All right, I am substantially less grumpy today, due in large part to memoir-related negotiations that I am not, as usual, at liberty to discuss. Here’s a hint, though: by mid-October, I may be able to tell you the ENTIRE story about why the book hasn’t come out yet, in vivid Technicolor.

In the meantime, I have some housekeeping to do today: my desktop is piled high with unanswered questions from readers (well, my virtual desktop is, anyway), all of which richly deserve answers. Practical questions, too, the kind that everyone wants answered. For instance, clever and insightful reader Claire wrote to ask:

“Suppose an agent wants to see your whole manuscript. Does one send it in a box? With enough postage inside for them to return it? How does the whole SASE thing work for an entire manuscript? Thanks.”

Claire, thanks for asking this: I can’t tell you how many last-minute, panicked phone calls and e-mails I’ve gotten on this very point – I think perhaps the writers in question just start looking up freelance editors on line while they’re about to rush off to the post office, and call every phone number until they catch someone who knows.

The answer is no, not anymore. In the old days – say, 30+ years ago – the author was expected to provide a box, and a rather nice one, then wrap it in plain brown paper for shipping. These old boxes are beautiful, if you can still find one: dignified black cardboard, held together by shining brass brads.

So if you can get it there in one piece box-free (say, if it is short enough to fit into a Priority Mail cardboard envelope), go ahead. Remember, though, that you want to have your pages arrive looking fresh and unbent, so make sure that your manuscript fits comfortably in its holder in such a way that the pages are unlikely to wrinkle.

If not, find an inexpensive box – if you live in the greater Seattle area, Archie McPhee’s, of all places, routinely carries fabulous red and blue boxes exactly the right size for a 450-page manuscript WITH adorable little black plastic handles for about a buck each. The craft chain store Michael’s also carries a box with the right footprint to ship a manuscript without too much internal shifting, as do some office supply stories. However, these boxes are generally a tad on the expensive side, and they are often too deep for the average manuscript, so you will need to add some bubble wrap or other filler. (Avoid the temptation to use newspaper; newsprint stains.)

But whatever you do, don’t reuse a box clearly marked for some other purpose, such as holding dishwashing soap. (Yes, it’s been known to happen.)

Include a return mailing label, already made out to you, the proper stamps for postage (metered strips will not work here), and add a paragraph to your cover letter explaining that you want them to reuse the box. To be on the safe side, explain HOW you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal. (Trust me, sometimes they have trouble figuring it out.)

My preferred method is to use one of those free Priority Mail boxes that the post office provides, the ones that are about 2 inches deep. They’ll actually hold two 400-page manuscripts side-by-side quite comfortably, so I usually add padding to keep the unbound manuscript (for those of you who don’t know: never bind a manuscript in any way) from bouncing around too much. I want it to look good when it gets there, after all.

Since it would be impracticable to fold up another Priority Mail box inside, I either enclose the label and postage, as I described above, or, if I really don’t think that I’m going to be getting it back anytime soon, just nab one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-address it, add postage, and stick it into the box. If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage. If you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because they’ve rejected it, right? Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?

My, that was a long answer to a simple question, wasn’t it? On to the next, which is actually two in one:

“Anne – Would you please address the topics of 1) choosing a title before querying and 2) the role of a web site, not only to promote a current book but to sell the next one (if, indeed it is of any use in selling the next one). I sure would appreciate it.
Thanks, MooCrazy”

Happy to, Moo – but as I have a LOT to say on the issue of titles, pray forgive me if I take your second question first, and delay the first until tomorrow. (If you reread that question four or six more times, you will find that it honestly does make sense, I promise.)

Pretty much anyone in the industry will tell an aspiring writer to set up a website for herself and her book before the ink is dry on the publication contract, but in my experience, not everyone who gives this advice is entirely clear WHY it is a good idea. Amongst the computer-illiterate (a group to which a surprisingly high percentage of inmates of publishing houses and agencies seem to belong), it is not uncommon to regard websites as magical attractors of customers for any business. These are, lest we forget, the people who actually believed it when Internet-promoters predicted ten years ago that supermarkets, shoe stores, and other in-person buying experiences would be wiped out forever by online purchasing.

The industry’s thinking about the web has not, alas, changed much in the intervening decade. Oh, they know now that bloggers exist — at least, they know about the bloggers who get millions of hits daily — but as the regular blog readers among you have probably already noticed, they haven’t seemed to have been able to figure out that a blog’s readership will have ALREADY read the entries on the blog; when they buy a book by a blogger whose work they have followed for some time, they want to see something NEW.

But I digress. My point is, publishers tell writers to set up websites, and sometimes even do it for them, and admittedly, it is a fine thing if a potential book buyer who has heard your name elsewhere can run a basic internet search on your name and find information on your book. However, the resulting websites tend to be tombstones. They are static; since the content never changes, except perhaps to note different dates on a book tour, there’s no reason for your potential readers ever to go there more than once.

Perhaps as a blogger, I am prejudiced, but I think this is an inefficient use of a website. It’s basically just a roadside sign along a very busy, very advertisement-heavy highway. Yes, someone may see it, but there’s a whole lot of competition to wade through first.

The big search engines reward websites whose content changes often — that’s why blogs tend to shoot up the Google lists. (Also, the more content you have to be indexed, the more different kinds of searches will lead to your website.) So if you’re going to invest in a website, and you want to have it be an effective promotional tool, it’s a good idea to plan in advance to make the time to change the content often.

Have you considered writing a blog, for instance?

Don’t get me wrong – like any other kind of advertising, it’s generally better to have a website than not to have one. It is genuinely nice if people who have fallen in love with your first book have a logical place to check in to see when your second is coming out. There is nothing to stop you, either, from creating a “Join my mailing list” button on your website, to make it easier for you to send out e-mails to your fans when there is breaking news about your next book.

However, in my experience with the industry, there is one thing that a blog will NEVER do for an author: be a substitute for submission pages. Counterintuitive, isn’t it, when agents and editors keep yammering about how authors should have blogs? I have heard agents complain ENDLESSLY about writers who include web addresses in their query letters, expecting the agents to make the time to log on and check out their prose there. “Like I have the time to search for the work of someone I don’t know,” they scoff.

Unless you are already a well-established blogger – and sometimes not even then – it just doesn’t work.

By all means, though, if you are marketing a book to agents and editors, mention that you have a website, if you do; in their minds, it will mean that you are serious about helping promote your book. If you are submitting a nonfiction book proposal, definitely mention that erecting a website is part of your promotion plan.

“Wait a minute!” I hear some of the craftier of you out there cry. “If they never check submitters’ websites, why shouldn’t I just go ahead and SAY I already have a website, if it’s a selling point?

For the sake of your karma, for one thing. Or immortal soul, if you prefer to think of it that way. Or just because it’s not very nice to lie to people. And maybe, just maybe, yours would be the one time in the last fifteen years an agent actually did take the time to take a gander at a writer’s website.

I hope that answers your questions, Moo and Claire. The other part of Moo’s question follows tomorrow. In the meantime, keep those good questions rolling in, everybody, and keep up the good work!

So they’ve asked you to send chapters – and a request for your help

Once you have sent off a great query letter, or made a fabulous pitch at a conference, you hit the jackpot: an agent asks to see your work. And you’ve got it made, right?


Well, not necessarily, if your writing is not in apple-pie order. (And no, I don’t know where I picked up that particular homey phrase. Probably in my wayward youth, from someone like Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March or Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn. It has a 19th-century ring to it.) Just as your marketing materials should be so impeccably put together that they can travel by themselves with no excuses, even in the most literate circles, just as your title page has to be a paragon of professionalism, your initial chapters need to be in well-nigh perfect shape before you send them out.


I tremble to report this, but it is very, very common for writers to send off the first chapter or three of their novels WITHOUT EVER HAVING ANYONE ELSE READ THEM. Thus, for many writers, the agent’s feedback, which is often quite minimal, is the first time many writers EVER get an outside opinion of their work.


Or at least without having been read by anyone at all likely to be able to give an objective opinion; as I have discussed before, the feedback of your best friend, your mother, your siblings, and/or your lover (s), however charming it may be, is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete, tangible feedback every writer needs. No offense to your kith and kin, but it’s true. Even if your mother runs a major publishing house for a living, your brother is a high-flying agent, and your lover reviews major novelists regularly for THE WASHINGTON POST, they are unlikely to have the perspective necessary to give you objective feedback. Nor should they have to. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself – or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns. Ties of affection do not necessarily good readers make.


If you haven’t shown your writing to another trustworthy soul — be it through sharing it with a writers’ group, workshopping it, having it edited professionally, or asking a great reader whom you know will tell you the absolute truth — you haven’t gotten an adequate level of objective feedback. I know it seems as though I’m harping on this point, but I regularly meet aspiring writers who have sent out what they thought was beautifully-polished work to an agent without having run it by anyone else — only to be devastated to realize that the manuscript contained some very basic mistake that objective eyes would have caught easily.


At that point, trust me, wailing, “But my husband/wife/second cousin just loved it!” will not help you.


I can’t tell you what a high percentage of my clients come to me after years of following the advice of people who, while well-meaning and sharp-eyed, could only identify problems in the text, but had no idea how to fix them. I want to save you, dear readers, as much disappointment as possible. Out comes my broken record again: good writing is a necessary condition for getting published, but not sufficient alone. Good writing needs to be presented professionally, or it tends not to find a home.


And emotionally, what are you doing when you send out virgin material to a stranger who can change your life? It’s the equivalent of bypassing everyone you know in getting an opinion on your fancy new hairdo and going straight to the head of a modeling agency. Professionals have no reason to pull their punches; very often, the criticism comes back absolutely unvarnished. Even when rejection is tactful, naturally, with the stakes so high for the author, any negative criticism feels like being whacked on the head with a great big rock.


I’m trying to save you some headaches here.


But even as I write this, I know there are some ultra-shy or ultra-independent Emily Dickinson types out there who prefer to write in absolute solitude — then cast their work upon the world, to make its way as best it can on its own merits. No matter what I say, I know you hardy souls would rather be drawn and quartered than to join a writers’ group, wouldn’t you? (Despite the fact that the PNWA provides contacts for those who are interested in joining one within its geographic confines. For free, no less.) You are going to persist in deciding that you, and only you, are the best judge of when your work is finished.


And maybe you are right.


I am not saying that a writer can’t be a good judge of her own work — she can, if she has a good eye. I would be the last person to trot out that tired old axiom about killing your darlings; hands up, everyone who has attended a writers’ workshop and seen a promising piece that needed work darling-chopped into a piece of consistent mediocrity. CONSIDERING killing your pet phrases is often good advice, but for a writer with talent, the writer’s pet phrases are often genuinely the best part of the work.


However, I would argue that until you get an objective opinion, you cannot know for sure how good your own eye is — and I would suggest that it is a trifle masochistic to use your big shot at catching an agent’s attention as your litmus test for whether you are right about your own editing skills. Even if you find only one person whom you can trust to tell you the absolute truth, your writing will benefit from your bravery if you ask for honestly locally first.


Dear me, I have gotten so carried away with my topic that I shall have to defer my actual tips until tomorrow’s posting! (For those of you who haven’t been following my saga over the last 6 weeks, I am in the midst of fighting off a lawsuit against my forthcoming memoir AND have a deadline for getting a book to a publisher by the end of next week – by my birthday, as it happens. So my time is a LITTLE tight these days.)


For those of you who have been following my saga of triumph and woe, may I presume to ask a favor? This is National Banned Books Week (September 19-23); in celebration, would you consider logging on to one of the Philip K. Dick fan sites ( would be an admirable choice) and weighing in on the subject of the Dick estate’s continuing attempts to censor my book, A FAMILY DARKLY? It would only take a couple of minutes, and it would help both me and all future writers of memoirs. The issue here is actually very simple: is it or is it not fair to tell an author what she can and can’t write about her own life?


Normally, I would not ask, but after all, this is the week to speak up.


And if you are writing or know of other books that have been stymied at the point of publication by pernicious lawsuits, please fill me in via the Comments function, below. At the moment, I’m in a pretty good position to pass along links and resources that might be useful to silenced authors.


As always, keep up the good work! And happy National Banned Books Week!


– Anne Mini