First Pages That Grab: Janine Southard’s Which Star My Destination

Janine Southard author photo

Have you been enjoying these last few winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, campers? I have — they’ve been providing us with a great deal of material for discussion, especially about the joys and challenges of writing YA. I’m toying with running a similar contest in January specifically for literary fiction and memoir, so we could have a nice, jolly time delving into the peculiarities of those highly specialized book categories.

Hands up, readers who would be interested in that.

While you’re giving that some thought, let’s turn to another winner in the YA category, Janine Southard’s WHICH STAR MY DESTINATION. I’ve got to say, by the time I finished reading Janine’s book description, I had already thought of four YA readers for whom I would buy this book for Christmas were it already out. It’s a real grabber of a premise. Take a gander:

When high school is over, Zheng still doesn’t know what to do with his life. Worse, his friends are all moving on, following their dreams, and getting off the planet Hartwell. As one last adventure together, Zheng packs up his interstellar automobile — which he modified in his parents’ garage — for a road trip, taking his university-bound friend to college.

When he and his best friends reach Luna City, Zheng stumbles across what looks like a scholarship scam, but his investigative mind uncovers the truth…revealing an alien organization quietly preparing the human race for galactic culture. Now Zheng knows what he wants to do: he intends to culturally prepare the aliens for humanity.

Yet from the first page of text, it is not entirely clear whether this is a YA book. Why not? See for yourself — and, as always, if you are having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing the + key to enlarge the image.

Southard page 1

Actually, let’s pause a moment before we consider the content in order to examine this page cosmetically. While this page is very close, it isn’t entirely in standard format for manuscripts: there’s a double-spaced line of empty space missing between the chapter heading and the first line of text, and while the dashes are properly doubled, there should be spaces between each end and the words immediately preceding and following them.

Let’s look it again without those distractions, shall we?

Southard revision1

And already, hands have sprouted up all across the galaxy. “But Anne,” the sharper-eyed residents of the universe point out, “you added more space at the top. How on earth did you manage to cram all of the sentences in the original onto the revised page?”

Oh, that was easy, galactic nitpickers: I merely eliminated one of the two single-sentence paragraphs. As we have discussed before, in English prose — at least of the non-journalistic variety — it takes at least two sentences to make up a narrative paragraph. So while single-sentence paragraphs are fine in dialogue, Millicent tends to frown at them anywhere else, at least in fiction submissions. (Due to the phenomenon’s ever-increasing prevalence in journalism, she’s less likely to react negatively to them in nonfiction submissions.) The higher the education level of the intended audience, the more negative her reaction will be.

So if you like how a single-sentence narrative paragraphs look on the page, and you happen to be writing mainstream, literary, or high-end women’s fiction, you might want to reserve the convention for only those moments when what is revealed in that single sentence is genuinely startling enough to be able to carry its own paragraph. That way, the very rarity of its occurrence will add to its impact.

Behind you — aliens!

See? Standing all by itself, that statement is much more startling than if it were merely tacked onto the end of the preceding paragraph — or, sacre bleu! buried in the middle of it. A skimming eye (like, say, a weary Millicent’s when screening her 57th page 1 of the day) may well skip lines mid-paragraph, so if an action is important, a piece of characterization essential, or a sentence particularly lovely, you might want to make sure it appears in either the first or the last line of the paragraph.

Or, if the information is once-in-a-manuscript important, in its own one-line paragraph. There’s a reason that journalists tend to present the most important planks of their arguments in single-sentence paragraphs: the eye jumps right to ‘em.

Speaking of things to which the reader’s eye jumps, did you find all of the capitalization distracting? Most Millicents would have. Obviously, some of it is unavoidable — place and people names do need to sport capital first letters, after all — but some is by choice. Compounding the problem: many of these choices appear quite close to each other in the text.

Not sure why that might be distracting for our Millie? Okay, let’s look at the page again, a capitalization-sensitive reader might see it. While I’m at it, I’m going to highlight the word and phrase repetition as well. See if anything in particular jumps out at you:

Janine repetition sheet

There’s a fair amount of word and phrase repetition here — more acceptable in YA than in adult fiction, of course, but still a pet peeve for many Millicents — but I’d like you to focus on the underlined bits in particular. Do you notice anything about them?

If you squinted at those little lines and immediately cried, “Wow, that’s quite a few instances of the verb to be,” you get a gold star for the day. That particular verb appears in various forms no fewer than 14 times on this page. 4 of those times are in the first paragraph — and in a type of sentence structure that is an even more common submission red flag. Any guesses?

If you pointed to the first few sentences of the story and said, “Hey, those are in the passive voice,” pat yourself on the back sixty-seven times. All of those it was constructions are indeed in the passive voice: instead of actors doing things, the sentences presents things as occurring all by themselves.

Again, this is rather more accepted in YA than in adult fiction, and the younger the target reader, the more acceptable the passive voice is deemed to be. (And yes, both of those last two sentences were in the passive voice. Take another gold star out of petty cash.) Unfortunately for lovers of to be and it was, most Millicents — indeed, most professional fiction readers — are explicitly taught that the passive voice is the least creative way of saying, well, almost anything. So opening a book with several instances of it in a row might well raise some professional eyebrows.

It is worth noting, however, that the only judges who were not bothered by this were the YA authors. But then, they didn’t mind the single-sentence paragraphs, either.

Again: norms vary by book category. If you want to find out what is and is not considered good writing in yours at the moment, there’s just no substitute for going to a well-stocked bookstore on a regular basis, seeking out the shelves devoted to the type of book you write, and plopping yourself down to read the opening pages of some recent releases.

Even better, you could buy new releases in your chosen category. Or ask Santa to do it for you, because what’s a better gift than professional development in the career you want most in your heart of hearts to pursue?

Did you spot any other potential distractions from the story here? Let’s take a gander at what Millicent might have scrawled in the margins.

Janine's edit1

Ah, at last we are starting to talk about plot and characterization. The story definitely drops the reader into an exciting conflict right away — good move, Janine! — but by YA standards, the description of the environment is rather scanty. YA is known for its vivid, sensual descriptions, but other than that very vivid purple imagery in the first paragraph — again, nice choice, Janine — the reader doesn’t gain a very strong sense of what it feels like to be on Luna.

Including just a few more physical details would make all the difference here — and for YA, a great way to do that is through the protagonist’s bodily sensations. Is the gravity heavier on Luna than on Hartwell, for instance, or lighter? Is Does the sunshade affect how plants grow? Are there any plants — and if so, could Zheng be allergic to one of them, because he’s not used to it?

Another prime target for descriptive expansion is the crowd. Are the people in the room all humanoid? Are any of them humanoid? Who is the group, and how can Zheng tell that they are the ones in authority — over and above the death threats, that is? Are the con artists restrained in any way? Is he? Are they close enough together to create a distinctive smell, or to increase the heat in the room?

And so forth. The possibilities here are practically endless; just remember that unless the narrative gives the reader hints of what the environment and characters looks, sound, smell, taste, etc., the author cannot be certain that every reader will envision the same thing. For some details, it’s fine to let the reader’s imagination run free; for others, it can throw off understanding of the plot.

Not sure what the latter might look like in practice? Well, if Zheng’s captors had three arms, when would you want to learn about it, when they first appear in the book, or just after one of them grabs our hero and two other captives as they try to escape?

I want to talk about two more pieces of marginalia, then I shall move to the punch line. In the next-to-last paragraph, the narrative between the dialogue indulges in a few devices quite common for a submission, but rare in published books. Here’s the relevant piece of dialogue, ripped out of context for your tag line-considering pleasure:

“You know far more than you should, and we must keep you from speaking,” the group’s Speaker proclaimed stiltedly to fidgeting from other swindlers around the room. “We should simply kill you, but we’re peaceful people. I’m not going to start killing now.” She paused, then qualified, “Unless you give me no choice.”

Did you spot all three? No? Okay, let’s take them in the order they appear. First, the adverb in the initial tag line, stiltedly, is a trifle awkward — and all the more likely to be noticed as such, because there was an entire generation of English students taught to avoid using adverbs in tag lines at all. Some of you must remember that old writing truism, right? The dialogue itself should demonstrate to the reader just how things were said; lose the -ly words, already.

This writing advice is far less common now, and its adherents certainly less vitriolic, than way back in the day, but it was so influential that millions of Baby Boomers ran terrified out of their English classes, absolutely convinced that they should never use adverbs, ever.

Why should a writer of today worry about that misconception? Millicent may be the child of one of those students. Or the grandchild. Or — brace yourself — the employee.

Just use adverbs with discrimination, okay?

Let’s move on to the second issue: what’s going on just after that adverb isn’t completely clear, is it? The causative to construction is fairly common in submissions, used to indicate that what happens after the to was in response to what came before it.

Unfortunately, a skimming eye often misses the implication. In a manuscript, then, it’s usually safer to spell out causation. Heck, we can even toss in one of those much-maligned adjectives:

“You know far more than you should, and we must keep you from speaking,” the group’s Speaker proclaimed. The swindlers around the room fidgeted uncomfortably.

The third issue is a subtle one, but a surprisingly pervasive professional readers’ pet peeve. “Why, in heaven’s name,” Millicent mutters under her breath, “do aspiring writers insist upon telling me every time a speaker hesitates for so much as an instant? In and of itself, it’s seldom either character- or situation-revealing.”

It’s pretty clear why Janine chose to insert a pause here — to increase the menace of the threat — but you must admit, Millie has a point. The mere fact of pausing doesn’t add all that much to the speech. If the speaker did something more specifically threatening, the menace in could be heightened considerably. Perhaps even by employing an adverb!

“We should simply kill you, but we’re peaceful people. I’m not going to start killing now.” Her ice-gray eyes swept the room contemptuously. “Unless you give me no choice.”

Now that your eyes are sharpened to the particulars, I’m going to ask you to step back, consider the overall picture again — and revisit that burning issue from the beginning of the post. Re-read that first page: does this voice and worldview strike you as inherently and necessarily YA?

If you’re unsure, ask yourself this question: based upon this page alone, just how old do you think the protagonist is?

To the judges’ collective eye, there was no indication here that Zheng was not a full-fledged adult — not the usual choice for the protagonist of a YA book. (Adults drop students off at college all the time, right?) Admittedly, there’s also nothing here that indicates he couldn’t be a teenager, but that might not be enough to stop an impatient Millicent looking to screen out the overwhelming majority of the submissions on her desk that day from huffing, “Oh, this isn’t YA. Next!”

Since we liked the voice, the premise, and the leap right into conflict — well done, Janine! — we wanted to flag this problem. It’s one that dogs many a YA submission, particularly now that so many writers of adult fiction have been tempted by the category’s popularity into switching teams, as it were. Out comes the broken record player again:

broken-record8YA has its own distinctive conventions, particularly with respect to voice and subject matter. If it is not apparent from the first paragraph of page 1 that a manuscript is YA, even the best-written YA manuscript runs the risk of rejection on that ground alone.

Not sure in this case? Take another peek at that first page, then ask yourself: is the central conflict of this scene one to which a teenager could relate?

The judges felt — and I concur heartily — that being lectured by an authority figure because one has found out a truth one shouldn’t have might strike teen readers as somewhat familiar. Particularly the part about not speaking up about it. The black-and-white nature of the authority figures’ logic (I’m not going to start killing now… Unless you give me no choice.) would also be more likely to appeal to teenage sensibilities than those of adult readers; in adult fiction, superlatives and extremes tend not to play as well.

A different definitional ambiguity troubled the judges in the book category description. In answer to the question how will this manuscript add something new and exciting to its book category? Janine provided the judges with a rather interesting response:

Which Star My Destination takes the themes of exploration and road trips to grand scale by involving the entire universe. It also reminds us that, different personalities aside, teenagers are faced with the same situations and feelings, even in the far-flung future. Plus, spaceships!

Plus, spaceships! saved this description at judging time, frankly; blanket assertions often raise more questions than they answer in book descriptions. While the notion of a universe-wide road trip was amusing (if rather reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the fantasy writer on the panel was nonplused by the assertion that an exploration story was unusual simply because its extent was intergalactic — that has been a staple of science fiction since its inception, has it not? Other, more historically-minded judges wondered how we could be certain that teenagers in the far future would face the same situations as those today, as it would be difficult to argue that the teenagers of two hundred years ago did, or even the teens of thirty years ago, when feelings-based YA really hit its stride as a book category.

Unsure if that’s true? Try reading Paul Zindel’s classic, Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on My Eyeball; the protagonist’s frequent emotional and even physical abuse of his love interest barely raised eyebrows in 1978, but it would have to be handled as the central problem of the story today. Or E.L. Konigburg’s 1967 Newberry Award-winning From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, where two children run away from an apparently perfect home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; if it were written now, there would be some serious problems in that household, and at least one responsible adult would experience some qualms about sending those kids back.

Fortunately, the first page was enough of a grabber to cause even the skeptical judges to want to read more — and the book description’s nod to Jerome Beatty, Jr.’s much-loved Matthew Looney series brought a smile to many a child of the 1970s’ face. All agreed that the combination was a potentially powerful one.

There’s a moral to all of this library-oriented reminiscence, should you care to know it. Any given manuscript will not be the first book in an agent’s chosen book category that she or her staff will have read; if they like those kinds of books enough to devote their lives to representing them, it’s a good bet that everyone concerned has read a wide array of them.

Why is that important for a submitter to know? Because in order to wow Millicent the agency screener, a manuscript is not merely competing with the other submissions of recent months; it’s also competing with all the similar books she has ever read. It had better compare favorably.

While competing with the classics in one’s genre is a tall order, the writers of today enjoy a considerable advantage: you are aware of today’s cultural expectations (“Wait — the female protagonist is supposed to DO something, not just wait around to be rescued? “YA writers of the 60s and 70s marvel), demographic trends (“Hey, when did living with one’s still-married birth parents stop being the norm?”), and, yes, recent bestsellers. (“Tell me why precisely we’re supposed to find vampirism sexy?”)

Current YA writers also reap the benefits of writing during an exciting burgeoning of the category. Boundaries are being pushed; experiments are being wrought, and a diverse array of individual voices of unprecedented complexity is being welcomed. (And yes, all of that was in the passive voice; good eye.)

Janine is poised to take advantage of this expansion with a story that seems interesting, exciting — and a whole lot of fun. Just what a road trip should be.

Keep pressing those boundaries, everyone — and, as always, keep up the good work!

First Pages that Grab: Carolin Walz’ Gothic Wars, or, reading on a jet plane

Carolin Walz author photo

Yes, yes, I know: I have not been in the habit of giving subtitles to the prize posts in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, but frankly, I felt that my feedback on today’s winning entry, GOTHIC WARS by Carolin Walz, warranted it. Turbulence fought penmanship, and I fear that for the most part, turbulence won. Since this has historically been the fate of many a manuscript whose marginalia was penned on the way to or from a writers’ conference — oh, you can think of a better use of flying time than reading submissions? — I felt that it was only fair to present all of you with the results, so you may recognize travel-skewed comments when the agent of your dreams presents them to you.

With the advent of electronic submissions — still not universally accepted, but climbing steadily in popularity — you’d be astonished at how many agents reading submissions on airplanes around this time of year. Specifically, on their electronic readers.

Surprised? Or even alarmed at the prospect of your meticulously-formatted pages being read on that small a screen? Well, think about it in practical terms: if you were an agent traveling over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, which would be more efficient to tote as reading material, a couple of heavy manuscripts — or 30 electronic submissions on your Kindle?

Of course, this is only likely to be the case at agencies that accept electronic submissions. And even then, typically, those Grandmother’s house-bound submissions (or, at this point in the weekend, those returning from Grandmother’s) will have had to make it past Millicent the agency screener’s strict scrutiny before making it onto the boss’ Kindle.

Which just goes to show you: electronic submissions can be pretty well traveled. Yet all too often, aspiring writers assume, wrongly, that the simple fact that they’ve sent their manuscripts as Word attachments to an e-mail automatically means that everyone who might conceivably read their submission will have access to their contact information.

“After all,” these submitters reason, “all Millicent or her boss has to do to say yes to me is to hit the REPLY key. What could be easier than that?”

What, indeed? Unless, of course, your electronic submission has been downloaded to an electronic reader. Then, it actually isn’t inconceivable that an agent could fall in love with a manuscript — and yet have no idea how to get in touch with the person who wrote it. Or even be sure who did write it.

Scary prospect, is it not? Breathing into a paper bag should reverse that hyperventilation within a couple of minutes.

“But Anne,” some of you wheeze, “couldn’t the agent just ask his Millicent to comb through the agency’s e-mail inbox? Surely, my original e-mail would be in there, right?”

Possibly, but do you have any idea how many e-mails an agency that accepts electronic submissions receives in any given week? Or even on any given day? Forget about finding a needle in a haystack — Millicent would be looking for a needle in a hay field.

Fortunately, this dire extremity is easy to avoid with a little advance preparation on the submitter’s end. First, it’s always a good idea to include one’s full contact information with any submission, electronic or otherwise; don’t you want the agent of your dreams to be able to call you with any follow-up questions she might have? Second, it’s an even better idea to include precisely the same title page a savvy submitter sends along with a paper submission in an electronic submission.

How is that possible? It’s not particularly difficult in a Word file: just copy and paste your title page at the top of your manuscript document as its first page. To avoid the title ending up with the slug line that every other page in the manuscript should feature in its top margin, select DOCUMENT from the FORMAT menu in Word, then choose LAYOUT. Click “Different first page.” Then you can just clear the header for the title page, while leaving the rest of the document as is.

Ah, I hear some of you murmuring, but doesn’t that mean that the first page of Chapter 1 would be numbered as page 2 in the slug line? (For those of you who are not in fact murmuring that, but instead are wondering what the heck a slug line is, it’s the AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/PAGE # that appears in the upper-left corner of a professionally-formatted manuscript. For some visual examples and explanation of how to include this important information correctly on your pages, take a gander at the SLUG LINES ILLUSTRATED category on the archive list at right.)

There’s a way around that, too: under the INSERT menu, choose PAGE NUMBERS…, then FORMAT. Under PAGE NUMBERING, simply set the “Start at…” number to 0. Voilà! The second page of the document is now page 1!

“Aha!” those of you still breathing crossly into your paper bags gasp. “I’ve got you now, Anne. Why wouldn’t the agent of my dreams simply look at the top of any page of my manuscript to see what my name was? If Millicent misplaced my original e-mail, she could just do a search of her inbox under my last name. Problem solved!”

Quite true, oh gaspers — provided that you included a slug line. You would be positively amazed at how many electronic submitters (or, heck, paper submitters) do not.

How much difference could the omission possibly make to a submission that did not go astray, you ask? Well, since the fine folks who read manuscripts for a living expect every page of every manuscript to include a slug line, quite a bit.

See for yourself. Here is today’s winning entry in the format that the judges first encountered it:

Carolin Walz page 1

A bit bare on the top end, isn’t it? Here it is again, properly formatted:

Carolin revised

Makes more of a difference than you would have expected, doesn’t it? As does another small formatting change: two spaces after the colon in the Part I designation, rather than the original one. Again, it’s a seemingly small thing, but to eyes sharpened to the norms of professional manuscripts, it would jump out.

Some of you former wheezers have your hands in the air now, I see. “But Anne, didn’t you do something else to the formatting? There are more words in the second version, are there not? The last sentence on each page is different.”

Well spotted, ex-hyperventilators. The difference between the first page and the second is that the first is in TextEdit, the second Word.

About 10% of the entries in this contest arrived in TextEdit, although the rules had specified sending the first page as a Word attachment to an e-mail. The judges decided not to disqualify entrants for this, primarily because it would afford me such an excellent opportunity to talk about why this would not be a good way to submit electronically to an agency or publishing house.

Word is, quite simply, the U.S. industry standard — when an agency asks submitters to send pages as attachments to e-mails, they mean a Word attachment. Specifically, a .doc document, not a .docx document, since many agencies are running older versions of Word. (If they are running a really old version of Word, you may have to send your pages as a .rtf document, so they will be able to open it.)

You should honor this expectation; send any requested materials in Word, not TextEdit or any other word processing program you happen to favor. The fact that it is possible for a Word user to do as I did, convert a TextEdit document into Word, does not mean that Millicent will necessarily be willing to do it; after all, her boss would not be able to submit your book electronically to an editor at a publishing house that way. A U.S.-based agent would certainly expect any writer it signed to convert all manuscript documents to Word, anyway, so in the long run, it will actually save time to just write your documents in Word in the first place. (If you are unsure how to format a manuscript page in Word, please see the obscurely-titled HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right. Or just stick around here at Author! Author! for December, when I shall be going over the rigors of standard format again. So dig out your long-harbored formatting questions, people!)

Besides, as we saw above, the formatting is not always identical. In a submission where length is an issue — if, say, the manuscript goes over 400 pages, Millicent’s usual oh, dear, that’s a bit on the long side limit in most fiction categories — even those few extra words per page may make an overall difference. Sometimes, standard format is the writer’s best friend.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let me ask you: how much time have we spent so far talking about technical and presentation issues in Carolin’s fine first page, and how much about either the writing or the content? THAT’s how distracting these issues are to professional readers.

It’s genuinely a pity here, because Carolin has a terrific book concept. Here’s the way she described it to the judges:

The historical novel Gothic Wars tells the story of Emperor Justinian’s reconquest of Gothic Italy in the sixth century CE from the point of view of the last Goth king, Teja. It provides a fresh look at a war that is usually seen through the victors’ eyes (like Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius).

Interesting, eh? Here’s her 1-page book description.

Gothic Wars description

Again, fascinating — but once again, we’re distracted by formatting, aren’t we? The slug line contains a first name, sixteen-year-old is not hyphenated (a mistake that I have been seeing more and more over the last couple of years; is this rule not being taught anymore?), and there is odd, additional spacing between the lines. Here’s that page again, with just simple double-spacing:

Walz description revised

Once again, we see what a big difference seemingly small formatting issues can make. Actually, tinkered-with spacing between paragraphs is fairly common in submissions. It puzzles the pros: since just selecting double-spacing under the FORMAT menu (it’s one of the choices under PARAGRAPH) is actually far easier for the writer than manually changing the spacing between the lines, why does anyone go to the extra trouble? It’s not necessary; Word will do it for you.

And once again, we’ve been distracted from the engaging story and the writing by technical issues. Let’s see what Millicent would have to say about something other than presentation, shall we?

Carolin's edit1

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about that turbulence. (Don’t worry; the copy I shall send Carolin will be legible.) But as you may see, Millicent’s first instinct was to point out the formatting issues. She also raises an interesting point that affects the marketability of many realistic novels.

Carolin has done a beautiful job here of giving the gritty feel of Teja and Gertruda’s quotidian life, hasn’t she? And she does it primarily through showing, not telling: the level of practical detail here is excellent. It’s also quite clear — and this is rarer in historical fiction submissions than any of us might like to hear — that she’s done her homework: as a reader, I believe that these specifics are historically accurate.

That’s all going to be great for readers after GOTHIC WARS is published, of course, but it could present a problem at the submission stage. Teja comes across here as an ordinary person, not an extraordinary one. From the synopsis, of course, we know that’s not the case in his life overall. However, as we have seen throughout our discussions of all of our Great First Page Made Even Better winning entries, Millicent tends to make up her mind about whether she wants to follow a protagonist onto page 2 based exclusively on page 1, not the synopsis or brief description in the query letter, a too-ordinary-seeming protagonist may not provide the temptation to read on she wants.

Fortunately, this is a very easy fix: Teja merely has to exhibit some extraordinary quality on page 1. If Carolin likes the dramatic arc of having a young boy develop extraordinary qualities over time — as most historical novelists tend to prefer — she can always resort to the tactic I suggested for yesterday’s winning post: open with a prologue set later in the book, then revert to this scene after.

In historical novels, this strategy often works beautifully. I would be especially pleased to see Carolin try it here, because it’s fairly likely that Millicent will not know much about the wars in question. A well-crafted, informative prologue could go a long way toward convincing her that readers will consider this historical event inherently interesting and important.

Hey, it’s not always a foregone conclusion. And Millicent is far more likely to have been an English major than an ancient history concentrator, if you catch my drift.

Did you catch the nit-pick in the first line, or did turbulence prevent your being able to read the handwriting? Any guesses why Millicent might ask is it actually necessary to have these two things happen at precisely the same moment?

If you immediately shouted, “By Jove, it’s in response to the use of as in that sentence,” take a gold star out of petty cash. X happened as Y happened is an immensely popular sentence structure in novel submissions; one sees it less in published fiction. And that’s a bit surprising to many aspiring writers, because, let’s face it, quite a few things do happen simultaneously in the real world.

Why the differential? Because editors have been scrawling in the margins for decades is it actually necessary to have these two things happen at precisely the same moment?

Most of the time, it isn’t. Nor is it here: it doesn’t actually add either plot or character development to Carolin’s page 1 that Teja’s rubbing his eyes as Aunt Gertruda gives him the water. If the actions came one after the other, or even if they were reversed, it would not affect the reader’s understanding of what’s going on here, right?

The simultaneity implied by as is often not necessary to the reader’s understanding of what is going on; it’s simply the writer’s attempt to be factually accurate about a series of events. But by using this structure when the simultaneous nature of two different happenings is not relevant to the scene, a narrative can both (a) mislead the reader about what actually is important for the reader to notice in the scene and (b) over time, cause the reader to tune out as as an indicator of timing.

That last one is problematic, potentially, in a story with a lot of action in it. At some point in the story, it’s going to be vital that the reader understand that X happened as Y happened. So it’s an excellent idea to reserve as, like profanity, for only those moments when it will have the most effect.

Let’s see, what else did our Millie flag? How about the Hollywood narration in the second paragraph?

We’re all familiar with Hollywood narration, right? It’s a staple of television and movies: one character tells another something they already both know, simply so that the audience may learn it, too. As in:

Joyce: Oh, Kent, my husband of twelve years, how glad I am to see you safely home! You know how your job as a test pilot of experimental aircraft frightens me.

Kent (chuckling ruefully): Honey, you have been worrying about me since that long-ago day in college when you first saw me slip on the ice-covered library steps and slide head-first onto the quad. You should know by now that my head’s as hard as a rock!

Joyce: Well, you’re not the one who is going to have to explain your sudden, fiery demise to our three children — Lara, eight; Timothy, twelve, and little Ghislaine, six — are you?

Kent: I suppose not. Nor would I have to face your father, the senator from our fair state, should you become widowed. As you yourself heard me tell not only him, but a crowd of two hundred of our nearest and dearest at our fifth anniversary party — which, as you may in fact recall, was held at Chez Georges, the fanciest French restaurant in town — your well-being and happiness is my highest priority.

Joyce: Except, of course, for our children’s. Why, just six months ago, when Lara rode her bike into the side of that truck and you had to rush her to see old Doc Courtland — he who delivered both all of our children and myself — you were magnificent.

Kent: So, too, were you that time that our youngest, not yet out of diapers, went wandering off into that cornfield and got kidnapped by aliens. I was so impressed when you…

Well, I won’t bore you with what happened after Joyce followed Ghislaine into that field; suffice it to say that the next ten minutes of dialogue concern her many lacerations and burn scars. But why should Joyce and Kent be reminding each other of these major life events at all, when it’s completely beyond the realm of possibility that either party should have forgotten about any of them?

Evidently, just so you, dear readers, will know about them, too. Trust me, Millicent will not find this presentation subtle.

Which is a shame in this case, where the Hollywood narration is rather subtle: Gertruda might actually have asked this question. However, since this information would also have been perfectly easy to introduce in a couple of narrative sentences — unlike TV and movies, novels do not rely exclusively upon dialogue and visual cues to convey information to their audiences — it’s probably best to err on the side of giving even the implication of Hollywood narration a wide berth.

Especially if, as here, it comes with a signpost. Generally speaking, any time a character says, “You know…” there’s an excellent chance that what she is about to say next is Hollywood narration, and thus could be cut.

We wouldn’t want to distract Millicent from that nice description in the first paragraph, would we? Or from those evocative details in the last one?

So nicely done, Carolin — you’re a set of quite minor revisions away from a genuinely stellar first page. Which is, I hope, precisely why members of the Author! Author! community will find this and our other winning entries both helpful and inspiring: the difference between a manuscript that wows Millicent and one she rejects is often based upon not her overall perception of a manuscript’s writing quality or marketability, but the cumulative effect of a series of small, rather subtle problems that could, with patient revision, be polished away.

Keep plugging ahead, Carolin — and everybody, keep up the good work!

First Pages That Grab: Linda McCabe’s The Legend of the Warrior Maid and the Saracen Knight

Linda McCabe author photo

Before I launch into what I anticipate will be a juicy discussion of today’s winning entry in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, I have some good news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community. Remember memoirist and blogger Shaun Attwood, whose guest blog on the difficulties of bringing horrific jail conditions to light moved in last year’s censorship series? If you don’t recall his first guest post here, perhaps you will recall his second post last summer, which I introduced by both celebrating the U.K. release of his memoir, HARD TIME: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail (Mainstream Press), and bemoaning the fact that although he was writing about his experience in a U.S. jail, his memoir was not available in this country.

I am delighted to announce that is about to change: an American edition of HARD TIME will be coming out from Skyhorse Publishing this coming spring. In fact, it is already available for preorder on Amazon, but so you may recognize it later in brick-and-mortar bookstores, it will look a little something like this:

Attwood Hard Time US cover

And that’s not all: somewhat to my surprise, I am writing the introduction for it. Perhaps it is not entirely surprising to all of you, for I have been a tireless booster of Shaun’s writing since I first clapped eyes upon it, shortly after he left his first comment here.

Quite apart from the extraordinary subject matter, Shaun’s is a writing success story. As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for the last couple of years may recall, Shaun first joined us as a memoirist struggling to write his first book proposal — and as one of the most fascinating bloggers out there on the web. Shortly after he shared his extraordinary story with us here he landed an agent and a U.K. book deal. And soon, his story will be available in the land that gave rise to it.

Which just goes to show you, campers: it can be done. Congratulations, Shaun!

While we’re in a celebratory mood, let’s turn to another long-time member of the Author! Author! community, Linda McCabe. With genre-appropriate fanfare, even.

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The co-third place winner in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, the first page of THE LEGEND OF THE WARRIOR MAID AND THE SARACEN KNIGHT struck the judges as a delightfully traditional addition to the epic fantasy market. At a time when so many fantasy submissions are stuffed to their proverbial gills with trendy paranormal elements — fine in themselves, naturally, but in the fifteenth similar work Millicent the agency screener sees on any given day, bound to seem a trifle on the common side — Linda has made the very interesting choice of grounding her tale’s opening in solid realism.

What renders it even more interesting is that the book itself contains a fairly untraditional twist. As Linda’s entry explained to the judges:

The Legend of the Warrior Maid and the Saracen Knight is an epic historical fantasy in the time of Charlemagne with a tale of impossible love between sworn enemies. It deviates from traditional quest stories by having the heroine, and not the hero, receive the call to adventure.

Piques your interest, doesn’t it? Given that laudable ambition, one would expect the heroine to appear on page 1, right?

That actually doesn’t happen here — leading the judges to wonder whether a rushed Millicent would read far enough to realize just how untraditional this traditionally-voiced tale actually is at its core. While the opening page was interesting, evocative, and promised excitement to come, it is very solidly in the tradition (there’s that word again) of male-centered battle epics.

Take a gander and judge for yourself. As always, if you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the image.

McCabe page 1

Engaging, certainly, but it doesn’t exactly display its most exotic wares up front, does it? Equally important, if you were the Millicent who requested this manuscript based upon the descriptive paragraph above, would you feel that the page fulfilled the description’s promise? Or even that this book was about the expected protagonist?

Pick your jaws off the floor, multiple character-jugglers. Sad but true, 99% of Millicents will simply assume that the first-named character in the manuscript — or at any rate, the primary actor in the opening scene — is the protagonist.

So what about this page 1 would alert her that this is a story that stretches the well-established boundaries of battle epics? Unfortunately, nothing. And that’s genuinely a problem, since Linda’s telling quite a story here.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take a peek at her synopsis, then glance again at that first page.

A love foretold between sworn enemies will determine the fate of Christendom.

Bradamante, the niece of Charlemagne, and Ruggiero, a Saracen knight descended from Hector of Troy, are renowned warriors who meet and fall in love on a battlefield before being separated.

Bradamante is later sent on a mission to rescue Ruggiero who is being held captive by the wizard Atallah. She learns of dueling magical forces trying to influence which of two prophecies regarding Ruggiero will come to pass. He is either destined to convert to Christianity, marry her, and sire a line of heroes before dying tragically or he will remain a Saracen and bring about the destruction of the Frankish Empire devastating Christendom. Atallah is aware of these divergent prophecies and is determined to protect Ruggiero from harm; he views Bradamante’s love as a threat to Ruggiero’s life.

The tale of impossible love between Bradamante and Ruggiero is set against the backdrop of a holy war between Islamic and Christian armies shown in bloody sieges in Marseille and Paris. Other legendary heroes such as Orlando and Renaud de Montauban are featured in this retelling of a classic tale of chivalry, betrayal, revenge and magic.

Sounds exciting, eh? But try to wiggle yourself into Millicent’s snow boots for a moment: does it seem as though there’s a slight disconnect between the story as told in the synopsis and the one that appears to be starting on page 1? To put it in another, more positive way, is this page 1 an effective salesperson for the unusual twist on a chivalric romance promised by the synopsis?

The judges reluctantly answered these questions no and yes — despite the fact that the writing here is clear (less common in submissions than one might think), the voice category-appropriate, and the opening a good hook into what is to come. Yet with the quirky logic that often dictates which entries end up as finalists and which place in literary contests, the judges decided to include this first page in the winners’ circle precisely because of this inherent marketing tension.

The fact is, well-written manuscripts fall into this trap all the time, and it places their work at a significant competitive disadvantage at submission time. By assuming that Millicent will not base her decision on whether to read, say, the truly genre-busting material in Chapter 5 upon her impression of page 1, a submitter runs the risk of having his fascinating premises, characters, and plot elements simply overlooked.

Well might you gnash your teeth. “But it’s clear by page 15 how different my story is from what’s currently available in my book category! Heck, by page 31, it’s completely apparent how it is better!”

I can well believe it, teeth-gnashers. You wouldn’t believe how many otherwise excellent submissions don’t really get going — or have a terrific opening line — until page 4. Or 14, or 44. But by then, alas, Millicent has probably already made up her mind about what kind of book it is and whether it adds something new to the market.

I can feel the laser-like heat of your glares through my computer screen, but it’s far, far better that you hear this from me than have your manuscript rejected on page 1, is it not?

So let’s go ahead and coin an axiom on the subject: unless it is pellucidly clear on page 1 what kind of book this is and who will want to read it, even a well-written, book category-appropriate story may get rejected. It’s savvier submission strategy, then, to open the book with the element that you feel is the most marketable, rather than hiding it later in the manuscript.

Yes, this may well run afoul of the way you originally envisioned telling the story, but pull it off, and trust me, you’ll bless Linda to your dying day for bringing this subtle submission problem to your attention.

Oh, and unless you happen to be writing in a book category where it is not the norm to open the book with a scene centered on the protagonist — which is to say, if you are not writing science fiction, fantasy, thriller, or literary fiction — you might want to structure your book so the first name Millicent sees is your hero/ine’s. Even in those categories, you might consider at least a prologue featuring your protagonist front and center.

Hey, Millicent reads a lot of submissions in your chosen book category in any given week. In that vast sea of characters, can you really blame her for wanting to latch onto a protagonist as soon as she possibly can.

I heard that. But the proper answer is: no, I can’t. She has a hard job, and honestly, it’s not her fault that she doesn’t have time to read all the way to page 15, let alone 30, to find out how genuinely innovative your premise is. Or how beautifully written that line that would have made a great opening is if it’s hidden on page 6.

She’s essentially a treasure-hunter, you know. Make her discovering you a trifle less challenging.

The classic means of correcting this problem — and I’m sure you’ve seen this in published novels — is to lift an exciting scene featuring the protagonist from later in the story and open the book with it. Such scenes are often presented as a very brief prologue, sometimes just a couple of pages long. The idea here is to toss the reader directly into the center of a conflict, bring it to the boiling point — then end it abruptly. Appetite whetted, the reader then will proceed to Chapter 1 more or less in its original form.

Another means of making your pot of gold shine better: impeccable formatting. There’s actually only a single formatting problem here — did you catch it?

No? Okay, let’s see how Millicent would have responded to this page:

Linda's edit

What can we learn from this, other than that our Millie’s handwriting can get a trifle wobbly when she’s editing on a plane that’s just hit turbulence? (Don’t worry; I’ll mail Linda a more legible copy.) First, that single-spacing is not appropriate for a subtitle: if Linda simply double-spaced the first line on the page, it would be perfect.

Not certain what that would look like on the page? Here you go.

Linda revised

Millie’s turbulence-influenced scrawls also point up a couple fairly standard professional readers’ pet peeves. She’s noted the single-sentence paragraphs at the top and near the bottom of the page, for instance: a narrative paragraph in English prose is made up of at least two sentences, so many a Millicent would have flagged this one. (A single-sentence paragraph is perfectly acceptable in dialogue, of course.)

Yes, I know Joan Didion uses single-sentence paragraphs all the time. So do journalists. That doesn’t mean a novelist trying to land an agent for a first book should take the risk.

Let’s see, what else? In line 3, she’s crossed out and realized, which actually could have stayed. Any guesses why she recommended cutting this little bit of verbiage?

This is a subtle one: in a tight third-person narrative, what is described is generally assumed to be from the protagonist’s perspective — and thus conclusions drawn in the text are assumed to be his. But that’s not the only reason this cut might be a good idea: using short, choppy sentences at moments of stress echoes the breathlessness of surprise.

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about it being subtle.

There’s another element that might annoy some Millicents, although it clearly did not trouble ours: showing Ruggiero’s thoughts in italics. Some professional readers positively hate this; they feel, and with some justification, that a talented writer should be able to differentiate between thought, speech, and narrative without resorting to funky type.

“What’s wrong with he thought?” such Millicents fume — and their boss agents may even have instructed them to fume so. “Or just showing someone calling the guy’s name?”

As our Millicent’s leniency on this point demonstrates, however, such fuming is not universal amongst professional readers. There is no one-size-fits-all solution here; tolerance of italicized thought varies from book category to book category, and even agency to agency. Generally speaking, though, the more educated the intended readership, the lower the tolerance for this device.

What’s a good test for whether thought italicization acceptable in your chosen book category? Hie yourself to a brick-and-mortar bookstore well stocked in that category and start pulling volumes off the shelves. Not just any books in your category, mind you: stick to ones published within the last three years. If none of the first ten you select feature italicized thought within the first ten pages, I would avoid it.

Does this seem like a lot of possible pet peeves for just a first page of text? Actually, in practice, it’s remarkably few: the average submission tends to be rife with potential for Millicent-annoyance.

Admittedly, this particularly page 1 promises enough adventurous delights to come that Millie might turn down her annoyance meter a little — and turn to page 2. You know, just to see what happens.

And that, my friends, is how you know when a first page is a grabber: when a professional reader can’t wait to get to page 2. The writer won’t be there to see it, of course, but given how many submissions get rejected on page 1, it’s definitely a triumph.

Well done, Linda! Best of luck to your warrior princess and her knight.

Be sure to tune in tomorrow, when we shall be examining another grabber of a first page. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

P.S.: the nifty animation appears courtesy of the fine folks at Feebleminds. Let’s take another look at it before I sign off for the evening, shall we?

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Home for the holiday!

outdoor stockpot

No, this is not my stockpot, gearing up to produce gravy; since a sudden snowfall has rendered Seattle all but immobilized, cooking outside would be counterproductive, at best. I snapped this a couple of days ago, in the shirtsleeves-are-fine balminess of New Orleans; I believe the happy floating veggies were destined for gumbo. The temperature transition has been quite a shock to my delicate sensibilities, let me tell you.

For me, that is, not the vegetables. Although I would imagine being brought to a slow simmer is rather disorienting, too.

I had meant to blog more from the Words & Music conference, or at any rate since, but between travel, teaching, and networking (a word I hate, but how else to describe hobnobbing in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America?), mixed with such perennial joys of the book doctoring life as a client whose publisher moved her revision deadline by a month (and not in the direction any sane person would prefer) and another who changed her mind about her intended book category in mid-edit…well, let’s just say that this week has gotten away from me a little. But yes, Virginia, I shall be blogging about the conference itself soon, because it was fascinating: teaching the fine art of querying, listening to people who knew Faulkner reminisce, and, of course, chatting with folks in the industry about the radical changes the biz has been undergoing.

The best reason to go to a writers’ conference, though, is to meet other writers, established, aspiring, and everything in between. I was especially thrilled to chat with Heidi Durrow, whose The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is for my money the most exciting literary fiction debut of the last few years. She does more interesting things with commas in dialogue than most authors do in entire scenes.

I just mention that to any of you literary fiction writers whose Secret Santas might appreciate gift suggestions. Seriously, Santa, an aspiring writer with ambitions in that direction might really benefit from seeing of what remarkable characterization the English language is capable of producing — and having one’s faith restored in the possibility of genuinely experimental, intensely personal, and actually unusual novels getting published these days.

One last word on my conference weekend, then on to the business du jour: would you help me brainstorm for a moment, campers? Every time I teach a practical class on querying — or synopsis-writing, manuscript formatting, or any of the other unpleasant-but-necessary task of the life writerly — at a conference, I find myself wishing that I could take a broader view. Aspiring writers seem so hungry for information that an hour-long class seems insufficient. I’m beginning to think that perhaps I should be teaching a broader array of classes.

So I put it to you: if you could attend a fantasy conference day stuffed to the brim with classes addressing your day-to-day concerns, what classes would you want to see offered? I don’t just mean basic how-tos on querying and submission, but specific stuff, the kind of niggling little practical matter that keeps you up the night before you send something off to an agent — or for several nights after.

Hey, I believe in asking Santa for what I want, too. So have at it, Virginia.

On to talking turkey. With Thanksgiving once again upon us, 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 or (b) one of the 40 million U.S. citizens traveling more than 50 miles to eat turkey. No, I’m guessing that those of you 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 the rest of today’s post taking about how to deal with those well-meaning questions aspiring writers so frequently face whenever they are reveling in the warm embrace of their nearest and dearest:

“So when will your book be coming out?”

“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, concentrating instead on some more easily-achieved dream, like making the Olympic curling team or ascending Mount Everest?”

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 in a manner that simultaneously ties up all of the plot’s loose ends and leaves room for a sequel, 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.

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, but most working artists’ 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 three 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, these pointed questions constitute support.

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 hours 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 — and bask in the envy of the rest of us. 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, or poisoning their holiday punch, or even making fun of that completely unattractive pumpkin-orange sweater with the dancing turkey on it that the bellower is wearing.

Even though it is unequivocally hideous. Whose bright idea was it to have the gobbler’s eyes light up?

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.

Just don’t go there. 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, “You know, the only true 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 fling 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.

Admit it: 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, do you not? Or that, contrary to popular belief, 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 come from a family of writers, so I already knew what agents and publishing houses long before my big brother broke the bad news about the Easter Bunny.

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 until after the holidays.

Fortunately for overall human happiness, most members of the general public are permanently spared 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 Alphonse, 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, Alphonse 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 Tooth Fairy 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 vaguest sense of what a literary agent actually does with a book. So complete is the veil of ignorance, 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, the happy few 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 last week, 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?

Facebook is both a blessing and a curse, isn’t it?

As any agented-but-not-yet-published writer can tell you, these are extremely common sources of confusion. Although your Aunt Gerda may not say it outright, she, like most people, will simply assume that because a writer is so excited to have landed an agent, the agent must therefore have bought the book.

Why else would you be singing over the cranberry sauce?

“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, throw a drumstick at such well-meaning souls for asking what are, from a writer’s perspective, phenomenally stupid questions.

No, not even if the implication of such questions is that these would-be supporters apparently haven’t listened to anything you have ever told them about the trials of writing a book, finding an agent, working with an agent after landing one, meeting editorial deadlines, or any of the other myriad trying phenomena associated with authorship, aspiring or otherwise. 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 wing nearby.

Nice person that you are, you are going to honor these social limits. 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 Cousin Marvin’s roommate? boyfriend? to purchase.

So what’s a writer to do, especially when the holidays fall 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 sending out 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 the agency screener today — and you should hear what her Aunt Jessica has to say about the novel she has been writing for six years.)

Well, you could regard, “So how is the book coming?” 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 in high-end women’s fiction, 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 draw helpful charts on the tablecloth, the better to demonstrate how precipitously book sales have dropped over the past couple of years.

If you are gifted at disregarding your interlocutor’s eyes glazing over for minutes at a time, this actually isn’t a bad long-term strategy, at least as far as holiday gatherings are concerned: 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 writing is coming alone. 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 Thanksgiving, 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.

I’m looking at you, Dr. Cousin. No one wants to hear the details of your last bypass operation over the pumpkin pie.

So what’s the alternative? You could, most politely, take your favorite cousin by the arm and say confidentially, “You know, Celine, I spend so much time obsessing over my novel 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 Celine may actually be relieved to hear this.

Why? Because poor Celine 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 said incredulously, “37 rejection letters, baby? You must be one of those artists destined to become famous only after he’s dead”? Or when you tried to choke yourself with your napkin after the ninth time your second cousin twice removed reminded you that the Mary Kay sales training that has served her so well insists that if you don’t hear no all the time, you aren’t asking often enough? Or when you threatened Cousin Germaine 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, you should dump him and move on?

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. Possibly because the Book Genie plants a neon sign over their roofs, announcing HOT NEW TALENT HERE, so agents know upon whose doorsteps to appear immediately upon the placement of the final period in the first — and only, naturally — draft.

Hey, it makes for great interview copy, as long as we’re all willing to disregard the decade or more these authors often spend slogging at their craft before becoming overnight successes.

It’s not really fair to blame non-writers for buying this storyline. 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. (It is for some people, you know.) Again, those 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 if they 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, “Has your agent managed to sell that book of yours yet? What’s the hold-up?”

Or “Is your book out yet? I’d love to read it.”

Or even — 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 frozen by the lawsuit threats? I can’t believe how long it’s been. Why don’t you self-publish it?”

As if you would have sold — or finished, released, or freed from lawsuit threats — 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 personally. 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 years, people do tend to express sympathy by venting frustration about the delay at the author, not the publisher), 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 by these inquiries, 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 in the moment. And it may be kind of hard to believe that your Grandpa Theodore, 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’s a natural for 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 trifle 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 precisely 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.

I’m not suggesting, of course, 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: treat these questions as 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 knew you when you were in diapers.

To put it bluntly, your mother has a right to expect a free copy. Everyone else should expect to help you become a success by buying his own.

Would somebody pick up Great-Aunt Ada’s chair for her? She just fell over backward in surprise.

And well might she, as this is something else the general public does not know about publishing: these days, the author herself is often the one who pays for those allegedly free copies. Even if the publishing contract is generous with advance copies, authors are generally 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. Ready to stare down Great-Aunt Ada’s disappointment now, or would you rather wait until your book is about to come out?

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 pleasant 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.

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. And in the spirit of sharing views, I shall be devoting this weekend to posting the award posts for the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better contest, so we may start December with forward-looking eyes.

I’ve got to hustle into the kitchen now: I’ve some ginger-pear compote to cook up for the people who will be buying my books in years to come. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

A bulletin from the front

tabasco sign

It’s early morning here at the Words & Music conference in New Orleans, and I’m taking a quick break between a last-minute materials check for the crash course on querying I’m teaching this afternoon (3:30 p.m. at the Hotel Monteleone, should you be in the area). The handouts are always the hardest part: not producing them, but getting them photocopied. For some reason that years of writers’ conferences have left me powerless to explain, all of the copy machines within easy walking distance are either hideously expensive or bizarrely incapable of producing legible copies.

Like all writers’ conferences in North America, this one has a bar located less than 100 yards from the center of conference action. This one’s a lulu: it revolves slowly, like a carousel. People keep falling sideways at the peak of literary discussions.

That’s not the blow to the ego that worries me, however. Like pretty much every writers’ conference that flies in agents and editors, this one had an agents’ and editors’ forum yesterday. Should you ever have the opportunity to attend one, go: it’s a rare chance to hear individual agents and editors talk about their personal literary preferences, pet peeves, and market trends.

And why might that be important information, campers? Chant it with me now: because literary preferences are subjective, there is no such thing as a book, book proposal, synopsis, and/or query that will please every agent or editor out there. These fine people specialize.

So where does the ego deflation come in, you ask? I’ve never seen a A&E forum where it didn’t happen: instead of aspiring writers raising their hands boldly and asking practical questions like, “What’s the best query you have ever received and why?” or “What kinds of books do you not want to see right now?” writers were piping up with very abstract, intellectualizing questions like, “Where do you see POD publishing in five years?” or “What’s the average advance these days, and how does that translate into movie rights figures?”

I can understand not wanting to seem pushy. Certainly, an agents’ forum is not the right place to stand up and give a verbal pitch for one’s book. (Oh, I’ve seen it happen.) However, to a pro who has been going to conferences for a while, these seemingly generic questions actually are personal, and sometimes even pushy: the first is usually an expression of the fear I don’t think I can land an agent — should I self-publish?, the second, what can you people do for me financially?

Other aspiring writers — the vast majority, in fact — simply sit silent, hunger and trepidation blazing from their eyes. Clearly, they want to ask questions, but they are afraid of looking foolish or alienating a potential helper by appearing pushy. Or even just of having to answer questions about their own books before they are ready to speak about it in public.

Should you ever find yourself in this situation — and I hope you will; writers’ conferences can be exceedingly useful — relax. These are just human beings, not demigods, and it’s the single best opportunity most pre-agented writers will ever get to ask burning questions like, “Is there anything I could possibly do in a query letter that would automatically turn you off? I’m terrified of doing that, you see.”

Oh, wait: assuaging that fear is my department. Off to photocopy some handouts now. Keep up the good work!

Identifying agents to query, part X: how much does size matter, really?

giant scissors, pencil

Well, that was an unexpected blogging hiatus, wasn’t it? I plead ambitiousness: in addition to prepping for this coming Saturday’s at the master class on querying at Words & Music conference in New Orleans, I have also been gearing up for the close textual analysis component of the third-place prizes in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest. Since giving feedback on the winning entries is so rightfully time-consuming — and something that I was not originally going to do alone — I’ve kept telling myself, “Oh, you need a few solid hours to devote to this — you can fit that in tomorrow.”

Then tomorrow came…and the day after…and before I knew it, a few days had gone by between posts. Sorry about that. I should have a few hours this evening to leap into that much-anticipated close textual analysis.

Just in case I get distracted again (what’s the probability?), I wanted to post again this morning on our ongoing topic, how to find agents for your query list. Because, let’s face it, even if you weren’t planning to drop by the Hotel Monteleone Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. for a crash course in querying, there’s nothing like talking about what kind of agent is right for your book to get one’s momentum going for that end-of-the-year querying push.

You were planning an end-of-the-year querying push, were you not? Or a beginning-of-next-year one? If not, why not?

Last time, I mentioned that, contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, a great big agency is not necessarily the best choice for any particular book project, any more than signing with just any agent is a sure path to publication. While queriers, understandably, tend to focus on how picky agents are about what projects they take on, it’s worth giving some serious thought at the query list-generating stage to what kind of agency — and agent — is most likely to have the connections not only to sell your book well, but to walk you through the often difficult and perplexing publication process.

So while admittedly every agency — and indeed, every agent — is different, let’s spend this morning pondering some sweeping generalities about size, shall we?

I am certainly not the first to write on this topic, nor, I suspect, the last. Writers’ periodicals seem to have an especial fondness for the issue — so much so that I sometimes wonder if a visiting alien picking up a writers’ magazine would not automatically assume that every writer in America chooses representation based upon size alone.

It’s a big country, the alien might reason. They like everything big.

There are, of course, some reasons for this preference — and not just because it’s kind of cool when you mention your agency at writers’ conferences or industry parties and people say, “Oh!” as if they’ve just learned that you won the silver medal in pole-vaulting two Olympics ago. (Although admittedly, that’s gratifying.)

As the client of a large agency, a writer does enjoy many benefits: the prestige of signing with a recognized name, more support staff to answer your questions (or not, depending upon prevailing attitudes), and often more collective experience upon which you can draw. Just as with a well-known agent, in going with a major agency of good repute, you are working with a known quantity, with verifiable connections.

Emphasis on connections. Read Publishers Weekly or Publishers Marketplace for even a couple of months — not a bad idea, by the way, if you intend to stick with this writing gig for the long haul — and you’re likely to notice the same agency names turning up again and again, coupled with particular publishing houses. Agencies do specialize, and obviously, it’s in a writer’s interest to be affiliated with one of the top agencies for her book category.

Even when an agency does not focus on a particular category to the exclusion of others, the agents within it often will — and that, too, sets a discernable pattern. It’s not at all uncommon for an editor who concurs an agent’s literary tastes to buy books from several of his or her clients.

Which makes a certain amount of empirical sense, right? There isn’t universal agreement across the industry about what constitutes good writing, even within a single book category. Individual tastes differ, and what one editor at Random House likes to see in a mainstream novel will not necessarily be what an editor at HarperCollins is seeking. If Editor Sam already knows from past acquisitions that she likes the kind of books that Agent Maureen enjoys, Sam is probably going to be more open to a pitch from Maureen than one from Agent Joe, who hasn’t sold her a book before.

Remind yourself of this dynamic, please, the next time you hear an agent say at a conference that a particular kind of book just can’t be sold anymore. What this usually means is that he would have trouble selling it to his already-established editorial connections.

How is a savvy querier to find out what connections any given agent has? Chant it with me now, long-time readers: research.

And I’m not just talking about plugging a book category into a search engine or Googling literary agency, either: I mean going through the standard agency guides, reading carefully through agency websites, checking the acknowledgements pages of first and second books by authors in your category. In order to track down who might be able to sell a book like yours right now, you will — wait for it — need to find out who has been selling books like yours recently.

At a big, well-established agency, this information is usually pretty easy to track down: my great big agency, for instance, simply lists its clients on its website (although the list is not always current). With a new agency, it can be harder to assess connection claims until a track record of sales has been established.

Don’t write off an agency just because it is new or small, however. As I mentioned last time, it’s not uncommon for a successful agent to break off and form her own agency, taking her connections — and often her clients as well — with her.

At the moment, there seem to be many more new agencies than usual; since the economic downturn, quite a few agents have been branching off on their own. (This is one reason why, in case you were wondering, I like the Publishers Marketplace database so much — you can look up agents by name, not just by agency, so you can see how their representation preferences change as they move around. An agent with a passion for SF might not be able to give free rein to it as the junior agent at an agency that specializes in mysteries, but might well have leapt into SF after a promotion or move elsewhere.)

That can be a good thing for a querying writer: often, new agencies are actively seeking out new clients. As are, typically, junior agents even at large agencies, so don’t overlook the young and the hungry.

The hungry can be excellent gambles — they are often more energetic in pursuing sales. Even if a relatively new agent does not appear to have a long solo track record, check her bio: a lot of junior agents were formerly assistants at large agencies. (Or even Millicents. Hey, everyone has to begin somewhere.)

An former assistant may well walk into her first solo gig with some pretty good connections already established. She may well be more open to first-time authors than her better-known counterparts. In fact, she may be counting on discovering the next Great American Novel in her inbox — and with good reason: lest we forget (because it’s not mentioned much at writers’ conferences, for some reason), how many of the big agents initially established themselves in the industry was by taking a chance on an unknown client who turned out to be a major author.

So f your book sells quickly and/or well, you can be the favorite steed in the shiny, new stable. Which probably means you and your work will get more attention than with a similar achievement at a larger agency, where you would be just one of their in-house stars.

Even before that (and frequently after as well), a hungry agent often offers services that a bigger agency or a busier agent might not provide. Intensive coaching through rewrites, for instance. Bolstering the always-tenuous authorial ego. Extensive free editing. (If you missed my earlier discussions of fee-charging agencies, or you are unfamiliar with how much freelance editing can cost, you might want to check out the relevant categories on the archive list at right before you discount the value of such an offer.)

This is more a matter of math than a matter of nice: an agent with 10 clients is going to have a lot more time to devote to these helpful services than an agent with 80. If you are a writer who wants a lot of personal attention from an agent, the less busy agent might well be the way to go.

Does it seem presumptuous to think about what an agent can offer you, rather than what you can offer an agent? To the kind of thoughtful querier who knows better than to send out rude letters that say things like, “This is the next bestseller!” it often does. (Begging for attention for a good long while can do that to you.)

But think about it: if you are a writer lucky enough to garner multiple representation offers — and let’s all keep our fingers crossed for that — do you really want to realize with a shock that you do not have any criteria for picking an agent other than the willingness to say yes to you?

Stop laughing; established authors don’t admit this much, but this is not an uncommon dilemma for good writers to face. It certainly happened to me. Some years back, I received simultaneous offers from three agents, each of whom was apparently a nice person AND I had researched enough to know that each had a dandy track record selling the kind of book I had been pitching them — and I was stunned to recognize that I was utterly unprepared to judge them on any other basis.

Fortunately, I had many agented friends eager to offer me advice. Mountains of it, in fact. But that’s a luxury not every writer has.

So believe me when I tell you: giving some advance thought to what you want from your future agent, over and above the willingness and ability to sell your book, is not a symptom of creeping megalomania. It’s a means of coming to understand the value of your work and how it might conceivably fit into the already-existing literary world.

It can also, to descend from the heady heights of hope for a moment, give you some solid clues about how to prioritize a lengthy potential query list. It would be prudent, for instance, to consider very, very carefully how important personal contact is to you, because if this relationship works out, you will be living with your decision for a very long time.

Will you, for instance, go nuts with speculation if an editor has your manuscript — and you haven’t heard from your agent in a month? Many writers would, you know; I’ve heard justifications by authors of manuscripts that have been sitting on an agent’s desk for 4 or 5 months that positively rival the tales of the Brothers Grimm for invention.

The actual reason a writer hasn’t heard back tends not to be all that interesting, by comparison: typically, if you haven’t been told yea or nay, the submission has yet to be read. The paperweight was invented for a reason, you know: to keep bits of unread manuscripts from migrating all over agents’ and editors’ desks.

Once you have established where you fall on the update-need continuum, there are other questions to ask yourself. Do you want to hear the feedback of editors who have rejected your work, so you can revise accordingly, or would you rather get through as many submissions as quickly as possible? Would you prefer an agent who wants to micro-manage your book proposal, guiding you through its steps, or would you be happier with one who leaves more of the writing decisions to you?

How prone are you to ask questions or take concerns to your agent? When you do, would you be happy with the occasional e-mail to answer your questions, or would you prefer telephone calls? (If you live outside the United States, this last question is even more essential: the farther away you reside, the less likely it is that you will ever meet your agent face-to-face, right? Many small agencies would not be able to afford unlimited international phone calls.)

The answers to all of these are very much dependent upon how busy the agent is, and what kind of demands the agency places upon her time. Generally speaking, the bigger the agency, the busier the agent.

Seems a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Big agencies have greater resources for support staff (or did before the economic downturn), whereas in a small agency (or with a stand-alone agent) the agents may be doing support work as well; it would make sense if the small agency agents were busier.

However, nowhere is the old adage tasks expand in direct proportion to the time available to perform them more evident than in the publishing industry: as an agent becomes more important, he takes on more clients. Big equals powerful here.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. A few boutique agencies deliberately keep themselves small in order to occupy a very specific niche, but it is rare.

There’s no mistaking these agencies — they ALWAYS identify themselves as boutique in their blurbs, lest anyone mistakenly think that they were small because they were unsuccessful. Often, they sharply limit the proportion of unpublished writers that they will represent, or do not represent the unpublished at all. They do, however, tend to lavish attention upon the few they select.

As do, admittedly, some agents at major agencies, but do bear in mind that no matter who represents you, no matter how much your agent loves your work, you will be only one of the authors on the agent’s list. Time is not infinitely flexible, despite anyone’s best intentions.

So before you set your heart upon a big agency or a major agent, it’s a good idea to ask yourself: do I really want to be someone’s 101rst client?

This sounds like a flippant question, but actually, it is a very practical one, and one that speaks very directly to your personal level of security about your work. Big agencies and important agents have made their names, generally speaking, on high-ticket clients; often, that high-recognition client is why aspiring writers covet their representation skills.

However, it takes time to cater to a bigwig client. I once had a lovely chat with a past president of AAR who handled one of the biggest mystery writers in the biz; apart from handling her book negotiations, he told me, he also spent a week a year with her in a mountain retreat — not skiing, but micro-editing her next work to make its market appeal as broad as possible.

Nice perq of fame, isn’t it? Beulah, peel me a grape.

Before you float off into fantasies about being successful enough to command your own personal slave copyeditor and/or mountain lodge, stop and think about the implications of being one of this agent’s other clients. That’s a week a year when he is not available to pay even the most fleeting attention to the needs of Clients 2 – 143.

So who do you think ended up handling those other clients’ concerns? That’s right: not the bigwig agent at all, but his I’m-working-my-way-up-the-ladder assistant. Who was, to put it mildly, somewhat overworked — and ended up moving on to become a full agent at another agency within the next year or two. She’s so successful now that she is no longer accepting new clients.

Which raises an interesting question: if a writer is actually dealing most of the time with the agent’s assistant, rather than the agent, with whom is the long-term, mutually beneficial interaction occurring?

Still, you cannot deny the appeal of the contacts and oomph of a big agency, even if you are not represented by the most important agent in it. Ultimately, it’s going to take more than enthusiasm about your project for an agent to sell your first book.

It’s going to take connections — the right connections for your project. You don’t have to attend very many conferences before you meet your first hungry new agent, willing to promise the moon, nor to meet your first 100-client bigwig. It’s in your interests to look beyond the generalities.

Again, chant it with me now, campers: there’s no such thing as an agency that’s perfect for every single conceivable book. This process is — or should be — about finding not just acceptance, but forming the best possible alliance with someone who is going to help you build a career as a writer.

Give some hard thought to how you want to be supported on that path, and make your querying choices accordingly. Keep up the good work!

Querylistpalooza, part IX: the face one presents to the world, or, whose proverbial mug of oolong is your book?

gold mask 2

A quick scheduling note before we launch into today’s festivities, campers: I shall be giving in-person feedback on aspiring writers’ query letters at the upcoming and always-scintillating Words & Music conference, November 17-21 in New Orleans. Do consider snatching up your latest query draft and meeting me there.

For those of you who don’t already have a draft already burning a hole in your desk drawer, I shall also be teaching a master class on how to write a query letter on Saturday, November 20th at 3:30 p.m. — and yes, you may drop in for the class, even if you can’t make (or afford) the entire conference. Or even several classes, at a very reasonable à la carte fee.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, the Words & Music conference is one of my favorites — and believe me, I go to a lot of writers’ conferences. Run by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, the conference is more ambitious than your usual craft-and-marketing fest. Yes, there is always abundant discussion of writing style and the ins and outs of publishing, along with opportunities to meet agents and editors, but there are also wonderfully arty discussions of literature, art, and music. To sweeten this writer-friendly experience even more, the conference is set the French Quarter, Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré, home to some of the best food and jazz in the world.

In other words: I’ll be your excuse to go if you will be mine. It’ll be a hoot.

Speaking of querying and its many challenges, as I mentioned back in the heady days of Querypalooza, queries tend to work best when they are sent to specific agents who habitually sell similar books. Not just because recent sales are the single best indication of what the agent in question likes to read — although that’s definitely useful to ascertain before you query, if the information is publicly available — but also because it’s a dandy indication that the agent has some pretty good connections with editors who happen to like to acquire that type of book.

For that excellent reason, I have so far been approaching our discussion of agency guide listings and websites on the assumption that you will want to narrow down your first-round query list to just a handful of near-perfect matches. To that end, I’ve been encouraging you to track down as much specific sales information as possible on the agents you’re considering.

That strategy, I suspect, will not be everyone’s proverbial mug of oolong. “Wait just a minute,” I have heard some of among you murmuring, and who could blame you? “What you’ve been suggesting is a heck of a lot of work. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the industry yet for a list of sales to make me cry, ‘Yes! This is the agent for me!’”

Oh, how I wish there were a quick and easy way to avoid the sometimes-lengthy research process! Honestly, if I knew of one, I would share it with you toute suite. (I would also bottle it and make a million dollars, but that’s another story.)

My sympathetic regret didn’t really satisfy you murmurers, did it? “I’m willing to do some legwork, but for heaven’s sake, querying eats into my writing time, and the agency guide before me lists a hundred agencies that accept books in my category! Since these agents have said point-blank that they want to see books like mine, why shouldn’t I simply take their word for it, querying them all without researching the last few years of sales for each and every agent at all hundred of those agencies, a Herculean endeavor that would take me until next March at the earliest?”

Whoa, take a deep breath there, Sparky. You’re going to need that extra oxygen for the long, difficult road ahead — and the often puzzling task of rank-ordering your query list so you know whom to query first.

You weren’t planning on approaching all hundred of those agents simultaneously, were you — or doing it alphabetically? The record-keeping alone would be prohibitively time-consuming. You’re going to want to figure out which among those many, many possibilities are most likely to be interested in a book like yours.

And I don’t just mean figuring out whether any given agent on your list represents authors in your chosen book category — although, as we have discussed before, knowing into which category your book falls is a necessary first step to searching for appropriate agents. (If that comes as a hideous surprise to you, or if you aren’t sure which of the preexisting professional categories is the best fit for your book, you might want to take a gander at the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY posts on the archive list at right.) I mean finding out enough about individual agents to make an accurate guess about whether they tend to enjoy books like yours within the book category.

Think about it: if you write cozy mysteries, and Agent #12 on your alphabetical list has a track record primarily in police procedurals, he might not be the agent you should approach first. If Agent #37 sells nothing but cozy mysteries, she would be a better choice for a top slot on your list.

That’s the good news. Here’s the less-good part: simply generating a who-represents-this-book-category list on a search site or taking a peek at the index of one of the standard agency guides probably is not going to provide sufficient information to make this decision. Their listings just don’t provide enough information, typically.

Hold onto your hats, because I’m about to say something all of you list-generators are going to like even less: that information may also not be up-to-date, or even accurate.

Yes, even down to which book categories any given agency habitually represents. It’s just a hard fact of agency-list generation that it does pay in the long run to double-check what one finds in the guides against another source — the agency’s website, for instance, or an agent’s Publishers’ Marketplace page.

Why? Well — are you still clutching those chapeaux? — not every agency that lists itself as representing (or even actively seeking) a particular book category will be equally receptive to queries for that kind of book. Or, as we saw last time, will would-be queriers perceive them to be open to first-time authors in that category.

How might an agent-seeking writer become confused by what at first glance may appear to be a perfectly straightforward list of desired book categories? One of the most common: being drawn to those agencies that appear to be open to virtually any kind of book — or at least to so many categories that it’s extremely difficult to tell without substantial further research what any given member agent’s actual specialties are.

Or so some might surmise from the oft-seen guide entry this agency prefers not to share information on specific sales. Or rather vague assertions like we’re open to any good writing, we accept all genres except YA, or literary value considered first. One even occasionally hears such statements emerging — usually quite sincerely and with the genuine intention of helping aspiring writers — from the mouths of agents and editors at conferences. A pretty good case could be made that to a writer seeking to figure out who might conceivably represent say, a Western romance, such statements are at best marginally useful and at worst bewildering.

What we have here is a vicious circle, right? The vast majority of queriers rely solely upon book category-only search results to generate their query lists, resulting in a high volume of queries that simply end up on the wrong desks. If an agency’s guide listing or website is not very specific about what it is seeking — or what it is seeking right now — that would tend to increase the percentage of queries it receives for books outside their areas of specialty in any given day’s mail drop. The inevitable result of both: queries rejected summarily and Millicents wringing their overworked hands, troubling the ceiling with their bootless cries about why oh why are these people sending queries for books that the agency doesn’t even represent. Because of the incredibly high volume of queries, though, they send out form rejection letters, so queriers who have misdirected their missives never find out that was the problem — which in turn results in our Millie gnashing her teeth over still more queries for book categories her agency doesn’t want.

Excuse me, driver, but I’d like to get off; this merry-go-round is making me dizzy. I’m guessing that it’s made those of you given to staring helplessly at vague guide listings dizzy, too.

I freely admit it: I have never understood why the difficulty of deciphering such statements is not a perpetual topic of impassioned discussion at writers’ conferences. (Unless I happen to be teaching at the one in question — had I mentioned that New Orleans is very nice at this time of year?) Oh, there are often classes on querying, but seldom on how to generate a query list. Indeed, if a conference attendee is bold enough to ask a panel of pros about it, she is far more likely to be told — with a certain impatience of tone — that the only reason that a query might end up in the wrong hands is if its writer did not do his or her homework, rather than given any practical guidance. The information, the implication runs, is all easily available to anyone who looks for it.

Has this been your invariable experience, campers? I’m guessing not, if you have been at it a while: as we saw earlier in this series, there is a wide range in the level of information that agencies make available to potential queriers. Compounding the problem: a great deal of it is in industry-speak, the meaning of which may not be immediately apparent to those new to the biz.

The look that tends to cross experienced queriers’ faces when talking about this phenomenon always reminds me of a line from ULYSSES: “Stephen, patently crosstempered, repeated and shoved aside his mug of coffee, or whatever you like to call it, none too politely, adding: we can’t change the country. Let us change the subject.”

Let’s not, for once: we writers can’t control how agencies choose to present their preferences; we can, however, learn to be better interpreters of those preferences by recognizing that there are some informational gaps out there. We can teach ourselves the norms of querying, what tends to work, what tends not to work, and thereby save ourselves a whole lot of chagrin.

So there. I never said it wasn’t going to be a lot of work. And if I’m wrong, and every listing out there conveys with pellucid clarity precisely what every agent currently representing books in the English language would and would not like to see arrive in their offices on Monday morning, well, as Jane Austen would say, at least the credit of a wild imagination will be all my own.

What is a savvy query list-generator to do, though, when faced with guide listings (and sometimes even agency websites) that seem to portray the agency in question represent books virtually every major book category? You’ve seen such listings, haven’t you? They tend to look a little something like this:

Represents: nonfiction books, novels, short story collections, novellas. No picture books or poetry.
Considers these fiction areas: action/adventure, contemporary issues, detective/police/crime, erotica, ethnic, experimental, family saga, fantasy, feminist, gay/lesbian, glitz, graphic novels, historical, horror, humor, literary, mainstream, military, multicultural, mystery, regional, religious/inspirational, romance, romantica, science fiction, spiritual, sports, supernatural, suspense, thriller, westerns, women’s fiction, YA.

Considers these nonfiction areas: agriculture, Americana, animals, anthropology/archeology, art/architecture/design, autobiography…

And that’s just the As. Such voluminous lists are potentially problematic. To pick a quandary out of that hat I told you to cling to, their breadth often tempts queriers into thinking that they do not need to specify a book category when they query. After all, the logic runs, if the agency says it represents all three of the closest marketing categories, why take the trouble to figure out into which the book fits?

A good question, certainly. Querypalooza veterans, chant the answer with me now: because book categories are how the industry thinks of writing, that’s why. Agents and their Millicents tend to reject queries that do not specify a book category out of hand.

Quoth Joyce: “The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” (Hey, I had to double-check the earlier quote, anyway; I did a little quote-shopping.)

Even though it is honestly is in their own best interest to be specific, there are a number of perfectly legitimate reasons an agency might say it is actively seeking a list of categories that looks less like an agent’s specialties than the entire stock of your local Borders. For example, they might have the editorial connections to place all of those different types of books successfully. This kind of reach is certainly not out of the question for a large, well-established agency, but a great big agency is not necessarily the best choice for every writer and/or every book. (Don’t worry; I’m going to talk how and why next time.)

Fortunately, the standard agency guides routinely print how many clients any listed agency represents, so you need not necessarily track down their entire client list. If it is good-sized — 300 clients, for instance, handled by six or seven agents with different specialties — your task is clear: do a bit of further research to figure out which of those probably well-connected agents has been selling books in your category lately.

Do I hear more murmuring out there? “But Anne, the agents’ guide sitting on my desk at this very moment frequently lists a single agent as the contact person for the entire agency. Isn’t that the person to whom I should address my query, regardless of which agent at the place actually represents my kind of book?”

In a word: no. In several words: not without checking the agency’s website (if it has one) to see if they actually want you to do it that way. These days, most agencies don’t — and they frequently will say so in their submission guidelines. It’s generally in the best interest of the writer to write directly to the member agent who represents a specific kind of book, rather than the listed contact.

There’s no substitute for double-checking, though: if the guide listing is the only source available, then by all means, do as it says.

Okay, so that was quite a few words, but this is important. While some agencies are still set up with a single contact directing incoming queries into the right inbox, the rise of agency websites — and thus the comparative ease of conveying agency-specific querying preferences — has rendered that rare. So why do so many guide listings still list only a single contact? Well, I’m not positive, of course, but my guess would be that it’s simply that the form agencies are asked to fill out includes a space for it.

Oh, you laugh, but the last time you filled out a form, did you spontaneously offer more information than it asked you to provide? Or did you just work your way through, writing in answers every time there was a line?

Be glad of some of those lines, because they allow the guide to collect some very useful information. If the agency in question is small, check to see how long it’s been around — this is routinely listed in agency guides, and with good reason. Selling books to publishers is hard work; agencies go in and out of business all the time. Before they have established a reputation and connections within particular book categories, new agencies — and new agents — sometimes spread a pretty wide net for new clients. In such cases, the list of categories they are seeking can turn into a wish list, rather than a true reflection of what they have sold in the past.

Let me repeat that, because it too is important: a list of categories is not necessarily proof positive that an agency has actually sold books in each of them within the last couple of years — or even within living memory. It can also be a list of what the agency wants to sell over the next couple of years. That’s a definitional haziness not limited to small agencies, certainly, but common to them.

Which means, in practice, if a particular book category is hot right now, or industry buzz says it will be the next big thing, it’s going to turn up on the lists of quite a few agencies that have not yet sold that type of book — and thus in the index of this year’s agency guide.

See the problem? Ideally, you would like to be represented by an agent with a solid track record selling your type of book — and as I have mentioned, oh, 70 or 80 times in this autumn of ‘Paloozas, agents specialize. So do editors. If you write women’s fiction, even a brilliant agent whose sole previous focus are in self-help will probably have a harder time selling your book than someone who sells women’s fiction day in, day out.

An agent who has managed to sell a particular category of book in the past is not only going to have a better idea of who is buying that type of book these days — she’s infinitely more likely to be able to call up the right editor and say, “Listen, you know that fantasy I sold you six months ago? I have one you’re going to like even better.” Or if she’s not more likely to say it, she’s more likely to be believed when she does.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? But when editors start saying things like, “You know what I’m really looking for right now? A book from Hot Category X,” it’s not unheard-of for an agent without a track record in Hot Category X to think, “Hmm, I wish I had one of those handy right now.” Completely understandable, right?

It’s also completely understandable that industry trends often move faster than yearly guide release schedules. Perhaps a category that was hip seven months ago, when the agency filled out the guide questionnaire, but has since fallen out of fashion. Just be aware that if an agency was seeking a particular kind of book only because of its marketing potential at a particular moment, and not because they love that kind of book, and it stops selling — or selling easily — they’re going to tell their Millicents to look askance at queries for it.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of a Hot Category X writer new to the business, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between an enthusiastic neophyte and a seasoned veteran of Hot Category X sales. Every professional writer I know seems to have a story about an author who got caught in this trap. Many are the horror stories about a great chick lit, historical romance, and/or memoir writer who was hotly pursued by an agent who later turned out to have few (or even no) editorial connections in that direction — and who, having unsuccessfully shopped the book around to 4 of the wrong editors, dropped it like a searing stone. Yet another reason that it’s an excellent idea to double-check actual sales before you commit to a representation contract.

Or indeed, before you query. Perhaps even before you place an agent on your querying list.

None of this is to say, of course, that agencies that represent a dizzying array of book categories don’t exist. Many large agencies do. Also, if the lead agent of a smaller concern (whose name, as often as not, will also be the name of the agency) peeled off recently from a great big agency, taking her clients with her, she may well have a track record of selling across many, many book categories. Connections definitely carry over — and since the agent will probably want to advertise that fact, check the listing, website, or conference blurb for a mention of where she worked last.

Then check out THAT agency, to see what they sell early and often.

In short, do your homework, but try not to get paranoid about it. Yes, it’s a whole lot of work, but as our old pal Joyce wrote about something entirely different, “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.”

He was talking mechanics, of course, but I doubt you’d find a querier who has been at it for a while who wouldn’t wholeheartedly agree to add trying to sell to the front of the statement. Keep up the good work!

Assessing who should be on your query list-palooza, part VIII: learning to recognize a gift when it’s offered

torn bird of paradise

Wow, this has been a sad, strange week, campers. Prime evidence: I gave two — count ‘em, two — friends editorial feedback on their respective fathers’ obituaries, to run in local newspapers in different states. I suppose I am the person even I would call for trustworthy proofreading at a time like that, but still, I can’t help but feel that this has been no ordinary week.

I don’t know if you have ever written an obituary or eulogy, but it’s a strange, sad, marvelous process. Like the bird of paradise above, the result should be beautiful, but it will always appear to fall short of perfection. It requires real art to pull off well: few lives have a single coherent narrative, and most are so complex that the eulogizer must be extremely selective about what to include. Like any other synopsis, it can be written entirely in generalities, naturally, but the best are full of the telling details that could have come from no one else’s life but the dear departed.

I’m not bringing this up purely to depress everyone, I assure you. The necessity to summarize complex realities into a few pithy statements is actually quite germane to a matter we have been discussing at some length of late: how to glean information from agency guide listings and websites, to make sure that your query list includes only those agents genuinely and demonstrably interested in representing your type of book.

And half my readership does a double-take. “But Anne,” logic-huggers everywhere cry, “I don’t see the connection — and by the way, the flaws in that bird of paradise appear to have been externally-inflicted, not intrinsic to the flower itself. How is having to summarize an entire lifetime in a few short paragraphs remotely similar to agents having to boil down the possibly quite wide array of books they have represented, are currently representing, and hope to represent in future to just a few short sentences? Or have I just answered my own question?”

Why, yes, you have, logic-lovers — and good point about the flower. The difference lies in the perspective of the beholder. While no one expects an obituary or eulogy to give a complete picture of every nuance of the living person, aspiring writers frantically scanning agency guides and websites are often disappointed, or even frustrated, to find agents’ preferences expressed in only the most general of terms.

That’s unfortunate, because as I mentioned last time, agencies that give clear indications about what they do and do not want to see in a query or a submission are a boon to the savvy query list-generator: by being up front about what kinds of book projects stand a chance of success in the hands of their screener (our old pal Millicent, to be sure), these agencies save writers of other kinds of manuscripts buckets of time.

How, you ask? Conscientious followers of this series, chant it with me now: querying agents who do not habitually represent books in one’s chosen book category is a waste of an agent-seeking writer’s time and energy.

It’s also, not entirely coincidentally, a waste of Millicent’s time and energy to screen a query for a manuscript her boss would not even consider. That’s why, in case any of you fine folks had been wondering, agencies that are not in the market for first-time authors are usually quite blunt in their guide listings about not being particularly open to submissions from new writers. This is actually kind of them: like the agent who stands up at a conference and says, “By the way, although my agency does represent romances, I don’t, so please don’t pitch them to me,” an outright statement of reluctance in an agency guide can save a writer the time, energy, and disappointment of a fruitless approach.

But that’s not how the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers read such statements in guides and on agency websites, is it? Instead, they hear: you’re not important enough for us to consider or ha! We’ve just slammed a door in your face, newbie. Or even: if you were truly talented, oh previously unpublished one, we would already know who you were. Therefore, since we do not, you must not be a very good writer.

Okay, so that last interpretation is a trifle on the paranoid side. But after several straight hours surfing websites or flipping through guide pages, searching for agents who might conceivably be open to representing one’s groundbreaking SF/Western/Highland romance/cookbook, every indicator of lack of interest in one’s own type of book can start to feel like a personal micro-rejection, right?

Don’t believe that search fatigue affects overall querying patterns? Think again. Just as the alphabetically first-listed businesses under a category in the Yellow Pages tend to get called marginally more often, aspiring writers tend to query the agencies at the beginning of the alphabetical listings more frequently than those whose names begin with, say, L: in the face of so many similar-sounding listings, many queriers simply lose steam midway through the Cs. Because some begin at the end and work backwards through guides, the agencies at the end of the alphabet tend to see slightly more query traffic than those between M and T.

Seriously, it’s true, especially just after the first of the year: a hefty percentage of all of those New Year’s resolution-keepers (“This year, I’m going to start sending out a query each day until I land an agent!”) will pick up a standard agency guide, turn to the As, and work forward, or turn to the Zs and work backward. ?So you might want to avoid the A and B agencies, as well as the W-Zs, until well after the first of the year, to avoid being caught in the January rush.

Don’t worry: the average New Year’s resolution lasts less than three weeks. After Martin Luther King, Jr., day, you can feel free to approach those As and Zs; their Millicents will have worked their way through the piles of mail sufficiently to catch a glimpse of their desks again.

But I am digressing, amn’t I? “But Anne,” admirers of linear thought point out, “we were talking about how to read those listings, weren’t we? As fascinating as those last couple of paragraphs on alphabetical order were, shouldn’t we be getting back to the point?”

So we should, consecutive reasoners. Sometimes, the statements in the guides a trifle ambiguous, as if the agency wants to leave itself a bit of definitional wiggle room. Check out this slightly murky piece of guidance, either culled from the agency guide at my elbow or a figment of my extremely vivid imagination:

In approaching with a query, the most important things to me are your credits and your biographical background to the extent it’s relevant to your work. I (and most agents) will ignore the adjectives you may choose to describe your own work.

Now, many aspiring writers would instantly interpret this as don’t bother to query if you don’t already have a book out, but is that in fact what’s being said here? Let’s approach this like one of those nasty reading comprehension problems from the SATs. Is the agent in question actually expressing a preference for

(a) receiving queries from only the previously published (because of that reference to credits),

(b) receiving queries for nonfiction books only (because that first sentence seems to be talking about platform),

(c) receiving queries that are very terse and business-like, containing only minimal mention of the actual content of the book (because the agent who wrote it harbors an inexplicable animosity toward adjectives), or

(d) not trying to limit the scope of queries at all, but only meaning to give some well-intentioned general advice about the desirability of mentioning one’s credentials in a query letter.

How can a savvy querier tell which is the correct interpretation? Actually, she can’t — at least based upon the original quote alone. The fact is, it just isn’t possible to tell what’s meant without reading the rest of the listing — and even then, I would still recommend rushing right over to the agency’s website to double-check its submission guidelines.

Why go to the extra trouble? Well, going over a list of recent sales, the agent in question emerges as someone with a track record of representing science fiction and mystery extremely well. Would you have gleaned that from the statement above?

I’m guessing not. Leaving the thoughtful guide-peruser to wonder: what biographical background would be especially relevant to, say, a SF story set on Pluto? Need one actually have committed a murder to interest this agent in a mystery, or would it just be a nifty selling point?

Even just a basic web search can often turn up clarifying extras. If I told you that the agent responsible for our example also wrote an article recently for a SF fanzine, would your sense of how open he is to new writers increase? Might you even conclude that while this agent is primarily interested in science fiction, his agency is just beginning to expand its nonfiction list? And if so, mightn’t the comment about platform be aimed at nonfiction book proposers, rather than novelists?

A quick search of the last couple of years of this agency’s sales showed this to be precisely the case. (Sorry to disappoint all of you axe murderers out there who had gotten your hopes up.)

See why I think it’s a good idea to do some double-checking — and not to take every statement made in a blurb or listing at face value? Sometimes, industry-speak requires translation.

While we’re on the subject of nonfiction (and industry-speak), let’s take a look at another fairly common type of guide listing statement:

Nonfiction author and/or collaborator must be an authority in subject area and have a platform. Send a SASE if you want a response.

I must admit, I love the if you want a response part: if there is a querier out there who sends out missives WITHOUT wanting a response, I’ve never met him.

But is don’t bother to query if you’re too lazy to include a SASE the only message this agency is trying to send? Definitely not. The first sentence gives some indication of probable rejection criteria (hooray); the second sentence is most likely just giving general advice. Actually, it was probably intended as a bit more than kindly advice: from the phraseology, it’s probably safe to conclude that they simply toss out queries that arrive without a SASE, as many agencies do.

Which does, I suppose, boil down to don’t bother to query if you’re too lazy to include a SASE, now that you mention it. But if you had simply gone with your first knee-jerk reaction to that part, you would have missed the implication that this agency would welcome queries from legitimate experts on nonfiction subjects, wouldn’t you?

That’s not all an experienced eye could glean from this only apparently off-putting statement, however. I find the first sentence interesting as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does: while it would not be wildly inappropriate to conclude that, like our first exemplar, this agency’s Millicents have been trained to reject any NF query that does not include a clear statement of relevant credentials, it is not saying that the agency is only interested in the previously published — not an uncommon restriction for NF agencies. It also, by specifically mentioning a collaborator, is indicating that it is open to queries from ghosts.

So if I were considering querying this agency, I would run, not walk, to my list of selling points. Why? To cull bullet points to cram into my query letter about why I (and/or my collaborator) is the best person in the known universe to write this particular book, and why my target audience will be fascinated to read it.

On the off chance that I’m being too subtle here: There is no substitute for reading agency guide listings and websites IN THEIR ENTIRETY. All too often, would-be queriers mistakenly cross great potential agents off their query lists based upon impressions derived at a first glance — or even based on a perceived tone.

What kind of tone might engender this reaction, you ask? Perhaps an ambiguous beauty like the following:

We prefer that writers be previously published. However, we would take on an unpublished writer of outstanding talent.

That one made you a trifle hot under the collar, didn’t it? Go back and read it again, slowly. I put it to you, dear readers: is this agency open to queries from the previously unpublished or not?

To my eye, the answer is both. They probably would not reject a query outright for not including the credentials paragraph so strongly urged by the agent in our previous example — but a query from a previously unpublished writer would really, really have to wow ‘em to be considered. Or, to put it more crudely, they probably don’t want to rule out the possibility of the author of the next DA VINCI CODE’s not querying them because they said in their listing that they only represented previously published writers.

Remember, a listing, website, or conference blurb is not necessarily the obituary for an agency, depicting with impeccable accuracy its sales achievements to date, but unable to give any hint about the future. Usually, it also reflects what they hope to represent as well. Sometimes, as here, the actual content of that hope is left ambiguous.

And you thought I’d abandoned my obituary analogy. I’m more tenacious than that.

So is it worth a previously unpublished writer’s time to query an agency that seems to be hedging its bets like this? Possibly — provided that the agency has a solidly impressive track record in selling book’s in the writer’s chosen category and that it has sold a first book within the last couple of years.

Why that last caveat? As I have mentioned before, sometimes agency listings are rerun unchanged year after year. Websites are not always up-to-date reflectors of recent sales, either, and many, many agencies will list only their best-known clients. The expressed openness to writers of extraordinary talent expressed in a guide listing, then, might not be a current enthusiasm. Or even a recent one.

How can a savvy writer tell? Fly straight to its sales record. This need not be time-consuming: instead of concentrating on its client list in its entirety, focus on debut novel sales. (Most of the industry databases will include this information.) Or if you write nonfiction, first books in general.

If you don’t see any, you might want to rely more heavily on their assertion that they prefer the previously published and save yourself a stamp. Again, they have done you a favor.

Starting to get the hang of this? Let’s take a look at one more listing statement — or, better yet, let’s compare these three:

We care about writers and books, not just money, but we care about the industry as well. We will not represent anyone who might hurt our clients or our reputation. We expect our writers to work hard and to be patient. Do not send a rude query; it will get you nowhere. If we ask to see your book, don’t wait around to send it or ask a bunch of irrelevant questions about movie writes and so forth…If you can’t write a synopsis, don’t bother to query us. The industry is based upon the synopsis; sometimes it is all the editor ever sees. Be professional and follow our guidelines when submitting. And don’t believe everything you hear on the Internet about editors and publishers — it isn’t always true.

Present your book or project effectively in your query. Don’t include links to a webpage rather than use a traditional query, but take the time to prepare a thorough but brief synopsis of the material. Make the effort to prepare a thoughtful analysis of comparison titles. Why is your work different, yet would appeal to the same readers?

We are not interested in receiving poorly written submissions from authors with grandiose attitudes; don’t compare yourself to Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. Blackmail never works — don’t tell us that you’ll only send your manuscript to us if we can guarantee you will be published. Please always send a SASE or else we won’t be able to contact you. Write stories that make sense; research everything down to the bone. Most importantly, be proud of your work; no self-deprecation.

Okay, what’s wrong with these three excerpts from guide listings?

From an aspiring writer’s point of view, absolutely nothing; they’re stuffed to the brim with thoughtful, practical advice about how to avoid these agents’ respective pet peeves. Well done, blurb writers, who may or may not exist outside my head!

To more cynical eyes, these responses might perhaps indicate questionnaire-answerers with a fair amount of time on their hands — the first lines of the first do carry a mission-statement aura about them. If I had to guess, though, I would say that pretty much all of these admonitions refer to individual queries they have received recently, rather than to general trends.

Faced with this sort of broad-reaching statement, a cynical querier might verify the size and longevity of the agency. Very small agencies — say, under 25 clients — will frequently have more specific blurbs, and for a very good reason: they can accept fewer clients per year than an agency that represents a couple of hundred clients. So probabilistically, they tend to be slightly worse bets than the larger concerns.

But it is awfully nice of them to tell writers up front what will trigger an automatic rejection, no? Make no mistake, that is what they are doing here — and indeed, what any agent who chooses to give specific querying advice almost certainly intends.

Trust me, no one likes to see her advice neglected. It’s in your interest to follow it to the letter, if not in all your queries, than at least in queries aimed toward the advice-giver’s agency.

In short, it is very much in a writer’s interest to read blurbs and listings very, very carefully — and in their entirety. Weigh all of the information you are being offered, even if it seems ambiguous or downright opaque: if an agent took the time to write more than the bare minimum, he’s probably trying to tell you something.

That’s also often true of obituaries and eulogies, come to think of it: a rushed, careless, or simply overwhelmed eulogizer might well fall back on generalizations and platitudes. It’s the telling details, though, that give the reader or hearer a sense of the actual person being described.

When individual preferences pop up in agency guide listings or in submission guidelines, cherish them. Appreciate them for the useful signposts that they are, and be glad that someone at that agency was kind enough to give aspiring writers some guidance. Because, really, is it in anybody’s interest for a query to end up on the wrong agent’s desk?

Oh, yes, I have more to say on the subject. Tune in next time, and keep up the good work!

Query lists and the fine folks who appear on them-palooza, part VII: perhaps not what you were expecting, but…

attacked-by-squid II

Okay, okay, so that’s not a particularly snappy title, but since we are nearing the end of this ‘Palooza on how to find agents to query (nope, already used that one), we should probably be expecting my title inventiveness to be wilting a trifle. Frankly, I’m eager to get back to some issues of craft…although, of course, given my very practical focus, I shall probably discuss them within the context of common manuscript failings that make agency screeners’ hair stand on end.

Which wouldn’t have been a bad image to use on Halloween, come to think of it: our old pal Millicent in a fright wig, permanently scarred by the haunting memory of submissions past. Have sympathy for her, campers; yes, she’s responsible for a heck of a lot of rejections, but hers is a very difficult job.

Unless, of course, aspiring writers are kind enough to make her life easy by sending her queries for books in categories nobody at her agency represents — or no longer represents. Then, her job’s a piece of proverbial cake.

Not entirely coincidentally, I waxed long, if not eloquent, in my last post on the desirability of bolstering the information one might find in a standard agents’ guide, a conference blurb, or even an agency’s website with a little further research. Today, I’m going to talk about where to seek out that additional info.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a savvy querier like you has been conscientiously haunting the library for the past month, shaking the Dewey Decimal System vigorously until a dandy list of authors of books like yours dropped out of it. Because you are market-aware, you have naturally limited your search to books that have come out within the last five years; because you are hip to booth just how tight the literary market is right now and how much more difficult it can be for an agent to sell a first-time author’s work than an established one’s, you have been focusing your efforts on first and second books, on the very sensible theory that the agents who represented them might be more likely to take a chance on a fresh new voice than others. You’ve already tracked down the agents thanked in these books’ acknowledgments.

Now, savvy querier, you’re all set to track down who represented the books ungraced by acknowledgement pages. Having embarked upon that laudable endeavor, one question is ringing in your mind like the Liberty Bell: why on earth is this most basic information so difficult to come by?

I wish I could tell you that there is some esoteric reason for that, having perhaps to do with national security or fear of offending the muses by breaking a millennium-old code of silence. In principle, since all publishing deals in the U.S. are matters of public record — not the financial specifics, perhaps, but definitely the players — gathering this data should be the proverbial walk in the park.

But it undoubtedly isn’t, at least without paying for access to a publishing industry database. While there are a few websites that offer searches by author represented, they are often also for-pay sites, and if the complaints one hears ringing through the bars that are never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America are accurate, the data on them is not always up-to-date; authors switch agencies almost as often as agents do.

Is that giant collective gasp of indignation that just rocked the ether an indication that neither of those last couple of revelations was what a writer seeking an agent wants to hear?

I hate to be the one to break it to you gentle souls, but landing an agent is not like tag: a writer doesn’t necessarily get to connect with It once, then drop out of the game. There are plenty of reasons an already-agented writer might find herself treading the wearisome querying road for a second time. An author might decide to write a book outside her agent’s interests, for instance, or the agent’s may decide he no longer wants to represent the kind of book a client writes. When an agent moves from one agency to another, his clients may or may not go with him. A mammoth, literature-deploring squid might attack Manhattan, reaching through the windows of major agencies and wrapping its grasping tentacles around any unlucky soul wandering the hallways.

Okay, so that last bit was to see if you were paying attention. Squid attacks on agencies are exceedingly rare.

My point is — you hadn’t thought I’d forgotten it, had you? — just as it would be foolish for an author looking to change agencies to revert to her query list from five or six years earlier, when she had last been in the market for representation, it would be counterproductive for an aspiring writer looking for a first agent to work off information that’s, well, a trifle on the elderly side. Or to assume that what was true a year and a half ago, when he first put together his querying list, is necessarily still true now.

Conditions change, even without the intervention of super-sized marine cephalopods.

So how might one update a query list — or add to it? The web is an invaluable tool: sometimes, you can learn who represents an author quite quickly, via a simple web search. However, as I’m sure some of you know from frustrating experience, this method can be very time-consuming, and it won’t always yield the results you want.

Why? Well, a standard search under the author’s name will generally pull up every review ever published about her work. As well as every article in which she is mentioned, prompts to buy her book at Amazon and B & N — not in that order — as well as the author’s own website. (Which, before you get your hopes up, may or may not tell you who represents her. Surprisingly often, established authors’ websites don’t.) Wading through all of that information can be a long slog, and does not always lead to what you need.

That doesn’t mean, however, that none of what turns up will help you. If you are searching for the agent who represented a specific book, it is worthwhile to check out the industry reviews excerpted on the booksellers’ sites. Or just go directly to one of the standard advance review sites: Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. Occasionally, the agent’s name is listed at the end of these reviews.

(Why would these reviews list such an arcane detail? Well, the industry reviews are written primarily for the benefit of retailers who are considering stocking the book, not readers who might conceivably buy it from retailers. They appear considerably before the release date; long enough, in fact, that it is not unheard-of for editors to pull a book from the print queue that has received a less-positive-than-anticipated advance reviews, so that the book may be revised prior to release. (Or, more commonly, re-re-re-revised.) Print reviews, by contrast, tend to coincide with the book’s release, and are aimed at the general reading public. Thus, they seldom contain information of interest only to people in the industry.)

Actually, Amazon, B&N, and Powell’s all routinely post industry reviews, too, and it’s always worth checking to see if Publishers Weekly did an article on the deal. If you really wanted to take a month to get a feel for who was who in your genre, you could sit down and read the last year’s worth of advance reviews. (If you do, and you write SF/fantasy, stick with Kirkus. Trust me on this one.)

But honestly, who has the time to read all of that and write?

You were thinking that already, weren’t you? I can hear chairs shifting out there; skepticism is in the air. “Anne, Anne, Anne,” I hear some of you restless-but-observant types muttering, “you’ve been telling me for over five years that agents and editors are massively busy people who may well become impatient during the course of a two-minute pitch. Do you seriously expect me to believe that if they wanted to find out who represented a particular book, they would go shuffling though 50 websites?”

Okay, you’ve got me there: they wouldn’t. They would consult one of the standard industry databases. The catch: those databases are by subscription.

Translation: it’s gonna cost you something over and above your time.

Usually, you ostensibly join a sort of club, and one of the perqs of membership is database access. Almost invariably, you buy membership in specified time increments (often a month), rather than per-use, so if you are up for gorging yourself on agent info, you could conceivably lock yourself in a room with your computer for a week or two and generate a list of a couple of hundred names, along with the specifics of who has sold what lately, then cancel your membership.

You might be a little sick to your stomach afterward, having learned so much about what is and isn’t selling at the moment, but at least you would have a very up-to-date list.

Personally, I prefer the Publishers Marketplace database; it’s not terrifically expensive, and agents often use it themselves. It has a very straightforward function called WHO REPRESENTS, very easy to use. Feed in your favorite authors’ names, and presto! you have instant access to who sold their most recent projects. This, as those of you who have been trying to ferret out such information already know, can save you literally months of research time.

You can also track individual agents, to see whom they represent and what they have sold in the last few years. If you sign up for the for-pay Publishers Lunch e-mailings (which isn’t a bad idea, as such a high percentage of US-based publishing folks read it and/or Publishers Weekly; it’s a great way to gain a basic idea of how the biz works and how swiftly publishing fads change), you will gain access to this database.

PM charges month-to-month, so if you are strapped for cash, you could easily generate a list of authors, join for a month, search to your little heart’s content, then cancel. (But you didn’t hear it from me.) Or you could corral a few of your writer friends to go in on an ongoing subscription with you, with the understanding that you’ll share the data.

Even then, you might find it a little spendy, so I hasten to add: as savvy reader Nadine pointed out, PM’s website does allow non-members to search at least part of its database; if you’re looking for who represented a book sold within the last few years, this is a good quick option. I notice, however, that such searches do not yield specific deal information — which renders it considerably more difficult to check what, for instance, an agent has sold in the last 6 months.

Personally, I kind of like being able to look up everything that’s sold in my genre within the last month, but as we all know, my tastes a trifle odd. But why might access to such a database make a difference to the usefulness of your querying list?

Several reasons, actually. First, if you want to query every agent who has sold a book like yours in the last year, obviously, a search engine that would enable you to pull up the sales in your chosen book category over that period of time would save you quite a bit of time. Second — and this one should sound a trifle familiar to those of you who have been ‘Paloozaing of late — it’s always a nice touch to be able to mention an agent’s most recent sale of a book like yours in a query letter: Congratulations on your recent sale of Author McWriterly’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. As my writing is similar, I hope you will be interested in my novel… Third — and this one should ring a few bells, too — because both the market and agency personnel are changing so fast these day, information about who is selling books in your category right now, as opposed to a year or two ago, when the books hitting the shelves now were being acquired by editors, might enable you to fine-tune your querying list.

Please pick your jaws off the floor, writers brand-new to the publishing process. Especially if you are writing fiction, it’s imperative to be aware that from an agent’s perspective, what is selling in bookstores right now is not necessarily an accurate reflection of what she can sell to a publishing house right now. Since there is typically at least a year between a publisher’s acquiring a book and its release, trolling the New Releases shelf will tell you what interested editors a while ago — not today, or even yesterday.

See why a query list-generator might want to garner up-to-the-minute sales information?

Before you dismiss the idea of spending money on professional database access, do sit down and figure out how much your time is worth. Why? Well, the practically-free method of acquiring the same information that I am about to suggest is so time-consuming that shelling out for a subscription service may start to look downright reasonable.

If you do have the time to invest, there is a free way to find out who represented any book, if it was published within the United States. As I mentioned above, the sale of a book is a matter of public record, and as such, publishers must provide information about who represented the author to anyone who asks.

So how do you get ‘em to cough up the information? Pick a book, call the publisher (there is often a phone number listed on the copyright page, to facilitate further book sales; if not, try the publisher’s website), and ask to speak to the publicity department. When you reach a human being (have a magazine handy; it can take awhile), ask who the agent of record was for the book.

You may encounter a certain amount of incredulity at your old-fashioned approach, but do not let that deter you. They are obligated to give you the information, and often, they’re rather charmed to hear that someone liked one of their books so much that he was willing to go to such significant effort to find out who represented it.

See why I thought you might find it a tad on the time-consuming side? Don’t worry; I still have a few time-saving tricks up my sleeve.

I sense a bit of disgruntlement out there. “Yeah, right, Anne: people at publishing houses are going to be happy to hear from readers. Pull the other one. I’ve always heard that under no circumstances should an aspiring writer ever call a publishing house or an agency. And why would they be nice to an aspiring writer, anyway?”

Well, for starters, that advice about never calling? It’s intended to prevent this conversation, and this conversation alone: “Hello, agency/publishing house? I have a book that’s a natural for Oprah, and…hello? Hello?”

A writer familiar enough with the ropes to be querying is probably not going to make that mistake. A dedication to playing by the rules is why, I suspect, that a weary What do you mean, you’re going to treat me like a human being? cynicism tends to pop from the mouths of aspiring writers who have been querying for a good long time.

It’s completely understandable, of course. After a couple of dozen form-letter rejections — which entail, basically, being told by a faceless entity that one’s writing is not good enough, but not being told how or why — it’s very, very easy to start to believe that agencies and publishing houses are staffed by writer-hating ogres, leering loreleis who cajole writers into sending in their hopes and dreams, purely for the pleasure of smashing them into the ground.

No wonder the giant squid has it in for them, if so. But happily for writers everywhere, this just isn’t the case.

There are a few mean people, of course, as in any profession, and I suppose it’s not out of the question that some perversely masochistic hater of the written word might choose to torture herself by becoming an agency screener. For the most part, though, if you have the opportunity to talk to an agent, editor, or one of their overworked Millicents, you will discover someone who genuinely adores good writing and is sincerely eager to promote the interests of those who produce it.

Stop laughing, jaded queriers. It’s true.

Not everyone agrees on what constitutes good writing, of course — one doesn’t have to hang around the industry very long to realize that plenty of pros apparently don’t make too strong a distinction between what is marketable and what is well-written — but contrary to the gloomy rumors perennially circulating on the writers’ conference circuit, it’s rare to find an agent or editor who genuinely regards writers as merely the necessary evil behind a successful book.

So why do so many of their form-letter rejections, conference speeches, websites, and even statements in agency guides convey, to put it politely, the opposite impression? An array of reasons — absolutely none of which have anything to do with you or your writing. Please, for your own sake, do not fall into the trap of taking it personally.

In the first place, form-letter rejections are now the industry norm. Period. Even for submissions — yes, even when an agent or editor has asked to see the entire book. In fact, sending out rejections at all is one of the more polite responses; as I am sure many of you are already aware, many agencies have a stated policy that they will not respond at all if the answer is no.

It’s annoying as heck for the writer who receives them, of course, but non-responses, like boilerplate rejections, are the industry’s reaction to the incredible rise in queries since the advent of the home computer. Like so many other puzzling aspects of the submission process, these phenomena can be explained by the agents’ desire to save time.

Which, as long-time readers of this blog know, can be darned hard in an agency that receives 1500 queries per week. While reason tells us that it would take only a few seconds per query for the agent or screener to scrawl a couple of words of explanation in the margin of a pre-printed rejection (which does happen occasionally, if a screener has mixed feelings about the rejection), the sheer volume of envelopes on Millicent’s desk tends to discourage it.

See why I don’t think you should take it personally? Or even necessarily as an indication of the quality of your writing?

Do I hear still more disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” a few hoarse voices cry, “this isn’t what I’ve heard. I’ve always been told — sometimes by agents speaking at writers’ conferences — that if I have been querying for a while and receiving only form rejections, I must be doing something terribly wrong.”

I’ve heard that one, too — and interestingly, I’ve sometimes heard agents who use form-letter rejections heavily say it at conferences, so aspiring writers come by this impression legitimately. However, it is an outdated notion. Gone are the days when only those illiterate queries and submissions without a prayer of being salvaged were brushed off in this manner.

Although, to tell you the truth, since the invention of the photocopier, there have always been more agencies and publishing houses using boilerplate rejections than was generally recognized. Stuffing form-letter rejections into SASEs is just too good a way to plow through the day’s mail.

To understand why, place yourself in Millicent’s moccasins for a moment: she’s been screening submissions all day, and she wants to go home on time in order to crank out those grad school applications. (Oh, she dreams big, our Millicent!) Standing between her and the door are the 350 query letters that arrived in the morning’s mail and/or e-mail — probably more, if it’s a Monday — and she knows that another 350 or so will be dumped on her desk tomorrow. Isn’t it in her interest to get through each of those queries as quickly as humanly possible?

This is precisely what she does, of course. Dear Agent letters and queries for book categories her agency doesn’t represent are rejected barely read, of course, as are letters that fail to conform to the norms of submission. (For a crash course on just what those norms are, please see the QUERYPALOOZA! category at right.) For each, she stuffs the agency’s boilerplate rejection into the accompanying SASE and moves on to the next query.

And that, too, is partially a function of time. Think about it: since an acceptance requires a personalized letter or e-mail, it takes longer to accept a query than to reject it, right? If Millicent has already decided to reject a query, which is she more likely to do when she’s trying to get out of the office, give a detailed explanation why, or just reach for that pile of rejection letters?

Would it affect your answer to know that take the easy route might save her a full two minutes? Not a lot of time in the life of the writer who has poured years into writing the book being queried, I’ll allow, but the sheer volume she faces precludes lingering. Don’t believe me? Do the math: 350 queries x 2 minutes/query = 700 minutes.

11.6 hours. In other words, longer than a standard work day.

If she works at an agency that accepts e-mailed queries — still not universal, but becoming more common all the time — her rejection rate is probably even faster. One of the reasons that some agencies prefer e-queries is, after all, the greater ease of rejection. She is probably using pretty much the same boilerplate: all she has to do is copy-and-paste it into a return e-mail. Unless she simply hits DELETE.

The fact that e-mailed rejections are usually phrased identically to paper form-letter rejections often comes as a surprise to many habitual e-queriers: after all, how long could it possibly take to give a sentence or two of actual feedback?

We writers tend to forget this, but to most of the earth’s population, the transposition of thought into written sentences is a time-consuming and sometimes even painful process. A good reader is not always a good, or even adequate, writer. Which is a nice way of saying that Millicent is unlikely to reinvent the wheel each time she taps out an e-rejection. It’s much more time-efficient to paste the same only-apparently-kind language her agency has been cramming into SASEs for years.

To experienced eyes, the same stock phrases — and often even the same sentences — are evident in pretty much every boilerplate rejection, be it electronic or paper-based. I’m sure you recognize them: Your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time. We are only accepting clients selectively. I just didn’t fall in love with it. There’s some strong writing here, but I just don’t think I can sell this in the current competitive market.

Okay, I’ll admit it: all of this may not be the best way to make my point that most agents and editors are really rather fond of writers and their work. I would argue, though, that precisely because such practices — form-letter rejections, non-response rejections — are impersonal by definition, it doesn’t make sense, logically, to read them as a reflection upon your work.

Seriously, there is nothing to read into a statement like I’m sorry, but this does not meet our needs at this time, other than a simple, unnuanced No, is there?

Which, admittedly, is lousy enough to hear — but it certainly is not the same as hearing, You know, I really liked your premise, but I felt your execution was weak, feedback that might actually help a writer improve the next query or submission. And it’s definitely better than hearing what so many writers read into such statements, hostility that amounts to Take it away — everything about this book concept is loathsome!

At minimum, it should NEVER be read as, since I’m saying no, no one else will ever say yes. Just note the response — and send out the next query immediately.

I sense some lightening of writerly hearts out there, but still, some strategic-minded spirits are troubled. “But Anne,” a few quiet voices point out, “this is all very well as encouragement, but why in Sam Hill are you telling us this in the midst of a series of posts on how to build a querying list?”

Because, sharp-minded questioners, in preparing these blog posts, I have been reading through quite a few listings, websites, and conference blurbs. In short, I have been sifting through what a writer trying to glean some sense of a particular agent’s preferences might find. Over the years, I haven’t been able to help but notice that just as many aspiring writers read a certain hostility into form rejections, they sometimes read a coldness into the listings and blurbs themselves.

I don’t think this tendency to leap to the most cynical conclusion is in an aspiring writer’s best interest, as far as pulling together a querying list goes. While some agencies seem to go out of their way to be encouraging, others come across as off-puttingly intimidating. Most of the time, though, what they are actually saying is just businesslike advice: Query first by mail. Include SASE. Query before submitting. No e-mail queries.

A bit terse, perhaps, but nothing to cause undue dismay. Sometimes, though, these statements — which are, the shy writer assumes, how the agency is choosing to promote itself to potential clients — can come across as positive discouragement to query at all.

Chief among these, naturally, are the ones that actually ARE intended to discourage queriers: We do not accept submissions from previously unpublished writers. New clients considered by recommendation only. Does not consider science fiction, fantasy, or mysteries. Or my personal favorite from the first page of the guide currently at my elbow: Although we remain absolutely dedicated to finding new talent, we must announce that until further notice we can no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. We also cannot accept queries or submissions via e-mail.

While a thoughtful peruser might be left wondering, how precisely the agency in question acts upon the absolute dedication it mentions, having so emphatically cut off the most logical manners of exercising it, it is usually best to take such statements at face value. To my eye, what that last admonition was actually saying was not do not approach us, but please send queries by mail only, and if you send unrequested pages with it, we won’t read them.

Not particularly hostile to new talent, is it?

Read such statements very, very carefully — believe it or not, agencies post them to help you. If an agency isn’t considering books like yours, or if it relies upon its existing client list to recruit new writers for them (not all that unusual), querying them isn’t going to be a very efficient use of your time, right? Similarly, when a listing or blurb includes a simple statement of preference, along the lines of No phone calls or Include first five pages with query, this information can help the savvy querier avoid annoying Millicent.

Hey, I’m all for anything that keeps Millicent’s itchy finger away from that delete button. Why wouldn’t a reasonable writer want to know practical information like We never download attachments to e-mail queries for security reasons, so please copy and paste material into your e-mail?

I consider specificity a very good sign in an agency guide listing or website’s submission guidelines; as anyone who has flipped through one of the standard guides can tell you, it’s fairly rare. Whenever I see a website whose organizers have taken the time to give the logic behind their preferences, I shout, “Wow, this agency has given the process some creative thought. Vive la difference!

But listings, websites, blurbs, and even conference speeches that bark advice at the writer — and, once notice, it tends to be the same advice, over and over again — can be harder to decipher. Does the assertion that I do not take on books described as bestsellers or potential bestsellers, for instance, mean that the agent is specifically looking for less commercial work, that he doesn’t like to see target market demographics in an e-mail, or just that he’s tired of receiving boasts? Does This agency prefers not to share information on specific sales mean that they don’t have many big names on their client list, that they tend to sell to smaller presses, that they are too new an agency to have many clients’ books on the shelves yet — or just that the guy whose job it was to fill out the questionnaire was in a hurry?

Here, too, the impulse to read character into the responses can easily run amok — but what a temptation some of agencies do provide! For example, does the order Be professional! mean that the agency stating it is interested in working with a writer new to the business, or doesn’t it? And why, the nervous would-be querier wonders, does this agency immediately leap to the conclusion that I intend to be unprofessional in my approach?

Actually, there’s a pretty good reason for that: expressing such preferences is usually an attempt to save themselves some time. An agent doesn’t have to receive very many phone calls from aspiring writers before she notices that each takes up quite a bit more time than reading a query letter, after all, or be buried under an avalanche of unrequested manuscripts before establishing a policy that she will read only what she has asked to see.

So yes, a lot of queriers do approach unprofessionally, but let’s face it, those are probably not the ones who are likely to take the time to read the agency’s guidelines, anyway. In my experience, the habitual readers of the standard agency guides — at least the ones who are predisposed to follow directions — are not the ones who need to be told always to include a SASE, or never to send an unsolicited manuscript; these are the wholly admirable souls who have done their homework, bless ‘em.

But the overwhelming majority of generic queries — and pretty much all of the much-deplored “Dear Agent” variety — come from aspiring writers who have not taken the time to learn the rules of the game. (Unlike, say, you.) This is way the terser listings and blurbs tend to focus upon what NOT to do or send, implying a focus upon the avalanche of queries an agency receives, not on the plight of the sender of this week’s 657th letter.

So when a listing strikes you as off-putting, ask yourself, “Is this snappish list of don’ts aimed at me — or at the nameless person who sent a query without knowing to include a SASE? If it’s the latter, I’m just going to glean this listing or website for what applies to me.”

That may sound like denial, but actually, it is a sane and rational response to what is being said in most agency listings and submission guidelines. Keep reminding yourself: this is generic advice, not intended for your eyes, but the last querier who annoyed the agent in question. Nor is it a personality evaluation for the agent who wrote it — again, probably not a professional writer.

“I can understand why an agent might want to give generic querying advice at a conference or on a website,” some of you argue, and cogently, “but the standard agency guides have entire articles about how to query, for goodness’ sake! Do we really need 74 agents also reminding us to query before sending a manuscript?”

Good point, oh skeptical one. But it brings me back to my earlier point: most agents are not writers. Thus, few of them have ever queried a book of their own.

That means, among other things, that the average agent may not be aware of just how hard it is for even the best manuscript to attract representation these days. (Tell the truth now: if someone had told you how hard it was before you tried it yourself, would you have believed it?) They may not realize that it is now quite common for a very good writer with a truly fabulous book to need to query 50 or 100 agents before finding the right fit.

Which makes it entirely safe to conclude that they are not given to thumbing through the nearest agency guide in their odd leisure moments. I seriously doubt most of them are aware just how much repetition there is in the listings.

Again, that’s useful information for the writer who is predisposed to reading character into trifles (and what novelist isn’t?) If you approach those pithy little bursts of advice recognizing that their producers could conceivably believe that this listing might well be the first time anyone has ever heard of a SASE, they make considerably more sense.

Whew, this is a long post, isn’t it? And yet, amazingly, I still have a bit more to say on the subject of how to read agency listings, believe it or not. Steer clear of literature-loathing squid, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Cobbling together a query list-palooza, part VI: eureka! Oh, wait, maybe I haven’t found it

old miner panning for gold

Still no suggestions for a fun-yet-appropriate name for this series, campers? Really? I’m on the verge of giving up entirely and just christening the darned thing Herbert. That would be a pity, not only because it’s not a particularly evocative name (unless, of course, one is writing about the Great Depression), but because this series has a lot of character.

Or characters, potentially: for those of you tuning in late, I have devoted the last week to going over the standard advice about how to find out who represents whom, so that you can query the agents of authors whose work resembles yours. As those of you paying close attention have probably noticed, most of the methods I have covered so far involve a heck of a lot of legwork for the writer: spending hours in bookstores, searching for acknowledgment pages that may or may not exist, going to author readings, making use of connections made at conferences and through writing groups, the works.

In essence, this advice is predicated on the assumption that the information is indeed out there to find; it’s simply the would-be querier’s responsibility to search for it. Admittedly, in a world where even reputable journalists’ primary research methodology is the Internet search, this seems agonizingly slow.

But as anyone who has ever typed the words literary agency into a standard search engine, trolling for agents online is not necessarily any faster. Indeed, it is sometimes even slower, as the results of a generalized search can be pretty indiscriminate. Even when one finds an agency’s website via a generic search, it often takes significant further research to figure out if it is reputable, has a good track record, and represents what you write.

A writer does need to be careful, after all: an attractive website does not necessarily credibility prove, and there are, unfortunately, scammers out there who pose as legitimate agents. For someone new to the game, it can occasionally be hard to tell the gold from, well, the other stuff in the pan.

Why might a scammer lick his unscrupulous chops at the prospect of taking advantage of eager-but-underinformed writers seeking agents? Catering to those treading the early steps on the path to publication is big business. The aspiring writer market is immense: just look at how many conferences, seminars, books, and magazines are aimed at it. Because success is elusive and the process genuinely confusing even to many who have been at it for a while, a business that offers what appears to be a means to bypass all or part of the usual long, hard slog can sound awfully appealing to many.

Like it or not, though, there just isn’t a shortcut around the hyper-competitive querying and submission process. You can certainly learn how to go about it more professionally — thus the autumn of ‘Paloozas — but as far as I know, no one has yet bottled sure-fire literary success and offered it online to any comer.

So let the writer beware. At the risk of perpetuating a cliché, if a publishing-oriented website offers aspiring writers a break that seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Many of the businesses that profess to give aspiring writers a leg up are clever about it, though, so do proceed with caution. Sometimes, websites aimed at appealing to the desperation of the querying writer give judicious small tweaks to their sites to give the impression that they are offering legitimate representation, whereas they are actually offering something quite different.

Usually, it’s an editing service — at a price far, far higher than a reputable freelance editor would charge.

A good rule of thumb for weeding out the questionable: if an agency requests money from potential clients up front — usually called a reading fee — it should set off warning bells in your pretty little head. (If you’re in doubt about what fees are and are not reasonable, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.) Ditto if the agency demands that potential clients pay for a professional evaluation, either performed in-house or via a specific editing service, before it will consider you as a client. Or even implies that paying for a specific set of editing services will increase your chances of their taking you on as a client.

Why should an agency that charges to read your work render you suspicious? Because reputable agencies earn their money through commissions on their clients’ writing — and that requires selling books. If an agency’s website tells you otherwise, it would behoove you to double-check its credentials.

How can you check? First, if the agency is located within the U.S., find out if it is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives. The AAR takes the ethics of its members very seriously, bless ‘em, and it flatly forbids them to charge their clients extraneous fees. A fee-charging agent — including one who accepts kickbacks from an editing service — cannot be a member of the AAR.

So you see, I’m not the only one who considers agents’ charging reading fees highly questionable.

The United States is not the only country in the English-speaking world whose reputable agents have banded together, I am delighted to report. In the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Authors’ Agents. In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association. As far as I am aware, Canada does not have an agents’ association (if anyone north of the border knows otherwise, please let me know, and I’ll be delighted to update this), but the Association of Canadian Publishers’ website does include information about literary agents.

Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. They are there to help writers make crucial decisions about who should represent their work, so don’t be shy about availing yourself of their resources..

Please don’t dismiss the notion doing some minimal checking to assure the agents reading your work are on the up-and-up as writerly paranoia — who represents your work is too important to your writing career to leave to chance. Remember, not everyone who slaps up an official-looking website is actually an agent, and good writers too nice to want to seem confrontational get burned all the time.

Another good place to check is the Preditors and Editors website, which allows you to look up both individual agents and agencies. P&E acts as a clearinghouse for complaints; if they learn that an agency has been charging fees, they will say so. Also — and this is useful — they code their listings by whether they have been able to verify if an agent or agency has actually sold any books.

Well might that implication make you gulp. The mere fact that they have seen fit to note that should give you some indication of just how many good aspiring writers have been burned by fake agencies.

You also might want to stop by the Absolute Write Water Cooler, where aspiring writers’ comments on individual agents and agencies are indexed (and thus searchable) for your perusing pleasure. They also garner information on publishers and share advice about avoiding scams. Writer Beware, a website sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, provides a wealth of resources for those who want to learn about scams aimed at writers.

If the mere idea of having to do a background check on the agent who has just asked to see your first 50 pages makes you feel like fainting, there is an easier way to limit your query list to the reputable. Both of the most reliable agency guides are in book form, the Herman Guide and that perennial bestseller, Guide to Literary Agents limit their listings to the legit. Both come out every year — and since agents move around so much, it is a good idea to rely upon the current guide, rather than one from a couple of years ago.

Yes, buying them every year can be a mite spendy — but there’s no law saying that you and twelve of your writer friends can’t all chip in on a single copy, is there?

While it may seem Luddite-like to suggest buying a — gasp! — book in order to conduct research, these guides are both excellent places to find contact information for agents. Which is to say: most of the queriers I know find them more useful to get the nitty-gritty on agents already identified as appropriate for a particular book than as a first stop for agent-searching.

It certainly would be possible to use them as a first stop, however. Both list agents by specialty — a boon for anyone seeking basic information about whom to solicit — and both routinely ask agents to specify which book categories they are seeking, and which they would reject on sight. Personally, I prefer the Herman Guide — it is chattier and tends to ask more interesting questions — but usually, it covers a smaller range of agencies.

So why shouldn’t you just flip to the index, make a list of every agent who represents your kind of book, and send the same category-specific query to each without further research?

Well, frankly, you could; truth compels me to say that I do know many authors who landed their agents that way. However, this kind of broad, one-size-fits-all solicitation tends not to be as successful: it is geared for a generic audience, rather than the desires of a particular human being. (For some impassioned disquisition on why vague querying is unstrategic, please see the WHY GENERIC QUERIES DON’T WORK category at right.)

As you may be gathering, I’m a fan of gathering information from a number of sources — which the guide listings’ seeming completeness often discourages. Since the amount of information offered varies quite a bit from agency to agency (I’ll explain why later), most aspiring writers simply assume that where there is little presented, there just isn’t much to tell.

However, that’s often not true. Most guide listings are pretty terse by design, focusing upon the agency’s preferences as a whole rather than those of the member agents. Although admittedly, there are exceptions, it can be very difficult to glean enough information to personalize a query well. The usual problem: when they list what authors an agency currently represents, they tend to stick to the best-known clients.

Or, to put it in terms that might affect you more directly: generally not those who have sold a first book within the last year or two. Yes, it’s nice to see names that you recognize, but an agency’s big sellers are often neither their most recent sales nor a particularly good indicator of that they are looking for now in a new client.

Why is getting up-to-date info so important? Well, agents’ preferences change all the time; so does the book market. What a particular agent was hot to represent three or four years ago isn’t necessarily what s/he is seeking today. What the agent has sold within the last year is the most reliable indicator of what s/he would like to see in a query next week.

And even in the rare instances where the blurbs do provide up-to-date titles, few of the guides include the authors’ names in the index, so the aspiring writer is reduced to skimming the entire book, looking for familiar writers. Not terribly efficient, is it?

Oh, I can feel some of you preparing to throw up your hands in despair. You’re contemplating reverting to non-personalized queries, aren’t you, in order to save yourself some research time? On the off chance that I have not yet talked each and every one of you out of simply conducting a generalized search of every agent in the country who represents your book category and sending the same query to all of ‘em, I beg you now to consider: we all know how annoying it is to be solicited by a telemarketer or spammer who hasn’t the faintest idea of our personal likes and dislikes, right? That kind of mass marketing operates on the assumption that if it sprays widely enough, it will eventually hit someone who is actually interested it what its purveyor is selling.

As applied to queries, that strategy is every bit as annoying to agents — and still more to our old friend Millicent the screener, who reads queries all day, every day. Targeting makes more sense. Yes, it is time-consuming to do the legwork to find out about individual agents’ literary preferences, but ultimately, it’s more likely to be successful.

I know that it seems practically Victorian to say this in the age of instant web searching, but often, tracking down those preferences requires looking in more than one place. It requires, in fact, a bit of cross-checking, not only because preferences change and agents change agencies but — as I’m sure those of you who have been at it a while have are already aware — frequently, the information one finds about a particular agency will vary, depending upon where you happen to be looking.

Yes, you read that last part correctly: often, the information published or posted about an agency in one source does not match what is available elsewhere. It’s not all that unusual for, say, an agent’s preferences on the agency’s website to differ from what is listed in the 2011 guide you just bought, or for the blurb in a conference brochure to contradict what has been printed in the guide’s last eight editions.

Was that massive gust of wind I just heard a sigh of relief from everyone who thought this perverse variability was just his imagination?

Heavens, no. Heck, it’s not particularly unheard-of for an agent speaking at a conference to say she absolutely does not want to be pitched a genre of book that her agency’s listing — or even website — says it is actively seeking to represent.

Faced with such discrepancies, the frustrated aspiring writer can only shake a fist at the heavens and cry, “What gives?”

Actually, there are some pretty good reasons that this happens — and no, Virginia, none of them have to do with loathing literature and taking active steps to trip up the nice folks who produce it. Perfectly nice agents at perfectly wonderful agencies sometimes have outdated blurbs. But most writers only find out about what is outdated after they’ve been rejected — and sometimes, not even then.

When the average aspiring writer reads information about an agency or a particular agent in printed form — in an agents’ guide, in a conference brochure, on a website — s/he tends to expect, not unreasonably, that what is there is 100% accurate. Certainly, it would not be impossible to derive that impression from all of those marketing experts who shoo writers toward those guides, agents who give speeches at conferences urging writers to do their homework before querying, or even the guides themselves.

But the sad fact is, not all of the information out there is either reliable or up-to-date. Or even consistent across sources.

Which, to be fair, is true of pretty much anything one might desire to seek out via the Internet: we are all aware, I sincerely hope, that not everything posted online is true. Part of the charm of the web is that it is not refereed; its very accessibility encourages disagreement. As reasonable, logical people, we expect to need to use our wits to weigh relative credibility.

To coin a phrase, consider the source — and read carefully. If the pancake recipe you have just found calls for you to add four rats’ tails, seven jellybeans, and fourteen agate marbles, you’re probably not going to want to follow it.

For most web searches, the mere application of common sense is sufficient, because the stakes aren’t very high. But if you send a query to an agent who is no longer with a particular agency — and some of ‘em move around quite a bit — that is going to harm you. Ditto if you send the first 5 pages of your chick lit masterpiece to an agent who no longer represents chick lit and has decided that screening writing samples is an inefficient use of her Millicent’s time.

Oh, you can insist until you’re blue in the fact that the guide in your hand insists that chick lit is that agent’s primary focus. You can jab your finger at the guide page that says every query should be accompanied by a 5-page writing sample. But you’re going to be wasting your time. Standards change — and if the agent in question has updated her website to reflect them, she will expect you to be aware of that change even if the most recent agents’ guidebook says otherwise.

In the virtual classroom, I just saw 37 hands shoot up into the air. “But Anne,” I hear some of you pleading with trembling lips, “the standard agency guides are updated every year, presumably for this very reason. Can’t I rely upon them?”

Good point, disembodied voices. Yes, this year’s guide should technically be up-to-the-minute, but one does occasionally find discrepancies between, say, an agency’s guide listing and its Publishers’ Marketplace page. For one very simple reason: guide listings and blurbs tend not to be updated very often.

Certainly not as often as minds and the writing market change. And before you yield to the temptation of resenting the guides for not coming out more often, let me hasten to add: it isn’t really their fault. Much as a website is only as current as its last update, the standard guides rely upon the participating agencies’ willingness to answer questionnaires every year.

Think about that for a moment. Agents tend to be busy, busy people. (Just ask ‘em.) And responding to those questionnaires is generally a volunteer activity.

So would it be surprising if they were often done in an extreme rush? Or if, to save a little time, many just submitted the same replies, year after year?

Uh-huh. Ditto with conference blurbs. And how often do any of us update our bios on our business websites?

Much of the time, admittedly, little is lost by recycling the old blurb. When the information that’s changed since the last questionnaire or website overhaul is not market-related, like an update of recent sales or the news that a member agent has just completed her MFA, I don’t think even the most detail-oriented researching writer would quibble.

But when agents move or change specialties, it’s a different story. That has real consequences for queriers, who honestly do need to find an accurate reflection of what a particular agent is looking to pick up now, not two years ago.

Hands up, everyone who has ever queried an agency listed as seeking a particular category, only to receive a form rejection letter stating categorically that they will not even consider that type of book. Or if you have shown up at a writers’ conference, all excited to pitch to that agent whose blurb sounded just perfect for your book, only to be crushed when he announces from the podium that if he hears another query for a book in your category, he’ll begin screaming uncontrollably. Or if — and this is surprisingly common — you took the time to check both an agency guide, the agency’s website, and the agent’s latest interview, and the submission guidelines you gleaned from the three were not only contradictory, but mutually hostile.

A lesser aspiring writer might take umbrage, of course — but you’re too savvy for that, aren’t you? You’re fully aware that fretting about the many, many parts of the querying and submission process outside the writer’s control is a waste of your valuable energies. Philosophical soul that you are, you merely murmur to yourself, “Someone has not been updating his or her agency guide listing,” and proceed on your merry way.

If it makes you feel any better, I can assure you that lack of accurate information leads to frustration on both ends of the querying exchange. For every writer left scratching his head over a seemingly inexplicable categorical rejection, there’s a Millicent out there muttering, “Why on earth do people keep sending us queries for a genre we haven’t represented for the last five years?”

Because, Millie, there’s an apparently credible source somewhere out there saying otherwise. Had I mentioned that there was not a Consistency Fairy policing the web?

“Okay,” I hear some of you saying wearily, “being too busy to update from year to year or conference to conference makes sense for the guide listings and agent blurbs that are stuffed to the brim with useful, specific information about precisely what they would like to see. But flipping through the guide in front of me, I notice that most of these listings are really, really minimal, just basic data like mailing address and what percentage of their clients are previously unpublished authors, but others include extensive discussion of what they look for in submissions, or even little essays on how they deal with clients. Why are the listings so uneven?”

My, you’re asking great questions today, disembodied voices. You’re absolutely right, of course: the level of detail listings varies wildly, ranging from generic advice about querying (No unsolicited manuscripts, Query first, Query with SASE, etc.) to expressions of preferences for particular types of books. This inconsistency of information carries over to websites, too, I notice: some are chock-full of genuinely useful information about individual agents’ preferences — and some are, well, not. Partially, I think, the variation comes from a certain amount of disagreement about the purpose of a listing or blurb — or so I surmise from the fact that they differ in style, tone, and content as much as individual agents’ platform speeches at conferences.

You’ve seen this for yourself, right? Some listings appear to be trying to narrow down what is being sent to them by giving bread-and-butter accounts of what they do and don’t want to represent; others try to recommend their services by mentioning well-known authors on their client lists. Still others, bless ‘em, attempt to bolster the hopes of struggling writers by giving general advice. Sometimes, though, these laudable attempts to be encouraging result a certain well-meaning vagueness.

Come on, admit it: not all of it is of immediate practical use. We love good writing, while a charming sentiment, actually does not tell a writer much about what kind of book an agent might conceivably like to read, does it? There is good writing in every genre.

“Okay,” I hear you say. “I understand that, but is there a way I can use these differences to my advantage? Since, obviously, it would take far less time to scrawl that those few lines on a questionnaire than to write a lengthy description of one’s every pet peeve and preference, should I assume that the writers of the just-the-facts blurbs are not as interested in attracting new clients? In other words, is a longer blurb an invariable sign of a hungry agent?”

I would caution against reading too much into which route an agency has chosen for its listings. There are plenty of excellent agents out there who routinely submit terse blurbs, as well as ones who rhapsodize about adoring writers while habitually dropping books after submitting them to only a small handful of editors.

As I mentioned above, these are busy, busy people — and busy people have been known occasionally to fill out forms rather quickly. Especially those who are not, after all, writers by avocation, given to expressing themselves with ravishing sensibility on the printed page at the drop of the proverbial hat. An ability to write lyrically isn’t necessary to be a first-rate agent.

An ability to sell books, however, is. Specifically, for your purposes, books like yours. What you can — and should — take away from how they have chosen to present themselves in print is a list of questions for further research.

Stop groaning — I’m talking about legitimately important stuff here.

If an agency says it represents books in your category, what similar books have they sold lately? Which agent sold them, so you know to whom to address your query letter? How tightly does this agency define categories — do they, for instance, have a good track record of selling the occasional book that stretches its genre? If they list sales from five or ten years ago (not unusual, even on agency websites), have they sold similar books recently? If they list recent sales, which were by first-time authors? If you have an idea for a future book in another book category, does the agency have a solid track record in representing that kind of book, too?

Further information on any of these points would help you write a better query letter, right? Yet a lot of the standard sources, as you may have noticed, are light on this kind of detail.

By all means, check the guides and the websites: the information found there can be very useful to figuring out which agents would make the most sense to approach. Besides, you absolutely must follow any submission guidelines an agency has gone to the trouble to post. But I would seriously advise widening your research to more than one source before you fire off that query to someone who said — last year? Eight years ago? — that he was eager to represent your kind of book.

I know, I know: after a few rounds of queries, it can start to get mighty tempting to regard any agent willing to say yes to your book as equally desirable, but you honestly will be better off with an agent who already has the connections to place your manuscript under the right eyes. The more you know about an agent’s sales record and preferences, the more specifically you can personalize the query letter.

Next time, I shall talk about other means of tracking down that information. Keep panning for gold, everybody, and keep up the good work!