The getting-a-book-published basics, part XIV: and then there are the alternate — dare I say more scenic? — routes

to the village center

We’re nearing the end of our crash course on how manuscripts do — and don’t — move from the writer’s fingertips to publication, you’ll be glad to hear. And boy, have we covered a lot of territory over the last few weeks! Admittedly, I could conceivably have guided you over this trail with a somewhat speedier step, dwelling a bit less on the important details, but I consider a working knowledge of how the publishing industry in general, and agencies in particular, function an absolutely essential prerequisite for any aspiring writer intending to market her work.

If by some chance I hadn’t already made that abundantly clear. If I had my way, every writers’ association in the English-speaking world would regularly offer free weekend seminars on this stuff, to discourage any talented writer from walking into the querying and submission process blind.

Heck, I’d love to see this information taught in high schools, along with the basics of standard manuscript format. Now that would be one great English composition course.

Glancing back through the posts in this series, I was reminded of the old joke about the reporter interviewing the famous college professor about how long it typically takes him to write a half-hour lecture.

“Oh, all day,” the professor says, “if it’s a topic I’ve never lectured on before. Sometimes several days. Even a week, if I need to do background research.”

The reporter is awfully impressed at that level of dedication. “Wow, that’s a lot of work. How long to write an hour-long lecture on the same topic?”

The professor shrugs. “About three hours.”

The reporter wonders if the professor misunderstood the question, but after all, this is a learned man; no need to insult his intelligence. Slyly, he asks, “Well, how long would it take you to prepare a three-hour lecture, then?”

The professor smiles. “Would you like me to start right now?”

I suspect that I was reminded of this joke because I couldn’t help noticing that most of the posts in this series are approximately the length of my usual notes for an hour-long lecture, factoring in time for digression and questions — you can take the professor away from the rostrum, but not the rostrum out of the professor’s mind, apparently. But there’s more to it than that: I also believe that there’s a vital lesson here for those who are used to receiving their information about getting published in the kind of sound bites one hears the pros spouting at writers’ conferences and online.

It’s this: while brief, snappy advice may seem simpler, it’s actually significantly harder to produce, at least if it’s done thoughtfully. Unless, of course, the advice-giver is merely parroting the conventional wisdom on the subject, often expressed in dismissive one- or two- sentence bursts. Or as single-page, bullet-pointed to-do lists cribbed from a handout from another conference lecture or website.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s hardly best tool for explanation.

Trying to follow sound-bite advice is rather like gnawing on cubes of bouillon instead of drinking broth: the two substances may well contain the same ingredients, but it’s certainly easier to digest in the watered-down form. Particularly when, as is often the case for advice aimed at writers, the prevailing aphorisms are deceptively simple.

That’s why it’s both difficult and profoundly important for aspiring writers to come to understand that the much prevailing wisdom you hear glibly passing from mouth to mouth is the bouillon version, not the broth itself.

And frankly, the easy availability of bouillon can lead good writers astray. The combination of those over-concentrated pieces of advice that every writer has heard — the full range from basic writing tips like write what you know and show, don’t tell to the types of things agents and editors like to say at writers’ conferences like good writing will always find a home and it all depends on the writing — with the flat-out wrong popular conception that any genuinely good book will automatically find a publisher instantly can (and frequently does, alas) prompt an aspiring writer to conclude, wrongly, that the process should be easy for a genuinely marketable book. Because all that’s necessary to land an agent and/or editor is to have talent, right? So why bother to learn how to format the manuscript professionally, or to figure out the book category, or even to proofread? Isn’t it the agent and editor’s job to ferret out talent despite how it’s presented?

Um, no. It’s their job to discover writers who can reliably produce marketable prose, adhere to industry standards, and have talent. Even then, the writer’s going to have to take direction well.

Other aspiring writers who have imbibed the bouillon assume that if their manuscripts don’t get picked up right away at the query stage, the problem must be in the quality of the writing. If true talent always gets spotted, then why even speculate that an unprofessional query letter might be the culprit?

These conclusions are completely understandable, of course: it’s what the truisms have taught many aspiring writers to believe. But they are not the whole story, any more than a packet of bouillon is a vat of delicious soup.

Some of you are scratching your heads, aren’t you? “Hmm,” you muse, “is Anne being profound, or is she merely hungry?”

A little of both, I expect. Yet because I have dropped so much potentially quite intimidating information about how books typically get published upon all of you so quickly, I would imagine that the comparatively simple standard aphorisms might be sounding pretty good right about now. Just the facts, ma’am.

I could bore you all at this juncture with some ennobling platitudes about knowledge being power and valuable for its own sake — see my earlier comment about the difficulty of taking the professor out of the girl — but I’m not going to do that. Anyone with the dedication to have plowed through this, let’s face it, often-depressing series doesn’t need that pep talk. You’re all bright enough, I’m sure, to have picked up from my SUBTLE HINTS throughout this series that the archive list at right is so extensively categorized precisely so my readers may find answers to specific practical questions as they come up.

Instead, allow me to suggest something the bouillon-mongers seldom remember to mention: the primary reason that it often takes even excellent manuscripts quite a long time to find agents and a home with a major publisher is that this process is hard.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably either trying to promote a book or classes on how to get published — or is attempting to encourage all of the discouraged good writers out there to keep on going in the face of some pretty steep odds. Here’s an aphorism that you’re unlikely to hear at a writers’ conference that is nevertheless true: most aspiring writers give up on finding a home for their manuscripts too quickly.

Given how deeply affected by mercurial market fads agents’ and editors’ choices necessarily are, that’s truly a shame. Especially right now, when the economy is forcing the major publishing houses to be even more cautious than usual in what they acquire.

At the risk of repeating myself: hang in there. To recycle some bouillon of my own, the manuscript that gets rejected today may well not be the one that will get rejected a year or two from now.

But some of you may not be willing to wait that long to see your books in print. This, too, is completely understandable: contrary to what agents often seem to believe, most aspiring writers care more about having their writing available for others to read than about making scads of money on the deal.

Although a few wheelbarrows full of money would be nice, of course.

Which is why — to return to yesterday’s topic — it might make perfect sense to an agent to set aside a manuscript that he professes to love if it doesn’t elicit a fairly lucrative offer in its first circulation, in favor of marketing a client’s next book. In the agent’s mind, the first book hasn’t been discarded; it’s merely waiting to be part of a future multi-book deal.

Seriously, it happens all the time. If an agent thinks a writer has a voice that might hit it big someday, continuing to market that first manuscript to smaller or regional presses might seem like a bad career move, even though going with a smaller press might bring the book into print years earlier. (If these last two paragraphs sound like gibberish to you, you might want to go back and re-read the earlier posts in this series.)

Obviously, this is not necessarily logic that would make sense to a frustrated writer, particularly one who may have spent years and years landing that agent. Heck, even the expectation that there would be a second book ready to go by the time a handful of editors at big publishing houses have had a chance to take a gander at the first would make a lot of aspiring writers turn pale.

If not actually lose their respective lunches. Especially a writer who might have only intended to write one book in the first place.

Authoring only one book is a publishing strategy that often appeals to aspiring writers, particularly memoirists: you have a story to tell, and you tell it. Done. But that’s a career strategy that might not even occur to an agent excited by a new author’s voice.

There’s a reason that “So, what’s your next book?” is such a common question before the ink is dry on the representation contract, after all. Since even authors whose books are released by major publishers seldom make enough to quit their day jobs — remember, few books are bestsellers, by definition — agents tend to be on the lookout for career writers, ones ready, able, and eager to keep launching fine books into the marketplace. From their perspective, planning to write several marketable books is simply very good career sense for a writer who wants to make a living at it.

But that’s not every aspiring writer’s goal, is it? Is it?

Okay, so it is for a whole lot of aspiring writers. But if getting that first — and possibly only — book into print is a writer’s highest priority, investing a great deal of time and energy in landing an agent might not seem like a reasonable trade-off.

And that’s not the only reason a reasonable writer might have qualms about pursuing the standard major publisher route, either. Some might balk at all of the hoops through which large or mid-sized publishers expect first-time authors to leap, up to and including landing an agent first, for instance, or not be too thrilled about the prospect of an agent’s insisting upon changes to the manuscript in order to render it more marketable to the majors. Still others might feel, and rightly, that the time for their books to reach readers is now, not some dim, uncertain time several years hence.

The good news is that, contrary to the underlying assumptions of the bouillon trade, writers do have options other than the big publisher route. And I imagine those of you who have spent much of this series muttering, “Oh, God, NO!” will be overjoyed to hear that a great deal of what I’ve said so far will not apply to the next two sub-topics on our publishing hit parade: publishing through a small house and self-publishing.

No need to conceal your joy; I know, I know.

The small publishing house
Also known as an independent publisher because they are not affiliated with any of the major publishing houses (as imprints are), small presses are often willing to work with authors directly, rather than insisting upon receiving submissions only through agents. Typically, indie houses offer relatively small advances — or sometimes no advance at all — but that’s a calculated risk for an author. Sometimes, it can pay off big time: in recent years, some of the most exciting new fiction has started its printed life at a small press and gotten picked up later by a major publisher.

And because some of you will be able to think of nothing else until I answer the question you just mentally screamed two sentences ago, a writer should approach a small publisher precisely as one does an agent: after having done some research on who publishes what, find out how they prefer to be approached, and send a query.

In other words: as with an agency, it’s never a good idea to send unsolicited manuscripts. Ask first.

By the same token, it’s just as important to do a little research on an indie publisher as on an agent. A well-stocked bookstore is a great place to start; see who is bringing out books like yours these days. Both the Herman Guide and Writer’s Market have good listings of reputable small publishers. So does Preditors and Editors, a fine source for double-checking that the press whose website looks so appealing is in fact a traditional publisher, and not a printer of self-published books for pay.

Hey, you’d be surprised at how often their websites look similar.

I cannot stress sufficiently how important it is to doing your homework, and not merely to avoid being presented with a printing bill. Many an aspiring writer has wasted time and resources approaching a major house’s imprint in the mistaken impression that it’s an independent press, ending up summarily rejected.

How can a savvy writer tell which is which? Check the copyright page of a published book — you know, the one on the flip side of the title page — to see if the press that produced it is an indie or an imprint of a larger house. If it’s affiliated with a major, the copyright page will say.

Select a small press that has a track record of publishing books like yours before you approach. Rather than publishing across a wide variety of book categories, the smaller publishing house tends to specialize. This often turns out to be a plus for authors, as targeting a narrow market often means that a small press can afford to take more chances in what it acquires.

Why can they afford to take more chances, you ask with bated breath? Generally speaking, because their print runs are smaller and they spend less on promotion. And remember how I was telling you that their advances were usually small or non-existent?

Another cost-cutting move: the author usually ends up arranging — and financing the book tour himself. If, indeed, there are public readings at all. (For some useful tips on posts about how writers can set up their own readings, check out the guest posts by FAAB Michael Schein beginning here.)

In fact, over the last couple of years, it’s gotten downright common for small publishers, especially those who market primarily online, to employ the print-on-demand (POD) method, rather than producing a large initial print run, as the major houses do, and placing it in bookstores. (For an explanation of how print-on-demand works, please see the aptly-named PRINT ON DEMAND category on the archive list at right. Hey, I told you that the archive list was broken down into very specific topics!)

Check about this in advance, because POD carries some definite marketing drawbacks: POD books have an infinitely more difficult time getting reviewed (check out the GETTING A BOOK REVIEWED category for more details), and most US libraries have strict policies against buying POD books. So do some bookstore chains that shall remain nameless. (They know who they are!) Even some online retailers won’t carry POD books.

Why, you exclaim in horror? Well, for a lot of reasons, but mostly for because POD still carries a certain stigma; many, many bookbuyers who should know better by now still regard POD as the inevitable marker of a self-published book.

More on why that impression might present marketing problems follows next time. For now, what you need to know is that a small publisher that does not go the POD route is going to have an easier time placing your book on shelves and into the hands of your future readers.

Just something to keep in mind when you’re rank-ordering your list of indie publishers for querying purposes.

On the bright side, an author often has significantly more input into the publication process at a small press than a large one. Because it is a less departmentalized operation than a major publishing house, editors at indie presses often have the time to work more intensively with their authors. For a first-time author who gets picked up by a really good editor who genuinely loves the book, this can be a very positive experience.

It can also, perversely, render an author more attractive to agents and editors at the majors when he’s trying to market his next book. (Since indie presses seldom have much money to toss around, multi-book contracts are rare; see that earlier comment about miniscule advances.) A recommendation from an editor will give you a definite advantage in the querying stage for book #2: a query beginning, Editor Y of Small Publisher X recommended that I contact you about representing my book… is probably going to get a pretty close reading from any agent’s Millicent.

Why? Well, having a successful track record of pleasing an editor at an indie press is a selling point; I tremble to report it, but not all authors are equally receptive to editorial commentary. Also, from an agent’s point of view, the fact that there is already an editor at a press out there who is predisposed to read and admire your work automatically means her job will be easier — if the majors pass on book #2, the editor who worked on book #1 probably will not.

Which is to say: if your first book with a small press does well, they will probably want you to stick around — and might even become a trifle defensive if you start looking for an agent for book #2, especially if it is a press that ONLY works with unagented authors, or who prefers to do so. (Such presses are rare, but they do exist; it is undoubtedly cheaper to work with unagented writers — again, see that earlier comment about advances.)

Don’t be scared off by a presumption that signing with them would that you’re committing to a lifetime relationship. It doesn’t. Small publishers are aware their authors may HAVE to leave them in order to pursue larger markets. Consequently, they expect it. Also, people who work for small presses also understand that it’s not at all unheard-of for a writer to start out at a small press and move up to a big one with the help of an agent.

Actually, the more successful they are at promoting your first book, the more they could logically expect you to move onward and upward. Authors move from press to press all the time, without any hard feelings, and when well-meaning industry professionals genuinely respect an author, the last thing they want to do is to harm their future books’ chances of commercial success. In fact, if your subsequent books do well, the small press will benefit, because new readers will come looking for copies of your first book.

Everybody wins, in short.

That being said, a right of first refusal over your next book is a fairly standard contractual provision for publishers of any size, large or small. It means that when you sell them the first book, you agree to let them look at next before any other publisher does.

That can be very valuable to a small publisher, if your first book takes off. They already know that they like your writing (which means that it is not at all presumptuous for you to assume that they might want your next, incidentally), and they would rather not have to compete in order to retain you.

Translation: you might not see an advance for your next book, either. But if getting your work out there is your primary priority, is that really going to annoy you all that much?

