Submission packet mystery theatre, continued: the race is not always to the swift

monk writing at desk

Before I launch back into my ongoing spate of darkly illustrative tales of Submitters Gone Wrong (hey, it’s Halloween — what could possibly be scarier to a writer than a submission gone horribly awry?) I have a bit of procedural business: I’m going to be taking a brief hiatus from posting here at Author! Author!, probably about a week, to lock myself in a suitably arty and consumption-inducing attic somewhere to perform a bit of intensive writing. In the interim, please feel free to post questions and comments; I shall be checking in every couple of days. Do talk amongst yourselves.

To provide you with some mental chewing gum to munch while I’m off doing an intensive rewrite, I shall be wrapping up this week’s micro-series on SASEs and other things an aspiring writer might conceivably ship to an agent or editor with a bit more discussion of the submission process — specifically, more cautionary tales where completely well-meaning aspiring writers go wrong in pulling together and sending off requested materials.

Or at the very least, cause themselves some unnecessary chagrin.

Case in point: too many aspiring writers waste scads of money speeding up the delivery time between their houses and a requesting agency. Overnighting a submission is utterly unnecessary; it won’t win you any Brownie points whatsoever with Millicent the agency screener, and it most assuredly will not get her boss to read your manuscript any faster.

Save your money for something else — nice paper upon which to print the submission, for instance. Or a bottle of aspirin for the stress headache induced by waiting for the response.

With an eye to helping submitting writers figure out what is and isn’t a necessary expense, I have spent the last few posts talking (in part) about ways to save money when shipping requested materials to an agent or editor. We writers don’t talk about this very much amongst ourselves, but the fact is, the process of finding an agent can be pretty expensive.

Did a few of you new to the process just choke on your cornflakes? “Wait just a minute, Anne,” a sputtering few still working up to the marketing stage cry. “Surely, you’re talking about the entire agent-finding process being expensive, right, not just the shipping-off part? I mean, really, I’ve just shelled out hundreds of dollars to attend a writers’ conference so I could meet agents to query — I hadn’t thought at all about the next step, mailing off requested materials, taxing my scant savings.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but better to shatter your illusions than your piggy bank: the submission process itself can be quite expensive. Especially if you decide, as many a savvy writer does, to submit to several agents simultaneously.

Why might it add up? Well, let’s take a gander at what’s involved. At minimum, the costs of producing a professional-looking submission packet include:

shipping (both there and back),
ink cartridges or photocopying expenses,
wear and tear on your computer, and
a ton of your time that could be used for, well, anything else.

While individually, these may not seem as potentially scarifying to your checking account as the even greater optional costs of attending conferences, entering contests, and hiring freelance editors like me to help pull your submission into tip-top shape, if you’re printing out five different packets, the cumulative cost can be significant.

So much so that if you’re a US citizen and marketing a book, it’s worth looking into the possibility of filing a Schedule C for your writing as a business, so you can deduct these expenses. Talk to a tax professional about it (I am not a tax professional, so I cannot legally give you advice on the subject), but do try to find one who is familiar with artists’ returns in general and writers’ returns specifically: ones who are not will almost invariably say that a writer must actually sell some writing in a given year to claim associated expenses. That’s not necessarily true.

Or so I’m told. Had I mentioned that I’m not a professional tax advisor, and that you absolutely shouldn’t take my word on any of this?

Last time, as part of my ongoing quest to save you a few sous, I brought up the case of Antoinette, the writer who rushed out and overnighted her manuscript, then waited seemingly endlessly by the phone for the agent of her dreams to respond. I went into her possible reasons for doing this — rather than sending the book regular mail or the more affordable 2-3 day Priority Mail rate.

Today, I want to talk a bit about the other two primary motivators for jumping the proverbial gun and springing for swifter-than-normal shipping: clawing, pathological fear and nail-gnawing eagerness.

To let one of the most poorly-hidden cats out of one of the most hole-ridden bags in the business, few souls walking the planet are in a greater hurry than a writer who has just received a request for materials. Especially if that request comes at the end of a long period of querying or after a particularly intense conference, it’s far from uncommon for the lucky writer to decide, wrongly, that the only possible response is to drop everything else in her life — by calling in sick to work, evading kith and kin, pretending to have emigrated to Morocco, that sort of thing — to throw together the requested materials and get them out the door as close to instantly as possible.

One of two rationales may prompt this super-speedy response. In the first, the writer cries, “Oh, my God, this request to see all or part of my manuscript must be a fluke. I’d better get these materials under the agent or editor’s nose within the next few hours, before either (a) s/he changes her/his mind, (b) the malignant forces that rule the universe cause the wall of indifference to art to rise again, this temporary fissure mended, or (c) both!”

Whichever thunderbolt the hostile gods of publishing are planning to send his way, the hyper-fearful writer wants to make absolutely sure that his submission is out of his hands well before it strikes. Who cares that he hasn’t had time to double-check his submission for easily-overlooked gaffes that a few hours invested in proofreading (IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and read OUT LOUD, preferably), or that overnighting that package will cost four times as much as sending it via regular mail? He’s trying to submit before the agent of his dreams comes to his/her senses.

In reality, of course, it just doesn’t work like that: a request to submit materials will be every bit as good two weeks from the day it was made as it was in the moment. Or two months hence.

As I MAY have hinted gently above, the writer’s speed in getting the submission to the agent typically does not make one scintilla of difference in how quickly a manuscript is read — or even the probability of its moldering on an agent’s desk for months. Certainly, whether the agent’s receiving the manuscript the next day or in the 2-3 days offered by the much more reasonably priced Priority Mail will make no appreciable difference to response time.

Especially during summer conference season, since most of the industry goes on vacation from early August through Labor Day. Or between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the NYC-based part of the biz more or less shuts down. Or in January, when half the aspiring writers in North America are trying to live up to their New Year’s resolution to get those queries and submissions out the door, pronto.

The other, more common rationale for too-swift submission is eagerness. “Whew!” the writer who has just received a request to submit exclaims. “The hard part is over now: my premise has been recognized as a good one by an agent who handles this sort of material. From this point on, naturally, everything is going to happen in a minute: reading, acceptance, book sale, chatting on Oprah.”

You know, the average trajectory for any garden-variety blockbuster. Who wouldn’t want to cut a week, or even a few days, out of the delivery time for that brilliantly fabulous future?

I sincerely hope that yours is the one in eight million submissions that experiences this second trajectory — and that’s the probability in a good year for publishing — but writerly hopes to the contrary, a request for submission is the beginning of the game, not the end. The fact is, as small a percentage of queries receive a positive response (and it’s usually under 5%, even in a brisk economy), even fewer submissions pass the initial read test.

Or, to put it the terms we typically use here at Author! Author!, it generally takes even less provocation to cause Millicent shout “Next!” over the first page of a manuscript than over a query. (If that’s news to you and you’re in the mood for a good, old-fashioned Halloween scare, I would strongly urge you to set aside a few hours to run through the posts in the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the archive list at right. It’s sent many a strong writer running screaming from the room.)

There’s a reason that I grill you on the details, you know: I want your queries and submissions to be in that top few percentiles. Which is why I would rather see your resources and energy going toward perfecting the submission itself, rather than getting it there with a rapidity that would make Superman do a double-take.

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

Submission scenario 2: Gilberto has just won a major category in a writing contest with his thriller, DON’T PAY ANY ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN; HE’S NOT REALLY CARRYING AN AXE. During the very full pitching day that follows his win, five agents ask him to send submissions. Seeing that he was garnering a lot of interest, Maxine, the most enthusiastic of the agents, requests that he overnight the manuscript to her, so she can respond to it right away.

Over the vehement objections of every previous winner of this particular contest (and, incidentally, yours truly), Gilberto says yes. When his local post office opens the next day, he’s already waiting in line, all set to overnight the submission packet he stayed up all night preparing..

However, being a savvy submitter, he submits simultaneously to the other five via regular mail right away. Yet he does not tell Maxine — or any of the others — that he is letting many agents read his manuscript at the same time. He writes REQUESTED MATERIALS — FIRST PLACE, CONTEST NAME on the outside of every submission and mentions the request in the first line of his cover letter, to minimize the possibility of his work being lost in amongst the many submissions these agencies receive.

Within three weeks, he’s heard back from all but one of them; puzzlingly, the super-eager Maxine is the very last to respond. And when she finally does, six weeks after he overnighted her the manuscript, it’s with a form letter. This most enthusiastic of agents has rejected him without even telling him why.

What did Gilberto do wrong? Not much, really, except for saying yes to an unreasonable request — and not telling all of the agents concerned up front that they were competing over his work. That not made his submission process more expensive than it needed to be, but also more or less eliminated any benefit he might have derived from the contest-generated buzz about his book.

Let’s take Gil’s missteps one at a time. Why was Maxine’s request that he overnight the manuscript unreasonable?

In essence, the situation was no different than if Maxine had asked him to leave the conference, jump in his car, drive three hours home to print up a copy of his manuscript for her, drive three hours back, and hand it to her. In both cases, the agent would have been asking the writer to go to unnecessary effort and expense for no reason other than her convenience. Yet as Maxine’s subsequent behavior abundantly demonstrated, she had no more intention of reading Gilberto’s manuscript within the next couple of days than she did of reading it on the airplane home.

So why did she ask him to overnight it at all?

Give yourself full marks if you said it was to get a jump on other interested agents. Lest we forget, agents tend to be competitive people — to many of them, a book project’s value will increase in direct proportion to how many other agents are interested in it. (Also true of many editors, incidentally.) The give-me-first-peek request is one way it manifests.

Yet another reason that — chant it with me now, long-time readers — it is always in an aspiring writer’s best interest to make simultaneous submissions and queries, rather than approaching them one at a time.

Not clear why? For the same reason Gilberto’s not telling all of the agents concerned that they were in potential competition over his work was a mistake: had they known that, they would probably have been a bit more interested. Or at any rate aware that they might miss out if they put off reading his submission for too long. Thus, not using his manuscript’s being in demand as a selling point may actually have harmed Gilberto’s chances of landing an agent.

That out-of-the-blue pop quiz worked so well, I’m going to spring another one upon you: why do you think Maxine didn’t get back to him sooner?

In practice, of course, she could have had a lot of reasons — a death in the family, a problem with an existing client’s relationship with her editor, a particularly exciting negotiation, rehab…the list goes on and on. But any other possible factors aside, Maxine knew that if any of those other agents at the conference had made an offer, Gilberto would have contacted her — and when he didn’t, she could treat his might-have-been-hot property just like any other submitted manuscript.

In other words, jumping in and asking for a first peek cost Maxine nothing — it obviously affected her subsequent treatment of Gilberto’s work not at all — but guaranteed that she would be first to know about how his other submissions fared. And once she could safely assume that he had not been picked up by anyone else, the shiny gleam of being the most sought-after new writer at the conference faded from his manuscript.

Now pause and consider the ramifications of Maxine’s attitude toward other agents’ interest levels for a moment. Picture them spread thickly across the industry. Let the possible effects ripple across your mind, like the concentric circles moving gently outward after you throw a stone into a limpid pool, rolling outward until…OH, MY GOD, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE AVERAGE QUERY-GENERATED SUBMISSION?

Uh-huh. Not high on the average Maxine’s to-do list.

Explains quite a bit about why the agent who requested your first 50 pages two months ago hasn’t gotten back to you, doesn’t it? While an agent expects that the writer querying her will be simultaneously querying elsewhere, the converse is also true: she will assume, unless you tell her otherwise, that the packet you send her is the only submission currently under any agent’s eyes.

This is why it is ALWAYS a good idea to mention in your submission cover letter that other agents are reading it, if they are. No need to name names: just say that other agents have requested it, and are reading it even as she holds your pages in her hot little hand.

I heard that thought go through some of your minds: I would have to scold you if you lied about this, just to ramp up the agent’s sense of urgency. Sneaky writer; no cookie.

Okay, here’s the extra credit question: in the scenario above, Maxine already knows that other agents are interested in Gilberto’s work; she is hoping to snap him up first. So why didn’t she read it right away?

Give up? Well, I don’t know her personally, so this is merely an educated guess, but I strongly suspect that Maxine’s goal was to get the manuscript before the other agents made offers to Gilberto, not necessarily to make an offer before they did.

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

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

Because, as agents like to say, it all depends upon the writing.

Maxine’s met enough writers to be aware that it is distinctly possible that Gilberto’s response to his big contest win will be to spend the next eight months going over his manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, perfecting it before showing it to anyone at all. She would like to see it before he does that, if at all possible.

To beat the Christmas rush, as it were, of his submitting to other agents. And to increase the chances of being able to see it at all.

Even if she doesn’t get an advance peek, Maxine is setting up a situation where Gilberto will automatically tell her if any other agent makes an offer: he’s probably going to call or e-mail her to see if she’s still interested before he signs with anyone else. By asking him to go to the extraordinary effort and expense of overnighting the manuscript to her, she has, she hoped, conveyed her enthusiasm about the book sufficiently that he will regard her as a top prospect.

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

What’s the hurry, from her perspective? (Hey, I promised you a serious Halloween scare, didn’t I?)

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

So what should Gilberto have done instead? The polite way to handle such a request is to say, “Wow, I’m flattered, but I’m completely booked up for the next few days, and several other agents have already asked to see it. I can get a copy to you by the end of the week, though, when I send out the others.”

And then he should have sat down, read it IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch any glaring mistakes, and Priority Mailed it a few days later, accompanied by a cover letter reiterating that other agents are also reading it. (Tick, tick, Maxine.)

Sound daring? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: after a publisher acquires your book, the house will generally be paying for you to ship your pages overnight if they need them that quickly, not you; after you’ve signed with an agent, you’ll probably be asked to e-mail anything s/he needs right away, because it’s cheaper for everyone concerned.

You need some time to wrap your brain around that last point, don’t you? Perfect — I shall slip away into my studio while nobody’s looking. Just keep looking in the other direction…

That didn’t work, did it? Well, boo! And keep up the good work!

“So many manuscripts, so little time.” — Millicent

voici les temps

I’m feeling a bit cryptic today, my friends. I’m writing something in a teenage voice, and I can’t say that I particularly like what it’s done to my emotions. Blame my Method acting training; I’ve even broken out. Here’s hoping that the result is worth my rolling my eyes at the slightest provocation.

But enough about me: back to our ongoing concerns. Isn’t it amazing just how much there is to know about the ostensibly straightforward task of printing out requested materials, placing them in an appropriate mailing container, and sending them off to an agent or editor?

Underscore presents itself: you all know NEVER to submit unrequested pages, right? I mean (roll eyes), who DOES that?

Again, I’m not talking about queries sent to agencies whose guidelines specify that you should tuck the first 50 pages into the packet — I mean the unwise practice of just sending along a manuscript before an agent or editor is even aware that it exists. Almost universally, unsolicited manuscripts are rejected unread. Even at the rare agency or publishing house that accepts unrequested manuscripts, it’s going to end up in what’s known as the slush pile, the stack of submissions that stretches, Dr. Seuss-style, skyward, awaiting the day when someone will have the time to review them.

Normally, I would have dug up a marvelous picture to illustrate that. Unfortunately, I can’t see well enough through my clouds of angst to do that. Or my bangs. (Sigh.)

It can take a LONG time just to go through the manuscripts they asked to see. Care to guess how tempting that fact renders tossing aside those they didn’t request? Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that their PRIMARY goal is to weed out the one they are reading at the moment. The faster they can do that, the better for them.

Yet despite the ubiquity of the reject-the-unsolicited-on-sight policy, amazingly few of the writers rejected for doing so are even aware that jumping the gun might even have played a role in their rejection. Like aspiring writers who submit without a SASE, with too much material, or without following the strictures of standard format, gun-jumpers usually receive exactly the same form-letter rejection as writers whose work was rejected for writing-related reasons.

So they keep submitting incorrectly time after time, never understanding that a few relatively simple changes could get the pros to take their manuscripts more seriously. It saddens me.

“Um, Anne?” I hear a few quick-reasoning readers pipe up. “Since submitting via e-mail would obviate the lack-of-SASE problem entirely, and since if I send my materials as an attachment to an e-mail, Millicent the screener won’t know how many pages I’ve submitted unless she reads through them all, wouldn’t I pretty much always be better off submitting my work electronically?”

Well, you could make a good argument for that, computer-huggers. While an unsolicited e-submission will, admittedly, tend to meet the same fate as an unsolicited paper submission — a quick and quiet rejection, almost invariably with a form letter — e-submission does undoubtedly have many perqs. It’s substantially cheaper than printing up and mailing a submission, for one thing, especially so for writers submitting to US agents from outside the country, not to mention less wasteful of paper. Agencies often respond to e-queries more rapidly than paper queries, and an electronic submission may easily be e-mailed around the office.

Even taking all of that into consideration, given the choice, I would always opt for submitting in hard copy, rather than electronically. Fortunately, with many agencies, a submitter does in fact have that choice to make.

Why are paper submissions are worth all the additional effort and expense? Well, for starters, it’s more likely to get there — even if your mail system is reliable, not everybody’s is — and less likely to be deleted accidentally. (Also true of e-queries, incidentally: many agencies that accept pages with initial queries specifically ask in their guidelines that queriers not follow up to find out if the e-mail actually arrived.)

Then, too, hard copy manuscripts are typically read more closely then e-mailed submissions, for the extremely simple reason that people read faster on a screen. Electronic rejection is as easy as Millicent the agency screener’s hitting a button a nanosecond after a sentence displeases her — far, far less energy- and time-consuming than having to dig out the SASE, reach for the form rejection letter to stuff inside it, insert the rejected manuscript, and eventually carry the whole shebang to the mail room.

Yes, you read that correctly: Millicent’s begrudging, mercurial attention to your first printed page is the BETTER option. The world is a strange place.

Also, a writer can control more factors in hard copy. As much as a pain as pulling a physical submission packet together may be, at least you know that the formatting will show up on the other end as you want it.

“Wha–?” I hear the more computer-reliant of you out there exclaiming.

I hate to be the one to break it to you (although that’s never stopped me yet, I notice), but if you e-mail a submission, you have absolutely no way of knowing that all of your precious formatting arrived intact. Copying and pasting a writing sample into the body of an e-mail (or one of those little comment boxes on agencies’ websites) will, naturally, eliminate most of the formatting, but even if you have included the pages as a Word attachment, different operating systems and versions of Word can play havoc with the cosmetic attributes of a page.

I can feel some of you getting restive under the onslaught of so much cynicism (bleak is my outlook, people. Bleak!), so instead of throwing any more at you today, I’m going to give you the opportunity to put some of what we’ve learned over the past few weeks into practice.

That’s right; it’s example time again. Hold your applause, please, until we’re done.

Submission scenario 1: After months on end querying her short story collection, WHAT I DID FOR LOVE AND OTHER DRY-CLEANING ANECDOTES, Antoinette receives an e-mail from Clara, the agent of her dreams, asking to see the entire manuscript. Alternately overjoyed and petrified (a very common twin mental state at this juncture, incidentally, although even amongst ourselves, we writers tend to talk only about the joy), she prints up her manuscript that very day and rushes it into the nearest cardboard container.

Specifically, the slightly dented box her mail carrier dumped on her doorstep on a recent rainy afternoon. (Our Antoinette is pinching pennies, you see.)

I already feel some of you blushing. We’ve all received (or sent) that box that began life as an mail-order shipping container, but now is covered with thick black ink, crossing out the original emporium’s name. My mother takes this process even farther, turning the obfuscating lines into little drawings of small creatures cavorting on a cardboard landscape. As dandy as this recycling is for birthday presents and the like, it’s considered a bit tacky in shipping a submission. Which is unfortunate, as the ones from Amazon tend to be a perfect footprint for manuscripts. Don’t yield to the temptation, though.

Back to our fair Antoinette. She makes it to the post office five minutes before it closes. When she plunks down the hefty box and asks to overnight it, she turns pale at the price, but pays it anyway. Exhausted but happy, she rushes home to plan what she’s going to wear for her appearance on Oprah to discuss the book.

Afraid to miss Clara’s response — which, naturally, she begins to expect within a day of learning that Clara has received it through the magic of delivery confirmation — Antoinette cancels her gym membership, turns down Eugene’s seven requests to have dinner with him, and — sacre bleu! — gives up reading my blog in order to pursue the more rewarding activities of staring at her e-mail inbox and repeatedly checking to see that her phone is working.

Clearly, madness has taken hold of her. A very, very common type of madness, unfortunately: it never occurred to her that Clara would not simply drop everything else she’s doing to pay attention to her submission the instant it arrived in the office.

A couple of weeks later, another agent, Bertrand, asks to see the first 50 pages. Before Clara’s request, this prospect would have thrilled Antoinette beyond words, but now, she does not even respond. “I’ve already committed to Clara,” she tells kith, kin, and the neighbor who comes over to complain about Antoinette’s having turned her phone’s ringer up to glass-shattering levels, so she won’t miss calls when she’s in the shower. Or a coma.

An anxious three months pass before Clara returns the manuscript to her, its rejection explained only by a boilerplate: we regret that your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time.

Okay, what did Antoinette do wrong here, other than use a recycled box? (Hint: what she did wrong here probably didn’t have any impact whatsoever on whether the manuscript got rejected or not. But it was still a faux pas.)

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

Also, one suspects, in her rush to get it out the door and into an agent’s hands, she neglected to sit down and give it a final once-over, reading it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. It’s also not a bad idea to flip through the manuscript as it prints out to make sure that no pages are smudged or missing; I don’t know about your printer, but mine occasionally blithely decides to slip a blank piece of paper into a manuscript when I’m not looking.

Since we are talking about Antoinette here, I’ll spare you the story about the time I forgot to check, and page 47 of my master’s thesis was nowhere to be found. My defense turned a mite ugly as a result.

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

Just doesn’t happen anymore, although it may have 20 years ago, at the dawn of overnight cross-country shipping. At this point in human history, though, writers have done this too often for an overnighted package to generate any enthusiasm at all at the average agency. Now, overnight packaging is just another box.

Save yourself some dosh.

Antoinette’s other mistake was to put the rest of her submissions on hold, effectively granting the agent of her dreams an unrequested and totally unnecessary exclusive look at the manuscript. Oh, you can see her reasoning easily enough: if her top pick offered representation, she wouldn’t need to query or submit anymore. But since Clara didn’t — and took her own sweet time saying so — Antoinette just took 8 weeks of potential submission (and querying) time and threw it out the window.

Sometime later in her writing career, she may wish she had that time back. The most probable first expression of that wish: about 35 seconds after she reads Clara’s form-letter rejection. Shouted at the top of her lungs.

I can think of couple of reasons — and good ones — to keep submitting and querying right up to the moment an agent makes you an offer. First, finding and landing the right agent for your work can take some serious time — if your book is genuinely ready to send out, why wait a month (or more) to hear back from each?

Second, few agents assume that a good writer will be submitting to only one agency at a time. If there isn’t competition over you, they sometimes conclude that no one else is interested.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: unless an agency SPECIFICALLY says that it will accept only exclusive submissions, it does not expect them. The writers’ conference rumors that say otherwise are just not true. But do double-check each agency’s website and/or agency guide listing, just to be sure; policies do vary.

Third — and I’m sorry to have to say this, Antoinette, but it’s true — for the sake of your long-term happiness, it’s never a good idea to hang all of your hopes on a single submission. This is a tough business; being realistic about that can help take some of the sting out of rejection. Keep plowing forward.

I’m off to cultivate my attitude problem by engaging in a few hours of brooding about why my hair isn’t curly and other burning existential issues, but rest assured, I have more submission exemplars up my capacious sleeve. Keep up the good work!

Wrapping up on wrapping up: what precisely should go in that box?

brain in shipping box

Are you excited to have reached the end of this extended megaseries on everything and anything that should go in a query or submission packet — other than the manuscript, that is? Did that collective “Nyeah” I just heard mean that you’re thrilled to have all of this knowledge under your belt, in preparation for that supercharged, tense day when you’re asked to bundle your pages together and send ‘em off, or that the long-term readers amongst you are just pleased to have this info in consecutive posts, for easy future reference? Or is it merely that you will be awfully glad when I stop yammering on about these less-than-thrilling practicalities and wend my way back to craft?

However it may be, last time, I launched into an extensive discussion of the kind of boxes a writer should (sturdy, clean, size-appropriate) and should not use (grease-stained, mangled, clearly last used to ship books from Amazon) to send a manuscript to an agent, editor, or contest. Today, I’m going to round off our discussion of submission packets with some examination of what a writer might conceivably want to stuff into that box.

Let’s pretend for a moment that you have just been asked to submit materials to the agent of your dreams. To be absolutely clear, I’m talking about REQUESTED materials here, not just sending pages to an agency that asks queriers to include the first chapter, a few pages, or a synopsis with a query — all of these would, in the industry’s eyes, be unsolicited pages crammed into a query packet.

I know, I know: it’s a bit counter-intuitive that a blanket statement on a website, in an agency guide, or from a conference dais that a particular agent would like to receive these materials from all queriers doesn’t constitute solicitation, but it doesn’t. The logic runs thus: guidelines that recommend submitting extra material with a query are generic, aimed at any aspiring writer who might conceivably be considering sending a query.

By contrast, a solicited submission, a.k.a. requested materials, is one that an agent is WAITING to see because she has asked a particular writer to send it following a successful pitch or query. Because the agent expressed positive interest in seeing those pages, the lucky requestee is fully justified in scrawling REQUESTED MATERIALS in letters two inches high in the lower right-hand corner of the envelope or shipping box, just to the left of the address, to assure that the submission lands on the right desk instead of the slush pile made up of, you guessed it, unsolicited manuscripts.

Everyone clear on the difference between solicited and unsolicited materials? Because if you don’t by this point in this megaseries, I can only fling my hands into the air and tearfully inquire of any deities who might happen to be listening just where I went wrong in bringing you up.

Just as generic requests vary in what agents ask queriers to send, so do requests for solicited material. Out comes my favorite broken record again: while every agency and small publishing house seems to have a slightly different idea of what constitutes a standard submission packet (word to the wise: read those requests CAREFULLY), here are the most commonly-requested constituent parts, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in the packet:

1. Cover letter
You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? As I mentioned a few days ago, just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude, as well as strategically unwise.

“Oh, please, Anne,” I hear the submission-weary complain. “Rude? What do you call making a successful querier or pitcher write ANOTHER letter to an agent who has already agreed to read my work?”

I sympathize with the submission fatigue, oh weary ones, but don’t get your hackles up. In the first place, there’s no need for a long-winded missive — a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do. It’s hardly onerous.

In the second place, the submitter is the one who benefits from including a cover letter — all the more so because so few submitters remember to tuck one into their packets. An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these submitting writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries or pitches well enough to render page one of chapter one instantly recognizable?

I’m not going to depress you by telling you just how unlikely this is to be the case.

Suffice it to say that it’s in your best interest to assume that the person who heard your pitch or read your query won’t be the first person to screen your submission, for the very simple reason that it is, in fact, often a different person. Thus, it doesn’t really make sense to presume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with who you are and what you write.

And it’s not problematic purely because a Millicent new to your project might get offended by not being addressed politely from the moment she opens the manuscript box. Does anyone out there want to take a guess at the PRACTICAL reason omitting both a cover letter and a title page might render a submitter less likely to get picked up?

If you instantly cried, “Because it renders the agency’s contacting the submitter substantially more difficult!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Like a query letter and a title page, a good cover letter should include all of the sender’s contact information — because the last response you want your submission to generate is a heart-felt, “Oh, it’s too bad we have no idea who sent us this or how to contact him or her; all we have is the author’s last name in the slug line. This saddens me, because I really liked this manuscript!”

Okay, so that little piece of dialogue is pretty lousy, now that you mention it. But you get my point, right?

“Okay, Anne,” the former head-scratchers concede, “I get why I should include a cover letter. What does it need to say?”

Glad you asked. Under most circumstances, all it needs to say is the following. (If you’re having trouble reading this, try either double-clicking on the image or saving it to your hard disk as a PDF.)

Seriously, that’s all there is to it. Like any other thank-you letter, the courtesy lies more in the fact that the sender took the time to write it, rather than in what it actually says.

A couple of caveats:

(a) If you met the agent at a conference, mention that in the first paragraph of the letter, to help place your submission in context. As crushing as it may be for the writerly ego to contemplate, an agent who spent days on end listening to hundreds of pitches probably is not going to remember each one. No need to re-pitch, but a gentle reminder never hurts.

While you’re at it, it’s not a bad idea to write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, along with REQUESTED MATERIALS. Heck, it’s a very good idea to write the conference’s name on the outside of a query to an agent one has heard speak at a conference, too, or to include the conference’s name in the subject line of a query e-mail. The point here is to render it pellucidly clear to the agent why you’re contacting her.

(b) If another agent is already reading all or part of the manuscript you’re sending — or has asked to see it — be sure to mention this in your cover letter. No need to say who it is or how long s/he has had it; just tell the recipient that s/he’s not the only one considering representing this book. Unless the agency has a policy forbidding simultaneous submissions, withholding this information will only generate resentment down the line if more than one agent wants to represent your book.

Yes, even if that agent to whom you submitted 9 months ago has just never responded. Actually, it’s in your strategic interest to contact that non-responder to let her know that another agent is interested.

(c) Make sure ALL of your contact information is on the letter, either in the header (letterhead-style, as I have shown above) or under your signature. Again, you want to make sure that the agent of your dreams can call you up and rave about how much she loved your submission, right?

(d) Make absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks. (Yes, it happens. Don’t ask; just be prepared for this horrifying contingency.)

Everyone comfortable with the cover letter? For more tips on how to construct one with aplomb, please see COVER LETTERS FOR SUBMISSIONS (where do I come up with these obscure category titles?) on the list at right.

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

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way.

Also, like the cover letter, the title page renders it easy for an agent to track you down. Believe me, if the agent of your dreams falls in love with your manuscript, you’re going to want to hear about it right away.

3. The requested pages in standard format, unbound in any way.

The operative word here is requested. If an agent or editor asked you for a partial, send PRECISELY the requested number of pages. Don’t fudge here — even if your novel features a tremendous cliffhanger on p. 51, if the agent of your dreams asked for the first 50 pages, send only the first 50 pages, period.

Actually, in this instance, you should send only the first 50 pages even if they do not end in a period. Even if the designated last page ends mid-sentence, stop there.

As to sending pages in standard manuscript format, please, don’t get me started again the desirability of sending professionally-formatted submissions. For a month after I run a series on standard format , the rules keep running through my head like a nagging tune.

If you’re brand-new to reading this blog and thus successfully avoided my recent series on the subject, or have somehow avoided my repeated and vehement posts on standard format for manuscripts over the last three years, please see the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.

For the benefit of those of you who are going to blow off that last piece of advice because you’re in a hurry — oh, I know that you’re out there; I can hear your shallow, panicked breathing — allow me to add something you might not have picked up from those posts on formatting: a manuscript intended for submission should not be bound in any way.

Oh, and do use at least 20-lb, bright white paper. Cheaper paper can begin to wilt after the first screener has rifled through it. Yes, it does increase the already quite substantial cost of submission, but this is one situation where being penny-wise can cost you serious presentation points.

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

Most of the time, though, what an agent will ask to see for either is a synopsis.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I haven’t done a synopsis how-to in a while, so I shall be revisiting it beginning this coming weekend. For those of you in a greater hurry, please check out the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS category at right. (Again, how do I come up with these category titles?)

5. Author bio, if one was requested.
Which you already have in your hot little hand, right? Aren’t you pleased with yourself?

For those of you joining us late in this series, an author bio is a one-page (double-spaced) or half-page (single-spaced) plus photo account of the submitting writer’s professional credentials. Typically, when an agent submits a manuscript or book proposal to editors, the author bio is tucked immediately at the end of the manuscript or sample chapter.

6. A SASE big enough to fit the entire manuscript.
This should be automatic by now, but to recap for those of you who will read this weeks or months from now in the archives: that’s a self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the game. Always use stamps, not metered postage, for the SASE.

I’m really running through that stack of old records today, but to reiterate: send a SASE large enough for the return of your materials EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency (or publishing house) to whom you are submitting has actually asked for a SASE. If the requested pages fit in a Manila or Priority Mail envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission package.

How does one handle this when using a box as a SASE? Well, since it would be impracticable to fold up another Priority Mail box inside, if you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection.

To be on the safe side, explain HOW you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal. You didn’t hear it from me, of course, but sometimes, they evidently have trouble figuring it out.

You can also nab one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-address it, add postage, and stick it into the box. If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage. It’s bad enough that we writers are expected to underwrite the costs of agencies rejecting our work. (Which is, effectively, what the SASE accomplishes, right?) If you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because they’ve rejected it. Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?

“But Anne,” I hear the ecology-minded writers out there murmur, “surely it would be easier, cheaper, and environmentally friendlier to ask the agent or editor to recycle the submission pages if s/he rejects it?”

Yes, it would be all three, but I would strenuously advise against making this request of any agency or publishing house that doesn’t state directly on its website or in its agency guide listing that it will recycle rejected manuscripts. Most won’t, but many, many agencies will instruct their Millicents to reject any submission that arrives without a SASE.

Do you really want to chance it?

7. Optional extras.
If you want to send a second, business-size envelope SASE as well, to make it easy for them to request the rest of the manuscript, place it at the bottom of the packet (and mention it in your cover letter.)

Since the vast majority of agencies are congenitally allergic to submitters calling, e-mailing, or even writing to find out if a manuscript actually arrived — check the agency’s website or guide listing to be sure — it’s also a fair-to-middling idea to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. To generate a chuckle in a hard-worked Millicent, I always liked to send a SASP that looked like this — although with a stamp attached, of course:

Don’t worry about this causing trouble; it doesn’t, and you will have proof that they received it. This is important, because manuscripts do go astray from time to time.

8. Pack it all in a durable container that will keep your submission from getting damaged en route.

Why, this suggestion seems strangely familiar, somehow…oh, yes, we spent all of yesterday’s post talking about it.

And that, my friends, is the low-down on the submission packet. Don’t forget that EVERYTHING you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing please. No smudges or bent corners, either.

In other words, make it all pretty and hope for the best. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Wrapping it all up and tying it with a bow

tying a bow tie

My, I’ve been getting a lot of great questions in the comments lately! Mostly on long-ago posts, admittedly, but I hope it’s a sign that many of you are getting your work out there, sliding it under agents’, editors’, and contest judges’ noses. Yes, the news from the publishing world, like the news from other sectors of the economy, is rather grim, but that does not mean landing an agent or selling a book is impossible.

As I am undoubtedly not the first person in the writers’ cosmos to say, the only manuscript that has absolutely NO chance of getting published is the one that’s never sent out. Keep plugging away.

As those of you gifted at adding 2 and 2 together without getting 8 might already have figured out, I’ve been rounding out my meandering series on query/ submission packets and the things that go into them by sifting through my archives to find readers’ questions and answering them now. That way, all of the pack it up and ship it out posts are right on top of each other, rather than lying scattered about whenever some bright reader happened to bring it up.

Hey, I know that not everybody is fond of archive-diving. Those who are not should be grateful, then, that insightful long-time reader Jen wrote in to ask:

I can’t help but think that the rules sink into my brain a little deeper with each reading. Still, sending off all those pages with nothing to protect them but the slim embrace of a USPS envelope seems to leave them too exposed. Where does one purchase a manuscript box?

This is an excellent question, Jen: many, many aspiring writers worry that a simple Manila envelope, or even the heavier-duty Priority Mail envelope favored by the US Postal Service, will not preserve their precious pages in pristine condition. Especially, as is all too common, if those pages are crammed into an envelope or container too small to hold them comfortably, or that smashes the SASE into them so hard that it leaves an indelible imprint in the paper.

Do I sense some readers scratching their heads? “But Anne,” some of you ask, “once a submission is tucked into an envelope and mailed, it is completely out of the writer’s control. Aren’t the Millicents who inhabit agencies, as well as the Maurys who screen submissions at publishing houses and their Aunt Mehitabels who judge contest entries, fully aware that pages that arrive bent were probably mangled in transit, not by the writer who sent them?”

Well, yes and no, head-scratchers. Yes, pretty much everyone who has ever received a mauled letter is cognizant of the fact that envelopes do occasionally get caught in sorting machines. Also, mail gets tossed around a fair amount in transit — you think all of those packages in Santa’s sleigh have a smooth ride? — so yes, Virginia, even a beautifully put-together submission packet may arrive a tad crumpled.

Do most professional readers cut the submitter slack for this? Sometimes; if Millicent’s just burned her lip on that latté that she never seems to remember to let cool, it’s not going to take much for the next submission she opens to annoy her. And in the case of contest entries, I don’t know Aunt Mehitabel personally, but I have heard contest judges over the years complain vociferously to one another about the state in which entries have arrived on their reading desks.

All of which is to say: appearances count. You should make an effort to get your submission to its intended recipient in as neat a state as possible. It is, after all, showing up at an agency or publishing house for a job interview.

How does one go about insuring that it arrives looking good? The most straightforward way, as Jen suggests, is to ship it in a box designed for the purpose. Something, perhaps, along the lines of this:

Just kidding; we’re not looking for a medieval Bible box here. What most writers like to use looks a little something like this:

This, my friends, is the very model of a modern manuscript box: sturdy white or brown corrugated cardboard with a lid that is attached along one long side. Usually, a manuscript box designed for the purpose will hold from 250 to 750 pages of text comfortably, without sliding from side to side.

While manuscript boxes are indeed very nice for cradling your precious pages, they aren’t necessary for submission; the attached lid, while undoubtedly aesthetically pleasing, is not required, or even much appreciated at the agency end. Manuscripts are taken out of the boxes for perusal, anyway, so why fret about how the boxes that send them open? In practice, any clean, previously-unused box large enough to hold all of the requested materials (more on that subject in my next post) without crumpling them will work to send a submission.

Emphasis on previously unused. More on that below.

Some of you are resisting the notion of using just any old box, aren’t you, rather than one specially constructed for the purpose? I’m not entirely surprised. I hear all the time from writers stressing out about what kind of box to use — over and above clean, sturdy, and appropriately-sized, that is — and not without good reason. In the old days — say, 30+ years ago — the author was expected to provide a box, and a rather nice one, then wrap it in plain brown paper for shipping. These old boxes are beautiful, if you can still find one: dignified black cardboard, held together by shining brass brads.

Since I couldn’t even find a photograph of one of these gems online, I’m guessing that they’d be pretty hard to dig up to house your submission. At least not outside an unusually literary antique store. (“A first edition of Tropic of Capricorn, sonny? Try that shelf over there, next to the manuscript boxes and Edith Wharton’s secretary’s typewriter ribbons.”)

Happily, when sending a manuscript today, there’s no need to pack it in anything extravagant: no agent is going to look down upon your submission because it arrives in an inexpensive box. If you can get the requested materials there in one piece box-free — say, if it is an excerpt short enough to fit into a Manila folder or Priority Mail cardboard envelope without much wrinkling — go ahead. Do bear in mind, though, that you want to have your pages arrive looking fresh and unbent, so make sure that your manuscript fits comfortably in its holder in such a way that the pages are unlikely to wrinkle.

Out comes our old friend the broken record again: it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish to use cheap paper for submissions; a savvy submitter uses 20 lb or heavier paper. This is part of the reason why.

Look for a box with the right footprint to ship a manuscript without too much internal shifting. In general, it’s better to get a box that is a little too big than one that’s a little too small. To keep the manuscript from sliding around and getting crumpled, insert wads of bubble wrap or handfuls of peanuts around it, not wadded-up paper. Yes, the latter is more environmentally-friendly, but we’re talking about presentation here.

Avoid the temptation to use newspaper, too; newsprint tends to stain.

Most office supply stores carry perfectly serviceable white boxes — Office Depot, for instance, stocks a recycled cardboard variety — but if you live in the greater Seattle area, funky plastic junk store Archie McPhee’s, of all places, routinely carries fabulous red and blue boxes exactly the right size for a 450-page manuscript WITH adorable little black plastic handles for about a buck each. My agent gets a kick out of ‘em, reportedly, and while you’re picking one up, you can also snag a bobble-head Edgar Allan Poe doll that bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to Robert Goulet:

If that’s not one-stop shopping, I should like to know what is.

Your local post office may stock manuscript-sized boxes as well, as does USPS online. Post offices often conceal some surprisingly inexpensive options behind those capacious counters, so it is worth inquiring if you don’t see what you need on display.

Far and away the most economical box source for US-based writers are those free all-you-can-stuff-in-it Priority Mail boxes that the post office provides:

Quite the ravishing photo, isn’t it, considering that the model is an object made of cardboard? If you don’t happen to mind all of the postal service propaganda printed all over it, these 12″ x 12″ x 5 1/2″ boxes work beautifully, with a little padding, as will the 11 7/8″ x 13 5/8″ x 3 3/8″.

Say away from those wadded-up newspapers, I tell you. Can I interest you in some bubble wrap, inflatable packing material, or bio-degradable peanuts?

Why press the 12″ by 12″ boxes into service, you ask, when the USPS is considerate enough to offer a 8 1/2” x 11” all-you-can-cram-for-a-flat-rate box? Because those tempting little numbers only LOOK as though they will fit a manuscript comfortably without bunching the pages. The actual footprint of the bottom of the box is the size of a piece of paper, so there is no wiggle room to, say, insert a stack of paper without wrinkling it.

Trust me, that’s not something you want to find out after you’ve already printed out your submission.

Yes, yes, I know: the USPS is purportedly the best postal service in the world, a boon to humanity, and one of the least expensive to boot. Their gallant carriers have been known to push forward through the proverbial sleet, hail, dark of night, and mean dogs. But when faced with an only apparently manuscript-ready box on a last-minute deadline, the thought must occur to even the most flag-proud: do the postal services of other countries confound their citizens in this way?

Just what do they expect anyone to put in an 8 1/2” x 11” box OTHER than a stack of paper? A beach ball? A pony? A small automobile?

Whatever difficulties you may have finding an appropriately-sized box, DO NOT, under any circumstances, reuse a box clearly marked for some other purpose, such as holding dishwashing soap. As desirable as it might be for your pocketbook, your schedule, and the planet, never send your manuscript in a box that has already been used for another purpose.

You know what I mean, don’t you? We’ve all received (or sent) that box that began life as an mail-order shipping container, but is now covered with thick black marker, crossing out the original emporium’s name. My mother takes this process even farther, turning the lines intended to obfuscating that Amazon logo into little drawings of small creatures cavorting on a cardboard-and-ink landscape.

As dandy as this recycling is for birthday presents and the like, it’s considered a bit tacky in shipping a submission. Which is unfortunate, as the ones from Amazon tend to be a perfect footprint for manuscripts. Don’t yield to the temptation, though.

“But wait!” I hear the box-savvy cry, “those Amazon boxes are about 4 inches high, and my manuscript is about 3 inches high. It just cries out, ‘Stuff your manuscript into me and send me to an agent!’”

A word of advice: don’t take advice from cardboard boxes; they are not noted for their brilliance. Spring for something new.

Oh, and before I forget: If you’ve been asked to send more than one copy of a manuscript — not all that uncommon after you’ve been picked up by an agent — don’t even try to find a box that opens like a book: just use a standard shipping box. Insert a piece of colored paper between each copy, to render the copies easy to separate. Just make sure it’s not construction paper, or the color will rub off on your lovely manuscripts.

And you do know that EVERY time you send requested materials, either before or after signing an agency contract, you should write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters in the lower left-hand corner of the submission envelope, don’t you? (If you have been asked to submit electronically, include the words REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line of the e-mail.) This will help your submission to land on the right desk, instead of in the slush pile or recycling bin.

Next time, I shall talk a little more about what goes INSIDE that manuscript box and in what order. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Beautifully stamping your SASE, and other agent-pleasing habits of the mythical sanitary author


I’m not much given to re-running photographs, if I can help it, but today, I couldn’t resist. Especially as it ties in so well with our ongoing topic, pulling together a query or submission packet. In this post, I’m going to be addressing that most burning of writerly issues, how to affix stamps to one’s self-addressed, stamped envelope.

What’s that I hear the disgruntled masses muttering under its collective breath? Stamping doesn’t seem like a potential problem? And what the heck does any of this have to do with the photograph above?

Reasonable questions, both. Yet as is my wont, I’m going to take my own sweet time addressing them.

First: the photo, which those of sharp memory may recall I originally ran last April. I’m not much given to double-takes, but I must admit, I did a lulu when I spotted this sign standing by the side of a two-lane highway in unincorporated Neskowin, Oregon. To the casual observer, Neskowin is a blink-and-you-miss-it collection of buildings, but to the observant tourist, it is fraught with enigma: its population is 170, according to its ostensibly unofficially municipal website — a human density which renders the two golf courses located there, well, surprising. Who is playing golf in such high numbers that a lone course wasn’t deemed sufficient for local needs? Bears? Sea lions? Migratory Scots with a yen for Pacific Rim cuisine?

All of these legitimate wonders pale, obviously, next to the undying enigma of the Sanitary Author. What makes him or her so darned clean, the passing motorist is left pondering, and why is the population of Neskowin so proud of that particular resident’s hygiene habits that the non-city fathers saw fit to erect a sign to commemorate the SA’s immaculate practices? Did s/he win some sort of international award for cleanliness akin to the Nobel prize?

Does the SA reside in remote forest because such cleanly writing practices would not have been feasible within the confines of a large city like New York, Los Angeles, or even charming and nearby Portland? More importantly from the point of view of fellow authors, how does being so sanitary affect the quality of the SA’s writing — and if it has a net positive effect, should we all be beating a path to Oregon, demanding to follow in the SA’s spotless footsteps?

And should we be worried about all of the unsanitary authors running around out there?

Oh, I know what prosaic types out there are likely to tell me: since the period after AUTHOR would tend to indicate an abbreviation, this sign probably only refers to the local sanitary authority, the fine municipal employees who look after water quality and maintaining the local sewer system. So much for impenetrable ambiguity, the literal would doubtless conclude. Just ignore that sasquatch strolling by; there’s nothing to see here.

But look closely at that sign: there’s a period after SANITARY, too. Complete words are seldom abbreviations, I find. So the mystery continues.

On to the business of the day. Time to stop thinking about the great unwashed mass of unsanitary authors currently roaming the face of the earth. No good could come of pondering their filthy ways.

Hey, remember how I was saying just last month that quite a number of my ideas for blog posts have resulted from readers’ good questions? Or rather from my inability to answer them briefly enough to prevent the fact that the comments section of this blog is not searchable (from your side, anyway) from annoying the heck out of me?

Case in point: busily submitting reader Rachel asked a question about stamps on the required self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Now, I’ve written on this topic quite a bit over the years — so much so that there’s an entire SASE GUIDELINES category on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page — so my first instinct was to send her there, or to advise her to do a site search under stamp, and continue on my merry way, confident that yet another writerly problem had been successfully solved.

Then I did a site search under stamp.

Suffice it to say that quite a few posts came up — more, I suspect, than any writer in the first throes of excitement about receiving a request to send materials to an agent would be likely to scan for an answer to this specific question. Also, the absolutely dead-on-target explanation I had in mind turned out to be located in the comments of a post from a couple of years ago…and thus not searchable from a reader’s perspective.

Not precisely user-friendly, in other words.

So while my second instinct was to mutter, “Yes, but all of the basics a submitter would absolutely need to know could be found under the aptly-named HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category” (which is in fact true), I realized that this wasn’t the world’s most satisfactory answer. Part of my goal in setting up the category list is to render it as easy as possible for my readers to find precisely the information they are seeking. (Another part, admittedly, is so I can say, “Look, I’ve already written about that — there’s a category on the list at right that addresses your concerns precisely,” and proceed on my aforementioned merry way.)

My solution was — and is — threefold. First, I’ve created a MAILING REQUESTED MATERIALS category on the list at right, so the next time a question like this comes up, I can smugly point the question-asker there. (Hey, I’ve got to make up for lost time on the merry way, don’t I?)

Second, I’m going to address Rachel’s (quite good) question right now as its own post, rather than merely in the comments, so anybody else who happens to wonder about it in the months and years to come will have an easier time tracking down the answer. It just goes to show you: asking thoughtful questions not only helps the individual who brings them up, but the entire Author! Author! community.

And third, I’m NOT going to waste any brain space wondering if the Sanitary Author used to refuse to lick his own stamps. Or envelopes. (But how did s/he survive before self-adhesion became the norm?)

Let’s take a gander at what Rachel wanted to know:

I have a question about the SASE that you put in with your materials. I understand it was always better to use stamps so that the agent can just toss it in the outgoing mail bin at the agency. But I was talking to the postal clerks yesterday and they said that post-911 rules are now in effect: any stamped package over 13 ounces has to be brought to the post. I asked to get metered mail instead, and they said it wouldn’t work because it would have that date (yesterday) on it. A dilemma!

I explained my situation to them and the clerks suggested just using a priority stamp, because if a SASE were expected, then stamps are really the only way to go.

Is that how they’re doing it now?

Rachel asks excellent questions, as you may see. Before I launch into lengthy explanation, however, let’s define our terms.

As those of you who successfully made it through my last couple of posts are already aware, all queries and requested materials sent to US-based agents via mail should be accompanied by a SASE. No exceptions, I’m afraid. Forgetting to include a SASE is an instant-rejection offense at most agencies, and with good reason: if the agent decides to pick up the manuscript, the writer’s having included the expected SASE demonstrates a pleasing ability to follow directions, and if the agent decides to pass, s/he may return rejected pages at the writer’s expense. Yes, I know: it’s annoying to be underwriting one’s own rejection, but there actually are some benefits for the writer in this arrangement. To name but one: finding out that your submission has in fact been rejected, rather than gnawing your fingernails in perpetual worry for a year or two.

Contrary to popular opinion, a SASE shouldn’t always take the form of a business-size envelope; it varies according to what was sent in the first place. Because the point of the SASE is to ensure the safe return of whatever a writer sends to an agency, you should always include enough postage on your SASE that everything you submitted may be popped into it and mailed.

What might that look like in practice, you ask? Well, when sending a query, including a SASE is pretty straightforward: the writer takes a second envelope, writes his own address on it, adds appropriate postage, folds it, and stuffs it — neatly, please, as becomes a Sanitary Author — into the query envelope.

With a submission packet, the process is similar, but the packaging is different. If the agent only asks to see 50 pages or a chapter or two, few enough that they could be comfortably placed in a Manila envelope without wrinkling them (the Sanitary Author deplores crumpled pages; so do many agents), all you need to do is take a second Manila envelope, self-address it, affix the same amount of postage you’re going to use to send the whole packet to the agency, fold it, and place it neatly within the submission envelope.

SASE-wrangling becomes a bit trickier if you’ve been asked to send the entire manuscript, because that generally entails using a box. (For a detailed explanation of what types of box should and shouldn’t be used, complete with glamorous photographs of cardboard in its various manifestations, please see my earlier post on the subject.) Obviously, it’s going to be unwieldy to stuff a second box inside the first, so it’s completely acceptable just to include a self-addressed mailing label and postage. (Be sure to mention both in your cover letter, so they won’t get lost on the agency end; I’ll be talking about how to pull off including such necessary-but-prosaic details gracefully later this week.)

Equally obviously (but I’m going to mention it anyway, just in case), the stamps on the SASE need to be US stamps, if the agency is US-based. That requirement means that SASEing is invariably a great deal more challenging — and expensive — for writers in foreign climes querying or submitting to US agencies; the far-flung are not exempt from the SASE expectation, I’m afraid, which can make e-mailed querying a more attractive option.

The good news is that the US Postal Service’s website sells stamps at face value, rather than at the exorbitant mark-up one frequently finds for them abroad . The USPS more than happy to ship ‘em to your doorstep in exotic climes so you may stick ‘em onto your SASE before popping your submission into the mail.

Is everyone clear on the care and feeding of the SASE? Good.

Okay, now that we’re all on the same page, so to speak, let’s get back to the crux of Rachel’s question: has the post-9/11 alteration in post office policy altered what agencies expect to see on a SASE?

The last few years have indeed seen some changes in how agencies handle packages, but actually, most of them date from before 9/11, back to the anthrax scare. Before that, virtually no agency accepted electronic submissions, for instance; they may not pay their Millicents much, but the average agency certainly didn’t want theirs to get sick from opening a poisoned query envelope.

E-mailed queries and submissions don’t carry the risk of that sort of infection (and I think we can all guess how the Sanitary Author would feel about that). They do, however, occasionally contain computer viruses, so few agents will open an attachment unless they have already specifically requested an electronic submission from a writer.

Rachel’s clerk was quite right about heavier packages having to be physically carried into the post office by human being, rather than blithely dropped into a mailbox or dumped in a mailroom — a policy shift that would affect virtually any submitted full manuscript, since they tend to be heavy little critters. However, that most emphatically does not mean is that the agent is going to be taking a rejected manuscript to the post office herself. Some luckless agency intern will be toting a whole mess of them there every few days.

Or not; since the USPS changed its regulations in this respect, many agencies have side-stepped the return mail problem by just ceasing to return submitted manuscripts to their writers at all. Interestingly, agencies that operate this way usually still expect submitters to include SASEs.

The moral: unless you are querying or submitting electronically OR an agency specifically says it doesn’t use SASEs, you should always include one.

And always use actually stamps on it, rather than metered postage. Despite the changes I mentioned above, the imperative to use stamps on a SASE has never wavered: the goal here is not convenience in mailing, but the submitter’s paying for the manuscript’s return. Regardless of whether that means tossing it into the nearest mailbox (which would still be possible for most partial manuscripts) or assigning Millicent to do it, stamps have always served the purpose best.

That being said, I must confess that I don’t quite understand the clerk’s recommendation to Rachel to affix Priority Mail postage to the SASE, unless he was either lobbying her to use a Priority Mail envelope as a SASE (not a bad idea, especially if the submission is just a few chapters; they fold nicely into a submission envelope) or simply trying to hawk a more expensive stamp. The distinction between Priority Mail and regular mail is the speed with which it arrives; the ease of mailing is identical.

Which means that buying a more expensive stamp or a cheaper one to affix to the SASE is entirely up to the writer. Like overnighting requested materials vs. sending them regular mail, whether a submitter elects to pay a shipper extra money to convey a manuscript from point A to point B is generally a matter of complete indifference to the agent receiving it, as long as it gets there in one piece.

(“And looking pretty,” adds the Sanitary Author. “None of those pesky wrinkles. And print your manuscript on nice paper while you’re at it.”)

To be blunt about it, the agent has absolutely no reason to care how quickly a rejected manuscript reaches its submitter. All she’s going to care about is whether you’ve included the means to mail it back to you at your expense, not hers.

And that, my friends, is the information that most agencies’ listings in the standard agency guides and websites compress into the terse advice Include SASE. Apparently, somewhere on earth, there lurks a tribe of natural-born queriers who realize from infancy precisely what that means, so it requires no further explanation.

I’ll bet the Sanitary Author is one of that happy breed. For the rest of us, learning how agencies work requires a bit of homework — and the asking of good questions.

So thank you, Rachel, for flagging the issue — and everybody, keep up the good work!

The mysteries of the human memory — and a few more words of wisdom about the SASE

life of brian crosses

I’ve had Monty Python on the brain quite a bit lately, I notice — and not just because my neighbor was playing an apparently all-parrot-sketch-all-the-time station while I was planting bulbs this afternoon. I’m working on revising a novel with a 17-year-old narrator, set roughly at the time when — surprise, surprise — yours truly was 17, and since it’s a comedy, I’ve been having to recreate what I would have thought funny at the time. Since, as any memoirist could tell you, hunting internally for one type of memory often pulls up another entirely, I found myself procrastinating today by writing about the time in junior high school when my family and I actually had to cross a picket line in San Francisco — San Francisco! — to see The Life of Brian.

Strange much how the public perception of what’s upsetting changes, isn’t it?

A psychologist friend of mine told me recently that recent research demonstrates that the brain can respond as dramatically to recalled memories as to present life; sometimes, she says, the mind will experience flashbacks AS current events. I’m fascinated by this, not only as a memoirist (and yes, the memoir that was supposed to come out a few years ago is still tied up in legal knots; thanks for asking), but as a novelist. To be specific: I’m on a tight deadline with this revision, and if my cats didn’t remind me occasionally that they do not possess opposable thumbs or the ability to open cabinets (well, okay, MOST cabinets), they would probably be forced to start nibbling on my toes under my desk to stave off imminent starvation.

I’m inclined to blame this on the way that the creative process colonizes the writer’s brain. The cats seem inclined to blame it on me, which I suppose amounts to more or less the same thing: if it can’t wait until I polish the scene in front of me to a high gloss, it’s probably not going to happen.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Ask your kith and kin what you’re like during periods of intensive writing. You may be unusually good at jumping back and forth between the creative and observational parts of your brain, but if you’re writing on a regular basis, I’m betting that those who have the good fortune to live and work with you have built up a stockpile of anecdotes about how you space out on the minutiae of quotidian life when you’re writing hard.

Oh, you thought you were the only one? Far from it. Little things like laundry, taking vitamins, watering plants, and checking e-mail seem to slip unnoticed out of the working writers’ consciousness in the middle of a writing jag — and don’t even get me started on how the amnesia about practicalities can intensify in the face of an imminent deadline.

I suspect that this is a necessary side effect of the alchemy of creation. Because, really, in order to render our characters’ lifeworlds gripping on the page, we writers have to create them in our minds every bit as vividly and in all of the detail of a vitally important memory. That’s a pretty absorbing task, isn’t it?

With a pretty gratifying payoff, potentially: if we do our job very well indeed, we might create a story, a situation, a character that seems to the reader to have stepped straight out of real life. Only better.

Is it that same is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex trick of the brain, I wonder, that would allow a reader to fall in love with a character in a novel? As Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in THE PERPETUAL ORGY:

A handful of fictional characters have marked my life more profoundly than a great number of the flesh-and-blood beings I have known.

He’s talking about a literary orgy, incidentally, not a physical one: quite a lot of the book is about his passionate decades-long love affair with the entirely fictional Emma Bovary. And who can blame for falling in love with her, really? She’s a pretty absorbing character.

Do I sense those of you who are trying to get queries and/or submissions out the door within the next couple of weeks becoming a bit restless in the face of these musings? “I’m as fond of the creative haze as anyone else,” I hear some of you stalwart souls say, “but right now, most of my writing time is getting eaten up by the process of trying to sell my work. So if you don’t mind my asking, what does any of this have to do with the very practical concerns we’ve been discussing for the last few weeks?”

A couple of things, actually. First, in the throes of agent-seeking, it can be pretty easy to forget that Millicent and others like her who screen queries and submissions actually are looking to fall in love with some writer’s work.

Yes, you read that correctly: even the most virulent rejection-generator is usually eager to discover a novel that pulls him immediately into its lifeworld, or a memoir that wrings his heart, or the next Emma Bovary. I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that agents and editors so often describe their first responses to submissions in the language of attraction: you’re going to love this book, it’s a sexy topic, it didn’t grab me, I can’t get this book off my mind, I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist.

Set those to music, and you’ve got a pop song. As hard as it may be to believe, Millicent is waiting to be swept off her feet.

Which is why, in case any of you fine souls out there have been wondering, I tend to discuss querying and submission in romantic terms: the query letter is a personal ad for your book; you want attract not just any agent, but the one that’s the best match for you and your work; the first page needs to seduce Millicent into wanting to read on; the chemistry between an agent and a book matters deeply. Ditto between a book and an editor. So in addition to everything else we writers are trying to create, our writing also need to inspire love.

The interminable and annoying querying/submission process sounds substantially more noble put that way, doesn’t it? Feel free to use this argument the next time some non-writer gapes at the amount of time you’ve invested in trying to land an agent; generating love can take some time.

My second reason for bringing up this high-falutin’ topic is, I’m afraid, disappointingly prosaic. Yesterday, I started to answer a very practical question about SASEs (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope), and I seem to have gotten sidetracked.

I can only plead that I was absorbed in a revision. Excuse me a moment while I feel my languishing cats.

To remedy at least the first of these situations, let’s recap: why, in these days of growing environmental awareness, is the writer expected to send a SASE (that’s stamped, self-addressed envelope to the rest of the population) in anticipation of a rejected manuscript’s return? “I understand why I need to include a SASE for a query,” aspiring authors tell me, “but do I really need it for the submission? It’s not as though I’m going to be able to reuse the manuscript after it’s passed through the mail twice, anyway. Can’t I just ask them to recycle it instead?”

In a word, no. In several words, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!

To help us all understand this cosmic mystery, I explained the history behind the SASE last time: part of its original purpose was not just to save agencies the cost of postage, but also to render submissions cheaper for the writer. It was also intended to preserve copyright by allowing the author ostensible control about whose grimy paws were on the manuscript when.

Writers tend to forget this in the cyber age, when huge chunks of writing can be transferred from one end of the planet to the other with the simple push of a button (yes, of course I know that the world is not as flat as that image implies. Don’t quibble at me now; I’m on a roll), but technically, in order to retain copyright over your own writing, you need to control where and when it is read by others. Writing I post on this blog, for instance, is under my control, since I dictate where people can view it; I could disable RSS feeds, if I wanted. (Oh, the power! The power!) If I sent the same posts out via e-mail, they could end up anywhere, forwarded far beyond my knowledge.

When you send uncopyrighted material off to an agency or publishing house — to a credible one, anyway — you and your readers there are both operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission. You are not, in effect, authorizing them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so.

When you send a SASE, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys an expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

I hear the one in which Harry fights a dragon actually isn’t bad.

As I believe I have mentioned seventeen or eighteen hundred times before, this is a tradition-bound industry; it has historically been slow to change. No matter how good the logic against some of its long-held norms, this one did not change at all until there were some very tangible benefits on the agents’ end to altering it.

For example, the anthrax scare convinced some agencies to accept e-mailed queries and submissions. And the post 9/11 requirement to tote heavy packages to the post office prompted some agencies to start recycling rejected manuscripts, rather than having the lowest intern on the totem pole — the one who aspires to Millicent’s job someday — wheel a paper-loaded dolly up out of the building.

But practice, most agencies still adhere to the old norms. Don’t believe me? Thumb through any of the standard agency guides, and count how many agencies mention that they recycle.

Spoiler alert: your thumb is probably going to get pretty tired before you find even one.

Like so many other aspects of the querying and submission process, at one time, the use of the SASE carried greater benefits to the writer than it does now, but time has hardened courtesies into demands, and habits into traditions. Today, if you do not include a SASE with your submission, you may well be perceived as thumbing your nose at the traditions of people you are trying to impress.

As satisfying as that may be, allow me to suggest that it might not be the best way to convince an agent of your Socratic intellect and lamb-like willingness to take direction. So while my long-standing affection for writers, trees, and the printed pages both work to produce would LOVE to be able to say dispense with the SASE for the manuscript’s return in favor of a simple #10 envelope, it would not be in your best interest to fling away the old norms.

The only alternative that I have seen work in practice — and that only rarely — is to include a line in the cover letter, POLITELY asking the agency to recycle the manuscript if they decide not to offer representation and mentioning the business-sized SASE enclosed for their reply. Do be aware, however, that this strategy sometimes backfires with screeners trained to check first for a manuscript-sized SASE: as I mentioned yesterday, it’s not unheard-of for the Millicents of the world to toss aside such a manuscript to be tossed aside without reading the cover letter.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules of submission; I only try to render them comprehensible. Let’s all pray that when Millicent does engage in the summary rejection of the SASEless, she flings that precious ream of paper into a recycling bin.

Knowing the likelihood of that happening, I feel as though I should go off and plant a tree now. Or perhaps reread MADAME BOVARY.

Instead, I’m going to be intensely practical for a few moments and tell you PRECISELY how to play the SASE game correctly. The basic rule of thumb is to include a container and enough postage for the recipient to be able to ship any materials you may have submitted back to you. Thus:

When you send a paper query (as opposed to the e-mail variety), include a stamped envelope addressed to yourself. Do this EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency you’re querying actually asks for a SASE on its website or in its blurb in the standard agency guides.

A few technicalities: if you are sending more than 4 pages of text along with your query — if the agent asked for an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis — make sure that the postage on your query’s SASE is sufficient to get all of those pages back to you. A #10 (business-size) envelope is the norm to accompany queries, and stamps are universally preferred over metered postage. Since the agency will be popping the returned materials into the nearest mailbox, the stamps you use should be those currently in use in the AGENCY’s country of residence, not yours.

This means that if you are submitting to a US-based agency or publishing house from outside the country, you will need to dig up some US stamps. Since foreign post offices often sell these at a considerable mark-up, you can save a lot of money if you buy the stamps directly from the US Postal Service online.

When you send requested materials via mail (again, as opposed to e-mail submissions), include in your submission packet an envelope or box addressed to yourself, along with sufficient postage for the safe return of EVERYTHING you have submitted. If you want to be really considerate, you may also include a #10 SASE, so the agent may contact you to ask for more pages, but in the age of e-mail and relatively inexpensive long-distance calling, that particular request is unlikely to come via regular mail.

Again, do this EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency (or publishing house) to whom you are submitting has actually asked for a SASE. Omit it only if the agency specifically asks in its guidelines that you not include it. (I know of only one agency that currently makes this request; need I remind you to read EACH agency’s submission guidelines, in case they differ?)

If the requested pages fit in a Manila envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission package. If you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection.

You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude.

Relax, those of you who just clutched your chests: I’ll be talking about how to put together a cover letter for a submission packet as soon as I polish off this series on SASEs.

Who knew there were so many different things that needed to go into a submission packet, eh?

Speaking of tactics I hope each and every one of you was using long before you met me: every time you send requested materials, you should write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters in the lower right-hand corner of the submission envelope. If you have been asked to submit electronically, include the words REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line of the e-mail.

This will help your submission to land on the right desk, instead of in the slush pile. Or the non-existent recycling bin.

That 17-year-old voice wants me to pay attention to her now; so do my cats. I think all of us novelists already know which side is going to win that little tug-of-war, don’t we? Keep up the good work!

Why you need to tuck a SASE into your query or submission packet, or, how to be prepared if something falls on you from a zeppelin

A few days back, I promised to run through the care and feeding of the infamous and ubiquitously-requested SASE, industry-speak for the Stamped, Self-Addressed Envelope that should accompany EVERY query letter and/or submission packet — and those of you who restrict your querying to e-mail and filling out forms online just stopped paying attention, didn’t you?

That’s a mistake, you know. In case you don’t know, publishing is still largely a paper-based industry; until just a few years ago, e-mailed queries were widely considered as unprofessional as a phone call to an agent who has never heard of you. (All of my readers know better than to cold-call with a pitch, right?) Since the anthrax scare, more agencies are accepting electronic queries and submissions; some even prefer them. However, hard-copy submissions are still the preference of even many agents who accept electronic queries, so you might as well learn to cope with a request to mail ‘em.

And if that doesn’t convince the electronically-minded among you to stick around for the rest of this post, here’s another good reason: there are still plenty of great agents who do not accept e-queries or submissions at all. Do you really want to limit your querying list to only those who prefer to read on a computer screen or Kindle?

Ah, that got your attention, didn’t it? Excellent. Let’s move on.

The expectation that an aspiring writer will ALWAYS include a SASE with a mailed query or submission is universal, at least among U.S. agencies and publishers, so much so that many agencies don’t even explain what it means on their websites or listings in the standard guides anymore. Call me zany, but as those of you have been reading this blog for a while are already aware, I’m not a big fan of unspoken assumptions; they place the writer new to the game at a serious strategic disadvantage. So I hope those of you who have been at this for some time will forgive my annual attempt to explain to those new to querying what a SASE is and why, to put it bluntly, the writer is expected to pay the postage for a rejection letter or returned manuscript.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of the SASE in those terms? Or was that giant whoosh I just heard not a collective gasp but a whole bunch of eyebrows out there hitting the ceiling?

Probably the latter, I’m guessing, because I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who are unaware that a SASE should also accompany a manuscript. And I’m not just talking about the stamped, self-addressed #10 envelope one would send with a mailed query letter: I’m talking about a package with enough postage to get all of those requested pages back to the writer in one piece.

It can get cumbersome. Not to say expensive, especially for writer submitting to NYC-based agencies from outside the country, who not only have to figure out what the return postage would be in dollars instead of their local currency, but have to get their eager fingertips around some US stamps. (Don’t worry, foreign readers; there’s a trick to it.)

And let’s face it — when you’re in a dither of excitement, trying to get your requested manuscript out the door, it can seem like an unnecessary hoop through which to leap. Or so I surmise from the fact that every time I make my annual visit to this topic, I get barraged with very good questions from readers about why, in the age of fairly universal paper recycling and cheap, high-quality printers, a writer shouldn’t just ask an agent to recycle a rejected manuscript. Quoth, for instance, clever reader Melospiza:

Why on earth would you want your manuscript back (after it has been rejected)? It won’t be pristine enough to send out again. Why spend the money? And any parcel over one pound can’t be dropped in a mailbox, but must be taken to the post office, not something an agent will appreciate. Let the agent recycle the paper and enclose a (business-size) SASE only.

I’m SO glad Melospiza brought this up, because this is one of those secret handshake things — you know, a practices that the industry just assumes that any writer who is serious about getting published will magically know all about without being told. There’s a rather basic, practical reason to include the SASE for safe return of the manuscript, or even of a query: NOT including one leads to automatic rejection at most agencies.

Yes, you read that correctly: leaving a SASE out of the packet can, and often does, result in a submission’s being rejected unread; ask about it sometime at a writers’ conference. The vast majority of agents will be perfectly up front about the fact that they train their screeners accordingly.

The owners of all of those eyebrows are clutching their heads now, aren’t they, thinking of all of those SASEless submissions — or, more likely, submissions accompanied by a #10 SASE, rather than one with sufficient postage for the manuscript’s return — they sent out in the dark days of yore. “In heaven’s name,” these head-clutchers cry, “why would an agent who asked to see pages reject them unread?”

Good question, oh retrospective panickers. The short answer: because it’s obvious to Millicent that a writer who submits without a manuscript-size SASE doesn’t know the secret handshake.

I’m sorry to report that the longer answer is hardly more comforting. Amongst hard copy enthusiasts, it’s considered downright rude for a writer not to include a SASE both large enough and loaded down with enough pre-paid postage to send EVERYTHING enclosed back to the sender. Which means, in practical terms, that if the agency is going to keep its side of the tacit agreement allowing it to read a writer’s unpublished work, IT is going to have to shell out the dosh to mail the rejected manuscript back.

Ditto with a query letter that arrives unaccompanied by a SASE. An envelope and a stamp to respond to a forgetful writer may seem like a negligible expense — but multiply it by the 800 or 1000 queries the average agency receives every week, and we’re talking about a considerable investment in writers whose work they’ve already decided not to represent.

The result in both cases is generally a form-letter rejection.

I implore you, no matter how little you want to see that manuscript again, do NOT omit the SASE for the return of the manuscript — UNLESS the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says specifically that they will recycle rejected manuscripts. (Practically none of them do.)

Okay, before the disgruntled muttering out there gets too deafening, let’s voice it: “You must be pulling our collective leg,” I hear some of you saying. “Okay, maybe SASEless queries do tend to get rejected unread, but I can’t believe that it happens to submitted manuscripts or book proposals. By the time an agency or publishing house is sufficiently interested in you to want to see actual chapters of your book, your foot is too firmly in the door for your submission to be tossed aside unread for a reason as unrelated to the quality of the writing as not including a SASE. I mean, really, what purpose would being that touchy serve?”

A fairly tangible one, actually: it would be one less manuscript for Millicent to read.

Admittedly, from the submitter’s point of view, a good argument could be made that this practice would tend to lead to, as Melospiza rightly points out, a big ol’ waste of money, not to mention trees, without really providing much benefit to the people who actually pay for the return postage. After all, a SASE included with a submission is only going to be used if the news is bad. If the agency likes the MS, they’re going to ask to see the rest of the manuscript — which means your initial submission will get filed, you will send another packet (with another SASE), and your first SASE may well end up in the trash.

Or, if you’re really lucky, you’ll never see it again, because it will end up in a file drawer in your new agent’s office.

If they don’t like it, all you are doing by providing the postage is paying to get the news that they’re turning you down in a way that will make your postal carrier’s back ache, rather than via a nice, light #10 envelope. So why not just send the manuscript along with a business-size SASE, and be done with it?

Because that’s not how it works, that’s why.

Yet originally, believe it or not, it was set up this way in order to PROTECT writers. The sad thing is, though, the logic behind this one is so pre-computer — heck, it’s pre-recycling — that it’s likely to be counterintuitive to many people new to the biz.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), you could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz; equally obviously, no sane human being would send out his only copy.

So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses simultaneously? They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page, every single time.

Think those hardy souls wanted to get their rejected manuscripts back? Darned tootin’. It might save them weeks of retyping time.

My long-term readers will have heard my favorite concrete example of how these returned manuscripts helped writers before, but it’s a terrific illustration of just how much the SASE helped the average aspiring writer way back when. Back in the far-away 1950s, my mother, Kleo, was married to Philip, a struggling science fiction writer. While she toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories.

Dozens of them. Type, type, type, week in, week out.

As writers did in the days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into a gray Manila envelope with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy. (Kleo was also taking both his writing and her own to be critiqued by other writers and editors at the time, which is actually how Philip got his first story published. But I digress.)

Each time a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it in the mail.

Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But Philip kept typing away, and kept as many stories in circulation at once as possible.

How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore — since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost.

(Which reminds me to nag those of you sending out manuscripts in the computer age: when was the last time you made a back-up of your manuscript? If, heaven forfend, a gigantic anvil fell from one of those anvil-toting zeppelins we’re always seeing overhead these days onto your main writing space, would it crush both your computer and your back-ups? Bears some consideration, doesn’t it?)

One day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their miniscule front porch. Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

So what did the aspiring writer of yesteryear do when faced with 17 rejections on the same day? Did he toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did he rend his garments and give up writing forever? Did he poison his mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once? All of the above?

No, he did what professional writers did back then: had his wife iron the pages so they could be sent out again and resubmitted.

Lest you find the story too depressing, I hasten to add: the science fiction writer was Philip K. Dick, and I have it on good authority that one of those stories was THE MINORITY REPORT. Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.

Which only goes to show you: contrary to the common writerly fantasy/daydream/self-flagellation-after-rejection theme, even the best writers generally have to brazen through quite a bit of rejection before hitting the big time. As my mother likes to say, the only manuscript that stands NO chance of getting published is the one that sits in the bottom drawer, unseen by human eyes.

She knows whereat she speaks — and it’s as true today as it was 55 years ago, when there were no photocopying machines, no computers, and no guarantee that the copy you sent would ever be retrievable if it went astray in some publisher’s office.

For our purposes today, the important thing to take away from this story is not the warm glow from the implied pep talk (although that’s nice, too), but the understanding that agencies don’t ask for SASEs in order to inconvenience, annoy, or impoverish aspiring writers. They do it today for precisely the same reason that they did it in the 1950s: to get your work back to you as expeditiously as possible, so you may try its fortunes elsewhere.

So yes, Virginia, as hard as it to believe, in the beginning, the SASE was intended to save the submitting writer money and time, not to drain both.

Also, it was intended to protect the writer’s copyright: just as an e-mailed attachment could conceivably end up, through the magic of multiple forwarding, anywhere on the planet, a loose manuscript that isn’t either in an agent or editor’s office, safely tucked away in that proverbial bottom desk drawer, or being conveyed through sleet, snow, and/or dark of night between one and the other could in fact be stolen.

I know; creepy even to consider. But think about it: is it more or less likely than something falling on your house from a zeppelin?

I’ll answer that one for you: it does happen from time to time, so a savvy writer keeps very, very good track of who precisely has his manuscript when. (If this prospect tends to keep you up at night, as it does many writers, please see the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the list at right for tips on how to protect your work.)

More on SASE tradition and practice follows tomorrow, if you can stomach the stress. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

How to write a really good author bio, part VII: tying up those pesky loose ends

Since this is my last post in this series — presuming that no one posts a magnificently insightful follow-up question as a comment over the next few days, hint, hint — I’m going to seize the opportunity to say this just one more time, for the benefit of all you procrastinators out there: please, I implore you, do NOT put off writing at least a viable first draft of your bio until the day after an agent or editor has actually asked you to provide one.

Why? Because unless an agency’s submission guidelines ask for a bio up front, chances are, the request to provide one is going to come swooping down at you out of a pellucidly blue sky. Tossed out as an afterthought just after you’ve given the best pitch in the history of Western civilization, for instance, or when the agent who fell in love with your first 50 pages asks to see the rest. It will seem like good news — until you realize that you need to come up with a bio within the next forty-eight hours.

On that happy day, you will be a much, much happier human being in every way if you already have at least the beginnings of a great bio sitting on your hard drive. Trust me on this one.

To that end, may I suggest that those of you involved in writers’ groups — critique-based or support; in either case, good for you — devote part of a meeting to brainstorming about and giving feedback on one another’s bios? Or query letters, for that matter? And what about synopses?

Why would a success-oriented group want to invest time in mutual critique of marketing materials? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: every single sentence on every single page in a query or submission packet is a writing sample. It all needs to be polished.

It also, at the risk of repeating myself, all needs to be interesting — and here’s where a little outside perspective can be very helpful. Yet even very market-oriented groups seldom set aside time for mutual bio critique. A trifle mystifying to me, as a session devoted to it can be a whole lot of fun, as well as very useful indeed.

Besides, how much do you really know about that sharp-eyed person who keeps telling you to show, not tell?

Speaking of great questions (yes, I know; I was speaking of it several paragraphs ago, but humor me here), readers past and present have posted requests for clarification on a couple of bio-related points. Since not everyone reads the comment strings — especially, I notice, whilst perusing the archives — I want to devote the rest of today’s blog to dealing with some of those pesky loose ends that I may have left dangling from my previous post on the subject.

Let’s begin with a thought-provoking question from long-time reader Gordon:

I’m not sure how to word this, but I’ll try – should an author bio written by an unpublished (in any media) writer include what you call ‘promotional parts’? Meaning life connections with the novel’s subject matter. As a youngster in his seventies there have been many twists and turns in my life. Should one’s bio chronologically hit the high points or mainly focus on the ones pertinent to the novel being submitted?

You did fine on the self-expression front, Gordon. The short answer is yes, on both counts.

Well, glad to have cleared THAT up. Moving along…

I didn’t really fool you there, did I? Especially since those of you who have been following the comments on this series closely undoubtedly immediately cried, “Wait, Gordon asked this toward the beginning of the series, and Anne sort of dealt with this later on. Perhaps she is trying, albeit clumsily, to drive home the point that good questions from readers help to expand the range of her posts.”

Well, I like to think so. However, looking back on the ways in which I wove the spirit of this question into this series, I’m not entirely positive that I ever answered its letter, so to speak. Now, I’m going to tackle it directly.

The direct answer: it depends.

To be specific, which way one should fall on the choice between devoting one’s bio to a chronological account of the highlights of one’s life as, say, an obituary might tell it (sorry, but it’s the obvious analogy) vs. creating the impression that every significant event in one’s life was leading inevitably to the writing of this book and no other depends largely upon several factors, including:

a) whether there are events in one’s life that are legitimately related to the subject matter of the book in question — and if they are easy for the reader to follow without too many logical leaps.
If mentioning a particular life experience would tend to make you a more credible source, it’s usually to your advantage to include it in your bio, to differentiate yourself from any other yahoo who might just have been guessing what that particular experience was like. “Writerly Q. Author visited the Statue of Liberty once,” when his protagonist passes through Ellis Island briefly in Chapter Two is a stretch; “Writerly Q. Author spent twenty years as a merchant marine,” when his entire plotline takes place on a pirate ship is not.

b) whether one has genuinely lead a life that would produce a couple of entertaining paragraphs, regardless of connection to the book.
It never hurts to sound darned interesting in your bio. However — and in practice, this is a big however — writers of purely chronological bios often…how shall I put this delicately…overestimate the detail in which a rushed industry type might want to hear the life story of someone s/he has never met.

Remember, Millicent the agency screener reads a LOT of bios; keep yours snappy.

If you’re in doubt whether yours is leaning toward overkill, hand your bio to someone who doesn’t know you particularly well (having asked politely for his assistance first, of course; don’t just accost a stranger) and have him read it through twice. Buy the cooperative soul a cup of coffee, and around the time that your cup begins to seem light in your hand, ask your guinea pig to tell your life story back to you uninterrupted.

The points that he can’t reproduce without prompting are probably less memorable than the others. Are they honestly helping you look interesting and/or credible?

c) in the lucky instance where both (a) and (b) are genuinely true, whether the wealth of interesting biographical detail threatens to render the connections to the book less memorable.
When in doubt, lean toward the directly applicable; it’s more important information for the marketing department.

Remember, the point of an author bio is not to tell your life story — that’s what post-publication interviews and memoirs are for, right? — nor to include all of the things that you would like total strangers who pick up volumes in a future bookstore to know about you.

The goal in a query or submission bio is to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question. Or, in the case of nonfiction, to write the book being proposed.

Everyone clear on the relevant distinctions? Good. Let’s move on to another question. Another long-term reader, Cerredwyn, wrote in to ask,

Does an author photo need to be a head shot?

No, it doesn’t — as long as you are identifiable (“That’s she, officer. That’s the author of the book!“) and the background isn’t too busy, you can certainly use a broader shot.

In fact, as our friend Elinor Glyn’s author photo for IT above demonstrates, a head-and-torso shot is perfectly acceptable, and actually a bit more common on jacket flaps than the pure headshot. However, 1/2, 3/4, and even full standing shots are not unheard-of. John Irving’s early works tended to have particularly hunky-looking shots from the waist up, for instance.

Not that I noticed as a teenager or anything. I was reading his books for the writing and the stories, I tell you.

If you’re having trouble deciding between different ranges of shot, spend some time in a well-stocked bookstore, taking a gander at the author photos published in books in your chosen book category within the last few years. If you notice an overall trend in styles, you’re not going to offend anyone by submitting something similar.

Oh, and speaking of styles, unless you have written something ultra-hip or happen to be a magazine writer (whose material by definition changes constantly), it’s usually not a great idea to dress in the latest fashion for your author photo — and it’s DEFINITELY not the time to sport a hairstyle that’s not likely to be around a decade hence.

Don’t believe me? Ask any 80s author who embraced a mohawk. Or Elinor Glyn, a decade after the photo above was taken.

Remember, if your book is successful, it will be gracing shelves in private homes, libraries, and book exchanges for even longer than it will be hanging out in Barnes & Noble. A too-trendy style will date the photo. So as a general rule, adorning yourself for your photo with the expectation that the resulting photo will dog you for the rest of your natural life is a good plan.

You also might want to give some thought to how certain colors and patterns photograph — and how a checkered jacket that works beautifully in an 8 x 10 glossy might just look dusty in a 3 x 5 or 2 x 3 (both fairly common sizes for jacket photos). Generally speaking, solids work better than prints, and strong, dark colors on the body are distract less from the face. Bear in mind, too, that black, white, and red sometimes look quite different in photos than in real life, and that the eye tends to zoom in on the red and the shiny.

If that’s your lip gloss, great; if it’s your belt, less great. Unless you are trying to find an agent or publisher for a book about belts, that is.

The answer to the next reader question, posed by Jaepu last year, could be extrapolated from the last paragraph but one, I notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a trenchant question. Let’s revisit it, just in case anyone out there was wondering:

Must the author photo be in color?

No, it may be in black and white — in fact, until fairly recently, that was the norm. However, as with passports, with the rise of digital photography, color author photos have become more common. Do be aware, though, that a black-and-white photo won’t tell an agent whether you might look good in a television interview as well as a color picture would.

A reader too shy to be comfortable with self-identification asked:

I’m all excited about my next book, but I’m marketing my first. Would it be completely tacky to mention what I’m working on now in my bio? What if the books are in different genres?

It’s far from being tacky, Anonymous One; in fact, it’s downright common for a submission bio to end with a brief paragraph along the lines of:

Lincoln lives in Springfield, Illinois with his wife, eight sons, and golden retriever, Manifest Destiny. He is currently working on his second book, Hey! Where Are You Taking Half of My Country?, a comic memoir covering the Civil War years.

“Yeah, right, Anne,” I hear some of you scoff. “Stop pulling our collective legs. I’ve never seen an author bio on a book jacket that covers future work, or even unpublished work. Bios are always backward-looking, aren’t they?”

Actually, jacket bios that mentioned future projects used to be fairly standard; in the mid-70s, the last line of most bios was some flavor of Smith lives in Connecticut, where he is working on his next novel. Gradually, this has been falling out of fashion, perhaps because it implies some faith on the publisher’s part that Smith’s current release will sell well enough that they will WANT him to bring out another. (It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that this particular last sentence fell out of fashion at approximately the same time as multi-book contracts for first-time novelists.)

However, the author bio that an aspiring writer tucks into a query or submission packet and the one that ends up on a dust jacket are not the same thing — as we discussed earlier in this series, they are intended for the eyes of two different audiences, to create two different impressions. The dust jacket bio is promotional copy aimed at the reader, designed to pique interest and answer basic questions like why should I believe this guy’s NF account of life on the moon? The query or submission bio, by contrast, is designed to impress agents, editors, and their respective Millicents with the author’s claim to be an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Is there an echo in here? I could have sworn that I’ve heard that last bit somewhere before.

Because the submission bio is geared for industry-savvy eyes, mentioning completed book projects in categories other than the one to which the currently-submitted manuscript belongs (try saying THAT three times fast), as the Anonymous Questioner suggested, is a perfectly legitimate use of space. No need to hawk the other projects; simply mention the book category within the course of a single-sentence description that describes the project as still in progress. As in:

Now nicely recovered from his contretemps with an assassin, Garfield lives in retirement, working on his next book projects, a YA baseball romance and a historical retrospective of his own brief presidency.

Why would Pres. Garfield speak of his completed YA book as a work-in-progress? Strategy, my dears, strategy: it neatly sidesteps the question why isn’t it published?

Finally, reader Rose inquired:

I’m at a whole single-spaced page, no photo. I have a pro photo, recently taken, that looks great. Would it be better to reduce the bio and add the photo?

I’m querying for a novel, btw — and I’d been under the impression that you shouldn’t submit an author photo when trying to pitch one.

Contrary to the impression Rose has, by her own admission, picked up she knows not where, there is no hard-and-fast rule about whether a fiction writer’s submission bio should to include a photo. No Millicent who has found a submission engaging enough to read all the way to the last page, where the author bio lurks, is going to cast her latte aside in a petulant fit at the sight of a photo, screaming, “Oh, darn — now I have to reject it. I liked that manuscript, too.”

Not going to happen.

The reason photos are often not included in novelists’ bios is not because they’re unwelcome, but because the burden for gathering marketing materials prior to selling a novel has historically been significantly lower than for a nonfiction book. (If any of you novelists doubt this, take a gander at a NF book proposal sometime; its many, many pages of marketing material will make you feel much, much better about writing only a query letter and a synopsis.)

If your photo is pretty ravishing, Rose, I say go ahead and include it. A nice photo does make the bio look a touch more professional, after all, and it’s never a BAD thing for an agent or editor to think, “Hey, this author is photogenic!”

Even without the picture, though, it sounds as though Rose’s bio is a bit long for professional purposes: the norm is one DOUBLE-spaced page, or 1/2 – 2/3 page single-spaced under a photo. Yes, one does occasionally hear agents mentioning that they’ve been seeing more single-spaced full-page bios lately — but as I’ve virtually always heard this pronounced with a gnashing of teeth, I’m inclined to regard such statements as complaints.

Call me zany, but I tend to interpret moaning as an indication that the moaned-about activity is unwelcome. I’d stick to a more standard length. As with a query letter, when in doubt, err on the side of brevity. Believe me, if your bio is too short, the agent of your dreams will be only to happy to tell you so –after she signs you.

(Don’t cringe: she’s going to want you to change a lot of things after she signs you, no matter how much she initially loved your book or book proposal. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

One last thought on the subject before I sign off for the day: If, over the years I’ve been a book doctor and particularly over the 4+ years I’ve been answering questions online, someone had given me a nickel for every time an aspiring writer asked me whether the spacing or length of the bio — or query, or synopsis — REALLY mattered, I would have been able to build my own publishing house.

I don’t mean that I would have been able to buy one; I mean that I would have been able to construct the necessary buildings and offices entirely out of coins. Would it surprise you to hear, then, that even after that many repetitions of the same question, my answer has never changed, no matter how much aspiring writers might have wished them to do so? Or that if I could wave my magic wand and remove all formatting requirements, I probably wouldn’t do it?

Why, I hear you gasp? Because when an author bio — or query letter, or synopsis, or manuscript — is properly formatted, the only bases for judging it have to do with the quality of the writing, the premise’s marketability, whether the professional reader likes it, and so forth.

You know, the bases upon which aspiring writers WANT to be judged.

So yes, agents really tend to hold aspiring writers to the standards of the industry, just as they hold their clients to them. (See earlier comment about one’s dream agent making demands upon one.) They don’t do this to be mean; it’s just that when someone — like, say, Millicent the agency screener — spends hour after hour, day after day, month after month staring at manuscripts, she’s unlikely NOT to notice if one is formatted differently than the norm.

As in, for instance, an author bio that doesn’t look like the ones I showed you yesterday. Even if a single-spaced bio sans photograph DOES indeed fit onto the requisite single page, thus meeting the bare minimum standard for professionalism, it’s not going to resemble the bios Millicent’s boss is sending out with her clients’ submissions.

Or at least, it probably will not. Naturally, as with any group of human beings, some agents have individual preferences that deviate from the industry standard — the source, I suspect, of Rose’s impression of unspecified origin — and if you can find out what these quirky desires are, you should definitely adhere to them in your submissions to that particular agent. It seldom pays, however, to assume that any one such preference is universal to the industry.

My point is, as annoying as it may be to bring your bios — and queries, synopses, and manuscripts — into line with the most common professional standards is so that Millicent may ignore the formatting and concentrate on what you are SAYING. Because, after all, your aim in your submission bio is not to cram as many facts as you can onto a single page, but to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Yes, you have heard that somewhere before. See, I don’t recommend sticking to the general standards just to be mean, either.

Next time, we’re going to chat about SASEs — and then, thank goodness, we shall have covered all of the standard elements of the query and submission packet. So hang in there just a little bit longer, folks; I’ll be tackling my mile-long backlog of craft questions very soon. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good author bio, part IV: resisting the temptation to be terse, or, yet another reason to admire Amy Tan. Oh, and you might want to steer clear of those carnivorous toads.

scary toads

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been encouraging you — yes, YOU, you fabulous writer — to mine your background for intrigue-producing tidbits for your author bio. Not for its own sake, mind you: the creation of a lengthy list of everything about you that either:

1. Renders you the best possible candidate currently wandering the earth’s surface for writing your particular book (and no, novelists and memoirists, you may NOT skip this step), or

2. Renders you fascinating in any way perceptible to a person of at least average intelligence.

is merely the first step in the creation of a stellar author bio to tuck into your query or submission packets.

Why bother? Because an author bio that doesn’t make the author sound interesting is an author bio that’s not going to be all that helpful to Millicent the agency screener when trying to decide whether to recommend that her boss, the agent of your dreams, invest serious time in reading your manuscript or book proposal or to reject your query or submission. While it is necessary to be terse — 1 page double-spaced or 1/2 – 2/3 page single-spaced if you plan to include a photo — it’s also necessary to present yourself as fascinating.

In other words: if the agency had wanted a résumé, it would have asked you for one. Instead, it asked for bio.

Contrary to popular opinion, when an agency’s guidelines or an agent who has already received a query asks for an author bio, they’re not asking to be bored to death. Nor are they asking for a tombstone-like deadpan list of a writer’s achievements — just the facts, ma’am, and make sure not to mention anything that might conceivably surprise the reader the least little bit.

I can certainly understand where so many aspiring writers picked up the idea that they should just be producing résumés in paragraph form, however — and so should you, if you have been taking my advice and wending your way down to your local bookstore to take a gander at what’s turning up on book jackets these days. To grab a random work from the shelf nearest my desk — no, not entirely random. To render the test more interesting, I’m going to limit all of today’s examples to literary fiction authors:

The author of nine works of fiction, Andre Dubus received the PEN/Malamud Award, the Rea Award for Excellence in short fiction, the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Boston Globe’s first annual Lawrence L. WInship Award, and fellowships from both the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations. Until his death in 1999, he lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Now, all of the listed facts are undoubtedly true, but this biographical blurb doesn’t exactly make you want to leap out of your nice, comfy office chair and rush out to buy a copy of We Don’t Live Here Anymore, does it? And that’s genuinely a pity, because if you’re even vaguely interested in the art of the novella, that would be a pretty grand book for you to pick up. (After you read it, consider seeking out the movie version one of the better adaptations of contemporary literary fictions I’ve seen in my lifetime.)

It’s also kind of surprising, as Mssr. Dubus was by all accounts a pretty interesting guy. So, I’m told, is Paul Auster, but you’d never know it from this jacket bio:

Paul Auster was born in New Jersey in 1947. After attending Columbia University {sic} he lived in France for four years. Since 1974 {sic} he has published poems, essays, novels and translations. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Tell me honestly: would it even have occurred to you from that bio that the gentleman would have penned a novel opening as grabbing as the first paragraph of The Music of Chance:

For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and forth across America as he waited for the money to run out. He hadn’t expected it to go on that long, but one thing kept leading to another, and by the time Nashe understood what was happening to him, he was past the point of wanting it to end. Three days into the thirteenth month, he met up with the kid who called himself Jackpot. It was one of those random, accidental encounters that seem to materialize out of thin air — a twig that breaks off in the wind and suddenly lands at your feet. Had it occurred at any other moment, it is doubtful that Nashe would have opened his mouth. But because he had already given up, because he figured there was nothing to lose anymore, he saw the stranger as a reprieve, as a last chance to do something for himself before it was too late. And just like that, he went ahead and did it. Without the slightest tremor of fear, Nashe closed his eyes and jumped.

Now, we could quibble about whether a writer who wasn’t already established could have gotten away with including a cliché like materialize out of thin air in the first paragraph of a submission, or induced Millicent to overlook the slips into the passive voice — remember, what an author with a long-term readership can get into print and what an aspiring writer can hope will make it past Millicent are often two very different things — but I don’t think that’s why some of you have been shifting uncomfortably in your seats. Let me guess why: when you looked at those two bios, all you saw was the mention of publications and awards, right?

No wonder writing your own bio seems intimidating. With expectations like that, it must feel as though an aspiring writer would have to be published already in order to produce a bio at all.

So you should be both delighted and relieved to hear that listing professional credentials is not the point of a query or submission author bio. What is the point? To depict the writer as an interesting person well qualified to write the book s/he is marketing.

How does one pull that off, short of beginning one’s bio Penster McWriterly is a fascinating person? By showing, not telling, of course, and the use of creative detail.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at a book jacket bio (hey, I’m trying to play fair by choosing examples you might actually discover in a bookstore) that does include details over and above the professional basics. Here’s the jacket bio from The Bonesetter’s Daughter:

Amy Tan is the author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, and two children’s books, The Moon Lady and The Chinese Siamese Cats, which will adapted as a PBS series for children. Tan was a co-producer and co-screenwriter of the film version of The Joy Luck Club, and her essays and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Her work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages. Tan, who has a master’s degree in linguistics from San Jose State University, has worked as a language specialist to programs serving children with developmental disabilities. She lives with her husband in San Francisco and New York.

That third sentence is the one that jumps out at you, isn’t it? Could that be because it’s both interesting and unexpected?

The bio on her website is even more eye-catching. I shan’t reproduce it in its entirety — although I do encourage you to take a peek at it, as a good example of a longer author bio than you’re likely to find on the dust jacket of a living author — but I can’t resist sharing its final paragraph:

She created the libretto for The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Ms. Tan’s other musical work for the stage is limited to serving as lead rhythm dominatrix, backup singer, and second tambourine with the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members include Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Scott Turow. In spite of their dubious talent, their yearly gigs have managed to raise over a million dollars for literacy programs.

Let’s face it: of the facts mentioned in this paragraph, only writing the opera libretto is actually a literary credential, strictly speaking. But don’t you like Ms. Tan better after having read the rest of it. And aren’t you just a tiny bit more likely to pick up The Bonesetter’s Daughter if you happen upon it in a bookstore?

Brava, Ms. Tan!

Including quirky, memorable details is very smart marketing in an author bio, even at the query or submission stage: memorable is good, and likable even better. Who wants to fall in love with an author without a face? Yet most aspiring writers are afraid to take the risk, calculating — not entirely without reason that dull and businesslike is more likely to strike Millicent as professional than memorable and unexpected.

Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: any agent worth her proverbial salt thinks about whether a prospective client might make a good interview subject. Based upon the bio blurbs shown above, which of the three authors would you expect to give the most intriguing interview?

Which is to say: professional and interesting are not mutually exclusive. Just as a well-written, interesting query letter packed with unusual specifics is more likely to captivate Millicent than a dull, just-the-facts presentation of the same literary qualifications and book project, an author bio that shows the writer to be a complex individual with whom someone might conceivably want to have a conversation tends to go over better than the typical list of publications.

Some of you are still shaking your heads. I see that I shall have to pull out the big guns and revert to my all-time favorite example of a fascinating author presented as dull.

What follows is perhaps the Platonic bad author bio, the one that most effectively discourages the prospective reader from perusing what is within. And to render it an even better example for my purposes here, this peerless bio belongs to one of my all-time favorite authors, Rachel Ingalls. Her work is brilliant, magical, genuinely one-of-a-kind.

And as I have read every syllable she has ever published, I can state with confidence: never have I seen an author bio less indicative of the quality of the actual writing in a book. (Yes, dear readers, that is what writing this blog for the last four+ years has done to my psyche: discovering a specimen that might do you good, even if it disappoints me personally, now makes me cackle with glee.)

I don’t feel bad about using her bio as an example here, because I shall preface it with some awfully high praise: I think everyone on earth should rush right out and read Ingalls’ Binstead’s Safari before s/he gets a minute older. (In fact, if you want to open a new window, search for some nice independent bookstore’s website, and order it before you finish reading this, I won’t be offended at all. Feel free. I don’t mind waiting.)

But my God, her bios make her sound…well, I’ll let you see for yourself. This bio is lifted from the back of her most recent book, Times Like These:

Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965 and is the author of several works of fiction — most notably MRS. CALIBAN — published both in the United States and United Kingdom.

Just this, accompanied by a very frightening author photo, one that looks as though she might take a bite out of the photographer:

I have no problem with the photo — actually, I REALLY like it, because after all, this is a writer who gave the world a very beautiful story in which more than one protagonists was consumed by carnivorous toads, so a sense of menace seems downright appropriate. But have you ever seen a piece of prose less revealing of personality?

Admittedly, U.K. author bios do tend to be on the terse side, compared to their American brethren (as H.G. Wells wrote, “the aim of all British biography is to conceal”), but even so, why bother to have a bio at all, if it is not going to reveal something interesting about the author?

I have particular issues with this bio, too, because of the offhand way in which it mentions Mrs. Caliban (1983), which was named one of America’s best postwar novels by the British Book Marketing Council. Don’t you think that little tidbit was worth at least a PASSING mention in her bio?

I take this inexplicable omission rather personally, because I learned about Rachel Ingalls’ work in the first place because of the BBMC award. We’re both alumnae of the same college (which is to say: we both applied to Harvard because we had good grades, and both were admitted to Radcliffe, because we were girls, a bit of routine slight-of-hand no longer performed on applications penned by those sporting ovaries), and during my junior and senior years, I worked in the Alumnae Records office. Part of my job involved filing news clippings about alumnae. Boxes of ‘em. In the mid-1980s, the TIMES of London ran an article about the best American novels published since WWII, using the BBMC’s list as a guide.

Rachel Ingalls’ MRS. CALIBAN was on it, and the American mainstream press reaction was universal: Who?

Really, a novel about a housewife who has a torrid affair with a six-foot salamander is not VERY likely to slip your mind, is it? The fact is, at the time, her work was almost entirely unknown — and undeservedly so — on this side of the pond.

Naturally, I rushed right out and bought MRS. CALIBAN, rapidly followed by everything else I could find by this remarkable author. Stunned, I made all of my friends read her; my mother and I started vying for who could grab each new publication first. She became my standard for how to handle day-to-day life in a magical manner.

The Times story was picked up all over North America, so I ended up filing literally hundreds of clippings about it. And, I have to confess: being a novelist at heart in a position of unbearable temptation, I did read her alumnae file cover to cover. So I have it on pretty good authority that she had more than enough material for a truly stellar author bio — if not a memoir — and that was almost 20 years ago.

And yet I see, as I go through the shelf in my library devoted to housing her literary output, that she has ALWAYS had very minimal author bios. Check out the doozy on 1992’s Be My Guest:

Rachel Ingalls was brought up and educated in Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965.

I’ve seen passports with more information on them. But quick: can you tell me what Amy Tan does in her spare time?

You remembered, didn’t you? So which bio do you think Millicent would be more likely to recall five minutes after she read it?

But Ms. Ingalls’ value as an exemplar does not stop there. Occasionally, the travelogue motif has varied a little. Here’s a gem from a 1988 paperback edition of The Pearlkillers:

Rachel Ingalls, also the author of I SEE A LONG JOURNEY and BINSTEAD’S SAFARI, has been cited by the British Book Marketing Council as one of America’s best postwar novelists.

Better, right? But would it prepare you even vaguely for the series of four scintillating novellas within that book jacket, one about an apparently cursed Vietnam widow, one about a long-secret dorm murder, one about a failed Latin American exploratory journey turned sexual spree, and one about a recent divorcée discovering that she is the ultimate heiress of a plantation full of lobotomized near-slaves?

No: from the bio alone, anyone would expect her to write pretty mainstream stuff.

Once, some determined soul in her publisher’s marketing department seems to have wrested from her some modicum of biographical detail, for the 1990 Penguin edition of Something to Write Home About:

Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the age of seventeen, she dropped out of high school and subsequently spent two years in Germany: one living with a family, the second auditing classes at the universities of Göttingen, Munich, Erlangen, and Cologne. After her return to the United States, she entered Radcliffe College, where she earned a degree in English. She has had six books published, including BINSTEAD’S SAFARI and THE PEARL KILLERS {sic}. In 1964 {sic} she moved to England, where she has been living ever since.

Now, typos aside, that’s a pretty engaging personal story, isn’t it? Doesn’t it, in fact, illustrate how a much more interesting author bio could be constructed from the same material as the information-begrudging others were?

(And doesn’t it just haunt you, after having read the other bios: why does this one say she moved to London a year earlier than the others? What is she hiding? WHAT HAPPENED DURING THAT MYSTERIOUS YEAR, RACHEL? Were you eaten by wolves — or carnivorous toads?)

I was intrigued by why this bio was so much more self-revealing than the others, so I started checking on the publication history of this book. Guess what? The original 1988 edition of this book had been released by the Harvard Common Press (located not, as the name implies, within easy walking distance of Radcliffe Alumnae records, but a couple of bus transfers away). Could it be that I was not the only fan of her writing who had gone file-diving in a desperate attempt to round out that super-terse bio?

”Talent is a kind of intelligence,” Jeffrey Eugenides tells us in Middlesex, but all too often, writers’ faith in their talent’s ability to sell itself is overblown. Good writing does not sell itself anymore; when marketing even the best writing, talent, alas, is usually not enough. Especially not in the eyes of North American agents and editors, who expect to see some evidence of personality in prospective writers’ bios.

I can only repeat: if they didn’t want the information, they wouldn’t ask for it.

Think of the bio as another marketing tool for your work. They want to know not just if you can write, but also if you would make a good interview. And, not entirely selflessly, whether you are a person they could stand to spend much time around. Because, honestly, throughout the publication process, it’s you they are going to have to keep phoning and e-mailing, not your book.

Meet ‘em halfway. Produce an interesting author bio to accompany your submissions. Because, honestly, readers like me can only push your work on everyone within shouting distance AFTER your books get published.

Speaking of which, if I have not already made myself clear: if you are even remotely interested in prose in the English language, you really should get ahold of some of Rachel Ingalls’ work immediately.

You don’t want to be the last on your block to learn how to avoid the carnivorous toads, do you?

Practical advice on how to sound fascinating follows next time, I promise. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XVI: what’s black and white and read all over?

skunk on a rampageglasses on newspaperold-fashioned police car

Answer: not a synopsis, necessarily. It’s only read sometimes.

That double-take you just did was well-justified. “You drive me to distraction, Anne,” many synopsizers cry, rending their garments. “Here we have been spending weeks on perfecting the darned thing, and now you’re raising the possibility that no one will read it? Just what kind of sick torture-fest are you running here?”

Now, now, I didn’t suggest that synopses are never read. Once you’re signed with an agent, s/he will undoubtedly read your synopsis of your next book.

Before that point, however, it’s a bit hit-and-miss. Although agents routinely ask submitters to send along a synopsis with requested manuscript pages, and agency guidelines frequently call for one to be tucked into a query packet, it’s seldom the first thing read. And if Millicent the agency screener has already decided yea or nay on a book project, why should she invest another minute or two in reading the attached synopsis?

You were doing further damage to your garments by the end of that last paragraph, weren’t you? “But Anne,” some of you protest through gritted teeth, “you just said yourself that they ask us to send the wretched things; it’s not as though any sane person would sit around tossing off synopses for pleasure. Why would they request a synopsis if they don’t intend to read it?”

Ah, but they do — at least, they intend to read some of them.

Allow me to explain before you rip that nice shirt any further. Let’s take the synopsis tucked into the query packet first. As most of us in the Author! Author! community know to our sorrow, it’s Millicent’s job to make up her mind pretty quickly about queries. As in under 30 seconds a piece.

Before you get your hackles up about all of your hard work on your query receiving that little scrutiny, do the math. If the average agency receives somewhere between 800 and 1500 queries per week — or more, if it has a compelling website featuring an easy-to-fill-out submission form that allows a querier to bypass the tedium of writing a query letter — and each takes 30 seconds to open and read, that’s between 6.5 and 12.5 hours of agency time just to read them. And that’s not counting all of the additional hours to read requested materials.

If that doesn’t seem like a huge time investment to you, consider this: agencies do not make any money off reading queries at all; they make money by selling the work of their already-signed clients. Oh, they might see some cash from taking on any writer in today’s query pile, but that’s going to take time.

And that, in case any of you have been wondering, is why many agencies do not accept queries at all. Instead of investing in at least a half-time employee to screen queries, they obtain new clients through recommendations from current clients, or by blandishing authors unhappy with their agents into switching.

Back to Millicent’s comparatively writer-friendly agency. Let’s say that the agency in question calls for a 1-page synopsis to be included in every query packet. If she read all of them in their entirety, even assuming that each took her only an additional minute, that would raise the agency’s investment in query processing to 20 to 37.5 hours per week.

Or, to put it another way, a half- or full-time employee. Given the additional cost, what do you think the probability is that a newly-trained Millicent will be directed to give every query synopsis submitted a thorough once-over?

Uh-huh. Depressing, but logistically necessary, I’m afraid.

So how will she decide which to read and which to skip? The ones that are not professionally formatted would be the obvious ones to pass by, as would those whose query letters prompted a rejection. If Millie’s already decided to give the project a pass, she doesn’t need to spend any more time on the query packet, right?

By the same token, she doesn’t have a tremendous amount of incentive to take the time to peruse the synopses accompanying queries that immediately caught her interest. If she already knows that she wants to see the manuscript, why spend the extra minute on the synopsis?

So which ones virtually always get read? The ones where she’s on the fence about requesting pages — which means that the synopsis is a very, very important writing sample.

Not clear on why? Okay, here are two different 1-page synopses — and continuing my trend of summarizing works in the public domain, I’ve tackled ROMEO AND JULIET. Again, if you are having trouble reading any of these examples, try double-clicking on the image and either enlarging it in a new window or downloading it to your desktop. (Also again: if I find out that anyone is lifting any part of what follows and turning it in to a freshman English teacher, noggins will be rapped mercilessly.)

Wiggle your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins, and tell me which is more likely to induce her to tumble down on the by gum, I’d like to see this manuscript side of the fence, and which would send her reaching for the stack of form-letter rejections:

Romeo and Juliet synopsis


Bad R + J synopsis

Both summarize the plot in a single page, but there’s really no contest here, is there? (If there was any hesitation at all about your shout of “YES!” or if you’re perplexed about why the bad example does not have indented paragraphs and the good example does, please rush with all possible dispatch to the SYNOPSIS ILLUSTRATED and HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT categories on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page. Millicent probably would not read even a line of this one.)

I’m going to level with you here: on any given day, a Millicent working at an agency that expects synopses to be included in a query packet would see many, many more of the second type than the first. It makes her job significantly easier and speedier, of course, because she barely would have to glance at the second in order to decide to reject it. Yet setting aside the obvious formatting and presentation problems — everyone caught the lack of slug line, block-justified paragraphs, and insane typeface choice, right?— what else would strike Millicent as less professional about the second example if she did go ahead and read it?

How about the fact that it’s terribly vague? Compared with the first example, it’s stuffed to the gills with generalities — and that makes this story downright hard to follow. The first example contains summary statements, but because they are grounded in specifics, Millicent will be able to follow what is going on with ease,

Also, who are the characters here? This guy is not an adequate character-identifying phrase. Where does this story take place? What century is it? Why are these people using poison and daggers instead of guns?

And so forth. My point is, Millicent’s assumption that the unprofessional formatting was representative of the polish of the synopsis in general would have been accurate in this instance. Just something to ponder the next time you find yourself resenting how quickly the average query packet gets screened.

Another factor that Millie is going to work into her yea-or-nay decision on the query packet is whether the manuscript in question seems to be a good fit for her agency. The descriptive paragraph in the query letter may not have given her a clear enough sense of what the book is about. And frankly, if the query letter did not include the book category — and a good 90% do not, despite my years of griping here on the subject — she may need to read the synopsis to figure out what kind of book it is.

Which provides me with a perfectly glorious segue into demonstrating a couple of matters I touched upon briefly earlier in this series. As I devoutly hope those of you who have been paying close attention recall,

(a) regardless of the tense of the manuscript, the synopsis should be in the present tense, and

(b) even if the manuscript is written in the first person, the synopsis should be written in the third person, UNLESS

(c) the manuscript being synopsized is a memoir, in which case the synopsis should be written in the past tense and the first person.

Everyone clear on that? I see most of you nodding, but so that the notion that one or two of you might find this somewhat convoluted rule a trifle confusing won’t keep me up fretting in the dead of night, I’ve come up with a couple of concrete examples. First, let’s take a gander at a synopsis for one of the best-selling memoirs of the 20th century:

Kon-Tiki synopsis

It only makes sense for the author (well, not the author — me, but play along with my conceit here) to synopsize his work in these terms, right? He’s describing something that happened to him, a story that only he could tell. In fact, a large part of his platform is that only he and five other people could possibly give a first-person account of this remarkable voyage.

As an interesting contrast, let’s now look at the synopsis for a novel that’s written as though it were a memoir: in the first person and as if the author were actually the titular woman’s nephew.

Auntie Mame synopsis

See how the use of the proper tense and voice for a fiction synopsis renders it instantly plain that this book is a novel, not a memoir? If the query letter fell into the oh-so-common traps of not mentioning whether the book is fiction or nonfiction (you’d be astonished at how common that is) or mentioning up front that it’s based on real events, Millicent could know right away from the synopsis into which book category it should fall.

Everyone with me so far? This is counter-intuitive stuff.

Oh, and in answer to what a panicked few observant souls out there just thought very loudly: yes, the slug line in that last example was entirely in capital letters; some writers prefer to do it that way. Use either that looks best to you, but be consistent between the synopsis and the manuscript.

Speaking of manuscripts, while the query synopsis is intended to prompt Millicent to ask to see the manuscript, a synopsis tucked into a submission packet of requested materials serves a slightly different purpose — or rather, a couple of different purposes, potentially. Which of those purposes is operative determines how likely the synopsis is to get read.

Again, the crucial factor here is saving time. If a synopsis accompanies a partial manuscript, Millicent will seldom read it before scanning the requested pages of the book. Why? Well, if the opening pages don’t grab her, she’s going to reject the submission, right? So why would she invest several minutes in perusing a synopsis for a manuscript she’s already decided to reject?

By the same token, it’s not necessarily in her interest to read it if she likes the partial manuscript. Oh, she might be curious about what happens next, but isn’t far and away the best way to find out to request the rest of the manuscript?

Generally speaking, the shorter the number of requested pages — and this applies equally well to query packets for agencies that ask for a writing sample up front, by the way — the more likely Millicent is to read the submission synopsis.

Do I sense some head-scratching out there? “But Anne, a lot of agents ask for a synopsis even when they request the entire manuscript. But by the logic above, why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis when she has the whole shebang in front of her?”

Good question, head-scratchers: often, she won’t. But her boss might want to take a gander at it before reading the manuscript herself, and she certainly would want to have that synopsis on hand when she picks up the phone or sits down and writes an e-mail to an editor about your work.

Who’d have thought that something so annoying could be so beneficial down the line? Polishing your synopsis is not only good short-term marketing strategy, but an excellent long-term investment in your writing career.

You are in this for the long haul, aren’t you? This isn’t the only book you’re ever planning to write, is it?

Kudos to you for knuckling down and learning this challenging-but-essential writerly skill. When you’re effortlessly tossing off the synopsis for your eighth book while your agent eagerly waits for it, you’ll be awfully glad you took the time now.

Speaking of things you might want to get a head start upon, next week, I shall be guiding all of you through the mysteries of the author bio. Increasingly, agencies are requesting these in submission packets, and even in query packets — and even if the agent of your dreams doesn’t ask you for yours until your manuscript is ready to head out the door to editors, you’ll be much, much happier if you don’t try to crank it out at the last minute. Like a well-crafted synopsis, it benefits from advance thought.

My, I have high expectations for you, don’t I? The agent you deserve will as well. Take it as a compliment to your talent — and the seriousness with which you have chosen to develop it.

Keep up the good work!