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

spanish_inquisition python 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See? It can be done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spanish-inquisition python

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spanish inquisition python 3

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

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

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

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

Take that, CATCH-22!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spanish_inquisition python 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See? It can be done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spanish-inquisition python

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spanish inquisition python 3

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

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

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

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

Take that, CATCH-22!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purging the plague of passivity, part III: the many, many different translations of aloha

palm tree, shadow2palm tree, shadow3
palm tree, shadow5palm tree, shadow
palm tree, shadow4palm tree, shadow6

Can you believe it, campers? I took an entire weekend off. Well, not off, precisely — I edited copy for two wildly different websites, walked a new author through the mysteries of blogging, and threw a gala dinner party — but the point is, I didn’t blog. Not even a little.

Except for very late last night, when I discovered that an apparently well-disposed Russian blogger had tried to leave a comment here. To be specific, I discovered it in my about-to-be-deleted spam. (What, you thought I wouldn’t log on to see if my spam-blocking program hadn’t committed some unanticipated mayhem while I was looking the other way, just because I wasn’t posting? Even when I’m on vacation, I often check in to answer readers’ questions.) Unfortunately, I don’t read Russian, but a friend who does said that it was an interesting comment. Even more unfortunately, neither my blogging program nor I is in a position to provide translation services for the fine folks who read this blog in translation. Which means, I’m afraid, that I can only post comments in English, even on the rare occasion that my spam-screening program allows me to see those in foreign languages.

All of which I felt compelled to mention late last night. What I neglected to mention was (a) the fact that my blogging program requires me to approve every first-time commenter’s post (which is why, in case some of you first-timers had been wondering, your comments may not have appeared on the blog right away) and (b) the reason that this level of scrutiny is necessary. Spamming advertisers often try to post links to their products’ websites as comments on blogs; if I did not employ my dual-level screening system, you would constantly be regaled with 40 or 50 ads, many of which for products and services that do not bear mention on a family-friendly site. (Since it’s important to me that those of you reading on computers with parental controls and/or public computers and/or work computers have unfettered access to the Author! Author! community, I actually do check links.)

So in case I haven’t said it recently: please, keep the conversation G-rated, keep it in the language of the site, and I’ll make a sincere effort to keep my spam screener from eating your thoughts. And if you’re even considering posting a link in my comments, please review the rules for posting comments before tossing ‘em up there.

Thanks tons. Let’s get back to the matter at hand.

Last week, I gave you a heads-up about a bugbear that haunts many a novel and memoir submission, the passive protagonist problem. The dreaded PPP, for those of you who missed my last couple of posts, arises when the action of a book occurs around the main character, rather than her participating actively in it — or (dare I say it?) causing it.

As I intimated last time (and the week before, and a year ago, and…), passive protagonists tend to annoy professional readers. While naturally not every single agent, editor, contest judge, or screener in the biz will instantly stop reading the moment the leading character in a novel stops to contemplate the world around him, at any given moment, thousands and thousands of submissions sitting on professional readers’ desks feature protagonists who do precisely that.

Often for pages and chapters at a time. It’s not necessarily that there’s no action occurring on the page; the protagonist merely seems to be an observer. Unlike the assumed other observer of the plot — the reader — the protagonist is a spectator enjoying the considerable twin advantages of being personally involved in the outcome of the struggle-in-progress and having the capacity to comment upon goings-on for the reader’s benefit. (In the language of the prevailing narrative, presumably.)

Yes, yes, I know: the latter practice is a necessity in a first-person narrative. The nature of the beast, really — when the narrator and the protagonist are one and the same, it’s pretty hard to keep the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings out of the narrative. (Although you’d be surprised at how many memoir submissions seem devoted to the losing battle of trying to keep the narrative impersonal. Just the facts, ma’am.) And in a close third-person narrative, the reader if often treated to glimpses of the protagonist’s internal mutterings.

All of that’s perfectly appropriate, of course — although as Millicent the agency screener would be only too happy to tell you, the proper proportion of internal monologue to external activity varies wildly by genre. An unusually chatty protagonist of a Western would be practically silent by the standards of most science fiction subcategories, for instance, and even a relatively reticent memoir narrator would strike the average thriller’s protagonist as living almost entirely inside his own head.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: there’s just no substitute for being conversant with the norms of your chosen book category. And there’s just no other way of becoming conversant with the current market than sitting down and reading books like yours that have been released within the past few years.

Category-appropriate levels of internal monologue is not what I mean by a passive protagonist problem, though. I’m talking about the kind of protagonist who watches intently what is going on around him — sometimes letting the reader in on his thoughts on the subject, sometimes not — but does not speak or act in a way that is in any way likely to change what’s going on.

The plot just carries him along, a leaf tossed into a river.

Nothing against a little quiet contemplation, but if you were screening 50 manuscripts a day, and 30 of them featured passive protagonists, it would start to annoy you eventually, too. (And in response to what half of you just thought: no, that’s not an exaggeration; if anything, the 30 out of 50 estimate is on the low side. Just ask any experienced contest judge.)

Given the extreme popularity of the passive protagonist, perhaps it’s understandable that the average Millicent’s reaction to encountering inert characters tends to be a trifle, well, negative, almost to the point of being reflexive. One doesn’t need to pull all that many pans out of hot ovens without using mitts to start snatching one’s hands away from blister-inducing surfaces, after all.

Already, I see a forest of raised hands. “But if the pros dislike character passivity so much,” some of you call out, and with excellent reason, “why don’t they just tell writers so? How hard would it be to post on their websites or include in their agency guide listings, ‘No passive protagonists, please?'”

Excellent point, thought-huggers: that would indeed be a spectacularly good plan. However, as is the case with so many basic facts of publishing, many agents and editors are under the impression that they do tell aspiring writers about it — in fact, even form-letter rejections tend to contain some reference to the phenomenon, but not in so many words. Usually, it’s cast in terms that you’d have to read many manuscripts a week to translate accurately.

I couldn’t identify with the main character, for instance, is a fairly common euphemism for Passive Protagonist Syndrome.

Was that giant thump I just heard a thousand jaws hitting the floor? Let me guess: you thought you were the only submitter who had ever heard gotten this response, right?

Would you be surprised to learn that variations on this sentiment are the most common pieces of rejection feedback writers receive? So I would imagine that quite a few of you — at least, the ones who have been querying and submitting diligently, bless your intrepid hears — have seen at least one iteration of this little number in at least one rejection letter.

Let’s take a little informal poll to see how effective this common form-rejection phraseology has been at making its point. Hands up, anyone who received such a response and instantly thought, “Oh, I’d better make my protagonist more active, by gum.”

Anyone? Anyone?

To be fair, there are other a million reasons a screener (who is usually the one weeding out submissions at a big agency, by the way, rather than the agent) might not have identified with a protagonist other than passivity. But it is one of the more common. Other rejection-speak that might translate as an appeal for more activity: I didn’t like the main character enough to follow him through an entire book, There isn’t enough conflict here, and the ever-popular I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist enough to pick up the book.

Since this last euphemism has about as many meanings as aloha, however, it’s often difficult to translate exactly. I have seen it mean everything from, The first paragraph bored me to I hate books about brunettes. You’d be amazed what a broad range of issues folks on the business side of the biz will lump under the general rubric of writing problem.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you slice-of-lifers fume, “this is grossly unfair! Surely, this is not a reaction that every reader would have to a slightly lackadaisical character — and in case you haven’t noticed, the world is stuffed to the gills with people who do not rush headlong into conflict at the slightest provocation. Haven’t any of you professional readers ever heard of REALISM?”

Oh, I think that this problem is all about realism — I suspect that writers tend to identify with passive protagonists far, far more than other readers do. (And just to give you a heads-up, imaginary protestors: professional readers generally HATE it when aspiring writers accuse them of having invented the marketing reality that certain books are harder to sell than others. Really.)

There’s good reason that writers tend to root for the quiet types, of course: we writers spend a lot of time and energy watching the world around us, capturing trenchant observations and seeing relationships in ways nobody ever has before. Small wonder, then, that writers often think of people who do this as likeable, charming, interesting people, well worth knowing — and certainly lovable enough to warrant following all the way to the end of a book, thank you very much, Millicent..

So it often comes as a great shock to these writers that the average fiction or memoir agent, to put it mildly, does not share this opinion. Nor does the average editor of same; even those who publish books by journalists — who are, after all, trained to be primarily observers — want the subjects of those stories to be active.

For one simple reason: because such stories are, by and large, infinitely easier to sell to readers.

Yes, really — remember, we writers are far from normal readers. We buy a disproportionate share of any year’s crop of literary fiction, for instance, as well as much of the short story collections and masses of poetry. We pore over books in our chosen book category — at least I hope you do; I certainly recommend it often enough — following our favorite authors’ careers with a loyalty and intensity that others reserve for sports stars.

We are, in fact, an extremely specific niche market of book purchasers. It would be interesting to try to make the case that a particular piece of literary fiction could be marketed successfully to writers-who-read, specifically on the grounds that its protagonist does think like a writer: observing, observing, observing.

However, if you are writing in most of the established book categories, I can virtually guarantee that writers will not be your primary target audience.

And that’s something of a pity, because from a writer’s point of view, one of the great fringe benefits of the craft is the delightful ability to make one’s after-the-fact observations on a situation appear to be the protagonist’s first reactions — and one of the simplest ways to incorporate our shrewd observations on the human condition seamlessly into a text is to attribute them to a character.

Writers who read LOVE that.

Which is fine, until the protagonist becomes so busy observing — or feeling, or thinking — that it essentially becomes his full-time job in the book. Since in the two of the three most common fictional voices — omniscient narrator, first person, and tight third person, where the reader hears the thoughts of the protagonist — the observing character is generally the protagonist, this propensity sometimes results in a book centered on someone who is too busy observing others to have a life of his or her own.

Yes, you did just draw the correct conclusion there: on the page, being purely reactive seldom comes across as all that fascinating a life.

That sentiment just stirred up some pretty intense reactions out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear some reactivity-lovers cry, “my protagonist enjoys a rich and full emotional life by responding to stimuli around him. His mental activity is prodigious. If that was good enough for Mr. Henry James, why shouldn’t it be good enough for me?”

Well, for starters, have you taken a gander at some of Mr. Henry James’ sentences lately? Some of them are two pages long, for heaven’s sake; even Dickens would have blushed at that.

More to the point, from a regular reader’s point of view, a protagonist’s being upset, resentful, or even wrestling within himself trying to figure out the best course of action is not automatically dramatic. To compound that blasphemy, allow me to add: thought about interesting matters does not necessarily make interesting reading.

In the throes of eliciting solid human emotion or trenchant insight, writers can often lose sight of these salient facts.

Why aren’t internal dynamics inherently dramatic, you ask? Because whilst the mind is churning, the entirety of protagonist’s glorious energy expenditure typically is not changing the world around her one iota. At the risk of sounding like a constructor of form-letter rejections, it’s substantially more difficult to identify with a protagonist who diagnoses the problems around her with pinpoint accuracy, yet does not act upon these insights in order to rectify the situation, than one who jumps into the conversation or does something to disturb the status quo.

I’ll go even farther than that: the character who speaks up in the face of what she perceives to be injustice, even if it’s very quietly, or who takes a concrete step to gain what she wants, even if it’s a very tiny or largely symbolic one, is usually more likable than one who remains inert and resents. And before any of you creators of anti-heroes scoff at the very concept of protagonist likability, let me whip out yet another of the great form-letter euphemisms: I didn’t care enough about the character to keep turning the pages.

Harsh? You bet, but not entirely unjustified, from Millicent’s point of view. Here’s how the passive protagonist phenomenon generally plays out in otherwise solid, well-written manuscripts:

(1) The protagonist is confronted with a dilemma, so she worries about for pages at a time before doing anything about it (If, indeed, she elects to do anything about it at all.)

(2) If it’s a serious problem, she may mull it over for entire chapters. (Or entire volumes of a trilogy, in an 18th-century novel.)

(3) When the villain is mean to her, instead of speaking up, she will think appropriate responses. Should the mean person be her love interest, she must never, ever ask him to explain himself; much better to mull his possible motivations mentally, and proceed upon those assumptions.

(4) At some point, she will probably talk it all over with her best friend(s)/lover(s)/people who can give her information about the situation before selecting a course of action. (See parenthetical disclaimer in #1.)

(5) If she is confronted with a mystery, she will methodically collect every piece of evidence before drawing any conclusions that might require action. Frequently, this requires tracking down interested parties, asking a single question, and listening passively while those parties provide her with the necessary clues.

(6) However, if the problem to be confronted is relationship-based, she must on no account simply ask any of the parties involved how they view the situation, or reveal her own feelings on the subject to them. Avoidable guesswork may in this manner frequently supply suspense.

(7) Even in the wake of discovering ostensibly life-changing (or -threatening) revelations, she takes the time to pay attention to the niceties of life; she is not the type to leave her date in the lurch just because she’s doomed to die in 24 hours.

(8) When she has assembled all the facts and/or figured out what she should do (often prompted by an outside event that makes her THINK), she takes swift action, and the conflict is resolved.

