Before you pop that first query or submission of the year into the mail, may I have a word?

And would you mind very much, New Year’s resolvers, if that word were wait?

I know, I know: you want to get that query or submission out the door. You’re resolved, in fact, that this will be the January that you crack the publication code. And the sooner you launch your plans, the better, right, because otherwise, you might lose momentum?

Admirable intentions, all, especially the last: as the media so eager to urge you to make that resolution — or, indeed, any New Year’s resolution — will be telling you in a few weeks, the average New Year’s resolution lasts only a few weeks. Which means, in practice, that far from being the best time of the year to act upon those laudable plans, the first few weeks of the year are strategically the worst.

Or, at the very least, the time when a query or submission is most likely to be rejected. Why? Every year, literally millions of aspiring writers across this fine land of ours make precisely the same New Year’s resolution — with the entirely predictable result that every year, rejection rates go up in the first few weeks of January.

Was that resounding thunk that just reverberated throughout the cosmos the sound of thousands of first-time queriers and submitters’ jaws hitting the floor? I’m not entirely surprised. For most writers new to the game, the notion that any factors other than the quality of the writing and excellence of the book’s concept could possibly play a role in whether a query or submission gets rejected is, well, new. If a manuscript is genuinely good, these eager souls reason, it shouldn’t matter when it arrives at an agency or small publishing house, right? By the same logic, if a query for a truly well-written book — which is, contrary to popular opinion, not the same thing as a truly well-written query — lands on a pro’s desk, it will be received in precisely the same manner if it’s the only query arriving that day, or if it must howl for attention next to hundreds or thousands of incoming queries.

Meanwhile, tomorrow morning, agents, editors at small publishing houses, and the screeners who read their day’s allotment of queries will open their e-mail inboxes and moan, “Why does every aspiring writer in North America hit SEND on January 1? Do they all get together and form a pact?”

Effectively, you do. You all formed such similar New Year’s resolutions, you see.

So did the tens of thousands of successful queriers from last year who decided that after December 31, they were going to stop fiddling with their manuscripts and send those pages the agent of their respective dreams requested, unfortunately. It doesn’t occur to them, understandably, that each of them is not the only one to regard the advent of a new year as the best possible time to take steps to achieve their dreams.

Instead of, say, February 12th. Or the fifth of May. Or October 3. Or, really, any time of the year that the sheer weight of numbers would guarantee that competition would be stiffer for the very few new writer slots available at any well-established agency or small publishing house.

That made half of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “Wait — what do you mean, very few new writer slots ?” queriers and submitters new to the game gasp. “Don’t agents take on every beautifully-written new manuscript and intriguing book proposal that comes their way?”

That’s a lovely notion, of course, but in practical terms, it would be impossible. Think about it: reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books to publishers and when those books earn royalties, right? There’s more to that than simply slapping covers on a book and shipping it to a local bookstore. In any given year, only about 4% of traditionally-published books are by first-time authors, and those books tend as a group to be less profitable: unless a first-timer already enjoys wide name recognition, it’s simply more difficult for even the best marketing campaign to reach potential readers.

So at most agencies, most of the income comes from already-established clients — which means, on a day-to-day basis, a heck of a lot of agency time devoted to reading and promoting work by those authors. In recent years, selling their work has gotten appreciably harder, as well as more time-consuming, yet like so many businesses, publishing houses and agencies alike have been downsizing. At the same time, since writing a book is so many people’s Plan B, hard economic times virtually always translate into increased query and submission volume. That means agencies have to devote more hours than ever before to processing queries and submissions — an activity that, by definition, does not pay them anything in the short run.

Why should any of that matter to a new writer chomping at the bit? First, high querying and submission volume plus tight agency budgets translate, inevitably, to less time spent on each query and submission. Equally inevitable — and you might want to sit down for this one: the more successful an agent is, the more queries s/he will receive, and thus the greater the pressure on that agent’s screener to narrow down the field of contenders as rapidly as possible.

Why, you gasp, clutching your palpitating heart? Because time does not, alas, expand if one happens to have good intentions, most good agents simply don’t have time to take on more than a handful of new clients per year.

Starting to think differently about the tens of thousands of queries that might be jostling yours in an agency’s inbox tomorrow if you hit SEND today? Or the manuscripts that will be stacked next to yours if you stuff those requested pages into a mailbox later in the week?

To be fair, the overwhelming majority of those queries will be easy for the screener — known here at Author! Author! under the collective name of Millicent, to help us remember that she’s a human being with individual literary tastes working for an agent with personal preferences, as well as literary market savvy — to reject at first glance, and often for reasons that have little to do with the writing. At this time of year especially, new writers often pick agents to query essentially at random. Out comes that logic we saw earlier: if agents represent good books, and a book is well written, any agent could represent it successfully, right?

Actually, no: agents specialize, and it’s very much to both a good book and a good writer’s advantage that they should. The publishing industry is wide-ranging and complex, after all; no one who sells books for a living seriously believes that every well-written book will appeal to every reader. Readers tend to specialize, too.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, the publishing world thinks of books in categories: fantasy, YA, Western, memoir, etc.; it’s a matter of reaching a specific target audience. While an individual reader may well buy books across a variety of categories — indeed, most do — readers who gravitate toward a certain type of book tend to share expectations, and publishers market categories accordingly. A devotee of paranormals, for instance, would be disappointed if he picked up a book presented as a vampire fantasy, but the storyline didn’t contain a single bloodsucker. By the same token, a lover of literary fiction would be dismayed to discover the novel she’d been led to believe was an intensive character study of an American family turned out to be an explosion-packed thriller.

Acquiring editors also harbor those expectations — and since no editor or publishing house brings out every different kind of book, agents would be less effective at their jobs if their only criterion for selecting which books to represent was whether they liked the writing. They, too, tend to specialize, handling only certain book categories.

Again, why should this trouble a writer longing to land an agent, any agent, as quickly as possible? There is no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for a book in a category her boss does not represent. No matter how beautifully that query presents the book’s premise, it’s a poor fit for her agency. Approaching an agent simply because he’s an agent, then, tends to be the first step on a path to rejection.

Especially, if you can stand my harping on this point, in January. New Year’s resolvers, after all, are frequently in a hurry to see results. Too much of a hurry, often, to do much research on any given agent before sending off a query. You would not believe, for instance, how many aspiring writers will simply type literary agent into Google and e-mail the first few that pop up. Or how many more will enter a generic term like fiction into an agency search, intending to query the first 80 on the list.

Usually without checking out any of those agents’ websites or listings in one of the standard agents’ guides to find out what those fine folks actually represent. And that’s a pity, because not only is an agent who already has a solid track record selling a particular category more likely to be interested in similar books — that agent will also have the connections to sell that type of book. Which means, ultimately, that approaching an agent specializing in books like yours could mean getting published faster.

Yes, really. You don’t just want to land any agent, do you? You want to entrust your book to the best possible representative for it.

I sense some grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled mutter, and who could blame you? “All I want to do is get my book published; I know that I need an agent to do that. But I don’t have a lot of time to devote to landing one. Thus my wanting to act upon my New Year’s resolution toute suite: I had a few spare moments over the holidays, so I was finally able to crank out a query draft. I understand that it might be a better use of my querying time to rule out agents who don’t represent my type of book at all, but why wouldn’t sending my query to a hundred agents that do be the fastest way to reach the right one? That way, I could get all of my queries out the door before I lose my nerve — or my burst of new year-fueled energy.”

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about why generic queries tend not to be received as kindly in agencies as those that are more tightly targeted; there’s a reason, after all, that the stock advice on how to figure out which agents to query has for years been find a recently-released book you like and find out who represented it. Admittedly, that excellent advice was substantially easier to follow back in the days when publishers routinely allowed authors to include acknowledgements — it used to be quite common to thank one’s agent. Any agency’s website will list its primary clients, however, and I think you’ll be charmed to discover how many authors’ websites include representation information.

In case I’m being too subtle here: no recipient of a generic query will believe that its sender had no way to find out what kinds of books she represents, or which established authors. Neither will her Millicent. Small wonder, then, that any screener that’s been at it a while can spot a query equally applicable to every agency in the biz at twenty paces — especially if, as so often is the case with mass-produced mailed queries, it’s addressed to Dear Agent, rather than a specific person. Or, as is even more common, if it is rife with typos, too informal in tone, or simply doesn’t contain the information an agent would want to know before requesting pages.

Given the intensity of competition for Millicent’s attention on an ordinary day of screening, any one of these problems could trigger rejection. During the post-New Year’s query avalanche, it’s even more likely.

Let’s take a moment to picture why. Agents and editors, like pretty much everybody else, often enjoy the holidays; they’ve even been known to take time off then, contrary to popular opinion amongst New Year’s resolution queriers. Since it’s hard to pull together an editorial committee — and thus for an acquiring editor to gain permission to pick up a new book — with so many people on vacation, it’s fairly common for agents and editors alike to use work time during the holidays to catch up on their backlog of reading. (See earlier point about existing clients’ work.) It’s not, however, particularly common to employ that time reading queries.

Why? The annual New Year’s resolution barrage about to descend, of course; they know they’ll be spending January digging out from under it. All through the holiday season, writers across the English-speaking world have been working up both drafts and nerve.

Picture, then, what will greet your garden-variety Millicent when she walks into the office on the first working day of January. Not only will the usual post-vacation backlog await her, but so will the fruits of every New Year’s resolver’s enthusiasm. Every inbox will be stuffed to overflowing; thousands of e-mails will be crowding the agency’s computers; the mailman will be staggering under armfuls of envelopes and manuscript boxes.

Tell me, if you were Millicent, how quickly would you be inclined to read through that tall, tall stack of queries? How much time would you tend to spend on each one, compared to, say, what you might devote to it on March 8th? Would you be reading with a more or less charitable eye for, to pluck an example out of thin air, the odd typo or a storyline that did not seem to correspond entirely with your boss’ current interests?

Before you answer any of those burning questions, consider: working her way through that day’s correspondence clear her schedule, or even enable her to see her desk again. As January progresses, each day will bring still more for her to read. Not every New Year’s resolution gets implemented at the same pace, after all, nor does they have the same content. This month, however, Millicent may be sure that each fresh morning will provide additional evidence that writers everywhere have their noses to the wheel — and each Monday morning will demonstrate abundantly that New Year’s resolvers are using their weekends well.

At least for the first three weeks or so. After that, the New Year’s resolution energy tends to peter out.

Not entirely coincidentally, that’s also when New Year’s resolution queriers tend to receive their first sets of mailed rejections — and when e-mailing queriers begin to suspect that they might not hear back at all. (An increasingly common agency policy, by the way: rejection via silence has been the norm for the past few years.) The timing on those rejections is key to Millicent’s workload, as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time queriers give up after only one or two attempts.

That’s completely understandable, of course: rejection hurts. But as any agent worth her salt could tell you, pushing a book past multiple rejections is a normal part of the publication process. Just as — again, contrary to popular opinion — even the best books generally get rejected by quite a few agents before the right one makes an offer to represent it, manuscripts and book proposals seldom sell to the first editor that reads them.

Translation: it may feel like a rejection from a single agent represents the publishing industry’s collective opinion about your writing, but it’s just not true. Individual agents have individual tastes; so do their Millicents. Keep trying until you find the right fit.

But you might want to wait a few weeks — and if it’s not clear yet why, I ask you again to step out of a writer’s shoes and into Millicent’s: if you knew from past experience how many fewer queries would be landing on your desk a few weeks hence, would you read through this week’s bumper crop more or less quickly than usual? Would you be more or less likely to reject any particular one? Or, frankly, wouldn’t you be a bit more tired when you read Query #872 of the day than Query #96?

Still surprised that rejection rates tend to be higher this time of year? Okay, let me add another factor to the mix: in the United States, agencies must produce the tax information for all of their clients’ advances and royalties for the previous year by the end of January.

That immense sucking sound you just heard was all of the English majors in the country gasping in unison. Representing good writing isn’t just about aesthetic judgments, people; it’s a business. A business based upon aesthetic judgments, of course, but still, it’s not all hobnobbing with the literati and sipping bad Chardonnay at book launches.

It’s also a business run by people — living, breathing, caring individuals who, yes, love good writing, but also can get discouraged at a heavier-than-usual workload. They can become tired. Or even slightly irritated after reading the 11th generic query of the day, or spotting five typos in the 111th.

Imagine, then, what it might feel like to read the 1,100th. Of the day, if one happens to be perusing it within the first few weeks of January.

To repeat my word du jour: wait. You’re an original writer; why would you need to pick the same day — or month — to launch your dreams as everybody else?

I raise my glass to toast those dreams. As always, my New Year’s resolution is to help good writers realize theirs, not just through general encouragement, but also practical advice. Keep up the good work!

A word of caution to the tens of thousands of aspiring writers who resolved last weekend to pop those queries and/or requested materials into the mail at last


Here’s the promised word, New Year’s resolvers: don’t.

Oh, I don’t mean to give up on your estimable resolve to put in the work to land an agent this year, or even to send out queries on a regular basis to any agent at all likely to be interested in representing a book like yours. That’s all quite sensible: if your goal is to land an agent, working up the nerve to query is in fact a necessary step. (Either that, or you are going to have to work up the even greater nerve and financial resources required to pitch at a writers’ conference.) Go forth and query, with my blessings.

Nor would I even dream of dissuading those of you who, having queried or pitched successfully in the past six months or so, have decided that it’s about time that you stopped revising feverishly, screwed your courage to the sticking place, as Shakespeare would have it, and try your luck with the agent(s) that requested manuscript pages. Again, this is a sensible, requisite step to getting published: since no agent in her right mind would sign a writer without having read any of her work — contrary to popular opinion amongst pitchers and queriers — obviously, if you want an agent to offer to represent you, you are going to have to let her read the manuscript in question.

I’ll even stretch the point further: since the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of getting published or landing an agent is the one that just sits in a drawer or on a hard drive, without the writer’s ever exposing it to professional scrutiny — something that requires quite a bit of guts, by the way; queriers and submitters don’t give themselves enough credit for that — I would actively applaud your efforts to get your work under professional eyeballs.

I just would advise against doing it anytime within the first three weeks of the year. The first three weeks of any year.

Why? Look to your left in those starter’s blocks, New Year’s resolvers, and to your right: you’ll find aspiring writers who made precisely the same New Year’s resolution you did. And since the whole point of a New Year’s resolution is that the resolver puts it in motion practically as soon as that shiny ball drops into Times Square, what do you think happens around this time every year?

That’s right, campers: pretty much every agency in the country gets swamped with queries — and with the submissions that the agency requested months ago.

How swamped, you ask, turning pale with horror? Well, let me put it this way: I usually run a caution about this on December 31 — or, at the latest, January 1. Since some of my readers chafed at the bit last year, insisting that my advice was delaying their querying efforts unnecessarily, my New Year’s resolution was that in 2012, I would not issue my yearly warning about the dangers of joining the annual early January lemming run until I had observed another annual phenomenon: the barrage of wondering complaints from people who work in agencies about why their mail bags are suddenly thrice as heavy. At agencies that accept e-mailed queries, inbox input roughly quadruples.

I heard the first of those complaints today. It’s January third — and in the U.S., post offices were closed yesterday.

Not sure why? Okay, here’s a pop quiz for those of you who spent some or all of the recent holiday season hobnobbing with kith and/or kin who happened to be aspiring writers: hands up if you bumped into at least one who confided that that her New Year’s resolution was to get those long-delayed queries out the door, preferably within the first two weeks of January. Raise a hand, too, if a friendly soul astonished you by swearing that come January 1, that postponed-for-months submission was finally going to be making its way to the agent who requested it. Or that this was the year that novel was going to make its way out of that drawer and onto bookshelves everywhere.

And don’t even dream of dropping those hands if you know — or are — a writer who is spending today, or this coming weekend, cranking out query letters so they can go out in Monday morning’s mail. Or sending e-mails to arrive even faster.

Okay, legions with your hands in the air: keep ‘em up if you had ever heard these same writers make similar assertions before. Like, say, December of 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, or any year before that.

I’m guessing that very few of you dropped your hands. Starting to get the picture, are we?

Unless some of you wanted to ask a question? Yes, eager beavers? “But Anne,” those of you who have already sent out a query, two, or seventeen this year protest, “what’s wrong with that? Because there are so many people who want to get published, well-established agents at reputable agencies are constantly overwhelmed with queries, aren’t they?”

Before I answer that, beavers, was that giant sucking sound I just heard an indication that some of you who are new to Author! Author! — perhaps reading it for the first time as the result of a highly laudable New Year’s resolution to learn more about marketing your writing — were unaware that typically, agents are not the ones screening queries, or even submissions? As nice as it might be for agents to cast their eyes over every query and submission personally, a successful agent simply doesn’t have the time. In order to get through the monumental volume of queries and make sure the agent has the time to read requested materials that have made it past the first cut, agencies employ professional readers like Millicent, the fortunate soul charged with opening all of those query letters and giving a first read to requested materials, to weed out the ones that her boss the agent will not be interested in seeing, based upon pre-set criteria.

At some agencies, a submission may even need to make it past two or three Millicents before it lands on the actual agent’s desk. That way, the agent can concentrate upon what actually supports the agency, selling already-signed clients’ work.

If any or all of that seems like an oddly disrespectful way to treat the Great American Novel, let’s get practical for a moment: a reasonably well-respected agent might receive in the neighborhood of 1200 queries in any given week — and you can triple or quadruple that this time of year. If Millicent’s boss wants to see even 1% of the manuscripts or book proposals being queried, that’s 10 partial or full manuscripts requested per week. Of those, perhaps one or two will make it to the agent.

Why so few? Well, even very high-volume agencies don’t add all that many clients in any given year — particularly in times like these, when book sales are, to put it generously, slow. Since that reasonably well-respected agent will by definition already be representing clients — that’s how one garners respect in her biz, right? — she may be looking to pick up only 3 or 4 clients this year.

Take nice, deep breaths, campers. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

Given the length of those odds, how likely is any given submission to make it? You do the math: 10 submissions per week x 52 weeks per year = 520 manuscripts. If the agent asks to see even the first 50 pages of each, that’s 26,000 pages of text. That’s a lot of reading — and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands of pages of queries the agency needs to process as well, all long before the agent makes a penny off any of them, manuscripts from current clients, and everything an agent needs to read to keep up with what’s selling these days.

See where a Millicent might come in handy to screen some of those pages for you? Or all of your queries?

Yes, I know that this is a lot for those of you brand-new to the process to absorb. Keep taking those nice, deep breaths.

“While we’re waiting for those new to the game to recover,” my previous questioners ask impatiently, “can we get back to my question? No matter how many queries might stack up in the early weeks of the year, Millicent will just answer them in the order received, right? Ditto with any backlog of queries that might have come in while she was home for the holidays. So it might take a little longer for me to hear back; big deal.”

Actually, timing in sending a query or submission is a big deal, beavers of eagerness. It’s not as though agencies typically hire additional staff to handle the January onslaught, any more than they call in temps to deal with the increased querying and submission volume immediately after Labor Day, Memorial Day, or any federally-mandated three-day weekend. So our old pal Millicent is faced with a radically increased workload, but the same amount of time with which to deal with it.

I appeal to your sense of probability, campers: if you were Millicent, would you be more likely than usual to reject any given query in that morass, knowing that you had another 10,000 to read, or less? Would you be more inclined to turn from page 1 to page 2 in that submission in front of you or less?

I have an even better question: why on earth do aspiring writers do this to themselves every year?

The scourge of the New Year’s resolution, that’s why. Despite the fact that we’ve all spent our entire lives watching people make and break these resolutions, social conditioning (and, let’s face it, a hefty proportion of media outlets) encourages us to believe that it’s inherently easier to begin a new project on January 1 — or at any rate, in January — than at any other point of the year.

We buy this, interestingly, even though our bodies tell us the opposite, Not only are people exhausted from the holidays, but in January, not even the sun appears to interested in doing its job with any particular vim.

Yet millions of aspiring writers all across North America are going to spent yesterday, today, tomorrow, and the next few weeks rushing those queries into envelopes, hitting those SEND buttons, and forcing themselves to sit in front of a keyboard at a particular time each day. Successful queriers and pitchers of months past will also be springing into action, feverishly printing out or e-mailing requested materials. And every single one of these fine, well-intentioned people will feel downright virtuous while engaging in this flurry of feverish early January activity.

Again: nothing wrong with that. The problem is, a good third of the aspiring writers in North America will be embracing precisely the same temporally-limited version of virtue.

The predictable, inevitable, and strategically unfortunate result: for the first three weeks of January every year, agencies across the land are positively buried in paper. Which means, equally predictably, inevitably, and unfortunately, that a query or manuscript submitted right now stands a statistically higher chance of getting rejected than those submitted at other times of the year.

Oh, I completely understand the impulse to rush those queries out the door, especially for aspiring writers whose last spate of marketing was quite some time ago. Last January, for instance, immediately after their last set of New Year’s resolutions.

I don’t say that to be judgmental: it can be genuinely difficult to work up the momentum to try, try again. Plenty of queriers and submitters take some time to lick their wounds after their last set of rejections — or, as is getting more and more common, their last round of sending out a query or even requested materials, waiting patiently, and just never hearing back. If a writer has pinned all of his hopes on a particular agent’s falling in love with his writing (or, in the case of a query, with his book concept; contrary to popular opinion, it’s logically impossible for a manuscript’s writing style to get rejected by an agent who has seen nothing but a query letter), selecting an arbitrary date to pick himself up, dust himself off, and move on to the next agent on his list is not the worst of ideas.

But why must that much-anticipated day be just after the New Year — instead of, say, the far more practical February 1? Or on the Wednesday following any long weekend, rather than on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday, when everyone else will be diligently stuffing Millicent’s e-mail inbox to overflowing?

Yes, yes, I know: weekends are when a lot of writers have the time to query, and the holidays are actually quite a sensible time for even queriers who send out those letters like clockwork to take a breather. That last is particularly true: although the NYC-based publishing industry does not shut down as completely between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day as in years past, things still do slow down. So many of the fine people who work within it on vacation and/or celebrating various holidays, it just doesn’t make sense to query or submit then. Your missive might reach a Bob Cratchit working late on a holiday eve, but frankly, even ol’ Bob tends not to screen his e-mail very closely over the holidays.

So I have nothing but sympathy for those of you who are trying to get back into the swing of querying and submitting. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break. Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again.

Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it. For an arrow flying through the air, the slowing force is gravity; for writers at holiday time, it’s often friends, relatives, and sundry other well-wishers. And throughout the rest of the year, it’s, well, life.

But you’re having trouble paying attention to my ruminations on physics, aren’t you? Your mind keeps wandering back to that earlier boldfaced pronouncement like some poor, bruised ghost compulsively revisiting the site of its last living moment. “Um, Anne?” those of you about to sneak off to the post office, stacks of queries in hand, ask with quavering voices. “You were just kidding about that whole statistically more likely to be rejected thing, right? I thought that good writing was always welcomed, whenever it arrived at an agency. Or, to vent my feelings a trifle more adequately, mind if I scream in terror, ‘How could a caring universe do this to me?’

At the risk of making those of you new to the game hyperventilate, I’m going to ask those readers who followed last autumn’s Queryfest to chant the answer along with me: with any query or submission, an agent must weigh more factors than the quality of the writing. Because agencies are profit-seeking entities, not charitable institutions devoted to the promotion of literature (as much as writers might like them to be the latter), she can only afford to take on manuscripts and book proposals she is relatively certain she can sell in the current literary market.

That means, in practice, that plenty of good writing and good book concepts get rejected. And that in considering which queries and submissions her boss is likely to wish to represent, Millicent has to look not only for good writing, but book category-appropriate voice and storyline, appeal to readers already buying similar books, freshness of book concept, and many, many other factors.

Including — and here is where the statistical probability thing rears its ugly head — the sheer volume of queries and submissions.

Millicent, then, has a rather different job than one might expect: she is charged with weeding out as many of those queries and submissions as possible, rather than (as the vast majority of aspiring writers assume) glancing over each and saying from time to time, “Oh, the writing here’s pretty good. Let’s represent this.” If she did that, her boss might end up with several hundred submissions to read in any given week. Clearly, that’s just not logistically possible. Fortunately for Millicent, most submissions, and definitely most queries, contain problems that render them fairly easy to reject — or have simply ended up in an agency that does not represent the kind of book in question.

A good writer should be happy about that, actually. Since Millie’s desk is perpetually covered with queries and submissions, the more quickly she can decide which may be excluded immediately, the more time she may devote to those that deserve a close reading.

Given the imperative to plow through all of those queries and submissions with dispatch, is it a wonder that over time, she might develop some knee-jerk responses to certain very common problems that plague many a page 1? Or that she would gain a sense (or even be handed a list) of her boss’ pet peeves, so she may reject manuscripts that contain them right off the bat? As in on page 1 — which is where, incidentally, the vast majority of submissions get rejected — or within the first paragraph of a query letter?

Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog (or even close readers of this particular post) are already no doubt already aware, certain times of the year see heavier volumes of both queries and submissions of long-requested materials than others.

Far and away the most popular of all: just after New Year’s Day.

Why, I was just talking about that, wasn’t I? That’s not entirely coincidental: this year, like every year, Millicent’s desk will be piled to the top of her cubicle walls with new mail for weeks, and her e-mail inbox will refill itself constantly like some mythical horn of plenty because — feel free to sing along at home — a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 4!”

Again, I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although a goal of ten queries per week would be hard to maintain for many weeks on end, if an aspiring writer were targeting only agents who represented his type of book. (And everybody is aware that querying agents who don’t have a proven, recent track record of selling similar books is a waste of an aspiring writer’s valuable time, energy, and emotion, right?) My only concern is that you implement those goals in a manner that is likely to get the results you want, rather than merely leaving you discouraged before Martin Luther King, Jr., Day rolls around.

Which is, incidentally, the fate of most New Year’s resolutions. Had I mentioned that the average one lasts less than three weeks?

Let’s try to imagine what it would be like to be Millicent during those three weeks, before all of those poor revisers run out of steam. If you were a screener who walked into work, possibly a bit late and clutching a latte because it’s a cold morning, and found 700 queries instead of the usual 200, or 50 submissions rather than the usual 5, would you be more likely to implement those knee-jerk rejection criteria, or less?

Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be just a touch crankier than usual this time of year. Let her dig her way out from under that mountain of papers before she reads yours; she’ll be in a better mood.

Ditto with Monday mornings — and not just for the reason that most people who work a Monday-Friday week are grumpy then. All weekend long, busy queriers and submitters have been toiling away like unusually dedicated ants, filling her e-mail inbox to bursting with messages; regular mail also arrived on Saturday. So the next few Mondays — particularly the coming one, if she has been on vacation — will see her frantically trying to clear out that inbox and read through what’s on her desk as quickly as humanly possible.

Again, do you think that will make her more likely to reject any individual query or submission in that pile, or less?

For this reason, if you feel you absolutely must query or submit via e-mail during the next month, avoid doing it on either a Monday, Friday, or a weekend. Actually, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for e-querying and e-submitting in general: January is not the only time when most aspiring writers have more time on the weekends than mid-week.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for the last three paragraphs, have you not? “But Anne,” those of you chomping at the bit ask, “if you’re advising me against taking action now, when can I reasonably begin querying or sending off that requested manuscript? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? I have a long weekend then.”

Well, that wouldn’t be a bad choice to start stamping those SASEs — although, like after holiday weekend, Millicent’s inbox will be stuffed to the proverbial gills on the morning of Tuesday, January 17. It would be fair to expect queries and submissions tend to drop off thereafter, though. Yes, that would make quite a bit of sense.

So, you may well be wondering, why am I urging every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice to hold off until February 1?

Two reasons. First, over the past few years, the statistics about how many electronic readers and e-books sold over the holidays, vs. the number of traditionally-published books, have tended to come out around mid-January. (Oh, a few estimates will be available before then — there are probably some figures out now — but it usually takes a few weeks to verify the actual totals.) This year, the news is likely to depress folks who work in traditional publishing.

Yes, even more than last year. As you may have heard, 2009 was the first year that e-books outsold hard copies at Amazon on Christmas. Those sales figures were just for Christmas Day itself, an occasion when, correct me if I’m wrong, folks who had just received a Kindle as a present might be slightly more likely to download books than, say, the day before.

But that’s not what the headlines screamed immediately afterward, was it? I assure you, every agency and publishing house employee in North America spent the intervening days fending off kith and kin helpfully showing him articles mournfully declaring that the physical book is on the endangered species list. Or ought to be.

It’s probably safe to assume that this year’s mid-January statistics will not leave the denizens of agencies and publishing houses very happy. Or receiving any fewer calls from kith and kin, once again predicting the demise of the publishing industry, despite the fact that book sales for both e-books and traditional books have been on the rise lately.

Now, naysayers have regularly predicted the imminent death of the publishing industry every year since the mid-19th century, but that doesn’t make it any easier to hear, does it? Tell me, if you were Millicent and kept hearing all of those harbingers of doom, how cheerful would you be when screening?

She’s been hearing dismal prognostications as often as the rest of us — and she’ll probably be hearing even more once those statistics come out. When she steps across the agency threshold the next day, too-hot latte clutched in her bemittened hand, the Millicent in the cubicle next to hers will be complaining about how his (hey, Millicents come in both sexes) kith and kin has been cheerfully informing him that he will be out of a job soon. So will half the people who work in the agency — including, as likely as not, Millicent’s boss.

It’s only reasonable to expect, of course, that through the magic of group hypnosis, the more everyone repeats it, the more of a threat the news will seem; the scarier the threat, the more dire the predictions of the future of publishing will become. By lunchtime, half the office will be surreptitiously working on its resumes — yet another annual phenomenon.

Given the ambient mood in the office, do you really want yours to be the first query she reads that day? Or the fiftieth? Or would you rather that your precious book concept or manuscript didn’t fall beneath her critical eye until after everyone’s had a chance to calm down?

There’s another yet reason that agency denizens tend to be a mite stressed in January: by law, US-based agencies must issue tax documentation on royalties by the end of the month. That won’t be Millicent’s department, but it might well be her boss’ — it’s not at all unusual for one of the member agents at a good-sized agency to be entrusted with handling most or even all of the royalty paperwork.

So can I guarantee that everyone at the agency of your dreams will be working away happily like the dwarves in Snow White by early February? Obviously, not: every agency is different, and I regret to say that I don’t have a crystal ball: there’s really no way of foretelling. Perhaps a freak bestseller will catch everyone by surprise — hey, it happens — or there might be an abrupt flurry of economic bad news.

Publishing is very trend-dependent, you know. Or maybe you don’t know: aspiring writers who hang all of their hopes — and predicate their New Year’s resolutions — on the belief that the only factor determining whether an agent will pick up a book, or a publishing house will acquire it, is whether it is well-written are setting themselves up for disappointment. Plenty of other factors may well go into a rejection — up to and including Millicent’s simply having to plow through more queries than usual that week.

In other words: try not to take it personally. But don’t query only one agency at a time, do your homework about who represents what — and maximize the probability of your query’s hitting Millicent’s desk at the right time by holding off until the beginning of February.

By then, you will have had a nice, long chunk of time to see if you could, say, up your writing time by an extra hour per week. Or per day. Or prepared a contest entry for that literary contest you’d always meant to enter. Far be it from me to discourage keeping that kind of resolution, whether you choose to put it into action on New Year’s Day, the fourth of July, or St. Swithin’s day. Only please, for your own sake, don’t set the bar so high that you end up abandoning it within just a couple of weeks.

Doesn’t your writing deserve a more consistent effort? Or at least some recognition that pumping up the nerve to bundle up your baby and hand it to someone who has a professional obligation to judge it is one of the hardest, scariest endeavors a person can embrace?

Be proud of yourself for being ready and able to do it — believe me, only a very small percentage of aspiring writers ever work up that nerve. You’d be astonished by how many successful queriers and pitchers never submit the manuscripts and book proposals they worked so hard to convince Millicent or her boss to request. This is hard stuff; the writing part is only the beginning.

But you can do it — if you go about it in a reasonable manner. Don’t be one of the millions of New Year’s resolvers who starts out in a glow of good intentions, only to be feeling weak-willed three weeks hence because the resolution was simply too big. Or too much of a commitment to maintain for longer than just a few weeks. Every year, good writers with good intentions fling themselves into huge expenditures of energy, only to find themselves burnt out with distressing rapidity.

If you must make a writing-related New Year’s resolution, resolve to set an achievable goal, one you can reach in sensible increments. In the long term, asking yourself to write two extra hours per week is more likely to become a habit than eight or ten; committing to sending out one query per week is much easier to do consistently than twenty.

Remember, if Millicent resolved to get through those masses of queries and submissions currently completely concealing her desk from the human eye, she’d fling her latte in disgust within the first hour. Steady, consistent application is the way to plow through an overwhelming-seeming task.

Okay, if I’m sounding like Aesop, it’s definitely time to sign off for the evening. Next time, I shall be examining another reader-generated query and talking about how to increase its probability of impressing Millicent.

Hey, we’re all about beating the odds here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXII: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to Millicent.

Ooh, we have a burgeoning buffet of professional readers’ pet peeves on the Author! Author! sideboard today, campers. Let’s begin with a personal least-favorite of mine that I hope and pray will shortly be a least-favorite of yours.

In anticipation of that happy day, may I ask a favor of all of you involving the eradication of an unfortunately ubiquitous query letter pet peeve? Would those of you who have been sending out queries containing the phrase complete at X words kindly erase them?

Right now, if it’s not too much trouble. I’ve just seen my 500th query this year to include the phrase, and while I pride myself on being a tolerant, writer-friendly professional reader, I’m sick of it. It’s clumsily phrased, unoriginal, and it’s not as though it will do a query any good.

Yes, you read that correctly: this phrase can only harm a query packet’s chances of success. Stop it, please, before it kills again.

Is that giant collective gasp an indication that this phrase is lifted from some soi-disant foolproof online boilerplate? As those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while are already aware of how I feel about those pernicious one-size-fits-all query patterns, I shan’t reflect yet again on their overall efficacy, but even amongst those who don’t moan, “Why do all of today’s queries read identically?” on a regular basis have been perplexed by this awkward phrase’s sudden rise in popularity. It popped into usage only fairly recently — one seldom saw it before ten years ago — but it is far too pervasive to have been passed along by word of mouth alone. Since it contains a piece of information anyone who has taken a conference course on query-writing should know does not need stating, this stock phrase is unlikely to have originated from the writers’ conference circuit.

So whence, the pros wonder, did it emerge? Some doors mankind is not meant to open, I guess.

More importantly for pet peeve-avoidance purposes, why might this innocent-seeming phrase set Millicent the agency screener’s teeth on edge? Simple: if the manuscript being queried is fiction, any agency employee would presume that what the writer is offering is a finished version of the book. First novels are sold on complete manuscripts, period; it would not make sense, therefore, to approach an agent with an incomplete draft. Using precious query letter page space to mention something so obvious, then, is a quite reliable sign of inexperience.

“Besides,” Millicent grumbles, “isn’t part of the point of the query to impress me with one’s writing skills? How on earth am I supposed to be impressed with a writer who stuffs her letter to the proverbial gills with uninspired stock phrases? Show me your phrasing, not some canned clause lifted from the same allegedly sure-fire template half of the queriers who will contact my boss this week will be using!”

Through the whish-whish-whish of frantic erasing on query letter drafts all over the globe, some faint cries of protest arise. “But Anne,” those of you who habitually tuck the phrase into your opening paragraphs argue, “I just thought that was the professional way of including the word count. I realize that Millicent wants to see some original writing, but honestly, isn’t this information to express as quickly as possible and move on?”

The short answer is this: why include it at all? (And the long answer is W-H-Y-I-N-C-L-U-D-E-I-T-A-T-A-L-L?)

No, but seriously, folks, word count is not a standard, necessary, indispensable part of a query. Yes, some agents do prefer to see it up front (and if they have expressed that preference in public, by all means, honor it), but as including it can only hurt a submission’s chances, I’m not a big fan of mentioning word count in a query letter at all. Don’t lie about it if an agency’s guidelines ask for this information, of course, but don’t volunteer it.

And don’t, whatever you do, assume that because some agency guidelines request word count that every agent will expect to see it. As those of you familiar with last autumn’s Querypalooza series may recall, it’s very, very common for an individual agent’s personal preference, once expressed in passing at a conference or in an interview, to be broadcast by well-meaning aspiring writers as the newly-revealed universal key for landing an agent.

But individual preferences are just that: individual. Pretending that every agent currently accepting clients in the United States wants to see word count in the first paragraph of the query letter (and, the accompanying logic usually goes, will automatically reject a query that does not announce this information within the first three lines), despite the fact that the majority of posted submission guidelines do not ask for it, makes about as much sense as including the first 5 pages of text in your query packet as a writing sample just because one of the fifteen agencies you decided to query last week called for you to include it. Out comes the broken record again:

When querying, as when responding to a request for materials, send precisely what that particular agent wants to see — no more, no less. Because part of what a querier is demonstrating in a query packet is the ability to follow directions — a perennially agent-pleasing trait — there is just no substitute for checking every individual agency’s submission guidelines every single time.

Or, to quote the late, great Fats Waller, find out what they like and how they like it — and let ‘em have it just that way.

It’s a matter of respect, really. Adhering to any given agent’s expressed querying preferences is a laudable means of demonstrating from the get-go that you are serious enough about your writing not to want just any agent to represent it — you want a specific agent whom you have determined, based on his past sales record, would be a good fit for your book.

According to this principle, an aspiring writer’s including word count is a courtesy to those who ask for it. Offering it unasked to those who do not is, while certainly not required, something that Millicent is likely to regard as a positive blessing — but that doesn’t mean it’s in your best interest to do it.

Why? Knowing from the get-go that a manuscript is too short or too long for its stated book category can save a query-screening Millicent masses of time. Shouting, “Next!” is, we all must recognize, quite a bit speedier than sending out a request for materials, waiting for them to arrive, then seeing first-hand that a manuscript falls outside the length norms.

Heck, if the querier followed the extremely common precept that complete at 127,403 words should appear in the letter’s opening paragraph, she might not even have to read a single additional sentence; if her agency happens to adhere to the belief that 100,000 words is the top cut-off for a first novel — as is the case in most fiction categories — she would have no reason to request the manuscript.

“How kind of this writer,” she murmurs, reaching for the never-far-off stack of form-letter rejections, “to have waved that red flag up front. This way, there’s no possibility of my falling in love with the text before realizing it’s too long, as I might easily have done had I requested pages.”

That one-size-fits-all boilerplate is no longer fitting so comfortably, is it? Typically, agencies that request word count up front like to see it for precisely the same reason a Millicent at a non-requesting agency would be so pleased it appeared: it enables them to reject too-long and too-short manuscripts at the query stage, rather than the submission stage. In essence, it’s asking the writer to provide them with a means of speeding up her own rejection.

But should you include it in a query, if the agency guidelines ask for it? Absolutely: it’s a matter of respect.

I hear you grumbling, campers, and who could blame you? But you might want to brace yourselves, complete at… users; you’re going to like what I’m about to say next even less: many queries rejected for on the basis of excessive word count are actually not too long for their chosen book categories. The listed word count merely makes them appear too long.

