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.

Ha.

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