Very practical advice, Part III

Hello, readers –

Welcome back to my multi-part series on how to figure out which agent on the PNWA conference guest list (or listed in any conference’s brochure, for that matter) is one you should rank first on your registration form. Assuming, of course, that you’re coming to this summer’s conference – but naturally you are, if you live within driving distance: I’m counting on lots of good conversations over tea with my readers there. One of the perqs of extremely minor celebrity is tea conversation, and plenty of it.

(Incidentally, if you will need financial aid to attend the conference, check out the scholarship form on this website as soon as possible.)

All right, on to the next agent in the alphabetical hit parade: Arielle Eckstut of the Levine Greenberg Literary AgencyApart from the fact that her name’s pretty fabulous in print – don’t you wish you had invented it for a character? – what can we learn from her official blurb, cribbed from elsewhere on this very website?

”Arielle Eckstut (Agent) is a literary agent who runs the West Coast office of the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. She is also the co-author of three books including, Putting Your Passion into Print (Workman, 2005) and Pride & Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

”Whether working with a medical doctor or an interior designer, an academic or a poet, Arielle is most excited by ideas that expand our consciousness, challenge our assumptions and seek to make our world a more visually exciting place. Her clients include New York Times bestselling author, Larry Dossey; Bellwether Award-winner, Gayle Brandeis; James Beard Award-winners, Laura Schenone and Georgeanne Brennan; While You Were Out star, Mark Montano; and numerous others. The Levine Greenberg Literary Agency represents a wide range of fiction and nonfiction clients. Their bestselling authors include The Onion (Our Dumb Century), Geoffrey Moore (Crossing the Chasm), Chuck Klosterman (Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs), Roslyn Wiseman (Queen Bees and Wannabes), and Patrick Lencioni (The Five Dysfunctions of a Team).

”A voracious reader of 19th century novels and a wide range of nonfiction, Arielle has always been a lover of books. Her “Great Books” major at the University of Chicago focused on only six texts in four years–which lent a whole new meaning to the words “close reader”. Before she became an agent, Arielle baked for Madonna, performed improvisational comedy at the Edinburgh Theater Festival Fringe, and cut karyotypes.”

A karyotype, in case you were wondering, is an individual’s set of chromosomes. So I gather that the lady’s sliced up some DNA in her time, not a usual credential for an agent. And WHAT, one wonders, does one bake for someone as skinny as Madonna?

The lady also evidently wants to put out a call for quirky books, I would conclude from this blurb. 19th-century storytelling is not much in vogue these days, alas; in fact, it is sort of an industry code word for REALLY LONG BOOK. So if Herman Melville is your role model (of John Irving, or Jeffrey Eugenides, or…), I think Ms. Eckstut would be a great first pick for your list.

I notice that the agents’ list for this year’s conference includes two agents who hail from the University of Chicago, Ms. Eckstut and {name removed at agent’s request; apparently, although where he went to school is in his standard blurb, that information is not to be reproduced.} . I got my master’s degree at the U of C (the unofficial motto: Hell does freeze over), and I’m here to tell you, Ms. Eckstut is not kidding about the 6 books in 4 years. I knew people there who read only a scant dozen books on the ways to their Ph.D.s. They train their students to be CLOSE readers.

Translation: do not even DREAM of handing so much as a business card to either Ms. Eckstut or {name removed} until it has been proofread 45 times. I am absolutely serious about this. Be prepared to discuss the nuances of every comma.

Also – and perhaps this goes without saying – if you are serious about wanting Ms. Eckstut as your agent, read at least one of the books she has published before the conference. Human nature being what it is, I’m betting that a graceful, informed compliment on her insights into Jane Austen will go a long way toward helping her remember who you are amongst the literally hundreds of aspiring writers she will meet at the conference. (As always, though: give only compliments that you sincerely believe. Not only is it far better karmically, but also, insincere flattery is usually pretty apparent.)

What else can we learn from her blurb? Focus in on Gayle Brandeis, author of SELF STORAGE, “a humorous story of a young mother of two who loves to attend self storage auctions, and then sells her winnings at yard sales.” There are a couple of reasons to pay attention to this particular book: Ms. Eckstut sold it to Anika Streitfeld of Ballantine; significant, because it was Ms. Streitfeld’s her first acquisition there. A two-book deal, no less. If you have aspirations for publishing with Ballentine, signing with an agent with such a good in with a relatively new editor isn’t a bad idea.

The more important thing to notice is that Ms. Eckstut represents a Bellwether Prize winner — so if your work has feminist sensibilities, or deals with issues of race or class, run, don’t walk, to make an appointment with her. The Bellwether Prize was established by Barbara Kingsolver (of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE fame) to encourage novels aimed at spurring social change. Social problem novels are not very popular these days – but they certainly were in the 19th century.

Hint: if you have the opportunity to pitch to her, work a sentence or two into your pitch showing how your book might help its readers. Just a suggestion. She is telling you something here: she wants to represent novels whose importance is more than literary.

She also mentions representing James Beard Award winners – this means that she is interested in cookbooks. (Georgeanne Brennan, incidentally, has also won the Julia Child Award.) Looking over her recent sales, I notice has been selling quite a few cookbooks of late, but it seems to be a relatively new interest of hers. If this is your area, run with it: pick her as a top choice. You might even want to bring her a homemade cupcake.

Her most recent cookbook sale (to Random House) sounds like so much fun that I can’t resist including it here: THE GREEN EGGS AND HAM COOKBOOK, by Georgeanne Brennan and Frankie Frankeny (author of THE STAR WARS COOKBOOK), “an official Dr. Suess (sic!) cookbook filled with delectable treats such as Pink Ink Drink and Solla Sollew’s Chocolate Rocks.”

Ms. Eckstut has added another interesting element here: “The Levine Greenberg Literary Agency represents a wide range of fiction and nonfiction clients,” followed by a list of some of the authors the agency (which is a very solid, large one) represents. I would assume, based upon this, that she is coming to the conference ready to pick up clients not only for herself, but for others at the agency. So a smart conference-goer might want to check out the agency’s website in advance, in order to be able to ask Ms. Eckstut for an invaluable introduction to one of her colleagues.

Looking over her recent sales, I notice that she represents a lot of journalists, so if that’s your background, definitely mention it to her. Also, her agency represents a fair amount of humor – so if your novel is funny, I would recommend that you make your pitch to her funny, too.

But now that you’ve had a little practice deriving insights from agent info, let me just give you a list of some of the major sales she has made in the last few years that are not in her blurb, so you can check them out for yourself. (The dates listed are when the presses bought them, not when the books were published, incidentally.)

Chris Baty, NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! (Chronicle; sold 2003); Shawn Carlson, CHASING FRANKLIN’S KITE (Little, Brown; sold 2001); Paul Davidson, CONSUMER JOE (Broadway; sold 2002) and BLOGOSPHERE (Warner, sold 2005);Dan Kennedy, EVIDENTLY I KNOW EVERYTHING (Crown; sold 2001) and an as-yet untitled narrative NF book (Algonquin, 2005); Nancy Levine, HOMER FOR THE HOLIDAYS (Viking; sold 2004), as well as LETTERS TO A YOUNG PUG and “an untitled pug romance” (Viking, sold 2005); Rabbi Alan Lew, THIS IS REAL AND YOU ARE COMPLETELY UNPREPARED (Little, Brown; sold 2002); Beth Lisick EVERYBODY INTO THE POOL (Regan Books; sold 2004); Andrew Newberg, WHY WE BELIEVE WHAT WE BELIEVE (Free Press; I couldn’t find the sale date); Kent and Keith Zimmerman, MYTHBUSTERS: The Explosive Truth Behind the 30 Most Perplexing Urban Legends of All Time (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2005).

Okay, pop quiz: what did you learn from this list?

If you said that Ms. Eckstut might be a good choice for pitching a spirituality book, well done! By my count, there are 2 on this list. You also score high marks if you noticed that Ms. Eckstut’s taste is pretty eclectic, as is her agency’s, and her sales are pretty consistent from year to year. If you are a producer of offbeat prose, she may well be the agent for you, but if your work is very solidly mainstream, she might not be your best top choice. (If you do mainstream, check out my write-ups on Loretta Barrett and Stephen Barbara.)

You get extra credit if you also noticed that she sells to a broad array of publishers, rather than concentrating upon a few. Why should you care about this? Because you should be thinking now about whom you would like to have publish your book, that’s why. An agent who already has connections at the press you want through previous sales will probably be more helpful to you than an agent who doesn’t, right?

If this does not seem completely self-evident to you, think a bit about the stages of marketing a book. Your target market isn’t just the group of readers you ultimately envision buying your work; it’s also agents who represent that kind of book and editors at publishing houses who sell to that market. Start trolling bookstores, paying attention to who publishes work like yours, and think about querying agents who have a successful track record of selling to those publishers.

If you learn nothing else from this series, learn this: agents are not a monolithic group, a collection of people with identical tastes. They are individuals, with individual tastes.

Let me say that again: every agent has an array of individual tastes.

Think about the implications of this. Let’s say you send out ten queries to ten agents, and receive ten rejections (not uncommon at all). You are sure that your queries contain none of the standard mistakes (I blogged about many of these in August and September), and you are not marketing a book that is terribly out of fashion at the moment (like, say, a memoir set in a rehab facility, a travelogue about eating your way through some well-traveled part of Europe, or a how-to book on reading the tarot). Should you conclude that the entire agenting community has rejected your work with one voice?

No: ten agents, with ten individual sets of criteria have – and that is a MAJOR distinction. Thinking that it doesn’t matter who reads your queries is like believing that it doesn’t matter who sits on the Supreme Court on the day you happen to be arguing your big case: what will strike Antonin Scalia’s fancy will not, I assure you, generally make Ruth Bader Ginsberg chuckle. Individual agents look for different things in submissions, and what’s more, they look for different things at different times.

