73 on page 312.”

Actually, she might — and I hate to be the one to break it to you, but otherwise quite good manuscripts reuse pet phrases all the time. You’ve probably noticed the tendency in the later works of well-established authors, in fact; as television comedy has led us all to expect, revisiting the same premises, jokes, and yes, even descriptions can elicit chortles of delighted recognition from an audience already familiar with one’s work. Heck, Oscar Wilde used to trot out the same laugh lines in play after play after play; he was monumentally good at branding.

For the overwhelming majority of writers, though, self-plagiarism does not constitute a promotional strategy so much as a simple lapse in memory. In the course of writing an entire book, it should perhaps not come as a surprise if the creative brain revisits a favorite turn of phrase, a trenchant observation on the human condition, of striking bit of imagery that strikes a writer as particularly, well, striking.

Hey, if it sounded good in the writer’s mind the first time, what’s to stop it from sounding good the second? Or the fourth? Or the forty-seventh?

Perfectly innocent and understandable, right? Well, perhaps not so much to our old pal Millicent — or her cousin Maury, the editorial assistant, or their aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. To someone who reads manuscripts for a living, such inadvertent redundancy can take on a more sinister aspect: to an uncharitable reader, even a single repetition of a pet phrase can smack of authorial laziness. Or as an aftereffect of that perennial bugbear, insufficient authorial re-reading.

Or, sacre bleu! a first indicator that what she holds in her ink-stained hands is a Frankenstein manuscript.

We’ve all seen Frankenstein manuscripts, right, even if we have not had the misfortune to write one? Many of us have at least a partial monster lurking in a bottom desk drawer or haunting our hard disks, books written over such a long period, in so many moods, at so many different levels of technical skill, and — come on, admit it — under the influence of so many and such varied favorite authors that it would take a small army of literary detectives years of close textual analysis to discern even an embryonic similarity between the authorial voices on pp. 10, 143, and 412.

In a first draft of a first novel, that’s virtually inevitable, right? Contrary to popular opinion amongst those who have never actually sat down in front of the ol’ Olivetti and cranked out a book, few writers are born with completely polished voices; it can take a great deal of trial and error to figure out how to sound original on the page. Then, too, it takes a good, long while to write a book, particularly the first time around: as Millicent would be the first to tell you, it’s not all that uncommon for the manuscript to betray significantly greater technical skill at its end than at its beginning. Or for the first chapter or two to read a great deal more like the end of the book than like the middle, because the writer went back and revised those opening pages after polishing off the draft.

Why is Millicent an expert on the two most common stripes of Frankenstein manuscript? Care to estimate how many first-time novelists and memoirists start querying and submitting their work practically the instant they polish off the first draft? Or the second?

Trust me, those of us who read for a living learn to catch the early warning signs. When Millicent sees a sentence, image, or observation from page 1 turn up on page 26, Frankenstein manuscript warning bells start chiming wildly in her head. From that point on, her already sharp critical sensors turn downright predatory, eager to swoop down upon more tell-tale signs that this is one of those texts whose author either kept changing his mind about the style he wished to embrace — or tone, or target audience, or book category — or just kept revising it so often that the narrative reads like a patchwork of different prose styles.

That does not mean, however, that self-plagiarism does not turn up quite frequently in non-Frankenstein manuscripts. How can an experienced reviser tell the difference? While the Frankenstein manuscript varies substantially as pages pass, the self-plagiarized text merely becomes redundant: passing scenery always described the same manner, for instance, or a clever line of dialogue repeated in Chapters 2, 5, and 24.

Nonfiction writing in general, and academic writing in particular, is notoriously prone to redundancy. So are book proposals. Again, that’s quite understandable. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of footnoting everything in the least questionable, it’s pretty easy to reuse a footnote, for instance, or to come to rely upon stock definitions instead of writing fresh ones every time.

Or, in a memoir, to tell the same anecdote more than once. As, indeed, people who like to talk about themselves tend to do in conversation. (Did I ever tell you about the time my mother wanted me to learn touch-typing as a fifth grader?)

Or, in any kind of writing, for a particular way of describing something to sound good. Many a writer simply finds a certain turn of phrase appealing and forgets that he’s used it before. Or just doesn’t notice, despite the fact that great way to catch this sort of redundancy is — wait for it — to read your manuscript IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

Oh, had I suggested that excellent pre-submission strategy before? Had I in fact mentioned it about once per week throughout Queryfest? How silly of me not to notice.

You may laugh, but actually, it’s quite easy for even a fairly conscientious reviser to miss instances of self-plagiarism on the page, especially if — and most revisers do this — she is reading through the manuscript over several days or even weeks. After all, you have to be gifted with an unusually strong memory for phraseology to stop short in the middle of Chapter 15 and shout, “Hey, I’ve seen that image before, and it was on page 36, paragraph four!”

I don’t mean to frighten you (or do I?), but professional readers frequently have astonishingly accurate memories for text. Millicent might not be able to tell you precisely where she’s seen that Ch. 15 image before, but she will almost certainly have the dim impression that it has appeared earlier in the manuscript. I can positively guarantee you, though, that if the first instance of its use pops up on p. 36, and the second on p. 42, she will most assuredly spot the second as redundant.

She should: professional readers are trained for that.

For a self-editing writer, it can be harder to catch — and harder still to remember if you actually used that sentence elsewhere, or merely thought about it. As inveterate commenter and long-time FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog) Dave so rightly pointed out the last time we discussed this phenomenon, most good writers spend quite a bit of time mulling over any given scene in a book, not to mention revising it later on; it’s not uncommon, therefore, to have a positive welter of mental associations about the evolution of the aforementioned pp. 36 and 42. Add to that the fact that a reader’s eye will tend to pass over smoothly-written text pretty quickly, especially if it’s a scene he’s read before, and reading through one’s own manuscript by definition entails re-reading, and can we really be surprised when repeated phrasing passes unnoticed under the reviser’s gaze?

Even when the repeated phraseology or image does jump out at the rereading reviser (try saying that four times fast!), it won’t necessarily be for a negative reason. It’s not unheard-of for writers to prefer repeating bits of their own work: those turns of phrase are his favorites for a reason, presumably. They linger in his ears pleasingly when he reads them out loud; they strike him as some of his best writing on the page. If pressed, he might admit to wanting to see one of them chiseled on his gravestone.

Yes, those of you who have been jumping up and down with your hands raised for the last couple of paragraphs? “I know what this writer should do!” survivors of English 101 burble excitedly. “It was for precisely this kind of writer’s benefit that Dorothy Parker started urging all of us to kill your darlings. If he loves those phrases so much, they should be the first axed, right?”

Aspiring writers and the English composition teachers who love them just love this piece of revision advice, eager burblers, but if you want to hear anyone who reads for a living choke on the coffee that’s never far from her elbow (hey, you try staying awake uncaffeinated through the fiftieth YA paranormal novel you’ve seen this week), feel free to trot out this most misunderstood piece of writing advice. We’ve too often seen the slash-and-burn effects of this canonical advice in action. Indeed, going through one’s own manuscript, relentlessly slaughtering any writing that strikes one as excellent is a pretty good prescription for creating a Frankenstein manuscript, not healing one.

And it’s not even what Aunt Dorothy was advising writers to do. She wasn’t talking about ruthlessly excising every piece of writing you like and leaving the stuff you like less, people: she was suggesting that you consider taking a critical look at even your favorite sentences and paragraphs. All too often, inexperienced self-editors will simply skip over their pet bits.

That being said, kill your darlings (selectively!) is excellent advice for habitual self-plagiarists. Perhaps a writer need not sacrifice the first of the litter, but the second through seventeenth should definitely go.

That’s especially good strategy if the phrasing repetition was deliberate in the first place. If a line was clever once, many a darling-coddling writer thinks, the reader will find it so the second time — and the fifth, and the forty-seventh. Deliberate redundancy is particularly common with humor: since situation comedies tend to rely upon repetition of catch phrases, many aspiring writers believe that the mere fact of repetition will render a line funny.

On the page, it seldom works. Sorry to be the one to break it to you sitcom lovers, but it quickly becomes tedious on the stage and screen as well.

Don’t believe me? Consider this: as those of us who live in caucus states know to our perennial (or at least quadrennial) sorrow, nowhere is the practice of self-plagiarism more prevalent than in the garden-variety political speech. Not only from speech to speech — oh, you thought your favorite candidate gave a speech only once, then threw it away? She has fourteen more campaign stops today! — but throughout a political season. Heck, as anyone who has listened closely to two consecutive State of the Union addresses can tell you, they often contain the same phrases from year to year No matter how fiercely THE WEST WING tried to promote the notion of presidential speechwriters as ultra-creative writers, if you look at speeches given by the same politician over time, chances are that you’ll find self-plagiarism of epidemic proportions.

There’s a good narrative reason for that, of course: the repetition of an idea makes it memorable. The ideas — and usually even the actual phrases — of the beginning of a political speech invariably recur throughout, to drive the point home.

Doubt that? Okay, answer this: do you think people would remember that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream if he had said it only once in his famous March on Washington speech?

On paper, phrase repetition is often problematic, but in and of itself, repetition does not necessarily equal self-plagiarism. On paper, repetition can seem very cool to the writer, as a means of creating a galloping rhythm. On paper, phrase repetition can be used for emphasis (as I have just done in this very paragraph, much to Millicent’s chagrin).

We all know how phrase repetition can create a sense of momentum in writing, don’t we? Take, for instance, the ending of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from HENRY V:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Now that’s a political speech, caucus-goers: great spoken out loud, but Millicent-enragingly repetitious in print.

Did that last observation catch you by surprise? Yes, this particular speech happened to fall from an exceedingly talented pen, but unfortunately, a lot of poor writers favor this rhythmic device, too. Because it is ubiquitous, it tends to be a rather risky trick to try to pull off in a short piece, such as a synopsis, or in the first few pages of a manuscript submitted for a contest or as part of a query packet.

Please tell me that you aren’t even considering repetitive phrasing in your query. Or that the first line of your synopsis is the first line of your novel. Please. Please. Please?

Why is it dangerous? Well, to professional eyes, trained to search for the repetition of a single verb within a paragraph as evidence of boring writing, we few, we happy few will not necessarily jump off the page for the beauty of its rhythm. In an ultra-quick reading (as virtually all professional readings are, lest we forget), it may be mistaken for an incomplete edit: you meant to change we few to we happy few,” but you forgot to delete the words you did not want, Bill.

A pop quiz to see if you’ve been paying attention: why would a savvy submitter not want to convey the impression of an incomplete editing job? That’s right: because that’s the birthmark of the dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, the fish that Millicent is only too happy to throw back into the sea.

Remember, too, that it may not take many instances of repetition for Millicent to draw this conclusion. The writer may not realize that she has reused a particularly spectacular image from Ch. 1 in Ch. 3, but believe me, if there is repetition, professional readers will catch it.

And no, I don’t care how many times I have to repeat that point. It’s vital for your happiness as a writer to understand that the pros are trained to catch redundancy. Editors in particular are notorious for remembering entire pages verbatim.

It’s a specialized brain function, sharpened by use. When I was teaching at the University of Washington, I was known for noticing when term papers resubmitted in subsequent quarters, even though I read literally hundreds of papers per term. I would even frequently remember who wrote the original. As you may well imagine, I quickly acquired a reputation amongst the fraternities and sororities who kept files of A term papers for their members to, ahem, borrow.

Which is why, in case those of you who have had the good fortune/petrifying experience of receiving professional feedback, paraphrasing what you’ve said earlier in the manuscript tends to be significantly less frowned-upon in editorial circles than outright literal repetition. While very similar passages may earn you an ill-humored rebuke from Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel, generalized repetition usually will not knock you out of consideration if the recurring bits occur far apart, such as at the beginning and end of a book.

In a shorter piece, however — such as, say, those first 50 pages of your novel that nice agent asked you to send for consideration, or the 15 pages plus synopsis — it certainly can cost you. Repetition sticks in the professional reader’s craw, nagging at her psyche like a pebble in a shoe. It’s in your best interest to do it as little as possible.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear some of you out there grumbling. “You told us just a few minutes ago that Oscar Wilde repeated the same quips in one play after another. It became his trademark, in fact. So why should I be punished for using a single particularly sterling line 150 pages apart in my novel?”

You have a point, of course, grumblers. The next time you trot out this argument, you might bolster it by mentioning that Aaron Sorkin reused not only lines and speeches from SPORTS NIGHTin THE WEST WING, but entire plot lines and basic characters.

Tell you what: after you make it big, I give you permission to establish a trademark phrase and use it as often as you like. Until you do — as I sincerely hope you will — all I can do is tell you that phrasing repetition tends to annoy agents, editors, and contest judges.

Seriously, I will repeat it all night. Don’t tempt me.

“But Anne,” I hear the well-read among you protest, and with good reason, “many of the classic novelists I studied in my English 101 class used phrasing repetition to create invocatory rhythms. They also repeated dialogue, because, as you like to point out early and often, real-life dialogue is hugely redundant. If it’s good enough for those long-ago greats, why isn’t it good enough for me — or for Millicent?”

One reason leaps to mind: you’re not writing on a typewriter, are you? You’re probably composing your book in a word processing program. Not only can you spell- and grammar-check with an ease that would have made the late, great Ms. Parker gasp with envy — with the touch of a button or two, you can search your own writing to see if you have used a phrase before.

You think Millicent is unaware of that capacity?

You are perfectly right, though, close readers: all writers of book-length works have repeated themselves at one time or another. If a simile struck us as the height of cleverness last week, chances are good that we will like it next week as well. Each time we use it, it may seem fresh to us. These little forays into self-indulgence are so common, in fact, that literary critics have a name for them: tropes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notorious troper in his short stories. My least favorite: a thwarted heroine’s sobbing out (usually with her face hidden by her smartly-bobbed hair), “I’m so beautiful – why can’t I be happy?” immediately before she does something self-immolatingly stupid to remove herself from the possibility of marrying the story’s protagonist occurs at least four times throughout his collected works.

It may well pop up more; I merely stopped counting after four. That was, not entirely coincidentally, when I threw the book across the room.

Why Uncle Scott found that particular line so very attractive in a pretty woman’s mouth remains a mystery eternal — it’s hard to believe he ever actually heard a sane female utter it, even in jest. But he did, evidently, and now it’s stuck to his name for all eternity.

Learn from his unhappy fate, I beg of you: no matter how marvelous a line of text is, use it only once.

This will require careful reading to enforce. Your garden-variety self-plagiarism is less obvious to the untrained eye than ol’ Scott’s outright dialogue reuse. Spread out over an entire text — or, as it often appears in the case of successful authors of series, once per book — it may be fairly innocuous, the kind of thing that might only bug someone who read manuscripts for a living.

Like, say, Millicent or yours truly. Do not underestimate, for your own sake, our memories. Unbound manuscripts do not typically survive intact being flung across the room.

E.F. Benson, author of two delightful series, the Lucia books and the Dodo books, was evidently extraordinarily fond of using Arctic analogies for one person suddenly grown cold to another. To gather but a small nosegay of examples:

“It was as if an iceberg had spoken,”

“It was as if the North Pole had spoken,”

“icebergs passing in the North Sea” must speak to one another as two characters had, and

“Mapp turned to ice.”

See the problem? As a Benson enthusiast, I was able to come up with four of them without even pulling any of his books off the shelf These repetitions, deliberate or not, stick with the reader, just as surely as repeated phrases stick with the audience of a political speech.

That doesn’t mean it is a bad analogy, of course, if not a startlingly original one. Like any other literary device, however, time it’s used, it becomes less effective.

Yet again, we see an awfully good reason to read your entire book (or requested chapters, or contest submission) out loud before you submit it — and not just as a cursory mumble-through, either. Believe it or not, just as dialogue that seemed fine on the page can suddenly seem stilted when spoken aloud, phrases, sentences, and images that your eye might not catch as repetitious are often quite obvious to the ear.

Another good reason to read aloud: to make sure that each of your major characters speaks in a different cadence. It’s substantially easier for the reader to follow who is speaking when that way.

Don’t stand there and tell me that all of Aaron Sorkin’s and David Mamet’s characters speak in identical cadences, as though they all shared one vast collective mind. To my sensitive antennae, nothing is more potentially migraine-inducing than an evening of the percussive prose of Mamet. (Unless it’s a chamber concert of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest hits.)

As if the prospect of annoying your humble correspondent were not sufficient incentive to eschew identical dialogue patterns for every character, remember what I said back in Queryfest about the dangers of those new to the biz assuming that what the already-established have done, they may get away with as well?

Uh-huh. In a first manuscript, it would be considered poor craft to have every character in the book sound the same. Not to mention poor character development. While I’m on the subject, keep an ear out in your read-through for lines of dialogue that cannot be said aloud in a single breath without passing out — they tend to pull professional readers out of the story.

Why, you shout breathlessly? Well, in real life, listeners tend to interrupt speakers when the latter pause for — wait for it — breath. Cramming too many syllables into an uninterrupted speech usually doesn’t ring true on the page. Allow your characters to breathe occasionally, and your dialogue will seem more realistic.

I’d give you a concrete example, but I meant to post a short blog today, and here I have gone long again. Which begs the question: I’m so beautiful — why can’t I be happy?

There, now at least one real, live human female has said it; don’t say I never did anything for you, Uncle Scott. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXX: is it a mirage, or do I spy the finish line at long last?


No, you’re not seeing things, campers: this is indeed the last Queryfest post. It’s been a long time coming, as the song would have it, and we’ve wandered down a few side paths along the way, but this is, as they say, it.

Yes, I’m relieved, too. Of all the unpleasant tasks that fall to the lot of the aspiring writer, composing query letters is perhaps the most universally-resented necessity. (Synopsis-writing would be first by a mile, but not all aspiring writers are aware that the more successful they are in getting published, the more often they will to have to churn out synopses.) Not only do most writers of book-length works feel, justifiably, that if their talents leaned in the direction of one-page documents, they would have gone in for writing brief epistolary novels, if not short-form poetry — they believe, and not entirely unreasonably, that the ability to write an engaging letter is not the best proof that one can write a novel. Or a memoir. Or a book proposal.

While that may well be true, there’s a pretty good reason that agencies expect anyone who intends to work with them to learn how to write a professional-sounding query: it’s quite an efficient means of assuring that the writers they pick up will have gained at least a minimal working knowledge of publishing. Think about it: as we have seen throughout this series, in order to whip up a solid query letter, a writer must figure out her book’s category, do a bit of research on what agents represent that type of book, come up with a 30-second pitch of the book’s premise or argument (try timing a dramatic reading of the descriptive paragraph sometime), ponder the book’s selling points and/or one’s own platform, and include a SASE.

Honestly, would you have known to do any of that just because you had the inspiration and persistence to write a book? Indirectly, the agent of your dreams has prompted you to take a crash course in many of the skills you will need to become a happily-published author.

Oh, you thought I had lingered on the constituent parts of the query for months on end because letter-writing fascinated me?

To demonstrate just how far we have all come over the course of Queryfest, here is one final example, written by yet another brave, generous, and naturally creative member of the Author! Author! community, A. Verage Reader. I was delighted to see A’s query pop into my inbox: not only does her book sound like a real page-turner, but she has also, like so many well-meaning, talented aspiring writers across the globe, submitted a query that presents our hypothetical agent, Hawkeye McAgentson of Picky & Pickier Literary Management, with a quandary: should she base her decision to request pages upon the story A is telling in her query, or upon how she presents it and herself?

And already, the intrepid few who have been following this series from the very beginning fling your hands into the air. Yes, thoughtful, sharp-eyed, and faithful readers? “But Anne,” you point out, “realistically, would Hawkeye be the one making this decision? Yes, her staff might pass the most successful queries on to her, but Hawkeye is usually busy selling her clients’ books to read every query personally, isn’t she? So wouldn’t the first-round weeding out be performed by our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener?”

Quite right, Queryfest stalwarts, and since this often comes as a gigantic surprise to first-time queriers, how glad I am that you reiterated it. Contrary to popular opinion, most well-established agents simply do not have time to read the thousands of queries they receive, much less to narrow down those thousands to the three or four manuscripts they can reasonably take on per year. That’s why agencies employ Millicents, to reject the overwhelming majority of queries and submissions. That way, the agent can concentrate upon reading the tiny percentage of manuscripts and book proposals that Millie deems well-written, written well for the target audience (not always the same thing), market-ready, something the market is ready for (see last parenthesis), and a storyline or argument likely to interest Hawkeye.

I know, I know: having to make it past Millicent’s notoriously nit-picky scrutiny can seem like an insurmountable barrier. Most queriers would prefer that Hawkeye read every single query and submission herself — or, better still, just allowed potential clients to send the first 50 pages instead of a query. Honestly, though, when yours is one of the dozen or so on Hawkeye’s desk, you’ll be deeply grateful to Millicent for freeing up her boss’ schedule enough to read your work closely.

In that spirit, let’s slip into Millicent’s reading glasses and take a gander at A’s query. If you could request manuscripts from only a couple of the several hundred queriers who contacted Hawkeye this week, would you say yes to this one? (As always, if you are having trouble seeing the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.)

Actually, that was sort of a trick question, wasn’t it? Naturally, Millicent could not have said yes to this query: I don’t employ a Millicent, for the exceedingly simple reason that I am not an agent. I am a freelance editor. And even if I were an agent, I would expect my Millicent to be aware that the proper formal salutation for a lady with a Ph.D. is Dear Dr. Mini.

Actually, the only people I make call me Dr. Mini are medical doctors. It bugs them to such an astonishing degree that as both a trained social scientist and a writer of comedy on serious issues, I feel an intellectual duty to try to find out why.

So had A. sent me this query, I would not have been in a position to give her the answer she wanted. By the terms of this contest, though, she did not send it to me — she sent it to Hawkeye. While the address (or, in this case, non-address) at the top clearly indicates that she intended to mail it to me.

This, I’m afraid, is usually an instant-rejection offense — and far more common than any of us would like to think. Oh, it’s a completely understandable faux pas: A. was probably printing out several queries at once, and the one for this Mini person accidentally ended up in the envelope addressed to Picky & Pickier. Happens all the time. Yet you can hardly blame Hawkeye’s Millicent from taking umbrage at being expected to read a paragraph about how much A. admires somebody else’s blog.

Not that somebody else isn’t flattered, of course. Heaven help A., though, if Hawkeye happens also to blog.

I’m harping on this not only because it is one of the most common (and least-often acknowledged) reasons queries get rejected, but also because about a third of the brave, generous souls who volunteered their query letters for scrutiny here stumbled into precisely the same trap. So, reliably, do between a quarter and a third of the entrants of any writing contest: the rules call for one thing, and the entrant does something else. Care to guess what that means for the contest entries in question?

Uh-huh: “Next!”

Actually, the response should be closer to, “Hey, thank you for saving me some time!” In practice, queries, submissions, and entries that do not conform to expectations, especially when the recipient has taken the time to list those rules for all to see, are a positive boon to overworked professional readers. Millicent, her Aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, and Maury, their cousin who works as an editorial assistant in a small publishing house, can simply reject all of those documents at first glance. That takes much, much less time than reading them in their entirety — and leaves extra time in their respective days to devote to the queries, submissions, and entries that did follow the rules.

In case I’m being too subtle here: read any submission guidelines carefully before you seal that envelope or hit SEND. Assuming that you know what they call for — or, as many aspiring writers presume, wrongly, that every agency or contest out there must necessarily want to see precisely the same things — can be exceedingly costly. Invest the time in double-checking.

Do I hear some tender-hearted souls out there sighing? Yes, I feel sad for all of the good writers with fine books who get rejected on the basis of simple mix-ups, too. Tell you what: let’s pretend that I gave A. the pep talk in that last paragraph before she sent in her query. Let’s further assume that Hawkeye actually does write a blog aimed at helping potential clients, because, honestly, it’s less work for me that way.

Here’s what the query might have looked like in that alternate reality. Again, if you were Millicent, how would you respond?

Do I sense some hesitation out there? “Gee, Anne, I want to read this query with the attention it deserves, but having read so many similar letters throughout the course of Queryfest, I’m afraid I find the presentation here a trifle distracting. Why, for instance, is the date located in the bottom margin, rather than the top, where it belongs? Why, too, is it in a different font? Speaking of fonts, this doesn’t look like 12-point in either Times New Roman or Courier, the standard fonts for the U.S. publishing world. If I had to take a wild guess, I would say it was Calibri 11 point. While I am nit-picking about format, why are the closing and contact information tabbed to 2.5″, rather than halfway across the page? And shouldn’t A. have left room for a signature?”

Congratulations, hesitators: you have begun looking at pages like a screener. Yes, the formatting is off here; the type is indeed too small for any writing intended for submission to an agency. While neither will necessarily present a reading problem — the content of the letter is perfectly clear here, right? — both would raise some reasonable concerns about whether the manuscript being queried would be in standard format. Millicent would have some legitimate reason to expect that it wouldn’t.

And why is that a problem, long-time readers? Chant it with me now: even the most talented writer unfamiliar with the norms of publishing will be more time-consuming for an agent to represent than a similarly-talented writer who has done his homework. The single quickest way for Millicent to judge this is to check how closely the submission adheres to standard format for book manuscripts.

So, again, Millicent may have a reason to say, “Thank you for saving me some time!” That’s sad, because an easily-fixed set of presentation problems have prevented a reading of A’s query on its content.

On the bright side, the choice of typeface was probably not what put Millicent off this version. While not adhering to the industry-standard fonts is seldom a deal-breaker in a query (as it can be in a submission), it’s undeniably true that to the pros, a query in those fonts just seems more professional than one that isn’t.

Don’t not sure why? Okay, here’s A’s query again, with nothing changed but what the hesitating many pointed out. If you were Millicent, would you feel more confident that the writer of this version would be able to send you a manuscript in standard format, or the writer of the original?

Ah, that looks more familiar, doesn’t it? But now that the non-standard formatting no longer distracts your eye, Millicent-of-the-moment, do you notice anything else? Here’s a hint: the overwhelming majority of queries exhibit this problem to a greater or lesser extent.

If, after you perused A’s query carefully, you flung your hand into the air and cried, “There are quite a few typos here — missing commas, misspelled words, and a misused semicolon. Oh, hey, there’s also a dropped word or two. And is it me, but is there an extra space in the non-standard sign-off?” give yourself a gold star for the day. Millicent is constantly astonished at how many queries are apparent neither spell-checked nor proofread.

And no, in response to what half of you just thought very loudly indeed, performing the former does not obviate the necessity of performing the latter. Spell-checkers are not infallible; neither are grammar-checkers. (For some reason that surpasses human understanding, mine is constantly urging me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re and telling me that reflexive pronoun use is always wrong.) There is, I’m afraid, just no substitute for good, old-fashioned proofreading.

Why? Well, now that we know that conclusion-jumping is part of Millie’s job, what do you think she might reasonably assume about a manuscript if the query for it contains misspellings and typos?

Yep. And since an unproofed submission is likely to get rejected, anyway…

Given the grave importance of getting the small details right, how does one maximize the probability of catching small problems before sending off that query, campers? That’s right: since every syllable an aspiring writer submits to an agency is a writing sample, it’s worth your while to re-read your query IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD. It’s simply the easiest way to catch typos, spacing problems, and missing words.

Yes, your neighbors may think you’re a little strange, but hey, no one said the path to publication was easy.

Before I show you A’s query again with that array of minuscule problems corrected, there’s another element in that last draft that might raise Millicent’s delicate eyebrows, as well as her doubts about the manuscript’s being in standard format. Any guesses? There’s another gold star at stake.

If you leapt to your feet and cried, “Why, I had not thought about it on earlier read-throughs, but the numbers under 100 are presented in this query as numbers. In standard format for book manuscripts, those numbers would be written out in full: eighteen, not 18,” help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. As counterintuitive as it may seem, queries are frequently judged as though they were manuscripts; not doubling a dash would be a red flag, too.

Yes, really. Millie’s boss is not going to have time to proofread her clients’ work before submitting it to a publishing house.

So let’s take this query seriously as a writing sample and buff away those little problems, shall we? While we’re at it, let’s change that closing to something more traditional for a formal letter. Do you want to ask for a partial now, Millicent?

Stronger, but I have to say, this version still feels a bit minimal to me. Not merely because there’s quite a bit of room left on the page — a temptation to add plot elements that most queriers would not be able to resist — but because the wording in the opening paragraph and the target audience paragraph are a little, well, ungraceful. Almost as if providing this information were not a compositional pleasure, but an irksome requirement.

Imagine that. Why, an innocent bystander might almost think that writing a query is just an annoying hoop through which aspiring writers have to leap in order to gain a fair reading of their manuscripts.

Surprisingly often, queries make that pervasive attitude quite apparent — and that’s never helpful to a book’s chances. Even if the querier in question happens to phrase distaste for the entire process beautifully, it’s not Millie’s fault that the system is set up this way, is it?

Besides, a flat telling does not show off anyone’s writing to its best advantage. That is, alas, the case here: the writing in those informational paragraphs would not match the tone or writing style of the book description. Based on them alone, Millicent would have a hard time figuring out what A’s writing style was.

Another problem: the importation of generic elements. As we have discussed many times throughout Queryfest (although, in fairness, after A. sent in her query for critique), Millicent sees that line about the word count in about half of the queries that cross her desk: apparently, it’s in quite a few boilerplates floating around out there. That doesn’t mean it is well-written, or that including will, as so many new queriers evidently believe, make your letter sound professional. At this point in querying history, it just sounds like someone else’s writing — and not very interestingly-phrased writing at that.

Why is that problematic? Pull out your hymnals and sing along, Queryfesters: contrary to popular opinion amongst queriers, a query is a writing sample. Since stock phrases are, by definition, not original writing, it’s a better use of page space to write your letter from scratch.

At the risk of repeating myself, I always advise against including word count in a query unless an agency’s submission guidelines specifically ask for it. Fortunately, A’s word count is well within the expected range for her chosen book category, but being much under 60,000 words (estimated at 250 words/page in Times New Roman x the number of pages in the manuscript) or over 100,000 provides Millicent with, you guessed it, a legitimate reason to reject the query.

“Why, thank you!” she exclaims. Or she should.

Since a query is in fact a writing sample, I hesitate to rework the phraseology in order to encourage Millicent to spend more time with this letter: after all, she wants to know what A. sounds like on the page, not me. Far be it from me, too, to compound the already widespread problem of generic query phrasing by adding a new prototype to the mix.

Were I A., however, I might express these sentiments rather differently. A great start: being more specific about why this book is right for Hawkeye. This is something you might like to represent does, you must admit, does beg the question, “Okay, why?” (And what, Millicent wonders, prevented A. from querying her boss before?)

And a forest of hands sprouts in the ether. Yes? “You’ve lost me, Anne,” weary queriers the world over protest. “I get that it’s worth my while to personalize each query slightly, but A. has already done that: she brought up Hawkeye’s blog. Since she’s a long-time reader, does she honestly need to paraphrase the agent’s expressed protagonist preferences, too?”

It’s not strictly necessary, perhaps, but why pass up the opportunity to help Millicent gain a sense of what’s special about this storyline — or a dandy opportunity to say, essentially, “Hey, Hawkeye, I’ve not only read your blog — I have absorbed what you have been saying. Here I am, demonstrating that. Wouldn’t I be good at incorporating your feedback as my client?”

Sound like a tall order for a non-obsequious first paragraph? Not at all: the key lies in specificity, combined with a professional tone. And speaking of creating a professional impression, since the YA market is aimed at readers from 13 to 17, is it really necessary for A. to point out that her book is geared toward that age range?

Seems less forced now, doesn’t it? In this version, the reader’s focus is right where it should be: on the story.

So let’s talk about how A. might render that more appealing to everyone’s favorite screener. To get us started, let’s take a few steps back. Remember a few minutes ago, when I mentioned the desirability of reading one’s query IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before sending it off? Give that a try now, please.

It’s not always clear to whom they refers, is it? That’s quite common in book description paragraphs, I’m sorry to report: because queriers are so eager to cram as much of the storyline as possible into the letter, they frequently include so many plot twists and introduce so many characters that Millicent can’t follow what’s going on.

That’s a real shame here: A. has worked in some delightfully unexpected specifics into this description, but they are getting lost. While that line about the father’s body and the mother’s mind is quite nice, the book description leaves us guessing why going to Poland will remedy the situation; indeed, the phrasing of that third sentence could be interpreted to mean that the mother is left with only one choice, not Meghan. Why Poland, and not, say, Belgium? While we are speculating, what is a Holy Apprentice, and why is it capitalized?

