Assumptions, assumptions

Remember how I told you that it is ALWAYS a strategic mistake assume that the readers of your queries and submissions know ANYTHING about the subject matter of your book prior to reading your work? No? Well, allow me to refresh your memory.

As I pointed out in my August series on manuscript revision with an eye to how an agency screener tends to read, authorial assumptions of readerly understanding can water down the intended impact of a manuscript. Obviously, this is true when the assumptions in question are inherently offensive to the reader — stereotyping, for instance, has taken down many a promising submission — but it is also the case where the text proceeds on the assumption that the reader has certain specialized knowledge of the underlying subject matter of the book.

In other words: it’s never a good idea to assume that an agent, screener, or even lay reader has ANY background that would free you from the necessity of explanation. (True of editors, too. But of that, more later, when I get to the part about ME, ME, ME.) Again, the question recurs: how sure are you about who will be reading YOUR submission?

You cannot always rely upon an agent’s background knowledge — even, amazingly enough, when the phenomenon in question is fairly well known. Just as you can’t get away with presuming that any given reader (again, read: agent, editor, or contest judge) will share your political or social beliefs, you cannot legitimately assume that the agent you covet WASN’T brought up in a cardboard box at the base of a mineshaft in an unusually warm part of Antarctica.

So while it’s already a poor idea to include too many pop culture references because they date your book, it’s also not strategically wise because your reader may not recognize them.

Partially, it’s a poor idea because you can’t be sure that the person reading your manuscript will be in your age group (or ethnic group, or sex group — that sounds racier than it is, doesn’t it? — or bridge club, for that matter). Your submission may as easily be read by a 23-year-old recent Columbia graduate with a nose piercing, eight tattoos, and an immoderate admiration for Benito Mussolini as by a 50-year-old Democrat in Armani.

At many agencies, in fact, the screening process would entail your work being approved by both. (In case you’re not aware of it, at a major agency, the agent herself is almost NEVER the first person to read a submission. Yes, even if she requested it from someone she met at a conference. It’s not at all uncommon for a manuscript to need to garner two or even three positive reviews from the screening pool before landing on the agent’s desk.)

Obviously, then, it would not be the best strategic move to make your work inaccessible to a reader outside your own age group — yes, even if you are writing a book SPECIFICALLY for readers in your age group. Screeners and editorial assistants tend to be young, so they might well need an explanation of, say, the quotidian effects of menopause.

How young, you ask? I don’t mean to scare those of you on Social Security, but practically the only editorial feedback I received on my memoir from the callow stripling assigned to it by my publishing house was flagged cultural references. The two that stick in my mind: next to Dacron, he had scrawled, “What is this?” and next to Aristotle, he had written, “Who?”

I’m just saying.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but for the benefit of those of you new to this blog, allow me to emphasize that age assumptions can be especially disastrous in contest entries: I can’t tell you how many entries I’ve screened as a judge that automatically assumed that every reader would be a Baby Boomer, with that set of life experiences. As a Gen Xer with parents born long before the Baby Boom (my father had first-hand memories of hometown doughboys marching off to World War I; my mother’s elementary school best friend was carted off to a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II), I obviously read these entries differently than an older (or younger) person would.

More to the point, as would a judge in her late 60s — or 70s, or 80s, as often they are. Being a contest judge takes TIME, especially for those stalwart souls who are first round readers. They need to be able to read and comment upon dozens of entries within a short window of time, so contest judges tend to be either extraordinarily dedicated volunteers who are willing to forego sleep in order to help out, people like me who have extremely flexible schedules, or —  and this is far and away the largest potential group of volunteers — retired people.

Thus, like the Academy Awards, the average age of a first-round contest judge tends to fall in the charmingly graying range. Which — I hate to say it, but it’s often true — tends to place those who write for Gen Xers or Gen Yers at a competitive disadvantage in the average contest. Yet another reason it’s a pretty good idea to make sure that any piece you enter would read well for ANY English-reading demographic.

Just as with your submissions to agencies, you never know how old your readers will be.

Ditto for concepts, cultural phenomena, professions, etc. — and ditto fifty times over for phenomena that do not routinely occur on the Eastern seaboard. Many things are beyond the average Manhattanite’s ken. So if your protagonist is an Alaskan fisherwoman, it’s probably a fairly safe bet that an agent in NYC will have little to no idea what such a person’s day-to-day life would entail, other than that there is probably a boat involved. Possibly a net as well.

However, it’s not always as simple as that: for all you know, the agent of your dreams’ older brother spent half a decade on just such a fishing boat (it was right after our Jimmy ran off to follow the Grateful Dead for a couple of years, but the family doesn’t talk about that, unless someone asks about his missing pinkie finger.) And, wouldn’t you know it, Jimmy was an unusually prolific writer of letters home. While he was on the high seas, he was clinging to a miniscule desk below deck, scribbling away like Mme. de Staël, giving your agent a crash course in all things fishery.

And this presents a genuine dilemma for the writer, doesn’t it? You have to be prepared for both complete ignorance and intimate familiarity with your subject matter. The trouble is, of course, is that before you submit, you have absolutely no idea which.

In order to succeed in this business, of course, you will need to accept that you cannot control who will read your work after you mail it to an agency. If your romance novel about cruise line captain happens to fall onto the desk of someone who has recently experienced food poisoning mid-cruise (just before the mambo tournament, too!) and resented it, there’s really nothing you can do to assuage her dislike. Similarly, if your self-help book on resolving intrafamily discord is screened by a reader in the midst of a three-year fight with her siblings over Grandma’s estate (she promised the figurines to everybody, apparently), no efforts on your part can assure a non-cynical read. And, as long-term readers of this blog already know, a tongue just burned on a latté often spells disaster for the next manuscript its owner reads.

All you can do is concentrate on what you can control: clarity, aptness of references, and making your story or argument appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

That being said, I have another truth to spring on you, so brace yourselves: everything I have just told you about dealing with agencies and contests is roughly 47 times more pertinent — and more important — when dealing with an editor at a publishing house. But of that (ME, ME, ME!), more tomorrow.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The agency contract, Part III: double indemnity?

When last we spoke – electronically, that is – I was waxing poetic about the need to take a close gander at an agency contract before you sign it, to prevent unpleasant surprises down the line. (I know, I know: we should all have such problems. But by preparing you for them now, my hope is that you will be a happier camper in years to come. Or sooner, if you’re lucky.)

While 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? Or, heaven forefend, died or decided to scrap her career and follow the Dalai Lama around for a decade or two?

My friend May, for example, found out too late that her contract was with her agent, not her agency: amazingly enough, no one filled her in on the possibility until after her agent had actually passed away.

Something of a surprise, as you may imagine; 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. So sorry; best of luck elsewhere.

No offer to help her find another agent, nothing. Just goodbye and good luck. Incredulous, May checked her contract and, sure enough, she hadn’t signed with the agency at all, only her late agent. She was back on the querying junket again.

Why the distinction? Well, it actually has more to do with the internal structure of the agency than your agent’s relationship with you — or any other writer, for that matter. Agencies vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the entire agency, and some are run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, houses an independent contractor, and no funds are mixed.

Why should your agent’s employment arrangements concern you? Well, 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. (May’s contract was the former.)

And if your agent has a track record of agency-hopping every couple of years – as many junior agents do; it’s a smart way to build a professional lifetime’s worth of contact lists – may I suggest that this is a contractual arrangement that may affect your life pretty profoundly?

My friend Katherine, one of the most talented writers I know, was thrown for an unexpected loop by such a move, and at least in the short run, her book’s marketing prospects suffered for it. Her contract left the issue a bit ambiguous, specifying that Katherine 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, Katherine actually had a hard time learning whether she was still represented at all.

Remember what I said earlier about the writer’s always being the last to know?

And, to make the situation worse, at the time, a respectable number of editors at major publishing houses had their hot little hands on Katherine’s excellent book. Naturally, she did everything, short of turning up on the doorstep of her NYC agency, to find out what was going on with her contract.

After several highly frustrating weeks of telephone and e-mail tag, she learned that she had only 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 (and about whom they would tell her nothing); break her contract and sign with Agent X in her new agency, or break her contract and seek representation somewhere else.

While the book was still out with editors. No matter what, her old contract was more or less defunct. Through absolutely no fault of Katherine’s.

Since, like so many of us, Katherine had spent years upon years seeking the perfect agent for her work, none of these possibilities seemed particularly appetizing to her. Option 1 would involve leaving a well-established agency for a brand-new one (which generally means living through months of office-transition disorganization); Option 2 would leave her and her book orphaned until someone at her agency decided to pick her up. And, since she had long experience with querying, Option 3 sounded a lot like putting her hand in a meat grinder for fun. She ended up following her agent – which, if her contract had not been ambiguous, is probably precisely what would have happened anyway.

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. Again: ask.

I shall wind up my series on agency contracts tomorrow, but in the meantime, a heads-up to 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 – has just ended, which may well mean that the agent or editor who should be reading your manuscript is either on a plane or abroad at the moment. A hefty proportion of the industry’s heavy hitters attend, often grabbing European vacation time on either end.

As a result, guess what piles up on NYC desks every 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; I assure you, the delay is not about you or your writing. Sit tight.

And keep up the good work!

Fee-charging agencies, Part III: the reputable ones

I’ve been talking for the last couple of days about the loathsome species of self-described agencies that bilk writers out of their hard-earned dosh by requiring “Independent Evaluations” and similar expensive services as a condition of representation, as well as practitioners of another kind of lower-level predation on aspiring writers, selling lists of those who query them to editing services and magazines or tucking brochures for such services into rejection packets. Generally speaking, you cannot run far enough from agencies that operate in this manner.

Are you wondering why I keep harping on that advice? The reason is alarmingly simple: in this industry, writers are discouraged from asking too many questions. We’re just supposed to be able to find our way around the biz.

By instinct, perhaps. Or some highly specialized sense of smell. Maybe agents and editors think we writers have some additional internal organ that extrudes bile whenever our work is near a poor agent and spurts perfume near a good one. Or a unique brain synapse formation that gives us an electric shock every time we even consider placing a book proposal in a non-black folder or going for broke and using a typeface other than Times, Times New Roman, or Courier.

In any case, they certainly do seem to think we know a whole lot about the industry without being told.

The question of who is and is not a reputable agent is almost never discussed at writers’ conferences or in writers’ publications, so pretty much the only way you are going to find out about this sort of trap is from other writers. In the business, knowing about such pitfalls is assumed, in much the way that conference cognoscenti assume that every writer present already knows that a submission NOT in standard format will be rejected practically every time or that advances are typically not paid in one big lump sum, but in installments.

It’s yet another instance of knowledge equaling power in the industry, and I, for one, don’t consider it fair. One of the reasons that I started this blog was to give isolated writers — and aren’t all writers isolated, to a certain extent, by the nature of the process? — a place to learn the facts behind the assumptions. (For example: if any of the statements about proposal folders, typefaces, standard format, and advances in the previous paragraphs were mysteries to you, please check out the relevant categories at the right of these page.)

Since it is not an issue you are likely to see discussed elsewhere, then, let me be the first to confuse the issue by telling you: there are a few fee-charging agencies that are perfectly reputable. Which is to say, they are agencies who sell actual books to actual publishers, but who derive some significant portion of their income from other services they offer to writers.

Portion is the operative term here. To be considered non-fee-charging, an agency must generate more than 98% of its fees from its 15% share of their authors’ royalties. The AAR will not admit (or retain) agencies that rely more heavily upon other sources of income than that — on the grounds, I believe, that agencies that charge for a first read are essentially requiring writers to buy what most agencies offer for free. For this reason, fee-charging agencies are seldom listed anymore in the standard guides.

I have to say, I’m with the AAR on this one: I don’t think that a writer should ever have to pay an agency for a first read. Finding new writers is an integral part of how agents make their living; if they pick up the writers they have charged to submit material, they are being paid twice for the same work. It tips the already-stacked balance of power still farther in their favor – causing writers already reduced to begging for their attention to paying for it as well.

What’s next, rolling over? Fetching the latest copy of Publisher’s Weekly? Bringing them dead rodents as gestures of affection?

If a writer has been querying well-established agencies for a long time without garnering any positive responses, it might well be worth her while to run her query and chapters past more seasoned eyes, but those eyes can easily be found in a writer’s group that is free to join, or in a freelance editor who charges a flat rate per page or per hour. (See “How do I find an editor?” link at right.) With both, the writer never has to worry that there are hidden costs down the line.

However, if you do decide that you are willing to pay a fee-charging agent for a first read — and can accept the fact that his charging at all indicates that he either doesn’t sell enough of his clients’ books NOT to charge or doesn’t like writers much — make sure that you know in advance with which kind you are dealing, to avoid disappointment and unexpected bills.

How does one go about this, now that fee-charging agencies are no longer listed in the standard guides? Well, the most straightforward kind of fee-charging agent will tell authors up front on its website and in its literature that there is a cost associated with sending them a manuscript. Called a reading fee, the cost can run anywhere from $25 to $500.

To put this in perspective, a written manuscript critique without line editing, which is what the reputable fee-charging agencies provide, will usually run about $150 – $250. (If you are looking for line correction or substantive editing as well, the costs will be higher, of course: this is just for a basic read-and-advise.) But at least with an editor, you can negotiate up front precisely the type of feedback you want.

With an agent who charges to consider manuscripts, you have no such leeway. A higher price tag on a reading fee, alas, is seldom a guarantee of either eventual representation or more substantial feedback. Or, indeed, of any feedback at all: what the writer is buying here is simply the agent’s promise to have someone in the office read the manuscript to consider whether to sign the author, not advice on how to make the book more marketable.

Which is, I reiterate, a service that non-fee-charging agents provide for free, when they are interested enough in a manuscript to request it. Admittedly, though, fee-charging agents tend to be open to a broader array of manuscripts than their non-fee-charging brethren and sistern. Why not? They’re making a profit, and they will only pick up what interests them, anyway.

With few exceptions, the reading fee is nonrefundable, so do make sure that you understand clearly what you are being offered in exchange for your money. Look for a written critique, with no further commitment on your part — basically, what you would get from a freelance editor. Do some comparison shopping.

And don’t forget to use the same judgment you would use for any other agent. Ask what books the fee-charging agency has sold in recent years before you put dime one into the process. If your work is similar to someone the fee-charging agent already represents, it might be worth your while to submit a manuscript. If not, try non-fee-charging agents who represent work like yours first.

Had I mentioned that I would HIGHLY recommend that you stick with the non-fee-charging ones altogether, and go to a writing group or a good freelance editor for feedback? Either of the latter is FAR more likely to give you concrete advice (everything from “Did you know that your slug line isn’t in professional format?” to “Why does the protagonist’s sister’s name change from Gladys to Gertrude halfway through?” to “It pains me to say this, mon ami, but that scene with the hippopotamus on the carousel simply doesn’t work.”) rather than the generalities associated with manuscript reviews (“Your pacing needs to be tighter” or “Your protagonist should be more sympathetic.”)

Did I just hear a chorus of gasps out there?

That’s right: a fee-charging agent’s feedback on a rejected manuscript is not necessarily going to be any more substantial than that in any other rejection letter. If you honestly long to have a professional tell you, “I just didn’t fall in love with this book,” I assure you, there are PLENTY of agents out there who will diss you for free.

Which is precisely why the querying and submission processes are so incredibly frustrating, right? When we submit a manuscript over which we’ve slaved, we writers (unreasonable beings that we are, the industry thinks, with all of those strange internal organs and oddly-arranged brain chemistry) want to receive in return, if not an acceptance, than at least a brief explanation for why the agent is not picking up the book. That way, the submission process could be progressive: with professional feedback on what is and isn’t working, our manuscripts could be better each time we submit them.

Ah, we can dream, can’t we?

What we want, in other words, is for rejecting agents to give our work an honest manuscript critique: a once-over without suggesting line edits (although that would be nice), but giving us written feedback on how to make the book more marketable. What agents ACTUALLY give submissions, unfortunately, is manuscript reviews: a quick read purely intended to judge whether the book is marketable and if it is something they would like to represent. And that differential in expectations leads, in my experience, to a whole lot of heartache, second-guessing, and a horrible, creeping feeling of futility on our side of the Rubicon.

Obviously, no sane person would set up a talent-finding process this way, but if we want to get published, we do need to work with the status quo. So while I can utterly understand longing enough to receive professional feedback on why your work is not being picked up by agents to be willing to pay for it, I think that if you’re going to pay an agent to read your work, you ought at least to be guaranteed a manuscript critique, not merely a manuscript review.

Ask a whole lot of questions before you plunk down your cash. Including: am I really going to get anything out of this that a writing group or freelance editor could not give me? Because, hype aside, you would be paying a fee-charging agent who does not sign you for precisely the same services.

The moral of the day: you should be every bit as careful in dealing with a fee-charging agency as you would be in dealing with a freelance editor. Both are providing you services that should help you get your work published; as in any other service industry, there are good ones, and there are bad ones, and they tend to look as similar as good and bad orthodontists do. Do a little background checking — and make sure that you know precisely what you will be getting out of the exchange.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

Fee-charging agencies, Part II

Yesterday, I raised the red flag about the kind of “agency” that exists primarily not to sell its clients’ books to publishers, but to profit on writers’ frustration with the difficulty of landing an agent. There are many self-described agencies out there that apparently operate as fronts for high-priced editing services, tell writers that their work has promise, but that promise can only be fulfilled by enlisting the services of a specific outrageously expensive editing firm – which, of course, pays a kickback to the agency.

Sometimes, these kinds of agencies can be tough to spot, because it’s actually not unheard-of for perfectly credible agents to tell authors, “Gee, this could really use some professional editing,” and recommend a couple of good freelancers. I’ve gotten clients this way, in fact.

However, there’s a big difference between an agent’s giving a general piece of advice after reading a manuscript and agencies that either sell their query lists to editing companies (yes, it happens) or who include an editor’s brochure as part of their rejection packet in exchange for a commission.
This is a more subtle way to profit from querying writers, but to my mind, it’s just as ethically questionable as a specific referral + kickback. It’s using the power of rejection to make a sales pitch. Often, such agencies will have asked the writer to send an entire manuscript before suggesting the book doctor, which can make the referral seem very credible. The implication is, of course, that if the author hires that specific editor, the agent will offer representation at a later date, but these agencies seldom put that in writing.

No matter how complimentary a referring agent is about your work, such a referral is still a rejection, and you should regard it as such. Don’t assume that anything that’s typed on letterhead featuring the word “agency” is necessarily good advice on how to succeed as a writer.

Why should you be a tad incredulous? Well, when such a recommendation is made by an agent who allegedly knows the market, about a manuscript that he has ostensibly read carefully, it sounds like well-informed advice, but think about it: how do you know that the agent DID read the manuscript carefully — indeed at all, before recommending that you seek out a particular editor? Perhaps the agent automatically refers EVERY manuscript he rejects to that editing agency. Perhaps he gets a nice, juicy referral fee for each writer he refers.

Other soi-disant agencies take the scam even farther, demanding that writers obtain a so-called objective evaluation (with a price tag that can run upwards of $100) of their manuscripts before even considering them for representation – and the fees just keep mounting after that. Typically, these “agencies” rush at writers with too-eager offers of representation, then after a contract is signed, billing the writer for every so-called necessary service the agency provides.

Rule of thumb: legitimate agencies don’t ask for your credit card information.

To add insult to injury, these pseudo-agencies typically do not send out their clients’ work at all. However, they have been known to sign a writer to a long-term contract that grants the agency 15% of any future sales of the book in question — without having done any actual agenting work on its behalf.

Obviously, such agencies should be avoided like the plague that they are, but unfortunately, they specifically prey upon writers unfamiliar with how the industry works — ones who do not know, for instance, that the Association of Authors’ Representatives will not admit agencies that charge such fees, and are always happy to tell a curious author whether they’ve had complaints about a particular agency. Or ones who do not know that the standard agency guides (Writer’s Digest’s yearly GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and Jeff Herman’s GUIDE TO BOOK PUBLISHERS, EDITORS, & LITERARY AGENTS, also updated yearly), don’t list this sort of agency at all. Or ones who do not know that Preditors and Editors routinely lists all of the agents and agencies in the country, along with indications of whether they are reputable or not. Or ones who are unaware that in a legitimate agency, novels are virtually NEVER accepted for representation until the agent has read the entire book. (The fake agencies are notorious for asking to see a few chapters, then offering representation right way.)

These unscrupulous agencies, in short, prey upon the ignorance and hope of nice people new to the biz, and there is no pit of hell deep enough for those who prey on the innocent.

The moral: do your homework. Any reputable agency worth its salt should be willing to show you its client list before you sign, for instance, and it’s perfectly legitimate to ask if they ever charge their clients for services. Ask the offering agent point-blank if s/he is a member of the AAR, and request a schedule of any fees he charges.

It’s also a good idea to limit your search to recognized agencies. Check the agency guides. If you are absolutely committed to finding an agent online, be wary of an agency that seems only to have a website, without being listed in any agency guides. If you feel absolutely compelled to answer an ad (not a good idea, as established agencies simply don’t advertise), triple-check with independent sources before you sign ANYTHING.

There are some things for which reputable agencies do charge, however; I shall go into some of these tomorrow. In the meantime, remember that this is an extremely competitive business, the odds of which are not all that different per capita than getting admitted to an Ivy League school. Wouldn’t you be suspicious if someone on the street offered you admission to Harvard, if you paid him a fee, even if he is wearing a crimson sweatshirt?

Think about it: should you really be any less suspicious of an agency that offers to sell you your dreams on a similar basis?

Keep up the good work, my friends!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you considered writing a blog, for instance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blessings of Ataraxia, or, How to be a dream client

I sat down to write about agencies again today, but to be absolutely honest with you, I had to stop halfway through, because I’ve been having a genuinely upsetting day. Since we writers have to be so tough to make it in this business, it’s easy to forget that we are actually finely-balanced musical instruments. It’s hard to create when we’re thrown for a loop. Today’s loop-generator was a fairly common one for givers of feedback, professional and friendly both, so I think it would be useful for me to write about it. (And if not, hey, I blog pretty much every day, so if it turns out that I’m just being self-indulgent today, I can always be purely useful again tomorrow, right?)

Because I am EXTREMELY selective about whose work I read (I have been exchanging chapters with my first readers for years, and professionally, I will only work with clients I feel are bursting with talent, but even then, if the subject matter or genre is not a good fit with my tastes, or if I don’t think I can help a writer get published within a reasonable amount of time, I will refer him on), the vast majority of the time, my interactions with other writers are a joy. Really. I enjoy giving feedback quite a bit, even when I am charged with the task of helping a client incorporate not-very-sound advice from an agent, editor, or dissertation advisor in such a way that it will not destroy the book.

Okay, I’ll grant you, it doesn’t SOUND like a whole lot of fun. But usually, it is: I love good writing, and like any competent editor, the sight of anything that detracts from good writing’s presentation makes me foam at the mouth and reach for a pen.

Every so often, though, I’ll run into someone who thinks I’m just making up the rules of standard format, or norms of academic argumentation, or even the usual human expectation that within a story, each subsequent event will follow logically upon the one before it. (Blame Aristotle’s POETICS for that last set of rules, not me.) This morning, I was lambasted at length for having had the gall to point out that someone’s Chapter Two might not be utterly clear to a reader that did not have the author reading over his shoulder, explaining verbally the choices made on the page.

Long-time readers of this blog, sing along with me here: when you submit a manuscript, all that matters is what is on the page. If ANYTHING in your first 50 pages is not perfectly comprehensible without a “Yes, but I explain that in Chapter Four”-type verbal clarification, rework it.

Please. Thank you.

Now, since it’s my job – or ethical obligation, in cases of volunteer feedback-giving – to point out precisely this sort of problem wherever it appears in a manuscript, I am always a trifle nonplused when I encounter a writer who thinks I’m only flagging it out of some deep-seated compulsion to be hurtful. Again, I am very selective about whose pages I read, and I burn to be helpful: it’s not uncommon for my commentary on a book to be longer as most of the chapters. I try to be thoughtful, giving my reasons for any major suggested change with a specificity and completeness that makes the Declaration of Independence look like a murmur of vague discontent about tea prices.

Obviously, this level of feedback is not for everybody; one of my best friends in the work refers to me affectionately as a manuscript piranha, but still, she lets me read her work. Because, honestly, is there anything worse than handing your work-in-progress to someone who just says, “Oh, it was fine,” or “Oh, it just wasn’t my kind of book,” without explaining WHY? I think completeness of feedback implies a certain level of devotion on my part to making the manuscript in question the best book it can possibly be.

Yet I was told this morning that, to put it mildly, I was incorrect about this. Apparently, I only suggest changes as a most effective means of ripping the author’s heart from his chest, stomping upon it, pasting it back together, sautéing it in a nice balsamic vinegar reduction, then feeding the resulting stew to, if not the author, than at least the neighbor’s Rottweiler.

Imagine my surprise.

This was for a manuscript I LIKED, incidentally. I had made a grand total of ONE suggested change, in the midst of oceans of praise.

So what did I do? What editors and agents moan privately to one another about having to do for their clients all the time, be preternaturally patient until the “But it’s MY work! It MUST be perfect!” tantrum petered out. Until then, further discussion was simply pointless.

Because, in the first moments after receiving critique, creative people are often utterly, completely, fabulously unreasonable about it. They not only want to shoot the messenger – they want to broil her slowly on a spit over red-hot coals like a kabob, and THEN yell at her. Fear of this stripe of reaction, in case you were wondering, is the most common reason most people will give only that very limited “Oh, it was fine” feedback after reading a friend’s manuscript. They’re just trying to keep their heads attached to their bodies, rather than skewered upon some irate writer’s pike.

It’s also the usual excuse — which you may believe or not, as you see fit, considering the source — that most agents give for why they send out form letter rejections, rather than specific, thoughtful replies to requested submissions. Their stated reason for form letter responses to queries, of course, is sheer volume: they don’t have time to reply to each individually. But obviously, if they have the time to read 50 pages, they have time to scrawl a couple of lines about how it could be improved. The fact is, they don’t want to: they don’t want to engender an angry response that might turn into an endless debate about the merits of a book they’ve already decided, for whatever reason, that they do not want.

Since most writers are peaches and lambs and every other kind of pacific, cooperative kind of entity you can think of most of the time, this fear is perhaps overblown. Most of us are perfectly capable of taking a little constructive criticism in the spirit it is intended. But every so often, some author loses it – and for that author’s display of temper, alas, we all pay.

That’s the official logic, anyway.

So now you know: if you want to establish yourself as a dream client in the eyes of the average agent or editor, who tends to hide under a chair after giving even the mildest feedback to her clients, greet the first emergence of any feedback with apparent tolerance; give yourself time to calm down before you argue. To buy yourself time, say something like, “Wow, what an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that. Thanks.” Then take the rest of the day off, and don’t so much as peek at your manuscript again until you’ve had a chance to calm down.

Say this, even if in that moment, the suggestion proffered seems to you like the worst idea since Hannibal decided to march all of those elephants over the Alps to get at Rome. Because at that precise second, you are not just an individual writer, concerned with the integrity of your own manuscript: you are representing all of us. Show that, contrary to our stereotype in the industry as touchy hotheads unwilling to consider changing a single precious word, most of us really are capable of taking a little criticism.

Admittedly, my readers all acting this beautifully in the fact of critique probably sounds better to me right now than it might had I not just been scathed for trying to help out. Whenever I am confronted with a defensive critique-rejecter, I must confess, I seldom think of cooperative, thoughtful revisers with any abhorrence.

Feedback, though, and the revision process in general, ought to be treated with more respect by everyone concerned. There really ought to be a muse, if not an ancient Greek goddess, of manuscript revision, someone to whom we can pray for patience and tolerance in getting feedback on our work.

A muse of revision might conceivably make better sense to court than a muse of inspiration. Few of us writers like to admit it, but if we write works longer than a postcard, we all inevitably worship in private at this muse’s altar. Why should the initial inspiration gals get all the credit, when so much of the work that makes a book wonderful is in the re-editing?

Editing gets a bad rap, and self-editing even worse. You can’t spend half an hour in a gathering of more than three serious writers without hearing someone bitch about it. Oh, it’s so hard; oh, it’s so tedious. Oh, I’m sick to death of revising my manuscript. If I have to spend another instant of my life reworking that one pesky sentence, I shall commit unspeakable mayhem on the nearest piece of shrubbery.

We don’t describe the initial rush to write that pesky sentence that way, though, do we? Our muse leaps out at us, flirts with us, seduces us so effectively that we look up a paragraph later and find that six hours have gone by. Our muse is the one that gives us that stunned look in our eyes that our loved ones know so well, the don’t-call-me-for-breakfast glaze that tells the neighborhood that we will not be available for normal human interaction for awhile.

Ah, but the muses of initial inspiration don’t always stick around, do they? No, the flighty trollops too often knock you over the head with a great idea, then leave you in the lurch in mid-paragraph. Do they call? Do they write? Don’t they know we worry ourselves sick, we writers, wondering if they are ever going to come back?

Not so Ataraxia, the muse of revision. (Hey, I came up with the notion, so I get to name her. According to the ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus — I know, I know; you can’t throw a piece of bread at a party these days without hitting someone chatting about Sextus Empiricus, but bear with me here — ataraxia is the state of tranquility attained only at the end of intense self-examination. Ataraxia is the point at which you stop second-guessing yourself: the ultimate goal of revision, no?)

Ataraxia yanks you back to your computer, scolding; she reads over the shoulder of your dream agent; editors at major publishing houses promise her their firstborn. While being a writer would be a whole lot more fun if completing a good book could be accomplished merely by consorting with her flightier muse sisters, party girls at heart, sooner or later, we all need to appeal to Ataraxia for help.

Best to stay on her good side: for starters, let’s all pledge not to scream at the kind souls who give us necessary feedback. Yes, I suspect Ataraxia would really enjoy that sort of sacrifice.

I’ll confess, I have not always treated Ataraxia with respect myself. How tedious revision is, I have thought from time to time, inventing reasons not to sit down and put in a few hours of solid work on a project. What a bore, to have to go back to a book I consider finished and tweak it: hour after hour of staring at just a few sentences, changing perhaps an adjective or two every ten minutes. Yawn.

Over time, though, I have started to listen to what I was actually telling myself when I complained about revision. It wasn’t that I objected to putting in the time; there have been few days in the last decade when I haven’t spent many hours in front of my computer or scribbling on a notepad; I’m a writer, so that’s what I do. It wasn’t that I felt compelled to rework my novel for the fiftieth time, or, in cases where I’ve been incorporating feedback, that I thought the changes would be bad for the book.

No, my real objection, I realized, is that I expected the revision process to bore me to tears. Am I alone in this?

But Ataraxia watches over even the most ungrateful of writers, so she whacked me over the head with an epiphany: a manuscript is a living thing, and to allow it to change can be to allow it to grow in new and exciting ways.

So now I know: whenever I start procrastinating about necessary revisions, it is a pretty sure sign that I had been thinking of my text as something inert, passive, a comatose patient who might die if I inadvertently lopped off too much on the editing table. What if, instead of thinking of revision as nitpicking, I used it to lift some conceptual barriers within the book? What if I incorporated my first readers’ suggestions about my memoir in a way that made the book better? Not just in terms of sentences and paragraphs, but in terms of content?

Just a suggestion: instead of regarding feedback as an attack upon the book, a foreign attempt to introduce outside ideas into an organically perfect whole or a negative referendum upon your abilities as a writer, perhaps it would be more productive to treat critique (your own included) as a hint that maybe the flagged section could use an influx of fresh creativity.

Try to move beyond just making grammatical changes and inserting begrudging sentences where your first readers have asked, “But why is this happening here?” If you have stared at a particular sentence or paragraph for hours on end, changing it and changing it back — c’mon, you know we all do it — naturally, you’re going to get bored. Naturally, you are going to loathe that kind of revision.

But the next time you find yourself in that kind of editing loop, set the text you’re working on aside for a few minutes. Pick up a pen (or open a new document) and write that section afresh, in new words, as if for the first time. No peeking at your old text, and no cheating by using sentences you recall writing the first time around. Allow yourself to use different analogies, to reveal character and event differently. Give yourself time to play with your ideas and the way you want to say them before you go back to the original text.

Then walk away for ten minutes. Maybe you could do some stretching exercises, to avoid repetitive strain injuries, or at least take a stroll around your house. Feed the cat. Plot a better way to get legions of elephants over the Alps. Anything to get your eyes off the printed word for awhile.

And then, when you return, read the original version and the new. You probably will not want to substitute one for the other entirely, but is there any part of the new version that could be incorporated into the old in an interesting way? Are there sentences that can be switched productively, or some new ones that could be added to the old? Are there arguments or character points in the new that would enliven the old?

What you’re doing with this exercise is transforming revision from a task where you are fine-tuning something essentially finished into an opportunity to infuse the manuscript with fresh ideas at problematic points. Conceptually, it’s a huge difference, and I guarantee it will make the revision process a lot more fun.

As Ataraxia wants it to be, I suspect.

Okay, I feel less self-indulgent now: I think I have wrested some good, practical advice out of my very, very bad day. And naturally, unlike your garden-variety agent or editor, I’m not going to give up on this writer because of a single loss of temper. Nor, unlike the average writer’s friend with a manuscript, am I going to let the one writer who implied that my feedback on his work was the worst idea since Stalin last said, “I know! Let’s have a purge!” discourage me from giving feedback to others.

But please, the next time you are confronted with feedback that makes your blood boil, take a deep breath before you respond. Think about me, and about Ataraxia, and force yourself to say, “Gee, what an interesting notion. May I think about it, and we can talk about it later?” Then go home and punch a pillow 700 times, if you must, but please, don’t disembowel the messenger.

She may be bringing you a news flash from Ataraxia. Keep up the good work!

Honesty: policy, or just a good idea?

Yesterday, I discussed two ways of finding agents to query other than through direct meetings at writers’ conferences (which is still one of the best — and, unfortunately, most expensive — ways to connect with an agent): soliciting agents who spoke at conferences you attended with whom you did NOT speak, and tracking down those who represent your favorite authors. I have a few more words of advice about the latter method yet to dispense, but first, allow me to revisit the former briefly.

It has come to my attention that some wily writers out there habitually surf the web, tracking down major writing conferences, and sending “I so enjoyed your talk at Conference X, and I hope you will be interested in my work…” queries to the agents listed as having spoken there. These unscrupulous souls do this for conferences they have never attended, and yet they write “Conference X attendee” in big red letters on the outside of their submission envelopes. Oh, the shame of it all…

And why do these clever-but-underhand writers do this? Because they have been around the industry long enough to know that (a) by a couple of weeks after a large conference, the average agent might not remember be able to pick everyone who pitched to her out of a police line-up, much less remember who was or was not in the audience during her how-to-wow-me speech, (b) even at a small conference, many writers are too shy to approach an agent directly, so chances are, the agent will not have met everyone there, and (c) at a big agency, a reasonably well-established agent will have a screener going through her queries for her, anyway.

Therefore (these cads reason) the chances of being caught in the lie about attending are next to nil, and since the benefits of being able to claim conference attendance can be fairly significant — as I mentioned yesterday, conference-going queriers’ letters usually end up in the closer scrutiny pile — they have no scruples, apparently, about dressing themselves in borrowed clothes. Why not, these abandoned types reason: at worst, being caught means the query and/or eventual submission’s being rejected, that’s all.

Fie, fie.

Actually, there are a couple of ways in which such bold souls DO get caught, and since I am here to preach practicality, rather than morality, I feel honor-bound to point them out. First, agent rosters for conferences are NOTORIOUSLY malleable; agency screeners love to tell tales of the query letters they’ve received that extolled the pleasures of meeting an agent who was never in the time zone of the mentioned conference. Second, since agents routinely talk about their specific book needs of the moment at conferences, what they say there is often substantially different than what they told the fine folks who put together the standard agents’ guides a year before. (Even if their preferences are wildly different, though, the unprincipled conference-claiming writer will only come across as working from an outdated guidebook. Still, fie.)

Brace yourself for #3, because it represents some pretty hardened criminality. Some dodgy writers are not satisfied with imposing upon a screener with an untrue statement in a query letter: sometimes, they will send the first 50 pages of their manuscripts to an agent who attended a conference, along with a disingenuous letter thanking the agent profusely for requesting the materials at a conference so jam-packed with writers that the agent might well have been pitched to dozens of times in its hallways.

Fie, fie, FIE!!! I find this one particularly offensive, since I know at least three successfully published authors who got their agents this way. But that doesn’t make it right, my friends; it only makes it common.

You’re better than that. I know you are.

Okay, I’m finished tutting; now that we’re all sadder but wiser about the ways in which this wicked, wicked world works, back to how to solicit other writers’ agents.

Yesterday, I talked about the most common advice agents give to aspiring writers: find out who represents your favorite authors, usually through trolling acknowledgments pages, and querying their agents. This can be a dandy way to find a good agent, but do be aware that if the writers whose agents you approach are well-known and/or award winners, their agents may not be altogether keen on picking up the unpublished. Check the standard agents’ guides before you invest a stamp on a query: chances are, too, that the agent representing a major author NOW is not the same one who first took a wild chance on him as an unknown.

Why? Well-established authors often move up to more important agents as they gain prestige, so by the time that a Pulitzer Prize-winner like Alice Walker ends up at the Wendy Weil agency, she may have traded up two or three times. (Or, like John Irving, he may have married his agent, Janet Turnbull Irving of the Turnbull Agency, a feat you could hardly hope to reproduce between now and Christmas.) It’s also not unheard-of for an agent to make her reputation on a single well-known client, and want to concentrate most of her efforts on that client, rather than on new ones. (Crystal ball, why do you keep showing me the image of Alice Volpe of the Northwest Literary Agency, who represents JA Jance? Must be a transmission error.)

My point is, these bestselling authors’ prestige was probably the key that opened the door to the top-flight agencies, rather than their beginning-of-the-career raw talent. Generally speaking, you will be better off if you place the agents of writers on the bestseller lists lower on your priority roster, and concentrate on midlist or first-time authors. If you do decide to go hunting for the big game, bear in mind that that Writers House , for instance, sees a LOT of queries that begin, “Since you represent Ken Follett…” and “Since you sold Nora Roberts’ last book…”

You may not get any points for novelty.

Recall, too, that an agent who represents a bigwig necessarily spends quite a bit of time catering to the bigwig’s business — and thus may well have little time to lavish on a new-but-brilliant client. (If you should ever find yourself within shouting distance of Don Maass of the Donald Maass Agency, ask him about how many days per year he devotes to a client like Anne Perry, as opposed to a client he’s just signed. Go ahead; I seriously doubt he’ll be offended: he talks about it at conferences.) In short, setting your heart on your favorite bestseller’s agent may not be the best use of your time and energy.

Where the “Since you so ably represent Author X, I believe you will be interested in my work…” gambit will serve you best is with lesser-known writers, particularly those who are just starting out. Many agents are nurturing a pet author or two, someone whose books sell only a few thousand copies, but will be breaking into mainstream success any day now.

Where recognition is scant, any praise is trebly welcome, so the clever writer who is the first (or tenth) to identify the up-and-coming writer as THE reason for picking the agent is conveying a subtle compliment to eyes hungry to see it. The agent (or assistant) often thinks, “My, here is a discerning person. Perhaps I should give her writing a chance.”

Good reason to go to public readings of first-time writers, eh? The less famous the writer, the less well-attended the reading usually is. Maybe, if you are very nice (and one of the three people who showed up for the book signing), the brand-new author might even agree to let you begin your query letter, “Your client, Brand-New Author, recommended that I contact you…”

Again, do you think such a letter will get more or less attention than the average query?

A couple of words of warning about using this strategy, however: do NOT imply, even indirectly, that the writer you are citing sent you to her agent UNLESS IT IS TRUE.

Aspiring writers do this all the time; it’s a well enough known dodge that agents routinely ask their clients, “Hey, what can you tell me about this writer?” If you do indeed have a recommendation, great. (And in terms of pure ethics, I think that a famous writer’s telling you at a conference, “Gee, you should talk to my agent” constitutes a recommendation.) If you do not, however, it’s just not wise to tempt fate.

Also, it’s dangerous to use the names of writers whose work you do NOT like as calling cards, and downright perilous to use the names of writers whose work you do not know. Assume that, at some point, you will be having a conversation with the agent about the author whose work you praised.

The more obscure the author, in my experience, the more likely this conversation is to happen. If you hate the prose stylings of Alan Hollinghurst (whose work I love, personally; he’s represented by Emma Parry of Fletcher & Parry), or if you have never read any Dorothy Allison ( Frances Goldin Agency; also represents Barbara Kingsolver, I notice), it’s probably not the best idea to present yourself as an enthusiast to their respective agents, or indeed to anyone who knows their work very well.

Your mother was right, you know: honesty IS the best policy. Go give her a call, and keep up the good work!

Moving with the times

Pardon my couple of days of silence, please: I have been in California for the last week, packing up my mother’s house, and we drove a U-Haul 1000 miles north over the weekend. I’m just a trifle tired, as a result.

Posting from the Napa Valley was a bit of a challenge. Since my mother is something of a Luddite, her house was still not equipped with a phone jack, and thus e-mail capabilities, until four days ago: that’s right, the rotary dial phone was still hard-wired to the wall, believe it or not.

How the phone company people laughed when I told them that.

Some of you may be too young to remember this (and is there a phrase in the English language that makes the speaker sound older than THAT?), but back in my early childhood, the phone company actually owned one’s home phone, at least in my neck of the proverbial woods; the homeowner merely rented it from the company. In our case, the rental was a model from the early 1950s, already installed long before I was born, a huge, black behemoth with a 3-pound receiver and a metal dial so hard to turn that I needed to use a pen for leverage when I was a kid.

Then one day, the phone company (only one at the time, recall) decided to get out of the rental business altogether, and presented its customers with a fateful choice. You could either pay to have your home rewired for the newfangled phones, the kind that required jacks, and go out and buy a new phone to plug into them, or you could go the cheaper route and just purchase the phone you’d always used. My parents opted for the latter, and that’s why the muscles in my upper arms were so abnormally well developed when I was a teenager.

We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but the phone jack decision represented a fork in the road for my family, one that continues to carry repercussions to this very day — or rather, until four days ago, when my stalwart boyfriend whipped out a screwdriver and installed a phone jack in about seven minutes flat.

What kind of repercussions, you ask? Well, maintaining the big black beast (which, incidentally, came north with me in the U-Haul, both because I have fond memories associated with it and because I could use the upper-body workout these days) limited our communication options for more than two decades. Since it was hard-wired into the wall, we could not, for instance, install such cutting-edge communication technology as an answering machine. Nor, since it was not a significantly more complex instrument than the one which Alexander Graham Bell used to transmit, “Watson, come here; I need you,” could we participate in such sterling community activities as navigating through any given business’ voice mail system, because that requires a touch tone phone. (In case you’re curious about how this can possibly be done at all, what the owner of an old-fashioned phone does is wait on the line until the computer finally figures out that no numbers are being punched in. On average, it takes about 20 minutes.)

So why did we put up with it for so long? Well, habit is a powerful thing, and over time, many of us rationalize away inconveniences as inevitabilities, don’t we? My mother, bless her heart, forgot that that she had plunked down the $30 to buy the phone: she believed — until last Tuesday, to be precise, when I flatly forced a phone company employee to explain that what she believed was no longer possible — that the phone company still owned the phone; she only rented it, and thus was in no position to change how she communicated with the outside world. And after a decade or two of trying to convince her otherwise, I simply gave up and bought her a cell phone five years ago.

I needed to be able to leave messages for her.

I can feel some of you out there squirming in your computer chairs, wondering what this has to do, if anything, with marketing your writing, or indeed, with the writing life in general. Just this: a significant proportion of the advice out there on how to land an agent was minted at approximately the same time as my mother’s decision to buy the phone, instead of moving on to new technology. Heck, some of the truisms you hear about how to hook an editor were old by the time that rotary phone was installed.

That is the way with aphorisms: they are notoriously slow to move with the times.

And that is why, dearly beloved, that those time-honored tips that you learned about querying and submission often do not work anymore. The business has simply changed, like phone technology, and as with the phone jack revolution, if you stick with the old ways, you’re going to come across as a bit behind the times to those who are working on the cutting edge.

That being said, I am going to ask you to accept something that would have been anathema according to the old submission rules, so take a deep breath. Here it is: if you are waiting to hear back from an agent or editor who has requested pages, you will be MUCH better off if you keep querying while you wait.

I’m going to be honest with you here: practically everyone else who is giving writing advice at the moment will tell you otherwise. If you’ve been to a writers’ conference or two, you have almost certainly been told not to do this. When an agent asks to see your book, we’ve all been told, it’s downright offensive to show it to someone else; such a request forms a sacred bond between writer and potential agent, one that will be irreparably harmed if the writer keeps submitting. It’s like cheating on your spouse a week before the wedding.

Yes, and phones all used to be hard-wired into walls. Times change, as do the industry’s expectations.

The fact is, most agents currently working in the United States would be ASTONISHED to hear that a truly talented but unagented writer with a strong manuscript WASN’T doing multiple submissions. Agents may not universally understand much about art, except how to make a profit on it, but they do almost to a man enjoy a deep comprehension of the concept of time being valuable. The idea that a good book would remain under wraps for a couple of months because of a brief conversation at a conference would not only flabbergast most of them — they would regard it as poor marketing strategy, as well as a truly puzzling ignorance of how the industry works.

Oh, there are exceptions, of course, the agencies who refuse even to consider multiple submissions. But they are very, very rare — and quite uniformly state in the standard agents’ guides and on their websites that they have such a policy. If they do not state it as a preference, they simply do not operate that way.

Repeat after me: phones no longer have to be hard-wired into walls. Phones no longer have to be hard-wired into walls.

Until you have actually signed with an agent, you are perfectly free to keep shopping your book around. You are more than within your rights to continue querying — as your book’s best advocate, you should.

I don’t care how many times you have heard otherwise on the writers’ grapevine: the myth that you will mortally insult an agent by showing your book to other agents is even more widely reported than the one about how every query at every agency is logged into a national agents’ database, so that agents can check to see who has already rejected any given book. Or the one about how agencies keep such good track of queries and submissions that if you have ever received a rejection from them, you can never try again.

Frankly, I think that the main purpose of these pervasive but untrue rumors is to help writers feel more important (and certainly more memorable) in the face of an industry that often treats them like interlopers. It’s pretty appealing to imagine an agent falling so in love with your book that she becomes jealous over it, isn’t it, flying into a green-eyed rage when another agent so much as flirts with it? Or that your submission was so memorable that screeners at an agency will, although they have rejected the manuscript, remember your name for years to come? Or that your book is so potentially revolutionary to the world of prose that agencies would devote significant resources to working in concert to preventing its ever landing on bookshelves near you?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but statistically, none of those ego-pleasing things are at all likely to happen. As important as a submission is to its author, it is, alas, one of an avalanche to the agent. The average agency receives over 800 queries per week, far too many to remember or even catalogue each rejected one individually. Agencies ask to see dozens of manuscripts per week, at minimum, and reject most of those they receive. They simply could not do business otherwise: in order to make money, an agent has to spend most of her time selling the work of her already-signed authors, rather than picking up new ones.

Oh, and phones plug into jacks now.

Don’t feel bad if you believed the old stories — there was a time when most of them were true. (Well, okay: the national database one has never been remotely true. Was there even a national database for missing children before a year or so ago?) But your chances of succeeding in this business go up significantly if you respond to the current conditions within the industry, not what was true when Carter was in the White House.

Adopt, adapt, and improve, as the Knights of the Round Table used to say. Let’s install a phone jack and communicate like the big kids do, huh?

Which brings me to the blog’s mission for this week: I am going to be talking about ways to find new agents to query, over and above going through the standard agents’ guides alphabetically or simply searching online under “literary agents.” Because for the sake of your book, even if you are biting your nails to the elbow, waiting to hear back from the agent of your dreams, you honestly do need to keep querying.

That’s not being pessimistic; it’s just being practical. And it’s doing what the agent of your dreams is probably already assuming that you’re doing, anyway. Times have changed.

So expect to see some good nuts-and-bolts advice here over the next few days. And in the meantime, keep up the good work

Respect the cheese plate!

Super Reader Toddie wrote in the other day with an excellent question:

“Anne – Do you have any words of wisdom/nice template for the follow-up letter/email itself, when we get the temerity to send it? I waffle as to how much to include in order to stay on the good side of the agent vs. being seen as a nasty pest/provoking an automatic rejection.”

Toddie, thanks for asking this as a follow-up to my dictum on follow-ups: until an agency has had your submission — that’s requested manuscript pages, people, not a query letter — for EITHER 8 weeks (not including the 3-week industry summer vacation) OR half again as long as the agent told you to expect (if the agent told you 6 weeks, give it 9 before you follow up), you may legitimately inquire about it without being a pest. Indeed, you SHOULD inquire about it then, because if you wait much longer, the chances of being able to find it again if it is lost are slim.

Note that I said SUBMISSION, and not query letter. If you haven’t heard back on a query letter in 8 weeks AND you sent a SASE with it, just assume that it was lost. Send another, and don’t bother to mention that you’ve queried before. At worst, you’ll get a peevish little note from a screener, saying he already remembers it, but most of the time, it will simply be read as a fresh query. Screeners’ memories are not that good, and often the bodies screening queries in the summer are not the same ones screening them at the same agency in the winter.

But okay, let’s say that you have been waiting for 8 weeks to hear back on requested materials. Or an agency sent you back your manuscript with no letter attached, or you received your SASE with neither letter nor manuscript in it, or you received a rejection letter clearly intended for someone else’s manuscript (and yes, I’ve seen all of these happen. Agencies move a LOT of paper in any given week). Any of these warrants a follow-up note — and if you received someone else’s materials, you should send them back to the agency right away along with that note, because some poor writer is waiting for those.

Do send a note or an e-mail, rather than calling. Why? Well, if any of the outcomes I have mentioned above is true, you’re going to be letting the agent know that someone at the agency has fallen down on the job. At best, the agent will be annoyed at her screener and apologetic toward you; at worst, the agent will resent the implication that she should be working faster. And in every case, yours will be the ring of the phone that does not herald an offer from a publisher for one of her clients’ books.

So tell me: do you really want to be on the initiating end of that call?

Generally speaking, it’s not in your best interest to call anyone in the industry with whom you do not already have a relationship — and no, a nice conversation at a conference does NOT count, by publishing world standards. This is a fairly formal industry, still run by the written word. So it’s best to be as polite as possible — adhere to the Cheese Plate Rule.

What? Don’t tell me that no one ever explained the etiquette of cheese consumption to you. Really? No one but me was raised regretting the Bourbons? What is the world coming to?

Okay, then, I’ll explain: after the dessert course, the hostess presents the guests with an array of cheeses and small knives, right, so that each guest may serve herself? But each cheese is a different shape – an isosceles triangle of Brie, perhaps, next to a rectangle of triple crème, a square of sage Derby, and a wee round of Stilton — so how do you know how to cut off your individual slice?

By preserving the integrity of the cheese: you cut off your piece so as to allow the cheese from which you slice it to remain essentially the same shape as before you began. Thus, you would cut along one long leg of the triangle for the Brie, so the original remains a triangle, across the short way for the triple crème, a shave along the top of the Derby, a pie slice off the Stilton, etc. That way, when the other diners return for seconds, the cheeses will resemble their original shapes closely enough that each eager eater can hone in instantly upon her favorite from round one.

Curious how I’m going to tie this to agents, aren’t you?

Just as one should preserve the integrity of the cheese by conforming to its original shape, a polite writer should preserve the integrity of the budding relationship with an agent by responding via the medium through which the agent requested the materials. If you queried by regular mail, and you received a mailed request to send more materials, sending a follow-up via regular mail preserves the integrity of the relationship, labeling you as polite and considerate: you are letting the agent determine the extent of your intimacy.

In other words, just because you have an agent’s phone number or e-mail address doesn’t mean you should necessarily use it. Respect the cheese plate!

However, if you have already exchanged e-mail with an agent, it is entirely appropriate to follow up via e-mail. If the agent called you personally to ask to see the rest of the manuscript after you’d submitted the first 50 pages, you could legitimately phone – although personally, I would probably e-mail in this instance.

And no, Virginia, if you met the agent at a conference, you do not have to wait until next year’s conference to follow up (although I have known ultra-polite writers who have done so, actually, much to the surprise of the agents). Preserving the integrity of the cheese in this situation would require following up in the same manner as you submitted your materials: either by regular mail or by e-mail.

You’ll never look at cheese the same way again, I assure you.

So, back to Toddie’s question: what should you say? Well, I’m a big fan of allowing people who have messed up an easy means of saving face, so I would advise setting up a way that the agent can do what you want without having to accept any blame whatsoever for the delay. And heck, a little flattery never hurts, either. (Hey, these are touchy people.) So if an agent has had a submission for 8 weeks, I might send a letter that said:

“Dear Mr. X,
Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of my manuscript, THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. Since eight weeks have passed since I sent it, I am beginning to fear that perhaps it got lost in the mail. Here are the pages you requested again, with another SASE. If you would not mind dropping the enclosed stamped, self-addressed postcard in the mail so that I know that this copy did indeed arrive intact, I would appreciate it.”

And I would send exactly the same pages again. Ditto if I received an empty SASE or somebody else’s manuscript — because, you see, with that many submissions, it actually is possible that the submission did get lost. In the more likely case that it did not, this letter allows the agency to pretend that it did.

And the submission is read by a contrite screener, rather than a defensive one. Everyone wins!

You will notice, I hope, that I have been speaking exclusively of agency submissions here, rather than of editors. If you have submitted to a small press, the method above is fine — although for your own protection, you should always send manuscripts to a press that accepts direct submissions from authors via a form of mail with a return receipt.

However, if you met a kind editor from a major house at a conference who asked to see your pages and have not heard back, no amount of cheese-paring is going to enable you to make the follow-up request sound polite. Because, you see, all of the major houses have policies that preclude their reviewing unagented submissions — which means that in asking to see your work, the editor was doing you a personal favor, by definition. So, technically, he doesn’t have an obligation to get back to you, alas.

Just let it go.

I should mention, for the sake of completeness, that the organizers of this year’s PNWA conference swore up and down that every single editor who attended was in fact empowered to pick up new authors directly. If that is true, and an editor you met there solicited your material, feel free to follow up. However, as none of the major publishing houses have changed their stated policies on the subject in recent months, I tend to doubt that such a follow-up would receive much of a response.

What you should NOT do, under any circumstances, with either an editor or an agent who has already sent back your work, is ask for insight on why. Any reasonably busy person in the industry simply reads too many manuscripts to remember individual ones a week or two after the fact, unfortunately, so this is universally considered an unreasonable request.

You are right to tread with care, Toddie: this is a notoriously easily-offended industry. But if you both follow the Cheese Plate Rule and make it as easy as humanly possible for the recipient of your follow-up request to read your work immediately, you are far more likely to be happy with the ultimate outcome.

Keep up the good work!

Time in the writer’s world

Still hanging in there, patient ones? Yesterday, I was talking about how the typical agent and editor have a VERY different sense of how time passes than, say, the writer whose work is sitting on their respective desks. As maddening as it is for is, a couple of months to turn around a manuscript just isn’t as long to them as it is to us. Today, I would like to discuss how time runs differently for writers than for other mortal souls in other respects.

Have you ever noticed how writers who have recently finished a book speak and even think about the time spent writing as practically endless? Barefoot walks across the Sahara have taken less time, to hear us tell it. Even I, who wrote a memoir that necessarily dredged up some very tender memories in less than a year and a half, first idea to final comma, tend to describe the actual writing process as though it took years upon years. Is it because writing a book ages the writer at an unusually rapid rate, much as moving at the speed of light would make us age backwards, or am I and my writing colleagues, to put it colloquially, whiny wimps?

Because I love you people, I shall spare you the answer that virtually every agent and editor in the business would give to that particular question.

My theory is that most of us exaggerate the time spent writing that first book in order to try to convey to non-writers just how big a chunk of our mind, energy, and soul has gotten sucked into that all-too-often thankless project. Not to mention after writing it, sacre bleu! all of the additional time and anguish to find an agent for it! And then to sell it to a publisher! I think that in our heart of hearts, we want all of those hours to be apparent to outside observers, so that they may be impressed — while, of course, maintaining that writerly fiction that we are such geniuses that our work is invariably perfect on the first draft.

The hours of work, like it or not, are NOT readily apparent to outsiders, sometimes not even those within the industry itself, surprisingly enough. I write comedy, and I can tell you from long, hard experience that most non-writers think jokes flow off my fingertips at the speed of conversation; tell a non-writer that you spent a decade writing a novel, and half the time, he will automatically assume that you are not only lazy, but the universe’s slowest typist.

For most people, the idea of spending hours alone with their thoughts on a regular basis is unfathomable. I am certainly not the only writer in existence whose friends have no idea how she spends her day. Even when our kith and kin catch us in the act, all they really see are hands moving across a keyboard or eyes staring into space. It just doesn’t look like hard work to them. With painters and sculptors and other kinds of artists, it is at least self-evident to outsiders HOW they spend their time.

Coming from an academic background, I used to think that my scholarly friends would understand what I do, but the rules are so different for getting scholarly work published that I have changed their mind. Since “publish or perish” is the rule at the university, academics pretty much automatically get articles and books published if their research is interesting, but the rest of us writers, alas, are not so lucky. When you finish writing your doctoral dissertation, you at least get to wear fancy robes for a day and hear someone in authority say your name out loud in front of a whole lot of people. (I ask you: when’s the last time a large institution set aside a day to celebrate your finishing a novel?) And, unlike academic writing, publication rate is not a particularly good indicator of the quality of the work.

Thus, I think, the extraordinarily high value we writers place on the end product. It is something tangible we can show to people, physical proof that during all of those hours, we were actually DOING something. Not to mention validation of all of our unseen gut-wrenching work.

I have found another line of work with a similar rhythm to ours, though: years of unrecognized work only being retroactively validated by the end product. An old friend from college, a mathematician by trade, called me some time ago to catch up. That was back when I had every reason to believe that my memoir (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK) would be coming out sometime before I have grown a long gray beard, and although it seems astonishing to me in retrospect, I was tremendously impatient for the release date. In talking about it with my mathematician friend, I heard myself perform that writerly expansion of time, making the writing process sound interminable.

Turns out I had mistaken my audience. Mathematicians, he told me, often spend ten or twenty years on a single problem; there are proofs he does not expect to see solved in his lifetime. Physicists, too, routinely linger this long in thought: did you think someone just woke up one day and imagined the quark? Granted, when mathematicians and physicists crack the big problems, they tend to be rewarded lavishly, with hundreds of thousands of dollars, Nobel Prizes, and similar door prizes. But imagine spending all of that time figuring something out, all the while wondering if someone else is going to solve your equation first. All the while waiting for recognition that can only come after years of hard, patient, lonely work, on a project that may never succeed.

Wait a minute — we’re writers! We don’t have to imagine it; we live it. While a few among us will ultimately be rewarded with lots of money (or, possibly, even the Nobel Prize), the vast majority of us will not. And yet, bless us, still we put in the hours, the years, for the same reason that the mathematicians and physicists do: we want to contribute something new to human thought. We want to explain humanity to itself.

What a nice thing for us to do for the world, eh?

No wonder time seems long to us, with such lofty aspirations. And no wonder that it is absolutely vital that we remind ourselves early and often, particularly during those interminable-feeling periods when we are waiting to hear back from an agent or editor, that we are in fact public benefactors. We just aren’t treated like it until we hit the big time – and because most of the people we know don’t really understand what we do before that point, we can sometimes make the terrible mistake of starting to believe that speedy publication is the ONLY valid measure of the quality of writing.


And I can prove it with an anecdote. Once there was a novelist – a very, very good one– who wrote for years before she became an overnight success at the age of 36. That may seem young for success as a writer, by current standards, but bear in mind that she completed her first full novel at 22; it was not published until 14 years later.

Because she believed in her dreams, she did manage to sell another novel in the interim, to a reputable publisher — she completed it at 24, but it took her five years to sell it — but he paid her only the tiniest of advances. Maddeningly, the publisher ended up holding onto the second book for the rest of her life, publishing it only AFTER her subsequent books had attained significant success.

The author, as some of you may have guessed, was Jane Austen. The first book was SENSE AND SENSIBILITY; the second, the one held hostage by the silly publisher until after her death, was NORTHANGER ABBEY.

Try to remember this, the next time you find yourself feeling that the time between you and publication is apparently endless, in defiance of all the laws of physics. Remember this, whenever you are tempted by non-artistic logic to view difficulty in getting a book published as a sure indicator of low writing quality. Would any reader now say that SENSE AND SENSIBILITY was so poorly written that it deserved to be waitlisted for 14 years?

Again, poppycock.

I say let’s hear it for all of us who keep working in the quiet of our solitary rooms. Don’t let anyone tell you that finishing a book isn’t a significant achievement, regardless of the response of the publishing world. If people ask you what you DO in all of those hours sitting at your desk, tell them that you are emulating your Aunt Jane, trying to make time compress and shed a little light on the world.

Keep up the good work!

The end of the annual publishing vacation — and a minor milestone

Well, congratulations, all of you hardy souls who sent out queries and submissions within the last couple of months and have been waiting with various degrees of patience for that agent or editor to return from summer vacation. (If you have read this blog with any regularity, you are probably already aware that almost everyone in the publishing industry goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day. If you’ve received a reply during that time, you have most likely been dealing with the low person on the totem pole at the agency – or the assistant of a higher-up — the one who is left behind to deal with emergent crises and to turn the lights on and off each day.)

Before you celebrate the end of your long, hot wait too heartily, though, do recall that the vast majority of writers in the United States are not in fact aware of this vacation period, any more than they take note of the Frankfurt Book Fair in October (1-2 weeks of non-mail reading), the winter catch-up period (Thanksgiving to Christmas), or the January overload (presses and agencies only have a month to get out last year’s tax info to their writers; also, half the population of North America’s New Year’s resolutions apparently revolve around sending out queries and submissions right after the first).

The industry-savvy just know not to expect much to get done during these times.

However, since submissions go on unabated, or even increased, in the post-conference period just before Labor Day, your average agent walked into her office this morning to find it buried under at least three weeks’ worth of queries and submissions. (I say “at least” because understandably, not everyone works as hard the day before vacation as the Protestant work ethic might dictate.) And all of those interns who were working as unpaid screeners for the summer have now gone back to school.

Intimidating picture, isn’t it? Just THINK of all the trees lying dead on agents’ desks at the moment.

Sad for the trees, yes, but not tremendous news for you, either: you should probably not expect to hear back this week. Or next.

Yes, even if you sent out your requested materials in mid-July. In fact, you might be better off if the agent of your dreams does NOT read your submission this week: during high-volume periods, the likelihood that the query screener or submission reader is going to be feeling put-upon and annoyed is substantially higher. That almost invariably equals a less sympathetic read. On the whole, you’re be happier with the outcome if your reader is feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Yes, I know: it’s horribly frustrating to have to wait so long. Blame it on the rather short-sighted mentality of the industry: as most agents will tell you if pressed (as in under rocks; I’m a very persistent question-asker), it actually isn’t their job to read queries and submissions; technically, that’s prep work for future tasks that might never materialize.

Think about it: realistically, even if the Great American Novel is sitting on their respective desks at this very moment, it’s not going to make money for them for months, or even years. Which lends a certain lack of urgency to plowing through that pile of papers, doesn’t it?

In other words: 99% of the time, the delays have NOTHING to do with you or the quality of your book. Try not to take them personally. Just accept that you have no control over where your query or submission is sitting in that pile.

And do be aware that time when your manuscript is sitting on someone’s desk, awaiting a decision, passes substantially more slowly than time spent in any other way that doesn’t involve incarceration. The Count of Monte Cristo has nothing on us. Before you pick up the phone or log onto your e-mail server to issue a peppery WHAT’S TAKING SO LONG? statement, please, please, please bring this blog to mind and consider the possibility that your sensibilities may be a bit more, well, sensitive than usual. Is this REALLY the best mental state for asking someone to do a favor for you by moving you up in the queue?

Which, in case you didn’t know, what a writer’s question about what’s taking so long sounds like to an agent at any reasonably successful agency: not worry that the submission has been lost, but an unfair request to queue-jump. True, the rule of thumb is that if an agency has had your manuscript for more than 8 weeks, you can legitimately make inquires, but just after the summer holiday, even such a well-justified question can come across as badgering. For prudence’s sake, just subtract that 3-week summer vacation from your 8-week countdown.

Trust me: just as agents’ sense of time is off right now, so is yours. Take a deep breath, then turn away from the phone or e-mail for another week. And if you want to pummel a lavender-scented pillow for a while in the meantime, that might be a good idea, too.

And while we’re at it: this is the 50th blog of my new website! Wahoo!

Yes, I know, it doesn’t look that way, since I’ve been slowly adding the archives from my old blog on the PNWA site. But this is indeed the 50th under the new régime.

To celebrate, why not mention the blog to a couple of your writing friends? I know quite a few my old readers have been having trouble figuring out how to find me — one kind of has to know how to spell my name in order to find the site, and most of my former readers knew me merely as the PNWA’s Guest Writer. So if you would be so kind as to pass the word along (assuming that you’ve been getting something out of the site, of course), that would be a lovely 50th birthday present for this space.

Oh, and in response to a couple of e-mails I’ve gotten recently: if you want to post a question on the site (usually the quickest way to get me to answer them, especially if I’m on the road, as I am frequently), all you have to do is go down to the COMMENTS link at the bottom of each post. Click on that, then scroll down through the already-posted comments there. At the bottom, there will be an ADD COMMENT box. Post your question there, and I’ll get to it as soon as I can!

Happy 50th post, everybody! Please, try not to worry about your submission or query. And keep up the good work!

Preparing to talk with an agent, Part II

On Thursday, I broached the seldom-discussed subject of how to talk to an agent who wants to sign you, a situation I devoutly hope all of you will be facing very soon. Today, I want to go into the logic behind the two major submission strategies favored by agents, individual submissions and multiple submissions, and how the strategy pursued by your agent can affect you and your book. Individual submissions are far and away the more common choice for fiction, so I shall discuss it first.

Let’s assume that you have already signed with Agent X and revised your manuscript to within an inch of its life at X’s behest. Once Agent X is satisfied with the work to be submitted (and be prepared, everyone: getting it into submittable shape can take months or even years; “How much revision do you typically do with your authors before submitting?” might be a good question to ask in advance), then she will pitch your work to an editor — via phone, lunch, coffee, chance meeting at the local deli, the odd conversation at an alumni club meeting, etc. — 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 a while, twiddling its papery thumbs in a pile with other bored 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, it depends. Several months is common, but would you throw something at your monitor if I told you a year is not unheard-of for an individual submission? After all, the editor knows no one else is seeing it, so it’s automatically a lower priority than the submissions with a deadline, right?

This is not, in short, a situation where anyone concerned should be holding her breath, waiting for a response.

Please do be aware, though, that with individual submissions, long waits do not necessarily mean bad news. 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. If the editor just dislikes the writing style, that will probably be determined quickly: often, an editor (or, more commonly, his assistant) will read the first few pages of a submitted manuscript fairly shortly after receiving it to see if there’s any chance at all at he might want to acquire it. If the answer is no, trust me, it will be off his desk in a hurry.

What will NOT happen, however, is that a book will be rejected and STILL remain sequestered in editorial files. Nor will it be read and set aside to think about. Almost universally, long waits are attributable to your book’s not having been read yet, at least by the person empowered to make an actual decision, not to his trying to make up his mind between a couple of projects. (Although, to be fair, at most houses, several people will have to read the book before it lands on the desk of the decision-maker, and that, too, takes time.)

From the writer’s point of view of course, these delays are maddening – all the more so, because the writer is almost never told what is going on with the book during these delays. 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, alas.

In my case, while my novel is making the rounds of publishers, I have a memoir that might conceivably be coming out within the foreseeable future, my next novel to complete, my editing business to run, and this blog to write: 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-to-be for multiple submissions!”

Well, not necessarily. Multiple submission (also known as simultaneous or mass submission) 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 sufficient interest for 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. The threat of another editor’s scooping up the next hot thing can also speed up the reading 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 she will mention it to people she knows. Similarly, if she turned down a book an agent was pitching as the best read since the Declaration of Independence, she’s likely to mention it to her chums. As a result, 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 dizzying, if not downright odd. 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, for instance, all of the editorial assistants will be dressed more or less the same? Beyond me. But remember those beach-combing New Yorkers I told you about? Same mentality.

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 at the supermarket 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’ 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 strategy 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!

The great advance mystery, Part II

When I left off last night, I was initiating you into the mysteries of how advances work, working up to an answer to Jude’s excellent question, ““How much does a first book usually garner in way of an advance?” Today, I want to talk about how the general rules governing advances might apply to you, and how you can prepare yourself for your first publishing contract.

An advance, as I told you yesterday, is essentially an unrepayable loan against the author’s future royalties for a particular book. (Unrepayable in the sense that if your book sales are slow, and your royalty percentage does not reach the amount of the advance, you are not obligated to return the difference to the publishing house.) The more copies the publishing house expects to sell, the higher the advance — with certain exceptions, of course, because this is the publishing industry, and there are exceptions to most rules.

Royalty rates vary, based upon what your agent negotiates into the publication contract, but generally speaking, first-time authors get a lower percentage of the cover price than better-established ones. Also, the author typically gets a significantly higher percentage of hardback sales than trade paper, and trade paper endows a higher percentage than paperback. So the anticipated format of release — which is utterly beyond the author’s control — will have a significant impact upon the amount of the advance a publisher offers.

Everyone with me so far? Okay, let’s get down to dollars and cents.

I could sugar-coat this, but I’m not going to lie to you; if you’re serious about your writing, you deserve to know the truth. The plain fact is, these days, it is EXTREMELY rare for a first book by a non-celebrity to attract a large enough advance to allow its author to quit her day job (yesterday’s first blog to the contrary). Buy a car, maybe — but for fiction, it might not always be a NEW car, if you catch my drift.

Why so low? Because the advance will be a reflection of how the publishing house thinks the book will sell, and a first-time author is usually not walking into the deal with an already-established readership. This is why, for those of you who read Publisher’s Weekly , bloggers tend to command higher advances for their books than other first-time authors, even when those books are simply the blogs repackaged into book form: there is an already identified, preexisting audience for such books (who have, presumably, already read everything the book except for the introduction and Library of Congress number). Unfortunately, while there are quite a few fiction blogs out there, they tend not to command immense readerships, so this route to self-improvement is not available to all writers.

Also, for a first book, the planned print run is generally small. For the purposes of illustration, let’s assume that you’ve written a beautiful, lyrical literary fiction book that the publisher anticipates will sell 3,000 copies. You do the math. If it comes out in hardback (and, increasingly, first novels are being released in trade paper, which automatically means a lower royalty percentage for the author), it might retail for around $24. Let’s assume you got a good contract, and you’re entitled to 10% of the cover price. That’s $2.40 per book, less your agent’s 15%, so $2.04 per book is yours. If every single copy of the initial printing sells, your share would be $6,120.

And at most publishing houses, they would assume that the first print run of LF would not sell out; they’d be banking on readers of your second and third books coming back and buying it after you are better established. So your advance might be in the neighborhood of $2,000 — less, of course, your agent’s 15%.

I heard that gigantic collective gulp out there. Well might you gulp. If only one publisher is interested in a book, there is little incentive for the advance to be larger.

A small advance can be quite a shock to those new to the game, especially if the acquiring editor makes a ton of manuscript revisions a condition of the sale — which is far from uncommon — or with a nonfiction book, where the book is sold not on the finished manuscript, but upon a proposal and the first chapter. Ideally, if you write NF, your agent will fight to try to raise the advance to a point where you could be writing full-time in order to finish the book, but it does not (and I hate to tell you this, but it’s my job) always work out that way.

There is a huge difference, from the writer’s point of view, between being paid a month’s salary to make major revisions and being expected to take an unpaid vacation or use up all of your accrued sick leave to do it. Or, still worse, NOT having benefits and needing to take the time off anyway, or not being able to take any time off at all. How to pay for revision time can be an issue even if the advance is relatively large: even if the sum offered is princely, it’s not as though the author gets the entire amount in a single chunk when the ink is still fresh on the publishing contract.

Was that primal scream I just heard the sound of 500 of you crying, “Wha-?!?”

That’s right: the advance is paid in installments, either in two (one upon contract signing, the second upon the publisher’s acceptance of the manuscript) or three (one upon signing, the second upon acceptance, the third upon publication). To burst even more bubbles, some publishers are notoriously slow in coming up with the dosh; yet another excellent reason to affiliate yourself with an agent, so you have someone fighting hard to extract your money from sometimes recalcitrant publishers’ pockets.

Which continues to be true down the line, incidentally. Royalties are not typically paid to the author as soon as they come in: most publishing contracts specify that they will be paid every six months. So even if your book is selling extremely well, you might not see your share for quite some time.

Have I depressed you into a stupor? Or motivated you to get started on that second book?

The latter, I hope, because the good news is, this is a business where your efforts may be slow to pay off initially, but when they do, they can pay off for decades. Most writers who make a living at it are receiving royalties on multiple past works, not living from advance to advance. So if you’re in it for the long haul, remember, your first book is the Open Sesame to the publishing world, not to the room with the heaps of gold in it.

The Open Sesame is the first necessary step, however, and by being aware that a big advance may not mark the occasion of your first book’s sale, you can concentrate on the achievement itself, rather than the up-front monetary award. I know too many authors who were so intent upon the advance that they were disappointed — disappointed! — at their first publishing offers.

As I’ve said before and shall no doubt say again, if you’re planning a lifetime of writing, it is VITAL to recognize your achievements along the way. Yes, there are overnight successes in this business, but usually, those overnight successes have been toiling for years in obscurity first, either having trouble finding an agent or publisher, or writing books that sold only a few thousand copies each. (Again, you do the math.)

But those small books were successes, too, as was finishing each manuscript, landing an agent, and yes, signing with a publisher for a tiny advance. All should be celebrated, and heartily — because, frankly, are any of us in this ONLY for the money?

That being said, I hope all of us make a lot of money at it.

Tomorrow, I shall wrap up this topic, talking about ways you can find out what first books in your genre are attracting these days and how to talk to a prospective agent about it without sounding greedy and/or unrealistic. Also, I will discuss how agents’ submission strategies can affect the probability of your book’s being the object of competitive bidding, which is the best means to a larger advance.

Keep up the good work!

The great advance mystery

Okay, I didn’t want to leave bad feelings hanging in the air, so I’m posting for a second time today. I hate not feeling upbeat about the publication process, even for a few hours. Onward and upward, as I always like to say.

Thank goodness, then, that intrepid reader Jude wrote in this weekend to ask the burning question on everyone’s mind: “How much does a first book usually garner in way of an advance?” I was shocked — SHOCKED, I tell you — to realize I had NEVER done a post on the subject. So thank you, Jude, for reminding me to do it.

We’ve all heard the stories, haven’t we, of the struggling author plucked from obscurity by the sale of that first book? How Stephen King misheard how many digits were in the advance for CARRIE when his agent called to tell him about it — and then dropped the phone when he finally understood how much money was involved? How Jean Auel’s THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, garnered what was at the time the highest amount ever commanded by a first novel at auction? How occasionally literary novels wow ‘em so much at Farrar, Strauss that the advances run into six figures?

And on a more modest level, how, referring to my last blog, authors get large enough advances to take extended leaves of absence from their day jobs in order to write and revise?

Before I launch into a description of how the average book’s experience is different from these, let me ask a few questions to those of you new to dealing with the publishing industry: are you sitting down? With a cool drink in your hand, and perhaps a teddy bear to clutch? Have you taken any necessary medication to ward off heart attack or stroke?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, let’s back up a little and define our terms, so we can discuss the first-time author’s advance productively.

For those of you new to the biz, it’s called an advance because it is an up-front payment of the author’s future royalties, a percentage of the cover price of the book. Essentially, the amount of the advance is the publishing house’s very conservative estimate of how many copies they expect to move. Why conservative? Because if your book does not sell as well as they think, you don’t have to pay back the difference.

Sort of like THE PRODUCERS, isn’t it? An author could conceivably make more money on a heavily-hyped failure — defined by the industry as a book that was expected to sell 100,000 copies but only sold 10,000 — than on a sleeper that was originally expected to sell 3,000 but actually sold 10,000. What a world!

Actually, that doesn’t happen all that often, since (a) a large advance usually means that the publisher will invest more resources in promoting the book ,and (b) the advance calculations are ALWAYS intended to fall on the short side, so the publisher will not be out of pocket much.

How do they calculate it, you ask? Well, it’s sort of as if your parents sat you down a year before your wedding and said, “Here’s what we expect the cash value of your wedding presents to be. If you will sign the rights to any future presents over to us, we will pay for the wedding — gown, invitations, food, everything — and pay you, say, 7% of the cash value of the first 50 gifts, 10% of the second 50 gifts, and 12% for gifts #101 on. We will give you now, at this very moment, a check for 2% of what we think the ultimate cash value of all of your gifts will be, in return for signing our contract. We’ll pay you the rest of your percentage after the gifts have rolled in. Of course, if you would prefer to pay for the wedding all by yourself, you don’t have to agree to this, but we can afford to throw you a much, much bigger wedding than you can possibly throw for yourself — with invitations sent out to thousands of people on your behalf — which may ultimately translate into many more presents.”

Welcome to the world of publishing. A heck of a lot happens before the author gets to toss that bouquet around.

Tomorrow, I shall go into why it actually is good for you to be aware of the norms of the industry, and how you can go about making yourself a savvier hoper. The more you know, the better you can work the system, and the more of a joy you will be to the agent of your dreams!

Onward and upward, everybody. And keep up the good work.

Manuscript revision VIII: har de har har har

My, I went on a tear yesterday, didn’t I? Well, better get comfy today, too, folks, because this is going to be another long one. Although, as a writer of comic novels on serious topics (my latest is about when the first AIDS death happened at Harvard, hardly inherently a chuckle-fest), the topic du jour is very close to my heart: making sure the funny parts of your manuscript are actually funny, and revising so they will be.

Why, you may be wondering, am I taking up this topic immediately after the issue of freshness of voice? Well, to professional readers, humor is often a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

Hey, there’s a reason that my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, opens with the death of the protagonist’s grandmother in a tragic bocce ball accident in Golden Gate Park. (After consultation with his fellow players, the murderer is allowed to take the shot again, with no penalty.) The smile raised by it buys the novel good will with editors for pages to come.

But if a submission TRIES to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

All very technical, I know. But as I’m relatively certain I’ve said before (about 7000 times, if memory serves), the more you can put yourself in your dream agent or editor’s reading glasses while you are revising your submission, the better off you will be in the long run.

Humor is a great way to establish your narrative voice as unique, but it can be a risky strategy. Why, you ask? Well, unless you are lucky or brave enough to be a stand-up comic, or have another job that allows you to test material on a live audience — okay, I’ll admit it: back when I was lecturing to college students, I used to try out jokes on my captive audience all the time — you honestly cannot tell for sure if the bits that seemed hilarious to you in the privacy of your studio would be funny to anyone else.

Trust me on this one: your first test of whether a joke works should NOT be when you submit it to the agency of your dreams.

So how can you know what works and what doesn’t? Personally, I read every syllable of my novels out loud to someone else before even my first readers or agent see them. If an expected chuckle does not come, I flag the passage and rework it, pronto.

Now, this isn’t a completely reliable test, because I have pretty good delivery (due to all of those years honing my comic timing on helpless college students, no doubt), but it does help me get a sense of what is and isn’t working. Reading out loud is also one of the few ways to weed out what movie people call bad laughs, the unintentional blunders that make readers guffaw.

This strategy only works, of course, if you are open to the possibility that the sentence that you thought was the best one-liner penned in North America since Richard Pryor died is simply not funny, and thus should be cut. Admittedly, this kind of perspective is not always easy to maintain: it requires you to be humble. Your favorite line may very well go; it’s no accident that the oft-quoted editing advice, “Kill your darlings,” came from the great wit Dorothy Parker.

But be ruthless: if it isn’t funny, it should go — no matter how much it makes you laugh. As any successful comedy writer can tell you, in the long run, actually doesn’t matter if the author laughs himself silly over any given joke: the reaction that matters is the audience’s. (And no, the fact that your spouse/mother/best friend laughed heartily does not necessarily mean a line is genuinely funny. It may mean merely that these people love you and want you to be happy.)

Lacking an audience, it is still possible to weed out the unfunny. There are a few common comic mistakes that should set off warning bells while you are editing — because, believe me, they will be setting off hazard flares in the minds of agents and editors.

First, look for jokes that are explained AFTER they appear in the text. Starting with the punch line, then working backward, is almost never as funny as bits told the other way around: a good comic bit should produce a SPONTANEOUS response in the reader, not a rueful smile three lines later. (And to an agency screener, explaining a joke after the fact looks suspiciously like the bit fell flat in the author’s writing group, and the writer scrambled to justify the joke in order to keep it in the book.) If background information is necessary in order to make a joke funny, introduce it unobtrusively earlier in the text, so the reader already knows it by the time you make the joke.

Second, ANY real-life situation that you have imported because it was funny should be read by other people before you submit it to an agent or editor. No fair telling it as an anecdote — have them read it precisely as you present it in the text. Keep an eye on your victims as they read: are they smiling, or do they look like jurors on a death penalty case?

The humorous anecdote that slayed ‘em at the office potluck VERY frequently rolls over and dies on the page. Just because everyone laughed when Aunt Myrtle’s prize-winning carrot-rhubarb pie fell onto your dog’s head at the Fourth of July picnic doesn’t necessarily mean that it will inspire mirth in the average reader. Especially if that reader doesn’t already know that Aunt Myrtle’s pies are renowned for making Mom swell up from an allergic reaction, so Dad generally arranges to have some tragic pie-related incident occur every year — which brings us back to problem #1, right?

Again, this is an assumption problem: there’s a reason, after all, that the language includes the phrase, “you had to be there.”

Don’t feel embarrassed, please, if you find that you have included such a scene: even the pros make this mistake very frequently; you know those recurring characters on sketch comedy shows, the ones that are only funny if you’ve seen them a couple of dozen times? Often, those are real-life characters pressed into comic service. (In the extremely unlikely circumstance that good comedy writer Ben Stiller will one day upon this message in a bottle: honey, that bit with the guy who keeps saying “just do it” has NEVER worked. It wasn’t funny in the often-hilarious THE BEN STILLER SHOW; it still wasn’t funny a decade later, in the not-very-funny STARSKY & HUTCH. Kindly stop telling us how funny it was when the guy did it in real life — it’s irrelevant.)

Third, you should also take a very, very close look at any joke or situation at which a character in the text is seen to laugh immoderately. (And if, after you reread it, you find yourself tempted for even 35 seconds to exclaim, “But everyone laughed when it happened!” go stand in the corner with Ben Stiller.) I like to call this the Guffawing Character Problem; it is ubiquitous in first novels, so much so that agency screeners often just stop reading when it occurs.

Why? Well, to professional eyes, having characters whoop and holler over a joke reads like insecurity on the author’s part: like the laugh track on a TV series, it can come across as merely a blind to cover a joke that actually isn’t very funny. It makes the reader wonder if, in fact, she’s being ORDERED to laugh. Agents and editors don’t like taking orders from writers, as a general rule.

The device also sets the funny bar unnecessarily high: the broader the character’s response, the more pressure on the poor little joke to be funny. If the character’s laugh is even one millisecond longer than the reader’s, it’s going to seem as though the writer is reaching.

Fourth, excise any jokes that you have borrowed from TV, movies, radio shows, other books, or the zeitgeist. And definitely think twice about recycling comic premises from any of the above. This is a freshness issue: by definition, a joke that has been told before by someone else isn’t fresh, right?

This may seem like rather strange advice to those of you who have just spent summer conference season being told endlessly by agents and editors that they are looking for books like this or that bestseller, but honestly, copycat books usually don’t sell all that well. (Witness how quickly chick lit fell off agents’ hot lists, for instance.) As Mae West liked to say, there are a lot of copies out there, but if you’re an original, no one can mistake you for someone else. No one remembers the copies.

Don’t believe me? Okay, name three books patterned after COLD MOUNTAIN. Or SEX IN THE CITY. Or, if you want to go farther back in time, CATCH-22. I thought not.

#5 is really a subset of #4, but it is common enough to warrant its own warning: if you use clichés for comic effect, make ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that you have used them correctly. You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to misreproduce clichés. (I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests and edited hundreds of manuscripts.) If you’re going for a recognition laugh, you’re far more likely to get it with “It’s a dog-eat-dog world” than “It’s a doggie-dog world.”

Trust me on this one. An incorrectly-quoted cliché will kill any humorous intention you had 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 10-foot, not 100-foot. (How would you lift a 100-foot pole without the assistance of a dozen friends, anyway?) When in doubt about the proper phraseology, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

Even better, leave the clichés out altogether. Most agents and editors dislike clichés with an intensity that other people reserve for fiery automobile crashes, airplane malfunctions, and the bubonic plague. They feel (as do I) that a writer worth rewarding with a publishing contract should be able should be able to make it through 50 pages of text without reverting to well-worn truisms, even as a joke.

If you are new to writing comedy, allow me to let you in on a little secret: many jokes that garner chuckles when spoken aloud fall flat in print. This is particularly true of the kind of patented one-liner people on the street are so fond of quoting from their favorite sitcoms, movies, and sketch comedy shows. Take a gander, for instance, at these zingers out of context:

From the 1970s: Excu-u-use me!
From the 1980s: You look mahvelous!
From the late 1990s: I don’t know karate, but I do know cah-razy.

Now, if you close your eyes and conjure up vivid images of Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, and Owen Wilson, respectively, saying these lines, these old chestnuts might still elicit the odd chuckle. Go ahead and chuckle your head off, if you are given to atavistic clinging to the popular culture of your past, but please, I implore you, do not make the (unfortunately common) mistake of reusing these kinds of once-popular catchphrases in your writing. Not only are such bits seldom funny out of context, but it will date your book: what is humor today probably will not be in a decade, and one generation’s humor will not be another’s.

In fact, if you aspire to perfecting your comic voice, it might behoove you to take a good, hard look at the careers of Mssrs. Martin, Crystal, and Wilson — and Mssr. Stiller and Madame Mae West, for that matter. All of them started out as comedy writers, writing material for themselves and others, and all became progressively less funny (in this writer’s opinion) as soon as they started performing comic material written by other people.

An accident? I think not. They became less funny because their individual comic voices had gotten lost.

Oh, the people who were writing for them have tried to recapture their quite distinct original voices, but the copy is never as vivid as the original. Why any of you stopped writing your own material is a mystery to me. But I digress…

And so will an agency screener’s mind digress, if you drag gratuitous pop culture references into your submissions. People tend to have very strong associations with particular periods in their lives, and for all you know, the reference you choose to use may be the very one most favored in 1978 by your dream agent’s hideously unkind ex, the one who lied in court during the divorce proceedings and hid assets so cleverly that their daughter’s college fund had to be used to pay those unexpected medical bills of Mother’s. Then the car broke down, and all of those checks bounced, and the orthodontist tried to repossess Angela’s braces…

See what happened? One little pop culture reference, and POW! You’ve lost your reader’s attention entirely.

So even if you are using pop culture references to establish a particular period, do it with care. Be sparing. Even if your teenage son quoted SHANGHAI NOON endlessly for six solid months while the entire family cringed in a Y2K fallout shelter, do be aware that your reader might not have the associations you do with those jokes. There are a myriad of associational possibilities — and almost none of them will make YOUR work more memorable or seem fresher.

Which brings me full-circle, doesn’t it? One of the advantages to using humor in your submissions is to demonstrate the originality of YOUR voice — not Owen Wilson’s, not Steve Martin’s, and certainly not that anonymous person who originated that joke your best friend from college just forwarded to you. If your individual voice is not inherently humorous, don’t try to force it to be by importing humor from other sources. Lifting material from elsewhere, even if it is genuinely funny, is not the best means of establishing that YOU are funny — or that yours is a book well worth reading.

Or better still, remembering AFTER having read and offering to represent or publish.

People still remember Mae West, my friends, not her hundreds of imitators. Here’s to all of us being originals on the page — and keep up the good work!

Manuscript Revision VI: Not THAT old saw again!

For the last few posts, I have been talking about capturing the elusive quality of freshness in your submissions, and triggers that may lead a harried agent or editor to decide that your book is not fresh — or even is ordinary. To avoid this fate, it’s a good idea to take some pains to avoid these triggers.

Today, I would like to talk about one of the most common ways that fiction and nonfiction submissions both tend to mark themselves as ordinary in the eyes of professional readers: stereotypes.

Television and movies have rather hardened us to stereotypes, haven’t they? In visual media, stereotypes are accepted means of shorthand, a way to convey intended meaning without adding length to the plot or character development for minor characters. And since the audience has, over time, learned this shorthand language, many filmmakers rely upon it heavily.

This is why, in case you were curious, in the TV and movie universe, almost all “regular guys” are invariably commitment-shy, inarticulate about their emotions, and into meaningless sex; pretty women are be shallow, especially if they’re busty; anyone whose name ends in a vowel is Mafia-connected, if the plot requires it; every white Southerner is bigoted, and every politician is corrupt, unless played by the romantic lead. Although men invariably do the proposing in these plots, they all have cold feet just before their weddings (and want to have wild bachelor parties where they sleep with total strangers); all women want to be married, and nearly everyone is a heterosexual, except perhaps the heroine’s best friend, to show that she’s not prejudiced (yes, that’s shorthand, too). And the lead will always, always learn an important lesson — although, of course, in a sitcom, he will have forgotten it utterly by the next week’s episode.

This kind of shorthand requires audience collusion, you know: most of us have become so inured to our complicity in it that we don’t even blink when it happens. The moment that Oliver Stone decided to show us Jim Morrison having a metaphysical experience in THE DOORS, we all already knew that he was going to stick a Native American somewhere in the frame as a spiritual merit badge; all we needed to do was wait for it.

Personally, I find this kind of predictability utterly boring, both on a screen and on the page. As soon as any man in a horror movie is mentioned as having had “a hard childhood,” don’t we all know by now that he’s going to turn out to be the serial killer? Yawn. Don’t we all know instantly that if the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she must be pregnant? Snore. And oh, lordy, as soon as we see Jackie Chan standing next to a ladder, don’t we all instinctively brace for a fight to break out?

Don’t get me wrong — I adore Jackie Chan; he’s a wonderful comedy writer. But after seeing dozens of ladder-related incidents in countless movies throughout his deservedly long career, I suspect that he could garner laughs at this point by walking up to any given ladder, turning to the camera, and inviting the audience to join him in counting until a gang of ruffians appears to beat him up.

And, alas, this type of shorthand is not limited to film. It has found its way — oh, how abundantly — into novels. Many, many writers incorporate these stereotypical plot elements and characters into their work. Why? Because TV and movies have made those stereotypes so very accessible that almost every reader will recognize them.

If I find such predictable elements boring, reading a couple of hundred manuscripts per year, imagine how the redundancy must make the fine people who read thousands and thousands of agency submissions for a living want to tear their own hair out, strand by painful strand. Apart from every other argument against stereotypes, they are incredibly, indelibly, excruciatingly ordinary.

The sad thing is, incorporating them is often unconscious on the part of the writer. It seems natural to us that every professor should be absentminded, every redhead should have a fiery temper, every high school cheerleader be a bimbette who cares only for boys with expensive cars. And, for what it’s worth, there are many, many readers out there who won’t lift an eyebrow if you reproduce these stereotypes in your work.

Unfortunately, the screener at an agency tends not to be among the immobile-eyebrowed masses. Just because a stereotype is widely accepted is no reason that YOU should reproduce it. And here’s a hint: if a joke is permanently associated with a particular character in a movie or a TV show, chances are that it will not reproduce well on paper. It dates the manuscript terribly, and often, it’s not even funny.

And if you are still tempted to incorporate a current pop culture catch phrase, would you mind doing an experiment first? Try writing one of Billy Crystal’s 1980s Saturday Night Live catchphrases into a scene out of context and showing the result to someone unfamiliar with his magnum opus. Like, say, a 13-year-old. No fair explaining why people originally found the joke funny.

You’ll be lucky if it generates even a fleeting smile from a teenager, even with the explanation.

If the idea of your submission’s reading like 150 others your dream agent has seen that week doesn’t scare you into rushing to your computer to do a stereotype-and-pop-culture-cliché search, perhaps this will. Remember how I told you yesterday that a writer can have literally NO idea who is going to read his submission, and so it makes sense to assume that it will be read by someone of a different age, sex, race, political affiliation, etc. than the writer? I advised you then to scan your manuscript for things people unlike you might find inappropriate.

Well, now I am going to ramp up that level of scrutiny. Assume that this crucial reader — crucial because that person will make the decision whether your work is worth promoting or not — believes or does not believe about the patterns of human interaction is a big mystery. Is it really worth gambling that this person is going to, say, laugh at the same jokes as everyone at your office?

Come on — you know what I’m talking about. As anyone who follows standup comedy can already tell you, there are a lot of people out there who will laugh at sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes, as well as other humor not particularly insightful about the nuances of the human condition. (Anyone want to hear about the differences between New York and LA? Anyone? Anyone?) And those jokes — and the assumptions that underlie them — turn up with surprising frequency in the dialogue of novels. When combined with another stereotype or two, it can become a bit much.

Again: how sure are you about who will be reading your submission? Isn’t it just possible that it will be someone who picks up your manuscript longing for it to be the first one this week where a Native American character actually WALKS into or out of a room, rather than appearing mysteriously and/or melting away into the darkness?

I’m not saying that you should strip your sociopolitical views from what you write, or wash all of your characters’ mouths out with metaphorical soap. Definitely not. But do be aware that, like the law professor I mentioned yesterday who struck up a conversation with an unknown colleague without realizing that the unknown’s wife was a Supreme Court justice, your reputation can only be improved by utilizing every ounce of tact at your disposal. Every time you use a stereotype, even one you’ve seen a million times on TV, you run the risk of offending someone’s sensibilities on the receiving end.

That’s just a fact.

And perhaps not for the reasons you’d expect. Many years ago, when e-mail was just starting to become widely used, an old high school classmate of mine looked me up. For awhile, we exchanged messages daily about what was going on in our lives (okay, I’ll admit it, while we were both at work; it’s how office-bound Americans got their revenge for losing coffee breaks and paid overtime before blogging became popular), but like many people, Mark was no creative writer. When he started to run out of material, he started forwarding jokes that he’d found on the Internet.

Jokes, unfortunately, that he would not necessarily tell face-to-face.

Some of those jokes were awfully darned offensive, but my gentle twitting in response did not make him stop sending them. My bouncing them back to him did not work, either. So, on a day when he had sent me three jokes that were sexist and two that were racist, I sent him a reply wherein I detailed exactly WHY the jokes were not funny to me; because I am a funny writer, I even rewrote one of them so it was funny without being offensive, to show him the difference. I thought he’d get a kick out of it and would stop forwarding such jokes to me.

You can see this coming, right? Yep, I had accidentally hit the REPLY ALL button.

When I went to work the next day, my inbox was crammed to the gills with nasty responses from people I had never heard of, much less intended to e-mail. About the nicest thing any of them called me was a snob; many suggested that my hobby was doing unpleasant things to men for which dominatrixes are very well paid indeed, and most seemed to think I was of the canine persuasion. It was, in short, a bloodbath.

It took me several hours to figure out what had happened: apparently, Mark had been routinely forwarding these same jokes to everyone in his office.

How did I figure it out? Two subtle clues: a sharp rebuke from Mark, beginning with, “Are you trying to get me fired?” — and five e-mails from female coworkers of his, imploring me for confidentiality, but thanking me for asking him publicly to stop. According to them, since the boss routinely forwarded (and told) this type of joke himself, they were all afraid that they would get summarily fired for being bad sports if they said anything about it. (I suspect they were right about that, too — the boss had sent me one of the nastiest of the flame-mails I received.)

Now, the content of the jokes is actually not my point here: other people might well have read them without finding them offensive; it’s entirely possible that I was simply the wrong audience for them. The important thing to note is that both Mark and I made, in one sense, the same mistake: we each sent something out assuming that the recipients would take them the same way we did.

And that is always a mistake.

In this case, our respective assumptions merely ended a friendship — which, given that we’d been friends since junior high and this incident occurred when I was in graduate school, was not an insignificant loss. But consider this: was what either of us did really so unlike what writers who include stereotyping in their work do every day when they submit to agents and editors?

When you send in a submission, you have even less idea about the interpersonal politics and personalities at any given agency or publishing house than I did all those years ago about the corporate culture of Mark’s company. You may not intend to hurt feelings or raise hackles, but honestly, you have no way of knowing that the agent’s assistant WASN’T a cheerleader in high school — and class valedictorian to boot. Maybe your use of an ostensibly harmless bimbo character will be one use too many for her — because maybe, just maybe, that reader is the kind of really nice person who worked at Mark’s company, who has been shrugging off offense after offense for years, because that’s how you get along at a job.

You never can tell.

Besides, you’re more talented than that. You don’t need to resort to stereotypes to get your point across, any more than you need to have your characters mouth clichés instead of original dialogue. You’re more than capable of making your characters your own, without taking the easy way out of invoking stereotypes as a substitute for character development.

I just know it. Keep up the good work!

Manuscript Revision V, and the dreaded summer sabbatical

Well, it’s official: the annual exodus of the publishing world from Manhattan has begun. From now until after Labor Day, it’s a no-man’s land, a desert where underpaid agency interns rule the office for a couple of weeks and it’s well-nigh impossible for an editor who has fallen in love with a book to pull together enough bodies for an editorial meeting to acquire it.

Not everyone in the industry is on vacation, of course, but most are. Let’s just say that if you yodeled in my agency right now, the echo would astonish you.

What does this mean for writers, in practical terms? Well, agencies are not going to be getting around to a whole lot of submissions over the next couple of weeks, so if you haven’t sent your post-conference queries or submissions out, and the agent you’re querying isn’t low man on the totem pole at the agency (often the one who is left behind to guard the fort in August), you might want to take a couple of weeks to revise before sending it. And if you HAVE sent a submission, it’s very, very unlikely that you will hear back before Labor Day week.

Yes, even if you sent it a month ago.

And yes, they’re doing this to everybody. And oh, yes, they ARE aware that they’re dealing with people’s dreams. Doesn’t stop ‘em from going on vacation.

Back to matters that we writers CAN control. On Wednesday, I was talking about the importance of freshness in your manuscript, discussing what the industry does and does not consider fresh enough to get excited about in a submission. Over the next couple of days, I want to discuss factors that can kill the perception of freshness faster than an agency screener can shout, “NEXT!”

To introduce you to the first good-feeling assassin, let me tell you a story.

In the mid-1990s, a professor at Harvard Law School took a sabbatical and joined the faculty at Georgetown for a year. After he had been installed in his new office for a week, he realized that he was lonely. He’d had tenure for so long at Harvard that he no longer remembered what it had been like to be the new guy in the faculty lounge — and it was miserable.

One day, determined to make friends, he walked into the faculty lounge, sat down next to another law professor, and introduced himself. His new acquaintance seemed friendly enough, but the Harvard professor was pretty rusty at small talk. When they had exhausted discussion about the latest Supreme Court ruling (not too exciting, but hey, they were law professors), he cast his mind back to the last time he had been the new guy, back in the early 1970s, and resuscitated a question that had worked like a charm in the faculty lounge then: “So, what does your wife do?”

The Georgetown professor broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggles, as if the Harvard prof had just made the funniest joke in the world.

The Harvard professor didn’t know whether to be piqued or amused. “I’m sorry — I don’t get the joke. Doesn’t your wife work?”

“Oh, she does,” the Georgetown prof replied dryly, fixing our hero with a glance of singular disdain. “You might possibly have heard of her work, in fact.” The Harvard professor had been talking for the last half an hour to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s husband.

Now, the story may be apocryphal (although I had it from someone who claimed to have been the first professor’s research assistant), but the moral is clear: when speaking to strangers, it behooves you to watch what you say, because you do not necessarily know what their backgrounds or beliefs are. Keep those feet far away from your mouth.

Translation for those submitting to agencies or publishing houses: NEVER assume that your reader will share your sex, gender (yes, they mean different things, technically: sex is biological, gender is learned), ethnicity, generation, social class, educational background, sociopolitical beliefs, political party affiliation, views about the Gulf War, or familiarity with pop culture. Because, you see, it is entirely possible that the person who will end up screening your submission will not be akin to you in one or more of these respects.

Nothing hits the reject pile faster than a manuscript that has offended its reader — unless it is one that an agency screener believes will offend book buyers.

In many ways, this is counterintuitive, isn’t it? As everyone who has ever walked into a bookstore knows, controversy can fuel book sales tremendously. (Well, okay: everyone who has ever walked into a bookstore EXCEPT my publisher knows this.) Once controversial works are out, they tend to sell well — readers, bless their hearts, will often buy books they know will make them angry enough to debate. However, writing on controversial subjects often has a substantially harder time finding a home with an agent – and rather seldom wins contests, I have noticed.

I am not saying that dull, safe writing on mainstream subjects invariably carries off all the trophies — far from it. You can write about child abuse, neglect, murder, and rape until you’re blue in the face without most contest judges becoming offended, and certainly without raising a blush in the average agent. We’ve all read so much about these grisly topics that while the individual stories remain shocking, the concept isn’t; at this point, they’ve become such familiar scenarios that the trick is presenting them in a fresh way. You can write about losing your virginity, cheating on your taxes, and defrauding investors — and agents and editors will merely want to hear how your take on these once-taboo subjects is different from what’s already on the market.

You cannot, however, get away with presuming that any given reader (read: agent, editor, or contest judge) will share your political or social beliefs, however — or, for that matter, anything else in your background or mindset. You can try, like the Harvard professor, to pull off assuming that everybody else’s wife is like your own, but like him, you run the risk of being dismissed as ignorant, insensitive, or worse.

I am most emphatically NOT suggesting that you gut your work of any controversial content, nor am I talking about (and I hate this term) political correctness. I am talking about its being very much in your interests to explain your views thoroughly for the sake of readers who might not share your life experiences or views.

Or who, alternatively, might be VERY familiar with your subject matter, just as the unknown Georgetown professor was unexpectedly knee-deep in Supreme Court lore. Make sure that your submission is respectful of readers at both ends of the familiarity spectrum.

Recognize that your point of view is, in fact, a point of view, and as such, naturally requires elucidation in order to be accessible to all readers.

And do be especially aware that your submission may as easily be read by a 23-year-old recent college graduate with a nose ring and three tattoos as by a 55-year-old agent in Armani. Ditto for contest entries: I can’t tell you how many entries I’ve screened as a judge that automatically assumed that every reader would be a Baby Boomer, with that set of life experiences. As a Gen Xer with parents born long before the Baby Boom, I obviously read these entries differently than an older (or younger) person would. As would a judge, agent, or editor in her late 60s.

See what I mean?

We all have different takes on what we read, and, perhaps more importantly for the sake of your book, different ideas of what is marketable, as well as notions about to whom it might be sold. If an agent or editor thinks that your take on a subject might offend the book’s target market, s/he is unlikely to fall in love with your book enough to want to pick it up.

There are a few simple ways you can minimize the possibility of triggering either the highly sensitive oh-no-it-will-alienate-readers response or an agency screener’s personal hackles. Avoid clichés, for starters, as those tend to be tied to specific eras, regions, and even television watching habits. They date you, and in any case, as most agents will tell you at length if you give them the opportunity, the point of submission is to convey the author’s thoughts, not the common wisdom.

If you can get feedback on your submission from a few readers of different backgrounds than your own, you can easily weed out references that do not work universally before you send the work out. Most writers learn this pro’s trick only very late in the game, but the earlier you can incorporate this practice into your writing career, the better.

Does this seem inordinately time-consuming? It need not be, if you are selective about your readers and give them to understand that they should be flattered that you want their input.

I speak from experience here: I do practice what I preach. I routinely run every chapter of my novels past a wonderful writer who is not only 20 years older than I am, but also grew up in a different country. When I am writing about the West Coast, I garner input from readers raised out East. My female protagonists always traipse under the eyes of both female and male first readers. Why? So I am absolutely sure that my writing is conveying exactly what I want it to say to a broad spectrum of readers.

Third, approach your potential readers with respect, and keep sneering at those who disagree with you to a minimum. (Which is surprisingly common in manuscripts.) I’m not suggesting that you iron out your personal beliefs to make them appear mainstream — agents and editors tend to be smart people who understand that the world is a pretty darned complex place. But watch your tone, particularly in nonfiction, lest you become so carried away in making your case that you forget that a member of your honorable opposition may well be judging your work.

This is a circumstance, like so many others, where politeness pays well. Your mother was right about that, you know.

Finally, accept that you cannot control who will read your work after you mail it to an agency or a publishing house. If your romance novel about an airline pilot happens to fall onto the desk of someone who has recently experienced major turbulence and resented it, there’s really nothing you can do to assuage her dislike. Similarly, if your self-help book on resolving marital discord is screened by a reader who had just signed divorce papers, no efforts on your part can assure a non-cynical read. And, as long-term readers of this blog already know, a tongue just burned on a latté often spells disaster for the next manuscript its owner reads.

Concentrate on what you can control: clarity, aptness of references, and making your story or argument appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

Keep up the good work!

Manuscript Revision IV: Preserving that freshness seal

Welcome back to my continuing series on revising your manuscript for more successful submissions. Today, I want to talk about not the nit-picking little concerns that agents and editors so love to jump upon as evidence of a manuscript’s not being ready for print — remember, the first reader at an agency or publishing house is usually given explicit criteria for weeding out submissions, so the screener is often not looking to like the book in front of him — but a larger issue that traditionally causes editorial eyes to roll and agents to mutter, “Oh, God, not another one.”

The time has come, my friends, to speak about freshness: the industry term for projects that are exciting because no one has written something like it before — or hasn’t made a success with something like it recently.

Freshness is one of those concepts that people in the publishing industry talk about a lot without ever defining with any precision. It is not synonymous with cutting-edge — although cutting-edge concepts are often marketed as fresh. And it doesn’t, contrary to popular opinion amongst late middle-aged writers, mean something aimed at the youth market. Nor does it mean original, because originality, in the eyes of the industry, often translates into the kind of strange topics that don’t make sense within either a Manhattan or LA context: cow tipping, for instance, or rural tractor-racing. Although, of course, in some cases, all of these things are true of fresh manuscripts.

Confused yet? Don’t worry; you will be.

As a basic rule of thumb, a fresh story is either one that has never been told before, never been told from that particular point of view before, or contains elements that make the reader say, “Wow — I didn’t expect THAT.”

Yet, as I pointed out above, original stories are not automatically fresh ones. In the eyes of the industry, a fresh story is generally not an absolutely unique one, but a new twist on an old theme: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, to use a common example, is certainly not the first tragedy ever written about socially frowned-upon love, or even the first one involving either cowboys or two men. It was the combination of all of these elements — and, I suspect, the fact that it was written by a woman, not a man — that made for a fresh story.

Had it been more explicitly sexual, or overtly political, or had a happy ending, or even been written by an author less well-established than Annie Proulx, I suspect that publishing types would have dismissed it as weird.

Weird, incidentally, is defined even more nebulously than fresh in the industry lexicon: it is anything too original (or seldom written-about) to appeal to the agent or editor’s conception of who buys books in the already-established publishing categories. Graphic novels, for instance, were considered until about 15 years ago not to have broad enough market appeal to be comfortably sold in mainstream bookstores, and thus were weird; practically overnight, though, a few successful graphic novels (Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning MAUS or THE DARK KNIGHT, anyone?) established the genre, and editors started searching eagerly for fresh concepts.

THE DARK KNIGHT is a useful example, I think, of how a creative author can turn a well-worn story into a fresh concept. For those of you not familiar with it, THE DARK KNIGHT was a retelling of the story of Batman — who, at the time, had a sort of friendly, light-hearted reputation from both decades of comic books and a tongue-in-cheek TV show. Batty was, by the 1980s, considered pretty old hat (or old mask-with-pointed-ears, if you prefer.) But in THE DARK KNIGHT, the focus switched from Batty’s do-gooding to his many, many deep-seated psychological problems — after all, the guy gets his jollies by hanging out in a damp cave, right? That can’t be healthy. He is not saving Gotham time and time again because he happens to like prancing around in tights; it serves to ease his pain, and he very frequently resents it.

And that, my friends, was a fresh take on a well-traveled old bat.

It is endlessly fascinating to me that when people in the industry talk about literary freshness, they almost invariably resort to other art forms for examples. WEST SIDE STORY was a fresh take on ROMEO AND JULIET; RENT was a fresh retelling of LA BOHÈME, which was in itself a retelling of an earlier book, Henri Murger’s Scenes del la Vie de Boheme; almost any episode of any sitcom originally aired in December is a fresh take on A CHRISTMAS CAROL. (Or maybe not so fresh.) And can we even count how many Horatio Alger-type stories are made into movies — like, say, ERIN BROCKOVICH?

Hey, just because a story is true doesn’t mean its contours do not conform to standing rules of drama.

Like it or not, folks in the publishing industry just love the incorporation of contemporary elements into classic stories. There is just no other way to explain industry enthusiasm for BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY (well, okay, the sales might have had something to do with it), which reproduced the plot of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE so completely that many of the characters’ names remained the same. (Trust me, Darcy is not all that common a first name for Englishmen.) In the mid-1980s, publishing professionals regularly described THE COLOR PURPLE as “THE UGLY DUCKLING with racial issues” — dismissive of the great artistry of the writing, I thought, and the fact that THE UGLY DUCKLING in its original form is absolutely about race.

That sad little signet was on the receiving end of a whole lot of nasty ethnic stereotyping, if you ask me.

I hear some of you murmuring out there: “Gee, Anne, this would be very helpful indeed if I were starting a book from scratch. But at the moment, I am packaging an already-existing manuscript for submission to an agent or editor. How does the freshness issue affect ME?”

A fine question, and one that richly deserves an answer. Actually, it is almost more important to consider your story’s freshness at the point that you are about to send it out the door than when you first start the process — because once the manuscript is complete, it is far easier to see where the storyline (or argument; the freshness test applies to NF, too) falls into too-familiar grooves. Because absolutely the last thing you want an agent to think when reading your submission is, “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” right?

Since a big selling point of a fresh manuscript is its surprise, you will want to play up — both in your marketing materials and your editing — how your manuscript is unique. And quickly. If you begin it like just another Batman story, the reader is going to have a hard time catching on where your work is fresh and different from what is already on the market.

And yes, Virginia, you DO need to make the freshness apparent from page 1. I hate to be the one to tell you this (and yet I seem to do so very frequently, don’t I?), but people who work in the publishing industry tend to have knee-jerk reactions, deciding whether they like a writer’s voice or story within a very few pages. It’s not a good idea, generally speaking, to make them wait 50 pages, or even 5, to find out why your submission is special — and so very, very marketable.

Oh, dear, I’m afraid I’ve made the average agency screener sound a bit shallow, a trifle ill-tempered, a smidge impatient. Oh, I WOULD hate it if you got that impression.

Read over your manuscript, and ask yourself a few questions — or, better yet, have a reader you trust peruse it, and then start grilling. How is this book unlike anything else currently in print within its genre? Is that difference readily apparent within the first chapter? Within the first couple of pages? In the first paragraph? Are the unusual elements carried consistently throughout the book, or does it relapse into conventional devices for this kind of story?

Would, in short, a well-read reader be tempted to say, “Oh, I’ve seen this a dozen times this month,” or “Wow, I’ve never seen this before!” upon glancing over your submission?

If the story is a familiar one, is it being told in a new voice? If the story is surprising and new, are there enough familiar stylistic elements that the reader feels grounded and trusts that the plot will unfold in a dramatically satisfying manner? (And yes, you should be able to answer this last question in the affirmative, even if your book takes place on Planet Targ.)

It’s better to ask these questions BEFORE you send out your work, of course, than after, because as that tired old aphorism goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression. Make sure those early pages cry out, “I’m so fresh you could eat me!”

Yes, I know: I sound like your mother before you went out on your first date. You’re not going to wear THAT, are you?

I also know that getting hooked up with an agent with whom you plan to have a lifetime relationship via a level of scrutiny that seems suspiciously like speed-dating (oh, come on: that analogy has never occurred to you when you were pitching at a conference?) may strike you as a bad idea…  well, I have to say I agree. All of our work deserves more careful reading than the average agency gives it. We are all, after all, human beings, timorous souls who are putting the fruits of our stolen hours on the line for scrutiny. Our work should be treated with respect.

And oh, how I wish I could assure you that it always will be. But don’t you think it is prudent to prepare it for the dates where it won’t be? Button up that top button, and axe the nail polish.

In my next, more on an automatic freshness-spoiler seldom mentioned in writing classes. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The coup de grace: a professional title page

Yes, I know: I was going to move on to writing about polishing up those first 50 pages of your submission. However, before I do, I want to spend a day talking about the very first thing an agent or editor will see in your submission: the title page.

And yes, Virginia, your submission needs one. Even if you are sending the second 50 pages, your manuscript is simply undressed if it goes out without a title page. Why? Because, contrary to popular belief amongst writers, it is not just a billboard for your book’s title and your chosen pen name. It’s both the proper place to announce how you may best be reached and a fairly sure indicator of how much experience you have dealing with the publishing industry.

(And no, for those of you who have been asking about it, Anne Mini is not a nom de plume, but the name on my birth certificate, believe it or not. My parents were so literarily-oriented that my father demanded to be led to a typewriter before they settled on a name, to see how each of the top contenders would look in print. The better to grace future dust jackets, my dear.)

Thought I was just going to leave that startling earlier statement hanging in the air, didn’t you? The title page of a manuscript tells agents and editors quite a bit about both the book itself and the experience level of the writer. Why? Well, there is information that should be on the title page, and information that shouldn’t; speaking with my professional editing hat on for a moment, virtually every manuscript I see has a non-standard title page, so it is literally the first thing I, or any editor, will correct in a manuscript.

I find this trend sad, because for every ms. I can correct before they are sent to agents and editors, there must be hundreds of thousands that make similar mistakes. Even sadder, the writers who make mistakes are their title pages are very seldom TOLD what those mistakes are. Their manuscripts are merely rejected on the grounds of unprofessionalism, usually without any comment at all. I do not consider this fair to aspiring writers — but once again, I do not, alas, run the universe, nor do I make the rules that I report to you. If I set up the industry’s norms, I would decree that every improperly-formatted title page would be greeted with a very kind letter, explaining what was done wrong, and saying that it just doesn’t count this time. Perhaps, in the worst cases, the letter could be sent along with a coupon for free ice cream.

But I digress.

The single most common mistake: the title page should be in the same font and point size as the rest of the manuscript — which, as I have pointed out before, should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier for a submission, since these are the standards for the industry. (The logic is complicated here, but in essence, it boils down to an affection for the bygone days of the typewriter: Times is the equivalent of the old elite typeface; Courier is pica.)

Therefore, your title page should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. All of it, even the title. No exceptions. DEFINITELY do not make the title larger than the rest of the text. It may look cool to you, but to professional eyes – and I hate to tell you this — it looks rather like a child’s picture book.

Do I hear disgruntled voices out there? “Oh, come on,” I hear some of you saying, “the FONT matters that much? What about the content of the book? What about my platform? What about my brilliant writing? Surely, the typeface choice pales in comparison to these crucial elements?”

You’re right, of course — it does, PROVIDED you can get an agent or editor to sit down and read your entire submission. Unfortunately, though, this is a business of snap decisions, where impressions are often formed, well, within seconds. If the cosmetic elements of your manuscript imply a lack of knowledge of industry norms, your manuscript is entering its first professional once-over with one strike against it. It seem be silly — in fact, I would go so far as to say that it IS silly — but it’s true, nevertheless.

Even queries in the proper typefaces tend to be better received. If you are feeling adventurous, go ahead and experiment, sending out one set of queries in Times New Roman and one in Helvetica. As any agency screener will tell you after you have bought him a few drinks (hey, I try to leave no stone left unturned in my quest to find out what these people want to see in submissions), the Times New Roman queries are more likely to strike agents (and agents’ assistants, once they sober up again) as coming from a well-prepared writer, one who will not need to be walked through every nuance of the publication process to come.

That being said, as in so many aspects of the publishing industry, there is actually more than one way to structure a title page. Two formats are equally acceptable from an unagented writer. (After you sign with an agent, trust me, your agent will tell you which one she prefers.) The unfortunate technical restrictions of a blog render it impossible for me to show it to you exactly as it should be, but I shall a new page on this site as soon as I can figure out how to do it, to show you what a title page should look like. I shall describe them here, though, first:

I like to call Format #1 the Me First, because it renders it as easy as possible for an agent to contact you after falling in love with your work. In the upper left-hand corner, you list:
Your name
Your address
Your phone number
Your e-mail address.

In the upper right-hand corner, you list:
The book category (see how important it is to be up front about it? It’s the very top of the title page!)
Estimated word count.

Skip down 10 lines, then add, centered on the page:
Your title
(Skip a line)
(Skip a line)
Your name (or your nom de plume)

There should be NO other information on the title page in Format #1.

Why, you may be wondering, does the author’s name appear twice on the page? For two reasons: first, in case you are writing under a name other than your own, as many writers choose to do, and second, because the information in the top-left corner is the contact information that permits an agent or editor to acquire the book. Clean and easy.

As I have mentioned before, approximate word count appear more professional to agents and editors’ eyes than exact ones. This is one of the advantages of working in Times New Roman: in 12-point type, everyone estimates a double-spaced page with one-inch margins in the business at 250 words. If you use this as a guideline, you can’t possibly go wrong.

Do not, under any circumstances, include a quote on the title page. Many authors do this, because they have seen so many published authors use quotes at the openings of their books. If you want to use a quote at the opening of the book, center it on a separate page that follows the title page.

While the Me First format is perfectly fine, the other standard format, which I like to call the Ultra-professional, is more common in the industry these days. It most closely replicates what most agents want their authors’ ultimate manuscript title pages to look like. In the upper right corner:
Book category
Word count

(Skip down 12 lines, then add, centered:)
Your title
(Skip a line)
(Skip a line)
Your name (or your nom de plume)

(Skip down 12 lines, then add in the lower right corner:)
Your name
Line 1 of your address
Line 2 of your address
Your telephone number
Your e-mail address

Again, there should be NO other information, just lots and lots of pretty, pretty white space. After you sign with an agency, your agent’s contact information will appear where your contact information does.
That’s it, my friends – the only two options you have, if you want your title page to look like the bigwigs’ do. And believe me, you do. Try formatting yours accordingly, and see if your work is not treated with greater respect!

Keep up the good work!

Waiting by the telephone

A faithful reader who, for reasons best known to himself, has requested anonymity, wrote in with a couple of questions that I think would be of interest to everybody. So I have changed the identifiable information to preserve the secret author and agent, and am reproducing the essential questions here:

“Agent Abraham Lincoln requested the full manuscript and I sent it. How long should I wait for him to make contact? Is it all right for me to call? I don’t want to pressure him, but I am desperate to move forward with the project. Oh, the anxiousness. Ah, the sleepless nights. I have never wanted anything more than to be a published author… I know there are no set timelines for responses and such, but roughly how long should I wait before moving on?”

Mystery Reader, there are short answers and long answers to these questions. The short: don’t even think about following up until after Labor Day, and when you do DON’T CALL; e-mail or write.

In the meantime, Mysterious One, you SHOULD move on: get back to your writing projects. You might even consider sending out a few more queries, just in case.

On to the long answer. Badgering an agent interested in your work will definitely not get it read faster, so it is not a good course to pursue. In fact, most agents will regard follow-up calls or too-soon e-mails as a sign that the prospective client does not understand how the business works — which, trust me, is not an impression you want to give an agent you would like to sign you.

Why? Well, it tends to translate, in their minds, into a client who is going to require more attention at every step of the process. While such clients are often rewarding on many levels, they are undoubtedly more expensive for the agency to handle, at least at first. Think about it: the agent makes his living by selling books to publishing houses. This means a whole lot of phone calls, meetings, and general badgering, all of which takes a lot of time, in order to make sales. So which is the more lucrative way to spend his time, hard-selling a current client’s terrific novel to a wavering editor or taking anxious phone calls from a writer he has not yet signed?

Trust me, agent Abraham Lincoln already knows that you want to be published more than anything else in the world; unfortunately, telling him so will not impress him more. How does he know? Because he deals with authors all the time — and this is such a tough business to break into that the vast majority of those who make it to the full-manuscript request are writers who want to be published more than anything else in the world.

All you can do is wait, at least for 6 weeks or so. The reason that there are no set timelines, except for ones that the agents may tell you themselves, is that a TREMENDOUS amount of paper passes through the average agency’s portals, and yours is probably not the only full manuscript requested by Mr. Lincoln within the last couple of months. Yours goes into the reading pile after the others that are already there — and if that feels a little unfair now, think about it again in a month, when a dozen more have come in after yours.

Most agents read entire manuscripts not at work, but in their off hours. In all probability, yours will not be the only ms. sitting next to his couch. Also, in a big agency like Lincoln’s, it’s entirely possible that before it gets to the couch stage, it will need to be read by one or even two preliminary readers. That takes time. Furthermore, the vast majority of the publishing industry goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day, so there is always a big crunch around this time of year.

He may well read it on vacation, but actually, with an entire manuscript, I would be extremely surprised if you heard back in under a month. But if he didn’t give you a timeframe, 6 weeks is the industry norm to wait. In the meantime, though, you are under no obligation not to query or follow up with any other agent.

That is SO easy for an excited writer to forget: until you sign an agency contract, you are free to date other people, literarily speaking. Really. No matter how many magical sparks there were between the two of you at your pitch meeting, even if Mr. Lincoln venerable eyes were sparkling with book lust, it honestly is in your best interest to keep querying other agents until Mr. Lincoln antes up a firm offer. Until that ring is on your finger, keep playing the field.

And where does that leave you? Waiting by the phone or mooning by the mailbox, of course.

For those of you who have never been a heterosexual teenage girl, this may be a new problem, but for those who have, this probably feels very, very familiar. It’s hard to act cool when you want so much to make a connection. Yes, he SAID he would call after he’s read my manuscript, but will he? If it’s been a week, should I call him at the agency, or assume that he’s lost interest in my book? Has he met another book he likes better? Will I look like a publication-hungry slut if I send an e-mail after three weeks of terrifying silence?

Don’t sit by the phone; you are not completely helpless here. Get out there and date other agents, so that when that slow-reading Mr. Lincoln DOES call, you’ll have to check your dance card.

Of course, if another agent asks to see the manuscript, it is perfectly acceptable, even laudable, to drop Mr. Lincoln an e-mail or letter, letting him know that there are now other agents checking out your work. For the average agent, this news is only going to make your work seem all the more attractive.

Even after 6 weeks, you might want to e-mail, instead of calling. The last thing you want is to give the impression that you would be a client who would be calling three times per week. Calling is considered a bit pushy, and it almost certainly won’t get your work read any faster. If you haven’t heard back, it’s not because he’s thinking about it; it’s because he hasn’t read it yet, so most agents get a bit defensive if you call.

Like, if memory serves, teenage boys. Oh, how I wish we had all outgrown that awkward stage.

I know that this isn’t exactly the answer you wanted, Mystery Reader, but please, try to chill out for the next few weeks. Get working on your next book, because if this goes through, you will want to have it well in motion.

And be very, very proud of yourself for getting to the point in your writing that an agent as prestigious as Mr. Lincoln WANTS to read the whole manuscript. He doesn’t ask just anybody on a date, you know.

Try to be patient, and keep up the good work!

P.S.: if you have questions about your writing, querying, submission, etc. processes, please post them as comments here on the blog. That way, everyone can learn together!