With sympathy to everyone in the path of the storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A problem even a writer’s favorite muse cannot solve

children of paradise

The characters change, but the basic plot is always the same, just like a nightmare or a film that Hollywood can’t seem to stop remaking. Seven or eight times per year, I receive a frantic call or e-mail from a hard-working writer, usually someone close to polishing off a book. “Please help me!” this anguished soul begs. “Something’s happened to my computer, and I’ve just lost my entire manuscript!”

Sometimes, the culprit is mechanical: a computer crash, a virus, a hard drive meltdown. Other times, it’s a side-effect something larger, more generally life-changing, like a fire, an earthquake, or an ex who nabbed the shared computer on his way out the door. Yet every single one of these stories share a single common denominator: the writer had not made a back-up recently — or if she had, it was sitting on a shelf right next to her writing desk, and thus was equally inaccessible once the firefighters pushed her out the door.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but firefighters, rescue workers, and other emergency personnel are notoriously more interested than saving your life than the only copy of the novel you’ve been writing for the past eight years. They’ll be very nice about it, but they will not allow you to run back into a collapsing building to rescue your computer.

In a not entirely unrelated note, when’s the last time you backed up your writing files? And if, heaven forbid, something happened to your home while you were not there, would you still have access to either an electronic or hard copy of the most recent draft of your manuscript?

That second question’s the rub, isn’t it? Many a writer who is pretty good about making back-ups in case her hard drive melts down or a fellow traveler spills gin on her laptop halfway between Atlanta and Barcelona — both of which have happened to yours truly, I’m sorry to say — doesn’t stop to think about where she’s storing those back-ups, or how hard a time she would have getting to them if the roof collapsed on her habitual writing space.

Remind you of anything you might have seen on the news lately?

Because I have spent so much of my life hobnobbing with writers, the permanently lost manuscript is the first thing I think about when I see a reporter standing in front of a shattered building or smoldering foundation. Not to minimize any of the terrible damage on every level in a crisis, but I can’t help but picture the additional pain of the displaced aspiring writers. How many those bereft writers, I wonder, either had an easily portable back-up ready to snatch up at a moment’s notice or stored at a back-up off-site?

Those poor, poor people: as anyone who has ever lost an entire document can tell you, trying to recreate even a few pages from memory can be a nightmare. Imagine losing an entire novel or memoir.

I don’t want to depress you — okay, I do, but only for your own eventual good. Put yourself in one of those unlucky writers’ shoes for a moment: if something happened to your primary computer and your filing system right now, would you have a copy of your book? One that incorporated your most recent changes?

If not, let me ask you a painful but necessary follow-up question: how long would it take you to reproduce it from scratch?

Try breathing into a paper bag until the hyperventilation stops.

Breathing normally again? Good. Keep taking nice, deep breaths while you ponder my next difficult question: if your hard drive suddenly gave up the ghost right now, how recent a version of your book-in-progress would you have with which to replace your current version?

Come on, be honest about it: a week old? A month old? That hard copy of the first three chapters that agent sent back in your SASE?

Hands up, everyone who felt the chill realization that you would not have ANY version of your novel or NF book.

If you could see your fellow readers, you’d notice that a good 9 out of 10 of you had your hands raised. Which is, alas, normal, as anyone who works in a computer repair facility could tell you. They, too, are constantly meeting traumatized writers who plead, “What do you mean, my hard disk can’t be salvaged? The only copy of my book is on it!”

Please, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that computer failure, theft, or — again, heaven forefend — a larger disaster could not happen to you. Make back-ups of your writing early and often.

I was fortunate enough to learn the value of compulsive back-up generation young. When I was in college, my thesis advisor, a jolly fellow named Dave, had been working on his dissertation for years. Every time we met, he used to present me with a disk containing his latest draft, requesting that I keep it in my dorm room. If he kept his only copy of his back-up in his house, he explained, and something awful happened to his home, he did not want to be left without a copy of the latest version.

Truth compels me to admit that my initial response to the notion was disrespectfully flippant; to be blunt about it, I thought Dave was being paranoid. But given how long he had been working on his dissertation, was he really being over-cautious? Or merely far-sighted?

At the time, I definitely wrote it off to paranoia, and not without good reason: to be on the ultra-safe side, Dave asked me to keep each week’s version in my dorm refrigerator, just in case my dorm and his entire suburb were somehow simultaneously engulfed in flames that miraculously spared both of our lives. “The insides of refrigerators seldom burn,” he explained, “unless someone opens them during the conflagration. They’re also rarely completely crushed during earthquakes.”

Looking over the footage Chile, I wondered if he was right about that. There certainly doesn’t seem to be much left of some of those buildings.

Even though I did, in fact, keep his work in my tiny dorm fridge, I used to smile secretly at the intensity of his fear that his work would disappear. Until I was in graduate school myself, and a knife-wielding mugger approached me on my way home from the library.

“Give me your backpack,” he advised, none too gently.

“No,” I said, crushing it to my trembling chest.

I then explained very glibly and at great length that I had a draft of my master’s thesis in my bag, and that it was positively covered with hand-written notes and footnotes-to-be that I had not yet entered into my soft copy. (Yes, I know now how silly that was.) It would take me weeks to recreate all of that material. Would he accept the contents of my wallet instead? What if I made the cash my gift to him, a little token of my thanks for leaving my thesis intact, and didn’t file a police report?

The mugger, who apparently had never attempted a major writing project, was quite astonished by my vehemence; I gather he thought I simply did not understand the situation. He reminded me several times throughout my frantic monologue that he could, in fact, kill me with the knife clutched in his hand, and that only a crazy person would risk her life for a bunch of paper.

But tell me: if you were holding the only extant copy of your book, would you not have made a similar argument?

The story ended happily, I’m glad to report: I ended up with both a whole skin and my draft. And to tell you the truth, I no longer remember if he got my money or not. (I do, however, remember him begging me to stop telling him about the argument in my thesis — I had become embroiled in an especially juicy part of Chapter Two — and admitting that he would, in fact, just be dumping the manuscript into the nearest trash can rather than turning it in for credit.)

The dual moral of these stories: it’s ALWAYS a good idea to have more than one copy of your manuscript, just in case the unthinkable happens. And the best place to keep a back-up is NOT immediately adjacent to your computer, or in your laptop case along with the laptop.

This is an area where I definitely practice what I preach, practically to the point of obsession. Oh, you may chuckle over the fact that I literally never leave my house without either my laptop or a full back-up of it on my portable hard drive (which aren’t particularly expensive these days, by the way), but when that merry Barcelonan baptized my keyboard with gin, I didn’t have to turn around and fly back to the United States in order to produce another copy of the novel-in-progress from which I was supposed to be reading after we landed, nor did I have to place a frantic transatlantic phone call to ask my neighbor’s sweet teenage son to break into my house to e-mail me another copy of it. It’s also the reason that a couple of years earlier, when my hard disk completely disintegrated overnight, I was able to flabbergast the guy at the computer repair place by saying, “Well, it would be nice if you could save my information and photos, but I can always restore them from my back-ups.”

How flabbergasted was he, you ask? He actually said, “Wow, I’ve never had a customer say that before.”

My thesis advisor’s strategy is sounding less and less zany to you, isn’t it?

Fortunately, backing up is easier than ever these days. For under $200, I was able to pick up an external hard drive that even comes with software that automatically backs up my computer for me. I don’t even have to think about it.

Since I do think about it all the time, though — thank you, seven or eight unfortunates per year — I am very aware that is not enough. Because I’m generally working on a novel of my own, editing several others, and am constantly on call for making revisions on whatever of my projects my agent happens to be circulating at the moment, I tote around a mirror image of my laptop’s innards on my portable hard disk — which takes up less room in my purse than my wallet does, incidentally. That way, I can always carry the most current version with me — unless I’m taking my laptop with me, in which case I leave the back-up at home.

Yes, it’s a bit time-consuming, but at least I have my answer ready the next time I run into a literary-minded mugger, right?

Your method does not need to be complicated — in fact, it’s better if it isn’t, since simple procedures are easier to work into your daily life. Playing it safe can be as simple as burning a recordable CD once a week and popping it into your backpack or glove compartment (crude, but effective), copying your files onto your iPod (hey, that thing is essentially a hard drive, right?), or even just e-mailing your chapter files to yourself on a regular basis (effectively turning your ISP into a remote storage facility).

Many writers prefer an off-site back-up method, such as saving to storage space online; there, too, you can set up automatic back-ups. Check with your Internet provider — mine offers storage space as part of its standard connection package.

Don’t panic if you’re not very computer-savvy: this really does not need to be difficult. For an easy-to-follow, well-explained run-down of back-up and security options for the PC, I would highly recommend checking out longtime reader and computer whiz Chris Park’s blog post on the subject.

However you decide to make your back-ups, I would recommend getting into a regular schedule as soon as possible. The best way to protect your writing is to save it often, after all, and any security system works best if it is applied consistently.

How often is often enough to save your work? Well, think back to the scenarios above: how many pages of text are you willing to beg your muse to help you recreate from memory?

It’s a good idea, too, to save more often while you are in the throes of revising a manuscript — and to save both before and after copies of each major revision. Yes, it takes up space, but as most of us who have lived through serious revisions can tell you, it’s not all that uncommon to decide a week, month, or year down the line that a cut scene is indispensably necessary to the work.

Or for the editor, agent, or writing group that advised a particular cut in the first place to change his, her, or its mind. Believe me, if anyone is more frantic than a writer whose agent promised an editor at a major house that the first third of that novel would be revised three weeks hence, it’s the writer whose agent promised it three days before the writer’s three-year-old decided to raid the toolbox and make dents in that shiny computer screen.

But you know who is most frantic of all? The writer being held back by the firefighters, because the only copy of his novel is inside that burning building.

Those kinds of things only happen to other people, right?

Please, for your own sake, don’t put off getting into the habit of making frequent back-ups. Large-scale disasters are not very frequent, thank goodness, but computer meltdowns are. A few minutes of preparation every week or so can save you a tremendous amount of pain down the line.

Here’s devoutly hoping that my fevered imagination is radically overestimating the number of manuscripts lost in the current rounds of earthquakes and floods. Be safe, everyone, and keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part VIII: spinning one heck of a good yarn — for the space of a paragraph

wildfire
Before I launch back into our ongoing efforts to elevate a merely okay query letter into a really good one, allow me to pause a moment to express the hope that all of the writers living in the path of the California wildfires are and will continue to be safe, sound — and if they have to evacuate, either did or will have time to take copies of their works-in-progress with them.

To those who did not: the hearts of all of us here at Author! Author! go out to you.

In honor of what I devoutly hope were very few lost manuscripts, would the rest of you do me a favor, please? Would you make a complete copy of your writing files now and store it in a safe place? Or if you’re not in a position to do that at the moment, will you please take the precautionary step of e-mailing the files to yourself as Word attachments?

Weren’t expecting that last one, were you?

It’s not ideal, of course, and it isn’t really a substitute for making complete backups early and often. I wanted to mention it, though, because if one were in a hurry — if, say, one’s governor had just ordered the evacuation of one’s neighborhood and one had to choose between saving the family photos, the deed to the house, or the heavy computer — it is something one could conceivably do within just a couple of minutes. It would also — and this is no small consideration in an emergency situation — create back-up copies of one’s work that would be accessible from another computer.

Say, one far, far away from where anything was likely to burst into flame anytime soon.

I’m just saying. Of the many, many hideously sad results of a home or business lost to flames, the manuscript whose only copy was on a lost computer is one of the few against which a prudent person can prepare in advance — and one of the many that can strike prudent people who have prepared.

How so? Well, tell me: where is your primary computer? How close to it do you store your back-ups? And if they’re in the same room, or even the same structure, how long would it take you to reconstruct your book if you couldn’t get to them?

In the longer term, of course, regular back-ups by more conventional methods probably make more sense. I have a terrific little thingamabob that automatically backs up my entire hard disk from time to time, and it’s small enough to shove into a coat pocket if I suddenly had to dash from the building. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s certainly portable.

Less expensive but more trouble: saving back-ups to disks or DVRs. Admittedly, it’s kind of a pain to burn a new one after each significant revision (rule of thumb: if you couldn’t reconstruct what you’ve changed in your manuscript since your last back-up, either from memory or by reading through the backed-up version, it’s time to make another back-up), but disks are easily stashable. So much so that you could store a set somewhere other than the building that houses your computer.

Sound paranoid? Perhaps. But again: how much of your manuscript would you have if your current computer went up in flames? Or got stolen? Or even simply had a hard disk meltdown?

Please, don’t let your only copy get lost forever. Take the time to make regular back-ups, and either don’t store them right next to your computer or encase them in a fireproof box. Someday, you may be very, very happy that you did.

And to those who did not get the chance to take preventative action: again, my condolences.

Back to work. For those of you joining us mid-series, I’ve been spending the past few days going over some common query letter faux pas, so all of us here in the Author! Author! community may avoid them. Let’s recap our checklist so far:

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

(14) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I actually said what the book is ABOUT?

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?

(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?

Everyone comfortable with all of those? Or, if comfortable is too strong a word, at least no longer breaking out in hives at the mere mention of these concepts?

Good. Let’s move on.

(17) Is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?
Just as a stellar verbal pitch gives the hearer a foretaste of what the manuscript is like, so does a well-constructed summary paragraph in a query letter. So if the book is funny, go for a laugh here; if it’s scary, make sure to include at least one genuinely frightening image; if it’s sexy, make Millicent pant in her cubicle.

Getting the picture?

Some of you find this suggestion a trifle wacky, don’t you? “But Anne,” a scandalized few protest, “didn’t you say earlier in this series — nay, in this post — that part of the goal here was to come across as professional? Won’t making the summary paragraph sound like my surly protagonist/my whiny narrator/a lighthearted romp through the merry world of particle physics make me seem like a grump/annoying to work with/like I don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Good questions, scandalized few. Your concerns are precisely why I’m advising that ONLY the summary paragraph match the tone of the book, rather than the entire letter.

Surprised? Don’t be. Millicent might well draw the wrong conclusions if your ENTIRE query letter were written in an entertaining tone. But let’s face it, it’s kind of hard to turn the platform paragraph of a query letter into much of a comedy.

Seriously. Even if you happen to have taught comedic theory for 52 years at the Sorbonne, it’s hard to turn that into a giggle line.

But in the part of the letter where you’re supposed to be telling a story, why not let your manuscript’s voice come out to play for a few lines? Can you think of a better way to demonstrate to Millicent how your book is unique?

(18) Am I telling a compelling story in my summary paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?
This one should sound at least a little bit familiar — I brought it up back in Pitching 101. (That seems so long ago, doesn’t it, now that the weather has calmed down a bit?) All too often, aspiring writers will construct their summary paragraphs as though they were writing high school English papers.

There’s usually a pretty good reason for that: writers tend to have been excellent high school English students. So were most agents and editors, as it happens, and certainly most Millicents who screen submissions.

But it doesn’t mean that a summary paragraph that demonstrates that glorious past too clearly is smart book marketing at the query stage. Take a gander:

The protagonist is a troubled man, caught up in a realistic conflict with his boss. Told in alternating first person voices and the present tense, character is revealed through slice-of-life episodes before reaching the denouement.

Not the best descriptive paragraph, is it? All of these things may well be true of the book being discussed, but tell me: what is this book ABOUT? WHO is it about? What’s the central conflict?

As a rule, Millicent is eager to know the answer to those questions. She is also likely to roll her eyes and mutter, “English term paper,” and swiftly move on to the next query.

Why? Well, the presentation of the storyline is distancing; she would much, much rather that the querier simply told the story directly. Here’s the same plot, presented in a manner she’s far more likely to find pleasing:

Troubled Harry (47) can’t seem to make it through even a single work day at the squid ink pasta factory without running afoul of his boss, chronic aquatic creature abuser Zeke (52). Since the pasta factory is the town’s only employer, Harry has little choice but to stomach the flogging of innocent carp — until Zeke’s merciless sarcasm at the expense of a dolphin cracks his stoic veneer. After an unsuccessful attempt to unionize the squid, Harry must face the truth: Zeke has been just stringing him along for the last seventeen years about that promotion. But now that he is cast adrift in a rudderless sailboat, what is he going to do about that?

I spot some hands raised out there, do I not? “But Anne,” some terrific English essay-writers point out, “doesn’t the second version leave out a couple of pretty important items? Like, say, that the book is written in the first person, or that it has multiple protagonists?”

Actually, I left those out on purpose; as important as those facts may be to the writer, they would only distract Millicent at the querying stage. Or in a synopsis.

Do you English majors want to know why? Because neither the point of view choice nor the number of protagonists is germane: the goal of the summary paragraph is to show what the book is ABOUT, not how it is written.

That’s what the manuscript is for, right? As Millicent’s boss the agent likes to say, it all depends on the writing. Let the narrative tricks come as a delightful surprise.

(19) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the SPECIFIC points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (and I do hope that revelation doesn’t startle anybody, at this juncture; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, I had such high hopes when I raised you, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers. Or, to put it another way, if you printed out your list of selling points and read it side-by-side with your query, would the summary paragraph demonstrate that at least a few of those elements you identified as most market-worthy?

If not, is the summary paragraph doing your book justice as a marketing tool?

Don’t look at me that way: there is absolutely nothing anti-literary about making it clear why habitual readers of your book category will be drawn to your work. No matter how beautifully your book is written or argued, Millicent isn’t going to know you can write until she reads your manuscript.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but if your query letter does not convince her that your book is potentially marketable, she’s not going to ask to see the manuscript. Even if she happens to work at one of the increasingly many agencies that allow aspiring writers to send pages of text along with their queries, the query letter is going to determine whether Millicent reads anything else you sent.

So just in case any of you have been receiving form-letter rejections based upon query + pages agent approaches: I know that it’s tempting to assume that the problem is in the text itself, but strategically, the first place you should be looking for red flags is your query letter. In a query + approach, it’s the gatekeeper for your pages.

I’m going to take that chorus of great, gusty sighs as a sign that I’ve made my point.

And here’s the good news: once again, if those of you who did your homework throughout the recent Pitching 101 series are already well equipped to tackle #19: you’ve already sat down and figured out who will be buying your book and why, right? If you have not assembled a list of selling points for your book, there are a series of posts that will walk you through it relatively painlessly, cleverly hidden under the category YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS at right.

Stop groaning. Yes, it’s more work, but if it’s any consolation, it’s great experience for working with an agent: when their clients bring them book ideas, the first question they tend to ask is, “Okay, who needs this book, and why?”

(20) Does my summary paragraph read like a back jacket blurb, full of marketing-talk and generalization, or like a great elevator speech, grounded in details that will appeal to my ideal reader?
One of the most common mistakes made in summary paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who MIGHT conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:

CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men. It belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America.

With:

Caroline Bingley (26) and Elizabeth Bennet (20) are floating down a lazy river, the sun baking an uneasy outline around their barely-moving paddles. Suddenly, the rapids are upon them — as is a flotilla of gorgeous, shirtless, rapids-navigating men on generous inner tubes. When a violent hailstorm traps them all in a dank, mysterious cave that smells of recently-departed grizzly bear, shivering in their thin, wet clothes, tempers flare — and so does romance.

The first sounds an awful lot like the summary a publisher’s marketing department might construct for a book’s back jacket, doesn’t it? It’s all breathless hype and promotional persuasion, leaving the reader thinking, “Um, I know where this story takes place, but what is this book about?”

Trust me, that’s not a question Millicent is fond of muttering in the middle of reading a query. Which is a shame, really, as so many queriers give her such excellent provocation to mutter it.

The second version answers that question very directly: CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is about Caroline and Elizabeth’s trip down a river, where they meet some sizzling potential love interests.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” Millicent cries, reaching for the seldom-used Yes, please send us the first 50 pages boilerplate. (Oh, come on — you thought that they wrote a fresh letter for every acceptance?)

Unfortunately, as we saw earlier in this series, most aspiring writers are so used to reading marketing copy that they think the first version is inherently more professional than the second. In fact, it’s far from uncommon to see this type of marketing rhetoric in synopses, or even in contest entries.

To clear up this misconception once and for all, I’m going to ask you to join me in a little experiment. Scroll down so both examples above are hidden, please.

All gone? Good. Now take this multi-part pop quiz.

1) What do you remember most from the first summary paragraph?

The title? The Snake River? The bad cliché? Your speculation that my reference to “every paddle-wielding woman in America” might cause this blog to spring up in some unlikely Internet searches from now until Doomsday?

2) What do you remember about the second?

As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.

3) If you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women?

I rest my case.

Except to say: in the first summary, a reader is unlikely to remember the BOOK, rather than the query. And in the second, the query-reader is encouraged to identify with the protagonists — who are, like the reader, contemplating all of those inner tube-straddling guys.

Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously: stop picturing those floating bodies. We have work to do.

The other reason that the second summary is better is that it presumably echoes the tone of the book. Which brings me to…

(21) If my summary paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?
This is a question that often makes even seasoned queriers do a double-take, but actually, it’s closely related to #17, is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?

As I mentioned last time, most query letters share one of two tones: unprofessional or serious, serious, serious. The first is never a good idea, but the second is fine — if you happen to have written the 21rst century’s answer to MOBY DICK.

Which I’m guessing no one currently reading this actually has.

If, however, you’ve written this year’s answer to BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, a super-serious summary paragraph is probably not the best marketing tactic. Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard to make a lighthearted romp seem either lighthearted or like a romp if it’s described in a turgid manner, a deadpan presentation is probably not the best strategy for convincing Millicent that you can write comedy.

So why not use the summary paragraph as a writing sample to demonstrate that you can? In fact, why not take the opportunity to show how well you understand your target readership by including images, wording, and details likely to appeal to them?

The same logic applies to any type of book — and it’s a great way to figure out whether a plot point is worth mentioning in your summary paragraph. If you have written a steamy romance, select the sexy detail over the mundane one. If it’s a western, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a feeling of the open range. If it’s a horror novel, opt for the creepy detail.

And so forth. Again, this is basic pitching strategy, right?

The sole exception to this rule is if you happen to have written a really, really dull book on a mind-bendingly tedious topic. Then, and only then, do you have my permission to construct a descriptive paragraph that doesn’t sound anything at all like the tone of the book.

Hey, you have to pique Millicent’s interest somehow.

(22) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?
Despite my utmost efforts in spreading advice on the subject, most query letters include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched.

Call me mercenary, but I think that is rather market-unwise, don’t you? If an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for the agent to think, “Hmm, who on earth is going to want to buy this book?”

No extra credit for guessing the answer to that one: no.

As those of you who went through the identifying your target market exercises in my earlier series on pitching (easily found under the obfuscating category title IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE on the archive list at right) already know, figuring out the ideal readership for a book is not always a simple or straightforward task, even for someone who knows the text as intimately as its author. Don’t expect its appeal to be self-evident.

Yes, even for a book like CANOE PADDLING MAMAS, where the appeal is pretty close to self-evident.

To revisit one of my earlier mantras: structure your marketing materials to make it as easy as possible for folks in the industry to help you. You want Millicent to cast her eyes over your query and go running to her boss, the agent, saying, “Oh, my God, we have to see this manuscript.”

Once again, we see that it is a far, far better thing to induce the screener to exclaim, “This book belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America!” than to have the query tell her that it does. Even if it’s true.

Just a little something to ponder while some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym.

Since I’m not going to be able to wrest that image from your mind, this seems like an excellent place to stop for the day. More probing questions follow tomorrow, of course.

Keep up the good work!

Some thoughts on character names, part VI: John, I’ve got something to tell you, John. John, can you hear me? John? John?

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Gee, I bet you can’t tell which naming bugbear I’m going to tacking today. Normally, I try to make my titles a trifle more subtle, but as I’m still feeling a bit punk, as my dear old white-headed mother says, I’m going to cut myself a little slack and get right in your face about it: today, we’re going to be talking about proper name repetition.

As in the particularly sterling example above. Amongst Millicents, submissions (and first drafts in general) are notorious for this type of redundancy. Also notorious in her circles: the overuse of the character name John. And Jon. And Jack.

I just mention. Oh, and by notorious, I mean annoying for the reader.

It’s interesting how much of our discussion of character names has centered on ways improper use can annoy readers, isn’t it? For the last couple of posts, I’ve been harping on how too many named characters can make your submissions slightly harder to read — and thus annoying to Millicents all across New York — but too-frequent repetition of the main characters’ names makes the average editor rend her garments and the garden-variety agent moan.

If it’s any consolation, they’ve been rending and moaning for years. Pros used to attribute this problem to the itsy-bitsy computer screens that writers were working upon – remember the early Macintoshes, with those postcard-sized screens? They weren’t even tall enough to give a life-sized reflection of an adult face. If you made the text large enough to read, the screen would only hold a dozen or so lines.

But as technology has progressed, the screens on even inexpensive computers have gotten rather large, haven’t they? Even on a laptop, you can usually have a view of half a page, at least. My extra-spiffy editor’s monitor can display two life-sized manuscript pages side by side.

So why is it that writers so seldom have a clear idea of how distracting name repetition can be on a printed page? Is it merely that writers christen their major characters with their favorite names (including John, as likely as not), and want to see them in print again and again?

Not entirely. Partially, I think, it has to do with how differently the eye reads text on a backlit screen: it definitely encourages skimming, if not great big leaps down the page. But for the most part, I believe it has to do with how infrequently writers read their own work in hard copy.

Hear that Gregorian-like chanting floating through the ether? That’s every writer for whom I’ve ever edited so much as a paragraph automatically murmuring, “Before submission, I must read my manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.” Writers who read this blog religiously have been known to mutter this inspiring little rule of thumb in their sleep.

So yes, I admit it: I’m a broken record on this subject. But for some very, very good reasons.

For our purposes today, the reason really couldn’t be better: reading in hard copy — which is how virtually any editor, most agents, and 100% of contest judges will be seeing your submissions, right? — makes patterns in the text far more apparent to the reading eye.

Like, say, character name repetition. Lookee:

a-sample-page

See how your eye tries to leap from one J to the next? As I mentioned a few days ago, the skimming eye is automatically attracted to capital letters in a text.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, not-especially-literate people tend to Capitalize Words for Emphasis. (When they’re not placing words that no one has ever said aloud inside quotation marks — another widespread editorial pet peeve.) It’s technically ungrammatical, but it definitely does the job of soliciting attention.

Proper names do jump off the page — which can be a good thing, if a manuscript is crammed to the gills with action, unnamed characters, and other literary titivations that do not involve the protagonist. Yet since most novels and pretty much all memoirs deal with their respective protagonists on virtually every page, it isn’t precisely necessary to keep calling attention to the protagonist by referring to him by name.

Especially within the dialogue of a two-person conversation. Unless the one of the characters happens to have multiple personalities, it’s generally assumed that the names of the conversants will not alter substantially within the course of a few pages of dialogue — but you’d never know that by the number of times some manuscripts have their discussants call one another by name.

In dialogue where the use of tag lines (he said, she said) has not been minimized, the repetition can become so frequent that it’s like a drumbeat. As in:

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, Eve,” Abigail snapped.

“Why ever not?” Eve asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me Eve. I’ve known you too long.”

Eve played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing. “Honestly, Abby, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Abigail huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” Eve said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Abigail’s eyes stung for a moment. Eve always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, Evie. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hanged our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

Eve sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Abby?”

“I’ll say,” Abigail said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Yes, speakers in the real world do call one another by name this much sometimes, but like so much of real-life dialogue, that level of repetition would be snore-inducing, if not downright hypnotic, on the page. When tag lines are added in, even dialogue between just a couple of characters can convey the sense of a very crowded room.

The fact that names can appear too often within a short number of lines seems to be news to most aspiring writers submitting their work to agencies, publishing houses, and contests. Submissions tend to be rife with repetition of their protagonist’s names. After one has read a few hundred — or a few thousand — manuscripts, one begins to suspect writers of harboring a prejudice against the innocent-but-effectual pronouns he and she.

Seriously, a lot of submitters seem to go out of their way to eschew pronouns, even in narrative paragraphs. This is not an unusually proper noun-ridden example:

Laura slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Sonia was nowhere in sight. Laura ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Sonia did not come running, Laura filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Laura made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Sonia. For good measure, Laura upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” Laura bellowed. “Sonia!”

Quietly, Sonia retrieved Laura’s glass from Laura’s waving hand. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Laura looked up at Sonia with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night. May I have another?”

Come on, admit it — that was kind of annoying to read, wasn’t it? Until you’ve seen this phenomenon in action, it seems a trifle counter-intuitive that reusing a single word within two consecutive lines might be irritating to a reader, but it can be, even if the word in question is not a proper noun. The capitalization of a name makes it stand out more, however.

To get an even better sense of how repetitious it would seem on a printed page, take a few steps back from your computer (if you can manage that logistically) and take a gander at the pattern all of those capital Ls make in the text. Distracting, isn’t it?

Now, admittedly, the writer of this exceptional excerpt may merely have been trying to clarify matters by repeating the names so often: there are in fact two women in this scene. If both were only called she, naturally it would become confusing. (If you have any doubts about how confusing a narrative can be when no proper names are used at all, get a 4-year-old to tell you the plot of a movie she’s just seen.)

However, like many proper name-heavy manuscripts, the writer here (who was me, obviously, so I guess it’s not all that productive to speculate about her motivation) has constructed the narrative to make opportunities for name repetition where it isn’t logically necessary. Here’s the same scene again, streamlined to minimize the necessity of naming the players:

She slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Sonia nowhere in sight. Laura ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when no one came running, she filched a straw from the table next to her – the guy tapping away on his computer never even noticed – and made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of life. Then, for good measure, she upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” she bellowed.

Quietly, Sonia retrieved the now-airborne glass before it could crash to the floor. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Laura looked up at her with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night. May I have another?”

Before any of you proper noun-huggers out there start grumbling, this was not a very time-consuming revision; all it really required was an awareness that repeating names even as far apart as three or four lines just doesn’t look good on a printed page. And that a proper noun repeated more than once per sentence, or within a single line of text, always seems just a little odd.

More on why next time. Keep up the good work!

P.S.: since I’m letting you out of class a little bit earlier than usual today, l can’t resist adding a homework assignment: wouldn’t today would be a dandy time to make back-ups of your writing files? Especially if you haven’t made another electronic copy since, well, ever?

Yes, I know: I’ve nagged you about this fairly recently, but it bears repeating. Every year, I talk with about a hundred writers whose only copy of their Great American Novel has just been eaten by factors unforeseen. Computer repair facilities see countless writers rending their garments and exclaiming, “But I NEED you to get into my fried hard drive! What do you expect me to do, retype my novel from scratch – and from memory?”

Trust me, you do not want to be one of these people. I hope you never experience the trauma that is a computer meltdown, but I would urge you to make back-ups frequently, just in case.

If you’re a PC user unfamiliar with your backup options, intelligent and insightful long-time reader Chris Park has generously wrote an EXCELLENT post on his blog on data loss, back-up solutions, and other nifty save-my-manuscript-from-oblivion ideas — all written in blessedly clear, direct layman’s terms. I would highly recommend its perusal.

You look strangely familiar…have we met somewhere before?

Last time, I suggested that if your novel is thick with named characters, it might be a good idea to make a list of who appears when, so you can see where to cull and who may be combined with whom. And cries of “Madness! Madness!” filled the land.

Now, now — it’s actually a very practical suggestion. Think of it as trying to cast a production of Spartacus with a very small troupe of actors: you probably won’t be able to foist many more duties upon the leads, but the bit players could certainly play multiple roles, right?

Knowing who the players are and in what scenes they appear can also alert you to patterns in where characters tend to pile up in your work in general. If you’re the kind of writer who, for instance, leans toward naming everyone at any given party, you will want to be aware of that predilection before you write your next party scene, won’t you?

Won’t you? Lie to me, if not.

If, on the other hand, you tend to emphasize your protagonist’s loneliness by having other characters engage in banter around him, seeing that pattern manifest on a list may lead you to question whether it needs to happen quite so often in the book to make your point — or with quite so many different people.

It can, in short, alert you to point overkill.

If hell is other people, as Sartre suggests, then wedding and funeral scenes in novels almost invariably reek of brimstone. These events are NOTORIOUS amongst professional readers for introducing entire churchfuls of extraneous characters.

Even when all of the masses are not named individually (although you’d be astonished how often 10 or 20 are), it doesn’t take many lines of physical description or multi-party banter to convey the impression that a small, intimate wedding has a guest list to rival that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s nuptials.

Allow me to suggest: if behinds are in pews, it might be a good place to start trimming.

Ditto with coffee shops, bars, class reunions, Ellis Island, airplanes/-ports, and party scenes in general. All of these venues seem to attract single-appearance characters as surely as a red carpet attracts celebrity gawkers.

Was that massive sucking noise I just heard a collective gasp of indignation? “But Anne,” the cast of thousands-mongers cry, “you’re asking me to disembowel the collective identity of modern urban life! How can I describe the complexity of the human environment without enumerating the individuals who are part of it?”

Describe away — and if you’re into enumerating, I’m not going to stop you, although your agent and/or editor may well. All I’m suggesting here is that you not insist on introducing each of the bystanders to the hapless reader as if she were the mother of the bride in a receiving line.

Not only does it tend to get a mite tedious and slow the pace of the narrative to the proverbial crawl, to a professional reader, a group scene where everyone is named down to the last poodle and great-grandfather reads as though it were simply an account of something that actually happened to the author. When the guest lists are long and specific, the jaded reader will think, “Great — when do we get back to the fiction?”

Or the memoir, or the historical account, as the case may be.

Of course, this is not always a fair conclusion, but there is some basis for it: as I mentioned yesterday, when writers lift scenes from real life into their novels, they do tend to include direct one-to-one correlations between the actual people and the fictional ones.

The names may change, but if Aunt Bessie, Aunt Cassie, and odd Cousin George appear in the text so fleetingly that they don’t make an impression upon the reader, it’s a pretty good tip-off to someone who reads a lot of manuscripts that the author is blessed with two aunts and a cousin who might reasonably be expected to buy the book when it is published.

And that is a problem to professional and casual readers alike. Such references, in code or not, can be very amusing for readers familiar with the fine folks mentioned in the book, as well as their kith and kin, but generally speaking, unless a minor character plays an actual role in the plot — as in contributing some action or information that moves the story along — he will not be memorable to readers who do not already know the correlates in question.

You indignant gaspers are getting restive again, aren’t you? “Yes, yes,” you mutter impatiently, and who could blame you? “It’s not the most efficient means of storytelling; I already know that. But I fully intend to rectify that by making Aunt Bessie the gas station attendant in Chapter 47, Aunt Cassie the librarian in Chapter 12, and Cousin George the second corpse who rises from the dead on the honeymoon. Happy now?”

Not necessarily, no. Even if the characters in a crowd scene do appear elsewhere in the book, it can still be pretty tedious for the reader if the narrative engages in a full roll-call. Or even a partial one.

At least when the characters in question are not integral to the action of the crowd scene. Bystanders are not, by and large, memorable to the average reader, but all too frequently, it’s not clear which of the cast of thousands in a scene is the one (or dozen) that the reader is supposed to remember.

If, indeed, it’s important to the plot to remember any individuals among them at all. Even in a memoir, it often isn’t, from a pure storytelling perspective.

And writers, as any editor can tell you, tend to forget that. Every editor in the biz has at one time or another been confronted by an author angrily waving a manuscript in her face and shouting, “What do you mean, where did this character come from? Alice was a guest at Ben’s wedding in Chapter Two, for heaven’s sake!”

Invariably, the irate author is right: the character will indeed have been mentioned by name in passing, as in,

The bridesmaids, Greta, Elaine, and Alice, were dressed in an eye-searing chartreuse that left Ben wondering just what these old friends had done to his bride back in junior high school.

200 pages later, out of those three never-again-mentioned bridesmaids, the author expects the reader to remember Alice.

At the risk of seeming impertinent, why?

“Wait just a minute,” I hear some of you say. “If Millicent finds she’s forgotten who a character is, she has a perfectly easy way to find out — her boss asked that I send a synopsis along with my submission. All she has to do is flip to the back of the packet. Or are you saying that if I have a lot of characters in my opening scenes, I should place my synopsis FIRST in the packet?”

In a word, no — at least, not unless an agency specifies in its submission guidelines that it prefers that order. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: a submitter should always send a requesting agent PRECISELY what s/he asked to see. No more, no less.

Yes, even if she asked for the first 50 pages and your chapter ends a paragraph into page 51.

To which I will add a corollary: any hyper-specific submission guidelines that deviate sharply from the rules of standard manuscript format that an agency might post on its website or an agent might specify at a conference — like, say, specifying that submissions may only be in Helvetica or that they should be bound, both usually no-nos — should be treated as applicable to THAT AGENCY ALONE, rather than to every association of authors’ representatives currently walking the earth.

At least until you’ve done some research on what other agencies are asking to see. Sometimes, an individual preference is just an individual preference.

Aspiring writers often forget that. (And, as always, if you’re unfamiliar with how professional manuscripts differ from printed books or other commonly-scene formats, please see the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.)

If you put the synopsis at the front of your packet, Millicent is just going to toss it aside and go straight to the first page of your manuscript. If dear Millie reads all the way through your submission and likes what she sees, THEN she will read the synopsis.

Maybe.

You’re hoping that I’m kidding, aren’t you? Bizarre but true, typically, not every employee at an agency will take the time to read the synopsis they asked a writer to send prior to sitting down with those first few pages to see whether s/he can write.

Seriously — ask at the next writers’ conference you attend.

There’s a certain logic to this, at least for fiction. After all, if a book made it to the submission stage; presumably, the novel’s premise was deemed acceptable by the query screener or the agent to whom the writer pitched it; the only reason to read the synopsis at the submission stage, then, would be to find out what happens AFTER the last submission page.

And anyway, if Alice’s appearance in Ch. 2 was brief enough, chances are that she won’t have made an appearance in the synopsis the first time around, anyway.

So unless a character is central enough to what’s going on in a scene to warrant development, you might want to consider whisking her out of Millicent’s sight, at least for the time being.

“For the time being?” I hear some ambitious character-generators out there piping hopefully. “Does that mean I can bring Aunt Cassie back elsewhere?”

Sure — just because you take a few (or a few hundred) characters out of your submission draft of a novel doesn’t mean that you can’t reinsert them later in the publication process. There is no law that says that an author can’t offer a stripped-down, swiftly-moving version of her novel to agents and editors — and then, after the ink is dry on the relevant contracts, say to your editor, “You know, I’ve always thought that there should be more bridesmaids in Chapter 2. Like, say, 47. How would you feel about Alice’s being one of them?”

Remember, no manuscript is set in stone until it’s actually in print between covers. (And sometimes not even then.) Keep your options open, keep copies of EVERY major revision of your manuscript, so you can revisit the Alice issue again down the road.

And, of course, keep up the good work!

P.S.: hey, I realized I hadn’t nagged you all about this in a while, but today would be a dandy time to make back-ups of your writing files, wouldn’t it? Especially if you haven’t made another electronic copy since, well, ever?

I hope you never experience the trauma that is a computer meltdown, but I would urge you to make back-ups frequently, just in case. Computer repair facilities see countless writers rending their garments and exclaiming, “But I NEED you to get into my fried hard drive! What do you expect me to do, retype my novel from scratch – and from memory?”

Trust me, you do not want to be one of these people. Make back-ups.

If you’re a PC user unfamiliar with your backup options, intelligent and insightful long-time reader Chris Park has generously wrote an EXCELLENT post on his blog on data loss, back-up solutions, and other nifty save-my-manuscript-from-oblivion ideas — all written in blessedly clear, direct layman’s terms. I would highly recommend its perusal.

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: you say tomato, I say, “Please don’t throw it.”

angry-mob.jpg

You’ll be delighted to hear, I expect, that today will be the next-to-last installment in my series on ways to ease the difficulties of incorporating written feedback. Later in the week, I shall be tackling the specific problems associated with dealing with a critiquer who has the power to enforce a change request — your agent, for instance, by not sending your manuscript out to editors until he’s certain the latest version will fly, for instance, or the editor who acquires it. This can be tricky, especially if one does not happen to agree with the feedback in question.

Hey, I warned you at the beginning of the series that we would be building up our feedback-incorporation muscles. At the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself, and repeating myself…), it is not merely for the sake of maintaining peace in a writing group or friendships between more casual first readers that it behooves writers to add good listening and critique-accepting skills to their tool belts: these skills come into play at every stage of a writing career.

Seriously, your future agent, editor, publicist, and probably anyone who happens to be frequenting your domicile when your first book’s reviews start rolling in are going to bless the time you put in now developing a measured response to literary criticism. So will you.

Your very pets will be happier for it, because you will be less stressed when you need to incorporate editorial feedback on your tenth book. Not UNstressed, mind you — I’ve been doing this for years, and even my backyard raccoons get a mite testy when I’m on a short revision deadline — but certainly able to manage even the most extensive revision request in your stride.

You can do this, I promise.

For now, though, let’s keep swimming in the relatively less shark-infested waters of dealing with written feedback in general. To review the tips so far:

1. Don’t argue about the feedback with the feedback-giver.

2. Read, reread — and get a second opinion.

3. Don’t decide right away how you’re going to handle the critique — or how you’re going to apply its suggestions to your work.

4. Remember that you and the critiquer are on the same side. Even when it doesn’t feel like it.

5. Don’t use an industry professional as the first — or only — reader of your manuscript.

6. Don’t expect your readers to drop everything to read your work. Especially if they happen to work in or with the publishing industry.

7. Don’t try to do it all at once.

8. Make a battle plan, setting out reasonable deadlines for each step.

9. Allow some room in your battle plan –and time in your schedule — to respond to inspiration, as well as to experiment.

10. Make sure that you’re not over-estimating the critiquer is requesting.

11. When in doubt about what a critiquer expects you to do, ASK.

12. Avoid making the same mistake twice — at least for the same feedback-giver.

Phew — that’s a heavy list, isn’t it? Let no one say that being a tolerant and wise recipient of feedback is the proverbial walk in the park. Moving on…

13. Keep excellent records about the changes you have made to the manuscript — and keep both hard and soft copies of EVERY major version of the book.

Having grown up in a family of writers — ones who were fighting the good fight back in the golden days of typewriters, no less — I was STUNNED to learn that most revisers do not keep copies of each draft. Seriously, the first time I met a writer who didn’t, I thought he was joking.

Why is it such a jaw-dropper, from a professional point of view? Quite simply, either the writer or the editor might conceivably change his or her mind.

Remember last week, when I mentioned that writers tend to be the only ones involved in the publishing process to cherish the illusion that a book is DONE until it’s actually been printed and is for sale at Borders? Well, that mindset of continual modification is not, some of you may be alarmed to hear, necessarily a one-way process.

That’s right: critiquers’ opinions have been known to vacillate from time to time. They also — please don’t throw anything heavy at my head; I’m just the messenger here — been known to forget that the aspect of Draft #2 they liked least was in fact something they asked the writer to do after reading Draft #1.

Or — and I’m already ducking under my desk — be displeased with a writer’s specific solution to a vaguely-phrased concern.

Did you feel that lurch your stomach just took? The goal of Strategy #13 is to avoid that feeling’s ever being associated with your manuscript, by providing concrete records through which you can retrace your revising steps.

While the maid is mopping up all of the soggy tomatoes my readers just lobbed in my general direction, let’s concentrate on the first problem on the list: just because a critiquer suggested last month that you kill off your protagonist’s sidekick does not necessarily mean that she will prefer the revised, sidekick-free storyline.

Because I love you people, I’m not going to go into detail about how much farther a writer’s stomach can displace itself when the stakes are higher — when, say one’s agent or editor changes her mind. I suppose I could describe what the moment of hearing one’s agent say, “Sandy, I’ve been thinking about it, and your first running order was better,” means to a Sandy who has been simply saving each new change in the same Word file, but frankly, gut-wrenching, sustained groaning is hard to convey in words.

And even if Sandy’s agent/editor/first reader DIDN’T later backtrack, how is Sandy supposed to figure out three months after a revision whether Scene Q worked better in draft #1 or #2?

Especially if — as is, I’m still stunned to report, very frequently the case — Sandy hasn’t kept a meticulous list of what has changed between those drafts?

A wise reviser ALWAYS maintains the ability to check both versions side by side — and a clever one records the major changes separately, keeping it handy for future reference.

Why, you ask? Well, several reasons, potentially. Many, many books go through many, many drafts, for starters; do you really want to be rending your garments two years from now because you can’t remember whether Draft #3 or Draft #4 included Cousin Max’s funeral? Or at what point you realized that Dennis and Denise’s names scanned too similarly, and readers might get confused if you didn’t rechristen one of them?

Also — and this may come as something of a surprise, after my recent diatribe about how critiquers tend to notice when writers haven’t taken their advice on previous drafts — especially if the same feedback-giver has followed the book through several versions, he might not always remember what precisely he asked the writer to do.

Is that gagging I hear out there? “But Anne,” some of you sputter, “aren’t we talking about dealing with WRITTEN feedback here? Surely, there’s no question about what has been said after, say, an editor requests a textual change in an editorial memo.”

How shall I put this delicately…

Professional readers go through a LOT of manuscripts in any given month; it wouldn’t be surprising if some of the details began to blur a bit would it?

And honey, if your nerves will stand calling up the editor who’s just acquired your book and saying, “Hey, I’m calling foul — your last two memos contradicted each other,” well, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

I can also tell you right now that ol’ Gunga Din’s agent is going to throw what used to be called a conniption fit immediately after that act of bravery — because from the editorial end of that phone line, that statement might very well have sounded like a declaration of war.

Hey, I’m not the only message-bearer who fears the wrath of the angry tomato-thrower.

Instead, think about how much more smoothly the exchange might have gone has our pal Gunga instead been able to whip out both the list of suggested changes (prepared, perhaps, in response to Strategy #8) and the roster of what he had changed between drafts in preparation for such a discussion.

Armed with such tools, perhaps Gunga could have blunted the potential for confrontation even further by prefacing his remarks with, “I think I’m confused. From what you said in the memo, it sounds as though I may have misunderstood what you were asking for last time. Or are you asking for something completely different now?”

In short: keep good records of changes, and make it as easy as possible for yourself to revert to an older version, if necessary and appropriate.

Whew, I think we could all use a nice, long nap after that little exercise in hypothetical horror, couldn’t we? The rest of the strategy list will be much less stomach-wrenching, I promise.

Keep up the good work!

Protecting your pages, part III: the straight and narrow path

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At last! A topic where I can justify using this fabulous photo! It was taken by the amazingly talented Marjon Floris, who also took the photo on my bio page.

More good news to report about a longtime blog reader: remember erstwhile guest blogger Thomas DeWolf, whose book, Inheriting the Trade, came out last week? Well, he must be a pretty riveting speaker, because an author reading and Q&A he did in Bristol, Rhode Island will be aired on Book TV (a.k.a. C-Span 2) this coming Saturday, January 19, at 1 PM Eastern time, and again on Sunday morning, January 20, at 1 AM Eastern.

Imagine that, eh? Let me tell you, seeing one of our own community, someone who not so long ago was pitching and querying, on Book TV…well, it nearly brings a tear to my eye. So congratulations again, Tom — and keep that good news rolling in, everybody!

For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about reasonable precautions a writer can take to protect her work upon sending it out, rather than simply trusting that no one to whom she has e-mailed it will forward it to someone unscrupulous. Or, for that matter, that no ambitious Millicent will pounce upon it, carry it off, and present it to agent and editor alike as the product of her own fevered brain.

We writers tend not to talk about this much amongst ourselves, but if you think about it for a moment, we spend our lives sending our most intimate productions to total strangers: agents, editors, contest judges, not to mention Millicent the agency screener and post office employees from here to Madison Square Garden. We all know that querying and submitting our work requires great personal courage — take a moment to pat yourself on the back for that, please — but it also requires quite a bit of trust.

As I suggested yesterday, giving trust too easily — say, to a fly-by-night agency that earns its bread and butter by charging reading fees of writers, rather than by selling their books — can sometimes prove costly for those new to the biz. Last time, I sang the praises of doing some basic background checking before sending any stranger — be it soi-disant agent, possibly credible publisher, contest organizer, or even that nice fellow you met last week on a perfectly respectable forum — your manuscript.

Please tell me, after all that, that I don’t need to add: even if the recipient is your twin sibling who rescued you from a burning building at risk to his own life, never send your ONLY copy of anything you have written.

Yes, yes, I know that sounds self-evident, but believe it or not, that used to be the FIRST piece of advice the pros gave to new writers back in the days of typewriters. That, and to keep a pad of paper and a writing implement with you at all hours of the day or night, just in case inspiration strikes.

Why night as well, you ask? Because as experienced writers know, no matter how certain you are that you will remember that great idea that woke you up at 3:42 AM, if you don’t write it down, chances are very high that it will disappear into the ether like the mythical final stanzas of KUBLA KHAN.

You can also protect yourself by avoiding sending ANY of your original material by e-mail, at least to people you don’t know awfully well. Ideally, literally every piece of your writing that you ever send to anyone in the publishing industry with whom you do not already share an established relationship of trust should be sent via tracked regular mail.

If you can afford it, go ahead and spring for the return receipt postal option, so someone will actually have to sign for package. This is an especially good idea if the recipient is someone with whom you’ve never dealt before. That way, should it ever be necessary (pray that it won’t), you will be able to prove that you did indeed send it — and precisely when he received it, the rogue.

Why is being able to prove when he received it as important as if? Because, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, if a question ever arises about who wrote the book, you will be very, very happy that you can produce objective evidence of the first time your would-be plagiarist clapped covetous eyes (and grimy hands) upon your precious pages.

Actually, proving who wrote what when is substantially easier in the age of the computer than it was in either the bygone era of the typewriter or the long-lingering epoch of the bare hand. As clever reader Adam commented the other day, word processing programs do keep track of when particular files are created and modified, so chances are that you already have a historical record of when you began writing your opus, as well as your practice of updating it.

Unless, of course, your computer happened to melt down, get stolen, perish in a monsoon, or fall prey to some other mishap since you started writing. Yet another good reason to make back-ups frequently, eh?

(Oh, come on — did you honestly think I wouldn’t follow up after yesterday’s plea to save your materials early and often?)

Even with computer in perfect health and a closet full of back-up disks, however, you’re still going to want to exercise some care in how you bandy your manuscript around. From a writer’s point of view, it’s a far, far better thing NOT to be placed in the position of having to prove when you wrote a piece.

Sticking to paper submissions — and keeping impeccable records of who has them — minimizes the possibility of your work’s being waylaid.

Do I feel some waves of panic wafting in my general direction? “But Anne,” I hear some of you inveterate e-mailers protest, “what if an agent ASKS me to e-mail all or part of my manuscript? I can hardly say no, can I?”

Well, actually, you can, if you want: in my experience, nothing brings an e-mailed submission-loving agent or editor more quickly to a recognition of the joys of the printed page than a writer’s saying, “Gee, I would love to shoot that right off to you, but I think my computer has a virus. I wouldn’t want to pass it along to you. Just this time, I’m going to have to send you a paper copy, if that’s okay.”

Care to guess just how often a reputable agent or editor will say no after hearing THAT sterling little piece of argumentation? You’re the white knight here; you’re trying to protect the world from computer viruses. You’re not uncooperative — you should be up for membership in the Justice League, along with Wonder Woman and Superman.

Ah, I can hear that some of you still aren’t satisfied by promotion to superhero(ine). “But what if the agent insists?” you demand. “Or just has a really, really strong preference?”

Well, since you asked so nicely, and since truth compels me to admit that my own agent has been known to exhibit this preference from time to time, I’ll tell you. If you absolutely MUST send a submission via e-mail, again, double-check that the agency and/or publishing house toward which you are flinging it trustingly has a track record of being on the up-and-up.

Then, before you send it, e-mail a copy to yourself, just for your records. Or print up a copy, seal it in an envelope, sign across the seal (to make it obvious if it gets opened), and mail it to yourself. Once it arrives back on your doorstep, don’t open it; just hide it away in case you need it on some dark future day.

That way, you can prove, if necessary, that as of a particular date, you were the writer in the position to send the material.

If you choose to e-mail, too, it’s also not a bad idea to send blind copies to a couple of friends whom you trust not to forward it along. Ask them to save it until you send them an all-clear signal or until your name appears prominently on the New York Times Bestseller List, whichever comes first.

As long-term readers of this blog already know, I frown upon sending original material via e-mail, anyway, for a variety of practical reasons that have nothing to do with the possibility of a manuscript’s going astray. For a full banquet of my many tirades on the subject, I refer you to the E-MAILED SUBMISSIONS category at right. For our purposes today, however, I’m just going to treat you to a brief recap of the highlights, by way of review.

First, many, many NYC agencies and publishing houses are working on computers with outdated operating systems and not the most up-to-date versions of Word — and virtually all of them are working on PCs. So the chances that they will be able to open your attachment at all, especially if you are a Mac user, are somewhere in the 50-50 range.

Second, it’s significantly harder to read on a computer screen than on a printed page — and, unfortunately for acceptance rates, it’s also far quicker to delete a file than to stuff a manuscript into the nearest SASE. I leave you to speculate the probable effects of these undeniable facts upon speed with which the average e-mailed submission is rejected.

Third — and if you’ve been following this series, you should be murmuring this in your sleep by now — you can never really be sure where an e-mailed document will end up. It can be forwarded at the recipient’s discretion, and at the discretion of anyone to whom he forwards it, indefinitely.

Technically, this could lead to copyright problems, since part of the argument you would need to make if someone else claims to have written your book is that you made a reasonable effort to maintain control over how and where it could be read. Forwarding it as an attachment to anyone who asks does not, alas, convey the impression that you as the author are particularly insistent upon protecting your rights to the work.

The longer it’s been floating around, the harder it would be to try to rein it in again. Think about it: if your piece has been floating around the computers of Outer Mongolia for the last six months, how are you going to prove that you held control over who did and did not read your work? (Although, again, I’m not a lawyer, so if you find yourself in this position, hie ye hence and find an attorney who specializes in this branch of the law.)

This is an instance were a bit of foresight can really save your bacon — and the primary reason that, very sensibly, the screenwriters’ guild simply advises its members to register every draft of their screenplays with the guild before the ink dries from the printer.

Most other writers, however, do not enjoy the luxury of this kind of institutional protection, so we need to help ourselves. If you are a U.S.-based writer, you might want to consider just going ahead and registering the copyright for your work before you begin sharing it.

Stop groaning. It’s a lot less onerous — and significantly less expensive — than most aspiring writers tend to assume. Go ahead, take a wild guess about how much time it will actually take away from your writing to gain this protection and how spendy it is.

Well, the last time I did it, it took only the time required to print up a copy of my manuscript and fill out a one-page form. And the expense was unbelievable: a $45 registration fee and the expense of having my corner copy shop spiral-bind the thing.

That’s it. Honest. (And yes, nonfiction writers, you CAN register a book proposal. Jointly, even, if you have a collaborator.)

Okay, pop quiz, to make sure that you’ve been paying attention throughout this series: why, given its relative inexpensiveness, might a writer protective of his work not necessarily want to rush right out and register the copyright for it?

If your murmured response contained any reference whasoever to subsequent drafts, give yourself a great big lollipop. Since — chant it with me now — you can’t copyright a premise, storyline, or argument, but only the presentation of it, to be absolutely certain, you would actually need to register afresh after each new revision.

For a nit-picker like me, that could get darned costly.

This, in case you were wondering, is why writers used to resort to a protective practice of former days, what used to be called the poor man’s copyright. It is dirt-cheap and while it is not legally a substitute for actual copyright registration, it does have a pretty good track record for standing up as proof that the original author wrote a particular set of phrases prior to a particular date.

Here’s how to do a poor man’s copyright — and stop me when it starts to sound familiar. Print up a full copy of your manuscript; if it is too long to fit comfortably in a standard Manila folder, break it up into chapters and mail them in chunks. Place it (or the chapter) into a Manila folder. Seal the folder, then sign across the seal, the way professors do with letters of recommendation. This will make it quite apparent if the seal is broken. Then, take clear adhesive tape and place it over your signature and the seal. Address the envelope to yourself, then mail it.

When it arrives, DO NOT OPEN IT; store it in a safe place. Should you ever need to prove that you had written a work before someone else did, the postmark and the unbroken seal (let the judge be the one to open it) will help back up your contention that you had indeed written those pages long before that freeloader began passing them off as his own.

Repeat for every significantly revised draft, because — here we go again — it is the PRESENTATION of the concept that you can claim as your own, not the story itself. There’s no need to go crazy and mail yourself a new version every time you change a comma, but if you are pursuing this method of self-protection, a complete revision definitely deserves a new mailing.

Let me repeat, lest any over-literal person out there derive the incorrect impression that just because both phrases contain the word copyright, they must mean the same thing: poor man’s copyright does NOT provide the same legal protection as registering the copyright for a work. Poor man’s copyright is EVIDENCE that may be used to support a copyright claim, not a protection that will necessarily free you from worry forever and ever, amen.

However, as the right belongs to the author as soon as the work is written, not as soon as the copyright is registered, both practices are strengthening an already-existing claim to own the manuscript in question. And since it’s a whole lot cheaper to mail revised chapters to yourself (at least if you happen to have a spare closet big enough to hold all of those unopened envelopes), many writers have historically preferred it.

What you do NOT need to do – and what many novice writers give themselves away by doing — is place in the header or footer of every page, © 2008 Author’s Name. Yes, copyright can be established by proving intent to publish, but intent to publish is also established by submitting work to an agent or editor. Contrary to what you may have heard, the copyright bug will not protect you, should push come to shove.

It will, however, give rise to substantial mirth amongst its first readers at most agencies and publishing houses. “Look,” they will say, pointing, “here’s another rookie.”

This unseemly mirth tends to cover an undercurrent of hostility: writers who so pointedly indicate distrust of the people to whom they send their work, the logic goes, are in fact conveying a subtle insult. You are not to be trusted, such marks say, loud and clear, affronting those who would never steal so much as a modifier from an author and not scaring those who would steal entire books outright. Best to leave it out.

The beauty of the poor man’s copyright, of course, is that it can be done entirely without the knowledge of your recipients. Ditto with the blind e-mail copies. There’s no need to advertise that you are protecting yourself.

But for heaven’s sake, especially if you are dealing with someone that you do not know well enough to trust, take these few quiet steps to help yourself sleep better at night. Chances are, you will never need their help, but remember that old-fashioned sampler: better safe than sorry.

And call me zany, but I would prefer to see you get credit for your writing than the friend of the friend of the friend to whom you happened to forward it. Keep up the good work!

And while I’m at it…

After yesterday’s outburst of eloquence on the subject of backing up your writing files — a subject that would inspire any writer, I think, who has been watching the news this week — I am couch-bound today, so I shall avoid a long lead-in. Suffice to say that after I posted yesterday, I recalled having written on this subject before — and in a way that dealt with the basics of backing up much more explicitly.

I know how much you like it when I’m explicit about technicalities.

While I am re-running old posts, it seemed to make more sense to post this today, rather than waiting until after I have finished my series about tracking down agents to query — of which, more follows soon. Enjoy!

I spent much of last evening chatting with my computer guru friend (who shall remain nameless, as he works for a large, fruit-associated computer company) while he was running diagnostic programs on my poor, injured baby {i.e., my computer, which had gone into the shop a few days before I first posted this}, and he told me the type of horror story that would make any writer’s blood run cold:  recently, a lovely young woman had brought her computer to him, its hard drive utterly fried.  All she cared about retrieving, she told him, was her novel.

My friend’s heart went out to her:  it was fairly obvious that her computer was burnt as bacon.  “Do you have any back-ups?” he asked.

She didn’t. 

“Everyone thinks,” my friend opined, sighing, “‘It can’t happen to me.’  I see it every day.”

After I had stopped hyperventillating in the face of this lurid tale of woe and trauma, I inquired tenderly after the fate of the writer.  Was she in a mental health facility someplace, receiving the best in bereavement care?  Or at least in a nice, white-sheeted convelescent hospital on 24-hour suicide watch?  Or had she returned to her studio space to try to reconstruct her novel, painfully, from her most recent hard copy?

I don’t want to depress you, but put yourself in that writer’s shoes for a moment:  if your hard drive suddenly gave up the ghost right now, would you have ANY version of your book on hand to aid in reconstruction of the wreckage? How recent a draft would it be?

Don’t be ashamed if the answers were any stripe of no, oh, my God, and/or what do you mean, more than one draft?; there are apparently millions of you out there.

Not to induce raging paranoia in anyone, but computer malfuctions CAN happen to you.  It can happen to anyone.  (Yes, even those of us who work on Macs, who are inclined to get a trifle smug because our computers don’t get viruses.)  Computer files are not among the permanent things of this earth, and yet most of us treat the contents of our computers as if we were dealing with something as solid as the Pyramids. 

It’s just not a good idea.

I asked my computer-fixing friend why so few people make back-ups, and he told me something jaw-dropping:  most computer users, he said, don’t understand how easy it is to make a copy of a file on a computer.  They don’t understand the difference between saving a document (which makes the newest version REPLACE the one before it) and copying it (which makes a DUPLICATE of the already-existing file.  Many people, he informed me, have never been told that making a copy for back-up actually doesn’t change the original file at all.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important:  making a copy of the computer files that contain your book does NOT change the original files, any more than making a photocopy of a page of manuscript changes the original page. 

Duplicating a file means just that:  making a clone, and just as one twin does not start hopping down in anguish when the other twin stubs his toe, NOTHING you subsequently do to the copy will affect the original.

It’s true.  You can copy it onto a disk, take that disk to the zoo, and feed it to a crocodile, and all that would happen is that the poor croc might get indigestion.  Your original file will be at home on your computer, safe and sound.

So if you are nervous about making back-ups directly from your documents, why not make a duplicate of your book’s file (from the desktop, just highlight the file and then select COPY or DUPLICATE, depending upon your operating system), and then move the copy onto a back-up disk? 

That way, the original never goes near anything that might conceivably eat it.

The other way to make a duplicate copy in Word is to go to the FILE menu, select SAVE AS…, and follow the directions to make a new file.  (Hint:  it’s a good idea to give it a different name, so the two don’t get mixed up.)  If you save it to the Desktop, it will be apparent where you can find it later. 

Then quit Word, so you don’t inadvertently start working on the wrong one (a rather common mistake).  Then, you can copy the new file onto a disk or e-mail it to yourself as an attachment without fear of losing your original.

Once your back-up file is on a disk or in storage, all you have to do in case of disaster is go back to it, open it up, and copy it onto your newly-wiped computer.

See?  Easy as the proverbial pie. 

Brace yourself, however:  not having a back-up is not the only way writers have been known to lose days, weeks, or months of work on their computers.  A very common cause of loss is transferring files by overwriting. 

This, for those you who have never done it (and be grateful if you haven’t) is when you have worked on a document on one computer, and then move it to another, either on a disk or by electronic transfer.  Once it is on the second computer, many writers then replace the older version on computer #2 with the transferred one from computer #1.  When this is done correctly, the older version vanishes, never to be seen again, only to be replaced by the newer one.

The problems come, typically, when writers try to REPLACE the older version with the newer one:  sometimes, they get mixed up and delete the wrong one.  The result is that all of the changes the writer made on the older version in order to create the newer one.  (In other words, the file on computer #1 was an updated version of the one on computer #2, but the writer accidentally deleted the transferred one from #2, thus losing all the updates.)

There is a rather simple way to prevent this hair-raising problem:  when you import the updated file, DON’T replace the older one with it; just save the newer version onto your hard disk under a different name, something easy to identify, such as “New Chapter 2.”  Then re-name the older file “Old Chapter 2,” or something similarly descriptive.  Move New Chapter 2 into your book’s folder, and move Old Chapter 2 elsewhere — say, into a folder entitled, “Former versions.”

The last step is the crucial one:  don’t delete ANYTHING until you are POSITIVE that the version in your work-in-progress file is the one you DEFINITELY want to keep. 

Or, heck, don’t delete either version; save each subsequent one to gladden the hearts of your biographers and graduate students who will be writing their master’s theses on your writing.

Because, you see, there really isn’t any reason you need to have only one copy of any given Word file on your computer.   If you name your files descriptively (and as a writer, you have no excuse for doing otherwise), you’re not going to mix them up, and you radically reduce the probability of deleting a week’s worth of revisions by mistake.

Why?  Because computer memories are really, really big now. It’s the programs that take up loads of space, usually, not the documents, so most of us can afford to have a dozen different versions of our chapters lingering on our hard disks. 

Heck, if you really got desperate for document storage space, you could copy versions of your novel to your teenage daughter’s iPod.  (It’s true:  nifty, eh?  If you’re interested in doing this, go ask the fine folks at an Apple store how.)

My point is, a very, very small investment of your time can make a world of difference in the event of a computer meltdown.  Don’t make me visit you in that nice, soothing convalescent hospital where writers who have lost entire manuscripts softly moan into their pillowcases.

You can do this.  Just don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If all that I’ve just said sounded to you like the, “Wah-wah wah-wah” speech of the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons — as I know discussions of computers does to some people — I implore you, find someone computer-savvy to walk you through how to do it ON YOUR OWN COMPUTER.  (Learning on a different system can be very confusing.)  Have someone else show you, and then observe you while you make copies and back-ups by yourself.  Repeat until you feel comfortable.

Trust me, your skateboarding nephew will probably be THRILLED to be giving advice for a change, rather than taking it.  (Especially if you ask for a couple of hours of his time as a holiday present — do you think he LIKES buying you socks?)  And if you feel a little dopey for making him watch you make back-ups 42 times in a row, just to make sure that you’ve got it down cold — well, he probably won’t come away with any dimmer a view of adults than he already has, and you will have given him an ego boost.

If you don’t have anyone answering this description in your immediate circle, consider giving your local junior college a call and asking if you can pay a senior 20 bucks to spend an hour walking you through how to do back-ups.  (Hey, if you file a Schedule C as a writer — and you don’t need to get paid for your writing in any given year in order to do so, usually — it would even potentially be tax-deductable, as a professional service.)

Or call up your local computer store and ask if they would be willing to give you a crash (no pun intended) course in how to make sure you don’t lose your files.  The Apple stores, for instance, have people on staff whose job it is to help people like you (at least the ones who own Macs and/or iPods) use their computers better.  Believe me, they would much rather help you BEFORE there’s a crisis than after.

Even if you feel a trifle silly asking for help at your age (and many people do feel like that, regardless of what their ages actually are), remember:  the momentary twinge will be nothing compared to the AAARGH of losing a chapter of your book permanently.  In the long run, this will decrease the stress in your life, not add to it.

There’s no harm in asking.  Think of it as a way your community can help support your writing career.  And keep up the good work!

Doing my darnedest to prevent your having to learn from experience

Yes, yes, I know: I’m not supposed to be writing new posts for the foreseeable future; my plan for convalescence very clearly includes directives merely to re-post some earlier writings with the addition of a scant few bon mots, and certainly, after my spotty posting schedule earlier in the month, it would behoove me to stay on-topic for the nonce.

But I’ve been thinking about all of those smoldering houses in Southern California, and obsessing about how many computers have been lost in the blazes. Not to minimize any of the terrible damage on every level, but I can’t help but picture the additional pain of the displaced aspiring writers. How many of those bereft writers, I wonder, either had an easily portable back-up ready to snatch up at a moment’s notice or stored a back-up off-site?

Those poor, poor people. As anyone who has ever lost an entire document can tell you, trying to recreate even a few pages from memory can be a nightmare. Imagine losing an entire novel.

I don’t want to depress you, but put yourself in one of those writers’ shoes for a moment: if something happened to your primary computer AND your filing system right now, would you have a copy of your book? One that incorporated your most recent changes?

If not, how long would it take you to reproduce it from scratch?

Or, to take a less drastic example, if your hard drive suddenly gave up the ghost right now, how recent a version of your book-in-progress would you have with which to replace your current version? A week old? A month old? That hard copy of the first three chapters that agent sent back in your SASE?

Hands up, everyone who felt the chill realization that you would not have ANY version of your novel or NF book. Please, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that computer failure, theft, or — heaven forefend — a larger disaster could not happen to you.

I was fortunate enough to learn the value of compulsive back-up generation young. When I was in college, my thesis advisor had been working on his dissertation for years. Every time we met, he used to present me with a disk containing his latest draft, requesting that I keep it in my dorm room. If he kept his only copy of his back-up in his house, he explained, and something awful happened to his home, he did not want to be left without a copy of the latest version.

Truth compels me to admit that my initial response to the notion was disrespectfully flippant. But in light of this week’s events, was he really being over-cautious? Or merely far-sighted?

To be on the ultra-safe side, he asked me to keep each week’s version in my dorm refrigerator, just in case my dorm AND his entire suburb were somehow simultaneously engulfed in flames that miraculously spared both of our lives. “The insides of refrigerators seldom burn,” he explained, “unless someone opens them during the conflagration.”

Looking over the footage of San Diego today, I wondered if he was right about that. There certainly doesn’t seem to be much left of some of those buildings.

Even though I did, in fact, keep his work in my tiny fridge, I used to smile secretly at the intensity of his fear that his work would disappear. Until I was in graduate school myself, and I was approached by a knife-wielding mugger on my way home from the library. “Give me your backpack,” he advised, none too gently.

“No,” I said, astonishing myself. I then explained at great length that I had a draft of my master’s thesis in my bag, and that it was positively covered with hand-written notes and footnotes-to-be that I had not yet entered into my soft copy. It would take me weeks to recreate all of that material. Would he accept the contents of my wallet instead? What if I made the cash my gift to him, a little token of my thanks for leaving my thesis intact, and didn’t file a police report?

The mugger, who apparently had never attempted a major writing project, was quite astonished by my vehemence; I gather he thought I simply did not understand the situation. He reminded me several times throughout that he could, in fact, kill me with the knife clutched in his hand, and that only a crazy person would risk her life for a bunch of paper.

But tell me: if you were holding the only extant copy of your book, would you have been similarly crazed?

The story ended happily, I’m glad to report: I ended up with both a whole skin and my draft. And to tell you the truth, I no longer remember if he got my money or not. (I do, however, remember him begging me to stop telling him about the argument in my thesis — I had become embroiled in an especially juicy part of Chapter Two — and admitting that he would, in fact, just be dumping the manuscript into the nearest trash can rather than turning it in for credit.)

The dual moral of these stories: it’s ALWAYS a good idea to have more than one copy of your manuscript, just in case the unthinkable happens. And the best place to keep a back-up is NOT immediately adjacent to your computer, or in your laptop case along with the laptop.

My thesis advisor’s strategy is sounding less and less zany to you, isn’t it?

I back up onto CDs these days, having become disillusioned with the stability of Zip disks, and carry the current version with me — unless I’m taking my laptop with me, in which case I leave the back-up at home. Yes, it’s a bit time-consuming, but at least I don’t have to worry about running into a literary-minded mugger, right?

Your method does not need to be complicated — in fact, it’s better if it isn’t, since simple procedures are easier to work into your daily life. Playing it safe can be as simple as burning a CD once a week and popping it into your purse (crude, but effective), copying your files onto your iPod (hey, that thing is essentially a hard drive, right?), or just e-mailing your chapter files to yourself on a regular basis (effectively turning your ISP into a remote storage facility).

Many writers prefer an off-site back-up method, such as saving to storage space online. Check with your Internet provider.

Don’t panic if you’re not very computer-savvy: this really does not need to be difficult. For an easy-to-follow, well-explained run-down of back-up and security options for the PC, I would highly recommend checking out longtime reader and computer whiz Chris Park’s blog post on the subject.

However you decide to make your back-ups, I would recommend getting into a regular schedule as soon as possible. The best way to protect your writing is to save it often, after all, and any security system works best if it is applied consistently.

How often is often enough to save your work? Well, think back to the scenarios above: how much are you willing to try to recreate from memory?

It’s a good idea, too, to save more often while you are in the throes of revising a manuscript — and to save both before and after copies of each major revision. Yes, it takes up space, but as most of us who have lived through serious revisions can tell you, it’s not all that uncommon to decide a week, month, or year down the line that a cut scene is indispensably necessary to the work. (Or for the editor, agent, or writing group that advised a particular cut in the first place to change his, her, or its mind.)

And please, don’t put off getting into the habit of making frequent back-ups. Large-scale disasters are not very frequent, thank goodness, but computer meltdowns are. A few minutes of preparation every week or so can save you a tremendous amount of pain down the line.

Here’s devoutly hoping that my fevered imagination is radically overestimating the number of manuscripts currently being lost in Southern California. Be safe, everyone, and keep up the good work.

As I lay dying…or at least as my hard drive did…

A requiem, please, for my computer’s (well backed-up, thank goodness) hard drive:  after days of clinging valiantly to life (and occasionally allowing me access to e-mail), it succumbed this morning to the fate that awaits us all.  A well-deserved rest, certainly: many, many manuscripts — my own, members of my writing groups’, and editing clients’ — have passed over its faithful screen.  It had a lot of miles on it, both literally and figuratively.

Farewell, old friend.  You had a better memory than I did, Gunga Din.

Which means, among other things, that I won’t be able to get back into the files containing the blogs I had stored up for you for another week or two, when the necessary parts arrive (perhaps from the North Pole Apple store, where Santa presumably shops for iPods) to install.  Thus, I need to put those potential posts out of my mind for the time being, because trying to recreate them from scratch will only end in tears, and just move on to other topics.

Actually, it’s been fascinating to watch myself NOT being on a computer full-time for the last few days — over the past couple of years, it’s truly an anomoly.  Not only do I have work in my head that I want to see on a screen, but my body keeps gravitating toward my studio, and not, I think, merely because it’s the room with the full-spectrum lights. Every part of me wants to be writing again.

(I had told you about that trick, hadn’t I?  If you’re having trouble getting yourself to write in the winter months — a VERY common phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest – stock your writing space with full-spectrum lights, and your body will be happier there on a gray day than anywhere else in the house.  Don’t be surprised to find your pets drawn to the room, too.)

Writing honestly does become a body habit, if you do it consistently, just like drinking 8 glasses of water per day or exercising regularly. Once your brain accepts that you will be sitting down to do creative work at predictable intervals, it can get pretty nonplused if it misses a session or two.  Think about it:  who is more depressed than a writer who has no time to finish a novel that’s already complete in her head?

Of course, I’ve known writers who can binge-write successfully — that is, walk away from their projects for large periods of time, then lock themselves up in a cave for a month and crank out chapter after chapter before the next long hiatus — but in my experience, predictable, regular bouts of writing tend to lead to less writer’s block, as well as more consistently-met deadlines. 

Why?  Well, if you save up all of your writing energies, as many aspiring writers do, for when you have big chunks of time to devote to it, you raise your expectations pretty high, and that can lead to performance-anxiety-induced writer’s block.  “Oh, no!” your beleagured psyche thinks, “this is my only writing day in three months!  I just have to make up for all that lost time!” 

Pretty good prescription for panic, isn’t it?

If, on the other hand, you have proven to your psyche over time that (a) you do not need to write an entire chapter in a single writing session, and (b) that you will sit down to write again tomorrow, or the next day, or at the same time next week, your brain is a lot less likely to go into stress overload.  If tomorrow honestly is another writing day, when you’re blocked, you can afford to spend today’s writing time brainstorming.

But writer’s block is not what I wanted to discuss today.  My psyche — nay, every fiber of my being — longed to sit down today and talk to you about the common writing mistake that gives the impression of too many things happening simultaneously.

I refer, of course, to the extremely popular construction, “As Protagonist was doing X, action Y occurred.”

Naturally, there are many situations where this construction is perfectly valid:  during the Civil War, President Lincoln was assassinated, for instance.  As one is opening a car door, one could conceivably also be humming a jaunty tune.  And so forth.  Singly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of sentence.

The problem, to the eyes of those of us who read many, many manuscripts in any given week, is not so much the fact that so many writers are extremely fond of this construction as the FREQUENCY with which any given author tends to use it in any given manuscript.  Or in any given chapter.  Or, in many cases, in any given paragraph.

Seriously, I’ve seen paragraphs that have consisted of NOTHING but “As X was happening, Y occurred” sentences.  Why is this problematic?  As with any over-repeated sentence structure, it can become pretty tiring for the reader.  Take a gander at this sterling example of the breed:

Jenny was plowing the back forty when Gertrude came running out of the house, screaming.  As Jenny descended from the still-purring tractor, she wondered what her sister wanted.  Before she had reached the end of the furrow, Gertrude was already shouting orders.  Jenny threw her arms around her to stop the flow of words, saying, “Gertie, what’s happened?”

Now, a non-professional reader might not find this construction repetitious:  after all, it’s not as though every sentence begins with the same phrase.  However, agents, editors, and contest judges, who see masses and masses of prose, tend to regard the over-use of this type of construction as a sort of back-handed writing trick to increase the tension of a scene.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now:  how much do agents and editors like to be tricked?  Not much at all.

So, those of you who survived the entire Idol rejection reason series (see post of October 31):  how wise do you think it would be to use more than one of these constructions on the first page of your submission?

It is very, very common for books to begin with such a sentence.  Haven’t we all seen some flavor of, “As the fire roared behind her, reducing her childhood home to charred bits of rubble, Tatiana stood dry-eyed” open books, both published and unpublished?  Presented singularly, followed by a differently-structured sentence, there is nothing wrong with this sort of opening, of course.

But remember that agency screener I asked you to conjure for the Idol series, the one scanning 300 submissions per week on an intern’s salary?  Okay, now picture her reaction to reading her 23rd first page of the day that begins, “As X was happening, Protagonist did Y.” 

Not pretty to imagine her impatience, is it? Now channel her again, and sit in her uncomfortable desk chair, the one located under the bad fluorescent lighting, and experience her reaction to the 8th submission that day that opens with three or four similar sentences in a row. 

To place her probable reaction within this construction:  as Tanya’s bloodshot eyes fell upon the dreaded sentence yet again, her too-hot latte seemed to curdle in her stomach.  Before she had reached the end of the first paragraph, she was already reaching for the SASE to return it to its author.  “Why me?” she demanded of an apparently deaf universe, as she sealed the envelope and the author’s doom in one swift swipe of her tongue.

Okay, okay, I concede that it would be a pretty good trick to say anything out loud whilst licking an envelope.  But I do not admit for a second that this particular rejection wasn’t avoidable.  While you are revising, keep an eye on how frequently you have used this type of sentence:  in the long run, you will be happy you did.

Yet another rejection reason it would be nice if agents and editors happened to mention a little more often.  As my computer lay dying, I thought it might be a good time to bring it up.

Keep up the good work!