With sympathy to everyone in the path of the storm

No pretty picture today, I’m afraid, in honor of all of the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Those are the proper images for the day. If you would like to help, here’s a link to the Red Cross’ fund drive for disaster relief.

My thoughts are with everyone in the affected areas, of course, but I’d like to extend special sympathies to all of the writers who, in addition to having to leave behind other cherished possessions, lost computers, backups, typewriters, manuscripts, and yes, manuscripts-in-progress. This is a frequent and unanticipated outcome of natural disasters, and it’s heartbreaking. Writers sometimes lose days, months, or even years of work. Sometimes, they don’t have the time or opportunity to rescue their computers; sometimes, they have been editing in hard copy, and paper is allergic to large amounts of water; sometimes, the place where they stored their backups gets caught in the flood, fire, earthquake…

Well, I shan’t depress you by continuing the list. All you have to do is turn on the news to see horrifying examples.

If a lifetime spent wandering around the literary world has taught me anything, it is to begin worrying about writers the instant such footage begins crossing my television screen; I’ve known far too many writers who have lost work, and non-writers don’t always understand completely how painful it can be. Please, any members of the Author! Author! community, feel free to share here: no one is going to understand the anguish of having that most recent revision vanish better than a fellow writer.

And please, writers living outside of the affected areas, think very hard about whether any of your writing friends has ever sent you any of their work with you. That manuscript waiting on a bookshelf for you to find time to finish reading it might now be the only remaining copy — imagine the writer’s relief when you announce that to her.

That scene your friend e-mailed to you just after he completed it because he was so proud of it — he might be overjoyed to learn that you never got around to deleting that e-mail. Critique group members have fallen into one another’s arms, sobbing with joy, because one of their number turned out to be habitually slow at recycling earlier drafts of shared work.

If I may be permitted another community-minded suggestion, if you were planning to query or submitting to NYC-area agencies anytime soon, please consider holding off. The people who work in agencies are just that, people; they are having a hard time right now.

I know, I know: you probably had already thought about this. It might seem self-evident that screening would not be Millicent’s first priority at the moment, but sometimes, queriers and submitters forget that regular mail and e-mail gets disrupted at times like this. Or that a nice, literature-loving agency denizen might get discouraged when, after days of not being able to get to her desk, a backlog of hundreds of queries stuffs her inbox. It would be kind to give these good people a breather.

But now, let’s talk about you, writer living outside the disaster zone. When is the last time you backed up your writing files? Was it since your most recent revision? If the answer to that last question was yes — and, if you’re like the overwhelming majority of writers, it won’t be — in a disaster, could you put your hand upon that backup in under a minute? If you were not in your home, would you have access to it?

Well might you turn pale. May I ask you to act upon that feeling before it fades, and, in honor of those poor souls currently wondering how on earth they are going to reconstruct Chapter 8 from memory, make a backup of your writing files right now?

This might also be a good time to consider carefully whether your current backup system is sufficient. Many writers opt for external hard drives equipped with programs like Time Machine that automatically back up everything on their hard disks, but by definition, such backups are attached to computers — and thus might not be accessible if the computer is not. I sincerely hope the day will never come when that’s problematic, but it’s sensible to take a few simple steps, just in case.

And yes, Virginia, I would advise this even if you are fortunate enough to have a copy of your most recent manuscript or book proposal currently resting comfortably at an agency or publishing house. That is an external storage site, but hard disks do occasionally fail. And if yours does (heaven forbid!), trust me, you’ll be much, much happier at revision-reconstruction time if the copy you have on hand is the version you polished off last week, rather than the hard copy you printed up six months ago.

What kind of steps, you ask? Keeping a backup somewhere outside your home is an excellent idea — and if it’s automatic, all the better. You might want to consider an Internet-based backup service: they generally provide the advantage of allowing access to your files from anywhere on earth, though. Their servers may also be located in another state, or even another part of the world, from where you live. (If that last point doesn’t seem like a significant plus, I would encourage you to turn on the news right now, and keep watching until a map of the storm-affect areas pops onto the screen.)

There are certainly lower-tech — and lower-cost — options, though. Regularly storing a CD backup of your home-based writing files in your desk at work would be a prudent precaution. So would tucking an inexpensive flash drive into that purse, backpack, or satchel you carry everywhere. Heck, handing a hard copy of your most recent chapter to your Aunt Wanda when you visit her every other Sunday could conceivably do the trick.

The trick depends, though, upon your remembering to update that traveling backup regularly. Believe me, it will be substantially easier to reconstruct the Great American Novel from last month’s backup than from last year’s.

Oh, you may laugh, but let me ask you: was your most recent backup made within the last month? How about the most recent version that’s currently residing somewhere other than your home?

Don’t roll your eyes at me. Use your words. “But Anne,” some of you complain, glancing at your watches, “I don’t have time to back up my writing files once per week! I barely have time to write as it is!”

Believe me, I sympathize. But honestly, turn on the news.

I say that knowing precisely how much time savvy backup maintenance takes. I never leave my house without a flash drive containing all of my current writing files in their most recent versions. My computer is also set up to make automatic backups. I never again want to be in the position in which I found myself in graduate school, when a mugger tried to wrench away the backpack containing the hard copy of the second draft of my master’s thesis, pages upon which I had been hand-writing additional material for a week and a half.

Call me zany, but I think one shouted argument about whether wielding a knife entitles one to snatch half a ream of paper is quite sufficient for a single lifetime. Even though I won the debate. (And, I suspect, convinced that mugger that he never wanted to go to graduate school.)

That enervating little exchange occurred, incidentally, after I had already gotten into the laudable habit of backing up my writing in soft copy on a regular basis — and storing the backups somewhere other than my apartment. I have my undergraduate thesis advisor to thank for that: he was so afraid of losing even a few days’ worth of his dissertation work that every time we met, he would hand me a floppy disk (remember those?) containing its most recent incarnation. He asked me to store it in my dorm refrigerator. Just in case some natural disaster hit both my university and his home, thirty miles apart.

Doesn’t seem like an unreasonable level of precaution, considering recent events, does it?

Even if you cannot find time to do anything else to protect your work, can I convince you to take a few moments to e-mail your writing files to yourself as Word attachment? As long as you do not delete them, you should be able to retrieve the files from a remote computer.

Repeat regularly. And if scary footage begins popping up on the news, do it again. But I would strongly encourage you not to wait to do it for the first time until a natural disaster is on its way. Give yourself one less thing to worry about then.

Please, those of you who are safe, dry, and have access to electricity, waft some good thoughts to the poor souls so deeply affected by the storm and its aftermath. Consider donating to the immense relief challenges at hand. And please, if you do find that you have copies of recent unpublished writing by writers living in the storm zone, let them know as soon as electricity is restored and the lines of communication are humming again.

If even one writer is spared the anguish of losing all or part of a manuscript, all of us should be delighted. Be safe, everybody, and of course, keep up the good work.

You snooze, you…gain, apparently. At least if you want to enter a literary contest.

My apologies for not corresponding with you as extensively as usual over the last few months, campers: I could plead deadlines stacked up like cordwood; I could whine about health setbacks that would have made Asclepius turn pale; I could frighten you by references to a workload that would cause Heracles to glance up from his labors and say, “No kidding?” But I’m not going to get away with kidding a fellow writer, right? The fact is, I just kept finding that there weren’t enough hours in the day to write all I wanted to share with the world.

Since I’m relatively certain most of you fine people have some personal experience with that particular dilemma, I’m hoping you shall find it in your collective heart to forgive me. At least, that is, those of you in the market for what we here at Author! Author! like to call Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy.

Or ECQLC, for short. You know, the kind of literary credentials aspiring writers so often worry about not having handy to pop into their queries.

Why might ECQLC-seekers regard me with a kinder eye right about now? Because in recognition of the sad fact that I’m not the only writer in the English-speaking world to know what it is to scramble to find time to write, I’m shoving with all of my force against the imminent deadline for The Sensual Surfeit Literary Competition of 2012, this year’s edition of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence from the now-imminent Tuesday, October 30, 2012 — and pushing it all the way to Monday, December 3, 2012, at midnight in your time zone.

Shall I pause while all of you habitual last-minute huggers dance in the streets? Or was that mass of scurrying I just heard half of you scrolling frantically through the archive list, trying to find a link to that handy post in which I showed precisely what a winning entry for this contest might look like on the page?

No, but seriously, folks, I know that you’re busy people, and that many of you struggle as it is to find time to write your books and short stories, much less contest entries. That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, Author! Author!’s contests — the fruit of which look mighty decorative on query letters, incidentally — so seldom ask you hardworking folks to write anything new: as is our little community’s wont, what the judges want to do here is reward you for scenes you have already written.

Yes, really. This year, we’re going to be awarding prizes to writers who can write a darned good scene for adult readers of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and/or memoir. And since I’m a big fan of helping writers earn some nice, shiny ECQLC without having to spend a fortune on entry fees, this one is gratis — and provides the broadest array of entry categories in Author! Author! history.

I see those of you who entered by the original deadline frowning, and who could blame you? “But Anne!” you point out with some vim. “I’m every bit as busy as everyone else, yet I managed to scrabble my entry together before not only this coming Tuesday, but the original deadline over Labor Day weekend. I am, in short, outstandingly virtuous, and while I certainly have sympathy for my compatriots who might even as I type this be rending their garments, trying to polish an entry before Halloween, I wouldn’t like to think my non-procrastinating ways had gone unnoticed.”

Indeed they have not, Johnnies-on-the-spot: those of us on the entry-processing end have been placing metaphorical gold stars on your entries. I’m not saying that there will necessarily be a special prize awarded for the best early entry, but just between you and me, the judges have already been leaning so far in that direction that I suspect it would take only a slight breeze to topple ‘em right over. Also, they — and I — are quite open to judging the more recent of two entries by the same writer, should any of you desire to make a tweak or two and reenter.

I just mention. Writers who beat deadlines by comfortable margins are such a rarity in the literary world that I’m inclined to do all I can to cultivate their good behavior.

So let’s take another gander at the rules, shall we?

The Sensual Surfeit Literary Competition of 2012

Although the last time any of us here at Author! Author! checked, human beings experience the known world through their sensory organs, the overwhelming majority of manuscripts seem to rely mostly upon just two: sight and sound. That’s understandable, of course, since the world is stuffed to the gills with television, online, and movie storylines that must depend upon only those two senses to convey meaning.

On the printed page, however, there’s seldom a reason for a narrative to limit itself to only what could be observed on a screen — or heard on a radio. (Ask your grandparents about the latter, kids.) In order to encourage aspiring writers to incorporate more senses — and more specific sense-oriented detail — in their manuscripts, the Sensual Surfeit Literary Competition of 2012 is calling upon you to wow the judges with just how thoroughly you can make them feel that they are there with your character for one scene in your book.

The catch: we’re calling only for scenes that utilize a range of senses in interesting and unexpected ways. It cannot be a scene that contains overtly sexual activity.

Find other ways to engage the senses. In a scene of 8 pages or less.

So if your novel has a fabulous scene in which the heroine is slowly consumed by a not-particularly ravenous tiger, your memoir features a strong five pages during which you are floating on an inner tube down the Xingu whilst pursued by a school of piranha, and/or your history of Northern Californian gold panning presents the reader with the best description of dishpan hand acquisition ever seen by human eye, well, this is the time to pull it out. The Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence have always rewarded entries featuring strong, sense-based detail and imagery, but this year, how well those specifics leap off the page will be the primary judging criterion. Please wow us with your close observation, descriptive detail, and one-of-a-kind worldview — and we’ll be overjoyed if you show us something we’ve never seen before. Just make sure that it’s all PG-rated enough to publish on this all-ages-of-writer-encouraged website.

On the remote chance that I’m being too subtle here: we will not be accepting sex scenes, period. Nor will we accept an entry containing profanity. Not that there isn’t some great sensual writing dealing with that arena of human experience, as well as some magnificent swearing, but this is a blog committed to making it possible for writers of all ages and varieties of Internet access to participate. Many library and home computers are protected by blocking programs, you see. And I would hate for any members of our community not to be able to view the winning entries in each category — which will be published here.

Winners will not only receive fabulous prizes (hold your horses; we’re getting to those), but may have their scenes and accompanying synopses both published and critiqued in a post here at Author! Author! for all the world to see and admire. To be specific:

The grand prize winner in each category will receive a half-hour Mini Consult on a query, synopsis, and first 10 pages of the manuscript from which the winning scene was excerpted, as well as having the winning entry, bio, and an author photo posted on Author! Author!

First and second place winners will have their entries posted and critiqued on this blog.

Third place winners will receive copies of Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery.

Because winners will also be awarded life-long bragging rights and coveted ECQLC, the judges reserve the right to award as many (or as few) prizes as the quality and quantity of the entry pool in any given category warrants. Awards are purely up to the discretion of the judging panel.

Entrants may enter more than one category. Please select your category by the type of book from which the scene is taken, rather than the content of the scene itself. The categories are as follows:

Category I: Literary fiction, women’s fiction, and mainstream fiction

Category II: Science fiction, fantasy, and paranormal

Category III: All other genre fiction, including romance and mystery

Category IV: Humor (either fiction or nonfiction, but please do tell the judges which)

Category V: Memoir

Category VI: Narrative nonfiction, cookbooks, and academic books

All entries must be submitted via e-mail to contest(at)annemini(dot)com by Monday, December 3, 2012, at midnight in your time zone. Late entries will not be considered. Please submit each entry in a separate e-mail, in accordance with the rules below.

Those are the general rules. Here are the specific steps required to win. Do read them all carefully. Please be aware that entries that do not follow the rules will be disqualified.

1. Select a scene of no more than eight pages in length from your manuscript or manuscript-in-progress that best demonstrates the use of sense-oriented description and/or imagery.
Scenes may be excerpted from any point in the book, but do be aware that the judges will be assessing the writing by only this scene and your synopsis (see Step #5).

Pages must be in standard format for book manuscripts, in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Work that is not double-spaced, contains shrunken margins, or otherwise differs from standard format will be disqualified.

(For those in whom that last requirement induced deep despair: fear not. You will find step-by-step directions about how to apply the rules of standard format to entries to this contest here. I’m not out to trick anyone!)

All entries must be in English. Whether you choose to write in American English, Canadian English, or U.K. English, however, is entirely up to you. Just make sure it’s spelled correctly.

2. Make sure that the scene in question does not include any overtly sexual act or profanity.
The goal here is sensual description that is specifically non-sexual. Remember, too, that the judges will be looking for a variety of senses to be addressed in the scene.

3. Polish your scene to a high gloss and save it as a Word document, as a .doc file
Only .doc entries in Word will be accepted — not TextEdit, PDF, or any other formats, please. Please title the Word file containing your synopsis as YOUR LAST NAME + SYNOPSIS.

Please name the Word file containing the scene with your name and the abbreviated title of your book (Austen Pride & Prejudice), not just as contest entry or the ever-popular Anne Mini contest. The last time I ran a contest like this, I received 42 entries with one or the other of these two titles.

4. In a separate Word document, list your name, address, e-mail address, and telephone number, as well as the category you are entering. On that same page, please include a 1-paragraph explanation of how the scene fits into the overall story of the book.
This is the only chance you’re going to get to set up the scene for the judges, so make it count!

5. On the second page of the document described in #4, include a synopsis of no more than 1 page, giving the judges an overview of the book’s premise, its main characters, and its central conflict.
Again, this synopsis must be in standard format. If you are unfamiliar with either standard format or how to write a 1-page synopsis, you will find explanations (along with examples) under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT and HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS categories on the archive list located on the right-hand side of this page.

6. Make sure that both documents are properly formatted: precisely as they would appear in a manuscript submission.
Please be aware that correct formatting is a prerequisite to entry in this contest, not merely a judging criterion. If it is not double-spaced, in 12-point type, and featuring a slug line (Author’s last name/book title/page #) in each page’s header, the judges will not consider the entry.

7. Attach both Word documents to an e-mail.
Please include SSLC ENTRY and the category number in the subject line. Please also mention the category in the body of the e-mail. (It makes it easier to process the entries.) Again, the categories are:

Category I: Literary fiction, women’s fiction, and mainstream fiction

Category II: Science fiction, fantasy, and paranormal

Category III: All other genre fiction, including romance and mystery

Category IV: Humor

Category V: Memoir

Category VI: Narrative nonfiction, cookbooks, and academic books

Make sure to say who you are, too, so we don’t get entries mixed up. It’s also a nice touch to say something pleasant (like “Howdy, Anne!”) in the e-mail itself. I just mention.

8. Make sure to mention which category you are entering.
Seriously, we need to know this.

9. E-mail the whole shebang to contest(at)annemini(dot)com by Tuesday, October 30, 2012 Monday, December 3, 2012, at midnight in your time zone. If you are entering more than one category, please submit each entry in a separate e-mail.

Those are the rules! Please follow them closely. If you would like to see a step-by-step guide to how to apply these rules to the entry page, click here.

If you should have any lingering questions about the rules — like, say, what constitutes a scene, something several potential entrants have already asked, feel free to post them in the comments here. Please do not, however, e-mail them; part of the point of a blog is public discussion. If you’ve been having trouble finding where to post comments, as many readers seem to have been experiencing lately, the link is at the end of the post, at the end of the paragraph of categories to which the post belongs. Click on the words # COMMENTS, and you’re home free!

Not seeing it? On today’s post, the relevant line looks like this:

The Sensual Surfeit Literary Competition of 2012 / Comments >>

Use your extra month wisely, campers; I’m looking forward to seeing the results. Keep up the good work!

Getting possessive

The Author! Author! community is seldom far from my thoughts, but at moments when I pass a sign like this, I must confess, I find it difficult to think of anyone else. Especially of those of you brave souls that regularly put yourselves — and your manuscripts — through the literary contest-entry wringer.

Why contest entrants in particular? Because in recent years, contest judges have found themselves doing double-takes at the type of punctuation currently blaring at you from that otherwise rather straightforward piece of advertising above in ever-increasing numbers. So, too, has the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, found herself shaking her head over manuscript submissions, murmuring, “I wonder if this is what the writer here actually meant, or if this is yet another instance of the sad decline in punctuation plaguing our society in these decadent days.”

Millie’s mutter was a mighty big hint, by the way, to those of you who did not erupt in merriment the instant you first clapped eye on today’s guest image. See it now?

Chances are, if you were a contest entrant frantic to get your entry postmarked by a deadline, you would not see it; it’s the type of typo that writers in a rush often overlook. And that’s a real shame, if the entry’s well written: I’ve never encountered a writing contest that allowed its judges to assess an entry by what its writer probably wanted to say, rather than what’s actually on the page.

Nor does your garden-variety agency typically permit its screeners to correct punctuation, even mentally, while reading submissions. That, too, is a shame, for many a successful querier or pitcher aglow with the first burst of adrenaline that comes with hearing that a real, live agent or editor wants to see MY WORK has simply glossed over this kind of punctuation as well. Strategically, that’s a mistake: even if it ever were desirable to leave Millie guessing at your intended meaning — and it isn’t, ever — it’s fairly standard for screeners to be told to stop reading at the second or third typo.

And what’s the best preventative medicine for skirting that dreadful fate, campers? That’s right: taking the time to read every syllable of your contest entry, requested pages, and/or book proposal IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Does that chorus of groans mean I’ve poked some of you in a sore spot? Or merely that you wish the Submission Fairy would wave her magic wand and grant six extra hours to writers on deadlines, purely for proofreading purposes? “But Anne,” the time-strapped moan, “I see typos in published books all the time! Surely, that must mean that little punctuation gaffes, misspellings, misplaced quotation marks and the like are no longer taken as seriously as in days of yore, when mistake-free writing was considered the mark of the literate person?”

In some contexts, you’re quite right about this, proofreading-avoiders: thanks in part to a decline in hard-copy proofreading (it’s much, much harder to catch small gaffes on a backlit screen than on a printed page), we do all see more faux pas in print than even ten years ago. Spelling- and grammar-checkers have caused a general decline in proofreading, and not only amongst published writers. E-mails are notoriously typo-prone, as are texts, and Twitter practically demands leaving out otherwise essential words, letters, and punctuation. Given the choice between speed and graceful presentation, most opt for the former.

Then, too, most of us also scan a heck of a lot more unedited writing than would have been imaginable to those whose primary reading experience was before the rise of the Internet. And don’t even get a professional reader started on how much more frequently advertising copy — like, for instance, the sign depicted above — contains typos.

All of which means, in practice, that pretty much all of us have gotten almost as accustomed to seeing writing presented badly as we have to seeing it done well. So often do signs shout things like BOBS’ LIQUORS at us (spot it yet?) that even the most grammar-savvy writer might be forgiven for occasionally placing an apostrophe in the wrong place when she’s in a hurry.

Driving past ads like this all day, it might not even look problematic at first glance. So why, as our short-on-time discussants above asked, should a deadline-facing contest entrant or excited submitter lose any sleep over a questionable apostrophe or two? Won’t it be some copyeditor’s job to catch such problems before the book is published, anyway?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that a typo like this won’t jump off your pages at Millicent, if she’s been properly trained — and if she works at an agency you would want to represent you, she has. It would also look odd to Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. And, frankly, it would drive me nuts to spot on the page.

Or, as in this case, the sign. To any of us, and almost certainly to the agent of your dreams, the very sight of BOBS’ LIQUORS immediately begs the question: just how many Bobs are there in that liquid-filled emporium?

Shall I take the resounding splat of eyebrows against hairlines as an indicator that this particular question has not been dogging some or all of you since this post began? I’m not entirely astonished: although it would make Millicent, Mehitabel, and their confreres choke to hear it, a stunningly high proportion of talented aspiring writers seem never to have learned the rules about creating possessives — or plurals, for that matter. Or at least to have been schooled in them so long ago that misuse of one or the other no longer causes their eyebrows to twitch at all.

So let’s embark on a quick refresher course, not only to revivify those complacent eyebrows, but so you have some guidelines on hand during any future moments of doubt. And if that means alerting everyone within the range of my keyboard to the genuinely puzzling nature of that provocative sign, well, so be it.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do not end in -s or -z — which is to say: most nouns — just add ‘s. If Ambrose happened to own a leopard, then, Millicent would expect the text to refer to Ambrose’s leopard; by the same token, the spots decorating Ambrose’s pet would be the leopard’s spots.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do end in -s or -z — Gladys, a spaz, a passing ibis — the apostrophe goes after the s or z. So if Gladys’ pet ibis happened to become friends with Gladys’ brother Glenn, whose business partner happens to be a spaz, the ibis’ buddy’s business’ interests might be endangered by the spaz’ annoying ways.

I was expecting a certain amount of resistance to that one — and already, a forest of hands have sprouted out there in the ether. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most of you hand-wavers are fond of the ways of journalism. Yes, newspaper-huggers? “I can go along with Rule #1, Anne, and I remember when Rule #2 used to be common, but I see #1 applied all the time to nouns ending in -s and -z. Doesn’t that mean that Rule #2 is obsolete, and I may simply form possessives by adding ‘s to any old singular noun?”

I take your point, journalism-lovers: rarely do I pick up a magazine these days without having some well-meaning reporter inform me that the ibis’s buddy’s business’s interests might be endangered by the spaz’s annoying ways, and quite firmly, too. There’s a reason for that: in recent years, A.P. style, the style favored by newspapers and magazines, has indeed reverted entirely to Rule #1 for singular possessives. So you may expect those sources, along with online media, to slap ‘s indiscriminately on any noun. It has also become quite common for publishers of books by journalists to throw literary tradition to the winds in this respect.

And, to be fair, Millicent probably would not stop reading if you did the same: she, like the rest of us, has seen the ibis’s and similarly ungraceful possessives running amok across newspaper pages for years now. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the language in its most polished form — American English as it might appear in literary fiction, for instance — must drop one of the nicest punctuation rules we have.

To quote your mother: if everyone else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you? And if half the people you knew evidently thought — at least strongly enough to put the theory into practice — that it was correct to form a plural in English by adding ‘s, instead of just an s, would you throw the rules that say otherwise off the aforementioned bridge, simply because you’d seen plurals formed incorrectly so often?

Many, many aspiring writers would, as Mehitabel and Millicent could tell you to their sorrow; judging by what’s submitted, they either do not know the rules well enough to apply them consistently or have been rendered unsure enough by the sight of rule variation that they don’t notice when their texts lapse. Even if a contest entrant or submitter is made of stronger stuff and is familiar with the rules for constructing plurals and possessives, if she does not proofread closely, she might as well be unsure of the rules.

Why? Think about it: an agency screener or contest judge can only assess a writer’s talent and skill based upon what’s on the page, right? If none of the possessive usages on page 1 are correct, obviously, Millicent is likely to conclude that the writer needs a crash course in punctuation, which is not any agency’s job to provide its clients. Fair enough. That being the case, though, if two of the six possessive uses on page 1 are incorrect, in addition to the plural of fence being printed as fence’s instead of fences, could you really blame her for drawing the same conclusion?

While you’re still shuddering over the implications of that one, let me add hastily that the logic also tends to hold true in reverse. If your punctuation and grammar are impeccable, not only will the effort win your manuscript or entry Brownie points — always good in a competitive situation — but your pages will also enjoy the not inconsiderable advantage of novelty. To be blunt about it, so many contest entries and submissions contain incorrect possessives and plurals that those that don’t shine by comparison.

If, in addition to the virtues of solid grammar, the pages also manage to apply the elegant, old-fashioned rule of possessive formation in nouns ending in -s or -z, professional readers will usually like the writing even better. Seriously, literate old-schoolers just love seeing this old-fashioned punctuation used correctly. Indeed, amongst ourselves, we tend to complain that the only benefit of adding the extra s to words that do not logically require it is that those who have difficulty with complexity need memorize only one rule.

Hey, I didn’t say we were funny; I said we were literate. But seriously, folks, does it come as a great surprise that contest judges, especially in the early rounds, tend to be culled from the ranks of the conspicuously literate?

So your rhinoceros favors a particular pond, you might want to consider making Mehitabel happy by referring to the rhinoceros’ watering hole. (If there was more than one rhino, it would be the rhinoceri’s watering hole, but that’s a horn of a different color.) If Chaz were the rhinos’ keeper, they would be Chaz’ rhinos.
If you preferred A.P. style, however, you could also render it as Chaz’s rhinos. They would sound the same spoken out loud.

Getting the picture? This one is legitimately up to you, as long as you don’t mind causing Mehitabel to sigh nostalgically. Just make sure that the text is 100% consistent about whether a -z noun takes an apostrophe in the possessive or not.

Even if you decide to get modern on the -z question, I would urge clinging to tradition on the -s front. If the creatures that frequented that pond were flamingos, you would say that it was the flamingos’ favorite place to drink. I feel a rule coming on:

To form a possessive for a plural noun, the apostrophe goes after the s. Thus, the spots belonging to more than one leopard would be the leopards’ spots. Contrary to popular belief, the Thus, if the entire Anderson family owned a leopard ranch, it would be the Andersons’ leopard ranch.

Let me state that another way, because Millicent and Mehitabel see family names and possessives mismatched all the time, for some reason. If the leopard in question belonged to just one person — let’s call him Ambrose Anderson — both Ambrose’s leopard and Anderson’s leopard would leave M & M’s eyebrows mercifully unraised. However, if the leopard were so lucky to belong to both Ambrose and Antoinette Anderson, it would be the Andersons’ leopard.

Is the BOBS’ LIQUORS conundrum starting to make more sense now? Let’s take a gander at why: if it belonged to just one guy named Bob, it should be BOB’S LIQUORS, right? While it would be gracious to give the sign-painter the benefit of the doubt, neither of the two remaining possibilities seems particularly likely. The place could belong to a person named not Bob, but Bobs, in which case BOBS’ LIQUORS would be perfectly correct. It’s also not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the store’s owners may well have intended the literal meaning here; we may well be looking at a two-Bob situation.

But if either of these turns out to be the case, I feel the inhabitants of Lake City are entitled to a full explanation, don’t you? The vast majority of passersby would read this sign as it was probably meant to read: as BOB’S LIQUORS.

Good old Bob may well be counting upon that; he may well believe, and with some reason, that it doesn’t really matter whether his potential customers walk in expecting one Bob or several. It’s not wise, though, for an aspiring writer to play similarly fast and loose with Millicent or Mehitabel’s sense of what’s going on.

Oh, you don’t think Mehitabel will dock your entry points if your punctuation choices imply that there are more Bobs running around your short story than there actually are? Or that Millicent might stop reading if the text seems to indicate a lack of familiarity with the rules governing apostrophes — if, say, a manuscript falls into the pervasive habit of forming plurals by adding ‘s, instead of just s?

To calm the nerves of those of you currently clutching your hearts and hyperventilating: possessive misuse all by itself is not necessarily an instant-rejection offense all by itself (although it can be, if Millicent is in a bad mood). It’s not uncommon, though, for it to combine with one or two other small gaffes to add up to rejection. Heck, I’ve known Millicents to reject a manuscript after the first malformed plural, if it fell within the opening page or two. Contest judges seldom have that luxury, thank goodness, but you’d be astonished at how often an otherwise well-written entry will knock itself out of serious finalist consideration by a typo or two on the first page. Or even — sacre bleu! — the first paragraph.

Why? Well, are you sitting down? I hope so: professional readers are paid to presume that everything on the manuscript page is there because the writer intended it to be. If the text consistently misapplies a rule, then, or simply does not apply it consistently, they tend to assume that the writer simply does not know the rule at all.

Well might you turn pale, time-strapped submitters and contest entrants. What might have started life as a typo actually can transmogrify at entry time into a reason to consider a submission less than literate — and to send the message to an agency that this talented writer would be more work to represent than someone whose work did not include such gaffes.

Why? Well, tease out the reasoning: either the writer is not aware of the rule (and thus the agency would have to invest time in teaching him something any professional writer would be expected to know), the writer is not sure enough of the rule to apply it consistently (so the agency would have to waste time proofreading his work before submitting it to publishers), or the writer knows the rule, but was simply too lazy (or, more likely, too rushed) to reread his own writing before submitting it. Whichever turns out to be the case, it means that it would be inadvisable to trust him to submit clean manuscripts, especially on a short deadline — and short deadlines crop up in the publishing world all the time. The agent of his dreams wants his work to sell, after all: it’s really in no one’s interest for her to submit his work to a publishing house if it’s peppered with typos.

She wouldn’t want to run the risk of the acquiring editor’s assuming he just didn’t know the rules. Or that he wasn’t serious enough about his own writing to proofread.

With those imperatives in mind, let’s try applying the theory to one of the great American apparent exceptions to the possessive formation rules: why is the Oakland A’s correctly punctuated?

If you immediately leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “Because that’s what the team calls itself — and proper names are spelled the way the people bearing them say they are,” give yourself partial credit. The team does in fact use the apostrophe in referring to itself. And grammar, I’m pleased to say, is on its side in that respect.

But not, I’m even more delighted to report, because the A is rendered plural by that ‘s. It couldn’t be, right? Adding an apostrophe is not how plurals are formed. That is, however, how contractions indicate that some letters are missing. In this instance, seven of ‘em: thletic. Thus, it’s perfectly acceptable to abbreviate the Oakland Athletics to the Oakland A’s.

Yet another cosmic mystery solved. Now if only we could crack the case of The Possibly Multiple Bobs. Keep up the good work!

The ever-knotty question of what constitutes good writing

An old friend presented me with a stumper yesterday, campers: although neither a teacher nor a writer himself, Nate had just been asked to teach a writing class at work. Specifically, he had been allotted six hours in which to transform the prose stylings of the fine folks in another department from argumentatively sound but hard to follow into…well, the company’s owner had not been all that clear about what better writing would mean in that context, but he certainly was adamant that he wanted it.

Oh, and would the day after tomorrow be too soon to offer the class? Under the circumstances, I would have called me in a panic, too.

Already, I see the logical conclusion-huggers out there scratching their heads. “But Anne,” the rational point out, as they are wont to do, “if this storyline popped up in a novel, readers would find it implausible. In the first place, if the owner doesn’t know what good writing is, how can he set writing standards for the department? If he does not know how his staff is falling short of those standards, how is the class — which, if my calculations are correct, should convene sometime tomorrow morning — to address the problems? And if the boss is so darned worried about his employees’ writing, wouldn’t it make more sense to bring in someone with experience diagnosing writing problems and helping writers iron them out?”

There you go, expecting the real world to be as plausible as fiction. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: reality is a lousy writer.

Case in point: Nate’s predicament is exceptional not in that he’s fallen victim to the astonishingly pervasive notion that anyone who can express himself well on paper must perforce be capable of teaching others how to do it — which, as anyone who has attended an authors’ panel on craft issues at a writers’ conference could tell you, does not always bear out in practice — but insofar as he happened to have gone to elementary school with an editor willing to help him come up with a last-minute lesson plan. Makeshift workplace writing seminars seem to have been on the rise in recent years; I hear constantly from aspiring writers who insist that their queries must be in business format (left-justified, non-indented paragraphs, a skipped line between paragraphs) because, they claim, “the guy who taught my writing class at work said standards have changed.”

Upon further inquiry, that guy virtually never turns out to have received the Nobel Prize in literature, if you catch my drift.

To be fair, though, Since my primary experience of Nate’s forays into the realm of the Muse has been a paragraph or two in his annual Christmas card, I’m not really in a position to assess his writing — and since neither of us work in the department he’s assigned to teach, I had to ask to peruse his potential students’ writing specimens before I could even begin to give him advice. Every profession has its own internal standards for communicative excellence, after all; for all I know, Nate might be the Edith Wharton of interoffice memoranda.

As a writing teacher, however, I did know that his terrified, broad-based question, “How do I teach these people to improve their writing?” was not one easily answered under any circumstances. Those of us who edit for a living hear this one fairly often, doubtless due to the widespread and erroneous belief in one-size-fits-all writing solutions — and universally-applicable writing advice, for that matter.

Which is why, one presumes, that the standard editorial answer is, “It depends. What kind of writing are you talking about?”

Did that resounding thunk of chins collectively hitting floors indicate that at least a few of you were unaware that what constitutes good writing varies not only by style and voice, but by context and intended audience as well? To those of us that read for a living, there’s no such thing as generic good writing, especially when one is discussing books. While clarity and voice consistency are desirable in any genre, specific standards vary by book category: what would be laudable in YA, after all, might bore a literary fiction readership to death, and vice versa. The conventions by which paranormals operate quite happily would seem absurd in a Western. And call me zany, but when I pick up a cookbook, I don’t expect it to read like a Sherman Alexie short story. (His new short story collection is terrific, by the way, even though it contains some old stories.)

So while a layperson might have responded to “How do I teach these people to improve their writing?” with a handful of soothing platitudes about the importance of showing vs. telling or some light wrist-slapping on the subject of run-on sentences, Nate could hardly have asked a pro like me more challenging question, or one more likely to produce a three-hour answer. Since neither he nor his prospective students seemed to be looking to break into the literary market, however, I spared him the nuanced lecture on the many gradations of stylistic merit, contenting myself instead with asking what kind of writing these fine folks habitually did and what about their efforts had disturbed his employer enough to be willing to stop the enterprise dead in its tracks for a day in order to improve it.

The questions seemed to surprise him, or so I surmise from a pause long enough for me to have set down the phone, have my hair permed, and returned without missing his response. “Well,” he said eventually, “they’re expected to describe real-world situations.”

Was it callous of me to laugh? “That, I’m afraid, is the challenge faced by every memoirist and other nonfiction writer who has ever trod the earth’s crust — and a hefty percentage of the novelists as well.”

“Yes,” he replied, “but my folks are not very good at it.”

As I love you people, I shall not reproduce the eighteen minutes of cross-examination required to elicit what might charitably be regarded as a reasonable description of what kind of writing these excellent people were not doing well, for whose eyes it was intended, and how their literary efforts were not pleasing that target audience. To my ear, the problem seemed not to be entirely writing-related: the budding Hemingways in question were routinely expected to walk into conflict-ridden situations, rapidly assess the various potential and/or current combatants’ needs, desires, and aggressive capabilities, and produce a terse summary in the few minutes they had at their disposal before diving into the next fracas.

I’m inclined to believe that even the actual Hemingway would have found that a writing challenge, especially on a short deadline. And the more Nate talked, the more the tight deadlines seemed to be exacerbating the writing problems. In a move that might not astonish anyone familiar with either rushed writing or professional jargon — but evidently did come as something of a surprise to Nate’s employer — those harried scribblers had fallen into the habit of using stock phrases to save time. If not actually using the copy and paste functions to recycle entire sentences.

Obviously, that practice would over time try the patience of anyone tasked with reading many of these reports back-to-back, but not only for reasons of style. Specific descriptions would not be particularly conducive to reuse, right? In order to be easily portable, the less descriptive those statements could be, the better.

Better for the rushed copy-and-paster, that is, not for descriptive clarity — or, importantly for the credibility of the reports Nate’s students are expected to write, the reader’s ability to picture what’s going on. Even if one of these writers is a terrific observer and an obsessively honest reporter of fact, repetitive wordsmithing will convey a less-then-meticulous impression.

Let’s examine why. If Report #1 reads like this:

Arnold, Beatrice, and Celeste work in adjacent cubicles in an office on the fifth floor, and they do not get along, because everyone has different opinions about the best way to get work done. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, fearing for their lives, coworkers called the police.

And Report #2 reads like this:

David, Evelina, Franz, and Gerard work in adjacent cubicles in a ground-floor office, and they do not get along, because some of them feel that the division of work is not fair. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, their boss got sick of it and called us in.

It’s pretty hard for the reader to tell these two battling groups apart, apart, isn’t it? That’s the nature of generic description: even if the writer’s has something specific in mind, stock phrasing represents generalities — and that’s what the reader is going to take away.

Lest those of you who write fiction be congratulating yourselves, thinking that this is one writing problem, thank goodness, that does not apply to your work, let me hasten to add that the same principle applies to any description. No matter how detailed the writer’s mental image of a person, place, thing, or situation might be, if the narrative uses generalizations to depict it, or holds back salient details, the reader’s going to end up with only a vague impression of the writer’s artistic vision.

Take, for example, the photograph at the top of this post. It would be factually accurate, as well as quite speedy, to describe it as a picture of a piece of wood. A writer in less of a hurry could tell a reader that the wood is dry, has a knot in it, and that a small portion of it had apparently been slightly burned at some point in the dim past.

All of that would be true; you can see that for yourself. But if you had never seen the photograph in question, would reading either of those descriptions enable you to picture it? Couldn’t those descriptions apply to a practically infinite variety of photos of pieces of wood?

If we cranked our observational skills up to high, however, and set our literary skills on stun, we could easily describe that image so thoroughly that the reader would not only be able to envision it, but would know precisely how that particular hunk of wood differed from every other piece of wood on the planet. If the reader ever encountered it in real life, she would recognize it. (“That’s it, officer — that’s the lumber I read about!“)

If the description on the page does not show the relevant specifics, though, how is the reader supposed to learn about them? Guesswork? Telepathy? Showing up on the author’s doorstep and demanding a fuller description?

Obviously, at least from a professional reader’s perspective, it’s not the reader’s job to do any of these things; it’s the writer’s job to provide those specifics. How a savvy writer would chose to go about that, though, might well depend upon the type of narrative that would contain the description, as well as the writer’s individual stylistic preferences and the needs of the scene. In a thriller, for instance, a just-the-facts description might be appropriate:

The glass in the window rattled in the wind. Not too surprising, really, considering the state of the wood holding it together: dry, cracked, and full of knots. Even its garish yellow paint job seemed to have given up on holding itself together.

In an emotional YA scene, however, this treatment might make more sense:

I ran my fingertips along the warped wood of the window frame, wondering if I could pry it open. Old yellow paint flaked onto my sleeve as I worked a pencil into the largest crack in the wood. The last inmate must have been too depressed to try to escape — all she seemed to have done was crush out a cigarette on the yielding wood.

For literary or mainstream fiction, though, it could read like this:

No wonder the window leaked heat like a warped sieve — the very wood holding it together had dried out to the point of shattering. An ancient knot spun near the confluence of sill and frame, sending angry concentric circles of resistance shivering toward the glass. Deep, murky cracks wrinkled decades-old yellow paint.

Quite a difference from the window frame was made of wood and painted yellow, eh? While all of these descriptions are factually true, the reader would take away radically varying mental images.

Bearing that in mind, let’s take another gander at our two original examples. Now that we know that the reader’s sense of what’s going on could be substantially improved by including more specifics, what other style changes would be helpful here?

Arnold, Beatrice, and Celeste work in adjacent cubicles in an office on the fifth floor, and they do not get along, because everyone has different opinions about the best way to get work done. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, fearing for their lives, coworkers called the police.

David, Evelina, Franz, and Gerard work in adjacent cubicles in a ground-floor office, and they do not get along, because some of them feel that the division of work is not fair. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, their boss got sick of it and called us in.

Did the word and phrase repetition catch your eye this time around? It would have maddened Millicent the agency screener, and for good reason. Even taking Report #1 and Report #2 individually, their repetitive phrasing is, let’s face it, not very interesting to read — and thus inherently less memorable, from the reader’s point of view, than more varied word choice.

Did that last contention make you do a double-take? Okay, here’s a test of whether it’s true: quick, without scrolling back up, explain the differences between what the writer observed in Situation #1 and Situation #2.

Did you come up with anything but a floor level, and perhaps a couple of the participants’ names? Neither would a reader. That’s a writing problem as much as a matter of content choice.

How so? Well, by definition, repeated phrases do not add new information to a description in the way that fresh wording can. Yet many writers deliberately repeat words and phrases, apparently in the mistaken belief that the reader will magically derive a more complex meaning from seeing the same writing a second, third, or fourth time than s/he did the first time around. Take a gander:

The sight made Zenobia sad, sad in a way that no sight had made her feel before. And that realization made her sad, too, because she realized that unless she could manage to change the course of history, she might well be the last human ever to see the sight at all.

Okay, okay, I get it: the lady’s sad, and she’s seeing something. But no matter how many times the narrative tells me Zenobia’s sad, I’m not going to understand her sadness better than I did the first time it used the word. And surely it’s not unreasonable for me as a reader to wonder what the heck she’s seeing — or to resent that the narrative keeps referring to a sight that it’s not showing me.

Seem like an extreme example? Perhaps this frequency of word repetition is on the high end, but you’d be amazed at how often manuscript submissions simply adapt few chosen words and phrases to many descriptive purposes. Verbs are particularly prone to this treatment.

The door was locked. That was unexpected, like the frustration downtown had been. He tried to break it down, but the door was too strong for him. Frustration made him grind his teeth.

He was down to his last idea. If he couldn’t get inside, or at least prove that he had tried, all of his plans would be down the drain. He would be broke. It was just like that time in Phoenix, when Ariadne had treated him like a dog.

If you don’t mind my asking, what does was convey to the reader the fourth time it appears that it didn’t in the first three iterations? Or, to stand the question on its head — a lot more interesting than any of the activity indicated by the verb choices here, I must say — what does this passage gain in either stylistic or in storytelling terms by recycling these words and phrases?

Come up with anything? I didn’t, either. But you’re starting to feel more sympathy for the conflict-describers’ supervisors, are you not, if not for Millicent, for having to read this kind of prose all the time?

I sense some furtive shifting in chairs out there. “But Anne,” those of you fond of word repetition protest, and well you should, “isn’t word choice a matter of style? Maybe the writer here reused things deliberately. The phrasing above might not be your cup of tea, or Millicent’s, but it is stylistically distinct. In fact, read out loud, it might even sound pretty cool.”

That, as you say, is a matter of opinion, but even if Millicent or I did think it sounded cool (and I don’t), the limited vocabulary and repetitive phrasing here carry distinct clarity costs. What, may I ask, happened downtown? Why was it frustrating, and what about it produced the same type of frustration as the current situation? For that matter, how is this situation like what occurred in Phoenix? While we’re asking, who is this trollop Ariadne, and in what way did her interactions with our hero resemble the manner in which she might hobnob with man’s best friend?

See the problem? Even if the manuscript prior to this point had simply throbbed with detail about that donnybrook downtown, conveyed a sterling sense of our hero’s door-battering capabilities, and devoted 70 pages to Ariadne’s emotionally questionable proclivities, the word choices here deprive the reader of a clear sense of what’s going on in this particular moment. Not all feelings of frustration are identical, so why present them as though they were? How does our hero attempt to breach the door, and how precisely did it resist him?

And don’t even get me started on how the inclusion of hackneyed phrases — down the drain, treated him like a dog — further obfuscate meaning. Yes, most of us will understand in general what these stock phrases mean, but it honestly isn’t the reader’s job to guess how these clich?d descriptions apply to this particular situation, is it?

Hadn’t thought of those phrases that way, had you? Most writers new to the game wouldn’t: if a phrase is in common use, they reason, it just sounds right. How else would someone put it?

That’s a dangerous question to tempt Millicent to consider, I’m afraid. “Well,” she is likely to snap, “a writer might want to phrase it in a more original fashion, just for the sake of style. While this one is at it, s/he might consider applying some thought to coming up with less expected ways to convey break it down and grind his teeth, too.”

You have a point there, Millie, and one that applies equally well to the workplace writing of our first examples and manuscripts intended for submission to agents and editors. Naturally, it’s important that writing sounds good to the writer, but that is not the only measure of whether a passage is well-written. It needs to sound good to the reader — and not just any reader, either. It must sound good to the reader in the writer’s chosen audience, the kind of reader who already reads books like the one the writer has produced.

Why? Because that’s the reader who will ultimately buy that writer’s work when it appears in print.

Millicent wants to help good writers reach that reader. So does her boss, the agent of your dreams, and the editor to whom he pitches manuscripts. Since agencies and publishing houses specialize in marketing to particular types of readers — thus book categories, right? — it’s a safe bet that all of these professional readers will be familiar with the kind of prose that’s currently selling well to your target audience.

That means, in practice, that they’re not just looking for generic good writing. They’re looking for what that audience will consider good writing.

Which, of course, will vary by book category. And if that doesn’t make you want to stop scrolling through this post, snatch up your hat, and race to the nearest well-stocked bookstore to check what kind of prose readers of books like yours are buying these days, well, you might want to reexamine your priorities.

I sense some purists gearing up to be huffy, do I not? “I’m appalled, Anne,” those who pride themselves on eschewing mere mercenary motives scold. “I thought we were talking about good writing here, not altering our artistic vision to conform to whatever bestseller happens to be dominating the literary market at the moment. I don’t want to sound identical the authors whose work happens to be selling well in my book category; my work is original.”

I applaud that — and it’s precisely my point. By definition, stock phrases, clich?s, and expected phrasing do not read on the page as the original phrasing of an exciting new voice; they’re generic. At submission time, that means that using them can never help a writer impress Millicent stylistically.

They’re a waste of page space, frankly. As your friend in the biz and sincere well-wisher, I would rather see you devote that space to what’s best about your writing: your individual vision, expressed as only you can describe it on the page, in a manner likely to appeal to your target readership.

No amount of one-size-fits-all writing advice is going to be able to tell you how to do that — and, frankly, that’s probably good news if you’re trying to develop your individual authorial voice. Generic style precepts that purport to be universally applicable presuppose a single notion of good writing. But you have too much respect for your intended reader than to buy into that oversimplified notion, don’t you?

Don’t squander your unique artistic vision by expressing it in vague terms or overused phrases. Trust me, your reader will want to gain a clearer sense of what you have in mind. Keep up the good work!

So you’ve pitched or queried successfully — now what? Part XII: why a talented writer should not see any single rejection as the end of the line, or, some reasons to keep chugging along in the face of long odds

Yes, yes, I know — it’s been a while since I’ve posted, although I have been consistently answering the ever-burgeoning crop of readers’ questions that have been cropping up on archival posts. (Word to the wise: since writers habitually ask such good questions, reading the comments on those posts is often quite worthwhile.) It’s been an even longer while that we’ve been meandering toward the end of this series on the steps and missteps pitchers and queriers take immediately after having pulled off their ostensible goal: to provoke an agent or editor to request manuscript pages.

Yes, I did say ostensible, because you’d be astonished at how frequently successful pitching or querying induces not only the kind of oh-my-God-I-have-to-get-this-out-the-door-instantly! panic we have discussed so much throughout this series, but an actual feeling of letdown. All too often, after expending the intense effort and socially underestimated bravery of presenting one’s baby to someone actually in a position to get it published, the would-be submitter finds herself beginning to doubt whether that yes really did mean yes — or whether it was an enthusiastic enough yes to be regarded as a good sign.

Or even sufficient reason to comply with the request for pages. Over half of requested materials never arrive, after all.

I’m delighted to hear most of you guffawing merrily. “Oh, come on, Anne,” those of you who have yet to be in this seemingly enviable position scoff, “how insecure would a successful pitcher or querier have to be to experience qualms at that juncture? I can understand experiencing some icy tootsies at earlier points — while working up the immense guts required to pitch a book to a real, live agent, for instance, or in that awful pause between receiving a rejection and sending out the query again. But why in heaven’s name would a sensible, sensitive, intelligent writer feel let down by learning that his pitch or query worked? Or not act upon it when it did?”

Several reasons, in practice. First, pitchers and queriers sometimes harbor false hopes for what they can achieve with an initial approach. One of the most pernicious myths of publishing is that if a writer is really talented, her book will attract serious attention from the industry at first glance, rather than the result of years of persistence. So even if a writer knows intellectually that the best possible outcome at the pitching/querying stage is, in fact, for the pro to ask to see pages, she may still feel disappointed that the agent of her dream’s first response is, “Your premise seems interesting; I’d like to see how you handle it on the page,” rather than “By Jove, that’s the best book concept I’ve ever heard! No need to read any of your actual writing — I’m going to sign you here and now!”

Of course, the latter response had ever actually emerged from an agent or editor’s lips when speaking to a non-celebrity writer’s pitch or query, it would be a bit insulting, right? How could anyone tell whether a book is well-written without reading it — or judge a writer’s potential without bothering to clap eyes upon what he has written? Indeed, what agent or editor in her right mind would even consider signing a writer whose work she’s never read?

But ‘fess up, pitchers and queriers: at least at first, you walked into the process hoping that she would, didn’t you?

Another reason writers suddenly finding themselves on the receiving end of a request for pages sometimes feel low is that it can take a lot of nos to get to yes. Yes, no matter how talented one might happen to be: typically, it takes a writer new to the game a while to figure out which agents to approach, let alone how to approach them professionally. Yet due no doubt to that aforementioned pernicious myth that true talent always finds a home, and instantly, many, if not most, aspiring writers presume that any rejection means that they’re not talented enough to get published.

As a direct a simply staggering percentage of queriers, pitchers, and even submitters make the attempt only once. “I tried!” they protest. “But the publishing world didn’t want my work. So why should I try again?”

Um, because agents and editors are individuals, not merely cogs in a vast collective publishing mind? Logically, no single rejection could possibly equal rejection by the entire industry.

To be fair, though, that’s a heck of a lot easier to say than to believe. Rejection hurts; there’s just no way around that. And if one’s work gets rejected enough, the anticipation of further rejection can render even an awfully gosh darned enthusiastic request for pages seem like a spider’s coyly inviting a trusting fly over for a dinner and a movie.

And then there’s the most common reason that successful queriers and pitchers feel less than thrilled by the advent of a cordial request to send pages: they don’t know how to respond. It’s not that they don’t want to take advantage of the opportunity; they’re simply unsure how to do it. What if they inadvertently do something wrong?

Thus this series, in case you had been wondering. No matter how eager you are to get published, it can be genuinely stressful to be asked to submit your work. Especially if you happen to have bought into that pernicious myth, and believe that the process should be easy and quick.

I can tell you now that it won’t be — and that the length and curviness of a writer’s road to publication is a notoriously poor predictor of authorial success. What’s a better predictor, in my experience? A writer’s persistence — and her willingness to take the time to learn how publishing actually works, rather than stubbornly clinging to any myths on the subject that she might have picked up along the way.

Or, to put it another way: while the publishing world does not always reward writers serious enough to professionalize their outlooks, it has a long and glorious history of preferring those that do.

Which is one aspect of how the publishing industry treats writers that I really like, actually: collectively, it tends to assume not only that anyone who can write well enough to deserve to be published is an intelligent human being, but also that a good writer can and will learn the ropes of the business side of publishing prior to expecting to make a living within it. Just as no rational being would walk into an operating theatre and begin performing brain surgery with no previous training or basic knowledge of human anatomy, the logic runs, what smart aspiring writer would believe that successfully pulling off one of the most complex achievements of the human psyche, the writing of a truly good book, requires no advance practice? Or that the industry devoted to bringing those magnificent expressions of the human spirit to public attention has no internal rules or standards to which someone brand-new to the biz would be expected to adhere?

In this era where even news shows operate on the assumption that the average adult has the attention span of a three-year-old — and one who has been stuffing candy into his eager mouth for the last two hours at that — I find agents’ and editors’ presumption of authorial intelligence rather refreshing. If a trifle optimistic in practice.

How so? Well, many successful queriers and pitchers see only the negative fallout of this industry-wide assumption: since the pros expect writers to do their own research before trying to get their books published, rookie submitters are often stunned that nobody in the industry just tells them what to do. Wasn’t this supposed to be easy and straightforward, as the pernicious myth led us to believe? From a first-time querier’s perspective, it can seem downright counterproductive that agents just expect him to know what a query letter should look like, what information it should contain, and that it shouldn’t just read like a back jacket blurb for the book.

Heck, how is someone who has never met an agented author in person to know not just to pick up the phone and call the agent in question? Magic? Osmosis?

Similarly, agents, editors, and contest judges presume that anyone genuinely serious about her writing will have learned how professional writers format their manuscripts — an interesting presumption, given that many, if not most, aspiring writers are not aware that professional manuscripts are not supposed to resemble published books.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not information that the average writer is born knowing — which is a real shame, since professionally-formatted manuscripts tend to be taken far more seriously at submission time than those that are not.

Again: thus this series — and thus the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right. Chant it with me now, those of you who have been following this series closely: people who read manuscripts for a living assume that since good writers are intelligent people, the only reason that a manuscript would not be formatted properly is that the submitter did not bother to do his homework.

In other words, from their perspective, a query or submission that does not conform to their expectations of what is publishable (in terms of writing) or marketable (in terms of content or authorial authority) indicates that the writer just isn’t ready yet to play in the big leagues. He may not be waiting for the Manuscript Fairy to wave her wand over his just-completed first draft, causing an agent — any agent, for what does it matter? — to appear on his doorstep, clamoring to represent writing she hasn’t read, but he isn’t exactly investing the time in learning how professional writing looks, either.

That doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that the writer question will never produce professional-level work; indeed, folks in the industry tend to assume (and even say at conferences) that they’re confident that if a truly talented writer gets rejected, she will take it as a sign that she needs to improve her presentation. Since the information on how to do that is available — on this website, as a matter of fact — why wouldn’t someone with a genuine gift invest the time and effort in learning to do it right?

In my experience, there’s a very straightforward answer to that: because the average querier or submitter, gifted or otherwise, doesn’t have a clear idea of what he’s doing wrong — or that there is a professional standard to which he should be adhering. And since most rejection letters these days contain absolutely no clue as to what caused the agent (or, more commonly, the agent’s screener) to shove the submission back into the SASE — heck, some agencies no longer respond at all if the answer is no — I don’t find it all that surprising that the aspiring writer’s learning curve is usually quite steep.

That’s why, should you have been speculating on the subject for the last few paragraphs, I am bringing up the expectation of intelligent research at the end of this series on how to respond to a submission request. Indeed, it’s a large part of the reason that I write this blog: from an outside perspective, it’s just too easy to interpret the sometimes esoteric and confusing rules of querying, pitching, and submission as essentially hostile to aspiring writers — and thus as justification for hesitating when faced with a request for pages.

Yes, the hoops through which a new writer needs to jump in order to get his work considered by the pros are many, varied, and sometimes flaming, but that’s not due to any antipathy toward rookies. Honestly, the hoops exist mostly for practical reasons. While many of the querying and submission restrictions have indeed been established in order to narrow the field of candidates for the very, very few new client slots available at most agencies, the intent behind that weeding-down effort is not to discourage talented-but-inexperienced writers from trying to get their work published. The underlying belief is that an intelligent person’s response to rejection will not be to give up, but to analyze what went wrong, do some research about what can go right, and try, try again.

That’s right: the fine folks who toil in agencies and publishing houses don’t expect the writers they reject to disappear permanently, at least not the ones with genuine talent. They believe that the gifted ones will return, this time better equipped for life as a professional writer.

To cite the old publishing industry truism, good writing will always find a home. What the agents and editors who spout this aphorism seldom think to add is: but not necessarily right away. Like learning any other set of job skills, becoming a professional writer can take some time. And one heck of a lot of effort.

Which means, from the business side of the industry’s perspective, writers who give up after just a few rejections — which, as I mentioned, is the norm, not the exception — are those who aren’t genuinely interested in making the rather broad leap between a talented person who likes to write and a professional writer in it for the long haul. Trust me, Millicent the agency screener doesn’t waste too many tears over the loss of the former.

I don’t see it that way, personally: I see the crushed dreams. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that most talented aspiring writers take individual rejections far, far too seriously.

As I said, this is a field of endeavor that not only rewards, but assumes persistence in a writer. Yet in recent years, it seems as though every third aspiring writer I meet has either:

(a) sent out a single query, got rejected, and never tried again,

(b) had a few queries rejected two years ago, and has been feverishly revising the manuscript ever since, despite the fact that no agent had yet seen it,

(c) pitched successfully at a conference, but convinced herself that the only reason four agents asked to see her first chapter was because those agents were too nice not to say yes to everybody,

(d) received a positive response to a query or pitch, then talked himself out of sending the requested materials at all, because his work isn’t good enough — how could it be, when he’s been rejected in that past?

(e) sent out the requested pages, but in order to save herself from disappointment, decided in advance that none of the replies will be positive,

(f) received the first manuscript rejection — and expanded it mentally into a resounding NO! from everyone in the industry, and/or

(g) concluded from conference chatter that no one in the industry is interested in any book that isn’t an obvious bestseller. Why bother to try to break into a biz that doesn’t want new voices?

In short, each of these writers had decided that his or her fears about what happened must have been true, rather than doing the research to find out whether the explanation hurt feelings dictated was in fact the most reasonable one, or even remotely plausible. To address some of the more common leapt-to assumptions, in the order they appeared above:

(a) a single query is not — and cannot, by definition — be indicative of how every agent on earth will react.
A better response: why not try again?

(b) until agents have actually seen the manuscript, there’s no way a writer can know how they will respond to it.
A better response: work on improving the query.

(c) no, the agents and editors weren’t asking everyone to send pages — pitching just doesn’t work that way.
A better response: if your pitch or query garnered a submission request, assume that you did something right and send out the materials.

(d) how do you know for sure until you send it out?
A better response: learn how to present your work professionally, then submit it.

(e) in my experience, foretelling doom does not soften future misfortune, if it comes — it only serves to stultify present hope.
A better response: hedge your bets by continuing to query other agents while waiting to hear back from the first round.

(f) any agent or editor’s opinion of a book is just that, an opinion.
A better response: see (a)

(g) contrary to pernicious myth, the publishing industry makes most of its money on books that are neither bestsellers nor small-run books. Most of the time, the mid-list titles are paying the agency’s mortgage.
A better response: take the time to learn how the industry works, rather than killing your chances entirely by not continuing to try.

None of this is to say that bouncing back from rejection is easy, of course, or that landing an agent is a snap. The road from first idea to publication is long and bumpy, and seems to get bumpier all the time.

Honestly, though, is the pain of rejection worse than the strain of not pursing your dream? As Maya Angelou tells us, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

Yes, it’s emotionally hard work to prep your pages to head out the door to agents and editors; yes, it is hard to wait for replies to your submissions. To give you a foretaste of what’s down the road, it’s also psychically difficult to watch the weeks tick by between when you sign with an agent and when that sterling soul decides that, in her professional opinion, the time is ripe for her to submit your book to editors. And then it’s rough to wait until those editors get around to reading it, just as it is agonizing to hang around, feigning patience, between the time a publisher acquires your book and it appears on the shelves.

I’m not going to lie to you: it’s all incredibly wearing on the nerves. That’s just a fact of authorial life.

That being said, if you are thinking about throwing in the towel on your book before you have given the querying and submission processes a thorough test, I’m just not the right person to look to for validation of that decision. Sorry. I’ll give you practical advice on how to query until we’re both blue the face; I’ll hand you tips on how to improve your submission’s chances until the proverbial cows come home; I’ll share pointers on the fine art of revision until Doomsday; I’ll answer your questions along the way until my fingertips lose their distinctive prints. I will cheer from the sidelines for your efforts as a writer until even the Norse gods decide to call it a day and burn down the world.

As long as you keep trying. A dream that’s fed only on hope without action will eventually starve.

And, frankly, a plan that’s not based upon a realistic understanding of the possible is harder to act upon. One of the few industry truisms that is actually true 100% of the time: the only book that has absolutely no chance of being published is the one that stays hidden in the bottom drawer of the author’s filing cabinet.

Keep pushing forward; keep sending your work out. Because while it’s time-consuming, expensive, and emotionally wearing, it’s also literally the only way that your book — or any book — comes to publication.

What makes me so sure of this? Long-time readers of this blog will groan with recognition, but once again, I feel compelled to remind you that five of the best-selling books of the 20th century were rejected by more than a dozen publishers before they were picked up — and that was back in the days when it was considerably easier to get published. Feel free to count down with me now:

Dr. Seuss, AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET (rejected by 23 publishers)

Richard Hooker, M*A*S*H (21)

Thor Heyerdahl, KON-TIKI (20)


Patrick Dennis, AUNTIE MAME (17)

The lesson to derive here: keep moving forward. Please don’t dismiss your book too soon, on the basis of some preconceived notion of what will and will not sell — even if that preconceived notion fell from the ostensibly learned lips of the agent of your dreams.

Concentrate on what you can control, not what you can’t. In order to do that effectively, you’re going to need to learn about how the process actually works. The good news is that the writer does have practically absolute control over the technical and cosmetic aspects of the submission.

Yes, I know — for most of us, getting our thoughts, stories, and worldviews out there is the primary goal of writing a book, so concentrating on the details seems comparatively boring. Most of us want to move directly to unfettered self-expression — and then are surprised and frustrated when the resulting book has difficulty finding an agent, getting published, or winning contests.

But this is a bad idea, both professionally and emotionally. Concentrating almost exclusively on the self-expressive capacity of the book, it’s too easy to read rejection as personal, rather than as what it is: an industry insider’s professional assessment of whether she can sell your work within her preexisting sales network. Ask anyone in the biz, and he will tell you: 99% of rejections are technically-based; the rejection usually isn’t of the submitter’s style or worldview, for the simple reason that those are not considerations unless the basic signs of good writing — in the sense of professional writing — are in the submission.

This can be a very empowering realization. As can coming to terms with the fact that while people may be born with writing talent, the ability to present writing professionally is a learned skill.

Once a writer grasps the difference between technically good writing and stylistic good writing and the distinction between a well-written manuscript and a professionally-formatted one, rejections become less a personal insult than a signal that there may be technical problems. Technical problems are much, much easier to fix than stylistic ones, after all. The question transforms from “Why do they hate me?” to “What can I do to make this submission/query read better?”?

Yes, yes, I know: emotionally speaking, that might not feel like much of an improvement, at least in the short term. But at least when the question is framed in the latter manner, there is something the writer can DO about it.

I’m a big fan of tackling the doable first, and getting to the impossible later. I come from a long line of writers.

Without a doubt, absolutely the best thing you can do to increase your chances is to make sure that your submission is crystal-clear and professionally formatted before you send it out. Pass it under other eyes, preferably those of other writers, people who both know basic good writing when they see it — and have some idea how to fix it.

Why not simply take the advice of anyone who utters the words that sustain so many aspiring writers, “Oh, you write? I’d like to read some of your work sometime.” Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: as marvelous as your kith and kin may be as human beings, they are unlikely to give you unbiased feedback — and unbiased, knowledgeable feedback is going to be a heck of a lot more helpful in hoisting your work up over the professional bar than even the most heartfelt friend’s cry of, “Oh, this is great.” Ask any professional writer.

What else can you control, even a little? Well, you can avoid sending your query or submission during the traditional industry dead times (between the second week of August and Labor Day; between Thanksgiving and New Year’s day), or predictable periods of heavy submission (immediately after New Year’s, right after school gets out for the summer). You don’t want to have your work end up in the read when we get around to it pile.

So for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to take a great big marker and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of your envelope, so your marvelous submission doesn’t get tossed into the unsolicited manuscript pile for a few months. It’s a good idea, too, to mention that these are requested materials in your hugely polite cover letter that you enclose with the manuscript: “Thank you for asking to see the first three chapters of my novel.”?

While I’m being governessy, I might as well add: always, always include a SASE — a stamped, self-addressed envelope — with enough postage (stamps, not metered) for your manuscript’s safe return. Mention the SASE in your cover letter. This marks you as a courteous writer who will be easy to work with and a joy to help. If you want to move your reputation up into the peachy range, include a business-size SASE as well, to render it a snap to ask you to see the rest of the manuscript. Make it as easy as possible for them to reach you to tell you that they love your book.

And remember, no matter how excited you are to get that manuscript out the door, don’t overnight it unless an agent or editor specifically asks you to do so; priority mail, or even regular mail, is fine. This is true, even if the agent who has had your first chapter for two months e-mails you and asks for the rest of the manuscript immediately. It’s neither appropriate nor necessary to waste your precious resources on overnight shipping.

Trust me on this one: your book may be the next PEYTON PLACE or JAWS, but honey, it is unlikely that the agent’s office is holding its collective breath, doing nothing until it receives your manuscript. Hurrying on your end will not speed their reaction time.

Another way to keep your momentum going while you wait: since turn-around times tend to be long (a safe bet is to double what the agent tells you; call or e-mail after that, for they may have genuinely lost your manuscript), do not stop sending out queries just because you have an agent looking at your manuscript or book proposal. If an agent turns you down — perish the thought! — you will be much, much happier if you have other options already in motion.

Not to mention the fact that you will have less time on your hands. No one is better at conjuring scenarios of doom than a creative person with some leisure time. Keep chugging forward.

Don’t let the hobgoblins of self-doubt carry you off, my friends. Have faith in your writing — and work hard to learn as much as you can to maximize your book’s chances of success. And, of course, keep up the good work!