Pursuing complexity in a “Get to the point, will ya?” world, or, what on earth (or off it) am I going to do with my subtitle?

We have ample cause for public rejoicing at Author! Author! today, gentlefolk: for the first time in several nerve-wracking weeks, most of my site’s images appear to be visible to the naked eye of a casual bystander. And that’s good news, I suspect, both for your humble correspondent, the toiling soul generating most of the aforementioned imagery, and those of you kind enough to take more than a casual interest in my mid-blog examples.

To celebrate (and, if I’m being honest about it, to double-check that page-shot images are once again loading correctly), I shall be using this post to dunk a cautious toe back into the warm waters of explanatory illustration. While I’m at it, I’m going to seize the opportunity to answer a question a reader posted during our picture-free hiatus, a question that has been popping up in various forms and guises in the comments since I started the blog.

The purport of those questions, if you’ll permit me to paraphrase: “Gee, Anne, it’s terrific that you’ve recently walked us through the rules of standard format for book manuscripts — not to be confused, naturally, with the proper format for short stories, magazine articles, or the like, as not all writing should be formatted identically. I especially appreciated your having at long last given in to tumultuous popular demand and offered us a one-post visual tour of the constituent parts of a well-formatted manuscript. However, as a devotee of writing in increments, whether it be in complex titling (Puppy Love in Giant Squid: Why Land-lubbers Should Care) or in movie-style series titles (Jason and the Argonauts, Part II: The Harpy-repelling Years), I found myself glancing at your title page and slug line examples and wondering, ‘Hey, what does all of this mean for my beloved colons?’”

Okay, okay, so that’s not the most graceful of paraphrases, but you try summing up 7 1/2 years of writers’ angst in a single paragraph. You get why colon-lovers and subtitle-huggers have been stressing out about this, though, right? Authors tend to become pretty darned attached to their titles — a pity, really, as it’s so very common for publishers’ marketing departments to remark cheerfully to first-time authors, “We love everything about your book, so we’re going to change the title, okay?”

Until an aspiring writer finds herself in that jaw-dropping position (said the lady who murmured in response, “Okay, go ahead and change the title, but would you mind telling me what A Family Darkly means? It’s not a use of an adverb that’s common in English as it is actually spoken.”), however, she can cling to the blissful faith that the author, and the author alone, gets to dictate what verbiage goes on her own book’s cover. The first places that she typically gets to share that usually quite strong preference with the publishing world are the query (even if queriers leave out other necessary elements — and they frequently do — they virtually never forget to include the book’s title), the synopsis, and the manuscript itself.

Specifically, on the manuscript’s title page. Let’s take a peek — at the general shapes of a properly-formatted manuscript, that is. My apologies in advance for variation in distinction across the examples that follow. For some reason that remains as unclear as the lettering here, the site’s begrudging acceptance of imagery does not seem to be extending either to photographs (how I originally attempted to show you these pages) or sharp images in saved jpegs. I’m going to press on, nevertheless, and I hope you will join me.

And in the slug line at the top of every page of text:

Wow, page 1 was pretty light, wasn’t it? Let’s try our luck with page 2.

Even at those odd dark/light levels, that format looks familiar, I hope. With a book with a short title like this and no subtitle, the formatting is perfectly straightforward.

How, though, would the writer of Born Free: Why I Burned My Bra (Although We All Know That Movement Started Because Folks in the Media Mixed Up a War Protest in which Draft Cards Were Burned with a Beauty Contest Protest at which Bras Were Thrown into Trash Cans, Right?) arrange her rather cumbersome title?

In the query, the answer is simple: reproduce the title in its entirety. The only possibly counterintuitive formatting in that context would be to remember that in a query, as in a manuscript, it’s proper to skip two spaces after a colon, not one. But since that’s how civilized people treat colons in every context except newspapers, magazines, and some published books — decisions in every case determined by the editors of those publications, not the authors — that shouldn’t present too much of a problem, should it?

In the synopsis, too, there’s no real problem: the title and subtitle should both appear at the top of the first page. Easy as the proverbial pie.

For the manuscript itself, however, the issue is more complex — or is it? After all, one does not include subtitles in the slug line. So why would one do it here?

Actually, one does not include particularly long titles in the slug line, either; there isn’t room. If a title runs longer than about 40 characters, it’s fine to use a truncated version. In this, our subtitle-embracing writer can simply use the main title:

I hear long title enthusiasts everywhere gasp, but remember, the point of including the title in the slug line is to identify a stray page if it wanders from the manuscript, not to reproduce the entire title as the author would prefer it to appear on the book cover. It merely needs to be recognizably referring to the title.

On the title page, naturally, there’s no reason not to display the subtitle in all of its glory. It’s traditional, however, to allow the main title to occupy its own line, then begin the subtitle on the next double-spaced line. With a subtitle this long, it’s considered unstylish to let it run the entire breadth of the page. Bringing in the left and right margins by an inch and a half each will make it clear that this is all intended as subtitle, rather than misformatted text.

With a shorter subtitle, of course, this would not be necessary.

Everybody clear on that — or, at any rate, as clear as the fuzzy pages will permit? Now would be an excellent time to speak up, if not.

Ah, I see some hands waving out there in the ether. Yes? “But Anne, my book doesn’t have a subtitle per se — it’s the first/third/107th volume in a series that has its own title. So how would I format a title page and slug line for Shooting Arrows in All Directions, the first book in my Running Amok series? I would presume that I would do it as it is formatted in the following examples that I’m mentally beaming to you, but is that correct?”

That’s a good question, series writers. Let’s show your fellow writers what you were imagining, and see how they think Millicent the agency screener will respond.

Is this page 1 correctly formatted or not? To help make that question easier to answer, let’s take a nice, close look.

If you leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “By Jove, Anne, that’s not right! How can it be, when it violates the slug line length restriction we were discussing mere moments ago,” congratulations. Even if it were completely legitimate to embrace the recent movie title practice of slapping the title of the series at the front of the individual book’s title — hint, hint — it would never be acceptable to include a subtitle in a slug line.

You can see why our friend Sens opted to do it that way, though, right? As he pictured the book covers in his series, he naturally envisioned the series title emblazoned above the titles of each individual volume; in his mind, both were legitimately part of the title. And if that’s the case, just showing the main title — in this case, the series title — in the slug line would mean that every book in the series would sport an identical slug line.

Not all that helpful if the Millicent carrying the manuscript of Shooting Arrows in All Directions happens to collide with the intern toting Volume 3 of the same series, is it? It’s not hard to picture the aftermath: “You got Shooting Arrows in my Hatchet Wielding for Fun and Profit!” “Yeah, well, you got Hatchet Wielding for Fun and Profit in my Shooting Arrows!” “Darn, there’s no way to figure out from which manuscript page 37 floated!”

Not a pretty scene, is it? And it definitely would defeat the purpose of the slug line.

So what should Sens have done instead? Treat the title of the book the slug line is marking as — wait for it — the title of the book. Actually, since the first book’s title is rather lengthy, let’s go with a shortened version.

Still perfectly easy to identify on a dark and stormy night, is it not? By contrast, let’s take a peek at how Sens was planning to format his title page.

At initial submission time, it doesn’t matter to Millicent that this book is the first in a series — her boss, the agent of Sens’ dreams, is going to have to fall in love with Volume I on its own merits. So why weigh down the slug line with unnecessary information?

And immediately, other series writers leap to Sens’ defense. “Unnecessary!” they huff. “I see this done with movie titles all the time!”

Precisely — but that doesn’t mean that the publishing industry has embraced the convention. Technically, series titles are not part of the title. Unless, of course, the series in question happens to follow the most common pattern of series naming, using the title of the first book in the series as the basis for the series’ title.

That’s an issue upon which that I’m sure Sens’ future publisher’s marketing department will hold strong opinions. For the nonce, however, all that concerns us is how his title page should appear in his manuscript submissions, right? Here you go.

I can sense some hackles rising out there, can I not? “But Anne,” some of you moan, and who could blame you? “What about individual expression, for goodness sake! These title pages all look the same!”

Exactly. Professionally-formatted book manuscripts differ in the writing, not in their formatting. Not to knock anybody’s right to individual expression, but as a writer, wouldn’t you rather be judged on the text you submit, rather than how you chose to slap it on a page?

Let me guess: quite a few of you had been thinking of it the other way around, hadn’t you? Completely understandable: when first facing the daunting prospect of learning to apply the rules of standard format, most aspiring writers regard its rigors as restricting what they can do. It takes time and experience to recognize that for good writing, anything that distracts Millicent, the agent for whom she toils, or the acquiring editor the agent will be trying to interest in the book from the words on the page and how prettily the narrative flows is both superfluous and poor submission strategy.

Let your writing speak for itself, friends. Series or not, subtitle-bearing or no, that’s how a talented writer should want to be judged.

Speaking of your fine writing, do drop me a note in the comments if the images did not come through properly this time around. I’m a glass-half-full sort of person, so I shall keep visualizing clear visuals while we celebrate having any visuals at all. Keep up the good work!

Break out the trumpets: it’s my 1,500th Author! Author! post

That’s right, campers: after six and a half years of keyboard-pounding, this is my 1,500th time sharing my thoughts on the rigors of the life literary in this forum. Even I’m kind of impressed. All the more so, because, let’s face it, my average post is about six times the length of most writing advice posts.

Hey, you know me. I hate to leave an argument in the middle.

I tremble to think how many of thousands of pages — configured as standard format for book manuscripts, of course — currently lie virtually nestled in my archives; as even the briefest glance down the category list located at the lower right-hand side of this page will demonstrate, we’ve covered a tremendous amount of conceptual territory together. (And thanks again, Dave McChesney — who, coincidentally, posted the first comment ever on my blog — for suggesting so many years ago that I break the categories down by probable readers’ questions. I think we’ve all been pretty happy with the results.) Kudos to those of you who have provided so many excellent questions over the years; as I like to say early and often, many of my best posts and series have sprung directly from individual readers’ thoughtful questions.

Before I begin to rhapsodize about what I have learned throughout the course of all of that mulling over the challenges of trying to break into the writing biz, though, I would like to pause for a moment to recognize the recent achievements of three members of the Author! Author! community. The road to publication can be a long and arduous one; if you’ll pardon my resuscitating yet another of my habitual tropes, I’m a firm believer in the value of writers’ celebrating one another’s triumphs along the way.

First, congratulations to Michael Stutz on the release of the second volume of Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age trilogy from Confiteor Media. And such a gracious author, too: as you may have gathered from the snapshot above, my mailbox was gladdened recently by the unexpected appearance of Volume I, which Michael, a long-time member of the Author! Author! community, was kind enough to send me.

A practice I highly encourage, by the way. There are few aspects of blogging I enjoy more than announcing that one of my readers has a new book out. Especially a writer like Michael, who has been hanging out here in our little community for years.

It just goes to show you: it can be done, people. As proof, here’s a composite of the publisher’s blurbs for the first two books of Michael’s trilogy:

The Internet is everywhere now, but Ray Valentine saw it first explode.

CIRCUITS OF THE WIND is the story of Ray’s quest to find himself as he grows up wandering the computer underground—the wild, global outback that existed before the net went mainstream. How else does an end-of-century slacker reach out to the world from Sohola, that northern state that’s a little more Midwest than it is New England? The net holds the key to what he’s after—but even as he pioneers this virtual world, the veneer of his real life begins to crack.

VOLUME ONE of the CIRCUITS OF THE WIND trilogy follows a young Raymond from his ’70s childhood—and first gropings with the telephone—to the home computers and bulletin boards of the ’80s, where he leads a double life as a wanderer of the wires. But when even his virtual best friend unplugs, Raymond might have to leave it, too—because isn’t real life supposed to be offline?

In VOLUME TWO of the CIRCUITS OF THE WIND trilogy, the net arrives all glimmering when Ray is starting college: it’s brighter, quicker, better than he ever knew. It’s the early 1990s—a time of golden youth and of joyriding on the growing Internet, where he rises as a leader of the global generation, the ones who saw it as the gilded portal to a fabulous new age everyone was about to enter. But he’s coasting aimlessly—and when his college friends move on and fashions change he sees how real life actually might not be working out.

Sounds like hoot, eh? Well done, Michael. I’m looking forward to announcing your continued successes!

In other good news, please join me in a big round of applause for Wendy Russo, whose first novel, JANUARY BLACK, has recently been acquired by Crescent Moon Press. I couldn’t be more delighted for you, Wendy!

If Wendy’s title sounds familiar, it may be because she was brave and generous enough to have shared her ultimately extraordinarily successful query letter with us back in, appropriately enough, January. I can’t resist sharing the book description for this genuinely yummy-sounding YA science fiction novel:

Sixteen-year-old Mars resident Matty Ducayn is a disappointment to everyone who knows him. As the son of The Hill’s commandant, he is expected to conform to a strict, unspoken code of conduct. Small acts of defiance over years — like playing in the dirt and walking on the grass — have earned him a reputation for being unruly, but it’s his sarcastic test answers that finally get him expelled from school. Instead of punishing him, though, King Hadrian offers him a diploma with a catch: before he can graduate, he must solve the mystery of the vanished Januaries.

With the help of Iris, a gardener on his father’s staff, Matty takes his search beyond The Hill’s walls — and tightly controlled media — into a world rife with contention, greed, and crime. But trying to crack the code sets him on a collision course with the Janus Law, a royal decree that mandates death to those who enter a forbidden garden. Has Hadrian set him up from the beginning to fail?

I’m really looking forward to announcing the book’s release, Wendy. Best of luck with the publication process!

While we’re lighting the bonfire for one another’s achievement, I’d also like to clash a few cymbals on behalf of frequent guest blogger, hilarious author, and all-around great guy DIE LIKE A GIRL, has recently been released for Kindle. Kudos, Jonathan!

Jonathan is, for my money, one of the funniest writers of his generation, and I don’t care who hears me say it. His first novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE, made me laugh so hard on an airplane that two flight attendants came running down the aisle, convinced I was having a seizure. My subsequent dramatic reading of the scene in question caused fliers in first class to wonder if a riot had broken out in coach.

I’m just saying: the guy’s funny; there’s a reason I keep blandishing him to give us all advice on the art of writing comedy. (As he did, say, here, here, and here.) Here’s the publisher’s blurb for his most recent opus:

Fiona Blacklock sells drugs. Not the hard stuff, but a rare hybrid strain of thousand-dollar-an-ounce marijuana called Biodiesel. Given that she lives in the left-wing Mecca of Portland, Oregon, the cops mostly just look the other way—if they’re not looking to score a little herb themselves.

Sure, she’s fifty grand in debt to a psychopathic loan shark named Barry the Hippie, but other than that, it’s really not a bad gig…that is, until she agrees to take emo pop star Finn “The Well-Coiffed Penis” Jameson along on a drug deal so that he can research a new indie film role. A drug deal that goes very very wrong.

Now Fiona has to figure out who set her up, who’s blackmailing who, where to environmentally dispose of a disemboweled corpse, how to seduce the single most attractive man in Hollywood…and, most importantly, whom to kill next.

I’m bringing up these three talented writers’ recent triumphs not only to cheer for them — although, naturally, that too — but as a springboard to talking about some of the things I enjoy most about writing this blog. I get to teach writers like Wendy how to refine their queries, to help get their writing in front of the people who can take it to publication: I quite like that. I get to encourage writers like Michael to keep pressing forward until they see their work in print: I’m very fond of that. And, perhaps most gratifying of all, I get to bring gifted writers like Jonathan Selwood to the attention of a fine group of people who, I have it on the best authority, really like to read.

That’s all been pretty fabulous, I must say. But if I’m honest about it — and now that I’ve launched headlong into this sentence, I suppose I shall have to be — none of these things were what I had anticipated doing when I started blogging six and a half years ago. And certainly not at such great length.

Actually, I had to be talked into starting a blog at all. When I was initially approached by the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association, at the time the nation’s largest group aimed at furthering the ambitions and fostering the skills of previously-unpublished writers, to be the Resident Writer on its website, I was a bit nonplused. Yes, I had been editing books for decades at that juncture; yes, I had started proofing galleys in middle school; yes, I did regularly teach writing and marketing classes for writers; yes, a chapter of my dissertation was about the potential for fictional accounts to change political discourse.

But coming up with practical advice for writers on a several-times-per-week basis? I was positive that the inspiration well would run dry in a month.

Yes, yes, I know: these days, I often spend a month of posts on a sub-sub-topic of querying. My will to communicate turned out to be pretty strong.

It also turned out that an astonishingly high percentage of what I had learned by osmosis through the simple expedient of growing up in a literary family — forebears on both sides have been publishing pretty regularly since the 1920s; I learned to type on Henry Miller’s hand-me-down typewriter — was, to put it mildly, a big, ugly, and frequently frightening mystery to hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers out there. And since many of those murky matters were — and remain — self-evident to those who handle book manuscripts for a living, not only did it not seem to occur to many pros to blog on those subjects; when I began blogging, it was relatively rare even to hear the practicalities to which I have devoted most of my posts here discussed at writers’ conferences.

You should have heard what my mother said when I first broke that last bit of news to her. Her gasp could be heard on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

To be perfectly frank, I was pretty flabbergasted, too. The first time a reader wrote in to ask whether the slug line went in the header or on the first line of every page, I must admit that I laughed for about fifteen minutes straight. Yet it’s not at all an unreasonable question; it simply is not a question that would ever arise amongst people who handled professional manuscripts for a living.

That’s right, campers: as incredible as it seems, before that valiant reader worked up the courage to ask that basic question, I hadn’t truly understood that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers out there had never seen a professionally-formatted manuscript. Or a book proposal. Or — and I can’t believe this was news to me — a query letter.

Had I mentioned that my learning experience on Uncle Henry’s typewriter sprung from my parents’ insistence that I write the first and only draft of my 5th-grade term paper on the Bonus March in standard manuscript format? “You’re going to be writing in that format for the rest of your life,” my father reasoned, “so you might as well get started now.”

History proved him right, of course, but at the time, it didn’t even occur to me to point out that it was in fact possible for a human being to glide throughout the entirety of the great path from birth to death without writing a book. I’d met so few adults who hadn’t.

“Oh, yes, you did,” my mother hastens to point out now. “We introduced you to a lot of painters and sculptors, too. We didn’t want to stifle any potential avenue of creativity.”

I’m bringing this up not only because I can’t possibly have been the only little girl in human history who thought the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up, honey?” actually meant “How do you plan to support yourself while you struggle through your first four or five novels’ sluggish sales?” — I can’t remember being so young that I didn’t know that literary fiction seldom makes serious money — but because in the course of my career as a writer, I’ve never met an agent or editor who was surprised by my strenuously literary upbringing.

Oh, their eyebrows may have twitches skyward when they found out that John Steinbeck wrote a book about my father, or that I had stopped writing science fiction because Philip K. Dick told me that there was no money in it. Mostly, though, the pros have just seemed to take it for granted that any serious novelist or memoirist would already have amassed my level of practical knowledge of how publishing works by the time her writing reached their doorsteps.

If writing this blog and interacting with my readers has taught me anything, though, it’s that nobody is born knowing this stuff. And that’s sad, because plenty of extremely talented writers’ work gets rejected every day simply because they don’t know the ropes. Or even that there are ropes to learn,

So I have devoted the last six and a half years to teaching those new to climbing those ropes how to tie a few sailors’ knots. Turns out that’s a pretty complex set of lessons.

It must be: after posting 1,500 times about them, I still feel that I have quite a bit to say. And I hope that quite a few more writers like Michael, Wendy, and Jonathan will continue to provide me with the impetus, inspiration, and darned good questions to help keep me going.

I could, I suppose, conclude here with my oft-repeated admonition to keep the aforementioned good questions coming — believe me, if you’ve been wondering about a writing, querying, or submission issue, thousands of other writers have been as well. You do them, and me, a favor by asking. (If you’re looking for instant answers, though, you might want to take a quick barefoot run through the list of topics on the archive list at right; since I have been at this for a while, it’s actually not all that uncommon for people to ask questions upon which I’ve written entire month-long series.)