Is it me, or is this progression of events just a tad passive-aggressive? Especially in plotlines that turn on misunderstandings, wouldn’t it make more sense if the protagonist spoke directly to the person with whom she’s in conflict at some point?

Gee, one might almost be tempted to conclude that writers as a group are confrontation-avoiders. Maybe we should all retreat into our individual corners and mull that one over.

Up those hands go again. “But Anne, I’m worried about the opposite problem: if I send my protagonist barreling into every available conflict, won’t that make readers dislike her, too? Not to mention getting her into all kinds of trouble — if she said out loud precisely what she thought of the people around her, they’d bludgeon her to a pulp within fifteen minutes.”

I’m glad you brought this up, hand-raisers: often, writers will have their protagonists keep their more trenchant barbs to themselves in order to make them more likable, especially if the protagonist happens to be female. The logic behind this choice at first glance seems solid: in real life, very aggressive people don’t tend to work and play as well with others as gentle, tolerant, accommodating sorts.

But as we’ve discussed before, what’s true in real life isn’t necessarily true on the page. An inert character who is nice to all and sundry is generally less likable from the reader’s point of view than the occasionally viper-tongued character who pushes situations out of the realm of the ordinary and into the conflictual.

Because, as I MAY have mentioned before, conflict is entertaining. On the page, if not in real life.

More to the point, lack of conflict can slow a narrative practically to a standstill. So can conflict in which the character the reader is supposed to care most about is not integrally involved, or conflict where the outcome doesn’t matter much to the protagonist — because if the protagonist doesn’t care enough to get involved, why should the reader?

“But Anne,” the hand-raisers protest, “my protagonist cares deeply about what’s going on; that’s why she thinks about it all so much, Besides, my villains are based upon people who are just awful in real life, so it’s impossible that the reader won’t automatically root against them, no matter whether my protagonist leaps into the fray or not. So what’s wrong with letting her sit back while the bad guys expose their true colors?”

Ooh, that’s a tough one. Not the question, necessarily, but pulling off plopping characters ripped from real life into a narrative where a comparatively virtuous protagonist stands back and observes their bad behavior. While pitting kindly and forbearing protagonists against aggressive bad folks (who often bear suspicious resemblances to the writer’s “ex-friends, ex-lovers, and enemies,” as the bard Joe Jackson likes to call them) is probably a pretty healthy real-world response, emotionally speaking, it can be deadly on a page.

Why? Well, the reader’s sense of dramatic fitness, for one thing: while it may be realistic to show a character confronting the same intractable problem or awful co-worker day after day, the mere fact of bringing the problem up generates an expectation that something will happen to change that status quo, doesn’t it? If the narrative violates that expectation, not only is the reader likely to become impatient — he’s likely to get bored.

It’s difficult to keep a reader interested indefinitely in a repeating pattern of events, no matter how beautifully they may be described. Then, too, sitting around and resenting, no matter how well-justified that resentment may be, is awfully darned hard to convey well in print.

But that doesn’t stop most of us from trying from time to time, does it?

Come on — ‘fess up; we all do it. We writers are notorious for taking revenge on the page, Rare is the creative writer who does not blow off the occasional real-world resentment, angst, or just plain annoyed helplessness by having his protagonist think pithy comebacks, uncomfortable reactions, pointed rhetorical questions, and/or outraged cris de coeur against intractable forces. Instead of, say, uttering these sentiments out loud, which might conceivably provoke a confrontation (and thus the conflict so dear to Millicent’s heart), or doing something small and indirect to undermine the larger conditions the protagonist is unable to alter.

Yes, people mutter to themselves constantly in real life; few of us actually tell of the boss in the way s/he deserves. However, at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, just because something actually occurs does not necessarily mean that it will make good fiction.

What does make good fiction is conflict. Lots of it. On every page, if possible.

This is not to say, of course, that every protagonist should be a sword-wielding hero, smiting his enemies right and left — far from it. But even the mousiest character is capable of acting out from time to time.

And yes, I am about to give you another homework assignment. How clever of you to see it coming.

Whip out those Post-It notes and highlighting pens and start running through your manuscript, seeking out silent blowings-off of emotional steam. Whenever you find them, check to see if there is conflict on the rest of the page — and if your protagonist is taking part in it actively, only in thought, or simply as an observer.

Depending upon what you find in each instance, here are some possible next steps. (Fair warning: some of these are going to sound a wee bit familiar from last week’s assignment, as we’re talking about fixing the same phenomenon.)

(1) If there’s not conflict on the page in front of you, ask yourself: how could I add some? Or, if you’re trying to avoid adding length to the manuscript, are there elements slowing down the scene that you could cut? Does this interaction add enough to the plot or character development that it actually needs to be there?

(2) If your protagonist is active, pat yourself on the back. Then ask yourself anyway: is there something even more interesting s/he could do here? Something less predictable? A way that her reaction could surprise the reader a little more, perhaps? Small twists go a long way toward keeping a reader involved.

(3) If your protagonist is merely thinking her response, go over the moments when she is silently emoting. Is there some small tweak you could give to her response that would make it change the situation at hand? Or — and it’s astonishing how infrequently this solution seems to occur to most aspiring writers — could she say some of the things she’s thinking OUT LOUD?

(4) If your protagonist is a pure observer in the scene, sit down and figure out what precisely the observed interaction adds to the book. Are there ways that you could achieve the same goals in scenes where your protagonist is a stronger player? If not, could there be more than one conflict in the scene, so your protagonist could be involved in the lesser one?

If you find yourself worrying that these textual tweaks may cumulatively transform your protagonist a charming, well-rounded lump of inactivity into a seething mass of interpersonal problem generation, consider this: many agents and editors like to see themselves as people of action, dashing swashbucklers who wade through oceans of the ordinary to snatch up the golden treasure of the next bestseller, preferably mere seconds before the other pirates spot it. Protagonists who go for what they want tend to appeal to them.

More, at any rate, then they seem to appeal to most writers. In fact, this whole argument may well seem glib and market-minded to some of you, and frankly, from an artistic perspective, that’s completely understandable.

That’s not the only perspective that’s relevant here, though, even for the artist. Remember, a submitted manuscript does not need to speak only to its author, or even to other writers: its appeal needs to translate into other mindsets. It’s the writer’s job to make sure that the manuscript can speak to both the business side of the publishing world and the artistic side.

Before your work can speak to your target market of readers, it has to please another target market: agents and editors. Even if you have good reason to keep your protagonist from confronting his challenges directly — and you may well have dandy ones built into your plot; look at Hamlet — he will still have to keep in motion enough to please this necessary first audience.

So while you’re revising, ask yourself: how can I coax my protagonist out of his head, and into his story? How can his actions or words alter this particular moment in the plotline, if only a little?

As individuals, we can’t always more mountains, my friends; we can, however, usually kick around a few pebbles. Give it some thought under those swaying palms, people — but not too much. Keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part X: a place where the slugs run free

flower in France

Have we been talking so intensely about the first couple of pages of your manuscript — the title page, the first page of text — that standard format has invaded your dreams yet? Yes, yes, I know: this series on what professional manuscripts look like has been both example-ridden and extraordinarily nit-picky, even by my standards of detail-orientation. So you probably won’t be altogether astonished to learn that before we move on from the first page of the text (and of each chapter) to considering an ordinary page, I want to devote today to pagination.

Don’t groan; it’s an important issue. Not numbering your manuscript, book proposal, or contest entry’s pages an almost universal instant rejection offense; trust me, Millicent the agency screener is going to notice how and if you do it. In fact, as cosmetic issues go, how and where an aspiring writer chooses to place the page number on the page can tell Millicent a tremendous amount about him.

Specifically, whether he has done his homework about submission, because there is only one place on a manuscript page that it is permissible to place a page number: in the slug line.

(Admit it — you’re relieved that I didn’t festoon the top of this post with a picture of a slug. Although I suppose a slug-minded person might misinterpret that shadow in the lower right of the photo a something crawling. Actually, there was a slug in the immediate environment when I took the pretty photo above, but it was on a leaf below the primary flower, completely hidden from sight. So I feel entirely justified in presenting this as the Official Flower of the Slug Line. It’s certified slug-approved!)

Speaking of relative location, is everybody quite sure where the slug line should be positioned on the page? Just to be on the safe side, let’s take another gander at an example from yesterday’s post:

See it in the upper left-hand margin? Notice, please, that the page number belongs within the slug line, rather than anywhere else on the page. This is as proper on page 139 of a book manuscript as on page one. While you’re going around noticing things, also notice that in each of these examples, the page’s only reference to the author’s name or the title of the book appears in the slug line.

The slug line confuses a lot of aspiring writers; until you have seen piles and piles of professional manuscripts, it looks kind of funny. And when you’ve been told over and over again that a manuscript should have a 1-inch margin on all sides, it can seem counterintuitive to add a line of text, even such a short one, within that margin.

But I assure you, it’s always been done that way. And why? Followers of this series, chant it with me now: because it looks right to professional readers.

Yes, that logic is a trifle tautological, now that you mention it. If you have a problem with that, I would suggest taking it up with the powers that rule the universe. As I believe the fact that my memoir has been in the hands of a reputable publisher for years and still has yet to be released (due to lawsuit threats concerning who owns my memories, believe it or not) makes abundantly clear, I apparently do not rule the universe. If I did, Microsoft Word would be set up to create documents in standard format automatically, Word for Mac and Word for Windows would be set up so those using one could easily give formatting advice to those using the other, air pollution would be merely a thing of distant memory, and ice cream cones would be free on Fridays.

As none of these things seems to be true, let’s get back to business: how does one create that pesky slug line, anyway?

Back in the days when typewriters roamed the earth, it was perfectly easy to add a slug line to every page: all a writer had to do was insert it a half-inch down from the top of the page, left-justified, floating within the 1-inch-deep top margin. For word-processed documents, it’s a trifle more complicated.

The slug line still belongs in the same place, .5 inches from the top of the paper, suspended in the middle of the requisite 1-inch top margin. But instead of laboriously typing it on each page individually as writers did in the bad old days, one simply inserts it in the header. In most versions of Word (I can’t speak for all of them), the header may be found under the VIEW menu.

Before the Luddites out there trot out their usual grumble about tracking down the bells and whistles in Word, think about this: placing the slug line in the header also enables the writer to take advantage of one of the true boons of the advent of word processing, pages that number themselves.

As opposed to having to do it manually, laboriously retyping the slug line in its entirely on each and every page of the manuscript. Oh, you may laugh, but every so often, I will receive a manuscript constructed by a writer who was not aware that Word would do this for her. Instead of utilizing the header function, the poor writer will have elected to include the necessary information on the first line of text on the page.

Not only does this unfortunate misconception involve an absolutely monumental and ultimately unnecessary effort, but the result doesn’t pass the all-important does it look right? test. Take a peek for yourself:

See how pulling the slug line down into the text messes with the spacing of the page? Here, an entire line of text is sacrificed to it — and let me tell you, that line is not going to go quietly.

How so, you ask? Well, think about it: what’s inevitably going to happen if new writing is inserted on a page formatted this way? That’s right: the writer is going to have to go back and move each and every one of those slug lines to match the NEW pagination.

I’d show you a practical example of this, but it’s just too sad to contemplate. Trust me, it would be a heck of a lot of work, and writers who do it are likely to end up beating their heads against their studio walls.

Take a moment to peruse that last example again. See any other problems with the slug line? How about the fact that it includes the word page? Shouldn’t be there; just the numbers will suffice.

Did I just hear some huffs of indignation out there? “But Anne,” I hear the formatting-ambitious cry, “I think it looks kind of nifty to include page before the page number? It’s kinda stylish. If it’s just a matter of personal style, who could possibly be hurt by including it, if I like the way it looks?”

Well, you, for starters. And why? (Chanters, ready your lungs.) Because it just would not look right to someone who reads manuscripts, book proposals, or contest entries on a regular basis.

No kidding — I’ve seen screeners get quite indignant about this one. “Does this writer think I’m stupid?” Millicent is prone to huff. (Don’t bother to answer that question; it’s rhetorical.) “Does she think I don’t know that the numeral that appears on every page refers to the number of pages? Does she think I’m going to go nuts and suddenly decide that it is a statistic, or part of the title? Or maybe a wayward date that’s wandered off to the wrong part of the page?”

Don’t bait her; the lady has a hard life. Do it the approved way.

Okay, did you spot any other problems? What about the fact that the first character is in a different typeface from the rest of the text? Or the equally disturbing fact that the first paragraph of the chapter is not indented?

Again, the writer may consider this stylish, but I can assure you, Millicent won’t. Fortunately for her blood pressure, the odd typeface for the first letter, in imitation of the illuminated texts hand-written by monks in the Middle Ages, doesn’t turn up all that often in manuscripts other than fantasy and YA, for one simple reason: books in that category are more likely to feature this it’s-a-new-chapter signal than others. But once again, what an editor may decide, rightly or wrongly, is appropriate for a published book has no bearing upon what Millicent expects to see in a manuscript.

