So you’re considering self-publishing: some words of wisdom from those who have been there

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Last time, after I took one more romp through the well-ordered fields of standard format, I concluded with a sentiment very familiar to long-term readers of this blog, and certainly to those who regularly peruse the comments: one of the perennial frustrations of the aspiring writer’s life is the paradoxical necessity of bringing one’s submissions into conformity with what an unknown agent (or agency screener, editor, editorial assistant, contest judge, etc.) expects to see on the page without unduly compromising one’s authorial voice and artistic vision. The vast majority of my blog posts are, in fact, either direct or indirect discussions of various nuances of this balancing act.

Last time, I brought up an increasingly attractive way out of this dilemma: self-publishing. Everywhere I go, I meet aspiring writers who, exasperated by the ever-increasing difficulty of breaking into the world of traditional publishing, are at least toying with this increasingly attractive option.

And with good reason: self-publishing has come a long way in the last few years. The rise of print-on-demand (POD) and Internet-based booksellers’ increasing openness to featuring POD books has rendered the self-publishing route a viable option for those who balk at the — let’s face facts here — often glacial pace of bringing a book to publication via the usual means.

Yet if you ask representatives of the traditional publishing houses about self-publishing at writers’ conferences, you’re likely to receive a dismissive answer, as though nothing much had changed — unless, of course, the book about which you are inquiring happened to sell exceptionally well and ultimately got picked up by a major publisher as a result.

Despite some notable recent successes, agents and editors still remain, at least overtly relatively indifferent to the achievements of self-published books, to the extent that not all of them even make the decades-old distinction between so-called vanity presses (who print short runs of books, often at inflated prices, solely at the author’s expense, so the author may distribute them), subsidy presses (who ask authors to contribute some portion of the printing expenses; the press often handles distribution and promotion), and desktop publishing (where the author handles the whole shebang herself).

Rather than just tell you what I think about the benefits and challenges of self-publishing, I thought it would be a good idea to ask authors who have first-hand knowledge — and recent first-hand knowledge at that. Intrepid on your behalf, I tracked down our guests for the next few days, both of whom have successfully self-published their books this year and have graciously agreed to share their insights with all of us here at Author! Author!

First, on the fiction side, please welcome Mary Hutchings Reed, author of COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, a kind of ONE L for women lawyers:

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Courting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

Oh, and it’s a great read, too.

On the nonfiction side, please welcome memoirist Beren deMotier, author of THE BRIDES OF MARCH, who has quite a true-life tale to tell:



The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage is a lesbian bride’s eye view of marriage at a moment’s notice, with a bevy of brides, their coterie of children, donuts, newspaper reporters, screaming protesters, mothers of the brides who never thought they’d see the day, white wedding cake, and a houseful of happy heterosexuals toasting the marriage. But that was only the beginning as these private declarations of love became public fodder, fueling social commentary, letters to the editor, and the fires of political debate, when all the brides wanted was the opportunity to say “I do” in this candid, poignant, and frequently funny tale of lesbian moms getting to the church on time in Multnomah County.

Couldn’t put it down, either.

As my long-term readers know, I am definitely not one to convey praise lightly; I don’t recommend books here unless I feel quite passionate about them, and believe that they should be widely read. For my money, these are two of the best self-published books to have come out this year — and what’s more, books that I was genuinely surprised were not embraced by the traditional publishing market, in light of the exceptionally quality of the writing and the obvious timeliness of the stories (of which more below).

These books, in short, are best-case examples of the fiction and nonfiction (respectively) being self-published today. Let’s hear what their authors have to say about the process.

Anne: Many thanks to both of you for being here today. Let’s start with the question every writer faces about her own work: what made you burn to tell THIS story? Did it jump up and down in your head, demanding, “Write me now!”

Mary: They say “write what you know.” I didn’t know much of much interest to very many, but I knew law firms and I knew the experience of trailblazing women in that field, and that gave me authentic background for the story while I figured out how to write a novel. In many ways, writing this novel was a way of organizing for myself how I felt about my own experience. At the time, the “glass ceiling” was a big topic, and feeling the bump was depressing for many of us who realized that all the changes we’d worked for couldn’t be accomplished in a single generation of women entering the legal profession.

Beren: It kind of bit me on the leg and didn’t let go. After getting married at a moment’s notice, I wrote a column about it called “They Can’t Take This Away From Me”, which ran in about a dozen GLBT newspapers across the country. As the story continued, and I wanted to document it for our families (our own and the friends who also married that day alongside us), I wrote a longer story about it, which was also published and reprinted on the Internet. Around that time I heard that a local activist (and fellow Bride of March) was planning on writing a book about the Multnomah County marriages, and I said to myself, “Wait a minute, I should be writing a book!” I’d been wavering on the edge of a longer project for some time, unsure if it was the right time to leap into one with a one-year-old at home, and articles to write, and then this happened and I couldn’t stop myself.

Anne: So in both cases, it was a story that deeply needed telling — and yet, if you don’t mind my putting it this way, there aren’t all that many good books out there on either of these topics. While one does hear theoretical discussions about hostile work environments and same-sex marriage, the average reader is unlikely to stumble accidentally upon a book on the subject upon walking into the bookstore down the block. With such meaty material, that seems odd to me from a writer’s point of view. Why do you think there are so few books on your respective topics?

Mary: One, there aren’t that many of us who know that world — my class of lawyers at Yale was a whopping 20% (24 women, as I recall) and not even half of us went to large firms; fewer yet stayed there. Two, not everyone is crazy enough to want to write a novel!

Anne: So it’s more a case of writers not writing what they didn’t know, eh? What about you, Beren?

Beren: I think partially it is exactly why editors and agents kept telling me why my book wasn’t “right” for them: money. There was an article in Writer’s Digest recently on the state of gay & lesbian publishing, and places to publish books by GLBT authors, and while the writer of the piece considered the current state positive, I have to disagree. As small publishers of gay & lesbian material folded in the eighties, there was a feeling that the mainstream publishers were picking up the ball, and there have been many successful and not-so-successful gay oriented books put out by mainstream publishers — but the formula became more rigid. There is a large market for gay and lesbian romance and mystery, novels, porn, and a small flourishing academic market, but there is little room for non-fiction unless it is by a famous sports star or a highly public figure.

AnneOne hears that about memoirs in general right now.

Beren: Lesbian non-fiction in particular is hard to place. Most lesbian publishers want fiction, and mainstream publishers will say openly that there is not enough money to be made publishing a book that will likely appeal to lesbian readers — though I hope that my book will be read by a wide audience.

Anne: Which brings me to a question vital to both of you: timing. Since you took the vital step of self-publication, you clearly felt that the world needed this story NOW. Having read both books, I have to say that I think you were both right about that, but for the benefit of those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, can you tell us why this story just couldn’t wait to come out?

Beren: Yes, I felt it couldn’t wait. Same-sex marriage is an extremely current issue, and it seemed like I could miss the moment if publication took too long, and the public had either had enough of hearing about the fight for civil rights, or society had changed enough that the issues in the book had become moot (that would have been a happy ending!). There were at least four books published about same-sex marriage while I was writing The Brides of March, but none of them were from a really personal point of view — the human factor — and I felt that was an important missing element in the debate that I could offer, as well as making people laugh.

Anne: Which is largely what had been missing from the public debate on the subject: a human face. I think there’s an immense difference between an abstract discussion of principle and a down-to-earth, practical understanding about how the issues of the day affect real people’s quotidian lives. I remember reading the passage where you talk about what it means to a person — any person — to be married in her own home town, and feeling very shaken, because it had never occurred to me to think of the issue in those terms.

That sense of taking a political issue down to the concrete, personal level so the reader can feel it from the inside comes across very clearly in your book, too, Mary: Kathleen’s dilemma feels very real and complex. But you had an even more specific reason for wanting the book to be out this year, didn’t you?

Mary: The time was right in part because this is the story of women like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Kathleen Hannigan’s world is the world Hillary would’ve entered had she come home to Chicago to practice law straight out of Yale. (She was class of ’73, I was ’76.) Michelle Obama worked for me in her first legal job, when I was a young partner. Courting Kathleen Hannigan covers that time period as well, when Ann Rose is trying to make partner and is denied based on her “unfeminine” style. Women of my generation are beginning to think about retiring or taking early retirement. They’ve worked exceedingly hard. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is, in part, an homage to them.

And — I just thought of this — there are so many women lawyers on TV these days, and some of the images are just so unreal! Their lives are unreal! Their behavior is unreal. It bugs me to see cleavage in the office. I hate to see young women throwing away the progress we “elders” think we’ve made!

Anne: I feel that way when I see super-sultry grad students and professors in movies and on television. I can’t imagine having strutted into class in 4-inch heels and a miniskirt as a student, much less as the professor. Yet the pop conception of a woman working in a traditionally male profession is so simple: either put up with discrimination without seeming to notice it (which is miraculously supposed to exempt oneself from it), fall in love with a co-worker, or (as always seems to be the magic solution in the movies) slug the offending party. None of these strategies ever seem to have any repercussions in the fantasy versions, but that’s certainly not how it plays out in real life.

Okay, off my soapbox and back to practicalities. Since traditionally-published books hit the shelves at least a year after the author signs the book contract, and agents often spend years marketing their clients’ books (that roar you just heard was my readership’s collective sigh of recognition), did having a book with such current events appeal render it harder or easier to pitch to agents? Did they seem to understand the window of opportunity for your book?

Mary: Agents didn’t seem to think that people cared much about women lawyers (unless they were in thrillers, à la Scott Turow or John Grisham).

Anne: Funny, I know a lot of women lawyers who are people. And almost without exception, they have a lot of friends who might conceivably feel the same. It’s strange how many relatively large segments of the reading population are commonly dismissed as niche markets.

Did you encounter a similar reaction, Beren?

Beren: I think both agents and editors appreciated the timeliness of the topic; it was an easy pitch, not only because I believed in it totally, but because there was clearly a need. I had agents and editors take the manuscript, and received lovely personal letters about the manuscript and a lot of encouragement — but it wasn’t “right” for their house or agency.

Anne: Ah, that never-failing industry conviction that a really great book will always find a home SOMEWHERE — just not in my house. And yet it is almost invariably meant as a compliment to the book in question.

Okay, we’re running a little long, and I still have a million and twelve questions in front of me. Since I’m going to be milking your wisdom for my readers over the next few days, I suppose I don’t need to toss them all at you right off the bat. But to whet everyone’s appetite for tomorrow’s post, I’m going to leap straight to the jackpot question: why did you decide to self-publish, rather than go the traditional agent + publisher route?

Beren: Two reasons: while I believed that I could get the book traditionally published eventually, I wanted it to take part in the public debate NOW, and then my spouse told me she was going to write a technological manual and self-publish it. I thought, “The hell you’re going to have a book out before me,” and immediately started researching presses. Incidentally, her book never came to fruition and she has admitted this was a clever ploy to get me moving.

Mary: The combination of factors — lack of success finding an agent for this particular work, feeling the timing was right, having a personally compelling reason to want to have a book for my mother, believing that the book had an audience and something important to say.

Anne: I’m going to want to come back to all of those issues next time, when we will start to get into the nitty-gritty of how one goes about self-publishing intelligently. For today, let’s thank our guests and sign off.

Keep up the good work, everyone, and happy holidays!

Book Marketing 101: look, lady, all I know is that I have a book in Category X; cut to the chase, already

As I have been arguing throughout this Book Marketing 101 series, queries tend to work best when they are sent to specific agents who habitually sell similar books. Not just because that’s the single best indication of what the agent in question likes to read — although that’s definitely good to ascertain, if you can, before you query — but also because it’s a dandy indication that the agent has some pretty good connections with editors who happen to like to acquire that type of book.

Thus, I have so far been approaching the guide listings, blurbs, etc., on the assumption that a writer will want to narrow down your first-round query list to just a handful of near-perfect matches. To that end, I’ve been encouraging you to track down as much specific sales information as possible on the agents you’re considering.

That strategy, I suspect, will not be everyone’s proverbial mug of oolong.

“Wait just a minute,” I have heard some of among you murmuring, and who could blame you? “What you’ve been suggesting is a heck of a lot of work. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the industry yet for a list of sales to make me cry, ‘Yes! This is the agent for me!’ I’m willing to do some legwork, but for heaven’s sake, querying eats into my writing time, and the agency guide before me lists a hundred agencies that accept books in my category! Since they’ve said point-blank that they want to see books like mine, why shouldn’t I take their word for it and query them all without researching the last five years of sales for each and every agent at all hundred of those agencies, which would take me until next March at the earliest?”

Oh, how I wish there were a quick and easy way to avoid the sometimes-lengthy research process! Honestly, if I knew of one, I would share it with you toute suite. (I would also bottle it and make a million dollars, but that’s another story.)

Hold onto your hats, because I’m about to say something controversial: it does pay in the long run to double-check what one finds in the guides, in my experience — yes, even down to book categories.

Why? Well — are you still clutching those chapeaux? — not every agency that lists itself as representing (or even actively seeking) a particular book category will be equally receptive to queries for that kind of book. To my eye, one of the most common ways in which listings and blurbs confuse agent-seeking writers is by appearing to be open to virtually any kind of book — or at least to so many categories that it’s extremely difficult to tell WITHOUT substantial further research what any member agent’s actual specialties are.

Let me hasten to add that my views on this subject are not the prevailing opinion, as nearly as I can tell; it’s not one you’re likely to hear at your garden-variety writers’ conference (unless, of course, I happen to be teaching there). There, you are far more likely to be told — with a certain impatience of tone — that the only reason that a query might end up in the wrong hands is if its writer did not do his or her homework. The information, it is implied, is all easily available to anyone who looks for it.

Personally, I don’t believe that this is entirely true; as I’ve shown in my last few posts (and in last year’s AGENTS/EDITORS WHO USED TO ATTEND PNWA series, categorized at right, where I took on real-world examples), there is a wide range in the level of information that agencies make available to potential queriers — and a great deal of that is in industry-speak, the meaning of which may not be immediately apparent to those new to the biz.

I did not, after all, invent the oft-seen guide entry This agency prefers not to share information on specific sales.

There are plenty of quite authoritative sources out there, however, who will tell you (as they certainly told me, with some asperity) that no good can come of writers’ pointing out that some of the emperors out there are slightly underdressed, to say the least. And in a sense, they’re quite right: marching up to the nearest agent or standing up at a writers’ conference and demanding to know why a particular blurb or guide listing is confusing probably isn’t the best means of endearing yourself as a potential client.

But as James Joyce wrote, “We cannot change the country; let us change the subject.”

In other words, we writers can’t control how agencies choose to present their preferences; we can, however, learn to be better interpreters of those preferences by recognizing that there are some informational gaps out there. We can teach ourselves the norms of querying, what tends to work, what tends not to work, and thereby save ourselves a whole lot of chagrin.

So there. I never said it wasn’t going to be a lot of work. And if I’m wrong, and every blurb out there conveys with pellucid clarity precisely what every agent would and would like to see, well, as Aunt Jane would say, at least the credit of a wild imagination will be all my own.

I’m not just talking about blurbs that say vague things like, We’re open to any good writing, We accept all genres except YA, or Literary value considered first — although I think a pretty good case could be made that, to a writer seeking to figure out who might conceivably represent say, a Western romance, such statements are at best marginally useful. I am also talking about those listings where the agency professes to represent virtually every major book category.

You’ve seen ‘em, haven’t you? They tend to look a little something like this:

Represents: nonfiction books, novels, short story collections, novellas. No picture books or poetry.
Considers these fiction areas: action/adventure, contemporary issues, detective/police/crime, erotica, ethnic, experimental, family saga, fantasy, feminist, gay/lesbian, glitz, graphic novels, historical, horror, humor, literary, mainstream, military, multicultural, mystery, regional, religious/inspirational, romance, romantica, science fiction, spiritual, sports, supernatural, suspense, thriller, westerns, women’s fiction, YA.
Considers these nonfiction areas: agriculture, Americana, animals, anthropology/archeology, art/architecture/design, autobiography…

And that’s just the As.

Since I have already sung the praises of further research to determine who is representing what lately, let’s set aside for the moment the sometimes knotty problem of figuring out, over the course of a couple of dozen different listed genres, which is the agency’s specialty. Let’s also, and for the same reason, table discussion of the difficulties of determining which member agent would be the best to query for any given category listed without doing an internet search to see who has been to what conference lately — and if so, did they state any preferences in their blurbs? (Although while we’re at it, let’s all shout hallelujah for agencies kind enough to state who represents which category outright in a guide listing, saving writers everywhere a whole lot of time.)

Even apart from all that, I think such voluminous lists are potentially problematic. To pick one quandary out of that hat I told you to cling to, I think their breadth often tempts writers into thinking that they do not need to specify a book category when they query.

After all, the logic runs, if the agency says it represents all three of the closest marketing categories, why take the trouble to figure out into which the book fits?

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because categories are how the industry thinks of books, that’s why. Agents and their Millicents tend to reject queries that do not specify a book category out of hand.

Quoth Joyce: “The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” (Hey, I had to double-check the earlier quote, anyway; I did a little quote-shopping.)

If it makes you feel any better, the problems caused by such all-inclusive lists are not just on the writer’s end. Uninformative guide listings, minimally communicative conference guide blurbs, and agency websites that, to put it mildly, do not give a clear indication of what kind of books would make their little hearts sing must, logically, tend to INCREASE the percentage of queries they receive for books outside their areas of specialty in any given day’s mail drop, not discourage them.

Think about it: if the agency doesn’t make its likes and dislikes clear in its guide blurbs or on its website, most potential submitters will be relying upon guesswork in addressing their queries. Which, logically, is going to lead to a whole lot of queries landing on the wrong desks and being rejected summarily — and to Millicents across the industry wringing their overworked hands with increasing frequency, troubling the ceiling with their bootless cries about why oh why are these people sending queries for books that the agency doesn’t even represent. So they send out form rejection letters, so no one learns anything from the process, and lo and behold, they keep receiving queries for book categories they don’t want.

Excuse me, driver, but I’d like to get off. This vicious circle is making me dizzy. I’m guessing that it’s made those of you given to staring helplessly at agency websites and vague guide listings dizzy, too.

Even though it is honestly is in their own best interest to be specific, there are a number of perfectly legitimate reasons an agency might say it is actively seeking a list of categories that looks less like an agent’s specialties than the entire stock of your local Borders.

For example, they might have the editorial connections to place all of those different types of books successfully. This kind of reach is certainly not out of the question for a large, well-established agency, but a great big agency is not necessarily the best choice for every writer and/or every book. (Don’t worry; I’m going to talk how and why tomorrow.)

Fortunately, the standard agency guides routinely print how many clients any listed agency represents, so you need not necessarily track down their entire client list. If it is good-sized — 300 clients, for instance, handled by six or seven agents with different specialties — your task is clear: do a bit of further research to figure out which of those probably well-connected agents has been selling books in your category lately.

(I feel another zany personal opinion coming on: although guide listings typically list a single agent as the contact person for the entire agency, I’ve found that it’s generally in the best interest of the writer to write directly to the member agent who represents YOUR kind of book, rather than the listed contact.)

If the agency in question is small, check to see how long it’s been around — this information, too, is routinely listed in agency guides, and with good reason. Selling books to publishers is hard work; agencies go in and out of business all the time.

Before they have established a reputation and connections within particular book categories, new agencies — and new agents — sometimes spread a pretty wide net for new clients. In such cases, the list of categories they are seeking can turn into a wish list, rather than a true reflection of what they have sold in the past.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: a list of categories is not necessarily proof positive that an agency has actually sold books in each of them within the last couple of years — or even within living memory. It can also be a list of what the agency WANTS to sell over the next couple of years — a definitional haziness not limited to small agencies, certainly, but common to them.

Which means, in practice, if a particular book category is hot right now, or industry buzz says it will be the next big thing, it’s going to turn up on the lists of quite a few agencies that have not yet sold that type of book — and thus in the index of this year’s agency guide.

Ideally, you would like to be represented by an agent with a solid track record selling your type of book, right? And as I have mentioned, oh, 70 or 80 times in the last year, agents specialize. So do editors. If you write women’s fiction, even a brilliant agent whose sole previous focus are in self-help will probably have a harder time selling your book than someone who sells women’s fiction day in, day out.

An agent who has managed to sell a particular category of book in the past is not only going to have a better idea of who is buying that type of book these days — she’s infinitely more likely to be able to call up the right editor and say, “Listen, you know that fantasy I sold you six months ago? I have one you’re going to like even better.”

Or if she’s not more likely to say it, she’s more likely to be believed when she does.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? But when editors start saying things like, “You know what I’m really looking for right now? A book from Hot Category X,” it’s not all that uncommon for an agent without a track record in Hot Category X to think, “Hmm, I wish I had one of those handy right now.” Completely understandable, right?

Unfortunately, from the perspective of a Hot Category X writer new to the business, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between an enthusiastic neophyte and a seasoned veteran of Hot Category X sales. Both, you see, are likely to say, “Oh, I know PRECISELY the editor for that.”

This is not, unfortunately, just a matter of my opinion. Ask almost anyone who’s been in the biz for the last decade or so, and you will probably hear a horror story about a great chick lit, historical romance, and/or memoir writer who was hotly pursued by an agent who later turned out to have few (or even no) editorial connections in that direction — and who, having unsuccessfully shopped the book around to 4 of the wrong editors, dropped it like a searing stone. Everyone seems to know someone to whom it has happened.

Yet another reason that it’s an excellent idea to double-check actual sales before you commit to a representation contract. Or indeed, before you query.

If the lead agent (whose name, as often as not, is the name of the agency) peeled off recently from a great big concern, taking her clients with her, she may well have clients across many, many genres. Connections definitely carry over — and since the agent will probably want to advertise that fact, check the listing, website, or conference blurb for a mention of where she worked last.

Then check out THAT agency, to see what they sell early and often.

Do your homework, but try not to get paranoid about it. Much of the time, inappropriately-listed categories aren’t the result of anyone’ being mean or misrepresenting themselves. Industry trends often move faster than guides are released, after all.

Perhaps a category that was hip seven months ago, when the agency filled out the guide questionnaire, but has since fallen out of fashion. Obviously, if an agency was seeking a particular kind of book only because of its marketing potential, and not because they love that kind of book, and it stops selling — or selling easily — they’re going to tell their Millicents to look askance at queries for it.

Yes, it’s a whole lot of work; as our old pal Joyce wrote about something entirely different, “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” He was talking mechanics, of course, but I doubt you’d find a querier who has been at it for a while who wouldn’t wholeheartedly agree to add Trying to sell to the front of the statement.

This may be a minority opinion, but this process is genuinely hard, even for the best writers. I have faith that you can do it, though. Keep up the good work.

Book marketing 101: asking the right questions, some good news, and a goal!

It’s going to be a long one today, campers, but I can’t resist opening with a bit of good news: I sold a book yesterday!

To be precise, my agent, the fabulous Jim McCarthy of DGLM (who will be attending a certain upcoming Conference That Shall Remain Nameless), successfully marketed my next nonfiction book, a political memoir I am writing with the godmother of the first civil rights act of the 21rst century, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. It’s being acquired by a wonderful editor — and believe me, as an editor myself, my standard for wonderful is very high indeed — at a terrific independent press.

So I am THRILLED. Now I just have to write it.

Because, you see, like most NF and even most memoirs, it was sold on the basis of a proposal and the first chapter. And if that’s news to all of you memoir-writers out there, please see the WRITING MEMOIR category at right.

(Because I have a lot of material to cover today, I am going to refer to past posts, rather than explaining each point in full, as is my usual wont. If you don’t have time to check, don’t worry: I shall doubtless be revisiting many of these issues in the months to come.)

In case you’re curious about what happens after an offer is made and excepted, the agent then issues what’s called a deal memo, a 1- or 2-page document stating just the facts, ma’am: who is buying it, who the acquiring editor is, how much the advance is and how it will be paid (usually in either two or three installments; for further explanation, please see the ADVANCES category at right), the royalty rates, who owns what subsidiary rights (film, audio, book club, etc.), the area to be covered by the sale (first North American rights, first English-language rights, world rights), the length (always an issue in a book-to-be-written), the delivery date (that’s when I have to get them the finished manuscript), and the tentative publication date (when it will hit the shelves).

And all of that’s before the contract’s even written. Agents honestly do work very hard on their clients’ behalves, you know.

All very exciting, of course, and a trifle disorienting. I shall keep you posted, naturally, as the deal becomes codified.

A second bit of good news: FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Jonathan Selwood’s first novel, The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse, comes out today, and with what fanfare! I was in Portland a couple of weeks ago, and just look at what greeted me when I arrived at my favorite bookstore:


If having one’s name emblazoned on a terrific bookstore’s marquee isn’t a goal worth having for any writer, I should like to know what is. Congratulations, Jonathan!

For those of you who live in the Portland area, Jonathan will be reading tomorrow night (thus the marquee) at Powell’s City of Books on Burnside. He will be reading in the Seattle area in a couple of weeks, and I, for one, am looking forward to hearing him.

So there you have it: concrete visions of goals-along-the-way for YOUR writing career. Go ahead, spend a few minutes envisioning your name on that marquee and your agent calling you about an offer on your book. That’s where you’re headed, and that’s why you’re investing all this hard work in making your work professional.

It may seem a trifle silly to say that outright, but it’s tempting to focus upon only the end products of writing: the book in the reader’s hand, the royalty check in the bank account, you reading your work to a hushed crowd of avid devotees. But days like this are well worth acknowledging. If you’re in it for the long haul, believe me, celebrating the victories along the way — your own AND others’ — helps sustain you through the long, dark days of seemingly endless work.

I mention this because it fits so beautifully into today’s topic: working up nerve to approach agents to pitch. Because, you see, in the flurry of pitching and querying, signing with an agent can start to feel like the end goal, the point at which all of the hard work is going to end, rather than a victory to be celebrated along the way. Yes, you do want an agent to fall in love with your writing — but never forget that the point of having an agent is to market your book.

Which means — and this is going to seem rather funny, in a pitching situation, when you are concerned with catching an agent’s wandering eye — you should be considering if the person in front of you is a good bet for helping you meet your ultimate goal of publication.

Because believe me, the author’s work does not end when the ink dries on the agency contract: its nature merely changes.

So you’re going to want to ask some questions about who these people are, what they typically represent, and how they like to work with writers. Agenting styles are very different: some are very hands-on, line-editing the work they represent, and some prefer to, as the saying goes, “leave the writing to the writers.” Some enjoy explaining the publishing process to their clients, and some are infuriated by it.

It really is in everyone’s best interests, therefore, that such preferences be aired up front.

I know: it’s intimidating, and you don’t want to offend anybody. But remember, these people come to a conference to discover people like YOU. Don’t talk yourself out of approaching them. Yes, the deck is stacked, but that does not mean that it’s impossible to make it: writers find agents at conferences all the time.

Including, incidentally, yours truly. After asking simply mountains of very pointed questions.

Fortunately, you need not wait until your pitching appointment or you have buttonholed an agent in the hallway to ask such questions: most conferences, including this coming weekend’s Conference That Shall Not Be Named, feature panels where agents and editors talk about their work. Almost universally, the moderator will ask for questions from the audience.

Here’s your chance to ask many agents at once about what they like in a book — and in a client.

It’s a golden opportunity — yet much of the time, it’s is squandered with the too-specific question of the conference newbie who thinks this is an invitation to pitch: “Would you be interested,” such a fellow will stand up and ask, “in a book about a starship captain who finds himself marooned on a deserted planet where only mistletoe grows, and his only chance of escape is to court the ancient Druidic gods?”

Now, personally, I would probably want to take a gander at that particular book, if only for giggles, but question time at an agents’ forum is NOT an appropriate venue for pitching. You should feel free to walk up to the panelists afterward to try out your hallway pitch, but you will make a much, much better impression if you use the question time for, um, questions.

What is likely to happen when our misguided friend ignores this dictum? One of two things, depending upon the mood and generosity level of the agents so approached. If they’re feeling kind, one of them will try to turn this too-specific question into an issue of more general concern, as in, “It’s interesting that you ask that, because the SF market right now is very much geared toward…”

The other, less charitable and more common response is for the agents all to say no and the moderator to ask for the next question from the audience.

Just don’t do it.

A popular variation on this faux pas is a questioner’s standing up, describing his book, and asking how much he could expect to receive as an advance. From the writer’s point of view, this certainly seems like a reasonable question, doesn’t it? Yet to industry-trained ears, it says very clearly that the asker has not gone to the trouble of learning much about how publishing actually works.

Why is that so evident? Well, in the first place, advances vary wildly. Think about the deal memo: pretty much everything that has to do with the author’s cut is a matter of negotiation. Which leads to the second point: a book that attracts competitive bidding today may not interest any editor at all six months from now.

So really, when an aspiring writer asks such a question, what an agent tends to hear is, “I want you to predict the market value of a book you know absolutely nothing about.”

Again: not the best idea. You’re going to want to keep your question general and, if at all possible, have everyone on the panel answer it, so you don’t appear to be targeting one of them for something he said. (It happens.)

Another common faux pas is to challenge what an agent on the panel has already said. Often, the writers who go this route will cite another source, for added credibility, “You said X ten minutes ago, but Miss Snark says…”

This question format will not help you win friends and influence people.

Why? Well, no one particularly likes to be contradicted in front of a roomful of people, right? Being told that someone out there is laying down rules of her conduct is far more likely to raise hackles than provide clarification.

And it’s not as though the average agent reads the many writing blogs out there, even if she happens to write one herself. (As does, I believe, Rachel Vater, also scheduled to attend the CTSRN) So any name you cite — up to and including Miss S’s, who enjoys a mixed reputation amongst agents — is unlikely to seem like an unimpeachable source.

Although you may certainly feel free to preface your remarks to my agent with, “I really like Anne Mini’s blog,” should you be so moved.

As long, that is, as you did not add immediately thereafter, “and she says that what you told us before is wrong.” Trust me: as an opening gambit, it just doesn’t work.

So what should you ask that intimidating row of agents? A few suggestions that designed to elicit information you would probably have a hard time gleaning anywhere else — and will generally provoke interesting comments, rather than the usual bleak diagnoses of how tough the market is right now:

“What was the last book each of you picked up at a conference? What made that book stand out from the others you heard pitched?” (I love this question, as it gives pitchers hints about how the agents like to hear a book described.)

“Who is your favorite client, and why?” (This is a question they tend to love, as it enables them to promote a client’s work. Make a great show of writing down names.)

“How long do you stick with a book you really love that’s not selling before you give up on it?” (In many ways, this is the single most important thing to know about an agent with whom you’re considering signing — and it’s an agent-friendly question, because they almost invariably answer it by talking about a pet project.)

“How is selling a first-time author’s book different from selling the work of someone more established?” (They’l like this question less, but it will give you a pretty good idea of who has sold a debut novel lately and who hasn’t.)

“Are you looking for a career-long relationship with a writer when you consider a submission, or are you only thinking about the book in front of you? If you thinking in the long term, how often do you expect your clients to produce new books?” (This last varies a LOT.)

“How much feedback to you give your clients before you submit their books? Do you usually ask for a revision before you send a book out? How much do you like to get involved in the revision process?” (Yes, this is an enormous question, but the agents who never edit at all will usually say so immediately.)

“Is there any kind of book you specifically do NOT want to hear pitched this weekend?” (Hey, someone’s got to pull the pin on that grenade. Sometimes they will answer this question unsolicited, however, so do keep an ear out during the forum.)

What’s the worst query letter you ever got, and why?” (This is a great question to ask if you’re not planning to do any hallway pitching. The responses are usually pretty colorful. It’s also worth asking if they have any automatic red flags for submissions.)

These are pretty fundamental questions, but you are well within your rights to ask them. Every agent has a different representation style, and you will want to know about any pet peeves or preferences before you stick your pages under their respective noses, right?

You’ll be pleased to hear, after all that, that there is really only one question that someone absolutely needs to ask at the editors’ forum — although most of the questions above will work in this context, too. Since most publishing houses now have policies forbidding their editors from picking up unagented work, everyone in the room will be happier in the long run if you just pull the pin on the grenade:

“If you found a fabulous book here at the conference, which of you could sign the author directly, and which of you would have to refer her to an agent?”

Yes, it’s a bit in-your-face, but the fact is, the editors from houses that have this policy tend to assume that pitchers are already aware of it. Asking to know whether you’ll be pitching to someone who could act directly or not can help you streamline your pitching attempts.

Don’t be afraid: you’re there to learn how to market your work better, and they are there to pick up new writers. You are not a second-class citizen begging the nobility for a favor, as so many first-time pitchers seem to think: you are trying to find the best collaborators for your writing career.

As Francis I of France put it: “The sun shines for me as for others. I should very much like to see the clause in Adam’s will that excludes me from a share of the world.”

You deserve to be heard, in short. Don’t let ’em intimidate you.

Tomorrow, a few hints on maintaining your energy throughout what can be a pretty exhausting event. Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: the evolution of the pitch — and the industry

As those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have no doubt already figured out, my take on the publishing industry does not always conform to the prevailing wisdom. (I know: GASP! Alert the media!) The problem with the prevailing wisdom, as I see it, is that it is so often out of date: what was necessary to land an agent 20 years ago is most emphatically not the same as what is necessary today, or what will be necessary 5 years from now.

And it is now every bit as hard to land an agent as it used to be to land a book contract. Heck, it’s significantly more difficult than it was when I signed with my current agency — and honeys, I’m not that old.

My point is, the industry changes all the time, and very quickly. If you doubt this, chew on this: when I signed the contract for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, in March of 2005, it naturally contained the standard contractual provisions about truthfulness; the contract specified that my publisher believed that I believed that I was telling the truth in my book. (Which I am, in case you were wondering.)

Yet if I signed a standard NF contract for the same book today, it would almost certainly contain some provision requiring me as the author to obtain signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book.

What happened in that intervening 2+ years to alter the standard contract, you ask? A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, that’s what.

The very tangible result: industry rumor has it that last year, a major publishing house required a writer who spent a significant amount of time living with cloistered nuns to obtained signed releases from each and every one of the wimpled ones, swearing that they would not sue the publisher over the book.

Yes, you read that right. Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t nuns generally take vows of poverty? And doesn’t cloistered mean, you know, not wandering up and down the aisles at Barnes & Noble, checking out your own publicity? Yet such is the prevailing paranoia that the publishing house was legitimately concerned that suddenly the little sisters of St. Francis of Assisi would metamorphose into a gaggle of money-hungry, lawyer-blandishing harpies.

Oh, and for the last year and a half, writers have been hearing at conferences, “Oh, it’s impossible to sell memoir right now.” Which is odd, because the trade papers seem to show that plenty of houses are in fact still buying memoirs aplenty.

So you’ll pardon me, I hope, for saying that it always pays to look over the standard truisms very carefully, both to see if they still apply and to see if they’re, you know, TRUE. Many, I am sad to report, are neither.

You can tell I am gearing up to saying something subversive, can’t you?

Yes, I am: I would specifically advise AGAINST walking into a meeting with an agent or editor and giving the kind of 3-sentence pitch that you will usually see recommended in writers’ publications — and practically mandated in the average conference brochure.

Or, to put it another way: I think it is a common mistake to assume that the structure that works for pitching a screenplay can be adapted without modification to books.

“Wait just a second, Anne!” I hear some of you shouting. “I have a conference brochure right here, and it tells me I MUST limit myself to a 3-sentence pitch!”

Well pointed out, imaginary shouters — this is quite standard boilerplate advice. But think about it: the average conference appointment with an agent is 10-15 minutes long, and if you are like most writers, you will probably be very nervous.

So I have one question to ask you: do you really want to have only a minute’s worth of material prepared?

Seriously, I’ve heard many, many agents and editors complain that writers pitching at conferences either talk non-stop for ten minutes (not effective) or stop talking after one (ditto). “Why aren’t they using the time I’m giving them?” they wonder in the bar. (It’s an inviolable rule of writers’ conferences that there is always a bar within staggering distance. That’s where the pros congregate to bemoan their respective fates.) “Half the time, they just dry up. Aren’t they interested in their own books?”

Oh, the 3-sentence pitch definitely has its utility: it is helpful to have one ready for when you buttonhole an agent in an elevator, when you might genuinely have only a minute and a half to make your point. That’s why it’s called an elevator speech, in case you were wondering; it’s short enough to deliver between floors without pushing the alarm button to stop the trip.

It’s also very useful in preparing your query letter, where you can use it as the paragraph that describes the book. Once you have a really effective marketing paragraph written, you can use it many contexts.

So I will definitely be walking you through how to construct one. However, an elevator speech should not be confused with a full-blown book pitch. To do so, I think, implies a literalism that cannot conceive that a similar process called by the same name but conducted in two completely unrelated industries might not be identical.

News flash to the super-literal: the noun bat refers to both a critter that flies and a piece of wood used to hit a ball. Learn to live with it.

There’s another reason not to use the same pitch format as everybody else: pitch fatigue, the industry term for when a person’s heard so many pitches in a row that they all start to blend together in the mind. It’s surprisingly tiring to listen to pitches; there’s so much emotion floating in the air, and it’s so vital to pay attention to every last detail. Even with the best intentions, after the third pitch in any given genre in any given day, the stories start to sound alike.

Even stories that are nothing alike can begin to sound alike.

I can tell you from experience that pitch fatigue can set in pretty quickly. Last year, at the Conference That Dares Not Speak Its Name, a group of intrepid writers, including yours truly, set up the Pitch Practicing Palace, collectively hearing over 325 individual pitches over the course of three very long days.

Now, all of us on the PPP staff are both writers and chronic readers, so our sympathies, I think it is safe to say, were pretty much always on the writer’s side of the pitching desk. And we heard quite a number of truly exceptional pitches. But by the end of the first day, all of us were starting to murmur variations on, “You know, if I had to do this every day, I might start to think the rejection pile was my friend.”

Part of the problem is environmental. Agents and editors at conferences are generally expected to listen patiently while sitting under flickering fluorescent lights in uncomfortable chairs, being rapidly dehydrated by punishing convention center air conditioning. You can hardly blame them for zoning out from time to time, under the circumstances.

I know: poor, poor babies, forced to endure precisely the same ambient conditions as every writer at the conference, without the added stress of trying to make their life-long dreams come true. But I’m not mentioning this so you will pity them; I’m bringing it up so you may have a clearer picture of what you will be facing.

Gather up all of those environmental factors I described above into a neat mental picture, please. Pretend you are an agent who has been listening to pitches for the past four hours.

Got it? Now: which is more likely to snap you out of your stupor, a three-sentence pitch, which forces you to go to the effort of drawing more details about the book out of the pitcher? Or a slightly longer pitch that explains to you not only what the book is about, but who is going to buy it and why?

Or, to consider the other common advice about structuring pitches, would you be more likely to pay attention to a pitch that is rife with generalities, glossing lightly over themes that are common to many books? Or a pitch stuffed full of briefly-described scenes, embellished attractively with a few well-chosen significant details?

Exactly. You don’t want to hand them the same vanilla ice cream cone that everyone else has been offering them all day; you want to hand them the deluxe waffle cone stuffed with lemon-thyme sorbet and chocolate mousse.

And that, dear friends, is why I’m spending the next month talking about how to market your work in ways that make sense to the industry, rather than just telling you to cram years of your hopes and dreams into three overstuffed sentences. By the time we reach the end of this series, my hope is that you will not only be able to give a successful pitch AND elevator speech — I would like for you to be prepared to speak fluently about your work anytime, anywhere, to anybody, no matter how influential.

In short, to help you sound like a professional, market-savvy writer, rather than the nervous wreck most of us are walking into pitch meetings. I know you’re up for it.

But to achieve that, a writer needs to learn to describe a book in language the industry understands. The first building block of fluency follows tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

A very practical talk on privacy and the arts

A full-blown blog post follows later today, but I wanted to give Seattle-area writers a heads-up about a talk that is happening tomorrow, one that would be REALLY useful to any memoirist out there, or indeed, anyone seriously interested in writing about real people. It also sounds like the examples will be a hoot.

Here’s the skinny:

Washington Lawyers for the Arts presents

911 Media Arts Center, 402 9th Avenue N, Seattle, Washington 98109
Thursday, June 14, 2007, 11:45 am – 2:00 pm

Attorney Bob Cumbow will take artists and attorneys who advise artists through the maze of state laws governing the rights of both celebrities and nobodies in the use of their names and faces, looking at when it’s okay to use an identifiable person (living or dead) in a work of written or visual art, and, on the other side, when it’s best to get permission. Bob will look at how Washington’s Personality Rights Act addresses these issues, recent important developments in this area of law, and how these issues have been dealt with in other jurisdictions. Cases have involved The Three Stooges, Dustin Hoffman, Tiger Woods, Rosa Parks, Yogi Berra, Bettie Page, and other pop culture personae, even those appearing in robotic form.

FEE: In advance: $25 Attorneys and Paralegals; $10 Artists and Students. At the door: $30 Attorneys and Paralegals; $15 Artists and Students

REGISTRATION: To register, visit Brown Paper Tickets, , or phone 24/7 at (800) 838-3006. To pay at the door, RSVP to Washington Lawyers for the Arts at (206) 328-7053.

Writing compelling memoir: enough about you; what about me?

Yes, I promise: I WILL begin my long-anticipated series on pitching your work very soon. Tomorrow, in fact, if all goes according to plan. But before I wrapped up perspective for the nonce, I wanted to address a couple of questions reader Susan asked a couple of weeks back:

I know the current series re passivity pertains to fiction, but I wonder if you might offer some observations about memoir… I understand the reflective narrator is an important part of memoir, but I’m worried she may be too prominent in my MS. Any thoughts about how to reign her in? Must every scene be an action scene? Obviously, the reality of what happened shapes what is possible.

Another memoir question — with apologies for going off-topic: how critical is a well-defined narrative arc? Do all memoirs require this?

Actually, glancing back over my masses of posts, I’m rather surprised at just how few of them deal with memoir directly. So while these questions really would take a week to answer properly, instead of pushing them back until after the pitching series, I’m going to take a day to deal with them at least in passing now.

Why is it surprising that I haven’t written more on memoir, you ask? Almost all writers write about their lives at one time or another, and I’m no exception: I won a major award for IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, the first draft of my memoir-still-in-publishing-limbo, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. (The limbo part is a long story, with its own category at right, if you’re interested. If not, the short-short version: publishers fear the unsubstantiated opinions of people with gobs and gobs of money.) And my agent is currently circulating the proposal for a memoir I’m co-writing with an environmental and civil rights whistleblower.

Oh, and I edit memoirs all the time. I am, in short, up to my eyeballs in memoir.

So why do I so seldom write about it here? Well, at first, to be quite frank, I was trying valiantly not to whine about what was going on with A FAMILY DARKLY; I started blogging within a week of the first lawsuit threat, and my publisher told me to keep quiet about the details.

(Of the juicy and vitriol-stained variety. But I’m not supposed to talk about that.)

But beyond that, I think it’s more dangerous to generalize about memoir than about most types of writing. Writers tend to be touchier about their autobiographical efforts, for one thing, even at the sentence level. But beyond that, so much of what one might say about memoir seems at first blush self-evident: it’s a first-person narrative, and most definitely an application of the time-honored axiom to Write What You Know.

Which leads to the single biggest problem memoir manuscripts typically have: anecdotalism.

All too often, the author will have apparently told the story on the page so often that the print version carries the vagueness of a verbal telling, as if the reader were a friend who has heard the story ten or twelve times before and might interrupt this particular rendition. Or assumes, incorrectly, that the reader will already be familiar enough with the circumstances of the author’s life for only a brief sketch to be necessary.

But for a memoir to be a success, it’s not enough that the events on the page really happened, or even that the writing is beautiful, right? It must above all things be a good STORY well told, and its actors great CHARACTERS well developed.

Which means — to take Susan’s second question first — that the story arc is quite important. And, as she so rightly points out, that can be genuinely difficult to pull off, at least if you happen to believe that time runs in a linear direction: in real life, stories seldom have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Often, too, actual events crawl precisely where a reader would most like them to speed.

From a reader’s perspective, both phenomena are problematic: even if the writing is gorgeous, most readers want to be able to try to second-guess where a plot is going to go. The reader wants to be entertained, and frankly, given a choice between hearing the precise truth and a more entertaining spin, he’ll usually punk down the dosh for the more exciting version. Human nature, I’m afraid.

That doesn’t mean that the memoirist should lie to create excitement on the page — but it does mean that it pays to be selective about what should and should not be included. There’s a big difference, after all, between a diary, a journal, and a memoir: a diary chronicles quotidian happenings, a journal analyzes them — and a memoir transforms them into a great yarn.

In this very tight memoir market, you really do want to be telling a great yarn — and it’s awfully hard to construct a gripping tale without ongoing incident. Put another way, if a narrative rambles on for too long without dramatically-satisfying crises and resolutions throughout, how is the reader supposed to cheer for the protagonist? “Go, Betty! Keep on surviving!”

Frankly, unless Betty’s life was pretty vivid — as in Anne Frank-level trauma or Augustin Burroughs-level weirdness — it’s unlikely that a mere selection of episodes is automatically going to elicit the “I’m rooting for you!” response in the reader. But if Betty is an interesting character in an interesting situation, learning and growing throughout the course of the book, it’s easier to identify with her story. Particularly if she’s constantly struggling in small ways; rather than being passive.

And that, my friends, is a workable story arc, one that does not involve lying about actual events. The protagonist does not need to revolutionize the world around her in order to keep surprising the reader by how she interacts with it. Resistance can come in some pretty microscopic forms; the only completely passive person in real life is one who never questions the status quo at all.

For a brilliant example of this difficult challenge pulled off with grace, run, don’t walk to your nearest bookstore and pick up a copy of Barbara Robinette Moss’ CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER. This is the book that made me want to write memoir in the first place: the writing is breathtaking, and she welds a soaring dramatic arc out of a collection of recollections that could very easily been simply depressing. She draws her own personality against genuinely overwhelming situations so well that it left me gasping.

Bear in mind, though, that the most compelling way to tell your own story may well not be the way you are accustomed to telling it. In constructing a memoir’s narrative, I find it very helpful to think about the memoir from our pal Millicent the agency screener’s perspective: how would I market this story to someone wandering through a bookstore? What is unique about it? What makes this story fascinating?

A surprisingly high percentage of memoir-writers don’t seem to regard themselves as very interesting; even more seem to be afraid of presenting themselves as fully-rounded characters, proverbial warts and all. Often, this seems to stem from a fear of reader reaction: am I coming across as likeable?

This can be a pretty loaded question, particularly for that large majority of memoirists who imagine their nearest and dearest as their target audiences. Or, if not their kith and kin, then the good people who will take their side AGAINST their kith and kin, which is another way of concentrating upon the reactions of the people already in one’s life.

This is perfectly understandable — after all, writing memoir means exposing one’s innermost thoughts and feelings. Most of us long for the day that our beloveds read our beautiful prose, strike tears from their eyes, and say, “Wow, babe, touché. I had no idea you felt like that. You are much deeper/more wonderful/in desperate need of help than I had ever dreamt.”

However, if you’re going to make a living as a writer, your buddies/lovers/relatives are not your sole audience, or even your primary one. Total strangers are going to need to find your story fascinating — and for it to sell to an agent or editor, that story had better start being interesting on page 1. Actually, it needs to be interesting before page one, as memoirs are generally sold in proposal form, not as entire books. This means that, generally speaking, the memoirist has only a chapter, or at most two, to grab the professional reader.

So what would make the story fascinating from Millicent’s point of view? A great story well-told, of course, with well-drawn characters — and a compelling protagonist who engages with the world around her, rather than just observing it.

Which brings me back to Susan’s first question, how to get the narrative out of the protagonist’s head: when a section gets too think-y, experiment with telling the story as though it were a novel. Concentrating on the story in which the memoirist is a character, rather than primarily upon the narrator’s reactions, can often make a real-life scene spring to life.

Step back and envision the scene as though you were not an actor in it. Who are these characters? What are the ambient conflicts? Where is this story going, and how does what is happening in the moment help get the protagonist/narrator there?

If none of these questions yield interesting answers on any given page, chances are good that the narrative is telling the story, rather than showing it, an extremely common pitfall for memoirs. Remember, the reader doesn’t know ANYTHING about the life you’re describing unless you illustrate it, and it’s the writer’s job in any kind of book to make the characters live and breathe.

So paint as full a picture as possible. Is there a way that you could flesh out a particular incident, or a character within that incident, to make it better-rounded? Are you streamlining the story to make the protagonist look better — or worse — and if so, is it flattening out the drama?

If you can honestly look at a page of text and say that it is neither telling part of the ongoing story nor developing character, I would ask you to be very brave. Gird your loins, take up the manuscript, and bracket the text that does not advance the story. Then go back a page or two and read, skipping the bracketed part.

Did the narrative make sense without it? If so, could the bracketed section be cut?

Another useful means of getting the narrative out of the narrator’s head is to sharpen the focus upon important elements of the story OUTSIDE of the protagonist. What is your story about, other than you, and how can you make it fascinating to the reader?

Yes, yes, I know — memoirs are inherently about their authors, by definition. Yet realistically, only celebrities’ memoirs sell PURELY because they’re about a particular person’s life. Think like a marketer for a moment: other than the truth of the story, what is unique about this book?

Writers don’t ask this question very often before they start jotting down the stories of their lives, but almost without exception, memoirs are about something else as well. The dying mill town where the author grew up; the traveling circus that captured his imagination; the kind aunt who went into the hospital for a hip replacement and came out with a lobotomy. All of these are rich material for grabbing the reader.

Chances are, this secondary focus is already in the book; are there ways that you could bring it out? Specifically, are there parts of the narrative where playing up this other element would take the reader out of the narrator’s head and into the larger world of the book?

Just as every life is unique, so is every memoir. But a life story needs more than truth and bravery to make a good memoir; if that were all it took, there would be no artistry involved. A great memoirist picks through her memories, selecting the juiciest moments, most telling incidents, and most compelling characters. She spins a web of enchantment, as surely as any fictional storyteller does.

It’s your story: make it shine. And, as always, keep up the good work!

Increasing your chances of making it to the contest finals: more on memoirs

After yesterday’s post on the advisability of quadruple-checking your memoir entries to make super-sure that they contain NO usages of your first or last name, I believe I heard some murmurs of dissent. “Wait just a second,” the voice in the ether I choose to attribute to you kept saying, “isn’t this paranoid overkill? How is the judge ever going to know? In most contests, the judges never see your name attached to the manuscript, and thus would not know that the name mentioned IS the author’s?”

Well, several reasons, all of which boil down to this: are you sure enough about that to risk your entry’s getting disqualified?

First, as I mentioned yesterday, such is the seriousness with which blind judging is taken that if a judge even SUSPECTS that an entry contains the author’s name, that entry may be toast. And, to be fair, it does not require much of a cognitive leap to conclude that the Sheila Mae who is narrating a memoir excerpt is, in fact, the same Sheila Mae who wrote it.

Second, it is not unheard-of for contests to employ (or, more commonly, impress volunteers into servitude as) initial screeners, whose SOLE function is to check the entries for rule violations before the entries are distributed to the judges who will rate them. These screeners sometimes do have your entire entry packet — and thus your name, and will be able to tell immediately if you have violated the don’t-use-your-name rule.

Third — and while this one is the simplest, it is also the way self-namers are most often caught — even in a contest that does not pass entries under the watchful eyes of screeners, someone is going to have to slit open that envelope, if only to extract the check. Someone is going to have to note your name in the contest log, assign your entry the identification number that will allow it to be judged blindly, and pass your entry along to the proper section’s judges.

It’s a boring job. So tell me: how likely do you think it is that such a mail-sorter would glance at the first page of the entry, to render the process a trifle less tedious? And how many memoir first pages have you ever seen that DIDN’T include some mention of the memoir subject’s name?

There is one absolutely foolproof, not very time-consuming means of avoiding the problem altogether, of course: use a pseudonym within the context of the entry, adding a note on your title page, STATING that you have changed the names in order to adhere to the rules of the contest. “For the purposes of this entry,” you could write, “I have changed my family name to Parrothead.”

Yes, it’s kind of silly, but that way, you make it pellucidly clear that you’re not referring to yourself. And, after all, how is the judge to know whether you have substituted the names or not, if you do not say so?

Other good tip for memoirists entering their work in contests is to do a bit of market research prior to entry. (Actually, this is a good idea for anyone writing a book, and certainly for everyone who has to write a synopsis for a contest.) Are there memoirs currently on the market — and in industry terms, a book either has to be a bestseller or have been released within the last five years to be considered “currently on the market” similar to yours?

To put it another way, is your memoir in fact absolutely unique, or does it fit into a well-defined market niche? If it’s the latter, is there a way that you can make its individual appeal clearer in the pages you are submitting?

It is a question well worth asking before entering a memoir into a contest — or before trying to market it. All of us tend to think of our own experiences as unique, which of course they are; every point of view is to a very great extent original. However, every memoir is about something in addition to the personality of the person writing it, right? Those other subjects are definitely a matter of fashion; there are fads in memoir-writing, just as in any other kind of publishing, and you can bet your boots that if a particular subject matter is hot this year, the nonfiction rolls of every contest in the country will receive quantities of that type of memoir.

Remember, for instance, after Lance Armstrong’s book came out, and suddenly there were a zillion upbeat I-survived-a-lethal-illness memoirs? Well, so do contest judges: they read thousands of them. Which meant, in practical terms, that it was quite a bit harder to wow a judge with an illness memoir in that period than at any other time in human history.

Also, certain life experiences tend to recur across a population with predictable regularity, and if you are writing about a well-trodden topic, it is IMPERATIVE that you make it clear in your contest entry just how your book is different from the others currently on the market. Because — and I tremble to tell you this, but it’s true — if you are writing on certain over-mined topics, even the most heart-felt prose can start those cliché warning bells pealing in the average judge’s brainpan.

This is not to say that your personal take is not worth telling — if you’re a good writer with a truly individual take on the world around you, it undoubtedly is. Remember, though, that judges tend to be reading for marketability, and if they perceive that you are writing in an already glutted submarket, your entry may not do as well as an entry on a less well-trodden topic.

Think about how many people suddenly started writing accounts of growing up poor immediately after ANGELA’S ASHES hit the big time, or about over-medicated, over-sexed teenagerhoods in the wake of PROZAC NATION, and plan accordingly.

Sheer repetition can wear down even the most conscientious judge after a while; remember, most contest judges do not judge a single contest only, but return year after year. Certain topics are perennial contest entry favorites.

The result? “Oh, God,” the judge whimpers, instinctively backing away from the papers in front of her, “not another well-written, emotionally rich story about a Baby Boomer daughter nursing her mother through her final illness, and in the process learning to heal the long-standing rift between them!”

Not that any of these judges have anything against women who care for their aging parents; it’s not as though anyone is rooting for those life-long disagreement NOT to be mended. But honestly, after fifteen or twenty of these, a judge does start to root for a nice entry about, say, someone who was mauled by a tiger. Or hit by lightning. Or at least not following in the wheeltracks of Lance Armstrong.

Conditioned reflex, I’m afraid. Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of a bell, and contest judges wince at the sight of the third similar entry of the day.

So if you happen to be any of the following, you might want to think about how your book ISN’T like the others: a former drug addict/alcoholic/workaholic rediscovering the beauty of day-to-day life; a former hippie/swinger/disco queen recounting his or her glory days; a teacher from a white, upper-middle-class background who went to teach in the inner city; a new father confessing that he was not prepared for the practicalities of caring for children; a new mother discovering that motherhood is significantly harder than it is cracked up to be; anyone who worked at a dot com that went bust.

Similarly, if your memoir details your spiritual awakening, your discovery that the giant corporation for which you worked is corrupt, and/or your magnificent weight loss or gain, you might want to invest some time in market research to figure out how to make your book come across as fresh and exciting. If you check a well-stocked bookstore, or even run your subject matter through an Amazon search, you will get a pretty firm idea of how many other accounts there are that resemble your own, at least superficially.

Think of this research as practice for writing that inevitable book proposal. (All of you memoirists are aware that memoirs are seldom sold on the entire book, right? I keep running into memoir-writers to whom this is news, so I will go ahead and say it: it is not necessary to have a completed memoir before selling it to a publishing house. As with other NF books, the average memoir book proposal contains only a chapter or two — and a WHOLE lot of marketing material.)

The best way to make your work stand out from the crowd is to use the synopsis to show how YOUR memoir is QUITE different than the other memoirs on the subject — and knowing the existing memoir market will be most helpful in figuring out what aspects to stress. What made your experience special, unique, unforgettable from the point of view of a third party? Why couldn’t anyone else on earth have written it, and why will readers want to buy it?

The best place to make all this clear, of course, is the synopsis.

“But wait!” I hear some of you cry. “My book may be on a common topic, but my literary voice is unique! But I can hardly say in my synopsis, ‘this book is different from others on the market because it is better-written,’ without sounding like a jerk, can I?”

Well, no, but unfortunately, if you are writing about a common experience, you cannot get away with assuming that the writing alone will differentiate it from the other submissions. If there’s recently been a bestseller along similar lines as yours, yours will almost certainly not be the only entry that resembles it — and you can’t be certain that the finding a sense of wholeness after the death of a loved one memoir that the judge read immediately before yours was not written by Emily Brontë and Gustave Flaubert’s oddly gifted spiritual love child, can you?
If you are writing on a common topic, the bar automatically goes higher, alas, for making YOUR story stand out amongst the rest. You really have to knock their socks off, to an extent that you might not if your topic were not popular that year.


No need to turn your synopsis into a back jacket blurb, but do show how your work is UNLIKE anything else the judge is going to read. Yes, each judge will have your chapter, or few pages, or however much the contest allows you to show him, but sometimes, the difference between a “Thank you for entering” letter and one that says, “Congratulations — you’re a finalist!” is a synopsis that makes the case that THIS entry, out of the half-dozen entries on the same general topic, is the one that is going to hit the big time.

But to discuss that, I shall have to get into the issue of how contest synopses differ from query synopses, and that is a project for another day. Tomorrow, to be precise, and perhaps the day after that. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Increasing your chances of winning a contest: not naming names, or, calling a spade a diamond

After yesterday’s suggestion that it might behoove potential contest entrants who write about real-life incidents to enter their work in both fiction and nonfiction categories, this seems like the natural moment to concentrate for a post upon a category dear to my heart: memoir. As a past PNWA Zola Award winner for best nonfiction book/memoir, I have a thing or two to say on the subject. And having judged in this category, I can say a few more.

So let’s get right to it, shall we?

Let’s start with the technicalities first: please, I implore you, if you are submitting a memoir entry, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this rule applies to not only your entire name, but EITHER your first or your last appearing alone.

Actually, every contest entry everywhere should follow all the rules in the contests they enter, but this is the single most common way for memoir entries to get themselves disqualified — and the reason that for a memoir entry, you should NEVER just print up the opening chapter of your book and send it in.

Unless, of course, you are writing anonymously, or under a pseudonym. Even then, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying that since the contest forbids the author to mention his own name, you will be using “Bobby” (not your real name) throughout. Because, you see, it’s practically impossible NOT refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life — and judges are aware of that, and become accordingly eagle-eyed.

And why is that a problem? Everybody, sing along with me now: because the judges are trying to weed out as many entries from the finalist running as swiftly as possible. As usual, it all comes down to time.

The no-name rule, however, exists for a very good reason: for a contest to be worth its salt, it must be able to claim that its judging procedures are not biased; the first step to assuring lack of personal bias is to institute blind judging, where no judge knows the name of any given author. Now, as I explained in my earlier blogs on how to pick the right contest for you, some competitions are only apparently unbiased, but for the most part, contest organizers take authorial anonymity very seriously indeed.

So no, finding a clever way to get around the rules is not going to endear you to them. Not at all.

Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story. I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who periodically contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. Now, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club. But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on.

So Danny did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song. Danny’s favorite way of doing this was to have an imaginary conversation with himself, so an alter ego could address him by name, as in, “Danny boy, you’re really in trouble now!” Occasionally, he would vary it by having an authority figure yell at his narrator: “Wilson, you’re out of line!”

(For the sake of MY own credibility, and because Danny is now a fairly prominent magazine writer, I should say straight away: to protect his identity, Wilson is not Danny’s actual last name.}

Now, as my parenthetical aside just told you indirectly, Danny’s little stratagem actually did help him generate the clippings he coveted, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

I bring this up not because there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-breakers out there, but because I have seen so many contest entries that have apparently done inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time, À la Hamlet: “Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.”

And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified. Yes, even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.

So a word to the wise: innocent mistakes can knock your entry out of competition.

Now, I think this is pretty mean, personally. Usually, the author’s name (almost always the first) comes up as an unconscious slip, where it’s pretty obvious that the author thought she had expunged all relevant references to herself. But, as I have been telling you for the last couple of weeks, the submitter has absolutely no control over who is going to read his manuscript; it would behoove to prepare your entry, like your queries, under the assumption that the judge who is going to read it is the nastiest, most curmudgeonly nit-picker since, well, me.

“But Anne,” I hear you cry, pale at the prospect of encountering yours truly as a contest judge, “if this mistake is usually made inadvertently, how can I hope to avoid it?”

Well asked, oh fearful trembler. Experience sharpens the editing eye. Rest yourself upon the judge’s reading couch for a moment, and take a look at where these slips most commonly occur.

Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Biddy should check her entry especially carefully in the following scenes:

(1) When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Biddy, have you seen the our pet tiger, Max?”

(2) When another character is talking about the narrator behind her back: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver. He’s paying too much attention to that Biddy next door.”

(3) And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult says: “Elizabeth Deirdre MacAlister-Thames, you come in this house this instant!”

Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character OTHER than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you. So our Biddy should keep her eye out for these kinds of situations, too:

(4) When a third party addresses a family member: “Mrs. MacAlister-Thames, your daughter is under arrest.”

(5) When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: The Easter Bunny had been unusually generous to the MacAlister-Thames family that year.

And, as I mentioned above, self-references to EITHER your first or last name, not just to both together, count as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH your first AND last names in your entry before you print it up.

Yes, it’s a tedious thing to have to do, Biddy, and yes, you have my sympathies for having to do it. But frankly, I would rather see you annoyed and on the finalist list than not proofread and disqualified. I’m funny that way.

Keep up the good work!

Writing the real, part V: Characterization

Before I launch into today’s installment, I am delighted to have some good news to report about a member of the Author! Author! community. Remember last month, when I announced that long-time reader Janet Oakley was a finalist in the Surrey Writer’s Conference Literary Contest, for her essay, DRYWALL (from a larger work entitled TIME OF GRIEF)? Well, she WON! Everyone, please join me in a great big round of applause!

As I mentioned before, Janet is no stranger to contest recognition: her novels THE TREE SOLDIER and THE JOSSING AFFAIR were both past PNWA contest finalists. Primarily a writer of historical fiction, she has published articles and essays on a broad array of subjects, in everything from Rugby Magazine to Historylink.

Congratulations, Janet, and may this be a stepping-stone to many more victories for you! And everybody, please keep sending in your success stories – I love to be able to report good news about my readers.

Okay, back to the topic at hand. Throughout this series, I have been using an anecdote about a conference to show the dangers of incorporating real-life stories into your fiction submissions. Quite apart from the fact that such stories can sometimes feel very peripheral to the plot (come on, most of us have shoehorned a scene we liked into a book at least once), they often, perversely, lack the ring of truth when reproduced in a fictional context.

In this series, I have been trying to show you how and why. Let me try telling the anecdote again.

I was at a small conference in Montana, sitting by a plate glass window the size of a woolly mammoth, gazing out over a well-trimmed golf course toward the nearby blue mountains of Glacier National Park. I had given a class on manuscript submission dos and don’ts – necessary, but hardly thrilling – which, I am grateful to say, attracted many conference attendees to share their book ideas with me, looking for advice on how to impress agents with them.

However, even the most well-meaning of helpers needs a break from time to time, so I was sitting with one of the other presenters, enjoying a cup of the local stand-a-spoon-up-in-it coffee, the old West kind that keeps even latte-hardened Seattleites like me up for days on end. Suddenly, a dear little old lady plopped herself down in the middle of our conversation, introduced herself hurriedly as Ellen, and started telling us both about her book.

At length. As in the age of the woolly mammoth might have come and gone in the course of the telling.

I wasn’t altogether surprised. Ellen was, after all, the person who had brought the screenwriting class to a screeching halt the day before: when asked to give her three-line pitch, she spoke for the following twelve minutes nonstop. Four of those twelve minutes were unrelated anecdotes about her early life, begun in response to the screenwriting teacher’s polite but increasingly strained attempts to get her to narrow down her story to, well, three lines. I had to give her points for personal style.

By the end of the fortieth minute of monologue over coffee, however, her charm had begun to fade a little for me, I must admit. My initial conversational companion needed to catch a shuttle to the airport soon, so we had both begun to drop miniscule, subtle hints to Ellen that it might be time for us to stop listening and move on to pastures greener, or at any rate more airborne. Yet miraculously, each polite attempt to excuse a move toward the doorway seemed to remind Ellen of yet another anecdote marginally related to her book.

Not that it wasn’t entertaining stuff. Most of her stories concerned her grandmother’s ongoing plots with her father to humiliate her mother, who evidently was not the brightest crayon in the box, if you get my drift. Grandma was cultured, refined, the kind of lady who brushed off bores by rising imperiously and declaring, “If you will excuse me, I have some correspondence to which I simply must attend immediately.” Unfortunately, Grandma did not suffer fools gladly: her pet name for Mama was evidently “you ninny.” In fact, I gathered from the collected anecdotes, the only thing that drab little Mama had ever done in her life to please Grandma had been to marry Papa, thus providing an apparently endless stream of opportunities for the old girl and Papa to trick Mama into embarrassing situations.

Hilarity, naturally, ensued.

Amused as I was, I have to say, the more Ellen talked, the more I disliked Grandma qua character; I was starting to side with poor abused Mama, catering to that harpy for fifty years, married to that cad, AND doing all of the cooking and cleaning. Yet in each and every (and I do mean EVERY) story, Ellen presented Grandma as an admirable person, a gem forced to live in a henhouse, wreaking her well-justified revenge upon the people who supported her for their stupidity. (Oh, yes: Grandma used to target the townsfolk, too. I’ll spare you what he did to the Lutheran pastor; suffice it to say that he moved on to another parish toute suite.)

To compound the problem, Ellen’s anecdotal style was a bit diffuse, so as listeners, we were forced to be active, clarifying minor details such as, “What year was this?” “Why was it necessary to euthanize the dog?” and “What exactly did the King of Sweden have to do with this situation?” But mostly, being nice, well brought-up women, we said, “Oh, how hard that must have been for you,” and “My, how fascinating,” and glanced furtively at our watches.

As shuttle time ticked closer, our hints grew somewhat broader. We asked for the check; we paid the bill; we gathered our things, all the while murmuring whenever Ellen drew breath, “Mmm,” or, “How interesting,” or, “Look at the time — I’m going to miss my plane!” as the opportunity warranted. By the time Ellen launched into what I devoutly hoped was going to be her last anecdote, my friend and I were both standing, clutching the backs of our chairs, saying how nice it had been to meet her.

Ellen settled back into her seat, clearly all ready for hours of storytelling. Her next story concerned Grandma, of course. Seems she and Papa had worked out a system to prevent Mama from talking about herself (apparently, ever), a nefarious scheme for total domination so effective that Lex Luthor would have ground his teeth with envy. Whenever Mama began speaking on topics that did not interest the other two (all the examples Ellen gave were occasions when Mama wanted to express a personal opinion, I noticed), Grandma would interrupt her to ask Papa to fetch her something from the other room. Papa would beat a hasty retreat, with the understanding that by the time he returned, Grandma would have changed the subject to something of interest to civilized people, like the weather or Canasta.

One day (Ellen told us), Mama finally caught on. “You know,” she said, “I sometimes think that he does that just to get away from me.”

Ellen was laughing so hard that she could barely tell us Grandma’s characteristic reply: “I wondered how long it would take you to figure that out, you ninny.”

Ellen seemed quite astonished that we did not join in her laugh. This story must have been knocking ‘em dead at Lutheran potlucks for decades. “I have to say,” I observed, backing toward the door, “in your mother’s place, I would have poisoned the old woman’s pancakes the next day.”

“Just LOOK at the time,” my companion said. “I have to catch my plane.”

These seem to have been the first two sentences either of us had breathed that made an impact on Ellen. She fixed me with a fiery eye, the kind that Grandma had probably leveled at the ninny on an hourly basis. “Not everyone appreciates comedy,” she said, and, turning very pointedly to my companion, began another anecdote.

The end.

Now that story was significantly funnier in the pages-long version than it had been in the rather cursory earlier versions I told you, wasn’t it? It’s not the only way to tell it, of course, but here, I set the scene, gave you enough detail about Ellen and myself so you could follow our brief relationship, included relevant background detail, and made the narrative voice comment on what could have been a rather dull account. See the difference?

My main point this time around, though, is not about how I told the story of something that had happened to me, but how Ellen did. Ellen (naturally, not her real name) made the single most common mistake of the writer of real-life stories: she assumed that not only was every nuance of her family’s life inherently and instantaneously fascinating to people who had never met them (always a dangerous supposition, even in memoir), but also that HER point of view on who was the heroine of the stories she told was the only possible one. Yet actually, the pure facts of the tales said to my companion and me that poor ninny Mama was a more sympathetic heroine.

In other words, her dramatic emphasis boomeranged, not only negating the effect she wished her stories to have upon hearers, but causing us to switch our sympathies to the character she had cast as the villain. Ultimately, on in a manuscript, this would have turned us against the narrator for being so biased against our emotional favorite.

I can’t even begin to tell you how often I’ve seen this happen on paper. Take it as a rule of thumb: no matter how hard people at cocktail parties laugh at anecdotes, thumbnail sketches with a strong slant in favor of a single character almost never work when translated directly to the page. These stories need more telling, more fleshing out, and the author needs to pay attention to their impact upon the reader. And above all, the hero of the piece needs sufficient character development that the reader can empathize with his response to the villain.

In glaring at me, Ellen exhibited the classic real-story writer’s “But it really happened that way!” attitude. The problem was not in how the story was told, this attitude implies, but in the listener’s or reader’s RESPONSE to it. If a joke falls flat, it must be because the listener is a ninny; if the scene doesn’t work, it must be because the agent isn’t really interested in good writing.

And this attitude, unfortunately, often means that at revision time, the real-life scenes remain untouched, while the fictional scenes are revised into unrecognizability. As an editor, I can tell you: the opposite is usually what is warranted. Take a long, hard look at those real-life scenes first.

There endeth the parable. Import reality into your fiction with care, boys and girls, and as always, keep up the good work!

Writing the real, part IV: Filling in the background shading

I know that some of you have been waiting with bated breath for me to do my promised write-ups on sterling insights from these last two conferences — do not despair. As many of you know, I’m up against a tight revision deadline between now and the end of the month, so honestly, if I didn’t write it traveling to and fro recent conferences (hooray for long layovers), it’s probably not going to be posted before Halloween. It is all coming, however.

On Friday, I deliberately told a real-life anecdote in the way that most fiction writers include such stories in novels: in bare-bones form, assuming that my reader would automatically feel the way I did about the incident when it happened to me. I told it, as most aspiring writers do in their submissions to agents and editors, exactly the way I would have told friends over coffee — which is to say, I told it rather than showed it, and my telling, insofar as I got through the story at all, was light on such scene mood-setters as characterization, locale, etc.

I told it, in short, in a way that was not likely to prompt an agent to ask for the rest of the book.

Let’s return to my story, and see if I can tell it better this time. I was at a small conference in Montana, sitting by a plate glass window the size of a woolly mammoth, gazing out over a well-trimmed golf course toward the nearby blue mountains of Glacier National Park. (Better already, isn’t it?) I had given a class on manuscript submission dos and don’ts, which, I am grateful to say, attracted many conference attendees to share their book ideas with me, looking for advice on how to impress agents with them.

However, even the most well-meaning of helpers needs a break from time to time, so I was sitting with one of the other presenters, enjoying a cup of the local stand-a-spoon-up-in-it coffee, the old West kind that keeps even latte-hardened Seattleites like me up for days. Suddenly, a dear little old lady plopped herself down in the middle of our conversation and started telling us both about her novel. At length. As in the age of the woolly mammoth might have come and gone in the course of the telling.

I’m going to interrupt myself here to ask: isn’t this a more compelling telling of the story than Friday’s, which told the reader nothing about the setting or my mindset at the time the little old lady appeared? In this version, the scene is set enough that the arrival of the antagonist is palpably disruptive of a well-established mood. See why professional readers get annoyed by writers skipping that kind of background?

So we’re definitely better off than we were in the first telling, but this anecdote is still not up to submission standard. In fact, I’ve deliberately made another couple of common mistakes in this second telling, to see if you will catch it, too. Anyone? Anyone?

Points, of course, if you pointed out that I’m still telling about this little old lady, not showing. Also, I have tossed her into the story without giving her a name right off the bat – dooming my reader to endless future repetitions of the phrase “the little old lady.” (But she was small in real life, I tell you! And she was elderly, and female! It really happened! See how ineffectual reality is as an excuse for under-description?)

A great big gold star to those of you who caught that I’ve made the extremely common twin mistakes of assuming that the fact the story’s antagonist annoyed me is the most important thing about the scene — which, from my point of view, naturally it was — and that what annoys me will inevitably annoy everyone else in North America. (Extra credit to those of you who speculated that the pace of my going through this anecdote, and thus the length of this series, may have more to do with the fact that I wrote large parts of it while sitting in an airport in Kalispell, Montana, rather than home at my desk.)

The annoyance assumption is not limited to real-life scenes that are underwritten, of course. Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is annoying in real life, and they reproduce the lady down to the last shoelace, she will be annoying on the page as well, but that is frequently not true.

Exposing the schmucks around you for the scum they are is, of course, one of the great unsung compensations for being a writer. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Just be aware that it doesn’t always work. If a reader has to know you, or the other person, or any other pertinent background not in the book (or not essential to the plot), think very carefully about whether you want to keep the scene. Be aware, too, that often in such tellings, the writer’s dislike of the real-life person so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with her, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero.

You really don’t want that kind of ill feeling to boomerang back onto your protagonist or narrator, do you?

A really, really good test about whether it should stay: hand the relevant pages to someone who does not know you very well, WITHOUT saying “This happened in real life, you know,” and have her read it. Then (again without saying the magic phrase of justification) ask this helpful soul to tell the anecdote back to you. Does the emphasis fall where you expected in the retelling?

If it doesn’t, rework the scene or cut it. Give some serious consideration to changing a few of the facts to make it a better story on paper. (Not if it’s a memoir, of course, for A Million Little Reasons. In a memoir, real-life scenes that don’t work should just be cut.) After all, if you don’t go around trumpeting this particular scene in your novel is based upon a real event, how is the reader going to know?

Users of real-life material, please write this tip down and post it somewhere you can see it when you are sitting in your writing space: storytelling is supposed to resonate with truth AND be entertaining at the same time. Just because it happened a particular way doesn’t mean you have to TELL it that way. Because you are a fiction writer, not a reporter: dramatically, your story needs to work for your reader.

Have you noticed that I have not actually made it to the amusing part of the anecdote yet? I’m reserving that for tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work?

PS: Mark your calendars, folks up north: the PNWA is hosting one of its excellent Writing Connections events at the senior center in Mount Vernon on this coming Saturday, October 28th, from noon to 4 pm. Admission is free. Here’s your chance to meet published authors and a screenwriter and pepper them with questions!

Writing the real, part III, in which I both stress the importance of dramatic emphasis and illustrate what you might not want to do at a conference if you want to win friends and influence people

Pardon my Dickensian title today: I’m returning to the topic of including real-life incidents in your work, and I realized that my point here is AT LEAST twofold. Truth in advertising, don’t you know. Today, I am going to continue my conference story AND my blather about the importance of maintaining dramatic emphasis in order to make a real-life incident work on paper. Which brings me at long last to the conference anecdote I’ve been threatening to tell you for the last few days.

At a recent conference that shall remain nameless, a novelist of an apparently heavily autobiographical novel was telling me about her book. At some length. As in geological time. Admittedly, I wasn’t terribly surprised by this: this was, after all, the dear soul who had filled me with glee during the screenwriting class; when called upon to give her three-line pitch, she talked for twelve minutes nonstop. I had to give her points for personal style.

So I dispatched the other attendees waiting to ask me questions with promises to listen to them at length later and let the lady hold forth. She was an entertaining storyteller, and has evidently had quite the exciting life. Her storytelling style was a tad episodic, however, and somehow in telling, she veered off from her first novel into her second, in order to tell me a series of anecdotes about her maternal grandmother.

As one does.

Her grandmother, I am sorry to say, was one of those souls whom one had to know in order to love. The best way of pleasing her seemed to be not to end up in her gun sites. In these stories, the author was always presenting her as the heroine, yet somehow, in every instance, she seemed to be acting awfully villainish…

Okay, pop quiz: what am I doing wrong in telling this story? (You thought you were going to be able to sit back and enjoy the story, but no: I have a didactic purpose here.) A little hint: what am I doing that the vast majority of true story-tellers do when they include anecdotes?

Well, for starters, I’m telling you about this situation, instead of showing it — which, admittedly, is probably the way I would tell the anecdote verbally. Almost every writer falls into this trap when she first starts writing about the real: what works in a water cooler conversation will work on paper, right?

Not necessarily, and actually, not very often. Flesh out the details.

I am also assuming, within the context of this telling, that not only are you, my readers, going to have enough experience teaching at writers’ conferences that you will be able to provide context (because THAT’S such a common background to have…) without my telling you about it, but also that you will understand that as the teller, I am actually the protagonist here, rather than the old lady. My reaction to her is, in fact, the star of the story.

Like telling-not-showing, these are vintage traps of the real-life anecdote: like the first, it leads to under-writing the scene; I’m not presenting the situation vividly enough for you to get a real sense of what was going on. The last two are assumption problems, every bit as much as including a stereotype in your work. What the writer pitches, the reader does not always catch.

To give you some idea why agents and editors tend to break out in hives when confronted with this kind of anecdotal telling, let’s do a little role-playing, shall we? You play the agent, and I’ll play the author of the piece above. Let’s say you confronted me with the underwriting, and I immediately cried, “But it happened this way in real life!” Technically, I would be justified, you know; this did in fact occur.

What would you say in response? A bit tricky, isn’t it, without launching into a governessy diatribe that either implies that the writer’s craft is poor or that she shouldn’t be relying upon her own experience at all?

And that, my friends, is why you will seldom hear agents and editors talk about this problem at conferences. It makes them sound hostile. This reluctance to talk about the problem does not, however, prevent them from routinely rejecting manuscripts that have it.

I know; it’s dreadfully unfair to judge people by standards that they don’t know exist. That’s why I’m broaching the subject here. Because here is an instance where including a real-life anecdote may well be the best, or even the only, way to help writers walk a mile in an agency screener’s proverbial moccasins.

Tomorrow, I shall deal with the more subtle problems such anecdotes often have. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Writing the real, part II: dramatic emphasis

Yesterday, I was talking about the dangers of including actual incidents in fiction submissions. Why are the real-life scenes so often problematic, from the point of view of a professional reader, you ask? Because they tend to be under-explained in manuscripts, as though the incidents involved were so inherently telling that they required no further justification beyond a bare description of what occurred — or even enough detail beyond the skeletal facts of the case to allow the reader to mirror the protagonist’s (or, even more commonly, the narrator’s) response to the scene. In order to begin to discuss how to fix that problem, I am going to bring up a concept that tends to make serious writers grumble: the importance of dramatic emphasis.

It’s easy to forget to see our submissions from the point of view of the people who will be judging them, isn’t it? We all like to think (come on, admit it) that our writing is so good that simply any English-speaking reader currently alive would automatically fall in love with it, but the fact is, both target market readers and professional readers have individual tastes.

Two tastes that virtually all readers share, however, are a taste for clarity and a taste for being entertained.

“Yeah, yeah,” I hear some of you out there muttering, “you told us yesterday that we shouldn’t have anything in our submissions that we would want to be standing next to the reader explaining, because that’s just not how the submission process works. All that matters is what’s on the page, you said, and we should never assume that our readers will automatically share our worldviews. Fine. But what does dramatic emphasis have to do with either clarity or assuming advance knowledge in my audience?”

Plenty, if you are submitting novels. Agency screeners, editorial assistants, agents, editors, and contest judges all tend to read in a tearing, line-skimming hurry until they decide that the manuscript in front of them is a good one — and if the story isn’t keeping their interest, they have a nasty habit of edging it toward the rejection pile without further ado. Since the acceptance/rejection decision is often made in a split second, it’s vital that your submissions bring your best ideas (and your best writing) to the fore.

If the screener does not make it to page 15, it actually doesn’t matter, alas, how beautiful the writing is on pg. 16 and beyond. You want your first scene to be dramatically interesting enough to draw the professional reader — not just your target reader in the general public, who is usually quite a bit more tolerant of build-up — into wanting to read on.

I’ve said it before, and knowing me, I’ll doubtless say it again: if the first five pages of your book are not gripping, rearrange your submission so that the first five pages of IT are. (And that, if you’re curious, is the reason why so many novels these days begin with a brief prologue consisting of a scene late in the book. It’s a way to get a dramatically interesting, well-written scene under the screener’s eyes first.)

Yes, sometimes this means changing the running order of the book for the purposes of submission; you can always change it back again after the publisher buys the book. Remember, industry types don’t consider a novel finished until it is actually in print and sitting on a shelf at Powell’s — they EXPECT authors to rearrange things based upon their feedback. No one is going to yell at you for tweaking a submission in a way that you might not a finished book.

Since you often only have the first few pages of a submission to establish that you are an interesting, exciting writer that any agent would be a fool to overlook, you are going to want to select the raw materials of your first few pages with an eye to drama, right? Here’s a radical idea: lead with your strongest storyline, what people in the screenwriting biz call your A-story, rather than a subplot. (An AMAZINGLY high percentage of submissions begin with B-stories, or even C-stories.) Dramatically, it will be easier to draw the reader into your fictional world.

“Okay,” I hear some of you muttering, “I understand that it might be in my best interests to be strategic in my running order. But Anne, what does any of this have to do with writing real-life incidents in a fiction book?”

Again, plenty. Since, as I was mentioning yesterday, real-life scenes tend to be harder for the writer to assess in print — that old song, “But it really happened that way!” can wallpaper over a multitude of storytelling sins in the writer’s mind, and preclude dramatically-necessary revisions in the name of sticking to What Really Happened — may I be so bold as to make a suggestion? If you want to include such scenes, try to use them later in the book, rather than in the early pages of your submission.

Why? Because the real-life anecdote problem is so very well-known in the industry that quite a lot of agency screeners and editorial assistants will use it as a reason to shove a manuscript into the reject pile. It’s just safer not to do it in the early pages of your submission — wait until they have fallen in love with your voice before you start taking this kind of risk.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you cry, “it’s a NOVEL! How on earth are they going to know what is fact-based and what isn’t?”

Oh, you’d be surprised at how often real-life scenes have a big flag over them, proclaiming, “But this really happened!” One dead give-away of such scenes to professional eyes is that the reader is very obviously expected to take the narrator’s (or protagonist’s) side automatically in them. In such scenes, the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true — and it’s simply not as interesting as more nuanced conflict.

A particularly common flavor for such scene: a minor character walks into the room, and is obstructive in some very minimal way to the protagonist; thereafter, the protagonist (and usually the narrative as well) responds to that character as if she had burned down half the buildings in Western states AND slaughtered a basketful of kittens. To professional eyes, such a character in a book might as well be depicted with a forehead tattoo reading, “Co-worker of the author.”

I heard the gasps out there — did you really think you were the only writer in the history of the world to do this? Honeys, if I had a nickel for every manuscript I have read that contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why, I could buy a take the entire readership of my blog out to dinner in Paris, Milan, Tokyo, and Tierra del Fuego on consecutive nights, flying all of you in between on my fleet of private jets.

The sad part is that these scenes tend not to work even when they are well-written: the problem here is that a lack of perspective leads the writer to believe, inaccurately, that the reader will inhabit the scene as vividly as he did at that moment. However, readers are dependent upon the writer’s placing them there — these scenes actually tend to be LESS life-like than more fully-realized fictional ones where the author has let the reader in on the sights, smells, and tastes of the environment.

Let me posit a general rule: figuring out where to place the dramatic emphasis of a scene requires a certain amount of authorial detachment. Invariably, when professional readers flag these scenes, the writer is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not automatically translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader — or that his-stand-in in the scene is not necessarily all that likeable from the reader’s perspective, in that particular moment.

Or that the scene might not be all that funny. Remember, just because everyone on the airplane laughed when the beverage cart got loose and went shooting down the aisle, smashing into the cockpit door and spraying everyone in first class with a fragrant cocktail of soda, bloody Mary mix, and rapidly cooling coffee, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a fictional retelling of the scene will also be funny. As the author, it’s your job to MAKE it funny on the page — and if it isn’t, and your book is comic, it should not be in the first few pages of your submission.

My point is, be aware that often, writers’ judgment of scenes based upon their personal experiences is not as clear and unbiased as the same writers’ views on their wholly fictional scenes. Get an outside opinion of it — FROM SOMEONE WHO DID NOT WITNESS THE INCIDENT IN QUESTION — before you submit such a scene to the pros. Writing the true is a virtuoso trick, my friends: it may not take more craft to tell a real-life anecdote well, but it certainly requires a few more authorial steps backward to keep it in perspective.

Practical examples follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Assumptions, assumptions revisited: writing the real

Sometimes, when I write about an issue on the blog and have a hard time coming up with a solid, memorable, real-life example to illustrate it, the universe seems to go out of its way to provide an example immediately afterward. A few days ago, the PERFECT situation occurred to illustrate the point I had been making in my Assumptions, Assumptions series. So, although that series is rapidly fading into just an archival memory, I can’t resist revisiting it, to be able to use this anecdote.

Oh, like none of you have ever manipulated the running order of a story in order to be able to include a good bit of dialogue… And I have an even better excuse than usual: I started to write about it while sitting in an airport during a layover that can only have been designed to encourage me to embark upon some particularly ambitious personal project.

Like writing ULYSSES, for instance.

Remember how I was advising you last week that it is NEVER a prudent idea to assume that your reader — be it agency screener, editorial assistant, contest judge, or eventual reader — shares your worldview, age, sex, political affiliations, etc., because your never know who is going to end up judging your manuscript? I pointed out that such assumptions render the probability of rubbing a decision-maker in the submission process the wrong way a virtual certainty — and it’s always a poor strategic move to tumble into the bad graces of someone who has the power to get your book published.

What, you DIDN’T learn that at your mother’s knee? I did. The joys of growing up in a literary household: my kindergarten years were rife with cozy moments when adults took me upon their aged knees and complained to me vociferously about their agents or editors. But I digress.

One of the more subtle, but most common, assumptions that novelists in particular tend to make in manuscripts is that an incident that was funny or touching or character-revealing in real life will be equally as touching or character-revealing on the page. In fact, many of us were specifically taught to make this assumption while writing, weren’t we?

Hands up, everyone who has ever had a writing teacher tell you that you need to dig deep into the contents of your triple-locked diary in order to get your best material. Heck, I’ve been in writing classes where I was told that it was our ONLY material, as if such endeavors as research and plumbing the imagination were merely the lazy writer’s way to avoid writing about our bastard fathers.

I’m quoting Sylvia Plath here, incidentally. My father was not in any way a bastard, I’ll have you know. Naturally, my writing teachers despaired of me accordingly.

To be fair, for many writers, sticking to one’s own personal experience can yield some awfully good material for novels. As Virginia Woolf tells us, “Good fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.”

However, as anyone who has read fiction can tell you, not everything that happens in real life is plausible on paper. Why? Well, good fiction tends to adhere to rules of dramatic structure and probability; real life has a nasty habit of thumbing its nose at ol’ Aristotle’s rules.

Think about it: does your favorite story about yourself have a third act? An antagonist? Are you of royal blood (Aristotle was awfully picky about who was drama-worthy), to raise your most cherished heartbreak to the level of tragedy?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing the answer is no, on all counts. And here is where having a good imagination is awfully handy, isn’t it? A talented writer can almost always improve upon the merely real. In fact, that’s what fiction writers are paid to do — i if we’re lucky, that is.

I bring this up, because I’ve just been giving feedback at people’s informal pitches at a conference, and I’m here to tell you, “But it really happened that way!” is an EXTRAORDINARILY frequent exclamation in craft classes. Even in fiction, writers are often stunned at the suggestion that a fact-based incident in their books could be changed in order to enhance its impact upon the reader. And while appealing to the truth of an incident is a terrific thing to say within the context of an interview after your book is published, it’s just not an excuse that flies in the industry.

It’s a hard, hard fact for a lot of writers to swallow, but the fact is, in a submission, ALL that matters is what’s actually on the page. No further explanations allowed.

Which would render ULYSSES well-nigh impossible to sell in the current market, come to think of it. Imagine how fast an agency screener would have moved the first few pages of THAT into the rejection pile: “What’s going on here? Coherence? Structure?”

Oops, I’m digressing again; blame airport coffee.

“But it really happened that way!” is not an excuse that professional writers EVER use — or that most agents and editors will ever accept. Why? Because it’s the writer’s job to make everything in the book seem plausible, whether or not it really happened. And in a submission, no author in the world gets to stand over the agent or editor’s shoulder, explaining why she made this or that narrative choice.

It seems so obvious, once it’s said, doesn’t it?

Yet very few aspiring writers seem to bear the no-explanations-allowed rule in mind during their pre-submission revision process. Even in the best possible situation, with an agent who fell in love with your talent from your first sentence and an editor who had heart palpitations at the very mention of your premise, you will STILL not be able to stand by their sides while they are reading your submission, saying, “Well, you see, that’s in there because it really happened…”

And in no known universe will the agent or editor then say, “Oh, really? Knowing THAT makes the scene work. Let’s not cut it.” Sorry, but it just doesn’t happen.

Since I’m apparently just bursting with advice today, I’m going to codify this into a hard-and-fast rule: if you ask yourself, “Why is this scene here?” or
“Why does the scene need to play out this way?” and your answer contains any flavor of “But it really happened that way!” it’s an excellent idea to have an impartial reader take a look at that scene, to see if it works dramatically. Or if — and I tremble to suggest this, but it is what an agent or editor interested in your work would ask — if it even needs to be in the book.

In other words, the excuse itself may well be telling you something.

Oh, dear — I have come to the end of my space quota for today, and I haven’t even begun to tell you the anecdote that prompted this train of thought yet! There’s a lesson about the value of writerly discipline, isn’t it?

But speaking of discipline, my revision calls, so I must bid you adieu until tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

Manuscript revision VIII: har de har har har

My, I went on a tear yesterday, didn’t I? Well, better get comfy today, too, folks, because this is going to be another long one. Although, as a writer of comic novels on serious topics (my latest is about when the first AIDS death happened at Harvard, hardly inherently a chuckle-fest), the topic du jour is very close to my heart: making sure the funny parts of your manuscript are actually funny, and revising so they will be.

Why, you may be wondering, am I taking up this topic immediately after the issue of freshness of voice? Well, to professional readers, humor is often a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

Hey, there’s a reason that my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, opens with the death of the protagonist’s grandmother in a tragic bocce ball accident in Golden Gate Park. (After consultation with his fellow players, the murderer is allowed to take the shot again, with no penalty.) The smile raised by it buys the novel good will with editors for pages to come.

But if a submission TRIES to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

All very technical, I know. But as I’m relatively certain I’ve said before (about 7000 times, if memory serves), the more you can put yourself in your dream agent or editor’s reading glasses while you are revising your submission, the better off you will be in the long run.

Humor is a great way to establish your narrative voice as unique, but it can be a risky strategy. Why, you ask? Well, unless you are lucky or brave enough to be a stand-up comic, or have another job that allows you to test material on a live audience — okay, I’ll admit it: back when I was lecturing to college students, I used to try out jokes on my captive audience all the time — you honestly cannot tell for sure if the bits that seemed hilarious to you in the privacy of your studio would be funny to anyone else.

Trust me on this one: your first test of whether a joke works should NOT be when you submit it to the agency of your dreams.

So how can you know what works and what doesn’t? Personally, I read every syllable of my novels out loud to someone else before even my first readers or agent see them. If an expected chuckle does not come, I flag the passage and rework it, pronto.

Now, this isn’t a completely reliable test, because I have pretty good delivery (due to all of those years honing my comic timing on helpless college students, no doubt), but it does help me get a sense of what is and isn’t working. Reading out loud is also one of the few ways to weed out what movie people call bad laughs, the unintentional blunders that make readers guffaw.

This strategy only works, of course, if you are open to the possibility that the sentence that you thought was the best one-liner penned in North America since Richard Pryor died is simply not funny, and thus should be cut. Admittedly, this kind of perspective is not always easy to maintain: it requires you to be humble. Your favorite line may very well go; it’s no accident that the oft-quoted editing advice, “Kill your darlings,” came from the great wit Dorothy Parker.

But be ruthless: if it isn’t funny, it should go — no matter how much it makes you laugh. As any successful comedy writer can tell you, in the long run, actually doesn’t matter if the author laughs himself silly over any given joke: the reaction that matters is the audience’s. (And no, the fact that your spouse/mother/best friend laughed heartily does not necessarily mean a line is genuinely funny. It may mean merely that these people love you and want you to be happy.)

Lacking an audience, it is still possible to weed out the unfunny. There are a few common comic mistakes that should set off warning bells while you are editing — because, believe me, they will be setting off hazard flares in the minds of agents and editors.

First, look for jokes that are explained AFTER they appear in the text. Starting with the punch line, then working backward, is almost never as funny as bits told the other way around: a good comic bit should produce a SPONTANEOUS response in the reader, not a rueful smile three lines later. (And to an agency screener, explaining a joke after the fact looks suspiciously like the bit fell flat in the author’s writing group, and the writer scrambled to justify the joke in order to keep it in the book.) If background information is necessary in order to make a joke funny, introduce it unobtrusively earlier in the text, so the reader already knows it by the time you make the joke.

Second, ANY real-life situation that you have imported because it was funny should be read by other people before you submit it to an agent or editor. No fair telling it as an anecdote — have them read it precisely as you present it in the text. Keep an eye on your victims as they read: are they smiling, or do they look like jurors on a death penalty case?

The humorous anecdote that slayed ‘em at the office potluck VERY frequently rolls over and dies on the page. Just because everyone laughed when Aunt Myrtle’s prize-winning carrot-rhubarb pie fell onto your dog’s head at the Fourth of July picnic doesn’t necessarily mean that it will inspire mirth in the average reader. Especially if that reader doesn’t already know that Aunt Myrtle’s pies are renowned for making Mom swell up from an allergic reaction, so Dad generally arranges to have some tragic pie-related incident occur every year — which brings us back to problem #1, right?

Again, this is an assumption problem: there’s a reason, after all, that the language includes the phrase, “you had to be there.”

Don’t feel embarrassed, please, if you find that you have included such a scene: even the pros make this mistake very frequently; you know those recurring characters on sketch comedy shows, the ones that are only funny if you’ve seen them a couple of dozen times? Often, those are real-life characters pressed into comic service. (In the extremely unlikely circumstance that good comedy writer Ben Stiller will one day upon this message in a bottle: honey, that bit with the guy who keeps saying “just do it” has NEVER worked. It wasn’t funny in the often-hilarious THE BEN STILLER SHOW; it still wasn’t funny a decade later, in the not-very-funny STARSKY & HUTCH. Kindly stop telling us how funny it was when the guy did it in real life — it’s irrelevant.)

Third, you should also take a very, very close look at any joke or situation at which a character in the text is seen to laugh immoderately. (And if, after you reread it, you find yourself tempted for even 35 seconds to exclaim, “But everyone laughed when it happened!” go stand in the corner with Ben Stiller.) I like to call this the Guffawing Character Problem; it is ubiquitous in first novels, so much so that agency screeners often just stop reading when it occurs.

Why? Well, to professional eyes, having characters whoop and holler over a joke reads like insecurity on the author’s part: like the laugh track on a TV series, it can come across as merely a blind to cover a joke that actually isn’t very funny. It makes the reader wonder if, in fact, she’s being ORDERED to laugh. Agents and editors don’t like taking orders from writers, as a general rule.

The device also sets the funny bar unnecessarily high: the broader the character’s response, the more pressure on the poor little joke to be funny. If the character’s laugh is even one millisecond longer than the reader’s, it’s going to seem as though the writer is reaching.

Fourth, excise any jokes that you have borrowed from TV, movies, radio shows, other books, or the zeitgeist. And definitely think twice about recycling comic premises from any of the above. This is a freshness issue: by definition, a joke that has been told before by someone else isn’t fresh, right?

This may seem like rather strange advice to those of you who have just spent summer conference season being told endlessly by agents and editors that they are looking for books like this or that bestseller, but honestly, copycat books usually don’t sell all that well. (Witness how quickly chick lit fell off agents’ hot lists, for instance.) As Mae West liked to say, there are a lot of copies out there, but if you’re an original, no one can mistake you for someone else. No one remembers the copies.

Don’t believe me? Okay, name three books patterned after COLD MOUNTAIN. Or SEX IN THE CITY. Or, if you want to go farther back in time, CATCH-22. I thought not.

#5 is really a subset of #4, but it is common enough to warrant its own warning: if you use clichés for comic effect, make ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that you have used them correctly. You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to misreproduce clichés. (I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests and edited hundreds of manuscripts.) If you’re going for a recognition laugh, you’re far more likely to get it with “It’s a dog-eat-dog world” than “It’s a doggie-dog world.”

Trust me on this one. An incorrectly-quoted cliché will kill any humorous intention you had deader than the proverbial doornail. So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are 10-foot, not 100-foot. (How would you lift a 100-foot pole without the assistance of a dozen friends, anyway?) When in doubt about the proper phraseology, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

Even better, leave the clichés out altogether. Most agents and editors dislike clichés with an intensity that other people reserve for fiery automobile crashes, airplane malfunctions, and the bubonic plague. They feel (as do I) that a writer worth rewarding with a publishing contract should be able should be able to make it through 50 pages of text without reverting to well-worn truisms, even as a joke.

If you are new to writing comedy, allow me to let you in on a little secret: many jokes that garner chuckles when spoken aloud fall flat in print. This is particularly true of the kind of patented one-liner people on the street are so fond of quoting from their favorite sitcoms, movies, and sketch comedy shows. Take a gander, for instance, at these zingers out of context:

From the 1970s: Excu-u-use me!
From the 1980s: You look mahvelous!
From the late 1990s: I don’t know karate, but I do know cah-razy.

Now, if you close your eyes and conjure up vivid images of Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, and Owen Wilson, respectively, saying these lines, these old chestnuts might still elicit the odd chuckle. Go ahead and chuckle your head off, if you are given to atavistic clinging to the popular culture of your past, but please, I implore you, do not make the (unfortunately common) mistake of reusing these kinds of once-popular catchphrases in your writing. Not only are such bits seldom funny out of context, but it will date your book: what is humor today probably will not be in a decade, and one generation’s humor will not be another’s.

In fact, if you aspire to perfecting your comic voice, it might behoove you to take a good, hard look at the careers of Mssrs. Martin, Crystal, and Wilson — and Mssr. Stiller and Madame Mae West, for that matter. All of them started out as comedy writers, writing material for themselves and others, and all became progressively less funny (in this writer’s opinion) as soon as they started performing comic material written by other people.

An accident? I think not. They became less funny because their individual comic voices had gotten lost.

Oh, the people who were writing for them have tried to recapture their quite distinct original voices, but the copy is never as vivid as the original. Why any of you stopped writing your own material is a mystery to me. But I digress…

And so will an agency screener’s mind digress, if you drag gratuitous pop culture references into your submissions. People tend to have very strong associations with particular periods in their lives, and for all you know, the reference you choose to use may be the very one most favored in 1978 by your dream agent’s hideously unkind ex, the one who lied in court during the divorce proceedings and hid assets so cleverly that their daughter’s college fund had to be used to pay those unexpected medical bills of Mother’s. Then the car broke down, and all of those checks bounced, and the orthodontist tried to repossess Angela’s braces…

See what happened? One little pop culture reference, and POW! You’ve lost your reader’s attention entirely.

So even if you are using pop culture references to establish a particular period, do it with care. Be sparing. Even if your teenage son quoted SHANGHAI NOON endlessly for six solid months while the entire family cringed in a Y2K fallout shelter, do be aware that your reader might not have the associations you do with those jokes. There are a myriad of associational possibilities — and almost none of them will make YOUR work more memorable or seem fresher.

Which brings me full-circle, doesn’t it? One of the advantages to using humor in your submissions is to demonstrate the originality of YOUR voice — not Owen Wilson’s, not Steve Martin’s, and certainly not that anonymous person who originated that joke your best friend from college just forwarded to you. If your individual voice is not inherently humorous, don’t try to force it to be by importing humor from other sources. Lifting material from elsewhere, even if it is genuinely funny, is not the best means of establishing that YOU are funny — or that yours is a book well worth reading.

Or better still, remembering AFTER having read and offering to represent or publish.

People still remember Mae West, my friends, not her hundreds of imitators. Here’s to all of us being originals on the page — and keep up the good work!

The myth of objectivity

Hello, readers –

I have received some interesting responses to Monday’s post about the relative weight public and private history should bear within the context of a memoir or novel (Getting the Balance Right, April 17). A couple of people have asked: what about objectivity? Aren’t there times when an objective statement of what is going on in a situation is appropriate?

A good question, and one that certainly deserves discussion.

Obviously, there are writing situations where a certain narrative distance from the subject matter is helpful to telling the story, but I’m not convinced that narrative distance, even far narrative distance drained of personal commentary, is inherently the best way to describe anything. Nor is it actually objectivity. Objectivity, it seems to me, does not lie in discounting the personal experiences of the individuals actually affected by the larger phenomenon being described, or in stripping a story of emotional content; these, too, are reflective of the storyteller, conscious choices in selecting a style of narrative. True objectivity, I think, consists of showing a complex story in all of its emotional roundness without judging the characters.

Or, as Mme. de Staël put it, “Philosophy is not insensitivity.”

I know, I know: this is most emphatically not how we generally hear the term objectivity bandied about. Most often, we hear it when the news media praises itself: they like to plume itself on presenting stories objectively. However, as anyone who reads a newspaper regularly can tell you, how journalistic objectivity tends to be more about balance than distance.

The imperative to balance, as if there were two – and only two – sides to any issue, often results in articles that are only superficially objective, or in presenting only the extreme ends of the opinion spectrum. In an effort to be fair to both sides, both of the sides presented are depicted as equally reasonable, and often as though humanity itself were split absolutely 50-50 on the point. Which in turn often gives the impression that every group involved is equally large. (I’m not giving the obvious example here, just in case any future president should want to appoint me to the Supreme Court.) And while the journalists who write such articles seem to be adhering strictly to the rules of objectivity they were taught in journalism school, the necessity of selecting which two POVs to highlight as the only two relevant arguments, and which to relegate to obscurity, is in itself a subjective choice.

We’ve all seen such articles, right? The structure is invariable: begin with personal anecdote about Person A on Side 1; move to description of overarching phenomenon; state what the government/institution/neighborhood proposes to do about the phenomenon; bring in the opinion of Person B on Side 2; discuss what that side would like to see done; project future. Then end with an emotion-tugging paragraph on the lines of, “But for now, Person A must suffer, because of all of the events mentioned in Paragraph 1.”

Now, is that truly objective? It is balanced, sure, insofar as Side 1 and Side 2 are both presented, but since the structure dictates that the reader gets more personal insight into Person A’s plight, doesn’t the choice of which side to highlight first dictate where most readers’ sympathies will tend?

How a journalist or any other writer – or a researcher, or a pollster, for that matter — chooses to frame a question is necessarily subjective. Heck, how we decide what is important enough to write about is a subjective decision. If you doubt this, I suggest an experiment: the next time a telephone pollster calls, pay attention to how the questions are worded. Are they encouraging certain answers over others? How many questions does it take you to figure out who commissioned the poll?

I’m not saying that writers should throw objectivity out the window; far from it. However, I think we are all better writers when we recognize that how we choose to define an objective stance is in itself a subjective decision. Once a writer acknowledges that, taking authorial responsibility for those choices rather than assuming that distance equals objectivity, and that objectivity is good, all kinds of possibilities for nuance pop up in a manuscript.

Which bring me back to my original point: from the reader’s POV, the objective facts of a story are only important insofar as they affect the characters the reader cares about – and that can be liberating for the writer.

Movies and television have encouraged the point of view of the outside observer in writing, because no matter how close a close-up is, the camera is always separate from the action it is filming to some extent. But not every story is best told from the perspective of a complete stranger standing across the room from the action; even in an impersonal third person narrative, the author can choose, for instance, to take into account the observations of the crying toddler being held in the arms of the protagonist. It is not better or worse, inherently, than the detached, across-the-room perspective; it is merely different. Considering it as a possibility, along with a wealth of other perspectives, gives the writer much more control in producing the desired emotional impact of the scene.

Not all editors, writing teachers, or readers would agree with me, of course, but as there were so many writers trained in the early-to-mid 20th century that a Graham Greene-like narrative detachment was the best way to tell most stories, resulting in a generation and a half of schoolchildren being taught that the third person SHOULD mean complete narrative detachment, I’m not too worried that all of you out there won’t hear the other side’s arguments.

I’m not a journalist, after all; I am under no obligation to show you Side 2.

One final word on objectivity for those of you who write about true events: many, if not most, members of the general public confuse their individual points of views with objectivity, as if we all went through life testifying in an endless series of depositions. They insist that their individual, subjective POVs are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and therefore the only possible version of events.

I bring this up, because literally every author I have ever met who has published a book about real events that took place within living memory (myself included) has been accosted at some point by someone whose life was touched by the events depicted in the book. These accosters then summarily inform the author that she is WRONG; the events certainly did not take place that way, and no reasonable person could possibly think that the author’s POV on the subject was accurate. Obviously, then, the author must have maliciously twisted the facts on purpose, to create a false impression. Because facts are objective, by gum: in a well-ordered universe, everyone would tell every story exactly the same way. And the author is left standing there, open-mouthed.

I just wanted you to be prepared.

Sadly, there is little the author can do in response to this sort of attack. It’s been my experience, and my true story-writing friends’, that it does not aid matters to try to explain the basic principles of subjectivity vs. objectivity or point of view to people who insist there can be only one POV. It’s easiest to treat such vehement amateur readers as you would a professional POV Nazi: thank them warmly for their input and get out of the room as fast as you can. If you see them in future, run the other way. (For further tips on handling the POV-insistent, see my posting, Help! It’s the Point-of-View Nazis!, April 4 and 5.)

I honestly do wish that I could give all of you who write about real events a talisman that would protect you, but this is one of those areas where writers tend to view the world very differently than others. If you doubt this, just try explaining to someone who has never tried to write what it’s like to be so grabbed by a story that you feel compelled to lock yourself up for months on end to get it on paper, without anyone paying you to do it. By non-artistic standards, the creative drive just doesn’t make sense.

I say that we should just embrace the fact that we think differently from other people. Let’s revel in our subjectivity, because insightful subjectivity is the cradle of original authorial voice. Let’s not be afraid to tell stories from various subjective POVs, where that’s appropriate. And above all, let’s not fall into the trap of believing that there is only one way to look at any given event. Or even two. Because that kind of attitude robs writers of the power to choose how best to tell the story at hand.

As Flaubert tells us, ”One does not choose one’s subject matter; one submits to it.” Let the story’s complexities dictate how it needs to be told.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Getting the balance right

Hello, readers –

I don’t want to disturb you, if you are one of the countless many rushing to get your tax forms postmarked by the time the post office closes, so I shan’t burden you today with a description of what tax time is like for the full-time writer. There will be time enough for that tomorrow, after everyone’s had a good night’s sleep.

In the meantime, please be extra-nice to postal employees today, because this is one of their most stressful workdays of the year — would you want hundreds of panicked last-minute filers rushing up to your workstation all day? — and I shall devote today’s posting to a writing insight I had over the weekend.

As many of you know, I have a memoir in press and a novel on the cusp of making the rounds of editors. In my freelance editing business, I regularly edit both, as well as doctoring NF books, so I consider myself pretty savvy about the tricks of the trade. This weekend, as if to remind me that I should always keep an open mind, a deceptively simple but undeniably useful rule of thumb popped into my mind while I was editing (drum roll, please):

The weight a given fact or scene should have in a manuscript is best determined by its emotional impact upon the book’s protagonist, rather than by its intrinsic or causative value.

Is that too technical? In other words, just because an event is important in real life doesn’t mean that it deserves heavy emphasis in a story. In a memoir, events are only relevant as they affect the central character(s); in a first-person novel, this is also true. Even in a third-person narrative told from a distant perspective, not every fact or event is equally important, and thus the author needs to apply some standard to determine what to emphasize and what merely to mention in passing.

To put this in practical terms: if you were writing about characters who lived New York in September of 2001, obviously, it would be appropriate to deal with the attacks on the World Trade Center, because it affected everyone who lived there. To some extent, the attacks affected everyone in the country, and in the long term, people in other countries as well. However, not everyone was affected equally, so not every book written about New Yorkers, Americans, or world citizens during that period needs to rehash the entire 9/11 report.

This may seem obvious on its face, but in practice, writers very often misjudge the balance between personal and public information in their manuscripts, as well as between historical backstory (both impersonal and personal) and what their protagonists are experiencing in the moment. In fact, it is a notorious megaproblem of memoirists and first-time novelists alike.

Sometimes, balance issues arise from a genuinely laudable desire to ground the story believably in a given time period. Memoirs about the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, tend to include extensive disquisitions on both the Vietnam War and hippie culture, the writerly equivalent of director Oliver Stone’s amusing habit of decorating crowd scenes from that period with a visible representative of every group in the news at the time, regardless of whether members of those groups would ever have attended the same event in real life: a protest march including Abbie Hoffman flanked by Gloria Steinem and several Black Panthers, for instance, with perhaps a Rastafarian, two of the Supremes, and Cat Stevens thrown in for good measure.

I bring up movie-style time markers advisedly, because, as I have pointed out before, how movies and television tell stories has seeped into books. On a big screen, stereotypical images are easier to get away with, I think, because they pass so quickly: have you noticed, for example, that virtually every film set in a particular year will include only that year’s top ten singles on the soundtrack, as though no one ever listened to anything else?

Frankly, I think this is a lost opportunity for character development, in both movies and books. Music choice could tell the reader a lot about a character: the character who was listening primarily to Smokey Robinson in 1968 probably thought rather differently than the character who was listening to the Mamas and the Papas or Mantovani, right? Even if they were smoking the same things at the time.

To use an example closer to home, in high school, if my cousin Janie and I walked into a record store at the same time, she would have headed straight to the top 40 hits, probably zeroing in rather quickly on big ballad-generating groups like Chicago. She was always a pushover for whoever used to warble the “I’m all out of love/I’m so lost without you” equivalent du jour. I, on the other hand, would have headed straight for the razor-cut British bands with attitude problems, your Elvis Costellos and Joe Jacksons. I am quite sure that I was the only 7th-grader in my school who was upset when Sid Vicious died.

Quick, which one of us was the cheerleader, me or Janie? And which one of us brought a copy of THE TIN DRUM to read on the bleachers when the football game got dull? (Hey, it was a small town; there was little to do but go to the Friday night high school football game.)

Such details are very useful in setting up a believable backdrop for a story, but all too often, writers spend too much page space conveying information that might apply to anyone of a particular age or socioeconomic group at the time. It’s generic, and thus not very character-revealing.

If I told you, for instance, that Janie and I both occupied risers in the first soprano section of our elementary school choir, belting out numbers from FREE TO BE YOU AND ME, much of the Simon & Garfunkel songbook, and, heaven help us, tunes originally interpreted by John Denver, the Carpenters, and Woody Guthrie, does this really tell you anything but roughly when the two of us were born?
Okay, the Woody Guthrie part might have tipped you off that we grew up in Northern California, but otherwise?

When books spend too much time on generic historical details, the personal details of the characters’ lives tend to get shortchanged. (And, honestly, can’t we all assume at this point that most readers are already aware that the 1960s were turbulent, that people discoed in the 1970s, and that it was not unknown for yuppies to take the occasional sniff of cocaine in the Reagan years?) It’s a matter of balance, and in general, if larger sociopolitical phenomena did not have a great impact upon the protagonist’s life, I don’t think those events deserve much page space.

I think this is also true of minutiae of family history, which have a nasty habit of multiplying like weeds and choking the narrative of a memoir. Just because the narrator’s family did historically tell certain stories over and over doesn’t mean that it will be interesting for the reader to hear them, right?

You would be amazed at how often memoirists forget this. Or so agents and editors tell me.

This is particularly true of anecdotes about far-past family members. If your great-grandmother’s struggle to establish a potato farm in Idaho in the 1880s has had a strong residual impact upon you and your immediate family, it might be worth devoting many pages of your memoir or autobiographical novel to her story. However, if there is not an identifiable payoff for it from the reader’s POV — say, the lessons she learned in tilling the recalcitrant soil resulting a hundred years later in a certain fatalism or horror of root vegetables in her descendents — the reader may well feel that the story strays from the point of the book. James Michener be damned — consider telling Great-Grandma’s story in its own book, not tacking on a 200-page digression.

I think we all know that the earth cooled after the Big Bang, Mr. Michener. Let’s move on.

Because, you see, in a memoir (or any first-person narrative), the point of reference is always the narrator. Within the context of the book, events are only important insofar as they affect the protagonist. So even if the story of how the narrator’s parents met is a lulu, if it doesn’t carry resonance into the rest of the family dynamic, it might not be important enough to include.

In my memoir, I do in fact include the story of how my parents met — not because it’s an amusing story (which it is, as it happens), but because it is illustrative of how my family tends to treat its collective past primarily as malleable raw material for good anecdotes, rather than as an unalterable collection of hard facts. “History,” Voltaire tells us, and my family believed it, “is a series of fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”

I don’t say whether this is actually true or not; as a memoirist, my role is not to make absolute pronouncements on the nature of truth or history, but to present my own imperfect life story in a compelling way. So in my memoir, I reproduce the three different versions of the story of how my parents met that I heard most often growing up, with indications of the other dozen or so that showed up occasionally at the dinner table during my most impressionable years. I include them, ultimately, because my family’s relationship to its own past was a terrific environment for a child who would grow up to be a novelist.

Most of us are pretty darned interesting to ourselves: it’s hard not to have a strong reaction to your own family dynamics, whether it be amusement, acceptance, or disgust. That’s human; it’s understandable. But as a writer dealing with true events, you have a higher obligation than merely consulting your own preferences: you have a responsibility — and, yes, a financial interest, too, in the long run — to tell that story in such a way that the reader can identify with it.

Remember, fascinating people are not the only people who find themselves and their loved ones interesting; many a boring one does as well. And if you doubt this, I can only conclude that you have never taken a cross-country trip sitting next to a talkative hobbyist, a fond grandmother, or a man who claims his wife does not understand him.

Quoth D.H. Lawrence in SONS AND LOVERS: “So it pleased him to talk to her about himself, like the simplest egoist. Very soon the conversation drifted to his own doings. It flattered him immensely that he was of such supreme interest.”

So if you are writing about your kith and kin, either as fiction or nonfiction, take a step back from time to time and ask yourself: have I gotten the balance right?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Doing your homework

I received an excellent question from a blog reader the other day:

I’d be interested in how you went about doing your research for any background, setting for your work. I’ve had some essays published on family stories and in addition to talking to family members (sometimes the stories are different POV), I made sure that any historical or political and culture matters were also correct. What do you do?

First, good for you for being brave enough to write up your versions of your family stories. Too many of us think of family history as set in stone, doubtless due to the frequent repetition of family lore around the holiday dinner table. Sometimes, it feels as though Uncle Ernie has told the story of how he got his first job as a longshoreman so many times that everyone in North America must have heard it by now, right?

Actually, family stories are far more ephemeral than even the most fleeting joke bouncing its way via e-mail from workstation to workstation. At least the jokes are written down. Uncle Ernie may well have told that same story every day for the last thirty years, but the very fact that he has told it so often probably means that no one in the family has ever taken the time to write it. Thus, when Uncle Ernie is no longer able to tell it, the story may well pass out of family lore.

If you are hesitating about writing about your family, consider this: some day, it may be the only record left. Those telling little details of yesteryear may survive in your work alone.

Even academics now recognize that there is distinct historical value in personal and familial historical accounts. It has gone out of fashion to thank Marxists for anything, but in the 1960s, a group of Marxist social historians revolutionized the way scholars studied history: instead of concentrating upon monarchs, presidents, and huge social and economic movements, they started paying attention to how the ordinary person lived. Before, the day-to-day details were left to newspapers and novels to record, but now, your Uncle Ernie’s timeworn story might be just the piece of oral history evidence that allows a social historian to piece together the early days of the longshore union.

My questioner is already doing the most important thing: listening to her family members. Even if you have heard any given family anecdote five hundred times before, it is worth asking to hear it again —- and, taking a page from the new social historian’s rulebook, asking pertinent questions.
It is also worth asking other members of the family and family friends to give their renditions of the story; you may be surprised at how different Aunt Rose’s view of events actually was.

To give those of you new to interviewing fair warning: Uncle Ernie may be thrilled at first that you are so interested in his life story, but he may well appreciate it less when you interrupt the flow of his story to ask follow-up questions. He may think you are doubting his word, especially when he learns you have also asked Aunt Rose for her version.

Here again, use the social historian’s methods, and treat your interview subject with care, for an angry Uncle Ernie may not only refuse to talk to you again, but also take some steps to dissuade Aunt Rose. Once the rumor is afoot in your family that you are going around shaking closets to dislodge well-concealed ghosts, you may find it rather hard to get the people you want to interview to talk to you, out of fear of offending the complaining relative. Tread with care.

The simplest way to sidestep issues of belief is to allow Uncle Ernie to tell the story uninterrupted once, making appreciative noises and taking copious notes on questions you would like to ask. Then tell him, “I love this story, but I’m going to be writing it for people who have never met you. I want to make sure that I capture your wonderful wit/incisive analysis/technique for loading boxes onto a ship accurately. Do you mind if I ask a bunch of very nit-picky questions?”

Few interviewees will respond with hostility to being told they are fascinating, but if Uncle Ernie says no, let it drop. Pay him the courtesy of asking if you can talk to him again later, even if you think he has told you every detail of his life in excruciating detail. Remember, by providing you with background information for your writing, he is doing you a favor. Respond accordingly, and make it clear that you are enjoying listening to him.

It would also be polite to ask him to recommend any other family members or old cronies who might be able to tell you more stories about the period or the event. Volunteer to take him to visit an old coworker he hasn’t seen since 1962, or for a walk along his old waterfront stomping grounds, so he can tell you stories as familiar environments prompt his memory. The more you can make your interviewee your partner in the research process, rather than merely a passive subject for your pen, the less likely you are to provoke a negative reaction to your snoopiness.

Try grouping together different combinations of speakers —- and make sure you give each interviewee an opportunity to speak when no one else is listening but you. Aunt Rose may well have kept her opinions about certain aspects of the event you are researching to herself for the last fifty years; she probably will not just blurt out her reserved views in front of others.

If your interviewees will allow it, consider tape-recording these conversations. This may seem a tad professional for an informal family chat, but believe me, you will be happier if you do not rely upon your memory or your notes alone. First, you may not remember accurately: the shock of ever-quiet Aunt Rose’s revelation that she was a steamy chanteuse in a speakeasy may well throw your listening skills for a loop.

Second, the most important detail revealed in any given conversation may not be immediately apparent. With a recording, you can always go back through the conversation again.

Third, and most important for the sake of intra-family tranquility, you will have an easy, non-judgmental way to defend yourself if Aunt Rose later denies ever having told you about her days as a gangster’s moll. (Contrary to a certain ilk of TV movie may have led us to expect, interesting people of the past were not necessarily all that prone to meticulously documenting every last aspect of their exploits, tucking the evidence away for decades until some enterprising relative stumbles upon it hidden just behind some everyday object.)

Before you launch on your interviews, it is a good idea to read up on the period your writing will cover, both for background and so you can ask intelligent questions. Please don’t assume that you already know, even if the period was relatively recent. Pop culture has a way of distorting the life of the times.

You know how annoying it is when a movie about a period you know well fills the screen with nothing but clichés? As someone who was a teenager in the 1980s, it drives me nuts when crowd scenes set then (particularly when those scenes are set in high schools) will show Izod-shirted preppies chatting with guys with safety pins through their noses and mohawks: those two groups would have studiously avoided each other. Similarly, most films about the 1950s feature the same ten songs and every woman decked out in poodle skirts or Chanel couture; all to often, films purporting to depict Vietnam protests depict Abbie Hoffman arm-in-arm with Timothy Leary and flanked by Black Panthers, feminists, and, if it’s an Oliver Stone film, a few pointlessly topless young women to signify bacchanalia. It is not how people who were there remember it.

It is equally annoying to someone being interviewed about his experiences when the interviewer’s notions of what life was like is primarily based upon the big movements and fads. Not everyone who lived in the 1920s had a raccoon coat, Charlestoned, or got drunk with Scott Fitzgerald; do be sensitive about implying that you interview subject should have. Traditionally, most fashions and the bulk of the fads have been beyond the financial reach of most people: I, for one, could not have afforded a pet rock when those were the rage.

Try to keep in mind that life during any period of history was complex, hard to reduce to universally-shared experiences. Be open to stories that buck the prevailing views. Grace Metalious’ PEYTON PLACE (1956) and William S. Burroughs’ NAKED LUNCH (1959) were written within a few years of each other, but no one could argue that they showed the same aspects of the 1950s.

My point is, your sense of any period will be better if you do not rely upon a single source to learn about it. Generally speaking, I would advise reading four or five history books and/or well-researched novels written during the period you are writing about (not just books SET in that period) for background. My long-ago academic training was as a political scientist, though, so my instinct is to research to the hilt. If you want to be really thorough, read books from the period with opposite political slants —- what each side considered appalling should provide you with a wealth of socio-political detail. Ask Aunt Rose and Uncle Ernie what their favorite books were back then, and read them.

Of course, you should always check facts, particularly dates, which often become confused in the memory. A good history textbook or encyclopedia will help you here. I know many people swear that the Internet is the best and fastest way to gain information, but I would advise against relying upon it exclusively. There are very few controls, and even fewer truth monitors, governing who can post what. You do not know if the person who posted that very informative timeline on Abraham Lincoln (born 1242, died 1968?) was a genuinely credible history buff or someone with an oddly historically-based sense of humor. Double-check the facts, and keep records on where you obtained pertinent information.

If you are looking to check an obscure fact or are having trouble confirming a date, call your public library and ask the reference librarian for research guidance. The Seattle Public Library boasts a terrific Quick Information Line, where the nice operator will either look up odd facts for you or refer you to someone who can. I love this service —- when I was writing a novel about a scholar who specialized in Eastern European studies, the Quick Information people found me (for free) an expert who happily talked to me for half an hour about common linguistic mistakes made by people in the early stages of learning Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian. It would have taken me months to find comparable information on my own —- but there was my beloved city, stepping up to provide me with exactly what I needed.

This may seem like an awful lot of work for the sake of a few family anecdotes, but doing solid background research will help elevate your writing from the all-too-common temporal truisms and into the realm of the real. To a writer, there can be a more important praise from someone who lived through the incident she’s written than, “Oh, my, that feels so true!”

Thanks for the great question —- and keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini