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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not always, no. But it depends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see this coming, can’t you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once more, with feeling! (And color, apparently.)

Has everyone had time to absorb this week’s earlier post on what a professionally-formatted book manuscript looks like? I realize that for those of you brand-new to presenting your writing to agents, editors, and contest judges, that single-post overview might have run a bit quickly. In the interests of clarity, I’m going to be devoting the next few posts to going over each rule in some detail, for the explanation-oriented.

And yes, you’re quite correct: I’m doing this a bit late this year. In the past, I have devoted the first weeks of each new year to regaling the members of the Author! Author! community with an in-depth look at how professionally-formatted book manuscripts and proposals are put together. Why make this an annual event, you ask? Why, because I’m fond of writers — and I’m constantly meeting good writers new to the biz who haven’t the vaguest idea about what a professional manuscript looks like, for the exceedingly simple reason that they’ve never seen one.

Or, in many cases, ever thought about presentation at all. The vast majority of submitters seem to believe either that how writing looks on a page lies purely within the author’s discretion or that manuscripts and published books should be formatted identically, and these beliefs make their writing look less professional to people who read book manuscripts for a living.

Which, if you think about it, isn’t all that astonishing: hands up, those of you who got into the writing habit because you were just dying to learn all about margins or page spacing. When the Muses sneak up upon us, sprinkle us with inspiration, and send us scurrying toward our writing desks, the consideration of what typefaces an agent might prefer tends not to be uppermost in our thoughts, does it?

You’d never know that, though, from hearing folks who read manuscripts for a living talk about how often they see whimsically-presented writing. “Half of ‘em don’t even bother to spell- or grammar-check,” Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, and Mehitabel the contest judge have all been heard to moan, “let alone proofread. And then they don’t indent their paragraphs, or assume that I’m going to be willing to strain my eyes over 10-point type? Or one that’s single-spaced? There’s no way my boss the agent/the editor for whom I work/the celebrity judge in the finalist round is going to be willing to put up with any of that.”

As professional readers like to say, if a writer’s serious about getting published, she’ll take the time to learn what the formatting norms are. So pervasive is this saying that even amongst the open-minded, there is a deep, pervasive prejudice against manuscripts that don’t look right cosmetically. Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel are so conditioned to expect professional formatting that when they see a submission that deviates from the rules in any significant respect, they tend to assume, as did the hypothetical tableful of editors above, that the writer is falling down on the job in other respects.

What does that mean in practical terms? Often, that incorrectly-formatted manuscripts and contest entries get rejected on sight — and, in many cases, unread. Why, you ask, aghast? Actually, there’s a pretty good reason: writers unfamiliar with how publishing works tend to be both more time-consuming to work with and more energy-consuming to represent than those who have done their homework. Most agencies, after all, do not sponsor a crash course in professional presentation for new clients (although that’s a darned good idea). Since that’s the case, the simplest way for our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to tell if a new writer has learned much about the industry s/he aspires to enter is a quick glance at page 1.

Oh, you thought some agencies allowed aspiring writer to include the first few pages of text with their queries just so Millicent could get a sense of their writing style? At minimum, presentation problems will render it more difficult for a good writer to get the aforementioned agents, editors, and contest judges take his work seriously.

Why? Well, think about it: it’s one of the easiest ways conceivable to narrow the submission pool — which is job #1 for Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel, right? Do the math: if the average agent receives 800-1500 queries per week and agrees to read even five percent of the manuscripts (high for most agents, by the way), that’s 40-60 manuscripts per week, and thus somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000-3,000 per year.

Since even a very successful agent could take on, at most, 4-5 new clients per year, Millicent had better narrow down that applicant pool, pronto, hadn’t she? So had Maury. So had Mehitabel, since no matter how good a crop of contest entries is, there are generally only a fixed, small number of finalist slots. They’ve got to rule manuscripts out.

Isn’t it fortunate for them, then, that the overwhelming majority of submitters present their writing unprofessionally? They either resemble published books (which is not correct for a manuscript submission), are submitted in short story format (ditto), or look like whatever the submitter happens to think looks nice on the page (extrapolate the answer from the previous two).

All of which makes Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel shout, “Hallelujah,” especially over the last few years, when both query and submission rates have been skyrocketing. Writing a book has always been plan B for a lot of people — with the economy in its current state, many folks seem to be pulling partially-finished manuscripts out of desk drawers these days. (Okay, off their hard disks, but it amounts to the same thing.) The timing’s a tad unfortunate, since this is also a period where publishing houses have been laying off editors and other staff in droves.

Translation: you know how fierce the competition to get picked up by an agent already was before the economy went south? It’s become even tougher. So I would encourage those of you who are right now muttering angrily that if the world were organized correctly, only the quality of the writing would matter in a submission or contest entry to ask yourselves: even if you’re right, does it really make sense not to give Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel what they expect to see?

Or, to put it another way: if your goal is to impress these people with your writing, why distract them from it with non-standard formatting?

Then, too, because so many aspiring writers go a bit random with their pages, submitting a properly-formatted manuscript tends to give an aspiring writer a competitive advantage — and that’s equally true, incidentally, whether that writer sends off her baby in hard copy or attaches it to an e-mail. When agencies, publishing houses, and even literary contests request full or partial manuscripts to be sent via e-mail, what they’re almost always expecting is a Word document (in .doc format, by the way, not .docx); unless they specifically say otherwise, few professional readers would be willing to peruse more than a few pages imbedded in an e-mail.

I sense some of you scratching your heads. “Whoa there, Anne!” shout those of you whose minds have been reeling at the very thought of how much time it might take you to reformat your entire book when you already have a request from an agent in hand — as opposed to, say, just hitting SEND as soon as you finish reading this post. “Before I resign myself to sacrificing some of my very scant writing and querying time to rearranging my words on the page, I want to hear more about that competitive advantage you mentioned. What is it exactly that my fellow submitters and/or writing contest entrants might not know, and how precisely may I take full advantage of the fact that you are evidently determined to force this knowledge upon me?”

Excellent questions both, head-scratchers, and ones that richly deserve extensive answers. Here are the hard facts, some of which I hope will sound familiar by now.

(a) There is a an expected standard format to which US-based agents and editors expect book-length submissions and book proposals to adhere, regardless of whether those manuscripts are produced by seasoned pros with many book sales under their belts or those brand-new to the biz, and thus

(b) while deviating from standard format in a small way (or, more commonly, in a multiplicity of small ways) will not necessarily result in knee-jerk rejection, it does tend to prompt those who read manuscripts for a living to take the manuscript less seriously, on the assumption that an aspiring writer who has not taken the time to learn about standard format probably has not honed her craft much yet, either. Given the pervasiveness of this attitude,

(c) using fancy typefaces, including cover artwork, printing manuscript pages on colored paper, and/or any other deviations from standard format in one’s submission is most emphatically not regarded as interesting expressions of the author’s individual point of view, but rather as evidence that the author doesn’t know about (a). On the bright side,

(d) manuscripts submitted in standard format tend to be treated with substantially more respect by agency screeners, editorial assistants, contest judges, and pretty much everyone who happens to read unpublished prose for a living. Despite this fact,

(e) one does occasionally hear agents and editors ask for deviations from standard format; in these cases, an aspiring writer should definitely give them precisely what they ask to see. However,

(f) it’s never advisable to generalize from what one individual says s/he wants into a brand-new trend sweeping the industry. Nor is it a good idea to ape the formatting choices one sees in a published book, because

(g) book manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects, for many excellent, practical reasons that I shall be explaining at length throughout this series. That being the case, professional tend to draw unfavorable conclusions about submissions that do aspire to book formatting, much as they do when aspiring writers are not aware that

(h) standard format for book-length manuscripts is not business format — and just using what you learned about short stories won’t do, either. Nor is it necessarily identical to what your word processor’s grammar checker will ask you to do, or even the AP style one sees in newspapers and magazines. None of these will look correct to an agent or editor who deals with book manuscripts; the norms there are very specific.

This may seem nit-picky and irrelevant to the quality of the writing in question, but think about it: if a host asks you to a formal dinner, it’s only polite to wear formal attire; a guest who shows up in flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt is going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. (If it’s not clear to you why that might be problematic, review point b.) Similarly,

(i) when placed side-by-side with professional manuscripts, as a successful submission inevitably will be, an oddly or inconsistently put-together manuscript will stand out as unprofessional, a phenomenon that all too often leads to

(j) most manuscript submissions getting rejected on page 1. Not always because they deviates from standard format — although, had I not yet made this point sufficiently, the vast majority of submissions do — but because an unprofessionally-formatted manuscript already has one strike against it, and who needs that? Ultimately,

(k) it’s just not worth your while to try to fudge your way out of these standards, since the price of a submission’s annoying a professional reader can be so high. And no matter how many times my readers, students, and editing clients ask me if agents, editors, and contest judges are REALLY serious about them, I’m not going to give you permission to ignore any single one of the standard format strictures.

No way. Stop asking, already. I have your best interests at heart, honestly: the aspiring writer who acts upon this information conscientiously is probably producing submissions within the top 2% of what crosses Millicent’s desk on any given day.

Yes, really. I wasn’t kidding last time about how confused aspiring writers can become by the welter of advice swirling about online — or when I mentioned this time that many writers looking to break into the biz simply don’t think about presentation at all.

Why should they? The writing is all that counts, right?

And a forest of hands has spouted out there in the ether. Yes? “But Anne, I heard from a friend who heard from someone in a writers’ chat room that someone heard at a conference that {fill in preferred deviation from standard format here} is THE new thing. Rumor has it that any manuscript that doesn’t adhere to {see previous bracket-filler} will automatically get rejected as old-fashioned. So there.”

One hears this argument quite a lot on line. Which is surprising, really, because almost no matter what rumored change gets fitted into those brackets, I can tell you now that Millicent didn’t get the memo about it

Why would she, unless she happens to work for the agent-who-blogs or editor-who-is-trying-to-be-helpful that promulgated the new advice? Indeed, why would anyone who works with manuscripts for a living go out looking to see what folks outside the industry — or, at minimum, outside her agency — are demanding of writers these days, when the basics of standard format have actually changed very little for decades?

Oh, should I have numbered that one?

Actually, it would be very much against her self-interest to go trolling for such information, because — chant it with me now, veterans of my annual forays into standard format’s underlying logic — it’s so much easier just to assume that submissions that don’t adhere to standard format are inherently unprofessional, and thus (by implication) less likely to contain writing destined to take the publishing world by storm.

To put it bluntly, not relying upon this convenient assumption would slow her per-submission rejection time. That’s well worth considering, as the fine folks who read submissions (and queries) in order to decide who gets a break and who doesn’t are in typically a great big hurry.

These people have a heck of a lot of reading to do on any given day, after all. In the face of that many pieces of paper to plow through, even the reading of eagerly-solicited submissions tends to be awfully rushed: the goal becomes to weed out as many as possible as quickly as possible, rather than seeking out gems. Once a professional reader like Millicent has been at it for a while, s/he will usually develop a knack for coming to a conclusion about a piece of writing within the first paragraph or two.

Sometimes even within the first line or two. (For a fairly frightening run-down of the common first-page rejection reasons, you might want to check out the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the archive list conveniently located on the lower right-hand side of this page.)

Unfortunately for writers unaware of the rules, a non-standard manuscript is child’s play to spot from the moment a professional reader claps eyes upon it. That can be an extremely serious problem for a submission, because — wait for it — agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that a screener’s primary goal is to weed out the one she is reading at the moment.

The faster she can do that, the better, to move through that mountain of paper on her desk. So a first page that cries out, “This writer is brand-new to the game and will require quite a bit of your boss’ time to coach into being able to produce a manuscript that an agent would be comfortable submitting to an editor!” is an outright gift to her: she can feel completely comfortable rejecting it at the very first typo, clich?, or word choice she doesn’t happen to like.

Heck, she might not even wait to spot any of the above. She might just say, “Oh, look — non-indented paragraphs. Next!”

Right now, Harry Houdini himself would have extreme difficulty sneaking a non-standard manuscript past an agency screener. Yes, even though he undoubtedly has the world’s best platform to write a book on extricating oneself from tight situations. (And if that last quip didn’t make you groan, if not chuckle, it’s time to brush up on your industry-speak.)

So here, after that long preamble, are the rules of standard format — and no, Virginia, none of them are negotiable. (Really. Stop asking.) If you would like to see what these look like in action, you’ll find abundant visual examples here.

(1) All manuscripts should be printed or typed in black ink and double-spaced, with one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

No exceptions, unless an agent or editor (or a contest’s rules) specifically asks you to do otherwise. And I’m dead serious about using only white paper: ecru paper, no off-white, no Dr. Seuss-type stripes. The example at the top of this post was intended to frighten you.

Yes, buff or parchment can look very nice, now that you happen to mention it, Virginia, but there’s a strategic reason to use bright white paper. Very sharp black-white contrast is strongly preferred by virtually every professional reader out there, probably as a legacy of having read so many dim photocopies over the course of their lifetimes.

The only colored paper that should ever go anywhere near a manuscript is the single sheet that separates one copy of a submission or book proposal from the next, so it is easy for an agent to see where to break the stack. (But you don’t need to know about that until your agent asks you to send 15 copies of your book for submitting to editors. Put it out of your mind for now.)

Nice, clear, dark print is optimal here, so do spring for a new printer cartridge, if you can. You’d be amazed (at least, I hope you would) at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions; I’ve seem pages that looked as though the writer dunked them in a swiftly-flowing river several times before popping them in the mail.

Which is sad, because submissions with poor print quality are — you’re ahead of me on this one, aren’t you? — almost never read. Millie’s already suffering from eye strain.

Speaking of never, never, ever, ever submit a dim photocopy; print out an original every time. Oh, you may chuckle at the notion of sending out a grainy copy, but believe me, any contest judge has seen many, many entries submitted that way.

Mehitabel likes them, actually: for every one that pops up, her reading time is shortened. Any guesses why?

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way. For submission to US-based agencies, publishing houses, and contests, the pages in question should be US-standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper.

Yes, this is criminally wasteful of paper, especially when you consider the literally millions of pages of submissions that go flying into the agencies and publishing houses every month. I assure you, if I ran the universe, paper conservation would be the norm, and recycling mandatory.

Last time I checked, though, I was not yet running the universe. If I were, pandas would be plentiful and come in giant, fairly large, and pocket sizes. Ice cream sundaes would have the same nutritional value as platters full of broccoli, and crowds of public-spirited citizens would rush up and kiss purchasers of first-time authors’ books on each cheek.

Also, writers would all be granted an extra month a year in which to write, excellent and inexpensive child care while writing, a cedar-lined cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan in which to do it, and a pineapple upside-down cake on Ray Bradbury’s birthday. Perhaps some hard candies on Truman Capote’s birthday as well, in affluent years, and dancing on Mme. de Sta?l’s.

But since the unhappy reality is that I do not run the universe, we shall all have to live with the status quo.

Unbound means precisely what it says: no binding of any kind. You’d be surprised at how often writers violate the thou-shalt-not-bind rule, including paper clips, rubber bands, or even binders with their submissions. Since agents always circulate manuscripts without any sort of binding, these doohickeys just scream, “I’m unfamiliar with the industry.”

SASE, open wide: here comes a returned manuscript.

The only exception to this rule is a nonfiction book proposal — not the manuscript, mind you, just the proposal. Proposals are typically presented unbound in a black folder, the kind with horizontal pockets. (For tips, please see the aptly-titled HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK PROPOSAL category at right.)

Which doesn’t mean that you aren’t perfectly welcome to print double-sided or bind copies for your own purposes; just don’t show your work to the pros that way. As Author! Author!’s very first commenter Dave tends to chime in — and helpfully — whenever I bring this up, if you wish to make double-sided, 3-hole-punched, be-bindered drafts for circulating to your first readers for ease of toting around, that’s a dandy idea.

But never submit in that manner to a professional reader unless s/he has asked you to do so. Trust me on this one.

(3) The text should be left-justified, not block-justified, as published books, e-mails, business letters, and online writing tend to be.

Many fledgling writers find (3) nearly impossible to accept, as it is one of the most visually obvious ways in which a professional manuscript differs from a printed book. They believe, wrongly, that anything that makes their submission look more like what’s on the shelves at their local library is inherently professional.

In practice, quite the opposite is true. Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along both side margins, and yes, your word processing program can replicate that practically effortlessly, if you ask it nicely to do so. Bully for it.

But don’t take advantage of that pleasing capacity, I beg you: the straight margin should be the left one; the right should be ragged, as if you had produced the manuscript on a typewriter.

Translation: the left margin should be straight; the right margin should not. In practice, that means that the left margin will be exactly 1 inch, while the right margin will be no less than an inch on any given line of text. Similarly, while the top margin should be exactly 1 inch, the bottom margin will typically be slightly more, because the spacing between lines of text needs to be constant.

You actually don’t need to fret over measuring any of this out, if you are using MS Word: just set the margins all around to 1″ and the spacing to double, and you will end up with a standard 23-line manuscript page. Don’t worry if the bottom margin is not precisely 1″; remember, the fine folks at Microsoft are not employees of the publishing industry.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

Yes, Virginia, even if you have a strong preference for the lettering in your book when it is published. Why? Shout it with me now: MANUSCRIPTS AND PUBLISHED BOOKS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO LOOK THE SAME.

Select one of the fonts above for submission purposes — unless, of course, an agency’s submission guidelines specifically ask for something different. There are a few agents out there who have their own font preferences (usually Courier, and usually because they also represent screenplays), so do check their websites and/or listings in the standard agency guides. As ever, the golden rule of dealing with an agent you want to represent you is give them precisely what they ask to see, not what you would like them to see.

Personally, I would never dream of allowing an editing client of mine to submit a manuscript in anything but Times New Roman, nor would I ever submit any of my work in anything else. It is the standard typeface of the publishing industry, just as Courier is the norm of screenwriting.

A tad silly, you say? Perhaps, but it’s one of the bizarre facts of publishing life that manuscripts in these fonts tend to be taken far more seriously, and with good reason: these are the typefaces upon which the most commonly-used word count estimations are based. (Psst: if you don’t know why you should be estimating the length of your manuscript rather than using actual word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

I hear you grumbling, lovers of interesting typefaces. Yes, most published books are in typefaces other than Times or Courier — but typeface decisions for published books are made by the publishing house, not the author. Submission time is not the appropriate period for making your preferences known.

For that excellent reason, the chances of Millicent, her boss, or the editor to whom the agent of your dreams will eventually sell your manuscript taking one look at your offbeat typeface choice and exclaiming, “Well, normally, I would find this completely distracting from the writing, but obviously, this gifted writer is using the only chance s/he’ll ever have to discuss the published version with us to make his/her preferences clear. I guess we’d better honor them!” are so close to zero that you’d have to fly in Zeno via a time machine to measure any difference.

Relax, in other words. If you’ll have a chance to talk about what your book will look like in print after a publisher acquires it. Chances are, the people who actually make these decisions will ignore you — typically, only self-publishing authors who get to select their books’ typefaces — but you’re perfectly welcome to air your preferences at the appropriate juncture. They may giggle a little, true, but they might listen. Ditto with the cover and the title, which are — brace yourselves — almost never under the author’s control.

Why? Because these are matters of packaging and marketing, not content.

All of which begs the question, of course: why do word processing programs tempt us so many typefaces from which to choose, if we’re not supposed to use them? Because the people who make word processing programs are not the same people who decide what books get published in North America. Which is why, in case you’re wondering, what Microsoft Word means by word count and what the average agent or editor does are not typically the same thing.

Fair warning: if you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, a submission is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Yes, one sees this in a published book occasionally, but I assure you, the choice to indulge in these formatting differences was the editor’s, not the author’s.

Sorry. See my earlier disclaimer about proprietorship of the universe.

I’m sensing a bit of dissention out there, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Almost invariably, around the time that I bring up Rule #4, someone posts a comment informing me huffily that website X advises something different, that this agent said at a conference she doesn’t care what typeface you use, that a certain manual said that standards have changed from the traditional guidelines I set out here, or some other observation presumably intended to make me rend my garments and cry, “Finally, I see the error of my ways! I guess I’ll disregard the fact that I’ve never seen the change you mention actually in use in a professional manuscript and declare it to be the new norm!”

To save you the trouble: it’s not gonna happen. Arrange for me to get my way about the pandas, and we’ll talk.

More of the rules of standard format follow next time, of course, as well as acres more explanation. Until we meet again, keep up the good work!

“Thanks for the cookies Millicent,” “What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” and other easily-averted holiday faux pas

This time of year, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver sees it all the time: a reason to move otherwise good girls and boys from the Nice to the Naughty list. Yet often, as both he and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, know only too well, the difference between a properly-punctuated sentence and one that is, well, not, lies in a simple slip of the writer’s finger — or lack of one. Take a gander at the type of hastily-scrawled note that often greets our St. Nick.

Hello Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy. Wow do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

No wonder the otherwise jolly elf weeps at the sight: clearly, the Punctuation Vacuum has beaten him to this household. Either that, or Janie has really, really lazy fingers. The note he had expected to see nestled next to a plate of cookies would have read like this:

Hello, Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy. Wow, do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

Let me guess: to many, if not most of you, these two notes are essentially identical: the words are the same, right, so the meaning must be? That’s an understandable interpretation, given how often we all now see direct address and exclamation commas omitted all the time. Indeed, some modes of electronic expression, such as news program bottom-of-the-screen crawls and Twitter, seem actively to discourage proper punctuation.

But that doesn’t make it right. Santa’s a stickler for rules.

As it happens, so are Millicent and those of us who edit for a living. Punctuation matters to us — and, frankly, folks in publishing tend to laugh when aspiring writers express the astonishingly pervasive opinion that it doesn’t.

Why the ho, ho, ho? Well, leaving aside the perfectly reasonable proposition that one of the basic requirements of a professional writer is the consistent production of clearly expressed, grammatically correct prose, in some cases, improper punctuation can alter a sentence’s meaning.

And that, boys and girls, can only harm self-expression. Take, for instance, the two faux pas in the title of this post.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Most readers would assume, as those of you who didn’t notice that commas had been purloined from Janie’s original note probably did, that what she actually meant to say was this:

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof? Reindeer?

That’s not what the first versions actually said, though, was it? Basically, Janie operated on a presumption evidently shared by an amazingly high percentage of queriers, literary contest entrants, and manuscript submitters: that it’s the reader’s job to figure out what the author probably meant, not the writer’s job to express it so clearly that there would be no question.

In practice, most of us are perfectly willing to translate casual communications into more comprehensible prose, at least mentally. People often tap out or scrawl notes in a hurry, or, since the advent of mobile electronic devices, under less-than-ideal conditions. It’s relatively safe, then, to presume that your third-best friend will understand if that text message you sent while hanging upside down from the monkey bars omitted a comma or two.

Writing intended for publication is expected to adhere to a higher standard, however: even an editor wowed by the sentiments expressed in that last set of examples would not seriously consider publishing them without revision. Although the rise of on-screen editing has increased the number of punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors that slip through editorial fingers and onto the printed page — nit-picks are significantly harder to catch on a backlit screen than in hard copy — no one who reads for a living would believe for a second that clarity and proper punctuation don’t matter. A manuscript that seems to imply that the writer believes they are unimportant not only is unlikely to impress a pro — to an experienced agent or editor, it simply screams that this is a writer who will require extra time, effort, and, yes, proofreading.

Why might that harm your submission’s chances? Think about it: if the agent of your dreams already has 127 clients, who is his Millicent more likely to regard as a viable candidate for #128, the writer who expects her to guess whether What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer? means what it literally says, or the writer whose prose is so clear that she’s not left in any doubt?

Remember, too, that your garden-variety agency screener or contest judge has very little of a writer’s prose upon which to judge talent and facility with language. How on earth could Millicent possibly know for certain whether the speaker of that first sentence was simply sliding back up the chimney while he was writing, and thus was too busy to devote the necessary thought to the beauty and rigors of proper punctuation, or simply was not aware of the relevant rules? She’s not allowed to base her reading upon what she guesses a writer meant, after all; she can only evaluate what’s actually on the page.

All of which is a nice way of saying: don’t expect her to cut you any slack. A writer familiar with the rules of punctuation and conscientious about applying them is simply less time-consuming for an agent to represent than one who believes that the fine points of how a sentence looks on the page doesn’t really matter. Someone at the manuscript’s future publishing house will take care of the copyediting, right?

Well, no. Not if Millicent or her boss, the agent of your dreams, stops reading after the second missing direct address comma on page 1.

Yes, really. Since this particular rule is pretty straightforward, it’s fairly common for screeners and contest judges to regard non-adherence — or, equally pervasive in submissions, uneven adherence — as an indicator of, if not necessarily poor grammar in the manuscript as a whole, then at least an authorial lack of attention to detail. Any guesses as to why detail-orientation would be a desirable trait in an agency’s client?

Slap a great, big gold star on your tree if you leapt to your feet, shouting, “By gum, a detail-oriented writer could be trusted to produce clean manuscripts!” You’re quite right, shouters: since few agencies employ in-house editors (although some agents do like to edit their clients’ pages), signing a writer who had already demonstrated that he regards the world as his proofreader would inevitably be a more time-consuming choice than snapping up one that could be relied upon to spell- and grammar-check his own manuscripts. On a revise-and-resubmit deadline too short for anyone at the agency to proof pages, that could be the difference between selling a book to a publisher and rejection.

Comma placement is starting to seem a trifle more relevant to your life, isn’t it? Fortunately, the rules governing direct address and exclamations are quite easy.

Hey, wake up. Were you aware that you were snoring, Janie?

There — that wasn’t so difficult, was it? Hey is an exclamation, so it is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. And because that second sentence was directly addressed to Janie, a comma appears between the rest of the sentence and her name.

Armed with those valuable precepts, let’s revisit the punctuation choices that made the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver choke on his milk and cookies — or cognac and truffles, as he always insisted on being left for him in the Mini household throughout my childhood. (My parents said that he deserved the upgrade for shinnying down our unusually small flue.) How do they look to you now?

Hello Santa.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy.

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Now that you’re looking for those commas, the paucity of them — and, I hope, the extra one in that last sentence — is distracting, is it not? Let’s talk about why. Sentences 1 and 4 are aimed at Santa and Millicent, respectively, right? The names are a tip-off that each requires a direct address comma.

Hello, Santa.

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

Sentence #2 is a bit trickier, since what Janie is calling the reader (old boy) is not a proper noun. If we don’t apply the direct address rule here, though, the most logical interpretation is actually this:

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave for the old boy.

Yet Janie’s household does not contain any old boy, or indeed any boys at all — and if Santa knows when they are sleeping and knows when they are awake, he must logically be aware of where said boys are sleeping, must he not? He might be forgiven, then, for finding this sentence perplexing. Fortunately, all it would take is a single stroke of the pen to render Janie’s intended meaning crystal clear.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy.

No question that the reader — Santa, presumably, if Janie’s been a good girl this year — is the old boy being addressed, right? Now that we’ve cleared up that cosmic mystery, what should we note-proofers do with this?

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Wow is an exclamation — and we have a rule for that, do we not? Let’s try applying it. While we’re at it, why not allow Janie’s punctuation to reflect the intensity of her gratitude?

Wow, do I ever appreciate it!

If you’re ever in doubt about whether an expression is sufficiently exclamatory to require separation from the rest of the sentence, here’s a nifty test: vehement exclamations can stand alone. As in:

Wow! Do I ever appreciate it!

Oh, my! What a beautifully-wrapped present!

Heavens! What an enormous cake! You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge!

What a difference a punctuation choice can make to a sentence’s meaning, eh? (See what I just did there? Eh is an exclamation, albeit not a particularly intense one.) A detail-oriented punctuator could become even more creative, depending upon context. Let’s have some fun.

Wow — do I ever appreciate it? I would have thought my reaction to your having given me a rabid wolverine last Christmas and the Christmas before would have told you that.

Oh, my, what a beautifully-wrapped present…if you happen to believe that bacon is an appropriate wrapping medium for a desk lamp.

Heavens, what an enormous cake. You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge: as much as we all enjoyed seeing your immediate family leap out of that enormous pie at Thanksgiving, that’s really the kind of surprise entrance that works only once, don’t you think?

Speaking of how punctuation can alter meaning, our remaining example presents some difficulties, doesn’t it? Let’s take another peek at it.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

At first glance, this may appear to be a proper use of direct address: the narrator was simply speaking to a reindeer that happened to be lingering nearby. In today’s incredibly rich fantasy novel market, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a context in which that comma use would make sense.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie shouted. “Your ears are better than mine.”

Blitzen shook his antlers in annoyance. “Ceilings are opaque, you know. I can only fly; I don’t have X-ray vision.”

However, being an intimate friend of the writer’s — we could hardly be closer — I know that the original sentence was tucked within a thriller. I ask you: does a direct address interpretation make sense here?

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie whispered.

The Easter Bunny did not bother to stop stuffing presents into his basket. “Oh, stop jumping at every sound. Santa’s not due for an hour.”

“I still say that we should have hidden in a closet,” the Tooth Fairy hissed, “and waited until after ol’ Kris dropped off the swag.”

“And let Fat Boy snag all the cookies?” The rabbit snapped off a small branch from the tree to use as a toothpick. “I’m in it for the sugar, baby.”

“Then we should have gone to the Minis,” the fairy grumbled. “They have truffles.”

Blitzen’s hoof poked into the small of Janie’s back. “Move, sister, and you’ll find yourself with a face full of tinsel.”

Since the reindeer doesn’t enter the scene until five paragraphs after Janie’s speech, it seems unlikely that she’s addressing him. What the writer intended to convey by that comma was not direct address, but something closer to my original suggestion:

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Reindeer?”

In fairness, though, you can see why even a meticulous self-proofreader might not have caught this one. If Janie had speculated that the sounds were caused by an inanimate object, that comma might have passed muster.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Unless this is a book about a madwoman or a psychic whose ability to cajole roofing substances into telling her Santa’s whereabouts, direct address doesn’t make sense here, does it? Even a skimmer is unlikely to fall into that interpretive trap. Several alternate constructions would obviate the possibility entirely, though. The first option should look slightly familiar.

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Falling shingles?”

“What’s that I hear on the roof — falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Am I sensing some growing excitement about the possibilities? “Hey, Anne,” some of you exclaim, beautifully demonstrating your grasp of how a comma should offset an exclamation, “something has just occurred to me, you sneaky person.” (Direct address!) “Since the natural habitat of both direct address and exclamations is conversation, wouldn’t it make sense to zero in on dialogue while proofreading for these particular faux pas? If I were in a hurry, I mean, and didn’t have time to read my submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Not a bad timesaving strategy, exclaimers — they do tend to congregate in text written in the second person. (Hey, I’m talking to you, buddy!) You might be surprised, though, at how often direct address and exclamations show up in first-person narratives, or even chattier-voiced third-person narratives. For instance:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly, searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove, I was in a pickle.

Before anyone suggests otherwise, may I hastily add that the rookie strategy of attempting to make first-person narration sound more like common speech (as opposed to what it’s intended to represent, thought) by eliminating necessary punctuation and grammar has become awfully hard to pull off in a submission, at least for adult fiction or memoir. You wouldn’t believe how often Millicent sees text like our last example submitted like this:

Oh God I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Or even — sacre bleu! — like this:

OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Yes, yes, we all understand that both versions could arguably be regarded as conveying breathlessness. So could this:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. I felt every last oxygen molecule being sucked out of my lungs.

While style choices vary, naturally, from book category to book category — there honestly is no adequate substitute for reading recent releases of books similar to yours, particularly those written by first-time authors, to gain a sense of what is considered stylish these days — generally speaking, relating what’s going on via actual words tends to be considered better writing than offbeat presentation choices. All the more so if those words show what’s going on, as we saw in that last version, instead of telling it — or requiring Millicent to perform a dramatic reading of the text in order to grasp the fully intended meaning.

Oh, you thought that OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat didn’t convey an expectation that the reader would try saying it out loud? Isn’t the sound of this sentence spoken as a single word the point here?

Style is not the only reason that you might want to give careful thought to whether non-standard presentation choices would be more effective than other means of narration, however. While they may seem like a shortcut, they can actually mean more work for you. Not only must any such punctuation and grammar voice choices be implemented with absolute consistency throughout an entire first-person narrative– quite a bit harder than it sounds, if one happens to know the rules or wants to be able to use Word’s grammar-checking function — but honestly, it’s really only clever the first few times a reader sees it done.

Trust me, any experienced Millicent or contest judge will have seen this tactic crop up too often to find it original at this late date in literary history. And how could either of them tell on page 1 whether the omissions were the result of a manuscript-wide authorial choice or the writer’s not being conversant with proper comma use? Heck, are they even sure that the writer of that last version even knows where the comma key is located?

Judgmental? You bet. If Millicent, a literary contest judge, and Santa’s job descriptions have anything in common, it’s that they are tasked with separating those who make an effort to follow their respective spheres’ recognized standards of niceness from those who do not. Rejection is the literary world’s lump of coal, available year-round.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, unlike so much of the manuscript submission process, proper comma use lies entirely within the writer’s control. Personally, I find that rather empowering — unlike style judgment calls, which must necessarily rely in part upon Millicent’s personal reading tastes, punctuation is governed by rules. And rules can be learned.

Does that huge thunk of jaws hitting the floor reverberating throughout the ether indicate that some of you had been thinking about acceptance vs. rejection purely in terms of writing style? If so, you’re hardly alone: why do you think so many submissions and even queries turn up on Millicent’s desk apparently unproofread? Or spell-checked? Obviously, there are a heck of a lot of aspiring writers out there who think punctuation, spelling, and grammar just don’t matter — or that it’s an agent’s job to see past rule violations to story and talent.

Had I mentioned that to the pros, these things matter very much? Or that in publishing circles, providing error-free manuscript pages containing only sentences whose meanings are clear on a first reading is considered the minimum requirement of professional writing, not an optional extra?

Frankly, every writer who has taken the time to learn her craft should be rejoicing at this. Imagine how hard would it be to get on Santa’s Nice list if you had no idea what he considered nice.

While I’ve got you pondering the hard questions, here’s another: is resting your book’s future on a manuscript draft that does not consistently apply the rules you already know people in publishing expect to see respected really any less of a stab in the dark? Wouldn’t it be a better long-term strategy, as well as a better use of your scant writing time, to invest in making sure that the factors you can control are tweaked in a manner more likely to land you on Millicent’s Nice Job list?

Ah, that suggestion got under some skins, didn’t it? “But Anne!” bellow those who find thinking about rules a barrier to the creative process — and you are legion. “I understand that it’s the writer’s job to make a story come to life on the page, not the reader’s job to decipher convoluted text, but to be absolutely truthful, I don’t feel completely comfortable wielding all of the various rules of grammar and punctuation. I had kinda hoped that once I landed an agent and sold a book, the kind folks who handle books for a living would walk me through all of that.”

I’m glad you brought this up, wobbly rule-appliers — this is one of the greatest divides between how the publishing world thinks of what constitutes a well-written manuscript and how most aspiring writers tend to envision it. To a pro, the technical side of writing is not separable from the overall writing quality; to a new writer, though, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and even clarity are primarily sentence-level issues, easily fixed down the line.

No wonder, then, that it comes as such a shock to most first-time queriers and submitters to learn that the overwhelming majority of manuscripts get rejected on page 1. While the pros see a book’s opening as a representative writing sample, writers regard it as a minuscule fraction of a larger work, each page of which is entitled to its own assessment.

“What do you mean, a couple of punctuation, spelling, or clarity problems on page 1 could have triggered rejection?” they wail, and who could blame them? “Shouldn’t a book be judged by — wait for it — the writing in the whole thing?”

Perhaps, in principle, but very, very few readers wait until the end to come to conclusions about a book, even outside the publishing industry. A Millicent at a well-established agency will read literally thousands of submissions every year. If she read each in its entirety, she would have time to make it through only hundreds.

Believe it or not, this way actually provides a writer with a fresh idea and original voice with a better shot of impressing her. It means fewer book concepts are weeded out at the querying stage than would be necessary if agencies routinely assigned Millicents to read every single syllable of every single submission.

And, lest we forget, to a professional reader, a hallmark of a fabulous new literary voice is its consistency. The Great American Novel should read as lyrically on page 1 as on page 147, right? And shouldn’t it all sound like the same author’s voice?

See why I always encourage writers to read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting them? All too often, aspiring writers new to the game will start sending out their work practically the moment after they type THE END on a first draft, without double-checking that the voice, style, and — as an editor, I must ethically add this — story are 100% consistent throughout the manuscript. It’s completely normal, however, for a first-time novelist’s voice and sense of the story to develop throughout the writing process; going through, figuring out what you like best about your own writing, and revising the whole so it sounds like that (to use the technical term) before you submit can increase your story’s chance of winning friends at an agency by leaps and bounds.

Or, to put it another way, are you the same writer you were the first day you sat down to work on your book? Aren’t you better at conveying your intended meaning now? And, if you take a long, hard look at your objection to Millie’s rejecting manuscripts on page 1, isn’t part of your chagrin that she might not read long enough to get to your best writing?

Heavy thoughts for a holiday, perhaps, but the Literature Fairy’s annual gift to those of us who work with writers is an awareness of just how many of you lovely people spend the last few weeks of December kicking yourselves for not having landed an agent or gotten published in the previous year. If the past is prologue, a phenomenally high percentage of you will translate those feelings into a New Year’s resolution to be a more active aspiring writer next year — to send out a barrage of queries, for instance, or to come up with a really solid list of agents to query. Perhaps you’re going to finish that manuscript, or get the one an agent requested eight months ago out the door. Or maybe, finally, you are going to rearrange your schedule so you can write a specified number of hours per week, rather than the more popular method of trying to squeeze it in whenever you can find the time.

All of these are laudable goals — don’t get me wrong. I would like to suggest, though, that while you are shuffling through the resolution possibilities, you consider adding one more: promising yourself that this will be the year that you spend January sitting down and reading your manuscript from beginning to end, in hard copy, as a reader would, to gain a sense of what is best about your own writing.

Because, really, wouldn’t you have an easier time presenting your work professionally if you didn’t just know that it’s good, but also why? And wouldn’t you be happier if Millicent judged your page 1 if it actually did represent a consistent voice and style throughout the book?

Just a thought. While you’re reading, of course, you could always humor me by keeping an eye out for omitted commas.

Hey, nobody ever said that making it onto Millicent’s Nice Job list was going to be easy. Who did you think she was, Santa?

Enjoy the holiday, everybody; try not to run afoul of any reindeer. I hear that you wouldn’t want to run into Blitzen in a dark alley. Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: non-indented chapter openings, authors-that-blog, and other things we don’t often see in the natural world

I had planned to write more about comedy writing in contest entries today, campers, but a question from a reader gave me pause. Yes, I get questions from readers all the time (although, strangely, not on the current series on how to avoid common pitfalls in contest entries; I realize that many of you read Author! Author! on handheld devices, rendering posting a comment more difficult, but please remember, this is a blog, not a column; audience participation is an integral part of this community) without hitting the pause button on our ongoing discussions, but this one struck me as important to talk about as a community, for a couple of reasons.

I could just tell you what those reasons are, I suppose, but since publishers now routinely tell first-time authors they have just acquired to establish their own blogs, in order to ramp up their web presences, I thought it might be fun to give those of you planning on hitting the big time a little practice in comment-assessment. And, if you’re up for it, an unfettered discussion amongst ourselves about how writers — published, pre-published, and aspiring alike — feel about the relatively recent expectation that authors will invest significant amounts of time not only in writing their books, but in maintaining blogs, guest-blogging, social media-wrangling, and other online endeavors to promote their work.

Here’s the comment in question, posted today by repeat commenter Tony. If you, Famous Author of the Future, received this question from a reader — and you might: it’s not at all uncommon for fans to post writing questions on their favorite authors’ blogs — how would you respond?


Hi Anne.

Someone from the UK raised the point that indenting the first paragraph of a chapter is improper. She said “look at any published book you have–you’ll see.”

I looked. I was surprised to discover she appeared to be right. However, as I examined more books in my (quite extensive) collection, I see inconsistency.

Perhaps you could specifically address this issue in a future post?



And no, in answer to what many of you just thought very loudly: Tony did not include a link to the discussion to which he was referring, probably (and politely) because he was aware that I ask commenters not to ask me to adjudicate disputes occurring on other writing blogs. (Thanks for that, Tony!) Nor did he indicate who the she is here, or what the significance of the geographical location is to this issue.

In short, Famous Author of the Future, you will have to assess this comment as any blogger would: based solely upon what it says and the relationship you hope to establish and maintain with your fans. How would you respond? Would you

(a) ignore it, since you were not writing an informational blog for writers?

(b) write a comment thanking Tony for posting, but also pointing out that you do not habitually give out advice about manuscript formatting?

(c) develop a one-size-fits-all response to copy and paste each time a reader asks a question like this, saying that you don’t have the time to answer this type of question?

(d) invest the time in doing a little research in where an aspiring writer might find the answer to a practical question about standard format, then post a link in the comment replying to Tony’s question?

(e) invest the research time, then e-mail Tony the link, so you will not encourage other readers to ask similar questions in your comments?

(f) pursue (e), then delete Tony’s comment, so other readers won’t think you pursued course (a)?

(g) bite the bullet and write the requested post? Or,

(h) write back immediately, “You know who answers arcane, practical questions like this all the time? Anne Mini — go ask her.”

There’s no right or wrong answer here, of course; I honestly want to know what you would do. Bloggers face this kind of dilemma every day — and the more successful a blogging author is, the more often she is likely to have to muddle through it. Responding to readers’ commentary is an essential part of blogging; it is — and stop me if this sounds familiar — the difference between writing a column and writing a blog.

For those of you whose answer was a shrug, I would urge you to reconsider. How to handle this is not an unimportant question, from a promotional perspective. Yes, Tony might be just one of your 21,362 adoring fans, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to be nice to him. If you’re not, he not only might not buy your next book — everyone he tells about your exchange might not buy it. And since the Internet offers so many opportunities for disgruntled fans to express their displeasure, even people neither you nor he know personally might well be influenced by what you do next.

Ah, now you are pale. That shows you are understanding the situation. Your future agent and editor will be so pleased that they will not have to explain it to you.

Now that we all understand how high the stakes are (and can be properly grateful to Tony for giving us the excuse to talk about those stakes), let’s consider the ramifications of each possible course of action. There’s no such thing as a completely safe choice here, after all. If you pursue…

(a) and ignore the question, well, you will be like a surprisingly high percentage of author-bloggers: they post what they have to say without glancing at the comments. That undoubtedly saves time, but you also run the risk of making a loyal blog reader and fan of your books feel as though you don’t care about your readers.

(b) and tell the commenter he has asked the question on the wrong kind of blog, you will be like many bloggers that habitually receive such questions. You also stand a very good chance of making someone who loves your writing and respects your opinion feel silly — and, if you don’t phrase it kindly, you could end up looking like kind of a jerk.

(c) and develop a one-size-fits-all response, you’ll be like many author-bloggers that have been at it for a while — and will almost certainly end up looking like a jerk who did not bother to read the question. Readers are smart; they know a canned reply when they see one.

(d) and invest the time in doing the research that, let’s face it, the commenter could have done himself, your fan will probably appreciate it, but you will have just done something that’s not your job for free — and demonstrated to other fans that you are willing to do it. Given that most Famous Authors of the Future will also have day jobs (you’d be astonished how often that’s the case now), is that a precedent you want to establish?

(e) and e-mail the commenter the link, you will still have donated your time to his learning curve, but you won’t get public credit for it. In fact, you will look to everyone else as though you pursued option (a). Your other readers will not enjoy the benefit of your efforts, so you may well end up answering the same questions this way over and over again.

Oh, and congratulations: you’ve just given a fan your e-mail address. Now that you two are on a friendly basis, there’s a better than even chance that the next time he has a question, he’ll just e-mail it to you, placing you in an even more intense version of the original dilemma.

(f) and be nice while deleting the original comment, you’ll get even less credit — and you’re even more likely to give the commenter the impression that you’ve formed a personal bond,

(g) and write the requested post, I can tell you now that other fans will see it and clamor for you to ask their questions. How do you think I got started writing an informational blog for writers?

Which is why I can point out the other risks here: in addition to being time-consuming (remember, you still have books to write), since so much of the formatting advice floating around out there for writers is just plain wrong, even if you post absolutely correct advice on your blog, some commenters will tell you that you are mistaken. That’s just the nature of blogging — and of being well-informed on a subject about which there is rampant speculation.

(h) and write back immediately, “You know who answers questions like this all the time? Anne Mini — go ask her,” well, you’ll be like a hefty percentage of writing conference presenters in this country. Commenters tell me all the time that other experts have sent them my way. And I appreciate that, especially when the suggestion comes with a link here.

As you may see, no option is cost-free — and all can potentially have ripple effects on your reputation. So again: what would you do?

While that intriguing question is rolling around in your brainpan, and before I move on to answering Tony’s question (I’m getting there, honest! I’m just trying to render the reply helpful to the broadest swathe of my readership), let me complicate our scenario. Let’s say that out of respect and love for your readership, you have fallen into the habit of giving authorial advice to those new to the game, at least in the comments section of your blog. Let’s further assume that you have answered the commenter’s specific question before.

Is your plan to respond to Tony’s question any different now? For most author-bloggers, it would be: it’s not at all unheard-of to see the same questions pop up in a blog’s comments month after month, or even year after year. (Oh, you thought your agent and editor wouldn’t want you to keep on blogging after your book had been out for a year or two?) And with a question like this, one that’s based on factual misinformation (sorry, Tony) posted by other authors, the more meticulously accurate the advice you post is, the more likely you are to receive comments that begin, Well, Other Famous Author of the Future says you’re wrong from fans who seem to be urging you and someone you have ever met to get into an entertaining brawl for their benefit. (Thanks again, Tony, for not including the link to the incorrect statement.)

So what are your options this time around? Off the top of my head, I would say that you could

(1) ignore the question, risking all of the negative outcomes of (a), above),

(2) write a comment peevishly telling the questioner that you’ve answered this question repeatedly, as a simple search of the site will demonstrate, despite the fact that this course exposes you to the risks of (b).

(3) if you formerly answered the question in a post, you could perform the requisite search of your blog, track down the link to that post, and include it in a comment, sucking quite a bit of time from your writing day,

(4) if you earlier answered the question in a comment (because, let’s face it, that’s what most commenters prefer; it’s typically speedier) and your comments section is not searchable (and most are not from the reader’s side of the blog), you could devote even more time to trying to track down that earlier response, then either post a link to the post on which it appeared or copy and paste what you said before. (Do I really need to point out how time-consuming that would be?)

(5) do the necessary research about where you now feel you should have sent everyone who has asked the question before — a site that specializes in such questions,

(6) Write a new response from scratch for the 15th time while you feel your blood pressure rise to the boiling point, or

(6) write back immediately, “I’d love to answer this, but you know whose website is stuffed to the gills with answers to questions like this, organized by topic? Anne Mini — go ask her.”

Again, no easy answers here. So what would you do?

I’m not saying that you should follow my example, but here’s what I did and the logic behind it. Tony asked the question in the comments of what I suspect was a post that he had bookmarked — and a good choice, too; it was an analysis of a former contest winner’s first page — rather than on the current post or in a post primarily about formatting. Why is that relevant? Well, while the post in question did discuss some standard format issues, it’s not a post that would turn up early in a site search (everybody sees that nifty little search engine in the upper right-hand corner of the blog, right?), so if I answered his question in the comments where he asked it, my reply would help only him. It’s a better use of my blogging time — and my readers’ reading time — to respond in a new post.

Why not just say, in the nicest way possible, that this is an issue I have addressed many times before, and he will find the answer in the posts under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT heading in the extensive archive list located on the right-hand side of this page? For the same reason that I didn’t search the archives myself and post a link to a relevant post: one of the ways I learn how readers in a rush read the archive list, and thus how I figure out how to improve the category listings on it, is through questions like this.

How so? Because the first thing I did was check to see if there was already a category on the list addressing Tony’s question. And there was, generally. But I have learned from previous exchanges with commenters that not everyone has the time or the patience to run through a logically-applicable-but conceptually-larger group of posts in order to find the answer to a specific question. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, so many of the categories in my archives are expressed as questions: search engines have taught people to expect that answers to specific questions will be instantly accessible.

But Tony, charmingly, did not operate on that assumption, and I appreciate that. Apparently, he presumed that if the answer was not expressed as a question on the archive list, I had not ever blogged on the subject.

Actually, that’s not true, but I can see why he would think so. I can also see how any number of other readers searching for direct advice on this often-misreported issue might not have known which category would give them the answer in the quickest manner. Here, then, is the post he asked me to write — and I have created a new category on the archive list, so the Tonys of the future will be able to pull it up instantly.

That’s entirely appropriate, because it’s actually a very easy question to answer: published books and book manuscripts are not supposed to look alike. Traditional publishers do not print books directly from Word files; print files are quite different. Also, authors have virtually no say over how text appears in a published book; that is the publisher’s decision, just as the typeface is, and no formatting decision the writer makes in the manuscript will necessarily be reflected in its published version.

Therefore, just look at any published book cannot logically be a legitimate reply to ANY question about manuscript formatting.

So the problem here, Tony, was not that published books are inconsistent about this — and you’re right; they are — but that the person expressing the opinion was evidently unfamiliar with how standard format for books actually works. Manuscripts differ in many, many ways from published versions of the same text: they are double-spaced, for instance, contain doubled dashes, have one-inch margins, feature uniformly indented paragraphs, contain a slug line, are numbered in the slug line and not elsewhere on the page, and so forth. You’ll find a complete list of the rules here.

If any of that is news to anyone that pulled up this response while trying to answer the indentation question, I would urge you to consult the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list. You’ll find full explanations of the rules of standard format there. Honest.

Contrary to surprisingly pervasive belief in recent years, standard format — and, indeed, any formal writing in American English — requires that every paragraph be indented .5 inch. So why do we occasionally see published books in which the first paragraph of a chapter is not indented? Because that was a publisher’s decision to ape the style common in medieval manuscripts. You know:

Obviously, that’s not what agents and editors expect to see these days — and you wouldn’t believe any self-styled expert who claimed it was, right? Any publishing professional would reject this on sight: it’s hand-written. How they expect to see a chapter open is like this:

Does that clear things up, Tony? If not, please feel free to ask follow-up questions in the comments. This is now where future readers who share your concerns will look first for answers. They — and I — thank you for prompting me to make that happen.

What’s that those voices wafting back from the future are saying? They would like to see page 2, to compare it with a properly-formatted page 1? Happy to oblige.

That looks familiar, I hope. If you’re having trouble seeing the individual words of that thrilling saga, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Okay, now it’s your turn, Future Famous Authors. To be clear, I’m not inviting critique of how I handled Tony’s question: I want to know what your policy would be. Or is, if you’re already an author-blogger.

And, of course, if you want to sound off on the necessity of having to write material over and above your book in order to promote it, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject, too. Please don’t treat this post as a column, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Don’t forget your troubles — come on, get unhappy, by guest blogger Joel Derfner

Hello again, campers –

We bring our week of advice on moving from one book to the next to a close with not only a bang, but a hop, skip, and a jump: today, I am delighted to be bringing you some words of wisdom on writing a second memoir from none other than one of my all-time favorite memoirists Joel Derfner,>Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead. You may also know him as the insidiously funny blogger, Faustus, M.D., or as one of the stars of the reality TV show Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys.

And no, you didn’t misread the blurb on the cover: it’s that Elton John. The little bird that flies around telling people things told me that he liked the original release of Joel’s memoir so much that he volunteered to blurb the second edition.

If you prefer not to receive your news from passing waterfowl, you can read a fuller account of this remarkable publication story in Joel’s earlier guest post on book promotion. While we’re on the subject of guest posts, Joel also charmed the Author! Author! community with an exceedingly useful guest post on obtaining permission to use song lyrics in your books, should any of you be contemplating setting foot on that particular Yellow Brick Road. (Or were you under the impression that memoirs and novels could quote songs willy-nilly? Au contraire, mon fr?re.)

Mssr. John was not the only one to fall in love with Joel’s deeply human, devastatingly honest, and often howlingly funny voice. I already knew how amusing and insightful Joel was before the book came out, yet as the neighbors that did not move away instantly at the sight can attest, certain sections of this book made me rush into the street, tap-dancing with glee. Sparklers may or may not have been involved.

Was I that hard up at the time for some humorous memoir? you ask, bemused. No, thank you, I write, read, and edit funny memoir all the time. What separated Joel’s first book from, well, everything else was not merely how consistently diverting it was — not an easy trick, with a life fully and well lived — but how unblinkingly truthful it was.

Yes, those of you rolling your eyes? “Oh, come on, Anne,” the memoir-jaded snort. “The whole point of memoir is that it’s true, isn’t it?”

Ah, but there’s true in the sense of having actually occurred — and true that sends shivers through your membranes because it shows you life in a way you had not seen it on a page before. There’s true that reads plausibly — and true that makes the reader gasp, “Wow, my therapist does not know me as well as I now know this memoirist.” And, as any memoir editor worth her salt and/or pepper could tell you, there’s true that’s well-written — and there’s true that’s so prettily phrased that one’s socks, shoes, and pinky rings get blown off.

Or, at the very least, that causes one to go running out into the street, looking for an innocent bystander to whom to read a particularly striking passage. (My neighborhood used to be so quiet before I met Joel.)

I’m certainly not the only professional reader that felt this way when his bombshell of a first memoir came out, incidentally. Some other bon mots from those that know about such things:

In a culture where we disguise vulnerability with physical perfection and material success, Derfner skewers heartache with Wildean wit . . . [Derfner is] the next No?l Coward.?

“Searing.” — Washington Blade

“Derfner’s writing is perfect. . . . He’s your best friend. He’s your brother. He is you.” — EDGE Los Angeles

“Sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, always clever, and unpredictable.” — Philadelphia Gay News

What’s that you say? You’d like me to stop telling you the man can write and let him get on with showing you same? Reasonable enough. Let’s start with the publisher’s blurb for Swish:

Joel Derfner is gayer than you.

Don’t feel too bad about it, though, because he has made being gayer than you his life’s work. At summer day camp, when he was six, Derfner tried to sign up for needlepoint and flower arranging, but the camp counselors wouldn’t let him, because, they said, those activities were for girls only. Derfner, just to be contrary, embarked that very day on a solemn and sacred quest: to become the gayest person ever. Along the way he has become a fierce knitter, an even fiercer musical theater composer, and so totally the fiercest step aerobics instructor (just ask him — he’ll tell you himself).

In Swish, Derfner takes his readers on a flamboyant adventure along the glitter-strewn road from fabulous to divine. Whether he’s confronting the demons of his past at a GLBT summer camp, using the Internet to meet men — many, many men — or plunging headfirst (and nearly naked) into the shady world of go-go dancing, he reveals himself with every gayer-than-thou flourish to be not just a stylish explorer but also a fearless one. So fearless, in fact, that when he sneaks into a conference for people who want to cure themselves of their homosexuality, he turns the experience into one of the most fascinating, deeply moving chapters of the book. Derfner, like King Arthur, Christopher Columbus, and Indiana Jones–but with a better haircut and a much deeper commitment to fad diets–is a hero destined for legend.

Written with wicked humor and keen insight, Swish is at once a hilarious look at contemporary ideas about gay culture and a poignant exploration of identity that will speak to all readers–gay, straight, and in between.

Here again, we smack head-first into that bugbear of memoirists everywhere, the distinction between true and true. All of these statements are factually accurate about the book, but what struck me most about Joel’s memoir, what set my membranes humming, my feet tap-dancing, and my neighbors scurrying into the street to see why I was shouting is not mentioned in this blurb.

What’s missing, in my view? The fact — oh, okay, my opinion — that this is one of the best memoirs ever written on how darned hard it is to be a smart, sensitive human being in a world that habitually rewards neither.

And that, my friends, is what has made this book among the most tattered on my memoir shelf. Occasionally, life will throw a meandering curveball that knocks one of Joel’s beautifully-phrased insights out of my at this point stuffed-to-bursting memory vaults, sending me rushing right back to the text.

Oh, and in the spirit of this series, I should add: the guy’s paid his dues as a writer, and then some. He’s done it with wit, humor, and perseverance in the face of some pretty long odds. All of which has not only garnered my completely ungrudging respect (and you of all people know how high my threshold for grudge-free respect is), but a feeling that somewhere up there in the Muses’ palace, the Ladies in Charge have already reserved some serious shelf space for Joel’s subsequent literary achievements.

Ah, but there’s the rub, isn’t it? After a debut memoir like that, what precisely does one do for an encore?

I asked Joel that question, and rather than fleeing with the flailing arms and piercing screams such a seemingly flippant but subversively difficult question deserves, he gave it the alternately serious and humorous literary attention that has caused me to come to think of him as the memoirist little brother the Muses should have seen to it that I had. (With all requisite apologies to the nonfiction author big brother with whom they actually provided me — oh, you thought my parents would have put up with offspring that didn’t write?)

Here, then, is his response, and I have to say, I wish I had read it before I first sat down to write a memoir. In my checkered experience, it’s not only true — it’s true. Take it away, Joel!