So you’ve pitched or queried successfully — now what? Part X: oh, my itchy fingers!

I had intended to devote Labor Day weekend entirely to posts on craft, campers, on the theory that since simply scads of you will be spending the next few days sending out flotillas of fresh queries and/or submissions, you might enjoy a creativity break. I find, however, that I have a few more things to say about submission that you might want to know before Tuesday rolls around.

How did I know you were gearing up to hit the SEND key? Well, the New York-based publishing world’s annual holiday has traditionally run from the end of the second week of August through, you guessed it, Labor Day. The presses no longer halt with quite the completeness with which they did in days of yore, but still, it’s a hard time to pull together an editorial committee.

Why should that affect the mailing and e-mailing habits of writers trying to break into the biz? Simple: when the editors are not in town, agents have an awfully hard time selling books to them, so agency denizens tend to take those same weeks off.

Again, that’s less true than it used to be, but if the Submission Fairy had whacked you with her magic red pencil last week, teleporting you into the average agency, you would have been chased out of the building by a smaller mob than would have caught up pitchforks and torches in, say, October.

In case I hadn’t mentioned it lately: don’t show up at an agency unless invited to do so, aspiring writers. And hold off on the calls until one of the member agents offers to represent you, please.

Admittedly, even in the bad old days, agencies were often not universally deserted in late August: the luckless soul left to guard the fort often got quite a lot of reading done. Still, it wasn’t then and isn’t now not the worst idea for a writer eager to hear back on a query or submission to hold off until after everyone returned to work with a suntan.

Thou shalt not query or submit between July and Labor Day has featured prominently in the annals of credible advice to writers for decades, and rightly so. Which may render what I am about to say next something of a surprise: if you are planning to query or submit to a US-based agency via e-mail, I would implore you to hold off until at least the middle of next week.

And the masses collapse onto the nearest chaises longues, overcome by astonishment. “But Anne,” they shout, and who could blame them? “I’ve been holding off! For the latter half of the summer, I have been twiddling my thumbs, biting my nails, and playing endless games of cat’s cradle, all to keep my itchy keying finger from hitting the SEND key while the agent of my dreams was likely to be vacating. Since I have every reason to expect that the AOMD will be flinging herself into her desk chair bright and early Tuesday morning, clutching that latté her eager assistant Millicent got her and scowling at the stacks of manuscripts awaiting her august attention — or, rather, her post-August attention — why shouldn’t I hammer on that SEND key like Hephaestus forging armor for the Olympian gods? I have a three-day weekend in which to ignore my kith and kin while I pursue my dream!”

You just answered your own question, itchy-fingered many: because any established agent — and thus any Millicent employed in an established agency — will be greeted upon her return to the office by the small mountain of submissions send over the last month. Her inbox overfloweth. And since millions of aspiring writers will also have been actively avoiding the warm embrace of kith and kin in order to crank out e-mailed queries and submissions this weekend, a hefty percentage of that overflow will be from writers just like you.

Why might that be a problem, if she and Millicent down those lattés, roll up their sleeves, and work through those queries and submissions in the order received? Well, let me ask you: if you had 1,572 messages from total strangers gracing your inbox Tuesday morning, how would you feel about it? Delighted to see that literature was alive and well in North America — or just a trifle grumpy at the prospect of working through them all?

Still not seeing the wisdom of not adding your query or submission to that queue? Okay, think of it this way: would you rather that Millicent first cast eyes upon your query as #1376 of Tuesday, or as #12 of Friday? Would you rather that she read your submission with fresh eyes — or with eyes bleary from the imperative of reading her way down to the point where her desk is visible from above?

Just something to think about. Naturally, a querier or submitter exercises very little control over the conditions under which Millicent reads his work, but if a savvy writer can minimize the chances that she will be assessing it at a point when she will predictably be swamped, why not rein in those itchy fingers for another few days?

Speaking of the trouble into which over-eager fingers can land their owners, as well as our ongoing focus on some of the unanticipated side effects of successful querying and submission, I’d like to devote today’s post to a couple of excellent questions from long-time members of the Author! Author! community. First, let’s learn of the travails faced by witty gun-jumper Robert:

I must have smoked something funny during Querypalooza, because I prematurely sent an agent my query. Only fifty pages in, with no end in sight, I was asked for my completed MS! How would one tiptoe out of this situation, keeping the agency interested?

I love the blog and appreciate every moment you put into it. There is nothing out there that comes close in style, entertainment, or value. Thanks for the tools to push my writing career forward.

Why, thank you, Robert; how kind of you to say so. Also: what on earth were you thinking?

Ah, how loyal you all are; I can feel half of you rushing to Robert’s defense. Lower those pitchforks a trifle, please, so I may hear you better. “Whoa there, lady — what’s with the indignant italics? It can take months to hear back from an agent these days; why couldn’t he have sent out that query the nanosecond he whipped it into shape?”

Well, obviously, he could, because he did, but I get what you’re saying: querying turn-around times can indeed be quite lengthy. One can also, as I know some of you can attest, hear back within an hour of hitting SEND, if someone at the agency of your dreams happens to be sitting in front of a computer at the time.

To quote the late, great Fats Waller, one never knows, does one?

What one does know — and what I suspect has sent our Robert into a belated fit of qualm — is that for fiction, agents expect that any manuscript a writer queries or pitches to them will be at the completed draft stage. Oh, they’re aware that occasionally, an overeager writer will begin setting up prospects a little early, but Robert is quite right to assume that if he ‘fessed up, the agent of his dreams would not be amused.

So how would a savvy writer, in Robert’s words, tiptoe out of this situation, keeping the agency interested? Simple: he wouldn’t.

Was that behemoth thunk a sign that half of you just introduced your lower jaws to the floor? I’m not entirely surprised: as we have been discussing throughout this series, the apparently immortal myth that an agent requesting pages will only accept them if the writer breaks all extant land speed records in getting the manuscript under her peepers has encouraged a whole lot of successful queriers and pitchers to do a whole lot of silly things. Or if not silly, than at least unstrategic — not bothering to spell- or grammar-check before hitting SEND, for instance. Neglecting to proofread, to make sure that the coworker called Monica in Chapter 1 is not Monique in Chapter 5. Fudging the typeface or the margins, so that a particularly strong scene or line will fall within the requested 50 pages, not thereafter. Sending 52 pages, when the agent asked for 50, for the sake of the aforementioned bit. Or simply printing the darned thing out the instant the request for materials arrives and dashing to the post office, only to realize halfway home that the packet did not include a SASE.

Oh, you may laugh, but I know good writers — gifted ones, intelligent ones, ones whose prose a literature lover could have sung out loud — that have made each and every one of these mistakes. Sometimes more than one at a time.

They, like Robert, have jumped the gun, and it did not pay off for them. It seldom does, because — feel free to chant it with me, those of you who have been following this series — since a submitter gets only one chance to place a particular manuscript under a particular agent’s eyes, it simply does not make sense to hit SEND until that manuscript is polished enough to represent her best work.

If you don’t mind my pointing it out, Robert, that level of polish is rarely a characteristic of a first draft. Even if you had hit SEND when you were only a chapter away from finishing the novel, you might have been better off taking the time to read and possibly revise it before querying. But in thinking otherwise, you certainly were not alone: the overwhelming majority of first novels are queried, pitched, and submitted while still in the first-draft stage.

“Okay, I get it,” jaw-rubbers everywhere say sullenly. “My pages should fairly shine before they wing their way to Millicent. But what is my buddy Robert to do? He meant no harm; he had merely assumed that the most he would be asked to send was 50 pages, tops. I hate to see him punished for that piece of misapprehension.”

And he needn’t be, if only he bears in mind the principle that his gun-jumping pretty clearly shows he did not embrace in the first place: when an agent requests a full or partial manuscript, she is not expecting to receive it right away.

So if Robert could conceivably complete that manuscript within the next year to year and a half, he may eschew tiptoeing altogether: he could simply apply his nose diligently to the proverbial grindstone until he finished — and spell-checked, resolved the burning Monica/Monique debate, etc. — and then send it off as requested. No need to apologize in his cover letter, either: since he had no reason to believe that the AOHD had cleared her schedule in anticipation of its arrival, he should simply thank her for asking to see it.

Some of you jaw-rubbers are eying me dubiously. “But Anne, isn’t that a trifle rude? I mean, doesn’t he owe it to the agent of his dreams — that’s what that acronym means, right? — to e-mail her right off the bat to tell her that as much as he would love to comply with her request for pages right away, he won’t be able to do it for months?”

The short answer to that is no. The long answer is NOOOOOOOOOOO.

Seriously, why would he have an obligation to send her an update? It’s not as though Robert’s was the only query her office received, or the only one to which the AOHD said yes. And while most successful queriers and pitchers do crank their submissions out the door rather quickly, there’s always a sizable contingent that never elects to send the requested pages at all. Perhaps because, like Robert, they queried in haste and repented at leisure.

The AOHD is unlikely, in short, to be sitting around four months hence, filing her nails over a desk completely devoid of manuscripts, idly wondering why that nice Robert never sent her that nifty book. But he doesn’t write…he doesn’t call…

Trust me, she has better things to do. Like reading through the pile of manuscripts that did make it to her desk.

Does that giant, gusty collective sigh that just blew my cat sideways indicate that more than a few of you wish you were aware of that before you hit the SEND key on at least one occasion. Again, I’m not surprised, but trust me, Roberts of the literary world, no one will even blink if you don’t get requested materials to them within six or even nine months, much less change their minds about wanting to see it. Plenty of writers, and good ones, take that long to revise existing manuscripts.)

Should Robert’s itchy fingers prove incapable of not tapping out an e-mail, however, he could legitimately drop the AOHD a note in five or six months, thanking her for her continued interest and saying that the manuscript will be on its way soon. Which may well be true: in current agency reading terms, another three months would be soon. I wouldn’t advise hitting SEND sooner, though, because there’s always a danger that the agency’s needs will have changed in the meantime — you definitely don’t want your polite update to be construed as a request for a second permission to send it, lest they say no, right, Robert?

No need to rap our Robert on the knuckles for his infraction, then, you’ll be glad to hear. I wouldn’t want to affect his ability to type the rest of his manuscript quickly.

I’m always astonished, though, at how often good, well-meaning writers rap themselves on the knuckles when they realize that like practically every first-time successful querier or pitcher, they have sent out their manuscripts before their precious pages were truly ready. Take, for instance, intrepid reader Anni:

I have a question that has nothing to do with this topic (sorry) but I just couldn’t keep worrying about it in silence any longer.

A couple months ago, I made it as far as sending out 5 queries with samples as requested for my manuscript and received 4 form rejections and 1 non-reply. I took this as a sign that something was amiss, and discussed it with my feedback readers. The conclusion: the first third of the manuscript wasn’t on par with the rest. It needed to be rewritten into something more fast-paced and exciting.

To pull me through the tedious rewriting, I compiled a list of agents for when the manuscript is once again ready, and I realized something: There aren’t that many agencies for that want YA fantasy novels.

As I understand it, agents do NOT like re-submissions, even if I’ve rewritten half the manuscript from scratch. I’ve already lost 5 agents from my potential agencies list! What happens if I run out of agents to query without signing with one of them? Is there an acceptable period of time after which I can query a second time?

I may be jumping the gun with these worries, but I’m afraid to send out my next batch of queries and possibly waste another 5 agents because the query/manuscript isn’t absolutely perfect. On the other hand, I don’t want to spend the next year striving for that impossible perfection. Instead of facing just the potential for rejection, I get to watch my list of potential agents dwindle to an eventual zero.

I don’t know what I should do! Do you have any suggestions for me? Thanks very much.

Nor should you have suffered in silence for even an instant, Anni — this is far too common a problem. As I like to remind my readers early and often, if you’ve been wondering about something, chances are that another 3,274 regular Author! Author! readers have as well. So for both your own sake and theirs: please ask.

I’m especially glad that Anni spoke up on this issue, as this is a problem under which masses of good writers suffer in silence, assuming (often wrongly) that if they talk about it, they will be labeling their work as unmarketable. Then, as she did, they wake up one morning and realize that they’ve exhausted their entire agent list.

And all too often, like Anni, they leap to the conclusion that if they’ve been rejected, it has been because of the scant few pages some agencies allow queriers to include in their query packets. Yet of a Millicent is turned off by a query, she’s unlikely to bother to read the samples.

Yes, even if her agency specifically requests them — and especially if the query was online. Online submissions typically get a bit less scrutiny than e-mailed queries, which in turn usually receive less of Millicent’s time than paper letters. (There’s not much a querier can do about that if the agency vastly prefers online submissions, of course, but the trend is worth knowing.) Since she’s scanning literally hundreds of the things per week — and thousands, if it’s immediately after Labor Day — it generally doesn’t take much to generate a knee-jerk negative reaction. The sad fact is that just as the vast majority of submissions get rejected on page 1, most queries are rejected within the first paragraph.

So while I must applaud Anni on being brave and savvy enough to check with her first readers to figure out what was going wrong at the submission stage — very few writers would have had that pragmatic a response — I think she is jumping the gun. If she hasn’t run her query letter under objective eyes, she might want to do that before she sends it out again. (And if she hadn’t already run through the HOW NOT TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER and HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE categories on the list at right, she and those like her might want to invest some time in it, just in case they’ve inadvertently run afoul of a common agents’ pet peeve. You wouldn’t believe how often queries get rejected simply because the writer inadvertently omitted a word, or misspelled something, and just didn’t notice.)

Truth compels me to say that I also think she’s jumping the gun in the fear department. In the first place, the TWILIGHT and HUNGER GAMES revolutions have assured that there are plenty of agents willing — nay, eager — to find the next great YA fantasy talent. With a sample as small as five queries (yes, yes, I know: it doesn’t feel small, but it’s not at all unusual these days for talented writers to send out a couple of hundred before landing an agent, alas), Anni might also want to consider the possibility that her specific subsection of her chosen book category isn’t selling particularly well right now — or that the agencies in question already have a number of similar books in circulation.

Neither of those things would be a reflection upon the quality of Anni’s writing, but either could easily result in rejection. And, let’s face it, in a book category as trendy as YA fantasy and in a literary market whose trends change with the rapidity that would make your garden-variety fruit fly say, “Really?” both are fairly probable.

That does not mean, however, that any Millicent that screened one of Anni’s five packets would have mentioned either reason in the rejection. Form-letter rejections leave no way for the writer to learn from the experience.

Anni is quite right, though, that agents dislike re-submissions — unless, of course, re-submitting was their idea. In fact, industry etiquette dictates that unless an agent specifically asks a submitter to revise and re-submit a particular manuscript, the writer must take the book and go someplace else.

What she probably has in mind here, though, is not re-submission, but re-querying. As I understand Anni’s story, she never submitted anything per se: she was querying agencies that asked to see the first few pages. Technically, that’s not submission; it’s querying with extras.

But again, Anni is correct in the larger sense: the norm is to query any given agency — not only any given agent — only once with any given book project. Almost any agency will balk at a writer who keeps querying over and over again with the same project, especially if those queries arrive very close together and nothing about the project seems to have changed. While Millicent tenure is often short, Anni could not legitimately assume that the same screener would not open her next query and huff, “Wait — I’ve seen this before, haven’t I? Next!”

That outcome is especially likely if the repeat querier, as some charmingly straightforward but misguided aspiring writers do, guilelessly tells Millicent in the query that she’s querying for a second time. Those attached sample pages are much better now, honest!

This delightful level of honestly is, alas, the equivalent of stamping the query with YOU’VE ALREADY REJECTED THIS. “Next!”

All that being said, if Anni simply punched up her query, ran through the rest of her querying list, and tried the first five a year or two later, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would take umbrage. At that juncture, in order for re-querying to generate hostility, someone at the agency would (a) have to recognize the query as a repeat, which would require both (b) the same Millicent having seen both versions (unlikely, given screener turnover) and (c) remembering a query which she’d spent a couple of minutes pondering a year before.

It’s just not all that likely, in short. Especially if Anni were strategic enough to re-query at a time of year at which millions of itchy fingers would predictably be simultaneously reaching for the SEND key, if you catch my drift.

You were expecting me to rap some knuckles here, weren’t you? I might have seven or eight years ago, but the well-known truism about agents disliking resubmissions is actually a rather old complaint, dating back to the days before e-mailed submissions were considered acceptable or online submissions even possible. Way back when agents started making this complaint at writers’ conferences and in interviews (which is how it became so pervasive on the writers’ rumor circuit, in case you had been wondering, Anni), many of them used to open each and every query themselves.

Now, due to the overwhelming volume of queries, an agent just wouldn’t have time to sell her current clients’ books if she opened all of the mail herself. (And that’s not even taking into account how radically the anthrax scare affected how mail was handled at agencies and publishing houses.) Even at relatively small agencies, that job is generally assigned to a Millicent or two.

Nowadays, an agent who complains about repetitive querying is usually talking about folks so persistent that they’ve become legendary at the agency, not your garden-variety aspiring writer who hits the SEND key twice within a year and a half. At my agency, everyone has stories about the writer who has not only queried every agent there individually five times, but recently launched into another round under a different name (but the same title).

Yet as so often happens when agents make conference complaints about specific instances, most of the aspiring writers who hear the story automatically assume that the agency obsessively maintains some kind of master list of every query it has ever received, so it may automatically reject any repeaters on sight. But practically, that would be prohibitively time-consuming: it would quadruple the amount of time its Millicents would have to spend on any individual query.

You were aware that the average query receives less than 30 seconds of agency attention, right?

That’s not a lot of time to have memorized Anni’s no doubt delightful premise, at least not well enough to recall it two years later based on the query’s descriptive paragraph alone. On the off chance that Anni might have been clever enough to change the title of the book the second time she queried that agency, the chances are even lower.

My, that jaw is coming in for quite a floor-battering this evening, isn’t it? I hate to break it to you, but only aspiring writers think of titles as set in stone. In practice, however, there’s no earthly reason that a manuscript has to be queried or submitted under the same title every time. Few first-time authors get to keep their original titles all the way to publication, anyway.

I guess I should stop before the bruise on anyone’s chin grows any bigger. For the nonce, suffice it to say that once again, we see an instance where a finger itching for contact with the SEND key has turned out not to be a reliable guide to its owner’s self-interest. In Anni’s case, I would far prefer to see that digit engaged in some serious online research in how many agents actually do regularly represent and sell YA fantasy.

And remember, folks, just because one has an itch doesn’t mean one has to scratch it. At least not immediately. Yes, the rise of e-querying and e-submission has increased the probability of swift turn-arounds — and the concomitant expectation of rapid acceptance — but it has also increased the volume of queries most agencies with websites receive exponentially.

Care to guess how many of those queriers also have itchy fingers? Or a three day weekend beginning tomorrow?

Not entirely coincidentally, tomorrow, we turn our attention to craft. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

A detour from the pet peeve parade: the short road home

Throughout our rather sprawling Pet Peeves on Parade series, I have been chattering blithely about narrative conflict and tension, as though every aspiring writer out there were already hard at work, trying to ratchet up the quotas of both in their manuscripts. As, indeed, those of us who read for a living so frequently advise: make sure there is conflict on every single page is, after all, one of the most commonly-given pieces of how-to-please-the-agent-of-your-dreams revision advice.

But if you’ll pardon my asking, what does it mean?

Seriously, how would a conscientious self-editor apply this advice to the manuscript page? Insert a sword fight every eight paragraphs or so? Have the nearest gas station should spring a leak just because the protagonist happens to be strolling by? Force the lovers in your romance cease stop billing and cooing in favor of snarling at one another?

Of course not — but you would be surprised how often aspiring writers stumble into the harsh daylight at the end of a writers’ conference muttering to themselves, “Must ramp up conflict. Tension on every page!” without being certain what that means on a practical level. There’s a pretty good reason for that: colloquially, conflict and tension are often used interchangeably, but amongst professional writers and those who edit them, they mean two different but interrelated things.

So let’s take a moment to define our literary terms, shall we?

Narrative conflict is when a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) is prevented from meeting his or her goal (either a momentary one or the ultimate conclusion of the plot) by some antagonistic force. The thwarting influence may be external to the character experiencing it (as when the villain punches our hero in the nose for asking too many pesky questions), emerge from within her psyche (as when our heroine wants to jump onto the stage at the county fair and declare that the goat-judging was rigged, but can’t overcome that fear of public speaking that she has had since that first traumatic operatic recital at the age of 10), or even be subconscious (as when our hero and heroine meet each other quite accidentally during the liquor store hold-up, feeling mysteriously drawn to each other but not yet realizing that they were twins separated at birth).

Narrative tension, on the other hand, is when the pacing, plot, and characterization at any given point of the book are tight enough that the reader remains engaged in what is going on — and wondering what is going to happen next — rather than, say, idly wondering whether it is time to check in again with a 24-hour news network. A scene or page may be interesting without maintaining tension, and a predictable storyline may never create any tension at all.

Or, to put it so simply that a sophisticated reader would howl in protest, conflict is character-based, whereas tension typically relates to plot.

Because conflict and tension are related, a manuscript that suffers from a lack of one often suffers from a paucity of the other as well. First-time novelists and memoirists are particularly prone to falling prey to both, enough so that the professional readers’ stereotype of a first submission is — are you sitting down? — a story that meanders episodically from event to unrelated event, just like real life.

“And just like real life,” our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, has been known to murmur over manuscripts, “any randomly-chosen scene will not appear to a bystander to be going anywhere in particular. Is there a point to all of this slice-of-life activity?”

Why might first books be more likely to fall prey to this pervasive problem than others? Keeping both conflict and tension high for an entire manuscript is darned difficult; it’s a learned skill, and many quite talented writers have been known to write a practice book or two before they learn it.

Oh, should I have checked again that you were sitting down before I broached that one?

The other major reason first books tend to drag is that writers new to the biz are far less likely to sit down and read their manuscripts front to back before submitting them than those who’ve been hanging around the industry longer. Long enough, say, to have heard the old saw about a novel or memoir’s needing to have conflict on every page, or the one about the desirability of keeping the tension consistently high in the first fifty pages, to keep Millicent turning those submission pages.

Yet another reason that I keep yammering at all of you to — sing along with me now, long-time readers — read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting it. Lack of conflict and tension become far, far more apparent when a manuscript is read this way.

Actually, pretty much every manuscript mega-problem is more likely to leap off the page at the reviser reading this way, rather then the more common piecemeal scene-by-scene or on-the-screen approaches. This is particularly true when a writer is revising on a deadline — or has just received a request for pages from a real, live agent.

Which is, of course, precisely when it’s most tempting not to give your work a thorough read-through. Especially in the second case: if you’re like the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers, you’ll be so excited by a positive response to your query that you’ll want to pop those pages in the mail or hit the SEND button within 24 hours or so. You know, before that nice agent changes his mind.

If you read that last paragraph and cried, “By gum, that’s me!” relax. Requests for pages don’t expire for a year or so, typically. Even if the request came as the result of a successful pitch — and if so, kudos on your bravery — an aspiring writer does not, contrary to popular panicked opinion, need to get the requested materials onto the agent’s desk before s/he forgets the pitch. If one pitched at a reasonably busy conference, it’s safe to assume that s/he will forget your pitch — but that s/he will have taken good notes.

Translation: you have time to proofread before sending all or part of your manuscript. In fact, it’s only professional to take the time to do so.

Unfortunately, those whose writing would most benefit from a good, hard, critical reading tend to be those less likely to perform it. While many aspiring writers develop strong enough self-editing skills to rid their entries of micro-problems — grammatical errors, clarity snafus, and other gaffes on the sentence and paragraph level — when they’re skidding toward a deadline, they often do not make time to catch the mega-problems.

So let’s all chant the mantra together again for good measure: before you submit so much as a paragraph of your writing to a professional reader, it would behoove you to read it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I know, I know: it has too many syllables to be a proper mantra. Chant it anyway, so it doesn’t slip your mind the night before that contest deadline.

Many a hand has been in the air for many a paragraph now, hasn’t it? “But Anne,” anguished middle-of-the-night manuscript contemplators everywhere wail, “how can I tell if my manuscript does indeed lack conflict and/or tension? I’ve read some of the individual passages so often now that they seem set in stone to me.”

Excellent question, anguished self-editors. While there are as many individual causes of sagging tension and conflict minimization as there are plotlines, certain types of narrative choices are more conducive to producing them. In the interest of keeping all of you revisers’ spirits up as you approach the often-daunting task of revision, I’m going to begin with the easiest to spot — and one of the simpler to fix.

I like to call this extremely common manuscript phenomenon the Short Road Home, and it comes in two flavors, full-bodied and subtle. Today, I shall focus on the full-bodied version.

The Short Road Home crops up when a problem in a plot is solved too easily for either its continuance or its resolution to provide significant dramatic tension to the story — or to reveal heretofore unrevealed character nuances. Most often, this takes the form of a conflict resolved before the reader has had time to perceive it as difficult to solve — or understand what the stakes are.

What might the SRH look like on the page? Well, in its full-bodied form, characters may worry about a problem for a hundred pages –- and then resolve it in three.

We’ve all seen this in action, right? A character’s internal conflict is depicted as insurmountable — and then it turns out that all he needed to do all along was admit that he was wrong, and everything is fine. The first outsider who walks into town and asks a few pointed questions solves a decade-old mystery. The protagonist has traveled halfway around the world in order to confront the father who deserted him years before — and apparently, every road in Madagascar leads directly to him.

Ta da! Crisis resolved. No roadblocks here.

The thing is, though, blocked roads tend to be quite a bit more interesting to read about than unblocked ones. So you can hardly blame Millicent for becoming impatient when pages at a time pass without conflict — and then, when the long-anticipated conflict does arise, the narrative swiftly reaches out and squashes it like a troublesome bug.

Wham! Splat! All gone, never to be heard from again. Perhaps like so:

Percy rumpled his hair for what must have been the fifteenth time that day. How on earth was he going to find his long-lost relative in a city of half a million people, armed with only a ten-year-old photograph and a dim memory that Uncle Gerard adored hazelnut gelato?

Perhaps that was the best place to start; he nipped around the corner to Gelato Galleria. After all, sensory memories were always the strongest.

“Hazelnut?” The man behind the counter seemed thunderstruck. “Only one customer has ever ordered hazelnut here. Mr. Gerard’s my best customer.”

Percy reached across the counter to grasp him by his striped lapels. “When was he last in? Be quick, man — it may be a matter of life and death.”

“Th-this morning. He ordered seven pints for a party this evening. I’m supposed to deliver it.”

“Allow me.” Percy’s tone dispensed with the possibility of further discussion. “I would be delighted to deliver it for you.”

Or maybe like this:

Irene mopped her sopping brow, staring after the departing train. Her last chance for redemption chugged away from her. If only she hadn’t been so stubborn! Or so true: Mother had been wrong to extract that promise on her deathbed, the one about never revealing her true identity. Now, the only sister she would ever have was gone from her life forever.

She was wiping her eyes furtively when someone tapped her on the shoulder. Really, strangers were so pushy these days. She wheeled around.

“I missed my train,” Eileen said sheepishly. “Would you mind putting me up for another night?”

“Another night?” Irene threw her arms around her sibling. “You can stay with me forever. You are my identical twin!”

“Well,” Eileen murmured into her sister’s curls, “that would explain why meeting you three hundred pages ago was so like gazing into a mirror. How strange that nobody else noticed the resemblance, eh?”

Or, even more common, the too-quickly-resolved conflict on the scene level:

“I had that paper a minute ago,” Archibald said, beginning to contemplate perhaps thinking about maybe starting to contemplate looking for it. “Where can it be? Without it, I cannot walk into that meeting.”

“Is this it?” Grace held up the wastepaper basket, angled so he could see within its shallow depths.

Relieved, he fished it out. “Thanks, I would have been lost without it.”

It drives Millicent nuts. “If a conflict so unimportant to the plot and/or character development that it can be disposed of this quickly,” she murmurs, “why include it in the manuscript at all?”

Good question, Millie — often, a problem’s being too easy to solve is an indicator that it could be cut with no cost to the story. Or that the problem was not set up in sufficient detail in the first place. Slice-of-life scenes are, alas, particularly susceptible to too-quick resolution, as are scenes where, heaven help us, everyone is polite.

Yes, you read that correctly. Few traits kill conflict on a page as effectively as a protagonist who is unfailingly polite. Contrary to popular belief amongst writers, a monotonously courteous protagonist is almost never more likeable than one who isn’t — and even everyday polite statements tend to make professional readers start glancing at their watches.

Why? Well, as delightful as courtesy is in real life, polite dialogue is by its very definition generic; it reveals nothing about the speaker except a propensity toward good manners.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an exchange that crops up in a good 90% of submitted manuscripts.

“Why, hello, Betty,” Marjorie said.

“Hello, Margie. How are you today?”

“Fine, thanks. And you?”

“Fine. How are the kids?”

“Fine. How is your mother doing?”

“Fine. Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes. It seems to be spring at last.”

“Yes. Yes, it does.”

Put down that revolver, Millicent. I assure you, life is still worth living.

But you see the problem, right? On the page, good manners are predictable — and thus inherently tension-reducing.

Or, to put it as Millicent would, “Next!”

Take care, however, not to pursue the opposite route from Short Road Home by creating false suspense; Millicent doesn’t like that much, either. False suspense is the common tension-increasing technique of withholding information from the protagonist that a fairly simple and logical action would have revealed earlier in the plot, or even in the scene — or by denying the reader information that the protagonist already knows.

Trust me: if the clue is in plain sight, most professional readers will resent it if the narrative doesn’t point it out the first time it appears; if the protagonist has traveled five hundred miles to ask his grandmother about her past, Millicent is going to get angry if he just sits there passively and waits for her to blurt out the long-hidden information, rather than asking her about it.

Ditto if the protagonist sees his late cousin’s face appear in a window, confronts some hideous monster in the closet, and/or recognizes that the French ambassador is actually his long-lost brother — but the reader is not filled in on what he knows, or even sees, for six more chapters. Amongst the pros, it’s considered a cheap form of tension-building.

Not sure why? Okay — my God, what’s that creeping up behind your desk chair? Oh, it’s…horrible. Too horrible to describe…

Not a very satisfying plot twist, is it? And it should look familiar from last time: it’s a variation on the she ran through the woods opening.

In its most extreme form, false suspense can become what the fine film critic Roger Ebert calls an Idiot Plot, one where the fundamental problem of a story could have been solved if just one character had asked just one obvious question early in the plot. (“Wait — how will our wandering unarmed into the murder’s lair lay a trap for him?”)

We’re all familiar with Idiot Plots, right? Sitcom episodes very, very frequently feature them, presumably so any given issue can be resolved within 22 minutes. A zany crew of misfits is hardly likely to solve the world hunger problem in that amount of time, after all. But a trumped-up conflict based upon Janie’s being afraid Fred will find out that she lied about something really, really unimportant? You can probably write the last scene right now, based upon that last sentence alone.

“Wait a gosh darned minute,” I can hear some of you say. “The very fact that Mssr. Ebert has a pet name for it reflects the fact that Idiot Plots are widely accepted in the entertainment industry. Since the reading public also watches television and movies, wouldn’t they just accept quick resolutions of conflict as the current storytelling norm? If the writing in the scene is good enough, can’t I get away with a few shortcuts?”

Well, it depends: does taking any one of those shortcuts reduce the tension? Would fleshing out a conflict increase it at a crucial point? Would, in short, the manuscript exhibit both conflict and tension on every page if you DIDN’T take those shortcuts?

Before you answer that, bear in mind that a story does not have to be inherently stupid or poorly written to feature an Idiot Plot — or a Short Road Home, for that matter. In the classic comic novel TOM JONES, the heroine, Sophia, spends half the book angry with Tom because she heard a single rumor that he had spoken of her freely in public — and so, although she has braved considerable dangers to follow him on his journey, she stomps off without bothering to ask him if the rumor were true.

And why does Sophia do this, you ask? I’d bet a nickel that Henry Fielding would have said, “Because the plot required it, silly. If she’d stuck around at the inn to ask him, the romantic conflict would have been resolved in thirty seconds flat!”

That may have been sufficient reason to satisfy an editor in the 18th century, but let me assure you that the folks working in agencies and publishing houses are made of sterner stuff these days. They’ve seen the same movies and sitcoms you have: they’re tired of Idiot Plots and Short Roads Home.

“Show me something fresh,” Millicent cries at the stacks and stacks of manuscripts on her desk, “something I haven’t seen before!”

So here’s a special message to those of you who have deliberately held your respective noses and produced Idiot Plots because you thought the market preferred them: don’t. Try adding legitimate conflict to every page instead and seeing what happens.

Well, that was easy. I guess my work here is done.

Or does a certain amount of disgruntlement linger in the air? “Well, you may not like it, Anne,” some of you mutter, “but I have seen the Short Road Home used countless times in books. How can a trait knock my manuscript out of consideration when so many prominent writers do it routinely? Clearly, someone is selling stories with these kinds of devices.”

I can easily believe that you’ve seen the Short Road Home a million times in published books, and a million and twelve times in movies — so often, in fact, that you may not have identified it as a storytelling problem per se. Allow me to suggest that the main producers of Short Roads Home, like Idiot Plots are not typically first-time screenwriters and novelists, though, but ones with already-established track records.

In other words, it would not necessarily behoove you to emulate their step-skipping ways. As a general rule, the longer ago the writer broke in and/or the more successful he has been, the greater latitude he enjoys. There’s even an industry truism about it: to break into the business, a first book has to be significantly better than what is already on the market.

To be blunt, as good is not necessarily good enough. Sorry to have to be the one to tell you that, but it’s just a fact of the literary market.

That inconvenient reality can create some tension (hooray for drama!) in a critique group made up of a mix of published and unpublished writers. Years ago, a genuinely fine writer of many published books brought my critique group a chapter in which her protagonist escaped from a choking situation by kneeing her attacker (who happened to be her boyfriend) in the groin. The attacker slunk off almost immediately, never to return; conflict resolved.

Naturally, three aspects of this scene immediately set off Short Road Home alarm bells for me. First, reflexes tend to kick in pretty darned quickly. My self-defense teacher taught me that a man will instinctively move to protect what she liked to call “his delicates,” so that area is not a good first-strike target when you were defending yourself. So why didn’t the bad guy automatically block the blow?

Second, the attacker was able to walk out of the room right away after being battered in the groin, with no recovery time. Simple playground observation tells us is seldom true in these instances.

Third — and what marked this exchange as a SRH rather than merely physically improbable — this scene ended a relationship that had been going on for two-thirds of the book. One swift jab, and both sides spontaneously agreed to call it a day.

Is it just me, or are most relationships, abusive or otherwise, just a touch harder to terminate permanently? I’ve had dentists’ offices try harder to keep in touch with me. By this story’s standards, everyone who works at my college alumni magazine is a dedicated stalker.

But because my colleague was an established author, she was able to get this SRH past her agent, although her editor did subsequently flag it. However, it’s the kind of logical problem reviewers do tend to catch, even in the work of well-known writers — and thus, it should be avoided.

But that’s not the only reason I brought up this example. I wanted you to have a vivid image in your mind the next time you are reading through your own manuscript or contest entry: if your villain doesn’t need recovery time after being kneed in the groin or the equivalent, perhaps you need to reexamine just how quickly you’re backing your protagonist out of the scene.

One true test of a SRH is if a reader is left wondering, “Gee, wouldn’t there have been consequences for what just happened? Wasn’t that resolved awfully easily?” If you are rushing your protagonist away from conflict — which, after all, is the stuff of dramatic writing — you might want to sit down and think about why.

Another good test: does the first effort the protagonist makes solve the problem? Not her first thought about it, mind you — the first time she takes an active step. If your heroine is seeking answers to a deep, dark secret buried in her past, does the very first person she asks in her hometown know the whole story — and tell her immediately? Or, still better, does a minor character volunteer his piece of her puzzle BEFORE she asks?

You think I’m kidding about that, don’t you? You don’t read many manuscripts, I take it. All too often, mystery-solving protagonists come across as pretty lousy detectives, because evidence has to fall right into their laps, clearly labeled, before they recognize it.

“Funny,” such a protagonist is prone to say, evidently looking around the house where he spent most of his formative years and raised his seventeen children for the very first time, “I never noticed that gigantic safe behind the portrait of Grandmamma before.”

Seriously, professional readers see this kind of premise all the time. An astoundingly high percentage of novels feature seekers who apparently give off some sort of pheromone that causes:

a) People who are hiding tremendous secrets to blurt them out spontaneously to someone they have never seen before;

b) Long-lost parents/siblings/children/lovers whose residence has remained a source of conjecture to even the most dedicated police detectives to turn up in an instantly-fathomable disguise toward the end of the book;

c) Flawlessly accurate local historians to appear as if by magic to fill the protagonist in on necessary backstory at precisely the point that the plot requires it;

d) Characters who have based their entire self-esteem upon suffering in silence for the past 27 years suddenly to feel the need to share their pain extremely articulately with total strangers;

e) Living or dead Native American, East Indian, and/or Asian wise persons to appear to share deep spiritual wisdom with the protagonist;

f) Diaries and photographs that have been scrupulously hidden for years, decades, or even centuries to leap out of their hiding places at exactly the right moment for the protagonist to find them, and/or

g) Birds/dogs/horses/clouds/small children/crones of various descriptions to begin to act in odd ways, nudging Our Hero/ine toward the necessary next puzzle piece as surely as if they had arranged themselves into a gigantic arrow.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for whether your story is taking the Short Road Home: at every revelation, ask yourself, “Why did that just happen?”

If your answer is, “So the story could move from Point A to Point B,” and you can’t give any solid character-driven reason beyond that, then chances are close to 100% that you have a SRH on your hands.

What should you do when you find one? Well, clear away the too-easy plot devices first, then try throwing a few metaphorical barrels in your protagonist’s path. Give him a couple of unrelated problems, for instance. Make the locals a shade more hostile, or a cohort a touch less competent. Add a subplot about a school board election. Have the old lady who has spent the last fifty years proudly clinging to letters from her long-lost love burn them ten minutes before she dies, instead of handing them over to the protagonist with an injunction to publish them with all possible speed.

Make your protagonist’s life more difficult any way you can, in short. Go ahead; s/he’ll forgive you.

On the plot level, having your protagonist track down a false lead or two is often a great place to start making his life a more interesting hell. Trial and error can be a fantastic plotting device, as well as giving you room for character development.

For some fabulous examples of this, take a gander at almost any film from the first decade of Jackie Chan’s career. In many of them, Our Hero is almost always beaten to a pulp by the villain early in the story — often more or less simultaneously with the murderer’s gloating over having killed the hero’s father/mother/teacher/best friend. (In Western action films, the same array of emotions tends to be evoked by killing the hero’s beautiful wife, who not infrequently is clutching their adorable toddler at the time.) Then we see him painfully acquiring the skills, allies, and/or resources he will need in order to defeat the villain at the end of the film.

Or check out the early HARRY POTTER books. When Harry and his friends encounter new threats, they don’t really have the life experience to differentiate between a teacher who dislikes them and someone who wants Britain to be overrun by soul-sucking wraiths. Yet miraculously, by responding to the smaller threats throughout the school year, Harry et alia learn precisely the skills they will need to battle the major threat at the end of the book.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that the plots of the first three books were essentially identical? Nice guy, that Voldemort, carefully calibrating his yearly threat to wizardkind so it tests Harry’s skills-at-that-age to the limit without ever exceeding them.

Now, strictly speaking, quite a bit of that pulp-beating and lesson-learning is extraneous to the primary conflict of the story’s ultimate goal of pitting Good Guy vs. Bad Guy. Jackie Chan and Harry could have simply marched out to meet the enemy in the first scene of the movie or book. We all know that he’s going to be taking that tromp eventually.

But half of the fun for the audience is watching the hero get to the point where he can take on the enemy successfully, isn’t it?

Remember, the goal of storytelling is not to get your protagonist from the beginning to the end of the plot as fast as possible, but to take your readers through an enjoyable, twisted journey en route. Short Roads Home are the superhighways of the literary world: a byway might not get you there as quickly, but I guarantee you, the scenery is going to be better.

Try taking your characters down the side roads every once in awhile; have ‘em learn some lessons along the way. Stretch wires along the path in front of them, so they may develop the skills not to trip. And let ‘em fail from time to time — or succeed occasionally, if your protagonist is disaster-prone. Varied outcomes are usually interesting for the reader than continual triumph or perpetual defeat.

Next time, I’m going to tackle a harder-to-spot version of the Short Road Home — because yes, Virginia, today’s was the easy one to fix. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XXVI: what if an agent is ready to say I do, and I can’t?

1885-proposal-caricature

This is, honest to goodness, the last day of Querypalooza: this morning’s post on practical problems of multiple submissions, and this evening’s final foray into the delights and challenges of writing a query letter for a book either without an obvious preexisting target audience or for which the writer cannot for the life of him seem to come up with a single relevant life experience that might conceivably be spun as a credential. (Oh, you have a background that includes residence on the planet Targ, where your fantasy novel is set? Somehow, I suspect that Millicent may have a hard time believing that.)

After that, we shall be plunging straight back into page-level craft again, with my patented close textual examination of the winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. Then, beginning on September 25th, we’re off on another mad dash through professional practicalities with Synopsispalooza.

This autumn is starting off with a bang, hasn’t it? Let’s get back to saving some aspiring writers some chagrin.

Yesterday morning, we began discussing the benefits and perils of simultaneous submission, the usually quite sensible practice of organizing one’s query timing to maximize the probability that more than one agent will want to be reading all or part of one’s manuscript at any given time. Ideally, a agent-seeking writer should want to have several agents interested simultaneously; it’s always nice to be able to choose between competing offers.

Stop laughing; it does happen. But it doesn’t happen all by itself: the writer has to plan for it.

I speak from personal experience here: I had three offers on the table and manuscripts out with four more agents when I decided to go with my agency. Admittedly, my memoir had just won a major contest at a writers’ conference that at the time habitually made a point of rounding up the winners in its top categories and herding them into a room with agents, but I was the only winner that year who ended up garnering an offer from one of those agents. (Word to the wise: it’s not all that uncommon for even agents who attend many conferences not to pick up new clients there, or for conference organizers to render hallway pitching difficult. Before you plunk down the sometimes hefty conference registration fee, you might want to ask point-blank how many of last year’s attending agents actually signed a writer met that that conference.)

That wasn’t accidental: I had been fortunate enough to have friends who had won in previous years, and mirabile dictu, I had even listened to their advice. Based upon it, I knew not to grant an exclusive to anyone; that would have tied my hands and meant, effectively, that if the first agent who asked for an exclusive (and several did) made an offer, I wouldn’t be able to sound out the others before saying yes or no.

I’m sensing some bewilderment amongst those of you who walked in halfway through this discussion. To recap: an exclusive is an arrangement whereby a writer allows an agent to read a particular manuscript while no other agent will be reviewing it. The agent requests an exclusive because he would prefer not to compete with other agents over the manuscript; the writer agrees, presumably, because if this agent says yes, she will neither need nor want to approach other agents.

Everyone clear on that? Good. Now it’s back to me, me, me.

Because I had seen past contest winners wait for agents to seek them out, a hopeful passivity that left them with no offers at all, I knew that if the win were to do me any good — and not all contest wins do, even major ones — I would need not only to speak with every agent at that conference, but follow up with a blizzard of submissions. I also knew that while I was making it snow manuscript pages at some agencies, I should be continuing to query others. Just in case.

Once this multi-pronged strategy paid off in the form of offers, though, I realized I had a dilemma: each of the three agents professing eagerness to represent my work was equally qualified to do it. Oh, they had different styles, as well as different tastes, but their connections were more or less identical. So I had to ask myself: what do I want out of the writer-agent relationship other than the agent’s having the connection, energy, and will to sell my books?

Or, to put it another way, what made an agent the right one for my writing, other than a desire to represent it? When you get right down to it, what makes one agent different from another?

The vast majority of aspiring writers do not ever give serious thought to this question, interestingly. Oh, the ones who do their homework — does that phrase make you twitch a little by now? — ponder what various agents represent, as well as their track record for selling the work of first-time authors (usually quite a bit more difficult than convincing an editor to acquire a book by someone who already has a demonstrable audience; that’s why many agents choose to represent only the previously-published). But let’s face it, these examinations are really geared to the question how likely is this agent to want to represent me? rather than is this the best conceivable agent to represent my writing?

Let that bee buzz around your bonnet for a while. The resulting synaptic activity will be useful in pondering the implications of the rest of this post.

Typically, writers don’t give serious thought to the what do I want from an agent, other than willingness to represent me? conundrum unless they find themselves in one of two situations: our questioner’s from yesterday, who wanted to know what she should do if she had already agreed to let one agent sneak an exclusive peek at her manuscript, but another agent had asked afterward to see it non-exclusively, or the dilemma faced by an already-agented writer whose representation doesn’t seem to be working out. (I don’t want to frighten you, but in the current extraordinarily tight literary market, the latter is every bit as common as the former. It’s quite simply harder to sell books than it used to be; inevitably, that’s going to cause some writer-agent relationships to fray. See why I want you to start thinking about qualities you want in an agent before you’re fielding offers?)

Since the second situation is an extremely complicated kettle of worms, let’s stick to the first. What’s an (extremely fortunate, by any standard) aspiring writer to do if other agents want to take a peek at a manuscript that Agent #1 has asked to see exclusively?

The short answer: abide by her commitment to Agent #1 for the duration of the agreed-upon period of exclusivity. Ethically, she can do nothing else.

The only apparently shorter answer: what honoring that agreement means vis-à-vis approaching other agents really depends upon the terms of the exclusivity agreement. And unless that exclusivity agreement was open-ended — as in the agent has until the end of time to make up her mind about whether to represent it — the writer has every right to start sending out her work to other agents the instant the exclusive expires.

See why one might want to keep querying, even if an agent is reading one’s manuscript exclusively? Or why it might be prudent to keep querying while several agents are reading it simultaneously?

Let’s be clear about what an exclusive means in practice, campers: the writer guarantees that nobody else will be in the running while the requesting agent is pondering the pages. Anyone see a potential problem with that?

Give yourself a large, shiny gold star and a pat on the back if you instantly pointed out, “Wait, what happens if the request for an exclusive comes in while another agent is already considering the manuscript?” That would indeed present a problem, because by definition, a writer cannot grant an exclusive if any agent is currently reading any part of the manuscript in question; in order to comply with a request for an exclusive, the writer must wait until all of the agents reading it at the time the exclusivity request arrived have informed him of their decisions.

Doesn’t seem like all that complicated a premise, does it? Yet hardly a month goes by when I some exclusive granter doesn’t tap me on the shoulder (physically or electronically) to ask, “Um, Anne, do you remember that request for an exclusive I was so excited about a week and a half ago?” (Or a month and a half, or six months.) “Contrary to your advice that I take some time to read my manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it off, I popped it in the mail right away. Today, I’ve heard from another agent who wants to see it, too. What should I do?”

What, indeed. To complicate things even further, let’s add to the mix another potential problem that some of you clever readers probably came up with three paragraphs ago: what happens if an agent who asked for an exclusive doesn’t get back to the writer within a reasonable amount of time? Is the writer still bound by the exclusivity agreement? Or is there some point at which it’s safe to assume that silence equals thanks, but we’re not interested rather than hold on, we haven’t gotten around to reading it yet?

The short answers to each of those last three questions, in the order asked: it depends on the terms of the original agreement; it depends on the terms of the original agreement; it depends on the terms of the original agreement.

Why? Those of you who read breathlessly through yesterday’s post, shout it along with me now: how a writer can ethically respond to any of these situations rests entirely upon whether he had the foresight to set an end date for the exclusive when he first agreed to it. If an exclusive is open-ended, the writer cannot ethically send out requested materials to other agents until one of two things happens: the exclusive-requester informs the writer that she has rejected the manuscript, or so many months have passed without word from the agent that it’s safe to assume that the answer is no.

Even then — say, six months — I’d still advise sending an e-mail, asking if the exclusive-seeking agent is finished with the manuscript. It’s only polite.

Or avoid this dilemma entirely by hedging your bets from the get-go: grant the exclusive, but send the manuscript along with a cover letter that mentions how delighted you are to agree to a three-month exclusive. The agent can always come back with a request for more time, but at least you won’t be left wondering six months hence whether you’ll offend her if you move on.

I’m sensing some severe writerly disgruntlement out there. “But Anne!” exclaim aspiring writers who want there to be more options than there actually are. Being ethical is a tough row to hoe. “Why should I borrow trouble? Surely, you don’t expect me to run the risk of offending an agent by implying that he’s not going to get back to me in a timely manner?”

Hey, I don’t expect anything; do as you think best. I’m just the person that aspiring writers keep asking how to get out of an exclusive that hasn’t panned out as they had hoped.

To help you weigh the relevant risks, let’s look at the phenomenon from the other side of the agreement. Generally speaking, agents will request exclusives for only one of three reasons: they fear that there will be significant competition over who will represent the project, they don’t like to be rushed while reading, or it is simply the agency’s policy not to compete with outside agencies, ever.

Do I feel some of you out there getting tense over that third possibility, doing the math on just how many years (if not decades) it could take to make it through your list of dream agents if you had to submit to them one at a time? Relax, campers: requests for exclusives are actually fairly rare.

Why rare? Well, the first kind of exclusive request I mentioned yesterday, the one Agent A might use to prevent Agents B-R from poaching your talents before A has had a chance to read your manuscript (hey, A’s desk is already chin-deep in paper), tends to be reserved for writers with more than just a good book to offer. Celebrity, for instance, or a major contest win fifteen minutes ago. Basically, the agent is hoping to snap up the hot new writer before anybody else does.

Or before the HNW realizes that s/he might potentially be in the enviable position of being able to choose amongst several offers of representation. Since pretty much every respectable agency offers the same service, such choices are often made on the basis of connections, how well-established the agency is, or even how well the writer and the agent happen to hit it off. If an agent fears that the other contenders might be able to offer a rosier prospect (or, in a conference situation, just have more engaging personalities), it might well be worth her while to buttonhole the HNW and get her to commit to an exclusive before anyone else can get near.

So if you suddenly find yourself the winner of a well-respected literary contest or on the cover of People, remember this: just because an agent asks for an exclusive does not mean you are under any obligation to grant it. Because the writer owns the manuscript, she, not the agent, is technically in control of an exclusivity agreement.

Oh, pick your chin up off the floor. Aspiring writers are typically not used to thinking of the submission process this way, but the agent is only allowed to read your manuscript because you say it is okay. While I would not recommend setting conditions on a submission if there is no question of an exclusive peek (indeed, the average agency reviews far too many manuscripts for any given submitter to be in a position to bargain at that point), you are the person in the best position to determine whether granting an exclusive is in your manuscript’s best interests.

Yes, even if the alternative is not allowing the exclusive-seeking agent to see it at all. It doesn’t always make sense to say yes to a request for an exclusive. If several agents are already interested in your work, it might not be — because, again, the implicit understanding in an exclusive-read situation is that if the agent makes an offer, the writer will say yes immediately.

But it’s not necessarily in your best interest to sign with the first agent who makes an offer — you will want the one with the best track record of selling books like yours, right? Why not pick the one who asks first and be done with it? Chant it with me now, long-time readers: you do not want to land just any agent; you want the best agent for your work.

If you would like to be in a position to compare and contrast offers from different agents, you should be hesitant to grant exclusives. Or to say yes to them before you’ve heard back from another agent whom you feel would be a better fit for your work.

Does that loud choking sound I just heard mean that some of you weren’t aware that a writer doesn’t need to drop everything and respond to a request for an exclusive immediately? It’s not as though the request is going to expire five days hence; unless an agent actually asked you to over-night your manuscript, she’s probably not expecting it right away. In the first heat of excitement, it’s tempting to get pages out the door that very day, but again, it might not be in your book’s best interest.

Besides, if you attach your manuscript as a Word attachment to your same-hour reply to that nice e-mail from Millicent, when will you have time to review your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, to catch any previously-missed typos or rejection triggers?

Like it or not, timing submissions is a matter of strategy. If you are already murmuring, “Yes, by Jove: I want to query and submit in a manner that maximizes the probability to be fielding several offers at once!”, then I suggest you consider two questions very carefully before you decide which agents to approach first:

(1) If an agency has an exclusives-only policy, should it be near the top of my query list, potentially forcing me to stop my submission process cold until they get back to me? Or are there agents who permit simultaneous submissions that I could approach all at once before I queried the exclusive-only agency?

(2) Is there an agent on this list to whom I would be OVERJOYED to grant an exclusive, should he happen to request it after seeing my query or hearing my pitch, or would I be equally happy with any of these agents? If it’s the former, should I approach that agent right off the bat, before sending out queries to any exclusives-only agents on the list?

The disgruntled murmur afresh: “Okay, Anne, I get it: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But where does this leave Virginia and the many other writers out there who have granted exclusives to the first agent who asked, only to find themselves chafing under the agreement down the line, when other agents asked to see the manuscript? Can’t you offer just a few ounces of cure?”

Again, it depends: why did the agent asked for the exclusive in the first place, and how long it has been since the writer granted it?

If the agent asked for it because her agency has an advertised policy that it will only consider exclusive submissions, then the writer is indeed obligated to hold off on further submissions. If the agreed-upon period has elapsed, Virginia can always contact the agent and ask point-blank if s/he needs more time.

What the writer should most emphatically NOT do when dealing with an exclusives-only agency is contact the agent, explain that others want to read the work, and ask if it’s okay to submit simultaneously — which, incidentally, is very frequently the writer’s first impulse, if those who contact me on the sly to ask my advice are any indication. Bless their optimistic little hearts, they seem to believe that of only the agent in question understood how eagerly they want to find representation, the agent’s heart would melt.

“Of course, you may indulge in multiple submissions,” the agent would say, tossing candy to the world’s children from Santa’s sleigh, assisted by the Easter Bunny, Bigfoot, and a miraculously still-alive Amelia Earhart. “My agency was just kidding about that whole exclusives-only thing.”

Call me a pessimist, but I simply don’t believe that’s going to happen.

This desire to throw oneself upon the agent’s mercy is even stronger, if that’s possible, in writers who already have submissions out with other agents, and THEN receive a request for an exclusive from an agent. For many such submitters (who, again, have a problem most aspiring writers would LOVE to have), the fact of previous submission seems to obviate the agent’s request, or even an exclusives-only agency’s policy.

They couldn’t really mean it in my case, these writers think.

I hate to burst your bubble, Glinda, but I can assure you that they could — and do. Trying to negotiate one’s way out of this situation only tends to change the representation question from whether the agent likes the writer to whether he really wants to deal with someone who has difficulty following directions.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at an e-mail exchange between an agent and a writer who already has a submission out to another agent:

Dear Melissa:

Thank you for querying me with your novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS. Please send the first fifty pages.

As you may already be aware, our agency will accept only exclusive submissions. Please enclose a SASE.

Regards,

Clinton McPicky

Dear Clint:

Thank you for your interest in my novel. I would be happy to give you an exclusive, but the fact is, two other agents already have partial manuscripts, and I don’t know when I shall be hearing back from them. I’m really impressed with your agency, though, and I certainly don’t want to knock it out of consideration.

Since it would obviously be impossible for me to give you an exclusive on material that’s already elsewhere, is it okay if I just go ahead and send you what I’ve sent the others?

Melissa

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

Clinton

What happened here? Melissa tried to shift responsibility for solving her dilemma onto Clinton’s shoulders, that’s what. (Also, she addressed him by a familiar nickname, rather than the name with which he signed his letter; a small thing, but rather rude.) From her point of view, this strategy made perfect sense: his request had caused a problem, so she asked him to modify his request.

She was just being honest, right?

She was also wasting his time. From Clinton’s point of view, Melissa was asking him to change agency policy for the sake of a single writer who, for all he knows, simply did not bother to check what those policies were before querying. What possible incentive could he have for saying yes?

Got the impulse to quibble out of your system, Melissa? Good. Next time, double-check every agency’s submission guidelines before you pop any requested materials in the mail.

So what should Melissa have done instead? Waited either until she had heard back in the negative from the other agents (she wouldn’t need to worry about Clinton if one or both responded positively, right?), then sent her manuscript to Clinton, along with a cover letter saying that she would be delighted to grant him an exclusive for 6 months.

No need to bug him with explanatory e-mails in the interim. What does Melissa think, that he’s cleared his schedule in anticipating of reading her work?

Once he has the manuscript, though, Melissa will have to abide by their agreement: allow Clinton an exclusive until the agreed-upon time has elapsed. If he has not gotten back to her by a couple of weeks after the appointed time, she could then inform him that unless he would like an extension upon his exclusive (which you are under no obligation to grant, Mel), she will be submitting it to the other agents who have requested it.

What’s that you say, Melissa? Isn’t Clinton likely to say no at that point? Perhaps, but not necessarily — and you will have done your level best to conduct your submission process honorably.

“Okay,” the formerly disgruntled agree reluctantly, “I guess that makes some sense. But what about the writer — say, Melissa’s brother Melvin — who has an open-ended exclusive arrangement with Jade, an agent whose agency does not insist upon solo submissions? She’s had it for months, and four other agents have asked to see his book! Given how many are interested, can’t he just move on without telling her, and hope that she will be the first to make an offer, so he doesn’t have to ‘fess up about sending his manuscript elsewhere?”

The short answer is no. The long answer is that it depends upon how much time has elapsed.

Melvin should check the agency’s website, its agency guide listing, and the letter Jade sent him, asking for an exclusive: has it been at least as long as any mentioned turn-around time — or, to be on the safe side, a few weeks longer? If not, he cannot in good conscience send out requested materials to any other agent regardless of whether others requested exclusives in the meantime.

Don’t even consider it, Melvin. Otherwise, your promise to Jade would be meaningless, no?

For some reason, the vast majority of the Melvins who creep into my atelier in the dead of night seeking my advice on the subject — a practice I discourage, incidentally; the comment section is there for a reason — almost always seem surprised, or even hurt, by this response. But the situation honestly is pretty straightforward, ethically speaking: Melvin agreed to the exclusive, so everyone in the industry would expect him abide by it.

And contacting everyone concerned to explain the dilemma will not eliminate it; all that will do is tell all of the agents involved that Melvin is trying to change the rules. Either trying to renegotiate with Jade at this point or telling the others they will need to wait, will not win him points with anybody: it will merely look, and probably rightly so, as though he didn’t understand what an exclusive was when he granted it.

Here’s how I would advise Melvin to handle this dilemma with his integrity intact: wait it out for the stated turn-around time (plus two weeks), then send the polite note I mentioned above: remind Jade that she asked for an exclusive, but inform her that he has had other requests for materials. Do not leave that last bit out: it’s imperative that Jade is aware before she makes a timing decision that others are indeed interested.

If Jade writes back and says she wants to represent him, he has only two options — saying yes without sending out further submissions or saying no and sending out to the other four. If Jade does make an offer he wishes to accept, it would be courteous of Melvin to send a polite note to the other four, saying precisely what happened: another agent made an offer before he could send out the materials they requested. They’ll understand; this happens all the time.

If Jade asks for more time, Melvin should consider carefully whether he is willing to grant it. If he does, he should set a date — say, a month hence — beyond which he will start sending out manuscripts to the other four.

If, however, Jade doesn’t respond to his polite follow-up e-mail within three weeks, he should not, as many writers in this situation are tempted to do, overload her inbox with increasingly panicked e-mails. On day 22 (three weeks + 1 day), Melvin should send the requested materials to the four agents, along with cover letters explaining that others are looking at it simultaneously. No need to specify who is doing the looking, just that they are.

To deal courteously with Jade at this point, he should send a letter, saying that while she is still his first choice (the implication of an exclusive, always), since the exclusive has now expired, he is now sending out requested materials to other agents. As, indeed, he had already given her notice that he might do if she didn’t get back to him. If she is still interested in continuing to review his manuscript, he would be delighted to hear from her.

Again, this happens all the time. As long as a writer does what he said he was going to do, he’s unlikely to run into much trouble with an exclusive — but remember, this is an industry where reputations count; in the long run, it’s in your interest every bit as much as the agent’s that you honor the exclusivity agreement, if you grant it in the first place.

A tip for figuring out how long to suggest a requested exclusive should be: take the amount of time you feel you could wait calmly if you had a second request for materials burning a hole in your pocket. Now double it.

Take a gander at that number: is it expressed in days or weeks, rather than months? If so, may I suggest gently that you may be too impatient to exist happily with any length of exclusive?

You can always say no, right? Right? Can you hear me?

Frankly, I think most submitters faced with an exclusive request overreact to the prospect of a comparatively short wait — or did not have a realistic sense of how long it can take these days for an agent to make up his mind about a manuscript. 3 to 6-month turn-around times are the norm these days, at least for manuscripts that make it past Millicent’s hyper-intense scrutiny of page 1. And let’s face it, holding off for a few days or weeks before responding to subsequent requests for pages is not going to harm the writer’s chances with the agents requesting them.

Chances are that they’re reasonable people. After all, it’s not as though they requested the materials, then cleared their schedules for the foreseeable future in order to hold their respective breaths until the submission arrived. Since a startlingly high percentage of requested materials never show up at all (yes, really: aspiring writers often query, then realize with horror that the manuscript is not ready to submit), they’d get awfully blue.

And, please, I implore you, do not grant de facto exclusives. If an agent did not ask for an exclusive and the writer did not agree to it, the writer is perfectly at liberty to continue to submit, query, and pitch until a representation contract is signed.

While not continuing to pursue other leads while an agent is perusing your work may seem like a well-deserved break, a reward for successful querying, it’s usually counterproductive. It’s effectively like applying to only one college per year: you might get in eventually, but it’s a far more efficient use of your time to apply to many simultaneously.

So submit widely — and keep those queries and submissions circulating until you land an agent. Just make sure that when you have requested materials out to more than one agent, you tell each that others are looking at it.

Trust me, they’ll want to know, even if they aren’t exclusive-minded. Gives ‘em just a touch of incentive to read faster.

This evening, I shall wrap up Querypalooza with a final blizzard of examples. Keep those expectations reasonable, folks, and keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XX: the skinny on partials — at least the ones that are skinnier than entire manuscripts

showtime-skeleton

Yesterday’s query-submission packaging in the morning/query content in the evening dichotomy worked so well that I’ve decided to continue it for the rest of this series. Or Tuesday morning, whichever comes first. Hey, posting multiple times a day + doing anything else at all = a certain level of tiredness not conducive to good projective record-keeping. Or retroactive record-keeping, for that matter.

Something the bear in mind on those weekends when you’ve ordered yourself to send out 15 queries before you go to bed on Sunday night, incidentally. Or convinced yourself that if the agent of your dreams asked to see all or part of your manuscript at a conference on Saturday, or in reply to an e-mailed query on Friday, she will be massively offended if the materials aren’t winging their way through the mails or flying toward her e-mail account by noon on Monday. The latter is just not true, for one thing — no agent holds his breath or rearranges his schedule while waiting for requested materials — but regardless of why you’re hurrying, nothing is so conducive to missing important details than a self-imposed deadline.

Yes, you read that correctly: I said self-imposed. Confusing speed of response with meeting a professional expectation is a classic rookie submitter’s mistake. 99% of the time, the unrealistic lapses new writers allow themselves between requests for pages and sending them out neither serve the manuscript’s interests nor have any basis whatsoever in the requesting agent’s actual expectations about when those pages are going to show up.

But that’s not what it feels like when you receive a request for pages, is it? The adrenaline starts pumping: this is my big break!

It isn’t, really — it’s simply the threshold from the first phase of the querying/pitching process to the submission stage. Yet practically every conference-pitcher I’ve ever met has gotten so excited by the first time she was asked by a real, live agent to send real, live pages that she simply dropped everything, printed out her manuscript right away, and popped it into the mail on the next business day. Or had hit the SEND button on an e-mailed submission within hours.

Ditto with receiving a positive response to a query. Often, our heroine chooses to hasten her submission’s arrival even more by paying extra for overnight shipping, under the mistaken impression that it will get her work read faster.

And then she’s horrified to realize three days later that there’s a gigantic typo on page 1. Or that she forgot to include page 58 in the packet, because it wafted out of the printer and behind a nearby chair.

Word to the wise: it’s ALWAYS worth your while to take the time to double-check that everything in your query or submission packet is as it should be. You almost certainly have time to do it: unless an agent specifically asked you to get your materials to him by a specific deadline, or to overnight them, he is not expecting them right away.

Yes, really. And yes, I know that in the first thrill of your writing being treated with respect, it won’t feel that way at all. But trust me on this one: your work will be treated with even more respect if you take the time to make sure that you have presented it professionally.

And what does a professional writer do to assure that? Pull out your hymnals this fine Sunday morning and sing along, campers: by reading every piece of paper that goes in a query or submission packet IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY (yes, even if you are planning to e-mail it; it’s easier to catch typos on a printed page), and preferably OUT LOUD (ditto).

Yes, that’s going to be time-consuming. Your point?

Seriously, would you rather that Millicent judge your writing with that great big typo, or without? With page 58, or without? With the cover letter that was still sitting on your dining room table after you sealed the submission packet, or without?

And so forth. Queriers and submitters often become so focused on getting the darned things out the door that they forget that their success is dependent upon the writing in those packets, not the mere fact of those materials showing up at agencies unscathed. Don’t be so eager to push SEND or tote that box to the post office that you overlook something important.

Like, say, including the synopsis that the agency’s guidelines specified all queriers should include in their query packets. Make a list of what’s required, check it twice — then check it again before you tape up that box.

To help you dot all of the Is and cross all of the Ts, I’m going to devote this morning’s post to giving you the skinny on requests for pages, rather entire manuscripts — what’s known in the biz as a partial. (You’d be surprised at what comes up in a web search of skinny; it was either this or models, interestingly enough. (These fabulous animated bones appear courtesy of Feebleminds, by the way.)

Quite a few aspiring writers seem to find both the logic behind the partial and the logistics behind sending it perplexing. Quoth, for instance, the intrepid reader Kim:

An agent recently requested a partial of ms. and not being able to find much on how to format that I just included the title page, and the requested pages of the ms. Is there a correct format or protocol for partials?

I was delighted that Kim brought this up. Although a partial always refers to a manuscript by definition — the term is shorthand for partial manuscript — this is yet another one of those situations where aspiring writers often get confused by publishing industry terminology.

Yes, I said yet another, because as so often seems to happen in the rumor echo chamber in which those trying to break into the biz must operate, many are the terms that mean more than one thing, or which would mean one thing to an agent and another to, say, a submitting writer. Here we have a prime example of the former: a partial can refer to two different kinds of manuscript, depending upon the context.

So let’s start this discussion by defining our terms before we really give the skeletons something to cavort about, shall we?

The two distinctly different flavors of partial: the first pages
The first kind of partial, the kind to which Kim refers, is a specified number of pages an agent may request a successfully querying or pitching writer who is not yet a client to send. Emphasis on specified: no agent is simply going to tell an aspiring writer, “Send me a partial,” leaving the writer to guess how many pages and from what part of the book.

Instead, she will typically say, “Send me the first chapter/first 50 pages/first three chapters/first 100 pages.” In this context, then, a partial equals precisely the number of pages an agent has requested to see.

Emphasis on precisely: if an agent asks to see the first 50 pages, don’t make the mistake of sending 52, even if page 50 ends in mid-sentence or the chapter ends on the bottom of page 52. Demonstrate that you may be relied upon to do ask you are asked, rather than make up your own rules.

Don’t look at me that way; overstuffed query and submission packets rank among Millicent’s most notorious pet peeves. “But Anne,” those of you glaring daggers in my general direction protest, “that doesn’t make any sense to me. Surely, the agent will be impressed that I paid attention enough to realize that page 50 ended in the middle of a paragraph, and that page 56 provides a natural stopping-point with a real cliffhanger. Or are you suggesting that I should produce a revised manuscript for partial submission in which the cliffhanger is on page 56?”

No — although if you honestly believe there are 6 pages of text in your manuscript that Millicent doesn’t need to see, I would strongly advise doing a bit of revision before you submit, on general principle. It sounds like that text is toting around some extra verbiage. But otherwise, it’s actually a good thing if you’re confident enough in your writing and your understanding of submissions to allow Millie to stop reading in mid-sentence, if that’s what is on the bottom of page 50.

From an agent’s point of view, an ability to follow directions well is a very, very desirable trait in a potential client; clients who second-guess about what’s really meant by straightforward requests are inherently more time-consuming to handle than those who do not.

That’s why, should you have been wondering, the rule of thumb for any submission or query packet is send the agency precisely what it is expecting to see. No more, no less.

Besides, just between us, submitters who round up or round down just to make the writing excerpt complete make Millicent roll her eyes like a teenager in an adult novel. “Wow, this writer is confident,” she mutters, riffling through the ostensible stack of 50 pages that obviously includes at least 10 more. “Confident that I have unlimited amounts of time to spend on a single submission, that is. How big an ego must he have to assume that I would desperately want to keep reading to the end of the chapter after I have already made up my mind whether to request the full manuscript or not? It’s not as though I’m going to remember how these pages left off by the time a requested full arrived. If I were an umbrage-taker, I might even conclude that he thinks I’m too stupid to understand that the book doesn’t end on page 50. I have seen a manuscript before, you know.”

Millicent has a very valid point here: the oh-I-must-send-a-complete-section attitude misses the point of the agency’s having requested a partial in the first place. Basically, this type of partial is a writing sample, similar in function to the pages agents sometimes list in their submission requirements as addenda to the query packet or the brief writing samples agencies sometimes want queriers to include in their query packets: the agent is asking for these pages primarily in order to see whether this aspiring writer can write.

Judging whether the book would be a good fit for the agency comes a close second, of course. However, if Millicent isn’t caught by the style in that partial or writing sample, even a perfect plotline for that agent’s interests is likely to be rejected.

Oh, should I have warned you not to take that great big sip of coffee just before you read that rather disturbing paragraph? Go ahead and clean up; I don’t mind waiting.

I understand your shock at hearing it so bluntly put, oh spit-takers, but ruling out 98% of submissions as quickly as humanly possible is, after all, Millicent’s job. Her boss can only take on a handful of new clients in any given year, right? In order to save the agent time, she makes sure that the only requested materials to reach his desk are well-written, properly formatted, and the kind of story or argument the agent is actively looking to represent.

When an agency requests a partial rather than the entire manuscript, it’s essentially a means of streamlining this winnowing-down process even further. Not to mention saving our Millie from having to shuffle, and thus lift, a ton of paper: instead of her desk being piled up to her chin at any given moment with boxes of full manuscripts, the weekly influx of requested partials may reach only up to her sternum. Once she has screened those, her boss can decide which of the surviving partials have piqued their interest sufficiently to request the entire manuscript.

A process known, both colloquially and within the industry, as asking to see the entire manuscript.

So asking for a partial adds an intervening step between the initial query or pitch and the request for the full manuscript — but before those of you who would prefer your work to be judged in its entirety invest too much energy in glowering in Millicent and her boss’ general direction for sending writers jumping through this additional hoop, let me hasten to add that until fairly recently, most agencies always asked for a partial first; requesting the entire manuscript right off the bat used to be a sign that an agent was really, really excited about a book project and wanted to get the jump on any other agent who might have merely requested a partial.

Nowadays, the decision whether to request a partial or entire manuscript is less often an indicator of enthusiasm than a straightforward matter of agency policy. In fact, contrary to pervasive writerly opinion, being asked for a partial rather than a full can sometimes be an advantage: at some agencies, having the entire manuscript on hand earlier can enable even speedier rejection of a near-miss project.

Think about it: instead of having to ask for pages 51-372 and wait for them to arrive in order to pass a final judgment on a book, Millicent can simply read to page 60. Or page 2.

If the verdict is yes, this can lop quite a bit of time off the agent-seeking process, from the writer’s perspective. Unfortunately, if the verdict is no, and the agency is one of the vast majority that utilize form-letter rejections, the submitter ends up with no idea whether the impetus to reject came on page 1 or page 371.

Renders it rather difficult to guess how to improve the manuscript prior to the next submission, doesn’t it?

Before that rhetorical question depresses anybody too much, let’s return to defining our partials. 99% of the time, the kind of partial an aspiring writer will be asked to provide is this first kind: a requested number of pages, beginning on p. 1 of the manuscript, for submission to an agent. There is, however, another variety.

The two distinctly different flavors of partial: the taste of what is to come
After an author is already established, it is not unheard-of for her agent to be able to pull off a conjuring trick known as selling the next book on a partial. This is pretty much what it says on the box: the author produces the first X number of pages of a not-yet-completed novel, and the agent convinces an editor that it will be to the publishing house’s advantage to snap the book up before the author has polished it off.

This can be a very good deal for the publisher: buying a book on a partial prevents other publishers from bidding on the finished work. Also, earlier involvement in the writing process often enables the editor to help shape the book more, in much the same way as an editor on a nonfiction book (typically sold on a book proposal, not the full manuscript, lest we forget) is able to dictate which of the proposed chapters will and will not be in the finished manuscript.

Not to mention the fact that if the book happens to be written by a famous author or celebrity in another field, the bidding could potentially get quite high. This is why one occasionally hears of a publisher’s acquiring a half-written novel at a cocktail party, because some celebrity simply handed ten pages to him along with his seventh martini: the publisher recognizes the potential marketing value of the name.

For your garden-variety serious novelist, however, such a situation is unlikely to arise. If her agent manages to sell her next book on a partial, it’s generally to the editor who acquired her last. Since so many first-book publishing contracts grant the publisher right of first refusal over the author’s next book, anyway — meaning that the publisher gets an exclusive peek at the book before anyone else can place a bid on it — selling on a partial is mostly a means to speed up the approval process.

Everyone clear on the difference between that kind of partial and the first kind? Excellent.

Now let’s assume that, like Kim, you have just been asked to submit a partial to the agent of your dreams. Let’s further assume that your manuscript (or whatever portion of it an agent or editor has requested that you send to be perused by Millicent, the Platonic agency screener) is already in tip-top formatting shape, all typos and logic problems removed, and thus what the industry calls clean — and if you’re not absolutely positive that your pages meet ALL of those conditions, stop right here and make a plan for tidying up your pages toute suite.

Trust me, this is a situation where spelling counts. As does grammar, punctuation, and everything else your 9th grade English teacher begged you to take seriously.

But once your work is in apple-pie order, as Louisa May Alcott used to say so frequently, what next?

What should a partial submission packet include, and in what order?
In part, this is a trick question, because — chant it with me now, campers — any submission packet should include precisely what the agent asked you to include, no more, no less. In the words of the immortal Fats Waller, find out what they like and how they like it, and let ‘em have it just that way.

Okay, so he wasn’t talking about literature when he sang that. Roll with me here.

As I mentioned above, agents are usually quite specific about what they want in a submission, up to and including the number of pages they want to see. If you doubt this, check out an agency’s website or one of the standard agency guides, then attend a conference where agents are scheduled to speak. Raise your hand and ask whether it’s okay to send, say, the 55 pages it would take to round out a chapter when an agent has asked to see the first 50.

You will be astonished at how people who say their preferences in clients are as vague as writers who produce “good writing in any genre” will suddenly transform into rule-hugging lovers of draconian efficiency, appalled at the very notion of extending the length of the partial. Or, indeed, at the notion of the writer being the one to decide what should and should not be in the submission packet.

To save you the trouble of asking, let me tell you what they will say: never, ever, EVER send what you THINK they want to see instead of what they have actually ASKED to see. Of course, you may offer in your cover letter to send more, but that is all.

So — and this should sound a teensy bit familiar by now — if you’ve been asked for the first 100, and the chapter ends in a blow-your-socks-off cliffhanger on p. 101, you should still only send the first 100, exclusive of the title page. (Since the title page is not numbered, it is not included in the page count, by the way.)

Of course, as we discussed above, if you wanted to be Machiavellian about it, you could always perform a little strategic snipping prior to that, so said cliffhanger topples just on the bottom of p. 50. No one would fault you for that, for the very simple reason that it’s extremely unlikely that Millicent will ever sit down with your partial and full manuscript simultaneously. Remember, if an agency approves enough of a partial submission to want to see the rest of the novel, they’re going to ask for the entire manuscript, not, say, pages 51 through 373.

Oh, you thought Millicent was going to invest time in digging out your partial, unpacking your second submission, and fitting the two together like a jigsaw puzzle? Does that really sound like reasonable behavior to expect from the person too impatient to allow her latte to cool before taking her first sip?

At the risk of repeating myself: send precisely what you are asked to send.

However — and this should sound familiar on the secret handshake front — any agent is going to assume that a writer of your caliber is already aware that certain requests imply certain inclusions. Here are the extra bits, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in a packet containing a partial:

1. Cover letter
An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries or pitches well enough to render page one of Chapter 1 instantly recognizable the nanosecond Millicent pulls it from the packet?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but it’s not going to be — in fact, in many agencies, the person who heard the pitch or read the query won’t even be the first person to screen the submission. There may even be several Millicents who need to approve it before it gets anywhere near the agent of your dreams. So it doesn’t honestly make sense to assume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with your work.

Besides, including a cover letter is polite — and more or less necessary, if you have been asked to submit your pages as attachments to an e-mail, right? Just remember: NEVER e-mail pages unless specifically asked to do so, or unless that preference is explicitly expressed in the agency’s submission guidelines. (And if you do e-mail requested materials, send them as Word attachments, saved as .doc files; other word-processing programs, Text Edit files, and/or PDFs are not currently acceptable at US agencies. So if you have been writing in another program, do bear in mind that you will need to switch to industry-standard Word before an agent can submit your work to a publishing house.)

The cover letter needn’t be a long-winded missive, or even chatty: a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do. Something, perhaps, along the lines of this little gem:

cover letter for partial

A miracle of professional blandness, is it not? That’s fine — the cover letter isn’t where you’re going to wow Millicent with your sparkling prose and trenchant insight, anyway. All you have to be here is courteous.

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

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

Yes, even if that agent to whom you submitted 9 months ago has just never responded. Actually, it’s in your strategic interest to contact that non-responder to let her know that another agent is interested; it often speeds up the evaluation process. (If you’re unclear on why, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category on the archive list at right.)

Most importantly, make sure all of your contact information is on the letter, either in the header (letterhead-style, as in the example above) or just under your signature, and do be absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks.

Yes, it does happen — and if it does to yours, do you seriously expect Millicent to have to dig back through her recycling bin or deleted e-mails for your original query in order to dig up your contact information. No, you understand the overwhelming influx of queries and submissions too well for that. Fortunately, you have the option to include another safety net, one that’s more likely to stay with your pages.

2. Title page
Since a professionally-formatted title page contains the writer’s (or, after you’ve landed an agent, the representing agency’s) contact information, this is where Millicent will look first for yours. So you should always include a title page in a submission packet, if any manuscript pages have been requested — yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book.

No need to state on the title page that it’s a partial, either. Millicent will be able to figure that out from your cover letter and the thickness of the stack of paper. Just use the same title page that you would have used if the agent of your dreams had requested the entire manuscript, and you’ll be fine:

Austen title good

Not precisely a thrill-fest, but undoubtedly professional-looking. Just make sure that it’s in the same typeface as the rest of the attached manuscript. (If this all sounds completely cryptic to you, or if you have never formatted a professional manuscript before, don’t panic — you’ll find a step-by-step explanation of what to do under the HOW TO FORMAT A TITLE PAGE category at right.)

There’s another excellent reason to include a title page. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way. Speaking of which…

3. The requested pages in standard format.
Again: only the pages they’ve asked to see, beginning on page 1, professionally formatted. No substitutions, unless the agency website specifically asks for something else.

You absolutely must check the agency’s submission guidelines — usually available on its website or in its listing in one of the standard agency guides — before you submit, because as we have already discussed, not every agency wants to see precisely the same thing. The vocal minority of agents who now prefer only one space after periods and colons (not the new universal norm, no matter what you’ve heard), for instance, tend to feel strongly enough on the subject that you might even want to do a quick web search under the requesting agent’s name, to rule out the possibility that s/he has expressed this opinion on a blog or in an interview lately. (And yes, if s/he blogs, the Millicents who work at that agency will expect you to be familiar with those expressed preferences. Again, time-consuming, but ultimately worth it.

Does that anguished wailing mean that somebody out there has a follow-up question? “But Anne,” those of you who were under the impression that the one- vs. two-space debate had already been settled in some mythical convention of agents and editors that never in fact took place, “I’ve already changed my manuscript from two post-period spaces to one, because I heard somewhere that was what everyone expects now. Isn’t that true? And do you mean anything else by the ominous-sounding term standard format?”

Why, yes, oh wailers, I do — and the existence of actually industry-wide standard format expectations is the main reason I draw such a strong distinction between them and even rather commonly-held individual agents’ preferences. (You’ll find a complete list, in-depth analysis, and visual examples of the former in the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.) To continue with our example already in progress: standard format still calls for two spaces after a period or colon, because it’s much, much easier to edit a manuscript in that format. However, a hefty percentage of agents (particularly younger ones or those who work primarily with genre fiction) have come out of late in favor of manuscripts that echo the new paper-saving publishing practice of leaving only one.

In fact, many of them express it as a pet peeve. So when you are submitting pages to these specific agents, it would not be very wise to include that literacy-requisite second space, would it?

But it would be almost as foolish to submit a manuscript with only one space after a period or colon to an agent who did not adhere to this preference. (I say almost, because advocates of tradition tend to be less doctrinaire on the subject — and, frankly, there are plenty of agents out there who just don’t care.) If an agent already knows that the editor to whom she planned to take a manuscript will take offense at the newfangled disregard of standards that have been in place for about 150 years, the argument but I heard somewhere that it had changed! just isn’t going to fly.

I repeat (and shall continue to repeat): there is no substitute for doing your homework about what the specific agent you are approaching expects to see, either on the page or in a packet.

For the benefit of those of you who are going to blow off that last piece of advice because you’re in a hurry — oh, I know that you’re out there — allow me to add something you would have learned from those posts on formatting, had you been paying attention: a manuscript intended for submission should not be bound in any way. No staples, no paper clips, and certainly no spiral binding.

Oh, and do use at least 20-lb, bright white paper when you print it out. Cheaper paper can begin to wilt after the first screener has riffled through it. Yes, it does increase the already quite substantial cost of submission, but this is one instance where being penny-wise can cost you serious presentation points.

“So basically what you’re saying, in your patented lengthy and meticulously-explained manner,” those of you who have been paying close attention point out, and rightly, “is that Kim did everything right. Aren’t you?”

Why, yes, I am — kudos for your submitting savvy, Kim! You’re an example to aspiring writers everywhere, all the more so, in my opinion, because you were brave enough to ask the question. Now, everyone who has been wondering about it can benefit.

Sometimes, though, agents ask to see additional materials slipped into a submission packet with a partial. Tomorrow morning, we’ll be taking a swift barefoot run through the usual suspects, as well as revisiting the difference between a partial and a writing sample — or a partial for a contest entry and a writing sample, for that matter.

Hard to contain the excitement, isn’t it? No wonder the skeleton is dancing up a storm. See you back here this evening around 8 pm PST (a writer’s coming over to talk plot, so I’m not sure I’ll be back at my computer in time for a 7:00 post) for more talk of query content, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: when an agent asks for pages, but you’ve already granted an exclusive to somebody else, and other soap opera-worthy dilemmas

Proposal-woodcut

I’m taking a break from my ongoing series on how getting published does and doesn’t work — as those of you following the series may have noticed with alarm, an awful lot of the common wisdom on the subject just isn’t true, or at any rate, just isn’t true anymore — to address a question that I get about once per month from aspiring writers. The latest iteration, courtesy of a comment from intrepid reader Virginia a few days back:

Here’s my question: I submitted only two queries to two agents. One got back to me quickly and did ask for exclusive right to review. A few days after I agreed to this, the second agent replied and asked for pages. I don’t want to violate my agreement, but how do I tell the second agent I’m really happy she wants to see more but she has to wait?

Queriers end up in this kind of dilemma all the time, often without understanding how they got there. An exclusive is always a good thing, right, a sign that an agent was unusually eager to see a queried or pitched book, and thus decided to bypass her usual method of requesting manuscripts?

Not always, no. Sometimes, a request for an exclusive genuinely is the result of an agent’s being so excited by a query or pitch (especially if that book has just won a contest) that she’s afraid that another agent will snap it up first. But far more often, it is the natural and should-have-been-expected outcome when a writer queries an agency that has an exclusives-only policy that the querier simply didn’t do enough research on the agency to know about, and so is surprised by the request.

Especially gobsmacked by this (usually predictable) outcome: queriers who do what virtually every aspiring writer asked to submit materials does (and what I suspect occurred here), sending out requested pages immediately upon receipt of the request. Overjoyed at what they assume (in this case, wrongly) will be the only interest their queries will generate, many multiply-querying writers don’t pause to consider that multiple requests for manuscripts are always a possible outcome while sending out simultaneous queries. So is a situation where one of those agents requests an exclusive.

This is why, in case any of you inveterate conference-goers have been curious, agents, editors, and those of us who teach classes on marketing writing invariably sigh when an aspiring writer raises his hand to ask some form of this particular question — and it’s not for the reason that other aspiring writers will sigh. (The latter will sigh because they wish they had this problem.) They will sigh because they’re thinking, “Okay, did this writer just not do his homework on the agents he approached? Or is he asking me to tell him that he can blithely break the commitment he’s made to Agent #1?”

That’s why everyone else will sigh. I, however, sigh whenever I hear this question because I think, “Okay, I have to assume that the questioner is someone who hasn’t read any of my blog posts on querying or submission, as much as that possibility pains me to consider. But since I have no fewer than four explicitly-named categories on my archive list — conveniently located at the bottom right-hand side of my website’s main page: EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION, EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS, SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS, and WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? — directly aimed at answering this question, and eight more that deal with it within the larger context of submission (AFTER YOU RECEIVE A REQUEST FOR PAGES, AFTER YOU SUBMIT, HOW LONG BEFORE THE REQUEST FOR PAGES EXPIRES? HOW SOON MUST I SEND REQUESTED MATERIALS? INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE, IS IT OKAY TO SUBMIT TO SEVERAL AGENTS AT ONCE? and REQUESTED MATERIALS), as well as a dramatically-reenacted scenario in the Industry Etiquette series, I also have to assume that the questioner is in a situation that I have managed to overlook addressing in any of these posts. So I shall eschew the temptation just to send the questioner to any or all of those categories, try to understand how and why this situation is unique, and answer the darned question for the 475th time.”

Yes, I can think with that much specificity in mid-sigh, thank you very much. It’s just one of my many talents.

All that being said — or at any rate thought loudly — it actually isn’t fair to leap to the conclusion that if aspiring writers read agents’ websites and agency guide listings more thoroughly, they would never end up in this situation. Sometimes, this request does come out of a genuinely blue sky, whacking a conscientious multiple querier or submitter right in the noggin.

In fact, it seems to be happening to aspiring writers more and more these days, and for good reason: as a group, you’re querying more widely. That’s a good thing.

Now that many agencies routinely just don’t respond to queries at all if the answer is no, it would be equally silly for a savvy writer to query them one at time and to wait to hear back from all of those simultaneous query recipients before submitting to the first agent who asks to see pages.

Often, the writer simply will not know that exclusivity is a possibility until an agent asks for it, and the request is seldom formulated in a manner that informs a writer not already aware of the fact that she can say no. Or put a time restriction on the exclusive, if she grants it at all.

All of these things are true, incidentally. Unless an agency informs would-be queriers in advance that it has an exclusives-only submission policy, a submitting writer is under no obligation to grant a request for an exclusive to an individual agent. And, as with any other favor, the writer has the right to place conditions on it if she grants it.

But widespread misunderstanding of how exclusives work is not the primary reason it isn’t fair for the pros to be dismissive of writers in this situation. We should all have sympathy, because 99.999% of the time, what an aspiring writer asked for an exclusive hears is not, “Okay, this sounds interesting and marketable, but I don’t want to have to rush to beat competing agents in reading the manuscript. Please remove the necessity of my having to hurry by agreeing not to show it to anyone else until I’ve gotten back to you.”

Which is, by the way, what a request for exclusivity means, at base. Deflating to think of it that way, isn’t it?

What 99.999% of aspiring writers in this situation hear is “Oh, my God — this is the most exciting book premise/pitch/query I’ve ever heard. I’m almost positive that I want to represent it, even though I have not yet read a word of the manuscript or book proposal. If you grant my request, I’m going to clear my schedule so I may delve into this submission the nanosecond it arrives in my office.”

And then the giddy aspiring writer is astonished when weeks or months pass before the agent makes a decision, precisely as if there had been no exclusive involved. The only difference, from the writer’s point of view, is that she was honor-bound not to approach other agents until she heard back.

Pardon my asking, but what precisely did the writer gain by granting that exclusive? And does anybody out there have a good suggestion for a new category title that would more quickly catch the eye of (a) submitters who find themselves in this situation, (b) queriers or pitchers who MIGHT find themselves in this situation soon, and (c) readers not patient enough to scroll through a couple of hundred categories to find what they want?

Okay, so the last is a tall order for a 40-character max category title. Believe it or not, the main reason there are so many categories is because I keep hearing from panicked writers who did not instantly find what they were seeking.

I think that a couple of factors contribute the confusion so many agent-seeking writers seem to feel on this subject. First, many writers confuse initial interest with a commitment — why would an agent ask to see a manuscript exclusively, they reason, unless they already thought they might want to sign the author?

The short answer: typically, an agent won’t ask for an exclusive (or for pages, for that matter) unless he thinks representing it as a possibility; since, however, agents who ask for exclusives seldom make the request of only one writer, a writer should not assume that his is the only exclusive on the agent’s desk.

If that last bit made your stomach drop to somewhere around your knees, don’t feel blue, or even slightly mauve: the vast majority of writers who have ever been asked for an exclusive peek at their work were under the same misconception. The temptation to believe the request means more than it actually does is vast.

Compounding this misconception is the cold, hard fact that when aspiring writers agree to an exclusive, they don’t necessarily understand what it actually entails. So let’s invest some blog space into going over the basics.

Hey, maybe this post does belong in my Getting a Book Published Basics! Who’d have thought it?

An exclusive, for those of you new to the concept, is when a writer agrees to allow an agent a specific amount of time to consider representing a particular manuscript, during which no other agent will be reviewing it. In practice, both the agent and the writer agree to abide by certain rules during the specified period:

– ONLY that agent will have an opportunity to read the materials;

– no other agent is already looking at it;

– the writer will not submit it anywhere else;

– in return for this significant advantage (which, after all, pulls the manuscript out of competition with other agents), the agent will make a legitimate effort to read and decide whether or not to offer representation within the specified time period.

 

Is everyone clear on the rules? If not, please leave a comment with a question — just the second I come up with a brand-new category name covering this particular dilemma, today’s post is going to be popping into it. So if you ask now, future writers-in-a-bind will enjoy the full benefit of your having asked.

Okay, now that we know what Virginia agreed to do, let’s take a gander at her options. If she wants to play by the rules — and she should, always — her choices are three.

If she specified a time limit on the exclusive — which the agent will very seldom propose spontaneously; it’s not in her interest — the answer is very simple: if less than that amount of time has passed, don’t send the manuscript to anyone else until it has.

What is she to tell the other agent? Nothing, if the agreed-upon length of the exclusive is reasonable — say, between three and eight weeks. Agents are perfectly used to writers taking some time to revise before submitting requested materials. Virginia’s second agent probably wouldn’t blink twice if she didn’t get back to him before then; remember, it’s not as though an agent who requests materials sit there, twiddling his thumbs, until he receives it.

And what would she gain by telling him she’d already promised an exclusive to another agent, other than informing him that she had already decided that if the other Agent #1 offered representation, she would take it? How exactly would that win her Brownie points with #2 — or, indeed, help her at all?

In practice, all waiting on fulfilling the second request means is that Virginia will have an attractive alternative if Agent #1 decides to pass on the manuscript. That’s bad because…?

Oh, wait: it isn’t. Actually, it’s an ideal situation for a just-rejected submitter to find herself occupying. Way to go, Virginia!

Worrying about what might happen to Virginia if Agent #1 doesn’t get back to her within the specified time frame? Relax; she still has three pretty good options, one completely above-board, one right on the board, and the last slightly under it.

First, the high road: about a week after the agreed-upon exclusive expires, Virginia could send Agent #1 an e-mail (not a call), reminding her that the exclusive has elapsed. Would A1 like more time to consider the manuscript solo, or should Virginia send the manuscript out to the other agents who have requested it?

I can already tell you the answer will be the former. The writer doesn’t achieve much by taking the high road, usually, other than a bit of comfort from the fact that the agent hasn’t forgotten her altogether.

The level road is cosmetically similar, but frees the writer more. Virginia could write an e-mail to the agent, informing her politely that since the agreed-upon period of exclusivity has elapsed, she’s going to start sending out requested materials to other agents. Then she should actually do it, informing Agent #2 in her cover letter that another agent is also considering the work.

That way, she gets what she wants — the ability to continue to market her work — while not violating her agreement with Agent #1. All she is doing is being up front about abiding by the terms of the exclusive.

The slightly subterranean but nevertheless justifiable third option would be not to send an e-mail at all, but merely wait until the exclusive has lapsed to send out the manuscript to Agent #2, informing him that there’s also another agent reading it. I don’t favor this option, personally, because despite the fact that Virginia would be perfectly within her rights to pursue it — the agent is the one who breached the agreement here, not the writer — if Agent #1 does eventually decide to make an offer, Virginia will be left in a rather awkward position.

Enviable, of course, but still a bit uncomfortable.

When an exclusive does not carry an agreed-upon time limit — and most don’t — the ethics are more nebulous, the costs to the writer significantly higher. Sometimes enough so that being asked to grant an exclusive turns out to be a liability.

As exciting as a request for an exclusive may be, it does tie the writer’s hands, for precisely the reason Virginia feels conflicted: throughout the duration of the exclusive, the writer agrees not to show the manuscript to any other agent. If, as in Virginia’s case, other agents are also interested, this can mean a substantial delay in getting the manuscript onto their desks — not to mention the fact that if Agent A offers to represent it, B and C may not see it at all.

In an environment where it often takes 3-6 months to hear back on a submission, it’s not all that hard to envision a situation where a writer might actually want to say no to an exclusive, is it?

While you’re pondering the implications, I’ll be changing the subject slightly, to underscore a few points. But never fear: I’m going to talk about the perils and escape hatches of the unlimited exclusive tomorrow; it’s too complex to toss off in just a few paragraphs.

For now, let’s concentrate on the kind of exclusives a savvy writer should be delighted to grant. To that end, I want to make absolutely certain that each and every querier and submitter out there understands two things — no, make that three:

1) As flattering as a request for an exclusive is to an aspiring writer, granting it is optional; 

2) Since by definition, a writer cannot submit to other agents during the exclusive period — yes, even if the writer queried the others first — it’s ALWAYS a good idea to set a time limit;

3) Since granting it limits the writer’s options, it’s best reserved for situations where one’s top-choice agents are interested in the book.

 

Why limit it to your favorite picks? Try to think of granting an exclusive as if you were applying for early admission to an Ivy League school: if the school of your dreams lets you in, you’re not going to want to apply to other universities, right?

By applying early, you are saying that you will accept their offer of admission, and the school can add you to its roster of new students without having to worry that you’re going to go to another school instead. It’s a win/win, in other words.

So if the best agent in the known universe for your type of writing asks for an exclusive, you might genuinely want to say yes. But if you have any doubt in your mind about whether Harvard really is a better school for your intended studies than Yale, Columbia, or Berkeley — to mix my metaphors again — you might want to apply to all of them at the same time, so you may decide between those that do admit you.

To put it another way, if you are asked for an exclusive because your work is sought-after, it is up to you whether you would prefer to go steady right off the bat or date around a little. Got it?

If not, I can keep coming up with parallel cases all day, I assure you. Don’t make me start sending you to past posts.

That doesn’t mean you should necessarily say no to this type of exclusivity request, but if you say yes, set a reasonable time limit on it, so you don’t keep your book off the dating market too long. This prudent step will save you from the unfortunately common dilemma of the writer who granted an exclusive seven months ago and still hasn’t heard back.

Yes, in response to that gigantic collective gasp I just heard out there: one does hear rumors of agents who ask for exclusives, then hold onto the manuscript for months on end. Within the past couple of years, such rumors have escalated astronomically.

Set a time limit. Four to six weeks is ample.

No need to turn asking for the time limit into an experiment in negotiation, either: simply include a sentence in your submission’s cover letter along the lines of I am delighted to give you an exclusive look at my manuscript, as you requested, for the next month.

Simple, direct — and trust me, if the agent has a problem with the time you’ve specified, s/he’ll contact you to ask for more.

Of course, protecting your ability to market your work isn’t always that simple: negotiation is not possible with the other type of exclusive request, the kind that emerges from an agency that only reviews manuscripts that no one else is; the writer is not offered a choice in the matter. Consequently, a request for an exclusive from these folks is not so much a compliment to one’s work (over and above the sheer desire to read some of it, that is) as a way of doing business.

In essence, exclusive-only agencies are saying to writers, “Look, since you chose to query us, you must have already done your homework about what we represent — and believe us, we would not ask to see your manuscript if we didn’t represent that kind of writing. So we expect you to say yes right away if we make you an offer.”

Noticing a homework theme in all of these unspoken assumptions? Good. Let me pull out the bullhorn to reiterate: because agents tend to assume that any serious writer would take the time to learn how the publishing industry does and doesn’t work — oh, if only some reputable blogger would run a series on THAT, eh? — querying and submitting writers who don’t do their homework are much more likely to get rejected than those who do.

Okay, bullhorns down; back to the issue at hand. Why might an exclusive submissions policy be advantageous for an agency to embrace?

Well, for one thing, it prevents them from ever having to experience the fear associated with the first type of exclusive request. If you send them pages, they may safely assume that you won’t be e-mailing them in a week to say, “Um, Agent Q has just made me an offer, slowpoke. I still would like to consider your agency, so could you hurry up and finish reading my manuscript so you can give me an answer? As in by the end of the week?”

Okay, so you wouldn’t really be that rude. (PLEASE tell me you wouldn’t be that rude.) But let’s face it, agents who don’t require exclusive submissions do receive these types of e-mails fairly often. And nobody, but nobody, reads faster than an agent who has just heard that the author of the manuscript that’s been propping up his wobbly coffee table is fielding multiple offers.

Agencies who demand exclusivity are, by definition, unlikely to find themselves in a similar Oh, my God, I have to read this 400-page novel by tomorrow! situation. After even the third or fourth panicked all-nighter, exclusives might start to look like a pretty good policy.

What does the writer get in return for agreeing not to submit to others for the time being? Not a heck of a lot, usually, unless the agency in question is in fact the best place for his work. But if one wants to submit to such an agency, one needs to follow its rules.

Fortunately, agencies that maintain this requirement tend to be far from quiet about it. Their agents will trumpet the fact from the conference dais. Requires exclusive submissions or even will accept only exclusive queries will appear upon their websites, in their listings in standard agency guides, and on their form replies requesting your first 50 pages.

(Yes, in response to that shocked wail your psyche just sent flying in my general direction: positive responses are often form-letters, too, even when they arrive in e-mail form. I sympathize with your dismay.)

If exclusives-only agencies had company T-shirts, in short, there would probably be an asterisk after the company’s name and a footnote on the back about not accepting simultaneous submissions. If they’re serious about the policy, they’re serious about it, and trying to shimmy around such a policy will only get a writer into trouble.

Do I feel some of you tensing up again? Relax — agencies with this requirement are not very common.

Why? It limits their querying pool. Because they require their potential clients to bring their often protracted agent search to a screeching halt while the submission is under consideration, such agencies are, in the long run, more time-consuming for a writer to deal with than others. As a result, many ambitious aspiring writers, cautious about committing their time, will avoid querying agencies with this policy.

Which, again, is a matter of personal choice. Or it is if you happened to notice before you queried that the agency in question had this policy.

Hey, check their T-shirts. Because I assure you, no one concerned is going to have any sympathy for a writer complaining about feeling trapped in an exclusive. They’ll just assume that he didn’t do his homework.

So check submission policies before you query, everyone; it can save you a world of chagrin later.

Thanks for asking the question, Virginia; I’ll discuss other aspects of your dilemma next time. To you and all of your fellow conscientious writers, keep up the good work!

The romance — and limitations — of exclusivity, part II

1885-proposal-caricature

Last time, I took a break from our ongoing series to respond to a readers’ question about how to handle an exclusive request from an agent. Specifically, she wanted to know what she should do if she had already agreed to let one agent sneak an exclusive peek at her manuscript, but another agent had asked afterward to see it non-exclusively. What’s a writer to do?

The short answer: abide by her commitment to Agent #1 for the duration of the agreed-upon period of exclusivity, then move on to Agent #2. The only apparently shorter answer: what honoring that agreement means vis-à-vis approaching other agents really depends upon the terms of the exclusivity agreement.

Have I lost those of you who walked in halfway through this discussion? Okay, I’ll recap: an exclusive is an arrangement whereby a writer allows an agent to read a particular manuscript while no other agent will be reviewing it. The agent requests an exclusive because he would prefer not to compete with other agents over the manuscript; the writer agrees, presumably, because if this agent says yes, she will neither need nor want to approach other agents.

Let’s be clear about what that means in practice, campers: the writer guarantees that nobody else will be in the running while the requesting agent is pondering the pages. Anyone see a potential problem with that?

Give yourself a large, shiny gold star and a pat on the back if you instantly asked, “Wait a minute — what happens if the request for an exclusive comes in while another agent is already considering the manuscript?” That would indeed present a problem, because by definition, a writer cannot grant an exclusive if any agent is currently reading any part of the manuscript in question; in order to comply with a request for an exclusive, the writer must wait until all of the agents reading it at the time the exclusivity request arrived have informed him of their decisions.

Doesn’t seem like all that complicated a premise, does it? Yet hardly a month goes by when I some exclusive granter doesn’t tap me on the shoulder (physically or electronically) to ask, “Um, Anne, do you remember that request for an exclusive I was so excited about a week and a half ago?” (Or a month and a half, or six months.) “I’ve heard from another agent. What should I do?”

Which leads me to the other potential problem that I sincerely hope some of you came up with two paragraphs ago: what happens if an agent who asked for an exclusive doesn’t get back to the writer within a reasonable amount of time? Is the writer still bound by the exclusivity agreement? Or is there some point at which it’s safe to assume that silence = thanks, but we’re not interested?

The short answers to each of those last three questions, in order: it depends on the terms of the original agreement; it depends on the terms of the original agreement; it depends on the terms of the original agreement.

What does it depend upon? Those of you who read breathlessly through yesterday’s post, shout it along with me now: it depends upon whether the writer had the foresight to set an end date for the exclusive. If an exclusive is open-ended, the writer cannot ethically send out requested materials to other agents until one of two things happens: the exclusive-requester informs the writer that she has rejected the manuscript, or so many months have passed without word from the agent that it’s safe to assume that the answer is no.

Even then — say, six months — I’d still advise sending an e-mail, asking if the exclusive-seeking agent is finished with the manuscript. It’s only polite.

Or avoid this dilemma entirely by hedging your bets from the get-go: grant the exclusive, but send the manuscript along with a cover letter that mentions how delighted you are to agree to a six-week exclusive. The agent can always come back with a request for more time, but at least you won’t be left wondering six months hence whether you’ll offend her if you move on.

I’m sensing some severe writerly disgruntlement out there. “But Anne!” exclaim aspiring writers who want there to be more options. “Why should I borrow trouble? Surely, you don’t expect me to run the risk of offending an agent by implying that he’s not going to get back to me in a timely manner?”

Hey, I don’t expect anything; do as you think best. I’m just the person that aspiring writers keep asking how to get out of an exclusive that hasn’t panned out as they had hoped.

To help you weigh the relevant risks, let’s look at the phenomenon from the other side of the agreement. Generally speaking, agents will request exclusives for only one of three reasons: they fear that there will be significant competition over who will represent the project, they don’t like to be rushed while reading, or it is simply the agency’s policy not to compete with outside agencies, ever.

Do I feel some of you out there getting tense over that third possibility, doing the math on just how many years (if not decades) it could take to make it through your list of dream agents if you had to submit to them one at a time? Relax, campers: requests for exclusives are actually fairly rare.

Why rare? Well, the first kind of exclusive request I mentioned yesterday, the one Agent A might use to prevent Agents B-R from poaching your talents before A has had a chance to read your manuscript (hey, A’s desk is already chin-deep in paper), tends to be reserved for writers with more than just a good book to offer. Celebrity, for instance, or a major contest win fifteen minutes ago. Basically, the agent is hoping to snap up the hot new writer before anybody else does.

Or before the HNW realizes that s/he might prefer to be able to choose amongst several offers of representation. Since pretty much every respectable agency offers the same service, such choices are often made on the basis of connections, how well-established the agency is, or even how well the writer and the agent happen to hit it off. If an agent fears that the other contenders might be able to offer a rosier prospect, it might well be worth her while to buttonhole the HNW and get her to commit to an exclusive before anyone else can get near.

So if you suddenly find yourself the winner of a well-respected literary contest or on the cover of People, remember this: just because an agent asks for an exclusive does not mean you are under any obligation to grant it.

Oh, pick your chin up off the floor. If your work is in demand, it’s not necessarily in your best interest to sign with the first agent who makes an offer — you will want the one with the best track record of selling books like yours, right? Ideally, you would like to be in a position to compare and contrast offers from different agents.

Why not pick the one who asks first and be done with it? Chant it with me now, long-time readers: you do not want to land just any agent; you want the best agent for your work.

If you shouted, “Yes, by Jove: I want to query and submit in a manner that maximizes the probability to be fielding several offers at once!”, then I suggest you consider two questions very carefully before you decide which agents to approach first:

(1) If an agency has an exclusives-only policy, should it be near the top of my query list, potentially forcing me to stop my submission process cold until they get back to me? Or are there agents who permit simultaneous submissions that I could approach all at once before I queried the exclusive-only agency?

(2) Is there an agent on this list to whom I would be OVERJOYED to grant an exclusive, should he happen to request it after seeing my query or hearing my pitch, or would I be equally happy with any of these agents? If it’s the former, should I approach that agent right off the bat, before sending out queries to any exclusives-only agents on the list?

The disgruntled murmur afresh: “Okay, Anne, I get it; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But where does this leave Virginia and the many other writers out there who have granted exclusives to the first agent who asked, only to find themselves chafing under the agreement down the line, when other agents asked to see the manuscript? Can’t you offer then just a few ounces of cure?”

Again, it depends: why did the agent asked for the exclusive in the first place, and how long it has been since the writer granted it?

If the agent asked for it because her agency has an advertised policy that it will only consider exclusive submissions, then the writer is indeed obligated to hold off on further submissions. If the agreed-upon period has elapsed, Virginia can always contact the agent and ask point-blank if s/he needs more time.

What the writer should most emphatically NOT do when dealing with an exclusives-only agency is contact the agent, explain that others want to read the work, and ask if it’s okay to submit simultaneously — which, incidentally, is very frequently the writer’s first impulse, if those who contact me on the sly to ask my advice are any indication. Bless their optimistic little hearts, they seem to believe that of only the agent in question understood how eagerly they want to find representation, the agent’s heart would melt.

“Of course, you may indulge in multiple submissions,” the agent would say, tossing candy to the world’s children from Santa’s sleigh, assisted by the Easter Bunny, Bigfoot, and a miraculously still-alive Amelia Earhart. “My agency was just kidding about that whole exclusives-only thing.”

Call me a pessimist, but I simply don’t believe that’s going to happen.

This desire to throw oneself upon the agent’s mercy appears even stronger, if that’s possible, in writers who already have submissions out with other agents, and THEN receive a request for an exclusive from an agent. For many such submitters (who, let’s face it, have a problem most aspiring writers would LOVE to have), the fact of previous submission seems to obviate the agent’s request, or even an exclusives-only agency’s policy.

They couldn’t really mean it in my case, these writers think.

I hate to burst your bubble, Glinda, but I can assure you that they could — and do. Trying to negotiate one’s way out of this situation only tends to change the representation question from whether the agent likes the writer to whether he really wants to deal with someone who has difficulty following directions.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at an e-mail exchange between an agent and a writer who already has a submission out to another agent:

Dear Melissa:
Thank you for querying me with your novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS. Please send the first fifty pages.

As you may already know, our agency will accept only exclusive submissions. Please enclose a SASE.

Regards,
Clinton McPicky

Dear Clint:
Thank you for your interest in my novel. I would be happy to give you an exclusive, but the fact is, two other agents already have partial manuscripts, and I don’t know when I shall be hearing back from them. I’m really impressed with your agency, though, and I certainly don’t want to knock it out of consideration.

Since it would obviously be impossible for me to give you an exclusive on material that’s already elsewhere, is it okay if I just go ahead and send you what I’ve sent the others?

Melissa

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

Clinton

What happened here? Melissa tried to shift responsibility for solving her dilemma onto Clinton’s shoulders, that’s what. (Also, she addressed him by a familiar nickname, rather than the name with which he signed his letter; a small thing, but rather rude.) From her point of view, this strategy made perfect sense: his request had caused a problem, so she asked him to modify his request.

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

Got the impulse to quibble out of your system, Melissa? Good. Next time, abide by your agreement: allow Clinton an exclusive until the agreed-upon time has elapsed, then inform him that unless he would like an extension upon his exclusive (which you are under no obligation to grant, Mel), you will be submitting it to the other agents who have requested it.

What’s that you say, Melissa? Isn’t Clinton likely to say no at that point? Perhaps, but not necessarily — and you will have done your level best to conduct your submission process honorably.

“Okay,” the formerly disgruntled agree reluctantly, “I guess that makes some sense. But what about the writer — say, Melissa’s brother Melvin — who has an open-ended exclusive arrangement with Jade, an agent whose agency does not insist upon solo submissions? She’s had it for a while, and four other agents have asked to see his book! Given how many are interested, can’t he just move on without telling her, and hope that she will be the first to make an offer, so he doesn’t have to ‘fess up about sending his manuscript elsewhere?”

The short answer is no. The long answer is that it depends upon how much time has elapsed.

Melvin should check the agency’s website, its agency guide listing, and the letter Jade sent him, asking for an exclusive: has it been at least as long as any mentioned turn-around time — or, to be on the safe side, a couple of weeks longer? If not, he cannot in good conscience send out requested materials to any other agent regardless of whether others requested exclusives in the meantime.

Don’t even consider it, Melvin. Otherwise, your word to Jade would be meaningless, no?

For some reason, the vast majority of the Melvins who creep into my atelier in the dead of night to ask my advice on the subject — a practice I discourage, incidentally; the comment section is there for a reason — almost always seem surprised, or even hurt, by this response. But the situation honestly is pretty straightforward, ethically speaking: Melvin agreed to the exclusive, so everyone in the industry would expect him abide by it.

And as we saw above, contacting everyone concerned to explain the dilemma will not eliminate it; all that will do is tell all of the agents involved that Melvin is trying to change the rules. Either trying to renegotiate with Jade at this point or telling the others they will need to wait, will not win him points with anybody; it will merely look as though he didn’t understand what an exclusive was.

Here’s how I would advise Melvin to handle this dilemma with his integrity intact: wait it out for the stated turn-around time (plus two weeks), then send the polite note I mentioned above: remind her that she asked for an exclusive, but inform her that he has had other requests for materials. Do not leave that last bit out: it’s imperative that Jade is aware before she makes a timing decision that others are indeed interested.

If Jade writes back and says she wants to represent him, he has only two options — saying yes without sending out further submissions or saying no and sending out to the other four. If Jade does make an offer he wishes to accept, it would be courteous of Melvin to send a polite note to the other four, saying precisely what happened: another agent made an offer before he could send out the materials they requested. They’ll understand; this happens all the time.

If Jade asks for more time, Melvin should consider carefully whether he is willing to grant it. If he does, he should set a date — say, a month hence — beyond which he will start sending out manuscripts to the other four.

If, however, Jade doesn’t respond to his polite e-mail within six weeks, he should not, as many writers in this situation are tempted to do, overload her inbox with increasingly panicked e-mails. On day 43 (six weeks + 1 day), Melvin should send the requested materials to the four agents, along with cover letters explaining that others are looking at it simultaneously. No need to specify who is doing the looking, just that they are.

To deal courteously with Jade at this point, he should send a letter, saying that while she is still his first choice (the implication of an exclusive, always), since the exclusive has now expired, he is now sending out requested materials to other agents. As, indeed, he had already given her notice that he might do if she didn’t get back to him.

Again, this happens all the time. As long as a writer does what he said he was going to do, he’s unlikely to run into much trouble with an exclusive — but remember, this is an industry where reputations count; in the long run, it’s in your interest every bit as much as the agent’s that you honor the exclusivity agreement, if you grant it.

A tip for figuring out how long to suggest a requested exclusive should be: take the amount of time you feel you could wait calmly if you had a second request for materials burning a hole in your pocket. Now double it.

Take a gander at that number: is it in days, rather than weeks or months? If so, may I suggest gently that you may be too impatient to be happy with any length of exclusive?

You can always say no, right? Right? Can you hear me?

Frankly, I think most submitters in this situation overreact to the prospect of a comparatively short wait — or did not have a realistic sense of how long it can take these days for an agent to make up his mind about a manuscript. 3-6 month turn-around times are not uncommon, and let’s face it, holding off for a few days or weeks is not going to harm the writer’s chances with the other requesting agents.

Chances are that they’re reasonable people. After all, it’s not as though they requested the materials, then cleared their schedules for the foreseeable future in order to hold their respective breaths until the submission arrived.

And, please, I implore you, do not grant de facto exclusives. If an agent did not ask for an exclusive and the writer did not agree to it, the writer is perfectly at liberty to continue to submit, query, and pitch until a representation contract is signed. While not continuing to pursue other leads while an agent is perusing your work may seem like a well-deserved break, a reward for successful querying, it’s effectively like applying to only one college per year: you might get in eventually, but it’s a far more efficient use of your time to apply to many simultaneously.

So submit widely — and keep those queries and submissions circulating until you land an agent. Just make sure that when you have requested materials out to more than one agent, you tell each that others are looking at it.

Trust me, they’ll want to know, even if they aren’t exclusive-minded. Gives ‘em just a touch of incentive to read faster.

Next time, I shall resume the Back to Basics series. Keep those expectations reasonable, folks, and keep up the good work!

PS: I really was serious yesterday when I asked if any of you lovely readers had any bright ideas for a category title on this subject; people seem to have a hard time finding EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION. So if you can think of a pithy-yet-eye-catching description less than 40 characters long, please let me know — I shall be eternally grateful, and so will all of the many, many submitters who find themselves in this situation every year.

SOIA, part VII: when it’s been a REALLY long time since the request

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A quick programming note before I get to the business du jour: I’m extending the deadline of the share your favorite inspirational writing-related quote contest to midnight Pacific Standard Time on Sunday, December 6. Not so much out of the goodness of my warm little heart as due to the fact that a member of my immediate family is in the hospital right now; I’m not convinced that my sense of the uplifting is particularly strong at the moment. Or maybe what I really need is to hear as many of your favorite quotes as possible, to lift me out of my funk.

So please ransack your writing notebooks for those great, soul-supporting quotes, people! Let’s get a really good haul, so I can share the best with you in a post here — because, really, couldn’t every writer use a bit of cheering up from time to time?

Laughably simple contest entry requirements are posted here. Now back to work.

Are your brains still buzzing from the implications of my last post, where I invited all of you out there to help me diagnose a SIOA (Send It Out, Already!) problem? No sooner had I finished typing the last syllable of that post when the nagging little voice in the ether that all serious bloggers associate with their reading public started to niggle at me.

“Okay, so now they can spot SIOA-avoidance in the wild,” that ever-dissatisfied opinion-giver conceded. “You even slipped in that homily about the reasonableness of expecting an agent who hasn’t heard from a writer for a couple of years to drop everything to read requested materials once they do arrive, purely so the reformed SIOA-avoider will not have to wait too long to hear back, along with your perennial saw about the advisability of continuing to query and submit to other agents during the consideration period. But beyond that, you left ‘em hanging. How precisely is a writer fresh from doing battle with SIOA-avoidance to approach a long put-off agent?”

Funny you should ask that, Disembodied Voice. Clever and incisive reader Joon posted a practical question on the subject just the other day. Quoth Joon:

I am afraid this particular series was written with me in mind (though, with your prodding, I am sending my pages out this week – whee! – so hopefully not for much longer). I have a question about extensive time passed. I know you’re a busy person, but if you have time to answer it or to touch upon it in the continuation of your SIOA series, it would really help me (and probably others who’ve helped put the Pro in Procrastination).

Back when I was a real newbie, I submitted the first 20 pages of my first novel for critique at the SCBWI conference where it was read by Stephanie Meyer’s agent (!!!). She told me she loved it, nominated it for a conference award, and wanted to see the rest of it. Problem was, she’d read almost all of it that was presently to be had (yes, I now know it was really unprofessional to submit something that wasn’t essentially ready to go. No, I would never do such a thing again. Yes, I know editors and agents hate people like me. Mea culpa!). I confessed as much and she said she still wanted to read it, in any amount or condition, as soon as I had written more. She gave me her e-mail address and a code word to put in the subject heading, and asked me (against her agency’s submission guidelines) to e-mail it to her. I went home with a will and got back to work.

It took three years!

My question is not whether to send it (you’ve amply answered that), but how? Has too much time passed for me to use the secret e-mail? Should I go back to the end of the line and send in a query as though we’d never met? Should I not send it to this agent at all (and let that be a lesson to me)? And should I still reference the fact that we met at this long distant conference?
I want to break away from my prior SIOA folly, but I’d like to take advantage of my chance to snag the AOMD if I haven’t already bungled it too badly.

Any advice?

This is an excellent question, Joon — and I love the line about putting the Pro in Procrastination so much that I almost lifted it for the title of this post. And I think you’re dead right (to continue the Stephanie Meyers theme) about this being an issue that dogs other writers; in my experience, SIOA-avoiders are legion.

First, congratulations on being brave enough to pitch your work that early in your writing process. Some writing coaches might castigate you for this — as you have learned since, the assumption at any fiction pitch meeting (or with any query for a novel, for that matter), the ambient assumption is that a manuscript will be at least in first full time before the writer approaches an agent with it — but since verbal pitching is so tough, I think it’s not a bad idea to take a practice run at it first. That way, when the book is done, the writer already has some experience pitching it before the stakes go sky-high.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, however, early pitchers who are good at it can run into the same problem Joon did: receiving a request for materials that one is in no position to fulfill anytime soon. This is why, in case anyone was curious, I generally advise members of the Author! Author! community that a good compromise between getting in that practice and avoiding panic is not to pitch a novel until it’s within a year of completion.

I can sense those of you raring to go chafing at that a little, so let’s take a moment to talk about why agents and editors from small presses — i.e., the folks to whom one can pitch productively at writers’ conferences — have such a strong and universal preference for fiction to be in completed form before aspiring writers approach them with it. (Agented and published writers approach their agents with ideas-in-progress all the time, of course, but that’s a subject for another post.) And it may surprise some of you to hear that, unusually for the submission process, the primary answer to this question is not because that’s not how it’s done.

That’s the secondary reason. The main one: because no agent, however talented, can say for sure what kinds of manuscripts will be in demand at publishing houses years from now; in order to do her job well, an agent has to be conversant with what editors want to acquire NOW.

Did that cause the hearts of multi-year SIOA-avoiders to skip a beat? Especially those whose dream agents were, like Joon’s, terrifically excited three years ago about the book project in question? As in before the radical contraction of the literary market?

I’d like to set your minds at ease here, but that little flash of panic was completely rational: what an agent can and cannot sell changes all the time, and sometimes very rapidly. So it’s only reasonable to expect that what an agent will wax enthusiastic over at a conference would differ annually.

Fortunately for Joon, Stephanie Meyers’ work continues to sell very well indeed, so it’s highly likely that Ms. Meyers’ agent will still be looking for similar work. Fingers crossed that what you write is similar, Joon!

More points in favor of her still being interested: she’s read some of your work and liked it. That’s a significant advantage of a conference where pitch-hearers agree to read a writing sample first, by the way. (Double-check before you sign up, and don’t be afraid to e-mail conference organizers to ask a few questions not covered on the conference’s website. Even at conferences where pitches are cold, there are often intensive courses for an extra fee where a pro will go over at least a few pages with you — and if the pro is good, the extra fee is often well worth it. Such intensives tend to fill up early, though.)

I see a few hands raised out there. “But Anne,” some sharp-eyed readers point out, and who could blame them? “I thought you were saying that agents prefer fully-written (and edited) novels at pitching and/or querying time. Yet Joon was able to impress this agent with writing sample. So doesn’t that mean that you’re, you know, wrong, and we should all be pitching our ideas as soon as the muses stuff them into our busy minds?”

No, it doesn’t, and for a very fine reason: because that’s not the way it’s done.

You knew the brief break from that one was too good to last, didn’t you? The industry expectation is that fiction will be fully drafted before it’s pitched or queried — nonfiction, including memoir, is different, since that is generally sold on a book proposal, not an entire manuscript — and not merely because a partial look at an incomplete manuscript forces an agent to guess what the market will be like by the time the book reaches complete first draft form. A brief excerpt, no matter how beautifully-written or how good the premise, is not an infallible indicator of how well put-together the eventual novel will be.

That made those of you who have entered partials in novel competitions do a double-take, didn’t it? Yet it’s true: even the most careful perusal of the first 50 pages (or less, usually, for a contest) will not necessarily provide conclusive evidence that a writer can structure an entire novel convincingly. There are plenty of perfectly wonderful short story writers, after all, who don’t know how to sustain a plot over 350 pages.

Which is why, should any of you have been wondering agents who represent fiction virtually never make an offer based upon a partial. Contrary to pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit, they honestly do need to read the manuscript first.

Thus, SIOA-avoiders are quite right to feel some trepidation about sending out long-delayed requested pages. However, Joon did something very smart here: communicated with the agent about it during the delay.

What was that everyone’s second grade teacher said about honesty being the best policy? It’s as true in early interactions with an agent as anywhere else — provided, of course, that the impulse toward honesty doesn’t result in a mountain of extraneous e-mails, letters, or (heaven help us) telephone calls. As we discussed just the other day, a single, simple, polite, professional missive will generally do the trick without giving the agent the sense that you’re going to be bugging her every fifteen minutes for the rest of her life.

Again, in case you were wondering: that’s the very last impression you want her to have of you. Clients who need a whole lot of hand-holding tend to be turn-offs.

So actually, Joon, it sounds like you’ve handled a genuinely awkward situation quite well so far. Certainly too well to have generated any basis for resentment on the agency end — and that’s something I’m quite happy to hear. Some SIOA-avoiders devote way, way, WAY too much of energies they should be gearing toward their submissions toward trying to keep confirming that the agent in question remains interested.

To drive home that last point, I’m going to veer away from Joon’s dilemma for a moment to share one of the many anonymous missives I have received over the years from a SIOA-avoider who was, well, not quite so strategic. Quoth Delaying Writer (as the nimble-brained among you may have already guessed, all names here changed to protect the participants):

HELP! How do I approach an agent I’ve already insulted by not having sent the chapter she asked me for a long time ago?

When I pitched my novel last year at the Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless, Loretta Lovable was incredibly nice to me, totally psyched about my book and I really did mean to get the chapter out to her before the end of the summer. But then it was Labor Day, then Christmas…well you know how these things go. And now I have an appointment to pitch to her again at this year’s conference. We really clicked before, so I’m terrified.

Please don’t yell at me if this is a stupid question, but would it be okay if I just walked into our meeting and pretended that I’d never met her before? I’m afraid she’ll think I’m an idiot if I walk in and throw myself on her mercy.

Quite a sad story, isn’t it? I’m bravely pushing aside my temptation to go on and on about the sheer number of e-mails and blog comments I receive during conference season that contain the word HELP to ask all of you: how do you think Delaying Writer should handle this touchy situation?

Before I weigh in, let’s run through all of DW’s options, not just the ones she is weighing. She could conceivably:

(a) obey her instincts, keep the pitch appointment, and hope that Loretta Lovable is either too nice or too forgetful to mention that she’s heard this pitch before;

(b) bite the bullet, keep the pitch appointment, and confess that she pitched too soon the previous year, in the hope that LL will tell her to go ahead and send it now;

(c) cancel the pitch appointment and just send the materials now with a nice note, hedging her bets by pitching to another few agents at this year’s conference;

(d) cancel the appointment, either to pitch to other agents or not, but make a point of buttonholing LL at the conference to explain what happened?

(e) send LL a query letter now, explaining what happened and asking if she’s still interested in reading the now-completed work?

(f) write off LL entirely and forever, and just move on, even though LL is DW’s dream agent.

Okay, so none of these possibilities is particularly appetizing, nor would any of them be particularly easy to pull off without feeling a bit chump-like. What would you do in DW’s place?

If you chose (f), I hate to tell you this, but you’re thinking like a SOIA-avoider. For this option to make sense to pursue, the possibility of offending LL by getting back to her later than anticipated has to outweigh any other consideration. Or — and this is even more common reasoning — the writer would have to assume that the only possible outcome from approaching LL again would be rejection.

But those of us who have worked our way through this series know better than that, don’t we? Don’t we?

If you said (a), you at least have no illusions to shatter about how well agents being pitched at by 150 eager aspiring authors at a conference a year ago is likely to remember even one whose pitch she really, really liked. However, this strategy could easily backfire: if LL does recall either the book concept or DW, this is not going to end well.

(b), (d), and (e) are actually three different versions of the same strategy: apologize and ask again for permission to send the materials. While this is unquestionably polite, it’s also a bit of a waste of LL’s time. Why should she have to give consent twice for the same set of pages, especially since the only reason she might conceivably need to do so was that DW responded to her initial request slowly?

If you selected (c), give yourself a gold star for the day — you’ve either been paying very close attention throughout the SIOA series, are unusually confident for a writer (we tend to be a timid lot), and/or have been reading this blog long enough that you have a pretty good idea of the advice I tend to give. (c) maximizes DW’s possibilities for finding an agent for her book without either impinging unnecessarily upon LL’s time or wasting a pitch session by repeating it.

In short, the answer is SIOA! And at the same time, move on, DW.

Of course, should DW happen find herself sitting next to LL at a luncheon, there’s no reason to avoid talking about their past connection, but let it be in positive terms, and brief: “Oh, how nice to see you again, Loretta — the pages you requested last year are already printed out and on my desk, ready to be sent off to you. Sorry about the delay, but I got caught up in a revision that was more complicated than I anticipated. I’m really happy with the results, though. So, what’s your favorite client project right now?”

Quick, simple, grovel-free. And, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t give LL an easy opening to say, “Gee, I’m not representing that kind of work anymore.” (Naturally, DW should check that she still does take on your book category, but there’s no reason to try LL’s patient by bearding her about it in person. Most of the time, that info is easily available on the agency’s website, in the latest edition of one of the standard agency guides, or oftentimes by being a good listener at the agents’ forum held at most literary conferences.

Do I hear some harrumphing out there? “Easy for you to say, Anne,” a few inveterate SIOA-avoiders protest, their manuscripts folded tightly to their tense chests, “because you’re assuming that Loretta will not be annoyed about the time lapse. But how can DW be sure about that — or Joon, for that matter? If either of these agents have been waiting long enough to get irritated, what’s the point of their submitting at all, at this point?”

Ah, you’re falling into option (f)-think, again, harrumphers, classic SIOA-avoidance logic, and expressing it in a form that conference-going agents do occasionally report finding grating: the oh-so-common writerly assumption that — how to put this as gently as humanly possible? — each of our situations is both absolutely unique and utterly memorable to virtual strangers. Because, you see, unless an aspiring writer believes in both, the assumption that a requesting agent would care enough (or even think enough) about a project he heard pitched or saw queried a year ago to become actually angry about it…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t make any sense. Think about it: from the perspective of someone who receives in the neighborhood of 800-1200 queries per week, attends perhaps three conferences per year, and hears hundreds of verbal pitchers, why would any of those thousands of individual approachers expect to be the single one for which the agent has been waiting?

The fact that aspiring writers do indeed believe that the agents whom they pitch and query are sitting around for months or even years on end, angrily twiddling their thumbs and wondering why a particular requested manuscript hasn’t shown up yet, and address agents accordingly is one major contributor to the widespread belief amongst agent that all writers are born great, big egos. In case anyone was wondering.

That particular misapprehension saddens me, because in my experience, the opposite is usually true: writers, aspiring and established both, are more apt to be insecure than otherwise. DW’s instinct to double-check with LL about sending the requested materials was probably the result of wanting reassurance. Unfortunately, agents aren’t really in the reassurance biz.

As those of us who have agents already know to our grave disappointment. But that’s a subject for another post.

Right now, let’s focus on the kind of cover letter that will help Joon, DW, and SIOA-avoiders like them pull off delayed submitting with aplomb. Given DW’s quite limited earlier contact with LL, I would opt for keeping it almost as simple as their lunch conversation:

Dear Ms. Lovable, (at this point, they’re certainly not on a first-name basis, right?)

Thank you so much for asking to see the first chapter of my women’s fiction book, LOST IN LOVE WITHOUT A WRISTWATCH. I enjoyed speaking with you about it at last year’s Conference That Shall Not Be Named.

Please excuse the delay in my getting these pages to you — after the conference, I got rather carried away in the revision process. I hope you enjoy the result.

Thank you for your time in considering these pages. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Delayed Q. Writer

See? Professional, elegant, yet adequately explanatory — and all ready to be popped into an envelope or attached to an e-mail with REQUESTED MATERIALS written on the outside of the envelope or in the subject line.

Everyone comfortable with that?

Joon’s situation is a trifle more complex, both because more time has passed and because there was more interaction with the agent previously. However, the basic principles here are the same. But while we’re at it, why not sweeten the missive with a bit of flattery?

Dear Ms. Great Big Agent,

Thank you so much for asking to see the full manuscript of my novel, THE NEXT BIG YA SENSATION. Please find it attached.

Thank you, too, for your great patience in my getting these pages to you. As you may recall from when I pitched it to you at the SCBWI conference some time ago, I had not yet completed the novel at the time. After we spoke, one of your suggestions so took wing in my mind that I wanted to flesh it out on the page before submitting this. Obviously, I hope you enjoy the result, but either way, you decide, I cannot thank you enough for the great advice.

Thank you for your time in considering these pages; I may reached at (telephone number), as well as by return e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Joon Pensmith

Hard to quibble with a compliment like that — I’ve never met a working agent who didn’t wish her clients took her writing suggestions a bit more seriously. Having established that here at last is a writer who is both charming and grateful, all Joon has to do plop that code into the subject line, and SIOA! (And, of course, thank me in the acknowledgments when the book comes out.)

One last raised paw, then time to go indeed. “But Anne, I notice that you have not mentioned the amount of time that’s passed since the initial request for pages. That doesn’t seem very honest. Won’t the respective agents want to know how long it’s been?”

Um — why? So they can get annoyed about it now?

That’s a serious set of questions: what possible purpose could it serve to call the agents’ attention to the specific length of the delay? There’s honest, and then there’s selectively revelatory. Everything in both of these missives is factually accurate, isn’t it? (Okay, so I made up that stuff about it taking a long time to incorporate the agent’s suggestion. Plausible, though, isn’t it?) And if either agent remembers the initial requests, she will already know how long it’s been, won’t she?

Remember, this is a professional relationship, not a personal one: both the writer and the agent are hoping to make some money out of this interaction. Even the most inveterate SIOA-avoider hasn’t let the requesting agent down personally, after all.
So approaching an agent who has requested manuscript pages, even after a long delay, should be done in a professional spirit.

But whatever you do, SIOA. Yes, the agent of your dreams may reject it, but you won’t know for sure unless you try, will you?

Keep up the good work!

SOIA, part VI: the answer is, as it so often is in talking about submissions, it depends

Had you noticed, dear readers, that for the last few posts, I had begun merging my SIOA (Send It Out, Already) series with my ongoing quest to clear out my ever-burgeoning readers’-questions-to-blog-about list? We like to multitask here at Author! Author!

Especially when there are just a few days left before much of the NYC-based publishing industry (and, by extension, a hefty percentage of US-based agencies) shift into end-of-the-year slow-down mode. So if you’ve been holding on to manuscript pages requested weeks or months ago, or have been gearing up for an autumn querying blitz, this week would be the time to hit those SEND buttons and/or pop things in the mail.

That being said, when aspiring writers speak of turn-around times, they usually are not talking about how long it takes them to get requested materials out the door, but how long it takes agents they have queried or to whom they have submitted to respond. Over the last five years, I’ve heard so many questions/complaints/laments on the subject that when I first started this blog, I used to deal with the subject every other month, just to set readers’ minds at ease.

The questions tend to run along the lines of this:

My question has to do with agent contacts. At Conference X in 2007, I met Maura M. McLiterate,
pitched her, and she asked me to contact her when I had a finished manuscript…So finally, after finishing
the manuscript this summer, I sent her a cover letter reminding her of our conversation with the stuff she asked for.

That was last October 10. Haven’t heard anything back. Given that she requested the follow-up, does the 4-6 weeks “wait time” still make sense? I have a handful of other agents and editors who asked to be contacted, trying
to figure out how to manage this. Advice welcome.

Some of these issues sound a trifle familiar? Good; that means you’ve been paying attention to this series, so feel free to play along at home as I run over this case study.

The Composite Submitter raises several intriguing issues here, all relating to the burning question of how long is too long in the publishing biz:

*How long after a successful pitch may one take up an agent’s offer to submit materials and still continue them requested? (For an explanation of the vital difference between requested and unrequested materials, see this earlier post.)

*How long is a normal turn-around time at an agency for requested materials?

*Does a long gap between pitch or query and submission necessarily extend that turn-around time?

*Does a submission based upon a face-to-face pitch typically receive swifter attention from agents than one based upon an impersonal query letter?

The short answers to these questions are, in the order asked: it depends, it depends, it depends, and it depends.

I imagine, clever writers that you are, that you would like to know upon what it depends in each instance, but that’s not really a question that may be answered accurately on a theoretical basis — because (wait for it) it all depends.

I know that sounds like a flippant response to a serious question (or, more accurately, to four serious questions), but honestly, I don’t mean it to be. How long an agent is going to be willing to wait to see requested materials depends upon a lot of factors, potentially ranging from how the book market has changed in the interim to whether the agent is still representing that type of book to what authors an agent may have lost lately (agented writers move around more than one might think, sometimes from project to project) to whether the agent has just had a baby.

If that seems like too many unknown factors for a rational person to take into strategic consideration, you’re absolutely right: second-guessing is frequently impossible. Given that realization, would it frighten you too terribly to learn that the list of factors above represents just a tiny fraction of the possible influences over how long an agent may take to respond to a submission?

So my initial answer was quite accurate: in all of these cases, the answer depends on a lot of factors, virtually none of which a writer on the other side of the country (or other side of the world) may anticipate.

Each individual submission is thus to a certain extent the plaything of outside forces. Before that notion depresses anyone too much, let’s return to Composite Submitter’s specific case, to see if it sheds any light upon what an aspiring writer can and cannot control in a submission situation.

First, to place this in as empowering a light as possible, CS did something very, very right in his submission to Maura. Actually, he did something else pretty smart, too. Anyone care to guess what these bright moves were?

If you said that he sent a cover letter along with his submission, reminding her where they had met, what he had pitched to her, and that she had asked him to send the enclosed materials, give yourself a gold star for the day. And make it three gold star and a firecracker if you immediately added that he was right to tell her when he pitched that he had not yet completed the manuscript, so she would not expect it to arrive right away.

Your mother was right, you know — honesty, contrary to popular opinion, often genuinely is the best policy.

Why was reminding Maura how much time had elapsed strategically smart? It prevented her from thinking, “Who?” when she saw the submission marked REQUESTED MATERIALS. More importantly, it minimized the possibility of her thinking, “I don’t remember telling this guy to send anything.”

All of which begs the question: was over two years too long for CS to wait before submitting the materials Maura requested?

You all know the refrain by now, don’t you? Chant it with me: it all depends.

Normally, I would advise trying to get requested materials out the door within six months, if it is humanly possible. Longer than that, and an aspiring writer runs the risk not only of his query or pitch not being remembered (which is probably going to happen far sooner than that, but hey, agents keep records of this sort of thing) but also of the agent’s individual tastes and market trends changing. At minimum, a much longer delay will send a pretty unequivocal message to the agent in question to the effect that the submitter is slow at responding to requests, always a bit frustrating to someone in the business of mediating between authors and publishing houses.

Of course, you could always take your chances and send a much-delayed submission anyway; technically, requests for material don’t expire. But after a year has passed, the risk of any or all of the conditions above’s having changed becomes so high that I would advise sending a follow-up letter, confirming that the request is still operative.

CS, however, was savvy enough to protect himself against the liabilities of a long delay between request and submission: he told Maura up front that he was not yet finished with the manuscript. This gave her the clear option of saying either, “Well, then you should wait and query me when it is finished,” (a popular choice, particularly for novels) or what she actually did say, “That sounds interesting — when you’re finished, send me this and this and this.”

For insight into why this worked, see my earlier comment about honesty.

Assuming that Composite Submitter need not worry about Maura’s having lost interest in his book while he was finishing writing it — again, a fairly hefty assumption, but certainly worth his testing practically — is he right to worry that he did not hear back from her right away?

I’m exceedingly glad that he brought this up, because in the weeks and months following the annual onslaught of writers’ conferences, a LOT of aspiring writers wonder about this. Naturally, everyone wants to hear back right away, but how likely is that desire to be fulfilled?

Or, to put in terms common to fantasy, is it possible to pitch to an agent on Saturday, overnight the requested materials on Monday, and be signed by Friday — and then for one’s new agent to sell one’s book by the following Thursday for publication three weeks from the next Tuesday, so the author may appear triumphantly beaming on Oprah by the end of the month?

The short answer is no. The long answer, as the Vicar of Dibley used to delight in saying, is NOOOOOOOOOOO.

Just doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid. These days, it’s not at all uncommon for submitting writer not to hear back from an agent for months or — you should make sure that you’re sitting down for this, because it’s a lulu — even not at all.

Don’t let that depress you into a stupor just yet — I’ll talk a bit more about the logic behind extensive turn-around times in an upcoming post. For the purposes of today’s discussion, my point is that no, a few weeks’ worth of silence after sending off requested materials isn’t at all unusual.

Let’s get back to the specifics of CS’ situation, though, to see what else we can learn, because the long lapse between pitch and submission honestly do render his position unique — or do they? Let’s see: he pitched to Maura in 2007, then submitted (as per her request) in mid-October, 2009, either by e-mail or by regular mail. Since so much time had passed between the request and the submission, she couldn’t possibly have anticipated when he would send her the materials, and thus could not conceivably have budgeted time to read them.

Which begs the question: why did CS expect her to respond with unusual quickness after she had received them?

Because, honestly, just a few weeks would have been positively lightning speed, according to current norms. So what about this particular submission would have called for Maura to move it to the top of her reading pile — or, more probably, to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa that is the desk of Millicent, her agency’s in-house manuscript screener?

My guess is that from Maura’s perspective, there wasn’t any reason — but that from CS’ point of view, there undoubtedly was.

This particular differential in urgency perception between agents and the writers who submit to them is such a common one that one might almost call it classic: what probably happened here is that CS had been thinking of Maura’s request to submit whenever he happened to complete the manuscript he had pitched as inherently unusual — or at any rate as something different than the kind of request to submit materials that an agent might have made to an aspiring writer who had been pitching a completed manuscript.

As such, CS did indeed, at least implicitly, expected it to be moved up in the submission pile when it arrived, as a special situation. In his version of events, Maura would not have been patient enough to wait until he completed the book before seeing it if she hadn’t been genuinely interested, so why wouldn’t she jump on it immediately?

But from Maura’s point of view, asking him to contact her with pages after he finished writing them was not a special request — it was precisely the same request as she would have made in response to other intriguing pitches she heard at that conference.

The only difference is that she didn’t expect to receive it within a month or two of the request. As such, it would have been reasonable to expect that when CS did submit it, his submission would be treated precisely like every other packet of requested materials the agency received in mid-October.

Translation: Maura’s not having gotten back to CS within 4-6 weeks probably had far more to do with how many manuscripts were stacked up at her agency than with how long CS took to pop those requested materials into the mail.

In a way, aspiring writers should find this encouraging, or at the very least democratic: queue-jumping is actually pretty hard to do during the pitching/querying and submission process. Even if writers everywhere aren’t particularly grateful for this, I suspect that those who had submitted requested materials to Maura in July or August might find it comforting to know that she — or her Millicent — didn’t just drop whatever manuscript they happened to be reading when a new envelope arrived in the office.

So how should CS have handled it? Should he, as his question implied, assume that his previous face time with Maura meant that he should follow up with her earlier than any other submitter? And what about all of those other submitters whose work has been sliding around on Millicent’s desk for weeks and months on end — what should they do?

In the first place, take a nice, deep breath. Delays are a completely normal part of the submission process, so it doesn’t make sense to read too much into them. If CS hasn’t heard back — chant it with me now, readers — it’s likely because no one at the agency has read his submission yet.

I know: disappointingly prosaic, compared to the much more common dead-of-night submitter’s fantasy that the agent is reading and re-reading the submission in frantic indecision about whether to represent it or not. But my version is much, much more likely to be true.

In the second place, CS — and all of those other anxious submitters I mentioned a few paragraphs ago — should check Maura’s agency’s website, listing in the standard agency guides, and/or any written materials she might have sent (like, say, a letter requesting materials), to see if the agency had the foresight to post average turn-around times.

Try looking under the submission guidelines; they will often contain some mention of how long they typically take to get back to writers about requested materials. Not to toot my own team’s horn, but my agency has a simply dandy page on its website that explains not only what turn-around times submitters to expect, but the logic behind it and what a submitter who has been twiddling his thumbs for months on end should do.

Getting back to CS’ situation: before I gave him any advice whatsoever, I spent a couple of minutes checking out Maura’s website. Turns out that her agency lists an 8-week response time; not unusually long. So at minimum, CS should wait two months before sending Maura a follow-up e-mail, letter, or second copy of his materials.

I would advise holding off for a couple of weeks after that, just in case Maura and Millicent are totally swamped and touchy about it, but not for too much longer after that. If the agency has lost the manuscript — yes, it does happen occasionally, one of the many reasons that I disapprove of the increasingly pervasive practice of agents’ simply not responding at all to submitters if the answer is no — they’re going to want to know about it.

Or, to recast that from a writerly perspective, after 2 1/2 or three months, CS has every right to give Maura a gentle nudge, to double-check that his book is languishing in a stack on the northeast corner of Millicent’s desk, rather than having vanished into that mysterious other dimension where lost socks, extinct animals, and the child stars of yesteryear dwell. But it’s probably not going to be in his interest to contact her before that.

Why? Long-time readers, or at any rate those who were reading this blog as long ago as last Saturday, open your hymnals and sing it with me now: since an agented writers’ life is made up primarily of delays, CS’ exhibiting completely justified impatience at this junction might make him come across as a time-consuming potential client. Some agents like to be checked up upon, but he vast majority fall into the leave me alone and let me do my work category. And it often doesn’t take much pushiness for a writer to get labeled as difficult.

So what should CS be doing in the meantime? Submitting to everyone else who requested materials, of course — and continuing to query up a storm to generate new requests for materials.

Did I just hear yet another chorus of, “Why?” Well, unless you have actually promised an agent an exclusive look at your work, it’s poor submission strategy to submit one at a time. (For an extensive explanation of the logic behind this, you might want to check out the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the archive list at right.) Your time is too valuable, and at this point in publishing history, agents simply don’t expect exclusivity unless they ask for it.

And if you doubt that, perhaps you should scroll back up to that earlier bit about how some agents now don’t bother to get back to writers whose submissions they have rejected.

I’m constantly meeting submitting writers who believe that the agent of their dreams will be hugely insulted if they don’t grant him an unrequested exclusive, but think about it in practical terms for a moment: if Maura’s agency habitually takes two months to get back to the Composite Submitters of this world and her agency is not unusually slow, CS could find himself waiting two, three, or even six months (it happens, alas) to hear back from every agent to whom he submits. If he does not engage in multiple submissions, he is limiting himself to just a few submissions a year.

Does that seem fair or reasonable to you? Believe me, when agents genuinely want exclusives or if their agencies require them, they’ll let you know about it.

The other thing that CS might want to do while he’s waiting is to do a bit of research on what to expect after a submission. We discuss it quite often here at Author! Author! (for those of you who are new to the blog, the WHY HAVEN’T I HEARD BACK YET? category might be a good place to start), but frankly, this is a perennial topic of discussion on almost every good writers’ discussion board.

Why invest valuable time in finding out what is happening to your fellow submitters? Well, on a purely selfish level, it would probably reduce your submission-period stress levels. Since writers are so isolated, it’s very easy to start to think that what is happening to oneself is exceptional, whereas usually, it’s just a matter of business as usual in an industry that receives literally millions of pages of submissions every year.

Comparing notes can be very empowering. Honest. So can starting to work on one’s next book.

What a submitter gnawing his nails, anticipating a response from the agent of his dreams, should most emphatically NOT do is allow the delays inherent to the submission process to bring his life to a screeching halt while he waits to hear back. Yes, it’s stressful to know that someone with the power to help you sell your work has her hands all over your work, but obsessing over what might be happening won’t help.

Trust me on this one. I know whereat I speak.

Did everyone make it through that case study feeling warm, snug, and in-the-know? Excellent. Next time, we’re going to take on a significantly more complex real-world variation on this theme.

In the meantime, keep taking those nice, deep breaths, submitters, and everybody, keep up the good work!

PS: No submitters, composite or otherwise were harmed in the research and writing of this blog post. And to set the minds of those of you who have spoken with me privately about your fears and hopes at ease, he gave his permission for me to use his story as an example. Keep taking those deep breaths, I tell you.

SOIA, part V: but what if…what if…

crossing-finish-line

Before I launch into today’s juicy buffet of meaty topics, a quick reminder: next Wednesday, November 25 is the deadline for submissions to the Author! Author! Inspirational Writerly Quotes contest. It’s easy to enter, and I’m genuinely excited to see all of your favorite keeping-the-faith quotes. For contest rules, click here.

Some additional incentive, for those of you who need a nudge to enter: if I keep getting thought-provoking entries, I may need to add more prizes. I’m just saying.

Back to that tempting buffet I mentioned — and lordy, is it bounteous at the moment. I’ve been getting such good questions in response to the SIOA (Send It Out, Already) series that I’m going to extend it into next week. So please, if you have any reservations whatsoever about the timing of mailing off requested materials or — heaven preserve us — are thinking about not complying with a submission request at all, stick around. And feel free to leave questions in the comments on these posts.

To give the comment-shy a bit of incentive, remember how I was telling you that some of my most trenchant blog topics come from readers’ comments — and that many of the most thought-provoking are left anonymously, presumably because their leavers are convinced that their situations are unique enough that there might be some repercussions if the comment were posted under their real names?

The last time I went on a SIOA rampage, way back in 2007, one such timid questioner raised a fascinating point under the clever pseudonym Anonymous — a bit of evasion that in this case appears to be abundantly justified:

Should I send requested materials to an agent that I took a genuine dislike to? During the panel, she said she had never picked up anyone from a conference and didn’t hope to. During my pitch she was brusque, kept cutting me off, and I had the feeling she only requested {pages}to get rid of me.

Should I chalk it up to jetlag, headache, hangover, being from New York, MBLS (Millicent Burned Lip Syndrome), and send them anyway?

I suppose I could always say no later, but she’s from a fairly big agency and I’d just assume cold-query someone else from there if it’s going to be a long-term relationship.

 

Whenever I get a question like this, the wee hairs at the back of my neck begin to quiver — and not just because I can already feel half the agents I know lining up to glower at me for what I’m about to say. It’s because I hear stories like this from so many conference pitchers.

Yes, of course, I’m going to delve into why this is apparently such a common conference experience. But allow me to set some anonymous minds at ease first.

For starters, please, for your own sake, don’t prejudge an agent (or editor — or writer, for that matter, if you happen to be on the other side of the pitching table) based on a less-than-stellar first impression. It’s not unheard-of for a good agent-client relationship to emerge from a so-so or even downright hostile pitch meeting.

Stop shaking your head — it’s true. It’s also true that warm personal interaction at a first meeting or a we-love-writers speech from a conference do not necessarily guarantee a good future working relationship. Mostly because being a nice person is not an indispensable prerequisite for being either a good agent or a good writer.

Yes, yes, I know: those of us who happen to be both talented and nice would prefer that the two were linked. Because there is no necessary correlation, the oh-so-common writerly conference strategy of deciding whom to pitch based upon who sounded nicest during an agents’ forum is not particularly strategic.

How so? Well, in the first place, it’s far from unheard-of for a nice agent to put on a standoffish persona in conference situations, to avoid being swamped by eager would-be clients. The theory, I believe, is that if one makes oneself approachable, one is less likely to be approached.

In the second place, agents and editors are not infrequently sent to conferences primarily to give a talk, sit on a panel, or to promote a client’s book — only to find themselves expected to hear pitches as well for no additional compensation. One extremely prominent agent stalked into a Conference That Shall Remain Nameless a few years back and alienated virtually every writer there by not only announcing that he NEVER picked up clients via pitching, but that he wasn’t interested in speaking to anyone who wasn’t either already published or an attractive woman under 30.

He might have meant that last part as a joke. But I’m sure you can easily imagine the dismay of the fifty or so conference attendees who had been assigned to pitch to him. Especially when he devoted the rest of his time on the agents’ panel to alternating between promoting his recently-released book of advice for aspiring writers and rubbing it in the other agents’ faces that a client of his had recently won the Pulitzer Prize.

See earlier comment about the correlation between being nice and being good at selling books.

His book is quite well-respected, by the way. Yet after he treated that roomful of aspiring writers — who, after all, had paid a fairly hefty sum to hear him dash their dreams contemptuously into the convention center’s musty carpet — wild horses would have to drag me across a frozen lake in Hades before I would touch his book with a ten-foot pole, much less recommend it to my charming and sensitive readers.

But at least he was honest about pitching to him being a waste of time — as Anonymous’ manuscript-requester sounds like she was. (Or she could have been having a bad day, or it was her first conference…) Actually, I have more of a problem with agents who take the opposite tack, being immensely friendly to conference-attending writers when they have no intention of picking up any new clients.

It just goes to show you: an agent’s sales record is pretty much always a better indicator of how well she will represent your work than her level of charm on any given day.

Lest we forget, agents end up at conferences for a lot of different reasons — including drawing the short straw when the person the fairly large agency usually sends can’t do it this year. An agent who didn’t really want to be there might easily have made the statement Anonymous reported. As might someone new to conferences — or, as he pointed out, who is hung over, jet lagged, or just plain rude.

That being said, a hung-over, unhappy-to-be-there, naturally brusque, etc. person is infinitely more likely to get a writer to go away by saying no than by saying yes, so it’s worth considering the possibility that she genuinely wanted to see Anonymous’ material. Or thought his book might interest someone else at her agency — agents at large agencies do occasionally pass along submissions to one another.

Perhaps neither was the case here, but it was definitely worth checking out. And how does an aspiring writer do that, clever readers?

Shout it with me now: by Sending It Out, Already!

I can sense you scowling, SIOA-avoiders. “But Anne,” some of you protest mid-grimace, “I still think sending my precious manuscript to nasty old Grumblepuss is a waste of my time and resources. Why bother, when I could be querying or submitting to somebody else?”

Good point, oh scowlers — provided that you are indeed investing the energy you’re not investing in following up with Grumblepuss in approaching and submitting to other agents. Most SIOA-avoiders do not, alas.

And that’s especially unfortunate, because in the vast majority of post-pitching situations, the choice is not SIOAing to Grumblepuss or not sending it out at all. A savvy pitcher can usually garner several requests for materials at a large conference (if you doubt that, you might want to check out the HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD PITCH and/or HALLWAY PITCHING categories on the archive list at right); even if Anonymous wasn’t able to buttonhole any other agent, he could always query other agents he heard speak. (As in, “I so enjoyed hearing your talk at Conference X that I am hoping you will be interested in my paranormal mystery…”)

After all, there’s no earthly reason that Anonymous couldn’t be SIOAing to Grumblepuss while simultaneously SIOAing, pitching, or querying others, right? Sing it out, long-time readers: unless an agent or agency SPECIFICALLY informs writers that he/she/it only accepts exclusive queries or submissions, an aspiring writer asked for materials is free to submit it to other agents at the same time. And should.

Besides, what does Anonymous really have to lose here? If Grumbles falls in love with his writing, it’s unlikely that she’s going to be anything but nice from there on out — and if she doesn’t fall in love with it, then her interpersonal skills won’t affect Anonymous ever again. It was just a bad conference meeting.

It’s also entirely possible that Grumbles wouldn’t have perceived herself as being brusque at all — I know plenty of agents who would begin to hurry a writer through a pitch the moment they decided that they wanted to see it. If they’ve already decided to read it, the logic runs, what more is there to say?

Especially if every syllable uttered in her presence sounds like a jetliner breaking the sound barrier somewhere within her brainpan. The demon drink does affect everyone differently, and few are the writers’ conferences where teetotalism prevails, if you catch my drift. Heck, I’ve attended conferences where the behind-the-scenes parties were so intense that some of the agents didn’t make it to their morning pitch meetings at all.

You might want to pick your jaw off the floor, lest some passerby inadvertently tread upon your lower lip.

When it comes right down to it, Grumbles DID make a professional commitment to read Anonymous’ work; he is well within his rights to expect her to honor it. If she was being brusque to hide that she was too much of a softie to say no, or to scare off potential submitters, well, that’s just sort of quixotic, and it’s not worth any aspiring writer’s energy to second-guess her.

But frankly, the too-nice-to-say-no contingent is generally, well, nice about it. They want to be liked, you see.

So unless Anonymous already knew for a fact that another agent at Grumbles’ agency has a strong track record of representing your kind of book AND he was planning to cold-query that agent within the next couple of months, I would go ahead and SIOA. Perhaps not with high hopes, but especially if she has scared off other potential submitters (thus reducing the number of manuscripts she will have received from the conference), Anonymous isn’t going to lose anything by doing what she asked him to do.

Because she might just say yes, right? And presumably, Anonymous knew enough about who she is and what she represents to want her as an agent.

Even if she did, out of some bizarre desire to make more work for herself, say yes when she meant no (not a common practice, in my experience, for the habitually insensitive), it’s highly unlikely that she would have let her Millicent in on her evil plan. At least not in enough detail to cause Millie to take one look at your cover letter, giggle, and pass it directly into the reject pile.

Hey, really effective sadism takes time and planning. Both Grumbles and Millicent are far to busy perusing that 4-month backlog of submissions.

Everyone comfortable with that? Or, if comfortable is too much to ask, at least able to live with it?

Nor was Anonymous’ the only great question raised by readers of my last rousing SIOA series. Listen, if you will, to the excellent point Rose raised:

I think I have a variation of this. Talked to you a while back about how several agents have been sitting on requested partials and fulls for a while. You suggested I contact them. I was too scared. I’ve queried over 100 agents already, this is a difficult book I think, but I know that it’s quite good…so what I’ve begun to do…I did write to an agent who had the full for 6 months, he said he didn’t remember getting it so I sent it again (electronically) and asked him to let me know he got it. He didn’t.

That was two months ago.

I’m more concerned about a couple of agents who have partials. They seem to be good fits for me, but they just haven’t replied and it’s been 6 months. I’ve resolved to send it again, this time on paper, with a note. (Actually one of these agents *did* get it on paper originally. Why would so many agents be so eager to see my book and then not even reply to reject it?)
And while it’s getting harder to hold this pose, my chin is still up pretty high.

 

Oh, how I wish Rose were the only aspiring writer in North America with this problem! Unfortunately, her dilemma seems to be getting steadily more common.

So common, in fact, that intrepid reviser Jenyfer posted a comment about it just the other day:

What I wonder more is why it is that once an agent asks to see the material and the material is actually sent, the agent can’t be bothered to respond. It’s one thing to ignore an unsolicited query / partial, but if they actually request it, you would think they could at least say “thanks, but no thanks” if they aren’t interested. Surely I’m not the only one this has happened to?

 

You and Rose are most emphatically not the only aspiring writers to whom this has happened, Jenyfer, but the why is hard to explain. Hard enough, I think, that I want to devote an entire post to the subject sometime soon.

In the meantime, let me complete the translation process Jenyfer initiated: the vast majority of the time, when an agent simply doesn’t respond at all to either a submission of requested materials or a query accompanied by materials that the agency’s website or agency guide listing specifically request that all queriers send, the answer is no, at least on this book project.

Or there isn’t an answer at all, because the agency never received the materials in the first place, accidentally deleted an e-mailed submission, mixed up your SASE with another aspiring writer’s…

You get the picture. The real problem with the increasingly frequent practice of not replying if the answer is no is not, to my mind, the inherent rudeness — I was brought up to treat even complete strangers’ dreams and aspirations with greater respect — but the fact that the submitter can never really know for sure whether the agent (or her Millicent) ever read the pages at all.

While you absorb the full horror of that last statement, let’s get back to Rose’s practical dilemma. Since it’s been 6 and 8 months, respectively, it’s almost certainly safe to assume that the answer is no, and the agents concerned just didn’t get around to mentioning that salient fact to Rose. Yet it is also possible that in those 6/8 months, one or all of these agencies adopted a policy that they respond only if they want to see additional pages or are ready to offer representation.

Such policies are, alas, increasingly common, especially for agencies that accept electronic queries and submissions. So if it’s been a while, a nail-gnawing waiting writer’s first stop should be the agency’s website and/or listing in the most recent edition of a well-established agency guide.

“That makes sense, Anne,” those who were scowling earlier concede. “But what should a self-respecting writer like Rose do if these agencies have no posted policies on the subject?”

Ah, that’s a more difficult question. Since Agent #1 has now spaced out twice, Rose is naturally more than within her rights to e-mail him and remind him that other agents are looking at it. Two months is long enough for courtesy, although I wouldn’t normally recommend following up before twice the agency’s stated average turn-around time. And before she follows up at all, of course, she should — chant it with me now — check the agency’s website or most recent guide listings for average turn-around times and possible policies of silence.

She should not send a whole new copy of the manuscript, mind you, but a politely-worded question that allows the agent to save face if he’s simply lost it:

Dear Mr. (Wayward Agent’s last name),

As you requested, I sent you the full manuscript of my novel, PLEASE DON’T IGNORE THIS STACK OF PAPERS, a couple of months ago. While you have been considering it, several other agents have asked to read it as well.

I thought you might want to be aware that other agents were also considering it. If you have decided that you are not interested, or if the manuscript has gone astray, please let me know.

Thank you for your continued interest in my book project, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Rose Nailgnawer

 

See? No recriminations, no hurry-it-up-buddy, no here-it-is-for-a-third-time-you-moron, just a polite, professional reminder that Rose exists and is waiting for a response. And believe it or not, if the agency actually did lose the submission (the agent’s ambiguous statement that he doesn’t remember having received it doesn’t tell us anything either way), or if it’s still sitting in a post office just outside Peoria, the agent actually will want to know about it.

Unfortunately, the only way he is at all likely to find out about such an error is if the submitting author tells him. In an environment where most agents vastly prefer to be left alone to consider their immense backlog of manuscripts, that’s an inherently risky thing to do.

See why being polite is so very important? And why I always recommend continuing to query and submit elsewhere while any given agent is considering a manuscript, partial or full?

Speaking of multiple submissions, a missive like this would be an especially good idea to send if she had formerly neglected to mention that there were other agents taking a gander at it in the first place. In fact, this would be a good time to politely remind/inform Agents #2 and 3 of the same fact — because technically, the non-responsive agent IS considering it, right?

Incidentally, though, there are a couple of ways that Rose could have hedged her bets earlier, both when she submitted in hard copy and electronically. The accepted method of asking for receipt confirmation is to send a self-addressed, stamped postcard (with a hard copy, obviously) and ask the agent in your cover letter to drop it in the mail when he receives it.

The other common method is to send the pages via a mail service (and the USPS does offer this cheaply) that requires a signature upon receipt. Do check in advance, though, whether the agency has a policy that it will not sign for parcels — many now do.

Two more reasons that paper submissions are far, far better for writers than electronic ones. But if an agent insists upon an electronic submission, the easiest way to confirm that it got there is to cc the missive to yourself. That way, you will receive a dated copy.

Most of this is moot, of course, if Agent #1 works at an agency whose stated policy forbids simultaneous submissions to other agencies. But even if he did insist on having a solo peek at the work, Rose should have moved on after three months, maximum; it’s not fair to her otherwise. That’s a subject for another post, however.

The moral: while yes, most of the time-related decisions in a submission situation do lie in the receiving agent’s hands, the writer does not need to sit around and wait helplessly. A career-minded writer keeps moving forward until some agent worthy of representing the book says yes.

Even if that takes more than a 100 tries — not at all out of the ballpark these days, by the way, even for the best of first books. So keep pressing forward, because that’s the only way to succeed in the end.

Welcome to a world where overnight successes have almost always been at it for at least five years. Hanging in there has benefits, I assure you. Keep up the good work!

SIOA, my friends! SIOA!

mailbox

I woke up this morning fully intending to dig through my embarrassingly tall stack of readers’ questions so trenchant that they deserve a post of their very own and find a topic du jour, honest. I genuinely am looking forward to plowing through ‘em all, possibly followed by a nice, leisurely stroll through common red flags that tend to traject submissions into the reject pile faster than a writer new to the process can say, “But I didn’t know that there WAS a standard format for manuscripts, or that a manuscript page wasn’t supposed to look just like the same page in a published book!” (If that last sentence didn’t make you smirk knowingly, you might want to check out the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category at on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page before you proceed much farther in your writing career.)

And then I happened to glance at the calendar. It’s a week and a half until Thanksgiving — or, as those of us who deal on a regular basis with the publishing industry like to call it, the annual slow-down.

Before I depress you all by explaining why anyone would call it that, let’s be proactive: I would like to take the opportunity to urge those of you who have owed requested materials to an agent for a full season — from, say, having pitched successfully at a summer conference or received a positive response to a query prior to the annual August holidays — to send it out, already.

As in, if humanly possible, within the next week and a half.

Did that request make panic-generated fireworks go off in some writerly heads out there? I shouldn’t wonder; the last time I checked, over 70% of requested manuscripts were never actually sent to the agents and editors that requested them.

Yes, you read that correctly — the vast majority never turn up on Millicent’s desktop. That’s a whole lot of potentially publishable writing sitting in a whole lot of desk drawers. Let’s give some thought to why that might be the norm.

Consider, if you will, Zack, a good-but-as-yet-unagented novelist. Zack has been looking for an agent for quite some time now for a well-written, complex book — the kind of book that folks in the industry like to describe, if they’re feeling charitable, as “needing precisely the right agent/editor/push campaign.” (If they’re not feeling charitable, they describe it as “good, but difficult to place.”)

In short, Zack’s novel is original, and the perfect agent has yet to fall in love with it.

We’ve all been there, right? If I haven’t said it again recently, allow me to remind you that the time elapsed between when a writer begins to seek an agent for a particular project and when she finally signs with one is NOT necessarily an especially reliable predictor of the writer’s talent — or of how likely a book is to appeal to readers.

In fact, it usually isn’t predictive of anything at all: if the writing quality were the only factor involved, we wouldn’t ever see a bad book on the tables at the front of a chain bookstore, would we?

But try convincing a well-meaning friend or relative — the kind that might lecture one over turkey at a certain annual family gathering about the desirability of dropping a time-consuming hobby that has not yet yielded fortune or fame — that even the best books often take time to find the right home, eh? Non-writers tend to assume that talent is the ONLY factor, but then, the non-writing world lives under the happy delusion that the only reason a book would not get published right away is that it isn’t any good!

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: plenty of good writers have queried for years before getting picked up, and frankly, it’s harder to land an agent today than it was even two years ago, due to the slow economy. Let alone the ten or fifteen that may have elapsed since that established author whose interview you just read landed hers in — how many tries did she mention? Two? Three?

Okay, pep talk administered. Back to our saga already in progress.

Like a sensible writer, Zack knows that his book’s only chance of getting published lies in his promoting it to agents and editors, so he routinely spends the spring and summer going around to literary conferences, and the autumn to sending out queries. Since he both has an interesting story to tell and is a talented pitcher/querier, he always picks up a few requests to see all or part of the book.

Yet invariably, when I see him at holiday parties, he responds uncomfortably to my eager inquires about how agents have responded to his submissions. “I’m still revising the end of the book,” he says, eyes averted.

We have this exchange down to a ritual now. I this is my cue to ask, “Does that mean that you haven’t sent out the first 50 to the agents who asked you for it, either?”

Zack looks sheepish, self-righteous, and fearful all at once, a facial feat I would have sworn was not possible. “I want to be completely ready when they ask to see the rest.”

Readers, care to know how often you are on my mind? Exactly three seconds before I start to read him my annual riot act on the virtues of SIOA (Send It Out, Already!), I routinely think, “Gee, how long has it been since I’ve blogged about this? I really should do a reminder post.”

So here I am, telling you: if you got a request for materials prior to the first week of September (and I mean this LAST September, not the one before) to send all or part of a manuscript to an agent or editor, please, please, please SIOA!

Yes, even if it isn’t perfect. Requests for materials are like vitamins, boxes of cereal, and hunks of meat: they come with expiration dates.

Not firm ones, of course, or especially short ones, but when a request is made, it is considered professional to follow up on it in a timely manner. It shows what a good client you would be: after all, your agent would like to be able to tell editors, “Oh, she’s great about meeting deadlines.”

More to the point, I’ve never met an agent or editor yet whose raving praise about an author included the words, “And when I ask for something, she doesn’t get back to me for eight months!”

Sounds flippant, I know, but from a business perspective, how quickly a writer can churn out impeccable pages is a legitimate concern for an agent or editor. After all, an author working under a book contract would not have the luxury of setting aside a manuscript for a few months until she had a few unbroken weeks’ time to make requested revisions, right?

Most of the time, of course, a requesting agent is not going to be drumming her nails on her desk for months on end, wondering where a particular submission is, unless the submitter is already a client. If a project that particularly excited her in query or pitch form doesn’t appear, she’s likely to assume that the writer went with another agent — or dropped the project entirely.

In other words, she’s going to move on without following up. Possibly without even considering following up.

Please, please don’t wait for her to nag you about sending those requested materials; it’s not going to happen. Just SIOA.

I see some of you SIOA-avoiders scuffing your toes against the floor. “But Anne,” some of you protest, clinging to your manuscript as though it were a life raft and the tidal wave was headed your way, “The agent was REALLY interested at the conference four months ago, but I didn’t manage to get the pages out the door. Life intervened, at least to the extent that I haven’t had time to polish it to a high gloss yet. I feel like I’ve let the agent down. And despite what you say about his probably having assumed that I’ve signed elsewhere, I know in my heart that if he were truly the right agent for me, he would have defied all of the rules and contacted me to ask where the manuscript was. Because our pitch meeting wasn’t like any other in the history of the world, and…”

Let me stop you right there, Sparky: I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if a pitch (or query, for that matter) goes well, it results in a professional connection, period. Not a personal commitment — a necessary precondition to letting someone down, no? — and not a guarantee to stop work when the requested materials arrive. Nor, with certain EXTREMELY rare exceptions, an incentive for the agent to track down and ask twice for a book he’s never read.

So how is it possible to read anything at all into the agent’s not contacting Sparky to beg for an opportunity to see pages requested months ago? Many aspiring writers misinterpret silence from the requester’s end as a lapse of interest, but that isn’t necessarily the case; a good agent simply has too many books on the brain — and too many eager writers clamoring for her attention — to badger writers slow to submit.

And even if she were so inclined, remember, this person doesn’t know you. From the requester’s end of the relationship, there isn’t necessarily any visible difference between not receiving requested materials because the writer’s obsessing over whether every comma is right, because the writer just hasn’t had time to give it a once-over, because the writer has had a sudden bout of massive insecurity, and because the writer had been pitching or querying a book not yet written.

And frankly, most pros would expect that if, say, the first 50 pages of a book did need to be written from scratch post-request, it could be done successfully between midsummer and Thanksgiving, anyway. From a writer’s point of view, that may not be a particularly realistic expectation, given how most aspiring writers are already struggling to sandwich their writing between work and family and friends and a million other demands upon their time, but remember, at the submission stage, intentions don’t count for much.

Agents and editors want to judge a writer by what’s on the page, and they can’t do that without having pages to read. Thus the general expectation –for fiction, at least — is that if the book is at the querying/pitching point, it ought to be ready to send out.

Which isn’t always the case in practice, I’m afraid. An aspiring writer might jump the gun on querying for a number of reasons: because conferences fall at particular times of year, for instance, or because that terrific new character didn’t pop into the mind until a week after the query letter went out. Or because some darned fool of an Internet expert told you that the industry moves with glacial speed during certain parts of the year (like the one coming up in a week and a half, hint, hint) and you wanted to beat the post-New Year’s rush.

Heck, I once won a major literary award for a memoir for which I had written only the first chapter and synopsis. But I knew enough about the industry to respond to agents’ requests for a book proposal with a chipper, “Great! I can have a proposal to you in six weeks.” Then I sat down and wrote it during the annual August publishing world’s vacation.

But the point is, I did send it out, and that’s how my current agency was able to figure out that it wanted to sign me.

“But Anne,” I hear those who had planned on spending another few months polishing their submissions piping up, “you said that the industry shuts down between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and that it’s not a good idea to query just after the New Year. Why does it make any difference if I send it in mid-November or in February?”

A couple of very good reasons, actually: first, enthusiasm is not a permanent condition, but a fleeting one.

The fact is, the chances of the requester’s remembering you (and, more importantly, your book) are significantly higher now than three months from now. A long lapse is not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s not unheard-of for an agent to respond to a submission that arrives six months after a pitch with a statement that she doesn’t remember having requested it.

The second reason is that many, many agents and editors are planning to spending the next month and a half catching up on their READING while their offices are quiet. The industry slows down not because everyone who works in a publishing house takes six weeks off, but because there are so many Judeo-Christian holidays during that period that it’s hard to get enough bodies together for an editorial meeting.

Why is that significant? Well, unlike agencies, where an individual agent can decide to take a chance on a new author, a publishing house’s acquiring a book requires the collective agreement of a great many people. If the requisite bodies are heading over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, it’s kinda hard to obtain their consent to anything.

But as anyone who has had much contact with the industry knows, it’s full of folks who tend to deal with the most immediate crisis of any given moment. Naturally, this workplace orientation results in much work being put off until some nebulous future date when the agent or editor has time to deal with it. Any wild guesses as to when they typically get around to it?

Right: between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. And because agents know that editors will be occupied with what is already on their overburdened desks, they tend to curl up with a few good manuscripts and take a well-deserved breather, too.

In other words, it behooves a submitting writer to adhere to their calendar, rather than expecting them to follow any individual writer’s.

“Why,” I hear one plaintive-but-reasonable voice out there demanding querulously, “in an industry where it is considered perfectly acceptable for an agent to take several months to get back to a writer who has submitted a manuscript, and six months or more for an editor to read a submission via an agent,” (yes, it happens) “should there be ANY restrictions on how long I have to send out requested materials? Why is the writer the only one expected to adhere to a tacit deadline?”

Want the honest answer? (Look away NOW if you don’t.) Because the writer is the one with the least power in this situation, and the competition for scarce representation and publishing slots is fierce.

Any well-established agent or editor sees hundreds upon hundreds of perfectly-formatted, well-written submissions per year: they don’t worry too much about the one who got away. And that gives them the power to set unreasonable (and, yes, as regular readers of this blog already know, often unwritten and unspoken) rules for writerly conduct.

Unfortunately, it honestly is as simple as that.

Amongst agents and editors, the writer who pitches well but never sends in the requested follow-up materials is as notorious as the guy who doesn’t call again after the first date. As is the nonfiction writer who pitches a stellar book idea but never actually submits a book proposal. And the already-agented writer who comes up with a great premise for a next book, gets her agent all excited about it, then two years pass without a peep.

Ask any agent: they find this phenomenon genuinely frustrating.

But it is common enough that after an agent has been in the biz for a while, she usually isn’t holding her breath waiting for ANY pitched or queried book to show up on her desk just because she asked for it. No, she’s not the kind of girl to sit by the phone.

Now, logically, one might expect that this ambient cynicism would mean that the writer had MORE time leeway, rather than less. Even an agent who flatly fell in love with a pitch wouldn’t be at all upset if the requested pages didn’t show up for a couple of months; if he’s at all experienced, he would already be aware that almost every writer on the planet likes to give the book one last read-through before submitting it, to catch any rookie, grammatical, or continuity mistakes. And, of course, he’s not the kind of boy to sit by the phone.

However, as I mentioned above, publishing is very much a seasonal business; the pros even talk about the year that way. Is your book a summer novel, a fall culture book, or a late winter special interest release? In practice, this means that submissions that might be tossed into a pile of fifty to molder during one month might be being placed in much, much shorter piles in another, where they might be read within a week or two.

But that’s not the only reason you should SIOA now — as in NOW, before the Thanksgiving holiday, if you can possibly manage it. As any of my editing clients (they’re the ones cringing in that corner over there) can tell you, I am the last person on earth who would advise submitting a manuscript that has fundamental problems. And realistically, if you absolutely had to, you might be able to get away with sending requested materials as much as 7 or 8 months after the request, if you were polite enough to send a letter explaining the need for delay quite early in the process.

However, it has been my experience that if a writer puts off sending requested materials for more than a couple of months, they may not get sent at all. Let me repeat that statistic from above: somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of requested materials are NEVER sent to their requestors.

That’s a whole lot of lost opportunity, isn’t it? And that’s just sad. SIOA, my friends: it may be scary, but it’s a necessary – and indispensable — step in becoming a professional writer.

But don’t beat yourself up if you recognized yourself in this post; many, many good writers sometimes have a hard time SIOA-ing, and for a hefty percentage, that reluctance to send out requested materials becomes habitual. Next time, I’m going to talk about the major reasons that SOIA-avoidance happens, and what a writer can do to snap out of the pattern.

Keep up the good work!

Submission packet mystery theatre, continued: the race is not always to the swift

monk writing at desk

Before I launch back into my ongoing spate of darkly illustrative tales of Submitters Gone Wrong (hey, it’s Halloween — what could possibly be scarier to a writer than a submission gone horribly awry?) I have a bit of procedural business: I’m going to be taking a brief hiatus from posting here at Author! Author!, probably about a week, to lock myself in a suitably arty and consumption-inducing attic somewhere to perform a bit of intensive writing. In the interim, please feel free to post questions and comments; I shall be checking in every couple of days. Do talk amongst yourselves.

To provide you with some mental chewing gum to munch while I’m off doing an intensive rewrite, I shall be wrapping up this week’s micro-series on SASEs and other things an aspiring writer might conceivably ship to an agent or editor with a bit more discussion of the submission process — specifically, more cautionary tales where completely well-meaning aspiring writers go wrong in pulling together and sending off requested materials.

Or at the very least, cause themselves some unnecessary chagrin.

Case in point: too many aspiring writers waste scads of money speeding up the delivery time between their houses and a requesting agency. Overnighting a submission is utterly unnecessary; it won’t win you any Brownie points whatsoever with Millicent the agency screener, and it most assuredly will not get her boss to read your manuscript any faster.

Save your money for something else — nice paper upon which to print the submission, for instance. Or a bottle of aspirin for the stress headache induced by waiting for the response.

With an eye to helping submitting writers figure out what is and isn’t a necessary expense, I have spent the last few posts talking (in part) about ways to save money when shipping requested materials to an agent or editor. We writers don’t talk about this very much amongst ourselves, but the fact is, the process of finding an agent can be pretty expensive.

Did a few of you new to the process just choke on your cornflakes? “Wait just a minute, Anne,” a sputtering few still working up to the marketing stage cry. “Surely, you’re talking about the entire agent-finding process being expensive, right, not just the shipping-off part? I mean, really, I’ve just shelled out hundreds of dollars to attend a writers’ conference so I could meet agents to query — I hadn’t thought at all about the next step, mailing off requested materials, taxing my scant savings.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but better to shatter your illusions than your piggy bank: the submission process itself can be quite expensive. Especially if you decide, as many a savvy writer does, to submit to several agents simultaneously.

Why might it add up? Well, let’s take a gander at what’s involved. At minimum, the costs of producing a professional-looking submission packet include:

shipping (both there and back),
boxes,
paper,
ink cartridges or photocopying expenses,
wear and tear on your computer, and
a ton of your time that could be used for, well, anything else.

While individually, these may not seem as potentially scarifying to your checking account as the even greater optional costs of attending conferences, entering contests, and hiring freelance editors like me to help pull your submission into tip-top shape, if you’re printing out five different packets, the cumulative cost can be significant.

So much so that if you’re a US citizen and marketing a book, it’s worth looking into the possibility of filing a Schedule C for your writing as a business, so you can deduct these expenses. Talk to a tax professional about it (I am not a tax professional, so I cannot legally give you advice on the subject), but do try to find one who is familiar with artists’ returns in general and writers’ returns specifically: ones who are not will almost invariably say that a writer must actually sell some writing in a given year to claim associated expenses. That’s not necessarily true.

Or so I’m told. Had I mentioned that I’m not a professional tax advisor, and that you absolutely shouldn’t take my word on any of this?

Last time, as part of my ongoing quest to save you a few sous, I brought up the case of Antoinette, the writer who rushed out and overnighted her manuscript, then waited seemingly endlessly by the phone for the agent of her dreams to respond. I went into her possible reasons for doing this — rather than sending the book regular mail or the more affordable 2-3 day Priority Mail rate.

Today, I want to talk a bit about the other two primary motivators for jumping the proverbial gun and springing for swifter-than-normal shipping: clawing, pathological fear and nail-gnawing eagerness.

To let one of the most poorly-hidden cats out of one of the most hole-ridden bags in the business, few souls walking the planet are in a greater hurry than a writer who has just received a request for materials. Especially if that request comes at the end of a long period of querying or after a particularly intense conference, it’s far from uncommon for the lucky writer to decide, wrongly, that the only possible response is to drop everything else in her life — by calling in sick to work, evading kith and kin, pretending to have emigrated to Morocco, that sort of thing — to throw together the requested materials and get them out the door as close to instantly as possible.

One of two rationales may prompt this super-speedy response. In the first, the writer cries, “Oh, my God, this request to see all or part of my manuscript must be a fluke. I’d better get these materials under the agent or editor’s nose within the next few hours, before either (a) s/he changes her/his mind, (b) the malignant forces that rule the universe cause the wall of indifference to art to rise again, this temporary fissure mended, or (c) both!”

Whichever thunderbolt the hostile gods of publishing are planning to send his way, the hyper-fearful writer wants to make absolutely sure that his submission is out of his hands well before it strikes. Who cares that he hasn’t had time to double-check his submission for easily-overlooked gaffes that a few hours invested in proofreading (IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and read OUT LOUD, preferably), or that overnighting that package will cost four times as much as sending it via regular mail? He’s trying to submit before the agent of his dreams comes to his/her senses.

In reality, of course, it just doesn’t work like that: a request to submit materials will be every bit as good two weeks from the day it was made as it was in the moment. Or two months hence.

As I MAY have hinted gently above, the writer’s speed in getting the submission to the agent typically does not make one scintilla of difference in how quickly a manuscript is read — or even the probability of its moldering on an agent’s desk for months. Certainly, whether the agent’s receiving the manuscript the next day or in the 2-3 days offered by the much more reasonably priced Priority Mail will make no appreciable difference to response time.

Especially during summer conference season, since most of the industry goes on vacation from early August through Labor Day. Or between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the NYC-based part of the biz more or less shuts down. Or in January, when half the aspiring writers in North America are trying to live up to their New Year’s resolution to get those queries and submissions out the door, pronto.

The other, more common rationale for too-swift submission is eagerness. “Whew!” the writer who has just received a request to submit exclaims. “The hard part is over now: my premise has been recognized as a good one by an agent who handles this sort of material. From this point on, naturally, everything is going to happen in a minute: reading, acceptance, book sale, chatting on Oprah.”

You know, the average trajectory for any garden-variety blockbuster. Who wouldn’t want to cut a week, or even a few days, out of the delivery time for that brilliantly fabulous future?

I sincerely hope that yours is the one in eight million submissions that experiences this second trajectory — and that’s the probability in a good year for publishing — but writerly hopes to the contrary, a request for submission is the beginning of the game, not the end. The fact is, as small a percentage of queries receive a positive response (and it’s usually under 5%, even in a brisk economy), even fewer submissions pass the initial read test.

Or, to put it the terms we typically use here at Author! Author!, it generally takes even less provocation to cause Millicent shout “Next!” over the first page of a manuscript than over a query. (If that’s news to you and you’re in the mood for a good, old-fashioned Halloween scare, I would strongly urge you to set aside a few hours to run through the posts in the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the archive list at right. It’s sent many a strong writer running screaming from the room.)

There’s a reason that I grill you on the details, you know: I want your queries and submissions to be in that top few percentiles. Which is why I would rather see your resources and energy going toward perfecting the submission itself, rather than getting it there with a rapidity that would make Superman do a double-take.

This is true, incidentally, even when the agent has ASKED a writer to overnight a project. Consider the plight of poor Gilberto:

Submission scenario 2: Gilberto has just won a major category in a writing contest with his thriller, DON’T PAY ANY ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN; HE’S NOT REALLY CARRYING AN AXE. During the very full pitching day that follows his win, five agents ask him to send submissions. Seeing that he was garnering a lot of interest, Maxine, the most enthusiastic of the agents, requests that he overnight the manuscript to her, so she can respond to it right away.

Over the vehement objections of every previous winner of this particular contest (and, incidentally, yours truly), Gilberto says yes. When his local post office opens the next day, he’s already waiting in line, all set to overnight the submission packet he stayed up all night preparing..

However, being a savvy submitter, he submits simultaneously to the other five via regular mail right away. Yet he does not tell Maxine — or any of the others — that he is letting many agents read his manuscript at the same time. He writes REQUESTED MATERIALS — FIRST PLACE, CONTEST NAME on the outside of every submission and mentions the request in the first line of his cover letter, to minimize the possibility of his work being lost in amongst the many submissions these agencies receive.

Within three weeks, he’s heard back from all but one of them; puzzlingly, the super-eager Maxine is the very last to respond. And when she finally does, six weeks after he overnighted her the manuscript, it’s with a form letter. This most enthusiastic of agents has rejected him without even telling him why.

What did Gilberto do wrong? Not much, really, except for saying yes to an unreasonable request — and not telling all of the agents concerned up front that they were competing over his work. That not made his submission process more expensive than it needed to be, but also more or less eliminated any benefit he might have derived from the contest-generated buzz about his book.

Let’s take Gil’s missteps one at a time. Why was Maxine’s request that he overnight the manuscript unreasonable?

In essence, the situation was no different than if Maxine had asked him to leave the conference, jump in his car, drive three hours home to print up a copy of his manuscript for her, drive three hours back, and hand it to her. In both cases, the agent would have been asking the writer to go to unnecessary effort and expense for no reason other than her convenience. Yet as Maxine’s subsequent behavior abundantly demonstrated, she had no more intention of reading Gilberto’s manuscript within the next couple of days than she did of reading it on the airplane home.

So why did she ask him to overnight it at all?

Give yourself full marks if you said it was to get a jump on other interested agents. Lest we forget, agents tend to be competitive people — to many of them, a book project’s value will increase in direct proportion to how many other agents are interested in it. (Also true of many editors, incidentally.) The give-me-first-peek request is one way it manifests.

Yet another reason that — chant it with me now, long-time readers — it is always in an aspiring writer’s best interest to make simultaneous submissions and queries, rather than approaching them one at a time.

Not clear why? For the same reason Gilberto’s not telling all of the agents concerned that they were in potential competition over his work was a mistake: had they known that, they would probably have been a bit more interested. Or at any rate aware that they might miss out if they put off reading his submission for too long. Thus, not using his manuscript’s being in demand as a selling point may actually have harmed Gilberto’s chances of landing an agent.

That out-of-the-blue pop quiz worked so well, I’m going to spring another one upon you: why do you think Maxine didn’t get back to him sooner?

In practice, of course, she could have had a lot of reasons — a death in the family, a problem with an existing client’s relationship with her editor, a particularly exciting negotiation, rehab…the list goes on and on. But any other possible factors aside, Maxine knew that if any of those other agents at the conference had made an offer, Gilberto would have contacted her — and when he didn’t, she could treat his might-have-been-hot property just like any other submitted manuscript.

In other words, jumping in and asking for a first peek cost Maxine nothing — it obviously affected her subsequent treatment of Gilberto’s work not at all — but guaranteed that she would be first to know about how his other submissions fared. And once she could safely assume that he had not been picked up by anyone else, the shiny gleam of being the most sought-after new writer at the conference faded from his manuscript.

Now pause and consider the ramifications of Maxine’s attitude toward other agents’ interest levels for a moment. Picture them spread thickly across the industry. Let the possible effects ripple across your mind, like the concentric circles moving gently outward after you throw a stone into a limpid pool, rolling outward until…OH, MY GOD, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE AVERAGE QUERY-GENERATED SUBMISSION?

Uh-huh. Not high on the average Maxine’s to-do list.

Explains quite a bit about why the agent who requested your first 50 pages two months ago hasn’t gotten back to you, doesn’t it? While an agent expects that the writer querying her will be simultaneously querying elsewhere, the converse is also true: she will assume, unless you tell her otherwise, that the packet you send her is the only submission currently under any agent’s eyes.

This is why it is ALWAYS a good idea to mention in your submission cover letter that other agents are reading it, if they are. No need to name names: just say that other agents have requested it, and are reading it even as she holds your pages in her hot little hand.

I heard that thought go through some of your minds: I would have to scold you if you lied about this, just to ramp up the agent’s sense of urgency. Sneaky writer; no cookie.

Okay, here’s the extra credit question: in the scenario above, Maxine already knows that other agents are interested in Gilberto’s work; she is hoping to snap him up first. So why didn’t she read it right away?

Give up? Well, I don’t know her personally, so this is merely an educated guess, but I strongly suspect that Maxine’s goal was to get the manuscript before the other agents made offers to Gilberto, not necessarily to make an offer before they did.

Is that a vast cloud of confusion I feel wafting from my readers’ general direction? Was that loud, guttural sound a collective “Wha–?”

It honestly does make sense, when you consider the necessary level of competition amongst agents. Maxine is aware that she has not sufficiently charmed Gilberto to induce him to submit to her exclusively; since he won the contest, she also has a pretty good reason to believe he can write up a storm. So she definitely wants to read his pages, but she will not know whether she wants to sign him until she reads his writing.

Because, as agents like to say, it all depends upon the writing.

Maxine’s met enough writers to be aware that it is distinctly possible that Gilberto’s response to his big contest win will be to spend the next eight months going over his manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, perfecting it before showing it to anyone at all. She would like to see it before he does that, if at all possible.

To beat the Christmas rush, as it were, of his submitting to other agents. And to increase the chances of being able to see it at all.

Even if she doesn’t get an advance peek, Maxine is setting up a situation where Gilberto will automatically tell her if any other agent makes an offer: he’s probably going to call or e-mail her to see if she’s still interested before he signs with anyone else. By asking him to go to the extraordinary effort and expense of overnighting the manuscript to her, she has, she hoped, conveyed her enthusiasm about the book sufficiently that he will regard her as a top prospect.

If she gets such a call, Maxine’s path will be clear: if she hasn’t yet read his pages, she will ask for a few days to do so before he commits to the other agent. If she doesn’t, she will assume that there hasn’t been another offer. She can take her time and read the pages when she gets around to it.

What’s the hurry, from her perspective? (Hey, I promised you a serious Halloween scare, didn’t I?)

Asking a writer to overnight a manuscript is a compliment, not a directive: it’s the agent’s way of saying she’s really, really interested, not that she is going to clear her schedule tomorrow night in order to read it. And even if so, the tantalization will only be greater if she has to live through another couple of days before cloistering herself to read it.

So what should Gilberto have done instead? The polite way to handle such a request is to say, “Wow, I’m flattered, but I’m completely booked up for the next few days, and several other agents have already asked to see it. I can get a copy to you by the end of the week, though, when I send out the others.”

And then he should have sat down, read it IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch any glaring mistakes, and Priority Mailed it a few days later, accompanied by a cover letter reiterating that other agents are also reading it. (Tick, tick, Maxine.)

Sound daring? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: after a publisher acquires your book, the house will generally be paying for you to ship your pages overnight if they need them that quickly, not you; after you’ve signed with an agent, you’ll probably be asked to e-mail anything s/he needs right away, because it’s cheaper for everyone concerned.

You need some time to wrap your brain around that last point, don’t you? Perfect — I shall slip away into my studio while nobody’s looking. Just keep looking in the other direction…

That didn’t work, did it? Well, boo! And keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part V: before you pop that query into the mail, let’s listen to a few golden oldies

animated envelope cat-mailanimated envelope

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 will be using the upcoming Labor Day long weekend to prepare their next barrages of query letters and submissions, and I wanted my readers to have freshly updated advice on hand for the beginning of the autumn foray.

Are those of you reading this outside the United States wondering why that particular holiday is so popular for query and submission preparation? Could it perhaps be that we like to celebrate our Puritan and commercial national heritage (contrary to the history offered in 5th-grade Thanksgiving pageants, the rather mercenary Jamestown settlement was established prior to the Pilgrims’ landing on Plymouth Rock, seeking religious freedom), US citizens are actually required to work toward the pursuit of happiness on Labor Day? Is it a holiday to celebrate how few holidays from work we get around here?

Not precisely: Labor Day was established in recognition of the union movement. You know, the folks that brought us the concept of weekends off in the first place.

No, the popularity of querying and/or submitting immediately after Labor Day stems from three sources. First, the holiday marks the beginning of the US school year, so many aspiring writers think of it as a good time to start something fresh, like an intensive querying campaign. (A similar logic prompts scads of queriers and submitters to pop things in the mail just after New Year’s Day.)

Second, as those of you who have been following Author! Author! all month are already aware, much of the NYC-based publishing industry goes on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day. (So for those of you who already have agents sitting home and gnawing your nails over submissions to editors: even if the editor of your dreams liked it, s/he probably would not have been able to pull an editorial committee together this month to discuss acquiring your book.) Thus, just as it makes more sense to avoid querying or submitting during the notoriously quorum-defeating holiday-laden days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, many savvy aspiring writers choose to spend August revising, rather than popping queries or submissions into envelopes.

Third, and not entirely unrelated to the second reason, 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. (Don’t worry; another week’s worth of proofreading won’t harm your book’s chances.)

The cumulative result: Millicent and her cronies will be dragging into the office nine days hence, only to be greeted by (in some cases) a month’s worth of queries and submissions. 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.

Okay, okay, I’ll admit it: in addition to those excellent practical reasons, I have an ulterior motive for urging you not to pop those queries in the mail just yet. I’d much, much rather devote an extra week or two on the topic than to have any of you kicking yourselves a month from now, wishing you’d queried differently.

Do I see some hands being thrown skyward out there? “But Anne,” I hear those of you with query letters on the point of being stuffed into already-addressed envelopes, “isn’t this a trifle redundant? After all, you’ve been talking for the last few posts about big problems to which query letters are prone, so aren’t you preaching to the choir here?”

You’ve got a point there, hand-flingers: I, too, would dearly like to believe that all of my bright, brilliant, talented, and undoubtedly gorgeous and civic-minded readers already know to avoid the major pitfalls. In fact, over the course of the last four+ years (can you believe I’ve been blogging for that long?), all of us here at Author! Author! have worked pretty hard to produce that outcome.

Go, Team Literate!

I must confess, though, that I worry about the reader who found this blog only a week ago, my friends, as well as the one who started reading faithfully just a few months back. These fine folks have not yet lived through one of my troubleshooting series — and, hard as it may be to imagine, not everyone has the hours — or, at this point, days — to spare to troll my archives. (Helpful hint to those in a hurry: the HOW TO categories on the list at right contain the briefest sets of explanations of a number of basic writerly skills, like query-generating; lengthier, more detailed accounts lurk under other category headings.)

Before those of you who have worked through one of my querying series before and lived to tell the tale decide to blow off the rest of this post in order to dash outside into that nice summer day, I hasten to add: I’m not going over this material again only for the sake of new or archive-shy readers. 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 the agency screener’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. So please, even if you are a querying veteran, at least cast your eye over this list of common 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-record unfortunately, 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 agency screener’s part that would positively stun the Amazing Kreskin?

Are the rejecting agents seeing past the initial packet to the book 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 connection 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 telephone 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. And out comes the broken record player again:

broken-record Writing 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 last few posts. 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 diagnosis.

Word to the wise: even if you have already run your query through the wringer of my last set of diagnostic posts, you might want to cast your eye over these as well. Why? I feel another broken record coming on:

broken-record the querying market is even tighter than it was the last time I visited this issue. It’s as competitive now as it has been in my lifetime — and I’m not nearly so young as I look.

Seriously, it’s a jungle out there, to coin a phrase, so I have beefed up the questions this time around. If you have already gone over your letter with an eye to my earlier advice, you should be able to sail through most of these questions; if not, you may have a few surprises in store.

Before you begin to feel for your submission’s pulse, please (wait for it):

broken-record re-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 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. 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-record as 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 and encouragement, not for technical feedback. 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 letter and synopsis 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.)

broken-record Make 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, because it’s 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 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-record you must indent your paragraphs. No exceptions; business format is not acceptable here.

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-record don’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-record Remember, your job here 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 30 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-record Millicent 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 know — shocking.

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…

Remember, even if you met an agent at a conference (or via a recommendation from a client; I’ll be talking a bit about that next month) 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.

Speaking of which…

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?
This may seem like a silly question, but you wouldn’t believe how many otherwise well-written query letters don’t even specify whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction. Or, as I mentioned earlier in this series, the book category. Or even, believe it or not, the title.

Why is it so VERY important to make absolutely certain that this information is clearly presented in the first paragraph? Because, as I mentioned earlier in this series,

broken-record the 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.

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 her (having spoken to her 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.

“But Anne,” I hear the more prolific of 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 in the first paragraph 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.

But in the first paragraph, no. Do you really want to run the risk of confusing Millicent right off the bat?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?
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. Understandable, absolutely, but not the best way to pitch your work.

A query is not the place to express querying fatigue. 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.

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-record if 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.”

Many conference-goers seem to be confused on this point. In-person pitching is a substitute for querying, not merely an expensive extension of it.

And yes, this remains true 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.)

To the pros, being asked over and over again whether they REALLY meant that request is puzzling and, if it happens frequently, annoying.

(7) 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 mentioned earlier in this series,

broken-record every 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? By identifying the target market clearly, and demonstrating (with statistics, if you can) both how large it is and why your book will appeal to that particular demographic.

Why, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Why, it’s almost as though I had been thinking ahead when I designed the Pitching 101 series.

Perhaps that’s because figuring out how to identify your book’s target market and a few reasons that your book would appeal to that demographic were exercises we did earlier in the summer. (If you missed that part of the PITCHING 101 series, I 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.)

Which means that all of you out there who have been following this series the whole time should give yourselves a big ol’ pat on the back: you’ve spent the last six weeks 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.

So well done, everybody. Tomorrow, I shall continue with the red flag checklist. In the meantime, keep listening to those golden oldies, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXII and Writers’ Conferences 101, part II: how soon is too soon, how much information is too much, and other burning questions of conference life

lie-detector

I must confess something, dear readers: yesterday’s post about hyper-literalism lifted a weight off my weary shoulders. At this point in my long and checkered blogging career, I feel like the kid who pointed out that the emperor was ever-so-slightly under-dressed. It does become rather a strain, conference after conference, year after year, not to stand in the back of the room and bellow, “But don’t knock yourself out following that advice to the letter!”

I guess it’s a corollary of what I find myself saying here every few months: it’s honestly not a good idea to take anyone’s word as Gospel, even if the speaker purports to be an expert. Perhaps especially if.

Logically, this sterling advice must apply to yours truly, right, and what I say here? Of course — which is why I encourage any and all of you to pipe up with questions about pitching, querying, submitting, craft, or whatever else is on your writerly mind. Seriously, I don’t want anybody to take my advice blindly, and I would much, much rather that you asked me than run afoul of Millicent the agency screener down the line.

In case anyone reading this does not already know how to leave a question or comment: all you have to do is click on COMMENTS at the bottom of this post (or any post, for that matter). That will lead you to a simple little form, designed not to annoy you but to help me keep my comment sections spam-free for your reading pleasure. Then just type in your question and hit SUBMIT. Easy as proverbial pie.

To get you in the question-asking mood, I’m going to spend today tackling a couple of excellent questions about the pitch proper sent in by readers over the years. (Keep ‘em coming, folks!) In that spirit, I’m going to begin by continuing my thoughts from an earlier post where I, you guessed it, answered a reader’s question.

Late last week, I went over a few reasons that it’s a better idea to pitch the overall story of a multiple perspective book, rather than try to replicate the various protagonists’ personal story arcs or talk about voice choices. It tends to be substantially less confusing for the hearer this way, but there’s another very good reason not to overload the pitch with too much in-depth discussion of HOW the story is told, rather than what the story IS.

Writers very, very frequently forget this, but the author is not the only one who is going to have to pitch any given book. In fact, one of the points of conference pitching is to render pitching it someone else’s responsibility.

Think about it. A writer has chosen the multiple POV narrative style because it fits the story she is telling, presumably, not the other way around, right? That’s the writer’s job, figuring out the most effective means of telling the tale. That doesn’t change the fact that in order for an agent to sell the book to an editor, or the editor to take the book to committee, he’s going to have to be able to summarize the story.

That’s right — precisely the task all of you would-be pitchers out there have been resenting for a month now. And inveterate queriers have been resenting for years.

If the story comes across as too complex to be able to boil down into terms that the agent or editor will be able to use to convince others that this book is great, your pitch may raise some red flags. So it really does behoove you not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view.

If you really get stuck about how to tell the overarching story of a book with multiple protagonists (or multiple storylines, for that matter), you could conceivably pick one or two of the protagonists and present his/her/their story/ies as the book, purely for pitching purposes.

Ooh, that suggestion generated some righteous indignation, didn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear some of you upright souls cry, “isn’t that misleading?”

Not really. Remember, the point of the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book: it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to READ it.

No one on the other side of the pitching table seriously expects to learn everything about a book in a 2-minute speech, any more than he would from a synopsis. If it were possible, how much of a storyline could there possibly be? Why, in fact, would it take a whole book to tell it?

“But Anne,” the upright whimper, “I don’t want to lie. Won’t I get in trouble for implying that my book has only two protagonists when it in fact has twelve?”

Trust me, this strategy is not going to come back and bite you later, at least not enough to fret over, because frankly, it would require the memory banks of IBM’s Big Blue for a pitch-hearer to recall everything he heard over the average conference period.

Remember last week, when I was talking about pitch fatigue? After an agent or editor has heard a hundred pitches at a conference this weekend, and two hundred the weekend after that, he’s not going to say when he receives your submission, “Hey! This has 4 more characters than the author told me it did!”

I know, I know: we all want to believe that our pitches are the exception to this — naturally, the agent of our dreams will remember every adjective choice and intake of breath from OUR pitches, as opposed to everyone else’s. But that, my dears, is writerly ego talking, the same ego that tries to insist that we MUST get our requested submissions out the door practically the instant the agent or editor’s request for them has entered our ears.

In practice, it just isn’t so.

And shouldn’t be, actually, in a business that rewards writing talent. Given the choice, it’s much, much better for you if the agent of your dreams remembers that the writing in your submission was brilliant than the details of what you said in your 10-minute meeting.

As to the question of being misleading…well, I’ll get back to the desirability of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth a little later in this post. For now, let’s move on to the next reader question.

Insightful long-term reader Janet wrote in some time ago to ask how to handle the rather common dilemma of the writer whose local conference happens whilst she’s in mid-revision: “What do you do when you realize that you might have to change the structure of the novel?” she asked. “Pitch the old way?”

I hear this question all the time during conference season, Janet, and the answer really goes back to the pervasive writerly belief I touched upon briefly above, the notion that an agent or editor is going to remember any given pitch in enough detail a month or two down the road to catch discrepancies between the pitch and the book.

Chant it with me now, experienced pitchers: they’re going to be too tired to recall every detail by the time they get on the plane to return to New York, much less a month or two from now, when they get around to reading your submission.

Stop deflating, ego — this isn’t about you. It’s about them.

It’s also about our old friend, pitch fatigue. At a conference, the average agent or editor might be hearing as many as hundred pitches a day. Multiply that by the number of days of the conference — multiply THAT by the number of conferences a particular agent or editor attends in a season, not to mention the queries and submissions she sees on a daily basis, and then you can begin to understand just how difficult it would be to retain them all.

I hate to bruise anyone’s ego, but now that you’ve done the math, how likely is it that she’s going to retain the specifics of, say, pitch #472?

But you shouldn’t fret about that, because — pull out your hymnals, long-term readers — the purpose of ANY book pitch is to get the agent or editor to ask to read it, not to buy the book sight unseen. Since that request generally comes within a few minutes of the writer’s uttering the pitch, if it’s going to come at all, what you need to do is wow ‘em in the moment.

Although it IS nice if yours is the pitch that causes an agent to scrawl in her notes, “Great imagery!”

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, I’ve been harping so much throughout Pitching 101 about the desirability of including memorable details in your pitch. You have the pitch-hearer’s attention for only a few moments, and 9 times out of 10, she’s going to be tired during those moments. A vividly-rendered sensual detail or surprising situation that she’s never heard before is your best bet to wake her up.

Under the circumstances, that’s not an insignificant achievement. Don’t lessen your triumph by insisting that she be able to reproduce your pitch from memory six weeks hence — or that you need to get those requested materials to her before she forgets who you are.

Accept that she may not remember you by the time she gets on the plane to go home from the conference and trust that she has kept good notes. Then read every syllable of your submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you even consider rushing it off to her.

The upside of the short memory span: you don’t really need to worry if your story changes between the time you pitch or query it and when you submit the manuscript pages. That’s par for the course. Writers rewrite and restructure their books all the time; it’s not considered particularly sinister.

That being said, your best bet in the case of a book in the throes of change is to tell the story that you feel is the most compelling. If you haven’t yet begun restructuring, it will probably be the old one, as it’s the one with which you are presumably most familiar, but if you can make a good yarn out of the changes you envision, it’s perfectly legitimate to pitch that instead.

It really is up to you. As long as the story is a grabber, that is.

The final questions du jour, which the various askers have requested be presented anonymously, concern the ethics of not mentioning those aspects of the book one is afraid might negatively influence a pitch-hearer’s view of the manuscript. The most popular proposed omissions: the book’s length and whether it is actually finished on the day of your pitching appointment.

Let me take the second one first, as it’s easier to answer. There is a tacit expectation, occasionally seen in print in conference guides, that a writer will not market a novel until it is complete, because it would not be possible for an agent to market a partial first novel. In fact, most pitching and querying guides will tell you that you should NEVER pitch an unfinished work.

Except that it isn’t quite that simple. Agented writers pitch half-finished work to their agents all the time, for instance.

Does that mean that you should? Well, it depends. It would most definitely be frowned-upon to pitch a half-finished book that might take a year or two to polish off — unless, of course, the book in question is nonfiction, in which case you’d be marketing it as a book proposal, not as an entire manuscript, anyway.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: nonfiction books are typically sold on proposals, not the entire manuscript. Yes, even if it’s a memoir; although some agents do prefer to see a full draft from a previously unpublished writer, the vast majority of memoirs are still sold in proposal form.

So I ask you: could you realistically have your novel in apple-pie order within the next six months? If so, that’s not an unheard-of lapse before submitting requested materials. And if you have a chapter of your memoir in terrific shape, could you pull a book proposal together within that timeframe? (For some guidance on what that might entail, please see the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

If the answers to all of those questions are a resounding “No, by gum!” you should consider holding off. Unless, of course, you’d just like to get in some pitching practice while the stakes are still low. But if you are pitching a novel just to get the hang of it (a marvelous idea, by the way), don’t make the mistake of saying that the manuscript isn’t done yet.

It’s considered rude. You’re supposed to have a fiction project completed before you pitch or query it, you know.

Confused? You’re not alone. Like so many of the orders barked at conference attendees, the expectation of market-readiness has mutated a bit in translation and over time. You’re most likely to hear it as the prevailing wisdom that maintains you should have a full draft before you pitch BECAUSE an agent or editor who is interested will ask you for the entire thing on the spot.

As in they will fly into an insensate fury if you’re not carrying it with you at the pitch meeting.

But as I have mentioned earlier in this series, demanding to see a full or even partial manuscript on the spot doesn’t happen all that often anymore (and the insensate fury part never happened in the first place). 99.9% of the time, even an agent who is extremely excited about a project will prefer that you mail it — or e-mail it.

Seriously, he’s not in that great a hurry — and trust me, he’s not going to clear his schedule in anticipation of receiving your submission. I’ll bring this up again when I go over how to prep a submission packet (probably in September; I want to go over query basics first, so PLEASE, if you have pitched within the last few weeks and are impatient to send things off, read through the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET before you drop anything in the mail) but I always advise my clients and students not to overnight anything to an agency or publishing house unless the receiving party is paying the postage.

Yes, even if an agent or editor asks you to overnight it.

I heard that horrified gasp out there, but the fact is, it’s a myth that overnighted manuscripts get read faster — yes, even if the agent asked you to send it instantly. That request is extremely rare, however; most submitters simply assume that they should get it there right away — or that their work will be seem more professional if it shows up in an overnight package.

That might have been true 20 years ago, but here’s a news flash: FedEx and other overnight packaging is just too common to attract any special notice in a crowded mailroom these days.

If you’re worried about speed, Priority Mail (which gets from one location to another within the US in 2-3 days) is far cheaper — and if you write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters on the outside of the package, might actually get opened sooner than that spiffy-looking overnight mail packet.

Besides, even if you did go to the trouble and expense to get your manuscript onto the requester’s desk within hours of the request, it can often be months before an agent reads a manuscript, as those of you who have submitted before already know. Which means, in practical terms, that you need not send it right away.

And that, potentially, means that a savvy writer could buy a little time that could conceivably be used for revision. Or even writing.

Catching my drift here? After all, if you’re going to mail it anyway…and pretty much everyone in the industry is gone on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day…and if you could really get away with sending requested materials anytime between now and Christmas…and if they’ve asked for only the first three chapters…

Or, to put it in querying terms: if the agencies are going to take a month to respond to my letter…and then ask for the first 50 pages…and that has to get by a couple of screeners before they can possibly ask for the rest?

Starting to get the picture?

There’s no reason not to work those predictable delays into your pitching and querying timeline. Naturally, I would never advise anyone to pitch a book that isn’t essentially done, but let’s face it, it may well be months before the person sitting across the table from you in a pitch meeting asks to see the entire manuscript.

And you know what? You’re under no obligation to send it out instantly, even then.

Although I would not encourage any of you to join the 40% of writers who are asked to submit requested materials but never do, anyone who has ever written a novel can tell you that where writing is concerned, there is finished — as in when you’ve made it all the way through the story and typed the words THE END on the last page — and then there is done — as in when you stop tinkering with it.

Then there’s REALLY done, the point at which you have revised it so often that you have calculated the exact trajectory of the pen you will need to lob toward Manhattan to knock your agent or editor in the head hard enough to get him to stop asking for additional changes.

And then there’s REALLY, REALLY done, when your editor has changed your title for the last time and has stopped lobbying for you to transform the liberal lesbian sister into a neo-conservative professional squash player who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan in his spare time.

But frankly, from the point of view of the industry, no manuscript is truly finished until it is sitting on a shelf in Barnes & Noble. Until the cover is actually attached to the book, it is an inherently malleable thing.

The fact that everyone concerned is aware of this, I think, renders a bit of sophistry on the writer’s part over the question of whether a manuscript is completed somewhat pardonable.

This does NOT mean, however, that it is in your best interests to waltz into a pitch meeting and ANNOUNCE that the book isn’t finished yet — and because agents and editors are, as a group, perfectly aware that writers are prone to levels of tinkering that would make Dante’s inferno appear uncomplex, it’s actually not a question that gets asked much.

If you are asked? Sophistry, my dears, sophistry, of the type that agented and published writers employ all the time: “I’m not quite happy with it yet, but I’m very close.”

You are close to finishing it, aren’t you? And you aren’t completely happy with that, right?

I’m sensing that the hands that shot into the air a dozen paragraphs ago are waving frantically by now. “Um, Anne?” the observant owners of those hands cry. “What do you mean, pretty much everyone in the industry is gone on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day? I’m going to a conference this weekend — surely, despite what you said above about not needing to overnight my submission, I have to send out requested materials immediately?”

The short answer is no.

The long answer is that it means that it might behoove you to tinker with them (see distinctions amongst types of doneness above) until after the mass exodus from Manhattan is over. Because, really, do you WANT your submission to be the last one Millicent needs to read before she can head out the door to someplace cooler than sweltering New York?

Naturally, there are exceptions to the closed-until-after-Labor-Day norm; many agencies arrange to have one agent remain on-site, in case of emergencies. But since editorial offices tend to clear out then, too, it would be a kind of quixotic time to be pitching a book: even if an editor loved it, it would be well-nigh impossible to gather enough bodies for the necessary editorial meeting to acquire it.

(If all that sounded like Greek to you, and you’re not particularly conversant with the tongue of ancient heroes, you might want to take a gander at the AFTER YOU LAND AN AGENT category on the list at right, as well as the WHEN ARE THE BEST AND WORST TIME TO QUERY? sections.)

The question of whether to mention manuscript length is a bit more tortured, as it tends to generate a stronger knee-jerk response in pitches and query letters than the question of submission timing. Or so I surmise, from the response to the inevitable moment at every writers’ conference I have ever attended when some stalwart soul stands up and asks how long a book is too long.

And without fail, half the room gasps at the response.

I hesitate to give limits, for fear of triggering precisely the type of literalist angst I deplored a couple of days ago, but here are a few ballpark estimates. Currently, first novels tend to run in the 65,000 – 100,000 word range — or, to put it another way, roughly 250 – 400 pages. (That’s estimated word count, by the way, 250 x # of pages in Times New Roman, standard format. For the hows and whys of estimation vs. actual word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

So if your book runs much over that, be prepared for some unconscious flinching when you mention the length. Standards do vary a bit by genre, though — check the recent offerings in your area to get a general sense.

And remember, these are general guidelines, not absolute prohibitions. Few agency screeners will toss out a book if it contains a page 401. Do be aware, though, that after a book inches over the 125,000 word mark (500 pages, more or less), it does become substantially more expensive to bind and print. (For more on this point, please see the rather extensive exchange in the comment section of a recent post.)

If at all possible, then, you will want to stay under that benchmark. And if not, you might not want to mention the length in your pitch or query letter.

And not just for marketing reasons, or at any rate not just to preclude the possibility of an instinctive response to a book’s length. If a manuscript is too long (or too short, but that is rarer since the advent of the computer), folks in the industry often have the same response as they do to a manuscript that’s not in standard format: they assume that the writer isn’t familiar with the prevailing norms.

And that, unfortunately, usually translates into the submission’s being taken less seriously — and often, the pitch or query as well.

If your book IS over or under the expected estimated length for your genre, you will probably be happier if you do not volunteer length information in either your pitch or your query. This is not dishonest — neither a pitcher nor a querier is under any actual obligation to state the length of the manuscript up front.

I’m not recommending that you actually lie in response to a direct question, of course — but if the question is not asked, it will not behoove you to offer the information. Remember, part of the art of the pitch involves knowing when to shut your trap. You will not, after all, be hooked up to a lie detector throughout the course of your pitch.

Although that would be an interesting intimidation strategy, one I have not yet seen tried on the conference circuit. Given the current level of paranoia aimed at memoirists, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it come into fashion.

Yes, I know, many experts will tell you that you MUST include word count in your query, but as far as I know, no major agency actually rejects queries where it’s not mentioned. Some agents will say they like to see it, for the simple reason that it makes it easier to weed out the longest and the shortest manuscripts — but if your book would fall into either of those categories, is it really in your interest to promote a knee-jerk rejection?

Whew! We covered a lot of ground today, didn’t we? Well, the path to glory has never been an easy one, right?

Keep up the good work!

What do you mean, I have to describe my 400-page novel in under two minutes? Or: how to stop worrying and learn to love to pitch

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Happy Bastille Day, everyone! Yes, it’s that time of year again: time for me to run through the tricks, tactics, and strategies for constructing and delivering a verbal pitch for a manuscript!

Try to contain your excitement — or at any rate, don’t start cheering until I tell you that this year’s series will cover a broad array of hypotheticals for your preparation and worrying pleasure: formal pitches (the kind writers make appointments at conferences to give), impromptu pitches (the kind writers give when they happen to find themselves seated next to an agent at a conference luncheon, answers to the dreaded question, “So, what do you write?”, what to do after a pitch is successful, the works. I’m even going to be talking about how to transform a great verbal pitch into a fabulous query letter, and vice-versa.

So we’re going to be at it a while. For those of you who are heading out to conferences right away — there’s one in my neck of the woods in a couple of weeks, for instance — and need to pull together a pitch, pronto, I’ve lassoed a set of posts that will walk you through the absolute basics in record time and made them instantly available to the rushed under the evocative title HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE. You’ll find it on the category list on the lower right-hand corner of this page.

Don’t say I never did anything for procrastinators. For those of you who have a little more time to kill, let’s take the scenic route.

But soft! Do I hear some grumbling out there? “But Anne,” a few scattered grumblers point out, “I’m a WRITER; I want my manuscript to be judged on its WRITING. Since anyone who has ever sat through a public reading could tell you that there’s no necessary correlation between being able to produce a readable manuscript and being able to talk about it effectively in front of others, why on earth would I want to put myself through such a stressful experience?”

I must admit, oh grumblers, that you make a pretty good point. If you’re like most aspiring writers, the very idea of sitting down across a table from a real, live agent or editor and making a verbal argument in favor of your manuscript’s marketability probably ranks right up there with getting a root canal or leaping in front of a speeding car in order to rescue a wandering toddler: necessary, but not something a sane person free of masochistic tendencies would want to do just for fun.

I can, however, give you two very, very good reasons that every sane aspiring writer should give very serious thought to either signing up for a pitch session or sitting down and coming up with a pitch as if she were. First, a successful pitch allows you to skip the querying stage entirely — in fact, it could be said that a pitch is an in-person query letter, given in an environment that lets the agent or editor hearing it know without your having to say so that you’re a professional enough writer to come to a conference and learn something about your craft. It can give you an edge.

Second, learning to pitch well will help you write better query letters. You’re going to have to read the rest of this series to find out how and why, but you may take my word for now that it’s true.

Third (yes, I know that I said there were only two, but I’m tossing one in for free), if you’re going to make a living as a writer, you will undoubtedly end up having to pitch your work verbally at some point, anyway, if only to your agent before you start a new book project. It’s a professional skill that every career writer is expected to have mastered, so grumbling about it isn’t going to get you out of it. Sorry.

So perhaps the title’s suggestion that you would learn to love doing it was a bit of an exaggeration. Survive it with your dignity intact may be closer to the truth — but hey, in a situation where plenty of writers feel as though they’re wearing a bright red clown nose and speaking in tongues, for all the impact their pitch seems to be having on its intended recipient, doing a basic good job and walking out feeling good about yourself and your book is nothing at which a first-time pitcher should be sneezing.

Bless you.

To that laudable if not especially spectacular end, today we launch into the nitty-gritty of that most dreaded of writerly self-promotional exercises, the verbal pitch, a light-hearted exercise wherein an aspiring writer sits face-to-face with someone who has the power to get his book published — typically, an agent or an editor who keeps glancing at her watch — and tries to convince that intimidating soul to take a gander at some actual pages before making up her mind whether she thinks the book is marketable or not.

What about that might make a normally courageous person blanch and want to run, screaming, toward the nearest large, dark cave, eh?

As is true of writers’ conferences in general, quite a bit of the stress inherent to pitching lies in unrealistic expectations of what might happen — on both the bad and good extremes. Writers tend to waltz into conferences with high expectations and nervous stomach, mentally toting a fairly hefty wish list: to meet the agent of his dreams, who will fall flat on the floor with astonishment at his pitch and sign him on the spot; for an editor at a major publishing house to be so wowed that she snaps up the book practically before the writer finishes speaking, and to be whisked off to New York immediately for literary cocktail parties and glowing adulation. Could the New York Times’ bestseller list and Oprah’s book club be far behind?

It’s a lovely dream, certainly, but this is not what actually happens. Yes, even if you give your pitch perfectly. So strolling into a pitching situation believing that instant contracts are even possible, let alone the norm and the only reasonable standard of conference success, is bound to end in tears.

Call me zany, but I don’t like to see a reader of mine sobbing in a hallway, convinced that he’s blown his one big chance just because an agent actually wants to read a manuscript before flinging her arms around a writer and shoving a contract into his hand. So let’s begin this series with a few cold, hard facts, to set the record straight:

*No credible US agent will sign a writer before having read the book in question, or a proposal for nonfiction. (In other parts of the world, this is not always the case.)

*All of the major U.S. publishing houses have strict policies against acquiring books from unrepresented writers (although a couple do run competitions for that purpose), so even if that editor from Simon & Schuster just adored your pitch, there would be significant structural impediments to his signing you to a three-book contract on the spot.

*Even agented works often circulate for months or more before they are picked up by publishers, so speed of sale alone is not generally considered the best measure of literary success.

*There is generally at least a year-long lapse between the signing of a book contract and when that book appears in bookstores.

Translation: even for writers who actually ARE pitching the next DA VINCI CODE, the process takes a heck of a lot longer than the average conference-goer expects. Even authors of brilliant, super-marketable books do not typically experience the conference fantasy treatment.

At most, a great book well pitched will garner an array of, “Gee, that sounds terrific. Send me the first 50 pages,” requests. Yet even with a flurry of initial enthusiasm, months often pass between initial pitch and requests to represent.

It’s important to realize all of that going in. Otherwise, pitching at a conference will almost inevitably feel like a tremendous letdown.

Or, still worse, like a sight-unseen review of your writing talent. Which, as the grumblers above pointed out, is a trifle bizarre, when you think about it: how precisely could any agent or editor, no matter how gifted, determine whether someone can write without actually reading anything she’s written? Telepathy?

Worst of all, a belief that the truly talented ARE signed and sold within a matter of nanoseconds leads every year to that oh-so-common writerly misstep, rushing home to send out requested materials within a day or so of receiving the request — and realizing only after the fact that since the mad rush to get the manuscript out the door before that agent or editor changed her mind about wanting to see it meant sending it out without reading the submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I can sense my long-time readers of this blog shuddering at the ghastly fate that tends to greet such hastily sent-off submissions. (And for those of you seeking guidance in how to put together a submission packet, please see the aptly-named HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right before you seal that envelope.)

For those of you who are not yet cringing, let me ask you: how would you feel if you realized only after you’d popped a requested manuscript in the mail that there were four typos on page 1? Or that the margins were the wrong width? Or that you’d forgotten to change your memoir protagonist’s name back to your own after you’d changed it for a blind contest entry?

Oh, good — now everyone’s shuddering. Remember that creepy feeling running up your spine, and don’t even consider sending off requested materials without a thorough review. A request for pages is not going to vanish as soon as the agent forgets your name. You have time to proof the darned thing.

But that didn’t convince all of you, did it? “Yeah, right, Anne,” the complacent say. “I understand that you need to say this so the run-of-the-mill illiterate bothers to spell-check his manuscript before submitting, but I’m a smart person. My manuscript was in good shape before I signed up for the conference. So I can safely ignore what you’ve just said, right?”

Not so fast, smarty-pants: intelligence is no barrier to typos. Don’t believe me? Okay, let me share an anecdote that reality was kind enough to provide just the other day.

I graduated from what is widely considered one of the best universities in the world — fellow alumni would say that it is THE best, but what would you expect them to say? — so the ranks of its alumni are well populated with readers who, like me, don’t consider adherence to the rules of grammar and time-honored ways of spelling things optional. These are folks who know how to use a semicolon and aren’t afraid to use it. So when one of the undergraduate clubs sent out an e-mail the other day, asking alumni to sign up for an online newsletter, I was shocked — shocked! — to see that it was crammed to the gills with what I charitably assumed were typos. Nouns were capitalized that had no business being capitalized; the next-to-last sentence just stopped in the middle.

As I am rather fond of the club in question, I took the time to respond to the e-mail, not so much to point out the vast array of errors unbecoming a Harvard man as to alert undergraduates probably not much accustomed to trying to raise money from crusty old alumni like me to the very, very high probability that educated people would take umbrage at said errors. I said it gently, in the hope that they might actually pay attention, rather than brushing me off, suggesting that perhaps they might want to proofread their next missive before hitting the SEND button.

The undergraduate who took the time to respond (surprisingly politely) did in fact promise to mend the group’s spelling. However (he pointed out in his own defense), four members and two administrative offices had signed off on the wording before it was sent, so they had every reason to believe that it would pass muster.

I knew instantly what had happened — as would, incidentally, any professional reader who has been handling manuscripts within the last ten years. Any guesses? (Hint: the undergraduate was almost certainly telling the truth.)

Give yourself a gold star if you said that each of the proofreaders read the letter on a computer, rather than IN HARD COPY; it’s substantially harder to catch errors that way, since backlighting tempts the human eye to skim. (Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, e-mail recipients so often send back non-responsive answers; it’s just harder to absorb nuances on a screen.) And give yourself seven gold stars if you added that the sentence that ended in the middle was probably the result of someone’s having started to edit the sentence, but getting distracted in the middle of doing it.

Think you’re smarter than the people who collaborated on that message? Even if you are, it’s not enough to make revisions; a sensible submitter proofs requested pages IN HARD COPY, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, and preferably OUT LOUD before mailing them, to catch precisely this type of mistake. Or hitting the SEND key.

But I seem to have digressed, haven’t I? Allow me to veer back to my original point: realistic expectations about what conference success does and does not mean, as well as how it would serve you best to respond to the various contingencies, can save you a lot of grief.

So what would be a realistic set of goals for a conference? An excellent choice would be to embrace the suggestion I made above: use the conference to skip the very annoying and time-consuming querying stage and jump directly to a request to read your manuscript.

What would working toward this goal look like in practice, you ask? Pitching your work to at least one agent who has a successful track record representing books like yours, with an eye to convincing at least one agent ask you to mail a submission would be even better.

As would having an editor who is empowered to pick up new writers ask to see part or all of the book, or pitching to every publishing professional at the conference who deals in your kind of work. And let’s not forget the less marketing-oriented goals, such as learning a great deal from good seminars. (Although, let’s face it, not all conference seminars are equally good; it’s not all that uncommon for speakers to be far, far more interested in pushing their own latest books than providing concrete assistance to those looking to get their own published.)

Or — and too many conference-goers forget to add this to their to-do lists — making connections with other writers, established AND aspiring, who write what you do. Amazing mutual support groups don’t just happen, you know; they are often built over years.

If you can pull any or all of that off, you will have achieved conference success, by my standards. Not as sexy as the fantasy version, I know, but eminently do-able — and definitely worthwhile for your writing career. After all, skipping the querying stage can cut years from your agent search; think of every pitching opportunity as one less raft of a dozen query letters you are going to have to send out.

Feeling a bit better about pitching now? Excellent.

However, truth compels me to mention that your chances of pitching successfully will be SUBSTANTIALLY higher if you do a bit of prep work before you go. But never fear: over the course of this series, I shall be guiding you though the steps you need to take in order to walk in confident and prepared.

Fringe benefit: these steps are very useful to marketing any book, anywhere, anytime. If you invest the time in developing these skills and materials (oh, yes: I’m going to be giving you writing assignments), you will not only be able to pitch your work verbally; you will be able to talk about it like a pro AND transplant your pitch to your query letters.

Don’t tense up. You can do this. But it is going to take some work.

I could sign off for the day at this point, but since I was too busy to post yesterday, let’s get started right away: the first step to a successful pitch is to understand your book’s market appeal.

Hey, I told you it wasn’t going to be easy, but don’t tense up. Who is your target reader, and why will your book, out of the tens of thousands a good agent will see this year, satisfy that reader like nothing else currently on the market? In order to either pitch or query your work successfully, you’re going to want to come up with at least provisional answers to these questions.

The second step to a successful pitch, as for a successful query, is to be familiar with the work of the person to whom you will be pitching. Find out what that agent has sold lately; find out what that editor has bought. Find out, in short, who at the conference would be receptive to you and your book, so that you may know which to approach and pitch.

This will involve some research on your part — which is why I am mentioning this at the BEGINNING of this series, and not toward its end. If you’ve got a conference coming up, or are thinking about signing up for one, you’re going to want to get started as soon as possible figuring out which of the attending agents would be worth your time to track down for a hallway pitch, if you can’t obtain a pitching appointment.

In response to that indignant gasp: not being able to land a formal appointment with any given agent attending a conference is not all that uncommon an eventuality. Conference organizers usually do their best, but attendees don’t always get assigned to the agent who’s the best fit for the manuscripts they are pitching. (Again, sorry to be the one to break that to you.)

Passive writers allow that to prevent them from pitching to the right agent — but my readers are more proactive than that, aren’t they?

See why I’m planning to give you tips not only on pitching within a formal meeting, but whenever you happen to be able to buttonhole the agent of your dreams?

“But Anne,” I hear those of you clutching registration forms protest, “I understand doing the prep work if I have a plethora of conferences from which to select, but I’m already registered for my local one. Since I’ve already been assigned a pitch appointment and I already know that I’m too shy to walk up to the dais after the agents’ forum, why should I bother checking up on all of the agents who might be attending?”

Well, for a couple of reasons. First, any book could be pitched in a number of different ways — and since the goal of pitching is not absolute uniformity between every pitch attempt, but rather to garner a request for pages, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to tailor your pitch to the agent who happens to be listening to it at any given moment, doesn’t it?

And no, I have absolutely no idea why conference literature so often tells potential attendees the exact opposite. I’ll be dealing with the one-size-fits-all pitch concept next week.

For now, suffice it to say that all three pictures above are from the same negative. You probably have a favorite among them; so do I. So would an agent. But they’re all the same angle on the same rose. The only difference is presentation.

Seem cryptic? Trust me, within a couple of weeks, it will seem downright obvious.

The other reason to do some background research on the agents to whom you may be pitching is, as I mentioned, that it’s far from uncommon for writers to be assigned to pitch to agents who do not represent their kinds of books at all. Which means, practically inevitably, that the pitch cannot end in a request for pages.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sit down and breathe deeply until that feeling of dizziness passes.

As anyone who has ever endured the agony of a mismatched pitch appointment can tell you, if your book falls outside the agent or editor’s area of preference, it doesn’t matter how good your pitch is: they will stop you as soon as they figure out that your book is categorically not for them. No amount of argument is going to help you at that point, so advance research is a very, very good idea, if only so you can try frantically to switch appointments with another writer.

I know, I know: it’s kind of cruel, isn’t it? But in fairness, conference organizers very frequently do not have enough information about prospective attendees to make a good match; most of the time, they simply rely upon the writers’ expressed preferences or — sacre bleu! — assign appointments randomly.

This means, unfortunately, that it is up to the conference attendee to check up on the agents and editors, over and above their blurbs in the conference program. Even those bear double-checking: as my long-time readers already know, the blurb agents and editors write about themselves is not always the most reliable indicator of the type of work they represent. It’s not that they’re trying to be misleading, of course; most just reuse their standard bio blurbs, which tend not to be updated all that often.

So it’s worth your while to check the agents’ websites, standard agents’ guides (for some tips on how to use these, please consult the AGENCY GUIDES category at right). Preditors and Editors, the Absolute Write water cooler, and anywhere else that you would normally go to check out an agent you were planning to query. You don’t need to be able to write a 500-page biography for each of these people, but you absolutely do what they’re representing these days.

These days being the operative term: while agents frequently list the better-known books they’ve represented in those little blurbs in the conference guide, they don’t necessarily update those blurbs every time they use them. (Also true of the preferences listed in agents’ guides, by the way.) And even if they did, the market changes far too fast for blurbs usually submitted months before the conference to reflect what an agent is looking to represent NOW.

I hear you groaning: yes, this IS every bit as much work as finding an agent to query. But you don’t want to end up pitching to the wrong agent, do you?

When you’re doing your research, do be aware that since there is usually a significant time lag between when an agent signs an author and when the book hits the shelves (see above), it may be difficult to track down client lists for some agents. This does not necessarily mean that they are not active. The Publishers Marketplace database tracks sales as they happen AND provides client lists, so it’s a great place to check. This site does require a subscription ($20/month), so you might want to round up some of your writing friends and pool the expense.

If you can’t find evidence that the agent to whom you are assigned to pitch is actively representing your kind of book, don’t be afraid to ask to switch appointments. Most of the time, conference organizers will do their best honor such requests — but they’ll usually be happier about it if you can suggest an alternative agent for an appointment.

Yet another reason that — wait for it — it’s an excellent idea to check out ALL of the agents scheduled to attend a conference (there’s usually a list on the conference’s website), not just to one to whom you’ve been assigned. Ideally, you will want to try to pitch to anyone who might conceivably be a reasonable fit. And if none of the scheduled agents represent your kind of book, you should think very seriously about taking your conference dollars elsewhere.

Yes, having to do this level of background research is kind of a pain, but if it saves you even one wasted pitch, it’s definitely worth it. The more information you have, the more likely you are to find your best fit. Doing your homework maximizes the probability that you will be pitching to someone who can help you get published — and not someone who will stop you three sentences in to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t represent that kind of book.”

Remember, not all agents are the same, any more than all editors are (of which more tomorrow); they have both professional specialties and personal preferences. It doesn’t make any more sense to pitch sensitive coming-of-age literary fiction to an agent who concentrates primarily on thrillers than it does to query a NF agency with a novel, does it?

Do those of you who have never pitched before feel as though you’ve just fallen into very, very deep water? Not to worry: you’ll feel much less disoriented in the days to come. Which is to say: PLEASE don’t be too hard on yourself if your learning curve is a bit sharp throughout this series. After all, no one is born knowing how to market a book.

Keep those expectations realistic and those hopes high. You can do this, honest. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XVIII: sins of excess, purplish prose, and the effect of all of that caffeine on Millicent’s reading sensibilities

cups-of-coffee

Does that large-scale collective whimpering I’ve been hearing over the last week, a sort of humanoid version of a slightly rusted machine cranking gears in stasis back into unaccustomed action, mean that many of you have leapt back into action and are laboring feverishly to send out queries and pop those long-requested materials into the mail? Hurrah, if so, because the infamous New Year’s resolution should just about have petered out by now. (If you’re joining us late, half the aspiring writers in North America send out queries and manuscripts within the first three weeks of any given calendar year — and, like other New Year’s resolutions, the impetus to virtue tends to fade before February rolls around.) This is a grand time to be getting those marketing materials out the door.

Since some of you are probably laboring toward that laudable goal this very weekend, this seems like an apt time to remind everyone of something I haven’t mentioned in a while: if you’re planning to query or submit electronically, either via e-mail or through an agency or small publisher’s website, don’t do it between Friday afternoon and Monday at noon.

Stop laughing; I’m quite serious about this. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that rejection rates are higher for queries and submissions sent over the weekend.

I’m not talking merely about this particular weekend, mind you, but any weekend, especially those that contain a national holiday on either end. Trust me, you don’t want your e-query or e-submission lost in the weekend’s backlog.

Why avoid weekend submissions, when it’s usually the most convenient time for the writer? For precisely that reason: because weekends are far and away the most popular time for contacting agents, their inboxes are almost invariably stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. If you wait to send off your missive until after lunchtime in New York, you will probably be dealing with a less surly and thus easier to please agent.

Or, more likely, a less overwhelmed screener, a Millicent who has had time to let her scalding-hot latte cool — or possibly be on her second or third — before reading what you sent. That increase in caffeine and concomitant decrease in grumpiness gives your query or submission a slight competitive edge over those that she finds stacked up in her inbox first thing Monday morning, when all she wants to do is weed through them as quickly as humanly possible.

Admittedly, this is often her goal, especially with queries, which routinely arrive at any well-established agency by the truckload. But as the Carpenters so often whined back in the 1970s, rainy days and Mondays always get her down.

That being said, shall we get on with the many, many reasons she is likely to reject a submission on page 1, so you can start prepping to send out that electronic submission come Tuesday? I’m going to keep this short today, so those of you using checking here at Author! Author! as a break in your marketing-prep endeavors may get right back to work.

As the saying goes (or should, at any rate), no rest for the weary, the wicked, and the agent-seeker.

As you may have noticed over the course of this series, most of the professional readers’ pet peeves we’ve been discussing are at the larger level — paragraph, conception, pacing, choosing to include a protagonist with long, flowing red hair, etc. — but today’s subsection of the list falls squarely at the sentence level:

55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.

56. The writing lacks pizzazz.

57. The writing is dull.

58. The writing is awkward.

59. The writing uses too many exclamation points.

60. The writing falls back on common shorthand descriptions.

61. Too many analogies per paragraph.

Most of these are fairly self-explanatory, but I want to zero in on a couple of them before I talk about sentence-level red flags in general. Objection #55, took too many words to say what happened, is to a great extent the offspring of our old friend, the thirty-second read, but to professional eyes, text that takes a while to get to the point is not problematic merely because Millicent has to wait too long to see the action in action. To an agent or editor, it is a warning signal: this is probably a book that will need to be edited sharply for length.

Translation: this manuscript will need work.

As we have learned over the course of this series, your garden-variety NYC-based agent would much, much rather that any necessary manuscript reconstruction occur prior to their seeing the book at all, so spotting even a quite beautifully-written submission that takes a while to warm up is a major red flag for them. In fact, it is likely to send them screaming in another direction.

Which is a pity, especially for the large contingent of writers enamored of either most books written before 1920 or quite a lot of the literary fiction still being published in the British Isles, which often take pages and pages to jump into the story proper. Many’s the time that I’ve picked up a volume that’s the talk of London, only to think, “This is lovely, but Millicent would have ben tapping her fingers, toes, and anything else that was handy four pages ago, muttering under her breath, ‘Will you please get on with it?’”

This should sound at least a trifle familiar from last time, yes? US-based agents tend to prefer books that start with action, not character development for its own sake, even in literary fiction. And I’m not necessarily talking about CGI-worthy fireworks, either: for the purposes of literature, conflict is action.

Which means, in practice, that even an unquestionably gorgeous 4-page introduction that deftly situates the protagonist with respect time, space, social status, costume, dialect, educational level, marital status, voting record, and judgment about whether ice dancing is too harshly judged in the Olympics is less likely to be read in its entirety than a substantially less stylistically sound scene that opens mid-argument.

I know; it’s limiting. But being aware of this fact prior to submission enables the talented writer with the 4-page opening to move it later in the book, at least in the draft she’s marketing, and open with an equally beautiful conflict, right? As I’ve said many, many times before: a manuscript is not set in stone until it’s set in print, and not always even then.

Translation: you can always change it back after the agent of your dreams signs you, but that can’t happen unless you get your book past Millicent first.

To be fair, her get on with it, already! attitude doesn’t emerge from nowhere, or even the huge amounts of coffee, tea, and Red Bull our Millicent consumes to keep up with her hectic schedule. Just as most amateur theatrical auditions tend to be on the slow side compared to professional performances, so do most submissions drag a bit compared to their published counterparts.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you, but the tendency to move slowly is considerably more common in manuscript submissions than an impulse too move too fast. As in about 200 to 1. Millicent often genuinely needs that coffee.

Also, because so few submissions to agencies come equipped with a professional title page, most screeners will also automatically take the next logical (?) step and assume that a prose-heavy first page equals an overly long book. (Interestingly, they seldom draw the opposite conclusion from a very terse first page.) See why it’s a good idea to include a standard title page — if you are not already aware of the other good reasons to do this, please see the TITLE PAGE category at right — that contains an estimated word count?

In short, it is hard to over-estimate the size of the red flag that pops out of an especially wordy first page.

And in answer to the question that half of you mentally howled at me in the middle of the last paragraph about how long is too long, it obviously varies by book category and genre, but for years, the standard agents’ advice to aspiring writers has been to keep a first novel under 100,000 words, if at all possible.

That’s 400 pages in standard format, Times New Roman.

Before any of you start rushing toward the COMMENTS function below to tell me that you asked an agent at a recent conference about your slightly longer work, and she said rather evasively that it was fine, 60,000 – 110,000 words is fairly universally considered a fine range for a novel. (This is estimated word count, of course, not actual; if you do not know why the pros figure it this way, or how to estimate the way they do, please see WORD COUNT at right.)

Shorter than 60,000, and it’s really a novella, which would usually be packaged with another work (unless the author is already very well-established); longer than 110,000, and it starts becoming substantially more expensive to print and bind (and yes, they really do think about that as soon as they lay eyes on a novel). Do check, though, about the standards in your particular genre and sub-genre: chick lit, for instance, tends to be under 90,000 words, and a quick romp through any well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that many romances, mysteries, and humor books weigh in at a scant 40,000 – 60,000.

If your manuscript falls much outside that range, don’t despair. Or at least don’t despair until you’ve worked your way step by step through this checklist:

(1) Double-check that it is indeed in standard format (if you’re not positive, please see the MANUSCRIPT FORMATING 101 and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right). If the margins are too wide or the font too big (Times New Roman is one of the most space-efficient), those choices can apparently add specious length to a manuscript.

(2) Make sure that you are estimating correctly — actual word count is typically quite a bit higher than estimated. (Again, if you’re unsure, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) If actual and estimated are wildly different, use the one that’s closest to the target range.

(3) If your word count is well out of range, don’t include the word count in your query letter.

I heard that great big gasp out there; I know that I’m one of the rare online writing advice-givers that recommends this. But frankly, since agents routinely have their clients leave the word count off too-length manuscripts, I don’t see an ethical problem with an omission that will help your work get past the querying stage so it can be judged on the merits of the writing.)

(4) Consider editing for length. If it’s too long to render that feasible, consider chopping the storyline into a pair of books or a trilogy, for marketing purposes. (What was that I said earlier about the possibility of changing it back later?)

(5) If 1-4 fail to solve the problem, you have my permission to panic.

Well, that took us rather far afield from sentence-level red flags, didn’t it? Let’s get back to those proverbial brass tacks.

#59, too many exclamation points and #61, too many analogies are also sins of excess, but the conclusions screeners tend to draw from them are more about their perpetrators than about the books in question.

To a professional reader, a manuscript sprinkled too liberally with exclamation points just looks amateurish: it’s seen as an artificial attempt to make prose exciting through punctuation, rather than through skillful sentences. Since this particular prejudice is shared by most of the writing teachers in North America, agents and editors will automatically assume that such a manuscript was produced by someone who has never taken a writing class.

Not a good one, anyway. And while that is not necessarily a bad thing (they often complain that they see too much over-workshopped writing), they tend, as a group, to eschew writers whom they perceive to still be learning their craft.

Yes, yes: of course, we’re all still learning our craft as long as we live, but to be on the safe side, save the exclamation points for dialogue.

#61, too many analogies, on the other hand, is often the result of having been exposed to too much writing advice. Most of us, I think, had similes and metaphors held up to us as examples of good writing at some point in our formative years, and I, for one, would be the last to decry the value of a really good analogy.

But too many in a row can make for some pretty tiresome reading.

Why, you ask? Well, descriptive flights of fancy are by definition deviations from what’s going on in the moment, right? As such, they can slow down a nice, dramatic opening considerably. Take a gander at this lightly lavender-tinted passage, for instance:

Like a rat in a maze, Jacqueline swerved her panther of a sports car through the Habitrail™ of streets that is South London as if she were being pursued by pack of wolves howling for her blood. Her eyes were flint as she stared through the rain-flecked windshield, as reflective as a cat’s eye at night. She had left her heart behind at Roger’s flat, bloodied and torn; she felt as though she had put her internal organs through a particularly rusty meat grinder, but still, she drove like a woman possessed.”

Now, that’s not a bad piece of writing, even if I do say so myself. The prose isn’t precisely purple, but still, the analogies are laid on with a trowel, not a tweezers.

Taken individually, of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the clauses above, but all in a row, such writing starts to sound a bit evasive. It reads as though the author is actively avoiding describing the car, the streets, or Jacqueline’s feelings per se. To a screener who is, after all, in a hurry to find out what is going on in the book, all of those things that are like other things could provide distraction from what the story is ABOUT.

#60, writing that falls back on common shorthand, could be interpreted as a subsection of the discussion of clichés earlier in this series, but actually, you would have to read an awful lot of manuscripts before you started identifying these as tropes.

Still, tropes they are, radically overused in submissions as a whole. The Idol agents specifically singled out the use of phrases such as, She did not trust herself to speak, She didn’t want to look, and a character thinking, This can’t be happening — all of which are, from a writer’s POV, are simple descriptions of what is going on.

But then, so is the opening, It was a dark and stormy night, right? Many a night has been devoid of significant light, and a significant proportion of them see storms. That doesn’t mean It was a dark and stormy night isn’t the champagne of clichéd first lines.

Or that Millicent doesn’t see pointlessly resentful teenagers, sighing as the sole indicator of protagonist disgruntlement, children growing up too fast, women pressuring men to get married, and men wanting more physical contact than their partners (possibly with those half their partners’ ages) dropped into every third manuscript she sees. To a professional reader, such overused phrases and hackneyed concepts represent wasted writing opportunities.

Yes, they convey what is going on concisely and clearly, but not in a way that hasn’t been done before. Remember, you want an agent to fall in love with YOUR unique voice and worldview, so using the phrases of others, even when apt, is not the best way to brand your work as your own.

Ultimately, though, you should tread lightly around all of today’s objections for strategic reasons, because they imply something to a professional reader that you might not want to convey: because virtually any good first reader would have called the writer’s attention to these problems (well, okay, perhaps not #60), they make it appear as though the screener is the first human being to read the submission. (Other than the author’s mother, spouse, lover, best friend, or anyone else who has substantial incentive not to give impartial feedback, that is, but of that, more next week) To the pros, these mistakes make a submission read like a work-in-progress, not like one that is ready to market.

Uh-oh. Did that red flag just mean that this submission needs further work?

Remember, virtually every agent and editor in the industry perceives him/herself to be the busiest human being on the planet. (Try not to dwell on the extremely low probability of this being true; it will only confuse the issue.) Your chances of impressing them favorably rise dramatically if your work cries out, “I will not make unwarranted inroads onto your time! You can sell me as is!”

Please, I implore you, do not make an agency screener the first impartial reader for your work. Frankly, they just are not going to give you the feedback you need in order to learn how to bring your book to publication. They don’t have — or believe they don’t have– the time.

Acknowledging that you need feedback to bring your work to a high polish does not make you a bad writer; it makes you a professional one who recognizes that there is more going on in a submission that your expressing yourself. It makes you a savvy one who knows that a book is a product to be sold, in addition to being a piece of art.

It also makes you, if I may be blunt about it, a better self-marketer than 98% of the aspiring writers who enthusiastically fulfill their New Year’s resolutions by licking stamps for SASEs on January first, or who will be blithely hitting the SEND button on their electronic queries and e-mails this weekend.

Don’t worry, weary first page-revisers: we’re very close to being done with the rejection reason list. Hang in there, and keep up the good work!

How long is too long?

Before I begin today, time for a little self-promotion: if you are at all interested in guest blogging — anywhere, ever — virtual tours, or just plain not annoying people online whom you would like to promote your book for you someday, I’ve written a guest post on the subject for MJ Rose’s most excellent blog on book promotion, Buzz, Balls & Hype. For those of you not yet familiar with MJ’s good work there, suffice it to say that whenever I have a question about promotion, she is my very first stop.

As in I may not actually draw a second breath before checking to see what she has to say on the subject. She really, really knows her stuff.

Speaking of questions, long-time reader Mark approached me with an interesting one around Halloween (yes, I am clearing out my blog-about list these days, thank you for asking):

My question has to do with agent contacts. At {the Conference-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named} 2006, I met Maura M. McLiterate {note from Anne: not her real name},
pitched her, and she asked me to contact her when
I had a finished manuscript…So finally, after finishing
the manuscript this summer, I sent her a {cover letter reminding her of our conversation} with the stuff she asked for.

That was September 4 {2008}. Haven’t heard anything back. Given that she
requested the followup, does the 4-6 weeks “wait time” still make sense? I
have a handful of other agents and editors who asked to be contacted, trying
to figure out how to manage this. Advice welcome.

Mark raises several intriguing issues here, all relating to the burning question of how long is too long in the publishing biz:

*How long after a successful pitch may one take up an agent’s offer to submit materials and still continue them requested? (For an explanation of the vital difference between requested and unrequested materials, see yesterday’s post.)

*How long is a normal turn-around time at an agency for requested materials?

*Does a long gap between pitch or query and submission necessarily extend that turn-around time?

*Does a submission based upon a face-to-face pitch typically receive swifter attention from agents than one based upon an impersonal query letter?

The short answers to these questions are, in the order asked: it depends, it depends, it depends, and it depends.

I imagine, clever writers that you are, that you would like to know upon what it depends in each instance, but that’s not really a question that may be answered accurately on a theoretical basis — because (wait for it) it all depends.

I know that sounds like a flippant response to a serious question (or, more accurately, to four serious questions), but honestly, I don’t mean it to be. How long an agent is going to be willing to wait to see requested materials depends upon a lot of factors, potentially ranging from how the book market has changed in the interim to whether the agent is still representing that type of book to what authors an agent may have lost lately (agented writers move around more than one might think, sometimes from project to project) to whether the agent has just had a baby.

If that seems like too many unknown factors for a rational person to take into strategic consideration, you’re absolutely right: second-guessing is frequently impossible. Given that realization, would it frighten you too terribly to learn that the list of factors above represents just a tiny fraction of the possible influences over how long an agent may take to respond to a submission?

So my initial answer was quite accurate: in all of these cases, the answer depends on a lot of factors, virtually none of which a writer on the other side of the country (or other side of the world) may anticipate.

Each individual submission is thus to a certain extent the plaything of outside forces. Before that notion depresses anyone too much, let’s return to Mark’s specific case, to see if it sheds any light upon what an aspiring writer can and cannot control in a submission situation.

First, to place this in as empowering a light as possible, Mark did something very, very right in his submission to Maura. Actually, he did something else pretty smart, too. Anyone care to guess what these bright moves were?

If you said that he sent a cover letter along with his submission, reminding her where they had met, what he had pitched to her, and that she had asked him to send the enclosed materials, give yourself a gold star for the day. And make it three gold star and a firecracker if you immediately added that he was right to tell her when he pitched that he had not yet completed the manuscript, so she would not expect it to arrive right away.

Your mother was right, you know — honesty, contrary to popular opinion, often genuinely is the best policy.

Why was reminding Maura how much time had elapsed strategically smart? It prevented her from thinking, “Who?” when she saw the submission marked REQUESTED MATERIALS. More importantly, it minimized the possibility of her thinking, “I don’t remember telling this guy to send anything.”

All of which begs the question: was over two years too long for Mark to wait before submitting the materials Maura requested?

You all know the refrain by now, don’t you? Chant it with me: it all depends.

Normally, I would advise trying to get requested materials out the door within six months, if it is humanly possible. Longer than that, and an aspiring writer runs the risk not only of his query or pitch not being remembered (which is probably going to happen far sooner than that, but hey, agents keep records of this sort of thing) but also of the agent’s individual tastes and market trends changing. At minimum, a much longer delay will send a pretty unequivocal message to the agent in question to the effect that the submitter is slow at responding to requests, always a bit frustrating to someone in the business of mediating between authors and publishing houses.

Of course, you could always take your chances and send a much-delayed submission anyway; technically, requests for material don’t expire. But after a year has passed, the risk of any or all of the conditions above’s having changed becomes so high that I would advise sending a follow-up letter, confirming that the request is still operative.

Mark, however, was savvy enough to protect himself against the liabilities of a long delay between request and submission: he told Maura up front that he was not yet finished with the manuscript. This gave her the clear option of saying either, “Well, then you should wait and query me when it is finished,” (a popular choice, particularly for novels) or what she actually did say, “That sounds interesting — when you’re finished, send me this and this and this.”

For insight into why this worked, see my earlier comment about honesty.

Assuming that Mark need not worry about Maura’s having lost interest in his book while he was finishing writing it — again, a fairly hefty assumption, but certainly worth his testing practically — is he right to worry that he did not hear back from her right away?

I’m exceedingly glad that he brought this up, because in the weeks and months following the annual onslaught of writers’ conferences, a LOT of aspiring writers wonder about this. Naturally, everyone wants to hear back right away, but how likely is that desire to be fulfilled?

Or, to put in terms common to fantasy, is it possible to pitch to an agent on Saturday, overnight the requested materials on Monday, and be signed by Friday — and then for one’s new agent to sell one’s book by the following Thursday for publication three weeks from the next Tuesday, so the author may appear triumphantly beaming on Oprah by the end of the month?

The short answer is no. The long answer, as the Vicar of Dibley used to delight in saying, is NOOOOOOOOOOO.

Just doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid. These days, it’s not at all uncommon for submitting writer not to hear back from an agent for months or — you should make sure that you’re sitting down for this, because it’s a lulu — even not at all.

Don’t let that depress you into a stupor just yet — I’ll talk a bit more about the logic behind extensive turn-around times times next time. For the purposes of today’s discussion, my point is that no, a few weeks’ worth of silence after sending off requested materials isn’t at all unusual.

Let’s get back to the specifics of Mark’s situation, though, to see what else we can learn, because the long lapse between pitch and submission honestly do render his position unique — or do they? Let’s see: he pitched to Maura in 2006, then submitted (as per her request) in late September, 2008, either by e-mail or by regular mail. Since so much time had passed between the request and the submission, she couldn’t possibly have anticipated when he would send her the materials, and thus could not have budgeted time to read them.

Which begs the question: why did Mark expect her to respond with unusual quickness after she had received them?

Honestly, just a few weeks would have been positively lightning speed according to current norms. So what about this particular submission would have called for Maura to move it to the top of her reading pile — or, more probably, to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa that is the desk of Millicent, her agency’s in-house manuscript screener?

My guess is that from Maura’s perspective, there wasn’t any reason — but that from Mark’s point of view, there undoubtedly was.

This particular differential in urgency perception between agents and the writers who submit to them is such a common one that one might almost call it classic: what probably happened here is that Mark had been thinking of Maura’s request to submit whenever he happened to complete the manuscript he had pitched as inherently unusual — or at any rate as something different than the kind of request to submit materials that an agent might have made to an aspiring writer who had been pitching a completed manuscript.

As such, Mark did indeed, at least implicitly, expected it to be moved up in the submission pile when it arrived, as a special situation. In his version of events, Maura would not have been patient enough to wait until he completed the book before seeing it if she hadn’t been genuinely interested, so why wouldn’t she jump on it immediately?

But from Maura’s point of view, asking him to contact her with pages after he finished writing them was not a special request — it was precisely the same request as she would have made in response to other intriguing pitches she heard at that conference. The only difference is that she didn’t expect to receive it within a month or two of the request.

As such, it would have been reasonable to expect that when Mark did submit it, his submission would be treated precisely like every other packet of requested materials the agency received in early September. Translation: Maura’s not having gotten back to Mark within 4-6 weeks probably had far more to do with how many manuscripts were stacked up at her agency than with how long Mark took to pop those requested materials into the mail.

In a way, aspiring writers should find this encouraging, or at the very least democratic: queue-jumping is actually pretty hard to do during the pitching/querying and submission process. Even if writers everywhere aren’t particularly grateful for this, I suspect that those who had submitted requested materials to Maura in July or August might find it comforting to know that she — or her Millicent — didn’t just drop whatever manuscript they happened to be reading when a new envelope arrived in the office.

Pop quiz for those who followed my marketing series this last summer: can you think of any other reason that Maura’s office might have been slow to respond to a submission received during the first week of September? Say, just after Labor Day?

Rack up another gold star for yourself if your first response was to shout that just after Labor Day is always an especially busy time for agents, as the publishing houses tend to be shut down from the middle of August through Labor Day.

My guess would be that Mark’s materials are caught up in the residual summer backlog and post-conference season submission wave. As I told Mark at the time (you didn’t think that I waited two months to get back to him directly, did you?), a LOT of aspiring writers tend to be in his situation in any year’s autumn.

So how should Mark have handled it? Should he, as his question implied, assume that his previous face time with Maura meant that he should follow up with her earlier than any other submitter? And what about all of those other submitters whose work has been sliding around on Millicent’s desk for weeks and months on end — what should they do?

In the first place, take a nice, deep breath. Delays are a completely normal part of the submission process, so it doesn’t make sense to read too much into them. If Mark hasn’t heard back, it’s probably because no one at the agency has read his submission yet.

I know: disappointingly prosaic, compared to the much more common dead-of-night submitter’s fantasy that the agent is reading and re-reading the submission in frantic indecision about whether to represent it or not. But my version is much, much more likely to be true.

In the second place, Mark — and all of those other anxious submitters I mentioned a few paragraphs ago — should check Maura’s agency’s website, listing in the standard agency guides, and/or any written materials she might have sent (like, say, a letter requesting materials), to see if the agency had the foresight to post average turn-around times.

Try looking under the submission guidelines; they will often contain some mention of how long they typically take to get back to writers about requested materials. Not to toot my own team’s horn, but my agency has a simply dandy page on its website that explains not only what turn-around times submitters to expect, but the logic behind it and what a submitter who has been twiddling his thumbs for months on end should do.

Getting back to Mark’s situation: before I gave him any advice whatsoever, I spent a couple of minutes checking out Maura’s website. Turns out that her agency lists an 8-week response time; not unusually long. So at minimum, Mark should wait two months before sending Maura a follow-up e-mail, letter, or second copy of his materials.

I would advise holding off for a couple of weeks after that, just in case Maura and Millicent are totally swamped and touchy about it, but not for too much longer after that. If the agency has lost the manuscript — yes, it does happen occasionally, one of the many reasons that I disapprove of the increasingly pervasive practice of agents’ simply not responding at all to submitters if the answer is no — they’re going to want to know about it.

Or, to recast that from a writerly perspective, after 2 1/2 or three months, Mark has every right to give Maura a gentle nudge, to double-check that his book is languishing in a stack on the northeast corner of Millicent’s desk, rather than having vanished into that mysterious other dimension where lost socks, extinct animals, and the child stars of yesteryear dwell. But it’s probably not going to be in his interest to contact her before that.

Why? Long-time readers, open your hymnals and sing it with me now: it often doesn’t take much pushiness for a writer to get labeled as difficult.

So what should Mark be doing in the meantime? Submitting to everyone else who requested materials, of course — and continuing to query up a storm to generate new requests for materials.

Did I just hear yet another chorus of, “Why?” Well, unless you have actually promised an agent an exclusive look at your work, it’s poor submission strategy to submit one at a time. (For an extensive explanation of the logic behind this, you might want to check out the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the list at right.) Your time is too valuable, and at this point in publishing history, agents simply don’t expect exclusivity unless they ask for it.

And if you doubt that, perhaps you should scroll back up to that earlier bit about how some agents now don’t bother to get back to writers whose submissions they have rejected.

I’m constantly meeting submitting writers who believe that the agent of their dreams will be hugely insulted if they don’t grant him an unrequested exclusive, but think about it in practical terms for a moment: if Maura’s agency habitually takes two months to get back to the Marks of this world and her agency is not unusually slow, Mark could find himself waiting two, three, or even six months (it happens, alas) to hear back from every agent to whom he submits. If he does not engage in multiple submissions, he is limiting himself to just a few submissions a year.

Does that seem fair or reasonable to you? Believe me, when agents genuinely want exclusives or if their agencies require them, they’ll let you know about it.

The other thing that Mark might want to do while he’s waiting is to do a bit of research on what to expect after a submission. We discuss it quite often here at Author! Author! (for those of you who are new to the blog, the WHY HAVEN’T I HEARD BACK YET? category might be a good place to start), but frankly, this is a perennial topic of discussion on almost every good writers’ discussion board.

Why invest valuable time in finding out what is happening to your fellow submitters? Well, on a purely selfish level, it would probably reduce your submission-period stress levels. Since writers are so isolated, it’s very easy to start to think that what is happening to oneself is exceptional, whereas usually, it’s just a matter of business as usual in an industry that receives literally millions of pages of submissions every year.

Comparing notes can be very empowering. Honest. So can starting to work on one’s next book.

What a submitter gnawing his nails, anticipating a response from the agent of his dreams, should most emphatically NOT do is allow the delays inherent to the submission process to bring his life to a screeching halt while he waits to hear back. Yes, it’s stressful to know that someone with the power to help you sell your work has her hands all over your work, but obsessing over what might be happening won’t help.

Trust me on this one. Like so many novelists, I’m a born obsesser, so I know whereat I speak.

Speaking of that novel, I’m going to sign off for today so I may get back to work on my next. Since this is a topic that affects so many aspiring writers, I suspect that I shall have more to say on the subject next time.

In the meantime, keep taking those nice, deep breaths, submitters, and everybody, keep up the good work!

PS: No Marks were harmed in the research and writing of this blog post. And to set the minds of those of you who have spoken with me privately about your fears and hopes at ease, he gave his permission for me to use his story as an example. Keep taking those deep breaths, I tell you.

Synopsis-writing 101, part III, or, when brevity isn’t the soul of wit

The universe is full of unanswered questions lately, I notice. What is the origin of evil, for instance? Why didn’t I follow up on Tuesday’s rather exciting (I thought) post on 1-page synopsis-writing with an equally thrilling one yesterday — or indeed, post yesterday at all? And why oh why do I seem to associate synopses with mushrooms?

Some doors man was not meant to open.

Last time, I let the cat out of the bag, all right: I divulged the secret that just because many different people — agents, editors, contest rule-writers, fellowship committees, etc. — use the term synopsis, it does not mean that they are necessarily all talking about an identical document. Different individuals, agencies, and institutions want different lengths, so it always behooves an aspiring writer to double-check the requirements.

Being an intrepid soul, I jumped right in and tackled the most feared of such requests, the single-page synopsis. Unlike a longer synopsis, where the writer actually is expected to provide an overview of the book in question’s plot or argument, a 1-page synopsis is essentially a teaser for the book, intended only to perform a limited number of functions.

What functions, you ask? Well may you ask, because now that I cast my eye back over Tuesday’s post, I notice that I might have presented them in a slightly clearer fashion. As in, for example, list format:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

This goal should sound very, very familiar to those of you who made the hard trek through my recent series on verbal pitches. In both cases, the purpose is not to tell everything there is to tell about the book — these formats are simply too short to permit that — but to give the reader/hearer enough of a taste to whet his or her appetite.

In case I’m being too subtle here, you’re trying to get the agent reading it to ask to see the manuscript, not provide so much information that reading it would be redundant. Everybody clear on that?

Actually, this isn’t a bad list of goals for any length synopsis — certainly, it’s more than most that cross our pal Millicent’s desk actually achieve. However, for a longer synopsis — say, the 5-page version most frequently requested by agents, or a slightly shorter one intended for contest submission — I would add to the list:

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes. (For NF that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point), and

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Does that sound like an overwhelming set of tasks to pull off in a few short pages? I can see how it might feel that way, but to continue my newfound tradition of bluntness, the vast majority of synopsis-writers attempt to do far, far more.

How so? Well, the first time you tried to write a synopsis, didn’t you try to tell the entire story of the book?

I shall take that giant-sized sigh of disgusted recognition as a yes — and if I had to guess (do I? Do I? Apparently, I do), I would wager that those of you who DIDN’T answer that question in the affirmative have not yet tried to write a synopsis.

At least, not since you learned what they were for; I’m not talking about those oh-so-common soi-disant synopses that don’t summarize the book so much as promote it. (This is the best novel since MIDDLEMARCH, only less depressing!) But of that pitfall, more follows anon.

If you find the necessity for brevity intimidating, you are hardly alone; I am perpetually meeting aspiring writers agonizing over it. Case in point: about five years ago, I met a marvelous writer at a conference; naturally, as conference etiquette demands, I asked her over crawfish etouffée what her first novel was about.

Forty-three minutes and two excellently-becreamed courses later, she came to the last scene.

“That sounds like a great novel,” I said, waving away a waiter bent upon stuffing me until I burst. “And I really like that it’s an easy one to pitch: two women, misfits by personality and disability within their own families and communities, use their unlikely friendship to forge new bonds of identity in a lonely world.”

The author stared at me, as round-eyed as if I had just sprouted a second head. “How did you do that? I’ve been trying to come up with a one-sentence summary for two years!”

Of course, it was easier for me than for her: I have years of experience crafting pitches; it’s a learned skill. Still more importantly, because I had not yet read the book, I did not know the subtle character nuances that filled her pages. I could have no knowledge of how she had woven perspective with perspective in order to tease the reader into coming to know the situation fully. I was not yet aware of the complex ways in which she made language dance. All I knew was the premise and the plot – which put me in an ideal position to come up with a pithy, ready-for-the-conference-floor pitch.

Or — and I can feel that some of you have already jumped ahead to the next logical step here — a synopsis.

This is why, I explained to her, I always write the pitch before I write the piece. Less distracting that way. You can always tweak it down the road, but why not get the basic constituent parts on paper first, while the plot elements are still painted in broad strokes in your head?

Ditto for synopses. Naturally, they will evolve as the book develops and the plot thickens in writing, but I’ve never known a writer who could not easily give a one-page synopsis of her book when she was two weeks into writing it — and have seldom known the same author to be able to do so without agony a year later.

Those of you locked in mid-novel can feel what I’m about to suggest coming, can’t you?

That lump in the pit of your stomach is not lying to you: I am seriously suggesting that you sit down and write at least a concise summary of the major themes of the book — if not actually a provisional 1-page synopsis (and, to be on the safe side, a 5-page one as well) — BEFORE you finish writing it.

At least a rough draft: you’ll have more time to tweak later on, and in the long run, if you multi-task throughout the creation process, your work will hit the agent market faster.

How so? Well, think how much happier you will be on the blessed day that an agent asks you for one. Wouldn’t you rather be able to say, “Sure; I’ll get that out to you right away,” instead of piping through mounting terror, “Wow, um, I guess I could pull one together and send it with the chapter you requested…”

Synopses, like pitches, are often easier to write for a book that has not yet come to life. At the beginning of the writing process, it is easy to be succinct: there are not yet myriad plot details and marvelous twists to get in the way of talking about the premise.

Everyone who has ever sighed in response to the ubiquitous question, “Gee, what is your book about?” knows this to be true, right?

As I mentioned earlier in this series, too many aspiring writers seem to forget that the synopsis is a writing sample, too — and will be judged accordingly. A panicked state is not, I have noticed, the most conducive to smooth summarization.

One common mistake is to overload the synopsis with detail, instead of sticking to the major plot points. The result, in case you were wondering, tends to look a little something like this:

Contrast that, if you please, with the solid 1-page synopsis for the same book we discussed yesterday:

The difference is pretty stark, isn’t it? At the rate that the first example is crawling, it would almost be quicker to read the manuscript itself.

I heard you think that: no, Millicent will NOT immediately turn to a manuscript if she finds a synopsis unsatisfying. In the rather unlikely circumstance that she reads the synopsis first (screeners tend to pounce upon the first page of text right away, to see if they like the writing, then move on to a requested synopsis later), all a poorly-constructed synopsis is likely to impel her to do is reach for her already-prepared stack of form-letter rejections.

Sorry.

The other common panic response to the demand for brevity, particularly in a 1-page synopsis, is to turn it into a projected back jacket blurb for the book. Contest judges see this all the time: the requested synopsis is, after all, not all that much longer than a standard back jacket blurb, many contest entrants apparently think, so why not use it as an opportunity for promotional copy?

The result, alas, tends to be a series of vague generalities and unsupported boasts, looking a little something like this:

Yes, I know that there’s a typo in the last paragraph, smarty pants — and I sincerely hope that you caught some of the many standard format violations as well. For the moment, though, let’s set cosmetic matters on the back burner and look at the content. Setting aside the most important writing distinction between these three examples — the third TELLS that the book is good, whereas the the second and third SHOW that why it might be appealing through specifics — let’s stick to basics here.

So let me ask you: how well does each fulfill the criteria for 1-page synopsis success that we established above? To recap:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Obviously, the last example fails in almost every respect. It does (1) introduce a few of the main characters and part of the premise, but dumbs it down: Lizzy seems to be the passive pawn of Mr. Wickham, and not too bright to boot. It mentions (2) one of the conflicts, but neither the most important nor the first of the book, but it entirely misses the book’s assessment of (3) what’s at stake for Lizzy (other than the implied possibility of falling in love with the wrong man).

Most seriously, (4) this blurb pretty actively misrepresents the tone and voice of the book, presenting it as a torrid romance rather than a comedy of manners. Why is this a mistake? Well, think about it: would an agent who represents steamy romances be a good fit for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? Would s/he be likely to have the editorial connections to place it under the right eyes quickly?

And when you come right down to it, isn’t an agent who gets excited about the book described here likely to be disappointed by the opening pages of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

Example #1 — what I like to call the run-on synopsis — performs better, doesn’t it? It presents both (1) the characters and premise fairly well, but in getting sidetracked by a minor conflict, its writer rapidly runs out of room to present the (2) primary conflict of the book. By focusing so exclusively on what happens, rather than upon establishing, say, the protagonist’s motivations and desires, it underplays (3) what’s at stake for her.

Isn’t it interesting, though, how little actual quotation from the book (as I’ve done several times throughout) helps demonstrate the tone and voice of the book? It’s one of the great comedies of the English language — shouldn’t this synopsis be FUNNY?

The middle example — the one that, if you will recall, is little more than a reformatted and slightly expanded version of the summary portion of a 2-minute pitch — succeeds in fulfilling each of our goals. Or perhaps it would be more productive if I asked that as a question: DOES it? Can you think of ways to improve upon it without extending it beyond a single page?

Quick, now: Aunt Jane needs to know immediately, because the agent of her dreams asked her today to send the first 50 pages and a synopsis, and she’s just about to finish printing up the former. Can you pick up the pace of revision, please?

See how much harder it is when you’re trying to do it in a hurry? Wouldn’t it be nice if Aunt Jane already had a synopsis on hand to send?

I know, I know: it’s exceedingly tempting to procrastinate for as long as you possibly can about embarking upon a task as difficult and as potentially annoying as this, but working on the synopsis well before anyone in the industry might reasonably ask to see it guarantees that yours will have a significant advantage over the vast majority that cross Millicent’s desk: it won’t have been tossed together at the last possible nanosecond before sealing the submission packet.

The results, as Millie herself would be the first to tell you, are not always pretty. Your manuscript deserves better treatment than that, doesn’t it?

I’ll leave you chewing on all of these big issues for the nonce. Next time, we’re going to be returning to these same examples with a more technical eye, to see how the smaller structural and presentation issues play into a synopsis’ success.

Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part II: the dreaded single-page synopsis, or, what to do when you can’t allow those mushrooms to multiply

We begin today on a note of triumph: long-time reader and fab lady Auburn McCanta has had a political essay selected (amid some SERIOUS competition, I’m guessing, at this point in the election cycle) for publication on the Huffington Post. Congratulations, Auburn!

Please, everyone, keep sending in word of your writerly triumphs, large and small. One of the great benefits of community is being able to share good news!

Good news comes in many forms for writers — as does, lest we forget ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy). Many aspiring writers become so focused on imagining a single track to literary success — which typically runs thus: write book, land agent, sell book to Random House, book signings, Oprah, wash, rinse, and repeat — that they forget that other writerly achievements can look awfully good in a query letter and in an author bio. Publications — paid or not, in print or on the Internet — definitely count, as do degree programs, certificate programs, contest placing, and so forth.

So please join me, everyone, in applauding Auburn for doing some smart long-term career promotion — and set aside some time in your no doubt busy schedule to brainstorm what ECQLC you might add to your query letter candy bowl to render it more attractive to Millicent.

Who, for those of you joining us late, is Author! Author!’s pet agency screener, the one who is so very efficient at zipping through stacks and stacks of query letters with a latte in one hand and a pile of form-letter rejections in the other. She’s also often the gal who weeds out submissions before they reach the desk of the agent of one’s dreams — who, if s/he happens to work at one of the larger agencies, might even have two or three Millicents pre-reading submissions.

We here at A! A! try not to annoy Millicent. It’s not good marketing strategy.

In further pursuit of that laudable goal, I launched yesterday into a discussion one of the more frustration-generating tasks a writer faces on a routine basis: compressing a deliciously complex, breathtakingly nuanced 400-page book into a 5- (or 1)-page summary in standard format.

Or whatever length the agent of your dreams or contest of your desires has seen fit to request.

It’s well worth double-checking who is requesting what these days, especially if you’re planning on including a synopsis with your query letters. This information that’s usually easily available in the agency’s listing in one of the standard agency guides, on its website (if it has one; a surprisingly hefty percentage still don’t), or even, in the case of a REQUESTED synopsis to be included with a submission, in the communication containing the request for materials.

Yes, I AM saying what you think I’m saying: you wouldn’t believe how often queriers seem to forget to consult either of the former (or both, since sometimes they contain different information) or, in the heat of post-request excitement, simply disregard the instructions about what they’re supposed to send.

A good trick to help avoid the first mistake: do your homework; if the agency has made the information publicly available, Millicent will expect any querier or submitter to be familiar with it.

A couple of good tricks to avoid the second: when you receive a request for materials, immediately sit down and make a checklist of what should be in the submission packet. Then have a non-writer go over the request for materials, the agency in question’s guidelines, AND its website, making a separate list of all the agency’s requirements and requests. (Why a non-writer, you ask? S/he’s less likely to get swept up in the excitement of the moment.) Afterward, compare and consolidate the two lists.

Before you seal the submission packet, dig out the final version of that to-do list and triple-check that you did everything on it.

Pay extra-close attention to length restrictions for synopses — Millicents are known for rejecting a too-long or too-short synopsis on sight. Why? Well, one that is much shorter will make you look as if your story is unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard.

Either way, the results can be fatal to your submission.

So what DOES work in a synopsis? It’s not going to sound sexy, I’m afraid, but here is the secret:

For fiction, stick to the plot of the novel, including enough vivid detail to make the synopsis interesting to read. Oh, and make sure the writing is impeccable.

For nonfiction, begin with a single paragraph about (a) why there is a solid market already available for this book and (b) why your background/research/approach renders you the perfect person to fill that market niche. Then present the book’s argument in a straightforward manner, showing how each chapter will build upon the one before to prove your case as a whole. Give some indication of what evidence you will use to back up your points.

For either, make sure to allot sufficient time to craft a competent, professional synopsis — as well as sufficient buffing time to render it gorgeous. Let’s face it, unlike some of the more — let’s see, how shall I describe them? — fulfilling parts of writing and promoting a book (see above; wash, rinse, repeat), a synopsis is unlikely to spring into your head fully-formed, like Athene; most writers have to flog the muses quite a bit to produce a synopsis they like.

To quote the late, great Billie Holiday: the difficult/I’ll do right now./ The impossible/will take a little while.

Too few aspiring writers do, apparently preferring instead to toss together something at the last minute before sending out a submission or contest entry. (Especially a contest entry. I’ve been a judge; I know.)

I have my own theories about why otherwise sane and reasonable people might tumble into this particular strategic error. Not being aware that a synopsis would be required seems to be a common reason, as does resentment at having to produce it at all. Or just not being familiar with the rigors of writing oe.

Regardless, it’s just basic common sense to recognize that synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write.

Yes, no matter how good your book may happen to be. Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

On the bright side, since almost everyone just throws a synopsis together, impressing an agent with one actually isn’t as hard as it seems at first blush. Being able to include a couple of stunning visceral details, for instance, is going to make you look like a better writer — almost everyone just summarizes vaguely.

My readers, of course, are far, far too savvy to make that mistake, right?

Even if you are not planning to send out queries or submissions anytime soon (much to those sore-backed muses’ relief), I STRONGLY recommend investing the time in generating and polishing a synopsis BEFORE you are at all likely to need to use it. That way, you will never you find yourself in a position of saying in a pitch meeting, “A 5-page synopsis? Tomorrow? Um, absolutely.”

Hey, there was a reason that I introduced you to that Billie Holiday song; it’s the mantra of the working writer. Or so my agent tells me.

Actually, if you can bear it — you might want to make sure your heart medication is handy before you finish this sentence –it’s a great idea to pull together a couple of different lengths of synopsis to have on hand, so you are prepared when you reach the querying and submission stages to provide whatever the agent in question likes to see.

What lengths might you want to have in stock? Well, a 5-page, certainly, as that is the most common request, and perhaps a 3 as well, if you are planning on entering any literary contests anytime soon. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s getting more common for agents to request a 1-page synopsis, so you might want to hammer out one of those as well.

I can tell from here that you’ve just tensed up. Take a deep breath. No, I mean a really deep one. This is not as overwhelming a set of tasks as it sounds.

In fact, if you have been reading this blog all summer or have worked through some of the exercised in the archives, you probably already have a 1-page synopsis floating around in your mind.

You may know it by its other name: the 2-minute pitch. (For tips on how to construct one of these babies, please see the aptly-named 2-MINUTE PITCH category at right.)

Don’t believe me, oh ye of little faith? Okay, here’s a pitch I used as an example just a couple of months back:

Nineteenth-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?

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, right? As I vaguely recall having mentioned at the time, this would be a trifle long as an elevator speech — which, by definition, needs to be coughed out in a hurry — but it would work fine in, say, a ten-minute meeting with an agent or editor.

It also, when formatted correctly, works beautifully as a one-page synopsis with only a few minor additions. Lookee:

Okay, so if I were Jane (Austen, that is, not Bennet), I MIGHT want to break up some of the sentences a little, particularly that last one that’s a paragraph long, but see how simple that was? The trick to the 1-page synopsis lies in realizing that it’s not intended to summarize the entire plot, merely to introduce the characters and the premise.

Yes, seriously. Like the descriptive paragraph in a query letter or the summary in a verbal pitch, no sane person seriously expects to see the entire plot of a book summarized in a single page. It’s a teaser, and should be treated as such.

Doesn’t that make more sense than driving yourself insane, trying to cram your entire storyline or argument into 22 lines? Or trying to shrink that 5-page synopsis you have already written down to 1?

Bears pondering, doesn’t it?

Yes, yes, I know: even with reduced expectations, it’s still a tall order. That’s why you’re going to want to set aside some serious time to write it — and don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. (Where have I heard that before?) Because, really, don’t you want YOURS to be the one that justified Millicent’s heavily-tried faith that SOMEBODY out there can tell a good story in 3 – 5 pages?

Or — gulp! — 1?

Don’t worry; you can do this. There are more rabbits in that hat, and the muses are used to working overtime on good writers’ behalves. Keep up the good work!

What happens AFTER you grant an exclusive, and other problems that most aspiring writers would really, really like to have

All right, I’m resigned to it: there is evidently a vast cosmic conspiracy to delay, if not actually prevent, my tackling the thorny issue of how to write a synopsis to accompany a query or submission. This time, as often happens, I got sidetracked by a really good question from a reader. Quoth obviously great query-writer Susan:

My question today, though not directly related to referrals, does have to do with industry etiquette. I’ve read your posts about exclusives, but can’t quite ferret out the answer to my current situation.

Last week, I granted a 3-week exclusive for a partial to Agent A, and yesterday I got an e-mail from Agent B requesting a (nonexclusive) full and another one from Agent C requesting a (nonexclusive) partial.

What’s the polite thing to do? Sit tight until the three weeks is up before responding to Agents B and C? Tell Agents B and C I’ll be happy to send these when the period of exclusivity with Agent A has expired?

Although truth compels me to say that I actually have written one general and two specific posts this year on this very subject (here is one on juggling exclusive and non-exclusive requests simultaneously, and here is one on dealing with mutually exclusive requests), I am glad that Susan asked (I’m even happier to hear that she set a time limit on Agent A’s exclusive, but that’s something I’ll explain later in this post.)

Why am I so pleased to deal with the topic again? Well. since writer friends ask me this very question — what should a writer who already has submissions out to agents do if a newly-responding agent asks for an exclusive? — privately a dozen or so times per year, in addition to the many, many times I am asked in the comments here, I’m inclined to believe that when aspiring writers agree to an exclusive, they don’t necessarily understand what it actually entails.

An exclusive, for those of you new to the concept, is when a writer agrees to allow an agent a specific amount of time to consider representing a particular manuscript, during which no other agent will be reviewing it. In practice, both the agent and the writer agree to abide by certain rules during the specified period:

– ONLY that agent will have an opportunity to read the materials;
– no other agent is already looking at it;
– the writer will not submit it anywhere else;
– in return for this significant advantage (which, after all, pulls the manuscript out of competition with other agents), the agent will make a legitimate effort to read and decide whether or not to offer representation within the specified time period.

Doesn’t seem all that complicated an arrangement, does it? Yet hardly a month goes by when some well-meaning but confused exclusive granter doesn’t tap me on the shoulder (physically or electronically) to ask, “Um, Anne, do you remember that request for an exclusive I was so excited about a week and a half ago?” (Or a month and a half, or six months.) “I’ve heard from another agent. What should I do?”

If the writer specified a time limit on the exclusive, the answer is very simple: if less than that amount of time has passed, don’t send the manuscript to anyone else until it has; if more time has passed, what’s stopping you? When the writer HASN’T set such a limit, the ethics are more nebulous.

See why I was so pleased to hear that Susan had specified that Agent A had an exclusive for only three weeks?

To figure out where exclusive-granting writers run into ethical dilemmas, let’s look at the phenomenon from the other side of the agreement. Generally speaking, agents will request exclusives for one of three reasons: either they fear that there will be significant competition over who will represent the project, they don’t like to be rushed while reading, or it is simply the agency’s policy not to compete with outside agencies, ever.

Do I feel some of you out there getting tense, doing the math on just how many years (if not decades) it could take to make it through your list of dream agents if you had to submit to them one at a time? Relax, campers: requests for exclusives are actually fairly rare.

Why rare? Well, the first kind of exclusive request, the one Agent D (to continue through Susan’s alphabet of competitive agents) might use to prevent Agents E-R from poaching your talents before D has had a chance to read your manuscript (hey, D’s desk is already chin-deep in paper), tends to be reserved for writers with more than just a good book to offer. Celebrity, for instance, or a major contest win.

Basically, the agent is hoping to snap up the hot new writer before anybody else does. Or before the HNW realizes that s/he might prefer to be able to choose amongst several offers of representation. Since pretty much every respectable agency offers the same service, such choices are often made on the basis of connections, how well-established the agency is, or even how well the writer and the agent happen to hit it off.

If you suddenly find yourself the winner of a well-respected literary contest or on the cover of People, remember this: just because an agent asks for an exclusive does not mean you are under any obligation to grant it.

Oh, pick your chin up off the floor. If your work is in demand, it’s not necessarily in your best interest to sign with the first agent who makes an offer — you will want the one with the best track record of selling books like yours, right?

Chant it with me now, long-time readers: you do not want to land just any agent; you want the best agent for YOUR work.

As exciting as a request for an exclusive may be, it does tie the writer’s hands, for precisely the reason Susan mentions: throughout the duration of the exclusive, the writer agrees not to show the manuscript to any other agent. If, as in Susan’s case, other agents are also interested, this can mean a substantial delay in getting the manuscript onto their desks — and if Agent A offers to represent it, B and C may not see it at all.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? For the moment, what I would like for you to take from this situation as discussed so far are two things — no, make that three:

1) As flattering as a request for an exclusive is to an aspiring writer, granting it is optional;

2) Since by definition, a writer cannot submit to other agents during the exclusive period — yes, even if the writer queried the others first — it’s ALWAYS a good idea to set a time limit;

3) Since granting it limits the writer’s options, it’s best reserved for situations where one’s top-choice agents are interested in the book.

Why limit it to your favorite picks? Try to think of granting an exclusive as if you were applying for early admission to an Ivy League school: if the school of your dreams lets you in, you’re not going to want to apply to other universities, right? By applying early, you are saying that you will accept their offer of admission, and the school can add you to its roster of new students without having to worry that you’re going to go to another school instead.

It’s a win/win, in other words.

So if the best agent in the known universe for your type of writing asks for an exclusive, you might want to say yes. But if you have any doubt in your mind about whether Harvard really is a better school for your intended studies than Yale, Columbia, or Berkeley — to mix my metaphors again — you might want to apply to all of them at the same time, so you may decide between those that admit you.

My point is, if you are asked for an exclusive because your work is sought-after, it is up to you whether you would prefer to go steady right off the bat or date around a little. Got it? (If not, I can keep coming up with parallel cases all day, I assure you. Don’t make me start sending you to past posts.)

That doesn’t mean you should necessarily say no to this type of exclusivity request, but if you say yes, set a reasonable time limit on it, so you don’t keep your book off the dating market too long. This prudent step will save you from the unfortunately common dilemma of the writer who granted an exclusive six months ago and still hasn’t heard back.

Yes, in response to that gigantic collective gasp I just heard out there: one does hear rumors of agents who ask for exclusives, then hold onto the manuscript for months on end. Within the past couple of years, such rumors have escalated astronomically.

Set a time limit.

Susan’s choice of three weeks was a perfectly legitimate length. No need to turn the time limit into an experiment in negotiation: simply include a sentence in your submission’s cover letter along the lines of I am delighted to give you an exclusive look at my manuscript, as you requested, for the next three weeks. Simple, direct — and trust me, if the agent has a problem with the time you’ve specified, s/he’ll contact you to ask for more.

Negotiation is not possible with the other type of exclusive request, the kind that emerges from an agency that only reviews manuscripts that no one else is; the writer is not offered a choice in the matter. Consequently, a request for an exclusive from these folks is not so much a compliment to one’s work (over and above the sheer desire to read some of it, that is) as a way of doing business.

In essence, these agencies are saying to writers, “Look, since you chose to query us, you must have already done your homework about what we represent — and believe us, we would not ask to see your manuscript if we didn’t represent that kind of writing. So we expect you to say yes right away if we make you an offer.”

Why might such a stance be advantageous for an agency to embrace? Well, it prevents them from ever having to experience the fear associated with the first type of exclusive request: if you send them pages, they may safely assume that you won’t be calling them in a week to say, “Um, Agent Q has just made me an offer, slowpoke. I still would like to consider your agency, so could you hurry up and finish reading my manuscript so you can give me an answer? As in by the end of the week?”

Okay, so you wouldn’t really be that rude. (PLEASE tell me you wouldn’t be that rude.) But let’s face it, agents who don’t require exclusive submissions do receive these types of calls a fair amount. And nobody, but nobody, reads faster than an agent who has just heard that the author of the manuscript that’s been propping up his wobbly coffee table is fielding multiple offers.

Agencies who demand exclusivity are, by definition, unlikely to find themselves in a similar Oh, my God, I have to read this 400-page novel by tomorrow! situation. You have to admit, after even the third or fourth panicked all-nighter, exclusives might start to look like a pretty good policy.

What does the writer get in return for agreeing not to submit to others for the time being? Well, not a heck of a lot, unless the agency in question is in fact the best place for his work. But if one wants to submit to such an agency, one needs to follow its rules.

Fortunately, agencies that maintain this requirement tend to be far from quiet about it. Their agents will trumpet the fact from the conference dais. Requires exclusive submissions or even will accept only exclusive queries will appear upon their websites, in their listings in standard agency guides, and on their form replies requesting your first 50 pages.

(Yes, Virginia, positive responses are often form-letters, too, even when they arrive in e-mail form. I sympathize with your shock.)

If they had company T-shirts, in short, there would probably be an asterisk after the agency’s name and a footnote on the back about not accepting simultaneous submissions. If they’re serious about the policy, they’re serious about it, and trying to shimmy around such a policy will only get a writer into trouble.

Do I feel some of you tensing up again? Relax — agencies with this requirement are not very common.

Why? Well, because they require their potential clients to bring their often protracted agent search to a screeching halt while the submission is under consideration, such agencies are, in the long run, more time-consuming for a writer to deal with than others. As a result, many ambitious aspiring writers, cautious about committing their time, will avoid querying agencies with this policy.

Which, again, is a matter of personal choice. Or it is if you happened to notice before you queried that the agency in question had this policy.

Hey, check their T-shirts — and even with such agencies, be up front about how long you will be willing to wait.

So where does this leave Susan and the many other writers out there who have granted exclusives to the first agent who asks, only to find themselves chafing under the agreement down the line, when other agents asked to see the manuscript?

Well, it depends upon two factors: why the agent asked for the exclusive in the first place, and how long it has been since the writer granted it.

If the agent asked for it because her agency will only consider exclusive submissions, then the writer is indeed obligated to hold off on further submissions. If the agreed-upon period has elapsed, you can always contact the agent and ask point-blank if s/he needs more time.

What the writer should NOT do when dealing with an exclusives-only agency is contact the agent, explain that others want to read the work, and ask if it’s okay to submit simultaneously — which, incidentally, is very frequently the writer’s first impulse, if those who contact me on the sly to ask my advice are any indication. Bless their optimistic little hearts, they seem to believe that of only the agent in question understood how eagerly they want to find representation, the agent’s heart would melt.

“Of course, you may indulge in multiple submissions,” s/he would say, tossing candy to the world’s children from Santa’s sleigh. “We were just kidding about that whole exclusives-only thing.”

Not going to happen.

This desire to throw oneself upon the agent’s mercy seems even stronger, if that’s possible, in writers who already have submissions out with other agents, and THEN receive a request for an exclusive from an agent. For many such submitters (who, let’s face it, have a problem most aspiring writers would LOVE to have), the fact of previous submission seems to obviate the agent’s request, or even an exclusives-only agency’s policy.

They couldn’t really mean it in MY case, these writers think.

I hate to burst your bubble, Sparky, but I can assure you that they could — and do. Trying to negotiate one’s way out of this situation only tends to change the representation question from whether the agent likes the writer to whether he really wants to deal with someone who has difficulty following directions.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at the probable e-mail exchange between agent Clinton and Mehitabel, a writer who already has a submission out to another agent:

 

Dear Mehitabel:
Thank you for querying me with your novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS. Please send the first fifty pages.

 

As you may already know, our agency will accept only exclusive submissions. Please enclose a SASE.

Regards,
Clinton McPicky

 

Dear Clint:
Thank you for your interest in my novel. I would be happy to give you an exclusive, but the fact is, two other agents already have partial manuscripts, and I don’t know when I shall be hearing back from them. I’m really impressed with your agency, though, and I certainly don’t want to knock it out of consideration.

Since it would obviously be impossible for me to give you an exclusive on material that’s already elsewhere, is it okay if I just go ahead and send you what I’ve sent the others?
Mehitabel

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

Notice what happened here? Mehitabel tried to shift responsibility for solving her dilemma onto Clinton’s shoulders. (Also, she addressed him by a familiar nickname, rather than the name with which he signed his letter; a small thing, but rather rude.) From her point of view, this made perfect sense: his request had caused a problem, so she asked him to modify his request.

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

Got the impulse to quibble out of your system, Mehitabel? Good. Next time, abide by your agreement: allow Clinton an exclusive until the agreed-upon time has elapsed, then inform him that unless he would like an extension upon his exclusive (which you are under no obligation to grant, Hitty), you will be submitting it to the other agents who have requested it.

What’s that you say, Mehitabel? Isn’t Clinton likely to say no at that point? Perhaps, but not necessarily — and you will have done your level best to conduct your submission process honorably.

Everyone out there comfortable with all this? Okay, let’s return to Susan’s situation.

In a case like Susan’s (if I am reading her question correctly), where the writer has an agreed-upon time limit with an agent whose agency does NOT insist upon solo submissions, the resolution again depends upon how much time has elapsed. If the exclusive period is still ongoing, the writer cannot in good conscience send out requested materials to any other agent regardless of whether others requested exclusives in the meantime.

Don’t even consider it. Otherwise, the exclusive would be meaningless, no?

For some reason, the writers who creep into my atelier in the dead of night to ask my advice on the subject almost always seem surprised, or even hurt, by this response. But the situation honestly is pretty straightforward, ethically speaking: the writer agreed to the exclusive, so pretty much everyone in the industry would expect her abide by it.

And as we saw above, contacting everyone concerned to explain the dilemma will not eliminate it; all that will do is tell all of the agents involved that the writer is trying to change the rules. Either trying to renegotiate with A at this point or telling the others they will need to wait, will not win the writer points with anybody; it will merely look as though you didn’t understand what an exclusive was.

Here’s how I would advise handling Susan’s dilemma: if she hears back from Agent A within the three weeks and he wants to represent you, she has only two options — saying yes without sending out further submissions or saying no and sending out to the others.

If A does make an offer she wishes to accept, she should send a polite note to the other two, saying precisely what happened: another agent made an offer before she could send out the materials they requested. They’ll understand; this happens all the time.

If A doesn’t make an offer within those three weeks, on day 22 (three weeks + 1 day), she should send the requested materials to Agents B and C, along with cover letters explaining that others are looking at it simultaneously. No need to specify who is doing the looking, just that they are.

To deal courteously with A at this point, she should send a letter — paper or e-mail, depending upon how Susan previously had contact with him/her — saying that while A is still her first choice (the implication of an exclusive, always), since the exclusive has now expired, she is now sending out requested materials to other agents.

Again, this happens all the time. If Susan were really nervous about alienating A, she could contact him first, offering to extend the exclusive BEFORE sending out the others, but it’s imperative that A is aware before he makes a timing decision that others are indeed interested.

As long as a writer does what she said she was going to do, she’s unlikely to run into much trouble with an exclusive — but remember, this is an industry where reputations count; in the long run, it’s in your interest every bit as much as the agent’s that you honor the exclusivity agreement, if you grant it.

Frankly, I think most submitters in this situation overreact to the prospect of a comparatively short wait. Because, really, holding off for a few days or weeks is not going to harm the writer’s chances with the other requesting agents. Chances are that they’re reasonable people; after all, it’s not as though they requested the materials, then cleared their schedules for the foreseeable future in order to hold their respective breaths until the submission arrived.

Or, to couch it in today’s example: if Susan hadn’t had the good sense to ask for a time limit, an extended delay might have required explanation, but realistically, agents B and C almost wouldn’t have dropped everything to read the submission before A’s exclusive expired, anyway. She can afford to sit tight.

All this being said, a writer is under no obligation whatsoever to stop submitting or querying other agents while one is reading requested materials. Unless an agent ASKS for an exclusive — and believe me, if an agency requires exclusivity, the member agent interested in your work will tell you so directly — it is NOT expected. In fact, now that the agent-finding market is so fierce, the vast majority of agents simply assume that good writers are querying and submitting widely.

While not continuing to pursue other leads while an agent is perusing your work may seem like a well-deserved break, a reward for successful querying, it’s effectively like applying to only one college per year: you might get in eventually, but it’s a far more efficient use of your time to apply to many simultaneously.

Unless, of course, the school you’re absolutely sure that you want to attend offers you early admission.

So submit widely — and keep those queries and submissions circulating until you land an agent. Just make sure that when you have requested materials out to more than one agent, you tell each that others are looking at it.

Trust me, they’ll want to know, even if they aren’t exclusive-minded. Gives ‘em just a touch of incentive to read faster.

Glancing over the length of this, I am tempted to conclude that while it was an interesting experiment to try to tackle such a huge question in a single post — the easier for readers to find it in the archive, my dears — I probably shan’t do it again. The double-take I just did at the clock informs me not only that it is time to end for today, but that I should probably take tomorrow off to rest my wrists.

Next time, whenever that shall be and universal interference permitting, we’ll move on to synopses, but I make no promises. Blog life has just been too unpredictable of late. Keep up the good work!

The submission packet, part III: making yours the Easter egg that everyone wants to find, or, the race is not always to the swiftest

The age of miracles has not yet vanished, my friends. Remember that yard renovation we started way back in, oh, March? Or was it in April, or 2003, or the era of the Visigoths? Today, after what felt like an entire Bronze Age of delays, the landscapers showed up (in itself something of a miracle), cleared away the debris that they had left artistically dotting our neighborhood, waved their hands over the heaping piles of sod that have housed a mole-and-squirrel theme park for months now — and violà, we abruptly have a very lush lawn.

I’m not talking just healthy, mind you — this is downright bourgeois. I haven’t seen greenery this decadent since I was a student at Harvard, when the grand old school would banish the students from the trampled lawns a few weeks before graduation and roll out new ones, so the Yard would look nice for the soon-to-be-visiting alumni.

Oh, as if Harvard’s the only university that does it.

Our new, croquet-worthy lawn seems like an apt metaphor for today, when I shall be wrapping up this week’s micro-series on SASEs and other things an aspiring writer might conceivably ship to an agent or editor. You could always go the Rolls Royce route, overnighting every scrap of requested paper or even having a bike messenger deliver it, but why shell out the dosh?

In the end, whether the yard boasts a pelt-thick lawn or the most modest rock garden, you will want to impress the recipient with the house, if you catch my drift.

On the off chance that anyone out there didn’t, allow me to make it plainer: too many aspiring writers waste scads of money speeding up the delivery time between their houses and a requesting agency. Overnighting a submission is utterly unnecessary; it won’t win you any Brownie points whatsoever with Millicent the agency screener, and it most assuredly will not get her boss to read your manuscript any faster.

Save your money for something else — nice paper upon which to print the submission, for instance.

With an eye to helping submitting writers figure out what is and isn’t a necessary expense, I have spent the last couple of posts talking (in part) about ways to save money when shipping requested materials to an agent or editor. We writers don’t talk about this very much amongst ourselves, but the fact is, the process of finding an agent can be pretty expensive.

Did a few of you new to the process just choke on your cornflakes? “Wait just a minute, Anne,” a sputtering few still working up to the marketing stage cry. “Surely, you’re talking about the entire agent-finding process being expensive, right, not just the shipping-off part? I mean, really, I’ve just shelled out hundreds of dollars to attend a writers’ conference so I could meet agents to query — I hadn’t thought at all about the the next step, mailing off requested materials, taxing my piggie bank.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it might.

At minimum, the costs of producing a professional-looking submission packet include shipping (both there and back), boxes, paper, ink cartridges, wear and tear on your computer, and a ton of your time that could be used for, well, anything else. While individually these may not seem as potentially scarifying to your checking account as the even greater optional costs of attending conferences, entering contests, and hiring freelance editors like me to help pull your submission into tip-top shape, it all adds up.

So much so that if you’re a US citizen and marketing a book, it’s worth looking into the possibility of filing a Schedule C for your writing as a business, so you can deduct these expenses. Talk to a tax professional about it (I am not a tax professional, so I cannot legally give you advice on the subject), but do try to find one who is familiar with artists’ returns: ones who are not will almost invariably say that a writer must sell work in a given year to claim associated expenses, but that’s not necessarily true.

Yesterday, as part of my ongoing quest to save you a few sous, I brought up the case of Antoinette, the writer who rushed out and overnighted her manuscript, then waited seemingly endlessly by the phone for the agent of her dreams to respond. I went into her possible reasons for doing this — rather than sending the book regular mail or the more affordable 2-3 day Priority Mail rate.

Today, I want to talk a bit about the other two primary motivators for jumping the proverbial gun: fear and eagerness.

To let one of the most poorly-hidden cats out of one of the most hole-ridden bags in the business, new souls walking the planet are in a greater hurry than a writer who has just received a request for materials. Especially if that request comes at the end of a long period of querying or after a particularly intense conference, it’s far from uncommon for the lucky writer to decide, wrongly, that the only possible response is to drop everything else in her life — calling in sick to work, if necessary — to throw together the requested materials and get them out the door as close to instantly as possible.

One of two rationales typically underlies this approach. In the first, the writer says, “Oh, my God, this request to see all or part of my manuscript must be a fluke. I’d better get these materials under the agent or editor’s nose within the next few hours, before either (a) s/he changes her/his mind, (b) the malignant forces that rule the universe cause the wall of indifference to art to rise again, this temporary fissure mended, or (c) both.

Whichever thunderbolt the hostile gods of publishing are planning to send his way, the fearful writer wants to make absolutely sure that his submission is out of his hands well before it strikes.

Who cares that he hasn’t had time to double-check his submission for easily-overlooked gaffes, or that overnighting that package will cost four times as much as sending it via regular mail? He’s trying to submit before the agent of his dreams comes to his/her senses.

In reality, of course, it just doesn’t work like that: a request to submit materials will be every bit as good two weeks from the day it was made as it was in the moment. Or two months.

Also, as I MAY have hinted gently above, the writer’s speed in getting the submission to the agent will not make one scintilla of difference in how quickly a manuscript is read — or even the probability of its moldering on an agent’s desk for months. Certainly, whether the agent’s receiving the manuscript the next day or in the 2-3 days offered by the more reasonably priced Priority Mail will make no appreciable difference to response time.

Especially during summer conference season, since most of the industry goes on vacation from early August through Labor Day. Or around Christmastime, when the biz more or less shuts down.

The other, more common rationale for too-swift submission is eagerness. “Whew!” the writer who has just received a request to submit says. “The hard part is over now: my premise has been recognized as a good one by an agent who handles this sort of material. From this point on, naturally, everything is going to happen in a minute: reading, acceptance, book sale, chatting on Oprah.”

You know, the average trajectory for any garden-variety blockbuster. Who wouldn’t want to cut a week, or even a few days, out of tackling that bright future?

I sincerely hope that yours is the one in eight million submissions that experiences this second trajectory — and that’s the probability in a good year for publishing — but writerly hopes to the contrary, a request for submission is the beginning of the game, not the end. The fact is, as small a percentage of queries receive a positive response (and it’s unusually under 5%), even fewer submissions pass the initial read test.

Or, to put it the terms we typically use on this blog, it takes even less provocation to cause Millicent shout “Next!” over the first page of a manuscript than over a query.

There’s a reason that I grill you on the details, you know: I want yours to be in that top few percentiles. Which is why I would rather see your resources and energy going toward perfecting the submission itself, rather than getting it there with a rapidity that would make Superman do a double-take.

This is true, incidentally, even when the agent has ASKED a writer to overnight a project. Consider the plight of poor Gilberto:

Submission scenario 2: Gilberto has just won a major category in a writing contest with his thriller, DON’T PAY ANY ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN; HE’S NOT REALLY CARRYING AN AXE. During the very full pitching day that follows his win, five agents ask him to send submissions. Seeing that he was garnering a lot of interest, Maxine, the most enthusiastic of the agents, requests that he overnight the manuscript to her, so she can respond to it right away.

Gilberto says yes. He actually does overnight the packet.

However, being a savvy submitter, he submits simultaneously to the other five via regular mail right away. He does not tell Maxine — or any of the others — that he is letting many agents read his manuscript at the same time. He writes REQUESTED MATERIALS — FIRST PLACE, CONTEST NAME on the outside of every submission and mentions the request in the first line of his cover letter, to minimize the possibility of his work being lost in amongst the many submissions these agencies receive.

Within three weeks, he’s heard back from all but one of them; puzzlingly, Maxine is the last to respond. And when she finally does, six weeks after he overnighted her the manuscript, it’s with form letter. This most enthusiastic of agents has rejected him without even telling him why.

What did Gilberto do wrong? Not much, really, except for saying yes to an unreasonable request — and not telling the agents that they were competing over his work. That not made his submission process more expensive than it needed to be, but also more or less eliminated any benefit he might have derived from the contest-generated buzz about his book.

Let’s take his missteps one at a time. Why was Maxine’s request that he overnight the manuscript unreasonable?

In essence, the situation was no different than if Maxine had asked him to leave the conference, jump in his car, drive three hours home to print up a copy of his manuscript for her, drive three hours back, and hand it to her. In both cases, the agent would have been asking the writer to go to unnecessary effort and expense for no reason other than her convenience.

Yet as Maxine’s subsequent behavior showed, she had no more intention of reading Gilberto’s manuscript within the next couple of days than she did of reading it on the airplane home.

Okay, here is a pop quiz to see how much those of you who followed this summer’s series on conference pitching have learned: why did she ask him to overnight it at all?

Give yourself full marks if you said it was to get a jump on other interested agents. As I mentioned in the pitching series, agents tend to be competitive people — to many of them, a book project’s value will increase in direct proportion to how many other agents are interested in it.

The give-me-first-peek request is one way it manifests — yet another reason that it is ALWAYS in a writer’s best interest to make simultaneous submissions and queries, rather than approaching them one at a time.

Not clear why? For the same reason not telling all of the agents concerned that they were in potential competition over his work was a mistake: because they would probably have been a bit more interested had they known that.

What makes me suspect that not using his manuscript’s being in demand as a selling point harmed Gilberto’s chances of landing an agent. Okay, let’s think about it for a minute: why didn’t Maxine get back to him sooner?

In practice, of course, she could have had a lot of reasons — a death in the family, a problem with an existing client’s relationship with her editor, a particularly exciting negotiation, rehab…the list goes on and on. But any other possible factors aside, Maxine knew that if any of those other agents at the conference had made an offer, Gilberto would have contacted her — and when he didn’t, she could treat his might-have-been-hot property just like any other submitted manuscript.

In other words, jumping in and asking for a first peek cost Maxine nothing — it obviously affected her subsequent treatment of Gilberto’s work not at all — but guaranteed that she would be first to know about how his other submissions fared. And once she could safely assume that he had not been picked up by anyone else, the shiny gleam of being sought-after faded from his manuscript.

Now pause and consider the ramifications of Maxine’s attitude toward other agents’ interest levels for a moment. Picture them spread thickly across the industry. Let the possible effects ripple across your mind, like the concentric circles moving gently outward after you throw a stone into a limpid pool, rolling outward until…OH, MY GOD, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE AVERAGE QUERY-GENERATED SUBMISSION?

Uh-huh. Not high on the average Maxine’s to-do list.

Explains quite a bit about why the agent who requested your first 50 pages doesn’t get back to you for two months, doesn’t it? While an agent expects that the writer querying her will be simultaneously querying elsewhere, the converse is also true: she will assume, unless you tell her otherwise, that the packet you send her is the only submission currently under any agent’s eyes.

This is why it is ALWAYS a good idea to mention in your submission cover letter that other agents are reading it, if they are. No need to name names: just say that other agents have requested it, and are reading it even as she holds your pages in her hot little hand.

I heard that thought go through some of your minds: I would have to scold you if you lied about this, just to speed up the agent’s sense of urgency. Ooh, that would be too strategic, clever, and unscrupulous. Sneaky writer; no cookie.

Okay, here’s the extra credit question: in the scenario above, Maxine already knows that other agents are interested in Gilberto’s work; she is hoping to snap him up first. So why didn’t she read it right away?

Give up? Well, Maxine’s goal was to get the manuscript before the other agents made offers to Gilberto, not necessarily to make an offer before they did.

Is that a vast cloud of confusion I feel wafting from my readers’ general direction? Was that loud, guttural sound a collective “Wha–?”

It honestly does make sense, when you consider the competition amongst agents. Maxine is aware that she has not sufficiently charmed Gilberto to induce him to submit to her exclusively; since he won the contest, she also has a pretty good reason to believe he can write up a storm. So she definitely wants to read his pages, but she will not know whether she wants to sign him until she reads his writing.

Because, as agents like to say, it all depends upon the writing.

Maxine’s met enough writers to be aware that it is distinctly possible that Gilberto’s response to his big win will be to spend the next eight months going over his manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, perfecting it before showing it to anyone at all. She would like to see it before he does that, if at all possible.

To beat the Christmas rush, as it were.

Even if she doesn’t get an advance peek, Maxine is setting up a situation where Gilberto will automatically tell her if any other agent makes an offer: he’s probably going to call or e-mail her to see if she’s still interested before he signs with anyone else. By asking him to go to the extraordinary effort and expense of overnighting the manuscript to her, she has, she hoped, conveyed her enthusiasm about the book sufficiently that he will regard her as a top prospect.

If she gets such a call, Maxine’s path will be clear: if she hasn’t yet read his pages, she will ask for a few days to do so before he commits to the other agent. If she doesn’t, she will assume that there hasn’t been another offer. She can take her time and read the pages when she gets around to it.

What’s the rush, from her perspective?

From the agent’s POV, asking a writer to overnight a manuscript is a compliment, not a directive: it’s the agent’s way of saying she’s really, really interested, not that she is going to clear her schedule tomorrow night in order to read it. And even if so, the tantalization will only be greater if she has to live through another couple of days before cloistering herself to read it.

So what should Gilberto have done instead? The polite way to handle such a request is to say, “Wow, I’m flattered, but I’m booked up for the next few days, and several other agents have already asked to see it. I can get a copy to you by the end of the week, though, when I send out the others.”

And then he should have sat down, read it IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch any glaring mistakes, and Priority Mailed it a few days later, accompanied by a cover letter reiterating that other agents are also reading it.

Tick, tick.

Sound daring? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: in the industry, the party who wants a manuscript overnighted is generally the one who pays for it. After a publisher acquires your book, the house will generally be paying for you to ship your pages overnight if they need them that quickly, not you. So by asking the writer to pay the costs, the agent is actually stepping outside the norms of the biz.

You need some time to wrap your brain around that last point, don’t you? Fine; I shall sign off for the day to go and run barefoot across that decadent lawn. Whee!

Keep up the good work!