Reminding yourself of this from time to time throughout the often long and drawn-out querying process is very, very good for your sanity. These people are not all ganged up against you: you just have not hit a good match yet. Keep on querying until you do.

And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Very practical advice, Part II

Hello, readers –

For those of you who missed yesterday’s post, I’m in the midst of doing a series on how to read agents’ blurbs in conference brochures, as well as giving you some idea what you can turn up on agents through standard industry background research. I’m hoping that this will save you some time (and give you easier access to some of this information) as you are carefully considering your rankings for your agent appointments at this summer’s PNWA conference. The wonderful volunteers at the PNWA honestly do screen potential agents very carefully before inviting them; I just thought those of you new to querying could use some help telling them apart.

Again, some standard disclaimers: I am listing the agents scheduled to attend this summer’s conference in alphabetical order here, not ranking them. I am not going to give you a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on any individual agent; my dual intent here is to teach you how to read a blurb and to give you enough background, wherever possible, so you can weigh your options. (My agency is not represented this year, alas, so I have no stake in pushing one or another.) I have gathered this information from the standard industry databases, and so cannot be sure that it is all 100% up-to-date. So if you find out that I’ve conveyed some misinformation here, please let me know, so I can pass the correct information on to my readers.

Okay, next on the alphabetical Loretta Barrett of Loretta Barrett Books. Here is her official blurb, lifted from the PNWA website:

”Loretta A. Barrett (Agent) is a literary agent and president of Loretta Barrett Books, Inc. in New York. She founded the agency in 1990. Prior to that she was Editor-in-Chief of Anchor Books and Vice President and Executive Editor at Doubleday. She is a member of AAR, and has representation in every major foreign market, East and West.

”Ms. Barrett’s nonfiction interests cover a wide range of topics. These include psychology, science and technology, religion, spirituality, current events, biography and memoir. She represents the New York Times bestseller Symptoms of Withdrawal, by Christopher Kennedy Lawford; the New York Times bestseller Mother Angelica, by Raymond Arroyo, the national bestseller The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil, and Stressed-Out Girls, by Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D. Other notable clients include George Weigel, Ann Douglas, Wayne Muller and Stephen Levine.

”Her fiction preferences are largely mainstream and contemporary. She is particularly drawn to women’s fiction and thrillers. Her current fiction list includes the New York Times bestseller Cold Truth, by Mariah Stewart, and national bestseller The Lake of Dead Languages, by Carol Goodman. In addition, she represents noteworthy novelists such as Gary Birken, MD, Laura Van Wormer, M.J. Rose and Dora Levy Mossanen. For a complete list of clients, as well as submissions guidelines, please visit www.lorettabarrettbooks.com .”

What can we learn from this blurb? First of all, when an agent gives her website in her blurb, VISIT IT BEFORE YOU SELECT HER AS ONE OF YOUR TOP CHOICES. I would bet a nickel that there is information there, particularly in the submissions guidelines, that will prove useful to you in both your decision-making process and in prepping for your meeting at the conference.

(Fear not; as the conference draws closer, I shall be giving you tips on how to pitch your work more impressively in these meetings – and in hallways. They are very different venues, and require different approaches!)

Second, judging from this blurb, I would suspect that Ms. Barrett is pretty sympathetic to writers: she has gone to the trouble of including enough information here that an aspiring writer could glean a sense not just of the genres she likes, but of the kind of WRITING. If you will be listing her as a top choice, it will be well worth your while to spend a few moments in the big bookstore nearest to you, reading a few pages from the works of the authors she lists.

Why? I’m guessing that you’re going to see some stylistic patterns amongst her clients. And if you can walk up to an agent and say, “My writing style is very similar to that of your client, X,” the agent’s eyes will generally light up.

See, I’m trying to make the conference a better experience for the agents, too. I’m just generally hospitable.

She has also, I notice from checking her recent sales, provided in this blurb quite a nice mix of very recent sales and ones made longer ago, to give a better impression of her interests as they stand now. No book on this list, as nearly as I can tell, was sold more than 5 years ago, and she has sold books by some of these clients within the last few months. Nice of her; it saves you some trouble in your research.

Third, she mentions that she’s a member of AAR, which saves you the effort of looking it up. Why should you care? Well, AAR members agree to adhere to certain professional standards in dealing with writers – most notably, members cannot charge reading fees. (They can, however, charge editing fees. For a list of other membership restrictions, see most of the standard agent guides.) Also, AAR members are not supposed to do nasty things like sell lists of authors who query them to editing services or writers’ publications, nor are they allowed to make working with a particular editing service a precondition of their reading your work.

The idea here is that an AAR member agency will make the bulk of its income through commissions on sales of its authors’ writing, rather than by charging eager aspiring writers for the opportunity to have an agency screener read a chapter of the book. In the long run, this is for your benefit: if an agency cannot sell your work, being signed with it will not help you much.

Not every non fee-charging agent is a member of AAR, of course, so you should not necessarily write off any agent who is not. (Especially if you write screenplays: many, many screenplay agents are not AAR members.) Some agencies choose not to become members because they are set up as management agencies, which means that they reserve the right to bundle their clients into package deals (novelist + screenwriter + director, for instance).

Being an AAR member does not guarantee that an agent is a decent human being (although it helps), but it does guarantee that if something goes terribly wrong down the line, you will have a court of appeal. For instance, AAR specifies that its members can charge only reasonable fees for photocopying, so if you signed with an agent, and then found you were being charged $2.00/page, you could pick up the phone, and AAR would straighten it out for you.

Ms. Barrett has also been kind in defining her interests with precision: in fiction, mainstream, contemporary, women’s, and thrillers (translation: novels with wide market appeal); in NF, psychology, science and technology, religion, spirituality, current events, biography, and memoir. If you have even the vaguest doubt about the category into which your book falls (and, no, Virginia, “it’s sort of a cross between thriller and literary” isn’t going to fly here; we’re talking where your book would be shelved in a bookstore), check out my blogs for February 13-16. And if you have any doubt about whether your work is mainstream enough for Ms. Barrett, check out her website and her authors’ work for comparison.

A quick aside about pitching NF at a conference: there are usually fewer NF writers at a literary conference, which does make one stand out a bit. However, the first thing that ANY agent will ask a writer pitching NF is, “What is your platform?” In other words, what background do you have that makes you a credible author for this book?

(And P.S., you need to be able to state your platform for a memoir, too. Yes, it’s your life, but memoirs are generally about something else, too. Why are you the best person to write on that secondary topic? And why is your life so compelling that it needed to be turned into a memoir?)

I bring this up in the context of Ms. Barrett’s blurb, because I notice that many of the areas she lists are ones that generally require professional platforms: people who write psychology, science, or technology books tend to have Ph.D.s after their names, for instance; religion and spirituality books tend to be written by those with extensive experience with their subjects, and current events books are generally written by journalists. Not that this should discourage you from pitching these kinds of books here – just be very, very well prepared to answer the platform question before you walk into the meeting.

If you are planning to be pitching fiction, do be aware that Ms. Barrett represents many heavy hitters in the industry, and thus may be rather difficult to impress. (One reason I think so: I noticed only one fiction sale in the last three years specifically identified as a debut novel, anthropology professor Lila Shaara’s debut literary thriller “about a former model turned college professor whose scarily obsessed students create a website of doctored photos from her previous career, and soon the danger they pose to her and her two young sons becomes shockingly real.” However, this Feb. 2005 sale was part of an apparently terrific two-book deal to a major publisher.)

I think it’s safe to assume, then, that she may not be as hungry as a less well-established agent. (Hungry is an industry term: it means to be very, very eager to sell books; typically, the better-heeled agents are less hungry than those newer to the game.) So if you’re going to pitch to Ms. Barrett, I would suggest taking the time before the conference to make your book sound as appetizing as possible. Plan to walk into your meeting with her very, very prepared to make your book sound like the best novel since, well, ever.

More agent blurb deciphering follows in the days to come, but before I end today, let me add what I’ve heard on the writers’ grapevine: I have heard from many who have pitched to her (as I have not) that she is a good person to ask for recommendations for OTHER agents who might be interested in a particular book. That, too, is a good thing to know before you walk into a pitch meeting.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Some very, very practical information, or, you WERE planning on attending the PNWA conference this summer, right?

Hello, readers –

I feel as though my blogs have been waxing a bit theoretical lately, so I thought I should concentrate on some very, very practical information for awhile. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine information more practical than today’s, at least for those of you who are planning to attend this summer’s PNWA conference: it’s information that will help you decide how to rank your agent choices on the conference application.

And you thought I didn’t love you.

It can be quite hard to tell the agents apart, based just upon their write-ups, can it not? Some agents choose to share a little, some share a lot; there seems to be no standard for an agent blurb in a conference brochure. A lot of them are quite vague, and others merely list the agents’ best-known clients. Usually, the titles included were sold quite some time ago, so you can’t always be sure that the agent still represents that kind of work.

In case you were curious, the agents don’t list old sales in blurbs and agent guides to be misleading: they are trying to use titles that a prospective client might be able to find in a bookstore. Because the fact is, if an agent sold a book within the last year and a half, it almost certainly is not in bookstores yet for you to find.

For those of you who were shocked my last statement, let me fill you in on why: unless a press is trying to coincide with a specific event (such as a presidential election) or capitalize on a major catastrophe (such as Hurricane Katrina), the MINIMUM time between a book’s sale and its release is generally a year. Often, it’s longer. And you have only to talk to virtually any agented author to learn that the length of time between signing with an agent and the first sale is frequently as long or longer than production time after the sale.

So, realistically, the books you are seeing on the shelf today are probably much more representative of what any given agent was interested in three or four years ago than today. A lot can happen in a person’s life in three years, and even more in the publishing industry. (Three years ago, for instance, memoirs were not primarily regarded as potential lawsuit traps — thank you, James Frey — but as rich sources of highly reader-grabbing material.)

