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