Agents and geological time

I would wish you a happy Columbus Day, dear readers, but I happen to have grown up in an area renowned for the nastiness of how European settlers dealt with the locals. (I’ll spare you the whole story; it involved waiting until the native males were gathered in a ritual steam bath, then nailing the door shut. Fire, I’m told, was negatively involved.) Rather changes one’s view of Columbus, it does. But happy bank holiday anyway.

I’ve been concentrating in my last few postings on dealing with agencies, in the hope that some of you are even now being solicited by some of the best agents in the biz. For many writers, the actual moment of solicitation can be very, very disconcerting: after years of plowing through uncertainty and rejection, an agent who says yes can look a whole lot like the Archangel Gabriel. Often, writers are too dazzled by their own good fortune to ask pertinent questions.

One of the big questions that does get asked unasked is, unsurprisingly, “What are your plans for my book?” Equally surprisingly, at least to me, agents’ replies to this question are often rather vague, and this can give a false impression that they are either being evasive or that they have not thought about it much.

Actually, to the ear of a good agent, this question translates thus: “Who specifically will you be approaching first? Will it be a phone call, lunch, or coffee? Why is this the best publishing house for it?” Agents, in short, do not tend to think in vague terms.

So throw ’em a lifeline. Ask instead, “Are you planning to do individual submissions, or multiple submissions?” This question does not require translation for the agent to understand, and will elicit much of the information that most writers have in mind when they ask for a plan.

Did you think I was going on without explaining the difference between individual and mass submissions? Would I do that to you? Individual submissions are the more common for fiction. The agent pitches your work to an editor (via phone, lunch, coffee, chance meeting), and if the editor sounds interested, your manuscript or book proposal will wend its way to the editor’s desk. I would like to report that once there, it is instantly pounced upon and eagerly read by the editor, but in all likelihood, it will sit there for awhile, in a pile with other manuscripts. Here is where your agent’s persistence will really pay off: a good agent who cares about a project will keep on nagging unmercifully until your manuscript gets read.

How long can it sit there? Well, as I have mentioned, my agent is one of the wonders of the modern world. She believes deeply in my work, likes my projects — and I have now had a novel sitting at a well-known publishing house for seven months. In a way, this is good: I hear it has been read by most of the underlings who need to read it before the editor in charge, and if any of them had hated it, the manuscript would have been tossed out of the building. However, as you may see, this is not a situation where anyone concerned should be holding her breath, waiting for a response.

I wish I could say that such time lapses are unusual, but they are not. I know writers who have had good books held by editors for over a year — both books that the editor eventually acquired and books that the editor rejected. What will NOT happen, however, is that a book will be rejected and STILL remain sequestered in editorial files. While there is holding, there is hope.

From the writer’s point of view of course, this is maddening. The only sane response is to leave the whole matter in your agent’s hands and start working on your next book, but few among us have that kind of sang froid. In my case, I am lucky enough to have a memoir coming out next year: I certainly have plenty to do. Yet even I find myself wondering if the manuscript of my novel will sit so long in one place that the paper will spontaneously produce leaves, acorns, perhaps even an entire tree. Someday, will archeologists be trying to estimate the age of my manuscript by its rings? Or in geological time, if it petrifies?

This is, of course, the primary drawback to individual submissions of a manuscript. “Aha!” I hear you cry, “then I should press my agent for multiple submissions!”

Well, not necessarily. Multiple submission (also known as simultaneous submission; check out my postings for the end of September for a glossary of standard publishing terms) is, as the name implies, when your book or book proposal is sent to many editors at once. Nonfiction is very often sold this way, as is any book expected to generate an auction. Your agent will pitch your book (over the phone or the aforementioned comestibles), the editor will express interest, your book or book proposal will be sent, and this process is repeated with your agent’s entire A-list of editors.

The advantage of this is that interest from several editors can engender a bidding war. It can also speed up the submission process considerably. The disadvantage, however, is that it makes your book very subject to the winds of gossip. If half the editors say no, the other half will probably hear about it. (Yes, New York is a big city, but in many ways, its publishing world is a small town. Your agent’s assistant probably went to college with assistants of a couple of the editors who will see your book. People talk.) If one editor makes an offer, you can bet your boots that Books can go from very hot to very not in a matter of days.

For those of us who reside in more laid-back portions of the country, the speed of Manhattanite collective changes of mind can be perplexing. Why, we Pacific Northwesterners wonder, does everyone want the same thing at the same time? Surely, the book market is more complex than that?

I wish I could explain this phenomenon, my friends, but I can no more explain fads in the book market than I can fads in fashion. Why is it that when you walk into an NYC publishing house, all of the editorial assistants will be dressed more or less the same? Beyond me. (For a more extensive discussion of editorial fads and how they affect writers, see my posting of Sept. 6.)

Every time I encounter it, I am reminded of the time that I was writing for LET’S GO. It was my first post-college writing gig: I had been assigned to cover practically every small town of remote interest to tourists in Washington and Oregon. (What do you want to know about the pie at truck stops?) Because the job paid, essentially, nothing, I generally wrote my copy by firelight on rickety picnic tables while my boyfriend-at-the-time fended off marauding bears and curious squirrels. A good time was had by all.

In one such small town, the local tourist bureau had directed us to a genuinely unspoiled masterpiece of nature: 21 miles of unbroken beach, so much sand that intrepid souls were allowed to drive along it. It was the middle of a lovely summer day, so my boyfriend and I parked the car on a deserted patch of sand and settled down for lunch. Nothing but seagulls, water, and sand, as far as the eye could see. Until a car with New York plates came driving down the beach, parked about ten feet away from our car, and disgorged a flock of chattering children.

To West Coast eyes, this was just a tad strange. After some preliminary pleasantries, I asked the driver why, with so much empty beach, he had elected to stop right next to us. He looked at me very strangely. “It was where the people were,” he said. “It must be the best place.”

This same mentality seems to pervade the publishing world, alas. If the editor holding your book at the moment knows that other editors want it, it automatically becomes more valuable to him. Don’t try to reason it out more than that: it is one of the great mysteries of life, like the origin of evil and why the line you chose always moves more slowly than the others. Just look out your window at the Pacific Northwest verdure, reflect that you can probably see more trees from your office window than are in the entirety of Central Park, and reconcile yourself to regional differences in character. Remember that you perplex them, too.

So, too, should you regard the mystery of the alternation of glacially-slow reading times and we-need-you-to-overnight-your-changes urgency. Panic and apathy often seem to be the only two possible states of being. It might occur to you, living in an environment where the air is breathable, that it would in fact be theoretically possible for agents and editors to come up with a temporal plan, where one event follows another in a logical manner, and deadlines may be met with the calm tranquility that only comes from advance preparation.

Take my advice: don’t try to present this quaint view to people in the New York-based publishing industry, lest you be labeled a West Coast Flake. Instead, just take quiet steps to insure your own inner peace and personal tranquility, and let them get on with their heart-stopping perpetual panic. And no, I am not talking about meditation: I’m talking about adding two weeks to any negotiated deadline, so you may finish making your changes without losing too much sleep. I’m talking about pretending that FedEx does not serve your remote part of the country; the USPS’s Priority mail is more than fast enough for a manuscript that will sit on an editor’s desk until the next Ice Age.

My point here (and I’m relatively sure that I still have one) is that the more you know about your prospective agent’s preferred solicitation style up front, the more stress you will be able to save yourself down the line. Will you be dealing in the geological timeframes of individual submissions, or the live-or-die gamble of multiple submissions? Either way, get a solid explanation now, before the panic begins, because honey, trying to get an explanation from a Manhattanite agent in the middle of a panic is like Dorothy trying to talk philosophy with the cyclone that landed her in Oz.

Learn what you can first, then hold on for the ride.

And wherever you are in the process, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The agency contract

Yesterday, I discussed the desirability of getting a sense of who your agent IS before signing a binding agency contract. Today, I am going to launch into how agencies differ from one another. The short version: not all agencies are created equal.

It is, of course, vital that you understand how your new agency works before you sign the representation contract; don’t be afraid to ask questions about the fine print on the contract. Most agency contracts are easy-in-easy-out affairs, covering either the selling process for a single book or a year’s time — a choice generally made by the agency, not the author. Some contracts, however, have a rollover clause, which stipulates that if the author has not notified the agency by a particular date, the contract is automatically renewed for the following year. If you sign with an agency that favors the rollover clause, make sure you know precisely when the opt-out date is. Mark it on your calendar, just in case.

Yes, I know: mistrust is the last thing on your mind when you are thrilled to pieces that a real, live agent wants to represent you. But trust your Auntie Anne on this one: honeymoons do occasionally end. This is a contract to read with your glasses ON.

Because, you see, if you are successful, the agency, and not merely the agent, is going to be handling every dime you make as a writer. It will be producing those nasty, messily-carboned forms that you will be passing on to the I.R.S. If your work is going to be sold abroad, the agency will turn your book, your baby, over to a foreign rights agent of ITS selection, not yours — and will be taking a higher percentage of your royalties for those sales than for those in the English-speaking parts of North America. (If you missed my explanation about the rather bizarre distinctions between North American and foreign rights, check out my blogs of Sept. 26-28.) If something happens to your agent — a leave of absence, a move to another agency, or even just not being in the office when a crucial call from an editor comes — the agency will be handling your interests.

In short, you don’t just need to trust your agent — you need to trust your agency as well. A few quick illustrative anecdotes will help show why.

I had been signed with my wonderful, amazing, devoted agent S.G. for less than six months when she had a baby. Miracle that S.G. is, she managed to sell my book AND another client’s before they wheeled her off to the delivery room, but for some months, it looked very likely that the contract negotiations for my memoir might end up being handled by another agent. As it turned out, another agent held my hand during the rather nerve-wracking period between contract-signing and book delivery — which, in my case, was only about two months.

I think it’s safe to say that I was not always perfectly happy and level-headed during that intensely stressful period. I was lucky that I had been temporarily reassigned by my agency to a delightfully patient and kind listener.

More seriously, I was also still under the care of my interim agent when the first lawsuit threat came. (Oh, yes: it came in two waves, one in early July, followed by much silence, then another in early September. Different allegations about the book each time, I might add.) If my agency were not full of very competent, very supportive people, I might have been left to face the threat unadvised. Having known other writers who have had to deal with lawsuits over their memoirs (hey, I get around) without the help of an agent, I feel very, very fortunate.

And very glad that that I read my agency contract very well before I signed it, so I felt secure about the agency that would be taking care of me.

Okay, I hate to do this, but I am now going to share the story of Lois, a writer who did not fare so well. Lois’ agent just stopped answering her e-mails one day; returned phone calls became a thing of the past. And because Lois was, like so many writers, long trained in assuming that any silence must have something to do with the quality of the book, she naturally fell into hyper-revising mode. Yet when she meekly submitted a new version of her novel, she STILL heard nothing.

“Have I offended my agent somehow?” Lois wondered. After wondering about it for a couple of weeks, she concluded that she must have. She sent a formal apology. Still no word.

Weeks dragged on into months, and after three, Lois had had enough. She called the main number for the agency, and demanded to know how she could terminate her contract with the agent.

“Wait,” the astonished receptionist told her, “didn’t anybody tell you? She had to have emergency surgery. Poor thing, she’s been in physical therapy for months.”

Of course, Lois felt really small, but actually, I think that the agency should have been the ones apologizing. That many months sans agent, and the agency hadn’t thought to notify her clients? A quarter of a year can feel like a lifetime to an author whose book is being circulated.

When you are looking over the contract, check to see whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. Agents move around all the time, and some agencies can have pretty short lifespans. If your agent retired, for instance, would you still be represented? What about if your agent started an agency of her own?

May, one of the most gifted writers I know found out too late that her contract was with her agent, not her agency, upon learning that her agent had died. Something of a surprise; May hadn’t even known that she was sick. (After you’ve hung out around represented writers for awhile, you will start to notice how often authors are NOT informed about illness, imminent life or career changes, or sometimes even the firing of their agents and editors. We writers always seem to be the last to know.) May was very sorry, of course, because she had liked her agent very much, but it never occurred to her that she no longer had representation.

Until she received a letter from the agency, a couple of weeks later. Seems that the agency had hired a replacement agent — who did not represent May’s kind of work. No offer to help her find another agent, nothing. Just goodbye and good luck. May checked her contract and, sure enough, she hadn’t signed with the agency at all, only her late agent.

Why the distinction? Well, the contracts between agents and their agencies can vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the agency, and some run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, is an independent contractor. If you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not.

My very talented friend Sydney was recently caught in a sort of in-between situation: her contract left the issue a bit ambiguous, specifying that Sydney would be represented by Agent X AT Agency Y. So when Agent X, without any advance warning, suddenly decided to leave Agency Y to start her own agency, Sydney actually wasn’t sure if she was still represented at all. It turned out that she had three options: break her contract and sign a new agency agreement with Agency Y, but be assigned to a new agent whom she did not know; break her contract and sign with Agent X in her new agency, or break her contract and seek representation somewhere else. No matter what, her old contract was more or less defunct.

Since, like many of us, Sydney had spent years seeking the perfect agent for her work, Option 3 sounded to her a lot like putting her hand in a meat grinder. She ended up following her agent.

My point is, unexpected things can happen. If you understand your contract, you will be much better prepared to deal with emergencies as they arise.

Oh, and don’t forget, those of you who have material out with important agents and/or editors at the moment: the Frankfurter Buchmesse — that’s the Frankfurt Book Fair to those of us stateside — will be running from October 19-23. A hefty proportion of the heavy hitters in the industry attend this, often grabbing European vacation time on either end. As a result, work on NYC desks tends to pile up at the end of October.

What this could mean for you: a slower response time than usual, in an industry already notorious for slow response times. Don’t panic; it’s not about you.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

What do you want from an agent?

Recently, I had the great pleasure of teaching a class on how to craft attention-grabbing queries, full of intelligent, well-prepared students. (If you would like to be added to my notification list for my next set of classes, please give me your e-mail address via the COMMENTS function, below.) These writers had really done their homework, and most of them had novels and NF books very close to being ready to be sent out the door. Best of luck to all of them!

As widely diverse as their writing projects were, I was struck, as I always am, by the great similarity of their dream agents. Everyone, without exception, wanted a well-established agent at a well-known agency to fall in love with the book in question, particularly with the writing, and represent it with intelligence and verve.

“That;s great,” I said, when the last student had expressed this hope. “What else do you want?”

The room fell silent.

I am used to this; it always happens at this point. “What about an agent with experience in selling your type of book?” I suggested. “An agent who has built up the connections to be able to get your book or book proposal under the right eyes right away?”

Well, yes, the students conceded, that would be nice.

I persisted. “What about an agent who is hungry? Would you be happy to be represented by someone with a hundred clients, so the success of your book will be only a small proportion of her year’s income, or would you prefer to be one of twenty, where each sale counts more to the agent?”

It was difficult to get the students to talk about it; again, these are bright, talented, well-read people, yet their body language made it obvious that the very idea of setting anything but the most minimal expectations for representation rendered them uncomfortable. It was unfamiliar territory, and in a sense, by even asking them to think about it, I had broken one of the most sacred of the writers’ conference taboos: implying the possibility that not every agent who likes an author’s work is necessarily a good fit for it.

What the heck, I’m just going to go ahead and state it: I have very often seen good writers’ careers stymied by agents who, while not actually bad at their jobs, at least do not apparently share the same goals for the book in question. Anyone who has ever attended a writing conference has probably met at least one writer who gave her soul to an agent for a year or two, only to find herself dropped when the book did not sell right away.

To a writer who has yet to find representation — and if you are one of these, don’t be hard on yourself; there are plenty of brilliant writers out there who do not have agents — it may be hard to feel sympathy for a writer in this situation. Some are tempted to conclude that if the book did not sell, or if the agent stopped sending it out, or if the agent never sent it out at all, it was because the book itself had some irredeemable fault.

Don’t censure yourself if you are one of the many who would automatically assume this: it is something that writers are taught to believe, and the source of countless hours of self-doubt. Most of the writing manuals and pretty much all of the classes and conferences teach us to believe that the blame must lie with either the book or the writer. There is a reason that this is the case: what the manuals and experts are selling, generally speaking, are ways in which the writer can alter the book, the pitch, the query letter, even her own work habits, in order to make the book more marketable.

I regularly teach this type of class myself, regarding it as a way to arm writers with the tools that will help them succeed in a genuinely difficult endeavor: getting their work noticed by people who can bring it to publication. After all, it would make little sense to teach “Ten Tips on Being a Better Agent” or “Sharpen Your Eye for Talent: Make Yourself a Better Editor” to groups of aspiring writers. The fact remains, though, that even the best-prepared author of the best-written book is hugely dependent upon the skills, tastes, and connections of her agent and ultimately, her editor.

As I have pointed out in earlier postings, the power that agents wield has gone up astronomically within our lifetimes. The reason for this is simple: the consolidation of the major publishing houses. Now, none of the majors will read unagented fiction at all, as a matter of policy. (Bear that in mind, the next time an editor from a major house tells you to send a chapter or a synopsis of your novel after you have met at a writers’ conference. Even if the editor absolutely falls in love with your work — in the unlikely event that it is indeed that editor who reads over your material, and not an assistant — the absolute best-case scenario is that the editor will recommend you to an agent, not that the editor will immediately buy your work.) Some nonfiction is still sold directly, but even that has become relatively rare.

The result is that agents and editors at small publishing houses (who usually also prefer to work with agented writers, but often make exceptions) have become the arbiters of what does and doesn’t get published in the United States. The editors at the major houses see only a hand-picked minority of the writing actually being produced.

Since you are probably already aware of the importance of having an agent, I shall not harp upon this point, except to say: since the author now does not participate in the selling process, it is more vital than ever to find an agent who will represent your work well.

My students did not like this conclusion at all. “If an agent loves my work,” one of them asked, “won’t he automatically represent it well?”

The short answer is a resounding NO, but the long version requires a two-part answer. First, a certain percentage of the people working in any field will be still learning how to do it, and in the publishing industry, where success is so heavily based upon connections and luck, the agent who likes your book best (or, as usually happens, the one who likes your book FIRST) may not necessarily be the one with the right connections. Thus, that story we have so often heard: the agent falls in love with a book, signs the author pronto, sends the book out to an editor or two — then sits helpless after the first few contacts reject it. Since it is traditional for a book to be submitted to only one editor at each imprint, having your work sent out by an agent with the wrong contacts may actually endanger its chances of being seen by the right editor.

Lest you think that this is just the smug analysis of a writer who has already passed the gauntlet, I speak from personal experience here: my wonderful agent, S.G., is in fact my THIRD agent. As longtime readers of this blog are already aware, #1 wanted me to turn a serious literary novel on sexual harassment into a romance novel (that, or dump it entirely and write a self-help book, as she evidently believed everyone with a Ph.D. is qualified to do. I tried in vain to explain to her that not every doctorate is in psychology, to no avail), and #2 sent a cookbook to three editors, then I never heard from him again. Neither of these stories is at all unusual; I could introduce you to literally dozens of good writers still mourning similar experiences.

I should point out: all three professed genuine love for my writing, and I have no reason to doubt their veracity on the subject. All three expressed great admiration for the projects they respectively represented — and only S.G. has been able to sell so much as a line that I have written. I like to think that she loves my writing more than the others, but I know for a fact that I owe a great deal to her acumen, her experience, and her connections.

The second answer to the question is less well-recognized amongst writers, or at any rate, most of the unpublished writers I meet are surprised when I mention it. Now, it is the NORM for good agents to ask for significant revisions on a book or a book proposal BEFORE sending it out to editors. Effectively, this means that the agent you choose — and who chooses you — is your first editor. Which means that it is absolutely vital to sign with an agent whose taste and integrity you trust.

I want to get the word out there about the edited-by-the-agent phenomenon, because I have found that most unagented writers are quite unaware of it. Not all agents require up-front revisions, but a significant minority amongst those who work with previously unpublished writers do. I spent the first two and a half months of my representation contract with S.G. revising and re-revising my book proposal, at her behest; one of the best novelists I know spent a YEAR AND A HALF in agent-required revisions before her agent so much as photocopied it.

Other agents prefer to suggest only minor tweaking before sending out the first round of submissions, then, once they have garnered significant editorial feedback, ask the author to revise the book in accordance with the changes editors said they would like to see. (Be warned in advance: if three editors saw it, in all probability two of them will ask from mutually contradictory changes. A good agent can help you figure out which advice is worth taking.) Here again, many first-time authors are astonished to find themselves, a year or two after signing with a terrific agent, still in the throes of revising an as-yet unsold book.

My students, by this point in my explanation, were sitting speechless, aghast and disappointed. It is my sincere hope that their work will sell well and immediately, but the fact is, a quick sale of an unrevised work to a major publishing house has become quite rare. Frankly, I think it is quite unfair to writers everywhere that the prevailing wisdom so often says otherwise. Yes, from the agents’ and editors’ points of view, publishing is a fast-moving business, but from the authors’, it sometimes seems as if it barely runs on electricity.

I feel a trifle disingenuous saying this, because actually, my process has been one of the few exceptions: from winning the 2004 PNWA Zola Award for NF to signing with S.G. to book sale was only eight months, which is lightning speed. To put this in perspective, though, my book was only being circulated to editors for the last two of those months. The period between when I signed with S.G. (October, 2004) through when the book was first sent out to editors (end of January, 2005) was entirely devoted to tweaking my book proposal at S.G.’s behest.

Let that sink in for a moment: that revision time was unusually QUICK, with my getting pages back to her significantly prior to the deadlines we had agreed upon.

This realization, as you may well imagine, made my students groan, as it would many writers. Since attracting an agent’s interest is so very arduous, the vast majority of unagented writers tend to idealize just how much of a relief it will be to sign that contract. “Phew!” they think. “I’m working my fingers to the elbow now, but once I sign with an agent, my period of hard work will be over. I can just hand my finished book (or book proposal) to my agent, and wait for her to sell it. And because she will adore my writing, that will happen in a matter of weeks.”

With such expectations, it’s no wonder that so many writers give little thought to the personality of their dream agent: they are not expecting to have much interaction with this paragon.

Please don’t make that too-common mistake of not taking the time to learn a little about an agent before you gasp a grateful “YES!” to that long-awaited offer of representation. Ask a few questions: will you be working with the agent directly, for instance, or an assistant? (If the latter, it is definitely worth your while to have a conversation with the assistant before you decide, too.) Will the agent want revisions to what you submitted, and if so, would she be open to setting aside some serious time to discuss them? What exactly does the agent LIKE about your book, your ideas, your writing style? If you are not a person who likes hand-holding, is the agent willing to give you your space to work?

And so forth. The AAR (Association of Artists’ Representatives) puts out an excellent list of preliminary questions new authors should ask agents, to get you started. While the answers are important to figuring out how the agent will expect you to work with her, the discussion actually serves an even more important secondary purpose: it gives you are foretaste of what it will be like in the weeks and months to come, when your new agent is ruling your writing life.

It behooves you, then, to make very sure that this person is someone with whom you would be willing to be in frequent e-mail contact; make sure that this is a person you would be comfortable picking up the phone to call if you run into problems with your editor. Ask about her taste in literature, to get some indication if this is a person you can trust to give you writing feedback. (You should ask the same question, incidentally, of ANYONE you ask for feedback, from your best friend to a freelance editor. If you do not like the same kinds of writing, chances are lower that the feedback will be truly useful to you.) Ask for a list of clients, and for a few days to rush to the bookstore and see what their books are like. You would even be well within your rights to ask if the agent to pass your phone number along to another client who writes similar books, so you can chat about what it is like to work with this particular agent.

See why I have been so adamantly pushing the idea of querying several good agents simultaneously? Ideally, I would like you to have the luxury, as I did, of having these conversations with several agents before you decide who should represent you and your work.

Because, again, I speak from experience: I spent an hour and a half on the phone the other day with my agent, and not just because she and I are both charming conversationalists. The very idea of spending that long in unalloyed contact with either of my first two agents is laughable; I would not have been comfortable enough to do it. Thank goodness I had listened to the excellent advice my more established writing friends had given me, and made absolutely certain that I was signing with an agent I LIKED.

Oh, and she loves my writing, too.

If you are at the point of signing with an agent, or if you are waiting to hear back from an agent who has asked to see your work, and would like to discuss your experience, please drop me a line via the COMMENTS function, below. It can be as confusing as it is exhilarating.

And to all, regardless of where you are in the process, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The editorial memo

I received a package in the mail from my editor today, containing some manuscript pages he had marked up. When I opened the FedEx box, I swear that a puff of smoke came out of it, as if my editor had mailed me a small dragon. Turns out that those lovely-to-touch cotton-based papers that I like to print my manuscripts upon soak up cigarette smoke like the proverbial sponge.

The pages are lying all over my dining room table, airing out. My cats, who normally like to mark every manuscript that enters or leaves our house by rolling on it, won’t go near the table.

Ah, the chain-smoking, blunt pencil-wielding editor! Nice to know that some publishing clichés are still operational, isn’t it?

Marginal feedback, however, is actually not the primary means of instruction passing from editor to writer anymore. (Although it is still common enough for it to be worth your while to print your manuscripts on nice paper that render it a pleasure to turn the page. Even if you do not want to splurge on an expensive ream, never print your work on anything less than 20 lb. paper — you can see through anything lighter.) Nor, surprisingly, do many editors prefer to make changes, or even commentary, on soft copy, although the technology is certainly available and easy to use. As I have mentioned before, the publishing industry is paper-oriented: most agencies and even many publishing houses in NYC do not have in-house tech support. If computer-based changes are to be made, then, it is almost always the author who makes them.

So how does commentary pass from editor to author? Through a document called the editorial memo (a.k.a. the editorial letter), a brief, formal missive in standard letter format that gives a straightforward overview of what the editor would like for the author to change in the book.
Often, the editorial memo accompanies a marked-up manuscript, but not necessarily.

What does the editorial memo do that marginal comments or direct conversation do not? In the first place, it is not only sent to the author, but to the editors’ higher-ups as well, both to let everyone concerned know how well the editor feels the manuscript has lived up to the initial expectations of the publishing house and to demonstrate the editor’s active involvement in the book. Second, the editorial memo sets forth a series of requested changes, along with the justifications for them, that the author is expected to make prior to the copyediting phase.

It is often surprising for new authors that the content editing stage (performed by the editor), the copyediting or line editing stage (performed by a lower-level editor), and the proofreading stage (performed by poorly-paid flunkies) are broken out into distinct steps. Surely, the average author feels, the content editor might as well catch a few typos while he’s at it?

Content editing, however, is not always geared toward producing the artistically best possible book. Much of the time, the editor is actually editing for marketability, suggesting additions and cutting lines in order to emphasize the major selling points of the book. With a nonfiction book, this may entail suggesting moving chapters, adding explanations, footnotes, and appendices, and/or adding or removing examples. My memoir’s editorial memo asked me to write a preface to my book, explaining for readers unfamiliar with Philip K. Dick’s work just why his writings are literarily important.

For a novel, editors may ask for more radical changes: deletions of entire characters or plot lines, or a change in the running order. I once had an editing client who was asked to make a family smaller, bring a dead character back to life, and change the moral — a revision that more or less required the writing of an entirely new book. And every time an editor writes such a memo, somewhere in heaven, a writing angel gets a charley horse.

However, the fiction market has changed in one significant respect with regard to editorial instructions within the last fifteen years: in the past, editors would generally buy the novel in question first, before asking for radical revisions. Now, it is extremely common for editors to REJECT books that they would have bought with an eye to revision twenty years ago, merely telling the agents what they would have liked to see work out differently in the book. The book continues to be shopped around by the agent, and if it does not sell, the onus is then upon the author to select WHICH set of advice to take and how to implement it before submitting the book again. Basically, this arrangement allows editors most of the advantages of the editorial memo, without having to ante up an advance that might, if not allow the author to quit her day job, at least take enough time off to revise her book.

I shall spare you a description of what happens to a writing angel every time an editor indulges in such a rejection.

The result, though, is that now, editorial memos for purchased fiction tend to be a lot less scary than they were in days of yore. We’ve all heard the writers’ conference horror stories, I think, about authors being asked to change a character “in order to give the book more mainstream appeal”; Philip once had an editor change a starship captain from black to white with a single sweep of a pen. Don’t you wish you had a nickel for every time an author was told to remove a character that was too feminist, too openly gay, or too interested in politics?

The changes put forth in the editorial memo are, of course, only suggestions: most publishing contracts actually allow the writer quite a bit of leeway in implementing them. From the point of view of the first-time author, however, they are suggestions made by an extremely powerful authority figure: the publisher is really not expecting much opposition. Like having approval rights over the title or the book jacket design, the author’s consent is more or less assumed.

And it’s not as though the publisher and author go through an endless round of suggestion-revision-suggestion-revision to work out conceptual differences of opinion: that, too, is more or less a thing of the past. Contractually, it’s actually rather rare for a book to go through more than one revision after a publisher buys it. Usually, the contract specifies that the author must deliver a book by date X; the publisher must submit requested changes (via the editorial memo) by date Y, usually 60 or 90 days after date X, and the author must deliver a manuscript revised accordingly by date Z, usually 60 or 90 days after that. If there is squabbling over changes, it almost always occurs immediately after the editorial memo is delivered to the author.

Since I have already received my editorial memo, I am relatively confident that the pages on my dining room table hold no truly terrible surprises for me. I already know that they contain enough second-hand smoke to make my cats’ whiskers curl, but, hey, that’s a small price to pay to maintain a publishing tradition. I can always wear a gas mask while I’m revising.

May your editorial memos be positive and plentiful, my friends, and your revise-and-resubmit suggestions be few. And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The vital importance of documentation

Hello, dear readers —

Well, my gag is still pretty firmly in place, but I have figured out a way to derive a universal publishing lesson for you from the turmoil of the last few days: document, document, document.

Those of you who read this blog loyally will no doubt remember my extensive lecture (see posting of August 22) on the vital importance of documentation for memoirists. Because anyone mentioned in a memoir (and those who are insulted when they are NOT mentioned, or not mentioned enough: more common than you might think) could conceivably make, if not actual legal trouble for you and your publisher, then at least a few sleepless nights, YOU NEED TO KNOW WHO TOLD YOU WHAT AND WHEN. Trusting to your undoubtedly excellent memory is not enough — you should be able to produce a list.

For a memoirist, this can be very difficult. Who took good notes as an 8-year-old? However, you can cover yourself by documenting how and where you tried to verify those long-ago memories by speaking to the living in the present day.

You will be pleased to know that I did everything right in this respect. I was trained as an academic, where practically every statement requires an extensive documentary footnote, and keeping track of my own research is second nature. Also, I have an unusually good memory — not photographic, but nearly so. One of the first readers of my manuscript, declining to believe that I could in fact remember the color of curtains in a room where I was once at the age of ten, decided to quiz me on a book I mentioned in the memoir. To be specific, I discussed the impact of the relatively short treatment of Katherine Wright, sister of Orville and Wilbur, received in a history of flight I’d read once in the third grade. Unable to stump me on the facts, he challenged my claim to remember the typeface in which the book was printed. So he checked.

I was right, as it turns out.

However, this level of detailed memory is unusual, to say the least, and frankly, I don’t think it should be required for a memoirist to be credible. All the more reason to document whatever you can.

Curious about what could have gone wrong with my book (as opposed to what IS going wrong, which has little to do with the book’s actual credibility, but instead with who owns an individual’s own memories), I chatted with my marvelous agent about the topic. “What if,” I asked her, “I hadn’t done everything right? What if I hadn’t documented so heavily that my writing friends laughed at me?”

Now, I’m a pretty hardy soul, but I must admit that her answer, dear readers, chilled me a little. “The publisher would have dropped your book,” she told me, “the second that anyone from the Dick estate questioned it.”

This, incidentally, was said about a book that the publisher claims to LOVE, one where the editor gushes to anyone who will listen about the writing. (She mentioned modestly.) It has a target audience so obvious — Philip K. Dick’s literally millions of fans worldwide — that the publisher’s sense of risk is exceptionally low in publishing it. Yet even with all that going for it, they would have dropped the book in a heartbeat if I hadn’t been able to counter a series of unfounded charges with good documentation.

If learning this does not turn you into a super-documenter, nothing I can say will.

I have to say, this unspoken requirement strikes me as unfair to writers in general, and memoirists in particular. Surely, we all have the right to write about our perceptions of our own lives — which is, after all, more or less the definition of a memoir. Why, then, would publishers be so jumpy?

Because, I am now learning through experience, a suit for slander does not have to have any actual basis in fact to be frightening to a publisher. I REALLY have evidence of this: in the United States, it is legally impossible to slander or libel a dead person, and the primary character in my memoir, other than me, has been dead since 1982. AND I don’t say anything particularly nasty about him. However, those facts tend to fall out of the discussions at senior editorial meetings. It is not the content of the charges made by the complaining party that strikes fear into editorial hearts, but the financial status of the complainers. Translation: deep pockets equal major threat, shallow pockets equal minor threat, regardless of the actual basis for the suit.

I like to call this phenomenon censorship by checkbook.

In my case, what makes this censorship by checkbook particularly frustrating is that the scary money in question is, as I understand it, entirely derived from the proceeds from the books, short stories, and movie rights of a writer who was deeply, profoundly opposed to censorship of any kind. Even to those who know Philip K. Dick’s work only through the movies made from it, his name is synonymous with a distrust of corporate entities, governments, and any other powerful force that tries to silence individual thought and creativity in the name of its own prurient interest.

On my good days, the irony of HIS posthumous checkbook being used to try to silence any writer, much less me, amuses me considerably. It is, in fact, precisely the kind of thing that would have happened in a Philip K. Dick novel.

So that is why, dear readers, in case you have been wondering, the legal issues surrounding my memoir continue to irk me, and I continue not being allowed to discuss them here with much specificity. Deep, deep pockets: in effect, Philip’s fans are unwittingly bankrolling my chagrin, and that’s definitely unfair to everyone concerned. I try to keep a sense of humor about it all, but it’s hard.

Regardless of what happens to my book, PLEASE learn from my experience to document your research conversations impeccably. And not just your research conversations: keep those e-mails from kith and kin where they tell you that they are hugely supportive of your project, because they may claim later that they did not even know about it; keep the ones where they praise you and your work, because they may later say that they always hated it. Keep the ones where they tell you that you are telling an important story, because they may change their minds about that, and while you’re at it, keep the ones where they tell you in secret the stories they don’t want the rest of the family to know they told you.

Not that I have any personal experience that would dictate that these are good ideas, of course.

If you cannot get the relevant kith and kin to put these thoughts in writing, send an e-mail or letter (with a carbon for your files, of course) confirming what you were told verbally. Send follow-up questions in writing, and be sure to keep thanking them on paper for helping you so kindly. The day may come when being a little bit compulsive in your record-keeping may save your bacon as a writer.

And, as usual, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: Many, many thanks to those of you who took the time to weigh in on the Philip fansites about the censorship issues around my book; if you haven’t had a chance to yet, check out the very interesting discussion at I assure you, everyone concerned has been taking those postings very, very seriously; I’m really looking forward to the day when I can be explicit about that.

Genre categories — and more of my saga

Okay, take a deep breath, boys and girls: we’re going to tackle the rest of the fiction book categories today. (Don’t worry, I’ll get back to that jolly interesting stuff about my memoir being the target for an ill-conceived lawsuit threat at the end of the post. I just didn’t want to leave all of you anxious queriers out there in the lurch, category-less.)

Yesterday, for those of you who missed it (I posted considerably later than usual), I went through the standard general fiction categories. Picking a category for your work is important, because (a) you only get to pick one, no matter how badly you would like to form hyphenate composites like Erotica-Western (and who wouldn’t want to read THAT?), and (b) the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work. Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their chosen categories.

Furthermore, you cannot dodge this kind of negative snap judgment by avoiding making a choice at all amongst the dozens of available categories, or by hiding your choice in the middle of your query letter. Oh, no: agents expect to see a straightforward statement of your category in the first paragraph of your query letter, on the title page of your manuscript (I’ll show you how to format a title page next week, legal difficulties permitting), and in your pitch.

Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time.

There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that a genre label automatically translates into writing less polished than other fiction in professional minds. No, no, no: genre distinctions, like book categories, are markers of where a book will sit in a bookstore, not value judgments. Naturally, agents and editors expect a book to reflect the conventions of books within the stated genre, but believe me, an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER, rather than just FICTION.

Case in point: I once had the misfortune to be assigned at a writers’ conference to be critiqued by an editor who did not handle mainstream or literary fiction, which is what I was writing. Since he had been good enough to read my first chapter and synopsis, I sat politely and listened to what he had to say. What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, but he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two thirds of the way through the book, concerning the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market.”

Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit. “But it’s not a thriller.”

He looked at me as though I had just told him that the sky was bright orange. “Then why are you talking to me?”

The rumor that genre carries a stigma has resulted in a lot of good manuscripts that would have stood out in their proper genres being pitched as mainstream or even literary fiction. Thus, queries and pitches have been aimed at the wrong eyes and ears. By labeling your work correctly, you increase the chances of your query landing on the desk of someone who genuinely likes your kind of book astronomically.

So label your work with absolute clarity. Many first-time genre authors make the completely understandable mistake of simply labeling their work with the overarching genre: MYSTERY, ROMANCE, SCIENCE FICTION, etc. However, did you know that each of these categories has many, many subcategories?

The more specific you can be, the more likely your work is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up your book. (Or so the professionals claim. Really, it’s a shortcut that enables them to weed out queries outside their area with a minimum of letter-reading; that’s why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the letter. It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can weed it out almost instantly.)

Let me state outright that the major genres all have wonderful writers’ associations which can undoubtedly give you more specific information than I can here. This list is intended to guide people’s first forays into picking a category.

Let’s start with SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, because it is the genre closest to my heart. My first writing teacher was an extremely well-known science fiction writer, so my first efforts at short stories were naturally in that genre. It may amuse those of you who write SF (the professionals NEVER call it Sci Fi, incidentally) that Philip, arguably one of the best-selling SF writers of all time, told me from the very beginning that he thought I should not write in his genre, no matter how well I did it: it was, he said, too hard for any good writer to make a living at it.

But times have changes substantially since Philip was writing, and if you write SF or Fantasy, you have many options within the genre. You can, of course, simply list SCIENCE FICTION or FANTASY, if your work does not fall into any of the subcategories.

SCIENCE FICTION ACTION/ADVENTURE: The protagonist must fight incredible odds or impressive beasties to attain his (or, less frequently, her) goals. Eek — is that an Ewok behind that tree?

SPECULATIVE SCIENCE FICTION (what if X were changed?) and FUTURISTIC SCIENCE FICTION (what if my characters lived in a future society where X was different from now?) are often mistakenly conflated into a single category. Wait — is this a government plot?

ALTERNATE HISTORY: What if X had changed in the past? What would the present be like? Philip’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, predicated on the premise that the other side won World War II, is the usual example given for this subgenre.

CYBERPUNK: I have heard a lot of definitions for this subgenre, ranging from THE MATRIX to NEUROMANCER. Think technology-enhanced alternate realities with a dark twist.

DARK FANTASY: Fear skillfully woven into a what-if scenario. Until CYBERPUNK got its own following, its books tended to be marketed as DARK FANTASY.

COMIC FANTASY: Elves on ecstasy.

EPIC FANTASY: Wait — my friends the centaur, the half-human, half-canary, and a centipede have to save the universe AGAIN? If Tolkein were writing today, his LORD OF THE RINGS series would probably be marketed under this category.

If you are in serious doubt over where your SF/FANTASY book falls, go to any bookstore with a good SF/fantasy section and start pulling books off the shelves. Find a book similar to yours, and check the spine and back cover: the subgenre is often printed there.

VAMPIRE FICTION is sometimes categorized as fantasy, sometimes as horror. But there is something hypnotic about your eyes.

HORROR is its own distinct genre, and should be labeled accordingly. Never get into a car without checking the back seat, and for heaven’s sake, if you are a teenager, don’t run into the woods.

Okay, take another deep breath, because we are now going to delve into the many, many ROMANCE subcategories.

EROTICA is not your grandmother’s idea of pornography anymore. (Well, I guess it might be, depending upon what your grandmother was into.) Sexually-explicit writing where arousal is the point.

HISTORICAL ROMANCE has a zillion subcategories, primarily because its subcategories are often specific to period and locale. A few of the biggies: REGENCY, SCOTTISH, MEDIEVAL, TEXAS, WESTERN, MIDDLE EASTERN. ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND.

TIME TRAVEL: You have given up on the opposite sex in your own timeframe.

INSPIRATIONAL: If your romance novel is informed by spirituality, it belongs here.

CONTEMPORARY: Having a current-affairs issue at its core OR a protagonist who is a woman deeply devoted to her career.

FANTASY and CHICK LIT are hyphenates within the genre: basically, the conventions of these categories are grafted onto the ROMANCE genre. Natural choices, I think.

MULTICULTURAL: Not all of the people falling in love are white. Seriously, that’s what this means. I don’t quite understand this euphemism, since generally books labeled MULTICULTURAL are about a single culture, but hey, I don’t make the rules.

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: this used to be called Women in Jeopardy or, more colloquially, Bodice Rippers. No comment.

PARANORMAL and GHOST ROMANCE are divided by a distinction I do not understand. Sorry. Check with Romance Writers of America.

CATEGORY ROMANCE: This is actually what many people think of automatically as a romance novel — the Harlequin type, written according to a very rigid structure.

Okay, hang in there, because here comes the last of the many subcategoried genres: MYSTERY. Again, I would urge you to consult the excellent resources provided by the Mystery Writers of America, if you are in serious doubt about which subgenre to select.

HISTORICAL: Again, self-explanatory?

COZY: An amateur sleuth is solving the crimes. VERY popular: about a quarter of the mysteries sold in North America fall into this category.

POLICE PROCEDURAL: The people who are supposed to be solving the crimes are solving the crimes.

LEGAL: A lawyer misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case.

PROFESSIONAL: A doctor, professor, reporter, etc. misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case.

PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: A PI reads his or her job description correctly, and gets involved with solving a case.

PSYCHOLOGICAL or FORENSIC: A psychologist or forensic scientist plays around with his or her job description, refusing to leave the rest of the crime-solving to the police.

SUSPENSE: Wait, is ANYBODY going to solve the crime here? Hello? Is anybody else in the house? Hello?


HARDBOILED: There’s this guy, see, who lives by his own rules. He ain’t takin’ no guff, see — except maybe from a beautiful dame with a shady past. Often, she has legs that won’t quit AND go all the way to the ground. (A genre with surprising longevity: in 2003, hardboiled mysteries were 5% of the mysteries sold.)

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: This time, the beautiful dame with a past and the legs IS the protagonist.

COPS AND KILLERS: What it says on the box.

SERIAL KILLER: Baaad people.

CHICK LIT: With how much time the protagonist spends in bed, it’s AMAZING that she finds the time to solve the case AND coordinate her shoes with her Prada handbag.

BRITISH: You may be wondering why I asked you all here.

SPY THRILLER: You may be wondering why I have you tied to that chair, Mr. Bond.

NOIR: This loner drifts into town, where he collides romantically with someone else’s wife under magnificently moody lighting conditions. What’s the probability that he’ll get fingered for a murder he didn’t commit?

CAPER: The protagonists are non-career criminals, often with wacky tendencies. Can they pull it off? Can they?

The remaining genre categories, WESTERN and ACTION/ADVENTURE, speak for themselves. Or, more precisely, I don’t have anything smart alecky to say about them.

And that’s it. In my next posting, I’ll cover the nonfiction categories — and we’ll finally be done. Hurray!

To put my own adventures into perspective, the threat to my book, A FAMILY DARKLY, has now entered the LEGAL THRILLER stage of its development. Even as I write this, lawyers are scratching their learned heads over the puzzling allegations made about my memoir. Of particular interest is the issue of whether my telling the truth about a relationship that has been hush-hush since, oh, before the Bicentennial (yes, one of my claims to fame is that Philip K. Dick laughed like hell when I told him about having to dress up as a miniature colonial wife and wield a mean flatiron in an elementary school diorama on Housework Before Modern Technology) should seriously bother anyone now.

Also at issue: since the woman who, ahem, borrowed my mother’s first husband on a semi-permanent basis has written her own book about the break-up of one marriage and the establishment of the next, and Philip has written a fictionalized account of it, is there any logical or ethical reason that my mother’s side of things (as seen through my vision, darkly) should not see print? Can you, in fact, be a public figure and be selective about what is divulged about you after your death?

On the bright side, though, everyone concerned seems rather eager to get these issues resolved before A FAMILY DARKLY comes out, or to be more precise, before the marketing blitz for A SCANNER DARKLY begins. A big-budget film, I’m told, based upon Philip’s 1979 novel. Sort of the end of an era for me, to see concepts and characters I pictured in my head while Philip so much about during revisions, translated into big-screen images. Let no one say that the creative process isn’t often pretty surreal.

It may surprise you to learn — it surprised me, I’ll confess — that the author actually has very little to do with a lawsuit of this nature: it’s all handled by the publishing house and, at the moment, a wildfire of argument about whether my book should be censored amongst habités of the many PKD fan sites. It’s actually rather maddening, to be stuck on the sidelines while discussion rages over what is after all my baby.

I shall keep you posted, of course, on what happens. And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Book categories — and yes, you have to pick one

Heavens — I got so wrapped up in my own saga that I almost forgot that I promised you a posting on book categories! To return to a theme from last week, labels, like standard formatting rules, are very important to agents and editors: if they can’t place your work within a conceptual box, chances are they will reject your work as weird. (And remember, in industry-speak, weird is bad; fresh is good.) Thus, before you submit your work to any agent or editor, you will need to decide which box is most comfortable for your book.

To be precise, you will need to mention your book’s genre in your query letter, on the title page of your manuscript (upper right corner is standard), and anytime you pitch. Hard as it may be to believe, to professional eyes, the category is actually more important than the title or the premise. To an agent, the category determines which editors on her contact list she can approach with your book; to an editor, it determines which market niche it will fill. If your work is difficult to categorize, or straddles two categories, their brains go into a tailspin: on which shelf in Barnes & Noble can it rest?

To a lot of writers, particularly fiction writers, the requirement to pick a single category for a work that may legitimately appeal to three or four target audiences often seems, if not repressive, a little foolish. You may be an expansive, freewheeling soul who longs to transcend narrow conceptions of genre; you may have a great love of two distinct genres, and long to combine them; you may feel that the value judgments placed upon certain genres render it undesirable to pick the most obvious label. (Why, for instance, is women’s lit so often sniffed at, when thrillers — bought disproportionately by men, and thus could legitimately be named men’s lit — are not?) You may feel, and with some justification, that the agent you are querying has a far greater knowledge of the market, and is thus in a far better position than you to decide in which category your book belongs.

No matter which you are, you will need to pick a category for your book anyway. Sorry. If you shilly-shally, or even hesitate when you are asked at a conference, you run the risk of appearing uninformed about the industry. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there do exist agents so category-minded that they will automatically disregard any query that does not specify the book’s category clearly within the first paragraph.

This is serious business.

Okay, let’s tackle fiction first. Genre fiction has subcategories, just as general fiction does, so these lists will be quite extensive. Hey, don’t blame me: I’m just the messenger here.

In general fiction, the categories are:

FICTION: also known as mainstream. This is the bulk of the market, so do not be afraid of the plain-Jane moniker.

LITERARY FICTION: fiction where the writing style is a major selling point of the book. Assumes a college-educated audience.

HISTORICAL FICTION: pretty self-explanatory, no?

WOMEN’S FICTION: not to be confused with romance; WF is mainstream fiction specifically geared for a female readership. Since women buy the vast majority of fiction sold in North America, however, this category’s edges can get somewhat nebulous. Think of the YA-YA SISTERHOOD.

CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S FICTION: Novels about what used to be called “career women.” If your protagonist is a doctor or lawyer who takes her work seriously, chances are that this is the category for you.

CHICK LIT: Assumes a female readership under the age of 40; always has a protagonist who is good in bed. In fact, some agents and editors refer to this category as GOOD IN BED.

LAD LIT: Similar to CHICK LIT, except the good-in-bed protagonist is a troubled young man; all of us have female co-workers who have dated the prototypes for these characters. The only example I have ever heard anyone use for this category is HIGH FIDELITY.

LADY LIT: Similar to CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S FICTION, but the protagonist is often independently wealthy, or regards her relationships as more important than her work; the protagonist is always older than a CHICK LIT heroine. (I swear I’m not making this stuff up.)

FUTURISTIC FICTION: Not to be confused with science fiction, which is its own genre, these are literary or mainstream books set in the future; I gather the point of this category is to permit agents to say to editors, “No, no, it’s not genre.” Think THE HANDMAID’S TALE.

ADVENTURE FICTION: Not to be confused with ACTION/ADVENTURE, this category encompasses books where the protagonists engage in feats that serve no business purpose, yet are satisfyingly life-threatening. If your protagonist surfs, mountain-climbs, or wrestles wild animals, this may be the category for you.

SPORTS FICTION: Similar to ADVENTURE FICTION, but focused on conventional sports.

POETRY: If you do not know what this is, go knock on your high school English teacher’s door at midnight and demand to repeat the 10th grade.

SHORT STORIES: a collection of them. Generally, authors who publish short story collections have had at least a few of them published in magazines first.

CHILDREN’S: another fairly self-explanatory one, no?

YOUNG ADULT: books written for people too old for CHILDREN’S, yet too young for FICTION. YA, unlike other categories, may often be successfully combined with genres: YA FANTASY, YA WESTERN, etc.

COMICS: exactly what you think they are.

GRAPHIC NOVEL: A book with a COMICS format, but a specifically adult-oriented plot line.

Whew! And that’s just the non-genre fiction categories.

Do allow me to reiterate: you only get to pick one for your book. If you are wavering between close categories — say, between CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S FICTION and CHICK LIT, do not be afraid to guess; there is quite a bit of overlap between categories, whether agents and editors admit it or not. Take a good look at your manuscript, decide whether sex or job is more important to your protagonist (if you are writing about a call girl, this may be an impossible determination to make), and categorize accordingly. If you’re off by a little, an agent who likes your work will tell you how to fine-tune your choice.

The distinction that seems to give writers the most trouble is between FICTION and LITERARY FICTION. Let’s face it, most of us like to think our writing has some literary value, and critical opinion about what is High Literature changes with alarming frequency. When asked, even most agents and editors have a hard time telling you precisely what the difference is — but, like art, they know literary when they see it. Yet ask any three agents whether THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE SHIPPING NEWS, and THE COLOR PURPLE are mainstream or literary, and you will probably get at least two different answers.

Lest you think, as many aspiring writers do, that all good fiction is literary, let me remind you that these are marketing categories, not value judgments. LITERARY FICTION is quite a small percentage of the fiction market, so do be aware that if you pick that category, you may be limiting your book’s perceived market appeal. When in doubt, FICTION is usually safe, because it is the broadest — and most marketable — category.

If you are in serious doubt whether your book is sufficiently literary to count as LITERARY FICTION, apply one of two tests. First, take a good, hard look at your book: under what circumstances can you envision it being assigned in a college English class? If the subject matter is the primary factor, chances are the book is not literary. I once mortally offended an English professor by bringing in an example from GONE WITH THE WIND, as mainstream a book as ever you would hope to see: “That’s mass market,” the professor snapped. “We don’t study that sort of thing here.” Ooh — touchy.

The other test — and I swear I am not suggesting this merely to be flippant — is to open your manuscript randomly at five different points and count the number of semicolons, colons, and dashes per page. If there are more than a couple per page, chances are your work is geared for the literary market. Mainstream FICTION tends to assume a tenth-grade reading level: LITERARY FICTION assumes an audience educated enough to use a semicolon correctly, without having to look up the ground rules.

Do be careful, however, when applying this second test, because writers tend to LOVE punctuation. Oh, I know this is going to break some tender hearts out there, but if you want to write fiction professionally, you need to come to terms with an ugly fact: no one but writers particularly LIKE semicolons. If you are writing for a mainstream audience, you should consider minimizing their use; if you are writing most genre fiction, you should get rid of them entirely.

If you don’t believe me, I implore you to spend an hour in any reasonably well-stocked bookstore, going from section to section, pulling books off the shelf randomly, and applying the punctuation test. If you are writing for most genre audiences (science fiction being the major exception), most agents and editors prefer to see simpler sentence structure.

Again, I don’t make the rules: I merely pass them along to you.

Tomorrow, I shall go into the genre categories and subcategories, as well as the nonfiction categories. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

I got feedback on my LIFE?

I have been thinking again today about those of us who write about true events — and yes, alas, my publisher is still being sued over my memoir — and I want to speak about a topic that is discussed only very rarely amongst memoirists, and that in hushed tones and only amongst ourselves. It is, successful memoirists assert behind closed doors, extremely difficult to expose your own cherished notions of yourself and your past to outside scrutiny.

If you are brave enough to want to share your life story with the world, do keep in mind that you will be tying up your most cherished and hated memories with a nice red ribbon — and handing it to people whose life’s work is pointing out logical holes in stories. I’m not talking about predatory lawyers here, or even reviewers, but agents and editors.

Be prepared to answer questions from your agent and editor that most therapists would blush to ask. Do try to keep a sense of humor about it, because after all, you are the person who invited the scrutiny. (And do remember, as I did not, that you are under no obligation to show your manuscript to your kith and kin. As the lawyers say, it’s always better to ask forgiveness than permission. How I wish now that I had followed my own advice in this respect!)

The first serious barrage of ultra-personal questions about my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK caught me totally by surprise, even after a lifetime listening to would-be biographers interview my mother about her glory days. When I first began shopping the book around, a good half of the publishing professionals I spoke to asked the same first question: was this book about a love affair that ended when I was 15?

Oh, please. As if no young woman ever had anything interesting to say that didn’t have something to do with sex.

If I had been a savvier marketer back then, I suppose I would have answered, “You’ll have to read the book and see,” but it’s pretty difficult to treat the story of your own life like a commodity. It’s hard not to take the prurient questions personally. They probably were not actually asking, “Were you a teenage slut?” but that’s certainly how I heard it.

Yet once you have written a memoir, your telling of your life IS a commodity. Like any other salesman with any other product, your agent has to understand it well enough (or repackage it well enough) to be able to sell it to editors. And your editor has to be able to sell his or her vision of it to his publisher, and the publishing house’s marketers to the world.

This may be self-evident logically, but emotionally, it is anything but. You learn a lot about yourself, and about how others see you. For a memoirist, the process of bringing out reminiscences is roughly akin to conducting a year’s worth of therapy by shouting deep, dark secrets across a crowded opera house to a hard-of-hearing therapist seated on the far side. His questions and your answers are essentially public — as is your story, the instant you start to market it. And, given the peculiarities of the NF market, perhaps even before you have written it.

There are easier things to do.

And you unquestionably have a higher chance of maintaining plausible deniability if you write your life as fiction. But some of us have led lives too wacky to make for realistic fiction. Just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it is believable on the pages of a novel.

Let me repeat that, because it’s the single biggest problem the memoir-writer faces: just because something happened doesn’t mean it is plausible. It is the memoirist’s job to make the improbabilities of life credible, by creating rich characters and compelling story arcs out of the materials real life has given him. A memoir is not a transcript of everyday life, because that would be unreadable — a good memoir is real life illuminated by an insightful eye and a heart not afraid to reveal its own foibles.

All this being said, if you are considering writing a memoir, I can’t encourage you enough to do it. There is liberation in shouting your deepest, darkest secrets across that crowded opera house that the veiled whispers of fact-based fiction simply cannot provide. Go ahead and shout — but only if you’re telling the truth as you know it. You may need to cling to the security of knowing you are being honest in the dark night of criticism to come.

Before I sign off for the day, I’d like to throw a question out to all of you truth-tellers out there: how do you work up nerve to write about matters you have never discussed with your family? Is there a line between what is legitimate to use in a memoir and what is too personal to tell, and if so, who gets to draw that line?

Please send your good ideas on this subject via the COMMENTS function, below. I would love to get your thoughts; obviously, these issues are very much on my mind at the moment. Let’s get a conversation going!

And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

One of a kind

I am calmer today, thanks for asking; my sense of humor shows signs of only being sprained, rather than broken. If certain people want to launch frivolous lawsuits at my memoir because I tell the truth in it about someone who has been dead for 23 years, I have only two options: to make up lies that will please them, or to keep right on telling the truth. I prefer the latter, and I don’t see how I could, in all integrity, do anything else.

I’ll keep you posted on how all of this truth-telling works out for me.

It has made be think, though, about what I have been taught over the years by doubtless well-meaning teachers and writers about how to write the truth. In retrospect, I am honestly struck by how much of the advice was simply not useful at all. There is a great deal I wish I had known, and even more that I wish I had not needed to unlearn before I could finish writing my memoir. (Which WILL see print, I swear. I’m not going to be intimidated by bullies with buckets of money.) So what is the newly-minted memoirist to believe?

Case in point: the advice to write what you know.

We’ve all heard this, right? I assume so, because the result has been an apparently endless stream of short stories about upper middle-class teenagers with angst and very lovable English teachers. It has also — unfortunately for someone like me, who has written about a well-known literary figure survived by unfortunately testy heirs — has led to far too many biopics about writers where the Great One in question lives a life IDENTICAL to the world depicted in his work. So much for creativity: in the biopic universe, the work IS the life.

Personally, I like to give writers a bit more credit for imagination. I prefer to think, for instance, that Dorothy Parker occasionally had a happy love affair, that Ernest Hemingway was something more than a mindless thug fond of killing things, and that John Irving does not actually harbor a pet bear. I could be wrong about all this, of course, but I suspect I am not.

With a memoir, writing what you know seems like basic common sense, right? In a way, yes, but will everybody’s personal story make a good book, even in skillful hands? And is telling the unvarnished truth enough to make a book interesting to people who have never met you?

If you have had an extraordinary life, obviously you have good memoir material, but what about an ordinary life examined with sensitivity and insight? Surely, common experiences would resonate with more people than unusual ones? Think about ANGELA’S ASHES: there were quite a few kids who could have grown up to write similar memoirs, weren’t there?

Again: yes, but — there’s a fine line between speaking to shared experience and reproducing what has been written before. Despite what editors say at writers’ conferences about searching high and low for the next ANGELA’S ASHES, copycat books seldom sell well to the general public. (If you doubt this, take this quick quiz: close your eyes, turn around three times, and now name at least three of the BRIDGET JONES clones’ authors. Could you do it?) To paraphrase Mae West, a copy is forgettable, but the public loves an honest-to-goodness original.

Unfortunately, there are scads and scads of people in the publishing industry who seem to forget this. You may recognize them by their distinctive stripes: they are the agents who snap up a book that sounds like the currently hot thing, show it to one or perhaps two editors — then drop the book flat when it doesn’t sell instantly. They are the editors who will pitch a book to their colleagues as “the next X” (where X = current bestseller), acquire it enthusiastically — then lose interest in them as soon as fashion turns, leaving the poor author high, dry, and without any book promotion budget whatsoever. They are the marketing people who change their minds about what is marketable on a daily basis, and who eschew whimsy. I do not recommend their cultivation, unless you have a skin the approximate thickness of the average bark on a 100-year-old cedar; otherwise, it will only end in tears.

In my opinion, the reading public is actually less fickle than this, bless its collective heart. Once a reader finds a writer she likes, she tends to keep buying that writer’s subsequent books, with an unstinting loyalty rare in this hyper-competitive world. This sterling reader will often even go back and try to find earlier works by a favorite author, the ones that got dropped by a once-enthusiastic press when the time came to ante up for publicity or the ones that did not get stellar advance reviews. Honestly, I do not think authors spend enough time being grateful to readers of this caliber: they are the ones for whom it is genuinely a pleasure to write.

That being said, do bear in mind that this sterling reader probably spends a fair amount of time hanging out in bookstores and/or browsing on Amazon: to catch her eye with a book about a common experience, the writing has to be far above average, and the take has to be unusual.

This attitude, unlike the latest-hot-thing prejudice, expresses itself similarly in the reading public and amongst agents and editors. There’s simply a higher bar for originality for common experiences. At this point, there have been so many books about, say, a Baby Boomer caring for her dying parent(s), (or a 60’s radical simmering down over time, or a high-powered businessman coming to terms with his own mortality and learning in the process that there is more to life than money, or city folks learning the value of country ways, or the loss of anyone’s virginity) that the storytelling must necessarily be stellar to sell the book. By writing on a common subject, unfortunately, the author automatically runs the risk of the agent taking one look at the query, crying to the heavens, “Oh, God, not another book about X!” and hastily shoving it aside unread.

So how do you make your story stand out from the crowd? In my case, I had a built-in advantage: I spent much of my childhood in secret telephone confabs with a brilliant science fiction writer who was afraid to leave his house. That’s not the kind of thing that happens very often , I am told — and that is precisely what I would suggest you look for in your own story: what about you is absolutely unique?

In asking this, I am turning the standard advice on its head. I would advise you to write not just what you know, but what ONLY YOU know. In other words, what is the story that only you can tell?

It doesn’t have to be spectacular, just original and close to home. Think about Marjorie Rawlings’ children’s classic THE YEARLING. A simple, classic story, far removed from the potboilers that were selling well at the time. But these were characters that Rawlings knew and loved down to her bones — and thus, the reader learns to love them, too.

I would suggest that if you want to write a memoir, the people in your life need to spring off the page with all the intensity of fictional characters; if you want to write a novel, its characters need to leap into the reader’s mind with all the solidity of real people. And that will be hard, because you won’t want to step on the toes of the living or the memories of the dead — or, in my case, excite the lawyers of the heirs.

You’re too nice a person for that, right?

Ah, but your responsibility to your future reader demands that you are honest — that you write not the story that your family or your friends or your coworkers or the nearest person with a scary lawyer thinks will make them look good, but the story that only YOU know.

Necessarily, others will disagree with you; that’s the nature of differing points of view. But if you stick with the story you know in your gut to be true, and tell it from the perspective that only you can show, you’re bound to end up with an honest memoir or truthful-feeling novel.

And, unfortunately for the kith and kin of memoirists everywhere, there really isn’t any other way to write a good memoir. Honest, your honor: it just can’t be done any other way.

Keep up the good work, my friends.

– Anne Mini

My publisher is being sued over my book

Dearly beloved:

I had planned to write a long, lovely post today about how to prep your initial chapters for sending out to editors and agents, but I have received very upsetting news. Remember a couple of weeks ago, when I was waxing poetic about memoirists often being misunderstood, threatened, and occasionally even sued when they are telling the truth? Well..

I am hugely, horribly, terribly upset. Is there anything more awful, anything that makes you revert to a child-like breathlessness at the injustice of it all, as being attacked for telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Okay, let me calm down and tell you what is going on. The Philip K. Dick estate has renewed its threat to sue if my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY, is published. Yes, that’s right, the one that’s already available for pre-sale on Amazon, the one for which I won the PNWA’s Zola Award in 2004, the one that I’ve been running myself ragged to get out the door this year. My baby, in other words. To make matters worse, I was just finishing up the final edits!

The estate has known about the book for over a year, and has had the manuscript since June, but now, in September, they’re suddenly on the warpath; perhaps they believed that when they asked me for changes, their copy of the manuscript should have magically changed before their eyes, HARRY POTTER-style. I shan’t bore you with the details of what they’re claiming I have done, but it’s all terribly ugly; all in all, they generally assert that it’s the worst book since MEIN KAMPF, and I gather that they wouldn’t be terribly sorry to see me burned as a witch.

Let me translate that for those of you not accustomed to being sued by people with pots and pots of money: the underlying fear here is that my telling the truth (which actually isn’t anything horrible; just aspects of the man that hadn’t been written about before) might harm attempts to sell certain short stories by a famous science fiction writer who shall remain nameless to a gargantuan studio known for harboring a certain big-eared mouse. As nearly as I can tell, the objection seems to be that my memoir depicts Philip as funny — which he undoubtedly was. The prevailing fear seems to be that the mouse might prefer its late artistic geniuses devoid of colorful habits and waggish personalities.

As I understand it, the mouse — and the estate, which has never threatened to sue a biographer before, as far as I know — has no objections whatsoever to the many, many bios that depict the famous SF writer in question as a drug-addicted maniac; the idea that he might have had friends is apparently far more disturbing to rodential sensibilities than anything he might have ingested in his lifetime.

Oh, lordy. Preserve us from dealing with those with no sense of humor.

I hear you asking: wait, I thought it wasn’t legally possible to slander or libel the dead? And isn’t truth an absolute defense against libel? And aren’t good people everywhere generally dead set against the practice of censorship?

Well, yes, yes, and yes. Doesn’t seem to be stopping ’em, though.

I’m frantically searching my mind for some instructive tidbit I can glean from the horror of today, to pass along to aspiring memoirists, to help them along their path, but honestly, I’m too upset at the moment. Unless the moral is this: maybe it’s a waste of time and valuable energy to try to please people you can’t respect.

Because, honestly, I don’t know what I could have done to avoid this outcome, other than flatly lying, twisting the Philip I had known into a shape more palatable for relatives who had met him only three or four times in their lives. I spent MONTHS asking for input, dancing around egos, even making tiny, insignificant, silly changes that someone or other thought were monumentally important because she’d missed the point of this anecdote or that. I was incredibly accommodating — only to learn, via a letter on very expensive lawyerly letterhead, that the people I had been trying so hard to please had chosen to ignore all of the changes I had made at their request. I learn, only at this very, very late date, that they now claim that I didn’t tell them I was writing a book at all.

You’d think that the prize for best NF book would have tipped them off, but hey, some people need more obvious hints than others.

Dearly beloved, does this make any sense to you? It doesn’t to me, I confess, and I’m the one who’s been living through it.

I guess all I can add, when all is said and done, is this: even with all this furor, even staring in the face the very real possibility that my book may be yanked from the shelves for the most specious of reasons, I still feel it has all been worth it. There is nothing in the world that feels better than telling the truth, especially a truth that you’ve been holding in for a very, very long time.

I hope I’ll be able to be more upbeat tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work, and I’ll keep you posted.

– Anne Mini

Summing it all up: the synopsis

Hi, gang —

For the past week, I have been talking about various circumstances that might lead to a good author receiving a form letter rejection. (If you missed my thrilling guided tour of the query letter, see earlier postings.) I would like to emphasize that the problems I have been pointing out for the last couple of days are by no means boneheaded mistakes: most of them are very sophisticated mistakes indeed, ones that require a lot of careful time, effort, and often following step-by-step directions in a writers’ magazine to make really well.

As I’ve said before, my goal here is to save you some time. Yes, the best way to learn is through direct personal experience, but I see no compelling reason that every English-speaking writer should have to make the same set of 23 mistakes before figuring out what agents and editors want to see. I’m trying to show you a few shortcuts.

Today, I want to talk about synopses, and no one’s gonna stop me. Not all agents want to see a synopsis along with the query letter (check the agent’s listing in one of the standard agent guides to make sure), but most do. Since literally every book will at some point require a synopsis, you might as well write a good one up front.

For the purposes of this discussion, I shall assume that you have already read up on them in one of the many excellent guides on the subject. (If anyone out there wants a blow-by-blow about how to write one from ground zero, send me a message via the COMMENTS function, below, and I’ll write a post on it.) Generally, a synopsis should run between 2 and 5 pages in length, double-spaced, with 1-inch margins. If yours is either longer or shorter than that, you might want to tinker with it until it fits within standard expectations before asking yourself the questions below.

Otherwise, read yours over IN HARD COPY, ALOUD. As regular readers of this blog are already aware, my professional editor hat gets all in a twist at the notion of any writer’s proofreading solely on a computer screen.

And don’t even get me started on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers! Mine disapproves of gerunds, apparently on general principle, strips accent marks off French words, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody out there does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, drop me a comment, and I shall make everything clear.) Like a bad therapist, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded, but even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do. If you’re in doubt, look it up.

There is another excellent reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it stands alone as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important. If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project — and then ask your listener to tell the basis story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you. (Insofar as a hole can leap.)

Okay, let’s assume that you’ve read and reread your synopsis, and it is both grammatically impeccable and one hell of a good story; Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and Dorothy Parker would all gnash their venerable teeth, if they still had them, in envy over your storytelling skills. Now it’s time to start asking yourself a few questions:

(1) Is my synopsis brief and the length requested by the agent? Is it double-spaced, in 12-point type, with standard margins?

Yes, I know I mentioned all this already. Check again, because any of these problems will generally result in your synopsis being placed into the rejection pile, unread.

(2) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book? Is every page numbered? And does every page contain the slug line MY LAST NAME/TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

Again, this is nit-picky stuff — but people who work at agencies and publishing houses tend to be nit-picky people. (Try saying that four times fast!) The sooner you accept that, the happier your writing life will be.

(3) If I mention the names of places, famous people, or well-known consumer products, are they spelled correctly?

I did not realize until I started editing professionally just how common it is for writers to misspell proper nouns. Here again, I blame the demon word processing programs: mine has the infernal impudence to insist that Berkeley, California (where I happen to have been born) should be spelled Berkley, like the press. Trust me, any West Coast-based agent or editor will know which one it should be — and wonder why you don’t.

Yes, it is unfair that you should be penalized for the mistakes of the multi-million dollar corporations that produce these spelling and grammar checkers. Pacific Northwest-based editors have been known to throw spitballs at Microsofties; I content myself with occasionally sending them a roster of the fine English faculty at the University of Washington, with the suggestion that perhaps it was time to retake English 101. I know what the fate of people who propagate false spelling and grammatical information if I ran the universe — boiling oil would be amusingly involved — but alas, I am not so empowered. And look what the result has been: Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, living in a state with no personal income tax, and the world is full of bad grammar.

From your perspective as a querying writer, there can be very serious consequences to these grammatical and spelling oversights caused or at least encouraged by word processing programs: agents and editors cannot tell whether you as, say, a cookbook author, can’t spell to save your life, or haven’t bothered to proofread — or if some yahoo in Woodinville just couldn’t be bothered to check a dictionary to see how hors d’oeuvre is actually spelled by the French. (I had to enter that one in my custom dictionary.) To the agent or editor, YOU are invariably the one who looks unprofessional.

This doesn’t mean not to spell-check: you should. But you should never rely upon a spell-checker or grammar-checker alone. They’re just not literate enough.

If you have any doubt whatsoever about your own proofreading skills, lasso a friend with better ones. Hire a professional editor. But do not expect to get by with the level of perfection deemed good enough by those who design word processing programs.

(4) If I use clichés for comic effect, have I reproduced them correctly?

As I have mentioned before, I frown upon the use of clichés in print. (You can’t see me doing it, but I am frowning at it right now.) Part of the point of being a writer is to display your thought, not the truisms of others. And frankly, I think any good author should be able to make it through a 1-page query letter and a 2-5 page synopsis without quoting other people. Occasionally, however, there are reasons to utilize cliché — the best reason, of course, being to make fun of them.

You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to reproduce clichés incorrectly. (I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests.) And an incorrectly-quoted cliché will, I assure you, kill any humorous intention deader than the proverbial doornail. So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are ten-foot, not 100-foot. (How would you pick up a 100-foot pole, anyway?) When in doubt, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

(5) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

Too many writers forget that the synopsis is, in fact, a writing sample. It needs to shimmer with talent. “This happened, and then this, and then this,” is, alas, generally not the best way to shimmer.

Don’t worry about depicting every twist and turn of the plot — worry about giving a solid feel of the mood of the book within the context of a basic plot summary. Show where the basic conflicts lie, introduce the major characters, but make sure to pick a scene or two to present in a wealth of sensual detail. Show ’em what you can do.

(6) Have I left out anything crucial — like the ending twist?

This is yet another agents’ pet peeve. A lot of authors depict the plot in exquisite detail, and then leave the synopsis-reader flat. “I want to preserve the suspense,” these writers say. “I don’t want to give everything away.”

While I understand the innate storyteller’s instinct that prompts this strategy, I still think it is a mistake. Literally every agent I have ever asked about it has said that his or her reaction to such synopses is not a furor of excitement to find out how the book ends, but a snap judgment that the writer has not yet finished the book.

Trust me: these are not people who like to be teased.

(7) Is this a synopsis, or is it a marketing pitch?

Many synopses eschew plot in favor of discussions of the market’s crying need for their particular books, an elucidation of the target market, or — heaven help us — an in-depth personal discussion of the author’s motive for writing the book in the first place. If the book in question is NF, this can make some sense, but it’s a risky strategy: the synopsis is where people in the publishing industry expect to see a brief summary of the argument of the book.

For fiction, however, this approach can be fatal. Marketing suggestions belong in the query letter, not in the synopsis. Girls aged 10 to 14 may spent the entire rest of their lives influenced by the book you have written, but an agent will not want to learn that in the synopsis. The synopsis is for telling what the book is ABOUT.

It is also far from uncommon to write the synopsis as if it were the back cover blurb for the book, which has a different goal entirely. Yes, you are using the synopsis to market your work, but this is not the place to include blurbs, boast that this is the next WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, or state that it belongs on the bookshelf of every carpenter in America.

Stick to what the book is about.

Whew! That was a lot of work, wasn’t it? It’s worth it, though: not only will a stellar synopsis please an agent, and thus help you get signed, but it will also probably be gracing the desk of any editor your agent wants to interest in the book. After the editor falls in love with your book, your synopsis will be what is circulated amongst the other editors and higher-ups, not your manuscript itself (unless the publishing house in question is absolutely tiny, that is.) The thing is gonna get around.

Trust me, it’s worth the time to perfect it. The synopsis and the query letter are your calling cards, your introduction into a world that does not yet know what a talented, wonderful person you are. They’re tools: use them well.
Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Presenting your writing right: The body of the query letter

Howdy, campers — I’m in a good mood today. A few weeks ago, the fine publishers-to-be of my memoir (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, already available for presale on Amazon!) have moved the release of my book forward by almost two months, to earliest February, 2006. Freaked me out a little at first, but actually, I have always found the wait-in-patient-silence part of being a writer significantly harder to take than, say, tight deadlines.

So when the publicity department sent me an author questionnaire the length of the last HARRY POTTER volume, I was kind of psyched. I remain so, even while digging up the addresses of every bookstore I have ever visited in North America, unearthing copies of every piece I have published since I was old enough to vote, and attempting to clear my schedule of every conceivable obligation between now and next February. Fortunately, I had nice writing friends who trained me years ago to keep a writing resume and maintain meticulously-detailed contact lists, so I have most of the information already at my fingertips. Including, incidentally, some comic articles in Dutch; I don’t speak it myself, but apparently my voice translates well into the language of the Low Countries.

I mention all of this not to gloat, but to perform the same office for my loyal readers as kind souls did for me in days of yore: I urge you to start keeping records of every publication (regardless of whether you were paid for it or not), every speaking engagement (ditto — and giving a reading at a writer’s conference or one of the PNWA’s fabulous TWIO events definitely counts), and any experience remotely related to your writing or your subject matter. Get into the habit of adding to it automatically, so that it is never out-of-date. Trust me, you will need this information at the precise psychological moment when you are least likely to have access to your full brainpower: when you are living on caffeine and excitement in the months leading up to your first book’s publication, your memory will probably not be operating at peak efficiency.

Wait — who are you people? And why am I writing this?

It’s also a good idea to get into the habit of maintaining a database of people you will want to contact when the book comes out, as well as anyone who might conceivably be helpful in promoting it. Most of us do some form of this already, so we can readily access the addresses of our kith and kin for holiday cards (or on the outside chance that someday, we will need to crash on Cousin Marvin’s couch in Poughkeepsie). Start with the kith and kin, and just keep adding contact information for every new person you meet. If the idea of an Excel program seems like too much work, establish a box to accept every business card you ever get, as well as the odd scrap of paper bearing the vitals of that fabulous person you met at a writers’ conference. Anyone who might conceivably recognize your name on a dust jacket belongs on this list.

Frankly, ever since I signed my book contract, I have gleaned contact info from anyone who sounds even vaguely interested in the book. Cab drivers. Other passengers on buses. The woman who cuts my hair. It may seem a bit cheesy to include service providers, but hey, if your dentist does not like you well enough to consider buying your book, you may need to go back to charm school. Most people are genuinely intrigued when someone they know, however obliquely, actually manages to get something published — and I assure you, every writer you have ever met will want to know how you pulled it off. You’re gonna want to drop ’em all a postcard, preferably with your book cover printed on it.

It’s only neighborly.

Okay, back to practical matters. Yesterday, I urged you to take a long, hard look at the first paragraph of the query letter you’ve been sending out, to make sure you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered (as opposed to the other kind). Today, I want to talk about the body of the letter, the part where you talk about the book itself.

Is everybody comfortable, query letter in hand? Read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind (and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar), then ask yourself the following questions:

(9) Is my brief summary of the book short and clear? Have I said what the book is about?

Frequently, authors get so carried away with the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet. Just the facts, ma’am.

Or not the facts, just the premise. You really only have 3-5 sentences here to grab an agent’s interest, so you might well be better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are, rather than trying to outline the plot. Read these two summaries: which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book?

“Murgatroyd, a blind trombonist with a lingering adolescent passion for foosball, has never fallen in love — until he met Myrtle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel. But what chance does he have? Myrtle’s just been dumped by the world’s greatest Sousaphinist; she has vowed never to look at the brass section again. Can Murgatroyd win the heart of his first love, without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?”

Snappy, isn’t it? The characters come off as quirkily interesting, and the basic conflicts are immediately apparent. Contrast this with the more common type of summary:

BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows Murgatroyd, who was blinded at age six by a wayward electrical wire. As a child, Murgatroyd hated and feared electricity, which causes him to avoid playing conventional sports: football fields are always brightly lit. This light metaphor continues into his adult life, where he performs in symphony halls with lights trained on him all the time. Life isn’t easy for Murgatroyd. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. He makes friends in the woodwind section, but the people who play next to him remain aloof. A mysterious woman is hired to conduct the symphony. Murgatroyd is intrigued by her, because…”

Hold it a minute: We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

(10) Is my summary in the present tense?

This is one of those industry weirdnesses: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches, are always in the present tense. Even if you are describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure.

(11) Does it emphasize the points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

If you find being direct about it (“PIGSKIN SERANADE is designed to appeal to the romantic football-lover in all of us”) a trifle gauche — and actually, even if you don’t — it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers.

The easiest way to do this is to make sure that the tone of summary echoes the tone of the book. If you have written a comedy, you’d better make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a chuckle. If you have written a steamy romance, you’d better make sure there’s some sex in the summary. And so forth.

(12) Wait — have I given any indication here who my target audience is?

Most query letters include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched. But think about it: if an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for the agent to think, “Hmm, who will buy this book?”


(13) Have I mentioned the genre?

Like it or not, you do need to use some of your precious query letter space to state outright what KIND of a book it is: you’d be surprised at how few query letters actually mention whether the work being pitched is fiction or nonfiction. This is a business run on categories: pick one.

A lot of writers think they can fudge genres by listing several: comic romance, spiritual how-to, women’s thriller. Logically, these hybrids may make sense, but they look wishy-washy to professional eyes. An agent will have to tell any editor what genre your book falls into: it is really helpful if you are clear about it upfront.

The one exception: Literary/Mainstream Fiction. This one is okay, because no one is really sure where precisely the dividing line between the two categories lies, and occasionally, very literary works have huge mainstream appeal.

If you find all of this confusing, hold your horses until next week. In a future posting, I shall list all of the accepted publishing categories, and discuss the differences between them.

(14) Have I avoided using clichés?

I think this one speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

(15) Have I listed my credentials well? Do I sound as though I am a competent professional, regardless of my educational level or awards won?

If you have any background that aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query letter. Period.

Truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, mention that: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include. Even your certificate in woodworking.

(16) Have I made any of the standard mistakes? Do I refer to “fiction novel” (a very common pet peeve among agents; in point of fact, all novels are fiction), or waffle about the genre? Is my query longer than a single page — or, if it isn’t, have I resorted to margin-fudging or an ultra-small typeface to make it so?

(17) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?

This question surprises writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter. The fact is, though, those guidelines are widely enough known now that a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative. In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, this is not good.

You need to make sure that you are not presenting a man without a face: your query letter needs to sound like you at your best. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a person with quirky tastes, the query should reflect that, too. And, of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query.

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

Tomorrow, on to the synopsis! In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

That’s very nice, but —

I’ve been talking for the last few days about rejection factors that are beyond your control, ones you would be well advised not to take personally. However, if after you have sent out dozens (or even hundreds) of query letters, you are receiving only rejections, form or not, it may be time to reexamine what you are sending out.

If you are not getting the responses you want, but are occasionally being asked to send the first fifty pages or a book proposal, chances are, your initial query is pretty good. You may not have focused your agent search tightly enough, but you’re exciting interest. If, however, you have sent out twenty or thirty queries and NO ONE has asked to see more, it’s worth taking the time to look at your query and synopsis through professional eyes, to figure out why.

You need not wade through that many rejections, of course, before you check your submissions for some of the red flags below. However, for most new writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their work needs, well, work. Unfortunately, these writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a styleless querying letter or a limp synopsis, or, still worse, that somehow the rejecting agents are 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. It’s contrary to the evidence, of course, but 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 almost never works like that: writing is work. Instead of listening to the growls of the self-doubt lion, consider the far more likely possibility that it is your marketing materials, not the chapters that the agents in question have not yet seen, that is conducive to rejection. Use that moment of worry to your advantage: I have found in my years as a freelance editor that having the edges of the faith that good writing always finds a home blunted a bit often makes a writer more receptive to constructive criticism. So go ahead and subject your marketing materials to serious critique.

Read over your query letter, synopsis, and first chapter; 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. 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 them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust — such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference — 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; 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. That doesn’t stop her from line editing while she reads my work, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was NOT there when I took my first toddling steps.)

As I mentioned yesterday, make sure that you read everything in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier in hard copy. Once you have done this, 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.

(18) Is my query letter polite?

You’d be amazed at how often people use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for conditions in the industry: 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…”

My friends, agents have to interact their clients quite a bit throughout the process; do make sure that you’re coming across as someone with whom it will not be painful to associate.

(19) Does my letter sound competent and professional, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Do I sound as though I know what I’m doing, or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

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 query and/or repeatedly in the body of the letter comes across as 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.

(20) Does my book come across as marketable, or does it read as though I’m boasting?

I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked, launch into a medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings. Trust me, they’ve already seen their share of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!”

It doesn’t work.

(21) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter why I am writing to this particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

Agents complain vociferously and often about queries that read as though the writer simply used a mail merge to address letters to every agent listed on a particular website or in a given guide. There are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query?

Most agents are proud of their work: if you want to get on their good side, show a little appreciation for what they have done in the past. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, definitely mention that in your query letter. (As in, “Since you so ably represented X’s book, I believe you may be interested in my novel…”)

There are many ways to find out what an agent has represented. Check the acknowledgments of books you like (authors often thank their agents), or check the agency’s website to see whom the agent represents. There are several online search engines that will permit you to enter an author’s name and find out who represents him; I use Publishers Weekly, as it is so up-to-date on just-breaking sales news. If all else fails, call the book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was. I once had a charming conversation with an editor at a small Midwestern press, who confided to me that when she had acquired the book about which I was inquiring, the author did not yet have an agent. Sensing an opportunity, I promptly pitched my book to her — and she asked me to send her the first fifty pages right away.

Alternatively, if you have heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine, or even just noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked, mention that upfront. If you have no such personal reason, be polite enough to give a general one: “Since you represent literary fiction, I hope you will be interested in my novel…”

These are just the preliminary questions, of course, the ones that concern the first paragraph of your query letter. I have dwelt upon the first paragraph, because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents every day based upon the first paragraph alone. Think about it: if you had to get through 200 queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading if the first paragraph were not promising?

Oh, yes, you SAY you would. But honestly, would you?

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Again, it is really in your interest to adhere to the prevailing manners of the publishing world: for all intents and purposes, it is considered rather impolite to make a busy agent (or assistant) read the entire cover letter in order to find out what you want. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front, the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph. (This is the reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically prefer them: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line of it.)

Tomorrow, I shall deal with the questions you should ask about subsequent portions of your query letter — and yes, I know that it seems impossibly nit-picky to concentrate this hard upon a page of text that isn’t even in your book. I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Publishing fads

Hey ho —

Did you miss me? No, I didn’t take the long weekend off; as a matter of fact, I was working extra hard: I needed to do a final edit on my novel before my agent starts shopping it around. (Out comes the broken record again: most of the publishing industry was on vacation until today. Translation: there wouldn’t have been much point in my agent’s trying to market my novel last week, or even last month.) I sat down, much to the chagrin of my cats, and read every syllable of the book IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD.

You’d be amazed how many errors in grammar, spelling, and cadence you catch that way — and, speaking as a professional editor myself, there are problems that cannot be caught any OTHER way. Small monitors don’t let you see the entire page, which leads to uncaught word repetition; monitor light leads to eye fatigue, which automatically makes you read faster, and thus proofread less well. I have years of editing experience, a computer monitor the length of the average skateboard and twice as tall as my head, AND an agent with an excellent eye — and I still would not let any of my writing leave my house until I have proofed it in hard copy. I would urge you to do the same.

(A quick tip to self-editing novelists: always read your dialogue aloud, or have some nice person read it to you. Different characters should have different cadences, just as people do in real life, and the easiest way to tell if your characters sound too much alike is to hear them speak aloud. Also, if you discover a sentence that cannot be said in a single breath, chop it up: even the hyper-educated, people whose spoken words form themselves automatically into paragraphs, keep their sentences to under a breath in length. Happy editing.)

All right, back to the topic at hand. I talked last time about the many reasons your query might be met with a form letter rejection because of the structure of the agency system. Today, I would like to discuss factors even more mercurial, and even less under the writer’s control. I will speak, in short, of fashion.

At many of the larger agencies, assistants are told to look for very specific things in the queries they accept, and those things may change with great frequency, based upon what is selling well at any given moment. Remember a few years ago, when half the agents at any conference would say they were violently interested in representing chick lit, because BRIDGET JONES was on the bestseller lists? Depend upon it, this change in the marketplace happened too fast for agents to record it in their agent guide listings — so asking writers for it at conferences was the fastest way to scare up BRIDGET clones.

This was great for writers who already had been working on books that fell into the chick lit category, but hard on virtually everyone else. The publishing world does most assuredly experience fads, and unfortunately for all of us, no writer can accurately predict at the beginning of the writing process what will be the hot thing at the end of it. You need to write what you want to write, and hope that your timing will be good. To win at the fad game, an author always needs to be a year or two ahead of the curve.

I have a very distinct memory of a group meeting a few years ago at a conference that shall remain nameless with an editor who shall remain nameless from a major publishing house which — well, you get it. As we went around the table, pitching our books, the editor grew restive: a memoir about living with AIDS, a how-to book by the daughter of a con artist, a thriller that honestly sounded thrilling for a change, all flashed by without eliciting so much as an eyebrow twitch from the editor. The last writer, a sweet young thing who admitted she had not actually written any of the book she was pitching yet, talked about a story that sounded suspiciously like COLD MOUNTAIN, which had just made it big. (For those of you who weren’t paying attention, COLD MOUNTAIN was a surprise hit at a time when industry wisdom decreed that NOBOBY was buying historical romances anymore.)

The editor practically flew from her seat, exclaiming that she had been waiting for days to hear someone pitch a decent historical romance — because, she said, in the wake of COLD MOUNTAIN, they were so easy to sell. After gushing all over the nonplused sweet young thing (who I began to suspect of having made up the story on the spot), the editor turned to the rest of us. “I have some advice for you,” she said tartly. “Start reading the bestseller lists every week. Then start writing.”

It is a tribute to the good manners of writers everywhere that none of us at the table threw anything at her, for it was in fact a spectacularly poor piece of advice. Yet what would have been the point of excoriating her for her shortsightedness? It would have been like punishing a panda for liking bamboo: editors like to sell books.

Although she wasn’t articulate enough to explain it to us, what she really wanted us to have done is to have predicted today’s bestsellers a year and a half ago, and THEN started writing, so we would have been ready in time. How she expected us to do that — Ouija board? Tarot cards? Wandering around a well-stocked bookstore with a dowsing rod? — we shall never know.

And really, since most books are not actually published until more than a year after the contract is signed (you knew that, right?), what she wanted us to do was even more magical: to have predicted next year’s bestsellers three years ago, to have written one in record time, to have approached her about eleven months before COLD MOUNTAIN was slated to come out (i.e., about a month after the contract for it was signed), taken her in a time machine a year forward so she could see for herself that COLD MOUNTAIN was going to be a runaway bestseller, and blandished her into publishing our novel so it would come out at about the same time. Piece o’ cake.

I can assure you, my friends, that unless you are the next Amazing Kreskin, you will lead a far happier and more productive life if you do not try to second-guess the trends of several years from now. Accept that, and write books that YOU like.

Screenplays are particularly susceptible to being rejected because they are not the hot thing du jour. If a comedy about werewolves did exceptionally well at the box office over the weekend, you can bet your boots that all over Southern California, producers and script agents rushed into their offices Monday morning, crying, “Where is the next werewolf picture?”

You really will live a happier life if you just accept that this is beyond your control.

Sometimes, the focus du jour at an agency or publishing house is based upon personal preferences, over which you have even less predictive control than of market trends. If a given agent just had a baby, for instance, she might well be more interested in stories about young mothers; if her brother has just been diagnosed with cancer, she might well suddenly be in the market for books about that. I once heard a well-known editor say that she went through a year of snatching up anything about Paris because neither she nor her new husband had managed to garner enough time off work to go on their long-planned honeymoon there! Imagine the happiness of the struggling author who had toiled for ten years on her book about a hat maker in Paris, and happened to be in the right place at the right time!

This is a good reason to go to conferences: agents and editors will often spontaneously open up about this sort of preference. But never — well, hardly ever — will you see such spur-of-the-moment switches in taste written up in an agency guide. Just accept that there are some things you will never know.

Then again, you may just have caught the agent or assistant in a bad mood. I call this the grapefruit rule, lifted from how trial attorneys talk about the moodiness of judges: how your query strikes any particular reader is often dependent upon what the reader had for breakfast that day. We would all like to think that when we craft a thoughtful, innovative cover letter and send it along with a synopsis or a chapter or whatever the agent in question says he wants to see, it will be given a fair and impartial reading. But sometimes, your reader may have a tummy ache from a bad grapefruit, and is accordingly not to be pleased, even by the best book in the world.

If there is a way to avoid being the submission read immediately after the agent has scalded her tongue on a too-hot latte or right after having a fight with his ex, I don’t know about it. (Believe me, I would tell you if I did.) This is an instance where your fate is truly in the lap of the gods; my only advice is to be kind to children and poor people, and pray that you spent the entirety of your last life helping little old ladies across the street or rescuing people from collapsed mine shafts. Here, you really are relying upon your karma.

I mention all this to you not to urge you to hire a private detective to ferret out the personal preferences of your dream agent or editor, or to encourage you to burn sacrifices to Gladys, the goddess of easily-available parking spaces, to assure that your first reader at an agency arrives for work in a good mood. No, I am trying to help you see that sometimes, your query or your book gets rejected not because it isn’t good, but because it is not precisely the book that particular agent wants to see at that particular moment. Think of it as a big game of “What color am I thinking of?” where the winner gets an agency contract or a book published. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but honestly, sometimes rejection is that arbitrary.

You might have gotten a form letter rejection for any of these reasons, or for any of a hundred others that are utterly beyond your prediction and control. It does not mean that you are a bad writer, or that your book is a bad idea. It is just the way the game is played these days. If you really wow an agent’s assistant (who is usually the person screening query letters), you might get a note scrawled in the margins of the form letter, explaining why the agency isn’t asking to see your work. (I once got a “Wow! What a great query!” written on a form rejection, which was frustrating, yet pleasing at the same time.) Take that as a compliment, for it means that a rushed, overworked agent or assistant gave your query an extra thirty seconds of attention.

But whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up about what you cannot change. No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to anticipate what will strike the personal fancy of any particular agent or editor at the moment when your query is released from its envelope. I hope and pray that you will strike lucky, but in the meantime, all you can do is craft the book of your dreams, present it in a professional manner, and keep sending it out. And out, and out.

Hold your head high — and keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Top Ten Lies Agents and Editors Tell Hopeful Authors

Since this is the season for sending out your work to agents from the PNWA conference (or, indeed, other summer writing conferences), some of you may find yourself puzzled at the differential between the agent’s (or editor’s) warm face-to-face response to your pitch and the rather tepid communications submissions, even accepted ones, tend to generate. It’s not uncommon for I speak to many authors every week to tell me, tears in their eyes, “But she loved my idea at the conference!”

Others may still be smarting from quick conference brush-offs, ranging from “I don’t handle that sort of book,” (spoken in a tone that implied that you should already have known that) to “Gee, that sounds interesting, but my client roster is totally full at the moment,” (so why come to a conference to solicit more?)

Still others of you may have spent the time since the conference perfecting your submissions, preparing to send them out. If you have been wading through the standard agents’ guides, your head may well be spinning at how different your dream agent’s pitch at the conference was from her stated preferences in the guide or on her website.

You may, in short, be wondering right about now what to believe of what you heard at the conference.

Honestly, most agents and editors who attend conferences are good at heart. They truly do want to help new authors. However, not all of them are necessarily there to discover the next Great American Novel: in fact, it’s rare for an agent to pick up more than a single author from any given conference — even a great one like PNWA — or for an editor at a major house to pick up anyone at all. (That, incidentally, is why the PNWA routinely asks the agents who speak at the conference to state clearly in their presentations whether they represent anyone locally: it gives aspiring writers an opportunity to see how open they are to conference discoveries.)

There are agents who pick up only one or two clients a year out of ALL of the conferences they attend. There is even an ilk who goes to conferences simply to try to raise authorial awareness of market standards, with no intention of signing any authors. (The ones who attend conferences just so they can visit their girlfriends in cities far from New York, or who just want a tax-deductible vacation in the San Juans, are beyond the scope of my discussion here, but I’m sure the karmic record-keepers frown upon them from afar.)

The fact is, sometimes a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference.

You may have noticed that this ambiguity of intention occasionally gets reflected in the blurbs in agents; guides. How many of us have read that a particular agent is looking for new authors in a wide array of genres, including our own, only to be crushed by a form letter huffily announcing that the agency NEVER represents that kind of work?

I once made the mistake of signing with an agent (who shall remain nameless, because I’m nicer than she) who listed herself as representing everything from literary fiction to how-to books, but who in fact concentrated almost exclusively on romance novels and self-help books, two huge markets. I did not learn until the rather tumultuous end of our association that she had signed me not because she admired the novel she was ostensibly pushing for me, but because I had a Ph.D.: she hoped, she told me belatedly, that I would become frustrated at the delays of the literary market and write a self-help book instead.

Why would an agent advertise that she is looking for genres she does not intend to represent? Well, for the same reason that some agents and most editors go to conferences in the first place: just in case the next bestseller is lurking behind the next anxious authorial face or submission envelope. An agent may well represent cookbooks almost exclusively, but if the next DA VINCI CODE falls into his lap, he probably won’t turn it down. He may well reject 99.98% of the submissions in a particular genre (and actually state in his form rejections that he doesn’t represent the genre at all, as an easy out), but in his heart of hearts, he’s hoping lighting will strike. A broad advertiser is a gambler.

Yes, Virginia, that’s very, very annoying for the writers who believed his pitch.

So how does the new writer know what to believe? I wish I could give you a sure-fire way to tell, but frankly, I don’t know of one.

However, over the years I have gathered an accepted array of truisms that agents and editors tend to spout at eager authors they meet at conferences and in agents’ guides. I suppose they are not lies, per se, so much as polite exit lines from conversations, but from the writer’s point of view, they might as well be real whoppers.

Because I love you people, I have also included a translation for each that makes sense in writer-speak — and I suspect some of the translations may surprise you. Do keep this guide by you the next time you receive a rejection letter or go to a conference, so you can keep score.

Top Ten Lies Agents and Editors Tell Hopeful Authors

(with translations)

10. “There just isn’t a market for this kind of book right now.”

Translation: I don’t want to represent/buy it, for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with what is selling at the moment. Do not press me for my reasons.

9. “The market’s never been better for writers.”

Translation: I only represent previously published authors. Since it is now possible for an author to self-publish a blog or write for a website, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a really talented writer not to have a relatively full writing resume. (Note: this attitude is almost never seen in those who have ever written anything themselves.)

8. “I could have sold this 10/20/2 years ago, but now…”

Translation: You’re a good writer (or your pitch was good), but I’m looking for something just like the most recent bestseller. I’m not even vaguely interested in anything else. Actually, I am pretty miffed at you authors for not paying closer attention to the bestseller lists, because, frankly, you’re wasting my time.

OR: You’re a good writer, but I started being an agent/editor a long time ago, back when it was easier to sell books. Your work may have a political slant that has gone out of fashion, or it is too long, or it shares some other trait with a book I truly loved that I struggled to sell for a year to no avail. I don’t want to get my heart broken again, so I really wish you would write something else. Have you checked the bestseller list lately?

7. “We gave your work careful consideration.”

Translation: We spent less than a minute reading it — and by we, I really mean an underpaid summer intern who was looking for predetermined grabbers on the first page or in the query letter. Please do not revise and resubmit, because we’re really busy.

OR: If I had actually taken the time to read it, I might have had some constructive comments to make, but I simply haven’t the time. In my heart of hearts, I do feel rather guilty for not having done so; that is why I am making this defensive statement in my form-letter reply.

6. “The length doesn’t matter, if the quality is good.”

Translation: I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but a first novel shouldn’t be more than 450 pages for literary or mainstream fiction, 250-350 for anything else. Frankly, I think you should have taken the time to check how long works in your genre are. However, if you’re a spectacularly talented writer, I would like a peek at your work, because maybe I could work with you to bring it under accepted limits.

OR I think the current length standards are really stupid, and I don’t want to give them more credibility by stating them here.

5. “We are interested in all high-quality work, regardless of genre.”

Translation: We actually represent only specific genres, but we are afraid that we will miss out on the next bestseller.

OR: We are an immense agency, and you really need to figure out who on our staff represents your genre. If I am feeling generous when you pitch to me, I will tell you who that is.

OR: We are a brand-new agency. We don’t have strong contacts yet, so we’re not sure what we can sell. Please, please send us books.

4. “I am looking for work with strong characters/a strong plot.”

Translation: I am looking for books easy to make into movies.

3. “We are always eager to find new talent.”

Translation: we are looking for the next bestseller, not necessarily for someone who can write well. (Yes, I know; this one is genuinely counterintuitive.)

2. “We are looking for fresh new approaches.”

Translation: This is a definitional issue. If it is a spin on something already popular or on a well-worn topic, it is fresh; if it is completely original, or does not appeal to NYC or LA states of mind, it is weird.

OR: We are looking for young writers, and think older ones are out of touch.

1. “True quality/talent will always find a home.”

Translation: But not with my agency.

OR: Because I love good writing, I really want to believe that the market is not discouraging talented writers, but I fear it is. Maybe if I say this often enough, the great unknown writer in the audience will take heart and keep plowing through those rejections until she succeeds.

There are two sentiments, however, that always mean exactly what they say: “I love your work, and I want to represent it,” and “I love this book, and I am offering X dollars as an advance for it.” These, you can trust.

Hope this helps. If you have other industry double-speak that should be added to this list, send ’em in, complete with definitions. I’ll post the best ones.

Hey, let’s make this a contest, so the winners can use it on their writing resumes: the First Annual Definitional Frenzy Award, judged by yours truly. Winners shall earn undying glory and another place to establish their web presences.

And please, don’t let all of this silliness depress you. There are good agents and editors out there, ones with integrity who genuinely want to help you sell your work. I am passing all of this along in the hope that knowing the tactics of some of the ones who aren’t so wonderful will help you figure out whose opinions are worth taking seriously — and whose should be brushed aside without further ado, so you can continue on your merry way.

Keep up the good work!

–Anne Mini

Standard format for manuscripts

In keeping with my recent spate of passing along unpleasant truths and as I promised a few days ago — because yours truly is nothing if not a faithful keeper of promises, a trait that agents and editors tend to appreciate — I am coming back to the topic of standard manuscript format. I am going to harp upon this topic a bit, because it touches on an all-too-frequently misunderstood matter that affects the professional presentation prospects of non-fiction and fiction writers both. In fact, the misconceptions on this point run so deep that professional editors and the better-informed members of writing groups are often told quite huffily that they are wrong on the subject.

A manuscript, dearly beloved, is NOT an exact replica of a published book. It differs in many small, important ways — and to editorial eyes, these difference are screaming fire sirens about the experience level of the author.

A manuscript that apes the conventions of published books does not, contrary to popular belief, make the author look more professional, at least not to truly professional eyes. Instead, to an agent or editor, those very ostensibly expert touches brand a manuscript irrevocably as the work of an amateur.

Harsh? You bet, especially given that by definition, all first-time authors are amateurs. Yet in an environment where agents and editors receive 500 or more unsolicited submissions per week, being able to weed out the less experienced authors who do not adhere to standard format speeds up going through the mail considerably. Look on the bright side: if your manuscript is in standard format, it has already cleared the most pervasive hurdle on the way to publication.

To be absolutely honest, most of the conventions of standard format are seriously outdated. For instance, in standard format, all numbers under 100 are written out in full. The original reason for this was simple: to prevent the typesetter from making a mistake; in longhand, a 3 can look a great deal like an 8, but a three is pretty hard to mistake for an eight. Similarly, all dashes in manuscripts should be doubled, to prevent the typesetter from mistaking them for hyphens. Now that manuscripts are transmitted whole and entire via computer program, the risk of this type of mistake is significantly lower, yet the traditions of standard format remain intact.

I find it helps to think of the rigors of standard format as the manners of the publishing world. You would not stumble into a group of foreigners whom you wanted to impress and deliberately hurt their sensibilities by refusing to comply with their rituals, would you? If you met the Queen of England, would you seize the opportunity to insult her taste in hats, or would you curtsey and murmur a few polite words, like everyone else in the receiving line?

I imagine that your mother would like think that she brought you up well enough to choose the latter. Pet the corgis, and get out of the palace with your head on straight.

Agents and editors may not have the power to chop off your head if you displease them, but they do have the authority to pronounce your manuscript dead on arrival. So the prudent course for those new to the publishing world is to learn its manners and traditions. Honoring these traditions may not guarantee your work a sympathetic reading – but on a bad day, when an agent is trying to plow through her seventieth submission in an hour, you bet your boots that deviations from standard format provide an easy excuse to toss that manuscript aside and move onto the next.

Sorry, I don’t make the rules. But here they are:

All manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins on all sides of the page. No exceptions.

All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page.

Yes, this is wasteful of paper. Deal with it.

The text should be left justified ONLY.

Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along the margins, and yes, your word processing program will replicate that. But don’t: the straight margin should be the left one.

The typeface should be 12-point, preferably in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. (If you write screenplays, you may only use Courier.)

There is a very good reason for utilizing a standardized font: in Times or Times New Roman, one double-spaced page is 250 words, rendering word count estimation easy.

No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the entire manuscript in the same font and typeface.

Even if the manuscript features an extensive correspondence in translated Elvish. If it’s in English, it should be in a standard typeface.

Words in foreign languages should be italicized.

Every page in the manuscript should be numbered.

Each page contains a standard slug line in the header, listing AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/PAGE #.

Thus the third page of my memoir manuscript reads: MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/3.

The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page.

That’s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally.

The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces.

Yes, I know that published books often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that was the editor’s choice, not the author’s. Even if every chapter ever printed by your favorite author has used this device, you will not be in a position to explain that to an agent or editor until after he has already noted that your work is not professionally presented.

All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25.

Dashes should be doubled -— hyphens are single, as in self-congratulatory.

Yes, I know that your word processing program will automatically change a doubled dash to a single one. Change it back.

Dashes should have spaces at each end —- rather than—like this.

Yes, yes, I know: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy. But standard format is invariable upon this point.

The use of ANY brand name should be accompanied by the trademark symbol, as in Kleenex™.

Yes, I know you’ve never seen this in a finished book – that’s because the legal department at some publishing house has meticulously gone through the text of those books with a fine-toothed comb, finding brand names so they can obtain permission from their owners to use them. Save the legal department some time: flag the words.

I can’t tell you how many editing clients and writing friends have fought me on these issues, and I must say, I think they have a point. Since publishing contracts specify that the author must provide the editor with an electronic copy of the text, why are we still writing out numbers so that the crusty old typesetter won’t accidentally misread the number?

Beats me. But we all have to do it, and it will save you time in the long run if you simply incorporate standard formatting from the first instant you sit down to write.

Again, this is yet another of those areas where you can beat yourself bloody, railing against an illogical system, or you can just accept the status quo. I vote for the latter. This is an industry that changes only very, very slowly: believe it or not, most NYC literary agencies still don’t even have an on-site computer wizard. It is not uncommon for e-mail attachments, the transition between Mac and PC, and the linked documents to appear as big, ugly mysteries to people who are otherwise very, very savvy. A polite person, a prudent person, a person who wants these people to like her and her work, will not rub their noses in the fact that you probably know more about computers than they do.

Trust me on this one: it’s a paper-based industry, and one that likes to see new authors respect its traditions. Flow with it.

I’m just the messenger, signing off now, urging you to keep up the good work!

The great leap of faith… and some practical advice on writing a synopsis

After I pulled together a winning entry for a contest within the course of a single working day, a number of writing friends asked me, in tones raging from outrage to wonder, some version of “How the hell did you pull THAT off?” Two matters seemed to strike these querants especially: how did I win a prize for a book when all I had written was a chapter, and how did I manage to create a synopsis – that legendary bugbear of writers everywhere – without agonizing over it for weeks?

Allow me to address the book vs. entry issue first. It is a peculiarity of literary contests that the entry requirements for NF books and novels tend to specify short page limits, sometimes even shorter than the requirements for the short-story entries. Often, only a chapter or 10-25 pages carry the burden of representing the entire work.

While this is especially frustrating to novelists – who, after all, are certainly entitled to stretch a story out, there is an excellent practical reason to limit the length of the entries: in any large contest, literally thousands of hours are devoted to the reading all the entries. The more pages the rules allow, the more reading time is required.

To stick close to home, the PNWA’s fine volunteers thoughtfully read and comment upon hundreds of entries every year, bless their warm and furry hearts; there is no way that they would have time to plow through that many full manuscripts. The entry deadline for next year’s contest would need to be ten minutes after the winners of this year’s contest were announced.

You do the math: at least two judges have to read every entry in the first round alone, every additional page the guidelines allow raises the cost in volunteer-hours (or in some contests, the paid staff hours) of hosting a contest. Not to mention the hours put in by the section chairs, who read the entries AND the extensive commentary by the first-round judges, or the judges of each category, who read the finalists’ entries, the first-round judges’ commentary, and the section chair’s commentary.

That’s thousands of reader-hours devoted to your entries, my friends. (In case you didn’t know, in the PNWA contest, the final judges of each category tend to be drawn from the pool of editors and agents attending the conference each year – so the finalists get a thoroughly professional final evaluation.)

While coordinating all of this effort has left many a torn-out hair on many conference-organizer’s office floor, from the entrants’ perspective, there is a definite upside to the need to limit the length of entries. In all my years of entering contests, applying for residencies, and assisting my editing clients to do the same, I have never ONCE seen an application that asked point-blank if the book in question were actually finished.

You might want to consider jumping through this loophole, if you are halfway through a book whose early chapters really sing. There is often half a year or more between contest entry deadlines and when the winners are announced – if you are proud of your opening chapters, and there is the remotest chance you will be finished by the awards ceremony, I say go for it.

Especially if you are a novelist. As you probably already know, if you go the normal fiction route, your fiction needs to be 100% complete and, if possible, print-ready before you can legitimately query an agent, but if you win a major award, you’re a Promising Young Talent (whether you are actually young or not). If you are completely honest with the agents who approach you after you win — NEVER say you have completed a work that you haven’t; this is a business that operates on tight deadlines – you could end up signing with the agent of your dreams BEFORE you finish your magnum opus.

Or, if taking such a large leap of faith rubs your risk-averse soul the wrong way, you can learn from my experience, and consider writing your marketing materials BEFORE you get into writing the meat of the book. Then, when the magic moment arrives when you feel ready to launch your manuscript on its maiden voyage, you will not suddenly find yourself in the annoying position of having to summarize the work you have just completed – at exactly the moment when you are most aware of your invention’s startling complexity. All too often, writers become frustrated at this crucial moment, and just throw together a query letter, a pitch, and a synopsis in a fatal rush, unsure of what they are doing, and dash their work off to agents.

Trust me, if you listen to any agent talk for more than a couple of minutes about the 500-800 queries he or she receives per week, one moral will come through loud and clear: having a terrific manuscript is not enough to land an agent, for the very simple reason that the vast majority of manuscripts are rejected long before they are ever seen by anyone in an agency. The problem that leads to most first-round rejections is a lack of professionalism in the query letter and synopsis.

These are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write. Take some time to make them gorgeous; 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.

But maybe you are a writer in the other camp, one of the many who agonize for months or even years over getting your marketing materials letter-perfect. Good for you for being well-informed about the vast importance of these seemingly cursory summaries of your work to your eventual success. For you, writing at least the rough draft of your materials early in the creation process makes even more sense; you’ll have more time to tweak later on, and in the long run, if you multi-task, your work will hit the agent market faster.

What are the advantages to creating the synopsis in advance? 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 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. I sympathize with that telling sigh, truly I do: yes, compression is a marketing necessity, but frankly, it’s a little insulting to be expected to smash multi-layered complexity into just a few pages of text, or sacre bleu! the much-dreaded three-sentence pitch, isn’t it?

If you resent this necessity for brevity, you are not alone. I met a marvelous writer at a conference in New Orleans last year; naturally, as conference etiquette demands, I asked her over crawfish etouffée what her first novel was about.

Forty-three minutes and two courses later, she came to the last scene.

“That sounds like a great novel,” I said, waving away a waiter bent upon stuffing me with cream sauces until I burst. “And for a change, 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, 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.

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. You can always change the synopsis later on, but for a concise summary of the major themes of the book, I think you’re better off writing it well in advance.

In the unlikely event that I have been too subtle about my views in earlier postings, I am a great fan of anything that helps writers get their work out to agents and editors swiftly. Good writers have to toil hard enough, and wait patiently more than enough, to deserve to learn a few shortcuts. In the weeks to come, I shall be passing along as many tips as I can for streamlining the submission process without compromising the quality of the work. Keep your eye out for them: in the long haul, they may save you a lot of time.

And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

At the risk of repeating myself…

Given how very many PNWA members are or soon will be nibbling their fingernails down to the quick, waiting for replies from those nice agents and editors met at the conference, I want to reiterate something I mentioned last week: A HUGE PERCENTAGE OF THE PEOPLE WHO WORK IN THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY TAKE SOME OR ALL OF AUGUST 1 – LABOR DAY OFF. With most of the editors off on holiday, many agents either take vacations, too, or work shortened summer hours.

Don’t ask me why they do this; it has something to do with the humidity, slow-dying Victorian vacation habits, or other mysteries that we in our fresher Pacific climate cannot even begin to fathom. I suspect the custom dates back to the days when NYC offices did not have air conditioning, and gentleman editors would lounge the late summer away with Edith Wharton characters on breezy verandahs in Newport.

Lemonade, I have no doubt, was sipped. Whatever the reason, a substantial proportion of the folks you want to be reading your stuff are simply not available at the moment.

Stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and consider what lengthy hiatus might mean for work you submitted during this vacation-heavy time. It argues against your hearing back before Labor Day, absolutely regardless of the actual quality of your work. You will be happier, and probably saner, if you make a conscious effort NOT to take the time lapse as a reflection on your worth as a writer, a human being, or anything else.

Think about it. Even if your dream agent’s typical turn-around time is unusually short (and most published agent guides include some estimate in the listing, if only so you can laugh at it with incredulity later), August is going to make the pile she needs to go through substantially thicker than at other points in the year. Even if she herself is not on vacation, she may well be covering for someone in her office who is. For similar reasons, your stop-your-heart-with-rapture editor’s turn-around clock may well not start ticking until 9 a.m. on September 6.

Come Labor Day, there will doubtless be an immense, slippery pile of manuscripts on the agent/editor’s desk. In all probability, your precious packet in the middle of it. Realistically, even with the best will in the world, it is going to take weeks to get through that pile of backlog – and new manuscripts, solicited and unsolicited, will keep coming in with each passing day. It is enough to make even the stoutest-hearted agent quail before the task before her.

Please try to bear this in mind if you have not heard back for a month longer than you anticipated. And please, please do not torture yourself with delay scenarios where your work is being passed from hand to hand, garnering feedback from everybody in the building from the janitor to the head of the agency. (Yes, that happened to Jacqueline Susann, but that was decades ago. Try to live in the now.) 99% of the time, if you have not heard back about your submission, it is because no one at the other end has yet read it.

If you are planning to submit to an agent or editor within the next couple of months, I cannot over-stress the importance of making sure that your good work does not get lost in that awe-inspiring pile of post-holiday hopeful solicitation. At the risk of repeating myself: if an agent or editor asked to see your work, write REQUESTED MATERIALS – PNWA on the outside of the envelope, so that your work will end up in a different, more privileged pile. You probably still will not hear back until Halloween, but at least you will have done all you can to move yourself up in the queue.

Please write on the outside of the envelope, even if the agent or editor in question fell down upon her knees, declared your premise the most exciting thing she’s heard since she first learned to comprehend spoken language, and begged you to overnight your manuscript to her. The average agent or editor meets literally hundreds of aspiring writers during conference season: it is in fact possible that for reasons that have NOTHING to do with your work, your name will slip her mind, or not be passed along to the junior agency folks who actually open the mail and, in most cases, are actually the first readers for submissions.

(Yes, I know what I just said: the agent with whom you had that oh-so-promising meeting at the conference may not actually be the person who reads your submission. Take a deep breath, calm down, and realize that good work gets passed up the reading chain quickly. The assistants are there so that the agent you want is freed of the necessity of reading 600 submissions per week – and thus has time to represent his clients’ work. When you are the client, you will be very, very glad about this arrangement.)

While I already have you in shock, perhaps this would be a good time to mention other points in the year when submissions tend to pile up, so you can avoid sending unsolicited queries then. You already know about the quaint summer custom; December, too, tends to see most of the industry off work, leading to a huge back-up to deal with in January. Two additional factors slow agencies just after the new year: they must produce tax documents for all of their sales, royalties, etc., for the previous year by the end of January — and half the writers in the known universe make New Year’s resolutions to send out queries immediately. Oh, and many agents and editors spend October preparing for, going to, or recovering from the Frankfort Book Fair. And conference season starts in the late spring.

Those of you with fast-calculating fingers may have noticed that these out-of-the-office moments could conceivably cover a full quarter of the calendar year. This, added to hundreds of unsolicited submissions per week AND the necessity of serving the clients already signed, means that from the agent’s point of view, the envelope that means the world to you is yet another demand upon already-stretched time.

And there is absolutely nothing you can do about that, other than understand these factors, try to be patient, and give exclusive peeks of your work only when directly asked for them.

So in the next couple of months, I beg you to try not to read a critique of your work into sometimes agonizingly slow turn-around times. None of these purely structural arrangements have ANYTHING to do with the content or quality of your submission; they are merely conditions of the industry, to which the working writer must adapt – or gnaw her fingers to the bone, wondering what she did in her manuscript to bring this on herself.

Try to be patient. And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

–Anne Mini

The fascinating self

So now I had agents interested – in a memoir that did not yet exist. This is jumping ahead in the chronology a little, but I want to talk today about the core dilemmas of writing a memoir at all.

Writing memoir seems at first to be an easy project, doesn’t it? After all, you’ve already got material (the ups and downs of your life), a supporting cast (your kith and kin, in all of their lovable imperfection), villains (everyone who has ever been mean to you, and boy, are they going to be sorry!), and of course, a protagonist you know very, very well. All you have to do is write down what happened in your own inimitable style, throw in some philosophic-sounding paragraphs about the meaning of life, the nature of familial bonds, etc., and you’re home free, right?

Better still, the common wisdom continues, since a memoir is non-fiction, you need not write the whole thing before you start to pitch the book to agents: all you need is a good proposal, with a chapter or two of the finished work. An agent falls in love with it instantly, and suddenly, your woes are the object of sympathy, apology, and critical praise; overnight, Nicole Kidman is playing you in the movie.

If this is actually your experience, I can only say Somebody Up There is very, very fond of you. For most of us hapless memoir-writers, the process is not so easy – and writing the blasted thing, unfortunately, is the easiest part.

Even if you are one of the lucky few blessed enough to find writing your own life a piece of cake, there is an invariable stumbling block: other people are going to read it, and their opinions on your life may not be yours. Other living rememberers may be problematic.

Even if all of your kith and kin are 100% behind your project in theory, they may not be so happy when you start calling them on inconsistencies in the time-honored anecdotes. Who the hell are you, some may well ask, to say that I’m contradicting myself? Or that Great-Aunt Maude’s perennial tale of her parents’ trekking across the continent in a covered wagon was historically about 50 years too late to be absolutely accurate?

Obviously, in this situation, you will be much, much happier if you have documented everything everyone has ever told you, as well as a reference for every outside piece of history that you cite. Most prospective memoirists are already aware that they might have to prove the truth of their contentions to, say, the editor who buys the book or, in the worst-case scenario, in a court of law, but very few memoirists I know realized that the toughest audience of all to convince would be the very characters who people the book: their kith and kin.

I received a terrific question today about how one goes about gathering the kind of documentary evidence you will want to have in hand before you go up against any kind of critical audience for your memoir. It’s such a good question that I want to answer it at length in a later posting. For now, suffice it to say: it would behoove you to document up to your eyeballs, but even then, please do be aware in advance that your kith and kin may well not thank you for telling the truth as you know it.

Allow me to reiterate: memoirists tend to get a lot more flak for telling the truth than telling lies. Actually, in my experience, this is true for any kind of writer: there will always be some disgruntled ex-coworker who will insist after you hit the big time that he and he alone was the basis for your best character. It is counter-intuitive with memoir, though, where the whole point is that the writer is telling the truth with insight and verve.

At least, that’s how writers tend to think of it. Non-writers, alas, tend to cast it another way: if your version differs from theirs, you’re a liar; if it is the same as theirs, you have invaded their privacy. Rend your hair and discourse about the necessity of the creative mind to express itself as much as you like; show the family videotapes of every writing teacher you have ever had saying “Write what you know!” but in all likelihood, your Cousin Alice or some other holdout will remain obdurate that there are only two alternatives: you are a liar, or you are a betrayer.

This, if you have wondered, is why one so often reads interviews with famous memoirists where they deplore not having written their entire opus as fiction.

Now that I have gotten you good and scared, let me beg you: under no circumstances should you self-edit while you are writing in order to minimize the possibility of kith and kin misunderstanding. Good memoir tells the truth: compromise that vision, and what do you have? I fail to see how an honest memoir COULD be from anyone’s perspective but the writer’s.

And in any case, this strategy seldom works. Since everyone has secrets, the cropping-up of a memoirist in the family can lead to a near-paranoid fear of outsiders looking into even the parts of family life that are relatively innocuous. You may feel, and with good reason, that your presentation of a traditional family Thanksgiving is a miracle of understatement and a paean to the Norman Rockwell-like bonds of love around the dinner table – and then be astonished to learn that your impeccable piece’s reputation amongst your kith and kin who have not read it is of a grisly, murderously satirical free-for-all that would have made the Marquis de Sade blush. And this may puzzle you, because you will naturally feel that your depiction of family life accurately reflects your point of view – so what is Cousin Alice saying, that you have no right to your opinion?

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture how quickly the resulting intra-family conflict can escalate.

The truth is, some people just have an instinctively negative reaction to the very notion of being written about – and thus analyzed – that borders on the superstitious. Cousin Alice is, in all likelihood, picturing a Jerry Springer Show-like mêlée, where upsetting secrets are revealed in front of millions, and total strangers in the audience suddenly jump up and accuse poor Alice of being a lousy human being.

Now, in actual fact, Cousin Alice is probably not the villain of your story at all — other than that incident where she tied your braids into a Gordian knot when you both were eight, and you cried and cried when the hairdresser sliced most of your hair off – but there’s probably nothing you can say that will convince her of that. You can show her that the braid story is, at most, a page and a half out of a 400-page manuscript that otherwise depicts her as Mother Theresa, and she will still feel tremendously hurt that you have written such a nasty book about her. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about that.

I have, alas, personal experience with this kind of hurt feelings. My memoir (working title: IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, subject to change at the publisher’s whim) focuses primarily upon my quirky relationship between the ages of 8 and 15 with the science fiction writer who was my mother’s first husband, as well as his relationship with the rest of my family. Now, I have never discussed our relationship with any of his biographers, my story is new to print, but Philip’s life is pretty well documented, with half a dozen major biographies gracing the shelves.

So I came into the memoir-writing process with two major misapprehensions: that everyone who was close to Philip was by now quite used to being written about, and that my private interactions with a man now dead for 23 years were in fact a part of my life and his, and no one else’s. By coming forward with the story, I thought, I am really the only living person being exposed to scrutiny.

Other people, as it turns out, do not agree with me on either point, and in this I am not alone. I can’t tell you how many of the memoirists I know have been subjected to insults, intimidation, and yes, even lawsuits to try to prevent them from telling the truth as they see it. By their kith and kin, who often have not even read the book in question. The mere mention of the possibility of family secrets being exposed makes some minds leap to litigation, just as it makes other minds leap to Jerry Springer. Dealing with such minds is an occupational hazard of telling the truth.

Prudence prevents me from going into the details of the ensuing debates, but P.S., I’m going ahead with the book anyway. However, it has placed me in the uncomfortable position of having to write a member of my extended family (who, incidentally, is neither my cousin nor named Alice, so don’t start conjecturing) out of my own life story, at her request, and my interpretations of events that concerned only me and people long dead have come under the scrutiny of people who had nothing to do with them. And, truth compels me to add, as hard as dealing with these necessities has been, it was a piece of cake compared to what other memoirists have endured.

Leaving aside for the moment the issues of differing points of view and strong views on privacy you may abruptly learn that your nearest and dearest cherish, most of the successful memoir-writers I have known have found it downright disorienting to have their personal memories be the subject of debate at all. It is good to be aware in advance that as soon as your book is purchased, someone you did not know three months ago will feel free to comment familiarly upon the last thirty-five years of your relationship with your mother, sometimes in ways that would have caused bloody noses on our elementary school playgrounds. You will just have to smile, nod, and take notes.

Let no one say that a writer’s life isn’t interesting.

The moral is: write what you know to be true, and remember that you are actually under no obligation to show your work to your kith and kin before it’s published. Cousin Alice may not concur, of course, but let that be yet another thing about which you agree to disagree. As an honest memoirist, you may find a whole new world of issues to disagree over opening up to you and your loved ones.

Courage! And keep up the good work.

– Anne Mini

Swimming in the agent sea

When I heard my name announced as the winner of the NF/memoir category at the PNWA conference last year, my first conscious feeling was naturally elation. My second conscious feeling was complete and utter doom. Yes, I know that sounds ungrateful, but it’s true. What had I done to myself? To recap, I had just won a major book award for a book I had not yet written. There was a slight possibility, I felt, that people would now start asking to see the book.

Let me backtrack a little and talk about what it is like sporting a rainbow-hued finalist’s ribbon at a conference. First, everyone stares at your stomach, all day, every day, because that’s where the ribbon tends to waggle. A lot of sweet people will come up and congratulate you, which is very nice indeed; a significant minority will edge away from you, scowling. And the agents and editors will notice you in a crowd. When you stop an agent who is walking down the hall in order to try out your pitch, she will generally act as though she is pleased to meet you. It’s a revolution in manners for all concerned.

(Have I said enough yet to convince you to try your luck in next year’s contest? Read on.)

When you win one of the top three awards in a category, and you are issued a blue, red, or white ribbon to tickle your stomach, all of the attention paid to your abdomen roughly triples. And if you win the first place award (along with the snazzy gold Zola pin), it’s like walking around all day in the glow of a very hot spotlight. Suddenly, agents and editors can recognize you from across the room – and often will come over to talk to you, just as if you were a person.

There is a good reason that they recognize the first-place winners – and since so few of my PNWA friends seem to know about these perqs, I’m going to talk about them here. The primary benefit is the winners’ breakfast at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. on Saturday, the morning after the award ceremony’s late-night partying. Basically, they throw all of the winners into a room with some croissants and all of the agents and editors for an hour or two.

If you happen to be good at giving your pitch while choking on a stray piece of pineapple, this is the venue for you. Otherwise, it’s rather like giving a press conference while being mauled by affectionate lions. The moral: eat before you get there. In fact, eat heartily before the awards ceremony on Friday, because trust me, once you win and for the next two days, every time you try to stave off starvation, some perky soul will appear in front of you and ask to hear all about your book. Pleasant, of course, but hell on the blood sugar.

My memory of the event may be skewed, of course, because I had only slept about two hours the night before – Cindy Willis, the wonderfully talented winner of the novel category, and I had been whisked off to a party with such precipitation after the award ceremony that I had to give my mother the big news on a cell phone while dashing down a hotel hallway. At the party, our significant others were mysteriously kidnapped and held outside our range of vision, and Cindy and I were each asked to give our pitch about 45 times while people kept handing us food and drink that we were never allowed to consume. We were both so stunned that we clung to each other like the Gish sisters in ORPHANS OF THE STORM.

This is what I remember best about the aftermath of winning: sleep deprivation and being asked to repeat my pitch anytime food came within half a foot of my mouth. Fortunately, I’d had friends who had won these awards before, so I just kept repeating like a mantra: “Of course you can see my book proposal. But not exclusively.”

Even through my haze, I could recall what had happened to my friends who had promised exclusives to the first agents who approached them after they’d won contests. It’s not true every year or at every conference, but there is often a certain amount of rivalry amongst the agents about who is going to carry off the major category winners. The rivalry over one friend’s brilliant humorous novel reached such a pitch that one of the agents started crying because she had granted a faster agent the first exclusive. Other winning friends were asked to overnight an entire manuscript to New York, only not to hear back for a month; to rush home, print out a copy of the manuscript, and deliver it to an agent’s hotel room in the dead of night, only to learn weeks later that the agent in question did not even represent that genre, and to promise to refuse to talk to other agents at the conference, lest the writer be blandished away. And these instances were all at PNWA, which is known as one of the more genial conferences nationally.

Being sought-after by a gaggle of agents sounds like an odd situation to fear, I know, but the inter-agent competition does not necessarily work to the benefit of the author – and actually, these competitive foibles underscore a problem most writers have at conferences: judging how sincere an agent or editor’s interest is in your work. How can you tell from a fifteen-minute conversation with a total stranger if this is the right agent for you? What is the difference between liking an agent personally and seeing in her an instinctive connection to your work? Your gut, hopped up on adrenaline (and possibly operating without other sustenance), may not be the best barometer in the moment.

So I just kept repeating my pitch and my mantra, parrot-like, collecting cards from agents and editors and scribbling notes about what each wanted to see on the back. Cindy did the same, once I was able to fill her in on the strange stories of yore. All the while, our significant others lurked in a far corner of the room, waiting to carry us off to grab a couple of hours’ sleep before the 7 a.m. lion-mauling.

The advice of my formerly winning friends turned out to be right on the money: about half of the agents asked for exclusives. Because we had declined, Cindy and I both ended up sending our work to a broad array of agents simultaneously, which truly worked to our advantage. Not every agent asked to represent it, of course – put their initial interest down to competition-induced hysteria – but enough of them did that both of us had the wonderful luxury of choice. And that, in a world where it’s so hard to get an agent that good writers often search for years to hook up with the right agent, is luxury indeed.

So I have good reason to have infinite respect for the writers’ network word-of-mouth wisdom. Let’s all help one another in every way we can.

Your day will come. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

–Anne Mini