Save the manuscript illumination for someone who will appreciate it. Hop in your time machine and track down a medieval monk to admire your handiwork, if you like, but in this timeframe, keep the entire manuscript in the same typeface and size.

The non-indented first paragraph of a chapter is fairly common in mystery submissions, I have noticed, and starting to become more prevalent in other kinds of fiction as well of late. (For an interesting discussion about why, please see the comments on this post and this one.) In fact, I’ve been told by many mystery writers — and rather tersely, too — that eschewing indentation in this context is an homage to the great early writers in the genre, an echo of their style, so who is yours truly to try to talk them out of that gesture of respect?

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, I’m someone familiar with what Millicent expects to see on a page — as well as someone who is aware that almost without exception, in Edgar Allan Poe’s time all the way down to our own, the editor has determined the formatting that appeared on any given printed page, not the author. To professional eyes, especially peevish ones like Millicent’s, a manuscript that implicitly appropriates this sort of decision as authorial might as well be the first step to the writer’s marching into Random House, yanking off a well-worn riding glove, and striking the editor-in-chief with it. It’s just not a good idea for someone brand-new to the biz to do.

Yes, you read that correctly: it’s sometimes seen as a challenge to editorial authority. And while we could speculate for the next week about the level of insecurity that would prompt regarding a minor formatting choice as a harbinger of incipient insurrection, is the manuscript of your first book really the right place to engender that discussion amongst Millicent and her cronies?

Exactly. Save the formatting suggestions for a long, intimate discussion over coffee with your editor after she acquires the book. You’ll probably lose any disagreement on the subject, but at least you will have made your preferences known. Until that happy, caffeine-enhanced day, just accept that the industry prefers to see every paragraph in a manuscript indented the regulation five spaces.

It just looks right that way.

While we’re at it, how about the bolded chapter number and title in that last example? Nothing in a manuscript should be in boldface. Nothing, I tell you. Uh-uh. Not ever. (Except for that nonfiction exception we talked about yesterday. And I have seen authors get away with the title itself on the tile page, but frankly, I wouldn’t chance it on a first book.)

Nor should anything be underlined — not even names of books or song titles. Instead, they should be italicized, as should words in foreign tongues that are not proper nouns. Yes, Virginia, back in the day when typewriters roamed the earth, underlining was the norm, for the simple reason that most typewriters did not have italic keys. So if you consult an older list of formatting restrictions or one intended solely for short story formatting — both of which seem to be circulating at an unprecedented rate on the web of late, pretty much always billed as universally-applicable rules for any type of writing, anywhere, anyhow, a phenomenon which simply does not exist — you might conceivably be told that publications, song titles, and/or foreign words (sacre bleu!) should be underlined. But trust me on this one: any agent is going to tell you to get rid of the underlining, pronto.

And why? All together now: because it just doesn’t look right that way.

All right, campers, do you feel ready to fly solo into a critique of a first page? Here are two pages of text, studded with standard format violations for your ferreting-out pleasure:

How did you do? Are those problems just leaping off the page at you now? If not, ask yourself: does that first page contain information that ought to be on the title page instead? Are the margins even? Are the paragraphs formatted correctly? And so forth.

In fact, it’s a terrific idea for any aspiring writer to get into the habit of asking those types of questions immediately after clapping eyes upon any manuscript, his own or anybody else’s. Why? Because that’s Millicent’s first instinct. However literature-loving a she may be, she sees so many incorrectly-formatted submissions that a properly-formatted one automatically looks at first glance like more professional writing to her.

As, with practice, it will to you. I promise. To get that ball rolling, as well as to reward you for so much hard work — or to provide you with some helpful comparison, depending upon how you did on that last little test — here are a couple of correctly-formatted pages, to soothe your tired eyes:

Whenever you start finding yourself chafing at the rules of standard format, come back and take a side-by-side gander at these last sets of examples, to regain perspective on what standard format is and why it’s important in a submission, proposal, or contest entry. I assure you, after a professional reader like Millicent has been at it for even a couple of months, every time she sees the bad example, mentally, she’s picturing the good example right next to it.

Which is why, as we have discussed, manuscripts that look right get taken more seriously than those that don’t. And regardless of how you may feel about Millicent’s literary tastes, isn’t a serious read from her what you want for your book? Or your book proposal? Or your contest entry?

Did you notice that I snuck us from the first page of the text into the second in my last example? Next time, we’ll continue delving into the mysteries of the mid-manuscript page. Keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part IX: and then there are the rules that are sort of bendy sometimes

ice dancers

I’m posting a trifle later than usual tonight, campers, resulting in more of a Tuesday morning post than my planned Monday evening billet-doux to standard format for manuscripts. I blame the Olympics; does the coverage ever stop? Just when I manage to tear my weary eyes away from ice dancing, three hours of curling magically appear after midnight. It’s as if somebody in the programming department said, “You know what I’d really like to do this year? Schedule seven-hour blocks of competition in events where the athletes wear jewelry on ice.”

Oh, you may laugh, but have you taken a gander at the wrists, earlobes, and/or necks of the women curlers over the last few days? My eyes may be bleary from overuse, but I could have sworn that the U.K.’s wunderkind was sporting a charm bracelet today. On her throwing hand.

Enough frivolity. Back to business.

A few days ago, I introduced something that Millicent the agency screener just loves to see, a properly-formatted first page of a manuscript. It looked, if you will recall, a little something like this:

good example

This is also, in case you had been wondering, what the opening of each subsequent chapter should look like as well: on a fresh page, 14 single lines from the top. Or, to put it another way, 6 double-spaced lines under the chapter title. (For those of you who do not know how to insert a hard page break into a Word document, it’s located under the INSERT menu. Select BREAK, then PAGE BREAK.)

Not certain what that might look like in practice? Okay, here’s an example I have ready to hand: the first page of the sixth chapter of my memoir might conceivably look like this:

Memoir wo title

I said might, because actually, I’m not a big fan of chapters named Chapter Six, even if they happen to be the sixth chapter in the manuscript. It’s sort of like dubbing a suburban street lined with elm trees Elm Street: there’s nothing inherently wrong with a straightforward descriptive title, of course, but you must admit, it’s not precisely going to come as a shock to many readers when Chapter Six appears immediately after Chapter Five.

All of which is a rather heavy-handed lead-in (inevitable, perhaps, after having spent so many hours watching curling) to a question I’m sure many title-namers out there have been harboring: how should a titled chapter be formatted? Specifically, if a chapter has a title, should it also be numbered?

In a word, yes. The chapter title appears, centered, on the first double-spaced line under the chapter number, also centered.

As, indeed, we’ve already seen in today’s first example. But in furtherance of my ongoing mission to place so many examples of correctly-formatted manuscript pages in front of your weary eyes that you’ll start automatically recoiling from pages in published books, muttering, “Well, that wouldn’t work in a manuscript submission, let’s take a gander at another one:

memoir w ch title

Actually, I had an ulterior motive in showing you that last example: in comparing it to the example just before it, do you notice anything about the amount of space between the chapter number and the beginning of the text?

If you immediately shot your hand into the air, exclaiming, “By gum, Anne, the area between the two appears identical! You’ve simply placed the chapter title within it, you clever lady,” award yourself 1700 Brownie points. (Or a bronze medal — there seem to be an awful lot of them lying around these days.) Regardless of whether a chapter’s opening page contains a chapter designation, a title, or both, the text begins the same distance from the top of the page.

The same logic would apply, of course, to any other section-breaking information you might care to include at the beginning of a chapter — alerting the reader to a break between Part I and Part II of a book, for instance. While we’re at it, let’s take a look at that in practice: if Chapter 6 were the beginning of Part II of the book (it isn’t, but we aim to please here at Author! Author!), I would have formatted it thus:

memoir w part break

Starting to get the hang of this?

Not yet completely comfortable? Okay, let’s try inserting another common piece of introductory information: identifying a narrator-du-chapter in a multiple point-of-view novel.

If the switch comes at the beginning of a chapter, it couldn’t be easier: it’s simply another reader-signal that belongs above the pre-text white space, right? To see this principle in action, let’s pretend our ongoing example is fiction (which it isn’t; my middle school honestly was pelted with migratory spiders) and place the narrator’s name in the traditional spot:

new chapter with name

That’s the way one would handle the matter in a manuscript like, say, Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, where the narrator changes with the chapter. If there were also a chapter title (perhaps not advisable in this case, as there’s already significant information at the top of that page for the reader to absorb), it would go between the chapter heading and the narrator identifier.

I would show you an example of that, but it’s late; there’s curling on, and I’m positive that you can extrapolate.

You’re thinking that there must be an easier way to format the first page of a chapter than to memorize the way it should look and reproduce it from scratch each time, aren’t you? You’re not alone, if so; most seasoned authors probably wouldn’t appreciate my revealing a working secret, but pretty much everyone worries that someday her will forget to hit return one of the necessary times, so that Chapter 5 will begin — gasp! — ten lines from the top, while Chapter 1-4 and 6 on will begin twelve lines down.

I know: gives you the willies even to contemplate how Millicent might react to that level of formatting inconsistency, doesn’t it? Double-check each and every chapter opening before you submit; trust me, you’ll be happier in the long run.

Ooh — that was an unpopular suggestion, wasn’t it? Fully a third of you have your hands waving impatiently in the air. “That’s an absurdly time-consuming suggestion, Anne,” the irate third huff. “Oh, I understand that the chapter number or title needs to appear at the top of the first page and each subsequent chapter; I’m perfectly happy to leave five double-spaced blank lines between it and the first line of text, so the first paragraph starts six lines down. But surely there’s an easier way to do this — a template or something? Perhaps Word has some sort of default setting I can employ so I need never worry about the issue again as long as I live?”

Standard format templates do exist, now that you mention it, but frankly, Word is already equipped with two perfectly dandy features for reproducing formatting exactly in more than one place in a document: COPY and PASTE.

The easiest way to make sure from the outset each chapter opening is identical is to create your own template. It’s very simple to do: just copy from “Chapter One” down through the first line of text, then paste it on the first page of chapter 2, 3, etc. Once the format is in place, it’s a snap to fill in the information appropriate to the new chapter.

Easy as the proverbial pie, right?

Oh, dear — now another group of you have raised your hands. Yes? “But Anne,” exclaim those of you who favor switching narrator — or place, or time — more often than once per chapter, “we are, as we believe the tag line identifying us as speakers just mentioned, advocates of those nifty mid-chapter signposts that we see all the time in published books, boldfaced notifications that the time, place, or speaker has just changed. How would I format that in a manuscript?”

You’re basically talking about incorporating subheadings into a novel, right? Or at least what would be a subheading in a nonfiction manuscript: a section break followed by a new title.

I’m fully prepared to answer this question, of course, if only to show all of you nonfiction writers out there what your subheadings should look like. Before I do, however, I’d like to ask fiction writers interested in adopting this strategy a quick question: are you absolutely positive that you want to do that?

That’s not an entirely flippant question, you know. There are plenty of Millicents out there who have been trained by old-fashioned agents — and even more editorial assistants who work for old-fashioned editors. And that’s important to know, because even in an age when mid-chapter subheadings aren’t all that uncommon in published books, there are still plenty of professional readers whose knee-jerk response to seeing ‘em is invariably, “What is this, a magazine article? In my day, fiction writers used language to indicate a change in time or place, rather than simply slapping down a subheading announcing it; if they wanted to indicate a change of point of view, they would either start a new chapter, find a graceful way to introduce the shift into the text, or have the narrative voice change so markedly that the shift would be immistakable! O tempore! O mores!

I just mention.

To pros of this ilk, the practice of titling a section, or even a chapter, with clear indicators of time, place, or speaker will always seem to be indicative of a show, don’t tell problem. And you have to admit, they sort of have a point: novelists have been indicating changes of time and space by statements such as The next day, back at the ranch… ever since the first writer put pen to paper, right?

As a result, fiction readers expect to see such orienting details emerge within the course of the narrative, rather than on top of it. Most of the time, this information isn’t all that hard to work into a narrative — and if a novelist is looking to please a tradition-hugging agent or editor, that’s probably a better strategy to embrace, at least at the submission stage. As with any other authorial preference for how a published book should look, you can always try to negotiate an editorial change of heart after a publisher acquires your novel.

At least if you don’t happen to write in a book category that routinely uses such subheadings. If recent releases in your book category are crammed with the things, don’t worry your pretty little head about editorial reaction to ‘em. An editor — or agent, Millicent, or contest judge — who routinely handles books in that category may be trusted to realize that you’re simply embracing the norms of your genre.

Millicents tend to approve of that. It shows that the submitter has taken the time to become conversant with what’s being published these days in the category within which he has chosen to write.

Which is to say: these days, plenty of very good fiction writers prefer to alert the reader to vital shifts with titles and subheadings. And nonfiction writers have been using them for decades; in fact, they’re more or less required in a book proposal. (Of those, more follows later in this series, I promise.) I just didn’t want any of you to be shocked if the agent of your dreams sniffs in the early days after signing you, “Mind taking out these subheadings? Seven of the editors to whom I’m planning to submit this hate them, and I’d rather be spared yet another lecture on the pernicious influence of newspapers and magazine formatting upon modern literature, okay?”