I have no idea; I’m merely asking what Millicent would. Not having read the manuscript in question — which sounds awfully darned exciting, I would only be guessing on these points. So please forgive me, A., if I get the plot wrong as I polish out the question-raisers.

I’m going to begin by highlighting those thus eye-catching bits about the parents and the possessed teddy bear. And while I’m at it, I shall to remove the impression, created by the repeated use of to be, that this is a story that’s told, not shown. More sentences in the active voice will also convey the subtle impression — and, I suspect an accurate one — that this is a fast-paced book.

Ha! If you were looking for additional evidence that it’s significantly more difficult to catch typos on a backlit computer screen than in hard copy, seek no more: as I was tinkering with the text, I noticed that I had missed that problematic punctuation and structure in the last sentence of the fourth paragraph. I shall go ahead and correct it now; let this be a lesson to us both. While I’m nit-picking, I’ll move A’s e-mail address to beneath her phone number. Millicent is more likely to look for it there.

Again, I don’t know if this is how the plot progresses; I have not read the book. Neither has Millicent, though, and she can judge its potential only by what is actually in front of her: the query. Best of luck with it, A!

Now that we have applied Queryfest principles to a wonderfully broad array of readers’ letters to agents, let’s turn our attention to the bigger picture. What have we learned on a larger level about querying?

Six things, I hope — no, make that seven. And just to keep things interesting, the first few may on the surface appear to be mutually contradictory.

First, a successful query letter must contain certain elements, elements that are surprisingly often absent in the prototypes one finds floating around the web. The most frequent omission: a polite opening that gives the agent at least some vague sense of why you picked her, out of all of the agents currently treading the earth’s crust, to approach.

Or, indeed, giving her some clue of what you think she represents. Millicent’s constantly asking herself, “What makes this querier think my boss would be remotely interested in this type of book? As far as I know, she has never sold anything like it.”

I think we all know why that query showed up on her desk: someone did not do his homework well enough to learn that agents specialize. Or to understand why it’s in any querier’s best interest not to make an agent guess why his manuscript would be a good fit for the agency.

Oh, there are some good reasons explanations on these points tend to turn up in prototypes: it’s not a one-size-fits-all feature. A writer would have to do some actual research, not only investing time in learning about each agent he approaches, giving some serious thought to what kind of book he has written, and figuring out the best matches. That’s a far cry from the extremely limited plug-your-book-category-into-a-search-engine research from which most first-time queriers derive their query lists.

Which leads me to Overarching Lesson #2: Because the single easiest kind of query to reject is one for a type of book an agent does not represent, personalized queries tend to work much better than generic ones.

“Oh, great,” I hear the masses mutter. “I’ve been working for months, even years, to get my basic query letter down to a single page without cheating on the margins or font. Are you gearing up to tell me that I will need to write an entirely fresh missive for every single agent I approach?”

Not entirely, no: as we saw in today’s extraordinarily fruitful example — thanks again for volunteering, A! — only the first paragraph would have to alter, in most instance. Unless you plan to gain a new credential or two between the time you send Query A and when you pop Query B into the mailbox, you should be able to use the bulk of a well-written query repeatedly. However, it’s never, ever, EVER a good idea to use an entire query letter again wholesale.

Why not, you ask? Do I hear sweet music in the distance? Like any other reader, individual agents have individual likes and dislikes. As a logical result, there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every agent currently in practice.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, I have devoted so many months to Queryfest: my aim has been not to help you construct a generic letter that will work for every agent to whom you might conceivably decide to send it, but to assist you in ferreting out problems with the personalized missives you’re constructing for each one. Yes, you may well reuse sentences and even entire paragraphs from letter to letter, but as anyone who has had much contact with agents can tell you, these people are not generalists.

What? Still too subtle? Okay, I shall hoist a brick through the nearest window: while Millicents share common pet peeves, each agent, and thus each Millicent, is looking for slightly different things in a query letter.

Stop groaning; it wouldn’t have made good strategic sense to send an identical letter out to everyone, anyway, for reasons we have been discussing for months now. Besides, there is no such a thing as a universally perfect query letter, one that will wow every agent currently hawking books on the planet. It is logically impossible: agents represent different kinds of books, so the moment you mention that your book is a Gothic romance, it is going to be rejected by any agent who does not represent Gothic romances.

It honestly is as simple as that sometimes. Coming to grips with that — and doing the research necessary to avoid knee-jerk rejection — will make you a much, much happier querier than if you cling to the unfortunately ubiquitous belief that the only reason queries ever get rejected is due to some fundamental flaw in the book.

That can happen, of course, but the vast majority of the time, other problems send Millicent’s hand flying toward the form-letter rejection pile. Even if your query side-steps all of the usual pitfalls, however — and I hate to tell you this, because the arbitrary forces of chance are hard to combat — even if your letter is precisely what your targeted agency’s screener has been told to seek amongst the haystack of queries flooding the mailroom, it might still end up in the reject pile if the screener or agent is having a bad day.

What factors might produce that outcome, you ask with fear and trembling? A million and one that are utterly outside the querier’s control.

If the agent has just broken up with her husband of 15 years that morning, for instance, it’s probably not the best time to query her with a heartwarming romance. If she slipped on the stairs yesterday and broke both her wrists, she’s probably not going to be all that receptive this week to even the best knitting book in recorded history. And if he has just sprained his ankle in tripping over that stack of manuscripts he meant to read two months ago, it’s highly unlikely that any query is going to wow him within the next ten minutes, even if it were penned by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare in an unprecedented show of time-traveling collaboration.

No writer, however gifted, can win in such a situation; even the query that wins most will lose some. Don’t squander your precious energies worrying about it.

That being said, a strategic-minded querier can avoid sending e-mailed queries or submissions over the weekend, the most popular time to hit the SEND button: Millicent’s inbox is pretty much guaranteed to be stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. Ditto with the first few days after her boss has returned from a writers’ conference, Labor Day, or, heaven help us, the single heaviest querying time of all, immediately after January 1. Best to avoid slipping anything you want her to approve under her nostrils then.

Unless, of course, she’s just fallen in love, or her college roommate just won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, or she’s found a hundred-dollar bill on the street. Since you probably will not be the first to know if any of those things happens, though, you can’t possibly plan your querying schedule around them. I feel another aphorism coming on: as there will inevitably be aspects of querying success that you cannot control, you will be a significantly happier writer in the long run if you accept that there is inevitably an element of luck involved — as well as writing talent, marketing savvy, and query-construction skill.

To be brutally honest, the luck part took me quite a long time to accept myself. I once received a rejection from an agent who had taken the time to hand-write at the bottom, This is literally the best query letter I have ever read — but I’ll still have to pass. As if that was going to make me feel any better about being rejected.

Can you wonder that this compliment annoyed me far more than it pleased me? Like so many queriers, my mind flooded with resentful questions. Had the agent just completed a conference call with every editor in the business, wherein they held a referendum about the marketability of my type of novel, voting it down by an overwhelming margin? Had she suddenly decided not to represent the kind of book I was presenting, due to a mystical revelation from the god of her choice? Or had the agent just gotten her foot run over by a backhoe, or had gotten engaged five minutes, or decided to lay off half her staff due to budget problems?

Beats me; I’ll never know. Which is kind of funny, because I’ve had some very nice chats with this agent at conferences since.

Whatever was going on at that agency, it was beyond my control. Until I am promoted to minor deity, complete with smiting powers, recipes for infallible love potions, and telepathic control of the mails, I just have to accept that — ready for Overarching Lesson #3? == a writer has no way of affecting when any query (or manuscript, or published book) is going to hit an agent, editor, contest judge, reviewer, or reader’s desk.

Admittedly, as an agented writer, I do have some control over when my agent sees my manuscripts — but even then, it’s up to him when to read them. You can lead a horse to water, etc.

My advice: concentrate on the aspects of the interaction you can control. Like, say, the matters we have discussed today. Or the writing in your query.

Why? We have only to consult Overarching Lesson #4: since every syllable of a query packet is a writing sample, it makes sense to regard the descriptive paragraph not just as a super-fast plot summary, but as an invitation to show off your storytelling skills.

As we saw in today’s example, in an otherwise laudable attempt to try to place as much of the plot or argument in front of Millicent, many queriers simply try to do too much on the querying page. Honestly, all that’s required at this stage is a lively, book-category-appropriate description of the premise, presenting your protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation (for fiction), you as an interesting narrator of your experiences as an interesting person in an interesting situation (for memoir), or your credentials as the world’s best person to argue about an important issue or event (for nonfiction).

Piece o’ cake, right?

Not really, but truly, it’s not as hard as most queriers make it for themselves. Just tell your story in your own voice, rather than in generic-sounding summary statements: it’s the best way to convince Millie that you are one heck of a storyteller.

Above all, be original — and yes, I’m aware that’s not very common querying advice. Consider, however, overarching Lesson #5: as tempting as it may be to make your book sound like a recent bestseller (or to claim it’s the next one), hard-sell techniques do not work in queries or pitches. Since you have so little time to impress an agent, it’s better strategy to use it not to sound like everybody else.

Or, to put it bit more bluntly: if your query does not make it plain how your book is unique, it’s probably not going to impress Millicent. Trust me on this one.

But don’t beat yourself up if your best efforts doesn’t hit a home run every time. Recall, please, Overarching Lesson #6: because of OLs Nos. 1-5, queries get rejected all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with the writing quality or marketability of the book in question. It does not follow logically, then, that if a query gets rejected, the book is necessarily not ready for publication — or, as many disappointed queriers assume, that a rejection from one agency equals a rejection from the industry at large.

Yes, I know: it doesn’t feel like that when you’re trying to work up energy to send out Query #19 right after Rejection #18 arrives. It can seem almost impossible to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and proceed to the next name on your agent list right away, but believe me, the longer that rejection sits on your desk, the harder it will be to work up energy to do it at all.

Please, for your own sake, don’t give yourself time to talk yourself out of sending the next one. Keep pressing forward, and bear in mind Overarching Lesson #7: the only manuscript that stands no chance whatsoever of interesting an agent and getting published is the one that sits in a drawer, perpetually unqueried.

I wouldn’t kid you about that. So try. And keep trying. Your writing is worth it.

Oh, and pat yourself on the back for being serious enough about your writing career to have plowed all the way through Queryfest; it has been a long, hard road. But you don’t come to Author! Author! just to pass the time, right? Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: is compiling a list of events honestly the best way to produce a synopsis?

I seldom advise my readers to drop what they are doing to watch an imbedded video, but I was so struck by Slate.com’s 7-minute synopsis of the previous several seasons of Mad Men that tonight, I’m going to make an exception. At least for those of you who plan to write a synopsis anytime soon: run, don’t walk, to watch the extended plot summary above.

Well, okay, you can just click. But trust me on this one: anyone who has ever even contemplated compressing a book-length tale could benefit from watching this.

Why? Well, it demonstrates beautifully, swiftly, and as well as a spoken-word piece can the central problem with most query- and submission-packet synopses: despite covering a story arc that many, many people have found quite compelling for many years, this summary consists of nothing more but a flatly-told list of purely factual elements. (And, if memory of the show serves, not all of the facts in it are accurate.)

Yes, it could provide someone who just wanted to know what had happened with the essentials, but there’s no sense of causation, character development, or any vestige of the show’s actual charm. Doubly troubling to those who admire the generally fine writing on the show itself, virtually every sentence in this summary is a declarative sentence.

It is, in other words, just a frantic attempt to cover a whole lot of plot as fast as humanly possible. Sound familiar, synopsis-writers?

Unfortunately for the cause of literature, professional readers like Millicent the agency screener see synopses like this all the time. The stories being told may in fact be well-written, fascinating, and crammed to their respective gills with nuanced character development — but Millie would never know that from reading the synopsis. Oh, she doesn’t doubt that the events listed all occur within the manuscript being described, but that’s not the point of a synopsis. The goal here is to make the story sound interesting to read.

Was that resonant thunk I just heard bouncing around the ether the sound of jaws hitting the floor?

I’m not entirely astonished: the overwhelming majority of synopsis-writers, like most queriers, pitchers, and book-length literary contest entrants, labor under the impression that style does not matter in a plot summary.

“If Millicent’s boss were really interested in gaining a sense of how my book was written,” the average synopsizer/query descriptive paragraph-constructor/2-minute pitcher/entrant reasons, “she would ask to see my manuscript. Or at least the opening pages of it. So obviously, the expectation that I should summarize my 400-page opus in 1 page/3 pages/5 pages/1-2 paragraphs in my query/2-minute speech/whatever length the contest rules specify must mean that the length, and not the quality of the storytelling, is the most important element here. All I’m required to do, therefore, is to cram as much of the plot as I can into the stated length. And if that means that the result is just a list of plot elements presented in chronological order, well, that’s the requester’s own fault for asking for so short a summary.”

I get why most first-time synopsis-writers feel this way; honestly, I do. They don’t know — how could they, really? — that writing a synopsis is not just an annoying hoop through which writers of even the most excellent book-length projects must leap in order to get an agent, editor, or contest judge to take a serious gander at their manuscripts. It’s a professional skill that agented writers are expected to develop, because — brace yourself if you are summary-averse — a synopsis is the standard means of presenting a new book concept to one’s agent or editor.

That’s right, those of you who just felt faint: the more successful your first book is, the more likely you are to have to write synopses for subsequent books.

It also means, as those of you currently clutching your chests and hurling invectives at the muses may already have guessed, that Millicent, her boss, the editors to whom they pitch books, and contest judges see a heck of a lot of synopses in any given year. As I intimated above, a stunningly high percentage of them — at the query, submission, and contest-entry stage, at least — are written more or less identically: as a hasty, detail-light series of plot highlights, told almost entirely in declarative sentences and vague summary statements.

Can you honestly blame them, then, if all of those similarly-told stories start to blend together in their minds after a while? Or if they sometimes cannot see past a rushed, sketchy telling to the beautifully-written, complex book upon which it was based?

Yes, that’s depressing, but there’s a silver lining here: the relatively few excitingly-told synopses, pitches, and query letter book descriptions do tend to leap off the page at Millicent and her cronies. Because of their rarity, even some original small touches — a nice descriptive phrase, a detail they’ve never seen before, a bit of if/then logic well handled — can make a professional reader’s day.

I’m sensing some uncomfortable shifting in desk chairs out there, do I not? “But Anne,” many of you shout in frustration, and who could blame you? “If the pros are so longing to see a nicely-written synopsis crammed to capacity with unexpected details, as you maintain, what gives with the length restrictions? It’s not as though every gifted long-form writer is similarly blessed with summarizing talents, after all. Surely, if Millicent wants to be wowed by writing, asking for a synopsis — or, still more limiting, the 1- or 2-paragraph premise description in the query — is not the best way to elicit it.”

Perhaps not, frustrated synopsizers, but remember what I said above about tossing ‘em off being a necessary professional skill? Let’s apply a little if/then logic: if Millicent’s boss is looking for new clients who will be easy to handle (read: will not require a lot of technical hand-holding), then is it in her interest to ask Millie to

(a) be lenient about the writing in the synopsis, because it doesn’t matter as much as the writing on the manuscript page,

(b) apply her imagination to a detail-light synopsis, filling in what the writer did not have space to include,

(c) just accept that due to space limitations, most descriptive paragraphs in queries within a particular book category are going to sound awfully similar,

(d) all of the above, or,

(e) operate on the assumption that a good writer — and, equally important to authorial success, a good storyteller — should be able to wow her within the specified length restrictions.

If you answered (a), welcome to the club of most submitters and contest entrants — and, indeed, the frustrated shouters above. Writing is an art, you reason; producing these extra materials is just an annoying practical exercise. As tempting as it is to blame the format for uninspired writing (because, let’s face it, few writers find synopsis-writing inspiring), though, is it really in your book’s best interest to treat it like irritating busywork, to be polished off as rapidly as humanly possible?

If you said (b), you have thrown in your lot with the countless conscientious queriers, submitters, and contest entrants who want to tell Millicent and her ilk a good story in a short time — but feel that, due to space restrictions, they have to sacrifice unique details to completeness of story. In most cases, this is a false economy: no one seriously expects you to convey the entire story arc of a 360-page book in a single page or paragraph. They are looking for a sense of the main characters, the central conflict, and, in a synopsis, how that conflict will play out.