Sometimes, too, we misread the specialties listed in the blurb, rushing to read through all of them before making ranking decisions, or do not know that a particular agent does not want to see certain kinds of work at all. Yes, it seems a little nasty when an agent says he won’t even consider certain genres, but once you’ve been at it awhile, you’ll come to recognize that those who are upfront about their dislikes are giving you a gift: you know not to waste your time, or theirs, if you write work they do not like.

At the risk of sounding jaded (and who wouldn’t, after a decade of attending writers’ conferences all over the country?), it’s been my experience that in reading these blurbs, it’s a good idea to remember that these people sell things for a living. Sometimes, an agent who sounds warm and friendly on paper turns out in real life to be…well, let’s be charitable, shall we, and say unwelcoming?

Sometimes, the opposite is true, where a hostile-sounding blurb conceals a warm and wonderful agent. And often, it’s hard to tell whether an agent sounds eager to find new talent because she genuinely is, or because that’s her standard line, or because she’s brand-new to the publishing world and hungry for sales.

Again, how can you tell who is a good bet for you?

For all of these reasons, it’s often quite a jolt when you get to the conference, appointment card in hand, and hear your assigned agent speak at the agents’ forum: you catch yourself thinking, if only I knew all this a few months ago, when I made my agent choices. So you scramble around, trying to switch your appointment with others’. The best way to avoid this situation, of course, is to do advance research on the agents who will be attending.

It also makes possible a very graceful opening line for your meeting: “You represent so-and-so, don’t you? I just love his/her work!” Trust me, there isn’t an agent in the world who doesn’t like to hear that. A word to the wise, though: if you use that opener, you had better be familiar with any book you mention. Because a significant proportion of the time, the agent so accosted will want to talk about it. Go figure.

So doing your homework about agents is smart conference preparation. Sometimes, however, finding out which writers they represent can be hard work. Agents often seem amazingly unaware of this, or even incredulous when writers point it out: it’s a relatively small industry, so everyone within it knows who represents whom. But if you, like pretty much every aspiring writer who did not go to school with someone in the industry, don’t know the affiliations, how are you to find out?

More to the point, how do you find out what the agent in question is selling NOW, rather than a couple of years ago?

I’m going to tell you how I handle it, personally: I check industry publications to see not only who and what the agent represents, but also what books the agent has sold recently. As in this year and last, the stuff that isn’t on the shelves yet. While all of that information is a matter of public record, not everyone has access to it easily.

But I do. And I’m going to share it with you, so you can make informed decisions, as well as gaining some insight on how to read agents’ blurbs productively. Please note, though: this is information based upon publishing databases, so it may not be entirely up-to-date or totally accurate. Also, it will reflect only those clients for whom these agents have actually sold books, rather than their entire client lists, which may not give a truly representative (so to speak) picture.

Please note, too, that I am presenting these agents in alphabetical order, not ranked in any sort of hierarchy of excellence or interest, and over enough days’ blogs to justify the length of time it took to track the information down. (Seriously – I hadn’t gone through this process in a couple of years, and time had whitewashed my sense of how time-consuming the research is.) And since I have spent so much space today explaining why I think this is a good idea in the first place, I’m only going to go over one agent today, Stephen Barbara of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, tops in the alphabetical list. Here’s his official blurb, gleaned from elsewhere on this very website:

”Stephen Barbara (Agent) is an agent and contracts director at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Prior to this, he worked as a junior agent at the Fifi Oscard Agency, an editorial assistant at Regan Books, and an intern at the Kaplan Agency. He is interested in literary fiction, YA and middle grade novels, narrative non-fiction, historical and topical non-fiction, and a variety of commercial fiction genres.”

Okay, this is a good one for starters, because our good Mr. Barbara has given the savvy reader quite a bit of information in this blurb that might not be apparent to the less experienced eye, and his solo sales record is recent enough that searching the bookstores for his clients might not have been too helpful. So what can we learn here?

First, he works at an immense and prestigious literary agency, one very well known for genre fiction (it would make sense to ask him in a meeting who ELSE at his agency might be interested in your work), but he has not worked there very long (if my information is correct, he switched over within the last 6 months). This is probably a good sign: going from being a junior agent at one big agency to being an agent at another probably means that he didn’t bring a whole lot of clients with him. Translation: he needs a list.

Second, he is relatively new to agenting: if he were more advanced in his career, he probably would not have listed his editorial assistant or intern jobs. (Although actually, having an in at Regan Books is a definite asset.) Now, I can feel some of you turning off, wanting to hold out for a bigger-name agent, but think about it: who is more likely to sign a new writer, a hungry new agent or the head of an agency?

Long-time attendees of the PNWA conference may have already pitched to the boss in this case: Don Maass has honored our conference many times. And he is a BUSY man. He used to be president of AAR , the agents’ professional association, and he goes around the country, giving seminars on how to write better novels. He has written several books on same. It’s just my gut feeling, of course, but I suspect that such a busy agent doesn’t have a whole lot of spare time to lavish on previously unpublished writers at this point in his career. But an agent new to his agency might.

Aspiring writers, please be aware of this: a relatively junior agent at a major agency can be a very good bet for a first-time author. The agency will provide connections that a smaller agency might not, yet unlike the big-name agents, a relative newcomer may well have both more time and greater inclination to push a new discovery. (Remember, with a big-time agent, you may well end up being her 105th client, and thus perhaps a rather low priority.)

What else can we learn from this blurb? Well, the agent has told us what kind of discovery he hopes to make at PNWA: literary fiction, YA and middle grade novels, narrative NF, historical and topical NF, and commercial fiction. Not a lot of big surprises here — the Maass agency is known for commercial fiction; in fact, in the past, they’ve signed the winner of the PNWA mainstream novel category. Mssr. Maass has been telling conference-goers for years that he would like the agency to handle more literary fiction, and Mssr. Barbara has a solid track record in sales for the middle grade market.

How do I know that? Because I looked at his recent sales, that’s how. In the past two years, I was able to find three of his sales, which incidentally confirm our sense that he switched agencies recently:

In March, 2006, as an agent at the Maass agency, he made an impressive three-book deal with Margaret K. McElderry Books for middle grade author P.J. Bracegirdle’s THE JOY OF SPOOKING, “in which a girl must save her beloved hometown, Spooking, from being turned into an amusement park by a villain.”

His previous two sales (both in July, 2005) are listed under the aegis of the Fifi Oscard Agency. The first is a set of two middle grade books (with QUITE the impressive advance, I notice), Lisa Graff’s THE THING ABOUT GEORGIE, (“a young boy learns to overcome his small stature and his fears of being a not-so-big brother”) and BERNETTA WALLFLOWER: THE PROS AND CONS “about a 12-year-old girl in the summer after she gets kicked out of private school for running a cheating ring — the only problem being it isn’t true”). Oh, and in case you were wondering how his connections at Regan Books might help his clients, these works were sold to a subsidiary of HarperCollins; Regan Books is also a subsidiary of HarperCollins.

So I would estimate, based upon what we see here, that if you write for middle grade readers, this would be a GREAT agent appointment for you to have. Sign up for an appointment with him, pronto.

The other listing seems on its face as if it couldn’t be more dissimilar, a history/politics NF book by a retired Marine, defense analyst, and former professor, about the future of the draft and military service. This clearly fits under the rubric of historical and topical non-fiction, so we know that Mssr. Barbara already has some connections in that direction.

You may have noticed that the blurb mentioned a few other types of work Mr. Barbara is seeking; I was not able to find a history of sales in those other areas. (As I said, though, my databases aren’t infallible.) But, as I said, the Maass agency does have a very good track record in commercial fiction. My suggestion would be that if you write literary fiction, narrative NF, or genre fiction, you should go to the agency website and take a look at their overall client list, to see if your work would fit into their areas of demonstrated interest.

One more piece of advice: if you intend to list Mr. Barbara as one of your top agent picks for the conference (or plan to accost him after the agents’ forum or in the hallway), do bring a copy of the first 5 pages of your book. If memory serves, agents from the Maass agency routinely ask pitchers and queriers for a writing sample, and it’s best to be prepared, right?

Whew! That was a lot of information, wasn’t it? But I would urge you, if you do decide that Mssr. Barbara is going to be one of your top picks, to do additional research for yourself before the conference. The more you know before you walk into your appointment with an agent, the better you can refine your pitch for his ears.

If doing this level of background research on an agent with whom you may be having a 15-minute meeting three months from now seems nutty to you, let me remind you again that the publishing world actually isn’t terribly big. Agents and editors are used to the writers soliciting them knowing who they are; keep an ear out at the agents’ forum at the conference, and you may notice an edge to their voices when they speak of writers who have not done their homework. Think of being familiar with their recent sales as a gesture of respect to their professional acumen, a way you can step most gracefully into their world, to present your book as effectively as you can.

More info on agents scheduled to attend the conference follows over the day to come. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

What the customer wants

Hello, readers –

Clearly, I’m taking everything too seriously at the moment, a recognized symptom of being an author with a novel circulating amongst editors. Completely normal, I tell you.

Case in point: the other night, some non-writing friends (yes, I do have them) and I went to see Book-It’s stage version of Edith Wharton’s THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. Since THE HOUSE OF MIRTH is a favorite book of mine, one I first read in the heady days right after I discovered MADAME BOVARY, I dragged my friends to opening night. The world premiere, no less.

If you live in the greater Seattle metro area, and you’re not familiar with the Book-It Repertory Theatre,do yourself a favor and check them out. Their work is intensely gratifying for writers, because they don’t do plays per se – they adapt their favorite short stories and novels for the stage. Their two-night production of John Irving’s THE CIDER HOUSE RULES was so impressive – and so faithful to the book – that it made the movie version that came out a few years later seem as though the screenwriter had only skimmed the original. And who wrote that screenplay, you ask? John Irving. He won an Oscar™for it.