All that being said — and now that I’ve completely unnerved those of you who are considering submitting manuscripts with subheadings — you do need to know how to do it properly.

It’s quite straightforward, actually: a subheading is just a section break followed by a left-justified title. The text follows on the next double-spaced line.

Want to see that in action? Okay. Just to annoy traditionalists who draw a sharp distinction between fiction and nonfiction writing, let’s take a peek at a nonfiction page by a well-respected novelist:

Wharton subheading example

That caused some weary eyes to pop wide open, didn’t it? “But Anne!” the sharper-eyed exclaim, “that subheading is in BOLDFACE! Didn’t the rules of standard format specifically tell me never, under any circumstances, to boldface anything in my manuscript?”

Well caught, sharp-eyed ones: boldfacing the subheading does indeed violate that particular stricture of standard format. However, since nonfiction manuscripts and proposals have been routinely boldfacing subheadings (and only subheadings) for over a decade now — those crotchety old-fashioned editors are partially right about the creeping influence of article practices into the book world, you know — I thought that you should know about it.

It’s definitely not required, though; Millicent is unlikely to scowl at a nonfiction submission that doesn’t bold its subheadings. Like font choice, you make your decision, you take your chances.

In a fiction submission, though, I definitely wouldn’t advise it; those traditionalists I was talking about lurk in much, much higher concentrations on the fiction side of the industry, after all. Here’s the same page, formatted as fiction — and since we’re already talking about exceptions to the rules, let’s make this example a trifle more instructive by including a date and time in the subheading:

Wharton example2

Unsure why I used numerals in the subheading, rather than writing out all of the numbers under a hundred, as standard format usually requires? Full dates, as well as specific times, are rendered in numeric form in manuscripts. Thus, 12:45 a.m. on November 3, 1842 is correct; twelve forty-five a.m. on November three, eighteen hundred and forty-two is not. (It would, however, be perfectly permissible to include quarter to one in the afternoon on November third.)

Everybody clear on that? Now would be a dandy time to raise your hand, if not. Or perhaps engage in some ice dancing; I like watching that.

I have quite a bit more to say on the subject of first pages of chapters, but I’ve just noticed the clock: I seem to have written straight through the curling match! If only I had reason to believe a similar match would be televised in the wee hours of tomorrow night…oh, wait; one is.

Who could have predicted that, eh? Keep up the good work!

Thoughts about Self-Publishing, by guest blogger James Brush

James Brush postcard coverJames Brush postcard coverJames Brush postcard cover

Hello there, campers –

It seems like only yesterday that we were talking about the pros and cons of self-publishing in the rapidly-changing literary market…oh, wait: it was just yesterday. Because we raced over the topic so very quickly, I am more than delighted to bring you an insider’s look at the subject, generously provided by poet, blogger, and self-published first novelist James Brush.

And let me tell you, this post’s a lulu. I’m tickled to death to be bringing it to you — and to introduce the Author! Author! community to the multiply-talented James.

But first, a few words about how and why I periodically bring you this kind of behind-the-scenes-of-publishing account. As those of you who have been following this month’s Getting a Book Published Basics series are, I hope, already aware, I am deeply committed to making this blog as genuinely, practically helpful to writers at every step of their careers as humanly possible. To that end, I occasionally ask beg blandish published authors into coming here to Author! Author! and sharing their first-hand experience in the literary trenches. Their wit, wisdom, and, at times, deep-dyed cynicism is collected under the GUEST BLOGS AND INTERVIEWS category on the archive list at right.

Because I love you people, I am very, very selective in offering space here. Only authors kind and community-spirited enough to want to teach aspiring writers the ropes need apply.

So why, out of the dozens of successful self-published authors I know, was James the one I asked to be here now? Well, several reasons, actually. First, he’s not only written and self-published a darned good book; he’s written and self-published a darned good first novel.

As literary risk-taking goes, that’s a triple back-flip from the highest dive — and he’s pulled it off. Here’s the back jacket blurb:

James Brush postcard cover Paul Reynolds, a photographer who creates fake photos for tabloid magazines, wakes up with no idea where he is or how he got there. He can’t even recall his name. A strange man lurks nearby, breathing heavily and slowly flipping through a book. Paul hears the man’s breath, but he cannot see him. He realizes with mounting panic that his eyes no longer function.

He remembers racing down a desolate West Texas highway. He remembers a cop who pulled him over for speeding. He remembers a shotgun-brandishing cook chasing him out of a diner. And he remembers a life abandoned, but he cannot put together the jigsaw puzzle that brought him where he is: blind, wanted by the law, and in the company of this invisible stranger.

In the backcountry town of Armbister, Texas, where temperatures hover around a hellish 110 degrees, Paul’s memory, intangible as a heat mirage, lies just beyond his reach, and God may be a coyote.

Intriguing, eh? Not to mention being an awfully good elevator pitch. (Not sure why? Okay, let me ask you: did it immediately introduce you to an interesting protagonist in an intriguing situation? Did it contain unusual details instead of generalities? And if you’d heard 150 pitches in a day, wouldn’t you remember the one where God was a coyote? That’s a good pitch.)

I also thought James might be a good fit for this series because, like so many novelists, he found that A Place Without a Postcard did not fit neatly into a single book category. Something tells me that more than a few of you out there could identify with that maddening dilemma.

Since learning how to narrow down a complex book into the appropriate marketing category is an essential skill for any professional writer, here’s a pop quiz — given the description below and the pitch above, what category would you have picked for it?

A Place Without a Postcard is an unusual story about a man who gets lost. That’s about as simple as it can be put. It’s about more than that, though. It’s about friendship, redemption, belief, and self-discovery.

It is part science fiction and part murder mystery and part myth. It takes place in West Texas. Not so much the western part of Texas, but the mythical West Texas where one might run into a coyote named Mercury or a man who dreams of invisibility.

Stumped? Well, would it help or hinder you to know that the writing is quite literary? As one reviewer noted,

His descriptions of this landscape alone are well worth the read… In fact, this book is filled with sense-based ways of looking at ordinary things and, in so doing, Brush has created a unique story, full of mystery, suspense, and outright terror. He is quite good, however, in first creating a thread in the plot and then resolving it soon or later. I recommend this book to readers who enjoy mystery stories, as well as a good old-fashioned story of the human spirit triumphing over adversity.

Tell me: what did you pick? Literary or science fiction? Paranormal or Western mystery? Thriller or regional interest?

If you flung your hands over your eyes and shouted, “Stop! Stop! How on earth could I possibly answer this without having read at least a few pages of the book?” congratulations: that is precisely what a seasoned book category-chooser would say. (And should you be interested in doing so before I reveal James’ answer, you can check out the first few pages at the book’s Amazon page.)

So how was A Place Without a Postcard categorized? James made a simple, elegant, and most market-savvy decision: it’s simply categorized as Fiction (a.k.a. General Fiction, Fiction — Other, or Adult Fiction). That’s is both an accurate descriptor of the book and gave him the most marketing leeway. (For more insight into how and why he made that choice, check out this interview; as always, if you’re looking for direction in narrowing down your own book’s category, see the posts under the BOOK CATEGORY section of the archive list at right.)

Finally, I asked James to come here and talk to you because he is a smart author with a lot of experience promoting that most difficult of book types, a novel with regional appeal. He’s thought a lot about this, made good choices, and successfully survived what can be for many self-published authors a very intimidating experience.

Peruse very carefully what he has to say. And if you’ve ever wanted to ask questions about self-publishing, this would be an excellent time to do it.

Please join me in welcoming today’s very helpful guest blogger, James Brush. Take it away, James!

james-brush author photo

In 2003, I self-published my first novel, A Place Without a Postcard, using iUniverse. Self-publishing was a good experience for me and I learned a lot. In the interest of sharing some of what I learned, Anne invited me to write a guest post in which I thought I’d answer the questions I’m most frequently asked.

Are rescued racing greyhounds really such great pets?
Yes, they really are, but we’re talking about writing and self-publishing.

Oh, sorry. Should I self-publish my book?
That depends. The conventional wisdom is that nonfiction writers do better self-publishing than fiction writers. There isn’t a strong market for poetry, so many poets self-publish.
If you’ve got a fiction book, and you want readers, then you need to think about how you’re going to get people interested in your book.

These days, even authors published by the big houses are expected to do more and more of the promotional work themselves, but they have more tools at their disposal. Whether you self-publish or go the traditional route, your sales will depend largely on the work you are willing to do to market your book. More so for the self-published author.

Since your sales will likely depend on your effort, the writer who does self-publish and is willing and savvy enough to promote himself effectively and relentlessly stands to sell a lot of books and maybe even make some good money. But there is still one thing stacked against you: bookstores.

The big bookstore chains will rarely stock a self-published book. You may be able to convince your local Barnes & Noble or Borders to sell a few of your books on consignment, but to get your book in stores, you need to approach those indie booksellers who might be interested in quirky titles by local authors. That’s where I found the most luck.

Having said that, the big box stores will order your book for a customer who wants it, and it is likely to be available through that store’s website as well.

What you’ve got going for you, however, is the internet. In the years since I published A Place Without a Postcard, e-books have become viable. The internet has grown and blogs and social networking have gone mainstream. All of these things give writers, self-published or otherwise, even more ways to reach readers and promote themselves and their books.

The question then becomes, how hard do you want to work to find readers? As a self-published author, that will be entirely on you.

Ok, I’m going to do it. What should I do before I self-publish?
Don’t jump into it. Never publish your first, second or even third, fourth or fifth draft.

I had the advantage of working out the plot and dialog in grad school, where I received awesome and painfully honest critiques. Make sure your book is read by as many people–hopefully a few of them writers who will tell you the truth about your work–as you can find.

Have it edited. As an English teacher, I trust myself to do a solid proofread, but I’ll still miss a lot in my own work. You need to have someone else edit it.

Read the entire thing, out loud to yourself from a hard copy. I’ve seen Anne give this same advice here at Author! Author!, and she is absolutely correct. Do it. Much will be revealed.

In addition to making your manuscript the best you can possibly make it, you should develop a marketing plan of some kind prior to publishing, which brings us to…

What would you have done differently?
I would have spent more time thinking through marketing before I published.

When I published Postcard in 2003, blogs were not on my radar. The internet was something for tech savvy people. No one read e-books. Those were my perceptions, anyway.

I built my website, Coyote Mercury, in 2003, after publishing Postcard. In 2005, I rebuilt the site with a blog and fell in love with blogging. I also began building a larger audience for my writing. Now, most of the sales of my book come from people who have found my blog and enjoyed my writing there.

I suspect that a self-published author (or likely any author) will sell more books if she already has a readership, even a small one, prior to publication.

If I were self-publishing for the first time today, I would start a blog, maintain it, write regularly and build a readership before publishing the book. Maybe a year or two before publishing. Remember when I said don’t jump into it? Building a website and blogging are fun diversions for you while your manuscript cools before the next round of revisions. You might also be able to find an audience who will be as excited as you are the day your book hits the market.

I would also look around at other self-publishing options. I was happy with my experience with iUniverse, but there are more companies out there with different approaches and different ways of doing things. I would research those options.

Lulu intrigues me because they will allow you to publish your book in such a way that your own publishing company becomes the publisher of record. I like that and that would appeal to me if I were doing this again.

Do you plan to self-publish again?
I always intended A Place Without a Postcard to be something I would do on my own. It’s been a very rewarding experience, and I have no regrets.

I have a second novel now, A Short Time to Be There, that I’m shopping around to agents. I intend to do the traditional route for this book for a variety of reasons. I don’t have the same DIY desire for this book, though I know that when it is published, I will still have to do much of the marketing work myself and apply much of what I learned from A Place Without a Postcard.

I do write poetry, which I publish on my blog, and I’ve had some luck getting my poems published in various e-zines and journals. At some point, I will have a complete collection of poetry, and I may publish that myself.

Anything else?
I’ll say it again: make sure you’ve gotten other people to read and critique your work. Pay them if you must in dollars, chickens or eighteen-year-old Scotch because if you’re self-publishing, you’re going to have to accept the fact that some people consider all self-published books to be failures. This is simply not true, but you have a duty to make sure that you aren’t providing the world one more reason to categorically reject all self-published works.

Ultimately, you need to believe in your book, maybe even more so than when you submit to agents and editors. When you do that, you are looking for someone else to believe in your work and help you make it even better. You won’t have that when you self-publish. You’ll be on your own and you have to know down to your core that your book is good enough for you to look a stranger in the eye and tell him that your book is worth his time.

Mine is, but it took almost ten years to get it there.

Finally, the most important advice I know for anyone seeking to publish anything by any means:

Be patient and keep writing.

james-brush author photo James Brush is a writer and teacher living in Austin, TX with his wife, cat and two greyhounds. He teaches English in a juvenile correctional facility, and was once a James Michener Fellow at the Texas Center for Writers. He published his first novel, A Place Without a Postcard, in 2003. His writing has been published by qarrtsiluni, Thirteen Myna Birds, ouroboros review, Bolts of Silk, a handful of stones, The Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing and Good Gosh Almighty! He can be found online at Coyote Mercury.

The getting-a-book-published basics, part X: the agency contract revisited, or, excuse me, sirs, but could any of you tell me which one of you will be representing my book tomorrow?

police line-up

Last time, I broached the seldom-discussed issue of agency contracts — you know those handy documents that spell out explicitly what the agent offering to represent you will do for you in exchange for how much. While most aspiring writers simply squeal and shout, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” the nanosecond an offer emerges from an agent’s mouth, it’s very much in your interest to know what you’re agreeing to before you agree to it.

In other words: not all agencies are created equal. Nor do they all operate in the same manner.

There are, however, some norms. As those of you who pored over yesterday’s post may recall to your sorrow, in going over how (and how much) US-based agents typically get paid for representing their clients’ work, I mentioned that US agency contracts typically specify 15% for books sold to a North American English-language publisher, 20% or more for sales to non-North American publishers, whether the book is published in English or not.

“Um, Anne?” a small, confused chorus has been piping out there in the ether ever since I first brought it up. “Was the bit about English-language North American sales just a really complicated, drawn-out typo? Aren’t there other people in the world who read English — like, say, the people in England? Why aren’t all of the English-language sales lumped together, and the foreign ones together?”

Ah, because that would make sense, my friends. The industry likes to keep all of us guessing by throwing a cognitive curve ball every now and again, so this is going to require a fairly extensive and rather convoluted explanation.

Before I launch into it, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.

Okay, everybody comfortable? Here goes.

North American vs. world rights
From the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America (meaning in the US and Canada), those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. So when folks in the industry speak about a US-based agent selling a book to a US-based publisher, they’re generally talking about the first North American rights: the publisher has bought the ability to be the only source of the first addition of the book in the US and Canada.

Of the three categories, only North American rights are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales, which is why — pay close attention here — if your agent manages to sell your book to a UK-based publisher, you will be selling the world rights. Believe it or not, the world excludes North America — which I imagine might come as something of a surprise to those of us who live here.

There — and you thought it wasn’t going to make sense.

What might all of this rigmarole mean for the writer? Perversely, if EXACTLY the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. Sometimes, the Canadian rights are subsumed in the world rights (if, say, the publisher is UK-based), instead of under the North American rights.

Before you laugh out loud, I should warn you that this scenario is not particularly far-fetched: all of the books in the HARRY POTTER series were sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie or Omaha.

This is why, in case you were curious, you will see the notation NA in industry discussions of book sales — it refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. Rights to sell books south of the border, in any language, fall under foreign language rights, which are typically sold on a by-country basis. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal on a book expected to be a bestseller and try to get the world rights as part of the initial deal, but this generally does not work out well for the author.

Why? Well, do the math: if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American publisher owns the foreign rights, the domestic house scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this discussion seems a trifle technical, chalk it up to the rather extended struggle I had to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; back in the day, my now-gun-shy publisher wanted ’em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

I cannot stress enough, though: read your contract. Ask some questions. Norms are just norms; individual agencies’ policies do vary.

But what if I am represented by an agent based outside North America — or if I’m unsure if a North American one is asking me to agree to legitimate terms?
Obviously, what constitutes a domestic sale would vary depending upon the country in which the agent does his primary business. So if you are reading this somewhere outside North America, or translated into a language other than English, you should not blithely assume that what I am saying here applies to your home country; it’s always worth your while to check with your national literary agents’ association. For the English-speaking world, the top ones are:

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. They are there to help writers make crucial decisions about who should represent their work. So are writer-protection sites like 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.

Please don’t dismiss the notion doing some minimal checking to assure the agents reading your work are on the up-and-up as writerly paranoia — who represents your work is too important to your writing career to leave to chance. Remember, not everyone who slaps up an official-looking website is actually an agent, and good writers too nice to want to seem confrontational get burned all the time.

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 2010 is fast receding into memory.

I just mention.

Let’s assume for the moment, though, that the agency lucky enough to land you as a client — strange to think of it that way, isn’t it? — is as reputable as reputable can be. Most agencies are. Even under that happy circumstance, it’s very much in your best interest to understand how and to whom an agent might market your book before you read, much less sign, an agency contact. Not only because these distinctions are rather counter-intuitive, but because they’re the criteria used to determine what percentage your agent will take out of your advance and royalty checks.

Again: read your representation contract before you sign it. Ask some questions. The only way this relationship is going to work to both your benefit and the agent’s is if both parties understand precisely what each of them is supposed to do.

Tell me again how I’m supposed to cover all of this in my first conversation with a prospective agent without sounding like a paranoid jerk?
I sense that some of you have gone a bit pale over the course of the last dozen or so paragraphs. “Um, Anne?” a few queasy souls inquire. “You’re kidding about expecting me to have an intelligent discussion of all of this with my agent in the first 30 seconds after he’s offered to represent me, right? Couldn’t I just agree to let him represent me, and sort the details out later?”

Well, of course you could — as I said, most aspiring writers just blurt out “Oh, God, YES!” before finding out anything about the terms to which they’re agreeing at all. I can completely understand this impulse: mistrust is the last thing on your mind when you are thrilled to pieces that a real, live agent wants to represent you.

Yes, YOU. How thrilling!

Trust your Auntie Anne on this one, though: honeymoons do occasionally end, and not generally because anyone concerned has done anything especially nefarious. Remember, agents move from one agency to another all the time, especially in this economy. If this happens, you will need to know with whom you have a contract, the agency or the agent. (Either is possible.)

It’s also not unheard-of for an agent to stop representing a particular genre even though she has clients still writing and publishing in it. Writers occasionally develop a sudden urge to compose a book in a category for which their agents do not have current contacts. And so forth.

The agency contract is, in short, one contract to read with your glasses ON, and paper by your side to jot down questions. It’s perfectly legitimate to request time to pore over it. Then pick up your notes, hie yourself to a telephone, and start asking follow-up questions.

If you do not have an opportunity to see a copy of the agency contract before having your first serious conversation about your future with your new agent — as will probably be the case; many agents are notoriously slow in sending out representation agreements — do make a point of asking the agent in your first conversation for a brief overview of its major points.

That’s merely good sense whenever you are going to deal with a business with which you are unfamiliar, and it would never occur to a reputable agent to take your caution at all personally.

Because, you see, by being cautious, you’re not calling the agent’s integrity into question, but making sure you know precisely what she is proposing that you do together. After all, the agent almost certainly will not have been the person who wrote the contract; the agency will have an established boilerplate. Naturally, it is in an honest agent’s best interest for a prospective client to understand the contract-to-be well enough to abide by its provisions.

Allow me to repeat something I dropped into the middle of that last paragraph, because it comes as news to a lot of newly-agented writers: unless your future agent happens to own the agency, it is the agency — not the agent whom you are prepared to love, honor, and obey for as long as you shall write and she shall sell — who will set the terms of your relationship.

The agency, not the agent, produces that contract I keep yammering about, after all; the agent may not even sign it. So a savvy writer should be very, very interested in the policies and procedures of any agency to which she is about to commit herself and her writing.

Wait — what do you mean, I’m committing to the agency, not just the agent?
That’s right — agency policy will affect you, and that agent who is being so nice to you on the phone will not be the only agency employee who will be dealing with your work. Among other things, the agency, and not merely the agent, is going to be handling every dime you make as a writer — and furthermore, telling the fine folks at the IRS all about it.

Remember, your publisher will be sending your advance and royalty checks to your agency, not to you personally. (For a more in-depth examination, please see the ADVANCES and ROYALTIES AND HOW THEY WORK categories on the list at right.) If your work is going to be sold abroad, the agency will turn your book, your baby, over to a foreign rights agent of ITS selection, not yours — and will be taking a higher percentage of your royalties for those sales than for those in the English-speaking parts of North America, typically. And the agency is also going to be responsible not only for keeping the government informed about all of these transactions, but also preparing those messily-carboned royalty forms that you will be submitting with your taxes.

That’s a whole lot of trust to invest in people who you may never meet face-to-face, isn’t it? Or, in some cases, people that you may not even know exist?

Did I just hear a giant collective gasp out there? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but many authors never meet their agents in person; is it really all that surprising, then, that few are on friendly terms with the rest of the agency’s staff? It’s not as though the agency will fly a prospective client from California to New York just to get acquainted. Since almost everything in the biz is handled by phone, e-mail, or snail mail, face-to-face contact is seldom necessary.

The result? Well, it’s not a scientific sample, of course, but I know plenty of writers who couldn’t pick their agents, much less the principal of their agency, out of a police line-up. (Not that you really want to be in the position to hiss, “That’s she, officer. SHE’S THE ONE WHO DIDN’T MAIL MY ROYALTY CHECK,” but still.)

Ideally, you want relationships with both your agent and agency so comfortable that you have no qualms — and no need to have any — about simply handing the business side of your writing over to them and letting them get on with making you rich and famous. (Which you already know that no agent cannot legitimately promise up front, right?) So while asking a whole lot of pointed questions at the outset may seem mistrustful, doing so will actually substantially increase the probability that you’re going to trust and respect your agent a year or two down the road.

At minimum, find out whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. Remember, agencies vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the entire agency, and some are run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, houses an independent contractor, and no funds are mixed.

Why should your agent’s employment arrangements concern you? Well, if you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her, or will at least be given the option of doing so. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not.

Again, asking about this is not being paranoid; it’s being prudent. Few human relationships are permanent, after all.

Let’s face it: some agencies have pretty short lifespans. It’s also not all that uncommon for agents simply to burn out on the biz; selling books is hard work, after all. And since many agents have a track record of agency-hopping every couple of years — as many junior agents do; it’s a smart way to build a professional lifetime’s worth of contact lists — may I suggest that how the agency is set up may affect your life pretty profoundly?

Don’t think that nice agent who called you to offer to represent you would drop out of sight? Okay, cover your representation contract — no peeking now — and answer these trenchant questions:

(1) If your agent retired, would you still be represented, or would you need to find a new agent?

(2) What about if she got laid off and the agency did not replace her, as is happening in agencies all over the country right now? Would you still be represented then?

(3) What if she got into a car crash, God forbid, and had to cut her client list in half?

(4) Does the agency have any hierarchy in place to mediate any disagreements that may If you had a fundamental disagreement with your agent, could you move to another agent within the agency, or would you need to find a new agent elsewhere?

(5) On the brighter side, what if your agent started an agency of her own?

Yes, I actually do know authors to whom each of these things has happened; thanks for asking. None of them had even considered any of these possibilities until the realities hit them in the face. And virtually all of them now say that it never occurred to them to question whether the agency would be there to support them if something happened to their again.

But perhaps that’s not too surprising: many an author could not pick any member of her agency’s staff but her agent out of a crowd at a writers’ conference. Or out of a police line-up, for that matter.

So I take it you’re saying that this isn’t a business that runs on handshakes
Sometimes it is, but you should be very wary of an agent who is not willing to offer you a written contract. Contrary to popular belief, verbal contracts may be binding (if some consideration has changed hands as a result of it, as I understand it; if you handed someone a $50 bill and the keys to your car after the two of you had discussed his painting a mural on the passenger-side door, I’m told that could be construed as a contract, even with nothing in writing, but you should definitely talk to a lawyer before you attempt anything so zany), but as I MAY have pointed out, oh, 1800 times in the last 5-plus years, this is an industry where the power differential tends not to fall in the writer’s favor until after she is pretty darned well established.

Protect yourself. A good place to start: reading your representation contract and asking some intelligent questions.

Assume, too, that at some point, you will want to revisit some of these issues. If you are offered a written contract, make yourself a photocopy so you may refer to it later.

Yes, even if the agent or agency’s head has not yet countersigned it. Many agented writers report that they have never seen another copy of the contract again after they signed it.

Dare I hope that those great, gusty sighs I hear wafting from my readership mean that this is all sinking in? “Okay, Anne,” sadder-but-hopefully-wiser writers everywhere concede. “I get it: it’s not in my interest to take the details of the agent-client relationship on faith. I need to ask questions when I don’t understand something. But right now, I don’t think I have the energy to do that, because you’ve depressed me into a stupor. The last couple of posts have occasionally read as if half the agents out there are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors.”

Of course, that’s not the case. The vast majority of agents honestly are good people who love good writing and want to help writers — but as in every profession, not all of them are scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients. It behooves us all to be cautious.

So read that contract; act those questions; walk into that agency with your eyes wide open and your reading glasses firmly on.

And please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked — or contractual provisions you don’t know exist. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to any of you. Put up your antennae before entrusting your precious manuscript to just anyone’s care.

Next time, I’ll talk about what agents do with manuscripts after the representation contract is signed. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part V: home is where…your book will sit in a bookstore?