I would like to close this festive post by thanking all of you for something else this blog has given me, a benefit I have seldom mentioned even in passing before. When I first started blogging, my interest was at least in part self-promotional: I had a memoir coming out six months later. Although these days, it’s standard for publishers to advise authors to establish blogs in anticipation of their books’ releases, it was rare back then; I had to talk both my agent and my editor out of actively protesting against my devoting writing time to it.

“What makes you think,” a source that shall remain nameless in my publisher’s marketing department asked, “that there’s any overlap at all between your book’s target audience and your blog’s?” It was news, apparently, that people who write are often people who read. Or that people who read online might conceivably ever read anything else.

Seems crazy now, doesn’t it? Today, one of the first sentences a first-time author hears after placing pen to contract is, “Okay, you know that you have to build up your web presence, right?”

Back in 2004, however, the concept of an author deliberately setting out to make a place for herself online was still a relatively new and daring one; people kept asking me how I could possibly build name recognition unless I was writing on my own website, as I began to do a year later. That’s a long story, though, and not a particularly interesting one.

To cut to the chase, as a good editor should: a couple of weeks after I began blogging, I learned that my publisher had been threatened by a lawsuit over my memoir. The figure mentioned, if memory serves, was $2 million. Not because it was factually inaccurate, mind you — as far as I know, the threateners never asked my publisher for any content changes — but because I had written it at all. And while such threats are far from unusual from the kith and kin of memoirists, the kith in question happened to have millions of dollars at their disposal.

The publication process, as you might imagine, came to a screeching halt. While it has lurched forward and backward a few times since, six and a half years later, the book still has not come out. (Which renders the used copy still offered on Amazon something of a mystery; as not even review copies were ever released, I can’t imagine of what it consists. It purports to be in very good condition, though.)

Again, I’m not bringing this up for the reasons you might think: I’m quite confident that eventually, both new and used copies of the book will be available. I was not brought up to give up on a manuscript, especially an important story that happens to be true. And, if I do say so myself, pretty funny.

I’m bringing it up because I owe a debt of gratitude to those of you who read and commented upon the blog during the early years, when writing it was practically the only respite I got from an ever-more-chaotic publishing experience. There were days when trying to make the curvy road to publication comprehensible to those new to it seemed like the only reasonable human exchange I had. I found it very soothing, being able to take my small, continual stand for making this a better world for everyone who has a story to tell.

And that, in case any of you had been wondering, is how I developed my blogging voice, admittedly an unusual one for a writing advice blog. Rather than present this sometimes depressing and opaque subject matter — hey, nobody ever said getting a book into print was easy, at least no one who had any practical experience in the matter — in the more common authoritarian or despairing tones, I decided to write about it in an upbeat, humorous manner. I felt I owed it to my readers not to let the horror of what was going on with my book creep into our discussions of how to help yours.

You have no idea how difficult that was sometimes in those first couple of years. At least, I hope you don’t, if I did my job well. And it’s become difficult again over the last couple of years, since my car crash. But as my grandmother used to say, “If you can’t be happy, try helping someone else. Or writing a book about it.”

So thank you, campers, for providing me with the impetus, inspiration, and, yes, unexpected questions, to keep showing up here to be upbeat about the often-mystifying ways of the publishing world. Especially to those of you who have been reading since the beginning. You have helped turn what started out as a column into a community — and for that, I am exceedingly grateful.

Next time, I shall wrap up Queryfest; I may be hardened by experience to being upbeat about the difficulties of the querying process, but hey, I’m only human. Keep up the good work!

What does standard format look like, anyway? Part VII: my memoir is WHAT?

Hello, campers –

Okay, I am officially annoyed: someone has had the temerity to write a bad Amazon review of my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. Which would be a little less odd if the book had ever been released, but as far as I know, not even review copies were ever available.

And I certainly never sent this person a copy of any draft of my manuscript. So what can she possibly be reviewing? The blurb on the Amazon page — which, like pretty much every marketing blurb, was written not by the book’s author, but by the publisher’s marketing department?

Yes, yes, I know: Amazon lists my book as being out of print — limited ability, not as still to be released, which implies that there are a few copies running around out there. Their assertion is technically true, because it was never IN print, but factually inaccurate.

So how did it end up with a listing on Amazon at all? Well, as long-time readers of this blog already know, Carroll & Graf was supposed to publish it in February, 2006 — then May, 2006, then September, 2006 — before the project was permanently put on ice, due to a series of nebulous threats from the Dick estate. Although to the best of my knowledge, they never asked my publisher to make any changes in the book whatsoever, the figure two million dollars was bandied about menacingly.

A right about the same time as the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal broke. That the publisher would balk was inevitable.

I’ve come to peace with all that, mostly: I have faith that the book will eventually come out, even if I have to outlive the naysayers to do it; it’s not as though the audience for it is going to disappear. I know that my memoir is honest; someday, a larger audience will see the story.

In the meantime, I have a life to live and books to write.

Still, it rankles me that someone who apparently hasn’t read the book should review it — and that the review should have come (evidently) from one of Philip’s ex-wives — to be precise, the one three wives after my mother. I don’t even understand why Amazon would ALLOW her to review it, when for over two years now, it apparently hasn’t permitted others who HAVE read drafts of the book to post reviews.

You HAVE already lined up fellow writers to tap out Amazon reviews for you when your first book comes out, right?

What makes me think that this review didn’t filch a stray draft copy to pass judgment upon, you ask? Because her sole stated objection to the book is that I couldn’t possibly have spoken with Philip on the telephone, because, she claims — brace yourselves, because I think this is going to come as a shocker to those hoping to make a career writing science fiction — she and Philip were too poor to afford a phone during their very brief marriage.

Interesting claim. She is presumably referring to the early 70s, when Philip had been publishing his writing successfully for over 15 years, including a little number called THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. It won a Hugo Award in 1963, not an achievement typically associated with a writer’s book sales declining to the point of penury, especially one as prolific as Philip was throughout the 1960s.

But even he had been reduced to living in a treehouse in a public park, my memoir isn’t ABOUT the early 70s, as those happy few who have read the manuscript could tell you. It takes place mostly in the late 70s and early 80s, when Philip and I were indeed talking on the phone a great deal (as were others, some of whom seem to recall having picked up the phone a few years earlier and calling…well, never mind), and the 1950s, when Philip and my mother were married. (The same period when, not entirely coincidentally, he was working with my father, my science fiction-writer uncle was giving him marketing advice, and my godfather was dropping by to play chess…well, you get the picture.)

In other words, I’ve been writing what I know.

In fact, for this critique to be remotely apt, my entire memoir would have to have been devoted to ages 5 to 8 — years which, if memory serves, take up only a small handful of pages in the manuscript at all. Why? Well, I was a precocious child, certainly, but if I was slandering anyone mid-elementary school, it’s news to me.

Even if there were an honest difference of recollection here (which I don’t think is the case), why this review should wait to bring this up until more than two years after the book in question was supposed to be released mystifies me. Unless she’s planning to write a book of her own?

And don’t even get me started on the irony of someone who has ever been married to an SF/fantasy writer using the term fantasy as an insult about a piece of writing.

Okay — deep breath. I don’t need to get upset over this. But I have to tell you, it did give me a turn to be accused of slander on an Amazon discussion board. (In an apparent effort to leave no stone unturned in discrediting me, the reviewer evidently started a discussion thread. Thorough of her, no?)

Now, to set all of you memoirists’ minds at ease, this is a pretty empty accusation — the dead have no reputations, my lawyer tells me, and thus cannot be libeled. Also, rumor has it that truth is an absolute defense against both libel and slander, and so far, no one who has objected to the book’s publication has shown me — or, to the best of my knowledge, my publisher — any evidence whatseverthat my memories are not grounded in fact. It’s all just been assertions of different points of view.

Which, strange to say, has been hard to get the relevant parties to understand. Contrary to criticisms leveled at some popular memoirists lately, few people’s lives are documented down to the last second. How would you, for instance, prove that everything that happened on your first date actually occurred, in the absence of the other party?

You couldn’t, of course. Welcome to the dilemma of the present-day memoirist.

I can’t even begin to tell you how tired I am of all this — I’ve been defending this book for over three years now, without anyone ever having produced a single tangible reason it shouldn’t be published. Yet until today, as far as I knew, no one had ever even implied that anything about my memoir had broken the law.

Prior to this review, the issues of alternate points of view and who owns personal memories, if not the person herself — both subjects upon which Philip Dick wrote frequently, as it happens — dominated the discussion of my memoir. Now, it seems as though my very memories are being called libelous.

I can’t explain it.

In fact, I wouldn’t be bringing it up at all, except the only reason I found out about this puzzling review at all was that I was double-checking a link in the post below, a little gem on standard format from last December. To be precise, I originally posted it on Philip’s birthday.

Don’t ever say I didn’t do anything for you people; I may never double-check a link again. Enjoy the post.

Many thanks to all of you sweet souls who forwarded me links to the many literary and SF sites out there that commemorated what would have been my good old friend Philip K. Dick’s 79th birthday. This was the first year that I received a whole boatload of these messages, so it was great fun — rather like receiving a flotilla of birthday cards in the mail.

I needed the cheering up, I’m afraid, as usually, I throw a little dinner party on this particular day. Not only out of respect for my first serious writing teacher, but also as a birthday shindig for some of the other great artists born today: Beethoven, Sir Noël Coward, Sir Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001 and CHILDHOOD’S END fame), and of course, Author! Author!’s own beloved, wise auntie, Jane Austen.

You could do worse than to raise a glass to that crowd. But this year, I’ve just been too wiped out to allow anyone but the postman to drop by — and some days, I’m not even up to seeing him.

Thus, no dinner party this year, more’s the pity. I did a little too much last week, so this weekend, all I did was sleep and make groggy suggestions about how to maneuver the Christmas tree in order to make it stand up straight. (Which actually is necessary in our household: due to a truly spectacular bracken-and-cat interaction a few years back, we now tie the top of the tree to a ring firmly attached to the ceiling, so the tree does not need to be completely vertical in order to keep from toppling over.)

But enough about me; let’s talk about you.

While I was incapacitated, a group of my wonderful readers was holding down the fort here, trading tips on how to deal with that pesky problem, how to add a second space between sentences if a writer had mistakenly typed the whole thing thinking there should only be one. If you have even a passing interest in this topic, I implore you, check out the comments on the last two days’ posts; it’s well worth it. (Here’s a link to the first and here’s one to the second.)

We have only few rules of standard format left to cover in this series, so my first instinct was to use the text of one of Philip’s short stories for the examples. (Seemed appropriate, given that he used to mark deviations from standard format on stories I wrote for school and send them back to me for correction. What 11-year-old girl wouldn’t have loved THAT?) But since fair use permits only 50 consecutive words in a quote without explicit permission from the copyright holder, and the copyright holders in his case have a nasty habit of waving $2 million lawsuits in my general direction (and my quondam publisher’s) every time I so much as breathe his name, that didn’t seem entirely wise.

So I thought, in honor of the day, I would use a little something that I am undoubtedly entitled to reproduce here. Here is the first page of Chapter Six of my memoir:

Every chapter should begin like this: on a fresh page, 12 single lines (or 6 double-spaced) from the top.

As with the first page of text, the only reference to the author’s name or the title should appear in the slug line, located in the upper left-hand margin. (And in answer to reader Janet’s intelligent question: the slug line should appear .5 inches from the top of the paper, floating within the 1-inch-deep top margin. I can’t believe I never mentioned that before.) The page number belongs within it, rather than anywhere else on the page.

The slug line confuses a lot of aspiring writers; until you have seen piles and piles of professional manuscripts, it looks kind of funny, doesn’t it? And when you’ve been told over and over again that a manuscript should have a 1-inch margin on all sides, it can seem counterintuitive to add a line of text, even such a short one, IN that margin.

But I assure you, it’s always been done that way. And why? Followers of this series, chant it with me now: BECAUSE IT LOOKS RIGHT.

Yes, that logic IS tautological, now that you mention it. If you have a problem with that, I would suggest taking it up with the powers that rule the universe. I, as I believe the reference above to my memoir’s troubled path makes abundantly clear, apparently do not rule the universe.

If I did, today would be a holiday for every writer on the planet. Especially the ones who are having trouble getting their work published, like, oh, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jane Austen all did at the beginning of their fiction careers.

I just mention.

Back to business. Placing the slug line in the header (located in Word under the VIEW menu) also enables the writer to take advantage of one of the true boons of the advent of word processing, pages that number themselves. Every so often, I will receive a manuscript where the author has, with obviously monumental effort, typed a slug line onto the first line of TEXT of each page, so it looks like this:

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

Why not? Well, what’s going to happen if new writing is inserted on a page formatted this way? That’s right: the author is going to have to go back and move each and every one of those slug lines to match the NEW pagination.

I’d show you a picture of this, but it’s just too ugly to contemplate. Trust me, it would be a heck of a lot of work.

See any other problems with this page? How about the fact that the slug line includes the word PAGE? Shouldn’t be there; just the numbers will suffice.

Did I just hear some huffs of indignation out there? “But Anne,” I hear the formatting-ambitious cry, “it’s kind of stylish to include PAGE before the page number, isn’t it? It’s just a matter of personal style — who could be hurt by including it, if I like the way it looks?”

Well, you, for starters. And why? (Chanters, ready your lungs.) BECAUSE IT JUST WOULD NOT LOOK RIGHT TO A PROFESSIONAL READER.

I’m quite serious about this; I’ve seen screeners get quite huffy about this one. “Does this writer think I’m STUPID?” Millicent is prone to huff. (Don’t answer that question; it’s rhetorical.) “Does she think I DON’T know that the numeral that appears on every page refers to the number of pages? Does she think I’m going to go nuts and suddenly decide that it is a statistic, or part of the title?”

Don’t bait her. Do it the standard way.

Okay, did you spot any other problems? What about the fact that the first paragraph of the chapter is not indented, and the first character is in a different typeface?

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

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

The non-indented first paragraph of a chapter is fairly common in mystery submissions, I have noticed. I’ve been told by many mystery writers that this is an homage to the great early writers in the genre, an echo of their style.

But you know what? Almost without exception, in Edgar Allan Poe’s time all the way down to our own, the EDITOR has determined the formatting that appeared on any given printed page, not the author. To professional eyes, especially peevish ones like Millicent’s, a manuscript that implicitly appropriates this sort of decision as authorial might as well be the first step to the writer’s marching into Random House, yanking off a well-worn riding glove, and striking the editor-in-chief with it.

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

Exactly.

If you want to make Millicent and her bosses happy — or, at any rate, to keep them reading calmly — indent every paragraph of the text should the expected five spaces. It just looks right that way.

While we’re at it, how about the bolded chapter number and title? Nothing in a manuscript should be in boldface. Nothing, I tell you. Uh-uh. Not ever.

Well, you could get away with the title itself on the tile page, but frankly, I wouldn’t chance it.

Nor should anything be underlined — not even names of books or song titles. Instead, they should be italicized, as should words in foreign tongues that are not proper nouns.

I heard that gigantic intake of breath out there from those of you who remember constructing manuscripts on typewriters: yes, Virginia, back in the day, underlining WAS the norm, for the simple reason that most typewriters did not have italic keys.

If you consult an older list of formatting restrictions, you might conceivably be told that publications, song titles, and/or foreign words (sacre bleu!) should be underlined. But trust me on this one: any agent would tell you to get rid of the underlining, pronto.

And why? All together now: because IT JUST DOESN’T LOOK RIGHT THAT WAY.

All right, campers, do you feel ready to fly solo? Here are two pages of text, studded with standard format violations for your ferreting-out pleasure. (I wrote these pages, too, in case anyone is worried about copyright violation or is thinking about suing me over it. Hey, stranger things have happened.)

How did you do? Are those problems just leaping off the page at you now? To reward you for so much hard work, here are a couple of correctly-formatted pages, to soothe your tired eyes:

good example

Whenever you start finding yourself chafing at the rules of standard format, come back and take a side-by-side gander at these last sets of examples — because, I assure you, after a professional reader like Millicent has been at it even a fairly short time, every time she sees the bad example, mentally, she’s picturing the good example right next to it.

And you know what? Manuscripts that look right get taken more seriously than those that don’t. And regardless of how you may feel about Millicent’s literary tastes, isn’t a serious read from her what you want for your book?

Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part VII: those pesky teenagers — and a major milestone!

Sic transit gloria.

The reconstruction of my devastated back yard proceeds apace — there have been so many workmen with great big boots tramping through my erstwhile flowerbeds of late that I’m quite positive the resident mole believes a hostile army has invaded his territory.

The photo above represents the last hurrah of our hot tub before it went the way of all flesh. Since my agent is currently circulating my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, it seemed only appropriate that the little statue should be the last thing evacuated.

With great destruction comes the possibility of new growth, though, and I have to say, even as an editor experienced in making large-scale cuts to manuscripts, I have been impressed to see just how many new vista opportunities have been opening up each time a backhoe accidentally knocks over a small tree.

An ornamental cherry, just about to bloom. Talk about killing your darlings.

The process has been reminding me a great deal of the first two years after I sold my memoir to a publisher, actually: after working up courage to dig up a story that hadn’t seen the light of day for over twenty years, all hell broke loose for two solid years. Every time I started thinking, “Okay, I could learn to live with the new status quo around this book,” BANG! Down went another tree. Or a backhoe took a great big hole out a flowering pear, doubtless cutting the coming summer’s crop by a third.

Metaphorically, of course.

The upheaval on both the garden and memoir fronts remains substantial — and ongoing — but I’m sure the wee Buddha would approve of the hourly evidence my environs are giving that nothing is really permanent. And that building something lasting typically involves quite a bit of ground-clearing first.

Doesn’t that just make you want to take out the machete and leap back into revising your manuscript? No? Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

But before we launch into the topic du jour, a drum roll, please, for an announcement of moment: this is my 500th blog on this site!

To those of you who didn’t follow me over from my old Resident Writer blog on the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s website, this total may seem a bit off, as there are about 800 posts archived here, including roughly 300 from my former gig. (Also, I haven’t been counting guest posts and interviews toward the final count.)

So these last half-thousand have all been written specifically for you, the Author! Author! community, under my own aegis. You’re welcome.

When the blog has reached similar milestones in the past, I have gone back and figured out how many pages I’d written, measured in standard manuscript format, but at this point, it’s just too daunting a task. Suffice it to say that it’s been thousands of pages of my ranting at you about the joys and imperatives of standard format, the ins and outs of pitching and querying, and my vast preference for writers reading their work — chant it with me; you surely know the words by now — IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it to make its merry way through an agency or publishing house.

Clearly, I need to take a weekend off.

But let’s finish this mini-series (so to speak) first, shall we? For the last week, I’ve been talking about that graveyard of literary tension and promoter of telling rather than showing, the Short Road Home, a scene or plot that resolves conflict practically the nanosecond it appears.

After a lifetime of reading and a decade of editing, I have to say, I don’t think that most writers appreciate just how much the average reader enjoys savoring conflict — or how much more trivial an easily-solved problem appears on the page than one with which the protagonist must struggle for pages or chapters on end. Just as an Idiot Plot that is resolved the instant someone thinks to ask Aunt Joyce her ring size is less than dramatically satisfying, a plot resolved by a Short Road Home tends to leave readers feeling underfed.

They came for a full meal, you know, with many succulent courses. How could they not be disappointed when a narrative merely gives them a glimpse of a nicely-fried brook trout, then whisks it away untasted? Or when the waiter spends the whole meal boasting of the spectacular dessert, then brings out a single cookie for the entire table to share?

And that’s non-professional readers’ reaction; the pros are even more ravenous. Just because Millicent spends her days grazing upon query letters and munching on synopses doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be thrilled to have a full meal come submission-reading time.

Please say you’ve grasped the concept, because this metaphor is beginning to whimper under its explanatory load.

A good place to start sniffing around for instances of the Short Road Home is when a narrative begins to stray close to stereotype territory. Why? Well, stereotypes thrive upon generalization, so when they rear their ugly heads, they tend to nudge the narrative toward summary statements, conclusions, and the like. Grounding a scene or argument in the specific has the opposite tendency.

This is particularly likely too occur in memoirs and novels where writer is working overtime to make a character likeable — or always right. A character who is never wrong is, among other things, predictable; when predictability has pulled up a chair and seated itself in a scene, tension tends to take a flying leap out the nearest window.

