Queryfest, part III: eschewing the classic annoyance triggers, or, leaving that leaf unturned may cost you

Still hanging in there, campers? By this point in my annual examination of all things query-related, I’m accustomed to hearing howls of anguish out there in the ether. I’ve caught the occasional whimper, but still, I’m worried that I may already have stunned you into mute horror with my accounts of just how competitive the agent-finding market is these days.

Because that particular Medusa has turned many a talented would-be author’s dreams to stone, I’m going to start slowly today. Let’s ease into a hardcore discussion of query letters in a casual manner, with a nice, calming, verdure-based anecdote about interpersonal vitriol.

Until a couple of years ago, I lived next door to people who simply couldn’t abide trees, or indeed, greenery in any form. I’m not talking about a minor antipathy to the odd magnolia or a reasonable fear that a nearby swaying cedars might drop a branch on the house during a nasty windstorm, either — the mere sight of any leaf-bearing living thing irritated the adults in this family into a frenzy of resentment.

Their especial aversion: if the leaf in question happened to detach itself from its parent plant and respond to gravity. The very thought of a pile of autumn leaves rendered them apoplectic; to suggest, however gently, that the season might have been nicknamed fall for a reason was to invite an 18-minute tirade on the troublesomeness of plant matter. Not so much as a stray blade of grass ever seemed to evade their notice; their yard could not have had more impervious surfaces had it been an industrial kitchen.

At least twice a year, the Smiths (not their real name, but a clever pseudonym designed to hide their true identities) would demand that we chop down our magnificent 60-foot willow tree, on the grounds that occasionally, one of its leaves would be wafted onto their porch. They also had it in for another neighbor’s apple tree, our pear, and a few innocent pines across the street. After the city declined to remove an 80-foot fir, the Smiths very pointedly ripped out their (uncovered, with five children in residence) swimming pool because, they told us huffily, OTHER PEOPLE’S leaves kept blowing into it.

Just between us, we like trees on our side of the fence. So did the people who owned the house before us, as well as all of our neighbors except the dreaded Smiths. We live in Seattle, for heaven’s sake, where a proposal to rip out a single 100-year-old cedar on private property typically attracts fifty citizens to a public meeting to protest. I’ve seen picket lines surrounding city-condemned trees. In fact, prior to a recent city council election, I received more than one circular explaining where all the candidates stood on trees (sometimes literally, judging by the photographs) and their possible removal.

If I were a tree forced to live in an urban environment, in short, I’d definitely move here.

So in the Smith’s view, we were far from their only inconsiderate neighbors — we are merely the geographically closest in a municipality gone greenery-mad. We were, however, the only locals who kept bringing them holiday cookies, freshly-grown pears, and offers of babysitting in the hope of smoothing things over. We were also, perhaps unwisely, the only ones to tell them to go ahead and cut off branches at the property line, as is their right.

This neighborly behavior did not win us any Brownie points with the Smiths, alas, and with good reason: long after the cookies disappeared down their gullets, our willow tree still greeted them every morning when they applied their magnifying glasses to their driveway. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in close proximity to one of these gracefully-swaying giants, but they have two habits that drive people like the Smiths nuts: they love dropping leaves that are, alas, susceptible to both gravity and wind, and they just adore snaking their branches into places where there aren’t other trees.

Like, say, the parking lot that was the Smiths’ yard.

Thus, I cannot truthfully say I was surprised to walk into our yard to discover Mr. Smith ten feet up in the willow, hacksaw in hand and murder in his eye. (I talked him down before any branches fell.) Nor was I stunned when the Smiths tore down the fence between our yards, propping the old fence on our lilac and laurel for a few weeks, apparently in the hope that the trees wouldn’t like it much. (They didn’t, but they survived.) Or when the two trees closest to the new fence shriveled up and died (dropping masses of leaves in the process, mostly on the Smith’s concrete) because someone had apparently dumped a couple of gallons of weed killer on them.

The arborist said he sees that a lot.

In the interest of maintaining good relationships on the block, we let all it all go, apart from telling Mr. Smith that our insurance wouldn’t cover neighbors plummeting from our tree. We laughed as though his repeated requests that we remove the willow taller than our house were a tremendously funny joke that just keeps getting more humorous with each telling. We stopped planting anything close to the fence and heroically resisted the urge to shake our trees just before one of the Smiths’ immensely noisy yard parties.

From the Smiths’ point of view, of course, this response was unsatisfactory in the extreme: from their perspective, we held all the power, as we were the stewards of the tallest trees in the neighborhood. (Which shade a stream that runs off to a salmon breeding ground; we are the ones who explain to new neighbors not to use anything toxic on their yards, lest it run into the stream.) We were the harborers of raccoons, the protectors of possums, the defenders of that unsightly hawks’ next.

To them, we had a monopoly on the ability to change the situation. That, to put it mildly, irked them so much that each spring, I trembled for the baby hawks. Seen from our side of the fence, though, the Smiths possessed a far from insignificant power: all of the neighborhood-annoying ability that molesting wildlife, intimidating our cat, poisoning our trees, and encouraging each of their five children to take up a musical instrument could convey.

On sunny days, the tots practiced scales in their spotless yard. We were on board with it until the youngest brought home a tuba.

Yet we, the Smiths, the wildlife, and the rest of the neighborhood lived in a state of uneasy détente, at least until the day last year that we decided to remove a couple of poisoned trees from our yard, efforts speeded by audible cheering from the Smiths’ house. I could have sworn that we had cleared the ground. Yet a couple of days later, branches littered our side of the fence again. We carted those away, only to discover the following week piles of leaves that had apparently fallen from trees that were no longer there.

The Smiths had evidently decided to start dumping fallen leaves over the fence. That showed us, didn’t it?

Why am I sharing this lengthy tale of woe and uproar, other than to demonstrate my confidence that no one on the Smiths’ side of the fence reads blogs? Because our situation with the neighbors so closely paralleled the relationship between agents and many of the aspiring writers who query them.

Think about it: by everyone’s admission, the agents own the trees — but that doesn’t mean that aspiring writers don’t resent clearing up the leaves. Or that they don’t in their own small ways have the ability to annoy agents quite a bit.

I sense some of you settling in to enjoy my account of this. “Pop some popcorn, Martha,” long-time query-resenters cry. “We’re going to have us some entertainment!”

Don’t get your hopes up — most of these annoyance tactics are only visible from the agents’ side of the fence. Completely generic Dear Agent letters, for instance, or queries clearly mass-emailed to every agent in the country. Sneaking a few extra lines above the prescribed page into an e-mailed query letter because, after all, what agency screener is going to have time to check that whether it ran longer? Shrinking the margins and/or the typeface on a paper query so that while it is technically a single page, it contains a page and a half’s worth of words. Deciding that the agency website didn’t really mean it about sending only the first five pages with the query, since something really great happens on page 6. Continuing to e-mail repeatedly after a rejection, trying to plead the book’s case. Telephoning at all, ever.

Oh, and those nit-picky little manuscript problems we have been discussing all year. Including any or all of those can be a trifle irritating, too.

Consider that, I implore you, the next time you are tempted to bend an agency or contest’s submission rules. While dumping the leaves over the fence might well have made the Smiths feel better, it certainly didn’t render them any more likely to convince us to rip out all of our trees; if anything, it made us more protective of them.

Aspiring writers’ attempts to force agents to change the way they do business by ignoring stated guidelines and industry-wide expectations doesn’t achieve the desired effect, either. It merely prompts agencies to adopt more and more draconian means of weeding out submissions.

Nobody wins, in short.

While you’re thoughtfully crunching popcorn and turning that little parable over in your mind, I’m going to switch gears and talk about that great annoyer of the fine folks on the writer’s side of the querying-and-submission fence, querying fatigue. Those of you who have been seeking agents for a while are familiar with the phenomenon, right? It’s that dragging, soul-sucking feeling that every querier — and submitter, and contest entrant — feels if and when that SASE comes back stuffed with a rejection.

“Oh, God,” every writer thinks in that moment, “I have to do this again?”

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. If an aspiring writer wants to land an agent, get a book published by press large or small instead of self-publishing, or win a literary contest, s/he does indeed need to pick that ego off the ground and keep moving forward.

Stop glaring at me — that’s just a fact.

Querying is a tough row to hoe, both technically and psychologically. But here’s a comforting thought to bear in mind: someone who reads only your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing. Logically speaking, to pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your manuscript.

Too often, aspiring writers beat themselves up unduly over query rejections, and it just doesn’t make sense. Unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly common ones that asks querants to include a brief writing sample, what is rejected in a query letter is either the letter itself (for unprofessionalism, lack of clarity, or simply not being a kind of book that particular agent represents), the premise of the book, or the book category.

Those are the only possibilities, if all you sent was a query. So, if you think about it, there is no way that even a stack of rejection letters reaching to the moon could be a rejection of your talents as a writer, provided those rejections came entirely from cold querying.

Makes you feel just the tiniest bit better to think of rejections that way, doesn’t it?

“But Anne,” some of you protest through a mouthful of popcorn, “I make a special point of querying only agencies whose websites ask me to imbed a few pages in my e-query or on its submission form. So when those folks reject me — or just don’t respond — I should take that as a rejection of my writing talent and/or book, right, and not just of my query?”

Not necessarily. You have no way of knowing whether the rejection happened before Millicent finished reading the query (the most frequent choice), after she finished reading it, on page 1 of the writing sample, or at the end of it. All you know for sure is that something in your query packet triggered rejection.

The query is the most sensible first choice for reexamination, since it’s the part of the query packet that any Millicent would read first — or at all. After all, if the query didn’t grab her attention (or if it dumped any of those pesky leaves over her fence), it’s unlikely to the point of laughability that she read the attached pages.

In response to all of those jaws I just heard hitting the floor, allow me to repeat that: typically, professional readers stop reading the instant they hit a red flag, regardless of how many pages of material they may have requested to see. True of Millicents, true of contest judges, even frequently true of editors. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

The vast majority of queriers and pitchers do not understand this. They think, and not without some justification, that if an agent’s website asks for ten pages of text, that someone at the agency is going to be standing over Millicent with a whip and a chair, forcing her to read that last syllable on p. 10 before making up her mind whether to reject the query.

Just doesn’t happen. Nor would it be fair to our Millie if it did. In practice, she simply does not have the time to scan every syllable of every query packet.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes. Even at a mere 30 seconds per query — far less than writers would like, but still, about average — screening 800-1500 queries per week would equal one full work day each week doing absolutely nothing else…like, say, reading all of those submissions from aspiring writers whose pages she actually requested.

Besides, from her point of view, why should she take the time to read the entirety of a query letter whose first paragraph or two is covered with those annoying leaves? Why wouldn’t she assume that if the query is filled with typos, the five pages the agency’s submission guidelines said you could send would be similarly unpolished, too?

“Someone ought to take a rake to this letter,” she grumbles, slurping down her latte. “Next!”

A pop quiz, to see if you’ve been paying attention: is the best strategic response to this kind of rejection to

(a) decide that the rejection constitutes the entire publishing world’s condemnation of the entire book and/or your talent as a writer, and never query again?

(b) conclude that the manuscript itself was at fault, and frantically revise it for a year before querying again?

(c) e-mail the agency repeatedly, pointing out all of your manuscript’s finer points in an effort to get them to change their minds about rejecting your query?

(d) decide that Millicent was a fool and send out exactly the same query packet to the next agency?

(e) scrutinize both the query and the pages for possible red flags, then send out fresh queries as soon as possible thereafter?

If you said (a), you’re like half the unpublished writers in North America: not bad company, but also engaging in behavior that renders getting picked up by an agent (or winning a contest, for that matter) utterly impossible. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: even a thoughtful rejection is only one reader’s opinion; no single rejection of a query or submission could possibly equal the condemnation of the entire publishing industry.

If you said (b), you’re like many, many conscientious aspiring writers: willing, even eager to believe that your writing must be faulty; if not, any agency in the world would have snapped it up, right? (See the previous paragraph on the probability of a single Millicent’s reaction being an infallible indicator of that.)

If you said (c), I hope you find throwing those leaves over the fence satisfying. Just be aware that it’s not going to convince Millicent or her boss to chop down the willow.

If you said (d), well, at least you have no illusions that need to be shattered. You are tenacious and believe in your work. Best of luck to you — but after the tenth or fifteenth rejection, you might want to consider the possibility that there are a few leaves marring the beauty of your query letter or opening pages.

If you said (e), congratulations: you have found a healthy balance between pride and practicality. Keep pushing forward.

While we’re considering the possibility of organic debris obscuring the efficacy of your query, let me bring up the most common fallen leaf of all: boasting about the writing quality, originality of the book concept, or future literary importance of the writer in the query. If your query contains even a hint of this, take it out immediately.

Yes, I know — I’ve talked about this one already in this series, but it’s such a common Millicents’ pet peeve that it can’t be repeated enough. Agents and editors tend to be wary of aspiring writers who praise their own work, and rightly so. To use a rather crude analogy, boasts in queries come across like a drunk’s insistence that he can beat up everybody else in the bar, or (to get even cruder) like a personal ad whose author claims that he’s a wizard in bed.

He’s MAKING the bed, naturally, children. Go practice your tuba in the yard.

My point, should you care to know it: if the guy were really all that great at either, wouldn’t other people be singing his praises? Isn’t the proof of the pudding, as they say, in the eating?

Even if you are feeling fairly confident that your query does not stray into the realm of self-review, you might want to ask someone whose reading eye you trust to take a gander at your query, to double-check that you’ve removed every last scintilla of subjective evaluation of your own work. Why? Well, aspiring writers are not always aware that they’ve crossed the line from confident presentation to boasting.

To be fair, the line can be a mite blurry. As thoughtful reader Jake asked some time back, in the midst of one of my rhapsodies on pitching:

I’ve been applying this series to query writing, and I think I’ve written a pretty good elevator speech to use as a second paragraph, but there’s something that bothers me.

We’ve been told countless times not to write teasers or book-jacket blurbs when trying to pick up an agent. (”Those damned writer tricks,” I think was the term that was used.)

I’m wondering exactly where the line between blurbs and elevator speeches are, and how can I know when I’ve crossed it. Any tips there?

Jake, this is a great question, one that I wish more queriers would ask themselves. The short answer:

A good elevator speech/descriptive paragraph in a query letter describes the content of a book in a clear, concise manner, relying upon intriguing specifics to entice a professional reader into wanting to see actual pages of the book in question.

whereas

A back jacket blurb is a micro-review of a book, commenting upon its strengths, usually in general terms. Usually, these are written by someone other than the author, as with the blurbs that appear on book jackets.

The former is a (brief, admittedly) sample of the author’s storytelling skill; the latter is promotional copy. The first’s appearance in a query letter is professional, while the second is a shovelful of fallen leaves.

Many, if not most, queriers make the mistake of regarding query letters — and surprisingly often synopses, especially those submitted for contest entry, as well — as occasions for the good old American hard sell, boasting when they should instead be demonstrating. Or, to put it in more writerly language, telling how great the book in question is rather than showing it.

From Millicent’s perspective — as well as her Aunt Mehitabel’s when she is judging a contest entry — the difference is glaring. So how, as Jake so asks insightfully, is a querier to know when he’s crossed the line between them?

As agents like to say, it all depends on the writing, and as my long-term readers are already aware, I’m no fan of hard-and-fast rules. However, here are a couple of simple follow-up questions to consider while examining a query that’s already been rejected a few times:

(1) Does my descriptive paragraph actually describe what the book is about, or does it pass a value judgment on it?
Remember, if Millicent can’t tell her boss what your book is about, she’s going to have a hard time recommending that the agency pick you up as a client. So go ahead and tell her the story; resist the temptation to shoehorn your dream back-jacket blurb into your query.

The typical back-jacket blurb isn’t intended to describe the book’s content — it’s to praise it, in the hope of attracting readers. And as counter-intuitive as most queriers seem to find it, the goal of a query letter is not to praise the book, but to pique interest in it.

See the difference? Millicent does. So do her Aunt Mehitabel and her cousin Maury, who screens manuscripts for an editor at a major publishing house.

(2) Does my query present the book as a reviewer might, in terms of the reader’s potential enjoyment, assessment of writing quality, speculation about sales potential, and assertions that it might make a good movie? Or does my query talk about the book in the terms an agent might actually use to try to sell it to an editor at a publishing house?
An effective query describes a book in the vocabulary of the publishing industry, not in terms of general praise. (If you’re not certain how to do that, don’t worry — we’ll be getting to the nuts and bolts in a few days.)

(3) Are the sentences that strike me as possibly blurb-like actually vital to the query letter, or are they extraneous?
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the average query letter is crammed to the gills with unnecessary verbiage. Just as your garden-variety unprepared pitcher tends to ramble on about how difficult it has been to find an agent for her book, what subplots it contains, and what inspired her to write the darned thing in the first place, queriers often veer off-track to discuss everything from their hopes and dreams about how well the book could sell (hence our old friend, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) to mentioning what their kith, kin, and writing teachers thought of it (“Uncle Thaddeus says it’s a natural for Oprah!”) to thoughtfully listing all of the reasons that the agent being queried SHOULDN’T pick it up (“You probably won’t be interested, because this isn’t the kind of book that ends up on Oprah.”)

To Millicent and her fellow screeners, none of these observations are relevant. You don’t have very much space in a query letter; use it to provide only the information that will help an agent see just how marketable your book actually is.

(4) Does my query make all of the points I need it to make?
Oh, you may laugh, but humor me for a moment while we go over the basics. A successful query letter has at minimum ALL of the following traits:

* it is clear,

* it is less than 1 page (single-spaced, with 1-inch margins),

* it describes the book’s premise (not the entire story; that’s the job of the synopsis) in an engaging manner,

* it is politely worded,

* it states unequivocally what kind of book is being pitched, using a book category that already exists in the publishing industry, rather than one the writer has simply made up,

* it makes it clear whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction,

* if it is nonfiction, it includes some description of the writer’s platform (credentials for writing the book, including expertise and/or celebrity status),

* it includes a SASE (if it is being sent via regular mail) or full contact information for the querier, and

* it is addressed to a specific agent with a successful track record in representing the type of book it describes.

You would not believe how few query letters that agencies receive actually exhibit all of these traits. Even the fiction/nonfiction bit is often omitted. And to be brutally blunt about it, agents rather like that, because gaffes like these make it oh-so-easy to reject 85% of what they receive within seconds.

No fuss, no muss, no reading beyond, say, line 5. Again, sound familiar?

A particularly common feature to omit: the book category. Many writers just don’t know that the industry runs on book categories, not vague descriptions like well, it’s sort of based on something that really happened to me or it’s a combination Western/romance novel/science fiction epic, with elements of humor thrown in. What’s an agent to do with a description like that? Where would such a book reside in a bookstore? How would a reader looking for such a book describe it to a bookstore employee, or find it on Amazon?

More to the point at querying time, how would the agent know which imprints would consider publishing such a book? It would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label, for the exceedingly simple reason that book categories are how the industry keeps track of which readers are buying which books. If a query says a book is a Highland romance, the agent knows right away who the target reader is, what that reader expects to see on the page (roughly, anyway), and how well books in that category tend to sell. If, on the other hand, the query describes that same book as a well-written examination of two passionate lovers — one in a kilt, one in a dress — as they face terrifying conflicts and moving emotional wrenches, the agent would actually have to read the book before even beginning to think about which editors might be interested in it.

I see that glint in your eye, but no, that’s not a good thing, from the querier’s perspective. Millicents seldom request manuscript pages because they’re curious about what kind of a book is being queried. Most often, if they can’t categorize the book at a glance, they will just reject the query.

Most of the time, omitting the book category is simply the result of ignorance: the overwhelming majority of queriers simply don’t know that it’s necessary to include. They know what kinds of books they’ve written, after all; it doesn’t occur to them that the category wouldn’t be self-evident. Other queriers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, fail to mention their book’s category for strategic reasons, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of writer reasons, “so I just won’t tell them what kind of book I’ve written until after they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napolèon: publishing simply doesn’t work that way. If Millicent cannot tell from your query where your book will eventually rest on a shelf, she’s not going to read it at all.

Yes, for most books, particularly novels, there can be legitimate debate about which shelf would most happily house it, and agents recategorize their clients’ work all the time. (It’s happened to me, and recently.) As long as people in the industry speak and even think of books by category, though, you’re not going to win any Brownie points with them by making them guess what kind of book you’re trying to get them to read.

(5) Does my query make my book sound appealing — not just to any agent, but to the kind of agent who would be the best fit for my writing?
You wouldn’t believe how many blank stares I get when I ask this one in my classes, but as I’ve pointed out before, you don’t want just any agent to represent your work; you want one with the right connections to sell it to an editor, right?

That’s not a match-up that’s likely to occur through blind dating, if you catch my drift. You need to look for someone who shares your interests.

I find that it often helps aspiring writers to think of their query letters as personal ads for their books. (Don’t pretend you’re unfamiliar with the style: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing your book to someone with whom you are hoping it will have a long-term relationship — which, ideally, it will be; I have siblings with whom I have less frequent contact than with my agent — and as such, you are trying to make a good impression.

So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself? Or, to put it another way, are you using the blurb or demonstration style?

Do you, as so many personal ads and queries do, describe yourself in only the vaguest terms, hoping that Mr. or Ms. Right will read your mind correctly and pick yours out of the crowd of ads? Or do you figure out precisely what it is you want from a potential partner, as well as what you have to give in return, and spell it out?

To the eye of an agent or screener who sees hundreds of these appeals per week, writers who do not specify book categories are like personal ad placers who forget to list minor points like their genders or the state in which they reside. It really is that basic, in their world. And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in it’s a cross between a political thriller and a gentle romance, with helpful gardening tips thrown in, are to professional eyes the equivalent of personal ad placers so insecure about their own appeal that they say they are into long walks on the beach, javelin throwing, or whatever.

Trust me, to the pros, this kind of complexity doesn’t make you look interesting, or your book like a genre-crosser. To them, it looks at best like an attempt to curry favor by indicating that the writer in question is willing to manhandle his book in order to make it anything the agent wants.

At worst, it comes across as the writer’s being so solipsistic that he assumes that it’s the query-reader’s job to guess what whatever means in this context. And we all know by now how agents feel about writers who waste their time, don’t we?

Don’t give Millicent’s psychic skills a workout; be specific, and describe your work in the language she and her boss understand. Otherwise, they’re just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind — at least, anyone who has a substantial and successful track record in selling your category of book — should ask to read all or part of it with all possible dispatch.

I know you’re up to this challenge; I can feel it. Don’t worry, though — you don’t need to pull it off within the next thirty seconds, regardless of what that rush of adrenaline just told you.

But don’t, whatever you do, vent your completely understandable frustration in self-defeating leaf-dumping. It’s a waste of energy, and it will not result in the outcome you want. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part V: describing your book’s appeal in terms beyond, “Um, well, it’s sort of about this guy…” or, why there’s still no fool like a fool playing hooky

fat-albert-and-the-junkyard-gang

Hello, campers —

Anne’s still a trifle under the weather — or, more precisely, under doctor’s orders to take it easy for the next few days. She’s eager to keep pressing forward with Pitchingpalooza, though, so here is another oldie but goodie about a building block of a strong pitch. Enjoy!

Before we move on to the next building block of a successful pitch, I suppose I should say a few words to those of you who spent the weekend not just figuring out your respective book categories, but wondering why in the heck I went to such great lengths in my last post to defend the necessity of having to pick one at all. One of the great advantages — and great liabilities — of having taught so many aspiring writers to pitch (in every context from one-on-one tutoring to conducting classes for a couple of hundred people to running mass pitching practice sessions to working with small writers’ groups via Skype or conference call) is that over the years, I have heard legions of writers complain bitterly about the process.

Leaving aside for the moment the undeniable fact that a successful conference pitch allows the pitcher to skip the querying step of landing an agent entirely — not a benefit at which anyone looking for an agent should be turning up his perky little nose — the source of the bitterness is not all that mysterious. Many, if not most, agent-seeking writers (and plenty of already-agented ones) resent, hate, or at minimum fear paying a lot (or even a little) money to conference organizers in exchange for the opportunity to sit across a table from an agent or editor and try to convince her that your premise is fresh enough and a good enough fit with the current market in your book’s category to render it worth her while to take a gander at the first few pages of the manuscript or proposal.

Which, in case any of you have been wondering, is the goal of a pitch — or a query, for that matter: enticing the agent or editor to ask to read your work. Not, as too many pitchers and queriers assume, to induce a spontaneous cry of, “I love this book! I don’t need to read a syllable of it — I’m going to get this writer’s name on a contract this very day!”

Given the level of pressure inherent to pitching, the resentment, etc. are certainly understandable — and not just because we all know that judging the quality of writing by how the writer talks about it is a little like judging a singer’s voice by glancing at the sheet music he’s planning to sight-read.

Ever since the first caveperson chiseled the first sentence on cave wall and called the rest of the clan to admire it, writers have been pretty sensitive to critique. No matter how many times a writer tells herself, rightly, that a rejection based solely upon how she talks about her writing could not possibly mean that the rejecter hates the writing he hasn’t read, it sure can feel like it in the moment.

So I really can’t blame first-time pitchers — or even experienced ones — for fearing the prospect of pitching. What puzzles me is the extreme distaste so many first-time pitchers display toward even the concept of talking about their books as products that they are trying to market.

Which is, incidentally, precisely what anyone who pitches or queries an agent is doing.

A surprisingly hefty percentage of aspiring writers seem to find that hard to accept. I hate to stick a pin in anyone’s illusions, but unless a writer of books plans to post his writing for free on the internet or print up copies at his own expense and hand them out gratis on street corners, he’s thinking in terms of getting paid.

So in what sense is his manuscript or NF book proposal not a product he’s trying to sell to a publishing house? And by what stretch of the imagination is the relationship he’s attempting to establish with an agent not primarily a business one?

For that reason, we’ve already learned the first building block of a successful pitch: the book category, the terminology that enables everyone in the industry to know instantly which presses, editors, and agents might be interested in a particular book. Learning to describe your work in the same terms that the publishing industry would is a far, far more effective strategy for meeting those goals than folding your arms and pouting about how unfair it is that art has to be shoved into a marketing category.

Not only is the latter a waste of energy for most writers (some honestly do find resentment motivating, but most merely find it enervating), but refusing to speak the language of the industry in a pitch or query is self-defeating; all insisting upon eschewing any discussion of marketability does, typically, is make the agent or editor on the receiving end think, “Oh, dear, here’s another one who doesn’t know how publishing works.”

Being able to describe one’s book in market terms is as essential for a killer pitch as for an effective query letter. So today, we’re going to be focusing closely on marketing your art.

As Fat Albert used to say, if you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s done.

Last time, I broached the subject of the most straightforward way to talk about your writing in professional terms, the book category. The more terse and specific you can be about your book’s category, the more professional you will sound.

The sad thing is, the widespread tendency among pitchers is in the opposite direction. As much as writers seem to adore describing their work as, “Well, it’s sort of a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cozy mystery,” agents and editors tend to hear ambiguous descriptions as either waffling, a book’s not being ready to market, or the author’s just not being very familiar with how the industry actually works.

Which means, incidentally, that within the pitch setting, you might want to avoid those ever-popular terms of waffle, my writing defies categorization, my book is too complex to categorize, my book isn’t like anything else out there, no one has ever written a book like this before, and it’s sort of autobiographical.

Which, translated into industry-speak, come across respectively as I’m not familiar with how books are sold in North America, I don’t know one book category from another, I’m not familiar with the current market in my area of interest — which means, Mr. Agent, that I haven’t been buying your clients’ work lately, I’m not familiar with the history of the book market in my area, and I was afraid people would hurt me if I wrote this story as a memoir.

Don’t blame the translator, please: the writers and the agents are just not speaking the same language.

While it may feel like writing your own tombstone, it’s just better marketing strategy to commit to a category and state it at the BEGINNING of your pitch, rather than making your hearer try to glean a category after hearing five minutes of exposition on the plot. Why? Well, among other things, being up front about it will permit your pitch-hearer to listen to the CONTENT of your pitch, rather than thinking the whole time, “Well, that sounds sort of like a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cozy mystery. How on earth am I going to categorize that?”

‘Nuff said, I think.

By contrast, a manuscript or proposal with a category already assigned to it requires less energy to market. This handy tool will not only feature prominently in your pitch, but also on the title page of your manuscript and in the first few lines of your query letter. (If it’s news to you that your title page should include these elements — or if it’s news to you that your manuscript should include a title page at all — please see the TITLE PAGES category at right before you even CONSIDER submitting any material to an agent or editor.)

Okay, now that we have one tool in our writerly toolkit, let’s work on adding a more sophisticated marketing instrument, one that is not technically required, but will instantly stamp your pitch/query as more professional.

I refer, of course, to identifying your target market. Or, to be more precise, to preparing a concise, well-considered statement of your book’s target market, including an estimate of how many potential buyers are in that demographic group.

And yes, Virginia, that can mean adding a few — dare I say it? — statistics to your pitch or query letter.

Intimidating news to those of us who vastly preferred the verbal section of the SAT to the math, isn’t it? (Actually, I was always good at math, but I suppose my high school calculus teacher didn’t nickname me Liberal Arts Annie for nothing. Still, there’s no fool like a fool playing hooky, so let’s press on.)

I’m not talking about publishing statistics here; I’m talking about easy-to-track-down population statistics — and that comes as a big surprise to practically every aspiring writer who has ever taken my pitching class. “Why,” they almost invariably cry, “shouldn’t I go to the trouble to find out how many books sold in my chosen category last year? Wouldn’t that prove that my book is important enough to deserve to be published?”

Well, for starters, any agent or editor would already be aware of how well books in the categories they handle sell, right? Mentioning the Amazon numbers for the latest bestseller is hardly going to impress them. (And you’d be astonished by how many agents don’t really understand how those numbers work, anyway.) Instead, it makes far more sense to discover how many people there are who have already demonstrated interest in your book’s specific subject matter.

But before I talk about how one goes about doing that, let’s discuss what a target market is. Simply put, the target market for a book is the group of people most likely to buy it. It is the demographic (or the demographics) toward which your publisher will be gearing advertising.

Or, to put it another way, who out there needs to read your book and why?

I know these are not the first questions we writers like to ask ourselves, but if you pictured your ideal reader, who would it be? What books does this reader already buy? Who are her favorite living authors, and what traits do your books share with those that would draw your ideal reader to both?

While we’re at it, who represents her favorite authors, and would those agents be interested in your book?

Do I hear some disgruntled muttering out there? “I’m not a marketer; I’m a writer,” I hear some of you say. “How the heck should I know who is going to buy my book? And anyway, shouldn’t a well-written book be its own justification to anyone but a money-grubbing philistine?”

Well, yes, in a perfect world — or one without a competitive market. But neither is, alas, the world in which we currently live.

As nice as it would be if readers flocked to buy our books simply because we had invested a whole lot of time in writing them, no potential book buyer is interested in EVERY book on the market, right? There are enough beautifully-written books out there that most readers expect to be offered something else as well: an exciting plot, for instance, or information about an interesting phenomenon.

To pitch or query your book successfully, you’re going to need to be able to make it look to the philistines like a good investment.

And before anybody out there gets huffy about how the industry really ought to publish gorgeously-written books for art’s sake alone, rather than books that are likely to appeal to a particular demographic, think about what the pure art route would mean from the editor’s perspective: if she can realistically bring only 4 books to press in the next year (not an unusually low per-editor number, by the way), how many of them can be serious marketing risks, without placing herself in danger of losing her job? Especially in this economy, when the major publishers have been trimming their editorial staffs.

Do Fat Albert and the Cosby kids really need to break down these issues into a song for the likely outcome to be clear?

It’s very much worth your while to give some thought to your target readership BEFORE you pitch or query, so you may point it out to that nervous editor or market-anxious agent. Try to think about it not as criticism of your book, but as a legitimate marketing question: who is going to read your book, and why?

As with choosing a book category, it pays to be specific. For one thing, it will make you stand out from the crowd of pitchers.

Why? Well, to put it charitably, the vast majority of fiction writers do not think very much about the demographics of their potential readers — which is to say, most don’t seem to consider the question at all. (A luxury, I might point out, that nonfiction writers do not have: NF book proposals invariably have an entire SECTION on target audience. No one ever seems to think that is incompatible with the production of art.) Or when fiction writers are forced to answer the question, they identify their readership in the broadest possible terms.

PLEASE, for your own sake, avoid the oh-so-common trap of the dismissive too-broad answer, especially the ever-popular women everywhere will be interested in this book; every American will want to buy this; it’s a natural for Oprah. Even in the extremely unlikely event that any of these statements is literally true in your book’s case, agents and editors hear such statements so often that by this point in human history, they simply tune them out.

Especially the one about Oprah — even if your book would in fact have been a natural for her show, back when she had a show. Agents in North America hear that all the time, applied to a jaw-droppingly broad array of books.

Seriously, if I had a dime for every time I have heard that particular cliché, I would own my own publishing house — and the island upon which it stood, the fleet of sailboats to transport books from there to market, and a small navy’s worth of shark-wranglers to keep my employees’ limbs safe while they paddled between editing projects. (For an interesting discussion amongst Author! Author! readers about the effects of the Oprah Book Club on book sales in this country, please see the comments on this post from last year.

Why do sweeping generalizations tend to be ineffectual, you ask? Well, agents and editors do have quite a bit of practical experience with book marketing: they know for a fact that no single book will appeal to EVERY woman in America, for instance. Since they hear such claims so often, after awhile, they just block out all hyperbole.

Coming from authors, that is. Anyone who has ever read a marketing blurb knows that folks in the publishing industry are not all that shy about using hyperbole themselves.

Make sure your target market is defined believably — but don’t be afraid to use your imagination. Is your ideal reader a college-educated woman in her thirties or forties? Is it a girl aged 10-13 who doesn’t quite fit in with her classmates? Is it an office worker who likes easy-to-follow plots to peruse while he’s running on the treadmill? Is it a working grandmother who fears she will never be able to afford to retire? Is it a commuter who reads on the bus for a couple of hours a day, seeking an escape from a dull, dead-end job?

While these may sound like narrow definitions, each actually represents an immense group of people, and a group that buys a heck of a lot of books. Give some thought to who they are, and what they will get out of your book.

Or, to put a smilier face upon it, how will this reader’s life be improved by reading this particular book, as opposed to any other? Why will the book speak to her?

Again, be as specific as you can. As with book category, if you explain in nebulous terms who you expect to read your book, you will simply not be speaking the language of agents and editors.

Once you’ve identified your target audience, it’s greatly to your advantage to do a bit of research on just how big it is. Throwing some concrete numbers into your pitch, demonstrating just how big your target market actually is will make it MUCH simpler for them to talk about your book to higher-ups.

Why? Well, sales and marketing departments expect agents and editors to be able to speak in hard numbers — and no matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given book, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too. So doesn’t it make sense to make sure the agent and editor fighting for your book have that demographic information at their fingertips, when it’s relatively easy for you to put it there?

Some of you are still not convinced that it would behoove you to go to the additional effort, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear those of you writing for some of the bigger markets protest. “Surely, everyone with a pulse is aware of how big my particular target audience is and why they would find my book appealing. Wouldn’t it be, you know, a little insulting if my pitch or query assumed that the agent wasn’t sufficiently aware of the world around him to know these things.”

Well, yes, if you happen to be pitching a YA book about a teenage girl’s relationship with a vampire or another book whose appeal to a recent bestseller’s already-established readership is so self-evident that any agent with a brain would pitch it as, “It’s basically TWILIGHT, but with twist X…”

But the fact is, few books that aren’t really, really derivative of current bestsellers have a particularly obvious target audience. That’s why it pays to be specific — and in a refreshing instance of an advice-giver following her own advice, I’m going to do just that now. Let me tell you a parable about what can happen if a writer is vague about her target market’s demographics.

Aspiring writer Suzette has written a charming novel about an American woman in her late thirties who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12 in 1978. Since the book is set in the present day, that makes her protagonist a Gen Xer, as Suzette herself is. Let’s further assume that like the vast majority of pitchers, she has not thought about her target market before walking into her appointment with agent Briana.

So she’s stunned when Briana, the agent to whom she is pitching, says that there’s no market for such a book. But being a bright person, quick on her feet, Suzette comes up with a plausible response: “I’m the target market for this book,” she says. “People like me.”

Now, that’s actually a pretty good answer — readers are often drawn to the work of writers like themselves — but it is vague. What Suzette really meant was:

“My target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters.”

But Briana heard what Suzette SAID, not what she MEANT. Since they’ve just met, how reasonable was it for Suzette to expect Briana to read her mind?

The result was that Briana thought: “Oh, God, another book for aspiring writers.” (People like the author, right?) “What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.”

And what would an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Ted) conclude from Suzette’s statement? Something, no doubt, along the lines of, “This writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!”

Clearly, being vague about her target audience has not served Suzette’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if she had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Suzette says: “Yes, there is a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents.”

Agent Briana thinks: “Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?”

Sounding more marketable already, isn’t it?

But when Briana pitches it to editor Ted this way, he thinks: “Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. At this juncture, most of the US population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of vegans with little disposable income?”

So a little better, but no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Suzette has thought through her readership in advance, and walks into her pitch meetings with Briana and Ted with her statistics all ready to leap off her tongue.

Suzette says (immediately after describing the book): “I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.”

Agent Briana responds: “There are 47 million Gen Xers? I had no idea there were that many. Let’s talk about your book further over coffee.”

And editor Ted thinks: “47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only a tiny fraction of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing. Let’s talk about this further over coffee, Briana.”

So what’s the moral here? That there’s a heck of a lot of coffee being drunk in publishing circles.

Oh, you meant the RELEVANT moral? That as scary as it may be to think about, if you are going to make a living as a writer, you will be writing for a public. In order to convince people in the publishing industry that yours is the voice that public wants and needs to hear, you will need to figure out who those people are, and why they will be drawn toward your book.

If you don’t want to make a living at it, of course, you needn’t worry about marketing realities; writing for your own pleasure, and that of your kith and kin, is a laudable pursuit. But if you want total strangers to buy your work, you are going to have to think about marketing it to them.

As I have said before, and shall no doubt say many times again: art for art’s sake is marvelous, but an author’s being cognizant of the realities of the market renders it far more likely that her book is going to be successful.

And, to paraphrase Fat Albert, those who don’t do their homework are not as likely to succeed as often as those who do.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about how to dig up specifics about your target demographic relatively painlessly. As always, if any of you out there find what I’m suggesting confusing, I would MUCH rather that you ask me about it BEFORE you follow my advice than after.

I’m funny that way. In the meantime, don’t play hooky, try not to assume, and keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part IV: finding the right conceptual container for your work

a-pile-of-boxes

Hello, campers –
Anne has taken a bit of a tumble — literally — on her road toward complete recovery from her car crash injuries, I am sorry to report. Thus the silence for the last few days. She should be back among us soon, but in the meantime, she was most concerned about making it through Pitchingpalooza in time for those of you attending her local writers’ conference to gain the full benefit of it. To that end, I’m going to be rerunning old posts on the subject every day until she has bounced back enough to write new ones herself.

She says to tell you not to worry — she’ll be upright and back blogging before you know it. Enjoy!

Yes, it’s true: in the fourth installment in this series, I’m moving beyond telling you how to prepare for a conference where you might be able to pitch your book to an agent or editor, either formally or informally, and proceeding toward how to decide what to say when you get there. While some might shake their heads, muttering, “Why on earth is she going over every nuance, when we’re already deep in literary conference season?”, well, I have two answers.

First, for the many, many aspiring writers who (unwisely, I think) put off constructing (or often even thinking about) their pitches until the eve of the conference, I’ve established a super-quick crash course in how to do it: you’ll find it under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Second, years of experience teaching good writers to pitch lead me to believe that just telling you what to do without helping you understand why each part of the pitch is necessary in order to market your work persuasively to agents and editors — including parts that are usually left out of the three-line pitch entirely — usually results not only in less effective pitches, but writers not particularly comfortable with giving them. Call me zany — and believe me, there are plenty of local conference organizers who do — but I just don’t believe that pitching advice that tells writers to blurt out a summary of their books as fast as humanly possible and leaves it at that is actually all that helpful come pitching time.

Hey, I warned you that my approach to pitching was a bit unorthodox.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, I believe that the definition of pitching successfully is not merely being able to cram an entire 400-page book into three sentences and spit it out coherently. Instead, I define pitching success as the ability to speak fluently and persuasively about a book in terms that make an agent or editor likely to say, “Gee, I’d like to read that. Please send me the first 50 pages right away.”

I define a pitch’s success by its results, not its conformity to a pre-set model to be used in all instances. I know: radical.

Thinking of it this way makes it far, far easier to make it through the pitch preparation process: instead of grumblingly adhering to an evidently arbitrary and difficult standard of presentation, you’re gearing up to have all of the marvelously fulfilling conversations that will define the rest of your life as a professional writer.

Much nicer to wrap your brain around than croaking out the bare bones of your premise in 10 seconds, isn’t it?

