Countdown to a contest entry, or, yes, Virginia, I’ve got some bad news about the Easter Bunny, too

Yes, it’s that time again, campers, the period that fills aspiring writers with dread, literary conference-organizers with trepidation, and procrastinators with, well, what always fills them. I refer, of course, to the annual advent of literary contest season.

Well might you shudder, but you can’t say I didn’t warn you. Last week, I gave the Author! Author! community a heads-up: since I hadn’t run a series on prepping a successful contest entry in a while (since 2008, to be precise) and quite a few of you intrepid souls had posted questions on the subject in recent months, I am going to devote the next few weeks to discussing what differentiates a contest entry that makes it to the finals from all the others. What criteria do contest judges tend to rely upon to evaluate entries, and how may a clever writer gear that entry to cater to their expectations?

That’s right, folks: we’re going to have a countdown to a contest. Feel free to play along at home.

Why choose these particular few weeks? May 15 is the deadline for the this year’s conference — held in the hotel where Truman Capote claimed to have been born, no less — and the grand prize winners will be flown in to accept their awards.

So by using this particular competition as our lodestar — and, not entirely coincidentally, our rule exemplar — I’m maximizing the probability that I will be shaking one of your hands in November. Call me zany, but I’d get kind of a kick out of that.

There’s another, less pleasant reason that I’d like to run a post on contest-entering: even in a pursuit historically renowned for the established helping out those just beginning to wiggle their trembling tootsies onto the path to glory, writers seldom talk amongst themselves about contest entries. It’s assumed, and for good reason, that literary contests are purely devoted to art.

Why, then, would there be any reason to try to figure out a winning strategy? The best-written entries will win, obviously; it’s not like submitting to an agency or small publisher, in which market considerations will sometimes rear their ugly, snarling heads at a beautifully-written manuscript.

Oh, dear, sweet Virginia. Do I ever have some bad news for you about Santa Claus.

Not that I would ever discourage a serious writer from entering a reputable literary contest. As an author who landed her agent partially as a result of having won a literary contest of some repute I am, as my long-time readers already know, a tireless proponent for this brand of ECQLC. Indeed, contests have done a lot for me in many respects: when I first began working on my memoir, at the time called Is That You, Pumpkin? Love, Loss, and the Final Passions of Philip K. Dick, my mother initially resisted my writing it as nonfiction.

Yes, really: even in a family as steeped in literary tradition as mine, she didn’t want me writing about my childhood. She lobbied tirelessly for my telling my story in a novel. Preferably after she had joined the choir celestial.

As I had already been editing for some time, though, I knew that the book would do better — and be more honest with readers — as a memoir. So we struck a bargain: if I took first prize in a literary contest with it, she would withdraw her objection. On one condition: I could take no more than twenty-four hours to prepare my contest entry.

Talk about your stacked decks. So it was with great pleasure that a few months later, I whipped out my cell phone at the awards ceremony. “Mother,” I shouted over the applause. “I won the contest. But I have to go now — they want to take my photo.”

Ten minutes later, she called me back. “Am I to understand,” she asked quietly, “that you won for that book?”

To her credit, she’s stood by our bargain. And it hasn’t been easy: by the end of the weekend, I had 27 requests for the book proposal; seven months after I accepted the award, my newly-minted agent sold the book, and within the year, my publisher had already received the first lawsuit threat. (Not all of my extended family has been equally supportive.)

So before you dismiss my take on contests as cynical, please bear in mind that until the bit about the lawsuit, I was the mythical contest winner for whom the literary world actually did open up immediately. That was not by accident. When I took my prize, I was lucky enough to be acquainted with many past literary contest winners, so I knew both what to expect at judging time (hint: contest organizers enjoy it when those they recognize go on to get published) and after (like, say, that one is not automatically awarded an agent along with that nice blue ribbon). I had also entered writing competitions before.

I was not, in short, just popping my work in the mail and hoping for the best.

I feel strongly about passing that lore along to future contest winners — and to those that deserve to be. Having also served as a contest judge many times, I feel even more strongly that entrants and judges alike would be happier if some of the prevailing myths and mysteries were dispelled.

Like what, you ask? Well, f starters, I wish that I had realized prior to my first contest entry how heavily the potential marketability of the book tends to weigh in the judging.

Oh, I knew to check lists of past winners of broadly-defined categories in order to see if certain types of books had traditionally won. In the contest where my memoir won, for instance, the nonfiction book winner had been — and continues to be — rarely anything but a memoir, bad luck for writers of other nonfiction books. It had not occurred to me before my first entry, however, that contest judges might be using the same criteria as agencies.

Or, at any rate, what the contest’s organizers and judges believed to be the criteria used at agencies. But that’s a bit of bubble-bursting for later in this post.

But the first time I entered a contest, like virtually all premiere literary contest entrants, I had thought — possibly because the contests I was entering said as much on their promotional materials — that the only things that mattered were the beauty of the writing, how professionally the text was presented, and how compelling the story was. So when I received feedback from a judge (as some contests provide; check the entry form carefully) that said this is a great story, well told, and you can clearly write — too bad that there isn’t a market for it, I was crushed.

But I did learn something from that experience: the next time I entered a contest, I sent not my best writing, but my most marketable book concept. And I won. So I suppose I should be grateful to that curmudgeonly contest judge, in retrospect.

“But wait!” the neophyte entrant shouts. “Why should my entry be judged upon any criterion other than pure quality of writing? If not…“ and here, as you may well imagine, tears well up in the neophyte’s harp seal-like eyes, “how can we be sure that the best writing will always win?”

Oh, how can I put this delicately? How about the same way we know that the Tooth Fairy is indeed the one who filches all of those discarded teeth from under the pillows of the innocent? Or the reason that we’re convinced that the Rabbit of Springtime is responsible for chocolate eggs showing up on Easter morn? Or — brace yourselves, idealists — based upon the abundant evidence that a manuscript has only to be well-written to become the toast of the literary world in record time?

If your first instinct upon reading that last paragraph was to say, “By Jove, yes! There are some things that I am simply willing to take on faith,” then I can only suggest that you avert your eyes from what I’m about to say next. If, on the other hand, you laughed out loud, read on.

Only the cynical on board now? Good. Winning a literary contest is virtually never just about the quality of the writing in the entry. It’s about the writing AND playing the contest game well.

Of course, being lucky doesn’t hurt, either. Which means — you might want to hold onto your hat here, Virginia; this is a big one — that the best-written entry does not necessarily always take top honors. Heck, the best-written entry that meets all of the judging criteria doesn’t even necessarily win.

Why not? The intensity of the competition, partially: often, in a well-established competition, dozens of entries could technically walk off with the prize. But without a shadow of a doubt, even a brilliantly-written entry that does not meet those criteria, or that violates contest rules, will virtually never make it to the finalist stage.

Feeling faint, Virginia? Excellent. That means you understand.

For those of you whose blood has not yet drained to your knees, allow me to elaborate: in practice, a good two-thirds of the entries to the average contest never stand a chance of winning. Not because those entries were poorly written, but because contest entrants have, as a group, a less-than-admirable tendency not to read rules and guidelines very closely. Over and above technical violations, most entries are also docked points for such unromantic trespasses as incorrect formatting, misspellings, lack of a hook in the first line, and any of hundreds of other minuscule infractions.

And that’s before the aesthetic judgments are even under consideration. Anyone care to guess why contest judges generally tackle the nit-picky stuff first?

I can already my long-term readers chanting the answer: for precisely the same reason that agencies are so eager to use technical criteria to reject submissions — time. Since the overwhelming majority of contest entries are rife with technical errors, casting the technically flawed manuscripts out of finalist consideration is the single quickest way to thin the stacks of entries.

Sorry about that, Virginia. And when you’ve got a second, there’s something you ought to know about the Tooth Fairy.

Unfortunately, unless you have had the foresight to have volunteered to serve as a contest judge in the years before you enter your first contest — not a bad idea, incidentally; contests are always seeking new judges, and it’s one of the least expensive crash courses in why most manuscripts get rejected you’ll ever find — it’s rather challenging for the average entrant to learn what precisely the relevant criteria are. I’d like to make it easier.

Why? Well, if you are going to invest the not inconsiderable time, effort, hope, and entry fee in trying to generate some ECQLC, call me zany, but I’d like to see you stand a good chance of winning. Short of previous publications, winning, placing, or being named a finalist in a well-respected contest is some of the best ECQLC you can have. Millicents pay attention to that kind of credential; it makes your query letters jump out of the daily pile.

Why? Well, most queriers list no writing credentials at all, either through lack of awareness that it would help make their query more effective or, more commonly, because they have no credentials to list. The cumulative result of this pervasive phenomenon: a query that lists publication credits and/or contest wins automatically looks substantially more professional than most.

Yes, even if those credits or wins are in wildly different genres than the book being queried. Agents enjoy being the second person to recognize a writer’s talent, after all.

“But Anne,” the practical-minded among you ask, and good for you, “how does an aspiring writer know which contests will make for the best ECQLC for the buck? Because I don’t know whether you’ve been keeping track of this sort of thing lately, but writing contests are often rather costly to enter. Not merely in terms of writing a check for the entry fee, but also in terms of the time, effort, chagrin, and postage to get an entry to the right place at the right time — like, say, by fourteen days hence.”

That’s a fine question, bean-counters, and one that richly deserves an answer: as anyone who has ever Googled “writing contest” is no doubt already aware, there are a heck of a lot of literary competitions out there. Most, unfortunately, do not offer cash prizes, but many do offer publication. (In fact, contests are a not uncommon way for literary magazines just starting up to rake in a whole lot of good writing for free.) While all seem to be offering the possibility of some nice, shiny ECQLC, not all of them will strike Millicent as equally impressive.

Virtually all, however, charge an entry fee, sometimes a hefty one. And let’s face it, querying and submitting can already be pretty expensive, on a variety of levels: you’re going to want to apply your resources with discretion.

But that’s true with every type of professional promotion, is it not? There is now an entire industry devoted to offering help to aspiring writers, and like seminars and conferences and how-to books, what the contests offer writers who enter varies widely. So just as you should learn all you can about a writers’ conference before you slap down the registration fee, before you pay to enter a contest, it would behoove you to do a little bit of homework.

That’s right, Virginia: you do indeed feel a checklist coming on. Whip out those contest descriptions, and let’s start thinking critically about them.

1. Is there strong evidence that this writing competition is credible?

That may seem like an odd question, especially if you are in the habit of entering only well-established contests, but every year, brand-new writing competitions come flying out of the woodwork. It can be genuinely difficult for even a very conscientious writer to sift out the fly-by-night from the legitimate literary opportunities.

The first step to being a savvy entrant is to be aware of the possibility of a scam. Just because an organization slaps up a website and calls for entries does not necessarily mean that the contest in question is reputable — or that it will adhere to the timeline set out in the rules for awarding prizes. (Oh, how I wish I could tell you that slow processing is uncommon.) Sometimes, contest organizers honestly have no idea how much work processing all of those entries will be; sometimes, they do, but aren’t really in it to reward good writing.

Unfortunately, the first place I would normally send you to find the answer to such a question, Preditors and Editors, is not going to be much help. Oh, it will tell you if a contest is a notorious rip-off, but as a matter of policy, P&E will not recommend any contest that charges any entry fee at all. Which essentially eliminates contests that deal with book-length works — or that award significant prizes.

How so? Well, unless a contest is being run as a charity — which even most scrupulously non-profit writers’ organizations cannot afford to do — or the administrative details are being handled by Santa while the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Great Pumpkin frantically read entries, I’m not quite sure how even the most well-meaning contest organizers could pull this off.

A blanket disapproval of entry fees means, in practice, that the reputable contest that charges $25 to cover irreducible administrative costs (contests don’t run themselves, you know) ends up lumped in the same category as the aspiring group of friends who realized that they could rake in a whole lot of money if they threw up a website, announced a literary contest for book-length works (as I say, there aren’t many of them) at $100 a pop, and sat back to rake in the dough.

Ultimately, that the potential entrant will need to dig a little deeper to determine credibility. Like, say, digging up a few facts.

2. If a contest offers publication as a prize, have past winners indeed had their entries published? Does the organization maintain a list of past winners, so future entrants may check whether that contest’s winners typically go on to be published? Heck, were last year’s winners announced on time?

Oh, pick your jaw up from the floor, Virginia: you would be surprised how often the answer turns out to be no.

To complicate matters further, it is no secret that there are many contests out there that solicit widely for entrants primarily as a fundraising, rather than what 99.9% of the aspiring writers that send in pages believe them to be, a sincere attempt to discover heretofore unsung talent. In fact, the last few years have seen quite a bit of controversy in the writing community over how various literary contests are judged. Specifically…

3. Does this contest provide blind judging?

Blind judging, the situation in which the judges do not know whose entry is whose, tends to be better for first-time entrants. Check the rules carefully: not all contests feature blind judging. And not all contests that claim to have blind judging actually do.

I know, Virginia, I know. Just hold that cold compress to your head, and the dizziness should subside soon.

Why should a prudent entrant worry about how a contest is judged? Selective judging may render it harder for a newcomer to break into the finalists’ circle. It is not unheard-of, for instance, for organizations to solicit entries from outside their memberships, but have an established track record of awarding prizes to only — or primarily to — their own members.

Check the fine type of the contest rules. In a credible contest, entrants are asked to leave their names off the submission’s pages (i.e., no last name in the slug line, no name on the title page), so that there is no possibility of a contest judge’s looking an entry and saying, “Hey, I know him. I owe him a favor — I’m just going to slide it into the finalists’ pile unread.” It will also usually call for a cover page or entry form, so the competition’s organizers can later match the winning entry with the entrant.

“Okay, Anne,” those of you working through this checklist sigh, mopping your weary brows, “this is a lot of work — and, incidentally, substantially adds to the time I’m having to devote to entering a contest — but it’s worth it if I can be sure the competition is legit. May I go ahead and send in my entry now?”

Not so fast, Virginia. For your own protection, you might want to engage in a little more research.

4. Do the past winners’ lists reveal any patterns? If so, do they represent trends likely to assist my entry’s chances of winning?

Often, contest literature is perfectly up front about certain preferences: if a competition is only open to writers from a certain state, for instance, the rules will generally state that directly. Obviously, it would be a waste of time, money, and energy to enter a contest if you — or the writing you are planning to enter — do not meet their criteria.

That being said — and as I intimated above — not all such criteria will necessarily be listed; some contests do seem to have unspoken rules. That nonfiction competition I won, for instance: reading only the rules, rather than the list of past winners, would not have revealed a preference for memoir. It may not have been a conscious preference, even: judges are human beings, with individual literary tastes, after all.

Oh, please, Virginia. You mean that it hadn’t occurred to you that contest judges applied their personal taste to the evaluation process, in addition to objective criteria? Did you honestly expect that if your short story about your torrid fling with an airline pilot happened to be randomly assigned to a judge who had just been dumped by a navigator, he might not be completely open to enjoying it?

Naturally, a contest entrant cannot foresee a contingency like that, any more than a submitter could possibly predict whether her manuscript will happen to be in front of Millicent when she takes a sip of a too-hot latté, burns her lip, and consequently is in no mood for a lighthearted comedy. Chant it with me now, contest aspirants: luck does in fact play a role.

You can, however, do a bit of checking to rule out competitions that might not favor your work. Let’s posit, for example, that a particular contest has historically favored Gothic romance. You, on the other hand, write futuristic fantasy, and there is only one category for novels. Think you’d be probably better off going for a different contest, one that favors your type of work?

If your answer was an unqualified, “By God, yes!” help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. The more specialized your genre, the more it behooves you to check in advance whether a conference’s complement of judges tend to treat it with respect.

Nor is that all you can do. A quick scan of the hometowns of the finalists and semifinalists of years past, for instance, can be quite informative: if they cluster too much, geographically speaking, wonder if the locals have an edge. By the same token, if that competition that says it is open to writing in any fiction category, yet it has never displayed fiction in your chosen genre on the finalist lists, you might want to think twice about entering.

It’s also not all that unusual for contests ostensibly intended to recognize the unpublished to allow published writers to submit their work-in-progress for judging alongside the work of the less experienced. Again, check the rules: often, they will specify that the writing being submitted will not have been previously published, not that the entrant has not.

Sometimes, though, the rules are a bit vague on this point; it often does not seem to occur to the lovely people kind enough to run a contest that an established author might want to crash the party. A good tip for figuring out how crashable it is:

5. Check last year’s winners’ list for the already published and moderately well-known, as well as the year before. Does this appear to be a contest that consistently rewards writers at your level of professional development?

I know, I know: this might seem like a silly thing to do, but if ten minutes of checking can save you a week’s worth of contest prep and a hefty entry fee, it will more than pay for itself. If the contest’s website is filled with rhapsodies by recent winners about how their dreams came true, chances are that this is a contest that does indeed gear its judging to non-professionals. If, on the other hand, John McPhee has won their short story category any time since 1955, they’re probably not too careful about keeping out those with hefty publishing credentials.

Oh, you may laugh, but it does occasionally happen. During the recent publishing slump, it has not been unheard-of for established authors to enter contests ostensibly for the as-yet-to-be-discovered. A few years back, a local writers’ organization awarded a minor prize to a thriller author whose name had several times graced major bestseller lists. (And whose name you might well recognize, by the way, so pardon my being cagey.) I guess he just wanted a bit of author bio decoration, even if it came at the expense of some struggling writer’s ECQLC.

That’s the kind of thing one might hear on the writers’ grapevine, right?

6. Don’t rely entirely upon what the contest’s organizers say about it. Google past winners, to see what they have to say about the contest; do a quick online search for articles on the organization itself.

Did that last part make you giggle, Virginia? It’s actually not a bad way to check for a scandal. The publishing industry boasts quite a few publications focused upon the life literary, and they often employ reporters quite good at their jobs. About ten years ago, for instance, a major writers’ magazine happened to notice that the students of the writers who were judging contests seemed to be winning major awards on a fairly regular basis.

Ready for another shock, Virginia? After the scandal broke, absolutely nothing bad happened to the judges who were favoring their students in competition. Heck, some of them are still regularly judging contests. Obviously, this kind of pseudo-blind judging is grossly unfair to the other entrants, but the moral of this story is not that not all contests are squeaky-clean.

The subsidiary moral: let the entrant beware.

Don’t look at me like that, Virginia. The last time I checked, I did not run the universe, nor do I manage any of the many and varied contests out there for writers in the English language.

If I did run either, contest entries would be free; every contest would provide each non-placing entrant with supportive and useful feedback; finalists would be given a tutorial on how to approach agents and editors before and after the winners were announced, and every time a writer finished writing a good paragraph, a sugar-free, fat-free, calorie-free chocolate cupcake with a cherry on top would appear on her desk, as a reward for virtue.

If you haven’t noticed any of these things happening lately, it’s fair to say that I still am not in charge of very much of the writing world. I shall never forget shocked silence that ensued at a normally quite respectable conference’s awards ceremony when the teenage daughter of two of the contest judges carried off the Young Writer award — and, as I recall, a not insignificant check, derived, no doubt, from the entry fees of hundreds of trusting high school students whose parents were not regularly having drinks with the judges.

Had Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Bob the Builder all been hauled out of the room by DEA agents for peddling narcotics to kids, the attending writers’ expressions could hardly have expressed more disgust.

Now, to be fair, in that particular year, the winner’s parents had actually been judging in other categories, not their offspring’s, but since they had been her first readers and were rather chatty people, it would have required a faith in human nature so childlike that it would border on the infantile to believe that the judges in her category would not have had SOME inkling which entry was hers.

I’m not saying that the contest was rigged, per se; I’m just saying that the teenaged winner’s mother won in the nonfiction category. Neither she nor her husband judged that either. A good tip for avoiding this type of situation:

7. Enter contests sponsored by organizations, not cliques. Ask other writers about particular contests before you spend time and money on entering them; if you can’t find information about a contest, post a question on a reputable writers’ forum.

Again, the writers’ grapevine can really help you, if you’re willing to invest the time. Yes, you might end up with fifteen complaints from past entrants annoyed because they did not wind, but you also might hear from people with good things to say about the contest.

If you’re so shy that the very idea of posting a question makes your chest seize up, do not despair. You can also glean this information from an impersonal source.

8. Check to see whether someone else has already done this homework for you.

Yes, this could be read as a continuation of the last one, but not all sources of information are informal. Poets & Writers magazine lists literary contest deadlines in each issue, does a pretty good job of screening, so if a contest seems a bit shady to you, check if it is listed there.

All of that, believe it or not, is just to weed out the contests that will be a complete waste of your time and money to enter. But that’s not the only issue here, is it? You’re also going to want to ask yourself another question before mailing off your submission:

9. Don’t let a large prize sway your judgment. Consider carefully whether a particular contest will help advance your book’s publication process — and whether it is likely to reward an entry like yours.

Yes, any contest win or place will look nice on your writing résumé, but obviously, some contests are more prestigious than others. As a spot of research in a well-stocked bookstore will tell you, the same prizes tend to be named repeatedly in the dust jacket author bios of first- and second-time authors. If that’s the case with your chosen book category — especially likely to be the case if you write mystery, romance, or literary fiction — it’s a better use of your entry time and resources to enter those contests than others. You already know that being a finalist in one of those contests will impress a Millicent in that category, right?

That being said, though, the big contests often garner thousands of entries. Less prestigious ones can actually be a better bet for a first-time entrant — presuming, of course, that they are legitimate.

“Has not ruling the universe finally unhinged you?” Virginia exclaims. “Isn’t bigger always better?”

Not necessarily. You might be better off with a less well-known contest your first few times out, for an exceedingly simple reason: your odds of making the finals are significantly higher in a small entry pool than a large one. Big-ticket contests attract stiff competition; contests with large cash prizes attract a higher percentage of professionals amongst the entrants.

10. Take a realistic look at what you are planning to enter and ask yourself: does this writing bear some resemblance to past winners’ entries?

This is a slightly different question than the one about genre preference: in many, if not most, literary contests, the winning entries tend to be stylistically similar. This is true for another exceedingly simple reason (they are abounding today, are they not?) — contest judges tend to be loyal folk, returning to the task with a tenacity a spawning salmon would envy.

Why is that significant at entry time? In most writers’ organizations that offer contests, the first round of reading is performed by volunteers. Typically, the same volunteers, year after year after year.

And, miraculously, these sterling souls’ literary tastes don’t change all that much in the intervening twelve months between judging cycles. Go figure.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many, many contests tend to favor more literary writing — which is not, if you will recall, necessarily synonymous with good writing. Every book category has its own standards for excellence, after all. Literary fiction is a category designation, not a value judgment: it is experimental or character-driven storytelling aimed at a college-educated audience, filled with closely-observed details and lovely phrasing.

It also does not conform to the standards of a particular genre — or, if it does, it does so in a manner atypical of that genre. So when an aspiring writer says, “Oh, I write literary fiction,” and then proceeds to give the plot of a thriller, Millicent is likely to conclude that the writer simply does not understand the distinction very well.

It’s an understandable confusion, though: it is fairly common for agents and editors to use the term literary to describe the writing of a book in another category: “It’s a personal memoir with literary sensibilities,” for instance, would mean something specific to the agent of your dreams: the manuscript in question is nonfiction, autobiographical, has a large vocabulary, and the writing style is sufficiently complex and polished that someone not necessarily devoted to memoir might read it for the writing alone.

Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: unless a contest is specifically known for recognizing plain-spoken writing or genre fiction, its judges will probably lean toward the more literary-voiced entries. How can you tell? Once again, by checking the lists of past winners: if the top mainstream fiction category prizes in a prestigious competition are carried off year after year by literary fiction writers, you might want to think twice about entering fiction that is, say, particularly mainstream.

If, however, you happened to write on the literary side of romance, or are an unusually descriptive SF/fantasy writer, you might stand a good chance. Getting the hang of it?

Are you shifting uncomfortably in your chair again, Virginia? Spit out your concern, please. “I can see why checking this might be a good idea,” she says carefully, “but I have no idea how to go about it. How can a potential entrant possibly tell what the judges’ preferences are, short of taking them all out to lunch individually and asking them?”

Good question, Ginny. Most contests will list past winners on their websites, tucked away in a corner somewhere; many writers, aspiring and established alike, maintain websites, too. I would advise Googling the past few years’ worth of winners and placers in the category you find most appealing, to see if they have posted any writing samples.

If the sponsoring organization publishes winning entries – and many sponsor small magazines — read a few. If your writing style is radically different from what has won in the past, the contest is probably not for you.

11. If the judges for the finalist round are listed, and they are writers, take a gander at what they write. Is the writing in your entry stylistically similar?

Yes, individual tastes do vary, and every contest has its own stated and unstated judging criteria, but the writing style with which the finalist judge is most conversant tends to be a fairly reliable indicator of what kind of writing he is likely to reward. In any contest with celebrity judges — i.e., famous writers who make the final selections from amongst the finalist pool — this goes double, or even triple. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, give that fact some serious consideration before bothering to enter.

I can feel you wincing, Virginia. Crunching a few dry crackers should help with the nausea.

Even if you’re lucky enough to find a celebrity judge who is well-read outside of her own subgenre — and, even better, willing to recognize work unlike his own — remember the bigwigs virtually never read all of the entries. Commonly, they read only the finalists’ submissions. In practice, that means that those crusty volunteers I mentioned above screen the entries first – and all too frequently, edge out good entries that do not resemble the celebrity’s, on the well-intentioned theory that everyone’s writing tends to reflect his own reading tastes.

The first-round judges’ intentions are good here, honest. They’re just trying to save the celebrity some time.

I hear you groaning, Virginia, but the two-tier system is followed in practically every literary contest, celebrity-judged or not. Almost invariably, the first rounds are evaluated by a different group of people than those who ultimately pick the winners. Sometimes, the judging criteria are not coordinated across rounds as well as one might hope.

Which is why, in case those of you who have heard contest judges grumbling in the bar after awards ceremonies had been wondering, the entries that really wow ‘em in the early rounds often do not win or place. Usually, it is only within the power of a first-round judge to recommend that an entry make it to the finalist round. What happens thereafter is generally under someone else’s control.

Why set it up this way? Well, final-round judges are often established authors — or chosen from amongst those agents and editors who are committed to attending the conference attached to the literary contest. They agree to read a certain number of entries.

There’s another reason, though, one that’s significantly to the advantage of a first-time entrant: a two-tiered (or even three-tiered) system also makes it significantly harder to rig an outcome. And if it’s not clear why that might be desirable from an entrant’s point of view, you might want to re-read that anecdote about the judges and their daughter.

12. If the final round judges are agents or editors, check out what they handle. As part of the benefit of entering such a contest will be that these people might be reading your writing, are these people who might realistically work with you in future?

This may seem like unnecessarily long-term thinking, but it can help a savvy writer choose between two equally appealing contests, if deadlines are looming. Since you’re going to want to attend a conference if you are a finalist in the contest it sponsors (who is going to be more impressed by your achievement than someone already familiar with that conference and its tastes?), you might also want to check out the conference’s planned speakers.

Why? Glad you asked.

13. If the contest is attached to a conference where the awards are given (and, as I mentioned above, many are), try to find out in advance whether the agents who typically attend that conference ones who might be interested in your work.

I can tell you from personal experience: while having a contest win, place, or show under your belt is great ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy), being a finalist at most conferences confers a good deal more than just a nice ribbon attached to your name badge. It marks you out as someone with whom, for instance, an agent might want to pause and have a hallway conversation, or ask, “So, what do you write?” during otherwise pitch-free social time in the bar.

And that, as they say, is nothing at which you should be sneezing. It’s a fabulous little conversation starter — and that could be a very good thing, if your dream agent happens to be in attendance, couldn’t it?

In case I’m being too subtle here: you might want to target contests attached to conferences that your dream agent habitually attends.

How can you find this valuable information? Believe it or not, the standard agency guides often list this information. (If you are unfamiliar with how agency guides work, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the archive list at right.) The Internet is your friend here, too: pretty much every conference will list which agents they cajoled to it last year and/or those who will be blandished into being there this year.

Why, yes, all of this will add a few hours to your contest-entering process, but at the risk of repeating myself — I can do that, right, now that the structural repetition series is behind us? — there’s more to using contests to your benefit than sending in a well-written entry. There’s strategy. Trust me on this one: unless you are planning to enter a contest purely for practice in following rules (not the world’s worst idea the first time around, actually), it’s a waste of your time, effort, and resources to enter a contest in which you do not have a realistic chance of garnering ECQLC.

Yes, Virginia, even if you happen to be the most gifted prose stylist in the world. There’s a contest out there that will recognize your talent — but not every contest necessarily will.

Next time, I shall turn this question on its head, talk about what you can get out of entering a writing contest. Keep your eyes on the prize, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

Whew. Try saying that last sentence three times fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fie, fie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you mean, I have to describe my 400-page novel in under two minutes? Or: how to stop worrying and learn to love to pitch

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Happy Bastille Day, everyone! Yes, it’s that time of year again: time for me to run through the tricks, tactics, and strategies for constructing and delivering a verbal pitch for a manuscript!

Try to contain your excitement — or at any rate, don’t start cheering until I tell you that this year’s series will cover a broad array of hypotheticals for your preparation and worrying pleasure: formal pitches (the kind writers make appointments at conferences to give), impromptu pitches (the kind writers give when they happen to find themselves seated next to an agent at a conference luncheon, answers to the dreaded question, “So, what do you write?”, what to do after a pitch is successful, the works. I’m even going to be talking about how to transform a great verbal pitch into a fabulous query letter, and vice-versa.

