So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part VI: if you don’t like the literary weather, wait a minute

ernest-hemingway-trout-fishing

Okay, so this image is a trifle on the large side — but it’s such a goofy picture of the often-dour Ernest Hemingway that I couldn’t resist. Perhaps he had just returned from time-traveling, and so was grinning because it was so much easier for a writer to get his work published in his day than ours.

Throughout this action-packed series, we’ve been taking a gander at the big picture, the general trajectory by which writers bring their manuscripts to publication in the United States — so far, via large or mid-sized publishing houses. Those last two points represent important caveats, as does the mention of generality: what I have been doing here is giving an overview of how a specific kind of publishing and the agencies that feed it work in a specific country at this specific time; like any generalization, it’s not seeking to provide a precise prediction of the publication path of every single book that comes to print.

I mention this not so much for the benefit of those of you who have been following this series on a daily basis, but rather for those who will stumble upon it in the months and years to come via web searches or in perusing my archives (conveniently grouped by category at the lower right-hand side of this page, should you be interested). Out of series context, some future readers may conclude, mistakenly, that I intend this largely theoretical discussion to be the last word on the subject or a step-by-step instruction manual.

Not at all: these are just the basic outlines, the bare-bones narrative an aspiring needs to understand in order to strategize a writing career.

Because this discussion is so general, I would strongly encourage any writer faced with the prospect of actually doing anything I’ve been talking about here to check out the appropriate in-depth posts on each step (which are, lest I forgot to mention it, arranged by category at the ride side of the page), rather than assume (wrongly) that these non-specific posts are all the knowledge a writer should have on these subjects. Usually, as regular readers of this blog no doubt already know to their cost, I go into almost compulsive levels of detail, so trust me, there’s plenty more where this came from.

That rattling noise those of you new to the blog are hearing is the sound of my longer-term readers chuckling under their collective breath. They have already guessed that a prologue like this could only be leading up to a simply whopping set of generalizations.

Well concluded, oh chucklers. On with the sweeping statements.

Tell me again why the submission process seems to take so long?
Last time, I broached the burning question at the front of the mind of every writer who has ever submitted a manuscript to an agency: how soon will the agent make a decision about whether to represent my book?

The answer, pretty much invariably: not as quickly as the writer would like. Try not to take slow turn-around times personally — or as any reflection whatsoever upon the quality or marketability of your writing. It’s just the way the system works.

As we discussed in the previous post, agents don’t draw out the submission process just to torture writers — the delays in turn-around are often due to logistical considerations, such as the number of screening levels though which a manuscript must pass prior to the agent, how backlogged the agent’s reading schedule is (remember, she doesn’t just need to peruse new clients’ books; her existing client list keeps producing manuscripts, too), and the sheer volume of submissions an agency receives.

Oh, and people who work in agencies have lives; no one, however dedicated to literature, reads 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year plus one in leap year. As much as impatient writers might like them to do so.

Which is to say: despite the fact that aspiring writers tend to be very, very gifted at manufacturing creative reasons that they haven’t yet received a response after submitting requested materials, the usual reason is quite prosaic: the people at the agency who need to read the manuscript just haven’t had time to get to it yet.

Or at least, as is often the case, haven’t read beyond the first few pages. But believe it or not, when an agent skims the opening of a manuscript and sets is aside to read more closely later, that’s actually good news, from the writer’s perspective. Even if the submission subsequently gathers dust and coffee stains on the corner of his desk, its author has reason to rejoice.

Why? Well, contrary to popular belief, agents and editors will seldom read an entire manuscript before deciding to reject it. Once they come to a page (or paragraph, or even sentence) that raises a red flag, they generally stop reading altogether. One frequent flag-raiser: wildly unprofessional presentation; in case you’re not aware of it, there is a standard format for book manuscripts (explained in great detail in the posts under the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right).

I can sense some resistance to the concept of quick rejection floating out there in the ether. “But Anne,” the dewy-eyed idealists exclaim, “that can’t possibly be right; no one seriously interested in writing would dismiss a book without reading it. If an agent asks to see my manuscript, of course he’s going to take the time to read it!”

Oh, my dears. The explanation is going to be even harder for you to accept than what has already raised your hackles, I’m afraid.

Not only are rejected manuscripts rarely read in their entirety; as long-time readers of this blog are already painfully aware, the vast majority of submitted manuscripts get rejected on page 1. This can occur for a variety of reasons, ranging from clichéd dialogue to grammatical errors to lack of excitement in the opening scene; here at Author! Author!, we tend to spend quite a bit of our energy on how to identify and excise these manuscript red flags. (For an intensive analysis of dozens of the most common rejection reasons and tips on avoiding them in your submissions, please see the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the list at right.)

But back to that good news I mentioned above: if an agent reads the first few pages of a submission and sets it aside to peruse later, that means he hasn’t rejected it; unlike the overwhelming majority of submissions, its opening passed muster. Hooray!

I’m sensing more disturbance in the ether. “Okay,” the idealists concede reluctantly, “I can see how rejection might be a speedier process than acceptance. But if the agent (and his Millicent who screens things for him) makes up his mind that quickly about most rejections, does his setting my manuscript aside to read later mean that he’s already basically decided to accept it?”

Oh, would that it were that simple. Once a manuscript has cleared the instant rejection hurdle, many other criteria come into play.

What makes an agent decide to take on one manuscript, rather than another?
One reason, and one reason only: she believes that she can sell the first book in the current literary marketplace.

In other words, in her professional opinion, not only is the book is well-written and might interest people who buy and read books, but she also has the connections to editors at major or mid-sized publishing houses who will be interested in bringing this particular manuscript to publication. Furthermore, she believes that the book concept and presentation are polished enough that she can begin sending it out to editors without having first to invest tremendous amounts of her time in re-editing the work. Also, based upon how the writer has presented the manuscript and handled the querying/pitching and submission process, she believes that the writer is sufficiently professional and well enough versed in how publishing works that she will not need to hold his hand throughout every step of the process.

This extremely complicated set of conclusions is, you must admit, hardly likely to be something an agent is likely to reach on a purely spontaneous basis three lines into the manuscript — or, to put it another way, it requires far, far more reasons to accept a manuscript than to reject it. In order to come up with that array of pluses, the agent will need to spend some time getting to know the book.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she will be reading it with a charitable eye. Remember, reputable agents only make money if they can sell their clients’ books: she can only afford to take on what she’s confident she can sell. So since even an extremely successful agent can take on only a few new clients per year, in practice that intensive manuscript study entails reading, like Millicent the screener, with an eye peeled for reasons not to take it on.

As an agent of my acquaintance likes to say, he scours the first 185 pages of a submission from a would-be client eager to find reasons to reject it. After he’s invested the time to read up through page 185, he starts looking for reasons to accept it.

And those reasons will not necessarily be purely literary, or even aesthetic; agenting is, after all, not a non-profit enterprise devoted to the cause of art for art’s sake, but a business.

The choice to sign a client, then, is very seldom purely the result of the agent’s just falling in love with the book at first sight — although rejection often does come that quickly. She may well fall in love with it eventually, but it’s a more mature, reasoned sort of love, the result of a considered decision, not a gut impulse.

I’m bringing this up because often, the underlying assumption behind the “But what’s taking so long?” cri de coeur is not just the mistaken assumption that an agent who requested materials will drop everything in order to read them the moment they arrive, but also the belief that if a book is compelling, the reader won’t be able to put it down until she finishes reading it.

Trust me, people who read manuscripts for a living manage it. If they didn’t, they’d never be able to leave work at the end of the day or go to sleep at night.

Another frequent submitter’s assumption is that good writing is so arresting that any professional reader worth her salt should be able to identify an exciting new voice instantly, practically from the top of page 1. While it is often the case that good writing will make professional readers think, “Wow, I’m looking forward to reading on!” that does not mean that the initial tingle of hope should be confused with the ultimate decision to represent the book.

The former merely means that the latter outcome is possible, not that it is guaranteed.

Thus, the secret writerly fantasy about a literary agent’s taking one look at a query letter or hearing a pitch and crying, “STOP! I don’t need to know anything else! I must sign this writer immediately!” just doesn’t happen in real life. (Well, okay, so it does happen to the occasional celebrity, but I’m guessing that if any of you were already famous and/or internationally disreputable, my blog wouldn’t be the first place you would look to find out how to seek representation, so I’ll move on.) A reputable agent is going to want to read the manuscript in its entirety before making up her mind — or, for nonfiction, the entire book proposal.

Yes, no matter how stellar the book’s premise may be or how good the writer’s credentials may be for writing it. Many a marvelous idea has been scuttled by poor presentation. As they like to say in the industry, it all depends on the writing.

Yet that truism is a trifle misleading, because writing quality alone is not necessarily enough going to be enough to charm an agent into agreeing to represent a book. Yes, the agent generally has to like the writing, find the premise appealing, regard the characters as well-rounded and believable, and so forth, but since she will have to make a substantive argument to an editor about how this manuscript is different and better than both similar books already on the market and the other manuscripts the editor is likely to see anytime soon, she does need to pay close attention to the book’s selling points over and above the beauty of the writing.

Including, incidentally, whether the manuscript is the kind of book that’s selling right now. Not what is currently featured in bookstores at the moment, but what editors are buying now — as we discussed earlier in this series, there’s generally at least a year between when a publisher acquires a book and when it’s released, so what consumers may buy today is actually a reflection of what editors were buying 12 or 15 months ago, possibly more.

This fact is crucial for aspiring writers to understand, as it has a huge effect on the marketability of their manuscripts, from an agent’s perspective.

Since the book market is notoriously susceptible to trends — ask anyone who happened to be trying to sell a vampire romance immediately after the TWILIGHT series hit the bestseller lists, or anyone attempting to market a memoir just after the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal broke — agents’ self-protective attention to what is selling now, as opposed to 5, 15, or 100 years ago, often means that a manuscript that would have experienced little difficulty finding representation in another year might seem like too big a risk to for an agent to take on now, and vice versa.

Yes, you are understanding me correctly: from an agent’s point of view, a good book is not necessarily a marketable book — and a book that is marketable today is not necessarily what will be considered especially marketable six months or two years from now.

Which is why, in case those of you who have attended writers’ conferences recently have been wondering, some agents are prone to telling rooms full of gaping aspiring writers, “Oh, no one is buying that kind of book anymore.” They don’t mean that the specified type is never going to sell again — they mean that there isn’t a particularly strong demand for it amongst editors at the major houses right now.

But as an honest agent will be the first to tell you, no one can possibly say for sure what will be selling well next year. Especially given current market conditions.

So when aspiring writers complain about how books like theirs are not finding agents these days, it’s unlikely to strike anyone affiliated with the publishing industry as a searing indictment of their collective aesthetic judgment, but rather as a simple statement of fact about the current literary market. That some types of writing will fall out of fashion from time to time is inevitable; that ones that were not hot in the past will become so is equally inevitable.

If it sounds like I’m spouting that old truism about the weather, if you don’t like it, wait a minute, then congratulations: you’re catching on to how publishing works. See why it’s so vital to a writer’s continued happiness not to take the vagaries of the literary market personally?

Next time, I shall talk about what happens after an agent decides to represent a writer; I had intended to tackle that this time — in fact, it was the original title of today’s post — but as is my wont, I became absorbed in a preliminary topic. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part V: the agency submission

cat-on-the-wall

Before any of you sprain your brains by trying to figure out what a fluffy cat standing on a partially-finished stone wall (my yard has quite a few of those, as you may know) has to do with the promised topic du jour, what happens to requested materials, let me stop you mid-ponder: the picture above isn’t particularly illustrative of anything I’m about to say today. I just thought that after so many days of such lengthy posts on such serious subjects, we all could stand a glimpse of something comparatively light-hearted.

Which is to say: please don’t ask about the wall. Thank you.

For those of you joining us mid-series, I’ve been spending the last few posts on an overview of how books currently get published in the United States: not the astonishing pervasive fantasy that all a good writer has to do to get published is to write a book, but the actual logistics of what happens. The view from the trenches, as it were.

Oh, dear: I suppose that does mean that the photograph is subject-appropriate. I honestly hadn’t intended it to be.

So far, we’ve gone over how US-based publishing has changed over time; how fiction and nonfiction are marketed differently; why a writer needs an agent; the various methods of seeking representation, along with their pros and cons, and last time, what kinds of reactions an aspiring writer may reasonably expect following an attempt to approach an agent. Is everyone fairly clear on all of those? If not, please feel free to post questions in via the comments functions — or, better yet, to seek out more detailed answers amongst the many and varied categories on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Yes, yes, I know: I have been harping on the archives quite a bit over the last few posts, but with good reason. The current series is intended to give those new to trying to get their work published — and anyone else who feels like reading it — a general view of how the process works, as opposed to my usually favored approach, the let’s-concentrate-on-this-one-small-aspect-for-a-week method of analysis. Both have their benefits, of course, but if you are looking for elucidation on any of the individual points I’m discussing here, chances are that you will find far more discussion than you ever dreamed in the archived posts.

So if delving into the archive list starts to feel like trying to catalogue the contents of Pandora’s box, well, don’t say that I didn’t warn you. Back we go to the generalities.

What a writer should do if an agent requests materials
As I mentioned last time, if a query or pitch is successful, an agent will typically ask the writer to send either the entire manuscript (rare), a specified number of pages from the beginning of the book (substantially more common), or, for nonfiction, the book proposal. Most of the time, this means that the agent is expecting to receive it as hard copy, sent by mail. If an agent prefers e-mailed submissions, he will ask you to send it as an attachment to an e-mail. (Under no circumstances should you ever send a computer disk or CD-R with your book on it — it will be returned without being opened.)

If you are planning to submit electronically, please be aware that unless he specifically states otherwise, the attachment he has in mind is almost certainly the industry standard, a document in MS Word. (If you work on a Mac, make sure to send it as a Windows-friendly document.) Why Word? It’s what the major publishing houses use, so if the agent of your dreams is going to submit electronically to an editor, that’s how the editor would expect to receive it.

Occasionally, an agent will ask for attachments as rtf (rich text format), a version without the formatting bells and whistles that render documents hard to translate across word processing systems; if you don’t habitually work in Word, but send your document in rtf, a Word user should be able to open it. Some agents accept submissions in PDF format — especially those who choose to read submissions on a Kindle, rather than on a computer screen, as is becoming increasingly common — but it’s seldom preferred, as it’s hard to edit.

Because the human eye reads much more quickly on a backlit screen than on a printed page, it’s usually to the writer’s advantage to submit in hard copy, rather than electronically. It’s also more work for an agent to reject a paper copy, as opposed to the single action of hitting the DELETE key required to remove an e-submission from his life forever; that’s also true of mailed vs. e-mailed queries, incidentally. (For more on the pros and cons of paper vs. electronic submissions, please see the E-MAILED SUBMISSIONS and E-MAILING QUERIES categories on the list at right.)

However an agent has asked you to submit, though, do as he asks. In fact, if there is one inviolable rule to bear in mind while preparing a submission packet, it is surely send the agent precisely what he has asked you to send.

Being hyper-literal often doesn’t serve an aspiring very well along the frequently perilous road to publication, but this is one time where it’s positively a boon. If the agent asked to see the first 50 pages, send the first 50 pages — not the first 49, if a chapter happens to end there, or 55 if there’s a really exciting scene after page 50. If page 50 ends mid-sentence, so be it.

Why is it so very important to follow submission instructions exactly? Because the quality of the writing is not necessarily the only factor an agent weighs in deciding whether to represent a client. The ability to follow directions to the letter tends to be a quality that agents LOVE to see in potential clients, since it implies the writers in question possess two skills absolutely essential to working well with an editor — no, make that three: an ability to listen or read well, a capacity for setting goals and meeting them, and a professional attitude.

So getting the contents of the submission packet right is monumentally important. So if you receive the request in the course of a pitch meeting, take the time to write down a list of what the agent is asking you to send. Read it back to him to make sure you caught everything. (Trust me, if you’re face-to-face with an agent who has just said yes to you, you won’t be thinking with your usual clarity.)

If the agent makes the request in writing, read the missive through several times, then sit down and make a list of what he’s asked you to send. Wait at least 24 hours before re-reading the communication to double-check that every requested item made it onto the list. THEN assemble your submission packet, checking off each element as you place it into the envelope or box.

Clever reader Tad came up with a brilliant extra level of security: after you have assembled the submission packet, hand it, your list, and a copy of the letter from the agent to someone you trust — a parent, a significant other, a best friend, or any other friendly, detail-oriented person you’re relatively certain isn’t harboring a secret desire to see you miserable — and ask that person to check that (a) the letter and the list correspond exactly and (b) you’ve included every necessary element in the packet.

Yes, it’s THAT vital to get it right.

Throughout the last few paragraphs, I’ve been sensing some confusion out there. “But Anne,” a few timid souls pipe up, “am I missing something here? How difficult could it possibly be to print up the number of pages the agent requests, place them in an envelope, and pop it in the mail? Are you saying that he might ask to see something other than the manuscript?”

Often, yes. There are also a couple of elements that any US-based agent will expect to see, whether or not he asks you to include them.

What might an agent ask to be sent — and what should you always send anyway?
Since there is no industry-wide standardization of what precisely belongs in a submission packet, any given agent may ask for a different array — and you already know to send precisely what each asks you to send, right? However, the most commonly-requested elements are:

* The requested pages in standard manuscript format, unbound. The most popular lengths to ask for are the first chapter, the first three chapters, the first 50 pages, the first 100 pages, and the entire manuscript. If you’re unfamiliar with the way a professional manuscript should look (hint: not like a published book, nor is it identical to a short story submission), please see the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right.

A few cautionary notes, just in case any of you forget to check the formatting posts: manuscripts absolutely must be double-spaced, in 12-point type (preferably Times, Times New Roman, or Courier), printed on only one side of the page with one-inch margins, and feature indented paragraphs. (No, business format is not proper here — for a full explanation why, please see the BUSINESS FORMAT VS INDENTED PARAGRAPHS category at right.)

* A synopsis. For fiction, this is a description of the major twists and turns of the plot, told as vividly as possible. (Remember what I said last time about every syllable you submit to an agent being a writing sample?) For nonfiction, it’s a summary of the central question the book will address, why the question is important to answer, and a brief indication of what evidence you will use to bolster your arguments. For tips on how to pull this off in what is often an intimidatingly small number of pages, please see the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS and/or NONFICTION SYNOPSES categories at right.)

* An author bio. This is an extended version of the 1-paragraph description of your life, with emphasis upon your writing credentials, your education, and any experience that would lead an observer to regard you as an expert on the subject matter of your book. For a crash course on how to write one, please see the HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category. (Hey, I wasn’t kidding about there being a whole lot of elucidation of details on this site.)

* The book proposal. As I mentioned earlier in this series, book proposals are marketing packets used to sell nonfiction. For an explanation of what should go into it and how to put it together, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category. (This is starting to read like the back of a greatest hits album, isn’t it?

* A marketing plan. This request was unheard-of for novels until just a couple of years ago, but recently, the marketing plan has been enjoying a vogue. For fiction, it’s the same document as the similar section in the book proposal (and thus a description of how to write one may be found under the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category): a description the target audience for the book and how to reach them. Bear in mind that what anyone who asks to see a marketing plan has in mind is what the AUTHOR will be doing to promote the book, not the publishing house’s efforts, so just saying, “I will make myself available to go on a book tour,” probably isn’t going to impress anybody. Think creatively: who is your target reader, and where do folks like that congregate?

Those are what an agent will probably ask to see. For tips on how to present these professionally, how to box them up, in what order they should be stacked, etc., please to see the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category at right.

Here is a list of what she will almost certainly not mention in her request, but your submission will appear substantially more professional if you include:

* A cover letter thanking the agent for asking to see the requested materials and repeating the writer’s contact information. I’m always astonished at how many aspiring writers just throw a manuscript into an envelope without even attempting any polite preliminaries. It’s rude — and, given how many queries an agency processes in any given week, it’s not a grand idea to assume that the person who opens your submission envelope (almost certainly the screener, Millicent, whom we met yesterday, not the agent herself), will instantly recall who you are. (For guidelines on how to construct this important missive, please see the COVER LETTERS FOR SUBMISSIONS category at right.

* A title page for your work. Again, most submitters omit this, but an already-established writer would never dream of submitting a manuscript anywhere without a title page, since a professional title page includes information absolutely vital to marketing the book: the book category, the word count, the title (of course), the author’s contact information. (For an explanation of all of these elements, how to put them together on a page, and illustrations of what a professionally-formatted title page looks like, please see the TITLE PAGES category on the list at right.)

* A stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE). As with queries, not including a SASE is generally considered an instant-rejection offense. While it’s classy to include a letter-sized SASE in case the agent wants to respond in writing, the SASE in a submission is an envelope or box labeled with your address and enough postage (stamps, not metered) to mail it back to you. (If that sounds complicated, don’t fret: you’ll find a complete explanation of how to handle the many permutations of SASE use under the SASE GUIDELINES category at right.)

Why do you need to include a SASE for your manuscript’s return? Well, unless the agent decides to sign you to a representation contract, she’s not going to hang onto your manuscript — and since not all agencies have recycling programs (yes, I know; it’s discouraging), those rejected pages are just going to land in the trash.

Confused? It wouldn’t be altogether surprising if you were: the logistics of submission are much more complex than the vast majority of aspiring writers realize. For a much fuller explanation of how to juggle all of these elements into a professional-looking submission package, check out the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category at right.

Oh, and a word to the wise: since agencies receive many, many submissions, both requested and not, with every single mail delivery, it’s an excellent idea to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great, big letters on the top of the envelope or box containing your submission packet. This will help ensure that your package ends up in the right pile on the right desk. As unsolicited manuscripts are almost universally rejected unread, the last thing in the world you want is for your requested materials to be mistaken for them, right?

For the same reason, if an agent has asked you to submit pages via e-mail, it’s prudent to include the words REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line of the e-mail. Better safe than sorry, I always say.

Oh, and before I forget, let me reiterate that grand old piece of traditional writerly advice from the first post in this series: never, ever send an agent — or anybody else, for that matter — your only copy of anything. To that, let me add Anne’s Axiom of Submission: never spend the money to ship anything to an agent overnight unless they specifically ask you to do so.

Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, overnight shipping will not get your packet read any quicker (of which more below), so it’s just a waste of money. WIthin the US, the significantly less expensive Priority Mail will get it there within 2-3 business days, which is quite fast enough.

Assuming that at least some of you are still with me, I shall now move on to the single most-asked question amongst submitters everywhere:

Okay, now I’ve sent my submission packet. How soon will I hear back?
Well, let me put it this way: I wouldn’t advise holding your breath. Even if you submit a partial and an agent decides that she’d like to see the rest of the book, you’re probably not going to hear about it right away.

That sounds mean, but you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache if you understand this: no matter how enthusiastically an agent solicited a manuscript, trust me, she will neither have cleared her schedule in anticipation of receiving your materials nor will drop everything to read it the instant it arrives. Unless she knows that there are other agents competing to represent you (should you find yourself in that enviable position anytime soon, congratulations, and please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category at right), she — or, more likely, her assistant — will place it in a pile along with all of the other submissions awaiting review.

As with query letters, the length of time an agency takes to make a decision on a manuscript varies wildly, but most of the time — are you sitting down? — it’s measured in months, not days or even weeks. Most agencies list their average turn-around times on their websites or in their agency guide listings, to alert aspiring writers to what can be an extended wait.

Why does it take so long, you wail? Well, as I said, there will probably be quite a few manuscripts that arrived before yours. If waiting in a queue seems unfair now, think about it again after an agent has had a manuscript for a month: how would you feel if one that arrived today were read before yours?

Another reason that turn-around times tend to be slow is — again, you might want to brace yourself — the agent who requested the materials is not usually the only, or even the first, person to read a submission. Remember our pal Millicent from yesterday? Guess what her job entails after she finishes screening all of those query letters?

That’s right: she’s usually the one deciding whether a submission makes the first cut; at some agencies, two Millicents have to agree that a manuscript is of publishable quality AND a good fit for the agency before the agent sees it.

I told you to brace yourself.

Unfortunately, as long-time readers of this blog are already glumly aware, Millicents are trained to find reasons to reject manuscripts first and foremost, rather than reasons to accept them: since her job is to thin the number of submissions her boss will have to read (often in the agent’s spare time, rather than at work, incidentally: yet another reason that turn-around times tend to be slow), a good Millicent may reject as many as 90% of submissions before they get anywhere near the agent. (For a truly frightening look at some of the most common criteria she uses to thin the herd, you might want to check out the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE or AGENCY SCREENERS’ PET PEEVES OF THE NOTORIOUS VARIETY categories at right. I warn you, however, these posts are not for the faint of heart.)

Even more unfortunately, submitters are seldom given concrete reasons for rejection any more. (For a thoroughly depressing explanation why, please see the FORM-LETTER REJECTIONS category at right.) This means, in practice, that an aspiring writer may not gain any useable revision information from the submission process at all.

I know; it’s awful. If I ran the universe, or even just the publishing industry, it would not be this way: queriers and submitters alike would receive kindly-worded explanations of why Millicent decided to reject them. Public libraries would also be open 24 hours per day, staffed by magnificently well-read and well-paid staff more than willing to stock good self-published and print-on-demand books (as most US libraries currently will not, as a matter of policy), and hand out ice cream to every child departing with a checked-out book, in order to instill in wee ones the idea that the library is the best place ever. Under my benevolent régime, schoolteachers would also be paid exceptionally well, every citizen could afford to buy a few books by promising new authors every week, and municipal fountains would flow freely with chocolate milk for all to enjoy. Oh, and Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, and Madame de Staël’s birthdays would be international holidays.

In case you may not have noticed, none of these delightful things is yet true, so I think it’s safe to assume that I don’t yet run the universe. Sorry about that.

Despite deviating sharply from what I personally would like to see happen at agencies, the submission process is far from impossible to navigate: every year, hundreds of first-time authors impress agents enough to land representation contracts. But there is a reason that acquiring an agent is so often described in fishing terms: she landed a great agent, his agent is a great catch. Sometimes they’re biting; sometimes they aren’t.

Being aware of that going into the process can help a writer keep pushing forward. Which is precisely what you need to keep doing while an agency is pondering your manuscript: keep your chin up, keep querying and submitting to other agents, and keep writing on your next book.

That’s the sane and sensible way for a savvy writer to make her way through this often intimidating and mysterious process — don’t put all of your proverbial eggs into a single basket, especially not one being toted by someone as professionally touchy as Millicent. That way lies despair.

Whatever you do during what can be an extended wait to hear back about your manuscript, DO NOT pick up the phone and call the agent to demand what on earth could possibly be taking so long. It will not get your submission read faster, and since it’s considered quite rude in the industry for a writer to try to rush a decision (interesting, considering that writers often have only a week or two to decide whether to accept a publishing offer), it’s unlikely to make you any friends at the agency.

If it’s been more than twice the length of time the agent told you to expect (or twice the average time listed on the agency’s website or guide listing), you may send a POLITE e-mail or letter, asking for confirmation that the agency has received your submission packet and offering to send another — they do occasionally go astray — but that’s it. (For a fuller analysis of this situation and other slow turn-arounds, please see the WHY HAVEN’T I HEARD BACK YET? category at right.)

Wow, that ended on a down note, didn’t it? Aren’t you glad that included that nice, cheery picture of my cat, to perk us all up?

Next time, I shall delve into an inherently happier topic: what happens after an agent decides to represent a book. Keep pressing forward, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part IV: what happens after a writer queries or pitches?

smiling-rock

Still hanging in there? I know, I know: there’s a LOT of information in this basic overview series, but if you start to find it overwhelming, just try to concentrate on the big picture, the broad strokes, rather than feverishly attempting to memorize every detail. After all, you can always come back and refresh your memory later.

One of the many charms of the blog format lies in its archives: as long as I am running Author! Author!, these posts aren’t going anywhere. So please feel free to use this series as a general overview, delve into the more specific posts on individual topics (grouped by topic for your perusing convenience on a handy list on the lower right-hand side of this page.)

Even if you are not new to the business side of art, it’s good from time to time to distance yourself from the often-trying process of trying to get your writing published. And if you doubt that, do me a favor: rise from your chair, take two steps away from the monitor, and take a gander at the photograph above.

If you don’t see the rock smiling at you, you may be focusing too much on the small picture.

Last time, I went over the three basic means of bringing your book to an agent’s attention: querying, either by sending a letter via regular mail (the classic method), approaching by sending an e-mail (the newfangled method) or through the agency’s website (the least controlable), and verbal pitching (far and away the most terrifying. Today, I’m going to talk about the various possibilities of response to your query or pitch — which, you may be happy to hear, are relatively limited and very seldom involve anyone being overtly mean.

I heard that chortling, experienced pitchers and queriers; I said overtly mean, not dismissive. There’s a big difference. And call me zany, but I find it hard to believe that the possibility of an agent’s being genuinely rude in response hadn’t occurred at least once to all of us before the first time we queried.

So to those of you who have never queried or pitched before, I reiterate: the probability that an agent will say something nasty to you about your book at the initial contact stage is quite low. S/he may not say what you want him or her to say — which is, of course, “Yes! I would absolutely love to read the book you’ve just queried/pitched!” — but s/he is not going to yell at you. (At least, not if you’re polite in your approach and s/he is professional.) At worst, s/he is going to say “No, thank you.”

And just so you’re prepared, newbies: pretty much every writer who has landed an agent within the last decade heard “No, thank you,” many, many times before hearing, “Yes, of course.” Ditto with virtually every living author who has brought a first book out within the last ten years. (At least the ones who were not already celebrities in another field; celebrities have a much easier time attracting representation. Yes, life is not fair; this is news to you?)

That’s just the way the game works these days. Translation: you should not feel bad if your first query does not elicit a positive response. Honestly, it would be unusual if it did, in the current market.

So if an agent isn’t likely either to go into raptures or to fly into an insult-spewing rage after reading a query letter or hearing a pitch, what is likely to happen? Let’s run through the possibilities.

How can a writer tell whether a query or pitch has been successful?
As we discussed last time, the query letter and pitch share a common goal: not to make the agent stand up and shout, “I don’t need to read this manuscript, by gum! I already know that I want to represent it!” but rather to induce her to ask to see pages of the manuscript. These pages, along with anything else the agent might ask the writer to send (an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis) are known in the trade as requested materials.

So figuring out whether a query or pitch did the trick is actually very simple: if the agent requested materials, it was.

Enjoying this particular brand of success does not mean that a writer has landed an agent, however: it merely means that he’s cleared the first hurdle on the road to representation. Be pleased, certainly, but remember, asking to see your manuscript does not constitute a promise, even if an agent was really, really nice to you during a pitch meeting; it merely means that she is intrigued by your project enough to think that there’s a possibility that she could sell it in the current publishing market. So send what he asks to see, of course, but keep querying other agents, just to hedge your bets.

If the agent decides not to request materials (also known as passing on the book), the query or pitch has been rejected. If so, the writer is almost invariably informed of the fact by a form letter — or, in the case of e-mailed queries, by a boilerplate expression of regret. Because these sentiments are pre-fabricated and used for every rejection, don’t waste your energy trying to read some deeper interpretation into it; it just means no, thanks. (For more on the subject, please see the FORM-LETTER REJECTIONS category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.)

Whether the response is positive or negative, it will definitely not be ambiguous: if your query has been successful, an agent will tell you so point-blank. It can be a trifle harder to tell with a verbal pitch, since many agents don’t like watching writers’ faces as they’re rejecting them — which is one reason that a writer is slightly more likely to receive a request for materials from a verbal pitch than a written query, by the way — and will try to let them down gently.

But again, there’s only one true test of whether a pitch or query worked: the agent will ask to see manuscript pages.

If you do receive such a request, congratulations! Feel free to rejoice, but do not fall into either the trap I mentioned above, assuming that the agent has already decided to sign you (he hasn’t, at this stage) or the one of assuming that you must print off the requested pages right away and overnight them to New York. Both are extremely common, especially amongst pitchers meeting agents for the first time, and both tend to get those new to submission into trouble.

Take a deep breath. You will be excited, but that’s precisely the reason that it’s a good idea to take at least a week to pull your requested materials packet together. That will give you enough time to calm down enough to make sure that you include everything the agent asked to see.

How to pull together a submission packet is a topic for another day, however — the next day I post here, in fact. Should you find yourself in the enviable position of receiving a request for submissions between now and then, please feel free to avail yourself of the in-depth advice under the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right.

In the meantime, let’s talk about some other possible agently reactions.

What if a writer receives a response other than yes or no — or no response at all?
If you receive a response that says (or implies) that the agency requires writers seeking to be clients to pay for editorial services or evaluation before signing them to contracts, DO NOT SAY YES; instead, check with the agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, or Preditors and Editors to see if the agency is legit. You may also post a question on Absolute Write. (The last has a lot of great resources for writers new to marketing themselves, by the way.)

Why should you worry about whether an agency is on the up-and-up? Well, every year, a lot of aspiring writers fall prey to scams. Again, call me zany, but I would prefer that my readers not be amongst the unlucky many.

The main thing to bear in mind in order to avoid getting taken: not everyone who says he’s an agent is one. Some of the most notorious frauds have some of the most polished and writer friendly websites.

Scams work because in any given year, there literally millions of English-speaking writers looking to land an agent and get published, many of whom don’t really understand how reputable agencies work. Scammers prey upon that ignorance — and they can often get away with it, because in the United States, there are no technical qualifications for becoming an agent. Nor is there any required license.

Yes, really: it’s possible just to hang up a shingle and start taking on clients. Or rather, start asking potential clients to pay them fees, either directly (as in the notorious We don’t work like other agencies, but we require a paid professional evaluation up front dodge; to see a full correspondence between an actual writer and such a business, check out the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right) or by referring writers to a specific editing service (i.e., one that gives the agency kickbacks), implying that using this service is a prerequisite to representation.

Reputable agents decide whether to represent a manuscript based upon direct readings; they do not require or expect other businesses to do it for them. Nor do they charge their clients up front for services (although some do charge photocopying fees). A legitimate agency makes its money by taking an agreed-upon percentage of the sales of their clients’ work.

If any so-called agent tries to tell you otherwise, back away, quickly, and consult the Association of Authors’ Representatives or Preditors and Editors immediately. (For a step-by-step explanation of how others have successfully handled this situation, run, don’t walk to the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.)

Heck, if you’re not sure if you should pay a requested fee, post a question in the comments here. I would much, much rather you did that than got sucked into a scam.

Better yet, check out any agent or agency before you query. It’s not very hard at all: the standard agency guides (like the Writers Digest GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the Herman Guide, both excellent and updated yearly) and websites like Preditors and Editors make it their business to separate the reputable from the disreputable.

Fortunately, such scams are not very common. Still, it pays to be on your guard.

More common these days is the agency that simply does not respond to a query at all. Agencies that prefer to receive queries online seem more prone to this rather rude practice, I’ve noticed, but over the last couple of years, I’ve been hearing more and more reports from writers whose queries (or even submissions, amazingly) were greeted with silence.

In many instances, it’s actually become a matter of policy: check the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides to see if they state it openly. (For tips on how to decipher these sources, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the list at right.)

A complete lack of response on a query letter does not necessarily equal rejection, incidentally, unless the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says so directly. Queries do occasionally get lost, for instance. The single most common reason a writer doesn’t hear back, though, is that the agency hasn’t gotten around to reading it yet.

Be patient — and keep querying other agents while you wait.

Seeing a pattern here? There’s a good reason that I always urge writers to continue querying and pitching after an agent has expressed interest: as I mentioned yesterday, it can take weeks or even months to hear back about a query, and an increasing number of agencies now reject queriers through silence. A writer who waits to hear from Agent #1 before querying Agent #2 may waste a great deal of time. Because agents are aware of this, the vast majority simply assume that the writers who approach them are also querying other agents; if they believe otherwise, they will say so on their websites or in their listings in agency guides.

For some guidance on how to expand your querying list so you may keep several queries out at any given time, please see the FINDING AGENTS TO QUERY category on the list at right.

What should a writer do if her query was rejected?
Again, the answer is pretty straightforward: try another agent. Right away, if possible.

What it most emphatically does not mean is that you should give up. Contrary to what virtually every rejected writer believes, rejection does not necessarily mean that the book concept is a poor one; it may just means that the agent doesn’t represent that kind of book, or that she just spent a year attempting to sell a similar book and failed (yes, it happens; landing an agent is no guarantee of publication), or that this book category isn’t selling very well at the moment.

The important thing to bear in mind is that at the query or pitching stage, the book could not possibly have been rejected because the manuscript was poorly written . The query might have been rejected for that reason, naturally, but it’s logically impossible for an agent to pass judgment on a manuscript’s writing quality without reading it.

Makes sense, right?

One piece of industry etiquette you need to bear in mind: once a writer received a formal rejection letter or e-mail, it’s considered rude to query or pitch that book project to the same agent again. (See why it’s so important to proofread your query?) At some agencies, that prohibition extends to all of the member agents; however, this is not always the case. Regardless, unless a rejecting agent actually tells a writer never to approach him again, a writer may always query again with a new book project.

Contrary to an annoyingly pervasive rumor that’s been haunting the conference circuit for years, however, being rejected by one agency has absolutely no effect upon the query’s probability of being rejected by another. There is no national database, for instance, that agents check to see who else has seen or rejected a particular manuscript (a rumor I have heard as recently as two months ago), nor do agencies maintain databases to check whether they have heard from a specific querier before. If you’re going to get caught for re-querying the same agency, it will be because someone at the agency remembers your book project.

You really don’t want to tempt them by sending the same query three months after your last was rejected, though; people who work at agencies tend to have good memories, and an agent who notices that he’s received the same query twice will almost always reject it the second time around, on general principle. In this economy, however, it’s certainly not beyond belief that an agent who feels that he cannot sell a particular book right now may feel quite differently a year or two hence.

I leave the matter of whether to re-query to your conscience, along with the issue of whether it’s kosher to wait a year and send a query letter to an agent who didn’t bother to respond the last time around.

If your query (or manuscript, for that matter) has been rejected, whatever you do, resist the temptation to contact the agent to argue about it, either in writing or by picking up the phone. I can tell you now that it will not convince the agent that his rejection was a mistake; it will merely annoy him, and the last thing your book deserves is for the agent who rejected it to have a great story about an unusually obnoxious writer to tell at cocktail parties.

In answer to what you just thought: yes, they do swap horror stories. Seldom with names attached, but still, you don’t want to be the subject of one.

The no-argument rule is doubly applicable for face-to-face pitching. It’s just not a fight a writer can win. Move on — because, really, the only thing that will genuinely represent a win here is your being signed by another agent.

It’s completely natural to feel anger at being rejected, of course, but bickering with or yelling at (yes, I’ve seen it happen) is not the most constructive way to deal with it. What is, you ask? Sending out another query letter right away. Or four.

Something else that might help you manage your possibly well-justified rage at hearing no: at a good-sized agency — and even many of the small ones — the agent isn’t necessarily the person doing the rejecting. Agencies routinely employ agent-wannabes called agency screeners, folks at the very beginning of their careers, to sift through the huge volume of queries they receive every week. Since even a very successful agent can usually afford to take on only a small handful of new clients in any given year, in essence, the screener’s job is to reject as many queries as possible.

Here at Author! Author!, the prototypical agency screener has a name: Millicent. If you stick around this blog for a while, you’re going to get to know her pretty well.

Typically, agents give their Millicents a list of criteria that a query must meet in order to be eligible for acceptance, including the single most common reason queries get rejected: pitching a type of book that the agent does not represent. There’s absolutely nothing personal about that rejection; it’s just a matter of fit.

Why, you ask? Read on.

Book categories and why they are your friends
As I brought up earlier in this series, no single agent represents every kind of book there is: like editors at publishing houses, they specialize. While this may seem frustrating or confusing to an aspiring writer new to the agent-seeking process, in the long run, it’s actually in the writer’s interest. As we saw a few days ago, agents sell their clients’ work by taking it to editors they know already to be interested in the subject matter or genre — and because they make money only if they can sell their clients’ work, it isn’t to their benefit to show a book to anyone who isn’t likely to publish it.

Rather than relying upon vague impressions about who likes what kind of book or time-consuming descriptions of every single book on offer, everyone in the publishing industry uses specific terms when discussing them. Each type of book has a one- or two-word description known in the publishing industry as a book category.

The people an agent knows at publishing houses who she is positive will be interested in the types of books she sells AND respect her opinion about writing enough to take her calls are known as her connections. The better an agent’s track record of selling a particular type of book, the better and more extensive her connections will be. Similarly, if an agency has a long history of selling a certain type of book, even junior agents there may reasonably be expected to have pretty good connections for it.

Thus the frequent appeal of a large and/or well-established agency over a small or newer one: when the agents enjoy good connections, it’s easier for them to slip a first-time author’s manuscript under the right pair of eyes. Everyone benefits.

However, good connections require agent specialization. The publishing industry is immense and complex; it would be impossible for even the best-established agent to have connections for every conceivable type of book. By concentrating upon just a few kinds of manuscript, then, an agent can concentrate upon his established areas of strength.

What does this mean for the average aspiring writer? Glad you asked.

Writers, too, are specialists, even ones like me who write several different types of book. However broad one’s interests and capacities might be, no one is going to write in every conceivable book category, right? Therefore, it’s in each writer’s interest to have his work represented not by just any old agent, but by one who shares his interests — and, more importantly, who already has the connections to sell his books.

In other words, specialists of a feather should flock together.

Agents are well aware of the substantial benefits of such an arrangement, which is why they are seldom reticent about the kinds of books they want. They will state the book categories they represent right on their websites, in their listings in the standard agency guides, and often in their biographical blurbs in writers’ conference brochures as well. So there’s no mystery to finding out who represents what: it’s usually as easy as a straightforward Google search or opening a book.

Benefiting from knowledge so obtained, however, requires that an aspiring writer be aware of the book category into which his book most comfortably fits. If you’re not sure how to figure this out, you’ll find some guidance in the aptly-named BOOK CATEGORIES archives on the list at right.

Select one that already exists, if you please, rather than just making one up. You should also pick just one, rather than stringing a few together into an unholy hyphenate like Mystery-Women’s Fiction-Western. Generally speaking, aspiring writers agonize far too much over making the right choice: just pick one. Remember, the goal here is not to cover every topic in the book, but rather to give your future agent and editor some indication of who is likely to buy your book and on which shelf at Barnes & Noble a reader might eventually find it.

It’s a technical designation, after all, not a summary.

Do be aware, too, that many categories overlap (fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground), so you may not find a perfect fit. That’s fine; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it.

If you live in the U.S. or Canada, a good place to start is by tracking down a recently-released paperback or trade paper book similar to yours and examining the back cover. Many publishers will display the book category in one of two places, in the upper-left corner:

sarah-vowells-back-cover-ii

Actually, now that I’ve posted it, I notice that Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer) is listed in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (Seriously, it’s funny.)

The other common locale for a book category is in the box with the barcode:

jonathan-selwood-back-cover

Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since Jonathan Selwood’s THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (six rows’ worth of passengers on an airplane thought I was having some sort of fit because I was laughing so hard at one point; once I had fended off medical assistance and read the passage in question out loud, the flight attendants came running to find out what was wrong with all of us) partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, that seems rather appropriate.

I’m not sure if the photo will reproduce clearly enough for you to see it, but Mssr. Selwood’s book is designated merely as fiction. Counter-intuitively, this general-sounding moniker refers to something quite specific: novels for adults that do not fit into a genre designation. For all of you whose first thought upon my telling you that you would need to narrow down your complex 400-page book into a one- or at most two-word category choice, this might be a good selection.

It can be rather a pain to decide, admittedly, but once you have determined your book’s category, the hunt for an agent to represent it becomes substantially simpler: you don’t even need to consider approaching an agent who doesn’t represent your category.

Okay, that’s more than enough for one day. Next time, I shall give you a bird’s-eye view of what happens to requested materials after they arrive at an agency. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part III: we get by with a little help from our friends

crooked-wall

The World’s Worst Landscaper™ struck again yesterday, those of you who have been following the saga of our yard renovation for the last year will no doubt be delighted to hear, and with more than his usual vim. Even in a career marked by a totally illogical determination to regard both clients’ requests and local building codes as Philistinic and inexplicable barriers to the free expression of his Artistic Vision™.

What did he do this time? Well, let me ask you: notice anything slightly odd about the wall above? Say, a minor balance problem?

No? How about here?

terrible-stonework

Still no? Would it help if you knew that the dirt is currently holding the stones up, rather than the other way around? Or that the purpose of constructing this wall was to prevent the hillside from sliding down onto the patio?

I had meant to use that last picture to illustrate the problems with the wall, but now that I come to look at it, it’s not a bad representation of some of the issues with the patio as well. (Those dark bits on the ground are gaps in the paving, cleverly designed to entrap a lady’s heels and fling her onto those pretty daffodils.) Here’s a closer look at the wall itself; see if you can spot why such a construction might present certain hazards in earthquake country:

wall-after-earthquake

If God is in the details, as architect Mies van der Rohe was fond of saying, the WWL seems to be worshipping at some strange altars. I suspect that even Pan, that great ancient celestial advocate of chaos, would take one look at that wall, set down his pipes, and ask, “Um, did he actually mean it to turn out like that?”

Good question, Pan. If the WWL hadn’t vanished immediately after completing the structure above — or, indeed, if we had been aware that he would be showing up at all yesterday — we might have asked him.

The amazing thing is, the WWL’s lack of attention to detail wasn’t even the most startling “Wow, and you do this professionally?” moment I had yesterday. A cell phone provider asked me to fill out a rebate form that did not include any spaces to note my name, address, or any other information that might conceivably allow them to, say, send me a rebate. A bank teller spent a full two minutes informing me that if a wire transfer involved Euros, the bank would use the exchange rate applicable at the instant the transfer was made on Monday — and then, without missing a beat, asked me how much the transaction would be in American dollars. A billboard on my way home urged commuters, “Go humans go,” evidently on the assumption that including the grammatically necessary commas in that statement would slow all of us down. My mother called her phone company to report a line problem, and after her line had gone dead twice during the conversation, a representative tried to tell her that the line was fine.

And just a few moments ago, I noticed that a columnist for one of my local papers had used funnest in a sentence. In print. Apparently unironically.

The Visigoths are at the gate, in short, and I don’t think they’re here to deliver pizza.

Since I toil in an industry where every detail is expected to be correct before anyone else claps eyes on one’s work — and so do you, incidentally, if you intend your writing for publication — I am perpetually astonished by this kind of “Oh, well, close enough!” attitude. But then, I still find it hard to wrap my head around the notion that any aspiring writer even considering submitting a manuscript to an agent, editor, or contest without having proofread it, yet I am constantly confronted with evidence that this behavior is the norm.

Just in case any of you were pondering conformity to this particular trend, missing words, typos, and formatting inconsistencies drive people who read manuscripts for a living completely nuts. The ones who are good at their jobs, anyway. To a detail-oriented professional reader, a misspelled word or grammatical error seems just as out of place as the bizarrely-set stones in the photographs above. To them, those types of easily-preventable errors just seem unprofessional, the sign of a writer who thinks, “Oh, well, close enough!”

That may not be an entirely fair assessment of a submission or contest entry, since writers who care a great deal about their work are often in a terrible hurry to get them out the door and into the mail, but nevertheless, I can guarantee you that on any given minute of any given New York City workday, some Millicent screening submissions (or even queries, sacre bleu!) will be muttering, “Doesn’t this writer ever read his own work?”

Astonishingly, many don’t. Aspiring writers savvy enough to sit down with a hard copy of their manuscripts, a sharp pencil, and a warm, possibly caffeinated beverage represent a tiny minority of the submitting public, I’m sorry to report.

Oh, most will take a gander at a scene or chapter immediately after they compose it, of course, but not necessarily after revising it. Let’s face it, writers are prone to tinkering with already-composed pages, moving text around, sharpening dialogue, tightening pacing, and so forth. There’s nothing inherently wrong with tendency, of course, but the cumulative result of even a handful of miniscule changes in a scene can often be a paragraph, scene, or chapter that does not read with the consistency of a smooth, continuous narrative.

And don’t even get me started on how infrequently revising writers make larger changes with absolute accuracy throughout a manuscript. Every editor — and Millicent, and contest judge — has a few amusing stories about the protagonist’s brother named Joe in Chs. 1, 4, and 6, Jim in Chs. 2, 3, and 17, and Jack everywhere else.

I’m going to be talking at length about this species of revision problem over the next week or two, after I polish off the current series on how manuscripts come to publication. I’m just bringing it up now because the WWL reminded me so forcibly of the virtues of consistency — and so you may start giving some thought to the benefits of setting aside some serious time to read your own work in its current state, rather than assuming, as too many submitters and contest entrants apparently do, that what you think is on the page is precisely what is there, despite all of that tinkering.

Clutching a warm beverage while you peruse is optional, naturally.

Let’s get back to our series already in progress, shall we? For the last couple of posts, I’ve been attempting to give writers brand-new to the daunting challenge of trying to get their books published — and writers at every other stage of experience as well — an overview of how a book’s interaction with a major publisher actually works. Too many aspiring writers believe, mistakenly, that all that’s necessary for a book to get published is to write it. However, as any author whose first book came out within the last decade could tell you, bringing one’s writing to the publishing industry’s attention can be almost as much work as the composition process — and has been known to take just as long or longer.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s vital to understand that extended, frustrating, and difficult roads to publication are the norm for first books these days, not the exception.

As a result, clinging to the common writerly misconception that if writing is any good, it will always be picked up by the first or second agent who sees it, or that a manuscript that doesn’t find a publisher within the first few submissions must not be well-written, is a sure road to discouragement. Since the competition in the book market is fierce by the standards of any industry, realistic expectations are immensely helpful in equipping even the most gifted writer for the long haul.

It can also be hugely beneficial in tracking down and working well with the helpful friend who will be toting your manuscript to publishers for you, your agent. As we saw in my last couple of posts, a writer honestly does need an agent these days in order to have any realistic hope of getting published by a major U.S. publishing house.

That much we already know. So how does a writer go about acquiring this valuable assistant? Unless one happens to be intimate friends with a great many well-established authors, one has two options: verbally and in writing. Since most aspiring writers take the written route, let’s talk about it first.

Before we begin, I should stress that the following are an aspiring writer’s only options for calling a US-based agent’s attention to his or her work. Picking up the phone and calling, stopping them on the street, or other informal means of approach are considered quite rude in the industry.

As is mailing or e-mailing a manuscript to an agent without asking first if s/he would like to see it, by the way; this is generally considered an instant-rejection offense. Unlike in the old days we’ve been discussing over the last couple of posts, simply sending to an agent who has never heard of you will only result in your work being rejected unread: uniformly, agencies reject submissions they did not actually ask to see (known as unsolicited submissions).

Is everyone clear on how to avoid seeming rude? Good. Let’s move on to the accepted courteous means of introducing yourself and your book.

Approaching an agent in writing: the query letter
The classic means of introducing one’s book to an agent is by sending a formal letter, known in the trade as a query. Contrary to popular belief, the query’s goal is not to convince an agent to represent the book in question — no agent is going to offer to represent a book or proposal before she’s read it — but to prompt the agent to ask the writer to send either the opening pages of the manuscript or the whole thing. After that, your good writing can speak for itself, right?

Think of the query as your book’s personal ad, intended to pique an agent’s interest, not as the first date.

Always limited to a single page in length, the query letter briefly presents the agent with the bare-bones information s/he will need in order to determine whether s/he wants to read any or all of the manuscript the writer is offering. A good query should include, but is not limited to, the following — and no, none of these are optional:

*Whether the book is fiction or nonfiction. You’d be surprised at how often queriers forget to mention which.

*The book category. Basically, the part of the bookstore where the publishing book will occupy shelf space. Since no agent represents every kind of book, this information is essential: if an agent doesn’t have connections with editors who publish the type of book you’re querying, he’s not going to waste either your time or his by asking to see it. (For guidance on how to determine your book’s category, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES listing on the archive list on the lower-right side of this page.)

It’s also a good idea, but not strictly required, to point out who might be interested in reading your book and why; an agent is going to want to know that at some point, anyway. Of course, I’m not talking about boasting predictions like, “Oh, Random House would love this!” or “This is a natural for Oprah!” (you wouldn’t believe how often agents hear that last one) or sweeping generalizations like, “Every woman in America needs to read this book!” Instead, try describing it the way a marketing professional might: “This book will appeal to girls aged 13-16, because it deals with issues they face in their everyday lives. (For tips on figuring out who your book’s audience might be with this much specificity, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right.)

*A one- or two-paragraph description of the book’s argument or plot. No need to summarize the entire plot here, merely the premise, but do make sure that the writing is vivid. For a novel or memoir, this paragraph should introduce the book’s protagonist, the main conflict or obstacles she faces, and what’s at stake if she does or does not overcome them. For a nonfiction book, this paragraph should present the central question the book addresses and suggest, briefly, how the book will address it.

*The writer’s previous publishing credentials or awards, if any, and/or expertise that renders her an expert on the book’s topic. Although not necessarily indicative of the quality of a book’s writing, to an agent, these are some of your book’s selling points. For tips on figuring out what to include here, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category on the list at right.

*Some indication of why the writer thinks the agent to whom the letter is addressed would be a good representative for the book. As I mentioned above, agents don’t represent books in general: they represent specific varieties. Since they so often receive queries from aspiring writers who are apparently sending exactly the same letter indiscriminately to every agent in the country, stating up front why you chose to pick THIS agent is an excellent idea. No need to indulge in gratuitous flattery: a simple since you so ably represented Book X or since you represent literary fiction (or whatever your book category is) will do.

Should any of you have been considering querying every agent in the country, be warned: it’s a sure route to rejection, especially if a writer makes the mistake of addressing the letter not to a specific person, but Dear Agent. Trust me on this one.

*The writer’s contact information. Another one that you might be astonished to learn is often omitted. Yet if the agent can’t get ahold of you, she cannot possibly ask to you to send her your manuscript, can she?

*A stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) for the agent’s reply. This isn’t part of the letter, strictly speaking, but it absolutely must be included in the envelope in which you send your query. No exceptions, not even if you tell the agent in the query that you would prefer to be contacted via e-mail.

I’m serious about this: don’t forget to include it. Queries that arrive without SASEs are almost universally rejected unread. (For tips on the hows and whys of producing perfect SASEs, please see the SASE GUIDELINES category on the list at right.)

Is there more to constructing a successful query letter than this? Naturally — since I’ve written extensively about querying (posts you will find under the perplexingly-named HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the archive list, if you’re interested) and how it should look (QUERY LETTERS ILLUSTRATED), the list above is not intended to be an exhaustive guide to how to write one.

Speaking of realistic expectations, do not be disappointed if you do not receive an instantaneous response to your query. Because a well-established agent may receive 800 to 1500 queries per week (yes, you read that correctly), it’s not uncommon for a regularly mailed query not to hear back for a month or six weeks. Some agencies do not respond at all if the answer is no. For these reasons, it’s poor strategy to query agents one at a time. (For a fuller explanation, please see the QUERYING MULTIPLE AGENTS AT ONCE category at right.)

Approaching an agent in writing, part II: the electronic or website-based query
Because of the aforementioned slow turn-around times for queries sent via regular mail, increasing numbers of aspiring writers are choosing to send their query letters via e-mail. It’s also a significantly less expensive option for writers querying US-based agents from other countries. (For an explanation of some ways e-querying differs from paper querying, please see E-MAILING QUERIES category at right._

Most of the time, e-querying involves sending pretty much exactly the letter I mentioned above in the body of an e-mail, rather than as an attachment. the There are advantages to doing it this way: if an agency does indeed accept e-mailed queries, the querier tends to hear back a trifle more quickly.

Did the Internet-lovers out there just do a double-take? Yes, it’s true: there are agents who will not read e-mailed queries.

Actually, until quite recently, the VAST majority of US-based agents refused to accept e-mailed queries or submissions; this is, after all, a paper-based business. However, after the anthrax scare of a few years back, many agencies reconsidered this policy, so they would not need to open as many potentially-hazardous envelopes; still others jumped on the bandwagon after e-mail became more popular. However, even today, not all agencies will allow electronic querying: check one of the standard agency guides (if you are unfamiliar with what these are and how to use them, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category at right) or the agency’s website.

If it has one.

Yes, seriously. Contrary to widespread assumption, not every agency has a site posted on the web. This means that simply doing a web search under literary agency will not necessarily provide you with an exhaustive list of all of your representation possibilities. (For tips on how to come up with a list of agents to query, check out the FINDING AGENTS TO QUERY category on the list at right. How do I come up with these obscure category titles, anyway?)

If an agency does have a website, it may be set up for queriers to fill out an electronic form that includes some or all of the information that’s in a traditional query letter. While some aspiring writers have landed agents in this manner, I tend to discourage this route, since typically, the word count allowed is sharply limited. (Some agency sites permit as few as 50 words for plot summaries, for instance.) Also, most writers just copy and paste material from their query letters into the boxes of these forms, substantially increasing the likelihood of cut-off words, missed punctuation, and formatting errors.

If you just cringed, remembering what I said above about how people who read manuscripts for a living tend to react to these types of tiny errors: congratulations. Your chances of querying successfully are substantially higher than someone who doesn’t know to conduct intense proofreading upon ANYTHING that’s s/he sends an agent.

Remember, literally every sentence you send a potential agent is a sample of how good your writing is. Regardless of whether you choose to query electronically or via regular mail, it’s in your best interests to make sure that every syllable is impeccably presented.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, written queries were the only means of approaching agents until just a few years ago, and still the means that most of them prefer. (Short of a personal introduction, of course. Writers whose college roommates or best friends from elementary school grew up to be agents enjoy an undeniable advantage in obtaining representation that the rest of us do not enjoy.) If a potential client has trouble expressing himself in writing, is ignorant of the basic rules of grammar, or is just plain inattentive to those itsy-bitsy details I mentioned above, a written query will tend to show it.

To be fair, aspiring writers often prefer to query in writing, because that, after all, is presumably their strength. Besides, there are a lot of very talented but shy writers out there who would infinitely prefer to present their work from a distance, rather than in person. However, direct interaction with an agent is sometimes an option.

Approaching an agent verbally: the pitch
A face-to-face presentation of a book concept to an agent is called a pitch, and it’s actually not indigenous to publishing; it’s borrowed from the movie industry, where screenwriters pitch their work verbally all the time. The reason that the publishing industry has been rather reluctant to follow suit is a corollary of the proof-is-in-the-pudding reason I mentioned above: not everyone who can talk about a book well can write one successfully, just as not every writer capable of producing magnificent prose is equally adept at describing it in conversation.

However, since writers’ conferences often import agents to speak, many set up formal pitching sessions for attendees. Sometimes they charge extra for the privilege; sometimes it’s included in the conference fee. (It’s also occasionally possible to buttonhole an agent after a seminar or in a hallway, but many conference organizers frown upon that. And no matter how much you want a particular agent to represent you, it’s NEVER considered acceptable to attempt to pitch in a conference or literary event’s bathroom. Don’t let me catch you doing it.)

Like the query letter, the purpose of the pitch is not to convince the agent to sign a writer to a long-term representation contract on the spot, but to get the agent to ask the writer to mail him or her chapters of the book. (Contrary to what conference brochures often imply, agents virtually never ask a pitcher to produce anything longer than a five-page writing sample on the spot. Since manuscripts are heavy, they almost universally prefer to have writers either mail or e-mail requested pages. I don’t know why conference organizers so seldom tell potential attendees otherwise.) In order to achieve that, you’re going to need to describe your book compellingly and in terms that will make sense to the business side of the industry.

In essence, then, a pitch is a verbal query letter.

Thus, it should contain the same information: whether it is fiction or nonfiction, the book category, the target audience, any writing credentials or experience you might have that might provide selling points for the book, and a BRIEF plot summary. Most conference organizers are adamant about the brief part: their guidelines will commonly specify that the summary portion should take no more than 2 minutes.

Did I just hear all of you novelists out there gulp? You honestly do not have a lot of time here: pitch sessions may range in length anywhere from 2-15 minutes, but most are 5-10.

Usually, they are one-on-one meetings in a cramped space where many other writers are noisily engaged in pitching to many other agents, not exactly an environment conducive to intimate chat. At some conferences, though, a number of writers will sit around a table with an agent, pitching one after the other.

Yes, that’s right: as if this situation weren’t already stressful enough, you might have to be doing this in front of an audience.

While the opportunity to spend telling a real, live agent about your book I’m going to be honest with you: the vast majority of aspiring writers find pitching absolutely terrifying, at least the first time they do it. Like writing a good query letter, constructing and delivering a strong pitch is not something any talented writer is magically born knowing how to do: it’s a learned skill. For some help in learning how to do it, please see the HOW TO PREPARE A PITCH category on the list at right.

Those are the basic three ways for writers to approach agents; next time, I’ll talk a bit about what happens to a query after it arrives at an agency, how agents decide whether to ask to see a manuscript, and the submission process. After that, we’ll loop the agent segment of this series back into the earlier discussion of how the big publishing houses acquire books, before moving on to brief overviews of how smaller and independent publishing houses work differently (and how they work similarly) and self-publishing.

As always, if you are looking for in-depth analysis on any of these subjects or step-by-step how-tos, try perusing the category list at right. Since I usually tackle these issues on a much more detail-oriented basis — a hazard of my calling, I’m afraid — I’m finding it quite interesting to paint the picture in these broad strokes.

Thank you for joining me in my ongoing quest to keep the Visigoths at bay. Keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part II: show me the money!

pile-of-money

My last post was so excessively long that I wore myself out, apparently: thus the skipped day between posts. I honestly hadn’t planned it that way. Let’s see if I learned my lesson sufficiently to keep today’s within a more reasonable range.

Stop your chortling, long-time readers. Perhaps it’s unlikely that I’ll be terse, given my track record, but I’ll give it the proverbial old college try.

For those of you who happened to miss Tuesday’s epic, I’m devoting a few days this week to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for now, I’m concentrating upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York.

Everyone clear on the parameters — and that what I am about to say might not be applicable to a big publishing house in Paris, Johannesburg, or Vladivostok? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time — and while we’re at it, let’s get conversant with some of the terms of the trade.

How a manuscript typically comes to publication at a major U.S. publishing house these days (as opposed to way back when)
As we discussed yesterday, fiction is typically sold as a completed manuscript; nonfiction is usually sold as a book proposal, a packet of marketing materials that includes a sample chapter and a competitive market analysis, showing how the proposed book will offer the target readership something different and better than similar books already on the market. While the proposal will also include a summary of each of the chapters in the book-to-be-written (in a section known as the annotated table of contents; for tips on how to construct this and the other constituent parts of a book proposal, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at right), the editor will often ask the writer to add or subtract chapters or change the book’s running order.

Which underscores a point I made last time: a nonfiction book proposal is essentially a job application wherein the writer is trying to convince the publisher to pay him to write the book being proposed; a novel is a product that the author is trying to sell.

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come.

A hundred years ago, writers who wished to get their books published went about it in a fairly straightforward manner, by approaching editors at major publishing houses directly. If the editor the author approached liked the book, he would take it to what was (and still is) known as an editorial committee, a group of editors and higher-ups who collectively decided what books the house would bring out in the months and years to come. If the editorial committee decided to go ahead with the project, the publisher would typically pay the author an advance against projected royalties, edit the manuscript, and have it typeset (by hand, no less).

Today, a writer who intends to approach a large U.S. publisher must do so through an agent. The agent’s job is to ferret out which editors might be interested in her clients’ books and pitch to them. Unless an editor happens to be exceptionally well-established at his or her house, however, s/he is not the only one who needs to approve a book’s acquisition: typically, the book will still go before an editorial committee.

At that point, back in the day as well as now, it’s the editor’s turn to be the advocate for the book s/he wants to publish — and that’s not always an easy task, because other editors will be fighting for their pet projects at the meeting as well. Since a publishing house can only afford to bring out a very small number of books in any given marketing season, the battle for whose project will see print can become quite intense, and not only amongst the editors around the table. At a large publishing house, the marketing and legal departments might weigh in as well.

If a manuscript makes it through the hurly-burly of the editorial committee, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, they will stipulate that in return for pocketing the lion’s share of the profits, the publisher would bear all of the production and promotional costs, as well as responsibility for getting the book onto bookstore shelves.

In return, the author will agree to provide the manuscript for by a particular date (usually quite soon for a novel — which, as you will recall, is already written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. If the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

Some of you just had a strong visceral reaction to the idea of being asked to alter your manuscript, didn’t you? If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Camomile tea might be a good choice.)

Why? Because when an author signs a book contract, she’s agreeing to more than allowing the publisher to print the book.

Control over the text itself
While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will go into the finished book. The contract will say so. And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book. (Sorry about that, but it’s better that you’re aware of this fact going in.)

How do I know? Experience, mostly. After all, pretty much every first-time author faced with editorial demands has attempted to declare something along the lines of, “Hey, buddy, I’m the author of this work, and what you see on the page represents my artistic vision. Therefore, I refuse to revise in accordance with your (boneheaded) suggestion. Oh, well, that’s that.” Or at least thought it very loudly indeed.

That’s an argument that might conceivably work for a well-established, hugely marketable author, but as virtually all of those aforementioned first-time authors could tell you, no one, but no one, at a publishing house is going to find the “My art — my way!” argument particularly compelling.

Or even original.

Why? Well, remember my earlier quip about how publishing houses can only bring out a few titles in any book category per year, far, far more than their editors would like to bring to press?

Uh-huh. It’s never wise to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to people so well equipped with alternatives that they can easily afford to leave it. Especially if the issue in question is something as small as cutting your favorite paragraph.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you — although it’s not all that difficult to imagine its having that effect, admittedly — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling over every single requested change with your editor. If you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something; editorial control is built into the publishing process. Learning to pick your battles, figuring out when give in gracefully and when to go to the mat, will serve both your interests and your book’s best in the long run.

May I hear an amen? No? How about a few begrudging grunts of acknowledgment? Well, suit yourself, but if you found that last argument trying, you might want to find something to bite down upon before you read on.

Why, you ask with trembling voice? Well, final say over the actual text and the ability to determine the timing of publication are not generally the only authorial rights one signs over via a publishing contract.

A few little matters that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like. Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

Hey, don’t blame me — I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly), believe me, my sympathies are mostly on the writers’ side here. (And no, no employee of my former publishing house was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant.)

My point is, while landing a publication contract for a first book is certainly a coup, you’ll have a much, much happier life as a professional writer if you don’t expect it all to be one big literary luncheon where the glitterati congratulate you warmly on the beauty of your prose and the insight of your book’s worldview. It’s going to be hard work — for a crash course in just how hard many first-time authors find it, please see the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the list at right — and if you’re going to be successful at it, you’re going to need to come to terms with what you can and cannot control.

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book — and no, it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. Historically, the author’s percentage has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback; until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

In the last 15-20 years, however, fiction (and quite a bit of nonfiction, too) has increasingly been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a pocket or backpack, so the earlier review restriction has softened. That’s definitely good news for first-time novelists, as well as those of us who like to lug around several different books when we travel.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, they will tell the author when the book will actually be printed. Since much must happen between the time the editor receives a finished manuscript and when it goes to press, the contracted date by which the author must provide the book is typically months prior to the print date. This often comes as a surprise to a first-time author.

If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence. The main manifestation of this: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year.

And that’s for fiction — which, as you will no doubt recall, is already written before the publisher has any contact with the book at all. For nonfiction, the time lapse is often substantially longer, in order to permit the author to write the book in question.

The moral: although one does indeed see books on current news stories hitting the shelves within a matter of weeks (the OJ Simpson trial, anyone?), that is most emphatically not the norm. A savvy writer takes this into account when constructing a narrative, avoiding references that might seem absolutely up-to-the-minute when he first types them, but will be as stale as last year’s fashions a year or two hence, when the book is finally available for readers to buy.

I could go on and on about timing and control issues, but I’m seeing some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the folks attached to those hands ask timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t. Let’s take a closer look at how and when a writer might conceivably start cashing in for those manuscripts and/or book proposals she’s written on spec.

How authors get paid for their books
An author who publishes through a large publisher is paid a pre-agreed proportion of the book’s sale price, known as a royalty. An advance against royalties (known colloquially just as an advance) is an up-front payment of a proportion of what the publisher expects the author’s percentage of the jacket price for the initial print run (i.e., the total number of books in the first edition).

Thus, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. And because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

Since approximately 2/3rds of you just gasped audibly, let me repeat that last bit: the advance is not in addition to royalties, but a prepaid portion of them. An advance is not a signing bonus, as most people think, but a down payment toward what a publisher believes it will eventually owe the author.

While your jaw is already dropped, let me hasten to add that royalties over and above the advance amount are usually not paid on an as-the-books-sell basis, which could entail the publisher’s cutting a check every other day, but at regularly-scheduled intervals. Once every six months is fairly standard.

Don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so.

The moral: read your publication contract carefully. If you don’t understand what it says, ask your agent to explain it to you; it’s her job.

Those hands just shot up again, didn’t they? “I’m glad you brought that up, Anne. You’ve made it clear why I would need an agent to help me though this process, which sounds like a drawn-out and somewhat unpredictable one. So how do I go about finding the paragon who will protect me and my work?”

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers — but I’m afraid agent-seeking is a topic for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway?

printing-press-woodcut

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a nice, long time are no doubt already aware, many of my best ideas for blog posts come from readers’ comments and questions. Frequently, readers will frame questions that, if I’m honest about it, just wouldn’t occur to those of us who deal with manuscripts professionally to pose. For instance, why a manuscript should feature indented paragraphs (the answer is yes, in case any of you were wondering) or whether it’s permissible to have the slug line in the header and the page number in the footer (the answer is no) are just not questions that would come up if one stares at properly-formatted manuscripts all day.

Or improperly-formatted ones, for that matter. I know it may seem a bit hard for writers new to standard format to believe, but after a while, you honestly do develop an almost visceral sense of what looks right and what looks wrong on a page. (And for those of you who just wondered, “What does she mean, standard format?” never fear: I’m going to be revisiting the right way to format a manuscript for submission very soon. Improved by reader questions and comments from the last time I went over the rules, naturally.)

As fond as I am of posts that come to me in this manner, I must say, there’s a type that tickles me even more. Every so often, a reader will ask a question that prompts me to murmur, “Oh, go look in the archives — I must have covered that at some point on the blog,” into my tea. In my own defense, most of the time, this reaction is abundantly justified; surprisingly often, folks will apparently overlook both the MASSIVE and I think well-differentiated category list on the lower right-hand side of this page and the search engine in the upper right corner. (How do I know that they missed these? It’s not all that uncommon for someone to ask that I address a topic for which there are several specific categories on the list.)

Yet from time to time, I will find myself wondering if I actually have covered the topic in question. An hour or a day after I finished murmuring, I may well be frantically searching my own archives for something I could have sworn I posted about eons ago.

So we all have 13-year-old reader Malak to thank for the rather startling realization that I’ve never done a straightforward post explaining how books get published. You know, a single column to which I could refer someone curious about where to start.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? I’ve done dozens, if not hundreds, of posts on the intricacies of finding an agent, how to prepare a manuscript for submission, how to pitch your book at a writers’ conference, and so forth. Yet mysteriously, I have apparently neglected to address the single most likely question that a writer absolutely new to the process would be likely to ask.

I wasn’t kidding about how intuitive the ropes can seem to someone who has been climbing around on them for a lifetime.

In my own defense, this isn’t the juiciest topic for those already familiar with the basics, or one that’s likely to elicit many chuckles from my readership. In fact, bringing it up at all is practically the definition of a thankless task: not only are some of the aspects of the biz I’ll need to discuss downright depressing, but since there’s a lot of conflicting information on the subject floating around the web and the conference circuit, there’s also a high likelihood that this is going to be one of those series where readers write in, demanding that I reconcile what I’ve said here with something they’ve heard somewhere else — presuming, I suppose, that all of us who write about marketing writing regularly get together in a massive auditorium and vote on how best to get our collective story straight.

Wait — what was I thinking? Why on earth would I put all of us through that?

Oh, yeah: because this is information that everyone even considering trying to bring his book to publication needs to know. And aspiring writers who misunderstand how books do and don’t get published are likely to waste their time and resources on unsolicited submissions that will inevitably get rejected.

In other words, those of you who just murmured, “What’s an unsolicited submission?” are precisely the people for whom I am writing this. And Malak, of course. (How impressive is it that he’s completed a draft of his first book at 13, by the way? Are there other teenage members of the Author! Author! community pulling off feats like this? Leave a comment and tell us about it!)

So to our muttons: today, I’m going to begin to remedy the oversight. Because there are several ways a book can end up on a shelf in your local literary emporium, I’m going to break up the question into several parts. First, I’m going to tackle the classic means, publication through a great big publishing house.

But first, a little history — and while we’re at it, let’s debunk a few widely-believed myths.

How books used to get published during the Taft administration, or, how a surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers (mistakenly) believe the industry still works
A hundred years ago, the publication process was pretty straightforward: an author wrote a book, contacted an editor at a publishing house, and if the editor liked it, he (it was almost invariably a he) chatted about it with senior staff; if he could convince them to take a chance on the manuscript, he would edit it for publication. Printing presses were set in motion, and in due course, the book was available for sale. The publisher sent out advance copies to newspapers, so they could produce reviews.

Of course, that was back when there were few enough books published in these United States that most releases from a good-sized publishing house could garner a review in a major newspaper or magazine. Now, so many books are published in any given year that only a tiny fraction of them enjoy the substantial publicity of a newspaper or magazine.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, you’re far more likely to see a review of the eighteenth novel by an already-established author than the brilliant debut another. Assuming that the newspaper or magazine in question even carries book reviews anymore.

Back to days of yore. Amazingly, considering that authors often possessed only one copy of their manuscripts — remember, the photocopier wasn’t invented until 1938, and it wasn’t commercially available until two decades later — it wasn’t uncommon for writers just to pack their books into boxes and send them to publishers without any preliminary correspondence. The result was what’s known in the biz as an unsolicited submission, but unlike today, when a manuscript that appears on an editor’s desk out of a clear blue sky is invariably rejected unread, publishers would set these books aside until some luckless employee of the publishing house had time to go through the stack.

This ever-burgeoning source of reading material was known as the slush pile. Although solicited submissions (i.e., those that the editor has actually asked to see) have probably always enjoyed a competitive advantage, slush pile manuscripts did occasionally get discovered and published.

They also, predictably, got lost on a fairly regular basis. Thus the old writerly truism: never send anyone the only copy of your manuscript.

Because there were fewer manuscripts (and publishing houses were more heavily staffed) before the advent of the personal computer, a writer did not need an agent: it was possible to deal directly with the editor who would handle the book, or at any rate with the luckless assistant whose job it was to go through the slush pile. But back when the hefty Taft was overseeing the nation’s business, it was also still completely permissible to submit a manuscript in longhand, too.

Times change, as they say. One of the ways that time changed the publishing industry was that publishing houses began expecting to see fiction and nonfiction presented to them differently.

The fiction/nonfiction split
Both historically and now, novels were sold to publishers in pretty much the form you would expect: as complete manuscripts, and only as complete manuscripts. At least, they buy first novels that way; until fairly recently, the major publishing houses quite routinely offered fiction writers who had written promising first novels could snag a multi-book contract. It took until the 1990s for publishers to notice that a commercially successful first book is not necessarily an absolute predictor of whether the author’s second or third book will sell well.

As a result, while multi-book contracts still exist — particularly in genre fiction, which is conducive to series — they have become substantially less common. While previously-published authors can occasionally sell subsequent books based upon only a few chapters (known, unsurprisingly, as a partial), novelists should expect to write books before they can sell them.

Nonfiction, however, is typically sold not on the entire book, but via a marketing packet known as a book proposal. There are several hefty categories on the archive list at right on how to put one together, but for the purposes of this post, a generalization will suffice: a book proposal is a packet consisting of a description of the proposed book, a sample chapter, descriptions of subsequent chapters, and an array of marketing materials. Typically, these materials include everything from a detailed analysis of similar books already on the market to an explanation of who the target readership is and why this book will appeal to them to a marketing plan. Traditionally, previously published writers also include clippings of their earlier work.

Basically, a book proposal is a job application: in effect, the writer is asking the publishing house to pay her to write the book she’s proposing.

That does not, however, mean that the writer will get paid up front, at least not entirely. Because buying something that does not exist obviously entails running the risk that the author may not deliver, the advance for a book sold in this manner is typically paid in three installments, one when the publication contract is signed, another after the editor has received and accepted the manuscript, and a third when the book actually comes out.

Call it an insurance policy for authorial good behavior. Apparently, novelists are regarded as shiftier sorts, because to this day, the only acceptable proof that they can write a book is to have already written one.

Everyone clear on the fiction/nonfiction distinction? Good. Let’s move on to one of the other great cosmic mysteries.

The lingering demise of the slush pile
Just to clear up any misconceptions floating around out there: if you want to sell a book to a major U.S. publisher, you will need an agent to do it for you. The slush pile is no more; currently, all of the major houses will accept only represented manuscripts.

Like any broad-based policy, however, it comes with a few caveats. We’re only talking about the great big publishers here; there are plenty of smaller publishers that do accept direct submission. One hears tell of some children’s book divisions at major houses that still accept direct submissions; if an editor meets a writer at a conference and positively falls in love with his work, it’s not unheard-of for the editor to help the writer land an agent (usually one with whom the editor has worked recently) in order to side-step the policy. Stuff like that.

But it’s not wise to assume that you’re going to be the exception. If you’re hoping for a contract with a big publisher, get an agent first.

This was not always a prerequisite, of course. Until fairly recently, one element of that fiction/nonfiction split I was regaling you with above was that while novels had to go through an agent, nonfiction writers could submit proposals directly to publishers. Not so much anymore.

You novelists out there are a bit restive, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some of you complaining, and who could blame you? “This is starting to seem a trifle discriminatory against my ilk. NF writers are presenting substantially less writing than fiction writers; a proposal’s what, 40-60 pages, typically? As a novelist, I’m expected to produce an entire book. I would have thought that if publishing houses were going to distrust anybody enough to want an agent to vouch for ‘em, it would be the author whose book they were buying at the idea stage.”

Don’t upset yourselves, oh novelists; it’s not good for your stomach acids, and besides, since everyone needs an agent now, it’s a moot point. But I suspect that the answer to your question is that that publishers habitually receive far more fiction submissions than nonfiction ones — interesting, given the long-standing industry truism that fiction is easier to sell, both to editors and to readers. (It probably also has something to do with the fact that nonfiction books are often proposed by those with clip-worthy previous publishing credentials, such as magazine articles and newspaper columns, but believe me, the other reason would be more than sufficient.)

Before petty bickering begins to break out between fiction and nonfiction writers over a situation that has more or less vanished anyway, let’s turn our attention to a more absorbing topic: why would the big publishing houses feel so strongly about agents that they would all agree upon a represented-books-only policy?

The rise of the agent
Although many aspiring writers regard the necessity of procuring an agent as a necessary evil at best, agents perform an exceedingly important role in the current publishing market: not only do they bring brilliant new writers and amazing new books to editors’ attention, but they are now also effectively the first-round submission screeners for the publishing houses. By passing along only what they consider marketable and of publishable quality, agents thin the volume of submissions the publishers see on a monthly basis to Niagara Falls, rather than the Atlantic Ocean.

In other words: they reject so the publishers don’t have to do so.

It’s easy to resent agents for this, to think of them as the self-appointed gatekeepers of American literature, but that’s not really fair. Much of what they assure that the editors never see honestly isn’t publishable, after all; I hate to disillusion anyone (and yet here I am doing it), but as Millicent the agency screener would be the first to tell you, a hefty majority of the writing currently being queried, proposed, and submitted is not very well written. Even very promisingly-written submissions are often misformatted, or would require major editing, or just plain are not quite up to professional standards.

Or so runs the prevailing wisdom; we could debate for weeks over the extent to which that’s really true, or how difficult it often is for genuinely innovative writing to land an agent. Suffice it to say that if the major publishers believed that agents were rejecting manuscripts that their editors should be seeing, they presumably would change their policies about accepting only agented manuscripts, right?

Think about it; I think you’ll find it makes sense. You’re perfectly at liberty to continue to resent it, of course, but it will help you to understand the logic.

“Okay, Anne,” I hear some of you reluctantly conceding, “I get that if I hope to sell my book to a major U.S. publisher, I’m going to need to find myself an agent. But if you don’t mind my asking, what do I get out of the exchange, other than a possible entrée to an editorial desk?”

A good agent can do quite a bit for a writer. First, as you reluctant conceders already pointed out, an agent can make sure your manuscript or book proposal lands on the right desks: not just any old editor’s, but an editor with a successful track record in acquiring books like yours and shepherding them through the sometimes difficult publication process. (Don’t worry; I’ll be talking about that part later in this series.) Pulling that off requires both an intimate knowledge of who is looking to buy what right now — not always an easy task, considering how quickly publishing fads change and editorial staffs turn over — but also the connections to enable a successful pitch to the right audience.

In other words, for an agent to be good at his job, he can’t just send out submissions willy-nilly; he must have the experience to target the editors who are most likely to be interested in any given book.

Agents also negotiate book contracts for their clients, act as a liaison between the author and the publishing house, and help mediate any disputes that might arise. Like, for instance, if the publishing house is being a mite slow in coughing up the contracted advance.

Yes, it happens, I’m sorry to report. And if it happens to you, you’re going to want an experienced agent on your side, fighting for your dosh.

Admittedly, it will be very much in your agent’s self-interest to make sure that you’re paid: in the U.S., reputable agents earn their livings solely from commissions (usually 15%) on their clients’ work. That means, of course, that if they don’t sell books, the agency doesn’t make any money.

Think about that: agencies are seldom non-profit enterprises. Doesn’t it make sense that agents would not take on manuscripts that they do not believe they can sell in the current market, even if the writing happens to be very good indeed?

Typically, the agent will handle all of the money an author makes on her book: the publisher pays advances and royalties to the agency, not directly to the author; the agency will then deduct the agent’s percentage, cut a check for the rest, and send it to the author. In the U.S., agencies are also responsible for providing their clients and the IRS with tax information and documentation.

Since self-employed people like writers have been known to get audited from time to time, you’re going to want this level of verifiability. Trust me on this one.

To recap how things have changed since William Howard Taft roamed the earth:
Way back when: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at major publishing houses directly to market their books.
The reality now: with few exceptions, a writer will require an agent to approach a publisher for her.

Way back when: fiction and nonfiction books were marketed in the same manner, as already-completed manuscripts.
The reality now: fiction is sold on the entire manuscript; with certain exceptions, nonfiction is sold as via a book proposal.

Way back when: nonfiction writers could approach major publishing houses directly with their book proposals.
The reality now: agents submit both fiction and nonfiction books on behalf of their authors.

Way back when: agents played a substantially smaller role in the overall dynamic of U.S. publishing.
The reality now: they largely determine which manuscripts editors will and will not see.

Way back when: an author often formed a personal relationship with his editor and other publishing house staff, sometimes lasting decades.
The reality now: the editor who acquires a book may not still be the editor handling it by the time it goes to press; a good agent can do a lot to help smooth over any resulting difficulties.

Whew — that’s quite a lot of information to absorb in a single post, isn’t it? I’m going to stop for the day, to give all of this time to sink in. Next time, on to what happens to a book after an agent submits it to an editor at a publishing house!

Yes, yes, I know: this isn’t precisely fun material to cover, but you will be happier in the long run if you’re familiar with it. And the next time a new reader like Malak asks how publishing works, I’ll know exactly which part of the archives will hold the answer.

Keep up the good work!

Legal assistance for Washington state writers

Hey, writers based in Western Washington–

Puzzled about copyright? Looking to protect yourself from lawsuits over your memoir? Not sure what you can say about whom when? The Washington Lawyers for the Arts might be able to give you some inexpensive legal advice — and not just if you happen to be hanging out in the greater Seattle metro area, either.

This spring, the WLA is taking its act on the road, a hugely exciting development. They shall be offering clinics up and down Western Washington, so if you have an arts-related issue weighing on your mind, this would be an excellent opportunity to run your concerns past a pro.

wla-logo
Arts Legal Clinics Offered this Spring and Summer throughout Western Washington

WLA’s Arts Legal Clinic provides low-cost, private legal consultations to artists and arts organizations in the state of Washington. Appointments may be made for 30 minute, confidential consultations with an attorney who specializes in art, intellectual property and entertainment law. Topics of concern include copyright, trademark, licensing, fair use, and contract issues. All matters addressed must be related to your previously identified arts related legal issue.

To schedule an appointment or for more information, contact Washington Lawyers for the Arts at 206.328.7053 or mail to:info@thewla.org. WLA is online at thewla.org.

Upcoming dates and locations:

Seattle Arts Legal Clinic
2nd and 4th Monday of every month, next clinic Monday, March 23, 2009
6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
Seattle University School of Law
901 12th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122

Port Townsend Arts Legal Clinic
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
Pope Marine Building
100 Madison (off Water St.), Port Townsend, WA 98368

Edmonds Arts Legal Clinic
Monday, March 30, 2009; and June 15, 2009
6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
ArtWorks
201 2nd Ave. S, Edmonds, WA 98020

Bainbridge Island Arts Legal Clinic
Monday, April 6, 2009
6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council Offices
221 Winslow Way W, Suite 201, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110

Everett Arts Legal Clinic
Monday, June 29, 2009
6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
Arts Council of Snohomish County
1507 Wall St., Everett, WA 98206

Appointments are required and confirmed on a first come, first served basis. A $20 donation is suggested. Spaces fill up fast, so sign up soon.

Yes, I KNOW that lots and lots of people use run-ons in everyday speech, but Millicent isn’t judging every word that falls out of the guy sitting next to you in the café’s mouth, is she? Anyway, what’s your hurry?

janiece-coverjaniece-hopper-and-dwarfy

Before I launch into our topic du jour, I’ve some delightful news to announce about a member of the Author! Author! community: Janiece Hopper’s CRACKED BAT has won first prize in both the best book from the Pacific West region and the Religion/Spirituality category in the 2008 Reader Views Literary Awards, (receiving an honorable mention) and BEST in the Pacific West Region. It also received an honorable mention in the General Fiction Category. While she was at it, CRACKED BAT also won the Author’s Marketing Experts Award for the Best Regional Book of the Year!

It just goes to show you: clearly, the Muses smile upon those authors generous enough to share their wisdom here with us at Author! Author!, at least at award-granting time.

For those of you who missed Janiece’s two guest posts (one on dealing with that perennial writers’ bugbear, repetitive strain injuries, the other on the ins and outs of self-publishing, here’s a brief synopsis of CRACKED BAT:

Linnea Perrault is the editor of The Edge, a successful community newspaper. Happily married to Dan, Spinning Wheel Bay’s premier coffee roaster and owner of The Mill, she is the mother of an adorable four-year-old daughter who insists upon lugging a fifteen-pound garden dwarf everywhere they go. When Linnea’s wealthy father returns to their hometown to make amends for abandoning her to a cruel stepfather twenty-eight years earlier, she painfully resurrects his old place in her heart. He buys the local baseball team. Before long, fairy tales, Islamic mystics, and a host of cross-cultural avatars come into play as the team is propelled to the top of the league. After a foul pass and an accident at the stadium, Linnea finds herself locked in the stone tower of pain as she realizes how much the man she married is like the father she never knew. Doctors can’t diagnose her debilitating condition, but kind, magical strangers give her a chance to save her soul. Cracked Bat is dedicated to the approximately five million people who have experienced the mystifying and frustrating ailments of myofascial pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue.

Congratulations, Janiece, and may there be many more awards in your future!

Okay, let’s get back to the subject at hand. How are you enjoying our recent foray into craft issues and revision tips? Inspiring? Annoying? A little of both? A trifle too theoretical?

Never fear — here at Author! Author!, we never stray very far from marketing issues. As much as I love to talk about writing qua writing, my focus throughout this series is going to remain practical: how to revise your manuscript to minimize its chances of running afoul of screener Millicent’s hyper-critical eyes.

Last time, I began discussing that most overused of words in manuscripts, and. Leaning on this multi-purpose word can lead, I argued, to run-on sentences, dull action sequences, and contracting the bubonic plague.

Well, okay, perhaps not the last. But the results still aren’t pretty, as far as Millicent is concerned.

One result of writerly over-reliance on and is the pervasiveness of that immensely popular sentence structure, X happened and Y happened. A perennial favorite in both submissions and contest entries, it’s appealing because, like stringing together sentences beginning with conjunctions, it artificially creates the impression conversation-like flow. For instance:

I woke up the next morning and poisoned my husband’s cornflakes.

See? It’s chatty, casual, echoing the way your local spouse-poisoner is likely to say it to her next-door neighbor. True, it doesn’t quite match the arid eloquence of Ambrose Bierce’s

Early one June morning in 1872, I murdered my father — an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.

But then, what does?

My point is, in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with X happened and Y happenedsentence structure. In fact, as I mentioned yesterday, it can be very helpful — and downright indispensable in constructing dialogue or a first-person narrative. Why? Because actual English-speaking people incorporate this structure into their speech with great regularity.

In many cases, with monotonous regularity.

Few real-world patterns are as consistently reproduced with fidelity. Sociological movements come and go unsung, slang enters and leaves the language literarily unnoted, but redundant or pause-riddled speech is frequently reproduced mercilessly down to the last spouted cliché. (How ’bout them Red Sox?) And don’t even get me started on the practically court-reporter levels of realism writers tend to lavish on characters who stutter or — how to put this gracefully? — do not cling tenaciously to the rules of grammar when they speak.

In some manuscripts, it seems that if there’s an ain’t uttered within a five-mile radius, the writer is going to risk life and limb to track it down, stun it, and affix it to the page within quotation marks.

There are some pretty good reasons that authors might feel so inclined, of course. Many aspiring writers consciously strive for prose that echoes the kind of conversational rhythms and structures one hears every day, particularly when they are penning first-person or present-tense narratives. “I want it to sound real,” they say with engaging earnestness. “My goal is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s perspective, most of these writers don’t realize just how widespread this particular goal is — or that much real-life conversation would be either deadly dull, logically incoherent, or at minimum not literarily interesting transferred directly to the printed page.

Why? Well, to take the reason most relevant to us today, because real-life speakers repeat both words and sentence structures to an extent that would make even the most patient reader rip her hair out at the roots in frustration.

If you doubt this, here’s a little experiment: sit in a crowded café for two hours, jotting down the conversations around you verbatim. Afterward, go home and type up those conversations as scenes, using ONLY the dialogue that you actually overheard. No cheating: reproduce ALL of it.

If you can complete the second part of that exercise without falling into a profound slumber, you have an unusually high threshold for boredom; perhaps you have a future as an agency screener. Or perhaps you have a great affection for the mundane.

In any case, it’s highly unlikely that you would be able to get the result past Millicent, either as dialogue or as narrative. As I pointed out a few days ago, in professional writing, merely sounding REAL is not enough; a manuscript must also be entertaining.

Yes, Virginia, even if it happens to be literary fiction, if it’s book-length. Slice-of-life pieces can be quite effective IF they are short — but frankly, in my opinion, most of what goes on in the real world doesn’t rise to the standards of literature.

Not of good literature, anyway. Far, far better to apply your unique worldview and scintillating ability with words to create something BETTER than reality, I say.

In that spirit, let’s look at that sentence structure beloved of the real-life speaker, X happened and Y happened and see if we can’t improve upon it, eh?

If this structure is used sparingly, it can work very well indeed — but its advocates seldom seem to be able to restrain themselves. Let’s take a peek at several sentences of this type in a row, to see why it might annoy your garden-variety Millicent at the end of a long, hard day of rejection:

Esmeralda blanched and placed her lily-white hand upon her swiftly-beating heart. Rolando nodded with satisfaction and strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously and continued to move closer.

See what I mean? Each of these sentences is in fact grammatically correct, and this structure reads as though it is merely echoing common spoken English. It’s also pretty much the least interesting way to present the two acts in each sentence: the and is, after all, simply replacing the period that could logically separate each of these actions.

By contrast, take a look at how varying the sentence structure and adding the odd gerund livens things up:

Esmeralda blanched, her lily-white hand clutching her swiftly-beating heart. Rolando strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously, moving closer every second.

Easier to read, isn’t it? Admittedly, the prose is still pretty purple — or at least flushing lilac — but at least the paragraph is no longer jumping up and down, screaming, “My author knows only one way to structure a sentence!”

Most agents, editors, and contest judges would agree with the paragraph’s assessment of its creator, alas. They tend to have a very low tolerance for over-use of this particular sentence structure.

Seriously. I’ve seen pens poked through manuscripts at the third instance of this kind of sentence within half a page. Screaming has been known to ensue after the sixteenth use within the same space.

If that seems like an over-reaction, consider this: most professional readers go into the job because they like to read. Adore it. Millicent screens manuscripts all day at work, pulls a battered paperback out of her bag on the subway home, and reads herself to sleep at night; her boss totes submissions back and forth on that same subway because he’s so devoted to his job that he does half of his new client consideration at home.

I know that I spend a lot of time on this blog explaining that these are individual people with personal preferences, but I can guarantee that they all share one characteristic: they love the language and the many ways in which it can be used. Consider, for instance, the exceptionally beautiful and oft-cited ending of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Even before I finished typing this, I could sense hands shooting up all over the ether. “Aha, Anne!” the more literal rule-followers out there point out triumphantly. “He began two sentences with and! And he used the very X happened and Y happened structure you’ve been complaining about for the last two days. So you must be wrong about them both, right?”

No, actually — I selected this passage precisely because he does incorporate them; he also uses the passive voice in one sentence. He does it sparingly, selectively. Look at the horror that might have resulted had he been less variable in his structural choices (I apologize in advance for this, Scott, but it must be done):

And I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, and I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, and that it was somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, and it was where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, and in the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. And It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster and we will stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The moral: even when the writing is very good indeed, structural repetition can be distracting. Take that, writers who believe that they’re too talented for their work ever to require revision.

Where might one start to weed out the ands, you ask? Glance over your pages for sentences in which and appears more than once. Chances are high that such a sentence will be a run-on, in any case:

In avoiding the police, Irene ran down the Metro stairs and out onto the platform and into the nearest train.

This is a classic run-on: too much information crammed into a single sentence, facilitated by those pesky conjunctions.

Some writers, of course, elect to include run-on sentences deliberately in their work, for specific effect: to make the narrator sound less literate, for instance, or more childlike, or to emphasize the length of a list of actions the protagonist has to take to achieve a goal. Or sometimes, the point is to increase the comic value of a scene by the speed with which it is described, as in this excerpt from Stella Gibbons’ classic comedy, COLD COMFORT FARM:

He had told Flora all about his slim, expensive mistress, Lily, who made boring scenes and took up the time and energy which he would much sooner have spent with his wife, but he had to have Lily, because in Beverly Hills, if you did not have a mistress, people thought you were rather queer, and if, on the other hand, you spent all your time with your wife, and were quite firm about it, and said that you liked your wife, and, anyway, why the hell shouldn’t you, the papers came out with repulsive articles headed “Hollywood Czar’s Domestic Bliss,” and you had to supply them with pictures of your wife pouring your morning chocolate and watering the ferns.

So there was no way out of it, Mr. Neck said.

Quite the sentence, eh? (Not the second, silly — the first.)

I’m going to part company with pretty much every other editor in the world for a moment and say that I think that a writer can get away with this sort of run-on every once in a while, under three very strict conditions:

(1) IF it serves a very specific narrative purpose that could not be achieved in any other manner (in this example, to convey the impression that Mr. Neck is in the habit of launching into such diatribes on intimate topics with relative strangers at the drop of the proverbial hat),

(2) IF it achieves that purpose entirely successfully (not a foregone conclusion, by any means), and

(3) If the writer chooses to do this at a crucial point in the manuscript, s/he doesn’t use it elsewhere — or at least reserves the repetition of this choice for those few instances where it will have the greatest effect.

Why minimize it elsewhere? Well, as we have seen above, this device tends to create run-on sentences with and…and…and constructions, technically grammatical no-nos. YOU may be doing it deliberately, but as with any grammatical rule, many writers who do not share your acumen with language include them accidentally.

Let me ask you this: how is a speed-reading agency screener to tell the difference between a literate submitter pushing a grammatical boundary on purpose and some under-read yahoo who simply doesn’t know that run-ons are incorrect?

Usually, by noticing whether the device appears only infrequently, which implies deliberate use, or every few lines, which implies an ingrained writing habit.

I’ve been sensing disgruntled rumblings out there since point #3. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “I read a great deal, and I see published literary fiction authors break this rule all the time. Doesn’t that mean that the language has changed, and people like you who go on and on about the rules of grammar are just fuddy-duddies who will be first up against the wall come the literary revolution?”

Whoa there, disgruntled rumblers — as I believe I may have pointed out before, I invented neither the rules of grammar nor the norms of submission evaluation. If I had, every agency and publishing house would post a clear, well-explained list of standard format restrictions on its website, along with explanations of any personal reading preferences and pet peeves its staff might happen to have. Millicent would be a well-paid, under-worked reader who could spend all the time she wanted with any given submission in order to give it a full and thoughtful reading, and the government would issue delightful little checks to compensate writers for all of the time they must now spend marketing their own work.

Clearly, then, these matters are not under my personal control, so kindly take me off your literary hit lists.

Even in literary fiction, it’s rather dangerous to include grammatically incorrect sentences in a submission — to someone who hasn’t read more of your work than the first few pages of your manuscript, it’s impossible to tell whether you are breaking the normal rules of grammar in order to create a specific effect, or because you just don’t know the rule. If an agency screener concludes that it’s the latter, she’s going to reject the manuscript, almost invariably.

Thus, unless you are getting a valuable effect out of a foray into the ungrammatical, it’s best to save your few opportunities to do so intentionally for when it serves you best. At the very least, make sure that two such sentences NEVER appear back-to-back, to avoid your submission’s coming across as the work of — gasp! — a habitual runner-on.

Sometimes repeated ands work rhythmically, but to an agent or editor, a manuscript that employs X happened and Y happened as its default sentence structure it just starts to read like uncomplicated writing — which makes it less appealing to the pros.

The other common conclusion trained eyes often draw from over-use of this technique smacks of either the narrative’s trying to rush through an otherwise not very interesting series of events. This is not always a fair assessment, of course. But when you do find patches of ands in your text, step back and ask yourself honestly: “Do I really NEED to tell the reader this so tersely — or all within a single sentence? Or, indeed, at all?”

“Perhaps,” (you’re still speaking to yourself here, in case you were wondering) “I could find a way that I could make the telling more interesting by adding more detail? I notice by reading back over the relevant paragraphs that my X happened and Y happened sentences tend to be light on telling specifics.”

My, you’re starting to think like an editor, reader.

Since your revision eye is getting so sophisticated, let’s consider the opposite possibility: in paragraphs where ands abound (or, sacre bleu, sentences!), are you rushing through the action of the scene too quickly for the reader to enjoy it? Are some of those overloaded sentences cramming four or five genuinely exciting actions together — and don’t some of these actions deserve their own sentences?

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, is the repeated use of and in fact your manuscript’s way of saying COME BACK AND FLESH THIS OUT LATER?

C’mon, admit it — almost every writer has resorted to this device at the end of a long writing day, haven’t we? Or when we have a necessary-but-dull piece of business that we want to gloss over in a hurry?

You thought you were the only one who did this, didn’t you?

Don’t be so hard on yourself — writers do this all the time. When the point is just to get lines down on a page — or to get a storyline down before the inspiration fades — X happened and Y happened and Z happened is arguably the quickest way to do it.

It’s a perfectly acceptable time-saving strategy for a first draft — as long as you remember to go back later and vary the sentence structure. Oh, and to make sure that you’re showing in that passage, not telling.

When we forget to rework these flash-written paragraphs, the results may be a bit grim.

Relying heavily on the and construction tends to flatten the highs and lows of a story: within them, actions come across as parts of a list, rather than as a sequence in which all the parts are important. Which — you guessed it — encourages the reader to gloss over them quickly, under the mistaken impression that these events are being presented in list form because they are necessary to the plot, but none is interesting enough to sustain an entire sentence.

Which is not precisely the response you want your sentences to evoke from an agency screener, right?

When in doubt, revise to minimize the ands. I hate to come down unfairly on any grammatically correct sentence, but the fact is, the X happened and Y happened structure is just not considered very literary in the business. So the automatic assumption if it shows up too much is that the material covered by it is to be read for content, rather than beauty of prose.

To quote Millicent’s real-life dialogue: “Next!”

I would prefer to see your submissions garnering long, luxurious readings, on the whole, not getting knocked out of consideration over technicalities. I’m funny that way.

Wow, this is a lengthy post, even for me, isn’t it? That does it: I’m taking the weekend off, so I can curl up with a good book. Keep up the good work!

Structural redundancy, part IV: the percussive use of and — and a favor

Roland's film We Pedal Uphill

We begin today with a shameless plug for a writer/director friend of mine’s film, out today in New York: Roland Tec’s WE PEDAL UPHILL. For those of you who live within driving distance of Cinema Village (where the film opens TODAY, incidentally) yet weren’t sufficiently blows away by the glowing New York Times Review, here’s the blurb:

One man drives an entire day to thank another for rescuing his family from the floodwaters of Katrina. A secretary to an election official must decide whether to bend the truth or lose her job. A PR handler scours the Redwood forest for the perfect spot for a presidential photo op. A mother watches silently from the window as her gay teenage son runs away from home in the middle of the night. These are just some of the characters brought to life with humor and empathy in Roland Tec’s tapestry of post-9/11 America. The thirteen stories that fill the landscape of We Pedal Uphill offer an intimate portrait of those who either stood bravely against the tide of fear or found themselves helplessly swept up in it..

If you happen to be anywhere near Greenwich Village within the next week, would you do me a favor and drop by to see it? I was supposed to be in NYC for the opening, but my doctors vetoed it, due to my latest hacking cough. Never mind that I’ve known Roland since he was a pup, or that I broke all land-speed records to make it to the San Francisco premiere of his first film, ALL THE RAGE: all that matters, apparently, is my not getting pneumonia again.

I suspect that doctor characters in my next three novels are going to be rather unpleasant characters. I really would have liked to see it hot off the presses, so to speak. I believe that the film is going to be coming out to my neck of the woods on its way around the art-house circuit, but it’s not quite the same, is it?

Okay, that’s enough about me for one day. Let’s talk about you: are your fingers still stained with highlighter ink, readers?

If they are, I’m proud of you: last time, I urged you to scan your submission pages (in particular, the first five, or all of a contest submission) for over-use of the words and, but, and then. Because the average manuscript submission is positively peppered with ‘em, I suggested that you print out these pages and highlight these words throughout, so that you might get a sense of just how often you tend to utilize them.

Well marked-up hands are thus today’s infallible indicator of Revisionist Virtue. Well done, messy-handed ones.

Of course, I assume that not all of you leapt right in and did it, or that still others of you started the task and gave up three buts into the task. “What was Anne thinking,” I heard some of you muttering, “to advise such a time-consuming (and potentially ink-consuming) exercise? Doesn’t she realize that a writer’s time is valuable?”

Yes, as a matter of fact, I do — which is precisely why I’m advising your investing a little time now in exchange for not having masses of your time wasted later by submissions that push Millicent the agency screener’s rejection buttons.

Why focus on conjunctions in particular, you ask? Well, quick-reading agency screeners, editorial assistants (who screen submissions for editors) and contest judges are routinely ordered to subtract points (Brownie in the case of the former two, literal in the case of the contest submission) for grammatical errors — and word repetition is always high on their penalty list.

As is that habitual roommate of conjunctions, the run-on sentence. Not sure what one looks like? Here’s a lulu:

Unsatisfied with Antoinette’s response, Guillermo withdrew his sword then wiped it disdainfully back and forth across his pantaloons to remove the blood and the gristle without bothering either to sheath it or thrust again afterward, because he would only need to draw it again if Claude turned out to be alive still and Antoinette wasn’t worth it in any case, but still, something about her facial expression, awed no doubt at his virile violence on her behalf but still feminine in its modesty, caused him to reconsider her earlier response, because mightn’t her apparent shock indicate mere innocent-bystanderish surprise and maidenly horror at what now seemed likely to have been his all-too-precipitate assumption that simply because Claude was in Antoinette’s drawing-room at half-past four in the afternoon and unaccompanied by a duenna or chaperone of any sort, he must perforce have been on the cusp of forcing himself upon her, although in retrospect, that seemed unlikely, since Claude had been cradling a cup of delicately-scented tea, eighteen smallish chocolate cakes, and a lap dog on the chintz couch — now covered in the sanguinary evidence of what now seemed a slight error of judgment, as well as quite a bit of chocolate frosting and Lhasa apso fur — whilst Antoinette was playing the spinet, the gift of her redoubtable grandfather who first founded the steel mill and thus founded the family fortune, all the way across the room against the far wall, the one which gave pride of place to that copy of the Mona Lisa Antoinette’s great-uncle had commissioned some starving artist to make for him in Paris that he always claimed in later years was the original.

Laugh if you like, but would it astonish you to learn that this is SHORTER than some of the sentences my aged eyes have beheld in manuscripts? I’ve seen sentences that have dragged on for more than a page, and although I have apparently lived to tell about it, there’s really no legitimate justification for dragging the reader through such an epic.

Run-on sentences, much like the repetition of a favorite word or phrase, are seldom the result of well-thought-out and purposeful writerly strategy. (Or, if so, it’s poor strategy: “I know! I’ll bore my reader AND annoy Millicent by making her read the sentence twice in order to understand it!”) The vast majority of the time, writers stumble into the habit without really noticing.

Believe me, professional readers WILL notice — and reject accordingly.

Yet another great reason to read your manuscripts OUT LOUD, IN HARD COPY, and IN THEIR ENTIRETY before you submit them.

Hint: if you can’t say any given sentence within a single breath, it might be a run-on. Another tip-off: where run-ons gather, there will be ands aplenty also, typically.

So take up your marked pages, please, and let’s observe the reproduction habits of and.

If you’re like most writers, your marking project probably revealed two major patterns of usage: in lists and in the HUGELY popular X happened and then Y happened structure. See if you can spot instances of both here:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow, folded it twice, and stuffed it back into his coat. Outwardly composed, he smiled and extended his hand to Emile.

How did you do? Admittedly, we’re looking for something a bit subtle here. Although the types of repetition used in this example may sound merely chatty when read out loud, they come across as structurally redundant on the page. Even minor word repetition can set editorial teeth on edge, because they — like other professional readers — are trained to zero in on redundancy.

To see how this orientation might affect how one reads, let’s look at this same paragraph with a screener’s heightened antennae:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow, folded it twice, and stuffed it back into his coat. Outwardly composed, he smiled and extended his hand to Emile.

See? The repetition of all those ands can be downright hypnotic — the percussive repetition lulls the reader, even if the action being described on either end of the and is very exciting indeed.

There’s a technical reason for that, you know, and if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series, it has probably already occurred to you: the swiftly-scanning eye’s automatic tendency is to jump between repeated words on a page, in very much the manner that a CLUE player might move his piece from the study to the kitchen via the secret passage about which everyone in the game is evidently quite well-informed. (Hey, it’s an editor’s job to demand precise word usage.)

The result: Miss Scarlet did it in the kitchen with the revolver.

Oops, wrong chain of events: the result relevant to us is a submission page read far, far more quickly than any of us might wish. Not only by Millicent and her ilk, but by the average reader as well.

The best way to avoid triggering this skimming reaction is to vary your sentence structure. A great place to start: keep an eye out for any sentence in which the word and appears more than once. As in:

Ezekiel put on his cocked hat, his coat of many colors, and his pink and black checked pantaloons. And he dusted himself out before heading toward the big top, clown shoes a-flopping.

Did your eye catch the subtle problem here? No? Take a gander at it as Millicent would see it:

Ezekiel put on his cocked hat, his coat of many colors, and his pink and black checked pantaloons. And he dusted himself out before heading toward the big top, clown shoes a-flopping.

All of the ands are serving slightly different functions here, two of which would be perfectly valid if they stood alone: the first is connecting the second and third items in a list; the second is connecting two characteristics in a shorter list. And the third — as in this sentence — is the kind of usage I discussed yesterday, where a conjunction gives a false sense of chatty consecutiveness between the first sentence and the second.

When I first began writing that last paragraph, I didn’t intend it to be an illustration of just how visually confusing word repetition may be on the page — but as I seemed to be succeeding brilliantly at doing just that, I figured I’d just run with it.

You’re welcome. Let’s highlight the repetition here, to determine precisely why a skimming reader might find it confusing:

All of the ands are serving slightly different functions here, two of which would be perfectly legitimate if they stood alone: the first is connecting the second and third items in a list; the second is connecting two characteristics in a shorter list. And the third — as in this sentence — is the kind of usage I discussed yesterday, where a conjunction gives a false sense of chatty consecutiveness between the first sentence and the second.

The twin revising morals:

(1) EVERY writer, no matter how experienced, will occasionally write a poorly-constructed sentence or paragraph, so there will NEVER be a point where any of us can legitimately assume that our first drafts require no revision whatsoever, and

(2) Just because a given word may carry more than one meaning — or, as here, refer to distinct categories of things — that fact doesn’t nullify the effects of repetition.

Because we writers tend to think of words according to their respective functions within any given sentence, rather than as images on a page, this kind of repetition often flies under our self-editing radars. Unless one is looking for it specifically, it’s easy to overlook.

Thus the highlighting pens, in case you were wondering. I’m just trying to make that repetition jump out at you.

Incidentally, words that sound alike but are spelled differently — there, they’re, and their, for instance — often strike readers as repetitious if they are used in too close proximity to one another. As in:

“They’re going to look for their zithers in there,” Thierry pointed out.

Why might this sentence give a reader pause? Because many pronounce silently in their heads while they scan.

Particularly with names, I’ve noticed. As we discussed last week, the screenwriters’ axiom of avoiding christening characters with names that begin with the same letter — since skimming eyes zero in on capital letters, readers are likely to confuse Darren, Dirk, and Denise — makes perfect sense. However, names that sound similar can produce a similar effect.

Change ‘em so they don’t sound so much alike. Millicent will thank you — and, having survived editing a manuscript whose characters were Maureen, Marlene, Doreen, Arleen, and Darlene, I will thank you, too.

Next time, I shall delve into some other problems that commonly arise from an over-reliance upon ands. In the meantime, in between time, try to minimize word and sentence structure repetition, and keep up the good work!

Still more thoughts about redundancy: but…but…but…

schoolhouserock-best-of

Yes, dear readers, it’s time once again to revisit Conjunction Junction. (And if that very thought made you long to rush out and find a copy of the old Schoolhouse Rock videos for your kids, you may find them here. You can buy them on other sites as well, but this one also features those great old Bop-Em Bozo inflatable punching bags! What’s not to love?) Since I’ve spent the last couple of posts taking about how professional readers tend to respond to repetition in submissions — summary for those of you who missed it: not well — I cannot in good conscience round off my lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts without discussing those ever-popular inhabitants of Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

Ooh, that last sentence caused the grammar mavens out there to sit up and pay attention, didn’t it? Okay, you caught me: then isn’t strictly speaking a conjunction. However, enough writers are now using it as if it were a synonym for and in a list of actions (as in, Sophia kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children.) that I feel justified in — nay, compelled to — include it here.

Language does grow and change, of course. Back in the bad old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Roosevelts were presidents, it was considered improper to begin ANY sentence with and, but, or then; amongst the literate, these words were purely intra-sentence phenomena. As my Uncle Alex (a fairly well-known SF short story writer in the 1950s, an editor at the LA Free Press, and a stickler for grammar for his entire life) used to scrawl in the margins of letters I had written when he returned them to me, by definition, a conjunction connects one part of a sentence to another.

“Therefore,” he would ink in large letters, “they may not BEGIN a sentence. How’s your mother?”

There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors. Toward the end of his long, colorful, and largely scurrilous life, Uncle Alex was even known to shout grammatical advice at the TV screen when newscasters began their sentences with conjunctions.

But despite Uncle Alex’s best efforts, time and the language have been marching on, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. In fact, as you may have noticed, I do it here all the time, as do most bloggers and columnists.

That mournful crashing sound you just heard was Uncle Alec and his late cronies from the LA Free Press stomping their feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get me to cut it out, already.

Back to your celestial poker game, boys — your heavenly cacophony isn’t going to work. There are legitimate stylistic reasons to open a sentence with a conjunction. They can, for instance, be very valuable for maintaining an ongoing rhythm in a paragraph:

Evelina spotted the train pulling into the station. But would Jeremy be on it? He would — he had to be. And if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second Jeremy stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

As Uncle Alex would undoubtedly have been the first (and last, and middle) to tell you, classic English grammar has an elegant means of preventing those conjunctions from hanging out at the beginnings of those sentences: by eliminating the periods and replacing them with commas. The result would look like this:

Evelina spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Jeremy be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why — or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second Jeremy stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

To old-fashioned eyes — sorry, Uncle — this paragraph’s meaning is identical to the first; it is merely cleaner grammatically. However, I suspect that most current readers of English prose would recognize a difference in the rhythm. A period is, as the English like to call it, a full stop; a comma, on the other hand, indicates a pause. A dash indicates a slightly longer and more pointed pause. To this millennium’s sensibilities, the first example has a choppiness, a breathless quality that conveys the subtle impression that Evelina’s breathing is shallow, her pulse racing.

The periods my uncle would consider forbidden, then, could be regarded as indicators of protagonist stress. At least to those in the habit of breaking paragraphs down into their constituent parts to see what their functions are.

Which is, of course, why any of us pay a visit to Conjunction Junction, right?

Conjunction-opened sentences can also mirror actual speech better than more strictly grammatical ones, so the former can be a positive boon to dialogue. Contrast this sterling exchange:

“And I tell you, Maurice, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. And that’s final.”

“But Yvette, you’re ignoring the conventions of our genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily. But you are fleet of foot in the face of danger. Therefore, you must return!”

“Or what? Or you’re going to come after me with an axe?”

“Or else, that’s all.”

“Fine. Then give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist. But don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

with the same dialogue after the conjunctions have been tucked into the middle of the sentences:

“I tell you, Maurice, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. That’s final.”

“Yvette, you’re ignoring the conventions of our genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, but you are fleet of foot in the face of danger; therefore, you must return!”

“Is there some penalty attached to my refusal? Are you going to come after me with an axe?”

“You must, that’s all.”

“Fine. Give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist, but don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

The difference is subtle, but it’s there: the second version is sounds more formal. Partially, this is a function of the verbal gymnastics required to avoid the colloquial Or what? Or else.

But these are not the only ways aspiring writers utilize sentence-beginning conjunctions in narrative prose, are they? As anyone who has ever been trapped in a conversation with a non-stop talker can tell you, beginning sentences in this way gives an impression of consecutiveness of logic or storyline. (As was the case with the previous sentence, as it happens.) Even when no such link actually exists, the conjunctions give the hearer the impression that there is no polite place to interrupt, to turn the soliloquy-in-progress into a dialogue.

I’m not going to give you an example of this, because we all hear it so much in everyday speech. If you feel that your life lacks such monologues, try this experiment: the next time you’re at a boring cocktail party (they’re coming back, I hear), try this experiment, preferably on a stranger or someone you do not like very much: tell a lengthy anecdote, beginning every sentence with either and, but or then. Take as few breaths as possible throughout — and time how long it takes a reasonably courteous person to get a word in edgewise.

Personally, I’ve kept this game going for over 15 minutes. The imminent threat of fainting due to shortness of breath alone stopped me.

Which is, in case you happen to be writing about such things, why panhandlers and telemarketers so often speak for minutes at a time in what seems to the hearer to be one long sentence: it discourages interruption. Almost invariably, this phenomenon is brought to you by the heavy lifting skills of and, but and then.

For this very reason, aspiring writers just LOVE to tuck conjunctions in all over the place: to create the impression of swift forward movement in the narrative. Or, even more often, to create a chatty-sounding first-person narrative voice.

Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top. Because it is a device that professional readers see so very much, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency.

Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being a bit pushy and marketing-minded here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

Why especially the opening? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: agents and editors tend to assume that the writing on pages 1-5 is an accurate representation of the style throughout the entire manuscript. Heck, many of them proceed on the assumption that what is found on the first page, or even the first paragraph, is an infallible indicator of subsequent writing quality.

This often-unwarranted assumption, in case you’re interested, underlies Millicent’s practices of not reading past any problems that might turn up on page 1 of a submission: once you’ve seen a modicum of this author’s writing, she reasons, you’ve seen enough.

No comment.

As I’ve been hinting at over the last few posts, narrative structure and voice are not just matters of style; to a market-savvy writer, they are also matters of strategy. If you over-use ANY single narrative tool in those early pages, Millicent and her ilk are not going to stick around to see whether you’ve mended your ways by page 25, alas. They’re going to stop reading, so they may move on to the next submission.

Do I hear some moaning out there that’s not attributable to my late relatives heavenly cohort? “But Anne,” these disembodied voices moan, bravely beginning their protest with a conjunction, thus risking a thunderbolt flung by Uncle Alex and whatever minor deities he may have managed to befriend in his time in the choir eternal; he always did throw great parties, “not every book’s best writing falls on its first page, or even within its first chapter. Many, many writers take a chapter or two to warm up to their topics. So doesn’t this practice give an unfair advantage to those writers who do front-load their work?”

In a word, yes.

I would highly recommend it, in fact, because I want your work to succeed. So instead of complaining about the status quo (which I could, at great length), I’m going to give you some hints about how to minimize the problem early on, so your work can get a comparatively fair reading.

So whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

Print out the first 5 pages of your submission; if you want to be very thorough, print the entire first chapter, as well a random page from each subsequent chapter. Pick a color for and, one for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets, too), and one for then.

Why these words and no others? Well, these particular ones tend to get a real workout in the average manuscript: when writers are trying to cover material rapidly, for instance, and, but, and then often appear many times per page. Or per paragraph.

Or even — yes, I see it all the time — per sentence.

So ready, set, start marking. Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but EVERY time these words appear on those pages.

All finished marking? Good. Now go back and re-examine every use of then, asking yourself: could I revise that sentence to cut the word entirely? If it begins a sentence, is that the most effective opening?

At the risk of seeming draconian, you should seriously consider excising every single use of then in those opening pages — and seriously considering getting rid of most of the ones thereafter. Sound drastic? Believe me, I have an excellent reason for suggesting it: many professional readers have a visceral negative reaction to repetitive use of then that sometimes borders on the paranoiac.

Why? Well, it’s one of the first words any professional editor would cut from a text, because in written English, pretty much any event that is described after any other event is assumed to have happened later than the first described, unless the text specifies otherwise. For instance:

Herve poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, then served them.

Ostensibly, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence, right? Perhaps not, but given the average reader’s belief that time is linear, it is logically identical to:

Herve poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, and served them.

Technically, then is unnecessary here. In fact, thenis almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker.

Yet it is very widely used in submissions as a matter of style — or, if appears frequently enough, as a characteristic of authorial voice. To professional eyes, it’s merely redundant, if not a sign that the writer is getting a bit tired of writing interestingly about a series of events and so crammed them all into a list.

Which brings me back to my earlier suggestion: in your first five pages, you would be wise to avoid provoking this reaction by cutting all of the thens. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to omit temporal thens altogether in your writing UNLESS the event described after them is a genuine surprise or happened suddenly. Here’s an instance where the use is undoubtedly justified:

Herve poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate — then flung their steaming runniness into Anselmo’s astonished face.

Now THAT’s a then that signals a change in sentence direction, isn’t it? Reserving the device for this use will render your thens substantially more powerful.

Let’s turn now to the buts, howevers, and yets on your marked-up pages. Each time they appear, ask yourself: is the clause that immediately follows the word ACTUALLY a shift in meaning from what has come immediately before it? If not, consider excising the words altogether.

I hear more squawking from the non-celestial peanut gallery. “But Anne,” they cry, bravely persisting in their long-term habit of opening every protest hurled my way with a conjunction, “you can’t seriously mean that! Don’t you mean that I should carefully rewrite the sentence, substituting another word that means precisely the same as but, however, or yet? The whole point of my introducing however and yet was to give my but a periodic rest, after all.”

Good question, but-resters, but I did mean what I said. But, however, and yet all imply contradiction to what has already been stated, but many aspiring writers use these words simply as transitions, a way to make the sentence before seem to flow naturally — that is, in a way that sounds like conversation — into the next. What I’m suggesting here is not that you remove every legitimate negation, but rather that you should remove the negative conjunctions that are misused.

How may you tell the difference? Let’s take a look at some practical examples:

Bartholomew wanted to answer, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Musette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, his epi pen was in the pocket of his fetching dressing gown, so he need not panic. Yet now that he began to search for it, his personal first-aid kit seemed to have vanished from its usual resting-place.

“Cat got your tongue?” Musette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

I would vote for keeping all of buts, howevers, and yets in this paragraph, because each is serving its proper function: they are introducing new facts that are genuinely opposed to those that came just before the conjunction. That is not always the case, however. Take a look at a version of the same scene where none of these words is ushering in a twist related to the last information before it:

Bartholomew settled his fetching dressing gown around him irritably, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Musette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, he could not breathe. Yet his asthma seemed to be kicking in full force.

“Cat got your tongue?” Musette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

See the difference? By including conjunctions that imply an opposition is to follow, but not delivering upon it, the transitional buts, howevers, and yets ring false.

Yes, this level of textual analysis IS a heck of a lot of work, now that you mention it. Strategically, though, it’s worth it, for this device is so popular amongst aspiring writers that the transitional but has become, you guessed it, a common screeners’ pet peeve.

Harrumphs all round from my interlocutors, earth-bound and otherwise. “No big surprise there,” they huff. “To hear you tell it, it doesn’t take much for a writerly preference to graduate to industry pet peeve.”

Actually, it does take much — much repetition. It just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover the first 100 submissions that all share the same narrative device.

And yes, Virginia, the transitional but IS that common. As is the unnecessary then. Trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked words.

Or if you don’t overuse favorite words in general. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

“So why on earth,” Millicent wonders, wrathfully waiting for her latte to cool (for once), “do these submissions keep leaning so heavily on to be, to have, to think, to walk, to see, to say, and to take? If it happened in, say, one submission out of fifty, I could cope with it, but every other one?”

Fact: varying your word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics.

That’s a fact that I wish more first-time submitters knew, but usually, US writers been taught just the opposite: all throughout their school years, teachers kept flinging THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA at us and quoting either Mark Twain or Somerset Maugham’s (depending upon how old the teachers were, and what examples THEIR teachers had used) overworked axioms about never using a complex word when a simple word would do.

The reason that your teachers told you this is not that simple, straightforward words are inherently better than polysyllabic ones, but because they were trying to prevent you from making the opposite mistake: a narrative that sounds as if it has swallowed a thesaurus whole, dragging in pretentious or obsolete words inappropriate to the book category or target market. For most manuscripts, this is still pretty good advice.

Now, however, it’s considered less a mater of style than of marketing. Remember, the standard vocabulary expectation for adult fiction is a 10th-grade reading level; in many genres, it’s even lower. Doing a bit of reading in your chosen category can help you figure out where to pitch your word choices.

Not only is the gratuitous induction of polysyllabic terminology into a tome projected for a less erudite audience not liable to electrify a professional reader into spontaneous cries of “Huzzah!” (see how silly it looks on the page?) — it can also stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, knocking the reader out of the story.

The much-hyped 2007 movie JUNO contained such a sterling example of this that you might want to consider renting it just to see this phenomenon in action. After spending fully two-thirds of the film establishing the protagonist’s father as a Working Man with a Heart of Gold, living in a house that apparently contains no books, repeatedly telling better-heeled folk that he’s just a plain man, and who never once mentions to his pregnant 16-year-old daughter that her condition might conceivably (so to speak) affect any future college plans she might have (to be fair, the film never indicates that she has any, although her boyfriend does), he says to his daughter, “You look morose.”

At which, naturally, half of my fellow theatregoers laughed, believing this line to be a joke, because it didn’t seem to be a word that this character would ever use. Yet from context, it wasn’t intended humorously: evidently, the screenwriter simply liked the word.

More on overused conjunctions follow in the days to come, so don’t toss out those marked-up pages, please: next time, it’s on to the ands. In the meantime, keep up the good work!