The return of the Point-of-View Nazis, part II: let’s see you try that with Jane Austen, buddy

As a follow-up to my series on differentiating between absolute rules of the trade (e.g., double-spaced, single-sided manuscript submissions) and stylistic advice (e.g., ideally, dialogue should be revealing enough that littering the text with adverb-heavy tag lines should be unnecessary), I was discussing Point-of-View Nazis yesterday. I’m eager to move along to my much-anticipated series on what new wisdom I gleaned at the two conferences I attended this month, but POVNs are such a beautiful example of writing advice-givers who apparently do not make the smallest distinction between Thou Shalt Do This dicta and style tips that I wanted to spend today giving you a concrete look at what a difference taking such advice as absolute can do.

For those of you coming to the discussion late, POVNs are those fine folks who go around telling other writers that there are, in effect, only two possibilities for narrative voice: the first person singular and a tight third person singular, where the narration remains rigidly from the point of view of a single actor in the drama, usually the protagonist. Philosophically, I have to admit, I find the idea that these are the only ways to tell a story troubling. In my experience, there are few real-life dramatic situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance. (Watch a few randomly-chosen days’ worth of Court TV, if you doubt this.) I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

And the disagreement amongst writing experts on this point tends to support my argument, doesn’t it?

I also believe that there are very, very few people who appear to be exactly the same from the POV of everyone who knows them. Most people act, speak, and even think rather differently around their children than around their adult friends, just as they often have slightly (or even wildly) different personalities at home and at work. If anyone can find me a real, live person who acts exactly the same in front of his three-year-old daughter, his boss’ boss, the President of the United States, and a stripper at a bachelor party, I would be quite surprised.

I would also suggest that either the person in question has serious social adjustment problems (on the order of Forrest Gump’s), or that perhaps the person who THINKS this guy is always the same in every context is lacking in imagination. Or simply doesn’t know the guy very well. My point is, almost nobody can be completely portrayed from only a single point of view — which is why sometimes narratives that permit the protagonist to be seen from the POV of other characters can be most illuminating.

Admittedly, my own experience trying to get a truthful memoir onto shelves near you has undoubtedly sharpened my sense that points of view vary. As some of you know, my memoir has been in press for the last year and a half, held hostage by a (the last I heard) $2 million lawsuit threat. At no point has anyone concerned suggested I was lying about the events in my book: the threatened lawsuit has been purely about whether I have the right to present the story of my family from my point of view, rather than someone else’s – like, say, the people who want the $2 million.

So I have seriously been forced to spend the last year and a half defending the notion that a rather well-known neurotic might have acted differently around his long-term friends than he did around, say, his own seldom-seen children or interviewers he barely knew. Why, the next thing you know, the POVNs huff, writers like me might start implying that people act differently when they’re on drugs than when they’re sober! Or that perhaps celebrities and their press agents do not always tell the absolute truth when promoting their work!

I can only refer you to your own experience interacting with other human beings for the most probable answers to these troubling questions. I only ask — and it’s a little request; it won’t hurt anybody — that those who believe that there is only a single way of looking at any person, situation, or institution occasionally admit the possibility that the whole complex, wonderful world is not reducible to a single point of view, that they would not try to silence those who do not see the world as merely a reflection of their own minds. Or at least that they would not insist that anyone who sees something from a different perspective should be hounded.

Enough about me and my books, however — let’s get back to how POVNs can affect you and yours.

Regardless of your own POV preferences, it’s important that you know that there are people out there who will want to impose their stylistic preferences upon yours, because they turn up with some fair frequency in agencies, as contest judges, as editors, and as critics. They are statistically more likely to be Baby Boomers than Gen Xers or Gen Yers, however, so they are less likely to be agency screeners than in years past. (Being a manuscript screener is generally someone’s first job in the business, not one kept for decades.) Nevertheless, they do turn up, sometimes in agents’ chairs and behind editorial desks, so it’s best to be prepared for them.

To make it clear what the stakes are, I would guess that roughly 2/3rds of fiction submissions are written in the third person, so obviously, the question of POV choice in third person narrative is thrust upon agents and editors on a practically hourly basis. Of those 2/3rds, a hefty majority will include more than one POV in the narration. So, really, a POVN reader has a significant advantage in rejecting the day’s submissions speedily: if you were willing to stop reading the moment a second character’s impressions show up, you could reject most manuscripts before the middle of page 2.

This is not to say that you should abandon multiple perspectives if you love them, or that you should systematically strip your submissions of any insights but the protagonist’s, out of fear of rejection by a POVN. Again, personally, I don’t believe that a single POV does most characters or situations justice, so I tend toward a broader narrative view, particularly for comedy.

Call me wacky, but if I want to hear a single POV, I reach for a first-person narrative.

These are merely my personal preferences, however; I am perfectly willing to listen to those who disagree with me. And there I differ from the POVN, who wishes to impose his views upon everyone within the sound of his voice, or reach of his editorial pen. To put it in terms of my posts of the last few days, the POVN wants all of us to regard his preferences as hard-and-fast rules.

When your work is attacked with phrases like, “well, it’s more or less impossible to pull off an omniscient narrator,” resist the temptation to throw the entire Great Books fiction shelf at the speaker. Recognize that you are dealing with a POVN, and take everything he says with a gargantuan grain of salt. You can’t convince a true believer; you’ll only wear yourself out with trying. Cut your losses and move on.

But before you do, consider the possibility that the critique may be useful to apply to your manuscript of the moment.

You’re surprised I said that, aren’t you? But really, POVNs do occasionally have a point: too-frequent POV switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow. One of the more common first-novel megaproblems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence — and therein lies the POVN’s primary justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing.

But heck, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion, isn’t it? When in doubt, give each perspective its own paragraph. It won’t protect you from a POVN’s rage, of course, but it will make your scene easier for your reader to follow.

Let’s take a look at how the POVN works in practice, so you may recognize him in the wild, to decide whether you want to join forces with him or not. Suppose that Jane Austen took the following paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to her writing group, which contained a cabal of POVNs:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”

As an editor, I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons here, but it’s not too difficult to follow whose perspective is whose, right? Yet, as the POVNs in her group would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives rolling around promiscuously together in this single brief paragraph, although there are only two people involved:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry…” (Elizabeth’s POV)

“but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody” (the POV of an external observer)

“Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her…” (Darcy’s POV)

Now, a POVN in our Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly urge her to pick a single perspective (Elizabeth’s would be the logical choice) and stick to it consistently throughout the book; a POVN agent would probably reject PRIDE AND PREJUDICE outright, and a POVN editor would pick a perspective and edit accordingly — or, more commonly, send out an editorial memo saying that he MIGHT consider buying the book, but only if Jane revised it so all of the action is seen from Elizabeth’s perspective only).

Let’s say that Jane was cowed by the vehemence of the POVNs and scuttled home to take their advice. The resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from her original intention. It would probably ending up reading rather like this:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. Darcy remained silent.”