So we’re going to be at it a while. For those of you who are heading out to conferences right away — there’s one in my neck of the woods in a couple of weeks, for instance — and need to pull together a pitch, pronto, I’ve lassoed a set of posts that will walk you through the absolute basics in record time and made them instantly available to the rushed under the evocative title HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE. You’ll find it on the category list on the lower right-hand corner of this page.

Don’t say I never did anything for procrastinators. For those of you who have a little more time to kill, let’s take the scenic route.

But soft! Do I hear some grumbling out there? “But Anne,” a few scattered grumblers point out, “I’m a WRITER; I want my manuscript to be judged on its WRITING. Since anyone who has ever sat through a public reading could tell you that there’s no necessary correlation between being able to produce a readable manuscript and being able to talk about it effectively in front of others, why on earth would I want to put myself through such a stressful experience?”

I must admit, oh grumblers, that you make a pretty good point. If you’re like most aspiring writers, the very idea of sitting down across a table from a real, live agent or editor and making a verbal argument in favor of your manuscript’s marketability probably ranks right up there with getting a root canal or leaping in front of a speeding car in order to rescue a wandering toddler: necessary, but not something a sane person free of masochistic tendencies would want to do just for fun.

I can, however, give you two very, very good reasons that every sane aspiring writer should give very serious thought to either signing up for a pitch session or sitting down and coming up with a pitch as if she were. First, a successful pitch allows you to skip the querying stage entirely — in fact, it could be said that a pitch is an in-person query letter, given in an environment that lets the agent or editor hearing it know without your having to say so that you’re a professional enough writer to come to a conference and learn something about your craft. It can give you an edge.

Second, learning to pitch well will help you write better query letters. You’re going to have to read the rest of this series to find out how and why, but you may take my word for now that it’s true.

Third (yes, I know that I said there were only two, but I’m tossing one in for free), if you’re going to make a living as a writer, you will undoubtedly end up having to pitch your work verbally at some point, anyway, if only to your agent before you start a new book project. It’s a professional skill that every career writer is expected to have mastered, so grumbling about it isn’t going to get you out of it. Sorry.

So perhaps the title’s suggestion that you would learn to love doing it was a bit of an exaggeration. Survive it with your dignity intact may be closer to the truth — but hey, in a situation where plenty of writers feel as though they’re wearing a bright red clown nose and speaking in tongues, for all the impact their pitch seems to be having on its intended recipient, doing a basic good job and walking out feeling good about yourself and your book is nothing at which a first-time pitcher should be sneezing.

Bless you.

To that laudable if not especially spectacular end, today we launch into the nitty-gritty of that most dreaded of writerly self-promotional exercises, the verbal pitch, a light-hearted exercise wherein an aspiring writer sits face-to-face with someone who has the power to get his book published — typically, an agent or an editor who keeps glancing at her watch — and tries to convince that intimidating soul to take a gander at some actual pages before making up her mind whether she thinks the book is marketable or not.

What about that might make a normally courageous person blanch and want to run, screaming, toward the nearest large, dark cave, eh?

As is true of writers’ conferences in general, quite a bit of the stress inherent to pitching lies in unrealistic expectations of what might happen — on both the bad and good extremes. Writers tend to waltz into conferences with high expectations and nervous stomach, mentally toting a fairly hefty wish list: to meet the agent of his dreams, who will fall flat on the floor with astonishment at his pitch and sign him on the spot; for an editor at a major publishing house to be so wowed that she snaps up the book practically before the writer finishes speaking, and to be whisked off to New York immediately for literary cocktail parties and glowing adulation. Could the New York Times’ bestseller list and Oprah’s book club be far behind?

It’s a lovely dream, certainly, but this is not what actually happens. Yes, even if you give your pitch perfectly. So strolling into a pitching situation believing that instant contracts are even possible, let alone the norm and the only reasonable standard of conference success, is bound to end in tears.

Call me zany, but I don’t like to see a reader of mine sobbing in a hallway, convinced that he’s blown his one big chance just because an agent actually wants to read a manuscript before flinging her arms around a writer and shoving a contract into his hand. So let’s begin this series with a few cold, hard facts, to set the record straight:

*No credible US agent will sign a writer before having read the book in question, or a proposal for nonfiction. (In other parts of the world, this is not always the case.)

*All of the major U.S. publishing houses have strict policies against acquiring books from unrepresented writers (although a couple do run competitions for that purpose), so even if that editor from Simon & Schuster just adored your pitch, there would be significant structural impediments to his signing you to a three-book contract on the spot.

*Even agented works often circulate for months or more before they are picked up by publishers, so speed of sale alone is not generally considered the best measure of literary success.

*There is generally at least a year-long lapse between the signing of a book contract and when that book appears in bookstores.

Translation: even for writers who actually ARE pitching the next DA VINCI CODE, the process takes a heck of a lot longer than the average conference-goer expects. Even authors of brilliant, super-marketable books do not typically experience the conference fantasy treatment.

At most, a great book well pitched will garner an array of, “Gee, that sounds terrific. Send me the first 50 pages,” requests. Yet even with a flurry of initial enthusiasm, months often pass between initial pitch and requests to represent.

It’s important to realize all of that going in. Otherwise, pitching at a conference will almost inevitably feel like a tremendous letdown.

Or, still worse, like a sight-unseen review of your writing talent. Which, as the grumblers above pointed out, is a trifle bizarre, when you think about it: how precisely could any agent or editor, no matter how gifted, determine whether someone can write without actually reading anything she’s written? Telepathy?

Worst of all, a belief that the truly talented ARE signed and sold within a matter of nanoseconds leads every year to that oh-so-common writerly misstep, rushing home to send out requested materials within a day or so of receiving the request — and realizing only after the fact that since the mad rush to get the manuscript out the door before that agent or editor changed her mind about wanting to see it meant sending it out without reading the submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I can sense my long-time readers of this blog shuddering at the ghastly fate that tends to greet such hastily sent-off submissions. (And for those of you seeking guidance in how to put together a submission packet, please see the aptly-named HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right before you seal that envelope.)

For those of you who are not yet cringing, let me ask you: how would you feel if you realized only after you’d popped a requested manuscript in the mail that there were four typos on page 1? Or that the margins were the wrong width? Or that you’d forgotten to change your memoir protagonist’s name back to your own after you’d changed it for a blind contest entry?

Oh, good — now everyone’s shuddering. Remember that creepy feeling running up your spine, and don’t even consider sending off requested materials without a thorough review. A request for pages is not going to vanish as soon as the agent forgets your name. You have time to proof the darned thing.

But that didn’t convince all of you, did it? “Yeah, right, Anne,” the complacent say. “I understand that you need to say this so the run-of-the-mill illiterate bothers to spell-check his manuscript before submitting, but I’m a smart person. My manuscript was in good shape before I signed up for the conference. So I can safely ignore what you’ve just said, right?”

Not so fast, smarty-pants: intelligence is no barrier to typos. Don’t believe me? Okay, let me share an anecdote that reality was kind enough to provide just the other day.

I graduated from what is widely considered one of the best universities in the world — fellow alumni would say that it is THE best, but what would you expect them to say? — so the ranks of its alumni are well populated with readers who, like me, don’t consider adherence to the rules of grammar and time-honored ways of spelling things optional. These are folks who know how to use a semicolon and aren’t afraid to use it. So when one of the undergraduate clubs sent out an e-mail the other day, asking alumni to sign up for an online newsletter, I was shocked — shocked! — to see that it was crammed to the gills with what I charitably assumed were typos. Nouns were capitalized that had no business being capitalized; the next-to-last sentence just stopped in the middle.

As I am rather fond of the club in question, I took the time to respond to the e-mail, not so much to point out the vast array of errors unbecoming a Harvard man as to alert undergraduates probably not much accustomed to trying to raise money from crusty old alumni like me to the very, very high probability that educated people would take umbrage at said errors. I said it gently, in the hope that they might actually pay attention, rather than brushing me off, suggesting that perhaps they might want to proofread their next missive before hitting the SEND button.

The undergraduate who took the time to respond (surprisingly politely) did in fact promise to mend the group’s spelling. However (he pointed out in his own defense), four members and two administrative offices had signed off on the wording before it was sent, so they had every reason to believe that it would pass muster.

I knew instantly what had happened — as would, incidentally, any professional reader who has been handling manuscripts within the last ten years. Any guesses? (Hint: the undergraduate was almost certainly telling the truth.)

Give yourself a gold star if you said that each of the proofreaders read the letter on a computer, rather than IN HARD COPY; it’s substantially harder to catch errors that way, since backlighting tempts the human eye to skim. (Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, e-mail recipients so often send back non-responsive answers; it’s just harder to absorb nuances on a screen.) And give yourself seven gold stars if you added that the sentence that ended in the middle was probably the result of someone’s having started to edit the sentence, but getting distracted in the middle of doing it.

Think you’re smarter than the people who collaborated on that message? Even if you are, it’s not enough to make revisions; a sensible submitter proofs requested pages IN HARD COPY, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, and preferably OUT LOUD before mailing them, to catch precisely this type of mistake. Or hitting the SEND key.

But I seem to have digressed, haven’t I? Allow me to veer back to my original point: realistic expectations about what conference success does and does not mean, as well as how it would serve you best to respond to the various contingencies, can save you a lot of grief.

So what would be a realistic set of goals for a conference? An excellent choice would be to embrace the suggestion I made above: use the conference to skip the very annoying and time-consuming querying stage and jump directly to a request to read your manuscript.

What would working toward this goal look like in practice, you ask? Pitching your work to at least one agent who has a successful track record representing books like yours, with an eye to convincing at least one agent ask you to mail a submission would be even better.

As would having an editor who is empowered to pick up new writers ask to see part or all of the book, or pitching to every publishing professional at the conference who deals in your kind of work. And let’s not forget the less marketing-oriented goals, such as learning a great deal from good seminars. (Although, let’s face it, not all conference seminars are equally good; it’s not all that uncommon for speakers to be far, far more interested in pushing their own latest books than providing concrete assistance to those looking to get their own published.)

Or — and too many conference-goers forget to add this to their to-do lists — making connections with other writers, established AND aspiring, who write what you do. Amazing mutual support groups don’t just happen, you know; they are often built over years.

If you can pull any or all of that off, you will have achieved conference success, by my standards. Not as sexy as the fantasy version, I know, but eminently do-able — and definitely worthwhile for your writing career. After all, skipping the querying stage can cut years from your agent search; think of every pitching opportunity as one less raft of a dozen query letters you are going to have to send out.

Feeling a bit better about pitching now? Excellent.

However, truth compels me to mention that your chances of pitching successfully will be SUBSTANTIALLY higher if you do a bit of prep work before you go. But never fear: over the course of this series, I shall be guiding you though the steps you need to take in order to walk in confident and prepared.

Fringe benefit: these steps are very useful to marketing any book, anywhere, anytime. If you invest the time in developing these skills and materials (oh, yes: I’m going to be giving you writing assignments), you will not only be able to pitch your work verbally; you will be able to talk about it like a pro AND transplant your pitch to your query letters.

Don’t tense up. You can do this. But it is going to take some work.

I could sign off for the day at this point, but since I was too busy to post yesterday, let’s get started right away: the first step to a successful pitch is to understand your book’s market appeal.

Hey, I told you it wasn’t going to be easy, but don’t tense up. Who is your target reader, and why will your book, out of the tens of thousands a good agent will see this year, satisfy that reader like nothing else currently on the market? In order to either pitch or query your work successfully, you’re going to want to come up with at least provisional answers to these questions.

The second step to a successful pitch, as for a successful query, is to be familiar with the work of the person to whom you will be pitching. Find out what that agent has sold lately; find out what that editor has bought. Find out, in short, who at the conference would be receptive to you and your book, so that you may know which to approach and pitch.

This will involve some research on your part — which is why I am mentioning this at the BEGINNING of this series, and not toward its end. If you’ve got a conference coming up, or are thinking about signing up for one, you’re going to want to get started as soon as possible figuring out which of the attending agents would be worth your time to track down for a hallway pitch, if you can’t obtain a pitching appointment.

In response to that indignant gasp: not being able to land a formal appointment with any given agent attending a conference is not all that uncommon an eventuality. Conference organizers usually do their best, but attendees don’t always get assigned to the agent who’s the best fit for the manuscripts they are pitching. (Again, sorry to be the one to break that to you.)

Passive writers allow that to prevent them from pitching to the right agent — but my readers are more proactive than that, aren’t they?

See why I’m planning to give you tips not only on pitching within a formal meeting, but whenever you happen to be able to buttonhole the agent of your dreams?

“But Anne,” I hear those of you clutching registration forms protest, “I understand doing the prep work if I have a plethora of conferences from which to select, but I’m already registered for my local one. Since I’ve already been assigned a pitch appointment and I already know that I’m too shy to walk up to the dais after the agents’ forum, why should I bother checking up on all of the agents who might be attending?”

Well, for a couple of reasons. First, any book could be pitched in a number of different ways — and since the goal of pitching is not absolute uniformity between every pitch attempt, but rather to garner a request for pages, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to tailor your pitch to the agent who happens to be listening to it at any given moment, doesn’t it?

And no, I have absolutely no idea why conference literature so often tells potential attendees the exact opposite. I’ll be dealing with the one-size-fits-all pitch concept next week.

For now, suffice it to say that all three pictures above are from the same negative. You probably have a favorite among them; so do I. So would an agent. But they’re all the same angle on the same rose. The only difference is presentation.

Seem cryptic? Trust me, within a couple of weeks, it will seem downright obvious.

The other reason to do some background research on the agents to whom you may be pitching is, as I mentioned, that it’s far from uncommon for writers to be assigned to pitch to agents who do not represent their kinds of books at all. Which means, practically inevitably, that the pitch cannot end in a request for pages.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sit down and breathe deeply until that feeling of dizziness passes.

As anyone who has ever endured the agony of a mismatched pitch appointment can tell you, if your book falls outside the agent or editor’s area of preference, it doesn’t matter how good your pitch is: they will stop you as soon as they figure out that your book is categorically not for them. No amount of argument is going to help you at that point, so advance research is a very, very good idea, if only so you can try frantically to switch appointments with another writer.

I know, I know: it’s kind of cruel, isn’t it? But in fairness, conference organizers very frequently do not have enough information about prospective attendees to make a good match; most of the time, they simply rely upon the writers’ expressed preferences or — sacre bleu! — assign appointments randomly.

This means, unfortunately, that it is up to the conference attendee to check up on the agents and editors, over and above their blurbs in the conference program. Even those bear double-checking: as my long-time readers already know, the blurb agents and editors write about themselves is not always the most reliable indicator of the type of work they represent. It’s not that they’re trying to be misleading, of course; most just reuse their standard bio blurbs, which tend not to be updated all that often.

So it’s worth your while to check the agents’ websites, standard agents’ guides (for some tips on how to use these, please consult the AGENCY GUIDES category at right). Preditors and Editors, the Absolute Write water cooler, and anywhere else that you would normally go to check out an agent you were planning to query. You don’t need to be able to write a 500-page biography for each of these people, but you absolutely do what they’re representing these days.

These days being the operative term: while agents frequently list the better-known books they’ve represented in those little blurbs in the conference guide, they don’t necessarily update those blurbs every time they use them. (Also true of the preferences listed in agents’ guides, by the way.) And even if they did, the market changes far too fast for blurbs usually submitted months before the conference to reflect what an agent is looking to represent NOW.

I hear you groaning: yes, this IS every bit as much work as finding an agent to query. But you don’t want to end up pitching to the wrong agent, do you?

When you’re doing your research, do be aware that since there is usually a significant time lag between when an agent signs an author and when the book hits the shelves (see above), it may be difficult to track down client lists for some agents. This does not necessarily mean that they are not active. The Publishers Marketplace database tracks sales as they happen AND provides client lists, so it’s a great place to check. This site does require a subscription ($20/month), so you might want to round up some of your writing friends and pool the expense.

If you can’t find evidence that the agent to whom you are assigned to pitch is actively representing your kind of book, don’t be afraid to ask to switch appointments. Most of the time, conference organizers will do their best honor such requests — but they’ll usually be happier about it if you can suggest an alternative agent for an appointment.

Yet another reason that — wait for it — it’s an excellent idea to check out ALL of the agents scheduled to attend a conference (there’s usually a list on the conference’s website), not just to one to whom you’ve been assigned. Ideally, you will want to try to pitch to anyone who might conceivably be a reasonable fit. And if none of the scheduled agents represent your kind of book, you should think very seriously about taking your conference dollars elsewhere.

Yes, having to do this level of background research is kind of a pain, but if it saves you even one wasted pitch, it’s definitely worth it. The more information you have, the more likely you are to find your best fit. Doing your homework maximizes the probability that you will be pitching to someone who can help you get published — and not someone who will stop you three sentences in to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t represent that kind of book.”

Remember, not all agents are the same, any more than all editors are (of which more tomorrow); they have both professional specialties and personal preferences. It doesn’t make any more sense to pitch sensitive coming-of-age literary fiction to an agent who concentrates primarily on thrillers than it does to query a NF agency with a novel, does it?

Do those of you who have never pitched before feel as though you’ve just fallen into very, very deep water? Not to worry: you’ll feel much less disoriented in the days to come. Which is to say: PLEASE don’t be too hard on yourself if your learning curve is a bit sharp throughout this series. After all, no one is born knowing how to market a book.

Keep those expectations realistic and those hopes high. You can do this, honest. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Hobnobbing with the famous, however briefly

ticker-tape-parade

No time for a long-winded missive today, I’m afraid: you’d be amazed at how much the work can pile up while a writer’s on retreat. I’m fairly confident that my desk is in fact underneath all of the papers in front of me, but it’s going to take another week or two of digging to confirm that.

Since I’ve been back from my writing retreat, I’ve noticed that acquaintances’ inquiries have been falling into two basic categories. Non-artist inquirers, without exception, ask about the touristy aspects of getting to and from a medieval village in the mountains of southwestern France; they want to be regaled with photographs of ruined castles. Admittedly, they probably don’t actually want to hear as much about the 12th-century Albigensian heresy as I tend to tell them while showing them the requisite pictures — I was in the part of France where the Cathars ran to escape folks who wanted to burn them at the stake for their beliefs — but they’re very nice about it.

Mysteriously, artists seem less interested in who got massacred where and if I have a photograph of the church built upon the spot. They ask, “Did you get a lot of writing done?” and, if they’re savvy about artists’ colonies, “Were there any famous artists/writers at the retreat?”

Don’t laugh — the answers to neither are foregone conclusions.

As anyone who has ever been on a lengthy group retreat could tell you, it’s far from uncommon that writers and other artists show up on a long-anticipated retreat — and then don’t work much on their art. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course, ranging from having unrealistic expectations about how much one can get done in a week, two, or a month; being totally exhausted due to working double shifts in the weeks leading up to the retreat, in order to be able to afford to come (it’s really, really rare that even a top-flight, highly competitive residency will give you money to pay your bills while you’re taking time off your day job), wanting to hang out with all of the other fascinating people who tend to turn up at artists’ retreats, and/or just needing a vacation really, really badly.

And then there’s the most common reason of all, writer’s block.

Did that giant collective gasp I just heard indicate that some, most, or all of you weren’t aware that even well-established writers who win fellowships to luxurious artists’ colonies sometimes fall prey to writer’s block? Of course they do: all writers do, from time to time; it seldom has anything to do with talent.

So what does it have to do with, you ask? Usually, in a retreat situation, the kind of elevated expectations I mentioned above: the prospect of writing/starting/finishing a big chunk of a book (or a short story, or a proposal) within a short, intense period of time can be darned intimidating.

Whether a time-challenged writer is at a retreat or at home, the very notion of wasting so much of a second of time and space that was so hard to carve out can be paralyzing. And if the writer in question has, as so many first-time retreatants do, been putting off working on a particular piece of writing until he’s safely ensconced, the pressure to write quickly roughly triples.

If this happens to you, take a deep breath. Remember that part of what artists do on retreat is think — and that thinking is a legitimate part of the artistic process.

After you’ve taken a nice, long walk and thought about your project, come back to your writing space (which, I hate to break it to you, will probably be much, much smaller than the palatial digs I enjoyed at my most recent retreat; chandeliers are in fact optional), take out several sheets of scratch paper, and diagram your story or the argument you’re making in what you’d planned to write. (Everyone knows how to do that, right? If any of you don’t, drop me a line in the comments on this post, and I’ll do a short how-to.)

Once you have a visual representation of your project in front of you, circle or highlight the bits you have not yet written. Which parts would be the easiest or quickest to do? Which would be next easiest, quickest, least emotionally jarring, etc.?

Once you’ve decided which would be least challenging, sit down and start there. Don’t even think of tackling any other part of your writing project until it’s done. Once it’s completed, move on to the next on your list.

Repeat as often as necessary until you get into a writing groove.

Do I hear some sounds of scoffing out there? “But Anne,” some folks who have dreamed long about running away on retreat protest, “I could work incrementally at home. If I have a big, unbroken chunk of time free of distractions in front of me, shouldn’t I be using it for, you know, something more ambitious?”

Not if you’ve come down with a bad case of writer’s block, you shouldn’t. Demonstrating to the frozen creative part of your psyche that it’s also productive to chip away at smaller portions is a great way to loosen up the writing muscles.

That’s not the only strategy for overcoming writer’s block, of course, or the only one that would work in this situation. For more suggestions, check out the aptly-named WRITER’S BLOCK category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand corner of this page.

The second question, the one about running into anyone famous, arises from the fact that many artists’ colonies will offer residencies to well-established writers and other artists as an inducement to the less-established to cough up the change to come to the retreat as well. And that’s not just my cynical take on it, either: just as writing workshops and conferences use the famous names for marketing purposes, many retreats are perfectly up front about selling access to big-name artists-in-residence.

Don’t believe me? Check out the grants, fellowships, and residencies section of Poets & Writers magazine, one of the best sources for tracking down same.

A quick caveat emptor to those of you who find the prospect of hobnobbing with the illustrious tempting: check the fine print. Just as a famous author’s speaking at a conference doesn’t necessarily mean that any individual attendee is going to have one-on-one time with him, being in residence simultaneously with a literary bigwig doesn’t automatically translate into long literary lunches and impeccable feedback on your work. Unless the retreat’s promotional materials actually mention that God’s Gift to Literature will be offering classes or critique to co-residents, assume that the answer is no.

Remember, established authors occasionally like to go on retreat for precisely the same reason that any other writer does — to get some time alone with their manuscripts. Unless they’re specifically being paid to help out those struggling along the earlier steps of the path to publication — as many retreats do — they’re under no obligation to invest their retreat time in reading or critiquing your work.

Or in providing you with contacts, finding you an agent, writing you a blurb…

I always feel a little funny saying this point-blank, as this just seems like basic courtesy to someone who grew up around famous writers, but established authors are not required to help the aspiring. Yet writers trying to break into the biz rush up to the famous all the time, essentially demanding their attention and a leg up, as if it didn’t take a darned long time to read a total stranger’s manuscript. If you want their assistance in a situation where they’re not being paid to provide it, approach with the awareness that you are in fact asking a pretty darned big favor of someone you’ve just met.

As luck would have it, an extremely well-known Irish poet was in residence with me at La Muse, but thankfully, everyone was too polite to thrust poems-in-progress at him. (Although not everyone was similarly restrained when they learned that I edited professionally, unfortunately. It’s amazing how single-minded writers can be in pursuit of publication.)

The good news is that if the retreat is indeed paying the lauded one to help out the other residents, they’re not going to make a secret of it. Since it’s actually rather difficult for the average mid-list author to make a living out of book sales alone (again, hate to be the one to break it to you), plenty of very good writers supplement their income through teaching gigs, conference presentations — and, yes, hanging out at residencies.

Do be aware, though, that being a well-known — or even brilliant — author doesn’t necessarily render one a good teacher of the craft. Or a good reader and feedback-giver, especially outside of one’s own particular book category.

Heck, it doesn’t even guarantee being a nice person who won’t gratuitously hurt an aspiring writer’s feelings. As I believe I may have pointed out 1700 or 1800 times before in this venue, professional feedback is harsh, and standards do in fact vary a bit from genre to genre.

Again, this may be self-evident, but before you take the emotional risk and plunk down the cash for cohabitating with, taking a class from, or showing your manuscript to a famous writer, make sure that that the illustrious one has at least a passing familiarity with your type of book. Otherwise, you’re not likely to get as much usable feedback as you have a right to expect.

If it’s part of what you’re paying to receive at a retreat, that is.

The best way to assure a good fit, of course, is to select a residency (class, conference) that features a laurelled one with a consistent track record of publishing in your chosen book category. Preferably recently, as being treated to long, well-meant lectures on what agents and editors were looking for thirty years ago may not help you please them now.

Even then, you may need to take what you hear with a grain of salt.

Many years ago, I spent a month at an artists’ colony that routinely imported both well-established sculptors and painters to give emerging artists feedback on their works-in-progress and a famous author or two every couple of weeks to impart wisdom to those treading the earlier steps of the path to greatness. Excited at the prospect, but aware that I would get more out of the feedback if I were familiar with these authors’ most recent work, I naturally rushed right out and indulged in an orgy of literary preparation.

The first of these authors, a well-established author not yet a household name and the one whose work I preferred of the two, spent a week on-site. She read excerpts, gave constructive feedback, helped writers over manuscript difficulties, and even gave a couple of impromptu lectures on craft.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice that not all of my fellow retreatants were as happy with her input as I was — but then, she wrote comedy, and so did I. She liked the chapter I submitted for critique, so we spent a charming hour chatting about my work, hers, and how I could make my writing more marketable.

Those whose work was less similar to hers did not fare so well, I’m told.

This mixed result is far from unheard-of at retreats that offer brushes with the Great — or at conferences, workshops, or even literary contests judged by them. There’s no way to assure that you are absolutely exempt from falling victim to it, but doing your reading in advance can certainly help. If your writing style is radically different from the critiquing author, consider seeking feedback elsewhere.

In any contest with celebrity judges — i.e., famous writers who make the final selections from amongst the finalist pool — this goes double, or even triple. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, think twice before bothering to enter.

I can feel you wincing. Crunching a few dry crackers should help with the nausea.

Back to our story already in progress. A couple of weeks later, the Living Legend scheduled to shed her effulgence on the residents sent word that she would be arriving a trifle too late for the meetings the retreat organizers had insisted that we book a week in advance, but in the meantime she was reading the excerpts we had submitted to her industriously.

One forgives such things in National Book Award winners, naturally. Good-naturedly, all of the writers in residence rescheduled our appointments with her to the next day. And then to the day after that.

When she arrived late in the afternoon of day 3 of her week-long residency, again too late for any but the last of the scheduled meetings, she announced that she could stay for only a couple of days — the absolute minimum, the cynical speculated, to collect her honorarium for meeting with us.

She wanted, she said, to meet with each of us right away. As in could each of us drop what we’re writing in mid-sentence and genuflect at her feet now?

Because I was — believe it or not of a writer on retreat — deep in the midst of a chapter, I signed up for one of the latest of the possible appointments. The Great Lady didn’t like that much, but one-on-one meetings we had all paid for, so she couldn’t just give us feedback in one big group, could she?

Seriously, could she? She honestly wanted to know — and seemed annoyed when we all demurred.

Now, I have to be honest here: I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from the much-delayed meeting, and not just because she had been, well, not delivering what we had been told to expect. I was prepared to be very diplomatic about it, but the fact is, I didn’t find her writing very engaging. Not to blow my own horn, but this restraint did require some near-heroism on my part, as my extensive reading binge had revealed that her literary output since 1957 had consisted largely of telling and retelling the (apparently autobiographical) plot of her first critically-lauded novel in slightly different forms.

None of which evinced the smallest modicum of humor. So I was quite prepared for her to dislike my chapter, of course, but I made the mistake of assuming that as long as I didn’t let her feedback vex me into blurting out some version of, “Why on earth did anyone ever consider you for the Pulitzer?” I would survive the occasion with aplomb.

You can feel the impending doom, can’t you? Wait — it’s even worse than you’re imagining.

Practically the moment I walked into my scheduled meeting — yes, it did eventually occur — She Whose Name Will Live Forever launched into a vigorous diatribe about the inherent weakness of a particular scene in the submitted chapter. The only trouble was, I hadn’t written the scene that had so upset her sensibilities; another writer in residence had.

Entirely disregarding my polite, gentle hints that perhaps she had mislaid my manuscript, the august lady proceeded to blast my fellow writer’s work for a good ten minutes. As nearly as I could tell from her tirade, she had decided that I must have written the short story in question — although I do not write short stories — because the character in the story looked a bit like me. ( As do literally millions of adult women of Mediterranean extraction, I might add.)

I had absolutely no idea what to do. Surely, when the other writer came for her session (which, because Nemesis has a dandy sense of humor, was scheduled for immediately after mine), the grande dame would realize her mistake — and something in her regal bearing gave the impression that she was not overly fond of admitting her own mistakes.

It took me several minutes to convince the Grande Dame of Literature that I was telling the truth about who I was and what I had written — she actually ARGUED with me about whether I’d written the chapter she’d been lambasting. By the end of our brief argument, both of us had realized that she had not yet read my piece at all.

Embarrassed for her — far more than she, apparently — I offered to reschedule our appointment on the following day, but she was adamant that she was only prepared to give me (her phrase) an hour of her time, period. As about 35 minutes of that time had already elapsed, I proposed that we should devote it to chatting about the writing life in general; again, no.

Somehow, this was my fault; if the writing in the piece in question — i.e., the one by somebody other than me — had been better, she implied, she never would have been confused at all.

After an intensive five minutes of rooting about in her battered Serious Literary Person’s satchel, she finally managed to dig up my submitted pages, mangled and folded into an intriguing shape that resembled a failed attempt at an origami swan. With a sigh of irritated relief, she plumped herself down to read them in front of me.

I sat uncomfortably, marveling at her speed-reading prowess. Fortunately for my ego — or unfortunately; I’ve never been able to come to a satisfying conclusion on the subject — she evidently did not find any error glaring enough to point out. I suspect it would have been a relief to her if she had, because then she would have had an excuse to dismiss me, or at any rate to vent her evidently copious spleen.

About two pages in, she gave the kind of titter that frightens dogs and small children, then announced with finality, “Well, you have some good lines here. But Greeks have been done.”

Because I have been to graduate school — the untrained should not attempt this level of logical gymnastics at home — I was able to translate this to mean that she’d seen MY BIG, FAT GREEK WEDDING (which had come out a year before) and had decided that single point of view represented the experience of every Greek-American currently roving the planet.

Clearly, she was not the ideal audience for this particular chapter.

But did I fight with her about the reasonableness of rejecting writing about an entire ethnic group at one fell swoop? Did I take her to task for not having read what it was her obligation to read? Did I dip into my well-justified dislike of her literary output to point out that she had been writing about her Irish-American family since the late 1950s — and that, in fact, had been done once or twice before, too?

No — because the literary world is small enough that if I blew up at that moment, I might end up as the butt of an anecdote about how bad writers are at accepting honest critique, the last thing I needed while my agent was shopping a book of mine around to editors.

(Did a light bulb just switch on over your head? Yes, it can be that easy to get a reputation as a feedback-resenter.)

Eventually, I talked her into reading the remaining 15 pages. After she finished, she glanced up at me warily. “It’s good,” she conceded, clearly cudgeling her well-laurelled brains for something constructive to advise.

Having been well brought-up, I waited politely for her to continue — and I must say, I’m still waiting. To fill up the remaining five minutes of our meeting, we chatted about the writing life in general, as I originally suggested.

Specifically, I engaged her in a discussion of the relative merits of the writing of David Sedaris (whose work she reported disliking, presumably because it is humorous) and Jeffrey Eugenides, that’s what. I didn’t even bother to point out that they are both Greek-Americans who write habitually about, you guessed it, Greek-Americans; I trusted that the irony of the situation would strike her in a week or two.

True, I didn’t glean any useful feedback from the exchange, but we did part on cordial terms (overtly, at least), which is more than merely maintaining a stoic, frozen visage or screaming at her would have achieved. To this day, in fact, she says hello to me by name at literary events. She has even introduced me to other authors as “an unbelievably good sport.” I doubt she divulges what made her draw that conclusion.

And that, boys and girls, is how flexible a new author sometimes has to be.

I wish I could state positively that La Belle’s behavior was uniquely horrible, but the sad fact is that one frequently hears similar stories about write-your-way-in conferences and artists’ retreats that offer on-site professional feedback from well-established authors as an incentive for writers to apply for residencies. It just goes to show you: not all feedback from professionals is professional feedback, nor will all of it be helpful.

But I’m relatively certain that had I not already sought out and received scads of genuinely thoughtful, well-informed critique of my work before I watched the Famous Gentlewoman unsuccessfully trying to critique my work on the fly, I would have been crushed by her lack of professionalism.

The moral: just because someone famous reads your work doesn’t necessarily mean that their feedback is going to be useful; just because a conference brochure touts a critique opportunity doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your manuscript. Do your homework, invest your conference-going dollars carefully — and accept that sometimes, you’re going to encounter a dud. That’s the nature of one-size-fits-all critiquing.

All of which is to say: retreats can be marvelous things for a writer; so can feedback from the famous. But if you walk into both expecting something less than perfection, you’re probably going to end up happier with the overall experience.

Okay, that’s enough terrifying you for one day, I think. Caveat emptor — and keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part VIII: have you considered giving learning experiences?

For the last few posts in this series on gifts a generous, sensitive, and smart Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (did I mention attractive?) might want to bestow upon a writer, I have been concentrating upon engaging the services of a professional editor. Since that can be a pretty expensive endeavor, I’m going to spend today talking about less costly learning experiences that writers might appreciate — and, still better, ones that might help move their work toward successful publication.

Good writers, and I don’t care who hears me say it, usually tend to be more open to learning experiences than your average bear. Why? Well, it probably has something to do with having a brain that’s wired to notice telling details more than other people’s. To paraphrase HG Wells’ THE WIFE OF SIR ISAAC HARMAN, a writer is an Aolian harp upon whom the winds of society blow, causing us to sing. We have, as Wells said, unusually sensitive nervous tissue.

Aolian harp, in case you don’t happen to have a good mythological dictionary handy, is a fancy term for wind chime.

I love this analogy, because it pinpoints something that the kind folks who attempt to live with us who write must come to understand and accept: we often react more intensely to external stimuli than other people. We’re born extrapolators. You may find this hard to believe, but apparently, non-writers can sit in a restaurant without eavesdropping on nearby tables and creating elaborate life histories about the speakers based upon an excerpted sentence or two.

Or so I’m told. Anthropologically fascinating to hear how other tribes think, isn’t it?

Since we writers work overtime developing our listening skills, taking advantage of them through taking classes makes perfect sense — a common enough view that writing classes tend to be a terrific place not only to learn something new, but to meet other writers at all stages of their careers. Call it a two-for-one deal.

So here’s an idea for writers up for making suggestions about what they’d like to receive as presents: why not seek out a good writing class, either at a local teaching facility or online, and ask your FNDGG to spring for it?

If you immediately thought, “Oh, I don’t have time to take a class — I barely have time to write as it is!”, well, you’re certainly not alone. It makes perfect sense to give some advance thought to the level of time commitment you could realistically devote to a class without eating into your writing time. Allow me, however, to suggest that the less time you have to write, the more benefit you might derive from clearing some time in your schedule to take a class.

How so, you murmur? Well, at the risk of sounding pedantic, it can be beneficial in addressing a broad spectrum of writerly problems. Most literally, a class can give a writer the specific skill-polishing s/he needs to help write better, faster, stronger, etc. There are also plenty of good classes out there — and in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I teach some of them — that will assist a writer in constructing a query, synopsis, or book proposal.

Slightly more nebulously, classes also exist that will help writers revise their work to render it more marketable — agent Don Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel class pops to mind — conform more closely to the parameters of a particular genre, and yes, just write better sentences.

Price tags vary as much as offerings do. As with any other professional advice, however, the buyer should beware: not every class actually delivers what it promises. Marketing help to writers is big business these days, as anyone who has taken a gander at the many, many books offering writing advice of late can tell you, but it’s not as though there is a writer’s guardian angel out there making sure that only those with a proven track record assisting writers improve their work are allowed to advertise.

So it’s in your interest to assess claims carefully, rather than blithely sending off a check to the first class that sounds appetizing. Find out precisely what your potential teacher’s background is and how it relates to what s/he is offering to teach you.

There’s a third reason that I like to recommend that the super-busy and the writing-blocked (two groups with quite a bit of member overlap, I’ve noticed) carve out some time in their schedules to invest in a class: to get into the habit of finding time in their schedules to devote to writing.

Some of you just guffawed, didn’t you? “Um, Anne?” I hear a few cynics point out. “Aren’t you suggesting that people solve a problem by solving it? Just a touch tautological, no?”

Hear me out on this one, oh guffawers. Those who diagnose themselves as too busy to write on a regular schedule and writers experiencing certain types of writer’s block usually share the problem of finding themselves unwilling or unable, for any number of perfectly legitimate and not-so-legitimate reasons, to sit down and write on a regular basis. The hyper-occupied will rush off to do all of the other, higher-priority things they have to do before they can devote time to writing; the blocked will frequently come up with other things to do to avoid the pain of staring at a blank computer screen.

As a result, members of both groups tend not to budget a whole lot of time purely for writing, at least not on a regular basis: all too often, they will put it off until some hypothetical day when they are either not busy with something else or spontaneously inspired. Over time, that mythical day’s planned agenda can become downright terrifying: from merely a day (or week or month) to devote to writing, it devolves into feeling like THE day (or week or month) in which one has to complete the ENTIRE project. The bigger the task looming in the mind, the more tempting to put it off.

Then these well-meaning souls wake up three months later and realize that they haven’t made much progress on their writing projects. At that point, they have every incentive to blame this results on being too busy or galloping writer’s block — and once again to put off sitting down with the project. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Now admittedly, there are a million causes for writer’s block, and many millions of obligations that might conceivably render budgeting time to writedifficult. But from a working author’s point of view, the underlying problem above is that the writers have not made time to write and stuck to a schedule. This may or may not be attributable to factors within the individual’s control, but whatever the specific reasons, sitting down and writing somehow isn’t near enough to the top of the writer’s priorities to make it happen on the regular basis necessary to complete a book project.

With me so far? Excellent.

Due no doubt to early childhood training, most of us are better at maintaining a formal commitment (such as showing up for a class) than an informal one (such as a promise to oneself to sit down every day and write a few thousand words). We tend to perceive sticking to something we do with other people (or something we are paying to do) as involving less willpower than keeping a private vow.

In actuality, that’s often not true, but there’s no reason not to put the impression that it is true to good use.

Here’s a proposition to consider: a writer who can figure out how to attend a weekly two-hour class is very likely to discover at the end of it that s/he has two hours per week no longer budgeted for something other than writing; by adhering to an already-established schedule, then, that writer has gained a couple of hours per week to devote to writing. Similarly, once a writer has managed to clear a weekend to invest in a seminar, or a few days to attend a conference, s/he can probably repeat that achievement in order to devote that time to writing.

Will those couple of hours or few days be enough to write an entire book? Almost certainly not. But if repeated frequently, could the fruits of regular writing time add up? Absolutely.

And don’t throw up your hands, please, if you felt uncomfortable in classrooms growing up — writing classes turn up in a lot of forms, from traditional composition classes to paid critique groups run by established authors or editors to weekend seminars on plot complexity to once-a-week online give-and-take. The more specific you can be about what you would like to learn, the easier it will be for you — or your FNDGG — to find a class you’ll enjoy.

One reliably fruitful source of course offerings for writers lies on the conference circuit. Good writers’ conferences tend to be crammed with classes on craft, querying, submission, marketing, you name it. They’re also often wonderful places to meet other writers to swap tips and share sympathy. You might even make a friend or two with whom you’ll feel moved to exchange manuscripts for critique, or to form the nucleus of a writers’ support group.

Not to mention the fact that many conferences offer the opportunity to meet agents and editors and hear about what they like to see in a submission. At some conferences, you can even pitch your book to them, neatly sidestepping the querying stage.

Which brings me to another gift suggestion: why not ask your FNDGG to subsidize a trip to a well-constructed conference? If not to underwrite the whole thing, at least to chip in?

If you choose your conference carefully, you may also derive another fringe benefit from attendance: manuscript feedback. As clever and intrepid reader Susan wrote in yesterday to remind us, some conferences offer manuscript critique sessions relatively inexpensively — relative, that is, to employing the services of a professional editor.

Conference-based critique comes in a number of different flavors; there is no such thing as a generic conference critique, so do make sure before you register which is being offered. Here is a field guide to a few of the more common.

The public examination. At this type of event, feedback is offered during short classes within the conference itself in a manner reminiscent of American Idol: both presentation and expert feedback take place in a public forum. Attendees are invited to show up with a very short excerpt — usually a page or two, either from the text or in some cases, a query letter — dissection and discuss.

The few shy souls out there who just exclaimed, “I’d rather stick my hand into a meat grinder!” need despair: because critique is a time-consuming business, these classes usually attract far more feedback-seekers than time to take a magnifying glass to their work. Most of the time, those who sit by quietly and take copious notes on what the pros say about other people’s pages are more than welcome.

The small-group intensive. Here, critique sessions are couched in multi-hour or even multi-day group classes, often lead by an established writer or editor. An intensive class is generally offered either just before or just after the regular conference offerings, and usually entail an extra charge over and above the regular conference registration fee, so do double-check before you register.

Intensive sessions usually concentrate on a short excerpt — the first chapter is a common choice — or require participants to write fresh material in class. Again, if feedback on material already in hand is your goal, check.

The professional assessment. Sometimes these are group endeavors where a dozen people will sit and confer with an agent, editor, or established author, but they are more commonly one-on-one. Almost invariably, though, these sessions are touted as a big selling point for a conference.

Attendees are invited to submit a short manuscript excerpt — usually the first 5-20 pages, although some conferences will allow an entire chapter — which the agent, editor, etc. will undertake to read prior to the meeting. The feedback is usually quite a bit less intensive than what a freelance editor would provide (you’re unlikely, for instance, to receive commentary on particular lines of text), but if you’re looking for an uninterrupted five-minute conversation about how a professional reader like Millicent might respond to your opening pages, this can be a terrific place to start.

The pitch meeting. Pitch meetings rarely involve anyone reading manuscript pages and giving feedback on them, but I thought I should include them on this list, as conference brochures sometimes give the (often false) impression that a professional assessment is a pitch opportunity, and vice versa.

At a pitch meeting, a writer gives a verbal presentation to an agent or editor, a sort of verbal query letter, in the hope that the pro will be so taken with the pitch that s/he will request the writer to submit pages for later consideration. Face-to-face pitching is a learned skill, so if you are considering attending a conference where writers have the opportunity to pitch, please take a gander at the PITCHING BASICS category on the list at right.

As you may see, these types of conference-based feedback opportunities differ widely. The trick to benefiting from these sessions is to do your homework before you get there — which is important to know before you start looking for events to attend, since this is homework that generally needs to be done not only before the conference, but before one even signs up to attend it.

Why so far in advance? Well, several reasons. First, as I mentioned above, conferences usually require writers to submit pages for critique well in advance, generally at the time of registration. Sometimes, the deadline for submission is months before the conference, so do try to send in pages that are not likely to change radically in the interim, if the rules allow it. (Most don’t: the first chapter or 10-20 pages plus a synopsis is a fairly standard requirement, as those pages require less set up to follow, by definition.)

Also, since virtually every critique-offering conference fills personalized feedback slots on a first-come, first-served basis, you may have to be speedy to take advantage of this perq. At a conference that offer many critique opportunities, you may be able pull off registering in the month or two immediately prior to the conference, but for the vast majority of such conferences, the number of slots available is in the low double digits. They tend to go fast, so once you’ve picked your conference, register early.

One caveat to bear in mind while you’re conference-searching: as with feedback from critique-offering contests and every other source, the quality of the feedback varies by the experience level of the critiquer — and more specifically, the critiquer’s familiarity with the submitted manuscript’s book category. Even if the scheduled feedback giver has been editing romance at Harlequin for a decade, s/he may not be able to give you insight into why agents have been rejecting your thriller.

As with finding a freelance editor — or an agent, for that matter — fit between the feedback-giver and the manuscript is important. Some conferences randomly assign writers to feedback-givers, but most of the larger conferences will allow registrants to express preferences. Do a bit of background checking before you commit; you’re far, far more likely to walk away from a critique session with feedback you can use if your critiquer has a solid track record in handling your type of book.

Another factor that radically influences the quality of conference-based feedback is how much time the critiquer has actually invested in reading the pieces before commenting upon them. I don’t mean to frighten you, but do be aware that advice clearly based upon barely-skimmed submissions or, even more hurtful, only the first paragraph or two of a chapter-length submission is a perennial complaint voiced by writers attending such feedback sessions, especially those conducted by agents and editors: the habit of simply ceasing to read as soon as they’ve made up their minds about a submission can be pretty firmly ingrained.

Before anyone out there takes umbrage at the notion of paying a conference for this level of feedback — which doesn’t necessarily entail a more solid reading than Millicent might give a first chapter; the difference lies in hearing specifics about why the screener stopped reading — lack of familiarity with the materials to be reviewed is not always the critiquer’s fault. It’s not at all uncommon for critiquers to be culled from the speakers, agents, and editors invited to the conference, some of whom may not receive the pages for critique until they actually arrive at the conference.

Or — brace yourselves — on the day of the meeting.

And yes, this frequently occurs even at conferences that require writers to submit their pages months in advance. Why? Beats me; organizational acumen seems to be wildly unevenly distributed across conference-giving groups. When I’ve inquired about it — say, at a conference where I had been engaged to give such feedback, but did not actually see a syllable of the writing involved until a couple of hours before I was supposed to meet with the people who wrote them — I’ve heard every explanation from shifting schedules to lost paperwork to an elaborately polite insistence that giving me the pages early enough to spend some real time with them would have inconvenienced me.

They didn’t want to impose, they said.

I’ve been on both sides of this particular phenomenon, actually: some years ago, I was in residence at a New England artists’ colony that shall remain nameless. as well-established sculptors and painters dropped by to give emerging artists feedback on their works-in-progress, the colony had taken the trouble to import a famous author or two every couple of weeks to impart wisdom to those treading the earlier steps of the path to greatness.

Or, slightly more cynically, the colony helped supplement the established’s income by offering informal teaching gigs. The first of these authors spent a week on-site and was quite charming, at least to those of us whose work she liked. She read excerpts, gave constructive feedback, helped writers over manuscript difficulties, and even gave a couple of impromptu lectures on craft.

A couple of weeks later, the feedback environment altered considerably. The Living Legend scheduled to shed her effulgence on the residents sent word that she would be arriving a trifle late, but she was reading the excerpts we had submitted to her industriously. One forgives such things in National Book Award winners, naturally. When she arrived late on day 3 of her week-long residence, she announced that she could stay for only a couple of days — the absolute minimum, the cynical speculated, to collect her honorarium for meeting with us — so she wanted to meet with each of us right away.

Practically the moment I walked into my scheduled meeting, she launched into a vigorous diatribe about the inherent weakness of a particular scene. The only trouble was, I hadn’t written the scene that had so upset her sensibilities; the writer with the appointment after mine had. As nearly as I could tell from her tirade, she had decided that I must have written the short story in question — although I do not write short stories — because the character in the story looked a bit like me.

As do hundreds of thousands of adult women of Mediterranean extraction, I might add. But I digress.

It took me several minutes to convince the Grande Dame of Literature that I was telling the truth about who I was and what I had written — and for both of us to realize that she had not yet read my piece at all. Embarrassed for her, I offered to reschedule our appointment on the following day, but she was adamant that she was only prepared to give me (her phrase) an hour of her time. As about 35 minutes of that time had already elapsed, I proposed that we should devote it to chatting about the writing life in general; again, no.

After an intensive five minutes of rooting about in her briefcase, she finally managed to dig up my pages. With a sigh of irritated relief, she plumped herself down to read them in front of me. I sat uncomfortably, marveling at her speed-reading prowess. Fortunately for my ego — or unfortunately; I’ve never been able to decide — she evidently did not find any error glaring enough to point out. I suspect it would have been a relief to her if she had.

After she finished, she glanced up at me warily. “It’s good,” she conceded, clearly cudgeling her well-laureled brains for something constructive to advise.

Having been well brought-up, I waited politely for her to continue — and I must say, I’m still waiting. To fill up the remaining five minutes of our meeting, we chatted about the writing life in general.

I wish I could state positively that La Belle’s behavior was exceptional, but the sad fact is that one hears similar stories about write-your-way-in conferences and artists’ retreats that offer on-site professional feedback from well-established authors as an incentive for writers to apply for residencies. It just goes to show you: not all feedback from professionals is professional feedback, nor will all of it be helpful. But I’m relatively certain that had I not already sought out and received scads of genuinely thoughtful, well-informed critique of my work before I watched the Famous Gentlewoman unsuccessfully trying to critique my work on the fly, I would have been crushed by her lack of professionalism.

The moral: just because someone famous reads your work doesn’t necessarily mean that their feedback is going to be useful; just because a conference brochure touts a critique opportunity doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your manuscript. Do your homework, invest your conference-going dollars carefully — and accept that sometimes, you’re going to encounter a dud. That’s the nature of one-size-fits-all critiquing.

Oh, dear, I meant to spend today’s post recommending conference attendance, not repeatedly hissing, “Caveat emptor,” let the buyer beware. Well, I suppose that’s not a complete surprise in a blog that so frequently cautions caveat lector, let the reader beware.

On that dubious note, I shall sign off for today. More gift-giving tips and general chat about the writing life follow anon. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The times they are a-changin’ — but it’s hard to tell whether it’s for better or worse

I have to confess, I’m a trifle perplexed today, campers. Should I feel hopeful about the present, near future, and life to come for aspiring writers, or shouldn’t I? Is despair appropriate, or rejoicing?

Take, for instance, the mixed news coming out of this year’s BookExpo America. the major publishers seem wary of how the combination of a slow economy and interest in the presidential election will affect what readers will be willing to buy this fall, judging by their offerings; opinions vary about what the Kindle and similar devices will mean for the future of the paper-and-ink book market; this was the first year in a long time when more independent bookstores opened in the US than closed.

Should the average writer be psyched or bummed in the face of such tidings? Try as I might, I can’t quite decide.

A little closer to home, while I was perusing the finalist list for the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, I was delighted to see frequent commenter Auburn McCanta in the poetry category (congratulations, Auburn!), as well as a few other names not entirely unknown on this website (who should e-mail me to give me permission to gloat about them, by the way).

But then I was startled to notice that the top-named finalist in the screenwriting category has had books on the New York Times bestseller list. Recently.

Hey, I’m just quoting from his website. If it and the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s conference promotional materials are to be believed, he’s also going to be Thursday night’s featured speaker at that very conference.

Merest coincidence? Eyebrow-raising conflict of interest for the organization? Or clever self-promotional move by a well-established author? Again, I’m not sure I can make up my mind.

To be fair, there’s no longer anything in the contest’s rules that precludes established writers from entering (as I seem to recall that there was in 2004, when I won the NF book category); it’s just traditionally been considered, well, not entirely cricket for someone making a living at it to enter an amateur contest. In theory, at least, it’s not really starting with a level playing field, is it?

At least, if the author in question is well-respected in his genre. Heck, if he had a truly unique narrative voice, it might even be impossible to maintain the anonymity that’s so vital to the credibility of a respectable literary contest.

I can only assume that the organization in question considered that possibility, though, long before it announced its finalists for this year. Given the rumors that published writers turned up in surprisingly heavy numbers on the finalist lists in other categories as well (please see the comments on Monday’s post), I’m inclined to believe that there’s been a carefully-considered rule change of which I was not aware prior to this year’s entry deadline. (Was anybody else?)

But, naturally, not having been privy to the decision-making process, I can’t really say. How can one differentiate firmly between, say, publicizing a policy change and merely letting one’s friends know about it?

In recent years, the advantages to aspiring writers of books engaging in the kind of verbal pitching that has long been the norm in the screenwriting industry have been much touted by writers’ conference organizers, and for some good reasons: by pitching to an agent or editor at a conference, a writer may be invited to submit material directly, effectively skipping the annoying and often protracted querying process.

Which is, of course, a mighty fine thing for those who can pull it off.

It has some under-advertised drawbacks, however, chief among which is the assumption that a verbal pitch is necessarily reflective of the quality of the book it describes, which is certainly not always the case. The in-person pitch also most assuredly places the shy at a serious competitive disadvantage — and every year, countless conference-goers are petrified into a state of horrified inertia by the prospect of producing a three-line pitch that effectively conveys all of the complexity of a 400-page book.

I ask you: does this expectation represent an improvement in the lives of aspiring writers, or an unreasonable additional stress?

Don’t look at me to solve that knotty dilemma — I asked you first, after all. But I will say that in my experience, the three-line pitch conference organizers are so apt to tell prospective pitchers is the ONLY possibility often isn’t what agents and editors expect to hear.

At least, not the ones who represent books for a living.

Script agents, well, that’s another story; screenplays are not my area of expertise, so please do not look to me for advice on the subject. Perhaps someone could ask the NYT bestselling author his opinion; it seems to be well-informed.

Fair warning: what you’re going to be seeing me spell out over the next couple of weeks is MY opinion about what does and doesn’t work in various types of conference pitch. Please don’t bother to inform me that others are equally vehement that the pros will stop listening after three sentences; that simply hasn’t been my experience as a successful conference pitcher, nor the experience of any other successful conference pitcher I know, or anyone who has ever taken one of my pitching classes and reported back to me…

You get the picture.

But that’s not an immense surprise, right? As those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have no doubt already figured out, my take on the publishing industry does not always conform to the prevailing wisdom. (I know: GASP! Alert the media!)

The problem with the prevailing wisdom, as I see it, is that it is so often out of date: what was necessary to land an agent 20 years ago is most emphatically not the same as what is necessary today, or what will be necessary 5 years from now. And it is now every bit as hard to land an agent as it used to be to land a book contract.

Heck, it’s significantly more difficult than it was when I signed with my current agency — and honeys, I’m not that old.

My point is, the industry changes all the time, and very quickly — and it’s not always clear immediately whether each individual change is helpful or hurtful to the aspiring writer’s chances.

If you doubt this, chew on this: when I signed the contract for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, in March of 2005, it naturally contained the standard contractual provisions about truthfulness; the contract specified that my publisher believed that I believed that I was telling the truth in my book. (Which I am, in case you were wondering.)

Yet if I signed a standard NF contract for the same book today, it would almost certainly contain some provision requiring me as the author to obtain signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book.

What happened in that intervening 3+ years to alter the standard memoir contract’s provisions, you ask? A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, that’s what.

The very tangible result: industry rumor has it that a couple of years back, a major publishing house required a writer who spent a significant amount of time living with cloistered nuns to obtained signed releases from each and every one of the wimpled ones, swearing that they would not sue the publisher over the book.

Yes, you read that right. Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t nuns generally take vows of poverty? And doesn’t cloistered mean, you know, not wandering up and down the aisles at Barnes & Noble, checking out your own publicity?

Yet such is the prevailing level of concern that the publishing house was legitimately concerned that suddenly the little sisters of St. Francis of Assisi would metamorphose into a gaggle of money-hungry, lawyer-blandishing harpies. I ask you: good for writers, or not?

Perhaps this will help you decide: since the MILLION LITTLE PIECES incident, writers have been hearing at conferences, “Oh, it’s impossible to sell memoir right now.” Which is odd, because the trade papers seem to show that plenty of houses are in fact still buying memoirs aplenty.

So you’ll pardon me, I hope, for saying that it always pays to look over the standard truisms very carefully, both to see if they still apply and to see if they’re, you know, TRUE. Many, I am sad to report, are neither.

You can tell I am gearing up to saying something subversive, can’t you?

Yes, I am: I would specifically advise AGAINST walking into a meeting with an agent or editor and giving the kind of 3-sentence pitch that you will usually see recommended in writers’ publications — and practically mandated in the average conference brochure.

Or, to put it another way: I think it is a common mistake to assume that the structure that works for pitching a screenplay can be adapted without modification to books. Because, you see, the screenplay pitch is intended merely to establish the premise — and there’s quite a bit more that any agent or editor is going to need to know about a book before saying yea or nay.

“Wait just a second, Anne!” I hear some of you shouting. “I have a conference brochure right here, and it tells me I MUST limit myself to a 3-sentence pitch!”

Well pointed out, imaginary shouters — this is quite standard boilerplate advice. But think about it: the average conference appointment with an agent is 10-15 minutes long, and if you are like most writers, you will probably be very nervous.

So I have one question to ask you: do you really want to have only a minute’s worth of material prepared, so you have to wing it if the agent of your dreams wants to hear more?

Because, trust me, he IS likely to ask. I’ve heard many, many agents and editors complain that writers pitching at conferences either talk non-stop for ten minutes (not effective) or stop talking after one (ditto).

“Why aren’t they using the time I’m giving them?” they wonder in the bar. (It’s an inviolable rule of writers’ conferences that there is always a bar within staggering distance. That’s where the pros congregate to bemoan their respective fates.) “Half the time, they just dry up. Aren’t they interested in their own books?”

Oh, the 3-sentence pitch definitely has its utility: it is helpful to have one ready for when you buttonhole an agent in an elevator, when you might genuinely have only a minute and a half to make your point.

That’s why it’s called an elevator speech, in case you were wondering; it’s short enough to deliver between floors without pushing the alarm button to stop the trip.

It’s also very useful in preparing your query letter, where you can use it as the paragraph that describes the book. Once you have a really effective marketing paragraph written, you can use it many contexts. So I will definitely be walking you through how to construct one.

However, an elevator speech should not be confused with a full-blown book pitch.

To do so, I think, implies a literalism that cannot conceive that a similar process called by the same name but conducted in two completely unrelated industries might not be identical. It’s akin to assuming that because both Microsoft and Random House are concerned with word count, they must be estimating it precisely the same way — because it’s just not possible for a single term to mean more than one thing to different groups of people, right?

News flash to the super-literal: the noun bat refers to both a critter that flies and a piece of wood used to hit a ball. Learn to live with it. (And if you don’t know how literary types estimate word count — which is not usually how the fine folks at Microsoft do — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

In purely strategic terms, there’s another reason not to use the same pitch format as everybody else at a conference: now that the three-line pitch is so pervasive, pitch fatigue sets in even more quickly. Not forcing an agent or editor to pull your plot out of you via a series of questions may well be received as a pleasant change.

Pitch fatigue, in case you’ve never heard of it, is the industry term for when a person’s heard so many pitches in a row that they all start to blend together in the mind. It’s surprisingly tiring to listen to pitches; there’s so much emotion floating in the air, and it’s so vital to pay attention to every last detail. Even with the best intentions, after the third pitch in any given genre in any given day, the stories start to sound alike.

Even stories that are nothing alike can begin to sound alike.

I can tell you from experience that pitch fatigue can set in pretty quickly. Two years ago, at the Conference That Dares Not Speak Its Name, a group of intrepid writers, including yours truly, set up the Pitch Practicing Palace, collectively hearing over 325 individual pitches over the course of three very long days. (Good for aspiring writers or not? Opinions differ.)

Now, all of us on the PPP staff are both writers and chronic readers, so our sympathies, it is safe to say, were pretty much always on the writer’s side of the pitching desk. And we heard quite a number of truly exceptional pitches. But by the end of the first day, all of us were starting to murmur variations on, “You know, if I had to do this every day, I might start to think the rejection pile was my friend.”

Part of the problem is environmental, of course. Agents and editors at conferences are generally expected to listen patiently while sitting under flickering fluorescent lights in uncomfortable chairs, being rapidly dehydrated by punishing convention center air conditioning. You can hardly blame them for zoning out from time to time, under the circumstances.

I know: poor, poor babies, forced to endure precisely the same ambient conditions as every writer at the conference, without the added stress of trying to make their life-long dreams come true. But I’m not mentioning this so you will pity their lot in life; I’m bringing it up so you may have a clearer picture of what you will be facing.

Gather up all of those environmental factors I described above into a neat mental picture, please. Pretend you are an agent who has been listening to pitches for the past four hours.

Got it? Good.

Now ask yourself: which is more likely to snap you out of your stupor, a three-sentence pitch, which forces you to make the effort of drawing more details about the book out of a pitcher who has been told to shut up after conveying a single breath’s worth of information? Or a slightly longer pitch that explains to you not only what the book is about, but who is going to buy it and why?

Or, to consider the other common advice about structuring pitches, would you be more likely to pay attention to a pitch that is rife with generalities, glossing lightly over themes that are common to many books? Or to a pitch stuffed full of briefly-described scenes, embellished attractively with a few well-chosen significant details?

Exactly. You don’t want to hand them the same vanilla ice cream cone that everyone else has been offering them all day; you want to hand them the deluxe waffle cone stuffed with lemon-thyme sorbet and chocolate mousse.

And that, dear friends, is why I’m spending the days to come talking about how to market your work in ways that make sense to the industry, rather than just telling you to cram years of your hopes and dreams into three overstuffed sentences as…well, as others do.

By the time we reach the end of this series, my hope is that you will not only be able to give a successful pitch AND elevator speech — I would like for you to be prepared to speak fluently about your work anytime, anywhere, to anybody, no matter how influential.

Even to a New York Times bestselling writer, should you happen to bump into one.

In short, my goal here is to help you sound like a professional, market-savvy writer, rather than the nervous wreck most of us are walking into pitch meetings. To achieve that, a writer needs to learn to describe a book in language the industry understands.

The first building block of fluency follows tomorrow. I know you’re up for it.

Truth compels me to say, though, that not everyone out there agrees that my take on this process is unequivocally good for aspiring writers — including, let’s face it, some of the folks to whom I have referred above. But then, we also have a long-standing, fundamental disagreement about whether the primary purpose of a writers’ organization — or literary contest, for that matter — is to help the struggling writers out there or those already established promote their work more effectively.

Try as I might to keep my opinion to myself, hints do seem to pop out from time to time. I encourage you to make up your own minds, my friends — and to keep up the good work!

Conference pitching warm-up, part II, in which you may be surprised to learn that you and the agent or editor on the other side of the pitching table actually want the same thing. Honest.

Yesterday, I was waxing poetic on an must-follow piece of conference-preparation advice — if you are looking for an agent (as the vast majority of writers willing to shell out the dosh to attend major conferences are), it makes sense only to invest in attending conferences where agents with a proven track record of selling with your type of book will be available for your pitching pleasure.

Feel free to derive an important corollary from this excellent axiom: from this moment on, ONLY pitch or query your book to agents who represent that kind of book.

Seems so simple, put that way, doesn’t it?

Yet every year, literally millions of aspiring writers either take a scattershot approach, querying fairly randomly (thus all of those “Dear Agent” letters that folks in the industry hate so much) or let the conferences do the selection for them, pitching to whoever is there with a winsome disregard for matching their books with the right agent.

Sigh.

I cannot say this often enough: you do not want to be signed by just ANY agent — although, in the throes of agent-seeking, it’s certainly very easy to start believing that any agent at all would be better than none. You want the agent who is going to be able to sell your work quickly and well.

Believe it or not, even the surliest agent who ever strode contemptuously into a literary conference and brushed off a pitcher wants this as well. Agents, perversely enough, want to sign authors of books they know they can sell.

Which is, in case you were wondering, why they tend to be so quick to reject what doesn’t fall within their sphere of influence. Since they are inundated with queries and pitches, it is in their best interests to weed out the absolutely-nots as swiftly as humanly possible — and although it may not feel like it at the time, in yours as well.

Don’t believe me? Ask any author who has found herself spending a year or two in the purgatory of a representation contract with an agent who didn’t have the contacts to sell her book, but still snapped up the book because it was in an at-the-time-hot book category. (Yes, it happens.)

So if an agent who doesn’t represent your kind of work rejects you — and this is equally true if it happens at a conference or via query — be open to the possibility that it may not have anything to do with the quality of your writing or the idea you are pitching.

It might just be a bad fit.

I know it’s hard to accept this philosophically when your baby is rejected out of hand, but it is vital for your professional mental health that you bear the issue of fit in mind constantly while you are pitching and querying. Not only isn’t anything personal about a bad-fit rejection — it does not even begin to be a fair test of how the book will fly with an agent who does represent that kind of work.

Let me repeat that, because it’s awfully important: a book’s being rejected by an agent or editor who doesn’t represent that type of work is NOT a viable test of its marketability amongst those who do. Thus it follows with an elegant inevitability that if you want to know whether your book is marketable, you should pitch or query it only to those with whom such a test WOULD be a good indicator of how the publishing industry might view it.

Or, to put it another way, the best way to avoid this kind of rejection is not to pitch or query your book to any agent that isn’t predisposed to be interested in it. Check before you pitch.

Even better, check before you register for the conference where you intend to pitch.

Ditto with editors, by the way. No editor in the business acquires across every conceivable genre; in fact, most editors’ ability to acquire is sharply limited by their publishing houses to just one or two types of book.

So it would be a waste of your pitching energies to, say, try to interest an editor who does exclusively mysteries in your fantasy novel, right? Right?

Another thing that any writer pitching at a North American conference ABSOLUTELY MUST KNOW: all of the major NYC publishing houses currently have policies forbidding their editors to acquire work by unagented writers.

Don’t believe me? Check their websites. At least for the adult market, the policy is uniform. (Some YA imprints have different policies; again, it’s in your interests to check.)

This means, in essence, that the BEST that could happen if you pitched your book to an editor from one of these houses is that he might help you hook up with an agent. Although it’s somewhat counterintuitive, an editor at a smaller or regional house might have more leeway to pick up your book.

Sort of changes how you view those much-vaunted conference appointments with bigwig editors, doesn’t it?

I’m bringing this up because in most of the flavors of common being-discovered-at-a-conference fantasy, an editor from Random House or somewhere similar hears a pitch, falls over backwards in his chair, and offers a publication contract on the spot, neatly bypassing the often extended agent-seeking period entirely.

Conference today, contract tomorrow, Oprah on Thursday.

In reality, even if an editor was blown over (figuratively, at least) by a pitch, he might buttonhole one of the attending agents at a conference cocktail party on your behalf, and they might together plot a future for the book, but you’re still going to have to impress that agent before you can sign with the editor.

In other words, pitching to an editor at a major house might help your book in the long run, but it will not enable you to skip the finding-the-agent step, as so many aspiring writers believe. Sorry.

Frankly, I think it’s really, really unfair to the editors from these houses that more writers’ conference promotional materials are not up front about this policy, considering that it is in fact common knowledge — which means, incidentally, that most editors will assume that a writer attending the conference is already aware of it. It’s not as though the individual editor could change the status quo, after all, or as if he’s following the policy merely because he likes to taunt the hopeful.

Before any of you protest that at the last conference you attended, editors from the Big Five asked for your work as though they intended to pick you up regardless of your representation status, let me hasten to add that you are not alone: the we-accept-only-the-agented is most assuredly NOT the impression that most conference pitchers to editors receive.

There’s a reason for this: unless they are asked point-blank during an editors’ forum how many of them have come to the conference empowered to pick up a new author on the spot — a question well worth asking, hint, hint — most editors who attend conferences will speak glowingly about their authors, glossing over the fact that they met these authors not in settings like this, but through well-connected agents.

See earlier comment about common knowledge. They honestly do think you know. It doesn’t mean that they can’t give you some valuable advice.

Yet few conference brochures or websites are honest enough to feature the major houses’ policies next to the appropriate attending editors’ listings. In fact, most conference rhetoric surrounding pitch appointments with editors directly states the opposite, encouraging pitchers to believe that this meeting could be their big break.

I don’t think that conference organizers do this in order to be mean or misleading — I just think many of them are not hip to the current conditions of the industry. Trust me, no editor is going to jeopardize his job at Broadway by handing a contract to a writer his boss would throw a fit if he signed.

So why, you may be wondering, do editors from the majors attend literary conferences — and, once there, why do they request submissions?

This is an important question, because editors from the major houses request manuscripts from pitchers all the time — but not because they are looking to sign the author instantly on the strength of the book. They just want to get in on the ground floor if the book is going to be the next…

You guessed it: no editor wants to be the one who passed on the next DA VINCI CODE. It’s a gamble, pure and simple.

So even though they would almost certainly not in fact pick up the next DA VINCI CODE if its author DID pitch to them at a conference, having a personal connection with the author is a great means of queue-jumping. If one of them is nice enough to you, you might tell your agent (once you hook up with one) that you want your potential bestseller sent to that editor first.

Heck, if she’s nice enough to you, you might be gullible enough to insist that she gets an exclusive peek at it.

Don’t laugh: it’s not a bad gamble, from their perspective. Aspiring writers, as I believe I have pointed out a couple of hundred times before, can get some strange ideas about loyalty owed to industry types who met them for a grand total of fifteen minutes once.

But trust me: deep in their steamy little hearts, those editors from major houses who ask you to send chapters will be hoping that you will land an agent before they get around to reading the manuscript they requested you send. If you are looking to pitch to an editor who might conceivably pick up your book right away, you are generally better off pitching to an editor from a smaller or regional house.

The overall moral: learning what individual agents and editors are looking for AND what their bosses will allow them to pick up (aside from the next DA VINCI CODE, of course) will help you target both your conference pitches and your queries more effectively.

Everyone — agents, editors, and writers alike — are happier when you do. Honest. Nobody concerned wants to break your heart gratuitously.

Keep repeating to yourself between now and the conference: they don’t reject to be mean; they don’t reject to be mean; they don’t reject to be mean. They’re doing it to fight their way to the book they can support wholeheartedly.

Getting a trifle depressed? Don’t worry — I’m almost through with the don’t list; very soon, we’ll be moving on to the dos, which are far more empowering. Keep up the good work!

A rose is a rose is a rose…but that doesn’t mean that they’re aren’t at least three ways to pitch it

It’s that charming-but-disorienting season again, campers: time for so many of us set our manuscripts aside in favor of such light-hearted feats as walking into a room with 150 strangers in it and striking up meaningful conversations, sitting through six hours of craft classes a day, and trying to compress a 400-page book into a 2-minute speech.

I refer, of course, to writers’ conference season, when hope flies skyward on the slightest provocation — followed closely by writers’ blood pressure.

Ah, we writers walk into conferences with such high expectations and nervous stomachs, don’t we? The average conference-goer’s wish list carries some fairly hefty items: to meet the agent of his dreams, who will fall flat on the floor with astonishment at his pitch and sign him on the spot; for an editor at a major publishing house to be so wowed that she snaps up the book practically before the writer finishes speaking, and to be whisked off to New York immediately for literary cocktail parties and glowing adulation. Can the New York Times’ bestseller list and Oprah’s book club be far behind?

It’s a lovely dream, certainly, but this is not what actually happens.

I’m absolutely serious about this. In actuality, no credible agent will sign a writer before having read the book in question; all of the major U.S. publishing houses have strict policies against acquiring books from unrepresented writers, and even agented works often circulate for months or more before they are picked up by publishers. Furthermore, there is generally at least a year-long lapse between the signing of a book contract and when that book appears in bookstores.

Translation: even for writers who actually ARE pitching the next DA VINCI CODE, the process takes a heck of a lot longer than the average conference-goer expects.

Even authors of brilliant, super-marketable books do not typically experience the conference fantasy treatment. At most, a great book well pitched will garner an array of, “Gee, that sounds terrific. Send me the first 50 pages,” requests. Yet even with a flurry of initial enthusiasm, months often pass between initial pitch and requests to represent.

It’s important to realize that going in; otherwise, pitching at a conference will almost inevitably feel like a tremendous letdown — or, still worse, like a sight-unseen review of your writing talent.

Worst of all, a belief that the truly talented ARE signed and sold within a matter of nanoseconds leads every year to that oh-so-common writerly misstep, rushing home to send out requested materials within a day or so of receiving the request — and realizing only after the fact that since the mad rush to get the manuscript out the door before that agent or editor changed her mind about wanting to see it meant sending it out without reading the submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I can sense my long-time readers of this blog shuddering at the ghastly fate that tends to greet such hastily sent-off submissions.

For those of you who are not yet cringing, let me ask you: how would you feel if you realized only after you’d popped a requested manuscript in the mail that there were four typos on page 1? Or that the margins were the wrong width? Or that you’d forgotten to change your memoir protagonist’s name back to your own after you’d changed it for a blind contest entry?

Ah, now everyone’s shuddering.

Realistic expectations about what conference success does and does not mean, as well as how it would serve you best to respond to the various contingencies, can save you a lot of grief — and I say this as a writer who DID land her agent through a conference pitch, had offers from several agents, AND had a book contract in hand six months thereafter.

But guess what: that probably would not have happened had I not done my pre-conference prep — or if I didn’t know walking in that I shouldn’t just sign with the first agent kind enough to ask me.

That last one caught some of you off guard, didn’t it?

So, what would be a realistic set of goals for a conference? An excellent choice would be to use the conference to skip the very annoying and time-consuming querying stage and jump directly to a request to read your manuscript.

Thus, pitching your work to at least one agent who has a successful track record representing books like yours would be a great goal — and having at least one agent ask you to mail a submission would be even better.

As would having an editor who is empowered to pick up new writers ask to see part or all of the book, or pitching to every publishing professional at the conference who deals in your kind of work. And let’s not forget the less marketing-oriented goals, such as learning a great deal from good seminars.

Or — and too many conference-goers forget to add this to their to-do lists — making connections with other writers, established AND aspiring, who write what you do. Amazing mutual support groups don’t just happen, you know; they are built over years.

If you can pull any or all of that off, you will have achieved conference success.

Not as sexy as the fantasy version, I know, but eminently do-able — and definitely worthwhile for your writing career. After all, skipping the querying stage can cut years from your agent search; think of every pitching opportunity as one less raft of a dozen query letters you are going to have to send out.

Looking a whole lot better now, isn’t it?

Your chances of pitching successfully, however, will be SUBSTANTIALLY higher if you do a bit of prep work before you go. But never fear: for the next few weeks, I shall be guiding you though the steps you need to take in order to walk in confident and prepared.

Fringe benefit: these steps are very useful to marketing any book, anywhere, anytime. If you invest the time in them, you will not only be able to pitch your work verbally; you will be able to talk about it like a pro AND transplant your pitch to your query letters.

Don’t tense up. You can do this. But it is going to take some work.

The first step to a successful pitch is to understand your book’s market appeal. Who is your target reader, and why will your book, out of the tens of thousands a good agent will see this year, satisfy that reader like nothing else currently on the market?

Hey, I told you it wasn’t going to be easy.

The second step to a successful pitch, as for a successful query, is to be familiar with the work of the person to whom you will be pitching. Find out what that agent has sold lately; find out what that editor has bought.

Find out, in short, who at the conference would be receptive to you and your book, so that you may know which to approach and pitch. This will involve some research on your part — which is why I am mentioning this at the BEGINNING of this series, and not toward its end.

I can sense some of you who have already signed up for conferences shifting restlessly in your seats, wondering if you should just skip the next few weeks of posts. “But Anne,” I hear those of you clutching registration forms protest, “I understand doing the prep work if I have a plethora of conferences from which to select, but I’m already registered for my local one. Since I’ve already been assigned a pitch appointment, why should I bother checking up on all of the agent who might eb attending?”

Well, for a couple of reasons. First, any book could be pitched in a number of different ways — and since the goal of pitching is not absolute uniformity between every pitch attempt, but rather to garner a request for pages, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to tailor your pitch to the agent who happens to be listening to it at any given moment, doesn’t it?

And no, I have absolutely no idea why conference literature so often tells potential attendees the exact opposite. I’ll be dealing with the one-size-fits-all pitch concept next week.

For now, suffice it to say that all three pictures above are from the same negative. You probably have a favorite among them; so do I. So would an agent. But they’re all the same angle on the same rose. The only difference is presentation.

Seem cryptic? Trust me, within a couple of weeks, it will seem downright obvious.

The other reason to do some background research on the agents to whom you may be pitching is — brace yourselves; this is a biggie — that it’s far from uncommon for writers to be assigned to pitch to agents who do not represent their kinds of books at all. Which means, practically inevitably, that the pitch will not end in a request for pages.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sit down and breathe deeply until that feeling of dizziness passes.

As anyone who has ever endured the agony of a mismatched pitch appointment can tell you, if your book falls outside the agent or editor’s area of preference, it doesn’t matter how good your pitch is: they will stop you as soon as they figure out that your book is categorically not for them. No amount of argument is going to help you at that point, so advance research is a very, very good idea.

I know, I know: it’s kind of cruel, isn’t it? But in fairness, conference organizers very frequently do not have enough information about prospective attendees to make a good match; most of the time, they simply rely upon the writers’ expressed preferences or — sacre bleu! — assign appointments randomly.

This means, unfortunately, that it is up to the conference attendee to check up on the agents and editors, over and above their blurbs in the conference program. Even those bear double-checking: as my long-time readers already know, the blurb agents and editors write about themselves is not always the most reliable indicator of the type of work they represent. It’s not that they’re trying to be misleading, of course; most just reuse their standard bio blurbs, which tend not to be updated all that often.

So it’s worth your while to check the agents’ websites, standard agents’ guides, Preditors and Editors, the Absolute Write water cooler, and anywhere else that you would normally go to check out an agent you were planning to query. You need to find out who these people are and what they represent.

I hear you groaning: yes, this IS every bit as much work as finding an agent to query. You don’t want to end up pitching to the wrong agent, do you?

Do be aware that since there is usually a significant time lag between when an agent signs an author and when the book hits the shelves (see above), it may be difficult to track down client lists for some agents. This does not necessarily mean that they are not active. The Publishers Marketplace database tracks sales as they happen AND provides client lists, so it’s a great place to check. This site does require a subscription ($20/month), so you might want to buttonhole some of your writing friends and pool the expense.

If you can’t find evidence that the agent to whom you are assigned to pitch is actively representing your kind of book, don’t be afraid to ask to switch appointments. Most of the time, conference organizers will honor this request — but they’ll usually be happier about it if you can suggest an alternative agent for an appointment.

That’s why it’s an excellent idea to check out ALL of the agents scheduled to attend a conference (there’s usually a list on the conference’s website), not just to one to whom you’ve been assigned. Ideally, you will want to try to pitch to anyone who might conceivably be a reasonable fit. And if none of the scheduled agents represent your kind of book, you should think very seriously about taking your conference dollars elsewhere.

Yes, having to do this level of background research is kind of a pain, but if it saves you even one wasted pitch, it’s definitely worth it. The more information you have, the more likely you are to find your best fit.

Doing your homework maximizes the probability that you will be pitching to someone who can help you get published — and not someone who will stop you three sentences in to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t represent that kind of book.”

Remember, not all agents are the same, any more than all editors are (of which more tomorrow); they have both professional specialties and personal preferences. It doesn’t make any more sense to pitch sensitive coming-of-age literary fiction to an agent who concentrates primarily on thrillers than it does to query a NF agency with a novel, does it?

Or to offer a modified purple rose to someone who would prefer a more realistic picture, for that matter.

Much, much more on conference prep and marketing follows in the days to come — and if you don’t mind a bit of motherly advice, PLEASE don’t be too hard on yourself if your learning curve is a bit sharp throughout this series. After all, no one is born knowing how to market a book.

Don’t let the process intimidate you — and keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Picking the right literary contest for you, part II, in which we discover, distressingly, that I STILL do not run the universe

Why do I have the nagging feeling that I was supposed to remind you all of something? It’s on the tip of my tongue…if only I had left myself some kind of subtle reminder…

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Ah, yes: in case you’ve been reading the blog with a blindfold on all week, I am going to be giving a talk onThe Multiple Myths of Philip K. Dick, this coming Saturday, January 26th, at Harvard.

To be specific, it will be at Vericon, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual SF, fantasy, and gaming convention. Admission to an entire day’s events runs from $10 – $20, depending upon when you register, and kids under 14 get in free, so I hope to see many of you there.

Now where was I? Ah, yes.

Yesterday, I horrified the innocent Virginias of the world by pointing out that in the average literary contest, the impartiality emperor might, to put it delicately, be under-dressed. Today, I shall give you a few pointers on how to figure out which contests are most likely to serve you best.

You’re going to want to look for a reputable contest — one that is, at minimum, blindly judged. In a credible contest, entrants are asked to leave their names off the submission’s pages (i.e., no last name in the slug line, no name on the title page), so that there is no possibility of a contest judge’s looking an entry and saying, “Hey, I know him. I owe him a favor — I’m just going to slide it into the finalists’ pile unread.”

Last time, if you’ll recall, I brought up the possibility that not all contests are blindly judged — and in those that aren’t, it can be awfully hard for even the best writer who isn’t already known to the judges to make it to the finalists’ round.

Don’t LOOK at me like that, Virginia. The last time I checked, I did not run the universe, nor do I manage any of the many and varied contests out there for writers in the English language.

If I DID run either, contest entries would be free; every contest would provide each non-placing entrant with supportive and useful feedback; finalists would be given a tutorial on how to approach agents and editors before and after the winners were announced, and every time a writer finished writing a good paragraph, a sugar-free, fat-free, calorie-free chocolate cupcake with a cherry on top would appear on her desk, as a reward for virtue.

If you haven’t noticed any of these things happening lately, it’s fair to say that I still am not in charge of very much of the writing world.

Speaking of woebegone faces, I shall never forget the looks on the faces of everyone at the awards ceremony of a QUITE respectable Southern conference when the teenage daughter of two of the contest judges carried off the Young Writer award — and, as I recall, a not insignificant check, derived, no doubt, from the entry fees of hundreds of trusting high school students whose parents were not regularly having drinks with the judges.

Had Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Bob the Builder all been hauled out of the room by DEA agents for peddling narcotics to kids, the attending writers’ expressions could hardly have expressed more shocked disgust.

Now, to be fair, in that particular year, the winner’s parents had actually been judging in other categories, not their daughters, but since they had been her first readers and were rather chatty people, it would require a faith in human nature so childlike that it would border on the infantile to believe that the judges in her category would not have had SOME inkling which entry was hers.

I’m not saying that the contest was rigged, per se; I’m just saying that the teenaged winner’s mother won in the nonfiction category.

A good tip for avoiding this type of situation: enter contests sponsored by organizations, not cliques. The writers’ grapevine can really help you here. Ask other writers about particular contests before you spend time and money on entering them.

Poets & Writers magazine, which lists literary contest deadlines in each issue, does a pretty good job of screening, so if a contest seems a bit shady to you, check if it is listed there.

And, of course, if you check out a list of the last few years’ winners (and you should), and you see the same last names recurring, or see that the judges themselves seem to carry off prizes on a fairly regular basis, you might want to think twice about sending in your entry check.

The next question you should ask yourself before mailing off your submission is: how good are your chances of winning?

Yes, any contest win or place will look nice on your writing résumé, but obviously, some contests are more prestigious than others. Less prestigious ones can actually be a better bet, if they are legitimate.

“Has not ruling the universe finally unhinged you?” I hear some of you exclaiming. “Isn’t bigger ALWAYS better?”

Not necessarily. You might be better off with a less well-known contest your first few times out.

For an exceedingly simple reason: your odds of making the finals are significantly higher in a small entry pool than a large one. Big-ticket contests attract stiff competition; contests with large cash prizes attract a higher percentage of professionals amongst the entrants.

Also, your chances of winning are higher if your writing resembles that of past winners. This is true for another exceedingly simple reason (they are abounding today, aren’t they?) — contest judges tend to be loyal folk, returning to the task with a tenacity a spawning salmon would envy. In most writers’ organizations that offer contests, the first round of reading is performed by volunteers.

And the same volunteers, year after year after year.

And, miraculously, their literary tastes don’t change all that much in the intervening twelve months between judging cycles. Go figure.

For the sake of example, let’s posit that the volunteers of a particular contest have historically favored Gothic romance. You, on the other hand, write futuristic fantasy, and there is only one category for novels. Think you’d be probably better off going for a different contest, one that favors your type of work?

If your answer was an unqualified, “By God, yes!” help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. The more specialized your genre, the more it behooves you to check in advance whether a conference’s complement of judges tend to treat it with respect.

Or (to take a purely hypothetical case that couldn’t possibly refer to any contest run in my local area in which I might have taken a high prize in years past) if the top mainstream fiction category prizes in a prestigious competition are carried off year after year by literary fiction writers, you might want to think twice about entering fiction that is, say, particularly mainstream.

But if you happened to write on the literary side of romance, or are an unusually descriptive SF/fantasy writer, you might stand a good chance. Getting the hang of it?

How can a potential entrant tell what the judges’ preferences are, short of taking them all out to lunch individually and asking them? Most contests will list past winners on their websites, tucked away in a corner somewhere; check them out.

If the sponsoring organization publishes winning entries – and many have small magazines — read a few. If your writing style is radically different from what has won in the past, the contest is probably not for you.

In any contest with celebrity judges — i.e., famous writers who make the final selections from amongst the finalist pool — this goes double, or even triple. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, think twice before bothering to enter.

I can feel you wincing, Virginia. Crunching a few dry crackers should help with the nausea.
Even if you’re lucky enough to find a celebrity judge who is well-read outside of his own subgenre — and, even better, willing to reward work unlike his own — the bigwigs virtually never read all of the entries. Commonly, they read only the finalists’ submissions.

In practice, that means that those crusty volunteers I mentioned above screen the entries first – and all too frequently, edge out good entries that do not resemble the celebrity’s, on the well-intentioned theory that everyone’s writing tends to reflect his own reading tastes. They’re just trying to save the celebrity some time.

The two-tier system is followed in almost every literary contest, incidentally, celebrity-judged or not: the first rounds are evaluated by a different group of people than those who ultimately pick the winners. Sometimes, the judging criteria are not coordinated across rounds as well as one might hope.

Which is why, in case those of you who have heard contest judges grumbling in the bar after awards ceremonies, the entries that really wow ‘em in the early rounds often do not win or place. Usually, it is only within the power of a first-round judge to recommend that an entry make it to the finalist round; what happens there is generally under someone else’s control.

Why set it up this way? Well, since final-round judges are often chosen from amongst those agents and editors who are committed to attending the conference attached to the literary contest, it’s mostly intended to save the final-round judges reading time. But a two-tiered (or even three-tiered) system also makes it significantly harder to rig an outcome.

If it’s not clear why that might be desirable from an entrant’s point of view, you might want to re-read the anecdote at the beginning of this post.

If the contest is attached to a conference where the awards are given (and, as I mentioned above, many are), try to find out in advance whether the agents who typically attend that conference ones who might be interested in your work.

I can tell you from personal experience: while having a contest win, place, or show under your belt is great ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy), being a finalist at most conferences confers a good deal more than just a nice ribbon attached to your name badge.

It marks you out as someone with whom, for instance, an agent might want to pause and have a hallway conversation, or ask, “So, what do you write?” during otherwise pitch-free social time in the bar. And that, as they say, is nothing at which you should be sneezing.

In other words, it’s a fabulous little conversation starter — and that could be a very good thing, if your dream agent happens to be in attendance, couldn’t it?

Here’s an idea: you might want to target contests attached to conferences that your dream agent habitually attends.

How can you find this valuable information? Well, I wish I had a clever tip to pass along, something nifty that would give my blog’s readers a competitive edge, but the fact is, the standard agency guides often list this information. (If you are unfamiliar with how agency guides work, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category at right.)

The internet is your friend here, too: pretty much every conference will list which agents they cajoled to it last year and/or those who will be blandished into being there this year.

As I said yesterday, there’s more to using contests to your benefit than sending in a well-written entry: there’s strategy. Next time, I shall turn this question on its head, talk about what you can get out of entering a writing contest.

Keep up the good work — and wish me luck in Boston!