Rather a different task than telling Millie everything that happens, isn’t it?

If you opted for (c), you might want to take a closer look at the queries and synopsis you have been sending out. Do your synopses make your unique storyline sound like every other book in its category — or like the most recent similar bestseller? If so, is there a way you can work in plot elements that a Millicent familiar with your genre won’t see anywhere else?

Don’t tell me that your manuscript doesn’t contain anything that will astonish her. I have too much faith in your creativity to believe that for a moment.

If you voted for (d), am I correct in assuming that you believe agencies to be non-profit organizations, devoted solely to the promotion of good writing, regardless of whether the fine folks who work there can make a living at it? If so, you’re hardly alone; many, if not most, first-time queriers and submitters cling to this hope. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, such a hefty percentage of those who get rejected once never try again.

And that’s distinctly bad for the cause of literature. Chant it with me, Queryfest faithful: just because one agent says no doesn’t mean that a manuscript is not well-written or a marketable story; it means that one agent has said no.

If, on the other hand, you held out for (e), I’m guessing that the Mad Men synopsis drove you nuts. “Yes, most of these things happened,” you found yourself muttering, “but where’s the storytelling style? Surely, this is not the best way to make an exciting story arc sound exciting.”

I’m with you there, mutterers. So is Millicent. And that clamor you hear outside your studio window? That’s half the literary contest judges in the country, lobbying for you to enter their contests. They’re quite stressed out after years of watching so many well-written entries get yanked out of finalist consideration by a hastily tossed-off accompanying synopsis.

Now that those expectations are lurching around the Author! Author! conversational nook like Frankenstein’s monster, I would like to know what concerns, fears, and moans about technical difficulties those of you struggling to write effective synopses, pitches, and query letter descriptive paragraphs you would like to see hobnobbing with them. What hurdles have you encountered while trying to synopsize your work, and how have you overcome them?

And, speaking more directly to the usual purport of my posts, is there any particular synopsis-related problem you would like me to address here?

As I said, this is a standard professional skill; I toss off synopses all the time. So do quite a few of the people giving advice online about it. So what we might see as the difficulties of the art form — and writing a good synopsis is an art form, as well as a marketing necessity — may well not be what a talented writer coming to it for the first time might experience.

So please chime in, people. I’m here to help. And to save the world from storytelling consisting entirely of summary statements and declarative sentences.

Oh, and to those of you who had been wondering: the promised wrap-up of Queryfest does follow soon. That Mad Men synopsis just passed up too good a teaching opportunity to pass up, even for a day. Keep up the good work!

The threshold of difficult: a tale of three memoirists, or, can’t we all get along?

I’m getting back to you a few days later than I intended in posting, campers, but not for any of the usual reasons. Not that the usual reasons wouldn’t have been more than enough: this last week has been a festival of juggling my editing clients’ deadlines, adapting book promotion advice to the needs of individual books and the ever-changing tastes of the literary market, and dealing with the second week of that allergic reaction I mentioned a couple of posts back, the one that initially made me look like the unholy love child of Boris Karloff from his Bride of Frankenstein period and James Spader, shortly after that unfortunate offspring had been burned at the stake by villagers of the pitchfork-and-torch variety. By this last Monday, the histamine had faded, naturally: for the next four days or so, I merely resembled Cro-Magnon man as it might have been played by Lon Chaney, Sr., of Phantom of the Opera fame.

And some people say there’s no such thing as progress.

No, my excuse for sidling away from the blog this week was far more profound: for the first time in the six-and-a-half-year Author! Author! hegemony, I found myself wondering whether I should blog about a power dynamic relatively common in agent-writer and editor-author relationships. Not because its existence is any secret — as any faithful attendee of literary conferences knows, plenty of the pros are not shy about sharing stories of difficult clients — but because I hesitated to add more complaints to the already-burgeoning array of horror stories floating around the Internet. As long-term Author! Author! readers know, I’m very aware of how easily professional advice to writers can get twisted in the retelling: what might begin as a single weary, battle-scarred agent blurting out a pet peeve or expressing a personal preference on a conference dais can all too often end up being presented online as a universally-applicable rule of submission, querying, or even writing style three months later.

“But Anne!” those of you fond of trawling the web to form composite impressions of wildly contradictory advice protest, and who could blame you? “What’s wrong with that? Obviously, someone in the conference audience heard what the weary agent said and wanted to warn other writers away from running afoul of that agent’s pet peeve — or any agent’s pet peeve, for that matter. Speaking of horror stories, we’ve all heard our share about how easy it is for a well-meaning-but-industry-ignorant writer to blunder into being labeled (shudder) difficult. I, for one, am grateful for that plethora of warnings.”

I’m not faulting the motives of those who choose to pass such admonitions along — the first time. That is indeed often a generous move. The problem arises when that initial warning gets passed along again (and again, and again), often with tweaks, embellishments, and, let’s face it, incorrect interpretations. As should not come as much of a surprise to anyone who has ever played the magic game of Telephone, by the tenth, fifteenth, or fiftieth retelling, the pro who first uttered the advice would not recognize it. Frequently, it’s not just the content that changes; you’d be amazed how often a single observation about a unique situation gets transmogrified into a barked order about what must be done in every instance.

Oh, you thought that a sweeping axiom like the surprisingly ubiquitous agents hate it when writers use adverbs started life that way? Hardly likely. From a professional point of view, it’s an absurd assertion: sometimes adverbs make sense to use, sometimes they don’t.

It’s not at all difficult to picture, though, some poor agent sighing over an opening page in which every other sentence is decorated with an -ly — or that same agent talking about it on a conference panel a week later. With half the aspiring writers in the audience frantically scribbling notes, it’s only reasonable to expect Agent X hates adverbs to turn up online fairly shortly thereafter, right? Or for the next person to pass the news along to report it as agents hate adverbs? And, down the line, for someone who misunderstood the point of an English class exercise aimed at improving characterization in dialogue to conflate instead of Herbert said angrily, why not try showing his anger in his speech? with the shocking news about agents breaking out in hives the instant they clap eyes on an adverb in a submission, creating a universal axiom that no good writer uses adverbs, ever.

Which, I suspect, would come as something of a surprise to Agent X. As the most cursory glance through his clients’ published novels and memoirs would demonstrate, he’s a great fan of the skillfully-applied adverb.

At the risk of coining an axiom, both the source and the context are important to consider when weighing writing advice. And that goes double for anything you may hear about the kind of behavior that gets writers labeled difficult.

Oh, I’m not saying that you should not worry about the phenomenon: it definitely exists, and it is most assuredly true that writers unfamiliar with the rules of the game occasionally find themselves on the receiving end of the epithet without perceiving that an interaction has gone awry. I’m just saying that when you hear a blanket rule asserted, you might want to ask some follow-up questions about how the asserter knows it to be true. And when you stumble upon one of those third-hand this-is-how-a-writer-got-dropped horror stories, whether told from the agent’s, editor’s, or writer’s perspective, you might want to consider the possibility that the original teller’s intent is not being borne out in the version before you. Or — and this is true more often than any of us who give writers advice online might like to think — that a conclusion drawn from a single person’s reaction to a single instance might not in fact be reflective of an industry-wide feeling about a pervasive phenomenon.

I’m going to be talking about some of those pervasive phenomena a little bit later — hey, I wasn’t kidding about being hesitant to blog about some of this stuff — but first, let’s address that widespread writerly fear of running afoul of unspoken rules. As I said, it’s not entirely unjustified: what experience has made self-evidently rude to someone working in an agency might not strike someone new to the querying process as even vaguely impolite.

Take cold-calling an agent, for instance: if you’d like to see an entire panel of publishing professionals cringe in unison, by all means, raise your hand in an agents’ forum and ask if it’s okay to call an agent instead of querying in writing. Chances are, every agent on the dais will have a personal horror story about that pushy aspiring writer who thought, wrongly, that if a hard-sell technique works for used cars, why, only a spineless wimp would content himself with writing a query letter, sending it off, and waiting weeks or months for a reply. Why wait that long, when the agency that represented Tuesdays with Morrie has a listed telephone number?

Oh, you may laugh (at least, I hope those of you who have queried or pitched before are), but agencies get approached like this all the time. As you may have heard, agents hate it.

Unfortunately, those who have heard that are not the only people who want to land agents. So why not just call, the writer who has not taken the time to learn how books actually get published reasons, perhaps pretending to be a personal friend of the agent’s to get past Millicent, and explain to the agent how he just has to drop everything to read his manuscript? While he’s at it, wouldn’t it strengthen the appeal to go on a tirade about how much he wants to get published — unlike, say, every other writer who contacts the agency?

Why? To anyone not new to the agency biz, the answer is simple: because agencies simply don’t work that way, and with good reason. Think about it: if an agent got a reputation for saying yes to this kind of approach, he would be inundated with calls from precisely the type of writer that most agencies do not want to represent, those who believe that being talented grants them the right to expect instantaneous, personal attention.

Which is, incidentally, usually the way difficult gets defined in a publishing context: a writer’s not following prevailing industry etiquette in a manner that requires someone within it to expend unanticipated time and energy in dealing with her.

That covers a lot of territory, obviously, but once a writer understands this underlying principle, not being difficult becomes, well, easier. Instead of trying to learn and abide by each rule of etiquette one at time, laboriously, as if they existed in a vacuum, a writer can simply look at what she is being asked to do, compare it to what she is planning to do, and ask, “Okay, will this make more work for the agent/editor/contest judge? And if so, is the benefit I hope to derive from it worth the risk of eating up more of that person’s time?”

Don’t you wish someone had told you about that test before the first time you queried or submitted to an agent? Unfortunately, this measure of behavior is so self-evidently applicable to those who would actually be inconvenienced by violated expectations that it’s rarely discussed in the company of writers, except as a complaint.

Except, perhaps, phrased as send what we tell you to send, not what you want us to see. And please believe us that we chose the query format for a reason.

By either of these standards, the clueless caller above is clearly difficult, but so is the submitter who, when asked to send the first ten pages of a manuscript, sends fifteen. In both cases, the agent (or, in the second instance, her Millicent) would have to spend valuable time handling a situation she had no way to see coming: chatting with a writer calling out of the blue, reading those extra pages. Since the writer in both cases is being difficult — and does it really matter from her point of view whether the behavior is the result of ignorance or inconsideration? — why should she bother to invest that time at all? Why not just reject the writer out of hand?

Was that thunderous clamor out there in the ether the sound of a good third of you leaping to your feet? Perhaps — and I’m only guessing here — the third of you who have in the past sent more pages than an agent requested? Or that a contest’s rules specified? “But Anne,” the over-sending many shout, “I didn’t mean to be difficult. Surely, no one serious about evaluating writing would want to base that assessment on two-thirds of a scene. Wasn’t I being nice to care about the agent’s reading experience? Or are you saying that I should have rewritten the scene so that it ended on page 10?”

Neither, as it happens: you should have sent the first ten pages. Period. Sending more is being difficult.

Your audible huffs of annoyance are understandable, over-senders, but here we have an instance where the perception of inconsideration differs wildly from the writer’s and agent’s perspectives. You assumed, and not unreasonably, that the request for a partial, contest’s length restriction, or permission to send a specified number of pages with your query was not only intended to provide the agent with an indication of your writing style, the professionalism of your presentation, the voice of the book in question, its appropriateness for your target audience, and how you handle narrative, but to demonstrate how you structure a full scene.

Oh, you didn’t think about it that much? You just thought it would make better reading if the writing sample didn’t get cut off in mid-paragraph?

I hate to break it to you, but either way, an over-sender deliberately disregards a request for a specific number of pages. That’s not only difficult, from the recipient’s perspective; that’s rude. Not only does including the extra pages imply an expectation that the agent, Millicent, or contest judge will make time to read them, but also — you might want to sit down for this one — a belief that the person requesting that number of pages just didn’t understand that not every manuscript will feature a section or chapter break at the bottom of page 10.

Or 15, or 50, or whatever length the requesting agent/contest rules/submission guidelines indicated. Which, from a professional reader’s perspective, is a pretty insulting assumption: honestly, someone who handles manuscripts for a living or has judged more than a single contest entry would have to be awfully unobservant to think that. No one who asks for 10 pages expects a ten-page scene; they want to see if you can write. If an agent or contest wants to read an entire chapter or manuscript, it will ask for it point-blank.

The over-sending writer doesn’t think of it in those terms, naturally; often, he’s just trying to present himself in the best light as a storyteller. In doing so, however, he also presumes, wrongly that the pro will bend the rules in just this one instance. What could another couple of pages matter, after all?

Plenty, to an agent, Millicent, or contest judge who reads tens of thousands of pages a year. Five extra pages on a ten-page writing sample means devoting one and a half times the reading minutes to this submission than one that followed the rules. Why make the exception, when we all know from experience that on the writing grapevine, an anecdote about a single writer-agent interaction can quickly mutate into an immutable rule of conduct?

More to the point, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that a writer who violated one rule or request, however well-meaningly, would do it again in future — and that the belief that the rules really don’t apply to him would be problematic down the line, as well as time-consuming for the agency? If a writer thinks it is acceptable to send 15 pages instead of 10, why wouldn’t he also presume that the agency and the industry are willing to let him fudge on the length of a synopsis? Or an author bio?

Still think it’s unfair to leap to the conclusion that such an aspiring writer would be a difficult client at the query packet stage? Okay, let’s consider how Millicent might make that assessment at the submission stage. Try this one on for size: what if a novelist presumes, not entirely unreasonably, that since publishing houses employ copyeditors, he doesn’t need to proofread or spell-check?

Millicent sees this all the time, of course; usually, she leaps to the conclusion that the writer just can’t spell and/or doesn’t know the rules of grammar. But let’s assume for the moment that an apparently random array of typos pepper an otherwise estimable manuscript. Is that enough evidence to decide that this writer is difficult?

No? Okay, what if a memoirist operates on the assumption that somebody else involved in the publishing process is going to fact-check the parts of the book that she did not experience first-hand, so it really doesn’t matter if her manuscript said the Cuban Revolution occurred in 1952?

Lest anyone be tempted to rip that last line out of context and promulgate it as fact around the Internet: it didn’t. Look it up.

But is this gaffe sufficient to label the writer too difficult to take on as a client? Most aspiring writers would say no; from their perspective, it’s just a minor typo. Would you feel different, though, if the mistake were consistent throughout the manuscript?

Still no? Okay, what if the protagonist’s family had emigrated from Cuba in 1950, and the narrative represented the move as their having fled the revolution? If you were Millicent, would the prospect of your boss’ having to convince the writer that she is wrong about her family’s motivations for coming to this country? Or accuse her of having misrepresented them in order to make a narrative point? And that regardless of why the historical accuracy is off, she is going to have to change either the date or the memoir’s story arc?

Still no takers? Okay, what if a nonfiction writer believes, with some justification, that since her future agent must by definition know much, much more about the current market for her type of book than she does, she’s just not going to bother to include a marketing section in her book proposal? Again, it happens all the time. So does restricting the Competitive Market Analysis to just a couple of books, or limiting the marketing plan to a breezy announcement that since bookstores sometimes allow book signings (a fact that’s sure to astonish anyone currently working in the publishing industry), the writer is willing to show up at any signings the publisher might take the time to set up.

Now Millicent has pretty good reason to believe that not only will this writer be both time-consuming and rather irritating, at least at first, for her agency to represent — do you want to be the one to tell her boss, the agent, that it is his job, not the writer’s, to write the book proposal in its entirety? — but that this writer is actively planning to be time-consuming for the publishing house that picks up her book as well. (These days, first-time authors usually set up their signings themselves.) So the agency will probably have to spend time mediating some disagreements down the line.

What do you think? Too difficult?

I’m sensing that for some of you, even this provocation seems insufficient. “But Anne, I always thought being difficult was a function of how someone works and plays with others, a pattern demonstrated over the course of many incidents over time. I understand that all of the attitudes you describe would result in more work for the agent, but surely each could be fairly easily resolved with just a short explanatory conversation. After all, the writer has every motivation to try to make this relationship work.”

Perhaps, but you would be surprised at how often writers don’t act that way, at least in their earliest interactions with the agents and editors of their dreams. That’s a real pity, because for better or worse, all an agent, her Millicent, and/or a contest judge can base her assessment of a writer upon is the evidence actually in front of her: the query or pitch, accompanying materials, contest entry, requested pages — and that writer’s behavior while providing them. Given that they are charged with the task of selecting a small handful of writers out of the thousands who approach them (or, in the judge’s case, winnowing hundreds of entries down to a list of finalists in the single digits), is it honestly astonishing that they would have developed a tendency to extrapolate ease of working with a writer based upon whether that writer adheres to industry manners and respects the pro’s time?

Believe it or not, writers often do send quite definite messages about their attitudes at the querying stage. Take, for instance, the querier who shrinks the query’s typeface in order to cram more information into a one-page letter. Or the submitter who sends requested pages in a mailing format requiring a signature on the receiving end. Or, sacre bleu, the rejected writer that sees fit to send an e-mail, demanding a complete explanation of a no.

Is this difficult behavior? Well, apply our test: it’s all time-consuming — and frankly, kind of annoying — on the receiving end. How so? Well, he font-shrinker presumes that Millicent will both not notice the deviation from the norms of query presentation (but she will) and be willing to strain her eyes to read the extra parts (but she won’t). The confirmation signature-requirer may not think about the fact that his demand would compel someone at the agency to stop what she is doing in order to pay attention to an arriving package, but believe me, when you’re receiving fifty manuscripts a month, forty-nine of which did not require a work stoppage to accept, it’s noteworthy.

And do we even need to discuss the futility of having a heart-to-heart with an angry writer with whom one has already decided not to work? Or why such a conversation would have no chance whatsoever of changing the agent’s mind? Or, if gravity suddenly began making things fall up, babies abruptly began being born 42 years old, and agents started being open to this sort of follow-up conversation with queriers, the question the agent would have to weigh throughout that conversation would not be gee, did I make a mistake in rejecting this writer? but wow, if this writer is so touchy about a simple, polite no, how will he react when I or his future editor ask him to make changes in his manuscript?

That last one, of course, is the classic publishing pro’s complaint about difficult writers: indeed, the term is often used as a synonym for those so in love with their own words that they are not open to revision suggestions. Those of you who attend writers’ conferences have heard that one before, have you not? It’s right up there with writers are lazy and writers whine about deadlines in complaint popularity.

How popular, you ask? Well, if you walked into that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, sat at the next table over from the agents, and took a sip from your drink every time you overheard one of those three comments, you wouldn’t remember enough about the event the next day to render it a useful learning experience.

Suffice it to say, though, that if you did have a clear enough head to remember it, you would no longer wonder why agents and editors have been known to roll their eyes when writers start to talk about their creative freedom being hampered. Although many, many writers are pretty good about implementing editorial feedback (at least after an initial period of shock has passed), every pro who’s been at it for a while has a personal horror story about that one writer who stamped his feet, screamed, cried, and threatened to sue over a suggestion as practical and simple as “Would you mind changing your protagonist’s sister’s name, since Ellen looks so much in print like Eileen (the villain), Helen (the sidekick), Helene (the schoolyard friend in that flashback), and you’ve chosen for some reason best known to yourself to abbreviate all of those names in the dialogue to El, Eil, Hel, and Hel?”

Oh, you think I’m joking? I once edited a memoir in which the seven daughters of the family’s names all ended in –een — not because those were their names in real life, but because the author felt that this array of synonyms was an essential reflection of the family’s ethnicity. When I pointed out, nicely, that the visual similarity rendered the fifteen (oh, no, another –een!) scenes in which they appeared as a group slightly challenging for readers who had not seen fit to equip themselves with a program to follow, not to mention impossible for a skimmer, the author saw fit to…

Well, let’s just say the reaction wasn’t pretty. Unlike most editors and virtually all agents working with a first-time author, however, I was willing to keep making the case for changing the names not just once, but many times over the course of a few months. But then, unlike denizens of publishing houses and agencies, freelance editors charge by the hour.

That giant thud you just heard, in case you were curious, was the collective stomach of every agented writer reading this hitting the floor immediately after toting up what their last creative disagreement with their representatives would have cost.

I bring up the creative differences issue advisedly: when aspiring writers borrow trouble about the problems they might face in working with an agent or editor at a publishing house, it’s often the concern they express first. Certainly, those of us who answer writers’ questions hear it frequently. Usually, it runs something like this: “My vision of the book doesn’t fit neatly into the publishing industry’s notion of what books like this are like.” (Pause for the advice-giver to ask how, what makes the writer think so — and if he believes his book concept is a category-buster, is it possible he’s assigned it to the wrong book category?) “I know what I want to say, though, and I’m afraid that an agent will ask me to change it to make it easier to sell.”

Well, if the book honestly does contain elements that would render it less marketable, and those elements are not so critical to the story arc or NF argument that they did not trigger rejection all by themselves, this writer is probably right: it would be a good agent’s job to advise him how to maximize the book’s marketability. Writers do, after all, seek out agents because of the latter’s expertise in selling books to publishing houses, right?

Instead of desiring the judicious application of that expertise, however, the change-fearful writer would prefer an agent simply to take the manuscript as he has chosen to form it and walk it around to editors. Happily for the fearer, many good agents’ acceptance standards are so high that they do sometimes — not often — decide to send out a new client’s work without requesting changes. That most emphatically does not mean, though, that the fearful writer’s agent would be pleased if, after interesting an editor in acquiring the book, the writer flatly refused to accept revision requests from the publisher.

Which, in case anyone out there is harboring any illusions on the subject, is the norm for newly-acquired books in the current market, not the exception. It’s also fairly common now — brace yourself, should any of your illusions have survived that last sentence unscathed — for a book under contract to be passed from the control of the acquiring editor to another editor before the manuscript reaches the front of the print queue, due to layoffs, retirements, parental leaves, etc.

Still think Millicent should not be considering ease of working relationship at the querying phase?

Now that I’ve depressed you into a stupor, I’d like to share with you the situations I hemmed and hawed about talking about at all; let’s consider them in the light of the difficulty-assessment criteria we’ve gotten so good at applying. A couple of caveats before we launch, though: I am presenting these not to hold the (heavily fictionalized) persons and (factually accurate) attitudes involved up to ridicule or censure, but in the hope that we might discuss these interactions fruitfully, with an eye toward helping all of you avoid such contretemps in your writing careers.

I do think the matter is ripe for discussion. Although the web is stuffed to the gills with admonitions about what agents love and hate, as well as writers’ complaints, we actually don’t talk all that much — or all that productively — amongst ourselves about how to reconcile professional expectations about how a working writer should interact with the business side of the industry with how those of us on the creative side tend to think of our manuscripts. And that’s a shame, because all too often, when something goes wrong, the writer in the situation can mistakenly believe that she’s the only one to whom it has happened.

Fair warning: some of what is to follow may make some of you angry. Although I understand that it may be tempting to take a few pot shots at the messenger, I do wish you wouldn’t. I also hope that, even if some of this strikes you as unfair — and it probably will — we can concentrate upon how these situations could have been improved or avoided, rather than giving in to the temptation of luxuriating in lamentations.

As I said, there is already quite enough of that on the net, isn’t there?

To keep the conversation from getting too heated or personal feelings getting hurt, I would like to reiterate that the people here are all fictionalized, to protect the parties involved. Sexes have been changed; story details have been significantly altered; no publishing professional or house is identifiable. So if any of the resulting case studies happens to bear any resemblance to something that happened to you or someone you know, please take it as a testament to just how pervasive these phenomena are, rather than a provocation to clutch your heart, cry, “Mon dieu, that’s me/my critique partner, Sheila/my agent!” and tumble sideways in a heap.

So please help me welcome, with compassion and an open mind, three well-meaning memoirists, Huey, Dewey, and Louise. In order to help clarify the sometimes hard-to-discern missteps, miscommunications, and power dynamics, I’m going to tell each of their stories twice: once from the writer’s point of view, and once from the relevant publishing professional’s perspective. True to the rules of memoir (and first-person narrative in general), each will be exclusively from that perspective. Perhaps, after considering both sides, we can mediate between them.

Let’s begin with Huey’s saga. Take it away, Hugh!

I have to say, I was disappointed. I had been querying my memoir, the story of my wife’s battle with a life-threatening illness, for more than two years when Agent Montrose asked to see my proposal. The request caught me a bit off-guard, I’m afraid: I had a full manuscript, but had only been picking away at the proposal in fits and starts. Every time I sat down with it, I felt like I was being given a pop quiz on material we hadn’t covered in class. It just didn’t make sense that they would rather have me write about my book than read the book itself.

So when Montrose sent the request for the proposal, I e-mailed him back and said that it would be a few months. Wouldn’t he like to see the manuscript instead? He said no — a blow, of course, but he was nice about it. He said to send the proposal when it was done.

Well, I worked on it; really, I did. Every few weeks, I sent an e-mail to Montrose, to let him know how I was getting along. The first couple of times, he replied cheerily, telling me to take my time and to let him know if I had any questions. Then he just stopped replying. He didn’t even respond to my Christmas card.

So now I don’t know what to do. I think I could finish the proposal in another month or so — I have some vacation coming up — but if he’s lost interest, shouldn’t I be moving on?

Before we move on to Montrose’s version, what’s your initial impression? Was Huey being difficult, or has he just been having difficulties? Is his assessment of Montrose’s waning interest well-founded? And then there’s the most important question of all: should Huey finish the proposal? Or should he be looking — or have been looking — for an agent who would have said yes to reading the manuscript?

Got your answers to that dizzying array of rhetorical questions firmly in mind? Excellent. Let’s take a gander at what happened from Montrose’s perspective.

I have to say, I was disappointed; that book had some real potential. I know what you’re thinking — there are a million caretaker memoirs out there, so what’s different about this one? Well, the synopsis, for one thing: unlike a good 80% of the memoir synopses I see, this one had a beginning, middle, and an end; the two main characters grew and changed. I think that disease memoir readers would root for these people.

Millie, my assistant, kept burbling about how her aunt had gone through the same thing as his wife, and how much she was looking forward to a really good book about it. Publishers love people like Millie: whenever any of their acquaintance goes through something rough, their first instinct is to buy ‘em a book.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when it turned out Huey had not even begun a proposal. Heck, he didn’t even seem to realize that was how nonfiction books were sold; he kept suggesting that I should read the memoir instead — which was something like 150,000 words, for heaven’s sake. I liked what I had seen, though, and he genuinely seemed flummoxed, so I sent him the agency’s proposal guidelines and hoped for the best.

That was sometime in 2010, I think; I don’t really remember. He never sent the proposal, just a lot of excuses, as if I could simply change my mind about whether a proposal was necessary. Too bad — it could have been an interesting memoir.

Taken together, these two accounts form quite a sad little story, do they not? Huey was lucky enough to find an agent (and a Millicent) genuinely taken by his book concept — but he was not ready to take advantage of it. While Montrose’s conclusion that Huey just hadn’t done enough homework about how nonfiction is sold might not have been entirely correct, it’s hard to argue that the effect of the writer’s not having taken the necessary steps to learn how to write a book proposal amounted to the same thing, in practical terms. Yet Montrose did, by his lights, do all he could to help, and rather more than most would have done in this situation: being a good memoir agent, realized that proposal-writing is a professional skill, and thus not something even the most gifted memoirist is born knowing, so he provided his potential client with both encouragement and guidelines.

See how easily, though, a writer’s just not knowing the ropes can result in practical difficulties for the pro trying to help him? Huey felt, understandably, that since the proposal was a stand-in for the book, it didn’t make sense that Montrose couldn’t make up his mind about representation based upon the manuscript. But since Montrose knew that he could not approach the editors he already had in mind for this project without a proposal, what good would it have done to read the manuscript first? Especially when Huey had already told him that the draft was considerably longer than this type of memoir typically runs; with an Annotated Table of Contents in hand, they could talk down the line about cutting it down to a more reasonable length.

So should Huey give up on Montrose at this point and move on to querying other agents? I think that’s the answer he would like here; it would save him an awful lot of work, wouldn’t it? Frankly, I would rather see him invest that energy in a class on proposal-writing. Or reading a good book on the subject. Or hiring a developmental editor to assist him in writing it. Or, heck, he could take a peek at the step-by-step instructions on how to write a book proposal buried in this very site, cleverly concealed under the opaque heading HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL.

Then, when he has a professional proposal in hand, he will be ready to start querying again. As a courtesy, he might drop Montrose an e-mail first, to see if he’s still interested in reading it, but he shouldn’t be too disappointed if the answer is no: a lot has changed in the literary market since 2010. And Millie is in graduate school now; isn’t that terrific?

The issue of who is or is not being difficult isn’t so cut and dried at the submission stage as it was when querying, is it? There’s a reason for that: since the perception of whether someone is easy to work with is inextricably linked to how intensely one happens to be working with him, as well as to the expectations appropriate to that level of contact, the threshold of difficult is obviously different before and after an agent becomes interested in a writer’s work.

It’s also different once a writer and an agent have made a formal commitment to work together. Consider, if you will, memoirist Dewey’s dilemma.

God, what a nightmare that turned out to be. I slaved over that book proposal — read five books about how to do it, took an expensive weekend seminar, read everything there was about it online, the works. So when Agent Paulette said she loved it, it felt like I’d swum across the Atlantic and washed up on some beach in France. All I wanted was to catch up on my sleep.

So when I didn’t hear from Paulette for a while, it didn’t seem that weird. She said that she would want me to make a couple of tiny changes — no big deal, just tweaks to appeal a little better to the current market. But when I was still waiting a couple of months later, I felt I had to call and ask what was going on. She said she was sorry — she had been just swamped, and she would get to it soon.

Well, a week later, I still didn’t have the feedback. Yet another call. That produced results — and how! Didn’t she realize I had a full-time job? It took me three months to make those changes. Once again, I dumped the results into her capable hands and collapsed.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I didn’t hear from her right away — or ever, really, unless I contacted her first. She just kept saying it was a slow process, that editors took a while to read things these days, anything and everything to put me off. After six months, I began to wonder whether she was still sending it out at all. But just try talking to her about it; she’s so touchy.

Dewey would be happy to continue in this vein as long as you’re willing to listen; just ask the other members of his writing group. Because your time is valuable, however, I’ll skip ahead to the end of his story:

And now I’m feeling really trapped: since the book has been shopped around, I would have to write another, or at least another proposal, before I could query someone else. Guess I’m still in the middle of the Atlantic after all.

The lingering questions are pretty self-evident here, I think. In a situation where both partners are doing the job they agreed to do in pursuing a collective goal, it usually takes some time for each to adjust to the other’s work style. To assess how well Dewey’s and Paulette’s meshed, let’s take a peek at what she has to say on the matter.

God, what a nightmare that turned out to be. It started out so promising, too: Dewey’s book proposal was one of the best I’d seen in a long time. It needed a little work, of course — as most of them do — but I was confident that the results would be good.

A lot of brand-new clients are pretty jumpy, so when Dewey started e-mailing me every other day, to ask what he was supposed to change, it didn’t seem that weird. I was in the middle of a three-book deal for another client; he knew he would have to wait his turn. I wasn’t even all that worried when, after I sent him the revision memo, he initially reacted as though I’d asked him to recreate the works of Homer from memory. It was too much, he didn’t have the time, and so forth.

But he was serious about the book and cranked it out. Rather more quickly than the average client, actually; you wouldn’t believe how often I pass along feedback to a client, then hear nothing for a year or two.

Not our boy Dewey, though. Practically the instant he’d sent me the new version, he starts nagging me about when I’m going to submit it. I explained the process to him, naturally: it’s not as though I have much control over how fast other people read. That seemed to calm him down, but a few days later, he’d be calling or e-mailing again. Doesn’t he know I have other clients? And that it’s in his best interest to leave me alone long enough to sell his book?

Again, quite sad. Here are two perfectly nice, professionally-focused individuals, both eager to collaborate on selling a book proposal they both perceive to be excellent. So what happened?

Misaligned expectations, I’m afraid: Dewey just didn’t understand what his role in their relationship would be, other than writing. Because that was what he was prepared to do, he got antsy every time he didn’t have an assignment on his plate; he didn’t have a constructive outlet for all of that nervous energy. So he focused it on prodding Paulette into a job that she already knew perfectly well how to do — which, in turn, took up enough of her time and energy that she felt, not unreasonably, that his demands were making it harder for her to do that job.

An expectations draw, really — and a dynamic that could have been improved by these two fine people having an honest, straightforward conversation about what Paulette was actually doing to promote the book, as well as how he could spend his time and energy while she did it. I’m happy to report that they did have that conversation (perhaps at the suggestion of someone who knew and cared about them both), and they are getting along swimmingly. Paulette’s still knocking herself out, talking up his book — and his next. Dewey’s working on the proposal for that. In his spare time, he’s taking an online class on book promotion; he’s already started a blog, to establish a web presence for the happy day when he has a book out.

Not all such tug-of-wars end quite so harmoniously, however. Prepare yourself, please, to enter the world of Louise.

Oh, you wouldn’t believe what happened. I had my doubts about Evelyn from the get-go: no matter how much work I did or how well I did it — and I really ripped myself to shreds meeting her constant demands — she never seemed satisfied. “I’ll do my best,” was all she ever said, as though she had to compensate for something wrong with my book.

I remember my guts churning during our very first phone conversation: right away, she started criticizing my proposal. Before she’d even signed me! I bit the bullet, though, and knuckled under to her demands, even though they seemed really far afield from where I wanted to take my book. She told me it had to be that way in order to sell, so like a fool, I went along with it.

The book took FOREVER to sell, but I wasn’t supposed to ask questions about where it was or why it was taking so long. I was just supposed to wait by the phone, in case a call came — because then, Evelyn said, the acquiring editor would probably have a whole new set of suggestions for how to modify the book. I just kept praying that the editor that picked it up would get my artistic vision better.

But the instant we had signed the contract, the quibbling began. Was I really married to the chapter I liked best? Did I really have to spend thirty pages talking about my spiritual connection with marsupials? Was it really important to the story I was telling that I had been raised from ages 4 to 6 by bears?

That sort of thing. You’d think they had never met an interesting, multifaceted person before; all they wanted me to do was simplify my complex life. I don’t know how novelists feel about having their stories chopped to pieces, but for a memoirist, that story is a life. I couldn’t exactly change what I had done ten years before because some editor didn’t like it, right?

And don’t even get me started on the marketing trauma. They changed my title — then got mad at me for not liking the new one. They asked what I would like to see in a cover — then came up with something totally different. They asked me to list every town where I had friends — then expected me to construct my own book tour. Even though I showed up and did my best at every single podunk bookstore where they wanted me to do a reading — I even did a few libraries; way to cater to an audience that wants to buy books — they were never satisfied; they always seemed to want me to do more. And no matter how much promotion I did, the book never sold up to their completely preposterous expectations. Naturally, they thought that was my fault, too.

Of course, Evelyn took their side. She did on everything. And every time I tried to talk to her about it, she always changed the subject to my next book. At first, I thought she was kidding — when would I have possibly found time to write a new proposal? I was already working full-time, helping my sister through a truly horrific divorce, and promoting my book. When was it going to be time for somebody else to do some work?

After a few years of this, with no offer for the next book on the table, I just couldn’t take the constant conflict anymore. There’s no way I would work with any of these people again; it’s way too stressful. If and when I have the time and energy to write yet another book proposal, I’d rather start querying again from scratch than to entrust the fruit of my art to Evelyn.

Okay, so I took a few liberties in the bear department; this story was just too depressing otherwise. The lot of the first-time author today couldn’t be more different than it was twenty years ago — and as quite a few of those authors walk into the process with expectations more in line with thirty or forty years ago, when advances were significantly higher and authors carried less of the responsibility for book promotion, the expectations clash can be pretty dramatic.

Since, by Louise’s account, realizing her dream resulted in such deep disappointment, I’m reluctant to analyze her career trajectory too much. At least, not before we’ve heard Evelyn’s side of the story.

Oh, you wouldn’t believe what happened. I had my doubts about Louise from the get-go: when she was into what I asked her to do, she couldn’t be happier, but let one little obstacle fall in her path, and she’d freak out. It always made me just a touch nervous when an e-mail from her appeared in my inbox. But I don’t have to tell you what kind of audience a really good memoir pandas would draw. I honestly did fall in love with that proposal.

In retrospect, though, I should have listened to my gut feeling during our first phone conversation: she nearly fell over when I told her that before I signed her, I would want her to revise her proposal to my specifications first. Editors expect a certain style and structure from my agency’s clients, after all. We had quite the little argument; she seemed to feel that any concession now would doom her book. Once I convinced her that I wasn’t going to back down, however, she did an excellent job on the rewrite.

And my hopes proved justified when I started shopping her proposal around; on paper, Louise was a great client. Her proposal was very strong. She wasn’t inexperienced at working with an editor, either; she had a couple of previous publications — articles on another subject, if memory serves. since she had put herself through graduate school as a stand-up comic, I had no qualms about predicting she would be great at readings. I always mentioned it when I was pitching her book.

In practice, though, she could be pretty trying. Everything would be going along fine, or so I would think, and suddenly, I’d find myself on the receiving end of an ultimatum. I wasn’t selling the book fast enough; I was showing it to the wrong people; was this really the right economy to be trying to push a book on pandas? Every time, it was different; sometimes, I got the feeling she was picking fights with me so she would have an excuse to ask if there had been any nibbles on the proposal. Once the book sold, however, she was over the moon — this was the best possible outcome in every way. And she actually delivered the manuscript to the editor a week ahead of schedule.

So when the editor called me to say that Louise had been stormily contesting every single revision suggestion in the editorial memo, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised. Nor was I particularly surprised when Louise called me in tears, convinced that her book was going to get destroyed. It took a lot of hand-holding over a period of weeks, but eventually, she did make the requested changes. I have to say, they made the book better.

Then the marketing department started calling; Louise hated the change they wanted to make to her title. Then she couldn’t stand the cover design, the back jacket, the Amazon blurb, the advance reviews…in short, everything was a battle that went on for weeks on end. And for someone who used to tell jokes for a living, she certainly seemed reluctant to get out and promote her book. She kept telling me that she had a job, family, obligations: did I want her to write her next book proposal, she would demand, or did I want her to do the publisher’s job for them?

Of course, we all expected her to do both: that’s what career writers do. But she seemed to feel that she had paid her dues, and now was entitled to coast. Which would have made more sense, I’ve got to say, had her first book sold particularly well, or if the proposal for the next were anywhere near as strong as the first. I wish I could say that I believed she had put a quarter of the energy into it that she’s evidently focused upon serving me with ultimatums about how I need to do more for her.

After a while, I just stopped reading them closely; I don’t need the drama. A quick skim was enough. When she sent that nasty e-mail saying that thanks to me, she had lost faith in her second book, and so was dropping it for a third, well, let’s just say that I wasn’t surprised then, either. Or when the third lost its shine for her, too, also apparently my fault. I don’t remember why she said she was leaving our agency; I’m sure it was in a similar vein.

There’s quite a bit that could have gone differently here, but for the sake of today’s discussion, let’s not focus on that. Instead, I would like you to notice that it was not just quite divergent expectations that harmed this working relationship; it was also that issues don’t seem to have gotten hashed out much until at least one party was already angry. An ultimatum, after all, is not exactly an invitation to first-round negotiation.

Allow me to make a tiny, insignificant suggestion to anyone contemplating entering this kind of working partnership: try to regard it as a relationship. Relationships take work, after all, and they tend not to thrive on mind-reading. If both parties are not up front about what they want from the other, is it honestly surprising if one or the other occasionally guesses incorrectly?

If I ruled the universe, every writer-agent (and writer-editor) relationship would start out with a full and frank discussion of what the agent expects to do for the writer — and what the writer will need to do to support those efforts. I would also mandate up-front agreement on how often each party feels it is appropriate to communicate; just knowing when to expect an update can make a huge difference to a writer gnawing his fingernails up to the elbow while waiting to hear back on a round of submissions. That way, too, the writer does not have to guess whether it’s too soon to ask a follow-up question.

The last time I checked, though, I did not rule the universe. If I did, libraries would be open 24 hours per day, businesses would allow their employees two-hour lunches — the better to browse at bookstores or finish reading that chapter, my dear — and my former elementary school would be named after Ambrose Bierce, who lived in my home town many years longer than Robert Louis Stevenson, whose name graces my former middle school. And the high school would bear the name of M.F.K. Fisher, who lived there longest at all.

I’m not sure what they would name after me, once I have shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the choir invisible. I’m sure they could come up with an unnamed Quonset hut.

Since none of these things are currently the case, however, I can only conclude that I do not have the power to change writers’ sometimes troubled relationships with the publishing industry with a wave of my wee hand. All I can do is advise, recommend, and, every so often, mediate. And urge everyone concerned to bear in mind that they are all good people (at least, most of them are) committed to the same quite estimable goal: bringing great stories and marvelous writing to readers everywhere. Who, let’s face it, don’t particularly care how difficult it was to bring the books they love into print.

It’s a noble endeavor, from every perspective. Let’s all try to gain some insight into others’ points of view — and, of course, keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXVI: the monster always returns. So, apparently, do allergic reactions.

I had meant to wrap up the last few reader-generated queries over the weekend, campers, but disaster befell. Okay, perhaps not disaster of a magnitude to make the national news, but a hideous disruption nonetheless: my new doctor decided that when I handed her a list of allergies headed by a skull and crossbones, I didn’t really mean that I should not be ingesting any of the substances on the list. Or so I surmise from the fact that filling her prescription and meticulously following both her directions and the pharmacist’s rather different dictates resulted in my face instantly swelling up until I resembled the unholy love child of Frankenstein’s monster and Ernest Borgnine, not a pretty pair. By the following morning, I looked as though I had been burned at the stake by amateurs who couldn’t manage to turn me regularly enough to ensure proper browning. Evidently, my would-be roasters became enraged by their failure, enough so to punch me repeatedly in the eyes.

I’m much better now, though. Small children only scream and hide behind their mothers should I happen to smile. I’m beginning to understand why the Phantom of the Opera did not get out much.

Resembling an escapee from the much-ballyhooed Bodies exhibit has its perks, of course. Why, only yesterday, my doorbell rang. It being Igor’s day off, I lightly tripped down the front stairs to greet what I quite reasonably assumed would be a mob of villagers armed with pitchforks and flaming torches. No such luck: it was only the U.P.S. man, dragging a crumbling plywood coffin onto my doorstep. Apparently, the sender had ripped a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf from his home, stuffed it full of cement blocks, hammered a sheet of plywood on each open side, and sent it on its merry way.

The panting gentleman from U.P.S. wanted me to sign for it. “My God,” he stammered, “what happened to you?”

What effrontery, eh? You wouldn’t believe how often those of us who work from home offices are called upon to receive the neighbors’ deliverables.

Once the deliveryman had drunk in his fill of doctor horror stories (and added a few of his own), he got down to work. A second, smaller bookshelf emerged from the van, accompanied by what looked suspiciously like a table whose legs had been boxed in to form a container for table linens, a hatbox barely containing what appeared to be a lifetime supply of socks within a Gordian knot of clear strapping tape, and a floor lamp voluminously wrapped first in a crazy quilt, then several layers of Visqueen. Passersby must have thought that a freighter had run aground upon my front steps, scattering flotsam and jetsam into my rose bushes.

Feeling that the social situation called for some lightening, I asked the U.P.S. guy what he thought was in those odd-shaped containers. “Pardon my asking, but I’m an editor, and occasionally, I work on mysteries. How much information does the sender actually have to give about what’s inside? That box that looks like it could easily hold a dead body, for instance — how do you know it doesn’t contain a dead body?”

The deliveryman must not have seen his fair share of horror movies, for his response to the lady with the flayed face inquiring how best to ship a murder victim did not elicit much more than a shrug. “We just ask what’s inside.”

I gave him my best child-frightening grin. “Under the assumption that a mass murder bent upon sending his victims cross-country couldn’t bring himself to tell a little white lie?”

That seemed to stump him. “Well, if they lied about shipping a dead body,” he observed after a while, “they’d get in trouble if the box burst open, I can tell you that.” He thereupon launched into a surprisingly well thought-out lecture upon how to pack a corpse for ground transport. Dry ice featured prominently in his explanation, as did, chillingly, Visqueen. And evidently there are no moral depths to which duct tape will not plunge.

It just goes to show you, my friends: most people will give out an astonishing amount of information about their jobs if they believe the result will end up in a book. So for goodness’ sake, someone out there in the mystery, thriller, or horror communities please take advantage of my deliveryman’s garrulousness; as the person signing for those suspiciously human-sized boxes, I’m here to tell you that having one appear suddenly would make quite the plot twist.

Seriously, it was a bad afternoon to be blessed with imagination. Having been raised on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, it was all I could do to stop myself from taking a crowbar to ‘em before the new neighbor came home, to see what horror lay within. There are some boxes man was not to open, however.

The bookcase contained only books, I’m sorry to report: disappointingly prosaic, unhappily predictable. But I’m sure some enterprising writer out there could come up with something much, much creepier in the fictional version.

As any query-screener at an agency that caters to the macabre could tell you, though, horror queries that make the books they are pitching sound horrifying are as rare as thrillers whose plots as presented seem thrilling. On any given day, Millicent is inundated by comedy queries that do not tempt her to crack a smile, romance queries that leave her cockles unwarmed, and whodunits so straightforward that she can guess from the one-paragraph description who the murder is. And, heaven help us, query after query that don’t tell her much about the book at all, just that it’s great, fabulous, and the agent for whom she works will deeply regret saying no to it.

You’ll forgive me if in my current Vincent Price frame of mind, that last boast — quite a common one in queries, incidentally — comes across as a threat. That’s probably not the way the thousands upon thousands of queriers who phrase their appeals in this manner mean it, of course, but you must admit, you’ll be sorry if you don’t give my book a chance! at least borders on the creepy.

“Why will my boss, the agent, be sorry?” Millicent mutters, reaching for the stack of form-letter rejections never far from her elbow. “If the manuscript is anything like the query, it’s a cliché fest. Next!”

Was that resonant thump I just heard the sound of some of your jaws hitting the floor at that last sentiment, or has some Edgar Allen Poe fan mailed me a beating heart? Yes, campers, it’s true: just as a query laden with unsubstantiated claims of excellence (This is the best book you’ll read all year!), hard sell terminology (You won’t want to miss your chance to get in on the ground floor of this bestseller!), or insult (I know that agents aren’t really looking for anything original, but can I convince you to take a chance this time?), a cliché-laden query tends to be self-rejecting. And for reasons that I hope are self-evident: stock phrases may sound good, but by definition, they don’t convey anything about the writer’s style to Millicent.

Oh, you thought Enclosed please find SASE, complete at 78,000 words, or only by following her heart can she find true happiness was going to wow Millicent with its literary originality? What could a hackneyed phrase possibly convey to an agent, editor, or contest judge, other than the fact that the writer has heard the same clichés that everyone else has?

“But Anne,” the masses fond of the language as she is spoke cry out in dismay, “you’re not saying that using those phrases will make me look bad to Millicent, are you? I thought that phrasing was just how people in literary circles talked about books. I thought some of those phrases were required; I’ve seen them in enough query templates. I thought (muffled sob) that using them would (sniffle) make my query seem more professional.”

Here, take my handkerchief, those of you who fell into that exceedingly common new querier’s trap, and don’t be so hard on yourselves. You had no way of knowing how often Millicent sees those phrases you admired, after all; unless an aspiring writer stops to think about the sheer number of queries any reasonably well-established agent must receive in a week, it’s difficult to grasp just how annoying the sight of a phrase used in a third of them — my story is about…, anyone? — . Indeed, since so much of the querying advice out there implies that agents are simply looking for a marketable concept presented in rigid, formulaic terms, many queriers derive the opposite impression: an aspiring writer might well read up on the topic and still believe, wrongly, that originality of phrasing does not count at querying time. Or that it might actually be a liability.

News flash: writing style does count in a query, and more than one might think. Especially if the query in question includes any self-review of the writing in the manuscript.

And half my readership bridles at the very idea. “Oh, come on, Anne!” the conscientious many shout, and who could blame them? “I know better that to review my own book in my query; I’ve done my homework well enough to know that Millicent, like most professional readers, prefers to make up her own mind about writing quality. She would rather be shown that I can write than told as much. So do we really need to discuss this any further?”

Unfortunately, we do, at least if the average query crossing Millicent’s desk is any indication. Having taught many, many querying classes to many, many aspiring writers who thought they had been following the rules, it’s my considered opinion that queriers are not always aware of when they have crossed the line between factual description and qualitative review. Surprisingly often, even those who have overshot that line by a mile and landed smack dab in the realm of boasting do not notice.

How is that possible, you ask? Cast your critical eye over the following missive, a query I have carefully constructed to tumble headlong into as many common pitfalls as possible. See how many you can spot. (And, as always, if you are having trouble making out the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.)

Not a lot to like from Millicent’s perspective, is there? Yet actually, despite the unprofessional presentation, obvious instant-rejection triggers, and perhaps less-obvious subtle red flags, this bizarre purple query does in some ways make the case for the book rather well. Millicent is unlikely to notice that, though, for the exceedingly simple reason that this query features several elements that would cause her to reject it unread.

Let’s tote up those reject-on-sight triggers, shall we? Two strike the eye right off the bat: the non-standard page size and the color of the paper. Dee may have thought offbeat stationary would make his query stand out from the crowd, and he’d be right. But not in a good way; this color choice just makes him look as though he’s unaware that the overwhelming majority of books are printed in black type on white paper. Or — brace yourself; this isn’t going to be particularly charitable — as though Dee believed his book’s premise were too boring to catch an agent’s attention without a wild presentation.

Hey, I warned you that it wasn’t going to be pretty. The routine, matter-of-fact harshness with which Millicent is trained to cull queries would make the most jaded horror reader turn pale. Her judgments have to be that cut-and-dried, though, if she’s going to get through the hundreds of queries that arrive every week.

Be honest, now: if you have written one of the few upon which she wants to lavish more than 30 seconds or so, isn’t it to your benefit that she can reject a clearly unprofessional query like Dee’s at first glance?

I sense that some of you aren’t buying it. “But Anne, there’s no necessary correlation between the presentation of the query, or even the polish of its writing, and the manuscript. Plenty of very talented aspiring writers don’t have a clue what a professional query looks like, after all. So doesn’t Millicent run the risk of turning down the next Great American Novel by judging the book solely on the cosmetic aspects of the query?”

Yes, but the prospect doesn’t keep her up at night. It’s her job to make this particular rush to judgment, after all. And while polished and professionally presented manuscripts are occasionally introduced by unpolished and misformatted queries, it’s something of a rarity. Writers unaware or inattentive to the industry’s presentation standards in a query frequently are equally in the dark or careless in their manuscripts.

Besides, if Millicent actually read this query, she would find additional reason to believe that Dee’s manuscript would not be in standard format. She also has proof in front of her that Dee is not especially attentive to applying standards consistently. Did you catch the telltale signs?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “I know! I know! The last sentence of the first paragraph does not have a space between the end of the dash and the beginning of the next word, as would be proper in a manuscript, but the dash in the fourth paragraph is formatted properly,” you deserve a gold star for the day. A writer accustomed to standard format for book manuscripts would tend to double his dashes and place a space at each end. Millicent may well be trained to regard not embracing that professional habit as a sign that a querier is unfamiliar with that rule, and thus with the rigors of standard format. The fact that Dee does use the dash correctly once, though, indicates that he is familiar with the rule, but just didn’t bother to apply it consistently.

Can you really blame Millicent for drawing some conclusions about his probable attention to detail in his manuscript from that?

Speaking of conclusions she could catch the instant she claps eyes upon this letter, did you notice that it was undated? That often means that what follows is going to be boilerplate, the same message sent to half the agents in North America. A bad sign, usually: since agents specialize, a savvy querier targets only those who represent books similar to hers not just in book category, but in writing style and/or appeal to similar readers.

A mass-mailed query, by contrast, is predicated upon the assumption that any agent would be able to represent the book equally well. Not exactly flattering to the recipient, is it?

The suspicion that this query is being sent indiscriminately to every agent whose name popped up in a search engine would only be confirmed by Dee’s having used both the agent’s first and last name in the salutation. To Millicent, that’s the sure sign of a mail merge. Next!

I have a different theory about why queriers sometimes address an agent by both names, however: they’re not sure whether Ms. or Mr. is appropriate. In the case of a name like Orang O’Tang, that confusion would be understandable. But if the agency has a website, Millicent’s not going to be all that sympathetic; since it’s quite rare for an agency not to include bios for its staff, and for those bios to contain the odd pronoun or two, a query that opts for neither Ms. or Mr. shouts from the rooftops that the querier didn’t bother to learn anything about the agent before deciding to query him. Or her.

There are quite a few instant-rejection triggers in the body of the letter, too, but for this pass, let’s just stick to the stuff that would discourage Millie from reading past the salutation. How about the too-familiar sign-off, for instance, just above the too-familiar signature? This is a letter to a stranger, for heaven’s sake; this type of sign-off would be inappropriate in even an informal note, unless it was too a very close friend, right? And speaking of signatures, where is Dee’s going to go, since he has left no room for it?

Let’s rid the query of all of those eye-distracting features, therefore, so it stands a chance of getting read. While I’m at it, I’m going to indent the paragraphs, to make Dee come across as a touch more literate to folks who handle manuscripts for a living.

The writing in body of the letter is identical to the first version, but admit it: if you were Millicent, you would be infinitely more likely to regard this letter as coming from a writer who knew what he was doing, would you not? You would, if nothing else, pick up this missive with a more open mind.

At least until you read that first sentence; 99% of Millicents would not make it all the way through to the period. Indeed, the entire first paragraph is made up of classic screeners’ pet peeves: the opening that implies that this query is inherently more important than any of the others the agency might receive that day, without offering any tangible proof that is the case; the clichéd phrasing that’s probably intended to be funny but isn’t; the wild speculation about how well it will sell; the comparisons to bestsellers unaccompanied by any explanation of how this book is even remotely similar to them; the two claims at the end that everyone who likes to read at all and anyone who enjoys laughing will want to read this book.

To someone who deals with the business side of publishing, all of these assertions are ridiculous — and, from the querier’s point of view, they’re counterproductive. Ordering an agent to pay attention is far less likely to work than giving her some reason to pay attention, right? If six of the first twelve words in the letter are stock phrases, why shouldn’t Millicent conclude that the manuscript being offered is stuffed to the gills with clichés as well? (Actually, from a screener’s perspective, this is the next bestseller is the most pernicious cliché of them all.) And since no one familiar with the book market would seriously contend that there has ever existed a book that would appeal to every single conceivable reader, isn’t it fair for Millie to assume that Dee just doesn’t know much about how books are marketed?

Oh, you think that’s an interpretive stretch? Then how would you explain Dee’s having compared his book’s prospects to four bestsellers in four different and unrelated book categories, released over the course of four decades? From the publishing world’s perspective, beyond all having been written in English and having sold well, The Da Vinci Code, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Jaws, and the Harry Potter series could hardly have less in common.

Queriers do this all the time: they believe, wrongly, that simply mentioning a bestseller will make the book being queried more market-friendly. Often, this tactic is predicated upon an assumption that agents are only seeking the next bestseller, rather than strong new voices in the book categories they already represent. But bestsellers are rare; contrary to popular opinion, it’s the books that sell less spectacularly but consistently year after year that form the financial backbone of publishing. And certainly what provide the bread and butter of most agencies.

So all Dee has accomplished by rattling off these titles is to demonstrate that he has quite a bit to learn about how the publishing industry works. Not the best way to impress the denizens of agencies, as a general rule.

Nor is the hard-sell tactic he embraces at the end of the query: So don’t pass this one up: this is one book in a million. It will make your career! Given the lack of publishing knowledge Dee has already demonstrated, is there a reason an agent would take career advice from him? To Millicent, this is just empty boasting. Next!

Sadly, Dee almost certainly would not see these passages that way: in all probability, he just thinks he is being upbeat, projecting confidence. But in a context in which it’s considered presumptuous for writers to tell agents that their own writing is good, a querier is much better off projecting confidence through presenting his book concept professionally than indulging in generic cheerleading.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at how much better the book description comes across if the first and last paragraphs align more closely to what Millicent would expect to see there. Like, say, the title of the book.

Oh, hadn’t you noticed that Dee had omitted it in the two earlier versions? Heck, Millicent would have had to read into the second paragraph in order to find out it was fiction.

The actual story comes across as the most important part of the query now, doesn’t it? That’s not a coincidence: since professional queries all contain more or less the same elements, extraneous discussion merely distracts from the story being pitched. In practical terms, it doesn’t matter to an agency how well Dee thinks his book will sell; for Millicent to be able to make the case to ask to see the manuscript, it’s far more important that she know the title, the book category, and why the writer thinks her boss will be a good fit for the book.

Why? Well, if the book is not in a category her boss represents, and it is not immediately apparent why her boss would be drawn to this story, why shouldn’t she reject it?

That doesn’t mean that Dee’s out of the woods yet, though. Although he’s framed his query much more professionally this time, he’s run afoul of one of Millicent’s pet peeves: talking about his story in English term paper language, rather than just telling the story.

“Not again!” would-be queriers all over the globe protest, rending their garments. “I just thought using terms like protagonist and dramatic arc made me sound more serious about my writing. Are you telling me now that’s not the case?”

That’s precisely what I’m telling you, I’m afraid, but again, this isn’t an arbitrary distinction. For fiction and memoir, part of what the writer is selling is her ability as a storyteller, right? Talking indirectly about a story seldom shows off those talents as well as just, well, telling the story.

Fortunately, Dee’s query suffers from only a minor case of Term Paper Syndrome. In its more virulent form, TPS distances the reader even more from the action:

My story is about a veterinarian who teaches himself to talk animal language. He faces as his antagonist a free thinking rooster, Ivar, a strutting fool willing to blow up the world rather than allow himself to be misquoted. As this conflict deepens, a subplot involving a twist upon the Cyrano de Bergerac theme, a romantic triangle in which the human beloved of a noble tortoise falls in love with Dr. Doomuch, the translator of the tortoise’s impassioned sonnets.

Not the most evocative way to introduce this plot to the reader, is it? And honestly, those ostensibly professional-sounding terms don’t add much here. Millicent’s not going to be writing an analytical essay on Dee’s query, after all.

So here’s that query again, with distancing language removed. See for yourself if you don’t find the story more engaging this time around.

You don’t miss the academic language, do you? I assure you, Millicent wouldn’t.

Unless those of you with your hands in the air have an alternate opinion you’d like to share? “But Anne,” the eagle-eyed point out, “I notice that you left one of the TPS terms, dramatic climax, in the query. May I ask why?”

Of course you may: it was all part of my evil teaching plan, a nudge to get your eyes trained upon another notorious screeners’ pet peeve. As it happens, the one that we were discussing just before I introduced you to Dee and his querying habits.

Was that too long ago? Allow me to refresh your memory with a provocative question: is Dee reviewing his own writing here? If so, does it harm his query?

To anticipate what the masses jumping up and down, flinging their hands into the air repeatedly in a vain attempt to get me to call upon them, would probably bellow if I let them, yes — and yes. If you were intending to bellow anything else, I invite you to consider this sentence:

Hilarious high jinx ensue, and the dramatic climax will surprise and delight you.

Dee probably didn’t think of it this way, but there’s no getting around the fact that he’s (a) announcing his opinion that the high jinx are hilarious and (b) declaring that the climax is both surprising and delightful. In what sense are any of those statements not self-reviews? And as such, why should Millicent believe that they are true?

Even if Millicents and the agents for whom they work were much given to taking a writer’s word for it that he’s more talented than other people, Dee’s phrasing here might also raise some hackles. He’s not just claiming that his climax is surprising and delightful — he’s insisting that an agent whom he has never met will find it so. A trifle presumptuous, no?

Trust me on this one: professional readers like to make up their own minds about what is surprising and/or delightful on the manuscript page. Ditto with hilarity: they don’t like to be told when to laugh. So leave it to others to review your work; it’s inherently more credible.

In order to allow that vitally important last point to sink in fully, I’m going to resist the urge rework Dee’s letter again; no, not even the provocation of that unattributed song quote will tempt me. Let it stand as is, as a negative example of how good writers often shoot their queries in their metaphorical feet without noticing the injury. Sometimes repeatedly.

What’s noteworthy here is that none of the rejection reasons we have discussed today had anything whatsoever to do with the marketability of the story, the quality of Dee’s writing, or even whether Millicent got a kick out of the premise. All of these red flags arose from how Dee chose to present that story to the agent of his dreams. Yet by the standards applied by most aspiring writers, Dee’s original query would have seemed just fine.

As much as writers everywhere might prefer it not to be the case, this is an industry that does rely very much on first impressions, at least at the query and submission stages. While that can be frustrating for those trying to break into the biz, agents don’t get more hours in the day than anyone else: the more queries they receive, the faster they must decide which to reject. That’s just simple math.

It’s also simple reason. As the U.P.S. guy so astutely observed, if the dead body falls out of the inadequate shipping container en route, someone’s going to be in big trouble: the person who packed that box.

I was going to try to work in a parallel with my multi-day allergic reaction here, but frankly, I don’t think I’m going to come up with a more distasteful image than the one in the last paragraph. I shall quit while I am ahead, therefore. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXII: if it be the winter of Millicent’s discontent, can spring be far behind?

Before I fling all of us headlong into yet another examination of what strategies do and do not work well on the query page — that’s why you tuned in tonight, right? — I’d like to take a moment to reiterate some advice I gave all of you eager New Year’s resolution queriers a couple of weeks back. Or, at least that hefty chunk of the January querying community that either lives in the United States, is planning to approach literary agents based in the United States, or both: no matter how tempting it may be to send out a query via e-mail over this long Martin Luther King, Jr., Day weekend, please, I implore you, resist the temptation.

“And why should I even consider taking that advice?” those of you joining us mid-Queryfest demand. “At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I have more spare time in the course of a three-day weekend than during the normal two-day kind. Why shouldn’t I hit SEND while I have the leisure to do it?”

Already, a forest of hands sprouts out there in the ether. I love how closely my readers pay attention. Go ahead and help me fill ‘em in, Queryfest faithful: just as our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, is predictably greeted by many, many more queries on any given day in January, as opposed to any other month of the year, she also finds her inbox stuffed with more e-queries than usual on Mondays than any other weekday, for precisely the reason the newcomers just cited — aspiring writers tend to have more time to send them over the weekend. As a direct result, not only does she typically have more work on Mondays. And as she, like so many people bent upon enjoying their weekends, is often a mite grumpier that day as well.

With what result? Chant it with me, Queryfesters: the rejection rate tends to be higher on Monday mornings than, say, Thursday afternoons. Our Millie simply has a taller stack of queries to work through, without any extra time in which to do it. Fortunately for her sanity, while it’s pretty difficult to compress the amount of time it takes her to process a paper query — about 30 seconds, on average, or less if the querier is helpful enough to insult her intelligence with a hard-selling statement like you’ll be sorry if you pass this one up! or this is the next DA VINCI CODE! — it is spectacularly easy to render the consideration and rejection of an e-mailed query a matter of just a few seconds. Especially now that so many agencies have adopted the to-a-writer’s-eye appallingly rude practice of simply not responding to a query if the answer is no.

Not sure how to speed up the consideration process? Okay, I ask you: how much time would it take you to twitch the finger nearest the DELETE key in its general direction? And how much more likely would you be to do it on a morning when your bleary eyes fell upon 722 queries in your inbox than the happy day when it contained only 314?

So, at the risk of repeating myself, I ask you: do you honestly want your query to land on her computer screen on a Monday morning?

Sad to say, though, it could arrive at a worse time: the Tuesday following a three-day weekend. Due to the aforementioned tension between aspiring writers’ free time and the rhythm of her work week, we may also confidently predict that she will be inundated with still more e-queries then than she would on an ordinary Monday, right? Just after Labor Day, for instance, or Memorial Day, it requires very little imagination to picture just how itchy her fingertips are going to be for that DELETE key.

It thus follows as night the day, then, that when a three-day weekend happens to fall in January, the dreaded month when a good half of the aspiring writers in North America who intend to query this year will be hitting the SEND key if they are going to take the plunge at all, Millicent’s e-mail coffers and mail bag will be as full as she is ever likely to see them. Need I devote more screen space to the predictable effect upon the rejection rate the following Tuesday?

I’m guessing not, with a group as savvy as this. Hint, hint, wink, wink, say no more, as the immortal Eric Idle used to say.

Speaking of Millicent’s a.m. stress levels, mine hit a peak this morning, triggered by the gentle snowfall pictured above. Not that I am anti-snow in general; indeed, I typically find the first — and sometimes only — snow of the year quite exciting. It snowed a grand total of thrice in the Napa Valley in the course of my childhood; it was something of an event. I didn’t actually see large quantities wafting down from a grumpy sky until my junior year of high school, in the course of an ill-fated let’s-show-the-kids-how-Congress-works field trip during which I got pushed sideways over a chair because I was the only student participant who believed Social Security was worth saving. (Hey, it was the 80s. And my sprained ankle is fine now, thanks.)

So I was darned excited to look up from my desk this morning to see great, big white flakes hurtling at my window. I can only plead the fact that I happened to be editing a manuscript at the time as an excuse for what happened next.

My SO came tripping into my studio, bearing a hot cup of tea. “Have you looked outside? It’s a winter wonderland!”

“I should think it would be obvious,” I said, gratefully accepting the mug, “from the fact that I am sitting right next to a window that I might have observed the snow. And couldn’t you manage to come up with a less hackneyed way to describe it than winter wonderland?”

And that, dear friends, is what reading even quite good manuscripts for a living will do to an otherwise charming person’s manners: I am certainly not the only professional reader who automatically revises everyday speech in an attempt to raise its literary value. Imagine how much touchier I would be if I had Millicent’s job on a Monday morning.

Had I mentioned that you might want to think twice about hitting that SEND button this weekend? Wouldn’t your time be better spent building a snowman?

To be fair to both Millicent and myself, stock phrases, clichés, and stereotypes do abound in your garden-variety query, synopsis, and manuscript submission. So common are they that one might well conclude that there’s an exceptionally industrious writing teacher out there, working day and night to inculcate the pernicious notion that the highest goal of literary endeavor consists in stuffing narrative prose to the gills with the most repetitive, prosaic elements of everyday speech.

In a sense, that is sometimes the case: as many, many writers can attest, the continental U.S. has not suffered in the past half-century from a shortage of English teachers bent upon convincing their students that good writing should flow as easily as natural speech. The most visible results of this endeavor have been, as we have discussed before, a superabundance of chatty first-person narrators given to telling, rather than showing, the stories through which they lead their readers, a general disregard of subject/object agreement (presumably because the proper everyone and his Uncle George contracted rabies strikes the ear less gracefully than the pervasive but incorrect everyone and their Uncle George contracted rabies), and, most irritating of all to the professional reader corps, texts peppered with the kind of catchphrases and polite phrases that show up in conversation.

Why is that last one problematic? Well, think about it: by definition, the stock responses to common stimuli (pleased to meet you, have a nice day, I’m so sorry for your loss), standard phrases exchanged in mundane interactions (sign right here, have a nice day, may I help you?), and mere polite murmurings (after you, excuse me, you’re welcome) are generic; their strength — and their social safety — lies in the very fact that people spout these statements all the time. As such, they do not have personal content: although Madge may genuinely mean it when she tells Bernice to have a nice day, chances are that when she said precisely the same thing to Herbert, Bruce, Ambrose, and Melchior over the course of the following two hours, she did not utter it with the same intent. It’s just something people say.

We’re all aware of that conversationally, right? So why does it frequently come as a surprise to aspiring writers that because such phrases are so very common, they lack the power either to convey characterization, illuminate relationships, or add complexity to an interaction?

Not sure why? Okay, let’s assume that Madge’s co-worker, the otherwise estimable Ima, decides to immortalize their workplace’s everyday speech on the novel or memoir page. Eager to depict darling Madge as the courteous, considerate lady that she is, conscientious Ima makes darned sure to include each and every stranger-charming statement. Unfortunately, the result is not particularly likely to charm a reader, much less one as page-weary as Millicent. Take a gander at a not-atypical opening scene:

“Excuse me.” The tall, handsome stranger handed her his paperwork almost apologetically. “I was told to fill out these forms and bring them to this window.”

“Hello.” Deliberately, Madge finished reorganizing the paper clips in their magnetic holder before glancing at the stack. “How are you this fine Monday morning?”

“Oh, fine. Is this the right window for these?”

“Yes, of course. Hectic day?”

He covered his watch with his sleeve. “Oh, yes. We’ve been swamped.”

“Well, it’s always like that after a holiday.” She stamped the top three forms. “We’ve been swamped, too. Did you have a nice long weekend?”

“Yes. You?”

“It was fine. Didn’t they give you a B/49-J form?”

“Oh, yes, it’s right here. I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

“I’m doing my best, sir. May I see some I.D., please?”

“Okay.” Clearly, the man was accustomed to his smile’s having greater effect on functionaries. He could have posed for a toothpaste ad. “Here it is.”

“Thanks. Just a moment.” She tapped on her computer, frowning. “We don’t seem to have any record of your existence, Mr. Swain.”

“What do you mean?”

She caught just a glimpse of the tentacle wiping the perspiration from his brow. “I’m sure there’s just been a mix-up in the database. You just hang on for a moment, and I’m sure we can get this cleared up in a jiffy.”

Pretty stultifying until that last bit, wasn’t it? Even less excusable from Millicent’s perspective, the narrative didn’t give the slightest indication until that last paragraph that this is the opening for a fantasy. While this sort of bait-and-switch between the ordinary and the unexpected is a classic short story plotting strategy — not to mention the dominant storytelling technique of the old Twilight Zone series, which continues to influence fantasy writers to this day — the speed with which the sheer volume of submissions forces Millicent to read renders the mundanity of this dialogue dangerous. She would have to read all the way to the end of this exchange to see that it’s not just the 274th exchange echoing everyday speech that she’s read this week.

Lest anyone be tempted to dismiss her tendency to lump this interaction with all the others (including issuing the same cry of, “Next!”), note, please, just how little those polite, ordinary speeches reveal about either of the characters shown or the situation. This dialogue could take place in any customer service environment: in a bank, at the DMV, at the teleport terminal between Earth and the planet Targ. Because these statements are generic, they can’t possibly tell the reader anything specific. And while the writer and his writing group might well find that keep-‘em-guessing ambiguity hilarious, Millicent’s simply seen it too often to play along for very many lines.

Does the chorus of martyred sighs out there indicate that some of you Queryfesters are tiring of playing along as well? “Okay, I get it, Anne,” those of you impatient to get queries out the door moan, “dialogue on the page needs to be something better than just a transcript of everyday speech. Lesson learned. But why in the name of the seven purple moons of Targ did you decide to stop dead in the middle of a series on querying to tell us about this Millicent-irritant now?”

An excellent question, impatient moaners, and one that richly deserves a direct answer. Try this one on for size: since Millicent, like most professional readers, has an extremely low cliché tolerance, it’s poor strategy to include even one stock phrase in a query letter.

And yes, in response to what half of you just thought very loudly indeed (the mind acoustics are phenomenal here on Targ), she sees cliché-filled queries all the time. See for yourself — and, as always, if you are having difficulties reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + several times to enlarge the image.

Oh, you thought I was going to use a real reader’s query to illustrate this particular faux pas? That would have been a bit on the cruel side, wouldn’t it? Besides, given a readership as savvy, fascinating, and creative-minded as this one, where could I possibly have found a query as cliché-ridden as this one?

Actually, although it pains me to say it, about a quarter of the volunteer queriers submitted letters containing one or more of Ima’s hackneyed phrases; although our fictional exemplar here is inordinately fond of them, you’d be astonished at how many real queries contain roughly this ratio of stock phrase to original writing. Odd, isn’t it, considering that as every syllable an aspiring writer sends an agency is a writing sample (you hadn’t been thinking of your query in those terms, had you?), that so many queriers would rush to make themselves sound exactly like everyone else?

Incidentally, about one in six of the queries I received from would-be volunteers also replicated a particular phrase in Ima’s letter — and that surprised me, because this all-too-common statement contains two elements that I frequently and vehemently urge Author! Author! readers not to include in their queries at all. Did you catch it?

No? Would it help if I mentioned that at most agencies, one of the deadly elements would render this query self-rejecting?

If your hand shot into the air at that last hint because you wanted to shout, “I know! I know! It’s because Ima said in the first paragraph that every reader currently walking the planet Earth — if not the planet Targ — would be interested in this book! From Millicent’s perspective, that’s a completely absurd claim, as no book appeals to every reader,” give yourself a pat on the back, but not a gold star. Yes, this particular (and mysteriously popular) assertion does tend to irritate most Millicents (especially on the Tuesday after a long weekend, when she will see many iterations of it), but it’s not always an instant-rejection offense.

No, were that boast the only faux pas here, Millicent probably would have kept reading until after the third or fourth unoriginal phrase. I seriously doubt, though, whether she would have made it past Ima’s first sentence. Any guesses why?

If your eye immediately pounced upon the phrase complete at 137,000 words, feel free to ransack the gold star cabinet. Why is this phrase — lifted directly from some maddeningly pervasive template floating around out there on the Internet, I gather — a rejection-trigger? It’s not, believe it or not, the fact that so many aspiring writers have been shoehorning it into their queries in recent years that it has effectively become a cliché, as far as Millicent is concerned. The real problem with it that it effectively bellows at Millicent, “Hey, lady — this querier does not know thing one about how books are sold in the U.S.”

An unfairly sweeping conclusion? Perhaps, but let’s don Millicent’s glasses and whip out her text-dissecting scalpel to figure out why she might leap at it. In the first place, this statement includes unnecessary information. If the book being queried is fiction, people in agencies will assume that the manuscript is complete, for the exceedingly simple reason that it would be impossible for a first-time, non-celebrity writer to sell an incomplete first novel. Fiction is sold on a completed manuscript, period.

Nonfiction is typically sold on a book proposal, not a full manuscript, so were Ima’s book a memoir, including the information mentioning that the manuscript is complete would not necessarily be a selling point, either. The only exception: the relatively rare nonfiction-representing agency that states point-blank in its submission requirements that it will consider a first memoir only if the writer has already completed a draft of it.

Why might they harbor that preference? Ask any memoirist: writing truthfully and insightfully about one’s own life is hard, doubly so if the life in question has been at all traumatic. The brain and the body often doesn’t make a huge distinction between living through something difficult and reliving it vividly enough to write about it explicitly and well. It’s not at all unusual for even an exceptionally talented writer to become heavily depressed, or even physically ill, in the course of fulfilling a contract for a memoir.

Since most of pulling together a proposal involves writing about the book’s subject matter, rather than writing the story from within — telling what happened, as opposed to showing it clearly enough that the reader feels as though she’s walking around in the narrator’s skin — many first-time memoirists worry, and rightly, that they might not have the emotional fortitude to finish the book. Others are stunned to discover that after months or years of effort aimed at landing an agent and selling the book concept to a publisher, they simply cannot bring themselves to complete it. Or, if they do, they balk at exposing their innermost secrets to the world.

There’s absolutely no shame in any of that — second thoughts are natural in this instance. However, an agent who has seen a pet project cancelled at the last minute because a client could not finish the book he was contracted to deliver might well become wary about running into the same problem in future. So while agencies that handle a lot of memoir tend to get inured to this sort of disappointment, it’s not at all unheard-of for a newly-burned agent or agency to establish a full manuscript-only policy.

Most of the time, though, that’s not the expectation; publishers buy memoirs all the time based solely upon a proposal packet and a single chapter. But they don’t, as a rule, buy incomplete fiction.

So when Ima makes a point of saying in her query — and right off the bat, too — that her manuscript is complete, probably merely because she saw an example online that used that phrase, she is effectively making a virtue of having lived up to the publishing industry’s minimum expectation of fiction writers. To Millicent’s mind, that’s just not something anyone familiar with how fiction is actually sold in this country would do.

But as much as most agents prefer to take on new clients who have done their homework about how publishing does and does not work, professional naïveté all by itself is seldom considered an instant-rejection offense. That unusually high word count, however, often is. In fact, many Millicents are explicitly trained to reject a query that mentions the manuscript it is promoting exceeds 100,000 words.

Why draw the line there? Cost, mostly. Although the average manuscript shrinks in length by about 2/3rds in the transition to print, it’s just far more expensive to print a long book than a shorter one. Since the publication costs rise astronomically at about 125,000 words — different binding is necessary, and trade paper binding is more problematic — and it’s so common for first-time authors to be asked to revise their books and add pages prior to publication, they like to leave themselves some wiggle room.

So pervasive is the prejudice against first books over 100,000 words (i.e., 400 pages in Times New Roman) that it’s not unheard-of for agents to tell clients with books pushing the upper limit simply to leave the word count off the title page. (If you were not aware that the word count is typically included on a professional title page, or that a title page is necessary for a manuscript, run, don’t walk to the HOW TO FORMAT A TITLE PAGE category on the archive list at right.)

Did some of you do a double-take at the 100,000 words = 400 pages equation? “But Anne,” Ima cries, justifiably upset, “my manuscript is nowhere near 400 pages. But it is about 137,000 words. What gives?”

I’m guessing that you have been using actual word count, Ima, not estimated. For short stories and articles, it’s appropriate to report what Word says your word count is, but for books, that’s not historically how it has been figured. And unfortunately for your query, Millicent will just assume that any word count that ends in a zero is an estimate.

Actually, she’s likely to leap to that conclusion, anyway, because that’s how word count for books has historically been figured: 250 x # of pages for Times New Roman, 200 x # of pages for Courier. Yes, yes, I know, Ima: the resultant figure will bear almost no resemblance to the actual word count. That’s fine — expected, even.

But that expectation does carry some pretty heavy implications for using the stock phrase complete at X words, necessarily. Specifically, when Millicent spots your query’s assertion that your manuscript is 137,000 words, she — and a potential acquiring editor — will just assume that your novel is 548 pages long. (137,000 divided by 250.) And that, as we discussed above, would place it well beyond what her boss, the agent of your dreams, could hope to sell as a first book in the current fiction market.

“But Anne,” Ima protests, tears in her eyes, “I see plenty of fantasy novels that long in the bookstore. Because, yes, I am one of those great-hearted and sensible aspiring writers who realizes that if I expect bookstores to help promote my novel when it comes out, I should be supporting them now by buying books from them.”

While I approve of your philosophy, Ima — and would even upgrade it by pointing out that an aspiring writer who does not regularly buy recently-released first books in her own book category is shooting her own long-term best interests in the metaphorical foot — what you probably have in mind are novels by established authors. What a writer with an already-identified readership demonstrably willing to buy his books can get away with often differs radically from what a first-time author can hope to sneak past Millicent. And because market conditions change, it’s certainly different from what a first-time author might have been able to sell five years ago.

It’s a truism, to be sure, but people in the industry repeat it for a reason: in order to get discovered, a new writer’s work doesn’t merely have to be as good as what is already on the shelves; typically, it needs to be better.

Now, an aspiring writer can find that truth discouraging — apparently I’ve depressed poor Ima into too deep a stupor to keep formulating questions — or she can choose to find it empowering. Yes, that stock phrase gleaned from an online query template led Ima down the path of certain rejection, but honestly, can you blame Millicent and her ilk for wanting to reject queries crammed with prefab, one-size-fits-all phrasing?

Be honest, now: if you were an agency screener, wouldn’t you prefer to reward queriers who made the effort to sound like themselves?

Of course, it’s quite a bit more work to come up with original phrasing for what most aspiring writers regard, let’s face it, as merely an annoying hoop through which they have to jump in order to get agents to read their manuscripts. It’s more than that, though — to Millicent, it’s your first opportunity to wow her with the originality of your voice, the startling uniqueness of your story or argument, and, yes, your professional grasp of the realities of publishing.

Listen: every piece of writing you send to an agency is yet another opportunity to demonstrate that you can write. Millicent wants to see your literary voice on the page, not other people’s phrasing, and certainly not a pale echo of what anybody random person on the street might say. (I’m looking at you, Madge.) Read your query carefully to make sure that you sound like you and nobody else — and that the story you are telling or the argument you are making doesn’t read like anybody else’s, either.

A tall order? Most assuredly. But isn’t this what a good writer wants, people in the publishing industry taking her writing seriously enough to pay close attention to how she chooses to arrange words on the page?

Ponder that, please, until next time, when I shall once again be analyzing a reader’s actual query. Have the confidence to eschew those templates, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXI: all right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up, or, that pesky credentials paragraph revisited