My gut feeling is that Jane would not be particularly satisfied with this revision, both because some characterization has been lost and for plotting reasons. At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. This would, of course, mean that his proposal would be a greater plot twist, coming out of the blue, but the reader would also end up with absolutely no idea how, beginning from initial indifference, Elizabeth charms began to steal over Darcy, over his own objections. Which would mean, really, that the title of the book should be changed to just PREJUDICE.

(I’m assuming for the purposes of my argument here that every single one of you has read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, which is perhaps not a warranted assumption. However, if you are even vaguely interested in writing humorous scenes in the English language, you really should do yourself a favor and check Aunt Jane’s work out of the library.)

Yet if I may pull up a chair in Jane’s writing group for a moment (oh, like this whole exercise wouldn’t require time travel), allow me to point out how easily a single stroke of a space bar clears up even the most remote possibility of confusion about who is thinking what:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.

“Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”

The moral here, my friends, is once again that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true in every case. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for a good, long while. You may find, after serious consideration, that you want to embrace being a POVN, at least for the duration of a particular project; there are many scenes and books where the rigidity of this treatment works beautifully. But for the sake of your own growth as a writer, make sure that the choice is your own, and not imposed upon you by the beliefs of others.

To paraphrase the late Mae West, if you copy other people’s style, you’re one of a crowd, but if you are an honest-to-goodness original, no one will ever mistake you for a copy.

Keep up the good work!

Conflicting opinions on writing standards: what’s a girl to do?

Reader Claire wrote in the other day with an interesting observation, one that I thought merited its own post. Quoth she:

“I tend to read your blog as if it were the Bible, but as I’ve seen conflicting formatting advice on the use of italics and font all over the Internet from equally wonderful writers, I find myself having a crisis of faith. I’ve heard it preached that only Courier will do because it’s not mono-spaced as is Times New Roman, and that only an amateur would use italics because manuscripts are not formatted like books, and that we still need to pretend we’re indicating to the typesetter that certain words need to be italicized. I guess I need reassurance that your advice is what belongs in the canon. As for the life changing news that query letters should be in correspondence format, I am truly grateful. Thanks for opening the doors of the temple to the uninitiated.”

Well, for starters, Claire, I’m not sure anyone should be treating what I say — or what anybody says, for that matter — as Gospel, and on matters of style, there simply isn’t a canonical source that will answer all conceivable questions for every kind of book. (Sorry, but it’s true.) On matters of formatting, it’s been my experience that the folks who take such matters as italicizing foreign words seriously take it VERY seriously, so I can certainly understand why an aspiring writer would want there to be a firm canonical text that states beyond the shadow of a doubt what needs to happen in a manuscript.

So while admittedly, my first impulse was to disclaim the idea of a canon at all — the substance of my original answer: if you don’t like my advice on any given point, for heaven’s sake, don’t take it! — I’m going to talk explicitly today about a subject I generally avoid like the plague, out of professional courtesy to other writers on writing. I’m going to talk about why we writing advice-givers so often advise diametrically opposed things.

To set everyone’s nervous pulses at ease right off the bat, most of the conflicting advice I have seen deals with matters of style, with industry trends in what is liked and disliked, rather than with matters that will get your submission rejected unread after three lines. (Next week, I am planning a fairly hefty series on what industry professionals said at the two conferences I attended this month about why they stop reading a submission — and I think it may surprise you how many of those reasons are matters of personal preference.) The industry assumption is, alas, that only properly-formatted submissions deserve serious consideration, so you are quite right, Claire, to be concerned with whether you are getting the real story on how to present your work.

I try to maintain a fairly strong distinction between what a writer MUST do in a submission (i.e., adhere to standard format) and what it might help a writer to do in it (e.g., matters of style). And I have to say, my version of the must-do advice has never steered anyone wrong, as far as I know.

There’s a good reason for that. In the must-do posts, all I am presenting is a discussion of what has worked successfully for my own work and that of my editing clients, and what I have seen used by career writers throughout my life. I know from long experience that no manuscript adhering to the standard format guidelines I have given here will be rejected for technical reasons — but I have seen many, many manuscripts that do not adhere to them rejected.

Beyond that, I talk about matters of style, and those discussions are, too, based upon my observations of the industry as a writer, editor, contest judge, and interviewer of agents, screeners, etc. As with all advice, I would hope that my readers recognize that what I am presenting is my opinion, and thus not to be regarded as the revealed word of God, any more than any other fallible mortal’s. Seriously, it’s not really possible to comment credibly upon one’s own credibility, and I suppose if I were worried about it, I would go on about my doctorate, publishing successes, my status as a fine human being, my kindness to stray kittens, etc. I don’t make any secret of my background — my bio is posted on this site for all to see, after all — but I would prefer to think that my advice speaks for itself.

As I routinely tell my editing clients, if a particular piece of stylistic advice doesn’t make sense to you, don’t follow it. Yes, it’s important that your work be professionally packaged, but it’s equally important that you sound like you.

I have to say, though, I think the tone of my blog is one of the least order-barking of any writer’s on the net, yet every time I post a list of standard format restrictions, I am barraged with questions each time I set foot outside my door for the next month. As if MY changing my mind on a particular point would make a particle of difference to whether it is necessary to adhere to industry standards. But as I believe I have pointed out several times before, I run neither the publishing industry nor the universe: I don’t invent the rules; I just report ‘em to you. Sorry about that.

Believe me, my life would be FAR easier if I just stopped being honest with my readers about the doubled dash vs. the emdash, or about underlining vs. italics. Yet about a fourth of the people who ask me about them seem to be wanting me to say, “Oh, I was just kidding about THAT part of standard format,” or to be trying to draw me into a dispute with another online writing advice-giver, as if we could settle differing opinions on stylistic issues by arm-wrestling once and for all.

Trust me, neither is going to happen; I have neither the time, the inclination, nor the arm strength. I have manuscripts to get out the door, people, mine and others: believe me, devoting a couple of hours a day to misleading you about how title pages should look would NOT be an efficient use of my time.

Although it’s not a bad premise for a comic novel, come to think of it.

That being said, Claire’s crisis of faith is quite understandable, because there are a LOT of people on the net claiming to be experts on what does and doesn’t work in a submission. And, frankly, a lot of them seem to be speaking in tones of great authority. The burning bush sounds like a timorous stutterer compared to some of the Point-of-View Nazis out there, and there is certainly no shortage of prophets of doom who will tell you that their advice alone holds the hidden key to publication.

Being emphatic doesn’t mean they’re correct, though — or that their opinions are either reflective of or influential in the industry as a whole. I — and most of the good writing bloggers out there, I think — try to be honest with you about the fact that, as nearly as I can tell, the only magic key to success is writing talent; I merely try to let you in on the not-quite-secret handshakes, such as submitting in standard format, that will enable you to get your talent under the right eyes for long enough that it can be discovered.

And the first step to that, in my experience, is submitting in standard format. The second is avoiding the most common manuscript mistakes, and the third is polishing one’s style. The first two, I think, tend to be fairly cut-and-dried; the last is much more personal to the writer. But, again, my goal here is to try to help speed up my readers’ progress through those steps by showing what I have seen does and doesn’t work, not to give dicta for the ages.

