Submission faux pas, continued: it’s all about ME

I love my readers: eagle-eyed Serenissima wrote in to point out that in my eagerness to tell you yesterday that our exemplar Daphne should have followed Digory’s instructions, I forgot to add HOW she should have followed them. (I’d fill those of you who missed yesterday’s post in on what I’m talking about, but that would make it too easy, wouldn’t it?) Yes, since agent Digory asked for 50 pages, Daphne should have sent exactly 50 pages – no more, no less, even if that meant cutting off the story mid-sentence.

But should she try not to have page 50 end mid-sentence? Should she try to arrange her plot so there is a section break there? Or, even more strategic, so there is a cliffhanger there?

Agents are quite, quite used to their requested page limits’ causing odd breaks, so do not worry about leaving ‘em hanging. (The ones who are truly married to closure will ask for entire chapters, not specific numbers of pages.) For this reason, it can appear a bit contrived if page 50 just happens to be the end of a chapter or section – although arranging the end of a section to fall on the last page is often a good idea for a contest entry, where it would be impossible for the judge to request more pages.

Never forget: the primary goal of those first 50 pages — or whatever part of the manuscript the agent has requested – is not to satisfy the agent’s sense of dramatic closure, but to get him to request the rest of the manuscript. Tying up ends too neatly might actually work against your aims here.

It’s nice if the agent finishes page 50 wondering what happens next – but as it’s not necessary to induce him to lie awake nights wondering what happens on page 51, rearranging your writing so a cliffhanger falls on page 50 (or whatever the last page of the submission may be) should not keep YOU awake nights. Leaving him wondering what happens in the rest of the book is sufficient – which, if you’ve established a sense of tension and conflict in the first 49 pages, he should already be doing.

In other words: you don’t need a murder to occur on page 50, necessarily, and it may well come across as heavy-handed if the last line on that page reads, “’I’ve been poisoned!’ Angelica cried. “And the culprit is”

Got it? Good. All right, on to the meat of today’s post.

Over the past few months, I have noticed an ailment cropping up with astonishing frequency amongst writers of my acquaintance. It’s a syndrome that, in its mild form, can drive writers to lose confidence in their work after only a few queries, and in its most virulent form, can alienate agents and editors before they’ve even read a word that the writer has penned.

And, to make it harder to head off at the pass, or to diagnose before symptoms develop, this syndrome leads to behavior that a professional writer, one who was actually making a living at it, would never even consider doing. So, naturally, it had never occurred to me that writers I know, good ones with probably quite bright futures, were engaging in it – and it might be hurting their publication prospects. So today I’m going to flag it, so none of my dear readers get caught in this quite common trap.

I refer, of course, to the notion that ANY book by a first-time author – be it absolutely the latest word in literary fiction, the mystery that even Perry Mason couldn’t solve before page 355, or the next DA VINCI CODE – would be so exciting to agents and editors that they would drop everything else to pay attention to it.

Or, potentially even more damaging, that they SHOULD, and that the writer has a right to expect instantaneous responses. Or even very quick ones.

Now, I have mentioned the most common corollary to this belief many times before: the insidious idea that if a book is really good (or, more usually, if its writer is truly talented), that the first query, the first pitch, the first submission will instantly traject it into a cozy lifetime relationship with the perfect agent or editor.

Oh, you laugh, but deep down, most of us would love to believe that our work is so redolent with talent that it will be the exception to the long turn-around time norm. The fantasy is a compelling one: place a stamp on a query on Monday, receive a request for the full manuscript by the end of the week, sign before a fortnight has elapsed, sell to a prominent publisher by Arbor Day. For those who query via e-mail, the expected timeline runs even faster: query tonight, request tomorrow, sign by next Wednesday, sale by April Fool’s Day.

I wish I could tell you it could happen, but as long-time readers of this blog already know, the industry just doesn’t work that way. Occasionally, people strike lucky, but a good writer should EXPECT to have to try many agents before being signed, and to have to wait weeks or even months to hear back from agents and editors.

So, in case any of you have missed the other 147 times I’ve said it in the last few months: it just doesn’t make sense to query or submit to agents one at a time. No matter how much you like a particular agent. Giving in to the notion that good work gets picked up immediately may cause a writer to take years to cover the requisite array of agents to find the right one, or even to stop querying in frustration after only a few tries.

Strategically, either is a bad idea. Competition over who is going to represent you, like competition over who is going to publish your book, can only help you, and unless an agent asks you point-blank for an exclusive look (which you are under no obligation to grant), these days, most agents ASSUME that a writer is sending out simultaneous submissions.

But the larger assumption, the one that dictates an expectation that ANY book is a drop-my-other-hundred-projects occasion for an agent or editor, is even more dangerous, because it can lead to behavior that is not only unlikely to convince industry types of a writer’s professionalism, but might even alienate them permanently. It can – sacre bleu! – lead to a writer’s being pushy.

Why is this a problem? Because as anyone in the industry can tell you, there is no book for which every agent is holding his breath. Naturally, everyone would like to snap up the next bestseller, of course, but since no one really knows what that will be, and they spend their lives surrounded by so much paper that the average agency could use it for insulation, it would simply be too exhausting to leap upon each new submission as though it contained the philosopher’s stone.

Even if that book turns out to be HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE. They need time to read, and no matter how much you would like yours to be the only submission on your dream agent’s desk at any given moment, yours is probably going to be one of fifty.

So there can be no legitimate reason, in their minds, for a writer to act as if HER book is THE one. Even if it is.

But try telling that to some writers. As in the most common manifestation of all:

Writer-centered scenario 1: Marcel has been working on his novel for a decade. Finally, after showing it timorously to his lover and a couple of roués claiming to be artistes he met at the corner café, he decides it is ready to submit. Being a careful sort of person, he researches agencies, and finally settles on the one that represents his favorite writer.

He submits his work, fully expecting to hear back within the week. By the end of a month, he is both flabbergasted and furious: why hasn’t that agent gotten back to him? As the sixth week ticks by, he decides that there is no point in hoping anymore. When his SASE and manuscript finally arrive back on his doorstep at the beginning of week 9, he doesn’t even bother to open the packet. He pitches them straight into the recycling bin.

He never submits again. Instead, he hangs out in absinthe bars with his amis, bemoaning the fact that the publishing world has refused to see his genius.

Okay, what did Marcel do wrong? (Other than drinking absinthe, which I’m told is pretty lethal.)

Oh, let me count the ways. Give yourself an A if you said he assumed that a single agent’s reaction was identical to that of everyone’s in the publishing world, as if rejection once means rejection eternally. What does Marcel think, that every agent in the country gets together every night under the cover of dark to share the day’s submissions, so every agent can provide a uniform response?

(Actually, there is a pervasive rumor like this that surfaces on the conference circuit every year or two about a national database where agents log in the names and book titles of every rejection, so that once a manuscript has been seen by a couple of agents, the others will know to avoid it. Piffle.)

Like it or not, the belief that one agent equaled the industry actually stems not from insecurity, but from an extreme case of egoism on Marcel’s part. Rather than considering himself one of the literal millions submitting manuscripts each year, or pondering the notion that he might need to learn a bit more about the industry before he can submit successfully, he prefers to conclude that his IDEAS are too out there for the cowardly market.

At least, he concludes that aloud: in his heart, he may actually believe that no one is interested in what he has to say. In this, he would be far from alone: there are plenty of Marcels out there who never send their books out even once.

Was that great collective “OH!” I just heard indicative of realizing that you know a writer like Marcel? Most of us do. The Marcels of the world are the ones who are all talk, and no query.

It takes real guts to pick yourself up after a rejection and send your work out again. It’s mighty tempting to give up, isn’t it? So give yourself an A+ if you pointed out by giving up so easily, Marcel never has to risk his ego’s being demolished by rejection again.

Extra credit with a cherry on top if you noticed that Marcel sought feedback only from his lover and friends, who could not possibly give him unbiased critique.

But you’re too clever to follow Marcel’s route in any of those three respects, aren’t you, readers? You know that a single rejection cannot logically mean that the book is unmarketable, that your writing is no good, or that you should give up writing altogether. Even a dozen rejections do not necessarily mean that: what an individual rejection means is that the agency in question didn’t like something about the submission.

Try to improve your submissions, by all means, but keep trying. Having to send out your work again and again is not – I repeat, is NOT – necessarily a reflection upon the quality of your writing, although it often is a reflection of how it is presented on the page. (Thus my continual yammering on the joys of standard format.)

Keep your chins up, campers. And keep up the good work.

Submission faux pas: did they ASK you to think for yourself?

Yesterday, I cleverly (if I do say so myself) combined my ongoing series on industry etiquette with the short intermission series on submissions. The result, if not precisely magical, enabled me to begin to make a crucial point about submission: in the VAST majority of instances, 99% of an agent’s decision to sign a writer is based upon what is in the submission envelope.

This is even true if the initial contact between the agent and the writer occurred at a conference: no successful agent accepts a client simply because she happens to like him.

Remember that, the next time you are chatting with an agent at a conference. If the agent has not yet read your work, there is no tacit promise of representation here. Just, if you’ve pitched well, a request that you send pages so the agent can find out for herself whether you can write or not.

