What to give a writer for Christmas, Part II, or, making room for writing in your life

Yesterday, I began talking about that reliable annual writer’s block-inducer, the winter blahs. Light-deprivation, overtaxed schedules, family demands, and constant invocations to be overtly jolly and spend lots of money leave many aspiring writers too blue — and too tired — to write. With the new year approaching fast (and with it, perhaps, the consciousness of another year’s having slipped by without landing that yearned-for agent and/or book contract), the temptation to say, “Oh, the heck with it — I’ll start writing again in January!” can become downright overwhelming.

Let’s talk today about fending off that state of mind, before any of us find ourselves glancing at our dust-laden manuscripts on Valentine’s Day, murmuring, “Will it REALLY make a difference if I don’t get back to the book until Groundhog Day?” or “Can’t I get away with not sending another set of queries until Easter?”

If you thought you were the only writer who ever thought like that, let me assure you, you’re not alone. I’ve known authors with lucrative three-book contracts in hand who still burrowed under the covers in the morning because they couldn’t imagine anyone paying to read anything they might conceivably write that day.

Listen: talent doesn’t just dry up. But motivation can.

Last time, I mentioned the possibility of refreshing writerly momentum by scheduling a writing retreat, a time when you can leave all of your everyday duties behind and just WRITE for a while. But realistically, absent a very generous gift-giver (hint, hint, Santa) or an independent income and a room of one’s own, for many writers, the very idea of arranging quotidian life to disappear for a month, week, or even a day seems like an impossible dream.

You’re a responsible person with obligations, after all, someone who is going to have to keep paying bills throughout this retreat. And let’s face it, other people’s demands and schedules would need to be disrupted. If you have kids, it may be hard even to imagine disappearing for as much as a week before they graduate from high school. If you have a demanding job, even the suggestion of being absent for a few days running may be enough to induce guffaws in your boss’ office.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have. If you have been able to find an hour or two per day for writing, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! You need to make the most of every second – which in and of itself can be intimidating; if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible.

(Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s a strategy I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. Like yesterday’s light bulb trick, it seems disappointingly simple at first, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music EVERY time you sit down to write.

Not just the same CD, mind you, but the same SONG.

The repetition may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with writing – which in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. After a while, you can put on other music later in your writing sessions, as long as you always begin with the same song. Your brain will already be used to snapping immediately into creative mode.

I do the music-repetition thing myself, so I can give you first-hand assurance of its efficacy. For my most recent novel, I put on the same Cat Stevens CD (hey, I was writing about hippies) literally every time I sat down to write – and now that I have finished the book, I can’t hear THE WIND without moving instinctively toward my computer. And even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s UPSTAIRS AT ERIC’S without starting to think about my long-completed dissertation.

I tell you, it works, if you give it a chance. (So yes, Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: installing a small stereo system in a writer’s designated workspace WOULD be a delightful surprise. How clever of you.)

If you are a person who needs to write under conditions of complete silence, try lighting the same type of incense or scented candle seconds before turning on the computer. Always wear the same socks, or pull your hair into a specific type of ponytail. Do twenty-five jumping jacks immediately before sitting down to write, or lock the door and belly-dance for a few minutes.

It actually does not matter what your ritual is, as long as it is a sensual experience that occurs ONLY when you are writing – and is repeated EVERY time you sit down to write, so your body will come to recognize it as a signal that it’s creativity time.

Or you could institute a ritual in reverse, rewarding yourself for staying a set amount of time in front of your computer, even if you are feeling frustrated. Graham Greene, I’m told, forced himself to write 147 words prior to taking his first drink of the day.

While that may not sound like much — the preceding three paragraphs add up to 146 — don’t underestimate the value of cumulative endeavor: Mssr. Greene’s daily thirst added up to a very successful 30-year writing career.

It’s also helpful, when you find yourself avoiding writing, to take a good, hard look at your writing space: can you in fact concentrate there? Is there a way you could make it more comfortable — or more private? Or — and this is often the case with struggling writers — do you not have a dedicated space at all?

Yes, you CAN write in a crowded café at a table immediately adjacent to a bongo band while babysitting a hyperactive rhesus monkey. And Antonio Gramsci wrote a major work of political philosophy entirely on toilet paper while imprisoned in a small, dark cell.

But that doesn’t mean that either is an environment particularly conducive to long bursts of concentrated creative thought.

Frankly, I think the advent of the laptop, however laudable in itself, has resulted in a general lack of recognition that writers tend to be more productive if they have their own spaces in which to write. (Not that a laptop wouldn’t be a pretty great present for a writer, Furtive NDGG.) Or at least more space than is taken up by a standard-sized placemat.

Call me overly reliant upon symbolism, but a writer’s home that does not contain at least a few square feet of floor space set aside ONLY for writing has always struck me as more likely to induce writer’s block than one that does. Not to guarantee it, mind you — plenty of authors have typed up a storm in cramped spaces — just to be conducive to it. Just like a schedule too jam-packed to permit a few hours of quiet meditation at a stretch, not having space to write renders the likelihood of being able to take immediate advantage of an attack of inspiration considerably lower.

Hey, Furtive NDGG: what about converting a spare attic, bedroom, basement, or corner of the living room into a comfortable writing space as a present? How about improving an existing one to make it more ergonomically friendly to its user — good desk set-ups are definitely NOT one-size-fits-all — or a more cheerful place to be? (Remember: lighting, lighting, lighting.)

In smaller living situations, how difficult would it be to the necessary screen to create a private space for a writer? Or, if even that is spatially impossible, investing in a really good pair of noise-blocking headphones?

Seeing a pattern here, Santa?

What about you, writers? All too often, we writers assume that the only possible reasons for feeling stalled in our writing are problems within ourselves: lack of willpower, lack of commitment, an unwillingness or inability to restructure our lives in order to write (rather than fitting writing into already overcrowded lives), limited talent. Or just a book idea that’s not as good as it originally seemed.

While any or all of these can certainly stymie a writing project, it’s worth considering practical steps that may make the physical act of writing easier — and creating long-term habits that will encourage us when the words are not coming easily. Give it some thought.

And, of course, keep up the good work!

When even the weather seems to conspire against you — or, what to give a writer for Christmas

snapshot-2007-11-29-20-52-40.tiff

Ah, the charms of a Pacific Northwest winter, light gray for a few hours in midday, dark gray or black for most of the time, and drizzly pretty much all of the time. I’m not kidding about the paucity of light: or the edification of those of you with the good sense to live farther south, this is the time of year when Seattlites who hold a day job droop visibly, because they are going to work AND coming home in the dark.

It can be depressing, making getting out of bed feel like an outright burden. Not the best environment, in short, for doing creative work.

Yes, the gloriously long days of summer do compensate for the blahs of a northern winter, but that’s awfully hard to remember at the end of November, isn’t it? Try to remember the kind of September when grass was green and…

Well, admittedly, the grass does stay pretty green around here all winter, but still, you know the song. My point is, back in September, you could glance lawnward on your way to work and still SEE that the grass was green without whipping out a pocket flashlight.

Seattle is, after all, where those clever doctors DISCOVERED seasonal affective disorder — just after, one assumes, having figured out that those maps schoolchildren are encouraged to color give a false sense of the relative positions of Washington and Maine with respect to the North Pole. We’re far enough north that my shampoo and toothpaste labels boast directions in both English and French, for goodness sake.

As much as I love being a three-hour drive from Vancouver, I’m a Northern Californian by birth and upbringing, and let me tell you, I spent my first Seattle winter fuming at my sixth-grade geography teacher for leading me so far astray.

So if those of you up my way been feeling sluggish lately, you have a perfectly good excuse. We who live north need to take better care of ourselves in the winter.

Which, presumably, is no surprise to the good people of Manitoba. Or to the elves in the workshop of what my politically-correct college dorm used to call the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver. (Ho, ho, ho.)

The late dawns and early dusks of winter are particularly hard on writers, I think. No matter whether you tend to get up early or stay up late to snatch your precious daily writing time, the fast-waning winter light is bound to alter your schedule a little.

And let’s face it, the longer it takes to ramp up your energy to write, the less time you have to do it.

I write and edit full-time, so I am spared the pain of the pitch-dark commute, but let me tell you, when I look up from my computer and notice that I have only an hour of daylight left, I practically have to lash myself to my desk chair to keep myself at work.

I’m noticing it even more this year, thanks to the Autumn of Mono: when you have only two or three hours of concentration in you per day, losing even ten minutes to staring out the window at gray gloom represents a sizeable blow to productivity.

Fortunately, there is a tool that makes this time of year easier: the lightbox, which, as the name implies, is a great big box on stilts that shines oodles of non-burning noon-aping light on the user’s face. They’re spendy — $200-$300 for a medical-quality one, in case the Furtive NDGG is planning a shopping trip for the benefit of writers in Fargo (which is, incidentally, SOUTH OF HERE, Mrs. Oswill) — but sitting in front of it for 45 minutes a day does tend to trick the body into believing that it should not go into hibernation just yet.

With practice, you can read or even work on a computer in front of it; I know ambitious souls who have arranged theirs to shine upon them while they walk on a treadmill or ride an exercise bike.

Me, I’m more sedentary these days: I plop myself in front of it with my laptop and a few houseplants (oh, like THEY don’t resent the winter’s loss of light?) to read my voluminous e-mail and scan comments posted to the blog.

It puts me in a good mood while I am deleting spam — which, for my money, is as high a recommendation as one can give a depression-lifting device.

I just mention this, in case any of you out there are blessed with the kind of kith and kin susceptible to suggestions for good gifts to give a writer for any major holiday that might be coming up. You have my full permission to print up this post to stuff into Santa’s pocket the next time you sit on his lap, as a gentle hint.

For those on tighter budgets, installing full-spectrum light bulbs in your writing space can also be very helpful. (Are you listening, Furtive NDGG?) Yes, they are a bit more expensive than your average light bulb, but they do undoubtedly help fight the November-February blahs.

They really are worth the investment. Write ‘em off as a business expense; most writers do find that they are more productive in the winter months with adequate lighting. And if you use them strategically, you need not spend a fortune to improve your mood.

Okay, I’m about to share a trick of the full-time writing trade, one of those professional secrets that you always suspected the published shared with one another in furtive whispers: in the winter months, have your writing space be the ONLY room in the house equipped with full-spectrum lighting, and plenty of it. Make it blaze.

“That’s it?” I hear you cry in frustration. “Light my studio differently from the rest of the house?”

Yes, oh scoffers, that is what I said. Do it, and make sure you spend at least an hour per day in the room for the first week with the new lighting. (Hey, why not spend that time writing?) Soon, you will find that your body actually CRAVES being in your writing space. You (and, most likely, any pet animals you happen to own) will automatically gravitate there.

Nifty trick, eh?

Naturally, this strategy alone will not necessarily turn around a deeply entrenched writer’s block, but it’s a start. For a lot of aspiring writers, finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer is not the hard part: it’s the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper. It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. They worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to take time away from all of their other obligations.

For instance, about a third of the writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded T-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you – if you find that you’re not sitting down on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of unused leisure time.

I could parrot other advice-givers, and order you crabbily to turn off the TV/radio/IPod/Internet connection/other electronic distractions/my blog, but my God, there’s a war on. I would be the last person to advise you to be LESS aware of what is going on in the world around you. And chances are, by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, etc.

But, as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety.

Oh, all right: spend a few moments now daydreaming about it. I’ll wait.

If you can afford such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. Such retreats may be less expensive than you expect; many hold competitions for fellowships — which, as a fringe benefit, also look good as a credential on a query letter. (A good place to seek out such opportunities is the back of Poets & Writers magazine — which is more than happy to let Santa buy a gift subscription for someone, incidentally.)

While admittedly it can be very nice to squirrel yourself away in the company of other artists, communal dining halls are not for everyone, and you don’t necessarily need a full-fledged artists’ colony to replicate the retreat experience. There are plenty of secluded bed-and-breakfasts and hotels that are delighted to cater to people who never want to stick their noses outside their rooms. Heck, when I’m on a short revision deadline, I’ve been known to lock myself in a hotel room for a week, just to get away from the phone.

In case I’m being too subtle for any Furtive NDGG who happens to be eavesdropping: the best gift anyone can give a serious writer is a chunk of unfettered time to write. No, really.

It needn’t require subsidizing a couple of weeks’ worth of room service; think creatively — and, ideally, make friends with people who own far-flung cabins and under-used second homes.

I’m only half-kidding about this, actually. Housesitting for vacationing friends can make for a lovely retreat. Even if it’s for only a day or two, scoring some unbroken time can go a long way toward pulling the stuffing out of a seemingly insurmountable writer’s block. Just don’t forget to bring some good lightbulbs along.

More tips on beating the dark winter blahs follow tomorrow — and if, in outlining strategies, I should happen to stumble across a few more items to add to the Furtive NDGG’s shopping list, well, that won’t be my fault.

Don’t say I never did anything for you. Keep up the good work!

(P.S.: as you may have guessed, the nifty photo above appears courtesy of FreeFoto.com.)

More quotable courage, and some practical uses for all of that reading in bed

Last time, I was touting the virtues of getting into the habit of reading every (or as close to every as possible) first book published in your book category this year — and next year, and the year after that. Not only will adherence to this sterling practice give a writer a very solid sense of how editors and agents conceive of the category — thus making it easier to tell whether one’s work genuinely falls within it — but it will help convey a sense of the target readership as well.

While this may seem like a very large task to set oneself, most book categories actually sport relatively few first-time authors in any year’s harvest of publications. For years, I made a practice of reading every first literary or mainstream novel written by an American woman under 40 published by a major publishing house each year. Care to guess how long that took?

I wish I could report that it was a full-time job, but in truth, it wasn’t all that time-consuming. There were few years where more then 25 books answered that description; one year, there were only 7.

And those 7 were represented by only 3 agencies, I discovered. Guess who I queried the instant I uncovered THAT unsavory little fact?

The realization could have made me despair — but instead, it convinced me to sit down and take a good, hard look at the novel I was shopping around, to see if there was any way that I could make it more mainstream, because that opened up so many more querying possibilities. And sure enough, after I had taken most of the semicolons out of the text and readjusted the thought/action ratio a little, I found that my novel was about equally welcome to agents who represented adult fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction — which makes some sense, as there is considerable overlap amongst the readers of all three.

Heck, literary fiction aimed at women is considered downright redundant in the industry. But unless a writer became awfully darned familiar with the book market, how is she to know that?

There is another, more immediately practical reason to get in touch with one’s submarket and remain so, of course: it’s a great way to identify agents to query. As I mentioned many, many times throughout my Book Marketing 101 series, every agent on the planet is flattered by queries that begin, “Since you so successfully represented Unknown Author’s recent novel, FIRST BOOK, I hope you will be interested in my novel, PROJECT I’VE BEEN WORKING ON FOR A DECADE…”

They are far likely to be buttered up, in my experience, by mentions of novels them may have struggled to sell than by similar references to their better-established clients. (Because, presumably, as Edith Sitwell tells us: “The aim of flattery is to soothe and encourage us by assuring us of the truth of an opinion we have already formed about ourselves.”)

Use this quirk to your advantage.

To slather on the butter with a more lavish hand, go ahead and say something nice about the book in your query letter to its agent. (Quoth Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach in APHORISMS: “We are so vain that we even care for the opinion of those we don’t care for.”) Naturally, nice-saying is going to be a whole lot easier if you have actually read the book in question.

Although truth does compel me to say that if you are in a hurry, you can’t go far wrong with something along the lines of, “As the agent who so ably represented Keanu Reeves’ BRAIN SURGERY FOR EVERYBODY, I believe you will be interested in my book…”

That being said, on conscientious grounds, I really should reiterate that you ought to read, if not actually buy, all of the books you are using as launching pads for query letters to agents. Buying them is ideal, of course: after all, the sales of an agent’s current clients subsidize hiring Millicent to screen submissions from new writers.

Not to mention the good karma factor. The world would be a substantially better place for writers if we supported one another by purchasing books by first-time authors early and often. Because, after all, who can forget Glückel of Hamelyn 1719 pronouncement, “Stinginess does not enrich; charity does not impoverish”?

However, good old Glückel aside, books ARE expensive, and I know that some of you will be in too much of a hurry to check all of the relevant books out of the library. So here are a few tips on how to expand your reading list without buying out Borders.

First, you don’t need to until a book is actually published before complimenting it agent on the achievement of selling it. Given predictable lag times between book contract and actual publication, you may be able to spot a relevant sale as much as two years before it turns up in a bookstore near you.

So in a sense, even a very hip bookstore is a graveyard of passé contracts. (As Mary Webb informed us in PRECIOUS BANE, “We are tomorrow’s past.”) What you are seeing in bookstores today, then, is not an infallible guide to what is selling NOW.

And as I am probably not the first to point out, the early bird catches the worm. By querying the agent BEFORE the book comes out, you will beat the crowd of writers who inevitably swamp the agent of any commercially big book. (Sorry, no quote for that one. This is harder than it looks, people.)

Also, your promptness will tell the agent indirectly that you are a savvy writer familiar with market trends — and you will become one, if you become a regular reader of book sales. It is surprisingly addictive, and you will quickly learn a great deal about what is and is not being sold to publishing houses right now.

Those of you who stuck with the Book Marketing 101 series already know how to pull this off, right? Start reading the trade journals, such as Publishers’ Weekly, or subscribe to Publishers Lunch, which lists pretty much every sale to a North American publishing house, by title, author, agent, and often a one-line description of the book as well.

Fringe benefit: many times, these sources will give a general indication of the advance offered, too, so you can start getting some idea of what your writing is potentially worth. (Hint: pretty much every aspiring writer believes that the average advance is exponentially larger than it actually is.)

To quote my former agent, “We don’t really have any idea of a book’s market value until we start to shop it around.” (Come on — you expected me to have a famously relevant quote ready for that one?)

If you are a novelist, pay particular attention to the debut novels, which are often broken off into their own section in industry listings. Again, there is no better way to tell which agents are willing to take on new writers than to find out who is putting that inspiring level of openness into action.

(As George Eliot told us in ADAM BEDE, “It you could make a pudding wi’thinking o’ the batter, it ‘ud be easy getting dinner.” So true, George, so true.)

Keeping abreast of who is selling what will also allow you to target your queries more effectively as agents’ (and agencies’) tastes change over time. (As Zora Neale Hurston liked to put it, “research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prodding with a purpose.”)

Since a pre-publication query is a situation where you could not possibly have read the book before querying (unless you happen to be a member of the author’s critique group), you need not worry about complimenting the book; by noticing the sale, you will be complimenting the AGENT, which is even better.

In fact, you should make sure NOT to compliment the book, since anything you say is bound to come across as insincere. Has not Pearl S. Buck taught us that “Praise out of season, or tactlessly bestowed, can freeze the heart as much as blame”?

A good all-purpose opening, to steer clear of the slightest hint of misdirected flattery: “Congratulations on your successful sale of BOOK X! Since you so skillfully represent (BOOK X’s type of book), I hope you will be interested in my book…”

Yes, being this talented an agent-butterer does take time, as well as quite a bit of work. But unlike so many of the mundane tasks we writers need to perform to attract an agent’s attention, forming the twin habits of reading what’s newly in your area and keeping abreast of what editors are acquiring right now for your future reading pleasure will not merely be helpful in blandishing the agent of your dreams into taking a gander at your work. These are habits that will help you in later years be a more marketable — and perhaps even better — author, well versed in all of the pretty things writers in your category can do to enchant their readers.

“Unhappiness,” Bernadin de Saint-Pierre wrote in THE INDIAN HUT, “is like the black mountain of Bember, at the edge of the blazing kingdom of Lahor. As long as you are climbing it, you see nothing but sterile rocks; but once you are at the peak, heaven is at your head, and at your feet is the kingdom of Cashmere.”

Try to think of all this self-assigned reading as continuing education for your dream profession. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Quotable courage — and yet another reason to read (as if you needed one more)

I’ve been beating the drum of risk-taking so hard for the last week that I needed a day to stop and change gears. Most of the work of writing, after all, occurs long before the submission stage, alone in the dark of night. Or light of day, depending upon your schedule.

So I was very pleased to stumble across a delightfully apt quote for aspiring writers this morning, courtesy of Anaïs Nin’s DIARY (Vol. 3, 1939-1944): “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

While I don’t think that’s always true — one is not, after all, the absolute center of the universe — it’s certainly true of trying to break into the publishing world. Opportunities do in fact expand for those courageous to keep pitching and querying.

The converse is also true: opportunities contract for those not willing to put their writing out there. As I pointed out in my recent series on SIOA-avoidance, too many writers reject their own work (by not Sending It Out, Already, for those of you who took Thanksgiving week off) before a soul in the industry has an opportunity to take a look at it.

Creative minds are uniquely qualified, unfortunately, to talk their owners out of taking the big risk. The what if? muscles in writers’ brains tend to be rather sophisticated, after all.

And, as Ruth Gordon informed us in L’OFFICIEL, courage, “like a muscle, it is strengthened by use.” (Oh, like you don’t go scurrying to your quote book when you find a good new one to add, and then start leafing through what’s already there…)

Again, true of both querying and submission: plenty of writers never get past the first rejection letter; it crushes them, because they read it as an entire industry’s — nay, and entire world’s! — rejection of what they have to say.

If you have fallen into this category for even twenty consecutive minutes, ever — and who among us hasn’t? — let me ask you to take on faith, at least provisionally, something I have learned from long, long experience: the 4th rejection hurts less than the first, and the 147th less than the 146th.

Believe it or not, the vast majority of writers who have landed agents and publishing contracts have had their work rejected dozens upon dozens — if not hundreds upon hundreds — of times over their professional lifetimes. Including yours truly. But we kept ploughing ahead until the industry started to take us seriously.

As Louise Nevelson wrote in DAWNS + DUSKS, “I think all great innovations are built on rejections.”

I’m not going to lie to you — it takes courage, and plenty of it, to keep querying and submitting your work to total strangers. And while I’m on a truth-telling binge, allow me to add: I think that those of us who don’t have to query anymore (i.e., already agented writers) and those who never had to query in the first place (agents, editors, pretty much everyone on the business side of the publishing industry) have a nasty habit of pretending that querying is just like sending out any other business letter.

It isn’t, of course; it requires facing down the naysayers in your own head and risking the rejection of people you do not yet know. Yet have you noticed how often speakers at writers’ conferences and writers of articles on querying imply that it’s the easiest thing in the world?

“There is plenty of courage among us for the abstract,” Helen Keller wrote in LET US HAVE FAITH, “but not for the concrete.”

Having been on both sides of this particular aisle, I’m here to tell you: tackling the day-to-day necessities of maintaining an ongoing querying campaign is much, much, MUCH more difficult than standing up and gassing about querying techniques from behind a podium. So the next time you’re at a conference being lectured about it, remember to pat yourself on the back a little for being braver than the speaker, in all probability.

Speaking of which: Spokane-area writers, I am going to be in that toddling town next week, on December 6th, giving a talk on reasons that manuscripts tend to get rejected to the Spokane Authors and Self-Publishers. Come to listen, ask questions, or just to graze at what I hear is a pretty spectacular buffet.

It is SO easy to forget whilst hiking the querying-and-submission trail that it honestly does take more courage on the part of an agent to sign a previously unpublished writer than a published one, just as it requires more bravery for an editor to take a chance on a brand-new writer than upon the 17th work by an established name.

This is why, in case you were wondering, those of us who have been in the biz for a while cringe when we hear an aspiring writer say, “Well, my book is at least as good as the rest of the junk out there.” The standard against which a new writer’s work is held is not that of the current market, contrary to popular belief, but considerably above it.

Don’t believe me? Try this little experiment: read five books by first-time authors in your chosen book category that have come out within the last year — then go and take a gander at what the time-honored leaders of the genre have put out lately. Do they honestly seem to be edited, let alone written, to the same standard?

It’s a good idea in general to get into the habit of reading the work of new authors in your book category, anyway, to keep abreast of what is being bought and sold recently — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard agents and editors complain about aspiring writers’ not being familiar with the current market, as opposed to what was hot ten years ago.

Besides, if you want to live in a world where publishers are eager to buy books like yours, it only makes sense to convey that preference through buying them yourself, right?

And if neither is incentive enough to spur you to curl up this winter with the latest offerings in your chosen book category, here’s another: reading first-time authors is a great way to pick up agent leads. As I’m sure you’re already aware (because I’m fairly certain that I’ve mentioned it within the last few months), the vast majority of books sold to publishers each year in this country are written by the already-published.

Why? Well, they have track records. And think about it: how often do you — or did you, prior to adopting the practice of actively seeking out first-time authors I suggested above — buy books by first-time authors?

Okay, what about ones you don’t know personally, or who haven’t won major awards?

Readers tend to gravitate toward names they know — and bookstores often encourage the practice. Unless the writer is a celebrity in another medium or a politician, such books are substantially less likely to be placed in a prominent position in a chain bookstore. Certainly, they are less likely to be place face-out on the bookshelf (which increases that probability of being browsed considerably). Naturally, this results in sales statistics that show very plainly that established authors sell better than new ones.

So your chances of getting picked up are higher if you already know a particular agent has been successful selling a first-timer like yourself. You know, at any rate, that the agent has been exceptionally brave at least once.

And wouldn’t you know it, Helen Keller has ANOTHER pithy statement that’s appropriate here, and from the same book? “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” Are you listening, agents?

Because the agent who compulsively sells first novels is something of a rarity, let me once again urge you to draw a firm distinction in your mind between agents whose listings in the standard agents’ guides SAY they are open to queries from previously unpublished writers, and those who have a successful TRACK RECORD of selling first books.

As Abigail Adams seems to have written to her troublemaking husband in 1774, “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” Amen, Abby!

To be fair, agents — the successful ones, anyway — only take on what they’re pretty sure they can sell. As anyone in the industry will tell you at great length after he’s had a few drinks (oh, like it’s accidental that writers’ conferences almost always take place in hotels with bars in them…As Agnes Repplier was prone to say, and even wrote in 1891’s POINTS OF VIEW, “If a man be discreet enough to take to hard drinking in his youth, before his general emptiness is ascertained, his friends invariable credit him with a host of shining qualities which, we are given to understand, lie balked and frustrated by his one unfortunate weakness.”), a first book, unless it is written by a celebrity, is quite a bit harder for an agent to pitch to a publisher than a second or third. On average, less than 4% of the fiction published in any given year is by first-time authors.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you. But as George Sand apparently wrote to some friend of hers in 1863, “Let us accept truth, even when it surprises us and alters our views.’” Or, if you prefer Thomas Jefferson, “We must not be afraid to follow the truth, wherever it may lead.”

I’m sure I could find a dozen more quotes on the subject if I really took a spade to the Bartlett’s, but I’m sure you catch my drift.

Tomorrow, I shall be talking about ways to translate your reading habit into querying leads — because while life may shrink or expand in proportion to one’s courage, chance also favors the prepared mind. Or so said Louis Pasteur.

What, you thought the boiling milk thing just came to him one day while he was thinking of something else? Keep up the good work!

SIOA, Part V: combating the “Oh, God — have I blown it?” blues

Earlier this week, I told you the story of SIOA-avoider Zack, who had talked himself into a fairly common agent-soliciting writer’s dilemma. He had pitched successfully — so much so that he had been asked to send both the first 50 and the whole manuscript, respectively, to a number of different agents — but he had become so intent upon revising the book that he never quite managed to get any of those requested materials packets out the door.

Not that he intended not to send them out when he was pitching — no, at the time, and even for a few weeks after, he was willing and even eager to place his work under as many agents’ noses as possible. He certainly stressed out often enough about it. But somehow, he kept delaying making those last crucial changes.

And one day, he woke up to realize that five months had gone by. Or seven. Or a year.

It may have been as little as four weeks, but regardless of the actual number of cast-off calendar pages involved, it was long enough to prompt that thought always so close to the front of a writer gearing up for submission’s mind:

“Oh, God, have I blown my big chance?”

From that cri de coeur, it was only a small step to talking himself into believing that the agents in question would be miffed over the delay, so his submission really didn’t have a chance, anyway. Why, he reasoned, waste postage, now that rejection was a foregone conclusion?

For one very, very good reason, Zack: it wasn’t.

What doomed the submission was not anything that happened on the agent’s end; what guaranteed failure was not pulling out of the SIOA-avoidance spiral. There are, of course, plenty of things a submitter can do to render rejection more LIKELY, but at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of being picked up by an agent is one that no agent ever sees.

So today I’m going to ask the question the Zacks of the world should be asking themselves: what precisely do you have to lose by sending it out at this point?

And yes, that’s a perfectly serious question.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t ADVISE waiting 7 or 8 months to submit requested materials (or pushing it for longer than a year, regardless of the reason), but it’s not as though Millicent the screener will take one look at the return address, consult a list of expected arrivals, and toss it aside unread, muttering, “Well, we’ll never know if THAT one had potential, will we?”

For one thing, handling it this way would require her to take the 14 seconds required to check a list — and for someone to have gone to the trouble of creating and maintaining such a list. Ripping open an envelope marked REQUESTED MATERIALS and starting to read is, when multiplied by a hundred manuscripts.

So if Zack’s long-delayed manuscript falls into her hands, Millicent probably just going to — you guessed it — rip open the envelope and start reading. Oh, she will probably roll her eyes at the line in his cover letter that mentions at which conference her boss requested the enclosed pages, but in all likelihood, she’s going to take a gander at the first page, at least.

PLEASE do not, however, regard that likelihood as carte blanche to push off revising that requested material until some future point when you’ll have unbroken time to revise. Some agents do take umbrage at long delays, particularly after face-to-face pitching.

You can see their point, can’t you? Listening to many pitches in a row is pretty exhausting, after all, and one of the first reactions someone who makes her living by selling books is likely to have to the pitch that truly excited her is to start brainstorming quietly about which editors might be interested in the book in question. Don’t you want to keep that train of thought going — or at least (hold on, racking my brains for a train metaphor here) place your good writing under her nose while that moment of excitement is still within living memory?

(Couldn’t come up with an appropriate follow-up railroad metaphor, obviously.)

If you want to build upon the excitement generated by a pitch or query letter, it’s prudent to try to get it out the door within 6 weeks of the request (not counting standard publishing not-at-home periods, like the three weeks leading up to Labor Day). The common wisdom dictates 3, but since agents hear SO many pitches at conferences and Millicent sees SO many queries, it’s unlikely that either is going to recall details of a pitch or query.

It IS nice, though, if you can get it to ‘em soon enough so SOMETHING about your project seems at least vaguely familiar. More than that isn’t necessary, strictly speaking, because you will have written REQUESTED MATERIALS in big, fat marker on the outside of the envelope and reminded them in the first line of your cover letter that they did, in fact, ask to see it. (If anything in the last sentence came as a surprise to you, I would highly recommend taking a gander at the SUBMISSION PACKET category at right.)

Less than 6 weeks is ideal, but if you can send it out in under 3 months, there really is no need to apologize for the delay. (As writers often do, and at great length.) Longer than that, though, and it’s a good idea to add a sentence to your cover letter, apologizing for the delay.

What you do NOT need to do is query again and ask for permission to send it at all. A crisp, businesslike cover letter set on top of your requested materials will do beautifully. Something along the lines of this is ample:

Dear (Requesting Agent’s Name),

Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of my novel, INVISIBLE INK. Please find it enclosed, along with a SASE for its safe return.

I had hoped to get these pages to you a trifle sooner, but the confluence of an unusually protracted work crisis and a bright idea for improving Chapter Two rendered my proofreading eye a bit slower than usual. I apologize for the delay.

Thank you for considering this, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Charlotte Brontë

Nice, clean, professional — and most importantly, not maudlin. No need to go on at length about what actually delayed you; you’re just being polite here, not filling in a long-lost buddy about the last six months of your life. (If you don’t like the work crisis line, try a computer meltdown: everyone can identify with that.) All you really need to do here is to establish that you realize that you may have been slow to SIOA, and that you don’t plan to make a habit of it.

If you DO plan on making a habit of it, you can buy yourself some additional time if you are polite about any anticipated delays early on. Naturally, if you experience a genuine life crisis, that’s beyond your control — and if one occurs within the first couple of months after a request, it is perfectly proper to send out a courteous (and BRIEF) e-mail or letter to the requesting agent, stating that there’s going to be an unavoidable delay in sending those pages he asked to see.

Do everything in your power, though, to keep the lapse between request and submission under a year, especially for a follow-up on a conference pitch. (Since conferences are annual, and agencies frequently send different agents in different years, it can be really, really obvious if a submitter’s cover letter refers to the 2007 or 2008 conference.)

One more piece of practical advice: if you are SIOAing after a substantial delay, I would HIGHLY recommend submitting your work via mail, rather than as an e-mail attachment. Yes, even if the agent or editor originally suggested that you send it via e-mail.

Why? Because while Millicent will almost certainly open even a months-late envelope, she may not open a months-late attachment. Most agencies will not open unrequested e-mail attachments, anyway, due to fear of viruses, and the chances of your submission’s being mistaken for unsolicited grows as your name recognition at the agency fades.

If, knowing all this, you still find yourself firmly in the do-not-send-it-out-until-Groundhog-Day camp, I have one last question for you: are you positive that you really want to submit this book at all?

That may sound flippant, but listen: chronic SIOA-avoidance is a extremely common phenomenon, but in my experience, its severity does not correlate with how ready the book in question is to be marketed or the inherent talent of its writer. It’s very frequently a manifestation of fear of rejection, a way to protect one’s baby from criticism.

And that’s completely understandable, right? A manuscript that is never submitted cannot be rejected. It’s logically impossible.

So for many aspiring writers, it just feels more comfortable to cut the process short by not mailing requested materials — in essence, rejecting their own work before the agent can do it — than to take the risk of exposing their books to professional critique. That way, they can never learn for sure whether their books are marketable or not.

Let me be clear here: I have absolutely nothing negative to say about writers who create solely for their own pleasure. Bless the Emily Dickinsons of this world, I say, who limit their audience to people they already know. This can be wonderfully fulfilling, if the writer is honest about it, embracing the desire for an intimate readership — and doesn’t torture herself by continually trying to find an agent and/or editor she doesn’t really want or need.

However, the VAST majority of writers write in order to be read by people they DON’T know. To do that necessarily means risking rejection.

And let’s not kid ourselves about the kind of personal strength taking that level of risk requires: you have to be damned brave to send your work out to hyper-critical strangers. Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of professions where the practitioner’s FIRST official act is to take a piece of her soul and allow people a couple of time zones away to examine it under a microscope for minute flaws.

So, just for today, let’s celebrate how courageous we are when we do send out our work, rather than castigating ourselves when we don’t. Just for today, let’s clap our hands for all of us who have taken the great leap of submission. And for those who are going to pluck up the courage to break the SIOA spiral now.

Chins up, my friends, and keep up the good work!

Reminder: a call for submissions

Ah, the post-Thanksgiving quiet time is here, and a writer’s heart turns lightly to how to beef up that credentials paragraph in the query letter…since the deadline for this is imminent, I thought I should re-run it again.

I don’t normally post calls for submissions here, but this one represents a chance to not only to see excerpts of your writing in print — hooray! — but also a query letter-enhancing publication credit. How? By sending in your novel’s best passage to serve as a positive example in a writing how-to book by an award-winning author and editor.

Your work need not be previously published to be eligible. But let me allow the call for submissions to speak for itself:

/snapshot-2007-10-31-21-17-03.tiff

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
Dynamic dialogue, fresh body language, description that doesn’t stop the action, intriguing hooks that keep going . . . and going . . . These are but a few of the fiction-writing techniques that spell the difference between a manuscript’s rejection and acceptance.

Excerpts that demonstrate the effective use of these and other techniques are being sought from writers at all levels for the next edition of a much-acclaimed guidebook for writers. Up to 145 of the best examples from unpublished as well as published novels, short stories, and screenplays will be featured in DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSIONS: An Editor Tells Writers How to Save a Manuscript from Turning Up D.O.A.

This 2008 release is the expanded, all-genre edition of the original DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY, the small press book that won this year’s Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction Book, was acquired by Writer’s Digest Book Club, and became a finalist for the Macavity Award, Anthony Award, and ForeWord Magazine Reference Book of the Year.

Its author is Chris Roerden, an editor for 43 years and a former instructor of writing at the University of Maine and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Authors she’s edited have been published by St. Martin’s Press, Berkley Prime Crime, Viking, Walker & Co., Midnight Ink, Rodale, and many small presses.

Deadline for submissions: December 1, 2007. Contributors identify which examples in the first edition theirs can replace for the second. Only positive examples will be considered.

Though this means consulting the original 2006 edition, no purchase is required; Don’t Murder Your Mystery can be requested through libraries, which are acquiring the book as they learn of it. No fees or payments are involved.

Writers quoted receive full credit and retain all rights to their work, as in any review. Details and a submission form may be downloaded here or received for a 58¢ SASE sent to Don’t Sabotage Your Submissions, P.O.Box 16024, High Point, NC 27261.

SIOA, Part V: combating the “Oh, God — have I blown it?” blues

Earlier this week, I told you the story of SIOA-avoider Zack, who had talked himself into a fairly common agent-soliciting writer’s dilemma. He had pitched successfully — so much so that he had been asked to send both the first 50 and the whole manuscript, respectively, to a number of different agents — but he had become so intent upon revising the book that he never quite managed to get any of those requested materials packets out the door.

Not that he intended not to send them out when he was pitching — no, at the time, and even for a few weeks after, he was willing and even eager to place his work under as many agents’ noses as possible. He certainly stressed out often enough about it. But somehow, he kept delaying making those last crucial changes.

And one day, he woke up to realize that five months had gone by. Or seven. Or a year.

It may have been as little as four weeks, but regardless of the actual number of cast-off calendar pages involved, it was long enough to prompt that thought always so close to the front of a writer gearing up for submission’s mind:

“Oh, God, have I blown my big chance?”

From that cri de coeur, it was only a small step to talking himself into believing that the agents in question would be miffed over the delay, so his submission really didn’t have a chance, anyway. Why, he reasoned, waste postage, now that rejection was a foregone conclusion?

For one very, very good reason, Zack: it wasn’t.

What doomed the submission was not anything that happened on the agent’s end; what guaranteed failure was not pulling out of the SIOA-avoidance spiral. There are, of course, plenty of things a submitter can do to render rejection more LIKELY, but at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of being picked up by an agent is one that no agent ever sees.

So today I’m going to ask the question the Zacks of the world should be asking themselves: what precisely do you have to lose by sending it out at this point?

And yes, that’s a perfectly serious question.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t ADVISE waiting 7 or 8 months to submit requested materials (or pushing it for longer than a year, regardless of the reason), but it’s not as though Millicent the screener will take one look at the return address, consult a list of expected arrivals, and toss it aside unread, muttering, “Well, we’ll never know if THAT one had potential, will we?”

For one thing, handling it this way would require her to take the 14 seconds required to check a list — and for someone to have gone to the trouble of creating and maintaining such a list. Ripping open an envelope marked REQUESTED MATERIALS and starting to read is, when multiplied by a hundred manuscripts.

So if Zack’s long-delayed manuscript falls into her hands, Millicent probably just going to — you guessed it — rip open the envelope and start reading. Oh, she will probably roll her eyes at the line in his cover letter that mentions at which conference her boss requested the enclosed pages, but in all likelihood, she’s going to take a gander at the first page, at least.

PLEASE do not, however, regard that likelihood as carte blanche to push off revising that requested material until some future point when you’ll have unbroken time to revise. Some agents do take umbrage at long delays, particularly after face-to-face pitching.

You can see their point, can’t you? Listening to many pitches in a row is pretty exhausting, after all, and one of the first reactions someone who makes her living by selling books is likely to have to the pitch that truly excited her is to start brainstorming quietly about which editors might be interested in the book in question. Don’t you want to keep that train of thought going — or at least (hold on, racking my brains for a train metaphor here) place your good writing under her nose while that moment of excitement is still within living memory?

(Couldn’t come up with an appropriate follow-up railroad metaphor, obviously.)

If you want to build upon the excitement generated by a pitch or query letter, it’s prudent to try to get it out the door within 6 weeks of the request (not counting standard publishing not-at-home periods, like the three weeks leading up to Labor Day). The common wisdom dictates 3, but since agents hear SO many pitches at conferences and Millicent sees SO many queries, it’s unlikely that either is going to recall details of a pitch or query.

It IS nice, though, if you can get it to ‘em soon enough so SOMETHING about your project seems at least vaguely familiar. More than that isn’t necessary, strictly speaking, because you will have written REQUESTED MATERIALS in big, fat marker on the outside of the envelope and reminded them in the first line of your cover letter that they did, in fact, ask to see it. (If anything in the last sentence came as a surprise to you, I would highly recommend taking a gander at the SUBMISSION PACKET category at right.)

Less than 6 weeks is ideal, but if you can send it out in under 3 months, there really is no need to apologize for the delay. (As writers often do, and at great length.) Longer than that, though, and it’s a good idea to add a sentence to your cover letter, apologizing for the delay.

What you do NOT need to do is query again and ask for permission to send it at all. A crisp, businesslike cover letter set on top of your requested materials will do beautifully. Something along the lines of this is ample:

Dear (Requesting Agent’s Name),

Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of my novel, INVISIBLE INK. Please find it enclosed, along with a SASE for its safe return.

I had hoped to get these pages to you a trifle sooner, but the confluence of an unusually protracted work crisis and a bright idea for improving Chapter Two rendered my proofreading eye a bit slower than usual. I apologize for the delay.

Thank you for considering this, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Charlotte Brontë

Nice, clean, professional — and most importantly, not maudlin. No need to go on at length about what actually delayed you; you’re just being polite here, not filling in a long-lost buddy about the last six months of your life. (If you don’t like the work crisis line, try a computer meltdown: everyone can identify with that.) All you really need to do here is to establish that you realize that you may have been slow to SIOA, and that you don’t plan to make a habit of it.

If you DO plan on making a habit of it, you can buy yourself some additional time if you are polite about any anticipated delays early on. Naturally, if you experience a genuine life crisis, that’s beyond your control — and if one occurs within the first couple of months after a request, it is perfectly proper to send out a courteous (and BRIEF) e-mail or letter to the requesting agent, stating that there’s going to be an unavoidable delay in sending those pages he asked to see.

Do everything in your power, though, to keep the lapse between request and submission under a year, especially for a follow-up on a conference pitch. (Since conferences are annual, and agencies frequently send different agents in different years, it can be really, really obvious if a submitter’s cover letter refers to the 2007 or 2008 conference.)

One more piece of practical advice: if you are SIOAing after a substantial delay, I would HIGHLY recommend submitting your work via mail, rather than as an e-mail attachment. Yes, even if the agent or editor originally suggested that you send it via e-mail.

Why? Because while Millicent will almost certainly open even a months-late envelope, she may not open a months-late attachment. Most agencies will not open unrequested e-mail attachments, anyway, due to fear of viruses, and the chances of your submission’s being mistaken for unsolicited grows as your name recognition at the agency fades.

If, knowing all this, you still find yourself firmly in the do-not-send-it-out-until-Groundhog-Day camp, I have one last question for you: are you positive that you really want to submit this book at all?

That may sound flippant, but listen: chronic SIOA-avoidance is a extremely common phenomenon, but in my experience, its severity does not correlate with how ready the book in question is to be marketed or the inherent talent of its writer. It’s very frequently a manifestation of fear of rejection, a way to protect one’s baby from criticism.

And that’s completely understandable, right? A manuscript that is never submitted cannot be rejected. It’s logically impossible.

So for many aspiring writers, it just feels more comfortable to cut the process short by not mailing requested materials — in essence, rejecting their own work before the agent can do it — than to take the risk of exposing their books to professional critique. That way, they can never learn for sure whether their books are marketable or not.

Let me be clear here: I have absolutely nothing negative to say about writers who create solely for their own pleasure. Bless the Emily Dickinsons of this world, I say, who limit their audience to people they already know. This can be wonderfully fulfilling, if the writer is honest about it, embracing the desire for an intimate readership — and doesn’t torture herself by continually trying to find an agent and/or editor she doesn’t really want or need.

However, the VAST majority of writers write in order to be read by people they DON’T know. To do that necessarily means risking rejection.

And let’s not kid ourselves about the kind of personal strength taking that level of risk requires: you have to be damned brave to send your work out to hyper-critical strangers. Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of professions where the practitioner’s FIRST official act is to take a piece of her soul and allow people a couple of time zones away to examine it under a microscope for minute flaws.

So, just for today, let’s celebrate how courageous we are when we do send out our work, rather than castigating ourselves when we don’t. Just for today, let’s clap our hands for all of us who have taken the great leap of submission. And for those who are going to pluck up the courage to break the SIOA spiral now.

Chins up, my friends, and keep up the good work!

Steering between the Scylla of over-confidence and the Charybdis of under-confidence, or, a Thanksgiving meditation on the blessings of interactive gratitude

Yes, yes, I know: this is a national holiday, and by all that is right, patriotic, and holy, I ought to be lying prone on some big, well-upholstered piece of furniture, moaning about how much turkey I managed to stuff down my gullet over the course of the day, rather than posting here. But I’m still convalescing, thank you very much, a state not very conducive to reveling with pie.

This is also the first Thanksgiving within the span of my memory when I haven’t at least helped with the cooking, so I burn to be useful. Don’t get up off the couch; I’ll just lecture you from afar.

My charming SO has spent the last hour telling me that I can — and, presumably, should — take at least a few days off a year from burning to be useful, lest I find myself reduced to a Joan of Arc-style pile of cinders (which, frankly, didn’t look awfully good on her, and probably wouldn’t look any better on me). But one of the first things any editor learns upon getting into the advice-giving business is that writerly angst doesn’t take holidays.

Lest you doubt this: when I sat down to write tonight, I found no fewer than three e-mails from writer friends in my inbox, asking for advice. (I knew that they must be from friends, because mere acquaintances would have waited to send them until tomorrow.)

So: back to business. For those of you just joining us after a long winter’s nap, I’ve been yammering for the last couple of days about the desirability of SIOA — Send It Out, Already! — when one is faced with a request for pages, rather than revising and revising the manuscript for so long that the window of opportunity closes on the agent’s request.

Yesterday, I gave a pep talk to those good writers who find themselves currently in the painful throes of SIOA-avoidance, as well as laying the conceptual groundwork so writers who have not yet encountered “But is it REALLY ready?” turmoil will be prepared for it when it comes. Because, frankly, at one time or another, fear of submission has struck every successful writer I have ever known.

Okay, not EVERY: some are blessed with a superabundance of self-confidence, but in the publishing industry as in so many others, the hugely confident tend to be the folks who leave the air in their wake positively blackened with the smoke of their burning bridges.

Give me a worried nail-biter any day, I say. (Well, perhaps not on Christmas…or my birthday…but I can walk away from my e-mail any time, I tell you.)

The most confident writer I have encountered was a cookbook author who blandished me a couple of years ago (around Christmas, as a matter of fact) into introducing her to my agent and helping her with her book proposal practically to the point of co-authorship, only to pretend that she didn’t know me as soon as the ink dried on her book contract. She never seemed to doubt for an instant that the world needed her book — and apparently, a publisher agreed with her, because it’s out now.

For some reason, the agented encounter this stripe of bizarre super-confidence amongst favor-askers all the time: evidently, the shy, self-effacing, and polite are substantially less likely to approach us. (Which is one reason, in case you’re curious, that I respond so enthusiastically to those of you who post questions as comments here — here, I can answer a question once for the benefit of many, rather than one at a time privately.)

The persistence of the over-persistent ought to annoy the polite a little, because the boundary-pushers make it harder for everyone in the long run. For instance, one of the reasons that published authors tend to be reluctant to give feedback to hopeful strangers is that such a favor so often engenders not the gratitude it should, alas, but a detailed (and not always courteous) explanation from the overly-confident about how the kind author’s advice could not possibly be anywhere near the ballpark of correct.

Why, just the other day, the excellent and hilarious Bob Tarte, FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog) and animal life memoirist extraordinaire, sent me this illuminating anecdote on the subject:

A writer who had read Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather emailed and asked me questions about how to write her query, attaching a copy of the query. I answered the questions and made suggestions about re-writing the query. The response from the writer: a detailed argument about my suggestions. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no authority on queries, but it seems to me that if you ask an author for input, then you should probably accept or dismiss the suggestions — and ask additional questions if you need to — but don’t argue with a person who is trying to help you out.

I’m with you, Bob: I can’t even count the number of times that writers have asked for my advice on a particular point — not infrequently by buttonholing me at a social event to ask me to summarize, essentially, an entire category’s worth of blog posts — and then came back to tell me with evident glee that they decided that it wasn’t worth taking, for the following fourteen reasons…

If I’m the only habitual advice-giver who doesn’t find it especially satisfying to be thanked this way…well, I won’t complete that thought, because I know for a fact that I’m not.

And how do I know that? Because spend an hour at any gathering of established authors, agents, editors, writing teachers, and the like (at, say, the bar at a writers’ conference), and you will almost certainly hear at least three complaints (often in the form of hilariously-embellished anecdotes, complete with mimicked voices) about this kind of behavior.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: while it’s perfectly fine to ask an author you admire for advice — because, after all, s/he always has the option of saying no — if the author is generous enough to respond, recognize that granting you a one-time favor does not imply an invitation to a lifetime of debate.

Simple thanks would do. Flowers would be nice, of course, but not strictly speaking necessary.

Sometimes, though, the super-confident camouflage argument under the cover of thanks. I once had a writer friend hit me up for detailed advice on a contest entry. After I gave it, he was so good as not only to explain to me in vivid Technicolor why my advice was misguided, but go on to hit up my mother (also a writer and editor) for feedback on his entire manuscript.

Wait — there’s more. Over my gasps of disapproval, my dear old white-headed mother was generous enough to ignore the fact that the book was half again as long as novels in that genre generally were and gave it some gentle analysis.

Need I even tell you that the writer responded promptly by sending her an EXTENSIVE letter, ostensibly thanking her for her trouble, but also meticulously addressing each point she had raised to demonstrate that she didn’t know what she was talking about? Or that many of the issues he raised there were ones for which I had already established well-defined categories here on the blog?

I’m bringing this up not to complain (okay, not ONLY to complain), but because over-confident writers often extend this type of behavior to agents and editors at publishing houses as well. Calling an agent to pitch on the phone, for instance. Or e-mailing a flame-mail response to a thoughtful rejection letter. Walking up to a rejecting agent or editor at a conference and demanding, “Why did you reject that manuscript I sent you six months ago?”

Or, the engenderer of many an embellished cocktail party anecdote, shooting back a letter to a rejecting agent jumping on one of the standard industry euphemisms: “What do you mean, you just didn’t fall in love with it? HOW doesn’t my book fit our needs at this time?”

This just isn’t good long-term career strategy.

Why am I harping upon the outrages upon etiquette committed by the tiny fraction of aspiring writers who happen to be blessed (or cursed, depending upon how you look at it) with complete confidence that they are so extraordinarily talented that everyone in the publishing industry not only should be delighted to help them — and that within seconds of having formed the acquaintance, or even before — but should confine their critique to Gee, your query letter/pitch/manuscript is magnificent. Don’t change a thing?

Because it doesn’t take very many such approaches to render the approached wary of ALL aspiring writers, including the 80% who would never dream of being so rude. Bombarded with many such approaches, as agents are, often from aspiring writers who have not learned enough about the industry to be aware that there IS any other way to try to market a book, wariness can turn fairly quickly to standoffishness toward the hopeful.

An attitude that, alas, is very discouraging for the shy. Having witnessed it in action– as a coldly-worded form rejection letter, perhaps, a slow response to a submission, or a “Well, that kind of book just isn’t selling right now” response to a pitch — the sensitive writer can fall prey to frightening fantasies about, say, how nasty the next rejection may be.

Or how mad that agent is going to be that three months have passed, and I haven’t sent those requested materials yet. Oh, it’s going to be terrible; maybe I’d better not send them out at all.

Starting to sound familiar? The over-confident’s dream transforms into the under-confident’s nightmare: the pushiness of the former feeds the environment that in turn feeds the fear of the latter.

Perhaps I’m overly-optimistic, but I believe that if more writers took the time to express gratitude for the help we DO get — and no, I’m not fishing — there would, in time, be more help available. I’ve met plenty of folks involved in publishing who honestly do like to lend a hand — and would do so happily, if not for the fear that the extended hand was going to be used as a ladder.

But this is a change that’s going to happen incrementally, through a lot of small acts of kindness in return for kindness.

Case in point: Bob Tarte sent me a really helpful anecdote to use here on the blog, and I’m grateful. So not only am I going to mention that I REALLY admire his writing — he is genuinely funny, not praise I bestow lightly — but I’m going to go ahead and post his book jackets here, for ease of recognition in a bookstore:

/snapshot-2007-11-23-00-24-39.tiff /snapshot-2007-11-23-00-26-24.tiff

Heck, I’m even going to add a plug for his new project, a weekly 30-minute podcast on exotic pets (anything other than cats, dogs, and livestock) on the aptly-named PetLifeRadio.com. The show is called, much to my amusement, What Were You Thinking? and he co-hosts it with his lovely wife, Linda.

Okay, so it’s a small thing, but it gets the ball rolling.

And illustrates perhaps the best argument I can possibly give to the super-confident about why their tactics may not serve them in the long term: you don’t see me plugging the work of that forgetful cookbook author here, do you?

As my beloved first writing teacher, Philip K. Dick, liked to say: “Never screw over a living writer. You’ll only end up as material.”

Keep up the good work!

SIOA! Part III, in which your humble hostess does battle with the “what if” demons on your behalf

For the last couple of days, I have been urging those of you who received requests to submit all or part of your manuscripts to an agent or editor more than a season ago to take some swift steps to get them out the door as soon as possible. Yes, you do want your work to be in tip-top shape before you slide it under a hyper-critical reader’s nose — and agency screeners who are not hyper-critical tend to lose their jobs with a rapidity that would make a cheetah’s head spin — but once you’ve shifted from your summer to winter wardrobe without popping that those pages requested when your Fourth of July decorations were up into the mail, it’s easy to keep sliding down the slippery slope toward never sending it out at all.

Whoa, Nelly, that was a long sentence! But you get my point.

For most writers, holding on to those pages too long can create an increasing sense of shortcoming that starts to color the editing process — rendering it MORE difficult to make those last-minute changes as time goes on, not less. And then there’s the self-doubt.

“If my pitch/query were really so wonderful,” a nasty little voice in our heads starts to murmur, “why hasn’t that agent followed up with me, to see why I haven’t sent it? Maybe s/he was just being nice, and didn’t want to see it at all.”

Little voice, I can tell you with absolute certainty why that agent or editor hasn’t followed up: BECAUSE THE INDUSTRY DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY. It has exactly nothing to do with what the requester did or did not think of you or your book, then or now. Period.

You wanna know why I can say that with such assurance? Because their offices look like this:

/snapshot-2007-11-20-15-53-49.tiff

Trust me, the agent who requested your manuscript seven months ago is not currently staring listlessly out her office window, wishing she had something to read. She’s been keeping herself occupied with those thousands of pages already blocking her way to her filing cabinet.

Which is why a writer who is waiting, Sally Field-like, to be told that the agent likes her, really, really likes her before submitting is in for a vigil that would make Penelope think that Odysseus didn’t take all that long to meander back from the Trojan War.

I hate to disillusion anybody (although admittedly, that does seem to be a large part of what I do in this forum), but unless you are already a celebrity in your own right, no agent in the biz is going to take the initiative to ask a second time about ANY book that she has already requested, no matter how marvelous the premise or how much she liked the writer.

And before you even form the thought completely: no, Virginia, there ISN’T a pitch you could have given or a query you could have sent that would have convinced her to make YOUR book her sole lifetime exception to this rule. The Archangel Gabriel could have descended in a pillar of flame three months ago to pitch his concept for a cozy mystery, and it still would not occur to the slightly singed agent who heard the pitch to send a follow-up skyward now to find out why the manuscript has never arrived.

Gabriel got sidetracked at work, apparently.

So while that agent who legitimately fell in love with your pitch five months ago might well bemoan over cocktails with her friends that great book concept that the flaky writer never finished writing — which is, incidentally, what she will probably conclude happened — but she is far more likely to take up being a human fly, scaling the skyscrapers of Manhattan on her lunch hour on a daily basis, than to pick up the phone and call you to ask for your manuscript again.

Sorry. If I ran the universe, she would call after three weeks. But as I believe I have pointed out before, due to some insane bureaucratic error at the cosmic level, I do not, evidently, rule the universe.

Will somebody look into that, please?

By the same token, however, the agently expectation that the writer should take the initiative to reestablish contact can be freeing to someone caught in a SIOA-avoidance spiral. It’s very, very unlikely that the requesting agent is angry — or will be angry when the material arrives later than she expected it.

Agents learn pretty quickly that holding their breath, waiting for requested manuscripts to arrive, would equal a lifetime of turning many shades of blue. SIOA-avoidance is awfully common, after all.

So a writer who has hesitated for a couple of months before sending in requested materials can mail them off with relative confidence that a tongue-lashing is not imminent. 99.998% of the time the agent in question’s first response upon receiving the envelope WON’T be: “Oh, finally. I asked for this MONTHS ago. Well, too late now…”

I hate to break this to everyone’s egos, but in all probability, there won’t be any commentary upon its late arrival at all — or, at any rate, commentary that will make its way back to you. But that is a subject best left for a later post.

For now, suffice it to say that even if it has been four or five months since an agent requested your manuscript, I would still STRONGLY advise sending it out anyway — with perhaps a brief apology included in your “Thank you so much for requesting this material” cover letter. And I would advise this not only because the agent might pick it up, but because it’s important to break the SIOA-avoidance pattern before it becomes habitual.

Think about it: once you have put your ego on the line enough to pitch or query a book and then talked yourself out of sending it, do you honestly think either the pitch/query or submission processes are going to be emotionally EASIER the next time around?

Typically, after one round of SIOA-avoidance, they’re considerably harder, because the last time set up the possibility of NOT following through as a viable option.

I’m not saying this to judge anybody, but because it is a legitimate occupational hazard in our profession: I know literally hundreds of good writers who have been in pitch-reedit-talk self out of submitting-reedit-pitch again next year cycles for years. One meets them at conferences all over North America, alas: always pitching, always revising, never submitting.

Please, I implore you, do not set up such a pattern in your writing life. SIOA. And if you have already fallen into SIOA-avoidance, break free the only way that is truly effective: SIOA now.

I can tell that all of this begging is not flying with some of you. “But Anne,” I hear the recalcitrant say, “what if I’ve been feeling ambivalent toward sending it out because there is actually something seriously wrong with it? Shouldn’t I listen to my gut, and hang onto my book until I feel really good about showing it to the pros?”

Perhaps, reluctant submitters; if a manuscript is indeed deeply flawed, I would be the last person on earth (although I know other editors who would arm-wrestle me for the title) who would advise the writer against taking serious steps to rectify it. Joining a first-rate writers’ group, for instance, or hiring a freelance editor to whip it into shape. Almost any such steps, however, are going to take some time.

Before anyone screams, “AHA! Then I shouldn’t send it out yet!” let me hasten to add: your garden-variety agent tends to assume that a concerned writer will have implemented this kind of extensive long-term strategy to improve a manuscript BEFORE querying or pitching it, not after.

I would go ahead and send it now anyway, just in case your sense of shortcoming is misplaced, AND take steps to improve it thereafter. It might be accepted, and even if it isn’t, there’s nothing to prevent you from querying the agent again in a year or two with a new draft, gleaming with all of that additional polishing.

(For the benefit of those of you who have heard that apparently immortal writers’ conference circuit rumor: no, agencies do NOT keep such meticulous records that in 2010, the Millicent du jour will take one glance at a query, go rushing to a database, and say, “Oh, God, THIS manuscript again; we saw it in 2007. I need to reject it instantly.” Although she might start to think it if you submitted the same manuscript three times within the same year.)

Again, PLEASE do not be hard on yourself if you wake up in a cold sweat tomorrow morning, screaming, “Wait — she’s talking about ME! I’m in SIOA-avoidance mode!” (For your ease in waking your bedmates, I pronounce it SEE-OH-AH.) The important thing is to recognize it when it is happening — and to take steps to break the pattern before it solidifies.

Don’t worry — before I’m done, I’ll give you some pointers on how to phrase a cover letter to accompany a much-delayed submission without sounding like you’re groveling or requiring you to pretend that you’ve been in a coma for the last six months, unable to type. You can move on with dignity, I promise.

Have a nice Thanksgiving, everybody, and keep up the good work!

SIOA! Part II: why can’t I seem to send the darned thing out?

For those of you who missed yesterday’s post, the nifty little acronym above stands for Send It Out, Already! It, in case you are curious, refers to requested materials that an agent or editor asked to see more than three months ago. While such a piece of advice may come as something of a surprise falling from the fingertips someone who routinely advises going over submissions with a fine-toothed comb — and a diverse array of highlighter pens — many aspiring writers do get stuck between the query (or pitch) and submission stages of agent-finding.

This week, I’m concentrating on helping those writers become unstuck.

First of all, if you’ve found yourself in this kind of stasis: don’t be too hard on yourself. All too often, writers (and their well-meaning non-writing kith and kin) attribute not sending requested materials is attributed to procrastination, but in my experience, that isn’t usually what’s going on.

Many, many writers lose the vim to submit, despite beginning with excellent intentions, yet they certainly don’t start out intending to be slow in getting their work out the door. They just want to make absolutely sure it’s perfect before they drop it in the mailbox.

And that, as we all know, can take time. Here’s the progression I see most often:

1. The writer believes the book to be in good shape; query or pitch is full of enthusiasm.

2. The agent says (or writes) some permutation of, “Sure, send me the first 50 pages.”

3. The writer is THRILLED for a week. (During which time the aforementioned non-writer friends and relatives may be relied upon to ask the ego-dampening question: “So when is your book coming out?”)

4. Upon looking over the piece again, though, the writer begins to wonder if the book IS good enough. (Oftentimes, this is accompanied by a rising feeling that this submission is the ONLY chance the book may have to be read by an agent.)

5a. The writer starts to revise the first 50 pages wildly in order to make it perfect, OR

5b. The writer starts to panic and puts off submission until after some future defined period when he’ll have time to completely rework it. (“By Christmas” is a popular choice for writers attending summer and autumn conferences, I notice.)

6. Revising — or thinking about revising — continues. Since the self-appointed task is to make the submission 100% perfect, the amount of time the writer mentally allots to the task of revision continues to grow exponentially over time. (Here, “years on end” becomes the preferred option.)

7. One day, the writer looks at the calendar and finds that X amount of time has gone by since the original request for materials, and decides that the agent will actually be angry (read: will reject it without reading it) if the requested pages are sent now. Since the revision process has been so stressful, this conclusion often comes as something of a relief to the writer.

8. Result: the requested materials are never sent.

This scenario is slightly more likely to play out, I notice, when agents and editors ask to see the whole book, as opposed to the first 50. Or — and I’ll deal with this option a bit more tomorrow — if the writer has already been through steps 1-8 before.

The progression is perfectly understandable, right? That’s what makes it hard to diagnose in the early stages.

Because, you see, many of these writers run straight to their desks after receiving a positive response and throw themselves into a revising frenzy. Often, far from procrastinating, SIOA-avoiders put in many, many productive editing hours before they give up on submitting.

“I just want to get this ONE part right in Chapter Two,” they say, “so the agent of my dreams can see my best work.”

Which is, of course, a laudable and even professional sentiment — if the writer can get to this worthwhile endeavor within a reasonable amount of time. But when the writer starts thinking things like, “Well, okay, I didn’t get it out by Labor Day, as I intended — but I have some vacation time coming to me at Christmas; I can work on it then,” that should start setting off a few alarm bells.

Why? Because a lot can happen between Labor Day and Christmas.

That made some of you perfection-seekers sit up and take notice, didn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear some of you say, “that’s not the only issue. I care more about this book than anything else I’ve ever done, and once it’s published, this book is going to be bearing my name for the rest of my life, possibly even after. I don’t anything less than my absolute best writing to end up between those covers.”

Ah, but the draft you’re going to submit to the requesting agent isn’t going to be the book in its final form. It will be the version upon which future revisions will be based.

Did some coffee-drinker out there just do a spit-take?

It’s quite true — yet and the vast majority of unpublished writers do not seem to be aware of it. Yes, your book does need to be as polished as possible before submission, but realistically, you will almost certainly be expected to revise it between signing a publishing contract and publication. And perhaps between signing with an agent and signing with a publisher as well.

I don’t need a crystal ball to predict this, either. Merely simple observation: almost every book you see on the shelves at Barnes & Noble was revised significantly AFTER an agent or editor picked it up.

It may seem almost sacrilegious to say about a work of art, but the author’s vision of the book is not the only one that matters to the publisher. Your editor will definitely have some opinions on the subject; your agent probably will as well. It’s not unheard-of for a publishers’ marketing department to weigh in, as well as the legal department, copy editors, proofreaders…

In short, even if you produced the Platonic version of your book for submission, chances are that it would not be the version that would see print.

Another early warning sign that a writer may be beginning to fall prey to SIOA-avoidance behaviors: when the intended changes are in Chapter 10, and the writer is unwilling to send out the first 50 pages the agent requested. “But what if she asks for the rest?” the writer worries. “I want to be completely ready to send the entire book.”

I hear this one all the time, too, and my answer is invariably the same: “Um, if you send the first 50 now, won’t you have until AFTER the agent asks to see the rest to polish the book? From where I’m sitting, that could be 2-3 months from now! SIOA, and get right to work on the rest of the book!”

How do I figure 2-3 months, you ask? Well — and those of you who have not yet begun querying might want to avert your eyes for a moment; this news might make those new to the biz a bit queasy — at almost every agency on the planet, turn-around times for submissions are SIGNIFICANTLY longer than for queries. Three to six weeks to read a requested 50 pages is what a CONSCIENTIOUS agency strives to achieve; I tremble to tell you how long the ones who don’t respect writers take.

For an entire manuscript, it can often run 2-3 months or longer, even at the writer-friendliest agency.

A quick digression, to remind you of a former admonition: from a professional perspective, 2-3 months is too long to wait between queries; there is no legitimate reason that your marketing efforts must be stymied by an agency’s slow turn-around time. Keep sending out queries while your submissions are being considered, please: trust me, if the agent reading your first 50 decides to pass, you will be much, much happier if you already have Plan B queries in the pipeline.)

Was that pause long enough for those of you new to the industry to pick your chins up off the floor? See why I always advise writers that under no circumstances should they overnight their books to agents or editors unless THEY agree to pay for it? (99% of the time, they won’t.) Why overnight something that’s going to be sitting in a file drawer for the next month?

And if THAT’s not enough incentive to give serious pause to those of you with the opposite problem to SIOA-avoidance — the compulsion to send out requested materials instantly, without giving them a last-once over — I should like to know what would be.

Trust me: a LOT of those manuscripts moldering unread in piles at this very moment were overnighted by their authors; the overnight packaging doesn’t get a submission read any faster. Save your sheckles, and send requested materials via regular mail — or Priority Mail, if you really want to rush.

I’m bringing this up as a precursor to suggesting something fairly radical: under these predictably slow turn-around conditions — over which, after all, we writers have absolutely no control, right? — I would argue that no writer is under any obligation to send the rest of a book within a nanosecond or two of receiving an agent’s request for it.

I’m quite serious about this: you may well have 2 months, and possibly as much as 4, of reasonably predictable rest-of-the-book revision time AFTER sending a requested first 50 pages. If you sent off the initial chapters and an agent asked for more, you could legitimately (after an initial polite e-mailed explanation, of course) take an additional month or six weeks AFTER the request to finish revising, if you felt it necessary.

So you can SIOA those early chapters with a relatively clear conscience, knowing that you have some time at your disposal to fiddle with the rest of the book.

And you should do both.

Why? So you can move on as a writer without feeling that you might have let a wonderful opportunity slip through your grasping fingertips. So you do not label yourself as a procrastinator, because that’s a hard, hard self-label to peel off from yourself before the next round of queries. So you can act like a professional writer, one who knows that to risk success is also to risk rejection, and that the only book that has absolutely no chance of being picked up is the one that’s never submitted.

And, last but certainly not least, because a REAL, LIVE agent or editor asked to see YOUR writing!

More on this topic follows tomorrow. Keep up the good work!