Your query letter, part IV: don’t wait for that knock on the door

Again, pardon me for posting two blogs so very close together temporally: blame my ISP, whose desire to thwart its subscribers apparently trumps my desire to post on a daily basis.

I’ve been talking for a few days about the goals of the query letter and how to achieve them without sounding as though you’re trying to sell the agent vacation home land in Florida. In that spirit, I thought some of you might find it useful to see what a really good query letter looks like. Not so you can copy it verbatim – rote reproductions abound in rejection piles – but so you may see what the theory looks like in practice. To make the example more useful, I’ve picked a book in the public domain whose story you might know: MADAME BOVARY.

Ms. Savvy Marketer
Picky & Pickier Literary Management
0000 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 00000

Dear Ms. Marketer:
I very much enjoyed your recent article in THE WRITER magazine. Since you so ably represented First-Time Author’s debut novel, FRENCH LADIES IN LOVE, I hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction book, MADAME BOVARY.

Emma Bovary is a beautiful woman who knows what she wants out of life: great, overwhelming love, the kind of romance she has read about in novels. Yet married to the most ordinary of ordinary men, and operating on an even more ordinary income, she must create romance on her own. Yet in pursuing her dream of a love-filled, glamorous life, she must put her marriage, child, respectability, and even life in jeopardy.

Emma Bovary’s dilemma will be familiar to many novel readers, an echo of an often unspoken but nevertheless strong longing to live a fantasy life. Rather than ridiculing the heroine for her ambitions, as in Stendhal’s bestselling THE RED AND THE BLACK, or making light of the social problems of such a pursuit would entail, like Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR, MADAME BOVARY concentrates on the quotidian tradeoffs already familiar to readers’ lives: living with having married the wrong man, feeling unappreciated, the difficulty in obtaining arsenic.

I am seeking an agent sensitive to the complexities and charm of the mundane, who can help me not only market this book, but who is also interested in working with me to develop my continuing career as a novelist. I may be reached at the address and phone number below (or would be, had the telephone been invented yet), as well as via internet at

Thank you for your time in considering this. I am including a SASE for your reply.


Gustave Flaubert
1234 Hovel Lane, attic apartment
(789) 665-2298

Now, apart from being in business format (because my blogging program will not allow me to indent paragraphs), that’s an awfully good query letter, one that presents the book well without being too pushy or arrogant. But let’s assume that Mssr. Flaubert had not done his homework; what might his query letter have looked like then?

Picky & Pickier Literary Management
0000 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 00000

Dear Agent:
You’ve never read anything like my fiction novel, MADAME BOVARY. This is one opportunity you’d be a fool to miss!

MADAME BOVARY is a story of lust, greed, and unscrupulousness, set against the backdrop of provincial France. The poet Baudelaire says it’s the greatest novel of the 19th century, and I’m sure you’ll agree.

I know agents are notoriously risk-averse, but why not take a chance on an unknown writer, for a change? You’ll be glad you did.


Gustave Flaubert

Now, I respect my readers’ intelligence far too much to go through point by point, explaining what’s wrong with this second letter. Obviously, the contractions are far too casual for a professional missive.

The thing to note here comes as a great big surprise to most aspiring writers: even a great book will be rejected at the query letter if it is pitched poorly. Yes, any agent in her right might would snap up Mssr. Flaubert in a heartbeat after reading his wonderful prose – but with a query letter like the second, the probability of any agent’s asking to read it is close to zero.

Let’s not forget an important corollary to this realization: even a book as genuinely gorgeous as MADAME BOVARY would not see the inside of a Borders today unless Flaubert kept sending out query letters, rather than curling up in a ball after the first rejection.

Yes, I know: deep down, pretty much every writer believes that if she were REALLY talented, her work would get picked up without her having to market it. C’mon, admit it, you’ve had the fantasy: there’s a knock on your door, and when you open it, there’s the perfect agent standing there, contract in hand. “I heard that your work is wonderful,” the agent says. “May I come in and talk about it?’

Or perhaps in your preferred version, you go to a conference and pitch your work for the first time. The agent of your dreams, naturally, falls over backwards in his chair; after sal volitale has been administered to revive him from his faint, he cries, “That’s it! The book I’ve been looking for my whole professional life!”

Or, still more common, you send your first query letter to an agent, and you receive a phone call two days later, asking to see the entire manuscript. Three days after you overnight it to New York, the agent calls to say that she stayed up all night reading it, and is dying to represent you. Could you fly to New York immediately, so she could introduce you to the people who are going to pay a million dollars for your rights?

Fantasy is all very well in its place, but while you are trying to find an agent, please do not be swayed by it. Don’t send out only one query at a time; it’s truly a waste of your efforts. Try to keep 7 or 8 out at any given time.

This advice often comes as a shock to writers. “What do you mean, 7 or 8 at any given time? I’ve been rejected ten times, and I thought that meant I should lock myself away and revise the book completely before I sent it out again!”

In a word, no. Oh, feel free to lock yourself up and revise to your heart’s content, but if you have a completed manuscript in your desk drawer, you should try to keep a constant flow of query letters heading out your door. As they say in the biz, the only manuscript that can never be sold is the one that is never submitted. (For a great, inspiring cheerleading essay on how writers talk themselves out of believing this, check out Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life.)

There are two reasons keeping a constant flow is a good idea, professionally speaking. First, it’s never a good idea to allow a query letter to molder on your desktop: after awhile, that form letter can start to seem very personally damning, and a single rejection from a single agent can start to feel like an entire industry’s indictment of your work.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: one of the most self-destructive of conference-circuit rumors is the notion that if a book is good, it will automatically be picked up by the first agent that sees it. Or the fifth, for that matter.

This is simply untrue. It is not uncommon for wonderful books to go through dozens of queries, and even many rounds of query-revision-query-revision before being picked up. As long-time readers of this blog are already aware, there are hundreds of reasons that agents and their screeners reject manuscripts, the most common being that they do not like to represent a particular kind of book.

So how precisely is such a rejection a reflection on the quality of the writing?

Keep on sending out those queries a hundred times, if necessary. Because until you can blandish the right agent into reading your book, you’re just not going to know for sure whether it is marketable or not.

Keep up the good work!

Making it easier to keep your writing resolutions, Part III: placing your work in its best light

After yesterday’s post, I had a jolly old time picturing all of my readers marching up to their loved ones, putting their wee feet down very firmly, and declaring, “I deserve support for my writing!” If that didn’t happen in EVERYBODY’s household, please don’t tell me: let me dream of a world where writers get all the help they need to write terrific books.

Those of you who haven’t yet read yesterday’s post are probably scratching your heads right now, right? Manifesti don’t bear repeating, my dears; I’m afraid that was one I can’t paraphrase. Suffice it to say, I suggested a few radical steps a dedicated writer might take in order to carve more consistent writing time out of an already busy life, creating a New, Writing-Positive Schedule (NWPS for short) that will amaze the masses with its efficiency.

If yesterday’s steps were too sweeping for you, you might want to try going on a media fast for a week or ten days, to get a sense of how much the yammerings and enticements of the TV, internet, etc., are eating into your creative time. It won’t hurt your worldview to turn off the TV and radio for that long, not to skip the daily newspaper, nor – dare I say it? – miss my daily musings.

It sounds odd, but simply taking a brief vacation from outside stimulus and noise will help you get back into the habit of listening to your own thoughts without distraction, as well as gaining a more accurate sense of how you would use your untrammeled time.

Not only will this allow you to assess just how much time every day you are currently spending being entertained, annoyed, and/or informed, to see if you could purloin some of that time for writing, but it is also mighty impressive to bystanders. “This writer is committed!” they will think – and if you are intending to institute some time-purloining measures in your home, establishing your devotion to your writing will help minimize the resentment of the rest of your household about your NWPS.

Trust me, nothing impresses kids with the seriousness of a project as much as your giving up your favorite sitcom for it.

Even if you are not trying to free up time, but are instead trying to free yourself from writer’s block, a media fast can be extremely enlightening. I go on one of these fasts every spring, and it honestly is amazing how much it calms the thoughts. It also arouses the pity and wonder of my household, and reminds my kith and kin just how important it is to me to have inviolate writing time. It reminds them that they, too, are contributing to my writing success, if only by remembering not to call during my writing time. (Did you hear that, Marge?)

It reminds them, in short, that they can actually LOOK for a paper clip or a stamp when they need it, rather than asking me. What am I, an office-supply shop? A post office? The neighborhood information booth?

It also reminds them why I am so strict throughout the rest of the year about not wanting to hear what is happening on the currently hot TV show. (Paris who? Jennifer what?) For me, getting sucked into an ongoing plot line is a big dispensable time waster. I have seen a grand total of one episode of FRIENDS, and none of ER, but I have written a couple of pretty good books.

And that, my friends, is nothing at which we should be sneezing.

Even if you have arranged your life so that you could not pick any of the casts of FRIENDS, SEINFELD, or any of the fifty thousand crime scene dramas out of a police lineup, you may well be having trouble sitting down to write – and for reasons that have absolute nothing to do with willpower, but have everything to do with why New Year’s is positively the WORST time to expect a reasonable person to be chipper about a new endeavor.

Those of you who live in the Pacific Northwest, Canada, Alaska, Sweden, Scotland, or anywhere else where winter light gets scarce probably already know what I’m talking about: Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD, to its friends). Here in Seattle, it is an annual epidemic: people who hold day jobs droop visibly, as they are going to work AND coming home in the dark. On top of that, this is the rainiest winter in the history of well, ever, so even those lucky enough to be able to snatch some noontime rays would be hard-pressed to find them. It can be depressing, making getting out of bed feel like an outright burden.

The late dawns and early dusks of wintertime are particularly hard on writers, I think. No matter whether you get up early or stay up late to snatch your precious daily writing time, the fast-waning winter light is bound to alter your schedule a little. I write and edit full-time, so I am spared the pain of the pitch-dark commute, but let me tell you, when I look up from my computer and notice that I have only an hour of daylight left, I practically have to lash myself to my desk chair to keep myself from running outside and flinging myself onto my front lawn, covered in solar panels.

Yes, the gloriously long days of a northern summer do compensate for the blahs of a local winter, but that’s awfully hard to remember in mid-January, isn’t it? Just try to remember the kind of September when grass was green and…well, admittedly, the grass does stay pretty green around here all winter, but still, you know the song. My point is, back in September, you could get off work and still SEE that the grass was green without whipping out a pocket flashlight.

So if you’re feeling blah and unmotivated, you’re not alone, especially if you happen to live in my neck of the woods. After all, Seattle is where those clever doctors DISCOVERED Seasonal Affective Disorder. (Possibly tipped off by all of those people leaping off the perversely-named Aurora Bridge – THE place to do oneself in around here, my dears – screaming, “The sun is never coming back! The sun is never coming back!”)

It really isn’t just you — or me, for that matter. We who live far north need to take better care of ourselves in the winter. I’m no doctor (well, I am, but not of medicine), but see if any of these classic SAD symptoms sound like anything that might be making it hard to stick to your writing resolutions:

Increased sadness
Higher irritability
Greater anxiety
Difficulty concentrating
Falling asleep earlier
Feeling less rested
Tiredness during the day
Decrease in activity
Craving of sweets and/or carbohydrates
Weight increase (usually blamed on the preceding two)

If you take just the first five, it reads like a diagnostic list of writer’s block symptoms, doesn’t it? Enough so that the FIRST thing you should do when you encounter writer’s block in the winter is to turn up the lights in your studio. The problem might well be physical.

Fortunately, there is a low-cost tool that makes seasonal adjustment easier: the full-spectrum light bulb. Yes, they are a bit more expensive than your average light bulb, but they do undoubtedly help fight the deep-winter blahs — they really are worth the investment. Write ‘em off as a writing expense; most writers do find that they are more productive in the winter months with adequate lighting. And if you use them strategically, you need not spend a fortune to improve your mood.

If you are willing to spend a fortune to improve your mood, go ahead and invest in a lightbox. Sitting in front of one of these babies for a scant 45 minutes a day replicates standing out in the sun at noon on the equator, without any of the harmful UV rays. Do comparison-shop, however, because even low-quality lightboxes, the ones where you practically have to have your nose pressed into them to enjoy any significant benefit, can be quite expensive.

Even if you would be perfectly happy living in a cave year-round, you can use the body’s response to light to help you keep your good writing habit resolutions. I’m about to share a trick of the full-time writing trade, one of those professional secrets that you always suspected the published shared with one another in furtive whispers: in the winter months, have your writing space be the ONLY room in the house equipped with full-spectrum lighting, and plenty of it. Make it blaze.

“That’s it?” I hear you cry in frustration. “Light my studio differently from the rest of the house?”

Yes, oh scoffers, that is what I said. Do it, and make sure you spend at least an hour per day in the room for the first week with the new lighting. (Try playing your writing CD at the same time: ideally, you should be writing while you’re there, of course.) It does not take very long to inculcate the habit in your psyche. Soon, you will find that your body actually CRAVES being in your writing space. You (and, most likely, any pet animals you own) will automatically gravitate there.

Nifty trick, eh?

Remember, no matter what advertisers for weight-loss and smoke-cessation programs tell you, there is more to changing your life that brute willpower. There’s being smart, and being creative. And, of course, keeping up the good work!

P.S.: There’s a really good discussion about what techniques readers use to jump-start their writing sessions going on in the comments on the first post of this series, January 4th. Some really creative solutions!

Making it easier to keep your writing resolutions, Part II, or, yes, I really DO mean it, Marge

Yesterday, I was discussing ways in which to make it easier to adhere to those New Year’s resolutions about writing more often and more productively. At the end of my day’s ramblings, I advised jump-starting your writing time by playing the same piece of music at the beginning of each writing session, to alert your body that it is time to write.

And the instant I posted the blog, I swear I heard whimpering out there. “But I don’t write to music!” the small voices said plaintively. “I find it distracting. So how do I get myself started?”

Simple. If you are a person who needs to write under conditions of complete silence, try always lighting the same type of incense or scented candle seconds before turning on the computer. Or always pull on the same pair of socks (laundering them occasionally, of course). Or pull your hair into a specific type of ponytail. Or eat a Satsuma. Or turn on that nifty light box you picked up at Ikea that makes colored patterns on the wall.

It actually does not matter what you do, as long as it is a sensual experience that occurs ONLY when you are writing – and is repeated EVERY time you sit down to write. Consistency is the key: otherwise, it isn’t going to work.

And sensual experience is the operative term here: your rational mind already knows that you want to sit down to write. These little rituals are for the benefit your subconscious, that deep, deep well where the hobgoblins of self-doubt like to hang out. No matter how much you tell them that this book needs to be written, those little demons have a comeback. But if you set up a mechanism that teaches them that regardless of how much they poke you after you’ve put on that Run-DMC CD or wafted a lily before your face, you’re going to remain sitting in front of that computer for the next couple of hours, they generally learn to get out of your way, at least for the time being.

If finding the time to write is the problem, pay attention to your normal routine for a week or ten days. Keep a written record of how you spend your time – not just the hours, but the minutes as well. This will help you gain you get a clearer idea of what is and is not immutable in your usual schedule.

Once you have a fair idea of where the time is going, deliberately break some of your major patterns, to figure out where you can squeeze in time to write. Keep records of how you spend this time, too. Switch around chores with your spouse; if you pick up the kids after school, try rearranging your carpool so you drive them there in the morning instead; it may well leave you fresher for evening writing. If you always do the dishes or laundry in the morning, do it late at night; maybe it will turn out that early morning is your prime writing time, and if so, do you really want to fill up that time with housework?

At the end of a week or ten days of seriously messing with your schedule, after your routines are good and disrupted, look back over your account of how you spent your time. What worked and what didn’t? What drove you nuts, and what seemed like a dream come true? Where could you fit in chunks of solid writing time on a regular basis?

Most importantly, did you find that any of your usual time-takers were disposable? Or might you cut back on their frequency? Chances are, you’ll find a few. Be imaginative. If no one actually needed to be hospitalized for ptomaine poisoning because you didn’t scrub down the kitchen like every other week of your adult life, for instance, could you perhaps do it only once per month?

Discuss the results with anyone who happens to be sharing your house, bed, or significant portions of your non-work time. Apart from forcing you to reexamine your habitual use of time, there’s a sneaky reason to do this: many writers are too darned nice or too indelibly responsible or just too habit-bound to expect their family members to change anything about THEIR schedules in order to make room for a loved one’s writing.

Stop blushing. You people know who you are. C’mon, admit it: deep in your hobgoblin-ridden subconscious, you think it’s selfish to ask anyone you love to make even the most minute sacrifice in order to support your life’s work.

Okay, so perhaps no one in your immediate vicinity is spontaneously offering to take a second job so you can quit yours and write full-time. Perhaps you live with people who snarl nastily if you are 45 seconds late in putting their dinners on the table. Or perhaps – and this is far and away the most common cause of the I’m-in-this-alone assumption – you have never actually asked your kith and kin to help you make time to write.

Your writing is important to you, isn’t it? Important enough that you would make sacrifices for it, right? If you suddenly decided to train for the Olympic clean-and-jerk competition, no one would expect your schedule not to rearrange itself a little. So why would writing a book dear to your soul, which is roughly as time-consuming, NOT radically affect how you spend your time?

Or – and this is the rub for a lot of people – how your household spends its time?

Let your mind reel with the possibilities for a moment. What if, say, you were no longer the household resident doing the laundry? Or your teenager cooked dinner twice per week? Or you opted out of hosting your thirty-person family’s Mardi Gras dinner this year? How much time would that free for your writing?

You deserve this time. You are not being selfish to ask for it, and it doesn’t make you a bad person. Actually, by making the effort to evaluate your shared time so carefully, you will be being considerate of other people’s needs, too, because you open up room for negotiation.

But trust me, very, very few writers have the luxury of families, roommates, or friends who spontaneously say, “You know, honey, I’ve been thinking, and you would have two and a half hours of clear time per week to work on your book if I did the grocery shopping for the next six months. Please, please let me do this for you!”


Once people who love writers come to understand that writing isn’t a hobby or a whim, but a practice as necessary to the writer’s happiness and well-being as regular exercise, they are often surprisingly accommodating. This is not to say that they won’t kick and scream at first: they probably will. And they may well try to trespass on your time, to see if you really mean it. This is especially likely to happen if you have not yet proven by day-in, day-out effort that you are committed to taking the time to work, rather than getting distracted. If you expect your kith and kin to take your writing time seriously, you need to take it seriously, too.

And that, in case you’re wondering, is why my fiancé’s mother is absolutely petrified of me. She called once too often during my writing time — and she still has the burn marks on her ear to prove it.

Having grown up in a family of writers, I can tell you with absolute confidence: when intensive writing schedules work, it’s because EVERYONE in the household is actively cooperating to make that happen, starting in babyhood. A professional writer’s kid learns to go to sleep by the sound of typing (and actually, the sound of a manual typewriter still makes me groggy, speaking of conditioned reflexes), and to this day, I seldom raise my voice above quiet conversational level, lest there be someone writing in the next room. It’s habit, like everything else.

Yes, it is hard to change ongoing patterns — but in the middle of a major, editor-induced revision, I would be the last person on earth to tell you that being a writer is easy. But think about it: if I had not put down my wee foot years ago and said, “Look, if you love me, you’re going to need to change a few things to accommodate my writing,” and didn’t keep stomping that foot to make sure it happened, what kind of a fix would I be in now? The day you suddenly receive the edits that are going to take you three weeks of 16-hour days to finish is NOT the best time to say for the first time, “Um, honey, I think we need to talk.”

Selfish? Maybe, but I think not. And you know what? I’ve made dinner a grand total of once in the last two weeks, and my revision is proceeding right on schedule. And no one, with the possible exception of my prospective mother-in-law, seems to think this makes me a bad person. And she’s getting over it.

Ask for some help. And keep up the good work!

Making it easier to keep your writing resolutions

If you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably muttered a New Year’s resolution or two within the past week or so; if you’re like most aspiring writers, one or more of these resolutions probably had to do with sitting down and pounding out that novel or nonfiction book that has been nagging the back of your brain for quite some time now.

Or, if you were virtuously pounding away already, perhaps you resolved to buckle down and get queries and/or submissions to agents out the door.

Or, if you were reading my blog last month when my hard disk melted into a wee black puddle, perhaps you resolved to make backups on a weekly basis. Or daily.

All of these, of course, are laudable goals, and I’m here to support you in achieving them. However, as those of you who have been reading this blog since this time last year already know, I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions: I think that they put unnecessary pressure on people at what can be a rather depressing time of year, at a time when they are frequently already exhausted from dealing with friends, family, and other loved ones who can be irritating to the point of madness. Add to that the endless advertising yammer urging us to seize the moment to become thinner, stop smoking, go to the gym, nab a new job, etc., and it’s amazing that anyone makes it to Lent without running amok and, depending upon the resolution du année, chowing down on all the chocolate in town, inhaling everything flammable, Krazy-Gluing oneself to the couch, and dropping out of the workforce altogether.

Or maybe I just like being told what to do a whole lot less than other people.

In any case, I think there’s ample reason that the average New Year’s resolution lasts only three weeks. However, I know some of you out there have taken the pledge plunge, and I want to spend the next couple of days dealing with the most common problems such resolutions encounter.

#1 on the hit parade of resolution-stymiers is the simple fact that pressure to produce pages within a short time frame (such as, say, those first three weeks of resolution) has a nasty habit of exacerbating writer’s block. For a lot of aspiring writers, finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer is not the hardest part of the process by a long stretch: it’s the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper.

It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. They worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to take time away from all of their other obligations. So they just don’t start, or if they do, once they do clear the time from their busy schedules, they feel guilty for not utilizing every nanosecond of it with productive keystrokes.

Obviously, you’re never going to find out for sure how talented, interesting, or important you are as a writer if you don’t make the time to write in the first place, but ultimately, I suspect this fear isn’t a rational phenomenon as much as a matter of conditioning. Americans are trained from birth to work as hard as possible, and to feel that there is virtue in slogging through quotidian workplace tasks, because there is a paycheck attached to them.

Since the rewards of writing tend to fall into the very, very long-term range, writing feels like a luxury by contrast – which, as any lifetime writer can tell you, it isn’t, if it’s really in your blood.

I’m not the first to say this, of course – and unfortunately, even encouraging statements like this can induce guilt or feelings of inadequacy in sufferers of writer’s block. “If I were really meant to write,” the blocked writer scolds herself, staring in frustration at the blank computer screen, “my fingers would be flying right now.”

Not necessarily. Blank screen-staring is a vital part of any successful writer’s job description. The pros call it processing.

Resolvers: do not, I beg you, conclude from a few isolated bouts of block that this is not the life for you or stop trying to write after merely a week or two of effort. Do not conclude it even if it goes on for weeks or months at a time, or if you find yourself making excuses about why you can’t write today. This type of block is common, I tell you, and transcends boundaries of talent.

As does coming up with creative ways to prevent oneself from sitting down to stare at that infernal screen. Heck, about a third of the working writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until after every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded t-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you – if you find that you’re not sitting down on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of leisure time available to give free rein to their creativity.

I could parrot other New Year’s advice-givers, and blame every difficulty upon a lack of willpower. I could, for instance, order you crabbily to turn off the TV/DVD/iPod/radio/other electronic distractions, but my God, there’s a war on. I would be the last person to advise you to be LESS aware of what is going on in the world around you at the moment. And I have to say, your distractions have my sympathy. Chances are, by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, etc.

But, as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety. Even professional writers, the ones who are making a good living at it, seldom have huge chunks of completely untrammeled time at their disposal. Life is obtrusive, after all.

If you can afford to take such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies and secluded bed-and-breakfasts that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. (Check out the back of Poets & Writers magazine, where many fellowships for such retreats are advertised.)

But I would bet a nickel that the very idea of arranging your life to disappear for a month’s writing retreat feels impossible right about now. You’re a responsible person with obligations. If you have kids, it’s hard to imagine disappearing for that long; if you have a demanding job, it may well be impossible. Not to mention the need to pay your bills throughout this theoretical retreat.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have – and to make a commitment to using it productively.

If you have been able to carve out an hour or two per day, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! Yet the need to make the most of every second can in and of itself can be intimidating; as I mentioned above, if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible, right? (Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s one trick the pros use, one that I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. It seems disappointingly simple, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music at the beginning of EVERY time you sit down to write. Not just the same CD, but the same SONG. Preferably one that reminds you in some way of the project at hand.

It may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with work – which in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. After awhile, you can put on other music later in your writing sessions, as long as you always begin with the same song. Your brain will already be used to snapping immediately into creative mode.

I do this myself, so I can give you first-hand assurance of its efficacy. While I was writing the early drafts of the novel I am currently revising, I put on the same Cat Stevens CD (hey, I was writing about hippies) literally every time I sat down to write – and now that I have finished the book, I can’t hear THE WIND without moving instinctively toward my computer. My next novel’s soundtrack is being provided mostly by Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello. And even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s UPSTAIRS AT ERIC’S without falling into musings about my long-completed dissertation.

I tell you, it works, if you give it a chance. And it carries a fringe benefit that’s paying off in spades for me right now: even though I’ve been working on many other writing projects in the interim since I finished the novel, I was able to snap my brain back into hippie novel mode again almost instantly. Thank you, TEASER AND THE FIRECAT.

Tomorrow, I shall pass along a few more tips on how to evade the writer’s-block blues. In the meantime, keep up the good work — and not just because you resolved to do it because a calendar told you so, but because you believe in the story you have to tell and your ability to express yourself well.

Eye on the prize: living with feedback

I missed posting yesterday, because I was so busy getting my computer up and running again. Lots of programs to be reinstalled, iTunes to download (again! They change the program fundamentally every 20 minutes or so, apparently), and of course, backed-up documents to re-install. Because I am positively religious about making back-ups, I lost only about 4 days’ worth of work; phew!

And because I haven’t nagged you about it in a week or so: when’s the last time YOU backed up your writing projects?

I have also been letting some editorial feedback sink in: an editor at a publishing house has asked for a second round of revisions, some of which, at least at first glance, appear to contradict the last set of revision requests. Naturally, I’ll make the revisions, but I’ve learned from long experience to let them float around in my consciousness for a while before I head back to the manuscript. Much better to get the inevitable period of post-feedback grumpiness out of one’s system before rolling up the sleeves, I find.

Why is this a good idea? Well, a writer’s first response to critique tends to be emotional, rather than practical. Understandable, certainly, the need to trouble the air with bootless cries of, “Why does no one understand me?” for a day or two, but while in that neighbor-disturbing state, it’s hard to see the manuscript in question as a product to be marketed, rather than one’s baby who has just been attacked on the playground by a great, big, blue-pencil-wielding bully. And one does definitely need to think clearly and strategically in order to turn a manuscript around quickly.

Say, by Epiphany.

Naturally, that’s a bit of an exaggeration: I could probably get away with taking 3 weeks to rearrange the book completely, rather than 2.

Shocked? Don’t be: I really haven’t been kidding all this time about the wait-wait-wait-wait-read-I NEED IT NOW-wait-wait-REVISE THIS AND OVERNIGHT IT! rhythm of the publishing industry. Writers often panic at the wrong points — thinking, for instance, that they have to get requested materials out the door within a week of receiving the request, because that agent or editor is holding his breath, waiting for it.

Just so you know, there is no case on record of an agent being carted off to a hospital due to having turned blue in such a case.

The British comedy team of French & Saunders does a wonderful sketch, a scene between an author and her editor. They’re negotiating when the author needs to produce particular parts of the manuscript (“I could give you the first letter by the end of the year.” “Only a letter?” “Well, it would be a capital letter…”), and the editor is becoming increasingly agitated. At the end of the scene, she confesses that the book in question is their only book on contract, and the staff at her publishing house have absolutely nothing to do until the author turns in the manuscript.

You may laugh, but actually, this isn’t all that far from how many submitting authors think about agencies — or how many agented writers think of publishing houses, for that matter. It’s hard for even very experienced writers not to expect a more or less instantaneous response to their submissions, as if the agent or editor did not have any other projects. But realistically, they do.

This is not to say that it isn’t important that you meet your deadlines, of course, and naturally, you will want to get your requested materials in before you fade completely from living memory. But over the course of my writing and freelance editing careers, I have spoken with thousands of writers in I-must-get-this-out-the-door-now frenzies, and in the vast majority of cases, it’s the writer who has set the stress-inducing deadline — not the agent, not the editor. You may think that you have to revise your entire book in two weeks, because you received a letter asking to see the rest of your manuscript, but the fact is, if you send it in three or six, that’s within the same ballpark, as far as the industry is concerned.

And that’s why, in case you’re wondering, folks in the industry consider a 3+ month response time on a submitted manuscript acceptable. Particularly on novels. Their rationale is that, no matter how talented a writer is, or how marketable a story may be, the average reader is not on tenterhooks, refusing to buy any other novels until that writer’s comes out.

Go ahead, be appalled by this attitude. But you must admit, it does explain a lot about how agents and editors treat aspiring writers.

Although we writers seldom admit it in public, deep down, most of us do like to believe that there are people out there, bless them, who will rush out to buy our books simply because WE have written them, not because they contain information that the reader wants or a style the reader finds appealing. “My God!” our ideal readers cry. “I hadn’t known it, but I have been searching for this authorial voice all of my life!”

One of the cruelest awakenings most good writers have when they first start sending their work out to agents is the cold realization that in fact, the agency is not being overrun by editors clamoring specifically for their books’ particular prose stylings or wryly unusual worldviews. Nor are there necessarily already-established market niches for every well-written book.

How a writer deals with this first significant disappointment — whether she takes it as a challenge to refine her work, her pitch, and her bag of writer’s tools instantly, curls up in a ball and never sends anything out again, or chooses a path somewhere in between — is, although hidden from the world, one of the best indicators of future writing success. Because the ones who are willing to acknowledge that writing isn’t just self-expression, but also a business, stand a better chance of ultimately being able to tailor their work to an agent or editor’s liking.

I don’t mean to say that you will be best served by pretending that rejection does not hurt — it does. But hurt can lead to reevaluation, and reevaluation can lead to the breaking of bad habits. Not to mention toughening you up for the sterling moment when your agent tells you that five of the first ten editors who read your book ALMOST bought it, and the rest hated it.

The farther along you get in your writing career, the bigger the slap-in-your-face realizations become. (Imagine being the first runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize!) The earlier in your journey that you learn to accept rejection as a learning experience, the better off you will be later on.

Or, to put it in terms of me, me, me, if I hadn’t spent years developing revision, editing, and speed-writing skills, I would just have to throw up my hands right now in despair at meeting me very un-imaginary deadline. I hadn’t trained my kith and kin to respect the value of my work to me enough to expect that I would disappear into a revision frenzy at times like this, even with Christmas so few days away, everyone concerned would be far unhappier at the moment. And if I hadn’t schooled myself in recovering from the shock of critique rapidly, so I could get to work rationally and well, my book would be toast right now.

I did not acquire these skills overnight. In fact, if I’m honest, I have to report that I am still abjectly furious about the first high-handed editorial change anyone ever made to my work.

I was ten years old, and as crossing guard of the year, I had been selected to write and give a thank-you speech at the annual luncheon honoring parent volunteers at my elementary school. (Actually, they’ve never asked the crossing guard of the year to give the speech before or since, so my appointment to this coveted post may well have had more to do with my already fairly well-established writing abilities than with my whistle-blowing acumen.) I wrote the speech, a rather florid little number jam-packed with superlatives, and submitted it to my teacher and the principal for approval.

On the day before I was to give it, the manuscript was returned to me, unwisely marked with red pen at the end. If I close my eyes, I can still picture it: my teacher and principal had conspired to change, “We send you much love and many kisses” to “We send you mucho love and kisses.”

Instantly, I set up the time-honored writer’s howl of protest. “It’s stupid!” I cried. “And it isn’t grammatically correct in either English or Spanish!”
For the record, the average fifth-grade teacher does not like to be told that her students have a better grasp of grammar than she does. Even when it’s true. Perhaps even especially when it’s true. “It’s cuter that way, dear,” she assured me. “Everyone will love it.”

This was my first experience with editorial obtuseness toward authorial feelings, so I actually said what all of us think when we’re edited badly: “I don’t care if they love it. I’m afraid that they’re going to think that I wrote it wrong!”

I was loudly and harshly overruled, and the bad edit stayed. My teacher watched me like a lynx in the hours leading up to the speech, muttering threats under her breath as she led me up to the microphone, lest I revert to the pre-edited, grammatically-correct version.

Much to my astonishment, the adults in the room did burst into loud guffaws when I said the dreaded line in her version. It brought down the house. My teacher, mirabile dictu, had been right about what my target market wanted: a little girl in braids, spouting grammatical incorrectness. Who knew?

If you’re reading this, Mrs. Strong, I still think you were wrong. I was more than cute enough to have pulled off correct grammar.

I did, however, learn two valuable lessons that have served me well throughout my subsequent writing career. First, when people who are bigger and more powerful than you are decide to be wrong, they can generally get away with it. From schoolhouse to publishing house, I have found this to be consistently true.

Second, most of the time, when you make a small mistake, readers do not generally howl down the house or toss the publication straight into the fireplace. As my long-ago ballet teacher was fond of saying, the audience doesn’t know the steps; it’s your style that they notice, not your technical perfection.

The latter may seem like an odd observation to those of you who have spent months reading my repeated exhortations to make your submissions to editors and agents letter-perfect, but it is nonetheless true. The readers who are out there waiting to buy your books are not going to hold a few stray editor-induced lapses against you; everybody knows that the writer doesn’t do the final proofreading on a piece.

While it’s always annoying and hurtful to have your words changed before your eyes, chances are, the changes you are being asked to make will not brand the whole work as illiterate, or destroy your hard-won style. Relax a little, and realize that your agent and/or editor are, in schoolyard terms, far bigger than you are.

How I responded to that first editorial jab — with an initial fight, a begrudging acceptance of the inevitable, a workmanlike willingness to make the best of bad advice, and apparently, decades of residual resentment — has been, I must confess, absolutely indicative of how I respond today. I have been able to professionalize my behavior, but in my heart, I am still that irritated ten-year-old whenever I see the swipe of an editorial pen.

Ask me in thirty years what I was asked to change in my novel today; I’ll probably be able to tell you. But I will make the changes.

Mucho love and kisses, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XIV: the over-stuffed bird

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! The turkey is in the oven now, and I have taken a break between making the cardamom carrots and the cinnamon-honey sweet potatoes in order to write to you. So don’t ever think that you don’t rate.

Here is something for which we should indeed be thankful: I shall be going over the last of the Idol rejection reasons (see post of October 31, if this reference seems cryptic) today! Even in this extensive list of fairly subjective criteria, I have saved the most subjective for last – in fact, this set is so couched in individual response that I have reported them all within quotation marks. For these, my friends, are the rejection reasons defined entirely by the reader’s response to your work:

64. “Overkill to make a point.”
65. “Over the top.”
66. “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it.”
67. “It’s not visceral.”
68. “It’s not atmospheric.”
69. “It’s melodramatic.”
70. “This is tell-y, not showy.”

“Unbelievable” also came up a lot, but usually in conjunction with other reasons. This is telling: basically, whether a situation is believable or not is largely dependent upon the reader’s life experience, isn’t it? Since my childhood strongly smacked at times of having been directed by Federico Fellini, I would expect that I would tend to find a broader array of written situations plausible than, say, someone who grew up on a conservative cul-de-sac in an upper middle-class suburb, attended to a minor Ivy, and was working at my first job in Manhattan while my parents paid a significant portion of my living expenses.

Which is to say, of course, that I would probably be a more sympathetic reader for most manuscripts than the average agency screener or editorial assistant. No matter how sophisticated you expect your target audience to be, remember, the first person who reads your submission at an agency or publishing house is probably going to be new to the milieu you are painting in your book. (Sometimes, this shows up in surprising ways. Recently, I found myself dealing with a well-respected publishing professional who was surprised to learn that couples often pay for their own weddings now, rather than relying upon their parents. Apparently, she was not yet old enough to have many friends well-heeled enough to run their own shows.)

However, the numbered reasons above speak to less personal-experiential approaches to judgment. #64, overkill to make a point, and #65, “over the top,” usually refer to good writing that is over-intense in the opening paragraphs. And this can be counter-intuitive, right, since most of us were taught that the opening needs to hook the reader?

The trick to opening with intensity is to get the balance right. You don’t want to so overload the reader with gore, violence, or despair that she tosses it aside immediately, nor do you want to be boring. Usually, though, it is enough to provide a single strong, visceral opening image, rather than barraging the reader with a lengthy series of graphic details.

Before half of you start reading the opening page of THE LOVELY BONES to me, allow me to say: I know, I know. I don’t make the rules, after all: I just comment upon them.

All I can say is this: there is no such thing as a single book that will please every agent and editor in the industry. If you are worried that your work might be too over the top for a particular agency, learn the names of four or five of their clients, walk into your nearest well-stocked bookstore, and start pulling books from the shelves. Usually, if your opening is within the intensity range of an agency’s client list, your submission will be fine.

#69, “It’s melodramatic,” and #66, “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it,” are the extreme ends of the believability continuum. What’s the difference between melodrama and drama? The pitch at which the characters are reacting to stimuli – if your protagonist bursts into tears because her mother has died on page 1, that will generally feel real, but if she throws a tantrum because there is no milk for her cornflakes on page 1, chances are good that you’ve strayed into melodrama.

Need I even say that the rise of reality TV, which is deliberately edited to emphasize interpersonal conflict, has increased the amount of melodrama the average agency screener encounters in submissions on any given day?

Usually, melodrama is the result of the stakes of the conflict not being high enough for the characters. As a general rule of thumb, it’s dramatic when a character believes that his life, welfare, or happiness is integrally involved with the outcome of a situation; it’s melodramatic when he ACTS as though his life, welfare, or happiness is threatened by something minor. (And no, “But the protagonist’s a teenager!” is not an excuse that generally works within the industry.)

So if you open with a genuine conflict, rather than a specious one, you should be fine.

And this goes double if you are writing comedy, because the line between cajoling the reader into laughing along with the narrative and at it is a fine one. Overreaction to trifles is a staple of film and television comedy, but it’s hard to pull off on the printed page. Especially on the FIRST printed page, when the reader is not yet fond of the protagonist or familiar with his quirks – much sitcom comedy relies upon the audience’s recognizing a situation as likely to trigger character responses before the character realizes it, right?

Generally speaking, comedy grounded in a believable situation works better in a book opening than a scene that is entirely wacky, or where we are introduced to a character via his over-reactions. The more superficial a situation is, the harder it is for the reader to identify with the protagonist who is reacting to it.

#71, “It’s not visceral,” and #72, “It’s not atmospheric,” also share a continuum. The latter deals with a sense of place, or even a sense of genre: if a reader can make it through the first page and not be sure of the general feeling of the book, you might want to rework it before you submit. Not that you should load down your opening with physical description – that was a bugbear described earlier on the Idol list, right? Just provide enough telling details to make the reader feel as if he is there.

And, if you can, do it through action and character development, rather than straightforward narrative. That way, you will avoid pitfall #70,“This is tell-y, not showy.”

Let me let you in on a little secret gleaned from years of hanging out with agents and editors at conferences: after they’ve had a few drinks, most of them will start describing the manuscripts they long to pick up in much the same way as a hungry person describes meat. They want something they can sink their teeth into; they want a satisfying sensual experience; they want to savor flavors they’ve never tasted before. They want to be seduced, essentially, by the pleasurable shock of stepping into a ready-made world that is not their own.

Piece o’cake to pull that off on a first page, right?

The visceral details are often crucial to pulling off this magic trick. As I have bemoaned repeatedly in this very forum, the prominence of film and TV as entertainment has led to a positive plethora of submissions that rely exclusively upon visual and auditory details to set their scenes. (During the reign of radio, I am told, sound played a more important role in the average manuscript.) This may be hard to believe, but out of every hundred manuscripts a screener reads, perhaps two will include solid, well-described sensual details that are not based upon either sight or sound.

Movies and television limit themselves to these two senses for a very good reason: it’s all they have. But a book can work with all the senses – even that sixth one, the one that senses danger and picks up unspoken vibes. If you can work at least one of these other senses into the first few paragraphs of your submission, you will be sending a signal to that screener that perhaps yours is the book that will seduce her boss this week.

And that, my friends, is something to celebrate.

If you doubt your ability to do this, try this exercise: sit down late tonight and write a description of your Thanksgiving dinner using ONLY the senses of vision and hearing. Then set it aside and write another one that uses only smell, taste, touch, and interpersonal vibration. Tomorrow, read them both: which tells the story better? Which makes the reader feel more as though she had been sitting at the table with you?

Speaking of which, I have some sweet potatoes to season.

But before I go, since a lot of people like to take stock of their lives this time of year (partially, I suspect, to construct the dreaded New Year’s resolution), allow me to suggest something: when you are assessing how far you have progressed toward achieving your writing goals and what you would like to achieve by this time next year, don’t use the yardstick of an author who is already on the bestseller list. Chances are, it took that writer years of patient, frustrating effort to get to that point, and really, the ultimate goal of successful publication, or the interim goal of landing an agent, are not the only desirable achievements for a writer.

Here is the standard I like to use: am I a better writer than I was two years ago? (Two years is better than one year, as it often allows consideration of more than one project.) Have I added skills to my writer’s bag of tricks in the last two years? Have I found friends, connections, resources that can help me on my way in that time? If my work is being rejected, am I getting better rejections? And what can I decide to do in the year to come to improve my work still more?

I am very, very lucky, my friends: I started this blog 15 months ago, and it has undoubtedly made me a better writer, both because it has forced me to take a long, hard look at the premises under which our industry operates and because I have had the opportunity to answer questions from writers at all levels. I have met many wonderful writers, agents, and editors over the past two years, and I have taken continuing education classes to hone my skills. I have exchanged work with very good writers from backgrounds different from mine, and have benefited from their advice. I have finished manuscripts, and I have revised them.

And all of this, believe it or not, is actually a better indicator of my progress as a writer than the fact that I have sold a book to a publishing house in the last two years, or that I have a novel under serious consideration at another house right now. Why? Because these activities sharpened my writing and marketing skills; successfully marketing my books was my excellent agent’s achievement, ultimately. For all of this, I am grateful.

My gut feeling is that all of you who read this blog regularly have been doing some fairly hefty writer’s toolbag refurbishment, too. Don’t forget to pat yourselves on the back for that.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The best birthday present EVER

Today is my birthday, and I have been holding off on sharing some exceptionally good news for the past few days, so I could announce it today.

Remember yesterday, when I mentioned the industry’s patented last-minute revision deadlines? And remember how I told you in the dim past that editors almost never ask authors to revise and resubmit anymore? Well…

A major publishing house has asked me to make certain revisions in my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB. It’s not an offer yet, mind you, but it’s the first step.

Not a bad birthday present, is it?

To add icing to the birthday cake, the editor — it practically makes me tear up even to write about it, because it’s SO uncommon — took the time to read my manuscript TWICE before she made any suggestions at all. And the requested changes, while not what I would have chosen to do left to my own devices, are all quite reasonable and doable.

Yes, that’s right — she gave me THOUGHTFUL feedback. I know; pinch me, because this seldom happens to writers outside dreams.

I am both tickled the proverbial pink and a bit panicked, of course: said revisions need to be done in about a month. (See earlier comment about deadlines.) So you may safely expect two things between now and Halloween: my blogs will probably be a tad shorter, on average, and I will have a LOT to say about the art of revision.

But wait! There’s more!

I have a birthday present for you, my loyal readers: as of today, every single blog I have ever written is now available on this site, all the way back to my first PNWA post in August, 2005. And, unlike my old PNWA blog, these are both arranged by category, so you may quickly find the general area you need in a crisis, AND you can comment upon them. (The fact that my readers could not leave comments on my old blog was a source of constant debate; suffice it to say that it wasn’t my idea.)

That’s 1567 pages (in standard format, of course) of bloggy goodness for you, roughly 391,750 words. (If you don’t know how I was able to translate from one to the other, go back and read the earlier blogs on word count. See how easy it is?)

Why am I giving you a present for my birthday? Well, this is a major birthday for me, my friends, not only due to the Best Birthday Present Ever, but because my birthday last year was marked by a singularly unpleasant event: it was the day that my publisher first mentioned the possibility of canceling my contract for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK.

Yes, my agent felt bad about the timing, too.

As you may have noticed, the book is not yet out, nor can I tell you when it will be, due to repeated groundless lawsuit threats from the Dick estate. Since they first began threatening, they have never specified anything that they wanted changed in the actual text of the book (the closest they came to specificity was objecting to the photo used on the cover, which was naturally beyond my control), there was no way to revise the text in order to appease them. Evidently, they believed that the mere fact that I, of all the writers in the world, had written a book about my relationship with Philip was in itself actionable.

It’s not, as far as I know, but these folks have a LOT of money.

This state of affairs has prevailed since mid-July, 2005, shortly before I began writing the PNWA Resident Writer blog. There have been days when literally the only positive thing that happened was that I sat down and posted advice here that might help other writers. The blog has been absolutely essential to keeping me sane and balanced throughout this ordeal — and for that, I thank you, my readers, from the bottom of my heart.

Unfortunately, I can give you no update on the publication prospects of my memoir: my publisher has in fact reached a decision about it, but until the legalities are settled, I cannot fill you in on what happened and why. Many, many thanks to those of you who preordered the book, and I hope some day, I can publish the truth as I know it.

I can’t worry about that now, however: I have a revision to perform. And a birthday to celebrate.

I feel pretty good about my life, all in all. Whenever my faith starts to waver, I remind myself of Louisa May Alcott, who struggled for seventeen years before she got her big break.

Louisa should be the patron saint of writerly persistence. She wrote every day, mostly for ill-paying newspapers, primarily under pseudonyms, because she needed the money to support her shabby genteel family. Her first two books were, to put it kindly, great big flops, and she flailed about from genre to genre, trying to find her market. In a rejection letter, a publisher who declined her romance novel (which was, incidentally, quite good) mentioned that they would be willing to take a look at a book for girls. Louisa, by her own admission, didn’t much like girls, but as a writing professional, she gave it the old college try.

LITTLE WOMEN has never been out of print since. In the midst of her struggle to find her voice, she wrote, “I shall make a battering-ram of my head, and make my way through this rough-and-tumble world.”

May we all have her tenacity and permanent in-print status, my friends — although perhaps with swifter guardian angels, ones willing to whisper in the ears of the small army of people who need to approve each acquisition: “Buy this book. You need this book. The world needs this book.”

But while our angels are in training, let’s all keep up the good work.

Dream On: Guest Blogger Jordan E. Rosenfeld

Anne here for a moment: I’ve been cracking the get-your-work-out-there whip pretty heavily in my last two series, so I am very pleased to reintroduce FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Jordan Rosenfeld, bringing her patented brand of writer encouragement. Here, she’s addressing a MONUMENTALLY important issue (in response to an excellent reader comment — thanks again, Moo!) that seldom gets discussed at writers’ conferences, which are typically geared to either business (“Get and agent! Get an agent!”) or craft (“You’re writing wrong! You’re writing wrong!”). But in the quiet of whatever time and space we have managed — often with great difficulty — to carve out as a writing studio, this issue often looms large: how do we give ourselves permission to write?

Take it away, Jordan!

Dream On, by Jordan E. Rosenfeld , Guest Blogger

I received a comment awhile back from reader “Moo Crazy” who asked for suggestions on what to do when one’s desire to write is at odds with one’s inner morality that suggests writing is not a “responsible” way to live, usually because of its slim profit margin. A lot of writers, therefore, hold back from the time they would love to take from children/job/significant others and don’t give their writing life their “all,” which breeds its own kind of nasty feelings.

Let me say the obvious first and get it out of the way so we can move on to working with the feelings:

If you don’t write, there will be no product with which to do anything.

If you don’t write, you are not being responsible to yourSELF.

Whatever you believe about writing — i.e, a noble endeavor or a waste of time — will not only be true for you, but you will teach others to believe this about it as well.

If you resist writing out of guilt, you will also slowly begin to resent those you believe are keeping you from doing what you love.

So when you look at all those likely outcomes of holding back, you can see that leaning in to the responsibility angle also comes with some drawbacks.

Let me share a little story on this subject. I have been writing all of my life. When I met my husband he took one look at my loaded shelves full of journals and knew he was in the presence of someone for whom writing was not just a passing fancy. However, he is also a rational person who believes that financial security is a wise thing. I always wrote “on the side.” I jammed it into the crevices of my life wherever I could find them. I rose early, worked late, put off social engagements, even sacrificed time spent with him.

When small but exciting things happened to me, like the time I went to the writing conference — where I, in fact, met the illustrious Miss Mini — and was told by an agent, “This is really good stuff, you should finish it and then send it to me,” I came home thinking “I’m going to do it. I just need a month.” But when I got home, I couldn’t make a case for taking a month off from my already low-paying job. I felt guilty. What if he banked on my success and nothing happened? What if I failed him?

I proceeded to be a pretty miserable person for quite some years, always hungering after the life that I wanted but was afraid to have in which I wrote all the time and called my own shots. Not until I started creating space for my writing life by focusing on it every day, by doing all the various exercises I previously led you all through, did anything shift.

And then one day, after I’d spent a particularly juicy week day-dreaming about the freelance writing life I was going to have for myself, after I’d started taking my writing life so seriously that nobody dared tell me it was a pipe dream, my husband came to me. “I think you should quit your job,” he said. “It’s time. You have to do this.”

You have no idea how amazing it was to hear those words. What had changed in him from the man who couldn’t bear the idea of me taking a month off to finish a novel?

*I* had changed. I had begun to take myself and my writing so seriously, as if it was in fact a child I was to nurture, that I all but radiated an aura of success. Nothing about our finances changed; I didn’t hand him a written guarantee that I would bring in X dollars. I simply began to do all the work on myself — that of visualizing, emphasizing the positive, writing down in precise detail the writing life I wanted — and he shifted along with me.

I’ve been self-employed for two years now and in these two years more has happened to my career than my entire life put together prior to this.

Two books are being published, I’m a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest magazine, I’m writing book reviews for an NPR-affiliate radio station and the SF Chronicle, I have a literary agent shopping my novel. A few years ago, none of that seemed plausible to me. It all seemed so very far off.

The key is that we think we are making our family members safe, our parents happy and our society proud of us for our restraint by not writing. When all we are really doing is preventing ourselves from our own fullness, our own potential success, which will have a positive effect on everyone in our lives. It’s a terrible edge to walk.

I recommend you start by giving in to your daydreams. You don’t even have to do anything, but start fantasizing in full vivid color, what kind of writing life you want. How much time do you see yourself writing? When, where, and what is coming out? What would you be doing differently if only you had the time to write? Ask these questions until you actually begin to shift.

My next online class with Rebecca Lawton might also help you to this end:

CREATING SPACE: FOR WRITERS AND OTHER ARTISTIC SOULS (Wavegirl Books, 2007) is part writer’s guide, part playbook and now, a series of online classes! Using a principle pioneered by the authors, the class guides participants through activities and insights designed for a creative life. We explore how you attract your life, show you how to fashion your own journey by Creating Space for your desires, and cheerlead you through the process of writing and attracting your good. The classes draw from the principles of the forthcoming book.

Next Session: Letting Go, Creating Space
Schedule: 4 weeks, October 20 through November 17, 2006
Cost $125.
LIMIT: 15 students

It’s important to remember that you are the one who shapes your own life. You are in charge of letting go of what you don’t want, and you — guided by your feelings — can make choices that allow everything and everyone around you to play supportive roles in your life story. This four-week class will teach you the principles of Creating Space, and how to let go of what keeps you from your goals.

To register: Send an email to: with your name, address, phone number & email address, and send a deposit of $50 (refundable until October 1st) to: Wavegirl Ink, P.O. Box 654, Vineburg, CA 95487-0654

All class participants will receive a 10% discount on the annual Creating Space Retreat or other CS classes. Those who refer friends who complete the current class will receive a $25 discount on any subsequent class in the series.

Anne again here: Thanks, Jordan! As always, you can catch Jordan’s words of wisdom on her blog, as well as on her literary radio program Word by Word.

But right now, let’s talk about this one: what struggles do YOU face in giving yourself permission to write? What helped you overcome them?

Time in the writer’s world

Still hanging in there, patient ones? Yesterday, I was talking about how the typical agent and editor have a VERY different sense of how time passes than, say, the writer whose work is sitting on their respective desks. As maddening as it is for is, a couple of months to turn around a manuscript just isn’t as long to them as it is to us. Today, I would like to discuss how time runs differently for writers than for other mortal souls in other respects.

Have you ever noticed how writers who have recently finished a book speak and even think about the time spent writing as practically endless? Barefoot walks across the Sahara have taken less time, to hear us tell it. Even I, who wrote a memoir that necessarily dredged up some very tender memories in less than a year and a half, first idea to final comma, tend to describe the actual writing process as though it took years upon years. Is it because writing a book ages the writer at an unusually rapid rate, much as moving at the speed of light would make us age backwards, or am I and my writing colleagues, to put it colloquially, whiny wimps?

Because I love you people, I shall spare you the answer that virtually every agent and editor in the business would give to that particular question.

My theory is that most of us exaggerate the time spent writing that first book in order to try to convey to non-writers just how big a chunk of our mind, energy, and soul has gotten sucked into that all-too-often thankless project. Not to mention after writing it, sacre bleu! all of the additional time and anguish to find an agent for it! And then to sell it to a publisher! I think that in our heart of hearts, we want all of those hours to be apparent to outside observers, so that they may be impressed — while, of course, maintaining that writerly fiction that we are such geniuses that our work is invariably perfect on the first draft.

The hours of work, like it or not, are NOT readily apparent to outsiders, sometimes not even those within the industry itself, surprisingly enough. I write comedy, and I can tell you from long, hard experience that most non-writers think jokes flow off my fingertips at the speed of conversation; tell a non-writer that you spent a decade writing a novel, and half the time, he will automatically assume that you are not only lazy, but the universe’s slowest typist.

For most people, the idea of spending hours alone with their thoughts on a regular basis is unfathomable. I am certainly not the only writer in existence whose friends have no idea how she spends her day. Even when our kith and kin catch us in the act, all they really see are hands moving across a keyboard or eyes staring into space. It just doesn’t look like hard work to them. With painters and sculptors and other kinds of artists, it is at least self-evident to outsiders HOW they spend their time.

Coming from an academic background, I used to think that my scholarly friends would understand what I do, but the rules are so different for getting scholarly work published that I have changed their mind. Since “publish or perish” is the rule at the university, academics pretty much automatically get articles and books published if their research is interesting, but the rest of us writers, alas, are not so lucky. When you finish writing your doctoral dissertation, you at least get to wear fancy robes for a day and hear someone in authority say your name out loud in front of a whole lot of people. (I ask you: when’s the last time a large institution set aside a day to celebrate your finishing a novel?) And, unlike academic writing, publication rate is not a particularly good indicator of the quality of the work.

Thus, I think, the extraordinarily high value we writers place on the end product. It is something tangible we can show to people, physical proof that during all of those hours, we were actually DOING something. Not to mention validation of all of our unseen gut-wrenching work.

I have found another line of work with a similar rhythm to ours, though: years of unrecognized work only being retroactively validated by the end product. An old friend from college, a mathematician by trade, called me some time ago to catch up. That was back when I had every reason to believe that my memoir (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK) would be coming out sometime before I have grown a long gray beard, and although it seems astonishing to me in retrospect, I was tremendously impatient for the release date. In talking about it with my mathematician friend, I heard myself perform that writerly expansion of time, making the writing process sound interminable.

Turns out I had mistaken my audience. Mathematicians, he told me, often spend ten or twenty years on a single problem; there are proofs he does not expect to see solved in his lifetime. Physicists, too, routinely linger this long in thought: did you think someone just woke up one day and imagined the quark? Granted, when mathematicians and physicists crack the big problems, they tend to be rewarded lavishly, with hundreds of thousands of dollars, Nobel Prizes, and similar door prizes. But imagine spending all of that time figuring something out, all the while wondering if someone else is going to solve your equation first. All the while waiting for recognition that can only come after years of hard, patient, lonely work, on a project that may never succeed.

Wait a minute — we’re writers! We don’t have to imagine it; we live it. While a few among us will ultimately be rewarded with lots of money (or, possibly, even the Nobel Prize), the vast majority of us will not. And yet, bless us, still we put in the hours, the years, for the same reason that the mathematicians and physicists do: we want to contribute something new to human thought. We want to explain humanity to itself.

What a nice thing for us to do for the world, eh?

No wonder time seems long to us, with such lofty aspirations. And no wonder that it is absolutely vital that we remind ourselves early and often, particularly during those interminable-feeling periods when we are waiting to hear back from an agent or editor, that we are in fact public benefactors. We just aren’t treated like it until we hit the big time – and because most of the people we know don’t really understand what we do before that point, we can sometimes make the terrible mistake of starting to believe that speedy publication is the ONLY valid measure of the quality of writing.


And I can prove it with an anecdote. Once there was a novelist – a very, very good one– who wrote for years before she became an overnight success at the age of 36. That may seem young for success as a writer, by current standards, but bear in mind that she completed her first full novel at 22; it was not published until 14 years later.

Because she believed in her dreams, she did manage to sell another novel in the interim, to a reputable publisher — she completed it at 24, but it took her five years to sell it — but he paid her only the tiniest of advances. Maddeningly, the publisher ended up holding onto the second book for the rest of her life, publishing it only AFTER her subsequent books had attained significant success.

The author, as some of you may have guessed, was Jane Austen. The first book was SENSE AND SENSIBILITY; the second, the one held hostage by the silly publisher until after her death, was NORTHANGER ABBEY.

Try to remember this, the next time you find yourself feeling that the time between you and publication is apparently endless, in defiance of all the laws of physics. Remember this, whenever you are tempted by non-artistic logic to view difficulty in getting a book published as a sure indicator of low writing quality. Would any reader now say that SENSE AND SENSIBILITY was so poorly written that it deserved to be waitlisted for 14 years?

Again, poppycock.

I say let’s hear it for all of us who keep working in the quiet of our solitary rooms. Don’t let anyone tell you that finishing a book isn’t a significant achievement, regardless of the response of the publishing world. If people ask you what you DO in all of those hours sitting at your desk, tell them that you are emulating your Aunt Jane, trying to make time compress and shed a little light on the world.

Keep up the good work!

Guest Blogger Jordan strikes again

Hello, my friends! It’s been awhile, eh? Apologies for not popping back in sooner, but perhaps this is good timing, as I hear that you’ve been receiving the skinny from Mini on the brutal, humiliating and absurd trade known as publishing.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time I interviewed authors—famous ones like TC Boyle and emerging ones like Gayle Brandesi—for my literary radio program Word by Word. I hosted this show for three years (a volunteer labor of love that still got us a $10K NEA grant) and I got some of the best (and worst) advice from writers possible. One of my favorite bits came from the contemporary surrealist writer Aimee Bender. We were discussing her story, “Fruit and Words” (which, if you haven’t read it, you must. It can be found in her collection, Willful Creatures). She said (and I am paraphrasing from memory): “Writing is the only art where you must use the medium itself to describe the act of making it. You don’t paint a picture to describe one, or dance a dance,” she said.

I thought a lot about this, how we writers take the tool of everyday communication and mold it for both artistic and practical purposes. We are always using our medium. When you think about that, you who are no strangers to the pen, the muse or even the writing conference, you will realize that you have a powerful tool at your disposal to help focus you on a daily, even hourly, basis.

Focus being the key word here. That’s what all this happy feeling stuff is about—getting you to focus your feelings and thoughts—which are linked, by the way—on positive outcomes and good feelings. Why? So we can sing Kumbaya and bliss out on our own inner beauty? No! (Well, okay, if you must). The reason is that positive thinking attracts more of itself and it has a tendency to lead to hope and motivation—two things you need in spades in this industry.

The problem is, positive thinking doesn’t come terribly naturally to many of us. It’s been beaten, shamed and encouraged out of us. Which is why I’m here to remind you that beneath all the terrible odds and the ridiculous standards, there’s a reason why you write in the first place that probably is closer to making you feel joy than it is to getting rich quick. But it’s easy to get lost in the getting rich and famous end of it.

Yes, you want to make a living at your trade but I doubt you’re in this for the money. You’ve got important ideas and good stories and you must write or die, and you seek a reputable, time-tested platform to put them out there. When you lean toward the positive, have faith and generally believe good things might happen, you are more likely to follow up on leads you’d otherwise be too depressed, ignorant or overwhelmed to pursue. You are more likely to say “yes” to things, to accept tips, to learn, grow, and find your way smack into the center of success.

So here’s a tip: Whatever your writing goal, try to think about it when you’re ALREADY feeling good—don’t send negative thought or feelings to the thing you want most when you’re about ready to throw down the pen forever and apply to Burger King.

Save thinking about Being a Published Novelist for times when you’ve paused from laborious data entry/real estate selling/banal Ad-copywriting and have stepped out onto the corporate patio to soak in some sunshine. Reach for your writing desires as a kind of mood enhancer, so that you come to link positive moments with the acquisition of your Number One Desire. You have to train yourself here as rigorously as Pavlov did his dogs.

Yes, this is kind of like meditation. When the downer thought—remember those “I suck” examples I gave before—comes floating through, chase it off like a nasty, smelly little dog that is trying to soil your yard, and either court or wait for a better moment to think, “But some people make it as writers, and so will I.”

You have the tool—writing—so use it to get what you want. Don’t wait for things to happen to you. Don’t wait for agents and publishers and adoring audiences to validate you. You have to start behaving as if you ALREADY HAVE that which you desire.

I know you just said, “But how can I act as if I have what I don’t have, Jordan? That’s crazy talk!”

Is it? You’re writers. You have a rich fantasy life, I know you do. You’ve spent unreasonable amounts of time dreaming about things and people you wanted. You’ve allowed yourself to wander off into bubbles of fantasy. But someone or something probably made you “snap out of it” and tell yourself, “Stop dreaming, babe. Don’t kid yourself.”

Well I’m instructing you to get back to dreaming. Choose to spend lots of time imagining in full color and detail what it is you want. Because when you do, you activate all kinds of powerful little sensors and feelings inside yourself. They lead to excitement, hope, action, more writing.

Then WRITE DOWN your fantasies for the perfect literary career in precise detail as if it is already happening. Because the more you take your writing career as something that already exists, the more you make room for things to happen instead of languishing in the statistics and deciding it isn’t worth trying.

Here’s an example from my journal from September of last year:

“Today it occurred to me that if I want to be a published novelist, nothing stands in my way. The way will be shown to me. I have finished my novel revision and I’m agent-shopping again, but with such confidence and power that it happens so fast and the agent sells my book fast too. It’s was all just a simple matter of readying myself, shifting my energy.”

Funny thing is, while THAT novel I am describing above did not succeed in getting me an agent, I wrote a whole OTHER novel that in fact garnered me an agent in one week’s time when I sent out queries. I’m not making this up. The novel mentioned above was something I needed to clear out of myself, and it made room for the one I really wanted to write. I was so SURE, so EXCITED, that I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised when I got an agent.

And the fact is, I didn’t wait for external validation to believe that. Yes, I have done my homework, but my other novel is perfectly lovely too. Nothing wrong with it. Except that it deals with family issues and I felt very scared that if it were published, my family would hate me. I channeled lots of fear towards it. Et Voilà, it went nowhere.

I hope that for every strike of reality that hits you about why it’s hard to make it as a writer, you’ll remember that so long as you don’t jump on that particular bandwagon, and make room to write what you want and feel good about it ONCE A DAY, you’ll be shocked and amazed at how much opens up for you.

If you’d like to formally get involved in this work, it’s not too late to sign up for the Creating Space online class (link), session one, which begins on September 8th, for 4 weeks.

My new professional website is going up in about a week too, so please visit me there. In the meantime, you can always find me at my blog.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld

Anne here:

Thanks, Jordan, for all those words of wisdom! We really appreciate your stopping by.

And everybody, if you’ve been finding Jordan’s advice helpful, please, write in and let us know. Also, if I can blandish Jordan into coming back and visiting us here again (as I hope I shall), are there any points she’s made you’d like her to expand upon?

I also want to toot my horn on her behalf before I sign off. Jordan’s book, “Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time” will be published by Writer’s Digest Books in Fall, 2007 and her book with Rebecca Lawton, “Creating Space: The Law of Attraction for Writers & Other Inspired Souls,” will be published in Summer, 2007 by Wavegirl Ink. She is a book reviewer for NPR affilliate KQED’s news-magazine the California Report and a freelance contributer to Writer’s Digest Magazine, The Writer, The St. Petersburg Times, AlterNet, The Pacific Sun and more. Her novel, THE NIGHT ORACLE, is represented by the Levine-Greenberg literary agency.

The categories are back — and here comes Ms. Jordan

Hooray! Fabulous, wonderful Brian the Webmaster has tamed the wild beast that was our inexplicable sidebar problem! He officially, to put it colloquially, rocks.

Speaking of rockin’ volunteers working for all of our benefits on this very website, it’s time for another installment from our Northern Californian correspondent, the lovely and talented Jordan E. Rosenfeld . Take it away, Jordan!

Hello, friends. We are friends by now, aren’t we? Welcome to day three of shifting how you think about your writing life, or as you might be calling it, “Weird positive attitude stuff with that California chick.”

Let me make one thing clear. I want you to have the writing life you want and deserve. Anne does too, or else she wouldn’t put so much elbow grease into this blog. She’s giving away tips here that I personally, think she should charge for. But like her, I too want to see other writers succeed, so we give away what we know. The more of us who do succeed, by the way, the more likely the industry gets to stay alive and can continue to compete with the seductive intensity of TV and movies.

By now, if you’ve followed my posts, you’ve taken your “writer’s pulse” (or are free to do so now). You have an idea of whether you are more inclined to bemoan your sad fate as unpublished, or are really freakin’ jazzed to find a way and do the work to get what you want. I’m guessing most of you are of the hardworking variety.

But how many of you get a little bit of information and rush out willy-nilly and write a query letter and send it off; or write a novel in four months and then give up hope when someone tells you it needs work; or look at a glossy literary journal that you’ve had your eyes on for years with the sad little mantra, “it will never happen”?

Okay, so how many of you is not important. What IS, is that there’s an intermediary step you can take between the transmission of information via smart people like Anne and at writing conferences, and the action you take based on that information. That intermediary step isn’t even work; it might even be fun — and it involves writing.

Before I tell you what it is, consider something. If I hand you a picture of a jungle and I say, “pick out all the cats,” that would be a lot different, wouldn’t it, from handing you that same picture and saying, “tell me what animal there are the most of in this scene”?

What’s the difference? The specific focus.

So, when you pick a specific focus — an outcome, for instance — and you write it down, when you go off into action you’re far more inclined to look for, attract and see what will help you obtain your goal (that explanation is for the less “cosmically” inclined. For those of you who really want to open wide open to the possibilities, I tell you: when you know what you want, and believe you can get it, the universe provides.)

So that intermediary step I talked about above between getting good intel and turning it into action is to write down, exactly as you would like it to go, a little “vision” to yourself, like so:

“Just two days after sending out ten queries to literary agents, I get four requests for partials and two for full manuscripts. Within another week, one of my top ten agents offers me representation. I feel (fill in the blank).”

You can write whatever you darn well please, about whatever outcome you want. But I will guarantee that if you get into the habit of clarifying HOW you want these outcomes to go, in specific, not just THAT you want them, but HOW, your results will change.

That’s today’s task #1. On to task #2.

Last week, I asked you to take your “number one desire” and extrapolate out the reasons why you want it, numbered one through twenty. And you, of course, ran to your desks and did this. In the process of wanting why, you energize yourself, you get excited, you start to MEAN IT. And that is crucial. Hey, even Dr. Joyce Brothers said that success is a state of mind. If you want to be successful, you have to believe you are. So start now.

Now, take five of your “reasons why” and see if you can’t come up with ten more “whys” for them. Example: if one of the reasons why I want to be a published novelist is that I believe it is my destiny — then I must now answer,
“Why is it my destiny?”

To which I might say:

–Novel writing is the only thing I do that feels effortless and joyful

–In third grade, I wrote an essay titled, “When I grow up I want to be an authoress.”

–Because I believe I can communicate interesting ideas and entertain people

You see where I’m going with this. Try it for yourself. The deeper you peer into your reasons and get yourself excited about what you’re doing, the more likely you are to succeed.

I’d also like to ask, for your third task of the day, that you continue to work on last time’s other “game” of following the career of a writer you would like to emulate. Keep a notebook. I’m serious. Learn EVERYthing you can about she or he whose career you want. What goals did they set for themselves? What happened just before their big successes? How do they stay successful? I am so willing to bet that a great deal of it is positive feelings.

See you soon.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld

P.S.: If you will allow me to shamelessly hawk my own online class, please visit my teaching site to sign up for the first of many online Creating Space classes, beginning September 9th (4 weeks, $125).

Creating Space for your Writing Life with Jordan E. Rosenfeld, guest blogger

Well, if you weathered my first post, by now you’re saying to yourself, “Woo! I think I might steer clear of that wacky California for awhile.” OR, maybe you’re leaning a little bit toward: “Well, I have been rather down on myself about this whole getting published process; maybe I could use a little positive adjustment…”

No matter which category you fall into, I dare you to consider today’s post and play with the “games” I’ve got for you.

Last time we met I asked you to take an inventory of the kinds of thoughts you have about your writing life and to see if they tended to fall more into the “I deserve” or “I suck” category.

So did you? And what did you find?

Most of us will find that even when we think we’re being positive — “I really, really want to be published!” — what we don’t realize is that we’re focusing on the lack of being published. Imagine walking around and saying to people all day, “I’m not happily married! I’m not expressing myself creatively! I’m not rich!”

With the exception of a few robustly exhibitionist types, I’m guessing you wouldn’t point out to people what you are not, and what you don’t have. Yet this is what you do to yourself when you focus on wanting something rather than treating that desire as something you intend to have… no matter what.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting; it’s human for one, and a default setting for many of us. Wanting is the way in which you make clear to yourself what is missing from your picture of your life. But if you even considered that I might not be totally full of crap when I said two days ago that your feelings are like a big magnetic generator that attracts your life to you, then you’ll be one baby step closer to changing how you think.

So… the inventory I asked you to take was simply a snapshot, a way to get you to notice how you regard yourself and your writing life. Were you shocked to find that you had less, or more, confidence in yourself than you thought? Were you pretty resigned to the fact that a little dull hope is all you’re ever going to muster? Fair enough. You took your pulse, and now you have a diagnosis. Joyful or flatlined or somewhere in between.

Now, I asked you to write down your top five desires — “But wait, Jordan, didn’t you just say that wanting was not such a hot plan?” — I did, that’s why I called these “desires.” It’s a good word, desire, isn’t it? It’s lush and bold and sexy. It makes you purr or pant. Desires are things that make you feel damn good when you think about having them. Like publishing that novel. Or like just getting the thing formatted properly (many of my desires are incredibly practical).

So put down that manuscript you’re itching to send off for a minute. Or that messy revision that’s making your brain hurt. Before you go hurtling yourself into action, take a minute to think about how you’d like the end result of your desire to pan out.

Write down your desires again.

I desire to be a bestselling novelist.
I desire to publish just one short story before I die.
I desire to have women weeping over my words and showering me in praise

Whatever they are, write them down on a clean sheet of paper. Then go through them and where you have the word desire, scratch it out and replace it with a new word or phrase. Rather than desire try, “I intend,” or “I plan to” or “I will” or “I firmly and positively know that…”

Then rewrite your sentences.

I know, one part of you wants to say that this is below your intelligence. You have three degrees for goodness sake, or attended six trazillion writer’s workshops, or were born into a family of linguists. What the heck can changing a word in a sentence do for your mood much less future? Keep an open mind.

Now, look at that list and choose the one that burns most powerfully into your longing. The one that makes you shiver or ache or get heartburn when you think of it REALLY happening to you.

From here, you are going to make two lists.

List number one will have 20 numbered slots. You will come up with 20 reasons why you want this to come to fruition. Why is a powerful question when applied to this burning desire/intention/plan. Why? I mean, really, why?

And your answers need not make Saints feel incompetent. You can wish for success because it will make your enemies burn with jealousy, or because it will vindicate you to all those nay-sayers in your family who just didn’t believe… asking why forces you to widen the possibilities, and jack up the feeling meter to “yeah baby!”

We’ll deal with the results when I post next!

Finally, one more task; this one is not an overnighter: Choose just one author whose career you would like to have. Make it a side goal to find out as much as you can about how and why they became successful. Google them, read interviews, read all their books, scan their acknowledgements and find out what happened along the way. I will bet you that somewhere in the path they started to change the way they thought about themselves.

I’ll share mine. I would like to have a career like the bestselling commercial author Jodi Picoult, who writes tightly plotted, emotionally intricate novels that have an uncanny ability to hit the top ten bestseller list without fail. The woman has written more than 13 novels and has, from all appearances, a very good life.

I have thought about her, and read her, for the past six months. About one year ago, after writing a bang-up pitch letter, I scored my first assignment for Writer’s Digest Magazine. Surely you’ve heard of it. It’s a magazine that gets thousands of pitches each month and rarely takes on new freelance writers because of it. But I was SO SURE about my idea that I never once stopped to think about that in the process.

Well, I knew a good thing when it came my way, so after my first successful assignment, I kept on working with the editor I had established contact with, pitching her regular ideas. I had written for local publications for a long time, but I was ready to become a national, heck, even a household name (My desires run extra-large). I do a daily writing/visualization exercise to keep my focus on the feeling that I am already successful, and have added in how much I fully intend to have a career just like Jodi Picoult’s.

Well, lo and behold, not one year after writing for WD, and before my first article had actually run in print yet (they have a lengthy lead time), I was asked to be a contributing editor to the magazine, getting steady work and having my name featured in the masthead. Pretty cool, eh?

The October issue just hit the stands and guess who is one of just 12 contributing editors? Jodi Picoult. In fact, my name comes right after hers in the line-up. You tell me that’s coincidence. I’ll keep envisioning a career that looks a heck of a lot like hers; we already have one thing in common.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld

If you will allow me to shamelessly hawk my own online class, please visit my teaching site to sign up for the first of many online Creating Space classes, beginning September 9th (4 weeks, $125).

Boosting your confidence: a guest blogger’s suggestions

Hi, campers — Anne here. In the interests of opening up this forum to a broad array of perspectives on the writing life, I have blandished the eternally fabulous Jordan Rosenfeld into sharing her thoughts on creating a successful writing career. In the months to come, I am hoping to cajole other successful writers into giving us their insights, but since Jordan has been gracious enough to give in to my begging first, let’s give her a great big round of applause!

Take it away, Jordan!

Guest blogger: Jordan Rosenfeld

First, I want to say that I am honored to be allowed to part the curtains of Anne Mini’s tough but savvy wisdom to blog for a few days here. What Im here to offer you is one part writing advice, one part cheerleading and one part good-old California cosmic wisdom. That means you are free to take it with as big a grain of salt as you like, but I will wager that if you stay open to this kind of thinking, the way you approach submitting/publishing/agent-hunting and writing will change.

Let me also make it clear that I am a writer. A working writer, who freelances for a living, and a fiction writer represented by a literary agent who has been through the gauntlet myself, so I know from where I speak. I have two books coming out next year, the first, Creating Space: The Law of Attraction for Writers & Other Inspired Souls, with Rebecca Lawton is the one I’m mainly drawing from for these posts. The second, Make A Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time, from Writer’s Digest Books, also offers practical advice, and clinches my place in the canon of Know-it-Alls.

I am going to begin by betting you something. This is not the kind of bet where one of us has something material to lose or gain, so if that’s what you came looking for you little gambler, Vegas is calling you instead. Here it is:

I will bet that when it comes to your writing and its future success or failure, you have given very little attention to the kinds of thoughts that roughhouse and carom through your brain in any given day. Wait, forget day — try every second or even nanosecond. Now, out of the trazillion thoughts that barrage your neurotransmitters daily, you will catch one from time to time with your little thought net and hold it up to the light and notice the what has just taken up territory in your gray matter. It might look something like this: “Why am I getting all these rejections? I must suck.”

Now, the likelihood of you “sucking” is probably not all that high, and since writing is a craft and the business of writing can be learned, the odds are actually in your favor for not sucking. Yet in that moment that you give your attention and belief to the thought “I probably suck and therefore I will never publish and will wind up a spinster in obscurity…” (okay, so that was one of mine), you make a little bit of that thought true for yourself. You bequeath a part of your attitude and energy and self-esteem to it, and make it possible for similar thoughts to gain entry into your consciousness. Some of us actually hitch little train-cars of similar negative thoughts to the back of that one and take an all out cross-country tour of self-doubt and despair until we are ready to put our heads through our laptops. Not much of a recipe for success.

Now, likewise, there are days where a light and beautiful thought makes its way to the surface and you skim it in your little golden thought net from the green-blue scum trying to weigh it down in the pool of your mind. It might look something like this: “I might actually publish a novel!” or “I am talented and deserve to be represented by a literary agent” (okay, nobody deserves that; it’s a necessity).

So now I ask you, what happens when you hold up that golden thought, the one that shimmers so brightly that it obscures all other thoughts? Does your whole being radiate goodness and light and can-do joy, or do you turn into a hunchbacked beast and lumber away from it screaming, “My eyes, my bleeding eyes!”?

These are just two examples I’m talking about here. What about the chorus of “I suck” and “I deserve” that regularly pass through you? Are you aware of them? Well if you have a destination or a desire in mind for yourself as a writer (and the fact that you’re here at Anne’s blog means you do), then you’ll want to start paying attention to them RIGHT AWAY because they’re shaping the way your life and especially your writing life is unfolding.

How’s this for a revolutionary idea: your thoughts are more responsible for the way things are, or are not, than your parents will ever be.

The reason for this is that thoughts are plugged directly into your feeling generator. Once your attention is on a thought, your little chemicals begin churning and pretty quickly you feel “bad” or “good” about what you’re thinking (in simplistic terms). And here’s one of those moments where you can heft that grain (or boulder) of salt I mentioned up to your shoulder. Your feelings attract your life. Feelings reflect and mirror the stuff of your life, for better or for worse. Do you ever feel you’re on a “roll” either negative or positive? When you’re feeling despairing about writing do you notice it’s impossible to place a submission? When you write something hot and fabulous, have you ever found that the powerful good energy of that allows other great opportunities into your life? Well start looking! (Let me insert a little sidebar here: There is not, nor will there ever be in any of my posts any “blame” on anyone for feeling bad or discouraged or fed up, so don’t get scared!)

So what can you do about these negative thoughts and their bearing on your writing life?

1. You can begin by taking an inventory, either literally on paper or from an observational standpoint during any given day. This inventory can be distilled into two categories: thoughts that make you feel bad about yourself (“I am terrible at writing plot”)and your writing and, yes, you know where I’m going with this, thoughts that make you feel good about yourself/your writing (“I can read a really well-plotted novel and learn how to do it!”).

2. Then, I want you to make a list of the top five desires you have for your writing life. Perhaps you desire to be a bestselling published novelist, or simply to have your short stories accepted in literary journals that are not published at Kinko’s copies and distributed under the windshield wipers of people’s cars. Whether big or small, keep that list nearby and notice when you look at each desire which kinds of thoughts arise, those of the “I deserve,” or “I suck” variety.

Try this inventory for a day or few. See which kind of thoughts you have more of in general, and which you have more of in relation to your desires. Then stick around, because when I blog again on Thursday the 17th, I will ask you to do something with what you’ve noticed and how this relates to what you desire.

Now, I don’t want to sound as if I’m in any way detracting from what Anne has so diligently worked to point out to you; to be published requires talent, skill, observation, adhering to guidelines and knowing what sells. It’s no small task. But trust me when I say that if you begin a day saying, “This is so hard, I will never get there,” versus, “I’m going to find out exactly what I have to do to be published,” and you do this daily, you WILL rise above.

If you allow me to shamelessly hawk my own online class, please visit the Creating Space site to sign up for the first of many online classes, beginning September 9th (4 weeks, $125). And as always, my ongoing thoughts on the writing life may be found on my blog.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld

The Grand Silence

Hello, readers –

When I was a kid, I lived out in the middle of a vineyard, literally. In three directions, our nearest neighbors were half a mile away, and wildlife abounded. I learned to stomp hard when I walked anywhere near where rattlesnakes might be taking a mid-afternoon snooze, to avoid picking up rocks that might conceal sting-happy scorpions, and to use gloves when I cleaned out the garage, lest a territorial black widow jump out at me. They are known for their bad tempers, you know. I learned to walk with care, respecting their habits and preferences, and to jump away quickly, almost without thinking about it, at the first sound of a rattle or move indicative of cold-blooded annoyance.

All of which, of course, was terrific training for when I grew up and started dealing with people in the publishing industry. It’s easy to forget, in the throes of querying and submitting, that these people aren’t mean, for the most part: they, like the beasties of my youth, just are very, very particular about having their boundaries respected. Sometimes, you stumble over a boundary unawares, and then, all you can do is get out of their way.

Remember, this, please, the next time you get a scathing rejection letter or a publishing professional snubs your pitch at a conference. It usually isn’t aimed at you personally; you’re just the one the venom hits. They’re usually not doing it to be mean — you just inadvertently pushed the wrong conversational button. How were you to know that the agent snarling before you had a memoir deal go sour the week before — and yours was the next memoir pitch he heard? How were you to know that the protagonist of your novel bore a startling resemblance to the agency screener’s nasty ex-boyfriend?

But that wasn’t why I started to tell you about my youthful life amongst the beasties. There was a lot of warm-blooded wildlife, too, bears and foxes and deer. And, of course, masses of jackrabbits. So on any given Easter morning of my childhood, my mother could be observed pointing out a window at a racing rabbit and crying, “Look, kids! There goes the Easter Bunny!”

Do you think it actually was?

Now, I’m not here to speculate on whether the Resurrection Rabbit actually exists or not; that is a question, I feel, best left to the great philosophers of our day. I’m telling you this story to remind you of a cardinal rule of dealing with the often writer-insensitive publishing industry: not everything is always what it appears to be from where you’re standing.

Case in point: over the last three days, I have had conversations with four different writers (talented writers, all; three agented, one on the verge of being so) who were racked with worry because their respective agents had been sitting on manuscripts of theirs for so long. In two of the cases, the agents had promised to read the manuscript by a certain deadline, which had passed; in another, the author had performed a major revision, and the book had ostensibly been seen by a number of editors, yet the agent had not said word one for weeks; in the last, the agent had told the author a few weeks ago that the first two readers at the agency absolutely loved the book, and that she herself was reading it now and was hooked, but had gone mum ever since. What could it all mean?

Okay, I don’t want to upset anyone’s relationship with the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus here, but I’ve been in the industry long enough to tell you with a good deal of certainty what it means: these delays have nothing to do with the books. Nor are they indicative of how the agent feels about the author’s work, particularly. They do not mean, in all probability, that the agent is considering dropping/not signing the author, and they do not mean that the agent has been sitting around for weeks now, trying to figure out how she can possibly tell the author that her work is terrible. And they most emphatically do not mean that these gifted writers should give up the craft entirely.

I would bet my last kopeck that the delays in question are indicative of none of these things — all of which, incidentally, were suggested to me by the authors themselves. No, all of my years of experience shout to me that there is another, completely different reason behind each and every one of these delays.

Brace yourself, bunny lovers: the reason is that none of the agents have read the manuscripts yet.

The notion that a manuscript, the result of countless hours of the author’s hopeful effort, could conceivably sit on an agent’s (or editor’s) desk for weeks or months unread is a frightening one, isn’t it? But the sad fact is, it happens all the time.

I hear you rend the skies with your cries: Why?

Well, most agents and editors are really, really busy people; during the day, they work on manuscripts from writers they have already signed, go to meetings, argue with publishers over advances and royalties slow to materialize, pitch new books, etc. Which means that for manuscripts they have not yet accepted, or writers not yet signed, their reading time tends to be limited to a few stray moments throughout the day — and whatever time they can snatch during evenings and weekends.

So your manuscript may well not be gathering dust on a corner of the agent or editor’s desk; it may be gathering dust on in her kitchen, or on her bedside table, or on the floor next to her couch. And that’s the manuscripts she likes enough to want to read beyond the first few pages; few make it as far as being lugged home on the subway.

Think about this for a moment. A manuscript read at home is competing for the reader’s time and attention with any or all of the following: the reader’s spouse or partner, if any; the reader’s kids, if any; going to the gym; giving birth; AMERICAN IDOL; following current events; taking mambo lessons; trying to talk her best friend through a particularly horrible break-up; her own particularly horrible break-up; Jon Stewart on THE DAILY SHOW; grocery shopping; a teething infant; a date with someone who acts like a teething infant; personal hygiene, and voting in local, state, and national elections.

Honey, you shouldn’t be surprised that your manuscript has been sitting in limbo for a month; you should be surprised that it gets read in under a year.

The truth is, agents and editors tend to make decisions very quickly, once they have actually read the manuscript. There is a good practical reason for this: they read far, far too many manuscripts to be able to rely on their memories of the sixteen they read last week. In the long run, a snap decision saves time. However, it may take them a long while to find a moment in which to make that snap decision.

In other words: it’s not about you.

Knowing this doesn’t make the wait any easier, of course, but it might help stop you from indulging in that oh-so-common writers’ mental tic: compulsively wondering what is wrong with you and/or your manuscript. After awhile, that wonder starts to grow, nagging at you, urging you to revise your opening paragraph for the seventeenth time, or making you decide that the agent hates your work and is never going to contact you again. Or – and this one is particularly nerve-wracking – convincing yourself that the agent or editor is sitting up nights, vacillating about whether to go with your book or not. If only there were something you could do to push the decision in your favor…

Yes, I know: there is a rabbit running through those grapevines, and there is a basket of goodies on your doorstep. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the rabbit carried the basket there, does it?

For your own sake, nip this kind of enervating speculation in the bud. It is harmful to your self-esteem, and it honestly doesn’t help your book move through the process. Yes, it is tempting, in a situation where you have absolutely no control over the timing of a decision that will necessarily change your life, to think that there is something you can do to change the outcome. But the instinct to tinker with the manuscript to that end is attractive only because it is one of the few aspects of the situation that you CAN control.

When you feel yourself giving way to this type of thinking (as I do, too, occasionally), don’t let it dominate your life. Pick up the phone or e-mail a writer friend in a similar situation, or someone who is farther along in the process, to reassure yourself that you have not been singled out. Talk to someone who has read your manuscript, to be reassured that it is good. Take up needlepoint. Go to the gym. Start your next novel. But whatever you do, don’t sit around and brood about it, for that way lies great unhappiness.

And if an agent has been sitting on your manuscript for a month, it is perfectly acceptable to send a cheery, non-confrontational e-mail or call for an update. If the agent in question is reading your work with an eye to signing you, it is perfectly legitimate to send an e-mail after three weeks or a month, politely saying that you’re still interested in working with her, but that other agents are now looking at it, too. In fact, the knowledge that another agent is interested in the manuscript might even move you up in the queue.

If you are really afraid of annoying the reader, double the promised amount of reading time, THEN call or e-mail. Don’t whine, and don’t try to persuade; just calmly ask for an update on when you can expect to hear back.

And don’t be surprised if, when you do hear back, it turns out that the agent or editor hasn’t read it yet. She’s been too busy, leaving those baskets of eggs on other writers’ doorsteps.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Practical exercises in keeping the faith. Hypothetically.

Hello, readers —

Well, after spending all week writing about ways for writers to keep their spirits up while slogging their way through the long path to publication, I got a perfect opportunity today to put it into use. Surprise, surprise, once again, all is not well with my book on its meandering path to publication. Not because of the book itself this time, but how it is being marketed.

PLEASE NOTE: due to the many complex and contentious issues swirling around the publication of my memoir, I must tell you that the story that follows is ONLY HYPOTHETICAL. It is merely the type of thing that might happen to any memoirist with a book headed for publication, and thus of educational interest to my readership. Any similarities between this scenario and my actual life are purely coincidental, and should not be taken as indicative of the really very interesting behind-the-scenes story that I’m dying to tell you. Really.

Everybody got that straight? Okay, then, on with the story. Hypothetically:

Picture me this morning, groggily making tea after a late night spent working on the new novel. Yes, I already have a novel at my agent’s, ready to be sprung upon editors everywhere, but hey, I’m not one to allow grass to grow under my creative feet, as it were. I keep moving forward from project to project — thus staying up until 4 a.m. writing on the new project.

So there I am at 11 a.m., peacefully trying to decide between orange blossom oolong and lavender Earl Grey, when my phone rings. It’s my agent, asking me excitedly if I have received her e-mail. Well, no: I’ve just gotten up, but as East Coast people always seem astonished that folks out in our time zone aren’t up early enough to catch the sunrise and witness the opening of the NY Stock Exchange, I don’t admit that. I just tell her I was writing — she knows by now that writing time means I’m oblivious to the world around me, anyway.

Well, she says (hypothetically), she has bad news. After 6 full months of silence, the fine folks who spent the summer threatening to sue my publisher over my memoir have abruptly sent another letter. Still no list of what they want changed in the book, of course; instead, this threat complains about — brace yourselves, because this part really is going to read like utter fiction — the marketing blurb on my publisher’s website (which has appeared there in its current form since July, 2005, I believe, with scarce a hypothetical murmur from the current complainers) and a picture used on the cover (ditto).

I am beginning to wonder if I am still asleep. I gulp my ultra-hot tea with unwise haste, to try to wake myself up. “Wait,” I say with hypothetically scalded tongue, “I didn’t write the blurb, and I had absolutely no say over the jacket design. Why is this my problem?”

Alas, it is, my agent explains, because in the post-James Frey environment, even the hint of a problem with a memoir can send a publisher running for cover. Memoir sales in bookstores remain strong, but just try selling a memoir to an editor at a major publishing house these days. He’ll look at you as though you have asked him to stick his hand in a vise.

So once again, my project is, in theory, on hold. Picture my hypothetical anguish.

I’ve told you about my memoir, right? A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK was first supposed to come out this month, and then got pushed back to May, due to a threatened lawsuit. Hypothetically, the people who are suing, the estate of the late lamented gentleman of the title, have never specified what in the text they want changed; or rather, they did specify about a dozen minor changes they wanted, but immediately AFTER I had made them, they threatened to sue my publisher. Go figure.

To this day, I am (hypothetically) not sure what they hate so about the book, since up to the point when they started threatening (and thus we had no further direct contact), they had never breathed a word about not believing I was telling the truth. (If you would like a bit more background on this saga, check out the one and only interview I have given about it. If you want to hear the other side’s version, you could also go to the estate-owned fansite; hypothetically, I am told, one of the claims there is that I have given many interviews on the subject — and written extensively on this blog about it. You could also, in theory, see there the claim that this blog is not even vaguely useful to aspiring writers. Or so I am told.)

Like so many memoirs out there, mine for virtually the entirety of the writing process ostensibly had the full support of the very people who are trying to block it now. (Shortly after I sold the book, they sent me a lovely bouquet of hypothetical flowers, in fact.) I am writing about my own experiences with someone who is no longer living, so technically, I did not need anyone’s permission to write it, legally — especially as in this case, all of the still-living people concerned have been yakking their heads off to biographers and reporters for over two decades now. I’m actually the only one who has held her tongue to date. Hypothetically.

It’s not as though the prospective suers haven’t had a chance to tell their side of the story, or indeed, haven’t been telling it pretty industriously. If you’re giving interviews to national and international magazines, chances are that you are a public figure, and thus available for scrutiny by other writers. You can’t write a book about your relationship with a celebrity, or give extensive interviews on that relationship, or maintain a website that presents yourself as the public spokesperson for that celebrity, and then claim that your privacy has been violated if someone mentions your existence in passing. Or so I’m told by people who follow the law.

That’s part of what gives this situation its rich, ironic hypothetical undertones: to the best of my knowledge, the Philip-related part of my storyline has been written about in at least a dozen books, including ones by Philip himself AND a memoir by one of the currently complaining parties’ mothers. The continents positively ring with versions of stories about my kith and kin.

I guess I didn’t get the memo that said I was the only person on earth not entitled to write about it — or about my own life story. The funny thing is, hypothetically, I DID have permission from the two primary complaining parties to write this book. In writing. Which might be difficult for them to explain should this eventually come to court. (Of course, I speak only of theoretical possibilities here.)

Of course, anybody’s statements are open to interpretation. Let’s try a little exercise, to sharpen your wits for the practical application of the theory we have been discussing here. Hypothetically, let’s say after you had told some affected parties that you had a book contract, they sent you an e-mail that said something like:

…we both really appreciate your offer for our thoughts on “challenging embroideries in print” in your PKD bio. However, both of us feel that this should be your PKD story and that we should not influence your creative efforts in any way. We believe you need to be as free as your predecessor biographers to approach your project in your own way. That’s not to say that we don’t care because we do of course, but it wouldn’t be fair to you for us to in any way hobble your efforts.


Would you:

(a) take this statement at its face value, and believe your book had the senders’ support?

(b) instantly stop writing the book, because a lawsuit is clearly imminent?

(c) thank the senders for the sentiment, but make many copies of the e-mail and cling to it like a leech, in case the senders later changed their minds about the value of freedom and creative efforts?

If you chose (c), you are better prepared than most to write nonfiction; alas, it is only in theory that such promises provide protection. It is a myth that releases from people mentioned in a book will protect the writer; they are only a deterrent as long as the signers believe them to be. There is absolutely no way that anyone can legitimately promise never to change his mind. Most of the sued memoirists of my acquaintance (and many published memoirs generate at least one lawsuit threat on their way to publication) had obtained such releases; the paper those releases were written upon later made useful handkerchiefs and kindling.

Hypothetically, more or less until the moment now-condemners started threatening my publisher, they were overtly supportive of the project — volunteering material for inclusion in it, even, and praising the only draft they ever read — but ultimately, all of that comradely vim did not make any difference in the long term. Because this is the post-James Frey environment, where anyone who wants to derail a book project need not produce any actual proof that the author is not telling the truth, or even any legally-demonstrable reason that the complainer would be harmed by the book’s being published. They need only threaten; they need only have money enough in their pockets to make that threat credible. And publishers quail.

Hypothetically, however, truth is an absolute defense against slander and libel. Hypothetically, any writer has the right to tell her own life story, the complete freedom — how did they put it? — “to approach the project in your own way.” And hypothetically, a publisher who has tangible proof that a writer is telling the truth will stand by her book.

I have no idea at this point how this theoretical tale of publishing stop-and-start will turn out. Maybe the hypothetical publishers will stand by the author; maybe the hypothetical complainers will remember that they sent the author a whole lot of e-mails, confirming the truth of quite a bit of what’s in the book. And maybe the author will turn the whole thing into a novel, where she can tell the absolute truth without fear of reprisals. That’s the trouble with hypothetical people: you never can predict to a certainty what they will do.

Oh, dear, I am looking forward to the non-hypothetical day when I can fill you in on what is really going on with my book. It really is quite a story; perhaps some day, I shall write about it.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

A major milestone!

Hello, readers –

Guess what? This is my hundredth posting as the PNWA’s resident writer on writing! Honestly, the landmark snuck up on me. To celebrate, I am going to delay my planned discussion on how to fix a Frankenstein manuscript and devote my post to a good, old-fashioned stream-of-consciousness blog on keeping sane while marketing one’s writing.

I also added a byline today, just to see how it looks – and to reiterate my personal commitment to passing along to you as many hints, shortcuts, and for-heaven’s-sake-don’t-go-theres as I can to help PNWA members and other aspiring writers on their long, hard climb to publication.

One hundred posts — who knew I had so much advice to give? In case you’re interested, that’s 454 pages of writing in standard format, 12-point Times New Roman. (Those of you who have been paying attention for the last month should be able to make the word count calculation easily: 113,500 words, about three times the length of my master’s thesis.) Thanks to all of you whose excellent questions, concerns, and attention have made this space what it is today: bulky, crammed to the gills with information on how to navigate the difficult waters of the current writers’ market — as well as stories designed to help readers appreciate the publishing world’s delightful absurdities.

While you’re trying to break into the business, it is often difficult to see the industry as anything but a Manhattan-sized rejection machine, a cold, heartless behemoth that eats writers’ egos whole. After years of trying to please the people who run it, agents and editors may begin to seem like vengeful spiders, determined to pounce upon any promising market prospect and drag it into their webs. Form rejection letters start to read like personal insults, and those agents you meet at conferences remind you of that snooty popular kid in high school, the one you had a heart-stopping secret crush upon who never asked you to dance.

Come on, admit it: when an agent or an editor at a conference agrees to listen to your three-minute pitch, don’t you get that same little stomach flutter you got when your 7th-grade crush smiled at you in class?

When you show the fruit of your labors and the work of your soul to someone who can whisk it away to publication, naturally it is going to stir up raw, primal emotions – and honestly, I don’t think that most of the experts giving advice to aspiring writers acknowledge that enough. While we’re trying to find an agent and get our first book sold, almost all writers feel like the wallflower at the junior high school dance. We stand there in our dressed-up best, waiting to be noticed, and it seems like everybody else is dancing. We want to ask someone to dance with us, but the fear of rejection can be crippling. So we introduce ourselves unobtrusively and hope for the best.

When I was in junior high school, our dances featured a sadistic phenomenon known as the snowball. In other, less scrupulously venomous environments, I’m told, a snowball is where a single couple begins the dance by dancing together, then each partner picks someone else, forming two couples, then those couples break up and pick new partners, and so on until everyone in the room is dancing. How nice that sounds; how inclusive.

Not so at the Robert Louis Stevenson Intermediate School. (No, I’m not making that up. Stevenson once spent a year guzzling wine in my Napa Valley home town, rendering him an ideal role model, the town elders decided, for impressionable youngsters.) At R.L.S., the snowball placed partnering decisions in the hands of third parties – all you had to do to force two people to dance a slow dance together was write both of their names on a piece of paper and drop it into a box. Anonymously. At snowball time, the pairs were read out, and the selected couples would be herded into the center of the cafeterium (an unappealing architectural attempt to combine the functions of eating room, assembly room, and gym into a single structure) to cling together in public view for the duration of an interminable song.

The kindness of junior high schoolers to one another being legendary, you can probably guess what happened: almost invariably, couples were constructed for purely comic value. Girls who got their growth spurts early were partnered up with boys who hadn’t grown since the second grade; couples who had broken up amid screaming fights three weeks earlier were summarily brought back together; arch rivals for class president were made to hug to music. But every now and again, some well-meaning soul placed in the box the names of two people who honestly had crushes on each other, but were too shy to act upon them.

And that, for those of you who have not yet gone through it, is what the moments leading up to a conference-assigned 10-minute pitch session with an agent or editor you’ve never met before feel like. (Thought I’d just gone off on a tangent of reminiscence there, didn’t you? I really was illustrating a point.) If you have been paired up thoughtfully and well, there is the potential for a real professional romance to blossom in those intense few minutes. But if you find yourself sitting across from someone who does not handle your genre (despite having listed in the conference guide that she is eager to represent all kinds of fiction), you are sort of stuck there for the duration of the dance. Neither of you wants to be in the situation, but politeness dictates that you will both just live through the slow minutes as they tick by.

I know, I know: it makes you feel hopeless, but actually, as I have been trying to show over the course of my hundred blogs, there are things you can do to empower yourself. For instance, you can research the agents and editors who will be at a conference over and above the brief blurb in the conference brochure, to find someone who actually does have a strong track record of representing your kind of writing. You could do research on the web, or in a bookstore, to find out who and what the agents represent, or go to events like the seminar the PNWA is offering at its February 15th meeting, where you can hear about the strengths and preferences of the attending agents, and make your choices accordingly.

Once you get to the conference, you can listen attentively to the agents and editors at the podium, to try to get a sense whether you actually like the person to whom you have been assigned. (Having spent two years with an agent I did not like and who did not like me before I signed with my current agent – who is a doll and a peach and represents me with the fierceness of a tigress defending her cub – I cannot recommend enough signing with someone with whom you feel a sympathetic resonance.) If not – or if the agent announces she’s no longer looking for your kind of book – find out if you can switch appointments. If not formally, then informally – ask other conference attendees whom they are seeing, in case they are willing to trade with you.

The wonderful people who run the agent/editor desk at the PNWA conference will probably not appreciate my asking this, but why on earth should you limit yourself to only your assigned appointments? If there is an agent or an editor you desperately want to see, hang out near the check-in desk in case there are cancellations. Buttonhole your dream agent in the hallway and ask if you can give a pitch – or if he will squeeze in an appointment for you. They’re there to find undiscovered talent; assume that they want to hear about your project, if it’s in their line.

And if you find yourself in a conversation with an agent or editor who you realize would never be a good fit, don’t be afraid to stop the conversation, thank him for his time, and walk away. Trust me, in a conference situation, where pitches fly at agents and editors constantly, they will appreciate your candor. Alternatively, you could use the time to ask, “So, what other agents/editors here at the conference do you think will appreciate my work? What about other people at your agency?”

I have, in the throes of appointments that were a bad idea in the first place, been known to start pitching the work of people in my writing group, if they seem like better fits than I. Why not? The agent and I are both there, we already have the time booked – and honestly, isn’t it’s something you would like your friends to do for you? The agents and editors are always surprised, but invariably gracious, and on a couple of occasions have eventually signed the writers to whom I’ve introduced them. (On one particularly memorable occasion, I dragged a friend of mine up to his dream agent during a conference banquet, introduced them over the pasta bar, and jokingly told them that neither could eat until she let him go through his pitch. They complied. He hadn’t been able to get an appointment with her.)

My point is, you need not be passive in the face of the highly competitive, often intimidating process of trying to get your work published. If you are having trouble getting positive responses to your queries, find out why from someone who has been successful at it; if your manuscript keeps being sent back to you with form rejections, see if there’s anything you can do to improve your presentation. Ask questions of those who’ve been there; writers tend to be awfully nice people, glad to help one another out. And once you have achieved some success, don’t hesitate to pass your knowledge along to others. All of this will genuinely help you keep your chin up throughout the long, hard process of bringing your work to publication.

You can also, as I have been trying to help my readers do over the course of the last six months, learn to appreciate the absurdities of the business, for they are abundant, and in laughter there is power. For instance:

Like many publishing professionals, I read Publishers Lunch, the online daily (or nearly) update about what’s going on in the world of books. Yesterday, I found the world’s best job listing there:


Inside Metaphysical Sales Associate [Full Time]

Llewellyn Worldwide (Woodbury, MN)


Raises a great many perplexing philosophical questions, doesn’t it? Does the company also employ an Outside Metaphysical Sales Associate, who deals only in cold, hard facts? (For those of you who don’t know, Llewellyn is an alternative spirituality publisher; if you’ve ever picked up a book on shamanism, skrying, or channeling, chances are good that they published it.) Is Inside Metaphysical the name of a series of books, or does it refer to a sales methodology? What is it about inside metaphysical selling that makes it impossible to do effectively on a part-time basis? And to what specific locale does inside refer? People’s heads? Their souls? The Llewellyn building?

Not only does having a laugh about the industry render it less intimidating, but it also provides an important reminder that agencies and publishing houses are not monolithic entities: they are staffed by people, and those people have individual preferences and foibles. Whether you are querying an agent, soliciting a publisher, or trying to impress the Inside Metaphysical Sales Associate with your great interior beauty, there is a human being opening that envelope.

Your task when querying is not to wow an entire industry, but to charm a person.

Realizing that can only help you market your work. Aspiring writers seldom seem to think about this, but take some time to wonder: if I had to sell this book to an editor who gets 500 hundred submissions for every one he accepts, or if I had to sell this book to competing departments within a publishing house, each with its own pet project, how would I do it? What would I say about this book, if I could only get two sentences heard at an editorial meeting? How is this book important enough, or fresh enough, or brilliant enough that it is different from everything else on the market?

Now, once you have come up with tentative answers to those questions: are all of these selling points in your query letter? Does your synopsis demonstrate them abundantly?

And so forth. The more you can place yourself in the Manolos of a senior editor at a major publishing house, the better your chances of figuring out, not how to write a book from scratch that will sweep her off those size 10 feet, but how to pitch the work you already feel strongly about to her. And the more you can learn about how the publishing industry works, the better you can picture what will appeal to its denizens.

I’m still learning, myself. But what I know so far, I am happy to keep passing along to you.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Starting afresh

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everybody! I know it’s common to reduce all of the Reverend Dr.’s accomplishments to the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech (leaving out, say, the fact that he held the world’s record as most prolific registrar of voters for at least two decades), but if you are interested in good rhetorical writing, do yourself a favor and find a compilation of his other writings. He was, among other things, an extremely talented writer, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.


I have been working on the early chapters of my next novel (an involved comedy set at Harvard, my undergraduate alma mater), and it has made me think about the question of being a single book author rather than a career writer. It’s not much of an issue while you’re writing your first book: then, the book IS your writing career.


But once you’ve completed the first to your own satisfaction, you need to confront some uncomfortable questions: okay, how does this book fit into my long-term writing plans? Is it representative of the kind of writer I want to be, or is it really a stepping-stone to the kind of book I’d actually prefer to write? And, always: what do I do for my next trick?


It is a common prejudice to regard authors who have not published yet as something other than “real” writers, an attitude that makes me apoplectic. “Real” writers, it is argued, are those who have books physically present in bookstores, who not only get paid for their writing, but actually make a living at it. “Real” writers, in short, are the ones on the bestseller lists, not the ones writing their hearts out in the solitude of their lonely rooms.


In other words, the people who use this term this way know absolutely nothing about the current writers’ market.


As anyone who has tried to market a book is very well aware, it can take YEARS to move successfully from the writing stage of a project to the point where the book is available for sale. Every writer, regardless of talent, has to move through the stages of writing the book, revising the book, finding an agent (unless you decide to go with a small publisher, or self-publish), selling the book to a publisher, rewriting the book to the publisher’s satisfaction, guiding the book through the IMMENSELY intricate byways of the average publishing house, promoting the book, and finally, building a fan base.


This is not a world, whatever the advocates of “real” writers say, where talent is instantly recognized, and a project is still warm from the author’s printer when she’s signing autographs at Barnes and Noble. In fact, as you may already be aware, finding an agent who is a good match with the work is a step that has taken many, many good writers two, five, ten, fifteen years – writers whose work has subsequently climbed the bestseller lists, won important awards, and charmed countless readers’ hearts.


I mention this, because I thought some of you could use a pep talk right about now. Since the NYC publishing world simply shuts down between Thanksgiving and the New Year, and agencies are swamped with New Year’s resolution queries and tax paperwork for last year’s sales for most of January, I would imagine that a lot of you are on pins and needles, awaiting replies. What you are doing is a necessary and laudable step of the process; it takes real courage to submit your work to total strangers with the power of life and death over it, and still more to keep submitting it after it has been rejected.


Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not a real writer while you’re going through this process. Going through this process is precisely what real writers do, and the only genuine criterion for evaluating a writer is the quality of the writing. Period.


That being said, I return to the issue of the writing career. The vast majority of writers simply stop writing while they are marketing their first books, and no wonder. It takes a heck of a lot of energy to keep churning out queries personalized to each agency, crafting pithy synopses, and perfecting those first fifty pages that will wow the first agent who asks to see them. There are days when it takes almost too much energy to open the mailbox, to check for an acceptance or rejection. Be nice to yourself – this is emotionally difficult stuff.


However, if you truly do want a writing career, rather than a single success, it is vital that you not become so focused on the book you’re marketing that you neglect the next one. It’s always a good idea to have one in the pipeline.


And the more successful your first book is, the more crucial your next work will be. If you write genre fiction, you should plan on having another book completed within six or nine months of signing the contract on your first, as to be considered a successful genre writer, you will be expected to produce a new book every year and a half or so. If you write mainstream or literary, your name recognition will start to fade after a couple of years, so you will want to follow up as soon as you can. And if you write nonfiction, I can tell you from experience that your agent and editor will be asking you about your next project before you finish your first.


Funny, isn’t it? Before you sign with an agent or sell a book, it’s hard to get anyone in the industry to spend a few minutes reading your work, but after you’ve exhausted yourself pushing that work over the finish line, you’re expected to bounce to your feet and begin writing again instantly.


If you already have your next book partially finished or even completed, your life will be much, much easier later on, particularly in the year or two after you sign your first publication contract. (Remember, the months after you sign will be taken up with revision, so you may not have time to work on the next project then.) I know it’s tiring even to contemplate, but if you can be working on your next book while you are marketing the first, you will be doing precisely what successful writers do: keeping your career moving.


I hear some of you saying: wait a gosh-darned minute. I’ve been moving heaven and earth to scrape out the time to write my first book while working full-time (or, even more difficult, while raising kids full-time). Even if I didn’t take a well-deserved rest after finishing my book, I had planned to use my advance to support me while I wrote my next. If I already have notes on my next book, will that be good enough?


True, most books are not published until at least a year after the contract is signed – which means, in practical terms, that the final installment of your advance will be quite some time away. (Advances are typically paid in three installments: a third when the contract is signed, a third when the publisher accepts the book – i.e., after you have made all of the revisions your editor has asked you to make – and a third upon publication.) Unless your advance is very, very large indeed (as first-time authors’ advances seldom are), it is unlikely that a fraction of your advance will be large enough to support you for very long.


And I hate to be the one to tell you this, but even after your royalties exceed your advance amount, and you start receive straightforward royalty payments, it may be awhile before you get them. Some publishing houses are notoriously slow at passing along royalties – usually, contracts specify that they need pay them either when they exceed a certain set amount, or every six months, whichever comes first.


In other words, I wouldn’t count on your first book sale being able to take over your mortgage payments right away.


I know, I know, this isn’t the happy story we writers so often hear about overnight successes, but the fact is, most of the stories we hear are quite old, back in the heady pre-1990s days when editors would fall in love with a first novel, sign the author to a three-book contract, and hand over enough money that the author could devote himself (or, more rarely, herself) to her muse. You remember those days: it was the time when you would get all excited about a first novel, gleefully snatch up the author’s next as soon as it could be rushed into print – and never hear of that author again.


The reason for this was simple: authors used to struggle for years, perfecting that first book, and then their publishers would rush them into the second to try to maintain the momentum of the first. That’s why those second books so often seemed hastily-written; if the authors had not been writing all through the (back then, usually much shorter) agent-finding stage, the need to get the next book out the door sent them into a panic.


For this reason, publishing houses seldom give multi-book deals to first-time novelists anymore, but generally, the first book contract will contain a right of first refusal clause on the author’s next book. This means that even if your first book does not do well, the publisher reserves the right to see it before anyone else does, to have the option to buy it without running the risk of a bidding war. Which means, in turn, that if your first book enjoys the market success we all hope it will, you will be under considerable pressure to produce the next, pronto.


Use your querying stage wisely, and get started on book #2 as soon as you can.


As for me, with a memoir coming out this year, a novel just about to make the rounds of editors, and a small business to run, I don’t have time to stand around chatting. I need to get back to work on my next novel.


Keep up the good work!


— Anne Mini