So you’ve pitched successfully — now what? Part V: presenting your manuscript so its glory shines unfettered

I had to laugh, campers: remember Tuesday’s lengthy post on cover letters for submissions, and, by extension, on the many, many benefits of tailoring one’s communications with agents, editors, and the rest of us that read for a living in such a way that (a) one demonstrates a laudable ability to communicate clearly in writing, (b) one displays an admirable willingness to follow the directions given in the request for pages, and (c) one practices a level of courtesy that indicates not only that one would be a pleasure to work with, but also that one does not expect the manuscript-requester either to have been holding her breath, awaiting your submission, or to drop all of her other work to pay attention to your pages the instant they arrive? You know, the post in which I explained with meticulous care that since so many aspiring writers are inconsiderate in their submissions, it would be very much in your interest to be the one submitter that day that greets Millicent the agency screener with professional politeness? To be, in fact, the one aspiring writer out of a thousand that puts in the effort and thought to render herself easy to help?

Once again, as so often occurs, the universe rushed to provide me with further examples to illustrate a discussion already in progress here at Author! Author! Yesterday, I found myself devoting hours to an author that expected me to abandon any work-related plans I might have had for my afternoon to pay attention to an essay he had written — as a potential guest post here, as it happens — without any prior warning. That in itself is too common to be irritating; it frequently takes writers years to accept that their deadlines are not the only ones with which the pros deal. The fact that he had pulled the same stunt on Monday, while less ordinary, had already confirmed him in my mind as someone that would not be especially easy to help.

Being an easy-going sort of person, however (or at least as easy-going as it is possible to be in a deadline-based business), my first response to his popping up again — and so soon, too — was not to dismiss him as inconsiderate or unprofessional. I intended merely to give him a gentle hint that the next time he wanted my advice, he should plan on asking, nicely, to book my time a week in advance.

That was my plan, anyway, until it became clear that he was outraged about Monday’s editorial feedback. You know, the stuff I’d spent an hour thoughtfully compiling for him on a moment’s notice.

Which, again, is not in itself unusual enough to raise my delicate eyebrows much. What did throw me a little — and make me think of our ongoing series — was that the tirade the author saw fit to e-mail me was clearly his immediate response to my editorial suggestions. That indeed surprised me: by the time most writers make their way into print, they have generally learned that their first responses to revision requests do not always match up with their subsequent thoughts on the subject. An experienced author might still compose that irate e-mail telling the editor that she must be out of her ever-loving mind, but he usually has the presence of mind not to hit SEND.

Why bring this up in the midst of a discussion on submission, you ask, other than to plant the seed in your mind that a prudent writer will wait a few days before taking issue with an agent or editor’s revision request? Two reasons: to illustrate my earlier point that how writers present themselves sometimes discourages the pros from trying to help them — and to remind everyone that the manuscript is not necessarily the only part of the submission that an agent, editor, or Millicent will weigh in deciding whether to represent a writer. The writing is the most important element, of course, but the professionalism of a submission packet and submission behavior that demonstrates both courtesy and a willingness to follow directions will also go a long way toward convincing a pro that yours is the project out of tens of thousands to select.

Perhaps equally important for first-time submitters to know, this is a business in which politeness counts, as do reputations. Although it may appear huge and monolithic to a writer trying to break in, U.S. publishing is actually a relatively small and diverse world. People talk.

Why might a writer want to be concerned about what they say? Well, let me put it this way: I already knew when the soon-to-be irate author approached me with a request to guest-blog that he tended to overreact to editorial feedback. I’d heard stories.

To be fair, such stories abound. One does not have to hang around publishing circles very long to learn that as a group, writers have a reputation for being hypersensitive to feedback, if not downright resistant to it. We also, I’m sorry to report, have gained the image of reacting with equally violent negativity to any suggested revision, be it a request to alter a single paragraph in Chapter 2 or to rework the entire last third of the book.

“What do you mean, I have to add a comma on line 3 of page 147?” the faceless author of professional anecdote rails. “That would utterly destroy my artistic vision! And you want me to stop using adverbs to modify every appearance of the word said? Madness!”

Like most stereotypes, the writer that flies into an insensate rage over the slightest criticism is largely mythical, of course, and his ubiquity is certainly exaggerated. In my experience, most writers serious about their craft do try pretty hard to be open to professional critique. And that can be genuinely challenging, as almost every aspiring writer thinks of her first manuscript, at least, as part of herself.

So when even the best-intentioned agent or editor says something as self-evidently helpful as, “You know, your target audience might respond better to this character if he didn’t swear in every sentence,” it’s not entirely surprising that a writer new to revision might hear not a practical suggestion to excise a few dozen specific words over the course of a manuscript with a hundred thousand of them, but a blanket condemnation of her writing style.

It’s even less astonishing than such a misinterpretation would have been fifty or sixty years ago. Most aspiring writers today are not aware of it, but the submission system used to be set up, at least in part, to inure them to the fact that one of the ways the pros help writers is by offering feedback. How so? Well, in the bad old days, a writer would send a manuscript (often, unwisely, his only copy) to a publishing house, and he would receive a response from some kind editorial assistant. Most often, that missive would be a form letter, thanking the writer for his submission but informing him that it did not meet the publisher’s needs at that time.

If the manuscript demonstrated even the slightest hint of what at the time was called promise, however, that editorial assistant — or even an editor — might well fill that letter with feedback and professional advice. And not only in the instances in which the editor felt the manuscript had sufficient publishing potential that the letter included a request to revise and resubmit: astonishingly often, the pros would take the time to say encouraging words to those only beginning to tread the path to writing professionally.

That meant, if a writer kept at it, she would see a definite progression in submission response. At first, she might receive only generic form letters, but if she worked on her craft and presentation, the next time around, the rejection might take the form of a nice note. After that, she might receive a few general editorial suggestions to improve her work. If she took those seriously, her next effort might spark a letter with detailed feedback, along with a request to resubmit the manuscript after those changes were made. And then, if she was hard-working, talented, and lucky enough to have written something that might appeal to the current market, an editor might well have acquired the book, even if it still needed some polishing.

The writer had, in short, time to get used to the idea that writing professionally meant being expected to make revisions. That wouldn’t necessarily mean that she liked it, of course, or that she would feel that all of the feedback would improve the book, but at least an aspiring writer could use the process in order to become accustomed to professional expectations.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? “I’ll say it does, Anne,” feedback-starved writers everywhere sigh. “That system sounds as though it was not only much more pleasant for aspiring writers — once one became accustomed to receiving professional feedback, that is — but as though it would ultimately result in better books. Why on earth did they give it up?”

Well, not all of them did — there are still quite a few smaller publishing houses that at least try to adhere to this model. But even there, and certainly at the larger houses, the pressure not to give feedback or accept unsolicited submissions has been and continues to be immense: since the sheer number of writers actively seeking publication has risen astronomically since, say, 1952, it would be prohibitively time-consuming to respond to each manuscript individually.

Which is why, in case those of you that were shocked to learn the publishing industry doesn’t still operate like this had been wondering, most of the big houses had made the switch thirty years ago to requiring novelists to approach them through agencies. Before the mid-1970s, it was not at all uncommon for a fiction writer not to land an agent until after she sold her first book.

And it wasn’t always a minor book, either. According to editorial legend, Ordinary People was a direct acquisition, for instance. An editorial assistant discovered it in the slush pile, the immense stack of unsolicited submissions that used to build up to avalanche proportions in every major house.

Going through the slush pile took immense amounts of time, as you might imagine, so you can hardly blame publishers for being relieved when agencies took over initial manuscript-screening duties. And for years, the submission process in the latter echoed what used to happen at the publishing houses, at least in part: an aspiring writer’s progress followed a definite arc.

It was a longer arc, though, because agencies were not eager to generate slush piles; instead of accepting unsolicited submissions, they required prospective clients to query first. And although a great many of those queriers did receive form-letter rejections, it used to be unheard-of for a query not to elicit any response at all. As a writer’s understanding of the querying process improved, she might reasonably expect to begin to receive first encouraging rejections (“Although this is not for me, it’s an intriguing premise — keep trying!”), then requests for pages. Indeed, as recently as five years ago, agents could occasionally be heard opining at conferences that if a writer was receiving only form-letter replies, there must be something wrong with his query.

Seems so long ago, doesn’t it? Now, it’s downright common for agencies not to respond to queries at all if the answer is no.

Before ten or fifteen years ago, though, the submission process followed the earlier publishing house norms even more closely than querying did. Agencies would almost always ask for only the first few pages at first; if an agent requested the entire manuscript, it meant she was really excited about the book. If submitted pages received a form-letter reply, it meant that the agency did not consider the manuscript a serious contender for representation. If the manuscript showed promise, however, the rejection might still contain some form-letter elements (“I’m sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with this book.”), but it might also contain a few sentences of praise and encouragement.

That way, the writer could learn something from the rejection. He could learn even more if he received what was known as a rave rejection, an apologetic letter explaining what the agent liked about the manuscript, as well as the reasons that she did not believe she could sell it. Although revise and resubmit requests became less common with the advent of the personal computer — which caused an increase in submissions beyond anything the publishing world had ever seen — agents would sometimes test a writer’s talent and flexibility by asking for specific revisions before signing him. More often, though, an agent would take a chance on a book that was nearly polished, reserving the revision requests for after the representation contract was signed.

So, again, while some aspiring writers did strike lucky with a first query or first submission, the norm was an ever-increasing level of feedback and much subsequent revision. Although having to land an agent typically added considerable time to the publication process, the savvy writer could learn a great deal about what it would be like to work with an editor.

Today, however, time constraints and constantly rising query numbers have resulted in both less feedback along the way and an expectation that a writer will already be producing perfectly-polished manuscript pages by the time of first submission. That’s a tall order, but not without justification: any reputable agency will receive too many clean, well-written, professionally-formatted manuscripts to worry much about the promising projects that don’t rise to that standard. A serious writer will pick herself up, dust herself off, and learn how to do better next time, right?

That’s Millicent’s belief, anyway. But since writers now are so seldom told why their submissions were rejected — indeed, it’s become common not to get back to the writer at all if the answer is no, even after a request for the full manuscript, something that stuns most aspiring writers to learn — it’s harder than fifty years ago to learn how to improve one’s submission. It’s harder than it was fifteen years ago. Heck, it’s harder than it was five years ago.

Which is why, as you might have guessed, I started this blog seven years ago — seven years ago next week, in fact, should anyone want to send flowers. And should any of you have thought, “My God, why would Anne put up with that guest blogger’s weird response to her feedback?” that’s also why I periodically ask established authors to share their experiences with you. It’s simply a whole lot harder than it used to be for aspiring writers to gain that experience on their own.

So let’s turn our focus to that most practical of matters, how to pull together a submission packet. And, while you’re at it, using that packet as a subtle means of demonstrating that not only are you a writer serious enough about your work to learn how to present it professionally — rather than, say, expecting an agent or editor to take the time to explain how you might improve your submission next time — but that you also would be a courteous, upbeat client careful about following directions, open to constructive criticism, and generally a joy to help.

Let’s start with the most obvious question: how do you get your manuscript to the agent?

Mailing your submission so it arrives looking good
At the risk of making those of you in love with online querying and submission groan, I should preface the practical by saying that most of what follows is directly applicable to the hard-copy submission of requested materials via mail. It’s also, to head off any misunderstandings at the pass, intended to advise only writers submitting book manuscripts and book proposals; other branches of publishing have different rules.

And please don’t tell me that simply nobody accepts mailed submissions anymore. Even in these mercurial days of e-mailed queries, electronic submission, and Hubble telescope photographs of far-flung celestial bodies (I’m a sucker for a nice snapshot of Jupiter), most agencies still prefer paper submissions. Heck, many still insist on mailed queries as well.

Why? Well, fear of computer viruses, for one thing. Every single e-mailed submission Millicent opens is one more opportunity for something nasty to infest the agency’s computer system. But there’s another reason that both Millie and a submitter might, given the choice, prefer hard-copy submission: it’s so much easier for an electronic submission to get lost.

Why, you ask, your face a frozen mask of horror? Well, when Millicent gets on an online submission reading roll, she hits the DELETE key more than any other, right?. So it’s not too surprising that her finger would slip occasionally. Force of habit, really; the lady rejects a heck of a lot of manuscripts between lunch and checking out for the day.

For reasons both of tradition and prudence, then, a lot of writers are going to be in the market for shipping containers for their manuscripts. Yet as insightful long-time reader Jen wrote in to ask some time back, it’s far from self-evident what kind of container would look professional to Millie:

Sending off all those pages with nothing to protect them but the slim embrace of a USPS envelope seems to leave them too exposed. Where does one purchase a manuscript box?

An excellent question, Jen: many, many aspiring writers worry that a simple Manila envelope, or even the heavier-duty Priority Mail envelope favored by the US Postal Service, will not preserve their precious pages in pristine condition. Especially, as is all too common, if those pages are crammed into an envelope or container too small to hold them comfortably, or that smashes the SASE into them so hard that it leaves an indelible imprint in the paper.

Do I sense some of you scratching your heads? “But Anne,” head-scratchers everywhere ask, and bless their experience-seeking hearts for doing so, “once a submission is tucked into an envelope and mailed, it is completely out of the writer’s control. Surely, the Millicents that inhabit agencies, as well as the Maurys that screen submissions at publishing houses and their Aunt Mehitabels that judge contest entries, are fully aware that pages that arrive bent were probably mangled in transit, not by the writer who sent them. They can’t blame me for mashed mail, can they?”

Well, yes and no, itchy ones. Yes, pretty much everyone who has ever received a mauled letter is cognizant of the fact that envelopes do occasionally get caught in sorting machines, if not actually mauled by playful bands of orangutans with a penchant for playing volleyball with objects with pointy corners. Mail gets tossed around a fair amount in transit. So even a beautifully put-together submission packet may arrive a tad crumpled.

Do most professional readers cut the submitter slack for this? Sometimes, but if Millicent’s just burned her lip on that latt? she never seems to remember to let cool, it’s not going to take much for the next submission she opens to irritate her a little. Especially if the submission she happened to be perusing while reaching for her latt? was a revise-and-resubmit job that apparently did not take her boss’ thoughtful earlier editorial advice.

To coin a phrase, appearances count. You should make an effort to get your submission to its intended recipient in as neat a state as possible. How does one go about insuring that? The most straightforward way, as Jen suggests, is to ship it in a box designed for the purpose. Something, perhaps, along the lines of this:

Just kidding; no need for a medieval Bible box here. What most professional writers like to use looks a little something like this:

This is the modern manuscript box: sturdy white or brown cardboard with a lid that attached along one long side. Usually, a manuscript box will hold from 250 to 750 pages of text comfortably, without allowing the pages to slide from side to side.

While manuscript boxes are indeed very nice, they aren’t necessary for submission; the attached lid, while undoubtedly aesthetically pleasing, is not required, or even much appreciated at the agency end. Manuscripts are taken out of the boxes for perusal, anyway, so why fret about how the boxes that send them open?

In practice, any clean, previously-unused box large enough to hold all of the requested materials without crumpling them will work to mail a submission. Don’t waste your valuable energies badgering the manager of your local office supply emporium for an official manuscript box; you may only confuse him. Anything close to the right size will do, but err on the large side: it’s easier to pad a manuscript around the edges to fit in a big box than to bend it to squeeze into a small one.

My finely-tuned editorial senses are picking up some resistance, are they not? Some of you dislike the notion of using just any old box, rather than one specially constructed for the purpose, I’m guessing I’m not entirely surprised. I hear all the time from writers stressing out about what kind of box to use — over and above clean, sturdy, and appropriately-sized, that is — and not without good reason. In the old days — say, 30+ years ago — the author was expected to provide a box, and a rather nice one, then wrap it in plain brown paper for shipping.

These old boxes are beautiful, if you can still find one: dignified black cardboard, held together by shining brass brads. They were darned near immortal, too; I have several that members of my family routinely sent back and forth to their agents in the 1950s, back when sending a manuscript across the country entailed sending it on a multi-week trek. To this day, not a sheet of paper inside is wrinkled.

Ah, tradition. For sending a manuscript, though, there’s no need to pack it in anything so fancy — or indeed, anything extravagant. No reasonable agent is going to look down upon your submission because it arrives in an inexpensive box.

In fact, if you can get the requested materials there in one piece box-free — say, if it is an excerpt short enough to fit into a Manila folder or Priority Mail cardboard envelope without danger of wrinkling — go ahead. This almost always will work for a partial or the briefer stack of materials acceptable to send in a query packet.

Do bear in mind, though, that for either a query or submission packet, you want to have your pages arrive looking fresh and unbent. Double-check that your manuscript will fit comfortably in its container in such a way that the pages are unlikely to wrinkle, crease, or — perish the thought! — tear.

The chances of avoiding those dreadful fates are substantially higher if you print all of your submission packet materials on bright white 20 lb. paper or better. I favor 24-lb., myself. Yes, it costs a few dollars more, but it honestly is penny-wise and pound-foolish to use cheap paper for submissions. Not only does heavier paper ship better, but it’s less likely to wilt over the course of the multiple readings a successful submission will often see at an agency.

It’s also, let’s face it, more attractive. As we saw last time, if you can look at a stack of printed pages and see even a vague outline of page 2 while you’re examining page 1, your paper isn’t heavy enough.

Look for a box with the right footprint to ship a manuscript without too much internal shifting. To keep the manuscript from sliding around and getting crumpled, insert wads of bubble wrap or handfuls of peanuts around it, not wadded-up paper. Yes, the latter is more environmentally-friendly, but we’re talking about presentation here. Avoid the temptation to use newspaper, too; newsprint stains.

While I’m on the subject of large boxes, if you’ve been asked to send more than one copy of a manuscript — not all that uncommon after you’ve been picked up by an agent — don’t even try to find a box that opens like a book: just use a standard shipping box. Insert a piece of colored paper between each copy, to render the copies easy to separate. Just make sure to use colored printer paper, not construction paper, or the color will rub off on your lovely manuscripts.

I don’t have time to box-shop. I’m right on top of a submission deadline, possibly one that is self-imposed!
Fair enough. If you’re pressed for time, your local post office is probably your best bet for one-stop shopping will probably stock manuscript-sized boxes, as does USPS online. Post offices often conceal some surprisingly inexpensive options behind those counters, so it is worth inquiring if you don’t see what you need on display.

Do be warned, though, that the USPS’ 8 ?” x 11″ boxes only LOOK as though they will fit a manuscript comfortably without bunching the pages. The actual footprint of the bottom of the box is the size of a piece of paper, so there is no wiggle room to insert a stack of paper without wrinkling it.

Trust me, that’s not something you want to find out after you’ve already printed out your submission — or when you are right on top of a deadline. If you’re in doubt about the internal size of a flattened-out box (as they tend to be at the post office), fold it into box shape and try placing a standard sheet of paper flat on the bottom. If it doesn’t lie completely flat, choose a larger box.

Yes, yes, I know: the USPS is purportedly the best postal service in the world, a boon to humanity, and one of the least expensive to boot. Their gallant carriers have been known to pursue their appointed rounds despite the proverbial sleet, hail, dark of night, and mean dogs. They have also been, as an institution, saddled with some of the nation’s most difficult budgeting requirements, so we may well be seeing postal services reduced. I, for one, find that deplorable.

But when faced with an only apparently manuscript-ready box on a last-minute deadline, the thought must occur to even the most sympathetic postal patron: what do they expect anyone to put in an 8 1/2” x 11” box other than a manuscript? A beach ball? A pony? A small automobile? Why not just design the box to hold a ream of paper?

I’m trying to submit on a budget. Is there any chance that I might pick up something appropriate for free?
Actually, yes, but it does mean opting for slightly more expensive postage. It’s usually worth it, though: far and away the most economical box source for US-based writers are those free all-you-can-stuff-in-it Priority Mail boxes that the post office provides:

Quite the sexy photo, isn’t it? Downright ravishing, considering that it’s of an object made of cardboard? . If you don’t happen to mind all of the postal service propaganda printed all over it, these 12″ x 12″ x 5 1/2″ boxes work beautifully, with a little padding. (Stay away from those wadded-up newspapers, I tell you.)

Whatever difficulties you may have finding an appropriately-sized box, do not, under any circumstances, reuse a box clearly marked for some other purpose, such as holding dishwashing soap. As desirable as it might be for your pocketbook, your schedule, and the planet, never send your manuscript in a box that has already been used for another purpose. Millicent considers it tacky.

Don’t pretend you’ve never thought about doing this. We’ve all received (or sent) that box that began life as an mail-order shipping container, but is now covered with thick black marker, crossing out the original emporium’s name. My mother takes this process even farther, turning the lines intended to obfuscating that Amazon logo into little drawings of small creatures cavorting on a cardboard-and-ink landscape.

As dandy as this recycling effort is for birthday presents and the like, it’s not appropriate for shipping a submission. It’s unprofessional — and if there’s ever a time when you want your work to be presented as professionally as possible, it’s when you’re submitting it.

Think about it: do you really want your manuscript to prompt an allergy-prone Millicent to mutter between sneezes, “Why does this submission smell of fabric softener?” (One drawback of nicer paper: it soaks up ambient smells like a sponge. My memoir’s editor evidently smoked a couple of cartons over my manuscript, and even now, years later, the marked-up pages still smell like the employee handbook in a Marlboro factory. I knew better than to hit SEND on my reaction to that until weeks after my asthma attack had subsided. And even then, I edited out any references to coughing.)

“But wait!” I hear the box-savvy cry, “Those Amazon boxes are about 4 inches high, and my manuscript is about 3 inches high. It just cries out, ‘Stuff your manuscript into me and send me to an agent!’”?

A word to the wise: don’t take advice from cardboard boxes; they are not noted for their brilliance. Spring for something new, and recycle that nice Amazon box for another purpose.

How can I keep my manuscript from being mistaken for an unsolicited submission?
Every time you send requested materials, without fail, you should write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters in the lower left-hand corner of the submission envelope. If you have been asked to submit electronically, include the words REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line of the e-mail. This will help your submission to land on the right desk, instead of in the slush pile or recycling bin.

Why might an agency receive unsolicited materials to confuse with yours? The submission guidelines on their websites, usually, as well as confusion amongst writers that believe publishing still works as it did fifty years ago. To be absolutely clear, what agencies list on their websites’ general submission guidelines does not constitute a request for those materials; that’s just stuff they want to have handy while they’re considering a query. So a Millicent working in such an agency might routinely process first chapters, opening pages, or a synopsis with a query — all of these would, in the industry’s eyes, be unsolicited submissions.

The logic runs thus: guidelines that recommend submitting extra material with a query are generic, aimed at any aspiring writer who might conceivably be considering sending a query. By contrast, a solicited submission, a.k.a. requested materials, is one that an agent is waiting to see because she has asked a particular writer to send it following a successful pitch or query. Because the agent expressed positive interest in seeing those pages, the lucky requestee is fully justified in scrawling REQUESTED MATERIALS in letters two inches high in the lower right-hand corner of the envelope or shipping box, just to the left of the address, to assure that the submission lands on the right desk instead of the slush pile made up of, you guessed it, unsolicited manuscripts.

Everyone clear on the difference between solicited and unsolicited materials? Dandy.

Yes, readers who have been wishing I would drop all of this talk of cardboard and focus upon your concerns? “This is all very helpful, Anne, but a bit superficial, literally. I want to know what goes inside that manuscript box and in what order.”

Okay, let’s pretend for a moment that you have just been asked to submit materials to the agent of your dreams.

What goes in the box?
The first thing you should do is take a very close look at both the missive in which the agent expressed the request and the agency’s guidelines. Why? Well, just as generic requests vary in what agents ask queriers to send, so do requests for solicited material. While every agency and small publishing house seems to have a slightly different idea of what constitutes a standard submission packet.

Remember, part of what you want to demonstrate here is your professionalism and courtesy. You’re also being given an opportunity to show you can follow directions. So send precisely what the agent has asked you to send, no more, no less.

What might you be asked to send, you ask? Good question. Here are the most commonly-requested constituent parts, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in the box:

1. Cover letter
We covered this one last time, right? Any questions?

2. Title page
Always include a title page, if any manuscript pages have been requested — yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way.

Also, like the cover letter, a properly-constructed title page renders it easy for an agent to track you down. Believe me, if the agent of your dreams falls in love with your manuscript, you’re going to want to hear about it right away. As luck would have it, we discussed how to construct a proper title page earlier in this series.

3. The requested pages in standard format, unbound in any way.
The operative word here is requested. If an agent or editor asked you for a partial, send PRECISELY the requested number of pages. Don’t fudge here — even if your novel features a tremendous cliffhanger on p. 51, if the agent of your dreams asked for the first 50 pages, send only the first 50 pages, period.

Actually, in this instance, you should send only the first 50 pages even if they do not end in a period. Even if the designated last page ends mid-sentence, stop there. When an agent or editor asks for a specific number of pages, send that number of pages — no more, no less.

They mean pages in standard manuscript format, by the way. It’s impossible to over-estimate the desirability of sending professionally-formatted submissions. If you’re brand-new to reading this blog or have somehow avoided my repeated and vehement posts on standard format for manuscripts over the last seven years, you’re in luck: earlier in this series, I provided a quick reference guide to proper formatting, for your double-checking convenience.

4. A synopsis, if one was requested, clearly labeled AS a synopsis.
With fiction, when an outline is requested, they usually mean a synopsis, not the annotated table of contents appropriate for nonfiction. For nonfiction, an outline means an annotated table of contents. Most of the time, though, what an agent will ask to see for either is a synopsis.

5. Author bio, if one was requested.
An author bio is a one-page (double-spaced) or half-page (single-spaced) plus photo account of the submitting writer’s professional credentials. Typically, when an agent submits a manuscript or book proposal to editors, the author bio is tucked immediately at the end of the manuscript or sample chapter.

6. A SASE big enough to fit the entire manuscript.
For those of you new to the SASE, it’s an acronym for self-addressed, stamped envelope. For a submission, the SASE should be large enough to send back every scrap of paper you’re mailing to the agency.

Emphasis on the stamped part: always use stamps, not metered postage, for the SASE. That’s probably going to be a lot of stamps: due to the paper-consumptive rigors of standard format, one rarely, if ever, meets a full-length manuscript that weighs less than two pounds.

That means some luckless intern is going to have to tote it to the post office personally. Don’t make her life more difficult by sticking metered postage on the package.

If the requested pages fit in a Manila or Priority Mail envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission package. But how does one handle this when using a box as a SASE?

Well, it would be impracticable to fold up another box inside. If you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection. To be on the safe side, explain in your cover letter how you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal.

You can also nab one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-address it, add postage, and stick it into the box. If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.

And think about it: if you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because Millicent’s rejected it. Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage — or of aspiring writers shelling out the dosh to overnight their submissions. Neither is necessary, and quick shipping most emphatically won’t get your work read faster.

Or taken more seriously. Don’t waste your money.

7. Optional extras.
For a partial, if you want to send a second, business-size envelope SASE as well, to make it easy for Millicent to request the rest of the manuscript, place it at the bottom of the packet (and mention it in your cover letter.)

If you don’t want to spring for delivery confirmation, include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. They don’t always send it back, but usually, they do. To generate a chuckle in a hard-worked Millicent, I always liked to send a SASP that looked like this — although with a stamp attached, of course:

Don’t worry about this causing extra effort; it doesn’t, and you will have proof that they received it. This is important, because manuscripts do go astray from time to time. You can also have the post office track the box for a low fee.

8. Pack it all in a durable container that will keep your submission from getting damaged en route.
Again, any questions?

And that, my friends, is the low-down on the submission packet. Don’t forget that every syllable you send to an agency is a writing sample: this is a time to use impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing, please. No smudges or bent corners, either. Make it all pretty and hope for the best.

And don’t forget to keep sending out queries — and, if requested, other submissions — while you’re waiting to hear back. If there’s one thing that veteran submitters have learned from experience over the past five years, it’s that they don’t always hear back. Yes, even on a full manuscript. Keep moving forward.

Above all, comport yourself at every point throughout like a professional writer ready and willing to be helped to publication. Try to think of the submission stage as on-the-job training in how to keep your cool and deliver the goods.

Yes, it can be a very frustrating process, but believe me, the more successful you are, the more often you will be asked to revise your work, do promotion, and engage in other activities that, given their druthers, most writers would choose not to do. It’s going to be tempting at some point along your learning curve to beard the heavens with your bootless cries over the abject unreasonableness of anyone but the artist having a say over how to manifest her artistic vision.

But remember, writing is not just for the writer — it’s primarily for the reader. Is it really so unreasonable to believe that agents and editors with years of experience shepherding books from the writer’s desk to a particular target audience might conceivably be able to give you some good advice?

And if you doubt that — and I sense that some of you do — please, for my sake, consider two more things. First, do you recall that irate author I talked about at the beginning of the post, the one that glanced at my feedback, raced to his computer, and shot off an e-mail in the first throes of injured ego? He thought I was telling him to do the precise opposite of what I actually advised.

I suspect that he realized that as soon as he calmed down; he’s a reasonable guy. I also suspect that even as I write this, he is bitterly regretting that he hit SEND.

More importantly from a professional point of view, he wasted what must have been an hour of his time venting at me because he just hadn’t read very carefully. And caused me to waste a couple of hours of my time soothing him to the point where he could hear what I was actually saying. How much easier and less stressful it all would have been had he not acted on his initial impulse — and how much more likely, frankly, I would have been to help him out when his next book comes out.

Writers usually learn this from unpleasant experience, but I like to help speed up that learning curve. Which is why I would also like you to consider this: reactions like our friend’s are the reason that writers as a group have gained a reputation for over-sensitivity to feedback. Agents and editors do have a pretty good reason to choose writers, as well as manuscripts, with care.

Be a delight, if you possibly can — or at least save your most vehement responses for the moments when it counts most. Remember, it takes only a few isolated tantrum-throwers to give the whole lot of us a bad reputation. Keep up the good work!

A memoir needs a story arc as much as a novel does? Is this an April Fool’s joke?

Of all the many, many mysteries that keep those of us who handle manuscripts for a living up at night, none is so recalcitrant — and, even more trying to the editorial mind, positively immune to diagnostic analysis — than why it so often seems to come as a complete surprise to memoirists to be asked, “What’s your book about?” From a publishing perspective, few questions could be more straightforward, or more predictable: presumably, something occurred in the memoirist’s life that he thought would make a good story on paper, right?

To your garden-variety memoirist, however, answering this inherently loaded question is complicated. Or so publishing professionals surmise, from the long pause that typically ensues. Often preceded by a gusty sigh and succeeded by a sudden avalanche of seemingly unrelated personal anecdotes.

That’s the standard response, by the way, regardless of the context in which a memoirist is asked what her book is about. Be it at a writers’ conference, in a social interaction at the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, at a party mostly peopled by non-writers (oh, we do manage to mingle occasionally), or even in a pitch meeting, people writing about their own lives tend to change the subject. Rather quickly, too.

If you’ll forgive my saying so, memoirists, that’s a pretty remarkable reaction, at least to those of us prone to hanging out with writers. Published and as-yet-to-be published writers are notoriously fond of talking about their work, sometimes to the exclusion of actually working on new projects. Heck, there’s even an old joke about it:

Aspiring writer at cocktail party: I hear you’re an agent. I’ve written a book…

Agent (instantly scoping the exits): I’d love to hear about it, but I’m afraid I have only an hour left to live.

Hey, I didn’t say it was a good joke, but it is reflective of the way the rest of the world views writers. A writer’s will to communicate tends to be pretty strong, after all; even a shy writer will often burst into chattiness when given the slightest encouragement to talk about his work-in-progress. So it just doesn’t make sense to the rest of the human population when someone writing about what should be the most absorbing topic of all, dear self, doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.

Indeed, from the intensity of that sigh that’s always blowing those of us kind enough to inquire over sideways, the mere mention of it seems to be quite painful. As a memoirist myself, someone who recently wrote an explanatory introduction for somebody else’s memoir, a lifetime interview subject for biographies about the famous and semi-famous (I’d tell you about it, but that would involve blurting out my life story; oh, the pain), and a frequent editor of memoir, I think I can tell you why.

What we have hear, my friends, is a failure to communicate. What a memoir-writer hears is not the question, “So what is your book about, anyway?” but something closer to, “Sum up your life in fifty words or less. Kindly include a brief summary of the meaning of life in general while you are at it. Please bear in mind that how you will be remembered after your death rides on this answer. Ready — go!”

Just so you know, writers of the real: that’s not what’s being asked here. The Inquisition is not breaking out the thumbscrews, demanding a confession. Not at a cocktail party, not at a writers’ conference, and certainly not when anyone that might conceivably be able to help you get your memoir published brings it up.

So what are these fine folks asking? Precisely what they would ask any other writer. What they are hoping to hear is a short, cogent summary of your book’s story arc.

Imagine their surprise, then, when the memoirist abruptly clams up. Or starts muttering into her drink a shaggy dog tale about the summer of 1982 — a particularly effective evasive technique, as 1982 was for so many of us a year best forgotten altogether.

And those are the courteous responses. Sometimes, the well-meaning questioner will merely elicit a begrudging snort of, “Well, obviously, it’s about me.”

Of course, any prospective author is perfectly at liberty to shorten her list of friends to contact when her book comes out — oh, you thought the recipient of such a dismissive answer was going to break down the doors of his local indie bookseller to buy that memoir? — but you’d be astonished at how frequently agents and editors hear this type of comeback. Without, apparently, anticipating that the response to it will not be particularly gratified, “Well, thanks for filling me in, Noah Webster. Twenty years in publishing, and I had yet to learn the definition of memoir.”

Okay, so most publishing types’ mothers taught them not to be this rude to relative strangers. To the pros, though, any of these replies is perplexing, at best, and at worst, a sign of a complete misunderstanding of how and why anyone not already personally connected with an author might become interested in a memoir.

They have a point, practically speaking. To those who have never tackled the difficult and emotionally-draining task of writing their own stories, it’s well-neigh incomprehensible that anyone hoping to sell a manuscript or proposal could not instantly answer what is, after all, a question any agent representing the book, any editor acquiring the book, any publicist pushing the book, and any reader remotely likely to pick up the book would need to know right off the bat. Surely, having a story to tell is a prerequisite to telling it.

So how could one hope to market a book without knowing what it was about? Heck, how could one hope to write a book without having a clear idea of its story arc?

Actually, those questions puzzle most fiction writers, too, as well as the people that love them. Oh, novelists are not immune to that lengthy hesitation — combined, nine times out of ten, with a gusty sigh — in response to the more general, “So what do you write?” Yet fiction-writers usually manage to follow up with an account that bears at least some embryonic resemblance to the plots of their books.

Astonishingly often, though, memoirists do not — and sometimes seemingly cannot, even if they have already successfully proposed their books. Take Diane, for instance, a courageous memoirist who has recently sold a searing tale of self-revelation to a major publisher; she said that I could share her experience here on condition of changing her name, age, sex, height, weight, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, profession, familial background, and any other identifier that might conceivably render her recognizable to anyone she has ever known. Particularly her book’s acquiring editor.

A truly gifted anecdotalist, Diane has lead a remarkable life (about which I can, of course, tell you nothing); a skilled writer with substantial journalism experience (oops), she is likely to tell it well. Being familiar with how the publishing industry works, she had little trouble pulling together a book proposal, tossing off the requisite marketing materials in three weeks and polishing off a gem of a sample chapter in six. Her agent, Tyrone, fell in love with what was for Diane a new type of writing and was able to sell the book to an eager editor within a remarkably short time to Grace, a very talented editor with a great track record of handling personal memoir with aplomb.

The publication contract specified a not unusually short time in which to complete the manuscript: six months.

Well might you choke, memoirists. At that point, Diane had written only the sample chapter and the first three paragraphs of Chapter 2.

As is all too easy for those new to the game to forget, a book proposal is a job application: the writer makes the case that she is the best person currently occupying the earth’s crust to write a particular book, right? Implicit in that case, however, is the expectation that she will be able to produce that book by a deadline.

None of this was news to Diane, of course, at least not at an intellectual level. She knew that she was a fairly typical position for a first-time memoirist: she would need to write the book she had proposed on a not-unreasonable deadline — or what would have been a reasonable deadline, were advances still large enough to take time off work to complete a writing project. Not necessarily the easiest task in the world, certainly, given that it had taken her six weeks of nights and weekends to compose that nice sample chapter; at the rate she had been writing so far, it would only take another two years to write the book as she had conceived it.

But she did not have two years; she had six months. And Grace had, as acquiring editors of nonfiction so often do, asked for a few changes to the book’s proposed running order. As well as some minor tweaks to the voice.

Does the monumental gasp that just shook a nearby forest indicate that some of you memoirists were not aware that could happen? If so, you’re not alone: since writers so often work in isolation, it’s not at all uncommon for a first-time book proposer to forget (or not to know in the first place) that since the proposal is a job application for the position of writing the book, the publisher hiring the writer generally has the contractual right to ask for changes in that book. And that can be awfully difficult for personal memoirists, who have often spent years working up the nerve to write their life stories in the first place, much less to someone else’s specifications.

Fortunately, Tyrone had experience working with first-time memoirists; he had the foresight to warn Diane before he started circulating the book proposal that the book she had in mind might not be what precisely the acquiring editor would like to see in the published version. So when Diane received the news that Grace felt that the storyline was getting a little lost in the welter of chapters proposed in the Annotated Table of Contents.

“Just stick to the book’s major story arc,” she said, “and we’ll be fine. If this book sells well, we can always work the other material into your next.”

Stop that sighing, memoirists. The furniture in my studio is only battened down to the level appropriate for earthquakes, not hurricanes.

Still, Diane had worked on short deadlines before, and this one was not all that short. Besides, Grace clearly knew what she was talking about; she had spotted a legitimate flaw in the Annotated Table of Contents. Diane hadn’t really thought much about the structure of the book, beyond simply presenting what had happened to her in chronological order. Streamlining her story a little should not be all that hard, right?

Her opinion on the subject shifted slightly over the next three months: writing a personal memoir is notoriously prone to stirring up long-dead emotions. The brain does not seem to make a very great distinction between reliving an event vividly enough to write about it well and living through a current event. Understandably, Diane felt as though she had been going through intensive therapy in her spare time, on a deadline, while holding a full-time job.

Now, Diane saw her previously-manageable task as a gargantuan one. Presuming that she had the stamina to finish drafting the book by her ever-nearing deadline, something she was beginning to doubt was humanly possible, would she be writing it as she wished, or would she simply end up throwing words onto paper? Under those unreasonable circumstances, how could she possibly maintain sufficient perspective on that terrible period of her life to come up with a satisfying dramatic arc? She felt she would be lucky just to get the whole story into a Word file on time.

So she did what most first-time memoirists do: she just wrote the story of that period of her life in chronological order. She wasn’t altogether happy with the manuscript, but she did get it to Grace before the deadline.

Hard to blame her for embracing that tactic, isn’t it? Most of us don’t think of our own lives as having a story arc. We live; things happen; if we’re self-aware, we might occasionally learn something from the process. And when we talk about our lives out loud, that’s not much of a storytelling barrier: verbal anecdotes don’t require much specific detail, character development, or ongoing plot.

Nor does sentence structure typically make or break an anecdote. Summary statements can work just fine. Indeed, it’s not unheard-of for every sentence of a perfectly marvelous anecdote to begin with the phrase I was…

Unfortunately, as Grace pointed out to Diane after the first draft had winged its merry way to the publishing house, that particular type of storytelling, while fine in the right context, just doesn’t fly on the printed page. Memoir readers expect fully fleshed-out scenes, complete with dialogue; too many summary statements back-to-back can start to seem, well, vague. Could the text be more specific?

Then, too, just referring to a major character as my brother was going to get awfully tedious awfully fast for a reader; Diane was going to have to do some character development for the guy. Like, for instance, letting the reader know what he looked like and why, if he lived in Bolivia, he seemed to be dropping by her apartment in Chicago on every ten pages.

Oh, and while Diane was at it, could she be a trifle more choosy about what was and was not important enough to the central story arc to keep on the page? “I raised this concern about the proposal,” Grace pointed out, and rightly. “I know it’s hard to think about yourself as a protagonist in a book, but you have to remember that is how the reader is going to think of you. While a side story might seem vital to how you, a member of your family, or one of your friends would recall this part of your life, you’re not writing the story for people who already know it.”

While this was, from a professional perspective, pretty terrific advice — after all, the art of memoir consists as much in deciding what to leave out as in what to include — Diane felt overwhelmed by it, as well as by her two-month revision deadline. Completely understandable, right? Here she was, frantically rewriting some of her favorite passages and slashing others (oh, her mother would be furious to see her favorite scene in Chapter 5 go!), and now that Grace had forced her to contemplate it, she had to admit that she still had no clear notion of what the overall message of that period of her life was. Why wasn’t it enough to present what actually happened, directly and honestly?

Come to think of it, wasn’t it just a touch dishonest to cut out things that had actually happened? Didn’t she owe it to the reader to give a complete picture, even if that meant boring Grace a little? Wasn’t it compromising her vision as an author to mold her work to the specifications of an editor who was…oh, my God, was Grace asking her to change the story of her life?

Naturally, she wasn’t asking any such thing, as I told Diane when she called me in a panic. Grace, like all conscientious editors, was merely being the reader’s advocate: prodding the writer to make the reading experience as entertaining and absorbing as possible on the printed page.

Need you sigh with such force, memoirists? You just blew my cat across the room. “But Anne,” some of you protest, “doesn’t Diane have a pretty good point here? She had envisioned her story a particular way, crammed with everyday detail. That kind of slice-of-life writing can be very effective: I like a memoir that makes me feel that I’m inhabiting the narrator’s world. So isn’t she right to fight tooth and nail for her earlier draft?”

Ah, that’s often a writer’s first response to professional feedback: to regard it as inherently hostile to one’s vision of the book, rather than as practical advice about how to present that vision most effectively. But that’s usually not what’s going on — and it certainly wasn’t in this case. Grace was genuinely trying to make the book a better read.

And, frankly, she was right about limiting the proportion of the book devoted to depicting Diane’s everyday life vs. the extraordinary events that interrupted it. Grace believed, and with good reason, that as a non-celebrity memoir, the audience for this book would be drawn far more to the dramatic, unique parts of the story than to the parts that dealt with ordinary life. Let’s face it, just as everyday dialogue would be positively stultifying transcribed to the novel page , quite a lot of what occurs in even the most exciting life would not make for very thrilling reading.

Oh, you thought that “Some weather we’re having.” “Yeah. Hot enough for you?” “Sure could use some rain.” was going to win you the Pulitzer? Grace was quite right in maintaining that the art of memoir very largely lies in selecting what to leave out — and that Diane’s very gripping first-person narrative was getting watered down by too many scenes about…

Wait, what were they about? It was hard for the reader to tell; they seemed to be on the page simply because they had happened.

I know, I know: that’s not an entirely unreasonable selection criterion for, say, a blog. As the Internet has demonstrated time and again, people like to get a peek into other people’s lives. That does not mean, however, there’s a huge book-reading audience out there potentially fascinated with what any given writer had for breakfast, his interactions with his cat, and how he sweeps dried mud from his shoes.

Sort of seems like sacrilege to say it, given how the media tends to celebrate the Twitterverse these days, doesn’t it? Yes, there are plenty of venues where it is perfectly acceptable — nay, encouraged — to share even the smallest details of one’s personal life, but by and large, strangers do not pay to find out what Writer X had for lunch today.

Oh, sure, your Facebook friends might like to hear about it, but it’s hard to imagine plowing through 400 pages of printed-out status updates, isn’t it? I hope it has not escaped your notice, memoirists, that by and large, the people vitally interested in those day-to-day specifics are not total strangers, but those who already know you personally.

In case I’m being too subtle here: the no doubt well-deserved loving attention of your kith and kin to the contrary, writing down everything that happens to you seldom works in a book. Real life is too random, and, frankly, it’s lousy at plot development.

Indeed, reality is not always even particularly believable, at least on the page. As Mark Twain liked to say — wow, I’ve been quoting hi a lot lately, have I not? — truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.

Sorry to break that to those of you who had been following those gusty sighs with, “Well, this really happened to me.” Of course it did. You’re writing a memoir. The mere fact that you lived it doesn’t excuse you from making it one heck of a great read, does it?

Or, to put it another way, the simple fact that something really happened does not render it inherently interesting for a reader; that’s the writer’s job. Agents and editors like to say that it all depends on the writing, but for a memoir, I would add that it also depends upon understanding what is and is not essential to the story you’re telling.

The reader does not need to know what every cobblestone on the street looked like in order to be thrilled by the scene when bloodhounds chased you from one end of that street to the other. (Oh, did I bury the lead there? That’s also a pretty common problem in memoir manuscripts: the most important element is hidden in the middle of a paragraph ostensibly about something else. Rather like this piece of advice: annoying for a skimmer, isn’t it?) To entice a reader to keep following a protagonist, real or not, through hundreds of pages, a narrative needs to convey a sense of forward motion based upon dramatic development, not just the progression of time.

“But Anne!” social media enthusiasts shout, and who could blame you? “Celebrities tweet about mundane personal details all the time, and I’ve heard that publicists tell the famous point-blank that posting about real-like activities (especially with pictures!) is one of the best ways to build up a social media following. People like to feel they are in the know — and while we could quibble about whether anything said to People magazine could be construed as private, there’s certainly a demonstrable market for it. So while I agree that quite a lot of it is stultifying, both on the screen and on the printed page, you can’t deny that celebrity memoir often does get down to the what-I-ate-for-breakfast level. And those books sell.”

Good point, enthusiasts, but from a publishing point of view, celebrity memoirs that dwell upon the ordinary sell despite containing ho-hum specifics, not because of them. What causes a reader to pick up the book is already being familiar with the author, at least by reputation. The ability to draw that type of instant recognition is integral to a celebrity author’s platform.

I hear some of you grumbling about how celebrity-chasing limits the number of publishing slots available for non-celebrity memoir, but honestly, public attraction to the private lives of celebrities is hardly a recent development. Cartoons of Marie Antoinette’s alleged palace escapades were hot sellers in the years leading up to the first French Revolution. A satire of Julius Caesar’s relationship with a prince he’d bested in battle enjoyed wide circulation. Cleopatra’s P.R. people worked overtime not to get the word out that, unlike her dim-witted brother, she spoke so many languages that she could conduct treaty discussions with foreign dignitaries herself, but to convince regular folk to regard her as the incarnation of Aphrodite. Just ask the hundreds of spectators who showed up to watch her have dinner on a boat with the earthly embodiment of the war god, Marc Antony.

I venture to say, however, that just because the world is evidently stuffed with people willing to read half a page about a celebrity’s breakfast-eating habits because they hope that the following page will talk about something more glamorous, it does not render that half a page inherently exciting. Unless the celebrity in question happens to wake up one day and decides to consume something genuinely remarkable — like, say, an elephant or the cornerstone to the Chrysler Building — it’s just ordinary stuff.

I say this, incidentally, as someone who regularly gets accosted by biographers trying to find out what certain literary luminaries preferred in a breakfast cereal. Which just goes to show you: the more famous a writer becomes, the more likely he is to be judged by something other than his writing.

There are, of course, quite a few genuinely interesting and well-written celebrity memoirs and biographies; I don’t mean to cast aspersions on those book categories. I’m merely suggesting that it might be quite a bit easier for someone who already has a national platform to get an ordinary breakfast table scene published than it would be for anyone else.

Like, say, Diane. I think that Grace was doing her a favor, actually: most memoir readers would be more critical than she of a memoir that got bogged down in mundanties. When is it better for a writer to hear a hard truth like that, do you think — early enough in the publication process that she can do something about it, or after the book comes out, in the online reviews?

Speaking as a person who would rather identify and nip problems in the bud, rather than the more popular tactics of ignoring them or waiting until they have grown into trees to chop them down, I must admit that I’m a big fan of the former. Yes, it’s nice to hear nothing but praise of one’s writing, but to improve it, trenchant critique is your friend.

Which, I am happy to report, Diane did quickly come to realize. Grace’s revision requests were not unreasonable; they were aimed at making the story they both loved more marketable. Together, they managed to come up with a final version that this reader, at least, found pretty compelling. Streamlined to within an inch of its life.

What may we conclude from Diane’s story? Perhaps nothing; like so many real-life sagas, it may well be just a series of events from which a bystander can learn little. It’s also possible, I suppose, that this tale was just my heavy-handed, editorial-minded way of saying hey, writers, you might want to consider the possibility that your editor is right. It has been known to happen, you know, and far more frequently than revision-wary aspiring writers tend to presume before their work has had the benefit of professional feedback.

No doubt due to my aforementioned fondness for tackling writing problems as soon as they pop their green shoots above ground, I believe that Diane’s problem evolved from that lengthy pause and gusty sigh after being asked, “So what is your book about?” Like the overwhelming majority of first-time memoirists, she simply hadn’t thought about it much — not, that is, until writing on a deadline and to a publishing house’s expectations forced her to contemplate the issue.

So in the interest of saving you chagrin down the line, I ask you, memoirists: what is your book about? What is its essential story arc? And how can you sift through the myriad events of your fascinating life to present it to the reader as fascinating?

Why, yes, those are some mighty big questions, now that you mention it. Would I really be doing your book a favor if I asked easier ones?

To forearm you for the moment that most good memoirists face, the instant when you honestly cannot tell whether a particular detail, scene, or relationship adds to or distracts from your story arc, let me leave you with my favorite memoir-related image. It requires some set-up: while autobiographies consist of what the author can remember (or, as is common for presidential memoir, what ended up in a journal) of a particular period of time, memoir frequently concentrates upon a single life-changing event or decision — and the effects of that occurrence upon one’s subsequent life and world.

Imagine that event or decision as a stone you have thrown into the pond of your life. Show the reader that stone’s trajectory; describe it and the flinging process in as much loving detail as you like. Make the reader feel as though she had thrown it herself. Then, and only then, will you be in a position to figure out which of the ripples on the pond resulted from shying that rock, and which were caused by the wind.

Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part VII: have editing pens, will travel

Again, that was a longer gap between posts than I intended — I imagine that some of you intrepid souls are becoming just a trifle impatient to pop those query letters into the mail — but such is the life of a red-pen-for-hire. I go where I am needed, when I am needed. And my, how often the relatively tiny minority of developmental editors with experience in walking a writer through last-minute revision requests seem to be needed lately.

That’s good for those of us who enjoy riding into Dodge, guns blazing, to tame a wild revision crisis, of course, but it can be awfully nerve-racking for the poor writers. Although multiple (and often extensive) substantive revisions after signing a book contract — or, increasingly common, after one’s agent has shopped one’s manuscript around for a while — have been the norm for quite a while now, most first-time authors walk into representation and book contracts with no idea that their books will need to be tweaked further. Once a submission makes it past Millicent the agency screener and is embraced by her boss, the agent of your dreams, all the writer has to do is sit back, relax, and let the book-marketing professionals take over, right?

Um, wrong. Despite most agents’ expecting manuscripts to be completely clean by submission time (i.e., free of typos, grammatical errors, misspellings, and formatting problems), it’s actually rather rare that an agent won’t ask at first-time client for some market-oriented revisions. And it’s downright normal for an acquiring editor to issue an editorial memo either before or after acquisition, laying out a framework for modifying the manuscript with which she has fallen in love.

All of that is expected, at least by those who have been skulking around in publishing circles for a while. What’s changed recently is the frequency with which manuscripts under contract get passed from hand to hand these days. I don’t mean to frighten you this close to Halloween, but you wouldn’t believe how many authors wake up after celebrating a book sale (particularly a first book sale) to find that the acquiring editor is no longer associated with the project, due to layoffs, moves to other publishing houses, early retirements, the editor’s having decided to transmogrify into an agent, or what have you. Regardless of the reason a manuscript is reassigned, one constant tends to crop up: what the new editor wants to see in the book is typically different from what the acquiring editor did.

Very good, those of you who just clutched your chests and appealed to the Almighty: your extrapolation was correct. In practice, this increased mobility means that writers — again, more often those publishing a book for the first time, but it does happen to the tentatively established, too — frequently are faced with the daunting prospect of having to revise a manuscript that has already been revised in accordance with an agent’s expectations a second time for the acquiring editor, often on a rather short deadline. Not entirely surprisingly, this can lead to a writer’s feeling that her original vision has been slowly consumed over several meals by a ravenous lion.

Is this better than how first-time authors felt in the past, when agents or editors asked for a single, immense revision, a process often described as the book’s having been swallowed whole by a boa constrictor? That’s a matter of personal taste, naturally. There’s a reason that the demand for the services of the aforementioned pen-swinging editorial crisis brigade has risen sharply since the publishing industry’s contraction: who’s a writer going to call for help at a time like this?

Hey, it’s a living. For those of us who like jumping in and solving seemingly intractable editorial challenges, especially if we happen to find the rarefied and often moan-filled air of a deadline-pressed revision environment exhilarating, there’s never been a better time to be a freelance editor.

While you’re already lying, moaning, on the nearest fainting couch, I might as well explain why: it’s not all that unusual anymore for editor #2 to give way to a third. Or a fourth. Heck, I even know a few hapless authors struggling through a transition to a fifth editor. I’ve said it before, and I shall doubtless say it again: editors, like agents, are not possessed of a single mind; they harbor individual literary tastes.

Remember that, please, as we continue to talk about the vicissitudes of querying. It’s the key to understanding why generic queries simply don’t work.

If you’re the kind of aspiring writer who finds that last sentiment outrageous, troubling the air with your bootless cries of, “What do you mean, I need to personalize a query for every agent I approach? That’s absurd. Agents are all looking for the same thing: a marketable book. Therefore, all I should need to do is present my manuscript as marketable, and any agent worth his proverbial salt should automatically sit up and take notice,” well, you’re certainly not alone. First time queriers who don’t think that are as rare as people whose second toes are longer than their big toes: certainly not unheard-of — check out any ancient Greek statue, or the Statue of Liberty, for that matter — but definitely in the minority.

In response to what the statistically-minded amongst you just wondered: somewhere between 10% and 20% of the population. And if you also thought, “Gee, if I had a protagonist whose foot was in the genetic minority, I could use that statistic in my query letter,” congratulations: you’ve been paying attention to our ongoing discussion of how to impress Millicent with the size of your potential target market.

While we’re on the subject of target audience and how to talk about it in your query letter, I’d like to take a brief break from our list of common querying faux pas to address some murmurings I’ve been hearing out there in the ether. I shall be talking more about identifying your ideal reader later in Queryfest, of course, but if possible, I’d like to set some worried minds to rest on the challenge, or even the necessity, of identifying in your query who is likely to want to read your book.

Come on, admit it: as a writer, you probably find this question rather intimidating, if not downright appalling, don’t you? “Isn’t it my future publisher’s job to figure out how to market my book?” I’ve heard some of you grumbling, and with some good reason. “Wasn’t it my job to write it, or if it’s nonfiction, to write a book proposal for it? Isn’t alerting an agent to that fact the end of my marketing efforts? Agents, after all, are skilled at pitching books like mine to editors; wouldn’t it be presumptuous for me to tell them how to do it? By the same token, don’t publishers’ marketing departments possess far more intimate knowledge of who is buying what kind of book than I, an isolated writer with no access to sales statistics, could possibly be?”

My, you ask a lot of rhetorical questions, grumblers, but in answer to the central question here, no, a writer’s marketing tasks do not begin and end with landing an agent. There was a time when that was at least partially the case, but for years now, authors — again, especially first-time authors — have been expected to be active participants in book marketing. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for authors to have to set up their own book signings and readings, or even to pay for their own transportation to same. While some publishing houses still spring for website development for their new authors, many simply tell the author to establish a web presence on her own. It’s not even all that unusual for authors to hire their own publicists, on the grounds that their publisher’s publicity departments tend to be so overworked.

So in practice, thinking now about your ideal reader, what s/he is already reading, and why s/he will want to buy your book is smart strategy. That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s not going to be a bit difficult, or that you’re not going to be tempted to follow one of the many, many query templates floating around the Internet that simply leaves that information out. It’s not technically required, after all: as long as you mention the book category and describe your book well, Millicent doesn’t actually need that information in order to assess whether your book will fit into her boss’ current list.

So if you want to omit it, that’s certainly your right. As your longtime friend and writing advisor, however, I feel that it is my duty to point out that including it has been known to make the difference between her saying, “Oh, yes, there is a well-established target market for this book,” and her muttering regretfully, “This book sounds interesting, and I might personally want to read it based upon this description, but I just don’t think there are enough readers out there for it.”

Or, to put it another way: before you read that statistic about how many people have Greek statue-style feet, wouldn’t you have assumed that it was too small a demographic to be worth naming as a target readership?

So would Millicent. But do the math: as of today, the current U.S. population is 312,431,252. (Thank you, Mr. Internet!) Taking the most conservative estimate of statue foot incidence, the writer with the foot-obsessed protagonist could justifiably assert in his query that about 31 million Americans could identify with second-toe lengthiness.

Before any of you rushes out to compose a novel about such a foot-waver simply in order to use this rather impressive statistic in its query, let me hasten to add that the mere fact of being able to say that something in your book might conceivably resonate with some large group of people isn’t necessarily going to help make your case with Millicent.

This, for instance, would be a rather unconvincing query. As always, if you are having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Okay, why doesn’t this work? In the first place, did you catch that Whiskers addressed Ms. Bookmongerson as Mr.? “Hmm,” Millicent would muse, reaching for the stack of photocopied form-letter rejections that is never far from her elbow, “I wonder what male agent got the query just before this on Whisker’s list.”

Also, did you notice that the descriptive paragraph began with HERE, BOY! follows…, a lead-in right up there with My book is about… on the Millicent-annoying scoreboard? Obviously, a novel will follow its protagonist; equally obviously, a book description will tell what the book is about. So why waste precious page space — or Millicent’s patience — by stating the self-evident?

But we were talking about target audience, were we not? The biggest problem here is that the statistic-based claim is far too inflated to be plausible: Millicent knows that not every dog lover will buy this book — or, indeed, any book. It’s not only demonstrably untrue, but absurd at first glance: no book is universally appealing to everyone in its target demographic.

That’s a shame, really, because the statistic itself is rather eye-catching. If Whiskers had taken the time to make a solid case that some of those 182 million people are likely to pick up the book for a specific reason, it might have been successful. That argument could have been as simple as while there are many novels about cat owners, dog owners seldom see their day-to-day trials and joys represented on the fiction page or as complicated as a point-by-point comparison with the selling points of MARLEY & ME, as long as it was plausible. As the query stands, though, it just reads as though Whiskers listened to some darned fool of a writing guru who insisted that statistics make the query.

But as we may see, how one presents those statistics is as important as the numbers — using them as page decoration, rather than the basis of a solid case for your book’s appeal, might well cost your query dearly. Why? Well, inflated readership claims are a notorious agents’ pet peeve. So If Millie has been screening queries for a while, she might automatically stop reading at the sight of such a preposterous assertion.

Yes, really. Is that the sound of your knees rattling together in terror, those of you who have sent out queries with similar claims, or has the cosmos suddenly been overrun with maracas players?

Also, Whiskers is just assuming that dog ownership necessarily translates into wanting to read about dogs. Yet plenty of dog owners never give the printed page a passing glance, just as many inveterate book-buyers cross the street when they see a dog sauntering down the sidewalk toward them. As the social science types say, coexistence does not necessarily equal correlation — and definitely doesn’t equal causation.

I know, I know: hardly a day goes by without your hearing that old chestnut, right?

Okay, so maybe it’s not all that widely-known an aphorism, but it’s nevertheless true: just because two things happen to occur at the same time or in similar places doesn’t mean that the two are related, or even that the two things could always be found together. For instance, many people own dogs; many people buy books about dogs. But does the mere presence of a dog in a household mean that the people living there will automatically buy a book about a dog?

Of course not: dog owners are not the only purchasers of books about dogs, by a long shot. Think about dog lovers with pet allergies, for instance, or relatives of dog owners who have no idea what to get them for Christmas. Together, these two groups represent millions of people, all of whom would have been left out of an assessment of target market based upon the relatively easy to disprove assertion that dog owners — and, by implication, only dog owners — have already demonstrated an interest in books like this, and therefore may be relied upon to consider buying HERE, BOY!

Does that large gasp that just ricocheted around the cosmos indicate that at least some of you had not realized that this was the purpose of talking about target market at all? Just in case that’s been stymieing some of your efforts to discuss your book in the language of the industry, I’m going to go ahead and restate it as an aphorism: just telling Millicent in your query that your book is going to sell to a particular group of people is not the same thing as specifying a target audience for your work. Identifying the people who already read books like yours and showing why they will want to read it is the key to convincing Millicent and her boss, the agent of your dreams, that your book has market appeal.

In other words, when the publishing industry talks about demographics, what they have in mind is not just big groups of people, but big groups of people already in the habit of buying particular kinds of books.

Starting to make sense that form-letter rejections so frequently include some permutation of the phrase I just don’t think I can sell this in this literary market, isn’t it? It’s not necessarily that the manuscripts being queried could not possibly garner any readers at all; Millicent simply cannot tell from the overwhelming majority of queries what already-established readership is likely to find the books being presented appealing enough to pick them off the shelf.

It makes intuitive sense, really, when you consider how book sales actually work. Unless publishing types anticipate a book’s being a bestseller (a relative rarity, by definition), why would they care about the tastes of the non-book-buying public? While it is true that occasionally, a book will be so wildly popular that even people who seldom buy books will purchase it — not a bad definition of a blockbuster, actually — the runaway success of books like THE DA VINCI CODE, HARRY POTTER, and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY generally come as something of a surprise to the publishing industry precisely because their lure extends beyond their respective book categories’ usual audiences.

What does that mean for you and your query, you ask? Well, for starters, claiming that your book is the next DA VINCI CODE is, alas, unlikely to win you Brownie points with Millicent unless you offer plausible reasons that your story will grab the same readers. Without such argumentative support, you run the risk of her dismissing it as just another market-ignorant exaggeration from a writer who believes, as so many queriers seem to do, that the literary market consists only of bestsellers. Believe me, anyone who works in a reputable agency will be painfully aware how rare bestsellers are, particularly ones by first-time authors.

Instead of going for the big claim, think smaller. Millicent is aware that the overwhelming majority of book sales are not category-crossing blockbusters, but favorite authors’ work within specific book categories. It’s better querying strategy, then, not to ask only who among the public at large might already be interested in the subject matter of your book, but to look to your chosen book categories’ loyal readership. Is there a subgroup within that audience that has already demonstrated it likes to buy books that share characteristics with yours?

And no, Virginia, I’m not suggesting that you open your query with something as obvious as this:

Really? A mainstream fiction book will appeal to the mainstream fiction audience? Who could possibly have anticipated that? And once again, ol’ Whiskers misidentified the agent’s sex in the salutation.

Oh, you may laugh, but you would be STUNNED at how often queries actually do read like this — or worse. Believe it or not, Millicent’s bloodshot eyes are also frequently confronted with arguments like the following. See if you can spot the subtle logic problem. Or perhaps two.

Where should I even start? On the bright side, Whiskers did manage to address Ms. Bookmongerson correctly in the salutation, but this query has little else to recommend it. The tone is pushy (under the guise of attempted humor, a rather common passive-aggressive technique in queries), the description reads like a romance, not mainstream fiction, and although you and I know that Whiskers actually does have enough professional experience with dogs to legitimize a claim to expertise, those credentials don’t show so much as a whisker here.

All of those weaknesses pale, however, next to that jaw-droppingly irrelevant third paragraph. Just because there are sailor characters doesn’t mean the novel will automatically appeal to everyone who has ever served on the sea, after all. From the descriptive paragraph, how can Millicent tell to what navy the dognappers belonged? For all she knows, they could have been merchant marines, or land-lubbing dog-fanciers cleverly disguised.

Since the logical connection is pretty tenuous, at least from the query-reader’s point of view, it’s not clear why Whiskers brought the navy up at all. And if the book is about dogs, why on earth bring up cats?

Being privy to Whiskers’ behind-the-scenes reasoning — oh, we editorial pen-wielders get around — I can answer that question: she heard somewhere that cat books sold really, really well. She just wanted to jump on that bandwagon.

I can tell her — and you — now that this strategy isn’t going to work. Stick to the target audience for the main subject matter of the book, or at most, the primary subject matter plus a subplot’s worth. Provided, of course, that either of those actually will appeal to the readers you have in mind.

Admittedly, it can be difficult to figure out who those readers might be, even if one is already pretty aware of who is currently buying similar books. As thoughtful and incisive reader Dani observed recently,

I feel that naming a category for your book is a no-brainer. (Finding the category can be a bit more tricky lol) But as far as describing your target audience…this one I’m finding a bit challenging. I’ll have to read your post on that. Is “13-17 year old girls who have lost their parents during war-ridden times and now have to traverse Europe to escape looming doom” too narrow?

I love this question, not only because it nudged me into writing this post (thanks, Dani! And Mr. Internet for bringing us together!), but because although Dani described her target market flippantly, she’s quite right about who is likely to find her book appealing. She’s merely defining her audience too narrowly.

How so? Perhaps jokingly, Dani has assumed that the target reader’s life story would need to be a perfect match with the protagonist’s to claim her as an ideal reader. But what if we take out some of the specifics and broaden our focus a little? What if, in fact, we embraced the proposition that since readers tend to like to read about people like themselves, wouldn’t it make sense that people like your protagonist would be the natural readership for the book?

Let’s try that for a moment: presuming that the ideal reader would fall within the ages Dani specifies, let’s not look beyond girls who are already reading YA. Based upon the description above, what parallels might there be between her experiences and certain portions of the established YA readership?

Constructed that way, it’s much less daunting to think like a publicist for a moment, is it? If you’re having some difficulty starting the brainstorming flow, here’s a hint for you: the young reader I have in mind is unlikely to be traversing Europe, but she might well feel a sense of looming doom. Any guesses?

If you said, “Wait — a lot of young girls have lost parents. I would advise Dani to run, not walk, to find out just how many,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Award yourself two if you also shouted, “And while you’re at it, do a spot of research on how many kids in that age range have had other deaths in the immediate family! Those young readers might really appreciate a novel that reflected some of their reality.”

I can answer that one off the top of my head, as it happens: about a fifth of Americans experience a death within their families before they are old enough to vote. That’s a hefty chunk of the young population, and frankly, I think they could use more thoughtful novels that don’t whitewash what it’s like to lose someone you love at that age. While bereaved adults can cope by making radical changes in their lives in the wake of a loss — moving to another state, changing jobs, taking up sky-diving, dating unwisely, to name but four — young mourners seldom have that luxury. I also think a lot of young readers would be thrilled to see their trauma taken seriously — something adults tend not to do very often, unfortunately; the young bereaved often come under tremendous pressure to pretend that everything is normal at home. So it’s not too much of a stretch to say that, done well, a book like this could be very important to the right reader.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let me ask you: if you knew a young reader going through that kind of devastating loss, what book would you buy for her? Wouldn’t you at least consider a book like Dani’s, one in which a young heroine has to struggle against a similar loss and, if I am reading the description correctly, is able to do something about it?

The target audience portion of the query sort of writes itself now, doesn’t it?

Does the resonant thunk of thousands of jaws hitting the floor out there mean that you weren’t expecting it to be quite so easy? That’s really Dani’s doing: by defining her protagonist’s dilemmas so clearly, she laid the groundwork for some very straightforward brainstorming about audience. (Well done, D!)

That’s a great first step: defining your protagonist in general terms, in ways that are not too difficult to translate into the conditions of your chosen book category’s current readers’ actual lives. Step two: use those parallels to define what subset of readers would most likely be able to identify with those conditions. Step three: show why.

Obviously, this is going to be a significantly harder case to make if your protagonist happens to be a fourteen-eyed purple sloth from the planet Targ than if she’s a hard-working dentist from Milwaukee with a marked propensity toward procrastination, but there’s no need to be hyper-literal here. You’re a writer; be creative. Does your sloth follow a profession with an earth equivalent, perhaps or is the conflict between the sloths and the space monkeys similar to conflicts in a fantasy subgenre? Does Slothie share characteristics with the reader you have in mind — being bullied at Purple Sloth High might be very relatable for readers who were teased in their youths for being different. Anything can work, provided that

(a) Thing X is integral to the story,

(b) Thing X is apparent from the descriptive paragraph how it is integral to the story (a very common omission), and

(c) the query makes it clear how and why Thing X will appeal to a specific subgroup of your chosen book category’s already-established target readership. Of course, that will be quite a bit easier to establish if

(d) Thing X actually does appeal to that particular subgroup’s sensibilities.

Yet even after having gone over this array of strategies for identifying your target audience, some of you are still toying with leaving it out altogether, are you not? I know, I know: it’s tempting to cling to the notion that people — some people, somewhere — will want to read your book simply because you’ve written it, and written it well. While, let’s face it, until you establish a literary name for yourself, few people who do not know you personally will buy a book solely because it has your name on the cover, it’s perfectly understandable to want potential readers to fall in love with your writing.

For that to happen via traditional publishing, however, someone working with an agency and/or publishing house is going to have to fall in love with the book first — and these are people who think in terms of book categories and target readerships. Learning to describe your manuscript in their language does not mean that your writing is any less beautiful; it merely raises the probability that someone with the power to publish your work will read it.

I’m about to back away slowly now, so you may ruminate on that, but before I do, I would like to ask you to compare a couple more pieces of book-promoting writing. First, harken back to this last summer’s series on conference pitching. Remember the magic first hundred words, the speech that would enable you to talk cogently about your work to any total stranger affiliated with the publishing industry?

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

Knowing my deep ambivalence toward one-size-fits-all formulae, I’m sure it will not surprise you to hear that I would expect a savvy writer to tinker with this format a little. If our pal Whiskers, say, were scheduled to make a formal pitch to agent A. H. Bookmongerson, he might open their conversation like so:

”Hi, I’m Whiskers McGee, and I write mainstream fiction. I’d like to talk to you about my novel, HERE, BOY!, a lighthearted romp about dog-training geared toward that portion of the 60 million dog owners in this country who, although they might not admit it aloud, see their dogs as extensions of themselves — and would get a kick out of a story in which dogs and owners go into psychotherapy together.”

Sounds pretty good in this iteration, doesn’t it? Isn’t it a pity that Whiskers couldn’t use that as the opening paragraph of a query?

Wait a minute — why not? After all, the opening of a query should contain quite a bit of the same information, right?

Dear {agent’s name here},

Since you so ably represented (TITLE OF SIMILAR WORK), I hope you will be interested in my (BOOK CATEGORY) book, (TITLE), geared toward (TARGET MARKET).


Seems as though it would work, doesn’t it? Let’s try plugging in specifics to see what happens.

Dear Ms. Bookmongerson,

Since you so ably represented DROOLY DOGS A-GO-GO, I hope you will be interested in my mainstream novel, HERE, BOY! It’s a lighthearted romp about dog-training geared toward that portion of the 60 million dog owners in this country who, although they might not admit it aloud, see their dogs as extensions of themselves — and would get a kick out of a story in which dogs and owners go into psychotherapy together.

Imogene Crowley (31)…

Not bad, is it? Although identifying your target audience might seem like a maddening limitation of your book’s potential appeal or an intimidating demand that you solve all potential marketing difficulties before you’ve landed an agent, much less a publishing contract, at the query stage, it’s really just a matter of introducing yourself and your writing in the terms Millicent will understand. Trust me, saying who you think is likely to find your book appealing will in no way prevent other readers from buying it, any more than suggesting a target demographic now will rule out promoting your book toward different audiences later on.

Think of it, in other words, not as the end of a conversation about marketing your work, but the beginning.

Next time, we shall dive right back into that checklist we’ve got going. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

A detour from the pet peeve parade: the short road home

Throughout our rather sprawling Pet Peeves on Parade series, I have been chattering blithely about narrative conflict and tension, as though every aspiring writer out there were already hard at work, trying to ratchet up the quotas of both in their manuscripts. As, indeed, those of us who read for a living so frequently advise: make sure there is conflict on every single page is, after all, one of the most commonly-given pieces of how-to-please-the-agent-of-your-dreams revision advice.

But if you’ll pardon my asking, what does it mean?

Seriously, how would a conscientious self-editor apply this advice to the manuscript page? Insert a sword fight every eight paragraphs or so? Have the nearest gas station should spring a leak just because the protagonist happens to be strolling by? Force the lovers in your romance cease stop billing and cooing in favor of snarling at one another?

Of course not — but you would be surprised how often aspiring writers stumble into the harsh daylight at the end of a writers’ conference muttering to themselves, “Must ramp up conflict. Tension on every page!” without being certain what that means on a practical level. There’s a pretty good reason for that: colloquially, conflict and tension are often used interchangeably, but amongst professional writers and those who edit them, they mean two different but interrelated things.

So let’s take a moment to define our literary terms, shall we?

Narrative conflict is when a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) is prevented from meeting his or her goal (either a momentary one or the ultimate conclusion of the plot) by some antagonistic force. The thwarting influence may be external to the character experiencing it (as when the villain punches our hero in the nose for asking too many pesky questions), emerge from within her psyche (as when our heroine wants to jump onto the stage at the county fair and declare that the goat-judging was rigged, but can’t overcome that fear of public speaking that she has had since that first traumatic operatic recital at the age of 10), or even be subconscious (as when our hero and heroine meet each other quite accidentally during the liquor store hold-up, feeling mysteriously drawn to each other but not yet realizing that they were twins separated at birth).

Narrative tension, on the other hand, is when the pacing, plot, and characterization at any given point of the book are tight enough that the reader remains engaged in what is going on — and wondering what is going to happen next — rather than, say, idly wondering whether it is time to check in again with a 24-hour news network. A scene or page may be interesting without maintaining tension, and a predictable storyline may never create any tension at all.

Or, to put it so simply that a sophisticated reader would howl in protest, conflict is character-based, whereas tension typically relates to plot.

Because conflict and tension are related, a manuscript that suffers from a lack of one often suffers from a paucity of the other as well. First-time novelists and memoirists are particularly prone to falling prey to both, enough so that the professional readers’ stereotype of a first submission is — are you sitting down? — a story that meanders episodically from event to unrelated event, just like real life.

“And just like real life,” our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, has been known to murmur over manuscripts, “any randomly-chosen scene will not appear to a bystander to be going anywhere in particular. Is there a point to all of this slice-of-life activity?”

Why might first books be more likely to fall prey to this pervasive problem than others? Keeping both conflict and tension high for an entire manuscript is darned difficult; it’s a learned skill, and many quite talented writers have been known to write a practice book or two before they learn it.

Oh, should I have checked again that you were sitting down before I broached that one?

The other major reason first books tend to drag is that writers new to the biz are far less likely to sit down and read their manuscripts front to back before submitting them than those who’ve been hanging around the industry longer. Long enough, say, to have heard the old saw about a novel or memoir’s needing to have conflict on every page, or the one about the desirability of keeping the tension consistently high in the first fifty pages, to keep Millicent turning those submission pages.

Yet another reason that I keep yammering at all of you to — sing along with me now, long-time readers — read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting it. Lack of conflict and tension become far, far more apparent when a manuscript is read this way.

Actually, pretty much every manuscript mega-problem is more likely to leap off the page at the reviser reading this way, rather then the more common piecemeal scene-by-scene or on-the-screen approaches. This is particularly true when a writer is revising on a deadline — or has just received a request for pages from a real, live agent.

Which is, of course, precisely when it’s most tempting not to give your work a thorough read-through. Especially in the second case: if you’re like the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers, you’ll be so excited by a positive response to your query that you’ll want to pop those pages in the mail or hit the SEND button within 24 hours or so. You know, before that nice agent changes his mind.

If you read that last paragraph and cried, “By gum, that’s me!” relax. Requests for pages don’t expire for a year or so, typically. Even if the request came as the result of a successful pitch — and if so, kudos on your bravery — an aspiring writer does not, contrary to popular panicked opinion, need to get the requested materials onto the agent’s desk before s/he forgets the pitch. If one pitched at a reasonably busy conference, it’s safe to assume that s/he will forget your pitch — but that s/he will have taken good notes.

Translation: you have time to proofread before sending all or part of your manuscript. In fact, it’s only professional to take the time to do so.

Unfortunately, those whose writing would most benefit from a good, hard, critical reading tend to be those less likely to perform it. While many aspiring writers develop strong enough self-editing skills to rid their entries of micro-problems — grammatical errors, clarity snafus, and other gaffes on the sentence and paragraph level — when they’re skidding toward a deadline, they often do not make time to catch the mega-problems.

So let’s all chant the mantra together again for good measure: before you submit so much as a paragraph of your writing to a professional reader, it would behoove you to read it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I know, I know: it has too many syllables to be a proper mantra. Chant it anyway, so it doesn’t slip your mind the night before that contest deadline.

Many a hand has been in the air for many a paragraph now, hasn’t it? “But Anne,” anguished middle-of-the-night manuscript contemplators everywhere wail, “how can I tell if my manuscript does indeed lack conflict and/or tension? I’ve read some of the individual passages so often now that they seem set in stone to me.”

Excellent question, anguished self-editors. While there are as many individual causes of sagging tension and conflict minimization as there are plotlines, certain types of narrative choices are more conducive to producing them. In the interest of keeping all of you revisers’ spirits up as you approach the often-daunting task of revision, I’m going to begin with the easiest to spot — and one of the simpler to fix.

I like to call this extremely common manuscript phenomenon the Short Road Home, and it comes in two flavors, full-bodied and subtle. Today, I shall focus on the full-bodied version.

The Short Road Home crops up when a problem in a plot is solved too easily for either its continuance or its resolution to provide significant dramatic tension to the story — or to reveal heretofore unrevealed character nuances. Most often, this takes the form of a conflict resolved before the reader has had time to perceive it as difficult to solve — or understand what the stakes are.

What might the SRH look like on the page? Well, in its full-bodied form, characters may worry about a problem for a hundred pages –- and then resolve it in three.

We’ve all seen this in action, right? A character’s internal conflict is depicted as insurmountable — and then it turns out that all he needed to do all along was admit that he was wrong, and everything is fine. The first outsider who walks into town and asks a few pointed questions solves a decade-old mystery. The protagonist has traveled halfway around the world in order to confront the father who deserted him years before — and apparently, every road in Madagascar leads directly to him.

Ta da! Crisis resolved. No roadblocks here.

The thing is, though, blocked roads tend to be quite a bit more interesting to read about than unblocked ones. So you can hardly blame Millicent for becoming impatient when pages at a time pass without conflict — and then, when the long-anticipated conflict does arise, the narrative swiftly reaches out and squashes it like a troublesome bug.

Wham! Splat! All gone, never to be heard from again. Perhaps like so:

Percy rumpled his hair for what must have been the fifteenth time that day. How on earth was he going to find his long-lost relative in a city of half a million people, armed with only a ten-year-old photograph and a dim memory that Uncle Gerard adored hazelnut gelato?

Perhaps that was the best place to start; he nipped around the corner to Gelato Galleria. After all, sensory memories were always the strongest.

“Hazelnut?” The man behind the counter seemed thunderstruck. “Only one customer has ever ordered hazelnut here. Mr. Gerard’s my best customer.”

Percy reached across the counter to grasp him by his striped lapels. “When was he last in? Be quick, man — it may be a matter of life and death.”

“Th-this morning. He ordered seven pints for a party this evening. I’m supposed to deliver it.”

“Allow me.” Percy’s tone dispensed with the possibility of further discussion. “I would be delighted to deliver it for you.”

Or maybe like this:

Irene mopped her sopping brow, staring after the departing train. Her last chance for redemption chugged away from her. If only she hadn’t been so stubborn! Or so true: Mother had been wrong to extract that promise on her deathbed, the one about never revealing her true identity. Now, the only sister she would ever have was gone from her life forever.

She was wiping her eyes furtively when someone tapped her on the shoulder. Really, strangers were so pushy these days. She wheeled around.

“I missed my train,” Eileen said sheepishly. “Would you mind putting me up for another night?”

“Another night?” Irene threw her arms around her sibling. “You can stay with me forever. You are my identical twin!”

“Well,” Eileen murmured into her sister’s curls, “that would explain why meeting you three hundred pages ago was so like gazing into a mirror. How strange that nobody else noticed the resemblance, eh?”

Or, even more common, the too-quickly-resolved conflict on the scene level:

“I had that paper a minute ago,” Archibald said, beginning to contemplate perhaps thinking about maybe starting to contemplate looking for it. “Where can it be? Without it, I cannot walk into that meeting.”

“Is this it?” Grace held up the wastepaper basket, angled so he could see within its shallow depths.

Relieved, he fished it out. “Thanks, I would have been lost without it.”

It drives Millicent nuts. “If a conflict so unimportant to the plot and/or character development that it can be disposed of this quickly,” she murmurs, “why include it in the manuscript at all?”

Good question, Millie — often, a problem’s being too easy to solve is an indicator that it could be cut with no cost to the story. Or that the problem was not set up in sufficient detail in the first place. Slice-of-life scenes are, alas, particularly susceptible to too-quick resolution, as are scenes where, heaven help us, everyone is polite.

Yes, you read that correctly. Few traits kill conflict on a page as effectively as a protagonist who is unfailingly polite. Contrary to popular belief amongst writers, a monotonously courteous protagonist is almost never more likeable than one who isn’t — and even everyday polite statements tend to make professional readers start glancing at their watches.

Why? Well, as delightful as courtesy is in real life, polite dialogue is by its very definition generic; it reveals nothing about the speaker except a propensity toward good manners.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an exchange that crops up in a good 90% of submitted manuscripts.

“Why, hello, Betty,” Marjorie said.

“Hello, Margie. How are you today?”

“Fine, thanks. And you?”

“Fine. How are the kids?”

“Fine. How is your mother doing?”

“Fine. Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes. It seems to be spring at last.”

“Yes. Yes, it does.”

Put down that revolver, Millicent. I assure you, life is still worth living.

But you see the problem, right? On the page, good manners are predictable — and thus inherently tension-reducing.

Or, to put it as Millicent would, “Next!”

Take care, however, not to pursue the opposite route from Short Road Home by creating false suspense; Millicent doesn’t like that much, either. False suspense is the common tension-increasing technique of withholding information from the protagonist that a fairly simple and logical action would have revealed earlier in the plot, or even in the scene — or by denying the reader information that the protagonist already knows.

Trust me: if the clue is in plain sight, most professional readers will resent it if the narrative doesn’t point it out the first time it appears; if the protagonist has traveled five hundred miles to ask his grandmother about her past, Millicent is going to get angry if he just sits there passively and waits for her to blurt out the long-hidden information, rather than asking her about it.

Ditto if the protagonist sees his late cousin’s face appear in a window, confronts some hideous monster in the closet, and/or recognizes that the French ambassador is actually his long-lost brother — but the reader is not filled in on what he knows, or even sees, for six more chapters. Amongst the pros, it’s considered a cheap form of tension-building.

Not sure why? Okay — my God, what’s that creeping up behind your desk chair? Oh, it’s…horrible. Too horrible to describe…

Not a very satisfying plot twist, is it? And it should look familiar from last time: it’s a variation on the she ran through the woods opening.

In its most extreme form, false suspense can become what the fine film critic Roger Ebert calls an Idiot Plot, one where the fundamental problem of a story could have been solved if just one character had asked just one obvious question early in the plot. (“Wait — how will our wandering unarmed into the murder’s lair lay a trap for him?”)

We’re all familiar with Idiot Plots, right? Sitcom episodes very, very frequently feature them, presumably so any given issue can be resolved within 22 minutes. A zany crew of misfits is hardly likely to solve the world hunger problem in that amount of time, after all. But a trumped-up conflict based upon Janie’s being afraid Fred will find out that she lied about something really, really unimportant? You can probably write the last scene right now, based upon that last sentence alone.

“Wait a gosh darned minute,” I can hear some of you say. “The very fact that Mssr. Ebert has a pet name for it reflects the fact that Idiot Plots are widely accepted in the entertainment industry. Since the reading public also watches television and movies, wouldn’t they just accept quick resolutions of conflict as the current storytelling norm? If the writing in the scene is good enough, can’t I get away with a few shortcuts?”

Well, it depends: does taking any one of those shortcuts reduce the tension? Would fleshing out a conflict increase it at a crucial point? Would, in short, the manuscript exhibit both conflict and tension on every page if you DIDN’T take those shortcuts?

Before you answer that, bear in mind that a story does not have to be inherently stupid or poorly written to feature an Idiot Plot — or a Short Road Home, for that matter. In the classic comic novel TOM JONES, the heroine, Sophia, spends half the book angry with Tom because she heard a single rumor that he had spoken of her freely in public — and so, although she has braved considerable dangers to follow him on his journey, she stomps off without bothering to ask him if the rumor were true.

And why does Sophia do this, you ask? I’d bet a nickel that Henry Fielding would have said, “Because the plot required it, silly. If she’d stuck around at the inn to ask him, the romantic conflict would have been resolved in thirty seconds flat!”

That may have been sufficient reason to satisfy an editor in the 18th century, but let me assure you that the folks working in agencies and publishing houses are made of sterner stuff these days. They’ve seen the same movies and sitcoms you have: they’re tired of Idiot Plots and Short Roads Home.

“Show me something fresh,” Millicent cries at the stacks and stacks of manuscripts on her desk, “something I haven’t seen before!”

So here’s a special message to those of you who have deliberately held your respective noses and produced Idiot Plots because you thought the market preferred them: don’t. Try adding legitimate conflict to every page instead and seeing what happens.

Well, that was easy. I guess my work here is done.

Or does a certain amount of disgruntlement linger in the air? “Well, you may not like it, Anne,” some of you mutter, “but I have seen the Short Road Home used countless times in books. How can a trait knock my manuscript out of consideration when so many prominent writers do it routinely? Clearly, someone is selling stories with these kinds of devices.”

I can easily believe that you’ve seen the Short Road Home a million times in published books, and a million and twelve times in movies — so often, in fact, that you may not have identified it as a storytelling problem per se. Allow me to suggest that the main producers of Short Roads Home, like Idiot Plots are not typically first-time screenwriters and novelists, though, but ones with already-established track records.

In other words, it would not necessarily behoove you to emulate their step-skipping ways. As a general rule, the longer ago the writer broke in and/or the more successful he has been, the greater latitude he enjoys. There’s even an industry truism about it: to break into the business, a first book has to be significantly better than what is already on the market.

To be blunt, as good is not necessarily good enough. Sorry to have to be the one to tell you that, but it’s just a fact of the literary market.

That inconvenient reality can create some tension (hooray for drama!) in a critique group made up of a mix of published and unpublished writers. Years ago, a genuinely fine writer of many published books brought my critique group a chapter in which her protagonist escaped from a choking situation by kneeing her attacker (who happened to be her boyfriend) in the groin. The attacker slunk off almost immediately, never to return; conflict resolved.

Naturally, three aspects of this scene immediately set off Short Road Home alarm bells for me. First, reflexes tend to kick in pretty darned quickly. My self-defense teacher taught me that a man will instinctively move to protect what she liked to call “his delicates,” so that area is not a good first-strike target when you were defending yourself. So why didn’t the bad guy automatically block the blow?

Second, the attacker was able to walk out of the room right away after being battered in the groin, with no recovery time. Simple playground observation tells us is seldom true in these instances.

Third — and what marked this exchange as a SRH rather than merely physically improbable — this scene ended a relationship that had been going on for two-thirds of the book. One swift jab, and both sides spontaneously agreed to call it a day.

Is it just me, or are most relationships, abusive or otherwise, just a touch harder to terminate permanently? I’ve had dentists’ offices try harder to keep in touch with me. By this story’s standards, everyone who works at my college alumni magazine is a dedicated stalker.

But because my colleague was an established author, she was able to get this SRH past her agent, although her editor did subsequently flag it. However, it’s the kind of logical problem reviewers do tend to catch, even in the work of well-known writers — and thus, it should be avoided.

But that’s not the only reason I brought up this example. I wanted you to have a vivid image in your mind the next time you are reading through your own manuscript or contest entry: if your villain doesn’t need recovery time after being kneed in the groin or the equivalent, perhaps you need to reexamine just how quickly you’re backing your protagonist out of the scene.

One true test of a SRH is if a reader is left wondering, “Gee, wouldn’t there have been consequences for what just happened? Wasn’t that resolved awfully easily?” If you are rushing your protagonist away from conflict — which, after all, is the stuff of dramatic writing — you might want to sit down and think about why.

Another good test: does the first effort the protagonist makes solve the problem? Not her first thought about it, mind you — the first time she takes an active step. If your heroine is seeking answers to a deep, dark secret buried in her past, does the very first person she asks in her hometown know the whole story — and tell her immediately? Or, still better, does a minor character volunteer his piece of her puzzle BEFORE she asks?

You think I’m kidding about that, don’t you? You don’t read many manuscripts, I take it. All too often, mystery-solving protagonists come across as pretty lousy detectives, because evidence has to fall right into their laps, clearly labeled, before they recognize it.

“Funny,” such a protagonist is prone to say, evidently looking around the house where he spent most of his formative years and raised his seventeen children for the very first time, “I never noticed that gigantic safe behind the portrait of Grandmamma before.”

Seriously, professional readers see this kind of premise all the time. An astoundingly high percentage of novels feature seekers who apparently give off some sort of pheromone that causes:

a) People who are hiding tremendous secrets to blurt them out spontaneously to someone they have never seen before;

b) Long-lost parents/siblings/children/lovers whose residence has remained a source of conjecture to even the most dedicated police detectives to turn up in an instantly-fathomable disguise toward the end of the book;

c) Flawlessly accurate local historians to appear as if by magic to fill the protagonist in on necessary backstory at precisely the point that the plot requires it;

d) Characters who have based their entire self-esteem upon suffering in silence for the past 27 years suddenly to feel the need to share their pain extremely articulately with total strangers;

e) Living or dead Native American, East Indian, and/or Asian wise persons to appear to share deep spiritual wisdom with the protagonist;

f) Diaries and photographs that have been scrupulously hidden for years, decades, or even centuries to leap out of their hiding places at exactly the right moment for the protagonist to find them, and/or

g) Birds/dogs/horses/clouds/small children/crones of various descriptions to begin to act in odd ways, nudging Our Hero/ine toward the necessary next puzzle piece as surely as if they had arranged themselves into a gigantic arrow.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for whether your story is taking the Short Road Home: at every revelation, ask yourself, “Why did that just happen?”

If your answer is, “So the story could move from Point A to Point B,” and you can’t give any solid character-driven reason beyond that, then chances are close to 100% that you have a SRH on your hands.

What should you do when you find one? Well, clear away the too-easy plot devices first, then try throwing a few metaphorical barrels in your protagonist’s path. Give him a couple of unrelated problems, for instance. Make the locals a shade more hostile, or a cohort a touch less competent. Add a subplot about a school board election. Have the old lady who has spent the last fifty years proudly clinging to letters from her long-lost love burn them ten minutes before she dies, instead of handing them over to the protagonist with an injunction to publish them with all possible speed.

Make your protagonist’s life more difficult any way you can, in short. Go ahead; s/he’ll forgive you.

On the plot level, having your protagonist track down a false lead or two is often a great place to start making his life a more interesting hell. Trial and error can be a fantastic plotting device, as well as giving you room for character development.

For some fabulous examples of this, take a gander at almost any film from the first decade of Jackie Chan’s career. In many of them, Our Hero is almost always beaten to a pulp by the villain early in the story — often more or less simultaneously with the murderer’s gloating over having killed the hero’s father/mother/teacher/best friend. (In Western action films, the same array of emotions tends to be evoked by killing the hero’s beautiful wife, who not infrequently is clutching their adorable toddler at the time.) Then we see him painfully acquiring the skills, allies, and/or resources he will need in order to defeat the villain at the end of the film.

Or check out the early HARRY POTTER books. When Harry and his friends encounter new threats, they don’t really have the life experience to differentiate between a teacher who dislikes them and someone who wants Britain to be overrun by soul-sucking wraiths. Yet miraculously, by responding to the smaller threats throughout the school year, Harry et alia learn precisely the skills they will need to battle the major threat at the end of the book.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that the plots of the first three books were essentially identical? Nice guy, that Voldemort, carefully calibrating his yearly threat to wizardkind so it tests Harry’s skills-at-that-age to the limit without ever exceeding them.

Now, strictly speaking, quite a bit of that pulp-beating and lesson-learning is extraneous to the primary conflict of the story’s ultimate goal of pitting Good Guy vs. Bad Guy. Jackie Chan and Harry could have simply marched out to meet the enemy in the first scene of the movie or book. We all know that he’s going to be taking that tromp eventually.

But half of the fun for the audience is watching the hero get to the point where he can take on the enemy successfully, isn’t it?

Remember, the goal of storytelling is not to get your protagonist from the beginning to the end of the plot as fast as possible, but to take your readers through an enjoyable, twisted journey en route. Short Roads Home are the superhighways of the literary world: a byway might not get you there as quickly, but I guarantee you, the scenery is going to be better.

Try taking your characters down the side roads every once in awhile; have ‘em learn some lessons along the way. Stretch wires along the path in front of them, so they may develop the skills not to trip. And let ‘em fail from time to time — or succeed occasionally, if your protagonist is disaster-prone. Varied outcomes are usually interesting for the reader than continual triumph or perpetual defeat.

Next time, I’m going to tackle a harder-to-spot version of the Short Road Home — because yes, Virginia, today’s was the easy one to fix. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XX: the skinny on partials — at least the ones that are skinnier than entire manuscripts


Yesterday’s query-submission packaging in the morning/query content in the evening dichotomy worked so well that I’ve decided to continue it for the rest of this series. Or Tuesday morning, whichever comes first. Hey, posting multiple times a day + doing anything else at all = a certain level of tiredness not conducive to good projective record-keeping. Or retroactive record-keeping, for that matter.

Something the bear in mind on those weekends when you’ve ordered yourself to send out 15 queries before you go to bed on Sunday night, incidentally. Or convinced yourself that if the agent of your dreams asked to see all or part of your manuscript at a conference on Saturday, or in reply to an e-mailed query on Friday, she will be massively offended if the materials aren’t winging their way through the mails or flying toward her e-mail account by noon on Monday. The latter is just not true, for one thing — no agent holds his breath or rearranges his schedule while waiting for requested materials — but regardless of why you’re hurrying, nothing is so conducive to missing important details than a self-imposed deadline.

Yes, you read that correctly: I said self-imposed. Confusing speed of response with meeting a professional expectation is a classic rookie submitter’s mistake. 99% of the time, the unrealistic lapses new writers allow themselves between requests for pages and sending them out neither serve the manuscript’s interests nor have any basis whatsoever in the requesting agent’s actual expectations about when those pages are going to show up.

But that’s not what it feels like when you receive a request for pages, is it? The adrenaline starts pumping: this is my big break!

It isn’t, really — it’s simply the threshold from the first phase of the querying/pitching process to the submission stage. Yet practically every conference-pitcher I’ve ever met has gotten so excited by the first time she was asked by a real, live agent to send real, live pages that she simply dropped everything, printed out her manuscript right away, and popped it into the mail on the next business day. Or had hit the SEND button on an e-mailed submission within hours.

Ditto with receiving a positive response to a query. Often, our heroine chooses to hasten her submission’s arrival even more by paying extra for overnight shipping, under the mistaken impression that it will get her work read faster.

And then she’s horrified to realize three days later that there’s a gigantic typo on page 1. Or that she forgot to include page 58 in the packet, because it wafted out of the printer and behind a nearby chair.

Word to the wise: it’s ALWAYS worth your while to take the time to double-check that everything in your query or submission packet is as it should be. You almost certainly have time to do it: unless an agent specifically asked you to get your materials to him by a specific deadline, or to overnight them, he is not expecting them right away.

Yes, really. And yes, I know that in the first thrill of your writing being treated with respect, it won’t feel that way at all. But trust me on this one: your work will be treated with even more respect if you take the time to make sure that you have presented it professionally.

And what does a professional writer do to assure that? Pull out your hymnals this fine Sunday morning and sing along, campers: by reading every piece of paper that goes in a query or submission packet IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY (yes, even if you are planning to e-mail it; it’s easier to catch typos on a printed page), and preferably OUT LOUD (ditto).

Yes, that’s going to be time-consuming. Your point?

Seriously, would you rather that Millicent judge your writing with that great big typo, or without? With page 58, or without? With the cover letter that was still sitting on your dining room table after you sealed the submission packet, or without?

And so forth. Queriers and submitters often become so focused on getting the darned things out the door that they forget that their success is dependent upon the writing in those packets, not the mere fact of those materials showing up at agencies unscathed. Don’t be so eager to push SEND or tote that box to the post office that you overlook something important.

Like, say, including the synopsis that the agency’s guidelines specified all queriers should include in their query packets. Make a list of what’s required, check it twice — then check it again before you tape up that box.

To help you dot all of the Is and cross all of the Ts, I’m going to devote this morning’s post to giving you the skinny on requests for pages, rather entire manuscripts — what’s known in the biz as a partial. (You’d be surprised at what comes up in a web search of skinny; it was either this or models, interestingly enough. (These fabulous animated bones appear courtesy of Feebleminds, by the way.)

Quite a few aspiring writers seem to find both the logic behind the partial and the logistics behind sending it perplexing. Quoth, for instance, the intrepid reader Kim:

An agent recently requested a partial of ms. and not being able to find much on how to format that I just included the title page, and the requested pages of the ms. Is there a correct format or protocol for partials?

I was delighted that Kim brought this up. Although a partial always refers to a manuscript by definition — the term is shorthand for partial manuscript — this is yet another one of those situations where aspiring writers often get confused by publishing industry terminology.

Yes, I said yet another, because as so often seems to happen in the rumor echo chamber in which those trying to break into the biz must operate, many are the terms that mean more than one thing, or which would mean one thing to an agent and another to, say, a submitting writer. Here we have a prime example of the former: a partial can refer to two different kinds of manuscript, depending upon the context.

So let’s start this discussion by defining our terms before we really give the skeletons something to cavort about, shall we?

The two distinctly different flavors of partial: the first pages
The first kind of partial, the kind to which Kim refers, is a specified number of pages an agent may request a successfully querying or pitching writer who is not yet a client to send. Emphasis on specified: no agent is simply going to tell an aspiring writer, “Send me a partial,” leaving the writer to guess how many pages and from what part of the book.

Instead, she will typically say, “Send me the first chapter/first 50 pages/first three chapters/first 100 pages.” In this context, then, a partial equals precisely the number of pages an agent has requested to see.

Emphasis on precisely: if an agent asks to see the first 50 pages, don’t make the mistake of sending 52, even if page 50 ends in mid-sentence or the chapter ends on the bottom of page 52. Demonstrate that you may be relied upon to do ask you are asked, rather than make up your own rules.

Don’t look at me that way; overstuffed query and submission packets rank among Millicent’s most notorious pet peeves. “But Anne,” those of you glaring daggers in my general direction protest, “that doesn’t make any sense to me. Surely, the agent will be impressed that I paid attention enough to realize that page 50 ended in the middle of a paragraph, and that page 56 provides a natural stopping-point with a real cliffhanger. Or are you suggesting that I should produce a revised manuscript for partial submission in which the cliffhanger is on page 56?”

No — although if you honestly believe there are 6 pages of text in your manuscript that Millicent doesn’t need to see, I would strongly advise doing a bit of revision before you submit, on general principle. It sounds like that text is toting around some extra verbiage. But otherwise, it’s actually a good thing if you’re confident enough in your writing and your understanding of submissions to allow Millie to stop reading in mid-sentence, if that’s what is on the bottom of page 50.

From an agent’s point of view, an ability to follow directions well is a very, very desirable trait in a potential client; clients who second-guess about what’s really meant by straightforward requests are inherently more time-consuming to handle than those who do not.

That’s why, should you have been wondering, the rule of thumb for any submission or query packet is send the agency precisely what it is expecting to see. No more, no less.

Besides, just between us, submitters who round up or round down just to make the writing excerpt complete make Millicent roll her eyes like a teenager in an adult novel. “Wow, this writer is confident,” she mutters, riffling through the ostensible stack of 50 pages that obviously includes at least 10 more. “Confident that I have unlimited amounts of time to spend on a single submission, that is. How big an ego must he have to assume that I would desperately want to keep reading to the end of the chapter after I have already made up my mind whether to request the full manuscript or not? It’s not as though I’m going to remember how these pages left off by the time a requested full arrived. If I were an umbrage-taker, I might even conclude that he thinks I’m too stupid to understand that the book doesn’t end on page 50. I have seen a manuscript before, you know.”

Millicent has a very valid point here: the oh-I-must-send-a-complete-section attitude misses the point of the agency’s having requested a partial in the first place. Basically, this type of partial is a writing sample, similar in function to the pages agents sometimes list in their submission requirements as addenda to the query packet or the brief writing samples agencies sometimes want queriers to include in their query packets: the agent is asking for these pages primarily in order to see whether this aspiring writer can write.

Judging whether the book would be a good fit for the agency comes a close second, of course. However, if Millicent isn’t caught by the style in that partial or writing sample, even a perfect plotline for that agent’s interests is likely to be rejected.

Oh, should I have warned you not to take that great big sip of coffee just before you read that rather disturbing paragraph? Go ahead and clean up; I don’t mind waiting.

I understand your shock at hearing it so bluntly put, oh spit-takers, but ruling out 98% of submissions as quickly as humanly possible is, after all, Millicent’s job. Her boss can only take on a handful of new clients in any given year, right? In order to save the agent time, she makes sure that the only requested materials to reach his desk are well-written, properly formatted, and the kind of story or argument the agent is actively looking to represent.

When an agency requests a partial rather than the entire manuscript, it’s essentially a means of streamlining this winnowing-down process even further. Not to mention saving our Millie from having to shuffle, and thus lift, a ton of paper: instead of her desk being piled up to her chin at any given moment with boxes of full manuscripts, the weekly influx of requested partials may reach only up to her sternum. Once she has screened those, her boss can decide which of the surviving partials have piqued their interest sufficiently to request the entire manuscript.

A process known, both colloquially and within the industry, as asking to see the entire manuscript.

So asking for a partial adds an intervening step between the initial query or pitch and the request for the full manuscript — but before those of you who would prefer your work to be judged in its entirety invest too much energy in glowering in Millicent and her boss’ general direction for sending writers jumping through this additional hoop, let me hasten to add that until fairly recently, most agencies always asked for a partial first; requesting the entire manuscript right off the bat used to be a sign that an agent was really, really excited about a book project and wanted to get the jump on any other agent who might have merely requested a partial.

Nowadays, the decision whether to request a partial or entire manuscript is less often an indicator of enthusiasm than a straightforward matter of agency policy. In fact, contrary to pervasive writerly opinion, being asked for a partial rather than a full can sometimes be an advantage: at some agencies, having the entire manuscript on hand earlier can enable even speedier rejection of a near-miss project.

Think about it: instead of having to ask for pages 51-372 and wait for them to arrive in order to pass a final judgment on a book, Millicent can simply read to page 60. Or page 2.

If the verdict is yes, this can lop quite a bit of time off the agent-seeking process, from the writer’s perspective. Unfortunately, if the verdict is no, and the agency is one of the vast majority that utilize form-letter rejections, the submitter ends up with no idea whether the impetus to reject came on page 1 or page 371.

Renders it rather difficult to guess how to improve the manuscript prior to the next submission, doesn’t it?

Before that rhetorical question depresses anybody too much, let’s return to defining our partials. 99% of the time, the kind of partial an aspiring writer will be asked to provide is this first kind: a requested number of pages, beginning on p. 1 of the manuscript, for submission to an agent. There is, however, another variety.

The two distinctly different flavors of partial: the taste of what is to come
After an author is already established, it is not unheard-of for her agent to be able to pull off a conjuring trick known as selling the next book on a partial. This is pretty much what it says on the box: the author produces the first X number of pages of a not-yet-completed novel, and the agent convinces an editor that it will be to the publishing house’s advantage to snap the book up before the author has polished it off.

This can be a very good deal for the publisher: buying a book on a partial prevents other publishers from bidding on the finished work. Also, earlier involvement in the writing process often enables the editor to help shape the book more, in much the same way as an editor on a nonfiction book (typically sold on a book proposal, not the full manuscript, lest we forget) is able to dictate which of the proposed chapters will and will not be in the finished manuscript.

Not to mention the fact that if the book happens to be written by a famous author or celebrity in another field, the bidding could potentially get quite high. This is why one occasionally hears of a publisher’s acquiring a half-written novel at a cocktail party, because some celebrity simply handed ten pages to him along with his seventh martini: the publisher recognizes the potential marketing value of the name.

For your garden-variety serious novelist, however, such a situation is unlikely to arise. If her agent manages to sell her next book on a partial, it’s generally to the editor who acquired her last. Since so many first-book publishing contracts grant the publisher right of first refusal over the author’s next book, anyway — meaning that the publisher gets an exclusive peek at the book before anyone else can place a bid on it — selling on a partial is mostly a means to speed up the approval process.

Everyone clear on the difference between that kind of partial and the first kind? Excellent.

Now let’s assume that, like Kim, you have just been asked to submit a partial to the agent of your dreams. Let’s further assume that your manuscript (or whatever portion of it an agent or editor has requested that you send to be perused by Millicent, the Platonic agency screener) is already in tip-top formatting shape, all typos and logic problems removed, and thus what the industry calls clean — and if you’re not absolutely positive that your pages meet ALL of those conditions, stop right here and make a plan for tidying up your pages toute suite.

Trust me, this is a situation where spelling counts. As does grammar, punctuation, and everything else your 9th grade English teacher begged you to take seriously.

But once your work is in apple-pie order, as Louisa May Alcott used to say so frequently, what next?

What should a partial submission packet include, and in what order?
In part, this is a trick question, because — chant it with me now, campers — any submission packet should include precisely what the agent asked you to include, no more, no less. In the words of the immortal Fats Waller, find out what they like and how they like it, and let ‘em have it just that way.

Okay, so he wasn’t talking about literature when he sang that. Roll with me here.

As I mentioned above, agents are usually quite specific about what they want in a submission, up to and including the number of pages they want to see. If you doubt this, check out an agency’s website or one of the standard agency guides, then attend a conference where agents are scheduled to speak. Raise your hand and ask whether it’s okay to send, say, the 55 pages it would take to round out a chapter when an agent has asked to see the first 50.

You will be astonished at how people who say their preferences in clients are as vague as writers who produce “good writing in any genre” will suddenly transform into rule-hugging lovers of draconian efficiency, appalled at the very notion of extending the length of the partial. Or, indeed, at the notion of the writer being the one to decide what should and should not be in the submission packet.

To save you the trouble of asking, let me tell you what they will say: never, ever, EVER send what you THINK they want to see instead of what they have actually ASKED to see. Of course, you may offer in your cover letter to send more, but that is all.

So — and this should sound a teensy bit familiar by now — if you’ve been asked for the first 100, and the chapter ends in a blow-your-socks-off cliffhanger on p. 101, you should still only send the first 100, exclusive of the title page. (Since the title page is not numbered, it is not included in the page count, by the way.)

Of course, as we discussed above, if you wanted to be Machiavellian about it, you could always perform a little strategic snipping prior to that, so said cliffhanger topples just on the bottom of p. 50. No one would fault you for that, for the very simple reason that it’s extremely unlikely that Millicent will ever sit down with your partial and full manuscript simultaneously. Remember, if an agency approves enough of a partial submission to want to see the rest of the novel, they’re going to ask for the entire manuscript, not, say, pages 51 through 373.

Oh, you thought Millicent was going to invest time in digging out your partial, unpacking your second submission, and fitting the two together like a jigsaw puzzle? Does that really sound like reasonable behavior to expect from the person too impatient to allow her latte to cool before taking her first sip?

At the risk of repeating myself: send precisely what you are asked to send.

However — and this should sound familiar on the secret handshake front — any agent is going to assume that a writer of your caliber is already aware that certain requests imply certain inclusions. Here are the extra bits, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in a packet containing a partial:

1. Cover letter
An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries or pitches well enough to render page one of Chapter 1 instantly recognizable the nanosecond Millicent pulls it from the packet?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but it’s not going to be — in fact, in many agencies, the person who heard the pitch or read the query won’t even be the first person to screen the submission. There may even be several Millicents who need to approve it before it gets anywhere near the agent of your dreams. So it doesn’t honestly make sense to assume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with your work.

Besides, including a cover letter is polite — and more or less necessary, if you have been asked to submit your pages as attachments to an e-mail, right? Just remember: NEVER e-mail pages unless specifically asked to do so, or unless that preference is explicitly expressed in the agency’s submission guidelines. (And if you do e-mail requested materials, send them as Word attachments, saved as .doc files; other word-processing programs, Text Edit files, and/or PDFs are not currently acceptable at US agencies. So if you have been writing in another program, do bear in mind that you will need to switch to industry-standard Word before an agent can submit your work to a publishing house.)

The cover letter needn’t be a long-winded missive, or even chatty: a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do. Something, perhaps, along the lines of this little gem:

cover letter for partial

A miracle of professional blandness, is it not? That’s fine — the cover letter isn’t where you’re going to wow Millicent with your sparkling prose and trenchant insight, anyway. All you have to be here is courteous.

If you met the agent at a conference, mention that in the first paragraph of the letter, to help place your submission in context. As crushing as it may be to the aforementioned writerly ego to contemplate, an agent who spent days on end listening to hundreds of pitches probably is not going to remember each one. No need to re-pitch, but a gentle reminder never hurts.

If another agent is already reading all or part of the manuscript you’re sending — or has asked to see it — be sure mention this in your cover letter. No need to say who it is or how long s/he has had it; just tell the recipient that s/he’s not the only one considering this project. Unless the agency has a policy forbidding simultaneous submissions, withholding this information will only generate resentment down the line if more than one agent wants to represent your book.

Yes, even if that agent to whom you submitted 9 months ago has just never responded. Actually, it’s in your strategic interest to contact that non-responder to let her know that another agent is interested; it often speeds up the evaluation process. (If you’re unclear on why, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category on the archive list at right.)

Most importantly, make sure all of your contact information is on the letter, either in the header (letterhead-style, as in the example above) or just under your signature, and do be absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks.

Yes, it does happen — and if it does to yours, do you seriously expect Millicent to have to dig back through her recycling bin or deleted e-mails for your original query in order to dig up your contact information. No, you understand the overwhelming influx of queries and submissions too well for that. Fortunately, you have the option to include another safety net, one that’s more likely to stay with your pages.

2. Title page
Since a professionally-formatted title page contains the writer’s (or, after you’ve landed an agent, the representing agency’s) contact information, this is where Millicent will look first for yours. So you should always include a title page in a submission packet, if any manuscript pages have been requested — yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book.

No need to state on the title page that it’s a partial, either. Millicent will be able to figure that out from your cover letter and the thickness of the stack of paper. Just use the same title page that you would have used if the agent of your dreams had requested the entire manuscript, and you’ll be fine:

Austen title good

Not precisely a thrill-fest, but undoubtedly professional-looking. Just make sure that it’s in the same typeface as the rest of the attached manuscript. (If this all sounds completely cryptic to you, or if you have never formatted a professional manuscript before, don’t panic — you’ll find a step-by-step explanation of what to do under the HOW TO FORMAT A TITLE PAGE category at right.)

There’s another excellent reason to include a title page. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way. Speaking of which…

3. The requested pages in standard format.
Again: only the pages they’ve asked to see, beginning on page 1, professionally formatted. No substitutions, unless the agency website specifically asks for something else.

You absolutely must check the agency’s submission guidelines — usually available on its website or in its listing in one of the standard agency guides — before you submit, because as we have already discussed, not every agency wants to see precisely the same thing. The vocal minority of agents who now prefer only one space after periods and colons (not the new universal norm, no matter what you’ve heard), for instance, tend to feel strongly enough on the subject that you might even want to do a quick web search under the requesting agent’s name, to rule out the possibility that s/he has expressed this opinion on a blog or in an interview lately. (And yes, if s/he blogs, the Millicents who work at that agency will expect you to be familiar with those expressed preferences. Again, time-consuming, but ultimately worth it.

Does that anguished wailing mean that somebody out there has a follow-up question? “But Anne,” those of you who were under the impression that the one- vs. two-space debate had already been settled in some mythical convention of agents and editors that never in fact took place, “I’ve already changed my manuscript from two post-period spaces to one, because I heard somewhere that was what everyone expects now. Isn’t that true? And do you mean anything else by the ominous-sounding term standard format?”

Why, yes, oh wailers, I do — and the existence of actually industry-wide standard format expectations is the main reason I draw such a strong distinction between them and even rather commonly-held individual agents’ preferences. (You’ll find a complete list, in-depth analysis, and visual examples of the former in the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.) To continue with our example already in progress: standard format still calls for two spaces after a period or colon, because it’s much, much easier to edit a manuscript in that format. However, a hefty percentage of agents (particularly younger ones or those who work primarily with genre fiction) have come out of late in favor of manuscripts that echo the new paper-saving publishing practice of leaving only one.

In fact, many of them express it as a pet peeve. So when you are submitting pages to these specific agents, it would not be very wise to include that literacy-requisite second space, would it?

But it would be almost as foolish to submit a manuscript with only one space after a period or colon to an agent who did not adhere to this preference. (I say almost, because advocates of tradition tend to be less doctrinaire on the subject — and, frankly, there are plenty of agents out there who just don’t care.) If an agent already knows that the editor to whom she planned to take a manuscript will take offense at the newfangled disregard of standards that have been in place for about 150 years, the argument but I heard somewhere that it had changed! just isn’t going to fly.

I repeat (and shall continue to repeat): there is no substitute for doing your homework about what the specific agent you are approaching expects to see, either on the page or in a packet.

For the benefit of those of you who are going to blow off that last piece of advice because you’re in a hurry — oh, I know that you’re out there — allow me to add something you would have learned from those posts on formatting, had you been paying attention: a manuscript intended for submission should not be bound in any way. No staples, no paper clips, and certainly no spiral binding.

Oh, and do use at least 20-lb, bright white paper when you print it out. Cheaper paper can begin to wilt after the first screener has riffled through it. Yes, it does increase the already quite substantial cost of submission, but this is one instance where being penny-wise can cost you serious presentation points.

“So basically what you’re saying, in your patented lengthy and meticulously-explained manner,” those of you who have been paying close attention point out, and rightly, “is that Kim did everything right. Aren’t you?”

Why, yes, I am — kudos for your submitting savvy, Kim! You’re an example to aspiring writers everywhere, all the more so, in my opinion, because you were brave enough to ask the question. Now, everyone who has been wondering about it can benefit.

Sometimes, though, agents ask to see additional materials slipped into a submission packet with a partial. Tomorrow morning, we’ll be taking a swift barefoot run through the usual suspects, as well as revisiting the difference between a partial and a writing sample — or a partial for a contest entry and a writing sample, for that matter.

Hard to contain the excitement, isn’t it? No wonder the skeleton is dancing up a storm. See you back here this evening around 8 pm PST (a writer’s coming over to talk plot, so I’m not sure I’ll be back at my computer in time for a 7:00 post) for more talk of query content, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part VI: I’ve got rhythm…rhythm…rhythm…


I got so carried away last time — urging all of you (a) to regard the revision process as an opportunity to discover the strengths in your manuscript, rather than the far more common method of concentrating exclusively upon the weaknesses, (b) being delighted to discover that you’re really, really talented at some very specific type of writing (who knew that you were the go-to writer for descriptions of buggy wheels in motion, for instance?), and (c) conceivably acting upon that discovery by reworking the manuscript to emphasize your strengths — that I fear one of my more important subsidiary points might have gotten a bit lost in the public rejoicing. Therefore, let me begin today by un-burying that lead.

Even if you chose to blow off 99.2% of my advice in general, please, I implore you, follow it in this one respect: make absolutely, positively certain that your first five pages do not read like a Frankenstein manuscript — or definitely will not before you even consider slipping them into an envelope with a SASE and mailing them off to an agent, editor, or contest.

Don’t just make a vague, affirmative-sounding noise in response to that. I’m waiting to hear an actual promise.

Why, you ask, when I’m writing this on a blog stuffed to the proverbial gills with literally thousands of pages of advice for writers, am I being so adamant about this little gem — and why only the first five? I’m requesting it for your long-term happiness, especially if you happen not to be the lucky beneficiary of limitless time on your hands to devote to revision.

I’m just being practical here, you see. Naturally, you will want your entire narrative to be in a consistent, well-crafted voice; indeed, that should be the long-term goal for any book-length piece. Were it entirely up to me, every writer would have the time to polish his work until it was positively reflective before submitting it.

But that’s not a luxury an aspiring writer has in this rough-and-tumble world, is it?

The fact is, if you’re in a rush to get your submission out the door — and who isn’t, right after pitching at a conference or receiving that long-awaited query response — you may not have either the time or the patience for a complete revision. And while I would NEVER suggest that ANY writer should send even a single page of requested materials WITHOUT having read that submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, and every conference season, I type my fingers to the elbow pointing out to any writer who will listen that it’s actually a really, really poor idea to send out those materials immediately after receiving the request, precisely because doing so by definition doesn’t leave time for a last-minute read-through, I do recognize that deadlines, self-imposed and otherwise, do exist.

I do not concede, however, that anyone who has the time to write a manuscript does not have time to quadruple-check that her first five pages are written in a consistent, flowing, entertaining narrative voice. Nor can I easily envision a real-world submission situation where even the agent of that writer’s wildest dreams would not be willing to wait a week or two — nay, prefer to wait a week or two — to receive requested materials if they would be better-written after the lull.

