Querypalooza, part II: state your business!

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Are some of you still feeling a bit shell-shocked after this morning’s Querypalooza post? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you were: in it, I set out a very basic structure for a query letter. In deference to everyone’s possibly strained nerves, I’m going to take it a bit more gently in this post, assuaging the fears of the nervous, adding nuances to the prototype, and generally spreading joy and enlightenment abroad.

And then I’m going to plunge you back into shock again. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s for your own good, I promise.

Querying, I think we can all agree, is a necessary evil: no one likes it. It generates a whole lot of inconvenience for writer and agency alike, and to engage in it is to put one’s ego on the line in a very fundamental way.

Rejection hurts, and you can’t be rejected if you never send out your work, right? So you can either try to lie low, keeping your dreams to yourself, or you can attempt to approach those high-and-mighty gatekeepers of the industry, asking to be let inside the Emerald City.

Sounds a lot like high school social dynamics, doesn’t it?

Just as many people stay away from their high school reunions because they fear exposing themselves to the judgment of people whom past experience has led them to believe to be, well, kinda shallow and hurtful, many, many writers avoid querying, or give up after just a handful of queries, because they fear to be rejected by folks they have heard are — wait for it — kinda shallow and prone to be hurtful.

There are a variety of ways to deal with such fears. One could, for instance, not query at all, and resign oneself to that great novel or brilliant nonfiction book’s never being published. Alternatively, one could query just a couple of times, then give up.

Or — and if you haven’t guessed by now, this would be my preferred option — you could recognize that while some of the people at the reunion may in fact turn out to be kind of unpleasant, you really only need to find the one delightful person who finds you truly fascinating to make the entire enterprise worthwhile.

You’ll be pleased to hear, though, that unlike a hapless ex-school kid gearing up to attend a reunion, there are certain things an aspiring writer can do before querying to increase the probability of a positive reception. Certain elements mark a query letter as coming from someone who has taken the time to learn how the publishing industry works.

Agents like writers who bother to do that, you know, and with good reason. Such new clients are much less time-consuming than those whose ideas of how books are sold bear only scant relation to reality. Aspiring writers harboring unrealistic expectations tend not only to express resentment when their work encounters stumbling-blocks — they often end up feeling disappointed when things are going well.

I just mention.

The query letter structure I proposed last time — which is, I must reiterate, NOT the only one possible by any means, or even the only one that works; it’s just what has worked best in my experience — also frees the writer from the well-nigh impossible task of trying to cram everything good about a book into a single page. Which is, I have noticed over the years, precisely what most aspiring writers try to do.

No wonder they get intimidated and frustrated long before they query the 50 or 100 agents (yes, you read that correctly) it often takes these days for a good book to find the right fit. To put this in perspective, a truly talented writer might well end up querying the equivalent of my entire high school graduating class before being signed.

Believe it or not, masses of rejected queries are not necessarily a reflection on the manuscript in question. Rejection is often a function of heavy competition, agent specialization, and aspiring writers not being aware of what information a query letter is supposed to contain.

Apart from doing the necessary homework to get a query that DOES contain the right information onto the desk of an agent who does habitually represent that type of book, the only way that I know to speed up that process is to make the query letter itself businesslike, but personable.

Don’t tense up — I’m not talking about spilling your soul onto a single sheet of paper. I’m talking about making your query letter unique.

And not in the all-too-common misdefinition of the word as a synonym for special. I mean unique in its proper sense of one of a kind.

A tall order, you say? Well, keep in mind that the SOLE purpose of the query is to engender enough excitement in an agent (or, more commonly, in Millicent the agency screener: it is rare for agents at the larger agencies to screen query letters themselves; thus Millicent’s being the one to get the paper cuts) that she will ask to see a representative chunk of the book itself, not to reproduce what you would like to see on the book’s back jacket or to complain about having to work through an agent at all.

If either of the last two options made you chuckle in disbelief, good. Believe it or not, I’ve seen both turn up many, many times in unsuccessful query letters. Boasting and petulance both abound, and both tend to discourage positive response.

Now, I know that my readers are too savvy to do either of those things deliberately, but isn’t it worth sitting down with your query letter and asking yourself: could an exhausted Millicent — in a bad mood, with a cold, having just broken up with her boyfriend AND burned her lip on that over-hot latte yet again — possibly construe that letter as either?

Yes, querying is a chore, and an intimidating one at that; yes, ultimately it will be the agent’s job, not yours, to market your work to publishers, and an agent or editor probably would have a far better idea of how to spin your book than you would.

Agents and their screeners are in fact aware of all of these things. You don’t need to tell them.

Your query letter needs to market your book impeccably anyway, in a tone that makes you sound like an author who LOVES his work and is eager to give agent and editor alike huge amounts of his time to promote it. Not a walk in the park, definitely, but certainly doable by a smart, talented writer who approaches it in the right spirit.

Sound like anyone you know?

So start thinking, please, about how to make your query the one that waltzes into the reunion with a positive attitude, not the one who storms in with a chip on its little shoulder. Or, heaven forefend, the one that doesn’t stick its nose through the door at all.

The gates of the Emerald City are not going to open unless you knock, people. The only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of getting published is the one that is never queried or pitched.

Yet even as I typed that, I could sense some ardor-deflation out there. “”My God,” the little voice in the back of my head which I choose to attribute to my readership is saying, “how is all of that possible within the context of a single-page missive? How can I cram all I need to say to grab their attention in that little space, much less seem unique while doing it?”

Um, are you sitting down? You don’t actually have the entire page to catch their attention; to be on the safe side, figure you have only about five lines to convince them to keep reading.

Yes, you read that correctly. While you already have the heart medication and/or asthma inhaler at the ready, it seems like a good time to add: most query letters are not even read to their ends by Millicent and her ilk.

Are you rending your garments and shouting, “Why, oh Lord, why?” Because the vast majority of query letters disqualify themselves from serious consideration before the end of the opening paragraph.

Hey, I told you to sit down first.

At the risk of repeating myself, this is largely attributable to aspiring writers’ not being aware of what information a query letter should and should not contain. Unfortunately, Americans are so heavily exposed to hard-sell techniques that many aspiring writers make the mistake of using their query letters to batter the agent with predictions of future greatness so over-inflated (and, from the agent’s point of view, so apparently groundless, coming from a previously unpublished writer) that they may be dismissed out of hand.

Like what, you ask? Here are some popular favorites:

This is the next (fill in name of bestseller here)!

You’ll be sorry if you let this one pass by!

Everyone in the country will want to read this book!

Women everywhere will want to buy this book!

It’s a natural for Oprah!

This book is like nothing else on the market!

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble (yet I do seem to be doing it quite a bit lately, don’t I?), but to professional eyes, these are all absurd statements to discover in a query letter. Yes, even if the book in question IS the next DA VINCI CODE.

Why? Because these aren’t descriptions of the book; they’re back-jacket blurbs, marketing copy, equally applicable to (and equally likely to be true about) any manuscript that crosses their desks.

After one has heard the same claim 1500 times, it starts to lose a little vim. “Why do these queriers keep telling me that their books are unique?” Millicent grumbles, reaching for her fourth latte of the afternoon. “Why aren’t they SHOWING me?”

Ah, there’s the rub: assertions like these simply are not as effective at establishing a writer’s ability or a story’s appeal as demonstrating both practically, through well-written sentences and a summary containing lively and unusual details. Even in the extremely rare instances that these statements aren’t just empty boasts based upon wishful thinking, consider: whose literary opinion would you be more likely to believe in Millicent’s shoes, the author’s vague claim of excellence about his own book or another reader’s recommendation?

To put it another way, if someone you’d never met before came up to you on the street and said, “Hey, I bake the world’s best mincemeat pies, the kind that can change your life in a single bite,” would you believe him? Would you trustingly place that total stranger’s good-looking (or not) slice of God-knows-what into your mouth?

Or would you want some assurances that, say, this hard-selling yahoo knows something about cooking, had produced the pie in a vermin-free kitchen, and/or hadn’t constructed the mincemeat out of ground-up domestic pets?

Oh, you may laugh, thinking that this isn’t really an apt parallel, but why would agents and editors’ desire to hear about a new writer’s past publication history — or educational background, or even platform — if NOT to try to figure out if that pie is made of reasonable materials and in a manner up to professional standards of production?

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, a good query letter includes what I like to call ECQLC, Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, platform information and/or selling points that will make Millicent sit up and say either, “Wow, this writer has interesting credentials,” “Wow, this writer is uniquely qualified to tell this story,” and/or “Wow, this book has greater market appeal/a larger target audience/is significantly more important to human existence than I would have guessed.”

The crucial exclamation to elicit, obviously, is “Wow!” Not merely because Millicent honestly does enjoy discovering exciting new writing projects (yes, even though it’s her job to reject 98% of the ones that cross her desk), but because a query letter that mentions either the writer’s credentials or the book’s selling points is genuinely rare.

I sense some disgruntled muttering out there, do I not? “Here we go again, Anne,” some mutterers, well, mutter. “I can’t STAND it when the pros start rattling on about platform. Isn’t that just code for we’re not interested in taking a chance on previously unpublished authors?”

Actually, it isn’t. Agents and their Millicents don’t ask to see platform information in queries in order to seem exclusionary toward previously unpublished writers (okay, not merely to seem exclusionary). They want it to be there because specific references to specific past literary achievements are signals to a quick-scanning screener that this is a query letter to take seriously.

As will an opening paragraph that states clearly and concisely why the writer decided to query this agent, as opposed to any other; a well-crafted single-paragraph elevator speech for the book; some indication of the target market, and a polite, respectful tone.

The same basic elements, in short, as an effective verbal pitch.

Did some light bulbs just flicker on over some heads out there? That’s right, campers — the difference between a vague boast and solid information about your book and why THIS agent is the best fit for it is actually a show, don’t tell problem, at base. Part of your goal in the query letter is to demonstrate through your professional presentation of your project that this is a great book by an exciting new author, not just to say it.

So you might want to eschew such statements as, “My friends say this is the greatest novel since THE GRAPES OF WRATH. It’s also a natural for Oprah.” You can make better arguments for your manuscript’s relevance.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “my book really is a natural for Oprah! I’m going on her show next week!”

Well, congratulations — go ahead and open your query letter with the date of your appearance on the show, and the best of luck to you. For the overwhelming majority of you who have not already negotiated with her production staff, I would recommend against mentioning your book’s Oprah potential at all, either in the query letter or, if you write nonfiction, in the book proposal.

Why? Because, conservatively speaking, at least 40% of book proposals Millicent sees mention the possibility of appearing on Oprah. As will most marketing plans, a hefty percentage of verbal pitches, and a higher percentage of query letters than I even like to say.

What’s the result of all of that repetition? Usually, Millicent will simply stop reading if a query letter opens with an empty boast like that, because to her, including such statements is like a writer’s scrawling on the query in great big red letters, “I have absolutely no idea how the publishing industry works.” Which, while an interesting tactic, is unlikely to get an agent or her screener to invest an additional ten seconds in reading on to your next paragraph.

That’s right, I said ten seconds: as much as writers like to picture agents and their screeners agonizing over their missives, trying to decide if such a book is marketable or not, the average query remains under a decision-maker’s eyes for less than 30 seconds.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of time to make up one’s mind, does it? Actually, it is ample for a query letter rife with typos and unsubstantiated claims about how great the book is to turn a professional reader off.

Try not to blame Millicent for this. I can’t stress enough that agency screeners do not reject quickly merely to be mean. It’s their job, and to a certain extent, developing pet peeves and shortcuts is a necessary psychological defense for someone handling hundreds of people’s hopes and dreams in any given day’s work.

Even the best-intentioned Millicent might conceivably, after as short a time as a few weeks of screening queries, might start relying pretty heavily upon her first impressions. Consider, for instance, the English major’s assumption that business format is in fact not proper formatting for either query letters or manuscripts. Think about it from a screener’s point of view: it’s true, for one thing, and let’s face it, improper formatting is the single quickest flaw to spot in either a query or manuscript.

So why wouldn’t Millicent free up an extra few seconds in her day by rejecting paper query letters devoid of indentation on sight? Especially when empirical experience has shown her that aspiring writers who don’t use grammatically-necessary indentation in their query letters often eschew it in their manuscripts as well?

I’m hearing more huffing. “But Anne,” some of you demand indignantly, and who could blame you? “What does indentation have to do with the actual writing in a manuscript? Or a query, for that matter?”

Potentially plenty, from Millicent’s point of view: remember, the competition for both client spots at agencies and publication contracts is fierce enough that any established agent fill her typically scant new client quota hundreds of times over with technically perfect submissions: formatted correctly, spell- and grammar-checked to within an inch of their lives, AND original. So there’s just not a lot of incentive for her to give a query with formatting, spelling, or grammatical problems the benefit of the doubt.

Some of you still don’t believe me about the dangers of using business formatting, do you? Okay, let’s take a gander at what Millicent expects to see, a letter formatted observing standard English rules of paragraph-formation:

mars query indented

Now let’s take a look at exactly the same letter in business format:

biz style mars query

Interesting how different it is, isn’t it, considering that the words are identical? And isn’t it astonishing how many paces away a reader can be for the difference to be obvious?

One lone exception to the intent-your-paragraphs rule: in an e-mailed query, of course, the business format would be acceptable, but on paper, it’s not the best strategic choice. Ditto with requested materials, even if you are sending them via e-mail. (Unless her agency specifies otherwise, Millicent will expect you to send any requested pages as Word attachments, not as inserts in the body of an e-mail; thus, all pages should include indented text. FYI, agencies that tell queriers to include sample pages or chapters with their queries are not technically requesting material: they simply like for Millie to have more information at her fingertips before she makes a decision. For an in-depth discussion of the differences between query packets and submission packets, please see the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A QUERY PACKET and HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET on the archive list at right.)

Indented paragraphs are, to put it bluntly, the industry standard. Unfortunately, a lot of aspiring writers seem not to be aware that business format tends to be regarded as less-than-literate, regardless of whether it appears in a query letter, a marketing plan, or — heaven forfend! — a submitted manuscript. (If you don’t know why I felt the need to invoke various deities to prevent you from using business format your manuscripts, please run, don’t walk to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category at right.)

In fact, I am perpetually meeting writers at conferences and in classes who insist, sometimes angrily, that a query letter is a business letter, and thus should be formatted as such. They tell me that standards have changed, that e-mail has eliminated the need for observing traditional paragraph standards, that it’s the writing that counts, not the formatting.

I understand the logic, of course, but it simply doesn’t apply here: not all businesses work in the same way. As anyone who works in an agency or publishing house would no doubt be delighted to tell you, there are many, many ways in which publishing doesn’t work like any other kind of business. One does not, for instance, require an agent in order to become a success at selling shoes or to become a well-respected doctor.

If you’re looking for evidence of the biz’ exceptionalism, all you have to do is walk into a bookstore with a good literary fiction section. Find a book by a great up-and-coming author that’s sold only 500 copies since it came out last year, and ask yourself, “Would another kind of business have taken a chance like this, or would it concentrate on producing only what sells well? Would it continue to produce products like this year after year, decade after decade, out of a sense of devotion to the betterment of the human race?”

Okay, so some businesses would, but it’s certainly not the norm.

Yet almost invariably, when I try to tell them that publishing is an old-fashioned industry fond of its traditions, and that agents and their screeners tend to be people with great affection for the English language and its rules, I receive the same huffy reply from writers who dislike indenting: some version of, “Well, I heard/read/was told that a query/marketing plan had to be businesslike. Therefore, it must be in business format. QED, tradition-hugger.”

I’m always glad when they bring this up — because I strongly suspect that this particular notion is at the root of the surprisingly pervasive rumor that agents actually prefer business format. I can easily envision agents stating point-blank at conferences that they want to receive businesslike query letters.

But businesslike and business format are not the same thing. Businesslike means professional, market-savvy, not overly-familiar — in short, the kind of query letter we talked about last time.

Business format, on the other hand, doesn’t dictate any kind of content at all; it’s purely about how the page is put together. There’s absolutely nothing about this style, after all, that precludes opening a query with the threat, “You’ll regret it for the rest of your natural life if you let this book pass you by!”

All of these negative examples are lifted from actual query letters, by the way. My spies are everywhere.

All that being said, there’s another reason that I would strenuously advise against using business format in your query letters. A comparative glance at the two letters above will demonstrate why.

Take another look, then put yourself in Millicent’s shoes for a moment and ask yourself: based upon this particular writing sample, would you assume that Aspiring Q. Author was familiar with standard format? Would you expect Aspiring’s paragraphs to be indented, or for him/her (I have no idea which, I now realize) NOT to skip lines between paragraphs?

Okay, would your answer to those questions change if you had a hundred query letters to read before you could get out of the office for the day, and you’d just burned your lip on a too-hot latte? (Millicent never seems to learn, does she?)

No? Well, what if it also contained a typo within the first line or two, had odd margins, or began with, “This is the best book you’ll read this year!” or some similar piece of boasting? Wouldn’t you be at least a LITTLE tempted to draw some negative conclusions from the format?

Even if you wouldn’t, Millicent would — and perhaps even should. Why? Because although most aspiring writers seem not to be aware of it, every sentence a writer submits to an agency is a writing sample.

Even if the writer doesn’t treat it as such, a screener will. After all, when that stranger comes up to sell you a meat pie, you’re going to be looking for whatever clues you can to figure out if he’s on the up-and-up.

I can feel some of you getting depressed over this, but actually, I find it empowering that the high rejection rate is not arbitrary. Quick rejections are not about being mean or hating writers — they’re about plowing through the mountains of submissions that arrive constantly. The average agency receives 800-1200 queries per week (that’s not counting the post-Labor Day backlog or New Year’s Resolution Rush, folks), so agents and screeners have a very strong incentive to weed out as many of them as possible as rapidly as possible.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, that agents will happily tell you that any query that begins “Dear Agent” (rather than addressing a specific agent by name) automatically goes into the rejection pile. So does any query that addresses the agent by the wrong gender in the salutation. (If you’re unsure about a Chris or an Alex, call the agency and ask; no need to identify yourself as anything but a potential querier.)

So does any query that is pitching a book in a category the agent is not looking to represent. Yes, even if the very latest agents’ guide AND the agency’s website says otherwise. This is no time to play rules lawyer; these people know what their own connections are.

And you know what? These automatic rejections will, in all probability, generate exactly the same form rejection letter as queries that were carefully considered, but ultimately passed upon.

So how precisely is an aspiring writer to learn what does and doesn’t work in a query? By finding out what Millicent has been trained to spot — and learning what appeals to her.

A great place to start: go to writers’ conferences and ask questions of agents about what kind of queries they like to see. Attend book readings and ask authors about how they landed their agents. Take writers who have successfully landed agents out to lunch and ask them how they did it.

But do not, whatever you do, just assume that what works in other kinds of marketing will necessarily fly in approaching an agent. After all, almost universally, agency guidelines specifically ask aspiring writers not to use the hard-sell techniques used in other types of business: writers seeking representation are expected not to telephone to pitch, send unrequested materials, or engage in extracurricular lobbying like sending cookies along with a query letter.

Instead, be businesslike, as befits a career writer: approach them in a manner that indicates that you are aware of the traditions of their industry. Tune in late tonight for some more tips on how. And, of course, keep up the good work!

The first periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence

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Many years ago, when I first started teaching roomfuls of aspiring writers how to write query letters and give face-to-face pitches to agents, I noticed something: there didn’t seem to be nearly enough writing credentials to go around. As valuable as previous publications, writing awards, fellowships, residencies, rave reviews from Saul Bellow, MFAs, and recent New York Times articles on one’s work with orphaned children in war zones undoubtedly were (and are) in attracting the attention of those who read manuscripts for a living, the overwhelming majority of writers seeking to market manuscripts would, when asked for their credentials, just look down, embarrassed.

When I began teaching writers how to construct their author bios, the problem seemed even more acute, even amongst those who already had publishing contracts in hand. No matter how fascinating the previously unpublished were in person (to me, anyway), they seemed to regard not having been paid before for their writing as proof positive that they didn’t really have anything significant to say about themselves to an agent or editor.

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic to this feeling, poppycock.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for awhile are, I hope, already aware, there are plenty of things that a writer who hasn’t yet been offered a book contract can do in order to ramp up her ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, my term for all of those lovely credentials that go to make up a successful writer’s platform). Start a blog, for instance (hey, it’s writing for an audience on a deadline. Write free book reviews for a community newspaper. Take seminars with impressive-sounding names. Get your certificate in editing. Spend ten hours a week volunteering at a shelter for abandoned wombats, if that’s what your book is about.

Anything, in other words, that might catch Millicent the agency screener’s eye and cause her to exclaim, “My, but this is an interesting writer. I think I shall have to take a gander at his manuscript, pronto.” (For more tips on provoking this type of soul-satisfying exclamation, please see the BUILDING YOUR WRITING RÉSUMÉ and YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS categories on the list at right.)

I could wash my hands of the subject at this point, confident in glib advice swiftly administered, and walk away to enjoy the lovely weather outside. And I might, were I not fairly confident that my readers were not, on the whole, shallow and easily satisfied with the pat answer.

I mean, really: would someone who just wanted quick answers last more than ten minutes at Author! Author!? I think not.

So I decided that I was going to do something practical about it — the lack of credentials available for the previously unpublished or unMFA’d, that is, not catering to quick answer-seekers. Actually, I decided to do several things:

(1) Establish the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, as a helpful credential available for readers’ ECQLC;

(2) Establish the Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence for readers of pre-college age, as both future ECQLC and as a nifty credential that a gifted young writer could use on a college application;

(3) Focus the competition’s first writing contest on something genuinely important, a topic dear to writers’ hearts and one that I knew my readers would already have on their minds. This time around, the subject matter is going to be the same as our ongoing series of guest posts, with the winning entries forming the final guest slots on subtle censorship and how it affects writers.

In other words, make publishing credential part of the prize.

(4) Coordinate the announcement of the winners with the gala events surrounding my 1,000th blog post, scheduled for mid-June. (I know; time flies.)

I’ll fill you in on how to enter in a moment. But first, the important bit: the prizes.

What winners of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence will get, other than ECQLC
Obviously, undying glory and years of boasting rights. However, for those of you looking for rewards a trifle more tangible, there will be goodies, too.

Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence
1 Grand Prize: a 1-hour Mini-Consult, scheduled at the winner’s convenience, and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!

A Mini-Consult is a telephone service I’ve long offered to my editing clients and students, an unbroken chunk of my professional attention and expertise devoted solely to the discussion of a writer’s work. How you choose to utilize that time is up to you, as long as the discussion is limited to writing and marketing issues. Past satisfied Mini-Consulters have used the time to have me help them to:

*narrow down a book category once and for all;

*ferret out the problems in their query letters, synopses, and first pages of manuscripts;

*come up with a book’s selling points;

*cull through a list of agents to figure out who would be the best potential fit for a project;

*brainstorm about low-cost book promotion ideas;

*iron out the kinks in a book proposal;

*discuss craft issues, and

*talk though some of their frustration and confusion over how the publishing world works.

2 First Prizes: a 1/2-hour Mini-Consult and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!

3 Second Prizes: a fresh-off-the-press copy of the PEN America Center’s collection of essays on writing censorship, BURN THIS BOOK (HarperStudio), edited by Toni Morrison.

Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence
1 Grand Prize: a 1/2-hour Mini-Consult and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!

2 First Prizes: a fresh-off-the-press copy of the PEN America Center’s collection of essays on writing censorship, BURN THIS BOOK (HarperStudio), edited by Toni Morrison.

How to enter
1. Collect your thoughts on the issue of censorship, subtle or otherwise
For the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, the brief is quite straightforward: address precisely the same question I put to the established authors in the subtle censorship series. So how do YOU think writers are discouraged from writing or publishing what they want or how they want, and how does that discouragement affect what’s available for readers?

For Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence, the question is more targeted: what limits are placed on young people’s written freedom of expression? How do you think restricting what the young can and can’t write affects public understanding of how those who cannot yet vote think?

Because I hate literary contests that contain hidden rules, I’m going to be up front with you here: creativity counts. Surprise the judges with the subtlety of your insight. Show us a take on the world we’ve never seen before.

2. Compose brilliantly for a maximum of five (5) pages in standard manuscript format
For both parts of the contest, you may choose how to make your case. A standard essay is fine; so is a short story, fully-realized scene excerpted from a novel, a play, or a poem. Heck, I’d love to see some graphic novel entries, but please, no photo essays. This is a prize for writing.

I’m quite serious about the 5-page maximum; feel free to make it shorter. If it is longer, the judges will stop reading at the bottom of page 5. Since I have been both a contest judge and editor for many years, trust me: I will notice and disqualify an entry that’s been shrunk to fit within the page limit.

Please submit only writing that has not been published elsewhere by the contest deadline (May 18, 2009 June 1, 2009; see below for further details). You may, however, submit work that is currently entered in another contest.

3. Make sure your submission is in standard format
In order to render this competition as much about the writing as possible, only entries in standard book manuscript format will be eligible to win. To make this restriction fair to those of you new to the concept, I shall be spending the next few weeks going over precisely what that means.

Why am I being so draconian on this point, you gasp? Because I want to try to get a sense of how closely my readers are adhering to the strictures of standard format in their submissions; call it a sociological experiment.

Here’s a really, really good reason to enter the contest: if your entry is knocked out of the running for formatting reasons, I will tell you so. I’ll even tell you what rules your entry violated. (And yes, I am rather hoping that enough of you will enter that I will rue the day I said this.) So if you’re not absolutely positive that you’ve been submitting your work in standard format, this is a dandy way to find out.

For the purposes of this competition, standard format consists of the rules listed under the series following this post. (If you want to consult them sooner and in a less episodic manner, please see the posts under the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 category at right.) Graphic novels, plays, and poetry may be submitted in the standard formats for those types of writing.

Do not even try to make the argument that contradictory rules you may have heard elsewhere should be used here. Quibblers on the subject will be disqualified automatically.

4. Include a title page
This is actually redundant with the rules of standard format, but since I see so many incorrectly-formatted title pages every year, I want to reward those of you who have done your homework sufficiently to do it right. A great place to begin that homework: in the standard formatting series I shall be running over the next three weeks — or, if you’re in a greater hurry than that to enter, consult the TITLE PAGES category on the archive list at right.

Your title page (which will not count toward the 5-page entry limit) must include the following information:

Your real name

Your pseudonym, if you would prefer that your entry be published under that moniker

Your entry’s title

What book category might be applicable to it (Essay, Fiction, Poetry, Action/Adventure…)

Word count (real or estimated; if you don’t know how to figure this, please see the WORD COUNT category at right)

Your contact information, including e-mail and mailing address (so HarperStudio may ship the books, if you win one)

If you are entering in the Junior category, please include your age at the end of your contact information.

5. Before you submit, double-check to make sure the language in your entry is G-rated
Since the winning entries will be posted on this site and I have it on good authority that some of my readers regularly visit Author! Author! via school and public library computers that have content-blocking programs installed, I must insist that entries be devoid of profanity. The content is up to the entrant, but if the words would not be appropriate for the family hour, it will be disqualified.

Yes, this is its own form of censorship (feel free to write about that, if you like), but as this is a restriction I place upon all of my guest bloggers, I feel quite comfortable extending it to entries in this contest. Shock the judges with your ideas, not individual words.

6. Send your entry as a Word attachment to contest@annemini.com by midnight on May 18, 2009 June 1, 2009
Please include the word ENTRY in the subject line of your e-mail. Since my readers are spread across many time zones, midnight in this context will be where you are, as shown on your e-mail’s date stamp.

And yes, those of you who are looking at these rules for the second time, having perused them before mid-May: the entry deadline did in fact change.

7. Please enter only once.
That’s fairer to everyone, don’t you think?

8. Wait breathlessly for the judges to make their decisions.

Something to ponder while you wait: if your entry is a winner, I shall contact you (thus the request for contact information) to ask you to provide Author! Author! with an author bio and photo to run with the award-winning entry. Since it takes most of us a while to find a snapshot of ourselves we like, I’m warning you in advance. If you want to get a head start on that author bio, please see the AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right.

And that’s it!
I’m genuinely curious to see what you have to say about subtle censorship, so I hope to hear from many of you. Best of luck, everybody — and as always, keep up the good work!

Some thoughts on naming characters, part III: wait, haven’t we met somewhere? You were the one in the hat, right?

crowd-scene

Sorry I missed posting yesterday, everyone — I have a whale of a head cold. If there’s one principle I have tried to cling to like the proverbial leech, it’s stay offline when you have a fever. (I’m positive that we all know people we wish had clung to that appealing little axiom.)

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

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

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

Won’t you? (Lie to me, if not. I’m still feeling under the weather.)

If, on the other hand, you tend to emphasize your protagonist’s loneliness by having other characters engage in banter around him, seeing that pattern manifest on a list may lead you to question whether it needs to happen quite so often in the book to make your point — or with quite so many different people. Or cause you to question whether a reader might conclude that your protagonist is either an unemployed mime or not an actor in his own story.

It can, in short, alert you to both point overkill and the dreaded Passive Protagonist Syndrome. (Of which more follows in the weeks to come, rest assured.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? So far, in discussing how to keep your characters from blurring together in the minds of swiftly-scanning agents and editors, I’ve concentrated on the scene and paragraph levels. Today, I would like to raise the discussion to the book level.

Let’s assume for the moment that you’ve refined your opening scene (and chapter) so that characters are introduced in discrete, memorable groupings, as I have advised in the my last post. Let’s also say for the sake of argument that you’ve minimized the possibility of name confusion by christening your characters as differently as possible — no Selma and Thelma for you. All that being done, you may now sleep soundly at night, secure in the knowledge that each of your characters is distinctly memorable, right?

Not necessarily. You might still have too many named characters in the book.

Why might this be problematic? Well, if you have a cast of thousands, it’s going to be much, much harder for any reader – let alone a professional one like our friend Millicent, the agency screener – to care about individual characters. When attention is spread thin, affection starts to waver. Still worse, when a reader has to keep track of 77 different names, it can become a trifle difficult for him to tell which characters he’s supposed to be following.

And to reiterate from last time: no, as far as I am aware, there is no strict standard for how many is too many. What works best varies from book to book.

The only widely-used criterion I know is whether the reader starts to have trouble telling them apart — but, as I pointed out last time, characters whose names sound similar or begin with the same letter are prime candidates for blurrage. (Yes, I know – it isn’t a word. But it should be.) So, on a practical level, if your novel features more than 26 named characters, you MIGHT be risking their merging.

No, but seriously, since most writers do not keep running tallies of the characters in their books, it’s not all that hard to end up with 50 or 100 named characters without realizing it. Especially if they are introduced many at a time, without much character development for any given one, it isn’t precisely reasonable to expect the reader to keep track of them all, is it?

A great test of whether your novel is overstaffed is to hand a hard copy of it to a reader who does not know you very well (and thus has no incentive to lie to keep you happy), and ask him to stop reading when the number of characters becomes bewildering. Have him mark where he threw in the towel by folding that page in half.

Ideally, you will get the manuscript back with every page pristine, naturally, but if that folded page falls within your first fifty pages — i.e., in the part of the book that an agent would be likely to ask to see first — you should consider making some major cast cuts. (If the folded page falls within the first chapter, I would suggest going back and reading my last few posts, because in all likelihood, there are too many characters up front.)

You can do a version of this test on your own, by sitting down with your manuscript and a highlighting pen and marking every proper name, but if you are worried enough by the feedback you’ve been getting, you might want to go for broke and make an actual list of characters.

Yes, I know PRECISELY how time-consuming this would be; thanks for asking.

Lest you think I don’t practice what I preach, let me say up front: I do this quite a bit for my clients. When I’m editing a novel that seems to have quite a few characters wandering around, I routinely keeping track of how often and where a particular character appears. By name, so I can tell when a character who appeared once on page 15 carrying a load of firewood turns up again on page 310 entering the diner.

So far, the all-time record amongst my clients is 284 individual characters in a 400-page manuscript, but let me tell you, that tally has faced some stiff competition over the years. I tend to work with writers who envision rather fully-staffed worlds.

The easiest way to generate such a list is by using the FIND function in your word processing program and noting each page number. I like to keep the results in a spreadsheet, so I can sort it by character name, chapter, page number, and what the character is doing at the time.

Yes, that US an insanely meticulous thing to do, but then, I’m an editor by trade: my clients pay me good money to read their work with a magnifying glass. So there.

Why keep track of the extra data? To make it clearer which groups of minor characters could be consolidated into just one or two. If, for instance, my spreadsheet tells me that five different characters shoe horses throughout the book, and if the story does not involve a trip on horseback of several thousand miles between smithies, I would be tempted to make all five the same character.

Noting where each character appears — in addition to making it SUBSTANTIALLY simpler to go back and find those four extraneous blacksmiths and put them to death, literarily speaking — also makes it apparent which named characters appear in only a single scene. In my experience, character-heavy books tend to feature a LOT of one-off cameos; generating a list will help you go through all of the one-timers to check who is actually necessary to keep.

And if the idea of doing away with these folks makes you sad, remember: if you become a career novelist, this is not the only book you will ever write. Characters are notoriously recyclable. You may well find that Blacksmith Bob of today can be very happily recast as Soda Jerk Bob tomorrow.

I sense some of you shifting uncomfortably in your chairs out there. “But Anne,” some of you protest, glancing at your watches, “I realize that what you’re suggesting is something I could be doing while I am sitting down and reading my manuscript IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before I even consider submitting it, and in an ideal world, I would follow your advice to the letter. But frankly, I can barely find time to write, query, and/or submit as it is. You wouldn’t happen to know any short cuts for ferreting out extraneous characters, would you?”

As a matter of fact, I do, but I’m hesitant to roll ‘em out. I can’t even begin to tote up how many writers, aspiring and established both, I’ve heard wail, “Oh, if only I’d caught that simple, easily-corrected error before I sent out my manuscript! Now that terrific agent/dreamy editor/stern contest judge will think I’m a bonehead!” But hey, my head cold has apparently made me a softer touch than usual: if you will all PROMISE not to use the tricks as a substitute for reading your IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before sealing that submission envelope, I’ll go ahead and talk about them now.

The best technique is one that comes more or less automatically to professional readers at about the 10,000th scene mark: becoming aware what kinds of scenes tend to invite minor character lurkage en masse.

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

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

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

2. Any scene that takes place where strangers tend to gather.
Ditto with coffee shops, bars, class reunions, Ellis Island, airplanes/-ports, and party scenes in general. All of these venues seem to attract single-appearance characters as surely as a red carpet attracts celebrity gawkers.

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

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

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

Or the memoir, or the historical account, as the case may be. Which brings me to:

3. Any group scene depicting an actual event — or based upon one.
Of course, this is not always a fair conclusion, but there is some basis for it: when writers lift scenes from real life into their novels, they do tend to include direct one-to-one correlations between the actual people and the fictional ones.

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

And while this practice tends to delight the kith and kin mentioned (and create grudges in those not mentioned — another good reason to eschew the temptation), it’s not harmless. Both professional and casual readers alike are likely to find it problematic.

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

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

Not necessarily, no — and not just because my nose is so stuffed that I now find it hard to believe that air has ever passed through it.

Even if the characters in a crowd scene do appear elsewhere in the book, it can still be pretty tedious for the reader if the narrative engages in a full roll-call. Or even a partial one. Come closer, and I shall divulge a cherished secret of the trade to you: lists tend not to make for very interesting reading.

