May I help you to a second helping of stress?

loukomades

With Thanksgiving once again upon us — happy, happy, by the way — I figure that if you’re tapping away at your computer today, you’re most likely not either (a) the primary cook in your extended family, (b) one of the 38.2 million U.S. citizens traveling more than 50 miles to eat turkey, and/or traveling more than the average 815 miles to get to your plate. No, I’m guessing that a compatriot of mine reading this today is quite likely to be either on the way to meet relatives, friends, or total strangers likely to ask about your writing, have just returned from interacting with relatives, friends, or total strangers who asked about your writing, or are actively avoiding relatives, friends, or total strangers who might ask about your writing.

Don’t bother to tell me whether I’m right. Conserve your energy. Instead, let’s spend today’s post taking about how to deal with that question aspiring writers so frequently face whenever they are reveling in the warm embrace of their nearest and dearest: “When will your book be coming out?”

As in, “Why is it taking so long for your book to get published?”

“Aren’t you, you know, working hard enough?”

“Isn’t the book any good?”

“Don’t you have enough talent?”

“Shouldn’t you have given up this ridiculous quest long ago?” and other well-meaning but rather unsupportive sentiments.

Okay, so that’s NOT usually what they say verbatim — but it’s often what we writers hear, isn’t it, when we’re asked about an as-yet-unpublished book’s progress? Even the most innocuous inquiry, if it comes at the wrong time, can sound like a challenge for us to produce instantly a full and complete explanation of exactly why this book does deserve to be picked up, and pronto.

And then, before we realize what’s happened, we’ve been talking about the horrors of searching for an agent, or revising a manuscript, or finishing that last chapter, for 20 minutes as our original questioner looks at us with deer-the-headlights eyes and the gravy gets cold.

Such inquirers know not what they’re getting into, obviously.

Be gentle with them. Amazingly — from our perspective, at least — non-writers often do not have the vaguest conception that implications that the process is taking too long can be to writers fighting words, akin to calling someone’s mother…

Well, I wasn’t brought up to call people’s mothers that sort of thing. It’s not nice.

In fact — and I tremble to be the one to tell you this, but better that I inoculate you before your Great-Aunt Rhoda’s new husband mentions it while passing you a third helping of turkey — one’s kith and kin frequently seem to be laboring under the to-writers-bizarre delusion that you will be HURT if they do not ask you how the book is going, whether you’ve managed to land an agent yet, aren’t you just being lazy if you’ve been working on the same project for two years and haven’t yet completed it, and so forth.

They don’t want to be remiss or insensitive about your little hobby, after all. In their minds, it’s support.

So positively aglow with sweet intentions, they fling their arms around you practically the instant you cross the threshold into their homes, bearing platters of cookies that you took time out of your writing schedule to bake, bellowing at the top of their lungs, “Darling? Haven’t you finished that novel yet?”

Or, “Sweetheart, what a lovely color on you. When will I be able to order your book on Amazon?”

Or, “I won’t even ask if you’ve managed to sell that book of yours, so spare me the speech about how hard it is to catch an agent’s eye. And is it safe to assume that you burned the pies again this year?” (Some relatives are more supportive than others.)

If this doesn’t happen to you like clockwork every holiday season, feel free to breathe a great big sigh of relief. In North America, at least, it is not considered permissible, or even legal, for a writer to respond to such ripostes by taking a swing at such people in response, or poisoning their holiday punch, or even making fun of that completely unattractive pumpkin-orange sweater with the dancing turkey on it that they’re wearing.

No, we’re expected to smile, hug back, and say, “Oh, it’s coming along.” Rather than, say, telling them anything that remotely resembles the truth, especially if the truth entails something along the lines of three or four years of extremely stressful querying book #1 while trying to write book #2, or a year and a half of revising a manuscript seven times before one’s agent is willing to send it out to editors, or eight months of nail-biting anxiety while s/he does send it out to editors.

Because, let’s face it, unless your relatives happen to be writers themselves, they’re probably not going to understand that clapping you on the back and telling you that the only obstacle to publishing success is that you haven’t been visualizing your book’s selling magnificently hard enough is going to make you want to scream, if not throw cranberries at somebody.

Take a nice, deep breath if this impulse begins to overwhelm you: most non-writers have absolutely no idea of the difficulties that writers face getting into print. Heck, even for writers, discovering just how challenging it is to land an agent and/or sell a book often comes as a gigantic, ugly surprise.

Come on — you probably remember precisely where you were and what you were wearing when you first realized that there was more to winning this game than mere talent, don’t you? Or that, contrary to what agents and editors like to tell writers at conferences, not every great manuscript gets picked up by an agent, especially those that don’t happen to be in book categories popular in recent years. Or that even the most brilliant authors don’t produce Pulitzer-worthy material in first drafts, but routinely revise until their fingers are sore?

Catching your mother playing Tooth Fairy probably didn’t even come close in the disillusionment department. Fortunately for me (I guess), I do come from a family of writers, so I already knew what agents and publishing houses long before my older brother broke the news about the Tooth Fairy.

Hey, a kid can only take so much bubble-bursting at one time. So if you have anything negative to say about Santa Claus, kindly keep it to yourself.

Fortunately for human happiness as a whole, most members of the general public are spared more or less permanently the disorienting shock of learning that not all good books necessarily get published, that agents don’t just pick up every piece of good writing that they read, or that speed of composition usually isn’t a particularly good indicator of writing quality, or that only a teeny, tiny proportion of authors have even a prayer of a spot on Oprah.

So when George, your next-door neighbor, waltzes into your kitchen and booms, “When are you going to be finished with that damned book of yours, Harriet?” he almost certainly doesn’t mean to be nasty. Or even passive-aggressive.

No, George just isn’t that kind of guy.

He almost certainly believes, bless his heart, that by remembering to tease you light-heartedly about the book you have been slaving over for the past fifteen years, he is offering non-judgmental good fellowship. Because in his world, if you HAD finished the book in question, you would already be burbling with excitement about its imminent release — if not planning what to wear on Oprah.

Try not to judge him too harshly; you believed in the Easter Bunny once, too.

Bizarrely enough, these unintentionally pointed questions from well-meaning non-writers most emphatically do not cease after one lands an agent. Quite the contrary: they increase, often exponentially.

Why? Well, the average citizen of this fine republic has only a vague sense of what a literary agent actually DOES with a book — so much so, in fact, that it is not all that uncommon for one’s kith and kin to conflate an agent with an editor. Or even — brace yourselves, those of you who have signed with agents within the last year — landing an agent with landing a book contract.

Think I’m kidding, or that this level of conflation dissipates once an author lands an agent? Then how do you explain the fact that I’ve been publishing my writing since I was ten years old, and yet just two days ago, one of my best friends from elementary school blithely asked me how soon she could buy the book I’m currently revising for my agent?

As any agented-but-not-yet-published writer can tell you, these are extremely common confusions. Although they may not say it outright, most people will just assume that because a writer is so excited to have landed an agent, the agent must therefore have BOUGHT the book.

“So,” these kind-hearted souls chortle at holiday time, sidling up to a writer who has been sitting on the proverbial pins and needles for five interminable months, waiting to hear back on a round of submissions to editors, “when will you be giving me a copy of your book?”

They mean to be supportive, honest. Which is why they will not understand at all when you burst into tears and empty your glass of eggnog all over their sparkly holiday sweaters. They will think, believe it or not, that you are the one who is overreacting.

And in the non-artistic universe, they’ll sort of be right.

Because they genuinely mean so well, you must not, under any circumstances, kill such well-meaning souls for asking what are, from a writer’s perspective, phenomenally stupid questions. No, even if the implication of such questions is that these would-be supporters apparently haven’t listened to ANYTHING you have ever told them on the trials of writing a book, finding an agent, working with an agent after one has found one, meeting editorial deadlines, or any of the other myriad trying phenomena associated with aspiring authorship. Nor is it considered polite to scream at them, or even glare in a manner that might frighten any small children who might happen to be gnawing on a drumstick nearby.

Nice person that you are, you are going to honor these restrictions. Even if you’re not all that nice, you will want to retain George on your mailing list for the happy day when you DO have a book out for him to purchase.

So what’s a writer to do, especially when these questions come during unusually stressful times, such as when that agent you met at a conference has had your first fifty pages for three months and counting, or when you’ve just received three requests for material (because you were so good about SIOAing those query letters earlier in November, right?) and have spent the last week frantically trying to get those packets out the door before, well, yesterday?

(My, that was a long sentence, wasn’t it? You might want to avoid paragraph-long questions in those submissions. Yes, I know that Henry James was a great advocate of page-long sentences. I’m fond of his work, but I suspect that he would have rather a hard time getting a manuscript past Millicent today.)

Well, you COULD regard the question as a serious inquiry, and talk for the next fifteen minutes about characterization, the desirability of semicolon usage vis-à-vis Millicent’s literary tastes, and just how much you hate form rejection letters. You could also launch into a spirited compare-and-contrast exercise, illustrating vividly how the publishing industry has changed from, say, fifty years ago, which is probably the period your questioner has in mind but isn’t aware of it. You might even pull helpful charts out of your back pocket, the better to demonstrate how precipitously book sales have dropped over the past year.

If you are gifted at disregarding your interlocutor’s eyes glazing over for minutes at a time, this actually isn’t a bad strategy: once you have established a firm reputation for waxing long, humorless, and/or angry on the subject, the non-writers in your social circle may well learn not to inquire how your book is going. Depending upon how sensitive one happens to be to such questions, that might be a reasonable goal.

If, however, your kith and kin’s avoiding the topic of your writing like the proverbial plague is not your idea of a comfortable holiday gathering, I would save this tack for when you are speaking with other writers. Like any shop talk, it’s far more interesting to those who deal with it regularly than to anyone else.

So what’s the alternative? You could, most politely, take your favorite cousin by the arm and say confidentially, “You know, Serena, I spend so much time obsessing over my book that I’m likely to bore you to extinction if I start to talk about it. Do you mind if we give my brain a rest and talk about something completely different?”

I hate to break it to you, but Serena may actually be relieved to hear this.

Why? Because poor Serena may well have been traumatized by how testy you got the last time she asked about it, that’s why. Do you honestly think she isn’t still telling her friends the horror story about the time you began weeping copiously into the cranberry sauce when your Uncle Art told you that if you’d only generated 37 rejection letters, you just hadn’t been trying hard enough to sell your book? Or when you threatened Cousin Ada with the electric carving knife when all she did was suggest that if the agent you spent half a decade trying to land hadn’t sold your book to a publisher within six weeks of your signing the agency contract?

Strange to say, in the non-writerly world, “Honey, find yourself a new agent!” are not fighting words.

There’s a good reason for that: the publishing world really, really likes to maintain the illusion that talented writers just appear out of the ether to become overnight successes. It makes for great interview copy, as long as you’re willing to downplay the decade these authors often spend slogging at their craft before becoming overnight successes.

It’s not really fair to blame non-writers for buying this line. Yet due to the naïve-but-pervasive belief in the inevitability of publication for talented writers — what, do they think that our fairy godmothers go around whacking editors at publishing houses over the head with their wands on our books’ behalf? Don’t be silly; that’s the agent’s job — non-writers (and writers who have not yet worked up the nerve to submit) are often puzzled by the intensity of writerly reactions to casual inquiries about their work.

Especially if they only asked in the first place to be polite, just as they would have asked you about fly-fishing had that been your passion. (People do, you know.) Again, the people who are going to be the most fascinated in your book’s ups and downs at every stage are going to be other writers.

Actually, after you’re agented, other writers may be your most persistent questioners, especially writers who have not yet had a book subjected to the microscopic analysis that is editorial scrutiny. It can be a very lengthy process, the timing of which is utterly outside the author’s control, but even most writers don’t know that until they have been through the submission wringer themselves.

But if they haven’t, they think they’re just supporting a fellow writer when they ask, “So, has your agent managed to sell that book of yours yet? What’s the hold-up?”

Or — not that I have any first-hand experience with this or anything — “What’s new with that memoir of yours that publisher bought a few years ago? Are they still frightened by the lawsuit threats? I can’t believe how long it’s been.”

As if you would have sold — or finished, or released — your book but neglected to shout the news from the rooftops. Or at least to your Christmas card list.

I like to think that they ask out of love — as in they would LOVE to be able to celebrate the triumphs of a writer that they know. Admittedly, it sometimes takes some determination on my part to cling to this inspiring little belief (when one’s memoir has been on hold at a publishing house for a couple of years, people do tend to express sympathy by venting frustration about the delay at one), but ultimately, I’m quite sure I’m happier than I would be if I took every iteration of the question as a demand that I instantly drop everything I’m doing and rush off to rectify the situation.

Because that’s not really what they mean, is it? No matter how much such well-meant indignation might sound like criticism to the writer at whom it is aimed, badgering was probably the last thing on the commenter’s mind.

I know, I know; it doesn’t feel that way, and it may be kind of hard to believe that your Grandpa Gregory, the guy who has relentlessly picked to pieces everyone you have ever even considered dating, is trying to be non-judgmental about your publishing success. Just hear me out on this one.

This is a translation problem. Most of the time, neither writers nor non-writers mean their enthusiastic cries of, “Is it done/sold/out yet?” as criticism about not being the latest Oprah book club pick. Not even if they walk right up to you and say, as if it had never occurred to you or as if every writer in the world didn’t aspire to it, “You know, your book belongs on Oprah.”

What they mean is, “I like you. I want you to succeed. And even though I don’t really understand what you’re going through, I want to acknowledge that you’re trying.”

A little Pollyannaish of me to translate it that way? Perhaps. But permit me to suggest a little stocking-stuffer that writers can give their kith and kin this holiday season: just for this one dinner party or get-together, assume that that IS what they do mean, even if they express it poorly. And respond to the underlying sentiment, not the words.

Just my little suggestion for keeping the peace on that typically not-the-most-silent of nights.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for you to keep biting your tongue indefinitely. So here is a constructive use for any underlying hostility these questions may raise in you: this is the perfect opportunity to cure your kith and kin of the pie-in-the-sky notion that they’re going to be on the receiving end of every book you ever publish just because they know you.

Something else the general public does not know about publishing: these days, the author herself is often the one who pays for those give-away copies. Even if the publishing contract is generous with advance copies, authors are often expected to use them for promotional purposes, not as give-aways to their relatives. And while the author is generally able to purchase additional copies at a substantial discount, those books do not count toward sales totals.

Yes, you read that correctly: promising your kith and kin free copies may actually harm your overall sales statistics.

So the sooner you can get your relatives to accept that the best thing they can do to support your writing career is to plan to buy your books early and often, the happier you will be in the long run — and thus the more joyful you will be at future holiday gatherings, hint, hint. Tell them you’ll be overjoyed to sign any copies they buy, and leave it at that.

You feel a trifle less stressed at the mere thought of telling Grandpa Gregory that, don’t you?

In that same spirit of blowing off some steam, let me throw the question open to you, readers: how do you cope with this avocation-specific form of holiday stress? Have you come up with clever comebacks, succinct explanations, cunning evasions, or other brilliant coping mechanisms that you would like to share with the Author! Author! community?

Or, alternatively, a funny story about the time that you couldn’t stand it anymore and tossed a candied yam at an over-persistent relative who kept asking why you haven’t given up by now? (I probably shouldn’t encourage such behavior, but I have to admit, I would probably get some vicarious pleasure from hearing about it. Am I the only one?)

I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say. In the meantime, I’ve got to get dressed — I have some cranberry sauce to pass with a smile.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody, and keep up the good work!

SOIA, part VII: when it’s been a REALLY long time since the request

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A quick programming note before I get to the business du jour: I’m extending the deadline of the share your favorite inspirational writing-related quote contest to midnight Pacific Standard Time on Sunday, December 6. Not so much out of the goodness of my warm little heart as due to the fact that a member of my immediate family is in the hospital right now; I’m not convinced that my sense of the uplifting is particularly strong at the moment. Or maybe what I really need is to hear as many of your favorite quotes as possible, to lift me out of my funk.

So please ransack your writing notebooks for those great, soul-supporting quotes, people! Let’s get a really good haul, so I can share the best with you in a post here — because, really, couldn’t every writer use a bit of cheering up from time to time?

Laughably simple contest entry requirements are posted here. Now back to work.

Are your brains still buzzing from the implications of my last post, where I invited all of you out there to help me diagnose a SIOA (Send It Out, Already!) problem? No sooner had I finished typing the last syllable of that post when the nagging little voice in the ether that all serious bloggers associate with their reading public started to niggle at me.

“Okay, so now they can spot SIOA-avoidance in the wild,” that ever-dissatisfied opinion-giver conceded. “You even slipped in that homily about the reasonableness of expecting an agent who hasn’t heard from a writer for a couple of years to drop everything to read requested materials once they do arrive, purely so the reformed SIOA-avoider will not have to wait too long to hear back, along with your perennial saw about the advisability of continuing to query and submit to other agents during the consideration period. But beyond that, you left ‘em hanging. How precisely is a writer fresh from doing battle with SIOA-avoidance to approach a long put-off agent?”

Funny you should ask that, Disembodied Voice. Clever and incisive reader Joon posted a practical question on the subject just the other day. Quoth Joon:

I am afraid this particular series was written with me in mind (though, with your prodding, I am sending my pages out this week – whee! – so hopefully not for much longer). I have a question about extensive time passed. I know you’re a busy person, but if you have time to answer it or to touch upon it in the continuation of your SIOA series, it would really help me (and probably others who’ve helped put the Pro in Procrastination).

Back when I was a real newbie, I submitted the first 20 pages of my first novel for critique at the SCBWI conference where it was read by Stephanie Meyer’s agent (!!!). She told me she loved it, nominated it for a conference award, and wanted to see the rest of it. Problem was, she’d read almost all of it that was presently to be had (yes, I now know it was really unprofessional to submit something that wasn’t essentially ready to go. No, I would never do such a thing again. Yes, I know editors and agents hate people like me. Mea culpa!). I confessed as much and she said she still wanted to read it, in any amount or condition, as soon as I had written more. She gave me her e-mail address and a code word to put in the subject heading, and asked me (against her agency’s submission guidelines) to e-mail it to her. I went home with a will and got back to work.

It took three years!

My question is not whether to send it (you’ve amply answered that), but how? Has too much time passed for me to use the secret e-mail? Should I go back to the end of the line and send in a query as though we’d never met? Should I not send it to this agent at all (and let that be a lesson to me)? And should I still reference the fact that we met at this long distant conference?
I want to break away from my prior SIOA folly, but I’d like to take advantage of my chance to snag the AOMD if I haven’t already bungled it too badly.

Any advice?

This is an excellent question, Joon — and I love the line about putting the Pro in Procrastination so much that I almost lifted it for the title of this post. And I think you’re dead right (to continue the Stephanie Meyers theme) about this being an issue that dogs other writers; in my experience, SIOA-avoiders are legion.

First, congratulations on being brave enough to pitch your work that early in your writing process. Some writing coaches might castigate you for this — as you have learned since, the assumption at any fiction pitch meeting (or with any query for a novel, for that matter), the ambient assumption is that a manuscript will be at least in first full time before the writer approaches an agent with it — but since verbal pitching is so tough, I think it’s not a bad idea to take a practice run at it first. That way, when the book is done, the writer already has some experience pitching it before the stakes go sky-high.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, however, early pitchers who are good at it can run into the same problem Joon did: receiving a request for materials that one is in no position to fulfill anytime soon. This is why, in case anyone was curious, I generally advise members of the Author! Author! community that a good compromise between getting in that practice and avoiding panic is not to pitch a novel until it’s within a year of completion.

I can sense those of you raring to go chafing at that a little, so let’s take a moment to talk about why agents and editors from small presses — i.e., the folks to whom one can pitch productively at writers’ conferences — have such a strong and universal preference for fiction to be in completed form before aspiring writers approach them with it. (Agented and published writers approach their agents with ideas-in-progress all the time, of course, but that’s a subject for another post.) And it may surprise some of you to hear that, unusually for the submission process, the primary answer to this question is not because that’s not how it’s done.

That’s the secondary reason. The main one: because no agent, however talented, can say for sure what kinds of manuscripts will be in demand at publishing houses years from now; in order to do her job well, an agent has to be conversant with what editors want to acquire NOW.

Did that cause the hearts of multi-year SIOA-avoiders to skip a beat? Especially those whose dream agents were, like Joon’s, terrifically excited three years ago about the book project in question? As in before the radical contraction of the literary market?

I’d like to set your minds at ease here, but that little flash of panic was completely rational: what an agent can and cannot sell changes all the time, and sometimes very rapidly. So it’s only reasonable to expect that what an agent will wax enthusiastic over at a conference would differ annually.

Fortunately for Joon, Stephanie Meyers’ work continues to sell very well indeed, so it’s highly likely that Ms. Meyers’ agent will still be looking for similar work. Fingers crossed that what you write is similar, Joon!

More points in favor of her still being interested: she’s read some of your work and liked it. That’s a significant advantage of a conference where pitch-hearers agree to read a writing sample first, by the way. (Double-check before you sign up, and don’t be afraid to e-mail conference organizers to ask a few questions not covered on the conference’s website. Even at conferences where pitches are cold, there are often intensive courses for an extra fee where a pro will go over at least a few pages with you — and if the pro is good, the extra fee is often well worth it. Such intensives tend to fill up early, though.)

I see a few hands raised out there. “But Anne,” some sharp-eyed readers point out, and who could blame them? “I thought you were saying that agents prefer fully-written (and edited) novels at pitching and/or querying time. Yet Joon was able to impress this agent with writing sample. So doesn’t that mean that you’re, you know, wrong, and we should all be pitching our ideas as soon as the muses stuff them into our busy minds?”

No, it doesn’t, and for a very fine reason: because that’s not the way it’s done.

You knew the brief break from that one was too good to last, didn’t you? The industry expectation is that fiction will be fully drafted before it’s pitched or queried — nonfiction, including memoir, is different, since that is generally sold on a book proposal, not an entire manuscript — and not merely because a partial look at an incomplete manuscript forces an agent to guess what the market will be like by the time the book reaches complete first draft form. A brief excerpt, no matter how beautifully-written or how good the premise, is not an infallible indicator of how well put-together the eventual novel will be.

That made those of you who have entered partials in novel competitions do a double-take, didn’t it? Yet it’s true: even the most careful perusal of the first 50 pages (or less, usually, for a contest) will not necessarily provide conclusive evidence that a writer can structure an entire novel convincingly. There are plenty of perfectly wonderful short story writers, after all, who don’t know how to sustain a plot over 350 pages.

Which is why, should any of you have been wondering agents who represent fiction virtually never make an offer based upon a partial. Contrary to pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit, they honestly do need to read the manuscript first.

Thus, SIOA-avoiders are quite right to feel some trepidation about sending out long-delayed requested pages. However, Joon did something very smart here: communicated with the agent about it during the delay.

What was that everyone’s second grade teacher said about honesty being the best policy? It’s as true in early interactions with an agent as anywhere else — provided, of course, that the impulse toward honesty doesn’t result in a mountain of extraneous e-mails, letters, or (heaven help us) telephone calls. As we discussed just the other day, a single, simple, polite, professional missive will generally do the trick without giving the agent the sense that you’re going to be bugging her every fifteen minutes for the rest of her life.

Again, in case you were wondering: that’s the very last impression you want her to have of you. Clients who need a whole lot of hand-holding tend to be turn-offs.

So actually, Joon, it sounds like you’ve handled a genuinely awkward situation quite well so far. Certainly too well to have generated any basis for resentment on the agency end — and that’s something I’m quite happy to hear. Some SIOA-avoiders devote way, way, WAY too much of energies they should be gearing toward their submissions toward trying to keep confirming that the agent in question remains interested.

To drive home that last point, I’m going to veer away from Joon’s dilemma for a moment to share one of the many anonymous missives I have received over the years from a SIOA-avoider who was, well, not quite so strategic. Quoth Delaying Writer (as the nimble-brained among you may have already guessed, all names here changed to protect the participants):

HELP! How do I approach an agent I’ve already insulted by not having sent the chapter she asked me for a long time ago?

When I pitched my novel last year at the Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless, Loretta Lovable was incredibly nice to me, totally psyched about my book and I really did mean to get the chapter out to her before the end of the summer. But then it was Labor Day, then Christmas…well you know how these things go. And now I have an appointment to pitch to her again at this year’s conference. We really clicked before, so I’m terrified.

Please don’t yell at me if this is a stupid question, but would it be okay if I just walked into our meeting and pretended that I’d never met her before? I’m afraid she’ll think I’m an idiot if I walk in and throw myself on her mercy.

Quite a sad story, isn’t it? I’m bravely pushing aside my temptation to go on and on about the sheer number of e-mails and blog comments I receive during conference season that contain the word HELP to ask all of you: how do you think Delaying Writer should handle this touchy situation?

Before I weigh in, let’s run through all of DW’s options, not just the ones she is weighing. She could conceivably:

(a) obey her instincts, keep the pitch appointment, and hope that Loretta Lovable is either too nice or too forgetful to mention that she’s heard this pitch before;

(b) bite the bullet, keep the pitch appointment, and confess that she pitched too soon the previous year, in the hope that LL will tell her to go ahead and send it now;

(c) cancel the pitch appointment and just send the materials now with a nice note, hedging her bets by pitching to another few agents at this year’s conference;

(d) cancel the appointment, either to pitch to other agents or not, but make a point of buttonholing LL at the conference to explain what happened?

(e) send LL a query letter now, explaining what happened and asking if she’s still interested in reading the now-completed work?

(f) write off LL entirely and forever, and just move on, even though LL is DW’s dream agent.

Okay, so none of these possibilities is particularly appetizing, nor would any of them be particularly easy to pull off without feeling a bit chump-like. What would you do in DW’s place?

If you chose (f), I hate to tell you this, but you’re thinking like a SOIA-avoider. For this option to make sense to pursue, the possibility of offending LL by getting back to her later than anticipated has to outweigh any other consideration. Or — and this is even more common reasoning — the writer would have to assume that the only possible outcome from approaching LL again would be rejection.

But those of us who have worked our way through this series know better than that, don’t we? Don’t we?

If you said (a), you at least have no illusions to shatter about how well agents being pitched at by 150 eager aspiring authors at a conference a year ago is likely to remember even one whose pitch she really, really liked. However, this strategy could easily backfire: if LL does recall either the book concept or DW, this is not going to end well.

(b), (d), and (e) are actually three different versions of the same strategy: apologize and ask again for permission to send the materials. While this is unquestionably polite, it’s also a bit of a waste of LL’s time. Why should she have to give consent twice for the same set of pages, especially since the only reason she might conceivably need to do so was that DW responded to her initial request slowly?

If you selected (c), give yourself a gold star for the day — you’ve either been paying very close attention throughout the SIOA series, are unusually confident for a writer (we tend to be a timid lot), and/or have been reading this blog long enough that you have a pretty good idea of the advice I tend to give. (c) maximizes DW’s possibilities for finding an agent for her book without either impinging unnecessarily upon LL’s time or wasting a pitch session by repeating it.

In short, the answer is SIOA! And at the same time, move on, DW.

Of course, should DW happen find herself sitting next to LL at a luncheon, there’s no reason to avoid talking about their past connection, but let it be in positive terms, and brief: “Oh, how nice to see you again, Loretta — the pages you requested last year are already printed out and on my desk, ready to be sent off to you. Sorry about the delay, but I got caught up in a revision that was more complicated than I anticipated. I’m really happy with the results, though. So, what’s your favorite client project right now?”

Quick, simple, grovel-free. And, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t give LL an easy opening to say, “Gee, I’m not representing that kind of work anymore.” (Naturally, DW should check that she still does take on your book category, but there’s no reason to try LL’s patient by bearding her about it in person. Most of the time, that info is easily available on the agency’s website, in the latest edition of one of the standard agency guides, or oftentimes by being a good listener at the agents’ forum held at most literary conferences.

Do I hear some harrumphing out there? “Easy for you to say, Anne,” a few inveterate SIOA-avoiders protest, their manuscripts folded tightly to their tense chests, “because you’re assuming that Loretta will not be annoyed about the time lapse. But how can DW be sure about that — or Joon, for that matter? If either of these agents have been waiting long enough to get irritated, what’s the point of their submitting at all, at this point?”

Ah, you’re falling into option (f)-think, again, harrumphers, classic SIOA-avoidance logic, and expressing it in a form that conference-going agents do occasionally report finding grating: the oh-so-common writerly assumption that — how to put this as gently as humanly possible? — each of our situations is both absolutely unique and utterly memorable to virtual strangers. Because, you see, unless an aspiring writer believes in both, the assumption that a requesting agent would care enough (or even think enough) about a project he heard pitched or saw queried a year ago to become actually angry about it…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t make any sense. Think about it: from the perspective of someone who receives in the neighborhood of 800-1200 queries per week, attends perhaps three conferences per year, and hears hundreds of verbal pitchers, why would any of those thousands of individual approachers expect to be the single one for which the agent has been waiting?

The fact that aspiring writers do indeed believe that the agents whom they pitch and query are sitting around for months or even years on end, angrily twiddling their thumbs and wondering why a particular requested manuscript hasn’t shown up yet, and address agents accordingly is one major contributor to the widespread belief amongst agent that all writers are born great, big egos. In case anyone was wondering.

That particular misapprehension saddens me, because in my experience, the opposite is usually true: writers, aspiring and established both, are more apt to be insecure than otherwise. DW’s instinct to double-check with LL about sending the requested materials was probably the result of wanting reassurance. Unfortunately, agents aren’t really in the reassurance biz.

As those of us who have agents already know to our grave disappointment. But that’s a subject for another post.

Right now, let’s focus on the kind of cover letter that will help Joon, DW, and SIOA-avoiders like them pull off delayed submitting with aplomb. Given DW’s quite limited earlier contact with LL, I would opt for keeping it almost as simple as their lunch conversation:

Dear Ms. Lovable, (at this point, they’re certainly not on a first-name basis, right?)

Thank you so much for asking to see the first chapter of my women’s fiction book, LOST IN LOVE WITHOUT A WRISTWATCH. I enjoyed speaking with you about it at last year’s Conference That Shall Not Be Named.

Please excuse the delay in my getting these pages to you — after the conference, I got rather carried away in the revision process. I hope you enjoy the result.

Thank you for your time in considering these pages. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Delayed Q. Writer

See? Professional, elegant, yet adequately explanatory — and all ready to be popped into an envelope or attached to an e-mail with REQUESTED MATERIALS written on the outside of the envelope or in the subject line.

Everyone comfortable with that?

Joon’s situation is a trifle more complex, both because more time has passed and because there was more interaction with the agent previously. However, the basic principles here are the same. But while we’re at it, why not sweeten the missive with a bit of flattery?

Dear Ms. Great Big Agent,

Thank you so much for asking to see the full manuscript of my novel, THE NEXT BIG YA SENSATION. Please find it attached.

Thank you, too, for your great patience in my getting these pages to you. As you may recall from when I pitched it to you at the SCBWI conference some time ago, I had not yet completed the novel at the time. After we spoke, one of your suggestions so took wing in my mind that I wanted to flesh it out on the page before submitting this. Obviously, I hope you enjoy the result, but either way, you decide, I cannot thank you enough for the great advice.

Thank you for your time in considering these pages; I may reached at (telephone number), as well as by return e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Joon Pensmith

Hard to quibble with a compliment like that — I’ve never met a working agent who didn’t wish her clients took her writing suggestions a bit more seriously. Having established that here at last is a writer who is both charming and grateful, all Joon has to do plop that code into the subject line, and SIOA! (And, of course, thank me in the acknowledgments when the book comes out.)

One last raised paw, then time to go indeed. “But Anne, I notice that you have not mentioned the amount of time that’s passed since the initial request for pages. That doesn’t seem very honest. Won’t the respective agents want to know how long it’s been?”

Um — why? So they can get annoyed about it now?

That’s a serious set of questions: what possible purpose could it serve to call the agents’ attention to the specific length of the delay? There’s honest, and then there’s selectively revelatory. Everything in both of these missives is factually accurate, isn’t it? (Okay, so I made up that stuff about it taking a long time to incorporate the agent’s suggestion. Plausible, though, isn’t it?) And if either agent remembers the initial requests, she will already know how long it’s been, won’t she?

Remember, this is a professional relationship, not a personal one: both the writer and the agent are hoping to make some money out of this interaction. Even the most inveterate SIOA-avoider hasn’t let the requesting agent down personally, after all.
So approaching an agent who has requested manuscript pages, even after a long delay, should be done in a professional spirit.

But whatever you do, SIOA. Yes, the agent of your dreams may reject it, but you won’t know for sure unless you try, will you?

Keep up the good work!

SOIA, part V: but what if…what if…

crossing-finish-line

Before I launch into today’s juicy buffet of meaty topics, a quick reminder: next Wednesday, November 25 is the deadline for submissions to the Author! Author! Inspirational Writerly Quotes contest. It’s easy to enter, and I’m genuinely excited to see all of your favorite keeping-the-faith quotes. For contest rules, click here.

Some additional incentive, for those of you who need a nudge to enter: if I keep getting thought-provoking entries, I may need to add more prizes. I’m just saying.

Back to that tempting buffet I mentioned — and lordy, is it bounteous at the moment. I’ve been getting such good questions in response to the SIOA (Send It Out, Already) series that I’m going to extend it into next week. So please, if you have any reservations whatsoever about the timing of mailing off requested materials or — heaven preserve us — are thinking about not complying with a submission request at all, stick around. And feel free to leave questions in the comments on these posts.

To give the comment-shy a bit of incentive, remember how I was telling you that some of my most trenchant blog topics come from readers’ comments — and that many of the most thought-provoking are left anonymously, presumably because their leavers are convinced that their situations are unique enough that there might be some repercussions if the comment were posted under their real names?

The last time I went on a SIOA rampage, way back in 2007, one such timid questioner raised a fascinating point under the clever pseudonym Anonymous — a bit of evasion that in this case appears to be abundantly justified:

Should I send requested materials to an agent that I took a genuine dislike to? During the panel, she said she had never picked up anyone from a conference and didn’t hope to. During my pitch she was brusque, kept cutting me off, and I had the feeling she only requested {pages}to get rid of me.

Should I chalk it up to jetlag, headache, hangover, being from New York, MBLS (Millicent Burned Lip Syndrome), and send them anyway?

I suppose I could always say no later, but she’s from a fairly big agency and I’d just assume cold-query someone else from there if it’s going to be a long-term relationship.

Whenever I get a question like this, the wee hairs at the back of my neck begin to quiver — and not just because I can already feel half the agents I know lining up to glower at me for what I’m about to say. It’s because I hear stories like this from so many conference pitchers.

Yes, of course, I’m going to delve into why this is apparently such a common conference experience. But allow me to set some anonymous minds at ease first.

For starters, please, for your own sake, don’t prejudge an agent (or editor — or writer, for that matter, if you happen to be on the other side of the pitching table) based on a less-than-stellar first impression. It’s not unheard-of for a good agent-client relationship to emerge from a so-so or even downright hostile pitch meeting.

Stop shaking your head — it’s true. It’s also true that warm personal interaction at a first meeting or a we-love-writers speech from a conference do not necessarily guarantee a good future working relationship. Mostly because being a nice person is not an indispensable prerequisite for being either a good agent or a good writer.

Yes, yes, I know: those of us who happen to be both talented and nice would prefer that the two were linked. Because there is no necessary correlation, the oh-so-common writerly conference strategy of deciding whom to pitch based upon who sounded nicest during an agents’ forum is not particularly strategic.

How so? Well, in the first place, it’s far from unheard-of for a nice agent to put on a standoffish persona in conference situations, to avoid being swamped by eager would-be clients. The theory, I believe, is that if one makes oneself approachable, one is less likely to be approached.

In the second place, agents and editors are not infrequently sent to conferences primarily to give a talk, sit on a panel, or to promote a client’s book — only to find themselves expected to hear pitches as well for no additional compensation. One extremely prominent agent stalked into a Conference That Shall Remain Nameless a few years back and alienated virtually every writer there by not only announcing that he NEVER picked up clients via pitching, but that he wasn’t interested in speaking to anyone who wasn’t either already published or an attractive woman under 30.

He might have meant that last part as a joke. But I’m sure you can easily imagine the dismay of the fifty or so conference attendees who had been assigned to pitch to him. Especially when he devoted the rest of his time on the agents’ panel to alternating between promoting his recently-released book of advice for aspiring writers and rubbing it in the other agents’ faces that a client of his had recently won the Pulitzer Prize.

See earlier comment about the correlation between being nice and being good at selling books.

His book is quite well-respected, by the way. Yet after he treated that roomful of aspiring writers — who, after all, had paid a fairly hefty sum to hear him dash their dreams contemptuously into the convention center’s musty carpet — wild horses would have to drag me across a frozen lake in Hades before I would touch his book with a ten-foot pole, much less recommend it to my charming and sensitive readers.

But at least he was honest about pitching to him being a waste of time — as Anonymous’ manuscript-requester sounds like she was. (Or she could have been having a bad day, or it was her first conference…) Actually, I have more of a problem with agents who take the opposite tack, being immensely friendly to conference-attending writers when they have no intention of picking up any new clients.

It just goes to show you: an agent’s sales record is pretty much always a better indicator of how well she will represent your work than her level of charm on any given day.

Lest we forget, agents end up at conferences for a lot of different reasons — including drawing the short straw when the person the fairly large agency usually sends can’t do it this year. An agent who didn’t really want to be there might easily have made the statement Anonymous reported. As might someone new to conferences — or, as he pointed out, who is hung over, jet lagged, or just plain rude.

That being said, a hung-over, unhappy-to-be-there, naturally brusque, etc. person is infinitely more likely to get a writer to go away by saying no than by saying yes, so it’s worth considering the possibility that she genuinely wanted to see Anonymous’ material. Or thought his book might interest someone else at her agency — agents at large agencies do occasionally pass along submissions to one another.

Perhaps neither was the case here, but it was definitely worth checking out. And how does an aspiring writer do that, clever readers?

Shout it with me now: by Sending It Out, Already!

I can sense you scowling, SIOA-avoiders. “But Anne,” some of you protest mid-grimace, “I still think sending my precious manuscript to nasty old Grumblepuss is a waste of my time and resources. Why bother, when I could be querying or submitting to somebody else?”

Good point, oh scowlers — provided that you are indeed investing the energy you’re not investing in following up with Grumblepuss in approaching and submitting to other agents. Most SIOA-avoiders do not, alas.

And that’s especially unfortunate, because in the vast majority of post-pitching situations, the choice is not SIOAing to Grumblepuss or not sending it out at all. A savvy pitcher can usually garner several requests for materials at a large conference (if you doubt that, you might want to check out the HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD PITCH and/or HALLWAY PITCHING categories on the archive list at right); even if Anonymous wasn’t able to buttonhole any other agent, he could always query other agents he heard speak. (As in, “I so enjoyed hearing your talk at Conference X that I am hoping you will be interested in my paranormal mystery…”)

After all, there’s no earthly reason that Anonymous couldn’t be SIOAing to Grumblepuss while simultaneously SIOAing, pitching, or querying others, right? Sing it out, long-time readers: unless an agent or agency SPECIFICALLY informs writers that he/she/it only accepts exclusive queries or submissions, an aspiring writer asked for materials is free to submit it to other agents at the same time. And should.

Besides, what does Anonymous really have to lose here? If Grumbles falls in love with his writing, it’s unlikely that she’s going to be anything but nice from there on out — and if she doesn’t fall in love with it, then her interpersonal skills won’t affect Anonymous ever again. It was just a bad conference meeting.

It’s also entirely possible that Grumbles wouldn’t have perceived herself as being brusque at all — I know plenty of agents who would begin to hurry a writer through a pitch the moment they decided that they wanted to see it. If they’ve already decided to read it, the logic runs, what more is there to say?

Especially if every syllable uttered in her presence sounds like a jetliner breaking the sound barrier somewhere within her brainpan. The demon drink does affect everyone differently, and few are the writers’ conferences where teetotalism prevails, if you catch my drift. Heck, I’ve attended conferences where the behind-the-scenes parties were so intense that some of the agents didn’t make it to their morning pitch meetings at all.

You might want to pick your jaw off the floor, lest some passerby inadvertently tread upon your lower lip.

When it comes right down to it, Grumbles DID make a professional commitment to read Anonymous’ work; he is well within his rights to expect her to honor it. If she was being brusque to hide that she was too much of a softie to say no, or to scare off potential submitters, well, that’s just sort of quixotic, and it’s not worth any aspiring writer’s energy to second-guess her.

But frankly, the too-nice-to-say-no contingent is generally, well, nice about it. They want to be liked, you see.

So unless Anonymous already knew for a fact that another agent at Grumbles’ agency has a strong track record of representing your kind of book AND he was planning to cold-query that agent within the next couple of months, I would go ahead and SIOA. Perhaps not with high hopes, but especially if she has scared off other potential submitters (thus reducing the number of manuscripts she will have received from the conference), Anonymous isn’t going to lose anything by doing what she asked him to do.

Because she might just say yes, right? And presumably, Anonymous knew enough about who she is and what she represents to want her as an agent.

Even if she did, out of some bizarre desire to make more work for herself, say yes when she meant no (not a common practice, in my experience, for the habitually insensitive), it’s highly unlikely that she would have let her Millicent in on her evil plan. At least not in enough detail to cause Millie to take one look at your cover letter, giggle, and pass it directly into the reject pile.

Hey, really effective sadism takes time and planning. Both Grumbles and Millicent are far to busy perusing that 4-month backlog of submissions.

Everyone comfortable with that? Or, if comfortable is too much to ask, at least able to live with it?

Nor was Anonymous’ the only great question raised by readers of my last rousing SIOA series. Listen, if you will, to the excellent point Rose raised:

I think I have a variation of this. Talked to you a while back about how several agents have been sitting on requested partials and fulls for a while. You suggested I contact them. I was too scared. I’ve queried over 100 agents already, this is a difficult book I think, but I know that it’s quite good—so what I’ve begun to do…I did write to an agent who had the full for 6 months, he said he didn’t remember getting it so I sent it again (electronically) and asked him to let me know he got it. He didn’t.

That was two months ago.

I’m more concerned about a couple of agents who have partials. They seem to be good fits for me, but they just haven’t replied and it’s been 6 months. I’ve resolved to send it again, this time on paper, with a note. (Actually one of these agents *did* get it on paper originally. Why would so many agents be so eager to see my book and then not even reply to reject it?)
And while it’s getting harder to hold this pose, my chin is still up pretty high.

Oh, how I wish Rose were the only aspiring writer in North America with this problem! Unfortunately, her dilemma seems to be getting steadily more common.

So common, in fact, that intrepid reviser Jenyfer posted a comment about it just the other day:

What I wonder more is why it is that once an agent asks to see the material and the material is actually sent, the agent can’t be bothered to respond. It’s one thing to ignore an unsolicited query / partial, but if they actually request it, you would think they could at least say “thanks, but no thanks” if they aren’t interested. Surely I’m not the only one this has happened to?

You and Rose are most emphatically not the only aspiring writers to whom this has happened, Jenyfer, but the why is hard to explain. Hard enough, I think, that I want to devote an entire post to the subject sometime soon.

In the meantime, let me complete the translation process Jenyfer initiated: the vast majority of the time, when an agent simply doesn’t respond at all to either a submission of requested materials or a query accompanied by materials that the agency’s website or agency guide listing specifically request that all queriers send, the answer is no, at least on this book project.

Or there isn’t an answer at all, because the agency never received the materials in the first place, accidentally deleted an e-mailed submission, mixed up your SASE with another aspiring writer’s…

You get the picture. The real problem with the increasingly frequent practice of not replying if the answer is no is not, to my mind, the inherent rudeness — I was brought up to treat even complete strangers’ dreams and aspirations with greater respect — but the fact that the submitter can never really know for sure whether the agent (or her Millicent) ever read the pages at all.

While you absorb the full horror of that last statement, let’s get back to Rose’s practical dilemma. Since it’s been 6 and 8 months, respectively, it’s almost certainly safe to assume that the answer is no, and the agents concerned just didn’t get around to mentioning that salient fact to Rose. Yet it is also possible that in those 6/8 months, one or all of these agencies adopted a policy that they respond only if they want to see additional pages or are ready to offer representation.

Such policies are, alas, increasingly common, especially for agencies that accept electronic queries and submissions. So if it’s been a while, a nail-gnawing waiting writer’s first stop should be the agency’s website and/or listing in the most recent edition of a well-established agency guide.

“That makes sense, Anne,” those who were scowling earlier concede. “But what should a self-respecting writer like Rose do if these agencies have no posted policies on the subject?”

Ah, that’s a more difficult question. Since Agent #1 has now spaced out twice, Rose is naturally more than within her rights to e-mail him and remind him that other agents are looking at it. Two months is long enough for courtesy, although I wouldn’t normally recommend following up before twice the agency’s stated average turn-around time. And before she follows up at all, of course, she should — chant it with me now — check the agency’s website or most recent guide listings for average turn-around times and possible policies of silence.

She should not send a whole new copy of the manuscript, mind you, but a politely-worded question that allows the agent to save face if he’s simply lost it:

Dear Mr. (Wayward Agent’s last name),

As you requested, I sent you the full manuscript of my novel, PLEASE DON’T IGNORE THIS STACK OF PAPERS, a couple of months ago. While you have been considering it, several other agents have asked to read it as well.

I thought you might want to be aware that other agents were also considering it. If you have decided that you are not interested, or if the manuscript has gone astray, please let me know.

Thank you for your continued interest in my book project, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Rose Nailgnawer

See? No recriminations, no hurry-it-up-buddy, no here-it-is-for-a-third-time-you-moron, just a polite, professional reminder that Rose exists and is waiting for a response. And believe it or not, if the agency actually did lose the submission (the agent’s ambiguous statement that he doesn’t remember having received it doesn’t tell us anything either way), or if it’s still sitting in a post office just outside Peoria, the agent actually will want to know about it.

Unfortunately, the only way he is at all likely to find out about such an error is if the submitting author tells him. In an environment where most agents vastly prefer to be left alone to consider their immense backlog of manuscripts, that’s an inherently risky thing to do.

See why being polite is so very important? And why I always recommend continuing to query and submit elsewhere while any given agent is considering a manuscript, partial or full?

Speaking of multiple submissions, a missive like this would be an especially good idea to send if she had formerly neglected to mention that there were other agents taking a gander at it in the first place. In fact, this would be a good time to politely remind/inform Agents #2 and 3 of the same fact — because technically, the non-responsive agent IS considering it, right?

Incidentally, though, there are a couple of ways that Rose could have hedged her bets earlier, both when she submitted in hard copy and electronically. The accepted method of asking for receipt confirmation is to send a self-addressed, stamped postcard (with a hard copy, obviously) and ask the agent in your cover letter to drop it in the mail when he receives it.

The other common method is to send the pages via a mail service (and the USPS does offer this cheaply) that requires a signature upon receipt. Do check in advance, though, whether the agency has a policy that it will not sign for parcels — many now do.

Two more reasons that paper submissions are far, far better for writers than electronic ones. But if an agent insists upon an electronic submission, the easiest way to confirm that it got there is to cc the missive to yourself. That way, you will receive a dated copy.

Most of this is moot, of course, if Agent #1 works at an agency whose stated policy forbids simultaneous submissions to other agencies. But even if he did insist on having a solo peek at the work, Rose should have moved on after three months, maximum; it’s not fair to her otherwise. That’s a subject for another post, however.

The moral: while yes, most of the time-related decisions in a submission situation do lie in the receiving agent’s hands, the writer does not need to sit around and wait helplessly. A career-minded writer keeps moving forward until some agent worthy of representing the book says yes.

Even if that takes more than a 100 tries — not at all out of the ballpark these days, by the way, even for the best of first books. So keep pressing forward, because that’s the only way to succeed in the end.

Welcome to a world where overnight successes have almost always been at it for at least five years. Hanging in there has benefits, I assure you. Keep up the good work!

SIOA, Part IV: some tips on combating the “Oh, God — have I blown it?” blues

billie

Still hanging in there, everyone? Or have my several days of admonitions to SIOA — Send It Out, Already! — materials requested in months past sent some of you scurrying into the back of your coat closets, whimpering amid the cast-off galoshes of Januaries past?

I certainly hope not. I was kind of hoping that significant numbers of you would find this series empowering — at least enough to, say, spend this coming weekend frantically reading requested pages IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD before popping them in the mail next week. You know, before agents and editors go on their traditional long winter’s nap.

In other words: rah, rah, Team Literate!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What doomed the submission was not anything that happened on the agent’s end; what guaranteed failure was Zack’s not pulling out of the SIOA-avoidance spiral. There are, of course, plenty of things a submitter can do to render rejection more LIKELY, but — take out your hymnals and sing along, please, long-time readers — the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of being picked up by an agent is one that no agent ever sees.

So today I’m going to ask the Zacks of the world: if you’ve already decided that rejection is a foregone conclusion because so much time has passed, what precisely do you have to lose by sending it out at this point? ,

And yes, that’s a perfectly serious question.

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

For one thing, handling it this way would require her to take the 14 seconds required to check a list — and for someone to have gone to the trouble of creating and maintaining such a list in the first place. Yes, the requesting agent probably jotted a few words down next to your name on his conference appointment sheet, but it’s unlikely to the point of hilarity that our pal Millicent will have that sheet next to her when she receives your manuscript. So the only point at which anyone concerned is at all likely to take a peek at that who-pitched-me list is the agent for whom Millicent is screening — which means that Millicent has to think your submission is very, very good indeed.

What is she likely to do instead of going off to double-check precisely when her boss originally requested Zack’s long-delayed manuscript? Well, here’s a hint: ripping open an envelope marked REQUESTED MATERIALS and starting to read is a pretty time-consuming task, when multiplied by a hundred manuscripts.

That’s right: she’s almost certainly just going to — you guessed it — rip open the envelope and start reading. Oh, she may roll her eyes at the line in Zack’s cover letter that mentions at which conference her boss requested the enclosed pages (all of you conference pitchers are mentioning where the agent or editor heard your pitch, right?), if she happens to recall off the top of her head how long ago it was. But in all likelihood, she’s going to take a gander at the first page, at least.

And if the agent or editor requested pages in response to a written query, she’s not going to blink twice if it took 11 months to reach her desk. Unless, of course, the agency or publishing house is not longer handling that type of book.

Yes, it happens — all the time, in fact. If it’s been a VERY long time since the agent of your dreams requested those pages, you might want to double-check — but not, I beg of you, by sending the agent another query letter, asking if it’s still okay to send those long-awaited materials. A quick, discreet trip to the agency’s website or listing in the most recent edition of one of the standard agency guides should tell you whether the AOYD has moved on to other book categories while you’ve been revising.

PLEASE do not, however, regard the likelihood that Millicent simply will not care how long ago her boss requested materials as carte blanche to push off revising that requested material until some dimly-imagined future point when you’ll have unbroken time to revise. Some agents do take umbrage at long delays, particularly after face-to-face pitching.

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

(Couldn’t come up with an appropriate follow-up railroad metaphor, obviously. We all have our off days.)

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

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

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

What you most emphatically do not need to do is — wait for it — query again and ask for permission to send it at all. A crisp, businesslike cover letter set on top of your requested materials will do beautifully. Something like this is ample:

Dear Mr./Ms. (Requesting Agent’s Last Name),

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Charlotte Brontë

See? No obsequiousness required at all; just the facts, ma’am. If our Charlotte had pitched at a conference last March, she should mention it, but without calling attention to how long it’s been. If she has overcome her SOIA-avoidance sufficiently to send requested materials out to everyone who has asked to see them, she should bring that up, too:

Dear Mr./Ms. (Requesting Agent’s Last Name),

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

I enjoyed speaking with you at the Desperate Writers’ Proving Ground Conference. I had hoped to get these pages to you sooner, but each of the agents and editors I pitched there asked for something slightly different. Please be aware that several of them will be considering this project simultaneously with you.

Thank you for your interest in my writing, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Charlotte Brontë

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

If you DO plan on making a habit of it — a way of life I do not recommend any writer’s embracing — you can buy yourself some additional time if you are polite about any anticipated delays early on. Naturally, if you experience a genuine life crisis, that’s beyond your control. If one occurs within the first couple of months after a request, it is perfectly proper to send out a courteous (and BRIEF) e-mail or letter to the requesting agent, stating that there’s going to be an unavoidable delay in sending those pages he asked to see. Perhaps something along the lines of…

Dear Mr./Ms. (Requesting Agent’s Last Name),

Thank you for requesting the full manuscript of my novel, INVISIBLE INK. Unfortunately, a fire has just consumed half of my neighborhood, so it may be a few months before I can reconstitute the text from my back-ups. I shall send it to you just as soon as I am able.

Thank you in advance for your patience — and I am looking forward to submitting to you soon.

Sincerely,

Charlotte Brontë

See? Even if the writer has a genuinely tragic justification for the delay, it’s possible — indeed, preferable, not to make a big deal of it. Just provide a simple, straightforward explanation, and leave it at that.

Do everything in your power, though, to keep the lapse between request and submission under a year, especially for a follow-up on a conference pitch. (Since conferences are annual, and agencies frequently send different agents in different years, it can be really, really obvious if a submitter’s cover letter refers to the 2009 or 2008 conference.)

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

Why? Because while Millicent will almost certainly open even a months-late envelope, she may not open a months-late attachment. Especially if the first line of the e-mail runs something like, “Please, please, PLEASE forgive me for taking eighteen months to send these pages to you…”

Or she may not read the accompanying e-mail at all, if she mistakes it for an unsolicited submission. (Since e-mailed queries and submissions typically have swifter turn-around times, the probability of a what’s-been-requested list is substantially higher.) Most agencies will not open unrequested e-mail attachments, ever, due to fear of viruses, and the chances of your submission’s being mistaken for unsolicited grows as your name recognition at the agency fades.

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

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

Completely understandable, right? A manuscript that is never submitted cannot be rejected; it’s logically impossible.

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

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

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

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

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

I would swear that I can still hear some of you SIOA avoiders out there saying, “But…but…” Next time, I’m going to tackle some of the lingering buts that have troubled readers past.

In the meantime, chins up, my friends, and keep up the good work!

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

attacked by squid

For the last couple of days, I have been urging those of you who received requests to submit all or part of your manuscripts to an agent or editor more than a season ago to take some swift steps to get them out the door as soon as possible. And I could feel a great many of you tensing up more each time I mentioned it.

I understand the hesitancy, believe me. Naturally, you want your work to be in tip-top shape before you slide it under a hyper-critical reader’s nose — lest we forget, agency screeners who are not hyper-critical tend to lose their jobs with a rapidity that would make a cheetah’s head spin — but once you’ve shifted from your summer to winter wardrobe without popping that those pages requested when your Fourth of July decorations were up into the mail, it’s easy to keep sliding down the slippery slope toward never sending it out at all.

Whoa, Nelly, that was a long sentence! Henry James would be so proud. But you get my point.

I also understand the temptation to put off those last few revisions until you have some serious time to devote to them — like, say, the upcoming Thanksgiving long weekend or a Christmas vacation. Even if we disregard for the moment the distinct possibility that days off from work during family-oriented holidays might get filled up with, say, family activities, the wait-until-I-have-time strategy tends to backfire.

Why? Well, for many aspiring writers, holding on to requested materials too long allows an increasing sense of shortcoming to develop. Over time, as-yet-to-be-done revisions loom larger and larger in the mind, necessitating (the writer thinks) setting aside more and more future time to take care of them. So what started out as a few hours to carve out of a busy schedule transmogrifies into a few days, or even a few weeks.

Hands up, if you habitually can take that much unbroken time off work at a stretch. Working Americans typically cannot.

What I’m about to say may make working writers everywhere break into gales of hysterical laughter, but sometimes, a deadline is a writer’s friend. When you have too long to consider how to polish a manuscript, the process can easily mushroom. While giving serious thought to manuscript changes is good, extended fretting prior to sitting down and making those alterations can easily start to color the editing process — rendering it MORE difficult to make those last-minute changes as time goes on, not less.

Even if task escalation does not assault your project like the giant squid in the photo above (native to the cold, murky waters bordering Seattle!), the demons of self-doubt just love a delayed deadline. It allows them so much more time to apply their pitchforks to writers’ latent insecurities.

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

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

You wanna know why I can say that with such assurance? Because at the point your manuscript arrives for an agent’s perusal, his office looks like this:

agent's office

And not, as aspiring writers worldwide would prefer to believe, like this:

cherubs reading

Yes, Virginia, all of those fuzzy piles in the first photo are precisely what you think they are: manuscripts waiting to be read. Trust me on this one: the agent who requested your manuscript seven months ago is not currently staring listlessly out her office window, wishing she had something to read. She’s been keeping herself occupied with those thousands of pages already blocking her way to her filing cabinet.

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

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

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

Gabriel got sidetracked at work, apparently. I suspect it’s due to all those manuscripts he has to read.

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

Sorry. If I ran the universe, she would start calling after three weeks, overflowing with helpful hints and encouraging words. She would also order your boss to give you paid time off to finish polishing, bring you chicken soup when you are feeling under the weather, and scatter joy and pixie dust wherever she tread.

But as I believe I have pointed out before, due to some insane bureaucratic error at the cosmic level, I do not, evidently, rule the universe. Will somebody look into that, please?

By the same token, however, the agently expectation that the writer should be the one to take the initiative to reestablish contact after an extended lull can be freeing to someone caught in a SIOA-avoidance spiral. If you have not yet sent requested materials, it’s very, very unlikely that the requesting agent is angry — or will be angry when the material arrives later than she originally expected it.

What makes me so sure of that? Because agents learn pretty quickly that holding their breath, waiting for requested manuscripts to arrive, would equal a lifetime of turning many shades of blue. SIOA-avoidance is awfully common, after all.

Oh, didn’t you know that? Hadn’t I mentioned that about 70% of requested materials never show up on the agent’s desk at all?

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

I hate to break this to everyone’s egos, but in all probability, there won’t be any commentary upon its late arrival at all — or, at any rate, no commentary that will make its way back to you. But that is a subject best left for a later post.

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

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

For most aspiring writers, the opposite is true: after one round of SIOA-avoidance, working up the gumption to send out requested materials, or even query again, is considerably harder, because the last time set up the possibility of not following through as a viable option. The psyche already knows that nothing terrible will happen in the short term if the writer, to use the vernacular, chickens out.

Yet in the long term, something terrible can and often does occur: a good book doesn’t find the right agent to represent it, nor the right editor to publish it, because its writer didn’t want to risk sending it out until it was 100% perfect.

Whatever that means when we’re talking about a work of art.

Please don’t take any of this personally, should you happen to be in the midst of a SOIA-avoidance spiral. It is a legitimate occupational hazard in our profession: I know literally hundreds of good writers who have been in pitch/reedit/talk self out of submitting yet/reedit/pitch again at next year’s conference cycles for years. One meets them at conferences all over North America, alas: always pitching, always revising, never submitting.

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

As in stop reading this and start spell-checking.

I can tell that all of this begging is not flying with some of you. “But Anne,” the recalcitrant protest (blogging gives one very sensitive ears, capable of discerning the dimmest of cries out there in the ether), “what if I’ve been feeling ambivalent toward sending my manuscript out because there is actually something seriously wrong with it? Shouldn’t I listen to my gut, and hang onto my book until I feel really good about showing it to the pros?”

Yes and no, reluctant submitters; if a manuscript is indeed deeply flawed, I would be the last person on earth (although I know other professional readers who would arm-wrestle me for the title) who would advise the writer against taking serious steps to rectify it. Joining a first-rate writers’ group, for instance, or hiring a freelance editor to whip it into shape. Almost any such steps, however, are going to take some time.

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

So if you are already certain that your manuscript is free of spelling and grammatical errors and formatted correctly (if you’re not absolutely positive about the latter, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at the bottom-right side of this page), go ahead and send it now anyway, just in case your sense of shortcoming is misplaced, AND take steps to improve it thereafter. It might be accepted, you know.

And even if it isn’t, there’s nothing to prevent you from querying the agent again in a year or two with a new draft, gleaming with all of that additional polishing.

(For the benefit of those of you who have heard that apparently immortal writers’ conference circuit rumor: no, agencies do NOT keep such meticulous records that in 2012, the Millicent du jour will take one glance at a query, go rushing to a database, and say, “Oh, God, THIS book again; we saw another version of it in the autumn of 2009. I need to reject it instantly.” Although she might start to think it if you submitted the same manuscript three times within the same year.)

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

Whatever you do, don’t panic — SIOA-avoidance can be overcome. Before I’m done with this topic, I’ll give you some pointers on how to phrase a cover letter to accompany a much-delayed submission without sounding like you’re groveling or requiring you to pretend that you’ve been in a coma for the last six months, unable to type.

You can move on with dignity, I promise. No one’s going to scream at you, and no one is going to laugh at you, but your book will be grateful. I promise.

Keep up the good work!

SIOA, my friends! SIOA!

mailbox

I woke up this morning fully intending to dig through my embarrassingly tall stack of readers’ questions so trenchant that they deserve a post of their very own and find a topic du jour, honest. I genuinely am looking forward to plowing through ‘em all, possibly followed by a nice, leisurely stroll through common red flags that tend to traject submissions into the reject pile faster than a writer new to the process can say, “But I didn’t know that there WAS a standard format for manuscripts, or that a manuscript page wasn’t supposed to look just like the same page in a published book!” (If that last sentence didn’t make you smirk knowingly, you might want to check out the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category at on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page before you proceed much farther in your writing career.)

And then I happened to glance at the calendar. It’s a week and a half until Thanksgiving — or, as those of us who deal on a regular basis with the publishing industry like to call it, the annual slow-down.

Before I depress you all by explaining why anyone would call it that, let’s be proactive: I would like to take the opportunity to urge those of you who have owed requested materials to an agent for a full season — from, say, having pitched successfully at a summer conference or received a positive response to a query prior to the annual August holidays — to send it out, already.

As in, if humanly possible, within the next week and a half.

Did that request make panic-generated fireworks go off in some writerly heads out there? I shouldn’t wonder; the last time I checked, over 70% of requested manuscripts were never actually sent to the agents and editors that requested them.

Yes, you read that correctly — the vast majority never turn up on Millicent’s desktop. That’s a whole lot of potentially publishable writing sitting in a whole lot of desk drawers. Let’s give some thought to why that might be the norm.

Consider, if you will, Zack, a good-but-as-yet-unagented novelist. Zack has been looking for an agent for quite some time now for a well-written, complex book — the kind of book that folks in the industry like to describe, if they’re feeling charitable, as “needing precisely the right agent/editor/push campaign.” (If they’re not feeling charitable, they describe it as “good, but difficult to place.”)

In short, Zack’s novel is original, and the perfect agent has yet to fall in love with it.

We’ve all been there, right? If I haven’t said it again recently, allow me to remind you that the time elapsed between when a writer begins to seek an agent for a particular project and when she finally signs with one is NOT necessarily an especially reliable predictor of the writer’s talent — or of how likely a book is to appeal to readers.

In fact, it usually isn’t predictive of anything at all: if the writing quality were the only factor involved, we wouldn’t ever see a bad book on the tables at the front of a chain bookstore, would we?

But try convincing a well-meaning friend or relative — the kind that might lecture one over turkey at a certain annual family gathering about the desirability of dropping a time-consuming hobby that has not yet yielded fortune or fame — that even the best books often take time to find the right home, eh? Non-writers tend to assume that talent is the ONLY factor, but then, the non-writing world lives under the happy delusion that the only reason a book would not get published right away is that it isn’t any good!

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: plenty of good writers have queried for years before getting picked up, and frankly, it’s harder to land an agent today than it was even two years ago, due to the slow economy. Let alone the ten or fifteen that may have elapsed since that established author whose interview you just read landed hers in — how many tries did she mention? Two? Three?

Okay, pep talk administered. Back to our saga already in progress.

Like a sensible writer, Zack knows that his book’s only chance of getting published lies in his promoting it to agents and editors, so he routinely spends the spring and summer going around to literary conferences, and the autumn to sending out queries. Since he both has an interesting story to tell and is a talented pitcher/querier, he always picks up a few requests to see all or part of the book.

Yet invariably, when I see him at holiday parties, he responds uncomfortably to my eager inquires about how agents have responded to his submissions. “I’m still revising the end of the book,” he says, eyes averted.

We have this exchange down to a ritual now. I this is my cue to ask, “Does that mean that you haven’t sent out the first 50 to the agents who asked you for it, either?”

Zack looks sheepish, self-righteous, and fearful all at once, a facial feat I would have sworn was not possible. “I want to be completely ready when they ask to see the rest.”

Readers, care to know how often you are on my mind? Exactly three seconds before I start to read him my annual riot act on the virtues of SIOA (Send It Out, Already!), I routinely think, “Gee, how long has it been since I’ve blogged about this? I really should do a reminder post.”

So here I am, telling you: if you got a request for materials prior to the first week of September (and I mean this LAST September, not the one before) to send all or part of a manuscript to an agent or editor, please, please, please SIOA!

Yes, even if it isn’t perfect. Requests for materials are like vitamins, boxes of cereal, and hunks of meat: they come with expiration dates.

Not firm ones, of course, or especially short ones, but when a request is made, it is considered professional to follow up on it in a timely manner. It shows what a good client you would be: after all, your agent would like to be able to tell editors, “Oh, she’s great about meeting deadlines.”

More to the point, I’ve never met an agent or editor yet whose raving praise about an author included the words, “And when I ask for something, she doesn’t get back to me for eight months!”

Sounds flippant, I know, but from a business perspective, how quickly a writer can churn out impeccable pages is a legitimate concern for an agent or editor. After all, an author working under a book contract would not have the luxury of setting aside a manuscript for a few months until she had a few unbroken weeks’ time to make requested revisions, right?

Most of the time, of course, a requesting agent is not going to be drumming her nails on her desk for months on end, wondering where a particular submission is, unless the submitter is already a client. If a project that particularly excited her in query or pitch form doesn’t appear, she’s likely to assume that the writer went with another agent — or dropped the project entirely.

In other words, she’s going to move on without following up. Possibly without even considering following up.

Please, please don’t wait for her to nag you about sending those requested materials; it’s not going to happen. Just SIOA.

I see some of you SIOA-avoiders scuffing your toes against the floor. “But Anne,” some of you protest, clinging to your manuscript as though it were a life raft and the tidal wave was headed your way, “The agent was REALLY interested at the conference four months ago, but I didn’t manage to get the pages out the door. Life intervened, at least to the extent that I haven’t had time to polish it to a high gloss yet. I feel like I’ve let the agent down. And despite what you say about his probably having assumed that I’ve signed elsewhere, I know in my heart that if he were truly the right agent for me, he would have defied all of the rules and contacted me to ask where the manuscript was. Because our pitch meeting wasn’t like any other in the history of the world, and…”

Let me stop you right there, Sparky: I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if a pitch (or query, for that matter) goes well, it results in a professional connection, period. Not a personal commitment — a necessary precondition to letting someone down, no? — and not a guarantee to stop work when the requested materials arrive. Nor, with certain EXTREMELY rare exceptions, an incentive for the agent to track down and ask twice for a book he’s never read.

So how is it possible to read anything at all into the agent’s not contacting Sparky to beg for an opportunity to see pages requested months ago? Many aspiring writers misinterpret silence from the requester’s end as a lapse of interest, but that isn’t necessarily the case; a good agent simply has too many books on the brain — and too many eager writers clamoring for her attention — to badger writers slow to submit.

And even if she were so inclined, remember, this person doesn’t know you. From the requester’s end of the relationship, there isn’t necessarily any visible difference between not receiving requested materials because the writer’s obsessing over whether every comma is right, because the writer just hasn’t had time to give it a once-over, because the writer has had a sudden bout of massive insecurity, and because the writer had been pitching or querying a book not yet written.

And frankly, most pros would expect that if, say, the first 50 pages of a book did need to be written from scratch post-request, it could be done successfully between midsummer and Thanksgiving, anyway. From a writer’s point of view, that may not be a particularly realistic expectation, given how most aspiring writers are already struggling to sandwich their writing between work and family and friends and a million other demands upon their time, but remember, at the submission stage, intentions don’t count for much.

Agents and editors want to judge a writer by what’s on the page, and they can’t do that without having pages to read. Thus the general expectation –for fiction, at least — is that if the book is at the querying/pitching point, it ought to be ready to send out.

Which isn’t always the case in practice, I’m afraid. An aspiring writer might jump the gun on querying for a number of reasons: because conferences fall at particular times of year, for instance, or because that terrific new character didn’t pop into the mind until a week after the query letter went out. Or because some darned fool of an Internet expert told you that the industry moves with glacial speed during certain parts of the year (like the one coming up in a week and a half, hint, hint) and you wanted to beat the post-New Year’s rush.

Heck, I once won a major literary award for a memoir for which I had written only the first chapter and synopsis. But I knew enough about the industry to respond to agents’ requests for a book proposal with a chipper, “Great! I can have a proposal to you in six weeks.” Then I sat down and wrote it during the annual August publishing world’s vacation.

But the point is, I did send it out, and that’s how my current agency was able to figure out that it wanted to sign me.

“But Anne,” I hear those who had planned on spending another few months polishing their submissions piping up, “you said that the industry shuts down between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and that it’s not a good idea to query just after the New Year. Why does it make any difference if I send it in mid-November or in February?”

A couple of very good reasons, actually: first, enthusiasm is not a permanent condition, but a fleeting one.

The fact is, the chances of the requester’s remembering you (and, more importantly, your book) are significantly higher now than three months from now. A long lapse is not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s not unheard-of for an agent to respond to a submission that arrives six months after a pitch with a statement that she doesn’t remember having requested it.

The second reason is that many, many agents and editors are planning to spending the next month and a half catching up on their READING while their offices are quiet. The industry slows down not because everyone who works in a publishing house takes six weeks off, but because there are so many Judeo-Christian holidays during that period that it’s hard to get enough bodies together for an editorial meeting.

Why is that significant? Well, unlike agencies, where an individual agent can decide to take a chance on a new author, a publishing house’s acquiring a book requires the collective agreement of a great many people. If the requisite bodies are heading over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, it’s kinda hard to obtain their consent to anything.

But as anyone who has had much contact with the industry knows, it’s full of folks who tend to deal with the most immediate crisis of any given moment. Naturally, this workplace orientation results in much work being put off until some nebulous future date when the agent or editor has time to deal with it. Any wild guesses as to when they typically get around to it?

Right: between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. And because agents know that editors will be occupied with what is already on their overburdened desks, they tend to curl up with a few good manuscripts and take a well-deserved breather, too.

In other words, it behooves a submitting writer to adhere to their calendar, rather than expecting them to follow any individual writer’s.

“Why,” I hear one plaintive-but-reasonable voice out there demanding querulously, “in an industry where it is considered perfectly acceptable for an agent to take several months to get back to a writer who has submitted a manuscript, and six months or more for an editor to read a submission via an agent,” (yes, it happens) “should there be ANY restrictions on how long I have to send out requested materials? Why is the writer the only one expected to adhere to a tacit deadline?”

Want the honest answer? (Look away NOW if you don’t.) Because the writer is the one with the least power in this situation, and the competition for scarce representation and publishing slots is fierce.

Any well-established agent or editor sees hundreds upon hundreds of perfectly-formatted, well-written submissions per year: they don’t worry too much about the one who got away. And that gives them the power to set unreasonable (and, yes, as regular readers of this blog already know, often unwritten and unspoken) rules for writerly conduct.

Unfortunately, it honestly is as simple as that.

Amongst agents and editors, the writer who pitches well but never sends in the requested follow-up materials is as notorious as the guy who doesn’t call again after the first date. As is the nonfiction writer who pitches a stellar book idea but never actually submits a book proposal. And the already-agented writer who comes up with a great premise for a next book, gets her agent all excited about it, then two years pass without a peep.

Ask any agent: they find this phenomenon genuinely frustrating.

But it is common enough that after an agent has been in the biz for a while, she usually isn’t holding her breath waiting for ANY pitched or queried book to show up on her desk just because she asked for it. No, she’s not the kind of girl to sit by the phone.

Now, logically, one might expect that this ambient cynicism would mean that the writer had MORE time leeway, rather than less. Even an agent who flatly fell in love with a pitch wouldn’t be at all upset if the requested pages didn’t show up for a couple of months; if he’s at all experienced, he would already be aware that almost every writer on the planet likes to give the book one last read-through before submitting it, to catch any rookie, grammatical, or continuity mistakes. And, of course, he’s not the kind of boy to sit by the phone.

However, as I mentioned above, publishing is very much a seasonal business; the pros even talk about the year that way. Is your book a summer novel, a fall culture book, or a late winter special interest release? In practice, this means that submissions that might be tossed into a pile of fifty to molder during one month might be being placed in much, much shorter piles in another, where they might be read within a week or two.

But that’s not the only reason you should SIOA now — as in NOW, before the Thanksgiving holiday, if you can possibly manage it. As any of my editing clients (they’re the ones cringing in that corner over there) can tell you, I am the last person on earth who would advise submitting a manuscript that has fundamental problems. And realistically, if you absolutely had to, you might be able to get away with sending requested materials as much as 7 or 8 months after the request, if you were polite enough to send a letter explaining the need for delay quite early in the process.

However, it has been my experience that if a writer puts off sending requested materials for more than a couple of months, they may not get sent at all. Let me repeat that statistic from above: somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of requested materials are NEVER sent to their requestors.

That’s a whole lot of lost opportunity, isn’t it? And that’s just sad. SIOA, my friends: it may be scary, but it’s a necessary – and indispensable — step in becoming a professional writer.

But don’t beat yourself up if you recognized yourself in this post; many, many good writers sometimes have a hard time SIOA-ing, and for a hefty percentage, that reluctance to send out requested materials becomes habitual. Next time, I’m going to talk about the major reasons that SOIA-avoidance happens, and what a writer can do to snap out of the pattern.

Keep up the good work!

The chapter of forgotten moods, or, a few thoughts on submission and the passage of time

I read in the paper this morning that only one American veteran of the War to End All Wars — World War I’s armistice is why there’s no mail delivery today, in case any of you stateside had been wondering; it’s also why the banks are closed and all of those mattresses are on big, big sale — was still alive and kicking. He’s 108 years old.

And I’ve been steeped in the life literary for so long that my very first thought was, “Gee, I wonder if anyone’s approached him about dictating a memoir. I could practically write the book proposal off the top of my head!” rather than, “How nice that he’s gotten to see so many Veterans’ Days go by; I wonder if he was annoyed when they changed it from Armistice Day,” or even “Gee, sir, thank you for helping show the world that trench warfare was a really, really stupid idea.”

Fair warning: this could happen to you, too. Just keep on writing those books.

My father was a child during WWI (no, I’m not that old; he was when he had me); he recalled the day when the local doughboys came home. He would tell vivid anecdotes about watching protest marches in the streets, rationing, how his mother’s views on military service varied markedly as her only son approached draft age.

It was from him, and not from my school’s history books, that I learned that here in the States, it had been quite an unpopular war; years later, it was his stories of the home front that I would contrast with H.G. Wells’ brilliant 1916 description of the British home front, MR. BRITLING SEES IT THROUGH. (In case you missed my oh-so-subtle plug for it above, here goes: if you’ve never read it and are even remotely interested in how human beings respond to their countries’ being at war, you might want to have the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver* add it to his list for you this year. I just mention.)

I love this book — and not just because it’s a genuinely thoughtful, well-written work by an author whose non-science fiction writings have since his death fallen into undeserved obscurity. Which is a bit surprising, since Wells’ social novels were so very popular around World War I.

How steep has his plummet from notice as a mainstream novelist been? Well, let me ask you: were you aware that he coined the phrase the war to end all wars?

MR. BRITLING SEES IT THROUGH is also one of the great examples of why write what you know is often such great advice. What writer living in wartime — and when aren’t we all? — would not resonate with a paragraph like this:

The battle of the Marne passed into the battle of the Aisne, and then the long lines of the struggle streamed north-westward until the British were back in Belgium failing to clutch Menin and then defending Ypres. The elation of September followed the bedazzlement and dismay of August into the chapter of forgotten moods; and Mr. Britling’s sense of the magnitude, the weight and duration of this war beyond all wars, increased steadily. The feel of it was less and less a feeling of crisis and more and more a feeling of new conditions. It wasn’t as it had seemed at first, the end of one human phase and the beginning of another; it was in itself a phase. It was a new way of living. And still he could find no real point of contact for himself with it at all except the point of his pen. Only at his writing-desk, and more particularly at night, were the great presences of the conflict his. Yet he was always desiring some more personal and physical participation.

Not that why write what you know is as self-explanatory and all-encompassing a piece of advice as many writing teachers seem to think. As those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a good, long while are already aware, I’m no fan of one-size-fits-all writing advice — beyond the basic rules of grammar and formatting restrictions, of course. What works in one genre will not necessarily work in another, after all, nor are the stylistic tactics that made ‘em swoon in 1917 or 1870 particularly likely to wow an agent or editor now.

Doubt that, all of you Dickens-huggers out there? Okay, I dare you: try submitting the paragraph above to an agent or editor now. Even if it actually made it onto an agent’s desk — if, that is, Millicent the agency screener didn’t reject it out of hand for the repetitive word use, over-employment of the passive voice (pretty much universally regarded as bad writing in submissions now), and misuse of the semicolon (by definition, a semicolon followed by and is redundant, since a semicolon is implicitly an abbreviation for comma + and) — the sheer number of semicolons within this short paragraph would automatically raise both eyebrows and questions about the intended target audience. If the book in question were, say, a mainstream novel rather than literary fiction or an academic book, all of those semicolons would seem, well, a bit much.

But then, in Wells’ day, novelists had the luxury of being able to write about current events in the reasonable expectation that the book would be in readers’ hands before today’s headlines were distant memories. He was able to write about the home front while the war was still going on — and not merely as a journalist.

Now, journalists, politicians, and academics who have studied the field for twenty years are generally the only ones who can reliably pitch a book on what’s happening right now socio-politically with success — and even then, only as nonfiction. Partially, this is a matter of platform (if you write any kind of nonfiction whatsoever and don’t know what that is, run, don’t walk to the PLATFORM category on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page), but it’s also a symptom of how much longer it takes to get a book into print.

Not only after it’s written and found an agent, but thereafter.

How much longer, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, let’s assume that the manuscript is already absolutely clean (the professional term for completely free of typos and other errors; few submissions are completely clean, despite my perpetual nagging in this forum) and the agent is completely happy with it (also rare for a submission; agents often request extensive revisions before sending anything out). The agency will almost certainly have a backlog of manuscripts ready to go, so yours will have to wait its turn.

When its time does roll around, the agent may send out anywhere from one to a dozen copies to different editors, depending upon the agency’s preferred submission policy. If it’s a single submission, the agent will wait until she hears back from the editor before sending out the next; if she’s chosen to make multiple simultaneous submissions, she may send out a copy to another editor when a rejection arrives.

Or she may not; my agency, for instance, does submissions in waves, pausing sometimes six months before sending out the next set of manuscripts to the next set of editors. This is not at all an unusual practice.

Take a nice, deep breath. You’ll feel better.

So it’s fairly common for an agent to be circulating a manuscript, even a very good one, not to sell it for a year, year and a half, two. That’s an awfully long time, if any portion of the book’s market appeal relies upon relevance to current events; it’s not altogether surprising, then, that agents so often tell aspiring writers of up-to-the-minute stuff that the book will be dated too quickly to render marketing it worthwhile.

Why, you ask? Um, are you sitting down?

Comfy? Here goes: even if the manuscript in question was absolutely timely when it was written, and remains absolutely timely a year or two later, when the agent manages to sell it to an editor at a publishing house, to remain relevant, the same world conditions will have to prevail a year or more later, when the book actually becomes available for sale to readers.

This is one reason, in case any of you submitters have been wondering, that writers who go batty if an agent who requested a manuscript doesn’t respond right away strike the pros as potentially difficult to work with: the agented life is largely one of waiting for something to happen. So if a writer walks into it expecting that everyone who comes in contact with his manuscript will instantly drop everything else in order to read it, he’s going to expend HUGE amounts of energy feeling his work is being ignored.

It isn’t; the process just takes a while.

And that — phew! — brings me back to my overarching topic du jour, the passage of time in the submission process. I’ve been meaning to get back to it for a while, since I receive so many private questions about it. (Why private? Beats me. For some reason that defies understanding from my side of the agent-landing process, I very frequently receive e-mailed questions from submitters who are absolutely convinced that no other aspiring writer in North America has ever been in their particular situation — or so I surmise from the fact that so many of them are unwilling to post the questions here, lest an agent recognize the situation.) For the next few weeks, however, I’m going to be tackling that backlog of readers’ questions, so let’s launch right into it.

A periodic reader who, for reasons best known to himself, has requested anonymity, has brought up the perennial issue of turn-around times on submissions. Since I know that many aspiring writers share his concerns, I have changed the identifiable information to preserve the secret identities of both author and agent:

Agent Pablo Picasso (how’s that for an undetectable pseudonym?) requested the full manuscript and I sent it three weeks ago. How long should I wait for him to make contact? Is it all right for me to call? I don’t want to pressure him, but I am desperate to move forward with the project. Oh, the anxiousness. Ah, the sleepless nights. I have never wanted anything more than to be a published author…

I know there are no set timelines for responses and such, but roughly how long should I wait before moving on?

Here’s the short answer, Mystery Reader (another undetectable cover): don’t even think about following up for 6-8 weeks (or at least a week past the agency’s stated turn-around time, and when you do, DON’T CALL; e-mail or write.

In the meantime, Mysterious One, you should most definitely be moving on now: get back to your writing projects. You might even consider sending out a few more queries, just in case. And if any other agent has requested materials, you should already have sent them.

Well, that cleared everything up, didn’t it? Moving right along…

Just kidding. On to the long answer: three weeks is most definitely not a long time to wait for a response from an agent on a submission. I would be extremely surprised if you heard back in under a month. But if ol’ Pablo didn’t give you a timeframe in the request for materials (as many agents do), 6-8 weeks is average.

I can feel heart rates rising all over the English-speaking world. “But Anne,” those of you either on the cusp of sending out manuscripts or waiting breathlessly to hear back from agents protest, “Mystery Reader said that Pablo Picasso asked for the full manuscript — that must mean he was really, really interested, right? Surely not hearing back indicates that he’s lost interest, right?”

Actually, not necessarily, and not even probably. What not hearing back generally means is either (a) nobody at the agency has read it yet, (b) it hasn’t made it past Millicent, or (c) it did make it past Millicent, but the agent hasn’t had time to get to it.

Don’t pull that long face; it’s nothing personal. Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along with me: because a request for pages does not equal a promise to drop everything the second those materials turn up at the agency.

Like so many other aspects of the biz, an agent requesting materials will expect a serious aspiring writer to be familiar enough with the biz to be aware of that. Consequently, badgering an agent interested in your work will definitely NOT get him or her to read faster — in fact, it sometimes produces the opposite effect — it is not a good course to pursue. Most agents will regard follow-up calls or too-soon e-mails as a sign that the prospective client does not understand how the business works.

Which is not an impression you want to give an agent you would like to sign you. Why? Well, it tends to translate, in their minds, into a client who is going to require more attention at every step of the process. While such clients are often rewarding on many levels, they are undoubtedly more expensive for the agency to handle, at least at first.

Think about it: Pablo Picasso, like every other reputable agent in the country, makes his living by selling books to publishing houses. This means a whole lot of phone calls, meetings, and general blandishment, all of which takes a lot of time, in order to make sales.

So which is the more lucrative way to spend his time, hard-selling a current client’s terrific novel to a wavering editor or taking anxious phone calls from a writer he has not yet signed?

Uh-huh. Trust me, Pablo Picasso (too obvious a pseudonym?) already knows that you want to be published more than anything else in the world; unfortunately, telling him so will not impress him more.

How does he know Mystery Writer’s innermost feelings? Because he deals with writers all the time — and this is such a tough business to break into that the vast majority of those who make it to the full-manuscript request are writers who want to be published more than anything else in the world.

Mystery Reader, you will be a much, much happier human being if you bear this in mind. I can assure you that an agent who receives 800 or 1000 queries per week from glorious dreamers does not have the luxury of forgetting it.

You’re certainly not alone in thinking of your query or submission as if it emits a come-hither glow in the agency’s mail room, however. The average aspiring writer, bless his or her heart, tends to forget that the dream of publication is a fairly common one — thus that huge volume of queries through which Millicent sifts five days per week, each of which is presumably from someone who yearns for publication.

Let’s face it, querying and submission are FAR too hard on the heart (not to mention the wrists) to keep doing if you don’t want success that much, right?

The very intensity of the longing can sometimes blur an aspiring writer’s view of the agent-finding process — or indeed, the period when one’s agent is shopping one’s book around to editors. Even the most successful author’s career is stuffed to the gills with periods when s/he can do nothing but wait.

And as anyone who has ever been a teenager with a crush can tell you, every minute devoted to waiting for the phone to ring, for That Special Someone to declare his intentions, is eighteen times longer than a normal minute. Nothing extends a second like not having someone else determine what’s going to happen to you at the end of it.

This is precisely Mystery Reader’s dilemma, I’m afraid. All you can do is wait — at least for 6 weeks or so, or (to trot out my favorite rule of thumb) for twice the turn-around time the agency has listed in an agency guide blurb or on its website.

Which is yet another reason that a prudent submitter should always double-check the agency’s own guidelines before submitting materials. Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: there is no hard-and-fast rule that may be applied to every agent at every agency, every time.

This information is usually easily available either on the agency’s website or its listing in one of the standard agency guides. And if either of those sources say anything along the lines of Please do not contact us to make sure we received your materials or We do not respond to submissions that do not interest us, do not even consider waiting around until you hear back from them.

Because you may not.

Before anyone starts pouting about it: yes, it would be much, much simpler for aspiring writers everywhere if each and every agency on the face of the earth agreed to adhere to a single standard for turn-around times, but the fact is, there is no incentive for them to do so. Quite the opposite, in fact: a TREMENDOUS amount of paper passes through the average agency’s portals, and yours is almost certainly not the only full manuscript requested by Señor Picasso within the last couple of months. Yours goes into the reading pile after the others that are already there — and if that feels a little unfair now, think about it again in a month, when a dozen more have come in after yours.

And how long it will take our pal Pablo to make his way through that queue can vary not only from agency to agency, but month to month, or even week to week. One day’s workload for an agent may be quite different from another, and it’s not as though a really successful agent will have inviolable reading times built into his work schedule.

In fact, many agents read submissions not at work, but in their off hours. In all probability, yours will not be the only MS sitting next to his couch. Also, in a big agency like Picasso’s (he happens to be an agent I know), it’s entirely possible that before it gets to the couch stage, it will need to be read by one or even two preliminary readers.

Again, all that takes time.

In the meantime, though, you are under no obligation not to query or follow up with any other agent. (See earlier comment about the advisability of sending out a few queries now.) That, too, is SO easy for an excited writer to forget: until you sign an agency contract, you are free to date other people, literarily speaking. And you should.

Really. No matter how many magical sparks there were between the two of you at your pitch meeting, even if Picasso’s venerable eyes were sparkling with book lust, it honestly is in your best interest to keep querying other agents until he antes up a concrete offer. Until that ring is on your finger, keep playing the field.

And where does that leave Mystery Reader in the meantime? Waiting by the phone or mooning by the mailbox, of course. It’s hard to act cool when you want so much to make a connection. Yes, he SAID he would call after he’s read my manuscript, but will he? If it’s been a week, should I call him at the agency, or assume that he’s lost interest in my book? Has he met another book he likes better? Will I look like a publication-hungry slut if I send an e-mail after three weeks of terrifying silence?

Auntie Anne is here to tell you: honey, don’t just sit by the phone; you are not completely helpless here. Get out there and date other agents, so that when that slow-reading Picasso DOES call, you’ll have to check your dance card.

Of course, if another agent asks to see the manuscript, it is perfectly acceptable, even laudable, to drop Mr. Picasso an e-mail or letter, letting him know that there are now other agents checking out your work. For the average agent, this news is only going to make your work seem all the more attractive.

See? I told you it was just like dating in high school.

Even after 6-8 weeks has elapsed, e-mail, instead of calling. The last thing you want is to give the impression that you would be a client who would be calling three times per week. Calling is considered a bit pushy, and it almost certainly won’t get your work read any faster — unlike, say, an e-mail that mentions politely that there is now another agent reading it.

And yes, Agent #1 WILL want you to tell him that immediately. Over and above that, though, all you can do is (sing it out now) WAIT.

Another great reason to keep querying and submitting while Agent #1 is taking his own sweet time getting back to you is the increasingly common phenomenon I mentioned above, agents not responding to queries or even submissions at all. Within the last few years, literally dozens of very talented writers of my acquaintance have had manuscripts out to agents for four, five, or even six months without any response. Requested materials.

This places the writer in a quandary, of course, because from the other side of the country (or the world), how on earth is it possible to tell the difference between a delay caused by a submission’s sitting on an agent’s coffee table, holding up take-out cartons until she has time to read it, one that springs from an unannounced rejection, and one triggered by the manuscript’s having gotten lost in the mail?

For this reason, I used to advise my clients and students to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard with every submission, along with a request in the cover letter (you HAVE been including cover letters with your submissions, haven’t you?) that Millicent would write the date it arrived upon it and pop it in the mail upon opening the packet of requested materials. I historically, this works far, far better than asking for e-mail confirmation, since complying requires far less effort on the part of agency personnel.

Hey, they’re busy. Have you seen that stack of manuscripts Pablo has to read through?

The USPS now offers a much less obtrusive option for making sure your manuscript arrived where it should, and when: Track & Confirm. For a negligible fee, you can receive an e-mail confirming delivery of your package, without anyone at the agency’s having to lift a finger to inform you of it.

Unfortunately, there’s no similar service for e-mailed submissions — and since many agencies that accept e-mailed queries and submissions specifically request in their guidelines that writers not follow up to ask if materials were received. Yet another reason that given the choice, I would always opt for a hard copy submission over an electronic one.

What you SHOULDN’T do whilst waiting for a reply is waste your energy constructing a vivid justification for why the agent of your dreams has not yet gotten back to you — an exercise in creative fantasy in which I’ve seen aspiring writers starting mere hours after dropping the submission into the mail.

Trust me, it won’t help your chances; it will only enervate you.

Let me preemptively take the wind out of the sails of the most common of these middle-of-the-night musings: if you haven’t heard back, it’s not because the agent thinking about it or wants to talk with every other employee in the agency before talking it on; it’s because he hasn’t read it yet.

See why most agents get a bit defensive if a writer calls, demanding to know why it’s taking so long? Much like, if memory serves, teenage boys.

Oh, how I wish we had all outgrown that awkward stage.

Try to think of a slow response in positive terms. At many agencies, a submission has to make it past more than one level of Millicent before making it onto the agent’s desk at all — and yes, Mystery Reader, that’s usually still true even if one has met the agent at a conference. If Millie #1, Millie #2, or the agent had taken a dislike to your manuscript, it would have been stuffed into the SASE right away. (See why it’s fairly safe to assume that if you haven’t yet heard back, it hasn’t been read?) Rejections tend to be quicker than acceptances.

I know that this isn’t exactly the answer you wanted, Mystery Reader, but please, try to chill out for the next month or so. Get working on your next book, because if this goes through, you will want to have it well in motion. Keep approaching other agents, because it can only be good for you if several are clamoring to represent you.

And be very, very proud of yourself for getting to the point in your writing that an agent as prestigious as Pablo Picasso WANTS to read the whole manuscript. He doesn’t ask just anybody on a date, you know.

Believe it or not, if you’re successful in submission, the anxiety of waiting will become almost routine, just one of the many swiftly-alternating moods of the working writer’s career. Try to be patient, and keep up the good work!

* For the benefit of those of you who weren’t reading this blog regularly throughout holiday seasons past, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (FNDGG) is a jolly elf who regularly graces this page in the winter months, ho, ho, hoing his way toward the end of the year. Better not pout, better not cry — and better get used to hearing about him, because he’s bound to keep cropping up in the months to come.

Adding fuel to the fire

Pilgrims Burning Books

I’m only just crawling out from under my great big deadline, campers (ah, the romance of a working writer’s life!), so I should probably get some serious sleep before I start professing to give advice again. At least on anything important like querying, submission, craft…

Or pretty much anything else we habitually talk about here at Author! Author!, come to think of it.

I’ll be getting back to all of that tomorrow, of course, but right now, I could not think of a better way to spend the few non-horizontal minutes I have before restocking my depleted backlog of Zs than in noting today’s rather important literary anniversary: on this date in 1973, history tells us, the Drake, North Carolina school board so violently objected to a high school English teacher’s having assigned Kurt Vonnegut’s classic science fiction critique of World War II, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE that it not only forbade him to teach it — the school board fired the teacher.

Not the first time that ever happened, of course, nor, sadly, the last. What made this school board response special was that they rounded up all of the students’ copies of the book and burned them.

SlaughterhousefiveIt would be easy to dismiss the incident as the kind of thing that doesn’t happen anymore, but SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE has been one of the most consistently banned books in the world ever since. Reading it was forbidden in Levittown, New York in 1975, North Jackson, Ohio in 1979, and Lakeland, Florida in 1982. The Washington Park High School of Racine, Wisconsin was barred from buying it in 1984; by 1986, only students who had written parental permission could take it out of four Racine high school libraries.

slaughterhousefive3In 1987, its residence on the shelves of LaRue County High School in Kentucky was challenged, and it was banned outright in all the schools in Fitzgerald, Georgia. The following year, the school board in Baton Rouge, Louisiana was urged to remove the book from all public libraries on the grounds that it was vulgar and offensive; the year after that, parents tried to have it removed from a high school course on the modern novel because of offensive language and the portrayal of women in the book. (A book which, incidentally, contains only two substantial female characters — not that any of Vonnegut’s female characters are ever especially substantial — an ex-adult movie star kidnapped by aliens and the protagonist’s unattractive wife.)

slaughterhousefive4Seem like ancient history? Okay, try these on for size: in 1996, parents at the Round Rock Independent High School in Texas unsuccessfully tried to get the book removed on the grounds that it was too violent. In 1998, its presence as an summer reading option for incoming eleventh graders in Prince William County, Virginia raised quite a furor. In 2001, the book was removed from a tenth grade required reading list in Coventry, Rhode Island because a parent complained that it contained vulgar language, violent injury, and sexual content.

slaughterhousefive2Still too long ago to make you a tad nervous? In 2007, a newly-elected school board member challenged SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE and eight other books on the Arlington Heights, Illinois Northwest Suburban High School District 214′s reading list. Her objection arose, she said, not from having read any of the books herself, but from excerpts she’d read on the web. In the same year — that’s a scant two years ago, people — it was also under threat of ban in a high school in Howell, Michigan. That conflict escalated to the point that the following year, the county prosecutor actually had to rule on whether distributing the book was a criminal act.

It was not, as it turned out — comforting for writers everywhere, because that ruling was last year.

slaughterhousefive5Why all the hoopla over whether high schoolers have free access to a book that, frankly, is far less sexually explicit than quite a bit of the YA currently on the market?

It’s a great question, because despite the novel’s strong criticism of US military policy in World War II and the fact that it would be rather difficult to write meaningfully about a war without at least mentioning an act or two of violence, the stated objections to the book are almost invariably about sexual content and language. Which, as I said, are not particularly shocking by the standards of any of our lifetimes; the totality of justifications those who decided to ban the book from the Owensboro, Ky. High School library in 1985 could scare up were “foul language, a section depicting a picture of an act of bestiality, a reference to ‘Magic Fingers’ attached to the protagonist’s bed to help him sleep, and the sentence: ‘The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty.”‘

Not precisely NC-17, is it?

As long-term readers of this blog know, I’m no fan of censorship — nor, I think, should any writer hoping to make a living at it be. Barring a handful of books may not seem like a big deal to non-writers, but to us, it’s the thin edge of the wedge: if the late, great Kurt Vonnegut’s writing is subject to death by flame, so is every other writers’. Especially those who write anything edgy, or about unusual topics, or indeed, in non-traditional ways about society — which, in case anyone hadn’t noticed, is occasionally vulgar, violent, and yes, even sexual.

As both writers and readers, it’s tempting to fall into the comforting assumption that good writing will always find an audience, and stories worth telling will always get told. Neither is always the case.

How do I know? The single most commonly objected-to word in SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, the one that crops up in virtually every formal objection to the book, is one that I cannot use here on the blog, because if I did, the screening software employed in many high schools and public libraries would block this page. For school-age writers to be able to continue to tune in, I have to keep what I write here PG-rated.

I’m not saying that the word isn’t offensive — it is. (It refers to something Oedipus did with a close female relative.) I’m just saying that censorship does not have to be as overt as tossing a book into a fire to affect what ends up in front of readers’ eyes.

Write something interesting today, please, in honor of Kurt Vonnegut and that bonfire of books. Write something that nobody has ever thought of writing before. Write as if there were no such thing as fear of a book ban.

Which is to say: as always, keep up the good work!