One of a kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work, my friends.

– Anne Mini

My publisher is being sued over my book

Dearly beloved:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Anne Mini

Summing it all up: the synopsis

Hi, gang —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stick to what the book is about.

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

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

– Anne Mini

Presenting your writing right: The body of the query letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s only neighborly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(10) Is my summary in the present tense?

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

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

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

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

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

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


(13) Have I mentioned the genre?

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

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

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

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

(14) Have I avoided using clichés?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Anne Mini

That’s very nice, but —

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

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

You need not wade through that many rejections, of course, before you check your submissions for some of the red flags below. However, for most new writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their work needs, well, work. Unfortunately, these writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a styleless querying letter or a limp synopsis, or, still worse, that somehow the rejecting agents are seeing past the initial packet to the book itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing. It’s contrary to the evidence, of course, but this particular fear leaps like a lion onto many fledgling writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many writers, leading to despair, the notion that if one is REALLY talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It almost never works like that: writing is work. Instead of listening to the growls of the self-doubt lion, consider the far more likely possibility that it is your marketing materials, not the chapters that the agents in question have not yet seen, that is conducive to rejection. Use that moment of worry to your advantage: I have found in my years as a freelance editor that having the edges of the faith that good writing always finds a home blunted a bit often makes a writer more receptive to constructive criticism. So go ahead and subject your marketing materials to serious critique.

Read over your query letter, synopsis, and first chapter; better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. The best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine. As much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing. Look to them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust — such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference — and blandish her into giving your query letter and synopsis a solid reading.

(Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of Philip K. Dick; she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary feedback source. That doesn’t stop her from line editing while she reads my work, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was NOT there when I took my first toddling steps.)

As I mentioned yesterday, make sure that you read everything in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier in hard copy. Once you have done this, and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask yourself the following questions.

(18) Is my query letter polite?

You’d be amazed at how often people use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for conditions in the industry: my personal favorite began, “Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first.” A close second: “I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…”

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

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

While it is a nice touch to thank the agent at the end of the query for taking the time to consider your work, doing so in the first paragraph of the query and/or repeatedly in the body of the letter comes across as obsequious. Begging tends not to be helpful in this situation. Remember, reading your query is the agent’s (or, more likely, the agent’s assistant’s) job, not a personal favor to you.

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

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

It doesn’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Publishing fads

Hey ho —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Anne Mini

Top Ten Lies Agents and Editors Tell Hopeful Authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Lies Agents and Editors Tell Hopeful Authors

(with translations)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. “We gave your work careful consideration.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translation: But not with my agency.

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

–Anne Mini

Standard format for manuscripts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page.

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

The text should be left justified ONLY.

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

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

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

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

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

Words in foreign languages should be italicized.

Every page in the manuscript should be numbered.

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

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

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

That’s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally.

The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shape of things to come

A moment of silence, please: my editor is moving on from my publishing house. He will be a mere wistful memory long before my memoir hits bookshelves near you. In fact, in all likelihood, he’ll be gone before the book is print-ready.

“Wait a minute,” I hear you cry, insightful and empathetic creatures that you are. “Does that mean the book deal is broken?”

A fine, fine question, and one that richly deserves an answer: no. The contract is with the publishing house, not the editor — even though the author’s primary personal contact at the publishing house is the editor. In fact, other than a single rushed howdy-do with the head of the publishing house at a writers’ conference several years ago (we argued over cocktails about whether women have jowls, as I recall: he said we don’t, the dictionary and I say we do), my editor has been my ONLY contact so far with my publishing house.

Which renders his departure slightly nerve-wracking.

In practical terms, his taking a powder means that rather than a single editor’s carrying my book all the way through the publication process, I may be dealing with several. Or — and this prospect frightens me even more than being ruled by committee — none at all. Since the book is already available for presale on Amazon (at a SIGNIFICANT discount, I might add.) It is possible that as of now, it’s the marketing department’s baby.

Just so you know, I have not been singled out by the gods for special punishment: editors move around so much these days that it is not uncommon for several editors to have say over the same book. Not to mention the marketing department (who picked the title for me, but that’s the subject of a whole other blog) and money folks. Gone are the days when a single editor guided a writer’s entire career.

Now that I have broken this news to you, I hear discontented noises out there — and no wonder, if you’re one of the many who have screwed up your courage to pitch to an overworked editor at a conference. “We expend all of this energy,” I hear you murmuring, “trying to blandish a particular editor to fall in love with our books. And then, just as soon as I’ve found someone who will treat our babies with respect, she disappears, and I’m left with someone I’ve never met before? AAAAAAAAAH!”

This is not how you were told it was going to be, is it?

The writers’ world has been surprisingly slow in adjusting to the realities of the ever-changing publishing market. You can hardly throw a piece of bread at the average writers’ conference without hitting some publishing professional who will tell you that he is looking to form long-term working relationships with talented writers; you can hardly pick up any publication designed for the edification of aspiring writers without seeing a list of tips on how to target and appeal to the perfect editor for your work, one who will bring out the best in your prose, as if every editor were Maxwell Perkins.

Good writing, we have all been told a million times, will always find a home.

This view is charming, but rather dated. I think it reflects writers’ desires for editors who will cherish their work more than publishing realities. Of course, we all want an editor who will adore our every semicolon — writers tend to be shy people who take umbrage when someone tells them to hack their work apart and reconstruct it, so ideally, the editor-author relationship should be based upon implicit trust. A truly fine editor becomes steeped in her authors’ style, lives it, breathes it, loves it – and believes in it too fiercely to allow the author to get away with the kind of shortcuts, clichés, and lazinesses to which even the best of us can fall prey from time to time.

What writer worth her salt wouldn’t walk across the continent barefoot to embrace an editor like that?

While this Platonic editor was always, I’m afraid, more prevalent in authors’ imaginations than in practice, in earlier days, such symbiotic relationships were not uncommon. Thirty years ago, if a respected editor moved to another press, he often took his authors with him; once established, editor-author relationships sometimes lasted for decades. Obviously, it wasn’t always idyllic — you have only to read anything written by any member of the Algonquin Round Table about their relationships with their publishers to realize that it wasn’t all cocktails and urbane chatter — but often, the relationship was pleasingly symbiotic, the proverbial well-oiled machine, with each party playing his necessary and indispensable role in the publication process.

Nowadays, however, the process resembles one of those Rube Goldberg machines where toast is made by a squirrel eating a nut on a string, the string in turn yanking the doormat out from under the bowling ball, the bowling ball falling on the teeter-totter, sending the fat lady flying into the air…you get the picture. Now, the individual parts of the publishing machine are so autonomous that, from where the author is sitting, they sometimes seem unrelated.

Realizing this can help you market your writing more efficiently. Now, instead of an editor’s falling in love with your novel or NF book and snapping it up as his personal project, a rather large group of people, all performing different functions within the Rube Goldberg machine, need to agree that the world needs your book badly enough for them to publish it.

Here’s how it works. In order to be acquired, your work needs to appeal first to the editor, who then takes it to the editorial meeting. Everyone at the editorial meeting, however, will also have a pet project which he wants to acquire; squabbling ensues, and the competition can get pretty vicious. (I have been assured by a reliable source that a novel of mine once engendered so much controversy at an editorial meeting that a chair was thrown. The publishing house decided to pass on the book, for reasons of furniture preservation.)

Once your book has cleared this significant hurdle, it also has to be approved by the finance department, the marketing department, the legal department, and all of the other cogs in the publishing house’s machine. The input of these non-artistic entities, in case you are interested, is the primary reason that the formerly common advice to “revise and resubmit” has more or less fallen out of editorial vocabularies; editorial tastes are now not the only ones being consulted.

Thus the relative ease with which high-concept books pass through the publishing process: as my learned father used to say, complex people tend not to be popular. The same is true, alas, for books. The market appeal of MEMOIRS OF A MONKEE! can be grasped far more readily by a disparate group of people than a tender novel full of gentle symbolism about growing up in rural Washington, even if the novel’s writing deserves the Pulitzer Prize.

This structural shift is both very good and very bad for the first-time author. Good, insofar as a multiplicity of enthusiasts within the publishing house helps protect an author whose editor leaves mid-project – if your book bounces from one desk to another, the probability is much higher than in previous years that the eyes it falls under will be sympathetic. Now, once a book is acquired, it does not have a single cheerleader, but a squad complete with pom-pom girls and school administration. It’s bad, however, insofar as many more people need to fall in love with your writing, your story, your platform, your target demographics, etc. before you see a book contract.

And, as you may have noticed, it’s significantly harder for a new author to get published than it was even twenty years ago. So when an agent you’ve queried says, “Gee, I could have sold your book in the ‘80s, but now, I’ll have to pass,” she’s not just being nice. The way publishing decisions are made really has changed radically, and in ways that pose a significant disadvantage to the non-celebrity author trying to break into the biz.

If it makes you feel any better, the current environment is harder on editors, too. The average tenure of junior editors at major publishing houses is quite short, and, as those of you who read Publishers Weekly are no doubt already aware, editorial staffs are constantly being rearranged and streamlined. It’s not a job where you unpack your storage boxes before you have a corner office.

Occasionally, the editorial cast at a publishing house changes radically enough between when a book is acquired and when it is published that the cheering squad is rooting for another book. We’ve all heard horror stories about the hot new novelist who gets a big advance, only to find at the last minute that the publicity budget for his work has been shifted to another project. Believe it or not, the promotional budget is seldom specified in the book contract, so the author is very much subject to publishing house whim.

Now, all of us have a choice about how to respond to this change in publishing. We can sit around and sigh for those good old past times when writers formed lifetime working friendships with their editors, or we can eschew romanticism for the present and try to adapt ourselves to current conditions. Personally, I have only so much energy – given the choice between expending it in resentment, however well-founded, and in getting my words and ideas out before the public, my strategic sense tells me that I don’t have the luxury of sitting around and wishing I had F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor. (Well, okay, not to sit around for more than a few minutes at a time…) I am a working writer, and it is my job to be realistic about the challenges I face.

We are traveling down an arduous road, my friends, one replete with fresh pitfalls every few feet; don’t let the tireless romantics of the conference and writers’ guide circuits convince you otherwise, or you’ll end up screaming in the night, wondering where you went wrong in a kindly world that’s eager for your work. Make your work as perfect as possible, by all means, but do be aware that the more people who are involved in the acquisition process, the less control — and even knowledge — you will have over how your book fares at even your dream publishing house.

We can all learn from the example of Louisa May Alcott, the author of that perennial YA favorite, LITTLE WOMEN, who struggled for seventeen years before she got her big break. Louisa wrote every day, mostly for ill-paying newspapers, primarily under pseudonyms, because she needed the money to support her family. Her first two books were, to put it kindly, great big flops, and she flailed about from genre to genre, trying to find her market. In a rejection letter, a publisher who declined her romance novel (which was, incidentally, quite good) mentioned that they would be willing to take a look at a book for girls. Louisa, by her own admission, didn’t like girls much, but as a writing professional, she gave it the old college try.

LITTLE WOMEN has never been out of print since. In the midst of her struggle to find her voice, she wrote, “I shall make a battering-ram of my head, and make my way through this rough-and-tumble world.”

May we all have her tenacity and permanent in-print status, my friends — although perhaps with swifter guardian angels, ones willing to whisper in the ears of the small army of people who need to approve each acquisition: “Buy this book.”

Now that I have depressed you all into a stupor, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

How to Write a Book Proposal, Part V: The rest of it

Here at last is the final segment of my ongoing series on how to avoid the most common pitfalls menacing the first-time NF book proposer. I have just spent the weekend running a garage sale, which is an apt metaphor for today’s set of advice: it is well worth the effort to take the time to set out your book’s wares thoughtfully and attractively. If you don’t set the sweaters and old plates out where prospective buyers can see them, but instead leave them in poorly-marked crates, buyers will have to expend a lot of energy to dig through the dross and packing material to get to your treasures.

If, however, you polish your silver vases and arrange Great-Aunt Matilda’s rhinestone jewelry where it can glint in the sun, even a prospective buyer casing your wares at a dead run will notice them. Heck, once we had our goodies displayed beautifully, one sharp-eyed woman bought our chest of drawers by the simple method of slamming on her SUV’s breaks and shouting a bid for it out the driver’s side window. Marketing is marketing.

Agents and editors, alas, tend not to have the time to dig through the boxes at the back of your garage, intellectually speaking — you need to make sure your book’s top selling points are not buried in the middle of 27 pages of exposition. Even if your book is the best marketing idea since THE PETER PRINCIPLE, if the presentation is not competent and professional (not synonyms, in this instance), chances are the ultra-fast skim most proposals are given will not make the market potential so obvious to you leap out at an editor.

I bring this up now, because by the time most newbie proposers reach table of contents section of the book proposal, they are so exhausted that they put the barest minimum effort into it. Please don’t make the pervasive mistake of simply reproducing the table of contents you expect to see in the finished book, where only the titles of each chapter are listed, with perhaps some impression of corresponding page numbers. All such a submission tells an agent or an editor is whether you are talented at coming up with chapter titles, which misses the point of this section: your goal here is to give a chapter-by-chapter overview of what will be in the finished book.

The key phrase to keep in mind here is ANNOTATED table of contents. Each chapter heading should be accompanied by a 2 – 3 sentence description of what will be in that chapter. Keep it concise, but do provide enough detail that a reader can see how one chapter’s argument leads naturally to the next. Yes, you will have already presented the overall argument in the overview section, but here you are showing what plank of your platform, so to speak, falls in each chapter.

In accordance with the advice of my marvelous agent, I am honor-bound to add here: don’t go to town. Limit yourself to a couple of sentences per chapter, and try not to have the whole table of contents run longer than two pages.

The next piece of the book proposal is the sample chapter (s). The rule here is simple: it should be absolutely your best writing, polished to the nines. If the chapter is less than about 20 pages, consider submitting a second sample chapter as well.

Contrary to popular belief, the chapter submitted need not be Chapter 1 – and that should come as a relief to you. In most NF books, the first chapter carries the heavy burden of summarizing the rest of the book, and thus is often the most difficult to write. If you have an interior chapter that is already in apple-pie order, include that instead. Don’t bother to provide an explanation for why you chose that chapter – everyone concerned will understand that you felt it was your best work.

In selecting your sample chapter, bear in mind that the object here is to show that you can execute in elegant, readable prose the promises you made in the overview and annotated table of contents – and do so in a style that will appeal to the target market you have identified. If your favorite chapter does not meet ALL of these criteria, consider choosing another that does.

And please, please promise me that the chapter will be in standard manuscript format, in the same typeface as the rest of the book proposal. No fancy fonts, no funky spacing, nothing that will make your work seem anything but rock-solid professional. (For those of you not familiar with precisely how standard manuscript format differs from the format one sees printed in books, hang onto your proposal for a few more days. I’ll do a write-up on standard format later.)

After your chapter, include an author bio. Basically, this is a slightly longer version of the biographical blurb we’ve all seen on the back inside dust jacket of hardcover books. No need to start with your birth or go into superlative detail — your bio should be 250 words, max, so you will only have room for the high points.

I know that it may seem a trifle redundant to include in the book proposal, given that you will have just written extensively in the overview about who you are and why you should be hired to write this book, but you need to include a one-page summary of your life. This isn’t like P.E., where you could fake massive cramps to get out of playing volleyball — yes, this is an annoying requirement, but there’s no getting out of it. Sorry.

If you prefer, you may write a single-spaced half-page, and include an author photo on the top third of the page. (The expense of this is less massive than it sounds: a good color copier will enable you to reproduce the photo page en masse for the 20 or so copies of your book proposal that your agent will eventually want you to produce.) I would highly recommend this route if you have a nifty recent photo of yourself engaged in an activity related to the topic of the book: if you are writing about firefighting, by all means let the photo show you in a firefighter’s uniform or surrounded by flames.

The tone of the bio should echo the tone of the book, if possible – not all bios are deadly serious. Mention in the last sentence what your next project is (you should ALWAYS say you are working on your next book; it brands you as a professional writer, not a one-shot author.)

In our bio, make sure to include your educational background, any awards won (ever, for anything), what you do for a living, etc., even if you think these aspects are neither representative of who you are as a writer or even remotely relevant to your topic. Don’t be afraid you will sound pompous if you list your credentials at length here — potentially, they are all selling points. Personally, like many graduates of Ivy League colleges, I tend not to mention in casual conversation where I went to school: as the old Radcliffe joke goes, the fastest way to get rid of a lecherous man in a bar is to tell him you went to Harvard. But is it prominent in my bio? You bet.

Also prominent in my bio is the fact that I grew up on the top floor of a Napa Valley winery, literally in the middle of a vineyard. Zinfandel, to be precise. Is that relevant to my book? Only marginally, but it is undeniably memorable — and part of the object of the bio game is to make darned sure that some aspect of your personality sticks firmly in the mind of everyone who reads it. I’m pragmatic: I don’t mind editors referring to me as the winery girl, as long as they are passing my proposal from hand to hand while they are doing it.

Make yourself sound interesting; you wouldn’t believe how dull and businesslike most bios are. If you have a wacky hobby, definitely mention it. Part of the point of the bio is let agents and editors know that you are a fascinating person with whom they might like to have a conversation in future. Remember, you are not just marketing the book you are proposing; you are marketing yourself as a contract employee of the publishing house.

“Yeah, right,” I can hear you scoffing. “Like they’re interested in me as a human being.

Bite your tongue, oh ye of little faith, for I have an anecdote to share. The bio in my book proposal presented me, if I do say so myself, as a pretty darned interesting human being. I am one of the world’s leading authorities on a minor political theorist, for instance, a fact appreciated by about five worthy souls scattered around the planet, and I once spent a summer running away from wild animals whilst researching for an impecunious travel guide. Oh, and I mentioned that I was working on my next book, a humorous novel about the adult lives of kids who had grown up on a hippie commune, because I went through grammar school with quite a few commune kids.

None of this had even the vaguest relationship with my memoir, which is about my relationship with a science fiction writer in my youth. Scarcely a grapevine mentioned. Yet when my agent was shopping my proposal around, an editor who passed on my memoir called her up and asked to see my novel. Why? Because, the editor said, she had liked the voice in my sample chapter –and my bio had intrigued her.

I just mention.

At the end of your proposal, include a sampling of your clippings, if you have any. If you have ever written anything for a magazine, especially a nationally-distributed one, photocopy it and include it here, even if the topic and tone have absolutely nothing to do with the proposed book. Ditto with any credited newspaper articles, short stories, and book excerpts.

This is a stumbling block for a lot of new authors, and rightly so. If your book is about thermonuclear war and your most recent clipping is about rose husbandry, it may seem disproportionate. After all, having written a few newspaper or magazine articles doesn’t necessarily mean that you can write a book, any more than having written a good short story means that you can instantly write the Great American Novel. However, including clippings tells an editor two things: you can meet a deadline, and someone else has taken a chance on you before (if you have been trying to find an agent for any length of time, you may already have noticed that nobody in the publishing industry likes to be the first person to recognize a new author’s work — but they love being the second).

If you don’t have any clippings, don’t worry about it. A good proposal will speak for itself. But you might want to consider, for the sake of your future projects, volunteering to write a book review or two for your community paper, or offering to write an article gratis on some item of local interest, so you have clippings later on. Even a small venue is worthwhile, and it doesn’t matter a particle whether you were paid to write the piece in question: what matters is that it saw print.

Are you rolling with laughter yet at the picture of me trying to scrabble all of this together in under three weeks? I believe I speak for my family, my friends, my neighbors, and my pets when I say: for everybody’s sake, take a little more time.

One last thing: proposals are not bound in any way, so do not stick yours in the kind of three-hole punched folder you used for reports in high school. Use a folder with pockets, and nestle your work inside. And make sure the folder is either black (the safest) or dark blue.

Yes, your work will stand out more on a cluttered desk if it is in a tiger-striped magenta and silver folder. But in the conservative publishing industry, which equates standardized presentation with professionalism, standing out in that way is a drawback. Believe it or not, a non-standard proposal folder will seldom even get opened.

Please feel free to ask me follow-up questions about any of this, via the COMMENTS feature. And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

How to Write a Book Proposal, Part III: The Marketing Plan

I have already gone through the overview and the target market in previous postings. Now on to the marketing plan, the part of the book proposal that both strikes the greatest fear into the hearts of first-time proposers, as well as the part that most often gets a cursory treatment. Agents and editors see a LOT of rather lame marketing plans, ones that make it absolutely clear that the author deeply resents having to do this vital research at all.

In practical terms, this is a mistake, because today, even a very enthusiastic reception from an editor and a big advance do not necessarily equal a publisher’s commitment to promote a book. Most potential authors still assume that their publishing houses will set up personal appearances and readings for them. Many small houses still do, but nowadays, most large houses only set up tours for their top sellers. So you need to demonstrate that you are perfectly capable of marketing this book yourself, if they cannot spare you any publicity resources.

So what is a marketing plan? At its most basic level, it is a few pages that explain how the target audience of readers could be reached. For most first-time proposers, this section is largely guesswork, but you need to do it anyway. Don’t think of it as yet another instance of telling publishing professionals how to do what they already do so well: think of it as your single best opportunity to demonstrate to prospective agents and editors how VERY committed you are to this project.

The most direct way to demonstrate that commitment is to fill your marketing plan with activities that YOU intend to perform just before and just after the book comes out. Yes, you want the publisher to book you into speaking engagements and book signings, but what will you do on your own? Editors love writers who will commit to spending serious time on book promotion. Are you a member of any large organizations that might allow you to send promotional postcards to their mailing lists, or allow you to write a piece on your topic in their newsletters? Are there magazines that you could query with articles broken out of book chapters? If so, which chapters? Does your college alumni magazine publish book reviews? Remember, every clipping counts toward sales, in the long run.

Some standard means that don’t get mentioned much in proposals are:

• — Contacting regional independent bookstores yourself to arrange readings and signings.

• — Giving seminars at regional writers’ conferences or other gatherings devoted to either writing or your subject matter.

• — Creating a column for a magazine or newspaper (tell them this is already in the works; it sounds better). Even if you do this gratis, it’s good promotion.

• — Meeting with book groups to discuss your work.

• — Establishing a website to promote your work.

• — Creating a professional press kit and sending it to potentially interested news sources.

Make sure that in addition to standard marketing techniques (such as author readings and signings), you list at least a couple of means of reaching your target group specifically. Mention any regional or national groups to which members of your demographic belong. If you are pushing a book on bass fishing, will you speak at organizations of bass fisherfolk? Name these organizations, and say how many members they have. Will you haunt independent bookstores, accosting anyone who smells of fish? Tote copies of your opus to fishing holes, and give away free flies with every copy?

Think broadly and creatively. Don’t be afraid to be a little wacky; ideally, you would like your dream editor to chuckle while reading this section, murmuring, “Wow, that’s a great idea.”
Do be aware that the publishing house will actually expect you to perform what you promise here, however, and whatever you do, don’t make the common rookie mistake of limiting your marketing plan to pointing out to publishers the astonishing fact that bookstores occasionally allow authors to give readings. I promise you, they are already aware of that phenomenon. Tell them something they don’t already know, such as the fact that you have been a teacher for the past 26 years, so you have a wealth of public speaking experience, or that you belong to an organization where the members lunch together every Thursday nationwide, listening to speakers like you.

Be creative: what do you have to offer as a marketer? This is the place to mention, for instance, if you have given a magnificently successful reading at one of the PNWA’s The Word Is Out events. (Plug, plug.) You’d be astonished at how few prospective authors are bold enough to read their work in public – it’s invaluable experience that will serve you well at book signings down the road.

If you feel that this section looks a little thin, pull out the stops and tell them you are willing to hire a professional publicist yourself, if necessary. This is becoming a more common practice than you may think. And even if you ultimately decide not to hire a professional, remember, paying a high school student to stuff envelopes for you on a Saturday is technically hiring promotional help, if push comes to shove.

Tomorrow, we move on the comparative market analysis. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

How to write a book proposal, part II: identifying your target audience

Okay, today I have a fan trained in the direction of my feverish brow, my feet up on a big block of ice, and a bevy of maidens singing softly in the background, to calm my mind as I recall the hectic proposal-writing process of last summer. Today, I am going to talk about the second part of the book proposal: a discussion of whom you expect to buy your book and why.

It is very, very common for book proposals to skip this step entirely, moving directly from the overview to the marketing plan. In fact, a significant minority of books and articles out there on how to write a proposal either advise limiting this information to a line or two in the marketing section, or ignore the issue entirely. If an idea is good enough, everyone will want to buy the book, right? No need to descend to the sordid mention of submarkets and demographics.

Certainly, the proposal is less work if you omit this section, and it’s definitely easier on the writer’s ego not to wonder about who is going to buy the book in the future. Let’s face it, quite a lot of us writers truly want to believe that there are charming people out there who will rush out to buy a book simply because we have written it. I’ve met many an aspiring writer who has actually become angry when I asked who their target market was, as though the very question implied that their work has something less than universal appeal, or as if pausing to consider market forces for even an instant somehow compromises that quality of the writing as Art.

Let me let you in on a secret: this is not a question that troubles career writers. I have literally never met a successfully published writer of either fiction or nonfiction who didn’t have an awfully good grasp on who buys her work and why. Marketing a book is simply too hard for a prudent person to leave to random, uniformed chance.

And, frankly, to professional eyes, the omission of a specific section on the target audience can look like fear that there might not BE an audience for the proposed book; agents and editors tend not to be too impressed by prospective writers who haven’t done their homework. Even the artiest editor, even the least worldly agent keeps a very close eye on market demographics. This is just common sense: otherwise, they would go out of business rather quickly.

If you do not identify the target market, your agent will have to, in order to sell the book to the editor, just as the editor will have to explain your book’s market appeal at editorial and sales meetings prior to buying it. If you have given a lucid, well-researched presentation of your target market in your proposal, both the agent’s and editor’s job become substantially easier.

So don’t listen to the seductive calls of self-love, laziness, or fear: there are very good reasons to take some time to picture the people who will be reading your book. Think of it as an act of respect to your reader: how will your book improve this reader’s life? Will it add pleasure, knowledge, practical tips on how to do something? The target audience section is the place to demonstrate how the book will accomplish this.

But first, you will need to identify your target reader. Oftentimes, it is someone very like the writer herself: in a pinch, you can always identify your own demographic, or the demographics that apply to the people in your case studies.

Allow me to use my own book as a practical example. For my memoir about my adolescent relationship with SF author Philip K. Dick, it was significant that there were 44,800 websites devoted to him and his work, and that between 5 and 12% of the U.S. population suffers from agoraphobia, as Philip did: naturally, these startling statistics made it into my book proposal. However, it is also significant that I am a Gen Xer: there are 47 million Americans in my age group, 40% of whom have divorced parents. Obviously, not all of them will be interested in Philip’s work, but almost 19 million people in my demographic have watched their parents deal with their exes. Since my memoir deals in part with the unusually cordial post-divorce relationship between Philip and my mother, I could legitimately identify these people as potentially interested readers.

Do include statistics if you possibly can, just in case your target agent and editor haven’t done a book on your subject recently. Yes, I know: you’re a writer, not a demographer. However, the average agent or editor isn’t a demographer, either; you do not want to run the risk that an uninformed guess at an editorial meeting will underestimate your audience. You’re better off telling stating the facts outright, so the dream editor for your bass fishing opus can say to her colleagues, “Wow! Who knew there were that many people reading books whilst standing thigh-deep in rivers?”

If you can’t find the statistical information you need on the Internet, most large-city public libraries have a research librarian who can tell you where to start looking. Be very polite to this person: she may well help you so much that you will want to name your first child after her.

When you are hunting up your statistics, give some thought to not merely the ideal reader, who is already out there buying books on your topic, but also the more casual reader, whose interests may abut your topic. While my memoir is not primarily about mourning, it does discuss several important deaths of people close to me that occurred during my adolescence. By dint of doing a bit of research, I learned that in 2004, 8 million people in the US suffered deaths in the immediate family; of those, 400,000 of the survivors were under the age of 25. Before they are old enough to vote, more than 2% of Americans have lost at least one parent. Didn’t these people have life experience that might lead them to be interested in my book?

Keep brainstorming until you come up with several categories of reader. Even if your book is primarily geared to a genuinely huge demographic (the kind politicians target, such as soccer moms or NASCAR dads), including a few smaller groups in your target market discussion will demonstrate that you have given the matter thoughtful consideration. Quite simply, it will make your proposal look more professional than those that identify a single demographic group.

Once you have identified a few market segments, you will need to show many of these fine people are there out there, and how they may best be reached. If there has been a major bestseller that targeted any of your target markets, mention its sales here.

Yes, if you are writing on a common topic, pretty much any editor who specializes in the type of book you want to produce will have a clearer idea than you do of how many sales a particular bestseller racked up. However, part of the point of the book proposal is to demonstrate to potential agents and editors that YOU have taken the time to do your homework – and thus are not going into the book-writing process without some idea of how the industry works. You, by implication, will be a well-informed joy to work with throughout the whole process.

(And yes, Virginia, part of the way the industry works is that people tell one another things everyone concerned already knows.)

Tomorrow, I shall delve into that bugbear of proposers everywhere, the marketing plan, but for now, my ice is melting. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

Doing your homework

I received an excellent question from a blog reader the other day:

I’d be interested in how you went about doing your research for any background, setting for your work. I’ve had some essays published on family stories and in addition to talking to family members (sometimes the stories are different POV), I made sure that any historical or political and culture matters were also correct. What do you do?

First, good for you for being brave enough to write up your versions of your family stories. Too many of us think of family history as set in stone, doubtless due to the frequent repetition of family lore around the holiday dinner table. Sometimes, it feels as though Uncle Ernie has told the story of how he got his first job as a longshoreman so many times that everyone in North America must have heard it by now, right?

Actually, family stories are far more ephemeral than even the most fleeting joke bouncing its way via e-mail from workstation to workstation. At least the jokes are written down. Uncle Ernie may well have told that same story every day for the last thirty years, but the very fact that he has told it so often probably means that no one in the family has ever taken the time to write it. Thus, when Uncle Ernie is no longer able to tell it, the story may well pass out of family lore.

If you are hesitating about writing about your family, consider this: some day, it may be the only record left. Those telling little details of yesteryear may survive in your work alone.

Even academics now recognize that there is distinct historical value in personal and familial historical accounts. It has gone out of fashion to thank Marxists for anything, but in the 1960s, a group of Marxist social historians revolutionized the way scholars studied history: instead of concentrating upon monarchs, presidents, and huge social and economic movements, they started paying attention to how the ordinary person lived. Before, the day-to-day details were left to newspapers and novels to record, but now, your Uncle Ernie’s timeworn story might be just the piece of oral history evidence that allows a social historian to piece together the early days of the longshore union.

My questioner is already doing the most important thing: listening to her family members. Even if you have heard any given family anecdote five hundred times before, it is worth asking to hear it again —- and, taking a page from the new social historian’s rulebook, asking pertinent questions.
It is also worth asking other members of the family and family friends to give their renditions of the story; you may be surprised at how different Aunt Rose’s view of events actually was.

To give those of you new to interviewing fair warning: Uncle Ernie may be thrilled at first that you are so interested in his life story, but he may well appreciate it less when you interrupt the flow of his story to ask follow-up questions. He may think you are doubting his word, especially when he learns you have also asked Aunt Rose for her version.

Here again, use the social historian’s methods, and treat your interview subject with care, for an angry Uncle Ernie may not only refuse to talk to you again, but also take some steps to dissuade Aunt Rose. Once the rumor is afoot in your family that you are going around shaking closets to dislodge well-concealed ghosts, you may find it rather hard to get the people you want to interview to talk to you, out of fear of offending the complaining relative. Tread with care.

The simplest way to sidestep issues of belief is to allow Uncle Ernie to tell the story uninterrupted once, making appreciative noises and taking copious notes on questions you would like to ask. Then tell him, “I love this story, but I’m going to be writing it for people who have never met you. I want to make sure that I capture your wonderful wit/incisive analysis/technique for loading boxes onto a ship accurately. Do you mind if I ask a bunch of very nit-picky questions?”

Few interviewees will respond with hostility to being told they are fascinating, but if Uncle Ernie says no, let it drop. Pay him the courtesy of asking if you can talk to him again later, even if you think he has told you every detail of his life in excruciating detail. Remember, by providing you with background information for your writing, he is doing you a favor. Respond accordingly, and make it clear that you are enjoying listening to him.

It would also be polite to ask him to recommend any other family members or old cronies who might be able to tell you more stories about the period or the event. Volunteer to take him to visit an old coworker he hasn’t seen since 1962, or for a walk along his old waterfront stomping grounds, so he can tell you stories as familiar environments prompt his memory. The more you can make your interviewee your partner in the research process, rather than merely a passive subject for your pen, the less likely you are to provoke a negative reaction to your snoopiness.

Try grouping together different combinations of speakers —- and make sure you give each interviewee an opportunity to speak when no one else is listening but you. Aunt Rose may well have kept her opinions about certain aspects of the event you are researching to herself for the last fifty years; she probably will not just blurt out her reserved views in front of others.

If your interviewees will allow it, consider tape-recording these conversations. This may seem a tad professional for an informal family chat, but believe me, you will be happier if you do not rely upon your memory or your notes alone. First, you may not remember accurately: the shock of ever-quiet Aunt Rose’s revelation that she was a steamy chanteuse in a speakeasy may well throw your listening skills for a loop.

Second, the most important detail revealed in any given conversation may not be immediately apparent. With a recording, you can always go back through the conversation again.

Third, and most important for the sake of intra-family tranquility, you will have an easy, non-judgmental way to defend yourself if Aunt Rose later denies ever having told you about her days as a gangster’s moll. (Contrary to a certain ilk of TV movie may have led us to expect, interesting people of the past were not necessarily all that prone to meticulously documenting every last aspect of their exploits, tucking the evidence away for decades until some enterprising relative stumbles upon it hidden just behind some everyday object.)

Before you launch on your interviews, it is a good idea to read up on the period your writing will cover, both for background and so you can ask intelligent questions. Please don’t assume that you already know, even if the period was relatively recent. Pop culture has a way of distorting the life of the times.

You know how annoying it is when a movie about a period you know well fills the screen with nothing but clichés? As someone who was a teenager in the 1980s, it drives me nuts when crowd scenes set then (particularly when those scenes are set in high schools) will show Izod-shirted preppies chatting with guys with safety pins through their noses and mohawks: those two groups would have studiously avoided each other. Similarly, most films about the 1950s feature the same ten songs and every woman decked out in poodle skirts or Chanel couture; all to often, films purporting to depict Vietnam protests depict Abbie Hoffman arm-in-arm with Timothy Leary and flanked by Black Panthers, feminists, and, if it’s an Oliver Stone film, a few pointlessly topless young women to signify bacchanalia. It is not how people who were there remember it.

It is equally annoying to someone being interviewed about his experiences when the interviewer’s notions of what life was like is primarily based upon the big movements and fads. Not everyone who lived in the 1920s had a raccoon coat, Charlestoned, or got drunk with Scott Fitzgerald; do be sensitive about implying that you interview subject should have. Traditionally, most fashions and the bulk of the fads have been beyond the financial reach of most people: I, for one, could not have afforded a pet rock when those were the rage.

Try to keep in mind that life during any period of history was complex, hard to reduce to universally-shared experiences. Be open to stories that buck the prevailing views. Grace Metalious’ PEYTON PLACE (1956) and William S. Burroughs’ NAKED LUNCH (1959) were written within a few years of each other, but no one could argue that they showed the same aspects of the 1950s.

My point is, your sense of any period will be better if you do not rely upon a single source to learn about it. Generally speaking, I would advise reading four or five history books and/or well-researched novels written during the period you are writing about (not just books SET in that period) for background. My long-ago academic training was as a political scientist, though, so my instinct is to research to the hilt. If you want to be really thorough, read books from the period with opposite political slants —- what each side considered appalling should provide you with a wealth of socio-political detail. Ask Aunt Rose and Uncle Ernie what their favorite books were back then, and read them.

Of course, you should always check facts, particularly dates, which often become confused in the memory. A good history textbook or encyclopedia will help you here. I know many people swear that the Internet is the best and fastest way to gain information, but I would advise against relying upon it exclusively. There are very few controls, and even fewer truth monitors, governing who can post what. You do not know if the person who posted that very informative timeline on Abraham Lincoln (born 1242, died 1968?) was a genuinely credible history buff or someone with an oddly historically-based sense of humor. Double-check the facts, and keep records on where you obtained pertinent information.

If you are looking to check an obscure fact or are having trouble confirming a date, call your public library and ask the reference librarian for research guidance. The Seattle Public Library boasts a terrific Quick Information Line, where the nice operator will either look up odd facts for you or refer you to someone who can. I love this service —- when I was writing a novel about a scholar who specialized in Eastern European studies, the Quick Information people found me (for free) an expert who happily talked to me for half an hour about common linguistic mistakes made by people in the early stages of learning Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian. It would have taken me months to find comparable information on my own —- but there was my beloved city, stepping up to provide me with exactly what I needed.

This may seem like an awful lot of work for the sake of a few family anecdotes, but doing solid background research will help elevate your writing from the all-too-common temporal truisms and into the realm of the real. To a writer, there can be a more important praise from someone who lived through the incident she’s written than, “Oh, my, that feels so true!”

Thanks for the great question —- and keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write. Take some time to make them gorgeous; Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

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

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

Everyone who has ever sighed in response to the ubiquitous question, “Gee, what is your book about?” knows this to be true. I sympathize with that telling sigh, truly I do: yes, compression is a marketing necessity, but frankly, it’s a little insulting to be expected to smash multi-layered complexity into just a few pages of text, or sacre bleu! the much-dreaded three-sentence pitch, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

Of course it was easier for me than for her: I have years of experience crafting pitches; it’s a learned skill. Still more importantly, I did not know the subtle character nuances that filled her pages. I could have no knowledge of how she had woven perspective with perspective in order to tease the reader into coming to know the situation fully. I was not yet aware of the complex ways in which she made language dance. All I knew was the premise and the plot – which put me in an ideal position to come up with a pithy, ready-for-the-conference-floor pitch.

This is why, I explained to her, I always write the pitch before I write the piece. Less distracting that way. You can always tweak it down the road, but why not get the basic constituent parts on paper first, while the plot elements are still painted in broad strokes in your head?

Ditto for synopses. Naturally, they will evolve as the book develops and the plot thickens in writing, but I’ve never known a writer who could not easily give a one-page synopsis of her book when she was two weeks into writing it – and have seldom known the same author to be able to do so without agony a year later. You can always change the synopsis later on, but for a concise summary of the major themes of the book, I think you’re better off writing it well in advance.

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

And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

At the risk of repeating myself…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Anne Mini

The fascinating self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courage! And keep up the good work.

– Anne Mini

Swimming in the agent sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Anne Mini

Chance favors the prepared mind

The great thing about getting serious about being a writer – and yes, there ARE upsides to struggling for years on end – is that you can add so many nifty gadgets to your bag of writing tools, ones that will allow you to produce work quickly and revise it with dispatch. And how do you acquire these tools? Not merely by sitting in front of your computer every day, typing feverishly in an otherwise empty room, but by sending your writing out, sharing it with other writers, workshopping it with people you trust. Through getting feedback and applying it to your work, you not only improve your manuscript, but also to add skills to your repertoire.

Once you have those tools assembled, you can move rapidly from one writing project to another – Edith Wharton, for instance, claimed that once she became a professional, she never went more than a week between projects. Ideally, you want to hone your craft (to use a phrase I hate, but it does convey the message) to the point that if you were handed a brilliant story idea by the Muses today, you would be at work on it by tomorrow morning.

That’s how ordinary mortals make livings as writers, generally speaking, not by producing one or two works per decade – or per lifetime. I once met a brilliant writer at an artists’ colony, a short story specialist who squirreled herself away in a corner to sob after she gave a reading. The praise for her story, which was honestly excellent, had been tempered with constructive criticism from the writers in the audience. I tried to comfort her by pointing out that the feedback had been overwhelmingly positive; averted eyes and “Gee, that was great” commentary is generally reserved for public readings of books that aren’t that good. Couldn’t she see that by offering her substantive feedback, her fellow writers were showing respect for her work?

She shook her head as violently as if I had suggested that she throw herself off the nearest bridge. “You don’t understand. I worked on that story for eight years! I thought it was perfect!” She looked crushed. “Now I’ll have to revise it again before I send it out.”

I sympathized with her, but privately, I found myself thinking that she might have better spent those eight years acquiring, in addition to an honestly lyrical writing style, a thicker skin and a more rapid revision pen. Had she launched this story on its professional trajectory, say, six years sooner, via readings or a writers’ group or a contest, she might well have gotten the necessary feedback to perfect it many years before.

Everyone’s writing cycles run within different timeframes, of course, but professionals produce work, get it out the door, and move on to the next, yet most struggling writers will hang their hopes on a single piece. All too often, the piece in question is one that has not been seen by human eyes before the query letter is sent or the pitch is made, or at any rate, by human eyes that do not belong to oneself, one’s mother, one’s partner, or one’s best friend. As marvelous as these first readers may be, they are unlikely to give one unbiased feedback – and a hunger for unbiased feedback is one of the most important tools in the writer’s kit.

You have only to talk to a random selection of people standing around in the hallway at any writers’ conference to see for yourself how important this particular tool is. Secretly, most aspirants walk away from their first writers’ conference crushed that their single pieces were not instantly pounced upon by the perfect agent and carried off like trophies to New York, where they naturally would sell instantly. Despite the fact that this scenario almost never happens, most of us expect it, and question our talent when it doesn’t occur, not our professional readiness.

Yet scratch the rare overnight success, and there’s usually a decade of preparation lying underneath it. You have probably heard the story of the PNWA’s own Jean Auel: walked into the PNWA conference, met the perfect agent, and CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR was sold at auction for what was at the time the highest advance ever paid a first-time novelist.

An overnight success story, right? Unless you count the years she spent polishing her writing skills and essentially home-schooling herself into a doctorate-level understanding of anthropology. Never was an overnight success more earned by years and years of hard work.

Contrary to the unfortunately pervasive myth of the writing genius who sits down at a keyboard for the first time and instantly produces, on his first draft, a work of such staggering genius that agents fall down and weep before it and editors cannot touch it with a critical pen, most good books, and pretty much all great ones, started life as a first draft that needed work. Crucial tools that a writer needs in his kit are the flexibility to recognize that, the courage to go out and find feedback he can trust, and the tenacity to revise accordingly.

“Yeah, right,” I hear you saying. “Anne’s a fine one to talk – she won a contest, and BOOM, she found an agent and sold her memoir before her FINALIST ribbon had time to wrinkle. What could she possibly know about waiting for results of her hard work?”

Oh, how I would have loved it if that were the sum total of my writing life, but it wasn’t like that. I published my first piece when I was ten – and I have been adding tools to my kit ever since, under very unglamorous circumstances. I have written everything from travel guide entries (I like to think that my LET’S GO piece on recognizing and avoiding poison oak in Pacific forests is a minor classic) to wine tasting guides (the trick is recognizing that there are only a few adjectives that can legitimately be applied to any given varietal) to political platforms (where so much as a comma in the wrong place can misrepresent an entire policy). Most of my writing experience for publication was on very, very dull topics – but it taught me to write economically and quickly, to be open to critique, and to meet my deadlines, all invaluable tools in the writer’s toolbag.

Having these tools was the key to the swift progression of my post-award life – and, if you must know, to my winning the award in the first place. All right, I am going to be honest with you: when I won the Zola Award last year for my memoir, IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, I had not actually written the book. To be precise, all I had written were what the contest required for entry: the first chapter, the synopsis, and the title page.

I hope all of you out there who have been waiting until your book is perfect before you enter it in a contest find this encouraging. Consider entering contests — especially those like the PNWA, where entrants are guaranteed significant amounts of written feedback — before your work is completely polished. Get your work out there where it can be seen, if only for the experience.

So when a writing friend dared me in February to prepare an entry with only eight hours to go before the contest deadline, I looked upon it as an interesting challenge, one from which I might learn something new. Since I was used to writing on a tight deadline, the chapter tumbled off my fingertips in six hours, the synopsis in half an hour. A quick spell-check (you’d be surprised at how few contest entrants remember to do that), and I was off to the post office.

I want to point out something very important here. I certainly would not have been able to do this if I had not spent YEARS preparing for that day professionally: years sharpening my writing skills so that I was confident that I could write with speed and accuracy; years going to conferences and getting tips on what contest judges like to see in a manuscript; years meeting writing deadlines, and years being brave enough to show my work not only to prospective agents and editors, but also my writing peers, people I knew would give me honest, unsentimental feedback. In a way, I had spent my entire adult life preparing for that day.

So believe me when I tell you: chance favors the prepared mind. Cram that bag of tools as full as you can.

I really did intend to write the book someday, honest I did. There aren’t that many books that show positive relationships between young girls and men in their fifties, and so many of the biographies and articles that have been written about Philip K. Dick are filled with myths about his life – myths, I should add, that he often originated himself. I knew that someday, I was going to have to write a book to set the records straight at last.

But since there was no chance that I was going to win the contest, I figured I had years. I looked upon it as a wonderful opportunity to gain experience I would need later on, when I launched the project for real. Pitch the book, test the waters, and garner some names of agents for down the road. In the meantime, I had a novel that I wanted to finish and ship off to my writing group before I pitched it at the conference.

I had just wrapped up BUDDHA in June when I received the notification that PUMPKIN was a finalist in the PNWA contest. I was pleased to win the five dollars from my friend, but still, I wasn’t too nervous. I had a pitch ready, in the unlikely event that anyone would want to hear about my memoir, and being a finalist could only help me promote my novel. There was no way I was going to win, right?

Except that in this case, chance did indeed favor the prepared mind. Hooray for a well-stuffed bag of tools – and the effort I expended acquiring them. Every last socket wrench helps.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Post-conference etiquette

Many of you are no doubt busy prepping your work to send out to agents and editors that you met at PNWA, or perhaps are gearing up for a second round, or working up nerve to send out queries before the end of the summer, so I thought it would be a good time to pass along some do’s and don’ts for presenting requested material. This may be old hat to some of you, but this is precisely the sort of wisdom that tends to be passed only by word of mouth amongst writers.

DO write REQUESTED MATERIALS — PNWA in big, thick pen strokes on the outside of the envelope. As you probably know, agents and editors receive literally hundreds of missives from aspiring writers per week. If they asked for your work, it belongs in a different pile from the 500 unsolicited manuscripts and 1500 query letters.

DON’T write REQUESTED MATERIALS if they did not actually request your work. Instead, write PNWA with the same big, fat pen on the outside of the envelope, so they know you’ve been professional enough to attend a conference and have heard them speak.

DO write PNWA – FINALIST/PLACE WINNER (CATEGORY) on the outside of the envelope if you did get honored in the contest. Both the fiction winner and I (the NF winner) did this in 2004, and every single agent thanked us for it. It kept our work from getting lost in the piles.

DON’T send more material than the agent/editor asked to see. (A big pet peeve for a lot of ‘em.) This is not like a college application, where sending brownies, an accompanying video, or a purple envelope could get you noticed amongst the multitudes: to NYC-based agents and editors, wacky tends to equal unprofessional —- the last label you want affixed to your work. And don’t spend the money to overnight it; it will not get your work read any faster.

DO send a polite cover letter with your submission. It’s a good chance to show that you can maintain appropriate boundaries, and that you are professionally seasoned enough to realize that even a very enthusiastic conversation at a conference does not mean you’ve established an intimate personal relationship with an agent or editor.

DON’T quote other people’s opinions about your work in the query letter, unless those people happen to be well-known writers. If David Sedaris has said in writing that you’re the funniest writer since, well, him, feel free to mention that, but if your best friend from work called your novel “the funniest book since CATCH-22,” trust me, it will not impress the agent.

DO mention in the FIRST LINE of your cover letter either (a) that the agent/editor asked at PNWA to see your work (adding a thank-you here is a nice touch) or (b) that you heard the agent/editor speak at PNWA. Again, this helps separate your work from the unsolicited stuff.

DON’T assume that the agent will recall the conversation you had with her about your work. Remember, they meet scores of writers at each conference: you may not spring to mind immediately. If you had met 468 people who all wanted you to read their work over the course of three days, names and titles might start to blur for you, too.

DO mention in your cover letter if the agent/editor asked for an exclusive look at your work. If an agent or editor asked for an exclusive, politely set a time limit, say, three weeks or a month. Don’t worry that setting limits will offend them: this is a standard, professional thing to do. That way, if you haven’t heard back by your stated deadline, you can perfectly legitimately send out simultaneous submissions.

DON’T give any agent or editor an exclusive if they didn’t ask for it – and DON’T feel that you have to limit yourself to querying only one agent at a time. I’ve heard rumors at every conference that I have ever attended that agents always get angry about multiple submissions, but truthfully, I’ve only ever heard ONE story about an agent’s throwing a tantrum about it – and that only because she hadn’t realized she was competing with another agent for this particular book.

Your time is valuable. Check a reliable agents’ guide to make sure that none of the folks you are dealing with demand exclusives (it’s actually pretty rare), and if not, go ahead and send out your work to as many agents and editors who asked to see it.

DO consider querying agents and editors with whom you did not have a meeting at the conference – and tell them that you heard them speak at PNWA. Just because you couldn’t get an appointment with the perfect person at the conference doesn’t mean that the writing gods have decreed that s/he should never see your work.

DON’T call to make sure the agent received your work. This is another common agenting pet peeve: writers who do it tend to get labeled as difficult almost immediately, whereas you want to impress everyone at the agency as a clean-cut, hard-working kid ready to hit the big time.

If you are very nervous about your work going astray, send your submission with delivery confirmation or enclosed a stamped, self-addressed postcard that they can mail when they receive your package. Don’t call.

DO send an appropriate SASE for the return of your manuscript – with stamps, not metered postage. I always like to include an additional business-size envelope as well, so they can request further pages with ease. Again, you’re trying to demonstrate that you are going to be a breeze to work with if they sign you.

DON’T just ask them to recycle the manuscript if they don’t want it. There are many NYC offices where this will seem like a bizarre request, bordering on Druidism.

DO make sure that your manuscript is in standard format: at least 1-inch margins, double-spaced, every page numbered, everything in the same 12-point typeface. (Most writing professionals use Times, Times New Roman, or Courier; screenwriters use exclusively Courier. And yes, there ARE agents and editors who will not read non-standard typefaces. Don’t tempt them to toss your work aside.)

If you are submitting a nonfiction book proposal, send it in a nice black or dark blue file folder. This is not the time to bring out your hot pink polka-dotted stationary and tuck it into a folder that looks like something that flew out of out of Jerry Garcia’s closet. Think of it as a job interview: a black or blue suit is not going to offend anyone; make your work look as professional as you are.

DON’T forget to spell-check AND proofread in hard copy, not only the manuscript, but also your cover letter. Computerized spelling and grammar checkers are notoriously unreliable, so do double-check. When in doubt, have a writing buddy or a professional proof it all for you.

DO give them time to read your work – and invest that time in getting your next flight of queries ready, not in calling them every day.

DON’T panic if you don’t hear back right away, especially if you sent out your work in late July or August. A HUGE percentage of the publishing industry goes on vacation between August 1 and Labor Day, so the few who stick around are overworked. Cut them some slack, and be patient.

DO remember to be pleased that a real, live agent or editor liked your pitch well enough to ask for your work! Well done!

DON’T be too upset if your dream agent or editor turns out not to be interested in your project, and don’t write that person off permanently; s/he may be wild about your next. Keep your work moving, rather than letting it sit in a drawer. Yes, it’s hard emotional work to keep sending out queries, but you can’t get discovered if you don’t try.

DO take seriously any thoughtful feedback you receive. As you may already know, boilerplate rejection letters are now the norm. If an agent or editor has taken the time to hand-write a note on a form letter or to write you a personalized rejection, you should take this as a positive sign – they don’t do that for everybody. Treasure your rave rejections, and learn from them.

Yes, waiting to be discovered is hard – but in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Who am I, and how did I get here?

I am PNWA member Anne Mini, and I am going to be hanging out on this site to answer your questions about the writing life and the publication world for the foreseeable future.

When the PNWA approached me to start blogging here, I was a bit nonplused. Yes, I won the Zola Award in 2004 for Nonfiction Book/Memoir; yes, I signed with an agent I met at PNWA within a few months afterward; yes, my memoir sold to a publisher before the next PNWA conference. Yes, my learning curve for the past year has been rollercoaster-like. But wouldn’t they prefer to have an industry insider hold this spot?

Then I started to think about how different the post-signing process has been than what I expected, about all of the million little things I wish someone had warned me about in advance.

To tell you the truth, I was a bit shell-shocked at first, despite the fact that I came into the marketing and sale process much better prepared than most first-time authors. I run a small freelance editing business, so I have held a lot of authors’ hands through the rigors of being compressed into print. I have seen novels totally rewritten five times over in accordance with the whims of editorial hirings and firings; I have seen academics’ bids for mainstream NF recognition misdirected by marketing departments who apparently had no idea what their books were about; I have seen time after time good books scuttled by bad titles that editors swore would make the difference between indifferent sales and the bestseller list. I thought I was prepared for what might happen to me.


In the slightly more than a year since I won the contest, I have signed with an firecracker of an agent who apparently sold my memoir as she was being wheeled into the maternity ward; wrote, rewrote, and re-rewrote a NF book proposal, discovered that advances and contracts are not always the pleasant, straightforward arrangements that we authors would like them to be, had my title changed thrice, and been threatened with a lawsuit if I published my book at all.

I have, in short, learned a lot very fast.

I am glad to be able to share my experiences with my fellow PNWA members, to show you the mistakes I made (so you may avoid them) and generally learn the lay of the land. Feel free to ask me anything about the agent-finding process, query letters, conferences, residencies, editors, or the publication process as far as I’ve gotten into it.

I may not always know the answer, but when I do, I’ll tell you the truth – and when I don’t, I usually know whom to ask. Standard disclaimers about all of this being my opinion and in no way a guarantee of future success if you take my advice.

So fire away. I’m here to help, so don’t be shy about sending in questions, whether they have to do with my subject du jour or not. I’ll just keep yammering away until I hear from you.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini