Creating time and space to write: nothing up my sleeve…

I’m feeling a bit down today — I’ve just received word that an old acquaintance of mine committed suicide. The news comes courtesy of my alma mater. Ever-intent upon creating a far greater sense of community amongst its graduates than it ever was at promoting it amongst its undergraduates (at least while I was one of them), its staff tirelessly ferret out information about all of us and promulgate it ruthlessly, both on a bimonthly basis and in a peculiarly vicious form of sadism known as the reunion book, where poor, quivering souls are expected to account for the last five years of their terrestrial existence. Altogether, the university manages to give us all the impression that we’re all of such abiding eternal interest that we must all want to be kept updated on marriages, promotions, publications, and deaths in perpetuity.

Which means, in practice, that one seems always to be opening one’s junk mail and exclaiming, “Oh, I didn’t know he had died. I liked him.” The fine folks at the alumni office cheerfully informed me when they hit me up to give a eulogy earlier this year that the older one gets, the more often one should expect that to happen.

Good to know, I suppose.

Apart from the usual any man’s death diminishes me me malaise about someone I frankly hadn’t thought about in quite a number of years, Alex’s death had got me thinking about my membership in that other group that tends to exhibit an elevated suicide rate: artists in general and writers in particular. He, too, was a writer, and a good one. The sensitive nervous tissue I mentioned a few days ago, that stuff that allows us to perceive lovely ephemeral moments in life and capture them for all time, seems to have a harder time dealing with all of those slings and arrows outrageous fortune sees fit to fling at us all.

Or maybe we’re just better at composing last words than other people. In any case, one of the side effects of a lifetime spent interacting with the kind of fascinating, mercurial, observant souls who devote themselves to coughing up their visions of the world, often at great personal cost, for the delectation of others seems to be finding oneself saying on a fairly regular basis, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that! S/he was talented,” even without the intervention of a shared alumni publication.

It’s one of the costs of leading an interesting life. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There are even those who argue, and cogently, that the urge to produce art is in itself is essentially a self-defensive response to an unjust world. “To devote life to a constantly disappointed hope of happiness,” Mme. de Staël wrote, is to make it even sadder. It is better to direct one’s efforts to going down the road from youth to death with some degree of nobility, and with reputation.”

Amazing that someone who never had to query agents was able to come up with that, isn’t it?

Should you ever find yourself wondering why I put so much time and energy into this blog — over and above, of course, having a general fondness for advising people what to do that’s no doubt buried deep in my little Mediterranean lady genes, along with a pathological propensity for feeding bystanders until they burst — you need look no farther than my fellow writers who have fallen by the wayside. I’m not just talking about fine, creative souls like Alex, whose negative was so very final, but to all of the hundreds and thousands of genuinely talented people who have given up writing because the road to recognition is so very, very difficult.

It is thus with a sense of solemnity and a full appreciation of the irony of what I’m about to do that I return to our topic du jour: carving time and space out of a busy life for writing on a regular basis.

I’ve been dancing around this particular topic all autumn, ever since I took my October writing retreat. Back then, I asked you to start pondering a very serious question: what do you actually need in order to write happily and well?

Over the last couple of weeks, I have periodically reminded you of this request, urging you to give the matter a bit more strenuous thought. So if you weren’t expecting a pop quiz to turn up on the horizon, well, you obviously have never taken one of my classes.

Actually, it’s less of a pop quiz than the assignment of additional homework. Last time, if you will recall, I posed a number of questions that any writer serious about making a career of it is going to need to tackle sooner or later, preferably sooner. To recap for the benefit of those of you who missed them:

(1) What conditions would you actually need in order to write productively for a significant, unbroken chunk of time? What are your necessary minimum conditions — not just generic ones, but yours — for retreating to write, even just for a day?

(2) What specific factors — ambient noise conditions, lighting, seating, height of monitor, being able to lock a door, whatever — are of tangible assistance in your creative process, and what is merely nice?

(3) Is there anything that you currently use that you could do without? If you could snap your fingers and replace a neutral factor with a useful one, what would it be?

(4) Conversely, what conditions render the actual act of writing more difficult for you? Be as specific as you can, please: cold drafts blowing across your keyboard, telemarketers calling every fifteen minutes, a bookshelf that threatens to dump its contents onto your head as you attempt to type next to it, fear of rejection? Write ‘em all down.

(5) If you believe taking a writing retreat of any length to be impossible or well-nigh impossible for you, why? Again, the more specific you can make your reply, the better.

(6) What feels like support for your writing? What are others in your life already doing that’s helpful to your writing progress, and what seems like a stumbling-block?

Yes, these are indeed unusual questions to spring upon people at holiday time, when light, fluffy queries like Where can I find the best deal on cashmere socks?, If I add five pounds to the amount of weight I’m planning to lose after New Year’s, is it okay to eat this seventh cookie?, and, of course, Will Rudolph be able to save Santa’s delivery schedule? are ostensibly supposed to be occupying our minds.

However, as anyone who has been reading this blog for more than twelve months could undoubtedly tell you, I believe that the pervasive practice of writers torturing themselves through New Year’s resolutions demanding such unreasonable feats as finishing that long-delayed novel within the next month or landing an agent before Mardi Gras causes a whole lot of unnecessary misery, ultimately rendering the path to publication emotionally harder than it needs to be.

So there.

Call me zany, but in my experience, slow and steady tends to be a better long-term strategy for those seeing fame and fortune through writing than the occasional — or annual — two-week burst of effort, followed by a month of disappointment when those efforts do not yield results akin to Jack’s having planted those magical beans and awakened the next morning to find a beanstalk. Not to mention the months of disappointment with oneself for not having pulled a rabbit out of a hat yet again this year.

Allow me to suggest a much more sensible New Year’s resolution: this year, don’t make any New Year’s resolutions related to your writing at all.

Instead, why not figure out just a few small changes that would help you write more regularly? Or to rearrange your life in a small-but-significant respect to garner more emotional support for sending out a new query every time you find a rejection letter in your mailbox? Or to commit to removing a distraction that regularly comes between you and your genuine passion to write. Oh, if only you had a list handy of what does and doesn’t help you write…

Wait — what’s that you have clutched in your hot little hands, those of you who obediently donned your thinking caps when I requested it? And you thought you couldn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Presto!

Because everyone’s list is bound to be different, I’m not going to presume to tell you how to prioritize the items on yours. At least not today. I’m going to leave you to ruminate on it a bit more, while we devote ourselves to applying the knowledge gleaned from that list to the long-delayed question of how to set up your own private writing retreat.

Yes, I am trying to clear out my to-write list before the end of the year! How did you guess? Since that’s such a big topic, I’m going to tackle the personal retreat next time.

I do have a little something up my sleeve, however, of a practical nature, to round out our time together today: remember in my last post, when I suggested asking your kith, kin, coworkers, canary, neighbors, and any stray children you may have happened to have taken in recently to cooperate with you in setting aside chunks of time sanctified for writing, agreeing not to bug you with anything less than an earthquake during these regularly-scheduled periods? Let’s give some thought today to how one might go about presenting that request in a manner that elicits neither thigh-slapping and guffaws, blank incredulity, nor doe-eyed moppets moaning, “Don’t you love me anymore, Mommy?”

For starters, I wouldn’t recommend just charging up to your nearest and dearest and accusing them, albeit nicely, of sabotaging your writing progress with their continual demands upon your time and attention. I can tell you from long experience observing and advising writers at various stages of their careers that however dramatically satisfying standing up at dinnertime and declaiming, “Support my writing or I’m leaving, Reginald!” may be in fantasy, it seldom yields positive results in practice.

Why, you ask? For the exceedingly simple reason that in all likelihood, Reginald probably no idea that he hasn’t been particularly supportive of your writing. He leaves you alone while he watches football in either the American or the international sense of the term, doesn’t he? Granted, you may not feel that bellowing at the television in the next room is particularly helpful to your artistic endeavors, nor is wandering into your writing space periodically to demand where his favorite pair of socks are, and sure, these orgies of spectatorship often take place during parts of the weekend when the kids want to be driven from activity — but for heaven’s sake, he’s trying, isn’t he?

Then, too, you may be so myopic that you can’t see that your mother’s nagging you to use your long-planned writing day to visit Grandma more often (because she’s not getting any younger, as opposed to the rest of us, but please don’t feel guilty) is her way of showing that she loves you, you sensitive so-and-so. Or that when you tell your best friend that you have rearranged your schedule so that you can spend Saturday mornings writing for several hours, that what she actually hears you say is, “I have some free time — let’s go to brunch!”

If you haven’t forced your nearest and dearest into a comfortable seated position recently and held them in place until you have explained that you regard such time as one of the greatest blessings of life, consider doing so, pronto. They may genuinely not understand why your writing time needs to be sacrosanct.

And why should they, really, unless they happen to be creative artists themselves? The fact is, dearly beloved, that to most non-writers, the idea of spending hours at a time sitting in front of a keyboard, composing a story from scratch where the grammar and spelling actually count, is not a particularly appetizing prospect. In interrupting your writing time, they may actually be trying to save you from what they perceive to be a grisly fate.

Don’t expect them to read your mind — or wait until you have been interrupted so many times that the only option left for expressing your desires on the subject is in a piercing scream. If you explain calmly and kindly why time and space are important to you, as well as how you would like them to act with respect to it, well-meaning souls will surprisingly often exclaim, “Oh, I had no idea! Of course I’ll leave you alone on Thursday afternoons from 4:45 to 6:15!”

Even better, they may actually do it. Naturally, like most New Year’s resolutions, their commitment to keeping out of your hair may falter over the course of a few weeks or months, but if you presented your case reasonably in the first place, you have laid the groundwork for a gentle reminder, haven’t you?

In order to encourage these sweet souls to make good on their promises, give ‘em a little practical help. Don’t answer the phone during your dedicated writing time, unless you are actually awaiting a heart transplant — and if you are, or if you’re not comfortable making yourself unavailable while your kids are in the house/out of the house/not yet old enough to vote, invest in caller ID or establish special ring tones so you know which calls are actually emergent and which merely Reginald eager to find out where you’ve hidden his favorite sweater after you washed it.

I’m quite serious about this. I know several successful authors who have gone so far as to get pagers and give the numbers only to their children, their elderly parents, and their agents.

Also, avoid the all-too-common trap of keeping your e-mail program or IM open while you are trying to write. They’re just too distracting — and as much as it may annoy your bored friends if you do not respond right away to visitors to your Facebook page, have you EVER received such a message that couldn’t actually have waited an hour or two for your response?

Speaking of distraction, some of you are still thinking about my crack about Reginald’s seeming inability to put away his own laundry, aren’t you? Your antennae are not steering you wrong, my friends: I am about to suggest that you sit down with the other members of your household to chat about how the domestic duties might be reapportioned to give you more writing time.

To put it another way, are the chores you do habitually are actually of such a nature that they can be done by your good self, or have you been doing them because, good heavens, if you don’t, who will? Or — brace yourself, neatniks — because you were brought up to believe that if laundry sits in a hamper longer than three days, it will transform into Godzilla and go rampaging through your house?

If you are the household doer-of-chores, expect some resistance to the suggestion that you are not equipped with an extra pair of hands specially designed for the purpose. As I mentioned last time, engrained habits are hard to dislodge.

Which is why I would not suggest walking into such a discussion unarmed: your argument will be more convincing if you are toting some proof that such chores are eating up quite a bit of your time. A great way to establish this is to take an average week and keep track of everything you spend more than ten consecutive minutes doing. Make your record as detailed as possible, then at the end of the week, tote up how much time you spent on each task.

If you’re like many conscientious chore-doers, you may be astonished at the totals. And if you’re like most time-fritterers, seeing how you’re spending your time may be equally enlightening.

Regardless of whether you will be confronting anyone but your pet cat or goldfish with the results (“I invested three hours playing with you last week, Fluffy! Your tyranny over my time must cease!”), keeping a meticulous record of how you spend your time for a week or two is a good idea. Be completely honest about it, so you may discern patterns.you can always destroy the document afterwards.

Yes, even if you’re embarrassed about some of the time-eaters you’ll need to list. After all, it won’t help you to pretend you spent six hours re-reading Marcel Proust’s À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU when you actually spent it watching reruns of Project Runway, will it? I offer no judgments — as a matter of fact, I’m rather fond of Project Runway — but presumably, if you felt you were already devoting enough time to writing, you wouldn’t be trying to find more.

Think of it as a time budget. If you know how and where are you currently spending your time, you will have an easier time figuring out what time expenses, so to speak, can be dropped. Or, to put it another way, would you prefer to invest your time elsewhere?

After you have a reasonably detailed account in your hands, try breaking your normal routine for a week or ten days, to get a clearer idea of what is and is not immutable in your usual schedule. This may require a bit of advance thought, but the results can be fabulously educational.

Switch around chores with your spouse; if you pick up the kids after school, try rearranging your carpool so you drive them there in the morning instead; it may well be that this will leave you fresher for evening writing. If you always do the dishes or laundry in the morning, do it late at night; maybe it will turn out that early morning is your prime writing time, and if so, do you really want to fill up that time with housework?

In short, just how much of that cast-in-stone schedule is actually cast in stone? What could go, at least in the short run, in order to free up more writing time

At the end of your week or ten days of messing with your schedule, after your routines are good and disrupted, look back over your account of how you spent your time. What worked and what didn’t? Where could you fit in chunks of solid writing time on a regular basis?

Could you use this information to rearrange your life so you could get more writing done? It may require some genuine bravery and ingenuity, but most of the time, the answer is a resounding YES.

Yes, it’s a lot of work, but changes implemented in this manner are far, far more likely to still be around six or even three months from now than if you pursue the infinitely more popular route of simply demanding more work from yourself while altering nothing else in your life.

Hey, there’s a reason that the average New Year’s resolution lasts only three weeks.

To minimize the resentment of the rest of your household, as well as to gain a more accurate sense of how you would use your untrammeled time, I advise going on a media fast for that week or ten days when you begin the new Schedule of Joy. It won’t hurt your worldview to turn off the TV and radio for that long, nor to skip the daily newspaper.

Not only will this allow you to assess just how much time every day you are currently spending being entertained and/or informed, to see if you could purloin some of that time for writing, but it will also help you get back into the habit of listening to your own thoughts without distraction.

I go on one of these fasts every year, and it honestly is amazing how much it calms the thoughts. It also arouses the pity and wonder of my household, and reminds my kith and kin just how important it is to me to have inviolate writing time. It reminds them that they, too, are contributing to my success, if only by remembering not to telephone during my writing time. It reminds them that they can actually LOOK for a stamp when they need it, rather than asking me.

Not to mention schooling the cats in who is actually in charge of when that furry mouse gets thrown for fetching purposes.

It also reminds everyone concerned why I am so strict throughout the rest of the year about not wanting to hear what is happening on the currently hot sitcom. For me, getting sucked into an ongoing plot line is a big dispensable time waster. I have seen a grand total of one episode of FRIENDS, two SEX AND THE CITYs, and no Seinfeld at all, but I have written several pretty good books.

I’m aware that the list above is woefully out of date, thanks, and I’m not sure that I could pick Jennifer Aniston out of a lineup. (She was on the first show I mentioned, right?)

Have I made my point?

Is getting a book project finished worth being temporarily out of touch with pop culture? Only you can answer that, but frankly, I doubt that even the most devoted television watchers will be clutching their throats like Vincent Price on their deathbeds, moaning ruefully, “Oh, if only I had kept up with my sitcoms better! If only I had followed reality television more faithfully, I would have no regrets departing this terrestrial sphere!”

And yes, in answer to what three-quarters of you just thought, I don’t believe that anyone Alex left behind wishes that he had spent more time watching television, either.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, that I’m not going to tell you how much time per day, week, month, or year is the idea amount for you to invest in your writing. How you choose to spend your time on earth — your leisure time, anyway — is up to you. If you want to set aside time to express yourself, be my guest; if you’d rather only work on your book sporadically, you have my blessing, too. Ditto with sending out your queries with the clockwork regularity necessary to land an agent vs. stuffing your manuscript pages into the bottom drawer, never to see the light of day. Whatever makes you happy, you should do.

All I’m asking — and I realize that it’s a big, big request, so feel free to say no — is that you make those choices consciously, rather than allowing yourself to be pushed around by the fact that a new year is going to begin in a few days or other people have not to date spontaneously offered to lighten your burdens so you may devote more time to writing. Creating a stellar piece of writing does not happen by accident; 99.9999% of the time, a glorious book is the result of quite a bit of advance planning and sacrifice.

Please do give some thought, in short, to the tender, loving care of your talent and all of that nervous tissue. To help you do so, I can do no better than to show you that Mme. de Staël quote in its entirety:

So let us rise up under the weight of existence. Let us not give our unjust enemies and ungrateful friends the triumph of having beaten down our intellectual faculties. They reduce people who would have been satisfied with affection to seeking glory; well, then, we have to achieve glory. These ambitious attempts may not remedy the sorrows of the soul, but they will bring honor to life. To devote life to a constantly disappointed hope of happiness is to make it even sadder. It is better to direct one’s efforts to going down the road from youth to death with some degree of nobility, and with reputation.

As John Irving urged us in THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE, keep passing those open windows, everyone. And as I have been known to advise a time or two here, keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part X: where you stand depends on where you sit, sometimes literally

In my last post, I lingered on the desirability of making physical space in your home — or somewhere else, if you can afford separate office space — specifically dedicated to writing. Like playing the same music every time you sit down to write, lighting your desk area more brightly than the rest of the house in midwinter, or painting your kneecaps bright green as a pre-writing ritual, setting aside a space where you do nothing but write can be very helpful in fending off writer’s block, seasonally-induced or otherwise.

Why, you ask? Well, like the other sensual cues mentioned last time, walking into a dedicated writing environment makes the transition from mundane (non-writing) time to creative time clear to not only your daytimer, but to your body. Just as nice, clean towels coming out of the dryer tell my cats that it’s time to curl up and have a nap, walking into my writing space tells me that it’s time to get to work.

You can TELL your body that it’s time to write until you’re blue in the face, but let’s face it, we’re animals at base, and creatures of habit to boot. That pancreas of yours will need a non-verbal hint or two, and when’s the last time your T2 vertebra listened to reason?

You’ve probably already noticed the stimulus-bodily reaction phenomenon manifesting in less positive ways. The body’s no fool. When you have a job you hate, merely walking into the building raises your stress levels markedly, doesn’t it? The smell of baking bread or cookies cheers most people up, regardless of what else is going on, and incessant holiday music following one from store to store so stuns the nervous system after a while that one begins to buy frantically in self-defense, just to get out of there.

(No one can tell me that last effect isn’t calculated. I was in a children’s choir for many years, doomed to wander puckishly from rest home to shopping mall to stage to insane asylum all throughout the holiday season, piping carols at the top of our childish voices. The sounds we were yelping were generally considered high-quality, but let me tell you, spectators’ eyes glaze over like Santa’s swimming pool before the end of the second verse of even the most beautifully-rendered carol. They’ve been hypnotized by sheer repetition.)

Having a dedicated space usually helps with that other common writerly tendency, jumping up after only a minute or two to do something else. The less comfortable your writing area, the more likely that urge is to overwhelm you.

(Confidential to the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver who might still be snuffling around for meaningful means to mark a Hanukkah evening: have you considered giving an office chair with really good back support? Not a generic office chair, but one that fits the writer’s body specifically? Or a copy of THE NOW HABIT, psychologist Neil Fiore’s excellent and accessible book on breaking procrastination patterns?)

A solid fit between computer user and furniture can help avoid all kinds of writing-delaying problems, as many of us now know to our cost. Business offices are notorious for trying to force every body type into identical chairs, as are colleges. When I was an undergraduate, my college saw fit to equip each and every dorm room with large, square wooden desk chairs like the one above, emblazoned with the school’s insignia — so, you know, if we forgot the school’s motto, we could just turn around and read it. My friends who happened to be 6’2” hockey players claimed that the chairs were most comfortable.

Everyone else ended up with sore backs and overworked arms. And in my day, whippersnappers, those chairs did not come equipped with that festive pillow, so after an hour or two of studying, what I shall delicately call the end of the spine began to complain as well.

Perhaps because there is no such thing as a good, supportive one-size-fits-all desk chair, one can surprisingly often find quite decent barely-used ones at thrift stores, I’ve noticed. You may need to canvas your entire city to find one that suits you and take a carpet-cleaner to it before you use it, but the eye-popping discounts are often worth it.

To return to my previous point: once you have established a space, song, lighting condition, specific chair, etc. as THE signal to begin serious writing, your body will soon come to understand that it’s time to stop distracting you with minor matters like the desire to eat, sleep, or have meaningful human contact and get down to work. Perhaps equally important, having a dedicated space — particularly one with a door that closes firmly on loved ones’ noses — tells everyone else in your household that you are not to be disturbed.

So it’s not only your habits that we’re hoping to recondition here. When intensive writing schedules work, EVERYONE in the household is cooperating to make that happen, starting in babyhood.

Oh, you laugh, but having grown up in a family of writers, I can tell you with absolute confidence: a career writer’s kid learns to go to sleep by the sound of typing (and speaking of conditioned reflexes, the sound of a manual typewriter still makes me distinctly sleepy). To this day, I seldom raise my voice above quiet conversational level, lest there be someone writing in the next room.

It’s habit, like everything else.

It’s also absolutely necessary, incidentally, for the household of a writer working on a deadline — and lest your kith and kin be harboring any fond illusions on the subject, the more successful you are as a author, the more deadlines you are going to have and the tighter they are going to be. It’s just a fact that at some point, no matter how nice a successful writer is, s/he is going to have to say to loved ones, “My writing needs to be my #1 priority right now. Which, by definition, places your needs slightly lower on the list.”

And mean it. So why not avoid the proverbial Christmas rush and start getting your kith and kin in the habit of hearing it now?

Did the last few paragraphs make you a trifle uncomfortable? If so, you’re certainly not alone: many writers are too sweet-tempered or too responsible or too habit-bound or just to gosh darned nice to expect their family members to change ANYTHING about THEIR schedules in order to make room for Mama or Papa or Sissy’s writing. Mama or Papa or Sissy simply give up sleep or recreation or dating in order to finish that book in spare moments when nobody else is making demands upon their time; Mama, more often than not, trains herself to drop her train of thought in mid-sentence the nanosecond anything remotely resembling a request for assistance or care falls upon her distracted ear.

Since this is the season of giving, may I suggest that this would be an excellent time to reexamine that attitude just a little?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that writers’ children should be taught to stifle their cries over their bleeding, severed limbs (although admittedly, writers’ kids of my generation often did). I’m merely throwing out the notion that everyone in the household might make supporting the writing project a top priority on an ongoing basis, rather than leaving the poor writer to struggle with trying to carve out time and space alone.

Why, yes, you may pause in your perusal of this post at this point to read that last bit out loud to your significant other, children, upstairs neighbor, or dog. I’m perfectly happy to wait. Tell ‘em it’s my idea, not yours.

While I’m being subversive — and to wrap up my series on gifts that the average writer would love to receive — FNDGG, why not give the writer in your life the gift of TIME TO WRITE on a regular basis?

After all, a few hours a week is a gift that even fairly small children could give to an overworked writer-parent. Maybe Santa could be induced to whisper some suggestions during that usually one-way communication on his lap; I know many, many writers to whom a pack of hand-made gift certificates, each good for an hour of uninterrupted time, would be the best stocking-stuffer EVER.

Monetarily, it would be hard to find a less expensive present — or New Year’s resolution, for that matter. In most aspiring writers’ households, though, it would require some fairly significant reshuffling of priorities to institute.

Which brings me to another very, very good reason that you might want to speak up about desiring dedicated time and space now, rather than holding your tongue until the happy day that you land an agent, sign a book contract, or see your nom de plume jauntily topping the New York Times’ bestseller list. Remember how I mentioned at Thanksgiving time that the vast majority of North Americans have absolutely no idea how books come to be published or how long it typically takes? Until they see the bound volume for sale at Borders or Chapters, even the most habitually kind and considerate of these well-meaning souls is prone — nay, likely — to express puzzlement and even disappointment at the most exciting tidings falling from their writer friends’ lips.

It’s usually expressed through hoping they’ve misunderstood you. “You signed with an agent?” they will say, uncomprehending smiles playing about their faces. “Great — when is the book coming out?”

They don’t do it to hurt you, honestly: they just don’t understand how many stages (or how much work) is involved in shepherding a book from first bright idea to successful publication. Or even unsuccessful publication. From the outside, a writer who isn’t being paid to sit and tap at a keyboard can look an awful lot like an unusually obsessed hobbyist nursing repetitive strain injuries.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because practically everyone in the English-speaking world, or at any rate English-reading one, mistakenly believes that when a genuinely gifted writer adds the last bon mot to any book worth reading, agents, editors, and scouts for the Oprah Winfrey show magically and spontaneously appear on his or her (usually his, in this fantasy) doorstep, clamoring to bring the magical book out tomorrow.

In the face of that preconceived notion, anything less than instant, massive literary recognition for the writer one actually knows personally is bound to seem like a bit of a letdown.

To be fair, plenty of aspiring writers buy into this fantasy, too — at least until they learn how the publishing industry actually works. In reality, even the writer of a book destined to be a classic a hundred years from now will often spend years querying, pitching, submitting, and revising before being picked up by an agent. Even after that legitimately thrilling achievement, there’s no guarantee that the agent will be able to sell the book to a publisher, or if s/he can, how soon it will be.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but I’ve met literally hundreds of authors who didn’t attain any serious recognition of their writing until their third or fourth books, not third or fourth month marketing them to agents.

I’m bringing this up not to depress you (although I could see where it might conceivably have that effect) but so that you will not talk yourself out of considering asking for more time, space, and support for your work just because you’ve been looking for an agent for a while — or talking yoursel into making one of those lamentably common New Year’s resolutions that demand landing an agent or a publishing contract by the end of the year.

You’ll be happier in the long run — and, dare I say it, less likely to fall prey to writer’s block — if your view of what a good writer can hope to achieve in the short run is realistic.

These days, even the IRS recognizes that ultimately very successful authors often expend years of effort without making a profit at their craft before hitting the big time. (It’s true; look it up.) If the government can accept the unappetizing fact that they’re going to have to wait to tax your book sales, is it really too much to expect those who love you to do the same?

Astonishingly often, it seems to be, but again, try not to blame your kith and kin too much. When everyone one knows seems to believe that an unpublished book must be by definition inherently flawed — because if it weren’t, it would already be published and featured on Oprah, right? — one is likely to look a trifle askance at a dream that takes a long time to come true. Or which appears to be coming true in small increments whose importance the observer doesn’t really understand.

All of which is to say: if you were planning to wait until your writing caught a break before politely requesting that your kith and kin

(a) stop nagging you to get published and go on Oprah,

(b) arguing that other activities are inherently more important than preserving your writing time and/or space,

(c) installing fitness equipment in the only logical space in the house for your desk,

(d) interrupting your scheduled writing time with the crisis du jour,

(e) interrupting your scheduled writing time for phone calls, and/or

(f) interrupting your scheduled writing time because someone just said something funny in a sitcom (improbable, but within the realm of possibility, certainly),

it might not be worth the wait. What is to a writer a major event — the realistic possibility of completing a novel within the next three months, for instance, or an agent’s request for materials, or finally selling that book proposal to a small publisher — may not be to them the unanswerable argument for support you’ve been expecting it to be. They may not respond as you would like, because after all, if your book were REALLY destined for greatness…

Well, you know the tune by now, don’t you?

And that, to slip into the vernacular for a moment, is going to suck, because at that point, you’re going to want to drop everything and devote yourself to your art. Trust me, because I speak from long, long experience and observation: at that ostensibly-joyous-yet-practically-stressful juncture, even the most sweet-tempered author is bound to feel bubbles of ulcer-inducing resentment welling up against her solar plexus.

Consider, then, the alternative. There are many advantages to gathering one’s significant other, paramour(s), children, parents, grandparents, friends, coworkers, pets, and anyone else who might be at all likely to disturb your writing time and announcing, “Now hear this! Starting this very minute and until this project is complete, I’m going to need all of your help. Raise your right hands and repeat after me: ‘Unless the house is actually on fire, I shall not interrupt my beloved writer while s/he is working…”

I’m feeling waves of panic floating from the timid at the very notion of saying such a thing. “But Anne,” I hear some of you kindly souls squeak fearfully, “isn’t that a little, you know, drastic? After all, they do leave me alone to write sometimes; I don’t want them to think I’m not grateful for that. I’ve got a much, much better idea: what if I don’t say anything at all, and just hope that they’ll take the hint?”

I understand your reluctance, oh gentle souls, but I have one question to ask in response: how has that strategy worked out for you so far?

As lovely as it would be if one’s families, roommates, and friends would spontaneously cry, “You know, honey, I’ve been thinking, and you would have two and a half hours of clear extra time per week to work on your book if I did the grocery shopping for the next six months. Please let me do this for you!” in my experience, it doesn’t happen all that often. Habit is habit, unlikely to change without somebody laying out some awfully good reasons that it should.

(Although for the benefit of any Significant Others, paramours, cats, etc. who may be reading this: anyone who DID murmur such words under the mistletoe — and actually followed through on them — would be exceedingly likely to find by spring that every writer of his/her sweetie’s acquaintance is bright green with envy. I just mention.)

Call me a cynic, but I believe that one is far, far more likely to get what one wants if one asks for it, rather than waiting for those in a position to give it to read one’s mind. Especially when, as so many aspiring writers do, you’ve probably been juggling your writing and the rest of your life well enough that from the outside, it might not look like the strain it undoubtedly is.

So instead of relying upon your loved ones to realize that you could use a bit of extra time, why not come out and request it? Or — don’t faint on me here — decree establishing time and space to write as your holiday present to yourself?

Your writing is important to you. You are NOT being selfish to ask for time and a place to do it.

Before any of you tell me that you are far, far too busy for this to be practicable — I can tell which ones intend to make this objection by the loud guffaws of disbelief and tears of mirth running down your faces — let me hasten to add that I’m thinking about some fairly small increments of undisturbed tranquility. What if, say, you were no longer the one doing the laundry? Or your teenager cooked dinner twice per week? Or you stopped playing canasta with those neighbors you never really liked in the first place? Or — and I suspect this one might resonate with some of you at this particular season — you opted out of hosting your thirty-person family’s holiday dinner next year?

How much time would that free for your writing? And, more crucially, just what message would such a step send to your kith and kin about precisely how important your writing actually is to you?

Because, if you don’t mind my asking, if you’ve never asked them to sacrifice anything for it, even momentary pleasure, are you positive that they honestly understand that you consider it your real life’s work, your genuine passion, regardless of whether your writing ever actually gets published?

Assuming, of course, that you feel this way. Most of the dedicated writers I know do.

Yes, working up the nerve to convey this to non-writers is hard, but anyone who ever told you that being a writer is easy was — well, let’s say inadequately informed. I’m going to talk more next time about how one might go about expressing this to one’s kith and kin, as well as some practical means of figuring out what can and cannot be altered in order to make more time and space for writing in your life. Before you groan, believe me, the rewards of self-expression are massive and ongoing. It is well worth reassessing the demands upon your time and space to make room for you to try.

At least think about it, please: even writers with great support and lovely, comfortable, well-lit writing spaces can usually figure out where there’s room for improvement. As Emily Dickenson wrote so charmingly, “We never know how high we are/till we are called to rise.”

She was talking about something completely different, of course, but it brings me back to a question I asked you to start considering way back in October: what do you actually need in order to write happily and well?

You didn’t honestly think that I was going to content myself with a mere pep talk today, did you?

To render subsequent discussions of October’s burning question and today’s modest proposal both more useful and more interesting, let’s expand that general question into a number of more focused ones:

(1) What conditions would you actually need in order to write productively for a significant, unbroken chunk of time? What are your necessary minimum conditions — not just generic ones, but yours — for retreating to write, even just for a day?

(2) What specific factors — ambient noise conditions, lighting, seating, height of monitor, being able to lock a door, whatever — are of tangible assistance in your creative process, and what is merely nice?

(3) Is there anything that you currently use that you could do without? If you could snap your fingers and replace a neutral factor with a useful one, what would it be?

(4) Conversely, what conditions render the actual act of writing more difficult for you? Be as specific as you can, please: cold drafts blowing across your keyboard, telemarketers calling every fifteen minutes, a bookshelf that threatens to dump its contents onto your head as you attempt to type next to it, fear of rejection? Write ‘em all down.

(5) If you believe taking a writing retreat of any length to be impossible or well-nigh impossible for you, why? Again, the more specific you can make your reply, the better.

(6) What feels like support for your writing? What are others in your life already doing that’s helpful to your writing progress, and what seems like a stumbling-block?

Yes, yes, I know: these are some pretty weighty questions, downright fundamental to who you are and how you write. That’s why I’ve given you a couple of months — and the upcoming weekend — to ponder them. They are questions that every successful professional writer has to face sooner or later, not as daydreams, but as practical realities that can be changed as necessary.

Usually, the answers become apparent about three days before a major deadline, but I think we can do better than that, don’t you? Give ‘em some thought — and keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part IX: desirable alterations of the space-time continuum

All right, I’ll admit it: I love all forms of temporary public decoration, the more bewildering, the better. Take, for example, the wee park above, seasonally fraught with enigma. The bench urges one to pause and enjoy the view, while the snow argues for walking on swiftly. The garland clambers far overhead, yet somehow neglects to finish the shape inherent to that lamppost; it simply cries out, “Make me into a candy cane,” does it not?

Which naturally begs the question: had the person who selected the decoration perhaps never seen the lamppost before (or own a tape measure), but merely went on a mad garland-purchasing spree whilst in a state of ignorance? Or did s/he have a traumatic childhood experience with sweets that caused the bare sight of a candy cane to be hideously painful?

Finally, whatever does that semi-permanent banner mean? Are the wave shapes intended to alert the inattentive viewer to the fact that there is a body of water just a few steps away? Is that something anyone of reasonable intelligence is likely to miss at any time of year? More mysteries of the season, I guess.

Speaking of which, I spent a small-but-significant portion of yesterday’s post on the dreaded subject of writer’s block, or at least that species of it that leads to seemingly perpetual procrastination. Not entirely coincidentally, last week, I began talking about that reliable annual writer’s block-inducer, the winter blahs.

And no, I’m not just talking about depression induced by hearing the same fifteen carols, often in precisely the same versions, in EVERY store into which one has the misfortune to wander between Halloween and the after-Christmas sales. Admittedly, after an interminable decade singing in children’s choirs, I have a lower-than-normal carol tolerance, but geez, I don’t know how retail workers stand the sheer repetition.

I’m digressing again, amn’t I? Back to seasonal writer’s block.

Annually, light-deprivation, overtaxed schedules, family demands, and constant invocations to be overtly jolly and spend lots of money leave many aspiring writers too blue — not to mention too tired — to write. This year, with grim news about publishing hitting us every time any of us pass within a few yards of anything remotely related to the media, I’m betting that even writers normally suffused with seasonal cheer are finding their vim fading a trifle faster than usual.

Ho, ho…hum.

With the new year approaching swiftly (and with it, perhaps, the consciousness of another year’s having slipped by without landing that yearned-for agent and/or book contract), the temptation to turn off the computer and cry, “Oh, the heck with it — I’ll start writing again in January!” can become downright overwhelming.

I want to concentrate today on techniques designed to fend off that state of mind, before any of us find ourselves glancing at our dust-laden manuscripts on Valentine’s Day, murmuring, “Will it REALLY make a difference if I don’t get back to the book until Groundhog Day?” or “Can’t I get away with not sending another set of queries until Easter?” And if I happen to mention in passing a few helpful and not-very-expensive gifts for writers to suggest to the FNDGGs (Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Givers) in their lives, well, let’s just say that I shan’t be terribly surprised.

If you thought you were the only writer who ever thought like that — about delaying getting back to a regular writing schedule, that is not about peppering one’s FNDGG with hints — let me assure you, you’re not alone. I’ve known authors with lucrative three-book contracts in hand who still habitually burrowed under the covers in the morning because they couldn’t imagine anyone paying to read anything they might conceivably write that day.

Listen: talent doesn’t just dry up. But motivation can and often does. The good news is that with effort, it can be revivified.

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

Believe me, I understand this feeling: you’re a responsible person with obligations, after all, someone who is going to have to keep paying bills throughout this retreat.

And let’s face it, other people’s demands and schedules would need to be disrupted. If you have kids, it may be hard even to imagine disappearing for as much as a week before they graduate from high school. If you have a demanding job, even the suggestion of being absent for a few days running may be enough to induce hearty guffaws in your boss’ office.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have.

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

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

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

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

The repetition may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent; pretend you’re working in a mall during the holidays and can’t change the music, or one of Pavlov’s dogs waiting for a bite to eat. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with writing — which in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly.

After a while, you can put on other music later in your writing sessions, as long as you always begin with the same song. Your brain will already be used to snapping immediately into creative mode.

I do the music-repetition thing myself, so I can give you first-hand assurance of its efficacy. For the novel my agent has allegedly been circulating for me recently (one never knows, does one?), I put on the same Cat Stevens CD (hey, I was writing about hippies) literally every time I sat down to write – and now that I have finished the book, I can’t hear THE WIND without moving instinctively toward my computer. And even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s UPSTAIRS AT ERIC’S without starting to think about my long-completed dissertation. For the novel I’m currently writing, set at Harvard in the mid-80s, Berlin’s FOR ALL TOMORROW’S LIES is destined to be forever associated with a keyboard for me.

So I can tell you from experience: it works, if you give it a chance.

(So yes, Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: installing a small stereo system in a writer’s designated workspace WOULD be a delightful surprise, now that you happen to mention it. How clever of you.)

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

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

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

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

Okay, so he wrote mostly about alcoholics, but still, you’ve got to admit that it’s impressive.

It’s also helpful, when you find yourself avoiding writing, to take a good, hard look at your writing space: can you in fact concentrate there? Is there a way you could make it more comfortable — or more private?

Or — and I find this is often the case with struggling writers — do you not have a space dedicated to writing at all?

Yes, you CAN write in a crowded café at a table immediately adjacent to a bongo band while babysitting a hyperactive rhesus monkey. And Antonio Gramsci wrote a major work of political philosophy entirely on toilet paper while imprisoned in a small, dark cell, but that doesn’t mean that either is an environment particularly conducive to long bursts of concentrated creative thought.

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

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

And yes, Virginia, I am deliberately mentioning this at a time of year when some of you have whisked your notes into desk drawers so relatives can bed down on an air mattress in the room where you normally write. That alone might well tempt even the most hospitable writer into shelving the novel or book proposal until January.

Or, if the seed I’m trying to plant here germinates successfully, to try to figure out a part of the house or apartment where one can retreat to work, even with guests in the house.

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

Remember, though: lighting, lighting, lighting. And did I mention lighting?

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

Seeing a pattern here, FNDGG? Anything you can do to alter space and/or time to render concentration easier is a dandy gift for a writer.

What about you, writers? All too often, we writers assume that the only possible reasons for feeling stalled in our writing are problems within ourselves: lack of willpower, lack of commitment, an unwillingness or inability to restructure our lives in order to write rather than fitting writing into already overcrowded lives, limited talent.

Or just a book idea that’s not as spectacular as it originally seemed.

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

Give it some thought. Or don’t, and wait until I come back to this absorbing topic next time — which, judging from the dirty looks the relatives have been popping into my writing space for the past fifteen minutes to give me, is going to be after a certain holiday that shall remain nameless.

Either way, have a merry one, and keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part VIII: have you considered giving learning experiences?

For the last few posts in this series on gifts a generous, sensitive, and smart Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (did I mention attractive?) might want to bestow upon a writer, I have been concentrating upon engaging the services of a professional editor. Since that can be a pretty expensive endeavor, I’m going to spend today talking about less costly learning experiences that writers might appreciate — and, still better, ones that might help move their work toward successful publication.

Good writers, and I don’t care who hears me say it, usually tend to be more open to learning experiences than your average bear. Why? Well, it probably has something to do with having a brain that’s wired to notice telling details more than other people’s. To paraphrase HG Wells’ THE WIFE OF SIR ISAAC HARMAN, a writer is an Aolian harp upon whom the winds of society blow, causing us to sing. We have, as Wells said, unusually sensitive nervous tissue.

Aolian harp, in case you don’t happen to have a good mythological dictionary handy, is a fancy term for wind chime.

I love this analogy, because it pinpoints something that the kind folks who attempt to live with us who write must come to understand and accept: we often react more intensely to external stimuli than other people. We’re born extrapolators. You may find this hard to believe, but apparently, non-writers can sit in a restaurant without eavesdropping on nearby tables and creating elaborate life histories about the speakers based upon an excerpted sentence or two.

Or so I’m told. Anthropologically fascinating to hear how other tribes think, isn’t it?

Since we writers work overtime developing our listening skills, taking advantage of them through taking classes makes perfect sense — a common enough view that writing classes tend to be a terrific place not only to learn something new, but to meet other writers at all stages of their careers. Call it a two-for-one deal.

So here’s an idea for writers up for making suggestions about what they’d like to receive as presents: why not seek out a good writing class, either at a local teaching facility or online, and ask your FNDGG to spring for it?

If you immediately thought, “Oh, I don’t have time to take a class — I barely have time to write as it is!”, well, you’re certainly not alone. It makes perfect sense to give some advance thought to the level of time commitment you could realistically devote to a class without eating into your writing time. Allow me, however, to suggest that the less time you have to write, the more benefit you might derive from clearing some time in your schedule to take a class.

How so, you murmur? Well, at the risk of sounding pedantic, it can be beneficial in addressing a broad spectrum of writerly problems. Most literally, a class can give a writer the specific skill-polishing s/he needs to help write better, faster, stronger, etc. There are also plenty of good classes out there — and in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I teach some of them — that will assist a writer in constructing a query, synopsis, or book proposal.

Slightly more nebulously, classes also exist that will help writers revise their work to render it more marketable — agent Don Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel class pops to mind — conform more closely to the parameters of a particular genre, and yes, just write better sentences.

Price tags vary as much as offerings do. As with any other professional advice, however, the buyer should beware: not every class actually delivers what it promises. Marketing help to writers is big business these days, as anyone who has taken a gander at the many, many books offering writing advice of late can tell you, but it’s not as though there is a writer’s guardian angel out there making sure that only those with a proven track record assisting writers improve their work are allowed to advertise.

So it’s in your interest to assess claims carefully, rather than blithely sending off a check to the first class that sounds appetizing. Find out precisely what your potential teacher’s background is and how it relates to what s/he is offering to teach you.

There’s a third reason that I like to recommend that the super-busy and the writing-blocked (two groups with quite a bit of member overlap, I’ve noticed) carve out some time in their schedules to invest in a class: to get into the habit of finding time in their schedules to devote to writing.

Some of you just guffawed, didn’t you? “Um, Anne?” I hear a few cynics point out. “Aren’t you suggesting that people solve a problem by solving it? Just a touch tautological, no?”

Hear me out on this one, oh guffawers. Those who diagnose themselves as too busy to write on a regular schedule and writers experiencing certain types of writer’s block usually share the problem of finding themselves unwilling or unable, for any number of perfectly legitimate and not-so-legitimate reasons, to sit down and write on a regular basis. The hyper-occupied will rush off to do all of the other, higher-priority things they have to do before they can devote time to writing; the blocked will frequently come up with other things to do to avoid the pain of staring at a blank computer screen.

As a result, members of both groups tend not to budget a whole lot of time purely for writing, at least not on a regular basis: all too often, they will put it off until some hypothetical day when they are either not busy with something else or spontaneously inspired. Over time, that mythical day’s planned agenda can become downright terrifying: from merely a day (or week or month) to devote to writing, it devolves into feeling like THE day (or week or month) in which one has to complete the ENTIRE project. The bigger the task looming in the mind, the more tempting to put it off.

Then these well-meaning souls wake up three months later and realize that they haven’t made much progress on their writing projects. At that point, they have every incentive to blame this results on being too busy or galloping writer’s block — and once again to put off sitting down with the project. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Now admittedly, there are a million causes for writer’s block, and many millions of obligations that might conceivably render budgeting time to writedifficult. But from a working author’s point of view, the underlying problem above is that the writers have not made time to write and stuck to a schedule. This may or may not be attributable to factors within the individual’s control, but whatever the specific reasons, sitting down and writing somehow isn’t near enough to the top of the writer’s priorities to make it happen on the regular basis necessary to complete a book project.

With me so far? Excellent.

Due no doubt to early childhood training, most of us are better at maintaining a formal commitment (such as showing up for a class) than an informal one (such as a promise to oneself to sit down every day and write a few thousand words). We tend to perceive sticking to something we do with other people (or something we are paying to do) as involving less willpower than keeping a private vow.

In actuality, that’s often not true, but there’s no reason not to put the impression that it is true to good use.

Here’s a proposition to consider: a writer who can figure out how to attend a weekly two-hour class is very likely to discover at the end of it that s/he has two hours per week no longer budgeted for something other than writing; by adhering to an already-established schedule, then, that writer has gained a couple of hours per week to devote to writing. Similarly, once a writer has managed to clear a weekend to invest in a seminar, or a few days to attend a conference, s/he can probably repeat that achievement in order to devote that time to writing.

Will those couple of hours or few days be enough to write an entire book? Almost certainly not. But if repeated frequently, could the fruits of regular writing time add up? Absolutely.

And don’t throw up your hands, please, if you felt uncomfortable in classrooms growing up — writing classes turn up in a lot of forms, from traditional composition classes to paid critique groups run by established authors or editors to weekend seminars on plot complexity to once-a-week online give-and-take. The more specific you can be about what you would like to learn, the easier it will be for you — or your FNDGG — to find a class you’ll enjoy.

One reliably fruitful source of course offerings for writers lies on the conference circuit. Good writers’ conferences tend to be crammed with classes on craft, querying, submission, marketing, you name it. They’re also often wonderful places to meet other writers to swap tips and share sympathy. You might even make a friend or two with whom you’ll feel moved to exchange manuscripts for critique, or to form the nucleus of a writers’ support group.

Not to mention the fact that many conferences offer the opportunity to meet agents and editors and hear about what they like to see in a submission. At some conferences, you can even pitch your book to them, neatly sidestepping the querying stage.

Which brings me to another gift suggestion: why not ask your FNDGG to subsidize a trip to a well-constructed conference? If not to underwrite the whole thing, at least to chip in?

If you choose your conference carefully, you may also derive another fringe benefit from attendance: manuscript feedback. As clever and intrepid reader Susan wrote in yesterday to remind us, some conferences offer manuscript critique sessions relatively inexpensively — relative, that is, to employing the services of a professional editor.

Conference-based critique comes in a number of different flavors; there is no such thing as a generic conference critique, so do make sure before you register which is being offered. Here is a field guide to a few of the more common.

The public examination. At this type of event, feedback is offered during short classes within the conference itself in a manner reminiscent of American Idol: both presentation and expert feedback take place in a public forum. Attendees are invited to show up with a very short excerpt — usually a page or two, either from the text or in some cases, a query letter — dissection and discuss.

The few shy souls out there who just exclaimed, “I’d rather stick my hand into a meat grinder!” need despair: because critique is a time-consuming business, these classes usually attract far more feedback-seekers than time to take a magnifying glass to their work. Most of the time, those who sit by quietly and take copious notes on what the pros say about other people’s pages are more than welcome.

The small-group intensive. Here, critique sessions are couched in multi-hour or even multi-day group classes, often lead by an established writer or editor. An intensive class is generally offered either just before or just after the regular conference offerings, and usually entail an extra charge over and above the regular conference registration fee, so do double-check before you register.

Intensive sessions usually concentrate on a short excerpt — the first chapter is a common choice — or require participants to write fresh material in class. Again, if feedback on material already in hand is your goal, check.

The professional assessment. Sometimes these are group endeavors where a dozen people will sit and confer with an agent, editor, or established author, but they are more commonly one-on-one. Almost invariably, though, these sessions are touted as a big selling point for a conference.

Attendees are invited to submit a short manuscript excerpt — usually the first 5-20 pages, although some conferences will allow an entire chapter — which the agent, editor, etc. will undertake to read prior to the meeting. The feedback is usually quite a bit less intensive than what a freelance editor would provide (you’re unlikely, for instance, to receive commentary on particular lines of text), but if you’re looking for an uninterrupted five-minute conversation about how a professional reader like Millicent might respond to your opening pages, this can be a terrific place to start.

The pitch meeting. Pitch meetings rarely involve anyone reading manuscript pages and giving feedback on them, but I thought I should include them on this list, as conference brochures sometimes give the (often false) impression that a professional assessment is a pitch opportunity, and vice versa.

At a pitch meeting, a writer gives a verbal presentation to an agent or editor, a sort of verbal query letter, in the hope that the pro will be so taken with the pitch that s/he will request the writer to submit pages for later consideration. Face-to-face pitching is a learned skill, so if you are considering attending a conference where writers have the opportunity to pitch, please take a gander at the PITCHING BASICS category on the list at right.

As you may see, these types of conference-based feedback opportunities differ widely. The trick to benefiting from these sessions is to do your homework before you get there — which is important to know before you start looking for events to attend, since this is homework that generally needs to be done not only before the conference, but before one even signs up to attend it.

Why so far in advance? Well, several reasons. First, as I mentioned above, conferences usually require writers to submit pages for critique well in advance, generally at the time of registration. Sometimes, the deadline for submission is months before the conference, so do try to send in pages that are not likely to change radically in the interim, if the rules allow it. (Most don’t: the first chapter or 10-20 pages plus a synopsis is a fairly standard requirement, as those pages require less set up to follow, by definition.)

Also, since virtually every critique-offering conference fills personalized feedback slots on a first-come, first-served basis, you may have to be speedy to take advantage of this perq. At a conference that offer many critique opportunities, you may be able pull off registering in the month or two immediately prior to the conference, but for the vast majority of such conferences, the number of slots available is in the low double digits. They tend to go fast, so once you’ve picked your conference, register early.

One caveat to bear in mind while you’re conference-searching: as with feedback from critique-offering contests and every other source, the quality of the feedback varies by the experience level of the critiquer — and more specifically, the critiquer’s familiarity with the submitted manuscript’s book category. Even if the scheduled feedback giver has been editing romance at Harlequin for a decade, s/he may not be able to give you insight into why agents have been rejecting your thriller.

As with finding a freelance editor — or an agent, for that matter — fit between the feedback-giver and the manuscript is important. Some conferences randomly assign writers to feedback-givers, but most of the larger conferences will allow registrants to express preferences. Do a bit of background checking before you commit; you’re far, far more likely to walk away from a critique session with feedback you can use if your critiquer has a solid track record in handling your type of book.

Another factor that radically influences the quality of conference-based feedback is how much time the critiquer has actually invested in reading the pieces before commenting upon them. I don’t mean to frighten you, but do be aware that advice clearly based upon barely-skimmed submissions or, even more hurtful, only the first paragraph or two of a chapter-length submission is a perennial complaint voiced by writers attending such feedback sessions, especially those conducted by agents and editors: the habit of simply ceasing to read as soon as they’ve made up their minds about a submission can be pretty firmly ingrained.

Before anyone out there takes umbrage at the notion of paying a conference for this level of feedback — which doesn’t necessarily entail a more solid reading than Millicent might give a first chapter; the difference lies in hearing specifics about why the screener stopped reading — lack of familiarity with the materials to be reviewed is not always the critiquer’s fault. It’s not at all uncommon for critiquers to be culled from the speakers, agents, and editors invited to the conference, some of whom may not receive the pages for critique until they actually arrive at the conference.

Or — brace yourselves — on the day of the meeting.

And yes, this frequently occurs even at conferences that require writers to submit their pages months in advance. Why? Beats me; organizational acumen seems to be wildly unevenly distributed across conference-giving groups. When I’ve inquired about it — say, at a conference where I had been engaged to give such feedback, but did not actually see a syllable of the writing involved until a couple of hours before I was supposed to meet with the people who wrote them — I’ve heard every explanation from shifting schedules to lost paperwork to an elaborately polite insistence that giving me the pages early enough to spend some real time with them would have inconvenienced me.

They didn’t want to impose, they said.

I’ve been on both sides of this particular phenomenon, actually: some years ago, I was in residence at a New England artists’ colony that shall remain nameless. as well-established sculptors and painters dropped by to give emerging artists feedback on their works-in-progress, the colony had taken the trouble to import a famous author or two every couple of weeks to impart wisdom to those treading the earlier steps of the path to greatness.

Or, slightly more cynically, the colony helped supplement the established’s income by offering informal teaching gigs. The first of these authors spent a week on-site and was quite charming, at least to those of us whose work she liked. She read excerpts, gave constructive feedback, helped writers over manuscript difficulties, and even gave a couple of impromptu lectures on craft.

A couple of weeks later, the feedback environment altered considerably. The Living Legend scheduled to shed her effulgence on the residents sent word that she would be arriving a trifle late, but she was reading the excerpts we had submitted to her industriously. One forgives such things in National Book Award winners, naturally. When she arrived late on day 3 of her week-long residence, she announced that she could stay for only a couple of days — the absolute minimum, the cynical speculated, to collect her honorarium for meeting with us — so she wanted to meet with each of us right away.

Practically the moment I walked into my scheduled meeting, she launched into a vigorous diatribe about the inherent weakness of a particular scene. The only trouble was, I hadn’t written the scene that had so upset her sensibilities; the writer with the appointment after mine had. As nearly as I could tell from her tirade, she had decided that I must have written the short story in question — although I do not write short stories — because the character in the story looked a bit like me.

As do hundreds of thousands of adult women of Mediterranean extraction, I might add. But I digress.

It took me several minutes to convince the Grande Dame of Literature that I was telling the truth about who I was and what I had written — and for both of us to realize that she had not yet read my piece at all. Embarrassed for her, I offered to reschedule our appointment on the following day, but she was adamant that she was only prepared to give me (her phrase) an hour of her time. As about 35 minutes of that time had already elapsed, I proposed that we should devote it to chatting about the writing life in general; again, no.

After an intensive five minutes of rooting about in her briefcase, she finally managed to dig up my pages. With a sigh of irritated relief, she plumped herself down to read them in front of me. I sat uncomfortably, marveling at her speed-reading prowess. Fortunately for my ego — or unfortunately; I’ve never been able to decide — she evidently did not find any error glaring enough to point out. I suspect it would have been a relief to her if she had.

After she finished, she glanced up at me warily. “It’s good,” she conceded, clearly cudgeling her well-laureled brains for something constructive to advise.

Having been well brought-up, I waited politely for her to continue — and I must say, I’m still waiting. To fill up the remaining five minutes of our meeting, we chatted about the writing life in general.

I wish I could state positively that La Belle’s behavior was exceptional, but the sad fact is that one hears similar stories about write-your-way-in conferences and artists’ retreats that offer on-site professional feedback from well-established authors as an incentive for writers to apply for residencies. It just goes to show you: not all feedback from professionals is professional feedback, nor will all of it be helpful. But I’m relatively certain that had I not already sought out and received scads of genuinely thoughtful, well-informed critique of my work before I watched the Famous Gentlewoman unsuccessfully trying to critique my work on the fly, I would have been crushed by her lack of professionalism.

The moral: just because someone famous reads your work doesn’t necessarily mean that their feedback is going to be useful; just because a conference brochure touts a critique opportunity doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your manuscript. Do your homework, invest your conference-going dollars carefully — and accept that sometimes, you’re going to encounter a dud. That’s the nature of one-size-fits-all critiquing.

Oh, dear, I meant to spend today’s post recommending conference attendance, not repeatedly hissing, “Caveat emptor,” let the buyer beware. Well, I suppose that’s not a complete surprise in a blog that so frequently cautions caveat lector, let the reader beware.

On that dubious note, I shall sign off for today. More gift-giving tips and general chat about the writing life follow anon. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part VII: a few last words about what professional feedback will actually entail, or, what if a manuscript isn’t practically perfect in every way?

For the last couple of posts, I have been talking about yet another present the legendary Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver might want to consider for the aspiring writers on his list: a few hours’ worth (or a few hundred pages’ worth) of professional editing. As I demonstrated last time, not all freelance editors will be equally good fits for every project, so you will probably want to do a bit of comparison shopping, rather than simply looking for the most feedback for the least money. Because the levels of professional editing are quite different, both in content and in price, it will also behoove you to make sure in advance PRECISELY what services you are buying.

Before you give your FNDGG a subtle hint that your manuscript might appreciate a bit of a post-holiday tune-up, however, and definitely before either of you invest what can be quite a bit of money in the editing process, I would definitely advise pausing to give some thought to not only what services you want to buy, but why you want to buy them.

Or, to put it another way, as a writer, what precisely do you you want to get out of the experience? Other than to be picked up by an agent and/or sell the book to a publisher immediately after taking the freelancer’s advice, of course.

Actually, you should be wary if a freelancer promises that — or anything that implies such a promise. Reputable editors are very, very careful in describing how a manuscript might benefit from their assistance. Since freelance editors stand outside the agency and publishing house, none of us can legitimately make promises that any specific advice we give will unquestionably result in landing an agent or eventual publication.

And if you encounter anyone who tells you otherwise, run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit. As on the Internet, if an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Let the buyer beware.

While I’m waving the warning flag, you should also be wary if an agency demands that writers shell out for professional editing reports as a condition of considering the manuscript, or charges for in-house editing, or if an agent responds to a submission by telling a writer not only that the manuscripts needs professional editing, but only from a specific editing company. All of these can be signs that the agency makes its money not by selling its clients’ books, but through payments from aspiring writers, not a good sign. (For more on how to tell a fee-charging agency from a non-fee-charging one, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category on the list at right.)

Back to the business at hand: what, you’re probably wondering at this point, can a freelance editor legitimately offer you?

Well, among other things, perhaps answers about why a submission boasting a really good premise and good writing has been getting rejected. Remember, most manuscripts are rejected within the first page or two, for reasons that might not be apparent to the lay reader. A professional reader well versed in the writing norms of a particular book category or genre can often give substantial insight into how to tweak a manuscript to avoid pitfalls.

Call me zany, but I suspect that there are many, many aspiring writers out there who would like to be told if a fixable problem is triggering all of those form-letter rejections that don’t specify what went wrong.

(Are you listening, Furtive NDGG? You’ve already checked that list twice; leave it alone and pay attention.)

To bolster the egos I felt sagging during the last few paragraphs: not having some magical internal sensor that tells one just what the problem is most emphatically not a reflection upon one’s writing talent. Spotting a manuscript’s weaknesses is usually a matter of experience, pure and simple.

Here, a professional reader has a jump on the average writer. Agents and editors don’t read like everyone else, and neither do good freelance editors. Our eyes are trained to jump on problems like…well, insert any predator-prey analogy you like here.

The point is, we’re fast, and our aim is deadly.

Since manuscripts are now expected to be completely publication-ready by the time they reach an agent’s desk — although they are frequently revised afterward — getting professional feedback can be exceptionally helpful in whipping your work into publishable shape. Contrary to widespread belief amongst the aspiring, there is more to being publishable than merely being a good story well-written.

Which is why, as I mentioned yesterday, you’re going to want to find an editor with experience working with books in your category, if you are going to invest in editing more complex than proofreading. An editor familiar with the tropes, structures, and market trends in your book’s category is going to be able to help you better than one who does not.

You want to be able to trust the feedback you get, don’t you?

While I’m on the subject of trust, and since today is apparently my day of dire-sounding warnings, I should put the Furtive NDGGs out there on the qui vive: like editors at publishing houses, agents, and other professional readers, good freelance editors have to be quite explicit about what is wrong with a manuscript in order to do their jobs well. Writers new to having their work edited are often astounded, and even hurt, by just HOW straightforward professional feedback can be.

Think about that very, very carefully before you give this particular present.

Really, any writer contemplating hiring a professional editor should give some thought to just how much honesty s/he actually wants. Like an agent or editor at a publishing house, a good freelance editor is not going to pull any punches — amongst those who work with manuscripts for a living, it’s considered downright silly to beat around the bush. The manner of conveying the information may be kind, but if any of them believe that a particular writing issue is going to harm your book’s market prospects, they are going to tell you so point-blank.

That is, after all, what they are being paid to do.

That may seem self-evident, but in practice, seeing one’s own manuscript carved up by a pro can be pretty nerve-wracking. Obviously, if a writer is going to be given necessary critique, it’s quite a bit less traumatic to hear it from an editor whose job it is to help improve it than from an agent who is rejecting the book, but if one is not prepared to be told that a book has problems, it’s bound to be upsetting no matter who says it.

This response is, of course, completely understandable. Serious manuscript feedback generally isn’t fun even when it’s free and/or eagerly solicited. While the brain may understand that critique is a good idea, the emotions often hold the opposite opinion. Even authors with years of experience in accepting professional feedback have been known to become a trifle upset when told to alter their manuscripts.

Going into the editing process aware that the point of it is to ferret out manuscript problems, and as such is bound to be upsetting, then, tends to make it easier on the writer. Conversely, someone who approaches the process primarily seeking ego reassurance from someone in the biz that his work is fine as it stands is almost invariably going to be disappointed — and probably rather angry as well.

Did I sense some guffawing out there? “Oh, come on, Anne,” some self-confident sorts scoff. “We’re talking about writers who are willing to pay a professional editor to give them feedback. Isn’t it safe to assume that anyone likely to do that actually wants honest, well-informed critique? You make it sound as though there are aspiring writers who go to all of the trouble and expense of hiring a freelancer purely because they want to be told that their manuscripts are, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, oh guffawing scoffers, but isn’t that precisely what pretty much every writer currently wandering the earth’s crust wants to hear about his or her own work, subconsciously, at least? After all, most of us write in the hope and expectation that someone will pay US to read our work, not that we will need to pay someone to read it.

The result: pretty much every freelance editor who has been at it a while will have at least one story about the writer who showed up swearing that he wanted no-holds-barred, professional-level feedback — and then freaked out the instant he got it, because he hadn’t expected to be told to change his manuscript.

Oh, you may laugh, but actually, taking the fruits of the editorial process personally — whether the feedback comes from a freelance editor, an agent or publishing house, the essential pattern’s tends to be same — is a notoriously common writerly response to a first brush with professional feedback. Before anyone rushes to judge those who react this way, the hurt usually stems not from rampant egomania or even (as folks in the industry not infrequently diagnose it) from a frantic possessiveness over one’s precious arrangement of words.

No, in my experience, it usually stems from something far more easily fixed: a confluence of unrealistic expectations about how authors are typically treated and not understanding that the industry views criticism as an impersonal means of improving the marketability of a manuscript.

I am reminded of M.F.K. Fisher’s story about being solicited to write a preface for a charity cookbook — you know, one of those collections of recipes that were so popular as fundraisers in the 1970s, in which well-to-do local matron share the secrets behind their potluck-famous pineapple upside-down cakes and tuna surprise. The cookbook’s editors, both volunteers, came to visit Fisher, a neighbor of theirs, in the hope that having a big-name food writer attached to their compilation of local recipes would make the book sell better. It was, they told her, for a good cause, so she donated her expertise.

Well (the story goes), Fisher very kindly took the draft book from them and had a good, professional look through it. Without missing a beat, she instantly began barking out everything that was wrong with the book: poor editing, meandering writing, abundant redundancies.

All of the things, in short, that professional writers and editors automatically flag in a manuscript.

When she paused for breath, she noticed that the amateur editors were not gratefully taking notes. Instead, they were dissolved in tears. From their non-professional standpoint, Fisher had been hugely, gratuitously, deliberately mean, whereas from a professional point of view, she had been paying them the huge (and possibly undeserved) compliment of taking their project seriously.

Yes, yes, I know: by this logic, the person eaten by a lion should be flattered by the lion’s impression that he tastes good. But as I have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about ‘em.

The fact is, from a professional perspective, whitewashing an editorial opinion about a manuscript is a waste of everyone’s time. In a freelance editor’s feedback, it would border on unethical.

For those of you who think that this mindset sounds like a pretty fine reason to steer clear of anyone who might be tempted or empowered to pay this particular stripe of compliment, let me hasten to add: the ability to take criticism well is a highly valuable professional skill for writers; in the long run, you will be much, much happier if develop it as part of your tool kit.

Your dream agent, I assure you, will just assume that you have already have it up your sleeve. This is precisely why your dream agent should not be the first human being to set eyes on your work.

If you do not have experience rolling with harsh-but-true feedback, it is well worth your while to join a very critical writing group, or take a writing class from a real dragon, or (why didn’t I think of this before?) show some of your work to a freelance editor, before you send your work to an agent.

Trust me, it is much, much easier to accept suggestions on how to revise your work gracefully when your critiquer is NOT the person who is going to decide whether to take you on as a client or acquire your book. The stakes are lower, so it’s less stressful by far.

Getting used to the feedback experience alone is a pretty good reason to run at least part of your manuscript — say, the first 50 pages — across a freelance editor’s desk; that way, you can learn just how touchy you are at base, and work on developing the vital-for-authors skill of responding constructively, rather than with anger. Since, again, the stakes are lower, even if the critique makes you see red for a month, you can afford to take the time to blow your stack privately without running afoul of an agent- or editor-induced deadline.

Hey, that’s how published authors usually handle it.

Which brings me to my final piece of advice on the subject: if you are brand-new to textual feedback, or if the potential cost of having all 542 pages of your baby edited makes your head spin, there’s no earthly reason that you need to jump into professional-level feedback with both feet right off the bat. (I’m sure I could have mixed a few more metaphors there, but you catch my drift, I’m sure.)

Consider starting with the first chapter, or the first few chapters, and working up from there. Or even just your query letter, synopsis, or any other material an agent may have asked you to submit.

This may sound as though I’m advising you to feed yourself to a school of piranha one toe at a time, but hear me out. One of the toughest lessons that every successful writer has to learn is that, regardless of how much we may wish it otherwise, agents don’t pick up books simply because someone wrote them. Nor do publishing houses offer contracts to books primarily because their authors really, really feel strongly about them.

These are the first steps to becoming a professional author, but they are not the only ones. The pros learn not only to write, but to rewrite — and yes, to take some pretty stark criticism in stride in the process. Not because having one’s words dissected is fun on a personal level, but because that is what the business side of this business expects from the creative side.

Seeing your book in print is worth learning to live with that, isn’t it? The alternative, pretending that a manuscript that keeps getting rejected is already practically perfect in every way, may be appealing in the short run, but in the long run can prove a formidable stumbling-block on the already quite bumpy road to publication.

Next time, I shall try to wrap up my series on gifts for writers. After that, perhaps, I shall indulge in some discussion about gifts writers can give to themselves. Speaking of which, lest the less well-heeled out there have been gnawing on their nails throughout the last few posts, wishing that professional feedback were within their reach right now, don’t despair: I shall soon be talking about ways in which writers can scare up some genuinely useful feedback gratis. It requires investing more time and effort than simply paying a good freelance editor, of course, but it is definitely doable.

Whichever route you choose, stay warm, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part VI: what to find out before you shell out the dosh

It’s a mite stormy here in Seattle, the most snow, the old-timers and local talking heads say, since the 1970s. My lights keep flickering, and most of my neighbors seem to be either sledding or sloshing their way back from trips on foot to stock up on cat food and peanut butter. (My new office set up has a spectacular view of the environs.) Is it me, or did some great cruise director in the sky suddenly decree that ’tis not the season for shopping for non-necessities?

Myself, I’ve been running only frivolous errands, on general principle. In the face of semi-hysterical admonitions from state Department of Transportation officials, begging everyone who possibly can to stay far, far away from anything that remotely resembles a road, my SO and I have felt downright brave to have been out and about to meet friends for brunch. The restaurant was so empty that the hostess practically burst into tears when we walked in, and the manager declared that happy hour had been extended to the entire day.

I’m as pleased as anyone to be regaled with half-price crab-and-artichoke dip, but I couldn’t help but wonder what these days on end of Seattlites staying home meant for the local economy. Was everyone who intended to purchase last-minute presents wrapped up in blankets at home, huddled over computer terminals and praying that somewhere out there was a company that would deliver through the proverbial sleet, snow, and dark of night? Or were folks just throwing up their hands and returning the wrapping paper to storage until next year?

Let me tell you, it made me feel pretty smug for having spent yesterday’s post on a present that not only can consist of a handwritten card saying that the giver intends to pay for X amount of freelance editing for the recipient, but probably should, because this is the type of present a writer will want to pick out for herself.

For those of you scratching your heads, wondering what on earth I’m talking about, last time, I suggested to the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver — and anyone else who might be biting his or her nails, wondering what to give loved ones that would not involve braving half a foot of snow to purchase — that some freelance editing might make an unusual-but-useful gift for the writer in one’s life. (To forestall suspicions of self-interest here: my client list is already full for 2009. The book doctor is, therefore, out.)

But not just any editorial service from any editor will do: a savvy writer will want to pick one with an extensive background working with a specific type of book.

Why? Well, since writing norms vary quite a bit amongst book categories, and what is and isn’t considered a cliché can vary even more, good developmental editors usually overtly specialize in certain types of books, far more than line editors or proofreaders do. But the fact is, even if they do not advertise themselves that way, almost any editor with experience will have developed at least a genre preference over time.

As I mentioned yesterday, while any good editor can make a manuscript conform to the overarching rules of English grammar, substantive or developmental editing — or even heavy copyediting — writing advice from someone with a truly firm grounding in the SPECIFIC expectations for YOUR type of book is going to be of more practical use to you.

So it’s a good idea to check in advance whether the freelancer you’re considering has experience with your type of manuscript, regardless of the level of editing needed. Or, for that matter, any philosophies of editing or reading habits that may conflict with your notion of what the book should be.

And that, my friends, is going to entail asking a few pointed questions.

A word to the wise: determining this is going to require some conversation with potential freelancers, either by phone or via e-mail (a better idea, as you will have a written record of the terms discussed), and I assure you, you will be much, much, MUCH happier during that conversation if you have already given some serious thought to what you want to get out of the editor-author relationship.

While most freelancers will be thrilled with the novelty of a potential client whose opening line is more complex than, “Um, I need an editor; what do you charge?” the conversation will go more smoothly if you (or Santa, if this is a gift, although I recommend leaving the final choice of editor up to the writer) have a few specific pieces of information already at your fingertips. Heck, you might even want to include them in the initial e-mail:

1. What’s the book’s category?
Yes, I am talking about the same information you would include in a query letter, pitch, or on your title page. As in a query letter or pitch, subsequent conversation with a freelance editor tends to be more productive if you stick to the established book categories, rather than a seven-page synopsis. (If you’re unfamiliar with the hows and whys of selecting a book category, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section on the list at right.)

Why use the professional designation, and why should you mention it first? To save yourself time, mostly : if a reputable freelance editor is approached to work on a type of book he’s never edited before, or with which he has scant experience, or which he doesn’t even like to read in his spare time, he will say so up front.

2. What level of editing are you seeking?
Professional editing services range from simple proofreading (to catch spelling and grammatical errors, period) to line editing (for formatting, consistency, sense, and to avoid repetition) to developmental editing (in-depth diagnosis the manuscript’s problems, taking into account current market trends). I went over the different levels yesterday; for further pondering directions, my editors’ guild has an excellent page of tips on how to find the right level of editing for you.

Sometimes, aspiring writers will want an editor to read the entire manuscript and write the equivalent of an editorial memo at a publishing house, giving very general advice about what needs to be changed. While there are editors who do this, experienced ones tend not to offer this service, for the simple reason that it’s a pretty time-consuming enterprise: to make a profit at it without rendering a read-through prohibitively expensive, a pro would have to skim — not the best level of reading for catching serious problems.

3. How many pages is the manuscript?
We’re talking about pages in standard format, of course — and in case anyone’s forgotten, that’s double-spaced, single-sided pages in 12-point font with 1-inch margins AND two spaces after each period. Most good editors will not consider working with single-spaced manuscripts.

The reason any editor will want to know the length immediately is to make quick mental calculations about how long it will take to edit. (PS: with pretty much any level of editing, your adhering closely to the rules of standard format in the manuscript will make it less time-consuming — and thus less expensive, typically — to edit.)

3a. How much of the manuscript would you like edited?
While most seekers of professional feedback prefer to have an editor take a gander at an entire work, that’s not the only option. It’s not a bad idea to start with only the first few chapters, to get a feel for the experience — or, if funds are tight, only the first chapter.

4. When you would like the editing to be completed?
If your first instinct is to answer, “Why, right away, of course,” do be aware that an experienced editor with a good reputation will often be booked up months in advance. Some freelancers will build flexibility into their schedules to accommodate rush projects, but a 20%-30% rush fee is fairly standard for this piece of convenience.

Why? Well, unscheduled projects with ultra-quick turnarounds often require editors to inconvenience other clients and/or work double shifts.

It is worth your while to plan in advance. So if you wanted your FNDGG to give you editing assistance on a contest entry that is due, say, in mid-February and wanted to avoid a rush fee, you should be approaching editors now, not in early February.

4a. Is there currently an externally-imposed deadline hanging over this project, in addition to your desired turn-around time?
You’d be AMAZED at how often editing clients neglect to mention that their agents are expecting a revised draft by the end of the month, or that they intend to enter the first chapter of the manuscript in a contest three weeks from now. Being up front with this information will render it easier for the editor to help you meet your deadlines.

5. How would you prefer to receive feedback?
Unless you are seeking only the most basic proofreading, a reputable freelance editor will not make her suggested corrections directly in your soft copy; since most editorial feedback results in considerable revision, doing so could raise ethical problems or even questions about who actually wrote any given sentence. Thus, a freelance editor will want to give you feedback so that you may make the suggested revisions.

Specify whether you would prefer feedback on hard copy (usually a little cheaper, if the editor charges by the hour) or as parenthetical comments on a computer document. Do be prepared for the editor to insist upon the former, since it is so easy to transfer computer viruses through attachments.

If the editor works in hard copy, expect to print it out yourself, rather than e-mailing it and having the editor print it for you.

5a. If you plan to submit in soft copy, what kind of word processing program do you use, with what operating system?
This is important to include, for the sake of attachments. The industry standard is MS Word, so you should definitely tell a potential editor up front if you use anything else.

It’s NEVER a good idea to assume that anyone who deals in manuscripts for a living — and this includes agents and editors at publishing houses — is using the same operating system you are. To minimize the probability of translation problems, save Word documents in Rich Text Format before sending them. (It’s one of the format choices under the SAVE AS… menu.)

6. What is the manuscript’s submission history?
Has it been seen by many agents? Publishing houses? A particularly vicious writers’ group? No one but your dear old white-headed mother?

Having this information up front will assist the editor in assessing what your manuscript needs and answering your questions, as well as giving you a common language to discuss the project in question. (Not to mention making the freelancer think spontaneously, “Oh, thank goodness: this one isn’t vague. What a welcome change!” )

7. Do you have any specific goals in mind for your next revision?
If you feel you need to chop 200 pages from your 600-page manuscript, this is the time to mention it. Ditto if you seek to make your manuscript fit more comfortably to your chosen book category, are trying to render it more marketable to agents, or have had agents tell you your premise is implausible.

8. Will you also want the editor to help you polish your query letter and/or synopsis, or to suggest agents who might be interested in this particular book?
Not all freelancers will do any of the above, but it’s worth asking if it’s a possibility.

Seems like a lot to think about before approaching a pro, doesn’t it? Well, it is — but if I have one principle in life, it’s not to waste the time of people who charge by the hour.

During your preliminary interactions, you’re going to want to ask questions, too. Your goal here should be to elicit enough information to make substantive (and not merely cost-based) distinctions between the editors you’re interviewing, so get specific with the questions. Some good ones to get you started:

1. Does the freelancer have a genre specialty?

2. How much experience does s/he have with your book category?

3. What does s/he read for fun?

4. What is her average turn-around time for a book-length project?

5. Does s/he write in the margins, or prefer giving feedback electronically, in the text itself?

6. Does s/he provide a write-up about the book instead or in addition to marginalia?

7. Does s/he charge extra for follow-up questions? (Most pros do.)

8. Does s/he require a deposit to reserve time in advance, and what is his or her policy on refunds if a pre-scheduled project is canceled? Will there be any additional charge if you need to push back your scheduled manuscript delivery date?

Ask, too, about her availability. Don’t be surprised if she’s booked a few months in advance; although there are sometimes last-minute cancellations, the more experience an editor has, generally speaking, the less likely a brand-new client is to be able to book her time within the next month.

Rest assured, none of this is pushy; it’s is perfectly acceptable to ask a potential editor about her background, methodology, and policies. If she’s brand-new to editing, these questions may surprise her, but most of this information is standard first-meeting stuff.

Don’t be surprised if the editor who sounds like a great fit suddenly turns a bit cagey on the subject of references. It may not be by choice: it’s not uncommon for published authors and even merely the agented to be rather secretive about using the services of a freelance editor.

I’m quite serious about this: my work is hardly sub rosa, given how much I write about it here, but some of my clients’ agents and publishers would be fairly astonished to learn of my existence. Some published authors don’t even thank their personal editors in their acknowledgments.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to find out how experienced any editor you approach actually is, particularly in the current slow economy: published authors with no editorial experience whatsoever do occasionally out their shingles as book doctors. Sometimes, these folks are talented feedback-givers, but do be aware that the mere fact of having a book or story in print doesn’t necessarily guarantee that.

Why? Well, think about it: since the published generally have agents and editors looking over their manuscripts, telling them what to change, they may not have much experience editing even their own work. And as any professional editor, freelance or otherwise, would me more than happy to tell you in confidence, plenty of books come to publication only after a whole lot of in-house editorial assistance.

Instead of requesting references, consider asking if she would edit 5 or 10 pages as a work sample before you commit to a longer project. Most freelancers will do this happily, given sufficient advance notice, but do expect to pay full price for their time. (For a glimpse at average rates nationally, click here.)

An editing sample will give you considerably more information about how the editor works — and, after all, fit between editor and client is EXTREMELY important. An editor — freelance or otherwise — not familiar with the norms of your book category can actually harm your end product, and since everyone gives feedback slightly differently, it will save you both time and money in the long run if you do some comparison shopping to find someone who can give you professional-level feedback in the manner that will be easiest for you to incorporate it into your book.

It’s also a rather straightforward way for the shy to gain a sense of precisely how any given editor likes to approach a manuscript, what services he provides, and how much each part of it will cost. It’s worth your time to make some rate comparisons, if only to find what the local prevailing rates are.

Do be prepared, though, to pay the local market rates for what you expect to get, not only because it is fair, but also because many experienced freelancers will walk away from a negotiation if they feel that a potential client is trying to haggle down to the very last second. (Since post-service haggling is not unheard-of, most freelance editors require clients to sign a contract.)

If you encounter a freelancer who seems to be charging too little, be wary. An inexperienced editor might well not be aware yet how long giving feedback can take, and thus under-price himself — but a low price may also be an indication of an experienced editor who habitually gives minimal feedback, relying on volume to make a living. At both ends of the spectrum, then, it makes a great deal of sense to ask for a very specific indication of what to expect from the feedback.

If you’re genuinely not sure what the kind of editing you would like to receive should cost, consider posting your project on a freelance editors’ association’s job board and asking for bids. (The Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild has a dandy job board, very easy to use.) Be sure to include the full list of preliminary information above (okay, you can save the bit about how much you’ve shopped the book around until a later communication), and don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions of those who respond.

Do I hear some put-upon sighs out there? “But Anne,” some harried souls cry, “isn’t the point of this to make my life EASIER? Tracking down a good freelance editor sounds like almost as much work as pulling together a list of agents to query!”

Well, not quite, but admittedly, finding the right editor for you may take a bit of searching beyond just checking who charges what, or even what credentials various candidates have. It involves taking the time to find an editor who loves your kind of book and who has the skills to make your manuscript the best it can possibly be.

Ultimately, though, a good fit is worth the effort. When it comes right down to it, your work is too important to go into ANY critique relationship blindly. Just as you don’t want any random agent to represent you, regardless of sales record, trust me, you don’t want just ANY freelance editor to advise you about your book. (Or just any writers’ group, for that matter.)

Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit about why enlisting a pro’s help might be a good idea, along with some indication of what you should and shouldn’t expect. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part V: the dreaded e-word



I was going to end my sneakily double-edged series on gifts to give writers (and gifts writers can give themselves that might help them, you know, WRITE) this weekend with a high-minded lecture about the value of freeing up time for that noble endeavor. However, it occurred to me in the dead of night that my book doctoring business is booked up far enough in advance at this point that I can talk about a really, really nice present that writers might like — and which, like the other tidbits I have so far mentioned, might actually help their careers in the long run — without the appearance of devolving into self-promotion.

So please pay attention, Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: today’s post will give you some pointers on how to go about purchasing some freelance editing.

Why might a talented writer be pleased to receive a touch of professional feedback? To put it bluntly, because the vast majority of aspiring writers create in a vacuum, free of any feedback at all, or at any rate free of useful feedback that might prepare a manuscript for the microscopic-level scrutiny a successful book must undergo before landing an agent or publishing contract. Getting the professional opinion of someone well-versed in both the ins and outs of good writing and the vagaries of a particular book category BEFORE subjecting it to the scathing, hyper-critical eye of an agent, editor, or contest judge can save a writer a whole lot of heartache — and sometimes speed up the agent-finding stage of a career considerably.

Which is precisely why this is an area where a non-writer gift-giver, or even a writer who has never worked with an editor before, could usually use a bit of guidance. To the uninitiated, finding the right freelance editor, as opposed to just some yahoo with a green pencil and a desire to tell other people what to do, can be a tad on the difficult side.

Translation: this is not the kind of service for which an eager FNDGG can simply spend 15 minutes online purchasing a gift certificate. Few freelance editors issue formal gift certificates — although it’s an interesting idea. However, I don’t know a single one who would turn down an editing job just because someone other than the author proposes to pay for it.

This means, unfortunately for those who like genuine surprises to await them under a certain well-lit and -decorated tree, that this is the kind of present that a writer is almost certainly going to want to pick out for herself.

Did I just hear some of my long-time readers groaning? Yes, you’re quite right: I AM about to say that just as not every agent is the best fit for any given book, neither is every editor. Nor, more to the point and contrary to what some book doctors promise, is every freelance editor.

Note the distinction: an editor and a freelance editor are most emphatically not the same thing.

An editor, generally speaking, works for a publishing house and is, often, the person responsible for acquiring books for the house to publish. While this role usually entails writing the editorial memo requesting pre-publication changes to the manuscript, an editor will not necessarily line-edit: at a large publisher, correcting the grammar and flagging problems with flow is the province of the copyeditor, who typically doesn’t get her mitts on the pages until after the requested editorial changes have already been made.

I just heard hundreds of jaws hitting the floor simultaneously, didn’t I? Not too surprising: the common conception of editing is not most of what your garden-variety editor does.

Some do still prefer to do their own copyediting, of course, but for the most part, the editor concentrates on big-picture issues and shepherding the book through the sometimes quite bumpy road to publication.

Hey, somebody’s got to encourage the marketing and the production departments to communicate about your book, right?

A freelance editor, on the other hand, typically works for the author, helping get the book ready for submission. For the record, freelance editors do not acquire books — so those of you out there who persist in sending me pitches for books in the hope I will publish them, cut it out, please — nor do we, unless specifically requested, edit toward a particular publisher’s likes and dislikes.

A good freelancer who specializes in your book category can, however, show you how to make a manuscript appeal to what’s selling in that market now. Sometimes this is merely a matter of proofreading; sometimes it is a matter of radical reconstruction. What is required varies from manuscript to manuscript, book category to book category, and sometimes even targeted agent to targeted agent.

We’ve also been known to assist authors in implementing the editor’s sweeping requests by a specified, often very tight deadline, but mostly, freelance editors do what agents and editors at publishing houses used to do routinely: dig into manuscripts up to our elbows to root out problems and suggest practical means to render books better able to survive in the current super-competitive market.

Think of a freelance editor as a consultant who can give tips on whipping a book into market shape. Or, at the more intense levels of the biz, as a diagnostician who can figure out why a particular manuscript has been getting rejected. There’s good reason that the super-particular ones like me are known as book doctors.

Like other types of doctors, the more intensive the remedy required, the more likely experienced freelance editors are to specialize — which is why just opening the Yellow Pages to editing and calling the first business listed, doing a generic online search, or bidding because a particular editing service is going for cheap on eBay is probably not going to You wouldn’t want a dentist to take out your appendix, would you?

Be warned, however: what such services cost can vary quite a bit, depending upon what a particular manuscript needs. Straightforward proofreading tends to be quite inexpensive, because it’s relatively speedy for an experienced editor to do; expect to pay in the neighborhood of $3-5/page.

Line editing (also known as copyediting) is all about clarity and presentation, and is thus a great choice for a writer unfamiliar with the norms of submission or in question about grammar. Line editing involves both proofreading AND giving advice on how to rearrange sentences and paragraphs to maximize readability, so it takes far more time to do.

And that, believe it or not, is the good news.

Why? Well, a good editor will read and reread compulsively, remembering that on page 272 that you used that same phrase on page 28. Since this type of manuscript problem is virtually impossible for a writer to catch for himself, and since agents, editors, and contest judges tend to have similarly retentive memories for text, a freelancer’s compulsion to spend a few extra minutes keeping track of repetitions may be exceptionally useful.

The less-good news is that how much line editing any given manuscript needs varies almost infinitely, so even the best freelance editor may need to give the book a once-over before even being able to give you an estimate. However, to keep your from wandering around in the dark unassisted, the Editorial Freelancers Association has a nifty chart that will give you some indication of hourly rates for different services.

The stated rates aren’t binding, mind you, but it will at least give your FNDGG some indication of what he’s committing himself to shell out.

Developmental editing is the top of the product line, as it were, beginning at around $45/hour and climbing to much, much more, depending upon the editor’s experience, client list, and willingness to drop everything to counsel writers through midnight crises of faith. Typically, it encompasses both proofing and line editing, but also entails working with the author to correct overarching writing problems and refining the book on every level to tailor it to its intended target market.

And that, you guessed it, can take quite a bit of time, depending on how market-ready the manuscript already is. A good developmental editor will flag anything and everything in a manuscript that might conceivably make an agent or editor familiar with the book category hesitate for even a moment over the page. With that level of scrutiny, it’s not unusual to give feedback on practically every line of the book , so a developmental editor sometimes will spend hours on a single page.

Yes, you read that correctly. I wasn’t kidding about its being spendy. I sometimes blush when printing out my invoices.

Ideally, a developmental editor would come into the project near the beginning of the writing process, but in practice, the author often has a draft already completed. The more fundamental the changes you’re willing to make, generally speaking, the more you’ll like working with a developmental editor: it’s the closest a writer without a book contract in hand can come to the micro-level reading a manuscript will get before being picked up by a publisher.

As I MAY have mentioned once or twice before, agents and editors don’t read like other people: they read line by line, at least for the early parts of a submission, their little antennae alert for red flags. An experienced developmental editor can teach you how to keep those antennae happily swinging in the passing breeze.

Oh, then there’s substantive editing, which falls between line editing and developmental editing in both content and price. It, too, involves massaging a manuscript until the potential problems fall out. However, while a developmental editor will typically make all kinds of suggestions about different directions in which a particular scene could be taken, a strictly substantive editor will only work with what is already there.

To put it another way, a substantive editor comments on what is; a developmental editor works to make a book what it could be.

The line between the two sounds kind of slippery in theory, doesn’t it? I assure you, that’s only because the distinction is nebulous in practice. Many editor-seeking writers who begin looking for a substantive edit end up wanting — or needing — developmental services, so substantive is not a category every freelance editor recognizes.

Confused? I’d be surprised if you weren’t. Happily, my editors’ guild has been kind enough to post a blow-by-blow of the differences between the levels of editing for your dining, dancing, and comparison-shopping pleasure.

Given the broad range of services (and pricetags) available, it would behoove a writer thinking about hiring a freelance editor (or a Furtive NDGG thinking about doing so for someone else) to give some serious thought to the level and specificity of feedback a manuscript really needs. After all, if you just want to know that your book is free of grammatical and spelling problems, it doesn’t make sense to shell out for developmental editing — but if your manuscript has the literary equivalent of whooping cough, a simple proofing is not going to make that cough go away.

Do I see some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you cry, “I’ve never gotten professional feedback before. How can I tell what level of editing my book needs?”

Good question, disembodied voices, but shouldn’t you be off caroling somewhere? Isn’t it getting to be eggnog time in your part of the world?

In short, I’ll tackle the thorny issue tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part IV: research and other tools you can use to narrow (and, ideally, shorten) your agent search

For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about the strategic desirability of keeping abreast of what’s being published lately in the book category in which one has chosen to write — in particular, what first-time authors in your area are managing to get into print these days. While what hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble last week isn’t necessarily an infallible indicator of what agents and editors want to see right now — it’s often a year or two between a manuscript’s sale to a publisher and when it comes out, and often a year or several before that when that manuscript got picked up by an agent, so what’s new at B&N is reflective of what these discerning folks wanted then — reading the current releases can give you a strong general sense of what these folks consider good writing in your genre.

Besides, how else are you going to figure out how your book is different and better than what’s already out there, an essential set of information for pulling together a stellar query, pitch, or book proposal, if you aren’t familiar with what iS already out there?

Gaining familiarity with, say, the last five years’ worth of first releases in your category will also enable you to glean a working impression of what’s old hat and what’s hot, what might be considered fresh and what just weird in a new submission. Agents see a LOT of queries and submissions that seem derivative of the latest bestseller in a book category — or, even more commonly, a bestseller from two, five, or even ten years ago. And the sad thing is, in many of these cases, the submitting writer didn’t even borrow on purpose; they just knew so little about the current market for that category that they thought the bestseller was the category.

Don’t laugh — plenty of writers stumble into seeming derivative by accident. Independently writing a book that’s very, very similar to something that’s hit the market and failing to mention its uncanny resemblance to that book is a mistake that’s scuttled many a good query.

Or, to put it as uncharitably as critics as long ago as Samuel Johnson (who probably didn’t actually say this; it’s been attributed to a whole lot of editors over the years) have: “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that’s good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

Ouch.

Frankly, it used to be easier for fledgling writers to follow their respective markets than it is now. We hear about the potential bestsellers, of course, but smaller books garner less attention than in days of yore. Publishing houses have been cutting down on promotion in recent years, particularly of first books, and many newspapers have been cutting way back or even eliminating their book review sections.

Why, I read only the other day that even National Public Radio is planning on cutting one of its fine book-discussion shows. When even NPR and PBS start to doubt the future of the book, the barbarians are not only at the writer’s gate; they’ve pulled up chairs and are sharing our dinner.

Now, I happen to believe in the future of the book — yes, even the book that isn’t a bestseller. Mid-list books, the ones that sold not spectacularly but consistently, used to be considered the backbone of the industry, after all. I just think — and admittedly, this is a lulu of a just — that the combination of a slow economy and the rise of the Internet means that the traditional means of selling books aren’t working as well as they have in the past.

But that doesn’t mean that the book is dead; it’s perfectly obvious that people haven’t simply stopped reading, any more than folks like us have stopped writing. The rise of the blogosphere alone proves that. Publishers are going to need to figure out new ways to convince readers to buy their products — or to change how readers pay for it. (There have been some exciting experiments lately in sponsorship for serialized e-books, for instance.)

While they’re figuring that out, I’ve a modest proposal: the English-speaking world is rife with aspiring writers, and the vast majority of us are inveterate readers. Millions of us. We may not be able to change profitability trends by ourselves or overnight, but if all of us bumped up our book-buying habits just a little and kept at it, the cumulative effect could be considerable.

Or, to put it bluntly: if you want to live in a world where it’s profitable to sell books, buy some. And if you want to live in a world where publishers, and thus agents, are willing to take chances on first-time authors of books like yours, buy books like yours by first-time authors.

Admittedly, however, this practice can add up into some serious dosh pretty fast — which is why, in case you were wondering, so many professional writers regard buying recent releases in their own books’ categories as market research, a legitimate business expense, and claim it as such on their Schedule Cs. (Word of warning: I am not a qualified tax advisor and I don’t know your particular situation, so do have a nice chat with someone who is and does — ideally, someone with experience in artists’ taxes — before you start deducting anything.)

So why not, as I have been suggesting for some days now, place the relevant volumes on your wish list so that those who are just aching to buy you presents (like, say, our old pal, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver) can help float those authors’ boats, too? Everybody wins — including you, because it’s just about the least costly means of getting your mittens on the books you really should be reading in order to market your writing effectively.

But enough of the more depressing reasons that investing in books in your category is a good idea. Let’s move hastily on to another, more immediately practical reason to get in touch with one’s submarket and remain so, one much dearer to the hearts of most agent-seekers than any I mentioned yesterday.

It’s a great way to identify agents to query. Better than that, it’s also a great way to find out what warms a particular agent’s heart.

Because while, as I spent the late summer and early fall arguing in this very forum that there’s no such thing as a query or submission that will please every single agent on the planet, there is substantial empirical evidence that every agent on the planet is at least a little bit flattered by queries that begin,

Since you so successfully represented Unknown Author’s recent novel, FIRST BOOK, I hope you will be interested in my novel, PROJECT I’VE BEEN WORKING ON FOR A DECADE…

Obviously, to pull of this particular bit of strategic flattery, it helps to be familiar with Unknown Author’s work. If only there were a way to do that…oh, wait; I’ve just spent the last couple of days discussing that very issue.

Fortuitous, eh?

Note that I’m suggesting mentioning a less-known or first-time author upon whom the agent took a chance, rather than merely finding out who an agent’s best-selling client is and praising her to the skies. They are far likely to be buttered up, I’ve found, by mentions of novels them may have struggled to sell than by similar references to their better-established clients.

It’s not very difficult to use this pervasive quirk to your advantage in a query letter. Perhaps because, as Edith Sitwell tells us: “The aim of flattery is to soothe and encourage us by assuring us of the truth of an opinion we have already formed about ourselves.”

(Had I mentioned that I still have a backlog of apt quotes to use up?)

To slather on the butter with an even more lavish hand, go ahead and say something nice about the book in your query letter to its agent. According to Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, “We are so vain that we even care for the opinion of those we don’t care for.”

Naturally, the buttering-up process is going to be a whole lot easier to pull of if you have actually read the book in question. Although truth does compel me to say that if you are in a hurry, you can’t go far wrong with something along the lines of, “As the agent who so ably represented Keanu Reeves’ BRAIN SURGERY FOR EVERYBODY, I believe you will be interested in my book…” even if your sole contact with this impressive volume was seeing it on a list of Mssr. Reeves’ agent’s clients.

That being said, on conscientious grounds, I really should reiterate that you ought to read, if not actually buy (or urge your FNDGG to buy for you), all of the books you are using as launching pads for query letters to agents. Don’t even think of formulating a substantive praise for an unread book, even if you lift that praise directly from The New York Times Review of Books. Too many would be butterers-up have found themselves being asked, “So, what did you like about that book?” by an agent who devoted years of her life to promoting it.

Trust me, she’ll be able to tell if you’re faking an opinion.

If you can at all afford it, do try to buy these books, though. Indirectly, it’s in your self-interest: after all, the sales of an agent’s current clients subsidize hiring Millicent to screen submissions from new writers, right? And while agents’ literary tastes do vary widely, they do inexplicably all share a taste for readers actually purchasing their clients’ work.

Must be the effect of close proximity on the collective mind, much like that strange phenomenon often noted by conference-attending writers where the mere fact of sitting on a dais with other agents and editors will apparently cause them all to tell an expectant audience of the would-be published exactly the same things about querying and submission, rather than emphasizing how their tastes differ, which would actually be far more useful to attendees trying to figure out which of the throng to approach for pitching purposes.

Perhaps famous salonnaire Marguerite-Louise-Virginie Chardon Ancelot was presciently thinking of the collective opinions of those who promote books when she wrote, “It can be said of the society of salons that not one person exactly resembles another. Nevertheless, there is so little difference, it being like the leaves of a tree that are not exactly the same, yet seem all alike.”

Another reason to buy books written by the agent of your dreams’ more obscure clients is the good karma factor. As I MAY have pointed out earlier in this very post, the world would be a substantially better place for writers if we supported one another by purchasing books by first-time authors early and often.

Who can forget Glückel of Hamelyn’s 1719 pronouncement, “Stinginess does not enrich; charity does not impoverish”?

However, good old Glückel aside, I know that some of you will need to rely upon the library for your pre-buttering-up research. That can be pretty time-consuming — and not always sufficient, because although the print-on-demand market is becoming increasingly important, both for self-publishers and small presses, many libraries still refuse to purchase POD books at all, as a matter of policy.

So here are a few tips on how to expand your reading list without buying out Borders or hiding from its staff while you carefully read books for sale without bending their pages. As Zora Neale Hurston liked to put it, “research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prodding with a purpose.”

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

So in a sense, even a very hip bookstore is a graveyard of passé contracts. (As Mary Webb informed us in PRECIOUS BANE, “We are tomorrow’s past.”) As I mentioned at the top of this post, what you are seeing in bookstores today, then, is not necessarily what is selling NOW.

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

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

How does one pull this off, you ask? Start reading the trade journals, such as Publishers’ Weekly, or subscribe to Publishers Marketplace, which lists pretty much every sale to a North American publishing house, by title, author, agent, and often a one-line description of the book as well.

Neither subscription is very cheap — but hey, isn’t that what hints to one’s FNDGG are for?

A fringe benefit to reading either source habitually: many times, these sources will give a general indication of the advance offered, too, so you can start getting some idea of what your writing is potentially worth in the happy event that you do sell a book in the current market. (Spoiler alert: pretty much every aspiring writer believes that the average advance is exponentially larger than it actually is. Especially these days.)

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

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

If any or all of this seems anti-artistically practical to you, consider what George Eliot told us in ADAM BEDE, “It you could make a pudding wi’thinking o’ the batter, it ‘ud be easy getting dinner.”

Hard to argue with that.

Keeping abreast of who is selling what will also allow you to target your queries more effectively as agents’ (and agencies’) tastes change over time — a phenomenon which, I am sad to report, is not always reflected promptly in the standard agency guide listings (which often remain un-updated for years on end) or even on agency websites (which tend to be updated seldom). Acquiring the laudable habit of comparing what these sources say particular agents are looking to represent with the same preferences as the agents themselves are currently describing them at writers’ conferences and their blurbs in conference guides will also help you keep on top of who to send what when.

The more current the information you can dig up, the better.

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

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

A good all-purpose opening, to steer clear of the slightest hint of misdirected flattery:

Congratulations on your successful sale of BOOK X! Since you so skillfully represent (BOOK X’s type of book), I hope you will be interested in my book…

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

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

Try to think of all this self-assigned reading as continuing education for your dream profession. Asking for these books might not have been your first impulse when you sat on Santa’s lap this year, but it would be a good, strategic second thought.

Speaking of gift lists, I shall be moving on to a new section of mine next time — and you’ll be happy to hear that I’m all quoted out for now. Keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part III: the graveyard of book contracts past, or, a few more good reasons to buy books by first-time authors, and still more evidence that a little contact with a book of quotations goes a long way

Looks like the aftermath of a major flood in Mouseville, doesn’t it? When I first caught sight of the scene, I instinctively glanced about to check if Anderson Cooper were reporting nearby, wet to the knees and disapproving.

Apparently, I am the mayor of poor, flooded Mouseville, because I took this picture about a foot and a half from where I am now sitting, inside my house. I came by the position honestly, I assure you: after my tirade the other day about the vital importance of good lighting in a midwinter writing space, the proverbial bee seems to have remained in my bonnet, buzzily nagging — nay, demanding — that I move my studio to the brightest room in the house in genteel protest of the notorious darkness of a Seattle winter and the news in the last few issues of Publishers Weekly.

As the far and away the brightest room in our house is also the biggest, the living room/library (so designated to differentiate it from the bedroom/library, kitchen/library, laundry room/library, etc.; see yesterday’s comment about serious writers always owning more books than shelves to house them), I was anticipating having to lobby my SO for the rest of the year to pull this off — by which time, of course, the darkest part of the year would be beginning to recede. However, in an odd twist that would be absolutely implausible in a novel, the very seasonal darkness of which I had been complaining abruptly made my case for me: my SO saw some doubtless light-craving soul jump off one of our region’s less lovely bridges the other day.

He’s been busily rearranging furniture in the ex-living room/library ever since. Heck, he even made an unprompted trip to Ikea for another bookshelf.

Fortunately, unlike most bits of real-life melodrama that don’t seem real on the page, the story of the jumper has ending rather an ancient Greek tragedy, complete with deus ex machina: at the particular moment the hapless jumper chose to end it all on that distinctly unpretty bridge (as opposed to the far more popular choice of suicidal aesthetes on the other side of town), an unoccupied ambulance happened to be trying to merge into the traffic jam on the bridge. If he had jumped directly into the ambulance, rather than off the bridge first, he probably would have been happier in the long run, but still, I hope that he will someday be grateful that King County evidently had the foresight to hire at least one psychic ambulance driver.

Just another service brought to you by the local New Age ordinances, presumably; we must have them. My proof: in yet another development that would make any hardened novel or memoir-reader snort with derision, I saw in the newspaper the other day that many Seattle City Council meetings open with a poetry reading.

If you have seen the poetry local government sees fit to post on buses, you are probably already trembling for democracy. Still, it’s kind of great to live in a town so stuffed to the gills with poets that there is actual competition over who gets appointed to be this month’s official City Poetry Curator.

In anticipation of a shiny new bookcase and the dislocation of my desk, my SO and I were gruntingly shifting the God-awful 1950s dresser his sainted grandmother had seen fit to bequeath to us. Until now, sentimental recollections had gilded the sublime hideousness of its multicolored veneer: Granny used to store her beloved Bible and handgun side-by-side in it.

A fact I discovered inadvertently years ago while helping her move, in case you’re curious. I had thought the revolver was a toy, the property of one of the grandchildren playing in the next room, until I picked it up — and realized that it was both real and loaded. Evidently, the phrase gun safe had never sullied Granny’s ears until I uttered them that day. If the words Communist plot featured prominently in her reply, well, far be it from me to speak ill of the dead.

Suffice it to say that before this enlightening discussion had unfolded far, I got the kids out of there, pronto.

For a variety of reasons, then, this particular dresser had slumbered for years under an embroidered tablecloth a globe-trotting friend had been kind enough to send me from Bangladesh shortly after Granny’s death, never moved and seldom even having its drawers opened. The discovery that our cats had been using it as a sarcophagus for the much-chewed remains of their furry toys thus seemed eerily appropriate.

For hours after we unearthed this mousy Valley of the Kings, the kitties prowled around protectively, snarling at us when we tried to discard the most decomposed of them. Clearly, that dresser had a preoccupation with death, and who can blame it, after the life it’s led?

I’m happy to say that it is no longer in the house — and that I have both a sunnier place to work and slightly more storage space for my books.

Speaking of which, last time, I was touting the virtues of getting into the habit of reading every (or as close to every as possible) first book published in your book category this year…and next year, and the year after that. Not only will adherence to this sterling practice give an aspiring writer a very solid sense of how editors and agents conceive of the category — thus rendering it easier to tell whether one’s work genuinely falls within it, a question that plagues many genre-crossers — but it will help develop a sense of one’s target readership as well.

Perhaps the lingering billows of dust from all that furniture moving have temporarily clogged my psychic antennae, but somehow, I felt that this sterling argument left some of you unconvinced yesterday. So I’m going to spend today elaborating.

Sometimes the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver requires more cajoling than others.

Reading the entire literary output of new authors in a particular subsection of the market may seem like a gargantuan task to some of you, but most of you have no serious reason for trepidation: the majority of book categories actually sport relatively few first-time authors in any year’s harvest of publications.

Yes, Virginia, even in the fairly large categories.

Let me share a deep, dark secret from my past: back in my thankfully long ago agent-seeking days, I made a practice of reading every first literary or mainstream novel written by an American woman under 40 published by a major US publishing house each year. Care to guess how long that took?

I wish I could report that it was a full-time job, but in truth, it wasn’t all that time-consuming. There were few years where more then 25 books answered that description; one year, there were only 7, counting new Canadian female authors. And those 7 were represented by only 3 agencies, I discovered.

Guess whom I queried the instant I uncovered THAT unsavory little fact?

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

Heck, literary fiction aimed at women is considered downright redundant in some circles of the industry, since college-educated women form about 90% of literary fiction buyers.

And yet the burly writings of Phillip Roth continue to sell well. Yet another cosmic mystery. As that marketing genius Jacqueline Susann once said, “I think Phillip Roth is a great writer. But I wouldn’t want to shake his hand.” (Had I mentioned that I dug up far, far more quotes yesterday than I could ever hope to work into a single post?)

Unless a writer became awfully darned familiar with the book market, how is s/he to know that a book category filled with so many prominent male authors boasts such a largely female readership? Or that literary fiction by women featuring female protagonists is often marketed not as literary fiction, a comparatively tiny market, but as what agents like to call women’s fiction with a literary voice because the women’s fiction market is so huge?

Quoth Queen Marie Leckzinska, wife of Louis XV: “To live in peace with socieity, you must open your eyes to the qualities that are pleasing and close them to to the ludicrous and eccentric that are offensive.”

Hey, she said it; I didn’t.

Following the ever-changing boundaries of one’s chosen book category is only one of the many benefits of reading all of the first-time authors within it, of course. It’s substantially easier to produce something fresh if you know what agents and editors who represent your kind of book have been reading over the past couple of years. How about learning the current conventions of one’s genre, what’s now considered de rigeur and what’s now passé?

While you’re out snooping, why not do some research on what kind of voice have been selling of late, and which eschewed as old-fashioned? Are the Point-of-View Nazis enjoying a resurgence in your selected category, or have they fallen out of fashion? How long are first books in that category these days?

I hesitate to mention length, because it tends to be a sore spot with many aspiring writers. Don’t believe me? Okay, the next time you find yourself at an agents’ or editors’ forum at a conference, stand up and ask how many pages is too long for a submission. Even if the pros are very kind in expressing the answer, the subsequent depression amongst half the audience will be palpable — and most of the time, the writer grumbling in the row behind you will not be muttering that the limits are too high.

In answer to that inquisitive whimper I just heard out in the ether and the giant unshouted question that I suspect underlies it, the long answer is that I’ve written at length on this subject under the BOOK LENGTH category on the list on the right-hand side of this page.

The short answer: in general, 65,000 – 100,000 words — estimated, not actual — or 260 – 400 pages in standard format, is considered roughly normal for a first book. (If you don’t know how or why to estimate a word count, please see the WORD COUNT category on the list at right. If you’re unfamiliar with the restrictions of standard format for manuscripts, please see MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED.)

To forestall any imminent heart problems out there, let me hasten to add that length expectations do vary quite a bit by category, genre, and even subgenre. Checking how long first books like yours are lately can save you a whole lot of uncertainty at revision time.

Am I hearing some long-suffering sighs out there? I know; that was a lot of heavy information to toss at you in a single post at the height of holiday season. I have more to say on this subject, but I’m going to sign off for today, to give you some time to digest all of this — or, for those of you whom I have already convinced of the value of stocking up on new works by first-time authors in your area, to scurry off to make a wish list for your FNDGG.

To lighten your hearts a bit before I go, let me just take a second to add: as Francis Bacon wrote so long ago, knowledge is power. In few areas of life is this as true as often as during the querying and submission stages of a writer’s career — because as painful as it may be to accept, scads of queries are rejected on sight because the book is miscategorized or sent to an agent who doesn’t represent that type of book; literally tons of manuscripts are rejected every year because they seem dated or repeat something that’s been done before or are just too long or short by current standards.

How can knowing all that make you more powerful in a situation that often seems arbitrary to aspiring writers? By spurring you to learn about the category in which you are writing, so you may market your work and revise it more effectively. That’s knowledge that can genuinely help you reduce your manuscript’s chances of rejection.

A bit depressing? Perhaps. Time-consuming? Definitely. It’s not for nothing that Lawrence Kasden said, “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”

But isn’t your writing’s success worth it?

More thoughts on this subject follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part II: shelves and the things that go on them

Last time, I began suggesting some ways in which the holiday habits of that seasonally-ubiquitous jolly fellow, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver, might be turned via gentle hints toward the consideration of items and services of genuine long-term use to the committed writer. Admittedly, I began by shooting high: what’s wrong, I asked innocently, with giving a writer time and space to write? Happy the writer whose kith and kin understand her well enough to gather behind her back whilst she’s baking cookies to say, “You know what Gertrude would REALLY like this year? A week without any obligations, so she could finally finish her novel/memoir/definitive history of drainage in 17th-century Ireland!”

I suspect that I don’t have to elaborate for any working writer about precisely how and why Gertrude would be cryingly grateful for such a present. After all, “(l)ife together,” as George Sand wrote, “is the ideal of happiness for those who love each other; but each thinking soul also needs time for solitude and contemplation.”

So true, George, so true — but I’d be willing to bet this handful of change in my pocket that 95% of the writers reading this have never even discussed the possibility of a retreat with even their nearest and dearest. There’s good reason for that, of course, at least amongst those of us who were not raised by wolves. Let’s face it, it’s just not considered polite to answer the perennial (and rather uncreative, I’ve always thought) question, “What do you want for Christmas?” with a heartfelt howl of, “Are you kidding? Leave me alone so I may get some writing done!”

Even if that is, in fact, what you would like to receive for Christmas. Or any other time, really.

Next week, as promised, I’m going to talk a bit more about how to clear time and space for one’s writing. (Just in time for New Year’s resolution-making, you point out? Why, what a remarkable coincidence!) For today, I’m going to content myself with brainstorming about a few less pricey ways writers’ FNDGGs may bring joy and practical assistance to them throughout the year.

I’m tempted to go all prosaic here and suggest asking for bookshelves — because, honestly, have you ever known a serious writer who didn’t possess more volumes than shelves to house them? As Jean-Paul Sartre was known to observe, “In reality, people read because they want to write. Anyway, reading is a sort of rewriting.”

At least for the many submitters who continue to work on their manuscripts after they’ve already sent them off to an agent or editor, J-P. I can’t even begin to estimate the number of times I’ve heard agents complain over the years about clients who keep sending them a revised page 147 or 236 every few weeks to insert into an already-circulating manuscript. (In case you’re curious about how to pass along subsequent revisions to your agent after you sign, the accepted method is — brace yourselves — to send a whole new copy of the manuscript.)

To return to my larger point, we tend to be hard-core readers, bless our collective heart, which is in and of itself something to consider during present-buying binges. If you’ve been paying attention to even a fraction of the news coming out of the publishing industry lately, you’ll have heard that major publishers across the English-speaking world have been announcing that they’re laying off staff.

“The profession of book-writing,” John Steinbeck once wrote, “makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business.” Can’t imagine why that little snippet should come to mind right now.

Unless anyone out there reading this happens to be a billionaire with a weakness for literature, literally the only thing most of us who write can do to help ameliorate this appalling situation is to get out there and buy some books. Ideally, books by still-living authors who write in our respective book categories.

Why? Well, if you want to live in a world where publishers are eager to buy books like yours, it only makes sense to convey that preference through buying them yourself, right? Perhaps I am intolerant because I come from a family of writers, but I have no patience with aspiring writers who don’t support the market for the kinds of books they write themselves. If aspiring writers won’t buy books in the genres in which they hope eventually to publish, who will?

Well, possibly their FNDGGs, if those writers sit them down and explain clearly and carefully that the only means of convincing bigwigs at publishing houses that it’s profitable to publish a particular type of book is for lots and lots of people to buy that type of book. Not to mention the obvious benefits to the aspiring if buyers go out of their way to purchase books by first-time authors in that category.

Seriously, wouldn’t you be more pleased to receive a good book in your category by a new author than one of those ubiquitous gift books containing quotations about writing that FNDGGs always seem to be stuffing into aspiring writers’ stockings? Because, as Groucho Marx once observed, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

(In the unlikely event that you hadn’t already noticed, on the off chance that anyone reading this one of those perennially epigraph-hunters who can’t get enough of that kind of collection, I’ve been cramming as many inspiring quotes into this post as humanly possible. No charge.)

There are many other excellent reasons to buy recently-released books in the category in which you have chosen to write, of course. Learning who your competition will be, for one, and what they are offering your target audience. Finding out what the agents and editors who habitually work with authors in that category think is good writing, as well as building up a list of who those agents and editors are.

And last but certainly not least, keeping up with what is being published right now, as opposed to five or ten years ago. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard agents and editors complain about aspiring writers’ not being familiar with the current market, as opposed to what was hot ten years ago. Contrary to popular belief, the species or even quality of writing that may have caused your all-time favorite author to ricochet to fame and fortune fifteen or twenty years ago will not necessarily turn heads at agencies and publishing houses today if it did not have an already-established author’s name attached to it.

And the tighter the book market gets, the more likely that is to be true, because an established author already has name recognition with the target market for her next book.

Because the market is ever-changing (and will probably be mutating even more rapidly than usual over the next year or two), it’s vital to keep refreshing one’s understanding of what is in fact current. What attracts an agent or editor today will not necessarily garner praise a year from now — again, unless an author with a proven track record happens to have produced it.

Which is precisely why it’s in your interest to keep abreast of what kind of writing, storyline, structure, etc. has been helping first-time authors in your selected category break into the biz over the last couple of years, not just what the big names have been producing. It’s just too easy for an aspiring writer who doesn’t keep up with his genre’s internal trends to forget whilst hiking the querying-and-submission trail that it honestly does take more courage on the part of an agent to sign a previously unpublished writer than a published one, just as it requires more bravery for an editor to take a chance on a brand-new writer than upon the 17th work by a well-recognized name.

Why? Because “courage,” as playwright Ruth Gordon informed us all, “is like a muscle, it is strengthened by use.”

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

Don’t believe me? Try this little experiment: read five books by first-time authors in your chosen book category that have come out within the last year. (Better yet, buy them, or get your FNDGG to buy them for you.) Then go and take a gander at what the time-honored leaders of the genre have put out lately.

Ask yourself: do they honestly seem to be edited, let alone written, to the same standard?

Another reason to keep an eye on publications by authors new to your chosen category is to gather information for approaching their agents. The logic is a trifle convoluted, but stick with me here.

As I’m sure you’re already aware (I’m fairly certain that I’ve mentioned it within the last few months), the vast majority of books sold to publishers each year in this country are written by the already-published. Why? Well, they have a verifiable history of selling books.

Before you take offense at that, be honest: in the last five years, how often have you bought a book by first-time authors? Not only in your chosen book category, but at all?

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

Readers tend to gravitate toward names they know — and bookstores encourage the practice. Unless the author is a celebrity in another medium or a politician, books by new authors are substantially less likely to be placed in a prominent position in a chain bookstore. Certainly, they are less likely to be place face-out on the bookshelf, a placement which increases that probability of being browsed considerably).

Naturally, this results in sales statistics that show very plainly that overall, established authors sell far, far better than new ones.

So — don’t worry; the payoff is coming — your chances of getting picked up by an agent are higher if you already know that particular agent has been successful selling a first-timer like yourself. You know, at any rate, that the agent has been exceptionally brave at least once.

As Helen Keller was apparently wont to say, “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” Are you listening, agents?

Because the agent who compulsively sells first novels is something of a rarity, let me once again urge you to draw a firm distinction in your mind between agents whose listings in the standard agents’ guides SAY they are open to queries from previously unpublished writers, and those who have a successful RECENT HISTORY of selling first books. In this market, that takes not only courage, but commitment and talent.

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

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

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

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

Speaking of which, I seem to have drifted away from the subject of great gifts for writers, haven’t I ? Here’s one that might help add impetus to your writing career: wouldn’t it be nice if your FNDGG sprung for some really nice (say, 20-pound or heavier) paper for your next spate of submissions?

High-quality paper is worth the investment: pages that don’t wilt as it gets passed from Millicent to Millicent tends to get taken more seriously, believe it or not; it’s not even unheard-of for agents to resubmit manuscripts that they’ve already circulated to other editors.

Or what about a lovely box of those Manilla envelopes we writers are always using to send out short stories and partial manuscripts, not to mention tucking into other Manilla envelopes as SASEs? They’re not very expensive, but I know a lot of writers who would feel that such a gift was awfully darned supportive. Especially if it happened to arrive wrapped up with a roll of stamps.

Oh, you expected me to come up with a quote appropriate for that? Okay, try this one on for size: as Gertrude Stein wrote, “Considering how dangerous everything is, nothing is frightening.”

I think that’s a terrific motto for anyone who has anything to do with the current literary market — aspiring writers, established writers, agents, Millicents, editors, marketers, you name it. Trying to sell a book at any level is absurdly difficult for everyone concerned these days, but hasn’t that always been true, to a certain extent? After all, the vast majority of writers who have landed agents and publishing contracts have had their work rejected dozens upon dozens — if not hundreds upon hundreds — of times over their professional lifetimes. Including yours truly and, in all likelihood, that well-established bigwig who broke into the market twenty years ago. We kept ploughing ahead until the NYC publishing types started to take us seriously.

Maya Angelou wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” And Tallulah Bankhead claimed, “If I had to live my life again, I’d make all the same mistakes — only sooner.”

What on earth do I mean to demonstrate by throwing those two quite unrelated quotes into close proximity? Either that (a) all of the work required to get recognized as a writer is genuinely soul-trying for pretty much everyone who makes it, but you can learn a lot along the way, (b) practically without exception, everyone who already has an agent is deeply, deeply grateful not to have to go through THAT ongoing trauma again, and/or (c) tearing a whole lot of quotes out of context and presenting them to the hapless reader may not be all that useful an exercise, but it doesn’t seem to stop anybody else from doing it, so why should I forbear?

More importantly, what do any of those possibilities have to do with what you might want your FNDGG to give you? Well, for most ultimately commercially successful writers, the road to recognition is long. If that gift-giver wants to find a means to show that s/he believes that you are talented enough that you definitely should keep ploughing ahead, wrapping up some practical aids for you to use along the way is a marvelous mean to express that.

I just mention, FNDGG.

Keep moving forward — and keep up the good work!

PS: any FNDGG intrigued by the Cave Shelf above may find it here.