The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XV: tables of contents, book proposals, and some terms that do not mean precisely the same thing in every conceivable context

revealed wisdom drawing

Still hanging in there, gang? For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been showing you how to format a manuscript professionally, and I’m beginning to fear that in my eagerness and vim, I may have scared some of you a little. Or a whole lot.

My vehemence is kindly-motivated, I assure you: contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, how a submission is presented can indeed make a very great difference in how it’s received. Yes, yes, I hear you, those of you who have been running around to writers’ conferences in recent years: you can hardly throw a piece of bread at an agent or editor’s forum without hitting a pro saying, “It all depends upon the writing.”

They tend to spout this aphorism for a very good reason — it is in fact true. But as we discussed earlier in this series, that doesn’t mean that the quality of the writing is the only criterion agents, editors, contest judges, or any of the rest of us who read manuscripts for a living use when deciding whether to read beyond the first page of a submission. Professional presentation plays a role, as does marketability, a story’s probability of appealing to its target audience (not exactly the same thing), what happens to be the surprise bestseller of the moment — and yes, that whole slew of intangibles that make up personal taste.

There is, in short, no such thing as a foolproof formula for producing the perfect manuscript for submission. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

As I’ve been arguing throughout this series on formatting, however, agents, editors, contest judges, screeners, and other professional readers develop an almost visceral sense of when a manuscript is properly formatted. So rather than screening submissions with a list of don’t by their sides, they more or less automatically discount pages that are cosmetically incorrect.

This is most emphatically not the same thing, though, as rejecting such pages on the spot because, say, an aspiring writer underlined a foreign-language word on page 1 instead of italicizing it. (I know, I know: sacre bleu!) Much as a reader with impeccable grammar will not necessarily throw down a book that misuses semicolons, most professional readers will not instantly reject an improperly-formatted submission without SOME further provocation.

But believe me, the writer in both cases is going to have to work a whole lot harder to impress the reader as literate.

Unfortunately, the prevailing standards for printed books — which, as we have seen, differ in many significant respects from manuscripts — often lead innocent writers astray. Case in point: including a table of contents in a manuscript submission.

That seems as if it would be a helpful page to tuck in there, doesn’t it? One can make an argument for it, certainly: in fiction, including it would enable an agent to go back and re-read the submission easily; in nonfiction, it would permit an editor to skip ahead to a chapter of particular interest. And heck, if the manuscript fell upon the floor in the kind of you got chocolate in my peanut butter!/you got peanut butter in my chocolate! we witnessed with horror earlier in this series, a well-organized table of contents might render it a trifle easier to reassemble, right?

Wrong. Including a table of contents in a manuscript submission is a notorious rookie mistake, the kind of stunt that makes Millicent the agency screener huff with displeasure.

Why is it such a serious strategic error? Well, in a published book, a table of contents, like an index, is a courtesy to browsers trying to get a feel for the contents and buyers who do not necessarily want to read the entire book. In order to serve this function well, however, the pages listed would have to match up with the beginnings of the relevant sections, right?

This is difficult in a manuscript for several reasons. First, Millicent doesn’t expect a table of contents to be there, particularly in a novel submission; it just won’t look right to her. Second, since a published book is typically about 2/3rds the length of its original manuscript (documents shrink in the transition to the printed page), the pages listed on a manuscript table of contents would ultimately be inaccurate, anyway.

Third — and perhaps most pertinent at the submission stage — including a table of contents implies that the author does not expect the reader to read the manuscript in its entirety, merely to flip to the pages that interest him most. From the publishing industry’s point of view, that’s a pretty jaw-dropping assumption — why, they wonder, would an agent or editor be interested in acquiring a book if he doesn’t like it well enough to read it in its entirety?

So really, a table of contents in a manuscript is just a wasted page. Do not include it in a manuscript submission, any more than you would include an index or those boxes around text that magazines are so fond of printing. To professional eyes, it looks unprofessional, especially in fiction.

It’s also an inconvenience — and yes, Virginia, to someone who has to skim as quickly as Millicent to get through the day’s reading, having to turn over an extra page actually is an inconvenience.

Don’t believe me? Okay, think about our time-strapped friend’s expectations when opening a submission envelope: when she turns over the title page, she is looking forward to finding the first page of text there waiting for her, all ready to be judged in a flash. If instead she finds a table of contents, something she would only find helpful if she were to read the entire manuscript, she may well be a trifle miffed. Given that she tends to reject most submissions somewhere between paragraph 1 and page 5, the information that Chapter 8 begins on page 112 will most likely strike her as at best gratuitous — and at worst presumptuous.

“What gives?” she’ll say, taking an extra sip of her too-hot latte as she impatiently gets the table of contents out of her way. “Doesn’t this writer know the difference between a manuscript and a book?”

‘Nuff said, I think.

Or maybe not — do I hear some aspiring nonfiction writers clamoring for my attention? “But Anne,” these excellent souls point out, “a book proposal is supposed to include a table of contents for the planned book, isn’t it? I read it in an article on how to write a book proposal.”

Ah, I’m glad that you brought this up, nonfictionists, because this is a very common misconception amongst first-time proposers. They fall into the classic mistake of assuming that because a term means something in one context, it must necessarily mean exactly the same thing in another context.

In this case, it most definitely does not.

When hyper-literal proposers hear the term table of contents, they assume, wrongly, that an agent or editor is simply asking to see what the writer thinks the table of contents in the published book will look like, presumably as an exercise in guessing how many pages each of the proposed chapters will contain. As a result, first-time proposals tend to include a section that looks a little something like this:

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that Millicent simply would not expect to see this page in a book proposal, do you see any problems with this as a marketing document intended to convince an editor to pay the writer to write the proposed book?

Actually, I’m sure that some of your hands shot into the air even before I showed this example, in your eagerness to take issue with the notion that a submission should resemble a published book in the first place — and thus that the kind of table of contents one might expect to see in a nonfiction book would clearly be out of place in a submission.

Well caught, eager wavers. Spot any other problems?

If you said that the example above doesn’t include information that could possibly be either accurate or useful to an editor, give yourself a gold star for the day. Obviously, it would be impossible for a proposer to state with certainty where the chapter breaks would fall in the proposed book when published; all the information s/he could reasonably offer in this sort of table of contents, then, would be educated guesses about how long each chapter might be. Or perhaps a list of where those breaks fall in the draft manuscript.

But that’s not the information nonfiction agents and editors want to see in the book proposal; they’re perfectly aware that since the book in question has not yet been written (or needn’t be), any length estimates must be just that, estimates, not fact. The information they do want to see in the annotated table of contents section of a book proposal is a brief description of the CONTENTS of each chapter.

The word annotated should have been a clue, I guess.

Typically, each proposed chapter is summarized in one or two paragraphs. Actually, typically is a bit of an exaggeration; what’s actually typical in a first time proposer’s book proposal is either the information-light version we saw in today’s first example or an entire page devoted to each chapter.

Neither is what is expected, however. The typical form I am talking about here is what professional nonfiction authors use.

And like so many other differences between professional formatting and, well, everything else they see in submissions, it’s really, really obvious at first glance to someone who has seen a book proposal before whether the submitter du jour has followed the rules. Compare what the first page of a correctly put-together annotated table of contents looks like with the truncated version above:

See the difference? I assure you, Millicent will. From ten paces away.

Hey, while we’re on the subject, why don’t we take a quick gander at all of the constituent parts of a book proposal, so all of you nonfiction writers out there may be sure that Millicent will like the look of yours? To make the overview even more useful, let’s run through the sections in the order they would appear in the proposal.

First, let’s take a peek at the title page. See if you notice anything distinctive about it:

proposal title

If you immediately cried, “Why, unlike a title page for a novel, the proposal’s title page does not include a word count,” give yourself another gold star for the day. (You’re racking them up today, aren’t you?) The length of a nonfiction book is a contractual matter, typically; since what a proposal is offering is not the finished book, but a book concept and an author to write it to the specifications desired by the publisher, it does not make sense for the writer to guesstimate the length up front.

Award yourself yet another if you also mentioned that the contact information listed here is Scaredy’s agent’s, not Scaredy’s. Naturally, if Scaredy does not yet have an agent, naturally, he would list his own contact info in the bottom-right corner. Any guesses why his address would be replaced by his agent’s down the line?

The reason’s pretty straightforward: no agent in his right mind would allow his clients to circulate their proposals (or manuscripts, for that matter) without his contact info on them. After all, if an editor falls in love with the proposal, it’s the agent she’s supposed to be contacting, not the writer.

What follows next in a book proposal is the overview, a brief description of what the book is about and why the writer proposing it is the best person on earth to write it. (Never, ever forget that this is both a marketing document and a job application, people — you’re trying to get the publisher to hire you to write this book, right?)

Most first-time proposers just include the bare bones here, leaping right into the description, but I like to open with a little sample of the type of writing the editor may expect to see in the completed book. To this end, I always advise starting a proposal with a vividly-told illustrative anecdote.

The first page of the proposal, then, would look like this:

overview1

As you may see, like everything else in the book proposal, the overview should be in standard format: double-spaced, indented paragraphs, 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Unlike the opening of a chapter, however, each new section is simply titled, a line skipped, and the text begun. Since this is a nonfiction document, whether to place OVERVIEW in boldface is up to you; my agency happens to like it, as well as the all-caps titling.

Notice, please, that because this is a memoir, the anecdote, like the rest of the proposal, is written in the first person singular. Many memoirists mistakenly believe that writing about their books in the third person is more professional, but that’s simply not the case.

Back to formatting. Just as a simple section break is sufficient to separate scenes in a novel or memoir, all that’s required in a proposal to differentiate the opening anecdote from the description of the proposed book is a skipped line:

overview2

Since the overview typically covers a broad range of topics, I like to break it down into several smaller sections, to make it easier for an agent or editor to find the answers to the pertinent questions any good book proposal must answer. Every proposal is slightly different, of course, but typically, apart from the opening anecdote and the book’s description, I advise including subsections on why the proposed book will appeal to readers (this is a great place to bring up any demographic information you may have collected on your readership), why the book is needed now (as opposed to any other time in publishing history; this provides an excellent opportunity to bring up any relevant trends), and how to convince the target readership that this is the book for them (not a specific marketing plan, mind you — that comes later in the proposal — but a brief explanation of who the target reader is and why that reader might pick it up).

Nit-picky? Sure. But that’s the nature of a book proposal.

How does one mark each of these subsections? You already know how to do this one, actually: as is permissible in a nonfiction manuscript, to differentiate between topics within sections — to alert the reader to the start of the subsection on why you’re the best person currently gracing the crust of the earth to tell this particular story, for instance, or to usher onstage your explanation of precisely why the literate world needs this story right now — you may insert a subheading. Since we discussed this just the other day, I’m going to reuse the example.

Wharton subheading example

When moving between major sections of a book proposal, however, convention dictates inserting a page break between sections. Why? Because unlike a novel manuscript, proposals are often broken apart, with one section going to a publisher’s marketing department and another going to legal.

It’s also customary to begin a new major section with a centered title. For example, when moving from the overview to the competitive market analysis (i.e., the section of the proposal where the writer lists similar books currently on the market, then explains why his proposed book is different and better), the latter section would begin like this:

comp market analysis

I’ve written at some length about how to construct a competitive market analysis — contrary to popular opinion, it’s not just a list of similar books currently on the market — so I shan’t go into the ins and out of creating this narrative here. (But if you’d like to hear more, please check out the posts collected under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at right.)

There are a couple of formatting curiosities I would like to point out, however. First, this section is written in a narrative style, not as a list. Second, it does not include all of the bibliographic information for the book. Just the author and title — in italics, as is appropriate for a book title in standard format — with the publisher and year of publication following in parentheses, will generally suffice. (Although if the agent of your dreams asks for something more, like the ISBN, for heaven’s sake, give it to her!)

Is that all there is to a book proposal, you ask hopefully? Heavens, no: there are several more vital sections. As usual, I have a great deal to say about each, so I am going to sign off for today and pick it up next time.

Keep coming up with those great book concepts, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXII and Writers’ Conferences 101, part II: how soon is too soon, how much information is too much, and other burning questions of conference life

lie-detector

I must confess something, dear readers: yesterday’s post about hyper-literalism lifted a weight off my weary shoulders. At this point in my long and checkered blogging career, I feel like the kid who pointed out that the emperor was ever-so-slightly under-dressed. It does become rather a strain, conference after conference, year after year, not to stand in the back of the room and bellow, “But don’t knock yourself out following that advice to the letter!”

I guess it’s a corollary of what I find myself saying here every few months: it’s honestly not a good idea to take anyone’s word as Gospel, even if the speaker purports to be an expert. Perhaps especially if.

Logically, this sterling advice must apply to yours truly, right, and what I say here? Of course — which is why I encourage any and all of you to pipe up with questions about pitching, querying, submitting, craft, or whatever else is on your writerly mind. Seriously, I don’t want anybody to take my advice blindly, and I would much, much rather that you asked me than run afoul of Millicent the agency screener down the line.

In case anyone reading this does not already know how to leave a question or comment: all you have to do is click on COMMENTS at the bottom of this post (or any post, for that matter). That will lead you to a simple little form, designed not to annoy you but to help me keep my comment sections spam-free for your reading pleasure. Then just type in your question and hit SUBMIT. Easy as proverbial pie.

To get you in the question-asking mood, I’m going to spend today tackling a couple of excellent questions about the pitch proper sent in by readers over the years. (Keep ‘em coming, folks!) In that spirit, I’m going to begin by continuing my thoughts from an earlier post where I, you guessed it, answered a reader’s question.

Late last week, I went over a few reasons that it’s a better idea to pitch the overall story of a multiple perspective book, rather than try to replicate the various protagonists’ personal story arcs or talk about voice choices. It tends to be substantially less confusing for the hearer this way, but there’s another very good reason not to overload the pitch with too much in-depth discussion of HOW the story is told, rather than what the story IS.

Writers very, very frequently forget this, but the author is not the only one who is going to have to pitch any given book. In fact, one of the points of conference pitching is to render pitching it someone else’s responsibility.

Think about it. A writer has chosen the multiple POV narrative style because it fits the story she is telling, presumably, not the other way around, right? That’s the writer’s job, figuring out the most effective means of telling the tale. That doesn’t change the fact that in order for an agent to sell the book to an editor, or the editor to take the book to committee, he’s going to have to be able to summarize the story.

That’s right — precisely the task all of you would-be pitchers out there have been resenting for a month now. And inveterate queriers have been resenting for years.

If the story comes across as too complex to be able to boil down into terms that the agent or editor will be able to use to convince others that this book is great, your pitch may raise some red flags. So it really does behoove you not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view.

If you really get stuck about how to tell the overarching story of a book with multiple protagonists (or multiple storylines, for that matter), you could conceivably pick one or two of the protagonists and present his/her/their story/ies as the book, purely for pitching purposes.

Ooh, that suggestion generated some righteous indignation, didn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear some of you upright souls cry, “isn’t that misleading?”

Not really. Remember, the point of the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book: it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to READ it.

No one on the other side of the pitching table seriously expects to learn everything about a book in a 2-minute speech, any more than he would from a synopsis. If it were possible, how much of a storyline could there possibly be? Why, in fact, would it take a whole book to tell it?

“But Anne,” the upright whimper, “I don’t want to lie. Won’t I get in trouble for implying that my book has only two protagonists when it in fact has twelve?”

Trust me, this strategy is not going to come back and bite you later, at least not enough to fret over, because frankly, it would require the memory banks of IBM’s Big Blue for a pitch-hearer to recall everything he heard over the average conference period.

Remember last week, when I was talking about pitch fatigue? After an agent or editor has heard a hundred pitches at a conference this weekend, and two hundred the weekend after that, he’s not going to say when he receives your submission, “Hey! This has 4 more characters than the author told me it did!”

I know, I know: we all want to believe that our pitches are the exception to this — naturally, the agent of our dreams will remember every adjective choice and intake of breath from OUR pitches, as opposed to everyone else’s. But that, my dears, is writerly ego talking, the same ego that tries to insist that we MUST get our requested submissions out the door practically the instant the agent or editor’s request for them has entered our ears.

In practice, it just isn’t so.

And shouldn’t be, actually, in a business that rewards writing talent. Given the choice, it’s much, much better for you if the agent of your dreams remembers that the writing in your submission was brilliant than the details of what you said in your 10-minute meeting.

As to the question of being misleading…well, I’ll get back to the desirability of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth a little later in this post. For now, let’s move on to the next reader question.

Insightful long-term reader Janet wrote in some time ago to ask how to handle the rather common dilemma of the writer whose local conference happens whilst she’s in mid-revision: “What do you do when you realize that you might have to change the structure of the novel?” she asked. “Pitch the old way?”

I hear this question all the time during conference season, Janet, and the answer really goes back to the pervasive writerly belief I touched upon briefly above, the notion that an agent or editor is going to remember any given pitch in enough detail a month or two down the road to catch discrepancies between the pitch and the book.

Chant it with me now, experienced pitchers: they’re going to be too tired to recall every detail by the time they get on the plane to return to New York, much less a month or two from now, when they get around to reading your submission.

Stop deflating, ego — this isn’t about you. It’s about them.

It’s also about our old friend, pitch fatigue. At a conference, the average agent or editor might be hearing as many as hundred pitches a day. Multiply that by the number of days of the conference — multiply THAT by the number of conferences a particular agent or editor attends in a season, not to mention the queries and submissions she sees on a daily basis, and then you can begin to understand just how difficult it would be to retain them all.

I hate to bruise anyone’s ego, but now that you’ve done the math, how likely is it that she’s going to retain the specifics of, say, pitch #472?

But you shouldn’t fret about that, because — pull out your hymnals, long-term readers — the purpose of ANY book pitch is to get the agent or editor to ask to read it, not to buy the book sight unseen. Since that request generally comes within a few minutes of the writer’s uttering the pitch, if it’s going to come at all, what you need to do is wow ‘em in the moment.

Although it IS nice if yours is the pitch that causes an agent to scrawl in her notes, “Great imagery!”

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, I’ve been harping so much throughout Pitching 101 about the desirability of including memorable details in your pitch. You have the pitch-hearer’s attention for only a few moments, and 9 times out of 10, she’s going to be tired during those moments. A vividly-rendered sensual detail or surprising situation that she’s never heard before is your best bet to wake her up.

Under the circumstances, that’s not an insignificant achievement. Don’t lessen your triumph by insisting that she be able to reproduce your pitch from memory six weeks hence — or that you need to get those requested materials to her before she forgets who you are.

Accept that she may not remember you by the time she gets on the plane to go home from the conference and trust that she has kept good notes. Then read every syllable of your submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you even consider rushing it off to her.

The upside of the short memory span: you don’t really need to worry if your story changes between the time you pitch or query it and when you submit the manuscript pages. That’s par for the course. Writers rewrite and restructure their books all the time; it’s not considered particularly sinister.

That being said, your best bet in the case of a book in the throes of change is to tell the story that you feel is the most compelling. If you haven’t yet begun restructuring, it will probably be the old one, as it’s the one with which you are presumably most familiar, but if you can make a good yarn out of the changes you envision, it’s perfectly legitimate to pitch that instead.

It really is up to you. As long as the story is a grabber, that is.

The final questions du jour, which the various askers have requested be presented anonymously, concern the ethics of not mentioning those aspects of the book one is afraid might negatively influence a pitch-hearer’s view of the manuscript. The most popular proposed omissions: the book’s length and whether it is actually finished on the day of your pitching appointment.

Let me take the second one first, as it’s easier to answer. There is a tacit expectation, occasionally seen in print in conference guides, that a writer will not market a novel until it is complete, because it would not be possible for an agent to market a partial first novel. In fact, most pitching and querying guides will tell you that you should NEVER pitch an unfinished work.

Except that it isn’t quite that simple. Agented writers pitch half-finished work to their agents all the time, for instance.

Does that mean that you should? Well, it depends. It would most definitely be frowned-upon to pitch a half-finished book that might take a year or two to polish off — unless, of course, the book in question is nonfiction, in which case you’d be marketing it as a book proposal, not as an entire manuscript, anyway.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: nonfiction books are typically sold on proposals, not the entire manuscript. Yes, even if it’s a memoir; although some agents do prefer to see a full draft from a previously unpublished writer, the vast majority of memoirs are still sold in proposal form.

So I ask you: could you realistically have your novel in apple-pie order within the next six months? If so, that’s not an unheard-of lapse before submitting requested materials. And if you have a chapter of your memoir in terrific shape, could you pull a book proposal together within that timeframe? (For some guidance on what that might entail, please see the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

If the answers to all of those questions are a resounding “No, by gum!” you should consider holding off. Unless, of course, you’d just like to get in some pitching practice while the stakes are still low. But if you are pitching a novel just to get the hang of it (a marvelous idea, by the way), don’t make the mistake of saying that the manuscript isn’t done yet.

It’s considered rude. You’re supposed to have a fiction project completed before you pitch or query it, you know.

Confused? You’re not alone. Like so many of the orders barked at conference attendees, the expectation of market-readiness has mutated a bit in translation and over time. You’re most likely to hear it as the prevailing wisdom that maintains you should have a full draft before you pitch BECAUSE an agent or editor who is interested will ask you for the entire thing on the spot.

As in they will fly into an insensate fury if you’re not carrying it with you at the pitch meeting.

But as I have mentioned earlier in this series, demanding to see a full or even partial manuscript on the spot doesn’t happen all that often anymore (and the insensate fury part never happened in the first place). 99.9% of the time, even an agent who is extremely excited about a project will prefer that you mail it — or e-mail it.

Seriously, he’s not in that great a hurry — and trust me, he’s not going to clear his schedule in anticipation of receiving your submission. I’ll bring this up again when I go over how to prep a submission packet (probably in September; I want to go over query basics first, so PLEASE, if you have pitched within the last few weeks and are impatient to send things off, read through the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET before you drop anything in the mail) but I always advise my clients and students not to overnight anything to an agency or publishing house unless the receiving party is paying the postage.

Yes, even if an agent or editor asks you to overnight it.

I heard that horrified gasp out there, but the fact is, it’s a myth that overnighted manuscripts get read faster — yes, even if the agent asked you to send it instantly. That request is extremely rare, however; most submitters simply assume that they should get it there right away — or that their work will be seem more professional if it shows up in an overnight package.

That might have been true 20 years ago, but here’s a news flash: FedEx and other overnight packaging is just too common to attract any special notice in a crowded mailroom these days.

If you’re worried about speed, Priority Mail (which gets from one location to another within the US in 2-3 days) is far cheaper — and if you write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters on the outside of the package, might actually get opened sooner than that spiffy-looking overnight mail packet.

Besides, even if you did go to the trouble and expense to get your manuscript onto the requester’s desk within hours of the request, it can often be months before an agent reads a manuscript, as those of you who have submitted before already know. Which means, in practical terms, that you need not send it right away.

And that, potentially, means that a savvy writer could buy a little time that could conceivably be used for revision. Or even writing.

Catching my drift here? After all, if you’re going to mail it anyway…and pretty much everyone in the industry is gone on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day…and if you could really get away with sending requested materials anytime between now and Christmas…and if they’ve asked for only the first three chapters…

Or, to put it in querying terms: if the agencies are going to take a month to respond to my letter…and then ask for the first 50 pages…and that has to get by a couple of screeners before they can possibly ask for the rest?

Starting to get the picture?

There’s no reason not to work those predictable delays into your pitching and querying timeline. Naturally, I would never advise anyone to pitch a book that isn’t essentially done, but let’s face it, it may well be months before the person sitting across the table from you in a pitch meeting asks to see the entire manuscript.

And you know what? You’re under no obligation to send it out instantly, even then.

Although I would not encourage any of you to join the 40% of writers who are asked to submit requested materials but never do, anyone who has ever written a novel can tell you that where writing is concerned, there is finished — as in when you’ve made it all the way through the story and typed the words THE END on the last page — and then there is done — as in when you stop tinkering with it.

Then there’s REALLY done, the point at which you have revised it so often that you have calculated the exact trajectory of the pen you will need to lob toward Manhattan to knock your agent or editor in the head hard enough to get him to stop asking for additional changes.

And then there’s REALLY, REALLY done, when your editor has changed your title for the last time and has stopped lobbying for you to transform the liberal lesbian sister into a neo-conservative professional squash player who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan in his spare time.

But frankly, from the point of view of the industry, no manuscript is truly finished until it is sitting on a shelf in Barnes & Noble. Until the cover is actually attached to the book, it is an inherently malleable thing.

The fact that everyone concerned is aware of this, I think, renders a bit of sophistry on the writer’s part over the question of whether a manuscript is completed somewhat pardonable.

This does NOT mean, however, that it is in your best interests to waltz into a pitch meeting and ANNOUNCE that the book isn’t finished yet — and because agents and editors are, as a group, perfectly aware that writers are prone to levels of tinkering that would make Dante’s inferno appear uncomplex, it’s actually not a question that gets asked much.

If you are asked? Sophistry, my dears, sophistry, of the type that agented and published writers employ all the time: “I’m not quite happy with it yet, but I’m very close.”

You are close to finishing it, aren’t you? And you aren’t completely happy with that, right?

I’m sensing that the hands that shot into the air a dozen paragraphs ago are waving frantically by now. “Um, Anne?” the observant owners of those hands cry. “What do you mean, pretty much everyone in the industry is gone on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day? I’m going to a conference this weekend — surely, despite what you said above about not needing to overnight my submission, I have to send out requested materials immediately?”

The short answer is no.

The long answer is that it means that it might behoove you to tinker with them (see distinctions amongst types of doneness above) until after the mass exodus from Manhattan is over. Because, really, do you WANT your submission to be the last one Millicent needs to read before she can head out the door to someplace cooler than sweltering New York?

Naturally, there are exceptions to the closed-until-after-Labor-Day norm; many agencies arrange to have one agent remain on-site, in case of emergencies. But since editorial offices tend to clear out then, too, it would be a kind of quixotic time to be pitching a book: even if an editor loved it, it would be well-nigh impossible to gather enough bodies for the necessary editorial meeting to acquire it.

(If all that sounded like Greek to you, and you’re not particularly conversant with the tongue of ancient heroes, you might want to take a gander at the AFTER YOU LAND AN AGENT category on the list at right, as well as the WHEN ARE THE BEST AND WORST TIME TO QUERY? sections.)

The question of whether to mention manuscript length is a bit more tortured, as it tends to generate a stronger knee-jerk response in pitches and query letters than the question of submission timing. Or so I surmise, from the response to the inevitable moment at every writers’ conference I have ever attended when some stalwart soul stands up and asks how long a book is too long.

And without fail, half the room gasps at the response.

I hesitate to give limits, for fear of triggering precisely the type of literalist angst I deplored a couple of days ago, but here are a few ballpark estimates. Currently, first novels tend to run in the 65,000 – 100,000 word range — or, to put it another way, roughly 250 – 400 pages. (That’s estimated word count, by the way, 250 x # of pages in Times New Roman, standard format. For the hows and whys of estimation vs. actual word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

So if your book runs much over that, be prepared for some unconscious flinching when you mention the length. Standards do vary a bit by genre, though — check the recent offerings in your area to get a general sense.

And remember, these are general guidelines, not absolute prohibitions. Few agency screeners will toss out a book if it contains a page 401. Do be aware, though, that after a book inches over the 125,000 word mark (500 pages, more or less), it does become substantially more expensive to bind and print. (For more on this point, please see the rather extensive exchange in the comment section of a recent post.)

If at all possible, then, you will want to stay under that benchmark. And if not, you might not want to mention the length in your pitch or query letter.

And not just for marketing reasons, or at any rate not just to preclude the possibility of an instinctive response to a book’s length. If a manuscript is too long (or too short, but that is rarer since the advent of the computer), folks in the industry often have the same response as they do to a manuscript that’s not in standard format: they assume that the writer isn’t familiar with the prevailing norms.

And that, unfortunately, usually translates into the submission’s being taken less seriously — and often, the pitch or query as well.

If your book IS over or under the expected estimated length for your genre, you will probably be happier if you do not volunteer length information in either your pitch or your query. This is not dishonest — neither a pitcher nor a querier is under any actual obligation to state the length of the manuscript up front.

I’m not recommending that you actually lie in response to a direct question, of course — but if the question is not asked, it will not behoove you to offer the information. Remember, part of the art of the pitch involves knowing when to shut your trap. You will not, after all, be hooked up to a lie detector throughout the course of your pitch.

Although that would be an interesting intimidation strategy, one I have not yet seen tried on the conference circuit. Given the current level of paranoia aimed at memoirists, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it come into fashion.

Yes, I know, many experts will tell you that you MUST include word count in your query, but as far as I know, no major agency actually rejects queries where it’s not mentioned. Some agents will say they like to see it, for the simple reason that it makes it easier to weed out the longest and the shortest manuscripts — but if your book would fall into either of those categories, is it really in your interest to promote a knee-jerk rejection?

Whew! We covered a lot of ground today, didn’t we? Well, the path to glory has never been an easy one, right?

Keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIa, in which we all learn a few life lessons equally applicable to dating and getting feedback on a manuscript, or, dealing with shadowy figures

shadowy-figure1

Yesterday, I talked a little bit about that grand old tradition, the writers’ group, a mutual aid society devoted to helping its members refine and improve their writing. While surprisingly few established writers’ groups deal explicitly with the marketing side of being a successful writer — I have never understood, for instance, why so few groups of writers at the querying stage exchange queries and synopses for critique; it seems like a natural — a good writers’ group can be extremely helpful in providing the feedback that every serious writer needs.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a good, long time may have noticed, I suggest joining a writers’ group every time I revisit the issue of getting useful feedback. Not only does it tend to be more efficient to exchange chapters with many than with just one or two, and not only does one often glean more constructive feedback from writers than from readers who have never tried to cobble a narrative together, but let’s face it, getting involved with even a group that charges for membership (as some run by well-known authors and/or editors do) is probably going to be less expensive than hiring an experienced freelance editor.

On the other hand, a freelance editor will almost certainly be able to give you that feedback considerably faster — and, if s/he’s worth her salt, be able to provide you with greater insight into how agents, editors at publishing houses, and contest judges might respond to your work. While you might eventually accumulate a similar volume of feedback from regular group participation, if you’re meeting only once per month and exchanging only one chapter each time, it could take two or three years to make it through an entire manuscript.

And that’s assuming that the group is small enough that every member receives critique every single time. While we’re engaging in cost/benefit analysis, let’s not forget to count the time and energy a conscientious group member must invest in reading and commenting upon other members’ work.

Because of the substantial and long-term commitment required to run a full manuscript through a writers’ group and potentially rather hefty price tag on professional editing, many aspiring writers turn to a third option: seeking out feedback online, either by seeking out other writers for exchange via a bulletin board, chat room, or website or by taking advantage of one of the many websites that ask writers to post excerpts of their writing online for other readers to critique.

Heck, I have it on pretty good authority that some of my frequent commenters here have ended up swapping manuscripts. After all, they already know that they have something in common, right?

As marvelous as these online exchange opportunities can be for writers, especially ones who are geographically isolated enough to render joining an in-person writers’ group impracticable, I wanted to pause in the middle of this series on feedback to address some concerns about the dangers that can result from all of that electronic manuscript exchange. Writers new to this form of community often do not prepare themselves for the possibility that the nifty writer they’ve never met face-to-face but who sounds like a perfect critique partner might not be, well, completely on the up-and-up.

Oh, and happy Friday the 13th.

To put it another way that makes me sound much more like your mother: just as not every online dater is completely honest about his or her intentions, willingness to commit, height, weight, level of baldness, or marital status, not every writer participating in online communities is representing her- or himself accurately. And it’s equally hard in both venues to weed out the boasters from the hard workers.

How might an inability to tell one from the other harm an honest feedback-seeking writer? Well, in a lot of ways, unfortunately, ranging from investing hours and hours in providing critique for an exchange partner who never bothers to reciprocate to getting one’s writing actually stolen.

So for the next few days, we’re going to veer off my pre-set path of feedback-seeking to talk about what the risks are and how a savvy writer can minimize them.

One vital disclaimer before I begin: I am NOT an attorney, much less one who specializes in intellectual property law. So it would be a GRAVE MISTAKE to take what I say here as the only word on the subject, or indeed to come to me if you believe that your writing has been stolen. (And if you did, I would send you straight to my lawyer, so why not skip a step?)

However, I’ve noticed that most of the time, writers curious about this seem to be asking questions not because they fear that their intellectual property has been lifted or that they’ve violated someone else’s rights, but because they’ve heard vague rumors to the effect that every so often, an unpublished writer’s work has gotten stolen. And those pervasive rumors I can legitimately address.

To set your minds at ease: yes, writing does occasionally get stolen — but it’s exceedingly rare, and it usually doesn’t happen in the way that most hearers of the rumor fear.

Let me introduce Sharon (not her real name, obviously), a writer who approached me a few years ago. I had the impression that she hadn’t been writing very long, but I wasn’t positive, as she was someone I barely knew — the on-again, off-again girlfriend of the brother of a friend of mine, which is as fine a definition of a casual acquaintance as I’ve ever heard. And yet she called me one day, full of questions about how to market her writing.

(A practice that I have historically tended to discourage in aspiring writers with whom I do not already enjoy some sort of professional relationship, incidentally, since effectively, it’s a consultant-client situation, and I do after all donate masses of general information to the writing community here on this blog. I understand the urge to chat with an experienced author and editor about the specifics of one’s book, however. Due to a precipitous rise in requests of this nature in recent months, I shall be unveiling a new venue for one-on-one consultation within a few weeks. So get those manuscript-specific questions ready and watch this space.)

Sharon had written a short piece — an essay, really — that she thought was marketable and had, through sheer persistence and the rare strategy of actually LISTENING to the advice she had been given by published writers of her acquaintance, gotten Ron, the publisher of a small press, to agree to take a preliminary look at it. Would she e-mail it to him with all possible dispatch, please?

In mid-celebration for this quite significant coup, she experienced a qualm: what if this guy stole her ideas, or her entire work? She knew him only through an exchange of e-mails, after all, and until she had started trolling the Internet for small presses, she had never even heard of him or his publications.

So wasn’t she in fact taking a rather large risk in sending an electronic copy of the only thing she’d ever written to a complete stranger?

Once the idea had taken hold in her brain, being a writer, she naturally embellished upon it in the dead of night: if it came down to Ron’s word against hers, who would believe {her}? And how could she ever prove that she had come up with the idea first?

When she shared her fears, however, half of her friends laughed at her, saying that she was being paranoid and unreasonable. The other half told her, in all seriousness, that she should go ahead and register the copyright for what she had written before she e-mailed it to Ron. At the very least, they advised, she should tart up her pages by adding the copyright symbol (©) on each and every one. Whereupon the first set of friends laughed even harder and told her that nothing looks more unprofessional to folks in the publishing industry than the liberal application of that pesky ©.

Understandably confused, Sharon did something very sensible: she tracked down the closest professional author and asked her what to do.

(As Gore Vidal is fond of saying, there is no earthly problem that could not be solved if only everyone would do exactly as I advise. I trust all of you will cling to that inspiring little axiom until your dying breath.)

The problem was, each set of Sharon’s friends was partially right: the vast majority of reputable publishing houses would never dream of stealing her material, and yet, as in any other business, there are always a few cads. At most writers’ conferences, you will hear speakers scoff at the possibility, but anyone who has been in the writing and editing biz for any length of time knows at least one good writer with a horror story.

Better safe than sorry, as our great-grandmothers used to stitch painstakingly onto samplers. (Actually, my great-grandmother was an opera diva who apparently regarded needlework as a serious waste of the time she could be spending being flamboyant, but I’m told that other people’s great-grandmothers embroidered such things.)

In the United States, though, outright theft of a book, or even an essay or short story, is quite rare. To wave the flag for a moment, we have the strongest copyright laws in the world, and what’s more, a writer on our turf AUTOMATICALLY owns the copyright to his own work as soon as he produces it. (Seriously; go ask a lawyer.)

So when writers talk about copyrighting a book, they’re generally not talking about obtaining the right in the first place, but rather registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Which means that the friends who advised Sharon not to mar her footer with © 2008 Sharon were also partially correct: the writer owns the copyright; if Ron planned to steal her essay and she hadn’t actually registered the copyright on it, the symbol alone wasn’t going to provide much protection. In fact, her friends were passing along the prevailing wisdom she would have heard had she asked the same question at your garden-variety writers’ conference: presenters often tell aspiring writers not to use the © bug on their manuscripts when they submit them; it’s redundant.

How so? Well, everyone in the publishing industry is already aware that the author owns the copyright to her own writing — including, presumably, Ron. If the author didn’t own the copyright, a publisher wouldn’t have to sign a contract with her in order to publish it, right?

In theory, then, writers are protected from pretty much the instant that their fingers hit the keyboard. So was Sharon’s other set of advisors merely ill-informed?

Unfortunately, no: in practice, a couple of problems can arise. Rights, as Thomas Hobbes informed us so long ago, are the ability to enforce them.

In the first place, owning the rights to what you write inherently and proving that you are the original author are two different things — sometimes radically different. Occasionally, some enterprising soul will latch on to another writer’s unpublished work and claim that he wrote it first, or co-writers will squabble over who gets custody of already-written work in a partnership break-up. Or, as in the situation I raised at the beginning of this post, an aspiring writer who has trustingly e-mailed his first two chapters to that nice writer he met on a bulletin board walks into a bookstore one day and finds a book that opens just like his.

Or — and this is substantially more common, especially in academic writing — the writer is dutifully reading her former exchange partner’s published work when her hair stands on end because that paragraph on the page in front of her is one that she wrote. With a shock, it suddenly occurs to her that since they exchanged work electronically, all her dishonest ex-friend would have had to do was copy her words and paste them into another manuscript.

In each case, the inevitable result is an unseemly struggle to determine who coughed up any given page of text first — or an aspiring writer who spends the next ten years walking around grumbling to anyone who will listen about how that rat of a published writer stole her work.

Second — and you might want to be sitting down for this one, as it comes as rather a shock to a lot of writers — technically, you can’t copyright an idea; you can merely copyright the PRESENTATION of it. Which means, in practice, that it is not possible to claim ownership of your storyline, but only how you chose to write it.

Aren’t you glad I told you to sit down first?

Learning about this second condition tends to obviate a good 85% of the concerns aspiring writers express about having their work stolen. Most of the time, writers are worried that someone will steal their STORIES, not the actual writing — and I’m not going to lie to you; one doesn’t have to attend many writers’ conference before one has heard a dozen stories about the trusted feedback-giver who later came out with a suspiciously similar book.

There’s not a heck of a lot a writer can do about that, alas, except to spread the story around. So the next time you hear such a tale of woe at a conference, do remember to make sympathetic noises.

But by the same token, unless the lifted plotline becomes a major bestseller, there’s really no reason that you shouldn’t push ahead with your version. Fiction is virtually never sold on the storyline alone, anyway; plotlines and NF arguments are almost never 100% unique.

As no one knows better than a writer, however, presentation — particularly GOOD presentation — generally IS unique. As industry insiders are so fond of telling writers, it all depends upon the writing.

This is why, as some of you inveterate conference-goers may have noticed, when agents, editors, and published writers are presented with a question about book theft, they tend to respond as though the question itself were a sign of an over-large ego in the asker. Just how revolutionary would an aspiring writer’s style have to be, the logic goes, for an agent or editor to WANT to steal it?

Which perhaps leaves the wondering writer reluctant to submit his long thought-out plotline and terrific premise to a publisher, lest it be handed to a better-known writer, but doesn’t really address his concern. Once again, we have a failure to communicate.

Do I see some hands in the air out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protesting, and rightly so, “between the time I submit a manuscript to an agency and the time a book is published and thus equipped with a nice, clear copyright page stating precisely who owns the writing between those covers, it passes through quite a few hands. I may not even know who will end up reading it. Shouldn’t I worry about some of them deciding to make off with my actual pages and passing them off as their own?”

Having some doubts about Millicent’s integrity, are we?

Well, it’s a reasonable enough concern: some of those hands will inevitably belong to people you do not know very well. Agency screeners like Millicent, for instance. Agents. Editorial assistants. Editors. Mail room clerks. The people in the publishing house’s marketing department.

And anyone to whom you give your manuscript as a first reader. Guess which paragraph contains the most likely thief of prose?

If you said the latter, give yourself a big, fat gold star for the day; I’ll be discussing casual exchanges in tomorrow’s post. But let’s think for a moment about why manuscripts sent to agencies and publishing houses very, very rarely turn up with anyone other than the author’s name on the title page.

An exceedingly straightforward reason springs to mind: agencies and publishing houses make their livings by selling work by writers. In-house theft wouldn’t have to happen awfully often before writers would stop sending submissions, right? So sheer self-interest would tend to discourage it.

But I’m not going to lie to you: at a less-than-reputable house or agency, it could happen. And occasionally does, especially to NF book proposals. Any guesses why?

If you immediately answered, “Because you can’t copyright an idea, only the presentation of it,” give yourself another gold star. While the copyright of the proposal materials and any sample chapter(s) undoubtedly belongs to the person who wrote them, it’s not unheard-of another writer to snatch the proposal, rewrite it minimally, and submit it as his own work.

I know: chilling.

The single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. Not only are well-established folks less likely to engage in dubious practices in the first place (this is, after all, a biz that relies heavily upon reputation), but there’s often a better-established chain of accountability if something goes wrong. As I MAY have mentioned before on this blog, it behooves a writer to do his homework.

And at the risk of sounding like your mother again, let me remind you: not every organization with the wherewithal to throw up a website is equally credible.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to check anyone in the industry with whom you’re planning to do business on Preditors and Editors; if you have doubts about an individual agent, agency, or publishing house, check agents out with the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives). These are also good places to report any professional conduct that seems questionable to you; P&E is especially good about following up on writers’ complaints.

I always advise doing a basic credibility check before sending ANY part of your manuscript via e-mail — which clearly includes anyone to whom you might be considering trading manuscripts for critique. As I’ve mentioned several times before here, after you send out an e-mailed attachment (or any e-mail, for that matter), you have absolutely NO way of controlling, or even knowing, where it will end up.

Think about it: part of the charm of electronic communication is ease of forwarding, right? Yet another reason that I’m not crazy about e-mailed submissions. (The other reason, if you must know, is that it’s far, far quicker for Millicent to reject an electronic submission than a physical manuscript. Since rejecting the former requires the push of a single button and rejecting the latter involves stuffing pages into an envelope, which would you guess renders it more tempting not to read much before deciding?)

While it’s highly unlikely that the chapter you e-mail to an agent — or that person you just met on an Internet chat room — will end up on a printing press in Belize or Outer Mongolia, it’s not entirely unprecedented for entire e-mailed manuscripts to wander to some fairly surprising places. Yes, the same thing COULD conceivably happen with a hard copy, too, but as with Millicent’s rejection, it would require more effort on the sender’s part.

Which, believe it or not, is part of the function of the SASE: to maximize the probability that your manuscript will come back to you, rather than being carted off by goodness knows whom to parts unknown.

Stop laughing — it’s true. When you send requested materials off to an agency or publishing house, you and they both are operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission, right? The mere fact that you give them a physical copy of your work doesn’t mean that you intent to authorize them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so, right?

When you include a SASE with your submission packet, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys your expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

The key word to remember here is control. Until you have signed a contract with a reputable agent or publishing house (or are selling copies that you published yourself), you will want to know with absolute certainty where every extant copy of your manuscript is at all times.

If that last sentence gave you even a twinge of compunction about work already written and sent upon its merry way: honey, we need to speak further, and pronto. However, that conversation, along with steps you can take to prove when you wrote a particular piece, is best left until next time.

In the meantime, don’t worry; keeping a watchful eye your work isn’t all that difficult, and it certainly doesn’t require living in a state of perpetual paranoia. Just a bit of advance thought and care.

You didn’t think that your manuscript would have an easier time dating than you would, did you? Happy Friday the 13th, everybody, and keep up the good work!