Sing it along with me now, submitters: torn between requests for pages, feeling like a fool. Is showing my manuscript to both of you breaking all the rules?

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Ah, exclusivity. As a recent question from a member of the Author! Author! community reminded me, few issues trouble the sleep of writers new to submission more than this: if an agent asks to read my manuscript, may I show it to another while she’s reading it?

That burning question does not concern merely the stressed-out fortunate lucky enough to have received a request for an exclusive peek at their manuscripts, either. Writers’ minds are, let’s face it, unusually gifted at spinning out scenarios both fabulous and fabulously disastrous about what happens to their manuscripts after those pages disappear into the murky depths of an agency, doubt abounds — and multiplies unmercifully. What happens if an agent asks to see my book on an exclusive basis, the aspiring fret, and who could blame them? and she doesn’t make up her mind before another agent asks to see it? What if I’ve already sent pages to fifteen other agents, and somebody asks for an exclusive? What if one of those fifteen never gets back to me, so I don’t know whether I have a manuscript under consideration or not when a new one asks? While I’m at it, what if an agent really did want an exclusive, but I didn’t pick up some subtle, publishing-world-specific signal and mistakenly submitted my book widely? What if paper-devouring giants come along and inhale my pages between the time they land at the agency of my dreams and when the agent of the aforementioned dreams has a chance to read them? What if…

Enough, already. The short answer to all of these questions is this: you’re probably not going to find yourself in most of these situations. Particularly that one with the giants.

Or, as it happens, the one about being ethically bound not to show your work to a second agent while a first is pondering it. Contrary to popular dead-of-night fears, requests for exclusives — the perversely longed-for situation in which an agent cries, “Wait! I liked your query/pitch/first few pages that I read so much that I want to be the only agent in Christendom reading it! Don’t show it to anyone else until I have, ‘kay?” — are actually relatively rare. And contrary to rumors lingering from the writers’ conference circuit, it’s also not especially common for agents to demand exclusive peeks at manuscripts as a matter of policy.

Except that some agencies do harbor that policy. Some agents do ask for exclusives. And occasionally, a perfectly well-intentioned writer just trying to follow the rules finds herself singing the title of this post to a dark ceiling at 4 a.m.

How do I know this? Experience, mostly: the Author! Author! comment section has been the go-to source for writers’ anxiety for years now. During and after every single conference season — yes, and every single autumn, in the weeks after savvy writers have sent out post-Labor Day queries — successful pitchers and queriers have come creeping to me furtively with a terrified question: what have I done, and how may I fix it?

Oh, you think that’s an exaggeration, do you? Let me put it this way: for the last few years, I have asked these panicked persons — after I have soothed their heated brows, of course — to give me suggestions for what category title, if any, would most easily have caught their eye on the archive list at the height of their chagrin. Without exception, every single respondent has suggested that I include the word Help!

Usually with several exclamation points. I have some reason to believe, then, that there’s just a little bit of ambient confusion about when it is and is not okay to submit a manuscript to several agents or editor at a time. And, perhaps even more pertinent to the midnight terrors haunting many right about now, how should a writer lucky enough to walk away from a conference with more than one request for pages decide which agent or editor to submit to first?

The short answer, as it so often is in publishing matters, is it depends. The long answer is a question: what about these particular requests make you believe you have to rank them?

If you’re like most writers gearing up to submit, the answer to the long answer probably runs a little something like this: well, obviously, I shouldn’t submit to more than one agent at a time — that would be rude. Or is that I’ve heard that agents consider it rude? Anyway, I wouldn’t want to run the risk of offending anyone. Besides, if I submit only to the one I liked better — which was that again? — I don’t have to come up with a graceful way to say no to the other one. And it’s less work for me: if the first one says yes, I don’t have to go to the trouble of making up another submission packet. But if I do that, must I wait for the first to say no before I send out pages to the second? What if the first never gets back to me? Or what if the first doesn’t get back to me until after I’ve already submitted to the second, and then yells at me because he didn’t want me to show the book to anyone else? And what if…

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about writers’ being gifted at spinning out the ol’ plot lines. If that logic loop sounds familiar, the first thing to do is calm down. In the vast majority of multiple submissions, no problems arise whatsoever.

Especially if you’re clever and conscientious enough to have double-checked the various agencies’ websites and/or listings in a recent edition of one of the popular guides to literary agents. If an agency has a policy of demanding to be the only one considering a manuscript for representation, they’ll generally say so. It’s also quite normal for an agent expecting to read a manuscript without competition to ask for an exclusive point-blank.

And already, I hear sighs of relief bouncing off mountaintops around the cosmos. “Phew!” thousands of submitters mutter. “That was a close one. I’d heard that maybe all agents secretly expected me to submit, or even query, only one of them at a time. So when my already-bloodshot eyeballs caught sight of the title of this post, I instantly felt guilty!”

If so, you’re not alone. The welter of dire warnings and fourth-hand horror stories floating around out there has created a miasma of anxiety around querying and submission. Surely, I don’t have to tell any of you reading this that there’s an awful lot of querying and submission advice out there, much of it contradictory. (Which is, in case those of you searching frantically through the archives have been wondering, why I always provide such extensive explanations for everything I advise here: since so many of my readers are considering quite a bit of competing information — and frequently doing it in a moment when they are already feeling overwhelmed — I believe that it’s as important that you know why I’m suggesting something as to understand how to implement the suggestion. I never, ever want any of my readers to do what I say just because I say so. So there.)

I probably also don’t have to tell you — yet here I am doing it — that quite often, submission problems are the result of believing the common wisdom and applying it to every agent one might ever want to approach, rather than carefully reading each agency’s submission guidelines and treating each query/submission situation as unique.

Sometimes, though, even that level of hedging doesn’t prevent a writer from falling into a ditch. Witness, for instance, the situation into which Virginia, a long-time member of the Author! Author! community, innocently tumbled a while back.

Help! I submitted only two queries to two agents. One got back to me quickly and did ask for exclusive right to review. A few days after I agreed to this, the second agent replied and asked for pages. I don’t want to violate my agreement, but how do I tell the second agent I’m really happy she wants to see more but she has to wait?

Successful queriers and pitchers end up in this kind of dilemma all the time, often without understanding how they ended up there or why they’re stressed out about what was presumably the outcome they were seeking when they approached multiple agents simultaneously: more than one agent interested in reading their work. An exclusive is always a good thing, they reason nervously, a sign that an agent was unusually eager to see a queried or pitched book, and thus decided to bypass her usual method of requesting manuscripts.

Not always, no. But it depends.

Sometimes, a request for an exclusive genuinely does indicate an agent’s being so excited by a query or pitch (especially if that book has just won a major literary contest) that she’s afraid that another agent will snap it up first. Far more frequently, though, a surprise request for an exclusive is the natural and should-have-been-expected outcome when a writer approaches an agent working at an agency that has an exclusives-only policy.

Does that forest of hands springing up out there mean some of you have been paying attention? “But Anne,” attentive readers everywhere shout, “isn’t that precisely the kind of behavior you have been exhorting us not to practice?”

Yes, shouters: help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. A savvy querier does indeed double-check every agency’s submission policies every time.

But let’s say that you didn’t. Again, that wouldn’t exactly place you in the minority — the overwhelming majority of queriers don’t read each individual agency’s submission guidelines before sending out those letters. At least the first time around, aspiring writers generally assume that all agencies operate in the same manner. And very few pitchers do much research on the agents and editors they plan to approach at conferences, beyond reading the blurbs in the conference brochure.

So if you find yourself teetering uncomfortably in Virginia’s steps, don’t worry. You’re certainly not the only aspiring writer that’s ever slipped into those moccasins. Heck, you’re probably not the only one to try to trudge a mile in them today.

Especially likely to find themselves limping through this dilemma: pitchers and queriers who do what virtually every aspiring writer asked to submit materials does — and what Virginia probably did here: sending out pages within hours of receiving the request.

It’s a completely understandable faux pas, in short, especially if the request for an exclusive arises from a query. Overjoyed at what they assume (in this case, wrongly) will be the only interest their queries will generate, many multiply-querying writers don’t pause to consider that multiple requests for manuscripts are always a possible outcome while sending out simultaneous queries.

Thus, it follows as night the day, so is a situation where one of those agents requests an exclusive. And it follows as day the night that an exclusive request is also a possibility when pitching at a conference.

This is why, in case any of you inveterate conference-goers have been curious, agents and editors invariably sigh when an aspiring writer raises his hand to ask some form of this particular question — and it’s not for the reason that other aspiring writers will sigh at it. (The latter usually sigh because wish they had this problem, and again, who could blame them?) The pros will sigh because they’re thinking, Okay, did this writer just not do his homework on the agents he approached? Or is he asking me to tell him that he can blithely break the commitment he’s made to Agent #1? Does this writer seriously believe all agents are in league together, that I would be able to grant permission to insult one of my competitors?

That’s why everyone else will sigh. I, however, sigh because my thought process runs like this: okay, I have to assume that the questioner is someone who hasn’t read any of my blog posts on querying or submission, as much as that possibility pains me to consider. But since I have a small army of explicitly-named categories on my archive list — conveniently located at the bottom right-hand side of my website’s main page, including such topics as EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION, EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS, SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS, and WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? — directly aimed at answering this question, and a battalion more that deal with it within the larger context of submission (under provocative headings like AFTER YOU RECEIVE A REQUEST FOR PAGES, AFTER YOU SUBMIT, HOW LONG BEFORE THE REQUEST FOR PAGES EXPIRES? HOW SOON MUST I SEND REQUESTED MATERIALS? INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE, IS IT OKAY TO SUBMIT TO SEVERAL AGENTS AT ONCE? and other similarly-named categories based upon panicked questions from members of our little community), as well as a dramatically-reenacted scenario directly related to this issue in the Industry Etiquette series. Yet I have to assume that the questioner is facing a situation that I have managed to overlook addressing in any of these posts. So I shall eschew the temptation just to send the questioner to any or all of those categories, try to understand how and why this situation is unique, and answer the question for the 1,477th time, because gosh darn it, a writer is in pain!”

Yes, I can think with that much specificity in mid-sigh, thank you very much. It’s just one of my many, many dubious talents.

All that being said — or, at any rate, thought exceptionally loudly — it is undoubtedly true that more writers than ever before seem to be finding themselves enmeshed in Virginia’s dilemma. Or simply unsure about whether it’s okay to submit to more than one agent at once. Quite a bit of the common wisdom out there, after all, dictates that writers should wait to hear back on one submission before sending out the next.

The short answer to that: poppycock! The long answer — and I sincerely hope that by now you saw this coming — is it depends.

On what? On the individual agency’s policies, of course, as well as how the agent in question phrased the request for pages. And, lest we forget, upon the writer’s planned submission schedule.

Let’s face it, more than one agent’s reading your pages simultaneously constitutes a fairly significant advantage. In an environment where submission volumes are so high that even a requested full manuscript may well sit on a corner of an agent’s desk for a year or more — and that’s after Millicent has already decided she liked it enough to pass it along to her boss– just presuming that any agent would prefer to be the only one considering a manuscript could add years to the submission process. If an agency has a no-reply-if-the-reply-will-be-no policy, stated or unstated, the hapless submitter can have no idea whether silence means (a) no, (b) the manuscript got lost in transit, (c) the manuscript got lost at the agency, d) those pesky giants made a meal of it — or e), most common of all: the agent just hasn’t had time to read it yet.

Well might you turn pale. As agencies have been cutting their staffs over the last few years (and aspiring writers who wouldn’t have had time to query or submit before the economic downturn have been digging old manuscripts out of bottom desk drawers), turn-around times lengthened demonstrably. Not entirely coincidentally, the practice of not informing a submitter if the answer is no has increased dramatically. So has hanging on to a manuscript someone at the agency likes in the hope that market conditions will improve for that type of book.

An unfortunate side effect: more and more submitters who just don’t know whether they can legitimately grant exclusives to another agent or not. How could they, when they have heard that writers should never bug agents while their manuscripts are under consideration?

All of which is to say: let’s not be smug when a fellow writer finds himself stuck in this particular tar pit. It actually isn’t fair to leap to the conclusion that if aspiring writers read agents’ websites and agency guide listings more thoroughly, they would never end up in this situation. Sometimes, an exclusive request does come out of a genuinely blue sky, whacking a conscientious multiple querier or submitter right in the noggin.

How is that possible? Amazingly often, the writer simply does not know that exclusivity is even a remote possibility until an agent asks for it. Unless an agency has an exclusives-only policy (do I need to remind you again to check?), the prospect generally will not be mentioned in its submission guidelines.

Then, too, the request for an exclusive is seldom formulated in a manner that informs a writer not already aware of the fact that she can say no. Or that she can defer saying yes, granting the exclusive at a later date. Or put a time limit on the exclusive, if she agrees to it at all.

All are perfectly legitimate responses to a request for an exclusive, incidentally. But whether any of them is situationally-appropriate depends on the actual content of the request; they vary more than one might think.

I can, however, rule out a couple of possibilities up front. First, there is no such thing as an implied request for an exclusive; such requests are always directly stated. So unless an agent or editor specifically asked for an exclusive peek at all or part of a manuscript or the agency has a clearly-posted exclusives-only policy on its website, a writer does not need to worry at all about offending Agent A by submitting simultaneously submitting the same manuscript to Agent B.

Yes, really. Just mention in your cover letters to each that another agent is looking at it — no need to say which one — and you should be fine.

Would you fling the nearest portable object in my general direction, though, if I swiftly added that the advisability of even this morally blameless route sometimes depends upon factors beyond the writer’s knowledge and control? Back in my querying days, I blithely sent off requested materials to a seventh agent, while six were already considering it. In that, I was being completely ethical: all seven’s agencies websites, communications with me, and listings in the standard agency guides failed to mention any exclusives-only policies. Nor did #7’s request for the manuscript specify that he wanted an exclusive. That being the case, I simply told him in my cover letter that he was not the only agent reading the book.

You can see this coming, can’t you?

I must admit, I didn’t — his irate announcement that his agency never considered multiple submissions left me pretty gobsmacked. But once he had expressed that preference, I was compelled to abide by his rules, even though they were late-breaking news: I had to choose whether to e-mail him back to say I accepted his terms, and would be telling Nos. 1-6 that my manuscript was no longer available, or to apologize for not being aware of what I could not possibly have known and withdraw my submission to him. I chose the latter, and lived to submit another day.

I sense some of you seething, do I not? “But Anne!” the hot-blooded among you cry. “That wasn’t fair! Why didn’t you insist that he abide by what you thought were the original terms of the submission?”

Because, passionate ones, as Thomas Hobbes once so rightly observed, rights are the ability to enforce them. Arguing with an agent about his own submission policies is always a losing proposition for a writer.

So before you say yes to an exclusive, make sure you understand its terms, as well as what granting it would mean for you. Read that request very, very carefully, as well as the agency’s website. (Yes, again; they might have changed their policies since you sent your query.) Will the exclusive be open-ended, or is the agent asking for you to hold off on submitting elsewhere for a particular period of time? If the request doesn’t specify an end date — and most exclusive requests don’t — would you feel comfortable setting the request aside for a few months while you responded to any other agents that had already expressed interest? Or if it took three months to get an answer from an agent that already had the manuscript?

Stop gasping like a beached whale. A three-month turn-around on a manuscript submission would be a positively blistering rate, by current standards.

While you’re asking those follow-up questions, here’s another: are you absolutely positive that the agent is asking for an exclusive? Sometimes, in the heat of excitement at hearing a yes, a successful querier — or, even more commonly, a successful pitcher — will slightly misinterpret what he’s being asked to do.

Yes, really. Many a super-excited conference attendee has floated away from a pitch meeting falsely believing that he and the agent have hit it off so darned well in that ten-minute conference that obviously, the agent must be expecting an exclusive. Heck, good ol’ (fill in polite pitch-listener’s name here) would be positively hurt if her new buddy allowed another agent so much as a peek at it, right?

Um, wrong. Chant it with me now, close readers: unless an agent specifically asks for an exclusive or her agency has an established exclusives-only policy, you are free to submit as widely as you wish. The same holds true if you have indeed received a request for an exclusive, but have not yet granted it. While the manuscript remains in your hands, you retain complete control.

Feel better, submitters? I thought so. Remember, a request for an exclusive is in fact a request, not a command. Even if a writer receives one or more requests for an exclusive, she’s not under any obligation to grant any or all of them– nor does she need to agree to any right away.

That’s vital to know going in: the instant the writer has agreed to an exclusive, she does in fact have to honor it. So it’s in the writer’s best interest to give the matter some advance thought.

I just felt half of you tense up at the very notion of delaying so much as forty consecutive seconds before bellowing, “Yes! Yes! Whatever you want, agent of my dreams,” but think about it. If Virginia had pondered Agent A’s request for a week or two, wouldn’t she have found herself in a much, much happier dilemma when Agent B’s epistle arrived? Then, she would merely have had to decide to which she wanted to submit first, the one that wanted the exclusive or the one that didn’t.

What would have been the right answer here, you ask with bated breath? Easy: it depends.

Upon what? Feel free to pull out your songbooks and sing along: if Agent A’s agency’s had a posted exclusives-only submission policy, he had a right to expect Virginia to be aware of it before she queried, and thus to believe that by querying him, she was agreeing to that condition. If an agency will only accept solo submissions, that’s that: it’s not as though Virginia could negotiate an exception in her case.

It would also depend upon whether the agent put a time limit on the request. It’s rare that an agent or editor includes a start date in an exclusive request (they have other manuscripts waiting on their desks, after all), but they do occasionally specify how long they expect the exclusive to be.

Given Virginia’s surprise, though, my guess is that neither of these conditions applied. That means, ethically, the choice of when the exclusive would commence would be up to her.

The only thing she could not legitimately do was submit to both A and B after A said he would read it only as an exclusive. That does not necessarily mean, however, that if Virginia wanted to submit to A first, she could not suggest a time limit on the exclusive, in order to enable her to take advantage of B’s interest if A decided to pass.

And a thousand jaws hit the floor. Yes, yes, I know: the very idea of the writer’s saying, “Yes, Agent A, although you did not indicate a time limit, I would love to grant you a three-month exclusive — here’s the manuscript!” would seem to run counter to the idea that the requester gets to set the terms of the exclusive. But in Virginia’s case, I happen to know (my spies are everywhere) that Agent A is of the ilk that does not habitually specify an end date for an exclusive. So proposing one would not constitute arguing with him; it would merely be telling him how long she believes she is agreeing to refrain from sending the manuscript elsewhere.

He could always make a counterproposal, after all. Or ask for more time at the end of those three months. It’s a reasonable length of time, though, so he probably won’t say no — as he would, in all likelihood, if she set the time at something that would require him to rearrange his schedule to accommodate, like three weeks.

Why so glum? Was it something I said? “Three months?” the impatient groan. “I thought you were kidding about that earlier. To me, three weeks sounds like a long time to hear back! If the agent is interested enough to request an exclusive, why shouldn’t I expect a rapid reply?”

Ah, that’s a common misconception. 99.999% of the time, what an aspiring writer asked for an exclusive thinks the agent is saying is not, “Okay, your book sounds interesting and marketable, but I don’t want to have to rush to beat competing agents in reading the manuscript. Please remove the necessity of my having to hurry by agreeing not to show it to anyone else until I’ve gotten back to you.”

Which is, incidentally, what a request for exclusivity means, at base. Rather deflating to think of it that way, isn’t it? It is, however, realistic.

By contrast, what 99.999% of aspiring writers in this situation hear is “Oh, my God — this is the most exciting book premise/query/pitch I’ve ever heard. I’m almost positive that I want to represent it, even though I have not yet read a single word of the manuscript or book proposal, and thus have absolutely no idea whether it is written well. Because my marrow is thrilled to an extent unprecedented in my professional experience, I shall toss all of my usual submission expectations and procedures out the nearest window. If you grant my request for an exclusive, exceptional writer, I’m going to clear my schedule so I may delve into this submission the nanosecond it arrives in my office. May I have it today — or, at the very latest, tomorrow — so I can stop holding my breath until it arrives?”

And then the giddy submitter is astonished when weeks or months pass before the agent makes a decision, precisely as if there had been no exclusive involved. The only difference between that and a regular old submission, from the writer’s point of view, is that he was honor-bound not to approach other agents until he heard back.

Pardon my asking, but what did the writer gain by granting that exclusive? Or by not politely attempting to place a time limit upon it from the get-go?

I’m sympathetic to the impulse not to look that gift horse firmly in the mouth, but frankly, many, if not most, aspiring writers confuse initial interest with a commitment. Too often, aspiring writers consider an agent’s request for materials, whether as an exclusive or not, as a signal that the long quest to find a home for that manuscript has come to an end. Acceptance is assured, right?

“Why would an agent ask to see a manuscript exclusively,” they reason, “unless she already thought she might want to sign the author? There must be something else going on. Like hungry giants having overrun the agency.”

A fair enough question, except for the giants part, but I’m not sure you’re going to like the answer. Typically, an agent won’t ask for an exclusive (or to see the manuscript, for that matter) unless she thinks representing it as a possibility; it is a genuine compliment. However, as agents who ask for exclusives seldom make the request of only one writer at a time, it’s not very prudent for a writer to presume that his will be the only exclusive on the agent’s desk.

If that last bit made your stomach drop to somewhere around your knees, please don’t feel blue, or even slightly mauve. The vast majority of writers who have ever been asked for an exclusive peek at their work were under laboring under the same presumption. Often, aspiring writers agree to an exclusive without understanding what it will entail — and usually are either too excited or too shy to ask follow-up questions before they pack off those requested materials.

For the benefit of those overjoyed and/or excited souls, I’m going to invest some blog space into going over what granting that solo peek will and will not require. If you’re planning upon querying an agency that will only consider submissions exclusively, you might want to bookmark this page, for your rereading pleasure.

Within the context of submission, an exclusive calls for a writer to allow an agent time to consider representing a particular manuscript, a period during which no other agent will be reviewing it. In practice, both the agent and the writer agree to abide by certain rules:

(a) only that agent will have an opportunity to read the requested materials;

(b) no other agent is already looking at it;

(c) the writer will not submit it anywhere else;

(d) in return for these significant advantages (which, after all, mean that the agent will not have to compete with other agents to represent the book), the agent will make a legitimate effort to read and decide whether or not to offer representation, but

(e) if no time restriction is specified in advance, or if the agent always requests exclusives, the manuscript may simply be considered on precisely the same timeframe as every other requested by the agency.

Is everyone clear on the rules? Be honest: they differ quite a bit from what you were expecting, don’t they?

Now that we know what Virginia agreed to do in granting an exclusive to Agent A, as well as what her options would have been had she received Agent B’s request before she had sent off the first submission, let’s take a gander what she should do about the situation she described in her question. (You knew I would get to it eventually, right?)

The answer is, as you have probably guessed, it depends. If she wants to play by the rules — and she should, always — her choices are three.

If she specified a time limit on the exclusive when she granted it to Agent A, the answer is very simple: if less than that amount of time has passed, don’t send the manuscript to anyone else until it has. On the day after the exclusive has elapsed, she is free to submit to other agents.

What is she to tell Agent B in the interim? Nothing, if the agreed-upon length of the exclusive is reasonable — say, between three and six months.

Breathing into a paper bag will stop that hyperventilation in no time. While you recover, consider: agencies often face monumental backlogs. It’s also not uncommon for agents and editors to read promising manuscripts at home, in their spare time, because they are so swamped.

And no, Virginia, waiting that long before submitting requested materials to B will not seem strange. Agents are perfectly used to writers taking some time to revise their manuscripts. B probably wouldn’t blink twice if she didn’t get back to him for a few months.

Remember, it’s not as though an agent who requests materials sits there, twiddling his thumbs, until he receives it. He’s got a lot of manuscripts already sitting on his desk — and piled on the floor, threatening to tumble of his file cabinet, stacked next to his couch, and causing his backpack to overflow on the A train. Not to mention the legions of paper hanging out in Millicent’s cubicle, awaiting a first screening.

Besides, what would Virginia gain by telling him she’d already promised an exclusive to another agent, other than implicitly informing him that she had already decided that if Agent A offered representation, she would take it? How exactly would that win her Brownie points with B? Or, indeed, help her at all?

And no, Virginia, however tempting it is, informing A that B is twiddling his thumbs, impatiently waiting for A to polish off those pages, will not necessarily speed A’s reading rate. Why should it, when A’s got an exclusive?

In practice, then, all waiting on fulfilling the second request means is that Virginia will have an attractive alternative if A decides to pass on the manuscript. That’s bad because…?

Oh, wait: it isn’t. Actually, it’s an ideal situation for a just-rejected submitter to find herself occupying. Way to go, Virginia!

“But Anne!” I hear the more empathetic among you fretting. “I’m worried about what might happen to Virginia if Agent A doesn’t get back to her within the specified time frame? It’s not as though she can pick up the phone and tell him his time’s up, is it? (Please say yes. Please say yes. Please say yes.)”

I’m going to say no to that last one — it’s always considered rude to call an agent while he’s considering your manuscript — but relax. Our Virginia still has several pretty good options: one completely above-board, one right on the board, and the last slightly under it.

First, the high road: a week or two after the agreed-upon exclusive expires, Virginia could send Agent A a courteous e-mail (not a call), reminding him that the exclusive has elapsed. Would A like more time to consider the manuscript solo, or should Virginia send the manuscript out to the other agents who have requested it?

Naturally, if A selects the latter, she would be delighted to have him continue to consider the manuscript also. That’s fortunate, because I can already tell you the answer will be the former, if A has not yet had a chance to read it.

It’s also quite possible, though, that the response to this charming little missive will be silence. Quite a bit of it. As in weeks or months of it.

Oh, stop clutching your chests — Virginia’s polite request did not insult A into silence. He was already silent, right? That delay might mean that Agent A is no longer interested, but it might also mean that he intended to answer and forgot. Or that he’s planning to read her manuscript really, really soon. Or that he’s taking her at her word about no longer enjoying an exclusive, but honestly believes he can make a decision on the manuscript before another agent has a chance to make an offer. As each of these is actually pretty plausible, Virginia should not take A’s silence as an invitation to load him with recriminations about not getting back to her.

Which, unfortunately, is what submitters in this situation usually do. It’s entirely wasted effort: if the answer was no, jumping up and down to try to regain the agent’s attention won’t change that; if the agent hasn’t had a chance to read it yet, reproaches will seldom move a manuscript up in a reading queue. And that phone call that seemed like such a good idea at the time will generally result in rejection on the spot.

So what is Virginia to do? Well, ethically, she is no longer bound by that exclusive. She should presume that A’s answer was no, elevate her noble chin — and send out that submission to Agent B without contacting A again.

That’s the high road. The writer doesn’t achieve much by taking it, usually, other than possibly an extension of the exclusive, but you must admit, it’s classy. The level road is cosmetically similar, but allows the writer more freedom.

It runs a little something like this: a week or two after the exclusive has elapsed, Virginia could write an e-mail to Agent A, informing him courteously and without complaint (again, harder than it sounds) that since the agreed-upon period of exclusivity has passed, she’s going to start sending out requested materials to other agents. If A decides he would like to represent the book, she would love to hear from him. Then she should follow through on her promise immediately, informing Agent B in her cover letter that another agent is also considering the work.

I heard you gasp, but you read that right: Virginia should submit those requested materials to Agent B without waiting to hear back from Agent A. That way, she gets what she wants — the ability to continue to circulate her work — while not violating her agreement with Agent A and being honest with Agent B. All she is doing is being up front about abiding by the terms of the exclusive.

Might she receive an e-mail from A afterward, asking for more time? Possibly. If so, she can always agree not to accept an offer from another agent until after some specified date. That was what Agent A had in mind when he asked for the exclusive in the first place, right, the chance to be first in line to ask to represent the book?

The slightly subterranean third option would be not to send an e-mail at all, but merely wait until the exclusive has lapsed, then send out the manuscript to Agent B. Virginia should, of course, inform B that there’s another agent reading it. I don’t favor this option, personally: despite the fact that she would be perfectly within her rights to pursue it, if Agent A does eventually decide to make an offer, Virginia will be left in a rather awkward position.

Enviable, of course, but still a bit uncomfortable. I’d stick to one of the higher roads — unless, of course, after months of waiting, Virginia isn’t certain that she can resist pointing out to Agent A that time is in fact linear, and quite a lot of it has been passing. It’s not in her interest to pick a fight, after all.

The shortness of the space between here and the bottom of this post is making some of you nervous, isn’t it? “But Anne,” you quaver, shifting in your desk chairs, “I’m going to be up all night, wondering what happened next in Virginia’s story. I can see another possible road here: what happens if the exclusive Virginia agreed to grant Agent A didn’t have a time limit? How long must those of us who deal in linear time wait to submit to an Agent B? That seems like the most complicated option of all, so I’m really, really hoping that you’re not planning to trot out that annoying it depends line again.”

Well, her options would depend on quite a number of things, but you’re quite right that discussing the perils and escape hatches of the unlimited exclusive is too complex to toss off in an aphorism. I shall deal with it in depth next time.

For now, suffice it to say that as exciting as a request for an exclusive may be, it is not a gift horse to clamber upon without some pretty thorough examination of its dentistry. Before you saddle it — and yourself — take the time to consider what the ride might be like. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Overcoming those bare-page blues, or, getting those wheels spinning productively

spinning lady

One of the things I miss most about no longer being able to blog on a consistent basis — if not every day or week, then at least as often as I’d like — is constant interaction with aspiring writers and their questions. The Author! Author! community asks such trenchant questions, you see. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are not always seen by the excellent many with the time to read only the most recent posts.

One misses quite a lot that way, from a blogger’s perspective: even when I’m not posting fresh material, I’m often answering questions quietly behind the scenes. Reasonably enough for a blog with archives this extensive, great questions frequently appear in the comments on posts weeks, months, or even years old.

That doesn’t mean that the issues raised might not be of every bit as much interest as those upon which I have written more recently. Take, for instance, a comment reader Firma asked some months back:

First of all, I want to say superb blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing.

I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out. I truly do enjoy writing; however, it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin.

Any suggestions or hints? Thank you!

A very good question about a problem that plagues a great many writers, right? Indeed, it may well sneak up upon all of us from time to time: hands up, everyone who has ever staged at a blank screen or page, feeling it taunting you to fill it up.

I do indeed have a number of suggestions, but first, let’s talk about why this species of writer’s block annoys so many, and why it’s so hard to overcome. Heck, while we’re at it, let’s also take a swing at why, compared to more major forms of I just can’t seem to write today! syndrome, it’s comparatively little discussed in writing circles. And when it is, the sufferer is very often made to feel that a lack of dedication, patience, or even story must be at fault.

Just to clear the air: none of those explanations is necessarily apt, in practice. Plenty of highly dedicated aspiring writers with the patience of medieval saints apply themselves to stories that would knock your socks off — and still find themselves staring helplessly at that blank page for the first twenty minutes of every writing session.

Darned frustrating, even if you didn’t have to fight tooth and nail, as so many committed writers do, to free that writing time from other obligations. No one needs to remind you that you could have used that time more productively. So I have an idea: let’s all agree that informing a writer acutely aware of a ticking clock is, at best, redundant.

At worst, it’s kind of cruel, isn’t it? Good writers, after all, tend to be rather sensitive people: to paraphrase H.G. Wells, it takes a mind unusually open to stimulus to produce strong sensations on the page. (Actually, he was talking about matters below the waist at the time, but it’s still a useful principle, is it not?)

Instead of nagging Firma — who, I think we all can agree, has been doing an awfully impressive job of nagging herself — to use her time better, let’s dig into why she and hundreds of thousands of other writers experience difficulty jump-starting that writing session. Part of the problem, in my experience, lies in the expectation that every last second a writer spends with a manuscript should be productive, as if the writing process consisted solely of slapping words on a page. To be fair, there’s certainly a lot of external validation of that attitude; heck, there’s even a month every year devoted to exhorting folks who haven’t found the time to sit down with their stories for the past eleven months to write a whole novel in thirty days.

Why, that month is coming up very soon, isn’t it? What a remarkable coincidence.

As any established author chafing under a deadline can tell you, pressure to produce X number of pages within a short time frame has a nasty habit of exacerbating writer’s block. Even if the deadline in question exists only in the mind of the writer — an obligation that can be as nebulous as plan to finish that chapter by the end of the week, or a commitment to try to write X number of words in any given writing session — finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer may not the hardest part of the process by a long stretch. For many, many writers, the biggest challenge emerges from the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper.

It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. Almost invariably, those newer to the game blame themselves, as if falling prey to writer’s block were a question of character. (Experienced writers know better: they blame the unreasonableness of their deadlines. But that’s another story.)

The demons of self-doubt can be deafening, can’t they? Especially for a creative mind looking for an outlet. Stumped writers worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to justify taking time away from all of their other obligations. So they just don’t start, or if they do, once they do clear the time from their busy schedules, they feel guilty for not utilizing every nanosecond of it with productive keystrokes.

Obviously, you’re never going to find out for sure how talented, interesting, or important you are as a writer if you don’t make the time to write in the first place, but ultimately, I suspect this fear isn’t a rational phenomenon as much as a matter of conditioning. Americans are, after all, trained from birth to work as hard as possible, and to feel that there is virtue in slogging through quotidian workplace tasks, because there is a paycheck attached to them. By contrast, since the rewards of writing tend to fall into the very, very long-term range, writing feels like a luxury.

Which, as any lifetime writer can tell you, it isn’t. Not if the storytelling urge is really in your blood.

That last sentence made half of you feel guilty, didn’t it? I’m not surprised: in the throes of writer’s block, even encouraging statements can induce guilt or feelings of inadequacy. “If I were really meant to write,” the blocked writer scolds herself, staring in frustration at the blank computer screen, “my fingers would be flying right now.”

Not necessarily. Blank screen-staring is a vital part of any successful writer’s job description. The pros call it processing.

So do not, I beg you, conclude from a few isolated bouts of block that this is not the life for you or stop trying to write after merely a week or two of effort. Do not conclude it even if it goes on for weeks or months at a time, or if you find yourself making excuses about why you can’t write today. This type of block is common, I tell you, and transcends boundaries of talent.

As does coming up with creative ways to prevent oneself from sitting down to stare at that infernal screen. Heck, about a third of the working writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until after every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded t-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason they can’t quite define, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you –- if you find that you’re not cozying up to a computer on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of leisure time available to give free rein to their creativity.

Again, I could parrot other writing advice-givers, blaming every difficulty upon a lack of willpower. I could, for instance, order you crabbily to turn off the TV/DVD/DVR/iPod/TiVo/other electronic distractions, but honestly, we live in a world. Things happen. I would be the last person to advise you to be less aware of what is going on around you.

Mr. Wells’ sensitive nervous tissue, you know. Anyway, chances are that by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, and so forth.

I could also echo William Faulkner’s famous advice to Eudora Welty, when she complained about how difficult it was to find writing time while taking care of her ailing mother: I believe his plan involved a window and a flinging action. Somehow, however, I can’t feel that urging you to defenestrate your nearest and dearest would free your mind from clutter when you next pulled up a chair to your writing desk.

Besides, where would that leave you when you wanted to take Mr. Wells’ advice literally? After a productive writing session, some human contact can be very nice. Best to keep supportive folks on this side of the sill, I say.

That being said, and as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety. Even professional writers, the ones who are making a good living at it, seldom have huge chunks of completely untrammeled time at their disposal. Life is obtrusive, after all.

If you can afford to take such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies and secluded bed-and-breakfasts that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. (Check out the back of Poets & Writers magazine, where many fellowships for such retreats are advertised.)

But I would bet a nickel that the very idea of arranging your life to disappear for a month’s writing retreat feels impossible right about now. You’re a responsible person with obligations. If you have kids, it’s hard to imagine disappearing for that long; if you have a demanding job, it may well be impossible. Not to mention the need to pay your bills throughout this theoretical retreat.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have – and to make a commitment to using it productively.

If you have been able to carve out an hour or two per day, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! Yet the need to make the most of every second can in and of itself can be intimidating; as I mentioned above, if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible, right? (Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s one trick the pros use, one that I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. It may seem suspiciously simple, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music at the moment you sit down to write.

As in every time you sit down to write. Not just the same album — they still make those, right? –but the same song. Preferably one that reminds you in some way of the project at hand.

Do select something you like, because it’s going to be your book’s soundtrack for a while. And do pick more than one song to play — always in the same order, please. It’s fine to create a playlist, or you can listen to the same CD beginning to end. You’re going to want at least half an hour’s worth of music, enough to play in the background until well past the point at which your brain generally starts switching into writing mode.

Here’s the trick, though: if inspiration does not come winging to you immediately, don’t do anything else but write. Stay there in front of that blank screen and think about your story. It’s fine to write something other than the scene you planned, as long as it remains within the world of your book. Go ahead and write character sketches, if you like. Brainstorm an outline for a future scene. Write a hunk of dialogue that doesn’t currently have a place in the storyline. Picture taking your protagonist and antagonist out to a four-course meal at the restaurant of their choice. It’s up to you.

Oh, stop groaning: it’s better than berating yourself in silence for those first ten minutes of trying to write, isn’t it?

What you may not do, if you want to give this experiment a valid try, is plan out other books in your series. Don’t write on another project. And, of course, don’t give up and start answering e-mails. Don’t surf the net. Don’t check Facebook.

I’m serious: don’t do anything else for at least half an hour. The time is going to pass slowly, but don’t give up. It doesn’t matter if you’re bored — in fact, for the purposes of correcting the problem, it would be great to bore yourself in this manner.

Why, you ask in horror? You’re prompting the creative part of your mind to get cracking — and that you’re willing to sit there until it stops resisting getting to work on the darned interesting book you’re writing.

“But Anne,” I hear the blocked cry, and who could blame you? “Won’t this take a lot of time? I mean, I’ve already been flogging myself mentally for not beginning to write the instant my writing time begins — won’t this just feel like punishing myself further?”

Ah, but isn’t part of the problem that your creative urges have been taking their time to start flowing? This is a way to make it pellucidly clear to those pesky Muses that you are indeed committed to your writing process — not merely to the story itself. There is a difference, you know, on the composition level, necessarily so if what you are writing is a book-length piece.

Why? Well, contrary to what the hobgoblins may have been hissing at you in the wee hours, no author, no matter how gifted, writes an entire book in one sitting. (Not a good one, anyway.) Nor do talented authors typically whip off a first draft that’s published as is. That means, in practice, that committing to writing a good book entails a long, hard effort over time.

“Aha!” the part of your brain eager to procrastinate announces triumphantly. “In other words, what I do today doesn’t matter. Maybe, if I resist plunging into the task of writing for another three minutes, the rest of my mind will get frustrated and decide to do something else.”

Sound familiar? And see why it might take a firm resolve to keep staring at that blank screen to convince that truant portion of your mind to stop skylarking?

Both the wait time and the musical repetition may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with writing — and with spending some serious time not doing anything but writing. That in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. Be consistent, and do be prepared to keep it up for a good dozen writing sessions, to set the pattern.

“But not forever, right?” you ask nervously. “I’m not committing myself to a lifetime of listening to nothing but John Denver’s greatest hits, just so I can write productively, am I?”

Naturally, you can play other music later on, but I would recommend always beginning with the same song for at least a few months. Until your brain has become accustomed to snapping immediately into creative mode, not yielding to the temptation of playing something else in those early minutes. You want the message to sink into every synapse: hearing this means it’s time to write.

Stick with it. And do be aware that if this trick works — and it usually does, if a writer gives it a solid chance — you will forever associate that music with the book. There are worse fates. Even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s Upstairs at Eric’s without falling into musings about my long-completed dissertation.

Do I see some timid raised hands out there in the ether? Yes? “But Anne,” some of you murmur, “I’m already pretty easily distracted; that’s part of my problem. Hadn’t it occurred to you that if I don’t write to music, that might have been a sensible, deliberate choice?”

It did, actually; thus the swiftness of my snappy comeback: it actually doesn’t matter what your getting-started-writing ritual is, so long as you perform it consistently. The point is to provide all of that sensitive nervous tissue with a set of nonverbal clues that it’s time to get down to writing.

You’re a creative person — experiment. If music’s not your thing, try lighting the same scented candle just before you sit down to write, if you can do it safely. (Make sure it’s set in a fireproof holder.) Burn some incense. Drink a particular flavor of tea. Always wear the same pair of socks.

At least for the duration of that particular writing project. You might want to set up a different set of stimuli for your next book. Why? Well, it will help you at revision time: a fringe benefit of establishing a ritual for the first draft is that it can make getting back into that book’s mindset a snap.

“Oh,” the creative parts of your noggin will shout, “that’s Alice Cooper singing Cheek to Cheek. It must be time to write about the planet Targ again.”

And another forest of hands has sprouted. “But Anne,” timorous writers everywhere protest, “I’m willing to try these wacky things, because I’m desperate. I can’t even begin to imagine how crazy it’s going to drive my spouse/significant other/neighbors/particularly judgmental cat to hear All the Single Ladies six times a week, but I’ll risk it.

“I’m scared, though: what do I do if this doesn’t work for me? Hand myself over to the hobgoblins of self-doubt then and there?”

No, no, fearful ones; this certainly isn’t the only way of approaching the problem. My sleeves are positively stuffed with fresh cards to toss into the game.

Before I start whipping ‘em out, though, I would like to ask of you coping with the writer’s-block blues: what other ways have you been experiencing it? Dead-of-night self-critique? Backspacing over half of what you’ve written in a day? The impulse to toss completed manuscripts into the nearest geyser?

There are many different strains of the phenomenon, after all, and sometimes, coming up with a specific diagnosis provides half the cure. In the meantime, pressing forward — and not just because you resolved to do it, or because a calendar told you so, but because you believe in the story you have to tell and your ability to express yourself well.

And, as always, keep up the good work!