Formatpalooza, part V: the first thing Millicent the agency screener spots in a submission — and no, it’s not writing talent

Percival Grail Dove psychadelic

How well have your delicate writerly sensibilities been absorbing from the last few posts’ worth of inoculation with professional formatting know-how? Yes, Virginia, it has been a whole lot of information to take in all at once, now that you mention it. It may have left a bit of a sore place, but much better a one-time quick sting than engendering years of rejection without knowing why, I always say. Once you’ve gotten exposed to the correct way to format a book manuscript, chances are that you’ll be immune to formatting problems in the future.

Why, yes, I have run that metaphor right into the ground. How kind of you to notice.

There’s a reason I’m hammering on it so hard, however: one of the great fringe benefits of inoculation is that, as unpleasant as it may have been at the sticking-point, so to speak, the stuck usually doesn’t have to think all that much about smallpox or whooping cough for quite a long time afterward.

So too with standard format for book manuscripts — once a writer gets used to how a professional submission is supposed to look, everything else is going to look wacky. As I have been threatening imploring you to believe promising you repeatedly every few minutes while running through the standard format strictures, once you get used to how a professional manuscript is put together, any other formatting is going to feel downright uncomfortable.

And to prove it to you, I’m going to spend the rest of this series let you see precisely how different standard format and non-standard format appears to the pros. In the spirit of that old chestnut, SHOW, DON’T TELL, I shall be sliding in front of your astonished eyes pages that follow the rules right next to ones that don’t, for side-by-side comparison purposes.

That way, you’ll learn to tell which is which on those numerous future occasions when I don’t happen to be standing next to you, whispering in your ear. (I find that writers on a deadline tend to work better with minimal nearby murmurings.)

But before I launch into it, the usual caveats: what I’m about to show you relates to books, book proposals, and other occupants of query or submission packets only, folks. At the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself and repeating myself), standard format for manuscripts is just that, a set of guidelines for how book submissions should be formatted, not short stories, screenplays, poetry, magazine and newspaper articles, or anything else.

If you’re looking for formatting tips for any of the latter, run, don’t walk, to consult with those knowledgeable souls who deal with that kind of writing on a day-to-day basis. By the same token, it would be a trifle silly to look to those who deal exclusively with other types of formatting for guidance on constructing a book manuscript, wouldn’t it?

Yes, Virginia, I have mentioned this before, and recently. I shall no doubt mention it again: I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who believe, mistakenly, that writing is writing, and thus all of it should be formatted identically.

That’s just not the case. Out comes the broken record:

broken-record5 Please recognize that not everything that falls under the general rubric writing should be formatted identically. Book manuscripts should be formatted one way, short stories (to use the most commonly-encountered other set of rules) another.

So if your favorite source — other than yours truly, of course — tells you to do something diametrically opposed to what I’m showing you here, may I suggest double-checking that the other source is indeed talking about book manuscripts and not, say, submissions to a magazine that accepts short stories?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but contrary to popular belief, submission standards differ by type of publication. Yet surprisingly often, those giving practical to aspiring writers will conflate the format for, say, short stories, one with that for book manuscripts, resulting in a first page that will look incorrect to either. (Although, generally speaking, such guidelines tend to stick closer to the short story format than to the book.)

A word to the wise: if you have encountered conflicting bit of advice on the Internet — and if you’ve done even the most minimal search on the subject, I’m sure you have — consider the source. If that source does not make a distinction between book and short story format, or doesn’t seem to be aware that all professional manuscripts are not the same, be wary.

Everyone clear on that? Good, because I wouldn’t want any of you to be submitting articles to magazines using the format we’ve been discussing with such vim.

Caveat #2: as is always an excellent idea before you even consider submitting to any given agent, editor, or contest, check the individual agency’s, small publisher’s, or contest submission guidelines before you send anything. I’ve been presenting standard format here, but if the agent of your dreams (or the agent with whom you are currently signed, if they don’t happen to be the same person) has expressed a strong preference for his clients formatting in a manner opposed to what you see here, for heaven’s sake, run with that.

But only for submission to that particular agent, not to every single one currently dancing a jig on the earth’s crust. Contrary to what a good 95% of the generic submission advice out there maintains (or implies by omission), individual preferences do vary. Long-time members of the Author! Author! community, chant it with me now: not every piece of formatting advice writers hear at conferences or online refers to a hard-and-fast industry-wide expectation. Sometimes, an expressed preference is merely personal.

Admittedly, major deviations from standard format are genuinely uncommon — among manuscripts that agents are currently submitting to editors at major US publishing houses, at least — but let’s face it, you’re not going to get anywhere telling an established agent that no one else’s clients are using 18-point Copperplate Gothic Bold if he happens to have an unnatural affection for it. Part of working with an agent entails trusting that he knows more about marketing books than you do. If he doesn’t, you wouldn’t want to be working with him, right?

I must have misheard all of the query-weary submitters out there. The answer you meant to give is a resounding yes.

Before my last statement sends anyone out there into that time-honored writerly I’ve just signed with an agency but what if I chose the wrong one? panic, remember this: if you’ve done your homework before you signed, and thus are certain that he has a solid recent track record selling books in your category, you have every reason to have faith in your representative.

Or so I keep telling myself when I can’t sleep at night. Hey, handing one’s hopes and dreams to someone else to market is no emotional picnic.

On to the practical examples. Please study both the good and bad examples very, very carefully if you are planning to submit book-length work to a North American agent or editor anytime soon: writers often overlook non-standard formatting as a possible reason that an otherwise well-written manuscript might have been rejected.

Oh, not all by itself, generally speaking, unless the violation was truly egregious by industry standards, something along the lines of submitting unnumbered pages or not indenting paragraphs, for instance, the kind of faux pas that might actually cause Millicent to cast the entire submission aside, unread. But in a garden-variety well-written manuscript that combines non-standard format with even just a couple of the common agents’ pet peeves — a cliché on page 1, for instance, or several misspellings in the first paragraph — the result is generally fatal.

Certainly, other rejection reasons get a lot more airplay, particularly at writers’ conferences. If you want to take a long, hard look at some of the better-discussed reasons, I would urge you to gird your loins and plunge into the REJECTION ON PAGE ONE category at right. (Not for the faint of heart: in it, I go over a list of instant-response rejection reasons given by a group of agents going over a stack of actual submissions at a conference, one by painful one.)

Yet surprisingly little conference time seems to be devoted to deviations from standard format for manuscripts. Why shouldn’t conference speakers take thirty seconds of their speaking gigs to pointing out, for instance, that the ways in which a professional manuscript does not resemble a published book — ways that are unfortunately quite obvious to an agent, editor, contest judge, etc., from practically the moment their eyes light upon a submission?

Why is it so very apparent, you ask? Because much of the time, submitting writers will work overtime to make it apparent.

Seriously, many aspiring writers clearly go out of their way to format their submissions to resemble published books, in the mistaken belief that this will make their work seem more professional. As we’ve already discussed in this series, the opposite is generally true — and often, it’s apparent in a professional reader’s first glance at the first page of a submission.

If the implications of that last assertion made you dizzy — if, for instance, you found yourself picturing our old pal Millicent pulling a submitted manuscript out of its envelope, casting a critical eye over the first page, hooting, and stuffing the whole thing into the handy SASE along with a photocopied rejection letter — try placing your head between your knees and breathing slowly.

Go ahead. I’ll wait until you recover.

And then follow up with a hard truth that may get those of you new to the game hyperventilating again: the VAST majority of submissions are rejected not only on page 1, but within the first few lines of page 1. Heck, a harried Millicent will derive a negative impression of a manuscript even prior to page 1.

Keep taking those nice, deep breaths. That dizziness will pass shortly.

Ah, some of you have found your wind again, have you? “Oh, come on, Anne,” I hear some hard-boiled submission veterans scoff, “she makes up her mind that this isn’t a submission to take seriously before to page 1? How is that even possible?”

Well, the most common don’t-take-this-one-seriously trigger is the absence of any title page whatsoever. Many submitters, for reasons best known to themselves, omit the title page altogether from their submissions — often, I suspect, because they are unaware that a professional book-length manuscript always has a title page.

Why? Long-time readers (or even those who have been paying attention over the last couple of posts, pull out your hymnals and sing along with me now: a properly-formatted title page tells an agent precisely how to contact the brilliant author who wrote it — and tells an editor precisely how to contact the agent who represents her.

Was that gargantuan gasp a signal that those of you who have title page-free submissions circulating at the moment are just a teeny bit worried? If so, relax: forgetting to include a title page almost certainly won’t prevent Millicent from reading your submission at all.

She tends to read even the most bizarrely-formatted submissions for at least a line or two (although often no more than that). But that initial impression of an author’s lack of professionalism — or, to call it by a kinder name, of having a lot to learn about how the publishing industry works — does often translate into a rather jaundiced reading eye for what comes next.

Why? Well, let’s take a peek through her reading glasses, shall we? The first thing Millicent sees when she opens the average requested materials package is something like this:

If you’re having trouble reading the fine print, try double-clicking on the image.

Have it in sharp focus now? Good. Our Millie might also encounter a first page like this:

Or, heaven help us, like this:

Taken a good gander? Excellent. Now tell me: why might Millicent take one look at these and conclude that the respective submitters of these three first pages could use a good class on manuscript formatting — and thus would be time-consuming clients for her boss to sign?

I see all of you ‘Palooza followers out there with your hands in the air, jumping up and down, eager to tell everyone what’s wrong with this as a first page of text — and you’re absolutely right, of course. We’re going to be talking about precisely those points in the days to come.

For now, however, I want you to concentrate upon how this example has failed as both a title page and a first page of text: by not including the information that Millicent would expect to see on either.

What makes me so sure she would find this discovery disappointing, at best? Because what she (or her boss agent, or an editor, or a contest judge) would have expected to see on top of that pile of paper was this:

good title

This is a standard manuscript title page for the same book — rather different, isn’t it? Visibly different, in fact, from several paces away, even if Millicent isn’t wearing her reading glasses.

Again, submitting the earlier examples rather than that last would not necessarily be instantly and automatically fatal to a manuscript’s chances, of course. Most of the time, Millicent will go ahead and plunge into that first paragraph of text anyway.

However, human nature and her blistering reading schedule being what they are, she may not. And not necessarily just because she’s impatient with your formatting; she genuinely has only a minute or so to decide whether to read beyond page 1. For those of you new to this screener’s always-rushed days, she has a stack of manuscripts up to her chin to screen — and that’s at the end of a long day of screening queries; screening manuscript submissions is in addition to that.

Given the stack of submissions threatening to topple over onto her poor, aching head, if she has already decided that a submission is flawed, just how charitable an eye do you think she is likely to cast upon that typo in line 13? To use her favorite word: next!

To be fair to Millicent, while it may well be uncharitable of her to leap to the conclusion that Faux Pas’ or Ridiculous’ manuscripts are likely to be unpolished because they did not include a proper title page, agencies do have a vested interest in signing writers who present themselves professionally. For one thing, they’re cheaper to represent, in practical terms: the agent doesn’t have to spend as much time working with them, getting their manuscripts ready to submit to editors.

Let’s face it, no agent in his right mind would send out a manuscript that didn’t include a standard title page. It serves a number of important — nay, vital — marketing functions.

To understand why, let’s take another peek at the professional version. So you don’t have to keep scrolling up and down the page, here it is again:

good title

Did you take a nice, long look? Good. While we’re at it, let’s also take a gander at a proper title page for a book with a subtitle):

Those formats firmly in your mind? Excellent. Now for a pop quiz: how precisely do Rightly and Collie’s first sheets of paper promote their respective books than Faux Pas or Ridiculous’ first pages?

Well, right off the bat, a good title page tells a prospective agent or editor what kind of book it is, as well as its approximate length. (If you do not know how to estimate the number of words in a manuscript, or why you should use an estimate rather than relying upon your word processor’s count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) Both of these are pieces of information that will tell Millicent instantly whether the submission in her hand would meet the requirements of the editors to whom her agency tends to sell.

Oh, yes, that’s important in a submission, whether to an agency or a publishing house. Really, really important.

Why? Well, think about it: if Millicent’s boss had decided not to represent Action/Adventure anymore, or if editors at the major houses had started saying that they were only interested in seeing Action/Adventure books longer than 90,000 words, Rightly Stepped would be out of luck.

But then, being a savvy submitter, ol’ Rightly would also want his work to be represented by an agent who just adores very long Action/Adventure novels — and regularly goes to lunch with scads and scads of editors who feel precisely the same way, right?

As I may have mentioned seven or eight hundred times before (in this post, it feels like), the standard title page also tells Millicent precisely how to contact the author to offer representation — and that’s a very, very good thing for everyone concerned. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: it is always in a writer’s best interest to make it easy for an agent to help him.

I might be wrong, of course, but I suspect that not forcing Millicent to forage through the mountain of paper on her desk to find a misplaced cover letter with your phone number on it might be a good start toward being easily to assist. Like bothering to number your pages, identifying yourself clearly on your title page and providing contact information up front is a small way that you can make her life — and her boss’ — just a little less hectic.

By contrast, Faux Pas’ first page doesn’t really do anything but announce the title of the book and leap right into the story. That’s one underachieving piece of paper, isn’t it?

Starting to get a feel for how a title page is supposed to look — and how it isn’t? Don’t fret all night, if not: more concrete examples follow next time. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part IV: drawing some much-needed lines in the sand

lines in the sand

Before we begin today, a heads-up about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community’s exciting new project: tonight at 7 and 10 EST is the premiere of memoirist, blogger, and all-around fab guyJoel Derfner‘s new reality show, Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys on the Sundance Channel. Best of luck, Joel, and may the film editors be kind to you!

Those of you who have been hanging out here for a while may know Joel better under his commenting/blogging moniker, Faustus, M.D.. Or for his informative and funny guest blogs on getting permission to use song lyrics in one’s books (oh, yes, Virginia, explicit permission is required, unless the song is in the public domain) and how much input an author does and doesn’t get on his book covers. Or perhaps the name rings a bell because I have regularly been heard to say over the last couple of years that his memoir, SWISH: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Happened Instead, represents some of the best memoir writing of the last decade.

Who can say? Memory is a funny thing.

Speaking of which, you might want to bookmark this post, campers: since I’m going to be wrapping up my theoretical discussion of standard format today, I’m going to list all of the rules we have discussed so far.

That’s right: the whole shebang, listed in a single post. Can’t you feel the excitement in the air? Let’s get cracking.

(1) All manuscripts should be printed or typed in black ink and double-spaced, with one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should NOT resemble published books in this respect.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

(5) The ENTIRE manuscript should be in the same font and size — no switching typefaces for any reason. Industry standard is 12-point.

(6) Do NOT use boldface anywhere in the manuscript BUT on the title page — and not even there, necessarily.

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered EXCEPT the title page.

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.

(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page, with the chapter title appearing on the FIRST line of the page, NOT on the line immediately above where the text begins.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, NOT on page 1.

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

(12) The beginning of EVERY paragraph of text should be indented .5 inch. No exceptions, ever.

(13) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.

(14) NOTHING in a manuscript should be underlined. Titles of songs and publications, as well as words in foreign languages and those you wish to emphasize, should be italicized.

All of those make sense, I hope, at least provisionally? Excellent. Moving on…

(15) All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25. But numbers over 100 should be written as numbers: 1,243, not one thousand, two hundred and forty-three.

Violations of this one routinely make people who read manuscripts for a living twitch uncontrollably. Yet an unfortunately high percentage of otherwise industry-savvy aspiring writers are apparently unaware of this particular rule — or apply it incorrectly.

The instinct to correct it in a submission is universal in professional readers. From that impulse to rejection is often a fairly short journey, because once the notion gee, this writer hasn’t taken the time to learn the ropes has occurred to a professional reader, it’s hard to unthink. After that, anything from a major cliché to a minor typo would just seem like corroboration of this uncharitable — and in some cases unfair — conclusion.

Translation: NOT presenting your numbers correctly will not help you win friends and influence people at agencies and publishing houses. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Like pointing out foreign-language words with special formatting, this formatting rule was originally for the benefit of the manual typesetters. When numbers are entered as numbers, a single slip of a finger can result in an error, whereas when numbers are written out, the error has to be in the inputer’s mind.

There are only three exceptions to this rule: dates, currency, and, of course, page numbers. Thus, a properly-formatted manuscript dealing with events on November 11 would look like this on the page:

Abbott/The Great Voyage/82

The sandwich cost $3.76.

On November 11, 1492, fifty-three scholars divided into eighteen parties in preparation for sailing to Antarctica. It took 157 rowboats ten trips apiece to load all of their books, papers, and personal effects onboard.

And not like this:

Abbott/The Great Voyage/Eighty-two

The sandwich cost three dollars and seventy-six cents, cash American.

On November eleventh, fourteen hundred and ninety-two, fifty-three scholars divided into eighteen parties in preparation for sailing to Antarctica. It took a hundred and fifty-seven rowboats ten trips apiece to load all of their books, papers, and personal effects onboard.

Do I see some hands waving in the air? “But Anne,” inveterate readers of newspapers protest, “I’m accustomed to seeing numbers like 11, 53, 18, and 10 written as numerals in print. Does that mean that when I read, say, a magazine article with numbers under 100 depicted this way, that some industrious editor manually changed all of those numbers after the manuscript was submitted?”

No, it doesn’t — although I must say, the mental picture of that poor, unfortunate soul assigned to spot and make such a nit-picky change is an intriguing one. What you have here is yet another difference between book manuscript format and, well, every other kind of formatting out there: in journalism, they write out only numbers under 10.

Unfortunately, many a writing teacher out there believes that the over-10 rule should be applied to all forms of writing, anywhere, anytime. Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but in a book manuscript, it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

Did I mention it was wrong? And that my aged eyes have actually seen contest entries knocked out of finalist consideration over this particular issue? More than once? And within the last year?

AP style differs from standard format in several important respects, not the least being that in standard format (as in other formal presentations in the English language), the first letter of the first word after a colon should not be capitalized, since technically, it’s not the beginning of a new sentence. I don’t know who introduced the convention of post-colon capitalization, but believe me, I’m not the only one who read the submissions of aspiring book writers for a living that’s mentally consigned that language subversive to a pit of hell that would make even Dante avert his eyes in horror.

That’s the way we nit-pickers roll. We like our formatting and grammatical boundaries firm.

Heck, amongst professional readers, my feelings on the subject are downright non-confrontational. I’ve been in more than one contest judging conference where tables were actually banged and modern societies deplored. Trust me, you don’t want your entry to be the one that engenders this reaction.

So let’s all chant it together, shall we? The formatting and grammatical choices you see in newspapers will not necessarily work in manuscripts or literary contest entries.

Everyone clear on that? Good, because — are you sitting down, lovers of newspapers? — embracing journalistic conventions like the post-colon capital and writing out only numbers under ten will just look like mistakes to Millicent and her ilk on the submission page.

And no, there is no court of appeal for such decisions; proper format, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. So if you were planning to cry out, “But that’s the way USA TODAY does it!” save your breath.

Unfortunately, although my aforementioned heart aches for those of you who intended to protest, “But how on earth is an aspiring writer to know that the standards are different?” this is a cry that is going to fall on deaf ears as well. Which annoys me, frankly.

The sad fact is, submitters rejected for purely technical reasons are almost never aware of it. With few exceptions, the rejecters will not even take the time to scrawl, “Take a formatting class!” or “Next time, spell-check!” on the returned manuscript. If a writer is truly talented, they figure, she’ll mend her ways and try again.

And that, in case any of you lovely people had been wondering, is why I revisit the topic of standard format so darned often. How can the talented mend their ways if they don’t know how — or even if — their ways are broken?

(16) Dashes should be doubled — rather than using an emdash — with a space at either end. Hyphens are single and are not given extra spaces at either end, as in self-congratulatory.

Yes, yes, I know: you’ve probably heard that this rule is obsolete, too, gone the way of underlining. The usual argument for its demise: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy, so many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them. An AP-trained teacher will tell you to use the longer emdash, as will the Chicago Manual of Style.

In this, however, they are wrong, at least as far as manuscripts are concerned. (You’re starting to get used to that, right?)

Standard format is invariable upon this point: a doubled dash with a space on either end is correct; anything else is not.

And yes, it is indeed a common enough pet peeve that the pros will complain to one another about how often submitters get it wrong. They also bemoan how often they see manuscripts where this rule is applied inconsistently: two-thirds of the dashes doubled, perhaps, sometimes with a space at either end and sometimes not, with the odd emdash and single dash dotting the text as well.

It may seem like a minor, easily-fixable phenomenon from the writer’s side of the submission envelope, but believe me, inconsistency drives people trained to spot minor errors nuts.

Your word-processing program probably changes a double dash to an emdash automatically, but CHANGE IT BACK. If only as a time-saver: any agent would make you do this before agreeing to submit your manuscript to an editor, so you might as well get into this salutary habit as soon as possible.

(17) Adhere to the standard rules of punctuation and grammar, not what it being done on the moment in newspapers, magazines, books, or on the Internet — including the rule calling for TWO spaces after every period and colon.

In other words, do as Strunk & White say, not what others do. Assume that Millicent graduated with honors from the best undergraduate English department in the country (or at least the fifteenth-best), taught by the grumpiest, meanest, least tolerant stickler for grammar that ever snarled at a student unfortunate enough to have made a typo, and you’ll be fine.

Or, if that mental image isn’t frightening enough, try envisioning the many, many professional writers who delighted in leaping upon the slightest hint of grammatical impropriety even in spoken English throughout my formative years. I know that works for me.

The primary deviation I’ve been seeing in recent years is leaving only one space, rather than the standard two, after a period. The rationale runs thus: printed books usually do this now, to save paper; the fewer the spaces on a page, the more words can be crammed onto it. Since we’ve all seen it done in recently-released books, some argue — and vehemently — it would be ludicrous to format a manuscript any other way.

Indeed, you may have seen that one touted as the proper way to format a manuscript. A number of writing-advice websites, I notice, and even some writing teachers have been telling people that this is the wave of the future — and that adhering to the two-space norm makes a manuscript look obsolete. Some even tout this as a universal instant-rejection offense.

At the risk of sounding like the harsh grammar-mongers of my youth, poppycock. Agents, very good ones, routinely submit manuscripts with doubled spaces to editors, also very good ones, all the time. Successfully. But truth compels me to point out that there are also many agents, also good ones, who have embraced the single-space convention, and quite adamantly. Although some agents and editors do now request eliminating the second space at the submission stage, the doubled space is still the norm — except amongst the minority who feel very strongly that it is not.

Clear as pea soup, right?

So which convention should you embrace? The answer, as it so often is, involves doing your homework about the specific agent or publisher you are planning to approach. As always, it’s ultimately up to you; it’s really a question of choosing whom to please — or producing two different manuscripts for submission.

Once you get in the habit of doing that research, I suspect those of you who have heard horror stories about how everybody now positively hates the second space convention will be astonished to see how few agencies even mention it in their submission guidelines. If they don’t, it’s usually safe to assume that they adhere to the older convention — or at the very least, don’t care. If, however, you happen to be submitting to one of those people who specifically asks for single spaces, in which case, you’d be silly not to bow to their expressed preferences. (Sensing a pattern here?)

Fortunately, for aspiring writers everywhere, those agents who do harbor a strong preference for the single space tend not to keep mum about it. If they actually do tell their Millicents to regard a second space as a sign of creeping obsolescence, chances are very, very good that they’ll mention that fact on their websites.

Again, double-check before you submit. If the agent of your dreams has not specified, double-space.

Why should that be the default option, since proponents of eliminating the second space tend to be so very vocal? Those who cling to the older tradition tend to be, if anything, a shade more vehement.

Why, you ask? Editing experience, usually. Preserving that extra space after each sentence in a manuscript makes for greater ease of reading, and thus editing. As anyone who has ever edited a long piece of writing can tell you, the white space on the page is where the comments — grammatical changes, pointing out flow problems, asking, “Does the brother really need to die here?” — go.

Less white space, less room to comment. It honestly is that simple.

Oh, and it drives the grammar-hounds nuts to hear that time-honored standards are being jettisoned in the name of progress. “What sane human being,” they ask through gritted teeth, “seriously believes that replacing tonight with tonite, or all right with alright constitutes progress? Dropping the necessary letters and spaces doesn’t even save significant page space!”

Those are some pretty vitriol-stained lines in the sand, aren’t they?

Let’s just say that until everyone in the industry makes the transition editing in soft copy — which is, as I have pointed out many times in this forum, both harder and less efficient than scanning a printed page — the two-space rule is highly unlikely to change universally. Just ask a new agent immediately after the first time he’s submitted to an old-school senior editor: if he lets his clients deviate from the norms, he’s likely to be lectured for fifteen minutes on the great beauty of the English language and the imperative to protect its graceful strictures from the invading Goths, Visigoths, and journalists.

I sense that some of you are starting to wring your hands and rend your garments in frustration. “I just can’t win here! Most want it one way, a few another. I’m so confused about what’s required that I keep switching back and forth between two spaces and one while I’m typing.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but inconsistent formatting is likely to annoy both sides of the aisle. Whichever choice you embrace, be consistent about it throughout your manuscript; don’t kid yourself that an experienced professional reader isn’t going to notice if you sometimes use one format, sometimes the other.

He will. So will a veteran contest judge. Pick a convention and stick with it.

But don’t fret over it too much. This honestly isn’t as burning a debate amongst agents and editors as many aspiring writers seem to think. But as always: check before you submit. If the agent’s website, contest listing, and/or Twitter page doesn’t mention individual preferences, assume s/he’s going to be submitting to old-school editors and retain the second space.

And be open to the possibility — brace yourselves; you’re not going to like this — that you may need to submit your manuscript formatted one way for a single agent on your list, and another for the other nineteen.

Hey, I warned you that you weren’t going to like it.

(18) Turn off the widow/orphan control; it gives pages an uneven number of lines.

The widow/orphan control, for those of you new to the term. is the setting on a word processing program that controls how many lines appear on any given page. The default setting prevents the first line of a new paragraph from being left alone on a page if the rest of the paragraph is on the next (a line so left behind is called an orphan) or the last line of a paragraph begun on a previous page from appearing at the top of the next page all by itself (and that’s called a widow).

Thus, if the widow/orphan control is left on, lines will be stolen from one page and added to the ones before and after. Result: some of your pages will have more lines of text on them than others. Why might that be problematic? Well, unless your pages are standardized, you can’t justify estimating your word count (at # of pages x 250 in Times New Roman). Since word counts for book-length projects are expected to be estimated (you’ll need to use the actual count for short stories or articles), and actual count can be as much as 20% higher than estimated, it’s certainly in the best interest of anyone who tends to run a little long to estimate.

And even if your manuscript isn’t over 400 pages (100,000 words, estimated), the usual dividing line for Millicent to cry, “Oh, too bad; it’s too long for a first novel in this book category. Next!” she’s going to dislike seeing an extra inch of white space on the bottom of some of your pages. Not necessarily enough to shout, “Next!” anyway, but do you really want something that superficial to be your submission’s last straw?

Here’s how to turn it off in Word: under the FORMAT menu, select PARAGRAPH…, then LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. Un-check the Widow/Orphan control box, and you’re home free!

There you have it: the rules. Practice them until they are imbedded into your very bones, my friends: literally every page of text you submit to an agent, editor, or literary contest for the rest of your professional life (yes, including the synopsis) should be in standard format.

Confused? Now would be a delightful time to ask some questions. Tomorrow, it’s on to concrete examples. Keep up the good work!

First Pages That Grab: Linda McCabe’s The Legend of the Warrior Maid and the Saracen Knight

Linda McCabe author photo

Before I launch into what I anticipate will be a juicy discussion of today’s winning entry in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, I have some good news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community. Remember memoirist and blogger Shaun Attwood, whose guest blog on the difficulties of bringing horrific jail conditions to light moved in last year’s censorship series? If you don’t recall his first guest post here, perhaps you will recall his second post last summer, which I introduced by both celebrating the U.K. release of his memoir, HARD TIME: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail (Mainstream Press), and bemoaning the fact that although he was writing about his experience in a U.S. jail, his memoir was not available in this country.

I am delighted to announce that is about to change: an American edition of HARD TIME will be coming out from Skyhorse Publishing this coming spring. In fact, it is already available for preorder on Amazon, but so you may recognize it later in brick-and-mortar bookstores, it will look a little something like this:

Attwood Hard Time US cover

And that’s not all: somewhat to my surprise, I am writing the introduction for it. Perhaps it is not entirely surprising to all of you, for I have been a tireless booster of Shaun’s writing since I first clapped eyes upon it, shortly after he left his first comment here.

Quite apart from the extraordinary subject matter, Shaun’s is a writing success story. As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for the last couple of years may recall, Shaun first joined us as a memoirist struggling to write his first book proposal — and as one of the most fascinating bloggers out there on the web. Shortly after he shared his extraordinary story with us here he landed an agent and a U.K. book deal. And soon, his story will be available in the land that gave rise to it.

Which just goes to show you, campers: it can be done. Congratulations, Shaun!

While we’re in a celebratory mood, let’s turn to another long-time member of the Author! Author! community, Linda McCabe. With genre-appropriate fanfare, even.

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The co-third place winner in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, the first page of THE LEGEND OF THE WARRIOR MAID AND THE SARACEN KNIGHT struck the judges as a delightfully traditional addition to the epic fantasy market. At a time when so many fantasy submissions are stuffed to their proverbial gills with trendy paranormal elements — fine in themselves, naturally, but in the fifteenth similar work Millicent the agency screener sees on any given day, bound to seem a trifle on the common side — Linda has made the very interesting choice of grounding her tale’s opening in solid realism.

What renders it even more interesting is that the book itself contains a fairly untraditional twist. As Linda’s entry explained to the judges:

The Legend of the Warrior Maid and the Saracen Knight is an epic historical fantasy in the time of Charlemagne with a tale of impossible love between sworn enemies. It deviates from traditional quest stories by having the heroine, and not the hero, receive the call to adventure.

Piques your interest, doesn’t it? Given that laudable ambition, one would expect the heroine to appear on page 1, right?

That actually doesn’t happen here — leading the judges to wonder whether a rushed Millicent would read far enough to realize just how untraditional this traditionally-voiced tale actually is at its core. While the opening page was interesting, evocative, and promised excitement to come, it is very solidly in the tradition (there’s that word again) of male-centered battle epics.

Take a gander and judge for yourself. As always, if you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the image.

McCabe page 1

Engaging, certainly, but it doesn’t exactly display its most exotic wares up front, does it? Equally important, if you were the Millicent who requested this manuscript based upon the descriptive paragraph above, would you feel that the page fulfilled the description’s promise? Or even that this book was about the expected protagonist?

Pick your jaws off the floor, multiple character-jugglers. Sad but true, 99% of Millicents will simply assume that the first-named character in the manuscript — or at any rate, the primary actor in the opening scene — is the protagonist.

So what about this page 1 would alert her that this is a story that stretches the well-established boundaries of battle epics? Unfortunately, nothing. And that’s genuinely a problem, since Linda’s telling quite a story here.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take a peek at her synopsis, then glance again at that first page.

A love foretold between sworn enemies will determine the fate of Christendom.

Bradamante, the niece of Charlemagne, and Ruggiero, a Saracen knight descended from Hector of Troy, are renowned warriors who meet and fall in love on a battlefield before being separated.

Bradamante is later sent on a mission to rescue Ruggiero who is being held captive by the wizard Atallah. She learns of dueling magical forces trying to influence which of two prophecies regarding Ruggiero will come to pass. He is either destined to convert to Christianity, marry her, and sire a line of heroes before dying tragically or he will remain a Saracen and bring about the destruction of the Frankish Empire devastating Christendom. Atallah is aware of these divergent prophecies and is determined to protect Ruggiero from harm; he views Bradamante’s love as a threat to Ruggiero’s life.

The tale of impossible love between Bradamante and Ruggiero is set against the backdrop of a holy war between Islamic and Christian armies shown in bloody sieges in Marseille and Paris. Other legendary heroes such as Orlando and Renaud de Montauban are featured in this retelling of a classic tale of chivalry, betrayal, revenge and magic.

Sounds exciting, eh? But try to wiggle yourself into Millicent’s snow boots for a moment: does it seem as though there’s a slight disconnect between the story as told in the synopsis and the one that appears to be starting on page 1? To put it in another, more positive way, is this page 1 an effective salesperson for the unusual twist on a chivalric romance promised by the synopsis?

The judges reluctantly answered these questions no and yes — despite the fact that the writing here is clear (less common in submissions than one might think), the voice category-appropriate, and the opening a good hook into what is to come. Yet with the quirky logic that often dictates which entries end up as finalists and which place in literary contests, the judges decided to include this first page in the winners’ circle precisely because of this inherent marketing tension.

The fact is, well-written manuscripts fall into this trap all the time, and it places their work at a significant competitive disadvantage at submission time. By assuming that Millicent will not base her decision on whether to read, say, the truly genre-busting material in Chapter 5 upon her impression of page 1, a submitter runs the risk of having his fascinating premises, characters, and plot elements simply overlooked.

Well might you gnash your teeth. “But it’s clear by page 15 how different my story is from what’s currently available in my book category! Heck, by page 31, it’s completely apparent how it is better!”

I can well believe it, teeth-gnashers. You wouldn’t believe how many otherwise excellent submissions don’t really get going — or have a terrific opening line — until page 4. Or 14, or 44. But by then, alas, Millicent has probably already made up her mind about what kind of book it is and whether it adds something new to the market.

I can feel the laser-like heat of your glares through my computer screen, but it’s far, far better that you hear this from me than have your manuscript rejected on page 1, is it not?

So let’s go ahead and coin an axiom on the subject: unless it is pellucidly clear on page 1 what kind of book this is and who will want to read it, even a well-written, book category-appropriate story may get rejected. It’s savvier submission strategy, then, to open the book with the element that you feel is the most marketable, rather than hiding it later in the manuscript.

Yes, this may well run afoul of the way you originally envisioned telling the story, but pull it off, and trust me, you’ll bless Linda to your dying day for bringing this subtle submission problem to your attention.

Oh, and unless you happen to be writing in a book category where it is not the norm to open the book with a scene centered on the protagonist — which is to say, if you are not writing science fiction, fantasy, thriller, or literary fiction — you might want to structure your book so the first name Millicent sees is your hero/ine’s. Even in those categories, you might consider at least a prologue featuring your protagonist front and center.

Hey, Millicent reads a lot of submissions in your chosen book category in any given week. In that vast sea of characters, can you really blame her for wanting to latch onto a protagonist as soon as she possibly can.

I heard that. But the proper answer is: no, I can’t. She has a hard job, and honestly, it’s not her fault that she doesn’t have time to read all the way to page 15, let alone 30, to find out how genuinely innovative your premise is. Or how beautifully written that line that would have made a great opening is if it’s hidden on page 6.

She’s essentially a treasure-hunter, you know. Make her discovering you a trifle less challenging.

The classic means of correcting this problem — and I’m sure you’ve seen this in published novels — is to lift an exciting scene featuring the protagonist from later in the story and open the book with it. Such scenes are often presented as a very brief prologue, sometimes just a couple of pages long. The idea here is to toss the reader directly into the center of a conflict, bring it to the boiling point — then end it abruptly. Appetite whetted, the reader then will proceed to Chapter 1 more or less in its original form.

Another means of making your pot of gold shine better: impeccable formatting. There’s actually only a single formatting problem here — did you catch it?

No? Okay, let’s see how Millicent would have responded to this page:

Linda's edit

What can we learn from this, other than that our Millie’s handwriting can get a trifle wobbly when she’s editing on a plane that’s just hit turbulence? (Don’t worry; I’ll mail Linda a more legible copy.) First, that single-spacing is not appropriate for a subtitle: if Linda simply double-spaced the first line on the page, it would be perfect.

Not certain what that would look like on the page? Here you go.

Linda revised

Millie’s turbulence-influenced scrawls also point up a couple fairly standard professional readers’ pet peeves. She’s noted the single-sentence paragraphs at the top and near the bottom of the page, for instance: a narrative paragraph in English prose is made up of at least two sentences, so many a Millicent would have flagged this one. (A single-sentence paragraph is perfectly acceptable in dialogue, of course.)

Yes, I know Joan Didion uses single-sentence paragraphs all the time. So do journalists. That doesn’t mean a novelist trying to land an agent for a first book should take the risk.

Let’s see, what else? In line 3, she’s crossed out and realized, which actually could have stayed. Any guesses why she recommended cutting this little bit of verbiage?

This is a subtle one: in a tight third-person narrative, what is described is generally assumed to be from the protagonist’s perspective — and thus conclusions drawn in the text are assumed to be his. But that’s not the only reason this cut might be a good idea: using short, choppy sentences at moments of stress echoes the breathlessness of surprise.

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about it being subtle.

There’s another element that might annoy some Millicents, although it clearly did not trouble ours: showing Ruggiero’s thoughts in italics. Some professional readers positively hate this; they feel, and with some justification, that a talented writer should be able to differentiate between thought, speech, and narrative without resorting to funky type.

“What’s wrong with he thought?” such Millicents fume — and their boss agents may even have instructed them to fume so. “Or just showing someone calling the guy’s name?”

As our Millicent’s leniency on this point demonstrates, however, such fuming is not universal amongst professional readers. There is no one-size-fits-all solution here; tolerance of italicized thought varies from book category to book category, and even agency to agency. Generally speaking, though, the more educated the intended readership, the lower the tolerance for this device.

What’s a good test for whether thought italicization acceptable in your chosen book category? Hie yourself to a brick-and-mortar bookstore well stocked in that category and start pulling volumes off the shelves. Not just any books in your category, mind you: stick to ones published within the last three years. If none of the first ten you select feature italicized thought within the first ten pages, I would avoid it.

Does this seem like a lot of possible pet peeves for just a first page of text? Actually, in practice, it’s remarkably few: the average submission tends to be rife with potential for Millicent-annoyance.

Admittedly, this particularly page 1 promises enough adventurous delights to come that Millie might turn down her annoyance meter a little — and turn to page 2. You know, just to see what happens.

And that, my friends, is how you know when a first page is a grabber: when a professional reader can’t wait to get to page 2. The writer won’t be there to see it, of course, but given how many submissions get rejected on page 1, it’s definitely a triumph.

Well done, Linda! Best of luck to your warrior princess and her knight.

Be sure to tune in tomorrow, when we shall be examining another grabber of a first page. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

P.S.: the nifty animation appears courtesy of the fine folks at Feebleminds. Let’s take another look at it before I sign off for the evening, shall we?

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Synopsispalooza, Part III: keeping some of those plot cats concealed in the bag

concealed cat

Last time, I let the cat out of the bag, all right: I divulged the secret that just because many diverse people — agents, editors, contest rule-writers, fellowship committees, etc. — use the term synopsis, it does not mean that they are necessarily all talking about an identical document. Different individuals, agencies, and institutions want different lengths, so it always behooves an aspiring writer to double-check each entity’s individual requirements. Being an intrepid soul, I jumped right in and tackled the most feared of such requests, the single-page synopsis.

And the crowd went wild; perhaps I should have begun with a 5-page synopsis and worked my way down. There seems to be something about the very idea of a 1-page synopsis that sends aspiring writers spiraling into an oh, my God, I have to write this in the next five minutes tizzy. Or so I surmise from the fact that my e-mail inbox (not the way I prefer to receive questions, folks; post ‘em in the comments, please) has been stuffed to the gills for the past two days with behind-the-scenes pleas to explain further.

I find this a trifle odd, there was absolutely nothing in that last post to indicate that I did not intend to give much, much more insight into the subject. Seriously, did the 27 posts of Querypalooza really leave any doubt about my great love of explaining things down to the last comma?

Relax, campers: this is only the third post into what promises to be a several-week series. To set your mind even more at rest, I’m going to go ahead and respond to a comment on the subject from eager-to-go reader Christie:

Great post, Anne. Just to clarify though, are you suggesting that a one-page synopsis doesn’t have to include the ending of the book? Should it just be a teaser?

Yes and no, Christie. Yes, a 1-page synopsis does not have to include the ending, just the premise and the central conflict. But no, it should most emphatically not be mistaken for a teaser or a back jacket blurb, intended just to provoke interest: a teaser typically just includes the premise, while a back jacket blurb usually consists of teaser + praise for the book.

The overwhelming majority of 1-page synopses both Millicent the agency screener and her aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, see in query packets are either teasers or back jacket copy. Neither fulfills the intended purpose of a 1-page synopsis: to convince a professional reader to ask to see the manuscript.

In order to do that, even a 1-page synopsis is going to have to convey something of the feel of the manuscript. But unlike a longer synopsis, where the writer actually is expected to provide a brief-but-complete overview of the book in question’s plot or argument (more on that later in this series), a 1-page synopsis is essentially a movie trailer for the book, intended only to perform a limited number of functions.

What functions, you ask? Glad you asked:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

These goals should sound very, very familiar to those of you who made the hard trek through Querypalooza series: a 1-page synopsis shares essentially the same objectives as the descriptive paragraph in a query. The synopsis merely allows more room to achieve them. In both, the goal is NOT to tell everything there is to tell about the book — these formats are simply too short to permit it — but to give the reader/hearer enough of a taste to whet his or her appetite.

In order to provoke what kind of response, ideally, campers? Everybody open your hymnals and sing along: the goal of a synopsis tucked into a query packet is to get the agent reading it to ask to see the manuscript, not provide so much information that reading it would be redundant.

Actually, this isn’t a bad list of goals for any length synopsis. Certainly, it’s quite a bit more than most that cross Millicent’s desk actually achieve. However, for a longer synopsis — say, the 5-page version most frequently requested by agents of their already-signed clients, or a slightly shorter one intended for contest submission — I would add to the list:

(5) for a novel or memoir, show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

For nonfiction that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point.

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Does that sound like an overwhelming set of tasks to pull off in a few short pages — or the dreaded one page? I can see how it might feel that way, but believe it or not, the vast majority of synopsis-writers attempt to do far, far more.

How so? Well, the first time you tried to write a synopsis, didn’t you try to tell the entire story of the book?

I shall take that behemoth sigh of disgusted recognition as a yes — and if I had to guess (do I? Do I? Apparently, I do), I would wager that those of you who didn’t answer that question in the affirmative have not yet tried to write a synopsis.

At least, not since you learned the difference between a synopsis and a back jacket blurb. Again, I’m not talking about those oh-so-common soi-disant synopses that don’t summarize the book so much as promote it. (This is the best novel since MIDDLEMARCH, only less depressing!) But of that pitfall, more follows anon.

If you find the necessity for brevity intimidating, you are hardly alone. I am perpetually meeting aspiring writers agonizing over it — and interestingly, the level of panic about writing them doesn’t seem to bear any relationship to how confident the writer feels about the manuscript itself, its level of polish, or even, in many cases, the writer’s level of familiarity with the publishing industry.

What that gut-wrenching fear does have to do with, evidently, is the imperative for brevity. Which is not, let’s face it, the natural impulse of those of us who sit down and write books.

Some years ago, I met a marvelous writer at a conference in New Orleans. Naturally, as conference etiquette demands, I asked her over crawfish etouffée what her first novel was about.

Forty-three minutes, two excellently-becreamed courses, and a dessert that the waiter took great delight in lighting on fire later, she came to the last scene.

“That sounds like a great novel,” I said, waving away the fourth waiter bent upon stuffing me until I burst. “And I really like that it’s an easy one to pitch: two women, misfits by personality and disability within their own families and communities, use their unlikely friendship to forge new bonds of identity in a lonely world.”

The author stared at me, as round-eyed as if I had just sprouted a second head. “How did you do that? I’ve been trying to come up with a one-sentence summary for the last two years!”

Of course, it was simpler for me than for her: I have years of experience crafting synopses and pitches. It is, as I mentioned last time, a learned skill.

To be fair, I also hadn’t lived through any of the real-life events that I had every reason to expect formed major incidents in the book. (What tipped me off that her novel might border on the autobiographical? What tips off so many pitch-hearers and query-readers: the fact that the author not only prefaced her summary with that statement so beloved of first-time novelists, “Well, it’s sort of based on something that really happened to me…” but she also very kindly told me after her descriptions of each fact-based incident in her 43-minute plot summary how the actual events had been different, as an interesting compare-and-contrast exercise. Quick hint to those of you writing autobiographical fiction: to a professional reader like an agent, editor, or contest judge, such statements almost never render a writer more credible as a narrator; if people in the publishing industry want real stories, they turn to memoir and other nonfiction. Save the accounts of how closely your novel mirrors your life for interviews after your book is published; trust me, your biographers will be agog to hear all about it.)

Still more importantly, because I had not yet read the book, I did not know the subtle character nuances that filled her pages. I could have no knowledge of how she had woven perspective with perspective in order to tease the reader into coming to know the situation fully. I was not yet aware of the complex ways in which she made language dance. All I knew was the premise and the plot — which put me in an ideal position to come up with a pithy, ready-for-the-conference-floor pitch.

Or — and I can feel that some of you have already jumped ahead to the next logical step here — a synopsis.

This is why, I explained to her, I always draft my pitch and synopsis before I write the book. About 1/3-1/2 of the way through the writing process seems to be the best time: less distracting than if I wait until the manuscript’s completely polished. I know that I can always tweak it down the road.

Stop clutching your chests; this honestly does make sense. Naturally, early-penned synopses and pitches will evolve as the book develops and the plot thickens, but I’ve never known a writer who could not easily give a one-page synopsis of her book when she was two weeks into writing it — and have seldom known the same author to be able to do so without agony a year later.

Those of you locked in mid-novel know what I’m about to advise, don’t you?

That lump in the pit of your stomach is not lying to you: I am seriously suggesting that you sit down and write at least a concise summary of the major themes of the book — if not actually a provisional 1-page synopsis (and, to be on the safe side, a 5-page one as well) — BEFORE you finish writing it.

At least as a rough draft: you can always revise it later on. Why get the constituent parts on paper first, while the plot elements are still painted in broad strokes in your head?

Synopses, like pitches, are often easier to write for a book that has not yet come to life. At the beginning of the writing process, it is easy to be succinct: there are not yet myriad plot details and marvelous twists to get in the way of talking about the premise and central conflict.

Everyone who has ever sighed in response to the ubiquitous question, “Gee, what is your book about?” knows this to be true, right?

I can tell that some of you still are not convinced. Okay, here is an even better reason to take the time early in the process to start thinking about the synopsis: in the long run, if you multi-task throughout the creation process, you will have an easier time at the querying and submission stage.

How so? Well, think how much happier you will be on the blessed day that an agent asks you for a synopsis. Wouldn’t you rather be able to say, “Sure; I’ll get that out to you right away,” instead of piping through mounting terror, “Wow, um, I guess I could pull one together and send it with the chapter you requested…in a month or two…will you excuse me while I track down my heart medication?”

More to the point, if you start earlier, you’ll have a better chance of writing a good synopsis that does credit to your writing skills. As I mentioned earlier in this series, too many aspiring writers seem to forget that the synopsis is a writing sample — and will be judged accordingly.

A panicked state is not, I have noticed, the most conducive to smooth summarization. Especially if the summarizer in question is trying to cram a 380-page plot into a scant couple of pages.

But just what does summarization mean in this context? Is it, as my dinner companion assumed, simply a shortened version of a long tale, including all of the twists, turns, subplots, and descriptions of what perspective and voice each of the mentioned scenes is in?

Of course not. In a synopsis, a writer is supposed to tell her story compellingly: basically the plot of the book, minus the subplots. Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, it’s a mistake to overload the synopsis with detail, instead of sticking to the major plot points.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s send Aunt Jane into a the agent of my dreams just asked me to tuck a synopsis into my submission packet, and I haven’t even begun to think about writing one! frenzy and aim her toward her book. (If you’re having trouble reading the words, try holding down the COMMAND key and typing + in order to enlarge the image.)

Contrast that, if you please, with the solid 1-page synopsis for the same book we discussed last time:

The difference is pretty stark, isn’t it? At the rate that the first example is crawling, it would almost be quicker to read the manuscript itself.

I heard you think that, synopsis-writers who already have requests to send pages: sorry to be the one to break it to you, but in a submission that includes a synopsis, Millicent will NOT immediately turn to the manuscript if she finds the synopsis unsatisfying. This is not like pretending you couldn’t hit the volleyball to save your life to get out of P.E. class in junior high school: a writer can’t wiggle out of the necessity of producing a professional synopsis by doing it poorly.

Besides, it’s not in your best interest to underestimate the potential importance of the synopsis in Millicent’s decision-making process. In the rather unlikely circumstance that she reads the synopsis first (submission screeners tend to pounce upon the first page of the manuscript right away, to see if they like the writing, then move on to a requested synopsis later), all a poorly-constructed synopsis is likely to impel her to do is reach for her already-prepared stack of form-letter rejections.

Hey, I don’t make the rules; I merely tell you about them. Pass the crawfish etouffée and tell me about your novel.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for quite some time. Yes? “Okay, Anne,” many of you call out, rubbing life back into your tingling appendages, “I get it why I need to take the time to produce a synopsis that presents my book’s premise and central conflict well. But the length of the synopsis listed in the agency of my dreams’ guidelines is not all that much longer than a standard back jacket blurb, so why not just write it as such. And while I’m at it, why shouldn’t I tuck the same highly flattering 1-page synopsis into my next contest entry to run a little promotional copy past Mehitabel?”

Well, the first reason that comes screaming to mind is that Millicent and Mehitabel have back jacket blurb-style synopses tossed at them all the time. You’re not going to win any points for originality, and frankly, telling an agent or contest judge how terrific your writing is never works out as well as showing them that you’re talented.

Why not? This style of synopsis-writing lends itself to a series of vague generalities and unsupported boasts. The result often looks a little something like this:

Yes, I know that there’s a typo in the last paragraph, smarty pants — and I sincerely hope that you caught some of the many standard format violations as well. (If you didn’t spot any, or if this is the first you’ve ever heard that there is an expected format for book submissions, please dash as swiftly as your little legs will carry you to the archive list at right, click on the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED heading, and absorb, absorb, absorb.)

But is this synopsis-cum-blurb a successful description of the book? Of course not. To understand why, let’s evaluate the effectiveness of all three of today’s synopses. Force yourself to ignore the many cosmetic excesses of that last example: try to read it purely for content. Then go back and take another gander at our first two examples of the day.

How do they compare? Setting aside the most important writing distinction between these three examples — the third TELLS that the book is good, whereas the first and second SHOW that why it might be appealing through specifics — let me ask you: how well does each fulfill the criteria for 1-page synopsis success that we established above?

Oh, have you forgotten what they are in the haze of panic at the prospect of having to write a 1-page synopsis yourself? Okay, let’s recap:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Obviously, the last example fails in almost every respect. It does (1) introduce a few of the main characters and part of the premise, but this description dumbs them down: Lizzy seems to be the passive pawn of Mr. Wickham, and not too bright to boot. It mentions (2) one of the conflicts, but neither the most important nor the first of the book. It also entirely misses the book’s assessment of (3) what’s at stake for Lizzy (other than the implied possibility of falling in love with the wrong man). Most seriously, (4) this blurb actively misrepresents the tone and voice of the book, presenting it as a torrid romance rather than a comedy of manners.

Why is this a mistake? Well, think about it: would an agent who represents steamy romantica be a good fit for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? Would s/he be likely to have the editorial connections to place it under the right eyes quickly?

And think about it: isn’t an agent who gets excited about the book described in this third example likely to be hugely disappointed by the opening pages of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

Example #1 — what I like to call the run-on synopsis — performs better on a lot of levels, doesn’t it? It presents both (1) the characters and premise fairly well. It doesn’t leave enough cats in the bag (Aunt Jane hasn’t left much to Millicent’s imagination, has she?), but you have to admit, it is an accurate representation of the plot, up to a certain point.

Unfortunately, a querier or submitter is not being graded on completeness. Aunt Jane should be concentrating on telling this story well, not in its entirety.

Especially since the brevity of the synopsis renders thoroughness impossible. By getting sidetracked by a minor conflict, its writer rapidly runs out of room to present the (2) primary conflict of the book. By focusing so exclusively on what happens, rather than upon establishing, say, the protagonist’s motivations and desires, it underplays (3) what’s at stake for her.

Hmm, I seem to have placed that last bit in boldface. One might almost take it for an aphorism on synopsizing.

Isn’t it interesting, though, how little actual quotation from the text (as I’ve done several times throughout) helps demonstrate the tone and voice of the book? PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is one of the great comedies of the English language — so shouldn’t this synopsis be FUNNY?

The middle example — the one that, if you will recall, is little more than a reformatted and slightly expanded version of the descriptive paragraph of the query letter — succeeds in fulfilling each of our goals. Or does it? Can you think of ways to improve upon it without extending the length beyond a single page?

Quick, now: Aunt Jane needs to know immediately, because the agent of her dreams asked her today to send the first 50 pages and a synopsis, and page 45 has just popped out of her printer. Can you pick up the pace, please?

See how much harder it is to come up with good synopsis ideas when you’re trying to do it in a hurry? Wouldn’t have been nice if Aunt Jane already had a synopsis on hand to send when the request came in?

I know, I know: it’s exceedingly tempting to procrastinate for as long as you possibly can about embarking upon a task as difficult and as potentially annoying as this, but working on the synopsis well before anyone in the industry might reasonably ask to see it guarantees that yours will have a significant advantage over the vast majority that cross Millicent’s desk: it won’t have been tossed together at the last possible nanosecond before sealing the submission packet. Or the query packet, if the agency of your aspirations accepts unsolicited synopses.

The results of last-minute synopsizing, as Millie herself would be the first to tell you, are not always pretty. Your manuscript deserves better treatment than that, doesn’t it?

I’ll leave you chewing on all of these big issues for the nonce; I don’t want to send any of you reaching for your heart medication again. After all, writing an eye-catching synopsis takes time.

So take a few nice, deep breaths. You don’t need to polish it off today.

Next time, I’m going to be returning to these same examples with a more technical eye, to see how the smaller structural and presentation issues play into a synopsis’ success. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part II: wait — what am I being asked to do this time?

Athene's birth from the head of Zeus

Welcome back to the second installment of Synopsispalooza, Author! Author!’s celebration of the trauma chagrin distressing practical imperative challenging necessity of compressing a deliciously complex, breathtakingly nuanced 400-book into a 5-page summary in standard format. Or whatever length the agent of your dreams or contest of your desires has seen fit to request.

I cannot emphasize that last part strongly enough: although there actually are a couple of standard lengths for synopses in the publishing world, there is no such thing as a standard length for synopses at the query and submission stage. It is your responsibility to check each and every agency’s guidelines to see whether the agent you have chosen to approach prefers a 1-page synopsis, 3, 5, or 8.

Or perhaps 2. Had I mentioned that there was no length standard for querying and submission packets, over and above individual agencies’ expressed preferences?

Or that it is well worth the extra five or ten minutes to double-check whether the agency has a policy on the subject, or if the agent of your dreams once gave a published interview in which she deplored being sent 5-page synopses instead of the 2 1/2 pages for which her heart yearns? As I pointed out in Synopsispalooza I, it never pays to assume that every agency means the same thing by the term synopsis: any given agency may well have a specific reason for wanting something different than all the others.

It’s only polite to respect that preference. And only prudent to do a web search on each agent’s name before you stuff the synopsis you already have on hand into an envelope.

Fortunately, this information is usually quite easy to find: after all, it’s in the agency’s own interest to be clear on the subject. Check the agency’s listing in one of the standard agency guides or its website. (If it has one; a surprisingly hefty percentage still don’t.) And always, always, ALWAYS follow any guidelines set forth in the communication requesting materials.

Yes, I am indeed saying what you think I’m saying: you wouldn’t believe how often, in the heat of post-request excitement, submitters simply disregard the instructions about what they’re supposed to send. Yet another reason for not stopping your life in its tracks to send out requested materials within hours of receiving that yes, eh?

Perhaps less understandably, queriers frequently seem to forget to consult either a guide or the relevant website — or both, since sometimes an agency’s guide listing and the submission guidelines on its website contain different information. When in doubt, go with the website’s restrictions: they’ve probably been updated more recently. Guide listings sometimes remain unchanged for years on end.

A good trick to help avoid the first mistake: do your homework, instead of blithely assuming that every agency must have identical expectations.

They don’t — and they expect writers serious about getting published to be aware of that. If the agency has made the information publicly available, Millicent the agency screener will expect any querier or submitter to be familiar with it. As will her boss.

Seriously, Millicent is not going to consider ignorance a legitimate defense. If your query packet does not include the 4-page synopsis her agency expects, she may well regard that as indicative of a lack of authorial seriousness, or at the very least lack of attention to the details upon which the publishing industry run. Since disregarding stated guidelines is so very common and it’s Millicent’s job to narrow down the competitive field for the very few new client slots her agency has available in any given year, she may well have been instructed to regard a 1-page synopsis, a 5-page synopsis, or no synopsis at all as the agency’s standard rejection triggers.

Why might a demonstrated lack of familiarity with an agency’s querying or submission guidelines — which are, lest I should not yet have made this point sufficiently, likely to differ from other agencies’ — raise red flags for Millicent? Readers who made it through my recent Querypalooza series (or, indeed, this afternoon’s post), feel free to shout out the answer: because a writer who isn’t very good at following directions is inherently more likely to be a time-consuming client than one who shines at producing what s/he is asked to produce.

I hear some annoyed huffing out there, don’t I? “Aren’t you borrowing trouble here, Anne?” some of you ask, arms aggressively akimbo. “Not stuffing the right array of things into a query packet could simply be a matter of having found out about an agent from writers’ forum or one of the many listing websites, rather than having plunked down hard cash for a Herman Guide or tracked down the agency’s website. If agents were REALLY serious about wanting everyone who approaches them to adhere to the guidelines on their sites, wouldn’t they make sure that the same information appears in every conceivable listing, anywhere?”

Well, that might be the case, if agents had infinite time on their hands (they don’t) or if most of the information on fora and secondary sites you mentioned were first-hand (it seldom is). But as I MAY have pointed out once or twice in the past, querying and submission standards are not designed to make life easier for writers; an agency sets its up to meet its own internal needs.

The advantage of relying upon one of the more credible information sources — Jeff Herman’s guide, Guide to Literary Agents, the Publishers’ Marketplace member listings, individual agencies’ websites — is that the information there comes directly from the agencies themselves. Notwithstanding the fact that these sources may occasionally provide mutually contradictory guidelines, you can at least be certain that someone at the agency you are planning to approach has at least heard of them.

Not so with a writers’ forum, an agency listing site, or even — brace yourselves, inveterate conference-goers — what an individual agent might have said in response to a question at a conference. While writers can glean useful information this way, it’s almost invariably second- or third-hand: it may be accurate, but it’s not necessarily what the agent or agency you’re planning to approach would like potential clients to know about them.

So while searching fora and generalist sites can be a good way to come up with a list of agents to query, that shouldn’t be a savvy writer’s only stop. Check out what the agency has to say for itself — because I can tell you now, their Millicent will assume that you are intimately familiar with its stated guidelines, and judge your queries and submissions accordingly.

Besides — and I’m kind of surprised that this little tidbit isn’t more widely known — it tends to drive people who have devoted their lives to the production of books NUTS to encounter the increasingly common attitude that to conduct a 20-second web search IS to have done research. Until fairly recently, conducting research meant actually going to a library or bookstore and looking into a book, a practice that people who sold them for a living really, really condoned.

They miss the days when that was common. They pine for those days.

Trust me on this one: aspiring writers who whine, “But how I was I supposed to know that you wanted a 1-page synopsis rather than the 5-page one the last agency wanted?” when that information is clearly included in a well-respected guide that anyone in North America could have walked into a bookstore and bought do not win friends easily at the average agency.

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s side of the desk, the other problem I mentioned, when queriers get so caught up in the excitement of querying or submission that they just forget to do every step recommended in the guidelines, looks virtually identical to poor research. The over-excited are often penalized as a result.

So how might one avoid that dreadful fate? Here are a few guidelines of my own.

For a query packet:

1. Track down the agency’s SPECIFIC guidelines.
You saw that one coming, didn’t you? Never, ever assume that any given agency will want to see exactly what all the others do.

Yes, even if you heard an agent at a writers’ conference swear up and down that everyone currently practicing her profession does. It’s just not true — unless she was talking about professionalism, attention to detail, courtesy, and submissions in standard manuscript format. (And if you don’t know what that last one is, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right before you even consider approaching an agent. Trust me on this one; you’ll be much happier for it at submission time.)

2. Take out a sheet of paper and make a checklist of EVERYTHING those guidelines request.
Don’t trust your memory, especially if you are querying several agents at once. Details can blur under stress.

3. Follow that checklist whilst constructing your query packet.
Again, you probably saw that one coming.

4. Before you seal the query packet (or hit the SEND button), go over your checklist again to make absolutely certain you’ve done everything on it.
Double-checking is the key. If you’re too nervous to feel confident doing this — and many aspiring writers are total nervous wrecks on the eve of querying, so don’t be shy about asking for help — ask your significant other, close friend, obsessive-compulsive sister, or some other detail-oriented person who cares about you to run the final check for you.

Sounds like overkill, but believe me, every agented and published writer in the world can tell you either a first- or second-hand horror story about the time s/he realized after s/he sealed the envelope/popped it in the mailbox/it was halfway to Manhattan that s/he had omitted some necessary part of the packet. Extra care will both help you sleep better at night and increase your query packet’s chances of charming Millicent.

5. Repeat Steps 1-4 for every agency you query.
Yes, really. It’s a waste of your valuable time to send off a query packet that contains a rejection trigger.

For a submission packet (and I warn you, some of these are going to sound awfully familiar)

1. Read over the request for materials and make a checklist of what you’re being asked to send.
Yes, I mean a physical list, written on actual paper. Don’t tell me that you can do it in your head: many a mis-packed packet has started life with that assertion.

Don’t tell me that you’re in too much of a hurry to do this before you get your manuscript out the door. Must I disturb your slumbers by telling you horror stories about writers who didn’t?

If the request came after a successful pitch, you may have to rely upon your recollections of what’s said, but if the agent asked you in writing for pages, don’t make the EXTREMELY COMMON mistake of just assuming that your first excited reading caught all of the facts. Go over your recollection several times and make a list of what to do.

2. Track down the agency’s SPECIFIC guidelines.
Yes, you should do this even if the requesting agent was very detailed about what s/he wanted. Chances are, the agent of your dreams shares a Millicent with other member agents; if the agency expects submissions to look a certain way, so will the communal Millicent.

3. Have a non-writer go over the request for materials, the agency in question’s guidelines, AND its website, making a separate list of all the agency’s requirements and requests.
No, it’s not sufficient to have someone else double-check your list at the submission stage — this packet is just too important. Have a buddy generate a separate list, to maximize the probability that nothing will be left off.

Why a non-writer, you ask? S/he’s less likely to get swept up in the excitement of the moment. Indeed, if you pick someone obtuse enough, s/he is quite likely to ask with a completely straight face while doing it, “So, when is the book coming out?”

As any agented writer can tell you, the proportion of the general population that doesn’t understand the difference between landing an agent and selling a book to a publishing house is positively depressing. Expect a few of your kith and kin to express actual disappointment when the agent of your dreams offers to represent you: seriously, that fantasy about how really great books magically get picked up by the perfect agent the instant the author types THE END, get sold to a publisher the following day, come out the week after, and land the author on Oprah is astonishingly pervasive.

Hey, I don’t make this stuff up. I just tell you about it, so you won’t get blindsided.

4. Compare and consolidate the two lists.
If there are logical discrepancies, go back and find out which is correct. (Hint: you are more likely to be able to reuse your fact-checker if you don’t do #4 in front of her.)

5. Make absolutely certain that your submission is in standard manuscript format.
I couldn’t resist throwing this in, because so many submissions fall victim to unprofessional formatting. If you have never seen a professional manuscript in person (and no, it does not resemble a published book in several significant respects), please go through the checklist under the THE MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING RULES category at the top of the list at right.

Hey, I put it at the top of the archive list for a reason. Proper formatting honestly is that important to the success of a submission.

I usually add a bunch of disclaimers about how there are many such lists floating around the web, all claiming to be definitive, but it’s tiring to pretend that there isn’t a lot of misinformation out there. I’ve won a major literary contest and sold two books using the guidelines I show on this site; my clients have sold many books and win literary awards relying upon these guidelines. I know agents who refer new clients to my website for these guidelines.

I am, in short, quite confident that my list will work for you. Use it with my blessings.

So as far as I know, there is literally no debate amongst professional book writers about what is required in a manuscript — although to be fair, the standards for short stories and articles are different. For any readers who still throw up their hands and complain that there isn’t a comprehensive set of guidelines out there, all I can suggest is maybe you’re spending a bit too much time surfing and not enough time talking to the pros.

That wasn’t as peevish as it sounded: seriously, if you’re tied up in knots because there isn’t any army out there forcing every single advice-giver to conform to a single set of suggestions, sign up for a writers’ conference or go to a book signing. Pretty much anyone in the industry will be perfectly happy to refer you to a credible source for formatting rules. Perhaps they’ll even send you back here.

But fair warning: almost without exception, they will be miffed at an aspiring writer who complains that an Internet search did not turn up definitive information. As I mentioned above, to book people, that’s simply not doing research.

6. Before you seal the submission packet, dig out the final version of that to-do list and triple-check that you did everything on it.
Again, if you’re not a very detail-oriented person — at least not when you’re extremely nervous — have someone else do the final flight-check. Often, significant others are THRILLED to be helping.

I spy a positive forest of raised hands out there. “But Anne,” all of you hand-raisers shout in chorus, “I’m a trifle confused. Why are you bringing query and submission packet assembly up so pointedly at the beginning of this series on synopsis-writing?”

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that it’s extremely common for aspiring writers to construct a synopsis and tuck it into every query and submission packet they send out, regardless of what any given agency wants to see? Or that quite a few queriers simply tuck a synopsis into every query envelope?

Whenever you are scanning guidelines, be it for a query packet, submission, or contest entry, pay extra-close attention to length restrictions for synopses. Millicents are known for rejecting a too-long or too-short synopsis on sight. Why? Well, one that is much shorter will make you look as if your story is unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard.

Either way, the results can be fatal to your submission. (See my earlier comment about the desirability of not wasting your own valuable time by assembling self-rejecting submission packets.)

If, as is the case with many agency guidelines, a particular agency does not set a length limit, be grateful: they’re leaving it up to you, not expecting you to read their minds and guess what they consider the industry standard. Use the length that you feel best represents your book, but I would STRONGLY advise not to go over 5 pages, double-spaced.

Yes, yes, I know: some agencies do ask for 8-page synopses. Obviously, if that’s what they ask to see, give it to them. Just don’t assume that any agency that doesn’t ask for a synopsis that long will be happy to see 8 pages fall out of your query packet.

That forest of raised hands just waved in the breeze. Yes? “But Anne, this is all very useful, but I want to know what should go in my synopsis. What works, and what doesn’t?”

Glad you asked, hand-wavers. The answer is not going to sound sexy, I’m afraid, but come closer, and I’ll let you in on the secret:

For fiction, stick to the plot of the novel, including enough vivid detail to make the synopsis interesting to read. Oh, and make sure the writing is impeccable — and, ideally, reflective of the voice of the book.

For nonfiction, begin with a single paragraph about (a) why there is a solid market already available for this book and (b) why your background/research/approach renders you the perfect person to fill that market niche. Then present the book’s argument in a straightforward manner, showing how each chapter will build upon the one before to prove your case as a whole. Give some indication of what evidence you will use to back up your points.

For either, make sure to allot sufficient time to craft a competent, professional synopsis — as well as sufficient buffing time to render it gorgeous. Let’s face it, unlike some of the more — let’s see, how shall I describe them? — fulfilling parts of writing and promoting a book, a synopsis is unlikely to spring into your head fully-formed, like Athene; most writers have to flog the muses quite a bit to produce a synopsis they like.

Too few aspiring writers do, apparently preferring instead to toss together something at the last minute before sending out a submission or contest entry. (Especially a contest entry. I’ve been a judge many times; I know.)

I have my own theories about why otherwise sane and reasonable people might tumble into this particular strategic error. Not being aware that a synopsis would be required seems to be a common reason, as does resentment at having to produce it at all. Or just not being familiar with the rigors of writing one. Regardless, it’s just basic common sense to recognize that synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write.

Yes, no matter how beautifully-written your book may happen to be. Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

On the bright side, since almost everyone just throws a synopsis together, impressing an agent with one actually isn’t as hard as it seems at first blush. Being able to include a couple of stunning visceral details, for instance, is going to make you look like a better writer — almost everyone just summarizes vaguely.

My readers, of course, are far, far too savvy to make that mistake, right? Right? Have half of you fainted?

Even if you are not planning to send out queries or submissions anytime soon (much to those sore-backed muses’ relief), I STRONGLY recommend investing the time in generating and polishing a synopsis BEFORE you are at all likely to need to use it. That way, you will never you find yourself in a position of saying in a pitch meeting, “A 5-page synopsis? Tomorrow? Um, absolutely.”

Yes, it happens. As I mentioned in passing yesterday, it’s actually not all that uncommon for agented and published writers to be asked to provide synopses for books they have not yet written. In some ways, this is easier: when all a writer has in mind is the general outlines of the plot, the details are less distracting.

Actually, if you can bear it — you might want to make sure your heart medication is handy before you finish this sentence –it’s a great idea to pull together a couple of different lengths of synopsis to have on hand, so you are prepared when you reach the querying and submission stages to provide whatever the agent in question likes to see.

Crunching any dry cracker should help the nausea subside.

What lengths might you want to have in stock? Well, a 5-page, certainly, as that is the most common request, and perhaps a 3 as well, if you are planning on entering any literary contests anytime soon. It’s getting more common for agents to request a 1-page synopsis, so you might want to hammer out one of those as well.

I can tell from here that you’ve just tensed up. Take a deep breath. No, I mean a really deep one. This is not as overwhelming a set of tasks as it sounds.

In fact, if you have every done a conference pitch, you probably already have a 1-page synopsis floating around in your mind. (For tips on how to construct one of these babies, please see the aptly-named 2-MINUTE PITCH category at right.)

Don’t believe me, oh ye of little faith? Okay, here’s a standard pitch for a novel some of you may have read:

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

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, right? This would be a trifle long as an elevator speech — which, by definition, needs to be coughed out in a hurry — but it would work fine in, say, a ten-minute meeting with an agent or editor.

It also, when formatted correctly, works beautifully as a one-page synopsis with only a few minor additions. Don’t believe me? Lookee:

See how simple it is to transform a verbal pitch into a 1-page synopsis? Okay, so if I were Jane (Austen, that is, not Bennet), I MIGHT want to break up some of the sentences a little, particularly that last one that’s a paragraph long, but you have to admit, it works. In fact, I feel a general axiom coming on:

The trick to constructing a 1-page synopsis lies in realizing that it’s not intended to summarize the entire plot, merely to introduce the characters and the premise.

Yes, seriously. As with the descriptive paragraph in a query letter or the summary in a verbal pitch, no sane person seriously expects to see the entire plot of a book summarized in a single page. It’s a teaser, and should be treated as such.

Doesn’t that make more sense than driving yourself batty, trying to cram your entire storyline or argument into 22 lines? Or trying to shrink that 5-page synopsis you have already written down to 1?

Yes, yes, I know: even with reduced expectations, composing a 1-page synopsis is still a tall order. That’s why you’re going to want to set aside some serious time to write it — and don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. (Where have I heard that before?)

Because, really, don’t you want YOURS to be the one that justified Millicent’s heavily-tried faith that SOMEBODY out there can tell a good story in 3 – 5 pages? Or — gulp! — 1?

Don’t worry; you can do this. There are more rabbits in that hat, and the muses are used to working overtime on good writers’ behalves.

Just don’t expect Athene to come leaping out of your head on your first try: learning how to do this takes time. Keep up the good work!

PS: Please do not panic when you see that the post immediately below this one is not in fact about synopses: in an effort to make up for some missed posting days last week, I shall be inserting posts analyzing the winning entries of theAuthor! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better contest between the next few Synopsispalooza posts. If you are looking for the previous Synopsispalooza post, but are too lazy enslaved to repetitive strain injuries time-strapped to scroll, you’ll find it just one click away here.

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better second-place winners in YA: Suzi McGowen’s A Troll Wife’s Tale and Sherry Soule’s Dark Angel (a.k.a. Beautifully Broken)

Suzi McGowen author photoSherry Soule author photo

No, I haven’t taken a look at the daunting task that is Synopsispalooza and abandoned it in terror — I shall be posting again in that excellent endeavor this evening. This morning, however, I would like to press forward with the next of the winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, the takers of second-place honors in Category II: YA, Suzi McGowen and Sherry Soule.

That’s Suzi on the left, Sherry on the right. Today, they are going to take us into the very trendy worlds of YA urban fantasy and YA paranormal.

Take a good gander at those well-constructed author photos — one of the reasons I asked the A!A!GFPMEB winners to provide them was to start all of you thinking about your author photos well before Authorbiopalooza in October. (It’s a Paloozapalooza this autumn at Author! Author!) Why think begin to ponder it well in advance? Well, two reasons. First, for most writers, coming up with a photo they like takes a few tries. Or a few hundred. Second, when the request for an author photo (or author bio, for that matter), it tends to be rather last-minute.

As in, “Oh, I’m going to start sending out your manuscript to editors tomorrow, Author McWriterly. Can you e-mail me a bio with a photo tonight?”

Trust me, you’ll be a much, much happier camper if you already have that photo — and that bio — in hand. (That’s true of synopses, too, actually, so be sure to tune back in tonight for more guidance on that front.)

Back to the business at hand. One of the problems faced by aspiring writers trying to break into a book category that happens to be hot at the moment — and remember, all publishing trends are temporary; what’s hot today may not be next year — is that, inevitably, there will be greater competition for the admittedly greater number of publishing slots. It’s an industry truism, as predictable as the flowers in spring: 1-2 years after a breakout bestseller appears, agencies will be flooded with queries and submissions with eerily similar premises.

And if there’s a series like TWILIGHT or HARRY POTTER that hits the big time? So many submissions for books like them will appear that entire subgenres may be formed.

In a way, this phenomenon is good for aspiring writers, especially for those who happened to be working on, say, YA paranormal romances when the first TWILIGHT book came out. The nice thing about the ever-changing book market is that it actually does tend to reward writers who keep weeding their own particular patch of it year in, year out: eventually, their chosen category may well become trendy.

That’s important to bear in mind, because there are always plenty of people, including agents and editors at conferences, eager to declare a particular book category dead — or impossible to sell, which in the publishing world amounts to the same thing. Just ask anyone who was trying to land an agent for historical fiction six months before COLD MOUNTAIN was a surprise bestseller.

That’s why they’re called surprise bestsellers: even the pros don’t necessarily see ‘em coming. Then they spend the next two years actively soliciting similar manuscripts, the following two tolerating similar manuscripts, and the next four wondering why in heaven’s name aspiring writers keep sending them similar manuscripts. Don’t they know the market has moved on to the next trend?

Of course, the cycle is longer with a breakout series; one has only to read the daily acquisitions listings on Publishers’ Marketplace or Publishers’ Weekly to see that books similar to TWILIGHT are still being picked up in droves. So naturally, thousands upon thousands of writers continue to describe their YA paranormals in TWILIGHTish terms, their YA fantasies in Potterish language, etc.

That strategy makes quite a bit of sense at the front end of a trend, or even at its height. The longer a wave continues, however, the harder it is to make a case that a manuscript by a writer who has never published before in that book category — like, say, the million or so adult fiction writers who have stampeded into the YA market over the past few years — is adding something new and original to the current offerings. And all too often, queriers abet that difficulty by emphasizing how their work is akin to the iconic bestseller in the category, rather than how it is different.

Which brings me back to today’s winning entries. As those of you who entered the contest may recall, one of the required elements was an identification of the entry’s book category and a brief explanation of what this manuscript would bring to that category’s already-existing target market. As so often happens with the descriptive paragraph of the query letter, most entrants mistook this requirement for either a request for a boasting back-jacket-style puff piece (This book will revolutionize Westerns!) or, you guessed it, an invitation to compare one’s own work with bestsellers.

Both of these approaches tend to sell original writing radically short. No matter how many times agents march into writers’ conferences and declaim, “I’m looking for books like Bestseller X,” the publishing industry has never been very taken with carbon copies. What these agents actually mean is, “Since editors are eager to replicate the success of Bestseller X, I am looking for new writers whose manuscripts will appeal to the same target demographic, those folks who have already demonstrated that they are willing — nay, excited about — buying similar books. So I want to see a manuscript with a fresh voice that nevertheless shares certain selling points with Bestseller X.”

Given that motivation, such an agent is unlikely to tell her agency screener (our old pal Millicent, natch) just to request pages from every querier whose descriptive paragraph says this book is just like Bestseller X, right? If a book category happens to be trendy, 70% of what crosses Millicent’s desk will be able to make that claim; by definition, surprise bestsellers change the expected selling points for new manuscripts in their book categories.

So what’s a better strategy for catching her eye? Assuming that any agency that represents that book category is already aware of Bestseller X’s selling points. Instead of telling her that your book shares them, why not show her how it is different, yet will appeal to the same target audience?

I can feel some of you who write in currently hip categories fighting that last paragraph. “But Anne, you said throughout Querypalooza that a querier has only a few lines to grab Millicent’s attention. So how can labeling my book as one with similar bestseller potential possibly undersell it?”

Glad you asked, conclusion-resisters. A lot of aspiring writers believe that a generic comparison to an established author’s work — which most this is the next Bestseller X! claims boil down to being, right? — is inherently more effective at promoting a manuscript than a specific demonstration of the book’s original elements.

As it happens, today’s winning entries disprove that assumption quite nicely. Here is Suzi’s brief description for A TROLL WIFE’S TALE:

You’ve heard of urban fantasy? That dark and gritty world of modern day cities, where elves and witches roam? My novel is the Young Adult version. Call it a suburban fantasy, where a female troll sets out to right wrongs, save the world, oh, and become a tooth fairy.

And here is Sherry’s for Dark Angel. (Please note: between the time that Sherry entered the contest and when we informed the winners — admittedly, a long time; my apologies — she changed the book’s title to BEAUTIFULLY BROKEN. A good call, I think — BEAUTIFULLY BROKEN is a perfectly marvelous title — but obviously, the judges had to work with the original entry. I hope this does not cause any confusion in future web searches, after the book comes out.)

DARK ANGEL is a twist on the young adult, boy meets girl, supernatural love story. This time the boy is the “normal” one and the girl is the supernatural and attractive teenager.

Both of these descriptions make the books in question sound rather generic, don’t they? The first doesn’t bring up an original element until the last few words. Not the best structure, strategically, as Millicent is likely to find the first three sentences a trifle perplexing: there is already a well-established YA urban fantasy category, so why not just state the book category up front and move swiftly on to what’s fresh, original, and exciting about this book?

Especially since there is so very much that is fresh, original, and exciting about this book. Take a gander at Suzi’s one-page description:

Troll Wife could use a job, so when she finds the poster on the telephone pole that says, “Any fae may apply,” she does. She’s as surprised as anyone when she’s accepted for training as a tooth fairy.

She’s also surprised by the impressive number of injuries she racks upon the job. A broken bone and a concussion? Eh, maybe she should have expected that. After all, learning to fly isn’t as easy as it sounds. But the gunshot wound? That was because she was fighting a monster that she ran into while collecting teeth.

The monster, called Oubliette, was a soldier in the war between the humans and the fae, hundreds of years ago. Now Oubliette wants to start the war all over again. This time, it wants to kill all the humans, not just most of them. The other tooth fairies should be her allies in this war against Oubliette, but Troll Wife doubts that any fae that smells like cotton candy can help save the world.

Troll Wife only has days to learn how to fight the Oubliette, protect the human children from it, and make sure that she collects her quota of teeth. While she’s at it, she needs to find out what dark secret the tooth fairies are hiding, and rescue herself from their tangled web.

Sounds like a genuine hoot, eh? But did you gain a sense of that delightful whimsy in the brief description?

DARK ANGEL’s brief description falls into an even more common querying trap: it presents the story as merely a gender-flipped twist on a bestseller. It also assumes — wrongly, based upon the longer description and the first page — that the similarity to that bestseller’s premise is the most interesting thing about this manuscript.

That made the judges rather sad, since on the page, it’s the least interesting thing about this story. Furthermore, the stories do not seem very similar. Take a peek at her longer description:

A sixteen-year-old impetuous outcast has seen ‘shadows’ for as long as she can remember and they always turn up when something bad is about to happen.

When those dark companions follow, Serenity Broussard to church with her family it begins no differently than any other day, except that she gets her first glimpse of the hot new guy in town. It’s a small town so it doesn’t take long for the gossip to spread about Trent Donavon, especially when he moves into his family’s rumored-to-be haunted mansion.

Trent and Serenity began to date and the seemingly perfect state of their relationship is thrown into chaos after she takes a job as an intern, helping restore his family’s estate. It doesn’t take Serenity long to realize that something is terribly wrong. The mansion is full of ghosts and secrets.

The house awakens latent psychic powers in Serenity, who finds herself being stalked by a ghost who tries to communicate with her in terrifying ways. The shadows lurking around Serenity—ever present and insubstantial are something else. Lacking in the description is one common denominator unifying the different types of shadows entering our world—darkness—malevolence.

Shadows had another thing in common—an attraction to Serenity.

When Serenity finds Trent’s mother’s diary, it sends her on a quest to uncover the mystery surrounding the woman’s untimely death. Except things aren’t as black and white as Serenity thinks. Because not all ghosts want help crossing over, some want vengeance.

Admittedly, a few of the narrative choices here are genuinely distracting from the storyline being presented (are the dark companions in paragraph 2 the same as the shadows in paragraph 1, for instance, and if so, are they individual characters? Why is shadows in quotation marks — and why, for an American audience, in single quotation marks? Why risk Millicent’s wrath with two technically incorrect single-sentence paragraphs, when it would be so easy to form the concepts there into narrative paragraphs with at least two sentences? Why aren’t there spaces at the ends of the dashes, since any synopsis should be in standard manuscript format?), but those would all be quite easily fixed. What I want you to notice here is that the brief description and the longer description could be for entirely different books.

That wouldn’t be too surprising to Millicent — aspiring writers undersell their manuscripts’ originality this way all the time. Sad, but true. Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, can we really blame Millicent for not being able to look at the first description of either of these books and extrapolate the second description?

That outcome would be a particular shame in the case of TROLL WIFE, because its premise is so darned charming and full of potential. (All of the judges preferred the title shortened, by the way, Suzi, although several of the judges — yours truly included — wondered if young girl readers would be a bit disturbed that the protagonist’s name and her social role are apparently identical.) That charm is apparent on page 1:

Suzi McGowen p1

Now, this page could use some revision — I suspect, for instance, that a hard-copy read-through would have caught that the narrative tells the reader twice that the protagonist is a tooth fairy, once at the end of paragraph one and again at the beginning of paragraph 2 — but is that why Millicent might start reading this with a jaundiced eye? Chant it with me now, campers: because professional readers stare at manuscripts all day, any deviation from standard format will leap off the page at them, distracting them from the writing.

There’s a reason I keep showing you so many before-and-after page 1s, after all. Take a peek at the same page after 2 minutes of cosmetic revision, and see if it doesn’t come across as more professional. For extra credit, compare it to the original revision and tell me what I changed.

Suzi revised

How did you do? I made five changes here: (1) moved the slug line to left margin (not mandatory, but the norm), (2) changed the chapter title from all caps to title case (thus the name: title case), (3) changed the spacing from an odd specific set to double-spaced, (4) changed the font from Courier to Times New Roman (again, not mandatory, but the norm for novel manuscripts), and (5) changed 14 in line 2 to fourteen. Of these five, only #5 — not writing out numbers under 100 in full — might have prompted Millicent to stop reading.

Yes, it really is that serious an offense against standard format — unfortunate, since so many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that the AP style restriction of writing out only numbers under ten applies to manuscripts. It does not: AP is for newspapers and magazines, and not all literary magazines adhere to it.

Having worked with Suzi and Sherry’s entries in soft copy (the better to show you before-and-after formatting, my dears), I suspect that both were relying on some sort of macro for the PC for their formatting — it was impossible, for instance, to alter the paragraph heading without deleting the title and the space above the text entirely and starting again from scratch. I realize that macros that purport to format a manuscript for a writer may be comforting, but actually, the restrictions of standard format are so simple that anyone reasonably familiar with Word should be able to set them up in five minutes flat. (If you don’t know what the requirements of standard manuscript format are, or indeed that there is a specific professional format for manuscripts, it would behoove you to take a peek at the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list located on the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

I hear some impatient huffing out there, do I not? “But Anne,” macro-huggers across the globe wail, “that sounds like a lot of extra work! I want my computer to do it all for me.”

Well, it is a touch of extra work — although not nearly as onerous as writers tend to speak of it as being — but let me put it this way: if a macro is wrong, its feelings are not going to get hurt when the submission gets rejected. The writer’s will. So who really should be in charge of making sure that the formatting is in apple-pie order?

True, one or two minor formatting gaffes are probably not going to be enough to trigger an automatic rejection. But then, it’s exceedingly rare that a first page gets rejected for only one reason. Presentation problems, like wolves, tend to run in packs.

So is it really all that astonishing that an experienced Millicent might open a submission packet, glance at a misformatted page 1, and assume that more presentation, proofreading, or even writing problems await her? Or that her patience for subsequent problems might be lower than for a perfectly-formatted page 1? Or, more to the point at submission time, that the first typo, grammatical error, or missing word in the text might combine in her mind with formatting problems to equal rejection?

See why I harp on formatting so much? To sharpen your eye for presentation, let’s see how the macro treated Sherry’s page 1:

The problems affect the sharp-eyed reader almost subliminally, don’t they? However, there’s one formatting error here that would draw Millicent’s eye as quickly as if the lines containing it were printed in red ink.

Oh, you didn’t catch it? Here is the same page, properly formatted.

Did you catch it that time? If you are already jumping up and down, shouting, “I saw it the first time, Anne! The text uses an emdash instead of the standard format-requisite spacedashdashspace!” give yourself a gold star for the day. (Hey, I told you there was going to be extra credit for the eagle-eyed.) Because manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects, the emdash — the Autoformat fix for dashes in Word that transforms them into straight lines connecting the surrounding words with no intervening spaces — is not correct in a manuscript. As you may see in the revised version above, the first word should be followed by a space, then two dashes, another space, then the second word. No exceptions.

Yes, I know that Autoformat will change what I just suggested into an emdash. Change it back, or risk the wrath of Millicent.

Okay, what else did I change? Interestingly, not what Suzi’s use of apparently the same macro might have lead us to expect: (1) moved slug line from the right to the left, (2) removed extra spaces in slug line (why have so many aspiring writers started adding spaces before and after the /s within the last year? It’s not correct, and it was not nearly so common before. It’s not as though standard format has changed in this respect.) (3) Moved the chapter title to the top line of the page, and, while I was at it, (4) changed the single space after the period to two, since that’s still the standard for manuscripts.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: if the agent requesting your pages prefers the published book-style single-space convention, her agency’s submission guidelines should tell you so. If that’s what she wants, for heaven’s sake, give it to her, because for the agents who feel strongly enough about this to make public statements about it, it often is a rejection-worthy offense. Not only because they dislike the normal spacing, but because violating an individual agency’s stated submission standards just screams, “This writer not only cannot follow directions — he may not even have taken the time to check whether this agency had its own preferences!”

Why might that in itself render Millicent more likely to reject a submission? Because this is a detail-oriented business, writers who neglect the small stuff tend to be substantially more time-consuming for agencies to take on as clients.

“But Anne,” some of you new to the Author! Author! community — specifically, those of you who have not yet worked your way through one of my famous standard format series yet, I’m guessing — protest vehemently, “this is ridiculous. Surely, it’s the writing and the book concept that determine whether a manuscript gets accepted or rejected, not the petty little details. The agent or editor can always fix the small stuff before publication, after all. Even if a bunch of tiny, insignificant gaffes appear on page 1, I can’t believe that Millicent would just stop reading my submission.”

Oh, dear. I wasn’t going to do this, but if it saves even one good writer from undeserved rejection on formatting grounds, it’s worth it. Since Sherry revised her manuscript after the contest winners were announced, she was kind enough to send along the new version — indeed, the entire first chapter — for the judges to peruse. Obviously, it would not have been fair to the other entrants to judge the revised version, or even to provide extensive commentary upon it, but because it contained a couple of formatting problems that the original entry did not, I cannot in good conscience not flag them. One of them is, in fact, a presentation problem that might actually lead to Millicent’s not reading the submission featuring it at all.

So yes, you caught me: I have in fact structured this discussion to lead us to this point, necessitating showing you the revised version. Please, everybody, take these next examples in the spirit they are intended. (Seriously, I don’t want to see any snarky snickering about this in the comments; a tremendous number of aspiring writers make these particular mistakes, and we should all be grateful to Sherry for bringing them to our attention.)

So calmly, respectfully, wiggle your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins and pretend you have just opened a submission packet to find this first page:

Beautifully Broken title

And this second one:

Beautifully Broken page 1

When you were expecting to find this:

Sherry's title

And this:

Sherry #2

Still don’t believe that formatting makes a difference to how Millicent perceives a manuscript? From the aspiring writer’s perspective, it might not seem to make much of a difference whether the title page is professionally formatted, or if it is in a wacky typeface, or if the first page of text is numbered 2 instead of one. But to her — and to agents, editors, and well-informed contest judges — there’s more than just words on a page at stake.

This is about respecting tradition. The publishing world values its traditions, and even if it did not on general principle, as those of you who have followed my past series on standard format are aware, manuscripts look a particular way for a variety of practical reasons. Every industry has the right to establish and maintain its own standards; most of the assertions that this or that has changed in manuscript format come from the outside.

Also, favoring professionally-formatted submissions a matter of practicality: an aspiring writer who takes the time to learn how to present his writing professionally is usually also one who has found out how publishing does and does not work. Thus, he is more likely than the average aspiring writer (who does not do his homework, as a general rule) to have realistic expectations about what an agent can and cannot do for him, the kind of turn-around times to expect on submissions to publishing houses, the necessity for not pouting when the editor asks for revisions, the imperative to promote one’s own book after it comes out, rather than passively waiting for the publishing house (or one’s friends who happen to be bloggers) to do it for him, and so forth. He’s just an easier client to promote.

What are we to conclude from all of this? Well, first, that I should plan to add a Formatpalooza to this autumn’s festivities; it actually was quite surprising to me how few of this contest’s entries arrived properly formatted. I don’t want any of my readers to get rejected on technical grounds, if a few weeks of my effort every year can help prevent it.

Second, have you noticed that since I’ve had to spend so much time going over the presentation and formatting problems, I haven’t had the luxury of talking about the writing much? That’s a pretty accurate representation of how distracting these issues are for professional readers: if the presentation and formatting are off, it’s awfully hard for good writing even to get noticed.

And that’s a real shame here, because there were some writing choices that we could have discussed productively. The prevalence of the incorrect single-sentence paragraph that we’ve already discussed in this series, for instance — in English prose, a narrative paragraph properly consists of at least two sentences; established authors like Joan Didion began breaking the rule not because they were unaware of it, but because to the hyper-literate, it is genuinely shocking to see a non-dialogue single-sentence paragraph. Thus the emphasis that this narrative choice places on the offset sentence: it shouldn’t be that way without a very good reason.

Unfortunately, in common usage, as well as in both of these pages, single-line paragraphs are used not for emphasis, but for rhythm. To a professional reader, this is not a very sophisticated way to establish beats. Save the single-sentence paragraphs for only that occasion when what is being said in them is going to come as a genuine surprise to the reader.

I would also have liked to talk about the and then convention, a notorious Millicent’s pet peeve. In a written narrative that does not involve time travel, events are assumed to be presented in the order that they happened chronologically. Thus, professional writing typically avoids the and then so dear to aspiring writers’ hearts, because it is logically redundant. The pros reserve it for only those occasions when the then part seems to come out of nowhere.

Hey, where have I heard that logic before?

Then, too, there’s the trailing off with an ellipsis… trope. Quite a few Millicents, especially the classically-trained ones, will have a knee-jerk negative to a narrative sentence or paragraph that ends in that manner. It’s fine in dialogue, where those three dots are expressing an audible phenomenon (the speaker’s voice trailing off or the effect of being interrupted in mid-thought), but the practice of borrowing that dialogue convention to make a narrative voice seem more conversational is, again, considered a not very sophisticated writing trick.

Because, really: aren’t there thousands of ways a narrative paragraph could generate suspense without resorting to punctuation?

Oh, how I wish I had time and space to talk about all this. In lieu of that, I’ll have to content myself with just posting the marked-up versions. (And mailing them to their authors, of course, but I do that routinely, so those brave enough to submit their work for critique here do not have to squint.) Here’s Suzi’s:

Suzi edit 2

And here’s Sherry’s:

Sherry edit 2

Moral: there’s no such thing as a detail too small to escape a professional reader’s notice — and no such thing as a first page that could not use one last going-over before being submitted. Join me at 7 pm PST for the resumption of Synopsispalooza, everyone, and keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better second-place winners in adult fiction, David A. McChesney’s SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS and Ellen Bradford’s PITH AND VINEGAR

Dave McChesney author photoEllen Bradford author photo

My apologies for the must-have-been-agonizing delay between the prize posts for the first-place winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest and the second-place winners. Believe me, the lapse was not intended to be editorial: I’m excited about both of today’s winners, but I had a bit of a car-crash recovery setback earlier in the week. I didn’t want to risk sounding grumpy about two writers whose narrative voices I like quite a bit.

So a drum roll, please, for the joint winners of second prize in Category II: Adult Fiction: David A. McChesney’s SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS and Ellen Bradford’s PITH AND VINEGAR.

While all of that portentous rumbling is still hanging in the air, let me take a moment to air one of my pet peeves: gratuitous quotation marks. The other day, a staffer at my physical therapist’s office handed me a special-ordered piece of medical equipment in this bag:

misused quotes

What, one wonders, was the writer’s intent in placing quotation marks around my name? Was he in some doubt about whether it was my real name — as in, This belongs to the so-called Anne Mini? Did he mistakenly believe that he was shipping this not particularly personal piece of equipment not to my PT, but to a monogrammer, and he wanted to make sure the right spelling stitched into it? Or had someone immediately behind him just shouted my name, and he was quoting her?

Was this merely a case of forgotten attribution? Is this an obscure quote from a book I do not know — a minor work of Charles Dickens, perhaps? Or, still more disturbingly, is this kind soul trying to let me know, albeit in code, that somebody out there is talking about me?

None of the above, probably: my guess would be that the guy with the marking pen thought, along with a surprisingly high percentage of the marking-things population, that quotation marks mean the same thing as underlining. He is mistaken.

Don’t ever follow his example. To a professional reader, the common practice of placing things in quotation marks to indicate either emphasis in speech (“Marvin K. Mooney, will you ‘please go’ now?”), a stock phrase (everybody laughed, because “all the world loves a lover”), or just to call attention to individual words on a sign (Fresh “on the vine” tomatoes, 3 for $2) simply looks illiterate. Sorry to be the one to break the harsh news, but it’s true.

So how should one use quotation marks? How about reserving them for framing things that characters actually say?

I know; radical. The next thing you know, I’ll be calling for aspiring writers to use semicolons correctly.

I do not bring any of this up lightly — or, indeed, purely to rid the world of a few more sets of perplexingly-applied quotation marks. Both of today’s entries grabbed the judges with their strong, distinct authorial voices, but each left us murmuring amongst themselves, speculating about what the writer’s motivations might have been.

Although these two first pages don’t actually have a great deal else in common — other than both beginning the text 1/4 of the way down the page, rather than 1/3; the addition of a single additional double-spaced line would have made a positive cosmetic difference in both — the judges agreed that they shared a certain kinship: the unanswered question might well lead even an agency screener who admired the writing to hesitate about reading on.

Why? Well, Millicent isn’t all that fond of unanswered questions on page 1, and with good reason: in order to be able to recommend a novel manuscript to her boss, she is going to have to be able to tell him (a) who the protagonist is, (b) what the book is about, (c) the book category, (d) to what specific target audience within that book category’s already-established readership it should be marketed, and (e) how this book is different/better than what is already on the market for the folks mentioned in (e).

If Millicent can’t answer any of these questions. she’s going to have a hard time convincing the agent even to read the submission. (Actually, she prefers to be able to answer all of them by the bottom of p. 1, but she’s prepared to change her mind between then and p. 50.) And no, “But the writing is so good!” is no substitute for being able to come up with answers: books are pitched to editors within well-established categories.

So when a fresh, new narrative voice that does not appear to fit comfortably within an existing book category, our Millie is left in something of a quandary. How, she wonders, is she going to make the case for this book?

That’s a good exercise to apply to any manuscript, incidentally: reading a first page or book description and trying to figure out the book’s category is excellent practice for narrowing down your own. In that spirit, take a gander at Dave McChesney’s first page and book description; tell me, what do you think the category is?

Dave McChesney's p 1

If you found yourself murmuring, “Hmm, this reads like Naval Adventure,” you agree with most of the judges. Even more so if you additionally told yourself, “I’d bet a doubloon that there’s adventure awaiting those characters within the next page or two.” Although some of the judges felt that it might have been more of a Millicent-grabber to toss the characters straight into that imminent action, none denied that page 1 set up the expectation for excitement.

Cast your eyes over the book’s description, though, and see if you think the proverbial shoe still fits the assumed book category:

McChesney synopsis

Still sounds like a rollicking Naval Adventure, doesn’t it? Or do I sense some puzzled head-scratching out there?

“Wait just a doggone minute, Anne,” head-scratchers across the English-speaking world protest. “He hopes to quickly set out for his world, England, and Evangeline, but finds obstacles continually placed in his path? In the known world? Does this take place in a different world, or this one? And if it’s the former, shouldn’t that be made clear to Millicent on page 1?”

Well caught, head-scratchers — and in answer to that last question, a resounding yes. Let’s take a gander at how Dave himself categorizes his book:

SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS, the second Stone Island Sea Story, combines Naval Adventure and Fantasy. An additional yet similar world gives these voyagers of the early nineteenth century more seas to sail and challenges to meet. Uniquely, they are aware of and able to control their journeys between the two worlds.

An interesting notion, right? But you can already hear Millicent slapping her forehead and muttering, “How on earth am I going to define this book for my boss?”

Universally, the judges felt that in fairness to Millicent, some fantasy elements should appear on page 1. Otherwise, they argued, it was simply too likely that when she came upon fantastic happenings later in the manuscript, she might conclude — wrongly in this case — that Dave did not know that he was genre-jumping, or that the authorial choice to present a fantasy premise in a completely dedicated naval fantasy voice was in fact a choice, not a misunderstanding of how book categories work.

That’s why Dave’s taking the quite large risk of telling Millicent in his brief book description (and presumably in his query) that this is a category-crosser is quite smart. True, there is not a great deal of demonstrable overlap between the readership of these two categories. (Which is why I am bound to mention marketing advice agreed-upon by a full half of the judges: since this is such a strong Naval Adventure voice, why not write a straight Naval Adventure first, land an agent that way, and then segue into fantasy with the NEXT book?) Also, if an agency is not open to the possibility of combining these two disparate categories in a single book — or, in this case, a series — its Millicent may well reject the query on that basis alone.

So why is it smart to give her the opportunity up front? Because for a truly genre-expanding novel to make it into print, it’s going to need an agent willing — nay, eager — to take on the challenge. Trust me, it’s far, far easier on a writer emotionally to find out a particular agent is not up for it at the querying stage, rather than several years into an unhappy writer-agent relationship.

Let’s assume for the moment that Dave’s query has already passed muster with the Millicent guarding an agency very much up for this challenge. How might Millie respond to this first page?

Dave's edit

As you may see (and we have continually seen throughout this series), how a professional reader responds to a page of text can be extraordinarily different from how an ordinary reader might. I would be surprised, for instance, if many of you had caught the verb repetition in lines 1 and 2, or the lack of a necessary paragraph break on line 8. (It’s a bit confusing to have one person speak and another — or in this case, several others — act within the same paragraph.) Or, really, to be actively annoyed by the almost universal Baby Boomer tendency to compress the phrase all right into alright.

I blame album cover lyrics for the ubiquity of that last one. (If you don’t know what album covers are, children, ask your grandparents.)

Nor would the average reader be likely to gnash her teeth over the preponderance of tag lines, those pesky he said, he mentioned, he groaned speaker-identifiers, but Millicent’s choppers are unlikely to remain ungnashed. Why? Well, one of the standard measures of the reading level of the target audience is the frequency with which tag lines appear: in books for early readers, for instance, who may well be reading aloud or having the book read to them, tag lines are virtually universal.

“See Spot run, Dick,” Jane said.

“I see Spot run,” Dick replied. “Run, Spot, run.”

In most adult fiction, on the other hand, tag lines are deliberately minimized. Although the frequency with which they are expected to appear does vary from book category to book category (chant it with me, campers: there is no substitute for reading widely in your chosen book category, to learn its norms), most of the time, it’s simply assumed that the reader will be able to figure out that the words within quotation marks are in fact being spoken aloud by a character without the narrative’s having to stop short to tell us so.

After all, quotation marks around words can only mean that either those words were spoken out loud or the narrative is trying to cast doubt upon the authenticity of something (as in “I see you’re wearing your ‘designer’ dress’ again, Alice.”), right?

Typically, tag line minimization is achieved by incorporating other action or thought into a dialogue paragraph — or simply to alternate between already-established speakers. Like so:

“Oh, there’s Spot at last.” Jane blew on her freshly-filed nails to free them from dust before she applied screaming red polish. “And there he goes. See Spot run, Dick.”

Dick backed against the wood-paneled wall, eyes wide. “I see Spot run. Run, Spot, run!”

Jane lowered one heavily-lashed lid, the better to aim her gun. “How would you feel about following Spot’s example, Dick?”

“Pretty darned good.”

“Then run, Dick, run, before I change my mind and turn you into Swiss cheese.”

These are all easily-fixed matters of style, however. There was one obviously deliberate authorial choice, however, that left the judges scratching their heads as if they had wandered into a dandruff convention. Millicent almost certainly would have the same reaction. Any guesses as to what on this page might engender that response?

If you flung your hand into the air, shouting, “Oh, I’ve been scratching my head raw over this one, too! Why are Original Vespican, Original, Baltican all in italics? They aren’t foreign words, are they, or the names of ships, which could legitimately be italicized?”

Apparently not — from how they are used here, they may be the names of nationalities or tribes. If that’s the case, however, it’s hard to guess what the authorial point of italicizing them could possibly be: one does not, after all, routinely employ italics when talking about Swedish fjords or Navaho rugs.

Presumably, there is a perfectly sound rationale behind this authorial choice — Dave’s been an active member of the Author! Author! community for years, and never have I known him to set at naught the rules of standard format for frivolous reasons. I said as much to the other judges, in fact. But they felt — and I must say I concur — that however valid it might be to include those italics in the published version of the book, at the submission stage, the manuscript should omit them.

Why? Well, as we all know (at least I hope we do), manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects. Double-spacing, for instance, and doubling dashes. While it might conceivably be possible for a writer to justify an occasional deviation from standard format, remember, the submitter is literally never there when Millicent screens his manuscript; it is going to need to stand on its own merits. And Millicent is not all that keen on formatting originality: she knows all too well that any fancy formatting in the published book would be the editor’s call, not the author’s.

In Dave’s case, then, it could certainly be argued that no one but his future editor is genuinely qualified to determine whether those italics should remain or not. However, that perfectly legitimate point is not likely to help him much at submission time, if Millicent gets tired of scratching her head over it.

So I offer up this question for your pondering pleasure: since Millicent’s delicate eyebrows are so very likely to be lifted beyond the point of comfort by those page 1 italics, wouldn’t it be more prudent for Dave to hold off on those italics-by-choice until he can discuss it with his future editor? That way, the risk of the italics triggering rejection drops to zero, and he can still make a case for including those italics in the eventual book.

Isn’t it amazing how much issues ostensibly unrelated to either the quality of the writing, the strength and consistency of the narrative voice, or even the inherent excitement of the story can affect its submission chances?

With that capacious question ringing in our ears, let’s turn to Ellen Bradford’s extremely likable page 1:

Ellen Bradford p1

Engaging, isn’t it? I must say, this one won me over in spite of myself: as a professional reader, I tend to be a trifle suspicious of self-deprecating narrators; it’s hard to keep it up for the entire length of a book. It’s even harder to do if the narrative is genuinely funny, as this page is — self-deprecating humor often lends itself to one-note storytelling, and even when it doesn’t, those who do not get the jokes are wont to write off the narrator as whiny.

Hey, I don’t control readers’ reactions. I just tell you about ‘em.

This is a voice that a lot of readers would quite happily follow for chapters on end — but is it compelling enough to carry Millicent on to page 2?

That’s not at all a frivolous question, or even a reflection upon the writing here: let’s face it, Millicent doesn’t make it to page 2 in most submissions. And contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the quality of the writing is not always the determinant of whether she flips the page.

Remember, our Millie likes to be able to answer the basic questions about a submission in at least a cursory way by the bottom of page 1. To recap: (a) who the protagonist is, (b) what the book is about, (c) the book category, (d) to what specific target audience within that book category’s already-established readership it should be marketed, and (e) how this book is different/better than what is already on the market for the folks mentioned in (e).

Take another gander at Ellen’s page 1. How many of those questions would you be comfortable answering?

Oh, it establishes the protagonist and the tone of the book beautifully; one could even make a pretty good guess that the target market is women insecure about their appearance — which is to say pretty much all of us. But what is this book about? Where would it sit on a shelf in Barnes & Noble?

Because the judges were all about book category-appropriateness, the contest’s rules asked entrants to provide a brief paragraph dealing with questions (b) – (e). Here’s Ellen’s response:

Pith and Vinegar will turn the world of adult fiction on its ear. Or its kidney. Take your pick. But what remains non-negotiable and absolutely, undeniably 100 percent pure fact is that adult fiction will be resting on an unfamiliar body part.

As will the story’s heroine.

Again: funny, even charming. But did it answer those professional questions, beyond alerting us that it is fiction aimed at adults?

Is it Mainstream Fiction? Women’s Fiction? Chick lit? The judges were inclined toward the latter, but let’s take a peek at the longer book description, to see if we can find out more.

Pith and Vinegar synopsis

Okay, so the book sounds like a hoot; I give you that. And now we know that it is Women’s Fiction — which is fabulous, as this is a voice that would appeal to many, many readers in that target market. There is surprisingly little funny fiction out there right now featuring larger female protagonists, so you go, Ellen!

But this description would be at a very serious competitive disadvantage at most US-based agencies. Care to guess why?

If you already had your hand in the air, crying out, “But Anne, those paragraphs are not indented, and she skipped a line between paragraphs!” give yourself a hearty pat on the back. You are quite right: in dealing with the publishing industry, every paragraph should be indented. Block-formatting just looks illiterate to Millicent.

You wouldn’t want her to think you were the kind of person who would shove quotation marks around perfectly innocent words and phrases for no apparent reason, would you?

No, but seriously, folks, this is a trap into which well-meaning aspiring writers inadvertently stumble all the time. An agency’s submission guidelines ask for an unusual addition to the query packet, or the form-letter positive response to a query requests a much shorter synopsis than the writer has on hand. So he tosses something off — only to realize with horror a few days after he sent it that those additional requested materials were not in standard manuscript format.

If that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, think of it this way: which would you prefer, Millicent’s starting to read your synopsis with an open mind, or her harrumphing at the first sight of it, “Oh, no — I wonder if the manuscript is improperly formatted, too,” and beginning to peruse your word with a pre-jaundiced mind?

There’s another common generator of Millicent’s knee jerks back on page 1. Let’s take a gander:

Ellen's edit

A couple of those points caught you by surprise, didn’t they? Almost universally, Millicents are a mite touchy about having jokes explained to them, at least on the page. After the tenth time it happens in a single day of screening, it can start to feel like a minor insult to one’s intelligence.

And there’s some justification to that: the writerly impulse to over-explain has does typically have its roots in a fear that the average reader won’t get it. Much of the time, those fears are unfounded; inveterate readers are a pretty savvy bunch, and professional readers even more so.

Here, those fears are definitely unjustified — it would be perfectly easy to follow the metaphor without, say, the narrative’s informing us three times that it is indeed a metaphor, or repeating the word potato every few lines. With an image that strong, it’s a safe bet that the reader is going to remember it.

Yet our amusing narrator seems far more afraid that the reader’s mind will stray off the relevant spud than to let us know where the story is set, how the narrator fits into the world she is depicting (perhaps she works at the Bloodworthy News?), or even the time frame — because, let’s face it, a lot of women have felt potato-shaped across a broad array of contexts for at least the last century. (They might well have felt that way before, but bathroom scales were not widely available until the 1920s, so they didn’t have numbers to back up the general impression.)

Are you seeing a running theme here, though? Both of these winning entries left Millicent guessing about a few significant matters at the bottom of page 1 — and in both cases, one of those significant somethings was the book category.

But that’s actually not the primary reason that a well-trained Millicent might not turn the page. Any guesses?

Hint: the problem I have in mind is noted twice on the marked-up example above.

Yes, that’s right: the single-sentence paragraphs. Aspiring writers just love these, and as we’ve discussed, they can work well in moderation — to introduce a bit of genuinely startling information or a plot twist that might get lost to the skimming eye if the sentence were attached to the paragraph above or below.

The vast majority of the time, that’s not how such one-line paragraphs turn up in manuscript submissions, however. A surprisingly high percentage of writers who aspire to be funny seem to believe that a single-line paragraph is the only way to designate a punch line, a tactic about as subtle as following Millicent around with a drum kit and executing a rim shot each and every time she reads a joke.

Think about it: if the reader can see from across the room that a joke is coming, because every joke that preceded it in the text was also in a single-sentence paragraph, hasn’t the narration lost the element of surprise so crucial to maintaining a humorous tone all the way through the book?

That doesn’t appear to have been Ellen’s motivation in creating the single-sentence paragraphs here, though; my guess is that they are intended to reflect the greater-than-full-stop pause these statements might carry in verbal speech. Regardless, breaking the it takes at least two sentences to form a narrative paragraph rule doesn’t actually provide any benefit to the narrative — certainly not a large enough bang to outweigh the risk of a very well-read Millicent’s knee jerking over it.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here are the opening three sentences as submitted:

If eyes were the windows to the soul, I was a potato.

Well, metaphorically speaking, I was a potato. Physically, I didn’t look like a root vegetable unless I turned sideways in one of those nasty change-room mirrors that sadistic shops selling Barbie-sized clothing always mounted on their flimsy doors.

Got those firmly in mind? Now cast your eyes over them with the single-sentence paragraph problem removed in the most obvious manner imaginable — although while I’m at it, I’ll do a spot of trimming.

If eyes were the windows to the soul, I was a potato. Well, metaphorically speaking. Physically, I didn’t look like a root vegetable unless I turned sideways in one of those nasty change-room mirrors that sadistic shops selling Barbie-sized clothing always mounted on their flimsy doors.

Was any meaning lost in that transition? Any nuance, even? Is there anything to prevent someone reading it out loud from emphasizing that first sentence?

Of course not. The same holds true for the other single-sentence paragraph. Let’s review it in context:

A few stray hairs perhaps, under harsh fluorescent lighting, but everyone knew how cruel those lights could be.

All right.

I may in some tiny and insignificant way, have resembled a potato. But some potatoes on eBay looked like the Virgin Mary or Albert Einstein, so there was a lot of genetic variance. And metaphorically speaking, I was covered with many eyes, like a potato.

And here it is again, cleaned up a trifle:

A few stray hairs, perhaps, under harsh fluorescent lighting, but everyone knew how cruel those lights could be.

All right, I may, in some tiny and insignificant way, resemble a potato. But some potatoes on eBay looked like the Virgin Mary or Albert Einstein, so there was a lot of genetic variance. And metaphorically speaking, I was covered with many eyes.

Okay, so that was more than a trifle, but you know how I (and Millicent) feel about word repetition and comma use. My point is — and you probably saw this coming, right? — that stand-alone paragraph wasn’t actually adding anything significant to the text. The next paragraph was able to absorb it into its first sentence with no loss of meaning at all.

What lesson are we to derive from all of this? Several, actually. First, I clearly was eager to jump back into the swim of commenting on these entries — this is a long post, even by my standards. Second, while it may require a bit of plot massage, the more you can show Millicent of the book’s tone, what it’s about, who the protagonist is, and so forth by the bottom of page 1, the happier she will be.

Finally, as we’ve been seeing throughout this series, even a very well-honed narrative can often benefit from a bit of judicious revision. Just to stick that bug in the ear of all of you who are going to receive requests for pages in the months to come: fight the urge to send off those pages instantly; it’s well worth your time to re-read those pages IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before popping ‘em in the mail or hitting SEND.

Do I need to remind you about Millicent’s jumpy knee? Don’t make me pull out another quotation mark example to get her going.

A few more contest entries to come, then it’s on to Synopsispalooza, beginning on Saturday. Well done, Ellen and Dave, and keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better first-place winners in adult fiction, Curtis Moser’s Perdition and Jens Porup’s The Second Bat Guano War

Curtis Moser author photoJens_Porup_photo

Welcome back to our ongoing salute to the winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest in Category I: Adult Fiction. I am genuinely thrilled, not only to be able to bring you tantalizing tastes of some very talented writers’ prose, but also by the extraordinarily rich fund of discussion points these page 1s have been providing. Honestly, even though I’ve been chattering on here at Author! Author! for over five years about craft, presentation, voice, submission, and manuscript formatting, I keep finding myself thinking while I am typing, is it possible I’ve never blogged about this before?

Today’s exemplars are particularly fine ones, Adult Fiction first-place winners Jens Porup (the dapper fellow on the right, above) and Curtis Moser (the gentleman on the left with the two wee friends). The judges felt, and I concur, that both of their first pages were remarkable examples of strong authorial voice precisely suited to their target audiences.

They also felt, as do I, that there were some presentation issues that might prevent either of these exciting, fresh voices from getting a sympathetic reading from our old pal Millicent, the caffeine-quaffing agency screener. And since I know from long, long experience working with first-time authors that these specific presentation problems dog many, many otherwise well-done first pages, I am delighted to have the excuse to talk about them at length today.

First, though, to the voices. As we’ve discussed in the last couple of posts, the match between narrative voice and chosen book category can be vital to the success of a submission, particularly for genre fiction and YA: ideally, a great first page should cause Millicent to sigh pleasurably and murmur, “Ah, this is a fresh take on a story my boss can sell to this market, appropriate in voice, vocabulary, and tone for the intended readership, that also displays a fluency in the conventions of the genre.”

Okay, so that’s quite a bit to murmur over the first paragraph of a submission, but since it is safe to assume that a Millicent employed by an agency that represents a lot of, say, thrillers will be staring at queries and submissions for thrillers for a hefty chunk of any given workday, the last response a thriller-mongering querier or submitter should want to elicit is a spit-take of too-hot latte and a cry of, “Wait — hasn’t this writer ever read a book in this category?” or “What’s that kind of word choice doing in a manuscript intended for this market?”

Or even, saddest of all, “Wow, this is a fresh, exciting new voice. What a shame that it’s not appropriate for the book category in which this talented person has chosen to write.”

Unfortunately for both literature and the health of Millicent’s throat, all three of these reactions to well-written first pages are a part of her normal workday. Often, in the joy of creation, aspiring writers lose sight of the fact that no novel is intended for a general audience. Even bestsellers that turn out to appeal to wide swathes of the reading public begin their publishing lives as books aimed at a specific part of that audience.

And frankly, the reading public expects that. Even the most eclectic of readers understands that a YA novel is not going to read like a romance novel, science fiction, or Western, even if the book contains elements of any or all of those genres, and that an adult genre novel will adhere, at least roughly, to the conventions, tone, and general reading level of its book category.

Were that not the case, brick-and-mortar bookstores would not organize their offerings by category, right? Oh, they usually have a generalized fiction or literature section, but if you’re looking for fantasy, it’s probably going to have a bookshelf of its own, crammed to the gills with novels that share, if not subject matter, at least a species resemblance of storytelling structure and voice.

So while naturally, an aspiring writer should not strive to produce a carbon-copy voice — why should Millicent recommend that her boss pick up a book that sounds precisely like another that’s already on the market? — it’s an excellent idea to re-read one’s submission with an eye to genre-appropriateness. Especially the opening pages, since, as I hope we all know by now, most submissions are rejected on page 1.

Thus it follows as dawn the night that the book description and the first page are not too early to establish that your book fits comfortably into the category you have chosen for it — and thus into Millicent’s boss’ client list. Remember, just as no novel is actually intended for every conceivable reader, no agent represents every type of book. They specialize, and so should you.

Why, yes, now that you mention it, gearing your voice to your chosen book category would be a heck of a lot easier if you invested some time in reading what’s come out recently in it. How savvy of you to realize that what might have struck Millicent as a fresh take fifteen years ago would probably not elicit the same pleased murmuring today.

As fate would have it, both of today’s winning entries fall into the same general book category: thrillers. However, these books are aimed at different readerships within the thriller genre. Curtis’ PERDITION is a paranormal thriller:

Colt Miller has driven by the cemetery house for years. When the owner died, he watched the shingles curl and the porch sag, and in his mind he nurtured the fantasy of restoring it to its former beauty. So when the bank finally brings it up for auction and there are no bidders, Colt is thrilled to purchase it cheap. After he finds the body of a little girl in the basement, however, the thrill ebbs along with his enthusiasm, and the memory of the loss of his own daughter threatens to swallow up what remains of his business, his life, and his sanity.

Sounds like a story about an interesting person in an interesting situation, right? Yet the potential for paranormal activity didn’t jump out until that last sentence, did it? If I were editing this paragraph in a query, I would bump some of the skin-crawling feeling up to the first sentence, on the general principle that a Millicent who read queries for paranormal thrillers all day might not be automatically creeped out by the word cemetery.

But it does read as genre-appropriate, and that’s the most important thing. So does Jens’ brief description for THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR (the judges’ favorite title in the competition, by the way):

This hard-boiled spy thriller set in Peru and Bolivia is an unflinching look at vice and corruption among expatriate Americans living in South America. When the hero’s best friend and CIA handler goes missing, he must risk everything to find him.

While this is a perfectly fine description, as those of you who followed the recent Querypalooza series are no doubt already aware, I prefer even the briefest novel description to give more of an indication of the book’s storytelling style and voice. Unlike Millicent, though, I did not need to judge the style on this terse paragraph: I asked Jens for a more extensive description.

Rats ate his baby daughter while he partied in a disco. Now Horace “Horse” Mann is a drugged-out expat teaching English to criminals in Lima, Peru. Oh, and doing the odd favor for the CIA.

When his drinking buddy and CIA contact, Pitt Watters, goes missing, Horse’s efforts to find him hit a snag. He comes home to find his lover, Lynn — Pitt’s mother — strangled in his apartment. Arrested and charged with murder, Horse escapes Lima and follows his only lead to a Buddhist ashram on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

There, Horse uncovers his friend’s involvement with a group of Gaia-worshipping terrorists who want to kill off the human “disease” infecting the earth.

The group’s leader, a world-famous vulcanologist, explains that only a new generation of lithium-ion batteries can replace the dwindling supply of fossil fuels. The group plans to set off a volcanic chain reaction that would destroy the world’s most promising lithium fields, and thus ensure that man pays for his polluting sins.

Horse finally finds Pitt on top of a volcano, his thumb on the detonator. Pitt confesses to killing Lynn, begs Horse to join him in the purification of Gaia. Horse must choose: end the world, himself, his guilt? Or forgive himself the death of his daughter, and find a way to live again?

Complete at 80,000 words, THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR is a hard-boiled thriller set in South America, with an environmental twist.

Sounds like precisely what the first description promised: a hard-boiled spy thriller. But this description shows these qualities, in a voice that’s book category-appropriate; the first just asserts them.

And if you found yourself murmuring, “Show, don’t tell,” congratulations: you’re starting to think like Millicent.

I love this description for another reason, though — it’s a glorious illustration my earlier point about Millicents working in agencies that represent different kinds of books looking for different things at the querying and submission stage. A Millicent habituated to screening thrillers would glance at that first sentence and murmur, “Wow, that’s a graphic but fascinating detail; I don’t see that every day,” whereas a literary fiction-reading Millicent have quite the opposite response: “Wait, didn’t rats eat a protagonist’s baby sister in Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER?”

The moral, in case I’m being too subtle here: what’s fresh in one book category will not necessarily be in another. If Cormac McCarthy’s beautifully-written THE ROAD had shown up as a first novel in a science fiction/fantasy-representing agency, its Millicent would have rolled her eyes and muttered, “Not this old premise again!”

Happily, the target audience for hard-boiled spy thrillers tends not to have much overlap with that for literary fiction. For one thing, about 90% of habitual literary fiction buyers are female, whereas the overwhelming majority of spy thriller readers are male. So not only does Jens not need to worry too much about perusers of the Nobel Prize in Literature short list catching the similarity; they probably won’t even be browsing in the same part of the bookstore.

Before I move on to what really makes these two entries remarkable, the strong voices in their openings, I can’t resist pointing out a common synopsis and book description faux pas in that last example. Take another peek at its last paragraph: can anyone tell me why it might be problematic at query or submission time?

Award yourself a gold star if you instantly cried out, “A synopsis or book description for a novel should concentrate on the plot!” (And take two more gold stars out of petty cash if you thought that the first time you read that description.) When an agency’s guidelines ask for a synopsis, they expect an overview of the plot: basic introductions to the main characters and their conflicts. Mentions of technical matters like the length or book category do not belong here.

But that’s not actually the reason I flagged this paragraph. Any other guesses? (Hint: a LOT of queriers include this faux pas in their letters, too.)

Give up? The phrase Complete at 80,000 words actually doesn’t make sense in a novel query. Novels are ASSUMED to be complete before the writer begins to query them — so why mention it? All bringing it up achieves is to make Millicent wonder if the querier is also sending out letters for other novels that are not yet complete.

Also, the mention of the word count, while well within the standard range for thrillers, is not particularly helpful information to include. It’s not a usual element in a synopsis or book description, but even in a query, it can only hurt you.

Why? Well, as I argued at the beginning of Querypalooza, the only use Millicent can make of word count in a query is if it is higher or lower than expected for that book category. And that use is, “Next!”

“130,000 words!” she exclaims, reaching for the form-letter rejections. “Far too long for my boss to be able to submit to editors in this book category. Too bad, because the book description sounded interesting until that last bit about the word count. And why on earth would she be wasting my time with a manuscript that wasn’t complete?”

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, some agency guidelines (but not many; check) do specify that they would like to see word count mentioned in queries: speed of rejection. Think about it: if Millicent does not realize until she has opened the requested materials submission packet that the manuscript is longer than her agency wishes, she will usually read at least the first page anyway. And if she is taken by that first page, she might well read on.

So by the time she realizes that there are 120 more pages in that manuscript than her boss would like, she might already have fallen in love with it. The agent might have, too. In the worst-case scenario, their only course might be to sign the writer and ask her to trim the manuscript.

So including the word count is to the querier’s advantage how, precisely?

Speaking of falling in love with a new writer’s voice, I imagine that you’re getting impatient to read those aptly-voiced first pages I’ve been going on and on about. Let’s begin with Curtis Moser’s:

Curtis Moser page 1

And here is Jens Porup’s:

Jens Porup p1

Original, assured authorial voices, right? Fresh without sending up red flags that the book to follow might not fit comfortably into the stated book category (although personally, I found the Colt 45 joke in the first a bit obvious: wouldn’t it be funnier to let the reader figure out later in the story that the guy named Colt was indeed 45?), these opening pages both announce where these books will sit in a bookstore and promise good, genre-appropriate writing to come.

Not only that, but both protagonists come across as interesting, quirky people faced with interesting, unexpected challenges. We as readers might be quite happy to follow these guys around for a few hundred pages.

But did something seem slightly off on both of those page 1s? Something, perhaps, in the formatting department?

Hint: they should look quite a bit more alike than they currently do. An even bigger hint: in one major respect, they have opposite problems.

Still not seeing it? Okay, let’s take a gander at both first pages with the formatting irregularities fixed. Again, Curtis first, then Jens:

Curtis reformatted

Jens page 1 reformatted

They look much more alike this way, don’t they? That’s not entirely coincidental: the point of standard format is that all manuscripts should look alike. That way, the formatting does not distract from professional readers’ evaluation of the writing.

Award yourself one of those gold stars I’ve been tossing about so freely if you cried upon comparing the original versions to the revisions, “By Jove, margins were quite off the first time around. Curtis’ left and right margins are too big; Jens’ left, right, and bottom are too small. And is the slug line in the second in a rather unusual place in the header?”

Exactly so — and as Goldilocks would say, the margins in the revised versions are just right. Nice point about the slug line, too. As small as these deviations from standard format may seem, to someone accustomed to reading professionally-formatted manuscripts, they would be indicative of a certain lack of familiarity with submission norms. At minimum, a pro’s first glance at these pages would tend to lead to reading the actual text with a jaundiced eye: remember, new clients who need to be coached in how the biz works are significantly more time-consuming for an agent to sign than those who already know the ropes.

Even if that were not a consideration, these formatting problems would be a significant distraction from the good writing on these pages. In fact (avert your eyes, children; this sight is going to be almost as distressing to the average aspiring writer as a baby gobbled up by rats), there’s a better than even chance that the formatting would have prompted Millicent not to read these pages at all.

Okay, so it’s not up to baby-consumption levels of horror, but it’s still a pretty grim prospect, right? See why I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to comment upon these pages? A few small formatting changes will render them much, much more appealing to Millicent.

Bonus: all of the formatting gaffes you see above are very, very common in submissions. In fact, they were extremely common in the entries to this contest — which is why, in case any of you had been wondering for the last few paragraphs, deviations from standard format, although explicitly forbidden in the contest’s rules, did not disqualify anybody.

Hey, there’s a reason that I run my HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT series a couple of times per year. (Conveniently gathered for your reading pleasure under the category of the same name on the archive list at right, by the way.) The overwhelming majority of aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that formatting is a matter of style, rather than simply the way the pros expect writing to be presented.

Let’s take these pages one at a time. Curtis’ left and right margins are set at 1.25″, rather than the expected 1″. While this formatting choice was actually rather nice for me as an editor (don’t worry, the marked-up versions are following below), it would necessarily throw the estimated word count for a loop: as you may see from the before and after versions, 1″ margins allow for quite a few more words on the page. So does turning off the widow/orphan control (which you will find under the FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS section in Word), so that every page has the same number of lines of text.

Now let’s talk slug line, that bit in the header containing the author’s last name, book title, and page number. Or rather, it should contain the page number: on this page, the number is off on its own, on the far side of the page. So the slug line looks like this:

Moser / Perdition

Rather than the expected:

Moser/Perdition/1

As you have no doubt already noticed, the expected version does not feature spaces before and after the slashes. What you may not have noticed, however, was that in the original, the slug line was in 10-point type, rather than the 12-point that should characterize every word in a manuscript. Also, the chapter title is in 14-point type AND in boldface, both standard format no-nos.

I’d actually be astonished if you spotted the other font-based problem, because the key to diagnosing it lies in being able to see it in soft copy: the skipped double-spaced lines between the chapter title and the first line of text are in 14-point, too. The difference on the printed page is miniscule, admittedly, but while we’re revising, we might as well go the whole hog, eh?

Jens’ page 1 is even more likely to be rejected on sight, due to his margins: 1.17″ at the top, .79 inch along the other three sides, and as the exclaimers above pointed out, the slug line is at the bottom of the header, rather than at the usual .5 from the top of the paper. In most literary contests, shrinking the margins to this extent would result in instant disqualification, but hey, we do things a little bit differently here at Author! Author!.

The funny thing is, shrinking the margins actually didn’t get much more material on this page. As some of you compare-and-contrasters may already have noticed, were the chapter title and space between the top of the page and the beginning of the text shrunk to standard format for a chapter opening, only a line and a half would be pushed to page 2.

Actually, if Jens were willing to change the font to Times New Roman, he’d actually gain space. To tell you the truth, I always discourage my editing clients from submitting work in Courier, anyway (or, in this case, Courier New): yes, it’s technically acceptable (and required for screenplays), but Times New Roman is the industry standard for novels.

Besides, it’s spiffy. Take a gander:

Jens page 1 TNR

Looks quite a bit sharper, doesn’t it? True, part of that increased neatness comes from bringing the page more in line with what Millicent would expect cosmetically: starting the text 1/3 of the way down the page, moving the Chapter One up to the top, not left-justifying anything but the slug line, and removing both the extra spaces and selective capitalization from that.

Hey, every little bit helps, right?

Now that we’ve gotten all of that distracting formatting out of the way, let’s see how Millicent responds to Jens’ first page now that she is reading it:

Jens edit2

Pretty positively, by professional readers’ standards, right? The judges felt the same way — but believed, as I do, that a couple of minor text changes would make Millicent like it even more. The first suggestion, however, would require substantial rearrangement of this opening scene.

Why? Well, in a novel’s opening, speech without a speaker identified – or, in this case, without the narrative’s even specifying whether the voice was male or female — is a notorious agents’ pet peeve. It’s not on every pet peeve list, but it’s on most. Guessing really drives ‘em nuts.

“It’s the writer’s job to show me what’s going on,” Millicent mutters, jabbing her pen at the dialogue, “not my job to fill in the logical holes. Next!”

On Jens’ page 1, having the action of the scene turn on a disembodied voice is even more dangerous, because it raises the possibility that perhaps this book should have been categorized on the other side of the thriller spectrum: as a paranormal thriller like Curtis’, rather than a spy thriller. Oh, it didn’t occur to you that the voice might have been of supernatural origin? It would to a Millicent whose boss represents both types of thriller.

The other avoidable potential red flag here is the word choice chancre. It’s a great word, but let’s face it, thriller-readers tend not to be the types to drop a book on page 1 in order to seek out a dictionary’s assistance. Even if Millicent happened to be unusually familiar with social disease-related terminology, she would probably feel, and rightly so, that this word is aimed above the day-to-day vocabulary level of this book’s target audience.

And no, I’m not going to define it for you. Despite all of this talk of baby-eating, this is a family-friendly website.

Dismissing the manuscript on these grounds would be a genuine shame — this is one of the most promising thriller voices I’ve seen in a long time. This jewel deserves the best setting possible to show off its scintillations.

And once again, isn’t it remarkable just how much more closely professional readers examine even very good text than the average reader? Here, Curtis’ first page gets the Millicent treatment:

Curtis edit

Again, a great opening, exciting new voice, and genre-appropriate, with the fringe benefit of a real grabber of an opening sentence. (That, ladies and gentleman, is how one constructs a hook.) The character-revealing specifics in the second paragraph are also eye-catching: considering that all of these telling details are external characteristics, they certainly give a compelling first glimpse of the man.

I see that Millicent agrees with me that that drawing the reader’s attention to the Colt 45 analogy twice on a single page might be overkill, though. Funny how that worked out, eh? She left it in the title — as, remarkably, would I — but advised cutting the unnecessary explanation at the beginning of paragraph 2.

The other easily-fixable element is an old favorite from this summer’s first page revision series: all of those ands. As we discussed in Juniper Ekman’s grand prize-winning entry last time, the frequent use of and is common in both YA and first-person narratives, as an echo of everyday speech.

On the printed page, especially if that printed page happens to be page 1 of an adult narrative, all of those ands can become wearying to the eye. As, indeed, does any word or phrase repetition: they tempt the weary skimmer to skip lines. Take a gander at how the word and phrase repetition here might jump out at Millicent:

Curtis page 1 ands

See how that percussive repetition conveys the impression that the sentence structure is far less varied than it actually is? Yet as individual sentences, most of this is nicely written — and despite all of the ands, there is only one honest-to-goodness run-on here.

The good news is that, like most word repetition, this is going to be quite simple to fix. It merely requires taking a step back from the text to see it as a pro would: not merely as one nice sentence following another to make up a compelling story and fascinating character development, but as a set of patterns on a page.

Wow, that was a productive little discussion, wasn’t it? Many thanks to Jens and Curtis for prompting it.

Oh, and once again, congratulations!

Next time — which may well follow late tonight, post-PT energies permitting; we’ve got a lot of contest winners to get through between now and the grand opening of Synopsispalooza on Saturday — I shall present you with another set of first-place-winning entries, this time in YA. Keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: INDOMITVS, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Cole Casperson

Cole Casperson author photo

Have everyone’s brains unscrambled after the intensive query-and-submission fest that was Querypalooza? Please enjoy the down time, because next week (Saturday, September 25, to be precise) we shall be hurling ourselves head-first (literally) into Synopsispalooza, a celebration of all things…well, I’m sure you can extrapolate.

In the meantime, I have a real treat in store for you: close Millicent-the-agency-screener-eye-views of some genuinely wonderful reader first pages. That’s right, gang: it’s time once again for yours truly to whip out her multicolored editing pens.

I’m genuinely excited to introduce you to today’s writer, 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Cole Casperson, pictured above. Like the three other A!A!AEE winners this year, Cole also won the Grand Prize in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest last June. To render that dual win even more impressive, the first page of INDOMITVS garnered a distinction that no other entry did: the judges agreed that it was a contender for top honors in two categories: Adult Fiction (the category in which it was actually entered) and YA.

How is that possible? Well, for the reason that the judges were unanimous in their eagerness to see me evaluate this entry in a blog post: the voice and plot would have worked for either.

Don’t keep parroting, “How is that possible?” I’m about to let you see for yourself — and please, if the type is too small or too fuzzy on your screen, do yourself a favor and enlarge the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + a couple of times. You’re going to want to say in future that you were among the first to read this promising new voice.

Cole's entry

Compelling, isn’t it? By the bottom of the page, it’s easy to care about these characters; we already are inhabiting their lifeworld.

That’s not easy to do in that few lines, obviously. So what’s the secret? All of those gorgeous specific details, combined with that lovely narrative rhythm: when farmers could step away from their crops and line up in angry rows of bronze…surveying the noisy rotting tree-stump…the drone of the fat midsummer bees reached out and enveloped him in a sphere of frenzied harmony.

That’s some nice writing, eh? Especially coming hard on the heels of a genuinely terrific first line that both flings the reader directly into our hero’s mindset and sets the time period: Marcus Furius would kill a man in six days.

Cole’s brief description in his contest entry also makes the book sound like a heck of a lot of fun:

No novel has focused on a nascent Rome’s most exciting period: the Early Republic. Rome had to start somewhere, and I write about the man responsible, Camillus. In a market where Anakin Skywalker is a kid and Batman Begins, why not explore the prequel to Caesar, Spartacus, Cleopatra, etc?

About half of the judges drew in their breath sharply at that surely exaggerated first sentence: there have most assuredly been novels set in that time period before, a few of them recent releases. And that could be very problematic at query time, because if Millicent happened to work at an agency that had represented such a novel within the last decade (or even if she had read one during that period), she would be likely to mutter under her breath, “Well, this one didn’t do his market research,” and reject the query.

So why, given how negatively Millicents as a group tend to respond to all-or-nothing statements in descriptive paragraphs, did I, alone amongst the judges, cry, “Hooray!” when I spotted this description amongst the winning contest entries?

Quite simply, I knew it would make a terrific example. Those of you who followed my recent Querypalooza series might already have guessed why: queriers and pitchers make this sort of black-and-white claim all the time.

In fact, nearly every entrant in this particular contest included one or more overstatement in her book description — not all that astonishing, given how often such statements turn up in queries. Mistakenly, many queriers seem to believe that the use of superlatives will make their claims to originality, writing quality, and/or marketability stronger and more convincing. But like any other claim made in a query letter, Millicent is unlikely to believe it unless the querier provides some evidence. It is always better to show her that your book is original, well-written, and/or marketable than just to assert it.

To be fair, this description may not have been written for inclusion in a query letter: the contest rules did specify that the descriptive paragraph should explain what is original about the manuscript in question. What, we asked, will this book add to its chosen book category?

Cole’s description satisfies that brief rather well. But I ask you: based on this first page alone, what is the book category, and who is the target audience?

Not immediately obvious, is it?

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, the judges were split about placing this in the Adult Fiction or YA category: the voice, the vocabulary, and the story so far could in fact place it in either, right? Yet being judges, they were in a position to do what a perplexed Millicent scanning a writing sample in a query packet might not necessarily do — ask the writer to produce, as all of the winners and placers were asked to do, a page-length book description.

Take a gander at INDOMITVS’ longer description. Fair warning: I shall be asking you to consider the question of book category again afterward.

INDOMITVS blurb

If you said, “Why, this sounds like historical fiction,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Cole did indeed enter this first page and the description above as historical fiction.

If I know the quick eyes of my hardcore readership, however, a forest of hands was already in the air by the end of the first sentence. “But Anne,” those of you who have followed past discussions of both standard format and Millicent’s pet peeves point out, “wouldn’t some Millicents — or, indeed, many contest judges — not have read this description in its entirety? It’s not in standard format, as I understood that everything that went into a query packet should be, and I thought that it was fairly normal for professional readers simply to skip over openings in italics. So wouldn’t today’s winner be much more likely to make friends and influence people in agencies if he made these relatively small cosmetic changes?”

Why, yes, clever and incisive long-time readers, he almost certainly would. However, it’s a pretty good back jacket blurb, isn’t it? For the purposes of this contest, that’s perfectly okay, italics and all. (It would also make quite a good verbal pitch as is, come to think of it.)

Which is not to say that it couldn’t be improved — or would fly as a 1-page synopsis in a query or submission packet. One of the things I love about this particular contest: in awarding the prizes, I have a genuine opportunity not only to give my readers fine examples of how to do a first page right, but also to help our winners make — wait for it — their great first pages even better.

In that spirit, I’m going to go ahead and give some tips on improving this description, just in case our winner should ever like to tuck it into a query envelope. I also suspect that this feedback might be helpful to anyone out there querying an agency that expects a 1-page synopsis to be tucked into the query packet.

Okay: let’s start with expectations: everything, but everything, that an aspiring writer sends to an agency is a writing sample, and should be treated accordingly. Proofread closely, under the assumption that Millicent will probably turn green at even a single typo; adhere to the strictest standards of grammar and style, on the same principle; use standard format in promotional materials (as opposed to the query letter itself), assuming that Millicent is used to seeing writing samples formatted that way. (And if you weren’t aware that manuscripts and books are not supposed to look alike, run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right before you even consider mailing any pages at all to an agency.)

Would something as simple as a typo or a non-doubled dash in a synopsis be enough to trigger rejection? Not always, but remember, a querier or submitter can have absolutely no idea what has just happened immediately before Millicent opens his packet. For all you know, Millie’s boss might just have finished a tirade on how e-mail and social media have caused the general standards of spelling and grammar to decline, or just yelled at a client for a formatting gaffe.

Yes, both happen. Make sure your materials — all of them — are impeccable.

Then, too, as we saw throughout the summer and in the post on our last winning entry, professional readers are HARSH. Even more so on writing they like than writing they don’t, typically: close scrutiny is the compliment the pros pay writing that they consider publishable; no writer in her right mind would actually want her book to go to press with lingering typos or logic problems, right?

So in not pulling their punches, they honestly believe they are being helpful. Spotting a manuscript’s weaknesses is often a matter of experience, pure and simple. Agents and editors don’t read like everyone else, and neither do good freelance editors. Our eyes are trained to jump on problems like…well, insert any predator-prey analogy you like here.

The point is, we’re fast, and our aim is deadly. And when Millicent grows up, she wants to be just like us.

I am reminded of M.F.K. Fisher’s wonderful anecdote about being solicited by her neighbors to write a preface for a charity cookbook — you know, one of those collections of recipes that were so popular as fundraisers in the 1970s, in which well-to-do local matron share the secrets behind their potluck-famous pineapple upside-down cakes and tuna surprise. The cookbook’s editors, both volunteers, came knocking on Fisher’s door in the hope that having a big-name food writer attached to their compilation of local recipes would make the book sell better. It was, they told her, for a good cause, so she donated her expertise.

Well (the story goes), Fisher genuinely wanted to help them, so she very kindly took the draft book from them and had a good, hard, professional look through the patched-together manuscript. Without missing a beat, she instantly began barking out everything that was wrong with the book: poor editing, meandering writing, abundant redundancies.

All of the things, in short, that professional readers would automatically flag in a manuscript.

When she paused for breath, she noticed that the amateur editors were not gratefully taking notes. Instead, they were dissolved in tears. From their non-professional standpoint, Fisher had been hugely, gratuitously, deliberately mean, whereas from a professional point of view, she had been paying them the huge (and possibly undeserved) compliment of taking their project seriously.

Yes, yes, I know: by this logic, the person eaten by a lion should be flattered by the lion’s impression that he tastes good. But as I have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about ‘em.

The fact is, from a professional perspective, whitewashing an editorial opinion about a manuscript is a waste of everyone’s time. In a freelance editor’s feedback, it would border on unethical.

For those of you who think that this mindset sounds like a pretty fine reason to steer clear of anyone who might be tempted or empowered to pay this particular stripe of compliment, let me hasten to add: the ability to take criticism well is a highly valuable professional skill for writers; in the long run, you will be much, much happier if you start developing it as part of your tool kit before you start working with an agent or editor.

Your dream agent, I assure you, will just assume that you have already have it up your sleeve. This is precisely why your dream agent should not be the first human being other than your spouse, best friend, or mother to set eyes on your manuscript.

All of which is to say: I am cruel here only to be kind. Here is how Millicent would see the book description above.

blurb edit

Startling, isn’t it? At the risk of repeating myself: every syllable an aspiring writer allows to pass under Millicent’s scrutiny is a writing sample. It’s in your best interest to assume an uncharitable reader, rather than — as most queriers and submitters assume — one that will be predisposed to overlook small faux pass in a manuscript that shows real promise.

As this one most assuredly does, by the way. But that doesn’t mean that even a Millicent who fell in love with the strong narrative voice, the interesting and unexpected protagonist, and/or the unusual story would not respond to that first page we all admired so much like this:

Cole edit

And yes, in response to what a good two-thirds of you just thought: this is how a professional reader reacts to a first page she likes. I didn’t spend all summer yammering about first page troubleshooting just because I happen to like book openings, after all.

The good news is that not only are all of the problems here easily fixable; they are easily fixable in under an hour. Certainly a worthwhile investment in improving an opening as compelling as this one’s agent-seeking chances, eh?

Let’s begin with the formatting problems, starting at the very top of the page. Those of us who read manuscripts for a living have been complaining for the last year and a half or so that all of a sudden, we’ve been seeing slug lines — that author-identifying bit at the top of each and every page of a professionally-formatted manuscript — with extra spaces in them, a relative rarity before. Abruptly, aspiring writers were showing up with this:

CASPERSON / INDOMITVS / 1

Rather than this:

CASPERSON/INDOMITVS/1

Or, even more properly — and effectively, given this particular title — this:

Casperson/INDOMITVS/1

The extra spaces on either side of the dashes may look cool to aspiring writers, but to anyone who stares at professionally-formatted manuscripts day in and day out, they will just look wrong. Ditto with the all-caps chapter title seen here:

CHAPTER 1

To writer, this capitalization choice may seem like purely a matter of personal style, but to Millicent, it’s a matter of formatting. In a manuscript, chapter designations are in title case:

Chapter 1

Or, if you prefer:

Chapter One

Several other issues might have been less obvious to the eye unaccustomed to the rigors of standard format, but to a professional reader, they would leap off the page. First, the page is not consistent about having two spaces or one after a period. As we’ve discussed in the past, there is actually some debate amongst agents on this subject, so ALWAYS check agency guidelines before you submit: two spaces is the standard format default, but if an agent has a strong preference for one, for heaven’s sake, give it to her.

Whichever you choose, though, be consistent. Professional readers are specifically trained to catch inconsistencies.

Another problem that would have caught Millicent’s eye is the run-on sentence in line -6:

“Gods, Marcus, hurry up, even the horse is bored.”

There is no real narrative benefit to running two sentences together here, which renders this rule-break a risk without a clear pay-off. While run-on sentences have become much more acceptable in dialogue in recent years than in the Thou Shalt Not decades of the 20th century, they are still grammatically incorrect. It should read:

“Gods, Marcus, hurry up. Even the horse is bored.”

Another often-overlooked rule — or, indeed, one of which many aspiring writers do not seem even to be aware — is the single-sentence narrative paragraph. Here, we see it in line -7:

A thrown acorn clattered off a branch near his head.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that sentence per se. (Although a Point-of-View Nazi might be tempted to ask how precisely, given that the narrative appears to be in the tight third person for the rest of the page, the protagonist could possibly have told the difference between an acorn that was thrown and one that simply fell on him. One suspects that the trajectory might have provided the necessary clue, but the narrative does not discuss it.) Standing alone in its own paragraph, however, it would jar a professional fiction reader: outside of dialogue, a proper narrative paragraph consists of at least TWO sentences.

I specified a fiction-reading pro, because these days, pretty much all U.S. newspaper and magazine writing abounds in single-sentence paragraphs. And, of course, the entire opus of Joan Didion, who popularized the single-line paragraph. Yet more evidence that aspiring writers are held to a significantly higher literary standard than famous ones — and that the AP style embraced by newspapers is not identical to the expectations for book manuscripts.

As Cole is obviously aware, there’s quite a bit of fiction out there right now that breaks this rule. However, the generally-accepted rule of thumb is that the rule should be broken ONLY for emphasis. Like, for instance, when the information divulged in that single line is in some way a surprise. For example, while this would be technically correct:

Jean-Paul scratched his head, perplexed. Now that he had removed the hinges, the door should have been possible to open, but it would not budge. Had it been barricaded from the other side? Before he had even finished formulating the question, the wood splintered, and a hefty green hand reached through the aperture to grasp him by the throat.

A writer might conceivably want to underscore the twist by setting the final sentence off by itself:

Jean-Paul scratched his head, perplexed. Now that he had removed the hinges, the door should have been possible to open, but it would not budge. Had it been barricaded from the other side?

Before he had even finished formulating the question, the wood splintered, and a hefty green hand reached through the aperture to grasp him by the throat.

Reads surprisingly differently, doesn’t it? Yet like any narrative device, the single-sentence paragraph loses its power if used too often. Reserve the single-sentence sentence for when the information is genuinely startling, to set it off from the rest of the text.

As I said, though, all of these problems are easily and practically instantly fixable, the type of things that could have been caught right away by a talented proofreader. There is one danger, however, that a non-professional reader would have been extremely unlikely to catch.

Unfortunately, it is also something that could result in instant (and, I think, entirely undeserved) rejection at many agencies. Care to guess what might press Millicent’s buttons?

No? Let me give you a hint: it is integrally related to the judges’ primary concern about this first page.

If you have been jumping up and down for the last two paragraphs, waving your arms and screaming, “I know, Anne! Millicent is likely to cast her eyes over this page, say, ‘Wait, this is YA; my boss doesn’t represent that. Next!’” take 14 gold stars out of petty cash. This is, believe it or not, the single most likely reason that this first page might be rejected.

Yes, really. If a story opens with a pre-voting age protagonist, many a Millicent at an adult fiction-representing agency has been known to leap to the conclusion that the writer has miscategorized a YA book or (and this is, alas, the more likely surmise if this page comes in a query packet) that the writer just didn’t bother to check whether the agency represents YA or not. Since no query or submission is easier to reject than one in a category Millicent’s boss does not sell, either of these situations would be no-brainer rejections.

Oh, I can tell from here that a lot of you hate that. “But Anne,” writers of stories that begin in the protagonist’s youth and follow him through time protest, “that isn’t fair. If Millicent is confused about the book category, why wouldn’t she just go back and check the query letter or synopsis? Heck, in a submission, she could just check the title page; the book category would be in the upper right-hand corner.”

Good question, linear time-lovers, but I suspect that you won’t like the answer much: because she has a lot of first pages to read today, and her job is to reject 98% of them.

So how can a savvy writer protect her manuscript from this ugly fate? Well, I’m afraid my solution is pretty cynical: even if the book follows the protagonist throughout a lifetime, consider opening the submission version of the manuscript with a scene from her adult life, then jump backward in time.

Hey, you can always cut that opening scene prior to publication, right? Your goal here is to get past Millicent.

A less cynical approach, and one that might work better for Cole’s page, would be to rid the page of any elements other than the protagonist’s age that could be giving off a YA vibe. In this first page, there are several. The use of the historical future in the first sentence, for instance: while historians and other nonfiction writers are fond of this tense (so dramatic!), in fiction, it’s most closely associated with fairy tales (unbeknownst to Hansel and Gretel, that gingerbread house was to be their downfall). In most adult fiction, even if the overall plot is not told in chronological order, the action in an individual scene usually is.

Or, to pony up an old favorite from last summer, the percussive use of and:

Such a thing was not a rarity amongst the Italiots, particularly in the summer months, when farmers could step away from their crops AND line up in angry rows of bronze. This summer had proved to be no exception, AND a single killing would not normally raise eyebrows. But Marcus lived far from the Etruscan border, AND he was only ten years old.

Or, still more YA-like, its repetitive use within a single sentence, to echo a common pattern in childish speech:

Spurius was a year older AND much bigger AND quick with his fists.

While a 10-year-old might legitimately think like this, here, in a narrative that otherwise has an adult tone –heck, it even sports a semicolon in line 6 — it seems to convey an expectation about the audience, as well as information about the protagonist. This structure — technically a run-on — is far more common in YA than in most adult fiction categories. It’s also much more frequently used in first-person narratives (particularly YA first-person narratives), in order to give a (false) impression of a chatty, conversational tone.

The final element that might lead Millicent — and did lead half of the judges — to conclude that the story to follow was YA lies in the name choices. You must admit in any ahistorical novel, featuring a protagonist who apparently has the last name Furius would constitute a bit of a character development give-away: you’d hardly be surprised if this guy turned out to be a trifle on the impatient side, would you?

True, we know from the blurb that this book is about someone who really lived, so his name would not be easy to change. What is completely under the writer’s control, however, is what the character is called in the narrative — and certainly what he is called in the first line of the book. Remember, readers’ first impressions are formed very quickly.

But Marcus’ name isn’t really the part that screams YA here. His brother, a winning tyke apparently named Spurius Furius, does.

Actually, in real life, the guy’s name was Spurius Camillus — our protagonist was, as we know from the book description, Marcus Furius Camillus — but that’s not the point. It would be hard to make a name like this to work on page 1, unless the voice was clearly comedic beginning in the first paragraph.

And don’t suggest that a reader has an obligation to read the back jacket blurb before starting page 1. Even in a published novel, that would be a dangerous presumption; at the query and submission stages, an assumption that Millicent would already know historical characters’ actual names could be fatal.

How so? Well, go back and re-read page 1: is there anything there to indicate that Furius isn’t the boys’ last name? And since a reader of adult fiction must be presumed to be familiar with the term spurious, why wouldn’t Millicent leap to the conclusion that the brother’s name was a joke intended to fly slightly over young readers’ heads, an inducement to beef up their vocabularies, especially in a manuscript where the protagonist is (at least at first) ten years old?

So how should Cole rectify this problem, given that he can’t exactly rechristen people who lived over 2,000 years ago? At the risk of seeming cynical…well, you know what I was about to suggest. Or — and this was what a good half of the judges thought he should do — he could turn the book into YA.

Those are calls that only he can make, of course. Everybody here at Author! Author! is awfully darned excited to see what he decides; the judges were unanimous that they want to be told well in advance when this book is going to be available for sale, so they may pre-order it.

If the rest of you take nothing away from this post, let it be this: even a wonderful first page can almost always be improved. A grabber of a hook, nicely-written sentences, engaging characters, a sense of place — all of these Cole’s opener has in spades. But as a professional reader, that only renders me more excited to read the revised version to come.

Congratulations, Cole — this really does sound like one heck of a book. Keep up the good work!

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

1885-proposal-caricature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Melissa:

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

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

Regards,

Clinton McPicky

Dear Clint:

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

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

Melissa

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

Clinton

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

She was just being honest, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Querypalooza, part XXIII: when the going gets tough, the tough get…wait — what do you mean, they wanted 50 CONSECUTIVE pages?

thescream

My apologies for breaking up that interesting submission practicalities in the morning/query composition in the evening rhythm we’d had going here for the last few days of Querypalooza. I had fully intended to sit down and write another example-stuffed post on the subtle differences that frequently separate a successful query from one less likely to generate a request for pages, saving the partials-related information below for tomorrow morning.

A few hours ago, however, I received some very bad news about a blog-related situation I absolutely had to drop everything and correct right away. It ate up much of today’s writing time. Fortunately, I already had this post written: I had intended to deal with partials at the end of last week, before I got carried away by excitement over generating full query examples.

So I decided that it would make more sense to post it now, rather than writing frantically into the wee hours on a content-related post. That way, we all get to bed earlier, and the post quality will almost certainly reflect my bad day less. (Case in point: when I did try to generate examples this evening — surprise, surprise — the storylines all seemed to relate to this afternoon’s crisis. Not really fair to you, that.)

Last time, I wrapped up my advice on the assembly and packaging of a requested partial with some advice long-time readers of this blog MAY have heard before:

broken-record No matter how many pages or extra materials you were asked to send, do remember to read your submission packet IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you seal that envelope. Lest we forget, everything you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing, please.

Sometimes, one’s own weary peepers are not up to the job — and with good reason. If you’ve been up half the night printing out those pages the agent of your dreams requested yesterday, so you may pop them in the mail first thing tomorrow, chances are that you’re going to be more than a little stressed out and tired by the time you get around to proofreading.

Heck, you may even be so longing for your pillow’s sweet, sweet embrace that you find yourself sorely tempted — dare I say it? Apparently, I do — to blow off this necessary step and seal the envelope. Or hit the SEND key.

That would be a bad idea, and not only because even a cursory once-over might have caught that missed word in the middle of the second paragraph of your first page. You know, the one left over from your third revision, when you decided your opening needed more action. (You haven’t read it in hard copy since you made that change, have you? Too bad; Millicent the agency screener was kind of liking that scene — but she knows from experience that a revision-hangover typo on page 1 is probably indicative of a Frankenstein manuscript full of similar half-made changes.)

It would be an equally bad idea to send out a query packet without last-minute proofreading, and not only because then, you might have noticed that you eliminated some grammatically-necessary punctuation when you cut out a sentence because it made your letter longer than a single page. (See parenthetical logic in previous paragraph for the probable conclusion. Hey, I don’t call them Frankenstein queries for nothing: this easily-identifiable type of revision residua might as well be waving a white flag at Millicent, shouting, “Hey, lady! This writer doesn’t go back and re-read his own work between revisions! Doesn’t that render it quite likely that the manuscript, should you request it, will exhibit Frankenstein tendencies?)

May I make a simple suggestion to counteract the editorial deficiencies brought on by trying to rush a query or submission packet out the door? Before you rush those requested materials off to the post office or hit SEND, it’s an excellent idea to have another set of eyes scan those pages first.

Ditto with contest entries and residency applications, by the way; it’s just too easy to miss a crucial typo yourself. Particularly if you’re really in a hurry to meet a deadline — and what entrant or applicant isn’t? — and neglect to read your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Why do I feel compelled to slip this golden piece of editorial advice into this post more than once, you ask — or, indeed, repeat it so often? Because I can already feel some of you gearing up to blow it off, that’s why.

Specifically, those of you who have been huffing impatiently throughout the last few paragraphs. “But Anne,” those of you who pride yourself on your attention to detail point out, “I must have read the pages the agent asked to see in my partial 75 times while I was revising them. I’ve read them so many times that two-thirds of my brain cells think they’re already published. What could I possibly learn by reading them again, much less IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Quite a lot, actually. Like, for instance, if when you changed your protagonist’s sister’s name from Mona to Maura, you altered every reference. Or if every line of the requested synopsis printed out legibly. Or — brace yourselves; this may be a hard one for some of you — if the minor changes you made in the course of the 71rst read are consistent with the ones from read 72.

Shall I rephrase that, to drive home the point a little harder? Okay, how’s this: had you re-read every syllable of your partial, contest entry, or writing sample tucked into a residency application between the time you made those final few changes and when you popped your last submission into the mail?

Or since you popped your last submission into the mail? What about your query letter — or, indeed, any page you have ever sent out in a query packet?

Wow, the crowd’s gone so quiet all of a sudden. Was it something I said?

For those of you who were not suddenly flung into retrospective panic about what kind of typo or printing snafu you might have inadvertently passed under Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s over-tired eyes, you needn’t take my word for how often writers realize only after something’s out the door that it wasn’t quite right. Many members of the Author! Author! community have already shared their horror stories on the subject; it makes for some enlightening reading.

Feel free to add stories of your own on that list; sharing them honestly will help other aspiring writers. But do not, I beg you, set yourself up for a spectacularly instructive anecdote by failing to read the very latest version of your partial, contest entry, or query packet writing sample IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Yes, even if you plan on submitting those pages via e-mail or by entering copying and pasting them into a form on an agency’s website. On average, people read 70% faster on a backlit screen; unless you share Superman’s optometrist, you’re infinitely more likely to catch typos, logic problems, and omissions in hard copy than soft copy.

(The lenses in Clark Kent’s glasses aren’t prescription, you see, but clear, and thus his vision is…oh, never mind.)

While I’m already hovering over you like a mother hen, here’s a post-submission regret I hope I can wipe from the face of the earth forever: including a business-size (#10) envelope as the SASE for a partial or a contest that returns materials, rather than an envelope (and appropriate postage) large enough to send back everything in the submission or entry packet.

“But Anne!” half of those with submissions currently languishing at agencies across the U.S. cry. “I thought the point of the SASE — that stands for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, right? — was so the agent who requested the partial could mail me a letter, asking me to send the rest of the manuscript. Or, heaven forfend, a rejection letter! If he didn’t like my pages, wouldn’t he just, you know, toss ‘em in the trash or recycling bin?”

Well, the agent (or, more likely, the agent’s Millicent-in-residence) usually does include at least a form-letter rejection in a homeward-bound SASE, but that’s not the SASE’s primary purpose, from the agency’s point of view. As we have discussed at some length over the past few days, its primary use is to get all of those pages out of its office and back to the aspiring writers who sent them.

That’s not just because if they didn’t, the average agency’s halls would be so filled with rejected pages by the end of the first month that Millicent wouldn’t be able to fight her way to the coffeemaker through the chest-high stacks of pages. (She would have had to give up her traditional lattes by the end of the first week; she wouldn’t be able to find the front door during her lunch break.) They also return the pages because it’s in the writer’s copyright interest to know precisely where his pages are at any given time — and should any of that seem paranoid to you, you might want to take a gander at the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the archive list at right.

If, on the other hand, the idea of a submission’s tumbling into unscrupulous hands doesn’t strike you as particularly outrageous, but the logic behind the writer’s providing the postage to convey her own rejection to her does, I would recommend a quick read through the posts under the SASE GUIDELINES category.

And for those of you reading this post in a tearing hurry because you’re frantically trying to get a partial out the door and into the mail, or whose fingers are itching to hit the SEND key for electronic submissions, let me just go ahead and state it as a boldfaced aphorism: with any submission, always include a SASE sufficiently large for the agent to send the entire submission back to you, with enough stamps attached to get it there safely.

Again, emphasis on stamps. Attaching metered postage to a SASE is another fairly common mistake in submitting a partial. So is neglecting to add any postage at all. Out comes the broken record player again:

broken-record The vast majority of agencies will simply not use a stamp-free SASE. Instead, the entire query or submission packet will be unceremoniously dumped in the trash.

Or recycling. Although you’d be astonished at how many agencies — how to put this gracefully? — don’t take full advantage of all of that space in their recycling bins.

A third common mistake submitters of partials often make comes not when they are packing up the partial, but later, after the agent has approved the partial and asked to see the full manuscript. That’s the agency parlance for the request, anyway; in writer-speak, it’s usually called asking to see the rest of the book.

Therein lies the root of the mistake: the semantic difference is crucial here. All too often, successful partial submitters think that a request for the entire manuscript equals a request for only the part of the manuscript the agent has not yet seen.

The agent asked to see the rest of the book, right?

Actually, she didn’t — what asking to see the rest of the book means in agent-speak is that the agent is expecting the ENTIRE manuscript to show up in her office, neatly boxed and accompanied by a return mailing label and enough postage to get the whole shebang back to the sender, if it’s rejected.

Starting to see a pattern here?

I do — and have for years: when aspiring writers just assume that they know what a request for materials entails, submissions often go awry; ditto with query packets. When they take the time to find out what is actually being requested (or is called for in an individual agency’s guidelines), irritating Millicent by such mistakes is 99.999% avoidable. (Hey, there’s no accounting for how moody she might get when she burns her lip on that too-hot latte for the fiftieth time this year.)

Sadly, much of the time, the difference isn’t even the result of conscious step-skipping. Many first-time submitters — and virtually all first-time queriers – frequently don’t even know that there are rules to be followed.

Want to know what half the Millicents currently screening would say in response to that last sentence? It’s illuminating about the calm harshness of professional evaluation: “So I’m supposed to make allowances because these writers didn’t do their homework, effectively penalizing all of those conscientious writers out there who take the time to learn the ropes? I’ll bet that most of these mistaken submitters didn’t even bother to check whether my agency’s website has submission guidelines.”

To which Mehitabel would add: “And virtually every contest on earth includes very specific submission guidelines in its rules, yet I’m continually astonished by how few entrants seem to read them. I’ll seldom actually disqualify an entry because it violates a presentation rule, but how can I justify penalizing all of those nice entrants who did follow the rules by allowing a violator to proceed to the finalist round of judging?”

Okay, so maybe they wouldn’t be quite that forthcoming. Or prolix. If I’m going to be completely honest, I would have to admit that this is what either of them is most likely to say when such a submission crossed their line of vision: “Next!”

broken-record Please, do your homework about the recipient’s stated preferences before you submit any requested materials. Not every agency is kind enough to writers to post specific guidelines, but if you happen to be dealing with one that has, you absolutely must follow them, or risk the wrath of Millicent.

The results of that wrath are not pretty: summary rejection seldom is. Neither is Mehitabel’s wrath, or the as-yet-to-be-named individual screening applications for that writers’ retreat you would give your eyeteeth to attend.

I’m taking christening suggestions for the application screener, by the way. I’d originally dubbed her Petunia, but that doesn’t exactly inspire awe and fear, does it? (In case any of you had been wondering over the years, everybody’s favorite agency screener is called Millicent here at Author! Author! because it means she who works hard. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: screening is incredibly hard work, and as much as aspiring writers may resent having to learn what Millicent is under orders to resent, the US-based agency system simply would not work without our Millie taking the time to look through all of those submissions and queries. So when the agent of your dreams discovers you, you might want to send her a thank-you note: in all probability, she was the first person in the publishing industry to notice your book’s potential.)

Another major mistake that dogs query packets, submission packets, and contest entries involves confusing a partial with a writing sample. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, chant it with me now, followers of this series:

A partial is the first X number of pages of a manuscript assumed already to be complete, numbered consecutively and stopping at the bottom of the exact page the requester specified as the maximum. A writing sample is a selection of a book’s best writing, regardless of where it falls in the book.

When an agency’s guidelines request five or ten pages to be included with the query, however, they are talking about the first five or ten pages of the manuscript. So even though query packet pages are indeed a writing sample, they should be treated like a submission.

That strikes many aspiring writers as counter-intuitive, and with some reason. I suspect the source of this confusion most often stems from second-hand conference anecdotes. In a pitching situation — the place an agent-seeking writer is most likely to be asked to produce an actual writing sample — 5 pages is usually the maximum length. However, a lengthy writing sample might include more than one scene, and those scenes might not run consecutively.

So when the neophyte querier who’s heard a few conference horror stories sees that an agency says he can send five pages, he may well say, “Great, I’ll send my best five pages: let’s see, that would be pp. 342-347,” where a more experienced querier would cry, “Well, obviously, the five pages they mean are pp. 1-5 of my manuscript.”

The same misunderstanding trips up a simply phenomenal number of contest entrants every year: when the rules state that an entrant should send 25 pages of the book she wants to enter, what Mehitabel is expecting to see are the first 25 pages, not a chapter from the middle that the writer happens to like. Or — and yes, I’ve seen this with my own weary eyes — 7 pages from the opening, 6 from Chapter 5, 4 from Chapter 13, and 8 from Chapter 23.

Yes, you read that correctly: sadly, they misinterpret the rules’ call for X number of pages from, say, a novel, as permission to send X number of pages from anywhere in the book, so they submit a bouquet of writing samples. Faced with such an array, most contest judges will simply stop reading.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you, contest entrants and mid-book-loving queriers. But isn’t it better that you hear the hard truth from me than rack up even one unnecessary rejection?

And yet it’s an understandable mistake, right? And extremely common, particularly in entries for contests that simply ask entrants to send a specified number of pages of a novel, without mentioning that those pages should be consecutive — oh, and if the entrant might by some odd chance want to win the contest, those pages had better begin on page 1 of Chapter 1 of the book.

Shall I take that gigantic collective gasp of indignation as an indication that some of you past contest entrants wish you had heard one or more of those tidbits before you entered?

Again, let’s state it as an aphorism, for the benefit of last-minute skimmers: unless a literary contest’s rules specifically state otherwise, assume that the entry should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. Part of what entrants in any prose contest are being judged upon is the ability to construct a strong narrative and story arc.

In answer to the question that most of you are probably screaming mentally, I have no idea why so few contests’ rules don’t just state this point-blank. It’s not as though it’s a rare problem — every contest judge I’ve ever met tells a sad story about the well-written entry that knocked itself out of finalist consideration via this error. And I’ve judged in a heck of a lot of literary contests, so I’ve met a whole lot of judges over the years.

I could spend a few more minutes of my life shaking my head over this, but over the years, my neck has gotten sore. I’m going to take the warning as heard — it was, wasn’t it? — and move on.

Before I do, though, let me call on those of you whose hands have been patiently raised for a while now. Yes? “But Anne, how does any of this relate to my query or submission packet? Are you perhaps implying that the last aphorism could be applied to sending partials or writing samples to agencies?”

Nicely caught, oh hand-raisers. Put another quarter in the jukebox:

broken-record Unless an agent’s request for a pages or an agency’s submission guidelines specifically state otherwise, assume that any manuscript pages should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. In other words, treat it like any other submission.

Writers asked to submit partials occasionally fall into the writing sample trap as well, but frankly, it’s less common. Perhaps writers marketing books harbor an inherent desire to have their stories read from beginning to end, just as a reader would encounter their work in a published book. Perhaps, too, agents’ requests for materials tend to be for much heftier portions of a manuscript than many contest entries would tolerate: 50 or 100 pages for a partial is fairly normal, but many contests for even book-length works call for as few as 10, 20, or 30 pages, sometimes including a synopsis.

But just to head any problems off at the pass, as well as to illustrate why a nonconsecutive partial made up of even superlative writing would not be a good marketing packet for any manuscript, from an agency perspective, let’s close out this short series by going over the expectations for a partial one more time.

Come on; it’ll be fun.

When an agent or editor requests a partial, she’s not asking for a writing sample consisting of 50 or 100 pages of the writer’s favorite parts of the book, a sort of greatest hits compilation — if that’s what she wants, she (or her submission guidelines; check) will tell you so point-blank. She is unlikely to prefer a writing sample as a submission, in any case, because part of what her Millicent is looking for in submissions is storytelling acumen.

Think about it: in an unconnected series of scenes gleaned from across your manuscript, how good a case could you make for your talent at arranging plot believably? How well could you possibly show off your book’s structure, or character development, or even ability to hold a reader’s interest, compared to the same story as you present it in your manuscript, beginning on page 1?

If you have any doubt whatsoever about the answer to that last question, run, don’t walk, to an objective first reader to help you figure out whether the current running order of events tells your story effectively. (Didn’t think I’d be able to work in another plug for someone else’s casting her eyes over your pages before you submit them, did you?)

What an agent or editor does expect to see in a partial, then, is the opening of the manuscript as you plan to market it to, well, agents and editors: it’s precisely the same as the full manuscript, except it doesn’t include the pages after, say, page 50.

And if Millicent loves that partial and asks for the rest of the book, what will you do? Send the entire manuscript, right? Right?

I couldn’t resist tossing in the pop quiz, to see if you’d been paying attention. I wouldn’t want any of you to end the post still confused about any of this. (And if you are: please, I implore you, leave a question in the comments.)

And remember, read any submission guidelines very thoroughly before you invest your heart, hopes, energy, and/or precious time in preparing a partial packet or contest entry. This is no time to be skimming; make a list and check it twice, like Santa Claus.

Yes, even if the request consisted of a grand total of three lines of text in an e-mail. Why? It’s very, very common for aspiring writers to become so excited by a request for pages that they forget to include something the agent specifically asked them to send.

Oh, how I wish I were making that one up…but it happens enough to show up on most Millicents’ lists of pet peeves.

So what’s the best way to avoid this terrible fate? I always advise my editing clients to pursue a multi-part strategy for an agent’s request for pages, agency guidelines, or contest rules:

1. Read the list of what’s required once, then set it aside for at least five minute.

2. Read it again, this time more carefully. Make a checklist of everything it is asking you to do. (No, a mental list will not do. Put it in writing.)

3. Wait a day before going back to triple-check that the list is accurate. Then, and only then, put together the packet or entry,

4. As you place each item in the envelope or box (or attach it to an e-mail), check off each item.

DO NOT SEAL THE ENVELOPE OR PRESS SEND AT THIS JUNCTURE. That way lies disaster.

5. Re-read the original guidelines or letter, comparing what it requests to your list.

5a. If the list is an accurate reflection of the expectations, check once more that what is in your packet matches what is on the list.

5b. If it does not, remove everything from the envelope. Go back to Step 1.

5c. If you are not sure, if you’re not much of a detail person, hand your list to at least one person who happens to love you, ask him/her/that ungainly mob to check it against the guidelines or contest rules, then to verify that what’s in your envelope is in fact what you have been asked to send.

6. Seal envelope or press SEND.

You didn’t think I was going to leave the kith and kin I’d disqualified from giving you objective feedback from helping you altogether, did you? Everyone has a task here at Author! Author!

That’s what how a supportive community works, isn’t it?

In that spirit, I shall make a valiant effort to come up with a truly impressive array of enlightening query letters for tomorrow’s posts. I should be in a better mood by 10 am PST, right? Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XXII: slicing the pie attractively and stuffing it in a box. Or envelope. With a SASE.

slice of pieslice of pie 5slice of pie 6
slice of pie4slice of pie2slice of pie3

After last night’s rather depressing little post on how a relatively tiny tone adjustment can make the difference between a winning query letter and one that — how shall I put this? — does not tend to inspire confidence in Millicent the agency screener, it’s rather a relief to be winging our way back to presentation and packaging, isn’t it? This morning, I’m going to be picking up where we left off yesterday morning, talking about how a savvy writer should respond to a request for a partial manuscript.

A partial, for those of you new to the term, is a manuscript excerpt of a length specified by its requester — an agent, usually, although if an editor is considering buying the rights to one of her already-acquired authors’ next book before it is finished (and thus preventing it from being subject to bidding from other publishers), she may ask for a particular number of pages or chapters.

How writers who have not yet landed agents typically encounter a partial is after a successful query or pitch. Rather than requesting the entire manuscript, the agent (or, more commonly for queries, the agent’s Millicent) will say something like, “Send us the first 50.” Then, if they like what they see in those opening pages, they will request either a longer piece (as in, “Send us the first 100.”) or the full manuscript.

The lengths of partials vary by agency — 50 pages, the first three chapters, and 100 pages traditionally being the most popular options — but a partial will always begin on page 1. Which means, in practice, that if you’re first told to send the first three chapters and later asked for the first 100, the first submission packet might contain pp. 1-62, but the second would invariably contain pp. 1-100.

Why? Well, weeks or months might pass between the time Millicent finished reading the first submission and sat down to enjoy the second. You wouldn’t expect her just to pick up where she left off last time, would you? She reads far, far too many manuscripts to remember the details of even one she liked two months ago.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? Before I delve into the rather intense implications of that last paragraph, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page, so to speak. How do the requested pages of a partial differ from the pages an agency’s website might say queriers should include with their letters?

Glad you asked. You will be, too, I suspect.

REQUESTED MATERIALS — and well, everything else
To be absolutely clear, I’m not talking about sending pages to an agency whose guidelines specify that queriers should include the first chapter, a few pages, or a synopsis with a query — all of these would, in the industry’s eyes, be unsolicited materials. Partials are always requested materials, meaning that a specific agent asks an individual writer to send (usually by regular mail) a predetermined number of pages.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s a bit counter-intuitive that a blanket statement in an agency’s submission guidelines that any agent currently operating under its roof would like to see certain materials from every querier doesn’t constitute solicitation, but according to the logic of the industry, it doesn’t. A list of what should go in a query packet does not a personal solicitation of even those same materials make.

Why am I raining on the partials parade by mentioning this up front, you ask? Because the consequences of confusing solicited and unsolicited manuscripts tend to be very, very high for the writer who blithely mails off the latter. So let’s run over the difference in a touch more detail, shall we?

A solicited submission consists of manuscript pages that an agent is waiting to see, usually following a successful pitch or query. An unsolicited submission consists of a stack of manuscript pages from a writer who has not yet been personally asked to send anything.

Ne’er the twain shall meet, my friends. If an agency or small publishing house’s submission guidelines do not SPECIFICALLY state that it wants to see pages, sending unsolicited materials almost universally results in those pages being rejected immediately, unread.

Continuing that logic, when an agency’s guidelines say something like include the first chapter, that should not be read as an assurance that every first chapter sent to it will be read — which is, let’s face it, precisely what the vast majority of queriers believe such guidelines to be promising. But reading the entire contents of every single query packet would be highly unusual, and not very efficient: as we have been discussing for much of the summer and shall be again later this week, most submissions contain rejection triggers on page 1. Sad, but true.

Only if Millicent finds the query letter compelling will she read any of the attached materials at all, which has even more drawbacks for the querier than might at first be apparent. Think about it: why would an agency want to see an unsolicited writing sample — which is, effectively, what any pages in a query packet constitute — with a query?

To save overall processing time, of course: in the long run, it’s significantly less time-consuming for Millicent to be able to check those opening pages for rejection triggers while the query is still in her hand. How so? Well, the alternative — responding to the query with a request for a partial, waiting until it arrives, waiting until the submission packet works its way to the top of the reading pile, then scanning the opening pages for rejection triggers — eats up both the agency’s time and space, yet 98% of the time, yields precisely the same result.

Thus, from the rejected writer’s point of view, the primary difference between mailing a query packet containing that unsolicited first chapter and sending off just the query, waiting for a response, receiving a request for a partial, dispatching it, and hearing back in the negative is speed. While rapid turn-around is really only a plus if the answer is yes — and even then, the best possible outcome from a query packet is a request for the full manuscript, not an offer of representation.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that an agent’s accepting a client on a partial alone is practically unheard-of? That agency whose guidelines thrilled you by saying you could send 50 pages with your query will want to see the rest of your book before making up its mind about your writing, after all.

Do I spot some tears trembling in eyes reading this? “But Anne,” those who have been favoring agencies that allow page submission with queries point out, and who could blame them? “I thought — well, never mind what I thought. But there’s still a benefit to the querier in sending those unsolicited materials if the agency says it’s okay, right? I mean, if Millie likes my query, she can fall in love with my writing on the spot. So from my perspective, this kind of query letter is quite a bit less time-consuming, too: it gets me to the full manuscript request stage that much quicker.”

Potentially — but the accepted querier’s gain in speed is bought at the cost of the rejected querier’s not knowing whether her packet got rejected due to something in the query letter or in the enclosed manuscript pages. Even if Millicent did scan the attached pages before rejecting the packet, the writer will almost certainly never find that out. Few US agencies give specific rejection reasons anymore (yes, that missive expressing regret that I just didn’t love this enough to feel confident trying to place it in the current competitive market was a form letter), so the more materials in the query packet, the more the rejected querier is left to speculate on what needs to be revised.

I’m not bringing all of this up to depress you (although I recognize that may be the effect) or to discourage anyone from querying any agency that asks for writing samples up front. It’s just important to recognize that those pages are in fact writing samples — and thus unsolicited submissions, not requested materials.

Expect them to be treated accordingly. Believe me, the querying and submission process will be easier on you that way.

Everyone clear on the distinction between requested and unsolicited pages? Okay, here’s a pop quiz, just to be sure: why is a partial invariably a solicited submission? (For bonus points, work into your answer the magic words a savvy submitter always writes on the outside of an envelope or places in the subject line of an e-mail bearing the partial to an agent.)

If you immediately leapt to your feet and shouted, “By jingo, a partial is a solicited submission by definition, because a partial is the precise number of pages the agent in question asked to see,” pat yourself on the back three times. If you took a deep breath and added, “And I would never dream of sending any manuscript, partial or otherwise, that an agent or editor had asked to see without whipping out my trusty black marker and writing REQUESTED MATERIALS in 2-inch-high letters on the front of the envelope and/or in the subject line of the e-mail,” award yourself another couple of hearty congratulatory slaps.

Then fling yourself onto the nearest chaise longue and take a few nice, deep breaths. That lulu of a second answer must have used up every cubic millimeter of oxygen in your lungs.

Now that you’ve caught your breath, shall we remind the rest of the class about why a savvy writer always scrawls REQUESTED MATERIALS on a submission? The answer to this one’s as easy as pie: so the requested materials can’t possibly be mistaken for an unsolicited submission.

That, and so those pages the agent asked to see will end up on the right end of Millicent’s desk — or, at a large agency, on the right Millicent’s desk, period. As painful as it may be for aspiring writers to contemplate, submissions can and sometimes do get misplaced; good labeling renders that dreadful eventuality less likely.

(It’s less painful for agented writers to contemplate, typically; most of us have already lived through the trauma of having a manuscript go astray. A certain agency that shall remain nameless as long as I remain signed with them not only lost one of my manuscripts back in my submitting days; it sent me another writer’s rejected manuscript in my SASE. They were quite apologetic when I returned it to them, along with a note suggesting that the author might be a better recipient for it.)

Oh, did the implication that submitting electronically might require some different steps catch you off-guard? Let’s rectify that with all deliberate speed.

Submitting your partial via e-mail
Caution: all of what I’m about to say in this section refers to electronic submission of requested materials, not unsolicited ones. For guidance on sending a query packet by e-mail, check each individual agency’s website for specific guidelines. (Had I already mentioned that every agency has its own set of expectations and preferences?)

When submitting requested materials via e-mail — a route a savvy writer takes only when an agent specifically requests it; even at this late date, many agencies do not accept electronic submissions at all, even if they accept e-mailed queries — include your partial as a Word attachment. (As much as some writers may prefer other word processing programs, Word is the industry standard. For another workable alternative, please see helpful reader Jens’ recent comment on the subject.) If you work on a Mac, make sure to check the Send Windows-friendly attachments box; most agencies operate on PCs, and not particularly new ones at that.

You want the agent of your dreams to be able to open your document, don’t you? Millicent tends to be very, very cranky when she can’t open an attachment, and even at this late date, few NYC-based agencies employ an in-house computer expert. So the sooner any writer gets used to the idea that any computer compatibility problems are likely to be considered the writer’s problem, not the agent’s, the happier your working life will be.

Speaking of difficulties opening files — or, as Millicent likes to call them, “what happens when writers don’t know what they’re doing” — it’s also an excellent idea for those working on the newest generation of Word to send the document in an older version. Specifically, send it as .doc file (Word 97-2004), not as a .docx file (anything more recent). The Save As… option under the FILE menu will allow you to make this switch easily.

Yes, I know it’s 2010. Try explaining that to a Millicent who’s stuck working on a decade-old PC that’s running a 2003 operating system — and trying to upload a submission onto her boss’ 2009 Kindle. Make her life easier.

If you are submitting requested materials via e-mail, use the body of the e-mail for your cover letter, but include any additional requested materials as separate attachments. In other words, unless the agent actually asked you to combine elements or place the whole shebang into the body of an e-mail (rare, but it happens; agents are as reluctant to download viruses as anybody else), the author bio should not be in the same document as the partial, and Millicent should be able to open your synopsis without having to scroll through the first 50 pages of your manuscript.

The sole exception: include your title page in the partial’s file, not as a separate document. Or, to put it another way, the title page should be the first page in the partial document, followed by the first page of text. Remember, though, that the title page should neither be numbered nor carry a slug line:

Austen title P&P2

Unlike the first page of text — or any other page of text, for that matter:

austen-opener-right

Is that wheezing sound an indicator that those of you who meticulously constructed your title pages as separate documents have begun to hyperventilate? Not to worry — adding your title page to your partial file is as easy as copying it, pasting it into the beginning of the partial, and adding a page break. No fuss, no muss, and very little bother.

And yet the wheezing continues. “But Anne,” a few of you gasp, “if I send the title and the body of the partial in the same Word document, won’t the title page automatically have a slug line — and be numbered, too?”

Not necessarily — but there is a trick to it. Under the FORMAT menu, select Document, then Layout. Here, select the Different First Page option, then click OK. That, as the option’s name implies, will give your first page a different header and footer than the rest of the partial. After that, it’s simply a matter of placing the slug line in the header for the first page of text.

Before you have to waste breath asking, allow me to add: in order to prevent Word from counting the title page as page 1 and the first page of text as page 2, use the Format Page Number option under VIEW/Header and Footer to set the Start at… number to zero. Voilà! The first page of text is now page 1!

Hey, what did you mean, any additional requested materials?
Just as some agencies’ guidelines call for pages to be included in a query packet and some do not, some partial-requesting agents ask writers to slip additional materials into a submission packet. Obviously (and I do hope that it is indeed obvious to you by this point in our discussion), you should not include any extra materials unless the agent asks for them — but it never hurts to have any or all of the following on hand at querying time, just in case somebody requests one or more of them.

To continue the lengthy tradition that I started a couple of days ago — ah, those were happy times, were they not? — let’s run through the most popular additions in the order they should appear in a hard-copy submission packet:

1. Cover letter

2. Title page

3. The requested pages in standard format.

4. Synopsis, if one was requested, clearly labeled AS a synopsis.
Here again, terminology may not be the writer’s friend. With fiction or memoir, when an outline is requested, they usually mean a synopsis, not an annotated table of contents of the kind one might find in a book proposal. For nonfiction, however, an outline pretty much always means an annotated table of contents.

Most of the time, though, what an agent will ask to see for any types of book is a synopsis: a 1-5 page (double-spaced) overview of the basic plot or argument of the book.

If you don’t already have one handy, or if you’re not happy with the one you have, make sure to turn back in on Thursday, September 23rd for the gala opening of Synopsispalooza! (Hey, you asked; I listened.)

5. Marketing plan, if one was requested.
These were all the rage a few years ago for both fiction and memoir, but since the economy slowed down, they seem to have fallen out of favor as a submission-packet request, especially for partials. But just in case you get asked to produce one, a marketing plan is a brief (2-5 pages, double-spaced) explanation of who the target audience is for a particular book, why this book will appeal to those readers, and what you — not the publishing house’s marketing department, but YOU, the author — will do in order to alert potential readers to that appeal.

Sound familiar? It should –it’s an expanded version of the target audience and platform paragraph of the query. There are also entire sections of the book proposal devoted to these very subjects. That’s where fiction agents got the idea.

If a first-time novelist happens to have a terrific platform for the book she’s writing — if she’s the world’s leading authority on drive-in movie theatres, for instance, and her novel happens to be set in one — an agent may well wish to tuck a marketing plan that talks about all the lectures on drive-ins (and in drive-ins) the author is going to be giving over the next couple of years.

As I said, though, it’s largely fallen out of fashion for fiction. But let me turn it around to you: have any of you novelists been asked to provide marketing plans with your submissions lately? If so, let me know, and I’ll run a brief series on how a novelist might go about pulling one together.

6. Author bio, if one was requested.
An author bio is a one-page (double-spaced) or half-page (single-spaced) plus photo account of the submitting writer’s professional credentials. Typically, when an agent submits a manuscript or book proposal to editors, the author bio is the last page in the stack of paper.

Since author bios are far from easy to write, I always recommend that aspiring writers construct them well in advance, so they have a great one on hand to tuck into the submission packet. I suspect that I’m going to yield to those nagging voices in the ether and launch Authorbiopalooza immediately after I put Synopsispalooza to bed. Stay tuned.

7. A SASE big enough that everything you’re sending the agent can be returned to you
Out comes the broken record again: always use stamps, not metered postage, for the SASE.

“But Anne,” my formerly-wheezing readers point out, and rightly so, “isn’t the whole point of this mini-series to address the specific challenges of the aspiring writer who hasn’t been asked to send the entire manuscript? Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t the first three chapters of most manuscripts fit into a 10″ x 17″ Manila envelope?”

You are far from wrong, ex-wheezers: a nice, crisp Manila envelope is just the thing for submitting a partial. Fold a second envelope in half and poke it into the first as the SASE.

8. Optional extras.
These days, even if a writer submits requested materials via regular mail, she will probably receive a positive response via e-mail. (That will probably be a form letter, too, but you’ll mind it less.) However, if you want to send a second, business-size envelope SASE as well, to make it easy for Millicent to request the rest of the manuscript, place it at the bottom of the packet (and mention it in your cover letter.)

Since the vast majority of agencies are congenitally allergic to submitters calling, e-mailing, or even writing to find out if a manuscript actually arrived — check the agency’s website or guide listing to be sure — it’s also a fair-to-middling idea to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. As I mentioned the other day, to generate a chuckle in a hard-worked Millicent, I always liked to send a SASP that looked like this — although with a stamp attached, of course:

Don’t worry about this causing trouble; it doesn’t, provided you do it courteously, and you will have proof that they received it. This is important, because as I MAY have mentioned, manuscripts do go astray from time to time.

Want to get the same information without running the risk that a witty postcard won’t elicit a chuckle? Pay a little more at the post office for the Delivery Confirmation service; they’ll give you a tracking number, so you may follow your submission’s progress through the mail.

What you should most emphatically not do is send your submission via a mailing service that will require someone at the agency end to sign for the packet. Although this would obviously be the best proof, should you ever need it, that the manuscript did in fact arrive, signature-requiring packages fall under the rubric of Millicent’s most notorious pet peeves — why, she reasons, should she (or the guy in the mail room) have to take time out of her (or his) busy day just because some writer is nervous?

9. Pack it all in your Manila envelope and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the front.
Straightening up the stack of paper will minimize the possibility of in-transit mutilation, incidentally. If the envelope you have selected is a tight fit — snug enough, say, that the pages might get wrinkled in the stuffing-in process — for heaven’s sake, find yourself a larger envelope. As we’ve discussed, it’s in your interest for it to arrive pretty.

Oh, and while I have your attention, this seems like a dandy time to haul out the broken record player again. (You’d thought you’d seen the last of it, hadn’t you?)

broken-recordNo matter how many pages or extra materials you were asked to send, do remember to read your submission packet IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you seal that envelope. Lest we forget, everything you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing, please.

Tomorrow morning, we’ll be wrapping up this discussion of partials via a quick tour of the major mistakes aspiring writers tend to make in constructing their submission packets. Meanwhile, adhering to our recent packaging/content post alternation plan, tonight’s 8 pm PST post will be devoted to another round of examples of good and less-good queries.

Until then, slice that pie and pack it for traveling nicely; the extra time to package it professionally honestly is worthwhile. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XXIII: when the going gets tough, the tough get…wait — what do you mean, they wanted 50 CONSECUTIVE pages?

thescream

My apologies for breaking up that interesting submission practicalities in the morning/query composition in the evening rhythm we’d had going here for the last few days of Querypalooza. I had fully intended to sit down and write another example-stuffed post on the subtle differences that frequently separate a successful query from one less likely to generate a request for pages, saving the partials-related information below for tomorrow morning.

A few hours ago, however, I received some very bad news about a blog-related situation I absolutely had to drop everything and correct right away. It ate up much of today’s writing time. Fortunately, I already had this post written: I had intended to deal with partials at the end of last week, before I got carried away by excitement over generating full query examples.

So I decided that it would make more sense to post it now, rather than writing frantically into the wee hours on a content-related post. That way, we all get to bed earlier, and the post quality will almost certainly reflect my bad day less. (Case in point: when I did try to generate examples this evening — surprise, surprise — the storylines all seemed to relate to this afternoon’s crisis. Not really fair to you, that.)

Last time, I wrapped up my advice on the assembly and packaging of a requested partial with some advice long-time readers of this blog MAY have heard before:

broken-recordNo matter how many pages or extra materials you were asked to send, do remember to read your submission packet IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you seal that envelope. Lest we forget, everything you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing, please.

Sometimes, one’s own weary peepers are not up to the job — and with good reason. If you’ve been up half the night printing out those pages the agent of your dreams requested yesterday, so you may pop them in the mail first thing tomorrow, chances are that you’re going to be more than a little stressed out and tired by the time you get around to proofreading.

Heck, you may even be so longing for your pillow’s sweet, sweet embrace that you find yourself sorely tempted — dare I say it? Apparently, I do — to blow off this necessary step and seal the envelope. Or hit the SEND key.

That would be a bad idea, and not only because even a cursory once-over might have caught that missed word in the middle of the second paragraph of your first page. You know, the one left over from your third revision, when you decided your opening needed more action. (You haven’t read it in hard copy since you made that change, have you? Too bad; Millicent the agency screener was kind of liking that scene — but she knows from experience that a revision-hangover typo on page 1 is probably indicative of a Frankenstein manuscript full of similar half-made changes.)

It would be an equally bad idea to send out a query packet without last-minute proofreading, and not only because then, you might have noticed that you eliminated some grammatically-necessary punctuation when you cut out a sentence because it made your letter longer than a single page. (See parenthetical logic in previous paragraph for the probable conclusion. Hey, I don’t call them Frankenstein queries for nothing: this easily-identifiable type of revision residua might as well be waving a white flag at Millicent, shouting, “Hey, lady! This writer doesn’t go back and re-read his own work between revisions! Doesn’t that render it quite likely that the manuscript, should you request it, will exhibit Frankenstein tendencies?)

May I make a simple suggestion to counteract the editorial deficiencies brought on by trying to rush a query or submission packet out the door? Before you rush those requested materials off to the post office or hit SEND, it’s an excellent idea to have another set of eyes scan those pages first.

Ditto with contest entries and residency applications, by the way; it’s just too easy to miss a crucial typo yourself. Particularly if you’re really in a hurry to meet a deadline — and what entrant or applicant isn’t? — and neglect to read your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Why do I feel compelled to slip this golden piece of editorial advice into this post more than once, you ask — or, indeed, repeat it so often? Because I can already feel some of you gearing up to blow it off, that’s why.

Specifically, those of you who have been huffing impatiently throughout the last few paragraphs. “But Anne,” those of you who pride yourself on your attention to detail point out, “I must have read the pages the agent asked to see in my partial 75 times while I was revising them. I’ve read them so many times that two-thirds of my brain cells think they’re already published. What could I possibly learn by reading them again, much less IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Quite a lot, actually. Like, for instance, if when you changed your protagonist’s sister’s name from Mona to Maura, you altered every reference. Or if every line of the requested synopsis printed out legibly. Or — brace yourselves; this may be a hard one for some of you — if the minor changes you made in the course of the 71rst read are consistent with the ones from read 72.

Shall I rephrase that, to drive home the point a little harder? Okay, how’s this: had you re-read every syllable of your partial, contest entry, or writing sample tucked into a residency application between the time you made those final few changes and when you popped your last submission into the mail?

Or since you popped your last submission into the mail? What about your query letter — or, indeed, any page you have ever sent out in a query packet?

Wow, the crowd’s gone so quiet all of a sudden. Was it something I said?

For those of you who were not suddenly flung into retrospective panic about what kind of typo or printing snafu you might have inadvertently passed under Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s over-tired eyes, you needn’t take my word for how often writers realize only after something’s out the door that it wasn’t quite right. Many members of the Author! Author! community have already shared their horror stories on the subject; it makes for some enlightening reading.

Feel free to add stories of your own on that list; sharing them honestly will help other aspiring writers. But do not, I beg you, set yourself up for a spectacularly instructive anecdote by failing to read the very latest version of your partial, contest entry, or query packet writing sample IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Yes, even if you plan on submitting those pages via e-mail or by entering copying and pasting them into a form on an agency’s website. On average, people read 70% faster on a backlit screen; unless you share Superman’s optometrist, you’re infinitely more likely to catch typos, logic problems, and omissions in hard copy than soft copy.

(The lenses in Clark Kent’s glasses aren’t prescription, you see, but clear, and thus his vision is…oh, never mind.)

While I’m already hovering over you like a mother hen, here’s a post-submission regret I hope I can wipe from the face of the earth forever: including a business-size (#10) envelope as the SASE for a partial or a contest that returns materials, rather than an envelope (and appropriate postage) large enough to send back everything in the submission or entry packet.

“But Anne!” half of those with submissions currently languishing at agencies across the U.S. cry. “I thought the point of the SASE — that stands for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, right? — was so the agent who requested the partial could mail me a letter, asking me to send the rest of the manuscript. Or, heaven forfend, a rejection letter! If he didn’t like my pages, wouldn’t he just, you know, toss ‘em in the trash or recycling bin?”

Well, the agent (or, more likely, the agent’s Millicent-in-residence) usually does include at least a form-letter rejection in a homeward-bound SASE, but that’s not the SASE’s primary purpose, from the agency’s point of view. As we have discussed at some length over the past few days, its primary use is to get all of those pages out of its office and back to the aspiring writers who sent them.

That’s not just because if they didn’t, the average agency’s halls would be so filled with rejected pages by the end of the first month that Millicent wouldn’t be able to fight her way to the coffeemaker through the chest-high stacks of pages. (She would have had to give up her traditional lattes by the end of the first week; she wouldn’t be able to find the front door during her lunch break.) They also return the pages because it’s in the writer’s copyright interest to know precisely where his pages are at any given time — and should any of that seem paranoid to you, you might want to take a gander at the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the archive list at right.

If, on the other hand, the idea of a submission’s tumbling into unscrupulous hands doesn’t strike you as particularly outrageous, but the logic behind the writer’s providing the postage to convey her own rejection to her does, I would recommend a quick read through the posts under the SASE GUIDELINES category.

And for those of you reading this post in a tearing hurry because you’re frantically trying to get a partial out the door and into the mail, or whose fingers are itching to hit the SEND key for electronic submissions, let me just go ahead and state it as a boldfaced aphorism: with any submission, always include a SASE sufficiently large for the agent to send the entire submission back to you, with enough stamps attached to get it there safely.

Again, emphasis on stamps. Attaching metered postage to a SASE is another fairly common mistake in submitting a partial. So is neglecting to add any postage at all. Out comes the broken record player again:

broken-recordThe vast majority of agencies will simply not use a stamp-free SASE. Instead, the entire query or submission packet will be unceremoniously dumped in the trash.

Or recycling. Although you’d be astonished at how many agencies — how to put this gracefully? — don’t take full advantage of all of that space in their recycling bins.

A third common mistake submitters of partials often make comes not when they are packing up the partial, but later, after the agent has approved the partial and asked to see the full manuscript. That’s the agency parlance for the request, anyway; in writer-speak, it’s usually called asking to see the rest of the book.

Therein lies the root of the mistake: the semantic difference is crucial here. All too often, successful partial submitters think that a request for the entire manuscript equals a request for only the part of the manuscript the agent has not yet seen.

The agent asked to see the rest of the book, right?

Actually, she didn’t — what asking to see the rest of the book means in agent-speak is that the agent is expecting the ENTIRE manuscript to show up in her office, neatly boxed and accompanied by a return mailing label and enough postage to get the whole shebang back to the sender, if it’s rejected.

Starting to see a pattern here?

I do — and have for years: when aspiring writers just assume that they know what a request for materials entails, submissions often go awry; ditto with query packets. When they take the time to find out what is actually being requested (or is called for in an individual agency’s guidelines), irritating Millicent by such mistakes is 99.999% avoidable. (Hey, there’s no accounting for how moody she might get when she burns her lip on that too-hot latte for the fiftieth time this year.)

Sadly, much of the time, the difference isn’t even the result of conscious step-skipping. Many first-time submitters — and virtually all first-time queriers – frequently don’t even know that there are rules to be followed.

Want to know what half the Millicents currently screening would say in response to that last sentence? It’s illuminating about the calm harshness of professional evaluation: “So I’m supposed to make allowances because these writers didn’t do their homework, effectively penalizing all of those conscientious writers out there who take the time to learn the ropes? I’ll bet that most of these mistaken submitters didn’t even bother to check whether my agency’s website has submission guidelines.”

To which Mehitabel would add: “And virtually every contest on earth includes very specific submission guidelines in its rules, yet I’m continually astonished by how few entrants seem to read them. I’ll seldom actually disqualify an entry because it violates a presentation rule, but how can I justify penalizing all of those nice entrants who did follow the rules by allowing a violator to proceed to the finalist round of judging?”

Okay, so maybe they wouldn’t be quite that forthcoming. Or prolix. If I’m going to be completely honest, I would have to admit that this is what either of them is most likely to say when such a submission crossed their line of vision: “Next!”

broken-recordPlease, do your homework about the recipient’s stated preferences before you submit any requested materials. Not every agency is kind enough to writers to post specific guidelines, but if you happen to be dealing with one that has, you absolutely must follow them, or risk the wrath of Millicent.

The results of that wrath are not pretty: summary rejection seldom is. Neither is Mehitabel’s wrath, or the as-yet-to-be-named individual screening applications for that writers’ retreat you would give your eyeteeth to attend.

I’m taking christening suggestions for the application screener, by the way. I’d originally dubbed her Petunia, but that doesn’t exactly inspire awe and fear, does it? (In case any of you had been wondering over the years, everybody’s favorite agency screener is called Millicent here at Author! Author! because it means she who works hard. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: screening is incredibly hard work, and as much as aspiring writers may resent having to learn what Millicent is under orders to resent, the US-based agency system simply would not work without our Millie taking the time to look through all of those submissions and queries. So when the agent of your dreams discovers you, you might want to send her a thank-you note: in all probability, she was the first person in the publishing industry to notice your book’s potential.)

Another major mistake that dogs query packets, submission packets, and contest entries involves confusing a partial with a writing sample. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, chant it with me now, followers of this series:

A partial is the first X number of pages of a manuscript assumed already to be complete, numbered consecutively and stopping at the bottom of the exact page the requester specified as the maximum. A writing sample is a selection of a book’s best writing, regardless of where it falls in the book.

When an agency’s guidelines request five or ten pages to be included with the query, however, they are talking about the first five or ten pages of the manuscript. So even though query packet pages are indeed a writing sample, they should be treated like a submission.

That strikes many aspiring writers as counter-intuitive, and with some reason. I suspect the source of this confusion most often stems from second-hand conference anecdotes. In a pitching situation — the place an agent-seeking writer is most likely to be asked to produce an actual writing sample — 5 pages is usually the maximum length. However, a lengthy writing sample might include more than one scene, and those scenes might not run consecutively.

So when the neophyte querier who’s heard a few conference horror stories sees that an agency says he can send five pages, he may well say, “Great, I’ll send my best five pages: let’s see, that would be pp. 342-347,” where a more experienced querier would cry, “Well, obviously, the five pages they mean are pp. 1-5 of my manuscript.”

The same misunderstanding trips up a simply phenomenal number of contest entrants every year: when the rules state that an entrant should send 25 pages of the book she wants to enter, what Mehitabel is expecting to see are the first 25 pages, not a chapter from the middle that the writer happens to like. Or — and yes, I’ve seen this with my own weary eyes — 7 pages from the opening, 6 from Chapter 5, 4 from Chapter 13, and 8 from Chapter 23.

Yes, you read that correctly: sadly, they misinterpret the rules’ call for X number of pages from, say, a novel, as permission to send X number of pages from anywhere in the book, so they submit a bouquet of writing samples. Faced with such an array, most contest judges will simply stop reading.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you, contest entrants and mid-book-loving queriers. But isn’t it better that you hear the hard truth from me than rack up even one unnecessary rejection?

And yet it’s an understandable mistake, right? And extremely common, particularly in entries for contests that simply ask entrants to send a specified number of pages of a novel, without mentioning that those pages should be consecutive — oh, and if the entrant might by some odd chance want to win the contest, those pages had better begin on page 1 of Chapter 1 of the book.

Shall I take that gigantic collective gasp of indignation as an indication that some of you past contest entrants wish you had heard one or more of those tidbits before you entered?

Again, let’s state it as an aphorism, for the benefit of last-minute skimmers: unless a literary contest’s rules specifically state otherwise, assume that the entry should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. Part of what entrants in any prose contest are being judged upon is the ability to construct a strong narrative and story arc.

In answer to the question that most of you are probably screaming mentally, I have no idea why so few contests’ rules don’t just state this point-blank. It’s not as though it’s a rare problem — every contest judge I’ve ever met tells a sad story about the well-written entry that knocked itself out of finalist consideration via this error. And I’ve judged in a heck of a lot of literary contests, so I’ve met a whole lot of judges over the years.

I could spend a few more minutes of my life shaking my head over this, but over the years, my neck has gotten sore. I’m going to take the warning as heard — it was, wasn’t it? — and move on.

Before I do, though, let me call on those of you whose hands have been patiently raised for a while now. Yes? “But Anne, how does any of this relate to my query or submission packet? Are you perhaps implying that the last aphorism could be applied to sending partials or writing samples to agencies?”

Nicely caught, oh hand-raisers. Put another quarter in the jukebox:

broken-recordUnless an agent’s request for a pages or an agency’s submission guidelines specifically state otherwise, assume that any manuscript pages should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. In other words, treat it like any other submission.

Writers asked to submit partials occasionally fall into the writing sample trap as well, but frankly, it’s less common. Perhaps writers marketing books harbor an inherent desire to have their stories read from beginning to end, just as a reader would encounter their work in a published book. Perhaps, too, agents’ requests for materials tend to be for much heftier portions of a manuscript than many contest entries would tolerate: 50 or 100 pages for a partial is fairly normal, but many contests for even book-length works call for as few as 10, 20, or 30 pages, sometimes including a synopsis.

But just to head any problems off at the pass, as well as to illustrate why a nonconsecutive partial made up of even superlative writing would not be a good marketing packet for any manuscript, from an agency perspective, let’s close out this short series by going over the expectations for a partial one more time.

Come on; it’ll be fun.

When an agent or editor requests a partial, she’s not asking for a writing sample consisting of 50 or 100 pages of the writer’s favorite parts of the book, a sort of greatest hits compilation — if that’s what she wants, she (or her submission guidelines; check) will tell you so point-blank. She is unlikely to prefer a writing sample as a submission, in any case, because part of what her Millicent is looking for in submissions is storytelling acumen.

Think about it: in an unconnected series of scenes gleaned from across your manuscript, how good a case could you make for your talent at arranging plot believably? How well could you possibly show off your book’s structure, or character development, or even ability to hold a reader’s interest, compared to the same story as you present it in your manuscript, beginning on page 1?

If you have any doubt whatsoever about the answer to that last question, run, don’t walk, to an objective first reader to help you figure out whether the current running order of events tells your story effectively. (Didn’t think I’d be able to work in another plug for someone else’s casting her eyes over your pages before you submit them, did you?)

What an agent or editor does expect to see in a partial, then, is the opening of the manuscript as you plan to market it to, well, agents and editors: it’s precisely the same as the full manuscript, except it doesn’t include the pages after, say, page 50.

And if Millicent loves that partial and asks for the rest of the book, what will you do? Send the entire manuscript, right? Right?

I couldn’t resist tossing in the pop quiz, to see if you’d been paying attention. I wouldn’t want any of you to end the post still confused about any of this. (And if you are: please, I implore you, leave a question in the comments.)

And remember, read any submission guidelines very thoroughly before you invest your heart, hopes, energy, and/or precious time in preparing a partial packet or contest entry. This is no time to be skimming; make a list and check it twice, like Santa Claus.

Yes, even if the request consisted of a grand total of three lines of text in an e-mail. Why? It’s very, very common for aspiring writers to become so excited by a request for pages that they forget to include something the agent specifically asked them to send.

Oh, how I wish I were making that one up…but it happens enough to show up on most Millicents’ lists of pet peeves.

So what’s the best way to avoid this terrible fate? I always advise my editing clients to pursue a multi-part strategy for an agent’s request for pages, agency guidelines, or contest rules:

1. Read the list of what’s required once, then set it aside for at least five minute.

2. Read it again, this time more carefully. Make a checklist of everything it is asking you to do. (No, a mental list will not do. Put it in writing.)

3. Wait a day before going back to triple-check that the list is accurate. Then, and only then, put together the packet or entry,

4. As you place each item in the envelope or box (or attach it to an e-mail), check off each item.

DO NOT SEAL THE ENVELOPE OR PRESS SEND AT THIS JUNCTURE. That way lies disaster.

5. Re-read the original guidelines or letter, comparing what it requests to your list.

5a. If the list is an accurate reflection of the expectations, check once more that what is in your packet matches what is on the list.

5b. If it does not, remove everything from the envelope. Go back to Step 1.

5c. If you are not sure, if you’re not much of a detail person, hand your list to at least one person who happens to love you, ask him/her/that ungainly mob to check it against the guidelines or contest rules, then to verify that what’s in your envelope is in fact what you have been asked to send.

6. Seal envelope or press SEND.

You didn’t think I was going to leave the kith and kin I’d disqualified from giving you objective feedback from helping you altogether, did you? Everyone has a task here at Author! Author!

That’s what how a supportive community works, isn’t it?

In that spirit, I shall make a valiant effort to come up with a truly impressive array of enlightening query letters for tomorrow’s posts. I should be in a better mood by 10 am PST, right? Keep up the good work!

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

showtime-skeleton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cover letter for partial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austen title good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of dialogue revision, part VI: and then there’s the fine art of doing it right, or, love, agent-style

pre-butchered fir tree

This, I am happy to say, used to be one of the views from my studio window, a sweet fir tree stuffed to the proverbial gills with cavorting crows, mischievous blue jays, and a small family of squirrels deeply devoted, for reasons best known to themselves, to digging up my crocus bulbs, saving them for a month or two, then replanting them in entirely different locations. I used to enjoy watching them before the strange men from the phone company showed up unannounced yesterday and slashed a ten-foot hole in the middle of the tree in order to make room for a half-inch cable scheduled to be installed three months from now. As one does.

Actually, it would have been a twenty-foot hole — quoth the foreman: “But those other branches were, like, in our way! We would have had to work around them!” — had I not managed to hobble out front to stop them in mid-slice. (Never underestimate the moral force of a crutch-wielding Valkyrie with a rudimentary knowledge of property law.) The damage has been done, though: this morning, there are no birds in the defiled tree.

Why does this seem like an apt time to wrap up this series on revising dialogue?

I can tell you why: all too often, in the first glow of enthusiasm following a newly-acquired self-editing tip — or, if you’ve been following our intensive discussions of craft this summer, a whole mess of ‘em — writers will, to put it succinctly, over-cut. Fired up by the time-honored advice to kill their darlings, they hack and slash with gusto, assuming, sometimes incorrectly, that if a line or two of dialogue runs afoul of the freshly-learned rule, the entire speech should go. Or the entire scene. Or the entire chapter.

But not all darlings are apt candidates for slaughter. Sometimes, too-vigorous cutting can do some serious harm to the tree. You don’t want to scare off the pretty birds, after all.

(I know — isn’t it amazing how often my day-to-day life provides PRECISELY the metaphor for what we’ve been discussing? Somebody up there must have a great fondness for blogs. Either that, or a monumental antipathy toward trees.)

Which is to say: not all of the results of revision are necessarily intentional. Over-enthusiastic cutting can, among other things, result in uneven tone, the loss of information the reader might need to know later in the plot, confusion of motivation, the omission of that foreshadowing sneer that alerts the attentive reader to the possibility that the protagonist’s mild-mannered coworker may turn out to be the super villain intent on destroying every ice cream stand in Gotham…

It can lead, in short, to a Frankenstein manuscript. There is no such thing, then, as a revision that would not benefit from a follow-up re-reading of the ENTIRE manuscript (preferably IN HARD COPY and, especially if it is dialogue-heavy, OUT LOUD) to make absolutely certain that the post-cut scenes not only read well on the page, but still pull their weight in the plot.

With that incentive for caution in mind, here is a final post in our revisit to 2009’s Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk series. Actually, it’s a mash-up of two posts in that series, presented in composite form for your perusing pleasure. When I originally posted the second, John Updike had just died — providing, yet again, a nudge toward a blog-friendly example.

Enjoy! But please, employ your pruning shears judiciously — and sparingly — after reading it.

Are you surprised to see another post on first-page rejection reasons coming after I’ve already gone over the agent-generated list of submission red flags? What can I possibly still have to say on the subject, after nearly three weeks of harping upon it?

Plenty, as it turns out. As excellent and extensive as the agent-generated list was in its day, as full of classic submission problems as any such list could possibly be, the agents in question generated it several years ago. As I’ve been shouting from the rooftops practically since I began writing this blog, the standards for what agents are seeking in a manuscript change all the time, along with the literary market itself.

Contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, good writing, a solid premise, and catchy character names are not necessarily enough to catch an agent’s eye today. Yes, a novel or memoir submission typically needs all of those elements to be successful, but now as ever, it needs something else: to be a book that the agent can picture selling in within not an ideal market, but the one in which s/he is currently attempting to sell books.

Yes, I do realize what I just said: a manuscript could conceivably be perfectly marvelous and still not be what an agent would consider marketable in the literary market right now.

Why right now in particular? Well, agents have always made their living by selling their clients’ work to publishers — since reputable agents don’t charge fees over and above their contracted percentage of a book sale, they make money only when they hawk their clients’ books successfully — but even a cursory glance at PUBLISHERS WEEKLY or PUBLISHERS MARKETPLACE will tell you that these are exceptional times for the publishing industry.

What does this mean for aspiring writers? Probably, that agents will be a bit warier about picking up new clients until the publishing houses decide what their new strategies will be. That, and that vampire books like the TWILIGHT series will continue to get snapped up at a prodigious rate until the next surprise bestseller comes along. {Present-day Anne here: amazingly, although I originally posted this a year and a half ago, this statement remains true. That’s how cautious agents have become.}

So the best thing you could possibly do right now is rush right out and buy 50 books similar to yours — and convince 100,000 of your friends to do the same. Like it or not, that’s now new marketing trends are made.

Since my readership is made up almost exclusively of writers, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that none of you like it.

I don’t pretend to be able to predict the next big thing — other than the novel I’m about to finish writing, of course — but there are a few trends in what gets rejected and accepted that I’ve noticed cropping with increasing frequency over the last year or so. Since once a pet peeve is established, it tends to hang around for a while on Millicent the agency screener’s red flag list, it’s probably a good idea to avoid them for the foreseeable future.

I know — kind of ironic, given how opaque the future of publishing is right now. Let’s plow ahead anyway. Some stuff that hasn’t been playing well lately {and, again, this list remains astonishingly current}:

1. Unprofessionally formatted manuscripts.

I know that I harp on this one quite a bit — as evidence and for the benefit of readers new enough to this blog not to have lived through my extensive discussions of what publishing professionals expect manuscripts to look like, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right — but it honestly is true that if a submission does not look professional, Millicent is more likely to reject it, regardless of the quality of the writing. Since the volume of queries and submissions has been skyrocketing as the economy has worsened (writing a book is a LOT of people’s Plan B, apparently), she can afford to be even pickier than usual.

Take the time to make it look right.

2. “I’ve seen that before.”

This is a practically inevitable side effect of the aforementioned volume of queries and submissions rising, but standard storylines, stock characters, and literary clichés in general seem to be getting judged more harshly of late, probably because Millicent has been seeing the same things over and over again.

Does this mean that this is a great time for writers who embrace radical originality. Not exactly, because…

3. Fiction that challenges the status quo very strongly.

This is one of the truisms of the publishing industry for the last century — during uncertain economic times, comforting and escapist plot lines tend to sell better. Unfortunate, but true. It has to do with what’s known as the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index: when Americans are feeling insecure about the future, sales of inexpensive comfort foods tend to rise — as do books that make readers all warm and fuzzy.

Historically, agents and editors have followed these trends, shying away from more challenging plot lines, unusual worldviews, and even experimental use of prose. Since I’m personally a big fan of challenging plot lines, unusual worldviews, and experimental use of prose, I’m not all too happy about this, but it might be worth holding off on submitting any of the above for a few months, until the industry has had time to get used to new economic realities.

I know; it’s annoying. {Even more annoying: that this advice is still apt, to a very great extent.}

4. Vocabulary or tone inappropriate to book category.

I’ve been hearing a LOT of complaints in that bar that’s never more than a 100 yards from any literary conference in North America about submissions from writers who don’t seem aware of either the target audience or the conventions of the categories in which they have written books. From coast to coast, Millicents and their bosses have been railing about YA with too-adult word choices, literary fiction with a fourth-grade vocabulary, cynical romances, paranormals where vampires cavort in the sun…

I suspect that the increased pervasiveness of this one is actually an expression of the publishing industry’s smoldering resentment that book sales have dropped; if the writers of these books were actually buying the new releases in their genres, the logic goes, they would be more conversant with what’s selling right now. Having met scads of writers who say, “What do you mean, what do I read? I don’t have time; I’m too busy writing,” I have to say, I have some sympathy with this one.

Remember, from the pros’ point of view, a writer’s being up on the current releases for her type of book is considered a minimum standard of professionalism, not an optional extra. At least take the time to go to a well-stocked bookstore and thumb through the recent releases, to make sure that your submission doesn’t fly too far out of the acceptable range.

5. Narrative voices that read as though the author has swallowed a dictionary.

This is a perennial complaint that’s been getting more play recently, probably because of the convenience of the Thesaurus function in Word, but for Millicent, a submission crammed with what used to be called three-dollar words does not necessarily read as more literate than one that relies upon simpler ones. Especially if — and this problem turns up more often than anyone would like to admit — not all of those words are used correctly.

Or, to put it as some aspiring writers might: without embroiling us in superfluous polysemousness, it must be averred that the aesthetic propensities of a vainglorious tome toward prolixity or indeed even the pseudo-pragmatic co-optation — as by droit du seigneur — of an antiquitarian lexis, whilst purportedly an amendment to the erudition of said opuscule and arguably consanguinean (metaphorically speaking) and perhaps even existentially bound up with its literary apprizal, can all too facilely directionize in the azimuth of fustian grandiloquence or unmanacle unpurposed (or even dystelelogical) consequences on a pith and/or douceur de vivre level vis-à-vis even the most pansophic reader. As Pliny was wont to quip in his cups…

Come on, admit it: this is a BIT over-the-top for YA.

Yes, yes, I know that English is a beautiful language crammed to the gills with fabulous words, but use that thesaurus sparingly: from a professional reader’s point of view, the line between erudite and pretentious can sometimes be pretty thin. Few readers, they argue, will actually stop reading in order to go and look up a word in a novel written in their native tongue.

They speak from personal experience: it’s something Millicent would literally never do while scanning the first few pages of a submission.

Here again, your best guideline is the current market for your type of book: generally speaking, a writer will always be safe sticking to the vocabulary level of recent releases in his book category. If you want to sneak in more obscure words here and there, make sure that their meaning is evident from context. Trust me on this one.

6. Humor that Millicent doesn’t find funny.

Perhaps it’s due to the major presidential candidates’ having employed speechwriters last time around who wrote better jokes for them, but in the last few years, more aspiring writers seem to be trying to incorporate humor into their work. Since genuinely funny writing is a rare and wonderful thing, I can only applaud this trend.

Just make sure that it’s actually funny before you submit it on the page — not just to you and your kith and kin, but to someone who has never met you and is from a completely different background. And no, having one character laugh at a joke another character has just made will not cause Millicent to find it humorous.

Remember, too: nothing dates a manuscript faster than borrowing a joke from the zeitgeist. Particularly if the joke in question is lifted from a sitcom. (Have your parents explain why they ever thought “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis?” was funny, children.)

If you choose to open with humor, run your first scene (at least) by a few good, unbiased first readers before submitting it. Even those of us who write comedy professionally are heavily reliant on reader reaction to determine what is and is not legitimately funny.

7. Unlikable protagonists.

This is another golden oldie that’s been cropping up with increasing frequency of late: it’s long been an industry truism that if the reader doesn’t find the protagonist likable, she’s not going to want to follow him through an entire book. And I don’t just mean finding him kind of tolerable; Millicent’s going to want to find the guy actively engaging.

Why might this perennial objection be flying out of Millicent’s mouth more often recently, you ask? Did you read that one above about the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index?

And don’t tell me that your protagonist or narrator becomes more likable as the reader gets to know her. If the writing on page 1 doesn’t grab Millie, it doesn’t matter if the protagonist is marvelous on page 15.

It’s not as though agents or editors open books at random to check out the writing, after all. Millicent honestly does expect to see your best writing on page 1 of your submission — and that since she is going to assume that the writing on page 1 IS your best writing, it’s worth taking exceptional pains over it.

Begin at the beginning, as a reader would, when you revise. Your time investment will bear the greatest returns there. As agents have been known to tell one another when they’re in their Pliny-like cups (in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference, natch), they want to fall in love on page 1.

All that being said, a moment of silence, please: John Updike is dead.

When I heard the news — repeatedly; one of the mixed blessings of being widely known as a writer and descendent of a long line of writers is that people very considerately call to break the news to me whenever any well-established author kicks the bucket, as if everyone who has ever set pen to paper were a distant cousin of mine whose death I should not be forced to learn from the standard media sources — I naturally went straight to my bookshelf and glanced through some of his work. In light of our ongoing series on opening pages and the fact that his first novel, THE POORHOUSE FAIR, came out in 1959, I expected his initial pages would, to put it politely, have a tough time making in past today’s Millicents, thus underscoring Updike’s frequently-made point about how literary fiction has been all but brought to earth over the last 40 years.

I was pleased to find that quite the opposite was true: his first pages were grabbers. Take that, eulogists of literary fiction!

More to the point of the latter part of this series, his hooks largely operated not through garish action, but interesting character development. Take a gander, for instance, at the first two paragraphs of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1984):

“And oh yes,” Jane Smart said in her hasty yet purposeful way; each s seemed the black tip of a just-extinguished match held in playful hurt, as children do, against the skin. “Sukie said a man has bought the Lenox mansion.”

“A man?” Alexandra Spofford asked, feeling off-center, her peaceful aura that morning splayed by the assertive word.

Now, we could speculate all day about the probable insecurities of a male author who felt compelled not only to have a female character repeat the word man here, as though the very concept of the Y chromosome were inherently unsettling to heterosexual women (at least the frail kind discombobulated by assertive words) but also to employ splayed, a term commonly associated with the things models do in the centerfolds of men’s magazines, to describe a mental state. It might not be too much of a stretch to assume based upon this opening that Mr. Updike wasn’t picturing much of a female readership for this book when he wrote it — intriguing, since in 1984 as now, women were far and away the most common purchasers of literary fiction.

But none of that concerns us at the moment. Look, I ask you, at how beautifully he has used visceral details to establish both a mood and character in the first lines of this book.

It’s a heck of an opening in general. Let’s take a moment to ponder why: instead of easing the reader into the story by an extensive description of the physical space in which we discover these characters, or the even more common physical description of the characters themselves, Updike introduces these women by providing specific insight into their mental processes and motivations. Instead of just telling us that Jane is mean and Alexandra shy, he shows us through an analogy and word choices that we might not expect.

Yes, what you just thought is absolutely right: this opening would grab Millicent because it’s not only well-written, but surprising.

Seeing all the elements in action helps to clarify what we’ve been talking about, doesn’t it? But while we’re at it, let’s be thorough about this. Quick, without rushing back and checking our initial list of red flags that often lead Millicent to reject a submission on page 1, what might strike her as problematic if she saw this opening in a submission by a brand-new writer today?

If you pointed out the typo in the very first sentence, give yourself a great big gold star for the day. (Technically, there should be a comma between oh and yes; as Mr. Updike was a graduate of my alma mater, I’m relatively certain that he should have been aware of this.) While some Millicents might be kind enough to read past a first sentence grammatical or spelling error, it’s not a foregone conclusion.

Proofread.

While we’re giving out prizes for observation, take a red ribbon out of petty cash if you flagged the repetitive dialogue. As we discussed earlier in this series, repetitive dialogue tends to annoy agents and editors, since they’ve been trained since they were pups to excise redundancy. Besides, characters who simply echo what has already been said tend to come across as less intelligent than those who actually add something new to the conversations in which they participate — always a tad risky in a protagonist.

Anything else? What about the unnecessary tag lines (Jane Smart said, Alexandra Spofford asked), now out of fashion? Since Mr. Updike had already been established in the first rank of North American authors by the time for decades by the time the use of tag lines fell out of fashion, this might seem like an unwarranted quibble, but remember, we’re judging this by the standards that would apply to a writer trying to break into the biz now.

Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along with me now: an established author can often get away with things that someone new could not.

Did any of you red-flag the semicolon? If Mr. Updike were submitting this to Millicent labeled as anything but literary fiction, you’d be right to consider cutting it. Generally speaking, in fiction that isn’t aimed at a college-educated audience — as literary fiction is, ostensibly, but most fiction is not — semicolons are considered a bit highbrow.

Admittedly, the fact that Millicent regularly sees manuscripts whose vocabulary barely scrapes the 10th grade positively peppered with semicolons might have something to do with this. No one but writers really like semicolons, and not even all of us use them correctly (as the late John Harvard would no doubt be delighted to note, Mr. Updike has done properly above), but my, don’t we like to shoehorn them into a manuscript!

Unless you’re submitting your work as literary fiction to an agent with a successful track record of representing a whole lot of it AND her client list fairly bristles with semicolon-wielding authors, you might want to minimize their use.

All of which, as fate would have it, is a perfect lead-in to my wrap-up of the rejection reasons because, really, it’s important to recognize that while, in the past, agents tended to be open to working with their clients in order to work out the technical kinks prior to submission to publishing houses, now most of them expect writers to submit manuscripts so clean and camera-ready that the agency screener could confidently walk them directly from the agency’s mail room to the desk of even the pickiest editor. Thus these last few weeks of weeding out the most common submission problems, at least on page 1: we’ve been going over these points exhaustively precisely so you can meet standards far higher than when the late, great Mr. Updike faced when he was first trying to break into the biz.

Today, however, we get to see the reward: the kind of manuscript that makes agents weak in the knees.

Surprisingly, agents and editors tend not to talk too much at conferences about what they love to see in manuscripts. They tend to stick to describing what is marketable, because that is, after all, their bread and butter. Remember, agents (most of them, anyway) don’t hold submissions to such high standards in order to be mean — they want to take on books that they know they can sell within today’s extremely tight market.

Which is to say: it’s not enough for an agent to love your work; she needs to be able to place it at a publishing house for you. Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, that’s in the writer’s interest as much as the agent’s.

But as those of you who have been querying strong, marketable projects for a while already know, agencies often reject submissions for perfectly marketable books, a fact that is very confusing to those who believe that every agent is looking for the same thing, or that a single rejection from a single agent means that everyone in the industry will hate a book. Or that there exists writing so beautifully literary that every agent currently drawing breath will instantly exclaim, “Oh, of course — I’ll represent that!”

Especially for first fiction or memoir, it’s not enough for an agent to recognize that a writer has talent and a book has market potential: they like to fall in love. If you’re a good pitcher, you already know the reaction I’m talking about: the eyes becoming moist with desire, the mouth appearing to go dry with lust. When an agent wants a project, the symptoms strongly resemble infatuation, and as this series has taught us, it’s often a case of love at first sight.

As with any other type of love, every agent has his own particular type that is likely to make his heart beat harder, his own individual quirks and kinks. Just as an agent will train his screeners to rule out submissions containing his pet peeves, he will usually set some standards for the kind of project he would like to see forwarded to his desk.

So, in a way, our old pal the underpaid, latte-quaffing, late-for-her-lunch-date screener is her boss’ dating service. Literarily, of course.

With an eye toward getting your submission on the litero-romantic short list, here’s the list of what the Idol panelists said would light their fires sufficiently to ask for a second date. In other words, these are the traits they said would lead them to want to read beyond page 1 of a submission:

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.

2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.

3. The author made the point, then moved on.

4. The scene was emotionally engaging.

5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.

6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.

7. “Good opening line.”

8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”

Notice anything about this list? Like, say, that the opening of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK knocks every single one of these criteria out of the proverbial ballpark?

Hey, I told you Updike’s work stood up well.

Notice anything else? How about that all of these criteria could be applied equally well to a memoir and a novel? That’s something that memoirists often forget: just because a story is true does not mean that it will be judged by less stringent requirements than a fictional one. A good memoirist, like a good novelist, is first and foremost a storyteller.

“Hey,” I hear some of you out there saying, “isn’t there something missing from this list? Shouldn’t ‘This is a marvelous writer,’ or ‘That’s the best metaphor I’ve ever seen for a love affair gone wrong,’ or ‘Wow, great hook’ have made the list? Shouldn’t, in fact, more of these have been about the craft of writing, rather than about the premise?”

Excellent questions, both. Would you like the cynical answer, or the one designed to be encouraging to submitters?

Let me get the cynicism out of the way first: they are looking for a book that can sell quickly, not necessarily a writer whose talent they want to develop over a lifetime, and that means paying closer attention to an exciting plot than pure beauty of voice. Yes, they are seeking good writing with a genre-appropriate voice, but at first glance, they are looking to fall in love with a premise.

The less cynical, and probably more often true, reason is that this is not the JV team you are auditioning to join: this is the big league, where it is simply assumed that a writer is going to be talented AND technically proficient AND able to draw the reader immediately into a pulse-elevating plot.

Unless an agent specifically represents literary fiction — not just good writing, mind you, which can be produced in any book category, but that specific 3-4% of the fiction market which is devoted to novels where the loveliness and/or experimental nature of the writing is the primary point of the book — the first question she is going to ask her screener is probably not going to be, “Is it well-written?”

Why not? Well, presumably, if any submission weren’t fairly well-written and free of technical errors, it would not make it past the screener. Thus, her question is much, much more likely to be, “What is this book about?”

Before you sniff at this, think about it for a minute: the last time you recommended a book to someone, did you just say, “Oh, this is a beautifully-written book,” or did you give some description of either the protagonist or the plot in your recommendation? Even the most literary of literary fiction is, after all, ABOUT SOMETHING.

Ideally, any good novel will be about an interesting character in an interesting situation. Why does the protagonist need to be interesting? So the reader will want to follow her throughout the story to come, feeling emotionally engaged in the outcome. Why does the situation need to be interesting? So the reader will not figure out the entire book’s plotline on page 1.

If you have included both of these elements in your premise, and you have presented them in a way that avoids the 74 rejection reasons I’ve been discussing throughout this series, most of the rest of the criteria on this love-it list will follow naturally. Not necessarily, but usually.

If the reader cares about the protagonist, the stakes are high enough, and the pacing is tight, the scene is much more likely to be emotionally engaging than if any of these things are not true. If you eschew heavy-handed description and move straight to (and through) the action, conflict is more likely to seem as though it is happening in real time, no one can complain that you are belaboring a point, and the suspense will develop naturally.

So really, this avalanche of critique has been leading directly to the characteristics of an infatuation-worthy book. (You’re welcome.)

Of course, all of this IS about the quality of the writing, inherently: in order to pull this off successfully, the writer has to use a well-rehearsed bag of tricks awfully well. Selecting the right narrative voice for a story, too, is indicative of writerly acumen, as is a stunning opening line. Each of these elements is only enhanced by a beautiful writing style.

However, most agents will tell you that lovely writing is not enough in the current market: the other elements need to be there as well. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi that the pros call an individual voice.

All of which is to say: submission is not the time to be bringing anything but your A game; there really is no such thing as just good enough for a first book in the current market. (Unless, of course, you’re already established, like John Updike, or a celebrity, or you happen to have written the story that the agent always wanted to write himself, or…) Playing in the big leagues requires more than merely telling a story well — that’s the absolute minimum for getting a serious read.

Which brings me to #8, ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.” Submission mail bags positively burgeon with clear accounts of straightforward stories, as well as with manuscripts where every nuance of the plot is instantly accessible to the reader as soon as it is mentioned. Books that work on a number of different levels simultaneously, that give the reader occasion to think about the world to which the book is introducing her, are rare.

That the Idol agents would be looking actively for such a book might at first blush seem astonishing. How much subtlety could a screener possibly pick up in a 30-second read of the first page of a manuscript?

Well, let me ask you: the last time you fell in love, how much did you feel you learned in the first thirty seconds of realizing it?

On that note, I’m going to close this series. Pat yourselves on the back for making it all the way through this extremely sobering list, everybody: this was good, hard, professional work, the kind that adds tangible skills to your writer’s tool bag. Be pleased about that — and keep up the good work!

The envelope, please…

WHISPER_cover

Update as of September 13, 2010: I am sorry to report that Phoebe Kitanidis decided not to follow through on the award portion of this contest, so the feedback winners in Category II: YA will be receiving will be from me alone. While I regret the necessity, this was a mutual decision: she did participate in the judging, but her feedback on the winning entries was not up to Author! Author! standards, and her next book deadlines was, she said, too tight for her to participate in the video feedback we had planned instead.

My profound apologies to those of you who entered Category II: YA, as her feedback was slated to be its primary prize, as well as to all of the winners in both categories, whose prize entries’ posts were substantially delayed by these negotiations.

Other than removing the parts below that were obviously rendered untrue by subsequent events, I have left this post as I ran it originally back in August, 2010.

That’s right, gang: the long-anticipated day has arrived. Today, I’m going to announce the winners of the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. Winners will receive an extensive critique of their first pages in this very forum, courtesy of yours truly and FAAB Phoebe Kitanidis, author of the HarperCollins’ new YA release, Whisper.

Hmm, why does that title sound so very familiar? You must have seen the cover someplace.

Why did it take such a long time to judge this contest, you ask? Well, several reasons, up to and including the fact that I’m typing this one-handed, due to my recent injuries. In addition, I experienced great difficulty organizing the prizes; see above. Also, the response to this contest was quite a bit more enthusiastic than either the judges or I had anticipated; as a contest without an entry fee, it wasn’t as though we could simply hire staff to deal with the additional entries.

Beginning to understand why the vast majority of literary contests charge fairly hefty entry fees? Contest administration is time-consuming.

Not that I’m complaining, of course — there were many great entries, and a tidy array that rose to the rank of fabulous. So many, in fact, that it was exceptionally difficult for the judges to agree on the final awards.

But of that, more below. First, I want to talk about a couple of the widespread entry problems.

To be blunt, it was not exceptionally difficult was to disqualify the full one-third of entries that disregarded the rules — and that’s not even counting the 90% of entries that did not adhere to standard format for manuscripts. Come on, people — there were only four rules!

What can we learn from disturbing statistic? Something that any veteran contest judge or agency screener could have told you: a significant proportion of aspiring writers evidently do not take the time to read contest rules and submission requirements.

That’s sad, because — again, as anyone mentioned above could tell you — if an entry or submission does not follow the rules, it will almost always be rejected, regardless of the quality of the writing.

Period. End of story. No appeal. Or, to put it another way: not taking the time to read the rules hurts only you.

Ditto with not following the rules of standard format for manuscripts — although so many entrants broke one or more rules that the judges had to downgrade the importance of formatting in the judging. This meant, in practice, that we ended up considering (and even giving a prize or two) to first pages that Millicent the agency screener probably would not have bothered to read at all.

Hey, we were being nice. But expecting Millicent to exercise that level of leniency would be foolish.

In case I am being too subtle here to catch the average rule-skimmer’s eye: READ THE RULES. LEARN THE RULES. FOLLOW THE RULES. REPEAT AS NEEDED UNTIL YOUR BOOK GETS PUBLISHED.

Seriously, submitting an improperly-formatted manuscript is precisely like sending a contest entry that ignores the stated rules: the writer is depending, foolishly, upon the kindness of the reader to overlook a lack of professionalism. Submitting an improperly or — even more common — inconsistently formatted manuscript is, to put it bluntly, usually a waste of the writer’s time.

Why? Chant it along with me, long-time readers of this blog: because agencies and contests typically receive so many perfectly-formatted, impeccably rule-following manuscripts that they don’t need to bother with those that are not professionally presented. Therefore, not taking the time to learn how to format a book manuscript properly because you are trying to get it out the door faster is self-defeating.

Again, it really is that simple. Fortunately, all any aspiring writer has to do to learn how to format a manuscript properly is take a swift peek at the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list on the bottom right-hand side of this page.

Given how much blog space I routinely devote to proper formatting, I was genuinely surprised at how few entrants had evidently checked their formatting against the literally hundreds of practical examples I have posted on this very blog in recent years. Short of coming to your respective houses and formatting your work for you, I don’t see how I could possibly have made it easier for entrants to this contest — or submitters to agencies, for that matter — to get the formatting right.

I just mention. While I’m typing one-handed. Don’t make me pull out any more guilt-inducement than that.

Oh, and something else almost everybody who entered did: titled the entry document along the lines of Anne Mini contest, Author! Author! contest, first page contest…in short, in a manner that, while convenient for finding it again on THEIR hard drives, required my renaming virtually every entry before I could save it to mine. Because, honestly, when confronted with 43 (seriously) entries called ANNE MINI CONTEST, how else was I supposed to tell them apart?

Aspiring writers do this all the time in electronic submissions and contest entries. Strategically, it’s a bad idea to inconvenience Millicent, even a little.

How should a request for an attachment be titled, you ask? Either with the writer’s last name (Smithentry.doc would have worked beautifully on my end; SmithCatIIentry.doc would have been even better) or — and this was the most popular choice in the contest — with the title of the piece. (TheWayWeWere.doc would be hard to mix up with VenusVampires.doc, after all.)

So much for the multi-part lecture. On to the announcement of the winners. First, the grand prizes.

The 2010 Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence and Grand Prizes in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest go to:

Adult Fiction: Jennifer Sinclair Johnson, DIVIDED STATES

Young Adult Fiction: Juniper Ekman, TROUBLE COMES

Actually could fit in either adult fiction or YA, but the judges agreed they would have awarded it a grand prize in either: Cole Casperson, INDOMITVS

Memoir (not an official category, but we received a lot of great entries): Jennifer Lyng, NORMAL IS WHAT YOU KNOW

But wait — there’s more! Judging the finalist round was quite tough. Because we received such a lot of exciting, well-written entries, the judges and I talked it over, and we decided that it might be a lovely idea for me to post and discuss the first, second, and third-prize entries as well. (Not that I’ll be doing it immediately, mind you; prize fulfillment will take place when my hands are once again up to full blogging strength.)

So, bearing that prize upgrade in mind, let’s also hear it for the entries that placed:

The Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better, Category I: Young Adult

First Prize, YA: Natalie Hatch, BREEDER

Second Prize, YA: Suzi McGowen, A TROLL WIFE’S TALE, and Sherry Soule, DARK ANGEL

Third Prize, YA: Janine A. Southard, WHICH STAR MY DESTINATION, and Gayton P. Gomez, BOOK WORMS

The Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better, Category II: Adult Fiction

First Prize, Adult Fiction: Curtis Moser, PERDITION, and Jens Porup, THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR

Second Prize, Adult Fiction: David A. McChesney, SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS, and Ellen Bradford, PITH AND VINEGAR

Third Prize, Adult Fiction: David Jón Fuller, BARK AT THE MOON; Linda C. McCabe, THE LEGEND OF THE WARRIOR MAID AND THE SARACEN KNIGHT, and Carolin Walz, GOTHIC WARS.

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about a plethora of great entries! Congratulations to all of the winners — watch this space to hear more from them.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XXIII: how much detail is tutu much?

degas dance class pink

The blogger’s life is all about constantly creating new content to foist upon an eager world, but I have to say, I was so pleased with the way yesterday’s post turned out that I was tempted, albeit briefly, just to pretend that I couldn’t get to my computer for the next week or so. That way, the post would have lingered at the top of the blog for a nice, long time, all of you would have had some time to ponder your individual authorial voices, and I would have gotten a bit of a vacation.

Wait, why did I decide not to do this? It sounds like a great idea.

Oh, yeah: we’re rapidly heading toward August, and I didn’t want to slow down anyone’s revision efforts. Specifically, I did not want any of you coming to me in mid-September, saying, “Wow, Anne, I wish I’d known some of the editing fixes you were talking about late in the summer before I sent off my submission to the agent of my dreams! But there we were, just a few short weeks before the annual August exodus, and you decided to take a week off. Unbeknownst to anyone concerned, the piece of advice that would have enabled me to turn my opus from pretty good to yowsa would be in the very next post!”

Oh, you may laugh — but would you care to hear just how often readers or students in my classes have said similar things to me?

A small forest of hands shot into the air in the middle of the quote from the fantasy creature I choose to regard as representative of future readers. Yes, hand-raisers? “But Anne, why would mid-to-late July be a particularly poor time for you to stop lecturing us on craft issues? And what did your imaginary friends mean about the annual August exodus?”

Ah, the answers to those two trenchant questions are interconnected, my friends. Traditionally, enough of the NYC-based publishing world goes on vacation between the end of the second week of August and Labor Day that it’s genuinely difficult to pull together an editorial committee in order to approve the acquisition of a manuscript or book proposal. That means, in practice, that agents are not all that likely to be able to sell books during this period, so they, too tend to go on vacation during that period. Oh, a Millicent or two might be left behind to watch the store while the rest of the agency seeks less humid climes, but generally speaking, it’s a dead zone.

What does that mean for aspiring writers, you ask? Why, that mid-August through mid-September isn’t usually the best time to query or submit. Unless, of course, one happens to harbor an active desire to have one’s query or manuscript sit on a desk for a month or two.

Did that vast collective gasp mean that at least some of you were expecting to hear back sooner — or at any rate, for Millicent and her boss to get cracking immediately after midnight on Labor Day? Think about it: if you didn’t go into work for a few weeks, how much mail would pile up on your desk?

Got that image firmly in mind? Good. Now imagine the state of that desk if you routinely received 800-1200 queries per week.

On a not entirely unrelated note, had I mentioned that the next few weeks would be a great time to get those queries out the door? Or to polish up and send off those requested materials?

To facilitate your pursuing one or both of those laudable goals, I’m going to be winding down the Frankenstein manuscript series with today’s post. Oh, we’re not going to be leaving the wonderful world of craft — beginning with my next post, we’re going to take a serious foray into pepping up your dialogue. But for the nonce, we’re going to be stepping away from manuscript-polishing issues, so that you may more easily take the time to…well, polish your manuscript.

And honestly, weren’t you getting just a little tired of all those Roman numerals?

To round out the series with a bang, I’m going to devote today to challenging you to assess yet another reader’s actual text. Rather than present you with her opening pages, however, I’m going to show you an action scene, of a sort, and encourage you to try to spot potential revision opportunities.

Why launch into a mid-book scene, you ask, rather than my usual target of choice, the opening pages? Partially, so we could talk about pacing — as the expressive industry term sagging in the middle may already have led you to suspect, narratives are more likely to slow there than at either the beginning or the end — but also, as is my wont, to answer a reader’s question. Quoth abbreviation devotee Kathy:

What if your world, so to speak, involves a skill that not everyone is familiar with? In my case, my MC is a dance student, and much of the WIP occurs during her classes at a studio.

I’ve gotten comments from critters saying both put in more details about the step or combinations and leave out the details. So how do I balance out the necessary details so non-dance readers can visualize my MC’s dance movements and not put in so many that it stalls the action?

As delighted as I am at the mental image of critters providing feedback on a manuscript (and as concerned as I am that not every reader will know that MC = protagonist and WIP = work in progress; while WIP is arguably writing-class jargon, MC is not), this question has been causing me some chagrin. As we have seen throughout this series, this is precisely the kind of question that is impossible to answer without taking a close look at the scene in question — as much as aspiring writers might like for there to be hard-and-fast formulae for figuring out this kind of proportion, what works honestly does vary from story to story.

Yet now that we have a nice, well-stocked revision tool kit, we need fear no writing fix-it challenge. So let’s take a peek at Kathy’s pages with an eye to improving them, shall we?

Before we do, though, I have a confession to make: when I use readers’ examples here, I have been known to clean up the formatting prior to posting them. That way, the reader kind enough to allow me to write about actual text gets the benefit of specific feedback, and you, dear readers, don’t become confused by seeing improperly formatted pages.

Since this is going to be the last concrete example in this series, however, I’m going to show at least the first page of this one initially as it arrived in my e-mail. Kathy’s made two extremely common mistakes for a submitter; Millicents whose boss agents accept e-mail queries and submissions see these all the time. I’m rather pleased to be able to show them to you in their natural habitat, as most professional readers will automatically reject requested materials with either.

See if you can catch them on her first page. Hint: either would be apparent to Millicent the agency screener from ten feet away.

Kathy as is

See the problem? This page is not formatted like a manuscript page: it lacks a slug line (and thus any way to identify this page, should it become separated from the rest of the submission), and there is a skipped line between each paragraph. Also, although it may be hard to tell in this version, the writer skipped only one space after each period and colon, rather than two, rendering it significantly harder to edit. (Which, admittedly, some agents would prefer; check their websites for specific instructions on the subject.)

It’s formatted, in short, as though it were intended for insertion into the body of an e-mail, not as samples from a manuscript page. Which would have been appropriate only had the professional reader in question (in this case, me) specifically asked for the materials to be sent — wait for it — in the body of an e-mail.

In case anyone’s wondering, that request is usually reserved for electronic queries where the agency likes to see a few pages of text or a bio. It’s virtually never the expectation when an agent or editor asks a successful querier or pitcher to send actual manuscript pages.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, I’m particularly pleased to be able to show you this phenomenon in action as I wrap up the Frankenstein manuscript: this level of formatting gaffe might easily be sufficient to prevent Millicent from reading any of the text at all, at least if her agency asked (as I did) for the pages to be sent as a Word attachment, the industry standard means of online submission.

In case I’m being too subtle here: formatting counts in submissions, even e-mailed ones.

That’s not, alas, as widely-known an axiom as it should be. Like so many aspiring writers, Kathy probably mistakenly believed that what this professional reader wanted to see was the content of the requested pages, but that’s not the only thing being judged in a submission. Any professional reader would also be looking to see if the submitter was aware of how manuscripts should be put together.

Why is it problematic if a submission consists of just writing, rather than writing presented in standard manuscript format? Even if Millicent read it and fell in love with the writing, the presentation just screams that this would be a time-consuming client to take on: clearly, she would need to be shown the ropes.

And that, from the other side of the submission desk, is a problem — or, depending upon how serious Millicent is about ever seeing her desktop again, a solution. Given that a good agent will routinely receive 800-1200 queries per week (yes, even during the August break), and that she gets enough properly-formatted submissions to fill her few new client spots hundreds of times over, why should she instruct her Millicent to read improperly formatted materials? By the same token, why should Mehitabel the contest judge consider those same materials for finalist status in a literary contest?

That last bit was not entirely rhetorical, by the way. In the Great First Pages contest I sponsored here in May, a good third of the entries were not properly formatted. Rather surprising, as the rules asked that entries be submitted in standard format as a Word attachment. Or it might have surprised me, had I not so often served as a contest judge; experience had taught me how often contest entrants simply do not read the rules with care. (But don’t worry, Great First Page entrants: finalists have been selected, and the winners shall be announced soon.)

The moral, should you care to hear it: unless an agency, small publishing house, or writing contest’s rules either ask you to submit your writing in the body of an e-mail or SPECIFICALLY ask for some other kind of presentation, you should assume that they’re expecting to see standard manuscript format. And if you don’t know what that should look like on the page, run, don’t walk, to the posts in the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.

Heck, for starters, you could just look at today’s example again, now that I’ve taken the time to format it as Millicent would expect to see it. (As usual, if you are having trouble reading the example, try holding down the COMMAND key simultaneously with +, to enlarge the image.) To protect the innocent, I’ve taken the liberty of changing the last name of the submitter, as well as the title of the book.

Kathy page 1
Kathy page 2

Ready to tackle Kathy’s question now? Well, probably not, if you’ve been following this series closely. I’m guessing that what jumped out at your first was all the word repetition, right?

In case it didn’t, let’s apply our usual test for word and phrase frequency, to see how this page would have looked to Millicent’s critical eye. Notice in particular the name repetition.

Kathy's marked 1
Kathy's marked 2

Colorful, isn’t it? Since we have already discussed word choice stagnation in general and name repetition in particular in some detail in this series, I don’t want to dwell too much on these problems as they manifest here. Except to point out one thing: notice how hard it is to evaluate the text on any other basis while all of that repetition is starting you in the face?

It’s every bit as hard for professional readers. So should anyone still be looking for a great first step toward an overall revision, I would highly recommend starting with word and phrase repetition.

But where, if a savvy reviser had to choose, would the next level of revision start? Would it, as Kathy suggests, be at the jargon level, reassessing the amount of actual dance steps in this scene?

That’s a legitimate concern, but I tend to doubt that would be the very next problem Millicent would notice. Assuming that word repetition is off the table, here are the kinds of issues that might concern her.

Kathy edit 1
Kathy's edit 2

Again, where to begin? My vote would be in the first paragraph, with a problem that dogs many a manuscript these days, especially in YA: having more than one character speak or think per paragraph.

Actually, paragraph #1 presents a couple of rather interesting thought dilemmas. Take a gander as it currently stands:

After class, several classmates huddled outside the large observation window while Miss Sylvia showed Melissa and Peter the first steps of the dance. Both did the same moves, which were simple enough, in Melissa’s mind. Miss Sylvia said, “Peter, offer your right hand to Melissa. Melissa, put your right hand in it and step into relevé arabesque.” Melissa’s heart fluttered for a moment. Finally, some actual partnering.

The perspective is a trifle puzzling here, even for an omniscient narrative. In the first sentence, the action is seen by third parties, from the other side of a window. In the next sentence, the narrative jumps into Melissa’s head, but in sentences #3 and #4, Miss Sylvia is speaking. Yet in sentences #5 and #6, we’re back in Melissa’s perspective, underscored by #6′s italicized thought.

A touch confusing to the spatial sense, is it not? No worries — a bit of judicious application of the pinkie to the RETURN key will instantly clarify matters:

After class, several classmates huddled outside the large observation window while Miss Sylvia showed Melissa and Peter the first steps of the dance. Both did the same moves, which were simple enough, in Melissa’s mind.

“Peter, offer your right hand to Melissa,” Miss Sylvia said. “Melissa, put your right hand in it and step into relevé arabesque.”

Melissa’s heart fluttered for a moment. Finally, some actual partnering.

See how the simple act of giving each perspective its own paragraph removes any possibility of perspective drift? Not to mention being allowing a far more conventional presentation of dialogue.

Do I see some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” italicized thought-lovers everywhere exclaim as one, “why did you remove the italics around Melissa’s thought? They were used correctly the first time around, weren’t they?”

Well, yes, they were — although that’s a qualified yes, since there are plenty of Millicents out there for whom italicized thought equals lazy writing. (Their rationale: “Shouldn’t a genuinely talented writer be able to alert the reader to the fact that the protagonist is thinking without resorting to fancy typefaces?”) Amongst those who do accept this convention, though, Kathy’s use here would definitely fly.

So why did I chose to eschew italics here? Simple: there are so many French terms in this scene. On the manuscript page, it’s rather confusing to the eye to have both the foreign terms and the thought italicized; as the French had to be italicized, the thought was the obvious one to change.

And I ask you: wasn’t it still clear that the last sentence was Melissa’s thought?

Of course, for an editorial change like this to work, it would have to be made consistently throughout the entire manuscript — altering it in this scene alone, or even only in the jargon-heavy ballet scenes, might well result in text that read like a mistake. Every fiction writer needs to decide for herself whether to italicize thought or not, and then cling to that resolve like a leech. (But if you would like some guidance on how to italicize thought correctly, you might want to check out the ITALICS AND WHEN THEY ARE CORRECT TO USE category on the archive list at right.)

There’s another structural problem, also related to RETURN key usage, that might also strike your garden-variety Millicent’s eye forcefully. Any guesses?

If you instantly sent your fingertips shooting skyward, shouting, “By gum, there are a couple of single-sentence paragraphs in this excerpt, but it takes at least two sentences to construct a narrative paragraph,” you have either been paying close attention throughout this revision series, or your eyes are sharp enough to have picked up the rather dim red marginalia above. While a dialogue paragraph can indeed be a single sentence long:

“But I like single-sentence paragraphs,” Kathy pointed out.

it’s technically incorrect to limit a narrative paragraph to a single sentence, like so:

He nodded.

As we’ve discussed, the prevalence of single-sentence paragraphs in newspaper and magazine writing (in AP style, they are perfectly acceptable) has led to an ever-growing acceptance of the things in published books, particularly nonfiction. That’s not going to help you, however, if your Millicent should happen to have graduated from a college with a particularly good English department.

If you just like the way single-line paragraphs look — many an aspiring writer seems to positively pine for them — use them as judiciously as you would profanity. To co-opt Mark Twain’s quip about taking the Lord’s name in vain, select a time when it will have effect. How about, for instance, limiting their use to when the statement that follows a full paragraph is actually surprising?

Again, we’ve already talked about this issue earlier in the series, so I shall not harp upon it. For the moment, it’s enough to realize that Millicent would notice and zero in such paragraphs — enough so that it really would behoove the writer to make sure that he’s deriving some significant benefit from breaking the rules. In this excerpt, at least, neither of the single-line paragraphs rises to that level of usefulness.

I hear a positive fusillade of fingertips drumming on desks. “But Anne,” cut-to-the-chase types protest, “while all of this is interesting, from a self-editing perspective, you haven’t yet addressed Kathy’s question. Is there a reason that we needed to discuss all of these technical matters before getting to the issue of whether she’s overusing detail here?”

Yes, actually, a very good reason: from a professional reader’s perspective, it’s difficult to assess questions of style before the more basic writing issues — spelling, grammar, clarity — and presentation requirements — our old pal, standard format; choices like word repetition and italic use that might produce eye distraction on the page — have been resolved. That’s partially why I’ve been talking about attacking a Frankenstein manuscript in waves of revision: as each level of text scrubbing takes place, the style and voice lying just beneath can emerge.

It follows, then, as dawn succeeds the night, that as a self-editing writer winnows away his manuscript’s technical problems, underlying stylistic difficulties may leap to the fore. In the case of today’s example, two related problems have cropped up — maintaining narrative tension and the use of necessary technical jargon.

Let’s tackle the latter first. Kathy had asked how best to tell how much detail to include in her dance studio scenes, but from the perspective of a reader unfamiliar with ballet terminology, there’s actually not a great deal of detail in this scene. There is, however, quite a bit of dance jargon, a series of phrases that leap off the page by virtue of being italicized.

Why, we were discussing the eye-distraction potential of those words and phrases just a few moments ago, were we not? What a coincidence.

The fact that so many of these terms are in French, and thus require italicization, is not the only reason that the ballet jargon is problematic in this excerpt, however. Much of the time, the jargon is taking the place of description, not adding to it.

What’s the difference, those of you who have done some time in ballet class ask? The answer to that one is easy: please tell us, readers who don’t know an arabesque from the proverbial hole in the ground, how are you picturing the action in this scene?

Not very clearly, I’m guessing — which is almost always the case when a narrative leans very heavily upon jargon for its descriptions. Naming an action or object is not the same thing as showing what it looks like, after all.

That’s genuinely a pity in this scene, as I suspect (having put in my time in ballet class) that the movements the characters are making would be quite pretty to see. So my first choice for stylistic revision would be to replace at least some of the jargon with some lyrical description of flowing arms and tremulous balances, enough so that a reader who did not know much about dancing could still enjoy the movement of the scene.

And you thought I wasn’t going to answer Kathy’s question!

The other problem — maintaining narrative tension — also speaks to her concern. If the level of detail is too high, the tension of the scene can suffer; as we discussed last time, one way to keep an action scene moving along is the thoughtful application of summary statements.

So I ask you: is the level of detail appropriate for the ideal pacing of the scene?

I’m turning it over to you in part because personally, I find that question a trifle difficult to answer; I suspect a reader who had not spent her wayward youth glissading and pas de bouréeing would have quite a different response than one who had. If the target audience is made up solely of girls who live in leotards, the level of detail may not need to be tweaked much. If, however, the intended readership includes — and I think it should — kids who always wanted to take dance classes but have not had the opportunity, the illustrative details should be ramped up a thousandfold.

You want them to feel as though they are in that dance studio, don’t you?

Not convinced that’s a pacing issue? You bet your boots it is. A reader already familiar with the terminology would be able to skim through this scene in 60 seconds flat. She might long for more connection to the plot and characters as they exist outside of the dance studio — all three characters in this scene seem to be living entirely in the moment, a relatively rare condition for both real-world residents and characters in books — but I doubt she would feel that the scene dragged. Its characters have a goal to achieve, and they attain it in under two pages.

But what of our other reader, the one who will either be puzzled by the undefined jargon or will simply skip over it? (Not an uncommon response to encountering technical talk on the page, by the way.) To her, the scene might well seem slow, or even confusing. What are these people doing, she wonders, that cannot be described adequately in English?

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about revision solutions seldom being one-size-fits-all; a savvy self-editor is constantly juggling any number of relevant issues. Because this is a not a simple process we’re talking about, my friends — like an onion, a Frankenstein manuscript with potential has many, many layers.

And can induce tears.

Keep those good craft questions rolling in, everybody, and many thanks to Kathy for letting us take an informative peek at her manuscript. Next time, we tackle dialogue — but may I suggest taking a glance at the calendar and perhaps resolving to send out a query or two on the side?

Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XV: the creature rises afresh, or, this is what nit-picking gets you

son-of-frankenstein poster

Is everyone rested and refreshed after the long weekend our brief hiatus from discussing revision issues? I thought very seriously of posting on the 4th, for the benefit of those of you who had no intention of barbecuing anything or endangering your precious, manuscript-creating fingers with fireworks, but a page into critiquing the Declaration of Independence by modern editorial standards (will your audience consider those truths self-evident, Tom? It’s just lazy writing not to explain the underlying logic here), the whole enterprise began to feel a tad disrespectful.

So even though the darned thing is stuffed to the gills with ands, nouns capitalized for no apparent reason, and paragraphs made up of only a single, often run-on sentence, I left it alone. Perhaps I will get back to it fourscore and seven years hence.

Note to readers outside the United States: that running joke actually was kind of funny. Honest. You’d have to be here.

Before I leave the Founders to their own devices, however, I would like to give all of us a running start back into nit-picking mode by borrowing a couple of sentences from Jefferson’s immortal document to talk about a phenomenon that plagues many a modern-day manuscript: misused semicolons. Cast thy worthy eyes over these classic sentences, citizens, and see if you can spot the problem:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Did it leap out at you, as it probably would have at our old friend Millicent the agency screener (and almost certainly would have at her aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge)? No? Here’s another specimen of semicolon abuse:

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He, by the way, was King George III; I wouldn’t want the resemblance to current political events to confuse anybody. That last sentence, incidentally, was a correct use of a semicolon: it joined two complete sentences together. Functioning as an effective contraction of comma + and, a semicolon allows two complete sentences to occupy the same sentence without technically creating a run-on.

See the problem now? Like so many aspiring (and, unfortunately, established as well) writers of our own day, our third president evidently did not understand that ; and is inherently redundant. That’s why, in case anyone out there had been wondering, it’s technically improper to place a semicolon before the and in a list: this thing is red; that thing is blue; and the other thing is chartreuse. is, it pains me to tell you, incorrect. It should be: this thing is red; that thing is blue, and the other thing is chartreuse.

Fortunately, this species of semicolon abuse is extremely easy to rectify, either by the means I just used above, changing the improper semicolon to a comma, or by removing the and allowing the semicolon to function as God intended.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

A reviser could also, should s/he be of revolutionary propensities, simply turn the gargantuan sentence into two, removing the necessity for the semicolon altogether. While I’m at it, I can’t resist cleaning up the commas a little:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. Accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Yes, yes, I know, semicolon-lovers: a semicolon indicates a pause longer than a comma, but not the full stop of a period. It is not beyond belief that in these specific sentences, Jefferson might have been making a point by cramming two sentences’ worth of information into single sentences.

I grant you that — but as an editor, I cannot in good conscience forbear pointing out that if that was his goal in these sentences, it would have worked better if he had not made it his goal quite so often. Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: the more often a writer uses a literary device or sentence-level trick within a short run of text, the less effective each subsequent use will be.

The Declaration of Independence (or, more properly, The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America, a cumbersome mouthful) is almost five pages long in standard format. Tell me, do you believe that a modern-day Millicent would keep turning the pages after the second misused semicolon? What about Mehitabel?

Actually, depending upon the book category, they might take umbrage at the first semicolon, properly used or not. Although ubiquitous in nonfiction (due, no doubt, to their popularity in journalism), the semicolon is not particularly welcome in most fiction book categories. Other than literary fiction, science fiction/fantasy, mainstream and high-end women’s fiction — the fiction categories that also assume the largest vocabularies in their respective target audiences — semicolons tend to be rare in published novels, at least in the U.S.

Enough so that it’s usually in a reviser’s best interest to minimize their use, unless the manuscript he’s slaving over happens to fall in one of the categories mentioned above. It may not be necessary to omit them altogether — although, frankly, most freelance editors would tell you that it’s virtually always a good idea in a submission — but do your best not to use more of them per page than is common in first novels in your chosen book category.

Yes, scanning enough recent releases to see what kind of writing the popular kids are selling these days is going to be a lot of work, now that you mention it. Sorry about that, but using either what the bigwigs in the field can get published or what was considered the best writing in your category ten, fifteen, or fifty years ago won’t give you a very clear idea of what Millicent’s level of tolerance for semicolons — or, indeed, any other literary trick you might happen to favor — is now, will it?

Besides, we all know in the depths of our creative little hearts that most semicolons turn up in manuscripts not because they are essential to the paragraphs they grace, or even for rhythmic effect, but because so many writers really like them. Some really, really like them. They like them so much, in fact, that they often find ways to work ‘em in four times a paragraph.

Is Millicent’s objection to them starting to make a bit more sense? She sees so many dots over commas that her desk sometimes seems overrun with aphids. To see yet another reason why that might be annoying, let’s seek out more evidence of Jefferson’s apparently troubled relationship with punctuation:

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

Funny how pertinent some of his issues still seem, isn’t it? Not just politically, but grammatically: what on earth was he thinking, using more than one semicolon within a single sentence? Happily, this, too, is easy to fix.

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States. For that purpose, he has obstructed the laws of naturalization for foreigners, refused to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raised the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

Doesn’t really lose anything by being freed of semicolons, does it? Neither does the average sentence in your garden-variety semicolon-laden manuscript.

I’m bringing this up, not to sadden those of you who worship the semicolon, but to remind you just how closely professional readers scrutinize manuscript submissions and contest entries. Remember, they do not read like folks who read for pleasure; for the opening chapters of a manuscript, at least, they tend to be on the look-out for reasons to reject it.

So while it may seem tedious — heck, may be tedious — to search a 400-page haystack for needles, going over each page with the proverbial fine-toothed comb to make sure that every sentence is your best writing, Millicent and her boss would not consider such behavior above and beyond the call of duty for a serious writer.

Do you know what they would consider it? A good writer’s job.

That’s why, in case you’ve been scratching your collective head over it, I’ve been hammering so hard throughout this series on the importance of re-reading your work not only for story and characterization, but also for sentence-level stumbling blocks like word repetition. Or seemingly unimportant formatting issues.

Everything adds up to create an impression. Believe me, Millicent would be much, much happier about recommending a manuscript that just bellows, “Look! My writer is capable of taking infinite pains in order to present her story and voice in their best possible light!” than one that sighs, as so many do, “Well, my writer may be talented — if you look past the technical mistakes, you’ll find evidence of it.”

Remember, too, that even a Millicent or Mehitabel willing to invest the effort to ferret out the occasional beautiful sentence in a poorly-presented manuscript may be put off by formatting problems. They have been trained to zero in on them, after all — just as no entry is so easy to knock out of finalist consideration as one that has broken one of the contest’s rules, no submission is as easy to reject as one whose very margins declare that the writer hasn’t done his homework about what professional manuscripts are supposed to look like.

In fairness to Millicent and Mehitabel, once your eyes are accustomed to spot the small stuff, it’s pretty hard to overlook. That’s a pity, because the small stuff is often the most difficult for the reviser to catch.

If that last paragraph didn’t automatically make you murmur, “And that’s why it’s a good idea to read your submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it off,” well, I must not have repeated it enough in this series. Which I find rather hard to believe.

To illustrate just how difficult it can be to see the little problems that would jump up and down on the page as a screener or contest judge scanned it, clamoring distractingly for attention, I have called upon a brave reader to allow me to use his opening page as an example. Reader Nick has kindly provided us with the following:

krygier example

Did the little problems flag you down, distracting you from the narrative? Believe it or not, as few and small as the gaffes here, they would have made it difficult for Mehitabel or Millicent to be drawn into the unfolding story.

I see raised hands out there, trying to flag me down. Yes, hand-wavers? “But Anne,” many of you protest breathlessly, “I don’t see anything wrong with Nick’s page, technically. I suppose Millicent might quibble about the semicolon in the opening sentence, depending upon the book category, but it is properly used. What’s she reading with, those X-ray specs that used to be advertised in the back of comic books?”

No, merely the eyes of experience. Let’s take a look at this page as she would have preferred to see it presented.

krygier example2

See the difference? Admittedly, I tinkered with a few of the style choices here — while anyways may have been intended to show that the narrator is not well-educated, using it twice on the same page invites Millicent to recognize that it isn’t proper. Since the narrator here clearly means anyway, it was an easy change. Ditto with the redundant use of right now: excising it does not alter the meaning of the second sentence, so why antagonize Millicent with the word repetition? (Speaking of things that might annoy her: who is the friend mentioned in paragraph 2, the reader wonders? Is this a sarcastic reference to the doctor? The text does not offer an explanation.)

While either Millicent or Mehitabel would have caught all of these problems on a first read-through, drawing conclusions accordingly, those are probably not the gaffes that would have caught their attention first. The fact that the text began too high on the page would have struck any professional reader, as would the fact that each paragraph is indented five spaces, not .5 inch.

This is a mistake that I have suddenly begun seeing with great frequency within the last six months or so; it was relatively rare before, perhaps because it’s a gaffe that someone who had taken a typing class would be unlikely to make. Word sets an automatic tab at .5 inch, so all one has to do to indent the right amount is to hit the TAB key.

It’s less trouble, honest. Speaking of going to unnecessary trouble, did you spot the most serious formatting problem on the first page?

Instead of the lines of text falling evenly on the page, there is extra space between paragraphs. This would look quite wrong to a professional reader — and since it’s usually not the default in Word, it’s probably the result of some writerly tinkering in the FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/INDENTS AND SPACING box. Not only is this sort of fancy manuscript formatting annoying to set up — it’s improper. Just allow the lines to fall naturally, equidistant on the page.

And all that’s visible before Millicent or Mehitabel read so much as a single sentence of the submission. See why it might be a good idea to take a gander at your work IN HARD COPY, even if you are planning on submitting it electronically?

Of course, either dear lady would have caught some problems within the text itself. The dashes are not consistently doubled, with a space at either end, and there’s a comma missing from the quote — neither perhaps rejection reasons individually, but together, they would indicate to a pro that this page had not been proofread for consistency.

As we discussed earlier in this series, consistency in formatting, grammar, and voice is much, much more important to professional readers than most self-editors even begin to suspect. Inconsistencies are jarring — more so, sometimes, than consistent mistakes. To prove that, we need look no farther than the dashes in the first example: obviously, given the correct second usage, the writer here knows that dashes should be doubled; he evidently just forgot to do it the first time around.

And what would have been the best way to catch a nit-picky problem like that, campers, an oversight that a spell- and grammar-checker would not pick up? That’s right: reading this page IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Which, you must admit, is quite possible that the writer already did before letting me post this (thanks again for that, Nick); most of these are, after all, quite small cosmetic problems. The vast majority of aspiring writers would not even have looked for at least half of these.

But we aspire to high standards than that, don’t we?

Scarcely had this set of admittedly small revisions fallen off my weary fingertips when I sensed a certain amount of disgruntlement in the peanut gallery. “Oh, God,” a fairly hefty percentage of you murmured, “revising my Frankenstein manuscript is going to be an infinitely more complex matter than I had previously anticipated. Or so I nervously surmise from the fact that Anne is now talking about problems I could not solve, or at any rate locate, with a simple search-and-replace. Horrors!”

Actually, my finely-tuned silent, far-flung reader detector picked up three distinct flavors of chagrin floating around out there, each a fairly common response to being greeted with advice to perform any sort of microsurgery on a manuscript. (If there’s a fourth type of stressed-out writer who does not become at least momentarily distraught at the notion of spending days, weeks, or even moths months nit-picking his way through the submission he thought would be snapped up by an agent a year ago, let’s just say I haven’t bumped into him recently on the writers’ conference circuit.)

The first kind is someone I suspect all of you who have spent any time around aspiring writers have met in spades: the oh-it’s-too-much-bother. “But Anne,” representatives of this easily-discouraged type exclaim. “Going through my manuscript to check for something as minor as dash consistency is going to take WEEKS. I know that you like to set high standards for all of us here in the Author! Author! community, but aren’t you over-reaching a bit here? Surely, no reasonable agent or editor is going to back off from a good submission for something that minor. I’m just going to hold off and wait until my future agent/editor/reviewers of my bestseller tells me point-blank that I need to correct this type of problem. In fact, I think I’m going to put off dealing with any revision problem that requires a tool more sophisticated than a simple search-and-replace or spell-check.”

Whoa, revision-eschewers — for such you almost certainly are, or will end up being — who is over-reaching now? As we have discussed throughout this series on revising Frankenstein manuscripts, the firm belief that books by new writers get picked up before they are polished is, while rather charmingly old-fashioned, one that tends to make those of us who read manuscripts for a living smile sadly and murmur to ourselves, “Oh, this one’s going to have a hard time landing an agent.”

Why? Because a writer who does not habitually proofread implicitly expects that other people will do it for her. While many agents will provide a limited amount of editorial feedback to their clients, especially to new ones, few would be eager to send out manuscripts filled with eye-distracting errors. And in these sad days when even very large publishing houses are laying off editorial staff, is it really a good idea to assume that even the editor who falls in love with your book enough to push it through an editorial committee will have either the time or the inclination to go over the text with that fine-toothed comb I mentioned earlier?

Especially when, if you’ll pardon my bringing it up again, that’s your job?

Just in case any of you are still harboring illusions on the subject, at this point in literary history — and this was true even before the recent economic downturn sent the publishing industry into its current let’s-lay-off-a-third-of-our-editors spree, by the way — aspiring writers are held 100% responsible for the diagnosis and treatment of their manuscripts’ ills. It could hardly be otherwise: Millicent sees so many technically perfect, beautifully-written submissions that she seldom has qualms about rejecting ones that are merely in pretty good shape.

Translation: if your manuscript has a slight cough, it’s up to you to provide the cough drops before she sees it.

With a Frankenstein manuscript, it can be very hard to tell when enough revision is enough, though. Increasing warmth of rejection letters as a writer revised and submitted, then revised and submitted again until an agent snapped up the book, used to provide a pretty good barometer of how a manuscript was improving over time. (That’s why, in case you’d been fretting in the dead of night about it, you might have heard an agent or editor say at a conference that getting only form-letter rejections is always a sign that a manuscript needs intensive revision: in the good old days, that would have been true.)

Now, the MS with emitting the occasional ladylike “Ahem!” usually received precisely the same prefab rejection letter as the MS infected with an advanced case of whooping cough. Or, still worse, with no reply at all. As hard as rejected writers might try to read specific meaning into general statements like I just didn’t fall in love with this story or while the writing is strong, I just don’t think I can sell this in the current market, personalized rejection letters have mostly gone the way of the dodo.

We’ve all heard that such creatures once roved the earth, but few of us have ever seen one in person.

The second variety of revision suggestion-induced panic runs to the opposite extreme, plunging aspiring writers into orgies of incessant worry about whether they’ve cleaned up their manuscripts enough prior to submission. Faced with the kind of alarm I’ve been raising throughout this post, the victim immediately snatches up her editing pens and shouts, “Thanks for telling me, Anne! I’ll clear my schedule for the next three weeks to attend to the matter!”

She is, in a word that I suspect I’m making up on the spot, over-conscientious.

Most of us have probably encountered advanced cases of panic #2, right? Every time the sufferer runs into a new writerly axiom, he rushes to apply it to his work. Adherents of this philosophy would rather spend their time cleaning minute specks of dust off their writing with a toothbrush like an archeologist exhuming the ruins of Troy than run the risk of anything whatsoever being wrong with their work by the time some kind mailman pops it under Millicent’s nose.

In moderation, such devotion to detail is laudable. Over-indulgers, however, can fret themselves into an absolute standstill. Since there’s never any shortage of ostensibly never-fail writing advice out there, a writer who becomes addicted to dipping his cup into the stream of wisdom too frequently can feel as though he’s trying to drain Lake Titicaca with a teaspoon.

The third type, of course, is the one who exclaims, “Oh, my God — the publishing industry is so unreasonable! No wonder nothing of value ever gets published! I might as well give up now.” Which is no skin off Millicent’s freckled nose, of course: see my earlier comment about the number of technically perfect manuscripts she sees in any given year, far more than her boss agent could ever hope to sign to representation contracts.

Welcome to the joys of living in a great, big country filled with talented, creative people. Isn’t competition grand?

By now, I suspect that I’ve given all three types a common cause upon which they agree absolutely. “Heavens, Anne,” they cry in unison, “if your goal was to depress us into a stupor, you’ve certainly succeeded. Knock off for the day, will ya?”

Actually, that wasn’t my goal — although, admittedly, it’s an achievement into which I stumble with some frequency whenever I talk about being realistic about the grim odds that face even an excellent agent-seeking manuscript. (Although while you’re already antsy: if you don’t mind my asking, when’s the last time you made a back-up of your writing files? Or, to put it less gently, if — heaven forfend! — anything happened to your computer tomorrow, would you have to go back and re-make all of those changes you’ve already made on your manuscript? See my point?)

The intention behind bringing up the common stripes of over-reaction to revision suggestions is to encourage all of you to stop yourself from heading toward any of these extremes.

When faced with the prospect of ferreting out and fixing either a manuscript megaproblem or a whole string of little gaffes, what serves a writer best is to come up with a practical plan of attack. Nothing is better at staving off that feeling of being overwhelmed by complete strangers’ extremely high and sometimes rather arbitrary standards.

Trust me on this one. You’ll have a substantially happier life as a writer if you train yourself not to give in to any of the very natural emotional first reactions.

Like, say, to a post like this. Ponder manuscript matters small and great, everybody, and keep up the good work!

A brief digression on names, featuring some lighthearted admonitions on being careful how you label people

Helen Burns' shame

Since I have been hammering so hard on the perils of word, phrase, and concept repetition in my recent Frankenstein manuscript series, I thought it might be nice to take a break for a couple of days, if only to stop the more conscientious revisers among you from waking up in the dead of night, screaming, “No! Please! I shall cut the number of eye-distracting conjunctions in my manuscript by half! Just take away the thumbscrews!” After those few days had passed without revision-related screaming abating much, I decided that I was going to take a few baby steps away from the much-stared-at manuscript page and talk about a related topic near and dear to most novelists’ hearts: character naming.

Then, after I have lulled you into a nice, complacent creative reverie, I shall leap right back into the burning issues of revision. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Before I launch into the meat of today’s post, however, I’d like to note the passing of someone I have never met personally, but has been gracing Author! Author! at least once per year as the wry star of one of my all-time favorite anecdotes. Those of you who have been hanging out here at A! A! for a while may remember the late gentleman (may he rest in perpetual peace) who taught us that it’s never, ever safe to assume that one’s audience will share one’s prejudices.

Once upon a time, a professor at Harvard Law School took a sabbatical and joined the faculty at a Washington, D.C.-area law school for a year. After he had been installed in his new office for a week, he realized that he was a bit lonely: he had been tenured for so long that he no longer remembered what it had been like to be the new guy in the faculty lounge.

So, one day, determined to make friends, he walked into that room full of strangers, sat down next to the least intimidating-looking law professor, and introduced himself. They chatted a bit, but the Harvard professor was pretty rusty at small talk. When conversation floundered, he cast his mind back to the last time he had been the new guy, way back in the early 1980s, and resuscitated a tried-and-true question: “So, what does your wife do?”

Much to his astonishment, his new friend broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggles, as if the professor had just said the funniest thing in the world. He laughed so hard that other faculty members turned around to stare.

The Harvard professor didn’t know whether to be piqued or amused at this response. “I’m sorry — doesn’t she work?”

This question abruptly ended the other man’s laughter. “Oh, she does,” he replied dryly, fixing our hero with a glance of singular disdain. “You might possibly have heard of her work, in fact. She’s on the Supreme Court.”

The Harvard professor had, of course, been talking for the last half an hour to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband, Martin. The latter, a fellow of infinite jest, apparently dined out on that story for years.

May you spend eternity telling that one at the dinner parties of the afterlife, Martin. And may all of us down here remember that when speaking to strangers, it behooves you to watch what you say — and especially how you label people — because you do not necessarily know what their backgrounds or beliefs are.

Why is that lesson an important one for aspiring writers to embrace, you ask? Well, all too often, especially in nonfiction, aspiring writers assume that what is funny — or shocking, or ordinary — to them will automatically strike our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, in precisely the same way, resulting in more guffaws and huffs of displeasure over submissions and contest entries than anyone would care to admit. To avoid subjecting your writing to this dreadful fate, bear in mind: no matter how deeply our own kith and kin might share our personal, political, social, etc. views of the world, we can never be sure that the agency screener, editorial assistant, or contest judge to whom we submit our writing will share that worldview.

There endeth today’s parable. Let’s get back to work.

We writers, as I mentioned before the impulse to eulogize sidetracked me, tend to take great pride in our characters’ names. Even when we have simply borrowed our local postmaster’s name for a minor character, combined a freshman roommate’s first name with our least-favorite high school teacher for another, and lifted a period name for a protagonist from an old census list, we are not only pleased with ourselves — we will tell anyone who will listen just how we came up with a name as nifty as Thisbe Holt.

Don’t believe that impulse to be universal? Okay, try this little experiment: walk into any author reading, anywhere in the world, and ask the novelist signing books how he ever thought of those incredibly evocative character names in his novel.

I can tell you now that there is not an author on earth who will laugh and say, “Evocative? What’s evocative about Mary Smith?” Instead, you will be treated to a bright, toothy smile and an intensely detailed ten-minute description of just where and when the author dreamed up those names.

It’s true; it’s written on the sand in words of flame. Oh, and congratulations for having made that author’s day.

There are, of course, many, many excellent sources of apt character names — for an amazingly rich source of inspiration and guidance on the subject, run, don’t walk to Askhari Johnson Hodari’s guest post on naming — but I am not going to talk about any of them today. (Which is requiring some restraint on my part, as I went all the way from nursery school through high school graduation with a classmate named Glee Burrow, a name I have been longing for decades to immortalize.) Nor, as all of you weary-eyed revisionists will no doubt be delighted to hear, am I going to repeat my caution about over-using character names in a text.

No, today, I shall be talking about naming your characters in such a way that your readers are likely to remember them — and be able to tell them apart in a book with a whole lot of characters. That may not sound especially difficult (how likely is even a reader slow on the uptake to confuse a fisherman named Paul and a jeweler named Ermintrude, right?), but in a manuscript where fifteen characters are introduced within the first two pages, the task can be a lulu.

Especially, as I mentioned last week, if too many of the names begin with the same letter, encouraging the eye to skip wildly between capitals. Take a gander:

Too many names example

Quite a large cast to reveal in the first moments of the first scene, isn’t it? Let’s face it, no matter how beautifully-drawn and exquisitely differentiated any subsequent character development for Jeremy, Jason, Jennifer, and Jemima might be, a skimming reader — like, say, Millicent (whose name means, appropriately enough, strong in work) — is likely to get ‘em confused on page 1.

I’m sensing some resistance from those of you writing about irresistible triplets named John, Jeffrey, and Jacobim. “But those are my characters’ names,” you protest, and who could blame you? “The names are integral to the characters! I can’t change them now! Besides, the example above wouldn’t really confuse any reader who was paying attention.”

Oh, you can complain all you like that since the narrative explained quite clearly who Bertrand, Benjamin, and Bertha were, as well as the interrelationships between Armand, Aspasia, Antoinette, Annabelle, and Angelica, not to mention the monarchy’s likely effect on the character whom we are left to guess is probably the protagonist, but if you pepper your page 1 with so many names that a reasonably intelligent reader might legitimately become confused, those clear explanations might not matter enough to encourage her to keep reading.

Especially if the her in question is a Millicent who has fifty submissions to read before lunchtime. Remember, agency screeners read fast; if they aren’t sure what’s going on and who the book is about by the middle of page 1, they generally stop reading a submission. As in forever.

What can a humble writer do to avoid walking into that dreadful fate? Actually, you already know: as I mentioned earlier in the Frankenstein manuscript series, a skimming reader is extremely likely to confuse characters with names that look or sound alike, so it’s best to give them monikers that not even the fastest reader could mistake for one another. Now we can build upon that excellent rule of thumb with what we learned from the example above: readers are also prone to confuse identities if a narrative introduces too many characters too quickly — or without making it pellucidly clear which in an opening crowd scene are the ones he reader will be expected to remember.

That last bit is equally true for fiction or nonfiction, so don’t doze off, memoirists and historians: it’s as important for your manuscript as for a novel for Millicent to know who and what your book is about before she loses interest. If the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rushes into view on page 1, the reader is going to have no idea which of those 360 singers is the protagonist unless the narrative spotlights him, so to speak.

Make sure she doesn’t need a program to tell who is who in your opening pages. Yes, even if that means banishing the entire alto and tenor sections to a scene later in the book.

Ditto with a synopsis: if it’s not clear who the protagonist is, consider ousting some of the character names. And please, whatever you do, don’t blow off this advice if your opening page or synopsis introduces only a handful of characters; what may seem like a reasonably intimate crowd to you, who have read the page 475 times, may well seem like a mob to a skimmer who is reading page 1 for the first time.

Allow me to add hastily, before any rules-lawyer out there begins demanding a maximum number of names that can appear on page 1: no such standard exists. Clarity is the goal here, and good storytelling. A lot depends upon what else is going on in the scene.

You don’t want Millicent to be so busy concentrating on names that she misses the absolutely crucial yet subtly-phrased aside from your protagonist on line 16, do you?

The same holds true for a synopsis, by the way. If your plot is crammed with action, you might want to limit how many character and place names you toss at Millicent per paragraph, so she can zero in on the essential conflicts.

To show you just how hard it is to keep characters straight in an action-packed storyline, let me trot out another of my all-time favorite examples: the plot of the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini, first performed in 1625. On the remote chance that some of the details of the plot may have slipped your minds, here’s a quick synopsis of just a few of the twists and turns that might leave an audience member drop-jawed:

The brave knight Ruggiero, ensnared by the love spells of the evil sorceress Alcina (who had a nasty habit of turning her exes into trees; opera gives one a lot of room for imaginative touches), has deserted both his fighting obligations and his warrior girlfriend, Bradamante. So another sorceress, Melissa, turns herself into an image of Ruggiero’s father, Atlante, to try to free him. Dressed as Atlante (and turning from an alto into a baritone for the occasion, a nifty trick), Melissa berates Ruggiero for lying around in sensual bliss when there’s work to be done.

A single three-minute solo later, Ruggiero’s mind is changed, with no argument from the big guy himself: he is free from the spell, and goes on to bellow some extraordinarily nasty insults at Alcina while Punchinello dances around with a squid.

As is my wont, I’m going to pause at this point to vent a bit: this type of persuasion in an interview scene — where the protagonist’s mind is changed on an issue about which he is supposedly passionate simply because someone tells him he’s wrong — occurs in novel submissions more often than you might think. Many a protagonist who is downright tigerish in defense of his ideals elsewhere in the book is positively lamblike when confronted by a boss, a lover, a child, etc. who points out his flaws.

As protagonist, he has an entire book (or opera, as the case may be) to play with — couldn’t he argue back just a little? Usually, the result is a more interesting scene. Why? Long-time readers of this blog, take out your hymnals and sing out together now: because conflict is almost invariably more interesting in a scene than agreement.

Okay, I’ve cleared that out of my system for now. But if you are worried about the efficacy of your manuscript’s interview scenes, I would strongly advise taking a gander at the posts under the INTERVIEW SCENES THAT WORK category on the archive list located at the bottom right-hand side of this page.

I think I’ve distracted you enough. Time for a pop quiz: quick, without re-scanning the paragraphs where I glossed over the opera’s plot, try to name as many of its characters as you can.

How did you do? I originally mentioned six, but don’t be hard on yourself if you only came up with one or two. Most readers would have experienced some difficulty keeping all of those sketchily-defined characters straight.

Heck, seeing them introduced en masse like that, I would have trouble remembering who was who, and I’ve seen the opera!

Introducing too many characters too fast for any of them to make a strong impression upon the reader is extremely common in the opening few pages of novel submissions. No wonder, then, that in manuscripts where there are so many people lurching around that it reads like a zombie convention in downtown Manhattan, Millicent cannot tell for several paragraphs, or even several pages, which one is the protagonist.

As with so many of the manuscript traits that we’ve seen raise red flags, part of the reason Millicent tends to be touchy about openings with casts of thousands is that she sees so darned many of them. I think TV and movies are to blame for how common first-page crowd scenes have become in recent years: filmic storytelling techniques are primarily visual, so many writers want to provide a snapshot-like view of the opening of the book.

Many, many, many writers. More than enough to cast the necessary extras for a zombie scene in downtown Manhattan hundreds of thousands of times over.

In case I’m being too subtle here: it’s in your strategic interest to limit the number of characters introduced within the first couple of pages of your submission. And no, as much as any literal-minded reader out there might prefer that I provide a chart specifying how many is too many, broken down by genre, length of work, and mood of Millicent, every writer is going to have to use her own best judgment to figure out how many zombies should be lurching altos should be singing characters should appear on page 1.

But you didn’t think I would leave all of you to make that determination without any guidelines did you? Here are a couple of tests I like to apply when in doubt about just how big the opening scene’s cast should be.

1. Does the text make the relative importance of the protagonist plain?
If you are not sure — and the author is often not the best person to answer this particular question — try applying a modification of the quiz I asked you to take above:

(a) Hand the first page of your book to a non-writer. (NOT a relative, lover, or someone with whom you interact on a daily basis, please; these folks’ desire to see you happy may well skew the results of the test.)

(b) Ask her to read through it as quickly as possible.

(c) As soon as she’s finished, ask her to put down the paper. Talk about something else for a couple of minutes.

(d) Have her tell you who the main character is and what the book is about. If she starts talking about characters other than your protagonist, you have too many; if she can’t tell you anything about the plot, consider opening with a different scene, one that more accurately represents the crux of the book.

Why did I specify a non-writer, you ask? Writers tend to be unusually good at absorbing character names; the average reader is not. And your garden-variety agency screener scans far too rapidly, and reads far too many submissions in a given day, to retain the name of any character who has not either been the subject of extensive description — which can be problematic in itself — or a mover or shaker in the plot.

Perhaps not even then. Our buddy Millicent has a lot on her mind — like that too-hot latte that just burned her full pink lip. (You’d think, after how long I have been writing about her, that she would have learned by now to let it cool, wouldn’t you? But that’s an agency screener for you: speed is of the essence.)

2. Does the text portray each named character as memorable?
Again, you may want to seek outside assistance for this one. This test is also useful to see how well your storytelling skills are coming across,

(a) Hand the entire first scene to that non-writer and ask her to read it as quickly as possible, to reproduce Millicent’s likely rate of scanning.

(b) Take away the pages and talk with her about something else entirely for ten minutes.

(c) In minute eleven, ask her to tell you the story of that first scene with as much specificity as possible. Note which names she can and cannot remember. If she’s like 99% of skimmers, she will probably remember only the two primary ones.

(d) After thanking her profusely, sit down with your list of passed-over names and the manuscript: do all of these folks really HAVE to make an appearance in the opening scene?

If the answer is no, you have a few fairly attractive options for getting rid of them. Could some of them be consolidated into a single character, for instance, to reduce the barrage of names the reader will have to remember?

Or could any of them be in the scene, but not mentioned specifically until later in the book, where the protagonist encounters that character again? (A simple statement along the lines of, “Hey, Clarence, weren’t you one of the thugs who beat me to a pulp last month?” is usually sufficient for later identification, I find.)

Or are these characters mentioned here for purely photographic reasons? In other words, is their being there integral to the action of the scene, or are the extraneous many named or described simply because they are in the area, and an outside observer glancing at the center of action would have seen them lurking?

In a screenplay, you would have to mention their presence, of course — but in a crowd scene in a novel, describing the mob as monolithic can have a greater impact. For instance, which sounds scarier to you, Mr. Big threatening Our Hero while surrounded by his henchmen, Mannie, Moe, and Ambrose — or surrounded by an undifferentiated wall of well-armed baddies?

Personally, I would rather take my chances with Ambrose and Co. than with the faceless line of thugs, wouldn’t you? My imagination can conjure a much scarier array of henchmen than the named three. (Mannie has a knife; I just know it!)

I know, I know: when you create a novel, you create the world in which your characters live, and that world is peopled. But in the interest of grabbing Millicent’s often mercurial attention, would a smaller cast of characters, at least at the outset, render your book more compelling?

You could also opt to introduce your characters gradually, rather than dumping them all upon the reader in a group scene. More gradual revelation will allow the reader to tell the players apart, thus rendering the ones you reveal early on more memorable. It is worth giving some thought to how much those first few players in your story stick in the mind, anyway, particularly if your opening is — wait for it — an interview scene.

Why? Well, since the primary point of an interview scene is to convey necessary information to the reader, and the main thrust of an interview scene that opens a book is almost invariably to introduce background and premise, character development tends to fall by the wayside. Or, if it doesn’t in the text, it often does in the reader’s mind.

Think about it: if the reader is being given a great deal of background in a chunk, interspersed with relatively minor details about the tellers of that history, which is the reader more likely to remember?

Yes, yes, I know: in a perfect world, it would be enough to mention these things once in manuscript, and readers would remember them forever — or at any rate, for the next few chapters. But in practice, particularly with the rapid once-over a professional reader is likely to give a manuscript, names often start to blur together.

Don’t believe me? Okay, who was with Jeremy, and what were the names of the princesses he was trying to save?

The ubiquitous advice to screenwriters not to feature more than one character whose name begins with the same sound is basically very good, you know — if your story has a Cindy, you’re better off not also depicting a Sydney, for instance, or a Cilla. I once edited an otherwise excellent book where 8 of the 11 children of the family being depicted all had names that ended in –een: Colleen, Maureen, Doreen, Marleen, Laurene, Arleen, and Coreen, if memory serves. I eventually had to draw extensive diagrams on scratch paper, just to keep track of who was allied with whom on any given page.

Doubtless, there are families where such naming patterns are normal, but it made it darned hard to remember whose storyline was whose.

Again, I know: character names are vital to the writer’s relationship with them. However, trust me on this one — no agent is going to care that Sydney is your favorite name in the world, if she keeps confusing him with your protagonist Cindy; no editor is going to want to listen to your protestations that Chelsea and Charity are not in enough scenes together to confuse anyone of normal intelligence.

Argue about names AFTER a publishing house buys your book. Opt for clarity at the submission stage.

And never, under any circumstances, christen your characters with names beginning with the same first letters as other proper nouns prominent in your text. When the same letter is used repeatedly, swift reading can become a tad confusing. Slide your eyes over this morsel:

Tanya had rented her in-line skates from Tucker last time she came to Taormina, but Tammy was so insistent that they frequent Trevor’s establishment on Trent Road this time that Tanya could not resist her blandishments. If only Tommy had joined them on this vacation, instead of fly to Toronto with Tina and the Tiny Tot Orchestra; he would have known how to handle Tammy.

See how perplexing all of those Ts are to the eye? (Not to mention extraordinarily difficult to read out loud; you may not be giving public readings at this point in your career, but you should be thinking ahead.) If the facts here were important to the plot, the reader would have to go back and re-read this passage, something that agency screeners are notoriously reluctant to do.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: time, time, time.

As I MAY have mentioned above (and, not to put too fine a point on it, have been mentioning periodically in this forum for the past five years), the denizens of agencies and publishing houses read much, much faster than your friendly neighborhood bookstore browser. Not out of any hatred of the written word, but out of sheer self-defense.

In a way, it’s perfectly understandable: tell me, if you had a hundred 50-page submissions on your desk, were anticipating another hundred within the next couple of days, AND had other work to do (including opening those 800+ queries that came this week), how much time would YOU devote to each?

It’s just a fact: no matter how good your writing is, agencies are generally awash in queries and up to their ears in still-to-be-read submissions. As one of those submitters, you really do not have very long to wow ‘em. Rather than letting this prospect make you fear that your work is going to get lost in the crowd, let it be empowering: the vast majority of the time, it’s the small errors early on, not the big ones in the middle, that get submissions rejected.

That’s a hard pill to swallow, I know. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: many, if not most, aspiring writers have an unrealistic idea of what happens to those packets of requested materials they send. Naturally, we would all like for our work to be read promptly, carefully, and in its entirety by a thoughtful, intelligent professional reader well versed in the conventions of our particular genres.

And that does happen — occasionally. But significantly more often, packets sit around in agents’ and editors’ offices for weeks on end, and/or are read hurriedly, and/or are discarded after only a few pages. Frequently after only one, or even after only a few paragraphs.

Why should you find that encouraging? Because you can fix the little problems in your opening pages with relative ease, and let your good ideas and fine writing shine through.

So if I’ve seem to be harping upon small matters here lately, believe me, it’s not just to make your life harder by suggesting new and different ways for you to revise your manuscript. I’m just trying to help you minimize the technical problems — and thus maximize the probability that your fine writing will have a chance to speak for itself.

More thoughts on character names follow — along, no doubt, with more tirades about those pesky interview scenes. Diversify your character names, everyone, and keep up the good work!

P.S.: Don’t borrow Glee’s name, please, at least not in its entirety; I have big plans for it.

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XII: John, please come here. I’ve got something to tell you, John. John, can you hear me? John? John?

cardinal richelieu tripych

Three guesses: which particular species of word repetition am I going to tackle in today’s post?

No, but seriously, folks, you’d be astonished at just how often a given character’s name will pop up within a single page of text in the average manuscript submission — and even more astonished at how difficult it is for chronic name-repeaters to spot the problem in their own writing. Like the bugbear of our last few posts, the ubiquitous and, major characters’ names seem to become practically invisible to self-editing writers.

Which prompts me to ask: everyone did catch the plethora of Johns in today’s title, right?

I should hope so, now that you’ve been sharpening your eye throughout this series on revising Frankenstein manuscripts. But are you as good at spotting the problem in its native environment?

name repetition example

How did you do? Award yourself a gold star if you spotted all 9 iterations of John in the body of the text — and another if you caught it in the header. (No, that wouldn’t count as repetition in the text, now that you mention it, but to a repetition-weary Millicent at the end of a long day of screening manuscript submissions, it might contribute subconsciously to her sense of being bombarded by Johns. She’s only human, you know.)

But let me ask you: did the 5 Paulines bug you at all? Or did they simply fade into the woodwork, because your brain automatically accepted them as necessary to the text?

If you’re like 99.99% of the reading public, the repetition of Pauline’s name probably didn’t strike you as at all unusual, but to that other .01% — a demographic that includes practically everyone who has ever read for a living, including agents, editors, and contest judges — it might well have been distracting. Amongst Millicents, submissions (and first drafts in general) are notorious for this type of redundancy.

Also notorious in her circles: the overuse of the character name John in general. Writers just love our pal John, apparently. As a group, we also have a practically unbounded affection for Jon and Jack.

News flash: proper nouns are as susceptible to over-use in writing as any other kind of words. Although aspiring writers’ eyes often glide over character and place names during revision, thinking of them as special cases, is no such thing as a word exempt from being counted as repetitive if it pops up too often on the page.

In fact, proper noun repetition is actually more likely to annoy a garden-variety Millicent than repetition of other nouns. (Did you catch how frequently fog appeared in that last example, by the way?) Today, we’re going to talk about why too-frequent repetition of the character and place names makes the average editor rend her garments and the garden-variety agent moan.

If it’s any consolation, they’ve been rending and moaning for years; proper nouns have been asserting and re-asserting themselves on the manuscript page for a couple of decades now. Pros used to attribute this problem to the itsy-bitsy computer screens that writers were working upon — remember the early Macs, with those postcard-sized screens? They weren’t even tall enough to give a life-sized reflection of an adult face. If the user made the text large enough to read, the screen would only hold a dozen or so lines.

But as technology has progressed, the screens on even inexpensive computers have gotten rather large, haven’t they? Even on a laptop, you can usually have a view of half a page, at least. My extra-spiffy editor’s monitor can display two full-sized manuscript pages side by side. I could serve a Thanksgiving dinner for 8 upon it, if I so chose.

All of which begs the question: given how much easier it is to see words on a screen than in days of yore, why is it that writers so seldom have a clear idea of how distracting name repetition can be on a printed page? Is it merely that writers christen their major characters with their favorite names (including John, as likely as not), and want to see them in print again and again?

Not entirely. Partially, I think, it has to do with how differently the eye reads text on a backlit screen: it definitely encourages skimming, if not great big leaps down the page. But for the most part, I believe it has to do with how infrequently writers read their own work in hard copy.

Hear that Gregorian-like chanting floating through the ether? That’s every writer for whom I’ve ever edited so much as a paragraph automatically murmuring, “Before submission, I must read my manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.”

Yes, yes, I know: I MAY have mentioned this two or three thousand times before. I repeat this advice so often that writers who read this blog religiously have been heard to mutter this inspiring little rule of thumb unconsciously their sleep, under their breath during important meetings, on their deathbeds…

So yes, I admit it: I’m a broken record on this subject. But for some very, very good reasons, I assure you.

To name but the two most relevant for Frankenstein manuscript-revision purposes: first, reading in hard copy makes patterns in the text far more apparent to the reading eye than scanning text on a backlit screen. Hard copy is also how almost any editor, most agents, and practically every contest judge will be seeing your submissions.

Yes, even in this advanced electronic age. Many agencies still don’t accept e-mailed submissions; neither do most editors at publishing houses. The major literary contests for aspiring writers have been quite slow to switch over to purely electronic entries (probably because regular mail submissions are very handy for sending the admission fee).

Ready to invest some serious thought into how often character names appear on the pages of your manuscript, particularly the opening pages? Well, you’re partially out of luck: as much as I would like to perform a vivid compare-and-contrast demonstration, because you and I communicate electronically, I can’t show you the same page on screen and off.

Fortunately for illustrative purposes, however, proper nouns are unusually gifted at flagging down a reader’s attention. See if you can spot why.

a-sample-page

See how your eye tries to leap from one J to the next? Come a little closer, and I let you in on a closely-held professional readers’ secret: the skimming eye is automatically attracted to capital letters in a text.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, not-especially-literate people tend to Capitalize Words for Emphasis. (When they’re not placing words that no one has ever said aloud inside quotation marks — another widespread professional readers’ pet peeve.) It’s almost always grammatically incorrect, but it definitely does the job of soliciting attention.

Due to proper nouns’ completely legitimate use of capitals, they jump off the page at the reader — which can be a good thing, if a manuscript is crammed to the gills with action, unnamed characters, and other literary titivations that do not involve the major characters. The reader’s eye will be drawn to the major players when they show up. Problem solved, right?

Not in most manuscripts, no. Since most novels and pretty much all memoirs deal with their respective protagonists on virtually every page, it isn’t precisely necessary to keep calling attention to the protagonist by referring to him by name.

Or is it, John? John? Are you listening, John?

Frequent repetition of the protagonist’s name is seldom necessary, especially in scenes where only he appears — and it can become downright irritating over the course the dialogue of a two-character scene. Unless the one of the characters happens to have multiple personalities, it’s generally assumed that the names of the conversants will not alter substantially within the course of a few pages of dialogue. So why keep labeling the participants, in a scene where there’s little probability of confusing the reader?

That’s why professional editors so often excise tag lines (he said, she said), rather than having the narrative identify every speaker ever time s/he opens his or her pretty mouth: with only two possible speakers and alternating dialogue, any reasonably intelligent reader may be relied upon to follow which lines of dialogue are being spoken by which character. That reasonably intelligent reader is also more than capable of remembering what both of those people are called by their kith and kin, once the narrative has established proper names.

But you’d never know that by the number of times some manuscripts have their discussants call one another by name — and how often the narrative refers to them by name.

In many manuscripts, simply reducing the number of tag lines in a dialogue scene will cut out most of the name repetition. In dialogue where the use of tag lines has not been minimized, proper names can pop up so frequently that it’s like a drumbeat in the reader’s ear. Take a gander:

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?” April asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, April. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” April said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, April. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hanged our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

April sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Yes, speakers in the real world do call one another by name this much sometimes, but like so much of real-life dialogue, that level of repetition would be snore-inducing, if not downright hypnotic, on the page. Especially when name-bearing tag lines are featured in the text, even dialogue between just a couple of characters can convey the sense of a very crowded room.

And that’s more than a little puzzling to professional readers: why, we wonder, would a writer go to such lengths to label people the reader already knows?

Even when both characters share the same sex, and thus the same personal pronoun, constant name repetition is rarely necessary for maintaining clarity. Yet over-labeling is so common that after reading a few hundred — or a few thousand — manuscripts, Millicent would have to be pretty unobservant not to have begun to suspect that many writers simply harbor a prejudice against the innocent-but-effectual pronouns he and she.

Seriously, a lot of submitters seem to go out of their way to eschew pronouns, even in narrative paragraphs. To take not an unusually proper noun-ridden example:

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Tanya did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Tanya. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” Eve bellowed. “Tanya!”

Quietly, Tanya retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”?

Eve looked up at Tanya with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night. As you would know if you had been paying attention, Tanya. May I have another?”

Come on, admit it — that was kind of annoying to read, wasn’t it? Until you’ve seen this phenomenon in action, it seems a trifle counter-intuitive that reusing a single word within two consecutive lines might be irritating to a reader, but it can be, even if the word in question is not a proper noun. The capitalization of a name makes it stand out more, however.

Want to see a deceptively simple revision that would render that last example infinitely more annoying to read? Look what happens when I rechristen Eve and Tanya with names beginning with the same capital letter.

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Edna was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Edna did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Edna. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” Eve bellowed. “Edna!”

Quietly, Edna retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at Edna with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. i’ve been drinking Perrier all night. As you would know if you had been paying attention, Edna. May I have another?”

Remarkable, isn’t it? To get an even better sense of how repetitious it would seem on a printed page, take a few steps back from your computer (if you can manage that logistically) and take a gander at the pattern all of those capital Es make in the text.

Distracting, no?

Now, admittedly, the writer of this exceptional excerpt may merely have been trying to clarify matters by repeating the names so often: there are in fact two women in this scene. If both were only called she every time, naturally, the narrative might conceivably become confusing. (If you have any doubts about how confusing a narrative can be when no proper names are used at all, get a 4-year-old to tell you the plot of a movie she’s just seen.)

However, like many proper name-heavy manuscripts, the writer here (who was me, obviously, so I guess it’s not all that productive to speculate about her motivation) has constructed the narrative to make opportunities for name repetition where it isn’t logically necessary. Here’s the same scene again, streamlined to minimize the necessity of naming the players:

She slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when no one came running, she filched a straw from the table next to her — the guy tapping away on his computer never even noticed — and made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of life. For good measure, she upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” she bellowed.

Quietly, Tanya retrieved the now-airborne glass before it could crash to the floor. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at her with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night, as you would have known had you been paying attention. May I have another?”?

Anybody confused? I thought not. As you may see, proper nouns were not necessary very often in this excerpt.

Before any of you proper noun-huggers out there start grumbling about the care required to tell when a pronoun is appropriate and when a proper noun, that was not a very time-consuming revision; all it really required to alert the reader to which she was which was a clear narrative line, a well-presented situation — and a willingness to name names when necessary.

That, and an awareness that repeating names even as far apart as three or four lines just doesn’t look good on a printed page; it’s distracting to the eye, and therefore a detriment to the text. A proper noun repeated more than once per sentence, or within a single line of text, always seems just a little odd to a reader — and more than a little annoying to Millicent.

Ready to accept the general principle, but unsure how you might apply it to your Frankenstein manuscript? Never fear — next time, I shall run you through so many practical examples that you’ll be excising proper nouns in your sleep.

I thought you might enjoy some variation from the IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD song. Night-night, John-John, and keep up the good work!