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Remember how I was telling you that some of my best ideas for posts came from readers’ questions. Well, it’s happened again: after yesterday’s post on the various possible outcomes of a query or pitching effort and the advisability of querying more than one agent at a time, sharp-eyed reader Elizabeth asked a very important follow-up question:

Anne, ?I’ve always heard you should query one agent at a time. If they don’t want simultaneous submissions or queries, would they say so on their website or guidelines? … So far I haven’t seen anyone requesting exclusive inquiries.

I’m so glad you brought this up, Elizabeth — I’m sure that you are not the only writer who has heard that old chestnut. It’s one of the most wide-spread pieces of aspiring writer mythology. In its extended form, it runs a little something like this: agents like to get a jump upon other agents, so they insist — not just prefer — that writers query them one at a time; if a writer dares to send out multiple simultaneous queries and one of the agents decides to make an offer, he will become enraged to the point of losing interest in the book project.

Unagented writers have been whispering this one to one another for decades. It’s never been true for queries, and it’s seldom true for even requested materials today.

There’s a practical reason for that: sending out a query, waiting to hear back, getting rejected, and starting afresh would add years to most agent-searching efforts. Agents make their living by discovering new writers; they don’t want the truly talented to give up in despair. Which is what would happen, in many cases: in an environment where many agencies state on their websites that if a querier does not hear back, that means they are not interested, expecting writers to query one at a time would be downright cruel.

Now, the opposite assumption prevails: if an agency does not explicitly state on its website or agency guide listing that it will accept only exclusive queries, its member agents will generally assume that every aspiring writer who queries them are also querying other agents. Which means, in practice, that aspiring writers who have heard the pervasive rumor to the contrary are effectively granting exclusive reads of their queries unasked.

The same holds true for submissions: all too often, aspiring writers will believe that they have no choice but to wait until they receive a reply from a single agent, but most of the time, the agent does not expect such a break. (For an in-depth look at why this is the case, please see the archived posts under the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category at right.)Unless an agent asks point-blank for an exclusive look at a manuscript, or her agency has a policy requiring non-competitive submissions, the writer is free to continue to query and/or submit until she signs a representation contract.

In fact, many agents actually prefer multiple submissions, as long as the writer tells them that others are reviewing the manuscript; to a competitive mind, something others covet is inherently valuable. Heck, I’ve known agents who wait for others to make an offer before even skimming the manuscript on their desks.

To be fair, there are a few — very few — agencies out there who do prefer to have solo peeks at queries, but they usually make this fact ABUNDANTLY clear on their websites and in their listings in the standard agency guides. Quite a few more like to be the only ones looking at requested materials, but again, they don’t make a secret of it; the requests for pages generally include this information. (If you’re curious about what happens to a multiply-submitting writer who already has a manuscript with one agent when another asks for an exclusive peek — a more common dilemma than one might think — please see either the EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION or WHAT HAPPENS IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.)

So never fear, Elizabeth: as long as conscientious queriers like you do their homework, you’re not going to run afoul of the vast majority of agents. But it always, always pays to check before querying or submitting.

Everyone clear on that? Please ask follow-up questions, if not.

In the meantime, let’s get back to yesterday’s hot topic: how Millicent the agency screener can tell almost instantly whether a queried or submitted book is a potential fit for her agency. As it happens, it has a lot to do with whether the queriers or submitters have done their homework: the single most common rejection reason is that the agent approached does not represent that type of book.

True of queries; true of verbal pitches; true of manuscript submissions. If an agent doesn’t already have the connections to sell a book within the current market, it doesn’t make sense for him to consider representing it. (Unless, of course, it’s a type of book so hot at the moment that he believes a trained monkey could sell it.)

I can already feel some of you gearing up to equivocate. “But Anne,” wheedle those of you who believe your book is so inherently marketable that you are eager to learn that trained monkey’s address, “I’m not silly enough to try to interest an exclusively nonfiction agent in my novel, or a fiction-only agent in my memoir. But surely beyond that, a good book’s a good book, right?”

Um, no. At least not to the pros. Where a book sits on a shelf in a well-stocked bookstore is integral to who will be willing to consider representing it — and which editors will be willing to consider acquiring it.

I’ll go even farther: to an agent or editor, there is no such thing as a generic book. Every traditionally-published book currently being sold in North America falls into a book category.

Book categories and why they are your friends
As I brought up earlier in this series, no single agent represents every kind of book there is: like editors at publishing houses, they specialize. While this may seem frustrating or confusing to an aspiring writer new to the agent-seeking process, in the long run, it’s actually in the writer’s interest.

Why, you cry, clutching your pounding head at the apparent paradox? As we saw a few days ago, agents sell their clients’ work by taking it to editors they know already to be interested in the subject matter or genre — and because they make money only if they can sell their clients’ work, it isn’t to their benefit to show a book to anyone who isn’t likely to publish it.

Rather than relying upon vague impressions about who likes what kind of book or time-consuming descriptions of every single book on offer, everyone in the publishing industry uses specific terms when discussing them. Each type of book has a one- or two-word description known in the publishing industry as a book category.

The people an agent knows at publishing houses who she is positive will be interested in the types of books she sells AND respect her opinion about writing enough to take her calls are known as her connections. The better an agent’s track record of selling a particular type of book, the better and more extensive her connections will be. Similarly, if an agency has a long history of selling a certain type of book, even junior agents there may reasonably be expected to have pretty good connections for it.

Thus the frequent appeal of a large and/or well-established agency over a small or newer one: when the agents enjoy good connections, it’s easier for them to slip a first-time author’s manuscript under the right pair of eyes. Everyone benefits, potentially.

However, good connections require agent specialization. The publishing industry is immense and complex; it would be impossible for even the best-established agent to have connections for every conceivable type of book. By concentrating upon just a few kinds of manuscript, then, an agent can concentrate upon his established areas of strength.

What does this mean for the average aspiring writer? Glad you asked.

Writers, too, are specialists — even peripatetic ones like me, who write several different types of book. However broad one’s interests and capacities might be, no one is going to write in every conceivable book category, right? Therefore, it’s in each writer’s interest to have his work represented not by just any old agent, but by one who shares his interests — and, more importantly, who already has the connections to sell his books.

In other words, specialists of a feather should flock together.

Agents are well aware of the substantial benefits of flockery, which is why they are seldom reticent about the kinds of books they want. They will state the book categories they represent right on their websites, in their listings in the standard agency guides, and often in their biographical blurbs in writers’ conference brochures as well.

So there’s no mystery to finding out who represents what: it’s usually as easy as a straightforward Google search or opening a book.

Benefiting from knowledge so obtained, however, requires that an aspiring writer be aware of the book category into which his book most comfortably fits. If you’re not sure how to figure this out, you’ll find some guidance in the aptly-named BOOK CATEGORIES archives on the list at right.

Okay, now you’ve freaked me out. How on earth do I figure out what my category is?
Generally speaking, aspiring writers agonize far too much over making the right choice: just pick one. Remember, the goal here is not to cover every topic in the book, but rather to give your future agent and editor some indication of who is likely to buy your book and on which shelf at Barnes & Noble a reader might eventually find it.

It’s a technical designation, after all, not a summary.

Select one that already exists, if you please, rather than just making one up. You should also pick just one, rather than stringing a few together into an unholy hyphenate like Mystery-Women’s Fiction-Western-Nature Essay. Committing is in your interest, not Millicent’s, after all: if she receives a query for a Science Fiction-Chick Lit – Urban Vampire Epic, and her boss agent represents only chick lit, it’s not a very tough rejection choice.

I know — I would like to read that last one, too.

Do be aware, too, that many categories overlap (mainstream fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground), so you may not find a perfect fit. That’s fine; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it more accurately.

A great place to start: figure out who is already writing the kind of books you write.

Figuring out the category of already-published books
If you live in the U.S. or Canada, an excellent first step toward committing to a book category is to track down a recently-released paperback or trade paper book similar to yours and examine the back cover. Many publishers will display the book category in one of two places, in the upper-left corner:

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Actually, now that I’ve posted it, I notice that Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer) is listed in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (Seriously, it’s funnier than it sounds.)

The other common locale for a book category is in the box with the barcode:

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Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since Jonathan Selwood’s THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (six rows’ worth of passengers on an airplane thought I was having some sort of fit because I was laughing so hard at one point; once I had fended off medical assistance and read the passage in question out loud, the flight attendants came running to find out what was wrong with all of us) partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, being akimbo seems rather appropriate.

I’m not sure if the photo will reproduce clearly enough for you to see it, but Mssr. Selwood’s book is designated merely as fiction. Counter-intuitively, this general-sounding moniker refers to something quite specific: novels for adults that do not fit into a genre designation. For all of you whose first thought upon my telling you that you would need to narrow down your complex 400-page book into a one- or at most two-word category choice, this might be a good selection.

Admittedly, it can be rather a pain to decide which category is right for your work, but once you have determined it, the hunt for an agent to represent it becomes substantially simpler: don’t even consider approaching an agent who doesn’t represent books in your category.

Like granting an agent an unrequested exclusive, it’s just a waste of your time. Unless, of course, you genuinely don’t care if your book gets published next year or forty years hence.

Next time, I shall give you a bird’s-eye view — or, more accurately, a Millicent’s-eye view — of what happens to requested materials after they arrive at an agency. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part II: the control conundrum

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My last post was so excessively long that I wore myself out, apparently: I barely had the energy to work my way through the couple of hundred e-mails from well-meaning readers of the Wall Street Journal, asking if (a) I’d seen this article and (b) whether those mentioned within its paragraphs were the same who kept threatening to sue my publishers (although not, perversely, yours truly) over my as-yet-to-be-released memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. I appreciate all of you kind souls taking the time to make sure I had (a), but since the answer to (b) is yes (and with arguments similar to those mentioned in the article), it would probably be prudent for me not to comment upon it here. Or, indeed, anywhere.

Except to say: ever get that feeling of déjà vu?

Back to the business at hand. For those of you who happened to miss yesterday’s epic post, I’m going to be devoting the next couple of weeks to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for starters, let’s concentrate upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York.

Everyone clear on the parameters — and that what I am about to say might not be applicable to a big publishing house in Paris, Johannesburg, or Vladivostok? Or indeed, a small, independent US publisher? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time — and while we’re at it, let’s get conversant with some of the terms of the trade.

How a manuscript typically comes to publication at a major U.S. publishing house these days (as opposed to way back when)
As we discussed last time, fiction is typically sold as a completed manuscript; nonfiction is usually sold as a book proposal, a packet of marketing materials that includes a sample chapter and a competitive market analysis, showing how the proposed book will offer the target readership something different and better than similar books already on the market. While the proposal will also include a summary of each of the chapters in the book-to-be-written (in a section known as the annotated table of contents; for tips on how to construct this and the other constituent parts of a book proposal, please see the perversely-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list located at the lower right-hand side of this page), the editor will often ask the writer to add or subtract chapters or change the book’s running order.

Which underscores a point I made last time: a nonfiction book proposal is essentially a job application wherein the writer is trying to convince the publisher to pay him to write the book being proposed; a novel is a product that the author is trying to sell.

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come. (Not to mention a self-editing tip for those of you who long for the return of my December series of same!)

A hundred years ago, writers who wished to get their books published went about it in a fairly straightforward manner, by approaching editors at major publishing houses directly. If the editor liked the book, he would take it to what was (and still is) known as an editorial committee, a group of editors and higher-ups who collectively decided what books the house would bring out in the months and years to come. If the editorial committee decided to go ahead with the project, the publisher would typically pay the author an advance against projected royalties, edit the manuscript, and have it typeset (by hand, no less).

Today, a writer who intends to approach a large U.S. publisher generally must do so through an agent. The agent’s job is to ferret out which editors might be interested in her clients’ books and pitch to them. Unless an editor happens to be exceptionally well-established at his or her house, however, s/he is not the only one who needs to approve a book’s acquisition: typically, the book will still go before an editorial committee.

At that point, back in the day as well as now, it’s the editor’s turn to be the advocate for the book s/he wants to publish — and that’s not always an easy task, because other editors will be fighting for their pet projects at the meeting as well. Since a publishing house can only afford to bring out a very small number of books in any given marketing season, the battle for whose project will see print can become quite intense, and not only amongst the editors around the table. At a large publishing house, the marketing and legal departments might weigh in as well.

If a manuscript makes it through the hurly-burly of editorial committee debate, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, a publishing contract will state that in return for pocketing the lion’s share of the profits, the publisher would bear all of the production and promotional costs, as well as responsibility for getting the book onto bookstore shelves.

In return, the author will agree to provide the manuscript for by a particular date (usually quite soon for a novel — which, as you will recall, is already written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. After the author delivers the completed manuscript (usually in both hard copy and as a Word document), if the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion of being asked to alter your manuscript, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Chamomile tea might be a good choice.)

Why? Because when an author signs a book contract, she’s agreeing to more than allowing the publisher to print the book.

Control over the text itself
The author gets to decide what her own book does and doesn’t say, right? Not to mention how it’s expressed.

Actually, no, if she sells the rights to a publisher. While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will appear on the pages of the finished book. The contract will say so.

And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book. (Sorry about that, but it’s better that you’re aware of this fact going in.)

How do I know? Experience, mostly. After all, pretty much every first-time author faced with editorial demands has attempted to declare something along the lines of, “Hey, buddy, I’m the author of this work, and what you see on the page represents my artistic vision. Therefore, I refuse to revise in accordance with your (boneheaded) suggestion. Oh, well, that’s that.” Or at least thought it very loudly indeed.

That’s an argument that might conceivably work for a well-established, hugely marketable author, but as virtually all of those aforementioned first-time authors could tell you, no one, but no one, at a publishing house is going to find the “My art — my way!” argument particularly compelling.

Or even original.

Why? Well, remember my earlier quip about how publishing houses can only bring out a few titles in any book category per year, far, far more than their editors would like to bring to press?

Uh-huh. It’s never wise to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to people so well equipped with alternatives that they can easily afford to leave it. Especially if the issue in question is something as small as cutting your favorite paragraph.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you — although it’s not all that difficult to imagine what I just typed having that effect, admittedly — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling over every single requested change with your editor. If you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something; editorial control is built into the publishing process. Learning to pick your battles, figuring out when give in gracefully and when to go to the mat, will serve both your interests and your book’s best in the long run.

May I hear an amen? No? How about a few begrudging grunts of acknowledgment? Well, suit yourself, but if you found that last argument trying, you might want to find something to bite down upon before you read on.

Why, you ask with trembling voice? Well, final say over the actual text and the ability to determine the timing of publication are not generally the only authorial rights one signs over via a publishing contract.

Other matters that aspiring writers generally assume that they will control after they sign a book contract, but usually don’t
Just a few of the tidbits that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like.

Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

I feel you glowering, but don’t blame me — I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly), believe me, my sympathies are mostly on the writers’ side here. (And no, no publishing house employee was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant. The marketing department just thought it would be a good idea for the cover to make a vague reference to A SCANNER DARKLY, because the movie would be coming out around the same time.)

My point is, while landing a publication contract for a first book is certainly a coup, you’ll have a much, much happier life as a professional writer if you don’t expect it all to be one big literary luncheon where the glitterati congratulate you warmly on the beauty of your prose and the insight of your book’s worldview. It’s going to be hard work — for a crash course in just how hard many first-time authors find it, please see the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the list at right — and if you’re going to be successful at it, you’re going to need to come to terms with what you can and cannot control.

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book. Translation: it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. That may not distress you now, but it may well come the release date: historically, the author’s percentage of the cover price (a.k.a. the royalty) has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback.

One reason for that: hardcover books were considered more serious, literarily speaking, than a volume a reader could fold and stuff into a back pocket. In fact, until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

In the last 15-20 years, however, fiction (and quite a bit of nonfiction, too) has been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a purse or backpack, so the earlier review restriction has softened. That’s definitely good news for first-time novelists, as well as those of us who like to lug around several different books when we travel. Typically, the author’s royalty on a trade paper release is lower than for a hardback, but higher than for paper.

Everyone with me so far, or are you mentally calculating how much you will end up making per hour for writing your novel. Don’t even go there; that way lies madness.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, the publisher will tell the author when the book will actually be printed. Since much must happen between the time the editor receives a finished manuscript and when it goes to press, the contracted date by which the author must provide the book is generally months prior to the print date.

This, too, often comes as a surprise to a first-time author. If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence.

Its main manifestation: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year.

And that’s for fiction — which, as you will no doubt recall, is already written before the publisher has any contact with the book at all. For nonfiction, the time lapse is often substantially longer, in order to permit the author to write the book in question.

The moral: although one does indeed see books on current news stories hitting the shelves within a matter of weeks (the OJ Simpson trial, anyone?), that is most emphatically not the norm. A savvy writer takes this into account when constructing a narrative, avoiding references that might seem absolutely up-to-the-minute when he first types them, but will be as stale as last year’s fashions a year or two hence, when the book is finally available for readers to buy.

The publishing world’s term for a book that contains references likely to spoil over time is easily dated. Unless you are trying to tie your characters to a very specific time and place (as most contemporary fiction doesn’t), excising such references prior to submission usually increases its marketability.

A market-savvy self-editing tip for novelists and memoir-writers: go through your manuscript, highlighting any cultural reference that might not make sense to a reader five years hence. When in doubt, whip out your highlighting pen. Mention of a character on a TV show? Mark it. Complaint about a politician currently in office? Mark it? Any reference at all to Paris Hilton? Perez Hilton?

You get the idea. This is not a moral judgment you’re making, but a calculation about pop culture longevity.

While you’re reading, take the time to note what the reference is and the manuscript page on which it appears. After you finish, go back and read through the list: would your target reader have recognized each of these five years ago? If you’re writing for adults, would a reader in high school now know what you’re talking about? Are you really willing to bank on whether Arby’s latest moniker for a sandwich is here to stay — or that your target reader will even know about it?

If you aren’t sure about the long-term cultural resonance of, say, the McRib, walk into your local community library, find the person reading the 19th-century novel (if you can’t find one in the stacks, try behind the check-out desk), and offer to buy that kind soul a nice cup of coffee if s/he will be nice enough to take a gander at your list. If the lady with her nose in a minor Charlotte Brontë novel doesn’t recognize a cultural reference, chances are that it’s not as pervasive a phenomenon as you may have thought.

After you have figured out which references need to be changed or omitted, go back and examine the ones you decided could stay. Is that reference actually necessary to the paragraph in which it appears? Is there another way that you could make the same point without, for instance, using a brand name?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
As I was walking you through that last exercise, I spotted some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the folks attached to those hands inquire timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some sort of a tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t shallow. Let’s take a closer look at how and when a writer might conceivably start cashing in for those manuscripts and/or book proposals she’s written on spec.

How authors get paid for their books
As I mentioned in passing above, an author who publishes through a large publisher is paid a pre-agreed proportion of the book’s sale price, known as a royalty. An advance against royalties (known colloquially just as an advance) is an up-front payment of a proportion of what the publisher expects the author’s percentage of the jacket price for the initial print run (i.e., the total number of books in the first edition).

Generally speaking, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. That’s a calculation based upon a lot of factors: how much it will cost to print the book (anything over 500 pages requires more expensive binding, for instance, and color photos are expensive to reproduce), how large the already-existing market is for similar books, how difficult the marketing department thinks it will be to reach those readers, whether Barnes and Noble is having a bad year, and so forth.

It is, in fact, a guesstimate — and as such, tends to be low, especially for first-time authors.

Why not aim high, let the author quit her day job, and hope for the best? Because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

Since approximately 2/3rds of you just gasped audibly, let me repeat that last bit: the advance is not in addition to royalties, but a prepaid portion of them. An advance is not a signing bonus, as most people think, but a down payment toward what a publisher believes it will eventually owe the author.

While your jaw is already dropped, let me hasten to add that royalties over and above the advance amount are usually not paid on an as-the-books-sell basis, which could entail the publisher’s cutting a check every other day, but at regularly-scheduled intervals. Once every three or six months is fairly standard.

The moral: read your publication contract carefully. If you don’t understand what it says, ask your agent to explain it to you; it’s her job.

Those hands just shot up again, didn’t they? “I’m glad you brought that up, Anne. You’ve made it clear why I would need an agent to help me though this process, which sounds like a drawn-out and somewhat unpredictable one. So how do I go about finding the paragon who will protect me and my work?”

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers — but I’m afraid agent-seeking is a topic for another day.

Before I signed off, allow me to add: don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so. It’s not something that we talk about much in the writing community, perversely. And that’s a shame, because In the current market, when advances for new are often reflective of the gloomiest projections, while those for bestselling authors keep rising, I suspect that a significant percentage of the authors who sign their first publication contracts in the months to come are going to be mystified at being offered an honorarium when they expected enough dosh, if not to allow them to retire to write full-time, at least to permit cut back their hours.

Don’t panic; conditions change. One thing you may rely upon to remain the same, however: the writer who is in it for the love of literature probably going to be happier enduring the ups and downs of getting published than the one who walks into it with dollar signs in his eyes. Good writing is a gift to humanity, after all, every bit as much as it is a commodity for its author to sell.

Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, or, how does a book concept make it from a New Year’s resolution to a shelf at Borders?

gutenberg press drawing

Welcome to 2010, long- and short-term members of the Author! Author! community. May this be a year of major steps forward: starting the book of your dreams, finishing the book of your dreams, revising your manuscript until it becomes the book of your dreams, discovering the best agent on earth to represent it, convincing the best agent on earth to represent it, that agent blandishing the ideal editor into reading it, said ideal editor falling in love with it, a lucrative sale and easy publication process, readers eager to bury their noses in it, a second book (or a third, or a fifteenth) that exceeds expectations, a well-deserved Pulitzer prize.

You know, the basics of a writing life well-lived.

An especially hearty howdy-do and handshake for those of you acting on a New Year’s resolution to learn how to get your book into print. Or how to land an agent. Or why a writer might need to land an agent in order to get her book into print. You’ve happened upon this blog at an excellent time, because I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks getting down to those very brass tacks. I’m going to be addressing the two most basic questions of the writerly life:

(1) How does a book go from sitting on an aspiring writer’s desk to being sold in a bookstore?

(2) What, if anything, does an aspiring writer need to know to navigate that trip successfully?

Why go straight to the root of the quest, rather than simply handing those new to the game a couple of one-page sheets of directions? Well, first of all, because there are plenty of advice-givers out there willing to bark unexplained orders at those new to the biz. In my experience, quick-and-dirty isn’t nearly as helpful as carefully-explained. Unless a writer understands why things work the way they do, he’s not only likely to break the rules — he’s not going to be able to improve his game.

Heck, he may not be able to play with the big kids at all. So: let’s talk fundamentals.

That chorus of groans you just heard, newcomers, arose from some of the longer-term readers of this blog who were really, really into my recent series on self-editing. “But Anne,” they whimper, ink-stained fingers gesticulating, didn’t you tell us just the other day that since half the writers in North America suddenly send out queries and submissions” (you’ll be tossing around those terms very soon, newbies, never fear) “as part of their New Year’s resolutions, we should hunker down and wait until mid-February before trying afresh? Wouldn’t that hiatus be a dandy time for, you know, revision?”

Indeed it would be, ink-stained protestors. A review of the basics before leaping back into the fray is never a bad idea. But just to keep it interesting, I’ll make a valiant effort to keep tucking tidbits useful for self-editors into the corners of my next couple of weeks’ posts. I wouldn’t want you to feel that I was ignoring old friends for new.

And let’s face it: a crash course in how the publishing industry works isn’t a bad idea before leaping back into the fray. As I’m sure many of you are already well aware, when a rejection is staring a writer in the face, it’s awfully easy to forget that it isn’t personal; good book concepts and well-written manuscripts is just part of how the system works.

Didn’t expect me to be so up-front about it, did you, newbies? Fair warning: this series is going to be rather disturbing to any writer who believes that the only real test of whether a manuscript is any good is whether it gets published. Or that a good manuscript will always be able to find an agent, and swiftly.

At the risk of repeating myself, that’s just not how it works.

Honest. I’ve been in the game practically since birth, and I’m here to tell you, there is no literature fairy. No winsome sprite will guide an agent to the doorstep of a talented new writer, simply because she is talented; the writer has to take some steps to flag that agent down.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? I haven’t even laid the foundation of gloom-inducing yet, and here I am, waving from a second-floor window.

What I’m about to tell you may well be depressing — heck, it depresses me, and I have an agent — but please, I implore you, stick with this series, even if you are already fairly familiar with, say, how to construct a passable English sentence or to write a query. This is information that everyone even considering trying to bring his book to publication needs to know.

Seriously, it’s to your advantage. Aspiring writers who misunderstand how books do and don’t get published are likely to waste their time and resources on unsolicited submissions that will inevitably get rejected.

In other words, those of you who just murmured, “What’s an unsolicited submission?” are not the people for whom I am writing this. I’m talking to every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice. I want to help you succeed.

So let’s get this baby cranking, as Johann Gutenberg doubtless said to his assistants in 1450 or so.

Because there are several ways a book can end up on a shelf in your local literary emporium, I’m going to break up the question into several parts. First, I’m going to tackle the classic means, publication through a great big publishing house.

But first, a little history — and while we’re at it, let’s debunk a few widely-believed myths.

How books used to get published during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, or, how a surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers (mistakenly) believe the industry still works
A hundred years ago, the publication process was pretty straightforward: an author wrote a book, contacted an editor at a publishing house, and if the editor liked it, he (it was almost invariably a he) chatted about it with senior staff, persons with whom he may well have shared a dormitory at some elite private college; if he could convince them to take a chance on the manuscript, he would edit it for publication. Printing presses were set in motion, and in due course, the book was available for sale. The publisher sent out advance copies to newspapers, so they could produce reviews.

Of course, that was back when there were few enough books published in these United States that most releases from a good-sized publishing house could garner a review in a major newspaper or magazine. Now, so many books are published in any given year that only a tiny fraction of them enjoy the substantial publicity of a well-placed review.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, you’re far more likely to see a review of the eighteenth novel by an already-established author than the brilliant debut another. Assuming that the newspaper or magazine in question even carries book reviews anymore.

Heck, that’s assuming that you’re even reading newspapers anymore.

Back to days of yore. Amazingly, considering that authors often possessed only one copy of their manuscripts — remember, the photocopier wasn’t invented until 1938, and it wasn’t commonly available until two decades later — it wasn’t uncommon for writers just to pack their books into boxes and send them to publishers without any preliminary correspondence.

This is what’s known in the biz as an unsolicited submission, a manuscript an author sends to an agent or editor without said agent or editor’s having asked to see it. Today, an unsolicited manuscript that appears on an editor’s desk out of a clear blue sky is invariably rejected unread.

Not every aspiring writer believes that, however, because they’ve heard what used to happen to such manuscripts in the days of the Model A: publishers would set these books aside until some luckless employee of the publishing house had time to go through the stack.

This ever-burgeoning source of reading material was known as the slush pile. Although solicited submissions (i.e., those that the editor has actually asked to see) have probably always enjoyed a competitive advantage, slush pile manuscripts did occasionally get discovered and published.

They also, predictably, got lost on a fairly regular basis. Thus the old writerly truism: never send anyone the only copy of your manuscript.

That hasn’t always been easy advice to follow, unless one happened to command a personal army of copyists and/or a steno pool; see my earlier comment about historical access to copy machines.

Because there were fewer manuscripts (and publishing houses were more heavily staffed) before the advent of the personal computer, a writer did not need an agent: it was possible to deal directly with the editor who would handle the book, or at any rate with the luckless assistant whose job it was to go through the slush pile. But back when jolly old TR (Roosevelt hated being called Teddy) was overseeing the nation’s business, it was also still completely permissible to submit a manuscript in longhand, too.

Times change, as they say; no agent or editor in her right mind would read even a sentence of a hand-written submission today. Another way that time changed the publishing industry was that publishing houses began expecting to see fiction and nonfiction presented to them differently.

The fiction/nonfiction split
Both historically and now, novels were (and are) sold to publishers in pretty much the form you would expect: as complete manuscripts, and only as complete manuscripts. At least, editors buy first novels that way; until fairly recently, the major publishing houses quite routinely offered fiction writers who had written promising first novels could snag a multi-book contract.

It took until the 1990s for publishers to notice that a commercially successful first book is not necessarily an absolute predictor of whether the author’s second or third book will sell well. Usually, there was a pretty good reason for that: the author spent five or ten years, or even a lifetime, cranking out that first novel, but after it hit the big time, her editor began clamoring for the next immediately. The author tossed something together in a year, and poof! Everyone was astonished that the second wasn’t nearly as good as the first.

Hmm, who could have predicted that? As late as the 1980s, not the publishing industry.

As a result, while multi-book fiction contracts still exist — particularly in genre fiction, which is conducive to series-production — they have become substantially less common in the mainstream and women’s fiction markets. Which is to say: the vast majority of fiction is sold on a per-book basis. While previously-published authors can occasionally sell subsequent books based upon only a few chapters (known, unsurprisingly, as a partial), novelists should expect to write books– and have them polished into publishable form before they can sell them.

Nonfiction, however, is typically sold not on the entire book, but via a marketing packet known as a book proposal. There are several hefty categories on the archive list at right on how to put one together, but for the purposes of this post, a generalization will suffice: a book proposal is a packet consisting of a description of the proposed book, a sample chapter, descriptions of subsequent chapters, and an array of marketing materials.

Typically, these materials include everything from a detailed analysis of similar books already on the market to an explanation of who the target readership is and why this book will appeal to them to a marketing plan. Traditionally, previously published writers also include clippings of their earlier work in their book proposals — which is why, in case you’d been wondering, so many nonfiction books are authored by journalists. They tend to have stacks and stacks of clippings on hand.

Why are clippings helpful in selling a nonfiction book to a publisher? Because they prove that some other editor has thought enough of the proposer’s writing to publish it before. Basically, a book proposal is a job application: in effect, the writer is asking the publishing house to pay her to write the book she’s proposing.

That does not, however, mean that every nonfiction writer will get paid up front, at least not entirely. Why not, you ask? Because buying something that does not yet exist obviously entails running the risk that the author may not deliver, the advance for a book sold in this manner is typically paid in three installments, one when the publication contract is signed, another after the editor has received and accepted the manuscript, and a third when the book actually comes out.

Call it an insurance policy for authorial good behavior. Apparently, novelists are regarded as shiftier sorts, because to this day, the only acceptable proof that novelists can write a book is to have already written one.

Everyone clear on the fiction/nonfiction distinction? If not, please trot right to the comments and ask a pertinent question.

While we’re waiting, let’s move on to one of the other great cosmic mysteries, shall we?

The lingering demise of the slush pile
Just to clear up any misconceptions floating around out there: if you want to sell a book to a major U.S. publisher, you will need an agent to do it for you. The slush pile is no more; currently, all of the major houses will accept only represented manuscripts.

Like any broad-based policy, however, it comes with a few caveats. We’re only talking about the great big publishers here; there are plenty of smaller, independent publishers that do accept direct submission. Very good houses, some of these. One hears tell of some children’s book divisions at major houses that still accept direct submissions; if an editor meets a writer at a conference and positively falls in love with his work, it’s not unheard-of for the editor to help the writer land an agent (usually one with whom the editor has worked recently) in order to side-step the policy. Stuff like that.

But it’s not wise to assume that you’re going to be the exception. If you’re hoping for a contract with a big publisher, get an agent first.

This was not always a prerequisite, of course. Until fairly recently, one element of that fiction/nonfiction split I was regaling you with above was that while novels had to go through an agent, nonfiction writers could submit proposals directly to publishers. Not so much anymore.

You novelists out there are getting a bit restive, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some of you complaining, and who could blame you? “This is starting to seem a trifle discriminatory against my ilk. Nonfiction writers are presenting substantially less writing than fiction writers; a proposal’s what, 40-60 pages, typically? As a novelist, I’m expected to produce an entire book before I approach an agent, much less a publishing house. I would have thought that if publishing houses were going to distrust anybody enough to want an agent to vouch for ‘em, it would be the author whose book they were buying at the idea stage.”

Don’t upset yourselves, oh novelists; it’s not good for your stomach acids, and besides, since everyone needs an agent now, it’s a moot point. But I suspect that the answer to your question is that that publishers habitually receive far more fiction submissions than nonfiction ones — interesting, given the long-standing industry truism that fiction is easier to sell, both to editors and to readers. (It probably also has something to do with the fact that nonfiction books are often proposed by those with clip-worthy previous publishing credentials, such as magazine articles and newspaper columns, but believe me, the other reason would be more than sufficient.)

Before petty bickering begins to break out between fiction and nonfiction writers over a situation that has more or less vanished anyway, let’s turn our attention to a more absorbing topic: why would the big publishing houses feel so strongly about agents that they would all agree upon a represented-manuscripts-only policy?

The rise of the agent
Although many aspiring writers regard the necessity of procuring an agent as at best a necessary evil, agents perform an exceedingly important role in the current publishing market: not only do they bring brilliant new writers and amazing new books to editors’ attention, but they are now also effectively the first-round submission screeners for the publishing houses.

Okay, so they bring some not-so-hot writers and less-than-amazing books to ‘em, too, but try to see the forest, not the trees here. By passing along only what they consider marketable and of publishable quality, agents thin the volume of submissions the publishers see on a monthly basis to Niagara Falls, rather than the Atlantic Ocean.

Everybody understand that? Agents reject 95% of the queries they receive, and an even higher percentage of submitted manuscripts, so the publishers don’t have to do so.

It’s easy to resent agents for this, to think of them as the self-appointed gatekeepers of American literature, but that’s not really fair. Much of what they assure that the editors never see honestly isn’t publishable, after all; I hate to disillusion anyone (and yet here I am doing it), but as Millicent the agency screener would be the first to tell you, a hefty majority of the writing currently being queried, proposed, and submitted is simply not very well written. Even very promisingly-written submissions are often misformatted, or would require major editing, or just plain are not quite up to professional standards.

Or so runs the prevailing wisdom; we could debate for weeks over the extent to which that’s really true, or how difficult it often is for genuinely innovative writing to land an agent. Suffice it to say that if the major publishers believed that agents were rejecting manuscripts that their editors should be seeing, they presumably would change their policies about accepting only agented manuscripts, right?

“Okay, Anne,” I hear some of you reluctantly conceding, “I get that if I hope to sell my book to a major U.S. publisher, I’m going to need to find myself an agent. But if you don’t mind my asking, what do I get out of the exchange, other than a possible entrée to an editorial desk?”

A good agent can do quite a bit for a writer. First, as you reluctant conceders already pointed out, an agent can make sure your manuscript or book proposal lands on the right desks: not just any old editor’s, but an editor with a successful track record in acquiring books like yours and shepherding them through the sometimes difficult publication process. (Don’t worry; I’ll be clarifying that part later in this series.) Pulling that off requires both an intimate knowledge of who is looking to buy what right now — not always an easy task, considering how quickly publishing fads change and editorial staffs turn over — but also the connections to enable a successful pitch to the right audience.

In other words, for an agent to be good at his job, he can’t just send out submissions willy-nilly; he must have the experience to target the editors who are most likely to be interested in any given book.

Agents also negotiate book contracts for their clients, act as a liaison between the author and the publishing house, and help mediate any disputes that might arise. Like, for instance, if the publishing house is being a mite slow in coughing up the contracted advance.

Yes, it happens, I’m sorry to report. And if it happens to you, you’re going to want an experienced agent on your side, fighting for your dosh.

Admittedly, it will be very much in your agent’s self-interest to make sure that you’re paid: in the U.S., reputable agents earn their livings solely from commissions (usually 15%) on their clients’ work. That means, of course, that if they don’t sell books, the agency doesn’t make any money.

Allow me to repeat that, because: agencies are seldom non-profit enterprises. Contrary to common belief amongst aspiring writers, their employees are not primarily concerned with the task of discovering great new talent, but rather with finding books they believe the agency can sell within the current literary market.

In other words, they reject books they know to be written well. Routinely. Because if they can’t sell the book, the agency does not make money.

It’s honestly as simple as that. See why knowing how agencies work might help you take a rejection less personally?

Typically, the agent will handle all of the money an author makes on her book: the publisher pays advances and royalties to the agency, not directly to the author; the agency will then deduct the agent’s percentage, cut a check for the rest, and send it to the author. In the U.S., agencies are also responsible for providing their clients and the IRS with tax information and documentation.

Since self-employed people like writers have been known to get audited from time to time, you’re going to appreciate this level of verifiability once you become successful. Trust me on this one.

To recap how things have changed since Theodore Roosevelt roamed the earth:
Way back when: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at major publishing houses directly to market their books.
The reality now: with few exceptions, a writer will require an agent to approach a publisher for her.

Way back when: fiction and nonfiction books were marketed in the same manner, as already-completed manuscripts.
The reality now: fiction is sold on the entire manuscript; with certain exceptions, nonfiction is sold as via a book proposal.

Way back when: nonfiction writers could approach major publishing houses directly with their book proposals.
The reality now: agents submit both fiction and nonfiction books on behalf of their authors.

Way back when: agents played a substantially smaller role in the overall dynamic of U.S. publishing.
The reality now: agents largely determine which manuscripts editors will and will not see.

Way back when: an author often formed a personal relationship with his editor and other publishing house staff, sometimes lasting decades.
The reality now: the editor who acquires a book may not still be the editor handling it by the time it goes to press; a good agent can do a lot to help smooth over any resulting difficulties.

Whew — that’s quite a lot of information to absorb in a single post, isn’t it? I’m going to stop for the day, to give all of this time to sink in. Next time, on to what happens to a book after an agent submits it to an editor at a publishing house!

Yes, yes, I know: this isn’t precisely fun material to cover, but you will be happier in the long run if you’re familiar with it.

But wait — I haven’t given you a self-editing tip yet today, have I? Here’s one that will keep many of you busy for a good, long while: in most adult fiction, professional readers like Millicent prefer to see tag lines — all of those he said, she exclaimed, they cried statements that litter the average dialogue scene — minimized, or even omitted entirely. Unless there is serious doubt about which character is speaking when, they usually aren’t necessary.

Quotation marks, after all, indicate that what falls within them is being spoken aloud. So dialogue that runs like this:

Johnny smoothed back his pompadour, copied from a torn photo of his grandfather. “Yeah?” he said. “Who’s gonna make me?”

Tina quailed in fear, but she stood her ground. “I am,” she said stoutly.

“Ooh,” Johnny said, “this is going to be fun. I haven’t created a scar in weeks.”

may often be trimmed to the following, with no real loss of meaning:

Johnny smoothed back his pompadour, copied from a torn photo of his grandfather. “Yeah? Who’s gonna make me?”

Tina quailed, but she stood her ground stoutly. “I am.”

“Ooh, this is going to be fun. I haven’t created a scar in weeks.”

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the most graceful way to work today’s editing tip into the text. Hey, I’m just warming up here. Keep up the good work!