Too theoretical? Okay, let’s take a gander at one of the more common marriages of stereotype and Short Road Home: the troubled child of the protagonist, particularly if it’s a teenager.

At the very mention, Millicent has already started cringing in her cubicle in New York, I assure you. The TCoP crosses her desk so frequently in manuscripts that she can scarcely see a character in the 13-19 age range without instinctively flinching and crying out, “Don’t tell me — she’s going to be sullen.”

You’re quite right, Millicent — 99% of the time, she will be. And rebellious. Not to mention disrespectful, sighing, and eye-rolling.

Yes, troubled kids and teenagers across the land have been known to do all of these things from time to time — but remember what I said a few paragraphs back about predictability? When Millicent encounters the rare non-stereotypical teenager in a submission, it’s a red-letter day.

Not quite a 500th post kind of day, perhaps, but close.

I can feel some of you getting restless out there. “Yeah, yeah,” I hear a few seasoned self-editors piping, “I already know to avoid stereotypes, because Millicent sees them so often and because the whole point of writing a book is to show MY view of the world, not a bunch of clichés. What does this have to do with the Short Road Home?”

In practice, quite a bit; it’s very, very common for a narrative featuring a TCoP to expend considerable (and usually disproportionate) time explaining the kid’s behavior — and, often, justifying how the protagonist responds to it. Unfortunately, this rush to interpret not infrequently begins as early as the first scene in which the TCoP is introduced.

What might this look like on the first page of a manuscript, you ask? A little something like this — and see if you can catch the subtle narrative bias that often colors this stripe of the Short Road Home:

When hard-working Tom Carver opened the front door, arriving home late from work at the stuffed animal plant yet again, his daughter, Tanya, refused to speak to him. Glaring at him silently with all of the dastardly sneer her fifteen-year-old face could muster, she played with her spiky, three-toned hair until the third time he had considerately asked her how her day had been.

“Like you care!” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes dramatically. She rushed from the room.

The now-familiar sound of her slammed bedroom door ringing in his ears, he wandered into the kitchen to kiss his adored wife on her long-suffering cheek. “Criminy, I’m tired of that, Mary. Someday, all of that slamming is going to bring the house tumbling down on our heads. I’ll bet she hasn’t done even one of her very reasonable load of daily chores, either. Why did good people like us end up with such a rotten kid? I try to be a good father.”

Mary shook her head good-humoredly as she dried her wet hands on a dishtowel, slipped an apple pie in the oven, settled the home-make brownies more comfortably on their plate, and adjusted the schedule book in which she juggled her forty-seven different weekly volunteer commitments. “Well, Tom,” she said, “she’s not a bad kid; she just acts like one. Tanya’s felt abandoned since her mother, your ex-wife, stopped taking her bipolar medication and ran off with that bullfighter three months ago, totally ignoring the custody schedule we invested so many lawyers’ bills in setting up. She doesn’t have any safe outlet for her anger, so she is focusing it on you, the parent she barely knew until you gained the full custody you’d been seeking for years because you loved her so much. All you can do is be patient and consistent, earning her trust over time.”

Tom helped himself to a large scoop of the dinner he had known would be waiting for him. “You’re always right, Mary. I’m so lucky to have you.”

Now, this story contains elements of a good character-driven novel, right? There’s a wealth of raw material here: a new custody situation; a teenager dealing with her mother’s madness and affection for matadors; a father suddenly thrust into being the primary caretaker for a child who had been living with his unstable ex; a stepmother torn between her loyalty to her husband and her resentment about abruptly being asked to parent a child in trouble full-time.

But when instant therapy intervenes, all of that juicy conflict just becomes another case study, rather than gas to fuel the rest of the book, diffusing what might have been an interesting scene that either showed the conflict (instead of telling the reader about it), provided interesting character development, or moved the plot along.

Effectively, the narrative’s eagerness to demonstrate the protagonist’s (or other wise adult’s) complete understanding of the situation stops the story cold while the analysis is going on. Not for a second is the reader permitted to speculate whether Tanya’s father or stepmother had done something to provoke her response; we hardly have time even to consider whether Tom’s apparently habitual lateness is legitimate ground for resentment.

A pity, isn’t it? If only Tom had thought, “You know, instead of avoiding conflict, I’m going to maximize it, to make things more interesting for the reader,” and gone to knock on Tanya’s door instead of strolling into the kitchen for coffee and soporific analysis, we might have had all the narrative tension we could eat.

Had the narrative just gone ahead and SHOWN Tom and Mary being patient and consistent, earning Tanya’s trust over the next 200 pages, the reader MIGHT have figured out, I think, that being patient and consistent is a good way to deal with a troubled teenager. But no, the subtle Short Road Home demands that the reader be told what to conclude early and often.

Whenever you notice one of your characters rationalizing in order to sidestep a conflict, ask yourself: am I cheating my readers of an interesting scene here? And if you find you have a Jiminy Cricket character, for heaven’s sake, write a second version of every important scene, a draft where he DOESN’T show up and explain everything in a trice, and see if it isn’t more dynamic. Do this even if your book’s Jiminy Cricket is the protagonist’s therapist.

ESPECIALLY if it’s the therapist.

If you are writing a book where the protagonist spends a significant amount of time in therapy, make sure that you are balancing two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking scenes with scenes of realization outside the office. And make sure to do some solid character development for the therapist as well, to keep these scenes tense and vibrant.

If you are in doubt about how to structure this, take a gander at Judith Guest’s excellent ORDINARY PEOPLE, where most of the protagonist’s breakthroughs occur outside of the therapist’s office. The therapist appears from time to time, punctuating young Conrad’s progress toward rebuilding his life after a particularly grisly suicide attempt with pithy questions, not sum-it-all-up answers.

Here’s a radical thought for revising a Short Road Home scene: what if you tinkered with it so your protagonist learns his lessons primarily through direct personal experience — or through learning about someone else’s direct personal experience told in vivid, tension-filled flashbacks?

Sound familiar? It should: it’s a pretty solid prescription for a narrative that shows, rather than tells.

Which you should strive to do as often as possible — at least in your first book, where you really need to wow the professionals to break in. After you make it big, I give you permission to construct a plot entirely about a couple of characters sitting around talking, motionless.

Happy 500th, everybody — and, as always, keep up the good work!

Learning to take feedback well, or, just how far backwards would you like me to bend?

screaming-statue.jpg

How did you do on this weekend’s little quiz? How many examples did it take you to start to suspect that none of the exemplars were very adept at accepting feedback?

To hear agents and editors tell the tale, difficulty listening to and incorporating constructive criticism is the common cold of the writing breed: eventually, pretty much every writer seems to suffer from it in one form or another. They tend to attribute it to a writerly tendency to be so in love with their own words that the very notion of changing any of ‘em seems downright sacrilegious.

Of course, there are SOME writers who feel this way, but in my experience, that’s not really what is at the core of writers’ kicking and screaming over suggested changes. I suspect that in the vast majority of cases, the phenomenon has less to do with ego (which is what folks in the industry call it when they’re not being polite) than with unrealistic expectations going into the publishing experience.

Or, to put it another way: hands up, everyone who assumed when you first started writing that the draft the author believed was market-ready was identical, plus or minus some proofreading, to what would end up on the shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. Keep those hands raised if you also thought in your dimly-remembered innocence that agents never asked for manuscript changes and that only unmarketable books were subject to requests for major alterations by publishers.

And go ahead and give a great big primal scream if it is now or would ever have been news to you that the industry considers a manuscript a work-in-progress until the covers have actually been affixed to the book. In some cases, even after.

Let’s take a gander at that particular set of shattered assumptions, shall we? Don’t they all really stem from a belief that the writer has complete control over her artistic product — or, to put it a bit more graphically, that a manuscript must either be accepted as is or not at all?

One small problem with these beliefs: neither is true.

Oh, I can certainly understand why an aspiring writer would think that they were — you can hardly throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference these days without hitting someone in the biz explaining at the top of his lungs that the literary market is so tight these days that a submission needs to be polished to the point where it could go to press as is in order to attract the attention of a really good agent or major publishing house.

This does not, however, mean that it will NOT be revised after that point.

In fact, you can bet your next-to-last nickel that it will, no matter how beautifully written that submission actually is. A manuscript’s being revised between acquisition and publication — and usually between the writer’s signing with an agent and the manuscript’s being submitted as well — is the NORM, not the exception. Typically, the editor who acquires the book, the higher-ups at the publishing house, the marketing department, AND the agent have creative input, at least to the extent of asking for changes.

In other words, our pal Alcibiades is not alone — and from his agent and editor’s points of view, it’s pretty astonishing that he would react as though he were. Because, you see, they know that he was not even the only author given a set of change requests that DAY.

Rather than sending you on your merry way for today with your tender sensibilities reeling into shock with the implications of all this for every manuscript currently under construction in the English language, I’m going to ask you to take a couple of deep, cleansing breaths.

No, not those little gasps: I want honest-to-goodness lung-swellers.

That’s better, isn’t it? To get you used to the concept of creative flux, I’m going to ask you to contemplate not the prospect of changing an entire manuscript at an agent or editor’s request, but merely a few short words.

Admittedly, I’m talking about some important words: the title of the book.

Ask 99.999% of aspiring writers — and about 90% of published authors — and they will tell you that a good title is crucial to the success of a book. When a stunner is chosen, then, it is set in stone.

Again, there are many good arguments to be made in favor of this belief. A good title intrigues potential readers: it has good meter, isn’t a cliché (and don’t we all wish the people who title movies understood THAT?), and feels good in the mouth. It is memorable, catchy, and ideally, has something to do with the content and/or tone of the book.

Knowing this, if you are like most authors, you have probably spent months or even years agonizing over whether the title you have selected for your baby is the right one.

So I really, really hate to be the one to break it to you, but the original title the writer bestows upon a manuscript is like the name given to a newborn kitten: the tyke may have been a perfect Cuddles in her infancy, but as an adult, she is probably going to transmogrify at some point into a Chelsea.

In other words, please do not be too disappointed if the title you picked is not be the one that ends up on the published book cover. The author’s choice seldom is.

Nice, deep breaths. That’s right.

This propensity to change is not, I’m told, a reflection upon writers’ ability to tell readers succinctly what their books are about so much as a practical demonstration that marketers control many ostensibly creative decisions. Even great titles hit the dust all the time, because they are too similar to other books currently on the market or don’t contain catchphrases that will resonate with the target market or even just don’t please the people who happen to be sitting in the room when the titling decision is made.

In fact, editorial rumor has it that many marketing departments will automatically reject the first title offered by the author, on general principle, no matter how good or how apt it may be, in order to put the publishing house’s stamp upon the book.

I don’t know how true this rumor is, but I can tell you for an absolute certainty that if your publisher retitles your book, literally everyone at the publishing house will think you are unreasonable to mind at all. In fact, they will probably be hurt if you are not positively thrilled with the new title.

Keep breathing. If you can get past this, the worst is over.

I could give you hundreds of examples, but as I have personal experience with this phenomenon, I’ll share it with you. My memoir was originally titled IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, but I certainly did not expect it to stick. As a freelance editor and friend of hundreds of aspiring writers, I have held a lot of weeping authors’ hands in the aftermath of their titles being ruthlessly changed from above.

In short, I was expecting my title to be changed, and frankly, I was not expecting to be consulted about it. I am, after all, not a person with a marketing degree, but a writer and editor. I know a good title when I see one, but I cannot legitimately claim to know why one book will make its way up to the cash register while the one next to it won’t. I was prepared, then, to be humble and bow to the inevitable. I was prepared to be spectacularly reasonable.

This compliant attitude, I am sorry to report, was not adequate to deal with the situation. I could have been as chipper as Shirley Temple in tap-dancing shoes and as willing to change my habits as a first-time dieter, and it still would not have been enough.

As it happens, outside forces intervened, sealing my fate. At the time, my former writing teacher Philip K. Dick’s work was, and remains, popular with moviemakers: one of the selling points of my memoir was that two movies based upon his works were scheduled to come out within the next year and a half, A SCANNER DARKLY in the fall of 2005 and THE GOLDEN MAN in the summer of 2006. However, movie schedules being what they are and animation being time-consuming, A SCANNER DARKLY’s release date got pushed back to March, 2006. And THE GOLDEN MAN (retitled NEXT) was pushed back to 2007.

This could not have been better news to the folks sitting in marketing meetings in 2005, talking about my book. IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? was already scheduled to be published in the winter of 2006. In the blink of an eye, my nebulous publication date gelled into almost instantaneous firmness, to coincide with a film release date, and the marketing department decided within the course of a single meeting to change the title of my book to A FAMILY DARKLY.

“Interesting,” I said cautiously when my editor first told me that my baby had been rechristened while I was looking the other way. “Um, do you mind if I ask what A FAMILY DARKLY means?”

Thereupon followed much scintillating discussion – and no, I still haven’t found out what it means, or why it was deemed necessary to throw the rules of grammar to the winds. Suffice it to say that both sides set forth their arguments; mine were deemed too “academic” (meaning that I hold an earned doctorate from a major research university, which apparently rendered my opinion on what motivates book buyers, if not actually valueless, at any rate very amusing indeed to marketing types), and the title remained changed.

Some of you have gone cataleptic with horror, haven’t you? Try wiggling your toes and allowing yourself to be distracted by the question murmured by some of your fellow readers: “Why did they bother to discuss it with you at all, if they had already made up their minds?”

An excellent question, and one that richly deserves an answer; half the published writers I know have wailed this very question skyward repeatedly after their titles were summarily changed by their publishers. I believe that the answer lies in the field of psychology.

Because, you see, when a brand-new title is imposed upon a book, the publishers don’t just want the author to go along with it: they want the author to LIKE it. And if the title goes through several permutations, they want the author to be more enthusiastic about the final change than about the first one.

In other words: get out those tap-dancing shoes, Shirley.

Furthermore, your enthusiasm is, if you please, to be instantaneous, despite the fact that if the marketing department is mistaken about the market value of the new title, the author is invariably blamed. (Think about it: haven’t you always held your favorite writers responsible if their new books have silly monikers?)

Oh, and unless your contract states specifically that you have veto power over the title, you’re going to lose the fight hands down, even if you don’t suffer the argumentative handicap of holding postgraduate degrees.

This is not the kind of frustration you can complain about to your writing friends, either. You will see it in their eyes, even if they are too polite to say it out loud: you have a publishing contract, and you’re COMPLAINING?

Thus, the hapless author gets it from both sides: you’re an uncooperative, unrealistic, market-ignorant mule to your publishers, and you’re a self-centered, quibbling deal-blower to your friends. All anyone can agree about is that you are ungrateful beyond human example.

I wish I could report that I had found a clever way to navigate past this Scylla and Charybdis, to win the battle AND the war — but I have not, nor has any author I know. The best you can hope to be, when your time comes, is polite and professional. And a damned good tap-dancer.

I guess, in the end, all the writer can do is accept that some things, like the weather and the titles of her own books, are simply beyond her control, now and forever, amen. For my next book, I gave it my SECOND-best title, reserving my first choice for the inevitable discussion with the folks on the editorial side.

You know what? They kind of liked both of ‘em — and I preserved my reputation for being cooperative and flexible.

Why did I chose to tell you this story at the beginning of my series on taking feedback well, you ask? Simple: to demonstrate just how flexible a first-time author is expected to be — and how high the stakes can be if she can’t quite manage to bend on a small point.

If you’re going to limber up, I think you deserve to know for whom you will be performing that nifty dance routine. Keep up the good work!

An interesting little piece on my mother — and a few thoughts on keeping the faith

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Hey, those of you who have at least a passing interest in my family’s long and semi-illustrious connection with modern science fiction: TotalDick-Head.com has posted a nice little piece on my mother, Kleo Mini, better known to short story readers as K. Emmanuel.

The picture above appears courtesy of some really nice passerby outside the old San Francisco beatnik hangout, the Caffe Trieste, a generous soul whose name has apparently already been lost in the mist of time. The jovial fellow next to her is David Gill, known to all of us here at Author! Author! as the Philip K. Dick scholar whom I invited to join me to speak at Harvard recently.

For those of you who weren’t reading this blog during the tumultuous period when my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, was teetering breathlessly on the edge of publication, my mother was married to the aforementioned science fiction writer throughout the 1950s, the period during which he first began writing professionally. Back then, she looked like this:

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One of the great advantages of growing up in a family of writers (my father, uncle, brother, and a hefty percentage of the family’s friends all hammered away on the same anvil) is not only seeing with one’s own wee eyes that making a living at it is indeed possible, but also hearing from one’s cradle continual confirmation that yes, baby, even the most talented writers on earth have had to struggle with rejection.

Or, to be precise, one is told that back in the day, it wasn’t easy, either. Heck, writers in the 40s and 50s evidently had to walk uphill both ways to the post office in three feet of snow to submit hand-typed manuscripts to agents and editors.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might conceivably be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), a writer could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz; equally obviously, no sane human being would send out his only copy.

So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses? They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page.

This is the origin of the SASE, in case any of you had been wondering: getting their rejected manuscripts back would save writers weeks of retyping time.

This fact is as ingrained in my family’s lore as the story of how my parents met. Back in the far-away 1950s, while Kleo toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories. Dozens of them. As writers did in the days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into a gray Manila envelope with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy.

(Because Kleo had a big brother in the SF biz, she knew to take both her agoraphobic husband’s writing and her own to be critiqued by other writers and editors at the time, which is actually how Philip got his first story published — and how she acquired many of her own excellent copyediting skills. But that’s another story — and part of the memoir that the Dick estate sued to prevent being published. Amazing how persuasive people with millions of dollars can be, in the lawsuit-shy post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES environment. But I digress.)

When a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it in the mail.

Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But both Philip and Kleo kept typing away, keeping as many stories in circulation at once as possible.

How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore (since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost), but one day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their miniscule front porch.

Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

I have it on pretty good authority that one of those stories was “The Minority Report.” Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.

So what did the aspiring writers of yesteryear do when faced with 17 rejections on the same day? Did they toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did they rend their garments and give up writing forever? Did they poison their mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once? All of the above?

No, they did what professional writers did back then: the wife ironed the pages so they could be sent out to the next magazine.

As a writer, I’ve always found this story very comforting. All too often, those of us in the writing community fall under the spell of the common mainstream illusion that any writer with real talent will inevitably be discovered, signed by an agent, and lauded to the skies after a single submission or contest entry.

Come on, admit it: didn’t you send out your first query letter fully expecting to receive a phone call from an agent begging for your manuscript by the end of the week? Didn’t you walk into your first literary conference believing that the ideal agent for your work was waiting there, would demand to read your book in its entirety on the spot, and would sign you before the conference was over? Didn’t you first contemplate contest entry primarily in terms of how heaped with laurels you would inevitably be?

Really, on your low days, don’t you still cherish the illusion that your literary gifts are so valuable to the reading world that some morning, you’ll hear a knock on your door, and it will be the agent of your dreams, begging for the privilege of carrying your work reverently to the perfect editor, who will naturally drop everything to read it, fall in love with it, and acquire it by next Tuesday? The book will, naturally, be out within the month, and before spring is truly upon us, you’ll be chatting with Oprah about it, right?

And the fact that this has literally never happened to someone who wasn’t already a celebrity for some other reason doesn’t really affect the sense that it SHOULD happen to the truly talented, does it? And that’s a genuine shame, because that nagging SHOULD has made virtually every gifted writer feel like throwing in the towel from time to time.

In reality, most authors who hit the big time put in years of hard, dispiriting work to get there. Overnight success is usually an illusion reserved for onlookers — and lasting success tends to reward those who have built up their writer’s tool bags with professional skills.

How did they pull that off? By doing precisely what you have been doing, I hope: by learning which agents and publishing houses would be most receptive to your work, refining your query letters until they positively glow with professionalism, and polishing your manuscripts until they shout, “HERE IS A GREAT ORIGINAL VOICE PRESENTED AS THE INDUSTRY LIKES TO SEE MANUSCRIPTS!” By reading in your chosen book category until you have such a strong sense of the current market that you can state without hesitation why your target audience needs your book. By learning the advantages of seeking out good feedback — and training yourself not to take criticism of your work as a reflection upon your personality. By becoming skilled in self-editing and incorporating feedback so that you may turn around revisions in a timely manner.

And by reminding yourself that the only manuscript that has NO shot at publication is the one that the writer never sends out.

Yes, it’s probably going to take sending it out a LOT to reach the agent and editor best suited to working with your unique voice and worldview — but a lengthy search is not necessarily a barometer of the writer’s talent.

History shows us that even the best books often take a good, long time to find a home. I know that I’ve pointed this out before, but 5 of the 20 best-selling books of the twentieth century were initially rejected by more than a dozen publishers:

Dr. Seuss, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (rejected by 23 publishers)

Richard Hooker, M*A*S*H (21)

Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki (20)

Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (18)

Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame (17)

I’m not going to lie to you: this is a tough business, requiring a perversely diverse array of personal attributes: an attention to detail that would make Thomas Edison weep with envy, a sensitive perceptiveness to social dynamics that would make Freud gnash his teeth and run back to the drawing board, a marketing savvy that would make Jacqueline Susann seem dilettantish (if you ever aspire to promoting your own work, see ISN’T SHE GREAT? with all possible dispatch) , and an idealistic tenacity of purpose that even Don Quixote would consider unreasonably strong. Not to mention the favor of the muses that we know as talent.

A tall order? Sure. But somehow, I suspect that you have it in you. Because, as Maya Angelou tells us, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

Keep metaphorically ironing those pages, everyone, and keep on patiently adding tools to your writer’s bag of tricks. And, as always, keep up the good work.

Telling your life story to the judge, part II

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Before I launch into today’s topic, campers, I have a bit of a modification to yesterday’s post. My interview on Dickien.fr is indeed located in the links I listed — here for English and here for French — but in order to leave a comment, readers will need to go to the site’s homepage and click on Commentaires. I know from delightful experience that many of you are inveterate web commenters.

Far be it from me to curtail your freedom of expression. That’s not my style. And frankly, it would be nice for the interviewer to hear that English-speaking readers are interested in my book.

Let’s get back to work.

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

Well, that’s a good point, disembodied voice. But you still shouldn’t do it for several reasons, all of which boil down to this: are you sure enough about that to risk your entry’s getting disqualified?

First, as I mentioned yesterday, such is the seriousness with which blind judging is taken that if a judge even SUSPECTS that an entry contains the author’s name, that entry may be toast. It doesn’t matter if the judge can GUESS who the author is — since the rules don’t call for complete negation of the memoirist’s identity, all they can catch you on is the use of your name. They watch for it like the proverbial hawks.

But, to be fair, it does not require much of a cognitive leap to conclude that the Sheila Mae who is narrating a memoir excerpt is, in fact, the same Sheila Mae who wrote it.

Second, it is not unheard-of for contests to employ (or, more commonly, impress volunteers into servitude as) initial screeners, whose SOLE function is to check the entries for rule violations before the entries are distributed to the judges who will rate them on more sophisticated bases.

These screeners sometimes do have your entire entry packet – and thus your name, and will be able to tell immediately if you have violated the don’t-use-your-name rule. So there.

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

It’s a boring job. So tell me: how likely do you think it is that such a mail-sorter would glance at the first page of the entry, to render the process a trifle less tedious?

And how many memoir first pages have you ever seen that DIDN’T include SOME mention of the memoir subject’s name? I rest my case.

Except to say: I know that my harping on this is going to throw the more conscientious memoirists out there into a frenzy of proofreading. Actually, though, the entry where the writer has obviously made a determined effort to rid the document of his own name but missed a single instasnce is not usually the one that ends up getting disqualified. Oh, it will certainly get marked down, but probably not thrown into the trash.

So what kinds of violations of this rule DO tend to get the entry disqualified on sight? The one where the entrant clearly didn’t bother to read the rules, but simply printed up the already-existing first chapter and submitted it.

You’d be astonished at how common that is — and how obvious it is to the judges. At least, I hope you would be.

There is, as I mentioned yesterday, one absolutely foolproof, not very time-consuming means of avoiding the problem altogether, of course: use a pseudonym within the context of the entry, adding a note on your title page, STATING that you have changed the names in order to adhere to the rules of the contest.

“For the purposes of this entry,” you could write, “I have changed my family name to Parrothead.”

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

Other good tip for memoirists entering their work in contests is to do a bit of market research prior to entry. (Actually, this is a good idea for anyone writing a book, and certainly for everyone who has to write a synopsis for a contest.) Are there memoirs currently on the market — and in case you were not aware of it, for the industry to consider a published book part of the market, a book either has to have been released within the last five years or have been a bestseller within the last ten — similar to yours?

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

It is a question well worth asking before entering a memoir into a contest – or indeed, before trying to market it at all.

All of us tend to think of our own experiences as unique, which of course they are; every point of view is to a very great extent original. However, every memoir is about something in addition to the personality of the person writing it, right?

The frequency with which books on those other subjects turn up on the shelves of Barnes & Noble is definitely a matter of fashion; there are fads in memoir-writing, just as in any other kind of publishing, and you can bet your boots that if a particular subject matter is hot this year, the nonfiction rolls of every contest in the country will receive quantities of that type of memoir.

Remember, for instance, after Lance Armstrong’s book came out, and suddenly there were a zillion upbeat I-survived-a-lethal-illness memoirs?

Well, so do contest judges: they read thousands of them. Which meant, in practical terms, that it was quite a bit harder to wow a judge with an illness memoir in that period than at any other time in human history.

Also, certain life experiences tend to recur across a population with predictable regularity, and if you are writing about a well-trodden topic, it is IMPERATIVE that you make it clear in your contest entry PRECISELY how your book is different from the others currently on the market.

Because – and I tremble to tell you this, but it’s true – if you are writing on certain over-mined topics, even the most heart-felt prose can start those cliché warning bells pealing in the average judge’s brainpan.

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

Before you bemoan this, recall that not only do agents, editors, and contest judges get tired of seeing the same types of books over and over again; so do readers. Think about how many people suddenly started writing accounts of growing up poor immediately after ANGELA’S ASHES hit the big time, or about over-medicated, over-sexed teenagerhoods in the wake of PROZAC NATION, and plan accordingly.

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

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

Not that any of these judges have anything against women who care for their aging parents; nor is anyone is rooting for those life-long disagreements NOT to be mended. But honestly, after fifteen or twenty of these in a single year’s crop of entries — that’s not an exaggeration, incidentally — a judge does start to long for a nice entry about, say, someone who was mauled by a tiger. Or hit by lightning.

Or at least not following in the wheeltracks of Lance Armstrong.

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

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

And any reworking of the concepts of THE DA VINCI CODE or the bestsellers of last year.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t bother to enter memoirs that encroach upon these well-trodden areas. You should, if that is the story you burn to tell.

But alert the judge to the ways your book is different and better as soon as possible: on page one of the entry, if you can, and within the first few paragraphs of the synopsis. And don’t just SAY that your book is unique: SHOW it.

For instance, if your memoir details your spiritual awakening, your discovery that the giant corporation for which you worked is corrupt — because, you know, that’s always a surprise — you might want to invest some time in market research to figure out how to make your book come across as fresh and exciting to jaded professional readers.

How? Well, if you check a well-stocked bookstore, or even run your subject matter through an Amazon search, you will get a pretty firm idea of how many other accounts there are that resemble your own, at least superficially.

Some of you are feeling a trifle grumpy at this prospect, aren’t you? I can’t say as I blame you, really. Try to
think of this research as practice for writing that inevitable book proposal.

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

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

If a reasonably intelligent judge could make it through your memoir entry without being able to answer these questions, you should probably consider a spot of revision before you mail off the entry.

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

Well, no, but unfortunately, if you are writing about a common experience, you also probably cannot get away with assuming that the writing alone will differentiate it from the other submissions. Again, if there’s recently been a bestseller along similar lines as yours, yours will almost certainly not be the only entry that resembles it.

To put it another way, you can’t be certain that the finding a sense of wholeness after the death of a loved one memoir that the judge read immediately before yours was not written by Emily Brontë and Gustave Flaubert’s oddly gifted spiritual love child, can you?

Sad but true, if you are writing on a common topic, the bar automatically goes higher, alas, for making YOUR story stand out amongst the rest. You really have to knock their socks off, to an extent that you might not if your topic were not popular that year.

Sorry.

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

Yes, yes, I know: I’m asking a lot of you here, but I’m positive that you can do this.

You want to know how I know? Because a writer with the staggering courage and honestly to write a truly self-revealing memoir, rather than one that simply makes the self look good, is a writer who has had to master many subtle writing skills. Call me zany, but compared to laying your soul bare on paper, doing a little market research and a bit of book promotion is a walk in the park.

Not a very pleasant park, true, but still, not a minefield. Keep up the good work!

More contest entry bugbears: what’s in a name?

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Anne contemplates her past at Harvard.

Before I launch into today’s topic, I wanted to give you all a heads-up about an interview I have just given to that excellent French Philip K. Dick fansite, Dickien.fr on the subject of my long-delayed memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. For those of you who have been curious about the book (and the hold-up), this interview may answer a few questions.

Charmingly, they’ve posted it both in English and in French. I got a big kick out of that. It’s not the first time my work has been published in other tongues (I wrote for a Dutch magazine, briefly), but it IS the first time it’s been in a language I can read. It makes me sound very soigné.

Fair warning: over the last few years, most of my attempts to tell the story behind my memoir (or, to put it another way, my life before the age of 15) have resulted in nasty lawsuit threats. The question of whether I own my memories or a small corporation does is, in addition to a fabulous-sounding premise for a Philip K. Dick novel, the central fact of my writing life of late.

Call it a literary identity crisis.

In keeping with the theme of the interview, this seems like the natural moment to concentrate for a post upon a category dear to my heart: memoir. As a past PNWA Zola Award winner for best nonfiction book/memoir — for an early draft of the book mentioned above, as it happens — I have a thing or two to say on what does and doesn’t tend to make a memoir entry sing.

So let’s get right to it, shall we? Because I have been concentrating upon technicalities for the past few days, let me begin with the most important one for memoir — and the one most frequently violated:

please, I implore you, if you are submitting a memoir entry to a blind-judged contest, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this applies to EITHER your first OR your last name.

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

Seriously, memoirists run afoul of this rule all the time, for the exceedingly simple reason that their names tend to appear a whole lot more often in their work than, say, a SF writer’s would in his. (Philip is a notable exception, of course; he created fictional characters with permutations of his own name all the time.) It’s pretty easy to overlook a single reference to the protagonist in a book that’s written in the first person.

Unless, of course, you are writing anonymously, or under a pseudonym. Even then, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying something along the lines of:

since the contest forbids mention of the author’s name, I have substituted “Billie Bartolucci” throughout.

Billy Bartolucci, incidentally, was an immense linebacker at my high school, sweet enough to get a big kick out of the fact that the girls in the drama club used to claim that they were Miss Billie when some ne’er-do-well asked for their names and phone numbers. Billy sounded like Darth Vader on the phone, so the effects were sometimes dramatic.

But I digress. For those of you who have not yet tread the memoir path (which is, I notice, more or less de rigeur for a novelist who hopes to win the Nobel Prize someday), it’s practically impossible NOT refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life. Contest judges are aware of that, and become accordingly eagle-eyed.

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

As usual, it all comes down to time.

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

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

Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story about where such cleverness might lead. I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who periodically contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. Now, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club.

But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on.

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

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

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

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

And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified.

Yes, even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.

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

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

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

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

Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Naturally, a simple search-and-replace could weed out uses of the name, but late at night, just before a contest deadline, slips do occur.

Luckily, these slips tend to concentrate within certain contexts. Biddy should check her entry especially carefully in the following scenes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m funny that way. Keep up the good work!

All that glitters is not…oh, wait, it is

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I’m just back from spending the weekend at Harvard, my alma mater, giving a talk about my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. It was, amazingly enough, the first time I’ve spoken about the memoir in public — as in EVER — although I have given a scant handful of print, web, and film interviews since the book was supposed to have come out in 2006. (For those of you who arrived at this community after that furor, a $2 million lawsuit threat had stalled the publication process ever since.)

Well, okay, perhaps that isn’t quite accurate. Since I went there in the 1980s and I possess ovaries, technically, I went to Harvard/Radcliffe; the boys went to Harvard. Seriously, they didn’t start giving male and female graduates the same diploma until just a few years ago.

Not that we chicks minded that or anything.

The Radcliffe part, in case you’re interested, is an homage to 18th-century British novelist Ann Radcliffe, who more or less invented the Gothic potboiler, the pulp fiction of her day. She’s best known today as the author of the works that Jane Austen parodied in NORTHANGER ABBEY, but at the height of her popularity, she apparently sent 50 pounds to Harvard along with the suggestion that they might want to consider admitting women. About a century later, they got around to it.

As time passes, an alumna begins to get dismissive about the Harvard mystique, I notice. Okay, it’s a good school, even a great one, depending upon what one wants to study, but to deserve its reputation, wouldn’t plush red carpets have to be rolled out under students’ feet as they passed, showers of jewels float about them whilst they study, and Nobel laureates chat casually with them at every meal?

I mean, really: we’re talking about the same amenities that other campuses have, right, libraries and professors, just with more money behind them than most?

And then I revisited my old dorm. The picture above shows the entryway to the dining hall.

Yes, those walls ARE made of gold, thank you very much, and during my sophomore year, I lived upstairs from the poet Seamus Heaney. To be fair, though, at the time, he was almost ten years away from winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he did occasionally drop by my table to chat at lunch.

Oh, and the libraries were pretty good, too.

My talk was at Vericon, for those of you who did not become heartily sick of my squawking about it last week, the annual convention sponsored by the Harvard/Radcliffe Science Fiction Association. As a founding member (I was known as the girl, thus the inclusion of Radcliffe in the name of the club), my lecture was scheduled to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the group’s inception.

Yes, I am really that old. I don’t believe it, either.

Going back to see the long-term effects of what some friends of mine and I had wrought a couple of decades ago would have been strange enough, even if it hadn’t been — pardon my French — damned hard to set the club up in the first place.

But the fact is, the group’s rise from a handful of SF-loving geeks (admittedly, attractive, well-rounded ones, for the most part, but geeks nonetheless) fighting with the university to establish a club devoted to a book genre that the English department would not even consider touching with the proverbial ten-foot pole to a well-established, well-respected social club that sponsors, with the university’s fervent blessing, a full-scale convention and a magazine…

Well, that’s quite a trajectory for a scant 20 years, and mirrors SF/fantasy’s growing acceptance as literature in general.

It definitely reflects my extended family’s experience over the past 50 years. In the early 1950s, the literary productions of such writers as Philip K. Dick (my mother’s husband at the time) and Alex Apostolides (my mother’s big brother) were considered only marginally more respectable than pornography. (To underscore the irony of this, Uncle Alex was best known for a short story he co-wrote with Hugo Award winner Mark Clifton, “What Thin Partitions,” which appeared in The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1954, along with Richard Matheson’s “The Last Day.” Uncle Alex was also an editor at the Los Angeles Free Press, where for years he was listed on the masthead as Staff Shaman.)

Science fiction, in other words, was a pulp genre utterly dismissed by the literati, if and when they deigned to discuss it, as trash for the masses. The literary mainstream barely regarded it as having been written in English.

A view not entirely dissimilar to that expressed in the mid-1980s by the English professors we asked to be HRSFA’s faculty advisors, incidentally — and virtually identical to the response I received a few short years ago, when I mentioned to a well-respected author who regularly serves on major literary grant committees that I was writing a memoir about my relationship with arguably the most important science fiction writer of the 20th century.

Science fiction?” the grand dame exclaimed, wrinkling up her august nose; if she’d had skirts to sweep aside, she would have. “Obviously, I never read it. Why would you waste your talent on that?”

Times, as they say, change. Ask the staff of any used bookstore that stocks American literature of the past fifty years, and they will tell you that there are two authors whose books they positively cannot keep on the shelves: Philip K. Dick and Charles Bukowski.

The latter of whom, incidentally, was a writer for the Los Angeles Free Press.

Last year, Philip was the first SF author to have his work published in the prestigious Library of America series, billed by the New York Times Book Review as the “quasi-official national canon” of American literature. And this year, I gave a lecture on his life and work in the classroom that had previously housed my favorite class as an undergraduate — a course taught, come to think of it, by a professor who refused my request to become HRSFA’s faculty advisor.

Wonders, in fact, never cease; if only Philip or Uncle Alex had lived to see it.

How did it feel to give that talk? As the Doge of Genoa allegedly told someone who asked him to name the greatest wonder he saw at the court of Louis XIV at Versailles — pardon my French again — “Ce qui m’étonne le plus ici, c’est de m’y voir.”

To paraphrase, nothing about it astonished me more than the fact that I, of all people, was there to see it. (Did I mention that the libraries at Harvard were pretty good?)

I marched into that lecture hall practically floating upon the otherworldly cheers of that hefty portion of the choir celestial composed entirely of late under-appreciated writers in every genre. I shared the podium with San Francisco State professor and blogger David Gill, who treated us to a trenchant analysis of Philip Dick’s rise to respectability, complete with pictures.

Or is it really respectability? Through a series of sometimes startling excerpts from reviews and articles, some of which were written in response to the release of Philip’s novel anthology by the Library of America, David demonstrated that much of the recent acclaim has been accompanied by some rather nasty back-handed slaps: in the same breath as they call Philip a genius, they call him a madman, a drug addict, a fruitcake.

All of those phrases are lifted from actual articles, by the way.

The audience oohed, ahed, and chuckled as David demonstrated the bifurcated past and current public image. They became rather quiet when I told them who I was — and that I had spent a significant portion of my childhood and adolescence not only seeing the many ways in which that public persona was not an accurate reflection of the man, but observing and even participating in Philip’s creative manipulation of the media to produce that wacky image.

I come by my storytelling credentials honestly, you see, having grown up helping make up stories for a famous man to tell credulous press. Because, after all, constructing fantasy is the family business.

I’d tell you all about it, but the last time I committed my life story to print, lawyers came storming after me. Sorry about that.

Suffice it to say, the audience did not seem to find my truthful account unconvincing. Which is — if I may be permitted to blow my own horn for a moment — saying something, because as Philip taught me, a really well-constructed fiction is not only more entertaining than the truth, usually, but generally more plausible.

Reality has all sorts of rough edges that a smart storyteller will smooth out.

During the question-and-answer period after my talk, a pretty young woman in the audience — who will, because the times they are a-changin’, receive a diploma marked Harvard in a year or two, rather than a hyphenate reflection upon her gender and a memorial to the generosity of Ann Radcliffe a couple of centuries ago — raised her hand to inform me that she had been assigned to read Philip’s work in a class.

As in recently. As in at Harvard. And the celestial choir of genre writers broke into triumphant song.

Just for a moment, leaning on the podium in front of that room full of science fiction and fantasy fans, including one of the very fans from the mid-1970s Philip — yes, and I — had worked so hard to keep entertained with wild pseudo-biography, I felt not only Philip’s vindication, and my mother’s, and Uncle Alex’s, but the hilarious satisfaction of Ann Radcliffe as well. She had a dream of seeing women at Harvard; I had a dream of seeing science fiction and fantasy treated with respect there.

Just because something impressive seems set in stone doesn’t mean that it actually is permanent. A barrier may be hard to move, but impossible? I don’t think so.

And that, in case you had been wondering, is why I never waver in my faith, exhibited here on a daily basis, that good writing will eventually make its way into the public eye. It may take decades of toil, tears, and plain dogged persistence, but it will. I’ve seen it; my family has seen it; Harvard has seen it.

Bet your bottom dollar on the Ann Radcliffes of this world, my friends. They, like the other wacky dreamers dismissed by the mainstream as disrupters of the status quo, tend to win in the end.

Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: what do you wish you had known before you entered your first contest?

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Personal business first — hey, narcissism is the blogger’s privilege, right? — a quick update for those of you who were thinking (seriously, I hope) of coming to my talk this coming Saturday, January 26th, at Vericon, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual SF convention. Admission to an entire day’s events runs from $10 – $20, depending upon when you register, and kids under 14 get in free, so I hope to see many of you there.

There will also be some pretty terrific SF, fantasy, YA, and graphic novel writers in attendance, including Orson Scott Card (the keynote speaker), M.T. Anderson, Cassandra Clare, Marie Brennan, Elizabeth Haydon, Jim Kelly, Kelly Link, Lois Lowry, Randall Munroe, Donna Jo Napoli, Sharyn November, and William Sleator. Most of them seem to e speaking/signing at several events (judging from the schedule, I don’t think you’ll be able to throw a piece of bread at the conference without hitting the aforementioned OSC), so your opportunities to ask probing questions about improving your craft should be vast. Actually, a quite good events geared for SF/fantasy writers appears to be happening during my talk — and if that’s not a recipe for convention richness, I should like to know what is.

If you’re in the area, why not stop on by? As incentive, let’s take another look at that stunning logo, shall we?

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Okay, that should be enough of a dragon fix for anyone for one day. Back to business.

As I have been hinting for the last few weeks, I am going to be launching tomorrow into a fairly hefty series on contest entry preparation. As an author who landed her agent partially as a result of having won a literary contest of some repute (with an early draft of the memoir about which I shall be lecturing on Saturday, as a matter of fact), I am, as my long-time readers already know, a tireless proponent for this brand of eye-catching query letter candy.

(That deserves an acronym of its own, doesn’t it? Now and forever after, it shall be known on this site as ECQLC; pronounce it if you dare.)

To that end, I concentrated fairly hard on a single contest’s requirements last year (and if you’re interested in entering the contest sponsored by the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, last year’s tips have been carefully preserved under the CONTEST ENTRY PREP category at right). In perhaps unrelated news, that contest’s entry pool evidently reached unprecedented proportions, thus creating greater competition for those who entered.

Great for the sponsoring organization, of course, but not necessarily a good thing for my readers who entered. Except, perhaps, for the one member of our little Author! Author! community who won, and the several others who placed and made finalist. (Toot, toot goes the horn.)

This year, I’m going to make every effort to be impartial about which contest’s rules I use for examples, to avoid even the appearance of favoring one over another. Since I know that not all of my readers are interested in entering contests, I shall also be gearing this year’s discussions of reliable contest judges’ pet peeves toward those that are also notorious agency screener pet peeves.

It’s going to be a pet peeve-a-thon! I can hardly wait.

To start us off on the right foot — and to get a better sense of what kinds of contests you’ve been considering entering — I’m going to turn the floor over to you for the day. Those of you who have entered contests in the past, what do you wish someone had told you before you entered for the first time?

For those of you who have not entered contests, but considered it: what are you looking for in a literary contest? What would you like winning it to do for you — and how difficult have you found it to track down a contest that offers those benefits?

And, as always: is there any aspect of contest entry that you find particularly puzzling, so I know to include discussion of it in posts to come?

To get the ball rolling, I’ll start: I wish that I had realized prior to my first contest entry how heavily the potential marketability of the book tends to weigh in the judging. Oh, I knew to check lists of past winners of broadly-defined categories in order to see if certain types of books had traditionally won. (In the contest where my memoir won, for instance, the nonfiction book winner has rarely been anything but a memoir, bad luck for writers of other NF books.) But it had not occurred to me before my first entry that contest judges might be using the same criteria as agencies. Or at any rate, what they believed to be the criteria used at agencies.

Instead, I had thought — possibly because the contests I was entering said as much on their promotional materials — that the only things that mattered were the beauty of the writing, how professionally it was presented, and how compelling the story was. The first time I received contest feedback that said, “Great story, well told — too bad that there isn’t a market for it,” I was crushed.

But I did learn from that experience: the next time I entered a contest, I sent not my best writing, but my most marketable idea. And I won. So I suppose I should be grateful to that curmudgeonly contest judge, in retrospect.

Your turn. As always, keep up the good work!

But don’t I already have a date to the prom? part II

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Nifty logo, eh? It’s my ever-so-subtle way of reminding those of you in the greater Boston area about my upcoming talk at Harvard next Saturday, January 26th. I shall be speaking on the Multiple Myths of Philip K. Dick, along with David Gill of TotalDickHead.com — and since this will be my first public speech on the subject of my legally embattled memoir, I think it may be a tad on the exciting side.

Come to meet me, stay to hear Orson Scott Card or play Scrabble with a HarvardianVericon, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual SF convention, is typically a hoot, so it’s well worth the (quite inexpensive, and even less so for students) price of admission. I have been a bit quieter on the subject than I should have, I realize, considering that preregistration is less expensive than paying at the door.

I shall be plugging this event shamelessly over the next week, of course. I always like meeting my readers, and it really is about time that I started talking about the memoir, threats or no. (In case any of you were wondering, despite what Amazon says, my memoir never actually came out, due to the aforementioned lawsuit threats; my publisher apparently never changed the release information. So thank you to those of you who have asked, but I’m afraid that I can’t score a stray copy for anyone, because they were never actually printed. Sorry about that.)

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Like that little red picket fence separating the plug for my talk from today’s business? As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been spending the week going through my ever-expanding gee, I need to blog on that someday list, the place where I keep track of all of the murky issues writers have asked me to clarify at some point.

Our murk du jour — actually, I began talking about it yesterday, as those of you who tuned in yesterday already know, so I suppose it is now the murk des deux jours — concerns submission to an agent who has asked for an exclusive look at the manuscript or an agency that will, as a matter of policy, will only accept exclusive submissions.

At the end of yesterday’s post on the different kinds of exclusives, I was positive that I heard some polite hemming out there in the ether, “Um, Anne?” some of you would-be submitters piped, “I’m a trifle confused. If, as you say, agencies that have an exclusives-only policy are so upfront about it, why do you keep getting questions from writers about how to deal with them AFTER the query has already gone out? Surely, the asking writers knew about the policy before they queried, right?”

Point well taken, but I’m not here to judge; I come bearing advice. The fact is, some aspiring writers do find themselves caught with a submission or two already out when the request for an exclusive submission comes in, and today, I’m going to talk about how they should handle it.

Hey, it can happen. Perhaps the writer (let’s call her Mehitabel) suddenly won a contest entered months before, and thus is suddenly a hot commodity, prompting an agent (let’s call him Quentin) to want to snap her up before others can woo her. Or maybe Mehitabel is sought-after because she abruptly snagged an Oscar, rescued a child fallen down a well, or declared a run for the presidency.

Why wouldn’t Quentin just rush up to her and offer a representation contract on the spot, if Mehitabel is such a hot ticket? Because the industry just doesn’t work that way; he’s going to want to see if he likes her writing first, not just her premise or her personally. More importantly, he needs to determine whether he thinks he can sell her writing easily to his already-existing contacts.

Either of which would be tough to pull off without reading the book in question.

Actually, these questions are not only at the top of the consideration list with a hot ticket — contrary to the expectations of many a pitcher at many a literary conference, agents literally never offer representation on an idea or prestige alone.

Did those first couple of examples seem a trifle far-fetched? Well, try a more common scenario on for size: perhaps other agents had been sitting on Mehitabel’s manuscript so long that she honestly wasn’t sure if her work was still under consideration when she queried Quentin, who works at an exclusives-only agency.

Or, still more common, perhaps she betting that she would hear back from Quentin before she received responses to any of the other two dozen queries she sent out three weeks ago along with the one to him.

Or perhaps — and I say this not to criticize our Mehitabel, who goodness knows has been working hard for years, but to prompt second thoughts amongst those who might be placing themselves in this position — she went ahead and included Quentin on her query list because she didn’t read his agency’s website closely enough.

However Mehitabel has ended up in the frankly rather enviable position of having several agents, one of whom is exclusive-happy, wanting to take a gander at her work, the fact remains that she now has a genuine dilemma on her hands. Since she already has submissions with agents, what is she to do about Quentin’s request for an exclusive?

Actually, before I answer that, why don’t you take a stab at it? Should Mehitabel:

(a) Wait in impatient silence until she hears back from the agents who already have it before sending it out — and then, if they do not offer representation, send out to Quentin along with a cover letter agreeing to an exclusive?

(b) Pretend that she doesn’t have submissions at other agencies, and just go ahead and send the requested materials to Quentin, trusting to Providence that not all of the agents will ask to represent her work?

(c) Call or e-mail Quentin, explain the situation, and ask if she should submit anyway?

(d) Contact the agents who already have the work, explain the situation, and ask them to hurry their decision to accept or reject her, so that she may get back to Quentin in a timely manner?

(e) Curse the day that she listened to that darned fool on the Internet who told her that it was more efficient to query many agents at once, rather than one at a time?

Scratching your head over this one? Before you commit to your final answer, let’s run through the pros and cons of each path:

If Mehitabel goes with option (a), she will be taking the moral high road (particularly if she sends Quentin an e-mail explaining why she can’t send off the requested materials right away). However, she will not have any control over how long it will take for the others to get back to her, so she will risk Quentin’s interest in her book cooling off.

How so? Well, in case you haven’t been submitting long enough to have first-hand experience of the phenomenon, it is far from uncommon for agents not to respond either positively or negatively to a submission for several months, for the exceedingly simple reason that they haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Basically, by being too shy to check in with any of the agents involved, Mehitabel is dooming herself — and Quentin — to a possibly protracted wait.

If Mehitabel sets karmic considerations to one side and chooses option (b), however, she can get all of her requested materials mailed off toute suite. If only one of the agents offers representation, no one ever need know that she’s been a shade duplicitous.

If, on the other hand, more than one agent offers to sign her, or if (and this is the more common outcome) one agent offers before the others have responded, Mehitabel is going to be placed in the unpleasant position of having to ‘fess up to having simultaneously submitted. This would tend to burn her bridges with Quentin — and possibly with the others, if she hadn’t told any of them that there were other agents looking at her manuscript.

Quentins tend to hate that — as, actually, do most agents. And that can lead to a whole lot of unnecessary stress later on — because, really, there is no graceful way to explain to an agent who thinks he is the only one looking at it that if you don’t hear back from him within two weeks, you’re going to sign with someone else.

Not all that happy with option (b)? Does option (c) look like the most polite route — or at any rate, the one least likely to get Mehitabel in trouble with Quentin?

Actually, it isn’t, but it will take some of our favorite pastime, translating between points of view, to see why. Let’s take a gander at the probable e-mail exchange between Mehitabel and Quentin:

Dear Mehitabel:
Thank you for querying me with your novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS. Please send the first fifty pages.
As you may already know, our agency will accept only exclusive submissions. Please enclose a SASE.
Quentin

Dear Quentin:
Thank you for your interest in my novel. I would be happy to give you an exclusive, but the fact is, two other agents already have partial manuscripts, and I don’t know when I shall be hearing back from them. I’m really impressed with your agency, though, and I certainly don’t want to knock it out of consideration.
Since it would obviously be impossible for me to give you an exclusive on material that’s already elsewhere, is it okay if I just go ahead and send you what I’ve sent the others?
Mehitabel

Dear Mehitabel:
As I mentioned, my agency only accepts submissions on an exclusive basis.
Quentin

Notice what happened here? Mehitabel tried to shift responsibility for solving her dilemma onto Quentin’s shoulders. From her POV, this made perfect sense: his request had caused a problem, so she asked him to modify his request.

From Quentin’s POV, however, she was asking him to change agency policy for the sake of a single writer who, for all he knows, simply did not bother to check what those policies were before querying. What possible incentive could he have for saying yes?

Mehitabel has thus inadvertently fallen into a very, very common trap for those new to submission: she is acting as though she has a personal relationship with Quentin, one that might make it permissible for her to ask a fairly big favor.

Essentially, she forgot that this is a business transaction — and in this, she is certainly not alone. Contrary to what many aspiring writers (especially those new to in-person pitching) believe, agents don’t ask to see pages because they are nice or because they instantly took a liking to a writer; they want to see work that they believe they can sell.

Remember, Quentin is not just looking for a talented writer — he’s looking for his dream client. ln that relationship, liking each other is icing on the cake, not a necessary precondition. Being a dream client is largely about professionalism. So in any pre-signing exchange, Quentin would be trying to assess how reliable she is likely to be as a client, whether she is likely to be able to meet deadlines or whether she will be profuse with excuses, how good she is at following directions…

Based upon those criteria, do you think Mehitabel went up or down in his estimation by sending that e-mail? Uh-huh.

Which brings us to option (d), contacting the agents who already have the work (i.e., not Quentin), explaining the situation, and asking them to hurry their decision to accept or reject her, so that she may get back to Quentin in a timely manner. While this might appear at first blush to be brazen or even rude, it is actually the best course for Mehitabel.

(I assume, of course, that you rejected option [e] on sight, as it would have cast some slight doubt upon your faith in yours truly. Which, naturally, you’re perfectly at liberty to do. I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: it’s up to you whether to take my advice or not, but I do expend great effort to give you my logic at length so you may make an informed choice. However, in this case, writers have contacted me to ask for my opinion on this particular subject, so I am giving it.)

Why is (d) the best course? Because it doesn’t involve either lying to Quentin (a poor idea) or dithering at him (also not good) — in fact, it places the question of timing squarely where it belongs, upon the agents who are already considering the book in question, not making demands upon someone who is not yet doing so.

Obviously, Mehitabel should not be brusque in making the request — and in her shaky shoes, I would probably wait until the other agents had the manuscript for at least a couple of weeks before sending something like the following:

Dear Jessica:
I am sorry to have to disturb you while you are considering my novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS, but I thought you would like to be aware that another agent has requested the manuscript. As he has asked for an exclusive, however, I would need to hear back from you before I could legitimately submit it to him.
I hate to rush you, as I know that you are very busy indeed, but if you decide you are not interested, I would like to get it into his hands as soon as possible. Could you possibly arrange to make a decision within the next three weeks?
Thank you so much — and again, I am sorry to have to rush you.
Mehitabel

Now, Jessica could always say no, of course, as could the other agent who is reading Mehitabel’s work. But 95% of the time, they won’t — especially if, as is often the case in situations like Mehitabel’s, they’ve already had the manuscript for a month or two. (Or five.)

Note, please, that Mehitabel has been too smart to take Jessica to task for how long it has been; she is merely filling an interested agent in on what’s going on with the book. Far more likely to get a positive response than a whine about how an illiterate three-year-old could have managed to decipher the manuscript by now, I assure you.

If they say yes, or if they do not respond at all — more common than you might think — Mehitabel has at least made a good-faith effort to play fair in a difficult situation. Since she has already told Jessica that she will be granting an exclusive in three weeks’ time, she may go ahead and submit to Quentin then with a clear conscience. If he does make an offer, great; if he doesn’t, she may always go back to the first two.

Is that muttering I hear out there indicative of some confusion? “But Anne,” the mutterers murmur, “What happens if Jessica comes back AFTER that three-week period and offers representation?”

Great question, background mutterers — but it’s one for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

So you’re considering self-publishing, part V: a few more practical details

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I’ve taken the last couple of days off, not so much in recognition of the holiday associated with the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (a.k.a. Santa) as in response to the fact that in these dark days, long-term illness is apparently not generally regarded as sufficient excuse to absent oneself from festivities. At least, not if one has established a reputation as a good cook.

In other words, there’s no place like home for the hollandaise. (If you decided to co-opt that groaner, please give me credit. I’m rather fond of it.)

But now I’m back in the saddle, eager to polish off our special holiday treat, a discussion about self-publishing with two authors who have taken the plunge this year, fellow blogger and memoirist Beren deMotier and novelist Mary Hutchings Reed. Today, we’re going to dig our teeth into the meaty issues of inspiration, promotion, and just what happens after an author commits to bringing out her own work.

So please join me in welcoming back both. To begin, let’s remind ourselves what they have published and where an interested party might conceivably go to buy it.

marys-photo-jpeg.jpgMary Hutchings Reed, if you’ll recall, is the author of COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, which is being described as the ONE L for women lawyers. It is available on Amazon or directly from the author herself on her website.

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

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Beren deMotier is the author of THE BRIDES OF MARCH. It’s available on Amazon, of course, but because I always like to plug a good independent bookstore, here’s a link to the book’s page at Powell’s, too.

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

Anne: One of the aspects of self-publishing — or private publishing, as you like to call it, Mary — that most appeals to aspiring writers is not having to compromise one’s artistic vision (or political vision, or style, etc.) in order to adhere to someone else’s standards. The other, I think, is the comparative speed with which a writer can see one’s work in print. After you committed to your press, how long was it before you actually held your book in your hand?

Mary: I was in the hands of a pro. (Suzie Isaacs at Ampersand.) The process was fast and smooth — I think less than 75 days.

Anne: I remember being stunned at how quickly the book showed up on my doorstep — and how spiffy the production values were. What about you, Beren? From how well put-together the book is, I would have assumed a lengthy turn-around time.

Beren: It was really fast. I think I submitted it on about March 2nd, and it was listed online on April 25th.

Anne: Criminy! Is that a normal turn-around rate for iUniverse?

Beren: I’d asked for an expedited schedule so that I could submit it to the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards, and iUniverse worked with me to make it happen. Of course, that meant that I had to do my part of the bargain quickly, too; if there were proofs to check, I did them right away.

Mary: There’s no reason, in private publishing, for there to be any delays. Suzie believed in the book and that it should be published, and she kept my spirits up. Every time you write a check—and my total, including 2000 copies, bookmarks, cards, advertisements, posters, etc. was around $20,000 — I needed her affirmations!!

Anne: That sound you just heard was half of my readers’ jaws hitting the floor, I suspect. How close to the actual printing date were you able to make changes?

Mary: On the galleys…I think I had the books two weeks later.

Beren: For me, it was about ten days. I was waiting for a blurb from a famous comedian and hoped it would come before publication. It did, and was able to be fitted on the cover with days to spare.

Anne: Oh, the very idea of that makes me drool. I’m used to dealing with traditional publishing houses, where it’s a year, minimum, between commitment and being able to put one’s hand upon a physical book — after weeks, and often months of discussion between departments on everything from the title (which, for a first book, the writer rarely gets to set) to structure to content. It was especially weird with my memoir, where I kept receiving editorial memos telling me that this or that part wasn’t important enough to include, but that I should add a lengthy section on something that didn’t particularly interest me. It felt as though my life were being edited, not just my book.

What was the editorial process like for you? Were the decisions entirely yours?

Beren: Ultimately, the decision is mine, but they have the right to not brand it as one of their better books should they choose. If I wasn’t able to get positive book reviews, the book wouldn’t be eligible for becoming an Editor’s Choice or Reader’s Choice book, which leads to standard wholesale terms.

Anne: That’s interesting. So if they like it enough, it’s more like going with a traditional publishing house.

Beren: So either it has to be darned good, or you have to pay them big bucks to edit it for you, which takes weeks.

Anne: What about you, Mary? Who got to decide on the book cover, typeface, final edits, et cetera?

Mary: All decisions were mine, but I’m glad that she engaged a top-notch designer who proposed several appropriate options. As to the cover—she did ask what concept I had in mind, and I was a little stuck. My husband came up with dressing up the Lady Justice statue in heels and pearls—the first draft was a bit Betty Boopish, and the graphic designer responded with the modern, sleek image that now is the cover.

I have to say I love the cover, and it does help to sell the book. Yes, people judge the book by its cover, and in this case I really hope they do!

Beren: I’m happy with the outcome, too.I did a lot in creating the look of the book. My spouse took the photo on the cover, and I was able to influence the design, font and colors used in the final product. It became a group project when we shared the photo and necessary copy with friends who all had an opinion on how it should look.

Anne: Did you find having so much control over the final product more empowering or stressful? Or did it depend upon what day it was?

Beren: Hmmm, how about both empowering and stressful?

Certainly knowing that the book would rise or fall based on my work and almost solely my work was a lot of pressure, but I went into it knowing what to expect and had educated myself about the expectations. I feared that the final copy would look photocopied and kind of pathetic, but that didn’t happen.

It seems like it would be nice to hand over a manuscript to a publisher and get a lovely book in return, but I know it isn’t that simple. However, that is my goal—I do want to have a traditional publisher for subsequent books so that there is immediate distribution potential to brick and mortar stores. I consider this my “spec” book, one that I can point to as an accomplished work, as well as eventually sell to a traditional publisher.

Mary: It’s a bit stressful. Even on the galleys, I found a place where I think I had the character approaching the court twice in the same scene.

