Let’s talk about this: non-indented chapter openings, authors-that-blog, and other things we don’t often see in the natural world

I had planned to write more about comedy writing in contest entries today, campers, but a question from a reader gave me pause. Yes, I get questions from readers all the time (although, strangely, not on the current series on how to avoid common pitfalls in contest entries; I realize that many of you read Author! Author! on handheld devices, rendering posting a comment more difficult, but please remember, this is a blog, not a column; audience participation is an integral part of this community) without hitting the pause button on our ongoing discussions, but this one struck me as important to talk about as a community, for a couple of reasons.

I could just tell you what those reasons are, I suppose, but since publishers now routinely tell first-time authors they have just acquired to establish their own blogs, in order to ramp up their web presences, I thought it might be fun to give those of you planning on hitting the big time a little practice in comment-assessment. And, if you’re up for it, an unfettered discussion amongst ourselves about how writers — published, pre-published, and aspiring alike — feel about the relatively recent expectation that authors will invest significant amounts of time not only in writing their books, but in maintaining blogs, guest-blogging, social media-wrangling, and other online endeavors to promote their work.

Here’s the comment in question, posted today by repeat commenter Tony. If you, Famous Author of the Future, received this question from a reader — and you might: it’s not at all uncommon for fans to post writing questions on their favorite authors’ blogs — how would you respond?

RE: INDENTING THE PARAGRAPH’S FIRST CHAPTER.

Hi Anne.

Someone from the UK raised the point that indenting the first paragraph of a chapter is improper. She said “look at any published book you have–you’ll see.”

I looked. I was surprised to discover she appeared to be right. However, as I examined more books in my (quite extensive) collection, I see inconsistency.

Perhaps you could specifically address this issue in a future post?

Cheers,?

Tony

And no, in answer to what many of you just thought very loudly: Tony did not include a link to the discussion to which he was referring, probably (and politely) because he was aware that I ask commenters not to ask me to adjudicate disputes occurring on other writing blogs. (Thanks for that, Tony!) Nor did he indicate who the she is here, or what the significance of the geographical location is to this issue.

In short, Famous Author of the Future, you will have to assess this comment as any blogger would: based solely upon what it says and the relationship you hope to establish and maintain with your fans. How would you respond? Would you

(a) ignore it, since you were not writing an informational blog for writers?

(b) write a comment thanking Tony for posting, but also pointing out that you do not habitually give out advice about manuscript formatting?

(c) develop a one-size-fits-all response to copy and paste each time a reader asks a question like this, saying that you don’t have the time to answer this type of question?

(d) invest the time in doing a little research in where an aspiring writer might find the answer to a practical question about standard format, then post a link in the comment replying to Tony’s question?

(e) invest the research time, then e-mail Tony the link, so you will not encourage other readers to ask similar questions in your comments?

(f) pursue (e), then delete Tony’s comment, so other readers won’t think you pursued course (a)?

(g) bite the bullet and write the requested post? Or,

(h) write back immediately, “You know who answers arcane, practical questions like this all the time? Anne Mini — go ask her.”

There’s no right or wrong answer here, of course; I honestly want to know what you would do. Bloggers face this kind of dilemma every day — and the more successful a blogging author is, the more often she is likely to have to muddle through it. Responding to readers’ commentary is an essential part of blogging; it is — and stop me if this sounds familiar — the difference between writing a column and writing a blog.

For those of you whose answer was a shrug, I would urge you to reconsider. How to handle this is not an unimportant question, from a promotional perspective. Yes, Tony might be just one of your 21,362 adoring fans, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to be nice to him. If you’re not, he not only might not buy your next book — everyone he tells about your exchange might not buy it. And since the Internet offers so many opportunities for disgruntled fans to express their displeasure, even people neither you nor he know personally might well be influenced by what you do next.

Ah, now you are pale. That shows you are understanding the situation. Your future agent and editor will be so pleased that they will not have to explain it to you.

Now that we all understand how high the stakes are (and can be properly grateful to Tony for giving us the excuse to talk about those stakes), let’s consider the ramifications of each possible course of action. There’s no such thing as a completely safe choice here, after all. If you pursue…

(a) and ignore the question, well, you will be like a surprisingly high percentage of author-bloggers: they post what they have to say without glancing at the comments. That undoubtedly saves time, but you also run the risk of making a loyal blog reader and fan of your books feel as though you don’t care about your readers.

(b) and tell the commenter he has asked the question on the wrong kind of blog, you will be like many bloggers that habitually receive such questions. You also stand a very good chance of making someone who loves your writing and respects your opinion feel silly — and, if you don’t phrase it kindly, you could end up looking like kind of a jerk.

(c) and develop a one-size-fits-all response, you’ll be like many author-bloggers that have been at it for a while — and will almost certainly end up looking like a jerk who did not bother to read the question. Readers are smart; they know a canned reply when they see one.

(d) and invest the time in doing the research that, let’s face it, the commenter could have done himself, your fan will probably appreciate it, but you will have just done something that’s not your job for free — and demonstrated to other fans that you are willing to do it. Given that most Famous Authors of the Future will also have day jobs (you’d be astonished how often that’s the case now), is that a precedent you want to establish?

(e) and e-mail the commenter the link, you will still have donated your time to his learning curve, but you won’t get public credit for it. In fact, you will look to everyone else as though you pursued option (a). Your other readers will not enjoy the benefit of your efforts, so you may well end up answering the same questions this way over and over again.

Oh, and congratulations: you’ve just given a fan your e-mail address. Now that you two are on a friendly basis, there’s a better than even chance that the next time he has a question, he’ll just e-mail it to you, placing you in an even more intense version of the original dilemma.

(f) and be nice while deleting the original comment, you’ll get even less credit — and you’re even more likely to give the commenter the impression that you’ve formed a personal bond,

(g) and write the requested post, I can tell you now that other fans will see it and clamor for you to ask their questions. How do you think I got started writing an informational blog for writers?

Which is why I can point out the other risks here: in addition to being time-consuming (remember, you still have books to write), since so much of the formatting advice floating around out there for writers is just plain wrong, even if you post absolutely correct advice on your blog, some commenters will tell you that you are mistaken. That’s just the nature of blogging — and of being well-informed on a subject about which there is rampant speculation.

(h) and write back immediately, “You know who answers questions like this all the time? Anne Mini — go ask her,” well, you’ll be like a hefty percentage of writing conference presenters in this country. Commenters tell me all the time that other experts have sent them my way. And I appreciate that, especially when the suggestion comes with a link here.

As you may see, no option is cost-free — and all can potentially have ripple effects on your reputation. So again: what would you do?

While that intriguing question is rolling around in your brainpan, and before I move on to answering Tony’s question (I’m getting there, honest! I’m just trying to render the reply helpful to the broadest swathe of my readership), let me complicate our scenario. Let’s say that out of respect and love for your readership, you have fallen into the habit of giving authorial advice to those new to the game, at least in the comments section of your blog. Let’s further assume that you have answered the commenter’s specific question before.

Is your plan to respond to Tony’s question any different now? For most author-bloggers, it would be: it’s not at all unheard-of to see the same questions pop up in a blog’s comments month after month, or even year after year. (Oh, you thought your agent and editor wouldn’t want you to keep on blogging after your book had been out for a year or two?) And with a question like this, one that’s based on factual misinformation (sorry, Tony) posted by other authors, the more meticulously accurate the advice you post is, the more likely you are to receive comments that begin, Well, Other Famous Author of the Future says you’re wrong from fans who seem to be urging you and someone you have ever met to get into an entertaining brawl for their benefit. (Thanks again, Tony, for not including the link to the incorrect statement.)

So what are your options this time around? Off the top of my head, I would say that you could

(1) ignore the question, risking all of the negative outcomes of (a), above),

(2) write a comment peevishly telling the questioner that you’ve answered this question repeatedly, as a simple search of the site will demonstrate, despite the fact that this course exposes you to the risks of (b).

(3) if you formerly answered the question in a post, you could perform the requisite search of your blog, track down the link to that post, and include it in a comment, sucking quite a bit of time from your writing day,

(4) if you earlier answered the question in a comment (because, let’s face it, that’s what most commenters prefer; it’s typically speedier) and your comments section is not searchable (and most are not from the reader’s side of the blog), you could devote even more time to trying to track down that earlier response, then either post a link to the post on which it appeared or copy and paste what you said before. (Do I really need to point out how time-consuming that would be?)

(5) do the necessary research about where you now feel you should have sent everyone who has asked the question before — a site that specializes in such questions,

(6) Write a new response from scratch for the 15th time while you feel your blood pressure rise to the boiling point, or

(6) write back immediately, “I’d love to answer this, but you know whose website is stuffed to the gills with answers to questions like this, organized by topic? Anne Mini — go ask her.”

Again, no easy answers here. So what would you do?

I’m not saying that you should follow my example, but here’s what I did and the logic behind it. Tony asked the question in the comments of what I suspect was a post that he had bookmarked — and a good choice, too; it was an analysis of a former contest winner’s first page — rather than on the current post or in a post primarily about formatting. Why is that relevant? Well, while the post in question did discuss some standard format issues, it’s not a post that would turn up early in a site search (everybody sees that nifty little search engine in the upper right-hand corner of the blog, right?), so if I answered his question in the comments where he asked it, my reply would help only him. It’s a better use of my blogging time — and my readers’ reading time — to respond in a new post.

Why not just say, in the nicest way possible, that this is an issue I have addressed many times before, and he will find the answer in the posts under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT heading in the extensive archive list located on the right-hand side of this page? For the same reason that I didn’t search the archives myself and post a link to a relevant post: one of the ways I learn how readers in a rush read the archive list, and thus how I figure out how to improve the category listings on it, is through questions like this.

How so? Because the first thing I did was check to see if there was already a category on the list addressing Tony’s question. And there was, generally. But I have learned from previous exchanges with commenters that not everyone has the time or the patience to run through a logically-applicable-but conceptually-larger group of posts in order to find the answer to a specific question. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, so many of the categories in my archives are expressed as questions: search engines have taught people to expect that answers to specific questions will be instantly accessible.

But Tony, charmingly, did not operate on that assumption, and I appreciate that. Apparently, he presumed that if the answer was not expressed as a question on the archive list, I had not ever blogged on the subject.

Actually, that’s not true, but I can see why he would think so. I can also see how any number of other readers searching for direct advice on this often-misreported issue might not have known which category would give them the answer in the quickest manner. Here, then, is the post he asked me to write — and I have created a new category on the archive list, so the Tonys of the future will be able to pull it up instantly.

That’s entirely appropriate, because it’s actually a very easy question to answer: published books and book manuscripts are not supposed to look alike. Traditional publishers do not print books directly from Word files; print files are quite different. Also, authors have virtually no say over how text appears in a published book; that is the publisher’s decision, just as the typeface is, and no formatting decision the writer makes in the manuscript will necessarily be reflected in its published version.

Therefore, just look at any published book cannot logically be a legitimate reply to ANY question about manuscript formatting.

So the problem here, Tony, was not that published books are inconsistent about this — and you’re right; they are — but that the person expressing the opinion was evidently unfamiliar with how standard format for books actually works. Manuscripts differ in many, many ways from published versions of the same text: they are double-spaced, for instance, contain doubled dashes, have one-inch margins, feature uniformly indented paragraphs, contain a slug line, are numbered in the slug line and not elsewhere on the page, and so forth. You’ll find a complete list of the rules here.

If any of that is news to anyone that pulled up this response while trying to answer the indentation question, I would urge you to consult the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list. You’ll find full explanations of the rules of standard format there. Honest.

Contrary to surprisingly pervasive belief in recent years, standard format — and, indeed, any formal writing in American English — requires that every paragraph be indented .5 inch. So why do we occasionally see published books in which the first paragraph of a chapter is not indented? Because that was a publisher’s decision to ape the style common in medieval manuscripts. You know:

Obviously, that’s not what agents and editors expect to see these days — and you wouldn’t believe any self-styled expert who claimed it was, right? Any publishing professional would reject this on sight: it’s hand-written. How they expect to see a chapter open is like this:

Does that clear things up, Tony? If not, please feel free to ask follow-up questions in the comments. This is now where future readers who share your concerns will look first for answers. They — and I — thank you for prompting me to make that happen.

What’s that those voices wafting back from the future are saying? They would like to see page 2, to compare it with a properly-formatted page 1? Happy to oblige.

That looks familiar, I hope. If you’re having trouble seeing the individual words of that thrilling saga, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Okay, now it’s your turn, Future Famous Authors. To be clear, I’m not inviting critique of how I handled Tony’s question: I want to know what your policy would be. Or is, if you’re already an author-blogger.

And, of course, if you want to sound off on the necessity of having to write material over and above your book in order to promote it, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject, too. Please don’t treat this post as a column, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: is compiling a list of events honestly the best way to produce a synopsis?

I seldom advise my readers to drop what they are doing to watch an imbedded video, but I was so struck by Slate.com’s 7-minute synopsis of the previous several seasons of Mad Men that tonight, I’m going to make an exception. At least for those of you who plan to write a synopsis anytime soon: run, don’t walk, to watch the extended plot summary above.

Well, okay, you can just click. But trust me on this one: anyone who has ever even contemplated compressing a book-length tale could benefit from watching this.

Why? Well, it demonstrates beautifully, swiftly, and as well as a spoken-word piece can the central problem with most query- and submission-packet synopses: despite covering a story arc that many, many people have found quite compelling for many years, this summary consists of nothing more but a flatly-told list of purely factual elements. (And, if memory of the show serves, not all of the facts in it are accurate.)

Yes, it could provide someone who just wanted to know what had happened with the essentials, but there’s no sense of causation, character development, or any vestige of the show’s actual charm. Doubly troubling to those who admire the generally fine writing on the show itself, virtually every sentence in this summary is a declarative sentence.

It is, in other words, just a frantic attempt to cover a whole lot of plot as fast as humanly possible. Sound familiar, synopsis-writers?

Unfortunately for the cause of literature, professional readers like Millicent the agency screener see synopses like this all the time. The stories being told may in fact be well-written, fascinating, and crammed to their respective gills with nuanced character development — but Millie would never know that from reading the synopsis. Oh, she doesn’t doubt that the events listed all occur within the manuscript being described, but that’s not the point of a synopsis. The goal here is to make the story sound interesting to read.

Was that resonant thunk I just heard bouncing around the ether the sound of jaws hitting the floor?

I’m not entirely astonished: the overwhelming majority of synopsis-writers, like most queriers, pitchers, and book-length literary contest entrants, labor under the impression that style does not matter in a plot summary.

“If Millicent’s boss were really interested in gaining a sense of how my book was written,” the average synopsizer/query descriptive paragraph-constructor/2-minute pitcher/entrant reasons, “she would ask to see my manuscript. Or at least the opening pages of it. So obviously, the expectation that I should summarize my 400-page opus in 1 page/3 pages/5 pages/1-2 paragraphs in my query/2-minute speech/whatever length the contest rules specify must mean that the length, and not the quality of the storytelling, is the most important element here. All I’m required to do, therefore, is to cram as much of the plot as I can into the stated length. And if that means that the result is just a list of plot elements presented in chronological order, well, that’s the requester’s own fault for asking for so short a summary.”

I get why most first-time synopsis-writers feel this way; honestly, I do. They don’t know — how could they, really? — that writing a synopsis is not just an annoying hoop through which writers of even the most excellent book-length projects must leap in order to get an agent, editor, or contest judge to take a serious gander at their manuscripts. It’s a professional skill that agented writers are expected to develop, because — brace yourself if you are summary-averse — a synopsis is the standard means of presenting a new book concept to one’s agent or editor.

That’s right, those of you who just felt faint: the more successful your first book is, the more likely you are to have to write synopses for subsequent books.

It also means, as those of you currently clutching your chests and hurling invectives at the muses may already have guessed, that Millicent, her boss, the editors to whom they pitch books, and contest judges see a heck of a lot of synopses in any given year. As I intimated above, a stunningly high percentage of them — at the query, submission, and contest-entry stage, at least — are written more or less identically: as a hasty, detail-light series of plot highlights, told almost entirely in declarative sentences and vague summary statements.

Can you honestly blame them, then, if all of those similarly-told stories start to blend together in their minds after a while? Or if they sometimes cannot see past a rushed, sketchy telling to the beautifully-written, complex book upon which it was based?

Yes, that’s depressing, but there’s a silver lining here: the relatively few excitingly-told synopses, pitches, and query letter book descriptions do tend to leap off the page at Millicent and her cronies. Because of their rarity, even some original small touches — a nice descriptive phrase, a detail they’ve never seen before, a bit of if/then logic well handled — can make a professional reader’s day.

I’m sensing some uncomfortable shifting in desk chairs out there, do I not? “But Anne,” many of you shout in frustration, and who could blame you? “If the pros are so longing to see a nicely-written synopsis crammed to capacity with unexpected details, as you maintain, what gives with the length restrictions? It’s not as though every gifted long-form writer is similarly blessed with summarizing talents, after all. Surely, if Millicent wants to be wowed by writing, asking for a synopsis — or, still more limiting, the 1- or 2-paragraph premise description in the query — is not the best way to elicit it.”

Perhaps not, frustrated synopsizers, but remember what I said above about tossing ‘em off being a necessary professional skill? Let’s apply a little if/then logic: if Millicent’s boss is looking for new clients who will be easy to handle (read: will not require a lot of technical hand-holding), then is it in her interest to ask Millie to

(a) be lenient about the writing in the synopsis, because it doesn’t matter as much as the writing on the manuscript page,

(b) apply her imagination to a detail-light synopsis, filling in what the writer did not have space to include,

(c) just accept that due to space limitations, most descriptive paragraphs in queries within a particular book category are going to sound awfully similar,

(d) all of the above, or,

(e) operate on the assumption that a good writer — and, equally important to authorial success, a good storyteller — should be able to wow her within the specified length restrictions.

If you answered (a), welcome to the club of most submitters and contest entrants — and, indeed, the frustrated shouters above. Writing is an art, you reason; producing these extra materials is just an annoying practical exercise. As tempting as it is to blame the format for uninspired writing (because, let’s face it, few writers find synopsis-writing inspiring), though, is it really in your book’s best interest to treat it like irritating busywork, to be polished off as rapidly as humanly possible?

If you said (b), you have thrown in your lot with the countless conscientious queriers, submitters, and contest entrants who want to tell Millicent and her ilk a good story in a short time — but feel that, due to space restrictions, they have to sacrifice unique details to completeness of story. In most cases, this is a false economy: no one seriously expects you to convey the entire story arc of a 360-page book in a single page or paragraph. They are looking for a sense of the main characters, the central conflict, and, in a synopsis, how that conflict will play out.

Rather a different task than telling Millie everything that happens, isn’t it?

If you opted for (c), you might want to take a closer look at the queries and synopsis you have been sending out. Do your synopses make your unique storyline sound like every other book in its category — or like the most recent similar bestseller? If so, is there a way you can work in plot elements that a Millicent familiar with your genre won’t see anywhere else?

Don’t tell me that your manuscript doesn’t contain anything that will astonish her. I have too much faith in your creativity to believe that for a moment.

If you voted for (d), am I correct in assuming that you believe agencies to be non-profit organizations, devoted solely to the promotion of good writing, regardless of whether the fine folks who work there can make a living at it? If so, you’re hardly alone; many, if not most, first-time queriers and submitters cling to this hope. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, such a hefty percentage of those who get rejected once never try again.

And that’s distinctly bad for the cause of literature. Chant it with me, Queryfest faithful: just because one agent says no doesn’t mean that a manuscript is not well-written or a marketable story; it means that one agent has said no.

If, on the other hand, you held out for (e), I’m guessing that the Mad Men synopsis drove you nuts. “Yes, most of these things happened,” you found yourself muttering, “but where’s the storytelling style? Surely, this is not the best way to make an exciting story arc sound exciting.”

I’m with you there, mutterers. So is Millicent. And that clamor you hear outside your studio window? That’s half the literary contest judges in the country, lobbying for you to enter their contests. They’re quite stressed out after years of watching so many well-written entries get yanked out of finalist consideration by a hastily tossed-off accompanying synopsis.

Now that those expectations are lurching around the Author! Author! conversational nook like Frankenstein’s monster, I would like to know what concerns, fears, and moans about technical difficulties those of you struggling to write effective synopses, pitches, and query letter descriptive paragraphs you would like to see hobnobbing with them. What hurdles have you encountered while trying to synopsize your work, and how have you overcome them?

And, speaking more directly to the usual purport of my posts, is there any particular synopsis-related problem you would like me to address here?

As I said, this is a standard professional skill; I toss off synopses all the time. So do quite a few of the people giving advice online about it. So what we might see as the difficulties of the art form — and writing a good synopsis is an art form, as well as a marketing necessity — may well not be what a talented writer coming to it for the first time might experience.

So please chime in, people. I’m here to help. And to save the world from storytelling consisting entirely of summary statements and declarative sentences.

Oh, and to those of you who had been wondering: the promised wrap-up of Queryfest does follow soon. That Mad Men synopsis just passed up too good a teaching opportunity to pass up, even for a day. Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: winding up for the pitch…

I am planning to toss up one of my patented nice, long revision-oriented posts this afternoon, but before I do, a quick question: are many of you planning to be giving conference pitches this summer and fall? If so, would you like me to spend a few weeks going over how to pull it off gracefully.

Yes, I said a few weeks. This is me we are talking about, after all: I’m not a big fan of the unturned stone.

A few of you have approached me privately about this, and I’m inclined to think these brave souls are right about the time’s being ripe for a little stone-turning. I haven’t done a series on pitching in a couple of years — the combination of a slow economy, a novelty-shy literary market, and rising writers’ conference price tags seemed to have resulted in fewer members of the Author! Author! community shelling out the sometimes hefty dosh required to garner a pitch appointment. And, frankly, I’ve just seen what a local conference is sending out to its prospective attendees on the subject, and I’m guessing that some of you might like just a bit more practical guidance.

Like revision, pitching well is a matter of learning the ground rules — and practicing, practicing, practicing. It would be helpful for me to know, though, what kind of pitch sessions any of you may be considering; every conference has slightly different rules.

No need to name names — I’m just trying to get a sense of what you will be facing. Are those conference brochures and websites telling you to plan on 2 minutes? 10 minutes? 30 seconds? Three sentences max?

Also, for those of you who will be pitching for the first time, what (if anything) about the prospect is stressing you out the most? Writing the pitch itself? Staying within the aforementioned time constraints? Or will this be the first time you will have spoken face-to-face with someone in the publishing industry about your book?

Finally, for those of you who have pitched and lived to tell the tale, what do you most wish someone had told you before you shook hands with that agent or editor?

If those last few paragraphs sent your blood pressure skyrocketing, calm down: by the end of Pitchingpalooza, you will be able to handle any of these conversations with aplomb. Heck, your heart rate might not even rise when someone asks you, “So what do you write?”

Seem impossible? Believe me, it isn’t — but the more you can tell me about specific (or even general) concerns, the more I can tailor Pitchingpalooza to help you allay them.

So please speak up, campers — and, of course, keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: what’s the best book you ever got — or gave — as a gift?

Christmas decorations

This time of year, those of us who work with manuscripts for a living are inundated with questions from would-be Santas, ranging from the vague (“My co-worker loves to read — what should I get her?”) to the categorical (“What book should I give a 10-year-old boy?”) to the specific (“My best friend has read everything Maeve Binchy has ever written, and I’d love to introduce her to a new obsession. What author would you recommend?”) As flattering as such requests are, as a pro, my first instinct is to respond with a barrage of follow-up questions. What is the co-worker currently reading? What’s that 10-year-old like? What in particular about Mme. Binchy has captivated this friend?

Surprisingly often, the askers are taken aback by being expected to provide more information. Isn’t a great book a great book, period? Why wouldn’t any 10-year-old boy adore any well-written novel aimed at kids his age equally? Shouldn’t someone who works with books for a living just have a mental Rolodex of fabulous authors, cross-indexed by similarity to bestselling authors?

For those of you not already clutching your sides and screaming with laughter, the answers are: a great book for one reader will not be a great book for another; no, because kids have personal tastes — and personalities — just as adults do; why, yes, I do, but half the books on it have not yet been published. And in response to the implication that I’m just not trying hard enough, today alone I recommended Heidi Durrow’s stunning debut The Girl Who Fell From the Sky to an aspiring literary fiction author’s Secret Santa, William Gibson’s genre-shaping Neuromancer to a budding science fiction aficionado’s mom, William Pene Dubious charming The Twenty-One Balloons to an English professor at a loss about what to give his young nephew (oh, you would give ULYSSES to a 10-year-old?), and spent 45 minutes discussing how the Kindle’s ability to allow the reader to alter font, typeface, and orientation on the page changes the reader’s experience of writing patterns.

I’ve been on the job, in short. But now, I would like to hear your suggestions.

Rather than limiting what I hope will be a full and rich array of excellence across book categories, I’m going to keep it general: what was the best book you ever received as a gift, and why? Did you ever give the same book to somebody else, because it affected you so much, or did you hoard all of that literary goodness for yourself?

Or, for you inveterate book-givers, what is the best book you ever gave somebody else? How did you know it was the right book at the right time for that person?

I shall be looking forward to restocking my mental Rolodex with your marvelous suggestions. In the meantime, I’m going to get this laptop off my lap before my doctor notices. Keep up the good work!

How to find agents to query-palooza, part XII: pushing boldly forward…and let’s talk about this

buster_keaton_train

Before I wrap up this series on how to figure out which agents do and do not belong on your querying list, I have two quick questions to ask of you, campers: what clever means do you use to find agents who represent books like yours — and what’s the one thing you most wish someone had told you just before you sent out your first query?

If that second one sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve asked it of members of the Author! Author! community before — and received some very enlightening answers. I’m a big fan of mutual aid: let’s allow our individual experiences to help one another.

So please be generous with your reminiscences, folks. The Comments function below is hungry for ‘em.

Why end this series with questions, you ask? Because, really, the publishing world is changing so fast that rather than providing prescriptions for agent-finding, I feel as though I’ve been mostly writing about preliminary questions aspiring writers can ask themselves in order to prepare to examine an agent’s listing in one of the standard guides, page on an agent search site, conference brochure blurb, and/or agency’s website.

Why is know thyself (and thy book) an absolutely indispensable prerequisite to generating a recherché querying list? Because — feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, campers — the surest path to rejection is to query agents who do not (or do not still) represent books in your chosen category. No matter how beautifully-written your manuscript or proposal is, or how exquisitely crafted your query letter may be, it is a waste of your valuable time to approach agents who do not have both a current interest in and a solid track record selling books like yours.

Obviously — at least I hope it’s more obvious to you now than at the end of the summer — it’s going to be a whole lot easier to avoid wasting your time with non-starters if you know what it is you are trying to market: your book’s category, target audience, and why your book will appeal to those readers in a manner that no other book currently on the market will.

Yes, yes, it’s sounds like a tall order, but I sincerely hope you find it empowering, rather than depressing. Of all the many, many things about the path from finished manuscript to publication that are completely outside a writer’s control, you have absolute authority over this one aspect: you, and only you, can decide whom to query and how.

Besides, now you have the tools in your writer’s marketing kit to pull it off with aplomb. As may not have entirely escaped your notice in recent months, I’ve been devoting quite a lot of blog space to helping you do just that. In Querypalooza, we spoke at length about how to customize a query letter for each individual agent on that carefully-selected list you are now contemplating; late in that series, and in the Synopsispalooza and Authorbiopalooza series that followed, we discussed query and submission packets and the things you might be asked to tuck inside them.

So if you have made it all the way through this fall of ‘Paloozas, either reading them as I posted or in retrospect, please give yourself a big ol’ pat on the back. By committing to learning how querying and submission works, you can avoid the most common mistakes that lead to rejection — and approach the process of finding an agent for your work not as a massive, ugly mystery, but as a professional endeavor that’s going to take some time.

You know how I’d like you to celebrate? Devote some time this weekend to researching a few new agents to query. Five is a nice number. (Ten is better, but I know how busy you are this time of year.)

Did I hear a few exasperated gasps out there? “But Anne,” those of you who have been paying close attention point out, and not unreasonably, “wouldn’t now be a rather un-sensible time to be sending out a flotilla of queries? Doesn’t the publishing industry slow to a crawl between Thanksgiving and the end of the year — and then get overwhelmed with new queries just after New Year’s Day?? If I haven’t gotten a raft of queries out by now, shouldn’t I wait until after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? (That’s the third week of January, for those of you reading outside the US, and are we not clever to be able to convey parentheses in speech?)”

I have to admit, that’s quite the reasonable, well-argued objection. I’m not going to tell you it’s okay to put beefing up your query list on hold, mind you, but I give you full points for a good argument. Happy now?

Even this late in the season, the autumn is an excellent time to be combing book reviews for agent leads, much better than the dead of winter. There are always a lot of great new books hitting the shelves in the fall, including most of the year’s crop of literary fiction and culture books. Traditionally, the fall is when publishers release books they expect to be in the running for big awards, although that calendar, like the century-old practice of releasing first novels in the spring, when they will not have to compete as directly with all of those established potential award-winners, has been becoming more flexible recently.

But some parts of the calendar have not changed: you’re quite right that if you actually send out queries now, you’re likely not to hear back for a couple of months. Not just because of the many, many holiday functions between the beginning of Hanukah and New Year’s Eve, but due to the tens of thousands of aspiring authors who will suddenly decide at the end of December that their New Year’s resolution is going to be to query fifteen agents per month.

They’d better get cracking on those query lists, hadn’t they?

Actually, most of needn’t: since the average New Year’s resolution lasts less than three weeks, January is when all of those well-meaning resolvers’ missives hit agents’ desks — right after a long holiday break and in the middle of tax-preparation time for agencies. (Legally, agencies must provide clients with the previous year’s tax information on royalties by the end of January.) With the monumentally increased volume, agents and their assistants tend to get a mite testy around then.

Since the vast majority of those rejected during that period will not query again until, oh, about twelve months later — if they try again at all — Millicent the agency screener’s life calms down considerably after the long Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend. And wouldn’t you rather have your query under her nose while her joie de vivre is on the upswing?

The moral of the story: if you didn’t get your queries and submissions out before Thanksgiving, you’re better off sitting out the Christmas vacation and New Year’s rush. Wait until Millicent will be happier to see you headed her way.

All that being said, even with predictably slower turn-around times over the next month and a half, making a big push to generate a really solid query list now — or update your old one, if you haven’t done so within the last six months –rather than after the New Year, will make it easier to keep up the momentum an aspiring writer needs to keep a query cycle going as long as necessary to land an agent.

Stop groaning. If your manuscript deserves to get published — and I’m betting that it does — it deserves to make the rounds of the fifty or hundred agents that even the best books sometimes make these days. Yes, that’s a long haul, but nothing extends the querying process like running out of steam. Or not picking oneself up after a rejection, dusting off that query list, and moving on to the next name on it.

Believe me, that’s a whole lot easier to do if you have a lengthy, well-researched, and up-to-date query list. It’s especially helpful if you are going to be trying to keep 5-10 queries out at any given time, beginning the end of January.

Yes, I do mean sending that many out at once at once — hey, your time is too valuable to query them singly. The moment one rejection comes in, send out another query, so there are always a constant number in motion. Keep that momentum going.

Why send out a new query on the same day as the last comes back? Because it’s the best way to fight off rejection-generated depression, that’s why: it’s something you can do in response to that soul-sapping form letter. Recognize that rejection by an agent, any agent, is only one person’s opinion (or, more commonly, one person’s screener’s opinion), and move on.

At the risk of repeating myself: it can take a lot of asking before a writer hears yes, even a very good writer with a great book. Remember, you don’t want to sign with just any agent, any more than you would want to marry just anyone the law says you can. A relationship with an agent is, ideally, a very long-term commitment.

You want to find the best one for you. Finding that special someone may well take some serious dating around.

And that is not, contrary to popular opinion, necessarily any reflection at all upon your level of writing talent. Oh, you’ll want to write a good query letter, as well as avoiding the most common writing problems that lead submissions to be rejected. That, like other matters of format and craft, can be learned.

Talent, however, can’t — but you can’t know for certain how talented you are until you get the technical matters right, so you can get a fair reading from the pros.

But if you’ve been following the fall of ‘Paloozas, you already have the skills to write a professional-quality query letter, don’t you? At this point, you’re probably not going to hear back for a month or more, anyway. That’s plenty of time to work on polishing your manuscript.

Oh, and to generate a truly top-notch query list, specialized for your particular book. Perhaps it’s not the best time to query, but you certainly can keep moving forward toward your goals in the interim.

I feel in my bones that some of you out there are resisting my pep talk — I’ve been hearing it bouncing off your psyches like bullets off Superman’s chest. “But Anne,” those of you who are suffering from query fatigue wail, “I’m just so tired of querying. I hate being rejected, either via e-mail, that SASE I’m supposed to stuff in my mailed queries so I may pay the postage on my own rejection, or, most soul-sucking of all, by simply not hearing back at all on a query or submission. Can’t I just take a breather until, say, next March? Or June? Maybe by then, I will have gotten my second, third, or fifteenth wind.”

I feel for your plight, fatigued ones, but in my experience, it requires considerably more energy for an aspiring writer to re-start a stalled querying push than to keep putting energy in it consistently over a long period. So ’m going to pull out all the stops, and end this series with one last blast of kryptonite-laden truth, to try to dissolve that most common of query-process stallers: the tendency to take the vagaries of this often attenuated process personally.

It doesn’t make sense to do so, you know.

And you should know, if you’ve been a regular part of our ongoing ‘Palooza party this autumn. I have been trying, in my own small way, to educate aspiring writers to the hard facts of the current literary market: it is, in fact, as difficult as it has ever been to land an agent and/or sign a publication contract. In my experience, understanding the basics of how the acceptance (and rejection) process works can save good writers time, chagrin, and wasteful expenses of despair.

Falling prey to despair is a genuine danger here: we’ve all, I’m sure, been hearing gloom-and-doom predictions of the death of the printed word over the last few years. Oh, I certainly haven’t been exaggerating, say, how small, inadvertent mistakes can and do lead to instant rejection or the level of competition one must beat in order to sign with a good agency; by comparison with the conversation you’d be likely to hear behind the scenes at a top-flight writers’ conference, my rendition has been positively sunshiny.

Of course, the printed word has been declared dead by naysayers with clockwork regularity since the mid-19th century. And, frankly, if the most recent batch of predictions had been correct, the last book in existence would have been bound a couple of years ago. Yet the sale of books seems to be marching on — weakened, perhaps, but still moving forward.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a news item from 2007.

Hachette moves to firm sale on backlist
Hachette Livre UK is taking the radical step of moving its backlist publishing to a firm sale basis for environmental reasons. The UK’s largest publishing group, which includes Orion, Hodder, Headline, Octopus and Little, Brown, told staff and authors this morning…that it intends for all of its trade publishing to be put on a backlist firm sale footing by the end of 2008, following consultation with retailers. (For the rest of this article, follow this link.)

If this piece of news did not make you gasp spontaneously, I would guess that you are only dimly aware of just how many books are already pulped each year — that is, sent back to the publisher unsold for paper recycling — or how backlist sales typically work. Most bookstores buy new books from publishers on a provisional basis, with the understanding that they can send clean, unread copies back if they do not sell within a specified period of time. Often, the returns, especially paperbacks and trade paper, will be ground down into pulp to provide the raw material to print other books (thus the term pulping: they are reduced to paper pulp).

From a marketing point of view, this arrangement makes quite a bit of sense: with certain rare exceptions (think Harry Potter), it’s pretty hard for a bookseller to know in advance how well a book will sell. Stocking extra copies encourages browsing, potentially good for brick-and-mortar bookstores, publisher, and reader alike. In recent years, however, books have been remaining on shelves for shorter stints than in the past. The length of time a bookseller will choose to keep a particular book on a shelf varies considerably by book and retailer; the same book may be allowed shelf space for a year at a small bookstore, yet last only a few weeks at a megastore like Barnes & Noble.

Now that online and electronic book sales make up such a hefty proportion of the book market, fewer and fewer books are ever occupying retail shelves at all. That, too, encourages smaller print runs, in order to reduce the number of books ultimately pulped. This, in theory, is the primary benefit of print-on-demand (POD) publishing: only the actual number of books needed are produced, thus reducing pulping.

It also, of course, reduces browsing. All of which means, in practice, that these days, a new book typically does not have very long to establish a track record as a seller before being subject to return. This, in turn, renders it more expensive for publishers to promote books, as the window of opportunity can be pretty small.

See why publishers might be willing to pay a premium to have their books displayed face-up on tables for the first few weeks, rather than spine-out on a shelf? (Knowing that space is often rented can really change how one walks through a big chain bookstore, let me tell you.) Or why authors sometimes see fit to hire their own publicists for the first month after a book’s release?

Backlist titles, by contrast, have been out for a while; they’re the releases from past seasons that the publisher elects to keep in print. Although they do not receive the press attention of new releases, backlist books have historically been the financial heart of most publishers’ business. This, too, has tended to work to all of our benefits.

How often, for instance, have you discovered a genre author three books into a series? Or fell in love with a writer’s latest book and went back to read everything she ever published? (As I sincerely hope you do; after all, if we writers won’t purchase the more obscure works of living writers, who will?)

If you’ve been able to find these books at your local bookstore or online, you’ve been buying backlist titles, gladdening publishers’ hearts and keeping the heartbeat of the industry alive. Because of readers like you, stocking backlist titles has been good bet for retailers: you might not move many copies of Clarissa in a given month, but when a reader wants it, it’s great if you have it to hand.

But if a bookseller has to buy those backlist titles outright, with no opportunity to return them, it becomes substantially more expensive to keep, say, the complete opus of Sherman Alexie in stock in the years before he won the National Book Award. (His latest, an excellent and intriguing collection of shorts entitled War Dances, is now out in paperback, should your Secret Santa be casting about for gift ideas.)

Let’s get back to that old news clipping about Hachette. Speaking as a hardcore reader of English prose, I was darned worried when I first read this: having heard on the literary grapevine that other UK publishers were considering implementing similar policies, I fretted myself sick about all of those British writers whose work might have gone out of print before those of us on this side of the pond have had a chance to hear how wonderful they are.

Hasn’t happened yet, however. Why, I just sent away for some backlist volumes last week. Only now, I order directly online from a U.K. distributor.

See? Change does not always equal demise.

But, of course, the overall trend toward shorter shelf times is genuinely worrisome, especially if one ponders the financial prospects of authors already in print. Just as increasingly quick shelf turn-around for a current season’s books have rendered retailers less likely to take a chance on new authors (how much word-of-mouth can a small book garner in under a month, after all?), it’s probably safe to assume that a policy shift like this will make it harder for backlist authors to remain in print.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you saying, “you’re always telling us that publishing trends change all the time — and that even if I get an agent tomorrow, it might be a couple of years before my book hits the shelves. Do I really need to worry about return policies now, while I’m plugging away at building my query list, as you have successfully guilted me into moving up on my to-do list?”

Well, perhaps worry is too strong a word, but it is something to keep in mind when thinking about your writing career in the long term. Working authors often rely upon sales of their backlist works to pay the bills. If backlist sales decline — as they well might, if such a policy is embraced industry-wide — it may be significantly more difficult to make a consistent living as a writer of books in the years to come.

In other words, this change may affect your ability to quit your day job after you’re published. Indeed, many of the quite solid debut novelists of the last few years have not — which, naturally, affects their ability to promote their current books (now largely the author’s responsibility, especially online) and write their next ones.

In the short term, however, I think it’s always helpful for an aspiring writer to be aware that there is almost always more to an editor’s decision to acquire a book — and by extension, to an agent’s decision to offer it representation — than simply whether the writing is good. During periods when booksellers are taking fewer risks, publishers have historically relied more upon their tried-and-true authors than upon exciting new talent.

Thus tightening the already tight market for what used to be called writers of promise, excellent authors who don’t catch on with the public until the fourth or fifth book. (Mssr. Alexie’s first book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was originally published in 1993. Fortunately, it’s still available as a backlist title.)

Do I think this change is cause for rending your garments and casting your hard-collected query lists into the nearest fire? No, certainly not. But I do think that aspiring writers who approach the querying and submission processes as though the book market has not become significantly tighter in recent years are more likely to give up when faced with rejection than those with a more up-to-date view of how the business works.

Why are the former more likely to succumb to querying and submission fatigue? Unfortunately, no matter how much publishing does or doesn’t change, one constant is apparently immortal: that perniciously pervasive myth out there that the only reason a manuscript, or even a query, ever has trouble finding a professional home is because of a lack of writerly talent.

That is simply not true. Like the common fantasy of walking into a writers’ conference, pitching to the first agent in sight, getting signed on the spot, and selling the book within the month, that misapprehension makes too many good writers stop trying after only a handful of efforts.

What is true is that the competition is fierce, and the more a writer learns about how the business works, the more she can hone her queries and submissions to increase their likelihood of success. There is an immense gulf between the difficult and the impossible — and, as I have stressed time and again, the only impossible hurdle for a book to overcome is the one that confines it in a desk drawer, unqueried and unread.

No matter how tight the book market becomes, it’s not the industry that controls the lock on that drawer; it’s the writer. Never, ever allow the prospect of rejection to seal that drawer shut permanently.

This is your dream — give it a fighting chance. Keep that querying momentum going.

One more ‘Palooza is lurking in the wings between now and the solstice, the official end of autumn. Tune in tomorrow for its unveiling — and, now and always, keep up the good work!

Home for the holiday!

outdoor stockpot

No, this is not my stockpot, gearing up to produce gravy; since a sudden snowfall has rendered Seattle all but immobilized, cooking outside would be counterproductive, at best. I snapped this a couple of days ago, in the shirtsleeves-are-fine balminess of New Orleans; I believe the happy floating veggies were destined for gumbo. The temperature transition has been quite a shock to my delicate sensibilities, let me tell you.

For me, that is, not the vegetables. Although I would imagine being brought to a slow simmer is rather disorienting, too.

I had meant to blog more from the Words & Music conference, or at any rate since, but between travel, teaching, and networking (a word I hate, but how else to describe hobnobbing in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America?), mixed with such perennial joys of the book doctoring life as a client whose publisher moved her revision deadline by a month (and not in the direction any sane person would prefer) and another who changed her mind about her intended book category in mid-edit…well, let’s just say that this week has gotten away from me a little. But yes, Virginia, I shall be blogging about the conference itself soon, because it was fascinating: teaching the fine art of querying, listening to people who knew Faulkner reminisce, and, of course, chatting with folks in the industry about the radical changes the biz has been undergoing.

The best reason to go to a writers’ conference, though, is to meet other writers, established, aspiring, and everything in between. I was especially thrilled to chat with Heidi Durrow, whose The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is for my money the most exciting literary fiction debut of the last few years. She does more interesting things with commas in dialogue than most authors do in entire scenes.

I just mention that to any of you literary fiction writers whose Secret Santas might appreciate gift suggestions. Seriously, Santa, an aspiring writer with ambitions in that direction might really benefit from seeing of what remarkable characterization the English language is capable of producing — and having one’s faith restored in the possibility of genuinely experimental, intensely personal, and actually unusual novels getting published these days.

One last word on my conference weekend, then on to the business du jour: would you help me brainstorm for a moment, campers? Every time I teach a practical class on querying — or synopsis-writing, manuscript formatting, or any of the other unpleasant-but-necessary task of the life writerly — at a conference, I find myself wishing that I could take a broader view. Aspiring writers seem so hungry for information that an hour-long class seems insufficient. I’m beginning to think that perhaps I should be teaching a broader array of classes.

So I put it to you: if you could attend a fantasy conference day stuffed to the brim with classes addressing your day-to-day concerns, what classes would you want to see offered? I don’t just mean basic how-tos on querying and submission, but specific stuff, the kind of niggling little practical matter that keeps you up the night before you send something off to an agent — or for several nights after.

Hey, I believe in asking Santa for what I want, too. So have at it, Virginia.

On to talking turkey. With Thanksgiving once again upon us, I figure that if you’re tapping away at your computer today, you’re most likely not either (a) the primary cook in your extended family or (b) one of the 40 million U.S. citizens traveling more than 50 miles to eat turkey. No, I’m guessing that those of you reading this today is quite likely to be either on the way to meet relatives, friends, or total strangers likely to ask about your writing, have just returned from interacting with relatives, friends, or total strangers who asked about your writing, or are actively avoiding relatives, friends, or total strangers who might ask about your writing.

Don’t bother to tell me whether I’m right. Conserve your energy. Instead, let’s spend the rest of today’s post taking about how to deal with those well-meaning questions aspiring writers so frequently face whenever they are reveling in the warm embrace of their nearest and dearest:

“So when will your book be coming out?”

“Why is it taking so long for your book to get published?”

“Aren’t you, you know, working hard enough?”

“Isn’t the book any good?”

“Don’t you have enough talent?”

“Shouldn’t you have given up this ridiculous quest long ago, concentrating instead on some more easily-achieved dream, like making the Olympic curling team or ascending Mount Everest?”

Okay, so that’s not usually what they say verbatim — but it’s often what we writers hear, isn’t it, when we’re asked about an as-yet-unpublished book’s progress? Even the most innocuous inquiry, if it comes at the wrong time, can sound like a challenge for us to produce instantly a full and complete explanation of exactly why this book does deserve to be picked up, and pronto.

And then, before we realize what’s happened, we’ve been talking about the horrors of searching for an agent, or revising a manuscript, or finishing that last chapter in a manner that simultaneously ties up all of the plot’s loose ends and leaves room for a sequel, for 20 minutes as our original questioner looks at us with deer-the-headlights eyes and the gravy gets cold.

Such inquirers know not what they’re getting into, obviously.

Be gentle with them. Amazingly — from our perspective, at least — non-writers often do not have the vaguest conception that implications that the process is taking too long can be to writers fighting words, akin to calling someone’s mother…

Well, I wasn’t brought up to call people’s mothers that sort of thing. It’s not nice.

I tremble to be the one to tell you this, but better that I inoculate you before your Great-Aunt Rhoda’s new husband mentions it while passing you a third helping of turkey, but most working artists’ kith and kin frequently seem to be laboring under the to-writers-bizarre delusion that you will be HURT if they do not ask you how the book is going, whether you’ve managed to land an agent yet, aren’t you just being lazy if you’ve been working on the same project for three years and haven’t yet completed it, and so forth.

They don’t want to be remiss or insensitive about your little hobby, after all. In their minds, these pointed questions constitute support.

Positively aglow with sweet intentions, they fling their arms around you practically the instant you cross the threshold into their homes, bearing platters of cookies that you took hours out of your writing schedule to bake, bellowing at the top of their lungs, “Darling? Haven’t you finished that novel yet?”

Or, “Sweetheart, what a lovely color on you. When will I be able to order your book on Amazon?”

Or, “I won’t even ask if you’ve managed to sell that book of yours, so spare me the speech about how hard it is to catch an agent’s eye. And is it safe to assume that you burned the pies again this year?” (Some relatives are more supportive than others.)

If this doesn’t happen to you like clockwork every holiday season, feel free to breathe a great big sigh of relief — and bask in the envy of the rest of us. In North America, at least, it is not considered permissible, or even legal, for a writer to respond to such ripostes by taking a swing at such people, or poisoning their holiday punch, or even making fun of that completely unattractive pumpkin-orange sweater with the dancing turkey on it that the bellower is wearing.

Even though it is unequivocally hideous. Whose bright idea was it to have the gobbler’s eyes light up?

No, we’re expected to smile, hug back, and say, “Oh, it’s coming along.” Rather than, say, telling them anything that remotely resembles the truth, especially if the truth entails something along the lines of three or four years of extremely stressful querying book #1 while trying to write book #2, or a year and a half of revising a manuscript seven times before one’s agent is willing to send it out to editors, or eight months of nail-biting anxiety while s/he does send it out to editors.

Just don’t go there. Because, let’s face it, unless your relatives happen to be writers themselves, they’re probably not going to understand that clapping you on the back and telling you, “You know, the only true obstacle to publishing success is that you haven’t been visualizing your book’s selling magnificently hard enough,” is going to make you want to scream, if not fling cranberries at somebody.

Take a nice, deep breath if this impulse begins to overwhelm you: most non-writers have absolutely no idea of the difficulties that writers face getting into print. Heck, even for writers, discovering just how challenging it is to land an agent and/or sell a book often comes as a gigantic, ugly surprise.

Admit it: you probably remember precisely where you were and what you were wearing when you first realized that there was more to winning this game than mere talent, do you not? Or that, contrary to popular belief, not every great manuscript gets picked up by an agent, especially those that don’t happen to be in book categories popular in recent years. Or that even the most brilliant authors don’t produce Pulitzer-worthy material in first drafts, but routinely revise until their fingers are sore.

Catching your mother playing Tooth Fairy probably didn’t even come close in the disillusionment department. Fortunately for me (I guess), I come from a family of writers, so I already knew what agents and publishing houses long before my big brother broke the bad news about the Easter Bunny.

Hey, a kid can only take so much bubble-bursting at one time. So if you have anything negative to say about Santa Claus, kindly keep it to yourself until after the holidays.

Fortunately for overall human happiness, most members of the general public are permanently spared the disorienting shock of learning that not all good books necessarily get published, that agents don’t just pick up every piece of good writing that they read, or that speed of composition usually isn’t a particularly good indicator of writing quality, or that only a teeny, tiny proportion of authors have even a prayer of a spot on Oprah.

So when Alphonse, your next-door neighbor, waltzes into your kitchen and booms, “When are you going to be finished with that damned book of yours, Harriet?” he almost certainly doesn’t mean to be nasty. Or even passive-aggressive.

No, Alphonse just isn’t that kind of guy. He almost certainly believes, bless his heart, that by remembering to tease you light-heartedly about the book you have been slaving over for the past fifteen years, he is offering non-judgmental good fellowship. Because in his world, if you HAD finished the book in question, you would already be burbling with excitement about its imminent release — if not planning what to wear on Oprah.

Try not to judge him too harshly; you believed in the Tooth Fairy once, too.

Bizarrely enough, these unintentionally pointed questions from well-meaning non-writers most emphatically do not cease after one lands an agent. Quite the contrary: they increase, often exponentially.

Why? Well, the average citizen of this fine republic has only a vaguest sense of what a literary agent actually does with a book. So complete is the veil of ignorance, in fact, that it is not all that uncommon for one’s kith and kin to conflate an agent with an editor.

Or even — brace yourselves, the happy few of you who have signed with agents within the last year — landing an agent with landing a book contract.

Think I’m kidding, or that this level of conflation dissipates once an author lands an agent? Then how do you explain the fact that I’ve been publishing my writing since I was ten years old, and yet just last week, one of my best friends from elementary school blithely asked me how soon she could buy the book I’m currently revising for my agent?

Facebook is both a blessing and a curse, isn’t it?

As any agented-but-not-yet-published writer can tell you, these are extremely common sources of confusion. Although your Aunt Gerda may not say it outright, she, like most people, will simply assume that because a writer is so excited to have landed an agent, the agent must therefore have bought the book.

Why else would you be singing over the cranberry sauce?

“So,” these kind-hearted souls chortle at holiday time, sidling up to a writer who has been sitting on the proverbial pins and needles for five interminable months, waiting to hear back on a round of submissions to editors, “when will you be giving me a copy of your book?”

They mean to be supportive, honest. Which is why they will not understand at all when you burst into tears and empty your glass of eggnog all over their sparkly holiday sweaters. They will think, believe it or not, that you are the one who is overreacting.

And in the non-artistic universe, they’ll sort of be right. Because they genuinely mean so well, you must not, under any circumstances, throw a drumstick at such well-meaning souls for asking what are, from a writer’s perspective, phenomenally stupid questions.

No, not even if the implication of such questions is that these would-be supporters apparently haven’t listened to anything you have ever told them about the trials of writing a book, finding an agent, working with an agent after landing one, meeting editorial deadlines, or any of the other myriad trying phenomena associated with authorship, aspiring or otherwise. Nor is it considered polite to scream at them, or even glare in a manner that might frighten any small children who might happen to be gnawing on a wing nearby.

Nice person that you are, you are going to honor these social limits. Even if you’re not all that nice, you will want to retain George on your mailing list for the happy day when you do have a book out for Cousin Marvin’s roommate? boyfriend? to purchase.

So what’s a writer to do, especially when the holidays fall during unusually stressful times, such as when that agent you met at a conference has had your first fifty pages for three months and counting, or when you’ve just received three requests for material (because you were so good about sending out those query letters earlier in November, right?) and have spent the last week frantically trying to get those packets out the door before, well, yesterday?

(My, that was a long sentence, wasn’t it? You might want to avoid paragraph-long questions in those submissions. Yes, I know that Henry James was a great advocate of page-long sentences. I’m fond of his work, but I suspect that he would have rather a hard time getting a manuscript past Millicent the agency screener today — and you should hear what her Aunt Jessica has to say about the novel she has been writing for six years.)

Well, you could regard, “So how is the book coming?” as a serious inquiry, and talk for the next fifteen minutes about characterization, the desirability of semicolon usage vis-à-vis Millicent’s literary tastes in high-end women’s fiction, and just how much you hate form rejection letters. You could also launch into a spirited compare-and-contrast exercise, illustrating vividly how the publishing industry has changed from, say, fifty years ago — which is probably the period your questioner has in mind, but isn’t aware of it. You might even draw helpful charts on the tablecloth, the better to demonstrate how precipitously book sales have dropped over the past couple of years.

If you are gifted at disregarding your interlocutor’s eyes glazing over for minutes at a time, this actually isn’t a bad long-term strategy, at least as far as holiday gatherings are concerned: once you have established a firm reputation for waxing long, humorless, and/or angry on the subject, the non-writers in your social circle may well learn not to inquire how your writing is coming alone. Depending upon how sensitive one happens to be to such questions, that might be a reasonable goal.

If, however, your kith and kin’s avoiding the topic of your writing like the proverbial plague is not your idea of a comfortable Thanksgiving, I would save this tack for when you are speaking with other writers. Like any shop talk, it’s far more interesting to those who deal with it regularly than to anyone else.

I’m looking at you, Dr. Cousin. No one wants to hear the details of your last bypass operation over the pumpkin pie.

So what’s the alternative? You could, most politely, take your favorite cousin by the arm and say confidentially, “You know, Celine, I spend so much time obsessing over my novel that I’m likely to bore you to extinction if I start to talk about it. Do you mind if we give my brain a rest and talk about something completely different?”

I hate to break it to you, but Celine may actually be relieved to hear this.

Why? Because poor Celine may well have been traumatized by how testy you got the last time she asked about it, that’s why. Do you honestly think she isn’t still telling her friends the horror story about the time you began weeping copiously into the cranberry sauce when your Uncle Art said incredulously, “37 rejection letters, baby? You must be one of those artists destined to become famous only after he’s dead”? Or when you tried to choke yourself with your napkin after the ninth time your second cousin twice removed reminded you that the Mary Kay sales training that has served her so well insists that if you don’t hear no all the time, you aren’t asking often enough? Or when you threatened Cousin Germaine with the electric carving knife when all she did was suggest that if the agent you spent half a decade trying to land hadn’t sold your book to a publisher within six weeks of your signing the agency contract, you should dump him and move on?

Strange to say, in the non-writerly world, “Honey, find yourself a new agent!” are not fighting words.

There’s a good reason for that: the publishing world really, really likes to maintain the illusion that talented writers just appear out of the ether to become overnight successes. Possibly because the Book Genie plants a neon sign over their roofs, announcing HOT NEW TALENT HERE, so agents know upon whose doorsteps to appear immediately upon the placement of the final period in the first — and only, naturally — draft.

Hey, it makes for great interview copy, as long as we’re all willing to disregard the decade or more these authors often spend slogging at their craft before becoming overnight successes.

It’s not really fair to blame non-writers for buying this storyline. Yet due to the naïve-but-pervasive belief in the inevitability of publication for talented writers — what, do they think that our fairy godmothers go around whacking editors at publishing houses over the head with their wands on our books’ behalf? Don’t be silly; that’s the agent’s job — non-writers (and writers who have not yet worked up the nerve to submit) are often puzzled by the intensity of writerly reactions to casual inquiries about their work.

Especially if they only asked in the first place to be polite, just as they would have asked you about fly-fishing, had that been your passion. (It is for some people, you know.) Again, those who are going to be the most fascinated in your book’s ups and downs at every stage are going to be other writers.

Actually, after you’re agented, other writers may be your most persistent questioners, especially if they have not yet had a book subjected to the microscopic analysis that is editorial scrutiny. It can be a very lengthy process, the timing of which is utterly outside the author’s control, but even most writers don’t know that until they have been through the submission wringer themselves.

But if they haven’t, they think they’re just supporting a fellow writer when they ask, “Has your agent managed to sell that book of yours yet? What’s the hold-up?”

Or “Is your book out yet? I’d love to read it.”

Or even — not that I have any first-hand experience with this or anything — “What’s new with that memoir of yours that publisher bought a few years ago? Are they still frozen by the lawsuit threats? I can’t believe how long it’s been. Why don’t you self-publish it?”

As if you would have sold — or finished, released, or freed from lawsuit threats — your book, but neglected to shout the news from the rooftops. Or at least to your Christmas card list.

I like to think that they ask out of love — as in they would LOVE to be able to celebrate the triumphs of a writer that they know personally. Admittedly, it sometimes takes some determination on my part to cling to this inspiring little belief (when one’s memoir has been on hold at a publishing house for years, people do tend to express sympathy by venting frustration about the delay at the author, not the publisher), but ultimately, I’m quite sure I’m happier than I would be if I took every iteration of the question as a demand that I instantly drop everything I’m doing and rush off to rectify the situation.

Because that’s not really what they mean by these inquiries, is it? No matter how much such well-meant indignation might sound like criticism to the writer at whom it is aimed, badgering was probably the last thing on the commenter’s mind.

I know, I know; it doesn’t feel that way in the moment. And it may be kind of hard to believe that your Grandpa Theodore, the guy who has relentlessly picked to pieces everyone you have ever even considered dating, is trying to be non-judgmental about your publishing success.

Just hear me out on this one: this is a translation problem. Most of the time, neither writers nor non-writers mean their enthusiastic cries of, “Is it done/sold/out yet?” as criticism about not being the latest Oprah book club pick. Not even if they walk right up to you and say, as if it had never occurred to you or as if every writer in the world didn’t aspire to it, “You know, your book’s a natural for Oprah.”

What they mean is, “I like you. I want you to succeed. And even though I don’t really understand what you’re going through, I want to acknowledge that you’re trying.”

A trifle Pollyannaish of me to translate it that way? Perhaps. But permit me to suggest a little stocking-stuffer that writers can give their kith and kin this holiday season: just for this one dinner party or get-together, assume that that is precisely what they do mean, even if they express it poorly. And respond to the underlying sentiment, not the words.

Just my little suggestion for keeping the peace on that typically not-the-most-silent of nights.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that it’s healthy for you to keep biting your tongue indefinitely. So here is a constructive use for any underlying hostility these questions may raise in you: treat these questions as the perfect opportunity to cure your kith and kin of the pie-in-the-sky notion that they’re going to be on the receiving end of every book you ever publish just because they knew you when you were in diapers.

To put it bluntly, your mother has a right to expect a free copy. Everyone else should expect to help you become a success by buying his own.

Would somebody pick up Great-Aunt Ada’s chair for her? She just fell over backward in surprise.

And well might she, as this is something else the general public does not know about publishing: these days, the author herself is often the one who pays for those allegedly free copies. Even if the publishing contract is generous with advance copies, authors are generally expected to use them for promotional purposes, not as give-aways to their relatives. And while the author is generally able to purchase additional copies at a substantial discount, those books do not count toward sales totals.

Yes, you read that correctly: promising your kith and kin free copies may actually harm your overall sales statistics. Ready to stare down Great-Aunt Ada’s disappointment now, or would you rather wait until your book is about to come out?

The sooner you can get your relatives to accept that the best thing they can do to support your writing career is to plan to buy your books early and often, the happier you will be in the long run — and thus the more pleasant you will be at future holiday gatherings, hint, hint. Tell them you’ll be overjoyed to sign any copies they buy, and leave it at that.

In that same spirit of blowing off some steam, let me throw the question open to you, readers: how do you cope with this avocation-specific form of holiday stress? Have you come up with clever comebacks, succinct explanations, cunning evasions, or other brilliant coping mechanisms that you would like to share with the Author! Author! community?

Or, alternatively, a funny story about the time that you couldn’t stand it anymore and tossed a candied yam at an over-persistent relative who kept asking why you haven’t given up by now? (I probably shouldn’t encourage such behavior, but I have to admit, I would probably get some vicarious pleasure from hearing about it. Am I the only one?)

I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say. And in the spirit of sharing views, I shall be devoting this weekend to posting the award posts for the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better contest, so we may start December with forward-looking eyes.

I’ve got to hustle into the kitchen now: I’ve some ginger-pear compote to cook up for the people who will be buying my books in years to come. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: who has got a good ear for dialogue?

Listening-Recording-Device

There’s been quite a bit of interesting discussion of late in the comments about what does and does not constitute good dialogue. Why, just the other day, a reader asked a startlingly simple but trenchant question: what authors did I think had a good ear for dialogue?

Immediately, as is my wont, I started thinking of authors — specifically, those who write the kinds of books I happen to be reading at the moment. That’s not altogether surprising, since not everyone reads every category of book, and what might ring true on a memoir’s pages could come across as maddeningly incommunicative in a mystery. What works beautifully in literary fiction might seem downright florid in a Western, and heaven knows, however finely “Whatever!” might fit into a YA scene, it would just seem out of place in most adult fiction.

In short, what might be a good recommendation to a writer in one genre would not necessarily be useful for a writer in another. But you, my friends, read and write across every conceivable book category, don’t you?

Here is what I propose, if you are up for it: tell me which writers in your chosen book category have the best ear for dialogue, and why you think so. To render these stirring endorsements more useful as examples to others, kindly mention the category in which you write.

The authors you name need not necessarily be your favorite writers, or even those you believe to be exceptionally good ones. What I am hoping to hear is who you think is the best at writing dialogue that rings true to the characters peopling the lifeworlds in these books.

Since the asker of the original question writes YA Fantasy, I would particularly like to hear from writers of YA and fantasy, respectively, but honestly, the more book categories we can address here, the better. Also, the more of you who weigh in, the better an idea I shall have of what kind of examples will best speak to you in future posts.

In case I’m being too subtle here: if you want me to talk more about your chosen kind of writing, this would be an excellent opportunity to offer me incentive to do it. Heck, get your whole writing group to chime in.

So please let me hear your thoughts on the subject! I’d love to hear your suggestions and insights. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: may I recommend…

friendly waiter

I shall be posting another lengthy discussion of name use in manuscripts later this evening, of course, but since those of us in the United States are heading into a long weekend, I thought I would devote a few inches of blog space to asking all of you charming, erudite members of the Author! Author! community to weigh in on some issues that have been floating around my mind of late. (Like, for instance, whether a sentence as long as the one I just finished typing is ever justifiable within a blog context.) I’m always glad when readers post comments, but these are topics I don’t think anyone has brought up lately.

I honestly would like to know what you think on any or all of these. In no particular order:

(1) In the book category in which you have chosen to write, what is your favorite book, or couple of books? What about that book made you want to write for that audience?

(2) If you met a writer who had just decided to write in your category, what books would you advise her to read? I don’t just mean books on craft (although it’s always interesting to hear which writers find helpful), but also those that would give a neophyte a sense of what books in your category should be.

(3) If you met a junior high school or high school student who wanted to be a writer, what books would you immediately hand him? (Yes, I know — I’ve asked a version of this one before, but book trends vary so much that I’m curious to see if people’s answers have.)

(4) If you bumped into a parent whose child had been devouring the TWILIGHT books, but was not a reader in general, what books would you advise the parent to slide under the kid’s nose next? (A question I hear from parents approximately four times per week, by the way.)

(5) If you are a teenager (or younger) who writes, what are the best and/or worst books adults have recommended to you? If none have struck you as especially apt, what books do you think they should have handed you?

(6) What made your best writing teacher so good? Conversely, what made your worst one so bad?

Okay, that’s probably enough for one Let’s Talk About It post. As you MIGHT have been able to tell from the general bent of the questions, I spent part of today chatting with the mother of a Seattle-area teen who wants to be a writer. She asked me which local high school had the best writing program — please pipe up, if you have a good answer for that — and I spent the next fifteen minutes explaining that from a professional writer’s perspective, what makes a great writing class is not just what is taught, but also what isn’t taught. Bad writing habits, to say nothing of mundane ones, are much harder to unlearn than most people believe.

All of which, naturally, made me think of you fine people and all you had learned over the years. Do let me know what you think.

And, of course, keep up the good work!

P.S.: Speaking of Seattle-area young writers, I’ve just received word that a local magazine is looking for a summer intern, ideally, one who can write. Should any member of the Author! Author! community be interested, just say so in the comments, and I’ll pass along the info. (Don’t worry about providing contact information; the blogging program will let me send a private e-mail response to a post.)

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XI: a few more observations on offer-acceptance etiquette, and a cautionary tale

lily tomlin operator

There I was, peacefully enjoying some well-deserved rest this weekend, when a prime specimen of that species so justly dreaded by writers, the hobgoblins of self-doubt, abruptly pulled up a pillow and sat down on my bed. “Um, Anne?” the wily fellow asked, playfully poking at my cat with his tail. “You know those last couple of posts about what to say and do when an agent calls and offers representation. What if some gifted writer out there mistakenly believes that the questions you recommended are the only ones it’s polite, reasonable, and necessary to ask?”

I yanked the pillow out from under him. “Demon Joe,” — that’s the name of the hobgoblin who specializes in tormenting advice-giving bloggers in the dead of night, so you’ll know should you ever run into him — “Author! Author!’s readers are much, much smarter than that. They know that just as every manuscript requires different revision, and that every book category requires a slightly different kind of agent, every offer from an agent and every subsequent conversation will differ. Now unhand my cat and get out of here.”

Demon Joe slithered across the comforter until he was nose-to-nose with me. “Perhaps. But did you talk about what a writer’s supposed to say if she has manuscripts out with other agents at the time that she receives the offer?

“I talked about that indirectly,” I said defensively, extracting my cat’s tail from Joe’s grasp. “Last weekend, when I was discussing what to do if an agent asks for an exclusive while another agent is already reading the manuscript. You ought to remember — you yanked me out of bed to write it.”

“True enough.” Demon Joe stroked his small, pointed beard thoughtfully. “And I wouldn’t want to disturb your sleep. I Just can’t help worrying about whether an excited aspiring writer, burbling with glee over a phone call from a real, live agent, is going to be in any mood to, you know, extrapolate. But if you’re confident that you’ve covered all of your bases…”

I hate it when Demon Joe is right. If you’ve ever wondered why some of my posts bear timestamps at three or four in the morning, blame him.

I certainly do.

Here, then, is an extra-special bonus middle-of-the-night end-of-the-weekend post, devoted to that most burning of problems most aspiring writers pray someday to have: what you to say to an agent who wants to represent you, when one or more other agents are also considering your manuscript?”

Seem like an unlikely scenario? It isn’t, actually, for any aspiring writer sending out simultaneous submissions. Any time more than one agent is considering the same manuscript, one possible outcome — the best one, actually — is that the writer will need to say something along the lines of, “Gee, I’m flattered, but I’m afraid that I shall have to talk to the X number of other agents currently reading my book. May I get back to you in, say, two weeks?”

The very idea of saying that to an agent who wants to represent you made some of you faint, didn’t it? Believe me, I’ve been there.

Seriously, I have. I wish I had known from the very beginning that having more than one agent reading a manuscript at a time is actually a very good thing for a writer. At least, if all of the agents concerned are aware that they’re in competition over the book.

“What makes you do darn sure of that?” Demon Joe demands. “Stop eyeballing that head-shaped indentation in your pillow and share your experience.”

Okay, okay — I’ll tell the story, but then I’m going back to sleep. Everybody but me comfortable? Excellent. Let’s proceed.

Many years ago, I had just sent out a packet of requested materials — memoir book proposal plus the first three chapters of a novel — when another agent asked to see my book proposal as well. Naturally, when I sent off the second package, I mentioned in my cover letter that another agent was already considering the project.

Thanks, Demon Joe, but I’m way ahead of you on this one: all of you multiple submitters do know that you should always mention it in your submission cover letter if another agent is already reading any part of your manuscript or book proposal? And that you should always drop any agent already reading your work an e-mail if you submit your work to another agent thereafter?

Well, now you do.

Although I knew to be conscientious about that first part, back in those long-ago days of innocence, I was not aware of the second. Indeed, the hobgoblin of doubt dedicated to torturing aspiring writers waiting to hear back on their submissions — Demon Milton, if you must know his name — would have forbidden my acting upon it if I had known: unfortunately, the old conference-circuit advice about never calling an agent who hasn’t called you first was deeply engrained in my psyche.

In other words, I was too afraid to bug Agent #1 to let her know that Agent #2 was looking at my book proposal. Big, big mistake.

Okay, Demon Joe, stop battering my head with your tail: I’m going to show them how to avoid that particular pitfall before I reveal the hideous consequences of not playing by this particular not-very-well-known rule.

So what should I have done instead? If more than one agent asks to see my manuscript (or, in this particular case, book proposal), I should have informed all of them, pronto, so they could adjust their reading schedules accordingly.

No need to name names, of course, or even to go back and tell Agents #1 and #2 that Agents #4-6 also asked to see it a month later. All that any given agent in the chain needs to know is that she’s not the only one considering it.

But I didn’t know that; frankly, I was too tickled to have attracted so much interest. Having stumbled into this rather common error, I set myself up for another, more sophisticated one.

A month later, Agent #2 called me to offer to represent the book. Since Agent #1 had at that point held onto the proposal for over six weeks without so much as a word, I assumed — wrongly, as it turned out — that she just wasn’t interested. So I accepted the only offer on the table, and sent Agent #1 a polite little missive, thanking her for her time and saying that I had signed with someone else.

Demon Joe is prompting me to pause here to ask: did that sweeping, unjustified conclusion make you gasp aloud?

It should have, especially if you have been submitting within the last couple of years. Six weeks really isn’t a very long time for an agent to hold onto a manuscript, after all; now, six months isn’t an unusual turn-around time. But even back then, when about eight weeks was considered the outside limit of courtesy, I should not have leapt to the conclusion that Agent #1 had simply blown me off.

Two days later, the phone rang: you guessed it, an extremely irate Agent #1. Since she hadn’t realized that there was any competition over the project, she informed me loudly, she hadn’t known that she needed to read my submission quickly. But now that another agent wanted it, she had dug my materials out of the pile on her desk, zipped through them — and she wanted to represent it.

I was flattered, of course, but since I had already told her that I’d accepted another offer, I found her suggestion a trifle puzzling. I had, after all, already burbled an overjoyed acceptance to Agent #2. I couldn’t exactly un-burble my yes, could I?

Yet when I reminded her gently that I’d already committed to someone else, all Agent #1 wanted to know was whether I had actually signed the contract. When I admitted that it was in the mail, she immediately launched into a detailed explanation of what she wanted me to change in the proposal so she would be able to market it more easily.

Had I been too gentle in my refusal? What part of no didn’t she get? “I don’t think you quite understood me before,” I said as soon as she paused to draw breath; #1 must have been a tuba player in high school. “I’ve already agreed to let another agent represent this book.”

“Nonsense,” #1 huffed. “How could you possibly have made up your mind yet, when you haven’t heard what I can do for you?”

I’ll spare you the 15-minute argument that ensued; suffice it to say that she raked me over the coals for not having contacted her the nanosecond I received a request for materials. Agent #1 also — and I found this both fascinating and confusing — used every argument she would invent to induce me to break my word to Agent #2 and sign with her instead.

Unscrupulous? Not exactly. She was merely operating on a principle that those of you who have been following this series should have by now committed to heart: until an agent offers a representation contract and a writer actually signs it, nothing that has passed between them is binding.

As I so often tell first-time pitchers who have just been asked to send pages: until there’s a concrete offer on the table, that nice conversation you just had with that agent about your book is just that, a nice conversation.

Of course, #1 may have taken the axiom to heart a little too much — I had, after all, already said yes to another agent, somebody equally enthusiastic about my proposal — but as it turned out, I should have listened to her. I should also have done my homework better: Agent #2, a charming man relatively new to my book category, actually had very few connections for placing the book.

Yes, Demon Joe: that is something I might have learned had I asked him a few more questions before saying yes. Thank you for pointing that out. Now stop rolling around on my flannel sheets.

What happened here? Well, my initial mistake in not keeping both agents concerned equally well-informed allowed an agent who probably knew that acting quickly was his best chance of competing in a multiple submission situation to shut out a better-qualified agent by the simple expedient of asking first.

So what should I have done instead? Contacted Agent #1 as soon as I received the second request, of course — and called her before I gave Agent #2 an answer.

Admittedly, that second part would have required some guts and finesse to pull off; if #2 was deliberately rushing me to commit before I asked too many questions about his track record in selling my type of book, I doubt that he would have been particularly thrilled about my asking for some time to make up my mind. (His agency went out of business within the year, after all; he gave up on my proposal after showing it to only five editors. I received a letter from one of them, saying that he had not submitted it through the proper channels.)

In the long run, though, it would have clearly been far better for me and my book proposal had I taken the time to make sure that I knew what my options were before I took what I deemed to be an irrevocable step. (For a more tips on handling simultaneous submissions far, far better than I did that first time around, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENTS ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category on the archive list at right.)

The story does have a happy ending, however: fortunately, the next time I was lucky enough to be in this position, right after having won a major award for my memoir, I had the experience to know how to handle it. I was also fortunate enough to know several previous winners of that particular contest who were kind enough to give me excellent advice on what to do if I won. (It’s always worth tracking down past winners, if you happen to be a finalist: it’s amazing how nice most authors are one-on-one.)

Just so I can convince Demon Joe to remove his pitchfork from my foot region, let’s recap what a writer should do if more than one agent is considering a manuscript when a representation offer gladdens his heart:

(1) Thank the offering agent, but remind her that other agents are currently considering the manuscript.
That should not be news to her, right?

(2) Ask for 3 weeks to check in with the others and make up your mind.
Since this is precisely what she would expect you to do for her if another agent had made an offer first, she should be fine with this. If she isn’t, offer not to commit to anyone else until you have spoken to her again — and set up an appointment a couple of weeks hence to do just that.

Why as much as three weeks? Because it’s entirely possible that none of the other agents have yet so much as glanced at the manuscript. You don’t expect them to make a representation decision before they’ve read your book, do you?

Demon Joe likes that so much that he’s doing a little jig on my bedroom slippers. “Let me be the one to draw out the implication here: yes, some agents who are aware that a manuscript is being multiply-submitted will wait to hear that someone else has made an offer before they give the manuscript a serious once-over.”

The hobgoblin in charge of that particularly nasty (from the writer’s point of view, anyway) game of chicken is called Harold, in case you were wondering. You might want to mutter at him under your breath, should you ever be the writer caught in this situation.

Which is, lest we forget, a good outcome for a submitter. Back to our to-do list:

(3) Then ask all of the other questions you would have asked Agent #1 if she had been the only agent to whom you submitted.
You want to have a basis to decide between her and any of the other agents who say yes, don’t you?

(4) As soon as you get off the phone with #1, e-mail ALL the other agents currently reading any part of your manuscript. Let them know that you have had another offer — and that if they are interested, you will need to hear from them within the next ten days.
Seem fast? It is. It’s also a reasonable amount of time for a rush read, and it gives you a little leeway if any of the other agents needs more time.

After all, the fact that others are reading it isn’t going to come as a surprise to any of them, right? Besides, you don’t want to keep Agent #1 waiting too long, do you?

Stop poking me in the kidneys, Demon Joe. I was getting to the leeway issue.

It’s not uncommon for agents in this situation to ask for more time to read your work. That’s up to you, but do be aware that if you grant extensions, you’re going to have to tell Agent #1 about them.

Doesn’t sound like such an attractive prospect, does it? Wouldn’t you rather build a little extra time into your arrangement with #1, so #2-16 can miss the mark by a few days without sending you into a nail-gnawing panic?

(5) Try to obtain similar information from every agent who makes an offer.
That way, you will be comparing apples to apples, not apples to squid. So if you ask one for a client list — and you should — ask each one that makes an offer. If you talk to a client of #1, talk to #3′s client as well. Otherwise, it’s just too tempting to sign with the one who spontaneously offered you the most information — who may or may not be the best fit for your work.

(6) Make up your mind when you said you would — or inform everyone concerned that it’s going to take a little longer.
But don’t push it too long, and don’t try to use what one agent has said to hurry another. (Over and above simply informing them that another has made an offer, that is.) This is not a bargaining situation; it’s a straightforward collection of offers from businesspeople about whom you should already have done your homework.

And try not to move the deadline more than once. Why? Well, you’re going to want to have a pleasant working relationship with whomever you choose — and although writers often feel helpless when torn between competing agents, that is not how they will see it. The last impression you

(7) After you’ve chosen, inform the agent with whom you will be signing first.
This is basic self-protection, especially if you’ve had to push the decision deadline back more than once. It’s unusual for an agent to change her mind after making an offer, but if she does, you will be a substantially happier camper if you have other offers in reserve.

(8) After you have sealed the deal with your favorite, inform the others promptly and politely.
Do this even if some of the others didn’t bother to get back to you at all — some agents do use silence as a substitute for no, but it’s not courteous to bank on that. They honestly do need to know that they’re no longer in the running.

Resist the urge — and believe me, you will feel it — to explain in thanks, but no thanks e-mails why you selected the agent you did. The agenting world is not very big, after all, and the other agent(s) really don’t need to know anything but that you have indeed made a decision.

Above all, make sure to thank them profusely for their time. After all, they were excited enough about your writing to consider representing you; don’t you want them to buy your book when it comes out?

Hey, my cats are asleep, my various body parts seem to be free of pitchforks, and the hobgoblin all-clear has sounded. (It sounds a lot like a snore from my SO.)

That means it’s time for me to turn in, campers. Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the hobgoblins of self-doubt bite. Oh, and keep up the good work!

May I help you to a second helping of stress?

loukomades

With Thanksgiving once again upon us — happy, happy, by the way — I figure that if you’re tapping away at your computer today, you’re most likely not either (a) the primary cook in your extended family, (b) one of the 38.2 million U.S. citizens traveling more than 50 miles to eat turkey, and/or traveling more than the average 815 miles to get to your plate. No, I’m guessing that a compatriot of mine reading this today is quite likely to be either on the way to meet relatives, friends, or total strangers likely to ask about your writing, have just returned from interacting with relatives, friends, or total strangers who asked about your writing, or are actively avoiding relatives, friends, or total strangers who might ask about your writing.

Don’t bother to tell me whether I’m right. Conserve your energy. Instead, let’s spend today’s post taking about how to deal with that question aspiring writers so frequently face whenever they are reveling in the warm embrace of their nearest and dearest: “When will your book be coming out?”

As in, “Why is it taking so long for your book to get published?”

“Aren’t you, you know, working hard enough?”

“Isn’t the book any good?”

“Don’t you have enough talent?”

“Shouldn’t you have given up this ridiculous quest long ago?” and other well-meaning but rather unsupportive sentiments.

Okay, so that’s NOT usually what they say verbatim — but it’s often what we writers hear, isn’t it, when we’re asked about an as-yet-unpublished book’s progress? Even the most innocuous inquiry, if it comes at the wrong time, can sound like a challenge for us to produce instantly a full and complete explanation of exactly why this book does deserve to be picked up, and pronto.

And then, before we realize what’s happened, we’ve been talking about the horrors of searching for an agent, or revising a manuscript, or finishing that last chapter, for 20 minutes as our original questioner looks at us with deer-the-headlights eyes and the gravy gets cold.

Such inquirers know not what they’re getting into, obviously.

Be gentle with them. Amazingly — from our perspective, at least — non-writers often do not have the vaguest conception that implications that the process is taking too long can be to writers fighting words, akin to calling someone’s mother…

Well, I wasn’t brought up to call people’s mothers that sort of thing. It’s not nice.

In fact — and I tremble to be the one to tell you this, but better that I inoculate you before your Great-Aunt Rhoda’s new husband mentions it while passing you a third helping of turkey — one’s kith and kin frequently seem to be laboring under the to-writers-bizarre delusion that you will be HURT if they do not ask you how the book is going, whether you’ve managed to land an agent yet, aren’t you just being lazy if you’ve been working on the same project for two years and haven’t yet completed it, and so forth.

They don’t want to be remiss or insensitive about your little hobby, after all. In their minds, it’s support.

So positively aglow with sweet intentions, they fling their arms around you practically the instant you cross the threshold into their homes, bearing platters of cookies that you took time out of your writing schedule to bake, bellowing at the top of their lungs, “Darling? Haven’t you finished that novel yet?”

Or, “Sweetheart, what a lovely color on you. When will I be able to order your book on Amazon?”

Or, “I won’t even ask if you’ve managed to sell that book of yours, so spare me the speech about how hard it is to catch an agent’s eye. And is it safe to assume that you burned the pies again this year?” (Some relatives are more supportive than others.)

If this doesn’t happen to you like clockwork every holiday season, feel free to breathe a great big sigh of relief. In North America, at least, it is not considered permissible, or even legal, for a writer to respond to such ripostes by taking a swing at such people in response, or poisoning their holiday punch, or even making fun of that completely unattractive pumpkin-orange sweater with the dancing turkey on it that they’re wearing.

No, we’re expected to smile, hug back, and say, “Oh, it’s coming along.” Rather than, say, telling them anything that remotely resembles the truth, especially if the truth entails something along the lines of three or four years of extremely stressful querying book #1 while trying to write book #2, or a year and a half of revising a manuscript seven times before one’s agent is willing to send it out to editors, or eight months of nail-biting anxiety while s/he does send it out to editors.

Because, let’s face it, unless your relatives happen to be writers themselves, they’re probably not going to understand that clapping you on the back and telling you that the only obstacle to publishing success is that you haven’t been visualizing your book’s selling magnificently hard enough is going to make you want to scream, if not throw cranberries at somebody.

Take a nice, deep breath if this impulse begins to overwhelm you: most non-writers have absolutely no idea of the difficulties that writers face getting into print. Heck, even for writers, discovering just how challenging it is to land an agent and/or sell a book often comes as a gigantic, ugly surprise.

Come on — you probably remember precisely where you were and what you were wearing when you first realized that there was more to winning this game than mere talent, don’t you? Or that, contrary to what agents and editors like to tell writers at conferences, not every great manuscript gets picked up by an agent, especially those that don’t happen to be in book categories popular in recent years. Or that even the most brilliant authors don’t produce Pulitzer-worthy material in first drafts, but routinely revise until their fingers are sore?

Catching your mother playing Tooth Fairy probably didn’t even come close in the disillusionment department. Fortunately for me (I guess), I do come from a family of writers, so I already knew what agents and publishing houses long before my older brother broke the news about the Tooth Fairy.

Hey, a kid can only take so much bubble-bursting at one time. So if you have anything negative to say about Santa Claus, kindly keep it to yourself.

Fortunately for human happiness as a whole, most members of the general public are spared more or less permanently the disorienting shock of learning that not all good books necessarily get published, that agents don’t just pick up every piece of good writing that they read, or that speed of composition usually isn’t a particularly good indicator of writing quality, or that only a teeny, tiny proportion of authors have even a prayer of a spot on Oprah.

So when George, your next-door neighbor, waltzes into your kitchen and booms, “When are you going to be finished with that damned book of yours, Harriet?” he almost certainly doesn’t mean to be nasty. Or even passive-aggressive.

No, George just isn’t that kind of guy.

He almost certainly believes, bless his heart, that by remembering to tease you light-heartedly about the book you have been slaving over for the past fifteen years, he is offering non-judgmental good fellowship. Because in his world, if you HAD finished the book in question, you would already be burbling with excitement about its imminent release — if not planning what to wear on Oprah.

Try not to judge him too harshly; you believed in the Easter Bunny once, too.

Bizarrely enough, these unintentionally pointed questions from well-meaning non-writers most emphatically do not cease after one lands an agent. Quite the contrary: they increase, often exponentially.

Why? Well, the average citizen of this fine republic has only a vague sense of what a literary agent actually DOES with a book — so much so, in fact, that it is not all that uncommon for one’s kith and kin to conflate an agent with an editor. Or even — brace yourselves, those of you who have signed with agents within the last year — landing an agent with landing a book contract.

Think I’m kidding, or that this level of conflation dissipates once an author lands an agent? Then how do you explain the fact that I’ve been publishing my writing since I was ten years old, and yet just two days ago, one of my best friends from elementary school blithely asked me how soon she could buy the book I’m currently revising for my agent?

As any agented-but-not-yet-published writer can tell you, these are extremely common confusions. Although they may not say it outright, most people will just assume that because a writer is so excited to have landed an agent, the agent must therefore have BOUGHT the book.

“So,” these kind-hearted souls chortle at holiday time, sidling up to a writer who has been sitting on the proverbial pins and needles for five interminable months, waiting to hear back on a round of submissions to editors, “when will you be giving me a copy of your book?”

They mean to be supportive, honest. Which is why they will not understand at all when you burst into tears and empty your glass of eggnog all over their sparkly holiday sweaters. They will think, believe it or not, that you are the one who is overreacting.

And in the non-artistic universe, they’ll sort of be right.

Because they genuinely mean so well, you must not, under any circumstances, kill such well-meaning souls for asking what are, from a writer’s perspective, phenomenally stupid questions. No, even if the implication of such questions is that these would-be supporters apparently haven’t listened to ANYTHING you have ever told them on the trials of writing a book, finding an agent, working with an agent after one has found one, meeting editorial deadlines, or any of the other myriad trying phenomena associated with aspiring authorship. Nor is it considered polite to scream at them, or even glare in a manner that might frighten any small children who might happen to be gnawing on a drumstick nearby.

Nice person that you are, you are going to honor these restrictions. Even if you’re not all that nice, you will want to retain George on your mailing list for the happy day when you DO have a book out for him to purchase.

So what’s a writer to do, especially when these questions come during unusually stressful times, such as when that agent you met at a conference has had your first fifty pages for three months and counting, or when you’ve just received three requests for material (because you were so good about SIOAing those query letters earlier in November, right?) and have spent the last week frantically trying to get those packets out the door before, well, yesterday?

(My, that was a long sentence, wasn’t it? You might want to avoid paragraph-long questions in those submissions. Yes, I know that Henry James was a great advocate of page-long sentences. I’m fond of his work, but I suspect that he would have rather a hard time getting a manuscript past Millicent today.)

Well, you COULD regard the question as a serious inquiry, and talk for the next fifteen minutes about characterization, the desirability of semicolon usage vis-à-vis Millicent’s literary tastes, and just how much you hate form rejection letters. You could also launch into a spirited compare-and-contrast exercise, illustrating vividly how the publishing industry has changed from, say, fifty years ago, which is probably the period your questioner has in mind but isn’t aware of it. You might even pull helpful charts out of your back pocket, the better to demonstrate how precipitously book sales have dropped over the past year.

If you are gifted at disregarding your interlocutor’s eyes glazing over for minutes at a time, this actually isn’t a bad strategy: once you have established a firm reputation for waxing long, humorless, and/or angry on the subject, the non-writers in your social circle may well learn not to inquire how your book is going. Depending upon how sensitive one happens to be to such questions, that might be a reasonable goal.

If, however, your kith and kin’s avoiding the topic of your writing like the proverbial plague is not your idea of a comfortable holiday gathering, I would save this tack for when you are speaking with other writers. Like any shop talk, it’s far more interesting to those who deal with it regularly than to anyone else.

So what’s the alternative? You could, most politely, take your favorite cousin by the arm and say confidentially, “You know, Serena, I spend so much time obsessing over my book that I’m likely to bore you to extinction if I start to talk about it. Do you mind if we give my brain a rest and talk about something completely different?”

I hate to break it to you, but Serena may actually be relieved to hear this.

Why? Because poor Serena may well have been traumatized by how testy you got the last time she asked about it, that’s why. Do you honestly think she isn’t still telling her friends the horror story about the time you began weeping copiously into the cranberry sauce when your Uncle Art told you that if you’d only generated 37 rejection letters, you just hadn’t been trying hard enough to sell your book? Or when you threatened Cousin Ada with the electric carving knife when all she did was suggest that if the agent you spent half a decade trying to land hadn’t sold your book to a publisher within six weeks of your signing the agency contract?

Strange to say, in the non-writerly world, “Honey, find yourself a new agent!” are not fighting words.

There’s a good reason for that: the publishing world really, really likes to maintain the illusion that talented writers just appear out of the ether to become overnight successes. It makes for great interview copy, as long as you’re willing to downplay the decade these authors often spend slogging at their craft before becoming overnight successes.

It’s not really fair to blame non-writers for buying this line. Yet due to the naïve-but-pervasive belief in the inevitability of publication for talented writers — what, do they think that our fairy godmothers go around whacking editors at publishing houses over the head with their wands on our books’ behalf? Don’t be silly; that’s the agent’s job — non-writers (and writers who have not yet worked up the nerve to submit) are often puzzled by the intensity of writerly reactions to casual inquiries about their work.

Especially if they only asked in the first place to be polite, just as they would have asked you about fly-fishing had that been your passion. (People do, you know.) Again, the people who are going to be the most fascinated in your book’s ups and downs at every stage are going to be other writers.

Actually, after you’re agented, other writers may be your most persistent questioners, especially writers who have not yet had a book subjected to the microscopic analysis that is editorial scrutiny. It can be a very lengthy process, the timing of which is utterly outside the author’s control, but even most writers don’t know that until they have been through the submission wringer themselves.

But if they haven’t, they think they’re just supporting a fellow writer when they ask, “So, has your agent managed to sell that book of yours yet? What’s the hold-up?”

Or — not that I have any first-hand experience with this or anything — “What’s new with that memoir of yours that publisher bought a few years ago? Are they still frightened by the lawsuit threats? I can’t believe how long it’s been.”

As if you would have sold — or finished, or released — your book but neglected to shout the news from the rooftops. Or at least to your Christmas card list.

I like to think that they ask out of love — as in they would LOVE to be able to celebrate the triumphs of a writer that they know. Admittedly, it sometimes takes some determination on my part to cling to this inspiring little belief (when one’s memoir has been on hold at a publishing house for a couple of years, people do tend to express sympathy by venting frustration about the delay at one), but ultimately, I’m quite sure I’m happier than I would be if I took every iteration of the question as a demand that I instantly drop everything I’m doing and rush off to rectify the situation.

Because that’s not really what they mean, is it? No matter how much such well-meant indignation might sound like criticism to the writer at whom it is aimed, badgering was probably the last thing on the commenter’s mind.

I know, I know; it doesn’t feel that way, and it may be kind of hard to believe that your Grandpa Gregory, the guy who has relentlessly picked to pieces everyone you have ever even considered dating, is trying to be non-judgmental about your publishing success. Just hear me out on this one.

This is a translation problem. Most of the time, neither writers nor non-writers mean their enthusiastic cries of, “Is it done/sold/out yet?” as criticism about not being the latest Oprah book club pick. Not even if they walk right up to you and say, as if it had never occurred to you or as if every writer in the world didn’t aspire to it, “You know, your book belongs on Oprah.”

What they mean is, “I like you. I want you to succeed. And even though I don’t really understand what you’re going through, I want to acknowledge that you’re trying.”

A little Pollyannaish of me to translate it that way? Perhaps. But permit me to suggest a little stocking-stuffer that writers can give their kith and kin this holiday season: just for this one dinner party or get-together, assume that that IS what they do mean, even if they express it poorly. And respond to the underlying sentiment, not the words.

Just my little suggestion for keeping the peace on that typically not-the-most-silent of nights.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for you to keep biting your tongue indefinitely. So here is a constructive use for any underlying hostility these questions may raise in you: this is the perfect opportunity to cure your kith and kin of the pie-in-the-sky notion that they’re going to be on the receiving end of every book you ever publish just because they know you.

Something else the general public does not know about publishing: these days, the author herself is often the one who pays for those give-away copies. Even if the publishing contract is generous with advance copies, authors are often expected to use them for promotional purposes, not as give-aways to their relatives. And while the author is generally able to purchase additional copies at a substantial discount, those books do not count toward sales totals.

Yes, you read that correctly: promising your kith and kin free copies may actually harm your overall sales statistics.

So the sooner you can get your relatives to accept that the best thing they can do to support your writing career is to plan to buy your books early and often, the happier you will be in the long run — and thus the more joyful you will be at future holiday gatherings, hint, hint. Tell them you’ll be overjoyed to sign any copies they buy, and leave it at that.

You feel a trifle less stressed at the mere thought of telling Grandpa Gregory that, don’t you?

In that same spirit of blowing off some steam, let me throw the question open to you, readers: how do you cope with this avocation-specific form of holiday stress? Have you come up with clever comebacks, succinct explanations, cunning evasions, or other brilliant coping mechanisms that you would like to share with the Author! Author! community?

Or, alternatively, a funny story about the time that you couldn’t stand it anymore and tossed a candied yam at an over-persistent relative who kept asking why you haven’t given up by now? (I probably shouldn’t encourage such behavior, but I have to admit, I would probably get some vicarious pleasure from hearing about it. Am I the only one?)

I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say. In the meantime, I’ve got to get dressed — I have some cranberry sauce to pass with a smile.

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

Let’s talk about this: what do you wish you had known about how books get published before you started trying to market your work?

ducks-in-the-yard

For the last week and a half, I’ve been discussing in general terms how books make it from manuscript to publication, but the fact is, every author’s experience is slightly different. As is every submitter’s, pitcher’s, and querier’s, to a certain extent. So now that I’ve brought the trajectory of the manuscript up to the point of an agent’s offering to represent it, this seems like a good time to ask those of you who have personal experience in these areas: how was (or is, if you’re still in the throes of any of these activities) different from the norm?

Specifically, what do you wish you had known before the first time you submitted — or even queried?

If those of you farther along the path to publication have any acquired wisdom to share, this would be the place to do it: as a comment in the midst of the series I hope that aspiring writers brand-new to the biz will read first. Go ahead, make the path a little easier for those who will trod it after you; generosity is fabulous for one’s karma.

To get the ball rolling, I shall begin: I wish I had known from the very beginning that having more than one agent reading a manuscript at a time is actually a very good thing for a writer. At least, if all of the agents concerned are aware that they’re in competition over the book.

Many years ago, I had just sent out a packet of requested materials when another agent asked to see my proposal as well. Naturally, when I sent off the second package, I mentioned in my cover letter that another agent was already considering the project. Unfortunately, the old conference-circuit advice about never calling an agent who hasn’t called you first was deeply engrained in my psyche; I was too afraid to bug her to let her know that someone else was looking at my book proposal.

Big mistake — if more than one agent asked to see my manuscript (or, in this particular case, my book proposal), I should have informed all of them, pronto, so they could adjust their reading schedules accordingly. Having stumbled into this rather common error, I set myself up for another, more sophisticated one.

A month later, Agent #2 called me to offer to take on the book. Since Agent #1 had at that point held onto the proposal for over six weeks without so much as a word, I assumed — wrongly, as it turned out — that she just wasn’t interested. So I accepted the only offer on the table, and sent Agent #1 a polite little missive thanking her for her time.

Two days later, the phone rang: an extremely irate Agent #1. Since she hadn’t realized that there was any competition over the project, she informed me loudly, she hadn’t known that she needed to read my submission quickly. But now that another agent wanted it, she had dug my materials out of the pile on her desk, zipped through them — and she wanted to represent it.

I was flattered, of course, but since I had already told her that I’d accepted another offer, I found her suggestion a trifle puzzling. Yet when I reminded her gently that I’d said yes to someone else, all she wanted to know was whether I had actually signed the contract. When I admitted that it was still in the mail, she immediately launched into a detailed explanation of what she wanted me to change in the proposal so she would be able to market it more easily.

Had I been too gentle in my refusal? What part of no didn’t she get? “I don’t think you quite understood me before,” I said as soon as she paused to draw breath; the woman must have been a tuba player in high school. “I’ve already committed to another agent.”

I’ll spare you the 15-minute argument that ensued; suffice it to say that she raked me over the coals for not having contacted her the nanosecond I received a request for materials. She also — and I found this both fascinating and confusing — used every argument she would invent to induce me to break my word to Agent #2 and sign with her instead.

As it turned out, I should have listened to her, because Agent #2, being relatively new to the book category, actually had very few connections for placing the book, something I might have learned had I asked him a few more questions before saying yes. So my initial mistake in not keeping both agents concerned equally well-informed allowed an agent who probably knew that acting quickly was his best chance of competing in a multiple submission situation to shut out a better-qualified agent by the simple expedient of asking first.

So what should I have done instead? Contacted Agent #1 as soon as I received the second request, of course — and called her before I gave Agent #2 an answer.

Admittedly, that second part would have required some guts and finesse to pull off — under the circumstances, I doubt that #2 would have been particularly thrilled about my asking for some time to make up my mind — but in the long run, it would have been far better for me and my book (which ultimately never sold) had I taken the time to make sure that I knew what my options were before I took what I deemed to be an irrevocable step. (For a more tips on handling simultaneous submissions far, far better than I did that first time around, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENTS ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category on the archive list at right.)

Fortunately, the next time I was lucky enough to be in this position, right after having won a major award for my memoir, I had the experience to know how to handle it. (I was also fortunate enough to know several previous winners of that particular contest who were kind enough to give me excellent advice on what to do if I won; it’s amazing how nice most authors are one-on-one.)

Okay, now I’ve ‘fessed up. Your turn: what do you wish you’d known sooner and why?

Oh, and keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: how do you go about naming characters?

sneeze

I’m still a bit under the weather, unfortunately, and given the ups and downs of my heath over the last couple of years, I’m more than usually inclined to heed my doctor’s advice and, as she inimitably puts it, “take it easy before your lungs go on strike again.” As those of you who have been frequenting this site for a while are already aware, I seldom take many consecutive days off from blogging, but since the weather folks are warning that Seattle may be encased in snow again this weekend (just when the World’s Worst Landscaper was do back, naturally), sitting in my sunny-but-cold studio probably isn’t the best plan.

So more tea-sipping and less computer time for me over the weekend. If you picture me coughing with a cat on my lap, revisiting the Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter — one of my all-time favorite novels — you won’t be far off.

I hate to let the conversation flag we’re in the thick of our nice, meaty series on character naming, however, just because I’m coughing up a storm. As promised, then, I’m going to turn it over to you. Let’s talk about the ins and outs of naming.

I like chatting about this with other writers, because frankly, I don’t think the general non-writing population truly understands how important the fit between character and name is from the writer’s perspective. It’s not just a matter of picking out a name you like and Scotch-taping it to the character, after all; the choice says something about both the character and the author.

So tell me, novelists: how do you go about selecting character names? What difficulties have you encountered, and how have you resolved them? Do the characters and their personalities come to you at the same time, or do you select names to match an already-conceived set of characteristics? How do you know if you’ve found the right name — or are you ever completely sure?

Memoirists and other nonfiction writers, do you always use real names, or do you create pseudonyms to protect the innocent (or the guilty)? If you’re creating composite characters, how do you decide what to call them? Have you found that certain real names just don’t work on the page?

And I’m curious to hear from all of you readers, as a continuation of Askhari’s interesting guest post that kicked off this series: what are your favorite fictional names? What makes a character name work for you?

On the flip side, what characters have struck you as badly misnamed? How does a poorly-selected or inappropriate name affect your experience as a reader?

To get the conversational ball rolling, I shall begin: I believe that there’s considerably more at stake in naming characters than just whether a moniker looks good on the printed page or feels good in the mouth. I would argue that name choice is an integral part of character development.

Case in point: about six months ago, I had the interesting experience of changing the protagonist’s name between drafts of a novel, something I’d never done before. I was positively stunned at how much the rechristening altered my conception of her: even though she was ostensibly the same person going through the same series of events and life changes, Mimi seems to have a different internal rhythm than her literary twin, Angela. Eventually, Mimi’s personality asserted itself strongly enough that I had to excise certain Angela-infused scenes from the book.

Which, of course, would make positively no sense to the average non-writer. “You’re in control of the story, aren’t you?” my non-writing friends ask whenever I complain about how much work it has been to Mimi-ize the storyline. “If you liked the first version, why didn’t you just do a search-and-replace on the names and call it good?”

Because a novel is an organic organism, that’s why. If the writer alters one part of its internal workings, the other parts will inevitably be affected — or should be.

What such well-intentioned questions made me realize is that what had happened to the novel was not just a name change — my mental conception of the character must have been changing long before it occurred to me to rechristen her; altering her name merely codified character development arc already in progress.

Does that mean that I was just wrong when I named her Angela in the first draft? I don’t think so; the name made perfect sense then, and I have no doubt that she would have made a strong protagonist had I decided to stick with my original conception. But I do think it would have been harmful to the book for me to cling stubbornly to a name I happen to like when the character began growing in a different direction.

Have any of you had a similar experience — or are in the throes of one now? I’d love to hear about how you handled it.

So please, share your thoughts. For those of you new to contributing to conversations on blogs, go to the very bottom of this post, past the list of categories into which this topic fits, and click on the word COMMENTS. That will take you magically to both what other readers have posted and to box marked LEAVE A COMMENT. Enter your information and go to town!

(That’s a dandy way to ask questions, too, in case anyone has been wondering.)

The usual caveats: keep it G-rated, please, for the sake of readers under voting age, and try to keep libel to a minimum.

Fair warning, though: since I am limiting my online time right now, it may take a day or so for a first-time commenter’s post to appear. In order to reduce the truly epic amount of spam comments that might disturb my readers, my blogging program is set up so I actually have to hand-approve new commenters. So please don’t feel that any delay has editorial implications.

All right, have at it — and keep up the good work!

PS: The gentleman depicted in 1893′s Record of a Sneeze, above, the first film footage ever copyrighted, was named Fred Ott, an apparently allergy-ridden employee of Edison’s Kinetoscope Company. Doesn’t that just SOUND like someone who would spend the day wiping his nose?

Let’s talk about this: what books would you give a kid who might grow up to be a writer?

Have you ever read Ray Bradbury’s THE HALLOWEEN TREE? This weekend, as I was about to wrap it as a holiday present for a new young relative of mine — my sister-in-law’s new stepson, to be precise, an avid reader who I hope hasn’t taken to reading my blog just yet — I couldn’t resist dipping into it a little. And mirabile dictu, it is every bit as good as I remembered.

Don’t you just love it when that happens?

In retrospect, I was probably far, far too young when I originally read it — a writer-friend-of-the-family-who-shall-remain-nameless-because-his-heirs-threatened-to-sue-my-publisher-when-I-wrote-about-him sent me the first paperback edition, so I must have been in mid-elementary school when I first cracked the spine, rendering the stuff of both nightmares and pleasure. I remember reading it and reading it for many years before my mother said that my little friends were old enough for me to pass it along to them.

But looking at it again, now — okay, I’ll admit it: rereading it after many years, carefully and without bending pages — I realized that I still remembered entire sentences, even entire paragraphs, of this book by heart. Many’s the time I’ve thought of:

“Oh, strange funny strange,” whispered Tom.

Or, recalled when walking past a graveyard:

The boys ached, listening. The tomb breathed out a sick inhalation of paprika, cinnamon, and powdered camel dung. Somewhere, a mummy dreamed, coughed in its sleep, unraveled a bandage, twitched its dusty tongue and turned over for another thousand-year snooze…

It’s the rhythm that stuck with me, of course, but not only that. Bradbury makes this story sing like the wind and move twice as fast, actually a bit too swiftly for my adult eye today. Look, though, at the marvelous specificity of his imagery: not just fecund ripeness, but breaking out the actual individual spice smells; not just the BOO! of a mummy, but depicting it in action.

This whole book is an exercise in SHOW, DON’T TELL. What a great notion to give it to a kid who might grow up to be a writer, eh?

To be honest, I don’t know if that’s on the horizon for my new young relative: at this point, he’s a science fiction reader, and I’m using THE HALLOWEEN TREE to test the waters for introducing him to fantasy. (If this flies, it’s on to THE FATHER-THING; if it doesn’t, I’ll re-begin more gently with I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC.) At this point, I’m thinking in terms of helping develop his taste as a reader along lines toward which he is already drawn.

That’s not a goal at which anyone should be sneezing, of course; while kids sometimes stumble upon good books by accident, the chances of their becoming lifetime readers is much, much higher if some intelligent adult who loves books takes the effort to place some excellent ones in their path. I was very, very lucky in this respect: my mother, bless her heart, was my junior high school librarian, taking the time to read every single book in the place and get rid of the ones that were poorly written. When kind-hearted illiterates donated mediocre books to the school, she would sneak off to Moe’s in Berkeley to sell them in order to purchase the books that were winning awards — and books that should have. So I come by my urge to help shape young readers’ tastes honestly.

Revisiting that book that any normal adult would have waited until I was five years older to give me, though, got me thinking about the author who led me to THE HALLOWEEN TREE: maybe we writers do have an obligation — or at any rate an opportunity — to influence the generations of writers who will come after us, not only with our own work, but by introducing young readers to the books that influenced us, not just as readers, but as fledgling writers.

Frankly, I don’t think that most schools’ syllabi take this contingency into account — nor, I suspect, can they. Honestly, do you remember being assigned to read a book in elementary or middle school that helped shape you as a writer? Or was it the book you sneaked off your parents’ shelves to read under the covers — or the one that some adult who saw the potential in you made sure was in your Christmas stocking?

Perhaps I’m biased; girls who did not get sent to the principal’s office for trying to give a 5th-grade book report on THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP might conceivably harbor different views on the subject. Glancing back over THE HALLOWEEN TREE now, I have to say that I’m genuinely grateful that an adult writer realized that it might mean a great deal to a kid who had been writing and producing puppet plays since kindergarten.

Plays which, as I recall, often dealt with subject matter every bit as dark as THE HALLOWEEN TREE; I remember with great fondness my first non-puppet play, a second-grade extravaganza where the wicked king and queen who were mean to poor people were eaten by crocodiles while the populace sang and danced for joy.

Let’s just say that the principal got to know my parents really, really well and leave it at that, okay?

As we find ourselves in the midst of a gift-giving season, and since the Author! Author! community is made up of masses of intelligent, thoughtful people who write, I want to open these questions up to all of you. Do you remember an adult giving you a book at an early age that influenced you as a writer? Not just a favorite book, but one that was ultimately formative in some way of your craft? Why did THAT book touch your wee writerly soul more than any other?

Or, to turn the question on its head, if you met a youngster who bid fair to become a writer in your book category, what book(s) would you give him or her? Again, not merely books that might engage a young reader, but ones that might inspire him or her to write — and write books along the lines of yours?

I’m really looking forward to your thoughts on this; I’m all ready to take notes and rush off to the nearest bookstore. The floor is yours.

Oh, and lest I forget: thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for helping develop my sense of rhythm on the printed page. I’m truly grateful for that, sir.

Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: the perils of chatting about one’s writing over the Thanksgiving turkey — and I’m not referring to missing the mashed potatoes as they pass by

In between bouts of frenetic cookery — we have 28 guests coming over for Thanksgiving dinner this year; my mother-in-law, who keeps inviting ‘em, has really been shaking the ol’ family tree to see what relatives will fall out — I’ve been thinking about you, dear readers, and the great grumpiness with which I have been covering standard format for manuscripts of late. Granted, there’s been a lot going on chez Anne lately, over and above the imminence of guests I’ve never seen before, not all of it entirely unrelated to my writing career. And frankly, the strain of NOT discussing the latter in this forum has been a bit, well, grump-inducing.

I really, truly, honestly hope that such portions of my mood that have been spilling over into the blog have not been off-putting to those of you walking through manuscript formatting with me for the first time. It’s hardly a subject designed to render anyone chipper, but it’s arguably the most important single topic I discuss here at Author! Author!

How important do I believe it to be, you ask? Well, my blogging program tells me that this is my 870th post over the last 3+ years. (I know: time flies, doesn’t it?) Of these, 73 have been on standard format, I notice, and I seem to have established 7 distinct categories for it on the archive list located on the lower right-hand side of this page. (Just in case anyone should, say, be wondering if I’ve ever written on a particular subject of interest before, this is the best place to start looking. There is also, for your perusing pleasure, a site search feature located in the upper right-hand corner of this page, for searching by keyword.)

THAT’s how vital I think learning proper formatting is to any aspiring writer’s success. In case you might have missed that over the last week or so.

Deviations from standard format are not the only hurdles submissions face, of course. Like many, if not most, freelance editors, when I begin reading a new manuscript, I anticipate finding certain problems, simply because they are so very common. Run-on sentences are ubiquitous, for instance; in dialogue, characters often use profanity as a substitute for expressing emotion; the actual action of a novel often does not start anywhere near page 1. That sort of thing.

Since there are a few dozen such mistakes that turn up in the vast majority of manuscripts, most professional eyes zero in on them immediately. I’m anticipating launching into lovely, long examinations of some of the most frequent offenders in the weeks and months to come, as a much-needed distraction break skill-building exercise during these panic-inducing tough economic times.

Just keep telling yourself: the Great Depression was actually a really good time for literature in the US.

With Thanksgiving practically upon us, however, I wanted to spend today prepping you to deal with that question aspiring writers so frequently face whenever they are reveling in the warm embrace of their nearest and dearest: “When will your book be coming out?”

As in, “Why is it taking so long for your book to get published? Aren’t you, you know, working hard enough? Isn’t the book any good? Don’t you have enough talent? Shouldn’t you have given up this ridiculous quest long ago?”

Okay, so that’s NOT usually what they say verbatim — but it’s often what we hear, isn’t it, when we’re asked about an unpublished book’s progress? Even the most innocuous inquiry, if it comes at the wrong time, can sound like a challenge for us to produce instantly a full and complete explanation of exactly why this book DOES deserve to be picked up, and pronto.

And then, before we realize what’s happened, we’ve been talking about the horrors of searching for an agent, or revising a manuscript, or finishing that last chapter, for 20 minutes as our original questioner looks at us with deer-the-headlights eyes and the gravy gets cold.

Such inquirers know not what they’re getting into, obviously.

Amazingly enough, non-writers often do not have the vaguest conception that implications that the process is taking too long can be to writers fighting words, akin to calling someone’s mother…well, I wasn’t brought up to call people’s mothers that sort of thing. It’s not nice.

In fact — and I tremble to be the one to tell you this, but better that I inoculate you before your Great-Aunt Rhoda’s new husband mentions it while passing you a second helping of turkey — one’s kith and kin frequently seem to be laboring under the to-writers-bizarre delusion that you will be HURT if they do not ask you how the book is going.

They don’t want to be remiss or insensitive about your little hobby, after all.

So they fling their arms around you practically the instant you cross the threshold into their homes, bearing platters of cookies that you took time out of your writing schedule to bake, bellowing at the top of their lungs, “Darling? Have you finished that novel yet?”

Or, “Sweetheart, what a lovely color on you. When will I be able to pick up your book on Amazon?”

Or, “I won’t even ask if you’ve managed to sell that book of yours yet, so spare me the speech about how hard it is to catch an agent’s eye. And is it safe to assume that you burned the pies again this year?” (Some relatives are more supportive than others.)

In North America, at least, it is not considered permissible, or even legal, for a writer to respond to such ripostes by taking a swing at such people in response, or poisoning their holiday punch, or even making fun of that completely unattractive pumpkin-orange sweater with the dancing turkey on it that they’re wearing.

No, we’re expected to smile, hug back, and say, “Oh, it’s coming along.” Rather than, say, telling them anything that remotely resembles the truth, especially if the truth entails something along the lines of three or four years of extremely stressful querying book #1 while trying to write book #2, or a year and a half of revising a manuscript seven times before one’s agent is willing to send it out to editors, or eight months of nail-biting anxiety while s/he does send it out to editors.

Because, let’s face it, unless your relatives happen to be writers themselves, they’re probably not going to understand that clapping you on the back and telling you to visualize your book’s selling magnificently is going to make you want to scream, if not throw cranberries at somebody.

Take a nice, deep breath if this impulse begins to overwhelm you: most non-writers have absolutely no idea of the difficulties that writers face getting into print. Heck, even for writers, discovering just how challenging it is to land an agent and/or sell a book often comes as a big, ugly surprise.

Come on — you probably remember precisely where you were and what you were wearing when you first realized that there was more to winning this game than talent, don’t you? Or that even the most brilliant authors don’t produce Pulitzer-worthy material in first drafts, but revise until their fingers are sore?

Catching your mother playing Tooth Fairy probably didn’t even come close in the disillusionment department.

Fortunately for human happiness as a whole, most members of the general public are spared more or less permanently the disorienting shock of learning that not all good books necessarily get published, that agents don’t just pick up every piece of good writing that they read, or that speed of composition usually isn’t a particularly good indicator of writing quality.

So when George, your next-door neighbor, waltzes into your kitchen and booms, “When are you going to be finished with that damned book of yours, Harriet?” he probably doesn’t mean to be nasty. Or even passive-aggressive.

No, George just isn’t that kind of guy.

He almost certainly believes, bless his heart, that by remembering to tease you light-heartedly about the book you have been SLAVING over for the past fifteen years, he is offering non-judgmental support. Because in his world, if you HAD finished the book in question, you would already be burbling with excitement about its imminent release — if not planning what to wear on Oprah.

Try not to judge him too harshly; you believed in the Easter Bunny once, too.

Bizarrely enough, these unintentionally pointed questions from well-meaning non-writers most emphatically do not cease after one lands an agent. Quite the contrary: they increase, often exponentionally.

Why? Well, the average citizen of this fine republic has only a vague sense of what a literary agent actually DOES with a book; it is not all that uncommon for one’s kith and kin to conflate an agent with an editor. Or even — brace yourselves, those of you who have signed with agents within the last year — landing an agent with landing a book contract.

As any agented-but-not-yet-published writer can tell you, this is an extremely common confusion. Although they may not say it outright, most people will just assume that because a writer is so excited to have landed an agent, the agent must therefore have BOUGHT the book.

“So,” these kind-hearted souls chortle at holiday time, sidling up to a writer who has been sitting on the proverbial pins and needles for four interminable months, waiting to hear back on a round of submissions to editors, “when will I be able to buy your book?”

They mean to be supportive, honest. Which is why they will not understand at all when you burst into tears and empty your glass of eggnog all over their sparkly holiday sweaters. They will think, believe it or not, that you’re overreacting.

Because they genuinely mean so well, you must not, under any circumstances, kill such well-meaning souls for asking what are, from a writer’s perspective, phenomenally stupid questions. No, even if the implication of such questions is that these would-be supporters apparently haven’t listened to ANYTHING you have ever told them on the trials of writing a book, finding an agent, working with an agent after one has found one, meeting editorial deadlines, or any of the other myriad trying phenomena associated with aspiring authorship. Nor is it considered polite to scream at them, or even glare in a manner that might frighten any small children who might happen to be gnawing on a drumstick nearby.

And, nice person that you are, you are going to honor these restrictions. Even if you’re not all that nice, you certainly want to retain George on your mailing list for the happy day when you DO have a book out for him to purchase.

So what’s a writer to do, especially when these questions come during unusually stressful times, such as when that agent you met at a conference has had your first fifty pages for three months and counting, or when you’ve just received three requests for material (because you were so good about SIOAing those query letters in early November) and are frantically trying to get those packets out the door before the end of the year?

(My, that was a long sentence, wasn’t it? You might want to avoid paragraph-long questions in those submissions. Yes, I know that Henry James was a great advocate of page-long sentences. I’m fond of his work, but I suspect that he would have rather a hard time getting a manuscript past Millicent today.)

Well, you COULD regard the question as a serious inquiry, and talk for the next fifteen minutes about characterization, the desirability of semicolon usage vis-à-vis Millicent’s literary tastes, and just how much you hate form rejection letters.

If you are gifted at disregarding your interlocutor’s eyes glazing over for minutes at a time, this actually isn’t a bad strategy: once you have established a firm reputation for waxing long, humorless, and/or angry on the subject, the non-writers in your social circle may well learn not to ask. Depending upon how sensitive one happens to be to such questions, that might be a reasonable goal.

If your kith and kin’s avoiding the topic of your writing like the proverbial plague is not your idea of a comfortable Thanksgiving gathering, I would save this tack for when you are speaking with other writers. Like any shop talk, it’s far more interesting to those who deal with it regularly than to anyone else.

Alternatively, you could, most politely, take your favorite cousin by the arm and say confidentially, “You know, Gladys, I spend so much time obsessing over my book that I’m likely to bore you if I start to talk about it. Do you mind if we give my brain a rest and talk about something completely different?”

I hate to break it to you, but Gladys may actually be relieved to hear this.

Why? Because of the naïve-but-pervasive belief in the inevitability of publication for talented writers — what, do they think that our fairy godmothers go around whacking editors at publishing houses over the head with their wands on our books’ behalf? Don’t be silly; that’s the agent’s job — non-writers (and writers who have not yet worked up the nerve to submit) are often puzzled by the intensity of writerly reactions to casual inquiries about their work.

Especially if they only asked in the first place to be polite, just as they would have asked you about fly-fishing had that been your passion. (People do, you know.) Again, the people who are going to be the most fascinated in your book’s ups and downs at every stage are going to be other writers.

Actually, after you’re agented, other writers may be your most persistent questioners, especially writers who have not yet had a book subjected to the microscopic analysis that is editorial scrutiny. It can be a very lengthy process, the timing of which is utterly outside the author’s control, but even most writers don’t know that until they have been through the submission wringer themselves.

But if they haven’t, they think they’re just supporting a fellow writer when they ask, “So, has your agent managed to sell that book of yours yet? What’s the hold-up?”

Or — not that I have any first-hand experience with this or anything — “What’s new with that memoir of yours that publisher bought a few years ago? Are they still frightened by the lawsuit threats? I can’t believe how long it’s been.”

As if you would have sold — or finished, or released — your book but neglected to shout the news from the rooftops. Or at least to your Christmas card list.

I like to think that they ask out of love — as in they would LOVE to be able to celebrate the triumphs of a writer that they know. Admittedly, it sometimes takes some determination on my part to cling to this inspiring little belief (when one’s memoir has been on hold at a publishing house for a couple of years, people do tend to express sympathy by venting frustration about the delay at one), but ultimately, I’m quite sure I’m happier than I would be if I took every iteration of the question as a demand that I instantly drop everything I’m doing and rush off to rectify the situation.

Because that’s not really what they mean, is it? No matter how much such well-meant indignation might sound like criticism to the writer at whom it is aimed, badgering was probably the last thing on the commenter’s mind.

I know, I know; it doesn’t feel that way, and it may be kind of hard to believe that your Uncle Gregory, the guy who has relentlessly picked to pieces everyone you have ever even considered dating, is trying to be non-judgmental about your publishing success. Just hear me out on this one.

This is a translation problem. Most of the time, neither writers nor non-writers mean their enthusiastic cries of, “Is it done/sold/out yet?” as criticism about not being the latest Oprah book club pick. Not even if they walk right up to you and say, as if it had never occurred to you or as if every writer in the world didn’t aspire to it, “You know, your book belongs on Oprah.”

What they mean is, “I like you. I want you to succeed. And even though I don’t really understand what you’re going through, I want to acknowledge that you’re trying.”

A little Pollyannaish of me to translate it that way? Perhaps. But permit me to suggest a little stocking-stuffer that writers can give their kith and kin this holiday season: just for this one dinner party or get-together, assume that that IS what they do mean, even if they express it poorly. And respond to the underlying sentiment, not the words.

Just my little suggestion for keeping the peace on that typically not-the-most-silent of nights.

Let me throw the question open to you, readers: how do you cope with this avocation-specific form of holiday stress? Have you come up with clever comebacks, succinct explanations, cunning evasions, or other brilliant coping mechanisms that you would like to share with the Author! Author! community?

Or, alternatively, a funny story about the time that you couldn’t stand it anymore and tossed a candied yam at an over-persistent relative who kept asking why you haven’t given up by now? (I probably shouldn’t encourage such behavior, but I have to admit, I would probably get some vicarious pleasure from hearing about it. Am I the only one?)

I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say. In the meantime, I’ve got vats of cranberry jelly to make, and I have a sneaking suspicion that I may have forgotten to stock up on cinnamon sticks.

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

Let’s talk about this: what’s in a name?

While we’re on the general subject of character names, let me open a question up to all of you: how do you go about naming your characters? In particular, how do you decide what to name your minor characters — or, indeed, figure out whether you should name them at all?

And once you have christened them, do you ever change their monikers, or are they blessed with their original names for life? Are you a lover of the 18th-century practice of naming characters in accordance with their primary characteristics (the punishment-happy Mr. Thwackum in TOM JONES springs to mind), or do you eschew it as too broad a wink at the reader?

Also, is it ever permissible to use real names — or, in a memoir, to change names to protect the innocent and/or guilty?

I’ve long suspected that every writer cherishes a different philosophy on the subject, so I’m genuinely curious. Thirty years ago, writing teachers used to tell their students routinely that they should just open up a phone book and start searching, but how has that mutated in the Internet age? Is it even a good idea to use a real person’s name?

Your thoughts?

Let’s talk about this: giving good feedback

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My decimated garden calls me today, dear friends, begging me to put its squashed hellebores and bifurcated tulips to rights. Rather than waste a posting day — or, to put it more cynically, a day of web-surfing whilst avoiding filling out those tax forms — I’m going to ask you to add beauty and grace to this feedback-incorporation series by sharing YOUR thoughts on what kind of feedback makes the most sense to you.

The question du jour: what makes feedback good? How can feedback-givers present it in such a way that it is most useful to you? What practices should be avoided like the proverbial plague, in your opinion?

I can already hear some of you chortling, eager to launch into this one, so I’m going to let you get right to it without further preamble. Readers have been posting some great observations on what makes for great feedback throughout the series, but I’m curious to hear more. (Also, not blog-browser habitually goes back and reads comments on past posts. If you don’t: this would be a great time to make an exception, because this series has engendered some fantastic commentary.)

Usual cautions, of course: please avoid profanity, so underage writers can continue to visit this site from their school library computers; avoid naming names, no matter how tempting it may be to out a terrible feedback-giver, and remember, things posted online tend to turn up in web searches years later.

I will get the ball rolling: one of the most useful ground rules I’ve ever encountered in a critique group is a ban on ever simply saying, “I liked X,” or “I don’t like Y,” without further explanation. Unless a writer knows the particulars of why a first reader responded to a particular part of the book, s/he can’t really implement the information in a useful manner.

I would also vote for banishing one-word responses from feedback altogether, for the same reason. Perhaps I’m a suspicious soul, but whenever a first reader says, “Great!” or “Brava!” or even “I loved it!” without further comment, I immediately start to wonder if the commenter just can’t think of anything useful to say. (Or didn’t finish the manuscript.)

Okay, it’s your turn: knock my proverbial socks off. I promise that I’ll respond with something more than, “Ooh, I liked that.”

Entr’acte: let’s talk about this, or, if it could happen to Tru, it could happen to you

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I was prowling my bookshelves last night, seeking out the source of a dimly-remembered quote, when I came across a marvelous writer-taking feedback scene in Truman Capote’s BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, of all places. I had to laugh, because the narrator goes through so many of the reactions to in-person feedback we’ve been discussing for the last week.

Take a gander:

Very few authors, especially the unpublished, can resist an invitation to read aloud. I made us both a drink and, settling in a chair opposite, began to read to her, my voice a little shaky with a combination of stage fright and enthusiasm: it was a new story, I’d finished it the day before, and that inevitable sense of shortcoming had not had time to develop. It was about two women who share a house, schoolteachers, one of whom, when the other becomes engaged, spreads with anonymous notes a scandal that prevents the marriage. As I read, I each glimpse I stole of Holly made my heart contract. She fidgeted. She picked apart the butts in an ashtray, she mooned over her fingernails, as though longing for a file; worse, when I did seem to have her interest, there was actually a telltale frost over her eyes, as if she were wondering whether to buy a pair of shoes she’d seen in some window.

“Is that the end?” she asked, waking up. She floundered for something more to say. “Of course I like the dykes themselves. They don’t scare me a bit. But stories about dykes bore the bejesus out of me. I just can’t put myself in their shoes. Well, really, darling,” she said, because I was clearly puzzled, “if it’s not about a couple of old bull-dykes, what the hell is it about?”

But I was in no mood to compound the mistake of having read the story with the further embarrassment of explaining it. The same vanity that had lead to such exposure, now forced me to mark her down as an insensitive, mindless show-off.

Holly Golightly wasn’t the only one fidgeting during this recital, was she? Did I feel some of you out there who were only familiar with the story via the Audrey Hepburn movie (or by reputation) exclaim a little over the use of such language in a bestseller from 1958? Holly’s salty talk is not the only thing the screenwriters buffed away, incidentally: the story’s about the relationship between a gay man and a straight woman who makes her living by being a professional tease, essentially.

It’s a beautiful story. Someday, someone really ought to make a movie out of it.

In addition to engendering this “Oh, my God — tone it DOWN!” reaction from moviemakers, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S is an interesting work from an editorial point of view. Revision requests dogged it practically from its inception.

Which is fascinating, since Capote’s devotion to sentence-level perfection was already legendary. This was most emphatically not a novella that sprang from its creator’s head fully formed and armored, like Athene. Purportedly, the first draft of the first page — which, in its final form, is for my money one of the best openings in English prose — looked a little something like this:

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By all accounts, it was far from a smooth writing process: he had trouble coming up with an ending for the story (which remains the novella’s primary weakness, I think), which lead to some deadline-meeting difficulties. To complicate matters, although he already had a book deal with Random House for a collection of stories, he had also contracted with Harper’s Bazaar (a magazine for whom two of the novella’s characters work, amusingly enough) to print THIS story as a teaser for the book.

The year was 1958, if you will recall. Can anyone out there familiar with the text — or, for that matter, anyone who read the excerpt above — anticipate what happened when the manuscript fell on the magazine’s editorial desks?

Hint: it has a great deal to do with our current series.

You guessed it: a positive avalanche of revision requests, ones that cut to the very heart of the piece. They asked Capote, for instance, to remove all of what were then primly called four-letter words from the novella AND, um, change how Holly paid the rent, if you catch my drift.

Naturally, Capote was furious — surely, all of us can identify with that, no? After all, Holly was, as he said in later interviews, his all-time favorite creation.

So what did he do? He refused point-blank to make the requested changes — and Harper’s Bazaar cancelled the publication contract.

Oh, were you hoping for a happy ending for that anecdote? Actually, there was one, but it took a while to happen: the book came out to huge acclaim; naturally, the well-publicized battle attracted readers in droves. Capote’s literary star rose even higher, and he reportedly made scads of money from the movie rights.

And the movie studio promptly disemboweled his story to turn it into a romantic comedy. A pretty good one, as it happens.

Since our pal Tru did ultimately get the last laugh: in having stuck to his guns to an extent that a less well-established author (or a less well-heeled one) would not have been able to have afforded to do, he did ultimately bring out what is arguably one of the best novellas of the twentieth century, a work that remains surprisingly fresh today.

But there’s no denying that the short-term cost of this literary bravery was very, very high.

I’m telling you this story not merely because, after a week of learning tongue-biting strategies, an author who fought back might seem rather refreshing, but also as fodder for discussion. So let me ask you, readers:

How do you think the narrator of the story could have handled his first reading better, to minimize the pain to himself and improve potential feedback?

If you were in Capote’s situation today, selling your work in the current hyper-competitive market, would you have made the choice that he did? If not, how might you have gone about it differently?

I know, I know — these are the kinds of questions that you might expect to see on your American Literature 203 midterm, but for a career writer, these are practical issues of earth-shattering importance.

So while there are no right or wrong answers here, I would encourage you to think of this not as a literary exercise, but as an opportunity to test-drive your feedback-accepting reactions in a supportive environment. Before, you know, the stakes are as high as they were for Truman.

The usual Let’s Talk About This caveats apply, of course. Let’s try to keep this constructive, and do bear in mind that a comment posted on a website tends to stay there for an awfully long time. Please feel free to post your responses anonymously, if it makes you more comfortable being honest — but try to keep the language acceptable for Harper’s Bazaar, okay?

I’m looking forward to what you have to say. Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: what do you wish you had known before you first handed your manuscript to another human being?

Just when you thought the feedback discussion portion of this year had concluded, the monster returns…but the monster always returns, so you were expecting THAT plot twist, right?

Actually, you have bright long-term reader Dave to thank for this one: he posted a comment yesterday suggesting that the next time I attack this topic, it might be interesting to ask readers what they wish they had known before they started soliciting feedback. It’s such a good idea that I’m going to stand it on its head and ask that question now.

So, tell me: what DO you wish you had known before you printed out that first set of pages and asked someone else to comment upon them??

A corollary for those of you who have done time in writers’ groups: what do you wish you had known about them before you joined? Alternatively, what did being in a good group teach you about giving and receiving feedback? (Hey, we might as well maximize our discussion time here.)

The usual rules apply, of course: keep it G-rated, please, as not everyone who reads this blog is old enough to vote (and I like it that way). Bear in mind that comments on a blog post are more or less immortal, so using full legal names may not be the best strategic move for you. And if you are new to posting comments on this blog, please be patient, as I need to wade through a whole lot of spam each day to approve new comments.

I’ll start, to get the ball rolling: I wish I had figured out sooner that a group of talented, nice people who happen to write does not necessarily a viable writers’ group make. I’ve found that it’s genuinely helpful if everyone concerned either writes in a similar genre or is a habitual reader of other members’ genres. I learned this one not because I was the odd man out in a group of literary fiction writers, but because someone else was: he wrote mysteries. Very different stylistic expectations, and I fear that he got over-critiqued.

Now it’s your turn. If you could travel back in time and tell your former self something about the feedback experience, what would it be?

Let’s talk about this: please share your pitching experiences

I’ve been getting such great feedback from readers returning, exhausted, from the Conference That Shall Not Be Named about their pitching experiences that I want to extend an open invitation for attendees (of this or any other pitch-centered conference) to post their insights as comments here.

There’s nothing like a writers’-eye view for getting the skinny on the perils of approaching agents and editors — and it would be hard for the dispatches from the pitching front to be any more up-to-date than this.

So do share your thoughts: how was it different from what you expected, and what part of preparation helped you the most? What do you wish you had known before you pitched, and what did you hit out of the ballpark?

I’m sure writers gearing up to pitching for the first time would love to hear it. Heck, we’d all like to hear it, wouldn’t we?

A couple of caveats: keep your observations G-rated, please, and for your own sake, please forbear from naming names. (I learned at a recent after-hours party that my readership amongst industry types is quite a bit broader than I had realized, and I don’t want to be the means of anyone’s burning any bridges that might conceivably be handy in crossing rivers down the line.)

To get the ball rolling, at a recent conference that I shall not identify, I noticed (and so did the agents and editors) that the pros’ schedules had been set up so tightly as to minimize their non-appointment time wandering around the hallways to a practically unprecedented low. To put it as delicately as possible while still conveying meaning, their scheduled social obligations seemed often to result in oversleeping and an aversion to loud noises in the morning hours.

Which necessarily sharply limited the hallway pitching opportunities for anyone who was not habitually distributing bloody marys with one hand and coffee with the other.

Frankly, I’d never seen this happen before, at least not to the extent of — and this is just a rumor, mind you — cancelled a.m. pitching appointments. It made me wish that I had given my readers a heads-up about the possibility of having either structurally or socially limited access. I promise that I shall be racking my brains to come up with a few clever strategies for dealing with it in future, but I would love to hear how readers handled it in the present.

So I am turning it over to you: what did you learn from your pitching experience that might help others? What worked for you?

PS: If you have complaints, compliments, or suggestions about how any conference you attend could be improved, you should contact the organization that threw it directly about them; please don’t assume that anything you say here will necessarily get back to them. Most conference organizers do take attendee feedback fairly seriously, and sharing your views might result in a better conference for everyone next year.

Let’s talk about this: the moment of truth

As we head into conference season, goosebumps start to rise and stomachs start to knot over the prospect of pitching. I’m going to be delving into the how and whys of pitching later in the spring, but for the sake of all of you readers who are looking at pitching for the first time within the next few months, I am going to plumb that inexhaustible source of wisdom lurking here in our little community: all of you out there who HAVE pitched before.

C’mon, I know some of you have pitched before; I’ve seen you do it. Time to share your experience with others.

So, tell us: what do you wish someone had said to you immediately before the first time you pitched? How did you deal with pre-pitching nerves? What helped you through the experience?

To start the ball rolling: one of the first times I pitched, I was trying to get an agent for a very serious literary novel set in an academic environment. So I looked through the agent listings for the conference and picked the one and only agent there who professed to be interested in academic work. (In retrospect, this was a mistake: I wasn’t trying to sell an academic book; I was trying to sell a novel, so I should have pitched to someone who represented literary fiction.)

The agent was not, how shall I put this, a warm and fuzzy human being: walking into her cubicle was like entering one of those houses of horror Vincent Price used to frequent in old B movies. You could have stored ice cream on her tongue. But I was there to pitch, so I screwed up my nerve and began.

She stopped me at the second sentence. “Doesn’t interest me,” she said. “Why isn’t it a memoir? It would be easier to sell.”

To a novelist, this always seems like a trick question, doesn’t it? “Because it’s not about my life,” I said politely. “It’s fiction.”

She folded her arms across her chest, sighing like Nurse Rachet about to sedate an out-of-control patient. “Not a market for it as fiction. Maybe you should write about something else.” And then she blinked at me, clearly delighting in the expression on my face.

Now, I could have burst into tears — believe me, it would have required no effort at all at that particular moment. I could have asked her to have the basic courtesy to listen to the rest of my pitch before she told me to give up writing fiction altogether. I could have argued with her. I could even have pointed out to her that the vast majority of agents and editors are not sadists, and that they do not use pitch appointments to get their jollies by telling people to shoo.

However, I was lucky enough to grow up around a whole lot of writers, and if I learned anything from that experience, it was that the rare agent who doesn’t like writers cannot be sufficiently avoided.

I gathered up my bag — which was, incidentally, carrying cards from agents who had been charmed by my pitch — and stood. “Thank you for your time. Enjoy the rest of the conference.”

She was flabbergasted. “Wait! We have twelve minutes left. Don’t you want me to tell you how to market your book?”

She looked so distressed at my flight that I almost felt sorry for her. But not quite. “You’ve already told me it doesn’t interest you. Goodbye.” And I walked away, leaving her open-mouthed.

I hope, trust, and pray that none of you will have a pitching experience like this; this level of rudeness is in fact quite rare. I mention it, not to scare you, but to pass along something a very wise writer once taught me: “Pumpkin,” he said, “it’s YOUR story. If they don’t like it, walk away.”

That rather truculent advice, I must confess, has kept my head high walking into many a pitch meeting. The world, I remind myself, will not end if this agent or editor does not like my book. He’s probably going to be nice to me. And if he isn’t, he is not the only agent or editor in the world.

Now it’s your turn, readers who have pitched before. Tell us: what thought kept your head high and your knees from knocking during that meeting?