Before you send out that query, will you do something for me? Please? Or do I need to call out the kraken?

As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while are, I hope, already aware, I’m no fan of one-size-fits all querying advice. Or generic writing rules allegedly applicable to all writing everywhere, for that matter. While there are indeed some standard expectations hovering above the querying process — keep it to a single page; be polite; include your contact information; tell the nice agent what kind of book it is, and so forth — I have for seven years now been a tireless advocate of the notion that there’s no such thing as a query that will appeal to every agent, every time.

Certainly not one that will withstand mass mass-mailing to every agent in Christendom with no more fine-tuning between strikings of the SEND key than a change in the salutation from Dear Mr. Representativeson to Dear Ms. Choosemenow. Yet as someone who regularly blogs about querying, teaches classes on it, and offers one-on-one consultation to writers trying to improve their querying chances, I regularly encounter would-be queriers absolutely outraged at the mere suggestion that learning enough about an agent’s sales record and client list to be able to personalize the missive might conceivably be more effective than simply sending the same thing to everyone.

The personalized route is demonstrably more effective, incidentally, but try telling that to an eager would-be author determined to send out 200 queries within the next week and a half. There’s no one so sure of what he is doing than someone that’s learned only the bare minimum requirements for a query and thinks that any old agent will do.

Also not true, by the way: agents specialize by fiction vs. nonfiction, book category, and often by writing style or narrative worldview as well. Narrowing their sales focus enables them to pitch their existing clients’ work more effectively to their already-established network of editorial connections.

But try explaining that to a determined writer who’s promised herself, her kith and kin, and the New Year’s Resolution Fairy that she’s going to land an agent for her novel, darn it, before Easter or perish of exhaustion in the attempt. No matter how gently those of us who handle manuscripts for a living break the news that in practice, there’s no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for even the best-written book in a category her boss simply does not represent, she’ll cling to the belief that while there’s a stone left unturned, she hasn’t yet given it her best shot.

I have also not been particular quiet about my belief that, contrary to online popular opinion, it does not make either creative or strategic sense to approach people looking for original writing and innovative ideas by lifting a prefab query template, plugging your book’s information into it as if it were a Mad Lib, and merrily send the result to the agent of your dreams. Usually, all that achieves is causing Millicent the agency screener’s eyes to glaze over, because, let’s face it, the 712th reading of a stock phrase like my novel is complete at XX,XXX words is no more likely to strike anyone as startlingly beautiful writing than the 12,453rd.

But try explaining that to someone cranking out Query No. 84 out of a projected 217. “But I saw it in an example online!” these well-intentioned souls will shout, wiping the sweat from their eyes as they lick the next envelope — or, even more often, pound the SEND key yet again. “If it didn’t work, why would it be posted to help people like me?”

Oh, where do I even start with that one? Perhaps by keeping it simple: despite the apparently astonishingly pervasive belief that all of the writing/querying/submission advice online is equally credible, it isn’t. Furthermore, there’s no Ambrosia, the Good Agent or Euphemia, the Good Editor floating over the ether, whacking incorrect or, even more common, insufficiently explained online guidance with their magic wands, transforming misguided self-described words of wisdom into something actually useful.

Believe it or not, the ideas put forth in that last paragraph reliably generate controversy in querying classes, in the comment section of post on querying, and, indeed, in pretty much any writers’ conference in North America. Which is funny, because often, the very aspiring writers most vehement about a particular theory on querying success tend to be those most irritated by the diversity of opinion they’ve turned up online. It’s hard to blame them, really: if you want to hear fifteen different views on querying, each presenting itself as the authoritative last word, all you have to do is traipse into a class, conference, or online forum and ask to be told what to do.

I accept all that, after all these years. That’s why I always provide such extensive explanations for any querying — or submission, or writing, or editing — strategy I urge you to embrace: as an established blogger, I’ve learned from experience that savvy writers new to the game are often juggling conflicting advice from multiple sources. I would never dream of asking smart people to take my advice just because I say so.

It may come as a surprise, then, that today, I’m going to give you some querying advice that I do in fact expect everyone within the sound of my fingertips tapping on my keyboard to take as much to heart as if Ambrosia, Euphemia, and the New Year’s Resolution Fairy all appeared above your writing desk, chanting it in three-part harmony: never, under any circumstances, send out a query letter without having both spell-checked and proofread it.

I hear some of you chuckling, thinking it would never occur to you to hit SEND or pop a query in the mail without double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking that it was free of typos and grammatical errors. Would you still think it was safe to shrug off this rule if I added and you should do this every time, even if you’re sending out essentially the same query letter ?

Ah, you’ve stopped laughing now, haven’t you? At some point in his checkered career, virtually every aspiring writer has just churned out two or more query letters that closely resembled each other. With the entirely predictable result that the Millicent working for agent Sharpeye McNitpicker at Literary Giants Literary Management has frequently opened an envelope to find an opening like this:

Selectivity Exclusiveberg
Seldompicksupanewclient & Jones Literary Agency
1234 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10000

Dear Mr. Exclusiveberg:

Well might you gasp, but honestly, when you’re mailing off a lot of queries all at once, it’s pretty easy to shove one into the wrong envelope. And, lest those of you planning to query via e-mail be feeling smug, it’s even easier to copy an earlier query and forget to change the salutation. Imagine Sharpeye’s Millicent’s facial expression upon finding this in her inbox:

Dear Mr. Exclusiveberg,

Since you so ably represented Rookie T. Neophyte’s MY FIRST NOVEL, I am hoping you will be interested in my mainstream novel…

It wouldn’t take the proverbial rocket scientist to figure out what happened here — clearly, our querier had just sent off a query to the excellent Mr. Exclusiveberg. Millicent would realize that, of course. Think about it, though: if you were Sharpeye’s loyal screener, wouldn’t you be just a trifle annoyed at this querier’s lack of attention to detail? Wouldn’t you be inclined to leap to the conclusion that a writer this overwhelmed by the querying process, however understandably, would also feel flummoxed by the often-intimidating submission process? Or the sales process, or the publication process? Wouldn’t you be likely to suspect that this querier might be just a trifle more time-consuming for your boss to represent than someone who took the time to make sure the right query went to the right agent?

And while I’m asking rhetorical questions about your feelings about a job you don’t currently have, wouldn’t you also feel the urge to hit DELETE the 926th time you saw a query addressed to your nice female boss like this:

Dear Mr. McNitpicker:

Congratulations on your continued success in representing Bigwig Z. Bestseller’s thrillers. My thriller, DERIVATIVE? YOU BET! is very much in the same tradition.

Here, our querier has correctly identified one of Sharpeye’s clients, but has obviously not bothered to read her bio — which, as any true admirer of Ms. McNitpicker would happily tell you, repeatedly and correctly refers to her agenting triumphs via the feminine pronoun. Because her name might conceivably refer to someone either male or female, her Millicent has also rolled her eyes over many an otherwise well-crafted query that has tried to hedge by using both names:

Dear Sharpeye McNitpicker,

Or by embracing a too-familiar tone in the query overall, presumably to justify dispensing with the honorific altogether in favor of the first name:

Dear Sharpeye,

I love your blog! And while we’re talking about great writing, why not take a look at my memoir, REMINISCENCES OF A NARCISSIST? It’s so fantastic, it’ll blow your mind.

Now that you’ve been toddling along in Millicent’s moccasins for a few examples, it may not completely astonish you to learn that all of these are usually instant-rejection offenses. If a screener saw any of them only once in the proverbial blue moon, she might be amused enough to let it pass, but if she toils at a large agency or screens for an agent that represents a bestselling author, she might well see each of these several faux pas crop up several times per week.

If not per day. But try telling that to a querier who thinks he’s cleverly avoided the Scylla of gender misidentification by steering straight for the Charybdis of unprofessionalism.

Oh, you thought I chose today’s opening illustration at random? Would that be in keeping with my notoriously close attention to detail?

The strong likelihood of misaddressing the agent of your dreams, or at any rate, his hardworking Millicent. is not the only reason that I would urge you to read your queries — feel free to sing along with me here, long-time readers — EACH TIME IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD, however, even though we all know that’s the best way to catch any mistakes. Beautifully-addressed queries frequently run afoul of yet another beastie haunting agency waterways.

Instead of just warning you of the monster’s existence, let’s see if you can spot it in its natural habitat. To give it a sporting chance of escaping, I’ve allowed it to swim freely around a hard-copy query. If you’re experiencing trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Not the world’s easiest missive to read, is it? But just try explaining that to the lover of fonts who is absolutely convinced that choosing an off-the-wall typeface will make her query stand out from the crowd. And she’s right: it will — for the font and nothing else.

Remember, part of what a writer demonstrates in a query is a reasonable willingness to conform to the expectations of the publishing industry. In that spirit, here’s that query again in 12-point Times New Roman, the industry standard. Notice how much more room Wacky has to make her case with a smaller font.

How gratifying to see so many hands flung skyward. Yes, eagle-eyed readers? “But Anne,” those of you conversant with my HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER FROM SCRATCH series bellow triumphantly, “there are quite a few things wrong with this letter! It doesn’t contain a date, for one thing, and Wacky’s e-mail address appears in blue, a Word AutoFormat correction that’s notoriously annoying to screeners. Nor does it include Wacky’s phone number. Shouldn’t a savvy querier be making it easier, not harder, for an agent to contact him? Her? What kind of a name is Wacky, anyway?”

You’re quite right, bellowers: I had asked you a trick question — this query does contain several red flags, even with the more legible font. Any of you bright people want to tell me why not including a date on a regular mail query might trigger rejection?

Help yourself to a gold star from petty cash if you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Because an undated letter might have been sent anytime! That makes it seem as though — sacre bleu! — Wacky has been reusing the same query for every agent she’s approached, changing only the address, salutation, and work to be praised!” This is a notorious agents’ pet peeve, dating from the pre-personal computer days when aspiring writers would write what were known as Dear Agent letters, photocopy a hundred of them, and mail them to every agency in New York.

Today, the personal computer renders the same tactic much easier to disguise, but still, why advertise it? While writing a basic query letter and personalizing parts of it for each agent is in fact quite a clever strategy, it defeats the purpose if the letter’s lack of a date indicates that it’s a multi-purpose document. Maintain the illusion; even though Millicent knows perfectly well that with the current practice of not answering queries if an agent does not want to request a manuscript, she’ll appreciate the courtesy.

Did you happen to notice, though, the dead giveaway that Wacky had not proofread this query — and thus, Millicent might be within her rights to extrapolate, might not have proofread his manuscript, either? If you didn’t catch the repeated problem, try going back and reading the query out loud.

Did you spot the multiple dropped words that time? Whenever text is composed quickly, there’s a danger of the head’s moving faster than the fingers, resulting in skipped words, punctuation, and even sentences. And perhaps I’ve been misinformed, but when writers are composing something they don’t really want to write — like, say, a query letter or synopsis — they do tend to rush the job.

That’s not the only reason this problem has become ubiquitous in queries in the home computer age, however. As you may perhaps have heard, savvy queriers often compose a basic query letter, then personalize it for each recipient. With every cut, paste, and added word, the chances of cutting a necessary element without noticing it rise.

I sense a few more raised hands out there in the ether. “But Anne, even with the missing elements, it’s perfectly clear what Wacky wanted to say here. His story sounds like an interesting one, although like many readers, I may well be thinking of it rather differently now that I know it to have been written by a man than a woman. That’s a topic for another day, however. At the moment, what I really want to know is if Millicent is reading Wacky’s query very quickly, anyway, isn’t it possible that she might, you know, overlook the missing words?”

It’s possible, I suppose, remotely so. It’s also remotely possible that by the time we wake up tomorrow, the literary world will have decided that sentence fragments are much, much cooler to read than complete sentences.

And then. We’ll all. Be writing. Like this.

Even if the world changes so much that cats develop opposable thumbs and begin turning up as dealers at poker tables, though, the possibility that dropped words, repeated phrases, misspelled words, clich? use, and other line-level red flags will fall off Millicent’s to-scan-for list within our lifetimes remains so remote that we should probably stop speculating about it and start worrying about those kitties.

The publishing world appreciates good writing, and that means preferring clean, polished prose to, well, the other kind. But just try explaining that to a writer that believes, as so many aspiring writers apparently do, that agency denizens will be willing to look past problematic writing in a query. It’s only fair to judge a writer on the writing in the manuscript, right?

I can see why a writer might feel that way: a query, like a synopsis or a book proposal, calls for a different kind of writing than a novel or nonfiction manuscript. But just try explaining that to Millicent, whose job is predicated, at least in part upon the assumption that it is not only possible but probable that someone who can write a book well can also produce a graceful letter. Or synopsis. Or book proposal.

Oh, dear — should I have told you to sit down before I mentioned that?

Writers trying to break into the biz seldom think about it this way, but at the querying stage, the only basis Millicent has to judge writing quality and talent is, you guessed it, the query letter. If that doesn’t strike her as well-written — or if, as we saw in that last example, it doesn’t seem to have been either proofread or put together with the level of care her agency expects from its writing clients — she will reject it.

And no, in response to what many of you just thought very loudly, she’s not allowed to treat a query like our last example as her own Mad Lib, filling in the spaces with words of her own. That would be judging her writing, not yours.

To be fair, though, she might not have noticed all of the dropped words here, for the exceedingly simple reason that she might not have kept reading after the first or second gap. Once she’s noticed a red flag or two, she’ll generally stop reading and move on to the next query. That’s often the case, incidentally, even if the agency in question’s submission requirements allow queriers to include a synopsis, book proposal, or the first few pages of the book in the query packet. Since the query will be the first thing Millicent reads in it– remember how easy it is for her to reject a type of book her boss does not habitually represent? — if its not well-written, she’s unlikely to peruse anything else. Next!

Which comes as almost as great a surprise to most first-time queriers as the majority of manuscripts’ being rejected on page 1 comes to most first-time submitters, I’ve noticed. Why ask for pages, both parties wonder, unless someone’s going to read them?

Good question, and one with a good answer: so they will be handy. If the screener likes the query, why, she can turn immediately to those opening pages; if she finds the first few pages of the manuscript gripping, she doesn’t have to e-mail the writer to get to read the rest of the book.

While that’s sinking in, let me call on the disgruntled souls that have had their hands in the air since I first broached the subject of Millicent’s eye for sentence-level detail. “But Anne,” they mutter, and can we really blame them? “I get why Millie might have taken umbrage at that last example — she would have had to fill in the missing words herself, and that’s not really her job. As you say, she can only judge the writing by what’s in front of her. But you mentioned typos. Surely, we all see enough of those even in published writing these days that she’s going to see them for what they are, slips of fingers in a hurry, not as deliberate mistakes.”

I’d urge you to try to make that case to someone who reads hundreds of queries per day, but frankly, I don’t think you’d have a chance of convincing a professional reader. Agents, editors, contest judges, and Millicents are specifically charged with noticing the small stuff, after all; it’s part of their job not to look past textual errors. And realistically, given only a page of writing, how on earth could a screener tell whether the writer used the wrong form of there, their, and they’re because he was in a hurry, or because hadn’t learned the rules governing their use?

Or, almost as serious from a publishing perspective, if simply thought it didn’t matter, because someone else would be proofreading his work down the line? Wouldn’t that mean that if the agency signed that writer, they could not ever send out so much as a page of his writing without reading it first? Wouldn’t that prove problematic if an editor asked for a quick revision?

Then, too, it doesn’t pay to underestimate how distracting those of us that read for a living find small gaffes. How distracting, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: since I’m fond of you fine people, I’m not willing to run the risk that even a single one of you might not be aware of how to decide when to use some of the more commonly mixed-up words. Just for the record, then:

There = in that place
Their = belonging to them
They’re = they are

It’s = it is
Its = belonging to it

Mom = the name one might conceivably call one’s mother
her mom = the lady in question’s mother
her Mom = an improper use of capitalization. Generally speaking, only proper names should be capitalized — and if you mention a city, country, or named institution in your query, make sure it is spelled correctly.

Speaking of institutions, person graduates from a school, not graduates college.

Whew, I feel better for having gotten all of that off my chest. Oh, what a relief it is. Today is the first day of the rest of my life, and all’s well that end’s well. While we’re at it, where’s the beef?

Sick of it yet? Millicent is — and to be completely honest, she’s puzzled. Why, she finds herself wondering over query after query, would a talented writer waste perfectly good page space by including even a single stock phrase, rather than original phrasing? Isn’t the point of any writing sample — and make no mistake, every syllable a writer sends to an agency is indeed a writing sample — to show how you would phrase things, not how any random person on the street might?

I’m sensing some nervous shifting in chairs, am I not? “Gee, Anne,” those of you gearing up to send out a few queries murmur under your respective breaths, “all of this is making me self-conscious. I feel as though my query is going to be examined under a microscope.”

Not the most original of concepts, murmurers, but I understand the feeling. I have to say, I’m rather pleased to hear that you’re getting antsy — it means you have an accurate understanding of just how important the writing in your query letter is to your chances of interesting an agent in your work.

Had I mentioned that you might want to invest a little time in proofreading?

To give you some practice, and to help convince the few of you out there who I can feel trying to shrug off this advice, here is Wacky’s query again, with the problems we have been discussing cleaned up.

Not a bad little query, is it? Now here it is again, after having come down with a severe case of the typos. Do you find the addition of the gaffes distracting? If you were Millicent, would you read it all the way to the end? (My apologies about the spacing at the bottom; there actually is a margin there, but my pesky finger slipped while I was capturing the image. And yes, I know that excuse wouldn’t fly with a screener.)

Ooh, that was painful to produce. I could have sworn that my fingertips were about to burst into flame when I typed their instead of there. I had meant to use — ow! — an apostrophe + s form a — it burns! It burns! — plural, but my weak frame wasn’t up to it.

Be honest, though: you had only seen that last version, wouldn’t you have assumed that Wacky wasn’t the world’s best writer? And if you’d been sitting in Millicent’s chair, wouldn’t you have been tempted to call, “Next!” even though the book sounded like it might be fun to read?

Or didn’t you notice that the story seemed like a hoot, because your eye kept flying to those typos? And if so, would you like to try explaining that to Wacky, or shall I?

Proofread, people. In your query’s entirety, preferably in hard copy and out loud. And, as always, keep up the good work!

Capturing the distinctive buzz of reality

As Virginia Woolf — whose birthday all right-minded literary types are celebrating today — tells us, “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” Our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, might like to add, however, “Yes, but that does not mean that everything that has ever occurred on the planet Earth would necessarily make a good scene in a novel, or even a plausible one. And that goes double, perversely enough, for memoir.”

Are you wondering just how that is possible, those of you devoted to writing about reality? Feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, long-time readers: just because something actually occurred does not mean that it will ring true on the page. In a book, it’s the writer’s job to make everything that happens seem plausible; within the world of the story, everything has to make sense.

That can be a daunting task for the writer devoted to truth-telling, because, let’s face it, the world as we actually experience it on a day-to-day basis frequently defies understanding. Storylines meander; villains do not receive their well-earned comeuppances; virtue is not always either its own reward or lauded by anyone else.

In fact, when you come right down to it, quotidian life is usually dramatically unsatisfying, and have you ever paused to consider the kinds of characters reality routinely introduces onto its stage? Totally unbelievable; the average reader would laugh ‘em off the page. And let’s not even begin to discuss how some of those characters talk.

All of which means, contrary to apparently popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, that simply jotting down a transcript of a real event and inserting it into a novel may not work particularly well; all too often, a purely factual account will not provide the reader accustomed to fiction’s standards of world-depiction with sufficient information to be able to picture what the writer experienced. Nor does lifting a living, breathing person and inserting him into a novel necessarily create a character that will spring to life on the page, unless the writer fleshes him out as fully as any character dredged up from her imagination.

There’s a reason that perennial cry of the realistic writer — “But it really happened that way!” — doesn’t particularly impress agents, editors, or contest judges, you know. With apologies to Aunt Virginia, no matter how true the facts, it’s the writer’s responsibility to make them seem true to the reader.

By the same token, while reporting accurately what happened in one’s own life is necessary in a memoir, it’s not the only storytelling requirement; it has to sound true as well. More than that, the narrative needs to present the memoirist’s world vividly enough that the reader can, to recycle a metaphor, walk in the protagonist’s shoes. Plausibility on the page is largely dependent upon style. As the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing.

Do I spot some raised hands out there in the ether? “Fair enough, Anne,” writers of the real across the globe admit. “I never conceived myself as a mere recorder of human events. I want to add my unique authorial voice, trenchant analysis, and distinct worldview to the story I’m telling. But now that you’ve got me worried about the difference between factual accuracy and literary plausibility, how about sharing some tips on how to tell the difference on the page?”

A perfectly reasonable request, reality-lovers, but as it does indeed all depend upon the writing (where have I heard that before?), there really are not any one-size-fits-all criteria. Some plausibility faux pas crop up in submissions and contest entries more than others, however. So that you may learn to spot them in the wild, let’s take a gander at a few of them roaming about their natural habitat.

Here, for your Millicent-imitating pleasure, is an honest-to-God, hand-to-heart real event, rendered for the fiction page as professional readers often see it. Does it ring true to you, or could it use a reality overhaul?

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

Excited, Antoinette extended a shapely leg from the covers to test the air. Chilly, but bearable: surely, by the time she got down to work, the room would have risen to a temperature that would not cause her fingers to cramp. Antoinette clambered out of her cot and into her robe and slippers, shuffling to her cabin’s door.

Nothing there but freezing air and a bit of lingering snow on the doorstep. Laughing at her own optimism, Antoinette turned to fill the electric teapot next to her makeshift desk.

Strange that a place that boasted such an endowment would expect her to balance her laptop on a sheet of plywood resting on sawhorses made out of two-by-fours. It did not make Antoinette sanguine about breakfast down at the dining hall; maybe she’d wait for lunch before she ventured out. That would give Antoinette a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended. She was glad she’d had the foresight to slip some Lady Grey tea and a few protein bars into her luggage.

If you immediately cried, “In heaven’s name, why must every other female leg depicted on the printed page be described as shapely? Couldn’t some of them be, say, nicely-formed or well-rounded? Sometimes, I think that there are no other leg-related words in the language,” well, Millicent would agree with you there. She’s seen enough shapely legs trot across the manuscript page to keep the Rockettes fully staffed until the end of the next millennium. And not, as some genre snobs might assume, merely in the kind of hard-boiled mystery in which dames with gams that go all the way down to the floor lure tough guys into the kind of trouble of which film noir is made.

I tremble to report, though, that this description — and this type of description — is fairly common in both memoir and fiction based upon real events, especially if those events happened to occur in the writer’s own life. Any guesses why?

The answer is rather charming, I think: when writers are describing themselves, even fictionally, they tend to focus upon what they consider their best features — or their worst. Our writer friend above may well feel that the leg in question is what would catch a discriminating bystander’s eye first.

Neither Millie nor I have any reason to doubt that, of course. We just wish that the writer would have come up with a means of describing her leg with sufficient clarity that after having read about it, we could recognize it in a crowd of well-constructed torso support systems, if you catch my drift.

Does the sound of two thousand of you shifting uncomfortably in your desk chairs mean that I hadn’t mentioned lately that those of us who read for a living often develop some rather strong negative reactions to clich?s — or phrasing that turns up in submissions and contest entries so often that it might as well be on every set of lips in North America? That’s an inevitable side effect of screening, I’m afraid: after the 7,259th iteration, even a pleasing and apt description can seem a bit, well, overdone.

The moral, should you care to know it: a writer has no control over where a submission or contest entry falls in a screener or judge’s reading queue. It would behoove a savvy writer, then, to make sure that the page is phrased so it will come across as original and stylish if it’s Millie’s first of the day or her 105th. Give those gams a rest, will ya?

Now that I’ve lectured you into feeling good and protective about the text we’re discussing — oh, you thought I was being nit-picky for its own sake? — let me ask: did you notice the red flag that might have prompted Millicent to shout, “Next!” even if she personally can never get tired of the sight of a shapely leg? While you were at it, did you notice the yellow flag that might merely have irritated her a bit?

No? Perhaps it would help to see this excerpt as she would in a submission, on a page. If you’re having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image. And if you really want to replicate the screener experience, read the following fifteen times, walk away for an hour, then return and read it again.

Did one or both leap off the page at you this time? If not, I invite you to try a practical experiment. First, look away from that page for at least fifteen seconds. Then glance back and read the whole thing as quickly as humanly possible.

Notice how much the name repetition grabs the eye when you’re skimming? That’s the yellow flag, and long has it waved over submissions. Why might it bug a tired-eyed screener? Those capital As are visually distracting, so it could feel to someone who has been screening submissions all day as though our writer friend has reminded the reader that the protagonist’s name is Antoinette far more than is strictly necessary for clarity.

Or, as Millicent might put it, “How short an attention span do you think I have, to remind me of this character’s name on every other line?”

A picayune objection? Perhaps, but since fiction and memoir submissions alike tend to name-check their characters over-much — and as writers often love the monikers they’ve given their protagonists most of all — a Millicent can frequently become sensitive to the practice. Especially in a text like this, in which there is only one character, so there is no possibility of the reader’s saying, “Wait — which she are we talking about now?”

Over-naming certainly isn’t limited to writing based upon real-life events, however, any more than the other major red flag here. To get a handle on the second, let me ask you: how much do you remember about the plot of the page you’ve now read twice?

If your answer even remotely resembled, “Um, not much, but then, not much happened on that page,” congratulations; you’re reading like a pro. While you are already meandering in Millicent’s moccasins, then, let me ask you: if you were a screener, would you turn the page and keep reading?”

Oh, don’t look at me that way; most manuscript submissions get rejected on page 1. Yes, even ones like this: properly-formatted, free of typos, and clearly written. Remember, this is not the only manuscript Millie will be screening today; she may well have dozens loading her desktop, or even hundreds. If the story and/or protagonist don’t grab her pretty quickly, she’s likely to move onto the next.

Again, though, slow openings are not endemic only to fact-based fiction and memoir — but that does not prevent some of you who write one or the other from taking umbrage, I notice. “But Anne!” reality-huggers everywhere protest, and who could blame you? “If I — I mean, Antoinette — really did all of these things on the occasion described here, isn’t it a trifle dishonest to pretend that she did something else? Didn’t Aunt Virginia tell us at the top of this post that the more closely I cling to what actually happened, the better I will write about it?”

That’s not quite the central point of this ubiquitous piece of writing advice, contrary to popular belief. Possibly because one so seldom sees Woolf quote in its entirety: “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction — so we are told.”

Part of the art of writing fiction lies in providing sufficiently detailed descriptions and character development that the reader can feel she’s inhabiting the scene along with the protagonist. The same holds true for memoir, right? As we’ve discussed, that’s frequently the problem with transcribing a verbal anecdote directly to the page: the way most people tell their kith and kin about a real event does not contain enough evocative detail or subtle characterization to be equally gripping in print. That’s especially likely to be the case when, as in our example above, the real-world inspiration isn’t all that action-packed.

And don’t roll your eyes and mutter that clearly, Millicent’s never read any Proust. No one could be a greater fan than I of sitting around and remembering things past, but let’s face it, what wowed the literati in 1917 would not necessarily receive a kind reception today. Literary tastes change. And, as half of the publishing industry’s denizens would be only too glad to roll their eyes and tell you, even habitual readers of high literary fiction have more demands upon their time than in days of yore.

Oh, you think you’re immune to the pacing expectations of our age? Okay, let me ask you — by the middle of that first page, you were mentally shouting at Antoinette to do something, already, were you not? You wanted her to nibble on a madeleine, at least, if you happen to be a Proust fan.

Or, as editors like to scrawl in margins, “Get out of her head and into the story, already!”

To be fair, most current readers have a much, much higher tolerance for protagonists’ sitting around and thinking about stuff than your garden-variety Millicent, especially after the story has shown the major character(s) act vigorously. The cool-down-and-reflect scene is a staple of movies and television dramas for a reason: it allows Our Hero(ine) to reflect on what has just happened and decide what to do next. Since the cinematic medium requires a voice-over to convey silent thought, this scene often consists of the protagonist’s providing a recap and analysis for her best friend, his law partner, her boss, somebody’s mother, or a random passerby, more often than not while consuming some form of liquid libation.

Which is why, in case those of you who regularly frequent writers’ conferences and workshops had been wondering, agents and editors who have been at it a while sometimes urge startled attendees to cut any and all scenes in which the protagonist and another character imbibe coffee, tea, milk, hot cocoa, or any other drink conducive to cozy conversing. It’s not that, as a group, people who read for a living are hostile to, say, caffeine. Far from it.

It’s that, like Millicent, they’ve just seen so many plots stop dead in their tracks for pages on end in order to tell the reader what he already knows — what’s just happened — and to preview what’s about to occur that they cringe a little at the first hint of it. And don’t even get me started on how often manuscript submissions open with a conversation in which the protagonist explains what has happened just before the story started, as a shortcut for introducing back-story to the reader.

I see you blushing, writers of narratives that open with the protagonist’s calling her mother/best friend/significant other/beloved dog Trey to tell her/him/it about the awful/wonderful/just so-so thing that’s just happened to her. Yes, people do this all the time in real life, but that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to depict it on the page. Or even that it’s solid storytelling strategy: remember, the more Millicent is confronted with a narrative trick, the less effect it will have on her.

At the risk of going out on an interpretive limb, on the page, repetition often seems redundant. And before anyone suggests it, as writers so often suggest to agents and editors, no, the fact that something was done or said more than once in real life does not matter. Chant it with me now, long-time readers: just because something actually happened does not mean it will work well on the page. Or even be interesting.

Stop reaching for that club to bludgeon me. I’m not talking about writing untruthfully about actual events here; I’m merely suggesting selectivity in narrative. Just because real life is, let’s face it, often so darned repetitious that it ought to be brought up on charges of plot plagiarism, that doesn’t mean that having your narrative faithfully reproduce that already literary quite well documented tendency will not run the risk of boring the reader.

No matter how true a story is, a writer owes the reader an entertaining yarn, right? Antoinette’s creator/alter ego seems to have forgotten that, and I think I can tell you why.

But first — see what I did there? I gave reality a small twist, for narrative effect. If I were married to literalism in storytelling, I couldn’t have said that, right? I write 99% of the examples I use here at Author! Author! — why would I have to guess the motivations of today’s text-producer?

That being said, let’s return to the rhetorical conceit already in progress: like so many aspiring writers of the real, the teller of Antoinette’s tale presumed that readers would be interested in a fairly mundane set of thoughts and activities not only because they actually happened, but also because those thoughts and activities appear in a novel. Or a memoir. In any case, in print.

Or so Millicent and her ilk surmise from the fact that so many submissions contain — and open with — the kinds of scenes that do undoubtedly occur in real life, but neither advance the plot of the book in question nor provide character development. So why, the reader is left to wonder, is that part in the book at all?

Especially if, as in today’s example, it appears on page 1. As a reader, I find it hard to believe that this particular moment is the most interesting of Antoinette’s no doubt fascinating journey across this terrestrial orb. Nor, as an editor, do I accept that this was the only conceivable place to begin the story– or that a page of set-up was necessary to establish a mood before the plot could possibly lurch into motion.

And, frankly, as an intimate of Antoinette’s — we could hardly be closer, even at this very moment — it rather irks me that the fictional version of the original rather scarifying event translated this way to the page. In real life, this was quite the action-fest.

How might I — that is, Antoinette’s amanuensis — have conveyed that better? Perhaps by getting out of the lady’s head and into the plot more quickly. At minimum, let’s lose the tea.

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

No such luck, but she could easily skip breakfast. That would give her a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended.

She was deep into the middle of Chapter Three of her Great American Novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Startled, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? That’s the fault of the original page 1, I’m afraid. By devoting its entirety to the relatively uninteresting details of quotidian life, it would have fooled Millicent into thinking that this is a pretty slow book.

And honestly, did you really miss all of the earlier rumination this time around? Heck, if we really wanted to get things moving, we could skip all of that naming of emotions (Millicent sees too many {Name} was {emotion} statements on any given day of screening, anyway) and simply throw poor Antoinette straight into her dilemma — and, not entirely coincidentally, into the plot.

Antoinette had just finished typing the fifty-third joke of her novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Screaming, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk — or, rather, the bowed and frayed sheet of plywood balanced precariously upon makeshift sawhorses the It Shall Remain Nameless artists’ colony had seen fit to provide writers-in-residence. The second bee landed in her lap, the third atop her sleep-ravaged hair. She fled the cabin, sloshing through the March slush in her bedroom slippers.

Much more exciting, isn’t it? yes, Aunt Virginia, this quite different narrative is every bit as factually accurate as the original version; it’s merely told with an alternative emphasis and swifter pacing. Sticking to the facts need not mean relegating stylistic concerns to the compositional back seat, after all.

Two more common faux pas, and we’ll call it a night. See if you can spot what would raise Millicent’s notoriously easily-levitated hackles as the story moves through its next set of conflicts.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny window — was the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He’s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Did the level of word repetition bug you, so to speak? Again, it might help to see it as Millicent would.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny windowwas the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He‘s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Quite eye-catching, is it not? And entirely for the wrong reasons. For some reason that years of editing and writing experience have left me powerless to explain, word and phrase repetition — up to and including that clich? about the chattering teeth — is notoriously common in both fictional and nonfiction accounts of real events. The prevailing theory (to which I only occasionally subscribe): writers of the real tend to focus more upon recounting the facts accurately than upon how they recount them. In a laudable attempt to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they sometimes forget to show off how well they can write.

I do think that explanation is sometimes applicable to real scenes committed to paper, because all types of writers fall into word repetition patterns at one time or another; when writers are in a hurry to get a good concept down on paper, style often falls by the wayside, at least for the first draft. I suspect, though, that a few other factors frequently nose their heads under the literary fence. The old verbal-anecdote-not-translating-well-to-writing trap, for instance: it’s hard to deny that even the most gifted raconteurs tend to reuse words more than the prevailing standards for professional writing smile upon in these decadent days.

If you still don’t believe that the spoken and the printed word are different, try reading that last sentence out loud. Tumbles awkwardly around the mouth, doesn’t it? Yet most readers would not have perceived it as especially awkward on a first reading. (I would — and did, as soon as I typed it — but hey, I’m a professional reader. Don’t try this at home.)

Writers of fact and fact-based fiction also occasionally fall into this pattern because in their aforementioned laudable effort to tell the truth, the whole…well, you know the rest, they conflate the goal of being factually accurate with a desire to be consistent. If an account is true, they reason, it should sound the same each time it’s told, right? And they’ve been telling it a certain way out loud for years. So telling it any other way can sound not only wrong to them, but actually untrue.

This logic, if you’ll pardon my saying so, drives many of us benighted souls that read for a living nuts. “What do you mean,” they bellow, rending their garments, “there’s only one way to tell this story? You’re a writer — there are a million ways you could tell this story!”

That response, in turn, drives many writers of the real equally nuts, especially if they happen to be writing memoir. “What do you mean,” they wail, bearding heaven with their bootless cries, “I should write about my life in a different way? I’m telling the truth here — so are you asking me to lie about what happened, or are you saying that I should have lived my life in some other way?”

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate realistically. Naturally, a memoir editor wants the writer to present her life story accurately, but if you’ll pardon my repeating myself, it also has to be a good yarn — and well written, too, if the writer can possibly manage it. That means being selective about what real elements to include, as well as exerting narrative authority to ascertain that the story both flows plausibly on the page and entertains the reader.

Oh, holster that throwing knife. Just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will necessarily read as plausible on the page. All that nice professional reader wants you to do is tweak your account so the reader gets yanked out of the story by muttering, “Oh, that would never happen.”

Exercising some finesse can be quite necessary, as I think we can all agree that sometimes, reality can be mighty implausible. As I may have mentioned, the world is often a genuinely lousy writer, distributing punishments and rewards with little sense of dramatic fitness, jumbling together entirely disparate character traits within a single individual, and generally displaying a perverse affection for the trite and predictable. The real world wouldn’t last fifteen minutes in an editor’s chair.

Or a writer’s, for that matter, because to make sure that the written word is appreciably better than reality. That takes both a discerning eye for the actual and an acutely sensitive sense of story.

Sound like a tall order? You may be encouraged to hear — I know I am — that many writers of autobiographical fiction and memoir do exercise both talents in their submissions and contest entries, imposing a very strong authorial point of view onto the story arc. Sometimes, unfortunately, they go a trifle overboard.

How? See if you can catch the subtle narrative bias in the next segment of Antoinette’s story. Why might this factually truthful account rub Millicent the wrong way at the end of a long day’s screening? (Hint: verbal anecdotes are prone to this misstep, too.)

Antoinette felt as though every bee in the world had landed on her back, buzzing and pacing on its tiny legs. “What am I supposed to do until he gets back?”

The administrative assistant rolled her eyes, clearly thinking what a wimp. “Why don’t you try ignoring it?”

“Them,” Antoinette corrected her quietly. “I’m being dive-bombed.”

“Try opening a window.”

Antoinette dragged herself downstairs, hoping to delay her unexpected exterminator duties with some scrambled eggs, but the breakfast servers slammed the dining room door in her face. She couldn’t even snag a lousy cup of coffee. With envious eyes, she watched the well-fed sculptors, painters, and photographers amble back to their beautifully lit and undoubtedly bug-free workshops.

Has the self-pitying tone begun to grate upon you yet? No? Okay, I’ll ramp it up.

She waded back through the ankle-deep slush to her cabin, rolling up a newspaper she had snagged from the dining hall into what she hoped and prayed would be an adequate hornet-smasher. Opening the cabin’s door just enough to peek inside, she recoiled. The plywood desk was polka-dotted with groggy be. Dozens more lazily circled the old-fashioned bowl light fixture on the ceiling.

Terrified to her bones but determined not to lose a half-day’s writing time, she clamped her eyes and mouth shut, clenched her teeth, and ran across the room. Grabbing the nearest window by its sash, she wrestled it open, a worrying buzzing just off her right ear the whole time.

The storm window couldn’t be budged. Swatting wildly in all directions, she ran all the way back to the administration building.

“Back already?” the administrative assistant snorted. She called to workers in other parts of the office, laughing.

“Please,” Antoinette begged, “I don’t know what to do. I think there’s an entire hornet’s nest in the ceiling light. I can’t get to my computer to rescue it.”

Everyone laughed. “Can’t you write in longhand?” someone asked.

She took a deep breath, forcing herself to remain polite. “I don’t mind trying to work someplace else for the rest of the day, but could I borrow an electric fan or something so I can get back into the cabin for some clothes? Or maybe even my laptop?”

More guffaws. “Look,” the administrative assistant snapped, “if you want, you can write a note for Joe.”

I was pretty flabbergasted at this reaction, I must admit; as I said, reality’s not a very subtle writer. Which is why, believe it or not, this narrative seems to lack authenticity: it’s too obvious where the reader’s sympathies should fall. Not only is our saintly heroine — who is, you will note, unflaggingly polite — entirely in the right while her faceless tormenters cold- and warm-blooded alike are entirely in the wrong, but the humans’ reaction doesn’t even make sense.

“Oh, come on,” the reader would have every right to huff. “What kind of retreat’s administrative staff would be this callous to danger to one of its guests? Some people are allergic to beestings, you know. And even if that possibility hadn’t occurred to anyone concerned, wouldn’t they be worried that a massively bee-stung former writer-in-residence might, if she lived to tell the tale, make certain that any writer who might even consider taking up residence there would hear this dreadful epic of woe and uproar?”

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? The purpose of telling this story in writing, though, is presumably not to point a finger at the guilty — or at least not to do it so obviously that the reader perceives a narrative bias — but to beguile the reader with a true-to-life, entertaining yarn. Antoinette’s creator might try, for instance, limiting the dismissive reaction to only one character, the administrative assistant, rather than presenting the rest of the office’s staff and the dining hall’s personnel as uniformly hostile. Some individual character development might be nice. And why not seduce the reader into sharing the protagonist’s horror by giving more of a visceral sense of what it felt, smelled, sounded, and tasted like to be in that room stuffed with bees?

Let me answer that last question myself: I’d rather not relive that nasty moment any more intensely than I already have to write the story so far, thank you very much. If I were writing this scene for a memoir or autobiographical fiction manuscript, however, it would be my job to envision it down to the very last flutter of wings.

The truer the facts, the better the fiction, right? Otherwise, how could the reader possibly gain a true sense of what it was like to be living inside Antoinette’s skin? And wasn’t that what the writer telling her story set out to achieve?

Hey, nobody ever said writing about reality well is easy. Often, it’s not particularly fun, either. But you chose your subject matter because you wanted a writing challenge worthy of your ambitions and talent, didn’t you?

In the interest of factual accuracy, I should add that Joe did eventually turn up — he’d gotten embroiled in a still life — but since the hornet’s nest extended all the way into the cabin’s disused attic, he wasn’t actually able to stop the hailstorm of hornets until well until the middle of the next day. I slept on a crumbling couch between two other writers’ bedrooms. My slippers did not dry out fully until the beginning of Week 5.

P.S., I wrote roughly 200 pages while I was in residence. But I’ve never looked a hornet in its beady little eye again.

Seriously, I could have constructed a far more dramatically satisfying resolution to that storyline, reality. You really do need to work harder on your craft and characterization.

But nice job on all of the shapely legs with which you’ve managed to stock the world. Keep up the good work!

Fear of revision, by guest blogger Julie Wu — and some news I’m particularly overjoyed to announce

Okay, I’ll confess it: I’m known for my enthusiasm about fabulous writing and the fine people that produce it. Guilty as charged. I’m also, I hear, notorious for waxing especially rhapsodic when a good writer who has paid her dues first breaks into print. Yet even for me, a phrase like particularly overjoyed is a rarity.

What’s sent me into overjoy overload, you ask? This time, I’m announcing a fabulous novel by a great writer who has paid her dues — and who also happens to have been my college roommate. So if you think I’m not going to be tap-dancing on the rooftops about this one, well, all I can say is that my neighbors have been anxiously spreading nets under their eaves for weeks, in anticipation of this moment.

Ahem: Julie Wu’s first novel, THE THIRD SON, is now available for presale at Amazon! Congratulations, Julie!

Algonquin Books will be bringing the book out in April. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

It’s 1943. As air-raid sirens blare in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, eight-year-old Saburo walks through the peach forests of Taoyuan. The least favored son of a Taiwanese politician, Saburo is in no hurry to get home to the taunting and abuse he suffers at the hands of his parents and older brother. In the forest he meets Yoshiko, whose descriptions of her loving family are to Saburo like a glimpse of paradise. Meeting her is a moment he will remember forever, and for years he will try to find her again. When he finally does, she is by the side of his oldest brother and greatest rival.

Set in a tumultuous and violent period of Taiwanese history — as the Chinese Nationalist Army lays claim to the island and one autocracy replaces another–The Third Son tells the story of lives governed by the inheritance of family and the legacy of culture, and of a young man determined to free himself from both.

In Saburo, author Julie Wu has created an extraordinary character, a gentle soul forced to fight for everything he’s ever wanted: food, an education, and his first love, Yoshiko. A sparkling, evocative debut, it will have readers cheering for this young boy with his head in the clouds who, against all odds, finds himself on the frontier of America’s space program.

Having gotten a sneak peek at this lyrical novel, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Double that recommendation for those of you currently pursuing the difficult-but-rewarding path of literary fiction: I think you’re going to be interested in the lovely things the language does in Julie’s talented hands.

I’m just a trifle excited, in short, that her work is about to be available to a wider audience. To celebrate, I’ve decided to rerun one of my all-time favorite guest posts, by, you guessed it, Julie Wu’s. I first ran it in 2011, soon after Algonquin acquired the novel.

I think it might resonate particularly well right now, as I know so many of you have spent the first three weeks of January (insert martyred sigh here) frantically querying agencies already dealing with what I like to call the New Year’s Resolution Avalanche. Still others have, bless your hearts, been champing at the bit, waiting for half the aspiring writers in North America to work that first querying enthusiasm of the year out of collective system.

But I’m correct, am I not, in saying that every single one of you has been gnawing your nails, worrying about whether your manuscript or book proposal is polished enough to make the grade? That’s completely normal; even the best books have to run the rejection gamut. Yet it’s amazing how seldom published authors speak frankly to those facing the prospect for the first time about something everyone who writes for a living knows is the case: facing rejection is an inescapable fact of the writing life.

Stop shaking your head — it’s true. Every single living author you admire has had to deal with it. What’s more, every living author you admire has been precisely where you are now.

Don’t believe me? Ask Julie. Not only in the guest post below, but in her wonderful essay on rejection and literary success. Those of you struggling to free regular writing time in your schedule might also want to check out this interesting interview on Book Architecture; first-time authors rarely talk so openly about this perennial challenge, either.

If you doubt that any of these writing woes have been under-discussed, let me ask you: when’s the last time you heard a writer mention rejection or struggling to wrest writing time from his busy schedule as anything but a complaint?

What I like so much about today’s post is how unblinkingly it examines something else writers published and unpublished alike seldom like to admit: many a great premise has been lost to posterity for lack of necessary revision. It’s easy to lose faith in mid-revision — and even easier to reject the notion of revision at all.

Advance disclaimer: I’m not the roommate mentioned in the piece; I couldn’t throw a pot to save my life. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I should tell you that Julie is the kind soul that first introduced me to that modern miracle, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, a fact that in no way affects my estimation of her literary talents. A Boston-area native, she also probably saved my life by instructing this rural California girl on the delicate art of crossing Massachusetts Avenue on foot without being flattened like a pancake.

The local joke at the time was that Cambridge traffic tended to separate Harvard students into two categories: the quick and the dead. So if you have ever enjoyed a post here at Author! Author!, Julie’s teaching me to dash through traffic unscathed is partially to thank.

Please join me, then, in welcoming Julie Wu. Take it away, Julie!

My roommate once made a clay pot in art school. Threw it on the wheel, drew up its walls between the tips of her fingers, fired it, glazed it. When she and her classmates held up their finished pots, gleaming and beautiful, the instructor led the students to a pit and ordered them to throw down their pots. The point was, he said, not to become attached to a particular piece of work. You can always make more.

Some students cried. My roommate was traumatized, still bitter about the experience years later when she told me about it.

Hearing her story made my stomach twist. I had written a few short stories, and they were my precious babies, conjured up as I sat cross-legged in the dark in an apartment overlooking the Hudson River. My stories were praised in student workshops, but their strengths were no more robust or reproducible than the street lights’ glinting on the water’s surface. Even after the literary magazine rejections came in, I revised only a sentence here or there, hoping that would be enough.

Because I was afraid that if I revised more, I would ruin what was good and never get it back again. I was one of those art students, crying and clutching my pot at the edge of the pit.

Here’s the thing: that instructor was right. It has taken me ten years to understand that. Make one beautiful pot–maybe you were lucky. Make another from the ground up, and another, still more beautiful, and you are an artist. It takes practice, study, the making and smashing of many pots beautiful, average, and ugly, to really know that clay, to know exactly how to push your hands into it to get what you want.

It took me ten years to understand, because it took me ten years to write my first novel. I revised it countless times–a little when it first didn’t sell, then more and more. Eventually, I changed its structure, its point of view, its tone, its style. With each revision I received comments and started over, page one. Each time, I learned more, until I could revise without fear. And it was then that I sold the book.

In writing we have a safety net: the computer. Open a new file and you have smashed your pot and kept a picture of it at the same time. How to proceed at that point is a study in humility, in open-mindedness, in self-examination. It’s remembering all the advice you read about in the craft books–that you must have an interesting protagonist, a need, lots of conflict–and admitting you need to take that advice yourself. It’s hearing all the feedback from your readers–that the protagonist is unsympathetic, that nothing happens, that what happens is implausible–and admitting that they are true. It’s realizing that there’s power in depth, and that depth is a function of your narrative arc. It’s an equation of equal parts emotion and mechanics, and it’s fueled by that elusive beast, imagination.

After so many years, book one is done. I’m thinking about book two. I’ve got clay in my hands again, but I feel different now. Because I’m not afraid. Because I know now I can make a pretty good pot. And because if it doesn’t turn out well, I don’t have to cry. I can throw it into the pit, and make something better.

Julie Wu‘s novel, The Third Son, won a short-listing in the 2009 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress Competition and will be published by Algonquin Books in April, 2013. Her short fiction has won honorable mention in the 2010 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Contest and has been published in Columbia Magazine. Also a physician, she has published a personal essay in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). She earned a B.A. in Literature from Harvard and spent a year studying opera performance at Indiana University in Bloomington, many lifetimes ago.

Writing the real — and some delightful news about a longtime member of the Author! Author! community

Before I launch into today’s festivities, please join me in applauding a longtime member of the Author! Author! community, J. A. Turley — better known around here as John — for publishing his gripping narrative nonfiction account of the Gulf oil spill, The Simple Truth: BP’s Macondo Blowout. Congratulations, John!

It’s also, you may be interested to know, available as an e-book. Here’s the blurb:

THE SIMPLE TRUTH: BP’s Macondo Blowout dramatizes through narrative nonfiction the drilling of the 3-1/2-mile-deep exploration well and the evolving decisions and events that led to the disaster. The story is structured around drilling data, federal and corporate investigations, and deposed evidence. Fictional characters are surrogates for surviving offshore personnel and the eleven who died. Readers — regardless of location or vocation — are along for the ride, their learning curves gentle but high. The extensively-referenced nonfiction epilogue documents the human, operating, and engineering causes of the disaster, unique among published books.

If this storyline sounds a bit familiar to those of you who have been hanging out here for a while, well, it should: an excerpt from an earlier draft of John’s book won top honors in the Freestyle Fiction category of Author! Author!’s 2011 Rings True literary competition, then titled MACONDO 20/20. If memory serves, page 1 of his winning entry read something like this:

If you’re having trouble reading that, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image. I would suggest doing the same with his contest synopsis:

As the prize for winning the non-easily categorized-fiction category of the Rings True contest, I both posted feedback on these two pages and sat down with the talented and generous Heidi Durrow, author of my favorite literary fiction debut of the last decade, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, to talk about what might happen next with this book. At the time, John was presenting the story as fiction; here’s what Heidi and I had to say about that.