Now that you are prepared for my advice to be a bit offbeat, I am not afraid to shock you with my first unorthodox suggestion:

DON’T start the pitch-prepping process by sitting down and trying to summarize your book’s plot or argument in just a few lines. Instead, let your first step be figuring out where your book would be placed on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble, Borders, or a similar chain bookstore.

Why? Because this is the single most important piece of information you can tell an agent or editor about what you write. And because everyone in the US publishing industry talks about the demarcations in the same terms, you’re going to communicate a whole lot better with them if you use the book categories they already know. Which are:

For fiction: Fiction (a.k.a. Mainstream Fiction), Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Futuristic Fiction (that is not SF. The usual example is THE HANDMAID’S TALE.), Adventure Fiction, Sports Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Adult Fiction; Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Women’s Fiction, Chick Lit, Lady Lit, Lad Lit; Romance, Category Romance, Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance (designate period), Paranormal Romance, Romantica, Erotica, Inspirational Romance, Multicultural Romance, Time Travel Romance; Science Fiction, SF Action/Adventure, Speculative SF, Futuristic SF, Alternate History, Cyberpunk; Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Epic Fantasy; Horror, Paranormal, Vampire Fiction; Thriller, Spy Thriller, Suspense, Romantic Suspense; Mystery, Police Procedural Mystery, Legal Mystery, Professional Mystery, P.I. Mystery, Psychological Mystery, Forensic Mystery, Historical Mystery, Hardboiled Mystery, Cozy Mystery, Cops & Killers Mystery, Serial Killer Mystery, British Mystery, Noir, Caper; Western; Action/Adventure; Comics; Graphic Novel; Short Stories; Poetry; Young Adult, Picture Book, Children’s, Middle Readers.

For nonfiction: Entertaining, Holidays, House & Home, Parenting & Families, How-To, Self-Help, Pop Psychology, Pop Culture, Cookbook, Narrative Cookbook, Food & Wine, Lifestyle, Medical, Alternative Medicine, Health, Fitness, Sports, Psychology, Professional, Engineering, Technical, Computers, Internet, Automotive, Finance, Investing, Business, Careers, Memoir, Autobiography, Biography, Narrative Nonfiction, Historical Nonfiction, True Crime, Law, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Travel, Travel Memoir, Outdoors & Nature, Essays, Writing, Criticism, Arts, Photography, Coffee Table, Gift, Education, Academic, Textbook, Reference, Current Events, Politics/Government, Women’s Studies, Gay & Lesbian (a.k.a. GLBT).

Actually, there are a few more, but these are the main ones. For more detailed analysis, again, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right. Also, the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites. But these are enough to get you started.

Pick one.

Before anybody out there starts to freak out about the prospect of having to select the perfect pre-fab label, let me hasten to add: aspiring writers are not singled out for punishment in having to do this; literally every professional author does as well. It’s a technical designation, after all, not a summary of the book’s contents.

And contrary to popular belief, choosing does not define a writer for life: the book category is merely the conceptual box into which all books aimed at a particular already-established market are placed. Literally every book published by a North American publisher has been assigned to such a category.

So calm down and ask yourself: in a marketing display, what kind of books would be grouped around it? How would it be placed so as to suggest that if the potential buyer liked book X, he would probably be interested in your book as well?

Lest any of you fiction writers are tempted to say, “Oh, my book would just be in the literature section, filed under my last name,” that’s not a good enough answer. Nor is, “Oh, I’m a genre-buster — I don’t want to limit myself with a label.”

That kind of answer just isn’t useful to an agent — on order to sell your book to an editor, your agent is going to need to be able to tell him right off the bat what kind of a book it is, not merely that she thinks it’s well written. Similarly, in order to argue that your book belongs in next year’s catalog, an editor is going to have to tell the rest of the folks at the publishing house the book category, just as the marketing department is going to have to tell the distributor, and the distributor the bookstore buyer.

Thus, the book category is in fact the industry shorthand for where a book should be directed in order to sell, at every level. So it follows as night the day that aspiring writers who equivocate between categories because they believe (not entirely without reason) that their books are too complicated to be shoved into a single conceptual box, or even refuse define their work automatically render it harder for all of these people to do their jobs.

And that’s not the world’s best idea, because if you want them to assist you in getting your writing into print, it’s really much more in your interests than theirs to make it as easy as possible to help you.

Let me repeat that, because it’s vital and I’ve never heard any other pitching advisor mention it: aspiring writers who go out of their way to make it easy for folks in the publishing industry to help them succeed tend to garner a heck of a lot more help than those who make it difficult.

Partially, that’s just human nature: a person for whom it’s a pain to do favors tends not to have others leaping forward to do him any. But partially, it’s also because most writers inadvertently make it difficult by not learning how to talk about or present their work professionally.

Which leads me to the other, utterly selfish reason that you should figure out the proper category for your book, and pronto: once you know where the pros would envision your book selling best, you will have both an infinitely easier time pitching AND finding agents to query. Suddenly, those cryptic lists of book types in agents’ guides and opaque conference bio blurbs will spring to life for you.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of aspiring writers do not do their homework in this respect — and believe me, from the pros’ perspective, it shows in their pitches. The industry defines types of books far more specifically than writers tend to do — and, as I’ve been pointing out over the last few days, no agent represents every kind of book. Since they define their work by book category, writers’ reluctance to commit just seems like ignorance of how books are sold.

Does that conclusion seem harsh? Actually, it isn’t, particularly: the sad fact is, the vast majority of aspiring writers out there have only a vague idea of how their books would be marketed to booksellers. So I’m here to tell you: the FIRST question any editor would ask an agent about a book, or a committee would ask an editor, or a book buyer would ask a publishing house’s marketing department is, “What’s the book category?”

But even as I typed that last bit, I could sense that some of you out there were still feeling abused for having to adhere to the established categories, feeling (and not without some justification) that there’s more to art than marketing labels. If you feel that way, you’re certainly not alone: you can’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference anywhere in North America without hitting a writer who believes that his artistic freedoms are endangered by the very request. Or a writer who has fretted for a year about picking the right category. And anyone who has ever listened to pitches for a living can tell you horror stories about writers who wasted half (or even all) of their pitch appointments complaining about it.

To save any of you from ending up as the subject of such a tale. let’s take a look at how the average pitcher deals with this fundamental question, and why the standard oh, my God, don’t make me pick! responses tend not to impress agents and editors very much.

In the first place, writers often mishear the question as, “So, what is your book about?” rather than what it is, a straightforward request for marketing information. Thus, they all too often give exactly the same response they would give anybody who asked the more general latter question at a cocktail party:

“Well (gusty sigh), it’s a novel…mostly, it’s women’s fiction, but it’s not really a romance novel. I guess it’s also suspense, with thriller elements. And the writing is definitely literary.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but to an agent or editor, this kind of response sounds EXACTLY like that noise that Charlie Brown’s teachers used to make: Wah wah wah wah waagh…

Remember, agents and editors think about books as products, rather than merely as works of art or expressions of the inner workings of the writers’ souls. And as products, agents need to sell books to editors, and editors to editorial committees, and marketing departments to distributors, and distributors to bookstores, and bookstores to readers.

I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process. And much, much, MUCH harder for a writer to pitch successfully.

So it’s an excellent idea to tell them up front — as in both your pitch and the first few lines of your query letter — what kind of book it is. But in order to make sense to people in the industry, you need to speak their language: pick one of their recognized categories. In other words, don’t just guess, don’t lump a couple of categories together into a Frankenstein’s monster of a hyphenate, and don’t just make up a category.

How do you know where to start? Glad you asked — you know how I love step-by-step instructions.

1. Learn where book categories lurk.
In this age of rampant standardization of book packaging, this isn’t all that hard to do. Take a gander at the back jacket of most recently-released hardcover books: you will find, usually in either the upper left corner or just above the barcode, a one- or two-word description. That is the book category.

Not sure how to find it? Okay, here’s the back cover of Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer). Follow the lead of my pen:

sarah-vowells-back-cover-ii

You may notice that her publisher has listed the book in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (I’m not kidding: it honestly is very funny.)

The other common locale for a book category, especially on trade paperbacks and softcover books, is in the box with the barcode. Here’s the back of Jonathan Selwood’s hilarious THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE:

jonathan-selwood-back-cover

Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since the novel partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, that seems rather appropriate.

2. Find some recently-released books similar to yours and check how they’ve been categorized.
Think about your book. Can you come up with, say, 3-5 titles that are similar to it in subject matter, tone, approach, voice, etc., that have come out in North America within the last five years? Not similar in ALL respects, necessarily — just one or two may be enough to steer you in the right direction

If you can’t come up with any that are remotely similar, I suspect that you’re not overly familiar with the current book market — a serious liability for anyone hoping to pitch or query a book to someone who makes a living following such trends.

If all else fails, start feeding relevant search terms into Amazon and see what comes up.

3. See how the books on your list have been categorized by their publishers.
Once you have your list, go to a bookstore (either physically or online) and see where those books are housed. That is, most likely, where your book would be categorized, too.

4. From among those categories, select the one that intuitively seems to fit your book best.
Book categorization is not a perfect science — pick the one that comes NEAREST to where you envision the book being shelved in a big bookstore. (Since I’ve written about this topic quite frequently and I’m trying to get us through the pitching basics fairly quickly, for more specific tips on how to do this, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right.)

Fair warning: many categories overlap — fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground. Choose the one that you like best; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it.

Whoa, I didn’t even have time to move my hand to the return key before I felt a mighty gust of cries of WAIT! coming from out there. “But Anne,” breathless voices cry, “I honestly don’t know how to categorize my novel. Is it literary, mainstream, or just plain fiction — and will agents hurt me if I guess wrong?”

This is an excellent question — one that I covered at some length in several posts; I would encourage you to go back over this post, this one, and this. You might also try asking yourself few questions about your book:

(a) Does your book assume a college-educated readership? Does it try experiments with structure and language? Is character development more important to the reading experience than plot? If you answered yes to at least two of these, literary fiction would probably be the safest choice.

(b) Is your book aimed at a general adult audience, or is more heavily weighted toward a female readership? (Okay, so this is kind of a trick question, since women buy over 80% of the fiction sold in the US and almost all of the literary fiction, but bear with me here.) If it is genuinely aimed at a general market, fiction would be a good choice.

If it does assume a female readership, or if the protagonist is female, consider women’s fiction. And just in case any of you are harboring the surprisingly pervasive prejudice that women’s fiction label is automatically pejorative: women’s fiction is far and away the best-selling fiction category.

(c) Does your book have a filmic, easily-summarized plot? Are the style and storytelling technique similar to a bestselling author’s? If so, it might be mainstream fiction (also known as commercial fiction).

(d) Is your protagonist relatively young — and have sex with more than one partner/do drugs/have a drinking problem? Does the plot deal with adult-themed issues that probably wouldn’t make it onto network television in the dinner hour? If so, it might be adult fiction or contemporary fiction.

(e) Are all of the criteria in #4 true, but the protagonist is female, under 40, have a sense of humor, doesn’t pursue significant interests in the book OTHER than having sex with more than one partner/doing drugs/having a drinking problem — and yet is not a memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel? If so, you might want to consider the chick lit category, especially if your protagonist’s interest in shoes and handbags borders on the pathological.

Before any chick lit writer gets all defensive on me, allow me to add that there is some chick lit out there does deal with serious subject matter (see the comments on this post); like many, many other book category distinctions, the difference between women’s fiction and chick lit is often a matter of tone. If you write in either category and are unsure what that means, it would be a grand idea to walk into a bookstore, ask a savvy clerk to point out the three best recent releases in women’s fiction and chick lit, and read the first few pages of each.

All that being said, it’s not completely unheard-of for women’s fiction with a young protagonist to be assigned to chick lit simply due to the sex and age of the writer, or for an agent to decide to submit a book to chick lit editors as chick lit and women’s fiction editors as women’s fiction. Ultimately, categorization is a call the agent to make; all you’re trying to do in a pitch or query is to find a label in the general ballpark.

Which leads me to…

(f) Are you planning on pitching or querying an agent who likes to make this call himself? In that case, you might be best off simply labeling it fiction — but you’re unlikely to know that unless you’ve spoken to the agent personally. If this is the case, you should pick the closest label, then nod smilingly when the agent to whom you are pitching says you are mistaken.

Hey, it’s how those of us already signed with agents do it. I even know a quite prominent author who claims that she doesn’t know for sure whether any particular piece is women’s fiction or memoir until her agent has sold it as one or the other.

All that being said, try not to get too discouraged if your book’s category does not immediately pop to mind. Often, it is genuinely a hard call. Just do your best.

5. Use the book category you’ve chosen to describe your manuscript whenever you are communicating with anyone in the publishing industry.

Feel free to use it ubiquitously. Its uses are myriad: in your pitch, in your query letter, on your title page (if you don’t know where this info should go, please see the TITLE PAGES category on the list at right), in checking an agent’s conference blurb or listing in an agency guide to see whether she represents your kind of book, whenever anyone at a literary event asks, “So, what do you write?”

But whatever you do, NEVER tell anyone in the industry that you have a “fiction novel” – this is a very, very common pet peeve amongst agents and editors. By definition, a novel IS fiction, always, just as a memoir is always nonfiction. (Technically, anyway. Don’t even get me started on how many memoirists have found their books under just-the-facts scrutiny over the last couple of years.)

Some of you are still squirming under the necessity of choosing, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some confused would-be pitchers and queriers cry, “I occasionally see categories other than the ones you’ve listed on book jackets and when authors speak about their work. Therefore, you must be wrong about agents and editors expecting to us to label our books, and I can refer to my manuscript any way I like — or not categorize it at all.”

Oh, that old saw. Naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time, a side effect of the expansive creative impulse of the human mind. And there’s no international police force compelling every published author out there to speak of their books in the same terms.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it behooves an aspiring writer to make up a book category. All one has to do is check out any of the standard agency guides to see why: when asked what kinds of books they represent, agents don’t use descriptions that are only meaningful to themselves and their closest friends; the vast majority of the time, they use the standard category designations.

That being said, generally speaking, it’s safer to pick one of the standards rather than to insist upon a category that has only been introduced recently: if it’s too new, the agent or editor to whom you are pitching may not yet be aware of it yet. (Hey, it happens.)

When in doubt, pick a more general category over a hyper-specific one. Or at any rate, select the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding to an agent like something that will sell.

But again, try not to stress about it too much. Believe me, if you are off just a little, an agent who is intrigued by your work will nudge you in the right direction, rather than writing you off because you picked the wrong sub-category. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for an agent to sign a writer and then say, “You know, Ghislaine, I think your book would sell better as women’s fiction than mainstream fiction. Let’s market it as that.”

And if Ghislaine is a savvy writer, she won’t immediately snap back, “Why is it women’s fiction rather than mainstream — because the author possesses ovaries?” (Not all that an uncommon an underlying reason for the choice, actually; some of my work has been categorized that way on apparently no other pretext.) Instead, market-ready writer that she is, she will respond, “If you think it’s a better idea, William. But do you mind explaining the logic to me, so I may consider how you’ve planning to market my work when I’m writing my next novel?”

THAT, my friends, is language the entire industry understands. This is a business where finesse definitely counts.

Hey, I don’t make up the lingua franca; I just speak it. (For more on the ins and outs of defining women’s fiction (particularly when a book occupies the rather broad territory where women’s, literary, and mainstream overlap), please see the three posts beginning here.)

6. What to do if you just cannot bring yourself to apply step 5 to the category that makes the most sense
If you truly get stuck in mid-decision, here is a sneaky trick: go to a well-stocked bookstore and track down a friendly-looking clerk. Describe your book to her in very general terms, and ask her to direct you to the part of the store where you might find something similar.

Then start pulling books off the shelf and examining their back covers for categories.

Hint: don’t be too specific in your description to the clerk — and whatever you do, don’t mention that you wrote the book you are describing. “My favorite book is a suspenseful romantic comedy about murderous contraltos set in the Middle Ages — would you have anything close to that?” tends to yield better results than, “I’m looking for a book about an opera diva who lives in 9th-century Milan, has scores of amorous misadventures, and strangles her conductor/lover. Where would I find that in your store?” The latter is more likely to turn up a puzzled shrug than useful directions.

Repeat in as many bookstores as necessary to start seeing a pattern in where you’re being advised to look. That location is where your book is most likely to be shelved.

Yes, this process can be a pain, but stating your category up front will simply make you come across as more professional, because it’s the way that agents and editors talk about books. Agencies do not impose this requirement in order to torment writers, you know; the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work.

Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their pre-chosen categories. Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you.

To put a more positive spin on the phenomenon, think of it this way: if you tell an agent immediately what kind of book you are pitching, the busy little squirrels in her brain can start those wheels spinning toute suite, so she can instantly start thinking of editors to whom to sell your book.

Since that is precisely what you want her to be doing, what are you complaining about?

If you’re still a bit confused and want more help fine-tuning your selection, again, I would recommend taking a gander at the posts under the BOOK CATEGORIES heading at right. In the past, I have spent more time on this particular point; I could easily spend a week on this point alone. (And have, as it happens.)

And if you’ve narrowed it down to a single category, congratulations! You’re ready to move on to Step 2 of writing your pitch.

Which, not entirely coincidentally, will be the subject of my next post. (Hey, I told you I liked step-by-step directions.) Keep up the good work!

Generating a query list-palooza, part 2: is honesty the best policy, or merely a very, very good idea?

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What do you think, campers? Was yesterday’s How to Find Agents to Query-palooza a better title for this series, or do you prefer Generating a Query List-palooza? I’m not thrilled with either, frankly, but I like FindingAgentstoQuerypalooza even less. I suppose I could always turn it into an acronym (FAQpalooza has a certain visual appeal, I must admit), yet in my experience, if the title doesn’t instantly tell the reader what the post is about, they tend to click onward.

All of which is to say: I’m open to suggestions. And don’t be surprised if every day of this series has a different moniker up front.

So much for the superficial; on to the substance. Last time, I extolled the virtues of figuring out one’s book category before embarking upon the arduous task of seeking out agents to query.

Why? Well, an array of reasons, the most pertinent to your list-generating success being (a) agents think of manuscripts as inherently belonging to marketing categories, thus (b) they tend to express their preferences for what they do and don’t want to represent in those terms. Since (c) it is a complete waste of your time to query an agent who does not represent books in your category — or no longer represents them — having narrowed down your book’s category to, if not a single choice, then at least the nearest two or three, will not only help you avoid rejection {because (d) no query is easier to reject than one for a kind of book the agency does not handle}, but will also make it significantly easier to figure out which agents are even possibilities for inclusion on your querying list.

Whew. Try saying that last sentence three times fast.

It will even help you if you are planning to pitch at a writers’ conference. As any of you who have found yourselves on a conference-throwing association’s mailing list are probably already aware, attending a conference — particularly one that features face-to-face pitching appointments — is one of the best ways for an aspiring writer to connect with an agent. Although not necessarily in the way that conference brochures often imply: contrary to both popular opinion amongst aspiring writers and the marketing materials aimed at them, it’s extremely rare that an agent will hear a conference pitch and fall so in love with a book’s concept that she shrieks at the pitcher, “I adore this book! I’m going to sign you this very minute!”

Why not? Think about it: why would she presume that a person who can describe a book well verbally must necessarily also be able to write well? She describes books well for a living, yet she has probably never written one. She is going to want to see the actual manuscript before she commits to anything.

So much for the myth of instant signing. What conference pitching can do for you — and don’t sneeze at this; it’s not an inconsiderable advantage — is allow you to skip the querying phase altogether. If the agent to whom you are assigned to pitch (or whose attention you manage to engage politely between conference sessions) thinks your book sounds marketable, he will ask you to send either a partial or a full manuscript.

In other words, the best-case scenario is that he will respond precisely the way his screener, Millicent, would respond to a written query.

He will only ask for pages under certain conditions, of course. And what are those conditions, you ask with bated breath?

In order to pique an agent’s interest, a pitch must demonstrate that the book in question

(1) is on a subject that the agent finds fascinating (a matter of individual taste, always),

(2) is something the agent might be able to sell with his current connections in the literary market conditions of today (which change constantly, AND

(3) falls into one of the book categories he (or someone at his agency) already represents.

These should sound at least vaguely familiar to those of you who have been following this autumn’s ‘Palooza series: they are precisely the same conditions a query must fulfill in order to prompt Millicent to request materials. Obviously, whether one is pitching or querying, though, one’s chances of fulfilling Condition #3 are considerably higher if (a) one has already taken the time to figure out one’s book category (perhaps with the assistance of the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY posts on the archive list at right) and (b) one has done sufficient research on the agents one is approaching to know whether they represent that category.

And why would investing that time in research save you chagrin in the long run, campers? Shout it with me now: because it’s a complete waste of time to query or pitch to an agent who doesn’t represent your book category.

I cannot sufficiently stress the importance of doing your homework before signing up — or signing a check — to pitch at a conference. The overwhelming majority of first-time pitchers assume, wrongly, that conference organizers will automatically assign them to the right agent. Or — sacre bleu! — that it doesn’t matter which agent hears their pitches. All agents are identical, right? If a book is really marketable, any agent currently inhabiting this side of the earth’s crust will immediately snap it up. If not, well, the writing must not be very good.

If reading those last four sentences made you feel slightly sick to your stomach, you’re not alone: they represent a very, very common writerly misconception about agent-landing. If, on the other hand, those sentences made you laugh heartily, congratulations: you’ve been doing your homework about how agencies actually operate.

In the U.S. literary market, there is no such thing as an agent who represents every kind of book, any more than there is a publishing house that publishes indiscriminately, regardless of book category. These people and institutions are specialists.

So if you are trolling the Internet for pitching opportunities, it might not actually be in your best interest to assume that the one geographically closest to you will provide the best value for your conference-going buck. Again, think about it: if a conference does not feature agents who represent your book category, what good could it possibly do for you to make a pitching appointment there?

Instead, stick to conferences that either specialize in your book category — many genres host their own regional or national gatherings — or whose scheduled attending agents do so. Most conference brochures and websites will include brief bios for invited agents; since those short blurbs are often rather vague, you might also want to look up the agents in one of the standard agents’ guides or online before you register.

That’s one way to meet agents — one of the most expensive, unfortunately. Typically, conferences that offer pitch sessions are costlier to attend than those that do not; some even charge an extra fee per pitching appointment. (Yet another reason to do one’s homework before registering, eh?) Even if you opt for a conference that does not offer formal appointments, however, you may still be able to make an informal hallway pitch or have a conversation with an agent who happens to be giving a lecture.

Which brings me back to a suggestion from last time: even if you did not get an opportunity to pitch to an agent at a conference, you may still want to send her a query. Perhaps one beginning: I enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent Conference X. I hope you will be interested in my novel… I also, if you will recall, suggested tracking down who represents your favorite authors.

I have a more words of advice about the latter method yet to dispense, but before we move on, I feel ethically obliged to revisit the former briefly, to address a questionable querying practice I have seen in my travels. It pains me to report that some wily aspiring writers out there who do not actually attend conferences, but send out queries implying that they have.

How do they pull that off? These unscrupulous souls habitually surf the web, finding out which agents are scheduled to speak at which conferences and when, wait a week or two, then send the attending agents I so enjoyed your talk at Conference X, and I hope you will be interested in my work… queries. These unscrupulous have even been known to write Conference X attendee in big red letters on the outside of their query packets or type it in the subject lines of their e-mails.

And why do these clever-but-underhand writers do this? Because they have been hanging around the industry long enough to know that

(a) by a couple of weeks after a large conference, the average agent might not remember be able to pick everyone who pitched to her out of a police line-up, much less remember who was or was not in the audience during her how-to-wow-me speech,

(b) even at a small conference, many writers are too shy to approach an agent directly, so chances are, the agent will not have met everyone there, and

(c) at a big agency, a reasonably well-established agent will have a Millicent going through her queries for her, anyway.

Therefore (these cads reason) the chances of being caught in the lie about attending are next to nil, and since the benefits of being able to claim conference attendance can be fairly significant — as I mentioned last time, conference-going queriers’ letters usually end up in the closer scrutiny pile — they have no scruples, apparently, about dressing themselves in borrowed clothes. Why not, these abandoned types reason: at worst, being caught means the query and/or eventual submission’s being rejected, that’s all.

Fie, fie.

Actually, there are a couple of ways in which such bold souls do tend to get caught, and since I am here to preach practicality, rather than morality, I feel honor-bound to point them out. First, agent rosters for conferences are NOTORIOUSLY malleable; many a Millicent loves to tell tales of the query letters they’ve received that extolled the pleasures of meeting an agent who was not even in the time zone of the mentioned conference on the date mentioned.

Second, since agents routinely talk at conferences about their specific book needs of the moment, it’s quite common for Millicents to find their inboxes inundated with queries for their bosses’ latest yen a week or two after a conference. Agents are equally likely to announce at conferences what no longer represent — which means, in practice, that what they say there is often substantially different than what’s in the blurb they gave the fine folks who put together the conference brochure several months ago. It’s not even all that unusual for a conference brochure to re-use a blurb from the last time that agent attended, even if his preferences have changed in the meantime.

You can see the pretend attendee’s mistake coming, I hope? If a querier says, I was so pleased to hear you say at Conference Y that you are looking for paranormal romance, and I hope you will be interested in mine, and Millicent knows that her boss marched into Conference Y and declared, “I’m so sick of paranormal romances that I wish never to see a query for one again,” that’s obviously an automatic rejection offense. True, since changing preferences are often not expressed in the latest edition of an agency guide, the unprincipled conference-claiming writer will probably only be making the same mistake as aspiring writers working from an outdated guidebook, but still, fie.

Brace yourself for #3, campers, because it represents some pretty hardened criminality. If you are easily shocked, you might want to avert your eyes.

Some dodgy writers are not satisfied with merely imposing upon Millicent with an untrue statement in a query letter. Sometimes, they will send the first 50 pages of their manuscripts to an agent who attended a conference, along with a disingenuous letter thanking the agent profusely for requesting the materials at a conference so jam-packed with writers that the agent might well have been the recipient of dozens of hallway pitches.

Fie, fie, FIE!!! I find this one particularly offensive — although truth compels me to say (off the record, of course) that I do know several successfully published authors who got their agents this way.

But that doesn’t make it right, my friends; it only makes it common. You’re better than that. I know you are.

Now that we’re all sadder but wiser about the ways in which this wicked, wicked world works, let’s talk about how to track down and solicit established writers’ agents without resorting to sordid trickery. Just where does a writer go to find out who represents what, in order to target her queries effectively?

Last time, I talked about the most common advice agents give to aspiring writers: find out who represents your favorite authors, usually through trolling acknowledgments pages, and querying their agents. (Actually, the most common advice agents give to writers is to go away and query someone else — the previous axiom is merely the most frequently-given advice about how to FIND an agent. But I digress.) This can be a dandy way to find a good agent with a proven track record in representing a particular kind of book.

Do be aware, however, that if the authors whose agents you approach are well-known, have published more than a couple of books, and/or are award winners, their agents may not be altogether keen on picking up the unpublished. This is especially likely to be the if the books you are checking happen to have come out more than a year or two ago — or if the authors in question were overnight successes tend to linger at the top of the NYT bestseller lists.

Check agency websites and standard agents’ guides before you invest a stamp on a query: the agent willing to fall in love with a previously-unpublished writer a decade ago may well not have done so again anytime within the last couple of years. Not all agencies are open to first-time authors. Another reason to double-check those acknowledgements: it’s entirely possible that the agent representing a major author now is not the same one who first took a wild chance on him as an unknown back in the 80s.

Why? Well-established authors often move up to more important agents as they gain prestige, so by the time that a Pulitzer Prize-winner like Alice Walker ends up at the Wendy Weil agency, she may have traded up two or three times. The exceptionally gifted memoirist Barbara Robinette Moss, for instance, traded up to Ms. Weil; I don’t know if that’s how essayist Sarah Vowell ended up there. But see my point?

Authors change agents all the time, and client-poaching, for lack of a nicer term for it, goes on more than most aspiring writers expect. And for good reason: as I believe I MAY have mentioned before in this very post, both market and individual tastes change, and not all agents enjoy an equal ability to sell a particular book.

Some have better connections for an author’s next book than others: some habitually lunch and cocktail party with editors at larger publishing houses, for instance; some went to college with more fine folks who ended up at imprints devoted to literary fiction than others. It may even be as simple as a particular agent’s having sat next to a particular editor at a writing conference’s rubber chicken dinner, but the fact is, different agents enjoy different levels of access to the people who would need to approve the acquisition of any given book.

So after an author has a major success, or even a modest one, with his original agent — that hard-working soul who was willing to take a chance on an unknown, bless her — it’s not all that unusual for him to start looking toward a better-established agency. Or for a more prominent agent to begin courting him.

Which sometimes leads to some rather amusing odd head jerkings in restaurants and bars adjacent to writers’ conferences: “What’s Author X doing having brunch with Agent R?” Agent B will hiss, pretending to drop his napkin as a cover for turning around to look. “I nursed X through three novels!”

The moral, should you care to know it: it’s not in your interest to assume that the agent whom the author thanks in the acknowledgments in his most recent book is necessarily the one who got him his first break. If the book in question is very successful, or is the follow-up to a success, that name could as easily be Agent R as the guy who dropped his napkin surreptitiously to stare at their clandestine meal.

Checking an established author’s FIRST book’s acknowledgements is often a better bet, especially if that author only broke into the big time within the last few years. Be aware, though, that a laudable willingness to take a chance on a hot new talent is not always how agents end up representing a particular author. Like John Irving, an author may have married his agent, Janet Turnbull Irving of the Turnbull Agency, a feat you could hardly hope to reproduce between now and Christmas.

Although let me know if you do, and I’ll send along a wedding present.

It’s also not unheard-of for an agent to make her reputation on a single well-known client, and to concentrate most of her efforts on that client, rather than on new ones. Often, these bestselling authors’ prestige was probably the key that opened the door to the top-flight agencies, rather than their beginning-of-the-career raw talent.

Generally speaking, you will be better off if you place the agents of writers on the bestseller lists lower on your priority roster, and concentrate on midlist or first-time authors. If you do decide to go hunting for the big game, bear in mind that that a Millicent Writers House, for instance, will inevitably open a LOT of queries that begin, As you handle Ken Follett…, Since you sold Nora Roberts’ last book…, and Since you so ably represent Neil Gaiman…

Such queries will not get any points for novelty, if you catch my drift.

Recall, too, that an agent who represents a bigwig author will often spend the bulk of his time catering to the bigwig’s business — and thus may well have little time to lavish on a new-but-brilliant client. (If you should ever find yourself within shouting distance of the delightful Don Maass of the Donald Maass Agency, ask him about how many days per year he devotes to a client like Anne Perry, as opposed to a client he’s just signed. Go ahead, he won’t be offended: he talks about it at conferences.)

In short, setting your heart on your favorite bestseller’s agent may not be the best use of your time and energy. Where the Since you so ably represent Author Q, I believe you will be interested in my work… gambit will serve you best is with lesser-known writers, particularly those who are just starting out.

Seriously, many agents nurturing a pet author or two, someone whose books currently sell only a few thousand copies, but the agency hopes be breaking into mainstream success any day now. Where recognition is scant, any praise is trebly welcome, so the clever writer who is the first (or tenth) to identify the up-and-coming writer as THE reason for picking the agent is conveying a subtle compliment to eyes hungry to see it. The agent (or her Millicent) often thinks, “My, here is a discerning person. Perhaps I should give her writing a chance.”

Good reason to go to first-time authors’ public readings, eh? The less famous the writer, the less well-attended the reading usually is. Maybe, if you are very nice (and one of the three people who showed up for the book signing), the brand-new author might even agree to let you begin your query letter, Your client, Brand-New Author, recommended that I contact you…

Again, do you think such a letter will get more or less attention than the average query?

A couple of words of warning about using this strategy, however. First, if you value your credibility (and you should), do not state, even as an indirect implication, that the author recommended you contact the agent unless it is true.

Oh, you may laugh, but aspiring writers do this all the time; it’s a well enough known dodge that agents routinely ask their clients, “Hey, what can you tell me about this writer?” If the response is, “Who?” using the recommendation might actually carry a negative value.

If you do indeed have a recommendation, great. If you do not, however, it’s just not wise to tempt fate.

But in response to what half of you just thought very loudly indeed, in terms of pure ethics, I think that a famous writer’s telling you at a conference, “Gee, you should talk to my agent,” constitutes a recommendation, and you are entitled to use it accordingly. A word to the wise, however: since it is not unheard-of for a touring writer not to recall the names and/or book titles of every soul with whom she had a conversation on a 9-state tour or at a 450-attendee conference — I tremble to tell you this, but it’s true — you might want to play it safe by sending off a brief, polite thank-you note to the recommender before you query her agent. (Most publishing houses will forward readers’ correspondence to their authors.)

Yes, it’s a bit time-consuming, but yet again, I would encourage you to think about it: wouldn’t you rather that famous author’s response to her agent’s inquiry about you were, “Oh, yes, that charming young writer; he just sent me a note,” than “Who are you talking about, Maisie?”

Also, it’s dangerous to use the names of writers whose work you do not like as calling card with their agents– and downright perilous to use the names of writers whose work you have not read. It’s only prudent to assume that, at some point, you will be having a conversation with the agent about the author whose work you praised.

The more obscure the author, in my experience, the more likely this conversation is to happen. If you hate the prose stylings of Alan Hollinghurst (whose work I love, personally; the last I checked, he was represented by Fletcher & Co.), or if you have never read any Dorothy Allison (Frances Goldin Agency), it’s probably not the best idea to present yourself as an enthusiast to their respective agents, or indeed to anyone who knows their work very well.

Your mother was right, you know: honesty is the best policy. Go give her a call, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XVI: just what went on in that castle, anyway? Inquiring minds want to know.

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So far in this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza series — or, as they’ve been calling it chez Mini, “your insanely time-consuming weekend of synopsis examples” — we have taken a gander at 1-, 2-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for a novel and 1-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for a memoir. This morning, as promised, I shall be showing you several different versions — and different types of platform — for a nonfiction book. Or rather, to keep the examples interesting, for several different kinds of nonfiction book.

Why mix it up more this time than in the previous posts? Well, there are quite a few kinds of nonfiction book: what might work beautifully in a synopsis for, say, a journal’s account of a sensational murder case might not present a historical analysis of the same case nearly as well.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s return to our by-now-familiar example and compare how a synopsis for a true crime version of Hamlet by a writer with a journalistic background would differ from how a historian would present his case for a book on the Elsinore murders. Beginning with the journalist:

Hamlet true crime synopsis

Ace journalist Walter Winchell certainly makes the his take on the well-worn Hamlet story sound like a grabber, doesn’t he? A fresh take on a demonstrably popular subject is always popular with Millicent the agency screener. Wisely, Mssr. Winchell also makes it quite plain what kind of evidence he has to offer in support of his challenge to the prevailing wisdom on the subject.

But you don’t need to take my word for this being a winning synopsis. We’ve already established criteria for success in a nonfiction synopsis of any length, right? To recap, a nonfiction synopsis that’s not for a memoir should:

(1) present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter;

(2) demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it;

(3) mention who specifically is already interested in this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject, if applicable;

(4) give some indication of how the writer intends to prove the case, showing the argument in some detail;

(5) demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and

(6) show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

Actually, those are the goals of a longer synopsis — say, 3-5 pages — but Mssr. Winchell has managed to hit most of these points in a single page. (Well done, Walt!) Fringe benefit: since he has embraced our earlier premise that a good nonfiction synopsis is a miniaturized book proposal, all he would need to do in order to lengthen this 1-page wonder into a longer synopsis, should he need one, would be to add more specifics and beef up his credentials as the obvious person to break this exciting story.

Let’s take a peek at a synopsis for straightforward historical account of the famous murders. To make the task a trifle more challenging, let’s remove the conceit of present-day headline value.

Hamlet as history synopsis

Doesn’t sound as though it has nearly as large a target audience as the first version, does it? That’s not necessarily a drawback in a nonfiction synopsis, by the way: in this case, it’s simply an accurate reflection of the book’s probable appeal. The Mad Prince of Denmark is not, after all, likely to be a natural for Oprah.

Appropriately, then, everything in this synopsis is geared to the readers most likely to be interested in this book: the academic tone, the intensive level of proof in the argument, the largely theoretical stakes all proclaim a college-educated audience. Yes, college-educated readers interested in tracing the historical and literary background of centuries-old plays is a niche market, but as any Millicent working at a history-representing agency would be aware, it’s a readership that buys a heck of a lot of books. No reason for Herodotus to risk compromising his credibility, then, by claiming the potential audience implied in — wait for it — “It’s a natural for Oprah!”

I bring this up advisedly: all too frequently, nonfiction writers turn Millicent off by pretending (or even just implying) on the query or synopsis page that their target audiences are much, much larger than they actually are. This is a strategic mistake, one that’s likely to get a synopsis rejected on sight.

Seriously, agents who habitually sell manuscripts in your book category have a very clear sense of how big the general audience for that type of book is. While including demographic statistics for the specific target market for the specific subject matter of your tome is a good idea — as we discussed earlier in this series, Millicent may not be aware of just how many drive-in movie enthusiasts are out there; if your book happens to be about drive-in theatres, you might want to mention the size of the Drive-in Fan Club — exaggerated general claims are extremely unlikely to convince a professional reader that your book is marketable.

So kudos to Herodotus for being savvy enough not to claim that every English teacher in America will rush to buy this book!. Instead, he stuck with the much more believable assertion that pretty much anyone who stumbled upon his volume in a bookstore would be at least vaguely familiar with the story of HAMLET.

Hmm, where have I heard that supposition before?

Yes, readers who have had their hands in the air since the top of the second example? “But Anne,” the sharp-eyed point out, “the formatting of the title is different for these two synopses. In the first, the subtitle has its own dedicated double-spaced line, but in the second, both title and subtitle are on the first line of the page. What gives?”

Well caught, patient hand-raisers. Either version is correct in a nonfiction synopsis. Generally speaking, longer subtitles tend to have their own lines, but unless either the title or subtitle is so long that it would be impossible to contain both on a single line, the choice is up to the writer.

Refreshing for something to be, isn’t it?

Oh, and you know how I keep urging all of you to read every syllable of your synopses IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, rather than merely relying upon your word processing program’s spell- and grammar-checker, and to double-check that all proper names are spelled correctly? That last example provides an excellent reason to follow this advice religiously: because I was tired, I didn’t notice until after I posted the original version of this synopsis that Word’s spellchecker had changed Gesta Danorum to — I kid you not — Gestapo Decorum.

Which, while it would be a great title for a history about manners during the Second World War, was not what I meant. Thank goodness I did a dramatic reading of all of today’s examples at the brunch table, eh?

Just for fun, let’s take a peek at how a psychologist might synopsize the same basic story. Note how cleverly Dr. Welby works in his credentials.

Hamlet self-help synopsis

It’s fascinating how different these three takes on the same story are, isn’t it? From Millicent’s perspective, although they all draw on the same source material, each makes a beeline for its own book category.

And that’s how it should be. Signing off for now…

Still more hands just shot into the air, didn’t they? “But Anne,” those of you who believe that I don’t have anything else to do this weekend point out, “for both the novel and memoir synopses, you showed not just a 1-page version, but 3- and 5-page renditions as well. So where are the extensions of these, huh? Huh?”

Well, first, you might want to do something about that aggression you have going there; perhaps Dr. Welby’s self-help book could offer a few suggestions. I’m aware that there’s a common Internet-based assumption that every answer to any given searcher’s question should be instantly available on a single webpage — or, in this case, a single blog post — but as is so often the case, complex reality isn’t easily compressible into just a few hundred words.

That’s particularly true in this case — and for reasons that should be apparent to anyone in the throes of constructing a book proposal. While, as I mentioned above, expanding any of these 1-page synopses could be achieved by the simple expedients of beefing up the writer’s platform, adding statistics to back up claims about the target readership and the book’s importance to that readership (although Dr. Welby has already done an excellent job of demonstrating both), and telling more of Hamlet’s story as it relates to their respective arguments, my blowing up the first two of these useful text-bolsterers in order to fill the larger space allotment would involve my just making up background for the authors.

Fictional platform does not carry much example value, in my experience. Nor do made-up statistics, although since I did some actual research to construct the examples above, much of the content of the second and third examples is true. (Don’t quote it in your term papers, though, children: do your own archive-diving.) So while it would be amusing to expand these three examples — especially the first — the exercise probably would not help all of you nonfiction synopsis-writers a great deal. Sorry about that, truth-tellers.

In this evening’s post, I shall be tackling the ever-burning issue of how to write a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. Keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better second-place winners in adult fiction, David A. McChesney’s SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS and Ellen Bradford’s PITH AND VINEGAR

Dave McChesney author photoEllen Bradford author photo

My apologies for the must-have-been-agonizing delay between the prize posts for the first-place winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest and the second-place winners. Believe me, the lapse was not intended to be editorial: I’m excited about both of today’s winners, but I had a bit of a car-crash recovery setback earlier in the week. I didn’t want to risk sounding grumpy about two writers whose narrative voices I like quite a bit.

So a drum roll, please, for the joint winners of second prize in Category II: Adult Fiction: David A. McChesney’s SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS and Ellen Bradford’s PITH AND VINEGAR.

While all of that portentous rumbling is still hanging in the air, let me take a moment to air one of my pet peeves: gratuitous quotation marks. The other day, a staffer at my physical therapist’s office handed me a special-ordered piece of medical equipment in this bag:

misused quotes

What, one wonders, was the writer’s intent in placing quotation marks around my name? Was he in some doubt about whether it was my real name — as in, This belongs to the so-called Anne Mini? Did he mistakenly believe that he was shipping this not particularly personal piece of equipment not to my PT, but to a monogrammer, and he wanted to make sure the right spelling stitched into it? Or had someone immediately behind him just shouted my name, and he was quoting her?

Was this merely a case of forgotten attribution? Is this an obscure quote from a book I do not know — a minor work of Charles Dickens, perhaps? Or, still more disturbingly, is this kind soul trying to let me know, albeit in code, that somebody out there is talking about me?

None of the above, probably: my guess would be that the guy with the marking pen thought, along with a surprisingly high percentage of the marking-things population, that quotation marks mean the same thing as underlining. He is mistaken.

Don’t ever follow his example. To a professional reader, the common practice of placing things in quotation marks to indicate either emphasis in speech (“Marvin K. Mooney, will you ‘please go’ now?”), a stock phrase (everybody laughed, because “all the world loves a lover”), or just to call attention to individual words on a sign (Fresh “on the vine” tomatoes, 3 for $2) simply looks illiterate. Sorry to be the one to break the harsh news, but it’s true.

So how should one use quotation marks? How about reserving them for framing things that characters actually say?

I know; radical. The next thing you know, I’ll be calling for aspiring writers to use semicolons correctly.

I do not bring any of this up lightly — or, indeed, purely to rid the world of a few more sets of perplexingly-applied quotation marks. Both of today’s entries grabbed the judges with their strong, distinct authorial voices, but each left us murmuring amongst themselves, speculating about what the writer’s motivations might have been.

Although these two first pages don’t actually have a great deal else in common — other than both beginning the text 1/4 of the way down the page, rather than 1/3; the addition of a single additional double-spaced line would have made a positive cosmetic difference in both — the judges agreed that they shared a certain kinship: the unanswered question might well lead even an agency screener who admired the writing to hesitate about reading on.

Why? Well, Millicent isn’t all that fond of unanswered questions on page 1, and with good reason: in order to be able to recommend a novel manuscript to her boss, she is going to have to be able to tell him (a) who the protagonist is, (b) what the book is about, (c) the book category, (d) to what specific target audience within that book category’s already-established readership it should be marketed, and (e) how this book is different/better than what is already on the market for the folks mentioned in (e).

If Millicent can’t answer any of these questions. she’s going to have a hard time convincing the agent even to read the submission. (Actually, she prefers to be able to answer all of them by the bottom of p. 1, but she’s prepared to change her mind between then and p. 50.) And no, “But the writing is so good!” is no substitute for being able to come up with answers: books are pitched to editors within well-established categories.

So when a fresh, new narrative voice that does not appear to fit comfortably within an existing book category, our Millie is left in something of a quandary. How, she wonders, is she going to make the case for this book?

That’s a good exercise to apply to any manuscript, incidentally: reading a first page or book description and trying to figure out the book’s category is excellent practice for narrowing down your own. In that spirit, take a gander at Dave McChesney’s first page and book description; tell me, what do you think the category is?

Dave McChesney's p 1

If you found yourself murmuring, “Hmm, this reads like Naval Adventure,” you agree with most of the judges. Even more so if you additionally told yourself, “I’d bet a doubloon that there’s adventure awaiting those characters within the next page or two.” Although some of the judges felt that it might have been more of a Millicent-grabber to toss the characters straight into that imminent action, none denied that page 1 set up the expectation for excitement.

Cast your eyes over the book’s description, though, and see if you think the proverbial shoe still fits the assumed book category:

McChesney synopsis

Still sounds like a rollicking Naval Adventure, doesn’t it? Or do I sense some puzzled head-scratching out there?

“Wait just a doggone minute, Anne,” head-scratchers across the English-speaking world protest. “He hopes to quickly set out for his world, England, and Evangeline, but finds obstacles continually placed in his path? In the known world? Does this take place in a different world, or this one? And if it’s the former, shouldn’t that be made clear to Millicent on page 1?”

Well caught, head-scratchers — and in answer to that last question, a resounding yes. Let’s take a gander at how Dave himself categorizes his book:

SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS, the second Stone Island Sea Story, combines Naval Adventure and Fantasy. An additional yet similar world gives these voyagers of the early nineteenth century more seas to sail and challenges to meet. Uniquely, they are aware of and able to control their journeys between the two worlds.

An interesting notion, right? But you can already hear Millicent slapping her forehead and muttering, “How on earth am I going to define this book for my boss?”

Universally, the judges felt that in fairness to Millicent, some fantasy elements should appear on page 1. Otherwise, they argued, it was simply too likely that when she came upon fantastic happenings later in the manuscript, she might conclude — wrongly in this case — that Dave did not know that he was genre-jumping, or that the authorial choice to present a fantasy premise in a completely dedicated naval fantasy voice was in fact a choice, not a misunderstanding of how book categories work.

That’s why Dave’s taking the quite large risk of telling Millicent in his brief book description (and presumably in his query) that this is a category-crosser is quite smart. True, there is not a great deal of demonstrable overlap between the readership of these two categories. (Which is why I am bound to mention marketing advice agreed-upon by a full half of the judges: since this is such a strong Naval Adventure voice, why not write a straight Naval Adventure first, land an agent that way, and then segue into fantasy with the NEXT book?) Also, if an agency is not open to the possibility of combining these two disparate categories in a single book — or, in this case, a series — its Millicent may well reject the query on that basis alone.

So why is it smart to give her the opportunity up front? Because for a truly genre-expanding novel to make it into print, it’s going to need an agent willing — nay, eager — to take on the challenge. Trust me, it’s far, far easier on a writer emotionally to find out a particular agent is not up for it at the querying stage, rather than several years into an unhappy writer-agent relationship.

Let’s assume for the moment that Dave’s query has already passed muster with the Millicent guarding an agency very much up for this challenge. How might Millie respond to this first page?

Dave's edit

As you may see (and we have continually seen throughout this series), how a professional reader responds to a page of text can be extraordinarily different from how an ordinary reader might. I would be surprised, for instance, if many of you had caught the verb repetition in lines 1 and 2, or the lack of a necessary paragraph break on line 8. (It’s a bit confusing to have one person speak and another — or in this case, several others — act within the same paragraph.) Or, really, to be actively annoyed by the almost universal Baby Boomer tendency to compress the phrase all right into alright.

I blame album cover lyrics for the ubiquity of that last one. (If you don’t know what album covers are, children, ask your grandparents.)

Nor would the average reader be likely to gnash her teeth over the preponderance of tag lines, those pesky he said, he mentioned, he groaned speaker-identifiers, but Millicent’s choppers are unlikely to remain ungnashed. Why? Well, one of the standard measures of the reading level of the target audience is the frequency with which tag lines appear: in books for early readers, for instance, who may well be reading aloud or having the book read to them, tag lines are virtually universal.

“See Spot run, Dick,” Jane said.

“I see Spot run,” Dick replied. “Run, Spot, run.”

In most adult fiction, on the other hand, tag lines are deliberately minimized. Although the frequency with which they are expected to appear does vary from book category to book category (chant it with me, campers: there is no substitute for reading widely in your chosen book category, to learn its norms), most of the time, it’s simply assumed that the reader will be able to figure out that the words within quotation marks are in fact being spoken aloud by a character without the narrative’s having to stop short to tell us so.

After all, quotation marks around words can only mean that either those words were spoken out loud or the narrative is trying to cast doubt upon the authenticity of something (as in “I see you’re wearing your ‘designer’ dress’ again, Alice.”), right?

Typically, tag line minimization is achieved by incorporating other action or thought into a dialogue paragraph — or simply to alternate between already-established speakers. Like so:

“Oh, there’s Spot at last.” Jane blew on her freshly-filed nails to free them from dust before she applied screaming red polish. “And there he goes. See Spot run, Dick.”

Dick backed against the wood-paneled wall, eyes wide. “I see Spot run. Run, Spot, run!”

Jane lowered one heavily-lashed lid, the better to aim her gun. “How would you feel about following Spot’s example, Dick?”

“Pretty darned good.”

“Then run, Dick, run, before I change my mind and turn you into Swiss cheese.”

These are all easily-fixed matters of style, however. There was one obviously deliberate authorial choice, however, that left the judges scratching their heads as if they had wandered into a dandruff convention. Millicent almost certainly would have the same reaction. Any guesses as to what on this page might engender that response?

If you flung your hand into the air, shouting, “Oh, I’ve been scratching my head raw over this one, too! Why are Original Vespican, Original, Baltican all in italics? They aren’t foreign words, are they, or the names of ships, which could legitimately be italicized?”

Apparently not — from how they are used here, they may be the names of nationalities or tribes. If that’s the case, however, it’s hard to guess what the authorial point of italicizing them could possibly be: one does not, after all, routinely employ italics when talking about Swedish fjords or Navaho rugs.

Presumably, there is a perfectly sound rationale behind this authorial choice — Dave’s been an active member of the Author! Author! community for years, and never have I known him to set at naught the rules of standard format for frivolous reasons. I said as much to the other judges, in fact. But they felt — and I must say I concur — that however valid it might be to include those italics in the published version of the book, at the submission stage, the manuscript should omit them.

Why? Well, as we all know (at least I hope we do), manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects. Double-spacing, for instance, and doubling dashes. While it might conceivably be possible for a writer to justify an occasional deviation from standard format, remember, the submitter is literally never there when Millicent screens his manuscript; it is going to need to stand on its own merits. And Millicent is not all that keen on formatting originality: she knows all too well that any fancy formatting in the published book would be the editor’s call, not the author’s.

In Dave’s case, then, it could certainly be argued that no one but his future editor is genuinely qualified to determine whether those italics should remain or not. However, that perfectly legitimate point is not likely to help him much at submission time, if Millicent gets tired of scratching her head over it.

So I offer up this question for your pondering pleasure: since Millicent’s delicate eyebrows are so very likely to be lifted beyond the point of comfort by those page 1 italics, wouldn’t it be more prudent for Dave to hold off on those italics-by-choice until he can discuss it with his future editor? That way, the risk of the italics triggering rejection drops to zero, and he can still make a case for including those italics in the eventual book.

Isn’t it amazing how much issues ostensibly unrelated to either the quality of the writing, the strength and consistency of the narrative voice, or even the inherent excitement of the story can affect its submission chances?

With that capacious question ringing in our ears, let’s turn to Ellen Bradford’s extremely likable page 1:

Ellen Bradford p1

Engaging, isn’t it? I must say, this one won me over in spite of myself: as a professional reader, I tend to be a trifle suspicious of self-deprecating narrators; it’s hard to keep it up for the entire length of a book. It’s even harder to do if the narrative is genuinely funny, as this page is — self-deprecating humor often lends itself to one-note storytelling, and even when it doesn’t, those who do not get the jokes are wont to write off the narrator as whiny.

Hey, I don’t control readers’ reactions. I just tell you about ‘em.

This is a voice that a lot of readers would quite happily follow for chapters on end — but is it compelling enough to carry Millicent on to page 2?

That’s not at all a frivolous question, or even a reflection upon the writing here: let’s face it, Millicent doesn’t make it to page 2 in most submissions. And contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the quality of the writing is not always the determinant of whether she flips the page.

Remember, our Millie likes to be able to answer the basic questions about a submission in at least a cursory way by the bottom of page 1. To recap: (a) who the protagonist is, (b) what the book is about, (c) the book category, (d) to what specific target audience within that book category’s already-established readership it should be marketed, and (e) how this book is different/better than what is already on the market for the folks mentioned in (e).

Take another gander at Ellen’s page 1. How many of those questions would you be comfortable answering?

Oh, it establishes the protagonist and the tone of the book beautifully; one could even make a pretty good guess that the target market is women insecure about their appearance — which is to say pretty much all of us. But what is this book about? Where would it sit on a shelf in Barnes & Noble?

Because the judges were all about book category-appropriateness, the contest’s rules asked entrants to provide a brief paragraph dealing with questions (b) – (e). Here’s Ellen’s response:

Pith and Vinegar will turn the world of adult fiction on its ear. Or its kidney. Take your pick. But what remains non-negotiable and absolutely, undeniably 100 percent pure fact is that adult fiction will be resting on an unfamiliar body part.

As will the story’s heroine.

Again: funny, even charming. But did it answer those professional questions, beyond alerting us that it is fiction aimed at adults?

Is it Mainstream Fiction? Women’s Fiction? Chick lit? The judges were inclined toward the latter, but let’s take a peek at the longer book description, to see if we can find out more.

Pith and Vinegar synopsis

Okay, so the book sounds like a hoot; I give you that. And now we know that it is Women’s Fiction — which is fabulous, as this is a voice that would appeal to many, many readers in that target market. There is surprisingly little funny fiction out there right now featuring larger female protagonists, so you go, Ellen!

But this description would be at a very serious competitive disadvantage at most US-based agencies. Care to guess why?

If you already had your hand in the air, crying out, “But Anne, those paragraphs are not indented, and she skipped a line between paragraphs!” give yourself a hearty pat on the back. You are quite right: in dealing with the publishing industry, every paragraph should be indented. Block-formatting just looks illiterate to Millicent.

You wouldn’t want her to think you were the kind of person who would shove quotation marks around perfectly innocent words and phrases for no apparent reason, would you?

No, but seriously, folks, this is a trap into which well-meaning aspiring writers inadvertently stumble all the time. An agency’s submission guidelines ask for an unusual addition to the query packet, or the form-letter positive response to a query requests a much shorter synopsis than the writer has on hand. So he tosses something off — only to realize with horror a few days after he sent it that those additional requested materials were not in standard manuscript format.

If that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, think of it this way: which would you prefer, Millicent’s starting to read your synopsis with an open mind, or her harrumphing at the first sight of it, “Oh, no — I wonder if the manuscript is improperly formatted, too,” and beginning to peruse your word with a pre-jaundiced mind?

There’s another common generator of Millicent’s knee jerks back on page 1. Let’s take a gander:

Ellen's edit

A couple of those points caught you by surprise, didn’t they? Almost universally, Millicents are a mite touchy about having jokes explained to them, at least on the page. After the tenth time it happens in a single day of screening, it can start to feel like a minor insult to one’s intelligence.

And there’s some justification to that: the writerly impulse to over-explain has does typically have its roots in a fear that the average reader won’t get it. Much of the time, those fears are unfounded; inveterate readers are a pretty savvy bunch, and professional readers even more so.

Here, those fears are definitely unjustified — it would be perfectly easy to follow the metaphor without, say, the narrative’s informing us three times that it is indeed a metaphor, or repeating the word potato every few lines. With an image that strong, it’s a safe bet that the reader is going to remember it.

Yet our amusing narrator seems far more afraid that the reader’s mind will stray off the relevant spud than to let us know where the story is set, how the narrator fits into the world she is depicting (perhaps she works at the Bloodworthy News?), or even the time frame — because, let’s face it, a lot of women have felt potato-shaped across a broad array of contexts for at least the last century. (They might well have felt that way before, but bathroom scales were not widely available until the 1920s, so they didn’t have numbers to back up the general impression.)

Are you seeing a running theme here, though? Both of these winning entries left Millicent guessing about a few significant matters at the bottom of page 1 — and in both cases, one of those significant somethings was the book category.

But that’s actually not the primary reason that a well-trained Millicent might not turn the page. Any guesses?

Hint: the problem I have in mind is noted twice on the marked-up example above.

Yes, that’s right: the single-sentence paragraphs. Aspiring writers just love these, and as we’ve discussed, they can work well in moderation — to introduce a bit of genuinely startling information or a plot twist that might get lost to the skimming eye if the sentence were attached to the paragraph above or below.

The vast majority of the time, that’s not how such one-line paragraphs turn up in manuscript submissions, however. A surprisingly high percentage of writers who aspire to be funny seem to believe that a single-line paragraph is the only way to designate a punch line, a tactic about as subtle as following Millicent around with a drum kit and executing a rim shot each and every time she reads a joke.

Think about it: if the reader can see from across the room that a joke is coming, because every joke that preceded it in the text was also in a single-sentence paragraph, hasn’t the narration lost the element of surprise so crucial to maintaining a humorous tone all the way through the book?

That doesn’t appear to have been Ellen’s motivation in creating the single-sentence paragraphs here, though; my guess is that they are intended to reflect the greater-than-full-stop pause these statements might carry in verbal speech. Regardless, breaking the it takes at least two sentences to form a narrative paragraph rule doesn’t actually provide any benefit to the narrative — certainly not a large enough bang to outweigh the risk of a very well-read Millicent’s knee jerking over it.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here are the opening three sentences as submitted:

If eyes were the windows to the soul, I was a potato.

Well, metaphorically speaking, I was a potato. Physically, I didn’t look like a root vegetable unless I turned sideways in one of those nasty change-room mirrors that sadistic shops selling Barbie-sized clothing always mounted on their flimsy doors.

Got those firmly in mind? Now cast your eyes over them with the single-sentence paragraph problem removed in the most obvious manner imaginable — although while I’m at it, I’ll do a spot of trimming.

If eyes were the windows to the soul, I was a potato. Well, metaphorically speaking. Physically, I didn’t look like a root vegetable unless I turned sideways in one of those nasty change-room mirrors that sadistic shops selling Barbie-sized clothing always mounted on their flimsy doors.

Was any meaning lost in that transition? Any nuance, even? Is there anything to prevent someone reading it out loud from emphasizing that first sentence?

Of course not. The same holds true for the other single-sentence paragraph. Let’s review it in context:

A few stray hairs perhaps, under harsh fluorescent lighting, but everyone knew how cruel those lights could be.

All right.

I may in some tiny and insignificant way, have resembled a potato. But some potatoes on eBay looked like the Virgin Mary or Albert Einstein, so there was a lot of genetic variance. And metaphorically speaking, I was covered with many eyes, like a potato.

And here it is again, cleaned up a trifle:

A few stray hairs, perhaps, under harsh fluorescent lighting, but everyone knew how cruel those lights could be.

All right, I may, in some tiny and insignificant way, resemble a potato. But some potatoes on eBay looked like the Virgin Mary or Albert Einstein, so there was a lot of genetic variance. And metaphorically speaking, I was covered with many eyes.

Okay, so that was more than a trifle, but you know how I (and Millicent) feel about word repetition and comma use. My point is — and you probably saw this coming, right? — that stand-alone paragraph wasn’t actually adding anything significant to the text. The next paragraph was able to absorb it into its first sentence with no loss of meaning at all.

What lesson are we to derive from all of this? Several, actually. First, I clearly was eager to jump back into the swim of commenting on these entries — this is a long post, even by my standards. Second, while it may require a bit of plot massage, the more you can show Millicent of the book’s tone, what it’s about, who the protagonist is, and so forth by the bottom of page 1, the happier she will be.

Finally, as we’ve been seeing throughout this series, even a very well-honed narrative can often benefit from a bit of judicious revision. Just to stick that bug in the ear of all of you who are going to receive requests for pages in the months to come: fight the urge to send off those pages instantly; it’s well worth your time to re-read those pages IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before popping ‘em in the mail or hitting SEND.

Do I need to remind you about Millicent’s jumpy knee? Don’t make me pull out another quotation mark example to get her going.

A few more contest entries to come, then it’s on to Synopsispalooza, beginning on Saturday. Well done, Ellen and Dave, and keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better first-place winners in adult fiction, Curtis Moser’s Perdition and Jens Porup’s The Second Bat Guano War

Curtis Moser author photoJens_Porup_photo

Welcome back to our ongoing salute to the winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest in Category I: Adult Fiction. I am genuinely thrilled, not only to be able to bring you tantalizing tastes of some very talented writers’ prose, but also by the extraordinarily rich fund of discussion points these page 1s have been providing. Honestly, even though I’ve been chattering on here at Author! Author! for over five years about craft, presentation, voice, submission, and manuscript formatting, I keep finding myself thinking while I am typing, is it possible I’ve never blogged about this before?

Today’s exemplars are particularly fine ones, Adult Fiction first-place winners Jens Porup (the dapper fellow on the right, above) and Curtis Moser (the gentleman on the left with the two wee friends). The judges felt, and I concur, that both of their first pages were remarkable examples of strong authorial voice precisely suited to their target audiences.

They also felt, as do I, that there were some presentation issues that might prevent either of these exciting, fresh voices from getting a sympathetic reading from our old pal Millicent, the caffeine-quaffing agency screener. And since I know from long, long experience working with first-time authors that these specific presentation problems dog many, many otherwise well-done first pages, I am delighted to have the excuse to talk about them at length today.

First, though, to the voices. As we’ve discussed in the last couple of posts, the match between narrative voice and chosen book category can be vital to the success of a submission, particularly for genre fiction and YA: ideally, a great first page should cause Millicent to sigh pleasurably and murmur, “Ah, this is a fresh take on a story my boss can sell to this market, appropriate in voice, vocabulary, and tone for the intended readership, that also displays a fluency in the conventions of the genre.”

Okay, so that’s quite a bit to murmur over the first paragraph of a submission, but since it is safe to assume that a Millicent employed by an agency that represents a lot of, say, thrillers will be staring at queries and submissions for thrillers for a hefty chunk of any given workday, the last response a thriller-mongering querier or submitter should want to elicit is a spit-take of too-hot latte and a cry of, “Wait — hasn’t this writer ever read a book in this category?” or “What’s that kind of word choice doing in a manuscript intended for this market?”

Or even, saddest of all, “Wow, this is a fresh, exciting new voice. What a shame that it’s not appropriate for the book category in which this talented person has chosen to write.”

Unfortunately for both literature and the health of Millicent’s throat, all three of these reactions to well-written first pages are a part of her normal workday. Often, in the joy of creation, aspiring writers lose sight of the fact that no novel is intended for a general audience. Even bestsellers that turn out to appeal to wide swathes of the reading public begin their publishing lives as books aimed at a specific part of that audience.

And frankly, the reading public expects that. Even the most eclectic of readers understands that a YA novel is not going to read like a romance novel, science fiction, or Western, even if the book contains elements of any or all of those genres, and that an adult genre novel will adhere, at least roughly, to the conventions, tone, and general reading level of its book category.

Were that not the case, brick-and-mortar bookstores would not organize their offerings by category, right? Oh, they usually have a generalized fiction or literature section, but if you’re looking for fantasy, it’s probably going to have a bookshelf of its own, crammed to the gills with novels that share, if not subject matter, at least a species resemblance of storytelling structure and voice.

So while naturally, an aspiring writer should not strive to produce a carbon-copy voice — why should Millicent recommend that her boss pick up a book that sounds precisely like another that’s already on the market? — it’s an excellent idea to re-read one’s submission with an eye to genre-appropriateness. Especially the opening pages, since, as I hope we all know by now, most submissions are rejected on page 1.

Thus it follows as dawn the night that the book description and the first page are not too early to establish that your book fits comfortably into the category you have chosen for it — and thus into Millicent’s boss’ client list. Remember, just as no novel is actually intended for every conceivable reader, no agent represents every type of book. They specialize, and so should you.

Why, yes, now that you mention it, gearing your voice to your chosen book category would be a heck of a lot easier if you invested some time in reading what’s come out recently in it. How savvy of you to realize that what might have struck Millicent as a fresh take fifteen years ago would probably not elicit the same pleased murmuring today.

As fate would have it, both of today’s winning entries fall into the same general book category: thrillers. However, these books are aimed at different readerships within the thriller genre. Curtis’ PERDITION is a paranormal thriller:

Colt Miller has driven by the cemetery house for years. When the owner died, he watched the shingles curl and the porch sag, and in his mind he nurtured the fantasy of restoring it to its former beauty. So when the bank finally brings it up for auction and there are no bidders, Colt is thrilled to purchase it cheap. After he finds the body of a little girl in the basement, however, the thrill ebbs along with his enthusiasm, and the memory of the loss of his own daughter threatens to swallow up what remains of his business, his life, and his sanity.

Sounds like a story about an interesting person in an interesting situation, right? Yet the potential for paranormal activity didn’t jump out until that last sentence, did it? If I were editing this paragraph in a query, I would bump some of the skin-crawling feeling up to the first sentence, on the general principle that a Millicent who read queries for paranormal thrillers all day might not be automatically creeped out by the word cemetery.

But it does read as genre-appropriate, and that’s the most important thing. So does Jens’ brief description for THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR (the judges’ favorite title in the competition, by the way):

This hard-boiled spy thriller set in Peru and Bolivia is an unflinching look at vice and corruption among expatriate Americans living in South America. When the hero’s best friend and CIA handler goes missing, he must risk everything to find him.

While this is a perfectly fine description, as those of you who followed the recent Querypalooza series are no doubt already aware, I prefer even the briefest novel description to give more of an indication of the book’s storytelling style and voice. Unlike Millicent, though, I did not need to judge the style on this terse paragraph: I asked Jens for a more extensive description.

Rats ate his baby daughter while he partied in a disco. Now Horace “Horse” Mann is a drugged-out expat teaching English to criminals in Lima, Peru. Oh, and doing the odd favor for the CIA.

When his drinking buddy and CIA contact, Pitt Watters, goes missing, Horse’s efforts to find him hit a snag. He comes home to find his lover, Lynn — Pitt’s mother — strangled in his apartment. Arrested and charged with murder, Horse escapes Lima and follows his only lead to a Buddhist ashram on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

There, Horse uncovers his friend’s involvement with a group of Gaia-worshipping terrorists who want to kill off the human “disease” infecting the earth.

The group’s leader, a world-famous vulcanologist, explains that only a new generation of lithium-ion batteries can replace the dwindling supply of fossil fuels. The group plans to set off a volcanic chain reaction that would destroy the world’s most promising lithium fields, and thus ensure that man pays for his polluting sins.

Horse finally finds Pitt on top of a volcano, his thumb on the detonator. Pitt confesses to killing Lynn, begs Horse to join him in the purification of Gaia. Horse must choose: end the world, himself, his guilt? Or forgive himself the death of his daughter, and find a way to live again?

Complete at 80,000 words, THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR is a hard-boiled thriller set in South America, with an environmental twist.

Sounds like precisely what the first description promised: a hard-boiled spy thriller. But this description shows these qualities, in a voice that’s book category-appropriate; the first just asserts them.

And if you found yourself murmuring, “Show, don’t tell,” congratulations: you’re starting to think like Millicent.

I love this description for another reason, though — it’s a glorious illustration my earlier point about Millicents working in agencies that represent different kinds of books looking for different things at the querying and submission stage. A Millicent habituated to screening thrillers would glance at that first sentence and murmur, “Wow, that’s a graphic but fascinating detail; I don’t see that every day,” whereas a literary fiction-reading Millicent have quite the opposite response: “Wait, didn’t rats eat a protagonist’s baby sister in Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER?”

The moral, in case I’m being too subtle here: what’s fresh in one book category will not necessarily be in another. If Cormac McCarthy’s beautifully-written THE ROAD had shown up as a first novel in a science fiction/fantasy-representing agency, its Millicent would have rolled her eyes and muttered, “Not this old premise again!”

Happily, the target audience for hard-boiled spy thrillers tends not to have much overlap with that for literary fiction. For one thing, about 90% of habitual literary fiction buyers are female, whereas the overwhelming majority of spy thriller readers are male. So not only does Jens not need to worry too much about perusers of the Nobel Prize in Literature short list catching the similarity; they probably won’t even be browsing in the same part of the bookstore.

Before I move on to what really makes these two entries remarkable, the strong voices in their openings, I can’t resist pointing out a common synopsis and book description faux pas in that last example. Take another peek at its last paragraph: can anyone tell me why it might be problematic at query or submission time?

Award yourself a gold star if you instantly cried out, “A synopsis or book description for a novel should concentrate on the plot!” (And take two more gold stars out of petty cash if you thought that the first time you read that description.) When an agency’s guidelines ask for a synopsis, they expect an overview of the plot: basic introductions to the main characters and their conflicts. Mentions of technical matters like the length or book category do not belong here.

But that’s not actually the reason I flagged this paragraph. Any other guesses? (Hint: a LOT of queriers include this faux pas in their letters, too.)

Give up? The phrase Complete at 80,000 words actually doesn’t make sense in a novel query. Novels are ASSUMED to be complete before the writer begins to query them — so why mention it? All bringing it up achieves is to make Millicent wonder if the querier is also sending out letters for other novels that are not yet complete.

Also, the mention of the word count, while well within the standard range for thrillers, is not particularly helpful information to include. It’s not a usual element in a synopsis or book description, but even in a query, it can only hurt you.

Why? Well, as I argued at the beginning of Querypalooza, the only use Millicent can make of word count in a query is if it is higher or lower than expected for that book category. And that use is, “Next!”

“130,000 words!” she exclaims, reaching for the form-letter rejections. “Far too long for my boss to be able to submit to editors in this book category. Too bad, because the book description sounded interesting until that last bit about the word count. And why on earth would she be wasting my time with a manuscript that wasn’t complete?”

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, some agency guidelines (but not many; check) do specify that they would like to see word count mentioned in queries: speed of rejection. Think about it: if Millicent does not realize until she has opened the requested materials submission packet that the manuscript is longer than her agency wishes, she will usually read at least the first page anyway. And if she is taken by that first page, she might well read on.

So by the time she realizes that there are 120 more pages in that manuscript than her boss would like, she might already have fallen in love with it. The agent might have, too. In the worst-case scenario, their only course might be to sign the writer and ask her to trim the manuscript.

So including the word count is to the querier’s advantage how, precisely?

Speaking of falling in love with a new writer’s voice, I imagine that you’re getting impatient to read those aptly-voiced first pages I’ve been going on and on about. Let’s begin with Curtis Moser’s:

Curtis Moser page 1

And here is Jens Porup’s:

Jens Porup p1

Original, assured authorial voices, right? Fresh without sending up red flags that the book to follow might not fit comfortably into the stated book category (although personally, I found the Colt 45 joke in the first a bit obvious: wouldn’t it be funnier to let the reader figure out later in the story that the guy named Colt was indeed 45?), these opening pages both announce where these books will sit in a bookstore and promise good, genre-appropriate writing to come.

Not only that, but both protagonists come across as interesting, quirky people faced with interesting, unexpected challenges. We as readers might be quite happy to follow these guys around for a few hundred pages.

But did something seem slightly off on both of those page 1s? Something, perhaps, in the formatting department?

Hint: they should look quite a bit more alike than they currently do. An even bigger hint: in one major respect, they have opposite problems.

Still not seeing it? Okay, let’s take a gander at both first pages with the formatting irregularities fixed. Again, Curtis first, then Jens:

Curtis reformatted

Jens page 1 reformatted

They look much more alike this way, don’t they? That’s not entirely coincidental: the point of standard format is that all manuscripts should look alike. That way, the formatting does not distract from professional readers’ evaluation of the writing.

Award yourself one of those gold stars I’ve been tossing about so freely if you cried upon comparing the original versions to the revisions, “By Jove, margins were quite off the first time around. Curtis’ left and right margins are too big; Jens’ left, right, and bottom are too small. And is the slug line in the second in a rather unusual place in the header?”

Exactly so — and as Goldilocks would say, the margins in the revised versions are just right. Nice point about the slug line, too. As small as these deviations from standard format may seem, to someone accustomed to reading professionally-formatted manuscripts, they would be indicative of a certain lack of familiarity with submission norms. At minimum, a pro’s first glance at these pages would tend to lead to reading the actual text with a jaundiced eye: remember, new clients who need to be coached in how the biz works are significantly more time-consuming for an agent to sign than those who already know the ropes.

Even if that were not a consideration, these formatting problems would be a significant distraction from the good writing on these pages. In fact (avert your eyes, children; this sight is going to be almost as distressing to the average aspiring writer as a baby gobbled up by rats), there’s a better than even chance that the formatting would have prompted Millicent not to read these pages at all.

Okay, so it’s not up to baby-consumption levels of horror, but it’s still a pretty grim prospect, right? See why I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to comment upon these pages? A few small formatting changes will render them much, much more appealing to Millicent.

Bonus: all of the formatting gaffes you see above are very, very common in submissions. In fact, they were extremely common in the entries to this contest — which is why, in case any of you had been wondering for the last few paragraphs, deviations from standard format, although explicitly forbidden in the contest’s rules, did not disqualify anybody.

Hey, there’s a reason that I run my HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT series a couple of times per year. (Conveniently gathered for your reading pleasure under the category of the same name on the archive list at right, by the way.) The overwhelming majority of aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that formatting is a matter of style, rather than simply the way the pros expect writing to be presented.

Let’s take these pages one at a time. Curtis’ left and right margins are set at 1.25″, rather than the expected 1″. While this formatting choice was actually rather nice for me as an editor (don’t worry, the marked-up versions are following below), it would necessarily throw the estimated word count for a loop: as you may see from the before and after versions, 1″ margins allow for quite a few more words on the page. So does turning off the widow/orphan control (which you will find under the FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS section in Word), so that every page has the same number of lines of text.

Now let’s talk slug line, that bit in the header containing the author’s last name, book title, and page number. Or rather, it should contain the page number: on this page, the number is off on its own, on the far side of the page. So the slug line looks like this:

Moser / Perdition

Rather than the expected:

Moser/Perdition/1

As you have no doubt already noticed, the expected version does not feature spaces before and after the slashes. What you may not have noticed, however, was that in the original, the slug line was in 10-point type, rather than the 12-point that should characterize every word in a manuscript. Also, the chapter title is in 14-point type AND in boldface, both standard format no-nos.

I’d actually be astonished if you spotted the other font-based problem, because the key to diagnosing it lies in being able to see it in soft copy: the skipped double-spaced lines between the chapter title and the first line of text are in 14-point, too. The difference on the printed page is miniscule, admittedly, but while we’re revising, we might as well go the whole hog, eh?

Jens’ page 1 is even more likely to be rejected on sight, due to his margins: 1.17″ at the top, .79 inch along the other three sides, and as the exclaimers above pointed out, the slug line is at the bottom of the header, rather than at the usual .5 from the top of the paper. In most literary contests, shrinking the margins to this extent would result in instant disqualification, but hey, we do things a little bit differently here at Author! Author!.

The funny thing is, shrinking the margins actually didn’t get much more material on this page. As some of you compare-and-contrasters may already have noticed, were the chapter title and space between the top of the page and the beginning of the text shrunk to standard format for a chapter opening, only a line and a half would be pushed to page 2.

Actually, if Jens were willing to change the font to Times New Roman, he’d actually gain space. To tell you the truth, I always discourage my editing clients from submitting work in Courier, anyway (or, in this case, Courier New): yes, it’s technically acceptable (and required for screenplays), but Times New Roman is the industry standard for novels.

Besides, it’s spiffy. Take a gander:

Jens page 1 TNR

Looks quite a bit sharper, doesn’t it? True, part of that increased neatness comes from bringing the page more in line with what Millicent would expect cosmetically: starting the text 1/3 of the way down the page, moving the Chapter One up to the top, not left-justifying anything but the slug line, and removing both the extra spaces and selective capitalization from that.

Hey, every little bit helps, right?

Now that we’ve gotten all of that distracting formatting out of the way, let’s see how Millicent responds to Jens’ first page now that she is reading it:

Jens edit2

Pretty positively, by professional readers’ standards, right? The judges felt the same way — but believed, as I do, that a couple of minor text changes would make Millicent like it even more. The first suggestion, however, would require substantial rearrangement of this opening scene.

Why? Well, in a novel’s opening, speech without a speaker identified – or, in this case, without the narrative’s even specifying whether the voice was male or female — is a notorious agents’ pet peeve. It’s not on every pet peeve list, but it’s on most. Guessing really drives ‘em nuts.

“It’s the writer’s job to show me what’s going on,” Millicent mutters, jabbing her pen at the dialogue, “not my job to fill in the logical holes. Next!”

On Jens’ page 1, having the action of the scene turn on a disembodied voice is even more dangerous, because it raises the possibility that perhaps this book should have been categorized on the other side of the thriller spectrum: as a paranormal thriller like Curtis’, rather than a spy thriller. Oh, it didn’t occur to you that the voice might have been of supernatural origin? It would to a Millicent whose boss represents both types of thriller.

The other avoidable potential red flag here is the word choice chancre. It’s a great word, but let’s face it, thriller-readers tend not to be the types to drop a book on page 1 in order to seek out a dictionary’s assistance. Even if Millicent happened to be unusually familiar with social disease-related terminology, she would probably feel, and rightly so, that this word is aimed above the day-to-day vocabulary level of this book’s target audience.

And no, I’m not going to define it for you. Despite all of this talk of baby-eating, this is a family-friendly website.

Dismissing the manuscript on these grounds would be a genuine shame — this is one of the most promising thriller voices I’ve seen in a long time. This jewel deserves the best setting possible to show off its scintillations.

And once again, isn’t it remarkable just how much more closely professional readers examine even very good text than the average reader? Here, Curtis’ first page gets the Millicent treatment:

Curtis edit

Again, a great opening, exciting new voice, and genre-appropriate, with the fringe benefit of a real grabber of an opening sentence. (That, ladies and gentleman, is how one constructs a hook.) The character-revealing specifics in the second paragraph are also eye-catching: considering that all of these telling details are external characteristics, they certainly give a compelling first glimpse of the man.

I see that Millicent agrees with me that that drawing the reader’s attention to the Colt 45 analogy twice on a single page might be overkill, though. Funny how that worked out, eh? She left it in the title — as, remarkably, would I — but advised cutting the unnecessary explanation at the beginning of paragraph 2.

The other easily-fixable element is an old favorite from this summer’s first page revision series: all of those ands. As we discussed in Juniper Ekman’s grand prize-winning entry last time, the frequent use of and is common in both YA and first-person narratives, as an echo of everyday speech.

On the printed page, especially if that printed page happens to be page 1 of an adult narrative, all of those ands can become wearying to the eye. As, indeed, does any word or phrase repetition: they tempt the weary skimmer to skip lines. Take a gander at how the word and phrase repetition here might jump out at Millicent:

Curtis page 1 ands

See how that percussive repetition conveys the impression that the sentence structure is far less varied than it actually is? Yet as individual sentences, most of this is nicely written — and despite all of the ands, there is only one honest-to-goodness run-on here.

The good news is that, like most word repetition, this is going to be quite simple to fix. It merely requires taking a step back from the text to see it as a pro would: not merely as one nice sentence following another to make up a compelling story and fascinating character development, but as a set of patterns on a page.

Wow, that was a productive little discussion, wasn’t it? Many thanks to Jens and Curtis for prompting it.

Oh, and once again, congratulations!

Next time — which may well follow late tonight, post-PT energies permitting; we’ve got a lot of contest winners to get through between now and the grand opening of Synopsispalooza on Saturday — I shall present you with another set of first-place-winning entries, this time in YA. Keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better first-place winner in YA, Natalie Hatch’s Breeder

N.Hatch

I’ve got a relatively short one for you tonight, campers: YA Natalie Hatch’s BREEDER, first-prize winner in Category II: YA. I’m fond of this entry, perhaps because Natalie had me by the end of the first page of her brief description: the tale of a runaway girl who takes up with a crew of space pirates.

What’s not to like, really?

Should the length of this post be seen as in itself a commentary upon Natalie’s first page? Well, yes and no. No, because I’m hurrying through our ongoing praise/critique fiesta on the winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest — the reason I am posting twice today, to make sure that we get through them all before Synopsispalooza begins on Saturday. And yes, because today’s winning page does not offer all that many gaffes to point out.

That’s a good thing, of course, and perhaps not an altogether surprising one. Since entries closed for this contest, Natalie tells me, BREEDER won the YA category in an Australian children’s and YA writers’ competition. So were I to devote this post entirely to praise and skimp on the critique, I doubt anyone would blame me.

But that’s not really my style, is it? I’m here to milk these marvelous first pages for all of the discussion value I can.

A little praise to start out, however: Natalie’s book definitely has a great premise, an interesting protagonist in an interesting situation, facing a genuinely difficult conflict. In YA, that last is not a foregone conclusion: as our old pal, Millicent the agency screener would be only too glad to tell you, many, if not most, YA submissions feature relatively low-stakes conflicts.

Oh, what’s going on may feel like the end of the world to the protagonists of these novels, but the actual consequences of their actions, even in a worst-case scenario, are often as low as oh, no, my parents might find out. Not that there haven’t been interesting YA plots with this as the most horrifying imaginable outcome, but still, you can understand why a Millicent who screens YA queries and submissions all day, every day might conceivably long for something a bit more dramatic.

The book description for BREEDER will definitely make her sit bolt-upright in her chair. The stakes could hardly be higher for the protagonist:

The Farm needs Breeders, young girls drafted into two years of human egg production for the benefit of rich, but infertile, inner worlds. Lenni Nichols would rather die than receive the riches that await her at the completion of compulsory service. Unfortunately, faking her own death, disguising herself as a male and getting off world is harder than it looks. When Lenni signs on as an engineer to a scavenger vessel, she hopes most of her worries are over. Besides, all she has to do is hide from The Farm’s bounty hunters until the two years are complete and she will be free. Instead, she is plunged head-first into the treacherous life of space pirates. Faced with betrayal, love and loss, Lenni must overcome her own weaknesses in order to survive. She allows vengeance to taint her life and is almost consumed by it, straddling the fine line separating vigilante and villain.

Admit it — you’re already imagining the treacherous life of space pirates, aren’t you?

So am I, and yet, as a longtime reader of adult SF and fantasy, this plot does remind me a little of Octavia Butler’s superlative trilogy, XENOGENESIS, where human women are forced to become breeders for an alien-human hybrid race. Some resisters do in fact planet-hop, flee for their lives against incredible odds, etc., but biology turns out to be destiny in some very unexpected ways.

Given the subject matter here — delightfully original for a YA novel, as the judges kept pointing out to one another — the comparison may be unavoidable. However, I, for one, am not any the less eager to read Natalie’s work for reminding me of Octavia Butler’s.

Again, what’s not to like?

As the pros say, though, it all depends upon the writing. As it happens, that writing is quite good:

Natalie Hatch p1

I ask you, however: had you not already read the book description, would you have thought of that grabber of a first page as YA? Or would you have focused instead on the subject matter and categorized it as science fiction?

Give that matter a bit of thought, please. Before I give my opinion on the subject — and the judges’ — I want to slip a word in edgewise about my favorite editorial obsession, manuscript format.

Oh, didn’t you catch the formatting problems in the page shot above? Why don’t you go back and take a closer, Millicent-style look? I’ll wait. (If you’re having trouble seeing specifics, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + in order to enlarge the image.)

Need a hint? Okay: there are five formatting problems here, one major and four minor. Need a better hint? We saw a very similar major problem in one of the first prize-winning entries in the Adult Fiction category.

If you have been jumping up and down for the last two paragraphs, shouting, “I know! I know! The left and right margins are too wide!” give yourself a gold star. (I’ve been saying that enough throughout this series that I feel as though I should start including downloadable gold stars in my posts.) They are indeed too wide, by U.S. submission standards: 1″ on all four sides is the norm.

Natalie’s page has 1.25″ margins on the left and right, 1″ margins above. While, as I mentioned yesterday, super-wide margins actually are very nice from an editorial perspective — so much more room for scrawling commentary! Be still, my beating heart! — they are not what Millicent has been trained to expect. Also, they throw off the word count estimate terribly.

Perhaps even more serious from a submission perspective (and definitely more serious if Natalie should decide to query an agency that permits the inclusion of the opening page in her query packet), widening the margins also decreases the amount of text she can include on page 1. And why might that be problematic, campers?

If you cried out, “Because the majority of submissions are rejected on page 1, Anne,” well, you probably already have a closet full of gold stars by now. But well reasoned, anyway.

To show those of you strapped for space just how much more room, here is Natalie’s first page, reformatted. To buy her even more room to wow Millicent, I switched the typeface from Courier New to Times New Roman.

Natalie reformatted

Did you catch the four minor problems, now that I’ve fixed them? All of them would have been easier to catch in hard copy than on a computer screen (if you were already murmuring, “Read every page I’m planning to submit to an agency IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD,” good), but the changes are apparent, if you look for them. In the order they appeared in the original:

1. The title of the book was italicized in the slug line.

2. Not enough space between the chapter heading and the first line of text.

3. The text is not consistent about whether it is going to use 2 spaces after a period or just 1.

4. Line -5 began with a space, not a letter.

Of these, #3 is far and away the most common in submissions. Before the rise of the Internet, and thus before public squabbles about whether it was time to jettison the second space after a period (it is never correct to use only a single space after a colon), it was quite rare to see inconsistent inter-sentence spacing: everybody just hit the space bar twice, and that was that. Now, however, since some agents call for one space and some for two, aspiring writers seem to have become confused, sometimes doing it one way, sometimes another.

This solution is unacceptable to neither party. Whether you decide to embrace the double-space convention (correct, but annoying to the small-but-vocal single-space minority) or the single space (pleasing to enthusiasts, but annoying to everyone else), you must apply it consistently throughout your manuscript.

Yes, even if you do the prudent thing and format your manuscript as single-spaced for agents who request it that way, and double-spaced for everyone else. As with all formatting, doing it sporadically will only make your manuscript look confused.

Now that we have those nit-picky-yet-vital formatting issues out of the way, we can return to the question of voice. Clearly, this voice works for this story, but it is YA? If so, what makes it YA, as opposed to the same story aimed at adult readers?

Frankly, I think it depends upon whether this page 1 lands in a YA-representing agency, one that does exclusively adult fiction, or both. Setting the issue of voice-appropriateness aside for the moment, look how Millicent responds to this opening:

Natalie edit

Personally, as an editor, I might have asked a few more follow-up questions than Millicent: how can silence be syrupy, for instance, a word usually associated with saccharine expressions of emotion? If it’s meant literally here (and, from the context, I suspect it is), how could enough of our heroine be left after an explosion to deserve the descriptor syrupy? What are the ages of these two characters? What is their relationship? Why does her suicide benefit her mother?

But as a reader, I would definitely been have been willing to turn the page in order to find the answers. Turn the page being the operative phrase here, right?

Most submissions are, after all, rejected on page 1. Which is precisely why the question of age-level appropriateness is so crucial in this case: if a YA-seeking Millicent sees this as adult-aimed — or, even more dangerous, adult-themed — writing, she may well reject it, regardless of how it is labeled.

I see some knitted brows out there. “But Anne,” some readers pipe up, “I don’t understand why you’re making such a big deal about this. A single narrative voice might well appeal to both teens and adult readers. What’s the big deal?”

The big deal, if you were not sufficiently frightened by the prospect of Millicent rejecting this page on voice-appropriateness grounds, is that this is going to be a tough premise to sell to YA booksellers, school librarians, and other adults responsible for determining what books are available to young readers. Traditionally, reproductive issues have not been all that popular with these adults as subject matter for teens; selling girls’ reproductive capacity might then reasonably be regarded as even trickier to convince an angry parent should be in a high school library.

I’m bringing this up because the voice on this page could very easily be tweaked in order to gear this story to adults. Had the reader been given some reason to believe one or both of the characters in the first scene were teens, that might not be possible, but in the absence of any reference to age, as it stands, there’s nothing about the voice, vocabulary, or even the protagonist that just screams YA voice.

Frankly, the judges engaged in some debate about whether this would have worked better as adult fiction. I was not the only judge to bring up Octavia Butler; the main (only, really) female character in William Gibson’s NEUROMANCER was also mentioned, but that seemed like a bit of a stretch. Most of us felt that this plot and this first page could make it in the tough adult SF market, although when the book description was added to the mix (particularly the part in the contest entry that said the target market was age 15 and up), the consensus was that this first page could also work as YA.

But there was a problem with that formulation: while readers aged 15-21 are technically part of the YA market, in practice, even older YA tends to be aimed at 13-year-olds. And there’s a good reason for that, especially for SF or fantasy — readers above that age are often already fairly deeply into adult fiction.

So what precisely is the difference between writing for Natalie’s intended target audience and for adults?

The usual answer — and one I do not like very much, on general principle — is that if the protagonist is an older teenager (say, around the age of the target market for this book), and female, the book must be YA, because (the logic runs) only a teenage girl would care about a teenage girl protagonist. (Cough, cough.) If, on the other hand, the protagonist is an older teenager and male, whether the book is YA or not depends entirely upon the situation and the writing.

Why? Hold onto your hats, ladies: because both male and female readers are more used to identifying with male protagonists.

Had I mentioned that I dislike this argument? It pops up all the time in literary fiction circles; the same story that with a male protagonist would be marketed as LF might well be steered toward the YA market if it’s about a girl. Rather than hash out that grand debate, though, let’s get back to Natalie’s first page.

Ultimately, the judges decided to take the writer’s word about the target audience — and happily, there is nothing on this page (barring the subject matter itself, which will be an insuperable barrier for some parents) that would rule it out as a YA voice. For a writer harboring sophisticated expectations of her readership, that was a savvy choice.

Given the subject matter, though — reproduction-for-sale has not historically been parents of teenagers’ rush-out-and-buy-it topic for their progeny — I would advise erring on the side of divulging too much about these characters on page 1, rather than too little. Even an oblique reference to age, perhaps accompanied by some expression of feeling toward the protagonist’s mother, might well land this opening firmly in the YA camp.

Although for YA, the nagging question will remain, unavoidably: did the mother sell our heroine into reproductive indentured servitude? Followed closely by: since subaltern is generally just a descriptive term for someone at a lower level in an organization, why is the word capitalized here?

For the answers to these and other burning questions, of course, we must turn to the rest of the book. Which, naturally, was impossible for the contest’s judges — and for the rest of us, until we may purchase it in a bookstore. By then, presumably, the book category issue will have been resolved by the person with the ultimate say: the acquiring editor at a publishing house.

Congratulations on a fine job, Natalie; congratulations on both contest wins. As always, keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Trouble Comes, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Juniper Ekman

Juniper Ekman

After our in-depth discussion of the differences between adult fiction and YA narrative voices last time, I’m delighted to be able to bring you today a marvelous example of a fresh YA voice: 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence in YA winner Juniper Ekman. Like the three other A!A!AEE winners whose work you have already seen, Juniper took top honors in her category. Thus, she is also the Grand Prize winner in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest in Category I. (And what an evocative author photo, eh?)

If Juniper’s name seems familiar to those of you who have been hanging around here at Author! Author! for a while, pat yourselves on the back for your retentive memories: she also won November’s Words to Write By contest. If you recall (hey, I know you’re up for it), that contest asked entrants to submit the quotes that most inspired them as writers, along with a brief explanation why. Here is what Juniper sent in:

“I am a writer. I have books to write. What am I doing building a museum?” ~ Orhan Pamuk, possibly from a New York Times interview on the creation of his new museum

This is a quote I post to each page of my calendar, the quote I have taped to my phone. This is the quote I write in permanent marker on my palm so I can hold it up every time I answer yes to the wrong question:

“Do you have a few hours to make fifteen puppets for the holiday puppet show?”

“I know you’re already working five jobs, but would you mind coming in for an extra shift on Thursday? We forgot to hire somebody to replace the last employee we fired.”

Or when I find myself distracted by my hobbies, my friends, my feller, my life. All the things that make life worth living but prevent me from living on.

What am I doing?

No.

I am a writer.

I have books to write.

You tell ‘em, Juniper. I, for one, am quite in favor of your taking the time to write — and I suspect that in the years to come, many, many young readers are going to be pretty psyched that you did it, too.

What makes me (and the current contest’s judges) think so, you ask? Well, for starters, look how many young readers will identify with her book’s core issue:

Trouble Comes is a contemporary YA novel about finding home wherever your heart lets you, making peace with a life you didn’t ask for, and troubling yourself to care about the world’s troubles. It concerns itself with bowling tournaments, small town secrets, unexpected heroes, and unpleasant people who nevertheless matter.

That first sentence actually isn’t a bad definition for YA aimed at the older part of its market, is it? What teenager has not muttered at least once recently, I SO didn’t ask for this life!

The longer book description, thank goodness, delivers on this rather hefty promise — which a great many don’t, by the way. It’s far from uncommon for an agency screener to be taken with the descriptive paragraph in a query, only to turn to the synopsis tucked into the submission packet to discover a plot or argument that doesn’t seem to match the query.

Juniper’s, however, does fit well with both her brief description and the narrative voice of the book. So you may judge for yourself, here is the longer description.

Trouble Comes description

While I’m praising this page, I should mention the not insignificant achievement that the characters, situation, and narrative voice were engaging enough to make me discount one of my personal pet peeves as a professional reader: character and place names that are a trifle too on the nose. They don’t but every pro, but they’re a bit 18th-century for my taste. Back when defining characters by a ruling passion was fashionable, you could get away with a schoolmaster character named Mr. Thwackum in adult fiction, but now, it’s considered more stylish not to give the whole candy store away up front.

Besides, who wants literally-minded readers to mutter over one’s book, “Oh, come on — Mr. and Mrs. Struggle realized prior to their daughter’s christening that her future life would be trying enough that they should name her Constance?”

Admittedly, names that are direct reflections of the personalities of people and places have enjoyed a long history in YA, as any Roald Dahl fan could testify. Villains are especially likely to be called something like Dastard Lee. These days, however they’re usually confined to works intended for younger readers, rather than the devourers of the kind of meaty, complex characters and situations that appear on page 1 of TROUBLE COMES.

I find too-apt naming especially trying if several characters in a single story are tacitly waving signs declaring This is what I am like! No need to read closely for character development! I might, for instance, have overlooked a town called Last Chance (a remarkable coincidence to which, you will note, the book description specifically calls attention) if the character we’re told is constantly — ahem — sharing her no doubt considerable charms with a variety of Mr. Right Nows to refresh herself as she proceeds along the road to Mr. Goodbar had not been called Mona.

If that didn’t elicit a chuckle, try reading that last sentence out loud. A 13-year-old reader might not catch the implication (although most of the 13-year-old writers I know would), but Millicent definitely will. So might some young readers’ parents — and that could conceivably be a marketing problem, especially for public school libraries.

And while I’m quibbling, I would also like to point out that Journey Jones scans a bit too like actor January Jones’ name — not an insignificant consideration, since that similarity may well cause some readers to picture the protagonist looking like the actor.

Hey, it’s my job to worry about things like this. I only jump all over manuscripts I genuinely like, recall.

Besides, the narrative voice and genuine grabber of an opening don’t need the adrenaline boost of names that let the reader in on the joke. Juniper’s narrative voice captivated the judges, not merely because the writing was so good, but because it was so nicely attuned to her target audience.

This is how YA writing is done, folks. See for yourself — and, as usual, my apologies if the individual letters a trifle blurry on your browser; try holding down COMMAND and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Juniper Ekman's entry

Pretty impressive, eh? In fact, like Jennifer Sinclair Johnson’s Grand Prize-winning entry in Category II: Adult Fiction this page displayed such a strong, assured authorial voice so well suited to its target audience that it actually presented me with a blogging problem: other than the accolade itself, the primary benefit for winning this contest was supposed to be a heaping helping of my patented extensive feedback. But how much feedback could I possibly give on pages as clean as Juniper and Jennifer’s?

You’re all familiar with what the term clean means in a publishing context, right? A clean manuscript is one clean (or relatively so) of typos, grammatical errors, logical holes, missing words, formatting problems, and all of the other hard-to-catch but annoying-to-professional-readers minute points that separate polished prose from, well, the other kind.

Juniper’s first page is so much cleaner than 95% what our old pal Millicent the agency screener sees in an average day that she might be tempted to overlook the few minute details that should be corrected here. (Seriously, your future agent is going to be jumping up and down about your revision eye, Juniper: it’s rarer in talented writers than one might perhaps hope.)

Half of you did a double-take midway through that last paragraph, didn’t you? (Is that the mathematical equivalent to every one of you doing a single-take?) “A few minute details? But this page looks cosmetically perfect to me!”

Ah, but you don’t stare at professionally-formatted manuscripts all day, as an agent or editor routinely does — or the motley collection of nearly-correctly and flatly incorrectly-formatted submissions that find their way to Millicent’s desk. Try to look at a page from the perspective of someone who sees nothing else for hours, days, weeks on end.

Trust me, those tiny gaffes actually would start to jump off the page at you. In fact, you might well begin to find them a trifle annoying. Perhaps — dare I say it? — disproportionately so.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take a long, hard look at Juniper’s first page above. Really concentrate on burning that image into your mind.

Got it firmly imprinted upon your brainpan? Good. Now take a gander at the same page with some minutiae cleaned up:

Juniper's entry formatted

It’s more visually pleasing this way, isn’t it? Pop quiz: what did I change?

Would you believe that it was as many four different things? I moved the slug line to the left margin (it was indented), standardized the spacing after periods (one was off in line 1, and yes, Millicent would have noticed it), added a comma in line 3 (that Millie would have corrected automatically while reading), and removed an instance incorrect capitalization in line -2.

That’s it. And yet the second version looks significantly more polished, does it not? Even just shifting the slug line makes it seem better put-together.

As I have been known to tell the many, many aspiring writers who like to argue with me at conferences about whether minute formatting details actually make a difference at submission time (they do, invariably) and/or if it is Millicent’s job to look past presentation problems in trying to evaluate a manuscript (it is, explicitly), once a professional reader has been at it a while, she develops an almost visceral sense of whether the page in front of her is put together correctly or not.

Translation: don’t expect the little stuff to escape her notice. Or not to affect her evaluation of your work.

True, the miniscule alterations I made above didn’t actually change the writing in this fine opening page, but yes, Millicent — and her boss the agent, as well as the editor to whom the manuscript will eventually be pitched — would prefer the second version. Universally.

So it’s well worth the effort to scrub one’s submissions to this incredibly high presentation standard. Minor gaffes actually are distracting to professional readers — you want your writing to shine without any smudges on it.

Before you blow me away with your collective sigh of resignation, permit me to add: this level of nit-pickery is excellent practice for later in your writing career. Remember, once you have landed an agent, perfectly clean manuscripts will be the minimum expectation, not the icing on the writing cake.

But yes, I’ll admit it: I was a trifle relieved when I noticed the first of those itsy-bitsy flaws on this otherwise spic-and-span page. It’s genuinely a pleasure for an editor to be able to suggest the changes that would elevate a great first page to a perfectly-presented one.

Okay, enough about possible fixes. Let’s talk about what makes this first page so very good from a submission perspective: the narrative voice.

Specifically, that it comes across as both original and as distinctively YA.

That last bit prompted a chuckle or two out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” doubting Thomases and Thomasinas everywhere point out, and who could blame them? “In what conceivable context would a reader not already know before beginning to read this that it’s from a YA book? Presumably, Juniper would be sending this to a YA-representing agency, where it would be read by a YA-trained Millicent working for a YA-representing agent, who would then in turn be offering it to YA-handling editors. YA-reviewing critics would pass judgment upon it, and readers would find it in the YA section of a bookstore. Even here, you presented it as YA. Am I missing something here?”

Perhaps one thing, oh doubters, but it’s a significant one: if Millicent — or her boss, or the acquiring editor — murmurs over even a single sentence of page 1, “Oh, this doesn’t read like YA,” the rest of that pretty series of events you mentioned will not happen.

Voice and vocabulary-appropriateness for the target audience is always important, but never more so than in a YA submission. Even if Millicent likes the writing qua writing, if the vocabulary is pitched even slightly too high or the tone is too adult, it may well end up in the reject pile. And don’t even get me started on how much more difficult it is for manuscripts with substantial amounts of profanity or — ahem — too-specific discussion of the protagonist’s anatomy and the various ways might be co-mingling with other characters’ corporeal beings.

If you doubt that, you might want to hie yourself down to your local junior high school or public library with a YA section. Buy the librarian a nice cup of tea and get her to tell you about the last 17 times a parent came storming into the stacks, demanding to know how a book like this made it into her child’s hands.

You’d be astonished how often the objection is to a single sentence. Or even a word, particularly if it is of the Anglo-Saxon variety.

Juniper’s first page is, I am pleased to report, happily free of triggers for this sort of parent — which is a good trick, given Mona’s apparent — ahem — frequency of physical generosity. A lot of aspiring writers would have taken a cue from films and TV shows aimed at teenagers and peppered the dialogue with profanity.

This opening scene doesn’t need it for authenticity, though. And don’t you just love the tension inherent in the exchange at the bottom of the page?

Remember how I mentioned last time that one of the species characteristics, as is were, of YA was the preponderance of ands, especially in first-person narratives? Juniper embraces that norm here. She does it so well, in fact, and in such a likable, believable YA voice that I suspect that when you first scanned her page 1, the ands did not strike you as especially abundant.

Yet they were, at least by adult fiction standards: as we discussed some months back, since professional readers are trained to spot repetitions and inconsistencies, Millicent’s eye tends to be drawn to them. Take a peek, for instance, at where Millicent charged with screening adult fiction manuscripts would find herself focusing:

Juniper's entry ands

Notice how the percussive and use is almost as distracting to the adult-oriented reader’s eye as the formatting and grammatical anomalies. There’s a reason for that: young readers are used to instructional texts, where sentence structures and vocabulary choices are deliberately repetitive, but adult readers are not. So younger readers’ eyes will tolerate quite a bit more word repetition than older readers’ will.

But with YA-reading glasses firmly in place, this is not only an engaging voice, but an unusually clean page of manuscript. Let Millicent do her darnedest, there’s not a lot to critique here — a trifle unfortunate for illustrative purposes here, but a tremendous plus in a submission.

Remember how I mentioned during Querypalooza that Millicent and her ilk are looking to fall in love with a submission? Take a peek at her reaction when she does.

Juniper's edit

Okay, so it was really my reaction — and a composite of the judges’ — but still, it’s rather startling to see that much praise on a professionally commented-upon manuscript page, isn’t it?

I could, of course, dwell upon a couple of content revisions I would like to see Juniper make — what did that corpse look like when Journey first spotted it, for instance, and how was her second glimpse different? How did the sight of it make her feel, not just in her head, but in her body? — but I think I’ll leave that discussion to Juniper, the agent lucky enough to sign her, and the editor destined to fall in love with this narrative voice.

For now, I shall limit myself to saying well done, Juniper! To you and all of you conscientious, talented writers out there, keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: INDOMITVS, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Cole Casperson

Cole Casperson author photo

Have everyone’s brains unscrambled after the intensive query-and-submission fest that was Querypalooza? Please enjoy the down time, because next week (Saturday, September 25, to be precise) we shall be hurling ourselves head-first (literally) into Synopsispalooza, a celebration of all things…well, I’m sure you can extrapolate.

In the meantime, I have a real treat in store for you: close Millicent-the-agency-screener-eye-views of some genuinely wonderful reader first pages. That’s right, gang: it’s time once again for yours truly to whip out her multicolored editing pens.

I’m genuinely excited to introduce you to today’s writer, 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Cole Casperson, pictured above. Like the three other A!A!AEE winners this year, Cole also won the Grand Prize in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest last June. To render that dual win even more impressive, the first page of INDOMITVS garnered a distinction that no other entry did: the judges agreed that it was a contender for top honors in two categories: Adult Fiction (the category in which it was actually entered) and YA.

How is that possible? Well, for the reason that the judges were unanimous in their eagerness to see me evaluate this entry in a blog post: the voice and plot would have worked for either.

Don’t keep parroting, “How is that possible?” I’m about to let you see for yourself — and please, if the type is too small or too fuzzy on your screen, do yourself a favor and enlarge the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + a couple of times. You’re going to want to say in future that you were among the first to read this promising new voice.

Cole's entry

Compelling, isn’t it? By the bottom of the page, it’s easy to care about these characters; we already are inhabiting their lifeworld.

That’s not easy to do in that few lines, obviously. So what’s the secret? All of those gorgeous specific details, combined with that lovely narrative rhythm: when farmers could step away from their crops and line up in angry rows of bronze…surveying the noisy rotting tree-stump…the drone of the fat midsummer bees reached out and enveloped him in a sphere of frenzied harmony.

That’s some nice writing, eh? Especially coming hard on the heels of a genuinely terrific first line that both flings the reader directly into our hero’s mindset and sets the time period: Marcus Furius would kill a man in six days.

Cole’s brief description in his contest entry also makes the book sound like a heck of a lot of fun:

No novel has focused on a nascent Rome’s most exciting period: the Early Republic. Rome had to start somewhere, and I write about the man responsible, Camillus. In a market where Anakin Skywalker is a kid and Batman Begins, why not explore the prequel to Caesar, Spartacus, Cleopatra, etc?

About half of the judges drew in their breath sharply at that surely exaggerated first sentence: there have most assuredly been novels set in that time period before, a few of them recent releases. And that could be very problematic at query time, because if Millicent happened to work at an agency that had represented such a novel within the last decade (or even if she had read one during that period), she would be likely to mutter under her breath, “Well, this one didn’t do his market research,” and reject the query.

So why, given how negatively Millicents as a group tend to respond to all-or-nothing statements in descriptive paragraphs, did I, alone amongst the judges, cry, “Hooray!” when I spotted this description amongst the winning contest entries?

Quite simply, I knew it would make a terrific example. Those of you who followed my recent Querypalooza series might already have guessed why: queriers and pitchers make this sort of black-and-white claim all the time.

In fact, nearly every entrant in this particular contest included one or more overstatement in her book description — not all that astonishing, given how often such statements turn up in queries. Mistakenly, many queriers seem to believe that the use of superlatives will make their claims to originality, writing quality, and/or marketability stronger and more convincing. But like any other claim made in a query letter, Millicent is unlikely to believe it unless the querier provides some evidence. It is always better to show her that your book is original, well-written, and/or marketable than just to assert it.

To be fair, this description may not have been written for inclusion in a query letter: the contest rules did specify that the descriptive paragraph should explain what is original about the manuscript in question. What, we asked, will this book add to its chosen book category?

Cole’s description satisfies that brief rather well. But I ask you: based on this first page alone, what is the book category, and who is the target audience?

Not immediately obvious, is it?

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, the judges were split about placing this in the Adult Fiction or YA category: the voice, the vocabulary, and the story so far could in fact place it in either, right? Yet being judges, they were in a position to do what a perplexed Millicent scanning a writing sample in a query packet might not necessarily do — ask the writer to produce, as all of the winners and placers were asked to do, a page-length book description.

Take a gander at INDOMITVS’ longer description. Fair warning: I shall be asking you to consider the question of book category again afterward.

INDOMITVS blurb

If you said, “Why, this sounds like historical fiction,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Cole did indeed enter this first page and the description above as historical fiction.

If I know the quick eyes of my hardcore readership, however, a forest of hands was already in the air by the end of the first sentence. “But Anne,” those of you who have followed past discussions of both standard format and Millicent’s pet peeves point out, “wouldn’t some Millicents — or, indeed, many contest judges — not have read this description in its entirety? It’s not in standard format, as I understood that everything that went into a query packet should be, and I thought that it was fairly normal for professional readers simply to skip over openings in italics. So wouldn’t today’s winner be much more likely to make friends and influence people in agencies if he made these relatively small cosmetic changes?”

Why, yes, clever and incisive long-time readers, he almost certainly would. However, it’s a pretty good back jacket blurb, isn’t it? For the purposes of this contest, that’s perfectly okay, italics and all. (It would also make quite a good verbal pitch as is, come to think of it.)

Which is not to say that it couldn’t be improved — or would fly as a 1-page synopsis in a query or submission packet. One of the things I love about this particular contest: in awarding the prizes, I have a genuine opportunity not only to give my readers fine examples of how to do a first page right, but also to help our winners make — wait for it — their great first pages even better.

In that spirit, I’m going to go ahead and give some tips on improving this description, just in case our winner should ever like to tuck it into a query envelope. I also suspect that this feedback might be helpful to anyone out there querying an agency that expects a 1-page synopsis to be tucked into the query packet.

Okay: let’s start with expectations: everything, but everything, that an aspiring writer sends to an agency is a writing sample, and should be treated accordingly. Proofread closely, under the assumption that Millicent will probably turn green at even a single typo; adhere to the strictest standards of grammar and style, on the same principle; use standard format in promotional materials (as opposed to the query letter itself), assuming that Millicent is used to seeing writing samples formatted that way. (And if you weren’t aware that manuscripts and books are not supposed to look alike, run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right before you even consider mailing any pages at all to an agency.)

Would something as simple as a typo or a non-doubled dash in a synopsis be enough to trigger rejection? Not always, but remember, a querier or submitter can have absolutely no idea what has just happened immediately before Millicent opens his packet. For all you know, Millie’s boss might just have finished a tirade on how e-mail and social media have caused the general standards of spelling and grammar to decline, or just yelled at a client for a formatting gaffe.

Yes, both happen. Make sure your materials — all of them — are impeccable.

Then, too, as we saw throughout the summer and in the post on our last winning entry, professional readers are HARSH. Even more so on writing they like than writing they don’t, typically: close scrutiny is the compliment the pros pay writing that they consider publishable; no writer in her right mind would actually want her book to go to press with lingering typos or logic problems, right?

So in not pulling their punches, they honestly believe they are being helpful. Spotting a manuscript’s weaknesses is often a matter of experience, pure and simple. Agents and editors don’t read like everyone else, and neither do good freelance editors. Our eyes are trained to jump on problems like…well, insert any predator-prey analogy you like here.

The point is, we’re fast, and our aim is deadly. And when Millicent grows up, she wants to be just like us.

I am reminded of M.F.K. Fisher’s wonderful anecdote about being solicited by her neighbors to write a preface for a charity cookbook — you know, one of those collections of recipes that were so popular as fundraisers in the 1970s, in which well-to-do local matron share the secrets behind their potluck-famous pineapple upside-down cakes and tuna surprise. The cookbook’s editors, both volunteers, came knocking on Fisher’s door in the hope that having a big-name food writer attached to their compilation of local recipes would make the book sell better. It was, they told her, for a good cause, so she donated her expertise.

Well (the story goes), Fisher genuinely wanted to help them, so she very kindly took the draft book from them and had a good, hard, professional look through the patched-together manuscript. Without missing a beat, she instantly began barking out everything that was wrong with the book: poor editing, meandering writing, abundant redundancies.

All of the things, in short, that professional readers would automatically flag in a manuscript.

When she paused for breath, she noticed that the amateur editors were not gratefully taking notes. Instead, they were dissolved in tears. From their non-professional standpoint, Fisher had been hugely, gratuitously, deliberately mean, whereas from a professional point of view, she had been paying them the huge (and possibly undeserved) compliment of taking their project seriously.

Yes, yes, I know: by this logic, the person eaten by a lion should be flattered by the lion’s impression that he tastes good. But as I have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about ‘em.

The fact is, from a professional perspective, whitewashing an editorial opinion about a manuscript is a waste of everyone’s time. In a freelance editor’s feedback, it would border on unethical.

For those of you who think that this mindset sounds like a pretty fine reason to steer clear of anyone who might be tempted or empowered to pay this particular stripe of compliment, let me hasten to add: the ability to take criticism well is a highly valuable professional skill for writers; in the long run, you will be much, much happier if you start developing it as part of your tool kit before you start working with an agent or editor.

Your dream agent, I assure you, will just assume that you have already have it up your sleeve. This is precisely why your dream agent should not be the first human being other than your spouse, best friend, or mother to set eyes on your manuscript.

All of which is to say: I am cruel here only to be kind. Here is how Millicent would see the book description above.

blurb edit

Startling, isn’t it? At the risk of repeating myself: every syllable an aspiring writer allows to pass under Millicent’s scrutiny is a writing sample. It’s in your best interest to assume an uncharitable reader, rather than — as most queriers and submitters assume — one that will be predisposed to overlook small faux pass in a manuscript that shows real promise.

As this one most assuredly does, by the way. But that doesn’t mean that even a Millicent who fell in love with the strong narrative voice, the interesting and unexpected protagonist, and/or the unusual story would not respond to that first page we all admired so much like this:

Cole edit

And yes, in response to what a good two-thirds of you just thought: this is how a professional reader reacts to a first page she likes. I didn’t spend all summer yammering about first page troubleshooting just because I happen to like book openings, after all.

The good news is that not only are all of the problems here easily fixable; they are easily fixable in under an hour. Certainly a worthwhile investment in improving an opening as compelling as this one’s agent-seeking chances, eh?

Let’s begin with the formatting problems, starting at the very top of the page. Those of us who read manuscripts for a living have been complaining for the last year and a half or so that all of a sudden, we’ve been seeing slug lines — that author-identifying bit at the top of each and every page of a professionally-formatted manuscript — with extra spaces in them, a relative rarity before. Abruptly, aspiring writers were showing up with this:

CASPERSON / INDOMITVS / 1

Rather than this:

CASPERSON/INDOMITVS/1

Or, even more properly — and effectively, given this particular title — this:

Casperson/INDOMITVS/1

The extra spaces on either side of the dashes may look cool to aspiring writers, but to anyone who stares at professionally-formatted manuscripts day in and day out, they will just look wrong. Ditto with the all-caps chapter title seen here:

CHAPTER 1

To writer, this capitalization choice may seem like purely a matter of personal style, but to Millicent, it’s a matter of formatting. In a manuscript, chapter designations are in title case:

Chapter 1

Or, if you prefer:

Chapter One

Several other issues might have been less obvious to the eye unaccustomed to the rigors of standard format, but to a professional reader, they would leap off the page. First, the page is not consistent about having two spaces or one after a period. As we’ve discussed in the past, there is actually some debate amongst agents on this subject, so ALWAYS check agency guidelines before you submit: two spaces is the standard format default, but if an agent has a strong preference for one, for heaven’s sake, give it to her.

Whichever you choose, though, be consistent. Professional readers are specifically trained to catch inconsistencies.

Another problem that would have caught Millicent’s eye is the run-on sentence in line -6:

“Gods, Marcus, hurry up, even the horse is bored.”

There is no real narrative benefit to running two sentences together here, which renders this rule-break a risk without a clear pay-off. While run-on sentences have become much more acceptable in dialogue in recent years than in the Thou Shalt Not decades of the 20th century, they are still grammatically incorrect. It should read:

“Gods, Marcus, hurry up. Even the horse is bored.”

Another often-overlooked rule — or, indeed, one of which many aspiring writers do not seem even to be aware — is the single-sentence narrative paragraph. Here, we see it in line -7:

A thrown acorn clattered off a branch near his head.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that sentence per se. (Although a Point-of-View Nazi might be tempted to ask how precisely, given that the narrative appears to be in the tight third person for the rest of the page, the protagonist could possibly have told the difference between an acorn that was thrown and one that simply fell on him. One suspects that the trajectory might have provided the necessary clue, but the narrative does not discuss it.) Standing alone in its own paragraph, however, it would jar a professional fiction reader: outside of dialogue, a proper narrative paragraph consists of at least TWO sentences.

I specified a fiction-reading pro, because these days, pretty much all U.S. newspaper and magazine writing abounds in single-sentence paragraphs. And, of course, the entire opus of Joan Didion, who popularized the single-line paragraph. Yet more evidence that aspiring writers are held to a significantly higher literary standard than famous ones — and that the AP style embraced by newspapers is not identical to the expectations for book manuscripts.

As Cole is obviously aware, there’s quite a bit of fiction out there right now that breaks this rule. However, the generally-accepted rule of thumb is that the rule should be broken ONLY for emphasis. Like, for instance, when the information divulged in that single line is in some way a surprise. For example, while this would be technically correct:

Jean-Paul scratched his head, perplexed. Now that he had removed the hinges, the door should have been possible to open, but it would not budge. Had it been barricaded from the other side? Before he had even finished formulating the question, the wood splintered, and a hefty green hand reached through the aperture to grasp him by the throat.

A writer might conceivably want to underscore the twist by setting the final sentence off by itself:

Jean-Paul scratched his head, perplexed. Now that he had removed the hinges, the door should have been possible to open, but it would not budge. Had it been barricaded from the other side?

Before he had even finished formulating the question, the wood splintered, and a hefty green hand reached through the aperture to grasp him by the throat.

Reads surprisingly differently, doesn’t it? Yet like any narrative device, the single-sentence paragraph loses its power if used too often. Reserve the single-sentence sentence for when the information is genuinely startling, to set it off from the rest of the text.

As I said, though, all of these problems are easily and practically instantly fixable, the type of things that could have been caught right away by a talented proofreader. There is one danger, however, that a non-professional reader would have been extremely unlikely to catch.

Unfortunately, it is also something that could result in instant (and, I think, entirely undeserved) rejection at many agencies. Care to guess what might press Millicent’s buttons?

No? Let me give you a hint: it is integrally related to the judges’ primary concern about this first page.

If you have been jumping up and down for the last two paragraphs, waving your arms and screaming, “I know, Anne! Millicent is likely to cast her eyes over this page, say, ‘Wait, this is YA; my boss doesn’t represent that. Next!’” take 14 gold stars out of petty cash. This is, believe it or not, the single most likely reason that this first page might be rejected.

Yes, really. If a story opens with a pre-voting age protagonist, many a Millicent at an adult fiction-representing agency has been known to leap to the conclusion that the writer has miscategorized a YA book or (and this is, alas, the more likely surmise if this page comes in a query packet) that the writer just didn’t bother to check whether the agency represents YA or not. Since no query or submission is easier to reject than one in a category Millicent’s boss does not sell, either of these situations would be no-brainer rejections.

Oh, I can tell from here that a lot of you hate that. “But Anne,” writers of stories that begin in the protagonist’s youth and follow him through time protest, “that isn’t fair. If Millicent is confused about the book category, why wouldn’t she just go back and check the query letter or synopsis? Heck, in a submission, she could just check the title page; the book category would be in the upper right-hand corner.”

Good question, linear time-lovers, but I suspect that you won’t like the answer much: because she has a lot of first pages to read today, and her job is to reject 98% of them.

So how can a savvy writer protect her manuscript from this ugly fate? Well, I’m afraid my solution is pretty cynical: even if the book follows the protagonist throughout a lifetime, consider opening the submission version of the manuscript with a scene from her adult life, then jump backward in time.

Hey, you can always cut that opening scene prior to publication, right? Your goal here is to get past Millicent.

A less cynical approach, and one that might work better for Cole’s page, would be to rid the page of any elements other than the protagonist’s age that could be giving off a YA vibe. In this first page, there are several. The use of the historical future in the first sentence, for instance: while historians and other nonfiction writers are fond of this tense (so dramatic!), in fiction, it’s most closely associated with fairy tales (unbeknownst to Hansel and Gretel, that gingerbread house was to be their downfall). In most adult fiction, even if the overall plot is not told in chronological order, the action in an individual scene usually is.

Or, to pony up an old favorite from last summer, the percussive use of and:

Such a thing was not a rarity amongst the Italiots, particularly in the summer months, when farmers could step away from their crops AND line up in angry rows of bronze. This summer had proved to be no exception, AND a single killing would not normally raise eyebrows. But Marcus lived far from the Etruscan border, AND he was only ten years old.

Or, still more YA-like, its repetitive use within a single sentence, to echo a common pattern in childish speech:

Spurius was a year older AND much bigger AND quick with his fists.

While a 10-year-old might legitimately think like this, here, in a narrative that otherwise has an adult tone –heck, it even sports a semicolon in line 6 — it seems to convey an expectation about the audience, as well as information about the protagonist. This structure — technically a run-on — is far more common in YA than in most adult fiction categories. It’s also much more frequently used in first-person narratives (particularly YA first-person narratives), in order to give a (false) impression of a chatty, conversational tone.

The final element that might lead Millicent — and did lead half of the judges — to conclude that the story to follow was YA lies in the name choices. You must admit in any ahistorical novel, featuring a protagonist who apparently has the last name Furius would constitute a bit of a character development give-away: you’d hardly be surprised if this guy turned out to be a trifle on the impatient side, would you?

True, we know from the blurb that this book is about someone who really lived, so his name would not be easy to change. What is completely under the writer’s control, however, is what the character is called in the narrative — and certainly what he is called in the first line of the book. Remember, readers’ first impressions are formed very quickly.

But Marcus’ name isn’t really the part that screams YA here. His brother, a winning tyke apparently named Spurius Furius, does.

Actually, in real life, the guy’s name was Spurius Camillus — our protagonist was, as we know from the book description, Marcus Furius Camillus — but that’s not the point. It would be hard to make a name like this to work on page 1, unless the voice was clearly comedic beginning in the first paragraph.

And don’t suggest that a reader has an obligation to read the back jacket blurb before starting page 1. Even in a published novel, that would be a dangerous presumption; at the query and submission stages, an assumption that Millicent would already know historical characters’ actual names could be fatal.

How so? Well, go back and re-read page 1: is there anything there to indicate that Furius isn’t the boys’ last name? And since a reader of adult fiction must be presumed to be familiar with the term spurious, why wouldn’t Millicent leap to the conclusion that the brother’s name was a joke intended to fly slightly over young readers’ heads, an inducement to beef up their vocabularies, especially in a manuscript where the protagonist is (at least at first) ten years old?

So how should Cole rectify this problem, given that he can’t exactly rechristen people who lived over 2,000 years ago? At the risk of seeming cynical…well, you know what I was about to suggest. Or — and this was what a good half of the judges thought he should do — he could turn the book into YA.

Those are calls that only he can make, of course. Everybody here at Author! Author! is awfully darned excited to see what he decides; the judges were unanimous that they want to be told well in advance when this book is going to be available for sale, so they may pre-order it.

If the rest of you take nothing away from this post, let it be this: even a wonderful first page can almost always be improved. A grabber of a hook, nicely-written sentences, engaging characters, a sense of place — all of these Cole’s opener has in spades. But as a professional reader, that only renders me more excited to read the revised version to come.

Congratulations, Cole — this really does sound like one heck of a book. Keep up the good work!