The regional publishing house
This is industry-speak for small publishers located outside the publishing capitals of the world — unless you happen to be talking to someone who works at a major NYC agency or publishing house, in which case pretty much any West Coast publisher would fall into the regional category, too. Sometimes, these presses are affiliated with universities, but many are not.

I bring up conversational use of the term advisedly: if you’ve attended any reasonably large writers’ conference within the last two decades, you’ve probably heard at least one agent or editor talking about regional publishing houses as an alternative to the major publishers. Specifically, you may have heard them answer an attendee’s question with something along the lines of, “Well, I wouldn’t be interested in a romantic thriller about wild salmon conservation, but you might try a Pacific Northwest regional press.”

If you’re like most conference attendees, this response probably felt like a brush-off — which, in fairness, it almost certainly was. Most NYC-based agents who deal with major publisher houses prefer to concentrate on books (particularly novels) that have what they call national interest, rather than what they call mere regional appeal.

Basically, national interest means that a book might reasonably be expected to attract readers from all across the country; books with regional appeal, by contrast, might enjoy a fairly substantial market, but it would be concentrated in one part of the country. Or, to put it another way, books of national interest will strike agents and editors in New York City (or, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, and/or Chicago) as universally appealing.

Interestingly, books set in any of the boroughs of New York are almost never deemed of merely regional interest, even though novels set in Brooklyn do not, as a group, enjoy a demonstrably higher demand than those set in, say, Minneapolis. As far as I know, readers in Phoenix have not been storming bookstores, clamoring for greater insight into daily life in Queens, Chelsea, or Ozone Park. Yet it’s undeniable that many a Manhattan-based agent or editor would find such insights more accessible than those of the fine citizenry of eastern Nevada or the wilds of British Columbia.

Why? Well, it’s not all that uncommon for an NYC based agent or editor, as well as their respective Millicents, never to lived anywhere but the upper eastern seaboard of the United States. My agent boasts that he’s never lived more than ten miles from the hospital where he was born (and if you want to keep on his good side, learn from my sad example and don’t instantly exclaim, “Oh, you poor thing. You really need to get out more.” Trust me on this one.)

The moral: regional marketability, like beauty, most definitely resides in the eye of the beholder.

Which is precisely why a writer of a book with strong regional appeal should consider approaching a local small publisher — which, in most cases, means the local publisher, singular — or at any rate one based in your time zone. A book on homelessness in San Francisco may well strike a Bay Area editor as being of broad interest in a way that it simply wouldn’t to an agent in Manhattan; an incisive novel on the domestic trials of a Newfoundland fishing village might well make more sense to a Canadian editor, or at least can at least find Newfoundland on a map on the first try.

Unless, of course, that last book is by an author who has already won the Pulitzer Prize. Then, you have THE SHIPPING NEWS, and its interest is global. Name recognition is a great dissolver of borders.

Just because a regional press’ editors are more likely to understand the market appeal of your book, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that regional press will be able to get such a book national exposure (although it’s been known to happen.) Like other small publishers, regional presses that concentrate on a particular part of the country usually don’t have much money for book promotion.

What they have tends to be concentrated within a small geographical area. For some books, this works beautifully, but it’s unlikely to land an author on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Again: calculated risk.

Fair warning: contrary to the agent’s comment I reproduced at the beginning of this section, few regional presses actually publish fiction these days, at least in novel form. Some presses who specialize in regional nonfiction do publish short story collections; others will publish regional children’s books. But so few have published novels within the last ten years that I am always astonished when a NYC-based agent implies that they do.

Again, you’re going to want to do your homework before you query or submit. At least more homework than the agent who dismissed the Pacific Northwest novelist above.

Speaking of shifts in publishing, there’s something else you might want to know about approaching a small publisher.

Remember how I had said that things change? Well…
As pretty much any writer whose agent has been circulating a book for her recently could tell you (but might not, for fear of jinxing the submission process), selling a book to a major publisher has gotten a heck of a lot harder over the last couple of years. So much so that agents who would have huffily rejected the very notion of taking their clients’ work to an indie publisher just a few years ago have been thinking about it very seriously indeed of late.

More importantly for those of you who might be considering approaching a small publisher on your own behalf, some of them are actually doing it.

What does that mean for the unagented writer? Well, more competition, among other things, and more polished competition. In other words, an unagented writer’s book usually has to be even better than usual to land a spot in the print queue.

Also, as you may recall from earlier in this series, reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books, so it’s very much in their interest to try to haggle up the advances on books sold to small publishers. In a company where there isn’t, as I mentioned above, much money to throw toward authors, guess what that tends to mean for the advances available for unagented books?

Uh-huh. But again, if your primary goal is to see your work in print, is that necessarily a deal-breaker?

Speaking of money, do make sure before you submit to a small publisher that it isn’t a subsidy press, one that requires authors to put up some percentage of the costs of publication. Unfortunately, not all subsidy publishers are up front about this; the latter’s websites can look awfully similar to the former’s. Before you cough up even one red cent — or, ideally, before you approach them at all — check with Preditors and Editors to see whether the publisher charges authors fees.

Which a traditional small publisher should not. But if chipping in to get your book published sounds like a reasonable idea to you, just you wait until next time, when I’ll be talking about self-publishing.

In any case, you’re going to want to proceed with care — and do your homework. Naturally, this swift overview isn’t the last word on small publishers: as I said, an aspiring writer thinking about going that route owes it to herself do extensive research on the subject. So hie yourself to a well-stocked bookstore, start pulling books in your category off the shelves, and see who published them. Then find out whether any of those presses are open to queries from unagented authors.

And then, who knows? Remember, the only manuscript that stands no chance of getting published is the one its writer never sends out.

I just mention. Keep up the good work!

Onion loaf, OCD, and other indispensable accoutrements of the comedy writer: an interview with AND HERE’S THE KICKER author Mike Sacks

sacks-cover
Hello, campers —

Since we’ve all been working so hard throughout this series on pitching, I have a treat for you today — or at any rate, I had planned a treat: an interview between Mike Sacks, author of the recently-released AND HERE’S THE KICKER: CONVERSATIONS WITH 21 TOP HUMOR WRITERS ON THEIR CRAFT and legendary comedy writer Merrill Markoe.

I was excited about this, because the book is a good one, full of the kind of serious analysis the craft of comedy writing seldom receives, performed by writers who have spent years honing their craft.

By the time I was halfway through the book, I was even more excited, because quite a lot of the interviews speak very directly to our pet subject of the moment: AND HERE’S THE KICKER contains some amazing anecdotes about the difficulty of pitching comedy to the humorless — or to funny people who are just bad listeners.

Who among us couldn’t use some advice from the pros on that?

To render it even more useful for those of you out there who write comedy, the interviews are bookended with sections billed as Quick and Painless Advice for the Aspiring Humor Writer, on topics that should make aspiring writers’ hearts sing:

Getting Your Humor Piece Published in The New Yorker

Finding a Literary Agent for Your Humor Book Idea

Acquiring an Agent or Manager for Your Script

You’re starting to feel the excitement now, too, aren’t you?

Seriously, ever since I’ve had the book in the house, I’ve been picking it up every time I start to feel even the vaguest twinge of depression. Nothing cheers me up like learning something new about my art form, you see — and frankly, I’ve been pretty astonished at how much solid information about craft and marketing is crammed into these relatively brief interviews.

We often hear super-serious authors discussing the inspiration and difficulties underlying their craft, but comedy writing is usually treated like magic: all the audience really knows is whether the bit works. How it is done remains a mystery. Here, however, the pros actually do talk about the tricks o’ the trade, sometimes in quite extensive detail.

How much detail, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: it’s always a good sign, I think, when I pick up a book aimed at aspiring writers and exclaim ten pages in, “Wow, why hasn’t someone written this before?”

I have to admit, though, that as a reader, much of what I’ve enjoyed about AND HERE’S THE KICKER has had little to do with insights into craft or illuminating marketing tips. I’ve been getting a big kick out of some of the behind-the-scenes peeks into pitch sessions and writers’ meetings.

Who’d have thought, for instance, that the catchphrase-based humor that took over skits at Saturday Night Live would annoy some former SNL writers as much as it does yours truly? (Catchphrases are antithetical to genuine humor, in my opinion: the laugh comes merely because the line is expected.) Or that an actor/director/writer whose work I’ve always felt was hugely overrated would strike me as similarly full of himself in the context of a serious interview about the far, far more talented artists with whom he’s had the good fortune to work?

Hey, I’m only human; I enjoy having my prejudices confirmed as much as the next person.

In short, I was pretty psyched at the prospect of bringing Mike here to Author! Author! to talk about his book. So, as I always do when I’m considering introducing an author of a new book to you fine people, I tracked down the publisher’s blurb:

Every great joke has a punch line, and every great humor writer has an arsenal of experiences, anecdotes, and obsessions that were the inspiration for that humor. In fact, those who make a career out of entertaining strangers with words are a notoriously intelligent and quirky lot. And boy, do they have some stories.

In this entertaining and inspirational book, you’ll hear from 21 top humor writers as they discuss the comedy-writing process, their influences, their likes and dislikes, and their experiences in the industry. You’ll also learn some less useful but equally amusing things, such as:

* How screenwriter Buck Henry came up with the famous “plastics” line for The Graduate.
* How many times the cops were called on co-writers Sacha Baron Cohen and Dan Mazer during the shooting of Borat.
* What David Sedaris thinks of his critics.
* What creator Paul Feig thinks would have happened to the Freaks & Geeks crew if the show had had another season.
* What Jack Handey considers his favorite “Deep Thoughts.”
* How Todd Hanson and the staff of The Onion managed to face the aftermath of 9/11 with the perfect dose of humor.
* How Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais created the original version of The Office.
* What it’s really like in the writers’ room at SNL.

Funny and informative, And Here’s the Kicker is a must-have resource – whether you’re an aspiring humor writer, a fan of the genre, or someone who just likes to laugh.

And that, my friends, is how a not-very-stirring pitch can undersell a marvelous book. Oh, it drops the relevant names well enough, but does that very mainstream list tell you that this book is filled with insights that will startle you? Or educate you as a comedy writer?

Did it, in short, stir in you excitement to rush out and read this book?

For me, it didn’t, and that’s a real shame — the interviews with Bob Odenkirk and Dick Cavett alone offer more genuine insight into figuring out what is and isn’t going to be funny to an audience than anything else I’ve seen on the subject in years.

Call me zany, but when a reader already in love with a book takes a gander at the blurb and thinks, “Wow, that certainly undersells what’s between the covers,” I suspect that it might not be doing its job as well as it should.

Ditto with a pitch, whether it is given verbally or in a query letter: if it doesn’t make the hearer or reader long to read the manuscript in question, it’s not an effective pitch, by definition. As we’ve just seen, simply listing a book’s attributes — a strategy embraced by many a pitcher — isn’t always the best means of grabbing potential readers.

So eschew the blurb above, which also, I notice from the book at my elbow, happens to be the back jacket copy. I suspect that the interview below will give you greater insight into why AND HERE’S THE KICKER might be the book for you. As would flipping through it in a bookstore — which, contrary to the dire moans we keep hearing from the general direction of the publishing industry, inveterate readers still do on a regular basis.

For those of you who prefer the new-fangled, less-browsable route, AND HERE’S THE KICKER is also available on Amazon, naturally. And for those of you who like to support independent bookstores but don’t happen to live near any, you can always pick it up at Powell’s.

As for me, I’ve depressed myself into a stupor, thinking about all of the great books out there that are languishing, under-pitched. I’m just going to have to read another interview to cheer myself up.

Enjoy!

sacks-pizza-coney-island-1

My name is Mike Sacks. I have a new book out this month from Writers Digest Press called “And Here’s the Kicker.” The book contains full-length interviews that I conducted over the past two years with 21 famous humor writers.

One of those writers is the great Merrill Markoe, who was a huge influence not only on me, but on my entire generation. Merrill was the first head-writer for Late Night with David Letterman, and she’s also published a ton of great articles and seven fantastic humor books that every comedy fan should own.

I asked Merrill if she’d be willing to talk with me about my book, exclusively for Author! Author!, and she said yes. Last month, in a private room in the Santa Monica Outback Steakhouse, over a giant onion loaf and two orders of sweet-glazed roast pork tenderloins, we sat down to talk about various subjects, including what it really takes to become a humor writer, beyond merely depression and OCD…

Hope you enjoy…

MERRILL: Mike, did you know I was a vegetarian when I agreed to do this interview with you?

SACKS: Onion loaf is a vegetable, is it not?

MERRILL: Moving on…What did you do at the Washington Post?

SACKS: I worked in the Washington Postsyndicate office. We edited and then sent out the work of various blow-hard columnists, such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer, EJ Dionne, etc. I’m from the DC area originally, but I don’t miss the bowties, lawyers in suspenders, and self-important vice-presidents of do-nothing associations.

Can you tell I didn’t fit in?

MERRILL: What do you on the editorial staff at Vanity Fair?

SACKS: Mostly what I do is editorial, although I also write for the magazine. Also, and I’m not thrilled about this, I’m in charge of Dominick Dunne’s ever-changing hairdo.

MERRILL: You’ve freelanced for various magazines, such as The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, Time, Radar and Vice. Were those freelance pieces that you submitted or did you contact them and pitch?

SACKS: Most of those pieces were the result of me coming up with an idea and sending it to someone on staff, usually someone I knew.

It’s up to you to make a pitch, and (this is important) you should never send your pitch to the editor-in-chief. They just don’t care. Send it to either someone you know or someone further down the editorial ladder, who might have time to read a query and help you through the process.

I’d say that most of the younger editorial staffers prefer email. So, make your pitch very short, no longer than four paragraphs. You can always add details later.

MERRILL: What did you want to be when you grew up?

SACKS: I wanted to be a pilot and then a brain surgeon, but I got dizzy easily and I nearly flunked high school biology. No joke.

Failing that, I really wanted to work in a record store in suburban Maryland, as a clerk making $5.65 an hour . . . and I did so, off and on, for the next ten years! A dream come true!

MERRILL: Where did the idea for doing the KICKER book begin? Were there things you wanted to know about the comedy writing process, or were you just aware that there wasn’t a book like this and you wanted to read one?

SACKS: Both, really. I could never find a contemporary book of interviews with today’s humor writers. The only books I found dealt with shows from the 50s through 70s, such as Your Show of Shows or Saturday Night Live. Those programs are great, but how much can you read about them already?

Another problem with a lot of humor books is that they tend to be written by people who have not made a living in comedy (at least at the highest level). I wanted to ask successful humor writers what to do and (just as importantly) what NOT to do.

For instance, if you want to get a humor piece published in a magazine, don’t try to be funny in the cover letter. It just annoys the editor.

Here’s another bit of advice from the pros: when you apply to become a writer at a late-night show, never include with your submission the funny T-shirt you created, or bumper sticker you printed up, or Rupert Pupkin–style tape you made of yourself telling jokes in your bedroom. I’m sure you can concur. It just doesn’t help your chances.

The book is filled with such advice that will hopefully help younger writers navigate the system to becoming a success.

MERRILL: When you interviewed me, you seemed to have a lot of information about things I’d done. Did you just Google people and read or what?

SACKS: I try to read as much as possible about each of the interviewees. It shows the interview subjects that you’ve done your homework and that you respect them enough to have done the hard work of preparation. Second, and most importantly, the interview will turn out better for it. It will be more comprehensive and, most likely, a lot more interesting.

MERRILL: How long did the book take to write?

SACKS: Two years, every night after work, and on every weekend. My wife just loved it.

MERRILL: Who turned out to be the least like you thought they would be?

SACKS: Truthfully, I did so much research for each interview (up to 30 hours) that I could basically predict how it was going to go. Of course, there are exceptions to that. I conducted a total of 40 interviews and I would say that three or four subjects were either very, very busy or very, very rude.

MERRILL: Did any interview turn out so badly that you didn’t end up using it? Does that happen much with interviews?

SACKS: Yes, sometimes my fault, sometimes theirs. And sometimes you think an interview has gone beautifully, but when you begin to edit the interview and put it together, you realize that it’s kind of weak. You can then perform follow-up interviews, but sometimes you just realize that you’re never going to get what you want no matter how many questions you ask. It might just be a bad fit between you and the interviewee.

MERRILL: A lot of writers like attention because writing is so damn solitary. But were there some who were reluctant? Hard to interview?

SACKS: Sure, there were many who didn’t want to be interviewed, and most of them were (for some strange reason) women. I asked about 15 top female humor writers, and all said no (or never got back to me). I don’t know why this was the case, although I’m guessing two reasons: one, a lack of ego, and two, there are so few top women humor writers that they are constantly being asked to give interviews and are tired of it already.

Do you find this to be the case, Ms. Top Woman Humor Writer?

MERRILL: No. That doesn’t make any sense to me and certainly doesn’t sound like a typical gender trait. Or I’m such an egomaniac that I can’t recognize it. Maybe between work and home life, they were all just too busy . Or maybe their OCD was kicked off by mere proximity to you and they had to wash their hands.

Who was the hardest one to get to agree that he/she would do the interview?

SACKS: No one was really too hard to pin down, but I found that the older generation (Larry Gelbart, Al Jaffee, Irv Brecher) was the easiest to get a hold of. I think it took Larry Gelbart five minutes to get back to me by email (and not from an assistant, mind you). All these senior guys were incredibly classy. I’m sure Al Jaffee had other things to be doing, and yet he could not have been more gracious and more of a sweetheart.

Irv Brecher was 93 when I interviewed him, and he spoke to me for hours. It was one of the last interviews he conducted before he died at the age of 94.

MERRILL: You mentioned a high incidence of OCD among comedy writers. I have never been especially aware of this among writers, although comedians are so insane that I don’t know if there is any mental disabilities that they DONT have. OCD stands for Original Comedian Disorder. But what indications did you have that the people you were interviewing had OCD?

SACKS: Well, for the simple reason that I came right out and asked. And I only asked because I, too, suffer from it. I would say that 70% of those I interviewed said they had it.

I emailed Dr. Oliver Sacks (no relation, minus the mental illness factor) and asked if there was a connection. He said he wasn’t aware of one. Maybe there isn’t, I don’t know.

I just found it all to be, at the very least, a strange coincidence.

MERRILL: Seventy percent is NO coincidence.

Are you comfortable talking about your OCD in this interview? What are your symptoms and do they keep you from writing or force you to write?

SACKS: I don’t mind talking about it, as long as I can talk about it for exactly three minutes and forty seconds. My symptoms are excessive thoughts, hand washing and the urge to kiss the homeless on the subway.

I would say that the OCD does absolutely help with the writing, if only because I literally think about the writing all day and most of the night. And I feel I have to get it perfect, even though that’s an impossible trick. If I don’t write every day, I get nervous.

MERRILL: Oh my God. I definitely do that. I also do it about going to the gym. Maybe I should give hand-washing a shot and see if it takes.

On an unrelated topic: whither The Freedonian?

SACKS: The Freedonian was a humor website that I ran with some friends in the early 2000s. We published a lot of writers who went on to have great careers, like Neal Pollack and a few writers for The Daily Show.

But we got burned out, and, truthfully, it was too difficult to consistently find good pieces. We were thinking of putting the best pieces out in a book compilation…

MERRILL: When you were Nerve’s Crush of the Week, did you get a lot of interest? Didn’t your wife freak out?

SACKS: My wife couldn’t have cared less, truthfully. She thought it was ridiculous. I did hear from some women, but they mostly wanted to talk about splitting infinitives. Dirty, dirty women writers…

MERRILL: Of the writers you talked to, what advice or approach did you come away thinking about? Did anyone have a method you hadn’t considered before?

SACKS: Larry Gelbart talked about how one’s writing style is formed by what you can’t write. I thought this was really interesting, and I think it’s a good lesson for beginning writers.

In other words, if you want to write comics, write comics. If you want to write short humor pieces, that’s fine, too. You should be content writing whatever works for you and whatever interests you. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t want (or can’t) write short stories like Hemingway. Not everyone has to do that; there are plenty of other niches to fill.

MERRILL: Was there a common denominator among the writers in terms of approach to writing?

SACKS: The common denominator was to just keep working, day after day, even though the writing may not be going well. Just keep at it. Everyone, even the writers at the top of their game, struggle from time to time. The trick is to remain consistent; sit yourexpletive deleted down and keep at it, day after day, week after week, year after year.

MERRILL: Was there any one thing besides OCD that these people all had in common?

SACKS: Just this inability to feel content. All of the writers, no matter how popular or famous, still want to achieve a lot more. They each have a tremendous hunger to keep going and to keep writing and to keep achieving.

MERRILL: Did anyone actually LIKE writing?

SACKS: It seems as if the great writers have no choice BUT to write, even if they don’t necessarily love the day-to-day process. But all seem to love having accomplished something that they’re proud of, even if getting there was brutally difficult.

MERRILL: Do you have a favorite quote? I shouldn’t ask this because you will piss off all the writers you overlook, but…what the hell. You don’t have to see them now, do you?

SACKS: I liked Harold Ramis’ quote: find the smartest person in the room, and if isn’t you, go stand next to them.

I think this is great advice. Find like-minded people with similar goals who are also talented and try to make it together. It’s very important to network and to have support, rather than making a go of it alone. It’s tough enough as it is…

Thank you, Merrill. Now let’s get back to our onion loaf, shall we?

MERRILL: Do you mind if we put a napkin over the dismembered pig carcasses?

SACKS: I do not. Pass the hot sauce.

sacks-pizza-coney-island-1Mike Sacks has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker, Time, McSweeney’s, Radar, MAD, New York Observer, Premiere, Believer, Vice, Maxim, Women’s Health, and Salon. He has worked at The Washington Post, and is currently on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair.

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part II: the application process

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Yesterday, I began an interview with Kerry Eielson and John Fanning, the brave souls responsible for running the remote writing retreat from which I have recently returned, La Muse. Since I utterly forgot to run a basic description of the place yesterday, here are the basics:

La Muse Writers’ and Artists’ retreat in Southern France is located in an ancient village perche called Labastide Esparbairenque, in the historic Aude department of Languedoc. We provide a space where artists and writers can work in a peaceful, isolated and inspiring setting. We have hosted poets, novelists, non-fiction writers, screenwriters, painters, visual artists, photographers, chefs, composers, directors, healers and more. Rooms are available to barters, recipients of fellowships and grants, and to individuals who apply directly through La Muse.

The house overlooks its own intimate valley and river. Enjoy magnificent views from every room as well as from our terrace and gardens. On breaks from work, go wine tasting, visit local markets, swim in the nearby lake or just enjoy nature. We are located in the midst of the French national walks system, where well-marked trails scribble the countryside.

What we offer is quite specific: time and space to create among peers, and access to nature, culture and good food. The retreats create a rewarding environment for attendees as well as our ever-growing artistic community. So come create and participate in a growing creative community, one that encourages artistic diversity as well as an exchange between cultures from all over the world.

Something I also neglected to mention yesterday: you’ll find the application here. Even if you are not in the market for a retreat experience, you might want to take a quick gander at the application requirements, as they are relevant to what I’ve been talking about for a week now — and speak very directly to our topic du jour, which is all about how people write their way into someplace like La Muse.

Why veer away from the daydream-worthy retreat experience to talk about something as practical as what makes a winning application? While I could post for weeks on what day-to-day life is like at La Muse and similar artists’ retreats — I could, for instance, have blogged about it on a daily basis while I was there — my first priority in this interview series is to glean as much practical information as possible for those of you who might be considering investing in some serious retreat time.

So for this part of the interview, I ruthlessly turned the conversation toward a topic we pursued a few days ago: residency applications, fellowships, and just how writers’ retreats decide should and should not come.

Did I just hear a gasp of disbelief from those of you who have never tried to gain acceptance to a formal writers’ retreat? Almost universally, it’s not enough to show up on with the requisite fee, a burning desire to write, and the time to do it: very few artists’ colonies are willing to take everyone who applies. As I mentioned on Monday, serious retreats require an application packet that demonstrates not only the potential applicant’s willingness to retreat, but talent and professional acumen.

Knowing how I love you people, was I going to allow a rare opportunity to grill folks who evaluate writers’ retreat applications on a regular basis?

Of course not. Let’s join the conversation already in progress — and to humanize the potentially fearsome souls on the other side of the application envelope, here’s a snapshot I took of Kerry and John at a moment of retreat conviviality. (Those two homemade vegetable pizzas were fresh out of the oven, incidentally.)

john-and-kerry-serve-dinner-at-la-muse

Anne: Something I’ve noticed that we have in common is our strong belief that writers should help one another. Since you are so supportive of writers at every stage of their careers, why did you decide to establish an application process, rather than just accepting anyone who wanted to come?

John: People need to know what it is they are coming here for. It helps them and us to know exactly what they are going to be working on. Otherwise they get frustrated and annoyed with themselves for wasting their own time.

Kerry: We wanted to make sure people didn’t expect Club Med.

Anne: Oh, I know that kind of retreater: ostensibly getting away from everything to write, but outraged to learn that there isn’t round-the-clock room service and a shopping mall with a movie theatre next door to the retreat.

Kerry: We really want people who are going to benefit from La Muse in the way we intended, people who are coming to work on a creative project. We charge significantly less than a B&B of comparable quality. If we wanted people on vacation, we’d run a hotel.

We also want to make sure that interested writers and artists know that the house isn’t by aim social (though conviviality is a nice boon), and that everyone else here at any given time is here to be absorbed in a solitary, creative activity.

The best way to convey all that is to make it official, ask them why they’re coming, and help them get organized before they come.

Anne: I’m going to toss tact to the four winds and come right and ask what every writer who applies for a residency most wants to know: what do you like to see in an application? In general, what separates a strong packet from a weak one?

Kerry: First and foremost, I respond well to someone who is both professional and personable. I like a polite, formal but warm address, something respectful but not rigid—good attributes in a small community setting.

Anne: That makes a lot of sense; it’s the same note an aspiring writer should strike in a query letter or pitch. Since capturing that tone puzzles many writers, do you have any pointers on how to achieve that balance in a first approach or application?

Kerry: Write the email like a good old-fashioned cover letter. Answer the points and include the documents we request on the how-to-apply page of our website. Show us you’ve done some research, and have at least read the website.

Anne: I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard agents say precisely the same thing about querying. Queries, pitches, and applications that seem unsuited to the recipient tend not to go over well.
view-from-library-at-la-muse

Anne: Anything else?

Kerry: I love an application that doesn’t have any parts missing. That said, if something’s missing in an otherwise good application, I ask for it; I point out errors.

Anne: That’s incredibly nice of you, considering the volume of applications you must receive. I’m constantly regaling my readers with horror stories about how Millicent the agency screener and Mehitabel the contest judge just toss back queries, submissions, and entries that don’t follow the rules.

Kerry: I lost a great job due to an error on my resume; it was a good lesson that I can gently pass on by pointing their mistakes out to applicants. No matter how good the writing, I will not forward an application to John with typos.

John: Typos. That’s a good example! That gets me going. All right, with an artist I can understand this to an extent in an email, but a writer. That’s your job! As Stephen King would put it, it’s part of the toolbox you carry around with you everywhere.

Anne: They’re a pet peeve of mine, too, and most of us who read manuscripts for a living. Nothing says, “I didn’t bother to proofread this before I submitted it,” like a bouquet of typos.

John: Spell-check is not only important, I feel, but mandatory. If you can’t spell-check an application, then that’s a red flag.

Anne: Hear that, readers? Is this where I get to say I told you so?

John: An electrician doesn’t go to work without a screwdriver. Why would a writer go to work without a tool as simple as spell-check?

It’s the little things that tell you so much about an applicant. It’s just like with title pages for screenplays or books. You don’t do massive block capitals on a front page. It’s done a certain way and if you don’t do it that way then you get onto the slush pile with all the rest of the unprofessionally presented things. Like, you don’t say that a ms. is copy written, it’s just understood.

Anne: That’s a hard one to get writers brand-new to the biz to understand. They think that it looks more professional if a title page or footer contains © Neophyte McWriterly, but to the pros, it’s just the opposite.

John: You are a professional. You copy write everything before you even send it to a friend, never mind an agent or house. It works the same way with a retreat. Give what you’re asked for. Don’t give what you imagine someone wants and be professional about it.

artists-on-the-terrace-at-la-muse

Anne: What other kinds of things really turn you off in an application?

John: ?Actually, we don’t really get that many problematic applications and when we do, we see the red flags straight away. They are the type of application that draws attention to themselves very quickly.

Kerry: Honestly, unless it has something to do with the project (and in that instance it’s perfectly acceptable), I don’t want to know about someone’s political, religious, or sexual orientation in their introductory email or application—again, unless it’s related to their project.

Anne: That’s interesting — that’s another one I hear from agents and contest judges quite often. Aspiring writers often seem to assume that the person reading their applications, query letters, or entries will be exactly like them. The world’s just a whole lot more diverse than that.

Kerry: I like opinionated people, but in retreat settings it’s good to have people who are able to be discreet when in the company of other religions, political and sexual leanings, or in a professional exchange. It’s best for a person not to assume that everyone will jump aboard his or her bandwagon. I believe it’s best for that information to come out over dinner (where it always does, we can bash Bush till the sun rises) than in an application.

As well, I don’t want my opinion to get in the way of accepting a talented artist with a perfectly acceptable application. We’re fortunate to have very high quality applications most of the time.

Anne: Let me turn the question around: what would your dream applicant be like?

Kerry: Talented.

Anne: I like that. Is that orientation how you end up welcoming such a broad range of ages and levels of professional accomplishment? In the two groups of retreaters when I was in residence, I was struck by the diversity of personalities and ages: in my first cohort, there was 26-year-old and a 74-year-old. And both were indeed very talented writers.

John: The range of ages, cultures, the diversity, is what makes La Muse so great, I feel. The last retreat, we had an Irishman, an English couple, a South African who lives in Grenoble, a New Zealand couple, a Canadian who lives in California, and the previous retreat there were Americans and…it goes on. We love the diversity and so do the people that come here. It’s fun to find out about other cultures and ways of thinking and living and what they read and love. It informs and elaborates your experience here.

Anne: Was there something about our applications that told you that all of our personalities would mesh well?

Kerry: People usually get along. The odd time there is some kind of tension, people are grown-up about it. After all, they all came here for other reasons, anyway.

Anne: So applicants not good at dealing with others tend not to be looking for this kind of retreat? Or is it that the artists who are drawn to a place with a communal kitchen are expecting to make friends?

Kerry: People who come here have a lot in common, no matter their age or art form. They’re smart, interesting and creative. They like to travel. They like nature. They like France and its food, language, history and architecture. They’re serious about what they’re here for. They want to work alone in their room with the option to see a friendly face, ask for advice, to walk or cook with another person.

Anne: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I suspect that many gifted aspiring writers who might hugely enjoy a formal retreat are fearful of spending a great big chunk of time alone, staring at a computer screen. But I’ve met some of my best friends at retreats; if everyone is serious about working, it’s definitely possible to get a lot done and still have social contact. And that’s great, because retreaters tend to be such interesting people.

I also suspect that most aspiring writers don’t know that being admitted to a serious retreat is a respected professional credential, something to catch an editorial or agent’s eye in a bio or query letter.

John: It’s just another thing that says I take what I do seriously and am willing to commit time out of my life back home to that end.

Anne: Has it been your experience that Musers use having attended as a writing credential later on?

Kerry: Yes. They also use each other as references for jobs or other opportunities; they use each other as readers for manuscripts, and have collaborated with each other on all kinds of projects. We get a lot of writers who at La Muse find illustrators for their books!

John: Not only that, but we put new Musers in touch with previous ones. We’ll get people to send their work to other attendees that have been here before who are editors of reviews or heads of writing programs or to agents or editors at publishing houses. The most important thing that attendees get, though, is the reward of knowing that they’ve attended a retreat and because of that they will put it down on their CV/resume because to people like agents, editors, marketing departments, it shows a broader outreach of your potential readership or buyers.

Anne: I’ve noticed over the years that going on a formal retreat can do a great deal toward helping a writer think of herself as a professional — as in, “Hey, these people who screen residency applications all the time think I’m talented enough to take seriously; maybe I should be thinking of this as my life’s work.”

But since this is an interview, I suppose I should be asking questions, rather than making statements. So I’ll ask you: speaking as people who get to see many attendees grow and change over the course of their retreats, what seem to be the greatest benefits?

Kerry: It’s deep immersion, which makes room for inspiration. It’s genuinely exhilarating and puts people back in touch with why they became artists, why they do what they do. When in your real life do you really get a chance to have uninterrupted focus on your work?

John: Exactly, it’s a gift to yourself to go on a retreat. The vast majority of attendees leave La Muse revitalized and re-inspired.

Anne: That’s a good thought to leave my readers pondering, so I’m going to break here for today. Thanks, John and Kerry, for sharing your experience with all of us here at Author! Author!

I’d also like to throw the question to all of you out there: what is actually necessary for you to take your writing seriously as your art, rather than as just a hobby? Most of the successful authors of my acquaintance can point to a specific event, level of recognition, or decision on their part — what is it, or will it be, for you?

As always, keep up the good work!

Some thoughts on character names, part V, in which I ramble amiably from subtopic to subtopic — speaking of which, I’ve got some good news about a member of the Author! Author! community

A Carrion Death cover UKauthor signing A Carrion Death

As those of you who have been hanging around this blog for a while already know, I always like announcing the triumphs of our own — in a business as tough as ours, getting into the habit of celebrating other authors’ successes means getting to enjoy many, many more good days in any given year — but I’m especially pleased to gloat over the success of a good book by good writers in the current publishing hard times.

We could all use some good news right about now, eh?

So I am absolutely delighted to open today with not only a single piece of good news about a member of our little community, but a whole raft of it: FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Stan Trollip dropped me a line to say that his first novel with co-author Michael Sears, a little gem entitled A CARRION DEATH, has been recognized by the Los Angeles Times as one of the top 10 crime novels of 2008.

As if that and a boatload of glowing reviews weren’t enough, has just been named one of 4 finalists in genre fiction by the 2008 Minnesota Book Awards.

In addition to the juried awards, the good folks at the Minnesota Book Awards have also nominated A CARRION DEATH for a Readers’ Award, given to the book that garners the most votes online. So should any of you feel inclined to pitch in and help a debut author by voting, the deadline is April 10.

Congratulations, Stan and Michael!

Or, more properly, congratulations are due to Michael Stanley, their collective nom de plume. For those of you who missed Stan’s informative guest post on the delicate art of collaboration last spring, here’s the blurb:

Smashed skull, snapped ribs, and a cloying smell of carrion. Leave the body for the hyenas to devour—no body, no case. But when Kalahari game rangers stumble on a human corpse mid-meal, it turns out the murder wasn’t perfect after all. Enough evidence is left to suggest foul play. Detective David “Kubu” Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department is assigned to the case. From the sun-baked riverbeds of the Kalahari to the highest offices of an international conglomerate, he follows a blood-soaked trail in search of answers. Beneath a mountain of lies and superstitions, he uncovers a chain of crimes leading to the most powerful figures in the country—influential enemies who will kill anyone in their way.

Incidentally, should any of you be planning to write query letters in the foreseeable future, THAT’s what a terrific summary paragraph looks like. Crammed to the gills with vivid, attention-grabbing details, isn’t it? Makes you want to read the book, doesn’t it?

Those of you who succumbed to the temptation of doings so will no doubt be pleased to hear that Michael Stanley’s second book, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU, will be released on June 2 in North America. (I’m told that it will be released in the rest of the world in April as A DEADLY TRADE.) For US-based pre-order buffs, Amazon is already offering it for sale.

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Back to our ongoing series on the successful selection and wielding of character names. In Part III (Part I was Askhari Hodari’s expert turn as a guest poster, in case any of you were confused by my rather spotty enumeration, and Part IV was the interesting group discussion this weekend, in which I encourage everyone to continue to participate), I waxed long on the Cast of Thousands phenomenon: manuscripts that name every character, no matter how minor, down to the dogs and the goat tethered in the back yard in Chapter 3.

Manuscripts afflicted with COT can get overwhelming, not to say confusing, pretty fast. Professional readers like our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, tend to become impatient when characters pile up — as, indeed, do other readers.

“How,” the hapless peruser of a COT-riddled book wonders, “am I supposed to keep all of these characters straight? Who is Alexei? Have I seen him before?”

I sense that there were some hands still raised after my last discussion of the phenomenon. (Never mind how I know that. Blogging imbues one with super-sharp sensory perceptions.) “Wait just a minute,” I heard some of you murmuring in the ether. “An ordinary reader may not have options if s/he forgets who is who, but our old pal Millicent the agency screener does. If she finds she’s forgotten who a character is, she has a perfectly easy way to find out — her boss asked that I send a synopsis along with my submission. All she has to do is flip to the back of the packet. Or are you saying that if I have a lot of characters in my opening scenes, I should place my synopsis FIRST in the packet?”

To take the last question first, no — at least, not unless an agency specifies in its submission guidelines that it prefers that order. Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: a submitter should always send a requesting agent PRECISELY what s/he asked to see.

No more, no less. Yes, even if she asked for the first 50 pages and your chapter ends a paragraph into page 51. No fudging. And trust a frequent literary contest judge when she tells you that rule applies to stated length restrictions in contest rules, too.

Part of what you are demonstrating by your submission or entry is that you can follow directions, after all. Agents and editors tend to have affection for writers who pay attention to the details of requests; it’s so rare. Writers who start printing out pages after reading only the first line of a request for materials seem to be the norm, unfortunately, not the exception.

That giant tsunami-like rush of air you just heard was every agent, editor, and denizen of a publisher’s marketing department sighing in unison. They honestly do have a reason to be cranky on this point.

But enough of their pain — I’m sensing more conceptually-based disturbances of the ether out there, especially from those of you just on the cusp of stuffing synopses into submission envelopes. “But Anne,” the more literal-minded ether-rockers cry en masse, “I just read a blog by an anonymous agent/heard an agent say at a conference/happened to be eavesdropping in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from the dais at any writers’ conference, and this guy said he didn’t care about exact page count; he just wanted the first three chapters. So aren’t you, you know, wrong about the importance of sticking to 50 pages?”

Actually, literal rockers, you’ve provided evidence in support of my point, not against it. Remember, no matter how much aspiring writers would like for there to be an absolutely uniform set of expectations for submissions — and a well-publicized one, at that — individual differences do exist. So once again, long-time readers, please take out your hymnals and sing along: if your submission-requester says he wants to see something specific in your submission packet, for heaven’s sake, give it to him. Ditto with contest rules.

General submission guidelines only kick in when the requester doesn’t ask for something different — which is to say, the vast majority of the time. (As always, if you’re unfamiliar with how professional manuscripts differ from printed books or other commonly-scene formats, I implore you to check out the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right. Actually, I would strongly recommend any reader new to this blog to take a gander at those categories first.) But if the agent you overheard wants four chapters, you should send four chapters; if he asks you to give your pitch in mime while juggling seventeen oranges, you should consider doing that, too, because he’s the one who is going to be deciding whether he wants to represent you or not.

That being the case, is your first professional contact with him truly the best time to say (at least implicitly), “Look, I know what you asked to see, and that request was based upon your far greater knowledge of both how the publishing industry works and how you like to read, but I’m just going to assume that I’m right and you’re wrong. Got a problem with that?”

I can tell you now: he will.

That being said, don’t revere such requests so highly that you fall into the extremely common trap of generalizing any such quirky individual preferences into industry-wide expectations. Just because one agent, small publisher, and/or contest has a wacky preference doesn’t mean that any other agent, small publisher, and/or contest will share it.

Or, to express it in mathematical terms, agent’s preference ? every agents’ preference.

Aspiring writers often forget that, especially when confronted with the latest panicky iterations of “Oh, my God, I heard an agent speak last week, and submission standards have completely changed!” that trouble the literary world in the wake of every conference season.

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

Everyone clear on that? Good.

Back to the original question, and thence to my argument already in progress. To recap for those of you who have forgotten what the question was during the course of my rather extended digression: why wouldn’t a professional reader who got a large character list mixed up simply fish out the synopsis for reference? And if helping a busy Millicent keep the characters straight is a legitimate purpose for a synopsis, shouldn’t it come first in the packet?

In a word, no. If you put the synopsis at the front of your packet, Millicent is just going to toss it aside and go straight to the first page of your manuscript. If dear Millie reads all the way through your submission and likes what she sees, THEN she will read the synopsis.

Maybe.

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

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

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

And anyway, if Alexei’s appearance in Ch. 2 was brief enough, chances are that he won’t have made an appearance in the synopsis, anyway.

While I’m apparently free-associating about any and all topics related to character names, and since this contest entry season, this seems like a dandy time to talk about character name choice that could get a writer into a whole lot of trouble. Yes, Virginia, I’m talking about that pesky but oh-so-common literary contest rule that forbids entrants from mentioning their own names anywhere in a submission.

Kind of inconvenient for memoirists and other writers of the real, isn’t it? In practice, it means that entrants in memoir and personal essay categories, not to mention those many fiction writers who like to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction by making themselves characters in their own narratives, have to select new monikers for themselves.

Stop laughing, oh writers of thinly-veiled autobiographies passing as fiction. For a writer who has embraced the unique difficulties of thinking of herself as a character in a book, renaming oneself can be a genuine problem.

Which is not to say that the no-name rule itself is objectionable. However annoying rechristening may be to contest-entering writers of the real, it exists for a very good reason: for a contest to be worth its salt, it must be able to claim that its judging procedures are not biased; the first step to assuring lack of personal bias is to institute blind judging, where no judge knows the name of any given author. Admittedly, some competitions are only apparently unbiased, but for the most part, contest organizers take authorial anonymity very seriously indeed.

So no, finding a clever way to get around the rules is not going to endear you to them. Not at all.

Which is why I am about to turn very hard-line: if you are submitting a memoir entry, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this rule applies to not only your entire name, but EITHER your first or your last appearing alone.

Actually, every contest entrant everywhere should follow all the rules in the contests they enter, but this is the single most common way for memoir entries to get themselves disqualified — and the reason that for a memoir entry, you should NEVER just print up the opening chapter of your book and send it in.

You could, of course, sidestep the issue entirely by not entering a piece of writing in which dear self is a character — which is, again, a trifle difficult for memoirists and other habitual writers of the real. The second-best way that I’ve found is to christen oneself anew with the name that you wish your parents had had the wit and wisdom to give you in the first place.

Come on — none of us had the name we wanted in junior high school. Pick the one that would have made your life lovely and do a search-and-replace.

Obviously, you’re going to want to make a duplicate document of the chapter or essay you’re planning on entering in the contest before you perform this bit of minor surgery — as I said, it’s never a good idea just to print up the requisite number of pages from your already-existing manuscript and send off to a contest. (Your slug line in your submitting-to-agents version will have your name in it, for one thing.) Perhaps less obviously, you’re going to need to perform the search-and-replace function for both the first and last name, as well as any nicknames you might have incorporated into the manuscript.

Even when you’ve gone to all the trouble of using a pseudonym. Even then, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying that since the contest forbids the author to mention his own name, you will be using “Bobby” (not your real name) throughout.

Why, you ask? Because it’s practically impossible NOT refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life. Since judges are aware of that, and become accordingly eagle-eyed.

And don’t think being coy about it will help you evade their scrutiny, either. Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story.

I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who eagerly contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. (As those who happened to be hanging around Harvard at the time would no doubt be quick to point out, I use the term humor loosely in this instance: the magazine was seldom actually funny to those who were not in the writers’ clique, but bear with me here.) Danny had every reason to try to get his articles published: the magazine had long ago spawned an extremely profitable off-campus humor magazine, so a successful Lampoon piece could be a stepping-stone to a career as a comedy writer.

Despite or perhaps because of these articles’ worth as resume-candy, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club. But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on. So Danny did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song.

His favorite way of doing this was to insert an imaginary conversation with himself into the text, so an alter ego could address him by name, as in, “Danny boy, you’re really in trouble now!” Occasionally, he would vary it by having an authority figure yell at his narrator: “Wilson, you’re out of line!” (Because Danny is now a fairly prominent magazine writer, I should say straight away: to protect his identity, Wilson is not Danny’s actual last name.)

Now, as my parenthetical aside just told you indirectly, Danny’s little stratagem actually did help him generate the clippings he coveted, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

I bring this up not because there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-breakers out there, but because I have seen so many contest entries that have apparently done inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time, à la Hamlet: “Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.” And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified.

Yes, Virginia (if that’s your real name), even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.

So a word to the wise: innocent naming mistakes can knock your entry out of competition. So it would behoove to prepare your entry, like your queries, under the assumption that the judge who is going to read it is the nastiest, most curmudgeonly nit-picker since, well, me.

“But Anne,” I hear you cry, pale at the prospect of encountering yours truly as a contest judge, “if this mistake is usually made inadvertently, how can I hope to avoid it?”

Well asked, oh fearful trembler. Experience sharpens the editing eye. Rest yourself upon the judge’s reading couch for a moment, and take a look at where these slips most commonly occur.

Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Even if Biddy has had the foresight to rename herself Libby McPherson-Seine and do a search-and-replace accordingly, she should double-check her entry especially carefully in the following places:

(1) When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Biddy, have you seen the our pet tiger, Max?”

(2) When another character is talking about the narrator behind her back: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver. He’s paying too much attention to that Biddy next door.”

(3) When another character refers to the narrator by an abbreviation that a search-and-replace might not catch: “I’m talking to you, Bid,” is substantially less likely to get changed automatically than, “I’m talking to you, Biddy.”

(4) And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult shouts some version of: “Elizabeth Deirdre MacAlister-Thames, you come in this house this instant!”

Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character OTHER than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you. So keep our Biddy should keep her eye out for these kinds of situations, too:

(5) When a third party addresses a family member: “Mrs. MacAlister-Thames, your daughter is under arrest.”

(6) When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: The Easter Bunny had been unusually generous to the MacAlister-Thames family that year.

And, as I mentioned above, self-references to EITHER your first or last name, not just to both together, count as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH your first AND last names in your entry before you print it up.

Yes, it’s a tedious thing to have to do, Biddy (or whatever you’re calling yourself now), and yes, you have my sympathies for having to do it. But frankly, I would rather see you annoyed and on the finalist list than not proofread and disqualified.

I’m funny that way.

Now that I’ve cleaned up some of the name-related loose ends, I’m going to launch into another big topic next time: that special scourge of humanity that is too-frequent name repetition. Keep up the good work!

When even the weather seems to conspire against you, or, what to give a writer for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, winter solstice, Epiphany, or really, anytime it’s dark

I’m suffering under the slings and arrows of the current version of that annual plague known locally as That Thing That’s Going Around. Not bad timing, actually, since outside, it’s about as cold as it ever gets in my part of the world: I believe yesterday’s 19 degrees Fahrenheit shattered an all-time record for December in these parts. Or at any rate for December 15ths.

In short, I’m staying inside, well bundled up.

The snow on the ground has resulted in some quite uncharacteristic light conditions for these environs in the winter — you know, clear, merry, and bright. We Seattlites hardly know how to handle the glare; if this keeps up, we’ll have to dig out our long-buried sunglasses.

Why? Well, let me clue you in to what our midwinter days are usually like: I took the picture above at 3 pm, and my poor kitty looks as though she might be carried off by vampire bats at any second. Even if the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (ho, ho, ho) were standing right next to her, handing her a nice piece of sashimi-grade tuna and a bucket of catnip, nothing about this photo would remotely suggest a season of joy.

It’s just too dark.

Ah, the charms of a Pacific Northwest winter, light gray for a few hours in midday, dark gray or black for most of the time, and drizzly pretty much all of the time. For the edification of those of you with the good sense to live farther south, this is the time of year when Seattlites who hold a day job droop visibly, because they are going to work AND coming home in the dark.

It can be depressing, making getting out of bed feel like an outright burden, even when That Thing That’s Going Around has already come and gone. Not the best environment, in short, for doing sustained creative work.

Yes, the gloriously long days of summer do compensate for the blahs of a northern winter, but that’s awfully hard to remember in mid-December, isn’t it? Try to remember the kind of September when grass was green and…

Well, admittedly, the grass does stay pretty green around here all winter — or did before Mother Nature dumped all of that snow on top of it — but still, you know the song, right? My point is, back in September, you could glance lawnward on your way to work and still SEE that the grass was green without whipping out either a pocket flashlight or a shovel.

Seattle is, after all, where those clever doctors DISCOVERED seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — just nanoseconds after, one presumes, having figured out that those maps schoolchildren are encouraged to color give quite a skewed sense of the relative positions of Washington and Maine with respect to the North Pole. We’re far enough north that my shampoo and toothpaste labels boast directions in both English and French, for goodness sake.

As much as I love being a three-hour drive from Vancouver, I’m a Northern Californian by birth and upbringing, and let me tell you, I spent the entirety of my first Seattle winter fuming at my sixth-grade geography teacher for leading me so far astray.

I believe Mr. Werle is now inadvertently running his fingernails over that great chalkboard in the sky (oh, did his chalk ever squeak!), so it’s no longer possible to ask him what the heck he was thinking back then. Didn’t it ever occur to him that someday, one of his wee charges might conceivably need to drive from Seattle to Montreal — but that he’d mistakenly trained his students to figure on driving northeast, instead of southeast?

I was lucky not to end up in Banff, Mr. W. And I was one of your better students.

So if those of you up my way been feeling sluggish lately, you have a perfectly good excuse — no, not your sixth-grade teachers (although I’m sure some of you had some lulus; please don’t get me started on Mrs. Oswill’s literary tastes), but the lack of light. We who live north need to take better care of ourselves in the winter.

Which, presumably, is no surprise to the good people of Manitoba. Or to the elves in the workshop of the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver.

The late dawns and early dusks of winter are particularly hard on writers, I suspect. No matter whether you tend to get up early or stay up late to snatch your precious daily writing time, the fast-waning winter light is bound to cramp your schedule a little.

And let’s face it, the longer it takes to ramp up your energy to write, the less time you have to do it.

I write and edit full-time, so I am spared the pain of the pitch-dark two-way commute, but let me tell you, when I look up from my computer and notice that I have only an hour of daylight left, I practically have to lash myself to my desk chair to keep myself at work.

Fortunately, there is a tool that makes this time of year easier: the lightbox, which, as the name implies, is a great big box on stilts that shines oodles of non-burning noon-aping light on the user’s face. They’re spendy — $200-$400 for a medical-quality one, although one can find reasonable facsimiles online for less, in case the Furtive NDGG is planning a shopping trip for the benefit of writers in Fargo (which is, incidentally, SOUTH OF HERE, Mr. Werle) — but sitting in front of it for 45 minutes a day does tend to trick the body into believing that it should not go into hibernation just yet.

With practice, you can read or even work on a computer in front of it; I know ambitious souls who have arranged theirs to shine upon them while they walk on a treadmill or ride an exercise bike.

Me, I’m more sedentary these days: I plop myself in front of it with my laptop and a few selected houseplants (oh, like THEY don’t resent the winter’s loss of light?) to read my voluminous e-mail and scan comments posted to the blog. At least until the cats displace me.

It puts me in a good mood while I am deleting the hundreds of spam comments posted here daily — which, for my money, is as high a recommendation as one can give a depression-lifting device.

I just mention this, in case any of you out there are blessed with the kind of kith and kin susceptible to suggestions for good gifts to give a writer for any major holiday that might be coming up. You have my full permission to print up this post to stuff into Santa’s pocket the next time you sit on his lap, as a gentle hint.

But this year, most of us are on tighter budgets, aren’t we? Fear not, impecunious generous folks: installing full-spectrum light bulbs (as low as $5-$10 apiece) in your writing space can also be very helpful.

Are you listening, Furtive NDGG? Properly wrapped so they will not smash coming down the chimney, that’s a pretty stellar stocking-stuffer.

Yes, they are a bit more expensive than your average light bulb, but they do undoubtedly help fight the November-February blahs. And if you use them strategically, you need not spend a fortune to improve your mood.

They really are worth the investment. US-based writers who file Schedule Cs for their writing careers might even be able to write ‘em off as a business expense; have a chat with a respectable tax advisor familiar with artists’ returns. It’s potentially legitimate: most writers do find that they are more productive in the winter months with adequate lighting.

Don’t believe me? Okay, I’m about to share a trick of the full-time writing trade, one of those professional secrets that you always suspected the published shared with one another in clandestine whispers: in the winter months, have your writing space be the ONLY room in the house equipped with full-spectrum lighting, and plenty of it. Make it blaze.

“That’s it?” I hear you cry in frustration. “Light my studio differently from the rest of the house?”

Yes, oh scoffers, that is indeed what I said. Do it, and make sure you spend at least an hour per day in the room for the first week with the new lighting. (Hey, why not spend that time writing?) Soon, you will find that your body actually CRAVES being in your writing space. You will automatically gravitate there.

As will, as I can tell you from experience, any pet mammal you happen to house. Unless you happen to cherish moles, they’re probably missing the light midwinter, too.

You think I posed my cat for that picture? I had stepped away for thirty seconds to refill my tea, and she displaced me.

Naturally, the full-spectrum strategy alone will not necessarily turn around a deeply entrenched writer’s block, but it’s a start. For a lot of aspiring writers, finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer is not the hard part: it’s the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper.

It’s conquering the fear of starting. Or, in some cases, of finishing and the result’s not being perfect. Either way, it can be pretty paralyzing.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. They worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to take time away from all of their other obligations.

For instance, about a third of the writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded T-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you — if you find that you’re not sitting down on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. Good books are seldom written overnight.

If you are waiting until an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations pops up spontaneously, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most US citizens work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of unused leisure time.

And yet somehow, we find the time to shop for presents this time of year. Astonishing, isn’t it?

I could parrot other advice-givers, and order you crabbily to turn off the TV/radio/IPod/Internet connection/Facebook/my blog, but my God, have you seen the economic news lately? I would be the last person to advise you to be LESS aware of what is going on in the world around you. And chances are, by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, etc.

But, as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a tastefully-appointed mountain cabin with hot-and-cold running servants who will see to your every whim while you dash off a first draft in its entirety. Perhaps with the addition of a qualified massage therapist to rub your tired wrists nightly and nymphs playing the lute and lyre softly whilst you compose.

Oh, all right: spend a few moments daydreaming about it now. I’ll wait.

If you can afford such a retreat, great. As I mentioned some weeks back — could it be as long ago as the end of October? — there are plenty of artists’ colonies that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. Such formal retreats may be less costly than you expect; many hold competitions for free or inexpensive residencies — which, as a fringe benefit, also look good as a credential on a query letter. (A good place to seek out such opportunities is the back of Poets & Writers magazine — an excellent publication which, last I heard, was more than happy to let a Furtive NDGG buy a gift subscription for someone, incidentally.)

While admittedly it can be very nice to squirrel yourself away in the company of other artists, communal dining halls are not for everyone — the social dynamics of some of them make recess after Mr. Werle’s geography class seem positively urbane by comparison — and you don’t necessarily need a full-fledged artists’ colony to replicate the retreat experience. There are plenty of secluded bed-and-breakfasts and hotels that are delighted to cater to people who never want to stick their noses outside their rooms. Heck, when I’m on a short revision deadline, I’ve been known to lock myself in a downtown hotel room for a week, just to get away from the phone.

In case I’m being too subtle for any non-writer Furtive NDGG who happens to be eavesdropping: the best gift anyone can give a serious writer is a chunk of unfettered time to write.

Seriously, you might want to consider asking the less-furtive NDGGs in your life to consider donating toward a retreat — or banding together to help construct one from available resources. It needn’t require subsidizing a couple of weeks’ worth of room service; think creatively.

And, ideally, become intimate friends with people who own far-flung cabins and under-used second homes.

I’m only half-kidding about this, actually. Housesitting for vacationing friends can make for a lovely retreat; many a novel has been completed by the dog-sitter. Even if it’s for only a day or two, scoring some unbroken time can go a long way toward pulling the stuffing out of a seemingly insurmountable writer’s block.

Just don’t forget to bring some good lightbulbs along, okay?

More tips on beating the dark winter blahs follow tomorrow — and if, in outlining strategies, I should happen to stumble across a few more items for you to add to your favorite Furtive NDGG’s shopping list, well, that won’t be my fault.

Don’t say I never did anything for you.

Before I sign off for today, let me just set a few minds at ease: yes, I shall be returning to my half-completed series on constructing one’s own writing retreat, probably early next week. I wanted to whet your appetites again first — and give those of you who haven’t had a moment to spare in the interim a few more days to come up with that list of your personal requirements for a writing retreat (as opposed to a generic one that might suit anybody) that we discussed back in October.

Even if you are absolutely convinced that you would never be able to get away from your quotidian life for even an entire day, please do give a little thought to what you would actually need in order to write productively and intensively. As I mentioned back when I began writing about retreats, figuring out what ambient conditions help you write can be very, very useful even in everyday writing situations.

Besides, do you really want to state positively that you’ll never have time to take even a brief retreat? The Furtive NDGG might hear you.

After all, rumor has it that he sees you when you’re sleeping, knows when you’re awake, etc.

Keep up the good work!

PS: hey, speaking of furtive gift-giving, would you mind humoring me by making a back-up of your computerized manuscript files right away? Thanks; I’ll sleep better at night.

Why am I requesting this? Well, I spent a couple of hours in a computer store over the weekend, and I ran into that saddest of human creatures, a writer whose hard disk had disintegrated, taking the only copy of his Great American Novel with it. Please let his misfortune prevent something similar from happening to you. If you would like tips on how to back up something as large as a manuscript, please see the BACK-UP COPIES category on the list at right.

I want candy!

We begin today with great news about a member of our little Author! Author! community, campers: reader Jake La Jeunesse’s OLD FRIENDS has taken an Honorable Mention in the Stage Play category of the 2008 Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition. Congratulations, Jake! Way to build up your ECQLC!

That’s short for Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, for those of you joining us late.

Ah, ECQLC, those lovely little tidbits that make Millicent the agency screener’s weary eyes light up in the biographical paragraph of a query letter. Placing in contests (particularly ones known to attract many entries and stiff competition, like Writers’ Digest’s), acceptances to writers’ residences (such as the ones I discussed yesterday, which also usually involve one’s writing fighting its way through heavy competition), writing programs (either degree-granting or of the intensive workshop variety), public speaking experience, even consistent participation in a well-established critique group — all of these are legitimate professional credentials for a writer, every bit as much as previous publications.

Make sure to mention ‘em in your query letters.

If you are in the querying stage of your writing career, or plan to be there within the next year or two, it’s definitely worth giving some thought — and entering the occasional contest — to building up your ECQLC quotient. Credentials generally take time to accumulate, after all; heck, a three- or four-month turn-around time for a contest entry is positively abnormally quick. And it can take time to convince the editor-in-chief of your community paper to let you write a couple of book reviews, even if you do it for free, in order to be able to list it as a publication credential.

Do I sense some squirming discomfort out there from those of you who have read my last couple of posts? “But Anne,” I hear a harassed few exclaim, “you’ve just been telling us that we need to make time for our writing, so I thought you understood. I have a full-time job, family, friends, obligations — as it is, I feel as though I have to fight tooth and nail to carve out any time to write at all! Come to think of it, one of the things I resent most about the querying process is how much time it sucks away from creating new work.

“Given the choice,” these intrepid souls continue, “why would I — or any sane aspiring writer — place our books on a back burner in order to devote still more of that scant time to entering contests or writing free pieces for local papers, just so I’ll have clippings?”

Interesting point, time-pressed many. For the most part, I’m with you on this one: marketing (which querying certainly is), learning about craft, attending conferences, making connections with other writers who may help you improve your writing now and/or help you down the line — these are all time-consuming and often expensive. As you say, you could be using those resources to complete your book-in-progress.

See? I do get it.

For that reason, I wouldn’t advise letting the pursuit of ECQLC make serious inroads into your writing time. You don’t, after all, have unlimited amounts of it, and all of the marketing classes and networking in the world won’t make a particle of difference if your book is not well-crafted.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration: we’ve all stumbled across volumes in the bookstore that made us gasp, “Okay, who does THIS author know” (to put it politely) “to have been able to land an agent for THIS?” But presumably, if you were already a celebrity or had connections that would permit you to bypass — again, putting it politely — the craft-related steps of the production of the book, you wouldn’t be reading this, would you?

Oh, don’t deny it. You’d be off hobnobbing with your fancy friends, with no thought for those of us who nursed you as a pup.

For those of us operating under the normal restrictions of landing an agent and getting published, I would consider it reasonable — better than that: cleverly career-minded! — of you to set aside deliberately, say, 5% of your writing time for professional development activities like contest entry, taking classes, going to book readings to meet local authors, etc.

Why 5%, you ask? Because if you write on a regular basis, it’s enough time actually to accomplish something, yet it’s not a high enough chunk of your writing time to prove a major obstacle to the progress of your book. Think of it as a smart investment in your future.

Before any purists out there start screaming that I’m mercenary-minded, allow me to add quickly: for the sake of our art, I wish I could tell you that the publishing world routinely rewards single-minded writers who rigorously refuse to be distracted by the less creative aspects of the business. But I’m not going to lie to you — over the years I’ve seen many, many, many truly talented writers passed over by agents and their Millicents.

Why, you cry to the heavens? Because it’s far, far easier to dismiss an uncredentialed writer than one with some ECQLC.

Yes, regardless of the quality of their respective writing. Long-time readers, take out your hymnals and sing along with me: if you can’t get an agent or editor to READ your manuscript, the quality of the writing isn’t going to help get it published.

Sorry about that. If I ran the universe…well, you know the rest. In the universe I don’t run, here is what I hope is a pleasant flashback to your childhood, to help cheer you up:

All nice and calm again? Excellent. Let’s get back to the topic at hand.

Toward the end of my last post, I suggested that it might behoove you to make a list of the conditions you believe you would need in order to have a productive writing retreat. All right, everybody, hand in your homework, so I can grade it.

Just kidding; no need to post your lists as comments. But your breath caught for just a moment out of long-ago school habit, didn’t it?

I do hope that you’ve been giving some serious thought to what should be on your list, however. If you haven’t started, or if you’re having trouble even beginning, let me rephrase the question: what is the absolute minimum you would need to have with you/over your head in order to dig in for anywhere from a long weekend to a couple of months and to literally nothing but WRITE.

Did you catch the logical problem with what I just said? Obviously, no human being can write 24/7, with no breaks at all. Eating, for example, is more or less indispensable to the maintenance of human life, contrary to what some of us thought in the mid-80s. So, I’m told, is sleep.

You’d be amazed by how frequently writers forget to budget time or money for either when they’re planning to retreat.

Completely understandable, of course: it’s not all that hard to picture a gleeful writer, pleased almost to the point of disbelief at the prospect of being able to devote unbroken time to a writing project, packing in unseemly haste, muttering, “6 days — that’s 144 hours of work. I can finish my revision in 144 hours, if I don’t take breaks and live on protein bars stuffed in my cardigan pockets, so I don’t have to move even a few feet in order to feed myself…”

Stop right there: trust me, you can’t. And you will be (a) completely miserable, (b) quickly become unproductive, and eventually (c) make yourself sick if you even try.

So promise me you won’t, so I don’t have to stay up at night worrying about you. Thank you.

The impulse to overtax oneself on retreat is, I suspect, part and parcel of a mindset that often afflicts time-strapped writers, whether they are lucky enough to be able to go on retreat or not. See if this scenario sounds at all familiar:

Stephanie so yearns for sustained writing time that when she is finally assured she’s going to have an entire day (or two, or twelve…work with me here, people) to herself, she’s beside herself with joy. In a frenzy of excitement, she spends the week prior to her writing day(s) feverishly making lists of everything she plans to do: finish Chapter 12, write Chs. 13-15, compose a new and improved query letter from scratch, compose synopsis…the list goes on and on. As the day itself approaches, Stephanie finds herself doing housework and running errands during her regularly-scheduled normal writing time: ah, well, no matter; she can make it up later.

Once her planned writing intensive begins, though, Stephanie sits down, makes sure everything around her is perfect — and two hours later, is in tears because she can’t seem to write. What happened? she wonders angrily.

What did happen to Stephanie? Any guesses?

If you suggested that perhaps she had raised her expectations of what she could achieve in her allotted time, give yourself a gold star for the day. Aspiring writers do this all the time — they build up the pressure on themselves to perform that they set themselves up for…well, not necessarily failure, but at least for disappointment in themselves.

The common name for this is writer’s block.

Allow me to share a professional writer’s secret: in the long run, it’s far more sensible to set small, reasonable tasks, eating away at a big project like completing a novel in ladylike little bites, rather than trying to write an entire book in a sitting.

Oh, you may laugh, but at every formal writing retreat I’ve ever visited, I’ve met at least one writer who was attempting to polish off her long-neglected novel during a week- or month-long residency, because she just didn’t know when she’d have time to get back to it again, driving herself crazy in the process. Or who was trying to start one and get halfway through it before he left.

Keep your expectations about what you can achieve during your writing time reasonable. Really, you’ll accomplish more in the long run, I promise.

For those of you who would like some extra credit, here’s a follow-up question: Stephanie did something else that made her intensive retreat time less likely to be successful. What was it?

35 points (on a scale of what? Who can say?) if you immediately piped up to point out that she stopped honoring her usual daily writing time. Why was this a poor idea, since she knew she had some spare time coming up? Because that raised the expectations for her own productivity during her intensive writing time even higher, rendering falling short of them even…class?

That’s right, even greater. Help yourself to a lollypop on your way out the door after the bell rings.

On that candy-related note (I knew I’d get back to it somehow), I’m going to wind down for the day, but before I do, allow me to place the proverbial bug in your ear while that lollypop is in your mouth: when planning intensive writing time, it’s a really, really good idea to budget in — over-budget, even — thinking time into it.

Or, as your horrified mind probably just referred to it, time when you’re neither writing, eating, or sleeping.

No, I haven’t gone mad, nor am I nudging you surreptitiously toward lowering your performance expectations even more. (Although, hey, I wouldn’t stop you from doing the latter, by any means.) I’m talking, my friends, about what the pros call processing time.

That being said, I’m going to wind up today by repeating my question from yesterday: what factors would you actually need to have in place in order to work productively on a writing retreat? May I suggest adding to your list time to eat, sleep, and just plain think about things?

Hey, let’s run with that and add a secondary set of goals to our list: tweak it to include conditions you would need in order to do these not-writing-yet-necessary-activities happily and well. Because, believe me, planning for those will assist you in the pursuit of your primary goal, scoring yourself some prime-quality intensive writing time.

So, at the risk of sounding redundant across blog posts, give some thought to what you would need. I promise you, we will put your homework to good use.

Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part II: the dreaded single-page synopsis, or, what to do when you can’t allow those mushrooms to multiply

We begin today on a note of triumph: long-time reader and fab lady Auburn McCanta has had a political essay selected (amid some SERIOUS competition, I’m guessing, at this point in the election cycle) for publication on the Huffington Post. Congratulations, Auburn!

Please, everyone, keep sending in word of your writerly triumphs, large and small. One of the great benefits of community is being able to share good news!

Good news comes in many forms for writers — as does, lest we forget ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy). Many aspiring writers become so focused on imagining a single track to literary success — which typically runs thus: write book, land agent, sell book to Random House, book signings, Oprah, wash, rinse, and repeat — that they forget that other writerly achievements can look awfully good in a query letter and in an author bio. Publications — paid or not, in print or on the Internet — definitely count, as do degree programs, certificate programs, contest placing, and so forth.

So please join me, everyone, in applauding Auburn for doing some smart long-term career promotion — and set aside some time in your no doubt busy schedule to brainstorm what ECQLC you might add to your query letter candy bowl to render it more attractive to Millicent.

Who, for those of you joining us late, is Author! Author!’s pet agency screener, the one who is so very efficient at zipping through stacks and stacks of query letters with a latte in one hand and a pile of form-letter rejections in the other. She’s also often the gal who weeds out submissions before they reach the desk of the agent of one’s dreams — who, if s/he happens to work at one of the larger agencies, might even have two or three Millicents pre-reading submissions.

We here at A! A! try not to annoy Millicent. It’s not good marketing strategy.

In further pursuit of that laudable goal, I launched yesterday into a discussion one of the more frustration-generating tasks a writer faces on a routine basis: compressing a deliciously complex, breathtakingly nuanced 400-book into a 5- (or 1)-page summary in standard format.

Or whatever length the agent of your dreams or contest of your desires has seen fit to request.

It’s well worth double-checking who is requesting what these days, especially if you’re planning on including a synopsis with your query letters. This information that’s usually easily available in the agency’s listing in one of the standard agency guides, on its website (if it has one; a surprisingly hefty percentage still don’t), or even, in the case of a REQUESTED synopsis to be included with a submission, in the communication containing the request for materials.

Yes, I AM saying what you think I’m saying: you wouldn’t believe how often queriers seem to forget to consult either of the former (or both, since sometimes they contain different information) or, in the heat of post-request excitement, simply disregard the instructions about what they’re supposed to send.

A good trick to help avoid the first mistake: do your homework; if the agency has made the information publicly available, Millicent will expect any querier or submitter to be familiar with it.

A couple of good tricks to avoid the second: when you receive a request for materials, immediately sit down and make a checklist of what should be in the submission packet. Then have a non-writer go over the request for materials, the agency in question’s guidelines, AND its website, making a separate list of all the agency’s requirements and requests. (Why a non-writer, you ask? S/he’s less likely to get swept up in the excitement of the moment.) Afterward, compare and consolidate the two lists.

Before you seal the submission packet, dig out the final version of that to-do list and triple-check that you did everything on it.

Pay extra-close attention to length restrictions for synopses — Millicents are known for rejecting a too-long or too-short synopsis on sight. Why? Well, one that is much shorter will make you look as if your story is unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard.

Either way, the results can be fatal to your submission.

So what DOES work in a synopsis? It’s not going to sound sexy, I’m afraid, but here is the secret:

For fiction, stick to the plot of the novel, including enough vivid detail to make the synopsis interesting to read. Oh, and make sure the writing is impeccable.

For nonfiction, begin with a single paragraph about (a) why there is a solid market already available for this book and (b) why your background/research/approach renders you the perfect person to fill that market niche. Then present the book’s argument in a straightforward manner, showing how each chapter will build upon the one before to prove your case as a whole. Give some indication of what evidence you will use to back up your points.

For either, make sure to allot sufficient time to craft a competent, professional synopsis — as well as sufficient buffing time to render it gorgeous. Let’s face it, unlike some of the more — let’s see, how shall I describe them? — fulfilling parts of writing and promoting a book (see above; wash, rinse, repeat), a synopsis is unlikely to spring into your head fully-formed, like Athene; most writers have to flog the muses quite a bit to produce a synopsis they like.

To quote the late, great Billie Holiday: the difficult/I’ll do right now./ The impossible/will take a little while.

Too few aspiring writers do, apparently preferring instead to toss together something at the last minute before sending out a submission or contest entry. (Especially a contest entry. I’ve been a judge; I know.)

I have my own theories about why otherwise sane and reasonable people might tumble into this particular strategic error. Not being aware that a synopsis would be required seems to be a common reason, as does resentment at having to produce it at all. Or just not being familiar with the rigors of writing oe.

Regardless, it’s just basic common sense to recognize that synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write.

Yes, no matter how good your book may happen to be. Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

On the bright side, since almost everyone just throws a synopsis together, impressing an agent with one actually isn’t as hard as it seems at first blush. Being able to include a couple of stunning visceral details, for instance, is going to make you look like a better writer — almost everyone just summarizes vaguely.

My readers, of course, are far, far too savvy to make that mistake, right?

Even if you are not planning to send out queries or submissions anytime soon (much to those sore-backed muses’ relief), I STRONGLY recommend investing the time in generating and polishing a synopsis BEFORE you are at all likely to need to use it. That way, you will never you find yourself in a position of saying in a pitch meeting, “A 5-page synopsis? Tomorrow? Um, absolutely.”

Hey, there was a reason that I introduced you to that Billie Holiday song; it’s the mantra of the working writer. Or so my agent tells me.

Actually, if you can bear it — you might want to make sure your heart medication is handy before you finish this sentence –it’s a great idea to pull together a couple of different lengths of synopsis to have on hand, so you are prepared when you reach the querying and submission stages to provide whatever the agent in question likes to see.

What lengths might you want to have in stock? Well, a 5-page, certainly, as that is the most common request, and perhaps a 3 as well, if you are planning on entering any literary contests anytime soon. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s getting more common for agents to request a 1-page synopsis, so you might want to hammer out one of those as well.

I can tell from here that you’ve just tensed up. Take a deep breath. No, I mean a really deep one. This is not as overwhelming a set of tasks as it sounds.

In fact, if you have been reading this blog all summer or have worked through some of the exercised in the archives, you probably already have a 1-page synopsis floating around in your mind.

You may know it by its other name: the 2-minute pitch. (For tips on how to construct one of these babies, please see the aptly-named 2-MINUTE PITCH category at right.)

Don’t believe me, oh ye of little faith? Okay, here’s a pitch I used as an example just a couple of months back:

19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, right? As I vaguely recall having mentioned at the time, this would be a trifle long as an elevator speech — which, by definition, needs to be coughed out in a hurry — but it would work fine in, say, a ten-minute meeting with an agent or editor.

It also, when formatted correctly, works beautifully as a one-page synopsis with only a few minor additions. Lookee:

Okay, so if I were Jane (Austen, that is, not Bennet), I MIGHT want to break up some of the sentences a little, particularly that last one that’s a paragraph long, but see how simple that was? The trick to the 1-page synopsis lies in realizing that it’s not intended to summarize the entire plot, merely to introduce the characters and the premise.

Yes, seriously. Like the descriptive paragraph in a query letter or the summary in a verbal pitch, no sane person seriously expects to see the entire plot of a book summarized in a single page. It’s a teaser, and should be treated as such.

Doesn’t that make more sense than driving yourself insane, trying to cram your entire storyline or argument into 22 lines? Or trying to shrink that 5-page synopsis you have already written down to 1?

Bears pondering, doesn’t it?

Yes, yes, I know: even with reduced expectations, it’s still a tall order. That’s why you’re going to want to set aside some serious time to write it — and don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. (Where have I heard that before?) Because, really, don’t you want YOURS to be the one that justified Millicent’s heavily-tried faith that SOMEBODY out there can tell a good story in 3 – 5 pages?

Or — gulp! — 1?

Don’t worry; you can do this. There are more rabbits in that hat, and the muses are used to working overtime on good writers’ behalves. Keep up the good work!

Still more on contest entries: the ins and outs of category selection

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After yesterday’s epic post on the various means contest entries tend to annoy the average judge, I’m going to try to limit myself to merely waxing mildly poetic today. It’s going to be hard, though, because I’m continuing the seldom-discussed but vitriol-stained topic of finding the right category in which to enter your work.

I hear some snickering out there already. “Vitriol-stained?” some head-shakers out there are murmuring. “Just a tad melodramatic, isn’t it?”

Actually, it isn’t — at least, not from the perspective of a conscientious contest judge, the kind who volunteers because gosh darn it, s/he wants to be there when the next Great American Novel is first discovered.

Wipe that smirk off your face. Being a contest judge, particularly for the first round, is typically a great big time commitment, and the stalwart souls who embrace it often do it for the love of literature, community, and humanity. Or an unvarnished affection for jumping upon those who mangle the English language.

Either way, there’s usually a passion for the written word smoldering under those judges’ robes. Which is precisely why it’s so darned disappointing when a beautifully-written entry knocks itself out of finalist consideration by being submitted to the wrong category.

Now, I’m the first to admit that it’s not unheard-of for judges to harbor some kind of squirrelly ideas of what does and doesn’t belong in a particular contest category. This is not altogether surprising, particularly for fiction, as it’s far from unusual for even the pros to disagree upon what book category would most comfortable house a particular book.

If you doubt this, you probably haven’t tried to establish a book category for your opus. For those of you who don’t know, book categories are how the industry thinks of potentially publishable work, the conceptual containers into which it is sorted — or, to put it another way, the shelf where the book would rest in a local bookstore. (For how to tell which is which, as well as where this information is likely to be found on a published book, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES listing at right.)

Due to this pervasive mindset, a writer needs to be able to say up front into what category her book would logically fall in order to query, pitch, or submit successfully in the U.S. market.

Why? Well, since generalist agents are very rare — it would be flatly too time-consuming to establish connections for more than a few types of book — book categories enable them to avoid wasting time upon submissions they do not already have the connections to place successfully.

If an agent represents only mysteries and SF/Fantasy, it would be a waste of good stationary to send him a query for literary fiction, wouldn’t it?

While contest categories tend to be far broader than the industry’s, lumping a handful together, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the publishing world’s standards in mind. There’s an awfully good reason for this: final-round contest judges (the ones who read only the finalists’ entries) are often agents, editors, or authors who work on a daily basis with a particular category. The early-round judges, aware of this, tend to weed out entries that don’t fit neatly into the applicable book categories long before the finalist round.

That way, the logic goes, the final-round judges will be presented only with works that stand a fighting chance of getting published as sterling representatives of the best current writing in their respective categories.

If the contest of your choice does not actually list the book categories that belong within each of its contest categories, contact the organization and ask for such a list. Or — if you have already firmly categorized your work in industry terms, give your category and ask which part of the contest would best fit for it.

(Hint: you’ll probably get a substantially friendlier response to this question if you DON’T give a three-minute summary of your book — and DON’T ask it four days before the entry deadline. This is research best done well in advance, and armed in advance with a one- or two-word category description.)

It may seem pushy to ask for this information, but if a contest-throwing organization is serious about seeing its winners get published, this is an important question. After all, from the entrant’s point of view, a contest win is only as valuable as the connections it can bring.

What do I mean by that, you ask? Ideally, you want to win a contest that is recognized in the industry as a stellar judge of writing in your chosen book category. If, for instance, the organization’s definition of genre fiction doesn’t include Action/Adventure, not only is even the best Action/Adventure entry unlikely to win — agents and editors who sell that book category are not likely to be aware of the contest, either.

Think about it: which credential is going to do your book more good on your query letter, being a semifinalist in a contest that any agent in your book’s category would have known about for years, or in a contest of which the agent of your dreams has never even heard?

Trust me, if a contest has a good track record for identifying wonderful work within a particular book category, the agents and editors who handle that kind of book WILL have heard of it.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you with complex books offer timidly, “I thought you said just a couple of minutes ago that there’s often disagreement amongst the pros about the right category for a particular book. If a contest category is nebulous, isn’t there likely to be even greater disagreement?”

In a word, yes. In five words: it happens all the time. Let’s face it, category standards along the lines of we accept good fiction of every type aren’t that helpful to the writer trying to determine which contest to enter, are they?

Most contests are more specific than this, thank goodness — but it does pay to be aware that when a description refers to a particular book category, it’s seldom doing it idly. Don’t be mislead by a general category heading like Genre Fiction into thinking that any genre is welcome; this is seldom the case.

Again, read the description underneath that heading very carefully: it will probably mention the book categories that the contest organizers are expecting to see.

Because, frankly, in most cases of poor category fits, it’s not a near miss so much as trying to cram a size 14 foot into a size 6 shoe. You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would — at how often writers send work in apparently willy-nilly, trying to force their pages into a category where, by definition, their chances of winning are close to zero.

This is just an inefficient use of an entry fee.

To put it another way, this is not a situation where playing rules lawyer — “But Category 5 was entitled FICTION! How was I to know that didn’t include haiku? Both came out of my imagination!” — is at all likely to help you. As I mentioned a few days ago, there isn’t a court of appeal here: if a judge thinks that your entry doesn’t fit into the category where you entered it, you’re just out of luck.

So, once again: read every syllable of a contest’s literature very, very carefully. Particularly those category definitions.

I’m not just talking about those ultra-brief definitions that tend to grace entry forms, either. Take the time to read EVERYTHING that a contest’s website or literature says about your chosen category, to make sure that your book is, in fact, admissible.

Fair warning: what I am about to say next is extremely likely to drive literal-minded readers completely nuts, but why not consider the possibility that the category you had envisioned for your work after publication — i.e., where YOU had envisioned its being shelved in a bookstore or library after you are famous — might not be the best category in any given contest for you?

Did I just hear a collective gasp out there? “Who are you?” I hear the hyper-literal cry, “and what have you done with Anne? Haven’t you been the long-time advocate of labeling your work as accurately as possible AND in the industry’s favorite terms? Should we check your basement for pods?”

Well, yes — and defining your book with precision still the best strategy when you’re approaching an agent or editor.

However, as I mentioned above, contests often divide the literary world differently than publishing professionals do. Frequently, they use categories that have not been current since Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer. (Quick, tell me: if it were being marketed now, would THE AGE OF INNOCENCE be mainstream fiction, literary fiction, or women’s fiction?)

Here’s a radical idea: pick the CONTEST category that makes the most strategic sense, regardless of your book’s MARKETING category.

Honestly, this prospect should not make you hyperventilate; agents do this to their clients’ work all the time. Remember, the label you give the entry today is not necessarily going to stick with the book for the rest of its life, and there’s absolutely no reason that you should send agents precisely the same pages that you enter in a contest.

Take a little time, and be imaginative about it. The line between memoir and first-person narrative, for instance, can be notoriously thin. Heck, even the fine folks at Random House didn’t seem to be able to tell the difference with A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, did they? (A book that was, as I understand it, originally marketed as a novel, not a memoir.)

And there can be a very good reason to consider other categories for your work. Not to tell tales out of school, but in most contests that accept book-length works, the fiction categories tend to get more entries than the nonfiction ones.

As in SUBTANTIALLY more entries. Sometimes as in five or ten times as many, which obviously has a direct bearing on any individual entry’s chances of making the finalist round.

But mum’s the word, okay?

So why not take a good, hard look at your first chapter of your novel or memoir and ask yourself: how much would I have to change this to enter it in the other category as well? What about the nonfiction short piece category?

Is your novel really mainstream, or is it actually romance? Could it be entered as both?

If the contest offers a novel-in-progress category (as the Wisdom/Faulkner competition does, incidentally; they also have a novella category, in case you’re interested), would your barely-finished book do better there, or against the fully polished novels?

And so forth. The goal here is to gain a win to put on your writing resume and in your query letters, not to force your work into the category you have pre-selected for it.

Yes, there is usually more prestige attached to book-length categories, but, frankly, in major contests, that’s where the competition tends to be the fiercest. If a shorter-length category seems to offer you a better conceptual fit or better odds, it’s sometimes worth switching. Or multiply submitting.

In a word, be flexible. Get the win on your résumé however you can.

One of the best memoirs I have ever read, Barbara Robinette Moss’ astonishing CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER, found its publisher because its downright lyrical first chapter won in the personal essay category in the Faulkner competition.

That was smart contest selection — and a well-deserved win. (Seriously, this is one of the books that made me long to write memoir in the first place. I certainly did not fully appreciate the art form until I read it. It’s gorgeous and painful and brilliant in a way few books manage to be.)

This is not to say that you should rush out and enter exactly the same piece in, say, both the mainstream novel and novel-in-progress categories of the same competition, or in both the genre novel and mystery short story categories.

Again, READ THE RULES. Most contests will not allow you to enter the same work in multiple categories, but some will, so check the contest rules carefully before you spend the extra entrance fee.

You didn’t hear it from me, of course, but it is not unheard-of for authors to get away with this sort of double-dipping even when it’s forbidden, if the pieces have different titles. Of course, this is terribly, terribly immoral even to consider, but often, it works.

Why? Well, most of the time, the bureaucratic part of accepting an entry entails merely noting the author’s name and title, assigning numbers so the judges don’t know who wrote what, sending the entry to the appropriate category chair, and cashing the check. So until the pieces land on the various category judges’ desks, it’s possible that no one will have read them. And it’s not as though the judges in one category discuss the entries they are reading with the judges in another.

The utterly despicable result: when an unscrupulous author is bright enough to give different titles to remarkably similar entries and perhaps mail them in separate envelopes, it is highly unlikely that anyone in the front office will have the opportunity to notice that the two distinct entries are, in fact, the same work.

Totally unethical, of course; I would have to scold anyone who did that. Or anyone clever enough to revise the work just enough between entries that, say, there weren’t more than 50 consecutive words in a row that were identical. That’s maybe one word per paragraph.

Ooh, I would have to wag my finger over anyone who went that route, boy oh boy. Really, I would. That would be just a shade too professional to be merely clever.

Well, darn: it doesn’t look as though I could manage to be brief on the subject today, either. Keep up the good work!

Picking the right literary contest for you, part IV: it’s all about me, me, me

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If I had to pick a single piece of advice to summarize yesterday’s blog, it would be this: if you are going to hang your agent-finding hopes — and your resources — on an array of contests, it honestly does pay to be selective. In this series, I have been going over what you can do to figure out which contests are and are not for you.

Obviously, the ideal outcome of your winning a contest would be a situation like mine: talent and hard work recognized (if I do say so myself), signing with an agent within the next couple of months, and selling the book in question to a publisher six months after that…but I am sorry to tell you, my results were not the norm.

I was, in a word, lucky. Thank you, Whomever.

Well, okay, it wasn’t JUST luck. I pitched to every agent at that conference who would deign to look at me for thirty consecutive seconds — and I maximized my chances of success by doing my homework before I entered the contest.

At the time, the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named had a well-earned reputation for bending over backwards to help its contest winners hook up with agents and editors. Not only were finalists clearly and vibrantly marked at the conference with rainbow-colored ribbons so agents and editors know who they are, but the winners in each category were invited to have breakfast with all of the agents and editors, where each winner was expected to stand up and give a universal pitch. Also, the top three entries in each category were displayed in the lobby at the conference, where everybody could read them.

This level of support is unusual, however. I’ve been to many conferences where contest finalists are not identified at all, and other conference attendees are far more likely to meet a finalist than any of the attending agents.

I find this is counter-intuitive, as most conference-related contests actively encourage their finalists to trek to the awards ceremony — and, after all, a contest only gains in stature when its winners go on to get published. You’d think that sheer self-interest would prompt them to take the extra step of making a few critical introductions, but often, they do not.

See why it might be a very, very good idea to check out a conference over and above its formal offerings before you attend it?

Because — and I hate to say this, because good literary conferences are a blessing to humanity, and the volunteers who pull them together deserve candy and roses from all of us — there are conferences out there that exist primarily for the enrichment and/or self-aggrandizement of their organizers.

No, Virginia, not all literary conferences — or contests, for that matter — are organized by the Muses and attendant cherubim for the pure advancement of Art. Some are — brace yourself, old girl — organized by mere mortals with agendas.

And although I hate to be the one to break it to you, sometimes that agenda is pretty transparently to permit the conference’s organizers to rub elbow patches with the speakers, agents, and editors at the expense of allowing attendees access to them.

Those of you who have attended snooty literary conferences know what I’m talking about, right? I’ve been to conferences where the glitterati were whisked away from the attendees so fast that the keynote speaker barely had time to choke down his rubber chicken at the banquet.

Call me zany, but if I’m going to plunk down the dosh to attend a conference, particularly one far away, I don’t particularly want to be relegated to the kids’ table while the organizers hobnob with the agents and editors at the Important People’s table, if ne’er the twain will meet.

Or are whisked off to private parties on some board member’s yacht, far away from anyone who might conceivably have come to the conference to pitch.

Or — not that I have a specific conference in mind here or anything — where the agents and editors are given so much alcohol so often throughout the course of the conference that some of them just don’t show up for pitching appointments.

Somebody catch Virginia, please; I think she’s just fainted again.

Any of these phenomena is a pretty good indication that a conference is not as focused upon hooking writers up with the people who could help them as one might hope — and since many literary contests are directly tied to conferences, it’s worth your while to visit one of the big writers’ forums to ask former attendees about how much access writers actually have.

Ideally, of course, you’d ask someone who has WON the contest in question, but if you’re looking for formal events that will bring you all decked in your winner’s laurels into the presence of the agent of your dreams, you can also try calling the organization sponsoring the contest and asking about access.

If that seems too direct and/or confrontational, you could always just post a question on one of the big writers’ forums’ conference pages, asking where the agents and editors tend to hang out at that conference. If the answer is the bar, you’re probably okay.

Why? Well — chant it with me now, long-time readers — there is pretty much always a bar within 100 yards of any writers’ conference; the combined ghosts of Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald must howl unmercifully into the ears of any organizers who do not book halls in this manner. So historically, the free mingling of the insiders and the undiscovered at conference bars is one of the great democratic institutions of the literary world.

At a conference where the agents, editors, and speakers do not hang out at that nearby bar — i.e., in public — it’s usually a whole lot harder for a writer who wants to pitch to track ‘em down.

The writers’ grapevine can be very informative about this. If the agents and editors are not available because they are cloistered in private meetings with aspiring writers, or because they are having breakfast with contest winners like you, that’s one thing; that might be a good reason to enter the conference’s contest.

But if they’re nowhere to be seen because the local bigwig thriller writer has carried them off to his beach house the moment they stepped off the airplane, or because there’s a party in a locked hotel room that paying attendees know nothing about…well, let’s just say that the conference’s organizers will probably make better connections there than the writer who takes second place in the literary contest.

Especially if the entry fee to a conference-affiliated contest tied is high, I would advise checking out the contest description very carefully, to make sure it is worth your while. And there is no rule against dropping an e-mail to the organizers before entering and asking politely if there are secondary benefits to being a winner or a finalist.

This is not being pushy; it’s being prepared. If your name badge at the conference will be delivered to you pre-marked as a finalist, for instance, you might want to bring your own big blue ribbon to attach to it.

A sneakier way to find out how winners are treated in a conference-tied contest is to talk to NON-finalists who have attended the conference in question. Where the winners are treated extremely well, other attendees tend to notice – sometimes to the extent of being unhappy about what they perceive to be biased treatment.

I’m quite serious about this. If your mole says, “My God, the agents there wouldn’t give the time of day to anyone who didn’t have a top ten entry!” it’s a good bet that the winners get some enviable perks.

I’d enter that contest — but not attend the attached conference unless I was up for a prize.

Because, really, why? There are plenty of conferences that will demonstrate my profit motive in pursuing my writing equally well, where I will get more out of the experience. (If that reference puzzled you, please see yesterday’s post.)

And, honestly, didn’t all of us experience enough negative contact with cliques in junior high school to last us a lifetime? Why cultivate more?

It’s also a good idea to check out the list of your category’s winners from three or more years ago: how many of these writers can you find on a basic web search or by checking Amazon?

More to the point, do any of them show up as clients on agency websites? Or, for more recent winners, as debut book sales on Publishers’ Marketplace?

In other words, are this contest’s winners getting published afterward?

How past winners fared is an excellent indication of how you might make out if you win. However, try not to be overzealous: checking last year’s winners, or the ones from two years ago, is not entirely fair, as publication seldom occurs in less than a year after a book deal is signed.

An organization that supports its contest winners will usually be proud of them, so information about the subsequent successes of past winners is generally quite easy to obtain. If the sponsoring organization does not have a website listing member and past winner triumphs, try to scare up a chatty volunteer in the organization’s office.

How might a shy person go about inducing chattiness? Ask the volunteer what she writes, and if she has ever entered the contest herself. If she has, you’ll probably get an earful; it’s a safe bet that anyone who volunteers for a writers’ organization writes, but almost nobody thinks to ask the receptionist.

This same logic applies at most political campaigns, by the way: everyone who calls wants to speak to the bigwigs, but for organizational dirt, you can hardly do better than chatting up the dear white-haired retiree who devotes four hours per week to licking envelopes.

This may seem pushy, but most contest-running organizations will have a volunteer or staffer return phone calls and e-mails as a matter of course — see if you can elicit boasting about their post-contest success stories. Ask who their favorite winner was, and why. Ask if the organization sponsors readings for the winners, publishes excerpts, or offers other goodies to successful entrants.

Do I hear some of you groaning out there? “Anne,” protesting voices cry, “when are you going to stop with the research assignments, already? You want us to hunt down who represents what, the writing norms in our individual genres, and now the track records of contests in getting their winners’ work published. When will it end, oh Lord, when?”

Okay, okay, I’ll cop to it: I do advise doing a heck of a lot more homework than your average writing guru. I have seen time and again, though, that in the long run, investing the time to target submissions — be it to a contest, agency, or small press — actually shortens the path for an agent-seeking writer. It minimizes the expenditure of energy pursuing leads that turn out not to be all that helpful.

As a writer — especially as a writer with a full-time job — you need to treat your writing time as precious. Three days or a week spent agonizing over a contest entry is necessarily time taken away from your actual writing, and the more expensive contest fees tend to run around the same amount as a good writing seminar. Weigh your options carefully.

I’m not going to throw you into the research pond without a paddle, however. Next time, I shall talk about evaluating the benefits contests offer non-winners — which, like the contests themselves, vary wildly.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Picking the right literary contest for you, part III: keeping your eyes on the prize

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After yesterday little Enlightenment rhapsody on the inevitability of progress in the face of prejudice, I scoured my picture files for a high-minded photograph to ease us back into the practicalities of my contest-entry series. Almost suspiciously artistic, that cloud arrangement, isn’t it?

As you may perhaps have guessed from the encroaching shadow, I took this photo from inside an airplane. I looked up from the manuscript I was editing (long flights are tremendous for the concentration, I find to find that the sky over the Great Lakes was carrying on like an expressionist exhibition. If you’re going to be dramatic, go for broke, I always say.

Before I went on my sojourn east, I had posted a few tips on how to determine whether to enter any specific contest or not. I intimated, in my long-patented winsome way, that it would behoove you to do a little background research before you invest time and money in entry fees.

Contrary to popular belief amongst writers, there is more to consider before entering a literary contest than whether the piece you’ve chosen to submit is ready for tough judging scrutiny.

Although I must add swiftly, on behalf of every current and former contest judge in North America: NO piece of writing is ready to be submitted to a competition unless it has been thoroughly proofread.

No exceptions.

I’m quite serious about this: it’s rare to see a contest entry that isn’t rife with spelling, grammatical, formatting, or even coherence errors. And that drives your garden-variety conference judge positively mad.

Why, you ask? Well, judges tend to want to find the winning entry in their assigned pile; it’s kind of a thrill. So there are few judging experiences more trying than reading a terrifically creative, well-written entry that absolutely cannot make it to the finals because the writer mistakenly used the wrong form of there, they’re, or their.

I would advise proofing in hard copy, which probably doesn’t come as much of a shock to anybody who has been reading this blog for more than a month. It’s also a good idea to have eyes other than your own search for grammar, spelling, and logic mistakes.

But please, I beg you, do NOT assume that your word processor’s spelling and grammar checker will take care of it for you. As any editor, freelance or otherwise, will rend his garments and tell you, such ostensibly helpful functions often both miss mistakes that would be caught by the naked eye and suggest word substitutions that are either inappropriate or grammatically incorrect.

But I digress. In my last post in this series, I hinted, gently by my standards, that before you plunk down the green, you might want to ask yourself a few pointed questions about the contest you intend to enter. Such as:

– Is the contest credible enough that past winners have gotten published?
– Has the contest been around long enough that agents and editors will have heard of it?
– How good are the benefits for the winners?
– If it’s run by an organization, does it have a track record for awarding outside its membership?
– Do the judges or their students tend to win their own contests?
– Has it historically been plagued by scandals?
– Would winning or placing in this contest give me notoriety or resources that are worth the investment of entering?

In short, you might want to begin to think of entering literary contests as an investment in your future as a writer, rather than as a gamble that may pay off big time. There are good investments, and there are bad investments, so select carefully.

In case you’re new to the contest game, prepping the average entry usually involves quite a bit more effort than merely printing out your first chapter and already-existing synopsis. (Which is usually all that competitions for unpublished book-length works allow a writer to submit, incidentally.)

There’s the time to find the contest in the first place, for instance, which isn’t always easy — contests for unpublished book-length works are actually comparatively rare. Competitions that accept short stories, essays, and/or poetry are much more common, but if you are trying to market a book-length work, entering these can involve embarking upon entirely new writing projects.

Then, too, it can take quite a bit of time and energy to prepare a winning entry — and in case you’re interested, most contests are set up so that it would be impossible to print up one’s existing synopsis and first chapter, pop it into an envelope, and call it good. There are generally formatting restrictions and length requirements that render it advisable to spend some fairly serious time tailoring the pages to the contest’s standards.

All of this is time-consuming, naturally. Potentially, a writer could spend so much time entering contests that she ends up with very little time to write.

Yes, I’ve seen it happen. I once met a very gifted writer at an artists’ colony who had stretched two excellent and atmospheric short stories into eight solid years of contest wins, writer’s residencies, and successful grant applications. Of our four subsidized weeks at the colony, she was writing grants for three.

Not entirely coincidentally, at the point that I first encountered her, she had been working on the same novel for — you guessed it — eight interminable years.

If her initial goal had been to live the life of a writer at minimal expense, I wouldn’t have a serious problem with her strategy. But I suspect that her initial goal had been to use the competitions to finance writing her novel.

To be blunt about it, contest preparation requires time you could be using to write. Or query. Or even have a life, as I’m told that non-writers do. If you choose to spend your time entering a contest instead, make sure that the potential returns are worth the sacrifice.

Then there’s the money.

Entry fees can be quite hefty, especially cumulatively, and not all contests give much in the way of tangible rewards, even to the winners, much less the finalists. A high entry fee may be worth it if, say, the judges provide written feedback or if finalists are given special access to the agents and editors who attend the contest-giving organization’s conference.

Look beyond the contest’s website for confirmation, however; not all contests are created equal, and feedback on entries varies widely. A big hint that a contest may not be all that it’s cracked up to be is a separate fee for feedback — in a credible contest, the judges should be evaluating every entry, not just the ones sent in with extra cash attached.

There is a hidden fringe benefit to shelling out the dosh for entry fees, however: systematic contest entries, like attending conferences and send out rafts of cover letters on a regular basis, are a way that you may prove that you are pursuing your writing as a business venture, rather than as a hobby.

Do I hear some quizzical huffing out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “in what context would I possibly need to prove that? Should I be anticipating some great cosmic tribunal on how I spent my time on earth?”

Actually, I was thinking of an inquisition a trifle closer to home: the Internal Revenue Service. If you file a Schedule C as a writer (and if you expend resources on developing your writing career, it’s something to consider, even if your writing is not bringing in any income yet), contest entry fees are potentially both tax-deductible AND evidence that you’re actively trying to land an agent and sell your work.

Hey — contest entry is legitimate promotion for your book; it’s a demonstrably good way to catch an agent’s attention. And contrary to popular belief (it’s rearing its ugly head quite often today, isn’t it?), you don’t necessarily have to make money writing in any given year in order to take tax deductions on writing-related expenses.

Frankly, this sometimes comes as something of a surprise to the average tax preparer. I know many writers who have been told point-blank by their consumer-minded tax guys not to bother filing a Schedule C until the first advance check arrives.

So you might want to bone up on the facts a bit before you enter into that particular discussion with your tax advisor — and you honestly should consult one before you file. (To repeat my standard disclaimer, I am not a tax specialist, nor do I play one on TV. Talk to a pro.) To help prepare for that important conversation, here’s a nice brief summary of how writers’ taxes work.

I’m told by thems as know, though, that the IRS has changed its thinking about how quickly to expect artists to make money, recognizing that many talented writers NEVER make a profit on their writing, or even break even, yet still have legitimate business expenses. Printer cartridges, for instance. Reams of paper. The most recent agents’ guide. Conference fees. And so forth. (Poets & Writers online has a good article on recognizing what your writing expenses actually are.)

What they look for, I’m told, to differentiate between the hobbyist writer and the professional, is evidence of a “profit motive” — proof that you are pursuing your writing in a professional manner, with the ultimate goal of selling your work for profit.

Basically, they want to have some reasonable assurance that you WOULD be selling your work if anyone would buy it.

What kind of proof do they like? Well, again, you should ask a tax pro familiar with artists, but high up on the hit parade is evidence that you write on a regular basis and tangible evidence that you are consistently trying to find an agent and/or a publisher for your writing. So they not only don’t begrudge writers’ deducting the cost of stamps and envelopes — they regard buying the makings of SASEs as a mark of serious, potentially taxable effort.

It’s nice that someone does, no? Perhaps the IRS would send a representative to explain your profit motive to your carping coworkers who keep asking when your book is coming out.

Another way to prove that you really are writing with the intent to sell it, honest, is thorough making demonstrable efforts to increase your professional skills — which, for a writer, means not only learning better craft, but learning how to market as well. Continuing education efforts such as going to conferences and promotional efforts like entering contests fit very clearly within the profit-seeking rubric.

I mention this not only so you can make some inquiries in the months between now and tax time, but also to encourage you to apply the concept of the profit motive to any writing-related expense you may be considering.

In the case of a contest, for instance, you might want to ask: how will winning it help me get my book published? In other words, is entering this contest an efficient way to pursue my profit motive as a writer?

And I’m not just talking about contest wins in general here: I’m talking about any PARTICULAR contest you may be considering entering. The adulation and opportunities offered the winners vary so widely from contest to contest that it is almost impossible to generalize about any benefit accruing to all winners.

Other than boasting rights in query letters, of course.

If you do some basic checking in advance, you can save yourself quite a bit in entry fees by avoiding the contests that will not help promote you and your work.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about some ways you might go about accomplishing that. Keep up the good work!