And yes, you do have my permission to attribute that line to me the next time your boss insists that you sit through yet another PowerPoint presentation.

Mentioning characters just to mention them is seldom very interesting to the reader, at least when the characters in question are not integral to the action of a crowd scene. Bystanders are not, by and large, memorable to the average reader, but as I mentioned last time, all too frequently, it’s not clear which of the cast of thousands in a scene is the one (or dozen) that the reader is supposed to remember.

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

I know, I know: you’re not going to be able to convince anyone who participated in the real-life events that s/he was not integral to the action. But just as not every detail within a physical space is either necessary to mention in order for a reader to be able to picture a place or interesting if you do, not every character in a real-world situation belongs in the written account of it.

And writers, as any editor can tell you, tend to forget that — not just that everyone who appears in our mental image of a crowd scene (or in our recollections or photographs of it, if we’re writing memoir) is going to be integral to the action, in storytelling terms, but that every new character name is something else for the reader to remember. That saps energy that would be better utilized getting involved in the story itself.

Or, to put it another way, every time a reader, professional or otherwise, mutters, “Wait — who’s Gerald?” s/he has been pulled out of the story. A top-flight storyteller — which all of us want to be, right? — tries to eliminate such jarring moments entirely from her readers’ experience.

One way to minimize such exclamations is to bear in mind that just-mentioned-in-passing characters are rarely memorable from a reader’s perspective. Every editor in the biz has at one time or another been confronted by an author angrily waving a manuscript in her face and shouting, “What do you mean, where did this character come from? Alice was a guest at Ben’s wedding in Chapter Two, for heaven’s sake!”

Invariably, the irate author is factually correct on points like these: the character will indeed have been mentioned by name in passing, as in:

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

200 pages later, out of those three never-again-mentioned bridesmaids, the author expects the reader to remember Alice. At the risk of seeming impertinent, why should he?

Unless he happens to be blessed with an unusually retentive memory, he won’t — and even Millicents who do have such memories tend to resent being expected to use them to keep 157 characters straight. At the submission stage, then, unless a character is central enough to what’s going on in a scene to warrant development, you might want to consider whisking her out of Millicent’s sight, at least for the time being.

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

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

Remember, no manuscript is set in stone until it’s actually in print between covers; expect to be asked for revisions. Especially these days, when it’s not at all uncommon at the large U.S. publishing houses for the editor who acquires a book not still to be on the job — or at any rate, in the same job — by the time that book comes up in the print queue. I don’t want to horrify anyone, but within the last couple of months, I’ve talked to authors who are on their fourth and fifth editors.

Think each of those editors has shared exactly the same vision of the book, or wants the same changes?

My point is, now more than ever, it behooves writers to keep their options open. The better-organized you are, the happier you will be at last-minute revision time. Go ahead and keep copies of EVERY major revision of your manuscript, so you can revisit the Alice issue again down the road. Hang on to that character list, too; someday, possibly between revisions 6 and 7 after you’ve signed with the agent of your dreams, it may come in awfully handy.

Now that I’ve frightened all of you into hysterics, I’m off to drink some hot tea, if there’s still any left in North America after my copious indulgence of the last couple of days. More name-related tips follow anon.

Keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIb: not all mysterious strangers are romantic

Or, this raccoon-visitoris not the same thing as this valentino

I meant to get back to our series on how to find useful feedback on your manuscripts — or, more precisely, to my mid-series digression on protecting your work whilst sharing it — over the weekend, or at any rate yesterday. (Happy post-Presidents’ Day, everyone.) However, my Significant Other harbors some absurd prejudice in favor of our spending Valentine’s Day weekend together. Where do kids these days pick up such zany ideas?

I’m mention this not for the sake of romantic one-upsmanship, but as an explanation to those of you new commenters who may have been trying to chime in over this particular weekend. For those of you new to the blog: in order to prevent the truly epic amount of spam I receive from wasting everyone’s time in the comments, my blogging program requires that I personally approve posts by all first-time commenters. As a result, freshman comments sometimes take a few days to post.

It’s the nature of the beast, I’m afraid.

Over the weekend (which I must admit was probably significantly more romantic than it would have been had I kept sitting down to blog; my SO was quite patient while I held an editing client’s hand through a no-fault-of-her-own literary crisis), I was thinking of you, however. To be specific, I was thinking that it had been quite some time since I asked one of the most basic questions that must be faced by writers in the computer age:

When was the last time you backed up your hard disk — or, more importantly for our purposes, your writing files?

Like, say, the ones containing the novel you’ve been writing for the past two years, or the contest entry you’re planning to pop into the mail next week? If you didn’t make a back-up either today or yesterday, may I cajole you into doing it soon?

How soon, you ask? Well, not to be alarmist, but would now-ish work for you?

I’m quite serious about this; go ahead. (If you’re new to backing up your work, the BACK-UP COPIES category at right may prove helpful.) I’ll still be here when you get back, languishing on my chaise longue.

What’s with the urgency, you ask? I could answer in philosophical terms — he things of this world are, after all, ephemeral, and computer files even more so — but frankly, my reason for nagging you about it periodically couldn’t be more practical. I’ve seen far too many writers lose weeks, months, and even years of good work due to various stripes of computer failure. As a freelance editor, I can’t even begin to tally up the number of times clients have called me in tears, begging me to search my files for a hard copy of an earlier draft of their books, because the only soft copy fell victim to a virus or hard drive meltdown.

Ask anyone who works in a computer repair facility: with even the most reliable system, it’s not a matter of if it will break down; it’s a matter of when. In picking the day of demise, computers are notoriously disrespectful of a writer’s imminent deadlines, requests from agents, or even the joy that accompanies finally polishing off a complete draft. In fact, if the moans I’ve heard over the years are a representative samples of those let down by their computers, the heavy use a computer often sees just prior to the end of a major writing project seems to be conducive to bringing on system misbehavior.

Which leads me to ask again: if your hard drive died right now, would you have a copy of your current writing project? What about of that query letter you spent two months composing, or that synopsis that took you a year to perfect? Would you even have an up-to-date record of whom you queried when?

Ah, that made you turn pale, didn’t it?

Please, even if you save nothing else on your computer, make frequent backups of your writing. It only takes a few minutes, but some day, you may be deeply grateful that you did.

Back to the topic at hand — which, as it happens, will also make me sound like your mother and might make you turn pale with dread. Last time, I broached the always-hot subject of protecting one’s writing from poachers, including — and this is why we’re talking about this in the midst of a series on finding good feedback-givers — unscrupulous folks with whom you might choose to share your unpublished manuscript.

Once again, I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so if you were looking for actual legal guidance on a specific copyright-related matter, you’d be well advised to get advice from one who specializes in giving legal advice to such legal advice-seekers.

Everyone got that? Good.

We can, however, go over some general principles here. To see how well I made my points last time, here’s a little quiz:

Rudolf Valentino (hey, it was just Valentine’s day, after all) has written a tender novel with the following plot: boy meets girl; boy loses girl over a silly misunderstanding that could easily have been cleared up within five pages had either party deigned to ask the other a basic question or two (along the lines of Is that lady holding your hand your sister or your wife?); boy learns important life lesson that enables him to become a better man; boy and girl are reunited.

Having composed such an original story, our Rudolf, being a sensible boy, seeks out other writers to give him feedback on it, or at any rate to help him figure out why the first 74 agents he queried did not find this plotline unique enough to pique their interest. He joins a writers’ group; he posts excerpts of his first chapter on an online critique site; he sidles other romance-writers in the hallways and charms them into reading his book and giving him their honest responses. (Our Rudolf can be pretty persuasive, you know. If you don’t believe me, see SON OF THE SHEIK.) Soon, several dozen copies of his manuscript are circulating throughout his extensive acquaintance, both in hard copy and electronically. He receives feedback from some; other copies disappear into the ether.

At what point in this process should Rudolf begin worrying about protecting his writing — and at what point running, not walking, toward an attorney conversant with copyright law with an eye to enforcing his trampled-upon rights?

(a) When he notices that a book with a similar plot line has just been published?

(b) When he notices that a hefty proportion of the romantic comedy films made within the last hundred years have a similar plot line?

(c) When a fellow member of his writing group lands an agent for a book with a similar plot line?

(d) When he picks up a book with somebody else’s name on the cover and discovers more than 50 consecutive words have apparently been lifted verbatim from a Valentino designer original?

(e) Before he gave it to anyone at all?

Let’s take the point where he should be consulting a lawyer first. If you said (d), clap yourself heartily upon the back. (I know it’s tough to do while simultaneously reading this and making a back-up of your writing files, but then, you’re a very talented person.) The last time I checked, anything beyond 50 consecutive words — or less, if it’s not properly attributed — is not fair use. After that, we’re into plagiarism territory.

If you said (c), you’re in pretty good company: at that point, most writers would tell Rudolf that he should be keeping a sharp eye upon that other writer. It would be prudent, perhaps, to take a long, hard look at the other writer’s book — which, as they’re in the same critique group, shouldn’t be all that hard to pull off.

But should plot similarity alone send him sprinting toward Lawyers for the Arts? No. Plot lifting is not the same thing as writing theft.

Why? Everyone who read my last post, chant it with me now, if you can spare time from making that backup: because you can’t copyright an idea for a book; you can only copyright the presentation of it.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few small steps that Rudolf might take to protect himself. Unfortunately, most of those steps would need to be taken prior to the point of discovering that some enterprising soul had made off with his writing.

Hint: the answer to the first question in the quiz, the one asking when a prudent Rudolf should begin thinking about protecting his manuscript, is (e). Especially — and this doesn’t happen as much in the age of computers as it did in the age of typewriters, but the warning still bears repeating — if Rudolf was circulating his only copy.

(That couldn’t happen to you, of course. You have a back-up of your writing files tucked away somewhere safe now, right?)

As I mentioned last time, the single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. The problem is, you can’t always tell. The Internet, while considerably easing the process of finding agents and small publishers hungry for new work, also renders it hard to tell who is on the up-and-up. I hope I’m not shocking anyone when I point out that a charlatan’s website can look just like Honest Abe’s — and that’s more of a problem with the publishing industry than in many others.

Why? Well, new agencies and small publishing houses pop up every day, often for the best reasons imaginable — when older publishing houses break up or are bought out, for instance, editors often make the switch to agency, and successful agents and editors both sometimes set up shop for themselves. But since you don’t need a specialized degree to become an agent or start a publishing house, there are also plenty of folks out there who just hang up shingles.

Or, more commonly, websites.

Which is one reason that, as those of you who survived my 2007 Book Marketing 101 series (conveniently collected for those of you who missed it on the category list at right) will recall, I am a BIG advocate of gathering information about ANY prospective agency or publishing house from more than one source. Especially if the source in question is the agency’s website — and if the agency in question is not listed in one of the standard agency guides.

“Wha–?” I hear some of you cry.

Listing in those guides is not, after all, automatic, and like everything else in publishing, the information in those guides is not gathered mere seconds before the book goes to presses. The result: agencies can go in or out of business so swiftly that there isn’t time for the changes to get listed in the standard guides.

That’s problematic for aspiring writers, frequently, because start-ups are often the ones most accepting of previously unpublished writers’ work. But because it is in your interests to know precisely who is going to be on the receiving end of your submission — PARTICULARLY if you are planning to query or submit via e-mail — you honestly do need to do some homework on these people.

Happily, as I mentioned last time, there are now quite a few sources online for double-checking the credibility of professionals to whom you are considering sending your manuscript. Reputable agents don’t like disreputable ones any more than writers do, so a good place to begin verifying an agent or agency’s credibility is their professional organization in the country where the agency is ostensibly located. For the English-speaking world:

In the United States, contact the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

In the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Authors’ Agents.

In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association.

I couldn’t find a specific association for Canada (if anyone knows of one, please let me know, and I’ll be delighted to update this), but the Association of Canadian Publishers’ website does include information about literary agencies north of the border.

Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. It’s also worth checking on Preditors and Editors or the Absolute Write Water Cooler, excellent places to check who is doing what to folks like us these days. Writer Beware, a website sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, provides a wealth of resources for those who want to learn about scams aimed at writers.

In case it might influence the decision-making process of those of you quietly rolling your eyes at the prospect of investing even more of your scant writing time in researching folks whose ostensible purpose in life is to help writers, I should add: all but the last site I listed are also pretty good places to learn about agents’ specialties, on the off chance that you might be looking for someone to query now that the Great New Year’s Resolution Plague of 2009 has receded into memory.

Again, I just mention. And have you done that backup yet?

As with any business transaction on the Internet (or indeed, with anyone you’ve never heard of before), it also pays to take things slowly — and with a massive grain of salt. An agency or publishing house should be able to tell potential authors what specific books it has handled, for instance. (In the U.S., book sales are a matter of public record, so there is no conceivable reason to preserve secrecy.)

Also, even if an agency is brand-new, you should be able to find out where its agents have worked before — in fact, a reputable new agency is generally only too happy to provide that information, to demonstrate its own excellent connections.

Also, reputable agencies make their money by selling their clients’ books, not by charging them fees. If any agent ever asks you for a reading fee, an editing fee, or insists that you need to pay a particular editing company for an evaluation of your work, instantly contact the relevant country’s agents’ association. (For some hair-raising examples of what can happen to writers who don’t double-check, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENTS category at right.)

Actually, anyone asking a writer for cash up front in exchange for considering representation or publication is more than a bit suspect — not only according to me, but according to the AAR. Unless a publisher bills itself up front as a subsidy press (which asks the authors of the books it accepts to bear some of the costs of publication) or you are planning to self-publish, there’s no reason for money to be discussed at all until they’ve asked to buy your work, right?

And even then, the money should be flowing toward the author, not away from her.

With publishing houses, too, be suspicious if you’re told that you MUST use a particular outside editing service or pay for some other kind of professional evaluation. As those of you who have been submitting for a while already know, reputable agents and editors like to make up their own minds about what to represent or publish; they’re highly unlikely to refer that choice out of house. And any reputable freelance editor will be quite up front about the fact that while professional editing can help make a manuscript more publishable, it’s not a guarantee of publication.

Generally speaking — to sound like your mother for yet another long moment — if an agency or publisher sounds like too good a deal to be true, chances are that it is. There are, alas, plenty of unscrupulous folks out there ready to take unsuspecting writers’ money, and while many agencies and publishers do in fact maintain websites, this is still a paper-based industry, for the most part.

In other words, it is not, by and large, devoted to the proposition that an aspiring author should be able to Google literary agent and come up with the ideal fit right off the bat.

Do I hear some more doubtful muttering out there? “But Anne,” I hear many voices cry, “I certainly do not want to be bilked by a faux agency or publishing house. However, I notice that you’ve been talking about such disreputable sorts conning me out of ready cash, not potentially walking off with my submission. Weren’t we discussing about protecting our writing, not our pocketbooks?”

Well caught, disembodied voices — and that’s part of my point. The fact is, if an unscrupulous agent or editor were seriously interested in defrauding aspiring writers, stealing manuscripts would not be the most efficient way to go about it. Historically, direct extraction of cash from the writer’s pocket has been the preferred method.

But that doesn’t mean that a savvy writer shouldn’t take reasonable steps to protect both her pocketbook AND her manuscript. Even during a period where the legitimate literary agencies are being so cautiously selective, an aspiring writer should never front money for professional services without knowing precisely what s/he is getting in return. Take the time to do your homework.

Oh, and make backups regularly as well. Imagine Rudolf’s embarrassment if he had to admit to his wide circle of blandished acquaintance that he was the only one of them who didn’t possess a copy of his manuscript.

Next time, I shall delve into manuscript protection itself, I promise — and, shortly after that, return to our larger topic, tracking down sources of good manuscript feedback. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

A few thoughts on getting good feedback, or, why Millicent should not be the first unbiased human being who sees your manuscript

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I have quite a bit of material to cover today, but before I launch into what you will be delighted to hear is a brand-new series that has nothing whatsoever to do with red flags on the first pages of manuscripts (well, not much to do with them, anyway), I wanted to take a moment to direct the attention of those of you who don’t habitually read the comments on recent posts (a VERY worthwhile endeavor, often, since readers ask such terrific questions) back to last Tuesday’s post. As those of you with retentive memories will no doubt recall, I raised as a cautionary exemplar of the perils of giving up too easily a character in the soon-to-be-released Canadian indie film ONE WEEK, a gloomy fellow who, according to the rather intrusive voice-over narration, had abandoned his submission process just before he would have reached precisely the right editor at HarperCollins, despite the fact that this fine publishing house, like all of the US majors, does not accept unagented submissions.

I’m delighted to report that a generous soul at HarperCollins caught my ramblings on the subject and wrote in to report that HC has recently established Authonomy, a site that encourages aspiring writers to post excerpts of their work for peer review, essentially. Those that receive the best reviews have a shot passing under the eyes of precisely the kind of editors the hero in ONE WEEK failed to have the tenacity to reach.

What’s the difference, you may well be wondering, between Authonomy and similar sites? You’re going to want to read what the HC denizen has to say on the subject.

No, you’re going to have to go see for yourselves. Shoo.

I have to say, I’m a big fan of writers reviewing one another’s work — and not only, as is often the case on the web, when there’s a competition at stake. Writers often, as John Irving is fond of pointing out, to have strong and sometimes indefensible tastes (hey, he said it; I didn’t), but they tend to read more carefully than other readers. They’re also — and this is vitally important, if one is handing around manuscripts prior to submission — are far, far more likely to catch the kind of errors that might send Millicent the agency screener into a tizzy.

I told you that the series to come had a little something to do with those pesky red flags. If you’re in the throes of querying, now is a terrific time to be seeking out sharp-eyed first readers to help ferret out manuscript problems before you slip those pages under Millicent’s notoriously gaffe-sensitive retinas.

I heard that giant collective guffaw from my long-term readers. “When precisely,” you are no doubt asking yourselves, “does Anne think it ISN’T a good time to scan a manuscript for faults that might annoy Millicent? Or, at the very least, to scan it for common mistakes and deviations from standard format?”

Okay, you’ve got me there. I preach that particular gospel quite a bit here, and with good reason: it is absolutely vital to clear your manuscript (and query letter, and synopsis) of spelling and grammatical errors, pronto. Or at least before you send it out, whether to the pitiless scrutiny of an agency, the criticism of a literary contest, the daunting prospect of self-publication, or even a solid peer review.

Why? Because in any of these fora, the author is generally held responsible for mistakes. You’ll want to minimize them.

If you’re submitting your work to an agent, this is absolutely basic to success. Since agency screeners tend to stop reading after just a couple of spelling or grammatical errors, giving a book an honest shot at getting picked up means taking the time to create clean copy. This is not a business where good enough is in fact good enough; technical perfection is expected.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: it’s worth your time to rework your manuscript until it fairly shines.

And I’m not just talking about just running your pages through a standard spell-check, either — although you’d be astonished, I hope, at just how few submitters apparently take even that minimal precaution. Spell check, by all means, but there is no substitute for the good ol’ human eye running down a PRINTED page of text for catching errors.

I’m going to make that admonition even stronger: because technical perfection is so important, I implore you, DO NOT rely upon your word processing program’s spelling and grammar checker as your only source of proofreading. As any professional editor will tell you, they tend to be rife with technical errors — mine, for instance, regularly tells me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re — and it’s far too easy for a slip of the mouse to convince your dictionary to accept caseless when you mean ceaseless.

I can already see my long-time readers getting out their hymnals to sing along, so let’s go ahead and sing it together: NEVER submit a manuscript without first reading it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Why not proof on your computer monitor? Because, as those editors to whom I referred above will happily tell you, the screen is not the best place to proofread, even if you read every syllable aloud (which I recommend, particularly for novels that contain quite a bit of dialogue). It’s just too likely that the eyes and the brain will blur momentarily in the editing process, sliding past an error unseen.

Yes, even if you have a simply immense computer screen — this is an instance where size truly doesn’t matter. (And the masses rejoice!)

I know whereat I speak here. Since I edit professionally, I have a monitor that could easily balance a small litter of puppies on it, but I ALWAYS use hard copy for a final edit, both for my work and for my clients’. As my downstairs neighbor would, I’m sure, be overjoyed to tell you, if a deadline is close, I’m going to be sitting in my library, reading the relevant manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, out loud.

I’m funny that way. You should be, too.

After you have proofed and poked the slower movements of your text, I STRONGLY urge you to have at least one third party reader take a gander at it. At the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, it is NOT the best idea in the world to be the only eyes who see your work before it lands on an agent’s or editor’s desk. (Or the press, if you are intending to self-publish.)

Gaining some outside perspective, via a trustworthy first reader, has many benefits. Most notably, as I intimated above, good pre-submission feedback can enable you to weed out the rookie mistakes that tend to result in our old pal Millicent the screener’s choking on her coffee and reaching for the form rejection letter. Like, for instance, misspelling your own name or address on the title page.

Stop laughing — it happens more than you might think. Writers are often in a tearing hurry to pop those requested materials into the mail.

Other than the simple fact that other eyes are more likely to catch mistakes than you are the 147th time you read a text, there is another reason that you should run your work by another human being before you submit them. I tremble to report this, but it is very, very common for writers to send off the first chapter or three of their novels WITHOUT EVER HAVING ANYONE ELSE READ THEM.

The result, of course, is that the agent’s feedback is the first time many writers EVER get an outside opinion of their work.

Was that vast collective ulp! the sound of those of you familiar with the gist of my last two posts choking on your herbal tea? What you just thought is precisely correct: due to the pervasiveness of the form-letter rejection, feedback on submissions is usually either minimal or non-existent.

Or so generic that it could apply to any manuscript Millicent saw — remember, just because a rejection letter or e-mail is personalized with your name doesn’t necessarily mean that it was written freshly in response to reading your book. Stock phrases like I just didn’t fall in love with it, this is a tough market for fiction, and it doesn’t meet our needs at this time have graced rejection letters for many years; they’re not intended to serve as meaningful feedback, but as a polite negative.

It does not, in short, tend to be feedback that’s likely to help a writer improve her work before the next round of submissions. Your writing deserves feedback with content you can use.

Now, there are a lot of places you can receive such feedback. You can ask a professional freelance editor, as I mentioned back in December (for tips on finding one that’s a good fit for you, please see the aptly-named HOW DO I FIND A FREELANCE EDITOR? category on the list at right); you can join a critique group; you can exchange pages with another writer, preferably one who writes in your book category. No one method is right for everybody, so you may need to experiment a little before figuring out how you most like to receive feedback.

But remember back at Thanksgiving, when I was preparing you for that inevitable moment when some well-meaning co-celebrant leans over to ask, “So, dear, how’s your writing coming? Published anything yet?” No matter how sincerely this person asks to read your work, no matter how flattering her request may be, no matter how much she swears that she would love nothing better than to read it and tell you what she thinks — if this person is a close friend, lover, would-be or ex lover, or — sacre bleu! — a family member,

DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE THIS PERSON THE FIRST READER OF YOUR BOOK.

Long-term readers, chant it along with me now: the input of your best friend, your mother, your siblings, and/or your lover(s), however charming it may be, is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete, tangible feedback every writer needs. No offense to your kith and kin, but it’s true. Ties of affection do not necessarily good readers make.

Far be it from me to suggest that anyone who cares about you might be sweet and generous enough to tell a few white lies to spare your feelings, but frankly, it happens. Be grateful that you have such supportive folks in your life. Cherish them; appreciate them; cling to them with the tenacity of an unusually insecure leech.

But DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE THESE PEOPLE THE FIRST READERS OF YOUR BOOK.

Get other first readers for your manuscripts, because a first reader who does not have the objectivity — or, often, the reading experience in your genre — to tell you the truth about your manuscript is simply not useful for a writer.

The closer the emotional tie, the lower the objectivity — and no, smart people who read a lot are not exempt from this rule. Even if your father runs a major publishing house for a living, your sister is a high-flying agent, and your lover reviews major novelists regularly for THE WASHINGTON POST, they are unlikely to have the perspective necessary to give you objective feedback.

Why? Because they like you.

Don’t fault them for that. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself — or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns.

So when your Aunt Ermintrude says she’d just LOVE your manuscript (and trust me, at some point, she will; everyone likes the idea of getting a free advance peek at the next big bestseller), I give you my full permission to use me as your excuse for saying no.

Do it politely, of course, as if you were acting upon medical orders. “I’m sorry, but I’ve been advised by Dr. Mini that until I find an agent, I need to limit myself to objective readers,” or “I’d love to, Aunt Ermintrude, but I have a writing group for feedback — what I need you for is support!” tends to go over MUCH better than, “What, are you just trying to get out of buying a copy of the book?”

No one likes getting called on that. Trust me on that one; I’m a doctor, after all.

And, let’s face it, when you do have a book coming out, you DO want your Aunt Ermintrude to buy it — and to talk all of her friends into buying it. If you think that professional writers don’t cadge on their relatives this way, think again: most of the pros I know keep mailing lists of everyone who has ever cut their hair, cleaned their teeth, listened to their son’s book reports, etc., to send a postcard the instant a new book of theirs comes out.

Oh, before I forget, here’s a bit of advice for those of you who already have agents and/or publishing contracts: break yourself of the habit NOW of promising free copies of your future books to your kith and kin. Since authors now receive so few copies – and are often expected to use those for promotion — it’s really, really common for the writer to end up having to BUY those promised freebies to distribute.

Yes, you read that correctly. Picture everyone who has ever said to you, “Oh, you’ll have to send me a copy when it comes out,” and do the math.

Promise to sign it for them instead. Get Aunt Ermintrude — and everyone else who loves you — used to the idea that supporting you means being willing to shell out hard cash for your book. Let them know that it’s one of the ways you would prefer to receive affection.

But DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE ANY OF THESE PEOPLE THE FIRST READER OF YOUR BOOK.

Is any of this sinking in? Okay, here’s a pop quiz: it’s Valentine’s Day, and you find yourself wrapped in the arms of some charming, well-meaning soul who whispers those words that make the average aspiring writer melt like butter, “I’d LOVE to read your book.”

You know what your response will be, right? Right?

Hey, stop fantasizing about meeting a gorgeous stranger who wants to read your book and concentrate. Trust me, it will be better for both your book and your relationships with your loved ones if you thank him/her/them profusely — and say no.

Ditto with loved ones of every description.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a while are already aware, I definitely practice what I preach in this respect. My mother is one of the best editors I’ve ever met, an eagle eye with 60 years of manuscript-wrangling experience (yes, really). Naturally, she is eager to read my work, but we’ve both been in this business long enough to know that giving birth to a writer pretty much automatically disqualifies a reader from being particularly objective about that writer’s work.

So yes, in answer to that loudly unspoken question, I do know precisely how hard it is to say, “I love you, but I don’t want feedback from you.”

I can feel that some of you still aren’t convinced. Perhaps you have kith and kin who just adore giving their unvarnished opinions to you, ostensibly for your own good. “Is it really worth worrying,” I hear voices out there saying, “The cousin who told me I looked stupid in my prom dress will be afraid to tell me that Chapter Three doesn’t work? Since Grams has no problem telling me that she hates my husband, why should she hesitate to rip my novel to shreds, if it needs it?”

This is the other primary reason not to ask your loved ones for feedback, even if they are noted for their blithe indifference to any pain their truth-telling might cause to others: if you care about the advice-giver, it’s hard NOT to be emotionally involved in the response.

Ponder that for a moment, and you’ll see that it’s true. If your favorite brother critiques your book, rightly or wrongly, it’s probably going to hurt more than if a member of your writing group gives precisely the same advice. And by the same token, the emotional baggage of the relationship, even if it is neatly packed and generally non-obtrusive, may make it harder to hear the advice qua advice.

Also — and I hesitate to bring this up, because, again, I’m sure your kith and kin are marvelous human beings to a man — but all too often, critique by loved ones often runs in the other direction, particularly if you happen to be loved by the type the psychologists used to call passive-aggressive.

I have had many, many editing clients come to me in tears because their significant others have pounced on the first typo of the manuscript as evidence that the writer should never have put pen to paper at all. Long-repressed sibling rivalries often jump for joy when they see a nice, juicy manuscript to sink their teeth into, and are you quite sure that your best friend ever forgave you for the time that your 4th-grade soccer team beat hers?

What you need is feedback on your BOOK, not on your relationships. Or, at least, that’s what you need in order to improve your book. (The state of your relationships is, of course, up to you.)

Which is why (cover your ears, because I’m about to start shouting again) YOU SHOULD NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE ANY OF THESE PEOPLE THE FIRST READER OF YOUR BOOK.

Often, too, when you’re dealing with people unused to giving feedback, being overly-judgmental is not even a reflection of their opinions of your book: in many cases, being vicious is what people think giving feedback means. (And if you doubt this, take a gander at the first efforts of most movie reviewers, who evidently believe that the title critic means that they should never, under any circumstances, say anything positive about a movie that might, say, induce a reader to go and see it.)

I’m not saying not to show your work to your kith and kin — if it makes you happy, do. But even if your Aunt Mary won a Pulitzer in criticism last year, you probably should not rely solely upon her critique of your manuscript.

Yes, I know: finding good first readers is a whole lot of work, especially if you live in a small town in what is generally described as the middle of nowhere. But, at the risk of wearing out the record, if you are going to be called on a mistake, it is FAR better to be a little embarrassed by a good first reader than rejected by a hyper-critical agent, editor, or contest judge.

That way, you can fix the mistakes when the stakes are low – and, frankly, you’re far more likely to get usable feedback. If you are one of the many too shy or too busy to show your work to others, yet are willing to send it out to be evaluated by grumpy literary assistants hyped up on seven lattes before lunch, consider carefully whether you really want your first reader to be someone who does not have either the time or the inclination to give you tangible feedback.

Because, really, will We’re sorry, but your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time tell you whether that orgy scene in Chapter 8 is the problem, or if it’s your constant use of the phrase, “Wha–?”

Trust me, you need first readers who will tell you PRECISELY that.

Next time, I shall talk about strategies for getting the kind of good, solid feedback you need without treating your first readers like mere service-providers. (Hey, if you want to do this without engendering social obligations, you really should be working with a paid professional freelancer, rather than your friends.)

Until then, keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XIV: Dear John, you might want to think about streamlining your dialogue — and checking to see if the fine folks to whom you’re submitting have posted guidelines for your benefit

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“It is my custom to keep on talking until I get the audience cowed.”

— Mark Twain

I seldom post calls for submissions to publications, particularly online ones — there are so very many of them, after all, and as one of the primary joys of agent in life is that somebody else markets one’s writing, I don’t have much personal incentive to do the requisite background research — but I have to say, the relatively new Ink-Filled Page’s call for submissions from 6 – 12th graders completely won my heart with the meticulous specificity of one of its guidelines:

We are specifically looking for fresh, untold stories and unique voices that draw us into the world of the story. While we know and love many Jo(h)ns, we are inundated by character Jo(h)ns. We ask that you only submit characters by that name if it is necessary for the story.

Stumbling across this filled me with rapture; this is one of the best expressions of a professional reader’s pet peeve that I’ve seen for a long time. Not only it tell you clearly what particular super-common manuscript condition will make their screeners’ hair stand on end with annoyance, but it explains why seeing just one more Jon or John will make their screeners’ hair stand on end with annoyance. Yet mindful of the remote-but-not-inconceivable possibility that stories exist where the inclusion of a John is absolutely unavoidable — the mind positively reels, doesn’t it, with images of battalions of Jons and Johns battering mercilessly upon writerly doors worldwide, demanding entrance to the printed page? — the guideline begrudgingly informs the prospective submitter that Johnning it up is not necessarily an instant-rejection offense.

Don’t you wish that everyone who solicits submissions were that up front about what irritates them — and what fate is likely to meet the hapless writer to commits those faux pas? And yet as a longtime professional reader and frequent contest judge, I can tell you right now that despite the pellucid clarity of this restriction, the callers-for-submissions in this instance will STILL be up to their navels in characters named Jon or John.

Or possibly even Jo(h)n, just for the comic relief. My point is, it’s extraordinarily likely that most submitters will either not notice or choose to ignore this request.

Do I hear the abundant Johns out there rising to second that? “Darned right, Anne!” they and their h-less brethren shout as one. “How dare anyone attempt to restrict an artist’s freedom to name his characters anything he darned well pleases? And who are agents, editors, contest judges, and professional readers to tell us what to do, anyway?”

Well, to be literal for a moment, they’re the people who can make sure that your manuscript is seen by the right eyes, are empowered to make the decision to publish it, have the capacity to award it a great big blue ribbon and abiding fame, and see what everyone else is submitting these days. Theirs may not be opinions an artist wants to take into account while making creative choices, and it’s certainly every writer’s prerogative not to, but by and large, they tend to be pretty well-informed pronouncement-makers.

As glorious as it would be if every rule-breaker did it consciously, as a magnificent gesture toward artistic liberty, that’s apparently not the usual reason that submitters dismiss this kind of admonition. Most of the time, adhering to such formal requests would make little or no artistic difference to a submission, at least from a reader’s perspective; even more of the time, failure to honor expressed preferences is not the only problem the submission has, especially if it is an entry to contests with unusual formatting restrictions.

Which is why most professional readers, particularly experienced contest judges, would tell you that most submitters don’t read submission requirements very carefully, even when, as is the case with most literary contests, the sponsor’s printed literature and website make it quite, quite clear that deviation from the rules is a disqualification-level offense. Apparently, there are a whole lot of would-be entrants and submitters out there who just assume that whatever format and content they have happened to have selected for their own pieces will automatically be acceptable to the professional readers to whom they decide to submit it.

And when these well-meaning-but-myopic folks hear otherwise, they often feel betrayed, as did the Johns above, demanding, “How dare anyone attempt to restrict an artist’s freedom to write anything he darned well pleases?”

Well, off the top of my head, I can come up with three reasons. First, as I’ve discussed extensively in earlier posts, the sheer volume of submissions leads screeners and contest judges to use formal criteria (like adherence to posted preferences, standard format restrictions, and the kind of unpromulgated pet peeves this series has been examining) to narrow the field to those submissions that are, in their opinions, closer to being ready to publication-ready. Liberty-loving writers may have a problem with that, but the second reason, the fact that in order to work successfully with an agent or editor, a writer needs to be able to follow directions fairly well, is difficult to dispute.

Which renders the third reason a trifle less easy to swallow: informally, one does hear quite a few professional readers cite the high percentage of manuscripts that don’t honor posted guidelines as a primary reason that so few agencies and publishing houses actually provide such formal guidelines anymore. “Why bother?” such off-the-record informants will inquire rhetorically. “The writers will ignore them, anyway.”

Before any of you rend your garments, exclaiming, “How on earth can I conform to your standards if you won’t tell me what they are?” let me hasten to add: yes, this logic is indeed circular. If not promulgating pet peeves meant that submissions didn’t get rejected for exhibiting them, that would make more sense, from a writerly point of view.

All of which is to say: if you’re planning to enter a contest or submit to an agency or small publishing house that does go the extra mile to render its screening criteria public, read its rules carefully. Several times. Then follow them to the letter, because the rule-mongers have actually done you a great big favor by telling you up front what they do and do not want to see.

If you’re not willing to do that — because you’re too busy, too committed to presenting your work precisely as you would like to see it in print, or just haven’t fallen into the laudable habit of checking whether those to whom you’ve decided to commit have such guidelines posted on their websites — I would suggest considering not submitting to those who do post their preferences. Save the contest entry fee.

I can tell you from experience, hell hath no fury like a screener who knows for fact that the often-repeated manuscript problem in front of her is specifically barred by her agency, contest, or publishing house’s published submission standards.

But enough about the guidelines that are easily accessible to aspiring writers. Let’s get back to the ones that we’re expected to guess.

Dialogue came in for quite a lot of lambasting on the Idol first-page rejection reasons list, didn’t it? (If you’re unfamiliar with this list, please see the first post in this series.) To refresh your memory, here are all of the dialogue-related quibbles:

17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.

25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents on the panel seemed to have a problem with this.)

26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.

30. Overuse of dialogue, ostensibly in the name of realism.

51. What I call Hollywood narration – when characters tell one another things they already know. (The agents on the panel did not call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)

52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example cited: “She squawked.”)

I dealt with the first three on this list last time, of course, but It’s worth noting that a full 8.1% — roughly an eighth — of the Idol objections were dialogue-based, more than on any other single technical aspect. The moral, I think: be very, very sure that any dialogue you use on page 1 is flawlessly executed, scintillating in content, and absolutely necessary.

Because, as we may see, agents seem to be a trifle touchy about it.

Actually, while I’m at it, I’m going to add a quibble of my own: too many tag lines. For those of you who don’t know, a tag line is the he said part of the dialogue, and a healthy percentage of the industry was trained to believe that in good writing, (a) in two-person dialogue, tag lines are usually disposable, thus (b) writing with fewer tag lines tends to be better than writing with more, and (c) the vast majority of the time, said is a perfectly adequate word to describe a human being speaking.

(c), obviously, underlies the critique of “she squawked.”

While, equally obviously, the degree to which a particular speaking verb is problematic varies from reader to reader, #52, the tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue, is a fairly industry-wide objection. Most of us have had English teachers who subscribe to this school of thought, the type who rapped us on the knuckles if we dared to use an adverb in a tag line, because, well, Hemingway never would have done it, and if the dialogue itself were descriptive enough, no one would need to know that Charles said it laconically.

I’ve posted enough, I think, on the issue of dialogue-only scenes, where the reader isn’t given one iota of hint about how certain things are said or what is going on in the room, for my regular readers to know my opinion on bare-bones dialogue. But over-used tag lines are something different: trust me, if your job were reading hundreds of pages of prose every single day, unnecessary verbiage would be likely to start to annoy you FAST.

To try to show you why you might want to go a little light on the tag lines (and on the squawking, while we’re at it) on page 1, here’s a fairly average chunk of dialogue:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew said snappishly. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed, “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work,” Andrew snorted. “The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually,” Joanna said priggishly. “Geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course, I remember,” Andrew huffed. “I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark,” Joanna moaned, “until the birds are asleep.”

“We?” Andrew pounced. “Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

Now, this excerpt would be especially annoying to a tag line minimalist, as it is reflects a quite common writerly misconception, that the mere fact of enclosing phrases within quotation marks is not signal enough to the reader that a character is speaking the words out loud, rather than just thinking them. To adherents of this theory, the mere idea of not both identifying every speaker and stating specifically that he is, in fact, saying these words out loud is a one-way ticket to anarchy.

However, to most folks in the industry, it just seems repetitive – or, to put it in the language of the biz, time-wasting. Remember, our over-worked and under-dated agency screener has to write a summary of the story of any submission she recommends her superior reads; she wants you to cut to the chase.

So what’s the writer to do, just cut out all but the absolutely essential tag lines, in order that her first page would read 42 seconds faster? Let’s take a gander at what would happen:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew snapped. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed. “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work. The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually, geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course I remember. I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark, until the birds are asleep.”

“We? Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

A trifle sparse, admittedly, but there isn’t any serious question about who is speaking when, is there? Personally, I would opt for breaking up the dialogue a bit by adding a few character-revealing descriptive elements that are not speech-related, such as the facts that Andrew is wearing a giant panda costume and the soup is cream of bamboo. (Rather changes your view of Joanna’s tardiness, doesn’t it? Would you rush home to that, particularly if you knew that every Thursday’s dessert was Pinecone Flambé?)

Do I hear some of you whimpering impatiently out there, hands in the air, to tell me what else is wrong with this chunk of dialogue? The de-tag lined version made it even more apparent, didn’t it?

Sorry, the Idol agents beat you to it: #51. when characters tell one another things they already know, so that the reader will be filled in on necessary background. Those of you familiar with this blog already have a name for this phenomenon, Hollywood narration; in the science fiction/fantasy community, it goes by another name, “So as I was telling you, Bob…”

Either way, it is logically indefensible. It is absurd to the point of impossibility that Andrew does not know his wife’s job title or where she works, just as it is exceptionally improbable that he would have forgotten Jeremy Faulkner’s traumatic death, or that Joanna would have forgotten either the funeral or her husband’s participation in the church choir.

And don’t even get me started on ol’ Dario’s local reputation.

More importantly for our purposes here, Hollywood narration tends to annoy the dickens out of your garden-variety agency screener. Not merely because it is so common — and believe me, it is: TV and movie scripts abound with this sort of dialogue, which in turn influences both how people speak and what writers hear — but because it’s kind of an underhanded way of introducing backstory. In a script, it’s understandable, as film has only sound and sight to tell a story. But a book has all kinds of narrative possibilities, right?

There was a sterling example of a VERY common subgenus of Hollywood narration read at the Idol session from which I derived the list of pet peeves we’ve been discussing. It was apparently a mystery that opened with the mother of a recently-recovered kidnap victim badgering the detective who was handling the case to find the kidnapper, pronto. My, but Mom was informative: within the course of roughly ten lines of back-and-forth dialogue, she filled in the detective on the entire background of the case.

Because, naturally, as the primary investigator, he would have no recollection of anything associated with it. (Maybe he was suffering from amnesia; having heard only the first page, I couldn’t tell you.) And, equally naturally, she insisted upon being brought in to collaborate on the investigation.

The Idol panelists’ reaction to this piece was fascinating, because every time one of them started to wind down his or her critique of it, another found yet more reason to object to it. Among the objections:

*The characters are telling one another things they already know.

*The opening scene was almost entirely dialogue, without giving the reader a sense of place or character.

*This scene has been in a LOT of books and movies. (Hey, blame Dashiell Hammett.)

*”I’ve never understood why third parties in mysteries always want to investigate the crimes themselves.” (I’m guessing that the agent who said this doesn’t represent a whole lot of cozy mysteries.)

*(After a slight lull in the bloodbath.) “If the kid is back safely after the kidnapping, why should we care?”

Brutal, eh, for less than a single page of dialogue? If you learn nothing else from this series, please take away this one thing: agency screeners virtually never cut any writer any slack. That opening page needs to SCREAM excellence. So it would really behoove you to check your dialogue-based opening scenes very, very carefully to make sure that they are saying PRECISELY what you want them to say about you as a writer.

Where this becomes most problematic, of course, is in very realistic dialogue – which brings me to #30, over-use of dialogue, in the name of realism. We writers pride ourselves on our ears for dialogue, don’t we? A gift for reproducing on the page what people really sound like is highly revered, in our circles. It’s an important part of characterization, right?

So why do some of our best, most true-to-life dialogue scenes make agency screeners yawn? Well, most real-life dialogue is pretty boring when reproduced on a page. Think about it: when was the last time you read a trial transcript for FUN?

If you doubt this, try a little experiment. Take a pad and paper to a public venue — a crowded bus, a busy restaurant, that tedious holiday potluck your boss always insists will boost company morale, but only makes it apparent that the company is too cheap to spring for caterers — pick a couple of conversers, and jot down everything they say for a couple of minutes. No fair eavesdropping on a couple having an illicit affair or a duo plotting the overthrow of the city council, now — pick an ordinary conversation.

Then go home and type it up — dialogue only, mind you, not your embellishment upon it. Just as you would in a novel, take out any references to current TV shows, movies, or political events, because that would date the manuscript. (In many cases, this will eliminate the entire conversation.) With a straight a face as you can, hand the result to one of your trusted first readers. Say that you are trying out a new style of dialogue, and ask if the scene works.

99.9% of the time, it won’t.

Why? Well, real-life dialogue tends to be very repetitious, self-referential, and, frankly, not something that would tend to move a plot along. If you’re in conversation with someone with whom you speak quite frequently, you will use shared metaphors that might not make sense to an outside observer, but you’re not very likely to be discussing anything crucial to the plot of your life over coffee with a coworker.

And even if you ARE, unlike a conversation in a book, where much matter can be compressed into a single exchange, there’s just not a whole lot of incentive in real life for the stakes to be high enough to settle major life decisions within just a couple of minutes’ worth of highly relevant dialogue. Nor are you likely to import lovely language or trenchant symbolism that enlightens the reader about the human condition. It’s not even all that likely to be entertaining to a third party.

It’s just talk, usually, something people do to lubricate relationships and fill time.

I’m all for relationship-lubrication on the page, but time-filling can be deadly, especially on page 1 of a book. Move it along. In a submission, it’s always good to bear in mind that even the readers of the most serious books in the world are generally interested in being entertained. So entertain them.

Besides, it’s just a fact that no writer in the world gets to stand next to a screener, agent, or editor during a first read, saying, “But it really happened that way!” or even “How dare anyone attempt to restrict an artist’s freedom to name his characters anything he darned well pleases?”

More common first-page rejection reasons follow anon. Keep up the good work!

Guest blogger Joel Derfner: the SWISH contest ends Thursday — and a common mistake for contest entries

Hello, all –

As you may quickly figure out from the rather disconnected nature of this week’s posts, I’m traipsing about the country at the moment. (Hey, you try being coherent in an airport when it’s 101 degrees.) Fortuitously, FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog) Joel Derfner has volunteered to give me a day off by writing a guest blog. Thank you, Joel!

Even if you are not normally the writing contest entry type — although placing in a contest like this would make for some intriguing ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, in case you missed my late posts on the subject) — the point Joel makes here about the kind of entries short-short literary contests tend to receive is INCREDIBLY good to know. So you might just learn something before he’s done today.

And what’s better than that?

Oh, and his second book, Swish: My Quest to Became the Gayest Person Ever is available on Amazon, or for those of you who prefer to deal with independent bookstores, Powell’s.

Take it away, Joel!

The lovely Anne mentioned a few weeks ago that, in conjunction with the publication of my new book Swish: My Quest to Became the Gayest Person Ever, I am sponsoring a gay-off. To enter, you need but send me an e-mail of 100 words or fewer about why you should be given the title of the Gayest Person Ever. Note that, to enter, you don’t have to be gay—in fact, some of the better entries I’ve gotten so far have been from straight people. The deadline for entry is the end of this Thursday, June 12.

In case anybody here is interested in participating, I’m going to give you some inside information, which is this: I think lists are boring.

Not invariably, of course. There are many situations in which a list can be very interesting: people your current boyfriend used to date that he’s still in touch with, people you have to kill because they’ve discovered you’re stealing office supplies, sexual favors you’re willing to offer the right movie star.

But I’ll say that a number of the entries I’ve gotten for this contest have been lists (along the lines of “I’m the gayest person ever because I did this as a child, and that, and then when I was a teenager I loved such-and-such and I wanted to be thus-and-so”), and even though some of the individual items on the lists are pretty great, in general I’ve found the lists difficult to get excited about.

I find myself hungering for narrative. Like, I want 100 words telling the story of one particular incident; I want depth over breadth. If you tell me that you 1) baked soufflé at age six in your E-Z Bake Oven, 2) performed a Dixie Carter monologue from Designing Women at show-and-tell, and 3) had your first crush ever on Miss Piggy, that’s certainly a lot of fun. But all it allows me to see is an approximation of a character, put together from chunky blocks.

Whereas if you tell me in detail about performing the Dixie Carter monologue, and what you were wearing, and what your teacher’s name was, and what her reaction was, and what your best friend’s reaction was, and the mean girl’s, and the class loser, and what you’d had for breakfast that morning—that paints me a very, very specific picture of a unique character at a unique moment—but one feeling emotions I have felt and can identify with. And maybe it wasn’t a Dixie Carter monologue in my childhood; maybe it was an Oscar Wilde poem. And maybe it wasn’t show-and-tell; maybe it was at Hebrew school. Or maybe it was Langston Hughes at the dinner table. But I can guarantee you that at some point in my life I have been in the same situation you’re describing. The particulars are all different, but it doesn’t matter because the emotional truth is exactly the same. I can see myself in who you’re describing.

I didn’t understand that this was what I wanted until I started getting things that weren’t this. Even if I had understood, I might not have realized that the invitation didn’t make this clear. I suspect that both of these things happen all the time in fledgling writing competitions. Next time (if there is a next time) I’ll be careful to word the invitation more specifically.

I’m only judging the semi-finals, and I’m not even doing that alone—my vote is one of several. Visitors to my website will vote to determine the winner. But the other judges will be people whose writing I admire, which means that they’ll probably like the same things I like.

So if anybody wants to send me an anecdote about why s/he should be crowned this year’s Gayest Person Ever, please, please do. The stakes are very low—the most exciting part of the prizes is homemade brownies—so there’s really very little risk.

Please?

Because I don’t know how many more lists I can take.

Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and Gay Haiku author Joel Derfner is from South Carolina, where his great-grandmother had an affair with George Gershwin. After fleeing the south as soon as he possibly could, he got a B.A. in linguistics from Harvard. A year after he graduated, his thesis on the Abkhaz language was shown to be completely wrong, as the word he had been translating as “who” turned out to be not a noun but a verb. Realizing that linguistics was not his métier, he moved to New York to get an M.F.A. in musical theater writing from the Tisch School of the Arts.

Musicals for which he has written the scores have been produced in London, New York, and various cities in between (going counterclockwise). In an attempt to become the gayest person ever, he joined Cheer New York, New York’s gay and lesbian cheerleading squad, but eventually he had to leave because he was too depressed. In desperation, he started knitting and teaching aerobics, though not at the same time. He hopes to come to a bad end.

Book out TODAY from one of our own — and a writing contest!

Another post on craft follows soon, of course, but I wanted to get the trumpets blowing as soon as possible: the ever-fabulous Joel Derfner, better known to those of us here at Author! Author! as the prolific commenter and blogger extraordinaire Faustus, M.D. has a hilarious memoir coming out today from Random House’s Broadway Books!

Congratulations, Dr. F! Please join me, everyone, in a great big round of applause.

If you live in or around New York, Joel will be reading TONIGHT at 7:30 pm at the Barnes & Noble at 396 Avenue of the Americas . (if you’re like me and rely upon the kindness of strangers to navigate the isle of Manhattan, tell the cabbie that you’d like to go to 6th Avenue and 8th Street.) I have it on pretty good authority that in addition to being a hilarious reader, he also bakes a mean brownie; there may be some baked goods in evidence.

SWISH (which may be purchased from today onward from Amazon, Powell’s, and other fine book emporia) is Joel’s second book, following hard upon the heels of the must-be-experienced-first-hand GAY HAIKU.

Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb for SWISH:

Joel Derfner is gayer than you.

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

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

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

I don’t generally review books here, but I am going to bend my own rules a little in this instance to recommend this book to any of you out there who aspire to write either comedy or memoir, as well as to those enamored of a good laugh. Rarely have I seen a memoirist’s personality emerge so charmingly on the printed page — or so honestly. Over and above Joel’s talent with an outrageous turn of phrase and genuine gift for humor (which is, alas, granted less often by the muse Thalia than those of us who like to read comedy might like), this is a darned fine piece of memoir writing.

So fair warning, Dr. F: I’m going to be blandishing you mercilessly for a guest post on the subject. After your book tour, of course.

In the meantime, I promised you a writing contest, didn’t I? And a contest you shall have. Quoth Joel:

The First Annual Gay-Off

In the introduction to SWISH, I explain that my quest to become the gayest person ever did not turn out to be an unqualified success—which means that the position of the Gayest Person Ever is still open. So I’m having a Gay-Off.

If you’re interested in competing, log onto my website and send me a brief explanation (up to 100 words) of why you should be crowned this year’s Gayest Person Ever. Note, please, that in order to enter you do not have to be gay or even, I suppose, a person. The Gayest Person Ever describes an existential state, irrespective of plumbing and flavor.

The last day to send in entries is Tuesday, June 10. On Friday the 13th, I’ll post the top five entries (as determined by an independent panel of judges) on my website, and from then through the end of Gay Pride (Sunday, June 29) you can vote for your favorite.

At the moment I’m planning prizes as follows: the grand prize is a signed copy of Swish, a signed copy of my first book, Gay Haiku, a Swish T-shirt, a gay haiku written for the winner, and, depending on geographic location, a tin of homemade brownies made with loving care by me. Second prize a signed copy of Swish, a Swish T-shirt, a gay haiku written for the winner, and a tin of brownies slightly inferior to the tin the Grand Prize winner gets. Third prize is a Swish T-shirt, a gay haiku written for the winner, and a tin of brownies slightly inferior to the tin the Second Prize winner gets. However, the actual prizes may be different from this, like if I eat the brownies or something.

Good luck, and may the Gayest Person win!

See, I wasn’t kidding about the brownies. Should be a lot of fun — and it’s never a bad idea to run your work under the eyes of folks who already have agents, even if it’s just 100 words.

Congratulations, Dr. F, and please keep all of us here at Author! Author! posted on your book’s success!

Reminder: a call for submissions

Ah, the post-Thanksgiving quiet time is here, and a writer’s heart turns lightly to how to beef up that credentials paragraph in the query letter…since the deadline for this is imminent, I thought I should re-run it again.

I don’t normally post calls for submissions here, but this one represents a chance to not only to see excerpts of your writing in print — hooray! — but also a query letter-enhancing publication credit. How? By sending in your novel’s best passage to serve as a positive example in a writing how-to book by an award-winning author and editor.

Your work need not be previously published to be eligible. But let me allow the call for submissions to speak for itself:

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CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
Dynamic dialogue, fresh body language, description that doesn’t stop the action, intriguing hooks that keep going . . . and going . . . These are but a few of the fiction-writing techniques that spell the difference between a manuscript’s rejection and acceptance.

Excerpts that demonstrate the effective use of these and other techniques are being sought from writers at all levels for the next edition of a much-acclaimed guidebook for writers. Up to 145 of the best examples from unpublished as well as published novels, short stories, and screenplays will be featured in DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSIONS: An Editor Tells Writers How to Save a Manuscript from Turning Up D.O.A.

This 2008 release is the expanded, all-genre edition of the original DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY, the small press book that won this year’s Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction Book, was acquired by Writer’s Digest Book Club, and became a finalist for the Macavity Award, Anthony Award, and ForeWord Magazine Reference Book of the Year.

Its author is Chris Roerden, an editor for 43 years and a former instructor of writing at the University of Maine and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Authors she’s edited have been published by St. Martin’s Press, Berkley Prime Crime, Viking, Walker & Co., Midnight Ink, Rodale, and many small presses.

Deadline for submissions: December 1, 2007. Contributors identify which examples in the first edition theirs can replace for the second. Only positive examples will be considered.

Though this means consulting the original 2006 edition, no purchase is required; Don’t Murder Your Mystery can be requested through libraries, which are acquiring the book as they learn of it. No fees or payments are involved.

Writers quoted receive full credit and retain all rights to their work, as in any review. Details and a submission form may be downloaded here or received for a 58¢ SASE sent to Don’t Sabotage Your Submissions, P.O.Box 16024, High Point, NC 27261.

A call for submissions — and a nifty talk

I am indeed working on my next post on agent-searching, but I realized today that I had fallen a bit behind on my announcement-making. So here are a couple of opportunities that I wanted to pass along to you.

Today’s first announcement is for all of you genre writers out there. I don’t normally post calls for submissions here, but this one represents a chance to not only to see excerpts of your writing in print — hooray! — but also a query letter-enhancing publication credit. How? By sending in your novel’s best passage to serve as a positive example in a writing how-to book by an award-winning author and editor.

Your work need not be previously published to be eligible. But let me allow the call for submissions to speak for itself:

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CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
Dynamic dialogue, fresh body language, description that doesn’t stop the action, intriguing hooks that keep going . . . and going . . . These are but a few of the fiction-writing techniques that spell the difference between a manuscript’s rejection and acceptance.

Excerpts that demonstrate the effective use of these and other techniques are being sought from writers at all levels for the next edition of a much-acclaimed guidebook for writers. Up to 145 of the best examples from unpublished as well as published novels, short stories, and screenplays will be featured in DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSIONS: An Editor Tells Writers How to Save a Manuscript from Turning Up D.O.A.

This 2008 release is the expanded, all-genre edition of the original DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY, the small press book that won this year’s Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction Book, was acquired by Writer’s Digest Book Club, and became a finalist for the Macavity Award, Anthony Award, and ForeWord Magazine Reference Book of the Year.

Its author is Chris Roerden, an editor for 43 years and a former instructor of writing at the University of Maine and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Authors she’s edited have been published by St. Martin’s Press, Berkley Prime Crime, Viking, Walker & Co., Midnight Ink, Rodale, and many small presses.

Deadline for submissions: December 1, 2007. Contributors identify which examples in the first edition theirs can replace for the second. Only positive examples will be considered.

Though this means consulting the original 2006 edition, no purchase is required; Don’t Murder Your Mystery can be requested through libraries, which are acquiring the book as they learn of it. No fees or payments are involved.

Writers quoted receive full credit and retain all rights to their work, as in any review. Details and a submission form may be downloaded here or received for a 58¢ SASE sent to Don’t Sabotage Your Submissions, P.O.Box 16024, High Point, NC 27261.

Anne again here. While the last announcement was for genre writers everywhere, this next is for Seattle-area writers, another in the Washington Lawyers for the Arts series designed to demystify the laws that govern our work. This series truly is a boon to local artists of every stripe: the talks are inexpensive; they’re informative, and believe me, you’ll be much, much happier if you learn how copyright law works BEFORE anybody challenges your rights.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the more a writer knows about how publishing works BEFORE signing with either an agent or a publishing house, the better off the writer will be at every step of the process.

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Attorney Gary Swearingen will discuss steps you can take on your own to help protect your intellectual property rights. Gary plans for this session to be interactive, based on the situations and questions of those attending. He’ll offer an overview of what (if anything) you need to do to secure your rights to your intellectual property.

He’ll also discuss copyright and trademark registration. For example, do you need to register? Is there an advantage to registering? How do you go about it? And with trademarks, when and how do you register—both with the state and with the federal government?

This discussion will be designed to help you distinguish what you can easily do yourself, and at what point you might want to call in the professionals. Time permitting, he’ll also discuss getting your business license, incorporating your business, and finding form contracts.

Gary Swearingen is an in-house attorney with Washington Mutual Bank. Before joining WaMu, he was an intellectual property attorney at Garvey Schubert Barer, where he represented artists and other creative types as well as companies who buy creative works. He is a past president of WLA and a frequent speaker on arts-related legal issues.

DATE: Thursday, November 15, 2007

TIME: 11:45 am – 2:00 pm (program begins at noon, lunches welcome)

LOCATION:
911 Media Arts Center
402 9th Avenue N
Seattle, Washington 98109

FEE: In advance: $35 Attorneys and Paralegals; $10 Artists and Students. At the door: $40 Attorneys and Paralegals; $15 Artists and Students

REGISTRATION:
To register, visit Brown Paper Tickets or phone 24/7 at 800.838.3006. To pay at the door, RSVP to Washington Lawyers for the Arts at 206.328.7053. Please note that the event is subject to cancellation; visit www.wa-artlaw.org or call 206.328.7053 for more information.