Have you ever read THE HOUSE OF MIRTH? It’s about a very beautiful woman, Lily Bart, a gem of the right kind of parentage to get invited to the right parties in New York in the 1890s. Lily has no money of her own (and no one in her social circles would dream of working, or even dressing badly), and so must marry well. But Lily really doesn’t like the prospect, and so keeps messing up her increasingly depressing prospects by strategically unwise decisions, such as speaking her mind occasionally and not blackmailing people she really should be blackmailing in her own self-interest. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, because it is genuinely touching, but suffice it to say, it’s not a laugh riot.

Wharton was, among other highlights in her long literary career, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, and is cherished by those who know her writing as the mistress of repressed passion. Unfortunately, her work tends to be dismissed by those who have NOT read her as prissy, an assumption that tends to cover the work of most women writers prior to Anaïs Nin, alas, as though the Victorian Age retroactively threw a blight over the sensibilities of all females from the beginning of time to the 1920s, at least those who might conceivably have picked up a pen.

This is a pet peeve of mine, so I’m going to digress for a moment. The #1 best-selling novel of the 19th century, Mme. de Staël’s CORINNE, concerns a struggle between two lovers: he wants her to give up her career (she’s a celebrated poet) before he marries her, and she refuses; the novel is so sexually charged that it was Lord Byron’s standard gift to his lover du jour.
The modern potboiler was invented by Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823); her work was such a cultural phenomenon that Jane Austen wrote a parody of it, NORTHANGER ABBEY. Actually, if you are looking for lurid subject matter, look no farther than the works of Aunt Jane: if memory serves, her novels include at least three illegitimate children (two in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, one in EMMA), four illicit sexual affairs (one in MANSFIELD PARK, one in PERSUASION, two in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY), a couple who lives together without being married (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE – yes, you read that right)… And if you really want to see bawdy, check out the work of Aphra Behn, 1640-1689!

Okay, that’s out of my system now. Suffice it to say, our time does not have a monopoly on sexy writing, and I have scant patience with people who dismiss anything written before they were born. So there.

Now, I know THE HOUSE OF MIRTH very well; I am a huge fan of how Wharton uses details about clothing and room décor to convey both internal emotion and collective notions of propriety. (Her first publication was a nonfiction work on interior design.) I was prepared, therefore, to have an emotional reaction to the story, especially the part where Lily stands up for her own principles, is misunderstood by the people around her, and refuses to stoop to their level in order to save her own pretty skin. Like most readers, I suspect, I would like to think I would have done the same thing in similar circumstances.

So I was all busy meditating upon my own virtues, as one does, after the show was over, when it hit me very hard: when I first read this book when I was in junior high school (Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School, no less; yes, the Stevenson who once memorably compared writers to filles de joie), one of my big fears was that I was going to grow up to be merely what was then beginning to be called a people-pleaser, someone who was entirely dependent upon what other people thought of her. Essentially, Lily Bart made her living as a people-pleaser, an occupation that can eviscerate the soul in the long run.

And it struck me that in a lot of ways, writers are like those decorative women of the 1890s, constantly primping in order to attract the right husband. Only in our case, we dress up our work to catch the interest of agents and editors. We need to get married to them, contractually, in order to have even a chance of success. But the agents and editors are not, by and large, looking to fall in love with a book when they first encounter it, but only for its potential market value.

They want a mercenary marriage, whereas we do it for love.

It’s hard to accept that about one’s own work, isn’t it? But it’s true: even the agents and editors most devoted to the literary arts are not in a non-profit business; they will only take on what they think will sell, and sell quickly. And to writers, who often devote years or even decades to polishing their works of art, that can seem a little, well, sordid. We want to be loved for our talent, not just our momentary market appeal.

And that’s why, I think, so many writers come away from their first writers’ conferences seriously depressed. Almost everybody walks in wanting to believe that the agents and editors are there to fall in love with talent. But the only way to fall in love with a writer, really, is to read her work on the page. Instead, you get judged on a three-minute verbal pitch; essentially, it’s the publishing world’s version of speed dating.

It’s a little hard on anyone who walks into a conference expecting romance, rather than commerce.

That’s not to say that there aren’t agents and editors out there who love good writing, and are eager to find the next great talent — there are many who answer that description, and those most serious about it often attend conferences. But one of the most sensible things you can do for yourself before your next conference, one of the best ways to keep yourself from feeling hurt in what is invariably a very stressful situation, is to figure out how to describe your work not as someone who loves it would, but as a marketer would.

I know; it’s crass, and I hate to recommend it to you. But it will help you get a fairer hearing for your ideas. If you step into a meeting with an agent or editor without knowing who your target audience is, for instance, or why your book would appeal to that market better than any other book currently on the market, you will not be pitching in the language of the industry. You will be speaking the language of love, and that does not necessarily translate well.

Again, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but now that agents are every bit as tough to court as editors have ever been (and in some cases, significantly tougher), a writer has to be more than a talented wordsmith: a writer has to be bilingual, able to talk about her work both as art and as commercial product. And being a smart marketer, contrary to popular opinion amongst the unpublished, does not make a writer either a sell-out or a bad person: it merely makes her more likely to succeed.

Fear not, my friends: between now and the PNWA conference, I’m going to be giving you tips on how to speak that language. Perhaps not fluently, but enough to get your foot in the door.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Author Bios Revisited

Hello, readers –

I got very excited this weekend, because after my disquisition a couple of weeks back on the need for producing an intriguing author bio that piques the reader’s curiosity, leading to suspicions that perhaps here is an interesting person, I found what may perhaps be the Platonic bad author bio, the one that most effectively discourages the prospective reader from perusing what is within. And to render it an even better example for my purposes here, this peerless bio belongs to one of my all-time favorite authors, Rachel Ingalls. As I have read every syllable she has ever published, I can state with confidence: never have I seen an author bio less indicative of the quality of the writing.

Yes, dear readers, that is what writing this blog for the last nine months has done to me: discovering a specimen that might do you good, even if it disappoints me personally, now makes me cackle with glee.

I don’t feel bad about using this bio as an example here, because honestly, I think everyone on earth should rush right out and read Rachel Ingalls’ BINSTEAD’S SAFARI before they get a minute older. (In fact, if you want to open a new window, search for the Powell’s website, and order it before you finish reading this, I won’t be offended at all. Feel free. I don’t mind waiting.) Here is the specimen, lifted from the back of her newest book, TIMES LIKE THESE:

”Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965 and is the author of several works of fiction — most notably MRS. CALIBAN — published both in the United States and United Kingdom.”

Just this, accompanied by a very frightening author photo, one that looks as though she might take a bite out of the photographer. I have no problem with the photo — after all, this is a writer who gave the world a very beautiful story in which the protagonists are consumed by carnivorous toads, so a sense of menace seems downright appropriate.

But have you ever seen a piece of prose less revealing of personality? Admittedly, British author bios tend to be terse, compared to their American brethren (as H.G. Wells wrote, “the aim of all British biography is to conceal”), but even so, why bother to have a bio at all, if it is not going to reveal something interesting about the author? It actually made me angry, because this is an author whose work I love. I want to see her writing well promoted.

I have particular issues with this bio, too, because of the offhand way in which it mentions MRS. CALIBAN (1983), which was named one of America’s best postwar novels by the British Book Marketing Council. Don’t you think that little tidbit was worth at least a PASSING mention in her bio?

In fact, I learned about Rachel Ingalls’ work in the first place because of the BBMC award. We’re both alumnae of the same college (which is to say: we both applied to Harvard because we had good grades, and both were admitted to Radcliffe, because we were girls), and during my junior and senior years, I worked in the Alumnae Records office. Part of my job was filing news clippings about alumnae. In the mid-1980s, the TIMES of London ran an article about the best American novels published since WWII, using the BBMC’s list as a guide. Rachel Ingalls’ MRS. CALIBAN was on it, and the American mainstream press reaction was universal: Who?

Really, a novel about a housewife who has an affair with a six-foot salamander is not likely to slip your mind, is it? The fact is, her work was almost entirely unknown — and undeservedly so — on this side of the pond.

Naturally, I rushed right out and bought MRS. CALIBAN, followed by everything else I could find. Stunned, I made all of my friends read her; my mother and I started vying for who could grab each new publication first. She became my standard for how to handle day-to-day life in a magical manner.

The TIMES story was picked up all over North America, so I ended up filing literally hundreds of clippings about it. And, I have to confess: being a novelist at heart in a position of unbearable temptation, I did read her alumnae file cover to cover. So I have it on pretty good authority that she had more than enough material for a truly stellar author bio — if not a memoir — and that was almost 20 years ago.

And yet I see, as I go through the shelf in my library devoted to housing her literary output, that she has ALWAYS had very minimal author bios. Check out the doozy on 1992’s BE MY GUEST:

”Rachel Ingalls was brought up and educated in Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965.”

Occasionally, the travelogue motif has varied a little. Here’s a gem from a 1988 paperback edition of THE PEARLKILLERS:

”Rachel Ingalls, also the author of I SEE A LONG JOURNEY and BINSTEAD’S SAFARI, has been cited by the British Book Marketing Council as one of America’s best postwar novelists.”

Better, right? But would it prepare you for the series of four scintillating novellas inside that book jacket, one about an apparently cursed Vietnam widow, one about a long-secret dorm murder, one about a failed Latin American exploratory journey turned sexual adventure, and one about a recent divorcée discovering that she is the ultimate heiress of a plantation full of lobotomized near-slaves? No: from the bio alone, I would expect her to write pretty mainstream stuff.

Once, some determined soul in her publisher’s marketing department seems to have wrested from her some modicum of biographical detail, for the 1990 Penguin edition of SOMETHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT:

”Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the age of seventeen, she dropped out of high school and subsequently spent two years in Germany: one living with a family, the second auditing classes at the universities of Göttingen, Munich, Erlangen, and Cologne. After her return to the United States, she entered Radcliffe College, where she earned a degree in English. She has had six books published, including BINSTEAD’S SAFARI and THE PEARL KILLERS (sic). In 1964 (sic) she moved to England, where she has been living ever since.”

Now, typos aside, that’s a pretty engaging personal story, isn’t it? (And doesn’t it just haunt you, after having read the other bios: why does this one say she moved to London a year earlier than the others? What is she hiding?) Doesn’t it, in fact, illustrate how a much more interesting author bio could be constructed from the same material as the information-begrudging others were?

I was intrigued by why this bio was so much more self-revealing than the others, so I started checking on the publication history of this book. Guess what? The original 1988 edition of this book had been released by the Harvard Common Press, located easy walking distance from Radcliffe Alumnae Records. Evidently, I was not the only fan of her writing who had gone diving into her personal file.

”Talent is a kind of intelligence,” Jeffrey Eugenides tells us in MIDDLESEX, but all too often, writers’ faith in their talent’s ability to sell itself is overblown. Good writing does not sell itself anymore; when marketing even the best writing, talent, alas, is usually not enough. Especially not in the eyes of North American agents and editors, who expect to see some evidence of personality in prospective writers’ bios. If they didn’t want the information, they wouldn’t ask for it.

Think of it as another marketing tool for your work. They want to know not just if you can write, but also if you would make a good interview. And, not entirely selflessly, whether you are a person they could stand to spend much time around. Because, honestly, throughout the publication process, it’s you they are going to have to keep phoning and e-mailing, not your book.

Meet ‘em halfway. Produce an interesting author bio to accompany your submissions. Because, honestly, people like me can only push your work on everyone within shouting distance AFTER your books get published.

Speaking of which, if I have not already made myself clear: if you are even remotely interested in prose in the English language, you really should get ahold of some of Rachel Ingalls’ work immediately. You don’t want to be the last on your block to learn how to avoid the carnivorous toads, do you?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The myth of objectivity

Hello, readers –

I have received some interesting responses to Monday’s post about the relative weight public and private history should bear within the context of a memoir or novel (Getting the Balance Right, April 17). A couple of people have asked: what about objectivity? Aren’t there times when an objective statement of what is going on in a situation is appropriate?

A good question, and one that certainly deserves discussion.

Obviously, there are writing situations where a certain narrative distance from the subject matter is helpful to telling the story, but I’m not convinced that narrative distance, even far narrative distance drained of personal commentary, is inherently the best way to describe anything. Nor is it actually objectivity. Objectivity, it seems to me, does not lie in discounting the personal experiences of the individuals actually affected by the larger phenomenon being described, or in stripping a story of emotional content; these, too, are reflective of the storyteller, conscious choices in selecting a style of narrative. True objectivity, I think, consists of showing a complex story in all of its emotional roundness without judging the characters.

Or, as Mme. de Staël put it, “Philosophy is not insensitivity.”

I know, I know: this is most emphatically not how we generally hear the term objectivity bandied about. Most often, we hear it when the news media praises itself: they like to plume itself on presenting stories objectively. However, as anyone who reads a newspaper regularly can tell you, how journalistic objectivity tends to be more about balance than distance.

The imperative to balance, as if there were two – and only two – sides to any issue, often results in articles that are only superficially objective, or in presenting only the extreme ends of the opinion spectrum. In an effort to be fair to both sides, both of the sides presented are depicted as equally reasonable, and often as though humanity itself were split absolutely 50-50 on the point. Which in turn often gives the impression that every group involved is equally large. (I’m not giving the obvious example here, just in case any future president should want to appoint me to the Supreme Court.) And while the journalists who write such articles seem to be adhering strictly to the rules of objectivity they were taught in journalism school, the necessity of selecting which two POVs to highlight as the only two relevant arguments, and which to relegate to obscurity, is in itself a subjective choice.

We’ve all seen such articles, right? The structure is invariable: begin with personal anecdote about Person A on Side 1; move to description of overarching phenomenon; state what the government/institution/neighborhood proposes to do about the phenomenon; bring in the opinion of Person B on Side 2; discuss what that side would like to see done; project future. Then end with an emotion-tugging paragraph on the lines of, “But for now, Person A must suffer, because of all of the events mentioned in Paragraph 1.”

Now, is that truly objective? It is balanced, sure, insofar as Side 1 and Side 2 are both presented, but since the structure dictates that the reader gets more personal insight into Person A’s plight, doesn’t the choice of which side to highlight first dictate where most readers’ sympathies will tend?

How a journalist or any other writer – or a researcher, or a pollster, for that matter — chooses to frame a question is necessarily subjective. Heck, how we decide what is important enough to write about is a subjective decision. If you doubt this, I suggest an experiment: the next time a telephone pollster calls, pay attention to how the questions are worded. Are they encouraging certain answers over others? How many questions does it take you to figure out who commissioned the poll?

I’m not saying that writers should throw objectivity out the window; far from it. However, I think we are all better writers when we recognize that how we choose to define an objective stance is in itself a subjective decision. Once a writer acknowledges that, taking authorial responsibility for those choices rather than assuming that distance equals objectivity, and that objectivity is good, all kinds of possibilities for nuance pop up in a manuscript.

Which bring me back to my original point: from the reader’s POV, the objective facts of a story are only important insofar as they affect the characters the reader cares about – and that can be liberating for the writer.

Movies and television have encouraged the point of view of the outside observer in writing, because no matter how close a close-up is, the camera is always separate from the action it is filming to some extent. But not every story is best told from the perspective of a complete stranger standing across the room from the action; even in an impersonal third person narrative, the author can choose, for instance, to take into account the observations of the crying toddler being held in the arms of the protagonist. It is not better or worse, inherently, than the detached, across-the-room perspective; it is merely different. Considering it as a possibility, along with a wealth of other perspectives, gives the writer much more control in producing the desired emotional impact of the scene.

Not all editors, writing teachers, or readers would agree with me, of course, but as there were so many writers trained in the early-to-mid 20th century that a Graham Greene-like narrative detachment was the best way to tell most stories, resulting in a generation and a half of schoolchildren being taught that the third person SHOULD mean complete narrative detachment, I’m not too worried that all of you out there won’t hear the other side’s arguments.

I’m not a journalist, after all; I am under no obligation to show you Side 2.

One final word on objectivity for those of you who write about true events: many, if not most, members of the general public confuse their individual points of views with objectivity, as if we all went through life testifying in an endless series of depositions. They insist that their individual, subjective POVs are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and therefore the only possible version of events.

I bring this up, because literally every author I have ever met who has published a book about real events that took place within living memory (myself included) has been accosted at some point by someone whose life was touched by the events depicted in the book. These accosters then summarily inform the author that she is WRONG; the events certainly did not take place that way, and no reasonable person could possibly think that the author’s POV on the subject was accurate. Obviously, then, the author must have maliciously twisted the facts on purpose, to create a false impression. Because facts are objective, by gum: in a well-ordered universe, everyone would tell every story exactly the same way. And the author is left standing there, open-mouthed.

I just wanted you to be prepared.

Sadly, there is little the author can do in response to this sort of attack. It’s been my experience, and my true story-writing friends’, that it does not aid matters to try to explain the basic principles of subjectivity vs. objectivity or point of view to people who insist there can be only one POV. It’s easiest to treat such vehement amateur readers as you would a professional POV Nazi: thank them warmly for their input and get out of the room as fast as you can. If you see them in future, run the other way. (For further tips on handling the POV-insistent, see my posting, Help! It’s the Point-of-View Nazis!, April 4 and 5.)

I honestly do wish that I could give all of you who write about real events a talisman that would protect you, but this is one of those areas where writers tend to view the world very differently than others. If you doubt this, just try explaining to someone who has never tried to write what it’s like to be so grabbed by a story that you feel compelled to lock yourself up for months on end to get it on paper, without anyone paying you to do it. By non-artistic standards, the creative drive just doesn’t make sense.

I say that we should just embrace the fact that we think differently from other people. Let’s revel in our subjectivity, because insightful subjectivity is the cradle of original authorial voice. Let’s not be afraid to tell stories from various subjective POVs, where that’s appropriate. And above all, let’s not fall into the trap of believing that there is only one way to look at any given event. Or even two. Because that kind of attitude robs writers of the power to choose how best to tell the story at hand.

As Flaubert tells us, ”One does not choose one’s subject matter; one submits to it.” Let the story’s complexities dictate how it needs to be told.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Grand Silence

Hello, readers –

When I was a kid, I lived out in the middle of a vineyard, literally. In three directions, our nearest neighbors were half a mile away, and wildlife abounded. I learned to stomp hard when I walked anywhere near where rattlesnakes might be taking a mid-afternoon snooze, to avoid picking up rocks that might conceal sting-happy scorpions, and to use gloves when I cleaned out the garage, lest a territorial black widow jump out at me. They are known for their bad tempers, you know. I learned to walk with care, respecting their habits and preferences, and to jump away quickly, almost without thinking about it, at the first sound of a rattle or move indicative of cold-blooded annoyance.

All of which, of course, was terrific training for when I grew up and started dealing with people in the publishing industry. It’s easy to forget, in the throes of querying and submitting, that these people aren’t mean, for the most part: they, like the beasties of my youth, just are very, very particular about having their boundaries respected. Sometimes, you stumble over a boundary unawares, and then, all you can do is get out of their way.

Remember, this, please, the next time you get a scathing rejection letter or a publishing professional snubs your pitch at a conference. It usually isn’t aimed at you personally; you’re just the one the venom hits. They’re usually not doing it to be mean — you just inadvertently pushed the wrong conversational button. How were you to know that the agent snarling before you had a memoir deal go sour the week before — and yours was the next memoir pitch he heard? How were you to know that the protagonist of your novel bore a startling resemblance to the agency screener’s nasty ex-boyfriend?

But that wasn’t why I started to tell you about my youthful life amongst the beasties. There was a lot of warm-blooded wildlife, too, bears and foxes and deer. And, of course, masses of jackrabbits. So on any given Easter morning of my childhood, my mother could be observed pointing out a window at a racing rabbit and crying, “Look, kids! There goes the Easter Bunny!”

Do you think it actually was?

Now, I’m not here to speculate on whether the Resurrection Rabbit actually exists or not; that is a question, I feel, best left to the great philosophers of our day. I’m telling you this story to remind you of a cardinal rule of dealing with the often writer-insensitive publishing industry: not everything is always what it appears to be from where you’re standing.

Case in point: over the last three days, I have had conversations with four different writers (talented writers, all; three agented, one on the verge of being so) who were racked with worry because their respective agents had been sitting on manuscripts of theirs for so long. In two of the cases, the agents had promised to read the manuscript by a certain deadline, which had passed; in another, the author had performed a major revision, and the book had ostensibly been seen by a number of editors, yet the agent had not said word one for weeks; in the last, the agent had told the author a few weeks ago that the first two readers at the agency absolutely loved the book, and that she herself was reading it now and was hooked, but had gone mum ever since. What could it all mean?

Okay, I don’t want to upset anyone’s relationship with the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus here, but I’ve been in the industry long enough to tell you with a good deal of certainty what it means: these delays have nothing to do with the books. Nor are they indicative of how the agent feels about the author’s work, particularly. They do not mean, in all probability, that the agent is considering dropping/not signing the author, and they do not mean that the agent has been sitting around for weeks now, trying to figure out how she can possibly tell the author that her work is terrible. And they most emphatically do not mean that these gifted writers should give up the craft entirely.

I would bet my last kopeck that the delays in question are indicative of none of these things — all of which, incidentally, were suggested to me by the authors themselves. No, all of my years of experience shout to me that there is another, completely different reason behind each and every one of these delays.

Brace yourself, bunny lovers: the reason is that none of the agents have read the manuscripts yet.

The notion that a manuscript, the result of countless hours of the author’s hopeful effort, could conceivably sit on an agent’s (or editor’s) desk for weeks or months unread is a frightening one, isn’t it? But the sad fact is, it happens all the time.

I hear you rend the skies with your cries: Why?

Well, most agents and editors are really, really busy people; during the day, they work on manuscripts from writers they have already signed, go to meetings, argue with publishers over advances and royalties slow to materialize, pitch new books, etc. Which means that for manuscripts they have not yet accepted, or writers not yet signed, their reading time tends to be limited to a few stray moments throughout the day — and whatever time they can snatch during evenings and weekends.

So your manuscript may well not be gathering dust on a corner of the agent or editor’s desk; it may be gathering dust on in her kitchen, or on her bedside table, or on the floor next to her couch. And that’s the manuscripts she likes enough to want to read beyond the first few pages; few make it as far as being lugged home on the subway.

Think about this for a moment. A manuscript read at home is competing for the reader’s time and attention with any or all of the following: the reader’s spouse or partner, if any; the reader’s kids, if any; going to the gym; giving birth; AMERICAN IDOL; following current events; taking mambo lessons; trying to talk her best friend through a particularly horrible break-up; her own particularly horrible break-up; Jon Stewart on THE DAILY SHOW; grocery shopping; a teething infant; a date with someone who acts like a teething infant; personal hygiene, and voting in local, state, and national elections.

Honey, you shouldn’t be surprised that your manuscript has been sitting in limbo for a month; you should be surprised that it gets read in under a year.

The truth is, agents and editors tend to make decisions very quickly, once they have actually read the manuscript. There is a good practical reason for this: they read far, far too many manuscripts to be able to rely on their memories of the sixteen they read last week. In the long run, a snap decision saves time. However, it may take them a long while to find a moment in which to make that snap decision.

In other words: it’s not about you.

Knowing this doesn’t make the wait any easier, of course, but it might help stop you from indulging in that oh-so-common writers’ mental tic: compulsively wondering what is wrong with you and/or your manuscript. After awhile, that wonder starts to grow, nagging at you, urging you to revise your opening paragraph for the seventeenth time, or making you decide that the agent hates your work and is never going to contact you again. Or – and this one is particularly nerve-wracking – convincing yourself that the agent or editor is sitting up nights, vacillating about whether to go with your book or not. If only there were something you could do to push the decision in your favor…

Yes, I know: there is a rabbit running through those grapevines, and there is a basket of goodies on your doorstep. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the rabbit carried the basket there, does it?

For your own sake, nip this kind of enervating speculation in the bud. It is harmful to your self-esteem, and it honestly doesn’t help your book move through the process. Yes, it is tempting, in a situation where you have absolutely no control over the timing of a decision that will necessarily change your life, to think that there is something you can do to change the outcome. But the instinct to tinker with the manuscript to that end is attractive only because it is one of the few aspects of the situation that you CAN control.

When you feel yourself giving way to this type of thinking (as I do, too, occasionally), don’t let it dominate your life. Pick up the phone or e-mail a writer friend in a similar situation, or someone who is farther along in the process, to reassure yourself that you have not been singled out. Talk to someone who has read your manuscript, to be reassured that it is good. Take up needlepoint. Go to the gym. Start your next novel. But whatever you do, don’t sit around and brood about it, for that way lies great unhappiness.

And if an agent has been sitting on your manuscript for a month, it is perfectly acceptable to send a cheery, non-confrontational e-mail or call for an update. If the agent in question is reading your work with an eye to signing you, it is perfectly legitimate to send an e-mail after three weeks or a month, politely saying that you’re still interested in working with her, but that other agents are now looking at it, too. In fact, the knowledge that another agent is interested in the manuscript might even move you up in the queue.

If you are really afraid of annoying the reader, double the promised amount of reading time, THEN call or e-mail. Don’t whine, and don’t try to persuade; just calmly ask for an update on when you can expect to hear back.

And don’t be surprised if, when you do hear back, it turns out that the agent or editor hasn’t read it yet. She’s been too busy, leaving those baskets of eggs on other writers’ doorsteps.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Taxing experiences

Hello, readers –

Hey, I just realized – this is my 150th blog posting for the PNWA! Who’d have thought I’d have so much to say about getting work published, eh?

I promised to talk about what tax time is like for a working writer, and I shall, but first, I would like to address a few words to the very kind souls who have been e-mailing me lately about my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, slated to come out next month.

First, I really do appreciate your support; it has been a long process, and an unusually emotionally trying one. I would hate to have any of the NF writers out there think that my experience has been typical. As my longtime readers are already aware, the Dick estate has been threatening my publishers with legal action since last July. Nine interminable, stressful months. To add to the festivities, even though I do write this blog virtually every weekday, with the specific brief of filling you in on what it is like to be a writer in the throes of bringing a book to publication, I have been advised to comment on the specifics of the case as little as possible here.

To this end, I have been quite circumspect — which has been hard, as there is much in this situation that would be of real interest to aspiring writers. I’ve written about it when I could, and as I could, which is to say: not very much, considering how much of my time and energy it occupies. This has apparently generated quite a bit of curiosity amongst my readers, which I can certainly understand. I honestly don’t mean to tantalize you, but I am operating under constraints here.

For the same reason, I have been avoiding visiting the Dick estate’s website and fan forum during these months, although nice friends do occasionally fill me in on the debate about my book that has been going on there on and off since September. However, a number of you have e-mailed me this week, to ask about a formal statement that “the family” has posted about my book. In the interests of giving a fair view of what is going on, here is the link.

It is difficult to address this statement without going too far into the specifics of the case, but because people have asked, I am going to give it a try. First, it is a little strange that the estate is defining Philip’s family as excluding my mother. My mother was married to Philip K. Dick for 8 years; they were a couple for 10, and this period happens to be when he first started writing professionally. Their marriage, in fact, lasted longer than his three subsequent marriages combined, and she is obviously the best living source for information about Philip from that period.

Second, Philip remained a dear friend of both of my parents for most of his life, and he and I were also close, so he was a major force in my life until his death when I was 15. It would have been completely impossible to write a truthful memoir about my childhood or adolescence that did not include a fairly extensive depiction of our interactions, and the suggestion that I did not have the right to write about my own life is logically absurd. And even if it were not, Philip’s daughters gave me written permission to write the story of my interactions with their father from my own perspective. Where’s the problem here?

Third — and this is important — the Dick estate has never, as it claims in this statement, provided my publisher with a list of factual errors they believe to be in my memoir. They provided me with such a list last June; this list most emphatically did not include any request that I remove any section of the book dealing with my personal interactions with Philip. They were mostly extremely minor points, including demands that I change individual words that they did not like. I made the requested changes immediately, despite the fact that the people who conveyed them to me refused to answer follow-up questions on these points or provide me with evidence of any of their contentions.

The estate’s response to this cooperative attitude has been to send my publisher a series of attacks on my character, not requests for particular changes in the book; indeed, the only book-specific objection in the threats has been to the use of a particular photograph. I have asked three times in writing for a list of additional line changes they would like to see, and the estate promised twice to provide such a list, but it has never materialized. To this day, I remain mystified as to why the Dick estate considers this book so harmful, aside from the fact that I knew Philip and I wrote it.

I hope this sets some minds at ease. I honestly do appreciate the good intentions of the people who have written in, suggesting that I just go ahead and make the changes in the book the Dick estate wants in order to remove the problem, but honestly, the situation is far from that straightforward. Believe me, I spent months last summer trying to come to some sort of reasonable accommodation that would have made everybody happy without sacrificing the truth.

Okay, on to the topic du jour. Working writers — which is to say, those of us who actually get paid for doing it — usually treat their writing as a small business, for tax purposes. This means filing a Schedule C with one’s federal tax return — a lot less intimidating than it sounds, if you keep good records of your writing-related expenses — and, if one makes enough, a schedule SE, to pay self-employment tax. You should talk over what you need to file with your tax advisor, of course, but do make sure to find one with experience in preparing artists’ tax returns, because the common wisdom on what we can and can’t claim is not necessarily always accurate.

One very common misconception is that a writer must have made money from writing in a given year, or at any rate have made more money than she expended in toner cartridges and reams of paper, in order to claim writing as a small business. This is not true, and since the rules governing this have changed fairly recently, a non-specialist tax advisor might not be aware of it. As I understand it (but again, talk to a professional before you file, please), the fine folks at the IRS now recognize that writing a book can take a long time, and that it is legitimate to regard the writing time as business time, as long as the writer approaches the project AS a business: writing on a regular schedule, engaging in professional development to increase the likelihood of commercial success (such as attending conferences and taking classes), networking with other writers (another perq of joining a writers’ group!), etc.

It may seem a little silly to file a small business return when the totality of your writing income was $15 for a 400-word article in your local community newspaper, true, but personally, I have always found it empowering to write “Writer” on the occupation line of tax forms, even when, in the interests of strict truth, it was necessary to write in the occupation that actually paid the bills that year as well.

Think of it as getting in practice for when you hit the big time. This is not just wishful thinking; it is practical advice. Some of the deductions are counterintuitive. Since the writing life is unpredictable (unless you have published a perennial seller, a book that remains in demand consistently for years), a writer often does not know early in any given year whether she will be generating writing income by the end of it. It’s a good idea to get into the habit of keeping track of your writing expenses now, so you are prepared for the day that you suddenly sell a book in December.

It also gives you good ammunition when you are negotiating with your partner(s) about setting aside dedicated writing space where you will not be disturbed. (Hey, I said I was going to be practical here.) I believe that every serious writer should have a writing studio, someplace where she can close the door on the outside world and concentrate for significant chunks of time. Yes, plenty of wonderful books have been written on computers wedged between the refrigerator and the kitchen table, but most of us work better in a committed space.

And what do you know, the tax people can help you out here: in order to deduct the costs of a home office for your business, it has to be used ONLY as a home office. No using it as a guest room for relatives, a place to dry flowers, or a place for your sweetie’s seldom-used power tools; it must be dedicated space.

I can feel some of you out there smiling already. “I’m sorry, dear,” I hear you say as you close the door gently but firmly upon your kith and kin. “The federal government says that you’re not allowed into my writing space during my writing time.”

And you thought I was kidding about how you fill out a tax form’s being empowering!

As it turns out, an awful lot of what a writer spends is tax-deductible: the percentage one pays one’s agent, for instance, is completely deductible; there’s actually a line on the Schedule C for commissions and fees. There’s also a space for legal and professional services, so if you hire a freelance editor or consult a tax advisor who specializes in artists, you can deduct that, too.

Ditto with office expenses, so make sure to save all of those receipts for paper, toner, and computer repair. Any supplies (including postage for those SASEs) you use to query agents or editors are potentially deductible, as are long-distance phone calls for the same purpose. If you decide that you would like to send your queries out on nice custom letterhead, or hand out snazzy business cards to everyone you meet at writers’ conferences (you should and you should, if you can afford it; it makes you appear more professional), save those receipts, too.

And, not to plug my boss, but what about professional memberships, such as joining the PNWA?

I’ve noticed, in both myself and my successful author friends as we’ve made the transition from being people who write to people who make a living writing, that the realization that professional development expenses are usually tax-deductible makes a subtle difference in how we choose which writers’ conferences, seminars, and retreats we attend. Frankly, I think it gets us out of the house more. The expensive ones are sometimes worth it, although it’s been my experience that cost is not necessarily a reliable indicator of the quality of a professional development experience. (Oh, the conference stories I could tell you!)

Don’t forget, too, to save receipts for those cookies you bought when your writing group met at your house, because that is a writing-related entertainment expense. So is meeting a writer friend for lunch to discuss which agents you should query. Heck, I’ve been known to dispense publishing advice over a cup of coffee and keep the receipt. Just make sure that you write on the receipt RIGHT AWAY who was there, what you talked about, and how it related to your writing. You’re not going to remember the specifics come next April.

And what about market research? Do you buy WRITER’S MARKET every year? Subscribe to POETS & WRITERS magazine? (As you should, if you are interested in entering contests; they are good at screening out disreputable ones from their lists.) What about buying books in the area in which you hope to publish? This may seem a trifle far-fetched, but listen: how are you going to know what’s selling in your area unless you read what’s coming out now? How else would you learn what the industry standard for your genre is, or find an agent who represents exactly the kind of work you write, without buying and reading a few books?

Get the idea?

Do force yourself to keep impeccable records, however. It is something of a myth that freelance writers get audited more than most people (1% of the filing population is always audited every year, regardless, so the probability of being audited is higher for everyone than most people think), but hey, better safe than sorry, eh? Grab the nearest shoebox (even if it still has shoes in it), label it “WRITING EXPENSES, 2006,” and get into the habit of tossing every relevant receipt into it as soon as the money is spent. I even track my writing hours on a weekly basis, so I can show, if necessary, hard evidence that I approach writing as my primary business.

Again, when in doubt, consult a tax professional, and it’s actually not a bad idea to have a an experienced professional walk you through the Schedule C and SE step-by-step before you file them for the first time, to make sure that you understand what is a legitimate expense and what isn’t.

But, please, don’t let doubts about your own professional status make you hesitate about whether you are really writer enough to declare your efforts as a business. It is not sales that make a real writer, but talent and industry, regardless of what insensitive friends may tell you. If you are writing regularly on specific projects, with specific markets in mind, and taking logical steps to make your work more professionally viable (such as reading a professionally-oriented writers’ blog on a regular basis for tips, for example), technically, it isn’t just a hobby.

Don’t take my word for it; the government says so, too.

Happy 150th, everybody. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Getting the balance right

Hello, readers –

I don’t want to disturb you, if you are one of the countless many rushing to get your tax forms postmarked by the time the post office closes, so I shan’t burden you today with a description of what tax time is like for the full-time writer. There will be time enough for that tomorrow, after everyone’s had a good night’s sleep.

In the meantime, please be extra-nice to postal employees today, because this is one of their most stressful workdays of the year — would you want hundreds of panicked last-minute filers rushing up to your workstation all day? — and I shall devote today’s posting to a writing insight I had over the weekend.

As many of you know, I have a memoir in press and a novel on the cusp of making the rounds of editors. In my freelance editing business, I regularly edit both, as well as doctoring NF books, so I consider myself pretty savvy about the tricks of the trade. This weekend, as if to remind me that I should always keep an open mind, a deceptively simple but undeniably useful rule of thumb popped into my mind while I was editing (drum roll, please):

The weight a given fact or scene should have in a manuscript is best determined by its emotional impact upon the book’s protagonist, rather than by its intrinsic or causative value.

Is that too technical? In other words, just because an event is important in real life doesn’t mean that it deserves heavy emphasis in a story. In a memoir, events are only relevant as they affect the central character(s); in a first-person novel, this is also true. Even in a third-person narrative told from a distant perspective, not every fact or event is equally important, and thus the author needs to apply some standard to determine what to emphasize and what merely to mention in passing.

To put this in practical terms: if you were writing about characters who lived New York in September of 2001, obviously, it would be appropriate to deal with the attacks on the World Trade Center, because it affected everyone who lived there. To some extent, the attacks affected everyone in the country, and in the long term, people in other countries as well. However, not everyone was affected equally, so not every book written about New Yorkers, Americans, or world citizens during that period needs to rehash the entire 9/11 report.

This may seem obvious on its face, but in practice, writers very often misjudge the balance between personal and public information in their manuscripts, as well as between historical backstory (both impersonal and personal) and what their protagonists are experiencing in the moment. In fact, it is a notorious megaproblem of memoirists and first-time novelists alike.

Sometimes, balance issues arise from a genuinely laudable desire to ground the story believably in a given time period. Memoirs about the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, tend to include extensive disquisitions on both the Vietnam War and hippie culture, the writerly equivalent of director Oliver Stone’s amusing habit of decorating crowd scenes from that period with a visible representative of every group in the news at the time, regardless of whether members of those groups would ever have attended the same event in real life: a protest march including Abbie Hoffman flanked by Gloria Steinem and several Black Panthers, for instance, with perhaps a Rastafarian, two of the Supremes, and Cat Stevens thrown in for good measure.

I bring up movie-style time markers advisedly, because, as I have pointed out before, how movies and television tell stories has seeped into books. On a big screen, stereotypical images are easier to get away with, I think, because they pass so quickly: have you noticed, for example, that virtually every film set in a particular year will include only that year’s top ten singles on the soundtrack, as though no one ever listened to anything else?

Frankly, I think this is a lost opportunity for character development, in both movies and books. Music choice could tell the reader a lot about a character: the character who was listening primarily to Smokey Robinson in 1968 probably thought rather differently than the character who was listening to the Mamas and the Papas or Mantovani, right? Even if they were smoking the same things at the time.

To use an example closer to home, in high school, if my cousin Janie and I walked into a record store at the same time, she would have headed straight to the top 40 hits, probably zeroing in rather quickly on big ballad-generating groups like Chicago. She was always a pushover for whoever used to warble the “I’m all out of love/I’m so lost without you” equivalent du jour. I, on the other hand, would have headed straight for the razor-cut British bands with attitude problems, your Elvis Costellos and Joe Jacksons. I am quite sure that I was the only 7th-grader in my school who was upset when Sid Vicious died.

Quick, which one of us was the cheerleader, me or Janie? And which one of us brought a copy of THE TIN DRUM to read on the bleachers when the football game got dull? (Hey, it was a small town; there was little to do but go to the Friday night high school football game.)

Such details are very useful in setting up a believable backdrop for a story, but all too often, writers spend too much page space conveying information that might apply to anyone of a particular age or socioeconomic group at the time. It’s generic, and thus not very character-revealing.

If I told you, for instance, that Janie and I both occupied risers in the first soprano section of our elementary school choir, belting out numbers from FREE TO BE YOU AND ME, much of the Simon & Garfunkel songbook, and, heaven help us, tunes originally interpreted by John Denver, the Carpenters, and Woody Guthrie, does this really tell you anything but roughly when the two of us were born?
Okay, the Woody Guthrie part might have tipped you off that we grew up in Northern California, but otherwise?

When books spend too much time on generic historical details, the personal details of the characters’ lives tend to get shortchanged. (And, honestly, can’t we all assume at this point that most readers are already aware that the 1960s were turbulent, that people discoed in the 1970s, and that it was not unknown for yuppies to take the occasional sniff of cocaine in the Reagan years?) It’s a matter of balance, and in general, if larger sociopolitical phenomena did not have a great impact upon the protagonist’s life, I don’t think those events deserve much page space.

I think this is also true of minutiae of family history, which have a nasty habit of multiplying like weeds and choking the narrative of a memoir. Just because the narrator’s family did historically tell certain stories over and over doesn’t mean that it will be interesting for the reader to hear them, right?

You would be amazed at how often memoirists forget this. Or so agents and editors tell me.

This is particularly true of anecdotes about far-past family members. If your great-grandmother’s struggle to establish a potato farm in Idaho in the 1880s has had a strong residual impact upon you and your immediate family, it might be worth devoting many pages of your memoir or autobiographical novel to her story. However, if there is not an identifiable payoff for it from the reader’s POV — say, the lessons she learned in tilling the recalcitrant soil resulting a hundred years later in a certain fatalism or horror of root vegetables in her descendents — the reader may well feel that the story strays from the point of the book. James Michener be damned — consider telling Great-Grandma’s story in its own book, not tacking on a 200-page digression.

I think we all know that the earth cooled after the Big Bang, Mr. Michener. Let’s move on.

Because, you see, in a memoir (or any first-person narrative), the point of reference is always the narrator. Within the context of the book, events are only important insofar as they affect the protagonist. So even if the story of how the narrator’s parents met is a lulu, if it doesn’t carry resonance into the rest of the family dynamic, it might not be important enough to include.

In my memoir, I do in fact include the story of how my parents met — not because it’s an amusing story (which it is, as it happens), but because it is illustrative of how my family tends to treat its collective past primarily as malleable raw material for good anecdotes, rather than as an unalterable collection of hard facts. “History,” Voltaire tells us, and my family believed it, “is a series of fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”

I don’t say whether this is actually true or not; as a memoirist, my role is not to make absolute pronouncements on the nature of truth or history, but to present my own imperfect life story in a compelling way. So in my memoir, I reproduce the three different versions of the story of how my parents met that I heard most often growing up, with indications of the other dozen or so that showed up occasionally at the dinner table during my most impressionable years. I include them, ultimately, because my family’s relationship to its own past was a terrific environment for a child who would grow up to be a novelist.

Most of us are pretty darned interesting to ourselves: it’s hard not to have a strong reaction to your own family dynamics, whether it be amusement, acceptance, or disgust. That’s human; it’s understandable. But as a writer dealing with true events, you have a higher obligation than merely consulting your own preferences: you have a responsibility — and, yes, a financial interest, too, in the long run — to tell that story in such a way that the reader can identify with it.

Remember, fascinating people are not the only people who find themselves and their loved ones interesting; many a boring one does as well. And if you doubt this, I can only conclude that you have never taken a cross-country trip sitting next to a talkative hobbyist, a fond grandmother, or a man who claims his wife does not understand him.

Quoth D.H. Lawrence in SONS AND LOVERS: “So it pleased him to talk to her about himself, like the simplest egoist. Very soon the conversation drifted to his own doings. It flattered him immensely that he was of such supreme interest.”

So if you are writing about your kith and kin, either as fiction or nonfiction, take a step back from time to time and ask yourself: have I gotten the balance right?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Author bio, Part III: Say cheese!

Hello, readers –

Yesterday, I was discussing the importance of making your author bio as entertaining as possible. Have it reflect your personality, and the book’s personality as well. It needs to show two things: that you are an authority with a background that makes you the perfect person to write this book, and that you are an interesting, engaging person with whom publishers might like to work – and whom readers would like to know.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right?

Well, no, but certainly doable. You should mention what you are doing now for a living — unless it is temp work or secretarial, in which case you should say you are a freelance writer (which, as long as you write and no one is employing you full-time to do it, you are!)

This is a good place, too, to showcase any background you have that makes you an expert in the area of your book. You need not have been paid for the relevant experience in order to include here. Definitely mention any long-term interests connected to your book, even if they are merely hobbies (as in, for a book about symphonies, “George Clooney has been an avid student of the oboe since the age of three.”)

List any contests you have won or placed in. If you like, you may also include any venues where you have published, paid or not. Even unpaid book reviews in your company’s newsletter are legitimate credentials, if you wrote them.

You need not limit yourself to your professional achievements, either, in your quest to sound interesting. Adding a quirky hobby often works well, as long as it is true; actually, it’s a good idea to include one, because it tells agents and editors that you have broad enough interests to be a good interview subject down the line. Ditto with wacky family background: my great-grandmother was an infamous Italian opera diva, for instance. Relevant to what I write? Seldom. But incredibly memorable? Definitely.

If you are in doubt about whether a certain tidbit is appropriate to include, use this test: would you be comfortable having that fact displayed on the dust jacket of this particular book? Even if your mother were to pick up a copy? More importantly, is it a detail that would help build the reader’s confidence that the author of this book is has credibly mastered its subject matter?

Note that I specified THIS book. It is perfectly legitimate to have different bios for different projects; in fact, it’s sometimes advisable, if your different projects have very different emphases or target markets, to highlight the relevant parts of your character in each.

I used to do quite a bit of food writing (under an alter ego). That bio emphasized the fact that I grew up on the second floor of a winery in the Napa Valley. For my memoir, though, the winery connection is less relevant, and my credibility more, so that bio gives greater prominence to the fact that I hold degrees from some pretty prominent and snotty schools.

Get it? Remember, this is the document your agent will be using in order to describe you to editors, and editors to other editors at editorial meetings while arguing in favor of buying your book. It is perfectly acceptable to make it funny, especially if your book is funny.

My comic novel, currently cooling its heels in my agent’s office, relies heavily on my quirky sense of humor, so I was able to pull out all the stops and gear the accompanying author bio for maximum comic value. It mentions, among other things, that I learned to run a still when I was in elementary school and that when I was a delegate to a national political convention which shall remain nameless, an over-eager cameraman chasing a minor candidate knocked me over, spraining both my ankles. The next day of the convention, I covered my bandaged limbs with political stickers and propped them up on a rail; the AP spread photographs of this, billed as evidence of the dangers of political activism, all over the globe.

Think editors who read my bio are going to remember me?

As you may see, I think it is of paramount importance for an author’s bio not to be boring, as long as everything said there is true. (Yes, my father really did teach me to make brandy.) If you honestly can’t think of a thing to put, try asking a couple of friends to describe you. Chances are, they will mention the top few things that should be in your bio.

There are two standard formats for an author bio. The first is very straightforward: a single page, double-spaced, with the author’s name centered on the top of the page. The next line should read: “Author bio.” Not a startlingly original title, it’s true, but certainly descriptive.

Personally, I use the other type of bio format: half a page, single-spaced, with a 4×6 black-and-white photograph of me centered 1 inch from the top of the page, above the text. In between the photo and the text, my name appears, centered.

The easiest way to do accomplish this is to get a friend with a digital camera take a picture that you like, then use the image as clip art to be inserted on your author bio page. Otherwise, take the photo to a copy center and ask them to arrange a color copy so that the picture and the text are on the same page.

I can tell you from experience, though: it will take many tries to obtain a photograph that you like enough to want to see mass-produced. This is one reason that you don’t always recognize your favorite authors at book signings, incidentally; established authors’ photos are often a decade or more out of date. Not merely out of vanity, in order to appear more youthful to their readers (although I could name some names here), but because the photo-selecting process can be tedious and expensive.

Another excellent reason not to leave the construction of your author bio to the last minute, eh?

I speak with aspiring writers all the time who are shocked — shocked! — to learn that the author is responsible for obtaining the photograph that graces the dust jacket. In the bad old days, publishers would often pay for the photo session, since this photo is usually also reproduced in the publisher’s catalogue, too. They are the clear beneficiaries. Now, it is often posted on their website as well, but chances are that they’re still not going to pay anyone to take a picture of you until you are very well established indeed.

Yes, you’re right: this is yet another expense that the publishing world has shifted onto writers. Sorry.

If you tend to find potential agents and editors by accosting them at conferences and/or classes, it is worth your while to shell out for the small additional expense of producing an author bio with a photo of you on it. The reason for this is simple: it makes it easier for agents and editors to remember having spoken to you. Not in a “my, but that’s an attractive writer!” sort of way, but in a “hey, I have a distinct recollection of having had a rather pleasant conversation a month ago with that person” manner.

(I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the average agent at the PNWA conference speaks to somewhere between 50 and 200 eager writers. The chances of his remembering your name in retrospect are rather low. This is true, even if the agent in question appeared to be foaming at the mouth with greed when you pitched your project. Again, sorry.)

It is less important to look pretty in your author photo than to look interesting, generally speaking. Unless your book’s subject matter is very serious, try not to make your bio picture look like a standard, posed publicity shot. It is amazing how many author photos look like senior class pictures, devoid of personality. Try to not to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Write a Book.

Bear in mind that the photo is another opportunity to express your personality – which, lest we forget, is part of what you are selling when you pitch a book, like it or not. You might want to surround yourself with objects associated with your topic for the photo, but avoid making the picture too busy. You want the viewer to focus on your face.

One of the best author photos I ever saw was of an arson investigator; far from being airbrushed and neat, he was covered in soot, crouched in front of the ashes of a burned-down building out of which he had apparently recently crawled. Did I believe instantly that he knew his subject? You bet.

I know that pulling this all together seems daunting, but trust me, the more successful you become, the more you will bless my name for urging you to put together a killer bio, with or without photo, in advance. Once you start getting published, even articles in relatively small venues or on websites, people in the industry will start asking for your author bio and photo. At that point, when editors are clamoring to hear your – yes, YOUR – magical words, I can absolutely guarantee that the last thing you will want to be doing is sitting hunched over your keyboard, trying to summarize your entire life in 200 words.

I look forward to that day, and so should you. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini