Pet peeves on parade, part XXIII: the monster always returns…returns…returns…

I’m having a good day, campers: today, I got to delve back into an editing project I’d had to put aside for a while. It’s something that requires my full energy; digging one’s arms up to the elbow in a complex manuscript takes more out of a conscientious editor than writers tend to believe.

You’d be surprised at how deeply those of us who read for a living can bond with the manuscripts we handle. It’s not as though an editor (or an agent, or an agency screener) can plop himself down and read a book like any other reader; it’s our job to be alive to every detail. I like to think of myself as the book’s advocate, trying to figure out all of the little ways to make it as beautiful and marketable as humanly possible.

And no, in response to what a good third of you just thought very loudly, beautiful writing is not always marketable, any more than marketable writing is always beautiful. Ideally, a manuscript should be both. It should also, if I can possibly manage to nudge it in this direction, be written in a voice and vocabulary appropriately challenging for its target readership.

Bringing out any of these laudable traits is not only a matter of critiquing what could be improved; quite a lot of what I do involves helping the author see what is already good and could be made better. Part of being a thoughtful freelance editor — as opposed to a careful copyeditor, the nit-picky soul who concentrates on making sure that the manuscript is clear and the sentences grammatically correct, the minimum standard for professional writing — involves not only checking for possible red lights that might lead to rejection, but also figuring out what a manuscript’s strengths are, as well as why it will appeal to its target audience.

Again, those are not necessarily the same thing, right?

Most aspiring writers do need to be reminded, I’ve noticed, what is good about their work. Or even told what the selling points for their books are.

There’s a pretty good reason for this, actually. Throughout the writing process, it’s awfully easy to start to think of the effort you’ve put into a book as its most important characteristic. But realistically, publishing houses do not acquire books simply because someone went to the trouble to write them. Nor, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, will readers — ones who do not already know the author personally, at any rate — pick up a book simply because somebody happened to write it.

Why does prompt publishers to acquire manuscripts and readers to buy books, you ask? Would I sound like a broken record if I suggested that both sell because of their strengths?

In fact, the length of time it took to write a book is precisely the wrong thing to mention in a query letter or pitch; it’s widely considered unprofessional. Millicent the agency screener is apt to regard queries that include statements like I have spent seven years writing NOVEL, GREAT AMERICAN as not only a waste of page space, but as a studied appeal for her sympathy.

“Why on earth would I care how long this manuscript took to write?” Millicent murmurs into her omnipresent latte. “And why would I be more favorably impressed by a seven-year effort than one that took only six? What matters is on the page, not what Herculean efforts it took to get there.”

Let me repeat that, as it’s awfully important: at the submission stage, manuscripts are evaluated based upon what actually appears on their pages, not the writer’s intentions, effort, or even what the book might look like after a conscientious editor’s had a few rounds with it. Many, many aspiring writers seem to have a hard time accepting this, judging by how often justifications and explanations seem to find their way into queries and pitches. From a professional point of view, this information just isn’t relevant.

But that’s not the only reason that including it could hurt you. Because it’s quite standard for both agents and editors to request revisions after taking on a book project — see my earlier observation about how involved professional readers can get with manuscripts they like — it’s prudent to assume that the pros in your future will expect you to be able to incorporate feedback in a timely and reasonable manner. So if the agent of your dreams’ reaction to a detailed account of the five years you invested in producing the manuscript is less likely to be, “Gee, this book must be worthwhile,” but “Heavens — if a single draft took five years, how long will any revisions I want take?” is it truly in your interests to mention it?

Save the probably quite interesting story of how you churned out that 400-page novel in the scant ten-minute increments you managed to snatch between your day job and your night job for future interviews. Trust me, your reading public will eat it up.

In your queries and pitches, stick to the information that Millicent actually needs in order to decide whether to request pages. As submitting writers are all too prone to forget, publishing is a business, not an art form — agents and editors acquire books they believe are marketable, not just ones they believe are well-written. And, as I believe I have mentioned several hundred times before, they do not — contrary to the hope of most submitting writers — read the entire submission before making up their minds on either point.

Anyone care to tell the class at what point in the average submission Millicent stops reading? Think on it, and I shall give you the answer at the end of this post.

Hint: it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of pages her agent boss asked you to send. Not at all.

How does this relate to the revision process, you ask? Well, swift judgments mean that if you have limited revision time at your disposal, it’s smart strategy to concentrate on the first 50 pages of your manuscript — the usual first request from an agent — or, in a pinch, the first 5. (If you are planning to head to a writers’ conference anytime soon, burnishing the first 5 until they shine is imperative: the first five pages of the manuscript are the standard writing sample, the most anyone is at all likely to ask to see within the context of a pitch meeting. But I digress.)

Do I sense an undercurrent of amusement out there? “Are you seriously taking the time to justify doing any revision at all, Anne?” those of you who have followed the Pet Peeves on Parade series closely ask, chuckling. “Isn’t it a bit late in the series for that? We all know what a stickler Millicent can — and indeed, should — be. Or are you once again leading us down the primrose path to some well-concealed eventual point?”

Well, the importance of revision bears repeating, chucklers, but you’re right: my little peroration was warming you up for a pet peeve that I suspect not all of you will agree is problematic on the page. Or so professional readers like yours truly surmise from how pervasive the problem I’m about to mention is in submissions — particularly in openings.

I’m speaking, of course, to invocatory rhythms that don’t quite work. And you thought this post wasn’t going to be a continuation of our discussion on voice!

Invocatory rhythms are one of the most popular tools aspiring writers use to beautify their narratives, a kind of sing-song rhythm that alerts the reader that Something Literary is Going on Here. One of the easiest ways to add this music to a text is through word and phrase repetition. Take a gander at a fairly representative sample:

Musette ran through the corridor, ran like the wind, ran as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her freedom, after all this time? Didn’t she deserve a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, deserve to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

See the problem? No? Okay, let’s take a peek at it through Millicent’s experience-sharpened peepers.

Musette ran through the corridor, ran like the wind, ran as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her freedom, after all this time? Didn’t she deserve a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, deserve to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

The problem is clearer now, right? Not only does this innocent-looking paragraph harbor a heck of a lot of word and phrase repetition — enough that our Millie may murmur under her breath, “Wow — doesn’t this writer know any other words?” — but that eye-confusing reiteration is encased in identical sentence structures. The result is a little something we professional readers like to call structural repetition: a percussive repetition of similarly-structured sentences (or sentence fragments) intended to make a rhythmic point.

Why bring this up as a voice and revision problem, in addition to a notorious Millicents’ pet peeve? Because part of the issue here is editorial: merely broadening the vocabulary, the usual fix for word repetition, would not solve this problem. Lookee:

Musette ran through the corridor, sped like the wind, fled as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? Didn’t she merit a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, have an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

Better already, is it not? To a professional reader, though, this passage would still read as structurally repetitious, despite the wording being more varied (and thus more interesting) this time around. And that reaction is apt to confuse self-editors, who would tend to see the nice, pulsing rhythm pushing the paragraph forward, rather than the probability that the too-similar sentence structures will cause the reader to zone out a bit as the paragraph goes on.

Not to mention the virtual certainty that Millicent will murmur, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with this narrative trick, but why must this writer foist it on us twice in a single paragraph?”

You’ve got an excellent point there, Millie. Like every other narrative device, structural repetition works best when it is used sparingly.

How sparingly, you ask with fear and trepidation? Two or three times, say, in the course of a manuscript, to draw the reader’s attention to particularly important passages. Even within the context of this short excerpt, see how much more effective the first use of structural repetition is if we remove the second.

Musette ran through the corridor, sped like the wind, fled as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? She longed with the urgency of a sneeze for a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat. Clearly, she had an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever.

Didn’t like it that way? Okay, let’s switch where the structural repetition falls — and while we’re at it, take out the cliché about the wind.

Musette sped through the corridor as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? Didn’t she merit a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, have an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

Was that a sudden gust of non-clichéd wind that just made my cat topple over, or did a significant minority of you just sigh gustily?
“I see that there are repeated words in the original version, Anne,” some of you point out, “but frankly, I liked it best. Surely the choice to incorporate structural repetition is a stylistic choice, rather than a matter best left up to an editor. Unless you have just inadvertently proven your point about not every reader’s liking every well-written narrative voice, and you are demonstrating yourself to be the kind of knuckle-dragging troglodyte who eschews the joys of literary fiction in favor of novels that — ugh — feature a plot?”

Actually, I’ve been known to read and enjoy both, oh ye quick to judge. What’s more, I’ve read plenty of literary fiction with strong plots and genre fiction that features beautiful language. So there.

But you are obliquely correct, oh sighers, that the original version above was more likely to have dropped from the fingertips of a writer with specifically literary aspirations than one who was aiming for a more mainstream readership. Since invocatory rhythms are quite common in poetry, this style turns up very frequently in novel and memoir submissions, particularly in those that are either literary fiction or are other types of manuscript written with a literary tone. It just sounds pretty, right?

“If the writing’s pretty on an individual sentence level,” sighers everywhere argue, “how could that be problematic in a submission?”

In several ways, actually. Rather than telling you why, let’s look at the single most famous example of invocatory prose in English literature, the opening to Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Yes, I use this particular example fairly frequently, but humor me here: Dickens, bless his now-still heart, has provided us with a lulu of an example of why structural repetition is problematic in print.

Just for kicks, pretend that you have never seen it before, and try to read like an agency screener. To facilitate that laudable endeavor — and to give you the opportunity to judge for yourself whether all of this textual repetition provides a compelling entrée into the story that follows, here is not just the well-known opening, but the next page as well. As always, if you find you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the images.

Now, this voice is certainly distinctive, isn’t it? Hard to conceive of a more memorable opening, rhythmically speaking. But it’s also true that if these were the first two pages of a submission, virtually any modern-day Millicent would have rejected it by line three. Any guesses why?

If your hand instantly shot into the air, alerting me to your trenchant observation that it was because the first paragraph is one interminable run-on sentence — 119 words, connected incorrectly by commas, rather than semicolons, sacre bleu! — give yourself a gold star for the day.

Ditto if you zeroed in upon the apparently random capitalization of nouns, the criminal punctuation choices, the ubiquitous logical contradictions (yes, I know it’s meant to be ironic; think like a screener here and look for reasons to shout, “Next!”), the second paragraph written entirely in the passive voice, and the fact that two paragraphs into the piece, the reader still has absolutely no idea who the protagonist is or what’s going on.

And can’t you just picture an editor furiously scribbling in the margins: “Which was it — the best of times or the worst of times? It could hardly have been both. Commit to one or the other!”

Although any one of those perfectly valid objections might have prompted that cry of “Next!”, the structural repetition is what most pros would have noticed first. To see why, you stand up right now and take two steps backward from your computer monitor.

Notice the visual pattern? Millicent would have spotted it as soon as she pulled the first page of ol’ Charles’ manuscript out of the envelope.

Actually, if you’ve been revising for a while, you might have caught that the structural repetition problem without backing off. A solid tip-off: the verb to be appears 14 times within the first sentence.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Yes, this is a level of verb variation that would make Millicent long for the comparatively challenging vocabulary choices of See Dick run, Jane. Run, Jane, run. Remember, though, it’s not just the repeated words and phrases that would raise professional readers’ weary eyebrows here: it’s the phenomenon of consecutive sentences being set up in the same way. No matter how great your high school English teacher told you this particular opening was, it’s dull for the reader to read the same It was X, it was Y sentence structure over and over again.

Or, indeed, any given sentence structure, if it is repeated often enough within too few lines of text.

Unfortunately, a lot of writers just adore structural repetition: it reads a bit like a prayer. It can provide a driving, almost galloping rhythm to a page. Many aspiring writers see that rhythm in the work of authors they admire and say, “By gum, I’m going to make my paragraphs read like that!”

And they do. Sometimes, they make their paragraphs read like that several times per page.

Don’t mind that loud rapping. It’s merely Millicent pounding her head against a wall, moaning, “Make it stop! Make it stop!”

That’s what happens when perfectly legitimate voice choices run amok. Like any magic trick,, repetitive structure loses its ability to charm when the reader sees it too often. After a surprisingly short while, it can start to come across less as an interesting stylistic choice than as a sort of narrative tic.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let me ask you: how many iterations of It was… did Dickens put you through before you first thought Oh, come on, Chuck; get on with it?

“But Anne,” lovers of percussive repetition beg piteously, “I just love my structurally repetitious opening page/paragraph/chapter. If I’m careful not to use this trick again anywhere in the manuscript, I can keep it, can’t I?”

I have a news flash from Millicentville: she sees a LOT of structurally repetitious openings; as with anything else she sees a dozen times a week, it’s probably going to be more difficult to impress her by this method. She’s also not particularly likely to believe that an opening redolent with repetition is a one-time narrative choice.

More often than not, when a manuscript opens with repetitive structure, it will continue with repetitive structure. That, alas, renders structural repetition dangerous to use in the first pages of a submission. Or book proposal. Agents and editors are just so used to this tendency that they’re all too likely — fairly or not — to conclude that to read on would be to be treated to the same type of sentence over and over, ad infinitum.

And that, my friends, is not invocatory; it’s soporific. Next time, I shall talk about ways to tell which is which in your writing, to figure out when invocatory rhythms will help your work.

Remember, Millicent seldom makes it all the way to the bottom of page one. That’s not a whole lot of lines in which to establish the originality and power of your voice.

Too bad our pal Chuckles blew his chance by repeating himself so much, eh? Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part VI: the phrase so nice I used it twice, or, hey, look at what I can do!

Nicholas brothers jumping

Have these last two series on self-editing been keeping you up at night, campers? Now that you’re starting to gain a sense of just how closely professional readers (like, say, agents, editors, and people like Millicent who screen submissions for them) peruse pages, have you found yourself gnawing your fingernails up to the elbow, worried about that manuscript you sent out last month? Speculating on just how deeply Millicent’s X-ray eyes will bore into your page 1, are you?

And now aren’t you glad that I spared you a picture of X-ray eyes to top this post? Enjoy the chipper photo of the Nicholas brothers! (Which doesn’t really do that remarkable dance team justice, I must say. If you are even remotely interested in the dance, do yourself a favor and check out any of the many movies from the 1940s that they enlivened.)

Not that I’m in a position to soften how the pros read, but I do worry about the effects of these blogs on you fine people, you know. Knowing the score can be stressful — although I continue to believe that in the long run, having a realistic understanding of how books do and do not get published is actually quite a bit less stressful than the far more popular route of just assuming that any well-written book will inevitably attract an agent and get published.

Presumably, the moment a truly gifted writer types the last word of her first manuscript, an air-raid siren goes off somewhere in Manhattan, alerting agents to swarm. That must be the case, because when the writer sends out her first (and only, doubtless) query, the lucky recipient knows to snap it up right away, regardless of whether that agent happens to represent that kind of book or not.

Or perhaps the Manuscript Fairy makes the introduction. Whatever the magical mechanism, the writer is signed with an agency with a week, sells her manuscript for a six-figure advance within a month, and is smilingly chatting about her newly-published book with Oprah in less than the time it would take to grow nasturtiums from seed to flower.

For the non-gardeners among you, that’s not all that long.

The trouble is, there is no Manuscript Fairy, and good writing often has an exceptionally difficult time finding a home. Believe me, it’s far better for you to know all that before you submit; realistic expectations have kept many a fine fledgling writer from giving up in despair after just a few tries. (Hint: if you can still name every agent you have queried with your latest book, your query list is probably quite a bit too short, given the current market.)

But before I sit you down for some straight talk about Santa Claus, let me hasten to add that the vast majority of submitted manuscripts disqualify themselves from serious professional consideration — and often for reasons that would not even occur to their writers as important to consider. Like, say, how often a particular sentence, image, or insight appears in a manuscript.

Hey, we were just talking about that, weren’t we? And with good reason: as I pointed out last time, professional readers are trained to seek out and deplore redundancy.

Unfortunately, writers — especially those who do not take the time to re-read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD prior to submission — seldom catch repetition of their favorite phrases and ideas. Heck, they’re frequently unaware that they’re leaning on some verbs harder than others…or that Millicent regularly gnashes her teeth over the fact that such a high percentage of submitters apparently all attended the same school of leaning.

Why, just a month or two ago, I was chatting with Teresa (not her real name, of course, but a cunning pseudonym), an aspiring writer of some promise who’d just had her first run-in with an editor — and thus with the X-ray vision a savvy writer associates with professional readers. “He yelled at me for writing too much in the passive voice,” she fumed. “In fact, he told me that any sentence with the verb to be in it was bad writing.”

I laughed, as I often do at writing rules apparently constructed out of the chewed-up remains of seven or eight genuinely solid pieces of literary advice. “That was a rather common high school English assignment in the 1980s: write an essay or story without using to be even once. It was designed to broaden the array of verbs students were using, not to criminalize was.”

Teresa thought about that. “But he said it was a rule!”

“Matters of style are not really conducive to one-size-fits-all rules. However, I can easily imagine an editor — or any professional reader, for that matter — getting so tired of seeing a particular word or phrase repeated in a manuscript that he would say, ‘As far as I’m concerned, you may never use look again in writing. Heck, I would be relieved if you never used a seeing verb again, because in this manuscript, you have used up your lifetime supply.’ But that doesn’t make it a rule every writer should follow.”

I chose look advisedly, because in this TV-, movie-, and internet-saturated culture, seeing verbs are some of the most overused. After all, most people gain most of their information through their eyes; as a direct result, Millicent sees (see?) many, many submissions on any given day where sight and sound provide virtually all of the information to the reader. This tendency is so pronounced that if an alien from the planet Zarg who knew nothing of human life were suddenly to switch places with Millie (hey, she could use the vacation), it might easily conclude from reading all of those submissions that sight and hearing were the only senses that people possess on Earth.

Hands up if your immediate first response to that was to cry, “From this day forth, by gum, I’m going to gladden Millicent’s heart by incorporating more smell, taste, and touch details into my writing! In fact, just as soon as I finish reading this blog post, I’m off to search through my manuscript for places where the narrative relies too heavily on visual descriptions, so I may mix up the sensory descriptors more,” congratulations. You have already begun to think of revision in professional terms.

First-person and tight third-person narratives are particularly prone to over-reliance on visual detail — and are frequently riddled with seeing verbs. That’s completely understandable: from the writer’s perspective, reminding the reader that Our Hero is in fact seeing everything in the story makes perfect sense. It’s true, for one thing — and at first glance, at least, it can make the protagonist seem involved in action he is in fact merely observing. But upon closer examination, that proves not to be the case:

I watched Billy tear through the contents of my locker, looking for his now-meaningless love letter. I cringed, seeing textbooks, rulers, my pointiest protractor fly over his burly shoulder. Periodically, he glared at me, as if daring me to stop him. Pointedly, I looked away.

I had the strange sense I was being observed. Removing my gaze from the destruction of nearly all of my school supplies, I discovered the source: my nemesis, Stacey, was staring at me from the other end of the locker bay, exchanging amused glances with her friends. Their contemptuous scrutiny made me burn with shame.

Surreptitiously, I eyed the diary hanging from Billy’s back pocket, estimating the number of steps it would take me to rush forward, snatch it, and run away to read it in peace. The look in Billy’s eyes made me hesitate, but having an audience watching me rendered me bold.

“Now see here,” I began nervously…

See? The narrator is involved in the scene, certainly, but until the last line, she isn’t actually an actor in it. Her only action involves looking at this or that. Oh, she’s thinking up a storm for the reader’s benefit, but to an outside observer of the scene, she would be merely passively watching what’s going on.

“Aha!” rules-lawyering revisers of Frankenstein manuscripts will exclaim. “So that’s your real objection here: the narrator is a passive protagonist. I agree that is a problem, but I thought we were talking about textual repetition. This example doesn’t really show that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but each time Our Heroine (or anybody else, for that matter) saw something, the author used a different verb to describe it. How then is it repetitious?”

Good question, rules-lawyers. The repetition here is conceptual — all of that eye use — but to a veteran reader, all of those synonyms for sight might actually leap off the page as if they were all the verb to see. To Millicent’s overworked eyes, it would look like this:

I watched Billy tear through the contents of my locker, looking for his now-meaningless love letter. I cringed, seeing textbooks, rulers, my pointiest protractor fly over his burly shoulder. Periodically, he glared at me, as if daring me to stop him. Pointedly, I looked away.

I had the strange sense I was being observed. Removing my gaze from the destruction of nearly all of my school supplies, I discovered the source: my nemesis, Stacey, was staring at me from the other end of the locker bay, exchanging amused glances with her friends. Their contemptuous scrutiny made me burn with shame.

Surreptitiously, I eyed the diary hanging from Billy’s back pocket, estimating the number of steps it would take me to rush forward, snatch it, and run away to read it in peace. The look in Billy’s eyes made me hesitate, but having an audience watching me rendered me bold.

“Now see here,” I began nervously…

My point, should anybody have started to wonder if I had one, is this: if a writer is going to become a good self-editor, she needs to stop believing in the Manuscript Fairy, learn how to read her own work as critically as Millicent would, and take responsibility for every word in the manuscript. By definition, redundancy doesn’t add anything new to a manuscript — so does it really need to be there at all?

The answer, since not all of you shouted it out in unison, is no — and that’s as true for conceptual repetition like relying exclusively upon seeing verbs as it is for recycled metaphors and self-plagiarism. A redundant text is, among other things, predictable. At the sentence level, varying your word choices and sensory details is as important to keeping a reader guessing as providing good plot twists at the story level.

The trick to sifting through a Frankenstein manuscript, though, is not only identifying and pouncing upon repetition; it also involves learning how to spot, preserve, and highlight what works. That, alas, is a goal that all too often gets swept under the proverbial rug when a writer is suddenly hit with an apparently impossible-to-apply piece of editorial advice like never use the verb to be.

But good revision, like good feedback, isn’t entirely about pointing out broken rules. It’s also about — wait for it — style, and that means, often, that generic rules don’t always apply. Oh, you’re going to want to use punctuation correctly, and you’re going to want to make the voice consistent throughout, but you’re also going to want the to manuscript sound like you.

And that, my friends, is one of the grave dangers of blindly adhering to one-size-fits-all style formulae: there’s no writing rule in the world that’s going to tell you what your individual voice should be. Nor should it, because part of the charm of a great voice is that it is unique.

Was that giant bang I just heard the sound of everybody out there who wants to be handed an infallible set of directions for how to get published slamming the door on his way out?

In order to define and polish personal literary voice, it’s vital to figure out what’s the best part of your writing, so you may draw the reader’s attention to it. That may not involve finding the best scene or paragraph, necessarily, or even your strongest sentence; it may mean identifying a particular strength in your writing. It can be something very general — a good ear for realistic dialogue, for instance, or a gift for helping the reader care about the protagonist — or something very specific, like being a magnificent describer of the interiors of automobiles or a world-class expresser of silent disgruntlement.

Whatever it is — or whatever they are; good writers often start off with many strengths, and build still more through practice — being aware of how it shows up in your text will render revision infinitely easier, particularly if you happen to be dealing with a Frankenstein manuscript. Think about it: without knowing what to emphasize, self-editing is a grueling process of ferreting out mistakes and correcting them. If you can play to your strengths as a writer, however, then revision is a matter of winnowing away anything that obscures them, so your best writing may shine.

Sounds like a whole lot more fun than yelling at yourself for a bunch of mistakes, doesn’t it? Not to mention significantly gentler on the ego.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, a huge part of being a good writing teacher or developmental editor — as opposed to a good copyeditor, who concentrates on making sure that the writing is clear and the sentences grammatically correct, bringing the work to the minimum standard for professional writing — involves not only checking for possible red lights that might lead to rejection, but also figuring out what a manuscript’s strengths are, as well as why it will appeal to its target audience. (And no, Virginia, those three are not all necessarily the same thing, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Aspiring writers frequently do need to be reminded, I’ve noticed, about what is good about their work, other than the fact that they themselves sat down and wrote it. Heck, many apparently need to be told what the selling points for their books are, if the typical responses to the perfectly straightforward questions, “Who is your target audience, and why will your book appeal to those folks?” are any indication.

As is the case for so many pervasive phenomena on the creative side of the submission process, there’s a pretty good reason for this, at least from the writer’s point of view. Throughout the writing process, it’s awfully easy to start to think of the effort you’ve put into a book as its most important characteristic, isn’t it? But realistically, books literally never get acquired and published simply and exclusively because someone went to the trouble to write them.

Okay, so books by celebrities and politicians occasionally do. I’m talking about works of literary merit here.

The vast majority of the time, manuscripts sell because of their strengths — you know, those marvelous things that I urged you earlier to take the time to track down and highlight in your work. This is not a business that gives As for effort, after all. In fact, should you ever happen to find yourself chatting about your book with an agent or editor, the length of time it took you to write a book is precisely the wrong thing to mention in a pitch — or in a query letter, for that matter.

Was that echoing collective gasp of horror a subtle indication that some of you would like to know why? As hard as it might be for any of us to accept, to Millicent and her ilk, the amount of effort that a writer put into a writing project doesn’t really matter. What matters is what’s on the page, not what Herculean efforts it took to get there.

Or, to put it another way, everyone concerned is perfectly aware that every book requires Herculean efforts to bring from conception to completion, much less to publication. So what agents and editors tend to conclude when writers rattle on about those efforts is not, “Gee, this book must be worthwhile,” but “Heavens — if a single draft took five years, how long will it take this writer to make any revisions I may want?”

I know: it’s unfair. In actual practice, how long it takes to write a book is not a particularly good indicator of how long it would take to revise. Or even how good the writing will be at the end of the process.

But as submitting writers are all too prone to forget, publishing is a business, not an art form. Agents and editors acquire books they believe are marketable, not just ones they believe are well-written. And, as I believe I have mentioned several hundred times before in this very forum, they do not — contrary to the hope of most aspiring writers — read the entire submission before making up their minds on either point.

Anyone care to tell the class at what point in the average submission Millicent stops reading? (Hint: it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of pages her agent boss asked you to send. Not at all.)

How do the business orientation of agents and editors relate to the revision process, you ask, or to this series on Frankenstein manuscripts? Merely this; the swift judgments endemic to agencies, publishing houses, and yes, even contest judging mean that if you have limited revision time at your disposal, it’s smart strategy to concentrate on the first 50 pages of your manuscript — the usual first request from an agent — or, in a pinch, the first five.

If, say, you were intending to comb your work for any of the many knee-jerk rejection reasons in the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE category at right. Or even just to minimize any redundancy in the manuscript. From a submission perspective, investing your time in culling all of those synonyms for seeing out of your first chapter, then turning your efforts to making absolutely certain that the voice is consistent all the way through that chapter before you pop it in the mail, is better strategy than working and re-working Chapter 10 until it’s perfect before you re-read the opening pages. Especially if the agent of your dreams has only asked to see Chapters 1-3.

Just make sure that after you’ve met your short-term deadline, you go back and implement those changes all the way through the manuscript. Lest we forget, that kind of spot-specific, I-want-to-get-this-in-the-morning-mail type of revision is quite conducive to producing a Frankenstein manuscript.

There, you have your homework: make your opening pages impeccable, then make the rest admirable. Well, my work here is done…

If you should find yourself shaking your head in the dead of night over your very own Frankenstein manuscript, try not to despair. What you have in front of you is not just an unevenly-written story or argument; it’s also potentially a spectacularly rich source of information about what you do well as a writer. If you have the time — and I would urge you to make some, even if you feel as if you’re up against a deadline; does that submission REALLY need to be e-mailed the day after that agent requested it? — it’s well worth your while to cuddle up with your Frankenstein manuscript in a comfortable reading chair.

Who knows? You might just find gold. Or at least a promising site to pan for it.

Yes, in response to what you just thought: that’s going to be a heck of a lot of work. One might even call it a Herculean task. Nobody ever said that writing a great book was easy.

Nobody who didn’t believe in the Manuscript Fairy, at any rate.

Try to think of the work not as the value of the manuscript, but as the training and practice you need to become a master at your art. Contrary to popular opinion, there’s more to this gig than just sitting in front of a keyboard and typing the darned thing. You have to figure out what you write well — which isn’t necessarily what you like to read, right? — and use that skill to tell the story you were born to tell.

That’s a tall order, but the results are worth it. Jumping off a staircase and landing in the splits isn’t the kind of thing most of us can do on the first try, after all. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part IV: the monster always returns, sometimes with a little help from his friends

frankenstein and friends

Before we delve back into the topic at hand, I’d like to point out to those of you who are not inveterate comment-readers that there has been some amazingly helpful discussion going on in the comments section of the last couple of posts, on writers’ conferences and revision, respectively. (That’s here and here, for those of you reading this on Publisher’s Marketplace.) Once commenters get chatting with one another, the discussion sometimes goes on for days, so it’s worth checking back in — and it’s definitely worth chiming in.

I just mention. And while I’m mentioning, allow me to bring up a revision-related matter inspired by one of those discussions.

All of you out there are already aware that a serious writer should never be without paper and a writing implement, right? You never know when a great idea — or turn of phrase — will hit you, after all, and every author in the world has a personal horror story about the perfect midnight inspiration that evaporated because s/he assumed, wrongly, that s/he would remember it in the morning, even if s/he didn’t write it down.

Trust me, you do not want to be like s/him. Keep a pad of paper and pen by the bed — no matter whose bed you happen to be occupying in the dead of night. (Hey, I’m here to give writing advice, not make moral judgments.)

In fact, a good writer should always assume that the only way to preserve a thought for posterity is to jot it down, NOW, before it disappears into the ether.

What does that time-honored axiom have to do with revision, you ask? It has an important corollary: don’t throw away or delete earlier versions of your manuscript; you may want to use some of that material later on. The same holds true for abandoned writing projects: that book that isn’t gelling today may well in five years.

Archiving is a writer’s friend, in short.

I’m not talking about saving a different version of your writing documents after you change each and every comma, of course. (Although while I’m tossing around helpful rules of thumb, a good writer should hit SAVE after every revised paragraph, and make back-ups frequently, unless s/he just loves trying to reconstitute a multitude of micro-changes from memory after a computer crash.) I’m talking about saving your entire manuscript before you begin revision, making a duplicate of it, and storing that duplicate — clearly labeled as DRAFT (date) — as a separate file.

That way, you can revise, comfortable in the knowledge that if you change your mind later on, you can reconstitute your earlier draft in the twinkling of an eye. Rather than, say, trying to reconstruct it from memory.

This is an especially useful strategy for writers who can’t command long stretches of revision time, instead sneaking in twenty minutes here, an hour there, as their schedule permits. It is far, far easier to recall whether you’ve completed revising Chapter 4 if your hard disk (or desk drawer, for the less technology-minded) contains documents entitled Ch 4 May 2010 and Ch 4 revision than if all you can turn up is Ch 4.

It’s also not a bad idea — and you might want to brace yourselves; this one’s quite a bit of work — to get in the habit of keeping a list of major revisions, the date you made them, and the page upon which they occurred. Not only is this an excellent way to make sure that you don’t inadvertently skip the last 10 pages of Ch 4 while you’re going through the manuscript, changing your protagonist’s boss from Edgar to Elvira; it will save you mountains of time if you subsequently decide to change it back.

“But Anne,” those of you who have been paying close attention point out, and rightly, “in that case, couldn’t I just revert to that file I clearly labeled Novel Edgar version? Wouldn’t that save me even more time?”

Well, it would, provided that in that particular revision, you had changed absolutely nothing but Edgar’s name. But come closer, and I’ll whisper a trade secret: it’s practically unheard-of for a reviser to make ONLY the intended major change. S/he’ll spot typos, for instance; the opening of the second paragraph on page 73 will suddenly seem awkward. If s/he subsequently reverts to the earlier draft, those other changes often get lost — changes that the writer in retrospect will swear that s/he made.

Because, of course, s/he did; they merely don’t show up in the older manuscript. Much head-scratching inevitably ensues.

Some of you still aren’t convinced maintaining a revision list is worth the trouble, though, are you? Okay, here’s an even better reason: if you get into the habit now, you will probably be more comfortable working with an agent or editor.

Why? Well, it’s not all that uncommon for either to request specific revisions on a manuscript, either before or after they have signed the author, or for a manuscript to go through several rounds of requested revisions. (Ideally, with the writer’s hanging on to each version in a separate computer file or hard copy, in case the agent or editor changes his/her mind.) If the revisions are minor, or — and this happens more than one might think — if the writer decides to take some revision suggestions and not others, a swiftly-skimming agent or editor might think, erroneously, that the writer simply ignored the suggestions.

Just think how much debate may be avoided if the writer can instantly whip out a list of the revisions s/he made. Or — and I personally would not dream of submitting requested submissions without this — if s/he simply tucked a cover letter listing the changes made in the box with the revised manuscript.

At minimum, such a list will render it simpler to go back and reverse specific changes, in the not-unheard-of event of the agent or editor suddenly saying, “You know, I like this version much better, but how would you feel about making Elvira male?”

Oh, you think I’m joking, do you? Tell you what: the next time you bump into me at a writers’ conference, remind me to introduce you to three or four authors to whom similar requests have been made. Or, increasingly common in recent years, authors whose editors got laid off from their publishing houses after a round of requested revisions, so the authors abruptly found themselves trying to please a new editor with completely different tastes. Trust me, these authors just LOVE to tell their revision horror stories.

Still not convinced that you should take the time to keep a revision diary? I can think of one other very solid reason to get into the habit: if you discover that you have a Frankenstein manuscript on your hands, your revision list will tell you where you should start looking for inconsistencies in the text.

Admittedly, so will reading your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, but that takes significantly longer, at least to find a place to begin revising. Starting a revision journal and maintaining it conscientiously (hey, how much use can it be to you if you can’t trust it?) can not only help you figure out where to tackle the daunting task of revising a Frankenstein manuscript; it can prove invaluable in fending off revision-related panic (how on earth am I ever going to get through this?) and revision burnout.

For those of you just tuning in, a Frankenstein manuscript is a work that — usually inadvertently — is written (and usually revised) in so many different voices, styles, structures, and even quality of writing that it reads as though a committee had written it. Since I have literally never heard a single speaker at a writing conference address this very common problem — but have so often heard agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, and freelance editors complain about it in private — I wanted to alert my readers to it, lest the monster return again.

Because it will, you know. The first rule of horror is that the monster always returns. (Sort of like the mythical s/he in this post, come to think of it.)

In a way, a Frankenstein manuscript is a gift for a busy agent, editor, or judge, because it’s so very easy to reject. While I am generally very much in favor of writers doing everything they can, short of offers to do laundry or slip cash under certain doors in the dead of night, to make their agents’ and editors’ lives easier, trust me, you do not want to be on the donating end of such a gift.

Seriously, from a professional reader’s point of view, it’s no-brainer rejection if ever there was one: clearly, Millicent the agency screener thinks, if the author herself did not catch the Frankensteinish inconsistency of the text, the book needs to go through at least one more major revision.

And believe me, this needs another editing run-through is not something you want Millicent to think while considering whether to pass your submission on to her boss, the agent of your dreams. Remember, in order to reject the manuscript, all she needs to think is, “While it’s an interesting premise,” (or voice, or style, etc.) “the author needs to work on craft, structure, and consistency. We’ll catch this author next time around.”

In other words: “Next!”

Unfortunately, since Millicent usually compresses her expression of this into the standard phraseology of rejection (I’m sorry, but this manuscript does not meet our needs at this time, for instance, or I just don’t think I can place this book successfully in the current market, or the ever-popular I just didn’t fall in love with this story), the writer seldom finds out that she considers it a single revision away from being acceptable. Form-letter rejections are identical when sent to the author of a nearly-perfect manuscript and one where every third word is misspelled, after all.

In fact, agency denizens are often genuinely surprised to hear that aspiring writers with near-miss manuscripts aren’t necessarily aware of how close they are to getting accepted. Why, just last year, I asked my agent about a very talented writer I’d sent his way. He’d rejected her, and since the wording of the rejection had been rather ambiguous (along the lines of while I admire your voice, I just don’t think I can place this book successfully in the current literary market, I gather), I was curious to hear if he would be open to reading her next manuscript, a few months away from completion.

He looked at me blankly. “Next manuscript? She hasn’t dropped the first one, has she?” I assured him she had. “Oh, that’s a shame — it was really interesting. It just needed more work.”

Sound familiar? Or at any rate not surprising?

It shouldn’t be, but aspiring writers tend to overestimate, sometimes radically, the amount of time and energy an agent will be willing to invest in their first books. Think about it: every moment an agent devotes to nursing a new client’s manuscript into a publishable state is a moment that s/he is not spending selling books. Or reading the new works of clients who have already made him money. Or, perhaps closer to the hearts of agent-seekers everywhere, scanning submissions from aspiring writers.

Or having lunch with their current clients, in order to be grilled about what they thought of their friends’ submissions. Networking takes time, too, you know.

My point is, contrary to popular opinion, agencies are very seldom charitable institutions, devoted selflessly to the promotion of great literature. Even agencies that do in fact represent great literature are in the game to make money. In order to do that, they need to sell books.

Which means, in case I’ve been too subtle so far, that they’re looking for manuscripts that they not only could conceivably sell to publishing houses, but sell quickly in the current market. By definition, a manuscript that needs a whole lot of work is not going to be ready to market as soon as one that does not.

Besides, agencies receive too many letter-perfect submissions to devote much time to fixer-uppers. They figure that the fixer-uppers will come back to them eventually, anyway, all cleaned up.

Without their intervention. The average agent’s faith in the tenacity of the talented is unbounded. He honestly does believe that his dream client can figure out what to give him all by herself.

So trust me on this one: you want yours to be the submission that causes Millicent to exclaim, “Oh, this one’s ready to send out to editors right now!”

A Frankenstein manuscript is virtually never going to provoke that last exclamation, because inconsistency of voice, vocabulary, tone, etc. is a pretty sure sign that the writer has not finalized the narrative. Oh, s/he may have revised it until she’s blue in the face, but she hasn’t yet gone through the entire thing and smoothed it out so it reads like a unified story.

Here’s a word to the wise: if you are working on your first novel — or any other writing project — over the course of years, do yourself a favor and check it for stylistic consistency before you submit it to ANY agent, editor, or contest.

If you find that your voice wavers a bit throughout, don’t despair. As I mentioned last time, it’s actually quite rare that writers, even extremely gifted ones, find their specific voices right away; allow for the possibility that yours developed while you were writing the book.

Then embrace a two-part revision goal: find the voice, the style, the structure you like best, then make sure that every sentence in the book reflects it. Which, naturally, is going to be a heck of a lot easier to do if you had the forethought to keep a journal of what you changed where in the manuscript.

Without such a record, it’s quite a bit more difficult to pull off Part I of that tall order by reading your work in screen-sized chunks. In order to make absolutely sure that your book hangs together cohesively, YOU MUST READ IT IN HARD COPY.

In its entirety. Preferably in a few long sessions, and, if you change narrative voice very often, out loud, to ascertain that your various voices remain absolutely distinct throughout.

Although that last piece of advice is unlikely to come as much of a surprise to long-time readers of this blog (or even to those of you who have the attention span to remember as long ago as the opening of this post), I hear some of you grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled protest, “I feel like I’ve been working on this book forever. I’ve revised it so often that I could recite huge chunks of it from memory. And yet you’re telling me to reread the whole thing — aloud, yet?”

Yes, I am. Actually, it may actually be more important for inveterate revisers to read their work IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD.

Why, you gasp in horror? Because the more you revise a novel — or any book — the more likely it is to turn into a Frankenstein manuscript. It is an unintended downside of being conscientious about honing your craft.

Again, think about it: over time, you move passages around; you insert new scenes; you add or subtract subplots, characters, dialogue. All of these inevitably affect other parts of the book. Can you really be sure, for instance, that you remembered to remove your protagonist’s sociopathic sister from EVERY place she has ever appeared, even as a shadow on a wall?

And no, in response to what two-thirds of you just thought: merely doing a search-and-replace on the sister’s name is not sufficient, because if a novel is complex and rich, the spirit of individual characters lingers, even when they do not appear on the page. Necessarily, you would need to write the consciousness of the sociopathic sister out of the psyches of every other character in the family.

And that’s just the fall-out from a single change. The vast majority of revision is minor — which does not mean that any given change might not carry resonance throughout the book.

Starting to see why investing the time to list your revisions might conceivably be a time-saver in the long run? Or at least why I have been harping on the necessity of sitting down and reading your manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, AND getting unbiased readers to look it over before you submit it to an agent, editor, or contest? Yes, it’s the best way to catch grammatical, spelling, and continuity errors — but it is also really the only way to notice where a deleted character or plot point still affects the rest of the book.

While you’re reading your manuscript, do be aware that It is far from uncommon for fledgling writers to incorporate the style, vocabulary, and/or worldview of whatever author they happen to be reading at the moment into their work. It’s sort of like catching an accent when you’re staying in another country: you may not realize that you’re doing it, but others hear and wonder why your accent keeps wandering back and forth between London and Brooklyn.

I’ll admit it: this used to be my personal Frankenstein bête noire. When I was writing the novel my agent is currently marketing, I was reading a whole lot of Noël Coward. An extremely witty writer; I enjoy his work very much. However, he wrote almost exclusively about (a) pre-WWII British people and (b) people who inhabited now-transformed British colonial possessions.

My novel is about the adult lives of children who grew up on an Oregon commune, so obviously, my characters should not talk like Coward’s. (Although it would have been amusing to try: “My dear, your hot tub attire is simply too killing!” “Reginald, I must implore you to desist from taunting the yoga instructor!” “May one inquire whether this tabbouleh is indeed vegan? The most frightful consequences may otherwise ensue.” “While your sincerity is charming on a multiplicity of levels, Felicia, I cannot fail to notice that you have once again neglected your duties in tending to the sauna’s controls.”)

I made a deliberate effort not to incorporate educated British cadences into my dialogue, and in self-editing, deleted any lines of thought that smacked even vaguely of 1920s urbanity. However, being a very experienced editor, I was aware that I would probably miss a few, so not only did I read the entirety of my novel out loud (much to the astonishment of my cats and neighbors), but I also passed it under the eyes of first readers I trust, with the explicit instruction that they should highlight any archaic Briticisms.

And you know what? I had missed three in my on-screen revisions, but caught in my hard-copy read-through — much to the relief, no doubt, of my highlighter-wielding friends.

My point here — other than providing some fascinating footnote material for some graduate student fifty years from now who wants to write her thesis on Noël Coward’s influence upon Gen X American novelists — is that no matter how good you get at self-editing on a page-by-page basis, in order to avoid sending out a Frankenstein manuscript, you simply must take additional steps in screening your work.

Get used to it now: you will never outgrow the need. No writer does.

Partially, it is a focus problem. In the throes of the revision process — especially on a computer screen, which encourages reading in a piecemeal, episodic fashion not conducive to catching overarching patterns — it is terribly easy to lose sight of your book AS A BOOK.

This is where a sharp-eyed writers’ group, a good writing teacher, a freelance editor, or even someone you’ve met at a writers’ conference with whom you can exchange work can be most helpful to you: assisting you in identifying what in the finished book jars with the integrity of the whole. These sources are also great for pointing out continuity errors, such as when the sociopath is named Janet for three chapters in the middle of the book, and Marie-Claire for the rest.

Not only will dependable outside eyes weed out Frankenstein tendencies, but the mere fact of having to defend your authorial choices to them will force you to make all of your deviations from standard narrative conscious, rather than accidental. Lest we forget, such discussions are also terrific practice for wrangling with your future agent and editors.

If you’re going at it alone, my advice comes in four parts.

(1) Once you have read through the whole manuscript, go back and read it again, projecting onto it the style and/or voice you like best. Does it work?

(2a) If the answer is yes, rejoice. Then skip to Step 3.

(2b) If the answer is no, pick another style or voice from the text, and project it through the entire manuscript.

(3) When you find one you like, save the original manuscript as a separate file, so you have the option of changing your mind later, and work through a separate copy, establishing the new style. In some parts, this may require extensive revision; others may need nothing but a few small tweaks.

(4) After you have finished, read the entire thing out loud again, for consistency. Does it work? More importantly, do you like it better than the original draft?

In answer to what half of you just mentally screamed: heck, yes, this is going to take you a lot of time — but few in the publishing industry would prefer to see a half-polished manuscript by a good writer, if the writer could deliver a beautifully consistent manuscript four months hence. (Unless, of course, a contract with a deadline is involved.)

Honestly, it will take you far, far less time, in both the diagnosis and repair stages, if you take your Frankenstein manuscript on a field trip to other readers before you submit it to an agent or editor. If a writing group or class seems too time-consuming, consider hiring a freelance editor; if a freelance editor seems too expensive, join a writing group.

When you are making these calculations, though, do not forget to weigh the value of your time into the equation. If attending a group once a week or paying an editor saves you a year’s worth of solo work, it might well be worth it.

Which brings me to the great question that loyal reader Pam submitted a while back: how does one FIND a freelance editor like me?

Well, Pam, as it happens, I have established a rather extensive set of posts addressing that very question. They may be found collected on the archive list at right, under the startlingly original category title HOW DO I FIND A FREELANCE EDITOR? Those posts will give you a sense of what services an editor provides (not all of us do the same thing), what to expect to pay (which varies depending upon the level of editing), and what questions you might want to ask before you sign anything that looks even remotely like a contract.

For writers in the Pacific Northwest, another great resource is the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild’s website. For each member editor, there’s a small blurb and contact information. You can search by geographic region, the type of book you want edited, even preferred style manual, or you can post your job for editors to see.

You’re going to want either to go through an organization or get a referral to find a reputable editor, because emotionally, handing your book over to a total stranger for criticism is a difficult thing; you will want to make sure in advance that you can trust the recipient. NWIEG verifies that each member has significant editorial experience — and believe it or not, we actually do argue about punctuation on our members’ forum — so you can feel relatively secure that any editor listed will have the skills and background s/he claims s/he does.

Do take the time to have a conversation or e-mail exchange with any freelance editor before you make a commitment, however. A good personality fit is very important, and it is perfectly legitimate to ask a potential editor whether s/he has ever edited your type of book before. Just as no agent represents every variety of book under the sun, no freelance editor will have experience with every book category. While there are plenty of editors out there who are willing to take pretty much anything (for a price), working with someone who is intimately familiar with the particular demands of your book category in the current market is probably going to be more helpful to you than working with a generalist.

One final word on the subject: if you are thinking about asking a freelance editor to work on a tight deadline, do not wait until the deadline is imminent. Good freelance editors are often booked up months in advance, and if you want a careful, thoughtful, professional read, you need to allow time for the editor to do her job.

Thanks for the good question, Pam — and keep up the good work, everybody!

Let’s continue with the basics: how do professional writers format manuscripts, anyway?

Buster Keaton reading

Some of you are already yawning, aren’t you? “Manuscript formatting?” I hear many an aspiring writer grumbling. “What on earth does that have to do with landing an agent and/or getting my book published?”

Plenty, actually; submitting the way professional authors do gives an aspiring writer a competitive advantage in submission. Before I go into why, bear with me for a moment while I share a little editorial anecdote.

Remember how I was telling you that a hefty percentage of the aspiring writers of North America tend to gird their loins, ratchet up their nerves, and send out queries and requested materials in early January of each year, in fulfillment of New Year’s resolutions to get cracking on getting published? These same resolutions lead freelance editors’ desks, or at any rate their e-mail inboxes, to groan under the weight of clients eager to seek their counsel. It’s also the time of year when we can get a preview of what Millicent the agency screener is likely to see for the next eleven months.

I can already tell you this year’s trend, alas: not double-spacing manuscripts. Last year, it was not indenting paragraphs.

A few of my fellow editors laughed at me when I brought it up at lunch last month, deploring that so many aspiring writers had apparently not done their homework on how manuscripts should be formatted. “Oh, come on, Anne,” they scoffed. “The formatting isn’t really the problem for most of those writers. Most of the manuscripts you’re talking about would have gotten rejected by agencies, anyway; the ones who don’t double-space tend not to spell-check, either.”

I sensed a bit of buck-passing. “But what about the ones who do spell-check — and proof-read, and take the time to get feedback on their work before sending it out? Improper formatting can as easily be the result of simple ignorance as of authorial laziness. I’m constantly meeting good writers new to the biz who haven’t the vaguest idea about what a professional manuscript looks like, for the exceedingly simple reason that they’ve never seen one.”

More scoffing. One of the editors even trotted out that old agents’ truism: “If a writer’s serious about getting published, he’ll take the time to learn what the formatting norms are. There are books that explain how to do it.”

“Not to mention your blog, Anne,” another quipped. “How often are you revisiting the rules of standard format these days? Once a year? Twice?”

Actually, it used to be three, but that was before I learned to keep reminding readers to check the archive lists. Still, I wasn’t about to let my friends off that easy. “I’m not denying that it’s possible to learn how to do it right; I’m just pointing out that most of the time, the writers whose manuscripts get rejected unread because of formatting problems have no idea that they’re not getting rejected on the writing itself.” Half the table looked skeptical. “Okay, fine — let’s do a little survey. Hands up: how many of you would read a single-spaced manuscript, if a potential client sent it to you? Or even one-and-a-half spacing? What about non-indented paragraphs?”

Crickets.

And that, my friends, should tell you a lot about just how seriously people who read manuscripts for a living take formatting. Even amongst the open-minded, there is a deep, pervasive prejudice against manuscripts that don’t look right cosmetically. Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, Mehitabel the contest judge: all of these readers whose approval a manuscript must get in order to land an agent, get picked up by a publisher, or make the finals of a contest are so conditioned to expect professional formatting that when they see one that deviates from the rules in any significant respect, they tend to assume, as did the editors above, that the writer is falling down on the job in other respects.

What does that mean in practical terms? Usually, that incorrectly-formatted manuscripts and contest entries are rejected unread.

Why? Well, it’s one of the easiest ways conceivable to narrow the submission pool — which is, if you think about it, job #1 for Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel. Do the math: if the average agent receives 800-1200 queries per week and agrees to read even five percent of the manuscripts (high for most agents, by the way), that’s 40-60 manuscripts per week, and thus somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000-3,000 per year. Since even a very successful agent could take on, at most, 4-5 new clients per year, Millicent had better narrow down that applicant pool, pronto, hadn’t she?

So had Maury. So had Mehitabel. Isn’t it fortunate, then, that the vast majority of submitters help these first readers out by presenting their writing unprofessionally?

Yes — really: the majority of submissions are not professionally formatted. They either resemble published books (which is not correct for a manuscript submission), short stories (ditto), or just whatever the submitter happens to think looks nice on the page (extrapolate the answer from the previous two).

All of which makes Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel shout, “Hallelujah,” especially of late, when both query and submission rates have been skyrocketing. A lot of closet writers for whom writing a book has always been plan B — and with the economy in its current state, many folks seem to be pulling partially-finished manuscripts out of desk drawers these days. (Well, okay, off their hard disks, but it amounts to the same thing.) Because of the aforementioned books coming out of drawers, agencies and small publishing houses are seeing more queries than usual right now. The timing’s a tad unfortunate, since this is also a period where publishing houses have been laying off editors and other staff.

Translation: you know how fierce the competition to get picked up by an agent already was before the economy went south? It’s become even tougher.

While those of you who have been at it awhile are still reeling from the implications of that last statement, let me slip a few hard facts under the noses of those who have yet to submit for the first time:

(1) There exists a standard format for manuscripts to which US-based agents and editors expect submissions to adhere, regardless of whether those manuscripts are produced by seasoned pros with many book sales under their belts or those brand-new to the biz, and thus

(2) using fancy typefaces, including cover artwork, printing manuscript pages on colored paper, and/or any other deviations from standard format in one’s submission will NOT be regarded as interesting expressions of the author’s individual point of view, but rather as evidence that the author doesn’t know about (1). As a result,

(3) manuscripts submitted in standard format tend to be treated with SUBSTANTIALLY more respect by agency screeners, editorial assistants, contest judges, and pretty much everyone who happens to read unpublished prose for a living. Despite this fact,

(4) one does occasionally hear agents and editors ask for deviations from standard format; one should definitely give them precisely what they ask to see. However, it’s never advisable to generalize what one individual says s/he wants into a brand-new trend sweeping the industry. Nor is it a good idea to ape the formatting choices one sees in a published book, because

(5) book manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects, and for many excellent, practical reasons. That being the case, those who screen manuscripts for a living tend to draw unfavorable conclusions about submissions that do aspire to book formatting, much as they do when aspiring writers are not aware that

(6) standard format for book-length manuscripts is NOT business format, either, and just using what you learned about short stories won’t do, either. Nor is it necessarily identical to what your word processor’s grammar checker will ask you to do, or even the AP style one sees in newspapers and magazines. None of these will look correct to an agent or editor who deals with book manuscripts, because the norms there are very specific. This may seem nit-picky and irrelevant to the quality of the writing in question, but think about it:

(7) if a host asks you to a formal dinner, it’s only polite to wear formal attire; a guest who shows up in flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt is going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. (If it’s not clear to you why, review point 2.) Similarly, when placed side-by-side with professional manuscripts, as a successful submission inevitably will, a wackily put-together manuscript will stand out as unprofessional, a phenomenon that all too often leads to

(8) most manuscript submissions get rejected on page 1. Not always because it deviates from standard format — although the vast majority of submissions do — but because an unprofessionally-formatted manuscript already has one strike against it, and who needs that? Ultimately,

(9) it’s just not worth your while to try to fudge your way out of these standards, since the price of a submission’s annoying a professional reader can be so high. And as I mentioned above, no matter how many times my readers, students, and editing clients ask me if agents, editors, and contest judges are REALLY serious about them, I’m not going to give you permission to ignore any single one of the standard format strictures. No way. Stop asking, already.

Why might knowing all this — and, more importantly, acting upon this knowledge — translate into higher acceptance rates, typically? Well, the aspiring writer who acts upon this information conscientiously is probably producing submissions within the top 2% of what crosses Millicent the agency screener’s desk on any given day.

Yes, really. So if any of the information on the list above came as a surprise to you in any way, it’s incredibly important that you should join me on a tiptoe through the intricacies of standard format.

I implore those of you who have been through this material with me before: don’t just skip these posts on standard format. I see manuscripts all the time by experienced albeit unpublished writers that contain standard format violations; heck, they occasionally turn up in the work of published writers, if the complaints their agents and editors make in those bars that are never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America are to be believed.

Seriously, all of us could use a review from time to time — say, the twice per year I bring the matter up here. Because, you see, I am far from the only professional reader who takes umbrage, when manuscripts deviate from certain time-honored restrictions. Trust me, Millicent started twitching at the very sight of them before she’d had her job three weeks.

Yes, even if the formatting in question would be perfectly legitimate in other writing environments. (See points 2, 3, 5, and 6 above, for instance.) And yes, yes, oh, yes, even if the deviation is precisely what some agent, editor, writing guru, or darned fool writing expert like me has suddenly announced to the world is the new norm.

Millicent didn’t get that memo.

Think about it: why would she, unless she happens to work for the agent-who-blogs or editor-who-is-trying-to-be-helpful who promulgated the new advice? Indeed, why would anyone who works with manuscripts for a living go out looking to see what folks outside the industry — or, at minimum, outside her agency’s office — are demanding of writers these days, when the basics of standard format have actually changed very little for decades?

Actually, it would be very much against her self-interest to go trolling for such information, because –chant it with e now — it’s so much easier just to regard submissions that don’t adhere to standard format as inherently unprofessional, and thus (by implication) less likely to contain writing destined to take the publishing world by storm.

To put it bluntly, it would slow her per-submission rejection time.

I hope no one out there fainted, because this is a vital fact for any submitting writer to understand: the folks who read submissions (and queries) in order to decide who gets a break and who doesn’t are in a HURRY. Remember the stats above; these people have a heck of a lot of reading to do.

As we saw in our series on how manuscripts get published, in the face of that many pieces of paper to plow through, even the reading of submissions tends to be awfully rushed: the goal becomes to weed out as many as possible as quickly as possible, rather than seeking out gems. Once a professional reader like Millicent has been at it for a while, s/he will usually develop a knack for coming to a conclusion about a piece of writing within the first paragraph or two.

Sometimes even within the first line or two. (For a fairly frightening run-down of the common first-page rejection reasons, you might want to check out the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the list at right.)

What does this trigger-happiness mean for aspiring writers who scoff at standard format, or just don’t know about it? Well, it’s not good: agency screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges tend to regard submissions formatted in any other way as either unpolished (if they’re feeling generous) or unprofessional (if they’re not).

And unfortunately for writers unaware of the rules, a non-standard manuscript is child’s play to spot from the moment a professional reader lays eyes upon it. That can be an extremely serious problem for a submission, because — wait for it — being identified as not professionally formatted renders it FAR more likely to be rejected.

Why? Shout it with me now: agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that a screener’s primary goal is to weed out the one she is reading at the moment.

The faster she can do that, the better, to move through that mountain of paper on her desk. So a first page that cries out the moment Millicent lays eyes on it, “This writer is brand-new to the game and will require quite a bit of your boss’ time to coach into being able to produce a manuscript that an agent would be comfortable submitting to an editor!” is a downright gift to her: she can feel completely comfortable rejecting it at the very first typo, cliché, or word choice she doesn’t happen to like.

Heck, she might not even wait to spot any of the above. She might just say, “Oh, look — single-spacing. Next!”

This dark, dark cloud is not without its proverbial silver lining, however. By logical extension, the more professional your manuscript looks, the more likely it is to be read with interest by a screener in a hurry.

See now why aspiring writers cognizant of points (1) – (9) enjoy a considerable competitive advantage at submission time?

I don’t know about you, but I’m all for anything that helps a good writer’s work get taken more seriously, especially in the current super-tight submission environment, which is more rejection-happy than I’ve ever seen it — and I’ve been listening to writers, agents, and editors complain about the state of the literary market since I was in my cradle. (Literally. Long story.)

Right now, Harry Houdini himself would have extreme difficulty sneaking a non-standard manuscript past an agency screener, even though he undoubtedly has the world’s best platform to write a book on extricating oneself from tight situations. (And if that last quip didn’t make you groan, if not chuckle, it’s time to brush up on your industry-speak.)

So to help give you that competitive edge, I’m going to start running though the rules of standard format — and no, Virginia, none of them are negotiable.

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

No exceptions, unless someone in the industry (or a contest’s rules) SPECIFICALLY asks you to do otherwise. And I’m dead serious about using ONLY white paper: ecru paper, no off-white, no Dr. Seuss-type stripes.

Yes, yes, buff or parchment can look very nice, but there’s a strategic reason to use bright white paper: very sharp black-white contrast is strongly preferred by virtually every professional reader out there, probably as a legacy of having read so many dim photocopies over the course of their lifetimes.

The ONLY colored paper that should ever go anywhere near a manuscript is the single sheet that separates one copy of a submission or book proposal from the next, so it is easy for an agent to see where to break the stack. (But you don’t need to know about that until your agent asks you to send 15 copies of your book for submitting to editors. Put it out of your mind for now.)

Nice, clear, dark print is optimal here, so do spring for a new printer cartridge. You’d be amazed (at least, I hope you would) at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions; it’s as though the author dunked in a swiftly-flowing river several times before popping it in the mail.

Which is sad, because submissions with poor print quality are — you’re ahead of me on this one, aren’t you? — almost never read.

Speaking of never, never, ever, eversubmit a dim photocopy; print out an original, every time, You’d be amazed (at least, I hope you would) at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions; it’s as though the author dunked in a swiftly-flowing river several times before popping it in the mail.

Oh, you may chuckle at the notion of sending out a grainy photocopy, but believe me, any contest judge has seen many, many entries submitted that way. Mehitabel likes them, actually: for every one that pops up, her reading time is shortened. Any guesses why?

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way (again, unless you are specifically asked to do otherwise)

Yes, this IS criminally wasteful of paper, especially when you consider the literally millions of pages of submissions that go flying into the agencies and publishing houses every month. Most agencies do not even recycle; as I mentioned in my last series, the vast majority of agencies did not even consider accepting e-mailed queries at all until the anthrax-in-envelopes scare.

I assure you, if I ran the universe, paper conservation would be the norm, and recycling mandatory. Also, writers would all be granted an extra month a year in which to write, excellent and inexpensive child care while writing, a cedar-lined cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan in which to do it, and a pineapple upside-down cake on Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday. Perhaps some hard candies on Agatha Christie’s birthday as well, in affluent years, and dancing on Mme. de Staël’s.

But since the unhappy reality is that I do NOT run the universe (see disclaimer above), we shall all have to live with the status quo.

Which is to say: the publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. Sorry.

Unbound means precisely what it says: no binding of any kind. You’d be surprised at how often writers violate the thou-shalt-not-bind rule, including paper clips, rubber bands, or even binders with their submissions. Since agents always circulate manuscripts without any sort of binding, these doohickeys just scream, “I’m unfamiliar with the industry.”

SASE, open wide: here comes a returned manuscript.

The ONLY exception to this rule is a nonfiction book proposal — not the manuscript, just the proposal — which is typically presented UNBOUND in a black folder, the kind with horizontal pockets. (For tips on how a book proposal should be presented, please see the aptly-titled BOOK PROPOSALS category on the list at right.)

Which doesn’t mean that you aren’t perfectly welcome to print double-sided or bind copies for your own purposes; just don’t show your work to the pros that way. As Author! Author!’s very first commenter Dave tends to chime in when I bring this up — and helpfully — if you wish to make double-sided, 3-hole-punched, be-bindered drafts for circulating to your first readers for ease of toting around, be my guest.

But NEVER submit in that manner to a professional reader unless s/he has asked you to do so. Trust me on this one.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified, as published books, e-mails, business letters, and online writing tend to be.

Translation: the left margin should be straight; the right margin should not.

Many fledgling writers find (3) nearly impossible to accept, because it is one of the most visually obvious ways in which a professional manuscript differs from a printed book. They believe, wrongly, that anything that makes their submission look more like what’s on the shelves at Barnes & Noble is inherently professional. In practice, quite the opposite is true.

Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along both side margins, and yes, your word processing program can replicate that practically effortlessly, if you ask it nicely to do so. Bully for it.

But don’t take advantage of that pleasing capacity, I beg you: the straight margin should be the left one; the right should be ragged, as if you had produced the manuscript on a typewriter.

Fear not if you’re having trouble picturing this: I shall be showing you concrete examples later in this series. For now, you’re just going to have to trust me when I tell you that block-justifying your submission is going to appeal to your garden-variety Millicent about as much as a slap in the face.

Speaking of things I’m going to demonstrate in the days to come, NEVER format a query or cover letter to someone in the industry in business format: indent those paragraphs. (And yes, now that you bring it up, I do intend to show you why. Hold your proverbial horses, already.)

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New; pick one and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

Even if you have a strong preference for the lettering in your book when it is published, use one of these typefaces for submission purposes. Personally, I would never dream of allowing a client of mine to submit a manuscript in anything but Times New Roman, nor would I ever submit any of my work in anything else. It is the standard typeface of the publishing industry, just as Courier is the norm of screenwriting.

A tad silly, you say? Perhaps, but it’s one of the bizarre facts of publishing life that manuscripts in these fonts tend to be taken far more seriously, and with good reason: these are the typefaces upon which the most commonly-used word count estimations are based. (Psst: if you don’t know why you should be estimating the length of your manuscript rather than using actual word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

To forestall the usual question someone brings up at this point: yes, most published books ARE in typefaces other than Times or Courier, but typeface decisions for published books are made by the publishing house, not the author. Submission time is not the appropriate period for making your preferences known.

Why? Shout it with me now, understanders of point (5) at the top of this post — MANUSCRIPTS AND PUBLISHED BOOKS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO LOOK THE SAME.

If you’re very nice down the line, after a publishing house has acquired your book, they may listen to your suggestions. They may giggle a little, true, but they might listen. Ditto with the cover and the title, which are — brace yourselves — almost never under the author’s control.

Why? Because these are considered matters of packaging and marketing, not content.

All of which begs the question, of course: why do word processing programs tempt us so many typefaces from which to choose, if we’re not supposed to use them?

Answer: because the people who make word processing programs are not the same people who decide what books get published in North America. Which is why, in case you’re wondering, what Microsoft Word means by word count and what the average agent or editor does are not typically the same thing.

Again, so there.

There are a few agents out there who have their own font preferences (usually Courier, and usually because they also represent screenplays) so do check their websites and/or listings in the standard agency guides. As ever, the golden rule of dealing with an agent you want to represent you is GIVE ‘EM PRECISELY WHAT THEY ASK TO SEE, not what you would like them to see.

Fair warning: if you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, a submission is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Yes, one sees this in a published book occasionally, but I assure you, the choice to indulge in these formatting differences was the editor’s, not the author’s.

Sorry. (See my earlier disclaimer about proprietorship of the universe.)

I’m still sensing some skepticism out there on the font issue, but that may be a hangover from reader reactions to previous series on standard format. Almost invariably, around the time that I bring up Rule #4, someone posts a comment informing me huffily that website X advises something different, that this agent said at a conference she doesn’t care what typeface you use, that a certain manual said that standards have changed from the traditional guidelines I set out here, or some other observation presumably intended to make me rend my garments and cry, “Finally, I see the error of my ways! I guess I’ll disregard the fact that I’ve never seen the change you mention actually in use in a professional manuscript and declare it to be the new norm!”

To save you the trouble and sound like a broken record at the same time: it’s not gonna happen.

I have no doubt that all of these comments are indeed pointing out legitimate differences in advice, but it is not my purpose here to police the net for standardization of advice. If you like guidelines you find elsewhere better, by all means follow them.

All I claim for these rules — and it is not an insubstantial claim — is that nothing I advise here will EVER strike an agent or editor as unprofessional; even if any give agent, editor, or contest judge should happen to harbor personal preferences for other formatting choices, anyone who has been in the biz for a while will recognize pages in standard format as the industry norm.

Why is that important? Adhering to these rules will mean that your writing is going to be judged on your writing, not your formatting. And that, my friends, is nothing at which to sneeze.

Speaking of which: my apologies for being a trifle slow to get to this topic, campers — that flu I had last week has developed into bronchitis, and I try not to post when I’m feverish. Tends to make me a trifle testy. So if I’m a trifle slow in answering questions left in the comments over the next week or so, I’m sure you’ll understand. Rest assured, I’ll get to them just as soon as I stop coughing.

More rules follow next time, of course, as well as buckets more explanation. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Another query packet classic: ladies and gentlemen, I give you the dreaded synopsis

Yes Virginia text

Did that title make some of you cringe? Curl into a little ball and whimper? Dash screaming from the room?

That’s right, folks: it’s once again time for my yearly foray into the mysteries of synopsis-writing. You didn’t think I was going to let you send off those query letters you’ve just perfected with just a so-so synopsis, did you?

I’m kind of excited to be exploring the subject again, to tell you the truth. Having recently had to produce several synopses on a tight deadline myself — yes, Virginia: unlike query letters, agented writers still have to produce synopses on a regular basis — I’m fresh from that oh, God, how can I possibly give any sense of my book in so short a space? feeling this time around. So I’ve been overhauling my classic advice on the subject, fine-tuning it so what I say is in fact what I do.

Before I launch into the resulting avalanche of insights, however, I want to give you all a heads-up about some alternate reading material that might help everyone understand the culture within which synopses, queries, and manuscript submissions tend to be read.

A bit surprised? I don’t blame you; this is sort of out of character for me. As the proprietor of a self-consciously practical blog on all things writerly, I seldom use this space to urge my readers to click elsewhere and read any of the many articles out there about the state of the publishing business. I assume, perhaps wrongly, that most of my readers don’t come to Author! Author! primarily because they a little extra time to kill: as those of you who stuck with me through my recent How to Write a Really Good Query Letter series, I tend to operate on the proposition that we’re all here to work.

Not that we don’t have a quite a bit of lighthearted fun on the way, of course. But I figure that those of you deeply interested in the dire predictions that keep cropping up about the future of books can track them down on your own. (As, I must admit, I do on a regular basis.)

Today, I’m going to make an exception. In the last week or so, a couple of really informative essays have popped up on the web. The first, a series of observations in the Barnes & Noble Review about, you guessed it, the state of modern publishing, is by former Random House executive editor-in-chief Daniel Menaker. I think it’s essential reading for any aspiring writer — or published one, for that matter — seeking to understand why getting a good book published isn’t as simple as just writing and submitting it.

In the midst of some jaw-dropping statements like, “Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors,” Menaker gives a particularly strong explanation for why, contrary to prevailing writerly rumor, editors expect the books they acquire not to require much editing, raising the submission bar to the point that some agency websites now suggest in their guidelines that queriers have their books freelance-edited before even beginning to look for an agent. Quoth Mssr. Menaker:

The sheer book-length nature of books combined with the seemingly inexorable reductions in editorial staffs and the number of submissions most editors receive, to say nothing of the welter of non-editorial tasks that most editors have to perform, including holding the hands of intensely self-absorbed and insecure writers, fielding frequently irate calls from agents, attending endless and vapid and ritualistic meetings, having one largely empty ceremonial lunch after another, supplementing publicity efforts, writing or revising flap copy, ditto catalog copy, refereeing jacket-design disputes, and so on — all these conditions taken together make the job of a trade-book acquisitions editor these days fundamentally impossible. The shrift given to actual close and considered editing almost has to be short and is growing shorter, another very old and evergreen publishing story but truer now than ever before. (Speaking of shortness, the attention-distraction of the Internet and the intrusion of work into everyday life, by means of electronic devices, appear to me to have worked, maybe on a subliminal level, to reduce the length of the average trade hardcover book.)?

That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Which made your stomach knot tighter, the bit about book length or that slap about writers’ insecurities?

It’s a bit of a depressing read, admittedly, but I cannot emphasize enough how essential it is to a career writer’s long-term happiness to gain a realistic conception of how the publishing industry works. Since rejection feels so personal, it can be hard for an isolated writer to differentiate between rebuffs based upon a weakness in the manuscript itself, a book concept that’s just not likely to sell well in the current market, and a knee-jerk reaction to something as basic as length. It’s far, far too easy to become bitter or to assume, wrongly, that one’s writing can be the only possible reason for rejection.

Don’t do that to yourself, I implore you. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for your writing.

The second piece I’d like to call to your attention is a fascinating discussion of ethnic diversity (or lack thereof) in the children’s book market by children’s author, poet, and playwright Zetta Elliott. An excerpt would not really do justice to her passionate and persuasive argument against the homogenization of literature — children’s, YA, and adult — but if you’re even vaguely interested in how publishers define who their target markets are and aren’t, and how that can limit where they look for new authorial voices, I would strongly recommend checking out her post.

Back to the business at hand: some of your hands have been waving in the air since the third paragraph of this post. “What on earth do you mean, Anne?” shout impatient hand-raisers everywhere. “I thought synopsis-writing was just yet another annoying hoop through which I was going to need to jump in order to land an agent, a skill to be instrumentally acquired, then swiftly forgotten because I’d never have to use it again. Why would I ever need to write one other than to tuck into a query or submission packet?”

You’re sitting down, I hope? It may come as a surprise to some of you, but synopsis-writing is a task that dogs a professional writer at pretty much every step of her career. Just a few examples how:

* An aspiring writer almost always has to produce one at either the querying or submission stages of finding an agent.

* A nonfiction writer penning a proposal needs to synopsize the book she’s trying to sell, regardless of whether s/he is already represented by an agent.

* Agented writers are often asked to produce a synopsis of a new book projects before they invest much time in writing them, so their agents can assess the concepts’ marketability and start to think about editors who might be interested.

Because the more successful you are as a writer of books, the more often you are likely be asked to produce one of the darned things, synopsis-writing is a fabulous skill to add to your writer’s tool kit as early in your career as possible. Amazingly frequently, though, writers both aspiring and agented avoid even thinking about the methodology of constructing one of the darned things until the last possible nanosecond before they need one, as if writing an effective synopsis were purely a matter of luck or inspiration.

It isn’t. It’s a learned skill. We’re going to be spending this segment of the query packet contents series learning it.

What makes me so sure that pretty much every writer out there could use a crash course in the craft of synopsis writing, or at the very least a refresher? A couple of reasons. First, let me ask you something: if you had only an hour to produce a synopsis for your current book project, could you do it?

Okay, what if I asked you for a 1-page synopsis and gave you only 15 minutes?

I’m not asking to be cruel, I assure you: as a working professional writer, I’ve actually had to work under deadlines that short. And even when I had longer to crank something out, why would I want to squander my scarce writing time producing a document that will never be seen by my readers, since it’s only for internal agency or publishing house use? I’d rather just do a quick, competent job and get on with the rest of my work.

I’m guessing that chorus of small whimpering sounds means that some of you share the same aspiration.

The second reason I suspect even those of you who have written them before could stand a refresher is that you can’t throw a piece of bread at any good-sized writers’ conference in the English-speaking world without hitting at least one writer complaining vociferously about how awful it is to have to summarize a 500-page book in just a couple of pages. I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer at any stage of the game who actually LIKES to write them, but those of us farther along tend to regard them as a necessary evil, a professional obligation to be met quickly and with a minimum of fuss, to get it out of the way.

Judging by conference talk (and, if I’m honest, by the reaction of some of my students when I teach synopsis-writing classes), aspiring writers are more likely to respond with frustration, often to the point of feeling downright insulted by the necessity of synopses for their books at all.

Most often, the complaints center on the synopsis’ torturous brevity. Why, your garden-variety querier shakes his fist at the heavens and cries, need it be so cruelly short? What on earth could be the practical difference between reading a 5-page synopsis and a 6-page one, if not to make a higher hurdle for those trying to break into a notoriously hard-to-break-into business? And how much more could even the sharpest-eyed Millicent learn from a 1-page synopsis that she could glean from a descriptive paragraph in a query letter?

I can answer that last one: about three times as much, usually.

As we’ve already seen with so many aspects of the querying and submission process, confusion about what is required and why often adds considerably to synopsis-writers’ stress. While the tiny teasers required for pitches and query letters are short for practical, easily-understood reasons — time and the necessity for the letter’s being a single page, which also boils down to a time issue, since the single-page restriction exists to speed up Millicent the agency screener’s progress — it’s less clear why, say, an agent would ask to see a synopsis of a manuscript he is ostensibly planning to read.

I sympathize with the confusion, but I must say, I always cringe a little when I hear writers express such resentments. I want to take them aside and say, “Honey, you really need to be careful that attitude doesn’t show up on the page — because, honestly, that happens more than you’d think, and it’s never, ever, EVER helpful to the writer.”

Not to say that these feelings are not completely legitimate in and of themselves, or even a healthy, natural response to a task perceived to be enormous. Let’s face it, the first time most of us sit down to do it, it feels as though we’ve been asked to rewrite our entire books from scratch, but in miniature. From a writerly point of view, if a story takes an entire book-length manuscript to tell well, boiling it down to 5 or 3 or even — sacre bleu!1 page seems completely unreasonable, if not actually impossible.

Which it would be, if that were what a synopsis was universally expected to achieve. Fortunately for writers everywhere, it isn’t. Not by a long shot.

Aren’t you glad you were already sitting down?

As I’m going to illustrate over the next week or two, an aspiring writer’s impression of what a synopsis is supposed to be is often quite different from what the pros have become resigned to producing, just as producing a master’s thesis seems like a much, much larger task to those who haven’t written one than those of us who have.

And don’t even get me started on dissertations.

Once a writer comes to understand the actual purpose and uses of the synopsis — some of which are far from self-evident — s/he usually finds it considerably easier to write. So, explanation maven that I am, I’m going to devote this series to clarifying just what it is you are and aren’t being asked to do in a synopsis, why, and how to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Relax; you can do this. Since I haven’t talked about synopses in depth for a good, long while, let’s start with the absolute basics:

A synopsis is a brief overview IN THE PRESENT TENSE of the entire plot of a novel or the whole argument of a book. Unlike an outline, which presents a story arc in a series of bullet points (essentially), a synopsis is fully fleshed-out prose. Ideally, it should be written in a similar voice and tone to the book it summarizes, but even for a first-person novel, it should be written in the third person.

The lone exception on the voice front: a memoir’s synopsis can be written in both the past tense and should be written in the first person. Go figure. (Don’t worry — I’ll be showing you concrete examples of both in the days to come.)

Typically, professional synopses are 5 pages in standard manuscript format (and thus double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces; see my parenthetical comment in the examples to come). Querying or submission synopses may be the standard 5 pages or shorter, depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent, editor, or contest — so do make sure to double-check any written guidelines an agency’s website, small press’ submission standards, or contest’s rules might provide.

Yes, Virginia, in the series to come, I will be discussing how to write both long and short versions.

That’s new for me: for the first few years I blogged, I merely talked about the long form, since it was the industry standard; much shorter, and you’re really talking about a book concept (if you’re unfamiliar with the term, please see the BOOK CONCEPT category at right) or a longish pitch, rather than a plot overview. However, over the last couple of years (not entirely uncoincidentally, as more and more agents began accepting e-queries), agencies began to request shorter synopses from queriers, often as little as a single page. There’s nothing like an industry standard for a shorter length, though. Sometimes, an agent will ask for 3, or a contest for 2. It varies.

Let me repeat that a third time, just in case anyone out there missed the vital point: not every agent wants the same length synopsis; there isn’t an absolute industry standard length for a querying, submission, or contest synopsis. So if any of you had been hoping to write a single version to use in every conceivable context, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

That resentment I mentioned earlier is starting to rise like steam, isn’t it? Yes, in response to that great unspoken shout that just rose from my readership, it would indeed be INFINITELY easier on aspiring writers everywhere if we could simply produce a single submission packet that would fly at any agency in the land.

Feel free to find that maddening — it’s far, far healthier not to deny the emotion. While you’re grumbling, however, let’s take a look at why an agency or contest might want a shorter synopsis.

Like so much else in the industry, time is the decisive factor: synopses are shorthand reference guides that enable overworked agency staffs (yes, Millicent really is overworked — and often not paid very much to boot) to sort through submissions quickly. And obviously, a 1-page synopsis takes less time to read than a 5-page one.

“Well, duh, Anne,” our Virginia huffs, clearly irate at being used as every essayist’s straw woman for decades. “I also understand the time-saving imperative; you’ve certainly hammered on it often enough. What I don’t understand is, if the goal is to save time in screening submissions, why would anyone ever ask for a synopsis that was longer than a page? And if Millicent is so darned harried, why wouldn’t she just go off the descriptive paragraph in the query letter?”

Fabulous questions, Virginia. You’ve come a long way since that question about the existence of Santa Claus.

Remember, though, Ms. V, it’s not as though the average agency or small publishing house reads the query letter and submission side-by-side: they’re often read by different people, under different circumstances. Synopses are often read by people (the marketing department in a publishing house, for instance) who have direct access to neither the initial query nor the manuscript. Frequently, if an agent has asked to see the first 50 pages of a manuscript and likes it, she’ll scan the synopsis to see what happens in the rest of the book. Ditto with contest judges, who have only the synopsis and a few pages of a book in front of them.

And, of course, some agents will use a synopsis promotionally, to cajole an editor into reading a manuscript — but again, 5-page synopses are traditional for this purpose. As nearly as I can tell, the shorter synopses that have recently become so popular typically aren’t used for marketing outside the agency at all.

Why not? Well, realistically, a 1-page synopsis is just a written pitch, not a genuine plot summary, and thus not all that useful for an agent to have on hand if an editor starts asking pesky follow-up questions like, “Okay, so what happens next?”

Do I hear some confused murmuring out there? Let’s let Virginia be your spokesperson: “Wait — this makes it sound as though my novel synopsis is never going to see the light of day outside the agency. If I have to spend all of this time and effort perfecting a synopsis, why don’t all agents just forward it to editors who might be interested, rather than the entire manuscript of my novel?”

Ah, that would be logical, wouldn’t it? But as with so many other flawed human institutions, logic does not necessarily dictate why things are done the way they are within the industry; much of the time, tradition does.

Thus, the argument often heard against trying to sell a first novel on synopsis alone: fiction is just not sold that way, my dear. Publishing houses buy on the manuscript itself, not the summary. Nonfiction, by contrast, is seldom sold on a finished manuscript.

So for a novel, the synopsis is primarily a marketing tool for landing an agent, rather than something that sticks with the book throughout the marketing process. (This is not true of nonfiction, where the synopsis is part of the book proposal. For some helpful how-to on constructing one, check out the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL on the archive list at right.)

I’m not quite sure why agents aren’t more upfront at conferences about the synopsis being primarily an in-house document when they request it. Ditto with pretty much any other non-manuscript materials they request from a novelist — indications of target market, author bio, etc. (For nonfiction, of course, all of these would be included within the aforementioned book proposal.)

Requiring this kind of information used to be purely the province of the non-fiction agent. Increasingly over the last decade or so, however, fiction writers are being asked to provide this kind of information to save agents — you guessed it — time. Since the tendency in recent years has been to transfer as much of the agents’ work to potential clients as possible, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if agents started asking for the full NF packet from novelists within the next few years.

Crunching a dry cracker should help quell the nausea that prospect induced, Virginia. Let’s not worry about that dread day until it happens, shall we? For now, let’s stick to the current requirements.

Why is the 5-page synopsis more popular than, say, 3 pages? Well, 5 pages in standard format is roughly 1250 words, enough space to give some fairly intense detail. By contrast, a jacket blurb is usually between 100 and 250 words, only enough to give a general impression or set up a premise.

I point this out, because far too many writers new to the biz submit jacket blurbs to agents, editors, and contests, rather than synopses: marketing puff pieces, rather than plot descriptions or argument outlines. This is a mistake: publishing houses have marketing departments for producing advertising copy.

And in a query packet synopsis, praise for a manuscript or book proposal, rather than an actual description of its plot or premise, is not going to help Millicent decide whether her boss is likely to be interested in the book in question. In a synopsis from a heretofore-unpublished writer, what industry professionals want to see is not self-praise, or a claim that every left-handed teenage boy in North America will be drawn to this book (even it it’s true), but a summary of what the book is ABOUT.

In other words, like the query, the synopsis is a poor place to boast. Since the jacket blurb-type synopsis is so common, many agencies use it as — wait for it, Virginia — an easy excuse to reject a submission unread.

Yes, that’s a trifle unfair to those new to the biz, but the industry logic runs thus: a writer who doesn’t know the difference between a blurb and a synopsis is probably also unfamiliar with other industry norms, such as standard format and turn-around times. Thus (they reason), it’s more efficient to throw that fish back, to wait until it grows, before they invest serious amounts of time in frying it.

With such good bait, they really don’t stay up nights worrying about the fish that got away.

“In heaven’s name,” Virginia cries, “WHY? They must let a huge number of really talented writers who don’t happen to know the ropes slip through their nets!”

To borrow your metaphor, Virginia, there are a whole lot of fish in the submission sea — and exponentially more in the querying ocean. as I MAY have pointed out once or twice before in this forum, agencies (and contests) typically receive so many well-written submissions that their screeners are actively looking for reasons to reject them, not to accept them. An unprofessional synopsis is an easy excuse to thin the ranks of the contenders.

Before anyone begins pouting: as always, I’m pointing out the intensity of the competition not to depress or intimidate you, but to help you understand just how often good writers get rejected for, well, reasons other than the one we all tend to assume. That fact alone strikes me as excellent incentive to learn what an agency, contest, or small publisher wants to see in a synopsis.

And let him have it just that way, to quote the late, great Fats Waller.

The hard fact is, they receive so many queries in any given week that they can afford to be as selective as they like about synopses — and ask for any length they want. Which explains the variation in requested length: every agent, just like every editor and contest judge, is an individual, not an identical cog in a mammoth machine. An aspiring writer CAN choose ignore their personal preferences and give them all the same thing — submitting a 5-page synopsis to one but do you really want to begin the relationship by demonstrating an inability to follow directions?

I know: it’s awful to think of one’s own work — or indeed, that of any dedicated writer — being treated that way. If I ran the universe, synopses would not be treated this way. Instead, each agency would present soon-to-query writers with a clear, concise how-to for its preferred synopsis style — and if a writer submitted a back jacket blurb, Millicent the agency screener would chuckle indulgently, hand-write a nice little note advising the writer to revise and resubmit, then tuck it into an envelope along with that clear, concise list.

Or, better yet, every agency in the biz would send a representative to a vast agenting conference, a sort of UN of author representation, where delegates would hammer out a set of universal standards for judging synopses, to take the guesswork out of it once and for all. Once codified, bands of laughing nymphs would distribute these helpful standards to every writer currently producing English prose, and bands of freelance editors would set up stalls in the foyers of libraries across the world, to assist aspiring writers in conforming to the new standards.

Unfortunately, as you may perhaps have noticed in recent months, I do not run the universe, so we writers have to deal with the prevailing lack of clear norms. However much speakers at conferences, writing gurus, and agents themselves speak of the publishing industry as monolithic, it isn’t: individual agents, and thus individual agencies, like different things.

The result is — and I do hate to be the one to break this to you, Virginia — no single synopsis you write is going to please everybody in the industry.

Sounds a bit familiar? It should — the same principle applies to query letters.

As convenient as it would be for aspiring writers everywhere if you could just write the darned things once and make copies as needed, it’s seldom in your interest to do so. Literally the only pressure for standardization comes from writers, who pretty uniformly wish that there were a single formula for the darned thing, so they could write it once and never think about it again.

You could make the argument that there should be an industry standard until you’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that, in the long run, you will be far, far better off if you give each what s/he asks to see. Just that way.

Well, so much for synopses. Tomorrow, we’ll move on to author bios.

Just kidding; the synopsis is a tall order, and I’m going to walk you through both its construction and past its most common pitfalls. In a couple of weeks, you’ll be advising other writers how to do it — and you’ll have yet another formidable tool in your marketing kit.

Keep asking those probing questions, Virginia: this process is far from intuitive. And, as always, keep up the good work!

The Frankenstein manuscript, part III: the monster always returns

la-cite-at-night
Yes, I really did take this photo myself — and yes, I really did take it within the last few weeks. Cathar country is positively rife with castles of various descriptions.

Not that one positively requires castles nearby in order to enjoy a productive writing retreat, of course. But I have to say, it doesn’t seem to hurt.

Well, I got sidetracked in my last post, didn’t I? I got you all excited about the Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon, promised to tell you how to work through it — and then wrote about other things for a couple of days.

Sorry about that; I’m back in the saddle today.

For those of you just tuning in, a Frankenstein manuscript is a work that — usually inadvertently — is written in so many different voices, styles, structures, and even quality of writing that it reads as though it had been written by a committee. Since I have literally never heard a single speaker at a writing conference address this very common problem — but have so often heard agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, and freelance editors complain about it in private — I wanted to alert my readers to it, lest the monster return again.

Because it will, you know. The first rule of horror is that the monster always returns.

In a way, a Frankenstein manuscript is a gift for a busy agent, editor, or judge, because it’s so very easy to reject. While I am generally very much in favor of writers doing everything they can, short of laundry or house-painting, to make their agents’ and editors’ lives easier, trust me, you do not want to be on the donating end of such a gift.

Seriously, from a professional reader’s point of view, it’s no-brainer rejection if ever there was one: clearly, Millicent the agency screener thinks, if the author herself did not catch the Frankensteinish inconsistency of the text, the book needs to go through at least one more major edit.

And believe me, this needs another editing run-through is not something you want Millicent to think while considering whether to pass your submission on to her boss, the agent of your dreams. Remember, in order to reject the manuscript, all she needs to think is, “While it’s an interesting premise,” (or voice, or style, etc.) “the author needs to work on craft, structure, and consistency.”

In other words: “Next!”

I know I say this a lot, but it bears repeating: aspiring writers tend to overestimate, sometimes radically, the amount of time and energy an agent will be willing to invest in their first books. Think about it: every moment an agent devotes to nursing a new client’s manuscript into a publishable state is a moment that he is not spending selling books. Or reading the new works of clients who have already made him money. Or, perhaps closer to the hearts of agent-seekers everywhere, scanning submissions from aspiring writers.

Contrary to popular opinion, agencies are very seldom charitable institutions, devoted selflessly to the promotion of great literature. Even agencies that do in fact represent great literature are in the game to make money. In order to do that, they need to sell books.

Which means, in case I’ve been too subtle so far, that they’re looking for manuscripts that they not only could conceivably sell to publishing houses, but sell quickly in the current market. By definition, a manuscript that needs a whole lot of work is not going to be ready to market as soon as one that does not.

Besides, agencies receive too many letter-perfect submissions to devote much time to fixer-uppers. They figure that the fixer-uppers will come back to them eventually, anyway, all cleaned up.

Without their intervention. The average agent’s faith in the tenacity of the talented is unbounded. He honestly does believe that his dream client can figure out what to give him all by herself.

So trust me on this one: you want yours to be the submission that causes Millicent to exclaim, “Oh, this one’s ready to go out to editors right now!”

A Frankenstein manuscript is virtually never going to provoke that last exclamation, because inconsistency of voice, vocabulary, tone, etc. is a pretty sure sign that the writer has not finalized the narrative. Oh, she may have revised it until she’s blue in the face, but she hasn’t yet gone through the entire thing and smoothed it out so it reads like a unified story.

Here’s a word to the wise: if you are working on your first novel — or any other writing project — over the course of years, do yourself a favor and check it for stylistic consistency before you submit it to ANY agent, editor, or contest.

If you find that your voice wavers a bit throughout, don’t despair. It’s actually quite rare that writers, even extremely gifted ones, find their specific voices right away; allow for the possibility that yours developed while you were writing the book.

Then embrace a two-part revision goal: find the voice, the style, the structure you like best, then make sure that every sentence in the book reflects it.

Incidentally, you simply cannot pull off Part I of that tall order by reading your work in screen-sized chunks. In order to make absolutely sure that your book hangs together cohesively, YOU MUST READ IT IN HARD COPY.

In its entirety. Preferably in a few long sessions, and, if you change narrative voice very often, out loud, to ascertain that your various voices remain absolutely distinct throughout.

Although that last piece of advice is unlikely to come as much of a surprise to long-time readers of this blog, I hear some of you grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled protest, “I feel like I’ve been working on this book forever. I’ve revised it so often that I could recite huge chunks of it from memory. And yet you’re telling me to reread the whole thing — aloud, yet?”

Yes, I am. Actually, it may actually be more important for inveterate revisers to read their work IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD.

Why, you gasp in horror? Because the more you revise a novel — or any book — the more likely it is to turn into a Frankenstein manuscript. It is an unintended downside of being conscientious about honing your craft.

Allow me to repeat that: the MORE you work on a novel, the MORE likely you are to end up with a Frankenstein manuscript.

Think about it: over time, you move passages around; you insert new scenes; you add or subtract subplots, characters, dialogue. All of these inevitably affect other parts of the book. Can you really be sure, for instance, that you remembered to remove your protagonist’s sociopathic sister from EVERY place she has ever appeared, even as a shadow on a wall?

And no, in response to what two-thirds of you just thought: merely doing a search-and-replace on the sister’s name is not sufficient, because if a novel is complex and rich, the spirit of individual characters lingers, even when they do not appear on the page. Necessarily, you would need to write the consciousness of the sociopathic sister out of the psyches of every other character in the family.

And that’s just the fall-out from a single change. The vast majority of revision is minor — which does not mean that any given change might not carry resonance throughout the book.

See now why I have been harping on the necessity of sitting down and reading your manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, AND getting unbiased readers to look it over before you submit it to an agent, editor, or contest? Yes, it’s the best way to catch grammatical, spelling, and continuity errors — but it is also really the only way to notice where a deleted character or plot point still affects the rest of the book.

While you’re reading, do be aware that It is far from uncommon for fledgling writers to incorporate the style, vocabulary, and/or worldview of whatever author they happen to be reading at the moment into their work. It’s sort of like catching an accent when you’re staying in another country: you may not realize that you’re doing it, but others hear and wonder why your accent keeps wandering back and forth between London and Brooklyn.

I’ll admit it: this is my personal Frankenstein bête noire. When I was writing the novel my agent is currently marketing, I was reading a whole lot of Noël Coward. An extremely witty writer; I enjoy his work very much. However, he wrote almost exclusively about (a) pre-WWII British people and (b) people who inhabited now-transformed British colonial possessions. My novel is about the adult lives of children who grew up on an Oregon commune, so obviously, my characters should not talk like Coward’s.

(Although it would have been amusing to try: “My dear, your hot tub attire is simply too killing!” “Reginald, I must implore you to desist from taunting the yoga instructor!” “May one inquire whether this tabbouleh is indeed vegan? The most frightful consequences may ensue otherwise.” “While your sincerity is charming on a multiplicity of levels, Felicia, I cannot fail to notice that you have once again evaded your duties in tending to the sauna’s controls.”)

I made a deliberate effort not to incorporate educated British cadences into my dialogue, and in self-editing, deleted any lines of thought that smacked even vaguely of 1920s urbanity. However, being a very experienced editor, I was aware that I would probably miss a few, so not only did I read the entirety of my novel out loud (much to the astonishment of my cats and neighbors), but I also passed it under the eyes of first readers I trust, with the instruction to keep an eye out for Britishisms.

And you know what? I had missed three in my on-screen revisions.

My point here — other than providing some fascinating footnote material for some graduate student fifty years from now who wants to write her thesis on Noël Coward’s influence upon American novelists — is that no matter how good you get at self-editing on a page-by-page basis, in order to avoid sending out a Frankenstein manuscript, you simply must take additional steps in screening your work.

Get used to it now: you will never outgrow the need. No writer does.

Partially, it is a focus problem. In the throes of the revision process – especially on a computer screen, which encourages reading in a piecemeal, episodic fashion not conducive to catching overarching patterns — it is terribly easy to lose sight of your book AS A BOOK.

This is where a writers’ group, a good writing teacher, a freelance editor, or even someone you’ve met at a writers’ conference with whom you can exchange work can be most helpful to you: helping you identify what in the finished book jars with the integrity of the whole. These sources are also great for pointing out continuity errors, such as when the sociopath is named Janet for three chapters in the middle of the book, and Marie-Claire for the rest.

Not only will dependable outside eyes weed out Frankenstein tendencies, but the mere fact of having to defend your authorial choices to them will force you to make all of your deviations from standard narrative conscious, rather than accidental.

Such discussions are also terrific practice for wrangling with your future agent and editors, by the way.

If you’re going at it alone, my advice is this. Once you have read through the whole manuscript, go back and read it again, projecting onto it the style and/or voice you like best.

Does it work? If not, pick another style or voice from the text, and project it through the entire manuscript.

When you find one you like, save the original manuscript as a separate file (so you have the option of changing your mind later; it’s been known to happen), and work through a separate copy, establishing the new style. Then, after you have finished, read the entire thing out loud again, for consistency.

Heck, yes, this is going to take you a lot of time. Honestly, it will take you far, far less time, in both the diagnosis and repair stages, if you take your Frankenstein manuscript on a field trip to other readers before you submit it to an agent or editor. If a writing group or class seems too time-consuming, consider hiring a freelance editor; if a freelance editor seems too expensive, join a writing group.

When you are making these calculations, do not forget to weigh the value of your time into the equation. If joining a group or paying an editor saves you a year’s worth of solo work, it might well be worth it.

Which brings me to the great question that loyal reader Pam submitted sometime back: how does one FIND a freelance editor like me?

Well, Pam, as it happens, I have established a rather extensive set of posts addressing that very question. They may be found collected on the archive list at right, under the startlingly original category title HOW DO I FIND A FREELANCE EDITOR? Those posts will give you a sense of what services an editor provides (not all of us do the same thing), what to expect to pay (which varies depending upon the level of editing), and what questions you might want to ask before you sign anything that looks even remotely like a contract.

For writers in the Pacific Northwest, another great resource is the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild’s website. For each member editor, there’s a small blurb and contact information. You can search by geographic region, the type of book you want edited, even preferred style manual, or you can post your job for editors to see.

You’re going to want either to go through an organization or get a referral to find a reputable editor, because emotionally, handing your book over to a total stranger for criticism is a difficult thing; you will want to make sure in advance that you can trust the recipient. NWIEG verifies that each member has significant editorial experience — and believe it or not, we actually do argue about punctuation on our members’ forum — so you can feel relatively secure that any editor listed will have the skills and background s/he claims s/he does.

Do take the time to have a conversation or e-mail exchange with any freelance editor before you make a commitment, however. A good personality fit is very important, and it is perfectly legitimate to ask a potential editor whether s/he has ever edited your type of book before.

Just as no agent represents every variety of book under the sun, no freelance editor will have experience with every book category. While there are plenty of editors out there who are willing to take pretty much anything (for a price), working with someone who is intimately familiar with the particular demands of your book category in the current market is probably going to be more helpful to you than working with a generalist.

One more word on the subject: if you are thinking about asking a freelance editor to work on a tight deadline, do not wait until the deadline is imminent. Good freelance editors are often booked up months in advance, and if you want a careful, thoughtful, professional read, you need to allow time for the editor to do her job.

Thanks for the good question, Pam — and keep up the good work, everybody!

PS: in case anyone missed Monday’s announcement, the deadline for submitting entries to the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence is now Monday, June 1, at midnight wherever you are. Follow this link to the rules and descriptions of the fabulous prizes, and may the best writer win the ECQLC! (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, that is.)

The Frankenstein manuscript, part II: when you should be wary about following in the footsteps of the greats

moat-at-la-cite
Isn’t this a great horror movie castle? It’s the (dry) moat around La Cité in Carcassonne, a 19th-century reconstruction of a medieval walled city. Not just any medieval walled city, mind you — the one that used to be on that very spot.

It’s also, and probably more to the point at the moment, a half-hour drive from La Muse, where I am currently enjoying a particularly productive writing retreat.

Speaking of which: I begin today by repeating yesterday’s announcement about the new deadline for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence: entries are no longer due yesterday. Although as those of you who are already working with agents and editors can probably attest, I need it yesterday actually isn’t all that unusual a request in the publishing industry (which seems to run on two speeds: delay and panic; alternate and repeat as necessary), as you may have heard someplace, I’m on a writing retreat.

In fact, I’ve decided to extend the retreat another couple of weeks. I’m writing up a storm, and where there’s such great support for writing AND magnificent cheese…

So l’m also extending the contest deadline. Entries are due via e-mailed by midnight on Monday, June 1.

Yesterday, I introduced you to the Frankenstein manuscript, the frightening entity that is presented as a book written by a single author, but reads as though it had been written by several, so different are the voices, perspectives, and even word choices throughout. To professional readers — e.g., agents, editors, contest judges, and our old pal Millicent, the agency screener — this kind of patched-together manuscript is a sign of a not-yet-fully-developed authorial voice.

And why is that, boys and girls? Chant it with me now: because a fully-developed voice is consistent throughout the entire narrative.

Unfortunately for those who like to experiment with multiple voices, such meandering manuscripts are common enough that tend to become profoundly suspicious of any manuscript that changes style or voice abruptly — at least, if those manuscripts were produced by first-time authors. With the super-quick readings that manuscripts generally receive in the pre-acquisition stage (and always get in the first round of contest judging), the Frankenstein manuscript and the manuscript genuinely setting out to do interesting things with perspective are easily confused.

There are many fine examples of good books where writers have adopted a Frankenstein format self-consciously, in order to make a point. If you are even vaguely interested in experiments in narrative voice, you should rush out and read Margaret Atwood’s ALIAS GRACE. In this novel-cum-historical account-cum narrative nonfiction book, Atwood tells the story of a murder, alternating between a tight first-person point of view (POV, for the rest of this post), straightforward third-person narrative, contemporary poems about the case, letters from the parties involved, newspaper clippings and even direct quotes from the murderess’ confession.

It is an enjoyable read, but for writers, it is also a rich resource on how to mix battling narrative styles and structures well; as one might expect from a stylist as gifted as she, Atwood constructs her patchwork narrative so skillfully that the reader never has to wonder for more than an instant why (or how) the perspective has just changed.

Which is, in case you were wondering, one of the primary reasons Millicents usually object to narrative shifts: in multiple POV manuscript submissions, it’s not always clear when the perspective switches from one character to another. It’s especially confusing if the different viewpoints — or worse, various narrators in a multiple first-person narrative — are written in too-similar voices.

Is everyone clear on the distinction I’m making here? A Frankenstein manuscript often displays unintentionally displays a multiplicity of voices, tones, vocabulary levels, etc. A well-written multiple POV novel, by contrast, presents each point of view and/or first-person narrative voice as distinctly different, so the reader doesn’t have any trouble following who is in the driver’s seat when, plot-wise.

Or, to put it another way, the Frankenstein manuscript is evidence of a lack of authorial control, consistency, and often, proofreading; a good multiple POV narrative is beautiful evidence of a sure authorial touch, a strong sense of character, and great attention to detail.

That being said, it is just a hard fact of submission that it’s a whole lot easier for an established author to impress professional readers with a multiple POV novel — or, indeed, any sort of experimental writing — than someone trying to break into the biz. I admire Margaret Atwood tremendously as novelist, poet, and essayist; I have spent years crossing my fingers as she hovered around the short list for the Nobel Prize. However, I suspect that even she would have had terribly difficult time marketing ALIAS GRACE if it were her first novel, at least in the current market, due to its arguably Frankenstein structure.

Ditto for the inimitable Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER, one of my favorite novels of all time, and also a must-read for any writer considering playing funny tricks with narrative voice. Vargas Llosa is something of a structural prankster, folding, spindling, and mutilating the ordinary rules of storytelling in order to keep the reader off-balance.

The result, I must admit, might confuse a reader who wasn’t already in love with his writing from other books. One might be tempted, upon encountering the third or fourth startlingly radical shift in tone, vocabulary, and apparently intended audience, to conclude that this is just a Frankenstein manuscript by a writer who couldn’t make up his mind what the book is about.

Personally, I admire Vargas Llosa’s dash; when he was running for president of Peru (yes, really), he published an erotic novel, IN PRAISE OF THE STEPMOTHER, about…well, you can probably guess. (He lost the election, incidentally.) He, too, has been rumored to be on the short list for the Nobel Prize for an awfully long time.

But if he were trying to market AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER right now as a first novel…well, you know the tune by now, don’t you?

The moral here is this: once you’ve gained international acclaim as a prose stylist, you have a lot more leeway to mess with the conventional rules of writing. So please don’t kid yourself that just because your favorite author got away with an experiment, you can necessarily do so as well.

Heck, Alice Walker made up entirely new punctuation rules for THE COLOR PURPLE, and that won the Pulitzer Prize. In SEEING, José Saramago treated us to an entire narrative devoid of punctuation that I, for one, consider necessary to clear communication, and he won the Nobel Prize.

But that doesn’t mean you should try either of these things at home. It’s just too likely that Millicent will take one look at your fascinating experiment and exclaim, “Here’s another one who doesn’t know how to use a semicolon!” or “Criminy, what makes this guy think I’m going to read more than two sentences of a book without any periods?”

Sad, but true. In your first book, in the current market, you probably cannot get away with breaking more than one or two of the rules — and even those need to be immistakably marked, so agents, editors, and contest judges know that you broke them for a reason, rather than out of ignorance.

Trust me, no one on the Pulitzer committee seriously believed that Alice Walker did not know how to use a semicolon properly.

“Wait a gosh-darned minute,” I hear some of you exclaiming. “I take some liberties with narrative style, but it becomes clear over the course of the book why I’m doing it. By the end, it will seem downright clever to the reader. Do you mean to say that if it is not clear in the first 50 pages, or whatever short excerpt the agent, editor, or contest has asked to see, my innovative experiment in English prose might just get thrown into the reject pile because it will be mistaken for bad writing?”

In a word, yes. Next question?

Before you fret and fume too much about how the intense pre-screening of the current agency system prevents genuinely bold experiments in writing from reaching the desks of publishers at the major houses, take a moment to consider the Frankenstein manuscript from the point of view of the agent, editor, or judge who finds it on her desk one busy morning.

It’s not a pretty sight, I assure you; stitched-together corpses seldom are.

As a freelance editor, when I receive a Frankenstein manuscript, I have the option of sitting down with the author, having a major discussion about what she wants the book be, and helping guide the work toward more internal stylistic consistency. Basically, the process entails identifying and compiling a list of all of the battling styles, making the author come up with a justification for using each, and having the justifications duke it out until one (or, rarely, two) is declared the winner by the author.

It takes time, and it’s generally worth the effort. But had I mentioned that freelance editors are generally paid by the hour?

However, when a screener at an agency or an editor at a publishing house receives a Frankenstein manuscript — and yes, some manuscripts are so internally scattered that the problem becomes apparent in just the first chapter or first 50 pages — she is unlikely to have the time to figure out which voice and/or style is going to end up dominating the book. Even if she absolutely loves one of the styles or voices, her hectic schedule does not allow time for equivocation.

She must that she select one of two options, and quickly: either she commits to nursing the author through precisely the kind of boxing match I described above, or she can simply reject the work and move on to the next submission, in the hope of finding a writer whose book will not need as much tender loving care.

With literally hundreds of new submissions coming in each week, which option do you think she’ll select more often?

When a contest judge receives a Frankenstein manuscript, the choice is even quicker and more draconian. The judge knows that there’s no question of being able to work with the author to smooth out the presentation; in the vast majority of literary contests, the judge won’t even know who the author is.

Plop! There it goes, into the no-prize-this-year file. Better luck – and first readers – next year.

The moral, I devoutly hope, is obvious. If you are attempting to play with unconventional notions of structure or style, make sure that it is pellucidly clear in the manuscript exactly what you are doing. Don’t leave it to the reader to guess what you’re up to, because, as I’ve shown above, professional readers just don’t have the time to figure it out.

Also, consider making your deviations from standard structure and narrative rules bold, rather than slipping them in here and there. Experimenting with several styles within a short number of pages is decidedly risky – and perversely, the less daringly experimental you are, the riskier it is, because tentative attempts look to professional eyes like unfinished work.

To borrow E.F. Benson’s wonderful example, let’s say you were planning to paint a picture of a house down the street. The house has a crooked chimney. The novice painter would paint it exactly as is, unskillfully, and viewers of the finished painting would wonder forever after if the chimney had really looked like that, or if the novice just couldn’t paint straight lines. An intermediate painter would paint the chimney as straight, to rule out that conclusion.

But an expert painter would add 10 degrees to the angle of the chimney, so there would be no doubt in the observer’s mind that he had painted it that way intentionally.

The more deliciously complex and groundbreaking your chosen style is, the more clearly you should announce it. Unless, of course, you want to wait until you’re on the short list for the Nobel Prize before you start getting wacky.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about practical measures to keep your manuscript from falling accidentally into the Frankenstein realm.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part IX: things change

As illustration: before:
a-windchime-in-the-snow

And after:
crabtree-blossoms-and-windchime

Four months separate those pictures — either a very short time for such a radical alteration of the environment or an interminable one, depending upon how one looks at it. But whatever your attitude, the fact remains that both the wind chime and its observer feel quite different sensations now than they did then, right?

Bear that in mind for the rest of this post, will you, please? This series has, after all, been all about perspective.

Realistic expectations and the management of resentment
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been sticking to the basics: an overview of the trajectory a manuscript typically travels from the writer’s hands to ultimately sitting on a shelf at your local bookstore. Since what most aspiring writers have in mind when they say they want to get their books published is publication through great big New York City-based publishing houses — GBNYCBPH for short, although admittedly, not very short — I’ve been concentrating upon that rather difficult route. (Next time, I shall consider some alternate roads.) As we have seen, in order to pursue that path, a writer needs an agent.

Yet as we also saw earlier in this series, that was not always the case: writers used to be able to approach editors at GBNYCBPH directly; until not very long ago, nonfiction writers still could. Instead, writers seeking publication at GBNYCBPH invest months — or, more commonly, years — in attracting the agent who can perform the necessary introduction. So a historically-minded observer could conclude that over time, the road to publication has become significantly longer for the average published author, or at any rate more time-consuming.

Should we writers rend our garments over this? Well, we could, and one can hardly walk into any writers’ conference in North America without tripping over a knot of writers commiserating about it. Certainly, you can’t Google how to get a book published without pulling up an intriguingly intense list of how-to sites and fora where aspiring writers complain about their experiences, sometimes helpfully, sometimes not.

Two things are clear: there’s quite a bit of garment-rending going on, and this process is hard.

Personally, although I am never averse to a little light self-inflicted clothing damage if the situation warranted it, I am inclined to think that most aspiring writers expend too much energy on resentment. Certainly, most take it too personally, given that the GBNYCBPH didn’t suddenly rearrange their submission policies the day before yesterday in order to avoid having to deal with any individual submission they might otherwise have received within the next six months. Using agents as their manuscript screeners, effectively, has been going on for quite some time.

Did I just hear a few dozen cries of “Aha!” out there? Yes, your revelation is quite correct: at one level, an agency is to a major NYC-based publishing house what Millicent the agency screener is to the agent, the gatekeeper who determines which manuscripts will and will not be seen by someone empowered to make a decision about publishing it.

But it’s easy for an aspiring writer in the throes of agent-seeking to forget that, isn’t it? All too often, aspiring writers speak amongst themselves and even think about landing an agent as though that achievement were the Holy Grail of publishing: it’s a monumentally difficult feat to pull off, but once a writer’s made it, the hard work’s over; the sweets of the quest begin.

It’s a pretty thought, but let me ask you something: have you ever heard a writer who already has an agent talk about it this way?

I’m guessing that you haven’t, because seldom are garments rent more drastically than amongst a group of agented writers whose books have not yet been picked up by GBNYCBPH. Why, the agent-seekers out there gasp, aghast? Because typically, signing with an agent doesn’t mean just handing the manuscript over to another party who is going to do all the work; it means taking on a whole host of other obligations, frequently including biting one’s lip and not screaming while absolutely nothing happens with a manuscript for months at a time.

Working with an agent is work. Just not the same work that a writer was doing before.

In other words: things change.

Okay, so what is it like to work with an agent?
The main change most newly-agented writers report is no longer feeling that they have control over what happens to their books. It’s an accurate perception, usually: the agent, not the writer will be the one making decisions about:

*when the manuscript is ready for submission to editors at GBNYCBPH, and, given that the initial answer will almost certainly be no, what revisions need to be made in order to render it so;

*when the market is ripe for this particular submission (hint: not necessarily when the country’s in a serious recession);

*what additional materials should be included in the submission packet, and your timeline for producing them (because yes, Virginia, you will be the one producing marketing materials);

*which editors should see it and in what order;

*how it should be submitted (one at a time, in a mass submission, or something in between);

*how soon to follow up with editors who have been sitting on the submission for a while;

*whether it’s even worth bothering to follow up with certain editors (especially if it’s rumored that they’re about to be laid off);

*whether to pass along the reasons that an editor gave for rejecting the manuscript (not all agents do);

*whether enough editors have given similar excuses that the writer really ought to go back and revise the manuscript before it gets submitted again;

*when a manuscript has been seen by enough to stop submitting it, and

*when to start nagging the writer to write something new, so s/he can market that.

I make no pretense to foretelling the future, but I don’t need to be the Amazing Kreskin to state with 100% certainty that those of you who land agents between the time I post this and two years from now will disagree with those agents on at least one of these points. Probably more. And the vast majority of the time, you will not win that particular debate, because the agent is the one who is going to be doing the submitting.

Oh, you would rather not have known about this until after you signed the contract?

Take another gander at the list above, taking note of just how much the writer actually does under this arrangement: produces the manuscript or proposal, revises it according to the agent’s specifications, writes any additional marketing material (trust me, you’ll be glad that you already have an author bio — and if you don’t, consider taking a weekend now to go through the HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right to come up with one), makes any subsequent revisions (editors have been known to ask for some BEFORE they’ll acquire a book)…and all the while, you’re supposed to be working on your next book project.

Why? Because “So, what are you working on now?” is one of the first questions an editor interested in your book will ask — and don’t be surprised if your agent starts asking it about 42 seconds after you deliver the full manuscript of the book that attracted his attention in the first place. A career writer — one who has more than one book in him, as they say — is inherently more valuable to an agent or a publishing house than one who can only think in terms of one book at a time; there’s more for the agent to sell, and once a editor knows she can work with a writer (not a self-evident proposition) whose voice sells well (even less self-evident), she’s going to want to see the next book as soon as humanly possible.

So you might want to start working on it during that seemingly endless period while your agent is shopping your book around — or getting ready to shop your book around. It’s a far, far more productive use of all of that nervous energy than rending your garments. Trust me on this one.

Wait — so what does the agent actually do with my manuscript once s/he deems it ready to go?
Okay, let’s assume that you’ve already made the changes your agent requests, and both you and he have pulled it off in record time: let’s say that he’s taken only three months to give you a list of the changes he wanted, and you’ve been able to make them successfully in another three. (And if that first bit sounds like a long time to you, remember how impatient you were after you submitted your manuscript to the agent? The agent has to read all of his current clients’ work AND all of those new submissions; it can take a long time to get around to any particular manuscript.) What happens next?

Well, it depends upon how the agency operates. Some agencies, like mine, will ask the writer to send them 8-15 clean copies of the entire manuscript for submission; other agencies will simply photocopy the manuscript they have to send it out and deduct the cost of copying from the advance. (Sometimes the per-page fee can be rather steep with this second type of agency; if it is, ask if you can make the copies yourself and mail them.) Some agents will also ask for an electronic copy of the manuscript, for submission in soft copy.

I can feel some of you starting to get excited out there. “Oh, boy, Anne!” a happy few squeal. “This is the part I’ve been waiting for — the agent takes my writing to the editors at the GBNYCBPH!”

Well, probably not right away: agencies tend to run on submission schedules, so as not to overtax the mailroom staff, and in a large agency, it may take a while for a new client’s book to make its way up the queue. Also, not all times of the year are equally good for submission: remember how I mentioned a few days ago that much of the publishing industry goes on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day? And that it’s virtually impossible to get an editorial committee together between Thanksgiving and the end of the year? Not to mention intervening events that draw editors away from their desks, like the spring-summer writers’ conference season and the Frankfurt Book Fair in the autumn.

In short, you may be in for a wait. Depending upon your relationship with your new agent, you may or may not receive an explanation for any delays.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that your book’s submission date has arrived: your agent has made up a list of editors likely to be interested in it, and either spoken with each editor or communicated by letter or e-mail; the manuscript is thus expected. The agency then sends it out. As I mentioned above, submission strategies differ:

(a) Some agents like to give a manuscript to their top pick for the book and leave it there until the editor in question (or the person in-house to whom the editor passes it; that happens quite a lot) has said yea or nay. Since editors have every bit as much material to read as agents do, this can take months; since most publishing houses employ editorial assistants to screen submissions, it can take a long time for a manuscript to make it up the ladder, as it were. If the answer is no, the agent will send the book out to the next, and the process is repeated elsewhere.

If you’re thinking that it could conceivably take a couple of years for a book to make the rounds of the relevant editors at the GBNYCBPH, congratulations: you’re beginning to understand the inherent slowness of the submission process.

(b) Some agents like to generate competition over a manuscript by sending it out to a whole list of editors at once. Since the editors are aware that other editors are reading it at the same time, the process tends to run a bit faster, but still, the manuscript is going to need to make it past those editorial assistants.

If you’re now thinking that because there are so few major publishers — and the mid-sized presses keep getting gobbled up by larger concerns — an agent who chose strategy (b) could conceivably exhaust a fairly extensive submission list in quite a short time, and thus might give up on the book earlier than an agent who embraced strategy (a), congratulations are again in order. The options honestly aren’t unlimited here.

(c) Some especially impatient agents will send out a client’s work to a short list of editors — say, 3 or 4 — who are especially hot for this kind of material, or with whom the agent already enjoys a close relationship. If none of those 3 or 4 is interested in acquiring it, the agent will lose interest and want to move on to the writer’s next project.

Agents who pride themselves on keeping up with the latest publishing trends, where speed of submission is of the essence, tend to embrace this strategy; unfortunately for some writers, it’s also popular with agents who are looking to break into selling the latest hot book category, regardless of what they have had been selling before. And if the book happens to sell quickly, this strategy can work out well for the client, but otherwise, the writer who signs on for this had better have quite a few other projects up her sleeve.

The problem is, agents who embrace this strategy are seldom very communicative about it with prospective clients. If you’ve been to many writers’ conferences, you’ve probably met a writer or two who has been on the creative end of an agent-client relationship like this; they’ll be the ones rending their garments and wailing about how they didn’t know that the agent who fell in love with their chick lit manuscript had previously sold only how-to books.

Make a point of listening to these people — they have cautionary tales to tell. Part of the reason to attend a writers’ conference is to benefit from other writers’ experience, right?

One of the things they are likely to tell you: short attention spans are a very good reason to ask an agent interested in representing your work if you may have a chat with a couple of his clients before signing the contract. If that seems audacious to you, remember: a savvy writer isn’t looking for just any agent to represent her work; she’s looking for the RIGHT agent.

(d) If a manuscript generates a lot of editorial interest — known as buzz — an agent may choose to bypass the regular submission process altogether and sell the book at auction. This means just what you think it does: a bunch of representatives from GBNYCBPH get together in a room and bid against each other to see who is willing to come up with the largest advance.

I can’t come up with any down side for the writer on this one. Sorry.

Regardless of the strategy an agent selects, if he has gone all the way through his planned submission list without any nibbles from editors, one of four things can happen next. First, the agent can choose to submit the work to small publishing houses; many agents are reluctant to do this, as small publishers can seldom afford to pay significant advances. Second, the agent can choose to shelve the manuscript and move on to the client’s next project, assuming that the first book might sell better in a different market.

Say, in a year or two. Remember, things change.

Third, the agent may ask the writer to perform extensive further revision before sending it out again. Fourth — and this is the one most favored by advocates of strategy (c) — the agent may drop the client from his representation list. It’s not at all unusual for agents fond of this fourth strategy not to notify their clients that they’ve been dropped. The writer simply never hears from them again.

Yes, this last is lousy to live through — but in the long run, a writer is going to be better off with an agent who believes enough in her work to stick with her than one who just thinks of a first book as a one-off that isn’t worth a long try at submission.

I’m mentioning this not to depress you, but so if your agent suddenly stops answering e-mails, you will not torture yourself with useless recriminations. Start querying other agents right away, preferably with your next book. (It can be more difficult to land an agent for a project that has already been shopped around for a while.)

Enough concentration on the worst-case scenario. On to happier topics!

What happens if an editor decides that she wants to acquire my manuscript?
Within a GBNYCBPH, it’s seldom a unilateral decision: an editor would need to be pretty powerful and well-established not to have to check with higher-ups. The vast majority of the time, an editor who falls in love with a book will take it to editorial committee, where every editor will have a favorite book project to pitch. Since we discussed editorial committees earlier in this series, I shan’t recap now; suffice it to say that approval by the committee is not the only prerequisite for acquiring a book.

But let’s assume for the sake of brevity that the editorial committee, marketing department, legal department, and those above the acquiring editor in the food chain have all decided to run with the book. How do they decide how much of an advance to offer?

If you have been paying close attention throughout this series, you should already know: by figuring out how much it would cost to produce the book in the desired format, the cover price, how many books in the initial print run, and what percentage of that first printing they are relatively certain they could sell. Then they calculate what the author’s royalty would be on that number of books — and offer some fraction of that amount as the advance.

All that remains then is for the editor to pick up the phone and convey the offer to the agent representing the book.

What happens next really depends on the submission strategy that’s been used so far. If the agent has been submitting one at a time, she may haggle a little with the editor over particulars, but generally speaking, the offer tends not to change much; the agent will then contact the writer to discuss whether to take it or to keep submitting.

With a multiple-submission strategy, events get a little more exciting at this juncture. If there are other editors still considering the manuscript, the agent will contact them to say there’s an offer on the table and to give them a deadline for submitting offers of their own. It’s often quite a short deadline, as little as a week or two — you wouldn’t believe how much receiving the news that another publisher has made an offer can speed up reading rates. If there are competing offers, bidding will ensue.

If not — or once someone wins the bidding — the agent and the editor will hammer out the terms of the publication contract and produce what is known as a deal memo that lays out the general terms. Among the information the deal memo will specify: the amount of the advance, the date the editor expects delivery of the manuscript (which, for a nonfiction book, can be a year or two after the contract is signed), an approximate word count, the month of intended release, and any other business-related details.

Basically, it’s a dry run for the publication contract. After all of the details are set in stone, the publisher’s legal department will handle that — or, more commonly, they’ll use a boilerplate from a similar book.

What neither the deal memo nor the contract will say is how (or if) the author needs to make changes to the book already seen or proposed. Typically, if the editor wants revisions, she will spell those out in an editorial memo either after the contract is signed (for fiction) or after the author delivers the manuscript (for nonfiction). Until the ink is dry on the contract, though, it’s unlikely that your agent will allow you to sit down and have an unmediated conversation with the editor — which is for your benefit: it’s your agent’s job to make sure that you get paid for your work and that the contract is fulfilled.

Which brings us full-circle, doesn’t it? The publisher has the book, the writer has the contract, the agent has her 15%, and all is right in the literary world. I could tell get into the ins and outs of post-contract life — dealing with a publisher’s marketing department, the various stages a manuscript passes through on its way to the print queue, how publishers work with distributors, how authors are expected to promote their books — but those vary quire a bit more than the earlier steps to publication do. Frankly, I think those are topics for another day, if not another series.

And besides, things are changing so much in the publishing world right now that I’d hate to predict how the author’s experience will be different even a year from now. All any of us can say for certain is that writers will keep writing books, agents will keep representing them, and publishing houses will keep bringing them out. As the author’s responsibilities for the business side of promoting her own work continue to increase — it’s now not at all unusual for a first-time author to foot the bill both for freelance editing and for at least some of the promotion for the released book — how much publishing with a GBNYCBPH will differ from going with a smaller press five or ten years from now remains to be seen.

Conveniently enough, that brings me to our next topic. Next time, I shall talk about some of the other means of getting a book into print: small presses and the various stripes of self-publication.

As always, keep up the good work!

While we’re on the subject of repetition, let’s keep talking about redundancy. Again and again and again.

heracles-vase-painting

Did you find my recent series on character names enlightening? Mildly entertaining? Did I at least talk you out of naming your protagonist and his five brothers Harold, Harry (as a nickname for Henry, natch), Herbert, Norbert, Bertrand, and Humbert?

No? Well, did I manage to convince you not to refer to each of them by name fifteen times per page?

Even if you chose to blow off 99.2% of my advice in the series, please tell me that you checked the first five pages of your manuscript for these problems. Or that you will definitely do so before even thinking about slipping them into an envelope with a SASE and mailing them off to an agent, editor, or contest.

Don’t just make a vague, affirmative-sounding noise: I’m waiting for an actual promise here. Aspiring writers who are lax about checking for this type of repetition keep book doctors like me up at night.

Part of being a good developmental editor — as opposed to a good copyeditor, who concentrates on making sure that the writing is clear and the sentences grammatically correct, bringing the work to the minimum standard for professional writing — involves not only checking for possible red lights that might lead to rejection, but also figuring out what a manuscript’s strengths are, as well as why it will appeal to its target audience.

(And no, Virginia, those are not necessarily the same thing — but that’s a topic for another day.)

Most aspiring writers DO need to be reminded, I’ve noticed, what is good about their work, other than the fact that they themselves sat down and wrote it. Heck, many apparently need to be told what the selling points for their books are, if the typical responses to the perfectly straightforward questions, “Who is your target audience, and why will your book appeal to those folks?” are any indication.

There’s a pretty good reason for this, actually. Throughout the writing process, it’s awfully easy to start to think of the effort you’ve put into a book as its most important characteristic, isn’t it? But realistically, books literally never get acquired and published simply because someone went to the trouble to write them.

Okay, so books by celebrities and politicians occasionally do. I’m talking about works of literary merit here.

The vast majority of the time, though, manuscripts sell because of their strengths. In fact, should you ever happen to find yourself chatting about your work with an agent or editor, the length of time it took you to write a book is precisely the WRONG thing to mention in a pitch — or in a query letter, for that matter.

Why? Well, from a professional point of view, what matters is what’s on the page, not what Herculean efforts it took to get there. Or, to put it another way, everyone concerned is perfectly aware that every book requires Herculean efforts to bring from conception to completion, much less to publication.

So what agents and editors tend to conclude when writers rattle on about those efforts is not, “Gee, this book must be worthwhile,” but “Heavens – if a single draft took five years, how long will any revisions I want take?”

I know: it’s unfair; in actual practice, how long it takes to write a book is not a particularly good indicator of how long it would take to revise.

But as submitting writers are all too prone to forget, publishing is a business, not an art form — agents and editors acquire books they believe are marketable, not just ones they believe are well-written. And, as I believe I have mentioned several hundred times before, they do not — contrary to the hope of most submitting writers — read the entire submission before making up their minds on either point.

Anyone care to tell the class at what point in the average submission Millicent stops reading? For those of you who started reading this blog in February or later: it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of pages her agent boss asked you to send. Not at all.

How does this relate to the revision process, you ask, or to yesterday’s insights about the perils of name repetition on the manuscript page? Well, the swift judgments endemic to agencies, publishing houses, and yes, even contest judging mean that if you have limited revision time at your disposal, it’s smart strategy to concentrate on the first 50 pages of your manuscript — the usual first request from an agent — or, in a pinch, the first 5.

If, say, you were intending to comb your work for any of the many knee-jerk rejection reasons in the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE category at right. Or even just to minimize the name repetition.

And yes, in response to what you just thought: that’s going to be a heck of a lot of work. One might even call it a Herculean task. Sorry about that.

While you’re rolling up your proverbial sleeves to launch into it, you might want to keep an eye out for a very, very common type of textual repetition, especially in book openings end endings: invocatory rhythms that don’t quite work.

Invocatory rhythms are one of the most popular tools aspiring writers use to beautify their narratives, a kind of sing-song rhythm that alerts the reader that Something Literary is Going on Here. As so many writers have been delighted to discover, one of the easiest ways to add this music to a text is through word and phrase repetition:

Geraldine ran through the corridor, ran like the wind, ran as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her freedom, after all this time? Didn’t she deserve a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, deserve to breathe the fresh air of autonomy?

That’s a relatively moderate use of invocatory rhythm. Here’s a galloping case of it:

Bewildered, Paul hung his head in shame. Not in shame, precisely: he hung his head partially in pride, a fierce pride that he had done the right thing, made the brave choice, under extremely trying circumstances. No, it was not in shame that he hung his head — that much was clear to him, even in the midst of the wilds of bewilderment. He was proud, pleased-proud, surprised-proud, PROUD in capital letters. He wouldn’t have canceled out his supposed shame even if he could have turned back time with a wave of his hand.

Yes, the rhythm here is indeed driving, but what a heck of a lot of word repetition! That’s what a professional reader is likely to take away from this paragraph, incidentally, not the emotional intensity. In fact, here’s how it’s likely to burn itself into Millicent the agency screener’s overworked retinas:

Bewildered, Paul hung his head in shame. Not in shame, precisely: he hung his head partially in pride, a fierce pride that he had done the right thing, made the brave choice, under extremely trying circumstances. No, it was not in shame that he hung his head — that much was clear to him, even in the midst of the wilds of bewilderment. He was proud, pleased-proud, surprised-proud, PROUD in capital letters. He wouldn’t have canceled out his supposed shame even if he could have turned back time with a wave of his hand.

To put it less graphically, it’s the repetition that Millicent is likely to notice, rather than the poetic rhythm. Notice, too, that it’s not only the verbatim word and phrase repetition that will make her grind her teeth: words that scan similarly, like wild and Bewildered are likely to stick in her craw as well. As will different forms of the same verb.

Just in case any of you were thinking of using have, having, and had within the course of a single paragraph.

I’ve been sensing some head-shaking out there throughout my discussion of these examples. “I see that there are repeated words here, Anne,” these disapprovers say, “but surely that is a stylistic choice on the author’s part, a matter of bending the ordinary rules of writing in order to produce a particular type of voice — in this case, one that sounds like chanting. Unless you have just inadvertently proven your oft-made point about not every reader’s liking every voice, and you are demonstrating yourself to be the kind of knuckle-dragging troglodyte who eschews the joys of literary fiction in favor of novels that — ugh — have a plot?”

Actually, I’ve been known to read and enjoy both, oh ye quick to judge — and what’s more, I’ve read plenty of literary fiction with strong plots AND genre fiction that features beautiful language. So there.

But you are right that the example above is far more likely to have dropped from the fingertips of a writer with specifically literary aspirations than one who was aiming for a more mainstream market. Since invocatory rhythms are quite common in poetry, this style turns up very frequently in the work of writers who write it. Unfortunately for Millicent’s aching eyes, it’s also a frequent guest device in novel and memoir submissions, particularly in those that are either literary fiction or are other types of manuscript written with an overtly literary voice.

It just SOUNDS pretty, somehow.

“If the writing’s pretty,” the head-shakers argue, “how could THAT be problematic in a submission?”

In many ways, believe it or not. Rather than telling you why, let’s look at the single most famous piece of invocatory prose in English literature, the opening to Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES. (Yes, yes, I know: I’m fond of this particular example, but honestly, it’s one of the best examples of how not to write a first page ever written. Bear with me here.) Just for kicks, pretend that you have never seen it before, and try to read like an agency screener:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

Or if you want to don Millicent’s eyeglasses even more thoroughly, take a gander at it in standard manuscript format:

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Now, this voice is certainly distinctive, isn’t it? Hard to conceive of a more memorable opening, rhythmically speaking. (Clearly, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head, since I used it as an example of something else entirely not too long ago.) But it’s also true that if these were the first two paragraphs of a submission, pretty much any professional reader today would have rejected it by line three.

Close your eyes, channel Millicent, and tell me why.

If you said that it was because the first paragraph is one interminable run-on sentence — 119 words, connected incorrectly by commas, rather than semicolons, sacre bleu! — give yourself lollipop, a pat on the head, and an A for the day.

Ditto if you zeroed in upon the apparently random capitalization of nouns, the criminal punctuation choices, the ubiquitous logical contradictions (yes, I know Dickens meant it to be ironic; stop parroting your high school English teacher and think like a screener for a moment), and the fact that two paragraphs into the piece, the reader still has absolutely no idea who the protagonist is or what’s going on.

And can’t you just picture an editor furiously scribbling in the margins: “Which was it — the best of times or the worst of times? Commit to one or the other! The reader only knows what you tell him!”

However, there is a subtler reason — which will be abundantly apparent if you stand up right now, take two steps backward from your computer monitor, and take another look at Dickens’ opening.

See the visual pattern? Millicent would have spotted it as soon as she pulled the first page out of the envelope.

If you’ve been revising for a while (or if you paid close attention to the title of this post), you might have caught that the problem was repetition without backing away: the first ten verbs are identical, after all. But it’s not just the repeated words and phrases that would raise professional readers’ weary eyebrows here: it’s the structural repetition, the phenomenon of consecutive sentences being set up in the same way.

Dickens, bless his now-still heart, has provided us with a lulu of an example of why structural repetition is problematic in print. No matter how great your high school English teacher told you this particular opening was, it’s an undeniable fact that it’s dull for the reader to read the same It was X, it was Y sentence structure over and over again.

Or, indeed, any given sentence structure, if it is repeated often enough within too few lines of text. Even had Dickens wielded all of those semicolons correctly (he didn’t, by current grammatical standards), Millicent would have known at a glance that an opening this repetitious was unlikely to be an easy sell, either to readers or to her boss, the agent.

And for precisely the same reason: it’s both conceptually boring and hard on the eyes to read that many similarly-structured sentences in a row.

Unfortunately, a lot of writers really LIKE structural repetition: it reads a bit like a prayer — or if your tastes are more secular, like a poem. As we saw in all of today’s examples, it can provide a driving, almost galloping rhythm to a page. Many aspiring writers see that rhythm in the work of authors they admire and say, “Wow, that’s cool. By jingo, I’m going to make my paragraphs read like that!”

That’s a perfectly legitimate voice choice — provided that it is used sparingly. Like any magic trick, however, repetitive structure loses its ability to charm when the reader sees it too often; after a while, it can start to come across less as an interesting stylistic choice than as a sort of narrative tic.

How often is too often? Well, let me ask you: how many iterations of It was… did Dickens put you through before you first murmured, Oh, come on, Chuck; get on with it?

For Millicent, that number is likely to be as low as two, even if the repetition isn’t in consecutive sentences. Why so few? Well, editors are trained to zero in on redundancy and excise it, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anybody that the contest judges, agents, and Millicents who cull the herd of submissions should develop a sensitivity to something likely to offend an editor’s sensibilities. If a particular stylistic choice is unlikely to sell to a publishing house, those whose job it is to find the bestsellers of tomorrow have to pay attention that editorial preference.

So yes, in answer to what practically all of you were thinking at the beginning of the last paragraph, Millicent — or any other professional reader who has been at it a while — honestly may notice structural repetition the first time it occurs, not the seventh. But that’s a matter of speculation, as she is very, very unlikely to still be reading long enough to stumble upon #7.

Heck, it’s not all that uncommon for a professional reader to sit bolt upright in the middle of page 172, exclaiming indignantly, “Hey, this writer is reusing sentences!” if the first iteration occurred on page 3. Millicents tend to have good memories for text.

So do agents, editors, contest judges, writing coaches, and pretty much everyone else who reads work-in-progress for a living. Which is why, in case you’ve spent years wondering, recipients of professional feedback are so often stunned by assertions that their manuscripts use particular words or phrases constantly. To someone with a memory trained for editing, four times in a 300-page submission may feel pretty constant.

Don’t repeat yourself more than is absolutely necessary.

“Okay, okay,” I hear some of you rules lawyers out there murmuring, “I understand that Millicent is hyper-sensitive to reused sentences and repeated sentence structures. But as you pointed out yourself, Anne, many writers like to open and close their books with poetic rhythms; that doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire book will be written that way. A TALE OF TWO CITIES doesn’t continue repetitively, after all. So why doesn’t Millicent just assume that the device will end in a page or two and read on?”

Well, the easy answer is something that we spent most of last January discussing: Millicent seldom makes it all the way to the end of page one. She’s not in the habit of reading on until she gets to a patch of text she likes. (Too bad our pal Chuckles blew his chance by repeating himself so much, eh?)

I could sidestep the crux of the question by leaving it at that, but the real issue is why a professional reader would assume that the way a manuscript opens is necessarily indicative of what is to come. It’s an excellent question, because this assumption does underlie any rejection on page one. The fact is, though, that this presumption is not always inaccurate, at least with regard to redundancy. More often than not, when a manuscript opens with repetitive structure, it will continue with repetitive structure.

Obviously, this renders invocatory repetition dangerous for a writer to use in the first pages of a submission. Or book proposal. Agents and editors are just so used to this tendency that they’re all too likely — fairly or not — to conclude that to read on would be to be treated to the same type of sentence over and over, ad infinitum.

And that, my friends, would be less poetic than soporific.

Next time, I shall talk about ways to tell which is which in your writing, to figure out when and how invocatory rhythms will help your work. Keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part XI: this above all things, to thy own self be true, or, would it kill you to ask for what you want?

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As I was working on yesterday’s list of hints on how to prepare first readers to give you the feedback you want within a reasonable period of time, I sensed some puzzled silence from those of you who have never solicited non-professional feedback outside a writing group. “Why is she setting up so many restrictions on who would make a first reader?” I’ve heard some of you muttering over well-bitten fingernails. “Why is she advising building as many fail-safes into the exchange as one might expect in your garden-variety nuclear test facility?”

In a word: experience.

I’ve seen a lot of manuscript exchanges go sour, for a great many reasons. As little as we writers like to admit it, one of the most common reasons for negative feedback situations is the undeniable fact that it’s tough to hear the unvarnished truth about your own work, particularly, as is the case for the vast majority of aspiring writers, if it’s the first time you’re dealing with text-based critique.

Let me resort to an anecdote to help us understand why.

Those of you who have been stopping by Author! Author! for quite some time now may remember how back in autumn, 07, when I was couch-bound with mono — no, I had not been snogging 15-year-olds in my spare time; I didn’t catch the chicken pox until I was an adult, either –my SO decided that it would be a good time to adopt a new cat. Because reclining while slowly petting a nervous animal was about as much exercise as I could muster, I feebly agreed. Because we like pets with a past, he trolled the local animal shelter for a kitty down on his luck, bringing home the largest, filthiest feline I had ever seen: matted fur, crusted eyes, snaggle-toothed.

We thought at the time that he was probably orange, but it was a good month before we were sure. It was hard to fault him for it, though: he’d had too hard a life to pay much attention to the niceties of hygiene. He’d been a semi-feral kitten, living on the streets, when he was nabbed and taken into captivity, then was adopted by some fickle people who apparently dumped him back at the shelter as soon as they heard just how much dental work he was going to need. (We swallowed a few times when the vet broke the news, too, but who needs a retirement fund?) He’d been cringing his way through months in a 4′ x 5′ room with fifteen other cats before my SO brought him home and gave him a much-needed bath.

Small wonder, then, that all he wanted was to curl up on my red flannel pajamas and wonder where it had all gone wrong.

In time, the kitty calmed down and began cleaning himself again, an activity he’d apparently abandoned while incarcerated. Gradually, as he wore away more and more of his layers of grime with his tongue and I with my brush, he became shiny, even fluffy. After we’d had him for a few months, he looked up at me while I was brushing him, and I realized that he had very pretty eyes. It had merely taken months of care and security before he could show them off. Now, more than a year and some hefty dental bills later, he’s quite an attractive cat.

Being me, I can’t ponder his quite remarkable transformation without thinking what a good parallel it is for editing a manuscript — and why writers new to the process are so often defensive about it.

Trust me, freelance editors see some pretty mangy manuscripts: the trick is often to see potential under the matted fur, because much of the time, the problem isn’t a lack of talent or inventiveness, but of structure. Or of a writer’s not having completely found her voice yet — no matter how inspired a writer new to the craft might happen to be, it’s exceedingly rare to discover it in the first draft of one’s first book. Or even simply not knowing how a manuscript should be formatted.

The point is, while the basic elements of a good book by a talented writer may be there, a rushed reader — like, say, Millicent the agency screener — may not notice it.

Which is, as we have so often discussed, a real problem for aspiring writers, who all too often assume that if the constituent parts are there, the agent of their dreams is going to be willing to overlook any cosmetic problems. There’s a reason this expectation lingers: in days gone by, agents and even editors at major publishing houses had the time to take a comb to a manuscript that showed promise, to groom it for the big show. Now, unfortunately, writers are expected to make their work camera-ready unassisted by the pros as a prerequisite for beginning the process of working with an agent or editor, rather than the goal.

While there are undoubtedly some agents and certainly many editors who give good editorial feedback to writers AFTER those contracts are signed, the agent or editor who gives concrete feedback to a rejected manuscript is rapidly growing as extinct as a bespectacled dodo speaking Latin and writing in cuneiform on the walls of a pyramid.

As, no doubt, those of you who have been query and submitting for a while are already aware. The same practice often comes as a shock to those new to being asked to submit all or part of a manuscript, however.

Due to the sheer volume of submissions, it’s not even vaguely uncommon for a writer to receive the manuscript with no more indication of why than a polite Sorry, but I didn’t fall in love with this. Sad, but true, alas — and thus it’s not the most efficient use of your energies to resent an obviously form rejection when it is sent to you.

How do I know that some of you out there have been wasting your precious life force on trying to read deeper meaning into old chestnuts like It doesn’t meet our needs at this time or I don’t feel I can sell this in the current tight market?

Call me psychic. Or just experienced in the many ways that good writers can come up with to beat themselves up.

But how on earth is a writer to know what needs to be changed before a book looks yummy to the folks in the industry? By seeking out feedback, that’s how.

A genuinely insightful feedback-giver can be a real boon to a manuscript, helping it become both better artistically and more marketable. Slowly, gradually, and often much to the writer’s chagrin, it’s possible to comb the snarls out of the text, to reshape the beast into something closer to the carefully-groomed animal an agent or publishing house would expect to see. Every so often, editor and writer alike are stunned when something of startling beauty emerges.

The thing is, there are some types of manuscript tangle that are almost impossible to work out alone, or even to spot. Just as it is hard to see (without special mirrors, at least) the back of one’s own head to check for wayward tangles, a writer can’t always see the snarls remaining in a manuscript she has been polishing for a while. A kind outsider with a good comb can help reveal the beauty underneath the problem, but to do so takes courage: one runs the risk of being scratched by a fearful or over-sensitive writer.

A careless outside observer with a heavy touch and a lousy comb, however, is just going to send the writer scurrying under the nearest couch, yowling. Unfortunately, pretty much every writer who has ever tried to cajole useful feedback from a non-writer — or a tactless writer, for that matter — already knows what that feels like.

You could, of course, always pay a freelance editor to run through your work with a fine-toothed hacksaw before you submit it to an agent, publishing house, or contest, but I’ve noticed that most aspiring writers are reluctant to shell out the dosh for this service. Quite understandable: after all, pretty much everyone who has had the self-discipline to write an entire book did so while living on the hope of other people paying to read it; to most writers, the prospect of paying a reader to struggle through their prose is pretty distasteful.

Come on, ‘fess up.

And even though I make a hefty chunk of my living being paid to do precisely that, I’m going to be honest with you here: most editors at major publishing houses, when asked at conferences if getting professional help is necessary, will get downright huffy at the notion. Good writers, they will tell you, need no such pre-submission editorial help.

Sounds very noble, doesn’t it?

Until the 50th time you hear this exchange, when it dawns upon you that perhaps at least some of these editors hear the question not so much as a call to voice their opinions on the tenacity of talent as a critique of their ilk’s propensity to perform line editing. (A word to wise conference-goers: quite a few editors get cranky at the mention of the fact that they do a whole lot of things other than edit these days. Don’t bring it up.)

But think about it: in order for the contention that good writers do not need editorial assistance to be true, a good writer would have to be someone who never makes grammatical or spelling mistakes, is intimately familiar with the strictures of standard format for manuscripts, has a metronome implanted in her brain so that pacing is always absolutely even, has never written a bad sentence, plots like a horror film director…in short, such a writer would have to have an internal editor running around her psyche powerful enough to run Random House by telepathy.

That’s not a good writer; that’s a muse with her own editorial staff. For those of us who have not yet had Toni Morrison surgically implanted in our brains, blue pencil in microscopic hand, an extra pair of eyes can be very helpful.

However, if you are not getting feedback from someone who is being paid to do it (i.e., an agent, editor, writing teacher, or freelance editor), or members of a writing group with experience working on your type of book, or a writer in your chosen genre — which is to say, if you are like 99% of feedback-seekers in North America — then you are almost certainly going to be seeking feedback from first readers who have no previous experience in manuscript critique.

Which means that it’s not a particularly wise idea to make the first-time critiquer guess what kinds of problems to look for or how to point them out when he does. When the writer does not set out ground rules to guide inexperienced first readers, trouble usually ensues.

All of which is a long-winded way of reintroducing a subject I broached yesterday, the single best thing you can do to head off problems before they start: giving your first readers WRITTEN directions for how to give you feedback.

Ideally, these directions will include a list of specific questions you would like answered about the reading experience. Providing a brief list of written questions may seem a bit pushy at first, but believe me, if your reader finds herself floundering for something to say, she will be immensely grateful that you gave her some advance guidance.

And you, in turn, are far more likely to receive the kind of feedback most helpful to you than if you remain politely mum. Bringing your expectations into sync will substantially raise the probability of the exchange being positive for everyone concerned.

Coming up with specific questions will also force you to figure out what you in fact do want from your first readers. You may discover, for instance, that you actually do not want a critique of the text; maybe you want support instead. Maybe you want recognition from your kith and kin that you have completed a project as major as a book.

Stop sniggering. This isn’t as uncommon a desire as you might think; freelance editors see it all the time. As desires go, it’s a pretty harmless one — unless the writer is not up front about it.

Why? Well, if the writer was seeking praise, and the reader thought he was looking for constructive criticism, both parties will end up unhappy. If the writer is actually looking for some version of Wow, this is the greatest book I have ever read, quite possibly the most magnificent expression of the human spirit ever produced! even extremely positive constructive criticism like I really enjoyed this, but I noticed that the pace slowed down quite a bit in Chapter 10 can be soul-lacerating.

If you feel this way, it is important to recognize it before you hear ANY feedback from your first readers. This will require you, of course, to be honest with yourself about what you really want and set realistic goals.

Hint: I want for Daddy to say for the first time in my life that he’s proud of me might not be the best reason to hand dear old Dad your manuscript. But I want the experience of my work being read closely by someone I know is not going to say anything harsh afterward is every bit as praiseworthy a goal as I want someone to tell me how to make this book marketable.

The trick lies in figuring out precisely what you want, finding a person who can deliver it, and asking directly to receive it.

And if that sounds like Miss Lonelyhearts advice to you, there’s an excellent reason: everyone is looking for something slightly different, so the more straightforwardly you can describe your desired outcome, the more likely you are to get what you really want.

There’s no need to produce a questionnaire the length of the unabridged OED, of course, but do try to come up with at least three or four specific questions you would like answered. Ideally, they should not be yes-or-no questions; try to go for ones that might elicit an essay response that will provide you with clues about where to start the revision. Perhaps something along the lines of:

Did you find my main character sympathetic? Would you please note any point where you found yourself disliking or distrusting her/him/it?

Was there anyplace you found your attention wandering? If so, where?

Was it easy to keep the characters/chronology/list of who killed whose brother straight? Were any two characters too much alike?

Would you mind placing a Post-It note in the text every time you stopped reading for any reason, so I can recheck those sections for excitement level?

Would you mind keeping a list of plot twists that genuinely caught you by surprise? Would you also note any of plot twists that reminded you of another book or movie?

When in doubt, err on the side of customizing your requests as much as humanly possible. Remember, the feedback is for YOU, not for anyone else, so ask about what you genuinely want to know, rather than what you think a generic author might want to hear. And if you are feeling insecure about hearing substantive critique, it is completely okay to say:

Look, this is my baby, and I’m nervous about it. Yes, I would love it if you flagged all of the typos you saw, but what I think would help me most is if you told me what is GOOD about my book.

What will most emphatically not work — and again, I’m predicting this based upon decades of observing writers trying to elicit good feedback — is expecting a first reader to guess that you’re nervous, or that you don’t want to hear about punctuation problems, or that you just want someone to tell you that you have talent. While an experienced first reader might anticipate that you might be harboring some of these common desires, it’s unreasonable to expect someone new to reading manuscripts (as opposed to books) to act as your psychologist.

I cannot emphasize too much that it is PERFECTLY legitimate to decide that you actually do not want dead-honest critique, provided that you inform your first readers of the fact in advance. If upon mature reflection you realize that you want to show your work to your kith and kin in order to gain gentle feedback in a supportive environment (rather than in a cut-throat professional forum, where your feelings will not be spared at all), that’s a laudable goal — as long as neither you nor your first readers EXPECT you to derive specific, informative revision feedback from the experience.

“Don’t worry about proofreading, Sis,” you can say. “I have other readers who can give me technical feedback. Just enjoy. Unless you’d prefer to wait until you can support me by buying a copy in a bookstore?”

If you want to be a professional writer, however, you will eventually need to harden yourself to feedback; as I’ve mentioned earlier in this series, the rather commonly-held notion that really GOOD writing never gets criticized is a great big myth. Not only does professional writing routinely get ripped apart and sewn back together (ask anyone who has ever written a newspaper article), but even amongst excellent editors and publishing higher-ups, there will always be honest differences of opinion about how a book should unfold.

So the sooner you can get accustomed to taking critique in a constructive spirit, the better.

And the happier you will be on that dark day when an editor who has already purchased your manuscript says, “You know, I don’t like your villain. Come up with a different one, and have the revision to me by the end of next week,” or “You know, I think your characters’ ethnicity is a distraction. Instead of Chinese-Americans from San Francisco, could they be Irish-Americans from Boston?” or “Oh, your protagonist’s lesbian sister? Change her to a Republican brother.”

You think these examples are jokes? Would you like me to introduce you to the writers who heard them first-hand? Would you like me to point out the published books where taking this type of advice apparently made the book more commercially successful?

“But Anne,” I hear some of you say, “didn’t you say earlier in this very post that I can set up the terms of a feedback situation so I do not have to hear really draconian editorial advice? How will telling my first readers that I want them to reassure me first and foremost prepare me for dealing with professional-level feedback?”

Good question, anonymous voices: chances are, it won’t. But one doesn’t learn to ski by climbing the highest, most dangerous mountain within a three-state radius, strapping on skis for the first time, and flinging oneself downhill blindly, either.

Here’s a radical idea: use your first readers as a means of learning how you do and do not like to hear feedback, not merely as a device to elicit feedback applicable to the book in question. Learning to be grateful while someone with a comb yanks on those snarls in your book can take some time.

Try using it as an opportunity to get to know yourself better as a writer. Yes, a professional author does need to develop a pretty thick skin, but just as telling a first-time first reader, “You know, I would really prefer it if you left the pacing issues to me, and just concentrated on the plot for now,” will give you feedback in a form that’s easier for you to use, so will telling your future agent and editor, “You know, I’ve learned from experience that I work better with feedback if I hear the general points first, rather than being overwhelmed with specifics. Would you mind giving me your feedback that way?”

Self-knowledge is always a good thing, my friends. And why do we show our work to first readers if NOT to get to know ourselves better as writers?

More thoughts on the subject follow next time, of course. Keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part IX: more wrangling with Gladioli

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I’ve been writing epic posts for the last weeks, multi-page extravaganzas even by my unusually lengthy standards, haven’t I? In order to give both myself a bit of a break and my readers sufficient time to watch at least some of this weekend’s many award shows to celebrate people who already have been applauded to the echo several times before (as the late, great Noël Coward musically observed, “Let’s hope we have no worse to plague us/than two shows a night in Las Vegas”), I’m going to rein it in today and not post tomorrow at all.

Yeah, my SO says he’ll believe it when he sees it, too.

Throughout this series, we’ve been bravely tackling the thorny and surprisingly-seldom-talked-about-amongst-writers twin topics of the necessity of getting good feedback on your manuscripts and, if you don’t happen to have either the luck to be receiving critique from the agent or editor who are handling your book or the dosh to hire a freelance editor qualified in your book’s category, the ins and outs of trying to derive that feedback from non-professional sources. While it would be nice if the readers of the world broke into spontaneous applause the moment an aspiring writer tossed off an unusually good scene or description, it doesn’t happen all that much. In order to find out how potential readers might respond to a book, its author generally has to make the effort to find first readers.

The problem is, the first readers who are likely to volunteer first may not be the best ones to give you feedback on your book. Last time, I introduced the saga of one such hapless would-be feedback-giver, Gladys, a well-meaning soul who made the mistake of saying one day to a friend who happened to be an aspiring writer, “Oh, I’d love to read your book.”

Quite unaccountably, the friend heard this as, “Give me your book to read, please, and I will give you good feedback upon it.” Unfortunately, what Gladys really meant was, “I’m not a writer. Please like me anyway.”

What we have here, my friends, is a failure to communicate, one that is likely not only to result in the writer’s not getting the kind of feedback she needs, but also rather likely to end the friendship.

This particular species of miscommunication is more common than writers like to admit — and is all too often the underlying cause of those knuckle-gnawingly frustrating situations where a first reader holds onto a manuscript for so long that the writer’s already taken the book through three more drafts.

I’ll come clean: it happened to me more than once before I cracked the code. About ten years ago, I had a first reader who BEGGED for weeks on end to read a manuscript of mine. Having quite a bit of experience with both professional and non-professional readers, I did everything right: I took her out to lunch first and explained that to read a manuscript prior to publication was a large responsibility, gave her a sheet of questions I wanted her to answer after she had read it, and took her out to lunch in order to thank her for the effort she was about expend on my behalf.

Six nail-gnawing months later, I asked for the manuscript back, even if she hadn’t read it. As I expected, she hadn’t. Yet when I got the pages back, I discovered that she had positively filled the margins of Ch. 1 with glowing praise, concluding with, “You couldn’t PAY me to stop reading now!”

Someone must have coughed up some dosh, as she apparently stopped reading three pages later. When I asked her for some clarification, she said, “I liked it so much that I wanted to wait until I had time to enjoy it.”

Moral of the story: I should have told her I would buy her lunch AFTER she finished — and should have made absolutely certain that she understood the difference between a casual read and the scrutiny expected of a first reader.

Which includes an obligation to read the manuscript within a reasonable amount of time — or to let the writer know in advance not to expect back anytime soon. Unless both sides of the equation understand what is going on, it can only end in tears. Or, at any rate, in the writer’s tapping her watch to see if it’s still running, waiting for all of that luscious feedback that is never to come.

Naturally, such behavior engenders some resentment in writers against their Gladioli. (I’ve decided that’s the plural of Gladys, for those of you who didn’t tune in last time.) “Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,” we demand, “and make me travel forth without a cloak?”

Okay, so it was Shakespeare who said that last bit. But if you’d thought of it in the moment, I’m sure you would have put it that way, too.

Gladys intends to get back to the manuscript, really she does, but my goodness, when is she going to find the time? It’s not as though a manuscript is bound, like a book, rendering it easy to tote around and read in spare moments.

Over time, she tends to start to resent the task — NO MATTER HOW GOOD THE BOOK MAY ACTUALLY BE. Most often, this resentment manifests in holding on to your manuscript indefinitely.

Maddening, isn’t it? We expect our friends to devour our books, relish them, and call us in the dead of night to say that it’s the best book they’ve ever read. C’mon, admit it: in the depths of our dark little souls, we long for positive reinforcement.

Okay, we long for a LOT of positive reinforcement.

If we approach our work professionally, we also yearn for our first readers to make the two or three constructive suggestions that will lift our books from good to superlative.

And if we’re conscientious members of writing communities, many of us put substantial effort into providing precisely that kind of feedback. (Yet another reason that it’s a good idea to check the feedback expectations and practices of other members of a writers’ group before you join: it’s no fun giving out a whole lot more feedback than you receive.) Like most freelance editors, my earliest editorial work was unpaid. The moment at which I knew I should be doing it professionally was, in fact, when I was doing a favor for a friend.

A good novelist, my friend was living the writer’s nightmare: after having taken her book through a couple of solid drafts, an editor at a major house had dropped a raft of professional-level feedback — which is to say, a ruthless, take-no-prisoners critique — on her, feedback that, if followed to the letter, would entail axing significant proportions of the book, trashing her primary storyline, and changing the race of a significant character.

Naturally, she called me in tears. I was an excellent choice: I had read the latest draft, as well as the one before it, and was able to produce practical suggestions on the spot. If she began the story at a different juncture, I pointed out, and rearranged certain other elements, her plot could still work.

There was a long minute of silence on the other end of the phone when I’d finished talking. “My God,” she whispered, “that could work.” And it did; the editor bought the book shortly thereafter.

This is the kind of fundamental feedback that we really want our first readers to provide, if we’re honest about it, right? Since I had been giving feedback on novels since I was a bucktoothed kid in braids, I was able to come up with answers — but is it really fair to ask someone who has never pieced a plot together to pull off a similar feat?

Like, say, the well-meaning but clueless Gladys?

No wonder poor Gladys feels put on the spot. Her writer friend’s expectations are pretty high. And by the time the writer has become impatient enough to ask where the heck the feedback is, she is not only dealing with her guilt over having procrastinated, but also with the additional trauma of an angry friend.

Yes, I said ANGRY; don’t hold it in. It’s much healthier to vent it from time to time.

While most of us are astonishingly patient with agents and editors who do not respond to queries or hold on to manuscripts that they’ve asked to see for months at a time, we’re seldom as patient with non-professional first readers, are we? The writer too timid to call an agent who’s had a requested three chapters for a year will often go ballistic at the friend who’s had the same pages for a third of that time. Or a twelfth of it.

Logically, that’s a bit odd, considering that the agent is being paid to read manuscripts and the friend isn’t, but that’s the way we feel.

In recent months, I’ve been hearing even more Gladioli stories than usual, as well as many iterations of a twist of the usual writerly chagrin over long-lost manuscripts: the Gladys who volunteered to take a crack as first reader because she’s recently been laid off (or has a job she hates, or is recently retired) and has some time on her hands. Or — and this happens all the time — because she has a writer friend eager for feedback who has sought her out as a first reader, on the grounds that she may be less busy than their other friends. (Which often isn’t true: looking for work can be extremely time-consuming, as can, well, having a life.) Either through making the request herself or being too nice to say no, she just never seems to get around to reading it.

In some versions of this story, Gladys is even doing it for payment: the ranks of first-time freelance editors have been swelling bulbously of late. Yet like Gladioli everywhere, she never seems to return that manuscript or cough up any useable feedback.

In short, regardless of her motivation in agreeing to act as a first reader, Gladys is annoying a whole lot of writers these days by holding onto their manuscripts for unreasonable amounts of time. So what should a writer who discovers too late that she’s entrusted her baby to a Gladys to do?

I’m going to be straight with you here: once the situation has gone this far, it’s quite hard to fix it without generating resentment (our word du jour, apparently) on both sides. The only way to get out of it gracefully is to accept that she’s not going to give you what you want and cut your losses.

How? By calling the remiss Gladys and asking for your manuscript back.

Ignore her protests that she is really intending to get to it soon, honest, because she won’t. Offer to pay the postage, if necessary, but get those pages back from her.

Be polite, but be firm. Ideally, you’re going to want to do this BEFORE you’ve lost your temper completely, and definitely not when you’ve facing a deadline to get that manuscript out the door next week. If Gladys has already kept you in suspense too long for you to keep your voice even, send her an e-mail. Screaming at her may feel pretty good in the moment, but trust me, it will only make the situation worse.

There’s no need to be mean about it at all, actually. Cast your request as if it had nothing to do with her: “I’d love to hear what you have to say, but manuscripts are actually pretty expensive to produce, and I’ve just found the perfect person to give me feedback on it. Would you mind if I saved a little money by passing your copy on to him?”

This may sound a bit nasty, an example of patented Pacific Northwest passive-aggression, but believe me, it’s far less confrontational than almost anything else you could say. (Which, I suppose, means that it’s a really GOOD example of patented Pacific Northwest passive-aggression.) Besides, it honestly is rather expensive to keep churning out copies for first readers, especially if you’re mailing them.

If you are dealing with a retired or un- or under-employed Gladys, your argument is even easier to make, especially if you have inadvertently fallen into the oh-so-common trap of just assuming that she had time to read your book: just apologize for the imposition and insist upon rectifying it by taking your manuscript back. No need to grovel; a simple “Oh, my goodness, Gladys, I’ve just realized that I completely forgot to ask if you had the time to give me feedback on my book! No, no, you’re very kind, but I know what an imposition that amount of responsibility is, and I’ve already lined up another first reader. When can I come by and pick it up?”

See my earlier comment on the efficacy of patented Pacific Northwest passive-aggression.

Why is it crucial to get the physical manuscript out of her hands? Because you’ll keep seething about the injustice of it all otherwise, that’s why. Also, it’s good practice for setting boundaries with your next set of first readers — and for coming to terms with the fact that asking someone to give you feedback is asking a favor, as well as conveying a privilege.

Moral #2 for the day, and the axiom I hope you all will take from today’s lesson: at the revision stage, DO NOT TREAT YOUR MANUSCRIPT LIKE A BOOK.

That giant noise you just heard was the celestial choir intoning, “Huh?”

You heard me, heavenly flock of high Cs. When you are looking for feedback on a manuscript, it doesn’t make sense to think of it a book, a finished product that someone might, say, purchase or give to a friend as a gift. While it is still a work in progress, it is a lump of clay, not the bronze sculpture you will eventually cast from your clay model.

Don’t hand it to someone who will only see the clay. Hand it to someone who will help you perfect the form before you set it in bronze.

If you DO find yourself in a standoff with a Gladys, whatever you do, don’t sit around and seethe in silence. Say something, and don’t let it wait too long.

Seriously, just do it. If you do not take action, Gladys will eventually have to come up with a strategy to deal with her obligation — and what she comes up with may not be very pleasant for you. Often, Gladioli will turn their not having realized that reading a book draft is a serious time commitment into a critique of the unread book:

“Well, I would have read it, but it was too long.”

“I was really into it, but then a plot twist I didn’t like came in, and I just couldn’t go on.”

“I liked it, but it didn’t move fast enough. I always skip to the ends of books to see how the plot turns out.”

These all might be legitimate criticisms from someone who has actually read the manuscript — okay, all but that last bit — but from a non-finisher, they cannot be sufficiently disregarded. They are excuses, not serious critique.

Please do not allow such statements to hurt your feelings, because they are not really about the book — they are about the reader’s resentment of the feedback process. Gladys just didn’t know what to do with that ball of clay.

When you hear this type of critique used as an excuse for not reading, thank Gladys profusely, as if she has just given the Platonic piece of feedback — and get the manuscript back from her as soon as humanly possible.

“My secret, if I must reveal it,” quoth the illustrious Alexis de Tocqueville, “is to flatter their vanity while disregarding their advice.” Tell her that you know in your heart she is right, and you don’t her to read another word until you’ve had time to revise.

Then rush out and find another first reader, preferably one with the vision to see both the clay and the sculpture it will one day be.

Even if the prospect of dealing with defensive sniping terrifies you, don’t just write off that copy of your book. As long as she has it, her remissness going to keep sapping your energy, at least a little; resentment can suck up an awful lot of vim. Just accept that Gladys had no idea how much time it would take, and move on.

And just say no the next time she offers.

As, astonishingly, the Gladioli of the world often do. They must be insulating their attics with their hapless friends’ unread manuscripts.

If she presses you the next time around, tell her that you’ve decided to rely solely upon professional feedback for the rest of your natural life, or have joined a writers’ group that made you take a vow of exclusivity, or that you’ve decided to hide your manuscripts in your attic like Emily Dickinson. Just keep her well-meaning mitts off your writing until it’s time to send her a postcard, telling her when she will be able to purchase it in a store.

Because that is precisely what she thought you were handing her in the first place, bless her heart. Keep her out of the process until she can support you by being the first on her block to buy your book.

Is this starting to make you fear ever handing your manuscript to another human being at all? Never fear — next time, I shall talk about how to deal with a Gladys situation that has already extended past the friendship-threatening point, and give you some tips about how to plan in advance to avoid its ever getting there.

In the meantime, do any of you have a Gladys story that you would like to share? If so, why not post a comment about it, so those new to the situation won’t feel so alone? Keep it G-rated, please, and don’t name specific names, for the sake of your grandchildren’s popularity; remember, what’s posted online may be floating around the ether forever.

Well, I tried: this post is a trifle shorter than the norm for the week. Enjoy the Oscars, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIb: not all mysterious strangers are romantic

Or, this raccoon-visitoris not the same thing as this valentino

I meant to get back to our series on how to find useful feedback on your manuscripts — or, more precisely, to my mid-series digression on protecting your work whilst sharing it — over the weekend, or at any rate yesterday. (Happy post-Presidents’ Day, everyone.) However, my Significant Other harbors some absurd prejudice in favor of our spending Valentine’s Day weekend together. Where do kids these days pick up such zany ideas?

I’m mention this not for the sake of romantic one-upsmanship, but as an explanation to those of you new commenters who may have been trying to chime in over this particular weekend. For those of you new to the blog: in order to prevent the truly epic amount of spam I receive from wasting everyone’s time in the comments, my blogging program requires that I personally approve posts by all first-time commenters. As a result, freshman comments sometimes take a few days to post.

It’s the nature of the beast, I’m afraid.

Over the weekend (which I must admit was probably significantly more romantic than it would have been had I kept sitting down to blog; my SO was quite patient while I held an editing client’s hand through a no-fault-of-her-own literary crisis), I was thinking of you, however. To be specific, I was thinking that it had been quite some time since I asked one of the most basic questions that must be faced by writers in the computer age:

When was the last time you backed up your hard disk — or, more importantly for our purposes, your writing files?

Like, say, the ones containing the novel you’ve been writing for the past two years, or the contest entry you’re planning to pop into the mail next week? If you didn’t make a back-up either today or yesterday, may I cajole you into doing it soon?

How soon, you ask? Well, not to be alarmist, but would now-ish work for you?

I’m quite serious about this; go ahead. (If you’re new to backing up your work, the BACK-UP COPIES category at right may prove helpful.) I’ll still be here when you get back, languishing on my chaise longue.

What’s with the urgency, you ask? I could answer in philosophical terms — he things of this world are, after all, ephemeral, and computer files even more so — but frankly, my reason for nagging you about it periodically couldn’t be more practical. I’ve seen far too many writers lose weeks, months, and even years of good work due to various stripes of computer failure. As a freelance editor, I can’t even begin to tally up the number of times clients have called me in tears, begging me to search my files for a hard copy of an earlier draft of their books, because the only soft copy fell victim to a virus or hard drive meltdown.

Ask anyone who works in a computer repair facility: with even the most reliable system, it’s not a matter of if it will break down; it’s a matter of when. In picking the day of demise, computers are notoriously disrespectful of a writer’s imminent deadlines, requests from agents, or even the joy that accompanies finally polishing off a complete draft. In fact, if the moans I’ve heard over the years are a representative samples of those let down by their computers, the heavy use a computer often sees just prior to the end of a major writing project seems to be conducive to bringing on system misbehavior.

Which leads me to ask again: if your hard drive died right now, would you have a copy of your current writing project? What about of that query letter you spent two months composing, or that synopsis that took you a year to perfect? Would you even have an up-to-date record of whom you queried when?

Ah, that made you turn pale, didn’t it?

Please, even if you save nothing else on your computer, make frequent backups of your writing. It only takes a few minutes, but some day, you may be deeply grateful that you did.

Back to the topic at hand — which, as it happens, will also make me sound like your mother and might make you turn pale with dread. Last time, I broached the always-hot subject of protecting one’s writing from poachers, including — and this is why we’re talking about this in the midst of a series on finding good feedback-givers — unscrupulous folks with whom you might choose to share your unpublished manuscript.

Once again, I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so if you were looking for actual legal guidance on a specific copyright-related matter, you’d be well advised to get advice from one who specializes in giving legal advice to such legal advice-seekers.

Everyone got that? Good.

We can, however, go over some general principles here. To see how well I made my points last time, here’s a little quiz:

Rudolf Valentino (hey, it was just Valentine’s day, after all) has written a tender novel with the following plot: boy meets girl; boy loses girl over a silly misunderstanding that could easily have been cleared up within five pages had either party deigned to ask the other a basic question or two (along the lines of Is that lady holding your hand your sister or your wife?); boy learns important life lesson that enables him to become a better man; boy and girl are reunited.

Having composed such an original story, our Rudolf, being a sensible boy, seeks out other writers to give him feedback on it, or at any rate to help him figure out why the first 74 agents he queried did not find this plotline unique enough to pique their interest. He joins a writers’ group; he posts excerpts of his first chapter on an online critique site; he sidles other romance-writers in the hallways and charms them into reading his book and giving him their honest responses. (Our Rudolf can be pretty persuasive, you know. If you don’t believe me, see SON OF THE SHEIK.) Soon, several dozen copies of his manuscript are circulating throughout his extensive acquaintance, both in hard copy and electronically. He receives feedback from some; other copies disappear into the ether.

At what point in this process should Rudolf begin worrying about protecting his writing — and at what point running, not walking, toward an attorney conversant with copyright law with an eye to enforcing his trampled-upon rights?

(a) When he notices that a book with a similar plot line has just been published?

(b) When he notices that a hefty proportion of the romantic comedy films made within the last hundred years have a similar plot line?

(c) When a fellow member of his writing group lands an agent for a book with a similar plot line?

(d) When he picks up a book with somebody else’s name on the cover and discovers more than 50 consecutive words have apparently been lifted verbatim from a Valentino designer original?

(e) Before he gave it to anyone at all?

Let’s take the point where he should be consulting a lawyer first. If you said (d), clap yourself heartily upon the back. (I know it’s tough to do while simultaneously reading this and making a back-up of your writing files, but then, you’re a very talented person.) The last time I checked, anything beyond 50 consecutive words — or less, if it’s not properly attributed — is not fair use. After that, we’re into plagiarism territory.

If you said (c), you’re in pretty good company: at that point, most writers would tell Rudolf that he should be keeping a sharp eye upon that other writer. It would be prudent, perhaps, to take a long, hard look at the other writer’s book — which, as they’re in the same critique group, shouldn’t be all that hard to pull off.

But should plot similarity alone send him sprinting toward Lawyers for the Arts? No. Plot lifting is not the same thing as writing theft.

Why? Everyone who read my last post, chant it with me now, if you can spare time from making that backup: because you can’t copyright an idea for a book; you can only copyright the presentation of it.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few small steps that Rudolf might take to protect himself. Unfortunately, most of those steps would need to be taken prior to the point of discovering that some enterprising soul had made off with his writing.

Hint: the answer to the first question in the quiz, the one asking when a prudent Rudolf should begin thinking about protecting his manuscript, is (e). Especially — and this doesn’t happen as much in the age of computers as it did in the age of typewriters, but the warning still bears repeating — if Rudolf was circulating his only copy.

(That couldn’t happen to you, of course. You have a back-up of your writing files tucked away somewhere safe now, right?)

As I mentioned last time, the single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. The problem is, you can’t always tell. The Internet, while considerably easing the process of finding agents and small publishers hungry for new work, also renders it hard to tell who is on the up-and-up. I hope I’m not shocking anyone when I point out that a charlatan’s website can look just like Honest Abe’s — and that’s more of a problem with the publishing industry than in many others.

Why? Well, new agencies and small publishing houses pop up every day, often for the best reasons imaginable — when older publishing houses break up or are bought out, for instance, editors often make the switch to agency, and successful agents and editors both sometimes set up shop for themselves. But since you don’t need a specialized degree to become an agent or start a publishing house, there are also plenty of folks out there who just hang up shingles.

Or, more commonly, websites.

Which is one reason that, as those of you who survived my 2007 Book Marketing 101 series (conveniently collected for those of you who missed it on the category list at right) will recall, I am a BIG advocate of gathering information about ANY prospective agency or publishing house from more than one source. Especially if the source in question is the agency’s website — and if the agency in question is not listed in one of the standard agency guides.

“Wha–?” I hear some of you cry.

Listing in those guides is not, after all, automatic, and like everything else in publishing, the information in those guides is not gathered mere seconds before the book goes to presses. The result: agencies can go in or out of business so swiftly that there isn’t time for the changes to get listed in the standard guides.

That’s problematic for aspiring writers, frequently, because start-ups are often the ones most accepting of previously unpublished writers’ work. But because it is in your interests to know precisely who is going to be on the receiving end of your submission — PARTICULARLY if you are planning to query or submit via e-mail — you honestly do need to do some homework on these people.

Happily, as I mentioned last time, there are now quite a few sources online for double-checking the credibility of professionals to whom you are considering sending your manuscript. Reputable agents don’t like disreputable ones any more than writers do, so a good place to begin verifying an agent or agency’s credibility is their professional organization in the country where the agency is ostensibly located. For the English-speaking world:

In the United States, contact the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

In the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Authors’ Agents.

In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association.

I couldn’t find a specific association for Canada (if anyone knows of one, please let me know, and I’ll be delighted to update this), but the Association of Canadian Publishers’ website does include information about literary agencies north of the border.

Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. It’s also worth checking on Preditors and Editors or the Absolute Write Water Cooler, excellent places to check who is doing what to folks like us these days. Writer Beware, a website sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, provides a wealth of resources for those who want to learn about scams aimed at writers.

In case it might influence the decision-making process of those of you quietly rolling your eyes at the prospect of investing even more of your scant writing time in researching folks whose ostensible purpose in life is to help writers, I should add: all but the last site I listed are also pretty good places to learn about agents’ specialties, on the off chance that you might be looking for someone to query now that the Great New Year’s Resolution Plague of 2009 has receded into memory.

Again, I just mention. And have you done that backup yet?

As with any business transaction on the Internet (or indeed, with anyone you’ve never heard of before), it also pays to take things slowly — and with a massive grain of salt. An agency or publishing house should be able to tell potential authors what specific books it has handled, for instance. (In the U.S., book sales are a matter of public record, so there is no conceivable reason to preserve secrecy.)

Also, even if an agency is brand-new, you should be able to find out where its agents have worked before — in fact, a reputable new agency is generally only too happy to provide that information, to demonstrate its own excellent connections.

Also, reputable agencies make their money by selling their clients’ books, not by charging them fees. If any agent ever asks you for a reading fee, an editing fee, or insists that you need to pay a particular editing company for an evaluation of your work, instantly contact the relevant country’s agents’ association. (For some hair-raising examples of what can happen to writers who don’t double-check, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENTS category at right.)

Actually, anyone asking a writer for cash up front in exchange for considering representation or publication is more than a bit suspect — not only according to me, but according to the AAR. Unless a publisher bills itself up front as a subsidy press (which asks the authors of the books it accepts to bear some of the costs of publication) or you are planning to self-publish, there’s no reason for money to be discussed at all until they’ve asked to buy your work, right?

And even then, the money should be flowing toward the author, not away from her.

With publishing houses, too, be suspicious if you’re told that you MUST use a particular outside editing service or pay for some other kind of professional evaluation. As those of you who have been submitting for a while already know, reputable agents and editors like to make up their own minds about what to represent or publish; they’re highly unlikely to refer that choice out of house. And any reputable freelance editor will be quite up front about the fact that while professional editing can help make a manuscript more publishable, it’s not a guarantee of publication.

Generally speaking — to sound like your mother for yet another long moment — if an agency or publisher sounds like too good a deal to be true, chances are that it is. There are, alas, plenty of unscrupulous folks out there ready to take unsuspecting writers’ money, and while many agencies and publishers do in fact maintain websites, this is still a paper-based industry, for the most part.

In other words, it is not, by and large, devoted to the proposition that an aspiring author should be able to Google literary agent and come up with the ideal fit right off the bat.

Do I hear some more doubtful muttering out there? “But Anne,” I hear many voices cry, “I certainly do not want to be bilked by a faux agency or publishing house. However, I notice that you’ve been talking about such disreputable sorts conning me out of ready cash, not potentially walking off with my submission. Weren’t we discussing about protecting our writing, not our pocketbooks?”

Well caught, disembodied voices — and that’s part of my point. The fact is, if an unscrupulous agent or editor were seriously interested in defrauding aspiring writers, stealing manuscripts would not be the most efficient way to go about it. Historically, direct extraction of cash from the writer’s pocket has been the preferred method.

But that doesn’t mean that a savvy writer shouldn’t take reasonable steps to protect both her pocketbook AND her manuscript. Even during a period where the legitimate literary agencies are being so cautiously selective, an aspiring writer should never front money for professional services without knowing precisely what s/he is getting in return. Take the time to do your homework.

Oh, and make backups regularly as well. Imagine Rudolf’s embarrassment if he had to admit to his wide circle of blandished acquaintance that he was the only one of them who didn’t possess a copy of his manuscript.

Next time, I shall delve into manuscript protection itself, I promise — and, shortly after that, return to our larger topic, tracking down sources of good manuscript feedback. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIa, in which we all learn a few life lessons equally applicable to dating and getting feedback on a manuscript, or, dealing with shadowy figures

shadowy-figure1

Yesterday, I talked a little bit about that grand old tradition, the writers’ group, a mutual aid society devoted to helping its members refine and improve their writing. While surprisingly few established writers’ groups deal explicitly with the marketing side of being a successful writer — I have never understood, for instance, why so few groups of writers at the querying stage exchange queries and synopses for critique; it seems like a natural — a good writers’ group can be extremely helpful in providing the feedback that every serious writer needs.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a good, long time may have noticed, I suggest joining a writers’ group every time I revisit the issue of getting useful feedback. Not only does it tend to be more efficient to exchange chapters with many than with just one or two, and not only does one often glean more constructive feedback from writers than from readers who have never tried to cobble a narrative together, but let’s face it, getting involved with even a group that charges for membership (as some run by well-known authors and/or editors do) is probably going to be less expensive than hiring an experienced freelance editor.

On the other hand, a freelance editor will almost certainly be able to give you that feedback considerably faster — and, if s/he’s worth her salt, be able to provide you with greater insight into how agents, editors at publishing houses, and contest judges might respond to your work. While you might eventually accumulate a similar volume of feedback from regular group participation, if you’re meeting only once per month and exchanging only one chapter each time, it could take two or three years to make it through an entire manuscript.

And that’s assuming that the group is small enough that every member receives critique every single time. While we’re engaging in cost/benefit analysis, let’s not forget to count the time and energy a conscientious group member must invest in reading and commenting upon other members’ work.

Because of the substantial and long-term commitment required to run a full manuscript through a writers’ group and potentially rather hefty price tag on professional editing, many aspiring writers turn to a third option: seeking out feedback online, either by seeking out other writers for exchange via a bulletin board, chat room, or website or by taking advantage of one of the many websites that ask writers to post excerpts of their writing online for other readers to critique.

Heck, I have it on pretty good authority that some of my frequent commenters here have ended up swapping manuscripts. After all, they already know that they have something in common, right?

As marvelous as these online exchange opportunities can be for writers, especially ones who are geographically isolated enough to render joining an in-person writers’ group impracticable, I wanted to pause in the middle of this series on feedback to address some concerns about the dangers that can result from all of that electronic manuscript exchange. Writers new to this form of community often do not prepare themselves for the possibility that the nifty writer they’ve never met face-to-face but who sounds like a perfect critique partner might not be, well, completely on the up-and-up.

Oh, and happy Friday the 13th.

To put it another way that makes me sound much more like your mother: just as not every online dater is completely honest about his or her intentions, willingness to commit, height, weight, level of baldness, or marital status, not every writer participating in online communities is representing her- or himself accurately. And it’s equally hard in both venues to weed out the boasters from the hard workers.

How might an inability to tell one from the other harm an honest feedback-seeking writer? Well, in a lot of ways, unfortunately, ranging from investing hours and hours in providing critique for an exchange partner who never bothers to reciprocate to getting one’s writing actually stolen.

So for the next few days, we’re going to veer off my pre-set path of feedback-seeking to talk about what the risks are and how a savvy writer can minimize them.

One vital disclaimer before I begin: I am NOT an attorney, much less one who specializes in intellectual property law. So it would be a GRAVE MISTAKE to take what I say here as the only word on the subject, or indeed to come to me if you believe that your writing has been stolen. (And if you did, I would send you straight to my lawyer, so why not skip a step?)

However, I’ve noticed that most of the time, writers curious about this seem to be asking questions not because they fear that their intellectual property has been lifted or that they’ve violated someone else’s rights, but because they’ve heard vague rumors to the effect that every so often, an unpublished writer’s work has gotten stolen. And those pervasive rumors I can legitimately address.

To set your minds at ease: yes, writing does occasionally get stolen — but it’s exceedingly rare, and it usually doesn’t happen in the way that most hearers of the rumor fear.

Let me introduce Sharon (not her real name, obviously), a writer who approached me a few years ago. I had the impression that she hadn’t been writing very long, but I wasn’t positive, as she was someone I barely knew — the on-again, off-again girlfriend of the brother of a friend of mine, which is as fine a definition of a casual acquaintance as I’ve ever heard. And yet she called me one day, full of questions about how to market her writing.

(A practice that I have historically tended to discourage in aspiring writers with whom I do not already enjoy some sort of professional relationship, incidentally, since effectively, it’s a consultant-client situation, and I do after all donate masses of general information to the writing community here on this blog. I understand the urge to chat with an experienced author and editor about the specifics of one’s book, however. Due to a precipitous rise in requests of this nature in recent months, I shall be unveiling a new venue for one-on-one consultation within a few weeks. So get those manuscript-specific questions ready and watch this space.)

Sharon had written a short piece — an essay, really — that she thought was marketable and had, through sheer persistence and the rare strategy of actually LISTENING to the advice she had been given by published writers of her acquaintance, gotten Ron, the publisher of a small press, to agree to take a preliminary look at it. Would she e-mail it to him with all possible dispatch, please?

In mid-celebration for this quite significant coup, she experienced a qualm: what if this guy stole her ideas, or her entire work? She knew him only through an exchange of e-mails, after all, and until she had started trolling the Internet for small presses, she had never even heard of him or his publications.

So wasn’t she in fact taking a rather large risk in sending an electronic copy of the only thing she’d ever written to a complete stranger?

Once the idea had taken hold in her brain, being a writer, she naturally embellished upon it in the dead of night: if it came down to Ron’s word against hers, who would believe {her}? And how could she ever prove that she had come up with the idea first?

When she shared her fears, however, half of her friends laughed at her, saying that she was being paranoid and unreasonable. The other half told her, in all seriousness, that she should go ahead and register the copyright for what she had written before she e-mailed it to Ron. At the very least, they advised, she should tart up her pages by adding the copyright symbol (©) on each and every one. Whereupon the first set of friends laughed even harder and told her that nothing looks more unprofessional to folks in the publishing industry than the liberal application of that pesky ©.

Understandably confused, Sharon did something very sensible: she tracked down the closest professional author and asked her what to do.

(As Gore Vidal is fond of saying, there is no earthly problem that could not be solved if only everyone would do exactly as I advise. I trust all of you will cling to that inspiring little axiom until your dying breath.)

The problem was, each set of Sharon’s friends was partially right: the vast majority of reputable publishing houses would never dream of stealing her material, and yet, as in any other business, there are always a few cads. At most writers’ conferences, you will hear speakers scoff at the possibility, but anyone who has been in the writing and editing biz for any length of time knows at least one good writer with a horror story.

Better safe than sorry, as our great-grandmothers used to stitch painstakingly onto samplers. (Actually, my great-grandmother was an opera diva who apparently regarded needlework as a serious waste of the time she could be spending being flamboyant, but I’m told that other people’s great-grandmothers embroidered such things.)

In the United States, though, outright theft of a book, or even an essay or short story, is quite rare. To wave the flag for a moment, we have the strongest copyright laws in the world, and what’s more, a writer on our turf AUTOMATICALLY owns the copyright to his own work as soon as he produces it. (Seriously; go ask a lawyer.)

So when writers talk about copyrighting a book, they’re generally not talking about obtaining the right in the first place, but rather registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Which means that the friends who advised Sharon not to mar her footer with © 2008 Sharon were also partially correct: the writer owns the copyright; if Ron planned to steal her essay and she hadn’t actually registered the copyright on it, the symbol alone wasn’t going to provide much protection. In fact, her friends were passing along the prevailing wisdom she would have heard had she asked the same question at your garden-variety writers’ conference: presenters often tell aspiring writers not to use the © bug on their manuscripts when they submit them; it’s redundant.

How so? Well, everyone in the publishing industry is already aware that the author owns the copyright to her own writing — including, presumably, Ron. If the author didn’t own the copyright, a publisher wouldn’t have to sign a contract with her in order to publish it, right?

In theory, then, writers are protected from pretty much the instant that their fingers hit the keyboard. So was Sharon’s other set of advisors merely ill-informed?

Unfortunately, no: in practice, a couple of problems can arise. Rights, as Thomas Hobbes informed us so long ago, are the ability to enforce them.

In the first place, owning the rights to what you write inherently and proving that you are the original author are two different things — sometimes radically different. Occasionally, some enterprising soul will latch on to another writer’s unpublished work and claim that he wrote it first, or co-writers will squabble over who gets custody of already-written work in a partnership break-up. Or, as in the situation I raised at the beginning of this post, an aspiring writer who has trustingly e-mailed his first two chapters to that nice writer he met on a bulletin board walks into a bookstore one day and finds a book that opens just like his.

Or — and this is substantially more common, especially in academic writing — the writer is dutifully reading her former exchange partner’s published work when her hair stands on end because that paragraph on the page in front of her is one that she wrote. With a shock, it suddenly occurs to her that since they exchanged work electronically, all her dishonest ex-friend would have had to do was copy her words and paste them into another manuscript.

In each case, the inevitable result is an unseemly struggle to determine who coughed up any given page of text first — or an aspiring writer who spends the next ten years walking around grumbling to anyone who will listen about how that rat of a published writer stole her work.

Second — and you might want to be sitting down for this one, as it comes as rather a shock to a lot of writers — technically, you can’t copyright an idea; you can merely copyright the PRESENTATION of it. Which means, in practice, that it is not possible to claim ownership of your storyline, but only how you chose to write it.

Aren’t you glad I told you to sit down first?

Learning about this second condition tends to obviate a good 85% of the concerns aspiring writers express about having their work stolen. Most of the time, writers are worried that someone will steal their STORIES, not the actual writing — and I’m not going to lie to you; one doesn’t have to attend many writers’ conference before one has heard a dozen stories about the trusted feedback-giver who later came out with a suspiciously similar book.

There’s not a heck of a lot a writer can do about that, alas, except to spread the story around. So the next time you hear such a tale of woe at a conference, do remember to make sympathetic noises.

But by the same token, unless the lifted plotline becomes a major bestseller, there’s really no reason that you shouldn’t push ahead with your version. Fiction is virtually never sold on the storyline alone, anyway; plotlines and NF arguments are almost never 100% unique.

As no one knows better than a writer, however, presentation — particularly GOOD presentation — generally IS unique. As industry insiders are so fond of telling writers, it all depends upon the writing.

This is why, as some of you inveterate conference-goers may have noticed, when agents, editors, and published writers are presented with a question about book theft, they tend to respond as though the question itself were a sign of an over-large ego in the asker. Just how revolutionary would an aspiring writer’s style have to be, the logic goes, for an agent or editor to WANT to steal it?

Which perhaps leaves the wondering writer reluctant to submit his long thought-out plotline and terrific premise to a publisher, lest it be handed to a better-known writer, but doesn’t really address his concern. Once again, we have a failure to communicate.

Do I see some hands in the air out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protesting, and rightly so, “between the time I submit a manuscript to an agency and the time a book is published and thus equipped with a nice, clear copyright page stating precisely who owns the writing between those covers, it passes through quite a few hands. I may not even know who will end up reading it. Shouldn’t I worry about some of them deciding to make off with my actual pages and passing them off as their own?”

Having some doubts about Millicent’s integrity, are we?

Well, it’s a reasonable enough concern: some of those hands will inevitably belong to people you do not know very well. Agency screeners like Millicent, for instance. Agents. Editorial assistants. Editors. Mail room clerks. The people in the publishing house’s marketing department.

And anyone to whom you give your manuscript as a first reader. Guess which paragraph contains the most likely thief of prose?

If you said the latter, give yourself a big, fat gold star for the day; I’ll be discussing casual exchanges in tomorrow’s post. But let’s think for a moment about why manuscripts sent to agencies and publishing houses very, very rarely turn up with anyone other than the author’s name on the title page.

An exceedingly straightforward reason springs to mind: agencies and publishing houses make their livings by selling work by writers. In-house theft wouldn’t have to happen awfully often before writers would stop sending submissions, right? So sheer self-interest would tend to discourage it.

But I’m not going to lie to you: at a less-than-reputable house or agency, it could happen. And occasionally does, especially to NF book proposals. Any guesses why?

If you immediately answered, “Because you can’t copyright an idea, only the presentation of it,” give yourself another gold star. While the copyright of the proposal materials and any sample chapter(s) undoubtedly belongs to the person who wrote them, it’s not unheard-of another writer to snatch the proposal, rewrite it minimally, and submit it as his own work.

I know: chilling.

The single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. Not only are well-established folks less likely to engage in dubious practices in the first place (this is, after all, a biz that relies heavily upon reputation), but there’s often a better-established chain of accountability if something goes wrong. As I MAY have mentioned before on this blog, it behooves a writer to do his homework.

And at the risk of sounding like your mother again, let me remind you: not every organization with the wherewithal to throw up a website is equally credible.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to check anyone in the industry with whom you’re planning to do business on Preditors and Editors; if you have doubts about an individual agent, agency, or publishing house, check agents out with the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives). These are also good places to report any professional conduct that seems questionable to you; P&E is especially good about following up on writers’ complaints.

I always advise doing a basic credibility check before sending ANY part of your manuscript via e-mail — which clearly includes anyone to whom you might be considering trading manuscripts for critique. As I’ve mentioned several times before here, after you send out an e-mailed attachment (or any e-mail, for that matter), you have absolutely NO way of controlling, or even knowing, where it will end up.

Think about it: part of the charm of electronic communication is ease of forwarding, right? Yet another reason that I’m not crazy about e-mailed submissions. (The other reason, if you must know, is that it’s far, far quicker for Millicent to reject an electronic submission than a physical manuscript. Since rejecting the former requires the push of a single button and rejecting the latter involves stuffing pages into an envelope, which would you guess renders it more tempting not to read much before deciding?)

While it’s highly unlikely that the chapter you e-mail to an agent — or that person you just met on an Internet chat room — will end up on a printing press in Belize or Outer Mongolia, it’s not entirely unprecedented for entire e-mailed manuscripts to wander to some fairly surprising places. Yes, the same thing COULD conceivably happen with a hard copy, too, but as with Millicent’s rejection, it would require more effort on the sender’s part.

Which, believe it or not, is part of the function of the SASE: to maximize the probability that your manuscript will come back to you, rather than being carted off by goodness knows whom to parts unknown.

Stop laughing — it’s true. When you send requested materials off to an agency or publishing house, you and they both are operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission, right? The mere fact that you give them a physical copy of your work doesn’t mean that you intent to authorize them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so, right?

When you include a SASE with your submission packet, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys your expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

The key word to remember here is control. Until you have signed a contract with a reputable agent or publishing house (or are selling copies that you published yourself), you will want to know with absolute certainty where every extant copy of your manuscript is at all times.

If that last sentence gave you even a twinge of compunction about work already written and sent upon its merry way: honey, we need to speak further, and pronto. However, that conversation, along with steps you can take to prove when you wrote a particular piece, is best left until next time.

In the meantime, don’t worry; keeping a watchful eye your work isn’t all that difficult, and it certainly doesn’t require living in a state of perpetual paranoia. Just a bit of advance thought and care.

You didn’t think that your manuscript would have an easier time dating than you would, did you? Happy Friday the 13th, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part VII: a few last words about what professional feedback will actually entail, or, what if a manuscript isn’t practically perfect in every way?

For the last couple of posts, I have been talking about yet another present the legendary Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver might want to consider for the aspiring writers on his list: a few hours’ worth (or a few hundred pages’ worth) of professional editing. As I demonstrated last time, not all freelance editors will be equally good fits for every project, so you will probably want to do a bit of comparison shopping, rather than simply looking for the most feedback for the least money. Because the levels of professional editing are quite different, both in content and in price, it will also behoove you to make sure in advance PRECISELY what services you are buying.

Before you give your FNDGG a subtle hint that your manuscript might appreciate a bit of a post-holiday tune-up, however, and definitely before either of you invest what can be quite a bit of money in the editing process, I would definitely advise pausing to give some thought to not only what services you want to buy, but why you want to buy them.

Or, to put it another way, as a writer, what precisely do you you want to get out of the experience? Other than to be picked up by an agent and/or sell the book to a publisher immediately after taking the freelancer’s advice, of course.

Actually, you should be wary if a freelancer promises that — or anything that implies such a promise. Reputable editors are very, very careful in describing how a manuscript might benefit from their assistance. Since freelance editors stand outside the agency and publishing house, none of us can legitimately make promises that any specific advice we give will unquestionably result in landing an agent or eventual publication.

And if you encounter anyone who tells you otherwise, run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit. As on the Internet, if an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Let the buyer beware.

While I’m waving the warning flag, you should also be wary if an agency demands that writers shell out for professional editing reports as a condition of considering the manuscript, or charges for in-house editing, or if an agent responds to a submission by telling a writer not only that the manuscripts needs professional editing, but only from a specific editing company. All of these can be signs that the agency makes its money not by selling its clients’ books, but through payments from aspiring writers, not a good sign. (For more on how to tell a fee-charging agency from a non-fee-charging one, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category on the list at right.)

Back to the business at hand: what, you’re probably wondering at this point, can a freelance editor legitimately offer you?

Well, among other things, perhaps answers about why a submission boasting a really good premise and good writing has been getting rejected. Remember, most manuscripts are rejected within the first page or two, for reasons that might not be apparent to the lay reader. A professional reader well versed in the writing norms of a particular book category or genre can often give substantial insight into how to tweak a manuscript to avoid pitfalls.

Call me zany, but I suspect that there are many, many aspiring writers out there who would like to be told if a fixable problem is triggering all of those form-letter rejections that don’t specify what went wrong.

(Are you listening, Furtive NDGG? You’ve already checked that list twice; leave it alone and pay attention.)

To bolster the egos I felt sagging during the last few paragraphs: not having some magical internal sensor that tells one just what the problem is most emphatically not a reflection upon one’s writing talent. Spotting a manuscript’s weaknesses is usually a matter of experience, pure and simple.

Here, a professional reader has a jump on the average writer. Agents and editors don’t read like everyone else, and neither do good freelance editors. Our eyes are trained to jump on problems like…well, insert any predator-prey analogy you like here.

The point is, we’re fast, and our aim is deadly.

Since manuscripts are now expected to be completely publication-ready by the time they reach an agent’s desk — although they are frequently revised afterward — getting professional feedback can be exceptionally helpful in whipping your work into publishable shape. Contrary to widespread belief amongst the aspiring, there is more to being publishable than merely being a good story well-written.

Which is why, as I mentioned yesterday, you’re going to want to find an editor with experience working with books in your category, if you are going to invest in editing more complex than proofreading. An editor familiar with the tropes, structures, and market trends in your book’s category is going to be able to help you better than one who does not.

You want to be able to trust the feedback you get, don’t you?

While I’m on the subject of trust, and since today is apparently my day of dire-sounding warnings, I should put the Furtive NDGGs out there on the qui vive: like editors at publishing houses, agents, and other professional readers, good freelance editors have to be quite explicit about what is wrong with a manuscript in order to do their jobs well. Writers new to having their work edited are often astounded, and even hurt, by just HOW straightforward professional feedback can be.

Think about that very, very carefully before you give this particular present.

Really, any writer contemplating hiring a professional editor should give some thought to just how much honesty s/he actually wants. Like an agent or editor at a publishing house, a good freelance editor is not going to pull any punches — amongst those who work with manuscripts for a living, it’s considered downright silly to beat around the bush. The manner of conveying the information may be kind, but if any of them believe that a particular writing issue is going to harm your book’s market prospects, they are going to tell you so point-blank.

That is, after all, what they are being paid to do.

That may seem self-evident, but in practice, seeing one’s own manuscript carved up by a pro can be pretty nerve-wracking. Obviously, if a writer is going to be given necessary critique, it’s quite a bit less traumatic to hear it from an editor whose job it is to help improve it than from an agent who is rejecting the book, but if one is not prepared to be told that a book has problems, it’s bound to be upsetting no matter who says it.

This response is, of course, completely understandable. Serious manuscript feedback generally isn’t fun even when it’s free and/or eagerly solicited. While the brain may understand that critique is a good idea, the emotions often hold the opposite opinion. Even authors with years of experience in accepting professional feedback have been known to become a trifle upset when told to alter their manuscripts.

Going into the editing process aware that the point of it is to ferret out manuscript problems, and as such is bound to be upsetting, then, tends to make it easier on the writer. Conversely, someone who approaches the process primarily seeking ego reassurance from someone in the biz that his work is fine as it stands is almost invariably going to be disappointed — and probably rather angry as well.

Did I sense some guffawing out there? “Oh, come on, Anne,” some self-confident sorts scoff. “We’re talking about writers who are willing to pay a professional editor to give them feedback. Isn’t it safe to assume that anyone likely to do that actually wants honest, well-informed critique? You make it sound as though there are aspiring writers who go to all of the trouble and expense of hiring a freelancer purely because they want to be told that their manuscripts are, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, oh guffawing scoffers, but isn’t that precisely what pretty much every writer currently wandering the earth’s crust wants to hear about his or her own work, subconsciously, at least? After all, most of us write in the hope and expectation that someone will pay US to read our work, not that we will need to pay someone to read it.

The result: pretty much every freelance editor who has been at it a while will have at least one story about the writer who showed up swearing that he wanted no-holds-barred, professional-level feedback — and then freaked out the instant he got it, because he hadn’t expected to be told to change his manuscript.

Oh, you may laugh, but actually, taking the fruits of the editorial process personally — whether the feedback comes from a freelance editor, an agent or publishing house, the essential pattern’s tends to be same — is a notoriously common writerly response to a first brush with professional feedback. Before anyone rushes to judge those who react this way, the hurt usually stems not from rampant egomania or even (as folks in the industry not infrequently diagnose it) from a frantic possessiveness over one’s precious arrangement of words.

No, in my experience, it usually stems from something far more easily fixed: a confluence of unrealistic expectations about how authors are typically treated and not understanding that the industry views criticism as an impersonal means of improving the marketability of a manuscript.

I am reminded of M.F.K. Fisher’s story about being solicited to write a preface for a charity cookbook — you know, one of those collections of recipes that were so popular as fundraisers in the 1970s, in which well-to-do local matron share the secrets behind their potluck-famous pineapple upside-down cakes and tuna surprise. The cookbook’s editors, both volunteers, came to visit Fisher, a neighbor of theirs, in the hope that having a big-name food writer attached to their compilation of local recipes would make the book sell better. It was, they told her, for a good cause, so she donated her expertise.

Well (the story goes), Fisher very kindly took the draft book from them and had a good, professional look through it. Without missing a beat, she instantly began barking out everything that was wrong with the book: poor editing, meandering writing, abundant redundancies.

All of the things, in short, that professional writers and editors automatically flag in a manuscript.

When she paused for breath, she noticed that the amateur editors were not gratefully taking notes. Instead, they were dissolved in tears. From their non-professional standpoint, Fisher had been hugely, gratuitously, deliberately mean, whereas from a professional point of view, she had been paying them the huge (and possibly undeserved) compliment of taking their project seriously.

Yes, yes, I know: by this logic, the person eaten by a lion should be flattered by the lion’s impression that he tastes good. But as I have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about ‘em.

The fact is, from a professional perspective, whitewashing an editorial opinion about a manuscript is a waste of everyone’s time. In a freelance editor’s feedback, it would border on unethical.

For those of you who think that this mindset sounds like a pretty fine reason to steer clear of anyone who might be tempted or empowered to pay this particular stripe of compliment, let me hasten to add: the ability to take criticism well is a highly valuable professional skill for writers; in the long run, you will be much, much happier if develop it as part of your tool kit.

Your dream agent, I assure you, will just assume that you have already have it up your sleeve. This is precisely why your dream agent should not be the first human being to set eyes on your work.

If you do not have experience rolling with harsh-but-true feedback, it is well worth your while to join a very critical writing group, or take a writing class from a real dragon, or (why didn’t I think of this before?) show some of your work to a freelance editor, before you send your work to an agent.

Trust me, it is much, much easier to accept suggestions on how to revise your work gracefully when your critiquer is NOT the person who is going to decide whether to take you on as a client or acquire your book. The stakes are lower, so it’s less stressful by far.

Getting used to the feedback experience alone is a pretty good reason to run at least part of your manuscript — say, the first 50 pages — across a freelance editor’s desk; that way, you can learn just how touchy you are at base, and work on developing the vital-for-authors skill of responding constructively, rather than with anger. Since, again, the stakes are lower, even if the critique makes you see red for a month, you can afford to take the time to blow your stack privately without running afoul of an agent- or editor-induced deadline.

Hey, that’s how published authors usually handle it.

Which brings me to my final piece of advice on the subject: if you are brand-new to textual feedback, or if the potential cost of having all 542 pages of your baby edited makes your head spin, there’s no earthly reason that you need to jump into professional-level feedback with both feet right off the bat. (I’m sure I could have mixed a few more metaphors there, but you catch my drift, I’m sure.)

Consider starting with the first chapter, or the first few chapters, and working up from there. Or even just your query letter, synopsis, or any other material an agent may have asked you to submit.

This may sound as though I’m advising you to feed yourself to a school of piranha one toe at a time, but hear me out. One of the toughest lessons that every successful writer has to learn is that, regardless of how much we may wish it otherwise, agents don’t pick up books simply because someone wrote them. Nor do publishing houses offer contracts to books primarily because their authors really, really feel strongly about them.

These are the first steps to becoming a professional author, but they are not the only ones. The pros learn not only to write, but to rewrite — and yes, to take some pretty stark criticism in stride in the process. Not because having one’s words dissected is fun on a personal level, but because that is what the business side of this business expects from the creative side.

Seeing your book in print is worth learning to live with that, isn’t it? The alternative, pretending that a manuscript that keeps getting rejected is already practically perfect in every way, may be appealing in the short run, but in the long run can prove a formidable stumbling-block on the already quite bumpy road to publication.

Next time, I shall try to wrap up my series on gifts for writers. After that, perhaps, I shall indulge in some discussion about gifts writers can give to themselves. Speaking of which, lest the less well-heeled out there have been gnawing on their nails throughout the last few posts, wishing that professional feedback were within their reach right now, don’t despair: I shall soon be talking about ways in which writers can scare up some genuinely useful feedback gratis. It requires investing more time and effort than simply paying a good freelance editor, of course, but it is definitely doable.

Whichever route you choose, stay warm, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part VI: what to find out before you shell out the dosh

It’s a mite stormy here in Seattle, the most snow, the old-timers and local talking heads say, since the 1970s. My lights keep flickering, and most of my neighbors seem to be either sledding or sloshing their way back from trips on foot to stock up on cat food and peanut butter. (My new office set up has a spectacular view of the environs.) Is it me, or did some great cruise director in the sky suddenly decree that ’tis not the season for shopping for non-necessities?

Myself, I’ve been running only frivolous errands, on general principle. In the face of semi-hysterical admonitions from state Department of Transportation officials, begging everyone who possibly can to stay far, far away from anything that remotely resembles a road, my SO and I have felt downright brave to have been out and about to meet friends for brunch. The restaurant was so empty that the hostess practically burst into tears when we walked in, and the manager declared that happy hour had been extended to the entire day.

I’m as pleased as anyone to be regaled with half-price crab-and-artichoke dip, but I couldn’t help but wonder what these days on end of Seattlites staying home meant for the local economy. Was everyone who intended to purchase last-minute presents wrapped up in blankets at home, huddled over computer terminals and praying that somewhere out there was a company that would deliver through the proverbial sleet, snow, and dark of night? Or were folks just throwing up their hands and returning the wrapping paper to storage until next year?

Let me tell you, it made me feel pretty smug for having spent yesterday’s post on a present that not only can consist of a handwritten card saying that the giver intends to pay for X amount of freelance editing for the recipient, but probably should, because this is the type of present a writer will want to pick out for herself.

For those of you scratching your heads, wondering what on earth I’m talking about, last time, I suggested to the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver — and anyone else who might be biting his or her nails, wondering what to give loved ones that would not involve braving half a foot of snow to purchase — that some freelance editing might make an unusual-but-useful gift for the writer in one’s life. (To forestall suspicions of self-interest here: my client list is already full for 2009. The book doctor is, therefore, out.)

But not just any editorial service from any editor will do: a savvy writer will want to pick one with an extensive background working with a specific type of book.

Why? Well, since writing norms vary quite a bit amongst book categories, and what is and isn’t considered a cliché can vary even more, good developmental editors usually overtly specialize in certain types of books, far more than line editors or proofreaders do. But the fact is, even if they do not advertise themselves that way, almost any editor with experience will have developed at least a genre preference over time.

As I mentioned yesterday, while any good editor can make a manuscript conform to the overarching rules of English grammar, substantive or developmental editing — or even heavy copyediting — writing advice from someone with a truly firm grounding in the SPECIFIC expectations for YOUR type of book is going to be of more practical use to you.

So it’s a good idea to check in advance whether the freelancer you’re considering has experience with your type of manuscript, regardless of the level of editing needed. Or, for that matter, any philosophies of editing or reading habits that may conflict with your notion of what the book should be.

And that, my friends, is going to entail asking a few pointed questions.

A word to the wise: determining this is going to require some conversation with potential freelancers, either by phone or via e-mail (a better idea, as you will have a written record of the terms discussed), and I assure you, you will be much, much, MUCH happier during that conversation if you have already given some serious thought to what you want to get out of the editor-author relationship.

While most freelancers will be thrilled with the novelty of a potential client whose opening line is more complex than, “Um, I need an editor; what do you charge?” the conversation will go more smoothly if you (or Santa, if this is a gift, although I recommend leaving the final choice of editor up to the writer) have a few specific pieces of information already at your fingertips. Heck, you might even want to include them in the initial e-mail:

1. What’s the book’s category?
Yes, I am talking about the same information you would include in a query letter, pitch, or on your title page. As in a query letter or pitch, subsequent conversation with a freelance editor tends to be more productive if you stick to the established book categories, rather than a seven-page synopsis. (If you’re unfamiliar with the hows and whys of selecting a book category, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section on the list at right.)

Why use the professional designation, and why should you mention it first? To save yourself time, mostly : if a reputable freelance editor is approached to work on a type of book he’s never edited before, or with which he has scant experience, or which he doesn’t even like to read in his spare time, he will say so up front.

2. What level of editing are you seeking?
Professional editing services range from simple proofreading (to catch spelling and grammatical errors, period) to line editing (for formatting, consistency, sense, and to avoid repetition) to developmental editing (in-depth diagnosis the manuscript’s problems, taking into account current market trends). I went over the different levels yesterday; for further pondering directions, my editors’ guild has an excellent page of tips on how to find the right level of editing for you.

Sometimes, aspiring writers will want an editor to read the entire manuscript and write the equivalent of an editorial memo at a publishing house, giving very general advice about what needs to be changed. While there are editors who do this, experienced ones tend not to offer this service, for the simple reason that it’s a pretty time-consuming enterprise: to make a profit at it without rendering a read-through prohibitively expensive, a pro would have to skim — not the best level of reading for catching serious problems.

3. How many pages is the manuscript?
We’re talking about pages in standard format, of course — and in case anyone’s forgotten, that’s double-spaced, single-sided pages in 12-point font with 1-inch margins AND two spaces after each period. Most good editors will not consider working with single-spaced manuscripts.

The reason any editor will want to know the length immediately is to make quick mental calculations about how long it will take to edit. (PS: with pretty much any level of editing, your adhering closely to the rules of standard format in the manuscript will make it less time-consuming — and thus less expensive, typically — to edit.)

3a. How much of the manuscript would you like edited?
While most seekers of professional feedback prefer to have an editor take a gander at an entire work, that’s not the only option. It’s not a bad idea to start with only the first few chapters, to get a feel for the experience — or, if funds are tight, only the first chapter.

4. When you would like the editing to be completed?
If your first instinct is to answer, “Why, right away, of course,” do be aware that an experienced editor with a good reputation will often be booked up months in advance. Some freelancers will build flexibility into their schedules to accommodate rush projects, but a 20%-30% rush fee is fairly standard for this piece of convenience.

Why? Well, unscheduled projects with ultra-quick turnarounds often require editors to inconvenience other clients and/or work double shifts.

It is worth your while to plan in advance. So if you wanted your FNDGG to give you editing assistance on a contest entry that is due, say, in mid-February and wanted to avoid a rush fee, you should be approaching editors now, not in early February.

4a. Is there currently an externally-imposed deadline hanging over this project, in addition to your desired turn-around time?
You’d be AMAZED at how often editing clients neglect to mention that their agents are expecting a revised draft by the end of the month, or that they intend to enter the first chapter of the manuscript in a contest three weeks from now. Being up front with this information will render it easier for the editor to help you meet your deadlines.

5. How would you prefer to receive feedback?
Unless you are seeking only the most basic proofreading, a reputable freelance editor will not make her suggested corrections directly in your soft copy; since most editorial feedback results in considerable revision, doing so could raise ethical problems or even questions about who actually wrote any given sentence. Thus, a freelance editor will want to give you feedback so that you may make the suggested revisions.

Specify whether you would prefer feedback on hard copy (usually a little cheaper, if the editor charges by the hour) or as parenthetical comments on a computer document. Do be prepared for the editor to insist upon the former, since it is so easy to transfer computer viruses through attachments.

If the editor works in hard copy, expect to print it out yourself, rather than e-mailing it and having the editor print it for you.

5a. If you plan to submit in soft copy, what kind of word processing program do you use, with what operating system?
This is important to include, for the sake of attachments. The industry standard is MS Word, so you should definitely tell a potential editor up front if you use anything else.

It’s NEVER a good idea to assume that anyone who deals in manuscripts for a living — and this includes agents and editors at publishing houses — is using the same operating system you are. To minimize the probability of translation problems, save Word documents in Rich Text Format before sending them. (It’s one of the format choices under the SAVE AS… menu.)

6. What is the manuscript’s submission history?
Has it been seen by many agents? Publishing houses? A particularly vicious writers’ group? No one but your dear old white-headed mother?

Having this information up front will assist the editor in assessing what your manuscript needs and answering your questions, as well as giving you a common language to discuss the project in question. (Not to mention making the freelancer think spontaneously, “Oh, thank goodness: this one isn’t vague. What a welcome change!”)

7. Do you have any specific goals in mind for your next revision?
If you feel you need to chop 200 pages from your 600-page manuscript, this is the time to mention it. Ditto if you seek to make your manuscript fit more comfortably to your chosen book category, are trying to render it more marketable to agents, or have had agents tell you your premise is implausible.

8. Will you also want the editor to help you polish your query letter and/or synopsis, or to suggest agents who might be interested in this particular book?
Not all freelancers will do any of the above, but it’s worth asking if it’s a possibility.

Seems like a lot to think about before approaching a pro, doesn’t it? Well, it is — but if I have one principle in life, it’s not to waste the time of people who charge by the hour.

During your preliminary interactions, you’re going to want to ask questions, too. Your goal here should be to elicit enough information to make substantive (and not merely cost-based) distinctions between the editors you’re interviewing, so get specific with the questions. Some good ones to get you started:

1. Does the freelancer have a genre specialty?

2. How much experience does s/he have with your book category?

3. What does s/he read for fun?

4. What is her average turn-around time for a book-length project?

5. Does s/he write in the margins, or prefer giving feedback electronically, in the text itself?

6. Does s/he provide a write-up about the book instead or in addition to marginalia?

7. Does s/he charge extra for follow-up questions? (Most pros do.)

8. Does s/he require a deposit to reserve time in advance, and what is his or her policy on refunds if a pre-scheduled project is canceled? Will there be any additional charge if you need to push back your scheduled manuscript delivery date?

Ask, too, about her availability. Don’t be surprised if she’s booked a few months in advance; although there are sometimes last-minute cancellations, the more experience an editor has, generally speaking, the less likely a brand-new client is to be able to book her time within the next month.

Rest assured, none of this is pushy; it’s is perfectly acceptable to ask a potential editor about her background, methodology, and policies. If she’s brand-new to editing, these questions may surprise her, but most of this information is standard first-meeting stuff.

Don’t be surprised if the editor who sounds like a great fit suddenly turns a bit cagey on the subject of references. It may not be by choice: it’s not uncommon for published authors and even merely the agented to be rather secretive about using the services of a freelance editor.

I’m quite serious about this: my work is hardly sub rosa, given how much I write about it here, but some of my clients’ agents and publishers would be fairly astonished to learn of my existence. Some published authors don’t even thank their personal editors in their acknowledgments.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to find out how experienced any editor you approach actually is, particularly in the current slow economy: published authors with no editorial experience whatsoever do occasionally out their shingles as book doctors. Sometimes, these folks are talented feedback-givers, but do be aware that the mere fact of having a book or story in print doesn’t necessarily guarantee that.

Why? Well, think about it: since the published generally have agents and editors looking over their manuscripts, telling them what to change, they may not have much experience editing even their own work. And as any professional editor, freelance or otherwise, would me more than happy to tell you in confidence, plenty of books come to publication only after a whole lot of in-house editorial assistance.

Instead of requesting references, consider asking if she would edit 5 or 10 pages as a work sample before you commit to a longer project. Most freelancers will do this happily, given sufficient advance notice, but do expect to pay full price for their time. (For a glimpse at average rates nationally, click here.)

An editing sample will give you considerably more information about how the editor works — and, after all, fit between editor and client is EXTREMELY important. An editor — freelance or otherwise — not familiar with the norms of your book category can actually harm your end product, and since everyone gives feedback slightly differently, it will save you both time and money in the long run if you do some comparison shopping to find someone who can give you professional-level feedback in the manner that will be easiest for you to incorporate it into your book.

It’s also a rather straightforward way for the shy to gain a sense of precisely how any given editor likes to approach a manuscript, what services he provides, and how much each part of it will cost. It’s worth your time to make some rate comparisons, if only to find what the local prevailing rates are.

Do be prepared, though, to pay the local market rates for what you expect to get, not only because it is fair, but also because many experienced freelancers will walk away from a negotiation if they feel that a potential client is trying to haggle down to the very last second. (Since post-service haggling is not unheard-of, most freelance editors require clients to sign a contract.)

If you encounter a freelancer who seems to be charging too little, be wary. An inexperienced editor might well not be aware yet how long giving feedback can take, and thus under-price himself — but a low price may also be an indication of an experienced editor who habitually gives minimal feedback, relying on volume to make a living. At both ends of the spectrum, then, it makes a great deal of sense to ask for a very specific indication of what to expect from the feedback.

If you’re genuinely not sure what the kind of editing you would like to receive should cost, consider posting your project on a freelance editors’ association’s job board and asking for bids. (The Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild has a dandy job board, very easy to use.) Be sure to include the full list of preliminary information above (okay, you can save the bit about how much you’ve shopped the book around until a later communication), and don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions of those who respond.

Do I hear some put-upon sighs out there? “But Anne,” some harried souls cry, “isn’t the point of this to make my life EASIER? Tracking down a good freelance editor sounds like almost as much work as pulling together a list of agents to query!”

Well, not quite, but admittedly, finding the right editor for you may take a bit of searching beyond just checking who charges what, or even what credentials various candidates have. It involves taking the time to find an editor who loves your kind of book and who has the skills to make your manuscript the best it can possibly be.

Ultimately, though, a good fit is worth the effort. When it comes right down to it, your work is too important to go into ANY critique relationship blindly. Just as you don’t want any random agent to represent you, regardless of sales record, trust me, you don’t want just ANY freelance editor to advise you about your book. (Or just any writers’ group, for that matter.)

Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit about why enlisting a pro’s help might be a good idea, along with some indication of what you should and shouldn’t expect. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part V: the dreaded e-word



I was going to end my sneakily double-edged series on gifts to give writers (and gifts writers can give themselves that might help them, you know, WRITE) this weekend with a high-minded lecture about the value of freeing up time for that noble endeavor. However, it occurred to me in the dead of night that my book doctoring business is booked up far enough in advance at this point that I can talk about a really, really nice present that writers might like — and which, like the other tidbits I have so far mentioned, might actually help their careers in the long run — without the appearance of devolving into self-promotion.

So please pay attention, Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: today’s post will give you some pointers on how to go about purchasing some freelance editing.

Why might a talented writer be pleased to receive a touch of professional feedback? To put it bluntly, because the vast majority of aspiring writers create in a vacuum, free of any feedback at all, or at any rate free of useful feedback that might prepare a manuscript for the microscopic-level scrutiny a successful book must undergo before landing an agent or publishing contract. Getting the professional opinion of someone well-versed in both the ins and outs of good writing and the vagaries of a particular book category BEFORE subjecting it to the scathing, hyper-critical eye of an agent, editor, or contest judge can save a writer a whole lot of heartache — and sometimes speed up the agent-finding stage of a career considerably.

Which is precisely why this is an area where a non-writer gift-giver, or even a writer who has never worked with an editor before, could usually use a bit of guidance. To the uninitiated, finding the right freelance editor, as opposed to just some yahoo with a green pencil and a desire to tell other people what to do, can be a tad on the difficult side.

Translation: this is not the kind of service for which an eager FNDGG can simply spend 15 minutes online purchasing a gift certificate. Few freelance editors issue formal gift certificates — although it’s an interesting idea. However, I don’t know a single one who would turn down an editing job just because someone other than the author proposes to pay for it.

This means, unfortunately for those who like genuine surprises to await them under a certain well-lit and -decorated tree, that this is the kind of present that a writer is almost certainly going to want to pick out for herself.

Did I just hear some of my long-time readers groaning? Yes, you’re quite right: I AM about to say that just as not every agent is the best fit for any given book, neither is every editor. Nor, more to the point and contrary to what some book doctors promise, is every freelance editor.

Note the distinction: an editor and a freelance editor are most emphatically not the same thing.

An editor, generally speaking, works for a publishing house and is, often, the person responsible for acquiring books for the house to publish. While this role usually entails writing the editorial memo requesting pre-publication changes to the manuscript, an editor will not necessarily line-edit: at a large publisher, correcting the grammar and flagging problems with flow is the province of the copyeditor, who typically doesn’t get her mitts on the pages until after the requested editorial changes have already been made.

I just heard hundreds of jaws hitting the floor simultaneously, didn’t I? Not too surprising: the common conception of editing is not most of what your garden-variety editor does.

Some do still prefer to do their own copyediting, of course, but for the most part, the editor concentrates on big-picture issues and shepherding the book through the sometimes quite bumpy road to publication.

Hey, somebody’s got to encourage the marketing and the production departments to communicate about your book, right?

A freelance editor, on the other hand, typically works for the author, helping get the book ready for submission. For the record, freelance editors do not acquire books — so those of you out there who persist in sending me pitches for books in the hope I will publish them, cut it out, please — nor do we, unless specifically requested, edit toward a particular publisher’s likes and dislikes.

A good freelancer who specializes in your book category can, however, show you how to make a manuscript appeal to what’s selling in that market now. Sometimes this is merely a matter of proofreading; sometimes it is a matter of radical reconstruction. What is required varies from manuscript to manuscript, book category to book category, and sometimes even targeted agent to targeted agent.

We’ve also been known to assist authors in implementing the editor’s sweeping requests by a specified, often very tight deadline, but mostly, freelance editors do what agents and editors at publishing houses used to do routinely: dig into manuscripts up to our elbows to root out problems and suggest practical means to render books better able to survive in the current super-competitive market.

Think of a freelance editor as a consultant who can give tips on whipping a book into market shape. Or, at the more intense levels of the biz, as a diagnostician who can figure out why a particular manuscript has been getting rejected. There’s good reason that the super-particular ones like me are known as book doctors.

Like other types of doctors, the more intensive the remedy required, the more likely experienced freelance editors are to specialize — which is why just opening the Yellow Pages to editing and calling the first business listed, doing a generic online search, or bidding because a particular editing service is going for cheap on eBay is probably not going to You wouldn’t want a dentist to take out your appendix, would you?

Be warned, however: what such services cost can vary quite a bit, depending upon what a particular manuscript needs. Straightforward proofreading tends to be quite inexpensive, because it’s relatively speedy for an experienced editor to do; expect to pay in the neighborhood of $3-5/page.

Line editing (also known as copyediting) is all about clarity and presentation, and is thus a great choice for a writer unfamiliar with the norms of submission or in question about grammar. Line editing involves both proofreading AND giving advice on how to rearrange sentences and paragraphs to maximize readability, so it takes far more time to do.

And that, believe it or not, is the good news.

Why? Well, a good editor will read and reread compulsively, remembering that on page 272 that you used that same phrase on page 28. Since this type of manuscript problem is virtually impossible for a writer to catch for himself, and since agents, editors, and contest judges tend to have similarly retentive memories for text, a freelancer’s compulsion to spend a few extra minutes keeping track of repetitions may be exceptionally useful.

The less-good news is that how much line editing any given manuscript needs varies almost infinitely, so even the best freelance editor may need to give the book a once-over before even being able to give you an estimate. However, to keep your from wandering around in the dark unassisted, the Editorial Freelancers Association has a nifty chart that will give you some indication of hourly rates for different services.

The stated rates aren’t binding, mind you, but it will at least give your FNDGG some indication of what he’s committing himself to shell out.

Developmental editing is the top of the product line, as it were, beginning at around $45/hour and climbing to much, much more, depending upon the editor’s experience, client list, and willingness to drop everything to counsel writers through midnight crises of faith. Typically, it encompasses both proofing and line editing, but also entails working with the author to correct overarching writing problems and refining the book on every level to tailor it to its intended target market.

And that, you guessed it, can take quite a bit of time, depending on how market-ready the manuscript already is. A good developmental editor will flag anything and everything in a manuscript that might conceivably make an agent or editor familiar with the book category hesitate for even a moment over the page. With that level of scrutiny, it’s not unusual to give feedback on practically every line of the book , so a developmental editor sometimes will spend hours on a single page.

Yes, you read that correctly. I wasn’t kidding about its being spendy. I sometimes blush when printing out my invoices.

Ideally, a developmental editor would come into the project near the beginning of the writing process, but in practice, the author often has a draft already completed. The more fundamental the changes you’re willing to make, generally speaking, the more you’ll like working with a developmental editor: it’s the closest a writer without a book contract in hand can come to the micro-level reading a manuscript will get before being picked up by a publisher.

As I MAY have mentioned once or twice before, agents and editors don’t read like other people: they read line by line, at least for the early parts of a submission, their little antennae alert for red flags. An experienced developmental editor can teach you how to keep those antennae happily swinging in the passing breeze.

Oh, then there’s substantive editing, which falls between line editing and developmental editing in both content and price. It, too, involves massaging a manuscript until the potential problems fall out. However, while a developmental editor will typically make all kinds of suggestions about different directions in which a particular scene could be taken, a strictly substantive editor will only work with what is already there.

To put it another way, a substantive editor comments on what is; a developmental editor works to make a book what it could be.

The line between the two sounds kind of slippery in theory, doesn’t it? I assure you, that’s only because the distinction is nebulous in practice. Many editor-seeking writers who begin looking for a substantive edit end up wanting — or needing — developmental services, so substantive is not a category every freelance editor recognizes.

Confused? I’d be surprised if you weren’t. Happily, my editors’ guild has been kind enough to post a blow-by-blow of the differences between the levels of editing for your dining, dancing, and comparison-shopping pleasure.

Given the broad range of services (and pricetags) available, it would behoove a writer thinking about hiring a freelance editor (or a Furtive NDGG thinking about doing so for someone else) to give some serious thought to the level and specificity of feedback a manuscript really needs. After all, if you just want to know that your book is free of grammatical and spelling problems, it doesn’t make sense to shell out for developmental editing — but if your manuscript has the literary equivalent of whooping cough, a simple proofing is not going to make that cough go away.

Do I see some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you cry, “I’ve never gotten professional feedback before. How can I tell what level of editing my book needs?”

Good question, disembodied voices, but shouldn’t you be off caroling somewhere? Isn’t it getting to be eggnog time in your part of the world?

In short, I’ll tackle the thorny issue tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

A few words on feedback, part VI: combing out the snarls

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This past autumn, when I was couch-bound with mono, my SO decided that it would be a good time to adopt a new cat, as reclining while slowly petting a nervous animal was about as much exercise as I could muster. Because we like pets with a past, he trolled the local animal shelter for a kitty down on his luck, bringing home the largest, filthiest feline I had ever seen: matted fur, crusted eyes, snaggle-toothed. (I believe he was orange, but it was a month before we were sure.) In time, the kitty calmed down and began cleaning himself again, an activity he’d apparently abandoned while incarcerated. Gradually, as he wore away more and more of his layers of grime with his tongue and I with my brush, he became shiny, even fluffy.

A few weeks ago, he looked up at me while I was brushing him, and I realized that he had very pretty eyes. It had merely taken months of care and security before he could show them off.

Being me, I instantly thought of what a good parallel that was for editing a manuscript.

Trust me, freelance editors see some pretty mangy manuscripts: the trick is often to see potential under the matted fur, because much of the time, the problem isn’t a lack of talent or inventiveness, but of structure. Or of a writer’s not having completely found his voice yet — it’s exceedingly rare to discover it in the first draft of one’s first book. Or even simply not knowing how a manuscript should be formatted.

In days gone by, agents and even editors at major publishing houses had the time to take a comb to a manuscript that showed promise, to groom it for the big show. Now, unfortunately, writers are expected to make their work camera-ready unassisted by the pros.

And that’s where a good feedback-giver is can be a real boon. Slowly, gradually, and often much to the writer’s chagrin, it’s possible to comb out the snarls, to reshape the beast into something closer to the carefully-groomed animal an agent or publishing house would expect to see. And every so often, editor and writer alike are stunned when something of startling beauty emerges.

I’m bringing this up today because just as it’s hard to see (without special mirrors, at least) the back of one’s own head to check for wayward tangles, a writer can’t always see the snarls remaining in a manuscript she has been polishing for a while. A kind outsider with a good comb can help reveal the beauty underneath the problem, but to do so takes courage: one runs the risk of being scratched.

A careless outside observer with a heavy touch and a lousy comb, however, is just going to send the writer scurrying under the nearest couch, yowling.

Funny how this analogy sprang to mind again as soon as I began writing about first readers who hang onto manuscripts forever, isn’t it? From the poor writer’s perspective, these sorts offer the prospect of a good, thoughtful book combing, but leave the manuscript out in the rain to tangle still more.

Some of you know what I’m talking about, right? Yesterday, when I was discussing the desirability of setting time limits for your first readers, I’m quite sure I heard some chuckles of recognition out there.

But I also have been sensing some puzzled silence from those of you who have never solicited non-professional feedback outside a writing group. “Why is she setting up so many restrictions on who would make a first reader?” I’ve heard some of you muttering over well-bitten fingernails. “Why is she advising building as many fail-safes into the exchange as one might expect in your garden-variety nuclear test facility?”

In a word: experience.

As I keep pointing out throughout this series, for a non-writer — or for a not-very experienced-writer, even — being handed a manuscript and asked for feedback can be awfully intimidating. Yet in a publishing environment where agents and editors simply do not have the time to give in-depth (or often even single-line) responses to queries, writers hit up their friends.

Friends who all too often are too polite to say no or, heaven help us, think that giving feedback on a manuscript-in-progress is a jaunty, light-hearted, casual affair, as simple and easy as reading a book on a beach. To be fair, writers proud of their own work and expecting people to plop down good money in bookstores for it frequently share this assumption.

A sharp learning curve awaits both parties. At least the writer is aware that some commentary over and above, “Gee, I liked it,” is expected.

Imagine the reader’s surprise when she starts reading, though, spots problems — and realizes that the writer might genuinely have expected her not to be a passive consumer of prose, but an active participant in the creative process. Imagine her surprise when she asked not just to identify what she dislikes about the book, but also to come up with suggestions about what she’d like better.

Imagine her surprise, in short, when she learns that it’s actual work. (Hey, there’s a reason I get paid for doing it.)

Writers tend to complain about the feedback they get from kind souls decent enough to donate their time to feedback, but let’s pause for a moment and think about the position of a friend impressed into first reader duty. Chances are, this friend (I’ll call her Gladys because it looks good in print) committed herself to reading the manuscript without quite realizing the gravity of the offer — or perhaps not even that she’d made a promise at all.

Okay, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but to spare you some chagrin: from a non-writer’s POV, “Oh, I’d love to read your work sometime” is generally NOT an actual invitation to share a manuscript.

Honest — for most people, it’s just a polite thing to say in response to the news that an acquaintance is a writer. Among ordinary mortals, a conversational “I can’t wait to read it!” may most safely be translated as “I’m trying to be supportive of you,” “I’m looking forward to your being famous, so I can say I knew you when,” and/or “I have no idea what I should say to an aspiring writer,” rather than as, “I am willing to donate hours and hours of my time to helping you succeed.”

Not everyone who likes to pet a passing kitty is willing to get busy working out the tangles in his coat, if you catch my drift.

This is why, in case you were wondering, the Gladyses of the world (Gladioli?) are so often nonplused when a writer to whom they have expressed such overtly welcoming sentiments actually shows up on their doorsteps, manuscript in hand.

Poor Gladys was just trying to be nice. For the sake of Gladys and every kind soul like her, please consider adhering to my next tip:

Make sure IN ADVANCE that your first readers fully understand what you expect them to do — and that no matter how gifted a writer you may be, reading to give feedback necessarily involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book.

Do I hear members of good critique groups shouting, “Amen!” out there in the ether?

As those of us who have been in the position of feedback-giver can attest, it’s not enough just to be able to spot the problems in the text — the additional challenge is to be able to phrase the requisite critique gently enough that it will not hurt to comb out those snarls, yet forcefully enough for the writer to understand why it’s a good idea.

In other words, it’s a hard enough challenge for those who already know our way around a manuscript. Imagine how scary the prospect would be for someone who didn’t. In my experience, 99% of casual offerers have absolutely no idea what to do with a manuscript when it is handed to them.

In fact, Gladys is generally dismayed when someone takes her up on her request. Like most people, dear Gladys did not have a very good time in school, and you have just handed her a major reading comprehension assignment; in a flash, you have become her hated 8th-grade English teacher, the one who used to throw his keys at kids who walked in late.

Don’t worry; the school district forced him into early retirement.

It’s not that Gladys doesn’t WANT to help, though. But in her sinking heart, she is afraid of the book report she is going to have to give at the end of the process.

So what does Gladys do? Typically, she doesn’t read the book at all. Or she launches eagerly into it, reading perhaps ten or fifteen pages, then gets sidetracked by the phone ringing or piled-up laundry or the need to go to work.

And that, my friends, is where the problems begin, from the writer’s perspective. Remember, our Gladys isn’t a writer, so she does not have much experience in wresting precious minutes of concentration time out of a busy day. So she sets it aside, in anticipation of the day when she can devote unbroken time to it.

Unfortunately for writers everywhere, very few people lead lives so calm that a week of nothing to do suddenly opens up for their lowest-priority projects.

However good her intentions may have been at first, somehow the book does fall to her lowest priority — and, like the writer who keeps telling himself that he can only work if he has an entire day (or week or month) free, our well-meaning Gladys wakes up in six months astonished to find that she hasn’t made significant inroads on her task.

Hands up, everyone who has ever been the writer in this situation.

I hate to leave you with a cliffhanger in the midst of our little tragedy, but like Gladys, time is running short in my day. But being a writer, and thus used to wringing time to write from a jam-packed schedule, I shall renew the tale tomorrow.

Trust me, appearances to the contrary, it can have a happy ending. Keep up the good work!

A few words on feedback, or, a proposition to which you should NOT say yes on New Year’s Eve

I’m posting late today, I’m afraid — the news about Benazir Bhutto, while not exactly a surprise, left me very much saddened. I have been following her career since I was in college; we share an alma mater, and my work-study job involved maintaining files on the doings of alumnae. (Yes, in the 1980s, Harvard did not house the men’s and women’s files together, nor did male and female undergraduates receive the same diploma. You’ve come a long way, baby!) Her story was so interesting that I kept an eye out for her even after it was no longer my job to do so. The world is less fascinating without her in it.

Back to business. I may be jumping the gun on the parade of virtue that prevails in early January, that period when folks are still adhering to their New Year’s resolutions, but as many writers have a day or two of vacation right around now, I thought this might be a good time to start talking about the revision process — and its ever-helpful first cousin, useful feedback.

To clarify the timing: we DO all know better than to send off our queries and submissions during the first three weeks of any given new year, right? Half the writers in the English-speaking world bravely embrace SIOA (Send It Out, Already!) as their New Year’s resolution.

The result: Millicent and everyone at her agency is swimming in exponentially more paper at that time of year than at any other — and in the U.S., agencies are required to get tax statements about the previous year’s sales to their clients by the end of January. The combination of stressors tends to make ‘em a mite grumpy — and, believe it or not, even more eager than usual to reject.

So in case I’m being a bit too subtle here: if you can’t t get requested materials out the door this week, hold off until after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Trust me on this one. The average New Year’s resolution lasts a touch under three weeks (one of the many reasons that I deplore them), so the influx of paper calms down pretty quickly. You can afford to wait until it does.

And while we’re re waiting: it’s revision time! Hooray!

I heard that giant collective guffaw from my long-term readers. “When,” you are asking yourselves, “does Anne think it ISN’T a good time to revise a manuscript? Or, at the very least, to scan it for common mistakes and deviations from standard format?”

Okay, you’ve got me there. I have been preaching that particular gospel quite a bit this month, and with good reason: it is absolutely vital to clear your manuscript (and query letter, and synopsis) of spelling and grammatical errors, pronto.

Or at least before you send it out in a few weeks, after all of those resolvers have gotten it out of their systems. Because you, clever homework-doer that you are, know that there is more to landing an agent than making a single push: success comes to those who keep trying again and again.

And since agency screeners tend to stop reading after just a couple of spelling or grammatical errors, giving a book an honest shot at getting picked up means taking the time to create clean copy. This is not a business where good enough is in fact good enough; technical perfection is expected.

Sound like familiar advice? It should; both of the successfully self-published authors in my recent interview series said precisely the same thing — it’s worth your time to rework the manuscript until it fairly shines. Which just goes to show you that the standards of excellence prevailing in the world of traditional publishing may not be as far from those of the self-published world as one may have heard.

Either way, the author is generally held responsible for mistakes, so you’ll want to minimize them.

Because technical perfection is so important, I implore you, DO NOT rely upon your word processing program’s spelling and grammar checker as your only source of proofreading. As any professional editor will tell you, they tend to be rife with technical errors — mine, for instance, regularly tells me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re — and it’s far too easy for a slip of the mouse to convince your dictionary to accept caseless when you mean ceaseless.

Spell check, by all means, but there is no substitute for the good ol’ human eye running down a PRINTED page of text for catching errors.

Why not proof on your computer monitor? Because, as those editors to whom I referred above will happily tell you, the screen is not the best place to proofread, even if you read every syllable aloud (which I recommend, particularly for novels that contain quite a bit of dialogue). It’s just too easy for the eyes and the brain to blur momentarily in the editing process, sliding past an error unseen.

Yes, even if you have a simply immense computer screen — this is an instance where size truly doesn’t matter. (And the masses rejoice!)

Since I edit professionally, I have a monitor that could easily balance a small litter of puppies on it. But I ALWAYS use hard copy for a final edit, both for my work and for my clients’. As my downstairs neighbor would, I’m sure, be overjoyed to tell you, if a deadline is close, I’m going to be sitting in my library, reading the relevant manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, out loud.

I’m funny that way.

After you have proofed and poked the slower movements of your text, I STRONGLY urge you to have at least one third party reader take a gander at it. At the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, it is NOT the best idea in the world to be the only eyes who see your work before it lands on an agent’s or editor’s desk. (Or the press, if you are intending to self-publish.)

Gaining some outside perspective, via a trustworthy first reader, has many benefits. Most notably, good pre-submission feedback can enable you to weed out the rookie mistakes that tend to result in our old pal Millicent the screener’s choking on her coffee and reaching for the form rejection letter.

Like, for instance, misspelling your own name or address on the title page — which happens more than you might think. Hey, people are in a hurry.

Other than the simple fact that other eyes are more likely to catch mistakes than you are the 147th time you read a text, there is another reason that you should run your work by another human being before you submit them. I tremble to report this, but it is very, very common for writers to send off the first chapter or three of their novels WITHOUT EVER HAVING ANYONE ELSE READ THEM.

The result, of course, is that the agent’s feedback is the first time many writers EVER get an outside opinion of their work.

And, as those of you who have submitted to an agency lately know first-hand, that feedback is usually either minimal or non-existent. Or so generic that it could apply to any manuscript Millicent saw — remember, just because a rejection letter or e-mail is personalized with your name doesn’t necessarily mean that it was written freshly in response to reading your book. Stock phrases like I just didn’t fall in love with it, this is a tough market for fiction, and it doesn’t meet our needs at this time have graced rejection letters for many years; they are not intended as meaningful feedback, but as a polite negative.

It does not, in short, tend to be feedback that’s likely to help a writer improve his work before the next round of submissions. Your writing deserves feedback with content you can use.

Now, there are a lot of places you can receive such feedback. You can ask a professional freelance editor, as I described a few weeks ago; you can join a critique group; you can exchange with another writer. No one method is right for everybody, so you may need to experiment a little before figuring out how you most like to receive feedback.

But remember just before Christmas, when I was preparing you for that inevitable moment when some well-meaning co-celebrant leans over to ask, “So, dear, how’s your writing coming? Published anything yet?” No matter how sincerely this person asks to read your work, no matter how flattering her request may be, no matter how much she swears that she would love nothing better than to read it and tell you what she thinks — if this person is a close friend, lover, would-be or ex lover, or — sacre bleu! — a family member,

DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE THIS PERSON THE FIRST READER OF YOUR BOOK.

Long-term readers, chant it along with me now: the input of your best friend, your mother, your siblings, and/or your lover(s), however charming it may be, is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete, tangible feedback every writer needs. No offense to your kith and kin, but it’s true. Ties of affection do not necessarily good readers make.

Far be it from me to suggest that anyone who cares about you might be sweet and generous enough to lie to spare your feelings, but frankly, it happens. Be grateful that you have such supportive folks in your life. Cherish them; appreciate them; cling to them with the tenacity of an unusually insecure leech.

But DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE THESE PEOPLE THE FIRST READERS OF YOUR BOOK.

Get other first readers for your manuscripts, because a first reader who does not have the objectivity — or, often, the reading experience in your genre — to tell you the truth about your manuscript is simply not useful for a writer.

The closer the tie, the lower the objectivity — and no, smart people who read a lot are not exempt from this rule. Even if your father runs a major publishing house for a living, your sister is a high-flying agent, and your lover reviews major novelists regularly for THE WASHINGTON POST, they are unlikely to have the perspective necessary to give you objective feedback.

Why? Because they like you.

Don’t fault them for that. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself — or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns. So when your Aunt Ermintrude says she would just LOVE your manuscript (and trust me, at some point, she will; everyone likes the idea of getting a free advance peek at the next big bestseller), I give you my full permission to use me as your excuse for saying no.

Do it politely, of course, as if you were acting upon medical orders. “I’m sorry, but I’ve been advised by Dr. Mini that until I find an agent, I need to limit myself to objective readers,” or “I would love to, Aunt Ermintrude, but I have a writing group for feedback — what I need you for is support!” tends to go over MUCH better than “What, are you just trying to get out of buying a copy of the book?”

No one likes getting called on that. And, let’s face it, when you do have a book coming out, you DO want your Aunt Ermintrude to buy it — and to talk all of her friends into buying it.

If you think that professional writers don’t cadge on their relatives this way, think again; most of the pros I know keep mailing lists of everyone who has ever cut their hair, cleaned their teeth, listened to their son’s book reports, etc., to send a postcard the instant a new book of theirs comes out.

And for those of you who already have agents: break yourself of the habit NOW of promising free copies of your future books to your kith and kin. Since authors now receive so few copies — and are often expected to use those for promotion — it’s really, really common for the writer to end up having to BUY those promised freebies to distribute.

Yes, you read that correctly. Now picture everyone who has ever said to you, “Oh, you’ll have to send me a copy when it comes out.” It can be costly.

Promise to sign it for them instead. Get Aunt Ermintrude — and everyone else who loves you — used to the idea that supporting you means being willing to shell out hard cash for your book.

But DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE ANY OF THESE PEOPLE THE FIRST READER OF YOUR BOOK.

So on New Year’s Eve, should you find yourself wrapped in the arms of some charming, well-meaning soul who whispers those words that make the average aspiring writer melt like butter, I’d LOVE to read your book,” you will know what to say, right?

Right? Stop fantasizing about meeting a gorgeous stranger who wants to read your book and concentrate. Trust me, it will be better for both your book and your relationships with your loved ones if you thank him/her/them profusely — and say no.

Ditto with loved ones of every description. My mother is one of the best editors I’ve ever met, and naturally, she is eager to read my work, but we have both been in this business long enough to know that giving birth to a writer pretty much automatically disqualifies a reader from being particularly objective about that writer’s work.

I can feel that some of you still aren’t convinced. Perhaps you have kith and kin who just adore giving their unvarnished opinions to you, ostensibly for your own good. “Is it really worth worrying,” I hear voices out there saying, “that the cousin who told me I looked stupid in my prom dress will be afraid to tell me that Chapter Three doesn’t work? Since Grams has no problem telling me that she hates my husband, why should she hesitate to rip my novel to shreds, if it needs it?”

This is the other primary reason not to ask your loved ones for feedback, even if they are noted for their blithe indifference to any pain their truth-telling might cause to others: if you care about the advice-giver, it’s hard NOT to be emotionally involved in the response.

Ponder that for a moment, and you’ll see that it is true. If your favorite brother critiques your book, rightly or wrongly, it’s probably going to hurt more than if a member of your writing group gives precisely the same advice. And by the same token, the emotional baggage of the relationship, even if it is neatly packed and generally non-obtrusive, may make it harder to hear the advice qua advice.

Also — and I hesitate to bring this up, because, again, I’m sure your kith and kin are marvelous human beings — but all too often, critique by loved ones often runs in the other direction, particularly if you happen to be loved by the type the psychologists used to call passive-aggressive.

Seriously, I have had many, many editing clients come to me in tears because their significant others have pounced on the first typo of the manuscript as evidence that the writer should never have put pen to paper at all. Long-repressed sibling rivalries often jump for joy when they see a nice, juicy manuscript to sink their teeth into, and are you quite sure that your best friend ever forgave you for the time that your 4th-grade soccer team beat hers?

What you need is feedback on your BOOK, not on your relationships. Or, at least, that’s what you need in order to improve your book. (The state of your relationships is, of course, up to you.)

Which is why (hold your ears, because I’m about to start shouting again) YOU SHOULD NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE ANY OF THESE PEOPLE THE FIRST READER OF YOUR BOOK.

Often, too, when you are dealing with people unused to giving feedback, being overly-judgmental is not even a reflection of their opinions of your book: in many cases, being vicious is what people think giving feedback means. (And if you doubt this, take a gander at the first efforts of most movie reviewers — or, heck, if you happen to live in the Seattle metro region, at the majority of film reviews in the local free paper THE STRANGER, where most of the contributing writers evidently believe that the title of critic means that they should never, under any circumstances, say anything positive about a movie that might, say, induce a reader to go and see it. Given their editorial philosophy, I’m surprised to see any starred reviews at all in that paper.)

I’m not saying not to show your work to your kith and kin — if it makes you happy, do. But even if your Aunt Mary won a Pulitzer in criticism last year, you probably should not rely solely upon her critique of your manuscript.

Yes, I know: finding good first readers is a whole lot of work, especially if you live in a small town. But, at the risk of wearing out the record, if you are going to be called on a mistake, it is FAR better to be a little embarrassed by a good first reader than rejected by a hyper-critical agent, editor, or contest judge.

That way, you can fix the mistakes when the stakes are low — and, frankly, you are far more likely to get usable feedback. If you are one of the many too shy or too busy to show your work to others, yet are willing to send it out to be evaluated by grumpy literary assistants hyped up on seven lattes before lunch, consider carefully whether you really want your first reader to be someone who does not have either the time or the inclination to give you tangible feedback.

Because, really, will We’re sorry, but your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time tell you whether that orgy scene in Chapter 8 is the problem, or if it’s your constant use of the phrase “Wha-?” in dialogue?

Trust me, you need first readers who will tell you PRECISELY that.

Next time, I shall talk about strategies for getting the kind of good, solid feedback you need without treating your first readers like mere service-providers. (Hey, if you want to do this without engendering social obligations, you really should be working with a paid professional freelancer, rather than your friends.)

Until then, keep up the good work!

Spreading the joy — and a bit more advice about engaging professional readers

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Before I launch into today’s topic, I have some wonderful news to report: long-time blog reader Thomas DeWolf has a memoir coming out from Beacon Press in January! Congratulations, Tom!

This is one of those “See, it CAN be done!” stories I love to pass along: Tom, you see, is one of those good writers with a good story who took the time to learn how the business works. As a reader of my blog on the PNWA site (don’t worry; the archives are all here, so you’re not missing anything), he e-mailed me a set of insightful questions, then sought out the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace to refine his pitch.

That was two years ago, and I STILL remember the story: INHERITING THE TRADE is about Tom’s discovery (at the age of 47!) that he was descended from the most successful slave-trading family in U.S. history, responsible for importing over 10,000 Africans to the Americas. Horrified yet intrigued, Tom retraced his ancestors’ business dealings from New England to West Africa to Cuba, trying both to learn the truth and come to terms with what his family had done.

Not the kind of story one forgets, eh?

Everybody, please join me in a warm round of applause for Tom. As his publication date approaches, I shall keep you posted on his book’s progress. And please, everyone, remember to drop me a line about your triumphs when the happy day comes, so we can all share in the joy.

Okay, back to business.

For the last couple of posts, I have been talking about yet another present the legendary Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver might want to consider for the aspiring writers on his list: a few hours’ worth (or a few hundred pages’ worth) of professional editing. But, as I argued yesterday, whatever you — or Santa — decide you want from a freelance editor, make sure you know PRECISELY what services you are buying. And before you (or the Furtive NDGG) invest what can be quite a bit of money in the editing process, it’s important to have a clear idea of what you want to get out of the experience as a writer.

Other than to be picked up by an agent and/or sell the book to a publisher after taking the freelancer’s advice, of course. Actually, since freelance editors stand outside the agency and publishing house, none of us can legitimately make promises that any specific advice we give will unquestionably result in landing an agent or eventual publication.

And if you encounter anyone who tells you otherwise, run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit. As on the Internet, if an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Let the buyer beware.

So what can a legitimate freelance editor offer you? Well, among other things, perhaps answers about why a manuscript sporting a really good premise and good writing has been getting rejected. Remember, most manuscripts are rejected within the first page or two, for reasons that might not be apparent to the lay reader. A professional reader well versed in the writing norms of a particular book category or genre, however, can often give substantial insight into how to tweak a manuscript to avoid pitfalls.

Call me zany, but I suspect that there are many, many aspiring writers out there who would like to be told if there is a fixable problem behind all of those form-letter rejections that don’t specify what went wrong. (Are you listening, Furtive NDGG? You’ve already checked that list twice; leave it alone and pay attention.)

To bolster the egos I felt sagging during the last two paragraphs: not having some magical internal sensor that tells one just what the problem is most emphatically not a reflection upon one’s writing talent. Spotting it is usually a matter of experience, pure and simple.

As I mentioned yesterday, agents and editors don’t read like everyone else, and neither do good freelance editors. Our eyes are trained to jump on problems like… well, fill in any predator-prey analogy you like here. The point is, we’re fast, and our aim is deadly.

Since manuscripts are now expected to be completely publication-ready by the time they reach an agent’s desk — although they are frequently revised afterward — getting professional feedback can be exceptionally helpful. However — and this is a BIG however — writers new to having their work edited are often astounded, and even hurt, by just HOW straightforward professional feedback can be.

Think about that very, very carefully before you give this particular present, Furtive NDGG.

Now that I’ve put Santa on the qui vive, allow me to give the rest of you a heads-up: like an agent or editor at a publishing house, a good freelance editor is not going to pull any punches. The manner of conveying the information may be kind, but if any of them believe that a particular writing issue is going to harm your book’s market prospects, they are going to tell you so point-blank.

That is, after all, what they are being paid to do. That may seem self-evident, but in practice, it often isn’t.

That’s understandable, right? Serious manuscript feedback generally isn’t fun even when it’s free. While the brain may understand that critique is a good idea, the emotions often hold the opposite opinion. Someone who approaches the process primarily seeking ego reassurance from someone in the biz that his work is fine as it stands is almost invariably going to be disappointed.

And let’s face it, most of us write in the hope and expectation that someone will pay US to read our work, not that we will need to pay someone to read it. It can make one a mite testy.

The result: pretty much every editor you will find will have at least one story about the writer who showed up insisting that he wanted no-holds-barred, professional-level feedback — and then freaked out the instant he got it, because he hadn’t expected to be told to change his manuscript.

It sounds funny, but actually, it’s a not-uncommon result of a writer’s going into the editorial process — or into dealing with an agent or publishing house; the essential pattern’s the same — not understanding how the industry views criticism, as an impersonal means of improving the marketability of a manuscript.

I am reminded of M.F.K. Fisher’s story about being solicited to write a preface for a charity cookbook — you know, one of those collections of recipes that were so popular as fundraisers in the 1970s. The cookbook’s editors, both volunteers, came to visit Fisher, a neighbor of theirs, in the hope that having a big-name food writer attached to their compilation of local recipes would make the book sell better. It was, they told her, for a good cause, so she donated her expertise.

Well (the story goes), Fisher took the draft book from them and had a good, professional look through it. Without missing a beat, she instantly began barking out everything that was wrong with the book: poor editing, meandering writing, abundant redundancies, all of the things that professional writers and editors automatically flag in a manuscript.

When she looked up, however, the amateur editors were not gratefully taking notes. Instead, they were dissolved in tears. From their non-professional standpoint, Fisher had been hugely, gratuitously, deliberately mean, whereas in fact she had been paying them the compliment of taking their project {seriously}.

Yes, yes, I know: by this logic, the person eaten by a lion should be flattered by the lion’s impression that he tastes good. But as I have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about ’em.

The fact is, from a professional perspective, whitewashing an editorial opinion about a manuscript is a waste of everyone’s time. In a freelance editor’s feedback, it would border on unethical.

For those of you who think that this mindset sounds like a pretty fine reason to steer clear of anyone who might be tempted or empowered to pay this particular stripe of compliment, let me hasten to add: the ability to take criticism well is a highly valuable professional skill for writers; you need to develop it as part of your tool kit.

Your dream agent, I assure you, will just assume that you have already have it up your sleeve.

This is precisely why your dream agent probably should not be the first human being to set eyes on your work. If you do not have experience rolling with harsh-but-true feedback, it is well worth your while to join a very critical writing group, or take a writing class from a real dragon, or (why didn’t I think of this before?) show some of your work to a freelance editor, before you send your work to an agent.

Trust me, it is much, much easier to accept suggestions on how to revise your work gracefully when your critiquer is NOT the person who is going to decide whether to take you on as a client or acquire your book. The stakes are lower, so it’s less stressful by far. The experience alone is a pretty good reason to run at least part of your manuscript (say, the first 50 pages) across a freelance editor’s desk.

Which brings me to my final piece of advice on the subject: if you are brand-new to textual feedback, or if the potential cost of having all 542 pages of your baby edited makes your head spin, there’s no earthly reason that you need to jump into professional-level feedback with both feet right off the bat. (I’m sure I could have mixed a few more metaphors there, but you catch my drift, I’m sure.) Consider starting with just the first chapter, or the first few chapters, and working up from there.

This may sound as though I’m advising you to feed yourself to a school of piranha one toe at a time, but hear me out. One of the toughest lessons that every successful writer has to learn is that, regardless of how much we may wish it otherwise, agents don’t pick up books simply because someone wrote them. Nor do publishing houses offer contracts to books primarily because their authors really, really feel strongly about them.

Of course, these are the first steps to becoming a professional author, but they are not the only ones. The pros learn not only to write, but to rewrite — and yes, to take some pretty stark criticism in stride in the process. Not because having one’s words dissected is fun on a personal level, but because that is what the business side of this business expects from the creative side.

Your book is worth learning to live with that, isn’t it? Keep up the good work.