I’m not convinced that any writer about writing, however well qualified, is entitled to be regarded as an authority beyond that. It’s not as though the online advice-givers make the rules of the industry — and as much as some of our readers might like to see us step into the ring and duke it out, I, for one, don’t think that it would be appropriate for any of us to dictate matters of style as unwavering rules. Personally, as a fiction writer, I do tend to take far more seriously the insights of writing gurus who have actually written a novel or two themselves (which surprisingly few have), but again, that’s my individual choice.

Yet when writers farther along in the publication process give advice to the aspiring, practically everything we say can sound like a prescription for literary greatness, can’t it? It’s a fine line between being honestly self-revealing and saying, “Hey, I think you should work precisely the way I do.” And, as anyone who has ever spent much time at writers’ conferences can tell you, a lot of writers who teach writing stray across that line with some frequency.

In my experience, what works for one writer will not necessarily work for another — and really, the vast majority of us writing about writing are not writing about immutable rules most of the time. We’re writing about practice; we’re writing about style; we’re writing about our experience of what does and doesn’t work in the industry. We’re writing about our writing habits, and while I do definitely think listening to the more experienced is a great way to learn, sometimes our quirks are not transferable.

To make the distinction clear, I would NEVER even consider sending out a submission that did not have the foreign words italicized, any more than I would send out one that did not include a slug line on every page; because I know that to be the norm of the industry, I would encourage you never to do it, either. I’m completely comfortable presenting that as a hard-and-fast rule, one that I am equally likely to preach to you as to the fairly well-known foreign-born author of 5 published novels and 2 nonfiction books in my writers’ group, who is not always consistent about it (at least before I get my grubby paws on her chapters). I’m known for harping upon standard format in a variety of contexts.

However, I always put my longish hair up in a French roll while I am revising my own work, and for a very good reason. For years, the left side of my nose always broke out when I was revising. I thought it was just due to stress, but during a revision of my memoir last year, I noticed that my nose looked better after hot days of revising than after cold ones. That seemed counterintuitive, so I started paying attention to what I was doing while I was staring at the screen re-reading my work for the 521rst time – and lo and behold, it turns out that some little imp in my id springs to life at that particular moment, grabs a few strands of my hair, and idly rubs it against my nose while I’m thinking. I must have been doing this for years, but I had never noticed the cause, only the effect. Thus my skin’s being happier on hotter days: those were the days I wore my hair up. So now, whenever I revise, I twist my hair into a French roll, to keep it away from my face.

Now, this is my own personal pre-revision ritual, right? Flipping up my hair, just like always starting a writing session playing the same piece of music, alerts my body to the fact that it’s revision time, helping me to sink into the task faster. It works for me.

I am not, however, under the illusion that wearing a French roll would help anyone else get published. See the difference?

But perhaps that is straying a bit far afield from Claire’s questions, which were after all about my credibility on the hard-and-fast rule front. Why does my advice on format sometimes clash with that of others with equally good credentials? Well, there are a quite a few of us, and while I can understand why readers might like it if we all gave the same advice all the time, the fact is, we’re all individuals, with different levels of experience in the industry. I honestly don’t think it’s too astonishing that we don’t always agree.

Some of what is said out there does astonish me, admittedly, but that’s just my opinion and my experience talking. Since I grew up in a family whose members have been getting published since the early 1930s, I probably have a stronger sense of tradition than most, as well as a longer list of anecdotes about what happens to submitters who do not adhere to standard format. I was told scary bedtime stories about such people, after all. But I was also one of the few 10-year-olds in the country who knew what all of the major fiction-printing magazines paid per word for short stories, and probably the only junior highschooler on the planet entrusted with the delicate task of proofing galleys. I’ve had my mitts on a LOT of manuscripts in my day, and obviously, that is the perspective I bring here.

I think it’s completely legitimate for all of us to present our various arguments and let the reader decide, though. Yes, even on matters of formatting. You’re smart people. (And, if you’ll pardon my saying so, I believe this strongly enough that I prefer not to expend my scant writing time here in arguing over what somebody else has advised, especially without knowing the context or the rationale he used in advising it.) Presumably, if you are reading several different writing blogs on a regular basis, they are all giving you something. If they have given you advice that makes sense to you, who am I to say that you should not take it? Or to decree that your work would benefit from getting your hair off your face while you’re working, for that matter?

So I guess my answer, Claire, is that I don’t think you should take any of my ilk’s pronouncements as canonical, especially when it’s a matter of style, not hard-and-fast rules — which, incidentally, is what most discussions of italicization choices are (but of that, more tomorrow). A good writer or editor can certainly give you stylistic advice, but honestly, style is personal: it’s really not something about which you should be taking anyone’s word, no matter how authoritative-sounding, as unquestionable Gospel. The ultimate choice, always, is yours.

But then, I am the author who spent a significant part of her memoir urging readers not to be too credulous about anything any author says in any memoir. I’m just not all that into authority. The writer at the next blog over may well feel differently.

Oh, my – just look at the time. I’ll deal with the specifics of fonts and italicization tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Writing the real, part IV: Filling in the background shading

I know that some of you have been waiting with bated breath for me to do my promised write-ups on sterling insights from these last two conferences — do not despair. As many of you know, I’m up against a tight revision deadline between now and the end of the month, so honestly, if I didn’t write it traveling to and fro recent conferences (hooray for long layovers), it’s probably not going to be posted before Halloween. It is all coming, however.

On Friday, I deliberately told a real-life anecdote in the way that most fiction writers include such stories in novels: in bare-bones form, assuming that my reader would automatically feel the way I did about the incident when it happened to me. I told it, as most aspiring writers do in their submissions to agents and editors, exactly the way I would have told friends over coffee — which is to say, I told it rather than showed it, and my telling, insofar as I got through the story at all, was light on such scene mood-setters as characterization, locale, etc.

I told it, in short, in a way that was not likely to prompt an agent to ask for the rest of the book.

Let’s return to my story, and see if I can tell it better this time. I was at a small conference in Montana, sitting by a plate glass window the size of a woolly mammoth, gazing out over a well-trimmed golf course toward the nearby blue mountains of Glacier National Park. (Better already, isn’t it?) I had given a class on manuscript submission dos and don’ts, which, I am grateful to say, attracted many conference attendees to share their book ideas with me, looking for advice on how to impress agents with them.

However, even the most well-meaning of helpers needs a break from time to time, so I was sitting with one of the other presenters, enjoying a cup of the local stand-a-spoon-up-in-it coffee, the old West kind that keeps even latte-hardened Seattleites like me up for days. Suddenly, a dear little old lady plopped herself down in the middle of our conversation and started telling us both about her novel. At length. As in the age of the woolly mammoth might have come and gone in the course of the telling.

I’m going to interrupt myself here to ask: isn’t this a more compelling telling of the story than Friday’s, which told the reader nothing about the setting or my mindset at the time the little old lady appeared? In this version, the scene is set enough that the arrival of the antagonist is palpably disruptive of a well-established mood. See why professional readers get annoyed by writers skipping that kind of background?

So we’re definitely better off than we were in the first telling, but this anecdote is still not up to submission standard. In fact, I’ve deliberately made another couple of common mistakes in this second telling, to see if you will catch it, too. Anyone? Anyone?

Points, of course, if you pointed out that I’m still telling about this little old lady, not showing. Also, I have tossed her into the story without giving her a name right off the bat – dooming my reader to endless future repetitions of the phrase “the little old lady.” (But she was small in real life, I tell you! And she was elderly, and female! It really happened! See how ineffectual reality is as an excuse for under-description?)

A great big gold star to those of you who caught that I’ve made the extremely common twin mistakes of assuming that the fact the story’s antagonist annoyed me is the most important thing about the scene — which, from my point of view, naturally it was — and that what annoys me will inevitably annoy everyone else in North America. (Extra credit to those of you who speculated that the pace of my going through this anecdote, and thus the length of this series, may have more to do with the fact that I wrote large parts of it while sitting in an airport in Kalispell, Montana, rather than home at my desk.)

The annoyance assumption is not limited to real-life scenes that are underwritten, of course. Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is annoying in real life, and they reproduce the lady down to the last shoelace, she will be annoying on the page as well, but that is frequently not true.

Exposing the schmucks around you for the scum they are is, of course, one of the great unsung compensations for being a writer. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Just be aware that it doesn’t always work. If a reader has to know you, or the other person, or any other pertinent background not in the book (or not essential to the plot), think very carefully about whether you want to keep the scene. Be aware, too, that often in such tellings, the writer’s dislike of the real-life person so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with her, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero.

You really don’t want that kind of ill feeling to boomerang back onto your protagonist or narrator, do you?

A really, really good test about whether it should stay: hand the relevant pages to someone who does not know you very well, WITHOUT saying “This happened in real life, you know,” and have her read it. Then (again without saying the magic phrase of justification) ask this helpful soul to tell the anecdote back to you. Does the emphasis fall where you expected in the retelling?

If it doesn’t, rework the scene or cut it. Give some serious consideration to changing a few of the facts to make it a better story on paper. (Not if it’s a memoir, of course, for A Million Little Reasons. In a memoir, real-life scenes that don’t work should just be cut.) After all, if you don’t go around trumpeting this particular scene in your novel is based upon a real event, how is the reader going to know?

Users of real-life material, please write this tip down and post it somewhere you can see it when you are sitting in your writing space: storytelling is supposed to resonate with truth AND be entertaining at the same time. Just because it happened a particular way doesn’t mean you have to TELL it that way. Because you are a fiction writer, not a reporter: dramatically, your story needs to work for your reader.

Have you noticed that I have not actually made it to the amusing part of the anecdote yet? I’m reserving that for tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work?

PS: Mark your calendars, folks up north: the PNWA is hosting one of its excellent Writing Connections events at the senior center in Mount Vernon on this coming Saturday, October 28th, from noon to 4 pm. Admission is free. Here’s your chance to meet published authors and a screenwriter and pepper them with questions!

Continuing education

I’ve spent the last two days at the Flathead Writers’ Conference in Whitefish, Montana, my favorite of the small regional conferences. Now, the seminar I was teaching safely over (the essential, mundane one in a field of motivational speeches: I was doing the ABCs of submission. SOMEONE needs to tell the world about standard format!)

There are a lot of these small (under 100 attendees) conferences around the country: unlike the bigger conferences, they tend to be focused more upon craft and less upon marketing and pitching opportunities. Here, there is one agent {name removed at agent’s request; please see post of May 10, 2006 for explanation}, one editor (Kristen Weber of Penguin, which has a policy, the last I heard, of not picking up unagented writers), a very successful magazine article-writer (the wonderful Carolyn Campbell), a screenwriter (the funny Mark Troy), established novelists ranging from the well-known to the less so (Robert Levinson, Pam Houston, Dennis Foley), and yours truly. Oh, and a conference room with the requisite super-dry air inside and gorgeous scenery outside to distract us.

And why is it, I wonder, that writers’ conferences always start at the crack o’ dawn? Just once, I would like to go to a conference that acknowledges that some, if not most, writers are night birds. Fortunately, my class was at night, so I was safely wide-awake without the help of too much of the pudding-thick coffee they like to serve in these parts. (Little Westernisms pepper people’s speech here. It’s one of the only places I know where I am consistently referred to as “gal.”)

Since I’m going to ANOTHER conference next weekend, I’m going to hold off on talking too much here about what a conference is like, for the benefit of those of you who have never been to one. Instead, I’d like to talk for a moment about why those of you who already have agents, or are already published, might want to go to one or two per year – and why, yes, I actually do sit in on classes at conferences where I am teaching.

Continuing education, my friends. As in a tax-deductible (if you file a Schedule C as a writer, that is) way to help improve your chances of success in your chosen field.

Are those of you long-time readers who know me as the iconoclast who keeps assuring you that a fairly hefty proportion of the marketing information given out at conferences is outdated smiling right about now?

Well, it’s still true: of the four novelists speaking here, I am apparently the only one who has ever had to do extensive querying. (If I told you how easily Pam Houston – whose COWBOYS ARE MY WEAKNESS is brilliant, by the way – says she got her editor and agent, IN THAT ORDER, you might well want to throw something through the nearest window.) And that differential is, in all modesty, entirely due to the fact that the other novelists got their agents and sold their first books more than 15 years ago, and I more recently.

The industry has DEFINITELY changed, and don’t let anybody, no matter how well-known or powerful, tell you it hasn’t.

Which is a pretty good reason to keep going to writers’ conferences, actually: what sold 15 years ago, or 5, or even 1, is not necessarily what is selling today. Things change (A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, anyone?), and even though, yes, it is often kind of annoying to listen to agents and editors spout the same old platitudes about how good writing always finds a home and indignantly deny that editors don’t edit anymore, they ARE working in the industry right now and DO know what is and isn’t hot. So it’s as good an idea to consult their expertise from time to time as it is to read Publisher’s Marketplace to see who is buying what.

Although I can’t resist sharing one particularly funny quip: in the midst of said requisite indignant speech about how editors at the major houses do so edit still, the editor – unusual for her ilk – actually offered a bit of proof to back up her statement. “I write a four-page memo on every book,” she said, evidently expecting us all to be blown away by that level of feedback.

Now, four pages of feedback (and editorial memos are generally in correspondence format, and thus single-spaced) are certainly not insubstantial, by any means, even when it probably does not mean any line editing at all. Truth compels me to say, however, that by editing standards in the freelance world, it is a tad on the scant side: it’s not all that unusual for me to write 4 pages of feedback on a CHAPTER. And the editor-who-shall-remain-nameless-here-until-she-makes-an-offer wrote two on my novel, a book that she has not yet bought.

Once again, a translation problem, an expectations gap between what writers think the industry should provide and what people in the industry actually do.

So there is another good reason to do a little continuing ed from time to time: the more you know about the industry, the funnier some of these throw-away lines become. Also, while I believe that talent is inherent, writing is a business, and craft is an array of skills – two of the three, then, can be learned, and what can be learned can be polished up.

I have to say, at my point in the writing game, the benefit I derive from attending craft classes is often from the throwaway lines, rather than the main thrust of the courses themselves. But still, a useful insight is a useful insight. For instance, yesterday Robert Levinson suggested that one way to make a plot compelling is to place your protagonist in a situation in which the reader may have fantasized being, and thus allow the reader to live vicariously something he has always wanted to do.

Now, the operative word here is HE, my professional antennae tell me – Mssr. Levinson does, after all, write in a genre with a heavy male readership, which is in itself unusual for fiction. But since his first book was about an imagined affair between Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe (they were on the 20th Century Fox lot at the same time – although, since she was both starring in and producing BUS STOP at that particular point, I don’t know when she would have had the time), I suspect the gentleman knows just a BIT about dealing with his readers’ fantasy lives. I suspect, in turn, that it’s a pretty good piece of advice.

I might actually use that tip in my current novel revision. Which would alone have justified the price of admission, if I hadn’t been scheduled to teach down the hall.

I could go on and on about what people are learning here, but I should scoot off to another seminar. Details follow later, of course. I’m taking good notes for all of you.

Keep up the good work!

A couple of announcements

Yes, I already posted today, but I wanted to add a quick interlude to revisit a couple of issues I have brought up in recent weeks, for your dining and dancing pleasure. Or, at any rate, for your edification, I hope.

First, I promised to find out the details on the Seattle-area event for the book of poetry I reviewed last week, GOD ON THE HILL: TEMPLE POEMS FROM TIRUPATI. (If you missed the review, please check it out under the Anne’s Book Picks category, at right.) This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time Annamayya’s poetry has been available in English in this country – and this event is an extremely rare opportunity to hear some of the greatest Indian temple poetry sung by a genuine Carnatic musical star.

For free, yet. Here’s the skinny:

Introducing GOD ON THE HILL
Talks and readings by translators Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Sherman, with songs performed by All-India Radio artist Mokapati Lalitha Devi
Tuesday, October 17th, 2006
7:30 – 8:30 pm
Elliott Bay Book Company, 101 South Main Street, Seattle

Seriously, I think it’s going to be a fascinating event, and I wouldn’t miss it. Details of the program are available on the Open Field Media website, and, as always, information on a seemingly never-ending series on great book events is available on Elliott Bay Book’s site.

Second, for those of you who followed my earlier series on agencies that charge writers upfront fees (see Fee-Charging Agencies, right), I have some additional information. A reader who wrote in to say that she had direct personal experience with the New York Literary Agency has been kind enough to provide the bulk of her correspondence with them. I am posting it – backdated to October 2, so it will be most easily accessible to those who pull up the entire Fee-Charging Agencies category – so you may judge for yourselves whether this type of experience would be right for you.

Please, if you are even considering such an agency, take a look at it.

In the interests of fair play, I shall not comment on the contents beyond that, except to include here a quote from one of the relevant missives: “BBB, AAR, and other organizations of that type mainly exist for nervous writers, and frankly, we have too many applicants as it is, so we choose not to spend time and money on those organizations.”

That’s the Better Business Bureau and the Association of Authors Representatives, by the way, the first two entities with whom any writer should check if an agency seems even slightly dubious. Yes, they DO mainly exist for nervous consumers – as does Preditors and Editors — and for a very, very good reason: writers do occasionally get scammed. It really does behoove you to do your homework.

Many, many thanks to this author for being brave enough to share this – and let’s hope it helps other writers down the line!

Keep up the good work!

Assumptions, assumptions, part II: the importance of packaging

I begin today with a parable. And I’d advise getting comfortable for the telling, my friends: it’s gonna be a lengthy one.

A package appeared on my doorstep the other day. Now, the fact that someone had left me a present was not in itself that astonishing – after all, it was my birthday (many thanks to those of you who wrote in with felicitations!). What WAS strange was that this gift was wrapped in generic plain newspaper (the funnies, admittedly, but still, it was pouring that day) and was signed, in a handwriting I did not recognize, from “Your Secret Pal.”

I understand that the Department of Homeland Security frowns upon such lighthearted pranks. I’m quite sure that they’re looking for my college Secret Santa now (although, because it was Harvard, he was actually called – and I swear that I’m not making this up – Furtive Non-Denominational Gift Giver).

I was a trifle nonplused, of course, but that did not stop me from opening the box. Not everyone would have opened an unidentified box, though (see earlier comment about Homeland Security). Years ago, I mailed a set of tiki god party lights (I know, they sound tacky, but oh, they nearly brought a tear to the eye, I assure you) to my brother, via a shipping service that favored a generic shipping label whose return address gave no indication whatsoever who had actually, you know, instigated the mailing. So my brother, not the world’s most trusting soul on a good day, and moreover a doctor whose practice was located quite close to a clinic that catered to the reproductive freedoms of its clientele (if you catch my drift) immediately decided that it was a bomb and took it straight to the police department.

The nice police officer took it away and handed it to the bomb squad, which in such a small town probably consisted of an X-acto knife, a curious secretary, and a drug-sniffing dog named Rover. A few minutes later, he returned, the open package in his arms. “It appears to be a present, sir,” he told my brother, straight-faced. “I hope you’re fond of tiki gods.”

With this in mind, I tore my birthday box open. It contained a box of quite nice gargantuan wineglasses, honestly a bit big for anything but the meatiest Bordeaux or Cabernet Franc (hey, I grew up upstairs from a winery, so I know these things), but great for housing a mango mousse with rhubarb swirls. If one’s tastes ran in that direction.

For days, I obsessed about to whom to send a thank-you card. Not to boast, but I don’t suffer from a shortage of pals fond of a joke – or, for that matter, pals confident enough in their own uniqueness to believe that their handwriting would be instantly recognizable. (This seems to be a local phenomenon, as nearly as I can tell: for those of you who don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, it’s not all that unusual for telephone callers in these parts not to identify themselves at the beginning of calls they’ve initiated to friends. I’m constantly having to ask, after a gigantically friendly greeting, “And WHO is this, please?”) I compared notes, asked friends leading questions, racked my doorstep for clues: I was a regular Perry Mason.

Four days later, I received a call from my godmother. Better mannered than most, she identified herself, at least well enough that I knew who she was: “It’s moi, darlinki. Did you find my present?” She was flabbergasted that I hadn’t identified the giver instantly, because she had just assumed that she had, at some point in our 40-year acquaintance, happened to mention that one of the most cherished rituals of her childhood had been that an old jazz musician friend of the family would leave presents “from your secret pal” every birthday.

I will swear on a stack of anything you like that I had never heard that story before.

What does this have to do with the fine art of revision, you ask? Quite a lot, actually: the package is a metaphor for how editors view a new author’s manuscript submission to a publishing house. (And you thought I didn’t have a point!) Unless that box is packaged properly, in exactly the way the recipient expects tiki god party lights to arrive wrapped, the box might never make it past the doorstep.

In other words, it would behoove you to adhere to standard formatting.

Second, most editors – as a matter of policy at the big houses, in fact – are like my brother: they would vastly prefer that someone else open a mysterious package first, please, to tell them whether it is something they would like to have or something awful. And that, in a nutshell, is why publishing houses favor agented work. The agent opens the package, assesses its value, and wheedles the editor into taking a look at the pre-screened contents.

The package left by my godmother, on the other hand, is like the manuscript I mentioned yesterday, the one that assumes that the reader is going to cotton to a shared worldview, lexicon, knowledge base, etc. And, admittedly, had I known about the secretive jazz player, I probably would have caught on immediately to the joke and known who sent it. But, like most editors at most publishing houses, I didn’t know enough about either the package or its sender before I opened it to understand the logic of the giver.

With a birthday present, such misunderstandings are easily remedied, of course. With a book submission, they generally end in rejection. Yes, even if the writing is sterling and the plot thrilling: never forget that a publishing house, like an agency, is not a monolithic entity housed by robots with identical tastes, but rather by people with individual ones.

So package your work with care, my friends, and make your work as accessible as possible by providing any and all necessary background, preferably in an entertaining manner. Tomorrow, I’ll move on to what this might look like in practical terms. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The agency contract, Part IV: Show me the money

Did you think I was going to sign off on my series on contract explanation without addressing the issue most on the average agent-seeking writer’s mind? Perish the thought.

Yes, Virginia, the agency contract will specify the percentage of your advances and royalties your agent will get. And no, abiding by this is not left up to the goodness of your heart: if you are represented by an agent, your publication contract will specify that the publisher will send your checks to your agent, not directly to you. This means that any money you see will automatically have the agents’ percentage deducted from it.

Typically, in literary agencies, this percentage for is 15% for English-language North American sales. Script agents generally get 10%. In either case, the contract may either be on a yearly (or longer) basis or a per-project basis: find out which, so you are aware of the terms of renewal. If you are planning to write more than one thing, do be sure before you sign that your agent will want to represent everything you want to write.

These percentages are non-negotiable in virtually every agency on earth, so the point of examining your contract is not to gain haggling ammunition: it’s to prepare you for the day when a check arrives with fewer zeroes on it than your advance led you to expect. And no, a lower percentage does not usually mean a better deal for the author – it’s usually an indication that the agency is new, and is trying to attract high-ticket clients.

Pretty much every agency in the country takes a significantly higher cut of foreign sales: 20% or more is the norm. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my memoir takes off in Lithuanian.)

The higher price tag abroad is for a very practical reason: unless an agency has an outpost in a foreign country (as some of the larger agencies do) it willsubcontract their foreign rights sales to agencies in other countries, who take their cut as well. So if you suspect that your book will have a high market appeal in Turkey or Outer Mongolia, you might want to check up front whether your prospective agency has a branch there, or is subcontracting. The differential in commission percentage can be substantial.

“Um, Anne?” I hear a small, confused chorus out there piping. “Was the bit about English-language North American sales just a really complicated typo? Aren’t there other people in the world who read English — like, say, the people in England? Why aren’t all of the English-language sales lumped together, and the foreign ones together?”

Ah, because that would make sense, my friends. The industry likes to keep all of us guessing by throwing a cognitive curve ball every now and again, so this is going to require a fairly extensive and rather convolutedexplanation. Before I launch into it, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.

Okay, everybody comfortable? Here goes: from the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America, those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. Of the three, only those in the first category are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales.

There — and you thought it wasn’t going to make sense…

So, perversely, if EXACTLY the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. (This situation is not at all beyond belief: HARRY POTTER is, I am told sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie.)

This is why, in case you were curious, you will see the notation NA in industry discussions of book sales – it refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. Rights to sell books south of the border, in any language, fall under foreign language rights, which are typically sold on a by-country basis.

However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal on a book expected to be a bestseller and try to get the world rights as part of the initial deal, but this generally does not work out well for the author. Why? Well, if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American publisher owns the foreign rights, the domestic house scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this seems a trifle technical, chalk it up to the rather extended struggle I had to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; back in the day, my now-gun-shy publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

Be very wary of an agent who is not willing to offer you a written contract. Contrary to popular belief, verbal contracts may be binding (if some consideration has changed hands as a result of it, as I understand it; if you handed someone a $50 bill and the keys to your car after the two of you had discussed his painting a mural on the passenger-side door, I’m told that could be construed as a contract, even with nothing in writing), but as I MAY have pointed out, oh, 1800 times in the last 6 months, this is an industry where the power differential tends not to fall in the writer’s favor until after she is pretty darned well established. Protect yourself.

Do not assume, however, that you will ever see another copy of the contract again after you sign it. Make yourself a photocopy – yes, even before the agent has countersigned it – so you may refer to it later.

I know that this series has occasionally read as if agents are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors, but I am only trying to get you to put up your antennae when dealing with them. The vast majority of agents honestly are good people who love good writing and want to help writers – but as in every profession, not all of them are scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients. It behooves us to be cautious.

Please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to you.

On to cheerier topics tomorrow, thank goodness! Keep up the good work!

The agency contract, Part III: double indemnity?

When last we spoke – electronically, that is – I was waxing poetic about the need to take a close gander at an agency contract before you sign it, to prevent unpleasant surprises down the line. (I know, I know: we should all have such problems. But by preparing you for them now, my hope is that you will be a happier camper in years to come. Or sooner, if you’re lucky.)

While you are looking over the contract, check to see whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. Agents move around all the time, and some agencies can have pretty short lifespans. If your agent retired, for instance, would you still be represented? What about if your agent started an agency of her own? Or, heaven forefend, died or decided to scrap her career and follow the Dalai Lama around for a decade or two?

My friend May, for example, found out too late that her contract was with her agent, not her agency: amazingly enough, no one filled her in on the possibility until after her agent had actually passed away.

Something of a surprise, as you may imagine; May hadn’t even known that she was sick. (After you’ve hung out around represented writers for awhile, you will start to notice how often authors are NOT informed about illness, imminent life or career changes, or sometimes even the firing of their agents and editors. We writers always seem to be the last to know.)

May was very sorry, of course, because she had liked her agent very much, but it never occurred to her that she no longer had representation. Until she received a letter from the agency, a couple of weeks later. Seems that the agency had hired a replacement agent – who did not represent May’s kind of work. So sorry; best of luck elsewhere.

No offer to help her find another agent, nothing. Just goodbye and good luck. Incredulous, May checked her contract and, sure enough, she hadn’t signed with the agency at all, only her late agent. She was back on the querying junket again.

Why the distinction? Well, it actually has more to do with the internal structure of the agency than your agent’s relationship with you — or any other writer, for that matter. Agencies vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the entire agency, and some are run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, houses an independent contractor, and no funds are mixed.

Why should your agent’s employment arrangements concern you? Well, if you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not. (May’s contract was the former.)

And if your agent has a track record of agency-hopping every couple of years – as many junior agents do; it’s a smart way to build a professional lifetime’s worth of contact lists – may I suggest that this is a contractual arrangement that may affect your life pretty profoundly?

My friend Katherine, one of the most talented writers I know, was thrown for an unexpected loop by such a move, and at least in the short run, her book’s marketing prospects suffered for it. Her contract left the issue a bit ambiguous, specifying that Katherine would be represented by Agent X AT Agency Y. So when Agent X, without any advance warning, suddenly decided to leave Agency Y to start her own agency, Katherine actually had a hard time learning whether she was still represented at all.

Remember what I said earlier about the writer’s always being the last to know?

And, to make the situation worse, at the time, a respectable number of editors at major publishing houses had their hot little hands on Katherine’s excellent book. Naturally, she did everything, short of turning up on the doorstep of her NYC agency, to find out what was going on with her contract.

After several highly frustrating weeks of telephone and e-mail tag, she learned that she had only three options: break her contract and sign a new agency agreement with Agency Y, but be assigned to a new agent whom she did not know (and about whom they would tell her nothing); break her contract and sign with Agent X in her new agency, or break her contract and seek representation somewhere else.

While the book was still out with editors. No matter what, her old contract was more or less defunct. Through absolutely no fault of Katherine’s.

Since, like so many of us, Katherine had spent years upon years seeking the perfect agent for her work, none of these possibilities seemed particularly appetizing to her. Option 1 would involve leaving a well-established agency for a brand-new one (which generally means living through months of office-transition disorganization); Option 2 would leave her and her book orphaned until someone at her agency decided to pick her up. And, since she had long experience with querying, Option 3 sounded a lot like putting her hand in a meat grinder for fun. She ended up following her agent – which, if her contract had not been ambiguous, is probably precisely what would have happened anyway.

My point is, unexpected things can happen. If you understand your contract, you will be much better prepared to deal with emergencies as they arise. Again: ask.

I shall wind up my series on agency contracts tomorrow, but in the meantime, a heads-up to those of you who have material out with important agents and/or editors at the moment: the Frankfurter Buchmesse – that’s the Frankfurt Book Fair to those of us stateside – has just ended, which may well mean that the agent or editor who should be reading your manuscript is either on a plane or abroad at the moment. A hefty proportion of the industry’s heavy hitters attend, often grabbing European vacation time on either end.

As a result, guess what piles up on NYC desks every October?

What this could mean for you: a slower response time than usual, in an industry already notorious for slow response times. Don’t panic; I assure you, the delay is not about you or your writing. Sit tight.

And keep up the good work!

The agency contract, Part II

Yesterday, I started talking about the importance of understanding an agency contract before you sign it — and, indeed, of learning as much as you can about an agency before getting involved with it. Yes, I know: this reads as though I am talking about dating, and in a sense, I am. During the querying process, you are sending your book out on a series of close-to-blind dates, hoping to it will attract an agent. But not every agent is marriage material, if you catch my drift; writer-agent divorces are more common than you might think, usually on the grounds of irreconcilable differences.

Unagented writers don’t seem to talk, or even think, about this possibility much — after so much rejection, anyone who says yes to you can start to look pretty darned good — but let me assure you, amongst agented writers, the differentials between what we had expected our agents to do for us (send our work out promptly, for instance, or return phone calls within a month) and what they have actually done is a CONSTANT source of animated discussion.

My agent, of course, is a treat and a joy and a pleasure. Seriously, she is — and when a client writer can say that with such assurance in the middle of a fairly hair-raising revision on a tight deadline, it may safely be believed. Maybe I just have an unusually affectionate disposition toward people who make efforts on my books’ behalf, but I have to say, amongst the agents of my kith and kin (who are legion and literarily prolific, I am happy to report), my experience with my agent does seem to be a bit, well, anomalous.

I attribute this partially to the fact that writers are very often isolated from one another. If you don’t know another agented writer to ask, how are you going to know what is and isn’t normal in writer-agent relations? (Yet another terrific reason to join a writer’s group, eh?) For instance, it is not at all uncommon for an agent to be very slow — as in months — in getting a contract to a new client. I’ve known writers to be represented contract-less for a year or more.

Is this an indication that the agent who was wild to represent them a few months ago has cooled off? Not usually — but that is of course the first conclusion the writer tends to draw. Most of the time, agents who do this are just disorganized about something which is to them a rather low priority; from their point of view, all that’s important is that you have given them the right to represent your work, and that they have a signed contract with you before you sign a contract with a publisher. Since the signing with agent to signing with publisher time is often lengthy, what’s the rush?

Yet again, we see proof that writers’ sense of urgency (“I must overnight my manuscript!” or “I must make all of the revisions my agent wants by a week from Tuesday!”) does not always correspond with their agents’ (“I’ll send out that contract today…What do you mean, I said that five weeks ago?”) Moral of the story: try not to jump to the worst possible conclusions right away.

The result of this difference in urgency perception is often, alas, some pretty slow agency contract delivery times. Should this happen to you, go ahead and ask for it, if necessary once per month: believe it or not, agents sometimes think it’s been mailed out when it hasn’t.

The other reason that writers end up dissatisfied with their agents, I suspect, is that writers often do not have a firm grasp of either their new agencies’ policies, their agent’s expectations, and/or the provisions of their contracts before they sign. In the white heat of excitement over SOMEONE in the biz loving one’s work, it’s often hard to come up with good questions to ask.

Especially if you have not yet seen the agency contract. It’s in the mail, really.

This is definitely an arena where it is ENTIRELY appropriate to ask what-if questions, ESPECIALLY if you do not have a contract in hand. You will want to know about the normal MO of the agency — commission percentages, length of contract, how they submit to publishers, etc. — but try to work in a question or two about who your contact person will be OTHER than your agent. An assistant? The agency’s principal? The office tabby cat?

Why is this important? Well, if something happens to your agent — a leave of absence, an accident, a move to another agency, or even just not being in the office when a crucial call from an editor comes — the agency will be handling your interests. So you don’t just need to trust your agent — you need to trust your agency as well.

How might this affect you and your work? Well, put on your jammies, boys and girls: it’s story time.

I had been signed with my wonderful, amazing, devoted agent for less than six months when she had a baby. Miracle that she is, she managed to sell my book AND another client’s practically as they wheeled her off to the delivery room, but for some months, it looked very likely that the contract negotiations for my memoir might end up being handled by another agent. As it turned out, another agent held my hand during the rather nerve-wracking period between contract-signing and book delivery — which, in my case, was only about two months.

I think it’s safe to say that I was not always perfectly happy and level-headed during that intensely stressful period. I was lucky that I had been temporarily reassigned by my agency to a delightfully patient and kind listener.

More seriously, I was also still under the care of my interim agent when the first lawsuit threat came. (It came in waves, one in early July, followed by much silence, then another in early September, and a third the following March. Different allegations about the book each time, I might add, and none textually-based.) If my agency were not full of very competent, very supportive people, I might have been left to face the threat unadvised. Having known other writers who have had to deal with lawsuits over their memoirs (hey, I get around) without the help of an agent, I feel very, very fortunate.

And VERY glad that that I read my agency contract very well before I signed it, so I felt secure about the agency that would be taking care of me. Because, as it turns out, this was not a one-time phenomenon: I have a novel teetering on the brink of a sale now (see my post for September 30th, if you missed the big news), and my agent’s second child is due in roughly two and a half months. She and I seem to be on a similarly prolific timetable.

What might have happened, had my agency not been well prepared for this contingency? Let me tell you the story of my friend Lois, a writer of literary fiction. After a year and a half of quite cordial interactions, Lois’ agent just stopped answering her e-mails one day; returned phone calls became a thing of the past. And because Lois was, like so many writers, long trained in assuming that any silence must have something to do with the quality of the book, she naturally fell into hyper-revising mode. Yet when she meekly submitted a new version of her novel, she STILL heard nothing.

“Have I offended my agent somehow?” Lois wondered. After wondering about it for a couple of weeks, she concluded that she must have. She sent a formal (if vague) apology. Still no word.

Weeks dragged on into months, and after three, Lois had had enough. She called the main number for the agency, and demanded to know how she could terminate her contract with the agent. (She had not read her contract closely enough to have that information already, you see. But you know better than that.)

“Wait,” the astonished receptionist told her, “didn’t anybody tell you? She had to have emergency surgery. Poor thing, she’s been in physical therapy for months.”

Of course, Lois felt really small, but actually, I think that the agency should have been the ones apologizing. That many months sans agent, and the agency hadn’t thought to notify her CLIENTS? A quarter of a year can feel like a lifetime to an author whose book is being circulated.

Dear me, I got so carried away with my examples that I haven’t left room to write about contract specifics, so that will be the task of another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

What is this agency contract, anyway, and why should I read it?

I’ve been talking for the last few days about the need to look the gift horse of representation offer very carefully in the mouth before you sign anything — and even more carefully before you pay for anything. I’ve been trying to impress upon you, in with my patented brick-through-a-window subtlety, that anytime anyone asks you to pay them to help you advance your writing career, you should be wary. In fairness to the fee-charging agencies I’ve been discussing, they aren’t the only entities a writer should approach with caution.

You should approach signing with ANY agency with caution, armed with as much accurate information you can possibly glean about them. Because, contrary to popular belief and conference-circuit rumor, not all agents – or agencies – are alike. Even at equal levels of prestige, a writer’s experience being represented by one agency may be outrageously different than being represented by another. Expectations and office practices differ. So the more you can know about the agency before you hand your book to it, the better.

Yes, contracts are poorly-written, generally speaking, and it may be intimidating to ask the agent of your dreams probing questions, but it is VITAL that you understand how your new agency works before you sign the representation contract. Don’t assume that your agent will have explained everything important to you before ink hits paper; as I may have mentioned once or twice before, agents are extraordinarily busy people. Very nearly as busy as they think they are, which is saying something. As a group, they tend not to be overly given to explaining themselves or the industry.

Ringing some bells from my last few posts? It should be. This aversion to taking the time to explain the rules to those new to the game is one of the major causes of the assumption I mentioned a couple of days ago, the one about how all talented writers are born with an extra gene that serves as a universal translator for all of the quirks of the industry.

This is not to say that most agents will not answer direct questions — if you leaf through the standard agency guides, you will see that one of the most common dream client traits is the ability to ask good questions. In fact, the problems usually arise when the writer has NOT asked a question where clarification is necessary.

I know, I know: we’re all afraid of being nagging clients. Trust me, when agents talk about nightmare clients, they are talking about writers who call every other day to see if their books have sold yet. Or writers who miss their deadlines. Or even writers who pretend they understand publishing norms that they do not, and end up embroiled in I LOVE LUCY-level complications.

They are not, I assure you, talking about the writer who sends a polite e-mail or calls to say, “Um, when my editor said she wanted my manuscript to be 80,000 – 90,000 words, was that estimated word count, or actual?” (Far from a silly question, incidentally — the difference can be substantial.)

Most agency contracts are easy-in-easy-out affairs, covering either the selling process for a single book or a year’s or two’s time — a choice made by the agency, not the author. Some contracts, however, have a rollover clause, which stipulates that if the author has not notified the agency by a particular date that she wants to seek representation elsewhere, the contract is automatically renewed for the following year.

If you sign with an agency that favors the rollover clause, make sure you know precisely when the opt-out date is. Mark it on your calendar, just in case. And keep marking it every year.

Yes, I know: mistrust is the last thing on your mind when you are thrilled to pieces that a real, live agent wants to represent YOU. But trust your Auntie Anne on this one: honeymoons do occasionally end. Agents move from one agency to another all the time (if this happens, you will need to know with whom you have a contract, the agency or the agent; either is possible), and it’s not unheard-of for an agent to stop representing a particular genre even though she has clients still writing and publishing in it.

This is, in short, one contract to read with your glasses ON, and paper by your side to jot down questions. Then pick up that piece of paper, get yourself to a telephone, and start asking.

And try not to think of it as beginning the relationship on a confrontational note: it’s merely good sense whenever you are going to deal with a business with which you are unfamiliar, and it would never occur to a reputable agent to take your caution at all personally. Because, you see, it is not an individual’s word you are questioning, but a contract drawn up by other people. Naturally, it is in your agent’s best interest for you to understand it well enough to abide by its provisions.

Allow me to repeat that, because it comes as news to a lot of aspiring writers: unless your prospective agent owns the agency, it is the agency — not the agent whom you are prepared to love, honor, and obey for as long as you shall write and she shall sell — who sets the terms of your relationship.

What does that mean, in practical terms? If you are successful, THE AGENCY, AND NOT MERELY THE AGENT, IS GOING TO BE HANDLING EVERY DIME YOU MAKE AS A WRITER.

The agency will be producing those nasty, messily-carboned forms that you will be passing along to the I.R.S.; your publisher will be sending your advance and royalty checks to them, not to you. If your work is going to be sold abroad, the agency will turn your book, your baby, over to a foreign rights agent of ITS selection, not yours – and will be taking a higher percentage of your royalties for those sales than for those in the English-speaking parts of North America, typically.

That’s a whole lot of trust to invest in people who, in many cases, you will never meet face-to-face. Seriously, since almost everything in the biz is handled by phone, e-mail, or snail mail, I know plenty of writers who couldn’t pick their agents, much less the principal of their agency, out of a police line-up. (Not that you really want to be in the position to hiss, “That’s she, officer. SHE’S THE ONE WHO DIDN’T MAIL MY ROYALTY CHECK,” but still.)

So while asking a whole lot of pointed questions at the outset may seem mistrustful, doing so will actually substantially INCREASE the probability that you’re going to trust and respect your agent a year or two down the road. Ideally, you want relationships with both your agent and agency so comfortable that you have no qualms — and no need to have any — about simply handing the business side of your writing over to them and letting them get on with making you rich and famous.

You don’t hear about this much at conferences, but actually, that’s one of the best things about signing with an agent worthy of your trust: you can concentrate on your writing, confident that she’s looking after your interests in the big city.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what agency contracts do and don’t include, but in the meantime, this seems like a fine opportunity to remind you that soon, I shall be putting together a glossary of industry terms for your easy reference. So please, if there is a term that you would like defined (literary fiction vs. mainstream fiction, anyone?), leave a comment, so I may add it to the list.

Keep up the good work!