“How is that possible?” word count-listers everywhere howl, rending their garments. “I’ve been including what my Word program claims is the actual number of words in the document. By what stretch of the imagination could that number be misinterpreted?”

Quite easily, as it happens: that 100,000 word limit I mentioned above does not refer to actual word count; it is an expression of estimated word count. Although actual word count is appropriate to list for short stories and articles, it is not the norm for book manuscripts — but again, individual agents’ preferences do vary. Therein lies the miscommunication: the overwhelming majority of the considerate souls busily typing complete at… up use actual word count, not estimated, leading Millicent to conclude that a long manuscript contains quite a few more pages than it really does.

Why would she assume the word count is estimated? Respect for the traditions of her industry, mostly: before the rise of Word and its automatic word-count function, estimating was hours more efficient than laboriously counting each and every word. Just as magazines and newspapers used a standard number of words per line, the publishing industry came up with an average for the two most common typewriter key size’s words per page: 250/page for Elite, 200/page for Pica.

With the rise of the home computer, that expectation carried over to the most similar fonts: the standard estimation for a standard manuscript in Times New Roman is 250 words/page; for Courier, it’s 200 words/page. Since TNR is the industry standard, when Millicent sees 100,000 words, she automatically thinks 400 pages.

I see some of you shaking your heads and calling her a Luddite, but for the agency’s purposes, an estimate is more useful than a toting-up of every word. Think about it: since the number of words that appear on a page can vary wildly, actual word count does not tell an agent or editor how many pages to expect, does it? That’s legitimate information for Millicent to consider: the page count is part of the publication cost calculation generally included in the paperwork an editor has to fill out before taking an exciting new project before an editorial committee.

While there is not a one-to-one correlation between the number of pages in a manuscript and the number of pages in its published form — most submission manuscripts shrink by about two-thirds by the time they hit hard copy — page count is hugely important in figuring out how expensive it will be to publish a book. The more pages, the greater the amount of paper and ink required, obviously. Perhaps less obviously, longer books are substantially more expensive to produce than shorter ones: at about 500 pages (an estimated 120,000 words), the binding costs rise dramatically.

Starting to see why our Millie might reject a query that told her in line 3 that it was complete at 127,403 words?

Unfortunately, the majority of queriers who use actual word count, as would be appropriate for a short story or magazine article, are unaware of this publishing reality. Compounding the problem: almost invariably, this number is higher than the estimate would lead one to expect: it is well within the realm of possibility that 127,403-word manuscript would be closer to 400 pages than 500. (Which is why, in case those of you who already have agents had been wondering, agents representing long first novels generally leave the word count off the title page.)

The actual number of pages is irrelevant at rejection time, though, if querier and query-reader are operating on different sets of expectations. While the last digit in that actual count might tip off a professional reader that the writer is using actual count, not an estimate a Millicent in a hurry — and with good math skills — is prone to spot that number and mutter, “509 pages! That’s far too long for a first novel in this category! Next!”

It makes the muses sad enough if the title page prompts this reaction. Imagine, then, how bitterly the muses weep when a good novel gets rejected in this manner because the writer thought the first paragraph of her query needed to contain the words complete at…

Just take it out, willya? I’m tired of listening to the old girls bawl.

Speaking of notorious query-related pet peeves that often engender a cry of “Next!” — and speaking of ungraceful phrases; that segue was a lulu — it would be remiss of me not to mention two others. Since they are such perennial favorites, annoyances to Millicents dating back to at least the Eisenhower administration, let’s haul out the broken record player again, shall we? Nothing like a one of those old-fashioned phonographs when one wants to dance to the oldies-but-goodies.

When approaching an agency with several agents who represent your type of book, it’s considered rude to query more than one of them simultaneously. Pick one — and only one — to approach in any given year.

In publishing, as in so many other areas of life, no means no. If an agent has rejected your query or submission, it’s considered rude to re-approach that agent with the same project again, ever. If the agent wants you to revise and submit that particular manuscript, he will tell you so point-blank; if he likes your voice, but does not think he can sell the manuscript in the current market, he may ask to see your next book.

The second is fairly well-known, but aspiring writers new to the game are constantly running afoul of the first. In a way, that’s completely understandable: if one doesn’t take the time to learn what each agent at a particular agency has represented lately — and few queriers do — it can be pretty difficult to tell which might be the best fit for one’s book.

“I know!” the aspiring writer says, feeling clever as it occurs to her. “I’ll just send it to both of ‘em. That way, I can’t possibly guess wrong which is the agent for me.”

And then both of those queries appear in the inbox belonging to those agents’ shared Millicent. What do you think will happen?

Hint: it has to do with respect. And if you were about to say, “Why, Millicent will weigh carefully which agent would be the most appropriate for my work and forward my query accordingly,” you might want to reconsider you answer.

I don’t care who hears me say it: this is a business where politeness counts. Sending queries to more than one agent at an agency or over and over again to the same agent is, quite apart from self-defeating behavior, an annoyance to those who have to deal with those queries and manuscripts. Need I say more?

Oh, I do? Okay, try this explanation on for size: no one, but no one, likes to be treated as a generic service-provider. Most agents pride themselves on their taste, their insight into current market conditions, and their client list. So when an aspiring writer targets agents with side-by-side offices, as though it were impossible to tell the two of them apart, it’s tantamount to saying, “Look, I don’t care which of you represents me; all agents look alike to me. So what does it matter that one of you already said no?” The same logic applies when a writer queries the same agent who has already rejected that book project: respect for an agent’s choices would dictate honoring that no the first time around.

Speaking of respect issues, let’s not forget the single most common screeners’ pet peeve of all: unprofessionally formatted manuscript submissions. While this is seldom an instant rejection trigger all by itself, not presenting one’s writing in the manner in which the pros expect to see it does mean, effectively, that one is walking into the submission process with one strike against the book.

See why that might prove problematic, in a situation where a manuscript seldom gets more than two strikes before being tossed out of the game?

While veteran members of the Author! Author! community sigh with recognition, those of you new to this blog look a trifle bewildered. “Whoa!” perplexed agent-seekers everywhere cry. “How is formatting a respect issue? Baseball metaphors aside, how on earth could how I choose to present my words on the manuscript page be construed as in any way indicative of my general attitude toward the agent to whom I am sending it? Or, indeed, toward the publishing industry?”

Fairly easily, from the other side of the submission envelope. As it may not be entirely astonishing to you by this point in the post, when Millicent spots an improperly-formatted manuscript, she sees not only a book that needs at least some cosmetic revision to bring up to professional standards, but a writer who does not have enough respect for the industry he aspires to join to learn about its expectations and norms.

“Oh, presentation doesn’t matter,” Millicent imagines the brash new writer saying as he doesn’t bother to spell-check. “That’s my future editor’s job to fix. All that matters is the writing, right?”

Actually, no. Any good agent receives far, far too many beautifully-written manuscripts from aspiring writers who have taken the time to present them properly to waste her time with those that do not. This is such a common rejection reason that there’s even a stock phrase for it.

“That writer is talented,” publishing types will say to one another, “but he hasn’t done his homework.”

Yes, this is often said of talented writers who have yet to develop technical skills, but as any Millicent could tell you, rejection reasons are like wolves: they tend to travel in packs. Improper formatting is merely the quickest indicator of a lack of professionalism to spot. Since all professional book manuscripts and book proposals in this country look alike, adhering to a standard format distinct from what is de rigueur for short stories, articles, academic writing, and even many contests, Millicent can often literally identify a submission from someone who hasn’t done her homework at five paces.

To a literature-lover who handles manuscripts for a living, that’s a genuinely astonishing authorial choice. Unhappily, not doing one’s homework is infinitely more popular than doing it — which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a great deal of sense as a long-term strategy for publishing success. Even the most naturally talented baseball player doesn’t expect to hit a home run the first time he steps up to the plate, after all; he knows that he must learn the rules and hone his skills before he has a chance at the big leagues.

Many, if not most, aspiring writers, by contrast, seem to believe that the New York Yankees are going to sign them the first time they pick up bats and don gloves. Can you really blame Millicent for feeling that’s just a trifle disrespectful to all of the great authors who have invested the time in learning to play the game?

“But Anne,” those of you new to querying and submission point out huffily, “why should it surprise anybody that a first-time novelist, memoirist, or book proposer should not already know every nuance of how the industry works? Why is being new a problem to a business ostensibly concerned with seeking out what is fresh and exciting?”

Good question, neophytes. To those used to dealing with professional manuscripts, everything that appears on the page is assumed to be there because the writer made an active choice to include it. By that logic, a typo is never just a typo: it’s either a deliberate misspelling for effect, a proofreading omission, or evidence that the writer just can’t spell. The same holds true for holes in a plot, voice inconsistencies — and yes, formatting.

As I may seven or eight hundred times recently, good agents are inundated with fresh, exciting manuscripts that do not have these problems; clearly, then, it is possible for a writer brand-new to the biz to learn how to avoid them. So when a promising writer has not taken the time to burnish her submission to a high polish, it’s likely to look an awful lot like an assumption that his future agent is going to do all the work of bringing that manuscript into line with professional standards for her.

In other words, not formatting a submission in the manner Millicent has been trained to expect will effectively mean that she will start reading it already assuming that it is not the final draft. How could a manuscript that does not adhere to professional presentation standards be considered a completely polished manuscript?

It’s not as though the agent of your dreams could submit it to an editor that way, after all. An agent who permitted her clients to deliver work in any of those formats would have to waste her own time changing the cosmetic elements so it would be possible to take it to a publishing house. For this reason, Millicent regards incorrectly-formatted work as indicative of a writer not particularly serious about his work .

Or, to put it a trifle more bluntly: she’s not judging it on the writing alone. Necessarily, she has to consider how much extra time her boss would have to invest in a writer who would have to be trained how to put together a manuscript.

I see those of you who worked your way through last autumn’s mind-achingly detailed Formatpalooza series rolling your eyes. “Yes, yes, we know, Anne,” veteran format-contemplators say wearily. “You walk us through standard format at least once a year, addressing at length the digressions from it in which aspiring writers all too frequently unwittingly indulge at great cost to their books’ submission chances. I now no longer add a row of asterisks to indicate a section break, allow Word to alter my doubled dashes with spaces on either end to emdashes bridging the space between the words before and after, nor embrace the AP style practice of capitalizing the first word after a colon, as if it were the beginning of a new sentence. Heck, I even know what a slug line is. I still secretly agonize in the dead of night because another website — one that does not draw a firm distinction between the correct format for a book manuscript and how a short story should be submitted to a magazine, perhaps — says I should place the chapter title on the line directly above the first line of text, as is proper for a short story, rather than on the first line of the page, as is appropriate for a book manuscript, but overall, I feel pretty good about how professional my submissions look. Why keep nagging me about it?”

Actually, my frequent reminders of the importance of adhering to standard format are not aimed at you, conscientious researchers, but toward those who have not yet learned to emulate your laudable example. Aspiring writers who have taken the time to learn the expectations of the industry into which they are trying to break are not, generally speaking, those whose submissions make Millicent grind her teeth down to nubs. If you’re already following the rules, chances are good that she is judging your manuscript on your writing.

Congratulations; that’s a relative rarity. Unfortunately for the overall happiness of aspiring writers everywhere, most submissions reflect an almost complete lack of awareness that standard format even exists. Oh, most are double-spaced and feature page numbers (although you would be astonished at how often the latter are omitted), but beyond the application of one or two isolated rules, it’s quite obvious that the writers who produced them think presentation doesn’t matter.

Surprised to hear that’s the norm? You’re in good company — Millicent is flabbergasted. Despite a wealth of formatting advice floating around the Internet — some of it accurate, some of it not — the average manuscript landing on her desk displays a blithe disregard of standard format. It’s almost as though it’s daring her to like the writing in spite of the careless presentation.

It is, in short, disrespectful. And we all know how Millicent, the industry’s gatekeeper and thus the person who sees far more promising writing gone wrong than anybody else, tends to respond to that: “Next!”

I’m bringing all of this up in the middle of our ongoing discussion of craft not to say that presentation is more important than the writing quality — no one who dealt with manuscripts for a living would argue that — but to remind everyone that to a professional reader, everything on that page matters.

There are no free passes for careless omissions; with any given agency, there are seldom even second chances after an insufficiently-polished first approach. Yet despite the vital importance of making a good first — and second, and third — impression, most good writers become so impatient to see their words in print that they start sending out queries and submissions half an hour after they type THE END.

Sometimes even before. Had I mentioned that it’s considered disrespectful to query a manuscript that is not yet completed? (It is, perversely, acceptable to give a verbal pitch at a conference under the same circumstances, however. Agents and editors who hear pitches know how stressful it is; most would agree that a practice run at it a year or two before one is doing it for real isn’t a bad idea.)

As exciting as the prospect of getting your baby published may be, sending it out before it’s ready to meet Millicent is not the best long-term strategy. At least not now, when personalized rejection letters have become exceedingly rare: while up to about a decade ago, an aspiring writer could hope to gain valuable and useful feedback from the submission process, now, the volume of queries and submissions is so high that the manuscript that prompted Millicent to mutter, “Oh, here’s another one who didn’t do his homework,” and the carefully-polished near-miss are likely to receive precisely the same form-letter rejection: I’m sorry, but I just don’t think I can place this book successfully in the current tight literary market.

The wording may vary slightly, but the sentiment is the same. Aspiring writers are not the only population fond of boilerplates, apparently.

Choose your words thoughtfully, take the time to learn the rules of submission, and treat your future agent — and his Millicents — with respect. Believe me, once you are working with them on an intensive basis, you’ll be glad you did.

Next time, we’ll wend our way merrily back to the Short Road Home. Keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: what we have here is a failure to communicate — in a business that’s all about communication

What do you mean, most manuscrips get rejected on page 1? That’s ridiculus.

I can’t believe you’re telling us that presentation can count as much as writing style. Agents know to look past any minor problems to the actual writing.

I hate Millicent. She must hate literature, or else how could she possibly reject subission so quickly?

The publish industry has become completely shallow. They only care about what sells, so it’s impossible for a genuiney talented new voice to get heard. Why even bother?

You got me, commenters on my series on professional readers’ pet peeves: the publishing industry doesn’t care whether books sell or not; it’s a non-profit enterprise devoted to the promotion of literary art. Nor are agencies at all market-oriented: while they don’t actually object if one of their pet authors happens to have a book that sells well, they can all afford to take on every project that appeals to them, regardless of whether they think they can sell it or not. Agents have limitless time to proofread — or even copyedit — their clients’ work before submitting it to editors, so it doesn’t matter what shape a manuscript is in when they take it on, and since they never specialize in a particular kind of book, they take chances on writing they just like all the time. In fact, they have so much time on their hands in any given workday that Millicent the agency screener doesn’t actually exist: she’s a figment of my imagination, intended to fill you with fear. In practice, every agent in the United States sits down to read every single query submitted, as well as every syllable of every requested manuscript, before making up her mind whether to reject it or not. Since only bad writing gets rejected, this of course an easy task.

In short, there’s no need for a naturally talented writer to take the time to learn how to format a manuscript, much less proofread it. Or, heaven forfend, find out how the publishing industry actually works.

Do I even need to shout, “April Fool,” campers?

I sincerely hope not. I’m writing about real-world phenomena here, not my opinion about how promising new talent ought to be discovered. I’m only telling you about the norms; I didn’t invent them. But now that some of you have brought your concerns about how difficult it is to get published to my attention, I’ll just wave my magic wand, and…

Oh, wait a minute: not being the Literature Fairy, I can’t change the publishing world upon request. No matter how often aspiring writers plead with me to say I didn’t really mean it when I said that there are practical things they can do to maximize the probability of their work making it past Millicent, I’m simply not in a position to alter reality in this respect. Sorry.

Which is why, in case any of you had been wondering, I’ve chosen to take the hard path here at Author! Author!, concentrating on craft and marketing issues, rather than just being a cheerleader for writers in general. I don’t believe (as some writing gurus out there apparently do) that it helps aspiring writers much to view the submission process through a rosy, hazy glow: as both a lover of literature and a great believer in the intelligence of writers, I would rather show you the actual conditions under which your work is going to be evaluated, encourage you not to worry about the factors that are outside your control, and, yes, to urge you to consider altering your texts to improve your chances of impressing Millicent.

Rather than, say, investing your energies in resenting Millicent for existing at all. It’s not her fault that the competition to grab an agent’s attention is so very fierce.

Surprised to see me defending her? Don’t be: I’m rather fond of our Millie. Without her, it simply would not be possible for agents to give even a passing glance to the avalanche of queries that constantly arrive in their offices. Then, too, it’s hard not to feel protective toward someone writers routinely blame for a system she did not create.

Heck, blame is putting it nicely: because most aspiring writers understandably don’t tend to think of their own queries or submissions as just one amongst the thousands an agency receives, many just assume that if they are rejected, the problem must lie in the obtuseness of the reader, rather than in any problems in the manuscript.

From Millicent’s perspective, this doesn’t make sense: there is quite a bit of truth to the industry aphorism that most manuscripts reject themselves. Not merely via the kind of opinion-influencing pet peeves we’ve been talking about throughout this series, but through plain old weak writing. Or a story that’s just not very interesting, or one that’s not original. Or — and this often comes as a gigantic surprise to those new to the process — because it’s not the kind of book that her boss habitually sells.

And frankly, in most cases, it genuinely is possible for a sharp reader to spot these problems within the first page. Sometimes with in the first couple of lines. Most of the time, it’s not a particularly hard decision, or one that ties her up in agonies of indecisiveness. To put it bluntly, from where Millicent is sitting, the vast majority of submissions deserve to be rejected.

To most aspiring writers, this attitude would come as a surprise, and with good reason: all they believe is being judged in a submission is the writing style and the overall story. The former is either good or bad, their logic tends to run, with few possibilities in between: if the writer is genuinely talented, it will be instantly obvious to an agent or editor.

If the prose needs work, well, that can always be fixed down the line: it’s the voice that counts. Regardless of how hard the text may be to read due to typos, skipped words, light gray type because the printer cartridge was running on empty, etc., an agent who truly loves literature is going to read the entire submission, because, after all, why would she ask for 50 pages if she didn’t intend to read every word? Nor will she worry about niggling marketing issues like who the target audience is for the book: good writing sells itself. And even if it didn’t, that would be the publishing house’s problem, not the author’s.

Is here where I get to shout, “April Fool!” again?

Unfortunately, no: while not all aspiring writers draw out the logic to this extent, this is the basic mindset reflected in the comments at the top of this post. These sentiments — including, heaven help us, the spelling — are not exaggerations to make a point: they are honestly representative of the feedback I have gotten from aspiring writers over the years whenever I have gotten specific about red flags in manuscripts.

Oh, not all of the feedback takes this tone, of course; this is merely a vocal minority. The Author! Author! community is rife with urbane, sensible aspiring writers who honestly do want to find out why some manuscripts get rejected and others do not. Which is why most of the protests that inevitably arise whenever I start going through common reasons that submissions get rejected on page 1 — as the vast majority of them do, much to the chagrin of aspiring writers all across the English-speaking world — tend to take a much more dignified, thoughtful tone.

Not to mention being spelled better. Why, just today, incisive reader Nancy posted this well-argued comment on yesterday’s celebration of pet peevery:

Thanks for the post. I’ve been giving some thought to page one & chapter one revisions. But one thing bothers me about this post & how you present it. It seems like we should be tailoring our early content for the sole benefit of an over-worked, bleary-eyed, impatient Millicent so that she doesn’t hurl our beloved pages into the trash. It doesn’t seem right to fashion our stories in this manner. It feels much like pandering to me. I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.

I love this kind of comment, because it both reflects a very natural resentment common amongst aspiring writers and an understanding rare amongst submitters that Millicent actually has an incredibly difficult job — much, much harder than it used to be before the advent of the home computer permitted the number of queries and submissions she has to get through in any given week to skyrocket. I’m not convinced that there are more people who want to get books published now than ever before, but technology has certainly made it significantly easier for the aspiring writer to get her work in front of Millicent’s aforementioned bleary eyes.

Oh, you had thought that she uses form-letter rejections — or, increasingly, no rejection letter at all — because she likes them? Au contraire, mon frère: it’s a matter of available time. Think about it: it’s her job to narrow the tens of thousands of queries and hundreds of requested materials packets down to the couple of dozen of manuscripts her boss, the agent of your dreams, could possibly read himself for consideration for the four or five (at most) new client slots he has this year.

Which is to say: our Millie doesn’t magically get more hours in the day if the current flock of submissions happens to be especially good. Talk to the Literature Fairy about that.

But that’s not how aspiring writers think about the submission process, is it? To the garden-variety hopeful querier or submitter, it’s practically unthinkable that the other writing projects the agency receives would have any effect on how an agent might view her book.

All that ever matters are the story and the writing style, right? Right?

From Millicent’s point of view, no. She is in charge of mediating the competition for those few client spots, not rewarding every prettily-worded submission that she sees. If her agency hasn’t been able to sell a story like the one in front of her for the last couple of years, she’s going to lean toward rejecting it. Furthermore, she reads too many manuscripts to believe that the way the text appears on the page is not reflective of how serious a writer is about his craft; she has observed too many book sales to regard whether an editor is likely to find the opening pages too slow as irrelevant to whether the manuscript would appeal to her boss.

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate, exacerbated by form-letter rejections that don’t let the writer know whether Millicent rejected a manuscript on page 1 or page 25. Or if abundant typos prompted her to stop reading, or if the story just didn’t interest her. Or — and this is positively mind-boggling, from a writerly perspective — whether she loved everything about the manuscript, but her boss just didn’t think it would sell in the current literary market.

Don’t think that’s a legitimate concern? Okay, let me ask you: why are you seeking an agent for your manuscript? Do you not hope and expect that agent to sell your book to a publisher?

Interesting to think of it in those terms, isn’t it?

Now that we are in a marketing mindset, let’s return to Nancy’s central question about yesterday’s post: if a writer bases a decision about what scene should open a manuscript upon what she thinks will appeal most to Millicent — or even gives some serious thought to how her book might appear to someone who read only the first page — is she pandering to the agency and, by implication, compromising her art? Or is she merely being market-savvy, and are the two mutually exclusive?

A perfectly legitimate set of questions from a writer’s point of view, right? To Millicent, they wouldn’t even make sense.

Why? Well, for the same reason that the question of selling out vs. artistic integrity has traditionally been much more of a concern for aspiring writers than ones who already do it for a living. From a professional point of view, there is not a necessary trade-off between good art and good marketing. If there were, getting published would be solely the province of those who don’t care about literary style, right?

“If an aspiring writer believes that,” Millicent says, scratching her head, “wouldn’t my being interested in his book be an insult? And how could a writer justify admiring an established author, who by definition writes for a specific market? This sounds like a Catch-22 to me — an unusually-structured novel that became a major bestseller, by the way — if playing to an audience necessarily means throwing one’s artistic values out the window, why would anyone who liked good writing ever read a successful author’s work?”

Allow me to translate, Millicent: aspiring writers sometimes assume that there’s only one right way to tell the story they have in mind — and that the author is only person who can determine what that running order is. From this point of view, it’s equally harmful to artistic freedom of expression for an editor to ask a writer to change the opening scene as for the writer to feel compelled to rearrange the text to begin with action, because someone giving advice on the Internet said — accurately, as it happens — that you tend to reject slow openings. In essence, both imperatives are based upon the assumption that it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice the most effective way of telling a story in order to sell a book.

“Please tell me,” Millicent replies, “that you’re about to shout, ‘April Fool!’ Are you seriously suggesting that it’s artistically inappropriate for an agent to say, ‘Okay, new client, I like your book, but it would resemble other books in your chosen category — and thus be easier to sell to the editors who acquired those books — if you rearrange the running order?’ Most published novels get revised fairly heavily between when an agent picks them up and publication, and while new authors tend to kick up a fuss about it, most ultimately agree in the long run that the requested revisions actually improved their books. So I think you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find anyone on my side of the submission packet who would say with a straight face that the author’s original version is the best or only way to structure a book.”

If you listen closely to both sides of this argument, you can hear how it comes back to that perennial difference of opinion about how and why books should get published. On the one hand, many aspiring writers would like to believe that it’s Millicent’s job — and the publishing industry’s duty — to base decisions upon what to accept and what to reject solely upon writing talent (defined by potential, rather than what’s actually on the page) and the inherent interest of the story (defined in artistic terms, and not by what readers might actually buy). On the other hand, many agents and editors — and their Millicents — proceed on the assumption that it’s the writer’s job to create interesting, marketable manuscripts written in a strong, unique authorial voice appropriate to the target audience’s already-established likes and dislikes.

A good writer, in their opinion, is one who can pull off this high-wire act without compromising the book’s artistic value.

Which is in fact possible, as the work of all of our favorite authors attest. But if a writer trying to break into the biz chooses to think of the demands of art and the market as necessarily mutually exclusive, it’s a significantly more difficult high-wire act to complete without tumbling to the ground.

And honestly, in my experience, speeding up an opening scene or making it read more like a story in its chosen book category seldom involves doing great violence the text. It’s often as simple as moving that great exchange on page 4 up to page 1, or drafting a conflict-ridden scene from later in the book to use as a prologue.

Or — brace yourselves, purists, because this one is going to sting a little — going into the composition process realizing that it would be desirable to open the book with conflict, rather than a scene where very little happens or one loaded with constant digressions for backstory. While you’re at it, including a strong, sensual opening image would be nice.

That’s not a matter of the market dictating content. That’s a matter of understanding how readers decide whether to get invested in a story or not.

I’m not just talking about Millicent, either. Plenty of readers habitually grab volumes off bookstore shelves and scan the first page or two before buying a book, after all. While readers’ pacing expectations vary widely by book category (and sometimes by country: even literary fiction published in the U.S. tends to start much faster than similar books published in the U.K.), you must admit that it’s rare to find a reader who says, “You know what I like? A story that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere until page 148.”

Is that blinding glare spreading across the horizon an indication that a whole lot of light bulbs just went off over a whole lot of writers’ heads? You performed the translation for yourself this time: the publishing industry — and its first reader, Millicent — believes it is doing right by its customers by habitually rejecting slow-opening books or those with plots that don’t seem to be going anywhere for the first 200 pages. It’s protecting them from — well, perhaps boredom is a harsh term, but certainly disappointment.

What makes publishing types think that they know what readers want? They have the sales statistics for what readers are already buying sitting in front of them.

Instead of debating whether past sales are necessarily indicative of the kind of book that will strike readers’ fancies a few years hence, let’s take a moment to consider from what Millicent is protecting the reading public. Generally speaking, it’s not vividly rendered, fascinatingly written exemplars of cutting-edge prose that send her groping for the form-letter rejection pile. A startlingly high percentage of what any screener or contest judge sees reads like this:

It was a dark and stormy night. It was cold in the castle. Myra shook her long, red hair down her back, shivering. She was tall, but not too tall, a medium height just perfect for melting into Byron’s arms. She walked from one side of the room to the other, pacing and thinking, thinking and pacing. The walls of the room were covered in tapestries needled by her mother who spent years bent over them. Myra barely glanced at them now.

Come on, admit it — you wouldn’t really blame Millicent if she rejected this, would you? The writing’s not interesting, the sentence structure is far too repetitive, and nothing’s really happening. About all it has going for it, from a professional perspective, is that all the words are spelled right.

Oh, you may laugh, but part of Millie’s job consists of saving the literary world from the rampant misspellings that characterize the average submission — and an astonishingly high proportion of otherwise rather well-written ones. Let’s don her super heroine’s cloak for a moment, to see just how difficult the decision to reject such a manuscript would be.

If you opened the day’s submissions and saw this novel’s opening, how likely would you be to recommend that your boss read it? Or even to turn to page 2 yourself?

This is not a particularly egregious example of the type of manuscript problem Millicent sees on a daily basis. If the formatting, spelling, grammar, and capitalization issues bugged you, you were reading like a professional: when a pro looks at a page like this, what she sees is how it could be improved. In this case, so much improvement is needed that she would automatically reject this submission. Better luck next time.

But if you were reading this page as most aspiring writers read their own work, you probably saw something different: the charm of the story, the rhythm of the writing, the great use of specifics. You would have reacted, in short, rather like Millicent would have had the page above been presented like this.

Now that the distractions are cleared away, it’s rather nice writing, isn’t it? It ought to be: it’s the opening of Nobel laureate in literature John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

As those of you prone to thinking cynically about how hard it is to get published nowadays may be pleased to note, it would be nearly impossible for an aspiring writer to get this first page past Millicent today, even in the second format. Actually, even a very well established author might have difficulty getting this published now: that many ands in a row would put many a professional reader off. Essentially, this is a long list, rather than a fully fleshed-out description.

It’s also, by current standards, a rather slow opening. “Who is the protagonist?” Millicent cries. “And what is this book about?”

Based upon this page alone, it appears to be primarily about the writing — and that renders the peculiar sentence structure and choice to open with this material even more pertinent. John Steinbeck, no doubt, considered those run-ons artistically necessary; presumably, he also had a reason for electing to begin his story with this series of lists. When you have a Nobel Prize in literature, your readers may well be tolerant of this kind of thing. Even as a reader quite fond of the book that follows, though, I can’t concur in his choices: this page 1 does not even remotely do justice to the fabulously quirky characters and hilarious plot twists to come.

“This book is funny?” Millicent asks incredulously. “Could have fooled me.”

Actually, the opening page fooled you, Millie, and it’s hard to hold anyone but the author responsible for that. In Uncle John’s defense, though, his target readership would have grown up on Victorian novels, books where the early pages were often devoted to establishing time and setting through generalities. (And in the passive voice: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc.) It just goes to show you, the standards of what constitutes good writing are constantly evolving.

“Aha!” Millicent shouts triumphantly. “So much for the notion that good writing is always good writing. Take that, writers who want to blame me for readers’ ever-changing tastes! If I advised my boss to snap up every manuscript that would have sold readily 10, 20, or 150 years ago, I would not only be ignoring current literary tastes, but doing a disservice to those old-fashioned writers. It breaks everyone’s heart when we can’t place a book we love.”

That doesn’t require translation, I hope. Part of my goal in presenting Millicent’s pet peeves is not only to help aspiring writers realize that there is a human being, not a literature-evaluating machine, reading their submissions, but that since professional readers honestly do tend to like good writing, it genuinely annoys them to see a nicely-written opening marred by technical problems. Or a story with a lot of potential squandering the reader’s attention with too much backstory up front. Or — you were anticipating this one, weren’t you? — a beautifully worded first page making itself hard to market by eschewing conflict.

Is that the same thing as requiring a writer to compromise his artistic integrity or harm the story he is trying to tell? She doesn’t think so, nor, I suspect, would anyone else who reads manuscripts for a living. They have faith, even if aspiring writers don’t, that a genuinely talented storyteller will possesses the skills and creativity to structure her tale to grab the reader from the top of page 1.

Which most emphatically does not mean, as today’s commenter suggested, that every opening needs to read like the first scene of a thriller: “I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.”

Yes, she is — and so was the argument in yesterday’s post. If I may take the liberty of quoting myself, I specifically urged everyone not to begin page 1 with explosions or other genre-inappropriate activity:

Not enough happens on page 1 is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. . On behalf of agency screeners, sleep-deprived and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.

And not merely, as so many writing gurus recommend, just any action: toss the reader directly into conflict, by all means, but let that conflict be directly relevant to the story you’re about to tell. Remember, the goal here is to surprise and delight Millicent, after all, not to trick her into thinking that the story that follows is more plot-heavy than it actually is.

Many, many aspiring writers misunderstand this point, so I am glad that Nancy brought it up. Allow me to restate it in clearer terms: no one is seriously suggesting that it would be desirable, or even appropriate, for a good writer to shoehorn conflict onto page 1 that doesn’t arise from legitimate plot elements and/or character development. Nor is anyone telling you that action-movie pyrotechnics are necessary to attract Millicent’s positive attention. To conclude that the publishing industry insists upon this kind of action at the opening of every book it decides to publish is to ignore what has actually appeared on page 1 of the vast majority of novels published in the United States this year — or, indeed, any year.

To professional readers, then, it’s downright puzzling to hear aspiring writers complain that the publishing industry has turned its back on non-sensational writing. Once again, we run into a translation problem.

This one arises, I suspect, from responding too literally to the words action and conflict. Although countless aspiring writers misinterpret marketing admonitions like open with action, throw the reader right into the book’s central conflict, and make sure there is action on page 1 to mean we’re not interested in any stories that could not be made into action films, that’s simply not what the advice means. (That’s why, in case anybody had been wondering, I was careful to phrase the rejection reason yesterday as not enough happens on page 1 and the story takes to long to get started, not as the more commonly-heard open the book with action.)

In literary circles, action and conflict can refer to relatively quiet activities. Yes, nearby objects blowing up are one kind of action, but so is the protagonist taking steps to try to challenge a situation she finds onerous, even in a very small way. Conflict can involve a Bruce Lee-style kung fu brawl, but it can also be a character silently disagreeing with the speech his boss is making, his subtle body movements demonstrating his ire. Neither term could be fruitfully applied, however, to the protagonist’s sitting around and thinking, multiple characters complacently agreeing with one another, or paragraph upon paragraph of backstory distracting from the current scene.

Even as feedback on a specific text, the advice open with action seldom means supply all of the ladies in the opening quilting scene with switchblades, and make sure that quilt is bloody by the bottom of page 1! Typically, when a professional reader suggests rearranging the running order or revising the scene to add action, it’s as an antidote to a scene that drags. Adding interpersonal conflict, placing a barrier in the protagonist’s path, or just plain having something exciting happen (“Look, there’s an albatross flying by, Grandma!”) are all standard ways to speed up a slow scene.

Again, none of these tactics would necessarily involve compromising the artistic integrity of the manuscript, interfering with the basic storyline, or tossing a Molotov cocktail into the middle of a sedate tea party. Implementing them successfully may, however, require some good, old-fashioned creative thinking to come up with a means of introducing believable conflict onto page 1 — and, indeed, onto every page of the text.

Why? Because conflict is interesting; readers like it. Do you need a better reason than that? Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part VIII: details that might give Millicent pause

I feel as though I’ve started a disproportionate number of my posts this year with sorry about the silence of X length, so I’ll spare you another repetition. Suffice it to say that while my spirit is very much with the Author! Author! community every day, the flesh is weak. At least in the wake of cars smashing into it.

As an editor, I can’t help but feel that if recovery was going to take this long, or be anywhere near this energy-sapping, some medical person should have at least dropped a hint of it in the first act, back in the summertime. This is one instance where a plot flare would have been really, really helpful to the protagonist. But no — until January, the major characters (and their major insurers) just kept stringing me along with false suspense.

And we all know how I, Millicent the agency screener, and professional readers everywhere feel about that. “Next!”

Actually, my energy is rather low today, too. However, I figured that getting back on the proverbial horse with an uncharacteristically short post right now was worth two longer posts at some dim, unspecified future point — because, let’s face it, it’s probably going to be as tempting tomorrow to say, “Oh, I’m just not up to it today,” isn’t it?

That’s not a bad rule for writing in general, by the way: it can add years to a writing project if the writer keeps saying, “Oh, I’m not really up to/don’t have time for/just don’t feel like writing today; I’ll wait until I’m feeling better/have an entire day/weekend/month free/am bashed over the head by an indignant muse.” There honestly is value in sitting down to write regularly, rather than only when inspiration happens to strike or the kids are off at fifth grade camp.

Why? Well, I don’t think I’d be giving away a trade secret if I pointed out that while inspiration is undoubtedly important to the writing process, there’s no getting around doing the actual work of putting words on a page.

Shall I assume that breeze ruffling the treetops outside my studio’s window is the collective huff of indignation from those who believe that writing is 99% inspiration, and only 1% conscious effort? Normally, I would pause to point out that one virtually never meets a professional writer who sits down at the keyboard only when s/he’s inspired: after one has been at it a while, and had the experience of incorporating feedback from agents and editors (or a really on-the-ball critique group), one learns that waiting for the muses to clamor isn’t a very efficient way to get a story on paper. Besides, if inspiration produces complex book ideas, it will take intense application to flesh them out. For every second of “Aha!” in the production of a good book, there are hours, days, weeks, or even years of solid, hard work to realize those aha moments beautifully on the page.

As my energies are a bit low, though, I shall resist. Instead, I’m going to devote today’s post to a whole raft of genuinely tiny writing gaffes that set professional readers’ teeth on edge.

“But Anne,” some of you point out, and rightly so, “isn’t that what you’ve been doing throughout this series? We’ve been talking for a couple of weeks now about Millicent’s pet peeves, manuscript ills that might not individually engender instant rejection, but that cumulatively might add up to it. Because, as you so like to point out, few submissions or contest entries are rejected for only one reason: like wolves, manuscript troubles tend to travel in packs.”

How nice that you remember my aphorisms so clearly, campers. We have indeed been discussing consistent Millicent-provokers — which, lest we forget tend to annoy Maury the editorial assistant and Mehitabel the contest judge with equal intensity. As the series have been moving along, though, I’ve noticed that we’ve been drifting toward larger narrative problems.

Today, I want to regale you with honest-to-goodness nit-picks. You know, the stuff that drives editors completely batty, but an ordinary reader might not notice at all.

Oh, you weren’t aware of how differently a professional reader scans a page than everybody else? It’s pretty radical. Take, for instance, the following passage. To a lay reader, as well as the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers, it would be fairly innocuous, but to a pro, it’s as irritating as all get-out. See if you can spot why.

Sheila stopped short, listening, her hand clutching the guardrail. Those footsteps must have been echoes of her own. Not altogether surprising, in a canyon. Smiling at herself, Sheila continued down the steep stone staircase.

There it was again, a syncopated beat not in time with either Sheila’s feet or her pounding heart. She sped up, but the rhythm remained the same: Sheila, Sheila, silence, footfall. By the time she reached the bottom of the gulley, her feet were a blur.

Okay, why might this annoy Millicent after her fourth cup of coffee? After all, it’s not badly written (if I do say so myself): the pacing is tight, the emotion convincing, and only a few of passages is in the passive voice. (I had mentioned that most professional readers are specifically trained to regard the passive voice as inherently weak prose style, right?) It even produces suspense by showing, rather than telling that Sheila is scared.

So why would Millicent’s angry teeth marks be clearly visible on the rim of her disposable coffee cup by the end of this passage? Let’s look at it again, this time as a professional reader would see it.

Sheila stopped short, listening, her hand clutching the guardrail. Those footsteps must have been echoes of her own. Not altogether surprising, in a canyon. Smiling at herself, Sheila continued down the steep stone staircase.

There it was again, a syncopated beat not in time with either Sheila‘s feet or her pounding heart. She sped up, but the rhythm remained the same: Sheila, Sheila, silence, footfall. By the time she reached the bottom of the gulley, her feet were a blur.

See it now? All of that name repetition is eye-distracting on the page — and as Sheila is the only person in the scene, not even vaguely necessary for clarity. In fact, if this excerpt is from a close third-person narrative, presumably the entire book up this point has been about Sheila, arguably any unspecified she is going to be presumed to refer to her. So why irritate Millie by inviting her skimming eye to leap from one capital S to the next on the page?

First novels and memoirs are notorious for having the protagonist’s name appear multiple times on a single page. A great test for whether name repetition is actually necessary: if any given repetition of the name could be eliminated, and it would still be perfectly clear what’s going on, the proper noun may not be necessary.

Let’s go ahead and see if that’s the case here. While I’m at it, I’m going to eliminate the other word repetition as well.

She stopped short, listening, her hand clutching the guardrail. Those footsteps must have been echoes of her own. Not altogether surprising, in a canyon. Smiling at herself, she continued down the steep stone staircase.

There it was again, a syncopated beat not in time with either her descent or her pounding heart. She sped up, but the rhythm remained the same: shoe, shoe, silence, thump from above. By the time she reached the bottom of the gulley, she was taking stairs three at a time.

Doesn’t change the action much, does it? An argument could be made that the original version’s Sheila, Sheila, silence, footfall was a trifle creepier than the revised list; I might well have advised keeping it. Overall, however, this draft is considerably easier on the eyes.

Again, the poor trees outside are being visibly oppressed by gusty sighs from experienced self-editor. “But Anne,” lovers of 19th-century novels protest, “as an aficionado of the passive voice, I feel a bit cheated by the revised version: you seem to have skipped some of the work I would have had to do. You changed only one instance of the passive voice, yet the italics marking the other two vanished. Why, when you didn’t rework those sections?”

Good question, adorers of indirect expressions of fact. I removed the italics because chances are, these uses of the passive voice would not have struck Millicent as particularly irritating.

Why not? Simple: she was not already annoyed by something else in this passage.

Wow — was that a thunderclap, or did half of my readership just simultaneously shout, “Aha!” to the heavens? I can’t say as I blame you: it often throws aspiring writers for a loop to realize that the same sentence might irritate a professional reader in one context, but be perfectly passable in another.

Let’s take a look at another example, a phenomenon almost as common as over-naming. This time, I’m going to leave you to guess what would get Millicent gnawing the edge of that coffee cup like a hyperactive rabbit.

Sheila stopped short, stunned by the beauty of the house before her. Beneath a gabled roof, dormer windows reflected the reds and golds of the sunset back at her like languid eyes staring into a sunset. Gaily-colored curtains wafted gently out of windows on the two lower floors, revealing coy peeks at the life lived inside: overstuffed armchairs, equally overstuffed roll-top desks, a wood-paneled dining room, colorful duckies and bunnies frolicking across the wallpaper of a nursery, austere rows of books up the wall of what was clearly a library, and pies wafting sweet persuasion from the kitchen. The resemblance to the dollhouse she had designed for herself at age 10 could not have been stronger if a genie had blown upon her juvenile sketches and made them jump to life.

Not a bad description, is it? If a bit architecturally unlikely: the windows would have had to be pretty massive to give a lady on the street such a clear view inside. But that’s not what might stop Millicent from giving up on this house by the middle of the paragraph.

Some of your hands have been waving impatiently in the air since that second sentence. Have at it: “Anne, this is a Frankenstein manuscript: the writer repeated the image about the sunset within a single line, something that is exceedingly unlikely to happen either in initial composition — unless it was intended as a narrative joke — or to be the author’s intent in a revised version.”

Give yourselves a gold star for the day, eagle-eyed revisers. You’re quite right: what probably happened here is that the writer began to change that sentence, but did not complete the revision. Cue, if not Dr. Frankenstein, than at least Millicent: “Well, this one is still a work-in-progress. Next!”

Award yourself two if you also caught the red flag in the final sentence: a number under 100 in numerical form, rather than written out. That’s a violation of standard format for manuscripts.

Since either of those gaffes might well have triggered rejection all by themselves — yes, really, especially if either occurred within the first few pages of a submission — let’s revisit this passage with them excised. The lesser pet peeve will still remain.

Sheila stopped short, stunned by the beauty of the house before her. Beneath a gabled roof, dormer windows reflected the reds and golds of the dying day back at her like languid eyes staring into a sunset. Gaily-colored curtains wafted gently out of windows on the two lower floors, revealing coy peeks at the life lived inside: overstuffed armchairs, equally overstuffed roll-top desks, a wood-paneled dining room, colorful duckies and bunnies frolicking across the wallpaper of a nursery, austere rows of books up the wall of what was clearly a library, and pies wafting sweet persuasion from the kitchen. The resemblance to the dollhouse she had designed for herself at age ten could not have been stronger if a genie had blown upon her juvenile sketches and made them jump to life.

Better already, is it not? But did that over-long third sentence give you pause this time around?

It would have stopped Millicent dead, like Sheila, in her tracks, if not made her choke on her last sip of latte. But why? Again, it is showing the house, not just talking about it; the details here are rather interesting. So what is the problem here?

If you instantly shouted, “This information is presented in a list, not in descriptive sentences,” grab another star out of petty cash. While a lay reader might not mind an occasional list of attributes in establishing what a space or a person looks like to a professional reader, that third sentence would read like the notes for a future version of this description, not the description itself.

Generally speaking, a list is the least interesting way to describe, well, anything — and isn’t it the writer’s job to describe things, places, and people beautifully?

To be fair, list sentences like the one above are considered a trifle more acceptable in nonfiction writing, although still not regarded as particularly scintillating prose style. In fiction, however, Millicent tends to read them as what they are: the single quickest way to slap a whole bunch of attributes down on the page.

That might not be especially problematic if such a sentence appeared, say, once or twice in an entire manuscript — although it’s a common enough pet peeve that I would strenuously advise against the use of a list description within the first couple of pages of a submission, or even within the first chapter. Unfortunately, writers fond of this type of sentence will often use it several times within a single scene.

Or even — sacre bleu! — a single page.

That last observation sent some of you scrambling for your manuscript, didn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised. List descriptions are ubiquitous in physical descriptions of, for instance, the variety indigenous to the opening pages of novels.

Often, several such sentences appear back-to-back, causing Millicent’s fingers to positively itch for a form-letter rejection. And who could blame her, confronted by prose this purple?

Sheila stopped short on the threshold, her long, red hair whipping around her head like an impetuous halo. She was dressed in a purple skirt that hid her fine, well-developed legs, an orange peasant blouse cut low enough to elicit a whistle from Figgis, the butler who opened the door, and a rust-colored belt that left no doubt as to the excellence of her corsetiere. Her lithe waist, elegant arms, and lengthy neck alone bespoke years of painstaking dance training under the tutelage of a bevy of governesses, while the proud tilt of her head, the willful flash of her eye, and imperious gesture at Figgis might have told an onlooker that she must have put those poor governesses through a merry hell throughout her formative years. Only her stout boots, betopped by fringed stockings, and the muddy lace of the pantaloons peeking out from beneath the folds of her gown belied the impression of a fine lady.

I’m not even going to try to revise that one: it’s a laundry list, in some portions literally. Surely, a talented writer could have come up with a more graceful way to introduce Sheila to the reader. At the very least, a writer with some sympathy for how many first pages Millicent sees in a week would not have opened the book with all of that tempestuous red hair.

Only long, blonde hair is more common for heroines. Would it kill you people to treat Millicent to the sight of a Dorothy Hamill pixie or a Louise Brooks bob every now and again, just for variety?

Another way in which lists often torture Millicent’s soul at screening time is in descriptions of physical activity by writers who — how can I put this delicately? — are evidently laboring under the mistaken impression that the primary point of writing is to tell the reader everything that happened, right down to the last twitch of a toe. Although on the page, not every action is equally relevant to what’s going on or even particularly interesting to see mentioned, a hefty proportion of aspiring novelists and memoirists routinely devote line after line to lists of actions that, frankly, the narrative could probably have done without.

And that’s unfortunate at submission time, as Hades hath no fury like a Millicent bored. It’s hard to blame her, either. See for yourself.

Sheila stopped short, contemplating the task ahead of her. In order to rescue that puppy, she would have to roll up her sleeves, hike up her skirt, and risk her manicure, but she couldn’t abandon Aunt Gertie’s favorite pet. Slapping a brave smile onto her face, she lifted the police tape, stepped onto the wobbly wooden planks covering the chasm where the porch once greeted visitors, shimmied across, and jumped lightly across the threshold. It was dark inside, cobwebby, dusty, and generally uncared-for. Reaching into her pocket — not the one concealed under her skirt, holding her identification papers, but the one just under the lapel of her close-fitting jacket — she felt around until her fingertips made contact with her great-grandfather’s trusty lighter, drew it forth, and struck it with the pad of her dainty thumb seven times until flame spurted from its top. Holding it high above her head so none of her long, red hair would catch fire, she placed one foot in front of another, moved out of the doorway, edged her way across the foyer, and walked toward the living room.

It’s not many lines of text, but ‘fess up: by the middle of the paragraph, you were ready to scream, “Get on with it, already!”

Millicent would be only too glad to join you in that refrain. Especially since all of the actually interesting and plot-relevant information in this passage could have been neatly summarized thus — and better still, shown, not told:

Rescuing that puppy would endanger her manicure, but she couldn’t abandon Aunt Gertie’s favorite pet. Slapping a brave smile onto her face, she lifted the police tape and stepped onto the wobbly wooden planks covering the chasm where the porch had once been. She brushed aside the cobwebs concealing half the doorway. It took seven tries to convince her grandfather’s battered gold lighter to produce flame. Holding it high above her head, she edged her way toward the living room.

Still not the happiest of phrasing, admittedly — but isn’t it astonishing how little taking out all of that extra activity detracts from the reader’s sense of what is going on? Now, Sheila appears to make up her mind, then take quick, decisive action.

One last pop quiz on Millicent-irking, then I shall sign off for the day. Assuming that all of these excerpts came from the same manuscript, why might a harried screener have been shouting, “Next!” by the time her overworked eyeballs encountered the first sentence of the last example, regardless of what followed it?

If you slapped your desk and exclaimed, “By jingo, it would be darned annoying to see Sheila stopping short anywhere after the first couple of times,” consider your quiz so covered with gold stars that your mom will post it on the fridge for weeks. Because reading one’s manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD is so very, very rare (except among you fine people, of course), aspiring writers tend not to notice how fond they are of showing their characters engaged in particular actions.

Nodding, for instance. Head-shaking. Turning. Walking. Or, in this case, not walking — stopping short.

Oh, come on — weren’t you wondering by the third repetition in this blog why I was so fond of the phrase? Imagine Millicent’s chagrin when Sheila stops short every ten or fifteen pages throughout the entire manuscript. Then picture her reaction when the next submission she screens has its own pet phrase, as does the one seven down the stack.

You would start gnawing on the edge of your coffee cup, too. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part II: head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes…

Your eyes do not deceive you, campers: last post’s one-time venting of a professional reader’s spleen has transmogrified into a series. I’m inviting you to an all-you-can-eat buffet of ways to horrify our old pal, Millicent the agency screener (you know, the sweet lady who narrows the hundreds of requested manuscripts and tens of thousands of queries down to the handful the agent who employs her has time to read in any given year), her cousin Maury the editorial assistant (the fine fellow who performs a similar weeding function for an acquiring editor at a publishing house), and their aunt on the distaff side, Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge (the volunteer devoted to whittling the masses of entries down to a few finalists). Belly up to the bar, folks; there’s plenty for everyone.

Why devote a week or two to what are, frankly, pretty minor manuscript gaffes? We have, after all, spent a fair amount of time

Because these minor infractions are so common in submissions and contest entries that virtually anyone who reads for a living will cringe a little at the very sight of them. Their very ubiquity conveys the false — and, from a doe-eyed aspiring writer’s perspective, utterly unfair — impression that 90% of submitted manuscripts are, if not the same, at least similar enough in writing style that Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel can feel justified in rejecting them within the first page or two.

Those of you who just cringed in your turn are in fact correct: if a manuscript or book proposal contains an abundance of these gaffes within the opening pages, most Millicents, almost all Maurys (Mauries? Maurizionis?), and pretty much every Mehitabel will just stop reading. That means, in practice, that no matter how marvelous pp. 3-257 might be, it’s extremely unwise for an aspiring writer to justify an unpolished opening with, “But the plot/writing/character development really springs to life on page 15!”

Why? Well, let’s just say that there’s a saying amongst those of us who read for a living: it doesn’t matter how marvelous the writing is nobody would stick with the manuscript long enough to read it.

Which is a pity, really: you wouldn’t believe how many promising novels have a great opening line buried around p. 4 or so. Or how frequently an exciting plot’s early pages are tangled up with backstory, rather than just plopping the readers down in the middle of the action.

But we’re not concentrating on those larger problems, are we? In this series, we’re focusing on the little things that might not trigger instant rejection on first sight, but cumulatively, add up to one grumpy Millicent, Maury, and/or Mehitabel, simply because they pop up with such frequency.

Why should you worry about what other people do on the page? Because submissions and contest entries are read back-to-back, that’s why. One never knows where one’s requested materials might fall in a reading queue, after all. Even if you are too savvy a submitter to indulge in some of these easy ways out often in your manuscript, if the last three — or thirteen, or thirty-three — Chapter Ones M, M, or M read all had a character roll his eyes on page 1 — when your protagonist’s fifteen-year-old casts his eyeballs heavenward on your page 2, it’s going to feel redundant to the reader, even if no one else in your book ever rolls his eyes.

Fair? Not at all. But a reality of submission? Yes. So may I suggest that if you are featuring a teenager within you first five pages, it might behoove you to keep his eyes focused firmly forward?

Trust me, any Millicent who reads either YA or Women’s Fiction all day, every day will thank you; eye-rolling teens are such a popular manuscript decoration that it’s positively a vacation to a professional reader when those eyes stay put.

It’s also quite a treat when characters don’t shake their heads, raise their eyebrows, furrow those same eyebrows, or nod several times per chapter scene page paragraph.

Yes, people do these things all the time in real life, but as actions go, they are not particularly interesting. Yet such phrases creep into manuscripts on little cat feet: these are such common actions that most writers don’t have any idea how often their characters perform them.

Trust me, Millicent is keeping count. So is Maury. So is Mehitabel. So are the doctors who take their blood pressure.

Yet they seem innocuous, don’t they? They’re just simple descriptive terms, after all — and isn’t the point of, say, the narrative portions of a dialogue scene to describe what the characters are doing when they are not speaking? According to that logic, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with an exchange like this:

“I’ll have to think about that one,” Thaddeus said, furrowing his brow. “Would you care for more tea?”

Janet shook her head over her stone-cold cup. “No, thanks. This is fine. But if we could get back to what we were discussing…”

He nodded. “Of course — how silly of me. You wanted to know about that tremendous secret that everyone in town has kept for the last forty-seven years.”

She nodded. “I’d be grateful for anything you could tell me.”

“Am I to assume that my fellow citizens have been — how shall I put this?” Thaddeus cocked an eyebrow. “Less than forthcoming?”

Janet nodded, relieved at last to have found someone who understood. She grinned at the old man. “You don’t seem to mistrust strangers as much as they do.”

He shook his head, chuckling. “Now, now. You mustn’t assume that everyone who sets fire to your rearview mirror is necessarily hostile to you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “But you must admit, hostility is a distinct possibility.”

He nodded. “It’s also possible that people here like you enough to want to warn you…”

Her eyebrows nearly hit her hairline. So she hadn’t been imagining it. “To get out of town?”

He shook his head. “Perhaps just to ask fewer questions,” he suggested gently.

In and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with any of these individual uses of these common actions. Cumulatively, however, they get to be a trifle redundant — if not downright soporific.

To a professional reader, they are something worse: percussively redundant. Because their eyes are trained to ferret out word and phrase redundancy, all of these similar actions will just leap off the page at them. So rather than focusing upon the dialogue tucked between all of this head and eyebrow action, they will focus on the actions themselves.

Want to see how distracting that would be? Here’s that same scene as M, M, or M would read it:

“I’ll have to think about that one,” Thaddeus said, furrowing his brow. “Would you care for more tea?”

Janet shook her head over her stone-cold cup. “No, thanks. This is fine. But if we could get back to what we were discussing…”

He nodded. “Of course — how silly of me. You wanted to know about that tremendous secret that everyone in town has kept for the last forty-seven years.”

She nodded. “I’d be grateful for anything you could tell me.”

“Am I to assume that my fellow citizens have been — how shall I put this?” Thaddeus cocked an eyebrow. “Less than forthcoming?”

Janet nodded, relieved at last to have found someone who understood. She grinned at the old man. “You don’t seem to mistrust strangers as much as they do.”

He shook his head, chuckling. “Now, now. You mustn’t assume that everyone who sets fire to your rearview mirror is necessarily hostile to you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “But you must admit, hostility is a distinct possibility.”

He nodded. “It’s also possible that people here like you enough to want to warn you…”

Her eyebrows nearly hit her hairline. So she hadn’t been imagining it. “To get out of town?”

He shook his head. “Perhaps just to ask fewer questions,” he suggested gently.

To a professional reader, these phrases are not merely word repetition — they represent a radical waste of page space. These actions may be an accurate reflection of what happened, but the point of a dialogue scene is not just to list every utterance and describe every action that might conceivably have occurred if this exchange happened in real life, right? It’s to provide an entertaining take on the exchange between two interesting characters by reporting only the character-revealing, plot-advancing, and/or relationship-illuminating details.

None of that eyebrow-wiggling and head-bobbing passes that three-part test, does it? None of those actions are especially character-revealing, plot-advancing, or relationship-illuminating. So what if we replaced it with actions that were — or simply eliminated the unrevealing activity? While we’re at it, let’s get rid of some of those unnecessary tag lines, shall we?

“I’ll have to think about that one.” Thaddeus fiddled needlessly with his long-dead wife’s bone china tea service. “Would you care for more tea?”

Janet took a mock-sip from her stone-cold cup. “This is fine. But if we could get back to what we were discussing…”

“Of course — how silly of me. You wanted to know about that tremendous secret that everyone in town has kept for the last forty-seven years.”

She gripped the armrests, shaking from the effort of not leaping up to throttle the truth out of old man. “I’d be grateful for anything you could tell me.”

“Am I to assume that my fellow citizens have been — how shall I put this?” He ran his fingertips skittishly along the curio shelf nearest to him as if he were checking for dust, causing the Hummel figurines of bland, blond children to rattle together. “Less than forthcoming?”

At last, someone who understood! “You don’t seem to mistrust strangers as much as they do.”

The ceramic children clashed noisily. “Now, now. You mustn’t assume that everyone who sets fire to your rearview mirror is necessarily hostile to you.”

“But how can you justify…” Suddenly, the world went blurry. Had he spiked her tea? She struggled to maintain her composure. “Hostility is a distinct possibility.”

He reached a blue-veined hand toward her — or was it three hands? “It’s also possible that people here like you enough to want to warn you.”

So she hadn’t been imagining it. Or was she imagining the fourteen old women who had sulk into the room, quietly menacing? “To get out of town?”

“Perhaps just to ask fewer questions,” he suggested gently, manually closing her eyes as if she were a corpse.

Quite a different scene, isn’t it? By minimizing the mundane and the too-common, we’ve freed up plenty of room for exciting new developments.

Let’s apply the same principle to another radically overused set of actions, looking at another — or, almost as popular, exchanging glances with her — in lieu of, well, doing something more expressive of character, emotion, or situation. A not particularly exaggerated example:

Spiro glanced at Tanya. She didn’t seem to be kidding. But it couldn’t hurt to double-check. “Are you kidding, Tanya?”

She looked him dead in the eye. “What do you think?”

He stared back, trying to read that mysterious expression in her eyes. “That you couldn’t possibly be serious. Pierrette is our friend.”

She just looked at him. The clock on the mantelpiece clicked fourteen times.

He averted his eyes. “Okay, so maybe she has kicked our dog occasionally.”

She grabbed his chin, to force him to look at her. “Have you seen Fido today? Or this week?”

Her gaze bore into him like a drill. He dropped his eyes. “No,” he whispered.

That’s quite a lot of eye activity, is it not? Too much, I suspect, for me to need to play with the typeface in order to show you how Millicent, Maury, and/or Mehitabel might respond to the conceptual repetition.

The redundancy is not the only reason that M, M, and M might respond to this passage negatively, however. Any other guesses?

If your hand instantly flew into the air, and you shouted, “Hey, the mere fact that this character looked at another does not tell us much about what said character is thinking or feeling — or, indeed, what our hero Spiro is reading into Tanya’s peepers,” I hereby award you the Self-Editing Medal of Valor with walnut clusters. Instead of showing us how it was apparent that Tanya was not kidding, or what the mysterious expression in her eyes actually would have looked like to a bystander, the narrative is simply telling us that these people moved their eyes around.

So like the head motions and eyebrow gyrations above, all of this eye-motion is taking up page space that could be devoted to more revealing activity. My editorial inclination would be to get rid of practically of it, especially if this scene happened to fall within the first chapter of the manuscript: at the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself and repeating myself), since the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers seriously overestimate just how much meaning the reader can derive from the simple statement that one character looked at another, or that they looked at each other, a professional reader is likely to respond to even a little bit of unnecessary eye movement as if it were filler.

Again, I think we can do better. Take a gander:

Her tone betrayed not the slightest hint of humor, but it couldn’t hurt to double-check. “Are you kidding, Tanya?”

The corners of her mouth twitched. “What do you think?”

He had never been able to read past her poker face. “That you couldn’t possibly be serious. Pierrette is our friend.”

She merely continued cleaning her revolver. The clock on the mantelpiece clicked fourteen times.

Spiro’s guts twisted sideways. “Okay, so maybe she has kicked our dog occasionally.”

“Have you seen Fido today?” Casually, she pointed the gun at him. “Or this week?”

“No,” he whispered.

See how much room eschewing a bare description of who was looking where when freed for more interesting activity? It also removed the hint of another extremely common Millicent-irritant, the glance into which the protagonist reads such complicated meaning that the reader is left wondering whether what our hero is actually seeing in those peepers is subtitles. Here, we see the phenomenon in a relatively mild form.

He stared back, trying to read that mysterious expression in her eyes.

Since we are neither shown what Tanya’s eyes looked like at this particular moment, nor told just how they evinced mysteriousness, nor even treated to an insight into why Spiro expected those baby blues to just blurt out — in Morse code, perhaps — what she is thinking, this statement would a little flat for most readers. If they were interested in the story, however, they might be willing to do the writer’s job, filling in what Spiro saw swimming around in those irises. But how likely are Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel, who may well have been treated to dozens of pairs of mysterious eyes in the hours of reading prior to picking up your manuscript or contest entry, to be willing to guess?

Uh-huh. Admittedly, the annoyance of the implicit expectation that they will invest the energy in guessing what the author intended here probably won’t be enough to provoke M, M, or M to shout, “Next!” But if it’s the third or fourth common gaffe within the first few paragraphs, can you honestly blame them for assuming — perhaps wrongly — that (a) the rest of the manuscript must be peppered with such irritants and thus (b) the writing in the manuscript is not different enough from the other submissions the pro has read that hour/day/week to be exceptional, so (c) the pro would be entirely justified in not reading any more of it?

Okay, so it is possible to blame them. But it’s not impossible to understand why the sight of the 20th or 30th pair of hyper-expressive eyes in a single morning might render Nos. 21-30 more likely to be rejection-triggers than Nos. 1-5, is it?

Or that irises that shout entire sentences — nay, paragraphs — might be rejection-triggers even early in the day. Seriously, M, M, and M regularly read of eyes so eloquent that it’s downright maddening. Yes, eyes do tend to be expressive in real life, but how precisely would they convey a sentiment like this?

Clara shrank back, stunned by the intensity of Simon’s gaze as it tried to compel her to bend to his will. “Come to me,” it said, “and I will protect you from harm. Do not fear the Morrison brothers’ machinations; I will outwit them, for I love you as Shane Morrison never could. Only have faith in me, and I shall make sure everything turns out right.” He must be mad, insane, completely off his rocker to believe she would fall for him again.

I’ve read masters’ theses that advanced less complex arguments than these eyes are wordlessly conveying. What’s happening here, clearly, is not that Simon’s peepers have started flashing these sentiments, but that Clara is choosing to read volumes into an appealing glance.

So why not just admit it? Why not just show Simon’s facial expression, then allow Clara to get on with her mental gyrations?

Abruptly, Simon’s face became dead white, causing his overflowing black eyes to stand out against his skin like newsprint on a page. Clara shrank back, stunned by the intensity of his gaze. She knew now what dark bargain he was offering: protection from the Morrison brothers in exchange for her love. He must be mad, insane, completely off his rocker to believe she would fall for him again.

Noticing a pattern here? By avoiding the Millicent-annoying tropes upon which most aspiring writers rely, we open up the possibilities for showing, rather than telling, what’s going on.

These are not the only ways that those overtaxed body parts try M, M, and M’s patience, however. Perhaps the most provocative to the professional reader is that subset of irritants that not only suffer from overuse, but are internally redundant as well.

Like, say, the phrase she nodded her head. Pardon my asking, but what other body part could she possibly have nodded? Her spleen?

And what about that old standby, he shrugged his shoulders? In your long and doubtless eventful life, have you ever heard of someone, anyone, no matter how talented, shrugging a body part other than his shoulders?

Oh, you laugh, but try reading either of these phrases 50 or 100 times in a day. You would find yourself asking the question above through gritted teeth, too. Or perhaps crossing out her head so hard that your pen poked through the manuscript page.

Not all such phrases are so obviously redundant, of course. She pointed with her finger or he waved his hand are over-explanations, since pointing generally involves a finger and waving a hand. Yes, it is possible to point with a toe or wave an elbow. However, if one were to point or wave with a non-standard body part, it would be necessary to state explicitly which part is being used, right? If one just says she pointed at the ghost or he waved good-bye, any reader would assume that a finger and a hand were involved, respectively.

By contrast, M, M, and M’s eyes would skate tranquilly by characters that snap their fingers, tap their toes, crack their knuckles, or even shake their heads. It is possible to crack something other than a knuckle — a nut, for instance. And while tapping is generally the province of feet, it’s also possible to tap one’s fingers on a table, one’s fork against one’s wineglass to call for quiet, or a magic wand against a top hat to produce a rabbit.

But I’m over-explaining this, amn’t I? Let’s just move on to another way that fictional heads cause Millicent chagrin. See if you can spot it in its natural habitat.

Monique nodded. “Yes, I agree.”

Seth shook his head. “And I said no. I couldn’t disagree more.”

Betty shrugged. “Oh, I just don’t know. Or perhaps I simply don’t care.”

How did you do? If you were jumping up and down by the end of the second line, bellowing at the top of your lungs, “Hey, Anne, each of these paragraphs is conceptually redundant — in fact, multiply so,” I hereby award you the Self-Editor of the Week medal, complete with a bright red ribbon. The physical actions convey the same meaning as the dialogue, so technically, they are redundant.

Don’t see it? Okay, what’s the difference in meaning between

Monique nodded.

“Yes,” Monique said.

and

“I agree,” said Monique.

They all express the same thing: Monique is in agreement with whatever just passed. “So why,” Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel wail, “does this writer need to tell me about it three times?

Trust me, once will suffice. Characters who nod while saying yes, shake their heads while saying no, and shrug (their shoulders, no doubt) while expressing factual doubt or indifference are a notorious professional readers’ pet peeve.

“What’s next?” Millicent and her relatives demand wearily. “Characters who walk with their legs, put shoes on their feet, and don gloves on their hands? Alert the media! Next, you’ll be astonishing me by depicting characters clapping hats on their heads, wrapping belts around their waists, and wearing rings on their fingers instead of the widest part of the arm.”

Have a bit more faith in your readers’ intelligence, especially if that reader happens to do it for a living. Narratives that explain more than necessary, or that over-make their points, can easily seem as though they are talking down to their audience. Just as a mystery-solving protagonist will come across as smarter if she figures out what’s going on without needing every relevant puzzle piece handed to her along with extensive explanation, so will the narrative voice seem smarter if it does not explain the obvious.

Have I made that plain? Please shake your head, say, “No,” and respond negatively, if not.

And please bear in mind while you are reading your work IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD: just because all of the phrases I have mentioned today are in common usage doesn’t mean that they will necessarily work well on the page. Professional readers like Millicent, Maury, and, to a lesser extent, Mehitabel are trained to zero in upon redundancy, both literal and conceptual.

They’re not going to be impressed by your stamping your manuscript over and over again with the same phrases, no matter how common they are in everyday speech. Minimizing your narrative’s reliance upon typically overused phrases and unnecessary explanation will not only help you steer clear of these common pet peeves, but also free up precious page space for your one-of-a-kind quips, vivid descriptions, and evocative phrases.

In other words, to unveil your good writing. And if that doesn’t cause you to cheer, “Hooray,” I’m not sure what will. Keep up the good work!

The all-you-can-eat hopefulness buffet, or, you’re already sending those queries out again, aren’t you?

I heard your jubilation in the wee hours, campers: at 12:01 this morning, those of you who had been holding your proverbial horses since November’s series on how to focus your querying list so you don’t waste your valuable time approaching agents who do not represent your type of writing gave a giant whoop of joy and reached for your already-stamped SASEs. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day long weekend is now over, and starting this week, the annual tidal wave of New Year’s resolution queries and submissions will be starting to recede.

Translation: a savvy writer may begin thinking about sending off those long-delayed queries and requested materials. Millicent the agency screener will now have time to consider them more carefully.

For the benefit of those new to the perversities of Author! Author!, not so long ago — to be specific, on the first day of this very month — I gave some advice to eager New Year’s resolvers all over this great land of ours: hold off for a few weeks before you start querying and submitting again. Why? Well, for a couple of excellent reasons, up to and including the fact that every year, thousands upon thousands of aspiring writers resolve that this year, by gum, they’re going to get that novel published.

The results are clearly visible on the second mailing day after the New Year’s holiday: our old pal Millicent is up to her eyebrows in queries. It does not, to put it mildly, put her in the best of moods — and one does not need to be the Amazing Kreskin to guess whether a grumpy, overworked screener with 740 queries cluttering up her desk or in her e-mail inbox will be more or less inclined to reject at the sight of the first typo than a happy, well-rested one greeted by a mere 327 queries at the beginning of her workday.

The same principle holds true, of course, for requested materials. As we’ve been discussing throughout our recent series of standard format for manuscripts (and don’t worry, e-queriers and submitters: there’s another Formatpalooza post in the offing especially for you), it’s Millicent’s job to be nit-picky and rejection-happy. If she weren’t, her boss — the agent for whom she screens queries and submissions — would end up spending so much time reading potential clients’ work that she would have no time to sell her existing clients’ books.

You wouldn’t want that, would you?

If you harbor aspirations of making a living as a writer of books, you shouldn’t. After all, reputable agents don’t stay in business by tracking down exciting new talent, at least not directly: they make their livings, and their clients’ as well, via placing works by already-signed authors.

Believe me, once you are one of those authors, you will be grateful for this arrangement.

Seriously, reading time is a scarce commodity for many a successful agent. Since those authors are constantly producing new manuscripts, and since the literary market is constantly changing, agents do indeed need to be reading constantly — but not necessarily submissions from would-be clients. Even the most literature-loving agents may devote only a small fraction of their time to scanning new writers’ manuscripts.

Thus Millicent’s job security: the agent relies upon her to winnow out the overwhelming majority of queries and submissions, so that he may devote his scant reading time to only those most likely to catch his fancy.

But that’s not how most writers trying to break into print think agencies work, is it? “But Anne,” aspiring writers everywhere mutter, “that’s appallingly cynical. Isn’t it the agent’s job — not to say responsibility, obligation, and/or glory — to ferret out the best and brightest of new talent? Isn’t it, in fact, his role in the literary world to discover brilliant undiscovered talent like me?”

Actually, no, it isn’t. It’s his job to sell books by his existing client base, period. But don’t lose heart: you have the ever-malleable market to thank for his impulse to seek out new talent. What is selling today might well not be selling next week.

So yes, that agent does need you. Or someone like you. Fortunately, around this time of year, Millicent is still getting upwards of 800 queries a week from your adorable ilk.

I hear that undercurrent of grumbling out there: this deck seems a trifle stacked against those new to the game. Especially if, like the overwhelming majority of new queriers, you had previously believed that the guiding purpose of the literary agency as an institution was essentially charitable — to discover new writing talent and bring it, lovingly cradled, to an admiring public.

If that last paragraph made your stomach drop to your knees, you’re not alone. Most new queriers and submitters are stunned to learn that the agency system is not set up primarily to discover them.

It will save you a lot of heartache to learn how the process actually works, as well as what to expect. Not to mention to grasp how the publishing world has changed in the last twenty years: in 1990, there were roughly 48,000 different books published in the United States; last year, there were about 250,000.

Starting to make sense that the agent of your dreams needs Millicent to do his preliminary reading for him? There are a heck of a lot of manuscripts floating around out there.

So welcome, neophytes — and kudos to you for being smart enough to do your homework before you start boxing up your hopes and dreams and sending them off to strangers. Welcome, too, to those preparing to send out your next raft of queries or that long-delayed packet of requested materials, as well as all of you who are trying to work up nerve to start querying again after a painful rejection. And a big, hearty how-are-you-doing? to the many, many aspiring writers out there intent on finishing up a writing project while contemplating the challenge of landing an agent from out to the corners of their eyes.

I’ve got a treat for you, wrapped in a bitter coating. Today, we’re going to talk about the history of writers just like you — and while we’re at it, debunk a few widely-believed myths.

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

Of course, that was back when there were few enough books published in these United States that most releases from a good-sized publishing house could garner a review in a major newspaper or magazine. Think about it: in 1910, there were only 13,470 book published; assuming that a good newspaper ran its book review section once per week, and covered ten books each time, any given new release had about a 1 in 25 chance of getting reviewed. Even greater, if the subject matter had local interest.

Now, so many books are published in any year that only a tiny fraction of them enjoy the substantial publicity of a newspaper or magazine review. Not only are there exponentially more new releases, but fewer and fewer print sources publish book reviews at all.

Back to days of yore. Amazingly, considering that authors often possessed only one copy of their manuscripts — remember, the photocopier wasn’t invented until 1938, and it wasn’t commercially available until two decades later — it wasn’t uncommon for writers just to pack their books into boxes and send them to publishers without any preliminary correspondence. The result was what’s known in the biz as an unsolicited submission, but unlike today, when a manuscript that appears on an editor’s desk out of a clear blue sky is invariably rejected unread, publishers would set these books aside until some luckless employee of the publishing house had time to go through the stack.

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

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

It’s still not bad advice, by the way. Hard disks do crash from time to time.

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

Times change, as they say. One of the ways that time changed the publishing industry was that publishing houses began expecting to see fiction and nonfiction presented to them differently.

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

It took until the 1990s for publishers to notice that a commercially successful first book is not necessarily an absolute predictor of whether the author’s second or third book will sell well. Or, to turn that around to the author’s perspective, that a book she had spent five or ten years perfecting might have been just a trifle more polished when it hit the shelves than one her publisher expected her to crank out in the year after her first book was released. While she was on a book tour, no less.

As a result, while multi-book contracts still exist — particularly in YA and genre fiction, markets conducive to series — they have become substantially less common for fiction. While previously-published authors can occasionally sell subsequent books based upon only a few chapters (known, unsurprisingly, as a partial), novelists should expect to write books before they can sell them.

Nonfiction, however, is typically sold not on the entire book, but via a marketing packet known as a book proposal. There are several hefty categories on the archive list at right on how to put one together, but for the purposes of this post, a generalization will suffice: a book proposal is a packet consisting of a description of the proposed book, a sample chapter, descriptions of subsequent chapters, and an array of marketing materials. Typically, these materials include everything from a detailed analysis of similar books already on the market to an explanation of who the target readership is and why this book will appeal to them to a marketing plan. Traditionally, previously published writers also include clippings of their earlier work.

Basically, a book proposal is a job application: in effect, the writer is asking the publishing house to pay her to write the book she’s proposing. (For some guidance on how to put one of these intimidating packets together, check out the mysteriously-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL on the archive list conveniently located at the lower right-hand side of this very page.)

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

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

Everyone clear on the fiction/nonfiction distinction? Good. Let’s move on to one of the other great cosmic mysteries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How so? By passing along only what they consider marketable and of publishable quality, agents thin the volume of submissions the publishers see on a monthly basis to Niagara Falls, rather than the Atlantic Ocean. In other words, they reject so the publishers don’t have to do so.

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

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

Think about it. You’re perfectly at liberty to continue to resent it, of course, but it will help you to understand the logic.

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

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

Again, think about it: for an agent to be good at his job, he can’t just send out submissions willy-nilly. He must have the experience to target the editors who are most likely to be interested in any given book.

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

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

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

As we discussed above, agencies are seldom non-profit enterprises. Doesn’t it make sense that agents would not take on manuscripts that they do not believe they can sell in the current market, even if the writing happens to be very good indeed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um, Anne, I was not laboring under the misconception that Taft was still president. Why are you telling me all of this while I’m gearing up to send out my next round of queries and/or submissions?
An excellent question, campers, and one that fully deserves an answer: because all too often, even market-savvy queriers and submitters assume, wrongly, that the only conceivable reason their work might get rejected is the quality of the writing. If the manuscript were well-written, they reason, any agent in her right mind would snap it up right away, right? So if the first says no, they all will.

These days, more than ever, that’s just not true. Agents specialize, market conditions change, and as any writer who has landed an agent within the past five years can tell you, whether a hundred agents have said no has no effect whatsoever on whether Agent 101 will say yes. It’s a matter of personal literary taste — and a thousand other factors.

Translation: keep moving forward, in spite of rejection. The right agent for your work may well be out there, but if you don’t try to find her, she’s never going to find out that you’re the client of her dreams.

Remember, the only manuscript that has no chance of getting published is the one that just sits in a desk drawer, gathering dust, because the writer doesn’t have the nerve to send it out.

Again, that flies in the face of common writerly conceptions of how the next big talent gets discovered, doesn’t it? The fantasy runs a little something like this: if a writer is really talented, an agent would spontaneously appear on his doorstep the instant he finishes typing THE END and sign him to a long-term representation contract on the spot (and without reading the manuscript, apparently). By the end of the week, an editor at a major publishing house offers a million-dollar advance — and by the end of the month, the author is smiling at Oprah’s studio audience, saying, “Oh, it’s all been such a whirlwind.”

Except that’s not how 249,980 of those 250,000 books got published in the United States last year. Most of the ones who ended up on Oprah were nonfiction writers, anyway, and not talking about their first books.

That’s not going to make the starry-eyed writer of a genuinely good first novel feel less disappointed when only one of the fifteen agents she queried asks to see pages, though, is it? Or when the one who asks to see it doesn’t respond for three or four months, as is now quite common. Or even — brace yourself, dreamers — doesn’t respond at all if the answer is no.

Nothing I mentioned in the last paragraph is any reflection whatsoever on the quality of the writing in the manuscript in question, right? It’s just how the process works these days.

Realistic expectations might not be very sexy, but learning the basic contours of how real writers actually get their books into print will help you keep the faith through the long and often frustrating querying and submission process. And that, my friends, is the best way to get your manuscript published: not by waiting for lightning to strike you, but by bellying up to that buffet day after day, week after week, and, if necessary, year after year.

Why? Because Taft isn’t president any more, and it’s a heck of a lot harder to sell a book to a publisher now. You don’t want to land just any agent; hold out for the one who can help you do it beautifully.

Next time, I shall be talking a bit more about what happens to your query and submission after it lands on Millicent’s desk. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part II: state your business!

ozgatemanozgatemanozgateman
ozgatemanozgatemanozgateman

Are some of you still feeling a bit shell-shocked after this morning’s Querypalooza post? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you were: in it, I set out a very basic structure for a query letter. In deference to everyone’s possibly strained nerves, I’m going to take it a bit more gently in this post, assuaging the fears of the nervous, adding nuances to the prototype, and generally spreading joy and enlightenment abroad.

And then I’m going to plunge you back into shock again. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s for your own good, I promise.

Querying, I think we can all agree, is a necessary evil: no one likes it. It generates a whole lot of inconvenience for writer and agency alike, and to engage in it is to put one’s ego on the line in a very fundamental way.

Rejection hurts, and you can’t be rejected if you never send out your work, right? So you can either try to lie low, keeping your dreams to yourself, or you can attempt to approach those high-and-mighty gatekeepers of the industry, asking to be let inside the Emerald City.

Sounds a lot like high school social dynamics, doesn’t it?

Just as many people stay away from their high school reunions because they fear exposing themselves to the judgment of people whom past experience has led them to believe to be, well, kinda shallow and hurtful, many, many writers avoid querying, or give up after just a handful of queries, because they fear to be rejected by folks they have heard are — wait for it — kinda shallow and prone to be hurtful.

There are a variety of ways to deal with such fears. One could, for instance, not query at all, and resign oneself to that great novel or brilliant nonfiction book’s never being published. Alternatively, one could query just a couple of times, then give up.

Or — and if you haven’t guessed by now, this would be my preferred option — you could recognize that while some of the people at the reunion may in fact turn out to be kind of unpleasant, you really only need to find the one delightful person who finds you truly fascinating to make the entire enterprise worthwhile.

You’ll be pleased to hear, though, that unlike a hapless ex-school kid gearing up to attend a reunion, there are certain things an aspiring writer can do before querying to increase the probability of a positive reception. Certain elements mark a query letter as coming from someone who has taken the time to learn how the publishing industry works.

Agents like writers who bother to do that, you know, and with good reason. Such new clients are much less time-consuming than those whose ideas of how books are sold bear only scant relation to reality. Aspiring writers harboring unrealistic expectations tend not only to express resentment when their work encounters stumbling-blocks — they often end up feeling disappointed when things are going well.

I just mention.

The query letter structure I proposed last time — which is, I must reiterate, NOT the only one possible by any means, or even the only one that works; it’s just what has worked best in my experience — also frees the writer from the well-nigh impossible task of trying to cram everything good about a book into a single page. Which is, I have noticed over the years, precisely what most aspiring writers try to do.

No wonder they get intimidated and frustrated long before they query the 50 or 100 agents (yes, you read that correctly) it often takes these days for a good book to find the right fit. To put this in perspective, a truly talented writer might well end up querying the equivalent of my entire high school graduating class before being signed.

Believe it or not, masses of rejected queries are not necessarily a reflection on the manuscript in question. Rejection is often a function of heavy competition, agent specialization, and aspiring writers not being aware of what information a query letter is supposed to contain.

Apart from doing the necessary homework to get a query that DOES contain the right information onto the desk of an agent who does habitually represent that type of book, the only way that I know to speed up that process is to make the query letter itself businesslike, but personable.

Don’t tense up — I’m not talking about spilling your soul onto a single sheet of paper. I’m talking about making your query letter unique.

And not in the all-too-common misdefinition of the word as a synonym for special. I mean unique in its proper sense of one of a kind.

A tall order, you say? Well, keep in mind that the SOLE purpose of the query is to engender enough excitement in an agent (or, more commonly, in Millicent the agency screener: it is rare for agents at the larger agencies to screen query letters themselves; thus Millicent’s being the one to get the paper cuts) that she will ask to see a representative chunk of the book itself, not to reproduce what you would like to see on the book’s back jacket or to complain about having to work through an agent at all.

If either of the last two options made you chuckle in disbelief, good. Believe it or not, I’ve seen both turn up many, many times in unsuccessful query letters. Boasting and petulance both abound, and both tend to discourage positive response.

Now, I know that my readers are too savvy to do either of those things deliberately, but isn’t it worth sitting down with your query letter and asking yourself: could an exhausted Millicent — in a bad mood, with a cold, having just broken up with her boyfriend AND burned her lip on that over-hot latte yet again — possibly construe that letter as either?

Yes, querying is a chore, and an intimidating one at that; yes, ultimately it will be the agent’s job, not yours, to market your work to publishers, and an agent or editor probably would have a far better idea of how to spin your book than you would.

Agents and their screeners are in fact aware of all of these things. You don’t need to tell them.

Your query letter needs to market your book impeccably anyway, in a tone that makes you sound like an author who LOVES his work and is eager to give agent and editor alike huge amounts of his time to promote it. Not a walk in the park, definitely, but certainly doable by a smart, talented writer who approaches it in the right spirit.

Sound like anyone you know?

So start thinking, please, about how to make your query the one that waltzes into the reunion with a positive attitude, not the one who storms in with a chip on its little shoulder. Or, heaven forefend, the one that doesn’t stick its nose through the door at all.

The gates of the Emerald City are not going to open unless you knock, people. The only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of getting published is the one that is never queried or pitched.

Yet even as I typed that, I could sense some ardor-deflation out there. “”My God,” the little voice in the back of my head which I choose to attribute to my readership is saying, “how is all of that possible within the context of a single-page missive? How can I cram all I need to say to grab their attention in that little space, much less seem unique while doing it?”

Um, are you sitting down? You don’t actually have the entire page to catch their attention; to be on the safe side, figure you have only about five lines to convince them to keep reading.

Yes, you read that correctly. While you already have the heart medication and/or asthma inhaler at the ready, it seems like a good time to add: most query letters are not even read to their ends by Millicent and her ilk.

Are you rending your garments and shouting, “Why, oh Lord, why?” Because the vast majority of query letters disqualify themselves from serious consideration before the end of the opening paragraph.

Hey, I told you to sit down first.

At the risk of repeating myself, this is largely attributable to aspiring writers’ not being aware of what information a query letter should and should not contain. Unfortunately, Americans are so heavily exposed to hard-sell techniques that many aspiring writers make the mistake of using their query letters to batter the agent with predictions of future greatness so over-inflated (and, from the agent’s point of view, so apparently groundless, coming from a previously unpublished writer) that they may be dismissed out of hand.

Like what, you ask? Here are some popular favorites:

This is the next (fill in name of bestseller here)!

You’ll be sorry if you let this one pass by!

Everyone in the country will want to read this book!

Women everywhere will want to buy this book!

It’s a natural for Oprah!

This book is like nothing else on the market!

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble (yet I do seem to be doing it quite a bit lately, don’t I?), but to professional eyes, these are all absurd statements to discover in a query letter. Yes, even if the book in question IS the next DA VINCI CODE.

Why? Because these aren’t descriptions of the book; they’re back-jacket blurbs, marketing copy, equally applicable to (and equally likely to be true about) any manuscript that crosses their desks.

After one has heard the same claim 1500 times, it starts to lose a little vim. “Why do these queriers keep telling me that their books are unique?” Millicent grumbles, reaching for her fourth latte of the afternoon. “Why aren’t they SHOWING me?”

Ah, there’s the rub: assertions like these simply are not as effective at establishing a writer’s ability or a story’s appeal as demonstrating both practically, through well-written sentences and a summary containing lively and unusual details. Even in the extremely rare instances that these statements aren’t just empty boasts based upon wishful thinking, consider: whose literary opinion would you be more likely to believe in Millicent’s shoes, the author’s vague claim of excellence about his own book or another reader’s recommendation?

To put it another way, if someone you’d never met before came up to you on the street and said, “Hey, I bake the world’s best mincemeat pies, the kind that can change your life in a single bite,” would you believe him? Would you trustingly place that total stranger’s good-looking (or not) slice of God-knows-what into your mouth?

Or would you want some assurances that, say, this hard-selling yahoo knows something about cooking, had produced the pie in a vermin-free kitchen, and/or hadn’t constructed the mincemeat out of ground-up domestic pets?

Oh, you may laugh, thinking that this isn’t really an apt parallel, but why would agents and editors’ desire to hear about a new writer’s past publication history — or educational background, or even platform — if NOT to try to figure out if that pie is made of reasonable materials and in a manner up to professional standards of production?

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, a good query letter includes what I like to call ECQLC, Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, platform information and/or selling points that will make Millicent sit up and say either, “Wow, this writer has interesting credentials,” “Wow, this writer is uniquely qualified to tell this story,” and/or “Wow, this book has greater market appeal/a larger target audience/is significantly more important to human existence than I would have guessed.”

The crucial exclamation to elicit, obviously, is “Wow!” Not merely because Millicent honestly does enjoy discovering exciting new writing projects (yes, even though it’s her job to reject 98% of the ones that cross her desk), but because a query letter that mentions either the writer’s credentials or the book’s selling points is genuinely rare.

I sense some disgruntled muttering out there, do I not? “Here we go again, Anne,” some mutterers, well, mutter. “I can’t STAND it when the pros start rattling on about platform. Isn’t that just code for we’re not interested in taking a chance on previously unpublished authors?”

Actually, it isn’t. Agents and their Millicents don’t ask to see platform information in queries in order to seem exclusionary toward previously unpublished writers (okay, not merely to seem exclusionary). They want it to be there because specific references to specific past literary achievements are signals to a quick-scanning screener that this is a query letter to take seriously.

As will an opening paragraph that states clearly and concisely why the writer decided to query this agent, as opposed to any other; a well-crafted single-paragraph elevator speech for the book; some indication of the target market, and a polite, respectful tone.

The same basic elements, in short, as an effective verbal pitch.

Did some light bulbs just flicker on over some heads out there? That’s right, campers — the difference between a vague boast and solid information about your book and why THIS agent is the best fit for it is actually a show, don’t tell problem, at base. Part of your goal in the query letter is to demonstrate through your professional presentation of your project that this is a great book by an exciting new author, not just to say it.

So you might want to eschew such statements as, “My friends say this is the greatest novel since THE GRAPES OF WRATH. It’s also a natural for Oprah.” You can make better arguments for your manuscript’s relevance.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “my book really is a natural for Oprah! I’m going on her show next week!”

Well, congratulations — go ahead and open your query letter with the date of your appearance on the show, and the best of luck to you. For the overwhelming majority of you who have not already negotiated with her production staff, I would recommend against mentioning your book’s Oprah potential at all, either in the query letter or, if you write nonfiction, in the book proposal.

Why? Because, conservatively speaking, at least 40% of book proposals Millicent sees mention the possibility of appearing on Oprah. As will most marketing plans, a hefty percentage of verbal pitches, and a higher percentage of query letters than I even like to say.

What’s the result of all of that repetition? Usually, Millicent will simply stop reading if a query letter opens with an empty boast like that, because to her, including such statements is like a writer’s scrawling on the query in great big red letters, “I have absolutely no idea how the publishing industry works.” Which, while an interesting tactic, is unlikely to get an agent or her screener to invest an additional ten seconds in reading on to your next paragraph.

That’s right, I said ten seconds: as much as writers like to picture agents and their screeners agonizing over their missives, trying to decide if such a book is marketable or not, the average query remains under a decision-maker’s eyes for less than 30 seconds.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of time to make up one’s mind, does it? Actually, it is ample for a query letter rife with typos and unsubstantiated claims about how great the book is to turn a professional reader off.

Try not to blame Millicent for this. I can’t stress enough that agency screeners do not reject quickly merely to be mean. It’s their job, and to a certain extent, developing pet peeves and shortcuts is a necessary psychological defense for someone handling hundreds of people’s hopes and dreams in any given day’s work.

Even the best-intentioned Millicent might conceivably, after as short a time as a few weeks of screening queries, might start relying pretty heavily upon her first impressions. Consider, for instance, the English major’s assumption that business format is in fact not proper formatting for either query letters or manuscripts. Think about it from a screener’s point of view: it’s true, for one thing, and let’s face it, improper formatting is the single quickest flaw to spot in either a query or manuscript.

So why wouldn’t Millicent free up an extra few seconds in her day by rejecting paper query letters devoid of indentation on sight? Especially when empirical experience has shown her that aspiring writers who don’t use grammatically-necessary indentation in their query letters often eschew it in their manuscripts as well?

I’m hearing more huffing. “But Anne,” some of you demand indignantly, and who could blame you? “What does indentation have to do with the actual writing in a manuscript? Or a query, for that matter?”

Potentially plenty, from Millicent’s point of view: remember, the competition for both client spots at agencies and publication contracts is fierce enough that any established agent fill her typically scant new client quota hundreds of times over with technically perfect submissions: formatted correctly, spell- and grammar-checked to within an inch of their lives, AND original. So there’s just not a lot of incentive for her to give a query with formatting, spelling, or grammatical problems the benefit of the doubt.

Some of you still don’t believe me about the dangers of using business formatting, do you? Okay, let’s take a gander at what Millicent expects to see, a letter formatted observing standard English rules of paragraph-formation:

mars query indented

Now let’s take a look at exactly the same letter in business format:

biz style mars query

Interesting how different it is, isn’t it, considering that the words are identical? And isn’t it astonishing how many paces away a reader can be for the difference to be obvious?

One lone exception to the intent-your-paragraphs rule: in an e-mailed query, of course, the business format would be acceptable, but on paper, it’s not the best strategic choice. Ditto with requested materials, even if you are sending them via e-mail. (Unless her agency specifies otherwise, Millicent will expect you to send any requested pages as Word attachments, not as inserts in the body of an e-mail; thus, all pages should include indented text. FYI, agencies that tell queriers to include sample pages or chapters with their queries are not technically requesting material: they simply like for Millie to have more information at her fingertips before she makes a decision. For an in-depth discussion of the differences between query packets and submission packets, please see the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A QUERY PACKET and HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET on the archive list at right.)

Indented paragraphs are, to put it bluntly, the industry standard. Unfortunately, a lot of aspiring writers seem not to be aware that business format tends to be regarded as less-than-literate, regardless of whether it appears in a query letter, a marketing plan, or — heaven forfend! — a submitted manuscript. (If you don’t know why I felt the need to invoke various deities to prevent you from using business format your manuscripts, please run, don’t walk to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category at right.)

In fact, I am perpetually meeting writers at conferences and in classes who insist, sometimes angrily, that a query letter is a business letter, and thus should be formatted as such. They tell me that standards have changed, that e-mail has eliminated the need for observing traditional paragraph standards, that it’s the writing that counts, not the formatting.

I understand the logic, of course, but it simply doesn’t apply here: not all businesses work in the same way. As anyone who works in an agency or publishing house would no doubt be delighted to tell you, there are many, many ways in which publishing doesn’t work like any other kind of business. One does not, for instance, require an agent in order to become a success at selling shoes or to become a well-respected doctor.

If you’re looking for evidence of the biz’ exceptionalism, all you have to do is walk into a bookstore with a good literary fiction section. Find a book by a great up-and-coming author that’s sold only 500 copies since it came out last year, and ask yourself, “Would another kind of business have taken a chance like this, or would it concentrate on producing only what sells well? Would it continue to produce products like this year after year, decade after decade, out of a sense of devotion to the betterment of the human race?”

Okay, so some businesses would, but it’s certainly not the norm.

Yet almost invariably, when I try to tell them that publishing is an old-fashioned industry fond of its traditions, and that agents and their screeners tend to be people with great affection for the English language and its rules, I receive the same huffy reply from writers who dislike indenting: some version of, “Well, I heard/read/was told that a query/marketing plan had to be businesslike. Therefore, it must be in business format. QED, tradition-hugger.”

I’m always glad when they bring this up — because I strongly suspect that this particular notion is at the root of the surprisingly pervasive rumor that agents actually prefer business format. I can easily envision agents stating point-blank at conferences that they want to receive businesslike query letters.

But businesslike and business format are not the same thing. Businesslike means professional, market-savvy, not overly-familiar — in short, the kind of query letter we talked about last time.

Business format, on the other hand, doesn’t dictate any kind of content at all; it’s purely about how the page is put together. There’s absolutely nothing about this style, after all, that precludes opening a query with the threat, “You’ll regret it for the rest of your natural life if you let this book pass you by!”

All of these negative examples are lifted from actual query letters, by the way. My spies are everywhere.

All that being said, there’s another reason that I would strenuously advise against using business format in your query letters. A comparative glance at the two letters above will demonstrate why.

Take another look, then put yourself in Millicent’s shoes for a moment and ask yourself: based upon this particular writing sample, would you assume that Aspiring Q. Author was familiar with standard format? Would you expect Aspiring’s paragraphs to be indented, or for him/her (I have no idea which, I now realize) NOT to skip lines between paragraphs?

Okay, would your answer to those questions change if you had a hundred query letters to read before you could get out of the office for the day, and you’d just burned your lip on a too-hot latte? (Millicent never seems to learn, does she?)

No? Well, what if it also contained a typo within the first line or two, had odd margins, or began with, “This is the best book you’ll read this year!” or some similar piece of boasting? Wouldn’t you be at least a LITTLE tempted to draw some negative conclusions from the format?

Even if you wouldn’t, Millicent would — and perhaps even should. Why? Because although most aspiring writers seem not to be aware of it, every sentence a writer submits to an agency is a writing sample.

Even if the writer doesn’t treat it as such, a screener will. After all, when that stranger comes up to sell you a meat pie, you’re going to be looking for whatever clues you can to figure out if he’s on the up-and-up.

I can feel some of you getting depressed over this, but actually, I find it empowering that the high rejection rate is not arbitrary. Quick rejections are not about being mean or hating writers — they’re about plowing through the mountains of submissions that arrive constantly. The average agency receives 800-1200 queries per week (that’s not counting the post-Labor Day backlog or New Year’s Resolution Rush, folks), so agents and screeners have a very strong incentive to weed out as many of them as possible as rapidly as possible.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, that agents will happily tell you that any query that begins “Dear Agent” (rather than addressing a specific agent by name) automatically goes into the rejection pile. So does any query that addresses the agent by the wrong gender in the salutation. (If you’re unsure about a Chris or an Alex, call the agency and ask; no need to identify yourself as anything but a potential querier.)

So does any query that is pitching a book in a category the agent is not looking to represent. Yes, even if the very latest agents’ guide AND the agency’s website says otherwise. This is no time to play rules lawyer; these people know what their own connections are.

And you know what? These automatic rejections will, in all probability, generate exactly the same form rejection letter as queries that were carefully considered, but ultimately passed upon.

So how precisely is an aspiring writer to learn what does and doesn’t work in a query? By finding out what Millicent has been trained to spot — and learning what appeals to her.

A great place to start: go to writers’ conferences and ask questions of agents about what kind of queries they like to see. Attend book readings and ask authors about how they landed their agents. Take writers who have successfully landed agents out to lunch and ask them how they did it.

But do not, whatever you do, just assume that what works in other kinds of marketing will necessarily fly in approaching an agent. After all, almost universally, agency guidelines specifically ask aspiring writers not to use the hard-sell techniques used in other types of business: writers seeking representation are expected not to telephone to pitch, send unrequested materials, or engage in extracurricular lobbying like sending cookies along with a query letter.

Instead, be businesslike, as befits a career writer: approach them in a manner that indicates that you are aware of the traditions of their industry. Tune in late tonight for some more tips on how. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Improving those opening pages, part IV: there’s life beyond page one. Honest, Millicent, there is.

willie wonka screaming

Willy Wonka: Don’t you know what this is?
Violet Beauregarde: By gum, it’s gum.
Willy Wonka: [happily, but sarcastically] Wrong! It’s the most amazing, fabulous, sensational gum in the whole world.
Violet Beauregarde: What’s so fab about it?
Willy Wonka: This little piece of gum is a three-course dinner.
Mr. Salt: Bull.
Willy Wonka: No, roast beef. But I haven’t got it quite right yet.

After my last post in this series, I pondered starting on a new topic altogether. After all, I reasoned, most submissions get rejected on page 1; why pursue our practical example beyond that? Surely, there’s value in realism.

Then, after a couple of days, the writerly part of my brain began to rebel against the limitation. Realism, shmealism, my creative psyche cried: let’s go ahead and turn the page, already.

Besides, there’s a line on page 2 of our real-life example that would not only cause Millicent the agency screener to burn her lip on her too-hot latte; she would choke, gag, and have to be pounded on the back by the screener in the next cubicle. Here are the first two pages of our sample submission; see if you can spot the choke line. (If the type is too small for you to read, try holding down the command key while hitting the + key to increase the magnification.)

page 1 example wrong
page 2 example

Remember, we’re talking a real coffee-down-the-windpipe-inducer here, not just merely the normal Millicent pet peeves. But now that you’ve brought up the more common pet peeves — you just couldn’t resist, could you? — let’s quickly run over the Millicent-distracters on page 2, just to get them out of our field of vision, so to speak. In the order they appear on the page:

1. The incorrectly-formatted slug line, with the page number on the wrong location on the page

Yes, I wrote this up as several infractions last time — but as you already know about them now, I thought I’d skim over them quickly.

Except to say: I’ve been seeing quite a few manuscripts lately with inappropriate spaces between the elements in the slug line. Just to make absolutely certain that everyone’s aware of the proper format, a slug line should not contain any spaces between the slashes and the words. So in our example above, the slug line should read: Wantabe/Wannabe Novel/2, not Wantabe/ Wannabe Novel/ 2.

Everybody clear on that? Good. Let’s press on.

2. An incorrectly-formatted ellipsis on line 2…and again on the last line of the page.

I’m kind of glad to see this one crop up here (twice!), because it’s quite a common punctuation gaffe. When an ellipsis appears in the middle of a sentence, there should not be spaces at either end. Thus, the rather funny line

Emma did not have more money than God … but she could call that loan in any day now.

should instead read:

Emma did not have more money than God…but she could call that loan in any day now.

Naturally, this is not the only context in which a writer might choose to use an ellipsis. For a run-down on how to employ them properly, please see this recent post on the subject.

3. A misspelled word in line 5, and another in line 11.

Oh, you may shrug, but most Millicents will stop reading at the first misspelling; the rest will stop reading at the second. The same basic rule applies to graduate school applications, by the way. College application essays tend to be read a bit more leniently: their screeners often will not stop reading until the fourth or fifth misspelling.

Yes, seriously.

The moral: NEVER submit ANY writing to a professional reader without proofreading it — preferably IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD. While you’re at it, it never hurts to run a computer spell-check.

It especially never hurts to re-run a spell-check after you’ve made revisions in a scene. As we shall be discussing later in the week, even writers with sterling spelling and grammatical skills often end up with errors in their submissions simply because they forgot to proofread between Revision A and Revision B.

“Oh, I’ve already submitted an earlier draft of this scene to another agent,” revisers murmur blithely to themselves. “I’m quite positive that I spell-checked before I submitted. Since all I’ve made is a minor tweak or two to the scene, I don’t really need to proof it again…”

Bite your tongue, revisers: you most certainly do need to proof it again before you submit. Half-finished revisions are very, very common in submissions, as are misspelled words. Diligent re-checking is the only means of preventing this type of completely preventable error.

4. Single-sentence paragraphs in paragraphs 4 and 6.

This one has been on the rise, too, so I’m quite pleased to have the excuse to talk about it: in English, at least two sentences are technically required to form a narrative paragraph. In a paragraph of dialogue, only one is required. So while

“You don’t say!” Edgar exclaimed.

is a perfectly acceptable paragraph, one that would not give Millicent a microsecond’s worth of pause,

Going through grade school as “Casey Jones” was also that trainwreck-kind-of-interesting.

usually would. While this rule is not as closely observed as some others, when coupled with quotation marks around words that are not actually attributable to anyone (more on that later) and two words stuck together as one (trainwreck instead of train wreck), even a fairly tolerant Millicent might start to frown.

Some of you have been jumping up and down, hollering, trying to get my attention for this entire section, haven’t you? “But Anne,” single-line paragraph lovers everywhere pant breathlessly, “I see single-line paragraphs in published books all the time, and you can’t open a newspaper or magazine without being positively overwhelmed with them. So isn’t it safe to assume that this rule is, you know, obsolete?”

In a word, no — at least, not if you happen to write literary fiction, high-end women’s fiction, or aspire to the more literary end of most fiction categories, where the better-educated agents and editors dwell. Lest we forget, even people on the business side of publishing tend to go into it because they love good writing; scratch a Millicent at a prominent agency, and you’re very likely to find a former honors English major from a minor Ivy League school.

So you might want to ask yourself: is the impact of any given a single-sentence paragraph worth the risk of Millicent’s disapproving of my having broken the rule? Or, still worse, of her concluding that I simply am not aware of the rule, and thus every subsequent syllable in my manuscript should be scrutinized with unusual intensity, lest I run grammatically amok again?

While you’re pondering that one, I should concede: in AP format (you know, the standard for newspapers and magazines), single-sentence paragraphs are considered quite acceptable these days — which is why, in case you had been wondering, you will see even highly literate nonfiction authors dropping the occasional single-line paragraph into their books. Since journalists write so many books, journalism’s standards have (unfortunately, according to some) bled very heavily into the nonfiction literary market.

We could all sit around and blame Joan Didion, but I, for one, have better things to do with my time.

Some of you single-line lovers are flailing about again, are you not? “But Anne, I’ve seen it in fiction, too. What do you have to say about that, huh? Huh?”

Well, for starters, I sincerely hope that those authors’ old English teachers don’t know what liberties they’ve been taking with the language. It might kill anyone who got her teacher training prior to 1950. Second, and more seriously for our purposes, it has become (begrudgingly) increasingly acceptable for fiction writers to use the OCCASIONAL single-sentence paragraph for emphasis.

You know, when the information revealed in it is genuinely going to surprise the reader. As in:

The town certainly knew how to throw a good funeral; nobody, not even the grim Sisters Katzenberg, denied that. For even the poorest departed citizens, the locals would throw a potluck of the Stone Soup variety: everyone brought what she happened to have in her pantry, and somehow, out of that chaos was born a meal for several hundred grieving souls.

Or it had, until the time the grizzly bear family decided to drop by and pay its respects.

Admit it — you didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? Breaking off that sentence into its own paragraph emphasizes the twist. Not only does that format imply a pause both before and after the sentence, setting it off from the rest of the narrative, but it is also significantly more likely to be caught by a skimming eye.

That’s the most reasonable use of the single-sentence paragraph: rarely, and only when introducing a legitimate surprise.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of writers radically over-use it, incorporating it for rhythm’s sake when the actual content of the sentence doesn’t justify it. All too often, it’s simply used automatically for a punch line, as in today’s example:

She ended the joke by getting married. The name on her books was K.C. Winter. The train stayed around, but it wasn’t her dad’s anymore.

Since Casey’s divorce, at least, Emma was its conductor.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: a joke needs to be pretty uproarious in order not to be deflated by having its punch line offset like this. Especially to Millicent, who sees hundreds of offset punch lines in any given screening day, there’s no apparent reason that the narrative should not run like this:

She ended the joke by getting married. The name on her books was K.C. Winter. The train stayed around, but it wasn’t her dad’s anymore. Since Casey’s divorce, at least, Emma was its conductor.

Hasn’t really lost anything by being made grammatically correct, has it? Save the dramatic paragraph breaks for moments that are actually dramatic; the device will have a greater impact that way.

5. Use of the passive voice in paragraph 7, line 2.

Before anyone starts to panic at the invocation of the passive voice, let me hasten to point out that generally speaking, a narrative usually needs to have many sentences in the passive voice on a single page in order to ruffle Millicent’s nerves. Admittedly, if more than a couple should appear on page 1, some Millicents might become antsy.

And then there are the Miliicents who will automatically stop reading upon encountering a single such a sentence. Suffice it to say that no type of sentence annoys a broader array of Millicents in a broader variety of ways than one in which things apparently happen all by themselves — or at any rate, by actors relegated to subordinate clauses:

The coat was brown.
Traffic prevented Trevor from keeping his appointment with Maurice.
The candle floated around the room, carried by unseen hands.
Karen was stunned into silence.

You may have stopped jumping out of sheer shocked depression, oh hand-wavers, but I can tell that you still have a question to ask. “Seriously? There’s a type of sentence so toxic that Millicent won’t read it at all? In heaven’s name, why is she so afraid of the passive voice?”

For one exceedingly simple reason: she has been taught to regard it as style-free writing, at least in fiction. Nor are screeners the only ones who harbor such opinions: ask any ten agents, editors, contest judges, or even writing teachers for the shortest possible definition of lazy writing, and five of them will instantly spout, “The passive voice.”

You must admit, they have a point: writing a sentence in the passive voice is seldom the most interesting way to convey information. Most of the time, it’s relatively easy to work the information into a more complex sentence, particularly if those details previously appeared in the dreaded X was Y) structure.

Unseen hands carried the candle from tabletop to mantelpiece, pausing in the dead center of the room. Stunned into silence, Karen hugged her brown coat around her shoulders. Dimly, she could hear the normal sounds of ordinary life passing by the window: birds chirping, pedestrians chatting, traffic whizzing toward a collective destination. Fleetingly, she wondered if Trevor had been able to fight his way through the rush-hour crowds to keep his appointment with Maurice.

Okay, so I took a few creative liberties in that revision, but isn’t it more interesting now? With that qualitative shift in mind, let’s revisit the use of the passive voice in page 2 of today’s example. Actually, let’s take a gander at this whole section. If you were Millicent, would it give you pause?

Emma was in there. She wanted to talk. This was frightening.

I’m not going to second-guess our generous example-provider by reworking this, but I’m quite confident that there’s a more interesting way to express Casey’s thoughts and fears in this moment. The emotion here feels real, but it’s not fleshed out: the reader is told how Casey feels and what she fears, rather than showing those thoughts and fears in action.

Actually, that’s a pretty good revision rule of thumb: if an emotionally important moment summarizes the protagonist’s feelings (This was frightening.), ask yourself: is the narrative telling, not showing here? Is there a way I could convey that my protagonist is frightened, instead of just stating it in the passive voice?

6. Use of a cliché in paragraph 7.

Remember the ten professional readers we asked to define lazy writing? The five who didn’t immediately mention the passive voice instantly thought of clichés.

Agents, editors, and contest judges will not pick up your manuscript expecting to read other people’s voice — they are hoping to be wowed by yours. By definition, clichéd phraseology is not going to achieve that goal: phrases that everyone uses are, after all, not original.

Which is precisely why they roll so easily off the narrative tongue, right? They seem so natural — which is why a writer can occasionally (VERY occasionally) get away with incorporating them into dialogue. But think about it: in a narrative paragraph, what are the chances that Millicent is going to read a stock phrase like world enough and time and think, “Wow, I’ve never heard it put that way before.”

Roughly nil, I’m afraid. Avoid clichés like the plague; keep an eagle eye out for them while revising, and always let your conscience be your guide. Remember, a stitch in time saves nine.

Annoying, isn’t it? Multiply that by a few hundred per day, and you’ll see why even the hint of a cliché will set an experienced Millicent’s teeth on edge.

7. Placing words within quotation marks that are not in fact quotes.

This one is such a common professional readers’ pet peeve that I remain perpetually astonished that agents and editors don’t run screaming into writers’ conferences, bellowing, “Don’t stick quotation marks around those words unless someone is actually speaking them!” at the top of their lungs. In a submission, the mere sight of misused quotations (particularly the odious advertising practice of placing words within quotes simply to emphasize them) is usually enough to make even the most hardened Millicent turn green.

Reserve quotation marks for when people are actually speaking. In a pinch, you can sometimes get away with the common use of quotation marks to indicate so-called (“What do you think of this “Louis XIV” table, Gerald?”), but as with any other tone in dialogue, it’s unwise to rely upon punctuation to convey every possible conversational nuance.

Generally speaking, italics are the safest way either to indicate verbal emphasis or to set off words from the rest of the sentence. To illustrate the difference using in the last paragraph of today’s example, this is likely to annoy virtually any Millicent:

If you looked up “hole in the wall” and cross-checked it with “Corpus Christi, Texas” you might find a photograph of a little yellow resturant named The Halyard.

But what about this version?

If you looked up hole in the wall and cross-checked it with Corpus Christi, Texas you might find a photograph of a little yellow resturant named The Halyard.

Actually, that was a trick question: one spelling mistake and two punctuation errors still remain. Did you catch them, or could you use a bit more proofreading practice?

To help sharpen your eye, here is a version that Millicents everywhere would approve:

If you looked up hole in the wall and cross-checked it with Corpus Christi, Texas, you might find a photograph of a little yellow restaurant named the Halyard.

8. And then there’s the conceptual stuff.

All of those little points aside, the second page of this example exhibits one very common structural reason that submissions get rejected — and one very specific content problem that writers occasionally include innocently. They don’t mean to fluster anyone, but pop goes the envelope, and before you know it, Millicent’s latte is all over her nice ivory-colored blouse.

Let’s take the structural reason first. Go back to the section break on page 1, then read on. Notice anything about the pacing?

If you instantly shot your hand into the air and shouted, “By gum, the plot seemed to stop cold while the narrative gave us backstory!” give yourself a gold star for the day. First novels — and memoirs, too — are notorious amongst Millicents for establishing conflict in an opening scene (or part of a scene), then setting the conflict on the proverbial back burner while the narrative tells about what has gone on before, what the participants are like, how they got their names…

That’s a whole lot of telling, rather than showing, isn’t it? Little does Millicent know that the original version of many of these stop-and-go novels featured seven pages of backstory before the plot even began; that opening half-scene prior to the three-page digression was just a teaser, added because somebody told the writer that Millicent likes to see conflict on page 1.

News flash: she likes to see conflict on EVERY page. So does her boss — and so do editors and contest judges. Keeping that opening momentum going is a great way to win friends and influence people at agencies.

Unfortunately, even very promising manuscripts often start with a bang, then peter out almost immediately. Partially, this problem may be traced to how introductory writing teachers push hooks. Most fledgling writers learn about opening with a hook — a grabber that draws the reader into the story at the top of page 1 — without learning that in order to sell a book, a writer has to keep the reader hooked for a long time. Digressing from the story for paragraphs or even pages at a time in Chapter 1 is seldom the most effective means of keeping the tension high.

The good news: if the opening scene is compelling and character-revealing enough, including backstory usually isn’t necessary at all. Instead, save it, then reveal it in increments, later in the book.

Stop shaking your head — or at least try writing an opening scene unencumbered by backstory before you insist that it’s not possible. Concentrate on the conflict; keep your characters focused on what they want in the scene and how they are going to overcome the obstacles to getting it.

I could go on for days and day about the ubiquitous early tension-sagging phenomenon (and probably shall, in the weeks to come), but I’m already running long for today. Before I sign off, though, I should ask: did anybody catch the line of text that would have sent Millicent’s coffee flying?

No? Try this on for size:

She worked as a literary agent. God knew why. Casey certainly didn’t.

Didn’t jump off the page at you, did it? It would to Millicent, for the same reason that an orchestra conductor’s eyes light up when someone she meets at a party suddenly starts talking about piccolos: this story is apparently set in the world she knows. And because it does include types of characters she knows intimately in real life — in this case, an author and an agent — she’s going to increase her scrutiny a thousandfold, eager to catch lapses in realism.

Were this submission a meticulously-researched exposé of conditions in the publishing industry, that hyper-intense gaze might prove helpful to the writer: if he got everything right, no reader is going to appreciate that more that Millicent. But had I mentioned yet that this book is a fantasy?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that the writer in this instance has done all of the necessary research to present an agent and her client believably to those who know them best. Take another look at the paragraph where Emma’s vocation is revealed — can you spot any reason Millicent might take umbrage at it?

Here’s a very good reason: not only is the Emma character presented as unreasonable (and, to some readers, unlikable) in these opening pages, but this paragraph implies either that (a) Emma is entirely unsuited to being an agent, for reasons not divulged to the readers, or — and this is the one most likely to occur to Millicent — (b) the narrative is implying that no one in her right mind would want to pursue that line of work.

See the problem, when submitting to people who have chosen to devote their lives to that line of work? Who are, in fact, sensitive human beings, longing to be treated with respect, like everyone else? Whose feelings might conceivably get a trifle bruised by an insensitive portrayal of someone like themselves?

You hadn’t thought of Millicent as someone whose feelings could be hurt by a submission, had you? Sort of changes how you think of the submission process, doesn’t it?

Don’t be disappointed, if you didn’t catch the negative implication. Many, if not most, writers who have not yet had the pleasure of working with an agent probably would not have caught it — or did not think that it might have ruffled Millicent’s feathers. It may even have struck some of you at first glance as humorous.

To someone working within the publishing industry, though, that paragraph of text would have come as something of a shock. Over-sensitive? Perhaps, but in a way that it’s certainly possible to predict and plan a way around, no?

Next time, I shall begin talking about a completely different set of submission perils, pitfalls into which even the most conscientious of self-editors often tumble. Keep plowing forward with those revisions, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Improving those opening pages, part II: preparing your manuscript for its first target reader

public market sign

Last time, I posted an honest-to-goodness reader’s honest-to-goodness page one and began to examine it as any professional reader — an agent, say, or editor, or contest judge — might. As those of you who joined me in that endeavor no doubt recall with a shudder, what a pro would consider a fairly cursory examination of presentation issues would strike most aspiring writers as a no-holds-barred critique.

Why would I do such a thing to a perfectly nice manuscript, other than to drum up enthusiasm for the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest (entry deadline next Monday, in case anybody’s forgotten)? For starters, to encourage all of you self-editors out there to start to look at your work not like a writer, or even like your ideal reader, but like an agency screener.

You know, the person who culls the hundreds of queries and dozens of submissions the average agent receives in any given week down to the happy few that the agent actually has time to read. Here at Author! Author!, that dreaded first line of defense and most critical first reader is known as Millicent.

Learning to read through Millicent’s eyes is an exceedingly useful skill for an aspiring writer to develop; in fact, for a writer intent upon landing an agent in North America, it’s a necessary skill. No matter how delightfully apt a manuscript may be for its intended ultimate readership — you know, the fine folks who are going to buy your book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, take it home, and cherish it for the rest of their reading lives — if a submission can’t please the Millicent screening for the agent of your dreams, you’re bound to be out of luck.

With that dire warning ringing in our collective ears, let’s take another gander at yesterday’s example, shall we?

page 1 example wrong

Last time, I mentioned in passing that the italicized part would raise most Millicents’ eyebrows, if not red flags over the manuscript. While indicating thought by either using italics or saying she thought is acceptable in many book categories (but not all; taking the time to learn the conventions of your chosen book type will serve you well at submission time), it’s never considered right to use both simultaneously.

In other words, while Millicent would never consider this correct:

Casey swallowed. “Do you know how bad off she is?” she said, all the while thinking I should have known. I should have known.

Of course this would happen today.

depending upon the book category, she would be perfectly happy with either:

Casey swallowed. “Do you know how bad off she is?” she said, all the while thinking: I should have known. I should have known. Of course this would happen today.

or:

Casey swallowed. “Do you know how bad off she is?” I should have known. I should have known. Of course this would happen today.

The trick is to pick one method of indicating thought and stick to it consistently throughout the manuscript — ideally, the method utilized in the current bestsellers in your chosen book category. If a conscientious flip through recent releases of your type of book does not reveal a category convention, don’t stress out about it; just use the method that appeals most to you.

Bearing in mind, of course, that there are quite a few professional readers out there — yes, including a hefty minority of Millicents — who simply don’t like italicized thought on general principle. “Humph!” they say, wrinkling their noses over type dancing across the page. “Is this honestly necessary? Shouldn’t a good writer be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type?”

I have to admit, as a reader, I’m seldom inclined to argue with them on this point, particularly if the manuscript in question also uses italics (correctly) for emphasis (“I’m talking to you, Reginald!”), to indicate foreign words (“You left off the requisite accent grave, Marie.”), or includes a lot of song or book titles (“I know — let’s play Rubber Band Man while reading My Life as a Contortionist by I.M. Bendy!”). Used rarely, there’s nothing wrong with italics, but in a manuscript with a lot of italicized words, the skimming eye can easily become confused, even to the point of skipping lines.

There’s another reason an aspiring writer might want to be sparing in his use of italics, especially on page one. It’s very, very popular to use italics on an opening page to highlight a brief opening scene or image.

Everybody knows what I’m talking about, right? In theory, the italics are intended to alert the reader to the fact that the paragraphs in the funny type aren’t in the time, place, and/or mindset of the ACTUAL opening scene that follows immediately thereafter. On the manuscript page, it usually looks a little something like this:

Ima's italics

One often sees this done in published books, right? Unfortunately — feel free to chant along with me now, long-time Author! Author! readers — manuscripts are not supposed to look like published books; they differ in many significant respects. Still more unfortunately, many, if not most, aspiring writers are not aware of those differences when they submit.

The usual result? Well, we saw a bit of it yesterday, didn’t we? Instead of treating the deviation from expected formatting as an intriguing authorial choice, Millicent usually just regards it as (a) a mistake, (b) an indicator of the submitter’s lack of familiarity with the publication process, (c) carte blanche to take the submission less seriously, or (d) all of the above.

So when Millie spots an italicized opening paragraph or two, she tends not to exclaim, “Oh, here is a suggestion to the editor about what the formatting of the published book should look like,” as italics-loving submitters hope. Instead, she says, “Oh, here’s another one who doesn’t know that italicization choices are the province of a book’s editor, not the author.”

In other words, she tends to regard block italicization in much the same way as she would any other deviation from standard format — if she doesn’t happen to work for an agent who has a pet peeve against this type of opening. As many, many agents do, I’m afraid.

How would that affect how Millicent would read such an opening? 99% of the time, like so:

italicized opening

In response to that vast collective gasp: yes. The vast majority of Millicents will simply skip over italicized opening text, treating the first normal line after it as the opening sentence of the manuscript.

My, the group’s gasping a lot today. “Why on earth,” italics-lovers the world over croak in aghast unison, “would any literature-loving human do such a thing? Published books open all the time with italicized bits!”

A fair question — but actually, there’s a pretty fair answer. Most Millicents just assume, often not entirely without justification, that if it’s in italics, it doesn’t really have much to do with the story at hand, which, they conclude (and not always wrongly), begins with the first line of plain text. In their experience, that’s where the action usually begins.

In other words, they’re apt to skip the italicized bits to save themselves some time.

Which is, as some of you may have noticed, the justification for many, many of the instant rejection norms that plague the nightmares of submitters. Millicent’s workday moves along at quite a clip, after all.

To distract you from any well-justified artistic seething you might be tempted to do over that last observation, take another look at that italicized section. Can you spot any other problems our pal Millie might have with it?

page 1 example wrong

Any luck? Actually, to Millicent’s eye, the problem is pervasive throughout the entire page. Here it is again, with the words that would jump out at her highlighted.

Ima's first with reps

Easier to see the word and phrase repetition now, isn’t it? (Although the slug line seems to have vanished mysteriously in the transition, I notice.) Trust me, Millicent would swoop down on each and every one of ‘em like a bird of prey.

Why is she so much more likely than the average reader to notice word and phrase repetition and be bugged by it? Like most professional readers, Millicent’s eye for redundancy has been sharpened not only by years and years of reading manuscripts, but also by training: textual repetition is one of the first things fledgling editors are taught to spot.

Why might a savvy submitter want to avoid tripping her delicate redundancy sensors on page one? Because of an underlying assumption necessary to justify quick rejections: almost universally, professional readers will assume that the writing on page 1 is a representative sample of the writing throughout the entire book.

Which it usually isn’t, in practice. Most first-time writers improve as they work their way from Chapter One to The End, so it’s not all that unusual for the sentence style and word choice to be quite different in Chapter 2 than in Chapter 18. It’s also quite common for writers to revise sporadically, resulting in a highly polished Chapter 6 followed by a virtually first-draft Chapter 7. And don’t even get me started on the number of submissions in which the first ten pages are impeccable (possibly because their writers had heard someone like me point out that unless the opening pages are buffed to a high shine, Millicent is unlikely to read past them), while the rest of the text remains largely unrevised.

Be that as it may, Millicent has a LOT of submissions to get through in any given day — and it’s her job to narrow the field of applicants for the post of agency client, isn’t it? So while she may decide to keep reading past the bottom of page 1 to see if the writing becomes less repetitious, or more exciting, or more genre-appropriate, or more anything else she knows that her boss is looking for in a new client’s work, structurally, there isn’t a great deal of incentive for her to invest the extra minute or two.

In case I’m being too subtle here: it’s in your best interest to revise the opening pages so that they reflect your most polished writing style. If page 1 doesn’t wow Millicent, page 2 may not get a chance to impress her.

Fortunately, redundancy can usually be removed at little or no cost to the meaning of a paragraph, and without even much effort. Take a peek at our example after roughly 43 seconds of revision:

example no reps

Do I spot a few eagerly-raised hands out there in the ether? “But Anne,” a few sharp-eyed souls point out, “that’s not the same text as before — it’s a few lines longer.”

Well spotted, sharp-eyed ones. More space on page 1 to show off your good writing is a dandy fringe benefit that often results from minimizing repetition. Don’t say I never gave you a present.

I have quite a bit more to say about this first page as a submission, believe it or not, but let’s save it for next time. Then, if we’re very brave indeed, we may take the plunge into page 2!

Clearly, we like to live dangerously here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part IV: what happens AFTER a successful query or pitch?

smiling-rock

Still hanging in there, campers? I know, I know: there’s a LOT of information in this basic overview series, but if you start to find it overwhelming, just try to concentrate on the big picture, the broad strokes, rather than feverishly attempting to memorize every detail.

Even if you are not new to the business side of art, it’s good from time to time to distance yourself from the often-trying process of trying to get your writing published. And if you doubt that, do me a favor: rise from your chair, take two steps away from the monitor, and take a gander at the photograph above.

If you don’t see the rock smiling at you, you may be focusing too much on the small picture.

Besides, you can always come back and refresh your memory later. Seriously, it’s easy, if a bit time-consuming. One of the many charms of the blog format lies in its archives: as long as I am running Author! Author!, these posts aren’t going anywhere, and the archives are organized by subject. So please feel free to use this series as a general overview, delving into the more specific posts on individual topics grouped by topic for your perusing convenience on a handy list on the lower right-hand side of this page. There is also a search engine in the upper-right corner, so searchers may type in a word or phrase.

And, as always, if you can’t find the answer to a particular writing question, feel free to ask it in the comments. I’m always on the look-out for new subjects for posts, and readers’ questions are far and away my best source.

Last time, I went over the three basic means of bringing your book to an agent’s attention: querying, either by sending a letter via regular mail (the classic method), approaching by sending an e-mail (the newfangled method) or through the agency’s website (the least controllable), and verbal pitching (far and away the most terrifying. Today, I’m going to talk about the various possibilities of response to your query or pitch.

Which, you may be happy to hear, are relatively limited and very seldom involve anyone being overtly mean. Or calling you and demanding that you give a three-hour dissertation about your book on the spot. Not that these are unreasonable fears, by any means: given how intimidating the querying and pitching processes can be but I find it hard to believe that the possibility of an agent’s being genuinely rude in response hadn’t occurred at least once to all of us before the first time we queried or pitched.

I heard that chortling, experienced pitchers and queriers; I said overtly mean, not dismissive or curt. There’s a big difference. Dismissive and/or curt responses are not personal, usually; overt meanness is.

So to those of you who have never queried or pitched before, I reiterate: the probability that an agent will say something nasty to you about your book at the initial contact stage is quite low. S/he may not say what you want him or her to say — which is, of course, “Yes! I would absolutely love to read the book you’ve just queried/pitched!” — but s/he is not going to yell at you. (At least, not if you’re polite in your approach and s/he is professional.)

At worst, s/he is going to say “No, thank you.”

You can handle that, can’t you? I hope so, because any writer who is in it for the long haul just has to get used to the possibility of hearing no. Because hear it you almost certainly will, no matter how good your manuscript is.

Yes, you read that correctly, newbies: pretty much every writer who has landed an agent within the last decade heard “No, thank you,” many, many times before hearing, “Yes, of course.”

Ditto with virtually every living author who has brought a first book out within the last ten years. At least the ones who were not already celebrities in another field; celebrities have a much easier time attracting representation. (Yes, life is not fair; this is news to you?) That’s just the way the game works these days.

Translation: you should not feel bad if your first query or pitch does not elicit a positive response. Honestly, it would be unusual if it did, in the current market.

Some of your hearts are still racing at the prospect anyway, aren’t they? “Okay, Anne,” a few of you murmur, clutching your chests and monitoring your vital signs, “I understand that it may take a few nos to get to yes. But if an agent isn’t likely either to go into raptures or to fly into an insult-spewing rage after reading a query letter or hearing a pitch, what is likely to happen? I’d like to be prepared for either the best or the worst.”

An excellent plan, oh ye of the racing heart rates. Let’s run through the possibilities.

How can a writer tell whether a query or pitch has been successful?
As we discussed last time, the query letter and pitch share a common goal: not to make the agent stand up and shout, “I don’t need to read this manuscript, by gum! I already know that I want to represent it!” but rather to induce her to ask to see pages of the manuscript. These pages, along with anything else the agent might ask the writer to send (an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis) are known in the trade as requested materials.

So figuring out whether a query or pitch did the trick is actually very simple: if the agent requested materials as a result of it, it was. If not, it wasn’t.

Enjoying this particular brand of success does not mean that a writer has landed an agent, however: it merely means that he’s cleared the first hurdle on the road to representation. First-time pitchers and queriers often get carried away by a provisional yes, assuming that a request for materials means that they will be able to bypass the heart-pumping, nerve-wracking, ego-shredding, and time-consuming process of continuing to query and/or pitch.

And then, a week or a month or three months later, they’re shattered to receive a rejection letter. Or, still worse, they’re biting their nails six months later, waiting to hear back from that first agent who said yes. Shattered hope renders it harder than ever to climb back onto the querying horse.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: writers who walk into the querying and pitching process armed with a knowledge of how it works can avoid this awful fate through a simple, albeit energy-consuming, strategy. Send what that first agent asks to see, but keep querying other agents, just to hedge your bets.

In other words, be pleased with a request for materials, but remember, asking to see your manuscript does not constitute a promise to love it, even if an agent was really, really nice to you during a pitch meeting; it merely means that she is intrigued by your project enough to think that there’s a possibility that she could sell it in the current publishing market.

How can a writer tell whether a query or pitch has been unsuccessful?
If the agent decides not to request materials (also known as passing on the book), the query or pitch has been rejected. If so, the writer is generally informed of the fact by a form letter — or, in the case of e-mailed queries, by a boilerplate expression of regret. Because these sentiments are pre-fabricated and used for every rejection, don’t waste your energy trying to read some deeper interpretation into it; it just means no, thanks. (For more on the subject, please see the FORM-LETTER REJECTIONS category on the archive list.)

Whether the response is positive or negative, it will definitely not be ambiguous: if your query has been successful, an agent will tell you so point-blank. It can be a trifle harder to tell with a verbal pitch, since many agents don’t like watching writers’ faces as they’re rejecting them — which is one reason that a writer is slightly more likely to receive a request for materials from a verbal pitch than a written query, by the way — and will try to let them down gently.

But again, there’s only one true test of whether a pitch or query worked: the agent will ask to see manuscript pages.

Let’s get back to the happy stuff: what if I’m asked to send pages?
If you do receive such a request, congratulations! Feel free to rejoice, but do not fall into either the trap I mentioned above, assuming that the agent has already decided to sign you (he hasn’t, at this stage) or the one of assuming that you must print off the requested pages right away and overnight them to New York (or wherever the agent of your dreams may happen to ply his trade). Both are extremely common, especially amongst pitchers meeting agents for the first time, and both tend to get those new to submission into trouble.

Take a deep breath — and realize that you have a lot of work ahead of you. You will be excited, but that’s precisely the reason that it’s a good idea to take at least a week to pull your requested materials packet together. That will give you enough time to calm down enough to make sure that you include everything the agent asked to see.

How to pull together a submission packet is a topic for another day, however — specifically, the day after tomorrow. Should you find yourself in the enviable position of receiving a request for submissions between now and then, please feel free to avail yourself of the in-depth advice under the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right.

In the meantime, let’s talk about some other possible agently reactions.

What if a writer receives a response other than yes or no?
If you receive a response that says (or implies) that the agency requires writers seeking to be clients to pay for editorial services or evaluation before signing them to contracts, do not say yes before you have done a little homework. In the US, reputable agencies do not charge reading fees — for a good list of what an agent may charge a client, check the Association of Authors’ Representatives website. It’s also an excellent idea to look up an agency that asks for money on Preditors and Editors to see if the agency is legit. You may also post a question about the agency on Absolute Write; chances are, other aspiring writers will have had dealings with the agency. (The last has a lot of great resources for writers new to marketing themselves, by the way.)

Why should you worry about whether an agency is on the up-and-up? Well, every year, a lot of aspiring writers fall prey to scams. Call me zany, but I would prefer that my readers not be amongst the unlucky many.

The main thing to bear in mind in order to avoid getting taken: not everyone who says he’s an agent is one. The fact is, anyone could slap up a website with the word AGENCY emblazoned across the top. Some of the most notorious frauds have some of the most polished and apparently writer-friendly websites.

Scams work because in any given year, there literally millions of English-speaking writers desperate to land an agent and get published, many of whom don’t really understand how reputable agencies work. Scammers prey upon that ignorance — and they can often get away with it, because in the United States, there are no technical qualifications for becoming an agent. Nor is there any required license.

Yes, really: it’s possible just to hang up a shingle and start taking on clients. Or in the case of many scams, start asking potential clients to pay them fees, either directly (as in the notorious We don’t work like other agencies, but we require a paid professional evaluation up front dodge; to see a full correspondence between an actual writer and such a business, check out the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right) or by referring writers to a specific editing service (i.e., one that gives the agency kickbacks), implying that using this service is a prerequisite to representation.

Reputable agents decide whether to represent a manuscript based upon direct reading; they do not require or expect other businesses to do it for them. Nor do they charge their clients up front for services (although some do charge photocopying fees). A legitimate agency makes its money by taking an agreed-upon percentage of the sales of its clients’ work.

If any so-called agent tries to tell you otherwise, back away, quickly, and consult the Association of Authors’ Representatives or Preditors and Editors immediately. (For a step-by-step explanation of how others have successfully handled this situation, run, don’t walk to the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.)

Heck, if you’re not sure if you should pay a requested fee, post a question in the comments here. I would much, much rather you did that than got sucked into a scam.

Better yet, check out any agent or agency before you query. It’s not very hard at all: the standard agency guides (like the Writers Digest GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the Herman Guide, both excellent and updated yearly) and websites like Preditors and Editors make it their business to separate the reputable from the disreputable.

Fortunately, such scams are not very common. Still, it pays to be on your guard, especially if your primary means of finding agents to query is trolling the internet.

What if a writer receives no response at all?
More common these days is the agency that simply does not respond to a query at all. Agencies that prefer to receive queries online seem more prone to this rather rude practice, I’ve noticed, but over the last few years, an ever-increasing number of queries — and even submissions, amazingly — were greeted with silence.

In many instances, it’s actually become a matter of policy: check the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides to see if they state it openly. (For tips on how to decipher these sources, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the list at right.)

A complete lack of response on a query letter does not necessarily equal rejection, incidentally, unless the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says so directly. Queries do occasionally get lost, for instance. The single most common reason a writer doesn’t hear back, though, is that the agency hasn’t gotten around to reading it yet.

Be patient — and keep querying other agents while you wait.

Seeing a pattern here?

I certainly hope so. There’s a good reason that I always urge writers to continue querying and pitching after an agent has expressed interest: as I mentioned last time, it can take weeks or even months to hear back about a query, and many agencies now reject queriers through silence. A writer who waits to hear from Agent #1 before querying Agent #2 may waste a great deal of time. Because agents are aware of this, the vast majority simply assume that the writers who approach them are also querying other agents; if they believe otherwise, they will say so on their websites or in their listings in agency guides.

For some guidance on how to expand your querying list so you may keep several queries out at any given time, please see the FINDING AGENTS TO QUERY category on the list at right.

What should a writer do if her query was rejected?
Again, the answer is pretty straightforward: try another agent. Right away, if possible.

What it most emphatically does not mean is that you should give up. Contrary to what virtually every rejected writer believes, rejection does not necessarily mean that the book concept is a poor one; it may just means that the agent doesn’t represent that kind of book, or that she just spent a year attempting to sell a similar book and failed (yes, it happens; landing an agent is no guarantee of publication), or that this book category isn’t selling very well at the moment.

The important thing to bear in mind is that at the query or pitching stage, the book could not possibly have been rejected because the manuscript was poorly written.

The query might have been rejected for that reason, naturally, but it’s logically impossible for an agent to pass judgment on a manuscript’s writing quality without reading it. Makes sense, right?

One piece of industry etiquette to bear in mind: once a writer received a formal rejection letter or e-mail, it’s considered rude to query or pitch that book project to the same agent again. (See why it’s so important to proofread your query?) At some agencies, that prohibition extends to all of the member agents; however, this is not always the case. Regardless, unless a rejecting agent actually tells a writer never to approach him again — again, extremely rare — a writer may always query again with a new book project.

Contrary to an annoyingly pervasive rumor that’s been haunting the conference circuit for decades, being rejected by one agency has absolutely no effect upon the query’s probability of being rejected by another. There is no national database, for instance, that agents check to see who else has seen or rejected a particular manuscript (a rumor I have heard as recently as last week), nor do agencies maintain databases to check whether they have heard from a specific querier before. If you’re going to get caught for re-querying the same agency, it will be because someone at the agency remembers your book project.

You really don’t want to tempt them by sending the same query three months after your last was rejected, though. People who work at agencies tend to have good memories, and an agent who notices that he’s received the same query twice will almost always reject it the second time around, on general principle. In this economy, however, it’s certainly not beyond belief that an agent who feels that he cannot sell a particular book right now may feel quite differently a year or two hence.

I leave the matter of whether to re-query to your conscience, along with the issue of whether it’s kosher to wait a year and send a query letter to an agent who didn’t bother to respond the last time around.

If your query (or manuscript, for that matter) has been rejected, whatever you do, resist the temptation to contact the agent to argue about it, either in writing or by picking up the phone. I can tell you now that it will not convince the agent that his rejection was a mistake; it will merely annoy him, and the last thing your book deserves is for the agent who rejected it to have a great story about an unusually obnoxious writer to tell at cocktail parties.

In answer to what you just thought: yes, they do swap horror stories. Seldom with names attached, but still, you don’t want to be the subject of one. In an industry notorious for labeling even brilliant writers difficult for infractions as innocuous as wanting to talk through a requested major revision before making it, or defending one’s title if the marketing department wants another, or calling one’s agent once too often to see if a manuscript has been sent to an editor, writers new to the game frequently find themselves breaking the unwritten rules.

The no-argument rule is doubly applicable for face-to-face pitching. Trying to get a rejection reversed is just not a fight a writer can win. Move on — because, really, the only thing that will genuinely represent a victory here is your being signed by another agent.

It’s completely natural to feel anger at being rejected, of course, but bickering with or yelling at (yes, I’ve seen it happen) is not the most constructive way to deal with it.

What is, you ask? Sending out another query letter right away. Or four.

Something else that might help you manage your possibly well-justified rage at hearing no: at a good-sized agency — and even many of the small ones — the agent isn’t necessarily the person doing the rejecting. Agencies routinely employ agents-in-training called agency screeners, folks at the very beginning of their careers, to sift through the huge volume of queries they receive every week. Since even a very successful agent can usually afford to take on only a small handful of new clients in any given year, in essence, the screener’s job is to reject as many queries as possible.

Here at Author! Author!, the prototypical agency screener has a name: Millicent. If you stick around this blog for a while, you’re going to get to know her pretty well. And even come to respect her, because, let’s face it, she has a hard job.

Typically, agents give their Millicents a list of criteria that a query must meet in order to be eligible for acceptance, including the single most common reason queries get rejected: pitching a type of book that the agent does not represent. There’s absolutely nothing personal about that rejection; most of the time, it’s just a matter of fit.

What is fit, you ask, and how can you tell if your book and an agent have it? Ah, that’s a subject for tomorrow’s post.

For today, let’s concentrate on the bigger picture. Finding an agent has changed a lot over the last ten or fifteen years; unfortunately, a great deal of the common wisdom about how and why books get picked up or rejected has not. The twin myths that a really good book will instantly find an agent and that any agent will recognize and snap up a really good book are just not true anymore, if indeed they ever were.

I’m not going to lie to you: finding an agent is work; it is often a lengthy process, even for the best of manuscripts. More than ever before, an aspiring writer needs not just talent, but persistence.

I know you have it in you. Keep up the good work!

The New Year’s resolution a savvy writer definitely shouldn’t keep, or, the necromancer’s out right now, but could I interest you in a date in mid-February?

gazing into a crystal ball

Time for a quick poll for all of you who spent some or all of the recent holiday season hobnobbing with kith and/or kin who happened to be aspiring writers: hands up if you bumped into at least one within the last month who confided that that his new year’s resolution was — wait for it — to get those long-delayed queries out the door. Raise a hand, too, if a friendly soul astonished you by swearing that come January 1, that postponed-for-months submission was finally going to be making its way to the agent who requested it. Or that this was the year that novel was going to make its way out of that drawer and onto bookshelves everywhere.

Okay, legions with your hands in the air: keep ‘em up if you had ever heard these same writers make similar assertions before. Like, say, December of 2007, 2006, 2005, or any year before that.

I’m guessing that very few of you dropped your hands. Why on earth do we writers do this to ourselves every year?

The scourge of the New Year’s resolution, that’s why. Due to social conditioning that encourages us to believe, usually wrongly, that it’s easier to begin a new project at a time of year so energy-sapping that even the sun appears to be least interested in doing its job with any particular vim, millions of aspiring writers all across North America are going to spend the next few weeks rushing those queries into envelopes, hitting those SEND buttons, stuffing those requested materials into envelopes, and forcing themselves to sit in front of a keyboard at a particular time each day.

The predictable, inevitable, and strategically unfortunate result: for the first three weeks of January every year, agencies across the land are positively buried in paper. Which means, equally predictably, inevitably, and unfortunately, that a query or manuscript submitted right now stands a statistically higher chance of getting rejected than those submitted at other times of the year.

So again, I ask: why do writers impose New Year’s resolutions on themselves that dictate sending out queries or submissions on the first Monday of January?

Oh, I completely understand the impulse, especially for aspiring writers whose last spate of marketing was quite some time ago. Last January, for instance, after their last set of New Year’s resolutions. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break.

Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again. Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it.

For an arrow flying through the air, the slowing force is gravity; for writers at holiday time, it’s often friends, relatives, and sundry other well-wishers. And throughout the rest of the year, it’s, well, life.

But you’re having trouble paying attention to my ruminations on physics, aren’t you? Your mind keeps wandering back to my earlier boldfaced pronouncement like some poor, bruised ghost compulsively revisiting the site of its last living moment. “Um, Anne?” those of you about to sneak off to the post office, stacks of queries in hand, ask with quavering voices. “About that whole more likely to be rejected thing. Mind if I ask why that might be the case? Or, to vent my feelings a trifle more adequately, mind if I scream in terror, ‘How could a caring universe do this to me?’”

An excellent question, oh nervous quaverers: why might the rejection rate tend to be higher at some times than others?

To answer that question in depth, I invite you yourself in the trodden-down heels of our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, the fortunate soul charged with both opening all of those query letters and giving a first reading to requested materials, to weed out the ones that her boss the agent will not be interested in seeing, based upon pre-set criteria. At some agencies, a submission may even need to make it past two or three Millicents before it lands on the actual agent’s desk.

We all understand why agencies employ Millicents, right? As nice as it might be for agents to cast their eyes over every query and submission personally, most simply don’t have the time. A reasonably well-respected agent might receive 1200 queries in any given week; if Millicent’s boss wants to see even 1% of the manuscripts or book proposals being queried, that’s 10 partial or full manuscripts requested per week.

Of those, perhaps one or two will make it to the agent. Why so few? Well, even very high-volume agencies don’t add all that many clients in any given year — particularly in times like these, when book sales are, to put it generously, slow. Since that reasonably well-respected agent will by definition already be representing clients — that’s how one garners respect in her biz, right? — she may be looking to pick up only 3 or 4 clients this year.

Take nice, deep breaths, sugar. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

Given the length of those odds, how likely is any given submission to make it? You do the math: 10 submissions per week x 52 weeks per year = 520 manuscripts. If the agent asks to see even the first 50 pages of each, that’s 26,000 pages of text. That’s a lot of reading — and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands of pages of queries they need to process as well, all long before the agent makes a penny off any of them, manuscripts from current clients, and everything an agent needs to read to keep up with what’s selling these days.

See where a Millicent might come in handy to screen some of those pages for you? Or all of your queries?

Millicent, then, has a rather different job than most submitters assume: she is charged with weeding out as many of those queries and submissions as possible, rather than (as the vast majority of aspiring writers assume) glancing over each and saying, “Oh, the writing here’s pretty good. Let’s represent this.” Since her desk is perpetually covered with queries and submissions, the more quickly she can decide which may be excluded immediately, the more time she may devote to those that deserve a close reading, right?

You can feel the bad news coming, right?

Given the imperative to plow through them all with dispatch, is it a wonder that over time, she might develop some knee-jerk responses to certain very common problems that plague many a page 1? Or that she would gain a sense — or even be handed a list — of her boss’ pet peeves, so she may reject manuscripts that contain them right off the bat?

You don’t need to answer those questions, of course. They were rhetorical.

Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog are already no doubt already aware, certain times of the year see heavier volumes of both queries and submissions of long-requested materials than others.

Far and away the most popular of all: just after New Year’s Day.

Why, I was just talking about that, wasn’t I? That’s not entirely coincidental: this year, like every year, Millicent’s desk will be piled to the top of her cubicle walls with new mail for weeks, and her e-mail inbox will refill itself constantly like some mythical horn of plenty because — feel free to sing along at home — a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 2!”

While naturally, I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although ten queries per week would be hard to maintain for many weeks on end, if an aspiring writer were targeting only agents who represented his type of book — place yourself once again in Millicent’s loafers. If you walked into work, possibly a bit late and clutching a latte because it’s a cold morning, and found 700 queries instead of the usual 200, or 50 submissions rather than the usual 5, would you be more likely to implement those knee-jerk rejection criteria or less?

Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be just a touch crankier than usual right about now. Do you really want to be one of the mob testing her patience?

This is the primary reason, in case I had not made it clear enough over the last couple of months, that I annually and strenuously urge my readers NOT to query or submit during the first few weeks of any given year. Let Millie dig her way out from under that mountain of papers before she reads yours; she’ll be in a better mood.

How long is it advisable to wait? Well, in previous years, I have suggested holding off on sending anything to a North American agency for a full three weeks. I did not select that length of time arbitrarily: the average New Year’s resolution lasts three weeks, so the queries and submissions tend to drop off around then. Conveniently enough, US citizens get a long weekend at that point in January, the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, to start stamping those SASEs.

This year, I am not recommending holding off for three weeks. In 2010, I am urging every writer within the sound of my voice to hold off for six.

No, in answer to that question 33% of my readers just shouted indignantly at my screen, I have not taken leave of my senses, thank you; I am merely trying to help you maximize your query or submission’s chances of success. I have my fingers crossed, hoping madly that by mid-February — say, just after Valentine’s Day, a holiday few aspiring writers are likely to commemorate by sending roses or chocolates to Millicent, anyway — Millie, her boss the agent, her agent’s boss who owns the agency, the editors to whom the agent habitually pitches, and those editors’ bosses will have finished freaking out at the stunning news that for the first time, e-books outsold hard copies at Amazon on Christmas.

Okay, so those sales figures were just on Christmas Day itself, an occasion when, correct me if I’m wrong, folks who had just received a Kindle as a present might be slightly more likely to download books than, say, the day before. But that’s not what the headlines screamed the next day, was it? I assure you, every agency and publishing house employee in North America has spent the intervening days fending off kith and kin helpfully showing him articles mournfully declaring that the physical book is on the endangered species list. Or ought to be.

Once again, I invite you to step into Millicent’s ballet flats. She’s been hearing such dismal prognostications as often as the rest of us while she’s been off work for the past week or two. When she steps across the agency threshold on Monday, too-hot latte clutched in her bemittened hand, the Millicent in the cubicle next to hers will be complaining about how his (hey, Millicents come in both sexes) kith and kin has been cheerfully informing him that he will be out of a job soon. So will half the people who work in the agency — including, as likely as not, Millicent’s boss.

It’s only reasonable to expect, of course, that through the magic of group hypnosis, the more everyone repeats it, the more of a threat the Kindle news will seem; the scarier the threat, the more dire the predictions of the future of publishing will become. By lunchtime, half the office will be surreptitiously working on its resumes.

Given the ambient mood in the office, do you really want yours to be the first query she reads Monday morning? Or the fiftieth? Or would you rather that your precious book concept or manuscript didn’t fall beneath her critical eye until after everyone’s had a chance to calm down?

Quick disclaimer: six weeks may well not be long enough for this particular shock to pass. I am not a necromancer of any stripe; please don’t imagine that I am typing this with one hand and clutching a crystal ball with the other. I picked six weeks because, by law, US-based agencies must issue tax documentation on royalties by the end of January. Might as well wait until the stressed people have one less reason to be stressed, right?

Will another two weeks honestly make any difference? Again, I don’t have a crystal ball — but by then, those of you who each year stubbornly reject my annual admonition to eschew writing-related New Year’s resolutions will have had a nice, long chunk of time to see if you could, say, up your writing time by an extra hour per week. Or per day. Or prepared a contest entry for that literary contest you’d always meant to enter.

Far be it from me to discourage keeping that kind of resolution, whether you choose to put it into action on New Year’s Day, the fourth of July, or St. Swithin’s day. Only please, for your own sake, don’t set the bar so high that you end up abandoning it within just a couple of weeks.

If you must resolve, resolve to set an achievable goal, one that you can pull off without wearing yourself out quickly. In the long term, asking yourself to write two extra hours per week is more likely to become a habit than eight or ten; committing to sending out one query per week is much easier than twenty. Heck, if Millicent resolved to get through those masses of queries and submissions currently completely concealing her desk from the human eye, she’d fling her latte in disgust within the first hour. Steady, consistent application is the way to plow through an overwhelming-seeming task.

Okay, if I’m sounding like Aesop, it’s definitely time to sign off for the night.

Except to say: because so many aspiring writers will be acting on their (sigh) New Year’s resolutions, and thus may be relied upon to be surfing the net rabidly for sensible guidance, I’m going to take a break from self-editing issues for the next couple of weeks to deal with the absolute basics that every writer needs to know. What a query is, for instance, and why a novelist typically needs an agent. Why generic queries seldom work. How to format a manuscript.

You know, the kind of things folks in the publishing industry assume that talented writers already know. Presumably because the muses showed up next to each of our cradles and gave us the knowledge at birth. Just in case the muses are thirty or forty years behind schedule, I’m going to start filling in the gaps with Monday’s post.

Please keep those craft and revision questions, coming, though — I’m far from done talking about how to get the best out of a manuscript. Just let me get all of these New Year’s resolutions out of the way first.

As always, keep up the good work!

Am I hallucinating, or is the screen going wavy again?

oil spill on beach

Did any of you sharp-eyed self-editors happen to catch the really, really subtle test of your conceptual editing skills cleverly concealed in yesterday’s post? Nobody left a comment about it, so I assume nobody noticed. Or perhaps those who did were merely too kind to point it out. Any guesses?

If your hand immediately shot into the air, accompanied by a vigorous cry of, “By Jove, Anne, I’m glad you brought this up; it’s been driving me mad since first I read that otherwise excellent post. It was a post on conceptual redundancy that was itself conceptually redundant. You had already lectured us about the dangers of repeating salient plot points in a post the previous week. How relieved I am to hear that you did it on purpose!” not only should you award yourself a full seventeen gold stars for the day, but you should start thinking about offering your services to your writer friends as a first reader.

You, my friend, are starting to read like Millicent the agency screener.

Or indeed, like most people who read manuscripts or contest entries on a regular basis. She and her ilk wouldn’t merely have noticed my conceptual redundancy over the course of a week; she would have been outraged by it.

“In heaven’s name, why?” scream those who currently have pages under Millicent’s critical eye. “I could see being a trifle annoyed by hearing a similar argument a week apart, but why would any sane creature have an intensely negative reaction to it?”

A couple of very sane reasons, actually. First, the Millicents of this world aren’t typically reading just one manuscript in any given day, but dozens. (Rejecting most of them on page 1 speeds up the screening process like you wouldn’t believe.) So in all likelihood, the manuscript that irritates her by repeating herself isn’t the only redundant submission she has handled that day — and certainly not that week. Conceptual redundancy is one of the more common manuscript megaproblems out there, cutting across lines of genre, book category, and the fiction/nonfiction divide.

To be fair, Millicent was probably pretty even-tempered the first fifty times a narrative assumed that she couldn’t remember basic plot elements. Around the 750th time, however, it had gotten old.

By then, too, she would probably have figured out what an experienced editor could have told her — and this is the second sane reason a professional reader might find conceptual redundancy annoying: writers quite frequently retain multiple iterations of the same point because they like the writing of each section that discusses it.

Or, as I did yesterday, because they have an illustrative anecdote that they’d really like to shoehorn into the text. (I admit it: I love the Peter Pan example.) Either way, conceptual redundancy is often a signal that some editing is needed.

You can feel your homework coming, can’t you?

Who am I to disappoint you? Here it is:

(1) Print out all or part of any pages you plan to submit to Millicent or anyone remotely like her.

You may use any part of your manuscript, of course, but as submission tend to get rejected in the early pages (thus leaving the rest unread unfortunately often), page 1 is a dandy place to start.

(2) Read through it, using a highlighting pen — say, yellow — to mark every time the text repeats the same information.

If you want to get fancy, it will make your post-exercise life easier if you take the time to make notes on a separate sheet of every time a specific repetition occurs. That list will render figuring out which iteration to keep much, much easier.

(3) Using a different color of highlighter — pink is nice — mark the first couple of paragraphs (or even the scene) that immediately follows the repeated information.

Why, you ask? Hold your horses; I’m building suspense.

(4) After you finish, go back and re-read the yellow sections. Are all of them genuinely necessary for the reader to follow what’s going on?

In answering that question, assume that the reader is of normal intelligence and average memory, but is reading your book in a single sitting. Millicent’s boss probably will read it in installments, but Millicent often will not.

(5) Go back and re-read the pink sections. Are all of them actually adding something new to the plot, characterization, or argument? Or are they included primarily because you kind of liked how they sounded?

If it’s the latter, don’t be too hard on yourself: the old writing chestnut kill your darlings was coined for a reason.

Remember, this is need not be the only book you ever write; you needn’t include every nice piece of writing that falls off your fingertips. Save something for the sequel.

(6) Be especially attentive to those pink bits in first-person narratives, memoirs — or in a real-life story told as fiction. Are these sections necessary to the story you’re telling, or are they included merely because these things happened in real life?

This is another of Millicent’s most cherished pet peeves — and this one is usually shared by her boss and the editors to whom the agent typically sells. All too often, memoirists (and novelists who write in the first person) forget that writing the truth from a sympathetic point of view is not enough to make a good book — it must also be an engaging story.

Ditto with novelists who include the real: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will necessarily be interesting to read. Or add to the storyline of a book.

Judicious cutting is especially important when writing the real. No reader, however intrigued by a premise, wants to hear about everything that ever happened to a character, any more than he wants to plow through a complete list of every object in a room where an important scene occurs. Include only what your story needs to make it shine.

Okay, that’s enough looking backward for today. Time to move ahead.

Of course, in order to do so, I’m going to need to backtrack a little first. In my last installment on self-editing, I went to town on the twin dangers of factual redundancy intended to remind readers of salient points (“As I mentioned back in Ch. 2, Maude, I stand to inherit a hefty chunk of change when my Uncle Mortimer dies.”) and screen clichés that have made their way into real life (“Say ‘ah,’” kindly Dr. Whitehairedman told the child.). As I pointed out, both species are problematic in submissions, because they are so common.

Translation: professional readers get really, really tired of seeing examples of them.

But both types of repetition also tend to be, I am happy to report, some of the easiest lines for a self-editor to identify and cut. Redundant sentences can often be trimmed wholesale, with no cost to the text at all. And clichés, like pop culture references and jokes that don’t quite work, are often digressions in a scene or dialogue, rather than integral to it. Much of the time, they can be deleted without adding any additional writing.

Which is a pretty good indicator all by itself that a line should be cut anyway, actually: if you wouldn’t miss it if it were gone, it should probably go.

Take, for instance, the following piece of purple prose, full of sentences just begging to hop into the tumbrel and ride to the guillotine. Note just how much trimming could occur without harming the relationships or plot of the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning, revisiting in his mind his last encounter with Cardinal Richelieu, two months before, when they had shot those rapids together in the yet-to-be-discovered territory of Colorado. Despite hours of manly good fellowship and moments of undeniable passion, they had not parted friends. The powerful holy man was known for his cruelty, but surely, this time, he would not hold a grudge.

“Can I bum a cigarette?” Marcus asked, to buy more time to recap the plot in his head.

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. “How on earth did you pick up the habit? Tobacco had not come to Europe in your time.” He shook two out of the pack and stuck both into his mouth. “And barely in mine.”

He lit the pair and handed both to his erstwhile lover. They sat in silence for a moment, the smoke winding its way around the cardinal’s red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

Finally, Marcus Aurelius decided he could take this brutal wordlessness no longer. “I’ve come for some information, Armand.”

Richelieu’s hand tightened on the sawed-off shotgun that seldom left his side. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what I need to know.”

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “go a little faster if you were more specific.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu waved a bejeweled hand toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

Tell me, how much cutting did you manage to do? Other than the obvious, that is — as a major Stoic, Marcus Aurelius clearly would not have folded so quickly under the pressure; I give you that.

But even ignoring the philosophical problems and the time travel that seems to have happened here, there’s room for some fairly painless trimming that would speed up the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning. The powerful holy man before him was known for his cruelty, but surely, he could not still be holding a grudge about how they’d parted in Colorado. “Please tell me, Armand. For old times’ sake.”

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. The smoke from his cigarette wound its way around his red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “be helpful if you were more specific about what you wanted.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu lifted a bejeweled hand from his sawed-off shotgun to wave languidly toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

That’s 123 words, down from 253, a substantial cut obtained through the simple expedient of removing the movie clichés (the double cigarette bit is straight out of the Bette Davis vehicle NOW, VOYAGER, right?) and unnecessary conceptual repetition.

How did I know, within the context of an isolated excerpt, that the references to the Colorado scene probably referred to something that happened earlier in the book? Call it well-honed editorial instinct: this kind of micro-flashback almost invariably recaps a scene told more fully elsewhere – and when it isn’t shown at some point in the book, it probably should be.

Seem paradoxical? It isn’t.

A micro-flashback usually provides one or more characters’ motivation(s) in the scene occurring at the moment: here, the earlier romantic interlude has set the stage for Marcus’ belief that Richelieu would do him a favor, as well as Richelieu’s current attitude toward Marcus. Clearly, then, this past episode is important enough to the development of both characters that the reader would benefit from seeing it in its entirety.

Which makes removing the micro-flashback from this scene an easy editorial call. To work as character development — as explanatory asides that deal with motivation must, right? — the reader really should have this information prior to the scene.

So if the Colorado rapids scene did happen earlier in the book, the micro-flashback would be redundant; if it did not, the micro-flashback is not memorable enough in itself to make a lasting impression upon the reader.

In other words: snip, snip.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: emotionally important scenes are almost always more powerful if they are SHOWN as fully-realized scenes, rather than merely summarized. (Oh, come on — you don’t want to know what happened on those rapids?)

Keep an eye out for those micro-flashbacks, my friends: they’re often flares telling the editor what needs to be done to improve the manuscript.

In this case, the cut can only help: by removing the explanatory summary here, the author will need to make sure that the earlier scene made enough of an impression upon the reader that she will remember it by the time Marcus Aurelius comes looking for information on page 348.

Yes, even if that means going back and writing the earlier scene from scratch. Sometimes, adding a fresh scene is actually a quicker and easier fix for a manuscript that drags than merely trimming the existing text.

The metaphor that I like to use for this kind of revision comes from flower arranging, believe it or not. Listen:

Think of your draft as a wonderful bouquet, stocked with flowers you have been gathering over the last couple of years. It’s lovely, but after it has been rejected a few dozen times, you’ve come to realize that maybe it’s too big for the room in which the agent of your dreams wants to place it; it does not fit comfortably into the only vase she has.

So you need to trim it — but how? A good place to start would be to pull out half of the daisies; a few are nice, but handfuls make the daisy point a bit more often than necessary.

Then you could start searching for the flowers that have wilted a little, or are not opening as well as others. Pulling out the wilted flowers renders the bouquet both smaller and prettier – and the ones that wilt the fastest are the ones that are borrowed from other sources, like movie tropes, which tend to date a book, anyway.

Already, your bouquet is looking lighter, more vibrant, but you liked the color that some of the discarded flowers added. Rather than pulling the cast-off blooms out of the compost bin and putting them back into the vase (as most self-editors will do), adding a fresh flower here and there is often more beneficial to the overall beauty of the bouquet.

Be open to the possibility that trimming your manuscript may well mean writing a fresh scene or two, for clarification or character development. Search your manuscript for micro-flashbacks that may be telling you what needs further elucidation, as well as darlings that could be, if not killed, then at least set aside to grace another book. If you apply a truly diligent eye, you may well find that a single, well-developed scene inserted early on will replace scores of micro-flashbacks down the line.

It happens. All the time, in fact. Like a good joke, motivation goes over better with the reader if it can be presented cleanly, without excess in-the-moment explanation. Bear that in mind, please, and keep up the good work!

Trimming that overstuffed manuscript down to size

dorothy melting witch

Before I launch into today’s musings, here’s a heads-up for Washington writers: applications are due December 7 for the 2010 EDGE Program for Writers, sponsored by the Artist Trust. Designed to help working writers at all levels of their careers expand their professional acumen, the EDGE program provides six weeks of intensive professional development classes, including topics such as:

*professional presentation on paper, on the web and in live readings
*how to research and take advantage of funding resources and opportunities available to writers
*how to prepare a successful grant proposal and budget
*time management, goal setting and developing a brand as a writer
*how to identify key audiences and determine marketing directions for literary works
*financial management; legal issues such as copyright and intellectual
property, and working with and as independent contractors

Not to mention the ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy) value of winning a place in this prestigious program! For a full description and printable application, click here.

While I’m at it, a quick reminder about an ongoing contest right here on this site: there are just a few short aphorism-gathering days left in the the share your favorite inspirational writing-related quote contest. Specifically, entries will be accepted through midnight Pacific Standard Time on Sunday, December 6.

This is a fun and easy opportunity not only to share your favorite keeping-the-faith quote with the rest of the Author! Author! community, the one that keeps you going through those dark nights of the soul when the muses seem to have left the building permanently — and to win a free copy of LIFELINES: THE BLACK BOOK OF PROVERBS.

A description of the latter and substantially more encouragement to enter the contest appears here, of course, but here’s a recap of the rules:

1. Pick your all-time favorite proverb or quote about writing.

2. Figure out why you love it so much, and write a paragraph about why it inspires you. (Keep it under 100 words, please.)

3. E-mail the quote and your paragraph, along with the quote’s original source (if you know it) and your name to anneminicontest@gmail.com by midnight Pacific Standard time on Sunday, December 6th.

4. Wait in eager anticipation for me to announce the winner, when I’ll post the most stirring quotes.

There endeth the public service announcement portion of the day’s proceedings. Let’s get back to talking about revision — specifically, about how to tackle revising with an eye toward picking up the pace.

Why, some of you may be asking, might a savvy aspiring writer want to take some steps make an exciting plot — or an unexciting one, for that matter — go just a touch faster before subjecting the manuscript to the ever-critical eye of Millicent the agency screener, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, and/or their Aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge? One very, very simple reason: as Millicent, Maury, and Aunt Mehitabel are all quite aware, slow manuscripts make editors grind their teeth and agents shake their heads in sorrow.

I won’t even tell you what pacing that drags makes the celebrity judges brought in to pick the winners amongst the finalists at literary contests do; this is a family-friendly blog, after all. Suffice it to say that a story or argument that crawls along is not typically the best way to impress Millicent or any of her relatives enough to cause them to long to read the rest of the book.

Antipathy toward being bored by submissions is virtually universal amongst the professional readers of this world, yet astonishingly few writing books and seminars address the issue at all. Except, of course, to opine that for the purposes of submission, a faster read is, on the whole, better than a slower one.

That’s not a guideline; that’s an aphorism. (But not a very inspiring one. I wouldn’t recommend entering it in any contests.)

There are a couple of good reasons for this genteel avoidance of an unpleasant subject, I suspect. First, editing for length and pace is an unpleasant subject for contemplation where dear self is concerned, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but most of the writers of my acquaintance (including, I’ll admit it, yours truly) get kind of annoyed when an agent or editor says, “I absolutely love your writing! How about giving us 15% less of it?”

Or, to take what used to be a stock agents’ pronouncement a decade ago, when we were all flatly told that a first novel should be no more than 100,000 words, regardless of what might actually work best for the text. (That’s 400 pages in Times New Roman, by standard estimation techniques; if you don’t know how to estimate word count, or why any sane person would want to do so when MS Word will simply tell you how many words are in a manuscript, please see the opaquely-named WORD COUNT category on the archive list at right. ) The truism on the subject has become a little more lax in the past couple of years, thank goodness: now, pronouncement-mongers tend to say anywhere between 80,000 (320 pages) to 120,000 (480) is usually fine.

Unless you happen to be submitting to someone who thinks it isn’t. To be on the safe side, I’d try to keep it as closer to 100,000 than 120,000, unless you happen to be writing in a book category where longer is routine; above 500 pages or so, printing costs leap dramatically.

As someone who attends quite a few writers’ conferences in any given year, I, for one, was pretty darned relieved when the wisdom du jour changed. During the arbitrary 100,000 period, I always hated that inevitable moment when someone stood up at the agents’ forum and asked how long was too long for a manuscript. The air of gloom that descended upon the room at the reply was palpable.

As much as I object to arbitrary standards – 125,000 words strikes me as less arbitrary, because binding costs do get higher at that point – I have to say, like most of us who edit for a living, I’m a fan of the tightly-paced manuscript. I practice what I preach, too: in the novel currently in my agent’s hands, I cut 20 pages entirely through eliminating individual lines.

So believe me, I feel your pain, self-editors. But like most people who read manuscripts by the score, that doesn’t mean that I don’t start muttering, “Get on with it, already!” when a plot begins to drag. Sorry.

The second reason I think the issue of manuscript-tightening doesn’t get much attention in conference classes, writing seminars, and publications aimed at writers is that just as it’s genuinely difficult to say with any precision how long a book one has never read should be, it’s also hard to give general advice about pacing that applies to every single manuscript that might conceivably fall off a gifted writer’s fingertips onto a keyboard.

Every writer has different ways of slowing down or speeding up text. Which is precisely why it’s so vitally important to examine your own manuscript to learn what yours are.

You can feel me about to ask you to do something, can’t you? Don’t worry — it won’t be too painful; I’m not going to ask you to kill your darlings, at least not today.

Why in heaven’s name not, as writing teachers all over North America have been shouting at their students to axe their favorite bits of prose since practically the moment the classic piece of advice fell out of Dorothy Parker’s well-rouged lips sometime during Prohibition? Well, in my experience, most talented writers — published and as-yet-to-be-published alike — actually have a pretty good sense about the little things that shine in their manuscripts.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Those telling little details that bring joy to the eyes of agents, editors, and contest judges everywhere when they appear nestled in a manuscript – particularly on the first page of the text, where they act like miniature neon signs reading, “Hello? This one can WRITE!” causing Millicent to sit up straight for perhaps the first time that screening day and cry, “By gum, maybe I should NOT toss this one into the rejection pile.”

As lovely as eliciting this reaction is, there is more to catching a professional reader’s attention than a charming and detailed first page, I’m afraid. Of course, it’s a necessary first step to that reader’s moving on eagerly to the second, and the third, and so forth. But an initial good impression is not enough, however much writing teachers emphasize the importance of including an opening hook: in order to wow an agent into asking to see the entire manuscript, or into reading the entirety of the one you’ve already sent, the impressive writing needs to continue consistently throughout.

Was that chill I just felt the cumulative effect of all of you first page-perfecters out there going pale? “I just spent eight months on my first five pages,” I hear these wan wraiths stammer. “If I brought the entire book to that level of polish, I would need to live to be 112. I doubt that I’ll still be up to a book tour by then.”

I hate to be the one to tell you this, oh pale ones, but most writers revising for submission stop the high-gloss treatment far too soon. Around page 50, on average, because we’ve all been told that’s the first chunk an agent will ask to see.

The result is a whole lot of manuscripts that raise tremendous expectations in screeners’ breasts — only to lapse into what is fairly obviously less worked-upon writing around page 52. It’s so common a phenomenon that professional readers have a pet name for it: sagging in the middle.

While it is true that having brilliant early pages is one of the best calling cards a book can have, consistency is a far more appreciated writerly skill than writing advice-givers tend to admit. (And before the quote-mongers who emblazon famous thoughts on calendars start shouting that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, let me remind you that the early part of the quote is almost always omitted: the original read, “A FOOLISH consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Just in case anyone has proverbs on her mind or anything.)

Here are some facts to chill creative blood: while the vast majority of submissions are in fact rejected prior to page 5, with a hefty percentage dismissed by Millicent before the bottom of page 1, a book’s audition period can — and generally does — go on for most of the manuscript. An excellent agent of my acquaintance, for instance, tells me that he reads the first 185 pages of any manuscript he is considering actively looking for reasons to reject it. Beginning on page 186, he is looking for reasons to ACCEPT it, because he’s already invested so much time in it.

So, naturally, whenever I meet a writer who is planning on querying him, I say, “Psst! Make sure your pp. 150-200 are magnificent!”

Why might a professional reader toss aside a book after having loved it for, say, 190 pages? Usually, a lack of consistency in the writing: great writing early in the book raises expectations for the writing later in the book, necessarily. In the industry, a book that achieves this difficult feat is declared to have lived up to the promise of its first chapter.

Naturally, this is a little unfair, but after one has read approximately 7 million early chapters chock-full of telling little details, one has generally become resigned to seeing their frequency diminish later in the text – but not like it. It’s kind of a letdown, like when that the terrific conversationalist with whom you had three great dates blurts out on Date #4 a glowing paean to a politician whom you have considered for years at best a corrupt megalomaniac.

We’ve all been there, I’m sure.

I must admit it: as an editor, once I have seen evidence that a writer possesses the twin gifts of observation and the ability to handle detail deftly, I have been known to mutter angrily at the manuscript before me, “You’re a better writer than this! Give me your best work!”

So now that I have scared you to pieces about the importance of consistency, how can a revising writer tell if, say, the proportion of telling little details falls off throughout a manuscript enough to start enough to displease a professional reader’s eye?

Glad you asked. Try this experiment:

1. Print out three chapters of your manuscript, the first, one from the middle, and one toward the end of the book.
Don’t use the final chapter; most writers polish that one automatically, doubtless the effect of our high school English teachers making us read the final pages of THE GREAT GATSBY so often.

2. Make yourself comfy someplace where you will not be disturbed for a few hours, and start reading.
Easier said than done, of course, especially for those of you with young children gladdening your daily lives, but this isn’t relaxation: this is work. So don’t you dare feel guilty about taking the time.

3. While you are reading, highlight in nice, bright yellow every time the narrative gives information about a character in summary form.
I’m deadly serious about this. Mark everything from Angelique felt envious to Georgine was a shop welder of immense proportions to “Edward was a compassionate soul, drawn to injured children, limping dogs, and soup kitchens.”

4. Now use a different color of pen — red is nice — to underline any character-revealing information that the narrative conveys indirectly, through specific detail or speeches that demonstrate a characteristic or an environment that is reflective of a character’s internal mood.
Remember, you are not judging the quality of the sentences here — what you are looking for are passages that encourage the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about what the character is like. To revisit the trio from above, red-marked sentences might include:
Unable to contain herself, Angelique surreptitiously poked her rival with a pin

or Georgine’s broad shoulders barely fit through the doors to her metal shop

or even Edward was late for work again, having been sidetracked by a child’s scraped knee, a search for the same little girl’s lost cocker spaniel, and the absolute necessity to track down and fund the homeless person he had been forced to overlook yesterday because he’d already given away the last dollar in his pocket.

Beginning to see some patterns here? Good.

5. Now that you’ve identified these different species of sentences, double-check immediately before and after the indirect indicators in red for summary statements telling the reader precisely how these dandy little details should be interpreted.
Such summaries tend to lurk in their environs. When you find them, ask yourself, “Self, is this summary absolutely necessary here, or does the indirect statement cover what I wanted to say? Could it in fact be cut, and would the manuscript be both shorter and better for it?”

Applied consistently, this question can strip a lot of unnecessary verbiage from a manuscript relatively painlessly. It’s a good strategy to know, because it’s often difficult for a writer to notice redundancy on a page he has written himself — from a writerly perspective, saying something in two different ways often just looks like creative emphasis.

Or — and this is more common — we may not trust the reader to draw the correct conclusion from the more delicate indirect clues, and so rush to provide the logical extrapolation. But readers are pretty smart, especially those lovers of good writing who dote on telling little details.

Okay, I need to sign off for today, but please don’t throw those marked-up pages away: I have more plans for them — and their little dog, too.

Yes, going through your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb is a whole lot of work, but believe me, when your book is on the uphill side of page 185, and the agent of your dreams is trying to decide whether you have the consistency of style to pull off an entire book, you’ll be very, very glad you bought those marking pens.

Maybe you should ask the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver to sneak some more into your stocking later this month. Keep up the good work!

The chapter of forgotten moods, or, a few thoughts on submission and the passage of time

I read in the paper this morning that only one American veteran of the War to End All Wars — World War I’s armistice is why there’s no mail delivery today, in case any of you stateside had been wondering; it’s also why the banks are closed and all of those mattresses are on big, big sale — was still alive and kicking. He’s 108 years old.

And I’ve been steeped in the life literary for so long that my very first thought was, “Gee, I wonder if anyone’s approached him about dictating a memoir. I could practically write the book proposal off the top of my head!” rather than, “How nice that he’s gotten to see so many Veterans’ Days go by; I wonder if he was annoyed when they changed it from Armistice Day,” or even “Gee, sir, thank you for helping show the world that trench warfare was a really, really stupid idea.”

Fair warning: this could happen to you, too. Just keep on writing those books.

My father was a child during WWI (no, I’m not that old; he was when he had me); he recalled the day when the local doughboys came home. He would tell vivid anecdotes about watching protest marches in the streets, rationing, how his mother’s views on military service varied markedly as her only son approached draft age.

It was from him, and not from my school’s history books, that I learned that here in the States, it had been quite an unpopular war; years later, it was his stories of the home front that I would contrast with H.G. Wells’ brilliant 1916 description of the British home front, MR. BRITLING SEES IT THROUGH. (In case you missed my oh-so-subtle plug for it above, here goes: if you’ve never read it and are even remotely interested in how human beings respond to their countries’ being at war, you might want to have the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver* add it to his list for you this year. I just mention.)

I love this book — and not just because it’s a genuinely thoughtful, well-written work by an author whose non-science fiction writings have since his death fallen into undeserved obscurity. Which is a bit surprising, since Wells’ social novels were so very popular around World War I.

How steep has his plummet from notice as a mainstream novelist been? Well, let me ask you: were you aware that he coined the phrase the war to end all wars?

MR. BRITLING SEES IT THROUGH is also one of the great examples of why write what you know is often such great advice. What writer living in wartime — and when aren’t we all? — would not resonate with a paragraph like this:

The battle of the Marne passed into the battle of the Aisne, and then the long lines of the struggle streamed north-westward until the British were back in Belgium failing to clutch Menin and then defending Ypres. The elation of September followed the bedazzlement and dismay of August into the chapter of forgotten moods; and Mr. Britling’s sense of the magnitude, the weight and duration of this war beyond all wars, increased steadily. The feel of it was less and less a feeling of crisis and more and more a feeling of new conditions. It wasn’t as it had seemed at first, the end of one human phase and the beginning of another; it was in itself a phase. It was a new way of living. And still he could find no real point of contact for himself with it at all except the point of his pen. Only at his writing-desk, and more particularly at night, were the great presences of the conflict his. Yet he was always desiring some more personal and physical participation.

Not that why write what you know is as self-explanatory and all-encompassing a piece of advice as many writing teachers seem to think. As those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a good, long while are already aware, I’m no fan of one-size-fits-all writing advice — beyond the basic rules of grammar and formatting restrictions, of course. What works in one genre will not necessarily work in another, after all, nor are the stylistic tactics that made ‘em swoon in 1917 or 1870 particularly likely to wow an agent or editor now.

Doubt that, all of you Dickens-huggers out there? Okay, I dare you: try submitting the paragraph above to an agent or editor now. Even if it actually made it onto an agent’s desk — if, that is, Millicent the agency screener didn’t reject it out of hand for the repetitive word use, over-employment of the passive voice (pretty much universally regarded as bad writing in submissions now), and misuse of the semicolon (by definition, a semicolon followed by and is redundant, since a semicolon is implicitly an abbreviation for comma + and) — the sheer number of semicolons within this short paragraph would automatically raise both eyebrows and questions about the intended target audience. If the book in question were, say, a mainstream novel rather than literary fiction or an academic book, all of those semicolons would seem, well, a bit much.

But then, in Wells’ day, novelists had the luxury of being able to write about current events in the reasonable expectation that the book would be in readers’ hands before today’s headlines were distant memories. He was able to write about the home front while the war was still going on — and not merely as a journalist.

Now, journalists, politicians, and academics who have studied the field for twenty years are generally the only ones who can reliably pitch a book on what’s happening right now socio-politically with success — and even then, only as nonfiction. Partially, this is a matter of platform (if you write any kind of nonfiction whatsoever and don’t know what that is, run, don’t walk to the PLATFORM category on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page), but it’s also a symptom of how much longer it takes to get a book into print.

Not only after it’s written and found an agent, but thereafter.

How much longer, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, let’s assume that the manuscript is already absolutely clean (the professional term for completely free of typos and other errors; few submissions are completely clean, despite my perpetual nagging in this forum) and the agent is completely happy with it (also rare for a submission; agents often request extensive revisions before sending anything out). The agency will almost certainly have a backlog of manuscripts ready to go, so yours will have to wait its turn.

When its time does roll around, the agent may send out anywhere from one to a dozen copies to different editors, depending upon the agency’s preferred submission policy. If it’s a single submission, the agent will wait until she hears back from the editor before sending out the next; if she’s chosen to make multiple simultaneous submissions, she may send out a copy to another editor when a rejection arrives.

Or she may not; my agency, for instance, does submissions in waves, pausing sometimes six months before sending out the next set of manuscripts to the next set of editors. This is not at all an unusual practice.

Take a nice, deep breath. You’ll feel better.

So it’s fairly common for an agent to be circulating a manuscript, even a very good one, not to sell it for a year, year and a half, two. That’s an awfully long time, if any portion of the book’s market appeal relies upon relevance to current events; it’s not altogether surprising, then, that agents so often tell aspiring writers of up-to-the-minute stuff that the book will be dated too quickly to render marketing it worthwhile.

Why, you ask? Um, are you sitting down?

Comfy? Here goes: even if the manuscript in question was absolutely timely when it was written, and remains absolutely timely a year or two later, when the agent manages to sell it to an editor at a publishing house, to remain relevant, the same world conditions will have to prevail a year or more later, when the book actually becomes available for sale to readers.

This is one reason, in case any of you submitters have been wondering, that writers who go batty if an agent who requested a manuscript doesn’t respond right away strike the pros as potentially difficult to work with: the agented life is largely one of waiting for something to happen. So if a writer walks into it expecting that everyone who comes in contact with his manuscript will instantly drop everything else in order to read it, he’s going to expend HUGE amounts of energy feeling his work is being ignored.

It isn’t; the process just takes a while.

And that — phew! — brings me back to my overarching topic du jour, the passage of time in the submission process. I’ve been meaning to get back to it for a while, since I receive so many private questions about it. (Why private? Beats me. For some reason that defies understanding from my side of the agent-landing process, I very frequently receive e-mailed questions from submitters who are absolutely convinced that no other aspiring writer in North America has ever been in their particular situation — or so I surmise from the fact that so many of them are unwilling to post the questions here, lest an agent recognize the situation.) For the next few weeks, however, I’m going to be tackling that backlog of readers’ questions, so let’s launch right into it.

A periodic reader who, for reasons best known to himself, has requested anonymity, has brought up the perennial issue of turn-around times on submissions. Since I know that many aspiring writers share his concerns, I have changed the identifiable information to preserve the secret identities of both author and agent:

Agent Pablo Picasso (how’s that for an undetectable pseudonym?) requested the full manuscript and I sent it three weeks ago. How long should I wait for him to make contact? Is it all right for me to call? I don’t want to pressure him, but I am desperate to move forward with the project. Oh, the anxiousness. Ah, the sleepless nights. I have never wanted anything more than to be a published author…

I know there are no set timelines for responses and such, but roughly how long should I wait before moving on?

Here’s the short answer, Mystery Reader (another undetectable cover): don’t even think about following up for 6-8 weeks (or at least a week past the agency’s stated turn-around time, and when you do, DON’T CALL; e-mail or write.

In the meantime, Mysterious One, you should most definitely be moving on now: get back to your writing projects. You might even consider sending out a few more queries, just in case. And if any other agent has requested materials, you should already have sent them.

Well, that cleared everything up, didn’t it? Moving right along…

Just kidding. On to the long answer: three weeks is most definitely not a long time to wait for a response from an agent on a submission. I would be extremely surprised if you heard back in under a month. But if ol’ Pablo didn’t give you a timeframe in the request for materials (as many agents do), 6-8 weeks is average.

I can feel heart rates rising all over the English-speaking world. “But Anne,” those of you either on the cusp of sending out manuscripts or waiting breathlessly to hear back from agents protest, “Mystery Reader said that Pablo Picasso asked for the full manuscript — that must mean he was really, really interested, right? Surely not hearing back indicates that he’s lost interest, right?”

Actually, not necessarily, and not even probably. What not hearing back generally means is either (a) nobody at the agency has read it yet, (b) it hasn’t made it past Millicent, or (c) it did make it past Millicent, but the agent hasn’t had time to get to it.

Don’t pull that long face; it’s nothing personal. Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along with me: because a request for pages does not equal a promise to drop everything the second those materials turn up at the agency.

Like so many other aspects of the biz, an agent requesting materials will expect a serious aspiring writer to be familiar enough with the biz to be aware of that. Consequently, badgering an agent interested in your work will definitely NOT get him or her to read faster — in fact, it sometimes produces the opposite effect — it is not a good course to pursue. Most agents will regard follow-up calls or too-soon e-mails as a sign that the prospective client does not understand how the business works.

Which is not an impression you want to give an agent you would like to sign you. Why? Well, it tends to translate, in their minds, into a client who is going to require more attention at every step of the process. While such clients are often rewarding on many levels, they are undoubtedly more expensive for the agency to handle, at least at first.

Think about it: Pablo Picasso, like every other reputable agent in the country, makes his living by selling books to publishing houses. This means a whole lot of phone calls, meetings, and general blandishment, all of which takes a lot of time, in order to make sales.

So which is the more lucrative way to spend his time, hard-selling a current client’s terrific novel to a wavering editor or taking anxious phone calls from a writer he has not yet signed?

Uh-huh. Trust me, Pablo Picasso (too obvious a pseudonym?) already knows that you want to be published more than anything else in the world; unfortunately, telling him so will not impress him more.

How does he know Mystery Writer’s innermost feelings? Because he deals with writers all the time — and this is such a tough business to break into that the vast majority of those who make it to the full-manuscript request are writers who want to be published more than anything else in the world.

Mystery Reader, you will be a much, much happier human being if you bear this in mind. I can assure you that an agent who receives 800 or 1000 queries per week from glorious dreamers does not have the luxury of forgetting it.

You’re certainly not alone in thinking of your query or submission as if it emits a come-hither glow in the agency’s mail room, however. The average aspiring writer, bless his or her heart, tends to forget that the dream of publication is a fairly common one — thus that huge volume of queries through which Millicent sifts five days per week, each of which is presumably from someone who yearns for publication.

Let’s face it, querying and submission are FAR too hard on the heart (not to mention the wrists) to keep doing if you don’t want success that much, right?

The very intensity of the longing can sometimes blur an aspiring writer’s view of the agent-finding process — or indeed, the period when one’s agent is shopping one’s book around to editors. Even the most successful author’s career is stuffed to the gills with periods when s/he can do nothing but wait.

And as anyone who has ever been a teenager with a crush can tell you, every minute devoted to waiting for the phone to ring, for That Special Someone to declare his intentions, is eighteen times longer than a normal minute. Nothing extends a second like not having someone else determine what’s going to happen to you at the end of it.

This is precisely Mystery Reader’s dilemma, I’m afraid. All you can do is wait — at least for 6 weeks or so, or (to trot out my favorite rule of thumb) for twice the turn-around time the agency has listed in an agency guide blurb or on its website.

Which is yet another reason that a prudent submitter should always double-check the agency’s own guidelines before submitting materials. Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: there is no hard-and-fast rule that may be applied to every agent at every agency, every time.

This information is usually easily available either on the agency’s website or its listing in one of the standard agency guides. And if either of those sources say anything along the lines of Please do not contact us to make sure we received your materials or We do not respond to submissions that do not interest us, do not even consider waiting around until you hear back from them.

Because you may not.

Before anyone starts pouting about it: yes, it would be much, much simpler for aspiring writers everywhere if each and every agency on the face of the earth agreed to adhere to a single standard for turn-around times, but the fact is, there is no incentive for them to do so. Quite the opposite, in fact: a TREMENDOUS amount of paper passes through the average agency’s portals, and yours is almost certainly not the only full manuscript requested by Señor Picasso within the last couple of months. Yours goes into the reading pile after the others that are already there — and if that feels a little unfair now, think about it again in a month, when a dozen more have come in after yours.

And how long it will take our pal Pablo to make his way through that queue can vary not only from agency to agency, but month to month, or even week to week. One day’s workload for an agent may be quite different from another, and it’s not as though a really successful agent will have inviolable reading times built into his work schedule.

In fact, many agents read submissions not at work, but in their off hours. In all probability, yours will not be the only MS sitting next to his couch. Also, in a big agency like Picasso’s (he happens to be an agent I know), it’s entirely possible that before it gets to the couch stage, it will need to be read by one or even two preliminary readers.

Again, all that takes time.

In the meantime, though, you are under no obligation not to query or follow up with any other agent. (See earlier comment about the advisability of sending out a few queries now.) That, too, is SO easy for an excited writer to forget: until you sign an agency contract, you are free to date other people, literarily speaking. And you should.

Really. No matter how many magical sparks there were between the two of you at your pitch meeting, even if Picasso’s venerable eyes were sparkling with book lust, it honestly is in your best interest to keep querying other agents until he antes up a concrete offer. Until that ring is on your finger, keep playing the field.

And where does that leave Mystery Reader in the meantime? Waiting by the phone or mooning by the mailbox, of course. It’s hard to act cool when you want so much to make a connection. Yes, he SAID he would call after he’s read my manuscript, but will he? If it’s been a week, should I call him at the agency, or assume that he’s lost interest in my book? Has he met another book he likes better? Will I look like a publication-hungry slut if I send an e-mail after three weeks of terrifying silence?

Auntie Anne is here to tell you: honey, don’t just sit by the phone; you are not completely helpless here. Get out there and date other agents, so that when that slow-reading Picasso DOES call, you’ll have to check your dance card.

Of course, if another agent asks to see the manuscript, it is perfectly acceptable, even laudable, to drop Mr. Picasso an e-mail or letter, letting him know that there are now other agents checking out your work. For the average agent, this news is only going to make your work seem all the more attractive.

See? I told you it was just like dating in high school.

Even after 6-8 weeks has elapsed, e-mail, instead of calling. The last thing you want is to give the impression that you would be a client who would be calling three times per week. Calling is considered a bit pushy, and it almost certainly won’t get your work read any faster — unlike, say, an e-mail that mentions politely that there is now another agent reading it.

And yes, Agent #1 WILL want you to tell him that immediately. Over and above that, though, all you can do is (sing it out now) WAIT.

Another great reason to keep querying and submitting while Agent #1 is taking his own sweet time getting back to you is the increasingly common phenomenon I mentioned above, agents not responding to queries or even submissions at all. Within the last few years, literally dozens of very talented writers of my acquaintance have had manuscripts out to agents for four, five, or even six months without any response. Requested materials.

This places the writer in a quandary, of course, because from the other side of the country (or the world), how on earth is it possible to tell the difference between a delay caused by a submission’s sitting on an agent’s coffee table, holding up take-out cartons until she has time to read it, one that springs from an unannounced rejection, and one triggered by the manuscript’s having gotten lost in the mail?

For this reason, I used to advise my clients and students to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard with every submission, along with a request in the cover letter (you HAVE been including cover letters with your submissions, haven’t you?) that Millicent would write the date it arrived upon it and pop it in the mail upon opening the packet of requested materials. I historically, this works far, far better than asking for e-mail confirmation, since complying requires far less effort on the part of agency personnel.

Hey, they’re busy. Have you seen that stack of manuscripts Pablo has to read through?

The USPS now offers a much less obtrusive option for making sure your manuscript arrived where it should, and when: Track & Confirm. For a negligible fee, you can receive an e-mail confirming delivery of your package, without anyone at the agency’s having to lift a finger to inform you of it.

Unfortunately, there’s no similar service for e-mailed submissions — and since many agencies that accept e-mailed queries and submissions specifically request in their guidelines that writers not follow up to ask if materials were received. Yet another reason that given the choice, I would always opt for a hard copy submission over an electronic one.

What you SHOULDN’T do whilst waiting for a reply is waste your energy constructing a vivid justification for why the agent of your dreams has not yet gotten back to you — an exercise in creative fantasy in which I’ve seen aspiring writers starting mere hours after dropping the submission into the mail.

Trust me, it won’t help your chances; it will only enervate you.

Let me preemptively take the wind out of the sails of the most common of these middle-of-the-night musings: if you haven’t heard back, it’s not because the agent thinking about it or wants to talk with every other employee in the agency before talking it on; it’s because he hasn’t read it yet.

See why most agents get a bit defensive if a writer calls, demanding to know why it’s taking so long? Much like, if memory serves, teenage boys.

Oh, how I wish we had all outgrown that awkward stage.

Try to think of a slow response in positive terms. At many agencies, a submission has to make it past more than one level of Millicent before making it onto the agent’s desk at all — and yes, Mystery Reader, that’s usually still true even if one has met the agent at a conference. If Millie #1, Millie #2, or the agent had taken a dislike to your manuscript, it would have been stuffed into the SASE right away. (See why it’s fairly safe to assume that if you haven’t yet heard back, it hasn’t been read?) Rejections tend to be quicker than acceptances.

I know that this isn’t exactly the answer you wanted, Mystery Reader, but please, try to chill out for the next month or so. Get working on your next book, because if this goes through, you will want to have it well in motion. Keep approaching other agents, because it can only be good for you if several are clamoring to represent you.

And be very, very proud of yourself for getting to the point in your writing that an agent as prestigious as Pablo Picasso WANTS to read the whole manuscript. He doesn’t ask just anybody on a date, you know.

Believe it or not, if you’re successful in submission, the anxiety of waiting will become almost routine, just one of the many swiftly-alternating moods of the working writer’s career. Try to be patient, and keep up the good work!

* For the benefit of those of you who weren’t reading this blog regularly throughout holiday seasons past, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (FNDGG) is a jolly elf who regularly graces this page in the winter months, ho, ho, hoing his way toward the end of the year. Better not pout, better not cry — and better get used to hearing about him, because he’s bound to keep cropping up in the months to come.

How to write a really good author bio, part V: all of the things you are — and some great news about a good author!

Deborah Heiligman cover

Before I launch into today’s course of our ongoing banquet on author bios, let’s give a great big Author! Author! cheer for Deborah Heiligman. Why is applause in order, you ask? Her excellent Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt) has just been nominated for the National Book Award in the notoriously competitive Young People’s Literature category.

Well done, Deborah!

I love it when an author who has been doing good work for a long time gets nominated for this type of award — and not only this one, either. CHARLES AND EMMA also made it onto a lot of 2008 best lists: it’s a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Book Links Top Ten Biographies for Youth, a Booklist Top 10 Romances for Youth, and received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Horn Book, and Booklist, among others. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary tract on evolution and the fundamental ideas involved, in 1859. Nearly 150 years later, the theory of evolution continues to create tension between the scientific and religious communities. Challenges about teaching the theory of evolution in schools occur annually all over the country. This same debate raged within Darwin himself, and played an important part in his marriage: his wife, Emma, was quite religious, and her faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on a theory that continues to spark intense debates.

Deborah Heiligman’s new biography of Charles Darwin is a thought-provoking account of the man behind evolutionary theory: how his personal life affected his work and vice versa. The end result is an engaging exploration of history, science, and religion for young readers.

In addition, I now notice, she has a terrific, eye-catching author bio and one of the best author photos I’ve ever seen, or at any rate, one of the most content-appropriate. I don’t want to spoil the picture’s surprise, but here’s her bio:

Deborah Heiligman has published nearly thirty books to date on subjects ranging from bees to babies, chromosomes to Christmas, Darwin to Diwali, metamorphosis to mathematics, including From Caterpillar to Butterfly, the Celebrate Holidays Around the World series and Cool Dog, School Dog. In addition, she’s written for numerous publications including The Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Ladies’ Home Journal, Sesame Street Parents Guide, Parents Magazine, and Los Angeles Times among many others. She is married to Jonathan Weiner, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for The Beak of the Finch, lives in New York City, and shares her thoughts on writing, the environment, and more on her blog.

Makes her sound quite interesting, doesn’t it? Packed with professional credentials, but not dry at all. What a remarkable coincidence — we were just talking about the difference between professional and stuffy yesterday, weren’t we?

So redoubled kudos to Deborah for providing us with a good example. Before I move on with today’s business, I would also like to add: her website has some really good research tips for kids writing term papers, as well as advice for aspiring YA writers. CHARLES AND EMMA is available on Amazon, or, for those of you who prefer to deal with an indie bookseller, Powell’s.

Back to the business at hand: making yourself sound fascinating. Over the course of this series, I have, I hope, impressed upon my readers the importance of making your author bio as entertaining as possible. In case I have by some chance been too subtle, allow me to reiterate:

Regardless of how many or few bona fide publishing credentials may grace your résumé, aim for constructing an author bio for yourself that is MEMORABLE, rather than simply following the pseudo-professional norm of turning it into a (YAWN!) list of cold, starkly-mentioned business and educational facts.

Yes, I said pseudo-professional; because droning lists are so very common, unless one’s life achievements happen to include very high-profile events (earning a Ph.D., winning an Academy Award, being elected President of the United States, that sort of thing) or previous book publications (don’t have a joke for that one; sorry), the professional reader’s eye tends to glaze over whilst perusing them.

So what should you do instead, you whimper?

Precisely what the admirable Ms. Heiligman did in the example above: have your bio reflect your personality, and the book’s personality as well. It needs to show two things: that you are an authority with a background that makes you the perfect person to write this book, and that you are an interesting, engaging person with whom publishers might like to work — and whom readers would like to know.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right? Well, no, but certainly doable, if you realize that the goal here is not just to hand Millicent the agency screener your CV, but to cause her to rush into her boss’ office, exclaiming, “You’re not going to BELIEVE this writer’s background!”

Yes, yes, in answer to what all of you query-weary cynics out there just thought so loudly, it is indeed entirely likely that her boss’ response will be some rendition of, “Gee, Millie, is it anything out of which we could conceivably cobble a platform for a nonfiction book?” — not necessarily the ideal reaction if one happens to be, say, a novelist, admittedly. Before you get all huffy at the idea of being pigeonholed before your time, let me ask you this: isn’t any reason someone who works at the agency of your dreams becomes excited about you good for your book’s prospects?

(Just to shatter the cherished illusions of any of you who still harbor any about the way agencies work, a successful submitter IS going to get pigeonholed, whether s/he likes it or not. Absolutely no point in trying to avoid it. The publishing industry thinks in book categories, which inevitably means shuffling even the most complex and genre-busting writers’ work into a conceptual box. This is a sad reality with which all of us pros who like to category-surf have to contend eventually, so you might want to beat the Christmas rush and get started on it now.

And if anything I said in that last paragraph caused you to think indignantly, “Well, they’ve obviously never seen anything like my historical multicultural Western romantica fantasy classic before — but by gum, they’re not going to make me pick just one!”, I implore you from the bottom of my heart to scroll down the category list at the right of this page, find the BOOK CATEGORY section, and read every post in it at least twice before you even THINK of querying your masterwork. Trust me on this one.)

Fingers have been drumming next to keyboards for quite some time now, I fear. “I GET it, Anne,” those of you just busting to get on with writing your bios already mutter. “I don’t fear being interesting, and primal screaming has done wonders to reduce my inherent hostility to describing my book in just one or two words. And believe me, I’m not in a position to bore Millicent with lists of my publishing credentials. Where on earth should I begin?

Glad you asked, finger-drummers. Here are a few likely sources for author bio tidbits. Not all are necessary to include, of course, but they are likely candidates for ways that you might be interesting to Millicent.

1. Your work history, paid or unpaid
Nonfiction writers, long used to building their own platforms, tend already to be aware of this, but any consistent effort on an author’s part that enables him to say legitimately, “I have a background in the subject matter of my book,” is worth considering including in a bio. Whether you actually got PAID for that experience isn’t particularly relevant; the fact that your agent will be able to say, “Bill didn’t just guess at what la vie de lumberjack is like for his romance novel, LOOK OUT FOR THAT TREE! He spent his youth as a cook in a lumber camp.”

That is not, as they say, a credential at which Bill’s prospective publishers are likely to be sneezing.

If your job titles have not been particularly impressive or you have not remained in any one industry for very long, you’re in good literary company — Joseph Campbell used to say that one of the best predictors of who was going to turn out to be an artist was the number of different jobs he had had before he was 30.

Try not to get hung up on job titles; think about what you actually DID and the environment in which you did it. An administrative assistant at Boeing has every bit as much right as a vice president to say, “Eileen has spent the last fifteen years in the aviation industry,” if her book happens to touch on that topic, right?

Don’t forget to consider any volunteer experience you may have; for bio purposes, it is neither relevant nor necessary to mention that you were not paid for your position as volunteer coordinator of your local cat rescue. There are plenty of political books out there by people who got their starts stuffing envelopes for a city council candidate, after all.

2. Any performing you may have done, paid or unpaid.
If you have any teaching, public speaking, or just plain experience talking in front of large groups of people, consider including at least some passing reference to it. Even if you were famed county-wide for your tap-dancing prowess at the age of 10, trust me, Millicent will want to know.

Why? It demonstrates that you may be relied upon not to disintegrate into a trembling mess if asked to step onto a stage. Or onto a conference dais. Or into a bookstore to sign your latest release.

Authors who can speak well in public are astonishingly rare, as anyone who has ever heard some pour soul mumble his way through a page of his own recently-published prose at a book signing can attest. Comfort in front of crowds is a genuine selling point for a writer. So is the ability to read out loud well — which might render that college summer you spent getting stabbed onstage in as Julius Caesar interesting to Millicent.

Whatever you do, do not even consider omitting teaching experience from your bio — in terms of practical experience at keeping listeners’ attention, teachers get the gold star. There’s even an industry anecdote on the subject: when a reporter asked the late historian (and reputed plagiarist) Stephen Ambrose, author of best-selling presidential bios, how he learned to make history interesting, Ambrose allegedly replied, “I used to teach an 8 AM class.”

Speaking as someone whose lectures were unfortunately scheduled at 10 AM Fridays at an enormous football university whose fraternities hosted regular Thursday night parties, I can only concur. Think that experience hasn’t come in handy promoting books?

3. What you are doing now to pay the bills.
Regardless of whether you decide that any of your work experience is relevant, interesting, or public-speaking-related enough to include, you should mention in your bio what you are doing now for a living, for the exceedingly simple reason that it is going to be one of the things that an agent or editor will want to know about you up front.

The sole exception — and as soon as I tell you the standard euphemism used by authors who fall under its rubric, you’re going to start noticing just how common it is in bios and people in bookstores will stare at you as you chuckle — is if you feel that your current employment is not, shall we say, reflective of who you are. Stating that you are temping in order to be able to quit your job the second a publisher snaps up your book proposal, for instance, while perhaps not a bad long-term strategy, is not going to make you look particularly professional to Millicent.

Nor is I’m working in a job that has nothing to do with my interests because the unemployment rate is pushing 10%, alas. While either or both may well be true, neither is likely to be particularly memorable.

Do I hear a bit more whimpering out there? “But Anne,” some of you point out timidly, “I’m perplexed. My current job does reflect something about me as a human being — how many gas lamp lighters can there still be on the planet, after all — but it’s not by any stretch of the imagination literary. Shouldn’t I omit mention of it on that basis alone?”

In a word, no. In several words: Millicent doesn’t really expect queriers or submitters already to be making their living as writers.

The fact is, it is extremely difficult to make a living as a writer, particularly of books. (You were all aware of that, right?) It often takes years and years — and books and books — before even a great writer can afford to quit her day job. So you may safely assume that Millicent and her ilk are already aware that many excellent writers out there are supporting their art by delivering pizzas, driving cabs, and all of those desk jobs under fluorescent lights upon which bureaucracies the world over depend.

Heck, it’s not entirely beyond belief that Millicent took her desk job under fluorescent lights to feed her own writing habit. Sort of messes with your mental picture of her scowling over your query letter, doesn’t it?

So what’s the standard euphemism for under-employed literary geniuses? You’re going to laugh: it’s freelance writers.

You’ve seen that in many a dust jacket author bio, haven’t you? Perfectly legitimate: as long as you write and no one is employing you write full-time, you are indeed freelancing. You’re just a volunteer freelance writer.

4. ANY life experience that would tend to bolster your implicit claim to be an expert in the subject matter of your book.
Consider showcasing any background you have that makes you an expert in the area of your book. Again, you need not have been paid for the relevant experience in order to include it in your bio, or have a academic or journalistic background to render your 15 years of reading on a topic research.

Definitely mention any long-term interests connected to your book, even if they are merely hobbies. As in, for a book about symphonies, “George Clooney has been an avid student of the oboe since the age of three.” (Don’t quote me on that one, please; I have no idea what Mssr. Clooney’s feelings or experience with woodwinds may be.)

5. Writing credentials, no matter how minor.
List any contests you have won or placed in. If you like, you may also include any venues where you have published, paid or not. Even unpaid book reviews in your company’s newsletter are legitimate credentials, if you wrote them.

6. Recognition of your wonderfulness from the outside world, regardless of its relevance to your writing project.
I’m not just talking about the Nobel Prize here — do you have any idea how exotic winning a pie-baking contest at a county fair would seem to someone who has lived her entire life in New York City?

Don’t laugh; Millicent might genuinely be intrigued. If you were the hog-calling champion of your tri-county area, believe me, it’s going to strike her as memorable.

7. Educational background.
This is one of the few constituent parts of the standard, dull tombstone bio that might conceivably hurt you if you do not include. Because pretty much any North American agent or editor will be college-educated, Millicent will be looking for a writer’s educational credentials.

That’s putting it mildly, actually: Millicent probably has BA in English from a great school like Wellesley. (With honors. Not to intimidate you.) Her sister went to Brown; her brother went to Dartmouth. Higher education, even without degrees, will be meaningful to her.

Perhaps to the point of snobbery. You wouldn’t believe how much mileage I’ve gotten out of my doctorate when conversing with snobs.

So if you are older than standard college age and a high school graduate, go ahead and include any post-high school education in your bio, no matter how long ago it was or what you studied. Don’t mention your major, unless it is relevant to your book.

If you are currently in school, mention it. But don’t mention your high school by name — unless, of course, your story is about how you regularly fought your way through gunfire to make it to class or you went to a well-known elite school (see earlier reference to snobbery). If you’re still in college, though, you should definitely mention where you go.

Don’t look at me that way. Both young writers and returning students tend to be a bit shy, at least in their bios, about being pre-degree, but I think this attitude tends to underestimate just how wistfully most graduates recall their college careers. Especially if one happens to be huddled under fluorescent lights reading manuscripts until one’s Great American Novel is completed, if you catch my drift.

Anyway, if you’re REALLY young and have the stick-to-itiveness to write an entire BOOK, that’s going to be quite interesting to the adults who inhabit the publishing world. Especially if you worked on a school paper or magazine, as that will demonstrate that you have proven you understand and can meet deadlines. That’s a story you can tell excitingly in a couple of lines of text, isn’t it?

If you’re a non-traditional student, returning to the classroom after years of doing other no doubt very interesting things, you probably have an intriguing story to tell, too. When I was teaching at the university level, I was continually wowed by the trajectory many of my older students had taken to get there. YOU may not think of your sacrifices to go back to school at an untraditional age as extraordinary, but there’s a good chance that others will.

Consider mentioning any certificate programs, continuing education, or substantial training you may have, regardless of the subject matter. Prestigious and oddball programs tend to be the most memorable — in fact, a certificate from a hypnosis for horses class may well stick in our Millicent’s mind longer and more vividly than a BA in literature from Kenyon. So would an apprenticeship as a beekeeper.

I see some hands tentatively raised out there. “But Anne, I’ve never had the opportunity to go to college, the time to attend massage school, or the funds to receive training as a reiki practitioner. What do you do if you don’t have any educational credentials to wave at Millicent?”

No need to panic — you’ve got several excellent options at your disposal. You could simply not mention your educational background; fill up the page instead with your rich life experience (see above). Or, better still, turn your bio into an opportunity to show how you have schooled yourself through non-traditional means.

Millicent may be an educational snob, but she knows a good author interview story when she sees one.

Alternatively — and I’m continually surprised at how seldom this seems to occur to aspiring writers — you could sign up to take a night course in a subject that interests you. It needn’t be academic (although a few history courses related to your book’s subject matter wouldn’t kill you, would they?), or even long-term: I’ve seen a writer turn a weekend seminar on candle-dipping into some quite eye-catching author bio material.

Remember, great author bios don’t just happen by themselves, any more than interesting lives do. They are built.

8. Personal quirks.
You need not limit yourself to your professional achievements in your quest to sound interesting. Including a reference to a quirky hobby often works well, as long as it is true; actually, it’s a good idea to include one, because it tells agents and editors that you have broad enough interests to be a good interview subject down the line.

Don’t have a quirky hobby? Do what PR agents have historically told would-be celebrities to do just prior to launching interview tours: acquire an off-beat hobby or interest now, so you may talk about it.

Then write your bio a week later. A tad rule-lawyerish, perhaps, but essentially truthful — and certainly a recognized trick of the trade.

9. Past travel and residence.
If you’ve traveled extensively — or even not so extensively — or lived in the part of the world where your novel is set, that will actually add to your credibility as a storyteller. Yes, even if that part of the world happens to be rural Oregon, because — come closer, and I’ll let you in on a little secret — Millicent and her ilk are often not all that familiar with the geography outside the fabled isle of Manhattan. Even if she is from somewhere else originally — and she often isn’t; my agent likes to boast that he’s never lived more than ten miles from the NYC hospital where he was born, and apparently I was the first person he’d ever encountered whose response was, “Oh, you should get out more.” — she’s likely to be working some awfully long days for very little pay.

Travel can be quite expensive, you know. Give her a micro-vacation at her desk by mentioning your familiarity with exotic climes.

If you were a great traveler — say, after a career in the Navy — consider mentioning your sojourns in your bio even if they’re not relevant to the book you’re promoting. Give Millicent a vicarious thrill.

10. Family background.
This is always legitimate if it’s relevant to the subject matter of the book — if, say, our pal Bill spent his childhood watching his dear old white-headed mother cook for those lumberjacks, instead of doing it himself — but even if it’s not, if your family tree harbors an interesting wood owl or two, why not mention it?

For instance, my great-grandmother was an infamous Swiss-Italian opera diva. Was the fact that a relative who died three decades before I was born could wow ’em with a spectacular rendition of Libiamo Ne’ Lieti Calici actually relevant to what I write? Seldom.

But incredibly memorable? Definitely. And have I been known to include it in a bio, along with the highly dubious distinction that I made my television debut singing Adeste Fideles on a 1978 Christmas special? Wearing a blaring yellow leotard and equally subtle peasant skirt my mother drew swearingly from our antiquated sewing machine the night before, no less? You bet.

Consider, too, mentioning your ethnic background, if it’s remotely relevant to the book. Many, many aspiring writers chafe at this suggestion, but think about it: didn’t your family’s history have SOME effect upon constructing your worldview? Might not your background in fact render your take on a story fresh? Has it affected your voice?

See where I’m going with this? Bringing up relevant background is not asking for your writing to be judged by a different standard; it’s just one of many means of explaining in the very few lines allowed in an author bio how precisely you are different from any other writer who might happen to have written this particular book.

I have to admit, I’m always surprised when a writer who has, say, just polished off a stunning first novel set in colonial India fails to mention that she was born in Darjeeling, but all too often, writers new to the biz will leave out pertinent life facts like this. “Why should I include it?” the writer will say defensively. “It’s not as though I was alive during the time period of my book, and anyway, I don’t want to get pigeonholed as an ethnic writer.”

In the first place, in the English-speaking publishing world as we currently know it, a non-Caucasian author is inevitably going to be regarded as an ethnic writer, rather than a mainstream (read: white and Christian) one, just as anyone who writes a book while possessing ovaries is going to be labeled a woman writer unless she’s had some pretty extensive plastic surgery and/or has written a memoir under the name of Jim.

Unfair to the vast majority of writers who would like to be judged by the quality of their writing, rather than the content of their DNA? You bet. Something your are going to be able to fight successfully at the query and submission stages of your career? Not a chance.

See my earlier comment about pigeonholing.

Take heart: we may not like it, but it can occasionally work for us rather than against us. The author bio is one of the few places where the tendency to regard any writer who isn’t a white, male, straight, college-educated, middle- or upper-middle class English-speaking North American as outside the norm can actually help those of us who, well, aren’t any or all of the above. Especially if your book would be the kind that Millicent might expect only a white, male…etc. to write.

I leave it to your fertile imaginations what she is likely to say when she carries the bio of what the industry might regard as a non-traditional author into her boss’ office.

Noticing a theme here? Anything about yourself that might make a good story is potential material for an author bio, really. It’s up to you to select and present it intriguingly. If only you already had some experience with an endeavor like that.

Oh, wait, you’re a WRITER. You have devoted your life to telling interesting stories.

Not used to thinking of an author bio that way, are you? Give it a good ponder, have a nice weekend, and keep up the good work!

How to write a really good author bio, part III: a revisit to the land of the giant moles

Hello, campers –

I seldom re-run a long-ago post wholesale, at any rate without significant modification, but today, I’m bringing you a post from last November virtually untouched. (The hardcore editorial mind is incapable of leaving any piece of text entirely untouched, of course.) While I can’t help but notice that I come across in it not as my usual sunshiny self, but as a curmudgeon upset by trifles, I think it works in this context: not only is the picture really, really pretty (if the photographer does say so herself), but even on a cold, blustery October day, the running analogy here made me smile.

Oh, and I think the advice is still pretty apt, too. Enjoy!

Yes, I’ll admit it: I’ve been a bad mood for the last couple of weeks. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, seems to be going as planned. Noses continue to sniffle, well-meaning distracters keep appearing on my doorstep during my writing time, people who I had thought I was paying to serve my interests have been falling down on the job in fairly remarkable ways, and my mother-in-law called yesterday to report that she’d accidentally invited five more people to Thanksgiving dinner. At my house.

Presumably, the new guests will be sitting on the piano. Or perhaps stuffed inside it, pressed against the harp. It might render the playing of Auld Lang Syne a trifle tricky.

My SO is scheduled to have a Little Talk with his mum on the subject tomorrow.

I seem to have spent the last few weeks traveling from one Little Talk to another. Case in point: remember that yard renovation that we started eons ago, the intended repair after the inadvertent destruction of my garden last March? Would it surprise those of you whose hair has gone grey in the course of similar projects to learn that it’s still not completed, three growing seasons later?

My SO is having a Little Talk with the landscaper as I write this.

Apparently, it’s a source of astonishment to the latter that anyone WOULDN’T want a gigantic hole in the middle of her patio, or that some unreasonable souls might conceivably expect the drip irrigation hoses to be hooked up to something, or that sun-loving plants moved to murky spots under drooping pine trees to get them out of the way of gigantic, soil-gouging machinery couldn’t walk by themselves back to their original plots. In our last Little Talk, he suggested with an absolutely straight face — and some asperity — that if we wanted him to do these things, we should have made sure that they were spelled out explicitly in our original agreement.

Oh, how I wish I was making that last part up. There’s a reason that I’m no longer present for these Little Talks.

Even in the midst of 8 months of my dashing outside continually, screaming, “DON’T DRIVE THE BACKHOE OVER THAT ROSE BED!” at people who, for some reason that I have not been able to fathom, can’t see an established plant without wanting to mash, mangle, yank, behead, or prune it to the point that my great-grandchildren will be wondering what army took a tank to that majestic Douglas fir and why, I can recognize that there’s quite a bit of beauty here, despite and often because of the ambient carnage. I took the picture above yesterday, in fact, standing on my dangerously unstable back porch.

(“You mean you DIDN’T want your back door to open onto a yawning chasm into which your kith and kin may tumble, never to be seen again? Lady, if you’d only TOLD me…”)

I have to admit, this photo stunned me after I took it. It wasn’t that I hadn’t noticed that there were pretty things in the yard — why, I spent an hour only last week trying to convince the landscaper that I did not now nor had I ever wanted him to cover those lovely leaves with beauty bark, an abomination upon the earth — but I had, I admit, become a bit myopic. I had been so focused upon what had been going wrong in the yard for so long that I had stopped looking at the big picture.

How myopic, you ask? Well, if I’m honest about it, when I looked at the area above, most of what I saw was this:

A potentially pretty space that had apparently been attacked by giant moles, in short, and ones who were rather careless in the placement of their irrigation lines at that. Had I known that the landscaper’s most consistent preference was for replicating the mole-infestation experience on a mammoth scale as often as possible, I might have placed a stipulation in the original contract that he, well, refrain from burrowing gratuitously.

I also, I suppose, could have had the foresight to mention that I also did not wish him to dive-bomb, set fire to, or spray-paint the Douglas fir in our front yard. The things one realizes in retrospect, eh?

Did I hear some of my long-time readers chuckle in the course of these ruminations on my conceptual near-sightedness? “Gee, Anne,” these sharp-witted aspiring writers observe, “it sounds as though you’ve been looking at your yard with your editorial eyes. What you’ve just described sounds virtually identical to how you’ve depicted Millicent the Agency Screener reading through queries and submissions, zeroing in on the flaws rather than searching for loveliness on the page.”

Well observed, oh chucklers. It’s also how good writers who have been revising and revising their manuscripts start to look at their own work after a while — and how virtually everyone approaching writing his own author bio for the first time views his own credentials.

Oh, you thought that I was just complaining about my yard renovation?

Au contraire, mon frère. (Actually, since there are quite a few of you reading this, that should have been mes frères, but don’t stop me; I’m on a roll.) Even aspiring writers with pretty darned good credentials — an MFA, for instance, or being a finalist in a well-respected contest — tend to shake their heads at the prospect of bio-construction, sighing, “But I’ve never been published!”

I’ve got good news for you: that’s not necessarily a barrier to pulling together a killer bio for yourself. No, seriously.

Yesterday, I advised all of you to run right out to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and take a gander at a bunch of author bios on the dust jackets of books recently released in your chosen category — not on jackets in general, but on those gracing books akin to the one that you have written or are writing.

The most helpful ones will probably be those produced by first-time authors in your book category, but ideally, I would like you to spend an hour or so looking at every bio in every book on the relevant shelf at Barnes & Noble or some similar immense bookstore. Not only will this help you get a sense of the tone and extent of successful author bios in the section of the publishing world in which you hope to publish, but it will give you a feel for what does and doesn’t work in a bio.

A sense of where the irrigation hoses tend to be left hanging in mid-air, so to speak. Reading each one, ask yourself, “Does this description of the author make me more or less likely to want to buy this book?”

If your local B&N is stocked like mine, you may be surprised at how often the answer is no.

Actually, I probably should have warned you about this yesterday: there are a LOT of lousy author bios out there, littering up the covers of otherwise perfectly fine books. Clearly, a boring or hastily-written bio is not a significant barrier to publication — which is interesting, because a really great bio can be such a valuable marketing tool for a manuscript.

Reading the duds may seem like a waste of your time, but actually, you can learn a lot from the bad ones, which typically share some common traits. You can learn what to avoid.

After you’ve read a couple of dozen, what makes the bad ones bad becomes apparent: they are too similar in their genericism, which renders them inherently dull. At their worst, they are merely lists of where the author went to school, if anywhere, what the author did (or does) for a living before (or besides) writing, where they live now, and their marital status.

For those of you who have not yet scoured your local bookstore, scores of them end up sounding something like this:

Turgid McGee was born in upstate New York. After attending the Albany Boys’ Reformatory, he served a term in the U.S. Air Force. After graduating from Princeton University, McGee attended law school at the University of Oklahoma. Now retired, McGee now lives in Bermuda with his wife, Appalled, and his three children, Sleepy, Dopey, and Sneezy. He is currently working on his second book.

Yes, it lists a bunch of fairly impressive facts about the author, but it doesn’t exactly make you want to run right out and pick up McGee’s book, doesn’t it? That’s precisely the reaction that Millicent, her boss the agent, and any editor to whom they might happen to mention this book will probably have: YAWN.

But inducing boredom is not ol’ Turgid’s worst offense here. The biggest problem with this blurb is that it’s poor marketing material.

Unsure of the difference? Okay, here’s an easy test that will make the marketing shortcomings rise to the top. Quick, based solely on that bio, answer these essential questions:

What is Turgid’s book about?

Why is he uniquely qualified to write it?

Does he have any background in writing at all?

Does he exhibit any sense of humor, derring-do, or other desirable human characteristic?

What the heck did he do to get sent to reform school?

If you picked up this book in a used bookstore years from now, would you have any interest in checking the shelves to see what his second book was?

Turgid’s bio fails as marketing because it does not even begin to address any of these crucial issues — all matters in which the denizens of any potential publisher’s marketing department would be vitally interested, I assure you.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, this set of questions can — and should, if you happen to be the author writing it — be applied to any author bio. if the answer to any of these questions is murky, it’s not put together very well.

Okay, so maybe the fourth question is not all that helpful on a marketing level. But wouldn’t this bio be both more interesting and more of a grabber if it did address that question, treating Turgid’s life as a story, rather than as an array of unrelated events?

Turgid also made a subtle mistake here, one that perhaps only those who have read a whole lot of author bios — such as, say, an agent, an editor, or a me — would catch. Any thoughts?

Give yourself three gold stars for the day if you said that Turgid mentions he attended the University of Oklahoma, not that he graduated from it. This means something very specific in bio-speak, something that Turgid probably did not intend.

Attended is the standard industry euphemism for not having finished a degree program — when a publishing professional reads Daffy Duck attended Yale University in an author bio, she is automatically going to assume that poor Daffy dropped out after a year.

And this is problematic in the current case, since (and knowing dear old Turgid so well, I can say this with authority) he actually did obtain his law degree. With honors, no less.

Moral: if you graduated from a school, say so.

And as a personal favor to me, never, ever make the astonishingly common grammatical error of saying that you graduated a school, a misstatement that would put virtually any language-loving Millicent’s teeth on edge; retain the necessary preposition and say that you graduated from it.

Trust me, that’s not a mole hole you want to leave exposed.

To his credit, Turgid pulled off this part correctly: he introduced his law school experience of indeterminate length and success with After graduating from Princeton University…. Had he utilized the unfortunately common structure After graduating Princeton… that would have meant, literally, that he handed the school the diploma, not the other way around.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been introduced as the speaker who “graduated Harvard.” It makes my molars grind together.

Speaking of my own credentials, looking at my own bio on this website, I’m not sure that I’ve avoided all of Turgid’s mistakes, but as I mentioned yesterday, as far as the industry is concerned, the 50-word bio (i.e., what’s likely to be on Amazon or most blogs, for instance) and the 250-word bio (for submission and a book jacket) are entirely different animals. What I’ve posted on this site is a specimen of the latter. The former does tend to be a list, but the latter is the author’s big chance to prove to the publishing industry that she is not only a talented writer, but a person who might actually be interesting to know.

But if you can possibly make that 50-word bio intriguing, rather than a rote recitation of biographical facts, I, for one, would love to see it. (And before any of you shrug off the possibility of ever needing one, let me ask you: how’s the bio paragraph of your query letter looking these days? Are you planning to query online? Many of the agency websites that ask potential clients to fill out forms ask point-blank for this short a bio. And so forth.)

If you are in doubt about whether a certain tidbit is appropriate to include in any length author bio, use this three-part test:

(1) Would you be comfortable having that fact displayed on the dust jacket of this particular book for all eternity?

(2) Even if your sainted mother were to pick up a copy? What about your sainted grandmother and her entire bridge club?

(3) More importantly, is it a detail that would help build the reader’s confidence that the author of this book is has credibly mastered its subject matter?

Note that I specified THIS book. It is perfectly legitimate to have different bios for different projects; in fact, it’s sometimes advisable, if your various projects have very different emphases or target markets, to highlight the relevant parts of your character in each.

I used to do quite a bit of food and wine writing (under an alter ego, now gratefully defunct). That bio emphasized the fact that I grew up on the second floor of a winery in the Napa Valley — which is true, incidentally. For the nonfiction book I sold a year ago, a serious examination of political and environmental subjects, however, the winery connection is less relevant, and my credibility more, so the bio I used for it gave greater prominence to the fact that I hold degrees from some pretty prominent and snotty schools.

I graduated from them, thank you very much.

It is perfectly acceptable to make your bio funny, especially if your book is funny. My comic novel, currently cooling its heels in my agent’s office for what seems like an awfully long time, relies heavily on my quirky sense of humor, so I was able to pull out all the stops and gear the accompanying author bio for maximum comic value. It mentions, among other things, that I learned to run a still when I was in elementary school and that when I was a delegate to a national political convention which shall remain nameless, an over-eager cameraman chasing a minor candidate knocked me over, spraining both my ankles. The next day of the convention, I covered my bandaged limbs with political stickers and propped them up on a rail; the AP spread photographs of this, billed as evidence of the dangers of political activism, all over the globe.

As impressive as some of my other credentials? No. But do you think the editors who read that bio are going to remember me?

As you may see, I think it is of paramount importance for an author’s bio not to be boring, provided that everything said there is true. (Yes, my father really did teach me to make brandy when I was in elementary school. Yours didn’t?)

If you honestly can’t think of anything memorable about yourself, try asking a couple of friends to describe you as they might to someone they wanted to impress. Chances are, they will mention the top few things that should be in your bio.

If that doesn’t work, try asking a couple of people who can’t stand you. The traits they dislike most may well enchant Millicent. (I’m only half-kidding about this; warm personal enemies can be very insightful.)

Remember, this is the document your agent will be using in order to describe you to editors, and editors to other editors at editorial meetings while arguing in favor of buying your book. If your full-fledged author bio doesn’t give the impression that if the reader were trapped in a snowstorm for three days with you, you would be capable of keeping the reader entertained with anecdotes the whole time, your bio isn’t interesting enough.

And, perhaps, if you’re lucky, something in your bio will stick in your agent’s mind enough down the road that it will occur to her to pitch your offhand reference to it to a sniffly editor in an elevator, or to poke you in the ribs at a party and urge you to pitch an on-hold project.

That’s the kind of thing that happens to interesting people.

Whatever you do, though, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have the credentials that people typically think of as résumé-fodder for an author: prior publications, awards, the blessings of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a hug from a grateful president or prime minister after s/he has hung a medal around your neck and declared you a national treasure. The fact is, the vast majority of the authors who have sold first books within recent memory did not have those credentials when they first began querying.

Yes, really. Unless they happened to be blessed with a self-confidence that would make your average messiah blush for shame, you can bet your next-to-bottom dollar that at some point early in their writing careers, they all spent at least a few bad hours staring ruefully at their lifetime of achievements, seeing only the mole holes and missing the beauty of the landscape.

Don’t worry; I’m far from finished with my suggestions about where you might want to start looking in your yard. But don’t ask me to recommend a landscaper in Seattle; clearly, I’m not qualified.

Present-day Anne again here with an update. The comic novel remains unsold, for the simple reason that (as I did not know at the time) my agent had simply stopped sending it out some months before I wrote this post; somehow, it slipped his mind to tell me for nine or ten months. That’s actually not all that unusual in agent-client relations, unfortunately, especially when the agent is excited about the client’s next project. Let’s just say Millicent is not the only person at the average agency shouting “Next!”

Her boss agent is just barking it at different people.

I have a different novel circulating now. Had I mentioned lately that two of the most important personal characteristics a career writer can cultivate are flexibility and a sense of humor? And that it’s really, really important to keep moving forward on new projects after one lands an agent?

All three are also excellent goals for anyone trying to renovate anything with the assistance of professionals to pursue: my yard is still a work-in-progress. Little Talks continue. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t looking pretty good these days, largely because I lost my temper. I just started planting things and erecting statuary myself:

yard renovated

The landscaper, of course, claims it all as his own work. There are even pictures of my yard in his latest brochure. And no, it isn’t your imagination — the lawn in the picture from eleven months ago has in fact vanished. If only we’d TOLD the landscaper that we’d expected it to live…

What was I saying about the advantages of having a sense of humor — and of not taking professional hype too seriously? Keep mulling over what makes you fascinating, everybody — and keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part XII: pulling together a query packet without a demigod’s help

labors of Herakles

I’m a bit frazzled today, I’m afraid: I am currently suffering under one of the more common professional writers’ ailments, an impending deadline. How do I feel about my prospects of meeting it? Well, here’s a clue: the ancient Greek vase above depicts one of the labors of Herakles.

To quote the late, great Billie Holiday: the difficult I’ll do right now/the impossible may take a little while.

I couldn’t bear to lock myself into my isolation tank, however, until I had wrapped up this series by talking about how to put together a query packet — a question I’ve been hearing often enough in recent months that I’ve started a category for it on the archive list on the bottom-right side of this page.

Hey, I’m all about ease of reference. FYI, if you can’t find a heading on the category list that matches the question that happens to be burning in your mind in any dark midnight, try typing a keyword or two into the site’s search engine, located in the upper right-hand corner of this page. If you still can’t find a few pertinent words of wisdom, feel free to drop me a line in the comments.

To tell you the truth, I’ve resisted writing much on this topic, for the exceedingly simple reason that I didn’t want anyone to confuse a query packet (i.e., the stack of things an agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides might ask a querier to send along with the query letter) with a submission packet (the array of papers an agent has SPECIFICALLY asked a writer to send after a query or a pitch).

The former known in the industry as unsolicited materials, the latter as requested materials.

And already the confusion starts: “But Anne,” some of you new to the process protest, and who could blame you? “I’m confused. If the agency’s website, guide listing, or page on that always-useful resource for writers seeking agents, Publishers’ Marketplace tells aspiring writers that they should send a synopsis or the first 50 pages with a query, in what sense is that not a request? Especially when half of those listings refer to their standards as submission requirements?”

I see your logic, oh rules lawyers, but you’re confusing passive guidelines with an active request. Anyone able to track down an agency’s website or listing might discover its submission guidelines, the prerequisites to which an aspiring writer must adhere in order to get a query under one of their agents’ spectacles at all. But as any agent or editor in the biz could tell you, agencies draw a very firm distinction between preliminary materials sent out of the blue (from their perspective) and pages that they actually asked a writer to submit, based upon a successful query or pitch.

How seriously do they take that distinction? Well, let me put it this way: I’ve seldom heard anyone who has worked within five blocks of an agency refer to any pages sent with a cold query (i.e., a query letter from a writer who has had no previous contact with the agency and hasn’t been referred by someone they know) as a submission.

Judging by the knitted brows out there, that little explanation didn’t leave you unconfused, did it? “Okay, Anne,” the brow-knitters say, arms folded and all ready for an argument, “I believe that they make a distinction, but I still think I’m right to think of those 50 pages the agent of my dreams’ website told me to send as both requested materials and a submission. If not, why would they call them submission guidelines, huh? Got a glib answer for that one?”

Actually, I have several. You’d better get comfortable.

In the first place, if your dream agent’s website stated that queriers should go ahead and send sample pages, it didn’t ask YOU to do so; it asked everyone who might submit to them. Given that such a public request effectively narrows down the potential pool of querier to every writer on earth who currently doesn’t have an agent, you can hardly blame those who work at the agency for not considering those guidelines in the same light as a specific request to a specific writer.

In the second place, submission guidelines is an industry term; publishing houses use it as well, but like word count or literary fiction, the definition in use at the moment is in the mind of the speaker. It’s not as precise as those coming into the conversation from the outside might like.

For all its imprecision, the term’s use in this context performs a pretty specific function: it catches the eye of writers so new to the industry that they are unaware that they shouldn’t just mail off a full manuscript to any agent who happens to catch their innocent imaginations. Understood that way, an agency’s guidelines are in fact submission guidelines — they tell aspiring writers not to submit at all, but to query instead.

In the third place, I hate to be the one to bring this up, have you by any chance compared the guidelines on the agency’s website with those in one of the standard agency guides and/or the individual agent’s listing on the aforementioned Publishers’ Marketplace?

It’s a bit time-consuming to check multiple sources, but often worthwhile: not only do guide listings tend to have different emphases than website blurbs (thus enabling you to fine-tune your query list), but it’s also surprisingly common for the various sources to ask queriers to send different things.

Yes, really. It’s not at all unheard-off for the most recent Guide to Literary Agents to suggest querying with a synopsis, the agency’s website to ask for a query plus the first ten pages, and the individual agent’s Publisher’s Marketplace page to specify a query plus the first chapter and an author bio. Heck, it isn’t even all that unusual for one source to say that an agency welcomes paper queries, while another insists that it will only accept queries via e-mail and the website has a form to fill out and submit electronically.

No wonder writers are confused. I’m not bringing this up, however, to criticize agencies, but as part of my ongoing quest to convince agent-seeking writers that being hyper-literal and rules-lawyerish is not necessarily helpful at the querying stage.

Why, you ask? Well, remember how I had mentioned earlier in the summer that conference-goers sometimes confuse an individual agent’s personal preferences with an industry-wide norm? Sometimes, what guidelines end up in an agency guide are a function of the preferences of whoever happened to fill out the form — or of no one at the agency’s thinking to go back and update its Publishers’ Marketplace listing when the guidelines on the agency’s website have changed.

It doesn’t really matter why it happens, does it? My point is this: if a particular agency has two or three sets of guidelines floating around out there, it follows as night the day that its resident Millicent must be seeing two or three different kinds of query packet on any given day.

What were you saying about taking a guide listing or website’s guidelines as a request?

In the fourth place (yes, I’m still working on the original question), as I have pointed out earlier in this series, just because if an agency’s site/listing/representative at a writers’ conference expresses a generic interest in seeing extra materials — a synopsis, for instance, or a bio, or even pages — that doesn’t mean its screener Millicent will necessarily read them. If the query doesn’t spark her interest, she’s extremely unlikely to give the book project a second chance just because additional materials happen to be in front of her.

Before you get all huffy about that, brow-knitters, allow me to add hastily: this is largely a function of time not being infinitely elastic. It’s Millie’s job to weed out queries, right?

“But wait,” my brow-knitting friends ask hesitantly, “is it possible that I’m misunderstanding you here? From what you’re saying, it sounds as though my being able to send pages along with my query isn’t necessarily an advantage — all it really does is save Millicent the trouble of asking to see them.”

Well, if that’s the conclusion you want to draw from all this, I would be the last to stop you. One of the Labors of Herakles is calling me.

Another is calling you, oh querier: do your homework before you send out that query. And send precisely what the agent expects to see.

How might one figure out just what that means, in the face of conflicting guidelines? Generally speaking, although the Publishers’ Marketplace and the Herman Guide listings tend to offer the most information (again, useful for figuring out which agent at the agency to approach), agencies’ websites usually offer the most up-to-date guidelines. I’d advise following them — but checking another source or two is always a good idea.

Especially if you’re not especially fond of copying and pasting your first few pages into the body of an e-mail or into a miniscule box on an online form. It can wreak havoc with formatting.

Querying via form on a website
Those forms are self-explanatory (part of their popularity, I suppose): many of them simply tell aspiring writers to paste their query letters into a form, along with a writing sample. I trust that you can figure them out on your own.

And if you can’t, I probably won’t be able to help: they’re too individualized for me to create general rules of thumb for dealing with ‘em. Sorry about that. Have you considered checking one of the standard agency guides to see if the agency with the troublesome form would accept a mailed query letter instead?

E-mailed query packets
E-mailed queries are not so straightforward, especially if the guidelines (wherever you found them) ask for additional materials. DO NOT, under any circumstances, include attachments in an e-mailed query; virtually every agency in North America has an iron-clad policy against opening unrequested attachments. They’re just too likely to contain viruses.

Hey, I’m not casting aspersions upon your no doubt squeaky-clean computer. I’m just reporting what the process looks like from the other side of the desk.

If the agency’s website SPECIFICALLY asked for attachments, send them in Word (the industry standard), but do not send them as .docx. Many, many agencies are running older versions of Word (on PCs, usually) and will not be able to open .docx files.

Like any file-transferring snafu between an agency and a writer, this is considered the writer’s fault. And no, Millicent won’t e-mail you back, asking you to send a different version. Nor will the agency call upon its crack computer support staff, for the simple reason that, as astonishing as this may seem to those of us living in the Pacific Northwest, NYC-based agencies seldom have an in-house computer expert. Probably because s/he would be so like to tell them to upgrade what version of Word they’re using.

I’m telling you: a little foresight will go a long way toward getting her a document someone at the agency can actually open.

If you happen to be running a recent version of Word, your document may be saved as a .docx automatically, so use the SAVE AS… function to save your document as a Word 97-2004 document (.doc). Mac users, do be aware that your system may allow you to give your documents longer names than an older PC’s system might recognize as valid.

How do you include additional materials without attachments? Copy and paste them into the body of your e-mail, a few skipped lines after the end of your query. Fair warning, though: as I mentioned above, formatting often gets lost in the transition.

Particularly vulnerable, for some reason: double-spacing. Even if you have to change the spacing in the e-mail by hitting the RETURN key at the end of every line, make sure any text you send is double-spaced.

Always start an e-mailed query packet with the query letter itself, then move on to any requested materials in the order they were listed on the website. Unlike a paper query, an e-mailed query need not include date and full address of the recipient, but do open with a salutation: Dear Ms. Smith…

Why? Well, think about it from Ms. Smith’s perspective: wouldn’t a mass e-mail be the most efficient way of broadcasting 2,000 generic Dear Agent queries? Do you really want your e-query mistaken of one of those?

Most of you probably knew most of this, though, right? Let’s move on to a little-known trick o’ the trade — located in the part of the e-mailed query to which writers tend to give the least thought.

The subject line of an e-mailed query
The subject line is key to an e-query’s ending up in the right place, so you are going to want to make that space count. Or at any rate, prevent your e-mail from getting relegated to the spam file.

Most agents prefer writers to include the word QUERY in it, presumably so they don’t mix up your e-mail with that invitation to their high school reunion. If you just heard the agent speak at a conference, include the name of the conference in both the subject line and the first line of your query; many agencies will give priority to post-conference queries.

Conversely, if you already have an in with the agent, make sure to include that in the subject line, too. If you met the agent at a conference and she told you to send her a query (as opposed to sending materials; it happens), write REQUESTED QUERY and the name of the conference in the subject line; if you were lucky enough to garner a referral from an existing client, type QUERY — (Client’s name) REFERRAL.

Getting the picture? Good. Let’s move on to mailed query packets.

Querying the old-fashioned way: on paper
Here, too, the running order is important: the query letter itself should be on the top of the pile, no matter how many pages of material the agency’s website said to send. It needs to be the first thing Millicent sees; she’ll want to read it first.

Underneath the letter, you may stack any pages the guidelines said you could send. Send ONLY the maximum number of pages — if the guidelines said to send ten pages, send only ten, even if that means leaving Millicent in mid-sentence.

Hint: double-check the agency’s guidelines to see whether the number of pages is a hard requirement or an up-to. Often, if the number of pages is significant, the requirements will say something like you may send up to 50 pages. In such cases, if your Chapter 2 ends on page 43, it’s perfectly acceptable to send only 43 pages.

Heck, Millicent might even be grateful for your restraint. She has a lot of reading to do in a day, you know.

Include a title page on top of the pages; it’s traditional, and the information included there will both make you look more professional and render it easier to contact you if the answer is yes. if you don’t know how to format a title page (and yes, Virginia, there is a specific way to do it), please see the aptly-titled TITLE PAGES category on the list at right.

Traditionally, the synopsis comes after manuscript pages, with an author bio always at the very end of any kind of submission packet. (True of book proposals, too, by the way.) Again, though, you’re going to want to read the submission guidelines carefully: a few agencies prefer a 1-page synopsis to precede manuscript pages.

Speaking of book proposals, I know that many agencies’ guidelines say a writer can just go ahead and send them with a query, but speaking as someone who has sold a couple of nonfiction books, I would be hesitant to send one out unsolicited, especially in paper form; that’s a lot of paper to mail, and it’s not as though you can copyright a book idea. Personally, then, I would simply send a query and wait to be asked to send the proposal.

Old-fashioned? Perhaps. But one thing that’s easy to overlook amid all of these conflicting expectations is you’ll almost never go wrong if you just send a query letter without additional materials.

So if you’re in any doubt, keep it simple. Millicent can always ask to see more.

The SASE
Most aspiring writers are aware that every paper query should include a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope), but many do not know that a SASE should be large enough and contain sufficient postage for the return of EVERYTHING sent in the query packet, as well as a single-page reply.

That surprised some of you, didn’t it? “Whoa, Anne!” some red-faced brow-knitters exclaim. “What do you mean, it needs to be able to hold everything? I’ve just been sending regular #10 business envelopes as my SASEs, even when I’ve been submitting my entire manuscript!”

Not what the agent of your dreams had in mind. The purpose of the SASE is to send your materials back to you, not merely so the agency doesn’t have to pay postage on a form-letter rejection. Okay, so it’s also so the agency doesn’t have to pay to reject writers, but it’s genuinely for the writer’s protection: do you want your pages wandering off just anywhere?

And then there’s the practical consideration: think how much paper Millicent handles in a week, especially if she happens to work in an agency that permits queriers to include manuscript pages. If she didn’t have a quick and painless way to get all of those pages off her desk as soon as she had rejected them, within a month, she wouldn’t even be able to get to her desk chair.

Within six months, no one would be able to get into the office at all. Poor Millie would be trapped under a mountain of unsolicited submissions, screaming, but nobody would be able to hear her. Paper makes terrific insulation, you know.

Save her from that dreadful fate: send a large enough SASE with enough US stamps — not metered postage, please; you want Millicent to be able to toss it into the nearest mailbox — to get back to you. In order to pull that off if your query packet contains more than 4 pages, you’re probably going to want to send it in a Manila envelope, rather than a business-sized envelope.

That way, there will be plenty of room for the SASE, right?

Traditionally, the SASE goes at the bottom of the pile: present if needed, but not distracting. In years past, it used to be considered kind of stylish to include both an adequately-large SASE with a submission, in case of rejection, AND a business-sized one, in case of acceptance, but in a query packet, that’s likely to strike Millicent as overkill. Besides, these days, she’s every bit as likely to e-mail you a request for more pages as to send it in your SASE.

And that, my friends, is the story of query packets; like so much else in writer-agent relations, the practices were much more streamlined back in the days before the rise of the personal computer, much less the Internet. In fact, a case could be made, and a cogent one, for the popularity of the Internet’s being the cause of each agency’s specifying that it wants different materials in query packets: back when the standard agency guides and word of mouth were the primary ways that writers found out what standards were, pretty much everyone just asked for a query, or query + synopsis.

In fact, the industry truism of yore dictated that a writer should NEVER send manuscript pages or a proposal unless and agent had specifically asked him to do so. Frankly, I think that expectation was a bit easier on writers: there was far less stressful guesswork involved.

So are agencies asking for more materials up front just because they can? Maybe, or maybe some of them just wanted to streamline the rejection process by arranging to have a writing sample on hand as soon as Millicent read the query letter: that way, she can rule out promising book concepts whose writing doesn’t deliver in one contact with the writer, rather than the former two.

Or perhaps — and I’m not saying this is true; I’m merely speculating — providing guidelines that are unlike those of other agencies is a clever means of discovering just how good a prospective client is at following directions; if every agency asks for something slightly different, the Dear Agent queriers who treat every agent on earth as identical are going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs, right?

Just in case I’m right on that last one, follow the individual agency’s directions. To the letter. And if that means choosing from amongst several sets of guidelines, pick one and cling to it like a leech.

Trust me, both you and Millicent will feel better if you do. In an often confusing and alienating process, concrete direction can be very reassuring.

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part VII: differentiating yourself from the rest of the crowd intent upon storming the castle

angry-mob
Still hanging in there, everyone? Or are you getting a trifle impatient to pop those query letters into the mail?

Actually, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of you had the opposite reaction: visiting the site, glancing at the title, exclaiming, “Oh, I don’t want to think about that!” and clicking hastily away to another, less challenging writerly forum. Who could blame the hasty retreaters? For the past few posts, I have been urging you to take a long, hard look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered.

As opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds swarm in legions like the mobs in Frankenstein movies, wielding pitchforks, pitch-soaked flaming torches, and unbound manuscripts, chanting endlessly, “Represent my book! Represent my book!” It’s like a bad horror film: no matter how many of those manuscripts Millicent the agency screener rejects, they just keep coming, relentlessly, pouring into the agency seemingly through every crack and crevice, appearing magically from some ever-renewing source.

You hadn’t been thinking of your query letter as part of an implacable daily onslaught, had you? Today, I’m going to talk a bit about the inevitability of a query letter’s being part of that perpetually angry mob — and how to avoid sounding in your query letter as if you are wielding the third pitchfork from the left.

Why might that be to your advantage, you ask? Novelty, among other things: you wouldn’t believe how many query letters read virtually identically. (If you don’t know why a query letter’s sounding generic is a bad idea, please see my earlier post in this series on the dreaded cloning effect.)

The other reason is — wait for it — professionalism. Too many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that a generic query filled either with overly-broad summary statements (my protagonist is Everyman struggling with quotidian life), promotional copy (this is the most exciting book featuring childbirth since GONE WITH THE WIND!”), or just plain one-size-fits-all rhetoric (Dear Agent: please read my book) makes their work seem professional. If the query reads just like what they’ve seen online, they reason, it has to be good, right?

Not necessarily. Typically, if it reads that way, it’s just like a good half of the query letters Millicent’s seen that week, and thus hardly likely to stand out amongst the forest of torches storming the castle. Next!

But when a query is unique and yet professional, the result can be semi-miraculous. For a talented querier, the ubiquity of poorly-constructed queries is actually helpful.

Why? Call up that angry mob in your mind, the one that’s casually dropping by en masse to ask Dr. Frankenstein if that undead thing lurching about Geneva belongs to him. Now picture yourself pushing through that crowd, impeccably dressed, to knock on that castle door. For Dr. F to open the door, she’s going to have to believe that you’re not merely a cleverly-disguised villager intent upon destroying her secret laboratory where he dabbles in revivifying the dead.

So, too, with Millicent: a politely-worded, grammatically impeccable, well-written query is going to catch her eye, simply because such a low percentage of what crosses her desk meets those criteria. And frankly, that fact is very useful to her, because she can quickly reject the angry mob’s attempts to get her attention.

Okay, so that analogy was a trifle forced; very few of the screeners of my acquaintance actually make a habit of prying open those well-known doors that mankind is not meant to open, and not all rejections are that knee-jerk. But you can’t deny that picturing Millicent triple-bolting the castle door made a change from imagining her burning her lip on yet another too-hot latte, right?

My point is, in the face of a constant barrage of queries, even the most prose-loving Millicent is going to have to reject the vast majority that cross her desk, if only in self-defense. Our goal in this series is to rid your letter of the most common rejection-provokers.

And before anyone says it: yes, yes, I know that it seems impossibly nit-picky to concentrate this hard upon a page of text that isn’t even in your manuscript. I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.

So print up your latest query letter draft, please, and let’s ask ourselves a few more probing questions before we pop that puppy in the mail.

To pull out my broken record again: please, before you ask yourself the following questions, read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course. I don’t care if you did it yesterday: do it again, because now you’re doing it in hard copy, where — long-time readers, chant it with me now — you’re significantly more likely to catch itty-bitty errors like missed periods.

Why aloud? Because it’s the best way to catch a left-out word or logic problem.

Don’t feel bad if you find a few: believe me, every successful author has a story about the time that she realized only after a query or a manuscript was in the mailbox that it was missing a necessary pronoun or possessive. Or misspelled something really basic, like the book category.

Yes, it happens. All the time.

And if you don’t read it aloud IN HARD COPY one final time between when you are happy with it on your computer screen and when you apply your soon-to-be-famous signature to it…well, all I can do is rend my garments and wonder where I went wrong in bringing you up.

All right, I’ll hop off the guilt wagon now and back onto the checklist trail. Let’s recap what we’ve covered so far:

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much in it?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

Everyone clear on those? Now would be an excellent time to speak up, if not. While you’re formulating questions, let’s move on.

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?
This may seem like a draconian question, but think about it from Millicent’s perspective: if you had to get through 200 queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading the one in front of you if the first paragraph rambled? Or, heaven forefend, contained a typo or two?

Oh, yes, you SAY you would. But honestly, would you?

I have been dwelling upon the first paragraph of the query letter because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents and their screeners every day based upon the first paragraph alone. (Yet another reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically state they prefer them over the paper version: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line or two of it.)

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Does it present the relevant information — why you are querying this particular agent, book category, title, etc. — in a professional, compelling manner?

Cut to the chase. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front — say, by neglecting to mention the book category — the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph.

All right, on to paragraph two:

(14) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I actually said what the book is ABOUT?

Frequently, authors get so carried away with conveying the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet, just like your hallway pitch.

Here’s a quick way to tell if your letter is hitting the mark: unearth that book keynote you came up with earlier in this series for a pitch, and compare it with your summary paragraph in the query. Do they read as though they are describing the same book?

If you’re worried about leaving out salient points, here’s an idea: include the synopsis in your query packet. While you have an agency screener’s attention, why not have a fuller explanation of the book ready to hand? That’s 1-5 entire, glorious pages to impress an agent with your sparkling wit, jaw-dropping plot, and/or utterly convincing argument.

Did I hear a few gasps out there? “But Anne,” I hear those timorous about storming the castle cry, “the agency’s listing in the standard agency guide and/or website does not mention sending a synopsis with my query. I thought I was supposed to send only EXACTLY what the agent requested?”

Well caught, oh anonymous voices: sending only what is requested is indeed the rule for SUBMISSIONS. And obviously, you should check what the particular agency wants to see. If an agency asks for something special in its querying guidelines, such as the first 5 pages of your manuscript (the agency that represents yours truly encourages writers to send a first chapter, but that’s rare), you should send precisely that.

However, most agencies do not spell out so clearly what they want to see stuffed in that query envelope: even the most cursory flip through the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents will produce many repetitions of the minimal phrase query with SASE that it becomes slightly hypnotic.

In my experience, the Millicents at such agencies may not always read an included synopsis, but they don’t go around automatically rejecting queries that include them, either. With one exception: if a synopsis is sent as an attachment with an e-mail query.

Actually, it’s pretty much always a mistake to send an attachment with either a query or a submission; unless the agent specifically requests it, it will almost always go unread. Most agencies have policies against opening unrequested attachments, so if you include a synopsis with your e-query, add it in the body of the message, after the letter itself.

In a paper query, I think a good synopsis is usually worth including, provided that it is brief, well-written, and professional. (If the very idea of producing such a synopsis makes you wince, I would urge you to consult the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS category on the list at right.) Including it will free you to concentrate on the point of the query letter, which is to capture the reader’s attention, not to summarize the entire book.

Within the query letter itself, you honestly do have only — chant it with me now, long-time readers — 3-5 sentences to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are and how unusual your premise is, rather than trying to outline the plot.

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?
This is a tough one for most queriers — as we discussed in my recent Pitching 101 series, the overwhelming majority of queriers and pitchers resort to vague generalities in order to cram as much plot into that short descriptive paragraph as humanly possible.

The result: a whole lot of summaries that sound pretty generic. One of those torches waving in the night might be pretty, but when everyone in the village is brandishing one, it gets old fast.

Not the best strategy when one is trying to convince an agent that the book in question is DIFFERENT from what’s already on the market. As in a pitch, the first commandment is thou shalt not bore, and believe me, nothing is more boring to someone who reads for a living than seeing the same kind of descriptions over and over again.

So why not spice things up with details that only you could devise?

Remember, too, that a query letter, like everything else an aspiring writer submits to an agency, is a writing sample; you’re going to want your summary to show off your well-honed storytelling skills (for fiction or creative NF) and/or argumentative acumen (for NF). In addition, you’re going to want to make your story concept or argument sound fresh.

Hark! Do I hear an angry mob beating on my battlements, chanting, “How may we pull all that off in a brief paragraph? In a word: juicy details.

Okay, so that was two words. It’s still a great strategy.

As I argued in an earlier post on pitch construction, what makes a book summary memorable, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, is not usually its overall arc but its vividly-rendered details. Especially to a reader like Millicent who reads 50 such descriptions in a sitting, the difference between a ho-hum descriptive paragraph and one that makes her sit up and say, “Hey, I’d like to read this book!” tends to lie in the minutiae.

Not in a superabundance of minutiae, mind you: just a few careful-selected details. Remember, your goal in the query letter is not to tell the book’s entire plot or reproduce its primary argument, but to present its premise in a way that invites further scrutiny.

Unsure where the line between too many generalities and too much detail lies, flaming torch-bearers? When in doubt, stick to the central conflict.

Why, you ask? Okay, let’s step into an agency screener’s shoes for a minute. Read these three summaries: which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book and why?

<>Basil Q. Zink, a color-blind clarinetist who fills his hours away from his music stand with pinball and romance novels, has never fallen in love — until he meets Gisèle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel and a temper of fire. But what chance does a man who cannot reliably make his socks match have with a Paris-trained beauty? Ever since Gisèle was dumped by the world’s greatest bassoonist, she has never had a kind word for anyone in the woodwind section. Can Basil win the heart of his secret love without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?

Quite a few unique and unexpected quirks packed in there, aren’t there? I’d ask to read that book. Contrast this description with the far more common style of entry #2:

Clarinetist Basil Zink has fallen hopelessly in love with his conductor, temperamental and beautiful Gisèle. On the rebound from a ten-year marriage with Parisian bassoonist Serge, Gisèle scarcely casts a glance in Basil’s direction; she hardly seems to be aware that he’s alive. Menaced by an ultra-competitive co-worker, Basil must overcome his fears to capture the woman he loves and save his orchestra.

Interesting how different it is from the first, isn’t it, considering that both describe the same story? Yet since #2 relies so heavily on generalities and is so light on unusual details, it comes across as a tad generic, not to say clichè-ridden.

Let’s take a gander at version #3, where a love of detail has apparently run amok:

BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows protagonist Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee can bring on a flashback. This circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights starting at little dots printed on paper.

Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, an antagonist who is exactly the type of Frisbee-tossing lunkhead Basil has spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses a problem for Basil: he has never been conducted by a woman before. This brings up his issues with his long-dead mother, Yvonne, who had an affair with little Basil’s first music teacher in a raucous backstage incident that sent music stands crashing to the ground. Basil’s father never got over the incident, and Basil’s…

Okay, ersatz agency screener: how much longer would you keep reading? We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

Worn out from that extensive compare-and-contrast exercise? Let’s take a break with a simple yes or no question.

(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?
This is one of those industry weirdnesses: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches and synopses, are ALWAYS written in the present tense. Even when the author is describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure.

And apparently, writers are supposed to know this because the synopsis fairy descends from the heavens when one reaches a certain level of craft and bops one on the head with her magic wand. Or because they have attended an expensive class or conference that told them so.

I’m not a big fan of keeping expectations like this secret, so let’s shout it to the rooftops: THE SUMMARY SHOULD BE IN THE PRESENT TENSE.

The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir, probably because it simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say: “Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I choose to bury it in the back yard.”

It’s confusing to a sane person’s sense of time. But then, so are the querying and submission processes, frequently.

Oh, and before it slips my mind: all too often, memoirists refer to themselves in the third person in query letters, pitches, and synopses of their books, puzzling Millicents exceedingly. If your memoir is about you, say so; go ahead and use the perpendicular pronoun.

That was restful, wasn’t it? I could shift back to the knottier questions, but I think that’s enough for you to think about for the nonce.

As long as you remember this: what makes a manuscript or book proposal great is not how similar it is to already-published books, but rather how it is different.

Oh, I don’t mean that a querier is likely to get anywhere with Millicent by claiming that his manuscript is like nothing she has ever seen before — that, too, has been said so often in queries that it has become a cliché— or that it’s a good idea to ignore the current literary market. You won’t, and it isn’t. In order to sell any first book, however, a writer needs to be able to demonstrate that (a) it fits into an existing book category but (b) offers readers who already buy books in that category something they can’t already get by just walking into a bookstore.

Or, to cast it in grander terms: what will your book add to the literary world that it hasn’t already got? Why will the reading world be a better place if your book is published?

Deep questions, eh? I leave you to ponder them.

But as you do, never forget that part of what a writer is marketing is her unique voice. How could a query letter that sounds just like everyone else’s possibly do justice to that?

Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXI, and Writers’ Conferences 101, part I: lingering on the right track, or, how not to drive yourself completely insane while preparing to pitch

All right, I’ll cop to it: I could have brought our ongoing series on how to construct various stripes of winning conference pitches to a close last Friday; I had, after all, covered all of the basics of writing both formal and informal pitches. So I could, as promised, launch right into a new series today, showing you how to use the lessons we’ve just learned in pulling together one heck of a query letter.

But I’m not going to do that — at least not today. Why not? Well, I visit conference pitching here on the site only once per year — a long visit, admittedly, of the type that may well make some of you long for the houseguests to go home, already, but still, I don’t talk about it that often.

Perhaps that’s a mistake, since writers’ conference attendance has been skyrocketing of late. Blame the hesitant economy; writing a book is a LOT of people’s fallback position. Interesting, given how few novelists actually make a living at it, but hey, a dream’s a dream.

The problem is, literary conferences can be pretty hard to navigate your first time around — and that’s unfortunate, because the darned things tend not to be inexpensive. Like pitching and querying, there are some secret handshakes that enable some aspiring writers to hobnob more effectively than others, as well as norms of behavior that may seem downright perplexing to the first-time attendee.

Up to and including the fact that there’s more to getting the most out of a conference than just showing up, or even showing up and pitching.

For the next week or so, then, I’m going to be talking about the nuts and bolts of conference attendance, with an eye to helping you not only pitch more successfully, but also take advantage of the often amazing array of resources available to aspiring writers at a good conference. Not to mention feeling more comfortable in your skin while you’re there.

So it’s out with the old series and in with the new. Everybody ready? Goo.

Last week, I brought up a couple of the more common conceptual stumbling-blocks writers tend to encounter while prepping their elevator speeches and formal pitches. The first and most virulent, of course, is coming to terms with the necessity of marketing one’s writing at all — in other words, to begin to think of it not just as one’s baby, but as a product you’re trying to sell.

Half of you just tensed up, didn’t you?

I’m not all that surprised. From an artistic perspective, the only criterion for whether an agent or editor picks up a manuscript should be the quality of the writing, followed distantly by the inherent interest of the story. For many writers, the burning question of whether a market for the book already demonstrably exists doesn’t even crop up during the composition process; they write because they are writers.

Naturally, it comes as something of a shock to learn that books do not get published simply because someone has taken the trouble to write them — or even because they are well-written. The sad fact is, an aspiring writer must make the case that this is not only a great yarn, but one that will fit into the current book market neatly, BEFORE anyone in the industry is willing to take a gander at the actual writing.

I know, I know: it seems backwards. But as I believe I have mentioned 1700 times before, I did not set up the prevailing conditions for writers; I merely try to cast them in comprehensible terms for all of you.

If I ran the universe — which, annoyingly, I evidently still don’t, as nearly as I can tell — writers would be able to skip the pitch-and-query stage entirely, simply submitting the manuscripts directly with no marketing materials, to allow the writing to speak for itself. Every submitter would get thoughtful, helpful, generous-minded feedback, too, and enchanted cows would wander the streets freely, giving chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk to anyone who wanted it.

Being omniscient, I would also naturally be able to tell you why the industry is set up this way. Heck, I’d be so in the know that I could explain why Nobel Prize winner José Saramago is so hostile to the conventions of punctuation that he wrote an entire novel, SEEING, without a single correctly punctuated piece of dialogue.

I would be THAT generous a universe-ruler.

But I do not, alas, run the universe, however, so Señor Saramago and certain aspects of the publishing industry remain mysteries eternal. (Would it kill him to use a period at the end of a sentence occasionally? Or a question mark at the end of a question?)

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: if a writer hopes to get published, the marketing step is a necessity, NO MATTER HOW TALENTED YOU ARE. Even if you were Stephen King, William Shakespeare, and Madame de Staël rolled into one, in the current writers’ market, you would still need to approach many, many agents and/or editors to find the right match for your work.

And even if you approach an agent who does in fact ask writers to send pages along with the initial query, instead of by special request afterward (as used to be universal), if the marketing approach is not professionally crafted, chances are slim that those pages will even get read. Remember, a good agency typically receives somewhere between 800 and 1200 queries per week; if Millicent the agency screener isn’t wowed by the letter, she simply doesn’t have time to cast her eyes over those 5 or 10 or 50 pages the agency’s website said that you could send.

No, that’s not being mean; that’s trying to get through all of those queries without working too much overtime.

Unfortunately, the same imperative to save time usually also dictates form-letter rejections that the querier entirely in the dark about whether the rejection trigger was in the query or the pages. (Speaking of realistic expectations, please tell me that you didn’t waste even thirty seconds of YOUR precious time trying to read actual content into it didn’t grab me, I just didn’t fall in love with it, it doesn’t meet our needs that this time, or any of the other standard rejection generalities. By definition, one-size-fits-all reasons cannot possibly tell you how to improve your submission.)

All of which is to say: please, I implore you, do not make the very common mistake of believing that not being picked up by the first agent whom you pitch or query means that your work is not marketable. Or adhering to the even more common but less often spoken belief that if a book were REALLY well written, it would somehow be magically exempted from the marketing process.

It doesn’t, and it isn’t. Everyone clear on that?

Why am I bringing this up now, at the end of a long, difficult series on cobbling together a pitch? Because unfortunately, unrealistic expectations about the pitching — and querying — process can and do not only routinely make aspiring writers unhappy at conferences the world over, but frequently also prevent good writers from pitching well.

Yes, you read that correctly. Misinformation can really hurt a writer — as can a fearful or resentful attitude. Part of learning to pitch — or query — successfully entails accepting the fact that from the industry’s point of view, you are presenting a PRODUCT to be SOLD.

Not, as the vast majority of writers believe, and with good reason, a piece of one’s soul ripped off without anesthesia.

So it is a TEENY bit counter-productive to respond — as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time pitchers do — to the expectation that they should be able to talk about their books in market-oriented terms as evidence that they are dealing with Philistines who hate literature.

To clear up any possible confusion: you’re not, and they don’t.

That doesn’t mean the situation doesn’t beg certain questions, however. Why, for instance, do so many pitchers respond to the pros as though they were evil demons sent to earth for the sole purpose of tormenting the talented and rewarding the illiterate? Or why even mention in a pitch or query that the book has been rejected before, or that its author has submitted 700 queries for it already?

Selling books is how agents and editors make their livings, after all: they HAVE to be concerned about whether there’s a market for a book they are considering. They’re not being shallow; they’re being practical.

Okay, MOST of them are not just being shallow. My point is, a pitching appointment is not the proper venue for trying to change the status quo. Querying or pitching is hard enough to do well without simultaneously decrying the current realities of book publishing.

And yes, in response to that question your brain just shouted, aspiring writers DO bring that up in their pitches and queries. All the time. Don’t emulate their example.

This isn’t just poor strategy, I suspect — it’s symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes an author successful. Selling is a word that many writers seem to find distasteful when applied to trying to land an agent, as if there were no real distinction between selling one’s work (most of the time, the necessary first step to the world’s reading it) and selling out (which entails a compromise of principle.)

C’mon — you know what I’m talking about; if not, just bring up the issue over a sandwich at your next writers’ conference.

When aspiring writers speak of marketing amongst themselves, it tends to be with a slight curl of the lip, an incipient sneer, as if the mere fact of signing with an agent or getting a book published would be the final nail in the coffin of artistic integrity. While practically everyone who writes admires at least one or two published authors — all of whom, presumably, have to deal with this issue at one time or another — the prospect of compromising one’s artistic vision haunts many a writer’s nightmares.

That’s a valid fear, I suppose, but allow me to suggest another, less black-and-white possibility: fitting the square peg of one’s book into the round holes of marketing can be an uncomfortable process. But that doesn’t mean it is inherently deadly to artistic integrity — and it doesn’t mean that any writer, no matter how talented, can legitimately expect to be commercially successful without going through that process.

That is not to say there are not plenty of good reasons for writers to resent how the business side of the industry works — there are, and it’s healthy to gripe about them. Resent it all you want privately, or in the company of other writers.

But do not, I beg you, allow that resentment to color the pitch you ultimately give. Or the query letter.

I know, I know: if you’ve been hanging out at conferences for a while, deep-dyed cynicism about the book market can start to sound a whole lot like the lingua franca. One can get a lot of mileage, typically, out of being the battle-scarred submission veteran who tells the new recruits war stories — or the pitcher in the group meeting with an editor who prefaces his comments with, “Well, this probably isn’t the right market for this book concept, but…”

But to those who actually work in the industry, complaining about the current market’s artistic paucity will not make you come across as serious about your work — as it tends to do amongst other writers, admittedly. Instead, it’s likely to insult the very people who could help you get beyond the pitching and querying stage.

Yes, you may well gulp. To an agent’s ears, such complaints tend to sound more like a lack of understanding of how books actually get published than well-founded critique of a genuinely difficult-to-navigate system.

Besides, neither a pitch meeting nor a query letter is primarily about writing, really: they’re both about convincing agents and editors that here is a story or topic that can sell to a particular target audience.

Yes, you read that correctly — and out comes the broken record again: contrary to what the vast majority of aspiring writers believe, the goal of the pitch (and the query letter) is NOT to make the business side of the industry fall in love with your WRITING, per se — it’s to get the agent or editor to whom it is addressed to ASK to see the written pages.

Then, and only then, is it logically possible for them to fall in love with your prose stylings or vigorous argument. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: no one in the world can judge your writing without reading it.

This may seem obvious — especially to those of you who read my comments-in-passing on the subject earlier in this series — outside the context of a pitching or querying experience, but it’s worth a reminder during conference season. Too many writers walk out of pitching meetings or recycle rejections from queries believing, wrongly, that they’ve just been told that they cannot write.

It’s just not true — but by the same token, a successful verbal pitch or enthusiastically-received query letter is not necessarily a ringing endorsement of writing talent, either. Both are merely the marketing materials intended to prompt a request to see the writing itself.

Which means, of course, that if you flub your pitch, you should not construe that as a reflection of your writing talent, either; logically, it cannot be, unless the agent or editor takes exception to how you construct your verbal sentences.

I know, I know, it doesn’t feel that way at the time, and frankly, the language that agents and editors tend to use at moments like these (“No one is buying X anymore,” or “I could have sold that story ten years ago, but not now”) often DOES make it sound like a review of your writing.

But it isn’t; it can’t be.

All it can be, really, is a statement of belief about current and future conditions on the book market, not the final word about how your book will fare there. Just as with querying, if an agent or editor does not respond to your pitch, just move on to the next on your list.

Does all of that that make you feel any better about the prospect of walking into a pitch meeting? Did it, at any rate, permit you to get good and annoyed at the necessity of pitching and querying, to allow all of that frustration to escape your system?

Good. Now you’re ready to prep your pitch.

Did I just sense some eye-rolling out there? “But Anne,” I hear some chronically sleep-deprived preppers cry, “can’t you read a calendar? I’ve been working on my pitch for WEEKS now. I keep tinkering with it; I know I have the perfect pitch in me, but I can’t seem to bring it out.”

I know precisely what you mean — after staring for so long at a single page of text (which is, after all, what a formal pitch ends up being, at most), it can feel like it’s taken over one’s life.

One of the dangers of being embroiled for too long in the editorial process, I find, is becoming a bit too literal in one’s thinking. As with any revision process, either on one’s own work or others’, one can become a touch myopic, both literally and figuratively.

How myopic, you ask? Let me share an anecdote of the illustrative variety.

A couple of years ago, I went on a week-long writing retreat in another state in order to make a small handful of revisions to a novel of mine. Small stuff, really, but my agent was new to the project and wanted me to give the work a slightly different spin before he started submitting it. (He had taken it over from another agent within my agency — and for the benefit of those of you who just clutched your chests and whimpered that you thought you were getting into a life-long relationship: authors get reassigned within agencies all the time, especially if they write within more than one book category.)

Basically, he wanted it to sound a bit more like his type of book, the kind editors had grown to expect from his submissions. Perfectly legitimate, of course (if it doesn’t sound like that to you, please see both the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK and HOW TO BE AN AGENT’S DREAM CLIENT categories on the list at right before you even consider getting involved with an agent), and I’m glad to report that the revisions went smoothly.

At the end of my week of intensive revision, a friend and her 6-year-old daughter were kind enough to give me, my computer, and my many empty bottles of mineral water (revision is thirsty work, after all, and the retreat did not offer glass recycling, believe it or not) a ride back from my far-flung retreat site. Early in the drive, my friend missed a turn, and made a slight reference to her Maker.

Nothing truly soul-blistering, mind you, just a little light taking of the Lord’s name in vain. Fresh from vacation Bible school, her daughter pointed out, correctly, that her mother had just broken a commandment and should be ashamed of herself. (Apparently, her school hadn’t yet gotten to the one about honoring thy father and thy mother.)

“Not if God wasn’t capitalized,” I said without thinking. “If it’s a lower-case g, she could have been referring to any god. Apollo, for instance, or Zeus. For all we know, they may kind of like being called upon in moments of crisis. It could make them feel important.”

Now, that was a pretty literal response, and one that I subsequently learned generated a certain amount of chagrin when the little girl repeated it in her next Sunday school class. Not that I wasn’t technically correct, of course — but I should have let the situation determine what is an appropriate response.

Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow.

That’s true in pitching, too, you know. (You were wondering how I was going to work this back to the topic at hand, weren’t you?) Hyper-literalism can cause quite a bit of unnecessary stress during conference prep as well.

In part, that’s the nature of the beast: since aspiring writers are not told nearly enough about what to expect from a pitching appointment (or a potential response to a query), they tend to grasp desperately at what few guidelines they are given, following them to the letter.

And to a certain extent, that makes perfect sense: when going into an unfamiliar, stressful situation, it’s natural to want to cling to rules.

The trouble is, as I have pointed out throughout this series, not everything writers are told about pitching, querying, or even — dare I say it? — what does and doesn’t sell in writing is applicable, or even up-to-date. Adhering too closely to rules that many not be appropriate to the situation at hand can actually be a liability.

Anyone who has ever attended a writers’ conference has seen the result: the causalities of hyper-literalism abound.

Let me take you on a guided tour: there’s the writer who lost precious hours of sleep last night over the realization that her prepared pitch is four lines long, instead of three; there’s the one who despairs because he’s been told that he should not read his pitch, but memorize it. The guy over here is working so many dashes, commas, and semicolons into his three-sentence pitch that it goes on for six minutes with only three periods. In another corner mopes the romance writer who has just heard an agent say that she’s not looking for Highland romances anymore — which, naturally, the writer hears as NO ONE’s looking to acquire them.

You get the picture. As writers listen to litanies of what they are doing wrong, and swap secrets they have learned elsewhere, the atmosphere becomes palpably heavy with depression.

By the end of the conference, after the truisms all of these individuals have been shared, bounced around, and mutated like the messages in the children’s game of Telephone, and after days on end of every word each attending agent, editor, and/or teacher says being treated with the reverence of Gospel, there is generally a whole lot of rule-mongering going on.

Take a nice deep breath. The industry is not trying to trick you into giving the wrong answer.

What it IS trying to do is get you to adhere to under-advertised publishing norms. While some of those norms are indeed inflexible — the rigors of standard manuscript format, for instance — most of the time, you are fine if you adhere to the spirit of the norm, rather than its letter.

In other words: at a conference, try not to take every piece of advice you hear literally. (Except that one about keeping your query letter down to a single page.)

So those of you who are freaking out about a few extra words in your elevator speech: don’t. It needs to be short, but it is far better to take an extra ten seconds to tell your story well than to cut it so short that you tell it badly.

Yes, you read that one correctly, to: no agent or editor in the world is going to be standing over you while you pitch, abacus in hand, ready to shout at you to stop once you reach 101 words in a hallway pitch, any more than he will be counting its periods.

Admittedly, they may begin to get restive if you go on too long — but in conversation, length is not measured in number of words or frequency of punctuation. It is measured in the passage of time.

Let me repeat that, because I think some reader’s concerns on the subject are based in a misunderstanding born of the ubiquity of the three-sentence pitch: the purpose of keeping the elevator speech to 3-4 sentences is NOT because there is some special virtue in that number of sentences, but to make sure that the elevator speech is SHORT, brief enough that you could conceivably blurt it out in 30-45 seconds.

To recast that in graphic terms, the elevator speech should be short enough to leave your lips comprehensibly between the time the elevator shuts on you and the agent of your dreams on the ground floor and when it opens again on the second floor.

Remember, though, that no matter what you may have heard, AN ELEVATOR SPEECH IS NOT A FORMAL PITCH, but a shortened version of it. The elevator speech, hallway pitch, and pitch proper are primarily differentiated by the length of time required to say them.

So if you feel the urge to be nit-picky, it actually makes far more sense to TIME your pitch than it does to count the words.

Try to keep your elevator speech under 45 seconds, your hallway pitch to roughly 60 – 75 seconds max, and your pitch proper to 2 minutes or so. While these may not seem like big differences, you can say a lot in 30 seconds.

But DO NOT, I beg you, rend your hair in the midnight hours between now and your next pitching opportunity trying to figure out how to cut your pitch from 2 minutes, 15 seconds down to 2, or plump it up from a minute seventeen to 2, just because I advise that as a target length.

I’m not going to be standing there with a stopwatch, after all, any more than an agent is — and no matter what any writing guru tells you, none of us advice-givers is right 100% of the time. Don’t treat any rule that any of us give you as inviolable.

Seriously, not even mine. While I am fortunate enough to enjoy a large acquaintance in the industry, until I rule the universe, I can pretty much guarantee that no agent or editor, even my own, is ever going to say, “Well, that WOULD have been a great pitch, but unfortunately, it was 17.4 seconds longer than Anne Mini says it should be, so I’m going to have to pass.”

Even if I DID rule the universe (will someone get on that, please?), no one would ever say that to you. It’s in your best interest to adhere to the spirit of my advice on the pitch — or anyone else’s — not necessarily the letter.

How might one go about doing that? Well, remember that elevator speech I wrote a couple of weeks ago for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? No? Okay, here it is again:

19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

Because I love you people, I went back and timed how long it would take me to say: sixty- two seconds, counting gestures and vocal inflections that I would consider necessary for an effective performance.

That’s perfectly fine, for either a hallway speech or pitch proper. Actually, for a pitch proper, I would go ahead and add another sentence or two of glowing detail.

To be fair, though, it is a bit long for an elevator speech, if I intended to include any of the first hundred words as well. If I had just spent a weekend prowling the halls of the Conference-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, for instance, buttonholing agents for informal hallway pitches, I would have tried to shear off ten seconds or so, so I could add at the beginning that the book is women’s fiction and the title.

Oh, and to have the time to indicate that my parents loved me enough to give me a name, and manners enough to share it with people when I first meet them.

But seriously, I would not lose any sleep over those extra ten seconds, if I were pinched for time. Nor should you.

To do so would be a literal reaction to the dicta of the proponents of the three-sentence pitch, those scary souls who have made many writers frightened of adding interesting or even necessary details to their pitches. They don’t do this to be malicious, really: they are espousing the virtue of brevity, which is indeed desirable.

It is not, however, the ONLY virtue a pitch should have, any more than every single-page letter in the world is automatically a stellar query.

Pull out your hymnals, everybody, and sing along: if you’re marketing a novel, you need to demonstrate two things: that this is a good story, and that you are a good storyteller. Similarly, if you are pitching a NF book, you need to show in your pitch that this is a compelling topic, and that you are the world’s best person to write about it.

As any good storyteller can tell you, compelling storytelling lies largely in the scintillating details. I have been listening to writers’ pitches for significantly longer than I have been giving them myself (in addition to my adult professional experience, I also spent part of my wayward youth trailing a rather well-known writer around to SF conventions; aspiring writers were perpetually leaping out from behind comic books and gaming tables to tell him about their books), so I can tell you with authority:

Far more of them fail due to being full of generalities than because they have an extra fifteen seconds’ worth of fascinating details.

Embrace the spirit of brevity, not the letter. If you must add an extra second or two in order to bring in a particularly striking visual image, or to mention a plot point that in your opinion makes your book totally unlike anything else out there, go ahead and do it.

Revel in this being the one and only time that any professional editor will EVER tell you this: try not to be too anal-retentive about adhering to pre-set guidelines. It will only make you tense.

As the song says, spirits high, pulses low. Keep up the good work!