Anne: But that happens in traditional publishing, too.

Mary: How many people over the years had read these couple of pages, including professional editors, and not noted that? It could drive you crazy. You do need to adopt a certain tolerance for imperfection—we call it being human.

What was the most stressful, however, was the worry that in my acknowledgements I may have failed to mention someone who thought they were important to the work. (I think I did get everyone—at least no one has complained yet.)

For me, the other stress factor is the “autobiographical” accusation: naturally, the book draws on my life experience, but there is no one-to-one correspondence between me and Kathleen Hannigan or any other character and any of my present or former partners or associates.

Anne: And then when you write a memoir, people want to believe that you made things up. It’s as though the fiction and nonfiction labels get mixed up.

Let’s move on to the next stage of the process. Most of us have heard that the biggest hurdles a self-published book has to overcome lie in distribution and promotion. Is that true?

Beren: Yes, I’d say those are the toughest parts. While most self-publishing companies have wholesale channels like Baker & Taylor and Ingram, bookstores are much less likely to buy the book if it isn’t returnable or on standard discounts.

Online, however, the book was readily available fast. It was on Amazon three days after being published, and more online bookstores keep adding it.

Mary: Ampersand set up the Amazon.com, Borders.com and Barnesandnoble.com distribution. I joined the National Association of Women’s Studies Programs in order to have the book listed on their website (and their click-through to Amazon, which benefits the Association if someone buys through that portal.) I also fulfill orders through my website.

Anne: How widely are your books available in bookstores, and how hard was it to set up those venues?

Beren: Locally, I was able to get about six bookstores to carry it, which is a good beginning. The local library bought 13 copies and it has been getting multiple holds.

Anne: Oh, just in case some of my readers are not aware of it, librarians will often order a book if it is requested often enough. I grew up around many, many well-respected authors who would recruit their kith and kin to call their local libraries using different voices to request their books.

I just mention. It also really, really helps authors if enthusiastic readers write reviews and post them on Amazon and B&N. Or in bookstores, to turn the books face-outward, rather than spine-out; a browser is far more likely to pick it up.

Now that traditional presses have shifted so much of the responsibility for promotion onto the author, I’ve been wondering how much more work you’ve had to put into promotion than an author of a similar work at a traditional press.

Mary: I put a fair amount of work into it. I’ve taken charge of sending out free copies to “opinion makers”—something which maybe a traditional publisher would do. I set up speaking engagements, with some help from my publisher.

I have a friend at the Star magazine, and he helped me get listed as the HOT BOOK in one of the October issues. That was a great boost to sales!

Anne: Are you solely responsible for the promotion of your book, or has your press helped you?

Beren: I am solely responsible for the promotion, though occasionally I get offers to pay for co-op advertising through iUniverse, or for them to feature my book at an event. So far, I’ve turned the offers down.

Luckily, my book does have current event appeal, so I’ve been able to get reviews online and in newspapers and magazines. (Gaywired, Mombian, About.com, Just Out), plus a couple of interviews in print and on the radio.

Anne: I’m glad you brought up reviews, Beren, because that’s something that agents and editors always bring up as a serious drawback to self-publishing: most print periodicals in the US, including the vast majority of daily newspapers, have policies that preclude reviewing privately published books. The Internet has really been a boon in terms of getting the word out there.

Your book has also been reviewed, hasn’t it, Mary?

Mary: I was featured in an article in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, and will be featured in a special Leading Lawyers publication of women lawyers in Illinois.

Anne: Have you come up with clever ways to promote your book that you
might want to share with us? No matter what press produces your book, ingenious marketing always helps.

Mary: Every time I sell a book, I include 3 postage-paid postcards (of the cover of the book) with a little sell copy on the message side, and ask readers to sign them and send them to 3 friends who might be interested. It’s my version of a viral marketing campaign.

I’d love a couple things: for Hillary or Michelle to carry it around (and I’ve put it in their hands through friends); for women’s studies programs to pick it up for a course on women in the professions—I sent it to Anita Hill and proposed a reading for the National Association of Women’s Studies Programs; for law schools to do the same.

I’ve sent it to some book club leaders, hoping they would recommend it. And a friend is working on the movie option. I sent it to the abovethelaw.com blogger, hoping he’d get interested (he’s a Yalie also). I’ve volunteered to speak at a Brown colloquium at my 35th reunion in May.

Anne: So you’ve been very proactive. What have been your clever promotion schemes, Beren?

Beren: Gosh, well, getting to know cool writers like Anne Mini is always helpful!

Anne: Shameless friends who love one’s writing belong in every writer’s toolkit. I’m constantly being asked by bookstore staff to stop moving my friends’ books to the bestseller tables. But seriously, what else?

Beren: I think contests and awards are a good bet for many writers. I’ve entered about nine for this book, so we’ll see in the spring if it turns out to be a good investment of time and money. With the contests, it involved a lot of copies sent to judges; I just have to trust that they will pay off eventually through wins, word of mouth, getting on the used bookshelves or sheer karma.

I sought out every review I got. I aimed for the specific markets that I knew would be interested in my book, and sent review copies out first thing when I got my 30 free copies. I used every single one for promotion. Eighty percent of those will never be reviewed (and there is a thriving used copy market thanks to me), but enough have that it has helped establish creds for the book, and jumping-off points for other avenues.

I also did a reading and talk at the local library, which was heavily advertised by the county library—there’s nothing like walking in looking for a book on tape and seeing your face in front of you on a poster. I also send out regular e-mails to friends about events and readings.

I did get contacted by an OPB radio interviewer and that was a thrill—she tried to find me!

I could do a lot more, but I’m also balancing freelance work, portrait painting, and raising three kids (two teens and a preschooler with special needs), so I’m kind of busy, though I count my blessings that I’m not also digging ditches eight hours a day on top of it all. I suspect that with a traditional publisher I’d have to do just as much, if not more, but that there would be more tools in place for contacts.

Anne: I’m perpetually in awe of writers who can be productive while caring for small children — possibly because I was for many years a small child being cared for by writers.

Beren: I’ve read several books on finding time to write as a mom, but one of them should address how to stay sane and really write when you’ve got a kid who can’t be out of your sight for a second, really can’t “play quietly” while you type away, and takes every ounce of creative energy to keep growing up uninjured! I’ve yet to read one that recommended a daily dose of Nyquil for the active, irrational tot. Maybe that’s my third book.

Anne: So you don’t have time to have writer’s block? Rats — I was going to ask about your strategies for overcoming it.

Beren: Oh boy, writer’s block — and I just gave up Diet Coke, too, so I can’t recommend guzzling it while at the keyboard. (Have you ever seen a room full of screenwriters at a conference? They all have a can of Diet Coke at their elbow.)

I helped myself get over writer’s block by creating a column with a deadline. It was great training. You have to edit yourself down and cut out your darlings, and you can’t just wait for inspiration to strike.

I do have a fair amount of discipline because I have to to be a writer. Choosing to have three kids and be a writer means jumping in whenever you have the time, or getting a lot done in a short time or taking opportunities as they arrive. These days I sit in my car and write while our youngest is in preschool for 2 hours four days a week, and get up at five for an hour or two before the mob is up.

Admittedly, I’m ready to collapse at eight o’clock at night, but that is how it has to be to get anything done. I’m hoping to have a social life in about five years.

Anne: At the risk of swerving into trite interview territory, what gives you the most inspiration as a writer?

Beren: Well, it is inspiring to know that my grandfather, David Duncan (best known for his screenplay for the 1960 The Time Machine), supported his family of five as a writer.

Anne: That’s a real advantage to being from a family of writers: knowing first-hand that it IS possible to make a living at it. It’s just rare. (And that was a very good screenplay, too, I thought.)

Beren: I also think of author Alice Bloch, who gives herself half an hour a day before working as a technical writer, and got a memoir done that way. I’ve read (Anne Lamott’s) Bird By Bird several times, and love Writing the Memoir, From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington.

Sometimes you care about something so much you have to write about it, and other times (like after walking through a bookstore full of other writers’ work) pride keeps me going: “If they can do it, so can I!” I also keep a file full of nice comments about my writing so that I can look them over if I’m feeling like chucking it in. Every positive thing about my writing that comes my way I grasp onto, to keep me swimming until the next buoy.

Mary: There are, of course, writers I love, but the best resource for me is life itself. I love being active, encountering new experiences, meeting new people, sharing with other writers. I think I actually get the most inspiration from my fellow writers—people like you, Anne, and my friends Julie Weary, Patricia McMillen, Lucia Blinn…the list goes on—all of us next to make it big in the commercial world.

Anne: Oh, I agree 100%: having writer friends in whose work you believe is SO important to keeping yourself going. You can get an incredible boost from a friend’s progress, and you can talk about the hard parts with people who honestly understand. If you don’t share your hopes and fears, they can so easily turn into the demons of self-doubt.

Which leads me to ask a totally unfair question that I think will be wildly interesting other writers: what was your biggest fear in embarking upon self-publishing, and did it actually come to pass?

Beren: That bookstores would laugh in my face if I came in with my book to sell on consignment. It only happened once (she didn’t actually laugh, but the condescending note was very present), though after talking about it with her, she admitted it might be a book they wanted to carry and took one new copy. Since then, they’ve sold several used copies, and carry it online.

Anne: I love it when the fears turn into triumphs. What about you, Mary?

Mary: My biggest fear is that I would end up with a living room full of boxes of books—that my friends would each buy one and that would be it.

I never expected that at a reading someone I’ve never met would march up to the table and buy 10 copies for her friends—and be sending them to friends in India and Pakistan and England! I do have a few boxes in my living room, but sales have been brisk.

Anne: So your demon of fear mutated into a triumph, too. That’s great.

Mary: I was also afraid that people would assume that because it was self-published, it wasn’t any good. But people don’t “get” that it is self-published. They just know it IS published.

Anne: That fascinates me, because we’re so often heard the opposite asserted at writers’ conferences. But then, I suppose agents and editors at traditional publishing houses don’t often have much contact with self-published authors — or at any rate, didn’t until fairly recently. I’ve keep meeting authors who published their own first books and were picked up on their next because the first sold so well.

Okay, I’ve been holding off on this next question, because I try not to deal in superlatives; life’s all about the gray areas, after all. But here it goes anyway: so far, what has been the best thing about the self-publishing
process for you?

Mary: It’s been fun! I’ve heard from people I’ve lost touch with—like I hadn’t spoken to them in 12 or 13 years, and they’d write and call and thank me for writing the book and say that they could totally relate to it.

Beren: The best thing was that it was fast, and I learned a lot about book creation and publishing. The more I know about the artistic and business aspects of writing, the better I will be (I trust), and no effort was wasted.

Anne: What has been the worst part?

Mary: The worst — sorry, N/A.

Anne: I’m really pleased to hear that.

Mary: My own worry, my own bruised ego.

Anne: Which are endemic to the querying and submission process, too. What do you think, Beren?

Beren: The worst part is that there are limitations to a self-published book in terms of wider wholesale distribution unless you self-publish yourself as a small press, or sell a certain amount of copies already (as in the case of iUniverse). Getting books in bookstores on a big scale is challenging.

Anne: I already asked Mary this last time, but if you had only a minute to give advice to someone who was thinking of self-publishing, what would you say?

Beren: Do your research, know your goals for publication and work very very hard at making your manuscript the best it can possibly be. On one writing weekend, after the book was essentially finished, I worked at making it the very best it could be, sentence by sentence, word by word, and in two long days I got forty pages done. But they were much better pages.

Work with the editor at the press or hire an editor, take your work seriously. It is important work.

Mary: Yes, invest in a manuscript editor so that you will have the confidence that your work is ready and deserving of being in print.

Anne: To sound like an agent for a moment, congratulations on your current success — what’s your next project?

Beren: I am currently gathering a collection of humorous stories about life in the lesbian mom trenches, reworking some old favorites and putting them together as a book I’m calling Maggots Before Breakfast, and other Interesting Adventures in a Cozy Liberal Enclave.

Anne: Literal maggots or figurative ones?

Beren: There is a story about maggots, and the original piece is on my website. I plan on pitching it to traditional publishers, using the kudos The Brides of March has garnered, as well as the platform I’m building through appearances, blogging, and articles.

Mary: I have a shopping bag full of novels. My most recent was a short-list finalist for the William Wisdom/William Faulkner Prize, and I am actively looking for an agent for that one. I do think it would be harder to self-publish a novel that is “just a literary novel” which is less directed to a particular audience. I would self-publish again, if it comes to that.

My most immediate “next writing project” is the made-for-television version of my musical Fairways, which will require some rewriting for the pilot (to be filmed in April/May), and finishing the script for my next musical, “We’re Cruising Now, Babe!”

Anne: Well, please come back and tell us all about these projects down the line.

I can’t thank you enough for sharing your insights with us — I’ve truly enjoyed hearing aobut your experiences. Best of luck with your books, and as we like to say here at Author! Author!, keep up the good work!

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Beren deMotier has written humor/social commentary for Curve, And Baby, Pride Parenting, Greenlight.com, www.ehow.com, as well as for GLBT newspapers across the nation. She’s written about same-sex marriage for over a decade, and couldn’t resist writing the bride’s eye view after marrying in Multnomah County. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her spouse of twenty-one years, their three children, and a Labrador the size of a small horse.

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Ever since turning 40 a few years ago, Mary Hutchings Reed Mary has been trying to become harder to introduce, and, at 56, she finds she’s been succeeding. Her conventional resume includes both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Brown University (both completed within the same four years, and she still graduated Phi Beta Kappa), a law degree from Yale, and thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.

For many years, she has served on the boards of various nonprofit organizations, including American Civil Liberties
Union of Illinois, YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Off the Street Club and the Chicago Bar Foundation. She currently serves on the board of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (and chair of its fundraising committee); Steel Beam Theatre, and her longest-standing service involvement, Lawyers for the Creative Arts.

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See for yourself, part V: appearances for appearances’ sake — and happy birthday, Philip!

Many thanks to all of you sweet souls who forwarded me links to the many literary and SF sites out there that commemorated what would have been my good old friend Philip K. Dick’s 79th birthday. This was the first year that I received a whole boatload of these messages, so it was great fun — rather like receiving a flotilla of birthday cards in the mail.

I needed the cheering up, I’m afraid, as usually, I throw a little dinner party on this particular day. Not only out of respect for my first serious writing teacher, but also as a birthday shindig for some of the other great artists born today: Beethoven, Sir Noël Coward, Sir Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001 and CHILDHOOD’S END fame), and of course, Author! Author!’s own beloved, wise auntie, Jane Austen.

You could do worse than to raise a glass to that crowd. But this year, I’ve just been too wiped out to allow anyone but the postman to drop by — and some days, I’m not even up to seeing him.

Thus, no dinner party this year, more’s the pity. I did a little too much last week, so this weekend, all I did was sleep and make groggy suggestions about how to maneuver the Christmas tree in order to make it stand up straight. (Which actually is necessary in our household: due to a truly spectacular bracken-and-cat interaction a few years back, we now tie the top of the tree to a ring firmly attached to the ceiling, so the tree does not need to be completely vertical in order to keep from toppling over.)

But enough about me; let’s talk about you.

While I was incapacitated, a group of my wonderful readers was holding down the fort here, trading tips on how to deal with that pesky problem, how to add a second space between sentences if a writer had mistakenly typed the whole thing thinking there should only be one. If you have even a passing interest in this topic, I implore you, check out the comments on the last two days’ posts; it’s well worth it.

We have only few rules of standard format left to cover in this series, so my first instinct was to use the text of one of Philip’s short stories for the examples. (Seemed appropriate, given that he used to mark deviations from standard format on stories I wrote for school and send them back to me for correction. What 11-year-old girl wouldn’t have loved THAT?) But since fair use permits only 50 consecutive words in a quote without explicit permission from the copyright holder, and the copyright holders in his case have a nasty habit of waving $2 million lawsuits in my general direction (and my quondam publisher’s) every time I so much as breathe his name, that didn’t seem entirely wise.

So I thought, in honor of the day, I would use a little something that I am undoubtedly entitled to reproduce here. Here is the first page of Chapter Six of my memoir:

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Every chapter should begin like this: on a fresh page, 12 single lines (or 6 double-spaced) from the top. As with the first page of text, the only reference to the author’s name or the title should appear in the slug line, located in the upper left-hand margin. (And in answer to reader Janet’s intelligent question: the slug line should appear .5 inches from the top of the paper, floating within the 1-inch-deep top margin. I can’t believe I never mentioned that before.) The page number belongs within it, rather than anywhere else on the page.

The slug line confuses a lot of aspiring writers; until you have seen piles and piles of professional manuscripts, it looks kind of funny, doesn’t it? And when you’ve been told over and over again that a manuscript should have a 1-inch margin on all sides, it can seem counterintuitive to add a line of text, even such a short one, IN that margin.

But I assure you, it’s always been done that way. And why? Followers of this series, chant it with me now: BECAUSE IT LOOKS RIGHT.

Yes, that logic IS tautological, now that you mention it. If you have a problem with that, I would suggest taking it up with the powers that rule the universe. I, as I believe the reference above to my memoir’s troubled path makes abundantly clear, apparently do not rule the universe.

If I did, today would be a holiday for every writer on the planet. Especially the ones who are having trouble getting their work published, like, oh, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jane Austen all did at the beginning of their fiction careers. (I just mention.)

Back to business. Placing the slug line in the header (located in Word under the VIEW menu) also enables the writer to take advantage of one of the true boons of the advent of word processing, pages that number themselves. Every so often, I will receive a manuscript where the author has, with obviously monumental effort, HAND-numbered each page, so it looks like this:

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

Why not? Well, what’s going to happen if new writing is inserted on a page formatted this way? That’s right — the author is going to have to go back and move each and every one of those slug lines to match the NEW pagination.

I’d show you a picture of this, but it’s just too ugly to contemplate. Trust me, it would be a heck of a lot of work.

See any other problems with this page? How about the fact that the slug line includes the word PAGE? Shouldn’t be there; just the numbers will suffice.

Did I just hear some huffs of indignation out there? “But Anne,” I hear the formatting-ambitious cry, “it’s kind of stylish to include PAGE before the page number, isn’t it? It’s just a matter of personal style — who could be hurt by including it, if I like the way it looks?”

Well, you, for starters. And why? (Chanters, ready your lungs.) BECAUSE IT JUST WOULD NOT LOOK RIGHT TO A PROFESSIONAL READER.

I’m quite serious about this; I’ve seen screeners get quite huffy about this one. :Does this writer think I’m STUPID?” Millicent is prone to huff. (Don’t answer that first question; it’s rhetorical.) “Does she think I DON’T know that the numeral that appears on every page refers to the number of pages? Does she think I’m going to go nuts and suddenly decide that it is a statistic, or part of the title?”

Don’t bait her. Do it the standard way.

Okay, do you spot any other problems? What about the fact that the first paragraph of the chapter is not indented, and the first character is in a different typeface?

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

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

The non-indented first paragraph of a chapter is fairly common in mystery submissions, I have noticed; I’ve been told by many mystery writers that this is an homage to the great early writers in the genre, an echo of their style.

But you know what? Almost without exception, in Edgar Allan Poe’s time all the way down to our own, the EDITOR has determined the formatting that appeared on any given printed page, not the author. To professional eyes, especially peevish ones like Millicent’s, a manuscript that implicitly appropriates this sort of decision as authorial might as well be the first step to the writer’s marching into Random House, yanking off a well-worn riding glove, and striking the editor-in-chief with it.

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

Exactly.

If you want to make Millicent and her bosses happy — or, at any rate, to keep them reading calmly — indent every paragraph of the text should the expected five spaces. It just looks right that way.

While we’re at it, how about the bolded chapter number and title? Nothing in a manuscript should be in boldface. Nothing, I tell you. Uh-uh. Not ever.

Well, you could get away with the title itself on the tile page, but frankly, I wouldn’t chance it.

Nor should anything be underlined — not even names of books or song titles. Instead, they should be italicized, as should words in foreign tongues that are not proper nouns.

I heard that gigantic intake of breath out there from those of you who remember constructing manuscripts on typewriters: yes, Virginia, back in the day, underlining WAS the norm, for the simple reason that most typewriters did not have italic keys.

If you consult an older list of formatting restrictions, you might conceivably be told that publications, song titles, and/or foreign words (sacre bleu!) should be underlined. But trust me on this one: any agent would tell you to get rid of the underlining, pronto.

And why? All together now: because IT JUST DOESN’T LOOK RIGHT THAT WAY.

All right, campers, do you feel ready to solo? Here are two pages of text, studded with standard format violations for your ferreting-out pleasure. (I wrote these pages, too, in case anyone is worried about copyright violation or is thinking about suing me over it. Hey, stranger things have happened.)

snapshot-2007-12-17-22-11-51.tiff

snapshot-2007-12-17-22-13-22.tiff

How did you do? Are those problems just leaping off the page at you now? To reward you for so much hard work, here are a couple of correctly-formatted pages, to soothe your tired eyes:

snapshot-2007-12-17-22-14-23.tiff

snapshot-2007-12-17-22-15-34.tiff

Whenever you start finding yourself chafing at the rules of standard format, come back and take a side-by-side gander at these last sets of examples — because, I assure you, after a professional reader like Millicent has been at it even a fairly short time, every time she sees the bad example, mentally, she’s picturing the good example right next to it.

And you know what? Manuscripts that look right get taken more seriously than those that don’t. And regardless of how you may feel about Millicent’s literary tastes, isn’t a serious read from her what you want for your book?

Keep up the good work!

See for yourself, or, Millicent may have a point this time

snapshot-2007-12-11-01-22-46.tiff
First things first: Boston-area readers, mark your calendars, because next month, I’m going to be giving a talk, The Multiple Myths of Philip K. Dick, at Harvard next month. Saturday, January 26th, to be precise, from 10 am to noon. I shall be joined by the excellent David Gill of Total DickHead fame. Advance registration is strongly encouraged, and I would love to see some of you there!

And in answer to that huge question mark hanging in the air above the heads of those of you who have been following my memoir’s saga faithfully for the last 2+ years: yes, I shall be speaking on precisely what you think I couldn’t possibly be. Not all the beans will be spilled, naturally, but I anticipate a fair number escaping the sack.

It’s all part of the festivities at Vericon, the Harvard/Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual convention. I am especially pleased by the invitation to speak, for back in the dim days of antiquity, I was one of the founding members of HRSFA — where, if memory serves, I was known there as “the girl,” to give you a rough indication of how many of us there were. It seems odd in retrospect, but then, nice Ivy Leaguers pretended that they didn’t read SF, by and large; we had a hard time getting Harvard even to recognize the association. Now, it’s one of the largest clubs on campus.

As Kurt Vonnegut would have told us all: and some people say there’s no such thing as progress.

Back to work. As you may have noticed, I’ve been quiet for the last few days, having recently returned from giving a completely different talk: a species of my favorite class to teach to writers, a blow-by-blow on how VERY different a professional manuscript looks from, well, any other stack of paper an agent or editor might receive in the mail. I love teaching it.

Admittedly, it’s a trifle depressing to watch the inevitable cloud of gloom descend upon my students as they begin to realize just how many small mistakes there are that can result in a manuscript’s getting rejected — but it’s a pure joy to watch those brows unfurrow and those shoulders unclench as their owners learn that there is something they can DO about improving their books’ chances of success.

Over the next few days, I am going to attempt a similar trick at a distance and, like the Flying Wallendas, without a safety net. Drum roll, please: in the spirit of that old chestnut, SHOW, DON’T TELL, I shall demonstrate just how different a manuscript that follows the rules looks from one that doesn’t.

Hold on tight.

Writers often overlook odd formatting as a reason that a manuscript might have been rejected. Certainly, other reasons get a lot more airplay, particularly at writers’ conferences.

If you want to take a long, hard look at some of the better-discussed reasons, I would urge you to gird your loins and plunge into the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE category at right. For those of you who missed it, last autumn, I went over list of knee-jerk rejection reasons given by a group of agents going over a stack of actual submissions at a conference, one by painful one. Because so many of the reasons caused writerly blood to boil and learned eyebrows to hit ceilings, I was sorely tempted to re-run that series while I was ill this fall, but in 2006, it took up more than three weeks’ worth of posts to cover the topic. Of late, I have had other proverbial fish to fry.

As we are heading into the long, dark days of winter, however, while agents and editors are cuddled up all snug in their offices, reading the manuscripts they hadn’t gotten to over the previous eleven months, it seemed like a good time to revisit the most common mistakes of them all, deviations from standard format for manuscripts.

Not to be confused with what is correct for published books.

In answer to all of the cries of “Huh?” that elicited from readers new to this site, a professional manuscript SHOULD differ from the published version of the same book in a number of subtle but important ways. All too few aspiring writers realize this, a fact that is unfortunately quite obvious to an agent, editor, contest judge, etc., from practically the moment their eyes light upon a submission.

Why is it so very apparent? Because much of the time, writers new to the business clearly go out of their way to format their submissions to resemble published books, in the mistaken belief that this will make their work seem more professional.

The opposite is generally true — and often, it’s apparent as early as the title page.

(If the implications of that last assertion made you dizzy — if, for instance, you found yourself picturing our old pal Millicent the agency screener pulling a submitted manuscript out of its envelope, casting a critical eye over the first page, hooting, and stuffing the whole thing into the handy SASE — try placing your head between your knees and breathing deeply. I’ll wait until you recover.)

The most common initial signal is the absence of any title page whatsoever. Many submitters, for reasons best known to themselves, omit the title page altogether — often, I suspect, because they are unaware that a professional book-length manuscript ALWAYS has a title page.

To set your minds at ease, forgetting to include a title page almost certainly won’t prevent Millicent from reading your manuscript; she tends to read even the most bizarrely-formatted submissions for at least a line or two. But that initial impression of an author’s lack of professionalism — or, to call it by a kinder name, of having a lot to learn about how the publishing industry works — does often translate into a rather jaundiced reading eye for what comes next.

Why? Well, let’s take a peek through her reading glasses, shall we? The first thing Millicent sees when she opens the average requested materials package is something like this:

snapshot-2007-12-11-01-25-34.tiff

(Note to those of you Windows users who have been having problems viewing posted pictures: helpful reader Chris wrote in to say that you can view them in Windows Picture Viewer by right-clicking on the images and saving them to your hard disk. Thanks, Chris!)

I see all of you long-term blog readers out there with your hands in the air, jumping up and down, eager to tell everyone what’s wrong with this as a first page of text — and you’re absolutely right, of course. We’re going to be talking about precisely those points in the days to come.

For now, however, I want you to concentrate upon how this example has failed as both a title page and a first page of text, by not including the information that Millicent would expect to see on either.

What makes me so sure she would find this discovery, at best, disappointing? Because what she (or her boss agent, or an editor, or a contest judge) would have expected to see on top of that pile of paper was this:

snapshot-2007-12-11-01-28-43.tiff

This is a standard manuscript title page for the same book — rather different, isn’t it? Visibly different, in fact, from several paces away, even if Millicent isn’t wearing her reading glasses.

Again, submitting the first example rather than the second would not necessarily be instantly and automatically fatal to a manuscript’s chances, of course. Most of the time, Millicent will go ahead and plunge into that first paragraph of text anyway.

However, human nature and her blistering reading schedule being what they are (for those of you new to this screener’s always-rushed ways, she has a stack of manuscripts up to her chin to screen — and that’s at the end of a long day of screening queries), if she has already decided that a submission is flawed, just how charitable an eye do you think she is likely to cast upon the NEXT problem on the page?

Uh-huh. To use her favorite word: next!

To be fair to Millicent, while it may well be uncharitable of her to leap to the conclusion that Faux Pas’ manuscript is likely to be unpolished because he did not include a proper title page, agencies do have a vested interest in signing writers who present themselves professionally. For one thing, they’re cheaper to represent, in practical terms: the agent doesn’t have to spend as much time working with them, getting their manuscripts ready to submit to editors.

And no agent in his right mind would send out a manuscript that didn’t include a standard title page. It serves a number of important — nay, vital — marketing functions.

Let’s take another look at the professional version, shall we? So you don’t have to keep scrolling up and down the page, here it is again:

snapshot-2007-12-11-01-28-43.tiff

How is this sheet of paper a better piece of marketing material than Faux Pas’ first page?

Well, right off the bat, it tells a prospective agent or editor what kind of book it is, as well as its approximate length. (If you do not know how to estimate the number of words in a manuscript, or why you should use an estimate rather than relying upon your word processor’s count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) Both of these are pieces of information that will tell Millicent instantly whether the submission in her hand would meet the requirements of the editors to whom her agency tends to sell.

For instance, if her boss had decided not to represent Action/Adventure anymore, or if editors at the major houses had started saying that they were only interested in seeing Action/Adventure books longer than 90,000 words, Rightly Stepped would be out of luck.

The standard title page also tells Millicent precisely how to contact the author to offer representation — and that’s a very, very good thing for everyone concerned. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: it’s ALWAYS in an aspiring writer’s interest to make it easy for an agent to help her.

I might be wrong, of course, but I suspect that NOT forcing Millicent to forage through the mountain of paper on her desk to find a misplaced cover letter with your phone number on it MIGHT be a good start.

By contrast, Faux Pas’ first page doesn’t really do anything but announce the title of the book and leap right into the story. That’s one underachieving piece of paper.

Some writers attempt to consolidate the proper functions of the title page and first page of text into a single sheet of paper. This format is particularly common for contest entries, for some reason:

snapshot-2007-12-11-01-32-39.tiff

While such a top page does indeed include the requisite information Millicent or her boss would need to contact the author, cramming it onto the first page of text doesn’t really achieve anything but saving a piece of paper. It doesn’t even shorten the manuscript or contest entry, technically speaking: the title page is never included in a page count; that’s why pagination begins on the first page of text.

I shall go into what DOES belong on the first page of text tomorrow, with accompanying exercises. For today, let’s keep it simple: all I ask is that you would look at the proper title and the unprofessional examples side by side.

Got all of those images firmly in your mind? Good. Now weigh the probability that someone who reads as many manuscripts as Millicent — or her boss, or the editor to whom her boss likes to sell books — would NOT notice a fairly substantial difference in the presentation. And assess the probability of that perception’s coloring any subsequent reading of the manuscript in question.

Kind of obvious, once you know the difference, isn’t it? Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: scanning your query letter for problems, part VI, or what makes Millicent cry, “My, but this sounds fascinating.”

This will be my last post (for the time being, at any rate) about the mysteries of querying — hooray for all of us for chugging through it! Today’s questions focus upon conveying that your book is INTERESTING, in addition to being marketable.

And no, that’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion.

You’d be surprised at how many query letters for genuinely interesting books fail to make them sound so. In fact, an astonishingly high percentage of the query letters that fall onto agents’ desks make the books sound dull as the proverbial dishwater.

Partially, this is due to writers’ forgetting that the query letter is a writing sample, too.

It’s a trifle jarring to think of it that way, isn’t it? But realistically, every English sentence a writer looking to sell a book places under an agent or editor’s nose is a writing sample: the query, the synopsis, the bio, the book proposal. Every paragraph is yet another opportunity to show these people that you can write.

And that your book — and you — are interesting enough for them to want to be embroiled with for the next couple of years.

Again, this is where adhering to a pre-set formula for query letter perfection can really harm a book’s chances. By definition, cooking-mix prototypes are generic; you really don’t want to add your title to one of the many samples out there and stir.

Instead, you will want to use every ounce of writing skill to make that agency screener forget that you are hitting the basic points that a solid, professional query letter hits. Yes, cramming all of that info into a page is an annoying exercise — your job is to make it look easy.

Not entirely coincidentally, the next couple of items on the query checklist speak to these very issues.

(14) Have I avoided using clichés?
In a manuscript, this one is self-evident, but actually, clichés turn up with surprising frequency in query letters and synopses. Sometimes, writers will include hackneyed phrases in an effort to be hip — especially common in queries for books aimed at the YA or twentysomething market.

However, there can be a fine line between a hip riff on the zeitgeist and a cliché. When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup into my cringing ear.

Why? Well, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that sometimes borders on the pathological. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to pout, “not somebody else’s.”

Don’t tempt these people — they already have itchy rejection-trigger fingers.

The other way that clichés often creep into queries and synopses is when writers invoke stereotypes, either as shorthand (that descriptive paragraph can’t be very long, after all) or in an attempt to put a spin on a hackneyed concept. The first almost never works, especially for fiction — see earlier comment about how the industry wants to see YOUR ideas, not the common wisdom.

The second is just hard to pull off in a short piece of writing, for much the same reason that experimental spellings, innovative sentence structures, and imaginative punctuation tend not to lend magic to a writing sample. To a professional eye seeing any given writer’s work for the first time, it’s pretty hard to tell what is a deliberate play upon language and what is simply evidence that the submitter did not pay very close attention in English class.

Similarly, on a quick read of a short sample, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between a reference to a tired old concept (she’s a ditsy cheerleader who dominates her school, but learns the true meaning of caring through participation in competitive sport) and a subtle subversive twist (she’s a ditsy cheerleader, but in reality, she’s young-looking nuclear physicist acting a role so she can infiltrate the local high school to ferret out the science teacher bent upon world domination).

I don’t mean to shock anyone, but it’s just a fact that skimmers will often read only the beginnings of sentences. And since both descriptions begin with she’s a ditsy cheerleader… get the picture?

Save the subtle social criticism for the manuscript; in your query letter and synopsis, stick to specifics, and avoid stereotypes like the proverbial plague. Or, to put it as bluntly as my high school English teacher would have: cut anything that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a cliché.

(15) Does the sentence structure vary enough?
Writers tend not to think about sentence structure much in this context: your garden-variety query letter is stuffed to the brim with simple declarative sentences (or with four-line beauties with two semicolons in them). As in,

I have written a book called Straightforward Metaphors. I hope you will be interested in representing it. It is about two sailors who go to sea. They get wet.

Or, to cite an even more popular structural choice:

I have written a novel, Straightforward Metaphors, and I hope you will be interested in representing it. Two sailors put to see, and they find their clothing all wet in record time. They toss their uniforms into the ocean, and their captain sees them dancing about the deck in their very non-regulation underwear. Hilarity ensues, and a court-martial has never been funnier.

As I have argued about manuscripts, it’s tiring for a reader to scan the same sentence structures back-to-back, line after line. Mixing it up a little is a relatively painless way to make your writing seem more sophisticated and lively without altering meaning.

(16) Have I avoided the passive voice altogether?
This one is a good idea in every piece of writing you submit to an agency or a publishing house, because — not to put too fine a point on it — most professional readers have been trained to believe passive voice equals poor writing, inherently.

Yes, I was aware that you already knew that. I bring it up, though, because when a writer is in the throes of trying to sum up the appeal of a 400-page book in the space of a single paragraph (or a 3-5 page synopsis, even), it can be awfully tempting to trim some space by letting the sentence structure imply that actions happened entirely of their own accord.

So instead of Harold’s teacher went around the room, rapping the students who had received grades of B- or lower over their quivering knuckles with a ruler, many queries will opt for The students who had received grades of B- or lower got their knuckles rapped, as if ruler-wielding cherubium descended from the heavens and did the rapping without human intervention of any kind.

And the Millicents of this world roll their eyes.

There’s another, subtler reason to avoid the passive voice in queries and synopses: on an almost subliminal level, the passive voice tends to imply that your protagonist is being acted-upon, rather than being the primary actor in an exciting drama. Which leads me to…

(17) Does my summary make my protagonist come across as the primary actor in an exciting drama?
As I have pointed out before, agents and editors see a LOT of novel submissions featuring passive protagonists, stories about characters who stand around, observing up a storm, being buffeted about by the plot.

We’ve all read stories like this, right? The lead watches the nasty clique rule the school, silently resenting their behavior until the magic day that the newly-transferred halfback notices her; the amateur detective goes to the prime suspect’s house and instead of asking probing questions, just waits to see what will happen. The shy couple is madly in love, but neither will make a move for 78 pages — until that hurricane forces them to share the same cramped basement.

I’ve ranted elsewhere (see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category, right) about why first novels with passive protagonists tend to be harder to sell than ones with strong actors. My point at the moment is that in the course of trying to summarize a complex premise, many queriers present their protagonists as mere pawns buffeted about by forces beyond their control, rather than interesting people in interesting situations.

Yes, it’s unfair to leap to conclusions about an entire book’s writing choices based upon only a paragraph’s worth of summary. But lest we forget, that particular bit of unfairness forms a crucial part of Millicent’s job description.

Don’t risk it.

(18) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?
This question frequently seems to come as a surprise to writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter.

“Personality?” they cry, incredulous and sometimes even offended at the thought. “A query letter isn’t about personality; it’s about saying exactly what the agent wants to hear about my book.”

I beg to differ. The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that a relatively diligent agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, this is not the best impression you could possibly make, is it?

A cookie-cutter query is like a man without a face: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room.

Your query letter should sound like you at your very best: literate, polished, and unique. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a person with quirky tastes, the query should reflect that, too.

And, of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query. Because, you see, a query letter is not just a solicitation for an agent to pick up your book; it is an invitation to an individual to enter into a long-term relationship with you.

I firmly believe that there is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousandfold.

Keep up the good work!

PS: While the status of my memoir remains up in the air, I have tried restrain myself from commenting on the many excellent Philip K. Dick fan sites. (For those of you new to the blog, 2 1/2 years ago, a publisher acquired my book about my childhood and teenage relationship with the writer — my mother’s first husband — and it was set to come out last year. The Dick estate threatened to sue both my publisher and me personally if it ever saw the light of day; they never specified why, nor asked for major changes. I gather that there is some question in their minds about whether I own my own memories.)

However, there is something truly odd going on over at the very thoughtful Total Dick-Head blog that I think may be of interest to both fans and writers in general: the PKD estate has evidently demanded that the site take down a reproduction of a fan newsletter. Since the original was published over 25 years ago, and apparently no one has objected to it in the interim, this strikes me as a mite surprising, not to say ungracious.

Or it would be, if it consisted of material that either the estateniks or Philip himself wrote. But it doesn’t seem to be — according to my copy, the newsletter was edited (and largely written by) the president of the Philip K. Dick Society and then-literary executor of the Dick estate, Paul Williams. Philophiles may know him as the author of one of the first PKD biographies, Only Apparently Real.

Williams evidently gave the blog’s writer, a serious scholar of Philip’s work, explicit permission to post it. But the estate is now asserting that he didn’t have the right to give permission to reproduce the newsletter — or, indeed, any of the nine years’ worth of Philip K. Dick Society newsletters he edited. Nor, although they claim they own the copyright, will they post the newsletters on the official PKD fansite. (I don’t pretend to follow their logic, but you can see the official rationale here.)

Which would be a little less odd if the newsletters had not been for sale for quite some time on Williams’ website — as indeed they still are at the time of this posting. Call me zany, but to my mind, this implies that the copyright to his publications is his.

This whole episode makes me really sad, as Philip was such a hater of every form of censorship. Williams has literally devoted decades to getting out the word about Philip’s writing, and it’s a real shame that fans and scholars alike will not have online access to his work.

Book marketing 101: the logic — and illogic — of the SASE

Sharp-eyed reader Melospiza wrote in the other day with a very good series of questions about SASEs. Because these are questions I suspect a lot of writers have, especially those new to submissions, and because not everyone follows the comment streams), I wanted to address them here, as soon as humanly possible. Quoth Melospiza:

Why on earth would you want your manuscript back (after it has been rejected)? It won’t be pristine enough to send out again. Why spend the money? And any parcel over one pound can’t be dropped in a mailbox, but must be taken to the post office, not something an agent will appreciate. Let the agent recycle the paper and enclose a (business-size) SASE only.

I’m SO glad you brought this up, because this is one of those secret handshake things — you know, a practices that the industry just assumes that any writer who is serious about getting published will magically know all about without being told.

There’s a rather basic reason to include the SASE for safe return of the manuscript: NOT including one leads to automatic rejection at most agencies. And the vast majority of agents are perfectly up front about the fact that they train their screeners accordingly.

Yes, you read that correctly: leaving it out of the packet can, and often does, result in a submission’s being rejected unread. In the publishing industry, it’s considered downright rude for a writer not to include a SASE both large enough and loaded down with enough pre-paid postage to send EVERYTHING enclosed back to the sender. The result, even if the submitter sends a business-sized SASE, is generally a form-letter rejection.

I implore you, no matter how little you want to see that manuscript again, do NOT omit the SASE for the return of the manuscript — UNLESS the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says specifically that they will recycle rejected manuscripts. (Practically none of them do.)

Okay, before the disgruntled muttering out there gets too deafening, let’s voice it: “But surely,” I hear you say, “by the time an agency or publishing house is sufficiently interested in you to want to see actual chapters of your book, you aren’t running the risk of having your submission tossed aside unread because you didn’t include a SASE, are you? I mean, really, what purpose would that serve?”

A fairly tangible one, actually: it would be one less manuscript to read.

Admittedly, a good argument could be made, though (and hey, why don’t I go ahead and make it now, and save you the trouble?), that a SASE with a submission is only going to be used if the news is bad — and why should the writer subsidize his own rejection? If the agency likes the MS, they’re going to ask to see the rest of the manuscript — which means your initial submission will get filed, you will send another packet (with another SASE), and your first SASE may well end up in the trash.

Which is, as Melospiza rightly points out, a big ol’ waste of money, not to mention trees.

If they don’t like it, all you are doing by providing the postage is paying to get the news that they’re turning you down in a way that will make your postal carrier’s back ache, rather than via a nice, light #10 envelope. So why not just send the manuscript along with a business-size SASE, and be done with it?

Because that’s not how the industry works, that’s why. (See commentary above about secret handshakes.) Originally, believe it or not, it was set up this way in order to PROTECT writers. The sad thing is, though, the logic behind this one is so pre-computer — heck, it’s pre-recycling — that it’s likely to be counterintuitive to many people new to the biz.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), you could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz; equally obviously, no sane human being would send out his only copy.

So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses? They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page.

Think those hardy souls wanted to get their rejected manuscripts back? Darned tootin’. It might save them weeks of retyping time.

I don’t even have to go outside my immediate family to find a concrete example of how these returned manuscripts helped writers. Back in the far-away 1950s, my mother, Kleo, was married to an at-the-time-unknown science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick. (You may have heard of him since.) While she toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories. Dozens of them. Type, type, type, week in, week out.

As writers did in the days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into a gray Manila envelope with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy. (Kleo was also taking both his writing and her own to be critiqued by other writers and editors at the time, which is actually how Philip got his first story published. But that’s another story — and part of the memoir that the Dick estate stopped from being published last year. Amazing how persuasive people with millions of dollars can be, in the lawsuit-shy post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES environment. But I digress.)

When a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it in the mail.

Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But Philip kept typing away, and kept as many stories in circulation at once as possible.

How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore (since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost), but one day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their miniscule front porch.

Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

I have it on pretty good authority that one of those stories was THE MINORITY REPORT. Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.

So what did the aspiring writer of yesteryear do when faced with 17 rejections on the same day? Did he toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did he rend his garments and give up writing forever? Did he poison his mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once? All of the above?

No, he did what professional writers did back then: had his wife iron the pages so they could be sent out again and resubmitted.

And this, my friends, is the reality toward which the request for continual SASEs is geared. No photocopying machines, no computers, and no guarantee that the copy you sent would ever be retrievable if it went astray in some publisher’s office.

Yes, as hard as it to believe, in the beginning, the SASE was intended to save the author money.

While you’re still choking on that one, I’m going to sign off for today. More on SASE tradition follows tomorrow, if you can stomach it, and then next week, we’re on to author bios, query letters, and perhaps a few self-editing tips. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Blurting out those deep, dark secrets

I’m a trifle blue, my friends: a rather hefty chunk of my day got gobbled up by that bane of my existence, that bugbear to end all bugbears, having to explain again why, contrary to what Amazon continues to report (apparently at my publisher’s behest), my memoir is not in fact available for purchase anywhere on God’s decreasingly green earth.

It’s not the kind of news that a writer dreams about sharing with her public, certainly.

Actually, the people who contact me to ask about it are usually very nice — it’s just hard to be in a position to have to justify something so completely outside my control. (Seriously, just try trying to explain why someone else might think that they own your memories; I can tell you from experience, it’s not all that easy to do.)

Off with these depressing recollections, and back to work. Today’s topic, because it’s on one of my all-time favorite kinds of expendable text: the kind of dialogue that results from a protagonist’s being a really, really poor interviewer.

Why does that matter, unless the protagonist is a journalist of some sort, you ask? Simple: many, many, MANY novel plots require their protagonists to learn something that they do not already know — and, more importantly, that the reader does not already know. Who killed the Earl of Cheswick, for instance, or why so many people are interested in that darned ugly Maltese Falcon. In the pursuit of answers to these and other burning questions, the protagonist is, necessarily, frequently forced into the role of interviewer, trying to extract information from other characters.

Nor is the interviewer role limited to solving overt mysteries; it’s rare that any novel does not contain at least one scene where somebody is trying to extract unknown facts from someone else. Queries ranging from “Does that cute boy in my homeroom REALLY like me, Peggy?” to “Where did the cattle go, Tex?” all call for satisfying responses. In fact, it’s a fair bet that any scene that contains one character exclaiming, “What happened?” is the precursor to an in-text interview.

Are you already warming up the highlighting pens?

Good idea. Such scenes are often worth flagging for revision, because they are so very hard to pace well. This is true, incidentally, even when the information being revealed is inherently exciting (“If you do not get across the bridge before sunset, giant bats will eat you, Reginald.”), emotionally revealing (“The reason I turned to piracy is — YOU, Father!”), or downright necessary to make the plot work (“Yes, George, although I haven’t seen fit to mention it once in the course of our 62-year marriage, I have always dreamed of going spelunking!”).

Why? Well, when the point of a scene is for information to be revealed to the protagonist (and thus the reader), many writers become so focused upon that data’s being revealed entertainingly that they forget that the scene must also be believable dialogue between two people.

The result, from the professional reader’s POV: many, many submissions where secrets that have been kept successfully for 25 years burst out of the mouths of the secretive practically the moment that the protagonist walks into the room. So why, the reader is left to wonder, if these secret-keepers are so willing to spill their guts to the first person to ask a direct question, has this information not been revealed before?

The apparent answer: because the plot required that it not be revealed before. And that, my friends, is never a sufficient motivation.

Or, to be blunt about it, the narrative should not make it EVIDENT that the hidden information would have been laughably easy to get all along, if only someone had thought to knock on the door of the only person who actually observed that the setting of that fire a decade before that shaped the entire town’s subsequent history.

You can just imagine all of the townsfolk slapping their heads in unison behind closed doors after that perky newcomer digs up the arsonist’s name in a single afternoon: why oh why didn’t it occur to any of us to ask Aunt Bessie?

Surprisingly often, the protagonist doesn’t even need to ask a question to elicit the revelations of tremendous secrets from minor-but-essential characters: often, all she has to do is show up, and the legendary recalcitrant loner begins singing like a Rhine maiden. In many instances, the protagonist is reduced to helpful nods and murmured promptings on the order of, “Oh, really?” while the imparter engages in a soliloquy that would make Hamlet himself start looking at his watch.

A novel, the last time I checked, was not an opera: in real life, most people do not go around shouting out their deepest, darkest secrets at the top of their lungs to relative strangers.

And that’s what makes secrets interesting, right? In real life, it is actually rather difficult to convince folks to cough up the truth — partially because after one has lived with a lie long enough, one often starts to believe it oneself.

When you are trying to increase the tension throughout a novel, recognizing that truth is often hard to elicit is a powerful tool, one that can revolutionize how you handle interview scenes. They do not need to be essentially one-sided information dumps they so often are. Instead of regarding them as just necessary exposition-through-dialogue, to be rushed through quickly, why not use the opportunity to introduce some conflict?

How? By making the information-imparter more reluctant — which automatically both forces the protagonist to become a better interviewer and renders the information-seeking process more difficult.

Automatically, this small switch makes the scene more interesting, by introducing viable (if brief) conflict between Character A (who wants to learn something) and Character B (who has very good reasons not to pass on the information). A couple of fringe benefits: your protagonist will come across as smarter, more active, and more determined — and the information elicited will seem more valuable. As convenient as a suddenly-garrulous secret-hider is to the plot, too-easily discovered information runs the risk of seeming… well, ordinary.

So eschew the magic wand that turns the timid secretary who saw her boss murdered 15 years ago and ran off to live in a cave to avoid talking to the police into the operatic diva belting out precisely the information she has devoted to her life to hiding, simply because someone finally asked her a direct question about it. Banish the clue that only required someone opening the right cupboard drawer to find. Give your protagonist some killer interview skills.

Take, in short, a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up. The more difficult they are to find, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

More interviewing tips follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Good-bye, Unk, and thanks

By the hushed tone of my mother’s voice last night, I knew that someone close to us both had died. Barely audible through a crackling cell connection that has to run through a series of Pacific-carved cliffs to get to me, it took her five tries to convey whose passing had so depressed her: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Suddenly, the world felt smaller.

Not that either of us had ever met the great writer personally — a trifle surprising, in my mother’s case, as she spent the 1950s married to a fairly prominent science fiction writer who certainly shared many readers with Vonnegut. At the time, SF was a small, close-knit world; my late Uncle Alec regularly published short stories in GALAXY. Like Vonnegut, most of the members of that early SF community were prone to complain bitterly about how the literary establishment ignored the fact that some great writing came out in genre form.

Anybody who has read more than one of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels is already familiar with the lament, I suspect. Suffice it to say that those of us who write now have every reason to be grateful to Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Ursula LeGuin, Ray Bradbury, and scores of other great toilers in the SF and fantasy genres, for proving once and for all that genre and smart, literate writing are not mutually exclusive.

In the bad old days, SF, like mystery, horror, romance, and other genre fiction, was officially held in contempt by the literati. Science fiction novels were almost never reviewed by the mainstream press, a fact that rendered Vonnegut’s undoubted popularity doubly impressive. Hard as it is to comprehend now, SF was treated a little like pornography those days: nice people read it voraciously in secret, in the privacy of their own homes, but they took wincing pains never to discuss their taste for it amongst the snobbish.

Those who admitted such predilections openly were odd, somehow beyond the pale of polite society. Such people held their own conventions, for heaven’s sake. They believed it was perfectly legitimate for adults to read — and even own — comic books. They dressed up as characters from Star Trek. They understood how computers worked.

Even today, one still bumps into literati who retain this old attitude, confusing snobbery with discernment. A couple of years ago, at one of those publishing world cocktail parties where everyone drinks bad wine, I told an eminence grise of literary fiction who sits on the boards of several major grant foundations about the memoir I was writing about my relationship with Philip. If the grand dame had been wearing a skirt, she would have instantly swept it aside so I would not touch it. “Well, obviously,” she intoned, curling her aged lip, “I never read science fiction.”

Back in the day, even well-established SF authors were often treated by the press as though their success were some sort of a parlor trick, a word-based scam to fool a credulous reading public. Philip used to do hilarious impressions of the reporters who came to interview him: “Are you well-known in your field?” they would ask the Hugo Award winner, whose work had been featured as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection. “I wouldn’t know. Naturally, I never read it.”

Or, still more maddening: “Do you write real fiction, too?”

Genre fiction IS real fiction — and potentially important fiction, too. As my mother said, sighing unhappily into the phone, when Vonnegut’s PLAYER PIANO came out in 1952, readers went mad with joy, and with disbelief: no one else was writing anything remotely like it at the time.

Or at any rate publishing it, which as we writers know often amounts to the same thing.

Kurt Vonnegut (he dropped the Jr. very emphatically after his father died) wrote smart books on smart topics. He wrote in such a spare, economical style that I was stunned to learn that he had been John Irving’s writing teacher in graduate school. (Yes, THAT John Irving, king of the modern-day Dickensian novel.) His comic timing was flawless, and he had the temerity to insist — in print, and often — that writing was an important contribution to humankind.

Or, as he would have put it, mankind. Female characters were certainly not his strength as a writer, nor his focus — interesting, in someone who wrote so much about evolution and reproduction. I must admit, after a blazing literary love affair with his books so marked that I literally wore out three copies of CAT’S CRADLE in high school, he lost my attention after TIMEQUAKE, where it became abundantly clear that his target readership uniformly sported Y chromosomes.

Frankly, I felt a bit betrayed. For those of us XXers amongst his fans who had been waiting for decades for him to create a believable female character (JAILBIRD’s Mary Kathleen O’Looney was his closest, and certainly his funniest), who had been making excuses to our friends for his depictions of rape (especially in WELCOME TO THE MONKEY HOUSE), his blaming the decline in reading in the US on women writers came as something of a shock.

At least, it did to me. For years, I had worshipped the man as an advocate of art, a writer brave enough to speak out on political issues, and most of all, an unparalleled crafter of words. If I hadn’t respected him so much, the slap would not have hurt.

I know, I know: it’s customary to speak no ill of the dead, and the difference between the admiration one has for a favorite writer at 15 and at 40 is the realization that all of our heroes have feet of clay. That’s what makes them interesting as characters, over and above their achievements, those contradictions.

But — call me zany — I suspect that for the next week or two, there will be no shortage of articles out there calling attention to the genius, the humanity of Kurt Vonnegut. Already, I have read no fewer than three obituaries that claimed — unfairly, I think — that he essentially wrote the same novel over and over 19 times. (Um, JAILBIRD? MOTHER NIGHT?) Already, there is no dearth of print pointing out that SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE is an anti-war novel that has arguably influenced more readers than ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT.

I am all in favor of everyone in the world reading both, by the way. They’re both marvelous books.

Since we’re all writers here, however, and complex, I am not going to pretend that Vonnegut’s writing didn’t occasionally madden me. It did — but it gave me many more moments of joy, and a real glimpse growing up into the power of the intelligently-applied creative word. He was a terrific writer, and we are all diminished by his passing.

To American writers of my generation, he was the cool, wacky, Einstein-haired uncle who always said precisely what he thought. Anyone who does that throughout the span of a 55-year writing career is bound to annoy his nieces and nephews a little from time to time.

In CAT’S CRADLE, when Bokononists are about to commit suicide, they say, “Now I will destroy the whole world.” But a writer’s world, particularly one as well-peopled as Kurt Vonnegut’s, is not destroyed when he dies. His vision lives on in his books and — at the risk of invoking a standard eulogy cliché — in the readers whose lives he touched.

So good-bye, Uncle Kurt, and thank you, ten million times over, for Billy Pilgrim, Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater — and yes, even that bimbo extraordinaire, Montana Wildhack. Thank you for the RAMJAC Corporation, Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, the last great realist painting, and the transformative power of the Galapagos Islands. Thank you for books that I wrote about on my college applications after reading until the covers fell off. Thank you for an entire shelf of tattered, well-beloved volumes, work I love enough to critique 30 years after I first read them. (Hey, I started young.)

The world is a better place because you lived, and because you wrote. That’s as fine a eulogy as any writer can hope to deserve. Best of luck in whatever alternate reality now contains you, and if you were right about the non-linearity of time, enjoy all of your planes of existence. Don’t forget to write — and thanks for all the good work.

Entr’acte: Lights, camera…

Okay, I promised that I was going to send you all news from the front while I was being interviewed for the documentary, and it doesn’t get any closer to the front than this: they’re setting up the light and sound equipment right now.

To be precise, I’m sitting in a hotel room designed for one person to be able to walk around in relative comfort, surrounded by two technicians and the director, who are arranging and rearranging furniture and lighting equipment in an effort to create the illusion that I am alone in an extremely well-lit room, narrating my own past to myself. As one does.

I am writing this partially to stay out of their way. I distracted them earlier by asking them to tell me the names of Argentine novelists I should be reading (other than Borges, of course; I already knew him), and apparently, in this context, asking questions that prompt people to sit down and think is not the most helpful activity. Remember this, please, when you are famous: it’s frowned-upon for interviewees to interview the interviewers. I can never help myself.

Now that I have released them from bibliographic duty, they all seem to be talking at once; a tad disconcerting, as I understand about four words of Spanish (non-consecutive). Normally, it’s only your imagination that people who are speaking in foreign tongues around you are talking about you, but when there is a boom mike, monitor, and three light poles within grabbing distance, you may be fairly sure that they ARE talking about you, at least indirectly. The sound guy keeps saying, “Hola, hola,” into various little black items, the lighting guy seems determined to rearrange every object in the room seventeen times, and never has a hotel room been this brightly lit.

Apparently, someone intends to do surgery here sometime soon. It is not conducive to interview subject relaxation.

All of you out there who are ever planning to interview living, breathing individuals for your books: do be aware that being an interview subject is quite nerve-wracking. Most people (at least the ones who are not indicted for or witness to a felony) are not expected to be able to blurt out coherent accounts of the most trying moments of their lives on a moment’s notice. Nor is it reasonable for interviewers to expect interviewees to read their minds, to search through a lifetime of complex memories to pull up precisely the anecdote that corresponds most exactly to the interviewer’s preconceived notion of an event.

Yet 99% of the time, this is what interviewers do expect. And an interview subject is very likely to notice this, because it’s not as though any question in the process is asked only once. Everything is asked four or five times, sometimes in different background environments, so they can later piece together the answer they want. From the subject’s POV, this is rather like being cross-examined. From the documentarian’s POV, I suspect it is rather like editing a novel: cutting away the extraneous in order to create plausible characters.

Oh, come on: you didn’t think those reality shows weren’t edited to create a storyline, did you?

I ask the director about editing for character creation. Since it’s the only English that’s been heard in the room for a quarter of an hour, my voice startles everyone. He laughs, then talks about the difficulties and joys of trying to be an observant spectator of a range of people whose views of events differ rather wildly. It’s hard, he says, to ask questions that will provoke revealing responses without appearing to take sides.

“That’s just what a novelist does,” I tell him, “in constructing a narrative.” This is translated into Spanish, so everyone can enjoy the irony.

Having just lived through exhaustive pre-interviews and seemingly miles of let’s-walk-around-Berkeley shots (we seriously spent an hour today following my mother as she drove familiar streets, blasting Puccini, with the cameraman hanging dangerously out of the side of the production van), I have gleaned what I hope will be a useful tip for all of you would-be interviewers out there: it might not be the best idea to tell your interview subject what all of your other interview subjects have said about her. It taints what is, after all, a meeting with an inquisitive stranger with the annoying air of a visit from unpleasant relatives.

Not that I’d be saying this from personal experience or anything. It’s not as though, for instance, people who live off the proceeds of the late Philip K. Dick’s writing have been going around making sweeping statements about a memoir they haven’t read. Since you, my fine readers, are actually implicated as co-conspirators in some of these sweeping statements, I feel that I should let you know about one of them: certain sources who are not speaking to me have been telling third parties with recording devices that I have been posting large parts of my memoir here, on this very blog, for well over a year now.

I ask you, the people who would know this best: have I?

Actually, I couldn’t have, legally: once a publisher buys the rights to a book, the contract tends to be pretty darned specific about what the author can do with the contents. Amazingly enough, publishers seem to be under the impression that what they are buying when they acquire a book is the right to disseminate its contents. And if I had not retained the film rights to A FAMILY DARKLY, I would not be able to give this interview without explicit permission from my press.

I still own the film rights, though. And the foreign language rights. As I think I have explained before, what publishers usually buy from first-time authors on our continent (actually, it’s not my first NF book; I wrote a couple of travel guides years ago, but let’s say it’s my first, for purposes of illustration) are the first-time North American English-language rights only. Most of the time, if a book comes out first in hardcover, the paperback rights are sold separately; typically, a novel would need to sell in the neighborhood of 10,000 copies before a press would be interested in the paperback rights.

I have only just realized that the cameraman has been filming me writing this for the last couple of minutes, the observer of the observers being observed observing. (Try to wrap your brain around THAT one.) The sound guy has just lowered what looks like a space probe to eight inches in front of my nose, nine inches up. If I don’t stare either dead ahead or down at my computer screen, it will be very distracting.

I’m getting indications that it’s time for me to start strolling down memory lane, to recall some of the most painful and joyous moments of my life. Due to the lights and proximity of bodies in a too-small space, it is now thirty degrees hotter in the room than it was when we began. I am advised not to sweat. And to relax.

And we begin.