At the risk of repeating myself, part III: hot, hot, hot. And had I mentioned it was warm?

Ah, the gentle days of April, when the daffodils begin dancing, steel-blue storm clouds loom on the horizon, and the neighbors finally get around to burning the long-lingering remnants of their Christmas tree. Why, it seems only a few weeks ago that the locals took down their holiday lights. Perhaps because the neighbors on the other side of us still have theirs up.

Hey, winters are dark in Seattle. So, apparently, are early springs. We could all use a little extra twinkling on the block.

To set the minds of those of you who have been clutching your chests in anticipation of a house fire at ease: no, my neighbors didn’t torch it in their fireplace; I shot this photo at their fire pit. I had been prowling the environs, searching for an image to illustrate our topic du jour. I couldn’t be happier, really. What, after all, would remind a self-editing writer more of structural repetition — the phenomenon of a writer’s falling in love with a certain kind of sentence and consequently over-using it throughout a manuscript — than dry fir needles consumed in flame?

“But Anne,” redundancy enthusiasts across the writing world protest, “I don’t get it, and until I get it, I’m not going to stop repeating words, phrases, and imagery on the page. So I challenge you: how are these two apparently unrelated things akin?”

That’s a perfectly legitimate question from a writerly point of view, repetition-huggers, but from an editorial perspective, the connection is self-evident: Christmas comes but once a year. So does one’s birthday, generally speaking. No matter how much one might enjoy celebrating either, it’s not reasonable to expect others to keep bringing you presents three times a month just because you claim today, tomorrow, and next Thursday that it’s one or the other.

Too abstruse? Okay, what about this one? No matter how brightly that fir branch burns, it is pretty only for a moment. Ashes have their charm, of course, but trying to rekindle them is a futile endeavor.

Too heavy-handed? Okay, metaphor police, try this one on for size: the branch you see above looked very nice on the Christmas tree. It is also attractive in the photo, in a different context. But had the neighbors set the Christmas tree in the fire pit without setting it ablaze, passersby would have murmured, “Hey, don’t they know Christmas was months ago?”

Starting to get the picture now? Yes, the fir was lovely covered in ornaments; we all saw that through your window. It was less pretty in February. And it was downright droopy in March. Today, in April, it’s nothing but a fire hazard.

That doesn’t mean, though, that a creative person couldn’t make it pretty again, but you’re going to need to do more than just stand it up and admire it as you did before, neighbor. You’re going to need to put some effort into transforming it. It’s going to need to appear to be fundamentally different.

What do you think? Have I have milked that image for all it’s worth yet? No? Okay, in case I’ve been too subtle for the literal-minded: after using a pet phrase once, give it a rest, will ya?

I see you smirking smugly, those who believe that you never repeat yourselves on the page. “Darned good advice, Anne,” you say warmly, “but not at all applicable to me. Every syllable I commit to paper is 100% original, both in the history of literature and within my own opus.”

I applaud you if that is actually the case, smug smirkers, but if this is your first manuscript, it probably isn’t: most writers have go-to phrases, metaphors, and even sentences that they trot out at least every hundred pages or so, whether they realize it or not. And don’t even get me started on how often manuscripts repeat lines of dialogue.

We saw why last time: if phrasing or an insight sounded good the first time around, it tends to sound good the second, third, and fifty-seventh as well. And if you’re like most writers new to the game, you probably have been writing your book over an extended period. Are you absolutely positive that the great sentence you wrote yesterday is entirely different than the one you wrote six months ago? Do you truly remember every syllable you wrote back in 2008?

No longer so sure, are you? Here’s the best way to recapture that peace of mind I so rudely disrupted: sit down and re-read your submission IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and, even better, OUT LOUD, just to double-check.

It’s in your best interest to do this before you send it off to an agent, editor, or contest judge. And certainly before you smirk smugly at the rest of us.

But definitely before you submit, because, trust me, even if that simile you adore on p. 22 does not recur until p. 384, chances are better than even that our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, will notice and deplore the repetition. So will her boss, the agent of your dreams, and even if it gets past both, the editor to whom the agent shows your manuscript will almost certainly catch it.

Why am I so sure of that? Well, submissions and contest entries so often contain substantial word and phrase repetition; one does not have to read professionally for very long to begin to build an aversion to the sight of it — and an eye that zeroes in on it.

Human nature, I’m afraid. The more one wants to look away from a tragedy, the more one is compelled to look.

To most of us who read manuscripts for a living, a manuscript that keeps recycling sentence structures, pet phrases, or even individual words might as well be covered with flashing neon signs. Don’t believe me? Okay, here is a page stuffed to the gills with one of the more common types of repetition, the over-use of proper nouns in general and character names in particular. I’ve made the image a trifle larger than usual, to render the pattern easier to spot.

In fact, you don’t even have to read the text to notice it: stand up, back away from your computer until you can’t make out individual words, then walk slowly toward the screen until individual words start to come into focus. Ready, set — observe!

Let me take a wild guess: on your return trip, all of those Js and Ps were the first thing you saw, were they not? I hate to break it to you, but a sharp-eyed pro like Millicent would have had that reaction scanning the page at a normal reading distance.

Well might you gulp. Once you got close enough to read the page in its entirety, I’m guessing that it did not seem all that repetitious to you. That’s fairly normal for writers who have not yet enjoyed the traumatic scrutiny lambasting benefit of professional feedback: for some reason my extensive editing experience leaves me powerless to explain, most aspiring writers seem to believe that if the word being repeated is a name, it’s impossible to over-use it.

They are, in a word, wrong. We shall see why in a bit, once your eye has had a chance to develop.

In the meantime, let’s take a gander at how the visual pattern problem is exacerbated if the sentence structure is also repetitious. To render this tortured page even more likely to annoy our Millie, I’ve selected a common construction in the passive voice.

Again, back up from the screen, then slink forward. What does your eye notice first?

Starting to see more than one pattern? I hope so: your eye might have been drawn to the repetition of was or one before or after the capital letters in the proper nouns, but now that you’re looking for it, this page seems to contain a smaller variety of words than our first example, right?

Even if the repeated words did not jump out at you, you probably noticed that this version was quite a bit less amusing to read. I wouldn’t be at all astonished if you were tempted not to read it all the way to the end; Millicent would have had more or less the same reaction.

Why? Well, although the page was not in fact made up entirely of it was X and it was as though sentences, it certainly began to feel like it by halfway down the page, didn’t it? If you were a Millicent trying to work her way through a pile of 247 submissions before your hot date tonight, wouldn’t you at least consider shouting, “Next!” and moving down the stack?

Some of you were doing the math, weren’t you? Yes, doubters, it would in fact be possible for Millie to get through that many submissions — if, say, her agency asks queriers to send the first five pages with a query — in a single day. It would be a long day, admittedly, but if she limited herself to just a couple of minutes with each, setting aside those with promise until she had more time to attend to them, she actually could plow through that stack quite expeditiously.

Because where are most submissions rejected, camper? Chant it with me now: on page 1.

So if you were occupying her desk chair and spotted a page 1 as wording-repetitious as that last example, would you continue reading for a few pages, hoping that the vocabulary level will rise? Or would you thankfully conclude that you don’t need to spend much time on this one and reject it in 32 seconds, so you could afford to read page 2 of a submission with more promise?

Don’t tell me what you would want Millicent to do if it were your submission; we’re talking principle here. And no, she can’t spend an extra hour screening today; that hot date involves a quick drink, a play, and a late dinner. You wouldn’t want her to miss the curtain, would you, much less that post-work drink?

Okay, maybe you would, but seriously, most folks that read for a living would have a similar reaction to that page 1, even if they haven’t had a truly hot date since 1982. A trained eye would be drawn immediately toward those patterns — and thus away from other aspects of the text a savvy writer might want a professional reader to notice instead, such as the compelling storyline, the interesting characters, and/or the overall beauty of the writing.

Weren’t expecting that twist, were you? You’d better sit down, because the news gets worse: because repetition in general and structural repetition in particular are so very common in submissions, Millicent and her ilk not only find it distracting; they tend to regard it a symptom of both a small authorial vocabulary and weak writing. So you might want to think twice about incorporating much repetition into your preferred authorial voice. Especially in your opening pages — which, lest we forget, folks who screen manuscripts for a living are prone to regard, rightly or not, as representative of the writing in the rest of the manuscript.

Hey, I told you to sit down.

Now that you’re already depressed into a stupor, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: if the sentence structure and vocabulary on page 1 don’t show much variation, Millicent’s unlikely to keep reading until page 50 to find out whether these traits are consistent features of the author’s chosen voice. Heck, she probably won’t turn to page 2 to confirm that suspicion.

It’s hard to blame her, given the provocation. As we saw in the second example, even when the word choices are diverse enough to keep things moderately interesting, it’s simply more tiring to read the same kind of sentence over and over than to read text where the form varies more.

That’s true, incidentally, regardless of the subject matter. Even an inherently fascinating topic can quickly be rendered stultifying by the simple expedient of writing about it in structurally similar sentences. Repetitive phraseology can render even the most exciting, conflict-ridden scene quite a bit less nail-biting than its activity level should dictate. That’s true, surprisingly, even if the chosen structure is quite complex.

Pop quiz to evaluate your eye’s progress: which bugged you more in that last paragraph, my reuse of the that’s true + adverb structure, or the recycling of even? By this point, I would hope that neither escaped your attention.

Let’s observe the soporific effect of a more complicated repeated structure in action. So I don’t plunge all of you into a deep, refreshing slumber, I shan’t subject you to an entire page of it, but merely a quick excerpt.

Obviously, no one deliberately plans to crash a motorcycle into the side of a cross-town bus, but that is precisely what Barnaby did. Fortunately, he was wearing his inflatable jumpsuit, saving him from significant injury, but clearly, his morning was not going to be a smooth one. Resignedly, he collected his scattered belongings, including the small thermonuclear device he later planned to smuggle stealthily into the state dinner, but he could not resist vehemently cursing under his breath.

Call me a zany idealist, but I believe in my heart of hearts that a scene with stakes this high could have been written about in a slightly more compelling manner. There’s more to good storytelling than just getting all of the facts down on the page, after all. To see why, we need look no farther than the early reader books of our youth.

You know the type, right? See Spot run. See Spot bite Dick. See Dick shiv Jane. Stab, Dick, stab.

Dull, from an adult perspective, weren’t they? But dull with a purpose: part of their point was to encourage new readers to recognize letter patterns as particular words. Varying the sentence structure enough to render the insipid story interesting to more advanced readers would merely have distracted from the task at hand.

So we were treated to the same sentence structure for what seemed like the entire book. I have a distinct memory of taking my kindergarten copy of FROG FUN home from school (Hop, frog, hop. Hop, hop, hop: hardly Thackeray), reading a two pages of it to my father, and both of us deciding simultaneously that no self-respecting human being would keep slogging through that much narrative repetition. And where was the character development? Pages on end about frogs, and the reader could not tell one from the next. What were their individual hopes, their dreams, their personal preferences in lily pads?

He wrote a very amusing little note to my teacher about it. Suffice it to say that my teacher quickly learned to send me to the library for alternate reading material. And stopped teaching kindergarten shortly thereafter. I’m told that she still winces whenever she sees a frog.

It’s even easier to make Millicent wince — at any given moment, her to-read pile overfloweth with submissions that, if not as word-repetitious as FROG FUN, have fairly obviously not been carefully revised with an eye to sentence variation. That’s a pity, because when a professional reader sees a manuscript that uses the same sentence structure or the same few verbs use over and over, the specters of Dick, Jane, and Spot seem to rise from the page, moaning, “This is not very sophisticated writing!”

Why, you gasp? Well, when one’s eye is trained to note detail, it’s doesn’t take much redundancy to trigger a negative reaction.

In fact, a good professional reader will often catch a repetition the first time it recurs — as in the second time something is mentioned in the text. It’s not unheard-of for an editorial memo to contain a livid paragraph about the vital necessity to curb your inordinate fondness for phrase X when phrase X shows up only three or four times in the entire manuscript.

As in over the course of 382 pages. Had I mentioned that we pros are trained to be extremely sensitive to redundancy?

Imagine, then, how much more annoying they find it when every third sentence begins with a structure like, Blinking, Sheila backed away or George was…” or the ever-popular, As Beatrice was doing X, Y happened.

That last one caught you a bit off guard, didn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised: if an alien from the planet Targ were to base its understanding of human life solely upon the frequency with which protagonists in first novels do something as something else occurs, it would be forced to conclude that humanity is doomed to perpetual multitasking. Either that, or it would surmise that the space-time continuum is somehow compressed by the mere fact of someone’s writing about it.

Oh, you laugh, but how else could the poor visitor to our solar system possibly interpret a passage like this?

As Monique turned the corner, she spotted Clarence. He dodged sideways as she came up to him. While he was looking for someplace convenient to hide, she calmly unearthed a crossbow from her purse.

Aiming, she cleared her throat. “The jig’s up, Clarence.”

That’s quite a bit of activity happening simultaneously — and quite a few logically similar sentence structures shouldering one another for prominence. But contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact that two things occurred at the same time is not particularly interesting to most readers. Unless the simultaneity of the motions in question is crucial to the reader’s understanding what’s going on, as and while can be awfully easy to overuse.

How so? Well, let me put it this way: if our imaginative little run-in with the Targian had not tipped you off in advance, would you have noticed that there were two things going on contemporaneously in every sentence in that last example?

If not, you aren’t alone. Most aspiring writers — i.e., the folks who have not yet had the professional opportunity to hear an editor go on a tirade about such things — would not see a problem with that excerpt. Millicent, however, would, and that’s likely to spark some rather unpleasant consequences at submission time.

So how might a savvy reviser rearrange that passage so as to leave Millie’s eyebrows mercifully unraised? Vary the sentence structure — and cut out any extraneous activity.

While you’re at it, reserve as for those relatively rare occasions when it’s imperative that the reader be made aware that things happened at the same time. The result might look a little bit like this:

Monique strode around the corner, surprising Clarence so much that he dropped his bullwhip. While he was looking for someplace convenient to hide, she calmly unearthed a crossbow from her purse.

Carefully, she took aim at his Adam’s apple. “The jig’s up, my friend.”

The contrast between this version and the previous one is pretty stark, is it not? That’s not merely a matter of style, but of phrasing variety. To repetition-sensitive eyes, a page filled with structural and word repetition is like badly-done CGI in movies, where battle scenes between thousands of characters are created by filming 50 extras flailing at one another, copying that image, and plastering it seventeen times across the scene, perhaps alternated with two or three other images of the same actors in different positions. Honestly, to those of us who count patterns for a living, that level of repetition can be downright migraine-inducing.

“Wait just a nit-picking minute, Anne!” I hear some conscientious revisers exclaiming. “I don’t mean to cling slavishly to my dog-eared copy of Strunk & White, but English grammar only permits so many ways of arranging sentences properly. Isn’t any manuscript going to exhibit a certain amount of pattern repetition, necessarily?”

Yes, of course — but that does not give writers carte blanche to use the same structures back-to-back for paragraphs on end, or to utilize a favorite complex sentence form four times per page. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s not as though your garden-variety writer is repeating herself on purpose: in the vast majority of instances, the writer simply likes a kind of sentence or a particular verb enough to use it often.

You lucky souls, however, are going to be one up on that kind of writer come revision time, because we’re about to take a run at spotting the phenomenon in its natural habitat. Since my last post’s foray into A TALE OF TWO CITIES was so obvious, let’s tackle a comparatively subtle one this time around the submission desk.

Rubbing his sides for warmth, Sven glanced unhappily at his fellow cheerleaders. Waving his pom-poms in a wan impression of good sportsmanship, he reminded himself never to be stupid enough to accept one of his sister’s bets again. Pulling up his flesh-colored tights –- oh, why hadn’t he listened to Kenro, who had told him to wear nylons under them on this near-freezing night? –- he wondered if Tamara would be vicious enough to demand the performance of the promised splits before the game ended. Sighing, he figured she would.

How did you do? Individually, there is nothing wrong with any given sentence in this paragraph, right? Yet taken communally — as sentences in submissions invariably are — the repetition of the same kind of opening each time starts to ring like a drumbeat in Millicent’s head, distracting her from the actual subject matter, the quality of the writing, and, alas, even the blistering pace you worked so hard to achieve on the page.

That’s not just a voice problem — it’s a marketing problem. Why? Well, think about it: very, very few agents and editors can afford to work with specialists in a single type of sentence.

And don’t start waving random pages ripped from Ernest Hemingway’s oeuvre at me, either. Present-day readers expect a narrative with a broad array of sentence structures. It’s simply more amusing to read.

Sadly, most of the time, writers don’t even realize it when they’re repeating patterns. Unless the repetition bug has really bitten them, the redundancy isn’t in every sentence, and it’s not as though most writers have the foresight, patience, or even time to re-read an entire scene each time they revise a sentence or two of it. Much less to go over it IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD.

Why, yes, that was redundant, now that you mention it. FROG FUN taught me that was the way to make a point memorably.

To be fair, though, repetition often lies in words or phrases that are similar, but not identical, so the writer does not think of them as the same word. Consider:

Casmir began sweating, sweating as though his sweat glands were going on strike tomorrow. Should he go to the window and throw it open, beginning the cooling-down process? Or should he go downstairs, into the basement, to the cool of the pickle cellar, to await the stellar offer on his house? Or should he wait for the seller on the cooler porch?

Subtle, isn’t it? Sometimes, the structures a writer favors may be common enough in themselves that she would need to read her pages IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch the problem. As in:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted, “because I had no reason.”

“But you did take it,” Edmund shot back, “because you needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Claire’s eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it, since you don’t know her.”

These three lines of dialogue feature different words, but they sport identical structures. This may not seem like a serious problem on any given page, but once a professional reader notices a manuscript exhibiting this kind of repetition over the course of few exchanges, she will simply assume — feel free to sing along; you should know the words by now — that the pattern will recur throughout the manuscript. She’s usually right, too.

How does she know, you ask? Experience, my dears, experience. How many horror films did you have to see before you realized that the monster/killer/Creature from the Black Lagoon wasn’t really dead the first time it appeared to be?

Oh, you thought I was going to use that the monster always returns trope only once in this series? Good eye, those of you who caught it.

Rather than resting on your laurels, though, go back and re-read that last example out loud. Did you notice how similar those three paragraphs sound in the mouth, almost as though they were not the words of two different speakers? The repetitive structure here makes Claire and Edmund speak in essentially the same rhythm, as though they were echoes of the same voice.

Which, from an authorial point of view, they are. That doesn’t mean that the reader won’t want to preserve the illusion that those speeches are falling from different pairs of lips.

When two characters speak in the same rhythm, it mutes the conflict between them a little — not to mention making it harder for the reader to follow the dialogue. Check out how varying the sentence structure ramps up the tension between these characters, even in an excerpt this short:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted. “I had no conceivable reason.”

“You lie,” Edmond shot back. “You needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it, me bucko, since you don’t know her.”

“Aha! I knew you were concealing a pirate past!”

“I ought to keel-haul you.” Sullenly, she tore off her eye patch. “What gave me away, the parrot?”

Nifty, eh? That, in case you were wondering, is the kind of character development benefit a writer is likely to derive from reading her work OUT LOUD. I just mention.

A writer need not only pay attention to how many times he’s using the same words or similar sentence structures in back-to-back sentences, but also on any given page, as well as over the course of a scene. Let’s take a look at how non-consecutive repetition might play out in practice.

As the car door opened, Beatrice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Lance’s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Lance, back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary.

To most self-editors, this paragraph would not seem especially problematic. Yet it contains two of the most commonly-repeated structures, our old friends, the While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was Z…. Standing alone as individual sentences, either form is perfectly valid; the problem arises when either appears too frequently on the page.

Still having trouble seeing it? To a professional reader, this is how the paragraph above would scan:

As the car door opened, Beatrice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Lance‘s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Lance, back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary.

See how even spread-out repetition jumps off the page, once you’re sensitized to it? Millicent (and her boss, and the editors at the publishing house across the street, and even the average contest judge after reading the first handful of entries) is so attuned to it that she might not even have made it as far as the end of the paragraph.

To use the most overworked word in Millie’s vocabulary: “Next!”

Of course, you may strike lucky: your submission may be read by a screener who hasn’t been at it very long, a contest judge brand-new to the game, or an agent whose tolerance for pattern repetition is unusually high. Heck, your work may even land on the desk of that rara avis, the saint who is willing to overlook some minor problems in a manuscript if the writer seems to have promising flair. In any of these cases, you may be able to put off winnowing out pattern repetition until after the book is sold to an editor.

Who, frankly, is most unlikely to be so forgiving. So do you honestly want to gamble on Millicent’s possible saintliness at the submission stage, or would you prefer to take care of this little problem now?

Where should you begin? Well, the beginning is always a nice place to start. Since editorial response to this kind of repetition tends to be so strong — I wasn’t kidding about those migraines — you would be well advised to check your first chapter, especially your opening page, for inadvertent pattern repetitions. (Actually, since quick-skimming pros tend to concentrate upon the openings of sentences, you can get away with just checking the first few words after every period, in a pinch. But you didn’t hear that from me.)

The most straightforward way to do this is to sit down with five or ten pages of your manuscript and a number of different colored pens. Highlighters are dandy for this purpose. Mark each kind of sentence in its own color; reserve a special color for nouns and verbs that turn up more than once per page. You probably already know what your favorite kinds of sentence are, but it would be an excellent idea to pre-designate colors for not only the ever-popular While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was… sentences, but also for the X happened and then Y happened and Gerund Adverb Comma (as in Sitting silently, Hortense felt like a spy) forms as well.

After you have finished coloring your pages, arrange all of the marked-up pages along some bare and visually uncomplicated surface — against the back of a couch, along a kitchen counter, diagonally across your bed — and take three steps backward. (Sorry, kitty; I didn’t mean to step on your tail.)

Does one color predominate? If you notice one color turning up many times per page — or two or three times per paragraph – you might want to think about reworking your structures a little.

If this all seems terribly nit-picky to you, well, it is. But the more you can vary the structure and rhythm of your writing, the more interesting it will be for the reader –- and, from a professional perspective, the more it will appeal to educated readers. Think about it: good literary fiction very seldom relies heavily upon a single sentence structure throughout an entire text, does it?

You know what kinds of books use the same types of sentences over and over? The ones marketed to consumers with less-developed reading skills. If that is your target readership, great — run with the repetitive structure. (Run, Jane, run! Don’t let Dick stab, stab, stab.) But for most adult markets, the industry assumes at least a 10th-grade reading level.

In my high school, Ernest Hemingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA was assigned in the 9th grade. If you catch my drift.

Then, too, agency screeners and editorial assistants typically hold liberal arts degrees from pretty darned good colleges. That’s a long, long way from the reading level that was contented to watch Dick and Jane running all over the place with Spot and frogs having fun hop, hop, hopping.

Let your structural choices be as exciting as the writing contained within them — and let your voice emerge as more than a repetitive collection of your favorite words and sentences. Incorporate your pet structures and phrases, by all means, but have them appear rarely enough that they will seem like revelations, not just narrative-as-usual.

Above all, keep mixing up those sentence structures. You may be pleasantly surprised at how much interest merely preventing a sentence from reading like the one before it can produce.

And try not to mourn too much for last year’s Christmas tree. It will twinkle all the brighter in our memories for having been unique. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(d) all of the above, or,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queryfest, part XXIX and I/II: tracking the wily US letter outside of its natural habitat

Last time, judging by the number of horrified private e-mails I have received since I last posted, I suspect I outdid myself on the reader-cautioning front. As so often happens, what induced widespread panic was not one of my habitual grand, wide-ranging philosophical statements, but commentary on a relatively small, practical matter it had never occurred to me to discuss in this forum — and, based upon the aforementioned e-mails, had not occurred to many of my international readers as a problem.

At the risk of sending still more of you charging into the streets, wild-eyed and screaming, allow me to recap: if you are planning upon querying or submitting to a US-based agency, your letter/synopsis/manuscript/everything else you even consider sending them should be printed on US letter-sized paper (8.5″ x 11″), not the internationally standard A4 (8.26″ x 11.69″).

(Oh, and at the risk of repeating myself on another point: it honestly is more efficient — and easier on me — if readers post their reactions and questions in the comments here on the blog, rather than sending them via e-mail. That way, I do not end up composing 42 separate soothing responses when only one would suffice. Also, if you post questions and concerns here, the chances are infinitely higher that some future reader with a similar perplexity will find the response. Karma points for all concerned!)

Those of you far-flung readers who did not immediately clutch your chests and hurl maledictions toward the muses are, I would guess, (a) not intending to approach US-based agents and publishing houses, in which case you should indeed stick with A4, (b) already aware that when in Rome, it’s only polite to do as the Romans do, in which case your tact is to be commended, or (c) smugly assuming that as you are cost-conscious enough to be approaching these agents and publishers electronically, this admonition simply does not apply to you. In that final case, I’m afraid I have some bad news.

You see, US printers and photocopiers are stocked with 8.5″ x 11″ paper — and it’s not at all beyond belief that an agent, literary contest, or small publisher whose submission guidelines specify electronic submissions will want at some point to print out your synopsis, query, entry, or manuscript. So even if you are submitting electronically from abroad, your submissions should be formatted for US letter-size paper.

Half of you did double-takes at the mention of the word contest, didn’t you? That’s right, campers: the overwhelming majority of the surprisingly hefty number of contest entries sent from abroad to writing contests here are misformatted. Either they are printed on the wrong size paper or, if the entry arrives electronically, they are formatted for A4. Any guesses why either might result in instant disqualification, even if the contest’s rules did not specify US letter?

Award yourself a gold star if you immediately leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “I know, Anne! A4 allows more words per page than US letter, even with the same margins. So if the pages were full and the contest had length restrictions for entries, it would be quite easy to run quite a bit over the expected word count inadvertently.”

Quite right, gold star recipients. To borrow an example from the other side of the Atlantic, here is how the opening to the third chapter of Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE would appear in US letter — and, as is our wont here at Author! Author!, if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + repeatedly.

Here’s the first page of that chapter again, formatted for A4. Can you blame Mehitabel, everyone’s favorite veteran literary contest judge, for suspecting that ol’ Walt was trying to sneak in some extra verbiage?

In a paper submission, she’s likely recognize the problem here as a different paper size. In an electronic submission, though, she might just have a vague sense that something was wrong here. 11-point type instead of 12-point, for instance, or the whole shebang shrunk by 97%: both are fairly common dodges contest entrants (and aspiring writers frustrated by too-short synopsis requirements in general) utilize to try to side-step length restrictions. So even if she had not already knocked this opening out of finalist consideration for all of those which clauses (not considered particularly graceful writing, by current American standards) or the U.K. spellings (when in Rome, etc.), she might well have moved it to the disqualification pile for formatting reasons.

Did that blinding flash of light I saw illuminate the ether a moment ago indicate that the logic puzzle-lovers among you have just extrapolated correctly? “But Anne,” you cry, clutching your metric rulers, “does that mean that all of the time I have already invested in getting my query down to a single page — or whittling my synopsis down to a specified number of pages, or hacking at my contest entry until it is the length requested in the rules — has not in fact achieved my desired object? Are you (gulp) telling me (shiver) that because I wrote all of these assuming the A4 format, they are too long by US letter-sized paper standards?

That’s precisely what I’m telling you, swift calculators. As we saw in a previous post, writers querying, submitting, and entering from abroad frequently violate US length expectations without either intending to cheat or realizing that they have. And no, neither Mehitabel nor her niece, our pal Millicent the agency screener, will necessarily cut you any slack for not being aware of the difference in the paper supply.

Well might you gasp like a trout yanked from the murky depths to sunlit air, e-mailing queriers. If you have been composing your queries in Word set to printing on A4, copying your letters, and pasting them into an e-mail, they probably are longer than a US-generated query would be. And yes, Millicent probably has noticed.

Tempted to think that you might get away with it, are you? Let me ask you: if you had spent the past few months reading thousands of 1-page queries, do you honestly think that your brain wouldn’t automatically start counting lines if the one in front of you seemed a touch on the long side?

While it can be annoying to trim an extra line or two from a query that’s already bumping up against the one-page limit, and downright maddening to try to round a contest entry off so the last page does not end in mid-sentence (although in a contest for book-length works, just as in an agent’s request for a specific number of pages, no one expects the bottom of the last page to end a sentence, section, or thought), I reserve most of my compassion for the hapless submitter-from-abroad wrestling with a synopsis. Pretty much no matter who a writer is or how long the synopsis in question is supposed to be, every line is precious. And since the convention for synopses is to fill all of the allowed pages to the last line or the one before it — you knew that, right? — those few extra lines afforded by A4 paper can make quite a bit of difference.

Yes, of course I’ll show you. To borrow another story from across the pond, force it into a YA format (hey, it’s been a boring day), and present it in US letter:



Uses up every available line, does it not? Here’s precisely the same synopsis formatted for A4.



Makes more of a cumulative length difference than you would have thought, doesn’t it? This second version could take another entire paragraph — and don’t tell me that in summarizing a plot as complex as HAMLET, our friend Will would not have appreciated a little extra descriptive space. Not on this continent, buddy!

Now that I have impressed upon you the importance of using the paper size (and accompanying formatting) if you will be sending queries, synopses, manuscripts, and/or contest entries to the US from abroad, I still have that uneasy sense that those of you affected by this news might be gathering your pitchforks and torches to storm the castle, anyway. “But Anne,” you shout, brandishing the aforementioned weapons of mad scientist intimidation, “it’s not as though US letter is common outside the US. Where would you suggest I pick some up?”

Ooh, good question, pitchfork-brandishers — and a much better question than it would have been just a few years ago. For quite some time, the answer was fairly easy: US-based Kinko’s stocked US letter paper in its outlets all over the world. Once FedEx and Kinko’s merged, however, that seemed to become quite a bit less common. So while I could, as most writing advisors still do, just glibly tell those of you living abroad to track down a US-owned company, walk in, and demand to buy a ream or two of their paper, that’s less feasible than in days of yore.

So what’s a writer to do? The advice would be to order US letter paper from an American-owned company that has branches in your neck of the woods — while Amazon UK doesn’t seem to stock it, Amazon US does, and they do ship abroad. Shipping costs will be expensive enough, though, that you might want to try stopping by your local stationary store first, smiling as sweetly as you can, and asking them to order a box for you, just for comparative pricing purposes. (Your stationer may know US letter by its alternate name, American quarto.)

Yes, that’s rather inconvenient, but certainly less so than the primary answer I found when I did a quick online search — which was, I kid you not, “Go ask at the American embassy.”

While I’m on the subject of tracking down hard-to-find office supplies necessary to the writing set, this seems like an excellent time to repost a question that nonfiction writer Liz brought up the last time I wrote about the rigors and strains of pulling together a nonfiction proposal. After having eyed the photo I posted, she inquired:

What is the make of this portfolio? I cannot find one like this that is not made of paper/card and 30 pages max capacity. Please help!!

I can’t even begin to estimate how many times a year I hear this particular cri de coeur, both via e-mail (boo!) and popping up in the comments (hooray!). Since the comments are, for some reason that escapes me, not searchable with that handy little search engine that continually lurks for your exploratory pleasure at the upper right-hand corner of this blog, though, some of you may have missed my answers. Let’s go ahead and address this in a searchable part of the blog, hey?

For those of you who are not already gnashing your teeth over this particular problem, in the United States, book proposals are presented in plain black folders — yes, even at the submission stage. Don’t even consider trying to use anything fancy or colorful; it will just look unprofessional to the pros. What Millicent and her boss, the agent of her dreams, will expect to find in a nonfiction submission is something like this:

book proposal folder1

I know: boring. That’s the way they like it.

The folders in question, by the way, are the ones with horizontal pockets inside, not the ones with brads in the middle. The latter are for high school book reports, the former for book proposals, and ne’er the twain shall meet. So if the folder in your hand does not look like this when you open it:

book proposal photo 2

scuttle on back to the office supply story and pick up one that does. And whatever you do, do not bind your proposal in any way. Let those pages flap around loose, just as they do in a manuscript. Well, not quite the same: the marketing part of the proposal is placed (neatly, please) on the left-hand pocket, while the sample chapter, author bio, and clippings are typically placed on the right-hand side.

Which leads us right back to Liz’s problem, right? A book proposal usually runs in the neighborhood of 30-60 pages, including sample chapter, so she, clever writer, wants a folder that holds at least 20 pages per side. Generally speaking, plastic folders tend to hold more in their pockets than the flimsy cardstock type. (Liz’s proposal won’t be discarded if she sends it a nice cardstock folder; it’s merely more likely to get a bit mangled in transit.)

Once again, the Internet is the writer’s friend here. The Office Depot website carries an Oxford brand pocket folder that can hold up to 200 pages. It’s looks like it may be available only online, though. Scrolling through the site, I found one that they seem to sell in their stores, an Office Depot brand 2-pocket poly folder that holds up to 50 pages..

They also, should anyone happen to be in the market for it, sell a really nice 24-lb. US letter paper. While 20-lb. paper is fine for a submission, I prefer 24-lb.: it won’t wilt in the hand with repeated readings.

Oh, you don’t want Millicent to get so excited about your writing that she passes pages of it around the office?

Again, though, you might want to toddle down to your local stationary emporium and inquire. You might be surprised at what’s lurking in their back room.

My overall point, should it have gotten a trifle lost in the welter of details, is that when it comes to querying, submission, and literary contest entry, what might be easiest — or most obvious — for the writer often is not what the people on the receiving end are expecting. Yes, that’s can be kind of annoying, but remember, one of the things an aspiring writer is demonstrating at query or submission time is that she can present her work professionally. That means, among other things, printing manuscripts on the size of paper currently in use in that agency and presenting proposals in the kind of quiet, dignified folder that allows the writing to speak for itself.

Because that’s how the Romans roll, people. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XX: tying yourself up in knots to please that agent, or, they couldn’t possibly mean what they say, could they?

If you’ll forgive my getting personal for a moment, have you ever been in a relationship — romantic, friendly, coworkerish — with someone who was just positive s/he knew precisely what you wanted without ever having asked you what your actual preferences were? You’d never gone downhill skiing, perhaps, because you’re secretly afraid of heights — and suddenly, that surprise weekend getaway finds you clinging for dear life to a ski lift, while your beaming significant other repeatedly congratulates himself upon broadening your horizons. Or you’d successfully avoided your sociopathic cousin Bertrand for the last decade, and your matron of honor abruptly announces at the rehearsal dinner that her wedding present to you involves flying Bertrand from New Zealand for your special day, along with his paranoid wife, a teenage son far too fond of matches, and a border collie whose psychological problems defy categorization by even the best scientific minds. Or a member of your book club turns to you at the end of a cookie-fueled discussion of LITTLE DORRIT to ask smugly, “You know how you always claim walnuts don’t agree with you? Well, they do: those brownies you wolfed down were stuffed to the gills with ‘em. I knew you’d just never had them handled right.”

She’ll continue in this vein as you gasp for air, frantically signaling that your tongue is swelling to Godzilla-like proportions. If you are fortunate enough to share a book club with someone who recognizes anaphylactic shock when she sees it, your friendly baker will keep chattering all the way to the emergency room. She honestly means well.

Oh, their intentions are so good, these desire-anticipators, and their methodology so bad. The coworker given to bringing you back a latte every time she runs out to pick one up for herself does it to make you happy, after all; the fact that she just can’t seem to remember that you’re lactose-intolerant doesn’t detract from the purity of her intention, does it? What a nit-picker you are; she said she was sorry. Oh, and once you get over that gastric upset, don’t forget to reimburse her for the drink.

Of course, not all desire-anticipation attempts result in disaster, or even lifelong resentment. Tammy’s tendency to push hot milk on you did get you to try that lactase supplement, after all, and now you can eat ice cream. Aren’t you pleased about that? Perhaps you actually had never enjoyed a properly-presented walnut, and the allergen that sent you to the hospital when you were ten had been a misdiagnosed cashew. What a relief to know what to avoid. It’s possible that Bertrand’s wife has finally found a medication that works for her, and your second cousin’s arson conviction was entirely baseless. Aren’t you ashamed for having prejudged them? And maybe, just maybe, once you’re on top of that mountain, you’ll realize that a baseless fear had prevented you from discovering the one sport for which you have genuine Olympic potential.

Or maybe not. Either way, your learning curve probably would have been quite a bit more pleasant had your well-wisher simply asked you what you wanted before imposing it upon you.

“Ah,” desire-anticipators across the globe cry in unison, “but we don’t have to ask: some of us just pay attention. And don’t underestimate our memories. If you liked sauerkraut on your hot dog when I took you to a ball game back in 1982, you must still like it, right? It wouldn’t be baseball if you didn’t get your smothered wiener. Wait here; I’ll grab you one.”

Uncle Henry, is that you? And is this a good time to mention that for the subsequent ten years, I gobbled up those hot dogs only because it seemed to be so important to you? I loathe sauerkraut. While we’re at it, can we have a serious talk about those sherry-marinated beets you love to make for Thanksgiving?

It’s hard to fault the motivations of the Uncle Henrys of this world, but from the receiving end, it’s easy to spot the flaw in their logic. I ate a hot dog with sauerkraut once in my extreme youth, and against my own better judgment; therefore, I must always want to eat them should similar circumstances recur. By the same token, if I succumbed to a craving for a hot-fudge sundae yesterday — which I didn’t, because I’m lactose-intolerant, Tammy — I must perforce want one in every dessert course from now until the end of time. No more zabaglione for me. And if I was charmed by the giant pretzel my SO brought home on a whim one rainy afternoon last year, I will be equally charmed if he wakes me up by bouncing into the house with one after his 6 a.m. run tomorrow.

What do you mean, I’m unreasonable if I don’t want a pretzel smothered in mustard for breakfast? Or as a midnight snack? Or as a chaser to that enormous beet salad I had for lunch, because Uncle Henry was over?

If I am ever unreasonable on such occasions, it’s when desire-anticipators insist that I must want something, because everybody wants it. All the world loves chocolate, right? I must be kidding about only liking it for the first couple of bites. Every woman loves both shopping and shoes — so why didn’t I want to devote a couple of hours to trying on stiletto heels while I was on crutches? And since every possessor of a pair of X chromosomes must desperately want to get married (to someone, anyone; have you met my recently-divorced Cousin Bertrand?), why do fully half of us back away precipitously when the bride is about to fling her bouquet? Why, in fact, did all of the bridesmaids at my college friend Janet’s wedding retreat beneath a nearby awning, to remove any possibility of catching hers? I’ve seen more popular influenza.

Janet’s still pretty mad about that, speaking of lifetime resentments. As the person she had chosen to read the Shakespearean sonnet during the ceremony — Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments — obviously, it was my duty to risk life and limb to snag those flowers. And want to, darn it. In the 22 years since, I’ve simply commissioned the nearest little girl to catch the bouquet for me. No one is fleeter of foot than a 9-year-old in pursuit of a pretty bouquet.

Except the ones who don’t like flowers. They exist, you know.

Of course, there are plenty of tastes that are pretty close to universal. It’s hard to find someone who hates every conceivable variety of pie, for instance, and virtually everyone dislikes being told what to do if the order seems unreasonable. (Yet for some reason that beggars understanding, no fewer than sixteen brides of my acquaintance have asked me to read the same Shakespearean sonnet at their respective weddings. Presumably, some standard wedding-planning guide listed it as one of the more acceptable secular readings amongst a startlingly small array. Either that, or there’s something about me that makes people take one glance in my direction and murmur automatically, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” Perhaps I should stop writing it in permanent marker on my forehead.)

“Okay, Anne,” lovers of universally-applicable rules concede reluctantly, “I shan’t ask you to read it at my wedding to your cousin Bertrand. (Why hadn’t you ever mentioned what a charming man he is, by the way?) But if I may be prosaic for a moment, is there a particular reason that you’re going on about this type of assumption in the midst of a series on querying?”

Why, yes, there is, rule-huggers — and, as it happens, a darn good one. All too often, queriers new to the game (and a surprisingly hefty percentage of those who have been at it a while) will glance at submission guidelines and murmur, “Oh, they couldn’t possibly be serious about saying they want to see only a query. I’ll just tuck my synopsis into the envelope.”

Or, since the rise of e-mailed queries, “Oh, this agency says it won’t open attachments, but they also say they want the first ten pages. They couldn’t possibly want to see improperly-formatted text; I’ll just attach a Word document, anyway.”

Or, in the rare case where an agency does want pages sent as attachments with a query, “Oh, the guidelines say they want just the first ten pages, but the whole 30-page chapter is one file. They couldn’t possibly expect me to reformat my manuscript. I’ll just go ahead and attach that.”

Or, in response to any specified maximum length for a query or submission packet, “Oh, they say they want five pages, but the first scene ends on page 6. They couldn’t possibly want to stop reading in mid-scene. I’ll just go ahead and send all six pages.”

Or, after perusing an agency website or agent’s conference bio, “Oh, this agent doesn’t list any clients in my book category, and her blurb doesn’t mention that she’s looking for my kind of writing, but her name turned up in a database/in the index of one of the standard guides to literary agents as representing books like mine. She can’t possibly have stopped representing that type of book. I’ll just go ahead and query her anyway.”

Or, the most common query faux pas of all, “Oh, I don’t need to check whether this agency has posted specific guidelines for what it wants to see in a query packet; everyone wants the same thing. Although the agent of my dreams blogs regularly/gives classes on querying at conferences/is extremely vocal in interviews easily found on the web, I don’t need to do any research; he couldn’t possibly harbor individual preferences. I’ll just send him precisely what I’m sending everyone else.”

They are, in short, indulging in desire-anticipation, rather than treating each individual agent as, well, an individual. And we all know how folks on the receiving end of that kind of assumption tend to like it, don’t we?

I said, don’t we? I don’t care that Cousin Bertrand told you otherwise. Like most of the query advice-givers out there, he’s just telling you, probably quite authoritatively, precisely what you want to hear: that what would be the least amount of trouble for you is the path you should pursue.

And let’s face it, all of the tacks above involve far, far less work for the querier, submitter, or contest entrant than investing the time in finding out what each agency or contest rules ask to see. That doesn’t mean, however, that an agency that goes to the trouble of posting guidelines, an agent who announces what she does not want to see this year, or a contest that posts rules all entrants must follow couldn’t possibly mean it. While admittedly, sometimes neither provides especially clear guidelines — we’ve all seen the ever-popular and extremely terse agents’ guide listing query with SASE — in publishing circles, people are presumed to be able to express themselves lucidly in writing.

If they say they want it, believe them. And if they say they don’t want it, believe that, too. These are individuals, entitled to individual tastes, after all; if someone doesn’t eat walnuts, why would you waste your valuable baking time offering him brownies stuffed to the gills with them? Wouldn’t it in the long run be a more efficient use of your time and energies to figure out who the brownie lovers are and share the fruits of your labors with them?

Contrary to astoundingly pervasive popular belief amongst aspiring writers, it’s not the norm for agents to pick up a query for a book in a category they don’t habitually represent, scan it, and cry to the skies, “I don’t have the connections to sell this book, but I like the writing and the premise so much that I’m going to sign this writer anyway!” Nor are they much given to exclaiming, “Oh, this query packet contains many more pages/elements/a batch of chocolate chip cookies that our guidelines did not request, presumably to give the writer an unfair advantage over everyone who did follow our clearly-stated rules, but that doesn’t matter. We have all the time in the world to lavish on writers who can’t or won’t follow directions.”

That last bit caused many of you to do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” desire-anticipators ask in quavering tones, “I’ll admit that I’ve murmured one or more of the sentiments above whilst pulling together query packets, particularly when I’m trying to send a whole bunch out at once — as I often do, say, immediately after New Year’s Day — but it never occurred to me that anyone would think I was trying to take unfair advantage by ignoring the rules. I meant well. In fact, I thought I was following directions; I just didn’t know that there were different sets of them.”

I know you meant well, step-skippers, but frankly, Millicent the agency screener doesn’t know you as well as I do. Neither does her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, when faced with a contest entry a page and a half longer than the rules allow. While it would be nice if they could give you and aspiring writers like you the benefit of the doubt, there are simply too many aspiring writers like you competing for too few slots for them not to regard inability to follow stated directives as an instant-rejection offense.

Yes, no matter why the querier, submitter, or contest entrant did not adhere to those rules. To see why, let’s take another look at those six types of trouble-saving, desire-anticipating practices, comparing the writer’s logic to Millicent’s.

The extra element adder says, “Oh, they couldn’t possibly be serious about saying they want to see only a query. I’ll just go ahead and send along anything else I think might aid Millicent in her decision.”
The writer thinks: I’ve seen other agencies’ submission guidelines that have asked for synopses at the querying stage. I’ve already gone to the trouble of writing one, so I might as well use it. As long as Millicent is perusing my query, she might as well consider it.

When Millicent receives the over-stuffed packet, she responds, “Wow, this querier did not read the submission guidelines — or did not understand them. Whether he didn’t do his homework on my agency or didn’t read carefully enough to get what we were asking, this client would be more work to represent than someone who does read instructions thoughtfully and implements them. Like, say, the next query in my reading queue. Next!”

That’s if she’s in a good mood. If she’s just burned her lip on a too-hot latte — or, even more likely, has just finished reading 14 queries from desire-anticipators, her response might well run more like this: “Hey, who does this writer think he is, to assumes that I will be willing to spend three times the time on his query than on everybody else’s?”

Yes, really. Couldn’t be much farther than your intentions, could it, element-adder? But now that you stop and think about it, wouldn’t reading your query require precisely the extra time and effort Millicent just mentioned? And is that fair?

Painful, I know, but worth contemplating, I think. It’s far, far better that we discuss the possible outcomes here than for any of you to risk automatic rejection on this kind of avoidable basis. Let’s move on.

The dogged attacher says, “Oh, this agency says it won’t open attachments. I’ll just attach a Word document, anyway.”
The writer thinks: I’ve done my homework about agents, and I’ve learned that improper formatting can be fatal to a manuscript submission. So because my e-mail program doesn’t preserve all of the bells and whistles of Word, I’m more likely to impress Millicent if I submit in a format I know is right: as it would appear on the manuscript page.

Upon receiving the query with the attachment, Millicent responds, “Oh, great — another one who didn’t bother to read our guidelines, which clearly state that we don’t read unsolicited attachments. I’m just going to reject this query unread.”

I’m afraid that you are going to hurt your neck, doing all of those double-takes. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Anne,” dogged attachers everywhere protest. “This is an instant-rejection offense? In heaven’s name, why? The agency’s guidelines asked for this material, and it would only take Millicent a couple of seconds to open it.”

Ah, but if she did, she would risk exposing her agency’s computer system to viruses — the primary reason that most agencies did not accept e-mailed queries at all until after the anthrax scare rendered opening thousands of pieces of mail considerably less desirable. In essence, by sending an unrequested attachment, a querier is expecting Millicent not only to devote those extra few seconds to opening it, but to violate her agency’s standing computer use policies.

That “Next!” sounds quite a bit more reasonable now, does it not?

The kitchen sink sender says, “Oh, the guidelines say they want just the first X pages, but my document is Y long. I’ll just send the whole thing.”
The writer thinks: it would be a whole lot of work to copy the requested pages, create a new Word document, copy the text into it, and make sure that the formatting is right. Millicent can just stop reading whenever she wants — and if she likes my writing, she may well want to read more. This is a win/win.

But Millicent, blinking in disbelief at the size of the file, snaps: “Either this querier can’t read directions — problematic, as I murmured above — or she’s expecting me to make an exception for her. For her and her alone, I will read not X pages, but however many she chooses to send me. That’s completely unfair to everyone else who queries, as well as an unwarranted imposition upon my time. Next!”

Does the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments I hear out there mean that this is the first time some of you have tried to see this exchange from Millie’s perspective? Does that mean you will never over-send again?

No? Okay, let’s move on to the next set of excuses.

The sneaky upgrader says, “Oh, they say they want X pages, but the first scene/chapter/a really good bit ends slightly farther into the manuscript. I’ll just go ahead and send enough pages to complete that section.”
The writer thinks: as my manuscript currently stands, stopping at page X does not provide a complete scene and/or cuts off before a bit I particularly like. In fact, the bottom of page X ends in mid-sentence. Since no sane person could possibly want to cease reading in mid-thought, obviously, what the agent really wants is for me to send the entire section/chapter.

And Millicent, cranky at spotting the 20th such over-long writing sample of the day, just shrugs and rejects it unread. “This querier must think we are awfully stupid, to assume that we would believe that any good book would automatically come to a natural stopping-point on the bottom of page X. Way to substitute your opinion for how to assess writing for ours, non-professional. Next!”

Harsh? You bet, considering that all the writer was trying to do here was provide a complete reading experience. But in Millie’s defense — and Aunt Mehitabel’s; contest entrants indulge in sneaky upgrading tactics all the time — this strategy betrays a complete misunderstanding of why some agencies ask for writing samples to be included in query packets. It’s not so they can get into your story; it’s so they can see if you can write.

Not only write well, but write well for readers in your chosen book category. (You’d be astonished at how many opening pages don’t sound remotely like works in their intended categories.) If Millicent decides that you do, then she can turn to the synopsis or request the manuscript/proposal in order to consider your book as a whole.

That was a big aha! moment for some of you, I’m sensing. But the rules lawyers amongst you still have questions: “Okay, Anne, I accept that requesting a writing sample at the querying stage is a pretty good way to spot the strong stylists right off the bat. I can even see that by accepting those pages up front, Millicent can save herself a great deal of time: instead of basing her assessment of whether to request the manuscript or book proposal upon the query alone, then having to wait until those requested materials arrive in order to reject them on page 1, she can skip a step.

“Given that practice, though, shouldn’t I be sending my best writing as a sample, rather than just the first few pages? My favorite part of the book is a 150 pages in. That scene also, conveniently enough, happens to be the precise number of pages the agency’s guidelines suggest. So I’d be smart to send them instead, right?”

It’s a clever notion, rules lawyers, but absolutely not: while you could get away with a mid-book writing sample in a pitching situation, if the agent in front of you asked to see a few pages, the assumption with any requested pages or writing sample in a query packet is that they will begin on page 1 of the book. Why? Well, it’s the way a reader in a bookstore would first encounter the text, for one thing; it’s the part of the story that requires the least set-up, by definition. And since neither agents nor editors simply open manuscripts in the middle and read random passages in order to assess their quality, the opening pages provide a better indication of how they would respond to the manuscript or proposal as a whole.

I know, I know: that places writers who take a while to warm up at a significant disadvantage. You wouldn’t believe how many manuscripts have fabulous openings buried somewhere on page 15. Since the overwhelming majority of manuscripts are rejected on page 1 — I am doling out the hard truths today with a lavish hand, amn’t I? — Millicent just doesn’t see that great prose.

The track record-ignorer says, “Oh, this agent doesn’t list any clients in my book category, and her blurb doesn’t mention that she’s looking for my kind of writing, but her name turned up in a database/in the index of one of the standard guides to literary agents as representing books like mine. I’ll just go ahead and query her anyway.”
The writer thinks: because the Literature Fairy constantly combs the Internet to assure that every single piece of information floating around out there about agents and agencies is not only true, but absolutely up to date, if I can find even one source that claims a given agent represents my kind of book, she must abide by that. So there’s really no reason for me to do any research beyond running by chosen book category through that database or looking in the index of an agents’ guide.”

This one makes Millicent positively choke on her latte, even after it has cooled down. “Why on earth,” she exclaims, “wouldn’t my boss be allowed to change her mind about what she represents? This is a market-driven business, after all: she can only afford to pick up clients whose work she believes she can sell in the current market. So while I might have given this well-written query serious consideration five years ago, back when she handled this category, now, I can simply reject it as soon as I ascertain that it’s pitching a book she doesn’t represent.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: since there is no easier query to reject than one apparently addressed to the wrong agent — Millie seldom needs to read beyond the first paragraph in order to glean that much — it is a complete waste of an aspiring writer’s time to query an agent who does not currently represent books in his chosen book category. Save yourself some chagrin; take the time to check.

Starting to sense a pattern here? Like, say, that trying to save time by skipping the research step is often a false economy, resulting not only in more rejection, but often a longer querying process as well?

I shall leave you to ponder that one for the nonce. Let’s move on to the 600-pound gorilla of querying faux pas.

The one-size-fits-all querier says, “Oh, I don’t need to check whether this agency has posted specific guidelines for what it wants to see in a query packet; everyone wants the same thing.”
At this point in Queryfest, do I even need to reproduce this writer’s logic? Well, okay, for the sake of future would-be queriers who might stumble upon this post in isolation in the archives: anything called a query must by definition mean the same thing, right? So anything I have ever heard about querying, as well as any advice on the subject I might find on the Internet, must be referring to the same thing. That must be true, since the publishing industry — and, by extension, agencies — are set up first and foremost to identify new talent in raw form; for a good writer with a good book, this process should be easy. That being the case, all I need to do is find a template that someone says will work and follow it. Easy-peasy.”

Breathe into this bag, Millicent, until you stop hyperventilating. Then share your thoughts: “Criminy, another aspiring writer who can’t read. Or hasn’t bothered. My agency takes the time to publish guidelines for a reason: we know what we want to see. While this querier may well have a great manuscript on his hands, the letter does not give me the information and/or materials I need in order to say yes to it. So I am saying no.

“Wait — I’m not done yet. Since this querier is treating my agency as identical to every agency, and my boss as identical to every other agent currently milling around Manhattan, I shall return the favor: this query is identical to a good half of the others I see in any given month. Not in subject matter, but in attitude. Believe it or not, following the rules we set out is rare enough that following them makes a query stand out from the crowd. So fly back home to the person who wrote you, little query, and I hope that if he does genuinely have talent, this rejection will teach him to treat his future agent — and her staff — with more respect.”

Of course, it would be far, far easier for the writer in question to learn that particular lesson if the rejection letter actually said any of this — or if he received a formal rejection at all. Even twenty years ago, though, this type of generic, wallpaper-New-York-with-letters query almost always received not a personalized reply, but a form-letter rejection. Queriers who presented themselves better, but had missed the mark in small ways, were often given specific reasons the agency wasn’t asking to see pages. Now, not only would virtually every rejected query generate the same form letter at most agencies — many agencies simply don’t reply at all if the answer is no.

So how is that misguided querier to learn better? Good question. The basic theory underlying the querying and submission process — that since a manuscript or proposal not only needs to be well-written, book category-appropriate, and market-ready in order to catch a good agent’s eye, but also presented professionally at the query and submission stages, a gifted writer might have to take the same manuscript through many revisions and multiple query and submission rounds before finding the best home for it — is predicated upon the assumption that any serious writer will figure out both that it’s essential to her book’s success that she invest the time in learning the ropes, but that she is aware that there are ropes to learn. And that she will have the time, patience, and faith in her talent to keep pressing forward in spite of rejection until she has acquired the necessary skills and expertise to wow an agent.

That’s a whale of a presumption, one that could be quite easily undermined by, well, talking to even a small handful of the thousands upon thousands of exceptionally talented writers who spend years trying to crack the code. But I’ve already said enough today about the dangers of assuming that one knows what is in other people’s minds — or other people’s interests.

There’s another, more query-specific cost to this series of presumptions — but rather than tell you what it is, I have the great good fortune of being able to show you. At the beginning of Queryfest, I appealed to the Author! Author! community, calling upon queriers brave and true to volunteer their real queries for discussion here. These are actual queries from your actual fellow writers, campers: I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that while we welcome constructive criticism here at Author! Author!, we should all be grateful that these hardy souls have been generous enough to help further our discussion.

So on this day of examining common presumptions from both sides of the querying fence, I am delighted to bring you what from a writerly perspective might be considered an excellent query letter for a genuinely interesting-sounding book, courtesy of Author! Author! reader Kitty Hawk. As with all of our never-to-be-sufficiently-thanked Queryfest exemplars, Kitty’s name and contact information have been altered to protect her privacy. And as always, if you are having trouble seeing the particulars, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the image.

Sounds like a heck of a good read, doesn’t it? It also, thank goodness and Kitty’s great good sense, steers clear of all of the problems we discussed above. She’s also, very much to her credit, caught the YA tone exceptionally well here: while the level of word repetition and relatively simple sentence structure would not be pluses for most adult fiction queries, a Millicent working for a YA-representing agent would certainly have no trouble appreciating Kitty’s familiarity with the conventions, vocabulary, and tone of her chosen book category. So far, very well done, Kitty!

Yet although virtually the entire letter is devoted to a description of the book, Millicent might well stop reading before she learns much about it — and for a reason that, like so many of our double-sided tactics above, was probably far from Kitty’s intent. Any guesses what it is?

Hint: the devil is in the details here. You’re going to need to take a very, very close look at the page.

That means, naturally, if your hand immediately shot skyward as you cried two paragraphs back, “This letter is in business format, not correspondence format,” you hit upon a reason Millicent might have taken this letter less seriously if it arrived via regular mail — even at this late date, business format is not considered particularly literate by people who deal with books for a living — but not typically an instant-rejection offense. Besides, since most e-mail programs more or less force unindented paragraphs, this oversight wouldn’t particularly matter in an e-mailed query. Since Kitty submitted this to Agent McAgentson via e-mail (via me), I vote for cutting her some slack on this one.

Ditto if you pointed out, and rightly, that Kitty has included only one means of contacting her — a no-no, even in an e-mailed query. She should have included the whole shebang: mailing address, phone number, e-mail address. Yes, Millicent could simply have hit REPLY to ask for pages, but as we discussed earlier in this series (but not as early, I believe, as the date Kitty sent today’s example to me), queries get forwarded around agencies all the time. So if an administrator or Millicent’s boss, the agent, had forwarded it to the screeners, or one screener had forwarded it to another (not at all implausible, considering how many Millicents are students working part-time as interns), that request for materials would head back to the sender, not Kitty.

Of course, that could still happen if Kitty includes her full contact info, but still, it’s always a good idea to make it as easy as possible for the agent of your dreams to contact you. Hawkeye might have a question best discussed by phone (unlikely at this stage, but not unheard-of), or the agency might print out successful queries. Or — sacre bleu! — Kitty’s eventual submission might get misplaced, and Millicent might have to go tearing through the files, frantically trying to track down a means of contacting her.

Anyway, Kitty does not have the usual justification for not wanting to devote several lines of the page to the way contact information is usually presented in correspondence format: this query is quite comfortably under a page. Especially as — and again, while Millicent might see this as a gaffe, most aspiring writers would not — the right and left margins are not the usual 1 inch, but 1.25. That allows plenty of room for adding necessary information.

What might this query look like with these small, purely technical errors corrected? Glad you asked. In order to help us spot the red flag that might prevent this (again, quite well-written) query from getting read at virtually any U.S. agency, as well as the pale pinkish flag that might cause some Millicents to delete it after paragraph 1 if it were sent via e-mail, let’s make the cosmetic corrections and see just how big a difference it might make on the page.

Quite a difference for less than a minute’s worth of revision, isn’t it? And now that you see the two letters side by side (or, more accurately, stacked), can you see why Millicent might well have had a visceral negative reaction to the first? The first version scans like a printed-out e-mail; the second looks like a letter.

Okay, now do you see the instant-rejection trigger? What about the reason she might have stopped reading a few paragraphs in, or the reason she might not have made it all the way through that quite nice description? No? Then how about the structural choice that might cause a time-strapped Millicent — aren’t they all? — to assume that this letter contains less professional information than it actually does?

Now that I’ve dropped that tonnage of hint for the last one, let’s concentrate on it first. To figure out what Millie might have expected to see earlier in the letter (oops, there I go again, bouncing those hints), why don’t we refresh our memories about the requisite vs. the merely helpful elements to include in a query letter, checking to see which, if any, Kitty has omitted?

What a fine idea, if I do say so myself. A query letter must contain:

1. The book’s title

2. The book’s category, expressed in existing category terms

3. A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book, ideally in a voice similar to the narrative.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph thanking the agent for considering the project.

6. The writer’s contact information and a SASE, if querying by mail

And it may be helpful to include:

7. A brief marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does.

8. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book.

Okay, how did this query do? It does contain the title and the category, as well as a nicely-written description of the book and a polite, if rather terse, sign-off. But that’s it. Millie would be left to guess why Kitty was approaching her boss, whether she had any previous publications, and to whom, out of the wide and varied array of YA readers, this book is likely to appeal and why.

I can’t even begin to estimate how often screeners receive queries like this, book descriptions shoehorned into letter format. Yes, it makes the story sound appealing, but if it weren’t addressed to an agency, a reader might even have a hard time figuring out that it is a query intended to solicit an invitation to submit a manuscript, rather than a sales pitch for an already-published book..

“That last paragraph, while I do indeed that information, doesn’t make much sense if it isn’t a query,” Millicent muses, “so I suppose it must be. But honestly, does Kitty assume that an agency receives no correspondence other than queries?”

Yet, again, from a writer’s perspective, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this query as it now stands, other than a few typos. (We’ll be getting to those later.) It’s polite; it contains what many first-time queriers would assume was the totality of the information necessary in a query letter; it’s genre-appropriate and presumably addressed to an agent who represents books like this.

All of this is good — but by not including all of the elements Millicent would expect a writer familiar with the querying process (and thus a homework-doer) to display, it inevitably comes across as slightly less professional than it could. The big tip-off that Kitty is new (or newish) to querying: placing the book’s title and category at the bottom of the missive.

Why is that a sign of relative inexperience? Because screeners scan queries really, really fast — on average, a mailed query will receive less than 30 seconds of her attention, and that’s counting stuffing the form-letter rejection into the SASE. For e-queries, it’s often even less.

So I ask you: is it really a good idea to make Millie scroll down to learn what kind of book this is? Or to presume that she will read a paper query all the way to the closing thank-yous before deciding whether this manuscript belongs in a book category her boss currently represents?

Don’t believe it would make much of a difference? Okay, here’s that query again, with nothing changed except the title and category’s being moved to the top. Oh, and I’m going to add a date, to decrease the (possibly accurate) impression that Kitty might be mailing precisely the same query to every agent in the country that represents YA paranormal romance.

I see your brows knitting: you’re thinking it looks a trifle funny now, don’t you? Millicent can tell right away whether it’s a book in a category her boss represents, but the presentation is awkward. Also, why include the word count, unless Picky and Pickier’s guidelines specifically ask for it? THE GROTTO is not long enough that mentioning this detail is going to be a deal-breaker — as it often is, if the count is over 100,000 words — but wouldn’t it be more to Kitty’s advantage to use that space for something else? Like, say, some mention of why, out of all the agents currently working in the U.S, she is approaching Hawkeye, or who might want to read this book?

And I’m sure it didn’t escape your sharp eye that in order to fit in the date, I had to skimp on the number of lines between the Sincerely and the contact info. Millicent would have noticed that, too.

So how are we going to free up the requisite space to personalize this query for Agent McAgentson? Well, for starters we can tighten that description: since Millicent is expecting a description only 1-2 paragraphs long, that’s to Kitty’s advantage, anyway. That will enable us to lessen the word repetition and move a nicely unusual detail closer to the top.

Absolutely no doubt that it’s a query now, is there? It’s also clear from the get-go that it’s a book that Hawkeye represents — it must be, since Kitty’s mentioned a similar book. Heck, she even has room now to add a paragraph about her writing credentials, educational background, and/or relevant life experience.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there, though. “But Anne,” lovers of completeness point out, “we get less of the story this way. True, it is less word-repetitious, and that nice YA tone still comes across loud and clear, but shouldn’t Kitty want to cram as much of the plot into her query as humanly possible?”

Not necessarily, completeness advocates: all she needs to do is establish her protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation, setting up the central conflict — or, in this case, three — and giving Millicent some sense of what’s at stake. Check, check, and check. This version also enjoys the advantage of getting to the paranormal elements faster.

Oh, hadn’t you noticed that a screener would have to make it halfway down the page in the original version before encountering any paranormal element at all? If Hawkeye represents only paranormals, rather than straight-up YA romances, Kitty’s legitimately paranormal story might easily have gotten dismissed as not right for the agent’s list.

The two reasons that many Millicents would have stopped reading before the end of the original version are quite a bit more apparent now, though. Did you catch either?

If you murmured, “Well, I did notice that the tense kept changing,” give yourself a nice, warm pat on the head. For fiction, a book description should be entirely in the present tense. And remember, tense consistency is considered a sign of professionalism.

If you also called out, “Hey, there are quite a few typos here,” feel free to rub your tummy as well. Like college application screeners, most Millicents are specifically trained to stop reading after just a few typos.

Both are easily fixed, however, at least by hands not feverishly occupied in patting a head and rubbing a tummy at the same time. Personally, I would add the characters’ ages — a standard professional touch — but again, that’s the work of a moment. So is punching up the language a little to make Leah seem a bit more active, always a plus in a protagonist, and excising that minor cliché about having nowhere to turn. And If I knew more about the story, I would like to add a clearer sense of what her destiny entails, but for now, I’m going to have to leave that to the person best equipped to fill in the details, the writer.

Which leaves us with only the seemingly unimportant oversight that might well have prevented Millicent from reading the body of this letter at all. Ready, set — discern!

Please tell me you spotted it this time. Hint: to Millicent’s eye, it’s a pretty clear indicator that Kitty has been reusing the same query over and over again, merely changing the agent’s address and salutation this time.

That’s right, campers: Kitty addressed the query to Dear Mcagentson, rather than Dear Ms. McAgentson. While the missing honorific might have been the result of a simple slip of the mousing hand while cutting and pacing, mispunctuating the agent’s name — and thus effectively misspelling it — implies hasty retyping. Believe it or not, both are common enough agents’ pet peeves that much of the time, either will get a query rejected unread.

Isn’t it amazing how changing just a few elements, matters that might well strike a writer as trivial, can make such a monumental difference in how Millicent would receive a query? And isn’t it nice to see Kitty’s good story presented professionally, to maximize its chances of getting picked up?

The answer on both counts, should you be wondering, is yes. Let’s take one last look at her query, all polished up.

Ah, that’s nice. Please join me in thanking Kitty profusely for allowing us to deconstruct her query — and in wishing her the very best of luck in finding the right agent for what sounds like a wonderful book.

More real-life query examples follow in the days to come. Watch those assumptions, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Queryfest X: all of these questions aren’t burning you out on querying, are they?

How are you faring, Queryfest participants? (I was on the cusp of dubbing you Queryfesters, but the image the word evoked was a trifle distasteful. An editor never stops thinking about how words will scan on a page, as well as what they mean and how they might sound spoken aloud.) Are your queries looking bright, shiny, and relatively free of the straightforward errors and omissions that dog the garden-variety letter to agents?

Or — and please be honest with me; I can take it — is your original query concept now hanging in tatters, wafting in the wind, mournfully longing for the day when it felt ready to stride out the door and into Millicent the agency’s screener’s overflowing inbox, blithely unaware of just how stiff the competition is there?

Oh, those of you who felt this way thought you were alone? Actually, it’s a pretty common response to realizing for the first time that in the publishing world, every syllable of everything a writer submits is a writing sample. There’s no such thing, then, as a successful query that’s just kinda close to what Millicent has been trained to seek, nor is just hitting every point on an agency’s posted querying guidelines generally sufficient.

I feel an aphorism coming on: while those new to querying often presume that the query is just a formality, composed of a series of hoops through which an aspiring writer must jump, and that their writing will not be judged until an agent requests and receives manuscript pages, that is simply not how the system works. For the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers out there, the query letter is literally the only sample of their writing anyone at the agency will read.

To put it another way, in order to get an agent (or editor, at a small publisher) to read any of your manuscript at all, you will first have to convince her to do so. Querying and pitching are your only options to do that politely — and frankly, most writers’ conferences that allow pitching are quite expensive. As querying is the lower-cost option, a good agent’s inbox, either tangible or virtual, constantly overflows with missives from aspiring writers.

A good half of those communications will be so unprofessionally put together, poorly written, and/or missing crucial pieces of information — the type of book it is, for instance — that Millicent the agency screener will be able to tell at a glance that her boss, the agent, will not be interested. Another third will be better written and contain most or all of the necessary elements, but will arrive at agencies that just don’t represent that kind of book. (Yes, really — you’d be astonished at how few queriers seem to research agents before hitting SEND.)

Then there’s that top 17% or so, the conscientious writers that have taken the time to learn something about how agencies actually work. Their queries tend to be aimed at agents who represent books like theirs, at least, but they often undersell their own stories by trying to make them sound too much like a recent bestseller. Or mystify Millicent by not indicating a book category at all. Or even — sacre bleu! — inadvertently make themselves look unprofessional by adopting an inappropriately informal tone (Hi, George. Looking for solid memoirs by self-made businesspeople — well, have I got a book for you!), engaging in a generic hard sell instead of demonstrating the book’s market appeal (This is the next Great American novel, and you’d be a fool to pass up your chance to get in on the ground floor of what’s sure to be a blockbuster series!, or making claims that reveal they’ve just not bothered to do very much research about what books like theirs are gracing bookstore shelves these days (This is the only novel ever written about a woodcarver’s deep love of his craft, a devotion so profound that his pieces seem alive to him.)

“Yeah, right!” Millicent chortles, reaching for the omnipresent stack of form-letter rejections. “Hey, Geppetto, ever heard of an obscure book called PINOCCHIO?”

I sensed at least 5% of you shifting in your seats. “Gracious, Anne,” the time-strapped cry, clutching their suddenly pale cheeks. “I get that it’s in my best interest to pick a book category and target only agents who represent it, but what makes you think I have TIME to keep up with all of the latest publications in my chosen genre? It took me years to carve out the requisite hours to write my manuscript/draft my book proposal, and having to query at all, much less construct a synopsis, is eating great big holes into my revision time. Isn’t it more important to write a good book than to figure out how to sell it to an agent?”

Well, yes and no, pale clock-watchers. Yes, your chances of getting published are substantially higher if you have written a good book, but that alone is not sufficient endeavor to land an equally good agent for it — a fact which, unfortunately, most first-time writers of good books don’t figure out until they have been querying for a while.

Often not even then. Hands up, everyone who has heard a rejected fellow writer complain that the publishing world just isn’t ready for his book — that it’s too revolutionary, uses language too well, presents an entirely new spin on human relationships, exposes a secret unlike any that has been seen on the printed page before, etc. Keep those hands in the air if, upon subsequent questioning, you discovered that this paragon of literature got rejected at the query stage, rather than as a submission. And wave those hands mightily if you said, either to yourself or to the huffy writer, “Excuse me, Ambrose, but if all the agent saw was your query, how could your startling insights, blistering prose, and/or trenchant analysis of the human condition have been the reason she rejected it? Mightn’t the problem have been, you know, the query?”

Because I love you people, I’m not going to ask those of you who have been the Ambrose in this situation to raise your hands. You know who you are.

I am, however, going to ask Ambrose and those who happen to be personally fond of him to take a moment to ponder the possibilities here. Far too many talented aspiring writers assume that the only reasons their queries could have been rejected is some problem with the book: the story’s not marketable enough, publishers stopped buying chick lit two years ago, the protagonist sounds like a downer, etc. Accordingly, they become discouraged — what would be the point of continuing to query a rejected book? — and just give up.

I get why giving up on querying might be tempting — honestly, I do. However, there’s no denying that the book that isn’t particularly marketable today may well be next year, or even next month; keeping a weather eye on recent releases could help you there. It’s also undoubtedly true that agents’ tastes often change over time, as do agencies’ plans for where they want to place their focus, so the agency that rejected your last book flat might well be interested in your next. And let’s face it, where one agent (or, more likely, his Millicent) does not see market potential, another will, but you’re not going to find that out unless you persevere.

Then, too, if your query lands on the wrong desk, no matter how great the book in question is, or even how beautifully the query is written, it doesn’t stand a chance, right? The same principle applies if you approach the wrong agent within an agency; since the standard etiquette dictates that a writer may query only one, it honestly is worth doing your homework first. You can also kiss that agent goodbye– and you wouldn’t believe how common this is — if you queried the perfect agent too soon after you finished writing the book, before you’ve had an opportunity to go back over it with the proverbial fine-toothed revision comb.

You were aware, right, that you’re only supposed to query any given agent once with any given writing project? Oh, Millicent turnover is so rapid these days that it’s unlikely that the same human being will screen your query two years apart, but if you realize three months hence that Chapter 2 contains a huge continuity problem, sending a repeat query isn’t likely to revivify your prospects at that agency.

As frequently as Millicent sees all of these faux pas — especially the one about beginning to query too soon: now that many agencies allow queriers to include the first few pages in their query packets, it’s apparent far earlier in the process who has and has not taken the time to re-read or even proofread her work — there’s one that crosses her desk even more. I am referring, of course. to the query that reads exactly like 30 others she has read that day, for the exceedingly simple reason that there’s a template out there that 31 of the day’s queriers heard somewhere was sure-fire.

Trust me on this one: a personalized query will stand out in that crowd — and one that sounds remotely like you’ve done some reading of recent releases in your chosen book category will practically bring tears of relief to Millicent’s weary eyes. Returning to our query troubleshooting list…

(25) Is it clear from my query that I’m familiar with recent releases like mine? Even better, do I sound as though I have picked this agent based upon that familiarity?
This may seem like a subtle one from the writer’s side of the querying relationship, but on the query page, it’s often painfully obvious if the querier is thinking of both his book and his query list in generic terms: he has a book to sell, and agents sell books for writers, so any agent who sells remotely similar books will do, right?

Wrong. No agent represents every kind of fiction — and certainly not every conceivable kind of memoir. Actually, although it may be hard to tell this from a brief blurb in an agency guide, it’s relatively rare for agents not to specialize within a particular book category. And I’m not just talking about an agent’s preference for Highland romance over romances set in Ancient Rome, either: these people often like to see particular types of sentence describing those lads and lassies. As will soon be apparent if you take the time to go to a bookstore, pull recent books by three or four of the agent’s clients of the shelves, and read a few opening pages.

Research, my dears, research; there’s just no substitute for it — and the more specifically you can show the fruits of that research, the better. Why, you ask? In the interest of inculcating good writing habits, instead of telling you, I shall show you.

Let’s say, for the sake of example, that Desperate Togetpublishedson has written a YA novel set against the backdrop of the highly competitive junior show jumping circuit, a sterling piece of literature entitled NEVER SAY NEIGH. Let’s further assume that Desperate wants to query Literate McSalesperson, an agent with a long-established track record of selling books about horses and the preteens who love them.

That’s a great choice, probably based upon some solid research on who’s selling books like Desperate’s these days. But Literate’s Millicent would never know it from a query that opened like this:

Because you represent YA aimed at young girls, I hope you will be interested in my novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

That’s not bad, but Desperate’s honest-to-goodness market research doesn’t really shine here, does it? The bit about Literate’s representing YA for young girls could have been gleaned by the most cursory glance at one of the standard agency guides — or even a simple web search. (And news flash: most YA is aimed at young girls; they tend to read more than young boys.)

Let’s take a peek at what happens if our Desperate decides to be a trifle more specific.

I read in Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents that you were “looking for YA with strong female protagonists.” My novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH, definitely fits the bill: it’s about a young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

Better, isn’t it? If a trifle literal-minded: does the direct quote of what anyone in the industry would consider a fairly generic preference honestly help the case here? And does it really matter where Desperate picked up this information? A less pedantic presentation of the same information would make the same point without — please forgive my putting it this way, but it is how Millicent would think of it — sounding as though Desperate had read somewhere that he should include a reason for approaching Literate, but couldn’t come up with anything specific?

Calm down, Desperate, and try it again. Literate isn’t really looking for citations here.

Since you represent YA with strong female protagonists, you may be interested in my novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. It’s the story of a young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

Ah, that’s nice — but if Desperate actually did go to the trouble of tracking down some other books Literate represented, that professional-level effort is not apparent here. Citing a specific book would leave no doubt on the matter. It’s an especially nice touch to bring up a first-time author’s title, underscoring that Desperate has done the requisite research to realize that Literate does take a chance on a new voice from time to time. (Not a foregone conclusion in the agenting world, by the way; it’s worth your while to check.)

Since you so ably represented Debuty de Firsttimer’s HOW AM I EVER GOING TO CLIMB INTO THAT SADDLE? I hope you will be interested in my YA novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. It’s the story of a strong, determined young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

“But Anne!” the literal-minded cry, and who can blame you? “That nifty bit about the strong protagonists fell out of this version! Since Literate feels strongly enough about that preference to have mentioned it in her guide listing, shouldn’t Desperate bring it up?”

Ah, but Desperate did bring it up — by depicting his protagonist as strong, rather than just saying she was. Nifty trick, eh?

Do be certain, though, that any book you cite actually is comparable to yours. Don’t stray outside your book’s category, or you’ll defeat the purpose here. I hate to show a bad example, just in case blog-skimmer out there decides to copy it under the assumption that I meant it as a guide (oh, you’d be astonished at some of the comments I get from people who don’t read carefully), but as Desperate has been generous to make this mistake first, I’d like you to benefit from his sad experience.

Since you handled science fiction writer Outta Myleague’s extraordinary debut, THIS STORY HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUNG GIRLS OR HORSES, I am writing you in the hope that you will be willing to represent my YA novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH, the story of a strong, determined young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

“Excuse me?” Millicent cries. “Do you not understand the term science fiction? Why on earth would an agent interested in one book want to read the other?”

Good question, Millie. Unfortunately, you’ve already rejected Desperate’s query, so I doubt you’re going to have the opportunity to discuss the matter with him anytime soon.

Do all of those glazed eyes out there indicate that some of you are frantically searching through your memories, trying to recall tidbits you have read about various agents and the books they have represented? Excellent. I have a bit more to say about how you might turn that information to your advantage, but in order to give you all some processing time, I’m going to veer our discussion back toward matters more technical.

(26) If I intend to submit this query to agents based in the United States, have I used ONLY US-spellings throughout my query packet? Or U.K. spellings, if I am sending it there or to Canada?
Hey, I told you the next one was going to be technical. While honour, judgement, and centre are perfectly correct in some places in the English-speaking world, they are incorrect in the US, just as honor, judgment, and center are on the other side of the pond, or even north of the border. And while your spell-checker may not find fault with either version, a New York-based Millicent is going to take one look at the former and say, “Great. Now some poor soul is going to have to comb through this manuscript, changing everything to U.S. spellings.”

I hate to burst any bubbles currently floating outside U.S. borders, but the publishing world’s opinion is united about who that poor soul should be: the writer. Who, let’s face it, might not be all that happy about the prospect. So in practice, when a query turns up here with U.K. or Canadian spellings, it says to Millicent, “Hi! If you ask to see this manuscript, not only will your finely-tuned editorial sense have you longing to correct the spelling every other page, but if your boss falls in love with the writing, she will have to have a rather unpleasant conversation with the writer.”

Yes, I am saying what you think I am, far-flung writers: if you’re planning to write for the American market, Millicent will expect you to use U.S. spellings in your query. Her boss is going to insist that you alter every single instance in your manuscript, anyway, so why not beat the Christmas rush and do it now?

You’re quite right — it’s annoying, but honestly, Millicent and her ilk have a point here. While books that have already hit the big time in the U.K. or Canada are routinely available in their original forms here, the original publication site dictates what is considered proper. Since a previously-unpublished manuscript with U.K. spellings would have to be altered before it could be released in the U.S. market, can you blame an agent for considering such a manuscript not ready for circulation to domestic agents?

At the query stage, though, the presumption of further revision’s being needed is not the only danger. You don’t want Millicent to think that you just don’t know how to spell, do you, oh centred, honourable person of sound judgement?

The same principle applies in reverse, of course: tailor your query and submission to what will look right to your intended audience, the agent, based upon where he resides. If you’re a Yank approaching a U.K.-based agent, you’ll be better off conforming to his view of the English language. (Unless, of course, you happen to be an American celebrity — then, your oddball spellings will be part of your complicated charm.)

Ready to start talking about books like yours again? Dandy.

(27) When I mentioned the book category in the first paragraph of my query, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?
Queriers new to the game often believe, mistakenly, that claiming that their books are so completely original, so unlike anything else currently for sale to the English-reading public, that even trying to squeeze them into one of the conceptual boxes provided by the industry would undersell their originality. Instead, these well-meaning souls just make up their own categories with names like Hilarious Western Romance with a Futuristic Feel to It or Time-Travel Thriller with Magical Realist Elements.

They think — again, mistakenly — that such descriptors are helpful to agents. How could being more specific than the average bookseller’s shelving system be bad?

In quite a number of ways, actually. To name but two, mythical book categories are unprofessional, and using them betrays a misunderstanding of why agents want to see them in query letters: to figure out whether the book presented is the kind that they currently want to sell. Also, an aspiring writer who clearly knows that she’s supposed to name a book category but tries to wiggle around it is playing rules lawyer, not a strategy likely to convince Millicent and her boss that she’s the type who just loves following directions without a fight.

Do it because they say so. If you’re at a loss about how to go about narrowing down the choices, please see the HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY section on the archive list at right.

“Can’t make me!” some rebels shout. “No one’s going to put my book in a conceptual box.”

That’s quite true: no one can force an aspiring writer to commit to a book category — at least before she’s signed with an agent, of course. Agents make their clients commit all the time. In fact, it’s not all that unusual for an agent to accept a new project as one category, ask for targeted revisions, then pitch it to editors as a different category.

A book category is nothing but a — wait for it — conceptual box, after all, a marketing label used to get a manuscript to the people who represent and sell similar books. So a categorical (so to speak) refusal to allow your work to be labeled at the query stage isn’t going to impress anybody familiar with how books are sold in this country.

Especially not Millicent — and especially if she happens to open your query at an inopportune moment.

Don’t believe me? Okay, picture this: Millicent’s subway train from her tiny apartment in Brooklyn that she shares with four other underpaid office workers has broken down, so she has arrived at work half an hour late. There’s an agency-wide meeting in an hour, and she needs to clear her desk of the 200 query letters that came yesterday, in order to be ready for the 14 manuscripts her boss is likely to hand her at the meeting. (Starting to read like a word problem in a math class, isn’t it?) After she has speed-read her way through 65 of the queries, a kind co-worker makes a Starbucks run. Just before Millicent slits open your query (#126), she takes a big gulp of much-needed caffeine — and scalds her tongue badly.

Oh, as though long-time readers of this blog didn’t see that coming.

Your query with its fanciful pseudo book category is now in her hand. What is she more likely to do, to humor your reluctance to place your book in the traditional conceptual box, as her boss will require her to do if she recommends picking you up as a client, or to shrug, say, “Here’s another one who doesn’t understand how the business works,” and move on to the next envelope?

Blistered tongue or not, do you really want to bait her? More to the point, is it really in your best interest to bait her?

If you’re absolutely, positively convinced that it would be an outrage upon the very name of truth to commit your novel to any one category, PLEASE don’t make up a hyphenate like Western-Vampire Romance-How-to, in order to try to nail it with scientific precision. In a pinch, if your novel doesn’t fall clearly into at least a general category, just label it FICTION and let the agent decide.

Provided, of course, that you are querying an agent who routinely represents fiction that does not fit neatly into any of the major established categories. I definitely wouldn’t advise this with, say, an agent who represents only romantica or hard-boiled mysteries.

But whatever you do, avoid cluttering up your query letter, synopsis — or indeed, any communication you may have with an agent or editor prior to clutching a signed contract with them in your hot little hand — with explanations about how your book transcends genre, shatters boundaries, or boldly goes where no novel has gone before.

Even if it’s true. Perhaps especially if it’s true.

Yes, such a speech makes a statement, but probably not the one the writer intends. Here’s how it translates into agent-speak: “This writer doesn’t know how books are sold.”

(28) Have I listed my credentials well in my platform paragraph? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?
I’m going to be revisiting the platform paragraph in more detail in a future post, but here’s the short version: if you have any background that substantially aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query.

Period. Even your camp trophy for woodworking can be a selling point, in the proper context. Ditto with any publication, anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether you were paid for writing it. A publication is a publication is a publication.

But truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. To professional eyes, these too are what I like to call ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy).

If you are a member of a regularly-meeting critique group, feel free to mention that as well, although this one is less effective than it used to be 10 or 20 years ago. (The Internet has spawned some pretty wacky writers’ groups, and Millicent knows it.) Anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include, though.

If you don’t have anything you feel you can legitimately report here, don’t stretch the truth; writers who do this almost invariably get caught in the long run. (The same holds true for queriers who include recommendations from people who didn’t actually recommend them, by the way.) Just leave out this paragraph. Unless, of course, you happen to be trying to find an agent or editor for a nonfiction work. Which brings me to…

(29) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a Millicent in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?
A platform, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the background that renders a nonfiction author qualified to write a particular book. Consequently, “What’s the author’s platform?” is pretty much always the first question either an agent or an editor will ask about any nonfiction book.

Which means, in practice, that a nonfiction query that does not make its writer’s platform absolutely clear and appealing will practically always be rejected. And yes, you do need to satisfy this criterion if your nonfiction field happens to be memoir.

I know, I know: it’s self-evident that a memoirist is the world’s leading authority on his own life, but as I’ve mentioned before, a memoir is almost invariably about something other than the author’s sitting in a room alone. If your memoir deals with other subject matter, the platform paragraph of your query letter is the ideal place to make the case that you are an expert on that.

(30) Have I made any of the standard faux pas, the ones about which agents complain early and often?
I like to think of this as a primary reason to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are some of the best places on earth to collect massive lists of the most recent additions to agents and editors’ pet peeves. I’ve been going through most of the major ones throughout this series, but some of them can be quite itty-bitty.

Referring to your book as a fiction novel, for instance, is invariably on the top of every agent’s list; in point of fact, all novels are fiction, by definition. A nonfiction memoir, a real-life memoir, a true memoirand nonfiction based on a true story, as well as permutations on these themes, are all similarly redundant.

Just don’t do it. If you thought Millicent was in a bad mood after she burned her tongue, trust me, you don’t want to see how she reacts to that memoir based on something that really happened to me.

Waffling about the book category is also a popular Millicent-irritant, as are queries longer than a single page, including promotional blurbs from people of whom the agent has never heard (Delphine Margason says this is the most moving book about figure skating she’s ever read!), or — chant it with me now, folks — ANY mention of the book’s potential for landing the author on a show hosted by someone like Oprah. Or Jon Stewart. Or Stephen Colbert. Or Charlie Rose.

Or…well, you get the picture.

Violating any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread. Especially the last; the average screener at a major NYC agency could easily wallpaper her third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn seven times over with query letters that make this claim — and I’m talking about ones that fell onto her desk within the last month.

Believe it or not, we still haven’t run through all of the common Millicent-irritants out there — and we have barely begun taking a serious gander at examples of what does and doesn’t work on the query page. Join me next time for more on these exciting topics, and, of course, to keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part IX: toiling productively in the vineyards of literature, or, would Pavlov’s doggie like a biscuit?

Since we began our last post with an image of a crowd storming a castle, I thought it might be nice to open tonight’s Queryfest post with an image of an un-stormed one. I like to yank this gorgeous image from the Book of Hours out of the mothballs every now and again, because it is such an accurate depiction of how so many aspiring writers view the work of querying these days: a long, toilsome effort aimed toward impressing the powerful folks in the white castle on the hill — who may or may not be paying attention — under a sky that (we hope) conceals at least a few minor deities rooting for the underdog’s eventual success.

What’s that you say, campers? It may have felt like that back I was trying to find the right agent way back in the dimly-remembered mists of the Paleolithic era, but everyone concerned feels perfectly marvelous about the process today? Whew, that’s a relief — I guess I can end Queryfest here and now.

On the off chance that I wasn’t the only aspiring writer who ever shivered in the face of seemingly unalterable industry coldness, I feel an obligation to point out from the other side of the Rubicon that even those newest to querying are not as entirely helpless in the face of it as we writers tend to tell ourselves we are.

Stop rolling your eyes; it’s true. Although much of a writer’s progress along the road to publication is dependent upon factors outside her control — fads in writing style, fashions in content, and what species of memoir has garnered the most scandals recently, to name but three — how an aspiring writer presents her work to the industry is in fact entirely under her own control.

That’s a really, really nice way of saying that from a professional reader’s point of view, scads of query letters traject themselves like lemmings straight from the envelope into the rejection pile with scarcely a pause in between, due to problems that the writers who sent them could have fixed fairly easily. Sadly, the vast majority are rejected for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the potential personality fit between the author and agent, the agent’s ability to sell the book in question in the current market, or even the quality of the writing.

Yes, yes, I know — the form-letter rejection you got implies otherwise. But form letters rejections are, by definition, sent to everyone an agency is rejecting, regardless of the reason. Because a good agency genuinely does not want to discourage writers on the way to perfecting their craft and professionalizing their presentation, their prefab rejections are usually geared toward the best of the rejected manuscripts, the near-misses for whom it’s actually true that the book sounds intriguing, but publishing houses just are not buying that sort of manuscript right now.

That is not, however, your garden-variety rejected query. A hefty percentage of them all contain the same 10 or 15 stripes of mistake. And that repetition has serious implications for even otherwise good queries that happen to stumble into the same pitfalls.

A forest of hands just sprouted out there in the ether. “But Anne,” conscientious queriers everywhere moan, “that’s absurd! How could anyone else’s querying habits, or even the querying habits of every single other aspiring writer in the nation, possibly have any effect upon my query’s reception at an agency? They’re all judged individually, aren’t they?”

Well, yes and no, moaners. Because agents and their screeners read so many of the darned things, they inevitably develop pet peeves and start identifying common red flags. And because our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, often spends hours on end scanning queries, even if only 20 of them share the same basic error — and trust me, more of them will — the 21rst query that carries even a shade of similarity is likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction so strong that even Dr. Pavlov would shake his head and say, “No kidding? Just because the letter was addressed to Dear Agent, rather than to an individual?”

Oh, yes, Dr. Pavlov, there are few epistolary errors that engender a stronger — or quicker — negative response than a Dear Agent letter. That’s merely the best-known of the notorious query-readers’ pet peeves.

In response to that giant collective huff of indignation I just out there: you’re probably thinking that Millicent is hypersensitive, far more eager to reject a query than to accept it, and perhaps even downright mean. Heck, judging by the expressions on your faces, you probably wouldn’t be remotely surprised to learn that she regularly eats live kittens for breakfast, snarls at babies, and honks her horn when Boy Scouts assist people on crutches across the street.

Don’t be ridiculous. Millicent lives in New York City; she doesn’t drive a car. What’s she going to do, honk like a goose?

True, she rejects writers for a living, but that doesn’t mean that rejections are necessarily her fault: many, many, MANY query letters just scream from their very first paragraph, “Reject me! I have no idea what I’m doing on your desk, much less what book category the manuscript my rambling prose professes to promote might best fit into, so why not put me out of my misery right away?”

The ubiquity of such self-rejecting queries — yes, they’re really called that — means that the all-too-common writerly practice of blaming the rejecter is not the best strategy for landing an agent. Call me zany, but if a query elicits a rejection for any reason other than that the storyline or argument in the proposed book didn’t grab Millicent or her boss, my first question would be not, “Oh, how could the screener have made such a mistake?” but “May I have a look at that letter, please, to assess how the writer may improve it?”

Why do I tend to leap straight to that conclusion, you ask? Experience, mostly. Out comes the broken record again:

broken-recordIf there is a single rule of thumb that may be applied at every stage of any successful author’s career, it’s that it ALWAYS behooves us to look critically at our own writing, rather than assuming that the only possible explanation for frowned-upon writing lies in the eye of the predisposition of the reader to frown.

To put it more simply, offense does not always lie in the propensity of the affronted to take umbrage. Millicent may indeed be a bit rejection-happy — it’s her job to reject 98% of what she sees, recall — but any writer willing to put in the time and effort can learn how to avoid provoking her.

I know — it’s tempting just to assume it’s her problem and press on. It’s a pain to revise a query letter, after all, or indeed, to write one in the first place. But it’s my considered opinion that the overwhelming majority of frustrated queriers radically underestimate the amount of energy they habitually put into resenting the necessity to query at all. Is that honestly the best use of a writer’s time?

As with a manuscript, the writer of a query will virtually always be better off taking steps to improve what he can control than blaming the rejection upon other factors out of his control. It is possible to learn from one’s own mistakes, even in the current insanely competitive agent-seeking environment, where most rejected queriers are never told precisely what made Millicent slide their letters directly into their SASEs with a copy of the agency’s one-size-fits-all rejection note. Or, in the case of e-queries, to hit the REPLY key, sending the prefab rejection reply.

I just saw some of your faces fall: hands up, everyone who has ever wasted hours — or days — in trying to read some specific feedback into a rejection platitude like I’m sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with this, just because it appeared in a letter with a personalized salutation or in an e-mail. While Millicents and their bosses do occasionally break their rejection pattern to add a personal note to a rejection, it’s rare enough these days that you should be flattered if you receive one.

But that’s far from the norm; the advent of the copy-and-paste function has been a positive boon to agencies, much as photocopy machines were a couple of decades before. It’s not hard to see why: honestly, if you were Millicent, would you be willing to type I’m sorry, but this manuscript just doesn’t fit our needs at this time hundreds of times per week if it weren’t absolutely necessary?

In the spirit of trying to avoid being on the receiving end of such stock let-‘em-down-easy phrasing, let’s plunge back into our ongoing efforts to elevate a merely okay query letter into a really good one. At this point, we’ve moved far past the most basic mistakes; now, we’re well into the more sophisticated problems.

That’s good news, by the way. You should be proud of yourself for taking your own writing prospects seriously enough to make it this far — believe me, Millicents everywhere will applaud you for it. As a reward for virtue, I begin tonight with a few exceptionally simple problems to fix.

(18) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my descriptive paragraph written in the third person and the present tense?
Regardless of the narrative perspective of the manuscript itself, descriptive paragraphs in queries are always written in the third person. So if your description of your first-person fantasy begins I had just landed my dream job when the aliens landed on the roof, change it right away: to Millicent’s eyes, it will read like a description for a memoir. Ditto for pitches and synopses, by the way.

Don’t you wish someone had mentioned that little tidbit to you before you sent out your first query?

The proper tense choice, too, may strike some writers as counter-intuitive: one-paragraph book descriptions, like pitches and synopses, are always written in the present tense. Yes, even when the author is describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire.

And apparently, writers are supposed to know both of these things because the Query Fairy descends from the heavens when one reaches a certain level of craft and bops one on the head with her magic wand. Or because they have attended an expensive class or conference that told them so. Or so I surmise from the fact that this particular piece of advice isn’t given much these days.

I’m not a big fan of keeping expectations like this secret, so let’s shout it to the rooftops: YOUR DESCRIPTIVE PARAGRAPH SHOULD BE IN THE THIRD PERSON AND THE PRESENT TENSE.

The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir. Which leads me to:

(19) If I am querying a memoir, is my descriptive paragraph written in the present tense and the first person?
All too often, memoirists refer to themselves in the third person in query letters, pitches, and synopses of their books, puzzling Millicents exceedingly. If your memoir is about you, go ahead and use the perpendicular pronoun.

The logic behind describing memoir in the first person doesn’t really require much explanation — the book’s about you, isn’t it? — but the tense choice might. It simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say:

Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I chose to bury it in the back yard instead.

You must admit, this is more than a little at odds with a sane person’s sense of time. (But then, so is the turn-around time for queries and submissions, frequently.)

Please note, though, that other than this shift in tense and person, the same basic structures we applied last time to describing novels will work perfectly well for memoir: your goal here is make yourself sound like an interesting person in an interesting situation overcoming obstacles to your happiness. For example:

Back in my days as a silent movie star of the 1920s, women ruled the silver screen. I was paid more than my male counterparts; I had my pick of projects (and extras for my private pleasures); my dressing room’s cushions were trimmed in mink. But once the talkies came, I was faced with an impossible choice: take a massive pay cut or allow my public to be told that my beautifully resonant opera-trained voice was too squeaky for the new technology. If I was going to make the films that I wanted, I realized I would have to start writing and directing for myself.

See? By describing herself as the protagonist in a story, rather than just a person talking about herself, our starlet has made a compelling case that both she and the challenges she confronted would make for fascinating reading.

(20) Is the tone and language in my descriptive paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?
Yes, yes, I know: I’ve just finished telling you that the tense and perspective choice in the description should not be dictated by the voice of the narrative in the book, unless it’s a memoir. But just as a stellar verbal pitch gives the hearer a foretaste of what the manuscript is like, so does a well-constructed descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Just bear in mind that nice writing is not the only aim here: you’re also trying to demonstrate that you are aware of the types of voices considered stylish in your chosen book category — and that you can in fact write in a voice that the already-established readers of that category will like.

Stop laughing. Query letters do so have narrative voices. It’s just that most of the boilerplates we see are so businesslike in tone and generic in content that you’d never notice.

It’s definitely possible, though, to construct a query that gives Millicent a foretaste of your manuscript. If your book is funny, go for a laugh; if it’s scary, make sure to include at least one genuinely frightening image; if it’s sexy, make Millicent pant in her cubicle.

Getting the picture?

Some of you find this suggestion a trifle wacky, I’m sensing. “But Anne,” a scandalized few protest, “didn’t you say earlier in this series that part of the goal here was to come across as professional? Won’t making the descriptive paragraph sound like my surly protagonist/whiny narrator/a lighthearted romp through the merry world of particle physics make me seem like a grump/annoying to work with/like I don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Good questions, scandalized few. Your concerns are precisely why I’m advising that only the descriptive paragraph match the tone of the book, rather than the entire letter.

Surprised? Don’t be. You’re entirely right that Millicent might well draw the wrong conclusions if your letter were written primarily for laughs. Let’s face it, it’s kind of hard to turn the credentials paragraph of a query into much of a chucklefest. Even if you happen to have taught comedic theory for 52 years at the Aspen Institute for Gut-Busting, it would hard to turn that fact into a giggle line.

Although I just did, didn’t I? In a query, though, that would have been a risk: jokes that fall flat are a common screeners’ pet peeve. So unless you’re positive that your joke is (a) original — almost impossible, if it’s related to some standard query element like SASE inclusion — (b) doesn’t detract from the clarity of your letter, and (c) is funny enough that a Millicent bleary-eyed after seven hours of straight screening will chuckle, save the one-liners for your stand-up act.

But in the part of the letter where you’re supposed to be telling a story, why not let your manuscript’s voice come out to play for a few lines? Can you think of a better way to demonstrate to Millicent how your narrative voice is unique?

(21) Am I telling a compelling story in my descriptive paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?
All too often, aspiring writers will construct their descriptive paragraphs as though they were writing high school English papers. There’s usually a pretty good reason for that: writers tend to have been excellent high school English students. So were most agents and editors, as it happens, and certainly most Millicents.

But collective nostalgia for one’s happy days in Intro to American Literature doesn’t mean that a descriptive paragraph demonstrating that glorious past too clearly is smart book marketing at the query stage. Analysis-based descriptions distance the reader from the story being told.

How so, you ask? They tend to rely upon generalities, in a context that cries out for one-of-a-kind specifics. Take a gander at a representative sample:

MIXED MESSAGES is a nuanced slice-of-life tale of interpersonal and intergenerational misunderstanding set against the backdrop of turbulent social change. The protagonist is a troubled man, an employee caught up in a realistic conflict with his boss while his fantasies of perfect love are constantly thwarted by a lackluster family life. Told in alternating first person voices and the present tense, character is revealed through slice-of-life episodes before reaching the denouement.

Doesn’t exactly draw you into the protagonist’s world, does it? This description could be applied equally well to hundreds of thousands of wildly different plot and voice.

As a result of trying to sound analytical, this description presents the protagonist as a man without a face. While all of these things may well be true of the book being discussed, what is this book ABOUT? Who is this troubled man? Where does he live? What kind of work does he do? What’s the central conflict, and what is at stake for the protagonist in overcoming it?

As a rule, Millicent is eager to know the answer to those questions. Faced with a description like this one, though, she is also likely to roll her eyes and mutter, “English term paper,” and swiftly move on to the next query.

Why apply that particular epithet? Because this kind of description talks about the novel, rather than telling its story as a story.

Because Millicent’s job is to spot great storytellers, not great textual analysts, she would have preferred it if the querier simply presented the story directly. Then, too, the writer’s choice to concentrate upon the themes and construction of the novel, rather than who the protagonist is and what conflicts he wants or needs to battle in order to fulfill his dreams decreases the reader’s incentive to care about what’s going on.

Indeed, we’re left wondering what is going on. Here’s the same plot, presented in a manner Millicent is far more likely to find pleasing:

Troubled Harry (47) can’t seem to make it through even a single work day at the squid ink pasta factory without running afoul of his boss, chronic aquatic creature abuser Zeke (52). Since the pasta factory is the town’s only employer, Harry has little choice but to stomach the flogging of innocent carp — until Zeke’s merciless sarcasm at the expense of a dolphin cracks his stoic veneer. After an unsuccessful attempt to unionize the squid, Harry must face the truth: Zeke has been just stringing him along for the last seventeen years about that promotion. But now that he is cast adrift in a rudderless sailboat, what is he going to do about that?

I spy some hands raised out there, do I not? “But Anne,” some terrific English essay-writers point out, “doesn’t the second version leave out a couple of pretty important items? Like, say, that the book is written in the first person, or that it has multiple protagonists?”

Actually, I left those out on purpose, A students; as important as those facts may be to the writer, they would only distract Millicent at the querying stage. Or in a synopsis.

Do you English majors want to know why? Cue the music department.

broken-record Neither the point of view choice nor the number of protagonists is germane at the query stage: the goal of the descriptive paragraph is to show what the book is about, not how it is written. Let the narrative choices come as a delightful surprise.

Remember, your goal here is not to provide a substitute for reading your manuscript, but to describe the book’s premise and central conflict or argument intriguingly enough to prompt someone at the agency to ask you to send pages. At the submission stage, you can let your narrative choices speak for themselves.

Which is, of course, as it should be. As Millicent’s boss, the agent, likes to say, it all depends on the writing.

(22) Does my descriptive paragraph emphasize the specific points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (I do hope that revelation doesn’t startle anybody, at this juncture; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, I had such high hopes when I raised you, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers. Or, to put it another way, if you printed out your list of selling points and read it side-by-side with your query, would the summary paragraph demonstrate that at least a few of those elements you identified as most market-worthy?

I said demonstrate, mind you, not just assert. If the answer is no, is the descriptive paragraph doing your book justice as a marketing tool?

Don’t look at me that way: there is absolutely nothing anti-literary about making it clear why habitual readers of your book category will be drawn to your work. Remember, no matter how beautifully your book is written or argued, Millicent isn’t going to know you can write until she reads your manuscript — and if your query does not convince her that your book is potentially marketable, as well as nicely written, she’s not going to ask to see the manuscript.

That’s likely to be the case, incidentally, even if she happens to work at one of the increasingly common agencies that allow aspiring writers to send pages of text along with their queries: just because the agency’s guidelines say that a querier can include other materials doesn’t mean that everything in the packet is going to be read thoroughly before acceptance or rejection. Millicent simply doesn’t have time for that, if she’s going to get through hundreds of queries before lunchtime.

Translation: the query is going to determine whether she reads anything else.

So just in case any of you have been receiving form-letter rejections based upon query + pages agent approaches: I know that it’s tempting to assume that the problem is in the text itself, but strategically, the first place you should be looking for red flags is your letter. In a query + approach, it’s the gatekeeper for your pages.

I’m going to take that chorus of great, gusty sighs as a sign that I’ve made my point sufficiently. If it’s any consolation, contemplating your book’s selling points is great experience for working with an agent: when their clients bring them fresh book ideas, the first question they tend to ask is, “Okay, who needs this book, and why?”

(23) Even if Millicent skipped my opening paragraph, would the descriptive paragraph that followed prompt her to exclaim, “Oh, that story is perfect for {fill in my target audience here}? Or have I forestalled that spontaneous cry by describing my book in back-jacket terms?
This is a corollary of the last one, obviously, but still worth considering as a separate question. One of the most common mistakes in descriptive paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who might conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:

CANOE-PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men. It belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America.

With:

Caroline Bingley (26) and Elizabeth Bennet (20) are floating down a lazy river, the sun baking an uneasy outline around their barely-moving paddles. Suddenly, the rapids are upon them — as is a flotilla of gorgeous, shirtless, rapids-navigating men on generous inner tubes. When a violent hailstorm traps them all in a dank, mysterious cave redolent of recently-departed grizzly bear, shivering in their thin, wet clothes, tempers flare — and so does romance.

The first sounds an awful lot like the summary a publisher’s marketing department might construct for a book’s back jacket, doesn’t it? It’s all breathless hype and promotional persuasion, leaving the reader thinking, “Um, I know nowwhere this story takes place, but what is this book about?”

As you may have already gathered, that’s not a question Millicent is fond of muttering in the middle of reading a query. Which is a shame, really, as so many queriers give her such excellent provocation to mutter it.

By contrast, the second version answers that question very directly: CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is about Caroline and Elizabeth’s trip down a river, where they meet some sizzling potential love interests and perhaps a grizzly.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” Millicent cries, reaching for the seldom-used Yes, please send us the first 50 pages boilerplate. (Oh, you thought that she wrote a fresh letter for every acceptance, too?)

Unfortunately, as we saw earlier in this series, most aspiring writers are so used to reading marketing copy that they might well regard the first version as inherently more professional than the second. In fact, it’s far from uncommon to see this type of marketing rhetoric in synopses, or even in contest entries.

To clear up this misconception once and for all, I’m going to ask you to join me in a little experiment. Scroll down so those last two examples above are hidden, please.

All gone? Good. Now take this multi-part pop quiz.

1) What do you remember most from the first summary paragraph?

The title? The Snake River? The bad cliché? Your speculation that my reference to “every paddle-wielding woman in America” might cause this blog to spring up in some unlikely Internet searches from now until Doomsday?

2) What do you remember about the second?

As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.

3) If you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women — or to indoorsy women who like to fantasize about adventurous encounters with outdoorsy men and/or bears?

I rest my case.

Except to say: in the first summary, a reader is unlikely to remember the story, rather than the query. And in the second, the query-reader is encouraged to identify with the protagonists — who are, like the projected reader, contemplating all of those inner tube-straddling guys.

Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously: stop picturing those floating bodies. We have work to do.

The other reason that the second summary is better is that it presumably echoes the tone of the book. Which brings me to…

(23) If my descriptive paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?
This question often makes even seasoned queriers do a double-take, but actually, it’s closely related to #20, is the tone and language in my description representative of the tone and language of the manuscript? Most query letters elect to adopt one of two tones: unprofessional or serious, serious, serious. The first is never a good idea, but the second is fine — if you happen to have written the 21rst century’s answer to MOBY DICK.

Which I’m guessing no one currently reading this actually has. If, however, you’ve written this year’s answer to BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, a super-serious summary paragraph is probably not the best marketing tactic. Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard to make a lighthearted romp seem either lighthearted or like a romp if it’s described in a turgid manner, a deadpan presentation is probably not the best strategy for convincing Millicent that you can write comedy.

So why not use the description as a writing sample to demonstrate that you can? In fact, why not embrace the opportunity to show how well you understand your target readership by including images, wording, and details likely to appeal to them?

The same logic can be applied to any category of book — and it’s a great way to figure out whether a plot point is worth mentioning in your summary paragraph, actually. If you have written a steamy romance, choose the sexy detail over the mundane one. If it’s a western, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a feeling of the open range. If it’s a horror novel, opt for the creepy detail, and so forth.

The sole exception to this rule is if you happen to have written a really, really dull book on a mind-bendingly tedious topic. Then, and only then, do you have my full and enthusiastic permission to construct a descriptive paragraph that doesn’t sound anything at all like the tone of the book.

Hey, you have to pique Millicent’s interest somehow.

(24) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?
Despite my utmost efforts in spreading advice on the subject, most queries include no reference whatsoever to the target audience. It’s as though their writers believe it’s in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched.

Call me mercenary, but I think that attitude is rather market-unwise, don’t you? If Millicent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it or not, is there really time for her to murmur, “Hmm, who on earth is going to want to buy this book?”

No extra credit for guessing the answer to that one: no.

As those of you who went through the identifying your target market exercises in last summer’s Pitchingpalooza series already know, figuring out the ideal readership for a book is not always a simple or straightforward task, even for someone who knows the text as intimately as its author. Don’t expect its appeal to be self-evident, therefore, to Millicent.

Yes, even for a book like CANOE-PADDLING MAMAS, where the appeal is pretty darned close to self-evident.

Structure your query to make it as easy as possible for folks in the industry to recognize your book’s worth. Write it well, yes, but also show why readers in your chosen book category will find it appealing. You want Millicent to cast her eyes over your query and go running to her boss, the agent, saying, “Oh, my God, we have to see this manuscript,” don’t you?

To that end, it is a far, far better thing to induce the screener to exclaim, “This book belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America!” than to have the query tell her that it does. Even if it’s true. Just a little something to ponder while our heroines explore some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym.

Since I’m not going to be able to wrest that image from your mind anytime, this seems like an excellent place to stop our list for the evening. Keep up the good work!

Wrapping it all up and (not) tying it with a big, pretty bow — and an answer to yet another reader’s concern

I’m posting later than I intended this evening, campers — a trifle irritating, as I have a delightful guest post that I’d like to toss up bright and early tomorrow morning. I’m committed to answering any and all questions from readers, though, even if those questions crop up in posts from five years ago. (Yes, my blogging program alerts me.) It’s fine to leave questions on older posts, but please, everyone, try to match the post’s subject matter with the question you are asking. That way, readers with similar concerns are more likely to find and benefit from both question and answer.

If you can’t find something close to your topic on the exhaustive archive list conveniently located at the lower right-hand corner of this page, I’d like to ask you to do two things. First, leave your question in the comments section of my most recent post (again, to maximize its usefulness to other readers), and second, let me know that you couldn’t find an appropriate category on the archive list. I’m always eager to make that list panic-proof, so category suggestions are always welcome.

What extended my question-answering time today was a comment in the latter category: left on yesterday’s post, rather than in the archives. It was time-consuming not due to the complexity or originality of the comment, but because it contained a simple statement that I have heard quite a bit over the years: a complaint that my posts deal with writing and marketing issues of concern to writers in too much detail.

What rendered this particular complaint difficult to answer was not that the commenter was evidently irked that I had spent so many paragraphs on what was to him a fairly straightforward issue: whether to include a SASE in a query or submission packet. (He felt that the entire question could have been resolved in just a few words: you should.) But that was not the crux of yesterday’s post; it dealt with specifics about what kind of SASE to use, why, and when.

The commenter was not aware of that, though, because — and he was honest enough to tell me this point-blank — he hadn’t bothered to read the entire post before telling me that it was much too long for its subject matter. He concluded, therefore, that the only reason I could possibly want to discuss something as mundane as the logic about the SASE for more than a few paragraphs was that I liked the sound of my fingers hitting the keyboard.

Sigh.

I’m not going to waste everyone’s time by unpacking that logic. Nor am I going to bother to debate whether it’s worthwhile to go over the reasoning behind the sometimes perplexing practices of the publishing industry; that’s what I do here. I assume — correctly, I think — that on days when I post at length on topics that don’t interest any given reader, the members of the Author! Author! community are intelligent enough to turn their attention elsewhere for the nonce.

It has been a while since I explained why I explain things at such length, though, so allow me to devote the first few minutes of our time together to clarifying why I believe that in an online world stuffed to the gills with one-size-fits-all advice source purporting to tell aspiring writers precisely what to do in articles of 250 words or less, Author! Author! fills an important niche. My apologies to those of you who have heard this before, but true to form, I have a brand-new illustrative anecdote this time around.

I’m perfectly aware that there are plenty of aspiring writers out there in a hurry to find out basic information about how to query, submit, revise, format, etc.; that’s why I have structured the aforementioned archive list to be as specific as possible. Many of the categories are paraphrases of readers’ questions, in fact, so that writers with similar questions might find the answers relatively quickly. (Sound familiar?) Because I have been blogging on writing, querying, and submitting for over six years now, it’s probably not astonishing that I tend to revisit the more important topics from time to time.

Today’s, for instance. Those of you who have been querying and submitting for a while probably already know how to ship requested materials to agents. Indeed, you might have learned about it here; because it is vital, I revisit the topic at least once a year. But for some readers, it will be brand-new information. For other readers, particularly those who will be first encountering this post while searching for answers about shipping in the archives, it will be a supplement to (or perhaps a contradiction of) what they have learned from other sources, up to and including those super-short lists of what aspiring writers should do.

I believe I owe it to both those sets of readers to deal with the issues at hand as thoroughly as I would the first time I ever blogged about it, in sufficient detail and with enough illustrative examples so that a writer brand-new to the biz will come away from the post not only understanding what to do, but why. As I say early and often, I don’t believe any writer should follow a rule without knowing why adhering to it is a good idea — and what can happen if he eschews it.

There, in the proverbial nutshell, is my philosophy of blogging about writing. I’m here to explain the hows and whys behind the rules, so good writers can follow them better, increasing their chances of getting published. And when my clever and insightful readership presents me with intriguing follow-up questions, I squirrel them away until the next time I deal with the topic, to improve my treatment of it.

So are my posts long and detailed? Darned right.

I can see how my penchant for thoroughness might be a touch irritating to those seeking quick answers, but hey, there’s no shortage of those on the Internet. Have at it, and the best of luck searching. Frankly, I would much rather over-explain the occasional practicality here than to have even one of my readers make an avoidable gaffe.

Just in case anyone isn’t sure why (see what I just did there?), let me share the story of one of my favorite cookbook authors. Let’s call her Sheila. I’m not going to use her real name: this story was so infamous in publishing circles that for several decades, her name was synonymous with avoidable error. She’s a great cooking author, though, so I don’t want to revive the association.

Sheila’s story is worth knowing for any would-be author. Many years ago, back in the heyday of the cookbooks by amateur chefs like Julia Child, Sheila wrote a terrific debut cookbook: intriguing recipes well described, with amusing and enlightening anecdotes joining them. Her agent loved it; her editor loved it; her godmother, a well-known cooking writer herself, loved it enough to give it a spectacular back-jacket blurb.

Sheila was, in short, expected to be the next great cookbook author — so why do I think those of you fond of your kitchens may not be aware of her work? Quite simply, her cookbook contained a faux pas that got her publisher sued: a reader following her directions to the letter blew up an oven.

How is it possible that not only Sheila, but her agent, editor, godmother, every single reviewer, and the overwhelming majority of her readership missed that the instruction in question was so dangerous? Sheila had written the recipe while laboring under the assumption that anyone remotely interested in baking a pie might conceivably have read a cookbook before. Her target audience might be relied upon to know the terminology, right?

Tell that to the hapless reader who took add one can of sweetened condensed milk too literally, setting the unopened can in the middle of the pie pan, presuming, wrongly, that its role was to weigh down the crust While a more experienced cook might perhaps have wondered why Sheila would have gone out of her way to specify what needed to be inside a can used for this purpose, the eager first-time cookbook reader did not think to question the recipe until her stove went boom.

And so did Sheila’s career as a cookbook author, at least for many years. She became famous as a cautionary tale to those who would write about cookery: when producing a to-do list, don’t leave room for misinterpretation. The stakes are just too high to take a chance.

They are here, too: at Author! Author!, I routinely talk about how to present and modify your writing in order to render it more attractive to agents and editors. What could possibly be more important to get right than that? And why on earth should you follow a rule I set out if I don’t prove to you why it’s in your book’s best interest to adhere to it?

Allow me to reiterate, then: I don’t expect you to cling to my advice just because I say something will work. If you don’t understand what I am suggesting you should do — or what an agent, editor, or submission guidelines have asked you to do — by all means, ask. Some of my best posts have been sparked by readers’ questions; heck, so have many of my series. Even if it’s just a quick question on a past post, I would much, much rather spend some of my blogging time clarifying matters for my readers than to see even one of you commit the querying or submission equivalent of advising your readers to blow up their ovens.

So darned right, these posts are detailed; long may they be. I’m here to help good writers succeed.

Case in point: for the last couple of posts, I have been talking — yes, at length — about how to put together query packets, as well as their more illustrious cousins, submission packets. Even in these mercurial days of e-mailed queries, electronic submission, and Hubble telescope photographs of far-flung celestial bodies (I’m a sucker for a nice snapshot of Jupiter), most agencies still prefer paper submissions. Heck, many still insist on mailed queries as well.

Why? Well, fear of computer viruses, for one thing. But even more important: it’s so much easier for an electronic submission to get lost.

Hey, when Millicent the agency screener gets on an online submission reading roll, she hits the DELETE key more than any other. Not too surprising that her finger would slip occasionally, is it? Force of habit, really; the lady rejects a heck of a lot of manuscripts between lunch and checking out for the day.

For reasons both of tradition and prudence, then, a lot of writers are going to be in the market for shipping containers for their manuscripts in the months to come. Yet as insightful long-time reader Jen wrote in to ask some time back:

Sending off all those pages with nothing to protect them but the slim embrace of a USPS envelope seems to leave them too exposed. Where does one purchase a manuscript box?

An excellent question, Jen: many, many aspiring writers worry that a simple Manila envelope, or even the heavier-duty Priority Mail envelope favored by the US Postal Service, will not preserve their precious pages in pristine condition. Especially, as is all too common, if those pages are crammed into an envelope or container too small to hold them comfortably, or that smashes the SASE into them so hard that it leaves an indelible imprint in the paper.

Do I sense some of you scratching their heads? “But Anne,” head-scratchers everywhere ask, and bless their hearts for doing so, “once a submission is tucked into an envelope and mailed, it is completely out of the writer’s control. Surely, the Millicents who inhabit agencies, as well as the Maurys who screen submissions at publishing houses and their Aunt Mehitabels who judge contest entries, are fully aware that pages that arrive bent were probably mangled in transit, not by the writer who sent them. They can’t blame me for mashed mail, can they?”

Well, yes and no, itchy ones. Yes, pretty much everyone who has ever received a mauled letter is cognizant of the fact that envelopes do occasionally get caught in sorting machines, if not actually mauled by playful bands of orangutans with a penchant for playing volleyball with objects with pointy corners. Mail gets tossed around a fair amount in transit. So even a beautifully put-together submission packet may arrive a tad crumpled.

Do most professional readers cut the submitter slack for this? Sometimes, but if Millicent’s just burned her lip on that latté that she never seems to remember to let cool, it’s not going to take much for the next submission she opens to annoy her. I don’t know Aunt Mehitabel personally, but I have heard contest judges over the years complain vociferously to one another about the state in which entries have arrived on their reading desks. Indeed, I have been one of those complaining judges.

All of which is to say: appearances count. You should make an effort to get your submission to its intended recipient in as neat a state as possible.

How does one go about insuring that? The most straightforward way, as Jen suggests, is to ship it in a box designed for the purpose. Something, perhaps, along the lines of this:

Just kidding; we’re not looking for a medieval Bible box here. What most professional writers like to use looks a little something like this:

This is the modern manuscript box: sturdy white or brown cardboard with a lid that attached along one long side. Usually, a manuscript box will hold from 250 to 750 pages of text comfortably, without allowing the pages to slide from side to side.

While manuscript boxes are indeed very nice, they aren’t necessary for submission; the attached lid, while undoubtedly aesthetically pleasing, is not required, or even much appreciated at the agency end. Manuscripts are taken out of the boxes for perusal, anyway, so why fret about how the boxes that send them open?

In practice, any clean, previously-unused box large enough to hold all of the requested materials without crumpling them will work to mail a submission. Don’t waste your valuable energies badgering the manager of your local office supply emporium for an official manuscript box; you may only confuse him. Anything close to the right size will do, but err on the large side: it’s easier to pad a manuscript around the edges to fit in a big box than to bend it to squeeze into a small one.

Some of you are resisting the notion of using just any old box, aren’t you, rather than one specially constructed for the purpose? I’m not entirely surprised. I hear all the time from writers stressing out about what kind of box to use — over and above clean, sturdy, and appropriately-sized, that is — and not without good reason. In the old days — say, 30+ years ago — the author was expected to provide a box, and a rather nice one, then wrap it in plain brown paper for shipping.

These old boxes are beautiful, if you can still find one: dignified black cardboard, held together by shining brass brads. They were darned near immortal, too; I have several that members of my family routinely sent back and forth to their agents in the 1950s, back when sending a manuscript across the country entailed sending it on a multi-week trek. To this day, not a sheet of paper inside is wrinkled.

Ah, tradition. For sending a manuscript, though, there’s no need to pack it in anything so fancy — or indeed, anything extravagant. No agent is going to look down upon your submission because it arrives in an inexpensive box.

In fact, if you can get the requested materials there in one piece box-free — say, if it is an excerpt short enough to fit into a Manila folder or Priority Mail cardboard envelope without wrinkling — go ahead. This almost always will work for a partial or the briefer stack of materials acceptable to send in a query packet.

Do bear in mind, though, that for either a query or submission packet, you want to have your pages arrive looking fresh and unbent. Double-check that your manuscript will fit comfortably in its container in such a way that the pages are unlikely to wrinkle, crease, or — perish the thought! — tear.

Remember the Sanitary Author’s advice about printing all of your query and submission packet materials on bright white 20 lb. paper or better? This is part of the reason why. It honestly is penny-wise and pound-foolish to use cheap paper for submissions; not only does heavier paper ship better, but it’s less likely to wilt over the course of the multiple readings a successful submission will often see at an agency.

Good rule of thumb: if you can look at a stack of printed pages and see even a vague outline of page 2 while you’re examining page 1, your paper isn’t heavy enough.

Look for a box with the right footprint to ship a manuscript without too much internal shifting. To keep the manuscript from sliding around and getting crumpled, insert wads of bubble wrap or handfuls of peanuts around it, not wadded-up paper.

Yes, the latter is more environmentally-friendly, but we’re talking about presentation here. Avoid the temptation to use newspaper, too; newsprint stains.

Most office supply stores carry perfectly serviceable white boxes — Office Depot, for instance, stocks a serviceable recycled cardboard variety — but if you live in the greater Seattle area, funky plastic toy store Archie McPhee’s, of all places, routinely carries fabulous red and blue boxes exactly the right size for a 450-page manuscript WITH adorable little black plastic handles for about a buck each. My agent gets a kick out of ‘em. Fringe benefit: while you’re picking one up, you can also snag a bobble-head Edgar Allan Poe doll that bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to Robert Goulet:

If that’s not one-stop shopping, I should like to know what is.

Your local post office will probably stock manuscript-sized boxes as well, as does USPS online. Post offices often conceal some surprisingly inexpensive options behind those counters, so it is worth inquiring if you don’t see what you need on display.

Do be warned, though, that the USPS’ 8 1/2” x 11” boxes only LOOK as though they will fit a manuscript comfortably without bunching the pages. The actual footprint of the bottom of the box is the size of a piece of paper, so there is no wiggle room to, say, insert a stack of paper without wrinkling it.

Trust me, that’s not something you want to find out after you’ve already printed out your submission. If you’re in doubt about the internal size of a flattened-out box (as they tend to be at the post office), fold it into box shape and try placing a standard sheet of paper flat on the bottom. If it doesn’t lie completely flat, choose a larger box.

Yes, yes, I know: the USPS is purportedly the best postal service in the world, a boon to humanity, and one of the least expensive to boot. Their gallant carriers have been known to pursue their appointed rounds despite the proverbial sleet, hail, dark of night, and mean dogs. But when faced with an only apparently manuscript-ready box on a last-minute deadline, the thought must occur to even the most flag-proud: do the postal services of other countries confound their citizens in this way?

What do they expect anyone to put in an 8 1/2” x 11” box OTHER than a manuscript? A beach ball? A pony? A small automobile?

All that being said, far and away the most economical box source for US-based writers are those free all-you-can-stuff-in-it Priority Mail boxes that the post office provides:

Quite the sexy photo, isn’t it, considering that it’s of an object made of cardboard? Ravishing. If you don’t happen to mind all of the postal service propaganda printed all over it, these 12″ x 12″ x 5 1/2″ boxes work beautifully, with a little padding. (Stay away from those wadded-up newspapers, I tell you.)

While I’m on the subject of large boxes, if you’ve been asked to send more than one copy of a manuscript — not all that uncommon after you’ve been picked up by an agent — don’t even try to find a box that opens like a book: just use a standard shipping box. Insert a piece of colored paper between each copy, to render the copies easy to separate. Just make sure to use colored printer paper, not construction paper, or the color will rub off on your lovely manuscripts.

Whatever difficulties you may have finding an appropriately-sized box, DO NOT, under any circumstances, reuse a box clearly marked for some other purpose, such as holding dishwashing soap. As desirable as it might be for your pocketbook, your schedule, and the planet, never send your manuscript in a box that has already been used for another purpose. Millicent considers it tacky.

Don’t pretend you’ve never thought about doing this. We’ve all received (or sent) that box that began life as an mail-order shipping container, but is now covered with thick black marker, crossing out the original emporium’s name. My mother takes this process even farther, turning the lines intended to obfuscating that Amazon logo into little drawings of small creatures cavorting on a cardboard-and-ink landscape.

As dandy as this recycling effort is for birthday presents and the like, it’s not appropriate for shipping a submission. It’s unprofessional — and if there’s ever a time when you want your work to be presented as professionally as possible, it’s when you’re submitting it.

Think about it: do you really want your manuscript to arrive looking as if you just grabbed the nearest cardboard container? Or to prompt an allergy-prone Millicent to mutter between sneezes, “Why does this submission smell of fabric softener?” (One drawback of nicer paper: it soaks up ambient smells like a sponge. My memoir’s editor evidently smoked a couple of cartons over my manuscript, and even now, years later, the marked-up pages still smell like the employee handbook in a Marlboro factory.)

“But wait!” I hear the box-savvy cry, “those Amazon boxes are about 4 inches high, and my manuscript is about 3 inches high. It just cries out, ‘Stuff your manuscript into me and send me to an agent!’”

A word to the wise: don’t take advice from cardboard boxes; they are not noted for their brilliance. Spring for something new, and recycle that nice Amazon box for another purpose.

And you do know, I hope, that every time you send requested materials, you should write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters in the lower left-hand corner of the submission envelope, don’t you? (If you have been asked to submit electronically, include the words REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line of the e-mail.) This will help your submission to land on the right desk, instead of in the slush pile or recycling bin.

Yes, readers who have had your hands raised since this post began? “This is all very helpful, Anne, but a bit superficial, literally. I want to know what goes inside that manuscript box and in what order.”

Okay, let’s pretend for a moment that you have just been asked to submit materials to the agent of your dreams. To be absolutely clear, I’m talking about REQUESTED materials here, not just sending pages to an agency that asks queriers to include the first chapter, a few pages, or a synopsis with a query — all of these would, in the industry’s eyes, be unsolicited submissions.

I know, it’s a trifle counter-intuitive that a blanket statement on a website, in an agency guide, or from a conference dais that a particular agent would like to receive these materials from all queriers doesn’t constitute solicitation, but it doesn’t. The logic runs thus: guidelines that recommend submitting extra material with a query are generic, aimed at any aspiring writer who might conceivably be considering sending a query.

By contrast, a solicited submission, a.k.a. requested materials, is one that an agent is waiting to see because she has asked a particular writer to send it following a successful pitch or query. Because the agent expressed positive interest in seeing those pages, the lucky requestee is fully justified in scrawling REQUESTED MATERIALS in letters two inches high in the lower right-hand corner of the envelope or shipping box, just to the left of the address, to assure that the submission lands on the right desk instead of the slush pile made up of, you guessed it, unsolicited manuscripts.

Everyone clear on the difference between solicited and unsolicited materials? Dandy.

Just as generic requests vary in what agents ask queriers to send, so do requests for solicited material. While every agency and small publishing house seems to have a slightly different idea of what constitutes a standard submission packet (word to the wise: read those requests carefully), here are the most commonly-requested constituent parts, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in the packet:

1. Cover letter
You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude, as well as strategically unwise.

“Oh, please, Anne,” the submission-weary murmur. “Rude? What do you call making a querier write ANOTHER letter to an agent who has already agreed to read my work?”

I sympathize with the submission fatigue, weary ones, but don’t get your hackles up. In the first place, there’s no need for a long-winded missive — a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do. It’s hardly onerous.

In the second place, the submitter is the one who benefits from including a cover letter — all the more so because so few writers remember to tuck one into their packets. An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these submitting writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries well enough to render page one of chapter one instantly recognizable?

I’m not going to depress you by telling you just how unlikely this is to be the case. Suffice it to say that it’s in your best interest to assume that the person who heard your pitch or read your query won’t be the first person to screen your submission, for the exceedingly simple reason that it is, in fact, often a different person.

It doesn’t really make sense to presume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with who you are and what you write. In fact, you should assume precisely the opposite. (Why do you think a properly-formatted manuscript has a slug line identifying the author on each and every page?) The poor strategic value of not being polite enough to identify your work and thank the agent for asking to see it aside, though, it’s very much in your self-interest to include a cover letter.

Does anyone out there want to take a guess at the practical reason omitting both a cover letter and a title page might render a submitter less likely to get picked up?

If you instantly cried, “Because it renders the agency’s contacting the submitter substantially more difficult!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Like a query letter and a title page, a good cover letter should include all of the sender’s contact information.

Trust me, the last response you want your submission to generate is a heart-felt, “Oh, it’s too bad we have no idea who sent us this or how to contact him or her; all we have is the author’s last name in the slug line. This saddens me, because I really liked this manuscript!”

Yes, that little piece of dialogue is pretty lousy, now that you mention it. But you get my point, right?

“Okay, Anne,” the former head-scratchers concede, “I should include a cover letter. What does it need to say?”

Glad you asked. Under most circumstances, all it needs to say is this:

Seriously, that’s all there is to it. Like any other thank-you letter, the courtesy lies more in the fact that the sender took the time to write it, rather than in what it actually says.

A couple of caveats:

(a) If you met the agent at a conference, mention that in the first paragraph of the letter, to help place your submission in context. As crushing as it may be for the writerly ego to contemplate, an agent who spent days on end listening to hundreds of pitches probably is not going to remember each one. No need to re-pitch, of course, but a gentle reminder never hurts.

While you’re at it, it’s not a bad idea to write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, along with REQUESTED MATERIALS. Heck, it’s a very good idea to write the conference’s name on the outside of a query to an agent one has heard speak at a conference, too, or to include the conference’s name in the subject line of a query e-mail. The point here is to render it pellucidly clear to the agent why you’re contacting her.

(b) If another agent is already reading all or part of the manuscript you’re sending — or has asked to see it — mention this in your cover letter. No need to say who it is or how long s/he has had it; just tell the recipient that s/he’s not the only one considering representing this book. Unless the agency has a policy forbidding simultaneous submissions, withholding this information will only generate resentment down the line if more than one agent wants to represent your book.

Yes, even if that agent to whom you submitted 9 months ago has never responded. Actually, it’s in your strategic interest to contact that non-responder to let her know that another agent now has your manuscript.

(c) Make sure ALL of your contact information is on the letter, either in the header (letterhead-style, as I have shown above) or under your signature. Again, you want to make sure that the agent of your dreams can call you up and rave about how much she loved your manuscript, right?

(d) Make absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks. (Yes, it happens. Don’t ask; just prepare for the contingency.)

Everyone comfortable with the cover letter? For more tips on how to construct one with aplomb, please see COVER LETTERS FOR SUBMISSIONS (where do I come up with these obscure category titles?) on the archive list at right.

2. Title page
Always include this, if any manuscript pages have been requested — yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way.

Also, like the cover letter, a properly-constructed title page renders it easy for an agent to track you down. Believe me, if the agent of your dreams falls in love with your manuscript, you’re going to want to hear about it right away.

3. The requested pages in standard format, unbound in any way.
The operative word here is requested. If an agent or editor asked you for a partial, send PRECISELY the requested number of pages. Don’t fudge here — even if your novel features a tremendous cliffhanger on p. 51, if the agent of your dreams asked for the first 50 pages, send only the first 50 pages, period.

Actually, in this instance, you should send only the first 50 pages even if they do not end in a period. Even if the designated last page ends mid-sentence, stop there. When an agent or editor asks for a specific number of pages, send that number of pages — no more, no less.

They mean pages in standard manuscript format, by the way. It’s impossible to over-estimate the desirability of sending professionally-formatted submissions. If you’re brand-new to reading this blog or have somehow avoided my repeated and vehement posts on standard format for manuscripts over the last five years, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.

For the benefit of those of you who are going to blow off that last piece of advice because you’re in a hurry — oh, I know that you’re out there — allow me to add a couple of little tidbits you would have learned from those posts on formatting: a manuscript intended for submission should not be bound in any way, and the first page of text should be page 1, not the title page.

4. Synopsis, if one was requested, clearly labeled AS a synopsis.
With fiction, when an outline is requested, they usually mean a synopsis, not the annotated table of contents appropriate for nonfiction. For nonfiction, an outline means an annotated table of contents. Most of the time, though, what an agent will ask to see for either is a synopsis.

5. Author bio, if one was requested.
An author bio is a one-page (double-spaced) or half-page (single-spaced) plus photo account of the submitting writer’s professional credentials. Typically, when an agent submits a manuscript or book proposal to editors, the author bio is tucked immediately at the end of the manuscript or sample chapter.

6. A SASE big enough to fit the entire manuscript.
This should be automatic by now, but to recap for those of you who will read this weeks or months from now in the archives: that’s a self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the game, and for a submission or query packet, it should be large enough to send back every scrap of paper you’re mailing to the agency.

Emphasis on the stamped part: always use stamps, not metered postage, for the SASE. That’s probably going to be a lot of stamps: due to the paper-consumptive rigors of standard format, one rarely, if ever, meets a full-length manuscript that weighs less than two pounds. That means some luckless intern is going to have to tote it to the post office personally. Don’t make her life more difficult by sticking metered postage on the package.

If the requested pages fit in a Manila or Priority Mail envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission package. But how does one handle this when using a box as a SASE?

Well, it would be impracticable to fold up another box inside. If you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection. To be on the safe side, explain in your cover letter how you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal.

Yes, that seems pretty basic, but have you heard the one about the can of sweetened condensed milk?

You can also nab one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-address it, add postage, and stick it into the box. If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.

If you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because Millicent’s rejected it. Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage — or of aspiring writers shelling out the dosh to overnight their submissions. Neither is necessary, and quick shipping most emphatically won’t get your work read faster.

Or taken more seriously. Don’t waste your money.

7. Optional extras.
For a partial, if you want to send a second, business-size envelope SASE as well, to make it easy for Millicent to request the rest of the manuscript, place it at the bottom of the packet (and mention it in your cover letter.)

It’s also a good idea to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. They don’t always send it back, but usually, they do. To generate a chuckle in a hard-worked Millicent, I always liked to send a SASP that looked like this — although with a stamp attached, of course:

Don’t worry about this causing trouble; it doesn’t, and you will have proof that they received it. This is important, because manuscripts do go astray from time to time. You can also have the post office track the box for a low fee.

8. Pack it all in a durable container that will keep your submission from getting damaged en route.

Why, this suggestion seems strangely familiar, somehow…oh, yes, we spent half of this post talking about it. (Had I mentioned that I like to be thorough?)

And that, my friends, is the low-down on the submission packet. Don’t forget that every syllable you send to an agency is a writing sample: this is a time to use impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing, please. No smudges or bent corners, either. Make it all pretty and hope for the best.

Oh, and open that can of sweetened condensed milk before you add it to the pie, will you? I would sleep better at night, and so would your oven. Keep up the good work!

The logic behind the SASE, or, how to be prepared for something falling on you from a zeppelin

Last time, I broached the subject of the infamous and ubiquitously-requested SASE, industry-speak for the Stamped, Self-Addressed Envelope (get it?) that should accompany every mailed query letter and/or submission packet. (E-mailed queries and submissions cannot include them, obviously, as these forms of communication have no temporal heft to them.) There’s no such thing as a Get Out of Thinking About It pass on this one, I’m afraid: forgetting to include a SASE in a query is an instant-rejection offense at virtually every agency in North America.

Or, to put that in terms even Narcissus could understand, no matter how gifted, talented, and/or beautiful a writer or his work may happen to be, neglecting this small piece of industry etiquette effectively assures that Millicent the agency screener will not spend enough time with ol’ Narcissus’ query packet to find out that he and his work display any or all of these delightful attributes. The packet will simply be rejected unread.

And not merely because Narcissus’ nasty habit of assuming that the rules that apply to ordinary mortals could not possibly apply to him is darned annoying to anyone who has to deal with him professionally. If the agent decides to pick up the manuscript, the writer’s having included the expected SASE demonstrates a pleasing ability to follow directions — and if the agent decides to pass, s/he may return rejected pages at the writer’s expense.

Yes, I know: it’s trying to be expected to underwrite one’s own rejection, but there actually are some benefits for the SASE-provider in this arrangement. To name but one: actually finding out that your query has in fact been rejected, rather than gnawing your fingernails in perpetual worry for a year or two.

Oh, you would prefer to be left to wonder whether (a) the agency has a policy of not informing rejected queriers if the answer is no (quite common), (b) the agency has a policy of not reading incomplete query packets (like, say, those that omit a SASE), or (c) your packet got stuck sideways in the mailbox, and never reached the agency at all?

The expectation that an aspiring writer will always include a SASE with any kind of paper query or submission is universal, at least among U.S. agencies and publishers, so much so that I’ve noticed that many agencies don’t even explain what it means on their websites or listings in the standard guides anymore. It’s become one of those secret handshake things, a practice that the industry just assumes that any writer who is serious about getting published will magically know all about without being told.

Call me zany, but as those of you have been reading this blog for a while are already aware, I’m not a big fan of unspoken assumptions; they place the writer new to the game at a serious strategic disadvantage. So I hope those of you who have been at this for some time will forgive my taking a second post to explain to those new to querying what a SASE is and why, to put it bluntly, the writer is expected to pay the postage for a rejection letter or returned manuscript.

SASE logic seems to be counterintuitive for many aspiring writers. Contrary to popular opinion, a SASE shouldn’t always take the form of a business-size envelope; it varies according to what was sent in the first place. To accompany a single-page query, it’s letter-sized, but should you happen to be querying an agency whose guidelines call for writers to include more than five pages of additional materials (e.g., writing sample, synopsis, author bio, book proposal, a chapter or two), you’d be sending that in a Manila envelope, right? In that case, the SASE would need to be a second Manila envelope, stuffed inside the first, carrying sufficient materials to ship all of those additional materials back to you.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of the SASE in those terms? Or was that giant whoosh I heard not a collective gasp, but a whole bunch of eyebrows out there hitting the ceiling?

Probably the latter, I’m guessing, because I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who are unaware that a SASE should also accompany a manuscript submission. That tends to come as a great big surprise to even writers who have been querying and submitting for a while: since the prevailing wisdom is that the point of the SASE is ease of getting back to a writer to say yes or no, it’s far from uncommon for submitters of 500-page manuscripts to include a simple business-size envelope as a SASE. While certainly understandable, this misses the primary goal of the SASE: ensuring the safe return of whatever a writer sends to an agency.

Thus, you should always include enough postage on your SASE that everything you submitted may be popped into it and mailed with a minimum of effort on the sender’s part. That means, in practice, including a shipping container (second envelope, box, or a shipping label to affix to the box in which you sent the manuscript) already addressed to you with enough postage to get all of those requested pages back to you in one piece.

Since all of that will need to be tucked into the same envelope or box that contains your query, any materials the agency’s submission guidelines request, and/or requested materials, it can get cumbersome, once the time comes to pack it all up. Not to say expensive, especially for writer submitting to US-based agencies from outside the country, who not only have to figure out what the return postage would be in dollars instead of their local currency, but have to wrap their eager fingertips around some US stamps.

Don’t worry, foreign readers: there’s a trick to it. I’ll be getting to that.

I’m constantly barraged with questions from readers about why, in the age of fairly universal paper recycling and cheap, high-quality printers, a writer shouldn’t just ask an agent to recycle a rejected manuscript. Quoth, for instance, clever reader 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.

Oh, would only that were possible, Melospiza, but there’s a rather basic, practical reason to include the SASE for safe return of the manuscript. Chant it with me now, campers: as with a SASEless query, not including a SASE in a submission is usually an automatic-rejection trigger.

Yes, you read that correctly: leaving a SASE out of the submission packet can, and often does, result in a submission’s being rejected unread; ask about it sometime at a writers’ conference. The vast majority of agents will be perfectly up front about the fact that they train their screeners accordingly.

The owners of all of those eyebrows are clutching their heads now, aren’t they, thinking of all of those SASEless submissions — or, more likely, submissions accompanied by only a #10 SASE, rather than one with sufficient postage for the manuscript’s return — they sent out in the dark days of yore. “Okay, I can understand why Millicent would reject SASE-free queries without reading them,” the head-clutchers cry, “but why, in heaven’s name, would an agent who asked to see pages reject them unread?”

Good question, retrospective panickers. The short answer: because it’s obvious to Millicent that a writer who submits without a manuscript-size SASE doesn’t know the secret handshake.

The longer answer is hardly more comforting, I’m afraid. 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 — wait for it — EVERYTHING enclosed back to the sender. If the SASE isn’t tucked into the packet, or if the postage is not sufficient, and if the agency is going to keep its side of the tacit agreement allowing it to read a writer’s unpublished work, it is going to have to shell out the dosh to mail the rejected manuscript back. Ditto with a query letter that arrives unaccompanied by a SASE.

The result in both cases is generally a form-letter rejection — which costs the agency not only the price of the return postage, but also an envelope and Millicent’s time to address it — or, as is increasingly popular, no response at all. Yes, even for a submission. Pages often go bye-bye, because it would be expensive for the agency to ship back the whole shebang.

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, of course, 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, but check anyway.)

“You must be pulling our collective leg, Anne,” I hear some of you muttering. “Okay, maybe SASEless queries do tend to get rejected unread, but I can’t believe that it happens to submitted manuscripts or book proposals. By the time an agent is sufficiently interested in you to want to see actual chapters of your book, your foot is too firmly in the door for your submission to be tossed aside unread for a reason as unrelated to the quality of the writing as not including a SASE. I mean, really, what purpose would being that touchy serve?”

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

Remember, it’s her job to reject 98% of what crosses her desk; even a very successful agent at a giant agency seldom picks up more then 5 or 6 new clients per year, even including ones poached from other agencies. (Which happens all the time, by the way. It would astonish most aspiring writers to know just how many of us agented writers are unhappy with our current representation. As I say early and often, you don’t want just any agent to represent you — you want a well-connected, fully engaged agent who loves your writing and will defend it to the death.) Every submission that disqualifies itself on technical grounds is another step toward that ongoing goal of thinning the pack of contenders.

Do you really want to volunteer your precious manuscript for that particular kamikaze mission?

Admittedly, from the submitter’s point of view, a good argument could be made that this practice inevitably leads to, as Melospiza rightly points out, a big ol’ waste of money, not to mention trees, without really providing much benefit to the gentle, tolerant souls who actually pay for the return postage. After all, from the writer’s perspective, a SASE included with a submission is only going to be used if the news is bad. If the agency likes a partial, they’re going to ask to see the entire 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.

Or, if you’re really lucky, you’ll never see it again, because it will end up in a file drawer in your new agent’s office. Fingers crossed!

If, on the other hand, the agent of your dreams does not 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 re: secret handshakes.)

If you’re willing to risk it, you could always include a line in the cover letter, politely asking the agency to recycle the manuscript if they decide not to offer representation and mentioning the business-sized SASE enclosed for their reply. Do be aware, however, that this strategy sometimes backfires with screeners trained to check first for a manuscript-sized SASE: it’s not unheard-of for the Millicents of the world to toss aside such a manuscript without reading the cover letter.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules of submission; I only try to render them comprehensible. Let’s all pray that when Millicent does engage in the summary rejection of the SASEless, she flings that precious ream of paper into a recycling bin.

Originally, the whole paper-wasting arrangement was set up this way in order to protect writers. The logic behind this one is so pre-computer — heck, it’s pre-recycling, if you don’t count Abe Lincoln’s scrawling the Gettysburg Address on the back of a used envelope — that it’s likely to be counterintuitive to anyone querying or submitting for the first time today.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents because publishing houses still read through their slush piles, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to the advent of personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might conceivably 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, obviously. Nor could you attach a Word document to an e-mail and send it off via Pony Express. Or even pop down to the corner copy store to run off half a dozen copies.

Equally obviously, no sane human being would entrust her only copy of a manuscript to the vagaries of the mails. So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses or agencies simultaneously?

They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page, every single syllable, every single time.

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

My long-term readers will have heard my favorite concrete example of how these returned manuscripts helped writers before, but it’s such a terrific illustration of just how much the SASE used to assist the average aspiring writer that I have no qualms about trotting it out again. Back in the far-away 1950s, my mother, Kleo, was married to Philip, a struggling science fiction writer. 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. She would come home and edit them; he would type a revised version. One or the other of them would get a good idea, and they would collaborate in writing the result: one dictating, one typing. She would take them to writing classes and the magazine editors who were already publishing her brother’s SF short stories, returning with still more feedback. Off he went to type another draft.

From scratch. Every single time either of them wanted to change a word. Hard for those of us who write on computers even to imagine, isn’t it?

As writers did in those dark days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into gray Manila envelopes 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. (Except for the ones that Kleo hand-sold by taking to a magazine editor, which is actually how Philip got his first story published. She was, in effect, his original agent. But I digress.)

Each time 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 into 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.

(Which reminds me to nag those of you sending out manuscripts in the computer age: when was the last time you made a back-up of your manuscript? If, heaven forfend, a gigantic anvil fell from one of those anvil-toting zeppelins we’re always seeing overhead these days onto your main writing space, would it crush both your computer and your back-ups? Do you really want to be crawling about in the ashes, frantically trying to find the remnants of your hard disk?)

One day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their minuscule front porch. Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

So what did the aspiring writers of yesteryear do when faced with that many 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 perfectly nice mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once?

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

Lest you find the story depressing, the science fiction writer was Philip K. Dick, and 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.

Which only goes to show you: contrary to the common writerly fantasy/daydream/self-flagellation-after-rejection theme, even the best writers generally have to brazen through quite a bit of rejection before hitting the big time. As my mother likes to say, the only manuscript that stands NO chance of getting published is the one that sits in the bottom drawer, unseen by human eyes.

Admittedly, it was not the most comforting lullaby to have sung above one’s cradle, but she knew whereat she spoke. It’s as true today as it was six decades ago, when there were 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.

For our purposes today, the important thing to take away from this story is not the warm glow from the implied pep talk (although that’s nice, too), but the understanding that agencies don’t ask for SASEs in order to inconvenience, annoy, or impoverish aspiring writers. They do it today for precisely the same reason that they did it in the 1950s: to get your work back to you as expeditiously as possible, so you may try its fortunes elsewhere.

You’re welcome.

Also, as I mentioned last time, the practice was intended to protect the writer’s copyright. Just as an e-mailed attachment could conceivably end up, through the magic of multiple forwarding, anywhere on the planet, a loose manuscript that isn’t either in an agent or editor’s office, safely tucked away in that proverbial bottom desk drawer, or being conveyed through sleet, snow, and/or dark of night between one and the other could in fact be stolen.

I know; creepy even to consider. But think about it: is it more or less likely than something pointy falling on your house from a zeppelin?

I’ll answer that one for you: it does happen from time to time, so a savvy writer keeps very, very good track of who precisely has his manuscript when. (If this prospect tends to keep you up at night, please see the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the list at right for tips on how to protect your work.)

Three other things of which a savvy writer keeps very good track: which agents she has already queried (and with what unsolicited-but-permitted extra materials), which already-queried agents have requested materials (and what they requested; every agency asks for the submission packet to contain different components), and which agents are still waiting for her to send them those materials. If an aspiring writer is querying and/or submitting to multiple agents at once — and she should, unless the agent of her dreams has a no simultaneous submissions policy — she had better maintain excellent records; otherwise, it’s just too easy to mix things up.

Or not to know where to send Query #18 when the first 17 SASEs turn up in her mailbox. Or her inbox.

Speaking of minding the details, a savvy writer also takes care when applies postage to her SASE. Let’s take a gander at what postage-related fears were keeping intrepid reader Rachel up at night:

I have a question about the SASE that you put in with your materials. I understand it was always better to use stamps so that the agent can just toss it in the outgoing mail bin at the agency. But I was talking to the postal clerks yesterday and they said that post-911 rules are now in effect: any stamped package over 13 ounces has to be brought to the post. I asked to get metered mail instead, and they said it wouldn’t work because it would have that date (yesterday) on it. A dilemma!

I explained my situation to them and the clerks suggested just using a priority stamp (and the same shipping box), because if a SASE were expected, then stamps are really the only way to go. Is that how they’re doing it now?

Good question, Rachel. Before I answer it, let’s clarify the situation by reiterating the difference between a query packet’s SASE (a missive containing the query letter + any unsolicited materials an agency’s website said were permissible to send with it) and one tucked into a submission (requested materials).

When sending a query, SASE use is pretty straightforward: the writer takes a second envelope, writes his own address on it, adds appropriate postage, folds it, and stuffs it — neatly, please, as becomes a Sanitary Author — into the query envelope. (Oh, like you’ve been able to get the SA out of your mind since yesterday’s post.)

When sending a submission packet, the process is similar, but the packaging is different. If the agent only asks to see limited number of pages, few enough that they could be comfortably placed in a Manila envelope without wrinkling them (the Sanitary Author deplores crumpled pages; so do many agents), all you need to do is take a second Manila envelope, self-address it, affix the same amount of postage you’re going to use to send the whole packet to the agency, fold it, and place it neatly within the submission envelope.

Don’t worry; I shall be devoting some of our collective time in the week to come to explaining how to handle a request for a partial. I wouldn’t leave you hanging.

SASE-wrangling becomes a bit trickier if you’ve been asked to send the entire manuscript, because that generally entails using a box. (For a detailed explanation of what types of box should and shouldn’t be used, complete with glamorous photographs of cardboard in its various manifestations, again, tune in tomorrow.)

Obviously, it’s going to be unwieldy to stuff a second box inside the first, so it’s completely acceptable just to include a self-addressed mailing label and postage. Be sure to mention both in your cover letter, so they won’t get lost on the agency end. (Again, don’t panic: I’ll be talking about how to pull off including such necessary-but-prosaic details gracefully early next week.

If you have already submitted a partial, and then the agent asks for the whole manuscript, don’t just send the rest of the pages: by the time they arrive, Millicent probably will not have a clear enough recollection of the partial just to pick up the story where your initial submission left off. (Heck, by then, Millicent may already have moved on to pastures new; the turnover amongst screeners can be pretty remarkable.) Send the entire manuscript, in the aforementioned box.

Equally obviously (but I’m going to mention it anyway, just in case), the stamps on the SASE need to be US stamps, if the agency is US-based. That requirement means that SASEing is invariably a great deal more challenging — and expensive — for writers in foreign climes querying or submitting to US agencies. The far-flung are not exempt from the SASE expectation, I’m afraid, which can make e-mailed querying a more attractive option.

Good news for the far-flung: the US Postal Service’s website sells stamps at face value, rather than at the exorbitant mark-up one frequently finds for them abroad. The USPS more than happy to ship ‘em to your doorstep in exotic climes so you may stick ‘em onto your SASE before popping your submission into the mail.

But let’s get back to the crux of Rachel’s question: has the post-9/11 alteration in post office policy altered what agencies expect to see on a SASE?

The last decade has indeed seen some changes in how agencies handle packages, but actually, most of them date from before 9/11, back to the anthrax scare. Before that, virtually no agency accepted electronic submissions. A few scary mailings later, and suddenly, agencies all over New York were opening e-mail accounts. Hey, they may not pay their Millicents much, but the average agency certainly doesn’t want its screeners to get sick from opening a poisoned query envelope.

E-mailed queries and submissions don’t carry the risk of that sort of infection (and I think we can all guess how the Sanitary Author would feel about that). They do, however, occasionally contain computer viruses, so few agents will open an attachment unless they have already specifically requested an electronic submission from a writer.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, most agencies have policies forbidding e-queriers from sending unsolicited materials as attachments. Too much risk of computer contamination. Instead, they will usually ask queriers to copy any permissible additional materials and paste them into the body of an e-mail.

Rachel’s clerk was quite right about heavier packages having to be physically carried into the post office by human being, rather than blithely dropped into a mailbox or dumped in a mailroom — a policy shift that would affect virtually any submitted full manuscript, since they tend to be heavy little critters. However, that most emphatically does not mean is that the agent is going to be taking a rejected manuscript to the post office herself, or even that the Millicent who screened it will. Some luckless agency intern will be toting a whole mess of them there every few days.

Or not; since the USPS changed its regulations in this respect, many agencies have side-stepped the return mail problem by ceasing to return submitted manuscripts to their writers at all. (Sensing a pattern here?) Check policies before you submit.

Interestingly, agencies that operate this way virtually always still expect submitters to include SASEs with their submissions. Go figure. The moral: unless you are querying or submitting electronically OR an agency specifically says it doesn’t use SASEs, you should always include one.

And always use actual stamps, rather than metered postage. It’s called a STAMPED, self-addressed envelope for a reason, you know. The goal here is not merely convenience in mailing, but the submitter’s paying for his own manuscript’s return. Regardless of whether that means tossing it into the nearest mailbox (which would still be possible for most partial manuscripts) or assigning Millicent to do it, stamps have always served the purpose best.

That being said, I must confess that I don’t quite understand the clerk’s recommendation to Rachel to affix Priority Mail postage to the SASE, unless he was either lobbying her to use a flat-rate Priority Mail envelope as a SASE (not a bad idea, especially if the submission is just a few chapters; they fold nicely into a submission envelope) or simply trying to hawk a more expensive stamp. The distinction between Priority Mail and regular mail is the speed with which it arrives; the ease of mailing is identical.

Buying a more expensive stamp or a cheaper one to affix to the SASE is entirely up to the writer; coughing up the dosh for speedier return is not going to impress Millicent. Like overnighting requested materials vs. sending them regular mail, whether a submitter elects to pay a shipper extra money to convey a manuscript from point A to point B is generally a matter of complete indifference to the agent receiving it, as long as it gets there in one piece.

(“And looking pretty,” adds the Sanitary Author. “None of those pesky wrinkles. Print your manuscript on nice, bright-white, 20-pound paper while you’re at it, please. It’s aesthetically more pleasing than the cheap stuff.”)

To be blunt about it, the agent has absolutely no reason to care how quickly a rejected manuscript reaches its submitter. All she’s going to care about is whether you’ve included the means to mail it back to you at your expense, not hers.

And that, my friends, is the logic that most agencies’ listings in the standard agency guides and websites compress into the terse advice Include SASE. Apparently, somewhere on earth, there lurks a tribe of natural-born queriers who realize from infancy precisely what that means, so it requires no further explanation.

I’ll bet our old pal, the Sanitary Author, is one of that happy breed. For the rest of us, learning how agencies work requires a bit of homework — and the asking of trenchant questions. Keep up the good work!

Nicely stamping your SASE and other Millicent-pleasing habits of the Sanitary Author

sanitary-author

Why, yes, now that you mention it, long-time Author! Author! habitués, I have used this photograph before. Several times, in fact: it’s one of my favorites, for reasons I shall discuss below. Although, really, does cultivating and maintaining an affection for the mythical Sanitary Author require much defense?

Before I launch into that very defense, however, I have some good news to announce about a member of our little community: Austin Gary’s novel, Miss Madeira has just come out in paperback and as an e-book. Congratulations, Austin!

If Austin’s name sounds familiar, it should: he was one of the literary fiction winners in the Author! Author! Rings True Competition earlier this year, albeit for another work. Nor his he a stranger to award winning: under the name Gary Heyde, he is also a BMI award-winning songwriter, with recordings by Tammy Wynette, John Berry, and Jeff Carson.

Miss Madeira was semi-finalist in the 2009 Faulkner-Wisdom fiction competition. Here’s the blurb:

Brilliant teacher Amelia Madeira is torn between her love for the woman who will eventually become her sister-in-law and a gifted male student. Despite producing several generations of students forever known as Madeira’s Kids, gossip begins to grow like apples on a poison tree. As anyone with an intimate knowledge of the workings of small-town America knows, episodic memory is the bailiwick of barbershops, beauty shops, and pool halls.

Keep that good news rolling in, folks. Celebrating our fellow writers’ triumphs substantially eases the long and curvy road to publication.

Back to business. Since I’m aware that many of you are rushing about madly, pulling together flotillas of post-Labor Day queries and submissions, I thought it would be a good time to devote a few days to how query and submission packets should be put together.

Yes, yes, I know: not the sexiest of topics, but lest we forget, Millicent the agency screener is charged not only with assessing the aptness of a queried or submitted manuscript for her agency’s representation list; she’s also going to be drawing some conclusions from the packets about the querier or submitter’s professionalism. Why is that relevant, you ask? Because a writer who has taken the time to learn how the publishing industry expects to see writing presented is going to be less energy-consuming to represent.

Before anyone bristles at the idea that an agency — not a non-profit entity, usually — might consider non-literary factors such as the ability to present writing professionally when weighing the pros and cons of picking up a particular writer, let me recommend that those of you who feel strongly on the subject have a spirited discussion about it in the comments. My goal here is not to judge how agencies operate, but to help good writers navigate the often opaque and counterintuitive querying and submission process.

For the next few days, then, I am going to be talking in minute detail about how to put together professional-looking query and submission packets. To lead gently into that noble endeavor, let us pause and consider the mystery of the Sanitary Author.

I’m not much given to double-takes, campers, but I must admit, I did a lulu when I spotted this sign standing by the side of a two-lane highway in unincorporated Neskowin, Oregon. To the casual observer, Neskowin is a blink-and-you-miss-it collection of buildings, but to the observant passerby, it is fraught with enigma. Among its mysteries: according to its ostensibly unofficial municipal website (last updated, apparently, in 2008) Neskowin’s population is a sparse 170, a human density that renders the two golf courses located there, well, surprising.

Who is playing golf in such high numbers that a lone course wasn’t deemed sufficient for local needs? Bears? Sea lions? Migratory Scots with an affection for Pacific Rim cuisine?

All of these legitimate wonders pale, however, next to the enigma of the Sanitary Author. What makes him or her so darned clean, the passing motorist is left to speculate, and why is the population of Neskowin so proud of that particular resident’s hygiene habits that the non-city fathers saw fit to erect a sign to commemorate the SA’s immaculate practices? Did s/he win some sort of international award for cleanliness, a plaudit akin to the Nobel Prize, in order to raise him or her so very high in the town’s esteem?

Not, obviously, as high as videos, coffee, or ice cream, but let’s face it, it’s more recognition than most authors get.

Does the SA reside in remote forest because such cleanly writing practices would not have been feasible within the confines of a large city like New York, Los Angeles, or even charming and nearby Portland? More importantly from the point of view of fellow authors, how does being so sanitary affect the quality of the SA’s writing — and if it has a net positive effect, should we all be beating a path to Oregon, clamoring to follow in the SA’s spotless footsteps?

And I don’t want to alarm anybody, but should we be worried about all of the unsanitary authors running around out there? The mind positively reels at the vast array of germs Millicent could conceivably pick up from their query and submission packets.

Oh, I know what prosaic types out there are likely to say: since the period after AUTHOR would tend to indicate an abbreviation, this sign probably only refers to the local sanitary authority, the fine municipal employees who look after water quality and maintain the sewer system. So much for impenetrable ambiguity, the literal would doubtless conclude. Just ignore that sasquatch strolling by; there’s nothing to see here.

But look closely at that sign: there’s a period after SANITARY, too. Complete words are seldom abbreviations, I find.

So the mystery continues. I shall make a valiant effort to wrest my mind away from the Sanitary Author and concentrate on the matter at hand: queries and the things that accompany them.

Oh, it’s no use: the image is burned into my brainpan. A psychologist friend of mine once told me that recent research demonstrates that the brain can respond as dramatically to recalled memories as to present life; sometimes, she says, the mind will experience flashbacks as current events. I’m fascinated by this, not only as a memoirist (and yes, the memoir that was supposed to come out a few years ago is still tied up in legal knots; thanks for asking), but as a novelist.

The writer’s descent into a creative trance is one of the least-understood of human phenomena, isn’t it? Don’t know what I’m talking about? Ask your kith and kin what you’re like during periods of intensive writing.

Personally, when I’m in mid-chapter, I have been known to lose my sense of the passage of time. If my cats didn’t remind me occasionally that they do not possess opposable thumbs or the ability to open cabinets (well, okay, most cabinets), they would probably be forced to start nibbling on my toes under my desk to stave off imminent starvation.

I’m inclined to blame this on the way that the creative process colonizes the writer’s brain. The cats seem inclined to blame it on me, which I suppose amounts to more or less the same thing: if a task can’t wait until I polish the scene in front of me to a high gloss, it’s probably not going to happen.

You may be unusually good at jumping back and forth between the creative and observational parts of your brain, but if you’re writing on a regular basis, I’m betting that those who have the good fortune to live and work with you have built up a stockpile of anecdotes about how you space out on the minutiae of quotidian life when you’re writing hard. Or — and I honestly am getting around to the point of today’s post again — when you are embroiled in sending out the aforementioned flotilla of queries.

Oh, you thought you were the only one who spaced out? Far from it. Little things like laundry, taking vitamins, watering plants, and checking e-mail seem to slip unnoticed out of the working writers’ consciousness in the middle of a querying binge or writing jag — and don’t even get me started on how the amnesia about practicalities can intensify in the face of an imminent deadline or, heaven help us, immediately after an agent asks to see a partial or full manuscript.

I suspect that this checking out from the everyday world is a necessary side effect of the alchemy of creation. Because, really, in order to render our characters’ lifeworlds gripping on the page, we writers have to create them in our minds every bit as vividly and in all of the detail of a vitally important memory. That’s a pretty absorbing task, isn’t it?

With a pretty gratifying payoff, potentially: if we do our job very well indeed, we might create a story, a situation, a character that seems to the reader to have stepped straight out of real life. Only better.

Is it that same is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex trick of the brain, I wonder, that would allow a reader to fall in love with a character in a novel? As recent Nobel laureate — and about time, too — Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in THE PERPETUAL ORGY:

A handful of fictional characters have marked my life more profoundly than a great number of the flesh-and-blood beings I have known.

He’s talking about a literary orgy, incidentally, not a physical one: quite a lot of the book is devoted to his passionate decades-long love affair with the entirely fictional Emma Bovary. And who can blame him for falling in love with her, really? She’s a pretty absorbing character.

Do I sense those of you who intended to get queries and/or submissions out the door now that the annual post-Labor Day return of the publishing world to New York has arrived becoming a bit restless in the face of these musings? “I’m as fond of the creative haze as anyone else,” I hear some of you stalwart souls say, “but right now, most of my writing time is getting eaten up by the process of trying to find an agent. So if you don’t mind my asking, what does any of this have to do with the very practical marketing concerns we’ve spent much of the summer discussing?”

A couple of things, actually. First, in the throes of agent-seeking, it can be pretty easy to forget that query-screeners like Millicent actually are looking to fall in love with some writer’s work.

The querying hurdle is, at least in principle, set in place to maximize the probability of discovering the next Great American Novel — or memoir, or nonfiction book — by freeing agency staff from the necessity of reading pages from every ambitious soul currently writing in English. That way, the theory goes, Millicent can concentrate on deciding amongst the crème de la crème.

Your mind is still focused on the paragraph before last, isn’t it? Yes, you did indeed read that correctly: even the most virulent rejection-generator is usually eager to discover a novel that pulls her immediately into its lifeworld, or a memoir that wrings her heart, or the next Emma Bovary. I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that agents and editors so often describe their first responses to submissions in the language of attraction: you’re going to love this book, it’s a sexy topic, it didn’t grab me, I can’t get this book off my mind, I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist.

Set those to music, and you’ve got a pop song. (Perhaps Austin could do something with it.) As hard as it may be to believe, Millicent is waiting to be swept off her feet.

Which is why, in case any of you have been wondering, I tend to discuss querying and submission in romantic terms: the query letter is a personal ad for your book; you want attract not just any agent, but the one that’s the best match for you and your work; the first page needs to seduce Millicent into wanting to read on; the chemistry between an agent and a book matters deeply. Ditto between a book and an editor.

So in addition to everything else we writers are trying to create, our writing also need to inspire love.

The interminable and annoying querying/submission process sounds substantially nobler put that way, doesn’t it? Feel free to use this argument the next time some non-writer gapes at the amount of time you’ve invested in trying to land an agent; generating love can take some time.

My second reason for bringing up this high-falutin’ topic is, I’m afraid, disappointingly prosaic. I meant to begin this post by talking about SASEs (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelopes), and I seem to have gotten sidetracked.

I can only plead that I was absorbed in my writing. Excuse me a moment while I feed my languishing cats.

Or perhaps I zoned out because, let’s face it, SASEs are not the most thrilling of topics. But they are absolutely vital to discuss, because a mailed query or submission unaccompanied by a SASE will get rejected automatically at virtually every U.S. agency. Almost invariably without being read.

Pause to ponder the implications, please: if Millicent doesn’t read your query, it’s literally impossible for her to decide to request your manuscript, and therefore impossible for her to fall in love with your writing. Which, in turn, renders it impossible for her boss, the agent, to fall in love with your writing, for the agent to convince an editor to fall in love with your writing, for the editor to convince an editorial committee to fall in love with your writing, and for the publishing house’s marketing department to convince readers to fall in love with your writing.

So omitting the SASE isn’t just a technical gaffe; it’s the catalyst in a tragic tale of lost love.

That’s the writer’s opportunity cost of neglecting to include a SASE in a query packet, but there are costs on the agency end as well. Think about it: having the SASE arrive in the same envelope with the query means that Millicent can grab either a form-letter rejection or please-send-us-pages note (oh, didn’t you realize that both were boilerplates?) the very instant after she makes up her mind which is appropriate.

It takes very little time, and the writers themselves are providing the resources for their own rejection. What’s not for the agency to like?

In fact, they like it so much that that most agencies have standing policies against accepting SASE-free queries at all. Providing an envelope and a stamp to reject a single forgetful writer may seem like a negligible expense — but multiply it by the 800-1500 queries the average agency receives every week, and we’re talking about a considerable investment in writers whose work they have already decided not to represent.

So if you didn’t hear back on that last raft of queries — you know, the ones where you glibly told Millicent to contact you via e-mail if she wanted to see pages — that’s probably why.

Yes, in answer to what half of you just thought so loudly, answering your mailed query via e-mail would have been costly for the agency, too, although obviously, not as costly as hauling an envelope from the supply cabinet and donating a stamp to your ongoing quest to be published. The Millicent charged with opening all of those envelopes and scanning the paper queries would have to stop what she was doing, carry your query — and only yours — to a computer, open the agency’s e-mail server, type a rejection (which would probably be identical to the form letter she’s been stuffing in SASEs all day), hit SEND, then head back to that waist-high pile of queries that came in last week.

Multiply that effort by every querier who thinks he’s being clever, considerate, and/or paper-saving by making a cavalier suggestion to contact him by e-mail, and it would add up to a lot of unnecessarily expended energy over the course of a year. Far, far cheaper for the agency just to tell its Millicents to toss any query unaccompanied by a SASE into the recycling bin.

Although if she does decide to ask for pages, she will probably let you know via e-mail, rather than by sending a reply in the SASE you so thoughtfully provided. I like to think of this as the SASE Utility Paradox: the rejected writer must pay for the postage and envelope that carry the bad news; the accepted writer must offer the stamp and envelope as a sacrifice to the gods of querying.

Either way, you’re going to be buying some envelopes and stamps. (Don’t forget to keep receipts; if you file a Schedule C for your writing business, you may be able to deduct these costs as promotional expenses. Talk to a tax expert with experience handling writers’ returns — which I am not –before you deduct anything, however, because the IRS rules governing writers are, I am told, both strange and different than those applicable to other kinds of artist.)

Believe it or not, part of the SASE’s original purpose was not just to save agencies the cost of postage, but to render the querying and submission processes cheaper for the writer: it was substantially less expensive than if the agencies sent back manuscripts with postage due. (Which used to be the alternative, by the way.) It was also intended to preserve copyright by allowing the writer ostensible control about whose grimy paws were on the manuscript when.

Writers tend to forget this in the cyber age, when huge chunks of writing can be transferred from one end of the planet to the other with the simple push of a button (yes, of course I know that the world is not as flat as that image implies. Don’t quibble at me now; I’m on a roll), but technically, in order to prove copyright over unpublished writing, the writer needs to know at all times where all the extant copies are, saying who can and cannot read it. Writing I post on this blog, for instance, is under my control, since I dictate where people can view it; I could disable RSS feeds, if I wanted. (Oh, the power! The power!) If I sent the same posts out via e-mail, they could end up anywhere, forwarded far beyond my knowledge.

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, writing posted online is technically published. It makes it easier for writers to prove that they were the original authors of their online work.

The control-who-reads-it doctrine still governs how agencies operate. When you send previously unpublished material off to an agency — to a credible one, anyway — you are operating on the tacit assumption that no one on the other end will reproduce your writing without your permission. You are not, in effect, authorizing them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so.

(Which means, by the way, that you should be very wary of an agent who implies, as some have been known to do in order to edge out the competition, that she has already shown submitted materials to an editor as an inducement for you to sign with her. Technically, she cannot market your writing to anyone until you give her explicit permission to do so — but a writer who has just won a literary contest and is juggling manuscript requests from several agents might not be aware of that.)

When you send a SASE with a submission, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys an expectation that if the agency rejects it, they will mail the pages back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 18th, 19th, and 20th installments in the Harry Potter series.

I hear the one in which Harry fights a dragon actually isn’t bad.

As I believe I have mentioned seventeen or eighteen hundred times before, this is a tradition-bound industry; it has historically been slow to change. No matter how good the logic against some of its long-held norms, this one did not change at all until there were some very tangible benefits on the agencies’ end to altering it.

For example, the anthrax scare convinced some agencies to accept e-mailed queries and submissions; prior to that, virtually none of them did. (Some still don’t; double-check before you press SEND.) And the post 9/11 requirement to tote heavy packages to the post office prompted some agencies to start recycling rejected manuscripts, rather than having the lowest intern on the totem pole wheel a paper-loaded dolly up out of the building.

Like so many other aspects of the querying and submission process, at one time, the use of the SASE carried greater benefits to the writer than it does now, but time has hardened courtesies into demands, and habits into traditions. Today, if you do not include a SASE with your submission, you may well be perceived as thumbing your nose at the traditions of people you are trying to impress.

As satisfying as that may be to contemplate, allow me to suggest that it might not be the best way to convince Millicent of your Socratic intellect, encyclopedic knowledge of how publishing works, and lamb-like willingness to take direction. So while my long-standing affection for writers, trees, and the printed pages both work to produce would love to be able to say dispense with the SASE, it would not be in your best interest to fling away the old norms.

I feel as though I should go off and plant a tree now. Or perhaps reread MADAME BOVARY. Instead, I’m going to be intensely practical for a few moments and tell you precisely how to play the SASE game correctly.

When you send a paper query (as opposed to the e-mail variety), tuck a stamped (not metered) envelope addressed to yourself into the envelope. Do this every time, regardless of whether the agency you’re querying actually asks for a SASE on its website or in its blurb in the standard agency guides. It’s expected, whether they say so or not.

If you are sending more than 4 pages of text along with your query — if the agent asked for an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis — make sure that the postage on your query’s SASE is sufficient to get all of those pages back to you. A #10 (business-size) envelope is the norm to accompany queries, and stamps are universally preferred over metered postage.

Since the agency will be popping the returned materials into the nearest mailbox, the stamps you use should be those currently in use in the AGENCY’s country of residence, not yours. This means that if you are submitting to a US-based agency or publishing house from outside the country, you will need to dig up some US stamps. Since foreign post offices often sell these at a considerable mark-up, you can save a lot of money if you buy the stamps directly from the US Postal Service online.

When you send requested materials via mail (again, as opposed to e-mail submissions), include in your submission packet an envelope or box addressed to yourself, along with sufficient postage for the safe return of EVERYTHING you have submitted. (If you want to be really considerate, you may also include a #10 SASE, so the agent may contact you to ask for more pages. This isn’t really necessary, though: in the age of e-mail and relatively inexpensive long-distance calling, that particular request is unlikely to come via regular mail.)

Again, do this every time, regardless of whether the agency (or publishing house) to whom you are submitting has actually asked for a SASE. Omit it only if the agency specifically asks in its guidelines that you not include it. (I know of only one agency that currently makes this request; need I remind you to read each and every agency’s submission guidelines, in case they differ?)

If the requested pages fit in a Manila envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission packet. If you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection.

You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude.

Relax, those of you who just clutched your chests: I’ll be talking about how to put together a cover letter for a submission packet as soon as I polish off this series on SASEs. Who knew there were so many different things that needed to go into a submission packet, eh?

Next time, we’ll delve a bit deeper into the practicalities of the e-mailed query, as well as the ins and outs of submission. You wouldn’t want to be caught unprepared if your query is successful, would you?

In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the Sanitary Author. You wouldn’t want to miss him/her/it, would you? Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just what am I getting myself into? Part IV/Formatpalooza, part XXIV: the e-mailed query

Last time, if you will recall, we bent our substantial collective cranial capacity to the fascinating question of what happens to a query or submission after it arrives at an agency, with particular emphasis upon a subject endlessly hypnotic to agent-seeking writers everywhere, submission gaffes that might prompt our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to snap into instant rejection-on-sight mode. Within that context, we dwelt long and hard upon the ways in which an electronic submission — i.e., pages that the agent has actually asked a writer to send via e-mail — might be received differently than a paper submission.

In case any of you missed that discussion, allow me to summarize it for you: it’s significantly faster to reject an electronic submission or query. Not to mention immensely easier to lose one or the other accidentally.

Why, you ask? Have you tried to lift a 400-page manuscript lately? The darned things are heavy.

Which is, of course, one of the reasons that more and more agencies are permitting — nay, even insisting upon — electronic submissions: it keeps them from being buried in paper, and their Millicents are less likely to rupture a spleen while processing Monday morning’s influx of queries and submissions. Oh, and a Kindle is quite a bit lighter to tote onto an airplane than fifteen full-length manuscripts.

But lest any of us kid ourselves, electronic submissions were practically unheard-of prior to the 2001 anthrax scare; prior to that, the overwhelming majority of US-based agencies did not even have websites. Immediately after those poisoned envelopes hit the news, however, quite a few agencies abruptly began accepting e-queries for the first time.
Even in an industry where working one’s way up has long been the norm, expecting Millicent to risk her life by opening envelopes was considered a bit de trop. (Hey, she may be paid very much — heck, at some agencies, she is an intern — but our Millie is a much-valued member of the agency team.)

They’ve been on the rise ever since; indeed, some agencies (but not most, by any stretch of the imagination) now accept only e-mailed queries. Others (but again, a minority) ask queriers to fill out an electronic form instead. Most of these forms allow writers to paste a query letter into the form, but some only allow queriers to type in a limited amount of information, with perhaps a space to paste in the first few pages of the manuscript.

Have these developments been good or bad for aspiring writers? Like so many aspects of both the changing publishing industry and technological advance, the answer is both.

There are, of course, distinct advantages to e-querying, although not as many as there were five years ago: it’s a significantly less expensive option for writers querying US-based agents from other countries, for instance. When computer-savvy agents first began accepting e-queries, they did tend to respond faster than their counterparts who worked purely in paper. Then, too, junior agents frequently screened their own e-mail for queries, rather than relying upon a Millicent. And even today, if an agency does indeed accept e-mailed queries, the querier may hear back a trifle more quickly and/or be slightly more likely to reach the agent herself by sending an e-mail.

Did the Internet-lovers out there just do a double-take? Yes, it’s true: even at this late date, there are many agents who will not read e-mailed queries. Ever. Period.

So before you even consider this option, check one of the standard agency guides to make sure it’s acceptable. (If you are unfamiliar with how to use an agency guide — the shorthand can be tricky — please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category at right.) Or the agency’s website. If it has one.

Yes, seriously. Contrary to widespread writerly assumption, not every agency has a site posted on the web. This means that simply doing a web search under literary agency will not necessarily provide you with an exhaustive list of all of your representation possibilities. (For tips on how to come up with a list of agents to query, check out the HOW TO FIND AGENTS TO QUERY category on the list at right. How do I come up with these obscure category titles, anyway?)

But let’s assume for the moment that the agent of your dreams does indeed accept both paper and e-queries. Which is more to your advantage to send?

Well, it depends on the agency — and your timeline. You might well hear back about an e-query within a matter of hours, a most unlikely outcome for a paper query; then again, you might not. As I mentioned last time, turn-around times in agencies have gotten significantly longer over the last few years: what used to take just a couple of weeks now often takes a couple of months. Or more.

However, if an agency’s submission guidelines state point-blank that they do not respond to e-mailed queries unless they are interested, but that they do send out actual replies to mailed queries that include SASEs (a fairly common policy, amongst agencies that accept both), then it might be very much worth your while to query that agency via regular mail. Especially if you happen to be one of the vast majority of queriers who prefers to send out only one or two queries and wait until the agent(s) respond(s) before sending out any others: if that’s your strategy, you should be avoiding non-responders like the proverbial plague.

I frown upon the one-by-one strategy, by the way, and not just for electronic queries. Your time is just too valuable. Think about it: if you have six hot prospects on your querying list, and it takes two months on average to hear back on each, it will take you a year to query them all. But since practically no agencies insist upon exclusive queries anymore, why would you do that, when you could send out all six queries in the first week — and move on to another 6 if those do not garner the response you want?

Stop groaning. I would be as delighted as you if your first query happened to hit precisely the right Millicent working for precisely the right agent on precisely the right day — and not thirty seconds after she just burned her lip on that latte she always seems to be too impatient to allow to cool. However, even for beautifully-written first books by immensely talented aspiring writers, that’s exceedingly rare; finding the right fit for a book can be very time-consuming. It’s only prudent to plan to query widely.

Is that one-at-a-time strategy starting to seem less appealing yet? Or the prospect of hearing back sooner on any given query like a positive boon?

The relatively quicker response time on e-queries is not always an advantage, however. The human eye reads, on average, 70% faster on a backlit screen than on paper — not an insignificant increase, when Millicent is already skimming queries at top speed. She’s unlikely to have time for second thoughts: once her always-itchy trigger finger taps that DELETE key, that query is gone.

Which suggests a troubling philosophical question: isn’t the outcome identical whether she hits that key deliberately or by mistake — say, as an unconscious response to burning her lip on a too-hot latte? And now that so many agencies simply don’t respond to queriers (or even submitters) if the answer is no, how can the hapless writer of that deleted query letter ever know whether he never heard back due to Millicent’s determination that the book being offered would not interest her boss, her conviction that the book is inherently unmarketable in the current literary climate (not necessarily the same logic as the first), her reaction to a query that’s poorly put together — or her purely instinctive response to having spilled scalding coffee all over herself and her keyboard?

But most of you are not scared away by the possibility of having your baby rejected by caffeine, are you? “That’s right, Anne,” those of you excited about saving all of that paper (or just plain sick of licking stamps) shout. “I get most of my querying information online, and mirabile dictu, most of the agents who give advice online favor electronic submissions. So do a lot of agencies that pop up when I Google literary agency, remarkably enough. And it just seems a whole lot less time-consuming to copy and paste my query letter template — with suitable personalization for each agent, of course — into an e-mail than to print it up each time. So let’s have at it!”

Okay, electronic enthusiasts. Let’s talk about how to do this thing right.

E-mailing your query
As the shouters above indicated, e-mailing a query is pretty straightforward: it involves — wait for it — sending precisely the same query letter by e-mail that a writer would have sent via regular mail, minus the SASE. (You also don’t need to include the date or the recipient’s complete mailing address, as you would with a mailed letter. Just start with Dear Ms. Agentofmydreams, and proceed as with a regular letter.) In fact, if one composes the letter in Word, one can just copy it and paste it into the body of the e-mail.

There’s another big difference between an e-query and one that’s printed, a differential that should make business format-lovers everywhere rejoice: because most e-mail programs are hostile to indentation, it is considered quite acceptable not to indent the paragraphs in an e-query. Millicent might shake her head over the rapid decline in literacy amongst constructors of e-mail programs, but she will not blame you for it.

If you prefer to preserve the indentation (as I do, personally), go ahead and write a normal query letter in Word, then copy and paste it into the e-mail. If you find that one of the tabs disappears in transit — the last being the most prone to disappear in transit — you’ve not copied the final paragraph marker. Try this nifty trick: when you write the letter in Word, add an extra paragraph to the end of the letter. Copy and paste it into an e-mail; the actual text of the letter should arrive with the tabs all intact. Then hand-delete the extra verbiage.

Whatever you do, don’t send your letter as an attachment, or send a missive with a link to a generic query on your website. Most agencies have strict policies against opening unsolicited attachments (out of fear of downloading viruses), and I can tell you now that Millicent is not going to follow that link.

Why, you ask? Feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, campers: it’s Millie’s job to cull queries as quickly as humanly possible, to narrow down a roaring river to a manageable trickle. If she’s spending only about 30 seconds per query — probably even less on each e-query, because of that skimming-eye tendency — why on earth would she invest a couple of minutes in following a link to the website of someone too unfamiliar with how queries work to present her with a proper one?

My, we’re delving into a lot of deep philosophy today, aren’t we? Let’s lurch our way back to practicalities.

Composing the query first in a word processing program carries a couple of advantages. First, it’s easier to spell- and grammar-check. Second, it renders keeping good records of whom you have queried a little bit simpler: you can simply save each query as its own document, so you can keep track of what you have said to whom and when. (You do keep meticulous querying records, don’t you, so you will not approach the same agency twice with the same book project within a year? Repeat queries are considered quite rude in Millicent’s circles.)

Adhering to a two-step process also encourages a writer to re-read each query before sending it out in a way that simply resending the same e-mail over and over again (copy-and-paste works in most e-mail programs, too) does not. It will help you avoid some of the more common querying mix-ups: if you’re sending out a whole flotilla of queries at once, it’s pretty easy to hit SEND without realizing that your Dear Mr. Readerson missive just went to Ms. Picky. Or not to include the synopsis Ms. Picky’s agency’s submission guidelines request.

Another astonishingly common mistake in e-queries: not including any contact information. “But Anne,” computer-huggers everywhere cry, “isn’t that unnecessary? After all, Millicent could just hit REPLY if she wanted to ask me to send the manuscript, right?”

Not necessarily, no. Remember that nightmare scenario above, where her scalded hand accidentally hit DELETE? It’s also not all that uncommon for successful e-queries and e-submissions to be forwarded around an office, so the agent’s just pressing REPLY would merely send her opinion back to Millicent’s inbox, not yours.

And seriously: why wouldn’t you want to make it as easy as possible for these people to say yes to you?

Copying and pasting a query from Word can cause formatting problems, however — and not merely the tab disappearing act I mentioned above. If recent comments are any indication, many e-queriers have been horrified to discover after they have sent their e-mails (and having taken the prudent step of also e-mailing the letter to themselves, so they can see it as Millicent would), that there is an extra-large space between paragraphs.

“Hey, why is the formatting different?” they wonder indignantly. “When I pasted the letter into the e-mail, there was only a single line between paragraphs. Why the expansion? And will Millicent conclude that I am an idiot who doesn’t know how to format a letter properly?”

Since self-deprecating terms like idiot, moron, and complete dolt are a regular feature of comments by readers who have experienced this problem, I’m inclined to believe that it’s causing disproportionate chagrin. To set all of those worried (and not idiotic at all) minds at ease: no, Millicent won’t think the less of you if your e-query sports extra-wide spacing; it’s too common a problem. She’s knows that it’s the result of a rocky transition between Word and a lot of e-mail programs.

So don’t worry your smart little heads about it, okay? You’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Oh, dear — that didn’t convince all of you, did it? All right: let’s talk about how to eliminate this problem. First, you could write your query IN your e-mail program the first time around, then copy that to subsequent missives. You’d lose the advantages of composing in Word, but you wouldn’t have to worry about the formatting.

Or you could recognize that most e-mail programs and Word don’t have completely compatible word-processing bells and whistles. What constitutes a hard line break in Word (i.e., that skipped line between paragraphs) may well be a prompt for a two-line skip in your e-mail.

So how does one get around that? Don’t skip a line between paragraphs in the Word version. Just hit RETURN once at the end of each paragraph, as you would when typing in standard format. The sent e-mail will have only a single skipped line between paragraphs.

Seriously, it works. Send yourself a test query and see.

Querying via form on a website
Those forms are self-explanatory (part of their popularity, I suppose): many of them simply tell aspiring writers to paste their query letters into a form, along with a writing sample. I trust that you can figure them out on your own.

And if you can’t, I probably won’t be able to help: they’re too individualized for me to create general rules of thumb for dealing with ‘em. Sorry about that. Have you considered checking one of the standard agency guides to see if the agency with the troublesome form would accept a mailed query letter instead?

E-mailed query packets
Here again, the rule of thumb is precisely the same as for mailed queries: send precisely what the agency’s submission guidelines ask to see — no more, no less.

To tell you the truth, I’ve resisted writing much on this topic, for the exceedingly simple reason that I didn’t want anyone to confuse a query packet (i.e., the stack of things an agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides might ask a querier to send along with the query letter) with a submission packet (the array of papers an agent has SPECIFICALLY asked a writer to send after a query or a pitch).

The former known in the industry as unsolicited materials, the latter as requested materials.

“But Anne,” some of you new to the process protest, and who could blame you? “I’m confused. If the agency’s website, guide listing, or page on that always-useful resource for writers seeking agents, Publishers’ Marketplace tells aspiring writers that they should send a synopsis or the first 50 pages with a query, in what sense is that not a request? Especially when half of those listings refer to their standards as submission requirements?”

I see your logic, oh rules lawyers, but you’re confusing passive guidelines with an active request. Anyone able to track down an agency’s website or listing might discover its submission guidelines, the prerequisites to which an aspiring writer must adhere in order to get a query under one of their agents’ spectacles at all. But as any agent or editor in the biz could tell you, agencies draw a very firm distinction between preliminary materials sent out of the blue (from their perspective) and pages that they actually asked a writer to submit, based upon a successful query or pitch.

How seriously do they take that distinction? Well, let me put it this way: I’ve seldom heard anyone who has worked within five blocks of an agency refer to any pages sent with a cold query (i.e., a query letter from a writer who has had no previous contact with the agency and hasn’t been referred by someone they know) as a submission.

Judging by the knitted brows out there, that little explanation didn’t leave you unconfused, did it? “Okay, Anne,” the brow-knitters say, arms folded and all ready for an argument, “I believe that they make a distinction, but I still think I’m right to think of those 50 pages the agent of my dreams’ website told me to send as both requested materials and a submission. If not, why would they call them submission guidelines, huh? Got a glib answer for that one?”

Actually, I have several. You’d better get comfortable.

In the first place, if your dream agent’s website stated that queriers should go ahead and send sample pages, it didn’t ask you personally to do so; it asked everyone who might submit to them. Given that such a public request effectively narrows down the potential pool of querier to every writer on earth who currently doesn’t have an agent, you can hardly blame those who work at the agency for not considering those guidelines in the same light as a specific request to a specific writer.

In the second place, submission guidelines is an industry term; publishing houses use it as well, but like word count or literary fiction, the definition in use at the moment is in the mind of the speaker. It’s not as precise as those coming into the conversation from the outside might like.

For all its imprecision, the term’s use in this context performs a pretty specific function: it catches the eye of writers so new to the industry that they are unaware that they shouldn’t just mail off a full manuscript to any agent who happens to catch their innocent imaginations. (You do know that such manuscripts are simply rejected unread, right?) Understood that way, an agency’s guidelines are in fact submission guidelines — they tell aspiring writers not to submit at all, but to query instead.

In the third place, I hate to be the one to bring this up, have you by any chance compared the guidelines on the agency’s website with those in one of the standard agency guides and/or the individual agent’s listing on the aforementioned Publishers’ Marketplace?

It’s a bit time-consuming to check multiple sources, but often worthwhile: not only do guide listings tend to have different emphases than website blurbs (thus enabling you to fine-tune your query list), but it’s also surprisingly common for the various sources to ask queriers to send different things.

Yes, really. It’s not at all unheard-off for the most recent Guide to Literary Agents to suggest querying with a synopsis, the agency’s website to ask for a query plus the first ten pages, and the individual agent’s Publisher’s Marketplace page to specify a query plus the first chapter and an author bio. Heck, it isn’t even all that unusual for one source to say that an agency welcomes paper queries, while another insists that it will only accept queries via e-mail and the website has a form to fill out and submit electronically.

No wonder writers are confused. I’m not bringing this up, however, to criticize agencies — heaven forbid! — but as part of my ongoing quest to convince agent-seeking writers that being hyper-literal and rules-lawyerish is not necessarily helpful at the querying stage.

Why, you ask? Well, remember how I had mentioned earlier in the summer that conference-goers sometimes confuse an individual agent’s personal preferences with an industry-wide norm? Sometimes, what guidelines end up in an agency guide are a function of the preferences of whoever happened to fill out the form — or of no one at the agency’s thinking to go back and update its Publishers’ Marketplace listing when the guidelines on the agency’s website have changed.

It doesn’t really matter why it happens, does it? If a particular agency has two or three sets of guidelines floating around out there, it follows as night the day that its resident Millicent must be seeing two or three different kinds of query packet on any given morning.

What were you saying about taking a guide listing or website’s guidelines as a request?

In the fourth place (yes, I’m still working on that pesky question), just because if an agency’s site/listing/representative at a writers’ conference expresses a generic interest in seeing extra materials — a synopsis, for instance, or a bio, or even pages — that doesn’t mean its Millicent will necessarily read them. If the query doesn’t spark her interest, she’s extremely unlikely to give the book project a second chance just because additional materials happen to be in front of her.

Before you get all huffy about that, brow-knitters, allow me to add hastily: this is largely a function of time not being infinitely elastic. It’s Millie’s job to weed out queries, right?

“But wait,” my brow-knitting friends ask hesitantly, “is it possible that I’m misunderstanding you here? From what you’re saying, it sounds as though my being able to send pages along with my query isn’t necessarily an advantage — all it really does is save Millicent the trouble of asking to see them.”

Well, if that’s the conclusion you want to draw from all this, I would be the last to stop you. I can only advise: do your homework before you send out that query. And send precisely what the agent expects to see.

How might one figure out just what that means, in the face of conflicting guidelines? Generally speaking, although the Publishers’ Marketplace and the Herman Guide listings tend to offer the most information (again, useful for figuring out which agent at the agency to approach), agencies’ websites usually offer the most up-to-date guidelines. I’d advise following them — but checking another source or two is always a good idea.

Especially if you’re not especially fond of copying and pasting your first few pages into the body of an e-mail or into a miniscule box on an online form. It can wreak havoc with formatting.

Ah, we’re back to formatting, after that long digression. Can we actually talk about how to put together an e-mailed query packet now?
If (and only if) the agency’s submission guidelines (wherever you found them) ask for additional materials, check very carefully to see if the guidelines tell you how to send them. Most of the time, they will ask that you include them in the body of the e-mail, not as an attachment.

Which is to say, unless the submission guidelines SPECIFICALLY ask you to do so, do not, under any circumstances, include attachments in an e-mailed query, for precisely the reason we discussed above: virtually every agency in North America has an iron-clad policy against opening unrequested attachments. They’re just too likely to contain viruses.

Hey, I’m not casting aspersions upon your no doubt squeaky-clean computer. I’m just reporting what the process looks like from the other side of the desk.

If the agency’s website SPECIFICALLY asked for attachments, send them in Word (the industry standard), but as we discussed yesterday, send them as .doc files; do not send them as .docx. Many, many agencies are running older versions of Word (on PCs, usually) and will not be able to open .docx files.

Like any file-transferring snafu between an agency and a writer, this is considered the writer’s fault. And no, Millicent won’t necessarily e-mail you back, asking you to send a different version. Nor will the agency call upon its crack computer support staff, for the simple reason that, as astonishing as this may seem to those of us living in the Pacific Northwest, NYC-based agencies seldom have an in-house computer expert. (Possibly because s/he would be so like to tell them to upgrade what version of Word they’re using.)

I’m telling you: a little foresight will go a long way toward getting her a document someone at the agency can actually open.

If you happen to be running a recent version of Word, your document may be saved as a .docx automatically, so use the SAVE AS… function to save your document as a Word 97-2004 document (.doc). Mac users, do be aware that your system may allow you to give your documents longer names than an older PC’s system might recognize as valid.

How do you include additional materials without attachments? Copy and paste them into the body of your e-mail, a few skipped lines after the end of your query.

Fair warning, though: as I mentioned above, formatting often gets lost in the transition. Particularly vulnerable, for some reason: double-spacing. Even if you have to change the spacing in the e-mail by hitting the RETURN key at the end of every line, make sure any manuscript pages you send are double-spaced.

If formatting disappears in transit, you’re probably not copying all of the formatting codes. The trick I mentioned above usually solves this problem: add an extra paragraph above and below the text you want to transfer, copy and paste the whole shebang into your e-mail, then hand-delete the extra words. Usually works like a charm.

And don’t worry your aforementioned smart little head about reproducing the exact format of your manuscript page; Millicent isn’t expecting text within the body of the e-mail to reproduce the printed page. She’s been around e-submissions long enough to know the havoc most e-mail programs can play with Word’s formatting. Just start with the first line of text on page 1 of your manuscript — the chapter title isn’t particularly necessary, but you may include it if you wish — and include as much of the text as requested.

Oh, scrape your jaws off the floor. The point of asking for those pages is not to see if you can produce a manuscript in standard format, after all — if an agent wanted to see that, the submission guidelines would ask for a Word attachment. (As some of them do: make sure to check every time.) What Millicent will be casting her bloodshot eyes across that writing sample for is to see if you can write.

You don’t mind that, do you?

No matter what other materials are specified in the guidelines, always start an e-mailed query packet with the query letter itself, then move on to any requested materials in the order they were listed in the guidelines. As I mentioned above (but it always bears repeating), unlike a paper query, an e-mailed query need not include date and full address of the recipient, but do open with a salutation: Dear Ms. Smith…

Why? Well, think about it from Ms. Smith’s perspective: wouldn’t a mass e-mail be the most efficient way of broadcasting 2,000 generic Dear Agent queries? Do you really want your e-query mistaken of one of those?

Most of you probably knew most of this, though, right? Let’s move on to a little-known trick o’ the trade — located in the part of the e-mailed query to which writers tend to give the least thought.

The subject line of an e-mailed query
The subject line is key to an e-query’s ending up in the right place, so you are going to want to make that space count. Or at any rate, prevent your e-mail from getting relegated to the spam file.

Most agents prefer writers to include the word QUERY in it, presumably so they don’t mix up your e-mail with that invitation to their high school reunion. If you just heard the agent speak at a conference, include the name of the conference in both the subject line and the first line of your query; many agencies will give priority to post-conference queries.

Conversely, if you already have an in with the agent, make sure to include that in the subject line, too. If you met the agent at a conference and she told you to send her a query (as opposed to sending materials; it happens), write REQUESTED QUERY and the name of the conference in the subject line; if you were lucky enough to garner a referral from an existing client, type QUERY — (Client’s name) REFERRAL.

Getting the picture? Good.

Like so much else in writer-agent relations, the practices were much more streamlined back in the days before the rise of the personal computer, much less the Internet. In fact, a case could be made, and a cogent one, for the popularity of the Internet’s being the cause of each agency’s specifying that it wants different materials in query packets: back when the standard agency guides and word of mouth were the primary ways that writers found out what standards were, pretty much everyone just asked for a query, or query + synopsis.

In fact, the industry truism of yore dictated that a writer should NEVER send manuscript pages or a proposal unless and agent had specifically asked him to do so. Frankly, I think that expectation was a bit easier on writers: there was far less stressful guesswork involved.

So are agencies asking for more materials up front just because they can — or because there now isn’t so much paper involved? Maybe, or maybe some of them just wanted to streamline the rejection process by arranging to have a writing sample on hand as soon as Millicent read the query letter: that way, she can rule out promising book concepts whose writing doesn’t deliver in one contact with the writer, rather than the former two.

Or perhaps — and I’m not saying this is true; I’m merely speculating — providing guidelines that are unlike those of other agencies may be a clever means of discovering just how good a prospective client is at following directions; if every agency asks for something slightly different, the Dear Agent queriers who treat every agent on earth as identical are going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs, right?

Just in case I’m right on that last one, follow the individual agency’s directions. To the letter. And if that means choosing from amongst several sets of guidelines, pick one and cling to it like a leech.

Trust me, both you and Millicent will feel better if you do. In an often confusing and alienating process, concrete direction can be very reassuring. Keep up the good work!

Authorbiopalooza VII: framing Jack O. Lantern’s smiling authorial face

grinning pumpkin 2

I’m smiling myself this morning, campers, although not quite as widely as Jack. Congratulate me, for I am officially the Nicest Lady in the Neighborhood, a title I hope to hold until next Halloween rolls around. How did I score this enviable title? Well, I am usually in the running: ours is the only house within a multi-block radius that gives out full-size candy bars. (You should see the look on the little ones’ faces when they first clap eyes on our candy tray.)

This year, however, we also had the dubious distinction of being one of the only houses in the neighborhood giving out candy at all. Blame the economy, not the neighbors, I say, but naturally, it was hard for the kids to understand. So I told them that if they went away for half an hour and came up with a story about the characters they were impersonating for the night, they could each have another three candy bars. One especially creative ninja reappeared three times, each with a different tale to tell.

I heard some great stories. Score one for the future writers of America, and a big loss for dental hygiene.

Back to business. I’m going to be wrapping up author bios and photos today, tying up a few loose ends and answering a few perennial first-time autobiographers’ lingering questions. Since this is my last Authorbiopalooza post — presuming that no one posts a magnificently insightful follow-up question as a comment over the next few days, hint, hint — I’m going to seize the opportunity to say something vital just one more time, for the benefit of all you procrastinators out there.

broken-recordPlease, I implore you, do not put off writing at least a viable first draft of your bio until the day after an agent or editor has actually asked you to provide one. Set aside some time to do it soon.

Why? Because unless an agency’s submission guidelines ask for a bio up front, chances are, the request to provide one is going to come swooping down at you out of a pellucidly blue sky. Tossed out as an afterthought just after you’ve given the best pitch in the history of Western civilization, for instance, or when the agent who fell in love with your first 50 pages asks to see the rest of the book. It will seem like good news — until you realize that you need to come up with a bio within the next forty-eight hours.

On that happy day, you will be a much, much happier human being in every way if you already have at least the beginnings of a great bio sitting on your hard drive. Trust me on this one.

To that end, may I suggest that those of you involved in writers’ groups — critique-based or support; in either case, good for you — devote part of a meeting to brainstorming about and giving feedback on one another’s bios? Or query letters, for that matter? And what about synopses?

Don’t look at me so blankly. Why wouldn’t a success-oriented group of writers want to invest time in mutual critique of marketing materials? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: every single sentence on every single page in a query or submission packet is a writing sample. It all needs to be polished.

It also, at the risk of starting up that broken record player, all needs to be interesting — and that’s where a little outside perspective can be very helpful. Yet even very market-focused critique groups seldom set aside time for mutual bio critique. A trifle mystifying to me, as a session devoted to it can be a whole lot of fun, as well as very useful indeed.

Besides, how much do you really know about that sharp-eyed person who keeps barking at you to show, not tell?

Speaking of great questions (yes, I know; I was speaking of it several paragraphs ago, but humor me here), let’s get right to the promised answers to past reader questions on bio-related points. Yes, shorter versions of these answers are already available elsewhere on this site, but since the comments are not searchable from your side of the site and not everyone reads the comment strings — especially, I notice, whilst perusing the archives — I wanted to have all of this information gathered in one place, all ready to pop up in a site search using that nifty search engine located in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

I love readers’ questions, because, frankly, you clever souls often come up with angles it would not otherwise have occurred to me to pursue. Those of us who have been staring at bios, queries, synopses, and professionally-formatted manuscripts for years may be able to tell in an instant how the page in front of us is not right, but since we have such a strong mental image of what the right format, for instance, is, we seldom invest time in considering how someone who had never seen a successful author bio formatted for submission, for example, might picture it.

That’s why, in case anybody had been wondering, I so often encourage my readers to ask challenging questions of agents and editors at conferences: the question that’s been bugging you for months might not be one a speaker would know to include in her talk. So for heaven’s sake, ask; it’s good for everybody concerned.

To illustrate, here is a question from intrepid reader Doug about how a writer using a pen name might approach the bio. Specifically,

Is the author’s name one’s pseudonym (when applicable)? Both in the heading and in the text?

This is a great question, Doug, one that I’m positive perplexes many a pseudonymous writer. To make sure that we’re all on the same page, so to speak, what Doug is inquiring about is the boldfaced author name at the top of the bio, as well as how to refer to the author within the bio itself. To borrow an example from last time, so we may see how the author’s name dots the page:

Ste. Cecile author bio2

In the bio, the author’s name should be the same as it is on the title page and in the slug line; it’s confusing if they’re different. So if you’ve decided to use a pseudonym under the By… part of the title page (as opposed to the contact info, which should use the name to which you’d prefer to have your royalty checks made out), be consistent throughout your query or submission packet.

You want to see that in action, don’t you? Fair enough.

pen name title page

If Arthur Worrieswhathisrelativeswillthink were to write an author bio — and he would definitely need to do so, even for a memoir, despite the fact that the entire manuscript could be construed as a bio — he has a choice: he can either show his real name on the bio, or he can list his pen name, Unabashed R. Pseudonym, as long as it is the name he uses (a) appears on the title page, as we’ve seen above, and (b) is the name in the slug line at the top of every manuscript page. In a first book, it’s usually more prudent to use one’s real name, so that contracts — like, say, the representation agreement Arthur wants the agent of his dreams to offer him — are made out properly.

One’s agent does, after all, have to know one’s real identity. So unless you are an international man of mystery fleeing justice (which would look terrific in a bio), it doesn’t really make sense to use a pseudonym at all at the querying or submission stage.

Think about it: a writer using a pen name doesn’t actually have to commit to it until after a publisher has already acquired the book. Both the representation contract and the publication contract are under the author’s legal name (although the publication contract may well stipulate the use of a pseudonym), so unless you feel that

(a) using your real name might somehow harm the book’s chances with the agent of your dreams (Begrunga Nevercleansherkitchen would be a lousy name for a cookbook writer, for instance),

(b) you already have something published in a different book category under your real name and want to avoid confusion, or

(c) you don’t want to tip Interpol off to your whereabouts,

you don’t really need to stress about the pseudonym issues until later on. Give your pretty little head a rest; you wouldn’t want your eyes to look tired in your author photo.

Everybody clear on that? Excellent. Here’s a thought-provoking question from long-time reader Gordon:

I’m not sure how to word this, but I’ll try – should an author bio written by an unpublished (in any media) writer include what you call ‘promotional parts’? Meaning life connections with the novel’s subject matter. As a youngster in his seventies there have been many twists and turns in my life. Should one’s bio chronologically hit the high points or mainly focus on the ones pertinent to the novel being submitted?

You did fine on the self-expression front, Gordon. The short answer is yes, on both counts.

Well, glad to have cleared THAT up. Moving along…

I didn’t really fool you there, did I? Especially since those of you who have been following Authorbiopalooza closely undoubtedly immediately cried, “Wait, Anne dealt with this in an earlier post. Perhaps she is trying, albeit clumsily, to drive home the point that good questions from readers help to expand the range of her posts.”

Well, I like to think so; I am, after all, the Nicest Lady in the Neighborhood, and this is an extremely common writerly conundrum. Let’s tackle it directly.

The direct answer: it depends.

To be specific, which way one should fall on the choice between devoting one’s bio to a chronological account of the highlights of one’s life as, say, an obituary might tell it (sorry, but it’s the obvious analogy) vs. creating the impression that every significant event in one’s life was leading inevitably to the writing of this book and no other depends largely upon several factors, including:

a) whether there are events in one’s life that are legitimately related to the subject matter of the book in question — and if they are easy for the reader to follow without too many logical leaps.

If mentioning a particular life experience would tend to make you a more credible source, it’s usually to your advantage to include it in your bio, to differentiate yourself from any other yahoo who might just have been guessing what that particular experience was like. Expressive Q. Author visited the Statue of Liberty once, when Expressive’s protagonist passes through Ellis Island briefly in Chapter Two, is a stretch; Expressive Q. Author spent twenty years as a merchant marine, when his entire plotline takes place on a pirate ship, is not.

b) whether one has genuinely lead a life that would produce a couple of entertaining paragraphs, regardless of connection to the book.

It never hurts to sound darned interesting in your bio. However — and in practice, this is a BIG however — writers of purely chronological bios often…how shall I put this delicately…overestimate the detail in which a rushed industry type might want to hear the life story of someone she has never met.

Remember, Millicent the agency screener reads a lot of bios; keep yours snappy.

If you’re in doubt whether yours is leaning toward overkill, hand your bio to someone who doesn’t know you particularly well (having asked politely for his assistance first, of course; don’t just accost a stranger) and have him read it through twice. Buy the cooperative soul a cup of coffee, and around the time that your cup begins to seem light in your hand, ask your guinea pig to tell your life story back to you uninterrupted.

The points that he can’t reproduce without prompting are probably inherently less memorable than the ones he can recount in glowing detail. Ask yourself about the ones left out or garbled: they honestly helping you look interesting and/or credible?

c) in the lucky instance where both (a) and (b) are genuinely true, whether the wealth of interesting biographical detail threatens to render the connections to the book less memorable.

When in doubt, lean toward the directly applicable; it’s more important information for the marketing department.

Remember, the point of an author bio is not to tell your life story — that’s what post-publication interviews and memoirs are for, right? — nor to include all of the things that you would like total strangers who pick up volumes in a future bookstore to know about you. The goal in a query or submission bio is to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question. Or, in the case of nonfiction, to write the book being proposed.

Everyone clear on the relevant distinctions? Good. Let’s move on to another question. Another long-term reader, Cerredwyn, wrote in to ask,

Does an author photo need to be a head shot?

No, it doesn’t — as long as you are identifiable (“That’s she, officer. That’s the author of the book!“) and the background isn’t too busy, you can certainly use a broader shot.

In fact, as Elinor Glyn’s author photo for IT clearly demonstrates, a head-and-torso shot is perfectly acceptable, and actually a bit more common on jacket flaps than the pure headshot.

However, 1/2, 3/4, and even full standing shots are not unheard-of. John Irving’s early works tended to have particularly hunky-looking shots from the waist up, for instance.

Not that I noticed as a teenager or anything. I was reading his books for the writing and the stories, I tell you.

If you’re having trouble deciding between different ranges of shot, spend some time in a well-stocked bookstore, taking a gander at the author photos published in books in your chosen book category within the last few years. Not in every new release, mind you, but in books like yours. If you notice an overall trend in styles, you’re not going to offend anyone by submitting something similar.

Oh, and speaking of styles, unless you have written something ultra-hip or happen to be a magazine writer (whose material by definition changes constantly), it’s usually not a great idea to dress in the latest fashion for your author photo — and it’s DEFINITELY not the time to sport a hairstyle that’s not likely to be around a decade hence.

Don’t believe me? Ask any 80s author who embraced a mohawk. Or Elinor Glyn, a decade after the photo above was taken.

Remember, if your book is successful, it will be gracing shelves in private homes, libraries, and book exchanges for even longer than it will be hanging out in Barnes & Noble. A too-trendy style will date the photo. So as a general rule, adorning yourself for your photo with the expectation that the resulting photo will dog you for the rest of your natural life is a good plan.

You also might want to give some thought to how certain colors and patterns photograph — and how a checkered jacket that works beautifully in an 8 x 10 glossy might just look dusty in a 3 x 5 or 2 x 3 (both fairly common sizes for jacket photos). Generally speaking, solids work better than prints, and strong, dark colors on the body are distract less from the face. Bear in mind, too, that black, white, and red sometimes look quite different in print than in real life, and that the eye tends to zoom in on the red and the shiny.

If that’s your lip gloss, great; if it’s your belt, less great. Unless you are trying to find an agent or publisher for a book about belts, that is.

The answer to the next reader question, posed by Jaepu, could be extrapolated from the last paragraph but one, I notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a trenchant question. Let’s revisit it, just in case anyone out there was wondering:

Must the author photo be in color?

No, it may be in black and white — in fact, until fairly recently, that was the norm. However, with the rise of digital photography, color author photos have become more common. Do be aware, though, that a black-and-white photo won’t tell an agent whether you might look good in a television interview as well as a color picture would.

The more important issue is photo clarity. You’d be surprised at how many author photos are actually out of focus, presumably because the writer prefers the blurry shot to other, clearer ones. (Either that, or he moves around too quickly to be caught easily on film.)

Nor is this a time to make a funny face, even if you write humor; this is, after all, a photo intended to present you as a professional to be taken seriously. Let’s face it, even if a less-sharp image is genuinely cool, this image of trick-or-treating expert Jack O. Lantern

jekll hyde pumpkin

is simply not as effective a marketing tool as this comparatively mundane smile.

Rick's pumpkin

My apologies to those with low self-esteem, but the author bio photo actually does have to look like you. Not some idealized, air-brushed ideal version of what someone who spends hours on end frantically tapping her thoughts on a keyboard, but you.

Pop quiz: what is good about both of these photos of Jack? (Hint: it has to do with his area of expertise.)

If you immediately cried, “By jingo, he’s depicted in a context that is relevant to the subject matter of his book!” take a candy bar out of the jar. Since Jack is writing about trick-or-treating, what would be a more natural background than his Halloween locale?

In fact, he could even take it a step farther, sacrificing a bit of facial close-up range for a photo that unquestionably establishes him as someone who knows his Halloween doorsteps. As long as his face is clearly visible, a slightly farther-away shot is fine.

cat and pumpkin

Speaking of low self-esteem, a reader apparently too shy to be comfortable with self-identification asked:

I’m all excited about my next book, but I’m marketing my first. Would it be completely tacky to mention what I’m working on now in my bio? What if the books are in different genres?

It’s far from being tacky, Anonymous One; in fact, it’s downright common for a bio to end with a mention of the author’s next writing project. Try to keep it to a single sentence, however, so it does not overpower the rest of the bio.

Lincoln lives in Springfield, Illinois with his wife, eight sons, and golden retriever, Manifest Destiny. He is currently working on his second book, Hey! Where Are You Taking Half of My Country?, a comic memoir covering the Civil War years.

“Yeah, right, Anne,” I hear some of you scoff. “Stop pulling our collective legs. I’ve never seen an author bio on a book jacket that covers future work, or even unpublished work. Bios, like tombstone epitaphs, are always backward-looking, aren’t they?”

Actually, jacket bios that mentioned future projects used to be fairly standard; in the mid-70s, the last line of most dust jacket bios was some flavor of Smith lives in Connecticut, where he is working on his next novel. Gradually, this has been falling out of fashion, perhaps because it implies some faith on the publisher’s part that Smith’s current release will sell well enough that they will WANT him to bring out another. (It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that this particular last sentence fell out of fashion at approximately the same time as multi-book contracts for first-time novelists.)

However, the author bio that an aspiring writer tucks into a query or submission packet and the one that ends up on a dust jacket are not the same thing — as we discussed earlier in Authorbiopalooza, they are intended for the eyes of two different audiences, to create two different impressions. The dust jacket bio is promotional copy aimed at the reader, designed to pique interest and answer basic questions like why should I believe this guy’s NF account of life on the moon? The query or submission bio, by contrast, is designed to impress agents, editors, and their respective Millicents with the author’s claim to be an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Is there an echo in here? I could have sworn that I’ve heard that last bit somewhere before.

Because the submission bio is geared for industry-savvy eyes, mentioning completed book projects in categories other than the one to which the currently-submitted manuscript belongs (try saying THAT three times fast), as the Anonymous Questioner suggested, is a perfectly legitimate use of page space. No need to hawk the other projects; simply mention the book category within the course of a single-sentence description that describes the project as still in progress. As in:

Now nicely recovered from his contretemps with an assassin, Garfield lives in retirement, working on his next book projects, a YA baseball romance and a historical retrospective of his own brief presidency.

Why would Pres. Garfield speak of his completed YA book as a work-in-progress? Strategy, my dears, strategy: it neatly sidesteps the question why isn’t it published? Clever, eh?

Finally, reader Rose inquired:

I’m at a whole single-spaced page, no photo. I have a pro photo, recently taken, that looks great. Would it be better to reduce the bio and add the photo?

I’m querying for a novel, btw — and I’d been under the impression that you shouldn’t submit an author photo when trying to pitch one.

Contrary to the impression Rose has, by her own admission, picked up she knows not where, there is no hard-and-fast rule about whether a fiction writer’s submission bio should to include a photo. No Millicent who has found a submission engaging enough to read all the way to the last page, where the author bio lurks, is going to cast her latte aside in a petulant fit at the sight of a photo, screaming, “Oh, darn — now I have to reject it. I liked that manuscript, too.”

The reason photos are often not included in novelists’ bios is not because they’re unwelcome, but because the burden for gathering marketing materials prior to selling a novel has historically been significantly lower than for a nonfiction book. (If any of you novelists doubt this, take a gander at a book proposal sometime; its many, many pages of marketing material will make you feel much, much better about having to write only a query letter and a synopsis.)

If your photo is pretty ravishing, Rose, I say go ahead and include it. A nice photo does make the bio look a touch more professional, after all, and it’s never a bad thing for an agent or editor to think, “Hey, this author is photogenic!”

Even without the picture, though, it sounds as though Rose’s bio is a bit long for professional purposes: the norm is one DOUBLE-spaced page, or 1/2 – 2/3 page single-spaced under a photo. Yes, one does occasionally hear agents mentioning that they’ve been seeing more single-spaced full-page bios lately — but as I’ve virtually always heard this pronounced with a gnashing of teeth, I’m inclined to regard such statements as complaints, not cries of rapture.

Call me zany, but I tend to interpret moaning as an indication that the moaned-about activity is unwelcome. I’d stick to a more standard length. As with a query letter, when in doubt, err on the side of brevity. Believe me, if your bio is too short, the agent of your dreams will be only to happy to tell you so –after she signs you.

(Don’t cringe: she’s going to want you to change a lot of things after she signs you, no matter how much she initially loved your book or book proposal. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

One last thought on the subject before I sign off for the day: stick to a single page, unless you are specifically asked for something much longer or shorter. (Requests for 1- or 2-paragraph bios aren’t that uncommon.) Beyond that, try not to obsess too much about length. Concentrate instead on sounding fascinating.

Seriously, if, over the years I’ve been a book doctor and particularly over the 5+ years I’ve been answering questions online, someone had given me a nickel for every time an aspiring writer asked me whether the spacing or length of the bio — or query, or synopsis — REALLY mattered, I would have been able to build my own publishing house.

I don’t mean that I would have been able to buy one; I mean that I would have been able to construct the necessary buildings and offices entirely out of coins.

Would it surprise you to hear, then, that even after that many repetitions of the same question, my answer has never changed, no matter how much aspiring writers might have wished it to do so? Or that if I could wave my magic wand and remove all formatting requirements, I probably wouldn’t do it?

Why, I hear you gasp? Because when an author bio — or query letter, or synopsis, or manuscript — is properly formatted, the only bases for judging it have to do with the quality of the writing, the premise’s marketability, whether the professional reader likes it, and so forth.

You know, the bases upon which aspiring writers WANT to be judged.

So yes, agents really tend to hold aspiring writers to the standards of the industry, just as they hold their clients to them. (See earlier comment about one’s dream agent making demands upon one.) They don’t do this to be mean; it’s just that when someone — like, say, Millicent — spends hour after hour, day after day, month after month staring at manuscripts, she’s unlikely not to notice if one is formatted differently than the norm.

As in, for instance, an author bio that doesn’t look like the ones I showed you last time. Even if a single-spaced bio sans photograph does indeed fit onto the requisite single page, thus meeting the bare minimum standard for professionalism, it’s not going to resemble the bios Millicent’s boss is sending out with her clients’ submissions.

Or at least, it probably will not. Naturally, as with any group of human beings, some agents have individual preferences that deviate from the industry standard — the source, I suspect, of Rose’s impression of unspecified origin — and if you can find out what these quirky desires are, you should definitely adhere to them in your submissions to that particular agent. It seldom pays, however, to assume that any one such preference is universal to the industry.

My point is, as annoying as it may be to bring your bios — and queries, synopses, and manuscripts — into line with the most common professional standards is so that Millicent may ignore the formatting and concentrate on what you are SAYING. Because, after all, your aim in your submission bio is not to cram as many facts as you can onto a single page, but to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Yes, you have heard that somewhere before. See, I don’t recommend sticking to the general standards just to be mean, either.

Congratulations, campers: I don’t know whether you have noticed it, but since Labor Day, you have completed a crash course in all of the standard elements of the query and submission packet. Which, in case you are the kind who likes to track such things, makes you more knowledgeable about how to market your writing to agents than roughly 97% of the aspiring writer population.

You should be very, very proud of yourself for taking the time — let’s face it, many of these posts have been hefty — to learn how to present yourself professionally. Keep up the good work!

Authorbiopalooza VI: formatting your bio, or, make the time, Marcel

Marcel Proust

I begin with some exciting news today, campers: remember how, back in the heady days of Querypalooza, some readers just couldn’t get enough of my concrete examples? “We want more of your patented prototypes,” they clamored. “Specifically, I would like one for an imaginary book not only in my chosen book category, but so close to mine that I could just copy borrow freely use it to inform how I constructed mine. Better yet, why don’t I just send you mine, and you could deconstruct it on the blog, so I might learn how to improve it?”

Actually, those examples were copyrighted, but that’s a quibble. As those of you who followed that quite lengthy series may recall, I am no fan of boilerplate queries: I am a tireless advocate of every good aspiring writer’s constructing his own. Yet while I am always overjoyed to help readers deal with their query-writing difficulties at a theoretical level, so everyone who cares to read along might benefit, I have historically (5 years of history, anyway) been reluctant to have readers just submit their queries for public critique. When I first began blogging, Miss Snark was in her heyday, and while my critique style is certainly kinder and gentler than hers — as, I believe, was Attila the Hun’s — it seemed redundant to offer similar query evaluations here.

I did hear all of that clamoring, however. That’s why I am delighted to report that I shall be performing live query critique at the always-lively Words & Music conference, November 17-21 in New Orleans. So I invite all of you to pack up your queries in your old kit bag and join me there.

I ply my analytical and teaching skills at many a conference across this great land of ours, but Words & Music has been near and dear to my heart for many years. Run by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, the conference is more ambitious than your usual craft-and-marketing fest. Yes, there is always abundant discussion of craft and marketing, along with opportunities to meet agents and editors, but there are also wonderfully arty discussions of literature, art, and music within larger contexts — this year, the offerings include a whole sub-series entitled The Literature of War and Collateral Damage.

And did I mention that it all takes place smack dab in the middle of the French Quarter, home to some of the best food and jazz in the world? Rather than withdrawing from the surrounding community, as most conferences do, the Words & Music folks embrace it, holding literary lunches at fine local restaurants, staging poetry readings in art galleries, and even hosting concerts and film events. I always return from Words and Music feeling replete and benevolent, humming with fresh ideas from good conversations with genuinely interesting writers.

Is it quirkier than most writers’ conferences? Well, let me put it this way: Marcel Proust would have felt at home there.

All right, back to the business at hand. Ever since my last post, I could have sworn I heard the muffled cries of my readers from afar, small as the mews of freshly-born kittens. “But Anne,” these wee voices called after me, “you didn’t tell us how to format an author bio…and you ALWAYS tell us how to format things…things…echo…echo…echo…”

At least, I think that’s what they were saying; wafting ghostly voices are notoriously inarticulate. It’s also possible that they were merely reading Proust’s À La Recherche du Temps Perdu as we like to do here at Author! Author!, IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

That’s my readership: so devoted to learning the ropes of the writing and publishing biz that its members remembered that no savvy querier should send out an author bio — or, indeed, any other part of a query or submission packet — without proofing it à la Author! Author! Even with a document as short as a bio (typically in the neighborhood of 250 words, although one does sometimes receive requests for bios as short as 100 or even 50), it’s simply too easy to miss a typo or missed word when proofing on a backlit screen.

How glad I am not to have to repeat that. Let’s talk formatting — or, if we want to start from the bird’s-eye level and work our way down to Millicent the agency screener’s typical level of scrutiny, placement in the query or submission packet.

That’s an easy one: it should always come last. In a novel or memoir submission, the author bio should be placed at the end of the pages you’re submitting, regardless of whether you have been asked to send a full or a partial manuscript. Ditto with a book proposal: it should come just after the final page of the sample chapter. (If you are including clippings, they should follow the bio, but often, the author bio is the last page in the packet.)

On to formatting. The author bio should always be in the same typeface and font as the rest of the manuscript or book proposal. No exceptions, regardless of how much you like that fancy script that looks like a signature. Times New Roman or Courier are what Millicent will expect to see. (If you’re unfamiliar with the typefaces the publishing industry tends to prefer, or even that such preferences exist, you might want to consider consulting the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right with all deliberate speed.)

The bio should never be more than a single page — unless, of course, the agent of your dreams asks for something longer, in which case give it to her, for heaven’s sake. It should neither be numbered nor include a slug line.

UNLESS it is part of a book proposal, that is. If it is the last page of a proposal, the bio should contain the same slug line as the rest of the proposal, continuing its numbering.

Everyone clear on that? No? Okay, let’s take a gander at a couple of my famous concrete examples. While an author bio tucked into a query packet or attached to the end of a requested manuscript might look like this:

Proust bio funny

Obviously, this header would not be appropriate in a book proposal. Instead, it would appear thus:

Proust bio funny 2

“But Anne,” I hear some of you eagle-eyed readers pipe up in that winsome way of yours, “I couldn’t help but notice another subtle difference between these two pages. Is it me, or does the first have an author photo while the second does not?”

Ah, there’s no slipping anything past you, readers. Apart from the proposal/non-proposal slug difference, there are two acceptable formats for an author bio.

The second example above is the more common: a single page, double-spaced, in standard manuscript format. (If that last term was a mystery to you, I can only reiterate my suggestion that you visit the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right. Improperly-formatted manuscripts are far, far more likely to be rejected than ones that look professional. Trust me on that one.)

As you no doubt already noted in Proust #2, the author’s name should be centered on the top of the page. Let’s see that again with a bio that actually might serve as role model for content, shall we? (As always, if you are having trouble reading these, try holding down the COMMAND key while striking the + key to enlarge the image.)

Some literal souls (the type who would vastly prefer the non-Shakespearean translation of the title of Proust’s masterwork, no doubt) would argue that the text should be additionally decorated by either the first line of the page or the first line under the author’s name reading — wait for it — Author Bio.

Not a startlingly original title, it’s true, but you must admit that it’s descriptive.

This used to be fairly common, but I do not advise embracing this tactic, for the simple reason that a significant and apparently growing segment of the agent population now seems to prefer that their clients dispense with this little piece of self-evident labeling. Or so I surmise, from all of the agented writers I keep meeting whose agents have more or less ordered them to skip it. Most bio-writers are only too glad to omit it, as it permits an extra line of text in what is, let’s face it, a rather brief space into which to cram one’s charms.

Personally, I use the other type of bio format, the kind that includes a photo: half a page, single-spaced, with a 4×6 photograph (or a roughly similar size; perfection doesn’t matter here) centered 1 inch from the top of the page, above the text. In between the photo and the text, the author’s name appears, also centered.

I can feel some of you stressing out about the size of the photo, but relax: Millicent is not going to attack your bio with a ruler. This is one of the few situations in the publishing world where close enough really is good enough.

Thus, while Proust’s mug in the first example is a trifle on the small side by current author photo standards, it would be perfectly acceptable. So would an error in the other direction, as in this bio by the hero of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. (Hey, I’m on a French kick today.)

Admittedly, the LP’s picture is a trifle larger in this example than I would advise using — ideally, the photo should take up between a third and half of the page, and here, LP has opted to allow the visuals to extend considerably lower, as some less animated authors also choose to do. It’s a legitimate choice, certainly, but anybody out there notice the down side?

If you said, “By gum, that looks a whole lot like 157 words, rather than the 250 or so I was hoping to include on my bio,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Heck, give yourself two; they’re small.

Want to see a photo-including one that’s roughly the same length as Aunt Jane’s example above? While we’re at it, let’s assume that it’s the last page of a book proposal, so you may see the requisite slug line in action again:

Ste. Cecile author bio

A pretty great photo for establishing Cecile’s credibility to tell her particular story, isn’t it? Not a whole lot of doubt that we’ve got a virgin martyr here. Yet this picture suffers from a rather serious problem that the Little Prince’s did not — any guesses?

If you said that you couldn’t make out Cecile’s face well enough to pick her out of a crowd — or, more to the point, to be able to pick her out of a crowd at an airport in order to get her to her book signing on time — award yourself a medal. The author is easily recognizable in a good author photo, so avoid shots from thirty feet away. Your face should be clearly visible.

Cecile would be much better off with this bio, even at the expense of a little textual rearrangement to make it fit:

Ste. Cecile author bio2

The different photo shape is fine here — what’s important in this context is that the picture is recognizably Cecile. Why? Not only will this help her future agent pick her out of a police line-up recognize her when they meet at writers’ conferences, but Cecile’s future publishers are going to want to see what she looks like; photogenic authors are only slightly more common than telegenic ones.

So how do you slap that image onto your bio? The same way I did to produce these examples — and the only way, if you intend to e-mail your bio without first running the hard copy through a scanner. Get a friend with a digital camera take a picture that you like, save it to your hard disk, then use copy and paste the image into your author bio document.

If this sounds like far, far too close an intimacy with technology for you, take the photo to a copy center and ask the nice folks behind the counter to arrange a color copy so that the picture and the text are on the same page, so you may pop it into your query or submission packet. For a small fee, they will probably be delighted to produce a stack of snail mail-able hard copies for you.

At the risk of repeating myself, do NOT wait until you need an author photo to have your picture taken. Many, many aspiring writers hold off, assuming (usually wrongly) that their future publishing houses will take care of — and pay for — this detail for them. A last-minute scramble to blandish a talented friend with a camera ensues.

As a direct result, these well-meaning souls almost invariably end up unhappy with the author photos on their respective dust jackets. Or with snapshots taken from thirty feet away. In any case, the results seldom make anyone concerned, even the author, squeal with delight.

Why, the camera-shy gasp? Well, it often takes many tries to obtain a photograph that you like enough to want to see mass-produced — or one that will look good in the school photo-size viable for most book jackets. It’s a bit easier now than it was prior to digital photography, of course; now, even an amateur can afford to take 500 snapshots in an endeavor to find the perfect pose.

Yet when dear self is making the decision — and when a poor choice is going to haunt one for the rest of one’s literary life, smirking back at one from jackets, websites, the publishers’ catalogue, and, if you’re lucky, next to you at a packed signing in a major bookstore — believe me, dear self is going to want some time to equivocate.

Seriously, published authors wrestle with this one all the time. That’s one reason that you don’t always recognize your favorite authors at book signings; established authors’ photos are often a decade or more out of date. It’s not merely out of vanity, in order to appear more youthful to their readers (although I could name some names here), but because the photo-selecting process can be tedious and expensive.

Another excellent reason not to leave the construction of your author bio to the last minute, eh?

I’ve been sensing some tentative hand-raising for several paragraphs now. “Um, Anne,” some of you pipe up, “could you explain a bit more about why the reasoning about the publisher’s taking care of the photo is wrong? I always thought they just kept a bunch of professional photographers on staff to handle this sort of thing.”

Oh, honey, no: publishers that have been laying off editorial assistants who worked for the proverbial peanuts seldom have the budget to keep professional photographers on staff. In fact, few publishers ever did. Posed, studio-taken photographs used to be more common on book jackets than they are today, but even those earlier photos were usually not produced in-house. At best, a publisher in the bad old days might cough up the dosh to have a pro snap some pictures, which made perfect sense: since this photo is usually also reproduced in the publisher’s catalogue, too, they were the clear beneficiaries.

But in recent years, that practice has become rare, especially for first-time authors. So guess who usually ends up paying for the professional photos you do see?

Uh-huh.

I speak with aspiring writers all the time who are shocked — shocked! — to learn that the author is responsible for obtaining the photograph that graces the dust jacket. Now, the author’s photo is often posted on his website as well, but chances are that that the publisher is still not going to pay anyone to take a picture of you until you are very well established indeed.

Yes, you’re right: this is yet another expense that the publishing world has shifted onto writers, along with quite a bit of book promotion, website construction, and, in some cases, copyediting. Sorry. But if you get your talented friends snapping now, you might just end up with a stellar photo you love at a fraction of the cost of a professional shoot by the time you need it.

I just mention.

All of this, of course, begs the question: even that it can be expensive in terms of both time and money to come up with a photo to accompany your author bio, is it really worth your while to use format #2? As is so often the case with strategic decisions, be they literary, military, or just plain office politics, the answer is: it depends.

If you happen to be outstandingly attractive, yes, it is pretty much always going to be worth your while — and not just because Millicent is shallow. (She isn’t, typically.) These days, the marketing departments at publishing houses actually do want to know if an author is photogenic — and telegenic — if a book is expected to be a big seller.

If you tend to find potential agents and editors by accosting them at conferences and/or classes, it is worth your while to shell out for the small additional expense of producing an author bio with a photo of you on it to stuff into your post-conference submission packets. The reason for this is simple: it makes it easier for agents and editors to remember having spoken to you.

Not in a “My, but that’s an attractive writer!” sort of way, but in a “Hey, I have a distinct recollection of having had a rather pleasant conversation a month ago with that person” manner.

Please do not take the fact that a nudge to the memory is sometimes necessary as a reflection upon either your book’s market chances, the quality of your writing, or your inherent memorability as a human being. The average agent speaks to somewhere between 50 and 200 eager writers at a conference. The chances of his remembering your name in retrospect are rather low, even if you and your book are genuinely scintillating.

This can be true, perversely, even if the agent in question appeared to be foaming at the mouth with greed when you pitched your project. Post-pitch enthusiasm has a nasty habit of fading on the way back to NYC; it must have something to do with the coffee served on the flight back.

Again, sorry. Let’s get back to practicalities.

It is less important to look pretty in your author photo than to look interesting, generally speaking — and here, the standard posed, gently-smiling-under-indirect-light professional shot may actually work against you. So unless your book’s subject matter is very serious indeed, try not to make your bio picture look like a standard, posed publicity shot.

Why? For the same reason that when you flip back through your yearbook, half of the senior pictures seem more or less interchangeable: just looking nice tends not to be memorable.

You may laugh, but it is amazing how many author photos look like senior class pictures, devoid of personality. Don’t believe me? Okay, which has more character, the shot at the top of this post or Proust’s static head shot on our first example?

The moral: try to not to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Write a Book.

But unless you are writing something pretty sizzling, you might not want to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Grace a Street Corner, either, if you catch my drift. Glamour shots became kind of popular in the mid-1990s, especially for female authors, but at this point, lenses that seem to have been bedewed with Vaseline make a picture seem dated.

And yes, Virginia, you should worry about what your author photo says about you — and not just because you don’t want your dear old white-headed mother to pick up your novel years from now in Barnes & Noble, clutch her chest, and keel over, wailing over your boudoir shot, “I can’t believe my baby let someone PHOTOGRAPH her like that!”

The author photo is another opportunity to express your personality – which, lest we forget, is part of what you are selling when you pitch a book, like it or not, especially if you are marketing a memoir.

Here’s a radical idea, evidently endorsed by Saint Cecile: why not strive to make the tone of the picture match the tone of the book, or have the environment echo the subject matter? You might want to surround yourself with objects associated with your book’s topic for the photo, but avoid making the picture too busy.

You want the viewer to focus on your charming face, after all. How else is the president of your fan club going to be able to pick you up at the airport?

One of the best author photos I ever saw was of an arson investigator. Far from being airbrushed and neat, his face was barely visible: he was covered in soot, crouched in front of the ashes of a burned-down building out of which he had apparently recently crawled. Did it make him look attractive? No, unless the observer happened to be turned on by smoke stains. Did I believe instantly and absolutely that he knew his subject upside-down and backwards? You bet.

I know that pulling this all together seems daunting, but trust me, the more successful you become, the more you will bless my name for urging you to put together a killer bio, with or without photo, in advance. Once you start getting published, even articles in relatively small venues or on websites, people in the industry will start asking for your author bio and photo.

At that point, when editors are clamoring to hear your — yes, YOUR — magical words, I can absolutely guarantee that the last thing you will want to be doing is sitting hunched over your keyboard, trying to summarize your entire life in 250 words. Instead of, say, seven volumes.

Okay, not the very last thing: the very last thing you will want to be doing is scrambling through your bottom desk drawer, searching for a picture of yourself that would not make you cringe ten years hence. Keep up the good work!

Authorbiopalooza, Part II: crossing the bio bridge sooner rather than later, or, let’s face it, the impossible will take a little while

billie

My, but we’ve been spending a hefty proportion of this fall on the potential contents of the query and submission packet, have we not? First Querypalooza, then Synopsispalooza, and now Authorbiopalooza. Why, it’s almost as though I were reluctant to send the dedicated members of the Author! Author! community out into the cold, hard world of manuscript marketing unprepared.

Was that massive wind that just blew my cat sideways a collective gusty sigh from those of you not currently operating under a I-must-have-it-by-Friday deadline for an author bio? “Okay, Anne,” sighers across the English-speaking world groan, “I can understand why I would need to polish my query into professionalism, and I’m grateful for the guidance on the synopsis. But honestly, why should I take the time now to compose a bio no one has yet asked to see? I’m happy that you have a clearly-marked HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the archive list conveniently located on the bottom right-hand side of the page for me to rush to the moment I actually need to write the darned thing, but hey, I’m an exceedingly busy person. Can’t I just, you know, cross the bio bridge if and when I come to it?”

Well, I suppose that you could, sighing groaners, if you were a procrastinating sort. (Not that I believe that you are. I mean, come on — a procrastinating writer? Who has ever met one of those mythical creatures?) But believe me, your life will be substantially easier down the road if you put some thought into at least drafting a bio now.

Why? Well, think about it: if your queries and submissions are successful, it will be a matter of when you will need a bio, not if. Like a well-crafted synopsis for one’s current book project, the author bio is a document that any professional writer of book-length works for the U.S. market is simply expected to be able to produce on demand. Unless you happen to enjoy last-minute scrambling around — which you might, if you are that rara avis, the procrastinating writer — I cannot sufficiently emphasize how good an idea it is to start working on your author bio well in advance of when you will need it.

The sighing groaners are rolling their eyes now, I see. “Well, obviously, it would be nice if I had the time to construct a bio before I need it. Heck, it would have been nice if I’d had a beautifully-crafted query letter just lying around before I worked up nerve to query, or a stellar synopsis lingering on my hard drive before the agent of my dreams asked to see it. But since brownies are apparently not in the habit of dropping by my writing space in the dead of night to provide me with book marketing material, I guess I shall have to — wait for it — cross that bridge when I come to it.”

You’re more than welcome to do as you please, of course, but I would be remiss if I did not reiterate something already familiar to those of you who read your way through yesterday’s long-but-I-hope-entertainingly-persuasive post already know, the necessity of writing an author bio is often sprung upon an aspiring writer our of proverbially clear blue sky. Not in a delightful, playful, hands-over-the-eyes way, but in brusque, business-like manner.

“You’ll have it to me in the morning, right?” requesting agents, editors, and the fine folks who organize literary contests are prone to say. “Or you can just e-mail it to me right now, if you like.”

Some writers never get the resulting lump out of their throats again.

Those of us who have been at the writing game for a while have learned not to voice dismay at this kind of request. Surviving in the ultra-competitive literary environment is just easier for be an upbeat, can-do kind of writer, the sort who says, “Rewrite WAR AND PEACE by Saturday? No problem!” than the kind who moans and groans over each unreasonable deadline. Or reasonable one, for that matter.

It’s all a matter of mindset — and time management. The energy that you expend in complaining about an outrageous request could be put to good use in trying to meet that deadline, after all. If one thinks about energy expenditure over the course of an entire writing career, it’s clearly more efficient — and substantially less time-consuming overall — to plan ahead, rather than wait until the deadline is already imminent.

In a business where it’s routine for the deadline the writer thought was months away to get moved to next Thursday, as well as for next Thursday’s deadline to shift without warning to the end of November (“But you wouldn’t mind redoing Chapter 6, would you?”), it’s far, far more efficient to start, at least, composing anything that you know you’ll have to submit eventually. Believe me, you’ll want the time that you had planned to spend pulling a panicked all-nighter for other things.

For revising Chapter 6, for instance. Possibly in a panicked all-nighter.

Hey, tight deadlines are just a fact of a working writer’s life. The most annoying part, typically, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be in your best interest to squander energy in resenting it. Trust me, the agent of your dreams will want you to embrace the axiom the late great Billie Holiday so often sang:

The difficult
I’ll do right now.
The impossible
will take a little while.

Will it vitiate my moral too much if I add that the name of the song was “Crazy, He Calls Me”? Or will you simply assume that Billie must have spent a lot of time hanging out at my agency?

Seriously, though, writing a compelling author bio is not something that most writers can toss off in an afternoon, especially if they haven’t thought about it before — or if, as we discussed last time, they aren’t altogether sure what in their respective backgrounds would be of interest to an agent, editor, or even the general reading public. Which is why, if memory serves, I spent yesterday encouraging you to put together an author bio for yourself as soon as possible, against the day that you might need to produce one, immediately and apparently effortlessly, in response to a request from an agent or editor.

And a good two-thirds of you groaned audibly. Don’t think I didn’t hear you.

I know, I know: we writers are expected to produce a lot on spec; it would be nice, especially for a fiction writer, to be able to wait to write something affiliated with one’s first book after an advance was already cooling its little green heels in one’s bank account. But, again, when that happy day comes, you may not have the time. At that point, you’ll be asked to write more for your publisher’s marketing department, a whole lot more –heck, if you’re a nonfiction writer, you’ll be asked write the rest of the book you proposed — so you’ll be ecstatic to have even one task already checked off the list.

And yes, I am going to say it again: it would behoove you to get the bio out of the way now.

Even if juggling the demands of your publishers’ many departments seems impossibly far away to you, think of bio-writing as another tool added to your writer’s toolkit. Not only the bio itself, although it’s certainly delightful to have one on hand when the time comes, but the highly specialized skills involved in writing one.

You’d be surprised at how often just knowing in your heart that you already have the skills to write this kind of professional document can be marvelously comforting. Every time I have a tight deadline, I am deeply, passionately grateful that I have enough experience with the trade to be able crank out the requisite marketing materials with the speed of a high school junior BSing on her English Literature midterm. It’s definitely a learned skill, acquired through having produced a whole lot of promotional materials for my work (and my clients’) over the last decade or so.

Frankly, at this point, I can make it sound as if all of human history had been leading exclusively and inevitably to my acquiring the knowledge, background, and research materials for me to write the project in question. Any project. The Code of Hammurabi, you will be pleased to know, was written partially with my book in mind.

Which book, you ask, since I have several in progress? Well, which one would you like to acquire for your publishing house, Mr. or Ms. Editor?

Another reason to start penning the thing well in advance of when you need it (and had I mentioned that you absolutely will need it, if your writing career is even moderately successful) is that it will give you time to experiment with how you would like to present yourself to the literary world — and to your future fans. And I’m not merely talking about the many, many tries it takes most of us to come up with an author photo we like enough to want to see on a dust jacket.

Oh, didn’t you know that you should be starting to work on that, too? Publishing houses almost never pay for photo sessions for first-time authors anymore; in the age of digital photography, it’s not at all unusual for a friend’s snapshot to end up on a book cover. Do you honestly want to bet that your best friend who has been dabbling in photography for the past couple of years is going to catch the real you on the first try?

But the author photo is not the only part of the author bio page (yes, many do include photos; we’ll be getting to that in a couple of days) that shows readers who you are — or, more important at the querying and submission stage, shows your future agent or editor what you’re like. And I’m not just talking about the startling revelation that you are an amateur pigeon-racer, either.

I’m talking about you as a writer. As those of you who have been following the pageant of ‘Paloozas will probably not be entirely astonished to hear, your author bio, like any other promotional material for a book, is a writing sample. The bio is also a creative writing opportunity. Not an invitation to lie, of course, but a chance to show what a fine storyteller you are.

This is true in spades for nonfiction book proposals, by the way, where the proposer is expected to use her writing skills to paint a picture of what does not yet exist, in order to call it into being. Contrary to popular opinion (including, I was surprised to learn recently, my agent’s — I seem to be talking about him a lot today, don’t I? — but I may have misunderstood him), the formula for a nonfiction proposal is not

good idea + platform = marketable proposal

regardless of the quality of the writing, or even the ever-popular recipe

Take one (1) good idea and combine with platform; stir until well blended. Add one talented writer (interchangeable; you can pick ‘em up cheaply anywhere) and stir.

Well might you snort in disbelief. Just as which justice authors a Supreme Court decision affects how a ruling is passed down to posterity, the authorship of a good book proposal matters. Or should, because unlike novels, which are marketed only when already written (unless it’s part of a multi-book deal), nonfiction books exist only in the mind of the author until they are written.

That’s why it’s called a proposal, and that’s why it includes an annotated table of contents: it is giving a picture of the book that already exists in the author’s mind.

For those of you who don’t already know, book proposals — the good ones, anyway — are written as if the book being proposed were already written; synopses, even for novels, are written in the present tense. It is your time to depict the book you want to write as you envision it in your fondest dreams.

Since what the senior President Bush used to call the vision thing is thus awfully important to any book, particularly a nonfiction one, the author bio that introduces the writer to the agents and editors who might buy the book is equally important. Why? Well, think about it: the author bio is the stand-in for the face-to-face interview for the job you would like a publisher to hire you to do: write a book for them.

The less of your writing they have in front of them when they are making that hiring decision — which, again, is usually an entire book in the case of a novel, but only a proposal and a sample chapter for nonfiction, even for memoir — the more they have to rely upon each and every sentence that’s there, obviously. Do you really want the words that describe your background to be ones that you wrote in 45 minutes in the dead of night so you could get your submission into the mail before you had to be at work in the morning?

Let me answer that one for you: no, you don’t. In fact, the very notion should make you break out in a cold sweat.

Are you chomping at the bit to get at your own author bio yet? Good. Then you are in the perfect mindset for your homework assignment: start thinking about all of the reasons you — yes, you — are far more interesting than anyone else on the planet.

I’m not talking about boasting, mind you; I’m talking about uniqueness. To put it another way, what makes you different from anyone else who might have written the book you are trying to sell?

And your mind went directly to writing credentials, didn’t it, even after yesterday’s lecture on the subject? Yet another reason that writing a compelling author bio usually takes a while: it’s not always self-evident to the writer what will or will not be memorable in a bio.

So don’t think about that for the moment. Just make a brief list of the most interesting things about yourself without worrying about how, or even whether, these things have any direct connection to the subject matter of the book you’re writing or don’t sound like very impressive credentials. Just get ready to tell me — and the world! — how precisely you are different from everybody else currently scurrying across the face of the planet.

Don’t tell me that you’re not. I shan’t believe it.

“Aw,” the former sighers and groaners say bashfully, scuffing their shoes on the floor, “you’re just saying that to give me confidence. What makes you so sure that I’m so gosh-darned interesting?”

Actually, I can answer that one right off the top of my head, scuffers: I know, as surely as if I could stand next to one or more of the muses and take an in-depth reading of each and every one of your psyches, that there is no one out there more truly interesting than someone who has devoted her or his life to the pursuit of self-expression. I’ve met writers I didn’t like, certainly, but I’ve never met a genuinely boring one.

Which is saying something, as I’ve certainly met plenty of writers more than eager to talk at length about book projects that made me long for the sweet embrace of sleep. If not death. But as people, even the ones with stultifying plotlines tend to be pretty interesting.

Let me guess, though: you think that you’re the exception. “But Anne, I’ve always heard that agents just laugh at non-writing credentials in a query letter or bio. People say that if you don’t have articles or an MFA, you should just shut up.”

That gust of wind you just heard was I sighing this time. As long-time Author! Author! devotées are no doubt already aware, I have mixed feelings about the utility of much of the traditional old chestnuts. I often advise all of you dear folks to take the usual old writing truisms with a massive grain of salt.

Write what you know, for instance, has been radically over-used, and not always to good effect. All too often, it’s been used as a battering ram to deprecate the genuinely original and exciting work of science fiction and fantasy writers, for instance. “Stop being all imaginative,” WWYK-mongers have historically snarled at those who have eschewed slice-of-life storylines. “Stick to what actually happened; it won’t be plausible otherwise.”

Don’t you just hate it when someone uses imaginative as an insult? In some genres, it’s one of the highest compliments a writer can get on her work.

As a freelance editor, I see a heck of a lot of manuscripts in any given year, and I hate to tell you this, WWYK-huggers, but being lifted from real life most emphatically does NOT render something plausible on the page. Or even enjoyable. And who said that holding the mirror, as ’twere, up to nature was the only way to produce good writing, anyway?

Well, perhaps most famously, the renowned editor Maxwell Perkins, for one. I imagine that many of you who have spent much time in writing classes have already been bored by the oft-repeated story of how Perkins browbeat poor Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings into abandoning her first love — historical romance, if memory serves — to delve deep into real life and produce THE YEARLING, so I’ll spare you.

And yes, I’ll grant you, THE YEARLING is a very good book; it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and I’m quite fond of it. Rawlings was an exceptionally talented writer, by virtually everyone’s admission.

So why is it that one NEVER hears this particular write-what-you-know story told as though Rawlings were a talented enough writer to genre-jump, or as evidence that even the greatest editors harbor personal tastes that may or may not have anything to do with the actual demands of the marketplace? Or that although the real-life story was about a girl, both she and Perkins thought the book would sell better if it were about a boy?

Literally every time I have ever heard a writing teacher share this anecdote, it’s always been told with sense a smug satisfaction that Rawlings hadn’t managed to gain literary recognition until she stopped fighting her editor. She approached editorial critique with a can-do attitude, you see. The impossible will take a little while.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to rewrite history so THE YEARLING was never written. But aren’t you just a bit curious about what might have happened if Rawlings had bumped into an editor who actually liked historical romance?

Instead of one who rolled his eyes over her manuscripts and sighed, “”Stop being so imaginative, Marjorie.”

Why do I bring this up today — other than the obvious reason that the overuse of write what you know is, as you may perhaps have noticed, a pet peeve of mine? Because the author bio is one instance where Perkins’ advice to Rawlings is indeed quite applicable: in an author bio, you should absolutely write what you know — and only what you know — rather than trying to inflate your background into something it is not.

Didn’t see that conclusion coming after all that build-up, did you?

Before I get too carried away on the vital importance of sticking to the truth in your bio, let’s define what we’re talking about: an author bio is an entertaining overview of the author’s background, an approximately 200-250 word description of your writing credentials, relevant experience, and educational attainments, designed to make you sound like a person whose work would be fascinating to read.

Go back and re-read that last bit, because it will prevent your making the single biggest mistake to which first time bio-writers fall prey: if your bio does not make you sound interesting, it is not a success. Period.

Aren’t you glad that I asked you to come up with a list of all the ways that you are fascinating before I mentioned that last little tidbit? I thought it might make you feel better at this juncture.

While you are going to want to hit many of the points you brainstormed during Querypalooza (if you don’t have a list of your book’s selling points handy, please see the category at right that I have named, with startling originality, YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS), you will also want to include some of your personal quirks and background oddities, especially if they are relevant to the book.

I can hear the wheels of your brains turning, reeling at the possibilities. While they do, let me get the logistics out of the way. An author bio should:

(1) be written the third person, not the first.

(2) Open with whatever fact on your fascination list is most relevant to the book at hand, not with the extremely old-fashioned The author was born…

(3) Mention any past publications (in general terms), columns, lecturing experience, readings, as well as what you were doing for a living at the time that you wrote the book.

(4) Bring up any and all educational background (relevant to the book’s subject matter or not), as well as any awards you may have won (ditto). But naturally, if your last book won the Pulitzer Prize, for instance, this would be the place to mention it. (I’m looking at you, Marjorie.)

(5) If the most interesting thing about you is not even remotely relevant to the book, consider mentioning it anyway. You want to be memorable, don’t you?

(6) Bios are virtually always single-page documents. Don’t make it longer unless an agent, editor, or contest guidelines ask you to do so.

#6, at least, should sound bit familiar. In case it doesn’t (and so I don’t get an avalanche of comments from readers worried that their bios are 15 words too long), what we’re talking about here is 2-3 paragraphs, a 1/3 – 1/2 page (single-spaced) or 2/3 – 1 full page (double-spaced) in 12-pt. type, Times, Times New Roman or Courier, with 1-inch margins.

I sense some restlessness out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some conscientious rule-followers murmur, “haven’t you misspoken here? I could have sworn that you just said that the bio could be single-spaced — but that’s absurd, because you’re always telling us that everything that passes under professional eyes MUST be double-spaced with standard margins.”

Well-caught, rules lawyers: this is indeed the rare exception to the general axiom. Stand back, and I’ll shout it: unlike positively everything else you will ever produce for passing under an agent or editor’s beady eyes, it is sometimes acceptable to single-space an author bio. Generally speaking, though, bios are only single-spaced when the author bio page contains a photograph of the author.

“Wait!” the camera-shy shout. “Does that when mean I could dispense with the photo altogether?”

Why, yes, now that you mention it: unless an agent, editor, or contest rules specifically request a photo, a bio doesn’t necessarily need one. A query bio seldom does, but as always, check submission guidelines carefully: the expectations vary from agency to agency.

You also might want to check out the bios of first-time authors in your book category. Like pretty much everything else in a query or submission packet, the tone and parameters of what is and isn’t acceptable content in an author bio vary by book category.

So before you launch into writing your own bio, you might want to slouch your way into a bookstore on your day off and start pulling books of the shelves in the area where you hope one day to see your book sitting. Many of my clients find this helpful, as it assists them in remembering that the author bio is, like a jacket blurb, a sales tool, not just a straightforward list of facts.

Don’t just look at recent releases in general; be category-specific. Find books like yours. If you write tragic romances, read a few dozen bio blurbs in tragic novels already on the market. If you write cyberpunk, see what those authors are saying about themselves, and so forth. Is there a pattern?

In good bios, there tends to be: the tone of the author bio echoes the tone of the book. This is a clever move, as it helps the potential book buyer (and, in the author bio, the potential agent and/or editor) assess whether this is a writer in whose company she wants to spend hours of her life.

For two fabulous examples of such matching, check out ENSLAVED BY DUCKS and FOWL WEATHER author Bob Tarte’s bio, as well as Author! Author! guest blogger and comic genius Jonathan Selwood’s. Both of these writers do an amazing job of not only giving a genuine taste of the (wildly different) senses of humor inherent to their books, but making themselves sound like no one else on the face of the earth.

Yet if you read their bios closely, apparently, the Code of Hammurabi itself was written as a precursor to their bringing their respective works to the reading world. Now that’s a great author bio.

Why? Because it’s a terrific way to establish a credible platform without hitting the reader over the head with one’s credentials — yet, true to the bio-writing author’s brief, it presents the author as he actually is: interesting. REALLY interesting.

Don’t believe me? Think a stodgy list of credentials might have done it better? Take another gander at Bob Tarte’s. His animal-related background is genuinely impressive and might well look good just listed, but doesn’t this:

Bob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell…Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, rabbits, doves, cats, hens, and one turkey.

make you more likely to pick up his books than a simple, straightforward list of past publications?

Clever authors often tailor their bios to the book being promoted — because, let’s face it, the personality traits and background that might help a writer push a dead-serious political book would probably not be all that useful if the same writer was trying to sell chick lit. Fortunately, most of us creative types are pretty darned complex people; few writers have so few quirks in their backgrounds that they cannot afford to pick and choose the bits most appropriate to the book being promoted.

Are you not believing me AGAIN? Okay, you asked for it — here’s the opening to the bio Jonathan Selwood posted on his website to promote his serious comic novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE, a story of pop art, dinosaur bone theft, and partying with billionaires punctuated by a massive earthquake, LA style:

I was born in Hollywood, California. In other words, the first time I played doctor as a kid was on a neighbor’s circular fur-covered waterbed with a mirror on the ceiling. The girl’s parents and two younger siblings were busy out by the pool hosting a nude cocaine party.

Not a traditional author bio, admittedly — but do you believe that Mssr. Selwood might have just a bit of insight into the partying habits of that part of the world? Absolutely.

And that’s one of the reasons that I really like these two authors’ bios: they have not — and this is unusual for an author bio — leaned on their formal credentials too heavily. In fact, I happen to know (my spies are everywhere, after all) that one of these gentlemen holds an MFA from a rather prestigious writing program, but you’d never know it from his bio.

And no, I’m not going to tell you which it is.

Why might he have left that juicy tidbit out of his bio? Well, this is just a hunch on my part — my spies may be everywhere, but they’re not mind-readers — but I would imagine it’s because he’s a savvy marketer: mentions of Ivy League MFAs generally conjure heavily introspective books of exquisitely-crafted literary short stories about tiny, tiny slices of life in the suburban world. Such exquisite little gems are known in the biz as “MFA stories,” a term that is often spoken with a slight, Elvis-like curl of the lip. Since they tend not to sell very well, they have as many detractors in the industry as enthusiasts.

So I would imagine that he left off that genuinely impressive credential so he wouldn’t send the wrong signal about the book he is trying to sell NOW. Because an author bio is, ultimately, not a cold, impersonal Who’s Who blurb, designed merely to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, but a piece of marketing material. If it doesn’t help sell the book, it’s just book flap decoration.

Next time, I shall talk a bit about what makes a less-effective bio, well, less effective, and then delve further into the mechanics of constructing your own. Because like so many other things worth doing, writing a good author bio isn’t something that should be done at the very last minute — or the very last hour.

Like the impossible, it will take a little while. Keep up the good work!

Just when you thought we were ‘Paloozaed-out, here comes Authorbiopalooza!

tickertape parade

Okay, so maybe the masses aren’t rejoicing to quite this extent. But back in the heady days of Querypalooza, a number of you fine people asked for a similar fiesta devoted to preparing for that usually unexpected request, the author bio. And since many, many more of you did not raise violent objection when I suggested I might take a run at it this fall, it’s been on my agenda.

Actually, I’ve moved it up on my agenda — and not only because my annual quick perusal of a few hundred agency websites (oh, you thought I didn’t check how submission guidelines change between my yearly querying series?) revealed that a higher percentage of query packets are expected to contain something bio-like than in times past. I had intended to devote an intervening week or so to close textual analysis of more winners in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest — I haven’t forgotten about you, third-placers! — now that we’ve had a few refreshing, synopsis-filled weeks to catch our breath and get excited about craft issues again. However, that’s the kind of post that requires an upbeat attitude to write well, and since I had yet another crash-related health setback this week, I probably won’t be my trademarked chipper self for another week or so.

Don’t ask. Just pile up more pillows on the bed and hope for the best.

But enough about me; let’s talk about you. Specifically, about how you’re going to portray yourself in your author bio.

And half of you just tensed up, worried that you might not have enough professional credentials to render you interesting to an agent or editor, didn’t you? I recognize the symptoms: the same proportion of my readership drew in its collective breath sharply when I first broached the issue of composing the credentials paragraph for your query letters.

Back then, the whimpering ran a little something like this: “But Anne, this is my first book! I don’t come from a magazine or newspaper background, so I don’t have previous publications to cite. Therefore, nothing I could possibly say about myself has any potential whatsoever for impressing Millicent the agency screener. Hadn’t I better just avoid saying anything autobiographical at all?”

The short answer is no. The long answer is NOOOOOOOOO. Why? Well, in the first place, it’s a myth that the only personal information worth noting in a query letter or author bio is previous publications. They help, obviously, but they certainly aren’t the only things a potential agent or editor might want to know about you.

It’s actually kind of surprising how pervasive that myth is, given the glaring logical fallacy it contains. Think about it: for it to be true, all agents would have to (a) prefer previously-published authors to the exclusion of all others, (b) not understand that even bestselling authors must at some point have to produce a first book, and/or (c) be unaware that writers occasionally draw upon life experience to construct their narratives. Obviously, selling memoir would be more or less impossible if (c) were true — and as any of you who have read an interview with an established author recently, disregarding life experience would render many novels harder to market as well.

But let’s zero in on the core of the concern: agencies that harbor the (a) prejudice will come right out and say prefers to represent previously published writers or obtains most clients through recommendations from others in their agency guide listings and websites; if neither states that up front, it’s safe to assume that while writing credentials might help your query get through the door, they’re not required for admission.

Why? Because even bestselling authors must at some point have to produce a first book, silly. (You might have seen that one coming, after (b), right?) While first books typically make up only about 4% of the literary market in any given year — yes, really — in the current tight market, it can actually be easier for an agent to sell an editor on a new writer with an exciting (read: easy-to-publicize) bio than on an author whose first two books did not sell well.

So it would be financially misguided for an agency that did not adhere to (a) to instruct its Millicents to rule out any query or bio that did not list past publications. Yes, even for fiction. Platform matters these days, of course — in the current tight book market, any selling point is bound to help — but contrary to popular believe among aspiring writers, platform need not consist solely of previous publications and/or celebrity in a non-writing field.

Even a cursory peek at the dust jackets of any randomly-selected group of new releases will demonstrate otherwise. Dust jacket bios virtually always contain non-publication information, for the exceedingly simple reason that it might interest a potential reader in the person who wrote the book.

Which is, incidentally, one of the reasons agency guidelines ask aspiring writers to include biographical info in their queries and/or a bio in their query or submission packets. Not only are they curious about what you’re like — they want to know if there’s anything in your background that would make a publishing house’s marketing department swoon with joy.

“Hey!” the marketers shout, linking arms to engage in raucous dancing. “This new writer is going to be a terrific interview on a subject other than his book! How often does that happen?”

Still not convinced that it might be in your best interests to make yourself sound like an interesting person, one who perhaps has at some point in the course of a lifetime done something other than sit hunched in front of a computer, typing feverishly? Okay, I’ll pull out the big gun, argumentatively speaking: (d) for non-publication credentials not to matter, agents whose submission guidelines or requested materials letters ask for biographical information couldn’t possibly mean their requests.

Which would be a trifle strange, considering how many query guidelines include tell us something about yourself or similar verbiage. And it would render all of those requests for query or submission packets to include an author bio downright bizarre.

That being the case, why would a savvy querier or submitter even consider not providing them with this information?

Does this sound vaguely familiar to those of you who followed Querypalooza and/or Synopsispalooza? It should: for the last — yow, has it been a month and a half already? — I’ve been concentrating upon query packets, submission packets, and the things that go in them. Throughout that worthy endeavor, I have mentioned early and often that the guiding principle of constructing a query packet, submission packet, or contest entry is give them precisely what they ask to see.

No more, no less. If an agency’s submission guidelines say to query with a synopsis, the first five pages, and an author bio, that’s precisely what the savvy querier’s envelope should contain, along with a SASE. By the same token, if an agent responds to a query with a request for the first 50 pages, the submission packet should contain a cover letter, the title page, 50 pages of text, and a SASE large and stamp-laden enough to get the whole shebang back to you.

That’s it. No home-baked cookies, even if you’re marketing a cookbook; no synopses for the other five manuscripts lying dormant in your desk drawer, and certainly no page 51. Remember, part of what you’re demonstrating in a query or submission packet is that you are that surprisingly rare aspiring writer capable of and willing to follow directions to the letter.

Thus, as a clever between-the-lines reader might have already figured out, if an agency’s guidelines specify that they want to see a bio paragraph in your query or an author bio in your query or submission packet, it would behoove you to put ‘em there. Ditto if a request for pages asks for a bio.

All that being said, my next piece of advice may come as a bit of a surprise: I always advise aspiring writers to include an author bio with requested pages in a submission packet. I’m not talking about that 5-page writing sample some agents ask to see, naturally, but even if an agent asks to see even as little as 50 pages or a chapter, consider tucking your bio at the bottom of the stack.

Oh, if you could see your faces; did Frankenstein’s monster just walk into the room? “But Anne,” you shriek in horror, ducking swiftly behind the nearest large piece of furniture, “that might look as though I (pause here for hyperventilation) were disregarding the submission guidelines! Why in heaven’s name would I take a risk like that?”

Good question, panicky ones. Try breathing into a paper bag while I answer it.

Quite simply, it’s such a common professional practice that it’s unlikely to raise any eyebrows. When an agent circulates a novel to editors, it’s generally with an author bio as the bottom page in the stack; it’s also the last page of a book proposal. So including it in a full manuscript submission tends to come across as professional, rather than an amateur’s attempt to slip additional information in under the wire.

Just between us, though: if some additional information might slip under the wire this way, is that such a bad thing?

Before those of you who currently have requested materials floating around agencies or small publishing houses begin to freak out, I hasten to add: including an author bio in a submission packet is most emphatically not required. Unless, of course, the agent or editor in question has asked to see one.

Increasingly, though, they are asking — even at the querying stage, which would have been unheard-of just a few years ago. Now, agents routinely request author bios with submissions, especially for nonfiction, agents will often want to know up front who this writer is, what s/he does for a living, and what else s/he’s writing.

That set some of you hyperventilating again, didn’t it? Relax — you can do this.

Soothingly, author bios are one of the few marketing materials in the writer’s promotional kit that tends not change much throughout the agent-finding-through-publication process. Nor, even more comforting, have the basics of writing one changed much in the last 30 years.

Refreshing, eh? Don’t go sinking into that lavender-scented bath too quickly, though, because twos things about the author bio have changed in recent years. First, the author is now expected to write it, rather than the publisher’s marketing department. (Although they may well tweak it.) Second, the author needs to provide it increasingly early in the publication process.

How early, you ask? Well, I don’t want to disturb your plans for the weekend, but do you have time to start work on yours right now?

Come out from behind that large piece of furniture; the monster can see you perfectly well back there. Procrastinating about this particular professional obligation won’t make it go away.

Besides, you knew this day was coming — or that it would once you successfully sold a book, right? Although agents and editors are asking for author bios earlier in the process than in days of yore, it can hardly come as a surprise that you’d have to come up with one eventually. Any of you who has ever read a hardcover book with a dust jacket must have at least suspected that your bio was somehow relevant to the process, right?

I sense some glancing at the clock out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” those of you on your way out the door to mail requested materials whimper, “I’m aware that I’m going to need to construct one sometime, but need it be this very second? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until, say, somebody in authority actually asks to see it?”

Well, to be quite honest with you, you could get away with doing just that. It wouldn’t be the wisest course, however.

Why? Well, writing an eye-catching author bio isn’t easy; just as it’s much less stress-inducing for an aspiring writer to cobble together a synopsis almost anytime other than immediately after an agent or editor has asked her to produce one, tossing together an author bio when you’re frantically trying to proofread your novel at 3 AM and figure out how much postage to slap on your SASE for its safe return is quite a bit more challenging than, say, devoting a free afternoon to the task three months before you’re planning to query at all.

I just mention. The results also tend to be — if not better, than at least of a quality that would not make the writer cringe should a shortened version ever turn up on a dust jacket to linger there until the end of recorded time. (Or longer, perhaps: most of the end-of-the-world scenarios I’ve seen have paper and cockroaches as the happiest survivors of nuclear activity.)

Seventeen dozen hands just shot up in the air, despite the potential for attracting roving monsters’ attention. “Shortened version?” the confused shout in unison. “Wait, isn’t the author bio identical to that 50-word paragraph I’ve been seeing for years inside the back flap of book covers, a belief apparently corroborated by your crack above about how we all should have expected to have to write one eventually?”

Touché on that last point, and it’s a good question in general: many, if not most, aspiring writers simply assume that what they see in print is precisely what the publishing industry expects to receive. But just as a professionally-formatted manuscript does not resemble a published book in many respects — and if that’s news to you, hang on: there’s a Formatpalooza in our collective future — the kind of author bio appropriate to the query or submission stage differs fairly significantly from the kind found on dust jackets.

For one thing, it’s longer. The standard in the neighborhood of 250 words — or, to put it in visual terms, one double-spaced page or just over half a single-spaced page with an author photo at the top. (And yes, Virginia, I shall be inundating you with concrete examples of both later in this series. How can you even doubt?)

“Um, Anne?” the time-pressed pipe up again. “That sounds as though you’re about to ask me to rattle off my selling points as an author, and, as we discussed back in Querypalooza, I don’t feel that my credentials are all that impressive. Besides, it’s awfully difficult many of us to carve out time in our schedules to write, much less to market our work to agents. I’m in the middle of my tenth revision of Chapter 3, and I’m trying to get a dozen queries in the mail before Thanksgiving. I also have a life. May I be excused, please, from dropping all that in order to sit down and compose something I only might need if one of those agents asks to see the book — and asks to see a bio?”

Well, first off, clock-watchers, congratulations for having the foresight to send off a flotilla of queries well before the onset of the holiday season. As long-term readers of this blog are already aware (I hope, given how frequently I mention it), the publishing industry slows W-A-Y down between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Best to get your query letters in before the proverbial Christmas rush, I always say. Because, really, if you don’t, you’re probably going to want to hold off on sending the next batch until after the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday.

Yes, in response to all of those shouted mental questions from those of you who do not happen to be U.S. citizens: I do mean after January 27th, 2011.

Why wait so long, you howl in frustration? Several reasons. First, as we discussed before, during, and after the traditional mid-August-through-Labor-Day publishing vacation period, Millicent’s desk is going to be piled pretty high with envelopes when she returns after her winter holidays. Place yourself in her snow boots for a moment: if you were the one going through all of that backlog of unopened queries, would you be more eager to reject any given one, or less?

I’m going to leave the answer to that between you and your conscience.

Second, in the US, agencies are required by law to produce tax documents for their clients by the end of January, documenting the royalties of the previous year. Yes, everyone knows it’s coming, but common sense will tell you that the vast majority of the inmates of agencies were English majors.

Have you ever watched an English major try to pull together his tax information?

Third — and to my mind, the best reason by far — do you really want your query (or submission) to get lost amongst similar documents from every unpublished writer in North America who made the not-uncommon New Year’s resolution, “By gum, I’m going to send out 20 queries a month, beginning January 1!”

Fortunately for Millicent’s sanity, the average New Year’s resolution lasts a grand total of three weeks, so her February is not nearly so hectic as her January. But for those resolution-fueled few weeks, she’s not likely to be an exceptionally good mood, if you catch my drift.

All that being said (and I had a surprising amount to say on the subject, didn’t I, considering that the foregoing could have been summarized quite adequately as, “Start getting those queries out now!”), I would encourage all of you who are at the querying stage of your careers to set aside anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days to sit down and hammer out a great author bio for yourself. Ideally, sometime really, really soon, even if you are not planning to query an agency that asks for a bio up front.

Again, how does now sound?

Why I am I pressing you on this? For some very, very practical reasons: often, the request for a bio comes when your mind is focused upon other things, like doing a lightning-fast revision on your book proposal so you can send it to that nice editor who listened so attentively to your pitch at a conference or just before you start dancing around your living room in your underwear because your before-bed e-mail check revealed a response to a query.

Agents and editors tend to toss it out casually, as if it’s an afterthought: “Oh, and send me a bio.” The informality of the request can be a bit misleading, however: the one-page author bio is actually a very important tool in your marketing kit.

Yes, yes, I know: over the years — and frequently throughout the course of Query- and Synopsispalooza — I have told you that many, many things were important tools in your marketing kit. Your synopsis, for instance. Your query letter. Your pitch. Your first 50 pages. Your first page.

And you know something? I wasn’t lying to you any of those times. They’re all important.

So just how important is the author bio, you ask, cynicism hardening your comely eyes? Well, it’s not unheard-of for editors, in particular, to decide to pass on the book they’re being offered, but ask the agent to see other work by the author, if the bio is intriguing enough.

Yes, really: it’s happened more than once. Heck, it’s happened to me more than once.

Admittedly, my background is pretty unusual (and detailed, conveniently enough, in my bio, if you’re interested). My cult of personality aside, a general axiom may be derived from the fact that attracting interest in this manner has happened to any writer, ever: it is not a tremendously good idea just to throw a few autobiographical paragraphs together in the last few minutes before a requested manuscript, proposal, or synopsis heads out the door.

Which is precisely what most aspiring writers facing a bio request do. In the extra minute and a half they have left between devoting 20 minutes to dashing off a synopsis and when the post office door locks for the night.

Big, big mistake: if the bio reads as dull, disorganized, or unprofessional, agents and editors may leap to the unwarranted conclusion that the manuscript — or, heaven help us, the writer — also dull, disorganized, and/or unprofessional. After all, they are likely to reason, the author’s life is the material that she should know best; if she can’t write about that lucidly, how can she write well about anything else?

That made you dive behind the sofa again, didn’t it? Sad but true, Millicent and her ilk have to draw conclusions based solely upon the evidence on paper in front of them. If only a writer had any control over how they might perceive her personally…

Oh, wait, she does: she can write her bio so she comes across as fascinating.

A good bio is especially important if you write any flavor of nonfiction, because the bio is where you establish your platform in its most tightly-summarized form. That’s important, because — chant it with me now, long-time readers – “What’s your platform?” is practically the first thing any agent or editor will ask a NF writer.

Think about it: your platform consists of the background that renders you — yes, YOU — the best person on earth to write the book you are pitching. This background can include, but is not limited to, educational credentials, relevant work experience, awards, and significant research time.

You know, the stuff we discussed at length when you were thinking about the credentials paragraph of your query letter. For a NF writer, the author bio is a compressed résumé, with a twist: unlike the cold, linear presentation of the résumé format, the author bio must also demonstrate that the author can put together an array of facts in a readable, compelling fashion.

“Hey, Anne,” some of you ask suspiciously, clutching your paper bags and keeping an eye out for any monsters who might be about to jump out at you, “why was that last bit in boldface? I’m a novelist, so I was preparing to zone out on that bit about platform, but the amount of ink in the type makes me wonder if I should be internalizing a lesson here.”

Well reasoned, paranoid novelists: just as the author bio is an alternate venue for the NF writer to demonstrate his platform, the bio provides Millicent similar information about a novelist.

Aren’t those of you fiction writers tempted to cling to the old-fashioned notion that you’re exempt from this daunting challenge glad that you already had your hyperventilation bags in hand? “A bio?” novelists say nervously when agents and editors toss out the seemingly casual request. “You mean that thing on the back cover? Won’t my publisher’s marketing department write that for me?”

In a word, no. They might punch it up a little down the line, but in the manuscript-marketing stages, you’re on your own.

If this comes as a nasty surprise to you, you’re not alone. The tendency to assume that someone else will take care of the bio is practically universal amongst writers — until they have been through the book publication process. Unfortunately, despite the ubiquity of this misconception, hemming and/or hawing about the production of one’s bio is most assuredly not the way to win friends and influence people in an agency.

Or a publishing house, for that matter. You think the marketing department isn’t eager to get to work reorganizing your bio?

So if you take nothing else from today’s post, absorb this enduring truth and clutch it to your respective bosoms forevermore: if you want to gain practice in being an agent’s dream client, train yourself not to equivocate whenever you are asked to provide extra material whilst marketing your work. Instead, learn to chirp happily, like the can-do sort of person you are: “A bio? You bet!”

Yes, even if the agent or editor in question has just asked you to produce some marketing data that strikes you as irrelevant or downright stupid. Even if what you’re being asked for will require you to take a week off work to deliver. Even in you have to dash to the nearest dictionary the second your meeting with an agent or editor is over to find out what you’ve just promised to send within a week is.

Or, perhaps more sensibly, post a comment here to inquire. That’s what Author! Author! is here for, you know: to help writers get their work successfully out the door.

Why is appearing eager to comply and competent in your bio so important, I hear you ask? Because professionalism is one of the few selling points a writer can’t list in an author bio. A bio is not a self-praise session, after all: it’s a collection of facts, organized to make it clear to Millicent that you are either extremely credible, personally fascinating, the best person in the known universe to write this particular book, or, ideally, all of the above.

And no, you may not simply tell her any of those things directly. Self-aggrandizing statements look pretty silly on the page, after all. See for yourself:

Bart Smedley is a consummate professional writer. He’s up every day at 4:30 AM, hard at his writing. Instead of taking the lunch hour most ordinary mortals do, he hies himself to the local library to read past issues of Publishers Weekly, in order to understand his future agent’s lot better. An undeniably wonderful human being, Bart is a delight to know, funny, insightful, and personable. Also, he is physically attractive: he is indeed a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Admit it: you’d laugh if you were Millicent. To most people in positions to bring your work to publication, self-praise regarded as a sure indicator of how much extra time they will have to spend holding a new author’s hand on the way to publication, explaining how the industry works.

How much extra time will they want to spend on you and your book, I hear you ask, over and above the time required to sell it? It varies from agent to agent, of course, but I believe I can give you a general ballpark estimate without going too far out on a limb: none.

Again, I know — all the agency guides will tell the previously unpublished writer to seek out agencies with track records of taking on inexperienced writers. It’s good advice, but not because such agencies are habitually eager to expend their resources teaching newbies the ropes.

It’s good advice because such agencies have demonstrated that they are braver than many others. They are willing to take a chance on a new writer from time to time, provided that writer’s professionalism positively oozes off the page and from her manner.

I’ll bet you a nickel, though, that the writers these agencies have signed did not respond evasively when asked for their bios.

Professionalism, as I believe I have pointed out several hundred times before in this forum, is demonstrated in many ways. Via manuscripts that conform to standard format, for instance, or knowing not to call an agency unless there’s some question of requested materials actually having been lost. It is also, unfortunately for those new to the game, demonstrated through familiarity with the basic terms and expectations of the industry.

This is what is known colloquially as a Catch-22: you get into the biz by showing that you know how people in the biz act — which you learn by being in the biz.

So “Bio? What’s that?” is not the most advisable response to an agent or editor’s request for one. Nor is hesitating, or saying that you’ll need some time to write one. (You’re perfectly free to take time to write one, of course; just don’t say so up front.)

Why is even hesitation problematic, I hear you ask? (My readers are so smart; I can always rely on them to ask the perfect questions at the perfect times. Also to have a paper bag and monster-repellant spray handy.)

Well, let me put it this way: have you ever walked into a deli on the isle of Manhattan unsure of what kind of sandwich you want? When you took the requisite few seconds to collect your thoughts on the crucial subjects of onions and mayo, did the guy behind the counter wait politely for you to state your well-considered preferences? Or did he roll his eyes and move on to the next customer after perhaps 7 seconds?

And did that next customer ruminate at length on the competing joys of ham on rye and pastrami on pumpernickel, soliciting the opinions of other customers with the open-mindedness of Socrates conducting a symposium. Or did he just shout over your shoulder, “Reuben with a dill pickle!” with the ultra-imperative diction of an emergency room surgeon calling for a scalpel to perform a tracheotomy with seconds to spare before the patient sustains permanent brain damage from lack of oxygen?

If you frequent the same delis I do when I’m in town, the answers in both cases are emphatically the latter. Perhaps with some profanity thrown in for local color.

NYC-based agents and editors eat in those delis, my friends. They go there to relax.

This regional tendency to mistake thoughtful consideration — or momentary hesitation — for malingering or even slow-wittedness often comes as an unpleasant shock to those of us who are West Coast bred and born, I must admit. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like to encourage meditation in daily life; there are retail emporia in the greater Seattle metropolitan area where the Buddha himself could happily hold a full-time job with no significant loss of contemplative time.

Even in retail. “I’m here if you need anything,” the Buddha would say, melting into the background to think. “Just let me know if you have questions about those socks. There’s no rush. Go ahead and become one with those shoes.”

This is why, in case you have been wondering, NYC-based agents and editors sometimes treat those of us who live out here like flakes. In certain minds, we’re all wandering around stoned in bellbottoms, offering flowers to strangers at airports, reusing and recycling paper, and spreading pinko propaganda like, “Have a nice day.”

That is, when we’re not writing our books in moss-covered lean-tos, surrounded by yeti in Birkenstocks. Oh, you laugh, but I’m not entirely sure that my agent understands that I’m not composing my current novel in a yurt by light provided by a squirrel-run generator. Or so I surmise from his tone.

My point is, it would behoove you to have an author bio already written by the time you are asked for it, so you will not hesitate for even one Buddha-like, yeti-consulting moment when the crucial request comes. Not entirely coincidentally, I shall be spending the next week of posts on helping that happen.

And make mine tempeh, avocado, and sprouts on sourdough, please, with a side of smoked salmon for my yeti friend here. Oh, and six AA batteries on rye for the monster lurking in the background. In a paper bag, if you please, so we’ll be prepared for any contingency.

We’ve got to build up our energy for some hardcore bio-writing, after all. Keep up the good work!

P.S.: while I’m in nagging mode, when’s the last time you backed up your writing files? If you can’t remember, wouldn’t now be an excellent time to rectify that?

Synopsispalooza, Part XVI: just what went on in that castle, anyway? Inquiring minds want to know.

hamlet ghost drawinghamlet ghost drawing2
hamlet ghost drawing3hamlet ghost drawing4
hamlet ghost drawing5hamlet ghost drawing6

So far in this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza series — or, as they’ve been calling it chez Mini, “your insanely time-consuming weekend of synopsis examples” — we have taken a gander at 1-, 2-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for a novel and 1-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for a memoir. This morning, as promised, I shall be showing you several different versions — and different types of platform — for a nonfiction book. Or rather, to keep the examples interesting, for several different kinds of nonfiction book.

Why mix it up more this time than in the previous posts? Well, there are quite a few kinds of nonfiction book: what might work beautifully in a synopsis for, say, a journal’s account of a sensational murder case might not present a historical analysis of the same case nearly as well.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s return to our by-now-familiar example and compare how a synopsis for a true crime version of Hamlet by a writer with a journalistic background would differ from how a historian would present his case for a book on the Elsinore murders. Beginning with the journalist:

Hamlet true crime synopsis

Ace journalist Walter Winchell certainly makes the his take on the well-worn Hamlet story sound like a grabber, doesn’t he? A fresh take on a demonstrably popular subject is always popular with Millicent the agency screener. Wisely, Mssr. Winchell also makes it quite plain what kind of evidence he has to offer in support of his challenge to the prevailing wisdom on the subject.

But you don’t need to take my word for this being a winning synopsis. We’ve already established criteria for success in a nonfiction synopsis of any length, right? To recap, a nonfiction synopsis that’s not for a memoir should:

(1) present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter;

(2) demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it;

(3) mention who specifically is already interested in this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject, if applicable;

(4) give some indication of how the writer intends to prove the case, showing the argument in some detail;

(5) demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and

(6) show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

Actually, those are the goals of a longer synopsis — say, 3-5 pages — but Mssr. Winchell has managed to hit most of these points in a single page. (Well done, Walt!) Fringe benefit: since he has embraced our earlier premise that a good nonfiction synopsis is a miniaturized book proposal, all he would need to do in order to lengthen this 1-page wonder into a longer synopsis, should he need one, would be to add more specifics and beef up his credentials as the obvious person to break this exciting story.

Let’s take a peek at a synopsis for straightforward historical account of the famous murders. To make the task a trifle more challenging, let’s remove the conceit of present-day headline value.

Hamlet as history synopsis

Doesn’t sound as though it has nearly as large a target audience as the first version, does it? That’s not necessarily a drawback in a nonfiction synopsis, by the way: in this case, it’s simply an accurate reflection of the book’s probable appeal. The Mad Prince of Denmark is not, after all, likely to be a natural for Oprah.

Appropriately, then, everything in this synopsis is geared to the readers most likely to be interested in this book: the academic tone, the intensive level of proof in the argument, the largely theoretical stakes all proclaim a college-educated audience. Yes, college-educated readers interested in tracing the historical and literary background of centuries-old plays is a niche market, but as any Millicent working at a history-representing agency would be aware, it’s a readership that buys a heck of a lot of books. No reason for Herodotus to risk compromising his credibility, then, by claiming the potential audience implied in — wait for it — “It’s a natural for Oprah!”

I bring this up advisedly: all too frequently, nonfiction writers turn Millicent off by pretending (or even just implying) on the query or synopsis page that their target audiences are much, much larger than they actually are. This is a strategic mistake, one that’s likely to get a synopsis rejected on sight.

Seriously, agents who habitually sell manuscripts in your book category have a very clear sense of how big the general audience for that type of book is. While including demographic statistics for the specific target market for the specific subject matter of your tome is a good idea — as we discussed earlier in this series, Millicent may not be aware of just how many drive-in movie enthusiasts are out there; if your book happens to be about drive-in theatres, you might want to mention the size of the Drive-in Fan Club — exaggerated general claims are extremely unlikely to convince a professional reader that your book is marketable.

So kudos to Herodotus for being savvy enough not to claim that every English teacher in America will rush to buy this book!. Instead, he stuck with the much more believable assertion that pretty much anyone who stumbled upon his volume in a bookstore would be at least vaguely familiar with the story of HAMLET.

Hmm, where have I heard that supposition before?

Yes, readers who have had their hands in the air since the top of the second example? “But Anne,” the sharp-eyed point out, “the formatting of the title is different for these two synopses. In the first, the subtitle has its own dedicated double-spaced line, but in the second, both title and subtitle are on the first line of the page. What gives?”

Well caught, patient hand-raisers. Either version is correct in a nonfiction synopsis. Generally speaking, longer subtitles tend to have their own lines, but unless either the title or subtitle is so long that it would be impossible to contain both on a single line, the choice is up to the writer.

Refreshing for something to be, isn’t it?

Oh, and you know how I keep urging all of you to read every syllable of your synopses IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, rather than merely relying upon your word processing program’s spell- and grammar-checker, and to double-check that all proper names are spelled correctly? That last example provides an excellent reason to follow this advice religiously: because I was tired, I didn’t notice until after I posted the original version of this synopsis that Word’s spellchecker had changed Gesta Danorum to — I kid you not — Gestapo Decorum.

Which, while it would be a great title for a history about manners during the Second World War, was not what I meant. Thank goodness I did a dramatic reading of all of today’s examples at the brunch table, eh?

Just for fun, let’s take a peek at how a psychologist might synopsize the same basic story. Note how cleverly Dr. Welby works in his credentials.

Hamlet self-help synopsis

It’s fascinating how different these three takes on the same story are, isn’t it? From Millicent’s perspective, although they all draw on the same source material, each makes a beeline for its own book category.

And that’s how it should be. Signing off for now…

Still more hands just shot into the air, didn’t they? “But Anne,” those of you who believe that I don’t have anything else to do this weekend point out, “for both the novel and memoir synopses, you showed not just a 1-page version, but 3- and 5-page renditions as well. So where are the extensions of these, huh? Huh?”

Well, first, you might want to do something about that aggression you have going there; perhaps Dr. Welby’s self-help book could offer a few suggestions. I’m aware that there’s a common Internet-based assumption that every answer to any given searcher’s question should be instantly available on a single webpage — or, in this case, a single blog post — but as is so often the case, complex reality isn’t easily compressible into just a few hundred words.

That’s particularly true in this case — and for reasons that should be apparent to anyone in the throes of constructing a book proposal. While, as I mentioned above, expanding any of these 1-page synopses could be achieved by the simple expedients of beefing up the writer’s platform, adding statistics to back up claims about the target readership and the book’s importance to that readership (although Dr. Welby has already done an excellent job of demonstrating both), and telling more of Hamlet’s story as it relates to their respective arguments, my blowing up the first two of these useful text-bolsterers in order to fill the larger space allotment would involve my just making up background for the authors.

Fictional platform does not carry much example value, in my experience. Nor do made-up statistics, although since I did some actual research to construct the examples above, much of the content of the second and third examples is true. (Don’t quote it in your term papers, though, children: do your own archive-diving.) So while it would be amusing to expand these three examples — especially the first — the exercise probably would not help all of you nonfiction synopsis-writers a great deal. Sorry about that, truth-tellers.

In this evening’s post, I shall be tackling the ever-burning issue of how to write a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XIV: to be or not to be — 1, 3, or 5 pages

olivier hamlet

Welcome to this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza offerings. For those of you who missed yesterday evening’s teaser, I shall be posting twice per day this weekend (at roughly 10:30 am and 7:30 pm Pacific time) in order to cram as many practical examples of solid synopses of various lengths in front of my readers’ astonished eyes.

Why go to such great lengths? Well, perhaps I’m mistaken, but my bet is that most of you have never seen a professional synopsis before, other than the few fleeting glimpses I’ve given you throughout Synopsispalooza. So while I’ve given you formatting examples, a few 1-pagers, counterexamples, and a whole lot of guidelines, some of you may still be having difficulty picturing the target at which you are shooting.

Amazing how often that’s the case with the pieces of paper commonly tucked into a query or submission packet, isn’t it? The overwhelming majority of queriers have never seen a successful query; a hefty proportion of synopsizers have never clapped eyes upon a professionally-written synopsis; herds and herds of submitters have never been within half a mile of a manuscript in standard format, and a vast multitude of newly-signed writers have absolutely no idea even how to begin to organize an author bio on the page.

And some people wonder why I keep blogging on the basics. I’m not a big fan of guess what color I’m thinking submission standards.

Since my brief for this weekend is to generate a small library of practical examples, contrary to my usual practice, I’m not going to dissect each synopsis immediately after they appear. Instead, I’m going to leave them to you to analyze. In the comments, if you like, or in the privacy of your own head.

I can already feel some of you beginning to panic, but fear not — you already have the tools to analyze these yourself. We’ve just spent 13 posts going over what does and doesn’t work well in a synopsis, right? I’m confident that you are more than capable of figuring out why the various elements in these examples render them effective.

My goal here today is to give you a sense of the scope of storytelling appropriate to three commonly-requested lengths of synopsis. Because deny it as some of you might, I still harbor the sneaking suspicion that there are a whole lot of aspiring writers out there who are mistakenly trying to cram the level of detail appropriate to a 5-page synopsis into a 3- or 1-page synopsis.

That way lies madness, of the O, that this too too solid text would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a shorter synopsis! variety. Trust me, unless you actively long to be complaining that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter
, you don’t want to venture down that primrose path.

Besides, the ever-popular cram-it-all-in strategy isn’t likely to produce a successful shorter synopsis. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly throughout this series, the goal of a 1-page synopsis is not the same as a longer one. No one who requests a single-page synopsis seriously expects to see the entire plot summarized in it, as is routinely expected in a 5-page synopsis.

What might those different expectations yield on the synopsis page? Glad you asked; read on.

A quick caveat or two before you do: these are not intended to be the only possible synopses for this particular story; they’re quick-and-dirty stabs at it in a couple of hours while icing my knee. (I overdid this week; I’m reclining on pillows as I write this.) So kindly spare me quibbles about how I could have improved these or made them conform more closely to the text. I already know that once or twice, I presented some of the events out of chronological order, for ease of storytelling.

But guess what? If Millicent the agency screener asks to read your entire manuscript based upon your synopsis, she is not going to call you up to yell at you because they did not match up precisely. Nor will her boss, the agent of your dreams, or a contest judge. In fact, there is literally no point along the road to publication, except perhaps in a writing class, that anyone with the authority to yell at you is at all likely to perform a compare-and-contrast between your synopsis and your manuscript, checking for discrepancies.

Again, absolute literal accuracy is not expected in a synopsis; the pros are aware that plotlines will change slightly with subsequent revisions. What’s important here is presenting the story arc well — and that it comes across as a good story.

I am anticipating that many of you will know the story well enough to catch minor chronological rearrangement, by the way; this is a far more useful exercise if the story being presented is one with which you’re familiar. Besides, I wanted to stick with something in the public domain.

With those broad hints, and the assistance of that moody pick of Sir Larry above, most of you have probably tumbled to it already: you’re about to read several synopses of HAMLET.

Why HAMLET, and not, say, ROMEO AND JULIET, which is a bit better-known in this country? Partially, I chose it because in many ways, it’s the ultimate literary fiction storyline: it’s about a passive guy who sits around thinking about all of the negative things going on in his life and planning that someday he’ll do something about them.

Okay, so that’s a stereotype about literary fiction, but it’s a cliché for a reason. As any Millicent working in a LF-representing agency would happily tell you, far too many would-be LF writers mistakenly believe that the less that happens in a manuscript, the more literary it is.

That’s a misconception: what differentiates LF from other fiction is usually the vocabulary and sentence structure choices; LF assumes a college-educated readership (whereas most mainstream fiction is pitched at about a 10th-grade reading level), and often engages in experimental storytelling practices. Let’s face it, the kinds of sentences that Toni Morrison can make sing most emphatically would not work in other book categories. But I digress.

The other reason to choose HAMLET is that while most of you have probably seen it at least once, I’m betting that very few of you have ever seen it performed live in its entirety. Even the most text-hugging of theatre companies usually cuts an hour or so out of the play. (The major exception: Kenneth Branaugh’s film version does in fact contain every word. You’ll feel as though you’ve spent a month watching it, but there is a lovely Hamlet-Horatio scene that I’ve never seen performed in any other version.)

So I’m synopsizing a story that pretty much everybody has seen or heard synopsized, at least a little. That should prove helpful in understanding what I have chosen to include and exclude in each version.

To head off whining at the pass: yes, the lettering here is rather small and a bit fuzzy at the edges; that’s the nature of the format. To get a clearer view, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + repeatedly, to enlarge the image.

But before anybody out there gets the bright idea to steal any of this and turn it in as a term paper, this is copyrighted material, buddy. So you wouldn’t just be cheating; you’d be breaking the law.

So there. I didn’t go to all of this trouble so some con artist could avoid reading a classic. (Hey, I said that writing synopses was easy for a pro, not that it was even remotely enjoyable.)

Caveats completed; time to leap into the fray. Here, for your perusing pleasure, is a 5-page synopsis of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

Hamlet 5 page 1

Hamlet-5-page-2

Hamlet-5-page-3

Hamlet-5-page-41

Hamlet-5-page-5

Pop quiz: I’ve deliberately made a really, really common mistake here, to show you all just how easy it is not to notice when tossing together a synopsis in a hurry. Did anyone catch it?

If you immediately raised your hand and shouted, “You misspelled Yorick’s name!” give yourself a gold star. You wouldn’t believe how often writers misspell the names of their own characters in synopses — or forget that between the time they originally wrote the synopsis for that contest that sounded so promising and when an agent asked for the first 50 pages and a 5-page synopsis, the protagonist’s best friend’s name had changed from Monica to Yvette, because Monica might strike a skimming reader as too similar to Mordred, the villain’s name.

And what’s the cure for that type of gaffe, everyone? Sing out loudly, please: read your synopsis IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before you send it anywhere, anytime. And do it every single time you are asked to send it out; things change.

The 5-page synopsis was the industry standard for many years, and probably still the one you will be asked to produce after you have signed with an agent. In these decadent days of wildly different submission guidelines across agencies and contests, however, aspiring writers are asked to produce something shorter.

As I believe I have mentioned about 1700 times on the blog at this point, read the guidelines several times over before you submit or enter so much as a syllable. If the requester doesn’t specify how long the synopsis should be, then the length is up to you.

Just keep it under 5 pages. Longer than that, and you’ll just look as though you don’t have any idea how long it should be. If you go less than 5, fill the pages in their entirety (or close to it), so the length will seem intentional.

Tell the entire story in a 3- or 4-page synopsis. If you already have a 5-page version handy, you can often get there by simply lightening the level of detail. Like so:

Hamlet-3-page-1

Hamlet 3 page 2

Hamlet 3 page 3

For a 1- or 2-page synopsis, the goal is different. While it is perfectly acceptable to depict the entire story arc, introducing the major characters, central conflict, and what’s at stake will do very nicely.

Which is to say: don’t even try to cut down a 5-page synopsis into a 1-page; it will only irritate you to the hair-yanking stage. Instead, start fresh:

1-page Hamlet

As you may see, I actually have covered the entire plot here, if a bit lightly. I’ve introduced the major characters and their main conflicts — and no more. I didn’t waste a paragraph describing the castle; I didn’t feel compelled to show what the characters looked like; I avoided incorporating clichés about procrastination. Yet I’ve demonstrated that this story is interesting and holds together.

In other words, I did the writer’s job: I wrote a 1-page overview of the plot. Ta da!

Or rather, I wrote a 1-page synopsis geared toward convincing a literary or mainstream fiction-representing agent to ask to see the manuscript. If I were trying to market HAMLET as, say, a paranormal thriller, I would present it differently.

How differently, you ask? Take a gander. Just to keep things interesting, this time, I’ll do it as a 2-page synopsis:

Hamlet ghost page 1

Hamlet ghost page 2

Reads like quite a different story, does it not? Yet all that was required to pull that off was a slight tone shift, a tighter focus on the grislier aspects of the story, and an increased emphasis on the ghost’s role in the plot, and voilà! Paranormal thriller!

That was rather fun, actually. Want to see the same story as a YA paranormal? Here you go:

YA Hamlet page 1

YA Hamlet page 2

The moral, should you care to know it: although most first-time novelists feel utterly controlled by the length restrictions of a requested synopsis, ultimately, the writer is the one who decides how to present the story. Only you get to choose what elements to include, the tone in which you describe them, and the phrasing that lets Millicent know what kind of book this is.

Makes you feel a bit more powerful, doesn’t it?

Tune in this evening for more empowering examples. Enjoy the control, campers, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XV: alas, poor Yorick; I knew him in his 1-, 3-, and 5-page versions

hamlet and yorick

Is everyone excited about this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza schedule, or, as I like to think of it, the Saturday and Sunday of Synopses? In this morning’s post, I provided you with concrete examples of 5-, 3-, 2-, and 1-page synopses for the same story, so you might see the different level of detail expected in each, as well as how the content selection and tone might be varied to fit the story into a couple of other book categories.

To that noble end, I borrowed from a story most of you were likely to know, a little number called THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK, by an up-and-coming writer named William Shakespeare. This evening, I am going to use that same storyline to come up with examples of 1-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for memoir.

Hey, if you weren’t familiar with it before this morning’s post, you’ve certainly seen enough versions of it to be conversant with it now, right?

Why go over memoir synopses in their own post, since a savvy memoirist could use the same storytelling techniques as a novelist does to shape a compelling narrative? (For some tips on how to pull that off, please see my previous Synopsispalooza post on the subject.) Several reasons, actually.

First, as I mentioned in this morning’s post, the vast majority of aspiring writers in general — and, it’s safe to conclude, first-time memoirists in particular — have never seen a professional synopsis for their type of book. As, indeed, I surmised from plaintive-yet-practical questions like the following, posted by intrepid memoirist Pamela Jane on an earlier Synopsispalooza installment:

Is there any place where we can view an successful memoir synopsis? That would be wonderfully helpful.

As an experienced writing teacher, I make bold to interpret requests like this as an indication that I might not have been generating enough practical examples of late. Surely, that alone would make for an excellent second reason to devote an entire post to making up the shortfall. (And don’t worry, nonfiction-synopsizers who do not write memoir: I shall be churning out concrete examples for you tomorrow a.m.)

Third, and perhaps most important for instructive purposes, while memoir synopses share basic formatting and goals with novel synopses — chant them with me now, campers: any synopsis should be in standard manuscript format, and the primary purpose of a query or submission synopsis is not to summarize the book so well that every question is answered, but to prompt Millicent the agency screener to ask to see the manuscript — there are some essential differences. To name but three:

(1) A memoir synopsis should be written in the past tense, whereas a novel synopsis should be written in the present tense.

(2) A memoir synopsis should be written in the first person singular, whereas a novel synopsis should be written in the third person, regardless of the narrative voice of the book.

(3) A memoir synopsis should tell the story of the book in standard manuscript format, without special formatting for the introduction of new characters, whereas a novel synopsis should alert the reader to the first appearance of a character (but only the first) by presenting his name in all capital letters, preferably followed by his age in parentheses.

I suspect that none of those will come as a complete surprise to any of you memoirists out there, but as I’m not entirely sure whether I’ve covered #3 explicitly in a previous Synopsispalooza posts (hey, cut me some slack — do you have any idea how many pages of text it has already run?), let’s talk about it now. Although the capitalization convention is specific to fiction, Millicents (and their contest-judging aunts, Mehitabels) do frequently see memoir synopses with characters introduced as JOAN OF ARC (19). Heck, they occasionally break open submission envelopes to encounter memoirists introducing themselves as I, ARNETTE (7 at the beginning of the story).

That’s neither necessary nor expected in a memoir synopsis. Thus, while a memoir synopsis would mention that Milton Sedgwick sat next to me in my first-grade class. Evidently, he intended to major in yanking my pigtails, a novel synopsis might herald ol’ Milton’s advent in the story with MILTON SEDGWICK (6) devoted our first-grade year to yanking Janelle’s pigtails.

Yes, yes, I know: some of you have probably heard otherwise, but having sold a couple of memoirs, I know whereat I speak. Trust me, both Millicent and Mehitabel may be relied upon to understand that the perpendicular pronoun appearing frequently throughout the memoir synopsis refers to the author/protagonist; neither is at all likely to confuse you with your constantly-weeping track coach or your sociopathic sister just because you haven’t capitalized their names on the synopsis page.

Everybody clear on that? Please chime in with questions, if not; I would hate to have Millicent or Mehitabel perplexed by a half-capitalized set of characters on the synopsis page.

The fourth reason — yes, I’m still justifying, thanks — is the first cousin the first: since very few aspiring writers ever get a chance to take a peek at a professionally-formatted synopsis, some of you might not be aware that under no circumstances should a synopsis of any length be in business format. Or, to put it in terms every user of e-mail can understand, unless an agency’s guidelines, requested materials letter, or contest’s rules specifically ask you to include your synopsis in the body of an e-mail, a synopsis should NEVER be single-spaced, devoid of indentation at the beginning each paragraph, block-justified (i.e., with straight margins on both the left and right sides of the page), or contain a skipped line between paragraphs.

Again, is everybody clear on why that is the case? Not all aspiring writers are: Millicent and Mehitabel shake their heads on a daily basis at synopses formatted as though the writer were unaware (as is, indeed, often the case) that indenting paragraphs is not optional in English prose. Save the non-indented paragraphs and single-spacing for business letters and e-mail, where such barbaric practices belong.

Don’t you tell me that a query letter is a business letter. Part of presenting yourself professional entails adhering to the formatting standards of the industry you are seeking to join. Believe me, the fine folks who work in agencies and publishing houses think of their business as exceptional.

So what should a properly-formatted memoir synopsis look like, whether it will be gracing a query packet, livening up a submission packet, or increasing your chances of winning in a contest entry? A little something like this 5-page synopsis for HAMLET — written, for your educational pleasure, from the melancholy Dane’s own point of view. (As always, if you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key while pressing + to enlarge the image.)

Hamlet memoir 5.1a

Hamlet memoir 5.2

Hamlet memoir 5.3

Hamlet memoir 5.4

Hamlet memoir 5.5

See how easy it would be for Millicent to tell from a quick glance at the first couple of lines that this is a synopsis for a memoir, not a novel? Or for Mehitabel to notice that an entry in the memoir category of her contest had accidentally ended up in the fiction category pile?

While we’re straining our eyeballs, trying to read like these two worthy souls, did anyone catch the gaffe on page 4? (Hint: it’s in the first line of the third full paragraph.)

Spot it now? To Millicent or Mehitabel, it would be fairly obvious what happened here: this synopsis was originally written as if it were for a novel, in the present tense. In the rush to change it over to the proper presentation for a memoir — possibly because the writer had only just learned that the past tense was proper for memoir synopses — one verb got missed.

And what’s the best preventative for that kind of Millicent-annoyer, campers? That’s right: reading your synopsis IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you stuff it into an envelope or hit the SEND button.

As you may see, a 5-page synopsis (or the rare one that’s even longer) permits the memoirist to tell his story in some fairly complete detail. Like the novel synopsizer, he’s usually better off describing individual scenes within the story than simply trying to summarize huge chunks of activity within just a few quick sentences.

The same principle applies to the 3- or 4-page synopsis. Obviously, though, since there’s less room, Hamlet can describe fewer scenes:
Hamlet memoir 3.1

Hamlet memoir 3.2

Hamlet memoir 3.3

Admittedly, there are a few more summary statements here — the first paragraph contains a couple of lulus — but for the most part, this synopsis is still primarily made up of descriptions of scenes, not just hasty summaries of activity. Cause and effect remain clear. Notice, too, that the sentence structure varies throughout: none of the repetitive X happened and Y happened and Z happened that dog the average mid-length synopsis here.

As we saw in this morning’s post, quite a different strategy is required to pull off the dreaded 1-page synopsis. Here, our boy is going to have to rely pretty heavily on summary statements — but that does not mean specificity need be abandoned altogether.

Hamlet memoir 1 page

Still a pretty gripping yarn, isn’t it? That’s because Hamlet managed to retain the essential story arc, even when forced by length restrictions to jettison most of the scenes upon which his longer synopses rested.

If you’re still having trouble either seeing the difference between these levels of detail and/or are having trouble translating from theory into practice, don’t start out trying to synopsize your own book. Pick a story you know very well and try writing 5-, 3-, and 1-page versions of it. Repeat as often as necessary until you get the hang of it, then go back to your own opus.

Hey, writing a synopsis is a learned skill. What made you think you would be good at it without some practice?

Why start with somebody else’s book, you ask? If you’re not close to the story, it’s often easier to catch its essence — and that goes double if your story actually is your story.

Remember, the key to writing a great memoir synopsis of any length is to treat yourself as the most interesting character in the most interesting story in the world. Tell that story — but don’t leave either why you are fascinating or why your situation is compelling to Millicent or Mehitabel’s imagination. Make sure both show up on the page.

Hey, if Hamlet can compellingly retell the five-hour play of his life in 5-, 3-, and 1-page versions, so can you. Join me tomorrow for some nonfiction synopsis examples, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part IX: for those who are beginning to feel overwhelmed, or, there is a proper time and place for primal screaming — and the synopsis page isn’t it

orangutan_yawn

I meant to post yesterday, honestly; blame my physical therapist’s fondness for crying out, “Just lean on your hands for another few minutes while we try X…” I use those hands for other things, as it turns out. I even had this half-written before PT yesterday, but all of my hand and wrist strength had been used up for the day.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: life is no respecter of deadlines.

As we’ve been working our way through Synopsispalooza, I’ve been worrying about something over and above my aching wrists: has my advice that virtually any aspiring writer will be better off sitting down to construct a winning synopsis substantially before s/he is likely to need to produce one coming across as a trifle callous, as if I were laboring under the impression that the average aspiring writer doesn’t already have difficulty carving out time in a busy day to write at all? Why, some of you may well be wondering, would I suggest that you should take on more work — and such distasteful work at that?

I assure you, I have been suggesting this precisely because I am sympathetic to your plight. I completely understand why aspiring writers so often push producing one to the last possible nanosecond before it is needed: it genuinely is a pain to summarize the high points of a plot or argument in a concise-yet-detail-rich form.

Honestly, I get it. The newer a writer is to the task, the more impossible — and unreasonable — it seems.

And frankly, aspiring writers have a pretty good reason to feel that way about constructing synopses: it is such a different task than writing a book, involving skills widely removed from observing a telling moment in exquisite specificity or depicting a real-life situation with verve and insight, the expectation that any good book writer should be able to produce a great synopsis off the cuff actually isn’t entirely reasonable.

So it’s probably not utterly surprising that the very prospect of pulling one together can leave a talented writer feeling like this:

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Rather than the way we feel when we polish off a truly stellar piece of writing, which is a bit more like this:

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There’s just no getting around it: synopsis-writing, like pitch- and query-writing, is not particularly soul-satisfying. Nor is it likely to yield sentences and paragraphs that will be making readers weep a hundred years from now — fortunate, perhaps, because literally no one outside of an agency, publishing house, or contest-judging bee is ever going to see the darned thing. Yet since we cannot change the industry’s demand for them, all we writers can do is work on the supply end: by taking control of WHEN we produce our synopses, we can make the generation process less painful and generally improve the results.

Okay, so these may not sound like the best conceivable motivations for taking a few days out of your hard-won writing time to pull together a document that’s never going to be published — and to do so before you absolutely have to do it. Unless you happen to be a masochist who just adores wailing under time pressure, though, procrastinating about producing one is an exceedingly bad idea.

But as of today, I’m no longer going to ask you to take my word for that. For those of you who are still resistant to the idea of writing one before you are specifically asked for it I have two more inducements to offer you today.

First — and this is a big one – taking the time to work on a synopsis BEFORE you have an actual conversation with an agent (either post-submission or at a conference) is going to make it easier for you to talk about your book professionally.

Don’t sneeze at that advantage, perennial queriers — it’s extremely important for conference-goers, e-mail queriers, and pretty much everyone who is ever going to be trying to convince someone in the publishing industry to take an interest in a manuscript, because (brace yourselves) the prevailing assumption amongst the pros is that a writer who cannot talk about her work professionally probably is not going to produce a professional-quality manuscript.

I know, I know — from a writer’s point of view, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense: we all know (or are) shy-but-brilliant writers who would rather scarf down cups of broken glass than give a verbal pitch, yet can produce absolute magic on the page. Unfortunately, in contexts where such discussion is warranted, these gifted recluses are out of luck.

Why? Well, it’s sort of like the logic underlying querying: evaluating a 400-page manuscript based solely upon a single-page query letter — or, even more common, upon the descriptive paragraph in that query — is predicated upon the assumption that any gifted writer must be able to write marketing copy and lyrical prose equally well. (Cough, cough.) Similarly, conference pitching assumes that the basic skills an agent must have in order to sell books successfully — an ability to boil down a story or argument to its most basic elements while still making it sound fascinating, a knack for figuring out how it would fit into the current market, the knowledge to determine who would be the most receptive audience, editorial and reader both, for such a book, the bravery to tell someone in a position to do something about it — are lurking in the psyche of your garden-variety brilliant writer as well.

Come to think of it, querying and synopsizing effectively require most of those skills as well, don’t they? Particularly synopsizing, if you think about it like a marketer, rather than like a writer.

And yes, you should try to do that from time to time: contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, being market-savvy does not necessarily mean compromising one’s artistic vision or selling out. As any working artist could tell you, one can be a perfectly good artist and still present one’s work well for marketing purposes. Refusing to learn professional presentation skills does not improve one’s art one jot; all it does is make it harder to sell that art.

So force yourself to think like a marketer for a second, rather than the author of that 380-page novel: if you were the book’s agent, how would you describe it to an editor? Perhaps like this:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Or, if you were the agent for your nonfiction book, you might go about it like this:

(1) present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter,

(2) demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it,

(3) mention any large group of people or organization who might already be working on this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject,

(4) give some indication of how you intend to prove your case, showing the argument in some detail and saying what kind of proof you will be offering in support of your points,

(5) demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile (again, ideally, backed up with statistics), and

(6) show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the known universe to write the book.

In short, you would be describing your book in professional terms, rather than trying to summarize the entire book in 1-5 pages. In fact, try thinking of your synopsis as the book’s first agent: its role is not to reproduce the experience of reading your manuscript, but to convince people in the publishing industry to read it.

Tell me: does thinking of the pesky thing in those terms make it seem more or less intimidating to write?

Although it may feel like the former, in the long term, taking the time to do this well usually helps a writer feel less intimidated down the line. Investing some serious time in developing a solid, professional-quality synopsis can be very, very helpful in this respect. The discipline required to produce it forces you to think of your baby as a marketable product, as well as a piece of complex art and physical proof that you have locked yourself away from your kith and kin for endless hours, creating.

Not only will it be easier for you to sit down and write a synopsis for your next book (and the one after that), but by training yourself not to answer the question, “So what do you write?” with a short, pithy, market-oriented overview of the plot or argument, you are going to come across to others as much more serious about your writing than if you embrace the usual response of, “Well, um, it’s sort of autobiographical…”

Again, that progress is nothing at which to be sneezing. An aspiring writer who has learned to discuss his work professionally is usually better able to get folks in the industry to sit down and read it. That’s not a value judgment — it’s a fact.

Half of you are shaking your heads in resentful disbelief, aren’t you? “But Anne,” those of you annoyed by the brevity of a requested synopsis point out, “you keep saying that every syllable an aspiring writer sends to an agency is a writing sample. So how can I NOT think of the 3-page synopsis they want me to send as a super-compressed version of my book? Let me be all stressed out over trying to fit 100 pages into a paragraph or two, already.”

I can tell you how: because you’ll drive yourself crazy if you think of it that way. The purpose of a synopsis is not to summarize the entire book; it is to give a swift overview of its high points. Thus, the synopsizer’s problem is not compression — it’s selection.

Does the sound of a thousand pairs of eyebrows crashing into hairlines mean that some of you had never thought of it that way before? Cast your eyes back over those lists of what is supposed to be in a professional synopsis: do any of those steps actually ask you to summarize the book?

No, they are asking you to hit the high points — but to present those high points like a readable story or single-line argument.

Don’t get too upset if you hadn’t thought of it that way before. Even writers who are absolutely desperate to sell their first books tend to forget that it is a product intended for a specific market. As I have mentioned earlier in this series, in the throes of resenting the necessity of producing a query letter and synopsis, it is genuinely difficult NOT to grumble about having to simplify a beautifully complicated plot, set of characters, and/or argument.

But think about it for a second: any agent who signs you is going to have to be able to rattle off the book’s high points in order to market it to editors. So is any editor who falls in love with it, in order to pitch it to an editorial committee.

See why they might want to have a synopsis by their sides? This is not a pointless hoop through which agents, editors, and contest rule-mongers force aspiring writers to jump in order to test their fortitude; a synopsis is a professional requirement, necessary for any of these people to help you bring your writing to your future reading public.

You’re feeling just the teensiest bit better about having to write the darned thing, aren’t you?

Here’s another good reason to invest the time: by having labored to reduce your marvelously complex story or argument to its basic elements, you will be far less likely to succumb to that perennial bugbear of pitchers, the Pitch that Would Not Die.

Those of you who have pitched at conferences know what I’m talking about, right? Everyone who has hung out with either pitchers or pitch-hearing agents has heard at least one horror story about a pitch that went on for an hour, because the author did not have the vaguest conception what was and was not important to emphasize in his plot summary.

Trust me, you do not want to be remembered for that. Your manuscript has many, many other high points, doesn’t it?

For those of you who haven’t yet found yourself floundering for words in front of an agent or editor, allow me to warn you: the unprepared pitcher almost always runs long. When you are signed up for a 10-minute pitch meeting, you really do need to be able to summarize your book within just a few minutes — harder than it sounds! — so you have time to talk about other matters.

You know, mundane little details, such as whether the agent wants to read the book in question.

Contrary to the prevailing writerly wisdom that dictates that verbal pitching and writing are animals of very different stripes, spending some serious time polishing your synopsis is great preparation for pitching. Even the most devoted enemy of brevity will find it easier to chat about the main thrust of a book if he’s already figured out what it is.

Stop laughing — I have been to a seemingly endless array of writers’ conferences over the years, and let me tell you, I’ve never attended one that didn’t attract at least a handful of aspiring writers who seemed not to be able to tell anyone else what their books were about.

Which, in case you were wondering, is the origin of that hoary old industry chestnut:

Agent: So, what’s your book about?

Writer: About 900 pages.

The third inducement: a well-crafted synopsis is something of a rarity, so if you can produce one as a follow-up to a good meeting at a conference, or to tuck into your submission packet with your first 50 pages, or to send off with your query packet, you will look like a star, comparatively speaking.

You would be astonished (at least I hope you would) at how often an otherwise well-written submission or query letter is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off in the ten minutes prior to the post office’s closing, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t to be evaluated at all. I don’t think that sheer deadline panic accounts for the pervasiveness of the disorganized synopsis; I suspect lack of preparation.

Hmm, wasn’t someone just talking about unprepared pitchers always going long?

I also suspect resentment. I’ve met countless writers who don’t really understand why the synopsis is necessary at all; to them, it’s just busywork that agents request of aspiring writers, a meaningless hoop through which they must jump in order to seek representation.

No wonder they hate it; they regard it as a minor species of bullying. But we all know better than that now, right?

All too often, the it’s-just-a-hoop mentality produces a synopsis that gives the impression not that the writer is genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, but rather that he is deeply and justifiably angry that it needed to be written at all.

And that’s a problem, because to an experienced eye, writerly resentment shows up beautifully against the backdrop of a synopsis. It practically oozes off the page.

Unfortunately, the peevish synopsis is the norm, not the exception; as any Millicent who screens queries and submissions would be more than happy to tell you, it’s as though half the synopsis-writers out there believe they’re entering their work in an anti-charm contest. The VAST majority of novel synopses simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents to see aspiring writers suffer.

(You’re chortling at this attitude by this point in the post, aren’t you, even if you were one of the many who believed it, say, yesterday? If not, you might want to go back and reread that bit about why the agent of your dreams actually does need you to provide her with a synopsis. But back to the resentment already in progress.)

Frustrated by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement, many writers just do the bare minimum they believe is required, totally eschewing anything that might remotely be considered style. Or, even more commonly, they procrastinate about doing it at all until the last possible nanosecond, and end up throwing together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it.

It’s the query letter and the manuscript that count, right?

Wrong. In case you thought I was joking the other 47 times I have mentioned it over the last couple of weeks, EVERYTHING you submit to an agent or editor is a writing sample.

If you can’t remember that full-time, have it tattooed on the back of your hand. It honestly is that important to your querying and submission success.

While frustration is certainly understandable, it’s self-defeating to treat the synopsis as unimportant or to crank it out in a last-minute frenzy. Find a more constructive outlet for your annoyance — and make sure that every page you submit represents your best writing.

Realistically, it’s not going to help your book’s progress one iota to engage in passive-aggressive blaming of any particular agent or editor. It’s even less sensible to resent their Millicents. They did not make the rules, by and large.

And even if they did, let’s face it — in real life, almost nobody is actually brave enough to say to an agent or editor, “No, you can’t have a synopsis, you lazy so-and-so. Read the whole darned book, if you liked my pitch or query, because the only way you’re going to find out if I can write is to READ MY WRITING! AAAAAAAAH!”

Okay, so it’s mighty satisfying to contemplate saying it. Picture it as vividly as you can, then move on.

I’m quite serious about this. My mental health assignment for you while working on the synopsis: once an hour, picture the nastiest, most aloof agent in the world, and mentally bellow your frustrations at him at length. Be as specific as possible about your complaints, but try not to repeat yourself; the goal here is to touch upon every scintilla of resentment lodged in the writing part of your brain.

Then find the nearest mirror, gaze into it, and tell yourself to get back to work, because you want to get published. Your professional reputation — yes, and your ability to market your writing successfully — is at stake.

I know, the exercise sounds silly, but it will make you feel better to do it, I promise. Far better that your neighbors hear you screaming about how hard it all is than that your resentment find its way into your synopsis. Or your query letter. Or even into your verbal pitch.

Yes, I’ve seen all three happen — but I’ve never seen it work to the venting writer’s advantage. I’ll spare you the details, because, trust me, these were not pretty incidents.

Next time, I shall delve very specifically into the knotty issue of how a synopsis folded up behind a cold query letter might differ from one that is destined to sit underneath a partial manuscript. In the meantime, try to indulge in primal screaming only when nobody else is around, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part VIII: not all horn-tooting is sweet music, at least not to Millicent’s ears

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I shall be striving for brevity this evening, campers. This is the height of deadline season for many of my clients, and virtually the only thing that the small army of doctors and physical therapists who seem to have kidnapped my various body parts since the accident agree upon is that working a second over 16 hours in a day isn’t good for my recovery.

So I’m going to make a valiant attempt to be uncharacteristically terse this evening — no, make that morning. (Please don’t tell the doctor.) And while what I shall be saying at such a rapid clip will be primarily addressed to nonfiction synopsizers, please don’t tune this post out, novelists: our pitfall du jour has swallowed up many an otherwise promising fiction synopsis, too.

Last time, I suggested that if you write nonfiction, you might want to use part of your synopsis to establish — gently — your platform. Why? Well, to make it pellucidly clear to agency screener Millicent even on her most rushed day (and even in her worst mood) that you are indeed uniquely qualified to write the book you are describing. But that does not mean that the platform should overwhelm the book’s content in your synopsis.

Before I move the carnival parade that is Synopsispalooza down the block to more concrete how-to advice, I want to devote this evening’s morning’s post to the single most common pitfall into which Millicent sees nonfiction synopses tumble — and a significant proportion of fiction synopses, come to think of it. Aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, sees it even more.

I refer, of course, to synopses that sound not just like back jacket blurbs for the book, all premise and puff, without a serious overview of the plot, but like the speech the MC makes before handing the author his or her Lifetime Achievement Award: not only is this book’s author brilliant, talented, and the best person in the universe to write this book, but a great humanitarian and my close personal friend as well.

It’s funnier if you picture Sammy Davis, Junior saying it. Or if you happen to be old enough to remember the alcohol-soaked roasts where compères used to utter such platitudes. (If you are not, be grateful. There used to be only a handful of television stations, so sometimes, tuning in to those roasts was well-nigh inevitable.)

How might such platitudes turn up in a synopsis, you ask? In the midst of a cacophony of one’s own horn-blowing, typically. We’ve already talked about the nails-on-a-chalkboard annoyance factor of the dreaded This book is a natural for Oprah! claim in a query letter, but believe me, reviewing one’s own work is equally Millicent-irritating in a synopsis.

If you are writing a synopsis for a novel, PLEASE avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a self-praise session (“My writing teacher says this is the best comic novel since CATCH-22!”) or an essay on why you chose to write the book (“Wrenched from the depths of my soul after seventeen years of therapy…”). Neither tends to work well, both because neither is really about the book — and, let’s face it, praise is more credible coming from someone other than the person being praised, isn’t it?

And if you doubt the latter, flip over pretty much any book published in North America within the last twenty years and take a gander at the blurbs from famous people. Don’t they ring truer coming from pens OTHER than the author’s?

Yet both the relayed second-hand compliment and the diatribe about the author’s personal motivation for writing the book are rather common inclusions in synopses. How common, you ask? Well, if I had a dime for every fiction synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, it isn’t autobiographical, but… — or every memoir synopsis that mentioned gratuitously, based on my real-life story… I would own my own miniscule island in the Caribbean.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, I’d fly the surviving members of Monty Python to that Caribbean and have them do the parrot sketch live for my friends. Or maybe just listen to Eric Idle talk for several hours straight. (One pretty good indication that a 4th-grader is going to grow up to write comedy: she has a crush on the guy in Monty Python who did his writing solo, rather than with a partner. Swoon!)

And if I had a dime for every time seen it (self-aggrandizement, that is, not Eric Idle) in a query letter, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright and make their policies friendlier to first-time authors. But it seems that the repetition fairy isn’t giving out spare change to editors like me anymore, no matter how many aspiring writers I stuff under my pillow.

And believe me, you people are lumpy. No wonder I don’t get as much restful slumber as my doctors advise.

My point is, hyperbolic self-review is almost as common as…well, I was going to say as common as aspiring writers who claim, “My book is a natural for Oprah!” but that’s hyperbolic self-review, isn’t it? To Millicent, it is approximately as distracting from an otherwise well-written synopsis as this is from the rest of this post:

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Go ahead — try to keep your eye from straying back up here as you read the paragraphs to come. Walk a mile in Millicent’s moccasins.

I hear some of you chortling out there, do I not? “Oh, Anne,” those of you confident about your descriptive abilities tell me gently, “you’re sweet to worry about my query and synopsis, but I know better than to waltz into that obvious a bear trap. My book is a sensitive, lyrical story of a fascinating person…”

Stop right there, unjustified chortlers. What was that last sentence, if it was not self-review?

Half of you just did a double-take, didn’t you? A good trick, given all of the gymnastics going on above.

Well might you: the average synopsis-writer tends to confuse qualitative description of the book with content-based description of the book. To professional eyes, the former is boasting; the latter is a professional synopsis.

“What’s the difference?” truculent former chortlers demand. “A synopsis is supposed to describe the book, right? I’m just making it sound good.”

Not to Millicent or Mehitabel, I’m afraid — and for very solid reason. Tell me, which gives a stronger idea of what a book is about, this synopsis opening:

Ripped from today’s most explosive headlines, EXPLOITATIVE TRASH is a searing indictment of a world gone mad. Told from the perspective of RONNIE LEGUME (14 going on 90), a beautifully-drawn headstrong street kid with a hidden heart of gold — she must conceal it, because where she comes from, nothing valuable is safe for long — the reader breathlessly follows the day-to-day pulse of life on the mean streets of an upper middle-class suburb. Cul-de-sacs have never seen such horror before.

or this one for precisely the same book:

Recent transplant from reform school RONNIE LEGUME (14) does not fit in with the other kids in her mom’s cul-de-sac. Try as she might to blend into his new, upper middle-class surroundings, the tough act that helped keep her safe for seven long years is just too helpful in keeping bullies at bay here. These people might pretend to be respectable, but behind closed doors, Ronnie keeps discovering levels of depravity that would have made her former warden blush.

Honestly, which one would you rather read? It’s really not a very difficult choice, from a professional reader’s perspective: the first is essentially a review; the second introduces an interesting character in an interesting situation. So which gives the better sense of the subject matter? The first distances the reader from the story; the second thrusts the reader right into Ronnie’s world. Which gives the better sense of the book’s tone and focus? The first peppers the reader with clichéd phrases that make this story seem like a hundred others; the second uses unexpected phrasing to make the story appear more original. Which makes the writer seem like the more gifted storyteller?

The sad thing is, the writer of the first might very well believe that he IS giving a just-the-facts-ma’am description. After all, he is using the synopsis to tell what the book is about, right?

That’s precisely the problem: he’s talking about the book, rather than telling the story. In a fiction or memoir synopsis — and often in a nonfiction synopsis as well, if it has a strong historical narrative — it’s vital to tell the book’s story in a compelling manner. All qualitative statements about the book do is take up space that could have been used to tell the story more vividly — and to make it come across as more original.

Originality is key in good synopsis storytelling — why should Millicent request a manuscript if its query synopsis made it sound similar to 27 out of the last 50 manuscripts she read? Emphasizing the surprising parts of the story or argument is always a better strategy in a synopsis than making it sound like any other book she’s likely to have read recently, published or otherwise. Or like a movie, TV show, graphic novel, or any other writer’s production other than your own.

Speaking of originality, don’t underestimate just how much the frequency with which synopsizers attempt the first approach or its first cousin, the back-jacket blurb synopsis, contributes to what turn-offs they are for our pal Millicent — or Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter. When you’re reading 800 submissions per week or even 25 contest entries in a sitting, commonalities between ostensibly unrelated stories can get pretty darn annoying. At minimum, similarities can make the synopses that contain them all start to blur together.

So I ask you: if 11 of those contest entry synopses contained similar boasts about the quality of the writing, 8 shared at least one plot twist, and you could send only 5 on to the next round of judging, which would you send? Common gaffes make both the contest judge and the agency screener’s decision-making process so much easier.

“But Anne,” some now-chastened former chortlers ask politely, “I understand why I should not toot my own horn. But above, you said that I should not reproduce somebody else’s trumpet solo on my behalf, either. if my writing teacher actually did tell me that I had written the best comic novel since CATCH-22, why shouldn’t I shoehorn that information into my synopsis? It’s not as though I’m the one reviewing my manuscript.”

True, but the synopsis is not the proper place for anyone to review the book in question. Even if David Sedaris, S.J. Perlman, and Dorothy Parker all laughed themselves sick at your wry witticisms, stick to demonstrating that wry wit — and your storytelling ability — in the synopsis. Trust me, you’ll be able to find other opportunities to work other people’s opinions about your work into your marketing copy.

May I suggest, for instance, the back jacket of the book?

Within the context of a synopsis, however true any second-hand praise above may be — not knowing your writing teacher and her relationship to Joseph Heller, I cannot comment upon the appropriateness of the comparison to CATCH-22 — or how difficult it was for an author to write a book, or how apt a descriptive statement that implies an evaluation of quality may be, none of these forms of self-compliment are going to impress Millicent or Mehitabel. On the whole, they prefer to make up their own minds about the quality of the writing in front of them.

Remember, a good fiction or memoir synopsis is NOT a justification for having written the book in the first place: properly, it is one heck of a good story, presented well. Period.

For nonfiction, as I mentioned last time, you will want to do some gentle self-promotion, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable and you are the most reasonable person in the universe to write it (platform, platform, platform!) but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it or boasting about how generally necessary this book is to the betterment of humanity.

Again, it may surprise you to hear, but a LOT of nonfiction synopses (and even more memoir synopses) go off on these tangents, to their own detriment. These misguided documents tend to run a little something like this:

I wrote this heart-wrenching memoir over the violent objections of my mother, my father, my maternal grandmother, my great-aunt, my six siblings, and my parakeet, Ralph. Despite their begging me not to tell the story of our family’s sordid seven years as goat-smugglers, I felt that this story must be told. The truth shall set us free, and besides, the goats had already gotten their side of the story out to the media.

Well, of course, a memoirist’s relatives are going to kick up a fuss at the prospect of long-buried family secrets being revealed. That’s practically a given (and a reason that so many memoirs are the objects of lawsuit threats; I speak from experience). You have every right to be concerned, personally, although it’s rare that such threats come to fruition. Hurt feelings are rarely actionable, and even when they are, truth is a pretty good defense against a charge of libel.

But none of that is remotely relevant to any situation in which someone in an agency, publishing house, or judging a contest might be reading your synopsis. Why should Millicent care about the hurt feelings of people she has never met — or their literary opinions, for that matter?

Don’t bore her with your reservations in the synopsis; save those qualms to thrill your biographers. Instead, use the space to flesh out your argument with — chant it with me now, readers — intriguing specifics that Millicent is unlikely to see in any other synopsis this week.

There are very few contexts in the publishing world where launching on a lengthy disquisition why you wrote the book is even appropriate — and just so you have it in the back of your mind for future reference, here they are:

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, it is sometimes a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing, to establish your platform or the book’s marketability. If so, your agent may well advise you to add a section to the proposal entitled something like, “Why Tell This Story Now?”

(2) Within the context of an interview after the book is released, writers are free to ramble on about it as long as they like. Interviewers LOVE hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels; we’ve all seen it in a million literary interviews.

(3) When you are chatting with other writers, or if you become very, very good friends with your agent or editor after the contract is signed. Then, talking about it until you’re blue in the face is an accepted part of the creative process.

(4) Immediately after Eric Idle asks you, “So what inspired to became a comic novelist?” (Okay, so maybe this one applies only to me.)

Other than those four situations, however interesting your motivations may have been, they tend not to be anywhere near as interesting to other people — at least those who work in the publishing industry — as the book itself. Nor should they be. At least if the book is any good.

And yours is, isn’t it? I sincerely hope so, for your sake: a writer who honestly believes that the story of how you came to write a book is more interesting than the story in the book is going to have a devil of a time figuring out how to market it. As much as the writing process fascinates those of us in the throes of it, frankly, it doesn’t tend to be all that interesting to non-writers.

Don’t believe me? Start attending book readings for tomes you are unlikely ever to read. 99% of the time, the author will speak at length about why s/he chose to write this particular book.

Watch the audience’s reaction: it’s rare that most of the eyes in the room don’t glaze over at this point.

After you have attended three such readings within the course of a week without yawning once, THEN come to me and talk about whether your synopsis should include a paragraph on why you wrote the book.

I know it’s hard to accept, but actually, in a business sense, why an author wrote any book is not particularly important to the publishing industry. In their eyes, unless you are a celebrity cashing in on your name recognition, you wrote your book for one very simple reason: because you are a writer.

Writers tend to do that, they’ve noticed. You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to get a trend like that past an agent or editor.

From that rather cold point of view, a writer who goes on and on about the psychological impulses to tell a particular story (unless the book in question is a memoir) comes across as not very professional — or, at any rate, as a writer who might not really understand that readers can’t reasonably be expected to purchase a book simply because the writer went to the trouble of writing it. Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s true: as much as we writers love to talk about our creative process, on the business side of the industry, such discussion tends to be regarded as a sign of that species of self-involvement that can render an artist rather deaf to the demands of the marketplace.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this assumption, because in my experience, most aspiring writers tend to blurt out their reasons for penning a book not because they think of themselves as Artistes Above Such Sordid Considerations as Marketability, but because they feel so isolated throughout the actual writing process. After years locked up with a book project, it can a positive relief to be able to talk about it to someone, isn’t it, especially when that someone is empowered to get the book published at long last?

It’s natural, it’s understandable, and it’s probably even healthy. By all means, go with that impulse. But please, please take my word on this one: you should most emphatically not do it in your synopsis.

Or indeed, in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry, unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor. At least, not until after the ink is dry on your contract.

As usual, there are a couple of exceptions. Obviously, if the agent of your dreams asks, “So, where did you get the idea for this book?” you can and should give an honest answer, unless you happen to have beaten another writer over the head in the dead of night and stolen her work-in-progress. Or if someone stands up at a book reading and asks the same question — although as a rule, I would discourage planting your significant other or other crony in the audience to ask that particular question.

Yes, I’ve seen it happen, and it’s invariably really obvious that it’s a set-up.

Also — at the risk of repeating myself — if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid, feel free to mention it in your pitch or query letter. And in your synopsis, if you are summarizing a nonfiction book. But in fiction, that information does not really belong in the synopsis.

But I can feel already that some of you are not going to fight me on this point. So here is a bit of advice for those of you who are planning to, well, ignore my advice: if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned in the synopsis, stick it at the end, where it won’t be too intrusive.

All right, I really must get some sleep now. Keep those trumpets in their cases where they belong, everybody, and keep up the good work!