The threshold of difficult: a tale of three memoirists, or, can’t we all get along?

I’m getting back to you a few days later than I intended in posting, campers, but not for any of the usual reasons. Not that the usual reasons wouldn’t have been more than enough: this last week has been a festival of juggling my editing clients’ deadlines, adapting book promotion advice to the needs of individual books and the ever-changing tastes of the literary market, and dealing with the second week of that allergic reaction I mentioned a couple of posts back, the one that initially made me look like the unholy love child of Boris Karloff from his Bride of Frankenstein period and James Spader, shortly after that unfortunate offspring had been burned at the stake by villagers of the pitchfork-and-torch variety. By this last Monday, the histamine had faded, naturally: for the next four days or so, I merely resembled Cro-Magnon man as it might have been played by Lon Chaney, Sr., of Phantom of the Opera fame.

And some people say there’s no such thing as progress.

No, my excuse for sidling away from the blog this week was far more profound: for the first time in the six-and-a-half-year Author! Author! hegemony, I found myself wondering whether I should blog about a power dynamic relatively common in agent-writer and editor-author relationships. Not because its existence is any secret — as any faithful attendee of literary conferences knows, plenty of the pros are not shy about sharing stories of difficult clients — but because I hesitated to add more complaints to the already-burgeoning array of horror stories floating around the Internet. As long-term Author! Author! readers know, I’m very aware of how easily professional advice to writers can get twisted in the retelling: what might begin as a single weary, battle-scarred agent blurting out a pet peeve or expressing a personal preference on a conference dais can all too often end up being presented online as a universally-applicable rule of submission, querying, or even writing style three months later.

“But Anne!” those of you fond of trawling the web to form composite impressions of wildly contradictory advice protest, and who could blame you? “What’s wrong with that? Obviously, someone in the conference audience heard what the weary agent said and wanted to warn other writers away from running afoul of that agent’s pet peeve — or any agent’s pet peeve, for that matter. Speaking of horror stories, we’ve all heard our share about how easy it is for a well-meaning-but-industry-ignorant writer to blunder into being labeled (shudder) difficult. I, for one, am grateful for that plethora of warnings.”

I’m not faulting the motives of those who choose to pass such admonitions along — the first time. That is indeed often a generous move. The problem arises when that initial warning gets passed along again (and again, and again), often with tweaks, embellishments, and, let’s face it, incorrect interpretations. As should not come as much of a surprise to anyone who has ever played the magic game of Telephone, by the tenth, fifteenth, or fiftieth retelling, the pro who first uttered the advice would not recognize it. Frequently, it’s not just the content that changes; you’d be amazed how often a single observation about a unique situation gets transmogrified into a barked order about what must be done in every instance.

Oh, you thought that a sweeping axiom like the surprisingly ubiquitous agents hate it when writers use adverbs started life that way? Hardly likely. From a professional point of view, it’s an absurd assertion: sometimes adverbs make sense to use, sometimes they don’t.

It’s not at all difficult to picture, though, some poor agent sighing over an opening page in which every other sentence is decorated with an -ly — or that same agent talking about it on a conference panel a week later. With half the aspiring writers in the audience frantically scribbling notes, it’s only reasonable to expect Agent X hates adverbs to turn up online fairly shortly thereafter, right? Or for the next person to pass the news along to report it as agents hate adverbs? And, down the line, for someone who misunderstood the point of an English class exercise aimed at improving characterization in dialogue to conflate instead of Herbert said angrily, why not try showing his anger in his speech? with the shocking news about agents breaking out in hives the instant they clap eyes on an adverb in a submission, creating a universal axiom that no good writer uses adverbs, ever.

Which, I suspect, would come as something of a surprise to Agent X. As the most cursory glance through his clients’ published novels and memoirs would demonstrate, he’s a great fan of the skillfully-applied adverb.

At the risk of coining an axiom, both the source and the context are important to consider when weighing writing advice. And that goes double for anything you may hear about the kind of behavior that gets writers labeled difficult.

Oh, I’m not saying that you should not worry about the phenomenon: it definitely exists, and it is most assuredly true that writers unfamiliar with the rules of the game occasionally find themselves on the receiving end of the epithet without perceiving that an interaction has gone awry. I’m just saying that when you hear a blanket rule asserted, you might want to ask some follow-up questions about how the asserter knows it to be true. And when you stumble upon one of those third-hand this-is-how-a-writer-got-dropped horror stories, whether told from the agent’s, editor’s, or writer’s perspective, you might want to consider the possibility that the original teller’s intent is not being borne out in the version before you. Or — and this is true more often than any of us who give writers advice online might like to think — that a conclusion drawn from a single person’s reaction to a single instance might not in fact be reflective of an industry-wide feeling about a pervasive phenomenon.

I’m going to be talking about some of those pervasive phenomena a little bit later — hey, I wasn’t kidding about being hesitant to blog about some of this stuff — but first, let’s address that widespread writerly fear of running afoul of unspoken rules. As I said, it’s not entirely unjustified: what experience has made self-evidently rude to someone working in an agency might not strike someone new to the querying process as even vaguely impolite.

Take cold-calling an agent, for instance: if you’d like to see an entire panel of publishing professionals cringe in unison, by all means, raise your hand in an agents’ forum and ask if it’s okay to call an agent instead of querying in writing. Chances are, every agent on the dais will have a personal horror story about that pushy aspiring writer who thought, wrongly, that if a hard-sell technique works for used cars, why, only a spineless wimp would content himself with writing a query letter, sending it off, and waiting weeks or months for a reply. Why wait that long, when the agency that represented Tuesdays with Morrie has a listed telephone number?

Oh, you may laugh (at least, I hope those of you who have queried or pitched before are), but agencies get approached like this all the time. As you may have heard, agents hate it.

Unfortunately, those who have heard that are not the only people who want to land agents. So why not just call, the writer who has not taken the time to learn how books actually get published reasons, perhaps pretending to be a personal friend of the agent’s to get past Millicent, and explain to the agent how he just has to drop everything to read his manuscript? While he’s at it, wouldn’t it strengthen the appeal to go on a tirade about how much he wants to get published — unlike, say, every other writer who contacts the agency?

Why? To anyone not new to the agency biz, the answer is simple: because agencies simply don’t work that way, and with good reason. Think about it: if an agent got a reputation for saying yes to this kind of approach, he would be inundated with calls from precisely the type of writer that most agencies do not want to represent, those who believe that being talented grants them the right to expect instantaneous, personal attention.

Which is, incidentally, usually the way difficult gets defined in a publishing context: a writer’s not following prevailing industry etiquette in a manner that requires someone within it to expend unanticipated time and energy in dealing with her.

That covers a lot of territory, obviously, but once a writer understands this underlying principle, not being difficult becomes, well, easier. Instead of trying to learn and abide by each rule of etiquette one at time, laboriously, as if they existed in a vacuum, a writer can simply look at what she is being asked to do, compare it to what she is planning to do, and ask, “Okay, will this make more work for the agent/editor/contest judge? And if so, is the benefit I hope to derive from it worth the risk of eating up more of that person’s time?”

Don’t you wish someone had told you about that test before the first time you queried or submitted to an agent? Unfortunately, this measure of behavior is so self-evidently applicable to those who would actually be inconvenienced by violated expectations that it’s rarely discussed in the company of writers, except as a complaint.

Except, perhaps, phrased as send what we tell you to send, not what you want us to see. And please believe us that we chose the query format for a reason.

By either of these standards, the clueless caller above is clearly difficult, but so is the submitter who, when asked to send the first ten pages of a manuscript, sends fifteen. In both cases, the agent (or, in the second instance, her Millicent) would have to spend valuable time handling a situation she had no way to see coming: chatting with a writer calling out of the blue, reading those extra pages. Since the writer in both cases is being difficult — and does it really matter from her point of view whether the behavior is the result of ignorance or inconsideration? — why should she bother to invest that time at all? Why not just reject the writer out of hand?

Was that thunderous clamor out there in the ether the sound of a good third of you leaping to your feet? Perhaps — and I’m only guessing here — the third of you who have in the past sent more pages than an agent requested? Or that a contest’s rules specified? “But Anne,” the over-sending many shout, “I didn’t mean to be difficult. Surely, no one serious about evaluating writing would want to base that assessment on two-thirds of a scene. Wasn’t I being nice to care about the agent’s reading experience? Or are you saying that I should have rewritten the scene so that it ended on page 10?”

Neither, as it happens: you should have sent the first ten pages. Period. Sending more is being difficult.

Your audible huffs of annoyance are understandable, over-senders, but here we have an instance where the perception of inconsideration differs wildly from the writer’s and agent’s perspectives. You assumed, and not unreasonably, that the request for a partial, contest’s length restriction, or permission to send a specified number of pages with your query was not only intended to provide the agent with an indication of your writing style, the professionalism of your presentation, the voice of the book in question, its appropriateness for your target audience, and how you handle narrative, but to demonstrate how you structure a full scene.

Oh, you didn’t think about it that much? You just thought it would make better reading if the writing sample didn’t get cut off in mid-paragraph?

I hate to break it to you, but either way, an over-sender deliberately disregards a request for a specific number of pages. That’s not only difficult, from the recipient’s perspective; that’s rude. Not only does including the extra pages imply an expectation that the agent, Millicent, or contest judge will make time to read them, but also — you might want to sit down for this one — a belief that the person requesting that number of pages just didn’t understand that not every manuscript will feature a section or chapter break at the bottom of page 10.

Or 15, or 50, or whatever length the requesting agent/contest rules/submission guidelines indicated. Which, from a professional reader’s perspective, is a pretty insulting assumption: honestly, someone who handles manuscripts for a living or has judged more than a single contest entry would have to be awfully unobservant to think that. No one who asks for 10 pages expects a ten-page scene; they want to see if you can write. If an agent or contest wants to read an entire chapter or manuscript, it will ask for it point-blank.