Long-time readers, chant along with me: agents read submissions looking for reasons to reject them, not reasons to accept them. Yet given the hundreds of queries and dozens of submissions agents read every week, the average agent could fill her client roster 80 times over with writers who write competently.

So place yourself in that agent’s shoes for a moment: if you were considering two clients, one who had demonstrated an understanding of the boundaries of industry etiquette, and one who stepped outside those norms one or more times during your brief interaction, which would you be more likely to sign?

That’s the pesky other 1% of the decision, in case you were wondering. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it really is possible to blow your big chance with an agent through something that has nothing to do with your writing. And that comes as a surprise to many, if not most, aspiring writers, who often violate the unwritten rules simply out of simple enthusiasm.

So that’s why I’m running through the usual suspects, to keep my readers from making these same mistakes. Of course, not all of the scenarios I’m introducing here are necessarily deal-breakers; all, however, are either considered rude by agency insiders or are harmful to the writer in some other way. Enjoy!

Submission scenario 3: After sending out a round of queries on his novel, Caleb is delighted to receive replies from two agents. One asks him to send the first chapter of his manuscript (in his case, the first 19 pages) and a 5-page synopsis. The other asked for the first 50, a 1-page outline, and bio.

Out of his mind with glee, Caleb pops two packets containing the first 50 pages, a 5-page synopsis, and his bio into the mail, and waits feverishly by the phone for The Call. In a month, he receives two form-letter rejections, with no indication why his submissions were rejected.

What did Caleb do wrong?

He violated one of the golden rules of submission: he did not send PRECISELY what the agent asked to see, no more, no less. Instead, he assumed that the agents must want the same thing.

Now, it would undoubtedly be infinitely easier on writers if every agent DID want the same thing, just as it would be simpler if every contest had the same submission requirements. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, for instance, if the term “synopsis” always referred to a document of predictable length, as opposed to the 1, 3, 4, and 5 pages to which the term might refer? Wouldn’t it be marvelous if everyone agreed on whether a hook is absolutely necessary in a first paragraph, or if dialogue is acceptable in a first line? And wouldn’t it be downright miraculous if individual agents and editors did not speak as though their own personal preferences on these points were industry standard?

Yup. I would also like a clown at my birthday party, and a pony with a great big bow on his halter. I have been waiting for these since I turned 8, however, and, like industry-wide standardization of what is expected of writers, experience has taught me that I probably should not expect to see any of these things in my lifetime.

Every agent is different, just as every agency is different. And just as there is no single writing style that will please every agent in North America, there is no single array of items to include in a submission packet. This is why they invariably tell you specifically what they want to see.

How touchy are they, you ask? Let’s take a look at a related scenario.

Submission scenario 4: After sending out a raft of query letters, Daphne is delighted to receive several requests for submissions. Because she is in a writers’ group with Caleb, she knows to check carefully for what each agent has asked her to send. Dorian, agent #1, has asked her to send the first chapter + synopsis; Darlene, agent #2, has asked for the first two chapters, bio, and synopsis; Digory, agent #3, asked for the first 50.

Daphne has been preparing for years for this moment, so she has well-polished pages, a solid synopsis, and an interesting-sounding bio all ready to go. Yet after she has printed up her submissions to Dorian and Darlene on bright white paper, she hesitates: Chapter 3 ends on page 54. Digory would not want to stop reading mid-line, would he? She prints through page 54, seals the envelope, and sends them off.

The result: both Dorian and Darlene ask to see the rest of the book; the pages she sent to Digory are sent back without comment.

I would ask what Daphne did wrong, but I would hope that by now, all of you would have seen her mistake coming a mile away, and started screaming, “No, Daphne, NO!” just as you would at a slasher-movie heroine about to explore that dank basement alone wearing only a tube top and shorts.

Yes, even a few extra pages might make a difference. Again, do NOT second-guess what the agent wants: follow directions.

This used to be one of the FIRST things writers learned on the conference circuit, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion as something writers tell one another. Because violations of this rule genuinely make agents angry, practically universally.

How angry? Well, let me put it this way: you know how the agents and editors hang out together in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards away from the epicenter of any given conference in North America? After they’ve gotten a few drinks into ‘em, try asking one if they mind receiving more pages than they asked to see.

The trick here is getting only ONE to answer. Practically everyone has a horror story about the time some eager author sent a live kitten along with his manuscript on pet care. And even the agents who don’t will say, “What, the writer thinks we won’t notice? Or that we’re asking every writer for a different number of pages?”

There are two reasons this bugs agents so much. First, every agent has established how many pages he is willing to read before deciding whether he is interested enough in a book to read the whole thing. It can be as little as 1, as few as 5, or as many as 100. Trust me, the agent who requests your materials knows PRECISELY how long it will take him to read that many pages. Sending more translates in his mind to an expectation that he will devote more time to your submission than he had planned.

I don’t think I need to remind you how folks in the industry feel about those who waste their time, do I?

The second reason is a bit more reasonable. To professional eyes, Daphne’s sending the extra pages demonstrates from the get-go that she is going to be a difficult client to handle, one who will have to be told more than once what to do. As long-time readers of this blog already know, the publishing industry has only two speeds: delay and I-need-it-today! A client with poor direction-following skills is going to have a hard time with both.

And think about it: would you want to be the agent who had to tell an editor at a major house, “I know Daphne didn’t give you the revisions you wanted on her book. Give her a second chance – this time, I’ll go through and explain to him what you wanted.”

This is not to say that by any reasonable human standard of behavior, Digory was not overly-touchy to draw the conclusion from a few extra pages that Daphne was unreliable: he was, or more likely, his screener was. However, as neither Digory nor his screener know Daphne personally, they worked with the limited information they had. As do we all.

Keep up the good work!

As Gandhi famously said, there is more to life than increasing its speed

Yesterday, I was discussing the actual submission packet, and I realized that I left out the rather important issue of how to pack it. The post office does in fact sell boxes the right size for manuscripts – if your local PO doesn’t, ask them to order ‘em – as do many office supply stores.

But let the buyer beware: sometimes, the ostensibly manuscript-sized boxes do not comfortably fit a stack of 8 1/2” x 11” paper. The old USPS Priority Mail boxes, provided for free, used to fit two manuscripts beautifully side-by-side, for instance, and they no longer do. Take a sheet of scratch paper with you, and double-check that it will fit in the bottom without wrinkling before you buy.

Whatever you do, though, don’t try to recycle the box your Christmas presents came in for the purpose. Present boxes tend to be too flimsy for cross-country travel. And don’t use a shipping box that a company sent you with the company logo crossed out, as that is considered rather tacky. The ones from Amazon tend to be a perfect footprint for manuscripts, I notice, but don’t yield to the temptation.

“But wait!” I hear the box-savvy cry, “those Amazon boxes are about 4 inches high, and my manuscript is about 2 inches high. Wouldn’t a box that size be too big?”

In a word, no. In general, it’s better to get a box that is a little too big than one that’s a little too small. To keep the manuscript from sliding around and getting crumpled, insert wads of bubble wrap around it. (This technique will also make a larger-sized Priority Mail box work.)

If you’ve been asked to send more than one copy of a manuscript – not all that uncommon after you’ve been picked up by an agent – insert a piece of brightly-colored paper between each copy. Just make sure it’s not construction paper, or the color will rub off on your lovely manuscripts.

I have a few more tips, but since I’m on a faux pas roll anyway, let me present the single most common mistake submitters make as one of my case studies:

Intermezzo scenario 1: After querying for months, Anita receives an e-mail from the agent of her dreams, asking to see the whole manuscript. Alternately overjoyed and petrified (a very common twin state for writers at this juncture, incidentally, although we hear only about the joy), Anita prints up her manuscript that very day. When she plunks down the hefty box and asks to overnight it, she turns pale at the price, but does pays it anyway. An anxious month of waiting later, the manuscript is returned to her, rejected.

What did Anita do wrong? Hint: what she did wrong here probably didn’t have any impact whatsoever on whether the manuscript got rejected or not.

Anita’s error was to overnight the manuscript. It was hugely expensive – and completely unnecessary. It would have gotten exactly the same read had she sent it via the much cheaper Priority Mail, or even regular mail. (Book rate is very, very slow, so I wouldn’t recommend it.)

The more interesting question here is why would Anita, or any other aspiring writer, spend money unnecessarily on postage? One of two reasons, typically. First, many writers assume – wrongly – that an overnighted package is taken more seriously in an agency’s mailroom. In their minds, the mail sorter says, “My God! This must be urgent!” and runs it directly into the agent’s office, where it is ripped open immediately and perused that very day.

Just doesn’t happen. At this point, writers have done this too often for an overnighted package to generate any enthusiasm at all at the average agency. 20 years ago, perhaps, when FedEx was the hot new thing, it might have made a difference, but now, overnight packaging is just another box.

Save yourself some dosh.

The other common reason for overnighting a manuscript is eagerness. Once the request for submission is made, the writer naturally wants everything to happen in a minute: reading, acceptance, book sale, chatting on Oprah. You know, the average trajectory for any blockbuster.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but speed on the writer’s end will not make one iota of difference in how quickly a manuscript is read, or even the probability of its moldering on an agent’s desk for months. Certainly, the differential between the agent’s receiving the manuscript the next day or receiving it in the 2-3 days offered by the more reasonably priced Priority Mail will make no appreciable difference.

This is true, incidentally, even when the agent has ASKED a writer to overnight a project. Consider the plight of poor Bartholomew:

Intermezzo scenario 2: Bartholomew has just won a major category in a writing contest. During the very full pitching day that followed his win, six agents ask him to send submissions. Seeing that he was garnering a lot of interest, Brenda, the most enthusiastic of the agents, requests that Bartholomew overnight the manuscript to her, so she can respond to it right away. Being a savvy submitter, Bartholomew says yes, but submits simultaneously to all six. Within three weeks, he’s heard back from all of them; puzzlingly, Brenda is among the last to respond.

What did Bartholomew do wrong?

He said yes to an unreasonable request. Why was it unreasonable? Because in essence, the situation was no different than if Brenda had asked Bartholomew to leave the conference, jump in his car, drive three hours home to print up a copy of his manuscript for her, drive three hours back, and hand it to her. In both cases, the agent would have been asking the writer to go to unnecessary effort and expense for no reason other than her convenience. As Brenda’s subsequent behavior showed, she had no more intention of reading Bartholomew’s manuscript within the next couple of days than she did of reading it on the airplane home.

Pop quiz: why did she ask him to overnight it at all?

Give yourself full marks if you said it was to get a jump on other interested agents. Remember last week, when I mentioned that agents tend to be competitive people who value book projects in direct proportion to how many other agents are interested in them? This is one way it manifests.

Pause and consider the ramifications of this attitude for a moment. Let them ripple across your mind, like the concentric circles moving gently outward after you throw a stone into a limpid pool, rolling outward until…OH, MY GOD, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE AVERAGE QUERY-GENERATED SUBMISSION?

Uh-huh. Explains quite a bit about why the agent who requested your first 50 pages doesn’t get back to you for two months, doesn’t it? Even though the average agent expects that the writer querying her will be simultaneously querying elsewhere, she will assume, unless you tell her otherwise, that the packet you send her is the only submission currently under any agent’s eyes.

So what’s the rush? It’s only your baby that’s sitting on the edge of her desk for weeks on end.

This is why it is ALWAYS a good idea to mention in your submission cover letter that other agents are reading it, if they are. (I would have to scold you if you lied about this, just to speed up the agent’s sense of urgency.) No need to name names: just say that other agents have requested it, and are reading it even as she holds your pages in her hot little hand.

In the scenario above, Brenda already knows that other agents are interested in Bartholomew’s work; she is hoping to snap him up first. So why didn’t she read it right away?

Give up? Well, Brenda’s goal was to get the manuscript before the other agents made offers to Bartholomew, not necessarily to make an offer before they did.

Is that a vast cloud of confusion I feel wafting from my readers’ general direction? Was that loud, guttural sound a collective “Wha–?”

Relax – it honestly does make sense, when you consider the competition amongst agents. Brenda is aware that she has not sufficiently charmed Bartholomew to induce him to submit to her exclusively; since he won the contest, she also has a pretty good reason to believe he can write. So she definitely wants to read his pages, but she will not know whether she wants to sign him until she reads his writing.

Essentially, Brenda is setting up a situation where Bartholomew will tell her if any of the OTHER agents makes an offer. By asking him to go to the extraordinary effort and expense of overnighting the manuscript to her, she has, she hoped, conveyed her enthusiasm about the book sufficiently that Bartholomew will regard her as a top prospect. Even if he gets an offer from another agent, he’s probably going to call or e-mail her to see if she’s still interested before he signs with anyone else.

If she gets such a call, Brenda’s path will be clear: if she hasn’t yet read his pages, she will ask for a few days to do so before he commits to the other agent. If she doesn’t, she will assume that there hasn’t been another offer. She can take her time and read the pages when she gets around to it.

Again, what’s the rush?

From the agent’s POV, asking a writer to overnight a manuscript is a compliment, not a directive: it’s the agent’s way of saying she’s really, really interested, not that she is going to clear her schedule tomorrow night in order to read it. And even if so, the tantalization will only be greater if she has to live through another couple of days before cloistering herself to read it.

So what should Bartholomew have done instead? The polite way to handle such a request is to say, “Wow, I’m flattered, but I’m booked up for the next few days. I can get it to you by the end of the week, though.” And then he should have Priority Mailed it.

Sound daring? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: in the industry, the party who wants a manuscript overnighted is generally the one who pays for it. After a publisher acquires your book, the house will be paying for you to ship your pages overnight if they need them that quickly, not you. So by asking the writer to pay the costs, the agent is actually stepping outside the norms.

More submission tips, and faux pas avoidance strategies, follow tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

Submission packet dos and don’ts

I’m interrupting my amusing (to me, anyway) series on industry faux pas because I’ve received several questions recently about submissions. Not content questions, the kind we spent November wrestling with, the kind that get manuscripts rejected, but the technicalities of what actually goes into a submission packet.

I tend to gloss over this, because agents are usually very specific about what they want when they ask for a manuscript. Give them what they want. Never, ever send what you THINK they want to see instead: you may offer in your cover letter to send more, but that is all.

That’s right, I said cover letter – which no agent is ever going to ask you to include. The cover letter is for YOUR benefit, to help keep your requested submission out of the automatic rejection pile where the unrequested submissions go. It is also a polite way to respond to a business opportunity – in a business where politeness definitely counts.

What should your cover letter contain, and how is it different from a query letter? Primarily, the cover letter is a reminder that the agent DID request the manuscript. This information should be in the first paragraph, as in, “Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of my memoir, DEATH BY INCHES.”

Do I hear some murmuring out there? “But the agent is really excited about my manuscript,” comes a disgruntled voice. “Of course, he’ll remember it.”

Not necessarily – and that’s not necessarily bad for your book. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: contrary to what virtually every writer in the world believes, agents do NOT sit on the edges of their chairs, waiting for that manuscript they requested a week ago. They see literally hundreds of queries every week; it would be downright surprising if they remembered them all.

Don’t expect it – and don’t risk your submission being placed in the discard pile. Mention the request in your cover letter, and write on the outside of the envelope REQUESTED MATERIALS in letters so large that they can be seen from space.

If you met the agent at a conference, the cover letter is even more important. At conferences, agents often meet hundreds of people over the course of a day or two, and there are weeks at a time during the summer and autumn months where there are conferences every weekend. All of those pitches start to blur together after a while, even with the best intentions. (And no, making Frances’ mistake will NOT necessarily render yours more memorable.)

So it’s always an excellent idea to begin your cover letter with “Thank you for requesting the first 50 pages of my novel, FIVE HUNDRED BLANK PAGES. I so enjoyed meeting you at Conference X, and I hope you will enjoy reading it.”

And THEN take the biggest marking pen known to man and write REQUESTED MATERIALS – CONFERENCE X on the outside of the envelope.

Your cover letter need not contain much more than this. In fact, this would be a dandy cover letter for a requested submission:

Agent’s name
Agency address

Dear Ms. Smith:

Thank you so much for requesting the full manuscript of my novel, AND THEY ALL BURNED IN HELL. Please find it enclosed, along with a SASE and the author bio you requested.

I appreciate your taking the time to read this, and am thrilled at the prospect of working with your agency. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Writerly B. McAuthor
Address
Phone number
e-mail address

That’s it. Make sure ALL of your contact information is on the letter, though, either in the header (letterhead-style) or under your signature, and do be absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks.

Like any other communication you send to anyone in the industry, use correspondence format, not business format: indent your paragraphs. Do not address the agent by first name only (“Dear Isabelle…”) unless the agent’s missive to you addressed you by YOUR first name only. (And “Dear Binky” is right out.) And it’s professional norm to use the same typeface and font in the cover letter as in the manuscript, so 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier are your choices here.

Like a contest entry, the nicer the paper (within reason), the better: at a large agency, a submission will often go through at least two screeners’ grubby paws before it lands on the agent’s desk, and low-quality paper wilts after a read or two. Use 20-lb paper or better (I use 24-lb) in bright white. Cream or ecru paper, be it ever so beautiful, will come across as unprofessional. Bright white paper provides the best background for crisp printing.

Which means that you should NOT print your submission while your printer cartridge is on its last legs.

Okay, beyond this, what should your submission packet include, and in what order?

In part, this is a trick question, because otherwise, the packet should include precisely what the agent asked you to include. However, any agent is going to assume that a writer of your caliber is already aware that certain requests imply certain inclusions. Here they are, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in the packet:

1. Cover letter

2. Title page (ALWAYS include this, if ANY manuscript pages have been requested – yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book. If you have never formatted a professional manuscript before, please see the YOUR TITLE PAGE category at right.)

3. Requested pages in standard format. (Including a slug line in the top left margin of EVERY page, no matter what the PNWA contest guidelines told you: AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/#. The page number should appear ONLY in the slug line, nowhere else on the page. If you are unfamiliar with the slug line standards and other provisions of standard format – or didn’t know that there WAS a standard format – please check out the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

4. Synopsis, if one was requested, clearly labeled AS a synopsis. (With fiction, when an outline is requested, they usually mean a synopsis, not an annotated table of contents. For nonfiction, an outline means an annotated table of contents.)

5. Author bio, if one was requested. (If you don’t know how to write one of these, please consult the AUTHOR BIO category at right. I really have been trying to cover as many of your needs as possible here.)

6. SASE – that’s self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the game — big enough to fit the entire manuscript; if you sent it in a box, it is acceptable to send a mailing label and postage. (Always use stamps, not metered postage. If you want to send a second, business-size envelope SASE as well, to make it easy for them to request the rest of the manuscript, place it at the end and mention it in your cover letter.)

It’s also a good idea to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. Don’t worry about this causing trouble; it doesn’t, and you will have proof that they received it. This is important, because manuscripts do go astray from time to time.

That’s it. Don’t forget that EVERYTHING you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing please. No smudges or bent corners, either. Make it all pretty.

A bit more on this topic follows tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

PS: For those of you who are in the process of sending out packets: if you have follow-up questions on the subject, PLEASE post them here as comments, rather than e-mailing me with them. That way, everyone can benefit from the responses, and I can use my time more efficiently. I thank you; my agent thanks you; my publisher thanks you.

Avoiding the faux pas, part II: is it hot in here, or is it just that guy in the leather pants?

Yesterday, I began talking about the terribly counter-intuitive etiquette expected of writers just entering the publishing industry. As is true of so much in the querying, pitching, and submission process, folks in the industry just assume that writers know how things work.

And then get insulted when we guess wrong.

I have always hated tests designed to trick the test-taker. Ask any student who has every taken a class with me: as a professor, I was NOTORIOUS for stopping lectures cold and saying, “Gee, that would be a great question for someone to ask you on a final exam. I’m going to stop talking for a second to allow you to write that down, just in case.”

So, true to form, for the next week or so, I’m going to be walking you through an array of these tricky situations, to help you avoid the most common pitfalls. To make it more interesting for everyone concerned, I am going to couch each in a hypothetical case study. To play along, try to guess what fundamental rule of the publishing rule the protagonist of each inadvertently violated.

Scenario 3: Connie, a writer of books for the K-3 market, is going to her first literary conference. As one of the perqs of conference attendance, she has been assigned one appointment with an agent, and one with an editor. She preps her pitch like mad.

But when Connie goes to the agent and editors’ forum at the conference, she is stunned: there isn’t an agent there who represents children’s books; Clarissa, the only YA agent on the panel, says point-blank that she does not represent books for readers under the age of 13.

Dispirited, Connie keeps her assigned appointment with Agent Claude. Claude is kind, but he tells her the truth: his agency does not represent YA at all. Editor Charlie tells her that her story sounds interesting, but that his publishing house has a policy against accepting unagented manuscripts (as all of the major houses do, incidentally). So Connie becomes completely depressed, and goes home from the conference without having made any connections at all.

Okay, what did Connie do wrong?

“Wait just a second,” I hear some of you saying. “What did CONNIE do wrong? Don’t you mean what did the conference organizers do wrong, in assigning her to an agent who doesn’t represent her kind of book, and in inviting an editor who is institutionally barred from helping her?”

Ah – this is a common misconception about how conference pitch meetings are assigned: they are NOT assigned by the kind of book you are pushing, but by your expressed preferences and slot availability.

Which, if you think about it for a moment, makes perfect sense. If the conference organizers were to take responsibility for hooking everyone up with the perfect match, they would have to read a sample of each attendee’s work, wouldn’t they? (Note: a conference and its affiliated contest are generally organized by different groups of people.) They would also need up-to-date lists of what the agents were seeking – and no agent could ever pull out of attending at the last minute, which happens all the time.

So how are these matches actually made? Usually, conferences will ask attendees to rank their top choices for agent and editor appointments, and try to fit as many people with their first choices as possible, then as many with their second, then their third…until finally there are a few luckless souls who get none of their choices at all. It’s a simple logic problem, handled as such.

Relying upon attendees’ stated preferences throws the onus on the writer to try to figure out who would be the best fit – and, as those of you who were reading my blog last spring already know, the blurbs that agents and editors submit for writers’ consideration are often not very informative. This is why, in case you were wondering, I spent a full blogging month last spring going over which agents had sold what within the past three years, to help my readers make this choice more efficiently.

Avoid Connie’s first mistake: make sure to check BEFORE you pay the conference fees that there will be agents there who represent your kind of work.

Literary conferences vary widely; don’t attend one simply because it is geographically closest to you. Your time and money will be MUCH better invested in a conference that caters to YOUR specialty.

At a big conference, it is fair to expect to encounter agents who represent a broad array of types of book, but do not assume that a large conference is going to meet everybody’s needs. If you are not sure if a conference is geared toward your genre, e-mail the conference-giving organization, tell them what you write, and ask if there will be at least one agent there who represents your kind of work.

Specifically, not generally – if Connie had just asked about YA, the answer would have been yes, right?

So while Connie’s conference should arguably have invited a broader range of agents, the other big mistake her was probably hers: unless she was randomly assigned to Claude, the most likely reason for being misassigned is that she did not check the backgrounds of the agents before she expressed her preferences for pitch appointments. Or she may not have expressed any preferences at all (which happens more than you might think).

Connie’s third mistake was not taking action the NANOSECOND she realized there might be a problem. She could have, for instance, charged up to Clarissa and asked if anyone at her agency represented K-3 books. If so, could she use Clarissa’s name in a query letter? Are there agents that Clarissa would recommend for someone writing for that age bracket?

She also should have tried to switch agent appointments. At most conference that sponsor agent and editor fora, you will notice that immediately after it, the pitch appointment desks are generally swamped by writers wanting to give up their assigned appointments with agents who have just said that they are not in the market for what these writers write. Switching appointments is entirely appropriate under these circumstances; it helps everybody.

Connie’s case was a little depressing, so I can’t resist writing her into a new scenario, to cheer her up a little. Let’s try another version of the same problem – or, at least, what would look like a similar problem to the people involved.

Scenario 4: Daniel, a writer of bodice-ripper romances, was sitting next to Connie during the agents’ forum. Like her, he has an assigned appointment with Agent Dottie, whose blurb sounded good on the conference’s website, and a group meeting with Editor Domenico.

After Daniel’s appointment with Dottie, Connie spots him wandering the conference corridors with tears in his eyes: Dottie represents romances, but positively despises bodice-rippers. When he emerges from his editor meeting, he reports to her that Domenico is only interested in books for the male market.

So cast-down they are barely able to move, Daniel and Connie retreat to the bar. (Trust me, there’s always a bar within a hundred yards of any writers’ conference; there’s quite a good literary conference that takes place smack-dab in the middle of New Orleans’ French Quarter, even). There, they commiserate, decide that they’re never going to go to a conference again, and ultimately engage in one of those brief-but-torrid conference affairs that my SO remains convinced are endemic to conference life, all evidence to the contrary.

Okay, assuming that both are consenting adults and unattached, what did Daniel do wrong here?

Well, he probably made at least one of Connie’s three initial mistakes: not researching the agents before he expressed his preferences. (Stop thinking about that torrid affair. I’m trying to teach you something here.) Even a cursory look over Dottie’s recent sales record would probably have revealed that although she represented romance, she didn’t represent his particular sub-genre.

Daniel also made one of the most common of conference mistakes: he simply assumed that he was limited to pitching to only the agent and editor to which he had been assigned. But at a large conference, the hallways are practically infested with pitchable agents. Why wasn’t Daniel pitching to them?

Because he was getting mileage out of playing on Connie’s sympathy, that’s why. There’s been at least one guy like this at every conference I’ve ever attended: big, sad eyes, a laudable ambition to write the Great American Novel – and a wife back home who he claims doesn’t understand him at all, because she isn’t a writer. But YOU are, and it’s been so long since he’s been able to talk about his true passions…

Uh-huh. What a bore.

Instead of heading to the bar with Connie (okay, instead of heading there with her so soon), Daniel should have buttonholed one of the conference organizers — perhaps one of those nice people staffing the Pitch Practicing Palace – and found out who DID represent his kind of work. And then he should have either tried to get an appointment with each and every one or followed them around in the hallways until he found an opportune moment to ask if he could give a 1-minute pitch.

Then, he could have walked away from the conference happy, even if he ended up being too busy promoting his writing to have that fateful drink-and-smooch session in the bar with Connie.

But that’s okay, too, because actually, conference regulars tend to frown on that sort of activity. Contrary to my SO’s paranoid delusions, writers’ conferences tend to be LOUSY meat markets; everyone at the tables adjacent to Connie and Daniel was probably arguing over the relative merits of Hemingway and Raymond Carver or telling one another the stories of their books.

Hey, Daniel and Connie: get a room, for heaven’s sake. We’re trying to be literary here.

Okay, I was only going to do two case studies today, but this lead so beautifully into another conference no-no that I just can’t resist. I’ll keep it quick:

Scenario 5: Fresh out of an MFA program, Frances is attending her first literary conference, and all of the bigwigs are there. One of the speakers is Ferdinand, a well-respected book reviewer. She asks an intelligent question during his seminar, and Ferdinand smiles upon her in an avuncular manner.

Eager to find a home for her literary fiction, Frances walks up to introduce herself afterward, asking his advice on which agents she should target. Flattered, Ferdinand agrees to meet her in the bar (which, as we all know, was within easy walking distance, because it’s a literary conference) for a drink and a discussion.

Okay, what did Frances do wrong?

Absolutely nothing. She’s being smart, working the conference to get connections to help her work. Well done so far, Frances! But pitfalls yawned beneath her unwary feet after she got to that bar. Let us continue:

Frances meets Ferdinand in the bar, and at first, she is thrilled by the envious looks she is getting from other writers: having drinks alone with someone of that stature! Yet, after the third drink, Frances notices that they have not been talking about her work for a good 45 minutes now. It turns out that Ferdinand’s wife doesn’t understand him.

What was the probability?

When Frances makes a move to go, Ferdinand mentions that he would love to give her a signed copy of his collected reviews – and if she would come up to his hotel room (conveniently located, like the conference, mere steps away), he would be able to give her the address of that agent they were discussing. Flattered, Frances agrees, and they wander unsteadily toward the elevator.

Okay, if you’re over the age of 25 and didn’t see this one coming, I can only suggest that you need to get out more. It is NEVER considered acceptable, or even ethical, to expect sexual favors in return for career assistance. Period. (And if you are over the age of 17 and didn’t realize that this was why Ferdinand was luring Frances up to his hotel room, honey, you need to read more books. The wife who didn’t understand him should have been a tip-off.)

And yet there are a smarmy few bigwigs who haunt the conference circuit with precisely this expectation – or rather, holding out the vague promise that they will provide assistance they have no intention of providing. There’s quite a well-known agent, for instance, who routinely refuses to allow any woman over 40 to pitch to him – and wouldn’t you know it, he never seems to sign any clients after these conferences. There are a couple of editors who suggest that they could bend the rules about not being able to read unagented work, if properly convinced. There’s a prominent essayist who has been known to suggest that the road to NPR leads through his bedroom.

That sort of thing. And while I’m not saying that Ferdinand isn’t a figment of my fertile imagination, if you walk into a conference event and see a prominent book reviewer wearing black leather pants, run, don’t walk to the nearest exit. Neither his wife – who seems to understand him all too well — nor the publication for which he writes so ably would want you to stay in the room.

Frances, darling: no. It’s not worth it, and believe me, it won’t help your book get published.

I guess that’s enough etiquette, and more than enough smut, for today. Do your research, don’t take any wooden nickels, and keep up the good work!

Avoiding the faux pas, part I, in which I reveal to my readers the astonishing fact that contrary to popular belief, agents tend to be competitive people.

Practically all of the writers I know – and they are legion – have been on edge lately. Including yours truly, a humble scribe who just sent off a NF book proposal to her agent Monday midnight. Considering that I was polishing this inherently annoying project – what writer wants to produce 35 pages of marketing copy on a book that has yet to be written? – during a pre-contest period when, by conservative estimate, I was receiving at least three panic-stricken e-mails per hour, asking for interpretations of contest rules and standard format, it’s perhaps understandable that I would be a little peevish.

My apologies to those of you at whom I snapped. Truth compels me to say, though, that by the last few days of proposal-writing, I was snarling at anything that came near my writing space.

I was under a lot of stress – in addition to the proposal and the contest deadline, I have a novel making its way through a publisher’s committee reading list AND a memoir being held up by another publisher — and it honestly is about equally time-consuming to answer questions one by one and to post each on the blog as comments so everyone can see the answers. Really, it’s better for us all in the long run for the questions to be posted as comments originally, and skip the middleman.

Signed, sincerely, the middleman.

So that’s my reason for being a trifle grumbly these days – but what is everyone else’s excuse? It’s more than just the February blahs. Contest season always leaves tempers a bit frayed; it’s the season, too, where the last of the New Year’s resolution queriers are finding SASEs in their mailboxes.

I’m not just asking out of idle curiosity, you know. For some reason, this February seems to be spurring a lot of writers out there to test the limits of the usual industry etiquette, or even to disregard it altogether. And in most cases, they seem to be doing it inadvertently.

All month, I’ve been hearing story after story from (and about; the professional writing world isn’t all that big, and notoriously gossipy) writers who have crossed boundaries that make those of us who have been in the biz a long time cross ourselves quickly and murmur, “Mon dieu!” under our breaths.

Because I have been, as I said, preoccupied, it took me a couple of weeks to figure out why. No, not why it should be happening in February – that’s anyone’s guess. I mean why writers, who in all other months of the year bend over backwards to avoid offending agents and editors, would be violating the industry standards for politeness all of a sudden. Care to hear my theory?

It’s because the writers don’t know about these standards.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time might not find this insight all that startling. “Humph,” I hear you mutter, “so what else is new? There are plenty of things a writer learns only through experience or because someone like Anne mentions it.”

Ah, but here’s the recent difference: in years past, writers learned industry etiquette at conferences, through writers’ groups, via the advice in the printed agency guides, by hearing horror stories, etc. Now, more and more writers are gleaning their information online – and thus are not necessarily in a position to have an industry insider take them aside and murmur, “Whatever you do, NEVER phone an agent who hasn’t called you first!” or “A conversation with an agent or editor at a conference is NOT a friendship – don’t e-mail afterward just to chat!” or “Never promise an exclusive for more than three weeks.”

For anybody who landed an agent more than five years ago, not knowing these things seems downright odd. But there you have it, the result of web-based community. Not all progress is progressive.

Which means, I guess, that it’s up to me to fill you in on some of these imperatives. Otherwise, I can’t really complain that you don’t know about them. And this way, you can in turn pass them along to other writers of your acquaintance, just as folks have traditionally done on the conference circuit, and none of my readers will ever end up being the one who insults the agent of his dreams.

I have nightmares about that, you know. I worry about you people.

Rather than just presenting you with a list, though, and to make this more interesting for those of you who have spent some time on the conference circuit, I’m going to spend the next few days running through a number of hypothetical situations. In each, I’m going to ask you what the fictional writer did wrong, and why. And to ease the transition from the contest tips of recent weeks, each of today’s scenarios is going to be about a contest winner.

So happy February, everybody. It’s time to get polite.

Scenario 1: Abigail has just won the Adult Genre Fiction category, and her head is still spinning from all of the congratulations. Agent Ashley, to whom Abigail had pitched earlier in the conference, tugs on her sleeve and reminds her that Ashley’s agency is already interested, upping her request for pages from the first 50 to the entire manuscript.

Flattered, Ashley agrees. But when Agent Andrew from her dream agency buttonholes her next and asks for pages, Abigail says that she can’t send them until after she’s heard back from Ashley. Andrew shrugs and walks away without giving her his business card.

What did Abigail do wrong here?

If you said that Abigail fell into that very common writer’s trap, being so enthralled by an agent’s – any agent’s – attention that she just said yes to everything she was asked without first thinking about her own strategic interests, give yourself partial credit. Ditto if you said that Abby acted as though she already had a firm representation commitment from Ashley before Andrew showed up.

Not every agent is the right fit for every book; Abigail should have been keeping her options as open as possible here. And as those of you who have pitched at conferences already know, agents ask to read hundreds of manuscripts that they don’t end up representing. Ashley’s interest, while flattering, is just that: interest, not a commitment.

If you said that Abigail’s mistake was to act as though SHE had already committed herself to Ashley, give yourself full marks with a cherry on top. This is known in the biz as giving an unrequested exclusive: Ashley does not expect Abby NOT to show the book too anyone else; Abby has just assumed that’s the expectation.

She’s wrong. And it’s certainly not in Abby’s interest for her to grant an exclusive without being asked specifically to do it. Until that agency contract is signed, the writer is a free agent, so to speak: binding commitments are expected from her, and none are implied.

In fact, Abigail’s manuscript probably would have gotten a quicker read from both Ashley and Andrew had she told them both other agents were interested. Why? Well, publishing is a super-competitive game. To a Manhattanite agent, a book over which there is competition is inherently more valuable than one that only he wants.

Yes, regardless of the quality of the writing.

I know: it’s counterintuitive, and assumes that writers are pitching and querying hundreds of times. But accepting that they think this way makes the publishing industry’s logic much less opaque, I promise.

Okay, here’s the extra credit question: what should Abigail have done instead?

Trickier, isn’t it? She should have told both agents that she was collecting as many requests for submissions as possible, and then sent her winning entry out to them all. Amongst agents, this is considered perfectly reasonable, and often even increases any given agent’s interest in the work. (See earlier comment about Manhattanite logic.)

Are you getting the hang of this? Let’s move on to a new case.

Scenario 2: Billy has just won first place in the Mainstream Novel category. Bertold, the hungry young representative of the Bob Baass Agency (Bob’s of Estonian extraction), immediately asks Billy for an exclusive look at his book. Since the Baass Agency has picked up contest winners at this conference in the past, Billy agrees, and does not pitch his work to any other agent.

Two months later, Bertold rejects the manuscript with a form letter saying that he does not represent this type of book, and Billy has to start querying again from scratch.

What did Billy do wrong?

A whole lot, actually. First, he granted an exclusive immediately after a contest win. As a former major category winner myself, I can assure you, the temptation to do this is vast: when you’re getting so much attention, often after so many years of fruitless querying, the notion that you could just hand your manuscript to the first agent who asks for it and never think about querying again is HUGELY appealing.

Yielding to this temptation lead to Billy’s second mistake: not continuing to pitch his work. As those readers who have already been with me through a conference season already know, I think it’s always a mistake to stop pitching after even the ideal agent has asked to see your work. The more requests for material you can garner at a conference, the more likely you are to end conference season with a contract in hand.

(See comment above about Manhattanite competitiveness. It honestly does explain so much.)

Billy’s third mistake was almost inevitable, after he had made the first two: he waited to hear back from Bertold before he followed up on other leads. A poor choice that probably stemmed from his fourth mistake, not having researched Bertold’s sales record prior to the conference, so he would know whether Bertold and/or the Baass Agency was a good fit for his work.

“But wait!” I hear some of you out there wailing. “You’re missing the point. Why on earth did Bertold ask for an exclusive on a book in a category he doesn’t represent? Why ask for it at all?”

Very, very good questions – and while they could both easily be answered by assuming that Bertold is a sadist who likes to make good writers cry, that’s almost certainly not the reason he did it.

Anyone care to take a guess? Anyone? Here’s a hint: does the Baass Agency send a representative every year?

If you know what’s going on here, you’ve probably been to quite a few conferences, or at least know other writers who have. The Baass Agency doesn’t want to miss out on the next bestseller. Bertold’s boss probably told him to nab as many of the major category winners as he could; the request was automatic.

With an exclusive, the Baass Agency can pass the winners’ work around internally amongst its member agents. In Billy’s case, no one bit.

Okay, what should Billy have done instead, other than run screaming from Bertold because he knew the Baass Agency did not represent his kind of book?

First off, Billy should not have granted an exclusive – he should have pitched to as many agents as possible at the conference, and sent submissions out to them all simultaneously. Telling them all that other agents (no need to name them) are looking at it, of course.

Not only does this prevent hard feelings down the line, it also tends to speed up the reading process at the agencies. If I hadn’t mentioned it before, agents tend to be competitive people. As those modern philosophers the Bee Gees informed us: “We can try/to understand/New York time’s effect on man.”

“But wait!” I hear some of you protest, stung to the heart at the audacity of saying no to any agent anywhere, anytime. “Wouldn’t Billy have offended Bertold by saying no?

Well, maybe, but it’s less likely than you might think. There’s only one reason that an agent ever asks for an exclusive: because he’s afraid that another agent will snap up the author before he can. I’ve never even heard of an agent’s changing his mind about wanting to see pages after an author has said no to an exclusive, in fact. But then, it very seldom happens.

If you don’t believe me, eavesdrop sometime on an agent who has just learned that a contest winner has granted an exclusive to ANOTHER agent; it’s not as though they regard it as a sacred covenant. As I said, these folks are a MITE competitive.

If Billy feared that he felt that he would lose Bertold’s interest by saying no, he should have set an end date to the exclusive right away. The polite way of doing this is to say, “I’d be happy to let you have an exclusive look for three weeks.” That’s a perfectly reasonable amount of time, and if Bertold finds he needs more, trust me, he’ll call Billy and ask for an extension.

After establishing the deadline, Billy should have pitched up a storm, to have a stack of business cards ready for his next round of queries. At 12:01 am on the day after the exclusive expired, Billy should have sent out a submission to every other agent to whom he pitched. THEN he could send a polite e-mail or letter to Bertold, telling him other agents were now looking at his work.

As you may see, what is and isn’t considered cricket within the publishing world is not always self-evident. Fortunately for me, by the time I won a major contest, I had attended enough conferences to avoid Abigail’s mistake; even luckier, I had enough friends who had won contests in the past that I knew to say, unlike Billy, to everyone who asked, “I’m not giving any exclusives, but I would be happy to send you the first 50 pages.”

It’s all about socialization, my friends: as a writer entering the world of agents and editors, you are going to need to assimilate to a new culture. Being aware of that can help you avoid giving gratuitous offense – and help you protect your own interests.

Keep up the good work!

What happens to an entry AFTER you mail it

I’m going to operate under the assumption that a lot of my regular readers have been spending this unseasonably pleasant PNW day frantically proofreading their entries, searching wildly for an envelope large enough to fit two copies, and generally freaking out because it’s deadline day for the PNWA literary contest. (For those of you Seattle-area members who are truly panicking, there’s a post office down near SeaTac who postmarks later than the average – until 8 p.m., if memory serves, but do call ahead of time and make sure. It’s in Burien.) Remember the feeling of this day: after you win (as I sincerely hope you will), people will ask you about how confident you felt as you passed your entry into the tender care of an overworked postal employee.

Just so you know, “I wondered why I put myself through this hell” does not play well as a response. Make up something you’d like your biographers to reprint a hundred years from now.

So now the long wait to hear back begins. In the PNWA contest, category finalists are generally notified in late May or early June, early enough that they can get good airfares to attend the conference. If your entry does not make the finals, you will not hear back until AFTER the conference, when you receive your feedback sheets.

Translation: if you do not make the finals, you may not hear ANYTHING until August. So no news is bad news, in this instance. However, if you have not heard by mid-June, you need not necessarily despair of your chances: last year, for instance, internal organizational crises meant that finalists were notified weeks later than usual. It’s not a good idea to hold your breath, in short.

If you are a finalist, PLEASE, for your own sake, try to make it to the conference. A finalist ribbon dangling over one’s stomach is like a backstage pass at a sold-out rock concert: if you’re brave about it, it really does allow you much more leeway about buttonholing agents and editors in the hallways. Not to mention making it substantially easier to meet other contest attendees; it’s an instant conversation-starter, a variation on the contest-ubiquitous, “So, what do you write?”

In case you’re curious about what will happen to your entry between now and then, first, it will be processed by wonderful, charming volunteers who don’t get nearly enough credit for the hours they put in on all of our behalves. They do the bureaucratic part, separating the entry form from the entries, arranging them by category for blind judging, assigning numbers so they can later figure out whose anonymous entry was whose. Oh, and they cash the checks.

Then they go to the category chair, who in turn will assign them to the first-round judges. Two first-round judges will read each entry, filling out complex rating forms. After the entries are ranked, the category chair will tabulate the findings, make ultra-sure that all of the top-ranked entries met ALL of the entry requirements, and come up with a list of finalists.

The bureaucratic end will then figure out who those entrants were, and then the finalists’ entries will go on to the category judge, usually either someone prominent in that particular field or one of the agents or editors attending the conference.

With the exception of the final judge, who is generally paid for his services, every single person who touches your entry is a volunteer. You should stand and cheer for these people; they are doing us all a great big favor.

If you did not enter this year’s contest, you might want to consider contacting the PNWA and offering to be a first-round judge in your favorite category. I can think of no experience that will educate you faster (short of being a query screener in a top-ranked agency) about what does and does not look professional in a manuscript. You will also get an unparalleled view of the kind of competition you can expect if you enter future contests.

Not to mention the kick of being the one who gets to point out deviations from standard format. It’s not much power, but it’s worth doing.

It’s also quite interesting, and the joy a judge feels upon discovering a hit-it-out-of-the-ballpark entry really isn’t like anything else. Except, perhaps, watching your favorite ball player hit a home run. But that lasts for a mere second, while the elation of reading a truly superlative entry lasts for hours. Or maybe I’m just more enamored of good writing than most people.

Thus ends this year’s series on contest entries. If, in retrospect, you think of a topic that would have been helpful to see covered here, drop a line via the comments function and suggest it, please.

Oh, and while I’m on the subject, my apologies to those of you who had sent out your entries before this last weekend’s barrage of tips. I’ve been in rather a hard place, strategically, since I know from last year’s experience that most of the writers logging into the blog for contest-entry advice do so within the last few days of the deadline. Since the panicked many are the most rushed of readers, the material they need to see most has to be at the top of the pile, so to speak.

Yet I did not want to make the series too redundant for my longer-term readers. All in all, it’s been like trying to plan the articles in a bridal magazine: covering the same material again and again, having to assume that any given article might be read by someone who is absolutely new to the subject matter, yet trying to put a fresh spin on the material to keep things interesting. It’s been harder than it looks. At least, I hope so.

On to new pastures and topics! My good wishes follow your contest entries – and, as always, keep up the good work.

To those of you who are posting a PNWA entry today

Okay, take a deep breath. Remember that you have talent, and that you are being a brave advocate for that talent whenever you enter a contest or send out a query. Be proud of yourself. Then take another deep breath, and don’t drive yourself crazy with worry about whether you should revise the whole thing again before you send it out.

Repeat above as many times as necessary to get yourself through the day — and your entry postmarked.

And, of course, keep up the good work!

Increasing your chances: the niceties

Okay, we’re heading into the home stretch of the contest-entry process. I hope that all of you eager contest-entrants have improved your entries – and I hope that those of you who have no interest in entering any contest at all have not been bored to death. I don’t feel too guilty about the latter group, actually: most of these presentation tips work beautifully with query letters and manuscript submission, too.

Today’s installment should please both sides of the aisle: deals with the fun stuff, the last-minute touches that can give your entry an edge.

Do I see the bleary-eyed contest entrants out there waving feebly to get my attention? “Whoa there,” they say, “you’ve just spent weeks on end telling us about restrictions on what doesn’t work in a contest entry. How much fun stuff could there possibly be?

Well, okay, you have a point there: when you first read through contest rules, it may not seem as though they allow a great deal of leeway in how you package your work, but often, there is some wiggle room. Proportion, for instance, can make a difference in how your work is received. And I’m not just talking about how your text looks on a page.

Although while I’m at it, allow me to reiterate two points that sharp-eyed readers have asked me to clarify in comments: no matter what anyone tells you about how skipping two spaces after a period or colon makes your manuscript look “dated,” DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM. Printing standards have indeed changed on this point; standard format has not. Technically, periods and colons should have two spaces after them, not one. (If you’ve already sent in an entry with only one, you’re likely to elicit a nasty comment about it on your feedback form, but you’re unlikely to be docked points. Make sure to have those spaces doubled before you send those chapters out to agencies, though.)

Also, another point that had slipped my mind earlier: turn off your widow and orphan control (in Word, this is located under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. This is the annoying little feature that automatically hijacks a single line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page and sticks it on the next, with the rest of the paragraph. The result: uneven numbers of lines on pages.

Turn it off. In standard format, every page of full text is SUPPOSED to have the same number of lines. (A fringe benefit for those of you who, like me, are wordy: this will result in your being able to cram more words into your contest entry. Yippee!)

Okay, back to other proportionality issues. Take a look at your entry: does the synopsis seem disproportionately long? Is there good writing that you would be able to squeeze into the chapter if it were shorter?

If your synopsis runneth over its assigned page limit, try this trick o’ the trade: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1.

Yes, you will need this information to appear prominently in a synopsis you would show an editor or agent, but you have different goals here. If you are submitting Chapter 1 (or even beyond) as part of your contest entry, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your entry packet, the judges will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book. So why be repetitious?

In the average novel synopsis, over a quarter of the text deals with premise and character introduction. Trim this down to just a few sentences and move on to the rest of the plot.

Allow me to use a practical example – and because I KNOW you don’t have time to read anything between now and the contest deadline, I’ll pick a storyline you probably already know. Let’s say that you were Jane Austen, and you were submitting the first 25 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to a literary contest. (You should be so lucky!) For submission to an agent, your query synopsis might look something like this:

ELINOR (19) and MARIANNE DASHWOOD (17) are in a pitiable position: due to the whimsical will of their great-uncle, the family estate passes at the death of their wealthy father into the hands of their greedy half-brother, JOHN DASHWOOD (early 30s). Their affectionate but impractical mother (MRS. DASHWOOD, 40), soon offended at John’s wife’s (FANNY FERRARS DASHWOOD, late 20s) domineering ways and lack of true hospitality, wishes to move her daughters from Norland, the only home they have ever known, but comparative poverty and the fact that Elinor is rapidly falling in love with her sister-in-law’s brother, EDWARD FERRARS (mid-20s), render any decision on where to go beyond the reach of her highly romantic speculations. Yet when John and his wife talk themselves out of providing any financial assistance to the female Dashwoods at all, Mrs. Dashwood accepts the offer of her cousin, SIR JOHN MIDDLETON (middle aged) to move her family to Barton Park, hundreds of miles away. Once settled there, the Dashwoods find themselves rushed into an almost daily intimacy with Sir John and his wife, LADY MIDDLETON (late 20s) at the great house. There, they meet COLONEL BRANDON (early 40s), Sir John’s melancholy friend, who seems struck by Marianne’s musical ability – and beauty. But does his sad face conceal a secret?

Now, all of this does in fact occur in the first 25 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, as the contest entry would clearly show. But after all this, you don’t have much room to go through the rest of the plot, do you? So, being a wise Aunt Jane, you would streamline the contest synopsis so it looked a bit more like this:

At the death of their wealthy father, ELINOR (19) and MARIANNE DASHWOOD (17) and their affectionate but impractical mother (MRS. DASHWOOD, 40) are forced to leave their life-long home and move halfway across England, to live near relatives they have never seen, far away from Elinor’s beloved EDWARD FERRARS (mid-20s). At the home of their cousins SIR JOHN (middle aged) and LADY MIDDLETON (late 20s), melancholy COLONEL BRANDON (early 40s), seems struck by Marianne’s musical ability – and beauty. But does his sad face conceal a secret?

Less than half the length, but enough of the point to show the judges how the submitted chapters feed into the rest of the book. Well done, Jane!

Placing character names in capital letters and indicating ages (as I have done above), is no longer absolutely standard for querying synopses – but not all contest judges seem to be aware of that. To old-fashioned eyes, a synopsis simply isn’t professional unless the first time each major character is named (and only the first time), HIS NAME APPEARS IN ALL CAPS (age).

You would be perfectly within your rights not to adhere to this quaint practice, but if your work happens to fall into the hands of a judge who thinks it’s mandatory, you’ll be far better off if you stuck to old-fashioned structure.

And naturally, you should read the ENTIRETY of your entry IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere at all. As regular readers of this blog are already aware, my professional editor hat gets all in a twist at the notion of any writer’s proofreading solely on a computer screen.

And don’t even get me started again on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers! Mine disapproves of gerunds, apparently on general principle, strips accent marks off French words, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg of you: drop me a comment, and I shall make everything clear.)

Like a bad therapist, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded, but even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do. If you’re in doubt, look it up.

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

Insofar as a hole can leap.

Once you have perfected your entry, print it on nice paper. This may seem silly, but it sometimes does make a difference, believe it or not.

By nice paper, I’m not talking about hot pink sheets or pages that you have hand-calligraphed with gold leaf and Celtic designs. Either of those would get your entry disqualified on sight. No, I mean high-quality white paper, the kind of stuff you might print your resume on if you REALLY wanted the job. Back in my contest-winning days, I favored bright white 24-lb. cotton.

Yes, it’s a little more expensive than ordinary printer paper; live a little. Using good paper will make your entry stand out amongst the others. If this seems extravagant to you, ask yourself: have I ever walked into an interview wanting the job as much as I want to have my book published?

Nice paper is a pleasure to hold, but frankly, there’s more to this strategy than giving your judges visceral pleasure. The vast majority of contest entries are printed on very low-quality paper – and with printer cartridges that have seen better days. When multiple copies are required for submission, they generally show up on the flimsy paper so often found in copy shop photocopiers. It tears easily. It wrinkles as it travels through the mail. It’s dingy-looking.

Spring for something nicer, and your entry will automatically come across as more professional to the judges. It may not be fair, but it’s true, so it’s very worth your while to invest a few extra bucks in a decent ream. 20-pound paper or heavier will not wrinkle in transit unless the envelope is actually folded, and bright white paper gives the impression of being crisper.

Avoid anything in the cream range – this is the time for brilliant white.

For what it’s worth, I have observed over time that agents and editors, too, seem to treat manuscripts printed in Times New Roman on bright, heavy white paper with more respect than other manuscripts. The only drawback – and it was a significant one, I don’t deny it – was that when I printed up a draft of my memoir for my editor on lovely cotton 24-pound paper, it came back to me smelling like an ashtray. Turns out cotton paper soaks up ambient smoke like a sponge. My cats shied away from my desk for weeks afterward.

I’ve told this story before, so for the sake of those of you who have, ahem, already had the opportunity to laugh at the joke, I went back and sniffed the manuscript box again. (Ah, the things that I do to amuse my readers!) And you know what? More than 15 months later, the damned thing STILL smells like a smokers’ lounge.

And before you seal the envelope, GO BACK AND REREAD THE CONTEST RULES. Have you met each and every requirement? Have you included every needed element? Are your margins precisely what the contest specified?

It may seem anal-retentive to re-check this often, but as I have been telling you all throughout this series, judges are often looking for reasons to disqualify you. It is absolutely imperative, then, that you follow every rule to the letter. And in the average contest, a good 5% of entries show up with something really basic missing, like the check or a second title page.

Good luck with your entries. And everybody, keep up the good work!

Increasing your chances: the pentultimate checklist

After my rather peevish little post yesterday, I’m going to stop giving big-picture advice on your contest entries, and return to the nit-picky level. At this point, I have to assume that those of you who are planning to enter the PNWA contest have already finished the basic writing and paperwork for it.

If not, I can only assume that you are either the world’s fastest writer or an incurable optimist. Having been both myself — I actually did once win a major contest with an entry I wrote in a single day. In a book category, no less – I would be the last person on earth to castigate you for either. Write like the wind and keep your hopes high, you crazy kids.

But for most of you, the essential writing is done, right? You’ve read and reread your chapter, and it is both grammatically impeccable and one hell of a good story; John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and Dorothy Parker would all gnash their venerable teeth, if they still had them, in envy over your storytelling skills. Now it’s time to start asking yourself a few questions, to weed out the more subtle problems that can make the difference between making the finalist list and being an also-ran.

You may recognize some of these questions: many of them are boiled-down versions of earlier posts in this series. Sort of contest-wisdom bouillon, as it were. Take a few sips, to keep your entry from catching a cold fatal to its chances of winning.

Okay, so that was a lousy analogy; I’m trying to get a book proposal out the door by, oh, tomorrow, so I’m punchy. So ignore that last joke and concentrate on making absolutely, positively sure that your entry does include any of the most common mistakes.

Batten down your hatches, boys and girls: this is going to be a long one.

(1) Is my entry AND the length specified by the contest rules? Is it double-spaced, in 12-point type, with standard margins?

Yes, I know – I’ve been harping on standard format for, well, ever. I’ve also seen a whole lot of contest entries in odd formats, or with standard format in the chapters and single-spaced synopses.

To be precise, I have seen them be disqualified. Unless the rules specifically state otherwise, keep EVERYTHING you submit to ANY professionally-geared forum in standard format. (If you’re in doubt about what this means, please check out the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

Oh, and because I realized only last night I hadn’t mentioned it specifically: in standard format, there should be TWO spaces after every period and colon, one after semicolons and commas. Yes, I know, there are plenty of sources out there that will tell you two spaces after a period is obsolete, and in fact, it is seldom used in books anymore, as a tree-saving measure.

But what can I say? Publishing is an old-fashioned business. Don’t worry; no one will think your manuscript is dated if you preserve the traditional two-space norm.

(2) Is every page that should be numbered numbered? Does every page (except the title page, or as specified by the rules) contain the slug line TITLE/#?

This is sort of a trick question for those of you entering the PNWA contest: quick, which page do the rules specify SHOULDN’T be numbered?

Kudos to those of you who said that both the first page of text and the title page should remain numberless. Remember, title pages are never numbered, and are never counted in the page count.

How, you ask does one PREVENT a page number from appearing on the first page of a numbered document? Well, in MS Word, under FORMAT, there is a section called DOCUMENT. Under LAYOUT, you may select “Different first page.” Then go into the HEADER/FOOTER and make sure the first page header doesn’t have a page #.

Alternatively, you could just copy the first page of the entry into a separate document and print it from there. Just because technology is rigid doesn’t mean you have to be.

But no matter how you do it, NUMBER YOUR PAGES.

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

Again, this is nit-picky stuff – but people who volunteer as contest judges tend to be nit-picky people. Better to over-identify your work than to under-identify it.

(4) Have I included all of the requested elements on the title page? If it asked me to specify genre and/or target market, have I done that? And is it in the same font and type size as the rest of the entry?

This is not the time to experiment with funky typefaces or odd title page formats. Unless the contest rules specify otherwise, put the whole thing in the same typeface AND TYPE SIZE as the rest of the entry. List only the information you are ASKED to list there. (Although if you want to add something along the lines of “An entry in the X Category of the 2007 Y Contest,” that’s generally considered a nice touch.)

(5) If I mention the names of places, famous people, or well-known consumer products, are they spelled correctly?
Surprised by this one? You’d be amazed how many points are lost this way.

Writers very often misspell proper nouns, possibly because they tend not to be words listed in standard spell-checkers’ dictionaries. In a contest, that’s no excuse. Check.

And when I say check, I don’t mean just ask your spell-checker. To revisit every editor in the Western world’s pet peeve, most word processing programs are RIFE with misspellings and grammatical mistakes. I use the latest version of MS Word for the Mac, and it insists that Berkeley, California (where I happen to have been born) should be spelled Berkley, like the press. It is mistaken. Yet if I followed its advice and entered the result in a contest, I would be the one to pay for it, not the fine folks at Microsoft.

Double-check.

(6) Have I spell-checked AND proofread in hard copy?

Again, most spelling and grammar-checkers contain inaccuracies. They can lead you astray. If you are tired (and who isn’t, by the time she finishes churning out a contest entry?), the path of least resistance is just to accept what the spell checker thinks your word should be. This is why you need to recheck by dint of good old proofreading.

Yes, it is wildly unfair that we writers should be penalized for the mistakes of the multi-million dollar corporations that produce these spelling and grammar checkers. But that’s one of the hard lessons all writers have to learn: the world is not in fact organized on a fair basis. People whose job it is to make sure the dictionaries and grammar-checkers are correct are collecting their hefty salaries and cashing in their stock options without apparently being able to spell Berkeley or hors d’oeuvre.

Sorry. I’m sure Dante could cook up some especially appropriate permanent lodging for such souls in the afterlife, possibly involving nails on chalkboards or having to listen to that annoying Gilbert Godfrey voice that used to be standard on their programs asking them what they want to every time they move so much as an eyelash. But in this world, alas, all we can do is refuse to bow down to their low, low standards.

Before you boil over about the inequity of it all, though, think about misspellings and grammatical errors from the contest judge’s perspective. The judge cannot tell whether the problem with the entry is that the author can’t spell to save his life, or he hasn’t bothered to proofread — or if some Microsoftie just couldn’t be bothered to check Strunk and White to see when THERE should be used instead of THEIR. (My grammar checker routinely tells me to use the former instead of the latter in cases of collective possession, believe it or not.) From the judge’s point of view, the author is invariably the one who looks unprofessional.

This doesn’t mean not to spell-check electronically: you should. But you should NEVER rely solely upon a spell-checker or grammar-checker’s wit and wisdom. They’re just not literate enough, and again, it’s just too easy to accept an incorrect change when you’re over-tired. In my undergraduate thesis, my spell-checker saw fit to change my references to “longshoremen’s coalitions” to “longshoremen’s cotillions.” Lord knows what my readers would have made of that, had I not proofread, too.

As it is, I have never been able to get the image of burly stevedores mincing around in sparkly Glinda the Good ball gowns out of my poor brain.

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

As a general rule, I frown upon the use of clichés in print. (You can’t see me doing it, but I assure you, I am frowning right now.) Part of the point of being a writer is to display YOUR turn of phrase, not the thought of others. Occasionally, however, there are reasons to utilize clichés in your work, particularly in dialogue.

You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to reproduce clichés incorrectly. (Heck, I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests.) And an incorrectly-quoted cliché will, I assure you, kill any humorous intention deader than the proverbial doornail.

So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are ten-foot, not 100-foot. (Both of these are actual examples I’ve seen in contest entries. How would you pick up a 100-foot pole, anyway?)

When in doubt, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

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

The synopsis, like everything else in your contest entry, is a writing sample, every bit as much as the chapter is. Make sure it lets the judges know that you can write — and that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as a professional necessity, not a tiresome whim instituted by the contest organizers to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim of their own.

Even in those instances where length restrictions make it quite apparent that there is serious behind-the-scenes sadism at work. Believe me, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis.

Don’t worry about depicting every twist and turn of the plot – just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

(9) Does this entry fit the category in which I am entering it?

If you have the SLIGHTEST doubt about whether you are entering the correct category, have someone you trust (preferably another writer, or at least a good reader with a sharp eye for detail) read over both the contest categories and your entire entry.

Yes, even this close to the deadline. Categorization is a crucial decision.

(10) Reading this over again, is this a book to which I would award a prize? Does it read like finished work, or like a book that might be great with further polishing?

It’s a very, very common writer’s prejudice that everything that springs from a truly talented writer’s keyboard should be pure poetry. Even first drafts. However, there are in fact quantities of practical storytelling skills that most of us poor mortals learn by trial and error.

Although contests tend to concentrate on as-yet unrecognized writing talent, they are simply not set up, in most cases, to reward the writer who is clearly gifted, but has not yet mastered the rudiments of professional presentation. And this is very sad, I think, because one of the things that becomes most apparent about writing after a judge has read a couple of hundred entries is that the difference between the entries submitted by writers with innate talent and writers without is vast. An experienced eye — of the kind belonging to a veteran contest judge, agent, or editor – can rather easily discern the work of what used to be called “a writer of promise.”

In the past, writers of promise were treated quite a bit more gently than they are today. They were taken under editorial wings and cherished through their early efforts. Even when they were rejected, they were often sent notes encouraging them to submit future works. (Occasionally, a promising writer will still get this type of response to a query, but the sheer volume of mail at agencies has rendered it rare.)

Now, unfortunately, writers of promise, like everybody else, tend to have their work rejected without explanation, so it’s extremely difficult to tell — even after months or years of patient querying — where one’s own work falls on the talent spectrum. To put it as kindly as possible, until you have weeded out all of the non-stylistic red lights from your contest entries, you truly cannot gain a realistic feel for whether you need to work more on your writing or not.

If you are indeed a writer of promise – and I sincerely hope you are – the best thing you can possibly do for your career is to learn to conform your work to professional standards of presentation. This is one of the best reasons to enter contests like the PNWA that give entrants feedback, just as is one of the best reasons to take writing classes and join a writing group: it gives you outside perspective on whether you are hitting the professional bar or not.

Oh, and it helps to be lucky, too. Keep up the good work.