Picking the right literary contest for you, part IV: it’s all about me, me, me

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If I had to pick a single piece of advice to summarize yesterday’s blog, it would be this: if you are going to hang your agent-finding hopes — and your resources — on an array of contests, it honestly does pay to be selective. In this series, I have been going over what you can do to figure out which contests are and are not for you.

Obviously, the ideal outcome of your winning a contest would be a situation like mine: talent and hard work recognized (if I do say so myself), signing with an agent within the next couple of months, and selling the book in question to a publisher six months after that…but I am sorry to tell you, my results were not the norm.

I was, in a word, lucky. Thank you, Whomever.

Well, okay, it wasn’t JUST luck. I pitched to every agent at that conference who would deign to look at me for thirty consecutive seconds — and I maximized my chances of success by doing my homework before I entered the contest.

At the time, the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named had a well-earned reputation for bending over backwards to help its contest winners hook up with agents and editors. Not only were finalists clearly and vibrantly marked at the conference with rainbow-colored ribbons so agents and editors know who they are, but the winners in each category were invited to have breakfast with all of the agents and editors, where each winner was expected to stand up and give a universal pitch. Also, the top three entries in each category were displayed in the lobby at the conference, where everybody could read them.

This level of support is unusual, however. I’ve been to many conferences where contest finalists are not identified at all, and other conference attendees are far more likely to meet a finalist than any of the attending agents.

I find this is counter-intuitive, as most conference-related contests actively encourage their finalists to trek to the awards ceremony — and, after all, a contest only gains in stature when its winners go on to get published. You’d think that sheer self-interest would prompt them to take the extra step of making a few critical introductions, but often, they do not.

See why it might be a very, very good idea to check out a conference over and above its formal offerings before you attend it?

Because — and I hate to say this, because good literary conferences are a blessing to humanity, and the volunteers who pull them together deserve candy and roses from all of us — there are conferences out there that exist primarily for the enrichment and/or self-aggrandizement of their organizers.

No, Virginia, not all literary conferences — or contests, for that matter — are organized by the Muses and attendant cherubim for the pure advancement of Art. Some are — brace yourself, old girl — organized by mere mortals with agendas.

And although I hate to be the one to break it to you, sometimes that agenda is pretty transparently to permit the conference’s organizers to rub elbow patches with the speakers, agents, and editors at the expense of allowing attendees access to them.

Those of you who have attended snooty literary conferences know what I’m talking about, right? I’ve been to conferences where the glitterati were whisked away from the attendees so fast that the keynote speaker barely had time to choke down his rubber chicken at the banquet.

Call me zany, but if I’m going to plunk down the dosh to attend a conference, particularly one far away, I don’t particularly want to be relegated to the kids’ table while the organizers hobnob with the agents and editors at the Important People’s table, if ne’er the twain will meet.

Or are whisked off to private parties on some board member’s yacht, far away from anyone who might conceivably have come to the conference to pitch.

Or — not that I have a specific conference in mind here or anything — where the agents and editors are given so much alcohol so often throughout the course of the conference that some of them just don’t show up for pitching appointments.

Somebody catch Virginia, please; I think she’s just fainted again.

Any of these phenomena is a pretty good indication that a conference is not as focused upon hooking writers up with the people who could help them as one might hope — and since many literary contests are directly tied to conferences, it’s worth your while to visit one of the big writers’ forums to ask former attendees about how much access writers actually have.

Ideally, of course, you’d ask someone who has WON the contest in question, but if you’re looking for formal events that will bring you all decked in your winner’s laurels into the presence of the agent of your dreams, you can also try calling the organization sponsoring the contest and asking about access.

If that seems too direct and/or confrontational, you could always just post a question on one of the big writers’ forums’ conference pages, asking where the agents and editors tend to hang out at that conference. If the answer is the bar, you’re probably okay.

Why? Well — chant it with me now, long-time readers — there is pretty much always a bar within 100 yards of any writers’ conference; the combined ghosts of Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald must howl unmercifully into the ears of any organizers who do not book halls in this manner. So historically, the free mingling of the insiders and the undiscovered at conference bars is one of the great democratic institutions of the literary world.

At a conference where the agents, editors, and speakers do not hang out at that nearby bar — i.e., in public — it’s usually a whole lot harder for a writer who wants to pitch to track ‘em down.

The writers’ grapevine can be very informative about this. If the agents and editors are not available because they are cloistered in private meetings with aspiring writers, or because they are having breakfast with contest winners like you, that’s one thing; that might be a good reason to enter the conference’s contest.

But if they’re nowhere to be seen because the local bigwig thriller writer has carried them off to his beach house the moment they stepped off the airplane, or because there’s a party in a locked hotel room that paying attendees know nothing about…well, let’s just say that the conference’s organizers will probably make better connections there than the writer who takes second place in the literary contest.

Especially if the entry fee to a conference-affiliated contest tied is high, I would advise checking out the contest description very carefully, to make sure it is worth your while. And there is no rule against dropping an e-mail to the organizers before entering and asking politely if there are secondary benefits to being a winner or a finalist.

This is not being pushy; it’s being prepared. If your name badge at the conference will be delivered to you pre-marked as a finalist, for instance, you might want to bring your own big blue ribbon to attach to it.

A sneakier way to find out how winners are treated in a conference-tied contest is to talk to NON-finalists who have attended the conference in question. Where the winners are treated extremely well, other attendees tend to notice – sometimes to the extent of being unhappy about what they perceive to be biased treatment.

I’m quite serious about this. If your mole says, “My God, the agents there wouldn’t give the time of day to anyone who didn’t have a top ten entry!” it’s a good bet that the winners get some enviable perks.

I’d enter that contest — but not attend the attached conference unless I was up for a prize.

Because, really, why? There are plenty of conferences that will demonstrate my profit motive in pursuing my writing equally well, where I will get more out of the experience. (If that reference puzzled you, please see yesterday’s post.)

And, honestly, didn’t all of us experience enough negative contact with cliques in junior high school to last us a lifetime? Why cultivate more?

It’s also a good idea to check out the list of your category’s winners from three or more years ago: how many of these writers can you find on a basic web search or by checking Amazon?

More to the point, do any of them show up as clients on agency websites? Or, for more recent winners, as debut book sales on Publishers’ Marketplace?

In other words, are this contest’s winners getting published afterward?

How past winners fared is an excellent indication of how you might make out if you win. However, try not to be overzealous: checking last year’s winners, or the ones from two years ago, is not entirely fair, as publication seldom occurs in less than a year after a book deal is signed.

An organization that supports its contest winners will usually be proud of them, so information about the subsequent successes of past winners is generally quite easy to obtain. If the sponsoring organization does not have a website listing member and past winner triumphs, try to scare up a chatty volunteer in the organization’s office.

How might a shy person go about inducing chattiness? Ask the volunteer what she writes, and if she has ever entered the contest herself. If she has, you’ll probably get an earful; it’s a safe bet that anyone who volunteers for a writers’ organization writes, but almost nobody thinks to ask the receptionist.

This same logic applies at most political campaigns, by the way: everyone who calls wants to speak to the bigwigs, but for organizational dirt, you can hardly do better than chatting up the dear white-haired retiree who devotes four hours per week to licking envelopes.

This may seem pushy, but most contest-running organizations will have a volunteer or staffer return phone calls and e-mails as a matter of course — see if you can elicit boasting about their post-contest success stories. Ask who their favorite winner was, and why. Ask if the organization sponsors readings for the winners, publishes excerpts, or offers other goodies to successful entrants.

Do I hear some of you groaning out there? “Anne,” protesting voices cry, “when are you going to stop with the research assignments, already? You want us to hunt down who represents what, the writing norms in our individual genres, and now the track records of contests in getting their winners’ work published. When will it end, oh Lord, when?”

Okay, okay, I’ll cop to it: I do advise doing a heck of a lot more homework than your average writing guru. I have seen time and again, though, that in the long run, investing the time to target submissions — be it to a contest, agency, or small press — actually shortens the path for an agent-seeking writer. It minimizes the expenditure of energy pursuing leads that turn out not to be all that helpful.

As a writer — especially as a writer with a full-time job — you need to treat your writing time as precious. Three days or a week spent agonizing over a contest entry is necessarily time taken away from your actual writing, and the more expensive contest fees tend to run around the same amount as a good writing seminar. Weigh your options carefully.

I’m not going to throw you into the research pond without a paddle, however. Next time, I shall talk about evaluating the benefits contests offer non-winners — which, like the contests themselves, vary wildly.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Picking the right literary contest for you, part III: keeping your eyes on the prize

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After yesterday little Enlightenment rhapsody on the inevitability of progress in the face of prejudice, I scoured my picture files for a high-minded photograph to ease us back into the practicalities of my contest-entry series. Almost suspiciously artistic, that cloud arrangement, isn’t it?

As you may perhaps have guessed from the encroaching shadow, I took this photo from inside an airplane. I looked up from the manuscript I was editing (long flights are tremendous for the concentration, I find to find that the sky over the Great Lakes was carrying on like an expressionist exhibition. If you’re going to be dramatic, go for broke, I always say.

Before I went on my sojourn east, I had posted a few tips on how to determine whether to enter any specific contest or not. I intimated, in my long-patented winsome way, that it would behoove you to do a little background research before you invest time and money in entry fees.

Contrary to popular belief amongst writers, there is more to consider before entering a literary contest than whether the piece you’ve chosen to submit is ready for tough judging scrutiny.

Although I must add swiftly, on behalf of every current and former contest judge in North America: NO piece of writing is ready to be submitted to a competition unless it has been thoroughly proofread.

No exceptions.

I’m quite serious about this: it’s rare to see a contest entry that isn’t rife with spelling, grammatical, formatting, or even coherence errors. And that drives your garden-variety conference judge positively mad.

Why, you ask? Well, judges tend to want to find the winning entry in their assigned pile; it’s kind of a thrill. So there are few judging experiences more trying than reading a terrifically creative, well-written entry that absolutely cannot make it to the finals because the writer mistakenly used the wrong form of there, they’re, or their.

I would advise proofing in hard copy, which probably doesn’t come as much of a shock to anybody who has been reading this blog for more than a month. It’s also a good idea to have eyes other than your own search for grammar, spelling, and logic mistakes.

But please, I beg you, do NOT assume that your word processor’s spelling and grammar checker will take care of it for you. As any editor, freelance or otherwise, will rend his garments and tell you, such ostensibly helpful functions often both miss mistakes that would be caught by the naked eye and suggest word substitutions that are either inappropriate or grammatically incorrect.

But I digress. In my last post in this series, I hinted, gently by my standards, that before you plunk down the green, you might want to ask yourself a few pointed questions about the contest you intend to enter. Such as:

– Is the contest credible enough that past winners have gotten published?
– Has the contest been around long enough that agents and editors will have heard of it?
– How good are the benefits for the winners?
– If it’s run by an organization, does it have a track record for awarding outside its membership?
– Do the judges or their students tend to win their own contests?
– Has it historically been plagued by scandals?
– Would winning or placing in this contest give me notoriety or resources that are worth the investment of entering?

In short, you might want to begin to think of entering literary contests as an investment in your future as a writer, rather than as a gamble that may pay off big time. There are good investments, and there are bad investments, so select carefully.

In case you’re new to the contest game, prepping the average entry usually involves quite a bit more effort than merely printing out your first chapter and already-existing synopsis. (Which is usually all that competitions for unpublished book-length works allow a writer to submit, incidentally.)

There’s the time to find the contest in the first place, for instance, which isn’t always easy — contests for unpublished book-length works are actually comparatively rare. Competitions that accept short stories, essays, and/or poetry are much more common, but if you are trying to market a book-length work, entering these can involve embarking upon entirely new writing projects.

Then, too, it can take quite a bit of time and energy to prepare a winning entry — and in case you’re interested, most contests are set up so that it would be impossible to print up one’s existing synopsis and first chapter, pop it into an envelope, and call it good. There are generally formatting restrictions and length requirements that render it advisable to spend some fairly serious time tailoring the pages to the contest’s standards.

All of this is time-consuming, naturally. Potentially, a writer could spend so much time entering contests that she ends up with very little time to write.

Yes, I’ve seen it happen. I once met a very gifted writer at an artists’ colony who had stretched two excellent and atmospheric short stories into eight solid years of contest wins, writer’s residencies, and successful grant applications. Of our four subsidized weeks at the colony, she was writing grants for three.

Not entirely coincidentally, at the point that I first encountered her, she had been working on the same novel for — you guessed it — eight interminable years.

If her initial goal had been to live the life of a writer at minimal expense, I wouldn’t have a serious problem with her strategy. But I suspect that her initial goal had been to use the competitions to finance writing her novel.

To be blunt about it, contest preparation requires time you could be using to write. Or query. Or even have a life, as I’m told that non-writers do. If you choose to spend your time entering a contest instead, make sure that the potential returns are worth the sacrifice.

Then there’s the money.

Entry fees can be quite hefty, especially cumulatively, and not all contests give much in the way of tangible rewards, even to the winners, much less the finalists. A high entry fee may be worth it if, say, the judges provide written feedback or if finalists are given special access to the agents and editors who attend the contest-giving organization’s conference.

Look beyond the contest’s website for confirmation, however; not all contests are created equal, and feedback on entries varies widely. A big hint that a contest may not be all that it’s cracked up to be is a separate fee for feedback — in a credible contest, the judges should be evaluating every entry, not just the ones sent in with extra cash attached.

There is a hidden fringe benefit to shelling out the dosh for entry fees, however: systematic contest entries, like attending conferences and send out rafts of cover letters on a regular basis, are a way that you may prove that you are pursuing your writing as a business venture, rather than as a hobby.

Do I hear some quizzical huffing out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “in what context would I possibly need to prove that? Should I be anticipating some great cosmic tribunal on how I spent my time on earth?”

Actually, I was thinking of an inquisition a trifle closer to home: the Internal Revenue Service. If you file a Schedule C as a writer (and if you expend resources on developing your writing career, it’s something to consider, even if your writing is not bringing in any income yet), contest entry fees are potentially both tax-deductible AND evidence that you’re actively trying to land an agent and sell your work.

Hey — contest entry is legitimate promotion for your book; it’s a demonstrably good way to catch an agent’s attention. And contrary to popular belief (it’s rearing its ugly head quite often today, isn’t it?), you don’t necessarily have to make money writing in any given year in order to take tax deductions on writing-related expenses.

Frankly, this sometimes comes as something of a surprise to the average tax preparer. I know many writers who have been told point-blank by their consumer-minded tax guys not to bother filing a Schedule C until the first advance check arrives.

So you might want to bone up on the facts a bit before you enter into that particular discussion with your tax advisor — and you honestly should consult one before you file. (To repeat my standard disclaimer, I am not a tax specialist, nor do I play one on TV. Talk to a pro.) To help prepare for that important conversation, here’s a nice brief summary of how writers’ taxes work.

I’m told by thems as know, though, that the IRS has changed its thinking about how quickly to expect artists to make money, recognizing that many talented writers NEVER make a profit on their writing, or even break even, yet still have legitimate business expenses. Printer cartridges, for instance. Reams of paper. The most recent agents’ guide. Conference fees. And so forth. (Poets & Writers online has a good article on recognizing what your writing expenses actually are.)

What they look for, I’m told, to differentiate between the hobbyist writer and the professional, is evidence of a “profit motive” — proof that you are pursuing your writing in a professional manner, with the ultimate goal of selling your work for profit.

Basically, they want to have some reasonable assurance that you WOULD be selling your work if anyone would buy it.

What kind of proof do they like? Well, again, you should ask a tax pro familiar with artists, but high up on the hit parade is evidence that you write on a regular basis and tangible evidence that you are consistently trying to find an agent and/or a publisher for your writing. So they not only don’t begrudge writers’ deducting the cost of stamps and envelopes — they regard buying the makings of SASEs as a mark of serious, potentially taxable effort.

It’s nice that someone does, no? Perhaps the IRS would send a representative to explain your profit motive to your carping coworkers who keep asking when your book is coming out.

Another way to prove that you really are writing with the intent to sell it, honest, is thorough making demonstrable efforts to increase your professional skills — which, for a writer, means not only learning better craft, but learning how to market as well. Continuing education efforts such as going to conferences and promotional efforts like entering contests fit very clearly within the profit-seeking rubric.

I mention this not only so you can make some inquiries in the months between now and tax time, but also to encourage you to apply the concept of the profit motive to any writing-related expense you may be considering.

In the case of a contest, for instance, you might want to ask: how will winning it help me get my book published? In other words, is entering this contest an efficient way to pursue my profit motive as a writer?

And I’m not just talking about contest wins in general here: I’m talking about any PARTICULAR contest you may be considering entering. The adulation and opportunities offered the winners vary so widely from contest to contest that it is almost impossible to generalize about any benefit accruing to all winners.

Other than boasting rights in query letters, of course.

If you do some basic checking in advance, you can save yourself quite a bit in entry fees by avoiding the contests that will not help promote you and your work.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about some ways you might go about accomplishing that. Keep up the good work!

All that glitters is not…oh, wait, it is

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I’m just back from spending the weekend at Harvard, my alma mater, giving a talk about my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. It was, amazingly enough, the first time I’ve spoken about the memoir in public — as in EVER — although I have given a scant handful of print, web, and film interviews since the book was supposed to have come out in 2006. (For those of you who arrived at this community after that furor, a $2 million lawsuit threat had stalled the publication process ever since.)

Well, okay, perhaps that isn’t quite accurate. Since I went there in the 1980s and I possess ovaries, technically, I went to Harvard/Radcliffe; the boys went to Harvard. Seriously, they didn’t start giving male and female graduates the same diploma until just a few years ago.

Not that we chicks minded that or anything.

The Radcliffe part, in case you’re interested, is an homage to 18th-century British novelist Ann Radcliffe, who more or less invented the Gothic potboiler, the pulp fiction of her day. She’s best known today as the author of the works that Jane Austen parodied in NORTHANGER ABBEY, but at the height of her popularity, she apparently sent 50 pounds to Harvard along with the suggestion that they might want to consider admitting women. About a century later, they got around to it.

As time passes, an alumna begins to get dismissive about the Harvard mystique, I notice. Okay, it’s a good school, even a great one, depending upon what one wants to study, but to deserve its reputation, wouldn’t plush red carpets have to be rolled out under students’ feet as they passed, showers of jewels float about them whilst they study, and Nobel laureates chat casually with them at every meal?

I mean, really: we’re talking about the same amenities that other campuses have, right, libraries and professors, just with more money behind them than most?

And then I revisited my old dorm. The picture above shows the entryway to the dining hall.

Yes, those walls ARE made of gold, thank you very much, and during my sophomore year, I lived upstairs from the poet Seamus Heaney. To be fair, though, at the time, he was almost ten years away from winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he did occasionally drop by my table to chat at lunch.

Oh, and the libraries were pretty good, too.

My talk was at Vericon, for those of you who did not become heartily sick of my squawking about it last week, the annual convention sponsored by the Harvard/Radcliffe Science Fiction Association. As a founding member (I was known as the girl, thus the inclusion of Radcliffe in the name of the club), my lecture was scheduled to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the group’s inception.

Yes, I am really that old. I don’t believe it, either.

Going back to see the long-term effects of what some friends of mine and I had wrought a couple of decades ago would have been strange enough, even if it hadn’t been — pardon my French — damned hard to set the club up in the first place.

But the fact is, the group’s rise from a handful of SF-loving geeks (admittedly, attractive, well-rounded ones, for the most part, but geeks nonetheless) fighting with the university to establish a club devoted to a book genre that the English department would not even consider touching with the proverbial ten-foot pole to a well-established, well-respected social club that sponsors, with the university’s fervent blessing, a full-scale convention and a magazine…

Well, that’s quite a trajectory for a scant 20 years, and mirrors SF/fantasy’s growing acceptance as literature in general.

It definitely reflects my extended family’s experience over the past 50 years. In the early 1950s, the literary productions of such writers as Philip K. Dick (my mother’s husband at the time) and Alex Apostolides (my mother’s big brother) were considered only marginally more respectable than pornography. (To underscore the irony of this, Uncle Alex was best known for a short story he co-wrote with Hugo Award winner Mark Clifton, “What Thin Partitions,” which appeared in The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1954, along with Richard Matheson’s “The Last Day.” Uncle Alex was also an editor at the Los Angeles Free Press, where for years he was listed on the masthead as Staff Shaman.)

Science fiction, in other words, was a pulp genre utterly dismissed by the literati, if and when they deigned to discuss it, as trash for the masses. The literary mainstream barely regarded it as having been written in English.

A view not entirely dissimilar to that expressed in the mid-1980s by the English professors we asked to be HRSFA’s faculty advisors, incidentally — and virtually identical to the response I received a few short years ago, when I mentioned to a well-respected author who regularly serves on major literary grant committees that I was writing a memoir about my relationship with arguably the most important science fiction writer of the 20th century.

Science fiction?” the grand dame exclaimed, wrinkling up her august nose; if she’d had skirts to sweep aside, she would have. “Obviously, I never read it. Why would you waste your talent on that?”

Times, as they say, change. Ask the staff of any used bookstore that stocks American literature of the past fifty years, and they will tell you that there are two authors whose books they positively cannot keep on the shelves: Philip K. Dick and Charles Bukowski.

The latter of whom, incidentally, was a writer for the Los Angeles Free Press.

Last year, Philip was the first SF author to have his work published in the prestigious Library of America series, billed by the New York Times Book Review as the “quasi-official national canon” of American literature. And this year, I gave a lecture on his life and work in the classroom that had previously housed my favorite class as an undergraduate — a course taught, come to think of it, by a professor who refused my request to become HRSFA’s faculty advisor.

Wonders, in fact, never cease; if only Philip or Uncle Alex had lived to see it.

How did it feel to give that talk? As the Doge of Genoa allegedly told someone who asked him to name the greatest wonder he saw at the court of Louis XIV at Versailles — pardon my French again — “Ce qui m’étonne le plus ici, c’est de m’y voir.”

To paraphrase, nothing about it astonished me more than the fact that I, of all people, was there to see it. (Did I mention that the libraries at Harvard were pretty good?)

I marched into that lecture hall practically floating upon the otherworldly cheers of that hefty portion of the choir celestial composed entirely of late under-appreciated writers in every genre. I shared the podium with San Francisco State professor and blogger David Gill, who treated us to a trenchant analysis of Philip Dick’s rise to respectability, complete with pictures.

Or is it really respectability? Through a series of sometimes startling excerpts from reviews and articles, some of which were written in response to the release of Philip’s novel anthology by the Library of America, David demonstrated that much of the recent acclaim has been accompanied by some rather nasty back-handed slaps: in the same breath as they call Philip a genius, they call him a madman, a drug addict, a fruitcake.

All of those phrases are lifted from actual articles, by the way.

The audience oohed, ahed, and chuckled as David demonstrated the bifurcated past and current public image. They became rather quiet when I told them who I was — and that I had spent a significant portion of my childhood and adolescence not only seeing the many ways in which that public persona was not an accurate reflection of the man, but observing and even participating in Philip’s creative manipulation of the media to produce that wacky image.

I come by my storytelling credentials honestly, you see, having grown up helping make up stories for a famous man to tell credulous press. Because, after all, constructing fantasy is the family business.

I’d tell you all about it, but the last time I committed my life story to print, lawyers came storming after me. Sorry about that.

Suffice it to say, the audience did not seem to find my truthful account unconvincing. Which is — if I may be permitted to blow my own horn for a moment — saying something, because as Philip taught me, a really well-constructed fiction is not only more entertaining than the truth, usually, but generally more plausible.

Reality has all sorts of rough edges that a smart storyteller will smooth out.

During the question-and-answer period after my talk, a pretty young woman in the audience — who will, because the times they are a-changin’, receive a diploma marked Harvard in a year or two, rather than a hyphenate reflection upon her gender and a memorial to the generosity of Ann Radcliffe a couple of centuries ago — raised her hand to inform me that she had been assigned to read Philip’s work in a class.

As in recently. As in at Harvard. And the celestial choir of genre writers broke into triumphant song.

Just for a moment, leaning on the podium in front of that room full of science fiction and fantasy fans, including one of the very fans from the mid-1970s Philip — yes, and I — had worked so hard to keep entertained with wild pseudo-biography, I felt not only Philip’s vindication, and my mother’s, and Uncle Alex’s, but the hilarious satisfaction of Ann Radcliffe as well. She had a dream of seeing women at Harvard; I had a dream of seeing science fiction and fantasy treated with respect there.

Just because something impressive seems set in stone doesn’t mean that it actually is permanent. A barrier may be hard to move, but impossible? I don’t think so.

And that, in case you had been wondering, is why I never waver in my faith, exhibited here on a daily basis, that good writing will eventually make its way into the public eye. It may take decades of toil, tears, and plain dogged persistence, but it will. I’ve seen it; my family has seen it; Harvard has seen it.

Bet your bottom dollar on the Ann Radcliffes of this world, my friends. They, like the other wacky dreamers dismissed by the mainstream as disrupters of the status quo, tend to win in the end.

Keep up the good work!

Picking the right literary contest for you, part II, in which we discover, distressingly, that I STILL do not run the universe

Why do I have the nagging feeling that I was supposed to remind you all of something? It’s on the tip of my tongue…if only I had left myself some kind of subtle reminder…

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Ah, yes: in case you’ve been reading the blog with a blindfold on all week, I am going to be giving a talk onThe Multiple Myths of Philip K. Dick, this coming Saturday, January 26th, at Harvard.

To be specific, it will be at Vericon, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual SF, fantasy, and gaming convention. Admission to an entire day’s events runs from $10 – $20, depending upon when you register, and kids under 14 get in free, so I hope to see many of you there.

Now where was I? Ah, yes.

Yesterday, I horrified the innocent Virginias of the world by pointing out that in the average literary contest, the impartiality emperor might, to put it delicately, be under-dressed. Today, I shall give you a few pointers on how to figure out which contests are most likely to serve you best.

You’re going to want to look for a reputable contest — one that is, at minimum, blindly judged. In a credible contest, entrants are asked to leave their names off the submission’s pages (i.e., no last name in the slug line, no name on the title page), so that there is no possibility of a contest judge’s looking an entry and saying, “Hey, I know him. I owe him a favor — I’m just going to slide it into the finalists’ pile unread.”

Last time, if you’ll recall, I brought up the possibility that not all contests are blindly judged — and in those that aren’t, it can be awfully hard for even the best writer who isn’t already known to the judges to make it to the finalists’ round.

Don’t LOOK at me like that, Virginia. The last time I checked, I did not run the universe, nor do I manage any of the many and varied contests out there for writers in the English language.

If I DID run either, contest entries would be free; every contest would provide each non-placing entrant with supportive and useful feedback; finalists would be given a tutorial on how to approach agents and editors before and after the winners were announced, and every time a writer finished writing a good paragraph, a sugar-free, fat-free, calorie-free chocolate cupcake with a cherry on top would appear on her desk, as a reward for virtue.

If you haven’t noticed any of these things happening lately, it’s fair to say that I still am not in charge of very much of the writing world.

Speaking of woebegone faces, I shall never forget the looks on the faces of everyone at the awards ceremony of a QUITE respectable Southern conference when the teenage daughter of two of the contest judges carried off the Young Writer award — and, as I recall, a not insignificant check, derived, no doubt, from the entry fees of hundreds of trusting high school students whose parents were not regularly having drinks with the judges.

Had Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Bob the Builder all been hauled out of the room by DEA agents for peddling narcotics to kids, the attending writers’ expressions could hardly have expressed more shocked disgust.

Now, to be fair, in that particular year, the winner’s parents had actually been judging in other categories, not their daughters, but since they had been her first readers and were rather chatty people, it would require a faith in human nature so childlike that it would border on the infantile to believe that the judges in her category would not have had SOME inkling which entry was hers.

I’m not saying that the contest was rigged, per se; I’m just saying that the teenaged winner’s mother won in the nonfiction category.

A good tip for avoiding this type of situation: enter contests sponsored by organizations, not cliques. The writers’ grapevine can really help you here. Ask other writers about particular contests before you spend time and money on entering them.

Poets & Writers magazine, which lists literary contest deadlines in each issue, does a pretty good job of screening, so if a contest seems a bit shady to you, check if it is listed there.

And, of course, if you check out a list of the last few years’ winners (and you should), and you see the same last names recurring, or see that the judges themselves seem to carry off prizes on a fairly regular basis, you might want to think twice about sending in your entry check.

The next question you should ask yourself before mailing off your submission is: how good are your chances of winning?

Yes, any contest win or place will look nice on your writing résumé, but obviously, some contests are more prestigious than others. Less prestigious ones can actually be a better bet, if they are legitimate.

“Has not ruling the universe finally unhinged you?” I hear some of you exclaiming. “Isn’t bigger ALWAYS better?”

Not necessarily. You might be better off with a less well-known contest your first few times out.

For an exceedingly simple reason: your odds of making the finals are significantly higher in a small entry pool than a large one. Big-ticket contests attract stiff competition; contests with large cash prizes attract a higher percentage of professionals amongst the entrants.

Also, your chances of winning are higher if your writing resembles that of past winners. This is true for another exceedingly simple reason (they are abounding today, aren’t they?) — contest judges tend to be loyal folk, returning to the task with a tenacity a spawning salmon would envy. In most writers’ organizations that offer contests, the first round of reading is performed by volunteers.

And the same volunteers, year after year after year.

And, miraculously, their literary tastes don’t change all that much in the intervening twelve months between judging cycles. Go figure.

For the sake of example, let’s posit that the volunteers of a particular contest have historically favored Gothic romance. You, on the other hand, write futuristic fantasy, and there is only one category for novels. Think you’d be probably better off going for a different contest, one that favors your type of work?

If your answer was an unqualified, “By God, yes!” help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. The more specialized your genre, the more it behooves you to check in advance whether a conference’s complement of judges tend to treat it with respect.

Or (to take a purely hypothetical case that couldn’t possibly refer to any contest run in my local area in which I might have taken a high prize in years past) if the top mainstream fiction category prizes in a prestigious competition are carried off year after year by literary fiction writers, you might want to think twice about entering fiction that is, say, particularly mainstream.

But if you happened to write on the literary side of romance, or are an unusually descriptive SF/fantasy writer, you might stand a good chance. Getting the hang of it?

How can a potential entrant tell what the judges’ preferences are, short of taking them all out to lunch individually and asking them? Most contests will list past winners on their websites, tucked away in a corner somewhere; check them out.

If the sponsoring organization publishes winning entries – and many have small magazines — read a few. If your writing style is radically different from what has won in the past, the contest is probably not for you.

In any contest with celebrity judges — i.e., famous writers who make the final selections from amongst the finalist pool — this goes double, or even triple. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, think twice before bothering to enter.

I can feel you wincing, Virginia. Crunching a few dry crackers should help with the nausea.
Even if you’re lucky enough to find a celebrity judge who is well-read outside of his own subgenre — and, even better, willing to reward work unlike his own — the bigwigs virtually never read all of the entries. Commonly, they read only the finalists’ submissions.

In practice, that means that those crusty volunteers I mentioned above screen the entries first – and all too frequently, edge out good entries that do not resemble the celebrity’s, on the well-intentioned theory that everyone’s writing tends to reflect his own reading tastes. They’re just trying to save the celebrity some time.

The two-tier system is followed in almost every literary contest, incidentally, celebrity-judged or not: the first rounds are evaluated by a different group of people than those who ultimately pick the winners. Sometimes, the judging criteria are not coordinated across rounds as well as one might hope.

Which is why, in case those of you who have heard contest judges grumbling in the bar after awards ceremonies, the entries that really wow ‘em in the early rounds often do not win or place. Usually, it is only within the power of a first-round judge to recommend that an entry make it to the finalist round; what happens there is generally under someone else’s control.

Why set it up this way? Well, since final-round judges are often chosen from amongst those agents and editors who are committed to attending the conference attached to the literary contest, it’s mostly intended to save the final-round judges reading time. But a two-tiered (or even three-tiered) system also makes it significantly harder to rig an outcome.

If it’s not clear why that might be desirable from an entrant’s point of view, you might want to re-read the anecdote at the beginning of this post.

If the contest is attached to a conference where the awards are given (and, as I mentioned above, many are), try to find out in advance whether the agents who typically attend that conference ones who might be interested in your work.

I can tell you from personal experience: while having a contest win, place, or show under your belt is great ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy), being a finalist at most conferences confers a good deal more than just a nice ribbon attached to your name badge.

It marks you out as someone with whom, for instance, an agent might want to pause and have a hallway conversation, or ask, “So, what do you write?” during otherwise pitch-free social time in the bar. And that, as they say, is nothing at which you should be sneezing.

In other words, it’s a fabulous little conversation starter — and that could be a very good thing, if your dream agent happens to be in attendance, couldn’t it?

Here’s an idea: you might want to target contests attached to conferences that your dream agent habitually attends.

How can you find this valuable information? Well, I wish I had a clever tip to pass along, something nifty that would give my blog’s readers a competitive edge, but the fact is, the standard agency guides often list this information. (If you are unfamiliar with how agency guides work, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category at right.)

The internet is your friend here, too: pretty much every conference will list which agents they cajoled to it last year and/or those who will be blandished into being there this year.

As I said yesterday, there’s more to using contests to your benefit than sending in a well-written entry: there’s strategy. Next time, I shall turn this question on its head, talk about what you can get out of entering a writing contest.

Keep up the good work — and wish me luck in Boston!

Picking the right literary contest for you, or, about the Easter Bunny…

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Know what this is, campers? It’s the building where, three days hence, I’m going to be giving my first-ever formal lecture on my memoir.

Yes, THAT memoir. The one that all the legal furor was about; the one that still hasn’t come out. Essentially, this will be a promotional appearance for a book that isn’t available for sale. Quixotic, no?

Admittedly, a fairly hefty percentage of the buildings at Harvard look like this, especially in the snow. So don’t walk into just any red brick building, should you be planning to attend. Check the Vericon schedule, to make sure that you don’t get lost amid all of the similar architecture. Hey, while you’re at it, why not pre-register and take advantage of the significant discount?

Okay, that’s enough self-promotion for today. Let’s unroll the Picket Fence of Integrity, to separate practice from theory:

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Literary contest season is practically upon us, so as I do every year, I’m going to revisit one of my favorite omnibus topics, what differentiates a contest entry that makes it to the finals from all the others. What criteria do contest judges tend to use, and how may a clever writer gear an entry to cater to them?

“But wait!” the neophyte entrant cries (after having skipped yesterday’s post, evidently), “Why should my entry be judged upon ANY criterion other than pure quality of writing? If not…“ and here, as you may well imagine, tears well up in the neophyte’s harp seal-like eyes, “how can we be sure that the best writing will always win?”

Um…the same way we know that the Tooth Fairy is indeed the one who filches all of those discarded teeth from under the pillows of the innocent? Or the reason that we’re convinced that the Rabbit of Springtime is responsible for chocolate eggs showing up on Easter morn?

If your first instinct upon reading that last paragraph was to say, “By Jove, yes! There are some things that I am simply willing to take on faith,” then I can only suggest that you avert your eyes from what I’m about to say next.

Only the cynical on board now? Good. As both a former contest winner and a veteran judge of literary contests, I am here to tell you: no, Virginia, winning a literary contest is virtually never just about the quality of the writing. It’s about the writing AND playing the contest game well. Of course, being lucky doesn’t hurt, either.

Which means — hold onto your hat here, Virginia, because this is a big one — that the best-written entry does not necessarily always win.

Heck, the best-written entry that meets all of the judging criteria doesn’t even necessarily win. But without a shadow of a doubt, even a brilliantly-written entry that does NOT meet those criteria, or that violates contest rules, will virtually never make it to the finals.

Which means, in practice, that a good two-thirds of the entries to the average contest never stood a chance. Not because those entries were poorly written, but because contest entrants have, as a group, a less-than-admirable tendency not to read rules and guidelines very closely.

Over and above technical violations, most entries are also docked points for such unromantic trespasses as incorrect formatting, misspellings, lack of a hook in the first line…and that’s before the aesthetic judgments are even under consideration.

Anyone out there care to guess why the nit-picks are generally tackled first?

I can already my long-term readers chanting the answer: for exactly the same reason that agencies are so eager to use technical criteria to reject submissions — time. Since the vast majority of entries are rife with technical errors, casting the technically flawed manuscripts out of finalist consideration is the single quickest way to thin the stacks of entries.

Sorry about that, Virginia. And when you’ve got a second, there’s something you ought to know about Santa Claus.

Unfortunately, unless you have had the foresight to have volunteered to serve as a contest judge in the years before you enter your first contest — not a bad idea, incidentally; contests are always seeking new judges, and it’s one of the least expensive crash courses in why most manuscripts get rejected you’ll ever find — it’s rather hard for the average entrant to learn what precisely the relevant criteria are.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a while already know, I think the practice of keeping this kind of useful knowledge from aspiring writers is, well, let’s not say despicable; let’s call it counter-productive. I wish that more contests were up front about what kind of submission they would reward, and what they would condemn.

Why do I feel so strongly that you need to have this information at your fingertips? Because if you are going to invest the not inconsiderable time, effort, hope, and entry fee in trying to generate some EXQLC, call me zany, but I’d like to see you stand a good chance of winning.

That bizarre acronym stands for eye-catching query letter candy, in case you were wondering — and short of previous publications, winning, placing, or being named a finalist in a well-respected contest is some of the best EXQLC you can have. Agents pay attention to that kind of credential; it makes your query letters jump out of the daily pile.

Why? Well, most queriers list no writing credentials at all, either through lack of awareness that it would help make their query more effective or, more commonly, because they have no credentials to list. (If you’re one of the many who finds himself scratching his head, wondering what could possibly fill that gaping hole in the query letter, please see the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category at right for a few tips.)

The cumulative result of this phenomenon: a query that lists publication credits and/or contest wins automatically looks substantially more professional than most. Even if those credits or wins are in wildly different genres than the book being pitched: agents like to be the SECOND person to recognize a writer’s talent, after all.

But how does an aspiring writer know which contests will make for the best EXQLC for the buck?

This is a very serious question: as anyone who has ever Googled “writing contest” is no doubt already aware, there are a LOT of contests out there. Most, unfortunately, do not offer cash prizes, but many do offer publication. (In fact, contests are a not uncommon way for literary magazines just starting up to rake in a whole lot of good writing for free.)

Almost all, however, charge an entry fee, sometimes a hefty one.

As I have mentioned before, there is now an entire industry devoted to offering help to aspiring writers, and like seminars and conferences and how-to books, what the contests offer writers who enter varies widely. So just as you should learn all you can about a writers’ conference before you slap down the registration fee, before you pay to enter a contest, it would behoove you to do a little bit of homework.

The first question you should ask: is the contest credible?

Unfortunately, the first place I would normally send you to find the answer to such a question, Preditors and Editors, is not going to be much help. Oh, it will tell you if a contest is a notorious rip-off, but as a matter of policy, P&E will not recommend any contest that charges any entry fee at all.

However, unless a contest is being run as a charity — which even most non-profit writers’ organizations cannot afford to do — or the administrative details are being handled by Santa while the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Great Pumpkin frantically read entries, I’m not quite sure how even the most well-meaning contest organizers could pull this off.

P&E’s disapproval of entry fees means, in practice, that the reputable contest that charges $15 to cover irreducible administrative costs (contests don’t run themselves, you know) ends up lumped in the same category as the aspiring group of friends who realized that they could rake in a whole lot of money if they threw up a website, announced a literary contest for book-length works (there aren’t many of them) at $80 a pop, and sat back to rake in the dough.

Ultimately, that the potential entrant will need to dig a little deeper to determine credibility.

To complicate matters further, it is no secret that there are many contests out there that solicit widely for entrants primarily as a fundraising effort, rather than a sincere attempt to discover heretofore unsung talent. In fact, the last few years have seen quite a bit of controversy in the writing community over how various literary contests are judged.

Specifically, not all feature blind judging, where the judges do not know whose entry is whose. And not all contests that claim to have blind judging actually do.

I know, Virginia, I know. Just hold that cold compress to your head, and the dizziness should subside soon.

Why should a prudent entrant worry about how a contest is judged? Because selective judging may favor certain entries, rendering it harder for a newcomer to break into the finalists’ circle. It is not unheard-of, for instance, for organizations to solicit entries from outside their memberships, but have an established track record of only awarding prizes to their own members.

Check the fine type of the contest rules, as well as the hometowns of the finalists and semifinalists of years past: if they cluster too much, wonder if the locals have an edge.

Nor is it at all unusual for contests ostensibly for the unpublished to allow published writers to submit their work-in-progress for judging alongside the work of the less experienced. A good tip: check last year’s winners’ list for the moderately well-known. if John McPhee has won their short story category any time since 1955, for instance they’re probably not too careful about keeping out those with hefty publishing credentials.

Not to mention the scandal a few years back when a major writers’ magazine happened to notice that the students of the writers who were judging contests seemed to be winning major awards on a fairly regular basis.

Ready for another shock, Virginia? After the scandal broke, absolutely nothing bad happened to the judges who were favoring their students in competition. Heck, some of them are still regularly judging contests. Obviously, this kind of pseudo-blind judging is grossly unfair to the other entrants, but the moral of this story is not that not all contests are squeaky-clean.

The moral: let the entrant beware.

Tomorrow, I shall give you some tips on how to go about bewaring. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: what do you wish you had known before you entered your first contest?

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Personal business first — hey, narcissism is the blogger’s privilege, right? — a quick update for those of you who were thinking (seriously, I hope) of coming to my talk this coming Saturday, January 26th, at Vericon, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual SF convention. Admission to an entire day’s events runs from $10 – $20, depending upon when you register, and kids under 14 get in free, so I hope to see many of you there.

There will also be some pretty terrific SF, fantasy, YA, and graphic novel writers in attendance, including Orson Scott Card (the keynote speaker), M.T. Anderson, Cassandra Clare, Marie Brennan, Elizabeth Haydon, Jim Kelly, Kelly Link, Lois Lowry, Randall Munroe, Donna Jo Napoli, Sharyn November, and William Sleator. Most of them seem to e speaking/signing at several events (judging from the schedule, I don’t think you’ll be able to throw a piece of bread at the conference without hitting the aforementioned OSC), so your opportunities to ask probing questions about improving your craft should be vast. Actually, a quite good events geared for SF/fantasy writers appears to be happening during my talk — and if that’s not a recipe for convention richness, I should like to know what is.

If you’re in the area, why not stop on by? As incentive, let’s take another look at that stunning logo, shall we?

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Okay, that should be enough of a dragon fix for anyone for one day. Back to business.

As I have been hinting for the last few weeks, I am going to be launching tomorrow into a fairly hefty series on contest entry preparation. As an author who landed her agent partially as a result of having won a literary contest of some repute (with an early draft of the memoir about which I shall be lecturing on Saturday, as a matter of fact), I am, as my long-time readers already know, a tireless proponent for this brand of eye-catching query letter candy.

(That deserves an acronym of its own, doesn’t it? Now and forever after, it shall be known on this site as ECQLC; pronounce it if you dare.)

To that end, I concentrated fairly hard on a single contest’s requirements last year (and if you’re interested in entering the contest sponsored by the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, last year’s tips have been carefully preserved under the CONTEST ENTRY PREP category at right). In perhaps unrelated news, that contest’s entry pool evidently reached unprecedented proportions, thus creating greater competition for those who entered.

Great for the sponsoring organization, of course, but not necessarily a good thing for my readers who entered. Except, perhaps, for the one member of our little Author! Author! community who won, and the several others who placed and made finalist. (Toot, toot goes the horn.)

This year, I’m going to make every effort to be impartial about which contest’s rules I use for examples, to avoid even the appearance of favoring one over another. Since I know that not all of my readers are interested in entering contests, I shall also be gearing this year’s discussions of reliable contest judges’ pet peeves toward those that are also notorious agency screener pet peeves.

It’s going to be a pet peeve-a-thon! I can hardly wait.

To start us off on the right foot — and to get a better sense of what kinds of contests you’ve been considering entering — I’m going to turn the floor over to you for the day. Those of you who have entered contests in the past, what do you wish someone had told you before you entered for the first time?

For those of you who have not entered contests, but considered it: what are you looking for in a literary contest? What would you like winning it to do for you — and how difficult have you found it to track down a contest that offers those benefits?

And, as always: is there any aspect of contest entry that you find particularly puzzling, so I know to include discussion of it in posts to come?

To get the ball rolling, I’ll start: I wish that I had realized prior to my first contest entry how heavily the potential marketability of the book tends to weigh in the judging. Oh, I knew to check lists of past winners of broadly-defined categories in order to see if certain types of books had traditionally won. (In the contest where my memoir won, for instance, the nonfiction book winner has rarely been anything but a memoir, bad luck for writers of other NF books.) But it had not occurred to me before my first entry that contest judges might be using the same criteria as agencies. Or at any rate, what they believed to be the criteria used at agencies.

Instead, I had thought — possibly because the contests I was entering said as much on their promotional materials — that the only things that mattered were the beauty of the writing, how professionally it was presented, and how compelling the story was. The first time I received contest feedback that said, “Great story, well told — too bad that there isn’t a market for it,” I was crushed.

But I did learn from that experience: the next time I entered a contest, I sent not my best writing, but my most marketable idea. And I won. So I suppose I should be grateful to that curmudgeonly contest judge, in retrospect.

Your turn. As always, keep up the good work!

The exclusivity dilemma, part III, or where strategy and ethics overlap

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An impressionistic view of an agent’s office, where blue equals yet to be read.

Today is, thank goodness, my final post in this micro-series on how to juggle multiple submissions when one of the requesting agents has requested an exclusive. I know, I know: for most aspiring writers, this particular dilemma seems downright desirable — and perhaps not immediately applicable to one’s day-to-day querying life.

My timing on this series has not been entirely accidental, however: today marks the celebration (in the U.S., anyway) of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. While most of the population is hearing some rendition of the “I have a dream” speech (why does one so rarely hear the later, “poverty is economic violence” rhetoric, I wonder?), aspiring writers everywhere are rubbing their hard-worked hands together in anticipation.

Why? Because today marks the unofficial end of the annual avalanche of queries and submissions from New Year’s resolution-keeping writers. As my long-term readers know quite well, I always advise against querying or submitting during the high-stress first few weeks of the year.

Starting about now, though, incoming mail volumes at agencies return to normal, and our old pal Millicent the screener’s mood rises exponentially. Why not celebrate by sending her a query?

Because I truly hope that you will, now that the moratorium is over, I wanted you to be prepared just in case you do find yourself in Mehitabel’s dilemma. Hey, is it so far beyond belief that some of you might be intending to query exclusive-only agencies — or find yourself on the receiving end of a request to send materials from an agency that you did not realize had this policy?

Of course not. Let’s get back to work.

Mehitabel, for those of you who did not make her acquaintance yesterday, is a well-meaning aspiring writer who, wisely, kept right on querying even after a couple of agents (Jessica and Ryan, if you’re keeping score) asked to see partials. Imagine her surprise when one of these subsequent queries yielded a request for an exclusive from Quentin.

Obviously, it is empirically impossible to grant an exclusive peek at a manuscript already under consideration at other agencies. So what’s a girl to do?

Last time, I suggested that Mehitabel resolve her logical dilemma by contacting not Quentin to ask for his agency’s solo-look policy to be bent in her favor, but Jessica and Ryan, to inform them that another agent had asked to see the work exclusively. In nice, polite e-mails, she offered them three weeks in which to make up their minds before she submitted to Quentin, plenty of time for even extremely busy agents to read even a complete manuscript, much less 50 pages.

That way, she would either have an offer from Jessica, Ryan, or both — or she would be free to submit to Quentin on his terms.

Even before I finished typing this suggestion last time, I felt the ether bristle with a million doubts. For instance: hands up, everyone who felt distinctly uncomfortable allowing at least three weeks to pass before responding to a request for materials.

It is very common for those new to submission, particularly first-time pitchers at conferences to assume that requested materials MUST go out in the next mail, if not actually be overnighted or e-mailed, in order to reach the requesting agent before he forgets that he asked for them. But this isn’t necessary: even at a very busy conference, most agents will take notes on what they are requesting from whom.

Usually, the authorial assumption that speed is of the essence is not so much a direct response to anything the agent in question has actually said about the desirability of instantaneous submission, but rather a reflection of an underlying fear that the agent will change her mind, or at any rate forget all about the request for materials by the time it actually arrives.

But the fact is, unless an agent has actually asked a writer to rush a submission, she’s NOT expecting it to show up the next day, or even necessarily within the next week. It’s not as though she has nothing to do — or nothing to read — in the meantime, after all. Agencies are swamped, even when it’s not New Year’s resolution time.

So for those of you intrepid queriers who will be receiving submission requests in the weeks to come: there’s no need to panic. You’ve got time to do a little last-minute polishing.

When the good news arrives, remember to relax, take a few deep breaths — and read through your submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you pop it into the mail. (For a fuller explanation of why you should do this, and other tips on pulling together a submission packet when you are positively vibrating with excitement, please see the SUBMISSION PACKETS category at right.)

Remember, too, that you definitely don’t need to overnight your submission; it’s just not worth expending your hard-earned cash. The days are long past when a FedEx envelope would automatically be opened before one that came in the regular mail. Agency screeners figured that trick out long ago.

Pretty much all boxes marked REQUESTED MATERIALS tend to be opened at roughly the same rate. So mark it, send it regular mail, and call it good. Or, if you must rush, try Priority Mail, which takes 2-3 days within the continental U.S., but is scads cheaper than overnight mail.

You might want to spring for the package-tracking feature, so you have proof that your package did indeed arrive in one piece. Or add a stamped, self-addressed postcard for the agency screener to pop in the mail when the parcel arrives. Either will work beautifully.

As much as I am enjoying picturing your post-MLK day queries eliciting this response, I am digressing, I notice. Back to our previously-scheduled programming.

The other likely reason a writer might get tense at yesterday’s suggestion is that the notion of giving an agent a reading deadline, even a perfectly reasonable one, seems like a good way to alienate people. As in the kind of people who have the power to change your life by helping to get your book published.

As I mentioned yesterday, though, the vast majority of agents DO want to be told IMMEDIATELY if another agent is also reviewing a particular manuscript; hell hath no fury like an agent who learns after the fact that the writer whose manuscript she has not yet finished reading has already signed with someone else.

Why all the anger? Well, if she had known, the logic goes, she would have moved the submission up in her reading pile.

So mark this down as a rule of thumb: if any agent, exclusive-seeking or not, asks to see all or part of your manuscript while other agents are already looking at it, it would behoove you to contact each of them to pass along the information that there’s some competitive reading going on. That’s just basic courtesy.

If you are sending out several requested material packets simultaneously — say, after a barrage of pitching at a conference — go ahead and mention in your cover letter (you DO always include a cover letter with your submissions, right?) that other agents will be reviewing it, too.

No need to name names; the mere fact that others are looking at it will do. That in itself implies a deadline, so specifying the date upon which you will feel free to submit an exclusive is merely an extension of this little piece of politeness.

Fringe benefit to operating at this level of courtesy: reading rates tend to speed up remarkably once an agent knows that other eyes are perusing the same pages. (Yet another reason that Quentin might have asked Mehitabel for an exclusive; he may wish to take his own sweet time reading.)

“But Anne,” I hear some of you murmuring, “what if Jessica and Ryan don’t respond, and Quentin ends up saying no? Hasn’t Mehitabel burnt her bridges to the first two?”

Actually, no — at least, not if she had been polite in her letters to them AND not gone so far as to state outright that if they didn’t get back to her within the specified period, they shouldn’t bother to answer at all. (Yes, I HAVE seen writers do that, as a matter of fact. Generally ends in tears.) After Quentin has had a chance to consider the submission, or even after the agreed-upon period of exclusivity has ended (you weren’t planning on letting Quentin put Methitabel’s querying on hold indefinitely, were you?), she would be perfectly free to approach both Jessica and Ryan again, if they have not rejected her work. All she has done is responded with integrity to Quentin’s request for a time when she agrees not to sign with anyone else.

Which is precisely why, in case you were wondering, Mehitabel needs to set a time limit for Quentin’s exclusive, as I mentioned yesterday. Often, reputable agents will specify a length themselves, but if not, the writer should do it.

What she CANNOT do, however, is come back to Quentin two weeks into his exclusive and tell him that Jessica has offered to represent her. Well, I suppose she COULD do it, if she didn’t care about gaining a reputation for unreliability, but she could not reasonably expect him to continue considering her as a potential client.

Some of you are still not satisfied; I can feel it. “But Anne,” I hear you say, “this is all fine and dandy if Mehitabel receives the request for an exclusive after she’s submitted to others. But if she’s sending a big raft of queries out at the same time, she may well receive Quentin, Jessica, and Ryan’s requests for materials more or less simultaneously. What should she do then, huh? Put the other two on hold in order to humor Quentin’s request, or vice-versa?”

Ah, you must have heard of Mehitabel’s brother, Murgatroyd, who received three requests for submissions from precisely these agents within a single week. Since Quentin was the only one to place conditions on the submission, Murgatroyd was, like most new submitters, tempted to delay the other submissions in order to submit to him. But if Quentin takes a long time to get back to him, Murgatroyd risks the other requesters’ cooling off.

Unlike Mehitabel, Murgatroyd could ease his dilemma by taking one simple step — have you already guessed it?

In fact, let’s make an axiom out of it: never, under any circumstances, grant an open-ended exclusive. ALWAYS set a time limit on it — three weeks is perfectly reasonable — and let the requesting agent know that you intend to submit elsewhere after that.

Sound frighteningly daring? Actually, this kind of deadline-setting is rather common in the industry; people are busy. There’s no need to be confrontational about it, or even to double-check with the Quentins of this world that the deadline is okay: you merely need to state it in your cover letter. As in:

Thank you for your interest in my novel, HELL’S BELLES. I am pleased to give you an exclusive on it, as you requested. However, as other agents have asked to read it as well, I will have to limit the exclusive to three weeks.

See? Simple, direct, businesslike. Trust me, if Quentin wants longer, he will tell Murgatroyd so, but at least the latter will have been honest.

And after three weeks, whether he hears back from Quentin or not, Murgatroyd will be perfectly at liberty to submit to Jessica and Ryan. At which time, if Quentin is still vacillating (agents who ask for exclusives often take every bit as long to respond as those that do not), Murgatroyd should tell the other agents that another agent is looking at it, but he is no longer bound to exclusivity.

If he had not been clear at the outset and Quentin took a month or two to respond — far from uncommon — Murgatroyd would have gnawed his fingernails down to the elbow with worry, and still been no closer to landing an agent. By being clear about his own needs, rather than simply allowing three agents who do not know of one another’s existence to proceed as if each were the only one considering his work, Murgatroyd has both helped himself and avoided annoying any of them.

Enjoy your post-MLK querying binge, should you be indulging, and keep up the good work!

But don’t I already have a date to the prom? part II

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Nifty logo, eh? It’s my ever-so-subtle way of reminding those of you in the greater Boston area about my upcoming talk at Harvard next Saturday, January 26th. I shall be speaking on the Multiple Myths of Philip K. Dick, along with David Gill of TotalDickHead.com — and since this will be my first public speech on the subject of my legally embattled memoir, I think it may be a tad on the exciting side.

Come to meet me, stay to hear Orson Scott Card or play Scrabble with a Harvardian. Vericon, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual SF convention, is typically a hoot, so it’s well worth the (quite inexpensive, and even less so for students) price of admission. I have been a bit quieter on the subject than I should have, I realize, considering that preregistration is less expensive than paying at the door.

I shall be plugging this event shamelessly over the next week, of course. I always like meeting my readers, and it really is about time that I started talking about the memoir, threats or no. (In case any of you were wondering, despite what Amazon says, my memoir never actually came out, due to the aforementioned lawsuit threats; my publisher apparently never changed the release information. So thank you to those of you who have asked, but I’m afraid that I can’t score a stray copy for anyone, because they were never actually printed. Sorry about that.)

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Like that little red picket fence separating the plug for my talk from today’s business? As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been spending the week going through my ever-expanding gee, I need to blog on that someday list, the place where I keep track of all of the murky issues writers have asked me to clarify at some point.

Our murk du jour — actually, I began talking about it yesterday, as those of you who tuned in yesterday already know, so I suppose it is now the murk des deux jours — concerns submission to an agent who has asked for an exclusive look at the manuscript or an agency that will, as a matter of policy, will only accept exclusive submissions.

At the end of yesterday’s post on the different kinds of exclusives, I was positive that I heard some polite hemming out there in the ether, “Um, Anne?” some of you would-be submitters piped, “I’m a trifle confused. If, as you say, agencies that have an exclusives-only policy are so upfront about it, why do you keep getting questions from writers about how to deal with them AFTER the query has already gone out? Surely, the asking writers knew about the policy before they queried, right?”

Point well taken, but I’m not here to judge; I come bearing advice. The fact is, some aspiring writers do find themselves caught with a submission or two already out when the request for an exclusive submission comes in, and today, I’m going to talk about how they should handle it.

Hey, it can happen. Perhaps the writer (let’s call her Mehitabel) suddenly won a contest entered months before, and thus is suddenly a hot commodity, prompting an agent (let’s call him Quentin) to want to snap her up before others can woo her. Or maybe Mehitabel is sought-after because she abruptly snagged an Oscar, rescued a child fallen down a well, or declared a run for the presidency.

Why wouldn’t Quentin just rush up to her and offer a representation contract on the spot, if Mehitabel is such a hot ticket? Because the industry just doesn’t work that way; he’s going to want to see if he likes her writing first, not just her premise or her personally. More importantly, he needs to determine whether he thinks he can sell her writing easily to his already-existing contacts.

Either of which would be tough to pull off without reading the book in question.

Actually, these questions are not only at the top of the consideration list with a hot ticket — contrary to the expectations of many a pitcher at many a literary conference, agents literally never offer representation on an idea or prestige alone.

Did those first couple of examples seem a trifle far-fetched? Well, try a more common scenario on for size: perhaps other agents had been sitting on Mehitabel’s manuscript so long that she honestly wasn’t sure if her work was still under consideration when she queried Quentin, who works at an exclusives-only agency.

Or, still more common, perhaps she betting that she would hear back from Quentin before she received responses to any of the other two dozen queries she sent out three weeks ago along with the one to him.

Or perhaps — and I say this not to criticize our Mehitabel, who goodness knows has been working hard for years, but to prompt second thoughts amongst those who might be placing themselves in this position — she went ahead and included Quentin on her query list because she didn’t read his agency’s website closely enough.

However Mehitabel has ended up in the frankly rather enviable position of having several agents, one of whom is exclusive-happy, wanting to take a gander at her work, the fact remains that she now has a genuine dilemma on her hands. Since she already has submissions with agents, what is she to do about Quentin’s request for an exclusive?

Actually, before I answer that, why don’t you take a stab at it? Should Mehitabel:

(a) Wait in impatient silence until she hears back from the agents who already have it before sending it out — and then, if they do not offer representation, send out to Quentin along with a cover letter agreeing to an exclusive?

(b) Pretend that she doesn’t have submissions at other agencies, and just go ahead and send the requested materials to Quentin, trusting to Providence that not all of the agents will ask to represent her work?

(c) Call or e-mail Quentin, explain the situation, and ask if she should submit anyway?

(d) Contact the agents who already have the work, explain the situation, and ask them to hurry their decision to accept or reject her, so that she may get back to Quentin in a timely manner?

(e) Curse the day that she listened to that darned fool on the Internet who told her that it was more efficient to query many agents at once, rather than one at a time?

Scratching your head over this one? Before you commit to your final answer, let’s run through the pros and cons of each path:

If Mehitabel goes with option (a), she will be taking the moral high road (particularly if she sends Quentin an e-mail explaining why she can’t send off the requested materials right away). However, she will not have any control over how long it will take for the others to get back to her, so she will risk Quentin’s interest in her book cooling off.

How so? Well, in case you haven’t been submitting long enough to have first-hand experience of the phenomenon, it is far from uncommon for agents not to respond either positively or negatively to a submission for several months, for the exceedingly simple reason that they haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Basically, by being too shy to check in with any of the agents involved, Mehitabel is dooming herself — and Quentin — to a possibly protracted wait.

If Mehitabel sets karmic considerations to one side and chooses option (b), however, she can get all of her requested materials mailed off toute suite. If only one of the agents offers representation, no one ever need know that she’s been a shade duplicitous.

If, on the other hand, more than one agent offers to sign her, or if (and this is the more common outcome) one agent offers before the others have responded, Mehitabel is going to be placed in the unpleasant position of having to ‘fess up to having simultaneously submitted. This would tend to burn her bridges with Quentin — and possibly with the others, if she hadn’t told any of them that there were other agents looking at her manuscript.

Quentins tend to hate that — as, actually, do most agents. And that can lead to a whole lot of unnecessary stress later on — because, really, there is no graceful way to explain to an agent who thinks he is the only one looking at it that if you don’t hear back from him within two weeks, you’re going to sign with someone else.

Not all that happy with option (b)? Does option (c) look like the most polite route — or at any rate, the one least likely to get Mehitabel in trouble with Quentin?

Actually, it isn’t, but it will take some of our favorite pastime, translating between points of view, to see why. Let’s take a gander at the probable e-mail exchange between Mehitabel and Quentin:

Dear Mehitabel:
Thank you for querying me with your novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS. Please send the first fifty pages.
As you may already know, our agency will accept only exclusive submissions. Please enclose a SASE.
Quentin

Dear Quentin:
Thank you for your interest in my novel. I would be happy to give you an exclusive, but the fact is, two other agents already have partial manuscripts, and I don’t know when I shall be hearing back from them. I’m really impressed with your agency, though, and I certainly don’t want to knock it out of consideration.
Since it would obviously be impossible for me to give you an exclusive on material that’s already elsewhere, is it okay if I just go ahead and send you what I’ve sent the others?
Mehitabel

Dear Mehitabel:
As I mentioned, my agency only accepts submissions on an exclusive basis.
Quentin

Notice what happened here? Mehitabel tried to shift responsibility for solving her dilemma onto Quentin’s shoulders. From her POV, this made perfect sense: his request had caused a problem, so she asked him to modify his request.

From Quentin’s POV, however, she was asking him to change agency policy for the sake of a single writer who, for all he knows, simply did not bother to check what those policies were before querying. What possible incentive could he have for saying yes?

Mehitabel has thus inadvertently fallen into a very, very common trap for those new to submission: she is acting as though she has a personal relationship with Quentin, one that might make it permissible for her to ask a fairly big favor.

Essentially, she forgot that this is a business transaction — and in this, she is certainly not alone. Contrary to what many aspiring writers (especially those new to in-person pitching) believe, agents don’t ask to see pages because they are nice or because they instantly took a liking to a writer; they want to see work that they believe they can sell.

Remember, Quentin is not just looking for a talented writer — he’s looking for his dream client. ln that relationship, liking each other is icing on the cake, not a necessary precondition. Being a dream client is largely about professionalism. So in any pre-signing exchange, Quentin would be trying to assess how reliable she is likely to be as a client, whether she is likely to be able to meet deadlines or whether she will be profuse with excuses, how good she is at following directions…

Based upon those criteria, do you think Mehitabel went up or down in his estimation by sending that e-mail? Uh-huh.

Which brings us to option (d), contacting the agents who already have the work (i.e., not Quentin), explaining the situation, and asking them to hurry their decision to accept or reject her, so that she may get back to Quentin in a timely manner. While this might appear at first blush to be brazen or even rude, it is actually the best course for Mehitabel.

(I assume, of course, that you rejected option [e] on sight, as it would have cast some slight doubt upon your faith in yours truly. Which, naturally, you’re perfectly at liberty to do. I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: it’s up to you whether to take my advice or not, but I do expend great effort to give you my logic at length so you may make an informed choice. However, in this case, writers have contacted me to ask for my opinion on this particular subject, so I am giving it.)

Why is (d) the best course? Because it doesn’t involve either lying to Quentin (a poor idea) or dithering at him (also not good) — in fact, it places the question of timing squarely where it belongs, upon the agents who are already considering the book in question, not making demands upon someone who is not yet doing so.

Obviously, Mehitabel should not be brusque in making the request — and in her shaky shoes, I would probably wait until the other agents had the manuscript for at least a couple of weeks before sending something like the following:

Dear Jessica:
I am sorry to have to disturb you while you are considering my novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS, but I thought you would like to be aware that another agent has requested the manuscript. As he has asked for an exclusive, however, I would need to hear back from you before I could legitimately submit it to him.
I hate to rush you, as I know that you are very busy indeed, but if you decide you are not interested, I would like to get it into his hands as soon as possible. Could you possibly arrange to make a decision within the next three weeks?
Thank you so much — and again, I am sorry to have to rush you.
Mehitabel

Now, Jessica could always say no, of course, as could the other agent who is reading Mehitabel’s work. But 95% of the time, they won’t — especially if, as is often the case in situations like Mehitabel’s, they’ve already had the manuscript for a month or two. (Or five.)

Note, please, that Mehitabel has been too smart to take Jessica to task for how long it has been; she is merely filling an interested agent in on what’s going on with the book. Far more likely to get a positive response than a whine about how an illiterate three-year-old could have managed to decipher the manuscript by now, I assure you.

If they say yes, or if they do not respond at all — more common than you might think — Mehitabel has at least made a good-faith effort to play fair in a difficult situation. Since she has already told Jessica that she will be granting an exclusive in three weeks’ time, she may go ahead and submit to Quentin then with a clear conscience. If he does make an offer, great; if he doesn’t, she may always go back to the first two.

Is that muttering I hear out there indicative of some confusion? “But Anne,” the mutterers murmur, “What happens if Jessica comes back AFTER that three-week period and offers representation?”

Great question, background mutterers — but it’s one for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The ethics of exclusives, or, the pros and cons of early admission

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Yes, yes, I know: the tulip encroaches upon the useful information running down the right-hand side of the page. For one day, I think we can all live with that, can’t we? Besides, its enormity is very much in line with my feeling at the moment — isn’t it about time that spring came? (The photograph, incidentally, was taken by the ever-fabulous Marjon Floris.)

Why the longing for sun, light, warmth, color, and other things we tend to take for granted for half the year? Well, as some of you may have suspected when I didn’t post for a couple of days (and weekdays, too), I’ve been a bit under the weather again — or, to be specific, I have been inside, looking out at the weather, feeling like a school kid whose bright plastic rain boots have sprung a leak.

If I’m stuck inside, it seems to me that the least my yard could do is fast-forward a month or two to provide me with colorful scenery. Is that so unreasonable?

As I mentioned earlier in the week, I’m going through my list of often-asked questions, those excellent poke-in-the-ribs reminders that I should really write a blog post or two on certain murky issues. Today’s murk comes courtesy not of a question posted as a comment here, but rather as a culmination of something writer friends ask me privately a dozen or so times per year: what should a writer who already has submissions out to agents do if a newly-responding agent asks for an exclusive?

You didn’t think I had been procrastinating about the topics on the murk list because they were conducive to EASY answers, did you?

An exclusive, for those of you new to the term, is when a writer agrees to allow an agent a specific amount of time during which no other agent will be reviewing a manuscript. Generally speaking, agents will request exclusives for two reasons: either they fear that there will be significant competition over who will represent the project, or it is simply the agency’s policy not to compete with outside agencies.

Do I feel some of you out there getting tense, doing the math on just how many years (if not decades) it could take to make it through your list of dream agents if you had to submit to them one at a time? Relax, campers: requests for exclusives are actually fairly rare.

Why rare? Well, the first kind of exclusive request, the one Agent A might use to prevent Agents B-R from poaching your talents before A has had a chance to read your manuscript (hey, A’s desk is already chin-deep in paper), tends to be reserved for writers with more than just a good book to offer. Celebrity, for instance, or a major contest win.

Basically, the agent is hoping to snap up the hot new writer before anybody else does. Or before the HNW realizes that s/he might prefer to be able to choose amongst several offers of representation.

If you suddenly find yourself the winner of a well-respected literary contest or on the cover of People, remember this: just because an agent asks for an exclusive does not mean you are under any obligation to grant it. If your work is in demand, it’s not necessarily in your best interest to sign with the first agent who makes an offer — you will want the one with the best track record of selling books like yours, right?

Chant it with me now, long-time readers: you do not want to land just any agent; you want the best agent for YOUR work.

I mention this now, in advance of when at least some of you attain either celebrity or your first big literary prize, because when either of these things happen to a writer, it can be pretty disorienting.

Contest winners, after all, are often good writers who have spent years querying agents. (Partially because it’s considered a trifle gauche for the already-agented to enter contests for unpublished work.) The switch from frantically trying to catch an agent’s eye to multiple agents asking to see one’s winning entry, pronto, can often throw even the most level-headed writer for a loop.

Trust me, this is a problem you want to have: it’s a compliment to your work.

You will, however, want to think in advance about how you’re going to respond. Yes, I am speaking from experience here — and a big, well-deserved thank-you to all of my former contest-winner friends who had drilled me to say, no matter how shell-shocked I was after receiving the prize, “I’m sorry, but I’ve sworn that I won’t grant any exclusives. Would you like me to submit to you at the same time as I send out to the others?”

Granted, this glassy-eyed response did make a few agents grumble, but believe me, it was far, far better than my having to decide on the spot whether the first agent who asked to see my pages was so much more suited to my book than the other agents at the conference that I should not even let the rest take a peek at it.

Which is, incidentally, precisely what you are being asked to do with an exclusive. Think of it like applying for early admission to an Ivy League school: if the school of your dreams lets you in, you’re not going to want to apply to other universities, right? By applying early, you are saying that you will accept their offer of admission, and the school can add you to its roster of new students without having to worry that you’re going to go to another school instead.

It’s a win/win, in other words.

So if the best agent in the known universe for your type of writing asks for an exclusive, you might want to say yes. But if you have any doubt in your mind about whether Harvard really is a better school for your intended studies than Yale, Columbia, or Berkeley — to mix my metaphors again — you might want to apply to all of them at the same time, so you may decide between those that admit you.

My point is, if you are asked for an exclusive because your work is sought-after, it is up to you whether you would prefer to go steady right off the bat or date around a little. Got it? (If not, I can keep coming up with parallel cases all day, I assure you.)

With the other type of exclusive request, the one that emerges from an agency that only reviews manuscripts that no one else is, the writer is not offered that choice. Consequently, a request for an exclusive from these folks is not so much a compliment to one’s work (over and above the sheer desire to read some of it, that is) as a way of doing business.

In essence, these agencies are saying to writers, “Look, since you chose to query us, you must have already done your homework about what we represent — and believe us, we would not ask to see your manuscript if we didn’t represent that kind of writing. So we expect you to say yes right away if we make you an offer.”

Why might such a stance be advantageous for an agency to embrace? Well, it prevents them from ever having to experience the fear associated with the first type of exclusive request: if you send them pages, they may safely assume that you won’t be calling them in a week to say, “Um, Agent Q has just made me an offer, slowpoke. I still would like to consider your agency, so could you hurry up and finish reading my manuscript so you can give me an answer? As in by the end of the week?”

Okay, so you wouldn’t really be that rude. (PLEASE tell me you wouldn’t be that rude.) But let’s face it, agents who don’t require exclusive submissions do receive these types of calls a fair amount. And nobody, but nobody, reads faster than an agent who has just heard that the author of the manuscript that’s been propping up his wobbly coffee table is fielding multiple offers.

Agencies who demand exclusivity are, by definition, unlikely to find themselves in a similar Oh, my God, I have to read this 400-page novel by tomorrow! situation.

What does the writer get in return for agreeing not to submit to others for the time being? Not a heck of a lot, unless the agency in question is in fact the best place for his work.

But if one wants to submit to such an agency, one needs to follow its rules. Fortunately, agencies that maintain this requirement tend to be far from quiet about it. Their agents will trumpet the fact from the conference dais. Requires exclusive submissions or even will accept only exclusive queries will appear upon their websites, in their listings in standard agency guides, and on their form replies requesting your first 50 pages.

(Yes, Virginia, positive responses are often form-letters, too, even when they arrive in e-mail form. I sympathize with your shock.)

If they had company T-shirts, in short, there would probably be an asterisk after the agency’s name and a footnote on the back about not accepting simultaneous submissions. If they’re serious about the policy, they’re serious about it, and trying to shimmy around such a policy will only get a writer into trouble.

Do I feel some of you tensing up again? Relax — agencies with this requirement are not very common.

Why? Well, because they require their potential clients to bring their often protracted agent search to a screeching halt while the submission is under consideration, such agencies are, in the long run, more time-consuming for a writer to deal with than others. As a result, many ambitious aspiring writers, cautious about committing their time, will avoid querying agencies with this policy.

Which, again, is a matter of personal choice. Or it is if you happened to notice before you queried that the agency in question had this policy.

In my next post, I shall talk about what a writer who finds himself dealing with simultaneous requests from both exclusive-requesting and ordinary agents, but for today, let me leave you with something to ponder.

Requests for exclusives are, as I mentioned, rather rare. Writers who believe that ANY request for a submission is AUTOMATICALLY a request for an exclusive are not. As a result, would-be submitters sometimes delay sending out requested materials until they hear back from earlier requesters.

This is a serious strategic mistake. Unless an agent ASKS for an exclusive — and believe me, if an agency requires exclusivity, the member agent interested in your work will tell you so directly — it is NOT expected. In fact, now that the agent-finding market is so fierce, the vast majority of agents simply assume that good writers are querying and submitting widely.

Long-time readers, take out your hymnals: that apparently immortal conference-circuit rumor is simply not true — expectations of exclusivity are NOT the norm amongst agents. Nor is reticence about submission requirements.

A writer is under no obligation whatsoever to stop submitting or querying other agents while one is reading requested materials. So there.

Granting an unrequested exclusive is like applying to only one college per year: you might get in eventually, but it’s a far more efficient use of your time to apply to many simultaneously. Unless, of course, the school you’re absolutely sure that you want to attend offers you early admission.

Keep up the good work!

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