The over-sending writer doesn’t think of it in those terms, naturally; often, he’s just trying to present himself in the best light as a storyteller. In doing so, however, he also presumes, wrongly that the pro will bend the rules in just this one instance. What could another couple of pages matter, after all?

Plenty, to an agent, Millicent, or contest judge who reads tens of thousands of pages a year. Five extra pages on a ten-page writing sample means devoting one and a half times the reading minutes to this submission than one that followed the rules. Why make the exception, when we all know from experience that on the writing grapevine, an anecdote about a single writer-agent interaction can quickly mutate into an immutable rule of conduct?

More to the point, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that a writer who violated one rule or request, however well-meaningly, would do it again in future — and that the belief that the rules really don’t apply to him would be problematic down the line, as well as time-consuming for the agency? If a writer thinks it is acceptable to send 15 pages instead of 10, why wouldn’t he also presume that the agency and the industry are willing to let him fudge on the length of a synopsis? Or an author bio?

Still think it’s unfair to leap to the conclusion that such an aspiring writer would be a difficult client at the query packet stage? Okay, let’s consider how Millicent might make that assessment at the submission stage. Try this one on for size: what if a novelist presumes, not entirely unreasonably, that since publishing houses employ copyeditors, he doesn’t need to proofread or spell-check?

Millicent sees this all the time, of course; usually, she leaps to the conclusion that the writer just can’t spell and/or doesn’t know the rules of grammar. But let’s assume for the moment that an apparently random array of typos pepper an otherwise estimable manuscript. Is that enough evidence to decide that this writer is difficult?

No? Okay, what if a memoirist operates on the assumption that somebody else involved in the publishing process is going to fact-check the parts of the book that she did not experience first-hand, so it really doesn’t matter if her manuscript said the Cuban Revolution occurred in 1952?

Lest anyone be tempted to rip that last line out of context and promulgate it as fact around the Internet: it didn’t. Look it up.

But is this gaffe sufficient to label the writer too difficult to take on as a client? Most aspiring writers would say no; from their perspective, it’s just a minor typo. Would you feel different, though, if the mistake were consistent throughout the manuscript?

Still no? Okay, what if the protagonist’s family had emigrated from Cuba in 1950, and the narrative represented the move as their having fled the revolution? If you were Millicent, would the prospect of your boss’ having to convince the writer that she is wrong about her family’s motivations for coming to this country? Or accuse her of having misrepresented them in order to make a narrative point? And that regardless of why the historical accuracy is off, she is going to have to change either the date or the memoir’s story arc?

Still no takers? Okay, what if a nonfiction writer believes, with some justification, that since her future agent must by definition know much, much more about the current market for her type of book than she does, she’s just not going to bother to include a marketing section in her book proposal? Again, it happens all the time. So does restricting the Competitive Market Analysis to just a couple of books, or limiting the marketing plan to a breezy announcement that since bookstores sometimes allow book signings (a fact that’s sure to astonish anyone currently working in the publishing industry), the writer is willing to show up at any signings the publisher might take the time to set up.

Now Millicent has pretty good reason to believe that not only will this writer be both time-consuming and rather irritating, at least at first, for her agency to represent — do you want to be the one to tell her boss, the agent, that it is his job, not the writer’s, to write the book proposal in its entirety? — but that this writer is actively planning to be time-consuming for the publishing house that picks up her book as well. (These days, first-time authors usually set up their signings themselves.) So the agency will probably have to spend time mediating some disagreements down the line.

What do you think? Too difficult?

I’m sensing that for some of you, even this provocation seems insufficient. “But Anne, I always thought being difficult was a function of how someone works and plays with others, a pattern demonstrated over the course of many incidents over time. I understand that all of the attitudes you describe would result in more work for the agent, but surely each could be fairly easily resolved with just a short explanatory conversation. After all, the writer has every motivation to try to make this relationship work.”

Perhaps, but you would be surprised at how often writers don’t act that way, at least in their earliest interactions with the agents and editors of their dreams. That’s a real pity, because for better or worse, all an agent, her Millicent, and/or a contest judge can base her assessment of a writer upon is the evidence actually in front of her: the query or pitch, accompanying materials, contest entry, requested pages — and that writer’s behavior while providing them. Given that they are charged with the task of selecting a small handful of writers out of the thousands who approach them (or, in the judge’s case, winnowing hundreds of entries down to a list of finalists in the single digits), is it honestly astonishing that they would have developed a tendency to extrapolate ease of working with a writer based upon whether that writer adheres to industry manners and respects the pro’s time?

Believe it or not, writers often do send quite definite messages about their attitudes at the querying stage. Take, for instance, the querier who shrinks the query’s typeface in order to cram more information into a one-page letter. Or the submitter who sends requested pages in a mailing format requiring a signature on the receiving end. Or, sacre bleu, the rejected writer that sees fit to send an e-mail, demanding a complete explanation of a no.

Is this difficult behavior? Well, apply our test: it’s all time-consuming — and frankly, kind of annoying — on the receiving end. How so? Well, he font-shrinker presumes that Millicent will both not notice the deviation from the norms of query presentation (but she will) and be willing to strain her eyes to read the extra parts (but she won’t). The confirmation signature-requirer may not think about the fact that his demand would compel someone at the agency to stop what she is doing in order to pay attention to an arriving package, but believe me, when you’re receiving fifty manuscripts a month, forty-nine of which did not require a work stoppage to accept, it’s noteworthy.

And do we even need to discuss the futility of having a heart-to-heart with an angry writer with whom one has already decided not to work? Or why such a conversation would have no chance whatsoever of changing the agent’s mind? Or, if gravity suddenly began making things fall up, babies abruptly began being born 42 years old, and agents started being open to this sort of follow-up conversation with queriers, the question the agent would have to weigh throughout that conversation would not be gee, did I make a mistake in rejecting this writer? but wow, if this writer is so touchy about a simple, polite no, how will he react when I or his future editor ask him to make changes in his manuscript?

That last one, of course, is the classic publishing pro’s complaint about difficult writers: indeed, the term is often used as a synonym for those so in love with their own words that they are not open to revision suggestions. Those of you who attend writers’ conferences have heard that one before, have you not? It’s right up there with writers are lazy and writers whine about deadlines in complaint popularity.

How popular, you ask? Well, if you walked into that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, sat at the next table over from the agents, and took a sip from your drink every time you overheard one of those three comments, you wouldn’t remember enough about the event the next day to render it a useful learning experience.

Suffice it to say, though, that if you did have a clear enough head to remember it, you would no longer wonder why agents and editors have been known to roll their eyes when writers start to talk about their creative freedom being hampered. Although many, many writers are pretty good about implementing editorial feedback (at least after an initial period of shock has passed), every pro who’s been at it for a while has a personal horror story about that one writer who stamped his feet, screamed, cried, and threatened to sue over a suggestion as practical and simple as “Would you mind changing your protagonist’s sister’s name, since Ellen looks so much in print like Eileen (the villain), Helen (the sidekick), Helene (the schoolyard friend in that flashback), and you’ve chosen for some reason best known to yourself to abbreviate all of those names in the dialogue to El, Eil, Hel, and Hel?”

Oh, you think I’m joking? I once edited a memoir in which the seven daughters of the family’s names all ended in –een — not because those were their names in real life, but because the author felt that this array of synonyms was an essential reflection of the family’s ethnicity. When I pointed out, nicely, that the visual similarity rendered the fifteen (oh, no, another –een!) scenes in which they appeared as a group slightly challenging for readers who had not seen fit to equip themselves with a program to follow, not to mention impossible for a skimmer, the author saw fit to…

Well, let’s just say the reaction wasn’t pretty. Unlike most editors and virtually all agents working with a first-time author, however, I was willing to keep making the case for changing the names not just once, but many times over the course of a few months. But then, unlike denizens of publishing houses and agencies, freelance editors charge by the hour.

That giant thud you just heard, in case you were curious, was the collective stomach of every agented writer reading this hitting the floor immediately after toting up what their last creative disagreement with their representatives would have cost.

I bring up the creative differences issue advisedly: when aspiring writers borrow trouble about the problems they might face in working with an agent or editor at a publishing house, it’s often the concern they express first. Certainly, those of us who answer writers’ questions hear it frequently. Usually, it runs something like this: “My vision of the book doesn’t fit neatly into the publishing industry’s notion of what books like this are like.” (Pause for the advice-giver to ask how, what makes the writer think so — and if he believes his book concept is a category-buster, is it possible he’s assigned it to the wrong book category?) “I know what I want to say, though, and I’m afraid that an agent will ask me to change it to make it easier to sell.”

Well, if the book honestly does contain elements that would render it less marketable, and those elements are not so critical to the story arc or NF argument that they did not trigger rejection all by themselves, this writer is probably right: it would be a good agent’s job to advise him how to maximize the book’s marketability. Writers do, after all, seek out agents because of the latter’s expertise in selling books to publishing houses, right?

Instead of desiring the judicious application of that expertise, however, the change-fearful writer would prefer an agent simply to take the manuscript as he has chosen to form it and walk it around to editors. Happily for the fearer, many good agents’ acceptance standards are so high that they do sometimes — not often — decide to send out a new client’s work without requesting changes. That most emphatically does not mean, though, that the fearful writer’s agent would be pleased if, after interesting an editor in acquiring the book, the writer flatly refused to accept revision requests from the publisher.

Which, in case anyone out there is harboring any illusions on the subject, is the norm for newly-acquired books in the current market, not the exception. It’s also fairly common now — brace yourself, should any of your illusions have survived that last sentence unscathed — for a book under contract to be passed from the control of the acquiring editor to another editor before the manuscript reaches the front of the print queue, due to layoffs, retirements, parental leaves, etc.

Still think Millicent should not be considering ease of working relationship at the querying phase?

Now that I’ve depressed you into a stupor, I’d like to share with you the situations I hemmed and hawed about talking about at all; let’s consider them in the light of the difficulty-assessment criteria we’ve gotten so good at applying. A couple of caveats before we launch, though: I am presenting these not to hold the (heavily fictionalized) persons and (factually accurate) attitudes involved up to ridicule or censure, but in the hope that we might discuss these interactions fruitfully, with an eye toward helping all of you avoid such contretemps in your writing careers.

I do think the matter is ripe for discussion. Although the web is stuffed to the gills with admonitions about what agents love and hate, as well as writers’ complaints, we actually don’t talk all that much — or all that productively — amongst ourselves about how to reconcile professional expectations about how a working writer should interact with the business side of the industry with how those of us on the creative side tend to think of our manuscripts. And that’s a shame, because all too often, when something goes wrong, the writer in the situation can mistakenly believe that she’s the only one to whom it has happened.

Fair warning: some of what is to follow may make some of you angry. Although I understand that it may be tempting to take a few pot shots at the messenger, I do wish you wouldn’t. I also hope that, even if some of this strikes you as unfair — and it probably will — we can concentrate upon how these situations could have been improved or avoided, rather than giving in to the temptation of luxuriating in lamentations.

As I said, there is already quite enough of that on the net, isn’t there?

To keep the conversation from getting too heated or personal feelings getting hurt, I would like to reiterate that the people here are all fictionalized, to protect the parties involved. Sexes have been changed; story details have been significantly altered; no publishing professional or house is identifiable. So if any of the resulting case studies happens to bear any resemblance to something that happened to you or someone you know, please take it as a testament to just how pervasive these phenomena are, rather than a provocation to clutch your heart, cry, “Mon dieu, that’s me/my critique partner, Sheila/my agent!” and tumble sideways in a heap.

So please help me welcome, with compassion and an open mind, three well-meaning memoirists, Huey, Dewey, and Louise. In order to help clarify the sometimes hard-to-discern missteps, miscommunications, and power dynamics, I’m going to tell each of their stories twice: once from the writer’s point of view, and once from the relevant publishing professional’s perspective. True to the rules of memoir (and first-person narrative in general), each will be exclusively from that perspective. Perhaps, after considering both sides, we can mediate between them.

Let’s begin with Huey’s saga. Take it away, Hugh!

I have to say, I was disappointed. I had been querying my memoir, the story of my wife’s battle with a life-threatening illness, for more than two years when Agent Montrose asked to see my proposal. The request caught me a bit off-guard, I’m afraid: I had a full manuscript, but had only been picking away at the proposal in fits and starts. Every time I sat down with it, I felt like I was being given a pop quiz on material we hadn’t covered in class. It just didn’t make sense that they would rather have me write about my book than read the book itself.

So when Montrose sent the request for the proposal, I e-mailed him back and said that it would be a few months. Wouldn’t he like to see the manuscript instead? He said no — a blow, of course, but he was nice about it. He said to send the proposal when it was done.

Well, I worked on it; really, I did. Every few weeks, I sent an e-mail to Montrose, to let him know how I was getting along. The first couple of times, he replied cheerily, telling me to take my time and to let him know if I had any questions. Then he just stopped replying. He didn’t even respond to my Christmas card.

So now I don’t know what to do. I think I could finish the proposal in another month or so — I have some vacation coming up — but if he’s lost interest, shouldn’t I be moving on?

Before we move on to Montrose’s version, what’s your initial impression? Was Huey being difficult, or has he just been having difficulties? Is his assessment of Montrose’s waning interest well-founded? And then there’s the most important question of all: should Huey finish the proposal? Or should he be looking — or have been looking — for an agent who would have said yes to reading the manuscript?

Got your answers to that dizzying array of rhetorical questions firmly in mind? Excellent. Let’s take a gander at what happened from Montrose’s perspective.

I have to say, I was disappointed; that book had some real potential. I know what you’re thinking — there are a million caretaker memoirs out there, so what’s different about this one? Well, the synopsis, for one thing: unlike a good 80% of the memoir synopses I see, this one had a beginning, middle, and an end; the two main characters grew and changed. I think that disease memoir readers would root for these people.

Millie, my assistant, kept burbling about how her aunt had gone through the same thing as his wife, and how much she was looking forward to a really good book about it. Publishers love people like Millie: whenever any of their acquaintance goes through something rough, their first instinct is to buy ‘em a book.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when it turned out Huey had not even begun a proposal. Heck, he didn’t even seem to realize that was how nonfiction books were sold; he kept suggesting that I should read the memoir instead — which was something like 150,000 words, for heaven’s sake. I liked what I had seen, though, and he genuinely seemed flummoxed, so I sent him the agency’s proposal guidelines and hoped for the best.

That was sometime in 2010, I think; I don’t really remember. He never sent the proposal, just a lot of excuses, as if I could simply change my mind about whether a proposal was necessary. Too bad — it could have been an interesting memoir.

Taken together, these two accounts form quite a sad little story, do they not? Huey was lucky enough to find an agent (and a Millicent) genuinely taken by his book concept — but he was not ready to take advantage of it. While Montrose’s conclusion that Huey just hadn’t done enough homework about how nonfiction is sold might not have been entirely correct, it’s hard to argue that the effect of the writer’s not having taken the necessary steps to learn how to write a book proposal amounted to the same thing, in practical terms. Yet Montrose did, by his lights, do all he could to help, and rather more than most would have done in this situation: being a good memoir agent, realized that proposal-writing is a professional skill, and thus not something even the most gifted memoirist is born knowing, so he provided his potential client with both encouragement and guidelines.

See how easily, though, a writer’s just not knowing the ropes can result in practical difficulties for the pro trying to help him? Huey felt, understandably, that since the proposal was a stand-in for the book, it didn’t make sense that Montrose couldn’t make up his mind about representation based upon the manuscript. But since Montrose knew that he could not approach the editors he already had in mind for this project without a proposal, what good would it have done to read the manuscript first? Especially when Huey had already told him that the draft was considerably longer than this type of memoir typically runs; with an Annotated Table of Contents in hand, they could talk down the line about cutting it down to a more reasonable length.

So should Huey give up on Montrose at this point and move on to querying other agents? I think that’s the answer he would like here; it would save him an awful lot of work, wouldn’t it? Frankly, I would rather see him invest that energy in a class on proposal-writing. Or reading a good book on the subject. Or hiring a developmental editor to assist him in writing it. Or, heck, he could take a peek at the step-by-step instructions on how to write a book proposal buried in this very site, cleverly concealed under the opaque heading HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL.

Then, when he has a professional proposal in hand, he will be ready to start querying again. As a courtesy, he might drop Montrose an e-mail first, to see if he’s still interested in reading it, but he shouldn’t be too disappointed if the answer is no: a lot has changed in the literary market since 2010. And Millie is in graduate school now; isn’t that terrific?

The issue of who is or is not being difficult isn’t so cut and dried at the submission stage as it was when querying, is it? There’s a reason for that: since the perception of whether someone is easy to work with is inextricably linked to how intensely one happens to be working with him, as well as to the expectations appropriate to that level of contact, the threshold of difficult is obviously different before and after an agent becomes interested in a writer’s work.

It’s also different once a writer and an agent have made a formal commitment to work together. Consider, if you will, memoirist Dewey’s dilemma.

God, what a nightmare that turned out to be. I slaved over that book proposal — read five books about how to do it, took an expensive weekend seminar, read everything there was about it online, the works. So when Agent Paulette said she loved it, it felt like I’d swum across the Atlantic and washed up on some beach in France. All I wanted was to catch up on my sleep.

So when I didn’t hear from Paulette for a while, it didn’t seem that weird. She said that she would want me to make a couple of tiny changes — no big deal, just tweaks to appeal a little better to the current market. But when I was still waiting a couple of months later, I felt I had to call and ask what was going on. She said she was sorry — she had been just swamped, and she would get to it soon.

Well, a week later, I still didn’t have the feedback. Yet another call. That produced results — and how! Didn’t she realize I had a full-time job? It took me three months to make those changes. Once again, I dumped the results into her capable hands and collapsed.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I didn’t hear from her right away — or ever, really, unless I contacted her first. She just kept saying it was a slow process, that editors took a while to read things these days, anything and everything to put me off. After six months, I began to wonder whether she was still sending it out at all. But just try talking to her about it; she’s so touchy.

Dewey would be happy to continue in this vein as long as you’re willing to listen; just ask the other members of his writing group. Because your time is valuable, however, I’ll skip ahead to the end of his story:

And now I’m feeling really trapped: since the book has been shopped around, I would have to write another, or at least another proposal, before I could query someone else. Guess I’m still in the middle of the Atlantic after all.

The lingering questions are pretty self-evident here, I think. In a situation where both partners are doing the job they agreed to do in pursuing a collective goal, it usually takes some time for each to adjust to the other’s work style. To assess how well Dewey’s and Paulette’s meshed, let’s take a peek at what she has to say on the matter.

God, what a nightmare that turned out to be. It started out so promising, too: Dewey’s book proposal was one of the best I’d seen in a long time. It needed a little work, of course — as most of them do — but I was confident that the results would be good.

A lot of brand-new clients are pretty jumpy, so when Dewey started e-mailing me every other day, to ask what he was supposed to change, it didn’t seem that weird. I was in the middle of a three-book deal for another client; he knew he would have to wait his turn. I wasn’t even all that worried when, after I sent him the revision memo, he initially reacted as though I’d asked him to recreate the works of Homer from memory. It was too much, he didn’t have the time, and so forth.

But he was serious about the book and cranked it out. Rather more quickly than the average client, actually; you wouldn’t believe how often I pass along feedback to a client, then hear nothing for a year or two.

Not our boy Dewey, though. Practically the instant he’d sent me the new version, he starts nagging me about when I’m going to submit it. I explained the process to him, naturally: it’s not as though I have much control over how fast other people read. That seemed to calm him down, but a few days later, he’d be calling or e-mailing again. Doesn’t he know I have other clients? And that it’s in his best interest to leave me alone long enough to sell his book?

Again, quite sad. Here are two perfectly nice, professionally-focused individuals, both eager to collaborate on selling a book proposal they both perceive to be excellent. So what happened?

Misaligned expectations, I’m afraid: Dewey just didn’t understand what his role in their relationship would be, other than writing. Because that was what he was prepared to do, he got antsy every time he didn’t have an assignment on his plate; he didn’t have a constructive outlet for all of that nervous energy. So he focused it on prodding Paulette into a job that she already knew perfectly well how to do — which, in turn, took up enough of her time and energy that she felt, not unreasonably, that his demands were making it harder for her to do that job.

An expectations draw, really — and a dynamic that could have been improved by these two fine people having an honest, straightforward conversation about what Paulette was actually doing to promote the book, as well as how he could spend his time and energy while she did it. I’m happy to report that they did have that conversation (perhaps at the suggestion of someone who knew and cared about them both), and they are getting along swimmingly. Paulette’s still knocking herself out, talking up his book — and his next. Dewey’s working on the proposal for that. In his spare time, he’s taking an online class on book promotion; he’s already started a blog, to establish a web presence for the happy day when he has a book out.

Not all such tug-of-wars end quite so harmoniously, however. Prepare yourself, please, to enter the world of Louise.

Oh, you wouldn’t believe what happened. I had my doubts about Evelyn from the get-go: no matter how much work I did or how well I did it — and I really ripped myself to shreds meeting her constant demands — she never seemed satisfied. “I’ll do my best,” was all she ever said, as though she had to compensate for something wrong with my book.

I remember my guts churning during our very first phone conversation: right away, she started criticizing my proposal. Before she’d even signed me! I bit the bullet, though, and knuckled under to her demands, even though they seemed really far afield from where I wanted to take my book. She told me it had to be that way in order to sell, so like a fool, I went along with it.

The book took FOREVER to sell, but I wasn’t supposed to ask questions about where it was or why it was taking so long. I was just supposed to wait by the phone, in case a call came — because then, Evelyn said, the acquiring editor would probably have a whole new set of suggestions for how to modify the book. I just kept praying that the editor that picked it up would get my artistic vision better.

But the instant we had signed the contract, the quibbling began. Was I really married to the chapter I liked best? Did I really have to spend thirty pages talking about my spiritual connection with marsupials? Was it really important to the story I was telling that I had been raised from ages 4 to 6 by bears?

That sort of thing. You’d think they had never met an interesting, multifaceted person before; all they wanted me to do was simplify my complex life. I don’t know how novelists feel about having their stories chopped to pieces, but for a memoirist, that story is a life. I couldn’t exactly change what I had done ten years before because some editor didn’t like it, right?

And don’t even get me started on the marketing trauma. They changed my title — then got mad at me for not liking the new one. They asked what I would like to see in a cover — then came up with something totally different. They asked me to list every town where I had friends — then expected me to construct my own book tour. Even though I showed up and did my best at every single podunk bookstore where they wanted me to do a reading — I even did a few libraries; way to cater to an audience that wants to buy books — they were never satisfied; they always seemed to want me to do more. And no matter how much promotion I did, the book never sold up to their completely preposterous expectations. Naturally, they thought that was my fault, too.

Of course, Evelyn took their side. She did on everything. And every time I tried to talk to her about it, she always changed the subject to my next book. At first, I thought she was kidding — when would I have possibly found time to write a new proposal? I was already working full-time, helping my sister through a truly horrific divorce, and promoting my book. When was it going to be time for somebody else to do some work?

After a few years of this, with no offer for the next book on the table, I just couldn’t take the constant conflict anymore. There’s no way I would work with any of these people again; it’s way too stressful. If and when I have the time and energy to write yet another book proposal, I’d rather start querying again from scratch than to entrust the fruit of my art to Evelyn.

Okay, so I took a few liberties in the bear department; this story was just too depressing otherwise. The lot of the first-time author today couldn’t be more different than it was twenty years ago — and as quite a few of those authors walk into the process with expectations more in line with thirty or forty years ago, when advances were significantly higher and authors carried less of the responsibility for book promotion, the expectations clash can be pretty dramatic.

Since, by Louise’s account, realizing her dream resulted in such deep disappointment, I’m reluctant to analyze her career trajectory too much. At least, not before we’ve heard Evelyn’s side of the story.

Oh, you wouldn’t believe what happened. I had my doubts about Louise from the get-go: when she was into what I asked her to do, she couldn’t be happier, but let one little obstacle fall in her path, and she’d freak out. It always made me just a touch nervous when an e-mail from her appeared in my inbox. But I don’t have to tell you what kind of audience a really good memoir pandas would draw. I honestly did fall in love with that proposal.

In retrospect, though, I should have listened to my gut feeling during our first phone conversation: she nearly fell over when I told her that before I signed her, I would want her to revise her proposal to my specifications first. Editors expect a certain style and structure from my agency’s clients, after all. We had quite the little argument; she seemed to feel that any concession now would doom her book. Once I convinced her that I wasn’t going to back down, however, she did an excellent job on the rewrite.

And my hopes proved justified when I started shopping her proposal around; on paper, Louise was a great client. Her proposal was very strong. She wasn’t inexperienced at working with an editor, either; she had a couple of previous publications — articles on another subject, if memory serves. since she had put herself through graduate school as a stand-up comic, I had no qualms about predicting she would be great at readings. I always mentioned it when I was pitching her book.

In practice, though, she could be pretty trying. Everything would be going along fine, or so I would think, and suddenly, I’d find myself on the receiving end of an ultimatum. I wasn’t selling the book fast enough; I was showing it to the wrong people; was this really the right economy to be trying to push a book on pandas? Every time, it was different; sometimes, I got the feeling she was picking fights with me so she would have an excuse to ask if there had been any nibbles on the proposal. Once the book sold, however, she was over the moon — this was the best possible outcome in every way. And she actually delivered the manuscript to the editor a week ahead of schedule.

So when the editor called me to say that Louise had been stormily contesting every single revision suggestion in the editorial memo, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised. Nor was I particularly surprised when Louise called me in tears, convinced that her book was going to get destroyed. It took a lot of hand-holding over a period of weeks, but eventually, she did make the requested changes. I have to say, they made the book better.

Then the marketing department started calling; Louise hated the change they wanted to make to her title. Then she couldn’t stand the cover design, the back jacket, the Amazon blurb, the advance reviews…in short, everything was a battle that went on for weeks on end. And for someone who used to tell jokes for a living, she certainly seemed reluctant to get out and promote her book. She kept telling me that she had a job, family, obligations: did I want her to write her next book proposal, she would demand, or did I want her to do the publisher’s job for them?

Of course, we all expected her to do both: that’s what career writers do. But she seemed to feel that she had paid her dues, and now was entitled to coast. Which would have made more sense, I’ve got to say, had her first book sold particularly well, or if the proposal for the next were anywhere near as strong as the first. I wish I could say that I believed she had put a quarter of the energy into it that she’s evidently focused upon serving me with ultimatums about how I need to do more for her.

After a while, I just stopped reading them closely; I don’t need the drama. A quick skim was enough. When she sent that nasty e-mail saying that thanks to me, she had lost faith in her second book, and so was dropping it for a third, well, let’s just say that I wasn’t surprised then, either. Or when the third lost its shine for her, too, also apparently my fault. I don’t remember why she said she was leaving our agency; I’m sure it was in a similar vein.

There’s quite a bit that could have gone differently here, but for the sake of today’s discussion, let’s not focus on that. Instead, I would like you to notice that it was not just quite divergent expectations that harmed this working relationship; it was also that issues don’t seem to have gotten hashed out much until at least one party was already angry. An ultimatum, after all, is not exactly an invitation to first-round negotiation.

Allow me to make a tiny, insignificant suggestion to anyone contemplating entering this kind of working partnership: try to regard it as a relationship. Relationships take work, after all, and they tend not to thrive on mind-reading. If both parties are not up front about what they want from the other, is it honestly surprising if one or the other occasionally guesses incorrectly?

If I ruled the universe, every writer-agent (and writer-editor) relationship would start out with a full and frank discussion of what the agent expects to do for the writer — and what the writer will need to do to support those efforts. I would also mandate up-front agreement on how often each party feels it is appropriate to communicate; just knowing when to expect an update can make a huge difference to a writer gnawing his fingernails up to the elbow while waiting to hear back on a round of submissions. That way, too, the writer does not have to guess whether it’s too soon to ask a follow-up question.

The last time I checked, though, I did not rule the universe. If I did, libraries would be open 24 hours per day, businesses would allow their employees two-hour lunches — the better to browse at bookstores or finish reading that chapter, my dear — and my former elementary school would be named after Ambrose Bierce, who lived in my home town many years longer than Robert Louis Stevenson, whose name graces my former middle school. And the high school would bear the name of M.F.K. Fisher, who lived there longest at all.

I’m not sure what they would name after me, once I have shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the choir invisible. I’m sure they could come up with an unnamed Quonset hut.

Since none of these things are currently the case, however, I can only conclude that I do not have the power to change writers’ sometimes troubled relationships with the publishing industry with a wave of my wee hand. All I can do is advise, recommend, and, every so often, mediate. And urge everyone concerned to bear in mind that they are all good people (at least, most of them are) committed to the same quite estimable goal: bringing great stories and marvelous writing to readers everywhere. Who, let’s face it, don’t particularly care how difficult it was to bring the books they love into print.

It’s a noble endeavor, from every perspective. Let’s all try to gain some insight into others’ points of view — and, of course, keep up the good work!

For writers who find the holiday table just a MITE stressful

That’s right, campers: Thanksgiving is upon us once again, and that means it’s time for my annual pep talk to all of you writers who will be reveling in the warm embrace of your nearest and dearest. As always, I am posting this as early as possible on the holiday, on the theory that any US-based writer tuned into Author! Author! anytime today is quite likely to be either on the way to meet relatives, friends, or total strangers likely to ask about your writing, have just returned from interacting with relatives, friends, or total strangers who asked about your writing, or are actively avoiding relatives, friends, or total strangers who might ask about your writing.

Why, those of you new to proclaiming your writing habit to the world may be wondering, would any of those states of being call for a pep talk? Simple: it’s not always so easy to act, much less feel, merry and bright while kith and kin inquire, not always politely, how that whole writing thing is working out for you.

That knowing chuckle you just heard, newbies, came from the many, many members of the Author! Author! community who, bless their creative minds, have spent holidays past fending off well-intentioned but God-awfully insensitive questions like, “Oh, you’ve written a book? When will it be coming out?”

To be fair to your sainted Aunt Grace, she almost certainly won’t mean this kind of question the way you will hear it. What makes me so sure of that? Well, I talk to a lot of writers, aspiring and established. If I have ever met even one who did not hear Auntie’s question as “Why is it taking so long for your book to get published?” that sterling soul has kept quiet about it.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Some hear it as “Aren’t you, you know, working hard enough?”

Or, “Isn’t the book any good?”

Or the ever-popular, “Don’t you have enough talent to make it as a writer?”

Because, after all, Aunt Grace loves you too much to say point-blank, “Shouldn’t you have given up this ridiculous quest to see your work in print long ago?” Although your terminally blunt cousin Ambrose may well manage it.

The Ambroses of the world aside, it’s rare that a relative will come out with any of these statements verbatim — but it’s often what we writers hear, isn’t it, when we’re asked about an as-yet-unpublished book’s progress? Even the most innocuous inquiry, if it comes at the wrong time, can sound like a challenge for us to produce instantly a full and complete explanation of exactly why this book does deserve to be picked up, and pronto.

And then, before we realize what has happened, we’ve been talking for twenty minutes straight about the horrors of searching for an agent in the current tight literary market, or revising a manuscript with an eye to pleasing readers who just are not buying books in the droves they used to (so you can stop regaling me with theoretically helpful but practically useless tales of how Stephen King got CARRIE published in the early 1970s, Uncle Oswald), or the three possible trajectories for the last third of the novel as our original questioner looks at us with deer-the-headlights eyes and the gravy gets cold.

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

Well, I wasn’t brought up to call people’s mothers that sort of thing. It’s not nice. Even if it were, it’s not good dinnertime strategy to offend the person who will be deciding how much vanilla (or arsenic) to add to the whipped cream destined for your slice of pie.

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

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

Yes, really. Positively aglow with sweet intentions, they will fling their arms around you practically the instant you cross the threshold into their homes, bearing platters of cookies that you took hours out of your already-scent writing schedule to bake, bellowing at the top of their lungs, “Darling? Haven’t you finished that novel yet?”

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

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

It’s enough to make many a writer regret ever having mentioned that work-in-progress. Or at least having finished it. To the uninitiated, publication and subsequent sales are the only measures of success for a writer, so it’s only reasonable to expect one’s non-writer kith and kin to focus their inquires in those directions.

This kind of pressure dogs the published as well as the unpublished, by the way: no matter how well your last book did, your snarky brother is going to feel justified in grilling you about the next. Don’t kid yourself about that, or about how many of your friends and family may feel the best way to show support after you land an agent is to demand each time they see you why that agent hasn’t yet sold your manuscript of book proposal.

Oh, you think I’m kidding about that last one? I can’t even count the complaints I’ve heard over post-holiday coffee about how Cousin Blaine just can’t seem to grasp the difference between an agent and a publisher.

“I was so thrilled to hear from Mom that you’d finally found an agent for your book,” Blaine burbles while handing the yams. “When is it coming out?”

And don’t even get me started at the ’round-the-table tension endemic to Thanksgiving gatherings after blabbermouth sibling Bertrand has decided to let slip that somebody is writing a memoir. Or when the writer’s significant other, in a misguided attempt to toss some leavening into the conversation, blurts out, “Oh, don’t worry, Edith — Georgette’s not writing about you.”

I can tell you now that Edith is not going to react well to that. As much as the average memoirist may fear — and with good reason — how those about whom he has chosen to write might respond to his take on communal experience, in my experience, most people become far more offended if someone does not write about them than if he does.

“How boring do you think I am?” Edith will mutter under her breath and over the mashed potatoes. And no matter what you say or how many times you kick your SO’s shins under the table, you’re not going to make her feel any better unless you announce, against your better judgment as a writer, that you just haven’t yet gotten to the part of the story that will be almost entirely about Edith.

Under no circumstances must you say anything that remotely resembles this — and believe me, you will be tempted. Bertrand may even egg you on. But think about it: if Edith already felt that nagging you about landing an agent was appropriate, what makes you think that she won’t redouble her, um, supportive commentary if she believes your book will transform her into a public figure? Or that she won’t expect to have veto rights over what you say about her in print?

No offense to the lovely Edith, but do you really want to give her that much control over your creative process? Or — sacre bleu! — set the precedent for future holiday meals that anyone in attendance can tell you what to write?

A seat at a table does not a literary critic make. But if you let it be known that you are open to this kind of input, what’s going to stop your sociopathic fourth cousin twice removed from saying something like, “You’re still writing that book about that family of coal miners? No one is going to be interested in that. Why don’t you write a vampire romance? I hear those are selling well.”

In North America, at least, it is not considered permissible, or even legal, for a writer to respond to such ripostes by taking a swing at the speaker, or declining to pass the carrots until he’s taken it back, or even making fun of that completely unattractive pumpkin-orange sweater with the dancing turkey on it that he’s wearing. No, we’re expected to smile, hug back, and say, “Oh, it’s coming along.”

Rather than, say, telling them anything that remotely resembles the truth, especially if the truth entails something along the lines of three or four years of extremely stressful querying book #1 while trying to write book #2, or a year and a half of revising a manuscript seven times before one’s agent is willing to send it out to editors, or eight months of nail-biting anxiety while s/he does send it out to editors.

It’s considered a bit over-the-top to burst into tears over the stuffing, after all. So if the sterling souls who gather around your Thanksgiving table are not prone to coughing up such gems of literary advice, feel free to breathe a great big sigh of relief. You might want to consider sacrificing, if not a goat, at least a nice, big glass of eggnog to the Muses in gratitude.

If you’re not lucky enough to be surrounded by the advice-reticent, here’s a tip that might make such inquires a bit easier to handle: 99% of the time, questions from non-writers about your work are not intended as invitations to expound at length on the trials and tribulations of the life literary. You are perfectly within your rights, therefore, to brush them off with a casual response.

I heard that indignant gasp, but honestly, isn’t “Oh, the book’s coming along fine, Uncle Keith. How’s the sciatica?” much more conducive to happy holiday memories than either “Criminy — must you ask me the same darned question every single time you see me?” or “Well, Uncle Keith, since you are interested, I have sent out queries to thirty-seven agents. I shall now list them in alphabetical order, along with their responses. You might want to sit down; we’re going to be here for hours.”

I realize that you might well feel the urge to justify yourself, but I appeal to your fine ethical sense: which is the best response to the man who taught you how to hit a curve ball?

I vote for cutting Uncle Keith a little slack. Let’s face it, unless he happens to be a writer himself, he’s probably not going to understand that clapping you on the back and telling you that the only obstacle to publishing success is that you haven’t been visualizing your book’s selling magnificently hard enough is going to make you want to scream, if not throw cranberries at somebody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, Duncan just isn’t that kind of guy. He almost certainly believes, bless his heart, that by remembering to tease you light-heartedly about the book you have been slaving over for the past decade, he is offering non-judgmental good fellowship. Because in his world, if you had finished the book in question, you would already be burbling with excitement about its imminent release — if not planning what to wear on Oprah.

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

Thinking up light-hearted ripostes to dazzle the Duncans of this world may be a trying endeavor, especially if Duncan is one of those benighted souls who believes, contrary to all empirical evidence, that if a teasing inquiry was funny once, it will be hilarious at the forty-seventh iteration, but frankly, it’s good practice for being a professional writer. As I mentioned above, getting published usually does not forestall this sort of teasing: there’s always your next book. And the next. And, if you’re lucky, the next.

Remember, these unintentionally pointed questions from well-meaning non-writers most emphatically do not cease after one lands an agent. Quite the contrary: they increase, often exponentially. The average citizen of this fine republic has only a vague sense of what a literary agent actually does with a book — so much so, in fact, that it is not all that uncommon for one’s kith and kin to conflate an agent with an editor.

Or even landing an agent with landing a book contract. Yes, really: although most people may not say it outright, they will just assume that because a writer is so excited to have landed an agent, the agent must therefore have BOUGHT the book.

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

They mean to be supportive, honest. Which is why they will not understand at all when you begin babbling incoherently and empty your hot toddy all over their sparkly holiday sweaters. They will think, believe it or not, that you are the one who is overreacting.

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

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

Nice person that you are, you are going to honor these restrictions. Even if you’re not all that nice a human being, you will want to retain Aunt Grace, Uncle Keith, and neighbor Duncan on your mailing list for the happy day when you do have a book out for them to purchase.

So what’s a writer to do, especially when these questions come during unusually stressful times, such as when that agent you met at a conference has had your first fifty pages for five months and counting, or when you’ve just received three requests for material and have spent the last week frantically trying to get those packets out the door before driving 214 miles over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house?

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

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

If you are gifted at disregarding your interlocutor’s eyes glazing over for minutes at a time, this actually isn’t a bad strategy: once you have established a firm reputation for waxing long, humorless, and/or angry on the subject, the non-writers in your social circle may well learn not to inquire how your book is going. Uncle Keith’s no fool. Depending upon how sensitive one happens to be to such questions, that might be a reasonable goal.

If, however, your kith and kin’s avoiding the topic of your writing like the proverbial plague is not your idea of a comfortable holiday gathering, I would reserve major explanatory speeches for conversations with other writers. Like any shop talk, it’s far more interesting to those who deal with it regularly than to anyone else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What half of you just shouted is quite correct: promising your kith and kin free copies may actually harm your overall sales statistics. So the sooner you can get your loved ones to accept that the best thing they can do to support your writing career is to plan to buy your books early and often, the happier you will be in the long run — and thus the more joyful you will be at future holiday gatherings.

Hint, hint. Tell Grandpa Gregor you’ll be overjoyed to sign any copies he buys, and leave it at that.

In that same spirit of blowing off some steam, let me throw the question open to you, readers: how do you cope with this avocation-specific form of holiday stress? Have you come up with clever comebacks, succinct explanations, cunning evasions, or other brilliant coping mechanisms that you would like to share with the Author! Author! community? Or, alternatively, a funny story about the time that you couldn’t stand it anymore and tossed a candied yam at an over-persistent relative who kept asking why you haven’t given up by now?

I probably shouldn’t encourage such behavior, but I have to admit, I would probably get some vicarious pleasure from hearing about it. I suspect I am not alone in that.

Oh, you may smile, but realizing that other writers routinely find themselves on the receiving end of these questions can be very helpful in maintaining a smile while passing the cranberry sauce. Trust me on this one: every single author you admire has been through something similar. It’s a very common way for writers to suffer for their art.

Try not to take it personally; it’s an avocational hazard. Have a lovely Thanksgiving, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Wrapping it all up and (not) tying it with a big, pretty bow — and an answer to yet another reader’s concern

I’m posting later than I intended this evening, campers — a trifle irritating, as I have a delightful guest post that I’d like to toss up bright and early tomorrow morning. I’m committed to answering any and all questions from readers, though, even if those questions crop up in posts from five years ago. (Yes, my blogging program alerts me.) It’s fine to leave questions on older posts, but please, everyone, try to match the post’s subject matter with the question you are asking. That way, readers with similar concerns are more likely to find and benefit from both question and answer.

If you can’t find something close to your topic on the exhaustive archive list conveniently located at the lower right-hand corner of this page, I’d like to ask you to do two things. First, leave your question in the comments section of my most recent post (again, to maximize its usefulness to other readers), and second, let me know that you couldn’t find an appropriate category on the archive list. I’m always eager to make that list panic-proof, so category suggestions are always welcome.

What extended my question-answering time today was a comment in the latter category: left on yesterday’s post, rather than in the archives. It was time-consuming not due to the complexity or originality of the comment, but because it contained a simple statement that I have heard quite a bit over the years: a complaint that my posts deal with writing and marketing issues of concern to writers in too much detail.

What rendered this particular complaint difficult to answer was not that the commenter was evidently irked that I had spent so many paragraphs on what was to him a fairly straightforward issue: whether to include a SASE in a query or submission packet. (He felt that the entire question could have been resolved in just a few words: you should.) But that was not the crux of yesterday’s post; it dealt with specifics about what kind of SASE to use, why, and when.

The commenter was not aware of that, though, because — and he was honest enough to tell me this point-blank — he hadn’t bothered to read the entire post before telling me that it was much too long for its subject matter. He concluded, therefore, that the only reason I could possibly want to discuss something as mundane as the logic about the SASE for more than a few paragraphs was that I liked the sound of my fingers hitting the keyboard.


I’m not going to waste everyone’s time by unpacking that logic. Nor am I going to bother to debate whether it’s worthwhile to go over the reasoning behind the sometimes perplexing practices of the publishing industry; that’s what I do here. I assume — correctly, I think — that on days when I post at length on topics that don’t interest any given reader, the members of the Author! Author! community are intelligent enough to turn their attention elsewhere for the nonce.

It has been a while since I explained why I explain things at such length, though, so allow me to devote the first few minutes of our time together to clarifying why I believe that in an online world stuffed to the gills with one-size-fits-all advice source purporting to tell aspiring writers precisely what to do in articles of 250 words or less, Author! Author! fills an important niche. My apologies to those of you who have heard this before, but true to form, I have a brand-new illustrative anecdote this time around.

I’m perfectly aware that there are plenty of aspiring writers out there in a hurry to find out basic information about how to query, submit, revise, format, etc.; that’s why I have structured the aforementioned archive list to be as specific as possible. Many of the categories are paraphrases of readers’ questions, in fact, so that writers with similar questions might find the answers relatively quickly. (Sound familiar?) Because I have been blogging on writing, querying, and submitting for over six years now, it’s probably not astonishing that I tend to revisit the more important topics from time to time.

Today’s, for instance. Those of you who have been querying and submitting for a while probably already know how to ship requested materials to agents. Indeed, you might have learned about it here; because it is vital, I revisit the topic at least once a year. But for some readers, it will be brand-new information. For other readers, particularly those who will be first encountering this post while searching for answers about shipping in the archives, it will be a supplement to (or perhaps a contradiction of) what they have learned from other sources, up to and including those super-short lists of what aspiring writers should do.

I believe I owe it to both those sets of readers to deal with the issues at hand as thoroughly as I would the first time I ever blogged about it, in sufficient detail and with enough illustrative examples so that a writer brand-new to the biz will come away from the post not only understanding what to do, but why. As I say early and often, I don’t believe any writer should follow a rule without knowing why adhering to it is a good idea — and what can happen if he eschews it.

There, in the proverbial nutshell, is my philosophy of blogging about writing. I’m here to explain the hows and whys behind the rules, so good writers can follow them better, increasing their chances of getting published. And when my clever and insightful readership presents me with intriguing follow-up questions, I squirrel them away until the next time I deal with the topic, to improve my treatment of it.

So are my posts long and detailed? Darned right.

I can see how my penchant for thoroughness might be a touch irritating to those seeking quick answers, but hey, there’s no shortage of those on the Internet. Have at it, and the best of luck searching. Frankly, I would much rather over-explain the occasional practicality here than to have even one of my readers make an avoidable gaffe.

Just in case anyone isn’t sure why (see what I just did there?), let me share the story of one of my favorite cookbook authors. Let’s call her Sheila. I’m not going to use her real name: this story was so infamous in publishing circles that for several decades, her name was synonymous with avoidable error. She’s a great cooking author, though, so I don’t want to revive the association.

Sheila’s story is worth knowing for any would-be author. Many years ago, back in the heyday of the cookbooks by amateur chefs like Julia Child, Sheila wrote a terrific debut cookbook: intriguing recipes well described, with amusing and enlightening anecdotes joining them. Her agent loved it; her editor loved it; her godmother, a well-known cooking writer herself, loved it enough to give it a spectacular back-jacket blurb.

Sheila was, in short, expected to be the next great cookbook author — so why do I think those of you fond of your kitchens may not be aware of her work? Quite simply, her cookbook contained a faux pas that got her publisher sued: a reader following her directions to the letter blew up an oven.

How is it possible that not only Sheila, but her agent, editor, godmother, every single reviewer, and the overwhelming majority of her readership missed that the instruction in question was so dangerous? Sheila had written the recipe while laboring under the assumption that anyone remotely interested in baking a pie might conceivably have read a cookbook before. Her target audience might be relied upon to know the terminology, right?

Tell that to the hapless reader who took add one can of sweetened condensed milk too literally, setting the unopened can in the middle of the pie pan, presuming, wrongly, that its role was to weigh down the crust While a more experienced cook might perhaps have wondered why Sheila would have gone out of her way to specify what needed to be inside a can used for this purpose, the eager first-time cookbook reader did not think to question the recipe until her stove went boom.

And so did Sheila’s career as a cookbook author, at least for many years. She became famous as a cautionary tale to those who would write about cookery: when producing a to-do list, don’t leave room for misinterpretation. The stakes are just too high to take a chance.

They are here, too: at Author! Author!, I routinely talk about how to present and modify your writing in order to render it more attractive to agents and editors. What could possibly be more important to get right than that? And why on earth should you follow a rule I set out if I don’t prove to you why it’s in your book’s best interest to adhere to it?

Allow me to reiterate, then: I don’t expect you to cling to my advice just because I say something will work. If you don’t understand what I am suggesting you should do — or what an agent, editor, or submission guidelines have asked you to do — by all means, ask. Some of my best posts have been sparked by readers’ questions; heck, so have many of my series. Even if it’s just a quick question on a past post, I would much, much rather spend some of my blogging time clarifying matters for my readers than to see even one of you commit the querying or submission equivalent of advising your readers to blow up their ovens.

So darned right, these posts are detailed; long may they be. I’m here to help good writers succeed.

Case in point: for the last couple of posts, I have been talking — yes, at length — about how to put together query packets, as well as their more illustrious cousins, submission packets. Even in these mercurial days of e-mailed queries, electronic submission, and Hubble telescope photographs of far-flung celestial bodies (I’m a sucker for a nice snapshot of Jupiter), most agencies still prefer paper submissions. Heck, many still insist on mailed queries as well.

Why? Well, fear of computer viruses, for one thing. But even more important: it’s so much easier for an electronic submission to get lost.

Hey, when Millicent the agency screener gets on an online submission reading roll, she hits the DELETE key more than any other. Not too surprising that her finger would slip occasionally, is it? Force of habit, really; the lady rejects a heck of a lot of manuscripts between lunch and checking out for the day.

For reasons both of tradition and prudence, then, a lot of writers are going to be in the market for shipping containers for their manuscripts in the months to come. Yet as insightful long-time reader Jen wrote in to ask some time back:

Sending off all those pages with nothing to protect them but the slim embrace of a USPS envelope seems to leave them too exposed. Where does one purchase a manuscript box?

An excellent question, Jen: many, many aspiring writers worry that a simple Manila envelope, or even the heavier-duty Priority Mail envelope favored by the US Postal Service, will not preserve their precious pages in pristine condition. Especially, as is all too common, if those pages are crammed into an envelope or container too small to hold them comfortably, or that smashes the SASE into them so hard that it leaves an indelible imprint in the paper.

Do I sense some of you scratching their heads? “But Anne,” head-scratchers everywhere ask, and bless their hearts for doing so, “once a submission is tucked into an envelope and mailed, it is completely out of the writer’s control. Surely, the Millicents who inhabit agencies, as well as the Maurys who screen submissions at publishing houses and their Aunt Mehitabels who judge contest entries, are fully aware that pages that arrive bent were probably mangled in transit, not by the writer who sent them. They can’t blame me for mashed mail, can they?”

Well, yes and no, itchy ones. Yes, pretty much everyone who has ever received a mauled letter is cognizant of the fact that envelopes do occasionally get caught in sorting machines, if not actually mauled by playful bands of orangutans with a penchant for playing volleyball with objects with pointy corners. Mail gets tossed around a fair amount in transit. So even a beautifully put-together submission packet may arrive a tad crumpled.

Do most professional readers cut the submitter slack for this? Sometimes, but if Millicent’s just burned her lip on that latté that she never seems to remember to let cool, it’s not going to take much for the next submission she opens to annoy her. I don’t know Aunt Mehitabel personally, but I have heard contest judges over the years complain vociferously to one another about the state in which entries have arrived on their reading desks. Indeed, I have been one of those complaining judges.

All of which is to say: appearances count. You should make an effort to get your submission to its intended recipient in as neat a state as possible.

How does one go about insuring that? The most straightforward way, as Jen suggests, is to ship it in a box designed for the purpose. Something, perhaps, along the lines of this:

Just kidding; we’re not looking for a medieval Bible box here. What most professional writers like to use looks a little something like this:

This is the modern manuscript box: sturdy white or brown cardboard with a lid that attached along one long side. Usually, a manuscript box will hold from 250 to 750 pages of text comfortably, without allowing the pages to slide from side to side.

While manuscript boxes are indeed very nice, they aren’t necessary for submission; the attached lid, while undoubtedly aesthetically pleasing, is not required, or even much appreciated at the agency end. Manuscripts are taken out of the boxes for perusal, anyway, so why fret about how the boxes that send them open?

In practice, any clean, previously-unused box large enough to hold all of the requested materials without crumpling them will work to mail a submission. Don’t waste your valuable energies badgering the manager of your local office supply emporium for an official manuscript box; you may only confuse him. Anything close to the right size will do, but err on the large side: it’s easier to pad a manuscript around the edges to fit in a big box than to bend it to squeeze into a small one.

Some of you are resisting the notion of using just any old box, aren’t you, rather than one specially constructed for the purpose? I’m not entirely surprised. I hear all the time from writers stressing out about what kind of box to use — over and above clean, sturdy, and appropriately-sized, that is — and not without good reason. In the old days — say, 30+ years ago — the author was expected to provide a box, and a rather nice one, then wrap it in plain brown paper for shipping.

These old boxes are beautiful, if you can still find one: dignified black cardboard, held together by shining brass brads. They were darned near immortal, too; I have several that members of my family routinely sent back and forth to their agents in the 1950s, back when sending a manuscript across the country entailed sending it on a multi-week trek. To this day, not a sheet of paper inside is wrinkled.

Ah, tradition. For sending a manuscript, though, there’s no need to pack it in anything so fancy — or indeed, anything extravagant. No agent is going to look down upon your submission because it arrives in an inexpensive box.

In fact, if you can get the requested materials there in one piece box-free — say, if it is an excerpt short enough to fit into a Manila folder or Priority Mail cardboard envelope without wrinkling — go ahead. This almost always will work for a partial or the briefer stack of materials acceptable to send in a query packet.

Do bear in mind, though, that for either a query or submission packet, you want to have your pages arrive looking fresh and unbent. Double-check that your manuscript will fit comfortably in its container in such a way that the pages are unlikely to wrinkle, crease, or — perish the thought! — tear.

Remember the Sanitary Author’s advice about printing all of your query and submission packet materials on bright white 20 lb. paper or better? This is part of the reason why. It honestly is penny-wise and pound-foolish to use cheap paper for submissions; not only does heavier paper ship better, but it’s less likely to wilt over the course of the multiple readings a successful submission will often see at an agency.

Good rule of thumb: if you can look at a stack of printed pages and see even a vague outline of page 2 while you’re examining page 1, your paper isn’t heavy enough.

Look for a box with the right footprint to ship a manuscript without too much internal shifting. To keep the manuscript from sliding around and getting crumpled, insert wads of bubble wrap or handfuls of peanuts around it, not wadded-up paper.

Yes, the latter is more environmentally-friendly, but we’re talking about presentation here. Avoid the temptation to use newspaper, too; newsprint stains.

Most office supply stores carry perfectly serviceable white boxes — Office Depot, for instance, stocks a serviceable recycled cardboard variety — but if you live in the greater Seattle area, funky plastic toy store Archie McPhee’s, of all places, routinely carries fabulous red and blue boxes exactly the right size for a 450-page manuscript WITH adorable little black plastic handles for about a buck each. My agent gets a kick out of ‘em. Fringe benefit: while you’re picking one up, you can also snag a bobble-head Edgar Allan Poe doll that bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to Robert Goulet:

If that’s not one-stop shopping, I should like to know what is.

Your local post office will probably stock manuscript-sized boxes as well, as does USPS online. Post offices often conceal some surprisingly inexpensive options behind those counters, so it is worth inquiring if you don’t see what you need on display.

Do be warned, though, that the USPS’ 8 1/2” x 11” boxes only LOOK as though they will fit a manuscript comfortably without bunching the pages. The actual footprint of the bottom of the box is the size of a piece of paper, so there is no wiggle room to, say, insert a stack of paper without wrinkling it.

Trust me, that’s not something you want to find out after you’ve already printed out your submission. If you’re in doubt about the internal size of a flattened-out box (as they tend to be at the post office), fold it into box shape and try placing a standard sheet of paper flat on the bottom. If it doesn’t lie completely flat, choose a larger box.

Yes, yes, I know: the USPS is purportedly the best postal service in the world, a boon to humanity, and one of the least expensive to boot. Their gallant carriers have been known to pursue their appointed rounds despite the proverbial sleet, hail, dark of night, and mean dogs. But when faced with an only apparently manuscript-ready box on a last-minute deadline, the thought must occur to even the most flag-proud: do the postal services of other countries confound their citizens in this way?

What do they expect anyone to put in an 8 1/2” x 11” box OTHER than a manuscript? A beach ball? A pony? A small automobile?

All that being said, far and away the most economical box source for US-based writers are those free all-you-can-stuff-in-it Priority Mail boxes that the post office provides:

Quite the sexy photo, isn’t it, considering that it’s of an object made of cardboard? Ravishing. If you don’t happen to mind all of the postal service propaganda printed all over it, these 12″ x 12″ x 5 1/2″ boxes work beautifully, with a little padding. (Stay away from those wadded-up newspapers, I tell you.)

While I’m on the subject of large boxes, if you’ve been asked to send more than one copy of a manuscript — not all that uncommon after you’ve been picked up by an agent — don’t even try to find a box that opens like a book: just use a standard shipping box. Insert a piece of colored paper between each copy, to render the copies easy to separate. Just make sure to use colored printer paper, not construction paper, or the color will rub off on your lovely manuscripts.

Whatever difficulties you may have finding an appropriately-sized box, DO NOT, under any circumstances, reuse a box clearly marked for some other purpose, such as holding dishwashing soap. As desirable as it might be for your pocketbook, your schedule, and the planet, never send your manuscript in a box that has already been used for another purpose. Millicent considers it tacky.

Don’t pretend you’ve never thought about doing this. We’ve all received (or sent) that box that began life as an mail-order shipping container, but is now covered with thick black marker, crossing out the original emporium’s name. My mother takes this process even farther, turning the lines intended to obfuscating that Amazon logo into little drawings of small creatures cavorting on a cardboard-and-ink landscape.

As dandy as this recycling effort is for birthday presents and the like, it’s not appropriate for shipping a submission. It’s unprofessional — and if there’s ever a time when you want your work to be presented as professionally as possible, it’s when you’re submitting it.

Think about it: do you really want your manuscript to arrive looking as if you just grabbed the nearest cardboard container? Or to prompt an allergy-prone Millicent to mutter between sneezes, “Why does this submission smell of fabric softener?” (One drawback of nicer paper: it soaks up ambient smells like a sponge. My memoir’s editor evidently smoked a couple of cartons over my manuscript, and even now, years later, the marked-up pages still smell like the employee handbook in a Marlboro factory.)

“But wait!” I hear the box-savvy cry, “those Amazon boxes are about 4 inches high, and my manuscript is about 3 inches high. It just cries out, ‘Stuff your manuscript into me and send me to an agent!’”

A word to the wise: don’t take advice from cardboard boxes; they are not noted for their brilliance. Spring for something new, and recycle that nice Amazon box for another purpose.

And you do know, I hope, that every time you send requested materials, you should write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters in the lower left-hand corner of the submission envelope, don’t you? (If you have been asked to submit electronically, include the words REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line of the e-mail.) This will help your submission to land on the right desk, instead of in the slush pile or recycling bin.

Yes, readers who have had your hands raised since this post began? “This is all very helpful, Anne, but a bit superficial, literally. I want to know what goes inside that manuscript box and in what order.”

Okay, let’s pretend for a moment that you have just been asked to submit materials to the agent of your dreams. To be absolutely clear, I’m talking about REQUESTED materials here, not just sending pages to an agency that asks queriers to include the first chapter, a few pages, or a synopsis with a query — all of these would, in the industry’s eyes, be unsolicited submissions.

I know, it’s a trifle counter-intuitive that a blanket statement on a website, in an agency guide, or from a conference dais that a particular agent would like to receive these materials from all queriers doesn’t constitute solicitation, but it doesn’t. The logic runs thus: guidelines that recommend submitting extra material with a query are generic, aimed at any aspiring writer who might conceivably be considering sending a query.

By contrast, a solicited submission, a.k.a. requested materials, is one that an agent is waiting to see because she has asked a particular writer to send it following a successful pitch or query. Because the agent expressed positive interest in seeing those pages, the lucky requestee is fully justified in scrawling REQUESTED MATERIALS in letters two inches high in the lower right-hand corner of the envelope or shipping box, just to the left of the address, to assure that the submission lands on the right desk instead of the slush pile made up of, you guessed it, unsolicited manuscripts.

Everyone clear on the difference between solicited and unsolicited materials? Dandy.

Just as generic requests vary in what agents ask queriers to send, so do requests for solicited material. While every agency and small publishing house seems to have a slightly different idea of what constitutes a standard submission packet (word to the wise: read those requests carefully), here are the most commonly-requested constituent parts, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in the packet:

1. Cover letter
You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude, as well as strategically unwise.

“Oh, please, Anne,” the submission-weary murmur. “Rude? What do you call making a querier write ANOTHER letter to an agent who has already agreed to read my work?”

I sympathize with the submission fatigue, weary ones, but don’t get your hackles up. In the first place, there’s no need for a long-winded missive — a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do. It’s hardly onerous.

In the second place, the submitter is the one who benefits from including a cover letter — all the more so because so few writers remember to tuck one into their packets. An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these submitting writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries well enough to render page one of chapter one instantly recognizable?

I’m not going to depress you by telling you just how unlikely this is to be the case. Suffice it to say that it’s in your best interest to assume that the person who heard your pitch or read your query won’t be the first person to screen your submission, for the exceedingly simple reason that it is, in fact, often a different person.

It doesn’t really make sense to presume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with who you are and what you write. In fact, you should assume precisely the opposite. (Why do you think a properly-formatted manuscript has a slug line identifying the author on each and every page?) The poor strategic value of not being polite enough to identify your work and thank the agent for asking to see it aside, though, it’s very much in your self-interest to include a cover letter.

Does anyone out there want to take a guess at the practical reason omitting both a cover letter and a title page might render a submitter less likely to get picked up?

If you instantly cried, “Because it renders the agency’s contacting the submitter substantially more difficult!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Like a query letter and a title page, a good cover letter should include all of the sender’s contact information.

Trust me, the last response you want your submission to generate is a heart-felt, “Oh, it’s too bad we have no idea who sent us this or how to contact him or her; all we have is the author’s last name in the slug line. This saddens me, because I really liked this manuscript!”

Yes, that little piece of dialogue is pretty lousy, now that you mention it. But you get my point, right?

“Okay, Anne,” the former head-scratchers concede, “I should include a cover letter. What does it need to say?”

Glad you asked. Under most circumstances, all it needs to say is this:

Seriously, that’s all there is to it. Like any other thank-you letter, the courtesy lies more in the fact that the sender took the time to write it, rather than in what it actually says.

A couple of caveats:

(a) If you met the agent at a conference, mention that in the first paragraph of the letter, to help place your submission in context. As crushing as it may be for the writerly ego to contemplate, an agent who spent days on end listening to hundreds of pitches probably is not going to remember each one. No need to re-pitch, of course, but a gentle reminder never hurts.

While you’re at it, it’s not a bad idea to write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, along with REQUESTED MATERIALS. Heck, it’s a very good idea to write the conference’s name on the outside of a query to an agent one has heard speak at a conference, too, or to include the conference’s name in the subject line of a query e-mail. The point here is to render it pellucidly clear to the agent why you’re contacting her.

(b) If another agent is already reading all or part of the manuscript you’re sending — or has asked to see it — mention this in your cover letter. No need to say who it is or how long s/he has had it; just tell the recipient that s/he’s not the only one considering representing this book. Unless the agency has a policy forbidding simultaneous submissions, withholding this information will only generate resentment down the line if more than one agent wants to represent your book.

Yes, even if that agent to whom you submitted 9 months ago has never responded. Actually, it’s in your strategic interest to contact that non-responder to let her know that another agent now has your manuscript.

(c) Make sure ALL of your contact information is on the letter, either in the header (letterhead-style, as I have shown above) or under your signature. Again, you want to make sure that the agent of your dreams can call you up and rave about how much she loved your manuscript, right?

(d) Make absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks. (Yes, it happens. Don’t ask; just prepare for the contingency.)

Everyone comfortable with the cover letter? For more tips on how to construct one with aplomb, please see COVER LETTERS FOR SUBMISSIONS (where do I come up with these obscure category titles?) on the archive list at right.

2. Title page
Always include this, if any manuscript pages have been requested — yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way.

Also, like the cover letter, a properly-constructed title page renders it easy for an agent to track you down. Believe me, if the agent of your dreams falls in love with your manuscript, you’re going to want to hear about it right away.

3. The requested pages in standard format, unbound in any way.
The operative word here is requested. If an agent or editor asked you for a partial, send PRECISELY the requested number of pages. Don’t fudge here — even if your novel features a tremendous cliffhanger on p. 51, if the agent of your dreams asked for the first 50 pages, send only the first 50 pages, period.

Actually, in this instance, you should send only the first 50 pages even if they do not end in a period. Even if the designated last page ends mid-sentence, stop there. When an agent or editor asks for a specific number of pages, send that number of pages — no more, no less.

They mean pages in standard manuscript format, by the way. It’s impossible to over-estimate the desirability of sending professionally-formatted submissions. If you’re brand-new to reading this blog or have somehow avoided my repeated and vehement posts on standard format for manuscripts over the last five years, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.

For the benefit of those of you who are going to blow off that last piece of advice because you’re in a hurry — oh, I know that you’re out there — allow me to add a couple of little tidbits you would have learned from those posts on formatting: a manuscript intended for submission should not be bound in any way, and the first page of text should be page 1, not the title page.

4. Synopsis, if one was requested, clearly labeled AS a synopsis.
With fiction, when an outline is requested, they usually mean a synopsis, not the annotated table of contents appropriate for nonfiction. For nonfiction, an outline means an annotated table of contents. Most of the time, though, what an agent will ask to see for either is a synopsis.

5. Author bio, if one was requested.
An author bio is a one-page (double-spaced) or half-page (single-spaced) plus photo account of the submitting writer’s professional credentials. Typically, when an agent submits a manuscript or book proposal to editors, the author bio is tucked immediately at the end of the manuscript or sample chapter.

6. A SASE big enough to fit the entire manuscript.
This should be automatic by now, but to recap for those of you who will read this weeks or months from now in the archives: that’s a self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the game, and for a submission or query packet, it should be large enough to send back every scrap of paper you’re mailing to the agency.

Emphasis on the stamped part: always use stamps, not metered postage, for the SASE. That’s probably going to be a lot of stamps: due to the paper-consumptive rigors of standard format, one rarely, if ever, meets a full-length manuscript that weighs less than two pounds. That means some luckless intern is going to have to tote it to the post office personally. Don’t make her life more difficult by sticking metered postage on the package.

If the requested pages fit in a Manila or Priority Mail envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission package. But how does one handle this when using a box as a SASE?

Well, it would be impracticable to fold up another box inside. If you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection. To be on the safe side, explain in your cover letter how you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal.

Yes, that seems pretty basic, but have you heard the one about the can of sweetened condensed milk?

You can also nab one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-address it, add postage, and stick it into the box. If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.

If you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because Millicent’s rejected it. Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage — or of aspiring writers shelling out the dosh to overnight their submissions. Neither is necessary, and quick shipping most emphatically won’t get your work read faster.

Or taken more seriously. Don’t waste your money.

7. Optional extras.
For a partial, if you want to send a second, business-size envelope SASE as well, to make it easy for Millicent to request the rest of the manuscript, place it at the bottom of the packet (and mention it in your cover letter.)

It’s also a good idea to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. They don’t always send it back, but usually, they do. To generate a chuckle in a hard-worked Millicent, I always liked to send a SASP that looked like this — although with a stamp attached, of course:

Don’t worry about this causing trouble; it doesn’t, and you will have proof that they received it. This is important, because manuscripts do go astray from time to time. You can also have the post office track the box for a low fee.

8. Pack it all in a durable container that will keep your submission from getting damaged en route.

Why, this suggestion seems strangely familiar, somehow…oh, yes, we spent half of this post talking about it. (Had I mentioned that I like to be thorough?)

And that, my friends, is the low-down on the submission packet. Don’t forget that every syllable you send to an agency is a writing sample: this is a time to use impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing, please. No smudges or bent corners, either. Make it all pretty and hope for the best.

Oh, and open that can of sweetened condensed milk before you add it to the pie, will you? I would sleep better at night, and so would your oven. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XXV: riddle me this

A couple of years ago, in the midst of the test of human endurance and sheer grit known as the Seattle Ring Cycle — four Wagner operas over the course of five days, presented by the same group of singers — I saw something I had never seen before: the orchestra leaving its pit during the curtain call, at precisely the moment when the singer playing the lead in Die Walküre was walking forward for her solo curtain call. (And no, that’s not a picture of Brünnhilde; it’s Frank Gorshin as the Riddler on the old Batman show, a national treasure.)

Why would this very respectable and accomplished group of people have done such a rude and unprofessional thing? Were they simply exhausted, as the audience was, by so many consecutive hours of sitting? Did the golden hour of overtime click in thirty seconds hence? Had a swarm of hornets abruptly descended upon the string section?

All valid possibilities, I suppose, but my guess would be that they staged a walk-out for the same reason the audience members in my part of the balcony stopped yelling “Bravo,” sat down, and engaged in barely-audible golf claps when Brünnhilde tripped lightly to the front of the stage. They felt disappointed.

It wasn’t because the singer didn’t have a marvelous voice; far from it, as she demonstrated in Act III. Nor was the problem her acting: the lady was — and is — world-famous for playing this role. Unfortunately, in anticipation of Act III, she had chosen not to sing at full voice in Act II. As a result, the Valkyrie most closely associated with belting out the top notes was barely audible past the tenth row for a good hour.

An hour, alas, that contained the single best-known aria in Western opera, a little ditty that runs something like this: