So you’ve pitched or queried successfully — now what? Part XII: why a talented writer should not see any single rejection as the end of the line, or, some reasons to keep chugging along in the face of long odds

Yes, yes, I know — it’s been a while since I’ve posted, although I have been consistently answering the ever-burgeoning crop of readers’ questions that have been cropping up on archival posts. (Word to the wise: since writers habitually ask such good questions, reading the comments on those posts is often quite worthwhile.) It’s been an even longer while that we’ve been meandering toward the end of this series on the steps and missteps pitchers and queriers take immediately after having pulled off their ostensible goal: to provoke an agent or editor to request manuscript pages.

Yes, I did say ostensible, because you’d be astonished at how frequently successful pitching or querying induces not only the kind of oh-my-God-I-have-to-get-this-out-the-door-instantly! panic we have discussed so much throughout this series, but an actual feeling of letdown. All too often, after expending the intense effort and socially underestimated bravery of presenting one’s baby to someone actually in a position to get it published, the would-be submitter finds herself beginning to doubt whether that yes really did mean yes — or whether it was an enthusiastic enough yes to be regarded as a good sign.

Or even sufficient reason to comply with the request for pages. Over half of requested materials never arrive, after all.

I’m delighted to hear most of you guffawing merrily. “Oh, come on, Anne,” those of you who have yet to be in this seemingly enviable position scoff, “how insecure would a successful pitcher or querier have to be to experience qualms at that juncture? I can understand experiencing some icy tootsies at earlier points — while working up the immense guts required to pitch a book to a real, live agent, for instance, or in that awful pause between receiving a rejection and sending out the query again. But why in heaven’s name would a sensible, sensitive, intelligent writer feel let down by learning that his pitch or query worked? Or not act upon it when it did?”

Several reasons, in practice. First, pitchers and queriers sometimes harbor false hopes for what they can achieve with an initial approach. One of the most pernicious myths of publishing is that if a writer is really talented, her book will attract serious attention from the industry at first glance, rather than the result of years of persistence. So even if a writer knows intellectually that the best possible outcome at the pitching/querying stage is, in fact, for the pro to ask to see pages, she may still feel disappointed that the agent of her dream’s first response is, “Your premise seems interesting; I’d like to see how you handle it on the page,” rather than “By Jove, that’s the best book concept I’ve ever heard! No need to read any of your actual writing — I’m going to sign you here and now!”

Of course, the latter response had ever actually emerged from an agent or editor’s lips when speaking to a non-celebrity writer’s pitch or query, it would be a bit insulting, right? How could anyone tell whether a book is well-written without reading it — or judge a writer’s potential without bothering to clap eyes upon what he has written? Indeed, what agent or editor in her right mind would even consider signing a writer whose work she’s never read?

But ‘fess up, pitchers and queriers: at least at first, you walked into the process hoping that she would, didn’t you?

Another reason writers suddenly finding themselves on the receiving end of a request for pages sometimes feel low is that it can take a lot of nos to get to yes. Yes, no matter how talented one might happen to be: typically, it takes a writer new to the game a while to figure out which agents to approach, let alone how to approach them professionally. Yet due no doubt to that aforementioned pernicious myth that true talent always finds a home, and instantly, many, if not most, aspiring writers presume that any rejection means that they’re not talented enough to get published.

As a direct a simply staggering percentage of queriers, pitchers, and even submitters make the attempt only once. “I tried!” they protest. “But the publishing world didn’t want my work. So why should I try again?”

Um, because agents and editors are individuals, not merely cogs in a vast collective publishing mind? Logically, no single rejection could possibly equal rejection by the entire industry.

To be fair, though, that’s a heck of a lot easier to say than to believe. Rejection hurts; there’s just no way around that. And if one’s work gets rejected enough, the anticipation of further rejection can render even an awfully gosh darned enthusiastic request for pages seem like a spider’s coyly inviting a trusting fly over for a dinner and a movie.

And then there’s the most common reason that successful queriers and pitchers feel less than thrilled by the advent of a cordial request to send pages: they don’t know how to respond. It’s not that they don’t want to take advantage of the opportunity; they’re simply unsure how to do it. What if they inadvertently do something wrong?

Thus this series, in case you had been wondering. No matter how eager you are to get published, it can be genuinely stressful to be asked to submit your work. Especially if you happen to have bought into that pernicious myth, and believe that the process should be easy and quick.

I can tell you now that it won’t be — and that the length and curviness of a writer’s road to publication is a notoriously poor predictor of authorial success. What’s a better predictor, in my experience? A writer’s persistence — and her willingness to take the time to learn how publishing actually works, rather than stubbornly clinging to any myths on the subject that she might have picked up along the way.

Or, to put it another way: while the publishing world does not always reward writers serious enough to professionalize their outlooks, it has a long and glorious history of preferring those that do.

Which is one aspect of how the publishing industry treats writers that I really like, actually: collectively, it tends to assume not only that anyone who can write well enough to deserve to be published is an intelligent human being, but also that a good writer can and will learn the ropes of the business side of publishing prior to expecting to make a living within it. Just as no rational being would walk into an operating theatre and begin performing brain surgery with no previous training or basic knowledge of human anatomy, the logic runs, what smart aspiring writer would believe that successfully pulling off one of the most complex achievements of the human psyche, the writing of a truly good book, requires no advance practice? Or that the industry devoted to bringing those magnificent expressions of the human spirit to public attention has no internal rules or standards to which someone brand-new to the biz would be expected to adhere?

In this era where even news shows operate on the assumption that the average adult has the attention span of a three-year-old — and one who has been stuffing candy into his eager mouth for the last two hours at that — I find agents’ and editors’ presumption of authorial intelligence rather refreshing. If a trifle optimistic in practice.

How so? Well, many successful queriers and pitchers see only the negative fallout of this industry-wide assumption: since the pros expect writers to do their own research before trying to get their books published, rookie submitters are often stunned that nobody in the industry just tells them what to do. Wasn’t this supposed to be easy and straightforward, as the pernicious myth led us to believe? From a first-time querier’s perspective, it can seem downright counterproductive that agents just expect him to know what a query letter should look like, what information it should contain, and that it shouldn’t just read like a back jacket blurb for the book.

Heck, how is someone who has never met an agented author in person to know not just to pick up the phone and call the agent in question? Magic? Osmosis?

Similarly, agents, editors, and contest judges presume that anyone genuinely serious about her writing will have learned how professional writers format their manuscripts — an interesting presumption, given that many, if not most, aspiring writers are not aware that professional manuscripts are not supposed to resemble published books.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not information that the average writer is born knowing — which is a real shame, since professionally-formatted manuscripts tend to be taken far more seriously at submission time than those that are not.

Again: thus this series — and thus the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right. Chant it with me now, those of you who have been following this series closely: people who read manuscripts for a living assume that since good writers are intelligent people, the only reason that a manuscript would not be formatted properly is that the submitter did not bother to do his homework.

In other words, from their perspective, a query or submission that does not conform to their expectations of what is publishable (in terms of writing) or marketable (in terms of content or authorial authority) indicates that the writer just isn’t ready yet to play in the big leagues. He may not be waiting for the Manuscript Fairy to wave her wand over his just-completed first draft, causing an agent — any agent, for what does it matter? — to appear on his doorstep, clamoring to represent writing she hasn’t read, but he isn’t exactly investing the time in learning how professional writing looks, either.

That doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that the writer question will never produce professional-level work; indeed, folks in the industry tend to assume (and even say at conferences) that they’re confident that if a truly talented writer gets rejected, she will take it as a sign that she needs to improve her presentation. Since the information on how to do that is available — on this website, as a matter of fact — why wouldn’t someone with a genuine gift invest the time and effort in learning to do it right?

In my experience, there’s a very straightforward answer to that: because the average querier or submitter, gifted or otherwise, doesn’t have a clear idea of what he’s doing wrong — or that there is a professional standard to which he should be adhering. And since most rejection letters these days contain absolutely no clue as to what caused the agent (or, more commonly, the agent’s screener) to shove the submission back into the SASE — heck, some agencies no longer respond at all if the answer is no — I don’t find it all that surprising that the aspiring writer’s learning curve is usually quite steep.

That’s why, should you have been speculating on the subject for the last few paragraphs, I am bringing up the expectation of intelligent research at the end of this series on how to respond to a submission request. Indeed, it’s a large part of the reason that I write this blog: from an outside perspective, it’s just too easy to interpret the sometimes esoteric and confusing rules of querying, pitching, and submission as essentially hostile to aspiring writers — and thus as justification for hesitating when faced with a request for pages.

Yes, the hoops through which a new writer needs to jump in order to get his work considered by the pros are many, varied, and sometimes flaming, but that’s not due to any antipathy toward rookies. Honestly, the hoops exist mostly for practical reasons. While many of the querying and submission restrictions have indeed been established in order to narrow the field of candidates for the very, very few new client slots available at most agencies, the intent behind that weeding-down effort is not to discourage talented-but-inexperienced writers from trying to get their work published. The underlying belief is that an intelligent person’s response to rejection will not be to give up, but to analyze what went wrong, do some research about what can go right, and try, try again.

That’s right: the fine folks who toil in agencies and publishing houses don’t expect the writers they reject to disappear permanently, at least not the ones with genuine talent. They believe that the gifted ones will return, this time better equipped for life as a professional writer.

To cite the old publishing industry truism, good writing will always find a home. What the agents and editors who spout this aphorism seldom think to add is: but not necessarily right away. Like learning any other set of job skills, becoming a professional writer can take some time. And one heck of a lot of effort.

Which means, from the business side of the industry’s perspective, writers who give up after just a few rejections — which, as I mentioned, is the norm, not the exception — are those who aren’t genuinely interested in making the rather broad leap between a talented person who likes to write and a professional writer in it for the long haul. Trust me, Millicent the agency screener doesn’t waste too many tears over the loss of the former.

I don’t see it that way, personally: I see the crushed dreams. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that most talented aspiring writers take individual rejections far, far too seriously.

As I said, this is a field of endeavor that not only rewards, but assumes persistence in a writer. Yet in recent years, it seems as though every third aspiring writer I meet has either:

(a) sent out a single query, got rejected, and never tried again,

(b) had a few queries rejected two years ago, and has been feverishly revising the manuscript ever since, despite the fact that no agent had yet seen it,

(c) pitched successfully at a conference, but convinced herself that the only reason four agents asked to see her first chapter was because those agents were too nice not to say yes to everybody,

(d) received a positive response to a query or pitch, then talked himself out of sending the requested materials at all, because his work isn’t good enough — how could it be, when he’s been rejected in that past?

(e) sent out the requested pages, but in order to save herself from disappointment, decided in advance that none of the replies will be positive,

(f) received the first manuscript rejection — and expanded it mentally into a resounding NO! from everyone in the industry, and/or

(g) concluded from conference chatter that no one in the industry is interested in any book that isn’t an obvious bestseller. Why bother to try to break into a biz that doesn’t want new voices?

In short, each of these writers had decided that his or her fears about what happened must have been true, rather than doing the research to find out whether the explanation hurt feelings dictated was in fact the most reasonable one, or even remotely plausible. To address some of the more common leapt-to assumptions, in the order they appeared above:

(a) a single query is not — and cannot, by definition — be indicative of how every agent on earth will react.
A better response: why not try again?

(b) until agents have actually seen the manuscript, there’s no way a writer can know how they will respond to it.
A better response: work on improving the query.

(c) no, the agents and editors weren’t asking everyone to send pages — pitching just doesn’t work that way.
A better response: if your pitch or query garnered a submission request, assume that you did something right and send out the materials.

(d) how do you know for sure until you send it out?
A better response: learn how to present your work professionally, then submit it.

(e) in my experience, foretelling doom does not soften future misfortune, if it comes — it only serves to stultify present hope.
A better response: hedge your bets by continuing to query other agents while waiting to hear back from the first round.

(f) any agent or editor’s opinion of a book is just that, an opinion.
A better response: see (a)

(g) contrary to pernicious myth, the publishing industry makes most of its money on books that are neither bestsellers nor small-run books. Most of the time, the mid-list titles are paying the agency’s mortgage.
A better response: take the time to learn how the industry works, rather than killing your chances entirely by not continuing to try.

None of this is to say that bouncing back from rejection is easy, of course, or that landing an agent is a snap. The road from first idea to publication is long and bumpy, and seems to get bumpier all the time.

Honestly, though, is the pain of rejection worse than the strain of not pursing your dream? As Maya Angelou tells us, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

Yes, it’s emotionally hard work to prep your pages to head out the door to agents and editors; yes, it is hard to wait for replies to your submissions. To give you a foretaste of what’s down the road, it’s also psychically difficult to watch the weeks tick by between when you sign with an agent and when that sterling soul decides that, in her professional opinion, the time is ripe for her to submit your book to editors. And then it’s rough to wait until those editors get around to reading it, just as it is agonizing to hang around, feigning patience, between the time a publisher acquires your book and it appears on the shelves.

I’m not going to lie to you: it’s all incredibly wearing on the nerves. That’s just a fact of authorial life.

That being said, if you are thinking about throwing in the towel on your book before you have given the querying and submission processes a thorough test, I’m just not the right person to look to for validation of that decision. Sorry. I’ll give you practical advice on how to query until we’re both blue the face; I’ll hand you tips on how to improve your submission’s chances until the proverbial cows come home; I’ll share pointers on the fine art of revision until Doomsday; I’ll answer your questions along the way until my fingertips lose their distinctive prints. I will cheer from the sidelines for your efforts as a writer until even the Norse gods decide to call it a day and burn down the world.

As long as you keep trying. A dream that’s fed only on hope without action will eventually starve.

And, frankly, a plan that’s not based upon a realistic understanding of the possible is harder to act upon. One of the few industry truisms that is actually true 100% of the time: the only book that has absolutely no chance of being published is the one that stays hidden in the bottom drawer of the author’s filing cabinet.

Keep pushing forward; keep sending your work out. Because while it’s time-consuming, expensive, and emotionally wearing, it’s also literally the only way that your book — or any book — comes to publication.

What makes me so sure of this? Long-time readers of this blog will groan with recognition, but once again, I feel compelled to remind you that five of the best-selling books of the 20th century were rejected by more than a dozen publishers before they were picked up — and that was back in the days when it was considerably easier to get published. Feel free to count down with me now:

Dr. Seuss, AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET (rejected by 23 publishers)

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

Thor Heyerdahl, KON-TIKI (20)

Richard Bach, JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL (18)

Patrick Dennis, AUNTIE MAME (17)

The lesson to derive here: keep moving forward. Please don’t dismiss your book too soon, on the basis of some preconceived notion of what will and will not sell — even if that preconceived notion fell from the ostensibly learned lips of the agent of your dreams.

Concentrate on what you can control, not what you can’t. In order to do that effectively, you’re going to need to learn about how the process actually works. The good news is that the writer does have practically absolute control over the technical and cosmetic aspects of the submission.

Yes, I know — for most of us, getting our thoughts, stories, and worldviews out there is the primary goal of writing a book, so concentrating on the details seems comparatively boring. Most of us want to move directly to unfettered self-expression — and then are surprised and frustrated when the resulting book has difficulty finding an agent, getting published, or winning contests.

But this is a bad idea, both professionally and emotionally. Concentrating almost exclusively on the self-expressive capacity of the book, it’s too easy to read rejection as personal, rather than as what it is: an industry insider’s professional assessment of whether she can sell your work within her preexisting sales network. Ask anyone in the biz, and he will tell you: 99% of rejections are technically-based; the rejection usually isn’t of the submitter’s style or worldview, for the simple reason that those are not considerations unless the basic signs of good writing — in the sense of professional writing — are in the submission.

This can be a very empowering realization. As can coming to terms with the fact that while people may be born with writing talent, the ability to present writing professionally is a learned skill.

Once a writer grasps the difference between technically good writing and stylistic good writing and the distinction between a well-written manuscript and a professionally-formatted one, rejections become less a personal insult than a signal that there may be technical problems. Technical problems are much, much easier to fix than stylistic ones, after all. The question transforms from “Why do they hate me?” to “What can I do to make this submission/query read better?”?

Yes, yes, I know: emotionally speaking, that might not feel like much of an improvement, at least in the short term. But at least when the question is framed in the latter manner, there is something the writer can DO about it.

I’m a big fan of tackling the doable first, and getting to the impossible later. I come from a long line of writers.

Without a doubt, absolutely the best thing you can do to increase your chances is to make sure that your submission is crystal-clear and professionally formatted before you send it out. Pass it under other eyes, preferably those of other writers, people who both know basic good writing when they see it — and have some idea how to fix it.

Why not simply take the advice of anyone who utters the words that sustain so many aspiring writers, “Oh, you write? I’d like to read some of your work sometime.” Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: as marvelous as your kith and kin may be as human beings, they are unlikely to give you unbiased feedback — and unbiased, knowledgeable feedback is going to be a heck of a lot more helpful in hoisting your work up over the professional bar than even the most heartfelt friend’s cry of, “Oh, this is great.” Ask any professional writer.

What else can you control, even a little? Well, you can avoid sending your query or submission during the traditional industry dead times (between the second week of August and Labor Day; between Thanksgiving and New Year’s day), or predictable periods of heavy submission (immediately after New Year’s, right after school gets out for the summer). You don’t want to have your work end up in the read when we get around to it pile.

So for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to take a great big marker and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of your envelope, so your marvelous submission doesn’t get tossed into the unsolicited manuscript pile for a few months. It’s a good idea, too, to mention that these are requested materials in your hugely polite cover letter that you enclose with the manuscript: “Thank you for asking to see the first three chapters of my novel.”?

While I’m being governessy, I might as well add: always, always include a SASE — a stamped, self-addressed envelope — with enough postage (stamps, not metered) for your manuscript’s safe return. Mention the SASE in your cover letter. This marks you as a courteous writer who will be easy to work with and a joy to help. If you want to move your reputation up into the peachy range, include a business-size SASE as well, to render it a snap to ask you to see the rest of the manuscript. Make it as easy as possible for them to reach you to tell you that they love your book.

And remember, no matter how excited you are to get that manuscript out the door, don’t overnight it unless an agent or editor specifically asks you to do so; priority mail, or even regular mail, is fine. This is true, even if the agent who has had your first chapter for two months e-mails you and asks for the rest of the manuscript immediately. It’s neither appropriate nor necessary to waste your precious resources on overnight shipping.

Trust me on this one: your book may be the next PEYTON PLACE or JAWS, but honey, it is unlikely that the agent’s office is holding its collective breath, doing nothing until it receives your manuscript. Hurrying on your end will not speed their reaction time.

Another way to keep your momentum going while you wait: since turn-around times tend to be long (a safe bet is to double what the agent tells you; call or e-mail after that, for they may have genuinely lost your manuscript), do not stop sending out queries just because you have an agent looking at your manuscript or book proposal. If an agent turns you down — perish the thought! — you will be much, much happier if you have other options already in motion.

Not to mention the fact that you will have less time on your hands. No one is better at conjuring scenarios of doom than a creative person with some leisure time. Keep chugging forward.

Don’t let the hobgoblins of self-doubt carry you off, my friends. Have faith in your writing — and work hard to learn as much as you can to maximize your book’s chances of success. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXIII: Grace is in the details. So, today, is Catherine.

Have you been finding the real-world examples we’ve been examining of late constructive, campers, or have you been twiddling your thumbs, tapping your fingers, and wishing with all of your might that Queryfest might end, so we might get back to discussing craft? Or — and I must admit, I would have begun suspecting this, had I been on the reading end of Author! Author! for the last couple of months — have you begun speculating that I’ve been stretching our discussion of querying out as long as possible in order to discourage all of you from sending out letters to agents before the Great New Year’s Resolution Paper Flurry of 2012 roars to a close?

Okay, I’ll admit it: I have been dragging my feet a trifle, but I honestly have been extremely busy. I’m running an editing special on query packets this month and next, and honestly, I’ve been swamped. (There are a few slots still available, should you be interested, but they’re booking up fast.) I have been enjoying showing you just how big a difference a few relatively minor revisions in a query letter can make to how it strikes the weary, over-taxed eyes of our old pal, Millicent the agency screener.

For those of you new to the mysteries of querying, Millicent is the collective moniker of the legions of sharp-eyed, hard-working, literature-loving (yes, in spite of everything) assistants employed by agencies large and small to process the thousands upon thousands of query letters they receive each year. At most agencies, Millicent is also the first reader of requested manuscripts, winnowing the hundreds of submissions down to the few that her bosses, the agents to whom aspiring writers address their queries, have time to read. In a very real sense, then, Millicent is the audience at whom a savvy querier or submitter should be aiming his efforts.

Most aspiring writers are a trifle shocked to learn of Millicent’s existence; pretty much every writer tends to assume that the agent of his dreams has time to peruse, if not each and every query sent to her attention, at least one’s own. That’s the agent’s job, isn’t it, to seek out exciting new literary talent?

Actually, it isn’t, at least not primarily. A traditional agent — as opposed to the kind that makes a living not by selling books for authors, but by other means such as charging for manuscript feedback or taking kickbacks for referring aspiring writers to editing services — makes money only when he sells his existing clients’ manuscripts or book proposals. He takes a percentage of the advance, as well as any royalties. (If you’re not sure of the difference or how published authors get paid, you might want to check out the ADVANCES and ROYALTIES AND HOW THEY WORK categories on the archive list conveniently located at the bottom right-hand side of this page.) Going through queries and submissions, then, as well as working with clients in order to get a work ready for submission to publishing houses, is essentially done on spec in anticipation of future earnings.

That means, in practice, that while landing an exciting new voice or great book concept (or, even better, both in the same work) is potentially lucrative for an agency, getting paid in the short term depends mostly upon hustling to promote the manuscripts and proposals it currently has under contract, making sure that the publishers of existing clients’ books deliver advances and royalty checks on time (not a foregone conclusion in every instance, alas), and, ideally, helping already-established clients crank out more books for eager audiences. Because all of that is awfully darned labor-intensive, even a very successful agency typically takes on only a handful of new clients per year.

Which means, to be blunt about it, that a good agent usually doesn’t have nearly enough time to screen all of the queries aimed at him — and the more commercially successful his clients are, the more likely that is to be true. (Oh, you think Stephanie Meyers’ agent doesn’t receive a significantly higher volume of queries than your average bear?) Thus Millicent: while her boss concentrates on near-term profits, she performs the long term-oriented task of sifting through the mountains of queries and hills of submissions to come up with the happy few most likely to — pardon my being crass about it — rake in some dosh down the line.

Her efforts — and they are often substantial — free the agent of your dreams to concentrate on his current client list. That may be a touch frustrating when a writer is first trying to catch an agent’s eye, but believe me, you’ll be grateful for it once you’re gracing that client list.

I always like to remind aspiring writers of that around this time of year, when so many creative minds first tackle (or re-tackle) the daunting, lengthy, and often soul-compressing task of approaching agents with a first book. The Millicents of the world do not, by and large, enjoy rejecting writers, nor do they generally make the rules that determine what is and is not a rejection-worthy offense in a query, but it is in fact their job to reject virtually everything that comes across their desks.

That’s just how the system works, I’m afraid. An aspiring writer can waste a lot of time and energy in resenting that, without doing herself or her book any good.

In fact, most do. As any talented listener who has ever spent more than forty minutes at a writers’ conference knows, it’s not at all uncommon for even very ambitious writers to devote a far greater proportion of her oomph to complaining about how difficult it is to land an agent than to walking up to agents to pitch or sending out queries. Indeed, it’s not unheard-of for a genuinely gifted writer to send out only one, two, or twelve queries, then give up entirely, switching all of the energies previously expended in trying into seething and feeling hurt.

I’m not judging that response; I would be the last to deny that rejection hurts. It’s hard not to take personally. However, as a professional writer, I’m here to tell you that frequent rejection isn’t the exception for successful writers; it’s the norm. It often takes an agent dozens of submissions to sell a client’s book; agented writers pitch book ideas to their agents and editors all the time, only to see them shot down.

They don’t stop trying, you see. Nor should you. Yes, you’re probably going to get rejected a few times, but you can’t succeed if you don’t try. And keep trying, even if it takes a hundred queries. (Not at all an unusually high number for first-time authors these days, by the way.)

Chant it with me now, long-term readers: the only manuscript that stands no chance of getting published is the one that the writer, sometimes for excellent reasons, has stopped sending out. Or never worked up the nerve to send out in the first place.

It also helps to be humble enough — and professional enough — to be open to the possibility that the query itself, and not the book it presents, is what is tripping Millicent’s infamously sensitive rejection response. As we’ve seen throughout this series, it isn’t always the big faux pas that send her reaching for the form-letter rejection pile; it’s frequently the small gaffes.

Or, more commonly, a collection of them. Query red flags, like manuscript problems, are as sociable as ants: Millie rarely sees one traveling alone.

Bearing that in mind, I’d like to present you with another quite good querying effort by a brave and generous Author! Author! reader, a clever, creative soul I shall dub Catherine T. Great. From a writerly perspective, what I’m about to show you is not only good; it’s borders on the superlative. Just you wait and see.

Yet to Millicent’s finely-honed eye, the query that follows suffers from a number of small maladies. Not a single one of these problems would necessarily constitute a severe enough pneumonia to make us despair of the patient’s chances, perhaps, but taken together at the end of a long, tiring day of querying, the symptoms might well prove fatal to the chances of what genuinely sounds like an interesting book.

Our goal today, then, will be to ferret out and clear out those minuscule ailments, so that the patient may thrive.

So dig out your reading glasses, please, and see if you can diagnose the problems, as well as the strong points of this letter. As always, I apologize for the bizarre blurriness my blogging program lends to page shots (as opposed to photographs, which it passes along to you in loving detail); to try to ease it, I shall try making the pictures a little bigger this time around. If you are still having trouble seeing individual words or formatting specifics, please try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Pretty darned persuasive, is it not? Let’s pause for a moment to consider why. It’s upfront about why Catherine decided to query Hawkeye — the reference to one of her client’s books is professionally flattering without coming across as at all obsequious — makes the book category clear, and goes above and beyond in providing a second parallel published book. Obviously, this is a writer who has done her homework (although I, for one, would have liked to know why the book would appeal to Ms. Revis’ readers, I must confess). It’s properly formatted, polite and professional in tone, and includes credentials relevant to publishing. The book’s description is a trifle on the long side, but it presents a compelling story arc.

Heck, she even came up with a title for Brilliant Author’s work that elicited a bona fide chuckle from me — and believe me, after six and a half years of coming up with querying examples for aspiring writers, I welcome a query effort that makes me chuckle. Well done, Catherine!

Yet despite all of these very positive elements, it contains two common problems — one structural, one creative — that might well give Millicent pause. Hint: we talked about one of them at fairly great length last time.

Hark! Do I hear a fairly hefty percentage of you leaping to your feet, exclaiming vigorously, “I see it, Anne! Catherine included that unnecessary cliché about the manuscript’s being complete,” you’ve already earned your gold star for the day. Chant it with me, recent post-rememberers: since a US-based agent could not possibly sell — or even submit to editors at publishing houses — an unfinished first work of fiction, agencies do not accept partial novel manuscripts. Therefore, any query for a fiction manuscript is assumed to be for a completed manuscript.

How I — and everyone currently working at any agency in North America — wish that logic were more widely known. The Internet, however, has an intriguing habit of making bad examples and ill-informed advice at least as pervasive as good examples and expert advice. Trust me, “But I saw an example online that did it that way!” carries precisely no weight with Millicent — or, indeed, anyone who reads for a living.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But while I’m at it, may I caution against the utterance of any sentiment that remotely resembles, “But my mom/husband/wife/best friend/writers’ group loved my book!” in the presence of anyone who has ever set foot in a literary agency? Not to cast aspersions upon those who love you, but from the pros’ point of view, non-professional assessments of literary quality tend not to be worth the paper they are written upon.

I have some bad news about the Easter Bunny, too, as well as George Washington and that cherry tree. I don’t want to shatter too many of your illusions in one day, though, so I’ll hold off on those.

Do I spot some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” Catherine’s well-wishers across the globe call out, and with good reason, “I’ll fess up: I thought that complete at X words was required verbiage for a query, too. How else would one work in the information about length gracefully?”

Oh, I don’t know — how about by constructing a graceful, original sentence, rather than lifting one somebody else wrote? English is a marvelously complex language that permits a great variety of sentence construction, after all, and part of the writer’s task in the query letter is to convince Millicent that he can, you know, write.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a myth (and, since the rise of the Internet, an astonishingly pervasive one) that every agent currently treading the earth’s crust demands to see a word count in the query. Some do, of course, but they tend not to be particularly shy about expressing that preference: if its inclusion is important to them, they will mention it in the agency’s submission guidelines.

And if they do not bring it up specifically — or if, as is more often the case, the agency has not posted guidelines for queriers more prescriptive than please query before sending materials — it’s honestly not going to help you to include the word count unless it falls smack dab in the middle of the normal range for your chosen book category. If it’s much longer or much shorter, including it could provide Millicent with an additional reason to reject the query.

Which, naturally, is why agencies that ask for this information want to know: because so many first manuscripts are in fact quite a bit longer or quite a bit shorter than the norms for the category (usually the former, for fiction), having this information handy in the query can save Millicent quite a bit of time — and the agency an entire step — in the rejection process. That’s just common sense: instead of being charmed by the query, requesting the manuscript, and waiting until it arrives to discover it’s a five-pound behemoth that would be astronomically expensive to print (or a six-ounce novella not long enough to hold hard covers apart), a Millicent at a word count-requesting agency can simply glance at those numerals and reject the project immediately.

Lucky for her that she didn’t have a chance to fall in love with your writing first, eh?

In Catherine’s case, even though her word count isn’t large enough to risk knee-jerk rejection, the book is on the longer end for YA. So if Hawkeye’s agency didn’t insist in its guidelines upon seeing those digits, is it really the best strategy for her to include them?

Check those guidelines carefully. It’s in your interest to verify the querying requirements of every single agent you plan to approach, anyway, to ascertain that they don’t want you to send additional materials — an author bio, for instance, or some special length of synopsis.

I know, I know: the let’s-use-a-template mentality would prefer that every agency in creation did in fact expect precisely the same elements in a query, or in a query packet, for that matter. A simple perusal of any fifteen agency websites featuring submission guidelines, however, will abundantly demonstrate that’s not the case.

And before anyone out there bellows, “But I saw something on another website that said my query would be doomed if I didn’t include the word count,” remember, folks, the vehemence with which a piece of querying advice is presented is not a particularly good indicator of how helpful that advice will be in practice. Especially, as in this case, when literally millions of queriers have taken the same piece of advice, rendering screening annoyingly repetitious for Millicent. “What on earth,” she mutters over the 78th iteration of complete at X words she’s seen in a morning, “makes them think they need to tell me something this obvious? And why oh why do 99% phrase it exactly the same way?”

This is not, of course, the intended effect. Quite the opposite, in fact. Like many aspiring writers, Catherine almost certainly included this stock phrase because she saw — although not here at Author! Author! — a template that featured it, and concluded, not unreasonably, that it was just necessary industry-speak that would elevate her query from the intriguing to the intriguing and professional.

Instead, it tells Millicent something completely different: despite Catherine’s genuinely impressive magazine credentials — did you catch that glorious platform paragraph? — she probably doesn’t know very much about how book-length fiction is sold or how agencies work. Perversely, that perception might actually make that magazine background work against Catherine at the query stage. Millicent might well conclude that her boss, or at any rate someone at the agency, would have to invest additional time in training such a client in the differences between what the magazine world expects in a manuscript and what book publishers do.

Counterintuitive, isn’t it? Contrary to popular opinion, not every piece of writing intended for publication should be formatted identically, nor is all publishing one big industry. What’s appropriate in a submission, or even in a query, depends entirely upon the venue. Agents deal with book publishers, by and large, so they expect their clients to adhere to the norms of that industry: reasonable, right? It’s equally reasonable for magazines to expect submitters to adhere to short story format, newspapers to look for A.P. format, and academic journals to adhere to their own esoteric standards.

So while Catherine’s extensive experience working with text intended for publication and producing print-ready work under deadlines undoubtedly constitute fine arguments for snapping her up as an agency client, presenting that information to Millicent immediately after having used a phrase that she has come to associate with those brand-new to book publishing might create an unintended effect. Specifically, the impression that while this is a writer accustomed to adhering to an industry’s writing expectations, she might experience some difficulty switching to Millie’s boss’ expectations.

Especially, as in this case, when that phrase appears at a rather odd point in the letter. Does anybody see a problem — from Millicent’s speed-reading perspective, that is — with where the information in that paragraph falls?

In case that last sentence was too subtle: why might it be to Catherine’s advantage not to make Millie read almost to the end of the query — or, if it’s an e-mailed query, to force her to scroll down — before conveying that information?

If you have been jumping up and down for the last few lines, exclaiming, “I know! I know! Millie won’t necessarily read that far to find out the book category,” feel free to raid the gold star cabinet again. Remember, a screener at an agency of any stature has to read through a LOT of queries in a day, and it’s her job to reject as many as she reasonably can, as fast as humanly possible.

And what’s the single simplest ground upon which to reject a query? Shout it out, Queryfest faithful: if the query appears to be for a book in a category Millicent’s boss doesn’t represent.

Yes, sometimes even if it doesn’t appear from the first paragraph that the letter’s been correctly targeted. Remember, if Millicent finds a rejection trigger early in a query, she’s not necessarily going to have the time to read on for others. In the midst of a busy day, she’s far, far more likely simply to stop reading and stuff a form-letter rejection into the enclosed SASE. (Catherine’s been redundant here in mentioning the SASE in the body of the letter and writing Enclosure at the bottom, by the way; once would have been sufficient.) Or, as is even more common these days, just to hit the DELETE key or toss the query into the recycling bin.

Fortunately for Catherine and her book — which, again, sounds like a good read — this dreadful fate is not all that hard to avoid. As is, alas, all too often the case with good writers who have just taken advice from too many sources, ironing out the wrinkles to present the book more pleasingly to Millicent’s eye can be done with very few keystrokes.

Stop laughing; it’s true. Just a few very minor revisions would make an immense difference here. Even just altering what we have talked about so far — taking out the stock phrasing and the word count, making it easier for Millicent to tell the book category from the get-go, removing the redundancy about the enclosure — would improve this query’s chances. Take a gander:

Stronger, isn’t it? That took less than a minute’s worth of keystrokes to accomplish.

I sense some nervous shifting in desk chairs out there in the ether. “But Anne,” YA writers across the globe point out, “I recognize that this version is tighter — it did seem a trifle conceptually redundant in the first to mention the book category twice. In Catherine’s defense, though, she did tell Millicent right off the bat the first time around what the book category was: YA. So why not just say that in the first paragraph, rather than specifying that it is YA science fiction?”

Good question, chair-shifters, and one that deserves a direct answer: because just as not all science fiction is aimed at a YA audience, not all YA appeals to science fiction readers. Nor do all YA-representing agents handle SF or fantasy aimed at that demographic. I must confess, though, from the description in the query, I’m not entirely sure why she has labeled this story as YA science fiction, rather than placing it the more capacious umbrella of YA fantasy. It’s entirely possible that this story contains elements that would make it fit more comfortably into the SF world — like, say, the cryogenically frozen space travelers featured in Across the Universe – but as the lengthy description doesn’t bring up any SF-specific elements, I suspect Millicent might be perplexed by the category choice.

And while we’re at it, the king’s answer lies within what? The garden, or Matty?

To be fair, since Catherine has clearly done her homework about this agency, she knows that Hawkeye does indeed represent YA fantasy and adult SF, so she probably could have gotten away with this particular ambiguity in her query were it not for a storytelling choice in the descriptive paragraphs. Any guesses why Millicent needed to know before the description that this book was SF or fantasy?

At the risk of running out of gold stars, help yourself to three if you bounded from your chair to cry, “Because while the first descriptive paragraph reads like YA, it does not read like either SF or fantasy!” For some reason that defies Millicent’s understanding, writers aiming at YA subcategories stumble into this pothole all the time: in their laudable attempt to present the premise in an engaging YA voice, they tend to give short shrift to the specialty elements.

I hear you giggling, but you’d be astonished at how many YA romance queries omit the romance (one of the reasons I didn’t transplant the with romance elements part of the original science fiction justification, incidentally), how many YA paranormals neglect to bring up the werewolf until the last sentence of the description, how many YA fantasies neglect to mention any fantastic plot points, and so forth. It’s as though these queriers believe that there’s just one big YA category that covers every single literary possibility for readers aged 13-17, and that a commitment to representing YA means swearing off the ability to specialize in certain voices or subject matter.

If that last paragraph made you gasp in terror, clutch your writhing entrails, and wish devoutly that you’d done a touch more research on what those agents you just queried had sold recently, well, you’re not alone. YA-screening Millicents are constantly overwhelmed with masses of queries that betray a belief that YA agents don’t specialize.

See now why I was so adamant about Catherine’s stating the subcategory in paragraph 1? Even if Millicent happened to be intimately familiar with both Brilliant Author and Beth Revis’ excellent efforts to entertain the youth of this part of the universe, it isn’t her job to guess that despite the fact that Matty’s story is presented at first as straightforward YA — it isn’t hard to imagine this story set in any strict school, is it? — he’s living in a fantastic world. It’s the descriptive section’s job to demonstrate it, and to do it right away.

Not having read the manuscript in question (which, again, sounds like a hoot, Catherine) and having no idea what the Hill is (when it first appears in the description, it seems to be Matty’s school, but by the end of the paragraph, it appears to be a regional designation), I’m reluctant to make up SF or fantasy elements to add to that paragraph. I can suggest a revision strategy, though: why not just beef up the initial description of Matty to include some off-world tidbit? Like, perhaps, this:

Sixteen-year-old Mars resident Matty Ducayn is a disappointment to everyone who knows him. As the son of The Hill’s commandant, he is expected conform to a strict, unspoken code of conduct. Small acts of defiance over years—like playing in the dirt and walking on the grass—have earned him a reputation for being unruly, but it’s his sarcastic test answers that finally push his masters over the edge. After his preparatory school expels him, he’s summoned by his sponsor…the king…to answer for the offense.

Doesn’t leave Millicent in suspense for long, does it? Again, that’s a huge improvement, given that this change required precisely six keystrokes.

While we have that excerpted paragraph in front of us, though, may I ask you a favor? Will you rise from your chair, back up an additional few feet from your computer screen, and take another look at that paragraph, please?

Tell me, what was the first thing that struck your eye? If it was those two rather perplexing sets of ellipses, you’re not alone. Yes, YA is on the whole quite a bit more open to what columnist Herb Caen used to call three-dot journalism than adult fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter), but here, those dots just don’t make sense. What, Millicent is left to wonder, is Catherine trying to say that could not have been adequately conveyed by the grammatically-correct commas:

After his preparatory school expels him, he’s summoned by his sponsor, the king, to answer for the offense.

Since the query is peppered with other, correctly used ellipses, what Millicent is most likely to conclude is twofold: first, Catherine really likes herself an ellipsis — and that the manuscript being queried is stuffed to the proverbial gills with ‘em. While neither would necessarily strike someone reading the book itself as problematic, if Catherine has used them discreetly and effectively throughout, repeating a stylistic trick several times within a space of text as short as a query implies that the author may use them that frequently on the manuscript page.

And if you’re not sure why that might present a problem, back up again and take a peek at the previous examples. That many ellipses on any given page of a published book would be mighty eye-distracting, wouldn’t they? Like most literary slight-of-hand, a device like this works best if it is used sparingly; indulge in it too much, and the reader’s eye begins to skim past it.

Again, though, not having read the manuscript in question, I’m reluctant to draw any conclusions whatsoever about how it is written. Millicent, I need hardly tell you, is not so shy. So let’s, just for the sake of appeasing her, limit the ellipsis use to once on the page, where removing it would make the greatest difference.

While I’m removing eye-distracters, I’m going to go ahead and excise the extra s in the possessive in that first paragraph. Yes, recent changes in journalistic practice have rendered forming a possessive by adding ‘s to — shudder — any noun, regardless of whether it happens to end in an s or not, but to most of us who read for a living, it still looks wrong. (Mostly because it would have been considered flatly and unquestionably wrong 20 years ago.) To us, the rule change just seems like a concession to those incapable of understanding a rule containing more than one element.

I was, fortunately for the Author! Author! community, brought up to exercise kind forbearance toward those wolf-raised miscreants who objected to punctuation that could not be applied identically in every instance. Millicent might, too, if she did not enjoy the good luck of being trained by a grammar rule-hugger, and her boss might well be too busy to care.

When people do object to rule-flattening, however, they tend to object to it pretty violently, so why take a chance in a query? Or, for that matter, tempt Millicent’s ire by adopting the AP style of capitalizing the first letter after a colon, as if it were the beginning of a new sentence? (See earlier section on different types of publishing embracing different standards.) For the sake of Millie’s blood pressure, I’m going to alter that, too.

That little peroration out of my system, let’s turn again to the query page. What jumps out at you now?

It was the dashes, wasn’t it? (And wasn’t it amazing how little difference removing those ellipses made to the actual meaning of those sentences?) This time around, it’s not just the frequency with which Catherine uses them here that would strike Millicent as odd, but the fact that she does not present them consistently. Half the time, they show up as emdashes, those long lines stretching from one word to the next, but the other half, they consist of two dashes, with no spaces between them and the words on either side.

In a book manuscript, neither would be correct: in standard format, dashes are doubled, with a space at either end. Care to extrapolate what Millicent’s assumption about the manuscript might be, based upon how dashes are used here?

Uh-huh: it would require proofreading, something not all agencies are willing to invest time in doing for their clients. So let’s go ahead and make those dashes both manuscript-friendly and consistent, shall we? Since the book’s title contains an unexplained-and-offbeat punctuation choice, Catherine will be best off if it’s the only one in the letter.

I’m also, for the sake of consistency, regularize the number of spaces after periods and colons: in the original query, sometimes it was one, sometimes two. While I’m at it, I shall correct the incorrect article in the platform paragraph, add the missing one, and introduce some clarifying commas.

Ah, that’s better: without the visual distractions, it’s easier to concentrate on the content of the letter. As a fringe benefit, the offbeat punctuation in the title now comes across as a definite authorial choice made by a rule-savvy writer, rather than — and I’m sorry to put it this way, Catherine, but it is how many Millicents might have seen it before — as a typo.

And speaking of typos, did you catch the one that I missed last time around? I’ll add the missing preposition in the next version.

Own up, now: you’re surprised that a query this good from the get-go could benefit from this much tinkering, are you not? That’s the difference between how Millicent — and any well-trained professional reader — looks at a page and how most people do. To those with the eye, these small changes make a world of difference, elevating the query several notches up the professionalism scale.

Believe it or not, I could tinker with this more — personally, I think that including a few vivid, one-of-a-kind specifics would make this letter even better, but lacking those, I’m not going to impose my guesses upon Catherine’s plot. A dandy place to start: how about adding a sentence showing Millicent how Matty’s world differs from ours?

Ah, you will say, but how would Catherine find the space to include her unique details? To an editor’s eye, the answer’s simple: since including so much of the plot here renders causation a trifle unclear, cut a bit of it out. Remember, the point of a book description in a synopsis is not to summarize the plot, but to present the premise and central conflict, preferably while depicting the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation.

Here, the description not only achieves all that, but goes considerably farther, suggesting how the central conflict gets resolved. While that’s not inherently problematic, Millicent’s expecting this part of the query to run only 3-4 sentences long. She seldom objects to queries on the ground that they are too short, if you catch my drift. She also tends to prefer descriptive sentences in the active voice to ones whose structure implies that things happen to the protagonist, rather than the protagonist’s propelling the plot along.

So despite the fact that I suspect the cuts I am about to make will cause Catherine to clutch her heart and murmur, “Sacre bleu! But it’s an essential twist, I tell you,” I invite the rest of you to consider whether tightening the lengthy description genuinely sacrifices much of this query’s original charm. In order to sweeten the trade-off a little, I’m going to use a bit of that freed-up space to show Millicent why I think, based upon what I know of this storyline, this book might appeal to readers of Beth Revis’ work.

Oh, and before I show you the revised version, allow me to ask: had you noticed that title of this book appeared in capital letters (one acceptable means of designating a title), while the other titles appeared in italics (a different means of same)? Millicent would have. Again, consistency is the querier and submitter’s friend: professional readers’ eyes automatically zoom in on the unexpected.

What, you may be asking, is the mystery of the vanished Januaries? Beats me; I was merely searching for shorthand for that rather confusing (for someone who has not read the manuscript, anyway) bit about the search. It’s a nice phrase, though, isn’t it, and one that whets your appetite to read the manuscript?

It just goes to show you: sometimes in a query, less actually is more, as long as it is clearly presented. It’s not the book description’s job, after all, to depict the central conflict in its entirety, after all; that’s the manuscript’s job. All the query has to do — and it’s a tall enough order without adding requirements, thanks — is intrigue Millicent enough that she will ask to see pages.

After that, Catherine, your story and voice will be able to grab her even more thoroughly, right? So why give away so much in the query?

Please join me in thanking Catherine for helping me illustrate yet again something that Millicents know only too well: to a professional reader, the details of a query can do as much toward demonstrating the writer’s professionalism and writing talent as the broad strokes of description can do to convey the plot. A savvy querier can use that to her advantage: since the overwhelming majority of queries have red flags imbedded in their details, if not also in the larger points, a query whose details are selected with care can shout from even the very bottom of Millicent’s daily reading allotment, “Hey, take this one seriously.”

Remember, Millicent doesn’t have much upon which to base her opinion of your writing. Make sure that every syllable of what she does see works to your advantage.

Thanks again, Catherine, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XXII: and then there’s the finesse part, or, the advantages of lingering on the right track

My apologies for the unexpected mid-series hiatus; I honestly had not anticipated that Pitchingpalooza would carry us into September. (Especially as I have some genuinely juicy treats in store for you over Labor Day weekend.) Blame the muses’ notoriously perverse sense of humor for arranging to have two — count ‘em, two — of my editing clients’ acquiring editors announcing that they were moving on to pastures new last week. Everyone concerned wishes them happy trails, of course, but with a certain amount of trepidation: with any changing of the editorial guard inevitably comes changed expectations for the handed-over manuscript.

Okay, I’m not entirely clear on what that massive collective gasp of horror out there in the ether meant. Were some of you unaware that in recent years, it has become not at all uncommon for the acquiring editor not to remain with the publishing house long enough to see a book she just loved as a submission all the way through the publishing process? Or was the shock — and I suspect it was — that editors will often ask for major changes in manuscripts after they have acquired them, for both fiction and nonfiction?

Oh, I’m sorry; I should have warmed all of you memoirists out there before I sprung that last bit, especially those of you who have been slaving over the Annotated Table of Contents in your book proposals in anticipation of a post-Labor Day submission blitz. I know that you have been working hard, trying to cobble together a plausible and entertaining story arc in a series of chapter summaries — so it may well be dispiriting to hear that it’s far from rare for an acquiring editor, or even an agent offering representation to a nonfiction author, to tell the point-blank that some of those chapters will need to go. Or that others should be added.

Starting to make more sense now that nonfiction is typically sold on a book proposal, not a completed manuscript? While most of the book is theoretical, it’s easier to conceive of changing it.

Yes, even if the writer believes that it is already finished. No matter how complete a memoir or nonfiction book may be in the author’s mind, from a publishing perspective, everything is up for negotiation until it is actually in print and sitting on a bookstore shelf. What is and isn’t finished is the publisher’s call, not the author’s. That assumption pervades the submission stage, and even the pitching/querying stage of a proposal’s progress. From the acquiring editor’s point of view, the proposal is essentially a job application: the writer is making the case that she is the best person currently wandering this terrestrial sphere for the publishing house to hire to write that particular book.

See why I’ve spent this series urging all of you nonfiction writers to spend this series thinking about your platform, and figuring out ways to work it into your pitch?

I sensed all of you novelists relaxing over the course of the last couple of paragraphs, but perhaps you shouldn’t have: agents and editors ask fiction writers to change their manuscripts all the time, too, even absent an editorial changing of the guard. Little things, usually, like whether the ending of the book is dramatically satisfying or whether a complex literary voice constitutes overwriting or is just right.

And while we’re massaging the text, need the protagonist’s sister be gay? Or a deep-sea fisherperson with marked propensities toward disestablishmentarianism?

Oh, you may laugh, but with the high turnover at publishing houses these days, a savvy writer needs to be prepared to be flexible. Just don’t modify your only electronic copy of your original manuscript; it’s not beyond belief that the editor who takes over tomorrow from the person who took over yesterday will like the same things about your book that the acquiring editor did.

Are your heads spinning, campers? Good: you’re in a perfect mindset to think about conference pitching.

After the last couple of Pitchingpalooza posts we talked about how to pull everything we’ve learned throughout this series into a formal 2-minute pitch. Couldn’t you feel the excitement crackling in the air? The moment nearly brought a tear to the eye: the public rejoiced, the heavens opened, lions and lambs lay down together, and agents all over New York spontaneously flung their arms around the nearest aspiring writer, gurgling with joy.

What, you missed all that? Even the good folks cleaning up the ticker tape parade?

Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating a trifle. And maybe those of you who aren’t planning to attend a conference and pitch anytime soon didn’t find it all that goosebump-inducing. “Let’s get on with it, Anne,” some nonambulant writers scoffed. “Let’s get back to the type of stuff that writers do at home in the solitude of their lonely studios: writing, rewriting, querying, rewriting some more…”

Patience, scoffers: as I may have mentioned once or twice in the course of this admittedly rather extensive series, learning to pitch is going to make you a better querier. And perhaps even a better writer, at least as far as marketing is concerned.

Did I just hear the scoffers snort derisively again? Allow me to ask a clarifying question, smarty-pantses (astute slacksers?): hands up, every querying veteran out there who now wishes devoutly that s/he had known more about how the publishing industry thinks about books before querying for the first time.

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That’s quite a response. Keep ‘em up if you sent out more than five queries before you figured out what your book’s selling points were.

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Or — sacre bleu! – your book’s category.

That last one is so common that I decided to spare you the artistic representation, so there would still be room on the page for the rest of today’s post. The very idea of querying without knowing makes me cringe: how can you even guess which agents to query before you’ve come up with that?

Which is precisely why it’s a good idea for even writers who would never dream of pitching their books in person to learn how to do it. Not only are many of the same skills required to construct a winning pitch and a successful query letter, but many of the actual building blocks are the same.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that?

Rest assured, it’s all been part of my evil plan. After Labor Day, we are going to delve once again into the wonderful world of querying. After a few well-deserved treats and perhaps a couple of short forays into craft, of course.

Why wait until after Labor Day, you ask? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because a hefty hunk of the NYC-based publishing industry goes on vacation from the second week of August through Labor Day. And when they get back, guess what’s piled up high on their already-cluttered desks?

Uh-huh. Might as well hold off until they’ve had a chance to dig through those thousands of piled-up queries.

Trust me, you certainly have time to ponder the mysteries of pitching, glean a few insights, and think about your book’s selling points before our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, will wade her way through the backlog. Heck, you would also have time for a mastoid operation and a trip to the Bahamas; for a good week or two into September, Millie’s going to need be rejecting at a speeded-up clip, just to get through the backlog. Not to mention the thousands of queries that will dumped on her desk just after Labor Day, because so many aspiring writers had heard that they shouldn’t query in August.

I can already feel some of you gearing up to query up a storm that weekend, but honestly, you might want to hold off for a week or two. And whatever you do, do not send an e-mailed query over a long weekend; the probability of getting rejected skyrockets.

Why, you shriek in horror? Millie’s inbox overfloweth on pretty much any Monday, because writers tend to have more time on the weekends. Labor Day weekend is especially popular, because so many of you have been tapping your toes impatiently, waiting for agencies to become populated again. By restraining yourself until, say, Wednesday, your e-mailed query

“But Anne,” I hear some reformed scoffers point out, “why shouldn’t I add my query letter to that pile? Won’t they answer them in the order received?”

Well, more or less. However, Millie’s been known to be a mite grumpy until she has cleared enough desk space to set down her latte. Any guesses what the quickest way to clear a desk of queries is?

Wait until the second week of September. At least.

In the meantime — which is to say: for the next few days — I want to round off Pitchingpalooza with some in-depth discussion of how to navigate a writer’s conference. Yes, yes, I know, we’ve been talking about conferences for the last month, but be fair:: I visit the topic only once per year. It’s been a long visit this time, admittedly, of the type that may well make some of you long for the houseguests to go home, already, but still, I don’t talk about it that often.

Perhaps that’s a mistake, since writers’ conference attendance has been skyrocketing of late. Blame the hesitant economy; writing a book is a lot of people’s fallback position. Interesting, given how few novelists actually make a living at it, but hey, a dream’s a dream.

Literary conferences can be pretty hard to navigate your first time around — and that’s unfortunate, because the darned things tend not to be inexpensive. Like pitching and querying, there are some secret handshakes that enable some aspiring writers to hobnob more effectively than others, as well as norms of behavior that may seem downright perplexing to the first-time attendee.

Up to and including the fact that there’s more to getting the most out of a conference than just showing up, or even showing up and pitching. So I’m going to be talking about the nuts and bolts of conference attendance, with an eye to helping you not only pitch more successfully, but also take advantage of the often amazing array of resources available to aspiring writers at a good conference.

Not to mention feeling more comfortable in your skin while you’re there.

Last week, I brought up a couple of the more common conceptual stumbling-blocks writers tend to encounter while prepping their elevator speeches and formal pitches. The first and most virulent, of course, is coming to terms with the necessity of marketing one’s writing at all — in other words, to begin to think of it not just as one’s baby, but as a product you’re trying to sell.

Half of you just tensed up, didn’t you?

I’m not all that surprised. From an artistic perspective, the only criterion for whether an agent or editor picks up a manuscript should be the quality of the writing, followed distantly by the inherent interest of the story. For many writers, the burning question of whether a market for the book already demonstrably exists doesn’t even crop up during the composition process; they write because they are writers — and writers write.

Is anyone but me sick of that well-worn tautology, by the way? Is it actually any more profound than saying that spelunkers explore caves, or that orchard-tenders have been known to pick the occasional apple?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but books do not get published simply because someone has taken the trouble to write them — or even because they are well-written. An aspiring writer must make the case that her book is not only a great yarn, but one that will fit into the current book market neatly. And, as many a pitcher and querier knows to her sorrow, she will need to make that case before anyone in the industry be willing to take a gander at the actual writing.

I know, I know: it seems backwards. But as I believe I have mentioned approximately 1704 times before, I did not set up the prevailing conditions for writers; I merely try to cast them in comprehensible terms for all of you.

If I ran the universe — which, annoyingly, I still don’t, as nearly as I can tell — writers would be able to skip the pitch-and-query stage entirely, simply submitting the manuscripts directly with no marketing materials, to allow the writing to speak for itself. Every submitter would receive thoughtful, helpful, generous-minded feedback, too, and enchanted cows would wander the streets freely, giving chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk to anyone who wanted it — or soy milk to the lactose-intolerant. I might even spring for wandering pixies wielding juicers, to bring orange, mango, and kale juice to a neighborhood near you.

Being omniscient, I would also naturally be able to tell you why the industry is set up this way. I’d be so in the know that I could explain why Nobel Prize winner José Saramago was so hostile to the conventions of punctuation that he wrote an entire novel, SEEING, without a single correctly punctuated piece of dialogue. And I would be able to issue all of you well-meaning aspiring writers who think unpunctuated dialogue looks nifty on the page a blanket pardon, so Millicent would not be allowed to reject you on the grounds that you evidently don’t know how to punctuate dialogue.

I would be that generous a universe-ruler.

But I do not, alas, run the universe, so Señor Saramago and certain aspects of the publishing industry are likely to remain mysteries eternal. (What harm would it have done him to use a period at the end of a sentence occasionally? Or a question mark at the end of a question?)

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: no matter how talented you are, if you hope to get published, the marketing step is a necessity. Even if you were Stephen King, William Shakespeare, and Madame de Staël rolled into one, in the current writers’ market, you would still need to approach many, many agents and/or editors to find the right match for your work — and your work would stand a much, much better chance if you talk about it in the language of the industry.

That’s true, incidentally, even if you approach an agent whose submission guidelines ask writers to send pages along with the initial query, instead of by special request afterward (as used to be universal). If the marketing approach is not professionally crafted, chances are slim that those pages will even get read.

Oh, there you go, gasping again, but honestly, this is a simple matter of logistics. Remember, a good agency typically receives somewhere between 800 and 1500 queries per week. If Millicent isn’t wowed by the letter, she simply doesn’t have time to cast her eyes over those 5 or 10 or 50 pages the agency’s website said that you could send.

That’s not being mean. That’s trying to get through all of those queries without working too much overtime.

Unfortunately, the imperative to save time usually also dictates form-letter rejections that the querier entirely in the dark about whether the rejection trigger was in the query or the pages. (Speaking of realistic expectations, please tell me that you didn’t waste even thirty seconds of YOUR precious time trying to read actual content into it didn’t grab me, I just didn’t fall in love with it, it doesn’t meet our needs that this time, or any of the other standard rejection generalities. By definition, one-size-fits-all reasons cannot possibly tell you how to improve your submission.)

All of which is to say: please, I implore you, do not make the very common mistake of believing that not being picked up by the first agent whom you pitch or query means that your work is not marketable. Or of adhering to the even more common but less often spoken belief that if a book were really well written, it would somehow be magically exempted from the marketing process.

It doesn’t, and it isn’t. Unrealistic expectations about the pitching — and querying — process can and do not only routinely make aspiring writers unhappy at conferences the world over, but frequently also prevent good writers from pitching well.

Yes, you read that correctly. Operating on misinformation can genuine hurt a writer, as can a fearful or resentful attitude. Part of learning to pitch — or query — successfully entails accepting the fact that from the industry’s point of view, you are presenting a PRODUCT to be SOLD.

Not, as the vast majority of writers believe, and with good reason, a piece of one’s soul ripped off without anesthesia.

So it is a teeny bit counter-productive to respond — as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time pitchers do — to the expectation that they should be able to talk about their books in market-oriented terms as evidence that they are dealing with Philistines who hate literature.

To clear up any possible confusion for the high-browed: you should, and they don’t.

Why do so many pitchers respond to the pros as though they were evil demons sent to earth for the sole purpose of tormenting the talented and rewarding the illiterate? Selling books is how agents and editors make their livings, after all: they have to be concerned about whether there’s a market for a book they are considering.

They’re not being shallow; they’re being practical.

Okay, most of them are not just being shallow. My point, should you care to know it: a pitching appointment is not the proper venue for trying to change the status quo. Querying or pitching is hard enough to do well without simultaneously decrying the current realities of book publishing.

And yes, in response to that question your brain just shouted, aspiring writers do bring that up in their pitches and queries. All the time. Heck, it’s not all that unusual for a pitcher to mention that the book has been rejected before, and how often.

Don’t emulate their example. Trust me on this one: it’s not going to make your book seem more market-ready to bring up that you’ve already queried it 700 times.

That isn’t just poor strategy — it’s symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes an author successful. Selling is a word that many writers seem to find distasteful when applied to trying to land an agent, as if there were no real distinction between selling one’s work (most of the time, the necessary first step to the world’s reading it) and selling out (which entails a compromise of principle.)

C’mon — you know what I’m talking about; if not, just bring up the issue over a sandwich at your next writers’ conference. This is a real, vitriol-stained topic in writers’ circles.

When aspiring writers speak of marketing amongst themselves, it tends to be with a slight curl of the lip, an incipient sneer, as if the mere fact of signing with an agent or getting a book published would be the final nail in the coffin of artistic integrity. While practically everyone who writes admires at least one or two published authors — all of whom, presumably, have to deal with this issue at one time or another — the prospect of compromising one’s artistic vision haunts many a writer’s nightmares.

That’s a valid fear, I suppose, but allow me to suggest another, less black-and-white possibility: fitting the square peg of one’s book into the round holes of marketing can be an uncomfortable process, but that doesn’t mean it is inherently deadly to artistic integrity. It also doesn’t mean that any writer, no matter how talented, can legitimately expect to be commercially successful without going through that process.

That is not to say there are not plenty of good reasons for writers to resent how the business side of the industry works — there are, and it’s healthy to gripe about them. Resent it all you want privately, or in the company of other writers.

But do not, I beg you, allow that resentment to color the pitch you ultimately give. Or the query letter.

I know, I know: if you’ve been hanging out at conferences for a while, deep-dyed cynicism about the book market can start to sound a whole lot like the lingua franca. One can get a lot of social mileage out of being the battle-scarred submission veteran who tells the new recruits war stories — or the pitcher in the group meeting with an editor who prefaces his comments with, “Well, this probably isn’t the right market for this book concept, but…”

To those who actually work in the industry, complaining about the current market’s artistic paucity will not make you come across as serious about your work — as it tends to do amongst other writers, admittedly. The pros just hear it too often. As a result, such complaints are likely to insult the very people who could help you get beyond the pitching and querying stage.

Yes, you may well gulp. To an agent’s ears, writers who complain about how much harder it is to get one’s work read than even ten years ago — it’s not your imagination — tend to sound, well, naïve. Of course it’s hard to break into the business; simple math dictates that.

“What does your perhaps well-founded critique of how the industry works have to do with whether I want to read your manuscript?” the pros murmur as writers lecture them on how it really should be easier. “I’m sitting right here — wouldn’t this time be better spent telling me what your book is about?”

Besides, neither a pitch meeting nor a query letter is primarily about writing, really. They’re both about convincing agents and editors that here is a story or topic that can sell to a particular target audience.

If your pitch convinces them that your work falls into that category, then they will ask to see pages. Out comes the broken record again:

Contrary to what the vast majority of aspiring writers believe, the goal of the pitch (and the query letter) is not to make the business side of the industry fall in love with your writing, per se — it’s to get the agent or editor to whom it is addressed to ask to see manuscript pages or a proposal.

Then, and only then, is it logically possible for them to fall in love with your prose stylings or vigorous argument. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: no one in the world can judge your writing without reading it.

This may seem obvious outside the context of a pitching or querying experience, but it’s worth a reminder during conference season. Too many writers walk out of pitching meetings or recycle rejections from queries believing, wrongly, that they’ve just been told that they cannot write. It’s just not true.

But by the same token, a successful verbal pitch or enthusiastically-received query letter is not necessarily a ringing endorsement of writing talent, either. Both are merely the marketing materials intended to prompt a request to see the writing itself.

Which means, of course, that if you flub your pitch, you should not construe that as a reflection of your writing talent, either; logically, it cannot be, unless the agent or editor takes exception to how you construct your verbal sentences.

I know, I know, it doesn’t feel that way at the time, and frankly, the language that agents and editors tend to use at moments like these (“No one is buying X anymore,” or “I could have sold that story ten years ago, but not now”) often does make it sound like a review of your writing. But it isn’t; it can’t be.

All it can be, really, is a statement of belief about current and future conditions on the book market, not the final word about how your book will fare there. Just as with querying, if an agent or editor does not respond to your pitch, just move on to the next prospect on your list.

Does any of that that make you feel better about the prospect of walking into a pitch meeting? Did it at least permit you to get good and annoyed at the necessity of pitching and querying, to allow all of that frustration to escape your system?

Good. Now you’re ready to prep your pitch.

Did I just sense some eye-rolling out there? “But Anne,” I hear some chronically sleep-deprived preppers cry, “can’t you read a calendar? I’ve been working on my pitch for weeks now. I keep tinkering with it; I know I have the perfect pitch in me, but I can’t seem to bring it out.”

I know precisely what you mean. After staring for so long at a single page of text (which is, after all, what a formal pitch ends up being, at most), it can feel like it’s taken over one’s life. As with any revision process, either on one’s own work or others’, one can become a touch myopic, both literally and figuratively.

How myopic, you ask? Let me share an anecdote of the illustrative variety.

A couple of years ago, I went on a week-long writing retreat in another state in order to make a small handful of revisions to a novel of mine. Small stuff, really, but my agent was new to the project (having inherited it when my original agent went on maternity leave) and wanted me to give the work a slightly different spin before he started submitting it. Basically, he wanted it to sound a bit more like his type of book, the kind editors had grown to expect from his submissions. Perfectly legitimate, of course (if it doesn’t sound like that to you, please see both the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK and HOW TO BE AN AGENT’S DREAM CLIENT categories on the list at right before you even consider getting involved with an agent), and I’m glad to report that the revisions went smoothly.

At the end of my week of intensive revision, a friend and her 6-year-old daughter were kind enough to give me, my computer, and my many empty bottles of mineral water (revision is thirsty work, after all, and the retreat did not offer glass recycling) a ride back from my far-flung retreat site. Early in the drive, my friend missed a turn, and made a not entirely flattering reference to her Maker.

Nothing truly soul-blistering, mind you, just a little light taking of the Lord’s name in vain. Fresh from vacation Bible school, her daughter pointed out, correctly, that her mother had just broken a commandment and should be ashamed of herself. (Apparently, her school hadn’t yet gotten to the one about honoring thy father and thy mother.)

“Not if God wasn’t capitalized,” I said without thinking. “If it’s a lower-case g, she could have been referring to any god. Apollo, for example, or Zeus. For all we know, they may kind of like being berated in moments of crisis. It could make them feel important.”

Now, that was a pretty literal response, and one that generated a certain amount of chagrin when the little girl repeated it in her next Sunday school class. Not that I wasn’t technically correct, of course, but I should have let the situation determine what is an appropriate response. Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow.

That’s true in pitching, too. Hyper-literalism can cause quite a bit of unnecessary stress during conference prep. In part, that’s the nature of the beast: since aspiring writers are not told nearly enough about what to expect from a pitching appointment (or a potential response to a query), they tend to grasp desperately at what few guidelines they are given, following them to the letter.

To a certain extent, that makes perfect sense: when going into an unfamiliar, stressful situation, it’s natural to want to cling to rules. The trouble, as I have pointed out throughout this series, is that not everything writers are told about pitching, querying, or even — dare I say it? — what does and doesn’t sell in writing is applicable to their individual situations, or even up-to-date. Adhering too closely to the wrong rules can be a serious liability.

Anyone who has ever attended a writers’ conference has seen the result: the causalities of hyper-literalism abound.

Since not all of you are nodding sagely, allow let me take you on a guided tour: there’s the writer who lost precious hours of sleep last night because her prepared pitch is four sentences long, instead of three; there’s the one who despairs because he’s been told that he should not read his pitch, but memorize it, but stress has turned his brain into Swiss cheese. The guy over here is working so many dashes, commas, and semicolons into his three-sentence pitch that it goes on for six minutes — but has only three periods. In another corner mopes the romance writer who has just heard an agent say that she’s not looking for Highland romances anymore; naturally, the writer hears this as no one is looking to acquire your kind of book any more.

You get the picture. As writers listen to litanies of what they are doing wrong, and swap secrets they have learned elsewhere, the atmosphere becomes palpably heavy with depression.

By the end of the conference, the truisms all of these individuals have shared will have bounced around, mutating like the messages in the children’s game of Telephone. That, combined with days on end of every word each attending agent, editor, and/or teacher utters being treated with the reverence of Gospel, there is generally a whole lot of rule-mongering going on. And if a writer has a sound analytical mind, he is apt to notice that a heck of a lot of those rules are mutually contradictory.

Take a nice, deep breath. The industry is not trying to trick you. What it is trying to do is get you to adhere to under-advertised publishing norms. While some of those norms are indeed inflexible — the rigors of standard manuscript format, for instance — most of the time, you will be fine if you adhere to the spirit of the norm, rather than its letter.

So those of you who are freaking out about a few extra words in your elevator speech: don’t. It needs to be short, but it is far better to take an extra ten seconds to tell your story well than to cut it so short that you tell it badly. No agent or editor in the world is going to be standing over you while you pitch, abacus in hand, ready to shout at you to stop once you reach 101 words in a hallway pitch, any more than she will be counting its periods.

Admittedly, they may begin to get restive if you go on too long — but in conversation, length is not measured in number of words or frequency of punctuation. It is measured in the passage of time.

Let me repeat that, because I think some pitchers’ concerns on the subject are based in a misunderstanding born of the ubiquity of the three-sentence pitch: the purpose of keeping the elevator speech to 3-4 sentences is not because there is some special virtue in that number of sentences, but to make sure that the elevator speech is short enough that you could conceivably blurt it out in 30-45 seconds.

Thus the term. The elevator speech should be sufficiently brief to leave your lips comprehensibly between the time the elevator shuts on you and the agent of your dreams on the ground floor and when it opens again on the second floor.

Remember, though, that no matter what you may have heard, an elevator speech is not a formal pitch but a curtailed version of it. The elevator speech, hallway pitch, and pitch proper are primarily differentiated by the length of time required to say them.

So if you feel the urge to be nit-picky, put that energy to good use: it actually makes far more sense to time your pitch than it does to count the words. Try to keep your elevator speech under 45 seconds, your hallway pitch to roughly 60 – 75 seconds max, and your pitch proper to 2 minutes or so.

But do not, I beg you, rend your hair in the midnight hours between now and your next pitching opportunity trying to figure out how to cut your pitch from 2 minutes, 15 seconds down to 2, or plump it up from a minute seventeen to 2, just because I advise that as a target length.

I’m not going to be standing there with a stopwatch, any more than an agent is. And until I rule the universe, I can pretty much guarantee that no agent or editor, even my own, is ever going to say, “Well, that WOULD have been a great pitch, but unfortunately, it was 17.4 seconds longer than Anne Mini says it should be, so I’m going to have to pass.”

Even if I did rule the universe (will someone get on that, please?), no one would ever say that to you. It’s in your best interest to adhere to the spirit of my advice on the pitch — or anyone else’s — not necessarily the letter.

How might one go about doing that? Well, remember that elevator speech I wrote a couple of weeks ago for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

Because I love you people, I went back and timed how long it would take me to say: sixty- two seconds, counting gestures and vocal inflections that I would consider necessary for an effective performance. That’s perfectly fine, for either a hallway speech or pitch proper. Actually, for a pitch proper, I would go ahead and add another sentence or two of glowing detail.

To be fair, though, it is a bit long for an elevator speech, if I intended to include any of the magic first hundred words as well. If I had just spent a weekend prowling the halls, buttonholing agents for informal hallway pitches, I would have tried to shear off ten seconds or so, so I could add at the beginning that the book is women’s fiction and the title.

Oh, and to have the time to indicate that my parents loved me enough to give me a name, and manners enough to share it with people when I first meet them. But seriously, I would not lose any sleep over those extra ten seconds, if I were pinched for time. Nor should you.

Brevity is not, however, the only virtue a pitch should have, any more than every single-page letter in the world is automatically a stellar query. If you’re marketing a novel, you need to demonstrate two things: that this is a good story, and that you are a good storyteller. Similarly, if you are pitching a NF book, you need to show in your pitch that this is a compelling topic, and that you are the world’s best-equipped person to write about it.

As any good storyteller can tell you, compelling storytelling lies largely in the scintillating details. I have been listening to writers’ pitches for significantly longer than I have been giving them myself — in addition to my adult professional experience, I also spent part of my wayward youth trailing a rather well-known author around to SF conventions; aspiring writers were perpetually leaping out from behind comic books and gaming tables to tell him about their book — so I can tell you with authority: far more pitches fail due to being full of generalities than because they have an extra fifteen seconds’ worth of fascinating details.

Embrace the spirit of brevity, not the letter. If you must add an extra second or two in order to bring in a particularly striking visual image, or to mention a plot point that in your opinion makes your book totally unlike anything else out there, go ahead and do it.

Revel in this being the one and only time that any professional editor will ever tell you this: try not to be too anal-retentive about adhering to pre-set guidelines. It will only make you tense.

As the song says, keep those spirits high, pulses low. Oh, and keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XII: because 30 seconds is not much time — and it will feel like less

dali-clocks

My, it’s quiet out there in the Author! Author! community. I’ve been hearing from some of you prospective pitchers privately — although again, it honestly does make more sense for readers to post questions in the comments here, rather than e-mailing me; that way, not only I am less likely to answer the same question fifteen times in a day, but other curious souls can see the answer — but for the most part, folks have been keeping the comments to a minimum throughout this series. It’s fine just to observe, of course, but I have to say, I am starting to worry that some of you with pitching opportunities coming up might be reluctant to come forward with your concerns and fears.

Call me zany, but it concerns me. It makes me fearful.

Please, if you have questions, ask them — I would much, much rather devote a bit of extra time to responding to comments than have even a single one of you walk into a pitching session unsure what to do. Use a pseudonym in the comments, if you like, but honestly, there’s no shame in feeling insecure. Believe me, you’re not the only prospective pitcher out there overcome with worry; your speaking up might even help someone who is too shy to ask.

Of course, the silence may also be attributable to shock at just how much there is to learn about pitching. We’ve covered a tremendous amount of territory over the last couple of weeks, you must admit. We’ve discussed how to identify your book’s publishing category, identifying your target market, coming up with graceful ways of letting an agent know how big that audience might be, come up with a few strong selling points, develop a snappy keynote statement, and pull all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words. All of that, my friends, will enable you to move gracefully and professionally into conversation with anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry.

Now you’re ready to start practicing what to say after that.

Oh, stop groaning — this is where it starts to get exciting. Now that we have the building blocks of the pitch assembled, from here on out, we’re going to be talking about what you should say after the agent of your dreams responds to your magic first hundred words with, “Why, yes, stalwart writer, I would like to hear more about this marvelous book of which you speak. Enlighten me further, humble scribe, and don’t forget to awe me.”

Okay, so maybe the average Manhattanite agent doesn’t speak like an extra in a production A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. (Not that anyone in my neck of the woods is dreaming much on these sticky midsummer nights. We had an impromptu block party at 3 am, just because no one could sleep.) The fact remains, if you’ve been following this series and doing your homework, you already have something prepared for that precious moment when someone in the industry turns to you and asks that question so dreaded by aspiring writers, “So what do you write?”

Now, we’re preparing for that even more fruitful moment when an agent sighs, glances longingly at the pasta bar just a few feet ahead of her, and says, “Yeah, sure, intrepid writer who has just accosted me while I was spooning wilted green salad onto my plate, you may have 30 seconds of my time. Do you mind if I finish making my way through the buffet first?”

Moments like this were just made for the elevator speech. Or, if you’re going to be polite about it — and you are, aren’t you, if only to make your mother and me proud? — the moments two minutes after a conversation like this, after the agent in question has had a chance to heap her plate to overflowing and set it down on a nearby table, were just made for this. So are the moments right after an agents’ panel, while you are waiting in line for any of the many, many conference festivities that seem for no apparent reason to require waiting in line, and fifteen minutes after the really nice first-time author with whom you’ve been chatting in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America says, “Oh, there’s my agent. Mind if he joins us for a drink?”

Trust me, you will want to be prepared for these moments. Even if you are so terrified of the prospect of pitching that you have promised yourself that you will not utter word one about your manuscript until you have actually shaken hands with the agent with whom you have a scheduled meeting, you’re going to be a much, much happier camper if you have worked up something to say if asked in any context other than a formal pitch session.

Like, say, the entire rest of the conference.

Or, to put it another way: you know those 30 seconds that seemed so short to you when you were trying to compose an elevator speech? The surest means of making them feel eternal is not to have an answer prepared when an agent you have just met socially says, “Mavis, was it? Tell me what you write.”

You’ll be glad then that you took the time to work up an elevator speech, a 3 – 4 sentence description of the protagonist and central conflict of your book, couched in the present tense (for novels and nonfiction about current events) and the past tense (for memoir and nonfiction about the distant past). Regardless of the narrative voice of the work, the elevator should be in the third person (and not waste valuable seconds mentioning the narrative voice of the work) — unless, of course, it is for a memoir, which should be pitched in the first person. As we discussed last time, an elevator speech is not a plot summary, but an introduction to the main character(s) by name, a brief introduction to the challenges s/he faces, and an implied invitation to the listener to ask for more details.

Then — and this is the hardest part for many nervous pitchers — you are going to stop talking. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200, and definitely do not proceed to give your formal 2-minute pitch until that agent asks to hear it.

I’m serious about the invitation part: a 3-sentence elevator speech is not an automatic preamble to a pitch; it is a means of judging a stranger’s interest. Assuming that interest is, in a word, rude. You need to pause in order to allow a well-meaning agent who doesn’t represent your kind of book to tell you that — wait for it — he doesn’t represent your kind of book, and thus it would be a waste of both of your time to continue.

Stop gritting your teeth. An agent’s being willing to tell you that up front is actually a kindness: instead of plowing ahead with a pitch that is doomed from the outset for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the writing quality of your manuscript, you can simply thank the agent and move on. Preferably to another agent who does represent your kind of book.

How does a savvy writer know to do that? Chant it with me now, those of you who have been following Pitchingpalooza from the beginning: it’s simply not worth your time to approach an agent who does not have a solid track record representing books in your category.

Remember, the single most common reason that pitches and queries get rejected is being aimed at the wrong person. There is absolutely nothing a writer can do about a mismatch other than accept gracefully that this is not going to work and move on — because agents specialize, no amount of persuasion is going to convince an agent who habitually represents nothing but memoir that your fantasy novel is the next great bestseller. He’s looking for memoir, period.

But that didn’t address your central fear about giving an elevator speech, did it? “Oh, no, it didn’t, Anne,” those of you quaking in your proverbial boots cry. “I’m not just nervous about an agent’s saying no to me — even the notion of sitting down and trying to…well, not summarize, since you said an elevator speech should not be a summary, but to talk about my book in just a few sentences makes me feel like I’m being invited to waltz on quicksand. I’ve never done anything like this before, and…”

Pardon my interrupting you, boot-quakers, but that last bit probably is not true. If you have ever queried, you actually do have some relevant experience upon which to draw.

How so, you cry, and wherefore? Well, a 3-4 paragraph teaser for a book is typically the second paragraph of a classically-constructed query letter.

That’s not too astonishing, I hope — a pitch is, after all, more or less a verbal query letter. (If anything I’ve said in this paragraph is a major surprise to you, I would strongly advise checking out the mysteriously-titled HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD QUERY LETTER category on the list at right.)

Query letters and elevator speeches often share focus problems. All too often, for instance, the constructors of both will go off on tangents, detailing how difficult it is to find an agent or boasting about how this is the best book ever written. Or how it’s a natural for Oprah, even though Oprah’s book club has been defunct for quite some time now.

Like the descriptive paragraph of a query letter, elevator speeches often get bogged down in plot details. But summarization is not what’s required, in either instance — and if more aspiring writers realized that, people on both ends of the querying and pitching processes would be significantly happier.

Do I hear some of you out there moaning, or are you merely thinking dissenting thoughts very loudly indeed? “But Anne,” disgruntled pitch- and query-constructors the world over protest, “I spent MONTHS over my query letter, and I never managed to trim the descriptive part to under two-thirds of a page! How do you expect me to be able to make my book sound fascinating in half that many words, and out loud?”

In a word: strategy. To be followed shortly by a second word, as well as a third and a fourth: practice, practice, and practice. Let’s begin with the strategy.

You can feel a step-by-step list coming on, can’t you? Here goes.

(1) Don’t panic or berate yourself about not coming up with a great pitch the first time you sit down to do it.
Oh, you may laugh, but panicking and self-blame are the two most common responses amongst most would-be pitchers confronted with the task of writing a 3-line pitch. That’s not a particularly rational response: contrary to popular belief, the mere fact of having written a good book does not magically endow one with the skills necessary to construct a 3-line pitch.

Like querying, pitching is a learned skill; nobody is born knowing how to do it. So calm down and learn the skills before you start to judge yourself. Give yourself some time to get good at it.

Feeling better? Excellent. Let’s move on to step 2.

(2) Sit down and write a straightforward description of the central conflict or argument of your book.
I’m not talking about summarizing the plot here, mind you, but the answer to a very simple, albeit multi-part, question:

a) Who is your protagonist?
I’m not just looking for a name here, but characteristics relevant to the story that will make her seem like an interesting person in an interesting situation. Ermintrude is a twenty-seven-year-old North American may well be factually accurate, but you must admit that it’s a heck of a lot less memorable than Wild boar huntress and supermodel Ermintrude is struggling to complete her doctorate in particle physics.

b) What does s/he want more than anything else?
If the central conflict of the book is not about this, shouldn’t it be?

c) What’s standing in the way of her getting it?

Easier to think of summing things up when you limit the parameters that way, isn’t it? It also works for memoir:

a) Who is the narrator of this book?
And no, “Why, it’s me!” is not a sufficient answer. Show that you are an interesting person in an interesting situation.

b) What did you want more than anything else out of that interesting situation?

c) What was standing in the way of your getting it?

Got those answers firmly in hand? Good. Now let’s mop our perspiring brows and proceed to the next step.

(3) Replace generalities with specifics.
Nothing makes a pitch hearer’s eyes glaze over faster than a spate of generalities that might apply to the nearest 100,000 people. Besides, a generalized description usually isn’t particularly accurate, at least on a philosophical level. In a novel or memoir, events do not happen to people in general: they happen to a particular person or group of people with individual quirks. Give a taste of that.

How? By being specific about who your protagonist(s) is (are) and what’s happening to him/her/it/them. Yes, you’re trying to give an overall sense here, but the less you generalize, the more memorable your protagonist and situation will seem. Ambrose was a florist with a dream is not uninteresting, but let’s face it, Forced into being a florist by his controlling great-uncle, Ambrose dreams daily of becoming a lion tamer is more likely to make you want to read the book.

I know it’s hard in such a short speech, but believe me, a single memorable character trait or situational twist is worth paragraphs and paragraphs of generalities. Mara was an offbeat girl with a problem is significantly less memorable than Mara learned to use her first prosthetic limb when she was three, isn’t it?

Have you obliterated summary and gotten concrete? Great. Now let’s work on making your elevator speech sound original.

(4) Emphasize what is fresh about your story, not its similarities to other books.
That loud thumping sound you just heard reverberating throughout the ether was the jaw of every pitcher who has ever said something like, “It’s THE DA VINCI CODE, but with 21rst-century sheep herding instead of multi-century religious conflict!” hitting the floor. Amongst a certain type of pitcher — typically, the type who picked up the idea somewhere that a pitch and a Hollywood hook are the same thing — drawing parallels with a bestseller, any bestseller, regardless of the aptness of the analogy, is downright common.

If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard a pitcher say, “It’s just like BESTSELLER X, but with Twist Y,” I would build a rock-candy mountain just south of Winnipeg and invite all the children in Canada to feast for a month and a half. It’s just not very efficient use of brief elevator speech time; the keynote is a better place to draw such parallels, if you feel you must.

Why isn’t it efficient? The elevator speech is not about indicating genre or book category — which, to someone in the industry, is all citing an earlier successful book in your chosen book category achieves. Besides, once you’ve told an agent or editor what your book category is in your magic first hundred words, referring to a similar book is actually a trifle redundant.

It also makes your book seem less original, at least at the elevator speech stage, where you need to wow your hearers with the uniqueness of your premise, your protagonist, and your approach. Making your book sound like a rehash of a well-worn concept is not usually the best way to accomplish that.

All freshened up? Fabulous. Let’s sharpen our critical eyes still further.

(5) Try not to bottom-line the plot — and definitely avoid clichés.
That advice about cliché-hunting doesn’t just apply to hackneyed concepts: well-worn phrases are notorious pitch-killers, too. Bear in mind that someone who hears pitches for a living may have a stronger sense of what’s a cliché than does the population at large. While a romance-reader may not exclaim, “Oh, no, not another heroine with long, flowing red hair!”, an agent or editor who routinely handles romance might.

So fine-tune your phraseology. Steer clear of sweeping statements on the order of …and in the process, he learned to be a better axe murderer — and a better human being. Or Their struggles brought them closer together as a couple and won her the mayoral election.

Or, heaven preserve us, Can they learn to live happily ever after?

Remember, you’re trying to convince the hearer that you can write; echoing the latest catchphrase — or one that’s been floating around the zeitgeist for forty years — is generally not the best way to achieve that. Writers often incorporate the sort of terminology used to promote TV shows and movies — but in an elevator speech (or a query letter — or a pitch, for that matter), the last reaction a writer wants to evoke is, “Gee, this sounds like the movie-of-the-week I saw last night.”

Translation: this technique doesn’t show off your creativity as a plot-deviser, any more than the use of clichés would display your talent for unique phraseology. You want to make your story sound original and fresh, right?

Is your draft now free of time-worn concepts and wording? Marvelous. Now comes the hard part.

(6) Enliven your account with concrete, juicy details that only you could invent. Include at least one strong, MEMORABLE image.
Create a mental picture that your hearer will recall after you walk away, business card and request for the first fifty pages clutched firmly to your heaving bosom. Ideally, this image should be something that the hearer (or our old pal Millicent, the agency screener) has never heard before.

And it needn’t be a visual detail, either: the other senses tend to be seriously under-utilized in elevator speeches. Just makes sure it sticks in the mind.

Yes, in 3-4 sentences. You’re a writer: making prose interesting is what you DO, right?

Have you come up with an original image, vividly described? Tremendous. Now let’s make your plot sound fascinating.

(7) Present your protagonist as the primary actor in the plot, not as the object of the action.
Don’t underestimate the importance of establishing your protagonist as active: believe me, every agent and editor in the biz has heard thousands of pitches about protagonists who are buffeted about by fate, forced by circumstances beyond their control, and are pushed almost unconsciously from event to event not by some interior drive or conflict, but because the plot demands it.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: “Because the plot requires it” is never a sufficient answer to “Why did that character do that?”

Stop laughing — you wouldn’t believe how many pitches portray characters who only have things happen to them, rather than characters who do things to deal with challenging situations. If I had a penny for each of those I’ve heard, I’d build three of those rock-candy mountains, one in each of the NAFTA nations, for the delight of local children.

The sad thing is that the books being pitched this way may not actually have passive protagonists. Honestly, though, it’s very easy to get so involved in setting up the premise of the book in an elevator speech that the protagonist can come across as passive, merely caught in the jaws of the plot.

There are a few code words that will let an industry-savvy listener know that your protagonist is fully engaged and passionately pursing the goals assigned to her in the book. They are, in no particular order: love, passion, desire, dream, fate (kismet will do, in a pinch), struggle, loss, and happiness. Any form of these words will do; a gerund or two is fine.

This is recognized code; take advantage of it.

Does your protagonist come across as passionately engaged in the struggle to pursue her dream, embrace her fate, and assure her happiness. Pat yourself on the back. Time to talk about voice.

(8) Make sure that the tone, language, and vocabulary of your elevator speech matches the tone of your book.
You’d be astonished — at least I hope you would — at how often this basic, common-sense principle is overlooked by your garden-variety pitcher. Most elevator speeches and pitches come across as deadly serious.

Oh, you smile incredulously; you think a funny premise speaks for itself, don’t you, and that it does not require a funny presentation? Au contraire. Nothing kills a funny premise faster than a deadpan delivery, just as a hilarious elevator speech for a serious book would make an agent who represents the ultra-serious think twice about asking to see pages.

Don’t believe that the wrong tone can undermine ? Okay, tell me where you would expect to see these two books shelved in a library:

A womanizing, shallow reporter becomes unstuck in time. Forced to repeat the same day over and over again, he loses hope of ever moving on with his life. In the process, he becomes a better man.

A shy woman with a past moves to Brooklyn and falls in love with her wacky neighbor. When a young Southern writer takes up residence in their offbeat apartment house, he can’t believe what he sees going on! Will he be able to win her heart before her boyfriend tires her to death with his high jinks?

Did you recognize either of those stories, devoid of the tones that characterized them? I’m guessing not, although both of these elevator speeches are factually accurate renditions of the stories in question: the first was the comedy GROUNDHOG DAY. The second was the tragedy SOPHIE’S CHOICE.

Make the tone of the elevator speech match the tone of the book. If the book is a steamy romance, let the telling details you include be delightfully sensual; if it is a comic fantasy, show your elves doing something funny. Just make sure that what you give is an accurate taste of what a reader can expect the book as a whole to provide.

(9) Try saying the result out loud to someone who hasn’t read your book, to see how she/he/the lamp in the corner of your office responds.
The lamp is a suggestion for those of you too shy to buttonhole a co-worker or that guy sitting next to you at Starbucks, but you see my point, right? You simply cannot know how a pitch is going to sound out loud until you actually say it out loud.

I’m not merely talking about coherence here — I’m also thinking of practicalities like breath control. Is it possible to speak your three-line speech in three breaths, for instance? If not, you’re not going to be able to get through your elevator speech within 30 seconds without fainting.

Oh, you may laugh now, but I’ve seen it happen. Writers just keel over sideways because they forget to breathe.

Remember not to lock your knees. Oh, and write a 3-line pitch that’s possible to say without turning blue.

Be on the look-out, too, for words that are hard to say — or are hard to say together. Tongue-twisters and rhymes may seem cute on the page, but trust me, you’re not going to want to say, Tina Tweezedale tried tremendously to tie Trevor up with twine.

Also, if you’re not ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE how to pronounce a word, do not use it in your elevator speech. Ditto if you aren’t sure that you’re using it correctly. Writers often use words that they’ve never heard spoken aloud; most inveterate readers do. But do you really want the agent to whom you’re pitching to correct your pronunciation of solipsistic, or to tell you that you didn’t actually mean that your protagonist implied something, but that he inferred it?

Check. Double-check. And if you’re still not certain, track down the best-read person you know and ask her to hear your pitch. And to define solipsistic, while she’s at it.

I sense some furrowed brows out there. “Okay, Anne,” some perplexed souls murmur, “I get why I might want to make sure that I can say my entire elevator speech out loud correctly. But if I’m sure that I can, why do I need to say it to — ugh — another living, breathing human being?”

For a couple of very good reasons, shy brow-knitters. First, you’re going to have to say it out loud eventually; it’s literally impossible to give a verbal pitch silently. All saving your elevator speech for the great moment when you are face-to-face with the agent of your dreams actually achieves is depriving you of the opportunity to practice.

Or, to put it less obliquely: if your elevator speech doesn’t make sense aloud, would you rather find that out in the midst of giving the pitch to the agent of your dreams, or a few days before, when you still have time to fix it?

I thought as much. Second, if you’ve never pitched before, saying your 3-line pitch is going to sound ridiculous to you the first few times you do it. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Again, would you rather feel silly while you’re pitching to an agent, or days/weeks/months before?

Third — and this is the most important — if you practice on a reasonably intelligent hearer, you can ask a vitally important follow-up question: “Would you mind telling the story back to me?”

If s/he can’t, you might want to take another gander at your elevator speech. Chances are, it’s not particularly memorable.

I’m itching to give a few concrete examples of these principles in action, but that’s a task for another day — like, say, tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part X: the cat doesn’t have to get your tongue, you know

Some interesting rumors have been flying around for the last couple of days, campers. While book lovers in general have been fretting over the demise of Borders, a lot of us have been worrying about the perhaps less sympathetic but still important to the book-moving trade Barnes & Noble’s future. There’s been quite a bit of speculation that Apple might step in and buy up the latter for its immense book catalog; there has also been talk of taking on a chunk of Borders, possibly just for the retail space, possibly not.

I have no idea whether any of these rumors are true, mind you, or even probable. Such is the nature of tittle-tattle. Since folks have been flinging their hands in the air and prophesying the imminent demise of the brick-and-mortar bookstore as an institution so much over the last few weeks, though, I thought you might find it refreshing to hear a bit of countervailing gossip.

Back to business. So far in this series, we have been mostly talking about taking the preliminary steps to constructing a conference pitch, rather than writing the pitch itself. We’ve covered selecting a book category, the desirability of narrowing down your target audience to something more specific than the ever-popular every woman under 50 in America, finding out how big that audience might be, figuring out your book’s selling points, and coming up with a one-line book concept or keynote, as well as deciding whether pitching is right for you in the first place and what to do if you find yourself in a pitch meeting with an agent who does not now and probably will not ever represent books like yours.

To put all that in terms of gaining fluency in a foreign language, you’ve already learned enough to order a meal in a fancy restaurant in Publishingland. By the end of the next couple of posts, you’re going to be able to chat with the waiter.

Do those loud harrumphing noises bouncing around the ether indicate a certain level of skepticism? “I get that I will need to define my work in the language and according to the logic of the publishing industry, Anne,” some of you admit, rattling your feet on the floor and glancing frequently at the door, fearful of being overheard by an agent. “I also have faith that you’re going to walk me through constructing a strong formal pitch because, well, that’s the kind of thing you do in your multi-part -Paloozas. What’s keeping me up nights, though, is the creeping fear that no matter how prepared I am, I might suddenly clam up. Heck, I’m so nervous that I might not even lose my nerve in front of an agent or editor; I live in terror that I might lose the ability to answer coherently if the writer sitting next to me in a conference seminar asks me, ‘So what kind of book are you here to pitch?’”

Oh, I am very familiar with that particular dead-of-night fearful fantasy, campers; I help aspiring writers prepare pitches all the time. It’s a very, very common concern amongst first-time pitchers.

Which is why I can tell you with relative assurance that while you currently feel as if someone asking you to talk about your writing at a conference will be as threatening as this:

If you walk into the conference prepared, it can feel a lot more like this:

Still frightening, of course — there’s no way around that, I’m afraid — but not nearly so confrontational.

How might that semi-miraculous transformation be achieved? Well, learning not to hear the question as a clarion call to justify writing at all, for one thing. Doing precisely the kind of pre-conference homework we’ve been discussing throughout this series, for another. And most effective of all, pulling the pin in the panic grenade before you walk into your first pitch meeting.

How? By approaching fellow writers at conferences and talking about your work.

Yes, on purpose — and before you start telling me that you are nowhere near ready to take such a bold step, allow me to point out that you already have the skills. How do I know? Because we’ve been adding them to your writer’s toolkit for a couple of weeks now.

Today, I’m going to show you how to pull all of the elements you’ve already constructed together into the first hundred words you will want to say to anyone you meet at a writer’s conference — and that’s including “Hello.” With these first hundred words in hand (and mouth), even the shyest, most reclusive writer can launch into a professional-sounding discussion with anyone in the publishing industry.

And I do mean anyone, be it an agent or editor to whom you are pitching, the aforementioned chatty guy sitting next to you in a class, or the person standing next to you while you are dunking your teabag in hot water, trying to wake up before the 8 a.m. agent and editor forum.

Nifty trick, eh? And a darned useful one, in my humble opinion: no matter what you’ve heard, it’s darned hard to land an agent via a pitch unless you can talk fluently about your book.

As in during an actual conversation, not in the few lines most first-time conference-goers regard as a pitch..

Once again, I must add a disclaimer about my own tendency toward iconoclastism: this strategy is an invention of my own, because I flatly hate the fact that the rise of pitching now often makes it necessary for people whose best talent is expressing themselves at length and in writing to sell their work in short, verbal bursts. I feel that pitching unfairly penalizes the shy and the complex-minded, in addition to tending to sidestep the question that agents and editors most need to know about a brand-new writer: not can she speak, but can she write?

However, as long as aspiring writers in North America are stuck with pitching and querying as the only polite means of landing agents, we need to make the best of it. But — as some of you MAY have figured out by now — I don’t believe that just telling writers to compress their lives’ work into three sentences is sufficient preparation for doing it successfully.

Why? Well, among other reasons, it tends to make first-time pitchers feel a little like that lion tamer in the top picture: putting so much effort into not showing perfectly rational fear in the face of what your body is quite likely to interpret as a life-threatening situation (because your psyche knows it to be a potentially ego-eviscerating one) that you can barely move. Clutching a chair and a whip, even mentally, is not the best way to begin what can be a very cordial conversation.

For that reason — and I warn you, conference organizers tend to dislike my expressing it this way — I believe that encouraging writers to think that those three sentences are all that is needed to sell a book is short-sighted, inaccurate, and is an almost sure-fire recipe for ending up feeling tongue-tied and helpless in a pitching situation. I’m not convinced that all pitching disasters are, as conference organizers often imply, the result of writers who simply don’t prepare adequately; flubbed pitches are often the result of mismatched appointments, lack of confidence, or even over-preparation.

I’m quite serious about that last one. Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of stammering writers struggle to express themselves at conferences all over the country. They flounder not merely because pitching is genuinely hard, but also because they had blindly followed the pervasive pitching advice and prepared only three sentences — no more, no less — about their books.

Why is that structure problematic? Ask those stammering pitchers: focusing solely upon brevity left them with precisely nothing else to say about it, or at least nothing else that they had polished enough to roll smoothly off their tongues.

This species of brain freeze happens all the time to good writers, squelching their big chance to make a connection with the right person to help their book to publication. You’d be astonished at how frequently these poor souls forget even to introduce themselves prior to giving their official 3-line pitch; most of the time, they walk out of the pitch without having told the agent what kind of book it is.

That leaves the agent or editor understandably confused and frustrated, as you may well imagine. The results, I’m afraid, are relatively predictable: a meeting that neither party can feel good about, and one that ends without a request to submit pages.

Frankly, I think it’s rather cruel to place talented-but-inexperienced writers in this position. There is certainly a place in the publishing industry for the three-sentence pitch — quite a significant place, as we will be discussing later in this ‘Palooka — but there is information about you and your book that should logically be mentioned before those three sentences, so the agent or editor to whom you are pitching knows who you are and what the heck you are talking about.

In answer to that gigantic unspoken cry of, “What do you mean, I have to say something to an agent or editor BEFORE I pitch! I was told I had to prepare only three sentences, total, and I would be home free!” we all just heard bouncing off the moon and back into the atmosphere, I can only reply: yes, yes, I know. I’ve never seen a conference brochure that gave advice on what to say before a pitch. But such is my faith in your mother that I believe she did not raise you to be rude to people you want to do you professional favors.

Let’s face it: simple etiquette forbids charging up to a total stranger, even if you have an appointment with her, and blurting, “There’s this good actor who can’t get a job, so he puts on women’s clothing and auditions. Once he’s a popular actress, he falls in love with a woman who doesn’t know he’s a man.”

That’s a screenplay-type pitch for TOOTSIE, by the way, a great story. But even if you run up to an agent and shout out the best pitch for the best story that ever dropped from human lips, the agent is going to wonder who the heck you are and why you have no manners.

“That writer’s mother can’t possibly know that he acts this way,” the agent will mutter, turning away.

Don’t tell me that you don’t have time for manners: presenting yourself politely, as a reasonable person should, requires only about a hundred words. Even in the swiftest pitching situation, you will have the ten seconds to utter a hundred words.

Even writers who limit their pitches to three lines have time for that, right?

The goal of my Magic First Hundred Words formula is to give you a lead-in to any conversation that you will have at a writer’s conference, or indeed, anywhere within the profession. Equipped with this talisman, you can feel confident introducing yourself to anyone, no matter how important or intimidating, because you will know that you are talking about your work in a professional manner.

Now doesn’t that sound more civilized than walking into a pitch meeting with a whip and a chair, terrified and desiring only to keep criticism at bay?

While mastering the MFHW will not necessarily transform you from the Jerry Lewis of pitchers into the Cary Grant of same — although we can all hope — it will go a long way toward helping you calm down enough to give an effective pitch. Ideally, both pitcher and pitchee should feel at ease. Observing the niceties is conducive to that.

And not just for reasons of style; I’m being practical here. Trust me, in the many, many different social situations in which a professional writer is expected to be able to speak coherently about her work, very few are conducive to coughing up three sentences completely out of context. There are social graces to be observed.

Ready to learn how to introduce yourself gracefully? Relax — it’s going to be easy. Here’s the formula:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

Voilà! You are now equipped to start a conversation with anybody at any writing event in the English-speaking world. These magic words — which, you will note, are NOT generic, but personalized for YOUR book — will introduce you and your work in the language used by the industry, establishing you right off the bat as someone to take seriously.

You’re welcome.

The beauty of the MFHW formula (if I do say so myself) is its versatility. If you learn these few sentences by heart, you can walk into any pitching situation — be it a formal, 15-minute meeting with the agent of your dreams or a chance encounter at the dessert bar when you and an editor are reaching for the same miniature éclair — confident that you can comport yourself with ease and grace.

Why is so important to introduce yourself urbanely — and get to your point quickly? Well, agents and editors are MAGNIFICENTLY busy people. They honestly do prefer to work with writers to whom they will not have to explain each and every nuance of the road to publication.

That’s my job, right?

Look, it’s natural to be hesitant when approaching someone who could conceivably change your life. But think about what even a brief flare-up of shyness, modesty, or just plain insecurity at the moment of approach can look like from their perspective. By the time the average pitcher has gotten around to mentioning the actual content of her book after several minutes of shilly-shallying, the agent in front of him has usually already mentally stamped his foreheads with “TIME-CONSUMING” in bright red letters.

Which means, in practical terms, that in any subsequent pitch, his book is going to have to sound amazing, rather than merely good, for the agent to want to see it. And in a hallway encounter, he might not get to pitch at all.

By introducing yourself and your work in the lingua franca of the industry, however, you will immediately establish yourself as someone who has taken the time to learn the ropes. Believe me, the pros will appreciate it.

I’ve pushed a few insecurity buttons out there, haven’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of the more modest amongst you protest, “I don’t know much about how publishing works. They’ll see through my false mask of confidence right away. And look — that agent has a knife! AHHHHHH!” (Sound of talented body thudding onto the ground.)

Would this be a good time to point out that the vast majority of aspiring writers radically overestimate how scary interacting with an agent or editor will be, building it up in their minds until it makes a facing a firing squad seem like a carefree social encounter?

Which is, of course, ridiculous: in my experience, very few agents come to conferences armed. In their natural habitat, they will only attack writers if provoked, wounded, or very, very hungry.

No, but seriously, folks, writers tend to freak themselves out unnecessarily with fantasies about agents and editors being mean to them, but that’s hardly the universal pitching experience. Most conference-attending agents and editors genuinely like good writing and good writers; apart from a few sadists who get their jollies bullying the innocent, they’re not there to pick fights.

Or, to put it a bit more poetically: when an agent or editor agrees to hear a writer’s pitch, either in a formal or an informal context, he’s virtually never trying to trick an aspiring writer into making a career-destroying mistake. They come to these conferences to find talent.

They want to like you, honest. But they will like you better if you meet them halfway — and observe the niceties.

Worried? I can’t say as I blame you; would it set your mind at ease to gain a sense of how most aspiring writers begin pitch meetings? Assuming that we all already know why the ever-popular sit-there-in-terrified-silence approach might not charm and agent or editor, let’s take a look at a couple of other common entrance speeches. First, the super-vague:

”There’s this woman who is in love with a man, but they work together, so it’s a problem. After a while, something happens to lock them in an elevator together, where they discover that they’ve actually been yearning after each other for years.”

Non-specific, isn’t it? Most rambling pitches are. The hearer is left to guess: what kind of a book is it? Who are these characters, and why should I care about them? And, lest we forget, who is saying this, beyond the person who happened to be assigned to the 10:45 pitching slot?

See the problem, from the agent or editor’s point of view? Good. Now let’s look at another popular entrance strategy, the self-rejecting:

”Well, my book isn’t really finished, and you’re probably not going to be interested in it, but I’ve been working on it for eight years and I keep getting rejected, so maybe…well, in any case, here goes: there’s this woman who is in love with a man, but they work together…”

Doesn’t exactly ooze confidence, does it? Let’s try the book report method on for size:

“My fiction novel is a first-person narrative from the points of view of three different narrators, all unreliable. The writing is very literary, but I’m hoping to market it to a mainstream audience. The imagery is extremely filmic, so it would be a natural to make into a movie.”

Okay, but what is this book about? At the first-introduction stage, why should an agent care about the narrative voice or the number of narrators? It’s not as though she’s going to stop the writer before he even mentions the plot and say, “Oh, fantastic — I was talking to an editor just the other day who begged me to bring her more first-person narratives from multiple perspectives. You, sir, are my new client!”

And by the way, all novels are fiction, just as all memoirs are based on true stories. So saying that your novel is fiction is just about as redundant as telling an agent that you have taken the original approach of printing words on pages; trust me, she will have assumed that.

The book report pitch is not the most common, believe it or not. That honor would go to the ever-popular book review technique:

“This is the most exciting debut novel since THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, although it’s neither written in the first person plural nor a closely-examined depiction of a dysfunctional family. Searing in its intensity, the plot builds to a climax of Cinemascope proportions. The ending will leave you breathless and eager for a sequel.

At the risk of repeating myself, what is this book about? Why is the comparison relevant? And why would an agent believe a writer’s critical assessment of his own work, rather than waiting to make that call herself after reading the manuscript?

With those querying faux pas firmly embedded in your brainpans, let’s take another gander at those magic first hundred words, to see precisely how far your approach is likely to try their patience. You’ve just walked into your pitch appointment and said:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

Believe me, to an agent or editor who has been listening to writers stammer helplessly all day, this simple speech will be downright refreshing. Quite apart from the content conveying what they actually want to know — again, something of a rarity in a three-line pitch — the magic first hundred words also convey:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME) a polite and professional writer who has taken the time to learn how you and your ilk describe books. I understand that in order to make a living, you need to be able to pitch good books to others, so I have been considerate enough to figure out both the BOOK CATEGORY and TARGET MARKET. Rather than presuming that you are an automaton, an industry stooge with no individual tastes, I am now going to run the premise by you to see how you like it: (KEYNOTE).”

That’s perfectly honest, right? Over the past couple of weeks, you have done all these things, haven’t you?

Practice your magic first hundred words until they flow out of your sweet lips smoothly, without an initial pause — you know, like a conversation. Only repetition will make them feel like natural speech.

And don’t just say them in your mind: practice OUT LOUD, so you get used to hearing yourself talk about your work like a professional. It’s going to sound a bit strange and more than a little pushy the first seventy or eighty times that convenient little speech pops out of your mouth.

That’s a perfectly lovely reason not to save the MFHW for the important folks at a conference, but to use them to introduce yourself to the writer standing ahead of you in the registration line. And the one behind you, as well as the people sitting around you at the first seminar on the first day. In fact, it would be perfectly accurate to say that any writers’ conference anywhere in the world will be stuffed to capacity with people upon whom to practice this speech.

Knock yourself out. You might make a few friends.

One caveat about using these words to meet other writers: they’re a great introduction, but do remember to give the other party a chance to speak as well. It is accepted conference etiquette to ask the other party what she writes before you start going on at too great length about your own work.

Courtesy counts, remember?

So if you find that you have been speaking for more than a couple of minutes to a fellow writer without hearing anyone’s voice but your own, make sure to stop yourself and ask what your listener writes. In this context, the very brevity of the MFHW will ensure that you are being polite; if your new acquaintance is interested, she will ask for more details about your book.

I mention this because it’s been my experience that writers, especially those attending their first conferences, tend to underestimate pretty radically how much they will enjoy talking to another sympathetic soul about their work. After plugging away in one’s literary garret for so long, it can be a huge relief. It’s not at all unusual for a writer to realize with a shock that he’s been talking non-stop for twenty minutes.

Completely understandable, of course. We writers are, by definition, rather isolated creatures: we spend much of our time by ourselves, tapping away at a keyboard. Ours is one of the few professions where a touch of agoraphobia is actually a professional advantage, after all.

It can be very lonely — which is precisely why you’re going to want to use the MFHW to introduce yourself to as many kindred souls as you possibly can at a conference. What better place to meet buddies to e-mail when you feel yourself starting to lose momentum? Where else are you more likely to find talented people eager to form a critique group? And who will be more thrilled to hear that you’ve landed an agent, sold your first book, or will be in town for a book signing? (Oh, you thought writers who hit the big time didn’t have support networks?)

If that’s not enough to get you chatting, consider this: there’s a distinct possibility that one of those people sitting next to you in seminars is going to be a household name someday. Every writer has to start out somewhere. Just think how cool you’ll feel saying casually, “Oh, her? Great writer. I met her at a conference years ago. Look, there’s my name in the acknowledgements of her book.”

This is, in fact, an excellent place for a writer to find new friends who get what it’s like to be a writer. And at that, let no one sneeze, at least not in my general vicinity.

Let’s face it, most of our non-writing friends’ curiosity about what we’re doing for all that time we’re shut up in our studios is limited to the occasional, “So have you finished the novel yet?” and the extortion of a vague promise to sign a copy for them when it eventually comes out. If they know a little — just a little — about the publishing industry, they may even joke about the day when you will hand them free copies.

Word to the wise: get out of the habit NOW of promising these people copies of your future books. Nowadays, authors get comparatively few free copies; you don’t want to end up paying for dozens of extra books to fulfill all those past promises, do you?

Back to my original point: at a writers’ conference, or even in a pitch meeting, the euphoria of meeting another human being who actually wants to hear about what you are writing, who is THRILLED to discuss the significant difficulties involved in finding time to write when you have a couple of small children scurrying around the house, who says fabulously encouraging things like, “Gee, that’s a great title!” can be pretty overwhelming.

It’s easy to get carried away. For the sake of the long-term friendships you can make at a conference, make sure you listen as much as you talk.

For that, too, you are already more prepared than you think. For your conversational convenience, the MFHW transform readily into conversation-sparking questions:

”Hi, what’s your name? What do you write? What is your target audience? What’s your premise?

Sensing a theme here?

By all means, though, use your fellow conference attendees to get used to speaking your MFHW aloud — and your pitch, while you’re at it. It’s great practice, and it’s a good way to meet other writers working in your genre. Most writers are genuinely nice people — and wouldn’t it be great if, on the day your agent calls you to say she’s received a stellar offer for your first book, if you already had the e-mail addresses of a dozen writers that you could call immediately, people who would UNDERSTAND what an achievement it was?

Trust me on this one: you won’t want to have to wonder whom to call when that happy day comes.

Practice, practice, practice those MFHW, my friends, until they roll off your tongue with the ease of saying good morning to your co-workers. They are going to be your security blanket when you’re nervous, and your calling card when you are not.

Next time, we’ll be moving to the elevator speech, those pesky three sentences we’ve all heard so much about. After that, we’ll be ready for the home stretch: pulling it all together for the pitch proper. Can the query letter be far behind?

Congratulations on all of the progress you’ve made over the last couple of weeks: you honestly are building up your professional acumen. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just what am I getting myself into? Part IX: good news, less-good news, and why you should keep the faith, or, go fish!

Before we launch into today’s post, I have some good news and some less-good news to announce. No, make that fantastic and all-too-real news.

First, the phenomenal: please join me in a gigantic round of cheering for long-time Author! Author! reader Jay Kristoff, who had just landed a three-book deal with St. Martin’s/Tor UK for his STORMDANCER, a dystopian fantasy set in steampunk feudal Japan. Congratulations, Jay!

It just goes to show you: it can be done, people. Keep those chins high as you press forward.

Jay’s book sold at auction, and, good community member that he is, he has posted a really interesting account of it on his blog. How’s that for timely, since we’ve spent the last few weeks focusing upon how books move from manuscript to publication?

Speaking of which — and moving on to the less-good news — as those of you who check in here regularly may have noticed, I have been posting rather spottily for the last couple of weeks. That’s been due to a combination of positive (my niece’s wedding is next week) and less-positive factors (those pesky post-car crash injuries have been acting up again). Sensing a pattern here?

In an effort to save myself my now-habitual daily guilt when I do not post, as well as to save faithful readers a few minutes on those days, I’m going to take the next week off from posting. After I’ve finished throwing rice at relatives, I shall return, in theory refreshed. Or, at the very least, with a bit more time on my hands.

So do enjoy yourselves between now and the 17th. How about investing the time you would have spent reading my blog in sending out a couple of extra queries, or in doing a spot of revision on that manuscript?

Just a suggestion. On to the topic of the moment — which, as it happens, has everything to do with the ups and downs of a writing career. That, and predictability.

I freely admit it: I’m perpetually astonished at the things that are supposed to flabbergast otherwise reasonable adults. That characters on television shows who have been flirting for seven consecutive seasons suddenly end up romantically entangled during episodes aired during sweeps week, for instance: um, who precisely is not going to have seen that coming? Or that any major political initiative is greeted by anything but the unanimous approval of any given legislative body: as nearly as I can tell from the news every night, we’re all supposed to be floored by the fact that politicians disagree with one another from time to time, even when those splits run along precisely the party lines that characterized the last 17 major disagreements. Or that anyone’s cockles wouldn’t be warmed by the magic of Christmas.

Frankly, I like to think that people are a trifle less credulous than that — and more inclined to learn from experience. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, I don’t think too much of people who are not wiser today than they were yesterday.

Which is one aspect of how the publishing industry treats writers that I really like: it assumes not only that anyone who can write well enough to deserve to be published is an intelligent human being, but also that a good writer can and will learn the ropes of the business side of publishing. In this era where even news shows operate on the assumption that the average adult has the attention span of a three-year-old — and one who has been stuffing candy into his eager mouth for the last two hours at that — I find agents’ and editors’ presumption of authorial intelligence rather refreshing.

Unfortunately, most aspiring writers see only the negative fallout of this industry-wide assumption; since the pros expect writers to do their own research before trying to get their books published, those brand-new to the biz are often stunned that nobody in the industry spontaneously tells them what to do. Which is completely understandable, right? From a first-time querier’s perspective, it can seem downright counterproductive that agents just expect her to know what a query letter should look like, what information it should contain, and that it shouldn’t just read like a back jacket blurb for the book.

Heck, how is someone who has never met an agented author in person to know not just to pick up the phone and call the agent in question? Magic? Osmosis?

Similarly, agents, editors, and contest judges presume that anyone genuinely serious about her writing will have taken the time to learn how professional writers format their manuscripts — an interesting presumption, given that many, if not most, aspiring writers are not aware that professional manuscripts are not supposed to resemble published books. (To those of you who just gasped: you might want to take a barefoot run through our recent Formatpalooza series.)

Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not information that the average writer is born knowing. That’s a real shame, since professionally-formatted manuscripts tend to be taken far more seriously at submission time than those that are not.

Why? People who read manuscripts for a living tend to assume that good writers are intelligent human beings, that’s why. From Millicent the agency screener’s perspective, the only reason that a manuscript would not be formatted properly is that the submitter did not bother to do his homework.

Why does that matter? Well, a query or submission that does not conform to their expectations of what is publishable (in terms of writing) or marketable (in terms of content or authorial authority) is a sign that the writer just isn’t ready yet to play in the big leagues. In other words, even if the writing is pretty good and/or the book concept pretty engaging, Millicent might toss that fish back into the waters where she caught it.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that she believes the writer will never produce professional-level work; indeed, folks in the industry tend to assume (and even say at conferences) that they’re confident that if a truly talented writer gets rejected, she will take it as a sign that she needs to improve her presentation. Since the information on how to do that is available — although nowhere near as readily or conveniently as most agents who say this sort of thing seem to think — why wouldn’t someone with a genuine gift invest the time and effort in learning to do it right?

From the writer’s side of the game, there’s a very straightforward answer to that: because the average querier or submitter, gifted or otherwise, doesn’t have a clear idea of what he’s doing wrong. Since most rejection letters these days contain absolutely no clue as to what caused the agent (or, more commonly, the agent’s Millicent) to shove the submission back into the SASE — heck, some agencies no longer respond at all if the answer is no — no one should be particularly surprised if an aspiring writer’s learning curve isn’t always steep.

Why bring up the expectation of intelligent research toward the end of this series on how writers bring their books to publication, you ask? Because from an outside perspective, it’s just too easy to interpret the sometimes esoteric and confusing rules of querying, pitching, and submission as essentially hostile to aspiring writers.

That’s not really the case, you know. While many of the querying and submission restrictions have indeed been established, as we have discussed, in order to narrow the field of candidates for the very, very few new client slots available at most agencies, the intent behind that weeding-down effort is not to discourage talented-but-inexperienced writers from trying to get their work published.

The underlying belief is that an intelligent person’s response to rejection will not be to give up, but to analyze what went wrong, do some research about what can go right, and try, try again. Believe it or not, the fine folks who toil in agencies and publishing houses don’t expect the writers they reject to disappear permanently, at least not the ones with genuine talent. They believe that the gifted ones will return, this time better equipped for life as a professional writer.

Go back to your native element, little fish. We’ll see you again when you’re bigger.

Understanding this attitude is key to handling rejection with aplomb — or even translating agent-speak into writers’ English. Take, for instance, that old publishing industry truism, good writing will always find a
home
. What the agents and editors who spout this aphorism seldom think to add is: but not necessarily right away. Like learning any other set of job skills, becoming a professional writer can take some time.

Which means, from the business side of the industry’s perspective, writers who give up after just a few rejections — which is the norm, incidentally, not the exception — are those who aren’t seriously interested in making the rather broad leap between a talented person who likes to write and a professional writer in it for the long haul. They don’t waste too many tears over the loss of the former.

I don’t see it that way, personally: talking to so many writers over so many years, I see the crushed dreams behind the writer who gives up after a single rejection as clearly as those belonging to the writer who is struggling through year 7 of an agent search. That pain is real. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that most talented aspiring writers take individual rejections from agents far, far too seriously.

Yes, you read that correctly: it’s very easy to overrate the importance of no. These days, it seems as though every other aspiring writer I meet has either:

(a) sent out a single query, got rejected, and never tried again,

(b) had a few queries rejected two years ago, and has been feverishly revising the manuscript ever since, despite the fact that no agent had yet seen it,

(c) pitched successfully at a conference, but convinced himself that the only reason four agents asked to see his first chapter was because those agents were just saying yes to everybody,

(d) received a positive response to a query or pitch, then talked herself out of sending the requested materials at all, because her work isn’t good enough,

(e) sent out the requested pages, but in order to save himself from disappointment, decided in advance that none of the replies will be positive,

(f) received the first manuscript rejection — and expanded it mentally into a resounding NO! from everyone in the industry, and/or

(g) concluded from conference chatter that no one in the industry is interested in any book that isn’t an obvious bestseller.

In short, each of these types of writers had decided that his or her fears about what happened were true, rather than doing the research to find out whether the response that fear and hurt dictated was in fact the most reasonable one. Don’t believe me? Just look how easily each of the conclusions above can be debunked:

(a) A single query is not — and cannot — be indicative of how every agent on earth will respond.
A better response: why not try again?

(b) Until agents have actually seen the manuscript, there’s no way a writer can know how they will respond to it.
A better response: work on improving the query, then try again.

(c) No, the agents and editors were not asking everyone to send chapters — pitching doesn’t work that way.
A better response: assume that you did something right and send out the requested materials.

(d) How do you know for sure until you send it out?
A better response: learn how to present your work professionally, then submit it.

(e) In my experience, foretelling doom does not soften future misfortune, if it comes — it only serves to stultify present hope.
A better response: hedge your bets by continuing to query other agents while waiting to hear back from the first round.

(f) ANY agent or editor’s opinion of a book is just that, an opinion.
A better response: see (a)

(g) the publishing industry makes most of its money on books that are neither bestsellers nor small-run books. Most of the time, the mid-list titles are paying the agency’s mortgage.
A better response: take the time to learn how the industry works, rather than killing your chances entirely by not continuing to try.

None of this is to say that bouncing back from rejection is easy, or that landing an agent is a snap. The road from first idea to publication is long and bumpy, and seems to get bumpier all the time.

As Maya Angelou tells us, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

Yes, it’s emotionally hard work to prep your pages to head out the door to agents and editors; yes, it is hard to wait for replies to your submissions. To give you a foretaste of what’s down the road, it’s also psychically difficult to watch the weeks tick by between when you sign with an agent and when that sterling soul decides that, in her professional opinion, the time is ripe for her to submit your book to editors. And then it’s rough to wait until those editors get around to reading it, just as it is agonizing to hang around, feigning patience, between the time a publisher acquires your book and it appears on the shelves.

I’m not going to lie to you: it’s all incredibly wearing on the nerves.

That being said, if you are thinking about throwing in the towel on your book before you have given the querying and submission processes a thorough test, please do not look to me for validation of that decision. I’ll give you practical advice on how to query; I’ll hand you tips on how to improve your submission’s chances; I’ll share pointers on the fine art of revision; I’ll answer your questions along the way. I will cheer from the sidelines until I’m blue in the face for your efforts as a writer.

As long as you keep trying. As Jay’s triumph clearly illustrates, aspiring writers are still landing agents — as he did fairly recently — and selling first books.

But not if they give up. One of the few industry truisms that is true 100% of the time: the only book that has ABSOLUTELY no chance of being published is the one that stays hidden in the bottom drawer of the author’s filing cabinet.

Keep pushing forward; keep sending your work out. Because while it’s time-consuming, expensive, and emotionally wearing, it’s also literally the only way that your book — or any book — comes to publication.

Long-time readers of this blog will groan with recognition, but once again, I feel compelled to remind you that five of the best-selling books of the 20th century were rejected by more than a dozen publishers before they were picked up by publishers — and that was back in the days when it was considerably easier to get published. Everybody count down with me now:

Dr. Seuss, AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET (rejected by 23 publishers)

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

Thor Heyerdahl, KON-TIKI (20)

Richard Bach, JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL (18)

Patrick Dennis, AUNTIE MAME (17)

The lesson to derive here: keep moving forward. Please, please, PLEASE don’t dismiss your book too soon, on the basis of some preconceived notion of what will and will not sell — even if that preconceived notion fell from the ostensibly learned lips of the agent of your dreams.

Concentrate on what you can control, not what you can’t. In order to do that effectively, you’re going to need to learn about how the process actually works.

That’s the less-good news. The good news is that the writer does have practically absolute control over the technical and cosmetic aspects of the submission.

Yes, I know — for most of us, getting our thoughts, stories, and worldviews out there is the primary goal of writing a book, so concentrating on the details seems comparatively mundane. Applying and adhering to the rules of standard format is not a joy for anybody; when the aspiring writer first embraces it, it can seem like a necessary evil. Most of us want to move directly to unfettered self-expression — and then are surprised and frustrated when the resulting book has difficulty finding an agent, getting published, or winning contests.

But this is a bad idea, both professionally and emotionally. Concentrating almost exclusively on the self-expressive capacity of the book, we tend to read rejection as personal, rather than as what it is: an industry insider’s assessment of whether she can sell your work within her preexisting sales network. Ask anyone in the biz, and he will tell you: 99% of rejections are technically-based; the rejection usually isn’t of the submitter’s style or worldview, for the simple reason that those are not considerations unless the basic signs of good writing — in the sense of professional writing — are in the submission.

This can be a very empowering realization. As can coming to terms with the fact that while people may be born with writing talent, the ability to present writing professionally is a learned skill.

Once a writer grasps the difference between technically good writing and stylistic good writing and the distinction between a well-written manuscript and a professionally-formatted one, rejections become less a personal insult than a signal that there may be technical problems with how she is presenting her writing. The lesson to be learned from a rejection transforms from, “Why do they hate me?” to “What can I do to make this submission/query read better?”

Yes, yes, I know: emotionally speaking, it’s not much of an improvement, at least in the short term. But when the question is framed in the latter manner, there is something the writer can do about it. I’m a big fan of tackling the doable first, and getting to the impossible later.

Without a doubt, absolutely the best thing you can do to increase your chances is to make sure that your submission is crystal-clear and professionally formatted before you send it out. Out comes the broken record again: pass it under other eyes, preferably those of other writers, people who both know basic good writing when they see it AND have some idea how to fix it.

Does that giant gasp that just rent the ether mean that some of you had not thought of your first readers that way? Had you simply handed your manuscript to your nearest and dearest, or even to just anybody who asked to see it? As understandable as the impulse to share the product of your creative labors is, this practice is not likely to help you get your work published.

Why? Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: as marvelous as your kith and kin may be as human beings, they are unlikely to give you unbiased feedback — and only unbiased, knowledgeable feedback is going to help hoist your work up over the professional bar.

What else can you control, even a little? Well, you can avoid sending your query or submission during the traditional industry dead times (between the second week of August and Labor Day; between Thanksgiving and New Year’s day), or predictable periods of heavy submission (immediately after New Year’s, right after school gets out for the summer). You don’t want to have your work end up in the read when we get around to it pile, do you?

So for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to take a great big marker and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of your envelope, so your marvelous submission doesn’t get tossed into the unsolicited manuscript pile for a few months. It’s a good idea, too, to mention that these are requested materials in your HUGELY POLITE cover letter that you enclose with the manuscript: Thank you for asking to see the first three chapters of my novel…

While I’m being governessy, I might as well add: always, always include a SASE — a stamped, self-addressed envelope – with enough postage (stamps, not metered) for your manuscript’s safe return. In fact, you might want to mention the SASE in your cover letter. This marks you as a courteous writer who will be easy to work with and a joy to help. If you want to move your reputation up into the peachy range, include a business-size SASE as well, to render it a snap to ask you to see the rest of the manuscript. Make it as easy as possible for them to reach you to say that they love your book.

And no, green-minded aspiring writers: asking them to recycle your submission if they do not like it is no substitute for an appropriately-sized SASE. Sorry. In the first place — hold on to your hats here, because this is a genuine shocker by local standards — most of the offices in the industry do not even have recycling bins. (I know; it’s appalling, when you think about how much paper they see in a day.) And in the second place, they’ll just think you’re being rude. Sorry again.

One last thing, another golden oldie from my broken-record collection: do not overnight your manuscript; priority mail, or even regular mail, is fine. This is true, even if the agent who has your first chapter calls or e-mails you and asks for the rest of the manuscript immediately. It’s neither appropriate nor necessary to waste your precious resources on overnight shipping.

Trust me on this one: you may be the next John Grisham, but honey, it is unlikely that the agent’s office is holding its collective breath, doing nothing until it receives your manuscript. Hurrying on your end will not speed their reaction time.

Another way to keep your momentum going while you wait: since turn-around times tend to be long (a safe bet is to double what the agent tells you; call or e-mail after that, for they may have genuinely lost your manuscript), do not stop sending out queries just because you have an agent looking at your chapters or your book proposal. If an agent turns you down — perish the thought! — you will be much, much happier if you have other options already in motion.

Hey, not every fisherman agrees on what size of fish to throw back.

The only circumstance under which you should not continue querying is if the agent has asked for an exclusive look at your manuscript — which, incidentally, you are under no obligation to grant. However, politeness generally dictates agreement. If you do agree to an exclusive (here comes another golden oldie), specify in advance for how long you are granting it. Three months is more than generous. Then, if the agent does not get back to you within the stated time, you will be well within your rights to keep searching while she tries to free enough time from her kids, her spouse, her Rottweiler, etc. to read your submission.

Don’t let the hobgoblins of self-doubt carry you off, my friends. Have faith in your writing — and work hard to learn as much as you can to maximize your book’s chances of success.

Enjoy your week off, everybody. Keep up the good work!

Just what am I getting myself into? Part VI: tomorrow is another day, or, did anyone happen to see which fairy slipped me that sleeping potion?

I’m back from my unplanned hiatus, campers — at least, I hope I am. Apparently, my doctor has been spending long evenings comparing notes with Snow White’s apple-pushing wicked stepmother and the outraged fairy who came up with Sleeping Beauty’s poisoned spindle. Or so I surmise, from how droopy I have been since my last doctor’s appointment.

Back to business. Last time, I broached the burning question at the front of the mind of every writer who has ever submitted a manuscript to an agency: how soon will the agent make a decision about whether to represent my book?

The answer, pretty much invariably: not as quickly as the writer would like.

Which is to say: try not to take slow turn-around times personally — or as any reflection whatsoever upon the quality or marketability of your writing. It’s just the way the system works.

Honestly, agents don’t draw out the submission process just to torture writers — the delays in turn-around are often due to logistical considerations, such as the number of screening levels though which a manuscript must pass prior to the agent, how backlogged the agent’s reading schedule is, and the sheer volume of submissions an agency receives. Remember, too, that the agent of your dreams doesn’t just need to peruse potential clients’ books; her existing client list keeps producing manuscripts, too.

Oh, and people who work in agencies have been known to have lives. As much as impatient writers might like them to bend the space-time continuum, they only have the same number of hours in a day as the rest of us. And no one, however dedicated to literature, reads 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year plus one in leap year.

But that’s doesn’t stop a writer waiting to hear back from an agent or editor from counting the nanoseconds, does it? Or — and feel free to engage in some free-form primal screaming if you happen to fall into this very common category of aspiring writers — from coming up with a plethora of very well-reasoned, vividly-imagined scenarios that explain fully and completely precisely why the agent in question has not yet responded.

You know the type of reasoning, don’t you? The agent fell in love with the manuscript at first glance, but has to run it by the other agents in the firm before offering representation; the agent liked it, but wants to read it again before making up her mind; everyone at the agency just adored it, but they want to hold off until market conditions are different before taking on such an innovative project. Despite the fact that aspiring writers tend to be very, very gifted at manufacturing creative reasons that they haven’t yet received a response after submitting requested materials, the usual reason is quite prosaic: the people at the agency who need to read the manuscript just haven’t had time to get to it yet.

Or at least, as is often the case, haven’t read beyond the first few pages, then set it aside to read late. Believe it or not, when an agent skims the opening of a manuscript and sets is aside to read more closely later, that’s actually good news, from the writer’s perspective. Even if the submission subsequently gathers dust and coffee stains on the corner of his desk, its author has reason to rejoice.

Why? Well, contrary to popular belief, agents and editors will seldom read an entire manuscript before deciding to reject it. They do not read like other people, you see; they do not typically read an entire book, or even an entire chapter, before drawing conclusions about the book before them. Because of the sheer volume of submissions and the comparatively tiny number they can accept, they learn to make up their minds very, very fast.

I can sense some resistance to the concept of quick rejection floating out there in the ether. “But Anne,” dewy-eyed idealists everywhere exclaim, “that can’t possibly be right; no one seriously interested in writing would dismiss a book without reading it. If an agent asks to see my manuscript, of course he’s going to take the time to read it!”

Oh, dear. Are you sitting down?

Not only are rejected manuscripts rarely read in their entirety; once a professional reader comes to a page (or paragraph, or even sentence) that raises a red flag, they generally stop reading altogether. All too often — in fact, in the majority of submissions — that page is page 1. This can occur for a variety of reasons, ranging from clichéd dialogue to grammatical errors to lack of excitement in the opening scene. Or simply an opening that they’ve seen before.

But back to that good news I mentioned above: if an agent reads the first few pages of a submission and sets it aside to peruse later, that means he hasn’t rejected it; unlike the overwhelming majority of submissions, its opening passed muster. Hooray!

I’m sensing more disturbances in the ether. “Okay,” the idealists concede reluctantly, “I can see how rejection might be a speedier process than acceptance. But if the agent (and the Millicent who screens things for him) makes up his mind that quickly about most rejections, does his setting my manuscript aside to read later mean that he’s already basically decided to accept it?”

Oh, would that it were that simple. Once a manuscript has cleared the instant rejection hurdle, many other criteria come into play — and contrary to quite a bit of the writing talk wafting around the ether, the net, and the writers’ conference circuit, those criteria have not now nor have they ever been susceptible to being boiled down to a brief set of one-size-fits-all tips.

Why? Because, my friends, the literary marketplace is not simple. Nor is it static. To understand a complex, ever-changing world, an aspiring writer needs to move beyond the notion that there’s a trick to achieving literary success. Or if there is a trick, that it may be summarized in a page and applied to every conceivable book concept.

Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — the people making the decisions about who does and does not get a shot at publication tend to be complex, too. At least enough so to realize that what bookstore browsers are buying today is not necessarily what they will be buying tomorrow.

So how do they make up their minds?

What makes an agent decide to take on one manuscript, rather than another?
One reason, and one reason only: she believes that she can sell the first book in the current literary marketplace.

In other words, in her professional opinion, not only is the book is well-written and might interest people who buy and read books, but she also has the connections to editors at major or mid-sized publishing houses who will be interested in bringing this particular manuscript to publication. Not at some dim future point, or because they were publishing similar books five years ago, but because she is deeply acquainted with the types of books they are looking to acquire now.

Furthermore, she believes that the book concept and presentation are polished enough that she can begin sending it out to editors without having first to invest tremendous amounts of her time in re-editing the work. Also, based upon how the writer has presented the manuscript and handled the querying/pitching and submission process, she believes that the writer is sufficiently professional and well enough versed in how publishing works that she will not need to hold his hand throughout every step of the process.

This extremely complicated set of conclusions is, you must admit, hardly likely to be something an agent is likely to reach on a purely spontaneous basis three lines into the manuscript. It requires far, far more reasons to accept a manuscript than to reject it, after all. In order to come up with that array of pluses, the agent will need to spend some time getting to know the book.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she will be reading it with a charitable eye. Remember, reputable agents only make money if they can sell their clients’ books: she can only afford to take on what she’s confident she can sell. So since even an extremely successful agent can take on only a few new clients per year, in practice that intensive manuscript study entails reading, like Millicent the screener, with an eye peeled for reasons not to take it on.

As an agent of my acquaintance likes to say, he scours the first 185 pages of a submission from a would-be client eager to find reasons to reject it. After he’s invested the time to read up through page 185, he starts looking for reasons to accept it.

And those reasons will not necessarily be purely literary, or even aesthetic; agenting is, after all, not a non-profit enterprise devoted to the cause of art for art’s sake, but a business.

The choice to sign a client, then, is very seldom purely the result of the agent’s just falling in love with the book at first sight — although rejection often does come that quickly. She may well fall in love with it eventually, but it’s a more mature, reasoned sort of love, the result of a considered decision, not a gut impulse.

I’m bringing this up because often, the underlying assumption behind the common aspiring writer’s cri de coeur “But what’s taking so long?” is not just the mistaken assumption that an agent who requested materials will drop everything in order to read them the moment they arrive, but also the belief that if a book is compelling, the reader won’t be able to put it down until she finishes reading it.

Trust me, people who read manuscripts for a living manage it. If they didn’t, they’d never be able to leave work at the end of the day or go to sleep at night.

Another frequent submitter’s assumption is that good writing is inherently so compelling that any professional reader worth her salt should be able to identify an exciting new voice instantly, practically from the top of page 1. While it is often the case that good writing will make professional readers think, “Wow, I’m looking forward to reading on!” that does not mean that the initial tingle of hope should be confused with the ultimate decision to represent the book.

The former merely means that the latter outcome is possible, not that it is guaranteed.

Thus, the secret writerly fantasy about a literary agent’s taking one look at a query letter or hearing a pitch and crying, “STOP! I don’t need to know anything else! I must sign this writer immediately!” just doesn’t happen in real life. (Well, okay, so it does happen to the occasional celebrity, but I’m guessing that if any of you were already famous and/or internationally disreputable, my blog wouldn’t be the first place you would look to find out how to seek representation, so I’ll move on.) A reputable agent is going to want to read the manuscript in its entirety before making up her mind — or, for nonfiction, the entire book proposal.

Yes, no matter how stellar the book’s premise may be or how good the writer’s credentials may be for writing it. Many a marvelous idea has been scuttled by poor presentation. As they like to say in the industry, it all depends on the writing.

Yet that truism is a trifle misleading, because writing quality alone is not necessarily enough going to be enough to charm an agent into agreeing to represent a book. Yes, the agent has to like the writing, find the premise appealing, regard the characters as well-rounded and believable, and so forth, but since she will have to make a substantive argument to an editor about how this manuscript is different and better than both similar books already on the market and the other manuscripts the editor is likely to see anytime soon, she does need to pay close attention to the book’s selling points over and above the beauty of the writing.

Including, incidentally, whether the manuscript is the kind of book that’s selling right now. Not what is currently featured in bookstores at the moment, but what editors are buying now — as we discussed earlier in this series, there’s generally a year or two between when a publisher acquires a book and when it’s released, so what consumers may buy today is actually a reflection of what editors were buying 12 or 15 months ago, possibly more.

This fact is crucial for aspiring writers to understand, as it has a huge effect on the marketability of their manuscripts, from an agent’s perspective.

Since the book market is notoriously susceptible to trends — ask anyone who happened to be trying to sell a vampire romance immediately after the TWILIGHT series hit the bestseller lists, or anyone attempting to market a memoir just after the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal broke — agents’ self-protective attention to what is selling now, as opposed to 5, 15, or 100 years ago, often means that a manuscript that would have experienced little difficulty finding representation in another year might seem like too big a risk to for an agent to take on now, and vice versa.

Yes, you are understanding me correctly: from an agent’s point of view, every good book is not necessarily a marketable book — and a book that is marketable today is not necessarily what will be considered especially marketable six months or two years from now.

Which is why, in case those of you who have attended writers’ conferences recently have been wondering, some agents are prone to telling rooms full of gaping aspiring writers, “Oh, no one is buying that kind of book anymore.” They don’t mean that the specified type is never going to sell again — they mean that there isn’t a particularly strong demand for it amongst editors at the major houses right now.

So when aspiring writers complain about how books like theirs are not finding agents these days, it’s unlikely to strike anyone affiliated with the publishing industry as a searing indictment of their collective aesthetic judgment, but rather as a simple statement of fact about the current literary market. That some types of writing will fall out of fashion from time to time is inevitable; that ones that were not hot in the past will become so is equally inevitable.

If it sounds like I’m spouting that old truism about the weather, if you don’t like it, wait a minute, then congratulations: you’re catching on to how publishing works. See why it’s so vital to a writer’s continued happiness not to take the vagaries of the literary market personally?

But what happens in the opposite case — when an agent is sufficiently charmed by the total package of the book that he decides he wants to represent a writer?

Glad you asked. We’re going to be talking about that next time. But while we are already considering why some well-written manuscripts get picked up by agents on any given day and some do not — yes, it’s true, no matter how many aspiring writers clap their hands, wishing for Tinkerbell to come back to life and tell them that there is no such thing as a brilliant manuscript that gets rejected — let’s pause a moment to look unblinkingly at what might happen to a writer who is trying to land an agent for a great book at the wrong time.

How might that come about? Well, it takes a while to write a novel, does it not? If, say, a talented new voice decided to jump on the vampire-and-werewolf bandwagon right about now, there might still be a burgeoning market for such a book a couple of years hence, when he finishes it. Or, as is the way of all trends, the market may have swung wildly in another direction by then.

Don’t believe me? Try having a heart-to-heart with a writer who murmured a couple of years back, “Hey, I can write a better book then PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES,” and then invested the time in actually doing it. Unfortunately, by the time that query hit Millicent’s desk, she had already read a few hundred submissions from bright souls fired by the same laudable ambition.

By the time our hero’s query turns up in her inbox, she’s bored with the very idea — and who can blame her? “Not a bad letter,” she muses over BRAIN LUST AT HOWARD’S END, “but my boss has told me that if I bring her another zombie story, she’ll begin screaming uncontrollably.”

Does that mean that Millicent’s boss’ sensibilities will continue to be that raw a year from now? Probably not. And her nerve endings are likely to go downright tingly at the prospect of a fresh, new zombie/classic hybrid if the proposed P&P&Z movie turns out to be a big hit.

Timing is, as they say, everything.

Does that mean that every rejection is a case of right book, wrong time? Of course not. As much as we writers hate to admit it, plenty of submissions — and queries — rush to disqualify themselves from serious consideration, through spelling gaffes, grammar problems, lack of clarity, or even plain old dullness. Others, as we discussed throughout the autumn, graphically display a lack of familiarity with the norms and expectations of the publishing industry. And some, let’s face it, are just not very well written.

But many — again, far more than we writers tend to enjoy contemplating — are a draft or two away from being Millicent-grabbers; they’re not bad, but they’re definitely not polished. And there’s a reason for that: as a group, aspiring writers have a nasty habit of rushing manuscripts and book proposals off to Millicent’s perpetually overloaded desk before they are ready.

Why? Because the writer feels ready. But that’s not the same thing as the manuscript’s being sufficiently polished to strike our Millie as the best story she’s read all month, is it?

I’ll answer that one for you: no, it isn’t. It’s rare that a first draft is market-ready. Throughout February, we’re going to be talking about some common ways that manuscripts signal Millicent — sometimes subtly, sometimes by tap-dancing and waving sparklers — that despite interesting writing and/or marketable premises, that they need another revision or two. And no, not all of those problems would require a full manuscript revision to fix.

That’s right, campers — Sleeping Beauty’s rousing herself from her long winter’s nap, and she wants to talk craft. Keep up the good work!

Just what am I getting myself into? Part V: they’re not going to be mean to me, are they?

Does that high-pitched twanging I hear out there in the ether mean that subtitle struck a chord with some of you? Yes, yes, I know: for those of you who are gearing up to query for the first time — or working up nerve to start querying again after having been rejected, steeling yourselves to submit requested materials, or girding your emotional loins to head on out and give a verbal pitch — the question of how a real, live agent might respond to your polite little request can assume nightmare proportions.

How did I know about those middle-of-the-night tremors, you ask? A lifelong association with that peculiar species, the domestic writer, that’s how; we excel ourselves in psyching ourselves out. Who is better than a writer for fleshing out the contours of a vague fear into a mind-numbing horror story, after all?

Especially if one tends, as so many aspiring writers do, to view any individual agent not as a human being, full of personal quirks and individual tastes, but as Everyagent, a powerful soul whose singular opinion might as well be taken for speaking for an entire industry’s opinion on any given query, submission, or pitch.

If your dreams have been haunted by Everyagent, I have some good news for you: s/he doesn’t actually exist. Agents are individuals — often charming ones — with unique tastes, each of whom specializes in certain limited areas of the publishing industry. Although not all of them are graced with equally polished manners (especially if approached rudely or unprofessionally), the overwhelming majority do not take umbrage when approached by an aspiring writer with a project that does not interest them. At worst, most of them will just say no, and that will be that.

Again, what makes me so sure? One very, very simple reason: being nasty about it would take up too much of their busy days. Due to the incredibly high volume of queries the average agent receives, investing the time in a personalized mean response to even 10% would suck up hours that could be spent selling their clients’ books. Or reading current and prospective clients’ submissions. Or even, you know, having a life.

Oh, you smile, but you’re feeling better already, are you not?

The same holds true for pitching, incidentally — and that cheering you hear is the masses pacing the floors of their studios until they wear paths in their carpets as they ponder the perfect pitch. Yes, it’s terrifying to walk into a meeting with a real, live agent, but honestly, most of them are quite nice to pitchers. They may not say yes — in fact, most will not — but it’s seldom worth their energy to be genuinely unpleasant. (Would any of you planning to attend conferences soon like for me to go over how to write a pitch, by the way? I used to address it every summer, but conference season is much longer than it used to be: this year’s is starting right about now, I believe.)

The one great exception, equally applicable to approaching agents by mail, e-mail, or face-to-face: the writer who is pushy to the point of rudeness. This brash soul either hasn’t bothered to learn the rules of polite approach or doesn’t think they apply to him. (Usually because but I want so much to get this book published, a sentiment which, naturally, differentiates this guy from EVERY OTHER ASPIRING WRITER OUT THERE.) What does he do that’s so terrible? He calls agents out a clear blue sky, instead of querying; his e-mails contain sweet expressions along the lines of you’ll be sorry forever if you let this one pass you by and other threats; he queries the same agent over and over, with a tenacity that the average pit bull would envy; he argues with agents who say, “No, thank you.”

But my readership wouldn’t dream of acting in that manner, I’m convinced. All of you are far too nice — and have done your homework far too well — ever to do any of those things, right?

You should worry about the rude aspiring writer, though, because he actually does affect you: many of the hoops through which respectful writers need to jump in order to convince an agent to read their work were erected in order to keep him at bay. Rules against calling agents unless they call you first, for instance, or stern admonitions from conference organizers not to bug agents in the hallways. These are not designed to keep polite people like you at a distance; they’re intended to ward off the few and the rude.

I can feel some of you trembling already. Not to worry; if you follow the norms of the industry, you’re not going to offend an agent accidentally. (Unless you inadvertently mention you didn’t like a book you hadn’t realized she represented; again, doing your homework pays off.) Those contact restrictions work both ways, you know.

Yes, you did read that correctly: the querying, pitching, and submission rules protect the conscientious writer, too. So kudos to you for taking your writing seriously enough to learn the ropes.

Earlier in this series, I went over the three accepted means of bringing your book politely to an agent’s attention: querying, either by sending a letter via regular mail (the classic method), approaching by sending an e-mail (the newfangled method) or through the agency’s website (the least controllable), and verbal pitching (far and away the most terrifying. Today, I’m going to talk about the various possibilities of response to your query or pitch — which, you may be happy to hear, are relatively limited and very seldom involve anyone being overtly mean.

I heard that chortling, experienced pitchers and queriers: we’re talking overtly mean, not merely dismissive. There’s a big difference. And call me zany, but I find it hard to believe that the possibility of an agent’s being genuinely rude in response hadn’t occurred at least once to all of us before the first time we queried. So let’s pitch in, so to speak, to help those new to the game overcome those butterflies that seem to enjoy inhabiting the writerly stomach.

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

At least, not if you’re polite in your approach and s/he is professional. At worst, s/he is going to say “No, thank you.”

But just so you’re prepared, rookies: pretty much every writer who has landed an agent within the last decade heard “No, thank you,” many, many times before hearing, “Yes, of course.” Ditto with virtually every living author who has brought a first book out within the last ten years. (At least the ones who were not already celebrities in another field; celebrities have a much easier time attracting representation. Yes, life is not fair; this is news to you?)

That’s just the way the game works these days. Translation: you should not feel bad if your first query does not elicit a positive response. Honestly, it would be unusual if it did, in the current market.

“Okay, Anne,” those of you about to query or pitch for the first time quaver, clutching your butterfly-filled tummies, “I’ll bite. If an agent isn’t likely either to go into raptures or to fly into an insult-spewing rage after reading a query letter or hearing a pitch, what is likely to happen?”

Glad you asked, butterfly-catchers. Let’s run through the most common possibilities.

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

So figuring out whether a query or pitch did the trick is actually very simple: if the agent requested materials, it was. Congratulations!

Enjoying this particular brand of success does not mean that a writer has landed an agent, however, it merely means that he’s cleared the first hurdle on the road to representation. Be pleased, certainly, but remember, asking to see your manuscript does not constitute a promise, even if an agent was really, really nice to you during a pitch meeting; it merely means that she is intrigued by your project enough to think that there’s a possibility that she could sell it in the current publishing market.

Stop averting your eyes, please: I’m quite serious about this. Remember, pitchers, a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation is at a conference, but a representation contract is a deal. Keep pitching and/or querying until the agent right for your work offers you the latter.

So send what he asks to see, of course, but keep querying other agents, just to hedge your bets. No matter how much you want (or, in the case of face-to-face pitching, like) a particular agent, it’s not in your best interest to grant an effective exclusive to any agent who hasn’t actually asked for it; unless you are dealing with an agency with an exclusives-only policy (which should be stated openly on the agency’s website and in its agency guide listing), most agents will simply assume they’re not the only one looking at a manuscript.

It’s up to you, of course. However, since turn-around times can be six months or more, even on an eagerly-solicited manuscript, waiting by the phone instead of dating around might not be the best strategy in the long term, if you catch my drift.

All that applies if the answer is yes. But how does one know if the answer is no?

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

Because pitching is done in person, agents often do give a reason if the answer is no. Often, the stated reason isn’t all that different from the reasoning typically found on a boilerplate rejection letter — I just don’t think I can sell that book in the current tough market; it doesn’t sound like the kind of book I represent; I might have been able to sell that story 2/5/20 years ago, but now… — but since it is considered quite rude to argue with an agent who has just said no to you, does it really matter why? Just thank the agent for his time, and walk away with dignity.

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

They’re trying to be nice, you see. But again, there’s only one true test of whether a pitch or query worked: the agent will ask to see manuscript pages or a book proposal..

If you do receive such a request, congratulations! Feel free to rejoice, but do not fall into either the trap I mentioned above, assuming that the agent has already decided to sign you (he hasn’t, at this stage) or the one of assuming that you must print off the requested pages right away and overnight them to New York. Both are extremely common, especially amongst pitchers meeting agents for the first time, and both tend to get those new to submission into trouble.

Before you do anything, take a nice, deep breath. You will be excited, but that’s precisely the reason that it’s a good idea to wait at least a week to before pulling your requested materials packet together — or at least before sending it.

Why, you demand? It will give you enough time to calm down enough to make sure that you include everything the agent asked to see. It will also give you the opportunity to avail yourself of the in-depth advice under the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right.

Until that happy day, let’s talk about some other possible agently reactions.

What if a writer receives a response other than yes or no?
If you receive a response that says (or implies) that the agency requires writers seeking to be clients to pay for editorial services or evaluation before signing them to contracts, DO NOT SAY YES; instead, check with the agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, or Preditors and Editors to see if the agency is legit. You may also post a question on Absolute Write. (The last has a lot of great resources for writers new to marketing themselves, by the way.)

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

The main thing to bear in mind in order to avoid getting taken: not everyone who says he’s an agent is one — and it can be awfully hard to tell the real from the fake based upon a website alone. Some of the most notorious frauds have some of the most polished and writer friendly websites.

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

Yes, really: it’s possible just to hang up a shingle and start taking on clients. Or rather, start asking potential clients to pay them fees, either directly (as in the notorious We don’t work like other agencies, but we require a paid professional evaluation up front dodge) or by referring writers to a specific editing service (i.e., one that gives the agency kickbacks), implying that using this service is a prerequisite to representation.

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, such scams are not very common. Still, it pays to be on your guard.

What if a writer does not receive a response at all?
More common these days is the agency that simply does not respond to queries at all. Agencies that prefer to receive queries online seem more prone to this rather rude practice, I’ve noticed, but over the last couple of years, I’ve been hearing more and more reports from writers whose queries (or even submissions, amazingly) were greeted with silence.

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

A complete lack of response on a query letter does not necessarily equal rejection, incidentally, unless the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says so explicitly. Queries do occasionally get lost, for instance; so do submissions.

The single most common reason a writer doesn’t hear back, though, is that the agency hasn’t gotten around to reading it yet. Be patient — and keep querying other agents while you wait.

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

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

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

The important thing to bear in mind is that at the query or pitching stage, the book could not possibly have been rejected because the manuscript was poorly written . The query might have been rejected for that reason, naturally, but it’s logically impossible for an agent to pass judgment on a manuscript’s writing quality without reading it.

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

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

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

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

And there’s one thing that you should not do under any circumstances: try to talk the agent into changing his mind. If your query (or manuscript, for that matter) has been rejected, resist the temptation to contact the agent to argue about it, either in writing or by picking up the phone. It will only end in tears.

Why? I can tell you now that that no matter how good your argument is, you will not convince the agent that his rejection was a mistake. It will merely annoy him, and the last thing your book deserves is for the agent who rejected it to have a great story about an unusually obnoxious writer to tell at cocktail parties.

In answer to what you just thought: yes, they do swap Wow, That Writer Was Rude stories. Seldom with names attached, but still, you don’t want to be the subject of one.

The no-argument rule is doubly applicable for face-to-face pitching. It’s just not a fight a writer can win. Move on — because, honestly, the only thing that will genuinely represent a win here is your being signed by another agent.

It’s completely natural to feel anger at being rejected, of course, but bickering with or yelling at (yes, I’ve seen it happen) is not the most constructive way to deal with it. What is, you ask? Sending out another query letter right away. Or four.

Before you do, however, double-check that the next agent on your list — and the next, and the next — actually do represent your type of book. Typically, agents give their Millicents a list of criteria that a query must meet in order to be eligible for acceptance, including the single most common reason queries get rejected: pitching a type of book that the agent does not represent. There’s absolutely nothing personal about that rejection; it’s just a matter of fit.

Why, you ask? Read on.

Book categories and why they are your friends
No single agent represents every kind of book there is: like editors at publishing houses, they specialize. While this may seem frustrating or confusing to an aspiring writer new to the agent-seeking process, in the long run, it’s actually in the writer’s interest. As we saw a few days ago, agents sell their clients’ work by taking it to editors they know already to be interested in the subject matter or genre — and because they make money only if they can sell their clients’ work, it isn’t to their benefit to show a book to anyone who isn’t likely to publish it.

Rather than relying upon vague impressions about who likes what kind of book or time-consuming descriptions of every single book on offer, everyone in the publishing industry uses specific terms when discussing them. Each type of book has a one- or two-word description known in the publishing industry as a book category.

The people an agent knows at publishing houses who she is positive will be interested in the types of books she sells AND respect her opinion about writing enough to take her calls are known as her connections. The better an agent’s track record of selling a particular type of book, the better and more extensive her connections will be. Similarly, if an agency has a long history of selling a certain type of book, even junior agents there may reasonably be expected to have pretty good connections for it.

Thus the frequent appeal of a large and/or well-established agency over a small or newer one: when the agents enjoy good connections, it’s easier for them to slip a first-time author’s manuscript under the right pair of eyes. Everyone benefits.

However, good connections require agent specialization. The publishing industry is immense and complex; it would be impossible for even the best-established agent to have connections for every conceivable type of book. By concentrating upon just a few kinds of manuscript, then, an agent can concentrate upon his established areas of strength.

What does this mean for the average aspiring writer? Glad you asked.

Writers, too, are specialists, even ones like me who write several different types of book. However broad one’s interests and capacities might be, no one is going to write in every conceivable book category, right? Therefore, it’s in each writer’s interest to have his work represented not by just any old agent, but by one who shares his interests — and, more importantly, who already has the connections to sell his books.

In other words, specialists of a feather should flock together.

Agents are well aware of the substantial benefits of such an arrangement, which is why they are seldom reticent about the kinds of books they want. They will state the book categories they represent right on their websites, in their listings in the standard agency guides, and often in their biographical blurbs in writers’ conference brochures as well. So there’s no mystery to finding out who represents what: it’s usually as easy as a straightforward Google search or opening a book.

Benefiting from knowledge so obtained, however, requires that an aspiring writer be aware of the book category into which his book most comfortably fits. Select one that already exists, if you please, rather than just making one up. You should also pick just one, rather than stringing a few together into an unholy hyphenate like Mystery-Science Fiction-Romantica-Western.

Generally speaking, though, aspiring writers agonize far too much over making the right choice: just pick one. Remember, the goal here is not to cover every topic in the book, but rather to give your future agent and editor some indication of who is likely to buy your book and on which shelf at Barnes & Noble a reader might eventually find it.

It’s a technical designation, after all, not a synopsis. Think of it as the conceptual box that the agent of your dreams will want to unwrap.

Do be aware, too, that many categories overlap — fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground — so you may not find a perfect fit. That’s fine; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it.

If you live in the U.S. or Canada, a good place to start is by tracking down a recently-released paperback or trade paper book similar to yours and examining the back cover. Many publishers will display the book category in one of two places, in the upper-left corner:

sarah-vowells-back-cover-ii

Actually, now that I’ve posted it, I notice that Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer) is listed in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (Seriously, it’s funny.)

The other common locale for a book category is in the box with the barcode:

jonathan-selwood-back-cover

Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since Jonathan Selwood’s THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (six rows’ worth of passengers on an airplane thought I was having some sort of fit because I was laughing so hard at one point; once I had fended off medical assistance and read the passage in question out loud, the flight attendants came running to find out what was wrong with all of us) partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, that seems rather appropriate.

I’m not sure if the photo will reproduce clearly enough for you to see it, but Mssr. Selwood’s book is designated merely as fiction. Counter-intuitively, this general-sounding moniker refers to something quite specific: novels for adults that do not fit into a genre designation. For all of you whose first thought upon my telling you that you would need to narrow down your complex 400-page book into a one- or at most two-word category choice, this might be a good selection.

It can be rather a pain to decide, admittedly, but once you have determined your book’s category, the hunt for an agent to represent it becomes substantially simpler: you don’t even need to consider approaching an agent who doesn’t represent your category. And why is that, veterans of last autumn’s Querypalooza?

If you shouted, “Because that would be a waste of my valuable querying or pitching time!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Since agents habitually represent only certain types of book, offering them another variety is only courting rejection.

Acceptance is what we want to court around here, right? Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

You wouldn’t want that, would you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dawning of a new day, or, a word of advice to queriers and submitters who make New Year’s resolutions

change of day on the beach

Happy New Year, everybody! I’ve logged in bright and early on this very first day of 2011 neither to add another entry to our ongoing Formatpalooza series (although what could be a better way for an aspiring writer to start off a new year of querying and submitting than learning how to format a manuscript professionally?) nor to urge you to invest a bit of time in entering the Author! Author! Rings True Writing Competition (ditto, and the deadline is a mere week away). No, I set finger to keyboard today in a last-ditch effort to talk you out of kicking off the year with a querying and submission mistake that literally millions of aspiring writers make every January 1.

I’m referring, of course, to the formulation of New Year’s resolutions.

Oh, there’s nothing wrong with making yourself a promise or two about writing more — or writing more often — in 2011 than you did in 2010. Or in committing yourself to finishing that book or book proposal you have been meaning to complete for eons now. In fact, that would be laudable: forming a practical, incremental plan to work toward a much-desired goal is a reasonable way to move toward it.

But those are not the kind of New Year’s resolutions most aspiring writers make, are they?

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

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

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

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

The scourge of the New Year’s resolution, that’s why. Despite the fact that we’ve all spent our entire lives watching people make and break these resolutions, social conditioning encourages us to believe that it’s easier to begin a new project on January 1 — or at any rate, in January — than at any other point of the year. We buy this, even though our bodies tell us the opposite: not only are people exhausted from the holidays, but in January, not even the sun appears to interested in doing its job with any particular vim.

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

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

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

So again, I ask: why do writers impose New Year’s resolutions on themselves that dictate sending out queries or submissions on the first Monday of January — instead of, say, the far more practical February 1?

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

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

Although were I advising in any individual case, January 1 — or 3, since that’s the first business day of this year — would not be the day I would pick.

Then, too, the holidays are actually quite a sensible time for even queriers who send out those letters like clockwork to take a breather. The NYC-based publishing industry more or less shuts down between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day; with so many of the fine people who work within it on vacation and/or celebrating various holidays, it just doesn’t make sense to query or submit then. Your missive might reach a Bob Cratchit working late on a holiday eve, but frankly, even ol’ Bob tends not to screen his e-mail very closely over the holidays.

So I have nothing but sympathy for those of you who are trying to get back into the swing of querying and submitting. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break. Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again. Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it.

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

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

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

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

Was that giant sucking sound I just heard an indication that some of you who are new to Author! Author! — perhaps reading it for the first time as the result of a New Year’s resolution to learn more about marketing your writing? — were unaware that typically, agents are not the ones screening queries — or even submissions? As nice as it might be for agents to cast their eyes over every query and submission personally, a successful agent simply doesn’t have the time. In order to get through the monumental volume of queries and make sure the agent has the time to read requested materials that have made it past the first cut, agencies employ professional readers like Millicent. That way, the agent can concentrate upon what actually supports the agency, selling already-signed clients’ work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t need to answer those questions, of course. They were rhetorical. (But if you’re new to this blog and are curious about common query, synopsis, and manuscript red flags, you might want to invest some time in going through the Querypalooza, Synopsispalooza, and Formatpalooza series.)

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

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

Why, I was just talking about that, wasn’t I? That’s not entirely coincidental: this year, like every year, Millicent’s desk will be piled to the top of her cubicle walls with new mail for weeks, and her e-mail inbox will refill itself constantly like some mythical horn of plenty because — feel free to sing along at home — a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 3!”

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

Which is, incidentally, the fate of most New Year’s resolutions: the average one lasts less than three weeks.

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

Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be just a touch crankier than usual this time of year. Do you really want to be one of the mob testing her patience?

This is the primary reason, in case I had not made it clear enough over the last couple of months, that I annually and strenuously urge my readers NOT to query or submit during the first few weeks of any given year. Let Millie dig her way out from under that mountain of papers before she reads yours; she’ll be in a better mood.

She’s particularly likely to be in a take-no-prisoners mood on Monday mornings, by the way — and not just for the reason that most people who work a Monday-Friday week are grumpy then. All weekend long, busy queriers and submitters have been toiling away like unusually dedicated aunts, filling her e-mail inbox to bursting with messages; regular mail also arrived on Saturday. So the next few Mondays — particularly the coming one, if she has been on vacation — will see her frantically trying to clear out that inbox and read through what’s on her desk as quickly as humanly possible.

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

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

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

Well, that wouldn’t be a bad choice to start stamping those SASEs — although, like after holiday weekend, Millicent’s inbox will be stuffed to the proverbial gills on the morning of Tuesday, January 18. The average New Year’s resolution lasts about three weeks, so it would be fair to expect queries and submissions tend to drop off around then. Yes, that would make quite a bit of sense.

So why am I urging every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice to hold off until February 1? Two reasons.

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

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

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

It was also the first year that there were roughly the same number of self-published and print-on-demand books published as those produced by traditional publishers. Admittedly, the average self-published book still sells less than a couple of hundred copies, but in terms of sheer volume, that was a hard blow to the publishing houses. My sources tell me that in 2010, three times as many books were self-published or produced via print-on-demand than by traditional U.S. publishing houses.

It’s probably safe to assume that the mid-January statistics will not leave the denizens of agencies and publishing houses very happy. Or receiving any fewer calls from kith and kin, once again predicting the demise of the publishing industry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publishing is very trend-dependent, you know. Aspiring writers who hang all of their hopes — and predicate their New Year’s resolutions — on the belief that the only factor determining whether an agent will pick up a book, or a publishing house will acquire it, is whether it is well-written are setting themselves up for disappointment. Plenty of other factors may well go into a rejection — up to and including Millicent’s simply having to plow through more queries than usual that week.

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

By then, those of you who each year stubbornly reject my annual admonition to eschew writing-related New Year’s resolutions will have had a nice, long chunk of time to see if you could, say, up your writing time by an extra hour per week. Or per day. Or prepared a contest entry for that literary contest you’d always meant to enter.

Far be it from me to discourage keeping that kind of resolution, whether you choose to put it into action on New Year’s Day, the fourth of July, or St. Swithin’s day. Only please, for your own sake, don’t set the bar so high that you end up abandoning it within just a couple of weeks.

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

Be proud of yourself for being ready and able to do it — believe me, only a very small percentage of aspiring writers ever work up that nerve. You’d be astonished by how many successful queriers and pitchers never submit the requested materials. This is hard stuff; the writing part is only the beginning.

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

If you must make a New Year’s resolution, resolve to set an achievable goal, one that you can pull off without burning yourself out quickly. In the long term, asking yourself to write two extra hours per week is more likely to become a habit than eight or ten; committing to sending out one query per week is much easier to do consistently than twenty.

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

Okay, if I’m sounding like Aesop, it’s definitely time to sign off.

Next time, I shall be talking about the ins and outs of formatting nonfiction proposals — but if you have more general manuscript formatting questions, please keep posting them in the comments. I’m far from done talking about how to get the best out of a manuscript.

Just let me get all of these New Year’s resolutions out of the way first. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XXVII: and as the sun descends upon this series, we bid a fond farewell to some query faux pas

ominous sunset

The long-anticipated day has finally come, campers: this is, no kidding, honest, and for real, the last Querypalooza post. As of the end of this post, you officially have my blessing to go forth and query your creative little hearts out.

While I would encourage you to continue to shout out any and all query-related comments and questions, this short-in-time-but-long-in-quantity marathon of focused posts will end here. I shall return to my usual rate of blogging only once per day (twice has been killer, thrice insane), and life will return to normal around Author! Author!

At least until Synopsispalooza begins on September 25th; mark your calendars. In the interim, we shall be devoting day after luxurious day to craft, via in-depth textual analysis on the first pages submitted by the winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest..

But before any of that happens, a final post. And then many unbroken hours of glorious snoozing. (I can’t even begin to convey how excited I am at the prospect of sleeping in tomorrow morning, rather than sitting bolt upright in the early morn, crying, “Oh, no! I’ve promised my readers a post by 10 am!” Naturally, I’m excited about critiquing readers’ first pages, but I suspect I won’t actually be logging in to do it until tomorrow afternoon.)

Back to the matter at hand: examples of good and not-so-good queries. Tonight, I thought we would amuse ourselves with a couple of common faux pas before launching into the more serious difficulties of coming up with selling points for a book without an obvious preexisting target audience or credentials at least apparently relevant to the writing of a novel that is purely imaginative.

Yes, those are indeed knotty problems, now that you mention it. All the more reason to kick off with some fun.

As we discussed earlier in this series, both the credentials and target market paragraphs are optional in a query. That’s fortunate, because for most aspiring writers, they are the hardest parts to write. “But I’ve written a book,” hopeful queriers everywhere grumble. “Why should I have to come up with any more proof that I’m a writer than that?”

Good point, hopeful grumblers, but as I’ve noted early and often throughout Querypalooza, the only way Millicent the agency screener can possibly find out what a beautifully-written, grippingly plotted, and/or fascinatingly argued piece of prose you’ve produced is if your query (or pitch) has convinced her to ask to read it. Rather than wasting your energy, however justifiably, upon the tedious necessity of having to query at all, try to think of it as merely a means to an end.

It’s also a learned skill. Which you have now learned, right?

“Yeah, yeah, Anne,” those of you whose eyes lit up a few paragraphs ago at the prospect of some engagingly terrible examples of how to do it wrong. “When do we get to the promised fun?”

Stop drumming your fingers on the table, eager beavers. As in any narrative, a proper set-up is imperative for a joke to work; nothing is less amusing than a joke that has to be explained after it is told.

One of the classic ways that credential-light writers compensate for not having much of a publishing background is by name-dropping. Specifically, by telling Millicent that So-and-So says that the book is X, therefore it is worth her while to read.

Basically, this strategy works (when it does, which is rarely) by rubbing up against someone famous in the hope that the glamour will rub off. When done with restraint — and with a true claim; do be aware that it’s not unheard-of for Millicent to check — the result can be quite eye-catching. See for yourself:

famous name query

Another name-dropping method that tends to work even better — if, again, the claim in the letter is true — is to garner a referral from one of the agent’s current clients. See how easily Dorothy is able to personalize the basic letter she already had on hand with this information:

referral query

As with every other type of personalization, the primary danger inherent to mention a recommendation in a query is that it is invariably DISASTROUS if a writer inadvertently sends that recommendation to the wrong agency. Due to the ease and consequent popularity of copy-and-paste word processing technology, a tired Dorothy is very, very likely to send precisely the letter above to a different agent without noticing. Especially if, as now has come so common, she simply copied the contents of one e-mail into the body of another and pressed SEND.

missent referral query

Dorothy may not notice — and, indeed, may never learn of her error, due to the ubiquity of stock rejections devoid of any explanation of why Millicent chose to pass — but a good screener undoubtedly will. “Next!”

And even if Millicent’s overworked (and usually underpaid as well) eyes did by some divine act of Providence happen to glide past the reference to some other agency’s client, this second query would have gotten rejected in Ms. Volumes’ office, anyway. Any guesses why?

It was the enclosed pages. You’d have to have looked at the two agency’s guidelines to figure that one out: while Ms. Books’ agency’s specify that queriers may include chapters and a synopsis in their query packets, Ms. Volumes’ agency guide listing quite clearly reads query only, please.

“Next!”

Hmm, if only there were a way around this problem…oh, wait, there is: read every syllable of everything you send to every query IN ITS ENTIRETY and OUT LOUD, every time. And if you can print a draft copy to read IN HARD COPY, so much the better.

Why, yes, that would add quite a bit of extra time to the querying process, now that you mention it. But isn’t that vastly preferable to the horrifying alternative?

Just this morning, inveterate commenter Dave chimed in with another good strategy for e-mailing queriers:

Might I suggest that folks querying by e-mail write and perfect the query letter in Word or their favorite word processing program. They can print it out, read it aloud, and make sure it’s perfect. Then when it is time to send the query, merely copy and paste into the e-mail. At this point, before hitting SEND, it might also be a good idea to correct any formatting anomalies that may have occurred during the pasting operation.

I find this excellent, Dave; this strategy also permits greater ease in spell- and grammar-checking. (You were already aware that most Millicents are instructed to become wary at the first typo and stop reading after the second, right?) While it may not completely obviate the possibility of mixing up which personalization should be heading to which agency, merely adding another layer of review renders it less likely.

But let’s get back to name-dropping, shall we?

As I mentioned in passing above, if you mention a famous person or someone the agent might conceivably know, it’s imperative that you not stretch the truth about what they might have said about you or your work, even a little. The more potentially impressive a kudo, the more likely Millicent is to wonder about its veracity — and the more likely her boss is to reach for the phone to double-check.

Speaking as someone whose name has been known to turn up in queries from writers of whom I have never heard (you know who you are, presumptuous readers: my agency doesn’t appreciate it, and neither do I), I have to say, those just-checking calls and e-mails are a trifle unnerving. Like many authors, I meet quite a few aspiring writers in any given year; even though I keep records of whom I refer and where, there’s always the nagging fear that I might have forgotten someone.

Unethical queriers prey on that fear, relying upon poverty of memory and laziness of fact-checking to make their sleight-of-hand pay off. And that’s a pity, because this type of name-dropper makes it harder for people like me to refer aspiring writers whose work I honestly do believe my agent might enjoy.

You’re making everyone look bad, Dorothy. Clean up your act, or at least get a few hours’ sleep between Query #37 and Query #38.

Do be careful, too, about taking comments out of context; if asked, the commenter may well become offended if those nice things he said about your writing were not about the book you’re querying. Not every bon mot that falls from the lips of the famous is fair game to co-opt for promotional purposes, after all.

When I was in graduate school, for instance, I took a seminar with Saul Bellow. At the end of the term, I was delighted to see that he had scrawled on the bottom of my term paper, “Your writing is very likable.”

Now, that awfully nice to see, of course; I don’t know about you, but when a Nobel laureate says something positive about my writing, I sit up and take notice. However, would I have been justified in saying Saul Bellow found said my writing was very likeable in every query letter I sent out for the rest of my natural life?

Of course not. The man was talking about a 30-page seminar paper I had written on the novels of Italo Svevo, for heaven’s sake, not — and this would be the implication, if I had ever included his comment in a query letter — one of my novels. Even now that Professor Bellow has joined the choir celestial and could not possibly contest my taking his statement out of context, I would not dream of using it in a query letter or as a jacket blurb.

It just wouldn’t be ethical, would it? Stop fantasizing about being able to drop Saul Bellow’s name in the first line of your query and answer me: would it?

Ethical name-droppers can — and do — run into other kinds of trouble: all too often, they get carried away with the proper nouns, positively littering the page with them. They forget that the power of celebrity lies in its rarity: if a writer can legitimately cite one famous fan of his own work, that’s impressive, but if he lists several, even if they are all genuine fans, it’s going to come across as overkill at best and a complicated lie at worst.

Reluctant to believe that more isn’t better? Judge for yourself:

name dropping query

A bit over the top, is it not? One of those famous names might have grabbed Millicent, but so many in a row — including a couple of unverifiable-because-dead endorsers — falls flat. And if anyone at Millie’s agency happens to know anyone in that cavalcade of stars, you can bet that they will take great pleasure in dropping them an e-mail to ask, “So how do you know this Eugene Aristocratic? He didn’t mention why you thought he might be a good fit for our agency.”

And what do you think happens if the late William F. Buckley — or, indeed, anyone Eugene chose to cite in this all-star line-up — says something like, “Eugene who?”

That’s right: “NEXT!”

Oh, you laugh, but you would be surprised at how often unscrupulous queriers will fake recommendations like this. Actually, those who do it might also be surprised at how often they get caught in the attempt: although this is a notorious agents’ pet peeve, perjured name-droppers generally receive precisely the same form-letter rejection as everybody else.

So the wonder is not the fact that people like that never learn, but that after all this time, Millicents across New York have not banded together to come up with a checklist of the most egregious insults to their intelligence commonly found in letters. Imagine how helpful it would be to the clueless if a Millicent could simply grab a list from a photocopied stack, circle doubtful references, and tuck it into the SASE along with the form-letter rejection?

Another pet peeve that would well deserve circling: who?. This feedback would be a boon to name-droppers who reference people of whom Millicent has never heard.

who the heck query

“Who the heck is Fortunatus L. Offenbach?” Millicent mutters, reaching for a form letter. “And why should I care about his opinion on anything? While I’m speculating aloud, isn’t this book description rather similar to the one I read just a few minutes ago — and wait, isn’t the second name here the same as the writer on the other query? Who stole whose book idea, I wonder?”

Oh, yes, our Millie’s memory is that good. And you never can tell whose query she will read just before or just after yours, Eugene.

Connections to the glamorous (or, in Perry’s case, the not-so-glamorous) are not the only query statements that occasionally strike Millicent as far-fetched. As long-time reader Adam points out,

Isn’t there a danger of stretching too much about connections of importance (i.e. penchant for linguistics resulting in witty character names, thesis about Jane Austen gives specialization of domestic inertia and idle chatter, etc)? Might this kind of tack be harder with genre fiction (more difficult, not impossible), or only mean said query-candy-makers need to be more creative/selective?

I don’t see any special reason that coming up with credentials should be harder for genre fiction than any other variety, Adam; in general, fiction writers tend to experience more difficulty in figuring out how to query their work. (Since nonfiction writers have to write book proposals, they are less inclined than novelists to try to turn the entire query into a plot summary for the book.)

Then, too, the subject matter of fiction is frequently less conducive to the kind of easily-quantified statement that fits nicely into a target audience paragraph. However, while a statement like one out of eight book-buyers in the U.S. suffers from dyslexia is quite a bit easier to work into a query for a dyslexic’s memoir than a science fiction novel where one of the 18-member space crew happens to be dyslexic, it’s actually not a bad statistic to include with either.

Hey, readers like characters who reflect the realities of their own lives. It’s easier to identify with them.

Which leads me, not entirely coincidentally, to a tip for coming up with convincing selling-points for your novel: rather than just thinking in terms of what might make you, the writer, sound more professional or literary-minded to Millicent, try brainstorming about what aspects of the book might make it appealing to the reader.

For instance, having written one’s thesis on Jane Austen wouldn’t actually be much of a selling point unless you happened to have written an Austen-themed book, right? So that wouldn’t be the strongest thing to mention. (And even if you did want to mention your master’s degree, it would make more sense coming in the platform paragraph than lolling about amongst the book’s selling points.) But if a major character is a passionate bocce player, it might well help pitch your book to find out just how many bocce players there are in this country, and whether they ever have authors come to speak between matches.

Try to stick to selling points that might actually influence a book buyer’s decision-making process (hey, bocce players’ loved ones have to get them something for Christmas, right? Why not a bocce-themed novel?), rather than something that contributed to the writing process. To draw from Adam’s example, why would a reader care how the writer came up with the names before she read the book? That’s the kind of information that belongs in a post-publication interview, not a query.

Besides, it’s always dicey to review one’s own writing in a query; Millicent wants to be shown that you can write, not told. So referring to one’s own name choices as witty probably is not the best strategy for convincing her that you are indeed possessed of wit. Making the query itself shine with wit is a much better bet.

Remember, though, that both the target audience and platform paragraphs are optional. While being able to argue that your book has an easily-identified target audience and/or that you have the perfect background to have written your novel are very helpful to include, don’t force it. If a selling point or credential feels like a stretch to you, it probably will to Millicent as well.

So what’s an honest, ethical writer to do if she genuinely can’t come up with any selling points and has no relevant background to include in her platform paragraph? Omit ‘em.

There’s no law that says a query must be a full page long, you know. Just say as much as you need to say to convince Millicent you’ve written an interesting book in a category her boss represents — and hope for the best.

And that, my friends, is a perfectly lovely stopping-point for Querypalooza. Thank you for following me through this mad dash toward querying comfort; pat yourself on the back for being serious enough about your writing career to have plowed all the way through it. Sleep the sleep of the just, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XXI: querying memoir, or, appealing to the many Buddha-like qualities of Barney Fife

donknotts2donknotts1donknotts3

Still hanging in there, campers? I know, I know: we’ve covered a heck of a lot of material over the course of Querypalooza; I wasn’t kidding when I teased the series by calling it querying boot camp. Judging from reader comments I’ve been seeing in the comments and e-mails, as well as verbally, people seem to be enjoying the specificity of these posts, so I’m going to devote yet another evening to going over some examples of the sometimes subtle differences between a query that grabs and one that just lies on Millicent the agency screener’s desk.

Ready to dive right back in? Good. Let’s take a gander at a solid query for an interesting-sounding memoir — and while the photos above have already gotten those of you old experienced TV-savvy enough to be familiar with the old Andy Griffith show to contemplate the many Buddha-like qualities of Barney Fife, let’s go ahead and reincarnate him as an agent who represents spiritual growth memoirs. (Hey, it’s been a long, long series — odd fantasies are very helpful to keeping myself alert.)

As always, my apologies if these page shots appear a trifle fuzzy on your browser. If you’re having trouble reading specifics, please try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + until the image is large enough to read easily.

good query memoir

Everyone clear on why this is a good query? It contains all of the required elements (book’s title, book category, why the writer picked this agent, book description, mention of target audience, platform paragraph, polite sign-off), as well as a prudent reference to the enclosed synopsis (so Millicent will know it’s there before she makes up her mind whether to reject the query).

It also — and it’s astonishing how few queriers think to try something along these lines — actually told the Agent Barney what she was hoping he could do for her: I am seeking an agent both spiritually-aware and market-savvy. While establishing standards on the writer’s side may seem at first blush a trifle pushy, Ataraxia is merely alerting Barney to the fact that she has actually given some thought to what she does and doesn’t want in an agent.

Long-time readers, chant it along with me now: a savvy writer does not want to land just any agent; she knows her work will be best off in the hands of the right agent, someone who loves her writing, is genuinely interested in her subject matter, and already has the connections to get her books under the right editorial noses to get it published.

That’s a far cry from the usual I just want to land an agent, any agent, so you’ll do — I’m desperate! tone of many queries, isn’t it? Ataraxia is approaching Barney as a professional writer with an interesting book project — why shouldn’t she be as selective as he is?

She also did something rather clever here, to compensate for including extra information. Anybody notice what it was?

If you immediately shouted, “She eliminated the lines previous examples had skipped between paragraphs, as well as some lines at the top that were not strictly necessary to correspondence format!” take a gold star out of petty cash. While that extra space is aesthetically pleasing, it’s not required.

And snag two more stars if you also sang out, “She omitted mention of the SASE!” While it’s always a good idea to mention the SASE tucked inside the envelope — hey, Millicent’s in a hurry; she has a lot of queries to scan in any given morning — it’s not indispensable. Wisely, Ataraxia decided that it was more important to include an extra line or two about her story than to make it plain to our Millie that she had followed the rules.

She did, however, make room to mention the synopsis — an excellent idea, even if the agency’s submission guidelines specifically insisted that queriers include one. It underscores that the writer has taken the time to learn the individual agent’s preferences and is trying her level best to meet expectations.

Actually, it’s prudent to make explicit mention of any unsolicited materials you include in a query packet, if only to clear yourself of the implication that you might be trying to sneak additional pages under Millicent’s radar. Another means of making this particular point is to use the old-fashioned enclosures notation:

good memoir query 2

As you may have noticed, this method takes up more room on the page than mentioning the same information in a single-line sentence; Ataraxia has had to trim down the body of the letter accordingly. But it gets the point across, doesn’t it?

Most importantly, both versions of this query make the memoir sound like a heck of a good story, as well as an unexpected one. Although the book description is a trifle on the lengthy side, it’s worth the page space — this book sounds both very marketable and like a hoot to read, doesn’t it?

Yes, it took up more room to describe the book, establish that there is a market for it, and talk about her credentials, but for a memoir, that’s a smart move: remember, no one buys a non-celebrity memoir simply because it’s a true story; that’s the case, at least in theory, for every memoir ever written. It’s the memoirist’s job in the query, then, to convince Millicent that the book has other selling points.

Nor is the fact that the story in the memoir happened to you, the writer, likely to render anyone who doesn’t already know you personally (or is a friend of a friend of your kith and kin) to buy this book. After all, unless you’re a celebrity, Millicent probably has positively no idea how popular you actually are. So if you come up with a platform that will make you and your memoir visible to a larger circle of potential book buyers, by all means, talk about it in your query.

As you no doubt noticed, Ataraxia has been very explicit about her platform here — and has done so without the benefit of either movie stardom or a single publication to her name. How did she manage to pull that off? By making the dual case that (a) she already has professional (indeed, authoritative) contact with members of her book’s target audience and (b) she already has a marketing network in place to reach them when the book comes out. Probably an extensive mailing list as well.

Why wouldn’t that platform grab Millicent? Past publications would be nice, of course, but what is here is quite sufficient for the intended audience of this book.

Remember, there is no such thing as a generic platform — platforms are specific to the target audience for a particular book.

That’s why, in case any of you inveterate writers’ conference-goers had been wondering, agents and editors often look so puzzled when a roomful of aspiring writers groans at statements like, “Well, obviously, the first thing we want to know about a nonfiction book is: what’s your platform?” To them, it’s just another way of saying who is the target audience for your book, and what in your background will enable you to reach them?

But that’s not how most writers hear references to platform, is it? The aspiring tend to react to it as a value judgment: why in the world would anyone be interested in YOUR book, nonentity? Not entirely coincidentally, their next thought tends to be well, the deck is stacked against me. Obviously, the only people who can get memoirs published these days are celebrities. I might as well give up.

That is most emphatically the wrong conclusion to draw about any as-yet-unpublished memoir — and frankly, even the briefest walk through the memoir section of a well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that plenty of non-celebrity memoirs are published every year. How does that happen? By memoirists making the case that their books offer their target audiences something that no other book currently on the market does.

So please, don’t let yourself be discouraged by the common wisdom. Naturally, a celebrity’s platform is going to be more obvious at first glance than other people’s; equally naturally, a first-time book proposer with three master’s degrees in various aspects of the book’s subject matter will have an easier time convincing Millicent that she’s an expert than someone with less academic wall decoration.

But does that mean that these are the only types of memoirists with a platform? No, of course not. In order to produce a successful query, a memoirist needs to figure out who his target audience is, what his book offers them that similar books do not, and how he is going to inform them of that fact.

Note to those of you who just groaned, “But Anne, that’s precisely what I would have to do to write a book proposal!: darned tootin’. For a nonfiction book, the query letter, synopsis, and proposal all share the same goal: to convince people in the publishing industry that you are uniquely qualified to tell an interesting story or make an important argument that readers already buying similar books are demonstrably eager to hear.

You just have longer to prove those points in a synopsis or proposal. But to write any of them well, you need to ask yourself: what is original about my book? Who needs to read it, and why?

Are those questions starting to become less threatening with repetition?

I hope so, because the vast majority of memoir queries — and nonfiction queries in general — read as though the writer has never thought about these issues vis-à-vis his own book project. Or, if he has, he’s decided that if he even attempts to address them truthfully, no Millicent in her right mind would even consider reading his book proposal.

Often, the result is downright apologetic, even if the story is very compelling indeed. Let’s take a gander at how Ataraxia might have expressed herself had she been born Panicky, but grew up with precisely the same story and essentially the same credentials. Heck, let’s even retain the same descriptive paragraph:

memoir query panicky

Amazing what a difference just a slight shift in tone and confidence can make, isn’t it? In actuality, Panicky has exactly the same platform as Ataraxia — but because she has presented it so timorously, without the specific marketing details that made our earlier examples such grabbers, she comes across as substantially less qualified to write this book.

Yes, that’s completely unfair. But can you honestly blame Millicent for drawing such different conclusions about these two writers?

And did you happen to notice the Freudian slip that just shouts how nervous Panicky is? In case you missed it:

If you would the attached synopsis, I would be grateful

Read it, presumably, but Panicky apparently can’t bring herself to say it. Sounds too much like an order to her hypersensitive ears, probably. Agents like Barney take offense so easily; she doesn’t want to step on any toes.

Just as the border between confident and arrogant can be murky at times, the line between polite and self-deprecating can be a narrow one. I’m quite positive that if asked, Panicky would insist that she was merely being courteous: she honestly is grateful that an agent as well-established as Barney would even consider her book project; she has done her homework well enough to be aware of how busy he is likely to be.

Laudable goals, all, but here, she honestly does go overboard. See the relevant statistics for yourself:

Thank yous: two direct (I’m sorry to take up your valuable time; ), one indirect (I would be grateful)

Apologies: two direct (Thank you so very much for taking the time even to consider my book; Thanks again), one indirect (I would be grateful)

Equivocations: one confidence wobble perhaps you may be interested in my memoir), four unsubstantiated marketing claims (food tourism one of the fastest-growing travel trends in the United States; Millions of Americans engage in food-related travel; Many of them are undoubtedly women traveling alone; I believe that my students would be very interested in my memoir.)

Suggestions that this would be a difficult book to sell and/or promote: two expressed authorial fears about appearing in public (While I fully realize that my current size may prove problematic for promoting this book on television; many cultures (including ours) regard a big woman as inherently flawed)

Implications that the agent wouldn’t — or even shouldn’t — be interested in the book: one prompt to disregard (perhaps you may be interested in my memoir), one implication that he couldn’t understand it (This might not occur to someone of so-called normal size, but it is actually…), one implication that it doesn’t matter very much whether he likes it or not (Whichever you decide, please have a nice day — and eat some yummy food!)

Quite a lot of dissuasion for a one-page letter ostensibly intended to convince ol’ Barney that this worthwhile book project, isn’t it? And most of it is totally unnecessary: as we saw in Ataraxia’s version, there’s no necessary trade-off between politeness and confident presentation.

The result, unfortunately, is that well-qualified Panicky comes across not as courteous, but insecure. A real shame, because that descriptive paragraph is a genuine winner.

So would Barney’s Millicent ask to see Panicky’s book proposal or not? It all depends on whether she made it past that initial apology, doesn’t it? Remember, even a terrific selling point won’t help a query if Millicent stops reading before she gets to it.

The rather depressing moral to this story: how a writer presents himself on the page counts.

The best thing you can do to bolster your ability to sound credibly psyched about your book’s marketing prospects is, well, to be justifiably psyched about them. If writerly fears render that difficult, the next step is to invest some time thinking about what benefits readers will derive from your work, researching your target market (both its members and what books have been aimed successfully at it within the past five years), and coming up with at least a couple of believable selling points.

Then center your query around them. After all, even the best ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy) can’t impress Millicent if she doesn’t know about it.

Don’t tell me your book doesn’t have any selling points; I don’t believe you. Any book worth a good writer’s time to compose has strengths. So does everyone’s life history. It’s just a matter of matching the one or the other to your target audience’s needs in a manner that will make Millicent exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen this before! I really want to read this!”

Or, alternatively, “Wow, this is a book by {fill in celebrity here}; I wouldn’t have thought he could read, much less write. Well, I guess we should take a look at it, because he has a lot of fans.” That usually works pretty well, too.

Tomorrow around 10 am Pacific, I shall be revisiting the practical issues of partials. Then it’s back to another evening of examples Monday night.

Never a dull moment here at Querypalooza, eh? Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part VI: announcing your arrival clearly, or, insert cliché here about having only one chance to make a first impression

street lamp Pacifica1

Before I launch into our latest installment of Querypalooza, I’d like to ask for a moment of silence, please. (Which shouldn’t be terribly difficult for those of you reading this in the middle of the night, should it?) All of us here at Author! Author! would like to sent out a heartfelt RIP to Larry Ashmead, editor to such science fiction luminaries as Isaac Asimov. Mr. Ashmead was one of the great eclectic-minded editors, known for taking chances on first books simply because — gasp! — he fell in love with them.

His background was eclectic, too: as his AP obituary notes, “He received a doctorate in geology from Yale University, but decided he preferred geology to geologists and chose to work in publishing, his 43-year career beginning at Doubleday and ending with his retirement from HarperCollins in 2003.” This kind of leap from academia to publishing used to be charmingly common; for smart, well-read people, it seemed like a natural next step.

May you enjoy the extensive libraries of the afterlife, Mr. Ashmead. Do say hello to Mark Twain for me.

Back to the business at hand. In our last thrilling installment of Querypalooza, we began going through a list of questions intended to help you steer clear of the most common querying mistakes. So far, our troubleshooting list has concentrated upon length and tone. Tonight, however, I would like to shift our focus toward the more market-oriented aspects of the query.

And half of you just tensed up, didn’t you? Not entirely surprising: for many, if not most, aspiring writers, marketing is a dirty word. You can’t throw a piece of bread at a circle of writers without hitting someone who will insist that writing for the market is the moral opposite of writing for art’s sake.

To a professional writer, the market/art split is a false dichotomy. There’s plenty of marvelous writing that’s done very well commercially. And it would be surprising if most aspiring writers weren’t aware of that: as a group, after all, we’re some of the most devoted readers of the already-published, right?

Besides, insisting that thinking seriously about who is going to buy your work is tantamount to selling out is self-defeating for a writer trying to land an agent. Knowing something about how books are sold is not optional for an author working with an agent or editor; it’s a prerequisite. (If you are brand-new to the process, you might want to set aside some time to peruse the HOW DO MANUSCRIPTS GET PUBLISHED? category on the archive list at right.)

If you don’t want to make a living at it, of course, you needn’t worry about marketing realities. Writing for your own pleasure, and that of your kith and kin, is a laudable pursuit. I would never knock it. But if you want total strangers to buy your work, you are going to have to think about how to market it to them.

And that means learning to speak the language of the industry, at least enough to describe your work in terms that every agent, editor, and screener will understand. To do that, you’re going to need to give some thought to what your book is about, who you expect to read it, and where it might sit on a shelf in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Not to frighten you, but you’re also going to have to be able to convey all of this information within a few sentences.

Query letters are, after all, brief — and may not have even an entire page of Millicent’s attention to make their cases. To crank up the broken record player again,

broken-recordThe vast majority of queries are not read in their entirety before being rejected. Therefore, the first paragraph of your query is one of the very few situations in the writing world where you need to TELL, as well as show.

So let’s turn our attention to the crucial information in that first paragraph. To our muttons!

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph that I am querying the appropriate agent for my work?
Why is it so VERY important to make absolutely certain that this information is clearly presented in the first paragraph?
If your first paragraph doesn’t tell Millicent either that the book in question is in fact the kind of book her boss is looking to represent or another very good reason to query him (having spoken to him at a conference, having heard her speak at same, because she so ably represented Book X, etc.), she is very, very likely to shove it into the rejection pile without reading any farther.

Don’t groan over the amount of research this may entail — indiscriminate querying is not likely to match you up with the best agent for your work. Besides, in order to personalize each query, you need to come up with only one or two reasons for picking this particular agent.

Remember our two examples from last time, where Flaubert accidentally mixed up one agent’s name and background with another’s? It contained some good reasons, couched in some restrained praise. To refresh your memory, he sent this:

wrong names query

When he intended to send this:

Despite our Gustave’s momentary inattention to critical detail, he had essentially the right approach in both letters: he devoted the opening sentences of his various queries to telling each agent why he was querying him or her, rather than simply sending the same letter to everybody. In fact, he brought up two perfectly adequate for each: for Ms. Marketer, he mentioned both an article she had written and a book she had successfully represented; for Mr. Bookpusher, he brought up having heard him speak at a conference — and a book Ms. Marketer had successfully represented.

Again: proofread before you send it out. Every time, without exception.

Agents-who-blog make this kind of opening quite easy for queriers: all you have to do is mention that you’re a fan. Do be absolutely positive before embracing this tactic, however, that you have read enough of the blog in question to know what the agent has said she is looking for in a query or book project. Trust me, AWBs’ Millicents already see enough queries from people who make it quite plain that all they know about the blogging agent is her name.

Don’t hesitate to mention if you attended a conference where the agent spoke: traditionally, conference attendance is considered a sign that a writer is serious about learning how the publishing business works. (Which is kind of funny, actually, as so many writers’ conferences focus far more on craft than practical issues like manuscript preparation and submission. You’d be amazed at how often conference organizers have asked incredulously, “You want to teach a two-hour seminar on formatting? What on earth for? Isn’t everybody already familiar with professional standards?”) Even now, when so many writers are gleaning their knowledge from the Internet, many agents still tell attendees to include the conference’s name in the first line of the query, the subject line of the e-query, or both.

It’s worth using as an entrée even if you did not get a chance to interact with him at all. At a large or snooty conference, it’s not always possible — and even if you do manage some face-to-face time, the agent may well be meeting so many aspiring writers in so short a time that he may not remember every individual. So don’t be shy about reminding him that you were a face in the crowd.

(6) Is it clear from the first paragraph what kind of book I am asking the agent to represent?
This may seem like a silly question, but it’s jaw-dropping how many otherwise well-written query letters don’t even specify whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction. Or the book category. Or even, believe it or not, the title.

Quoth Millicent: “Next!”

The book category, the most straightforward way to talk about your writing in professional terms, is the most often omitted element. And that’s a shame, because in either a query or a pitch, the more terse and specific you can be about your book’s category, the more professional you will sound.

Why terse? Well, mostly because book categories tend to be only one or two words long: historical romance, science fiction, urban fantasy, women’s fiction, Highland romance, YA paranormal, Western, literary fiction, memoir, and so forth. In fact, these terms are so concentrated that it’s very, very easy to annoy Millicent by adding unnecessary adjectives or explanation: literary fiction novel or science fiction novel are technically redundant, for instance, because all novels are fiction, by definition. By the same logic, true memoir, real-life memoir, and memoir about my life are all needlessly repetitive descriptions.

The sad thing is, the widespread tendency among both queries and pitchers is in the opposite direction of terseness — or even using the terminology that agents themselves use. As much as writers seem to adore describing their work as, “Well, it’s sort of a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cozy mystery,” agents and editors tend to hear ambiguous descriptions as either waffling, a book’s not being ready to market, or the writer’s just not being very familiar with how the industry actually works.

Which means, incidentally, that within the query, you might want to avoid those ever-popular terms of waffle, my writing defies categorization, my book is too complex to categorize, my book isn’t like anything else out there, no one has ever written a book like this before, and that perennial favorite of first novelists, it’s sort of autobiographical.

Which, translated into industry-speak, come across respectively as I’m not familiar with how books are sold in North America, I don’t know one book category from another, I’m not familiar with the current market in my area of interest — which means, Mr. Agent, that I haven’t been buying your clients’ work lately, I’m not familiar with the history of the book market in my area, and I was afraid people would hurt me if I wrote this story as a memoir.

Don’t blame the translator, please: the writers and the agents are just not speaking the same language.

Contrary to popular opinion, picking a conceptual box for your work will not limit its market appeal; it will simply tell Millicent which shelf at Barnes & Noble or category on Amazon you expect to house your book. It honestly is that simple. You really do not need to stress out about the choice nearly as much as most aspiring writers do.

So take a nice, deep breath and consider: what books currently on the market does my book resemble? How are these books categorized?

“But Anne,” I hear the more prolific among you protest, “I write in a number of different book categories, and I’m looking for an agent to represent all of my work, not just some of it. But won’t it be confusing if I list all of my areas of interest at the beginning of my query?”

In a word, yes — and generally speaking, it’s better strategy to query one book at a time, for precisely that reason. If you like (and you should like, if you have a publication history in another book category), you may mention the other titles later in your query letter, down in the paragraph where you will be talking about your writing credentials. It will only render you more memorable if you are the science fiction writer whose query included the immortal words, Having twenty-seven years’ experience as a deep-sea archeologist, I also am working on a book on underwater spelunking.

But in the first paragraph, no. Do you really want to run the risk of confusing Millicent right off the bat about which project you are trying to sell? Terseness is your friend here.

(7) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?
We all know that writing query letters is no one’s idea of a good time. Well, maybe a few masochists enjoy it (if they’re really lucky, maybe they can give themselves a paper cut while they’re at it), but the vast majority of writers hate it, hate it, hate it.

Which, unfortunately, can translate on the page into sounding apprehensive, unenthusiastic, or just plain tired. While query fatigue is certainly understandable, it tends not to produce a positive tone for presenting your work.

Insecurities, too, show up beautifully on the query page. While the writer’s opinion of her own work is unavoidably biased, in my experience, that bias tends to be on the negative side for most. We’ve all heard a lot about queriers who make overblown claims about their work (This book will revolutionize fiction!, This is a sure-fire bestseller!, or that perennial favorite, It’s a natural for Oprah!), but apologetic openings like I’m so sorry to bother you,, Pardon me for taking up your time,, and This may not be the kind of book that interests you, but… turn up on Millicent’s desk more often than you’d think.

Much of the time, this sad-sack tone is the result of query fatigue. I know that repeated rejection is depressing and exhausting, but it really is in your best interest to make an effort to try to sound as upbeat in your seventeenth query letter as in your first.

No need to sound like a Mouseketeer on speed, of course, but try not to sound discouraged, either. And never, ever, EVER mention how long you’ve been querying, how many agents have already rejected this project, or how hard it has been emotionally. It’s unprofessional. A query is not the place to express frustration with the querying process; save that for lively conversation with your aforementioned significant other, family members, and friends.

While it is a nice touch to thank the agent at the end of the query for taking the time to consider your work, doing so in the first paragraph of the letter and/or repeatedly in the body can come across as a tad obsequious. Begging tends not to be helpful in this situation. Remember, reading your query is the agent’s (or, more likely, the agent’s assistant’s) JOB, not a personal favor to you.

No, no matter HOW long you’ve been shopping your book around. Speaking of overly-effusive politeness,

broken-recordOf you have already pitched to an agent at a conference and she asked you to send materials, you do not need to query that same agent to ask permission to send them, unless she specifically said, “Okay, query me.”

To the pros, being asked over and over again whether they REALLY meant that request is puzzling and, if it happens frequently, annoying.

Many conference-goers seem to be confused on this point. Remember, in-person pitching is a substitute for querying, not merely an expensive extension of it.

This remains true, incidentally, even if many months have passed since that pitch session: if it’s been less than a year since an agent requested pages, there is absolutely no need to query, call, or e-mail to confirm that she still wants to see them. (If it’s been longer, do.)

(8) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?
In my many, many years of hanging out with publishing types, I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked (and often if not), launch into a medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings he’s received. As I may have mentioned already,

broken-recordEvery agent and screener in the biz already seen a lifetime’s supply of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!” Such inflated claims make a manuscript seem LESS marketable, ultimately, not more.

Trust me, they don’t want to hear it again. Ever.

So how do you make your work sound marketable without, well, just asserting that it is? Glad you asked.

(9) Does my query make it clear what kind of readers will buy my book — and why?
Few queries address this point, but to folks who speak publishing’s lingua franca, it’s simply not possible to talk about a manuscript without considering these questions. So you’ll reap the benefits of both professional presentation and comparative rarity if your query identifies your target market clearly, demonstrating (with statistics, if you can) both how large it is and why your book will appeal to that particular demographic.

Trust me, Millicent is going to respond quite a bit better to a statement like MADAME BOVARY will resonate with the 20% of Americans who suffer from depression at some point in their lives than Every depressed woman in America will want to read this book! She sees the latter type of claim on a daily — or even hourly — basis and discounts it accordingly. At best, such claims come across as exaggerations; at worst, they look like lies.

Why might she think that? Well, logically, a claim like Every depressed woman in America will want to read this book! could not possibly be true. No book appeals to everyone in a large demographic, and nobody knows that better than someone who works within the publishing industry. Far, far better, then, to make a realistic claim that you can back up with concrete numbers.

I’m not talking about publishing statistics here; I’m talking about easy-to-track-down population statistics — and that comes as a big surprise to practically every aspiring writer who has ever taken my pitching class. “Why,” they almost invariably cry, “shouldn’t I go to the trouble to find out how many books sold in my chosen category last year? Wouldn’t that prove that my book is important enough to deserve to be published?”

Well, for starters, any agent or editor would already be aware of how well books in the categories they handle sell, right? Mentioning the Amazon numbers for the latest bestseller is hardly going to impress them. (And you’d be astonished by how many agents don’t really understand how those numbers work, anyway.)

Instead, it makes far more sense to discover how many people there are who have already demonstrated interest in your book’s specific subject matter. I feel a golden oldie coming on:

broken-recordNo book ever written appeals to every conceivable reader — or can be represented effectively by any randomly-selected agent. While your future publisher’s marketing department will undoubtedly have ideas about who your ideal reader is and why, it’s far, far easier to talk about your book professionally if you first take the time to figure out what kind of readers are in your target audience.

The term target audience made some of you tense up again, didn’t it? As scary as it may be to think about, if you are going to make a living as a writer, you will be writing for a public. In order to convince people in the publishing industry that yours is the voice that public wants and needs to hear, you will need to figure out who those people are, and why they will be drawn toward your book.

Let’s start off with a nice, non-threatening definition of terms. What is a target audience?

Simply put, the target audience for a book is the group of people most likely to buy it. Not just a segment of the population, mind you, but readers who are already in the habit of buying books like yours. That’s why it is also known as a target market: it is the demographic (or the demographics) toward which your publisher will be gearing advertising.

So I ask you: who out there needs to read your book and why?

If that question leaves you a bit flummoxed, you’re certainly not alone — most fiction writers and nearly all memoirists initially have a difficult time answering that question about their own work. First-time memoirists are notorious in their first panic to answer huffily, “Well, obviously, the book’s about me.”

Yes, that is obvious, now that you mention it. But what else is the memoir about? Even the most introspective memoir is about something other than its author.

Fiction writers, too, tend to stumble over the answer. “Well, people will read it for the writing, obviously,” novelists mutter. “Isn’t that enough? It’s sort of based on something that really happened, if that helps.”

Of course, lovely writing is going to be one of a good novel’s attractions, but every book category has well-written books in it. Well-crafted sentences are expected in professional writing. But unless you are planning to market your book as literary fiction — i.e., a novel where the beauty or experimental nature of the writing and exquisitely-examined character development are the book’s primary selling points — nice writing, which of course a plus, is not much of a descriptor. (Besides, literary fiction is a relatively tiny portion of the fiction market, usually coming in around 3-4%. Why so small? It assumes a college-educated readership.)

What makes it a poor descriptor? It does not answer the central questions of a query letter: what is your book about, and who needs to read it?

Or, to put in the terms Millicent might: what are the potential readers for this book already reading? Why are they reading it? What about this book is likely to appeal to those same readers?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Your book is about something other than its protagonist, right? That something has probably been written about before — so why not find out how those books were marketed, to glean inspiration about how to market yours? (As Pablo Picasso was reportedly fond of saying, “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”)

Or you can approach it even more straightforwardly: pick an element of your story that might make your ideal reader pick up your book. It’s set on a farm; the protagonist’s sister has multiple sclerosis; the characters keep going to a drive-in movie theatre. Any running theme is legitimate subject matter for marketing purposes.

Then ask yourself: who might be interested in this subject? How many small family farms are there in the US? Just how many people have multiple sclerosis? Who is likely to remember drive-in theatres fondly?

Getting the picture? Might not people who are already interested in that topic — and, ideally, are already demonstrating that interest by buying books about it — be reasonably regarded as potential readers for your book? What books do these readers already buy? Who are their favorite living authors, and what traits do your books share with theirs?

While we’re at it, who represents these readers’ favorite authors, and would those agents be interested in your book?

Is tracking down all of this information bound to be a lot of work? Yes, possibly, but as the Internet has made performing such research quite a bit easier than it was at any previous point in human history, you’re probably not going to garner any sympathy from Millicent. (Word to the wise: just because information is posted online doesn’t mean it is true; it’s worth your while to double-check with credible sources. Why, just last month, a Wikipedia spokesperson told an interviewer that the site is not intended to be anyone’s only source of information; it’s designed to give an overview of a subject.) But just as performing background research on who agents are and what they represent will enable you to target your queries more effectively than indiscriminate mass mailings to everyone who has ever sold a book in your book category, doing a bit of digging on your target audience before you send out your queries will save you time in the long run.

Still at a loss about how to begin about gathering this data, or even what information you should be gathering? As it happens, I’ve written about these issues at some length — and have carefully hidden the relevant posts under the obscure monikers IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET and YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS in the category list at right. Those posts should give you quite a bit of material for brainstorming.

Do I hear some disgruntled muttering out there? “I’m not a marketer; I’m a writer,” I hear some of you say. “How the heck should I know who is going to buy my book? And anyway, shouldn’t a well-written book be its own justification to anyone but a money-grubbing philistine?”

Well, yes, in a perfect world — or one without a competitive market. But neither is, alas, the world in which we currently live.

As nice as it would be if readers flocked to buy our books simply because we had invested a whole lot of time in writing them, no potential book buyer is interested in EVERY book on the market, right? There are enough beautifully-written books out there that most readers expect to be offered something else as well: an exciting plot, for instance, or information about an interesting phenomenon.

To pitch or query your book successfully, you’re going to need to be able to make it look to the philistines like a good investment.

And before anybody out there gets huffy about how the industry really ought to publish gorgeously-written books for art’s sake alone, rather than books that are likely to appeal to a particular demographic, think about what the pure art route would mean from the editor’s perspective: if she can realistically bring only 4 books to press in the next year (not an unusually low per-editor number, by the way), how many of them can be serious marketing risks, without placing herself in danger of losing her job? Especially in this economy, when the major publishers have been trimming their editorial staffs.

As with choosing a book category, it pays to be specific. For one thing, it will make your query stand out from the crowd. And PLEASE, for your own sake, avoid the oh-so-common trap of the dismissive too-broad answer, especially the ever-popular women everywhere will be interested in this book; every American will want to buy this; it’s a natural for Oprah. Even in the extremely unlikely event that any of these statements is literally true in your book’s case, agents and editors hear such statements so often that by this point in human history, they simply tune them out.

Make sure your target market is defined believably — but don’t be afraid to use your imagination. Is your ideal reader a college-educated woman in her thirties or forties? Is it a girl aged 10-13 who doesn’t quite fit in with her classmates? Is it an office worker who likes easy-to-follow plots to peruse while he’s running on the treadmill? Is it a working grandmother who fears she will never be able to afford to retire? Is it a commuter who reads on the bus for a couple of hours a day, seeking an escape from a dull, dead-end job?

While these may sound like narrow definitions, each actually represents an immense group of people, and a group that buys a heck of a lot of books. Give some thought to who they are, and what they will get out of your book.

Or, to put a smilier face upon it, how will this reader’s life be improved by reading this particular book, as opposed to any other? Why will the book speak to her?

Again, be as specific as you can. As with book category, if you explain in nebulous terms who you expect to read your book, you will simply not be speaking the language of agents and editors.

Try to think of learning to speak this language as less of an annoying hurdle than as another step toward assembling a serious writer’s bag of marketing tools, a collection that will, I hope, serve you well throughout the rest of your writing life. Learning to figure out a book’s ideal readership, how to identify a selling point, coming to describe a book in the manner the industry best understands — these are all skills that transcend the agent-finding stage of a writer’s career.

More thoughts on marketing your work follow at 10 am. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part V: before you pop that missive in the mail…

Anne Mini and the mail slot

We’ve just been zipping through the diagnosis and treatment of the ailments from which your garden-variety query letter tends to suffer, haven’t we? There’s a good reason for that: many, many aspiring writers stateside are using this long weekend to prepare their next barrages of query letters, and I wanted my readers to have freshly updated advice on hand for the beginning of the autumn foray.

It’s not only the queriers who are feeling autumn in the air these days; it’s prime polishing time for submitters, too. Labor Day marks the dividing line between the summer writers’ conference season and the fall conference season, so pitchers who received requests for materials over the summer are starting to feel antsy about sending out those submissions. Another week’s worth — or month’s worth — of proofreading won’t harm their books’ chances, actually, but still, most savvy manuscript-owers feel that they should send out summer-requested materials by the time school starts.

The cumulative result, naturally, is that when Millicent, her fellow agency screeners, and their boss agents come dragging into the office on Tuesday, they will be greeted by a month’s backlog of queries and submissions. Inboxes both literal and virtual will be stuffed to overflowing.

So it’s probably not the world’s worst idea to hold off for a couple of weeks or so before you mail yours off, if only to wait until Millie’s in a better mood. At minimum, do not even dream of e-mailing a query until at least Thursday, when the into-the-agency flood will have subsided a little. (You already knew not to e-mail queries on weekends in general, right? Monday morning always greets Millicents and their agents with overloaded inboxes.)

All of which is to say: just because we’re devoting this weekend to all things query-related does not mean that you absolutely have to send something off by the end of the weekend, or even the end of the week. I’d much, much rather see my readers spend an extra week or two on drafting a really good query letter than to have any of you kicking yourselves a month from now, wishing you’d queried differently.

Especially if the difference between popping it in the mail on this Tuesday a.m. and next means being able to have someone whose literary (and grammatical) opinion you trust read your query draft. Even if a writer’s been at it a while, it can be pretty hard to see the flaws in one’s own query letters — and for some reason I have never been able to fathom, even aspiring writers professional enough to be routinely soliciting feedback on their manuscripts often guard their queries jealously from any human eyes other than Millicent’s.

Whose peepers, as those of you who have been visiting this blog for a good long time are already aware, are not generally charitably-oriented. And that’s as much of a problem for writers accustomed to the querying process as for those new to it: since most experienced queriers will tweak their basic query letters to personalize them for each (don’t worry; I’ll be getting to that), there tends to be a lot of cutting, pasting, and general rewriting going on between mailings and/or strikings of the SEND button.

And what is an extremely likely outcome when any piece of writing is constantly being revised over time? Shout it out, those of you who were hanging around this blog earlier in the summer: it can turn into a Frankenstein manuscript, an unholy mish-mash of half-completed revisions.

The single most common type of Frankenstein query, as we saw last time, is the mismatched salutation and address. Nothing screams out I’m doing a mass mailing of queries, and you, sir, are palpably on the bottom of my wish list! like a letter that runs thus:

wrong names query

See the problem? In the stress of sending out multiple queries — a smart strategy in its own right, by the way; with sometimes months-long turn-around times at some agencies and no-reply policies at others, waiting to hear back from Agent A before querying Agent B is a sure-fire strategy for wasting years of your life — Mssr. Flaubert copied the address of one agent onto a letter personalized for another.

What he intended to send (and probably didn’t ever notice he didn’t send) was this:

Our Gustave fell victim to query fatigue, in short. Quite understandable, of course, but how do you think Ms. Marketer is likely to respond not only to being addressed by the wrong name and with the honorific for the wrong sex, but being congratulated for her speech at a conference she never attended?

That’s right, campers: “Next!”

So please, proofread every single query every single time . Yes, even e-queries. Many a Millicent has been left shaking her head regretfully over a dropped word or misspelling in an otherwise admirable query.

Better yet, have a first reader you trust go over it. This is an excellent contribution to your writing career for any significant others, family members, or friends whom you, in your great wisdom, have deemed too fond of you to be trusted to provide critical feedback on your manuscript. (Trust me, “But my mom loved it!” is not an argument that flies well in the publishing industry.)

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the oh-so-common trap of getting complacent about your basic query. Just because a letter has garnered chapter requests in the past does not mean that it couldn’t use a bit of punching up. Even if you are a querying veteran, at least cast your eye over this list of garden-variety query turn-offs.

That’s right, campers: it’s another of my famous faux pas check-lists.

Why should a writer who has been querying a while take the time to go through a do-not list? Well, for most aspiring writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their query letters themselves might be problematic. Okay, out comes the broken record:

broken-recordUnfortunately, writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a style-hampered querying letter or a limp synopsis.

But how is this possible, without a level of mental telepathy on the screener’s part that would positively stun the Amazing Kreskin?

Are the rejecting agents seeing past the initial letter to the manuscript itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing? Do they have some sort of direct cosmic link to the Muses that allows them to glance at the first three lines of a query and say, “Nope, this one was last in line when the talent was handed out. Sorry,” before they toss it into the rejection pile?

No, of course not. Only editors have that kind of direct telephonic connection to the demi-gods.

Yet this particular fear leaps like a lion onto many fledgling writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many writers, leading to despair, the notion that if one is really talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It never –- well, almost never — turns out like that. Out comes the broken record player again:

broken-recordBeing a professional writer is work, and what gets the vast majority of queries rejected is a lack of adherence to professional standards. Which can, my friends, be learned.

As, indeed, we’ve seen over the course of Querypalooza. But what if you already have a query letter that meets all the technical criteria, and it’s still not getting the responses you want?

Pull up your chairs close, boys and girls: it’s time for the master class on querying. Today, we’re going to concentrate on fine-tuning the delicate art of query diagnosis.

Why? I feel another broken record coming on:

broken-recordThe querying market is even tighter than it was the last time I visited this issue. It’s as competitive now as it has ever been in my lifetime.

And I’m not nearly so young as I look. (Nor is my hair always as wild as it appears in the photo at the top of this post, but that’s another story.)

Seriously, it’s a jungle out there, to coin a phrase. But before you begin to feel for your submission’s pulse, please (wait for it):

broken-recordRe-read everything in your query packet IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD: your query letter, synopsis, author bio, and ANY pages the agency’s website or agency guide listing has asked queriers to include in a querying packet.

Better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. For any attached pages, the best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine. Let’s slap another broken record on the turntable:

broken-recordAs much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing.

Look to these fine folks for support, encouragement, and the occasional spot-check for salutation-matching, not for technical feedback on your writing. Find someone whose LITERARY opinion you trust — such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference, or the person in your writing group who keeps being asked to send sample chapters — and blandish her into giving your query packet materials a solid reading.

(Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of Philip K. Dick and others; fifty years later, she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary feedback source. Naturally, that doesn’t stop her from line editing while she reads my work, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was NOT there when I took my first toddling steps.)

As excellent as this advice is, I sense that some of you are already merrily making plans to disregard it. If you are planning to be the only pre-Millicent peruser of your query packet…

broken-recordMake sure that you read all of the constituent parts of your submissions in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier –- and more likely to be accurate — in hard copy.

I’m quite serious about treating this a final flight-check: don’t leave rooting out the proofreading and logic problems until the last minute. As Gustave knows to his sorrow, it’s just too easy to skip them when you’re in a hurry.

Once you have cleared out any grammatical or spelling problems and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask yourself the following questions.

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?
I covered this earlier in this series, speaking of broken records, but it bears repeating: even e-mailed queries longer than a page are seldom read in their entirety. I know it’s hard to cram everything you want to say to promote your work into a single page, but it’s just not worth it to go longer.

And please, for your own sake, don’t take the common escape route of shrinking the margins or the typeface; trust me, any screener, agent, editor, or contest judge with even a few weeks’ worth of experience can tell. (For a quick, visual-aid-assisted run-down on why their being able to tell that is bad news for the querier who does it, please see my last post.)

Remember, if you are sending a paper query or any pages at all (even if the agency’s guidelines ask you to imbed them in an e-mail),

broken-recordYou must indent your paragraphs in a mailed query letter — or, indeed, in any writing sample of any length intended for agent-dwelling eyes. No exceptions; business format is not acceptable in this context.

For those of you unclear on the difference between correspondence format and business format (or, to put it another way, those who are coming upon this checklist in my archives, rather than reading it as today’s post), please see my earlier post on the subject.

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter than a page, am I trying to achieve too much in it? Specifically, is my query trying to do more than get the agent to ask to see the manuscript?
Is it perhaps trying to convince the agent (or the screener) that this is a terrific book, or maybe including the plot, rather than the premise? Is it reviewing the book, rather than describing it? Is it begging for attention, rather than presenting the book professionally? Is it trying to suit the tastes of every agent to whom you might conceivably send it, rather than the one to whom it is currently addressed?

All of these are extremely common ways in which query letters over-reach. Like pitches, queries often turn into litanies of summary, rather than convincing, professional presentations of a book’s category, premise, and selling points. As I have advised before,

broken-recordDon’t try to cram a half an hour’s worth of conversation about your book into a scant page. Just present the information necessary to interest an agent in your manuscript, then STOP.

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?
The attempt to force the query to serve the purpose of the synopsis or book proposal is, of course, the most common letter-extender of them all. All too often, the plot or argument description overflows its allotted single paragraph so dramatically that other necessary features of the query letter — why the querier has selected THIS agent and no other, the intended readership, the book category — get tossed overboard in a desperate attempt to keep the whole to a single page.

The simplest fix for this, in most instances, is to reduce the length of the descriptive paragraph.

broken-recordRemember, your job in the query is not to summarize the book (that’s what the synopsis is for), but to pique enough interest to generate a request for pages. Keep it brief.

How brief? Well, let’s just say that if you can’t say the first two paragraphs of your query letter — the ones where you say why you are approaching that particular agent, the book category, and the premise — in under 20 seconds of normal speech, you might want to take a gander at the ELEVATOR SPEECH category at right.

(4) Is my query letter polite? Does it make me sound like a professional writer it might be a hoot to get to know?
You’d be amazed at how often writers use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for prevailing conditions in the publishing industry, up to and including how difficult it is to land an agent. But (feel free to sing along; you should all know the words by now)

broken-recordMillicent and her ilk did not create the ambient conditions for writers; treating them as though they did merely betrays a lack of familiarity with how the industry actually works.

And even if they had plotted in dark, smoke-filled rooms about how best to make writers’ lives more difficult, pointing it out either explicitly or implicitly would not be the best way to win friends and influence people. In my experience, lecturing a virtual stranger on how mean agents are is not the best tack to take when trying to make a new friend who happens to be an agent, any more than cracking out your best set of lawyer jokes would be at a bar association meeting.

I’ve seen some real lulus turn up in query letters. My personal favorite began Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first…

A close second: I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…

And third: Before you dismiss this query without reading it, just let me point out…

Remember, even if you met an agent at a conference (or via a recommendation from a client) and got along with him as though you’d known each other since nursery school, a query is a business letter. Be cordial, but do not presume that it is okay to be overly familiar.

Demonstrate that you are a professional writer who understands that the buying and selling of books is a serious business. After hours staring at query letters filled with typos and blame, professional presentation comes as a positive relief to Millicent.

The checklist shall continue in my late-night (2 am Pacific) Querypalooza post. Keep plowing forward, everyone, and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XV: the creature rises afresh, or, this is what nit-picking gets you

son-of-frankenstein poster

Is everyone rested and refreshed after the long weekend our brief hiatus from discussing revision issues? I thought very seriously of posting on the 4th, for the benefit of those of you who had no intention of barbecuing anything or endangering your precious, manuscript-creating fingers with fireworks, but a page into critiquing the Declaration of Independence by modern editorial standards (will your audience consider those truths self-evident, Tom? It’s just lazy writing not to explain the underlying logic here), the whole enterprise began to feel a tad disrespectful.

So even though the darned thing is stuffed to the gills with ands, nouns capitalized for no apparent reason, and paragraphs made up of only a single, often run-on sentence, I left it alone. Perhaps I will get back to it fourscore and seven years hence.

Note to readers outside the United States: that running joke actually was kind of funny. Honest. You’d have to be here.

Before I leave the Founders to their own devices, however, I would like to give all of us a running start back into nit-picking mode by borrowing a couple of sentences from Jefferson’s immortal document to talk about a phenomenon that plagues many a modern-day manuscript: misused semicolons. Cast thy worthy eyes over these classic sentences, citizens, and see if you can spot the problem:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Did it leap out at you, as it probably would have at our old friend Millicent the agency screener (and almost certainly would have at her aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge)? No? Here’s another specimen of semicolon abuse:

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He, by the way, was King George III; I wouldn’t want the resemblance to current political events to confuse anybody. That last sentence, incidentally, was a correct use of a semicolon: it joined two complete sentences together. Functioning as an effective contraction of comma + and, a semicolon allows two complete sentences to occupy the same sentence without technically creating a run-on.

See the problem now? Like so many aspiring (and, unfortunately, established as well) writers of our own day, our third president evidently did not understand that ; and is inherently redundant. That’s why, in case anyone out there had been wondering, it’s technically improper to place a semicolon before the and in a list: this thing is red; that thing is blue; and the other thing is chartreuse. is, it pains me to tell you, incorrect. It should be: this thing is red; that thing is blue, and the other thing is chartreuse.

Fortunately, this species of semicolon abuse is extremely easy to rectify, either by the means I just used above, changing the improper semicolon to a comma, or by removing the and allowing the semicolon to function as God intended.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

A reviser could also, should s/he be of revolutionary propensities, simply turn the gargantuan sentence into two, removing the necessity for the semicolon altogether. While I’m at it, I can’t resist cleaning up the commas a little:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. Accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Yes, yes, I know, semicolon-lovers: a semicolon indicates a pause longer than a comma, but not the full stop of a period. It is not beyond belief that in these specific sentences, Jefferson might have been making a point by cramming two sentences’ worth of information into single sentences.

I grant you that — but as an editor, I cannot in good conscience forbear pointing out that if that was his goal in these sentences, it would have worked better if he had not made it his goal quite so often. Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: the more often a writer uses a literary device or sentence-level trick within a short run of text, the less effective each subsequent use will be.

The Declaration of Independence (or, more properly, The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America, a cumbersome mouthful) is almost five pages long in standard format. Tell me, do you believe that a modern-day Millicent would keep turning the pages after the second misused semicolon? What about Mehitabel?

Actually, depending upon the book category, they might take umbrage at the first semicolon, properly used or not. Although ubiquitous in nonfiction (due, no doubt, to their popularity in journalism), the semicolon is not particularly welcome in most fiction book categories. Other than literary fiction, science fiction/fantasy, mainstream and high-end women’s fiction — the fiction categories that also assume the largest vocabularies in their respective target audiences — semicolons tend to be rare in published novels, at least in the U.S.

Enough so that it’s usually in a reviser’s best interest to minimize their use, unless the manuscript he’s slaving over happens to fall in one of the categories mentioned above. It may not be necessary to omit them altogether — although, frankly, most freelance editors would tell you that it’s virtually always a good idea in a submission — but do your best not to use more of them per page than is common in first novels in your chosen book category.

Yes, scanning enough recent releases to see what kind of writing the popular kids are selling these days is going to be a lot of work, now that you mention it. Sorry about that, but using either what the bigwigs in the field can get published or what was considered the best writing in your category ten, fifteen, or fifty years ago won’t give you a very clear idea of what Millicent’s level of tolerance for semicolons — or, indeed, any other literary trick you might happen to favor — is now, will it?

Besides, we all know in the depths of our creative little hearts that most semicolons turn up in manuscripts not because they are essential to the paragraphs they grace, or even for rhythmic effect, but because so many writers really like them. Some really, really like them. They like them so much, in fact, that they often find ways to work ‘em in four times a paragraph.

Is Millicent’s objection to them starting to make a bit more sense? She sees so many dots over commas that her desk sometimes seems overrun with aphids. To see yet another reason why that might be annoying, let’s seek out more evidence of Jefferson’s apparently troubled relationship with punctuation:

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

Funny how pertinent some of his issues still seem, isn’t it? Not just politically, but grammatically: what on earth was he thinking, using more than one semicolon within a single sentence? Happily, this, too, is easy to fix.

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States. For that purpose, he has obstructed the laws of naturalization for foreigners, refused to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raised the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

Doesn’t really lose anything by being freed of semicolons, does it? Neither does the average sentence in your garden-variety semicolon-laden manuscript.

I’m bringing this up, not to sadden those of you who worship the semicolon, but to remind you just how closely professional readers scrutinize manuscript submissions and contest entries. Remember, they do not read like folks who read for pleasure; for the opening chapters of a manuscript, at least, they tend to be on the look-out for reasons to reject it.

So while it may seem tedious — heck, may be tedious — to search a 400-page haystack for needles, going over each page with the proverbial fine-toothed comb to make sure that every sentence is your best writing, Millicent and her boss would not consider such behavior above and beyond the call of duty for a serious writer.

Do you know what they would consider it? A good writer’s job.

That’s why, in case you’ve been scratching your collective head over it, I’ve been hammering so hard throughout this series on the importance of re-reading your work not only for story and characterization, but also for sentence-level stumbling blocks like word repetition. Or seemingly unimportant formatting issues.

Everything adds up to create an impression. Believe me, Millicent would be much, much happier about recommending a manuscript that just bellows, “Look! My writer is capable of taking infinite pains in order to present her story and voice in their best possible light!” than one that sighs, as so many do, “Well, my writer may be talented — if you look past the technical mistakes, you’ll find evidence of it.”

Remember, too, that even a Millicent or Mehitabel willing to invest the effort to ferret out the occasional beautiful sentence in a poorly-presented manuscript may be put off by formatting problems. They have been trained to zero in on them, after all — just as no entry is so easy to knock out of finalist consideration as one that has broken one of the contest’s rules, no submission is as easy to reject as one whose very margins declare that the writer hasn’t done his homework about what professional manuscripts are supposed to look like.

In fairness to Millicent and Mehitabel, once your eyes are accustomed to spot the small stuff, it’s pretty hard to overlook. That’s a pity, because the small stuff is often the most difficult for the reviser to catch.

If that last paragraph didn’t automatically make you murmur, “And that’s why it’s a good idea to read your submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it off,” well, I must not have repeated it enough in this series. Which I find rather hard to believe.

To illustrate just how difficult it can be to see the little problems that would jump up and down on the page as a screener or contest judge scanned it, clamoring distractingly for attention, I have called upon a brave reader to allow me to use his opening page as an example. Reader Nick has kindly provided us with the following:

krygier example

Did the little problems flag you down, distracting you from the narrative? Believe it or not, as few and small as the gaffes here, they would have made it difficult for Mehitabel or Millicent to be drawn into the unfolding story.

I see raised hands out there, trying to flag me down. Yes, hand-wavers? “But Anne,” many of you protest breathlessly, “I don’t see anything wrong with Nick’s page, technically. I suppose Millicent might quibble about the semicolon in the opening sentence, depending upon the book category, but it is properly used. What’s she reading with, those X-ray specs that used to be advertised in the back of comic books?”

No, merely the eyes of experience. Let’s take a look at this page as she would have preferred to see it presented.

krygier example2

See the difference? Admittedly, I tinkered with a few of the style choices here — while anyways may have been intended to show that the narrator is not well-educated, using it twice on the same page invites Millicent to recognize that it isn’t proper. Since the narrator here clearly means anyway, it was an easy change. Ditto with the redundant use of right now: excising it does not alter the meaning of the second sentence, so why antagonize Millicent with the word repetition? (Speaking of things that might annoy her: who is the friend mentioned in paragraph 2, the reader wonders? Is this a sarcastic reference to the doctor? The text does not offer an explanation.)

While either Millicent or Mehitabel would have caught all of these problems on a first read-through, drawing conclusions accordingly, those are probably not the gaffes that would have caught their attention first. The fact that the text began too high on the page would have struck any professional reader, as would the fact that each paragraph is indented five spaces, not .5 inch.

This is a mistake that I have suddenly begun seeing with great frequency within the last six months or so; it was relatively rare before, perhaps because it’s a gaffe that someone who had taken a typing class would be unlikely to make. Word sets an automatic tab at .5 inch, so all one has to do to indent the right amount is to hit the TAB key.

It’s less trouble, honest. Speaking of going to unnecessary trouble, did you spot the most serious formatting problem on the first page?

Instead of the lines of text falling evenly on the page, there is extra space between paragraphs. This would look quite wrong to a professional reader — and since it’s usually not the default in Word, it’s probably the result of some writerly tinkering in the FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/INDENTS AND SPACING box. Not only is this sort of fancy manuscript formatting annoying to set up — it’s improper. Just allow the lines to fall naturally, equidistant on the page.

And all that’s visible before Millicent or Mehitabel read so much as a single sentence of the submission. See why it might be a good idea to take a gander at your work IN HARD COPY, even if you are planning on submitting it electronically?

Of course, either dear lady would have caught some problems within the text itself. The dashes are not consistently doubled, with a space at either end, and there’s a comma missing from the quote — neither perhaps rejection reasons individually, but together, they would indicate to a pro that this page had not been proofread for consistency.

As we discussed earlier in this series, consistency in formatting, grammar, and voice is much, much more important to professional readers than most self-editors even begin to suspect. Inconsistencies are jarring — more so, sometimes, than consistent mistakes. To prove that, we need look no farther than the dashes in the first example: obviously, given the correct second usage, the writer here knows that dashes should be doubled; he evidently just forgot to do it the first time around.

And what would have been the best way to catch a nit-picky problem like that, campers, an oversight that a spell- and grammar-checker would not pick up? That’s right: reading this page IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Which, you must admit, is quite possible that the writer already did before letting me post this (thanks again for that, Nick); most of these are, after all, quite small cosmetic problems. The vast majority of aspiring writers would not even have looked for at least half of these.

But we aspire to high standards than that, don’t we?

Scarcely had this set of admittedly small revisions fallen off my weary fingertips when I sensed a certain amount of disgruntlement in the peanut gallery. “Oh, God,” a fairly hefty percentage of you murmured, “revising my Frankenstein manuscript is going to be an infinitely more complex matter than I had previously anticipated. Or so I nervously surmise from the fact that Anne is now talking about problems I could not solve, or at any rate locate, with a simple search-and-replace. Horrors!”

Actually, my finely-tuned silent, far-flung reader detector picked up three distinct flavors of chagrin floating around out there, each a fairly common response to being greeted with advice to perform any sort of microsurgery on a manuscript. (If there’s a fourth type of stressed-out writer who does not become at least momentarily distraught at the notion of spending days, weeks, or even moths months nit-picking his way through the submission he thought would be snapped up by an agent a year ago, let’s just say I haven’t bumped into him recently on the writers’ conference circuit.)

The first kind is someone I suspect all of you who have spent any time around aspiring writers have met in spades: the oh-it’s-too-much-bother. “But Anne,” representatives of this easily-discouraged type exclaim. “Going through my manuscript to check for something as minor as dash consistency is going to take WEEKS. I know that you like to set high standards for all of us here in the Author! Author! community, but aren’t you over-reaching a bit here? Surely, no reasonable agent or editor is going to back off from a good submission for something that minor. I’m just going to hold off and wait until my future agent/editor/reviewers of my bestseller tells me point-blank that I need to correct this type of problem. In fact, I think I’m going to put off dealing with any revision problem that requires a tool more sophisticated than a simple search-and-replace or spell-check.”

Whoa, revision-eschewers — for such you almost certainly are, or will end up being — who is over-reaching now? As we have discussed throughout this series on revising Frankenstein manuscripts, the firm belief that books by new writers get picked up before they are polished is, while rather charmingly old-fashioned, one that tends to make those of us who read manuscripts for a living smile sadly and murmur to ourselves, “Oh, this one’s going to have a hard time landing an agent.”

Why? Because a writer who does not habitually proofread implicitly expects that other people will do it for her. While many agents will provide a limited amount of editorial feedback to their clients, especially to new ones, few would be eager to send out manuscripts filled with eye-distracting errors. And in these sad days when even very large publishing houses are laying off editorial staff, is it really a good idea to assume that even the editor who falls in love with your book enough to push it through an editorial committee will have either the time or the inclination to go over the text with that fine-toothed comb I mentioned earlier?

Especially when, if you’ll pardon my bringing it up again, that’s your job?

Just in case any of you are still harboring illusions on the subject, at this point in literary history — and this was true even before the recent economic downturn sent the publishing industry into its current let’s-lay-off-a-third-of-our-editors spree, by the way — aspiring writers are held 100% responsible for the diagnosis and treatment of their manuscripts’ ills. It could hardly be otherwise: Millicent sees so many technically perfect, beautifully-written submissions that she seldom has qualms about rejecting ones that are merely in pretty good shape.

Translation: if your manuscript has a slight cough, it’s up to you to provide the cough drops before she sees it.

With a Frankenstein manuscript, it can be very hard to tell when enough revision is enough, though. Increasing warmth of rejection letters as a writer revised and submitted, then revised and submitted again until an agent snapped up the book, used to provide a pretty good barometer of how a manuscript was improving over time. (That’s why, in case you’d been fretting in the dead of night about it, you might have heard an agent or editor say at a conference that getting only form-letter rejections is always a sign that a manuscript needs intensive revision: in the good old days, that would have been true.)

Now, the MS with emitting the occasional ladylike “Ahem!” usually received precisely the same prefab rejection letter as the MS infected with an advanced case of whooping cough. Or, still worse, with no reply at all. As hard as rejected writers might try to read specific meaning into general statements like I just didn’t fall in love with this story or while the writing is strong, I just don’t think I can sell this in the current market, personalized rejection letters have mostly gone the way of the dodo.

We’ve all heard that such creatures once roved the earth, but few of us have ever seen one in person.

The second variety of revision suggestion-induced panic runs to the opposite extreme, plunging aspiring writers into orgies of incessant worry about whether they’ve cleaned up their manuscripts enough prior to submission. Faced with the kind of alarm I’ve been raising throughout this post, the victim immediately snatches up her editing pens and shouts, “Thanks for telling me, Anne! I’ll clear my schedule for the next three weeks to attend to the matter!”

She is, in a word that I suspect I’m making up on the spot, over-conscientious.

Most of us have probably encountered advanced cases of panic #2, right? Every time the sufferer runs into a new writerly axiom, he rushes to apply it to his work. Adherents of this philosophy would rather spend their time cleaning minute specks of dust off their writing with a toothbrush like an archeologist exhuming the ruins of Troy than run the risk of anything whatsoever being wrong with their work by the time some kind mailman pops it under Millicent’s nose.

In moderation, such devotion to detail is laudable. Over-indulgers, however, can fret themselves into an absolute standstill. Since there’s never any shortage of ostensibly never-fail writing advice out there, a writer who becomes addicted to dipping his cup into the stream of wisdom too frequently can feel as though he’s trying to drain Lake Titicaca with a teaspoon.

The third type, of course, is the one who exclaims, “Oh, my God — the publishing industry is so unreasonable! No wonder nothing of value ever gets published! I might as well give up now.” Which is no skin off Millicent’s freckled nose, of course: see my earlier comment about the number of technically perfect manuscripts she sees in any given year, far more than her boss agent could ever hope to sign to representation contracts.

Welcome to the joys of living in a great, big country filled with talented, creative people. Isn’t competition grand?

By now, I suspect that I’ve given all three types a common cause upon which they agree absolutely. “Heavens, Anne,” they cry in unison, “if your goal was to depress us into a stupor, you’ve certainly succeeded. Knock off for the day, will ya?”

Actually, that wasn’t my goal — although, admittedly, it’s an achievement into which I stumble with some frequency whenever I talk about being realistic about the grim odds that face even an excellent agent-seeking manuscript. (Although while you’re already antsy: if you don’t mind my asking, when’s the last time you made a back-up of your writing files? Or, to put it less gently, if — heaven forfend! — anything happened to your computer tomorrow, would you have to go back and re-make all of those changes you’ve already made on your manuscript? See my point?)

The intention behind bringing up the common stripes of over-reaction to revision suggestions is to encourage all of you to stop yourself from heading toward any of these extremes.

When faced with the prospect of ferreting out and fixing either a manuscript megaproblem or a whole string of little gaffes, what serves a writer best is to come up with a practical plan of attack. Nothing is better at staving off that feeling of being overwhelmed by complete strangers’ extremely high and sometimes rather arbitrary standards.

Trust me on this one. You’ll have a substantially happier life as a writer if you train yourself not to give in to any of the very natural emotional first reactions.

Like, say, to a post like this. Ponder manuscript matters small and great, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part V, in which I run afoul of a whole lot of writing truisms

Attwood book covershaun-attwood-author-photo

Before I launch into today’s post proper, I’m delighted to announce some delightful news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: blogger Shaun Attwood’s memoir, Hard Time: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail will be coming out from Random House UK this coming August! It’s already available for pre-sale from the publisher and (at a slight discount, I notice) from Amazon UK.

Congratulations, Shaun!

I’m looking forward to both the book’s British release and its advent over here. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Attwood book coverUsing a golf pencil sharpened on a cell wall, Shaun Attwood wrote one of the first prison blogs, Jon’s Jail Journal, excerpts of which were published in The Guardian and attracted international media attention. ??Brought up in England, Shaun took his business degree to Phoenix, Arizona, where he became an award-winning stockbroker and then a millionaire day trader during the dot-com bubble.

But Shaun also led a double life. An early fan of the rave scene in Manchester, he formed an organization that threw raves and distributed Class A drugs. Before being convicted of money laundering and drug dealing, he served 26 months in the infamous jail system run by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. ??Hard Time is the harrowing yet often darkly humorous account of the time Shaun spent submerged in a nightmarish world of gang violence, insect infested cells and food unfit for animals. His remarkable story provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of prison life.

As if this weren’t already a pretty darned intriguing story (and it is, believe me), today’s news renders it even more relevant to those of us on this side of the pond: this afternoon, Arizona’s governor signed into a law a bill requiring police to ask anyone they suspect of being an illegal alien to produce proof of residency status on the spot. Not only will violators of this law be entrusted to Arizona’s county jails prior to facing trial — many of them will undoubtedly be incarcerated in the very jail Shaun depicts so vividly.

Curious for a sneak peek? Take a gander at Shaun’s guest blog from last year. I found it bone-chilling — and trust me, my marrow is not easily refrigerated.

It just goes to show you: no matter how grim the predictions we keep hearing from the publishing industry, a good story by a good writer can still get picked up. Please keep the good news rolling in, everybody — I love announcing happy news.

On that cheerful note, let’s get back to work. Today, I would like to discuss another classic bugbear of the multiple-protagonist novel: uneven handling.

You know what I’m talking about, right? The narrative is written from multiple perspectives, yet instead of hearing from each of them in either an orderly manner (say, by having Protagonist A’s perspective dominate Chapters 1, 3, 5, 7…while Protagonist B’s story is followed in Chapters 2, 4, 6, etc.) or in a balanced way (where roughly half the book is devoted to A, and half to B), some perspectives pop up a bit more often than others.

Or a LOT more than others. As in when one or more of them simply falls out of the narrative structure in the second half of the book.

The example that springs to mind is William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY, where the decline of a grand old Mississippi family is told through the perspectives of three of its members and one of its servants, each in its own section. While undoubtedly a masterpiece (of the depress-you-into-a-stupor variety), it’s hard for even the most casual reader not to notice that the fourth perspective is somewhat slighted.

How slighted, you ask? After a multitude of chapters from each of the men’s perspectives, here’s Dilsey’s, in its entirety: They endured.

Now, the authorial choice to limit this perspective so sharply may well have been, as so many of our high school English teachers haughtily informed us, a brilliant piece of understatement and trenchant social criticism, but structurally, we are left wondering: did Faulkner believe this character wouldn’t have said anything about the issues of the book if asked?

Or did he just not care very much what she thought?

Was that gasp I just heard out there in the ether the outraged umbrage of the entire American literature class — or the terrified recognition of writers who have just realized that a reader might derive the unintended conclusion about certain authorial choices?

Say, a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener?

If your reaction fell into the latter category, pat yourself on the back: your writerly instincts are coming along nicely. If a character is important enough to warrant her own perspective, most readers are going to read something into the choice to limit that perspective to, say, four paragraphs where the dominant perspective gets fourteen chapters.

That’s putting it nicely, of course. Millicent might be prompted to wonder why the minimized perspective is included at all: is it only there because this character sees something that the other characters do not? Would a more graceful narrative structure have provided greater balance amongst the protagonists — or fewer of them?

Such doubts could lead to the kind of follow-up question none of us wants asked about our work until after it’s been declared a masterpiece for a generation and being assigned in high school English classes: was including this perspective the best way to tell this story, or merely the most convenient?

What? That wasn’t a question that would have been asked in your high school English class? Heavens, what are the future writers of the world being taught?

It’s worth giving some serious thought to the balance between the perspectives in your novel. Not that you should be literal about it — after all, few readers are going to be counting lines devoted to each characters to test for proportion — but to be aware of any messages about relative importance these characters’ relative weights might be sending.

If one protagonist’s perspective dominates the narrative, for instance, consider the possibility that readers will conclude that her story is the real plot of the book, while characters we hear from less are bit players. Or at the very least, that readers will assume that the character the narrative follows the most often is the one they’re supposed to care about the most. This logic also works stood on its head: If a particular perspective turns up only a few times in the course of the book, is it really necessary, or could you tell the story without it?

Do be aware of the possibility that you might be favoring a character or two unconsciously, especially if the story you’re telling is reality-based. Evenness of handling is genuinely difficult when writing from multiple perspectives; it’s only human to like some characters better than others, and give them the lion’s share of one’s writing time.

However, leaning too heavily toward one protagonist raises an inevitable question in agents’ and editors’ minds: if Character A is interesting enough to dominate half of the book, and the Characters B-D deserve only a chapter or two each, why isn’t the whole book told from A’s perspective?

Where this is the case, it might be worth considering — brace yourself, POVNs — whether the novel actually does work best told from multiple perspectives. Perhaps it would work best as a single-perspective narrative. Or maybe it’s a complex enough set of characters and events that it would benefit from the continuity of a single, overarching narrative voice throughout.

Yes, I am talking about omniscient narration, now that you mention it: anyone got a problem with that, other than the POVN shaking his fist in the corner? I don’t care that some people consider it old-fashioned — sometimes, it honestly is the best choice for a particular storyline.

I know, I know — just a couple of days ago, I was waxing eloquent upon the advantages of incorporating character perspective into the narrative, but omniscience has its benefits, too. Most notably, never having to worry about the question, “Wait, how did this narrator know about that?”

To clarify: there is nothing technically wrong with a third-person novel that narrates every character’s perspective in essentially the same voice, observing the fictional world in a similar way: it just requires vigilance to maintain. Which is why writers are so often told that it is too difficult to pull off, and (the logic continues) they might as well not try.

But successfully implementing any narrative choice calls for sticking to its rules, doesn’t it? There are plenty of good books out there that rely heavily and consistently upon a single narrative voice to tie a disparate group of perspectives together. Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22, for instance, relies upon an essentially unchanging voice as the protagonist du chapter is portrayed in the tight third-person.

Seriously, the focus flits around with a firefly’s attention span — it keeps coming back to Yossarian, the dominant protagonist, but the reader is treated to chapters inside the heads of practically an entire squadron. The book has been known to send POVNs into years of therapy, but it works, because the overarching narrative voice and tone never waver.

To make it a dive from an even higher board, Heller keeps making the narrative jump around in time, so you have to read the whole darned book in order to figure out what’s been going on. It’s a brilliant book, a groundbreaker, a genuine masterpiece.

Do I think Joseph Heller would have a hard time selling it today? Heavens, yes. (He was aware of it, too: there’s a famous writers’ conference circuit story about the upstart reporter who had the nerve to ask Mssr. Heller toward the end of his long and distinguished career why he had never again written a book as good as CATCH-22. Heller’s reported reply: “Who has?”)

There are a number of reasons CATCH-22 would be difficult to market now — not the least of which being that now, the manuscript would seem a bit derivative of both SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and M*A*S*H. (I realized after I typed this that this joke would have been significantly funnier if I had already mentioned that CATCH-22 was released in 1961, M*A*S*H in 1968, and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE in 1969. It just goes to show you: explaining a joke after the fact doesn’t make it funnier.)

Heller’s perspective shifts would probably strike today’s Millicents as too abrupt and hard to follow, and Maury (that’s Millie’s editorial assistant cousin, for those of you tuning in late) would almost certainly either advise Heller to tell the story in chronological order or market the book as fantasy.

Look: there are plenty of writing advisors out there who will tell you the omniscient perspective is dead. Poppycock. A swift stroll down the aisles of almost any bookstore with a good fiction section will demonstrate that simply isn’t true.

What is true is that it’s hard to pull off well — and that agents and editors, like everyone else in the writing community, have heard over and over again that omniscience is old-fashioned. That sometimes renders omniscience a pain to query or submit, but again, taking a serious look at the kind of narrative choices showing up on bookshelves your chosen category in recent years is the best barometer of that.

Let me repeat that, just in case anyone missed it: regardless of what anyone tells you, checking what is selling now is the only really good way to find out what can be sold now — and even that’s not going to tell you what agents are going to be looking to pick up six months hence.

The market’s simply too mercurial to make permanent predictions of the sweeping variety. Remember that, please, the next time you hear a speaker at a writers’ conference insisting that nobody publishes that kind of book anymore. A year before COLD MOUNTAIN came out, you couldn’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who would tell you with absolute authority that no one was buying historical fiction anymore; they would have laughed if you had pitched one. A year later, you couldn’t have gone to an agents’ panel at any conference in the country without hearing half of them insist that they were there primarily to find good new historical fiction.

Ditto with chick lit and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, memoirs about poor childhoods and ANGELA’S ASHES, novels about Catholic conspiracies and THE DA VINCI CODE…well, you get the picture. Nothing’s hot until it’s hot. There’s a big, big difference between onerous and impossible — and an even bigger difference between generalities and reality.

So the next time someone tells you that nobody is buying the kind of book you’re currently writing, don’t waste your energy arguing: toss your anorak over your shoulders, run to the bookstore, and see what is selling in your book category right now.

Bear in mind, though, that just because a writing choice is popular right now does not necessarily mean it is a shoo-in to sell. If you do go tiptoeing through the stacks in the dead of night, you will undoubtedly find volumes and volumes of tight third person; it was the primary narrative choice in most fiction categories for quite a bit of the last decade. But that means — regular readers, get ready to sing out the answer — that screener Millicent and her ilk still see its most common pitfalls on an hourly basis.

Some of you are still nervous about your daring narrative choices, aren’t you? “But Anne!” a few innovative souls offer timidly. “I’m afraid to venture back into the bookstores. The last time I tried, I couldn’t find anything released recently in my chosen book category that’s structured like my book — and it’s not the first time that’s happened. If I decide to write a single-perspective novel in the first person, the publishing world goes wild for tight third-person narratives. If I get really excited about multiple perspectives in the third person, every new release I see features a plethora of chapters, each from a different first-person perspective. I can’t win!”

I sympathize with your frustration, oh experimenters — honestly, I do — but the phenomenon you describe is largely a function of the bestseller phenomenon I described above. Once a surprise blockbuster hits the big time, half the agents in the country will be eager to make lightning strike twice; they go out trawling for books similar to the blockbuster.

That’s only natural, right? And it’s definitely great news for aspiring writers who got the idea to write that kind of book three or four years earlier: suddenly, agents are eager for it, as are editors, at least for a little while. So eager, in fact, that while the trend is at its height, some of them will complain at writers’ conferences, on their blogs, on their Twitter accounts, etc., that they aren’t seeing enough of this type of manuscript.

What’s wrong with writers today, anyway? they wonder, often quite vocally. Don’t they ever read the bestseller lists?

Aspiring writers are no fools: after they hear this lament several times over, a hefty percentage of them will decide to leap onto the bandwagon, even if they would not have considered writing that kind of book before. It’s not even uncommon for a writer to abandon a work in progress or stop querying a recently-completed project because — chant it with me now, readers — nobody is publishing my kind of book anymore.

Thus it follows as inevitably as night follows the day that a year or two after the surprise bestseller made such a splash, Millicent is up to her caffeine-addled eyeballs with manuscripts like it: similar narrative choices, similar characters, even suspiciously similar plotlines. As she probably will be for the next five or six years.

Don’t underestimate how welcome a well-written submission that doesn’t fall into that mode could be at that moment. If all Millie’s seen for the past three weeks is straightforward first-person narratives, your multiple-perspective third-person gem may be a positive relief.

So how’s a habitually off-trend aspiring writer to handle all of this conflicting and ever-changing input? Simple: give some serious thought to your perspective choices, then stick to your guns, regardless of fashion. Someday, your choice may be the new standard.

Next time, by special request, I’ll be talking about how to construct a query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel. And if you’re very nice indeed, I may follow that up with a discussion of how a savvy writer pulls together a synopsis for this type of book.

Hey, once I launch into a topic, I like to do it thoroughly. Keep up the good work!

The return of the Point-of-View Nazis, Part II: ve haf veys of making your POV singular

Spanish inquisition drawing

Last time, I re-introduced the Point-of-View Nazi, that fine ilk of professional reader who positively insists that the only way to conduct a third-person narrative is to focus upon a single protagonist for the entire duration of the book. Since tight third-person (also known as close third-person) was very much the dominant voice for about ten of the last fifteen years POVNs still have a lot of backing. Because of their long reign — and, as I mentioned on Thursday, the fact that they were disproportionately represented amongst composition teachers in the post-war era — an aspiring writer is still very likely to encounter authoritative-sounding voices eager to tell aspiring writers that their work is going down in flames if they take the smallest step toward omniscience or multiple protagonists.

To paraphrase my last post: piffle.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with a super-tight third-person narrative, naturally — stylistically, there is much to be said for it as a storytelling device. However, perspective choice is a matter of writing style, not formula, is it not?

That deafening roar you’re hearing is not the ride of the Valkyries, but a chorus of dissent from POVNS. To them, the only proper writing perspectives are the first person singular and a tight third person singular, where the narration remains rigidly from the point of view of a single actor in the drama, usually the protagonist. They may not always state it so baldly, but effectively, that’s their stance.

How do POVNs usually convey this impression? By implying (or even stating as law inviolate) that good writing is always either in the first person or the close third-person — and in fiction, they’re often not all that crazy about the first person. Yet no matter how emphatically someone states these opinions, they are in fact a matter of personal taste.

Because this is only of the most commonly-blurred distinction between Thou Shalt Do This dicta and style tips, I want to devote today to giving you a concrete look at what a difference regarding such advice as absolute can make. This may seem like an odd thing for a professional writing advice-giver to say, but I don’t think that it’s ever a good idea to take ANYONE else’s opinion on your writing style as gospel. Particularly if that advice is, well, sweeping.

Yes, even if the advice in question happened to fall from my fingertips. One of the reasons I go on at such length about the rationale behind industry norms and stylistic tips is so you have enough information to make up your own minds about your writing choices.

I was notorious for this inform-’em-and-let-’em-go attitude back when I was teaching at a certain unnamed university (go, Huskies!). Professors would come fuming (or laughing) into the faculty lounge, exclaiming, “I’ve got another of your old students, Anne!”

“How do you know?” I’d ask, although after the first couple of times, I was pretty sure of the answer.

“She’s questioning EVERYTHING I say.”

“Good. You wouldn’t want it otherwise, would you?”

Some of my former colleagues would want it otherwise, it turns out. And the POVNs definitely would.

Philosophically, I find POVNs’ idea that there are only two ways to tell a story troubling, and not especially conducive to the production of good art. In my experience, there are few real-life dramatic situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance.

Watch a few randomly-chosen days’ worth of any politically-oriented news program, if you doubt this. I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

And the disagreement amongst writing experts on this point tends to support my argument, doesn’t it?

I also believe that there are very, very few people who appear to be exactly the same from the point of view of everyone who knows them. Most people act, speak, and even think rather differently around their children than around their adult friends, for instance, just as they often have slightly (or even wildly) different personalities at home and at work.

If anyone can find me a real, live person who acts exactly the same in front of his three-year-old daughter, his boss’ boss, the President of the United States, and the lady who leaps out of a cake at a bachelor party, I shall happily eat my hat. Either the person in question has serious social adjustment problems (on the order of Forrest Gump’s), or that perhaps the person who thinks this guy is always the same in every context is lacking in imagination. Or simply doesn’t know the guy very well. Almost nobody and nothing can be completely portrayed from only a single third-person point of view — which is why sometimes narratives that permit the protagonist to be seen from the POV of other characters can be most illuminating.

But that’s just my opinion. Read a bunch of good novels and make up your own mind.

Regardless of your own perspective preferences, it’s important that you know that there are people out there who will want to impose their stylistic preferences upon yours, because they turn up with some fair frequency in agencies, as contest judges, as editors, and as critics. They are statistically more likely to be Baby Boomers than Gen Xers or Gen Yers, however, so they are less likely to be agency screeners than in years past. (Being a Millicent is typically someone’s first job in the business, not one kept for decades, the burnout rate is too high.)

Nevertheless, they do turn up, sometimes in agents’ chairs and behind editorial desks, so it’s best to be prepared for them. When your work is attacked with phrases like, well, it’s more or less impossible to pull off an omniscient narrator in contemporary fiction, you’re going to need to resist the temptation to throw half of Great Books fiction shelf at the speaker, aren’t you?

So how should a prudent writer handle it? Recognize that you are dealing with a POVN, and take everything he says with a gargantuan grain of salt. You can’t convince a true believer; you’ll only wear yourself out with trying. Cut your losses and move on.

But before you do, consider the possibility that the critique may be useful to apply to your manuscript of the moment. Would a more focused narrative perspective add something useful to your story? If not, is the narrative completely free of head-hopping?

That switcheroo caused a few double-takes, didn’t it? POVNs do occasionally have a point: too-frequent perspective switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow. Take, for instance, the following mash-up of point of view — and timeframe, while we’re at it — and assuming that the book so far has been primarily from Marybeth’s perspective.

Trevor stormed noisily into the room, causing her to groan and pull her cat, Mergatroyd, from his perch on her head onto her face. The sudden glare of the overhead light was blinding. Criminy, was Marybeth still asleep? He throws a pillow at her disheveled head on his way to his dresser. “Wake up, sleepyhead, if you want a ride.”

Marybeth glances between Mergatroyd’s limp paws at the 1970s-era clock-radio by her bed: she was supposed to be at work ten minutes ago. Oblivious to the long streak of raspberry mousse adorning her cheek, she adopts her best I’m-in-charge-here tone. “How long were you planning to let me sleep? Next Tuesday?”

Ah, there his tie was. He yanks it from between the mattress and box springs, scowling at the back of his boss’ frizzy head. “Hey, for all I knew, you had a bevy of butlers to wake you in the mornings.”

Yeah, right: attempt to take three steps in this bedroom, and you’d either stub your toe on a cast-aside manuscript or catch your toe in a stray t-shirt and go sprawling. Obviously, her domestic staff was crackerjack. “Throw me my robe, will you?”

Did his job depend upon the civility of his answer? Her kitchen didn’t even have any decent coffee, for goodness’ sake. He’d have to stop at Starbucks on the way in — unless today is Millicent’s day to snag the a.m. lattes? Struggling into her robe, Marybeth watched him wade back to the bedroom door, wondering if she would be pressing her luck if she sent him out for coffee.

A tad confusing, isn’t it? It’s possible to follow, admittedly, but is it really the reader’s job to sort this mess out?

Like abrupt switches of tense, unannounced perspective shifts may puzzle even a reader who isn’t skimming. (As Millicent often is, recall, while she’s sipping that latte Trevor just dropped off at her desk.) That’s unfortunate, because, one of the more common first-novel megaproblems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence.

And every time that happens, a POVN Millicent gets her wings. Or at least another justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing.

How so? Well, think about it: if Millie’s been assuming for the past 25 pages that she’s reading a tight third person narrative based exclusively upon Marybeth’s perspective (perhaps one written as a not-very-subtle roman-à-clef by her fellow screener, Trevor, who showed up awfully late to work this morning), why WOULDN’T her first question upon reading this excerpt be, “Hey, why is this suddenly from Trevor’s perspective? And if it isn’t, how on earth could a narrative from Marybeth’s perspective mention a smudge she didn’t know was on her face?”

In Millie’s defense, even if the book so far had been in an omniscient narrative voice (where the dominant storytelling voice can adopt any of the characters’ individual perspectives or none of them at will), this excerpt would have been problematic enough to raise her always rejection-ready hackles. The sad thing is, the perspective problems above would be really, really easy to solve. Any guesses how?

A gold star for the day if you shouted, “Why, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion!” Make it three if you added, “It’s also helpful if a narrative decides whether it’s in the present or the past tense and applies that choice consistently. Get your act together, Trevor.”

Great advice, on both fronts. Let’s take a gander at what this excerpt might look like if Trevor made only those two revisions: (a) rearranged things so each perspective its own paragraph and (b) picked a tense choice and stuck to it.

The sudden glare of the overhead light was blinding. Trevor stormed noisily into the room, causing her to groan and pull her cat, Mergatroyd, from his perch on her head onto her face.

Criminy, was Marybeth still asleep? He threw a pillow at her disheveled head on his way to his dresser. “Wake up, sleepyhead, if you want a ride.”

Marybeth glanced between Mergatroyd’s limp paws at the 1970s-era clock-radio by her bed: she was supposed to have been at work ten minutes ago. She adopted her best I’m-in-charge-here tone. “How long were you planning to let me sleep? Next Tuesday?”

The contrast between her manner and the long streak of raspberry mousse adorning her cheek almost made him giggle. Ah, there his tie was. He yanked it from between the mattress and box springs, scowling at the back of his boss’ frizzy head. “Hey, for all I knew, you had a bevy of butlers to wake you in the mornings.”

Yeah, right: attempt to take three steps in this bedroom, and you’d either stub your toe on a cast-aside manuscript or catch your toe in a stray t-shirt and go sprawling. Obviously, her domestic staff was crackerjack. “Throw me my robe, will you?”

Did his job depend upon the civility of his answer? Her kitchen didn’t even have any decent coffee, for goodness’ sake. He’d have to stop at Starbucks on the way in — unless today is Millicent’s day to snag the a.m. lattes?

Struggling into her robe, Marybeth watched him wade back to the bedroom door, wondering if she would be pressing her luck if she sent him out for coffee.

Clearer, isn’t it? Tense consistency and easily-followed perspective shifts won’t protect you from a POVN’s rage if you choose to write from multiple perspective, of course, but it will make your scene substantially less of a chore for the non-POVN reader.

Because you’ve already given up trying to please a POVN Millicent or contest judge with a multiple-perspective manuscript, right? You know better than to try to battle her personal preferences and the deafening roar of her writing teachers — and perhaps her boss agent’s writing teachers, right? Right? Hello?

I see a few timid hands waving out there in the ether. “But Anne, how can I possibly know before I submit whether the agent of my dreams employs a POVN Millicent — or is one herself, for that matter? Shouldn’t I, you know, just assume that every Millicent and agent out there is a POVN, and make my narrative choices accordingly?”

You could do that, of course; that’s a relatively safe route. You could also go to the agency’s website, find out whom it represents, and spend a fruitful hour in your local bookstore, yanking its clients’ novels off the shelves and checking for narrative voice. At least the ones in your chosen book category. If an agent represents someone who writes from multiple perspectives, you probably don’t need to worry about her Millicents being POVNs. If, however, the agency’s authors seem to make astonishingly similar perspective choices…

Or you could just choose the voice you feel is best for your story and take your chances. Most of the time, submitters don’t know precisely why agents pass on their manuscripts, anyway. In this age of form-letter rejections (and rejecting through silence), it’s unlikely that even the most vitriolic POVN Millicent would reject you by saying, “Great premise, nice writing — but God, I hate omniscient narration!”

Before you commit to any of these three perfectly reasonable strategies, let’s take a look at how knuckling under to the POVNs might conceivably harm a narrative. Suppose that Jane Austen took the following paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to her writing group, a cabal of POVNs:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

As an editor, I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons here, but it’s not too difficult to follow whose perspective is whose, right? Yet, as the POVNs in her group would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives rolling around promiscuously together in this single brief paragraph, although there are only two people involved:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry…(Elizabeth’s POV)

…but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. (the POV of an external observer)

Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her… (Darcy’s POV)

Now, a POVN in our Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly implore her to pick a single perspective (Elizabeth’s would be the logical choice) and stick to it consistently throughout the book; a POVN agent would probably reject PRIDE AND PREJUDICE outright, and a POVN editor would pick a perspective and edit accordingly. (Or, more commonly, send out an editorial memo saying that he might consider acquiring the book, but only if Jane revised it so all of the action is seen from Elizabeth’s perspective only.)

Let’s say that Jane was cowed by the vehemence of the POVNs and scuttled home to take their advice. Inevitably, the resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from her original intention. It would probably ending up reading rather like this:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry. Darcy remained silent.

Comparatively terse, isn’t it? Legitimately, that is all that she could keep, if she were going to please the POVNs completely.

I cannot presume to speak for Aunt Jane, of course, but I suspect she would not be particularly satisfied with this revision, both because some characterization has been lost, as well as some long-term plot clues. At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. This would, of course, mean that his proposal would be a greater plot twist, coming out of the blue, but the reader would also end up with absolutely no idea how, beginning from initial indifference, Elizabeth charms began to steal over Darcy, over his own objections.

Which would mean, really, that the title of the book should be changed to just PREJUDICE. And since PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a quote from another novel (Fanny Burney’s excellent-but-dark 1782 novel CECILIA, where the phrase appears three times, all in capital letters), I’m inclined to think that Aunt Jane would have disliked that outcome.

Yet if I may pull up a chair in Jane’s writing group for a moment (oh, as if this whole exercise wouldn’t require time travel), allow me to point out how easily the judicious use of space bar would clear up even the most remote possibility of confusion about who is thinking what when:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.

Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

The moral here, my friends, is once again that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true in every case. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for a good, long while.

You may well find, after serious consideration, that you want to embrace being a POVN, at least for the duration of a particular writing project; there are many scenes and books where the rigidity of a single perspective works beautifully. But for the sake of your own growth as a writer, make sure that the choice is your own, and not imposed upon you by the personal opinions of others.

Now that our collective loins are girded for possible knee-jerk objections to multiple perspective narratives, I feel I can move on to the topic of juggling them with a clear conscience. Tune in next time, and keep up the good work!

Purging the plague of passivity, part IV: please, please, please, please, please love me. Please?

prosperity cat, swift

I honestly meant to continue this series yesterday, campers, but I was waylaid by my eye doctor. Those of us who read and write for a living tend not to miss our annual check-ups.

“Now, these dilating drops will leave your vision just a bit blurry for the next three or four hours,” he assured me mid-exam. “Six at the most. I’m sure your blog readers won’t begrudge you a few hours for eye health.”

Okay, so I made up that last part. But Dr. H’s estimate was equally fanciful: nine hours passed, and I was still scowling at the world through the silly eye filter you see above, pupils the size of dimes.

And if that’s not a passive protagonist in an anecdote, I’d sure like to see one.

I’m back on the move today, however. I am delighted to report that I no longer look like a startled mole abruptly dragged out of a nice, comfortable dark hole at noon.

Back to business. Last time, I stirred up the deep waters of controversy underlying the placid surface of many a novel, memoir, and creative nonfiction manuscript by suggesting (and rather forcefully, too) that submissions with scene after scene spent amongst the limpid pools of smooth, conflict-free interaction — particularly if that interaction is merely observed by the protagonist (the boat in the metaphor? A passenger in that boat? A passing seagull?), rather than caused by or integrally involving him — might be less successful, in marketing terms, than ones that set the protagonist adrift amid a storm or two. (Okay, so s/he is IN the boat. Glad we got that settled.)

Oh, heck, I’m going to abandon the metaphor (toss it overboard, as it were) and just say it boldly: passive protagonists tend to bore readers, professional and unprofessional alike. After this many posts in a row on protagonist passivity, I would hope that doesn’t come as a big shock to anybody out there.

Yet in general, aspiring writers do tend to be shocked, or even appalled, at the very suggestion that their protagonists aren’t doing enough. All too often, they hear critique of their protagonists as criticism of themselves, believe it or not — as if a dull character’s appearance in a manuscript must by extension mean its creator is…well, let’s just say non-scintillating, shall we?

Surprised by that reaction? Don’t be. It’s really, really common for writers new to the wonderful world of serious feedback to respond to it as though it were, if not precisely a personal attack, at least unkindly motivated.

Many, if not most, writers have difficulty hearing manuscript critique as critique of — wait for it — their MANUSCRIPTS, rather than of themselves, their self-worth, their talent, and/or their right to be expressing themselves in print at all. (A phenomenon I have dissected at great length in the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK series, conveniently available under the self-named category on the archive list at right, should anybody be interested.)

This response is equally likely, by the way, whether the manuscript is fiction, memoir, or academic book. I suppose this particular logical leap shouldn’t still give me pause at this late date. Over the years, I’ve seen writers draw similar conclusions from feedback that indicates that their work is slow-paced, too long, hard to market, or even poorly punctuated.

“Why me?” they shriek, rending their garments. “What have I done to deserve this torture?”

Okay, so that was a bit of an exaggeration, but just a bit. And that’s a great pity, because a tendency to take feedback personally is unfortunate in the long-term. As personal characteristics go, it’s a difficult one to reconcile with an author’s work life.

Why? Well, being a professional writer pretty much requires not only getting used to hearing such critiques from one’s agent and editor — yes, Virginia, even an agent who adores your writing style will want you to make revisions from time to time — but being able to incorporate feedback into a manuscript. Often very quickly.

How quickly, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, it varies. Let’s just say that I’ve actually heard my agent utter the words, “Oh, you know that editor who liked your manuscript? She’d like you to give it a different ending, and I told her I could have the revised version to her in three weeks. That’s not going to be a problem, is it?” and leave it at that.

Oh, dear — that wee anecdote made some of you unconsciously clutch your chests, didn’t it? “But Anne,” critique fearers across the globe whisper, darting their eyes thither and yon, “I try to take feedback as constructive criticism, but I like my manuscript as it is. So I worry that when faced with professional critique — i.e., the completely honest examination of every last syllable and comma in a manuscript, that agents and editors convey without pulling any punches — my resolve to act like a pro may wilt a trifle.”

I have faith in you, critique fearers. When the time comes, I’m sure you’ll take it on the chin. (Speaking of unpleasant metaphors…) Unless, of course, the first serious feedback you’ve ever gotten on your work comes from your agent or editor.

Why did half of you just turn pale? You weren’t planning to have the first human eyes to have the pleasure of sliding over your manuscript be Millicent the agency screener’s, were you?

A hint to those of you who are hesitating about how to answer that question: we’re talking about Millicent the Merciless here. You know, the one who just stops reading a query at the second typo — and a requested manuscript at the third? The gal that works for the agent who reserves, “Well, you’re just going to have to rewrite this to this ten-point list of specifications,” for manuscripts she likes?

If you’re thin-skinned about feedback on your writing — and what writer who doesn’t have a lot of experience hearing critique isn’t? — it’s an excellent idea to rack up some experience listening to constructive criticism of your work before you expose your baby to professional critique. Like any other muscle, the part of your psyche that enables you to keep a quiver out of your voice as you say, “Oh, lose my protagonist’s best friend and relocate the whole story from Cleveland to Madagascar? No problem!” gets stronger with practice.

Besides, if you’re going to have a meltdown — and I’ve known many relatively stoic writers who’ve suddenly gone ballistic in the face of their first professional feedback, where nothing goes unnoticed — wouldn’t you rather do it in front of your writers’ group or a trusted first reader, rather than, say, on the phone with the agent of your dreams?

Oh, it hadn’t occurred to some of you that sometimes, the response to a successful submission is, “Yes, I’d love to represent this. Let me just dig out my revision list,” followed by the sound of 17 pages shuffling into place?

While that mental image sinks slowly into your brainpan, let’s try a little critique-desensitization exercise. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and picture yourself sitting at a table in that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America. The agent of your dreams is sitting across from you, about to order a second round.

“Oh, by the way,” he says casually, just as you were thanking your lucky starts that since you’ve already landed an agent, you were not at the conference to pitch, “your protagonist isn’t all that active, and it’s slowing down the book. You can pump up the energy in the next revision, right?”

Quick: how does that make you feel? Like getting right back to work on your manuscript, or as if tossing your half-finished club soda with lime into his smiling face might feel pretty darned good?

If it’s the latter, go punch a sofa cushion until that urge goes away. Repeat the visualization as often as necessary until your gut stops seizing up at the very notion of being on the receiving end of such a sweeping critique.

Or join a good writers’ group and participate like mad. Over time, it can have a similar response-numbing effect.

Your protagonist doesn’t do much, does he? seems to be an especially hard critique for many writers to swallow. I suspect that’s because so many first books, fiction and nonfiction alike, tend to be at least partially autobiographical. Not everyone is thrilled to be told that she would be more interesting (or, heaven help us, more likeable) if she were a more active participant in her own life. Or if her life were more interesting in general.

If she were a rhinoceros-wrestler, for instance, instead of sitting at home and writing a book about it.

In answer to that very loud unspoken question all of your minds just shouted at me: yes, I can tell you from personal experience that memoirists actually are very frequently told by their agents and editors that their books’ protagonists could get into the game more. And yes, even if a writer is experienced at handling critique, that can feel quite a bit like a personal attack.”

“Wait,” I found myself thinking as my editor and I worked on my memoir, “my publisher is allowed to edit my LIFE? What am I supposed to do, travel backward in time so I may pick a few more fights or join the Foreign Legion?”

But I’m getting ahead of myself; writing the real to make it more interesting on the page — without, you know, lying — is near the top of my to-blog list at the moment.

Darn — now I’ve gone and ruined the surprise. And I wanted Flag Day to be so special this year.

A slight case of identification with one’s own protagonist is not the only reason that many aspiring writers squirm at the suggestion that s/he might be a tad on the inactive side, though. Even for non-autobiographical fiction, the very notion that something that one wrote oneself could possibly be less than marvelous seems to come as an immense shock.

I’m quite serious about this. I’m perpetually running into writers in my classes, at conferences, and online who seem to believe that the publishing industry should buy their books simply because they have written them.

“Target market?” these well-meaning souls echo, wrinkling their noses at the inference that a true artiste ever considers why someone out there might want to buy his or her art. “That’s the publisher’s job to figure out.”

Um, yes, in the long term, but in the short term, it’s very much the writer’s job to figure out. How can you revise with an eye to pleasing readers if you have no idea who your ideal reader is? Or what she likes about the kind of book you write?

While writing is unquestionably art — some might argue the most inherently creative one, since the writer uses fewer outside materials than other artists to create her effects — if one has any intention of doing it for a living, it just doesn’t make sense not to think about who might buy one’s books and why.

Why not, you ask? Well, would you expect an aspiring doctor to work all the way through medical school without first ascertaining that there were sick people in the world?

Again, perhaps a too-colorful analogy. But you know what I mean.

Yet many, if not most, aspiring writers seem to have genuine trouble seeing their own books as a third party might. That’s a major stumbling-block to marketing one’s book to agents and small presses, because, let’s fact it, no matter how much a writer adores his manuscript, at least a few people other than one’s mother, spouse, and/or best friend will have to admire it at least at much in order for it to get published.

Again, that’s not too great a shock to any of my long-term readers, is it?

So it is perfectly reasonable, and even necessary, to step outside your role as author to try to view your story as an outside reader might. (If you have trouble pulling this off — and the vast majority of writers do — you might want to take a gander at the GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK category at right.) Specifically, to make a valiant attempt to see your protagonist as a reader might — and from a reader’s point of view, an active, decisive character in the driver’s seat of the plot can be a mighty fine thing.

Why, that’s what we’ve been talking about for the last week, isn’t it? Funny how that worked out.

One of the first things a writer needs to accept in order to read from a reader’s perspective is that conflict is not something to be avoided — it’s to be courted, because moving from conflict to conflict is how the protagonist typically moves the plot along. Protagonists who are purely reactive, as popular as they may be in movies (the trailer for half the dramatic films released within the last few years: “Coming soon to a theatre near you: the story of an ORDINARY MAN drawn against his will into EXTRAORDINARY events…”), are frequently frustrating.

“DO SOMETHING!” Millicent is likely to shout in their general direction.

Of course, in most book categories, you don’t want to go overboard in the opposite direction, driving the plot forward so quickly that there’s little time for character development. (Unless, one presumes, you happened to be writing THE DA VINCI CODE.) Non-stop conflict can result in a one-note narrative, one with very few dramatic highs and lows punctuating the story — but in most genres, if a book is going to be consistent, it’s much better to be consistently exciting than consistently low-key.

I’m going to make some of my higher-brow readers cringe by bringing this up, but one of the best recent examples of a protagonist who ostensibly has little control of the forces controlling his life, yet manages to fight back on practically every page is Harry Potter of the self-named series. (Don’t laugh; many of the English-reading adults currently in their twenties grew up on that series, and thus drew their ideas of exciting pacing from it.)

How did JK Rowling keep the tension high in books that are largely about a child with little autonomy going to school in what frankly seems to be an educational system intent upon punishing students? The old-fashioned way: by including some kind of conflict on every page.

But not all of it has to do with fighting He Who Shall Not Be Named. More than half the time (until the last couple of books in the series, at least), Harry is beset not by the forces of ultimate evil, but by teachers who don’t like him, a crush he doesn’t know how to handle, mixed feelings about his elders, and so forth.

All that’s conflict, too, right?

Rowling also tends to have more than one threat looming over her protagonist at any given time, as well as forces buffeting about his friends, and even his enemies. All of this contributes to a complex plot — and plenty of occasion to introduce conflict on any given page.

If you genuinely feel that it’s important to your story that your protagonist is acted-upon (true in virtually every memoir professional readers see, incidentally, as well as most first novel manuscripts), adding subsidiary action can go a long way toward pepping up the pace. Why not add conflict over something very small and not related to the bigger causes of resentment in a plot, for instance?

For example, consider a story set in an office with an intensely sexist boss of the “Hey, good-looking, why don’t you sit on my lap while I discuss our new policy for file-sharing” variety. Now, our heroine and her cronies could type away in resentful silence while their boss leers at one of them for fifty pages on end, obviously.

But what if, in addition to all of that glorious silent passivity, some of the typers happened to be going through menopause — and started responding to their autocratic boss’ systematic harassment by violently quarreling amongst themselves over where the thermostat should be set during their various hot flashes?

Inherently quite a bit more dramatic, isn’t it? Lots of room for ongoing conflict there.

But not everyone out there is comfortable with this strategy, I’m sensing. “But Anne,” some of you passivity-penners cry, “you told us last time that there were a lot of reasons an agent, editor, or contest judge might take a dislike to a protagonist. Even if mine is just one of several coworkers being nasty to one another, won’t they like her even less?”

Ah, that old bugbear: the belief that a character must be a nice person to be likeable on the page.

Likeability tends to be a sore point amongst fiction writers, especially for those of us who write about female protagonists: when we include characters in our work whose political views are a bit challenging, for instance, or have sexual kinks beyond what the mainstream media currently considers normal, or even pursue their goals too straightforwardly, we fear being told that our characters are not likeable enough. So we tend to self-edit for harmony.

Translation: many writers will deliberately make a protagonist passive, on the theory that if she isn’t, this chick might not play in Peoria, according to someone in a New York agency or publishing house.

Frankly, I think the industry tends to underestimate Peorians, but the fact remains, it actually isn’t all that unusual for an agent or editor to ask a writer to tone down a particular character’s quirks. Usually, though, these requests refer to secondary characters (as in, “Does Tony’s sister really have to be a lesbian?” or “Could the Nazi brother be just a little bit right-wing instead?”) or to specific scenes (“Need she tie Bob down?”).

Occasionally, though, the request is not quite so helpfully phrased: “I liked the story, but I didn’t like the protagonist,” an editor will say. “If you fix her in X, Y, and Z ways, maybe I’ll pick up the book.”

You were hoping my earlier example of an editor asking for revisions prior to offering a book contract was just an anecdotal misstep, weren’t you? How shall I break it to you?

Directly is probably the best way: it has become quite common for editors to ask for major revisions prior to making an offer on a novel. Agents will frequent make similar requests prior to being willing to market a novel to editors. Sometimes several rounds of revisions, even, so the writer is essentially performing rewrites on command for free.

That’s how tight the fiction market is right now; ten years ago, most good agents would have laughed outright at such an editorial request before a contract was signed.

Much of the time, though, the author responds to critique about character likability by making the character more passive — a very bad move, strategically.

So why do they do it? As I mentioned, it’s a common writerly misconception to believe that a passive protagonist is automatically a likeable one. An interesting conclusion, isn’t it, given how often first novels and memoirs feature at least semi-autobiographical protagonists?

Which begs the question: is the common writerly obsession with protagonist likeability at some level a cry to the industry: “Love my character — and me!”?

Bears a spot of thinking about, doesn’t it? Psychology aside, it’s understandable that writers might mistake a propensity for avoiding confrontation for likeability.

Passive Paul the protagonist is a courteous fellow, typically, always eager to step aside and let somebody else take the lead. Courteous to a fault, he’s always doing nice things for others, generally thanklessly. A good employee, fine son/husband/potential partner, he is dependable. Almost all of his turmoil is in his head; he tends to be polite verbally, reserving his most pointed barbs for internal monologue.

Why, his boss/friend/wife/arch enemy can taunt him for half the book before he makes a peep — and then, it’s often indirect: he’ll vent at somebody else. His dog, maybe, or a passing motorist.

Romantically, Paul’s a very slow mover, too; he’s the grown-up version of that boy in your fifth-grade class who had a crush upon you that he had no language to express, so he yanked on your pigtails. Or, better still, silently drew amorous cartoons of you in the margins of his notebook, plotting how he’s going to show up at your 10th reunion as a rock star and sweep you off your wee feet. In real life, it might take this guy until the 20th reunion and after his second divorce to work up the nerve to tell you that he ever had a crush on you at all.

On the manuscript page, Paul’s been known to yearn at the love of his life for two-thirds of a book without saying word one to her. Perhaps, his subconscious figures, she will spontaneously decide she likes me with no effort on my part.

And astonishingly, half the time, his subconscious ends up being right about this! Go figure, eh?

A delightful person to encounter in real life, in short; the kind of person you might like to see serving on your city council, library board, or living next door to you in a time of natural disaster. But think of Paul from a reader’s point of view: he makes so few moves that he’s practically inert.

So why, if you’ll pardon my asking, would someone pay $25 to read a book in which he is the central figure — other than the beauty of the writing, of course?

That may sound like a cruel or dismissive question, but actually, it isn’t — it’s precisely the question that Millicent is going to need to be able to answer if she’s going to recommend that her boss, the agent of your dreams, should read it, right? It’s also the question the agent of your dreams is going to have to make to the editor of your fantasies in order to get her to acquire it.

And isn’t it, ultimately, a question your target reader will, at the very least, find of interest between the shelf and the cash register?

Next time, I shall talk a bit more about Passive Paul — and what, short of challenging him to a duel (for which he would probably not show up, we can only assume), his creator can do to get him into the game of his own life a bit more. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XIX: the end of the line this time, really. Unless anyone has any more questions?

Poet Wislawa Szymborska clutching her Nobel Prize for literature medal

Poet Wislawa Szymborska clutching her Nobel Prize for literature medal

Sincere congratulations, campers, for making it all the way through this extended series on standard format for manuscripts — book manuscripts, that is; once again, let me remind you that short stories, magazine articles, theses, dissertations, and other types of writing are subject to other restrictions — as well as January and February’s intensive examination of how a manuscript moves from a writer’s fingertips all the way to publication. We’ve been tackling the big stuff so far this year, and I’m proud of all of you for having the gumption, not to mention the faith in your writing, to work through it with me.

Next week, it’s back to craft, after a brief stopover in the hows and whys of partials. We’ve earned a respite from hard-and-fast rules, I think.

Besides, you won me a nickel. It’s not the Nobel Prize, but hey, I’m grateful.

Yes, an entire nickel: an agent of my acquaintance, a tireless advocate for my giving up this blog in order to rechannel the considerable time and energy I devote to it into my other writing, My readers’ consistent devotion to improving both their writing skills and ability to present them professionally, wagered that you would be so tired of formatting after my revisiting repeatedly it for four and a half years that the posts this time around would pass relatively uncommented-upon.

Actually, he didn’t suggest betting on it until after I stopped laughing at his contention. “What’s so funny?” he demanded. “It’s not as though your past posts on the subject aren’t well-marked. Why can’t readers just go there to find out what to do?”

Because I like the guy and I’m not in the habit of lecturing agents, I restrained myself from suggesting that he just didn’t understand how a blog works. “Some will, but many of my readers don’t have the time to comb the archives.” (See? I honestly am aware of that.) “And the writers brand-new to the game may not yet know that there is a standard format at all. By going over it two or three times a year, I’m doing my part to make sure that everyone’s writing can look its best for you. You should be grateful.”

He was not. “Did you spend your last three lifetimes blithely violating the rules of grammar and structure, condemning yourself to the Sisyphean task of explaining them over and over again this time around? You’re dreaming, my friend — your readership doesn’t need this. I’ll bet you twenty bucks that you get fewer comments this time than last.”

Well, great as my faith in my readers undoubtedly is, I seldom bet more than a nickel (although I did win a quarter off my mother during the last campaign season for predicting the vice presidential nominees correctly), so he had to settle for that. “You’ll see,” I told him. “Not only will readers comment more than usual, but they’ll come up with questions neither you nor I would have thought of addressing.”

He handed over the nickel after Part III. One of you asked a perfectly reasonable about indentation he’d never heard before.

So now I’m jangling a nickel happily in my pocket, and I have yet another convert to what I have long held is the truth about aspiring writers: contrary to practically universal opinion amongst professional readers, deviations from standard format are not usually the result of writers’ being too lazy to find out how to present a manuscript. Most of the aspiring writers I encounter are downright starved for accurate information on the subject; the underlying problem is that there isn’t enough authoritative information out there to combat all of the inaccurate rumors.

I’ve always been a big proponent of agency websites simply posting a page with the formatting rules, in fact, so I could devote our shared time here to craft. Which is why, in case any of you long-term readers have been speculating on the subject, I used to end extended series on standard format with a rather peevish little discussion about why, in the face of so much conflicting information about submission requirements floating around these days, professional advice-givers like me don’t either:

(a) check out every other source out there to make sure that we’re all saying precisely the same thing (which would be so time-consuming that none of us would have time to give any further advice),

(b) take it upon ourselves to force every single individual who is empowered to pass judgment upon a manuscript within the confines of North America to agree upon a single (and preferably single-page) set of rules to which everyone without exception would adhere (which would require a convention so large that the framers of the U.S. Constitution would turn pale at the very thought), or

(c) shut up entirely and let those new to the biz try to figure out some genuinely counter-intuitive rules all by themselves.

I can’t speak for everyone currently giving advice on the subject, of course, but in my own case, the answer is really pretty straightforward: the norms I’ve been explaining throughout this series are in fact the ones I have used successfully myself for many, many years. Since neither I, any of my editing clients, or (as far as I know) any reader of this blog who has followed this advice to the letter has ever been asked by an agent or editor to make a single purely formatting change to his/her manuscript (with the sole exception of the few agents who are now post clear instructions to submitters not to use the requisite two spaces after periods, but we’ve already talked about that, right?), I feel quite confident in continuing to give this particular set of advice.

But I will say something that one seldom hears advice-givers say: whether you choose to adhere to the rules of standard format I’ve set out here is ultimately up to you. But once you choose to follow a particular rule, you must obey it 100% of the time in your manuscript.

Let me repeat that, because it’s monumentally important: it’s not enough to adhere to a formatting rule most of the time; you must cleave to it in every single applicable instance in the text.

Why? You should know the words to the song by now: because inconsistency isn’t going to look professional to people who read manuscripts for a living.

I used to think that I didn’t actually need to state this requirement, as did the agent who lost the nickel to me. After all, isn’t the part of the point of a rule that it should be followed on a regular basis, rather than just periodically? However, I’ve seen enough manuscripts and contest entries (yes, I still judge from time to time) by good writers who sometimes use a single dash and sometimes a doubled one (if you’re not absolutely certain which is correct, I can only suggest that you reread this post from earlier in this series), or whose Chapters 1-3, 6, and 17 have a (ugh) single space after periods and colons, whereas Chs. 4, 5, and 10-12 have two, and the rest feature both…

Well, you get the picture. Apparently, the need for consistency is not as self-evident as I — or certainly my friend, the agent — had previously believed.

I would point the finger at a few culprits for this astonishingly pervasive problem. First — and I’m quite positive that those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while have felt this one coming practically since the top of this post — the vast majority of aspiring writers simply do not reread their own work enough.

I’m not talking about revision here (although most submissions could use more liberal helpings of that, frankly), but rather actually sitting down and reading a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

What tips me off that very few writers actually do this before submitting their pages to an agent or a contest? Well, for starters, inconsistent formatting. And spelling errors. And repeated words. And scenes where characters do or say things that they’ve done or said half a page before.

You know, the kind of stuff that any reader would catch if she sat down with the actual pages and read them closely.

Often, such errors are not the result of compositional carelessness, but of repeated revision –the second culprit I’m dragging before the court in irons today. Zeroing in on the same page, paragraph, or even sentence over and over again without re-reading the entire section can easily result in what I like to call a Frankenstein manuscript, one that reads in hard copy as though it were cobbled together from the corpses of several drafts, sometimes ones written in different voices.

Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a secret of good writing: it flows smoothly.

A sure narrative voice is a consistent one. That’s why writers brand-new to the writing game so often labor under the quite mistaken impression that their favorite books were their respective authors’ first drafts, and thus (one assumes) that their own first drafts should be marketable without further revision: because a the author of a well-crafted narrative works hard to create the illusion of spontaneous consistency.

Awfully hard. Seamlessness is no accident, you know.

So what do you think a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, or their aunt Mehitabel the veteran contest judge thinks when they encounter, say, one sentence that’s in the past tense, followed by three that are in the present? Or a character named George on page 8 and Jorge on page 127?

“Inconsistency,” they breathe in unison. “This manuscript needs more work.”

Or at least a good authorial read-through IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. If not after every major revision, then at least prior to submitting it.

There’s just no substitute for this. Sorry about that.

Third, all of us simply see a great many more grammatical errors and formatting oddities than we did, say, ten years ago. Remember back when everyone thought it was so funny that the vice president at the time (I didn’t call that one) corrected a child at a spelling bee who had spelled potato correctly, causing him to change it to potatoe?

At the time, the literate world rocked with laughter over it. Now, we routinely see supermarket signs advertising potatoe and tomatoe prices. And that’s a bad thing for literacy, because the more you see the error, the more likely is to make it yourself.

Why? Like Millicent and standard formatting, sheer repetition makes it start to look right to you.

Especially when you spot such errors in ostensibly credible sources. It used to be a rarity to see a spelling mistake in a newspaper or magazine article, because they were so closely edited; since the advent of on-screen editing, it’s now not uncommon to see a misspelling or grammatical error in a published book.

Had I mentioned that there’s just no substitute for reading a piece of writing IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD? The eye is simply too likely to skip an error on-screen, partially because people read about 70% faster.

Then, too, AP standards — i.e., what governs what is considered correct in a newspaper or magazine — have, as we have discussed, recently adopted a number of practices that would not be kosher according to the dictates of standard format. The aforementioned single space after the period or colon, for instance, or capitalizing the first word after a colon.

All together now: sacre bleu!

While eliminating the extra space has been seen in published books for a while (but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily proper in a manuscript, right?), post-period capitalization was practically unheard-of in published books until just a couple of years ago. Now, one sees it periodically (often, not entirely coincidentally, in books by journalists), along with some rather peculiar interpretations of the semicolon and the ellipsis.

And what happens, class, when you see rules routinely bent in this manner?

That’s right: confusion. Inevitably resulting, no matter what my agent friend says, in good writers raising questions like this:

I tried searching for this, but didn’t find an answer. Ellipses! Is the proper format:?.[space].[space].?or … with no spaces? Thanks as always.

This is a perfectly reasonable question now, of course, but it’s not one that was at all likely to come up even five years ago. Prior to that, pretty much any printed source would have adhered to the traditional rules governing ellipses, with the natural result that fewer writers were confused. Heck, they might even have learned the contextual rules governing ellipses in school.

Oh, you want to know what those rules are, since I’ve brought them up? An excellent thought.

1. Ellipses are most commonly used mid-sentence, to mark a pause in speech. In this context, the periods in the ellipse should appear without spaces between them — and without spaces between them and the surrounding words, either. In other words, they should look like this:

“I’m appalled,” Jennifer said. “More than appalled. I’m…horrified.”

2. Ellipses are also used to alert the reader to skipped text in the middle of a quote. In these instance, whether an ellipse should have a space between its end and the end of the next word is entirely dependent upon whether the beginning of the next quoted part is a new sentence. Thus, if the original quotation was,

“I am in no way endorsing this policy or any other, because I feel it would be bad for the nation. I cannot be held responsible for its unhappy results.”

It would be proper to reproduce excerpts as:

The prime minister’s statement was unequivocal: “I am in no way endorsing this policy…because I feel it would be bad for the nation.”

And as:

The prime minister’s statement was unequivocal: “I am in no way endorsing this policy… I cannot be held responsible for its unhappy results.”

3. Ellipses are also used to show where the narration expects the reader to fill in the subsequent logic, as well as when speaker’s voice has trailed off into silence. As in:

Jeremy smiled, slipping one arm out of a sleeve that didn’t cover too much of his arm in the first place. A quick wiggle, and the rest of his shirt was off. Then he reached for his belt…

As much as some of you might want me to complete that paragraph, this is a family-friendly website. Besides, you’re perfectly capable of imagining the rest for yourself, are you not? In this case, the ellipse indicates my faith in your imaginative powers. As would this, if I were writing dialogue:

“My, it’s hot in here.” Coyly, Jeremy shrugged his Flashdance-style sweater off one shoulder. “If only there were a way we could cool off…”

4. In reproducing a quote, an ellipse can tell the reader that the quote continued, despite the fact that the writer chose not to show it in its entirety. This can come in handy, especially when writing about the kind of speaker who drones on and on:

“I deny the allegations,” the senator said. “I deny them absolutely, unequivocally, and in every other way. I deny that I cavorted in the House; I deny that I cavorted with a mouse. I deny that I cavorted in socks; I deny that I cavorted with a fox…”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? (And just between us, wasn’t this a clever way of me to answer a reader’s question in a post that’s really about a larger issue?)

The fourth culprit — yes, I’m back on my justifying the confusion kick — may surprise you a little. As so often happens, I have excellent reader questions to thank for reminding me to bring it to your attention: as nit-picky as all of these rules are, sometimes, good writers over-think them. So much so that they sometimes extrapolate extra rules of their own.

Yes, you read that correctly. In my experience, most aspiring writers are very good about following the rules, once they know about them. In fact, really conscientious writers are quite a bit more likely to subject their manuscripts to extra restrictions than to ignore any of the established rules.

What kind of extra rules, you ask? Well, I can give you a great example from this time around the standard format merry-go-round. Two different readers — my agent friend still can’t get over the fact that even one brought it up — asked how to format apostrophes and quotation marks. Ripped ruthlessly from their original context:

Could you in one of your really wonderful (and I really mean wonderful) posts on standard manuscript formatting devote a paragraph to quote marks and apostrophes? Times New Roman can have them both straight and curly, so which should I use? Or should I just make sure I’m consistent and leave it at that?

and

A related problem I have is in trying to place an apostrophe at the beginning of a word, particularly when writing dialogue and attempting to add a bit of the vernacular. To just type it, the apostrophe ends up being a “front-end” single quotation mark. I have to resort to some spacing and deleting shenanigans to get to appear correctly.

I freely admit it: I’m always a bit nonplused when I get a question like this, one that assumes a rule that just isn’t observed in professional manuscripts. As tempting as it might be to dust off my personal preferences on the subject and present them as a binding rule — which, as we’ve discussed before, is not an unheard-of thing for either a professional reader or a writing advice-giver to do — but the fact is, the expectations about both apostrophes and quotation marks in manuscripts have remained unchanged since the days when every submission was produced on a manual typewriter.

Which, in case you haven’t seen one lately, provided precisely one option for an apostrophe (‘) and exactly one for a quotation mark (“). On the same key, on most typewriters.

What does this mean for manuscript format? Good news, insofar as it translates into less work for writers: as long as the format is consistent, Millicent’s not going to care one way or the other. Pick the one you prefer, and stick to it.

I can completely understand why the two writers who brought it up — or any aspiring writer — would have wondered about this point: as readers, we do see various styles of apostrophe and quotation mark turning up in published books. And given how counter-intuitive some of the rules of standard format are, it would not, let’s face it, be at all astonishing if the publishing industry harbored some formatting preference that half of the writers in the world had heard nothing about.

But that’s not the case here. You have my full permission never to think about it again. Go sleep the undisturbed sleep of the just.

Before you go, though, one more piece of formatting advice: as you make your way through the bewildering forest of advice out there, toting your massive grain of salt, be aware of the fact that many seemingly authoritative sources out there disagree on certain points for the very simple reason that they’re talking about different things, although they often do not say so explicitly. Bear in mind that because such a high percentage of the aspiring writers’ market wants easy answers, preferably in the form of a single-page list of rules universally applicable to every writing venue, the temptation to produce a short, one-size-fits-all list of rules is considerable.

That doesn’t mean you should disregard such lists entirely, of course. Just keep in mind that any list that purports to cover every type is necessarily going to run afoul of some established standard somewhere — and that occasionally, rules pop up online and at conferences that would make my agent friend’s eyes pop out of their sockets with astonishment.

Which is why, in case you’ve been curious, I have been going over even the simplest of the actual rules in such great detail, and with practical illustrations; I want all of you not only to adhere to the strictures of standard format, but to understand why each rule is to your advantage to embrace. That’s why I keep asking (and asking, and asking) if anybody has any questions. I just don’t think handing creative-minded people a brief list of mysterious orders is the best means of helping you become comfortable with the industry’s expectations.

So if anyone is looking for terse, bullet-pointed to-do lists for writers, I think any of my long-term readers can tell you that this blog is NOT the place to start. As the thousands of pages of archived posts here can attest, I am the queen of elaboration. Lots and lots of elaboration.

Speaking of elaboration, there’s a final formatting issue I should address before I draw this series to a close.

While we’re on the subject of unnecessary doohickeys writers are sometimes told to shoehorn into their book manuscripts and proposals, let’s talk about what should happen on the last page. Here, too, aspiring writers often give themselves extra trouble.

For a book manuscript, the proper way to end it is simply to end it. No bells, no whistles, no # # #, no -86-. Just stop writing.

Even the ever-popular THE END is not needed. In fact, I know plenty of Millicents (and their bosses, and editors, and contest judges) who routinely giggle at the use of THE END to indicate that a manuscript is not, in fact, going to continue. “What is this writer thinking?” they ask one another, amused. “That I’m going to keep reading all of that blank space after the last paragraph, wondering where all of the ink went? That I’m incapable of understanding why there aren’t any more pages in the submission? Please!”

Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about professional critique being harsh? Don’t even get me started on professional ridicule.

Personally, I have sympathy for how confusing all of the various advice out there must be for those who have never seen a professional manuscript up close and personal. But honestly, some of the rules that commenters have asked about over the last three years must be from sources that predate World War II, or perhaps the Boer War. I’ve been editing book manuscripts for most of my adult life (and proofing galleys since early junior high school), and I have to say, I’ve literally never seen a single one that ended with “-86-”

So truth compels me to admit that I can sort of see where Millicent might find it amusing to see in a submission.

But you can sort of see her point of view here, can’t you? To people who read book manuscripts for a living in the US, the very notion of there NOT being a consensus is downright odd: why, the evidence that there is a consensus is sitting right in front of them. The mailman brings stacks of it, every single day.

“Oh, come on — everyone doesn’t already know these rules?” my agent friend asked, incredulous. “This information is widely available, isn’t it?”

That’s a quote, people — but as someone who regularly works with folks on both sides of the submission aisle, I have come to believe that the wide availability of the information is actually part of the problem here. The rules governing book manuscripts haven’t changed all that much over the years, from an insider’s perspective, but from the point of view of someone new to the game, the fact that they have changed at all, ever — coupled with these rules not being applicable to every conceivable type of professional writing — can look an awful lot like inconsistency.

And we all know how Millie, Maury, and Mehitabel feel about that, don’t we?

If the flurry of rules starts to seem overwhelming, remind yourself that although submissions do indeed get rejected for very small reasons all the time, it’s virtually unheard-of for any manuscript to have only one problem. Like ants, manuscript red flags seldom travel alone.

So I would caution any aspiring writer against assuming that any single problem, formatting or otherwise, was the only reason a manuscript was getting rejected. Most of the time, it’s quite a few reasons working in tandem — which is why, unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon for Millicent and her cohorts to come to believe that an obviously improperly-formatted manuscript is unlikely to be well-written. The notion that changing only one thing, even a major one, in the average manuscript would render it rejection-proof is not particularly easy for a professional reader to swallow.

There is no such thing as a rejection-proof manuscript, you know. While it would indeed be dandy if there were a magical formula that could be applied to any manuscript to render it pleasing to every Millicent out there, that formula simply doesn’t exist; individual tastes and market trends vary too much. Not to mention the fact that the slow economy is making most agents and editors really, really cautious about picking up any manuscript at all right now.

This is vital to understand about standard format: it’s not a magic wand that can be waved over a submission to make every agent, editor, and contest judge on the face of the earth squeal with delight at the very sight of it. But it is a basic means of presenting your writing professionally, so your garden-variety Millicent will be able to weigh it on its non-technical merits.

All I can claim for standard format — and this isn’t insignificant — is that adhering to it will make it less likely that your submission will be rejected on a knee-jerk basis. However, I’m not going to lie to you: even a perfectly-formatted manuscript is going to garner its share of rejections, if it’s sent out enough.

Why? Because every agent out there, just like every editor, harbors quirky, individuated ideas about how the perfect book should be written.

Sorry. If I ran the universe…

Well, you know the rest. Try not to lose too much sleep through trying to second-guess what Millicent and her ilk want to see. Just do your best: writing well and presenting a clean manuscript honestly is how pretty much all of us landed our agents.

Keep moving ahead — the Nobel committee is counting upon all of us to provide the laureates of tomorrow. Keep up the good work!