Hey, it’s not as though that requesting agent is just going to drop everything, waiting for your submission to show up, or is even likely to blink if it takes them a month or two to arrive. Agents are busy people, after all, and they ask to see quite a few manuscripts.

Besides, isn’t submitting incompletely-revised writing a trifle self-defeating? It’s up to you how to invest your time and energy, of course; it’s not as though the Submission Police are going to break down your door to prevent you from hitting the SEND button with the first 50 pages of a Frankenstein manuscript attached. But given the rate at which Frankensteinery tends to get rejected, isn’t it worth taking the time to improve your odds of acceptance a little?

Which brings me to the question of why the first five pages are so important. As we’ve been discussing throughout this series, Millicent is not merely on the look-out for a well-written manuscript, or one that is simply free of technical errors: she is searching for a narrative voice that she believes her boss will (a) like and (b) be able to sell.

If the first five pages of a submission do not establish that voice, few professional readers will continue reading beyond them. While an agent will occasionally pick up an uneven manuscript if she enjoys the overall voice, the Millicent who screens her submissions will, in all likelihood, have made up her mind about the marketability of that voice by the bottom page 5, at the latest.

And that’s assuming that page 1 was close enough to flawless, technically speaking, to tempt her to keep going. Not to mention well-written, presenting an interesting story, and sounding like the kind of book Millicent’s boss habitually represents.

So again: please promise me that you’ll tinker with at least those first five pages until they’re lovely. It’s in your book’s best interest.

After you’ve roll up your metaphorical sleeves to launch into that worthy endeavor, you might want to start by keep an eye out for a very, very common type of textual repetition, especially in book openings end endings: invocatory rhythms that don’t quite work.

Invocatory rhythms are one of the most popular tools aspiring writers use to beautify their narratives, a kind of sing-song rhythm that alerts the reader that Something Literary is Going on Here. Often couched in generalities about the human condition, a well-written invocatory opening can provide a philosophical starting-point, preparing the reader’s mind, as it were, for the specific story to come — or that has just concluded.

More importantly, though, an invocatory rhythm is a species of seduction: conveys a sort of music that draws the reader irresistibly. I’ve read openings that one could practically sing. Take, for instance, the opening paragraph of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s:

I have always been drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days of a train. The walls were stucco, and a color rather like tobacco-spit. Everywhere, in the bathroom too, there were prints of Roman ruins freckled brown with age. The single window looked out on a fire escape. Even so, my spirits heightened whenever I felt in my pocket the key to this apartment; with all its gloom, it still was a place of my own, the first, and my books were there, and jars of pencils to sharpen, everything I needed, so I felt, to become the writer I wanted to be.

Feel that gently galloping rhythm? Compelling, no? we could quibble about some of dear Truman’s editorial choices — I, for one, probably would have taken him to task for those two ands in the final sentence, and many a modern-day Millicent might reject this opening on sight as leaning too heavily on the passive voice — but you can’t deny that it sets a mood.

Partially, the narrative achieves that through invocatory rhythm — and to many a writer, and to many a professional reader, too, that “Ready or not, Muses, here I come!” rhythm is what differentiates the opening of a good book from the writing in the rest of the text. That, and because those golden words happen to fall on page 1, so they’re the first taste the reader gets of the author’s voice.

I’m sensing that some of you out there are shaking your heads, perplexed. “Rhythm?” you call out between well-timed shakes 34 and…35. “I’m not really getting what you mean. I can see that it’s well-written, crammed with the telling details you’re always…” (36) “…going on about, but rhythm is something heard with the ears, right, not seen with the eyes?” (37)

Well, no — although it’s a moot point if you’re reading the page IN ITS ENTIRETY and OUT LOUD. An experienced reader can feel rhythm on the page; it’s part of what keeps Millicent turning pages. To a professional reader, it’s a manuscript’s heartbeat.

Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, I’m bringing it up in this series on Frankenstein manuscripts. All too often, a manuscript will open with a nice, musical rhythm, only to drop it somewhere around page 5. (Hey, I didn’t pick that barrier arbitrarily — that’s around the end of most manuscript’s first scenes.) Or to begin another halfway down page 2. Sometimes, the switch is jarring enough that the text just before and just after the switch read like two different authorial voices.

Sound familiar? It should: it’s one of the defining characteristics of the Frankenstein manuscript. Need I say more?

I should, actually — or so the head-shakers from a few paragraphs ago tell me. Try reading the opening of Jerzy Kosinski’s marvelous political satire, Being There, first silently, then, if you haven’t taken a vow of silence (or are not perusing this blog at work), read it again out loud.

It was Sunday. Chance was in the garden. He moved slowly, dragging the green hose from one path to the next, carefully watching the flow of water. Very gently he let the stream touch every plan, every flower, every branch in the garden. Plants were like people; they needed care to live, to survive their diseases, and to die peacefully.

Did you catch it that time? This is a particularly nice example: the rhythm begins slowly, then gradually builds up speed, as if the garden were awakening in the first light of morning; by the third sentence, the narrative moving forward at a strong beat. That’s far from accidental: the third sentence repeats the same word thrice, a rhythm continued by the list of three essential needs of people in the final sentence. Well done, Jerzy!

Still not hearing it? Okay, you’ve left me no choice; I’m going to get completely ruthless. Take a gander at what is arguably the most famous example of invocatory rhythm in American literature, the ending of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Yes, he of “Oh, I’m so beautiful — why can’t I be happy?” fame.)

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out farther…and one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

If you can’t sense the rhythm in that passage, I can only suggest that drum lessons might be a waste of your time.

Perhaps because so many of us in this great nation spent our formative years being fed THE GREAT GATSBY, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, ROMEO AND JULIET, and other rhythm-heavy broken-off bits of literary nourishment intravenously through our English classes, capital-L Literature tends to be heavily associated with these types of very rhythmic narrative. The Great American Novel construction kit might as well come with a drum machine, if the submissions Millicent sees are any indication.

Which is to say: literary fiction manuscripts tend to be stuffed to the margins with invocatory rhythms, as do, for some reason, high-end science fiction and sophisticated women’s fiction. Forget about grabbing the reader with a good, old-fashioned hook: these openings are evidently intended to stun Millicent into cries of delight over the magnificence of this new literary voice.

Which is grand — when the device works. The problem is, it often doesn’t.

But that doesn’t stop a driving rhythm from being a hugely popular way to open Chapter 1, is it? As so many writers have been delighted to discover, one of the easiest ways to add this music to a text is through word and phrase repetition:

Geraldine ran through the corridor, ran like the wind, ran as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her freedom, after all this time? Didn’t she deserve a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Of best friend, illicit lover, that grim-faced police sergeant on the night shift? Didn’t she, in fact, deserve to breathe the fresh air of autonomy?

That’s a relatively moderate use of the kind of invocatory rhythm that tends to turn up in manuscript submissions and contest entries. Here’s a galloping case of it:

Bewildered, Paul hung his head in shame. Not in shame, precisely: he hung his head partially in pride, a fierce pride that he had done the right thing, made the brave choice, under extremely trying circumstances. No, it was not in shame that he hung his head — that much was clear to him, even while trying to find his way of the wilds of bewilderment without so much as a map and his trusty Boy Scout compass. He was proud, pleased-proud, surprised-proud, PROUD. He wouldn’t have canceled out his supposed shame even if he could have turned back time with a wave of his hand.

Yes, the rhythm here is indeed driving, but what a heck of a lot of word repetition! That’s what a professional reader is likely to take away from this paragraph, by the way, not the emotional intensity. In fact, here’s how it’s likely to burn itself into Millicent’s overworked retinas:

Bewildered, Paul hung his head in shame. Not in shame, precisely: he hung his head partially in pride, a fierce pride that he had done the right thing, made the brave choice, under extremely trying circumstances. No, it was not in shame that he hung his head that much was clear to him, even while trying to find his way out of the wilds of bewilderment without so much as a map and his trusty Boy Scout compass. He was proud, pleased-proud, surprised-proud, PROUD. He wouldn’t have canceled out his supposed shame even if he could have turned back time with a wave of his hand.

To put it less graphically, it’s the repetition that Millicent is likely to notice, rather than the poetic rhythm. Notice, too, that it’s not only the verbatim word and phrase repetition that would make her grind her teeth: words that scan similarly, like wild and bewildered are likely to stick in her craw as well. As will different forms of the same verb appearing within too few lines of text.

Just in case any of you were thinking of featuring have, having, and had within the course of a single paragraph anytime soon.

I’ve been sensing more head-shaking throughout my discussion of these examples. “I see that there are repeated words here, Anne, but surely that is a stylistic choice on the author’s part, a matter of bending the ordinary rules of writing in order to produce a particular type of voice — in this case, one that sounds like chanting the same words over and over again. Unless you have just inadvertently proven your oft-made point about not every reader’s liking every voice, and you are demonstrating yourself to be the kind of knuckle-dragging troglodyte who eschews the joys of literary fiction in favor of novels that — ugh — have a plot?”

Actually, I’ve been known to read and enjoy both, oh ye quick to judge — and what’s more, I’ve read plenty of literary fiction with strong plots and genre fiction that features beautiful language. I cut my editing teeth on high-end fantasy with a literary voice. So there.

But you are right that the example above is far more likely to have dropped from the fingertips of a writer with specifically literary aspirations than one who was aiming for a more mainstream market. Since invocatory rhythms are quite common in poetry, this style turns up very frequently in prose by writers who also write poetry. Unfortunately for Millicent’s aching eyes, it’s also a frequent guest device in novel and memoir submissions, particularly in those that are either literary fiction or are other types of manuscript written with an overtly literary voice.

It just sounds pretty, somehow. Blame our high school English teachers.

Oh, some of you head-shakers are at it again. Aren’t your necks getting tired? “Wait — if the writing’s pretty, how could THAT be problematic in a submission?”

In many ways, believe it or not. Rather than telling you why, let’s look at the single most famous piece of invocatory prose in English literature, the opening to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. (Yes, yes, I know: I’m fond of this particular example, but honestly, it’s one of the best how-tos for writing redundant prose ever produced. Bear with me here.) Just for kicks, pretend that your tenth-grade teacher didn’t force you to write a critical essay about it. Instead, try to read like an agency screener:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

Or, if you want to don Millicent’s eyeglasses even more thoroughly, take a gander at it in standard manuscript format:


Now, this voice is certainly distinctive, isn’t it? Hard to conceive of a more memorable opening, rhythmically speaking. But it’s also true that if these were the first two paragraphs of a submission, pretty much any professional reader today would have rejected it by line three.

Close your eyes, channel Millicent, and tell me why.

If you said that it was because the first paragraph is one interminable run-on sentence — 119 words, connected incorrectly by commas, rather than semicolons, sacre bleu! — give yourself lollipop, a pat on the head, and an A for the day.

Ditto if you zeroed in upon the apparently random capitalization of nouns, the criminal punctuation choices, the ubiquitous logical contradictions. (Yes, I know Dickens meant it to be ironic; stop parroting your high school English teacher, or I’ll be forced to pull out my tattered copy of OF MICE AND MEN.) Or the fact that two paragraphs into the piece, the reader still has absolutely no idea who the protagonist is or what’s going on.

And can’t you just picture an editor furiously scribbling in the margins: “Which was it — the best of times or the worst of times? Commit to one or the other! Remember, the reader only knows what you tell him!”

However, there is a simpler, less obvious reason this first page just cries out for rejection — which will be abundantly apparent if you stand up right now, take two steps backward from your computer monitor, and take another look at Dickens’ opening.

See the visual pattern of word and phrase repetition? Millicent would have spotted it as soon as she pulled the first page out of the envelope.

I’ve seen wallpaper with more pattern variation. If you’ve been revising for a while (or if you paid close attention to the title of this post), you might have caught that the problem was repetition without backing away from your computer: the first ten verbs in the piece are identical, after all.

Yet it’s not just the repeated words and phrases that would raise professional readers’ weary eyebrows here: it’s the structural repetition, the phenomenon of consecutive sentences being set up in the same way. Or, in the disease’s more advanced form, when every second or third sentence boasts practically the same structure. Narratives where most sentences contain two verb phrases joined by the word and, for instance, or the ever-popular As X was happening, I did Y.

Dickens, bless his now-still heart, has provided us with a lulu of an example of why structural repetition is problematic in print. No matter how great your high school English teacher told you this particular opening was, it’s an undeniable fact that it’s dull for the reader to read the same It was X, it was Y sentence structure over and over again.

To be fair, though, any given sentence structure can become tiresome to a reader, if it is repeated often enough within too few lines of text. Even had Dickens wielded all of those semicolons correctly (which he didn’t, by current grammatical standards), Millicent would have known at a glance that an opening this repetitious was unlikely to be an easy sell, either to readers or to her boss, the agent.

And for precisely the same reason in both cases: it’s conceptually boring and hard on the eyes to read that many similarly-structured sentences in a row.

As we saw in all of today’s examples, a certain amount of structural repetition can provide a genuine forward momentum to a narrative. Many aspiring writers see that rhythm in the work of authors they admire and say, “Wow, that’s cool. By jingo, I’m going to make my paragraphs read like that!”

That’s a perfectly legitimate voice choice — provided that it is used sparingly. Like any magic trick, however, repetitive structure loses its ability to charm when the reader sees it too often; after a while, it can start to come across less as an interesting stylistic choice than as a sort of narrative tic.

How often is too often? Well, let me ask you: how many iterations of It was… did Dickens put you through before you first murmured, Oh, come on, Chuck; get on with it?

For Millicent, that number is likely to be as low as two, even if the repetition isn’t in consecutive sentences. Why so few? Well, editors are trained to zero in on redundancy and excise it, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anybody that the contest judges, agents, and Millicents who cull the herd of submissions should develop a sensitivity to something likely to offend an editor’s sensibilities. If a particular stylistic choice is unlikely to sell to a publishing house, those whose job it is to find the bestsellers of tomorrow have to pay attention that editorial preference.

So yes, in answer to what practically all of you were thinking at the beginning of the last paragraph, a professional reader who has been at it a while — honestly may notice structural repetition the first time it occurs, not the seventh. But that’s a matter of speculation, as she is very, very unlikely to still be reading long enough to stumble upon #7.

Heck, it’s not all that uncommon for a professional reader to sit bolt upright in the middle of page 172, exclaiming indignantly, “Hey, this writer is reusing sentences!” if the first iteration occurred on page 3. Millicents tend to have good memories for text. So do agents, editors, contest judges, writing coaches, and pretty much everyone else who reads work-in-progress for a living.

Which is why, in case you’ve spent years speculating on the subject, recipients of professional feedback are so often stunned by assertions that their manuscripts use particular words or phrases constantly. To someone with a memory trained for editing, four times in a 300-page submission may feel pretty constant.

Don’t repeat yourself more than is absolutely necessary.

“Okay, okay,” I hear some of you rules lawyers out there murmuring, “I understand that Millicent is hyper-sensitive to reused sentences and repeated sentence structures. But as you pointed out yourself, Anne, many writers like to open and close their books with poetic rhythms; that doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire book will be written that way. A TALE OF TWO CITIES doesn’t continue repetitively, after all. So why doesn’t Millicent just assume that the device will end in a page or two and read on?”

Long-time readers, feel free to sing along: because Millicent seldom makes it all the way to the end of page one. She’s not in the habit of reading on until she gets to a patch of text she likes. (Too bad our pal Chuckles blew his chance by repeating himself so much, eh?)

I could sidestep the crux of the question by leaving it at that, but the real issue is why a professional reader would assume that the way a manuscript opens is necessarily indicative of what is to come. It’s an excellent question, because this assumption does underlie any rejection on page one. The fact is, though, that this presumption is not always inaccurate, at least with regard to redundancy. More often than not, when a manuscript opens with repetitive structure, it will continue with repetitive structure.

Hey, the writer thinks it sounds pretty. He’s been re-reading THE GREAT GATSBY lately.

Obviously, this renders invocatory repetition dangerous for a writer to use in the first pages of a submission. Or book proposal. Agents and editors are just so used to seeing structural repetition dotting submissions end to end that they’re all too likely — fairly or not — to conclude that to read on would be to be treated to the same type of sentence over and over, ad infinitum.

And that, my friends, would be less poetic than soporific.

Next time, I shall talk about ways to tell which is which in your writing, to figure out when and how invocatory rhythms will help your work. Keep up the good work!

Partials, part III: “Wait — what do you mean, they wanted 50 CONSECUTIVE pages?” and other cris de coeur of submitters and contest entrants

neighbor's tulip tree

No, I shan’t be writing about tulip trees today — I just wanted to share my favorite of my latest batch of yard-in-bloom photos, for the benefit of those of you in stormier climes. While I was setting up this shot, I did invest a few moments’ thought to how I could possibly work these outrageous blooms into this post as a metaphor.

That’s the problem with metaphors: they actually have to relate to something.

In non-floral news, I’m feeling especially virtuous this evening: my excuse for running outside with my camera on this beautiful day (other than searching for images to divert you fine people, of course) was that I finally finished incorporating my first readers’ EXTENSIVE feedback into my recently-completed novel. Yes, even writers who edit for a living solicit opinion, technical and otherwise, from readers before showing their work to their agents.

The smart ones do, anyway; professional critique is so cut-and-dried that emotionally, it just doesn’t make sense to have an agent be the first soul on earth to read your work. (Hear that, aspiring writers planning to submit before showing those pages to anyone local?) Not to mention the practical pluses of good feedback — contrary to popular opinion amongst the shy, even the most battle-hardened pro can benefit from objective critique.

Emphasis upon objective, of course. Long-time readers, whip out your hymnals and sing along, please: no matter how extensively your kith and kin happen to read in your book category, by definition, people who love you cannot give you completely objective feedback on your writing. Even if your significant other is a published author, your best friend a Pulitzer Prize recipient, and your father the chief librarian of an archive devoted exclusively to your type of book, it is in your — and your manuscript’s — best interest to hear the unvarnished opinions of people who do not love you.

Trust me on this one. The sterling soul who gave birth to me has been editing great writers for fifty years, and even she doesn’t clap eyes upon my manuscripts until I’ve incorporated the first round of feedback. (Not that she hasn’t asked.)

I’m bringing this up at the end of our mini-series on partials not merely to celebrate polishing off that always rather taxing job — if any writer actually enjoys working critique into a manuscript, line by line, I’ve never met her — but also to remind those of you planning to rush those requested materials off to the post office that it’s an excellent idea to have another set of eyes scan those pages first.

Ditto with contest entries and residency applications; it’s just too easy to miss a crucial typo yourself. Particularly if you’re really in a hurry to meet a deadline — and what entrant or applicant isn’t? — and neglect to read your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Oh, as if I would let an opportunity to slip that golden piece of editorial advice into yet another post. Why repeat it so often? Because I can already feel some of you gearing up to blow it off, that’s why?

Specifically, those of you who huffed impatiently at that last paragraph. “But Anne,” those of you who pride yourself on your attention to detail point out, “I must have read those pages 75 times while I was revising them. I’ve read them so many times that two-thirds of my brain cells think they’re already published. What could I possibly learn by reading them again, much less IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Quite a lot, actually. Like, for instance, if when you changed your protagonist’s sister’s name from Mona to Maura, you changed every reference. Or if every line of the requested synopsis printed out legibly. Or — brace yourselves; this may be a hard one for some of you – if the minor changes you made in the course of the 71rst read are consistent with the ones from read 72.

Shall I rephrase that, to drive home the point a little harder? Okay, how’s this: had you re-read every syllable of your partial, contest entry, or writing sample tucked into a residency application between the time you made those final few changes and when you popped your last submission into the mail? Or since you popped your last submission into the mail?

Wow, the crowd’s gone so quiet all of a sudden.

And for those of you who were not suddenly flung into retrospective panic about what kind of typo or printing snafu you might have inadvertently passed under Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s weary eyes, you needn’t take my word for how often writers realize only after something’s out the door that it wasn’t quite right. Many members of the Author! Author! community have already shared their horror stories on the subject; it makes for some enlightening reading.

Feel free to add stories of your own on that list; sharing them honestly will help other aspiring writers. But do not, I beg you, set yourself up for a spectacularly instructive anecdote by failing to read the very latest version of your partial, contest entry, or writing sample IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

While I’m hovering over you like a mother hen, here’s a post-submission regret I hope I can wipe from the face of the earth forever: including a business-size (#10) envelope as the SASE for a partial or a contest that returns materials, rather than an envelope (and appropriate postage) large enough to send back everything in the submission or entry packet.

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne!” half of those with submissions currently languishing at agencies across the U.S. cry. “I thought the point of the SASE — that stands for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, right? — was so the agent who requested the partial could mail me a letter, asking me to send the rest of the manuscript — or, heaven forfend, a rejection letter!”

Well, the agent (or, more likely, the agent’s Millicent-in-residence) usually does include at least a form-letter rejection in a homeward-bound SASE, but that’s not the SASE’s primary purpose, from the agency’s point of view. Its primary use is to get all of those pages out of its office and back to the aspiring writers who sent them.

That’s not just because if they didn’t, the average agency’s halls would be so filled with rejected pages by the end of the first month that Millicent wouldn’t be able to fight her way to the coffeemaker through the chest-high stacks of pages. (She would have had to give up her traditional lattes by the end of the first week, since she couldn’t find the front door during her lunch break.) They also return the pages because it’s in the writer’s copyright interest to know precisely where his pages are at any given time — and if that seems paranoid to you, you might want to take a gander at the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the archive list at right.

If, on the other hand, the idea of a submission’s tumbling into unscrupulous hands doesn’t strike you as particularly outrageous, but the logic behind the writer’s providing the postage to convey her own rejection to her does, I would recommend a quick read through the posts under the SASE GUIDELINES category.

And for those of you reading this post in a tearing hurry because you’re frantically trying to get a partial out the door and into the mail, or whose fingers are itching to hit the SEND key for electronic submissions, let me just go ahead and state it as a boldfaced aphorism: with any submission, always include a SASE sufficiently large for the agent to send the entire submission back to you, with enough stamps attached to get it there safely.

Yes, I said stamps. Attaching metered postage to a SASE is another fairly common mistake in submitting a partial. Generally speaking, agencies will not use a stamp-free SASE. (If you’re interested in the rather convoluted logic behind that one, I would refer you again to the SASE GUIDELINES category. Otherwise, moving swiftly on…)

A third common mistake submitters of partials often make comes not when they are packing up the partial, but later, after the agent has approved the partial and asked to see the entire manuscript. That’s the agency parlance for the request, anyway; in writer-speak, it’s usually called asking to see the rest of the book.

Therein lies the root of the mistake: the semantic difference is crucial here. All too often, successful partial submitters think that a request for the entire manuscript equals a request for only the part of the manuscript the agent has not yet seen.

The agent asked to see the rest of the book, right?

Actually, she didn’t — what asking to see the rest of the book means in agent-speak is that the agent is expecting the ENTIRE manuscript to show up in her office, neatly boxed and accompanied by a return mailing label and enough postage to get the whole shebang back to the sender, if it’s rejected. (If that last bit came as any sort of a surprise to you, I would strongly urge you to peruse the posts under the MAILING REQUESTED MATERIALS category at right before you comply with any request for your manuscript.)

Starting to see a pattern here?

I do — and have for years: when aspiring writers just assume that they know what a request for materials entails, submissions often go awry; when they take the time to do their homework, irritating Millicent by such mistakes is 99.999% avoidable. (Hey, there’s no accounting for how moody she might get when she burns her lip on that too-hot latte for the fiftieth time this year.) Much of the time, the difference isn’t even the result of conscious step-skipping: first-time submitters frequently don’t know that there are rules to be followed.

Want to know what half the Millicents currently screening would say in response to that last sentence? It’s illuminating about the harshness of professional evaluation: “So I’m supposed to make allowances because these writers didn’t do their homework, effectively penalizing all of those conscientious writers out there who take the time to learn the ropes? I’ll bet that most of these mistaken submitters didn’t even bother to check if my agency’s website has submission guidelines.”

To which Mehitabel would add: “And virtually every contest on earth includes very specific submission guidelines in its rules, yet I’m continually astonished by how few entrants seem to read them. I’ll seldom actually disqualify an entry because it violates a presentation rule, but how can I justify penalizing all of those nice entrants who did follow the rules by allowing a violator to proceed to the finalist round of judging?”

Okay, so maybe they wouldn’t be quite that forthcoming. Or prolix. If I’m going to be completely honest, I would have to admit that this is what either of them is most likely to say when such a submission crossed their line of vision: “Next!”

Please, do your homework about the recipient’s stated preferences before you submit any requested materials. Not every agency is kind enough to writers to post specific guidelines, but if you happen to be dealing with one that has, you absolutely must follow them, or risk the wrath of Millicent.

It’s not pretty. Neither is Mehitabel’s, or the as-yet-to-be-named individual screening applications for that writers’ retreat you would give your eyeteeth to attend.

I’m taking christening suggestions for the application screener, by the way. I’d originally dubbed her Petunia, but that doesn’t exactly inspire awe and fear, does it?

Another major mistake that dogs contest entries involves confusing a partial with a writing sample. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, chant it with me now, followers of this series:

A partial is the first X number of pages of a manuscript assumed already to be complete, numbered consecutively and stopping at the bottom of the exact page the requester specified as the maximum. A writing sample is a selection of a book’s best writing, regardless of where it falls in the book.

In a pitching situation — the place an agent-seeking writer is most likely to be asked to produce a writing sample — 5 pages is usually the maximum length. However, a lengthy writing sample might include more than one scene, and those scenes might not run consecutively.

Everybody clear on all that? Now would be a marvelous time to ask a question, if not — I want to make absolutely, positively sure that every single member of the Author! Author! community not only understands these two separate concepts to be separate concepts, but can explain the difference to any confused fellow writers he might encounter.

Are you wondering why am I being so very adamant about this one? A deep and abiding dislike for seeing good writers waste their time and money: being unaware of this distinction trips up a simply phenomenal number of contest entrants every year.

How, you ask? Sadly, they misinterpret the rules’ call for X number of pages from, say, a novel, as permission to send X number of pages from anywhere in the novel. Sometimes, these hapless souls take the misunderstanding one step further, sending in a few pages from Chapter 1, a few from Ch. 8, perhaps a couple of paragraphs from Ch. 17…in short, they submit a bouquet of writing samples.

Understandable mistake, right? And extremely common, particularly in entries for contests that simply ask entrants to send a specified number of pages of a novel, without mentioning that those pages should be consecutive — oh, and if the entrant might by some odd chance want to win the contest, those pages had better begin on page 1 of Chapter 1 of the book.

Shall I take that gigantic collective gasp of indignation as an indication that some of you past contest entrants wish you had heard one or more of those tidbits before you entered?

Again, let’s state it as an aphorism, for the benefit of last-minute skimmers: unless a literary contest’s rules specifically state otherwise, assume that the entry should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. Part of what entrants in any prose contest are being judged upon is the ability to construct a strong narrative and story arc.

In answer to the question that most of you are probably screaming mentally, I have no idea why so few contests’ rules don’t just state this point-blank. It’s not as though it’s a rare problem — every contest judge I’ve ever met tells a sad story about the well-written entry that knocked itself out of finalist consideration via this error. And I’ve judged in a heck of a lot of literary contests, so I’ve met a whole lot of judges over the years.

I could spend a few more minutes of my life shaking my head over this, but over the years, my neck has gotten sore. I’m going to take the warning as heard — it was, wasn’t it? — and move on.

Writers asked to submit partials occasionally fall into the writing sample trap as well, but frankly, it’s less common. Perhaps writers marketing books harbor an inherent desire to have their stories read from beginning to end, just as a reader would encounter their work in a published book. Perhaps, too, agents’ requests for materials tend to be for much heftier portions of a manuscript than many contest entries would tolerate: 50 or 100 pages for a partial is fairly normal, but many contests for even book-length works call for as few as 10, 20, or 30 pages, sometimes including a synopsis.

But just to head any problems off at the pass, as well as to illustrate why a nonconsecutive partial made up of even superlative writing would not be a good marketing packet for any manuscript, from an agency perspective, let’s close out this short series by going over the expectations for a partial one more time. Come on; it’ll be fun.

When an agent or editor requests a partial, she’s not asking for a writing sample consisting of 50 or 100 pages of the writer’s favorite parts of the book, a sort of greatest hits compilation — if that’s what she wants, she (or her submission guidelines; check) will tell you so point-blank. She is unlikely to prefer a writing sample as a submission, however, because part of what her Millicent is looking for in submissions is storytelling acumen.

Think about it: in an unconnected series of scenes gleaned from across your manuscript, how good a case could you make for your talent at arranging plot believably? How well could you possibly show off your book’s structure, or character development, or even ability to hold a reader’s interest, compared to the same story as you present it in your manuscript, beginning on page 1?

If you have any doubt whatsoever about the answer to that last question, run, don’t walk, to an objective first reader to help you figure out whether the current running order of events tells your story effectively. (Didn’t think I’d be able to work in another plug for feedback from an independent-minded first reader, did you?)

What an agent or editor does expect to see in a partial, then, is the opening of the manuscript as you plan to market it to, well, agents and editors: it’s precisely the same as the full manuscript, except it doesn’t include the pages after, say, page 50.

And if Millicent loves that partial and asks for the rest of the book, what will you do? Send the entire manuscript, right? Right?

I couldn’t resist tossing in the pop quiz, to see if you’d been paying attention. I wouldn’t want any of you to end the post still confused about any of this. (And if you are: please, I implore you, leave a question in the comments.)

And remember, read any submission guidelines very thoroughly before you invest your heart, hopes, energy, and/or precious time in preparing a partial packet or contest entry. This is no time to be skimming; make a list and check it twice, like Santa Claus.

Yes, even if the request consisted of a grand total of three lines of text in an e-mail. In fact, I always advise my editing clients to read the guidelines once — then, on the second read, make a checklist of everything you are being asked to do. Wait a day before going back to triple-check that the list is accurate.

Then, and only then, put together the submission or entry, checking off each item as you place it in the envelope. Re-read the original guidelines or letter before you even think of sealing the envelope. If you’re not much of a detail person, you might also want to hand your list to at least one person who happens to love you, ask him/her/that ungainly mob to check it against the guidelines or contest rules, then to verify that what’s in your envelope is in fact what you have been asked to send.

You didn’t think I was going to leave the kith and kin I’d disqualified from giving you objective feedback from helping you altogether, did you? Everyone has a task here at Author! Author!

That’s what how a supportive community works, isn’t it? Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XII: things change — but not as fast as many writers would like

Yes, yes, I know: I usually open our discussion and gladden your hearts with a pretty picture, or at any rate one to get you thinking about our topic du jour. Today’s marginally pretty pictures, however, require a bit of initial explanation. Specifically, I want to give you a heads-up about how I would like you to use them.

So: please stare at the photos I am about to show you for a good, long minute before moving on to the rest of the post. I would like these images burned into your cranium before we return to our ongoing topic, how manuscripts move from the writer’s brainpan, through an agency, through a publishing house, to end up on your local bookstore’s shelves.

Never mind why; just stare. First, at this snapshot I took in my yard a year ago:


Clear in your mind? Excellent. Now contemplate, if you will, the same view at a later date (and from slightly farther away, I now notice):


Four months separate those pictures — either a very short time for such a radical alteration of the environment or an interminable one, depending upon how you choose to look at it. But whatever your attitude, the fact remains that both the wind chime and its observer feel quite different sensations now than they did then, right?

Bear that gentle observation in mind for the rest of this post, please. This series has, after all, been all about gaining a broader perspective on a great, big, time-consuming process whose built-in delays aspiring writers all too often — mistakenly — regard as completely personal.

Yes, it’s all happening to you, but the upcoming change of seasons will happen to you, too. Does that mean that nobody else experiences it? Or that today’s frosty blast of winter air was aimed at you personally?

Realistic expectations and the management of resentment
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been sticking to the basics: an overview of the trajectory a manuscript typically travels from the writer’s hands to ultimately sitting on a shelf at your local bookstore. Since what most aspiring writers have in mind when they say they want to get their books published is publication through great big New York City-based publishing houses — GBNYCBPH for short, although admittedly, not very short — I’ve been concentrating upon that rather difficult route.

As we have seen, in order to pursue that particular path — which is, as we shall see later in the week, not the only possible route to publication; people merely act as though it is — a writer needs an agent. Yet as we also saw earlier in this series, that was not always the case: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at GBNYCBPH directly; until not very long ago, nonfiction writers still could. Instead, writers seeking publication at GBNYCBPH invest months — or, more commonly, years — in attracting the agent who can perform the necessary introduction.

So a historically-minded observer could conclude that over time, the road to publication has become significantly longer for the average published author, or at any rate more time-consuming. Should we writers rend our garments over this, bearding the heavens with our bootless cries, complaining to an unhearing collection of muses that it’s just a whole lot more difficult to get good writing published than it used to be?

Well, we could — and a startlingly high percentage of the public discussion of the writing life is devoted to just that. One can hardly walk into any writers’ conference in North America without tripping over a knot of writers commiserating about it. Certainly, you can’t Google how to get a book published without pulling up an intriguingly intense list of how-to sites and fora where aspiring writers complain about their experiences, sometimes helpfully, sometimes not. And don’t even try to total up all of the blogs on the subject.

Two things are clear: there’s quite a bit of garment-rending going on, and this process is hard.

Although I am never averse to a little light self-inflicted clothing damage if the situation warrants it, I am inclined to think that most aspiring writers expend too much energy on resentment. Without question, most take it too personally, given that the GBNYCBPH didn’t suddenly rearrange their submission policies the day before yesterday in order to avoid having to deal with any individual submission they might otherwise have received within the next six months. Using agents as the North American literary world’s manuscript screeners, effectively, has been going on for quite some time.

Did I just hear a few dozen cries of “Aha!” out there? Yes, your revelation is quite correct: at one level, an agency is to a major NYC-based publishing house what Millicent the agency screener is to the agent, the gatekeeper who determines which manuscripts will and will not be seen by someone empowered to make a decision about publishing it.

But it’s laughably easy for an aspiring writer in the throes of agent-seeking to forget that, isn’t it? All too often, aspiring writers speak amongst themselves and even think about landing an agent as though that achievement were the Holy Grail of publishing: it’s a monumentally difficult feat to pull off, but once a writer’s made it, the hard work’s over; the sweets of the quest begin.

It’s a pretty image, but let me ask you something: have you ever heard a writer who already has an agent talk about it this way?

I’m guessing that you haven’t, because I’m hear to tell you: seldom are garments rent more drastically than amongst a group of agented writers whose books have not yet been picked up by GBNYCBPH.

Why, the agent-seekers out there gasp, aghast? Because typically, signing with an agent doesn’t mean just handing the manuscript over to another party who is going to do all the work; it means taking on a whole host of other obligations, frequently including biting one’s lip and not screaming while absolutely nothing happens with a manuscript for months at a time.

To put it lest histrionically, working with an agent is work. Just not the same work that a writer was doing before.

In other words: things change. And that’s only natural.

Okay, so what is it like to work with an agent?
Are you sitting down? You should, because the answer to that question generally comes as a gargantuan surprise to those in the throes of agent-seeking: the main change most newly-agented writers report is no longer feeling that they have control over what happens to their books.

That’s not paranoia talking, by the way, nor is it merely the inevitable emotional letdown inherent in reaching a goal one has pursued for an awfully long time. It’s a ruthlessly accurate perception, usually.

How so, you ask with horror? Well, for starters, the agent, not the writer will be the one making decisions about:

* when the manuscript is ready for submission to editors at GBNYCBPH;

* given that the agent’s initial answer to that first question will almost certainly be not yet, what revisions need to be made in order to render it ready;

* when the market is ripe for this particular submission (hint: not necessarily when the country’s flailing its way out of a serious recession);

* what additional materials should be included in the submission packet, and your timeline for producing them (because yes, Virginia, you will be the one producing most of marketing materials your agent will wield on your behalf);

* which editors should see it and in what order;

* how it should be submitted (one at a time, in a mass submission, or something in between);

* how soon to follow up with editors who have been sitting on the submission for a while (in general, quite a bit longer than strikes an impatient first-time author as appropriate);

* whether it’s even worth bothering to follow up with certain editors (especially if it’s rumored that they’re about to be laid off or are toying with an offer from another publishing house);

* whether to pass along to the writer the reasons that an editor gave for rejecting the manuscript (not all agents do — and not all agents who do pass along all of the feedback they receive from editors, especially if it contradicts their own views of the book);

* whether enough editors have given similar excuses that the writer really ought to go back and revise the manuscript before it gets submitted again;

* when a manuscript has been seen by enough to stop submitting it, and

*when to start nagging the writer to write something new, so s/he can market that.

I make no pretense of foretelling the future, but I don’t need to be the Amazing Kreskin to state with 100% certainty that those of you who land agents between the time I post this and two years from now will disagree with those agents on at least one of the points above. Probably more. And the vast majority of the time, you will not win that particular debate, because the agent is the one who is going to be doing the submitting.

Oh, you would rather not have known about this until after you signed a representation contract? And aren’t you glad that you already had those nice, peaceful windchime images rattling around in your head? (I thought you might like a brain-soother right about now.)

Now that you’ve calmed down — oh, like the list above didn’t make you even the teensiest bit angry — let’s take another gander at it. Notice how much work the writer is expected to do under this arrangement? You produce the manuscript or proposal, revise it according to the agent’s specifications, write any additional marketing material (trust me, you’ll be glad that you already have an author bio — and if you don’t, consider devoting next weekend to going through the HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right to come up with one), make any subsequent revisions (editors have been known to ask for some BEFORE they’ll acquire a book)…

And all the while, you’re supposed to be working furiously on your next book project. Why? Because “So, what are you working on now?” is one of the first questions any editor interested in your current book will ask.

Nice, deep breaths. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

In fact, don’t be surprised if your agent starts asking about your next book roughly 42 seconds after you deliver the full manuscript of the book that attracted his attention in the first place. A career writer — one who has more than one book in him, as they say — is inherently more valuable to an agent or a publishing house than one who can only think in terms of one book at a time; there’s more for the agent to sell, and once a editor knows she can work with a writer (not a self-evident proposition) whose voice sells well (even less self-evident), she’s going to want to see the next book as soon as humanly possible.

And no, at that point, no one will care that you still have a day job. It’s a reasonable objection, though.

A word to the wise: you might want to start working on your next during that seemingly endless period while your agent is shopping your book around — that’s agency-speak for showing it to editors — or getting ready to shop your book around. Yes, it’s a whole lot of work to wrest your fine creative mind out of the book currently in your agent’s beefy hands — but it’s a far, far more productive use of all of that nervous energy than sitting around and fretting about whether your agent is submitting your last book quickly enough.

Or rending your garments. Trust me on this one.

Wait — so what will my agent actually do with my manuscript once s/he deems it ready to go?
Let’s assume that you’ve already made the changes your agent requests, and both you and he have pulled it off in record time. Let’s also say that he’s taken only three months to give you a list of the changes he wanted, and you’ve been able to make them successfully in another three.

If that first bit sounds like a long time to you, remember how impatient you were after you submitted your manuscript to the agent? The agent has to read all of his current clients’ work AND all of those new submissions; it can take a long time to get around to any particular manuscript.

What happens next? Well, it depends upon how the agency operates. Some agencies (like mine, as it happens) will ask the writer to send them 8-15 clean copies of the entire manuscript for submission.

Other agencies will simply photocopy the manuscript they have to send it out and deduct the cost of copying from the advance. Sometimes the per-page fee can be rather steep with this second type of agency; if it is, ask if you can make the copies yourself and mail them. Many agents will also ask for an electronic copy of the manuscript, for submission in soft copy.

While some of you are cringing, furtively adding up how much it would cost to produce 15 impeccable copies of a 400-page manuscript, I can feel others of you starting to get excited out there. “Oh, boy, Anne!” a happy few squeal. “This is the part I’ve been waiting for — the agent takes my writing to the editors at the GBNYCBPH!”

Well, probably not right away: agencies tend to run on submission schedules, so as not to overtax the mailroom staff. It also makes keeping the submission lists straight easier — because you don’t want your manuscript to be sent to either the wrong editor or the same editor twice, do you?

In a large agency, it may take a while for a new client’s book to make its way up the queue. Also, not all times of the year are equally good for submission.

That just made half of you sit up ramrod-straight in your chairs, didn’t it? Remember how I told you that much of the publishing industry goes on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day? And that it’s virtually impossible to get an editorial committee together between Thanksgiving and the end of the year? Not to mention intervening events that draw editors away from their desks, like the spring-summer writers’ conference season and the Frankfurt Book Fair in the autumn?

The inevitable result: your manuscript may be in for a wait. Depending upon your relationship with your new agent, you may or may not receive an explanation for any delays.

But the usual reason is — shout it with me now — things change. The manuscript that couldn’t interest an editor even if the agent did a striptease during the pitch (oh, there are stories) five years ago might get snapped up in a flash two years from now. And while the bookstores may be crammed with vampires and zombies now, they will be just as crammed with future fads next year.

See why it’s of critical importance to sign with not just any agent, but one whose judgment you trust, one who believes in your talent? A good agent is not just some guy who can take a brilliantly-written book and sell it — ideally, he’s the writer’s partner in long-term strategic planning of the literary variety.

And that kind of partnership, my friends, is well worth searching a while to find.

Because although this is a hard business, it’s also an ever-changing one. You want an agent who understands that ultimately, literary success is a long-term game. Myopically insisting that is true today is eternally true of the book market is just, well, historically ill-informed.

Things change — and that’s only natural. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part II: the control conundrum


My last post was so excessively long that I wore myself out, apparently: I barely had the energy to work my way through the couple of hundred e-mails from well-meaning readers of the Wall Street Journal, asking if (a) I’d seen this article and (b) whether those mentioned within its paragraphs were the same who kept threatening to sue my publishers (although not, perversely, yours truly) over my as-yet-to-be-released memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. I appreciate all of you kind souls taking the time to make sure I had (a), but since the answer to (b) is yes (and with arguments similar to those mentioned in the article), it would probably be prudent for me not to comment upon it here. Or, indeed, anywhere.

Except to say: ever get that feeling of déjà vu?

Back to the business at hand. For those of you who happened to miss yesterday’s epic post, I’m going to be devoting the next couple of weeks to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for starters, let’s concentrate upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York.

Everyone clear on the parameters — and that what I am about to say might not be applicable to a big publishing house in Paris, Johannesburg, or Vladivostok? Or indeed, a small, independent US publisher? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time — and while we’re at it, let’s get conversant with some of the terms of the trade.

How a manuscript typically comes to publication at a major U.S. publishing house these days (as opposed to way back when)
As we discussed last time, fiction is typically sold as a completed manuscript; nonfiction is usually sold as a book proposal, a packet of marketing materials that includes a sample chapter and a competitive market analysis, showing how the proposed book will offer the target readership something different and better than similar books already on the market. While the proposal will also include a summary of each of the chapters in the book-to-be-written (in a section known as the annotated table of contents; for tips on how to construct this and the other constituent parts of a book proposal, please see the perversely-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list located at the lower right-hand side of this page), the editor will often ask the writer to add or subtract chapters or change the book’s running order.

Which underscores a point I made last time: a nonfiction book proposal is essentially a job application wherein the writer is trying to convince the publisher to pay him to write the book being proposed; a novel is a product that the author is trying to sell.

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come. (Not to mention a self-editing tip for those of you who long for the return of my December series of same!)

A hundred years ago, writers who wished to get their books published went about it in a fairly straightforward manner, by approaching editors at major publishing houses directly. If the editor liked the book, he would take it to what was (and still is) known as an editorial committee, a group of editors and higher-ups who collectively decided what books the house would bring out in the months and years to come. If the editorial committee decided to go ahead with the project, the publisher would typically pay the author an advance against projected royalties, edit the manuscript, and have it typeset (by hand, no less).

Today, a writer who intends to approach a large U.S. publisher generally must do so through an agent. The agent’s job is to ferret out which editors might be interested in her clients’ books and pitch to them. Unless an editor happens to be exceptionally well-established at his or her house, however, s/he is not the only one who needs to approve a book’s acquisition: typically, the book will still go before an editorial committee.

At that point, back in the day as well as now, it’s the editor’s turn to be the advocate for the book s/he wants to publish — and that’s not always an easy task, because other editors will be fighting for their pet projects at the meeting as well. Since a publishing house can only afford to bring out a very small number of books in any given marketing season, the battle for whose project will see print can become quite intense, and not only amongst the editors around the table. At a large publishing house, the marketing and legal departments might weigh in as well.

If a manuscript makes it through the hurly-burly of editorial committee debate, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, a publishing contract will state that in return for pocketing the lion’s share of the profits, the publisher would bear all of the production and promotional costs, as well as responsibility for getting the book onto bookstore shelves.

In return, the author will agree to provide the manuscript for by a particular date (usually quite soon for a novel — which, as you will recall, is already written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. After the author delivers the completed manuscript (usually in both hard copy and as a Word document), if the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion of being asked to alter your manuscript, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Chamomile tea might be a good choice.)

Why? Because when an author signs a book contract, she’s agreeing to more than allowing the publisher to print the book.

Control over the text itself
The author gets to decide what her own book does and doesn’t say, right? Not to mention how it’s expressed.

Actually, no, if she sells the rights to a publisher. While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will appear on the pages of the finished book. The contract will say so.

And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book. (Sorry about that, but it’s better that you’re aware of this fact going in.)

How do I know? Experience, mostly. After all, pretty much every first-time author faced with editorial demands has attempted to declare something along the lines of, “Hey, buddy, I’m the author of this work, and what you see on the page represents my artistic vision. Therefore, I refuse to revise in accordance with your (boneheaded) suggestion. Oh, well, that’s that.” Or at least thought it very loudly indeed.

That’s an argument that might conceivably work for a well-established, hugely marketable author, but as virtually all of those aforementioned first-time authors could tell you, no one, but no one, at a publishing house is going to find the “My art — my way!” argument particularly compelling.

Or even original.

Why? Well, remember my earlier quip about how publishing houses can only bring out a few titles in any book category per year, far, far more than their editors would like to bring to press?

Uh-huh. It’s never wise to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to people so well equipped with alternatives that they can easily afford to leave it. Especially if the issue in question is something as small as cutting your favorite paragraph.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you — although it’s not all that difficult to imagine what I just typed having that effect, admittedly — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling over every single requested change with your editor. If you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something; editorial control is built into the publishing process. Learning to pick your battles, figuring out when give in gracefully and when to go to the mat, will serve both your interests and your book’s best in the long run.

May I hear an amen? No? How about a few begrudging grunts of acknowledgment? Well, suit yourself, but if you found that last argument trying, you might want to find something to bite down upon before you read on.

Why, you ask with trembling voice? Well, final say over the actual text and the ability to determine the timing of publication are not generally the only authorial rights one signs over via a publishing contract.

Other matters that aspiring writers generally assume that they will control after they sign a book contract, but usually don’t
Just a few of the tidbits that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like.

Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

I feel you glowering, but don’t blame me — I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly), believe me, my sympathies are mostly on the writers’ side here. (And no, no publishing house employee was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant. The marketing department just thought it would be a good idea for the cover to make a vague reference to A SCANNER DARKLY, because the movie would be coming out around the same time.)

My point is, while landing a publication contract for a first book is certainly a coup, you’ll have a much, much happier life as a professional writer if you don’t expect it all to be one big literary luncheon where the glitterati congratulate you warmly on the beauty of your prose and the insight of your book’s worldview. It’s going to be hard work — for a crash course in just how hard many first-time authors find it, please see the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the list at right — and if you’re going to be successful at it, you’re going to need to come to terms with what you can and cannot control.

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book. Translation: it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. That may not distress you now, but it may well come the release date: historically, the author’s percentage of the cover price (a.k.a. the royalty) has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback.

One reason for that: hardcover books were considered more serious, literarily speaking, than a volume a reader could fold and stuff into a back pocket. In fact, until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

In the last 15-20 years, however, fiction (and quite a bit of nonfiction, too) has been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a purse or backpack, so the earlier review restriction has softened. That’s definitely good news for first-time novelists, as well as those of us who like to lug around several different books when we travel. Typically, the author’s royalty on a trade paper release is lower than for a hardback, but higher than for paper.

Everyone with me so far, or are you mentally calculating how much you will end up making per hour for writing your novel. Don’t even go there; that way lies madness.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, the publisher will tell the author when the book will actually be printed. Since much must happen between the time the editor receives a finished manuscript and when it goes to press, the contracted date by which the author must provide the book is generally months prior to the print date.

This, too, often comes as a surprise to a first-time author. If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence.

Its main manifestation: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year.

And that’s for fiction — which, as you will no doubt recall, is already written before the publisher has any contact with the book at all. For nonfiction, the time lapse is often substantially longer, in order to permit the author to write the book in question.

The moral: although one does indeed see books on current news stories hitting the shelves within a matter of weeks (the OJ Simpson trial, anyone?), that is most emphatically not the norm. A savvy writer takes this into account when constructing a narrative, avoiding references that might seem absolutely up-to-the-minute when he first types them, but will be as stale as last year’s fashions a year or two hence, when the book is finally available for readers to buy.

The publishing world’s term for a book that contains references likely to spoil over time is easily dated. Unless you are trying to tie your characters to a very specific time and place (as most contemporary fiction doesn’t), excising such references prior to submission usually increases its marketability.

A market-savvy self-editing tip for novelists and memoir-writers: go through your manuscript, highlighting any cultural reference that might not make sense to a reader five years hence. When in doubt, whip out your highlighting pen. Mention of a character on a TV show? Mark it. Complaint about a politician currently in office? Mark it? Any reference at all to Paris Hilton? Perez Hilton?

You get the idea. This is not a moral judgment you’re making, but a calculation about pop culture longevity.

While you’re reading, take the time to note what the reference is and the manuscript page on which it appears. After you finish, go back and read through the list: would your target reader have recognized each of these five years ago? If you’re writing for adults, would a reader in high school now know what you’re talking about? Are you really willing to bank on whether Arby’s latest moniker for a sandwich is here to stay — or that your target reader will even know about it?

If you aren’t sure about the long-term cultural resonance of, say, the McRib, walk into your local community library, find the person reading the 19th-century novel (if you can’t find one in the stacks, try behind the check-out desk), and offer to buy that kind soul a nice cup of coffee if s/he will be nice enough to take a gander at your list. If the lady with her nose in a minor Charlotte Brontë novel doesn’t recognize a cultural reference, chances are that it’s not as pervasive a phenomenon as you may have thought.

After you have figured out which references need to be changed or omitted, go back and examine the ones you decided could stay. Is that reference actually necessary to the paragraph in which it appears? Is there another way that you could make the same point without, for instance, using a brand name?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
As I was walking you through that last exercise, I spotted some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the folks attached to those hands inquire timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some sort of a tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t shallow. Let’s take a closer look at how and when a writer might conceivably start cashing in for those manuscripts and/or book proposals she’s written on spec.

How authors get paid for their books
As I mentioned in passing above, an author who publishes through a large publisher is paid a pre-agreed proportion of the book’s sale price, known as a royalty. An advance against royalties (known colloquially just as an advance) is an up-front payment of a proportion of what the publisher expects the author’s percentage of the jacket price for the initial print run (i.e., the total number of books in the first edition).

Generally speaking, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. That’s a calculation based upon a lot of factors: how much it will cost to print the book (anything over 500 pages requires more expensive binding, for instance, and color photos are expensive to reproduce), how large the already-existing market is for similar books, how difficult the marketing department thinks it will be to reach those readers, whether Barnes and Noble is having a bad year, and so forth.

It is, in fact, a guesstimate — and as such, tends to be low, especially for first-time authors.

Why not aim high, let the author quit her day job, and hope for the best? Because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

Since approximately 2/3rds of you just gasped audibly, let me repeat that last bit: the advance is not in addition to royalties, but a prepaid portion of them. An advance is not a signing bonus, as most people think, but a down payment toward what a publisher believes it will eventually owe the author.

While your jaw is already dropped, let me hasten to add that royalties over and above the advance amount are usually not paid on an as-the-books-sell basis, which could entail the publisher’s cutting a check every other day, but at regularly-scheduled intervals. Once every three or six months is fairly standard.

The moral: read your publication contract carefully. If you don’t understand what it says, ask your agent to explain it to you; it’s her job.

Those hands just shot up again, didn’t they? “I’m glad you brought that up, Anne. You’ve made it clear why I would need an agent to help me though this process, which sounds like a drawn-out and somewhat unpredictable one. So how do I go about finding the paragon who will protect me and my work?”

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers — but I’m afraid agent-seeking is a topic for another day.

Before I signed off, allow me to add: don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so. It’s not something that we talk about much in the writing community, perversely. And that’s a shame, because In the current market, when advances for new are often reflective of the gloomiest projections, while those for bestselling authors keep rising, I suspect that a significant percentage of the authors who sign their first publication contracts in the months to come are going to be mystified at being offered an honorarium when they expected enough dosh, if not to allow them to retire to write full-time, at least to permit cut back their hours.

Don’t panic; conditions change. One thing you may rely upon to remain the same, however: the writer who is in it for the love of literature probably going to be happier enduring the ups and downs of getting published than the one who walks into it with dollar signs in his eyes. Good writing is a gift to humanity, after all, every bit as much as it is a commodity for its author to sell.

Keep up the good work!

SOIA, part VII: when it’s been a REALLY long time since the request


A quick programming note before I get to the business du jour: I’m extending the deadline of the share your favorite inspirational writing-related quote contest to midnight Pacific Standard Time on Sunday, December 6. Not so much out of the goodness of my warm little heart as due to the fact that a member of my immediate family is in the hospital right now; I’m not convinced that my sense of the uplifting is particularly strong at the moment. Or maybe what I really need is to hear as many of your favorite quotes as possible, to lift me out of my funk.

So please ransack your writing notebooks for those great, soul-supporting quotes, people! Let’s get a really good haul, so I can share the best with you in a post here — because, really, couldn’t every writer use a bit of cheering up from time to time?

Laughably simple contest entry requirements are posted here. Now back to work.

Are your brains still buzzing from the implications of my last post, where I invited all of you out there to help me diagnose a SIOA (Send It Out, Already!) problem? No sooner had I finished typing the last syllable of that post when the nagging little voice in the ether that all serious bloggers associate with their reading public started to niggle at me.

“Okay, so now they can spot SIOA-avoidance in the wild,” that ever-dissatisfied opinion-giver conceded. “You even slipped in that homily about the reasonableness of expecting an agent who hasn’t heard from a writer for a couple of years to drop everything to read requested materials once they do arrive, purely so the reformed SIOA-avoider will not have to wait too long to hear back, along with your perennial saw about the advisability of continuing to query and submit to other agents during the consideration period. But beyond that, you left ‘em hanging. How precisely is a writer fresh from doing battle with SIOA-avoidance to approach a long put-off agent?”

Funny you should ask that, Disembodied Voice. Clever and incisive reader Joon posted a practical question on the subject just the other day. Quoth Joon:

I am afraid this particular series was written with me in mind (though, with your prodding, I am sending my pages out this week – whee! – so hopefully not for much longer). I have a question about extensive time passed. I know you’re a busy person, but if you have time to answer it or to touch upon it in the continuation of your SIOA series, it would really help me (and probably others who’ve helped put the Pro in Procrastination).

Back when I was a real newbie, I submitted the first 20 pages of my first novel for critique at the SCBWI conference where it was read by Stephanie Meyer’s agent (!!!). She told me she loved it, nominated it for a conference award, and wanted to see the rest of it. Problem was, she’d read almost all of it that was presently to be had (yes, I now know it was really unprofessional to submit something that wasn’t essentially ready to go. No, I would never do such a thing again. Yes, I know editors and agents hate people like me. Mea culpa!). I confessed as much and she said she still wanted to read it, in any amount or condition, as soon as I had written more. She gave me her e-mail address and a code word to put in the subject heading, and asked me (against her agency’s submission guidelines) to e-mail it to her. I went home with a will and got back to work.

It took three years!

My question is not whether to send it (you’ve amply answered that), but how? Has too much time passed for me to use the secret e-mail? Should I go back to the end of the line and send in a query as though we’d never met? Should I not send it to this agent at all (and let that be a lesson to me)? And should I still reference the fact that we met at this long distant conference?
I want to break away from my prior SIOA folly, but I’d like to take advantage of my chance to snag the AOMD if I haven’t already bungled it too badly.

Any advice?

This is an excellent question, Joon — and I love the line about putting the Pro in Procrastination so much that I almost lifted it for the title of this post. And I think you’re dead right (to continue the Stephanie Meyers theme) about this being an issue that dogs other writers; in my experience, SIOA-avoiders are legion.

First, congratulations on being brave enough to pitch your work that early in your writing process. Some writing coaches might castigate you for this — as you have learned since, the assumption at any fiction pitch meeting (or with any query for a novel, for that matter), the ambient assumption is that a manuscript will be at least in first full time before the writer approaches an agent with it — but since verbal pitching is so tough, I think it’s not a bad idea to take a practice run at it first. That way, when the book is done, the writer already has some experience pitching it before the stakes go sky-high.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, however, early pitchers who are good at it can run into the same problem Joon did: receiving a request for materials that one is in no position to fulfill anytime soon. This is why, in case anyone was curious, I generally advise members of the Author! Author! community that a good compromise between getting in that practice and avoiding panic is not to pitch a novel until it’s within a year of completion.

I can sense those of you raring to go chafing at that a little, so let’s take a moment to talk about why agents and editors from small presses — i.e., the folks to whom one can pitch productively at writers’ conferences — have such a strong and universal preference for fiction to be in completed form before aspiring writers approach them with it. (Agented and published writers approach their agents with ideas-in-progress all the time, of course, but that’s a subject for another post.) And it may surprise some of you to hear that, unusually for the submission process, the primary answer to this question is not because that’s not how it’s done.

That’s the secondary reason. The main one: because no agent, however talented, can say for sure what kinds of manuscripts will be in demand at publishing houses years from now; in order to do her job well, an agent has to be conversant with what editors want to acquire NOW.

Did that cause the hearts of multi-year SIOA-avoiders to skip a beat? Especially those whose dream agents were, like Joon’s, terrifically excited three years ago about the book project in question? As in before the radical contraction of the literary market?

I’d like to set your minds at ease here, but that little flash of panic was completely rational: what an agent can and cannot sell changes all the time, and sometimes very rapidly. So it’s only reasonable to expect that what an agent will wax enthusiastic over at a conference would differ annually.

Fortunately for Joon, Stephanie Meyers’ work continues to sell very well indeed, so it’s highly likely that Ms. Meyers’ agent will still be looking for similar work. Fingers crossed that what you write is similar, Joon!

More points in favor of her still being interested: she’s read some of your work and liked it. That’s a significant advantage of a conference where pitch-hearers agree to read a writing sample first, by the way. (Double-check before you sign up, and don’t be afraid to e-mail conference organizers to ask a few questions not covered on the conference’s website. Even at conferences where pitches are cold, there are often intensive courses for an extra fee where a pro will go over at least a few pages with you — and if the pro is good, the extra fee is often well worth it. Such intensives tend to fill up early, though.)

I see a few hands raised out there. “But Anne,” some sharp-eyed readers point out, and who could blame them? “I thought you were saying that agents prefer fully-written (and edited) novels at pitching and/or querying time. Yet Joon was able to impress this agent with writing sample. So doesn’t that mean that you’re, you know, wrong, and we should all be pitching our ideas as soon as the muses stuff them into our busy minds?”

No, it doesn’t, and for a very fine reason: because that’s not the way it’s done.

You knew the brief break from that one was too good to last, didn’t you? The industry expectation is that fiction will be fully drafted before it’s pitched or queried — nonfiction, including memoir, is different, since that is generally sold on a book proposal, not an entire manuscript — and not merely because a partial look at an incomplete manuscript forces an agent to guess what the market will be like by the time the book reaches complete first draft form. A brief excerpt, no matter how beautifully-written or how good the premise, is not an infallible indicator of how well put-together the eventual novel will be.

That made those of you who have entered partials in novel competitions do a double-take, didn’t it? Yet it’s true: even the most careful perusal of the first 50 pages (or less, usually, for a contest) will not necessarily provide conclusive evidence that a writer can structure an entire novel convincingly. There are plenty of perfectly wonderful short story writers, after all, who don’t know how to sustain a plot over 350 pages.

Which is why, should any of you have been wondering agents who represent fiction virtually never make an offer based upon a partial. Contrary to pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit, they honestly do need to read the manuscript first.

Thus, SIOA-avoiders are quite right to feel some trepidation about sending out long-delayed requested pages. However, Joon did something very smart here: communicated with the agent about it during the delay.

What was that everyone’s second grade teacher said about honesty being the best policy? It’s as true in early interactions with an agent as anywhere else — provided, of course, that the impulse toward honesty doesn’t result in a mountain of extraneous e-mails, letters, or (heaven help us) telephone calls. As we discussed just the other day, a single, simple, polite, professional missive will generally do the trick without giving the agent the sense that you’re going to be bugging her every fifteen minutes for the rest of her life.

Again, in case you were wondering: that’s the very last impression you want her to have of you. Clients who need a whole lot of hand-holding tend to be turn-offs.

So actually, Joon, it sounds like you’ve handled a genuinely awkward situation quite well so far. Certainly too well to have generated any basis for resentment on the agency end — and that’s something I’m quite happy to hear. Some SIOA-avoiders devote way, way, WAY too much of energies they should be gearing toward their submissions toward trying to keep confirming that the agent in question remains interested.

To drive home that last point, I’m going to veer away from Joon’s dilemma for a moment to share one of the many anonymous missives I have received over the years from a SIOA-avoider who was, well, not quite so strategic. Quoth Delaying Writer (as the nimble-brained among you may have already guessed, all names here changed to protect the participants):

HELP! How do I approach an agent I’ve already insulted by not having sent the chapter she asked me for a long time ago?

When I pitched my novel last year at the Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless, Loretta Lovable was incredibly nice to me, totally psyched about my book and I really did mean to get the chapter out to her before the end of the summer. But then it was Labor Day, then Christmas…well you know how these things go. And now I have an appointment to pitch to her again at this year’s conference. We really clicked before, so I’m terrified.

Please don’t yell at me if this is a stupid question, but would it be okay if I just walked into our meeting and pretended that I’d never met her before? I’m afraid she’ll think I’m an idiot if I walk in and throw myself on her mercy.

Quite a sad story, isn’t it? I’m bravely pushing aside my temptation to go on and on about the sheer number of e-mails and blog comments I receive during conference season that contain the word HELP to ask all of you: how do you think Delaying Writer should handle this touchy situation?

Before I weigh in, let’s run through all of DW’s options, not just the ones she is weighing. She could conceivably:

(a) obey her instincts, keep the pitch appointment, and hope that Loretta Lovable is either too nice or too forgetful to mention that she’s heard this pitch before;

(b) bite the bullet, keep the pitch appointment, and confess that she pitched too soon the previous year, in the hope that LL will tell her to go ahead and send it now;

(c) cancel the pitch appointment and just send the materials now with a nice note, hedging her bets by pitching to another few agents at this year’s conference;

(d) cancel the appointment, either to pitch to other agents or not, but make a point of buttonholing LL at the conference to explain what happened?

(e) send LL a query letter now, explaining what happened and asking if she’s still interested in reading the now-completed work?

(f) write off LL entirely and forever, and just move on, even though LL is DW’s dream agent.

Okay, so none of these possibilities is particularly appetizing, nor would any of them be particularly easy to pull off without feeling a bit chump-like. What would you do in DW’s place?

If you chose (f), I hate to tell you this, but you’re thinking like a SOIA-avoider. For this option to make sense to pursue, the possibility of offending LL by getting back to her later than anticipated has to outweigh any other consideration. Or — and this is even more common reasoning — the writer would have to assume that the only possible outcome from approaching LL again would be rejection.

But those of us who have worked our way through this series know better than that, don’t we? Don’t we?

If you said (a), you at least have no illusions to shatter about how well agents being pitched at by 150 eager aspiring authors at a conference a year ago is likely to remember even one whose pitch she really, really liked. However, this strategy could easily backfire: if LL does recall either the book concept or DW, this is not going to end well.

(b), (d), and (e) are actually three different versions of the same strategy: apologize and ask again for permission to send the materials. While this is unquestionably polite, it’s also a bit of a waste of LL’s time. Why should she have to give consent twice for the same set of pages, especially since the only reason she might conceivably need to do so was that DW responded to her initial request slowly?

If you selected (c), give yourself a gold star for the day — you’ve either been paying very close attention throughout the SIOA series, are unusually confident for a writer (we tend to be a timid lot), and/or have been reading this blog long enough that you have a pretty good idea of the advice I tend to give. (c) maximizes DW’s possibilities for finding an agent for her book without either impinging unnecessarily upon LL’s time or wasting a pitch session by repeating it.

In short, the answer is SIOA! And at the same time, move on, DW.

Of course, should DW happen find herself sitting next to LL at a luncheon, there’s no reason to avoid talking about their past connection, but let it be in positive terms, and brief: “Oh, how nice to see you again, Loretta — the pages you requested last year are already printed out and on my desk, ready to be sent off to you. Sorry about the delay, but I got caught up in a revision that was more complicated than I anticipated. I’m really happy with the results, though. So, what’s your favorite client project right now?”

Quick, simple, grovel-free. And, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t give LL an easy opening to say, “Gee, I’m not representing that kind of work anymore.” (Naturally, DW should check that she still does take on your book category, but there’s no reason to try LL’s patient by bearding her about it in person. Most of the time, that info is easily available on the agency’s website, in the latest edition of one of the standard agency guides, or oftentimes by being a good listener at the agents’ forum held at most literary conferences.

Do I hear some harrumphing out there? “Easy for you to say, Anne,” a few inveterate SIOA-avoiders protest, their manuscripts folded tightly to their tense chests, “because you’re assuming that Loretta will not be annoyed about the time lapse. But how can DW be sure about that — or Joon, for that matter? If either of these agents have been waiting long enough to get irritated, what’s the point of their submitting at all, at this point?”

Ah, you’re falling into option (f)-think, again, harrumphers, classic SIOA-avoidance logic, and expressing it in a form that conference-going agents do occasionally report finding grating: the oh-so-common writerly assumption that — how to put this as gently as humanly possible? — each of our situations is both absolutely unique and utterly memorable to virtual strangers. Because, you see, unless an aspiring writer believes in both, the assumption that a requesting agent would care enough (or even think enough) about a project he heard pitched or saw queried a year ago to become actually angry about it…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t make any sense. Think about it: from the perspective of someone who receives in the neighborhood of 800-1200 queries per week, attends perhaps three conferences per year, and hears hundreds of verbal pitchers, why would any of those thousands of individual approachers expect to be the single one for which the agent has been waiting?

The fact that aspiring writers do indeed believe that the agents whom they pitch and query are sitting around for months or even years on end, angrily twiddling their thumbs and wondering why a particular requested manuscript hasn’t shown up yet, and address agents accordingly is one major contributor to the widespread belief amongst agent that all writers are born great, big egos. In case anyone was wondering.

That particular misapprehension saddens me, because in my experience, the opposite is usually true: writers, aspiring and established both, are more apt to be insecure than otherwise. DW’s instinct to double-check with LL about sending the requested materials was probably the result of wanting reassurance. Unfortunately, agents aren’t really in the reassurance biz.

As those of us who have agents already know to our grave disappointment. But that’s a subject for another post.

Right now, let’s focus on the kind of cover letter that will help Joon, DW, and SIOA-avoiders like them pull off delayed submitting with aplomb. Given DW’s quite limited earlier contact with LL, I would opt for keeping it almost as simple as their lunch conversation:

Dear Ms. Lovable, (at this point, they’re certainly not on a first-name basis, right?)

Thank you so much for asking to see the first chapter of my women’s fiction book, LOST IN LOVE WITHOUT A WRISTWATCH. I enjoyed speaking with you about it at last year’s Conference That Shall Not Be Named.

Please excuse the delay in my getting these pages to you — after the conference, I got rather carried away in the revision process. I hope you enjoy the result.

Thank you for your time in considering these pages. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Delayed Q. Writer

See? Professional, elegant, yet adequately explanatory — and all ready to be popped into an envelope or attached to an e-mail with REQUESTED MATERIALS written on the outside of the envelope or in the subject line.

Everyone comfortable with that?

Joon’s situation is a trifle more complex, both because more time has passed and because there was more interaction with the agent previously. However, the basic principles here are the same. But while we’re at it, why not sweeten the missive with a bit of flattery?

Dear Ms. Great Big Agent,

Thank you so much for asking to see the full manuscript of my novel, THE NEXT BIG YA SENSATION. Please find it attached.

Thank you, too, for your great patience in my getting these pages to you. As you may recall from when I pitched it to you at the SCBWI conference some time ago, I had not yet completed the novel at the time. After we spoke, one of your suggestions so took wing in my mind that I wanted to flesh it out on the page before submitting this. Obviously, I hope you enjoy the result, but either way, you decide, I cannot thank you enough for the great advice.

Thank you for your time in considering these pages; I may reached at (telephone number), as well as by return e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Joon Pensmith

Hard to quibble with a compliment like that — I’ve never met a working agent who didn’t wish her clients took her writing suggestions a bit more seriously. Having established that here at last is a writer who is both charming and grateful, all Joon has to do plop that code into the subject line, and SIOA! (And, of course, thank me in the acknowledgments when the book comes out.)

One last raised paw, then time to go indeed. “But Anne, I notice that you have not mentioned the amount of time that’s passed since the initial request for pages. That doesn’t seem very honest. Won’t the respective agents want to know how long it’s been?”

Um — why? So they can get annoyed about it now?

That’s a serious set of questions: what possible purpose could it serve to call the agents’ attention to the specific length of the delay? There’s honest, and then there’s selectively revelatory. Everything in both of these missives is factually accurate, isn’t it? (Okay, so I made up that stuff about it taking a long time to incorporate the agent’s suggestion. Plausible, though, isn’t it?) And if either agent remembers the initial requests, she will already know how long it’s been, won’t she?

Remember, this is a professional relationship, not a personal one: both the writer and the agent are hoping to make some money out of this interaction. Even the most inveterate SIOA-avoider hasn’t let the requesting agent down personally, after all.
So approaching an agent who has requested manuscript pages, even after a long delay, should be done in a professional spirit.

But whatever you do, SIOA. Yes, the agent of your dreams may reject it, but you won’t know for sure unless you try, will you?

Keep up the good work!